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Review: SOMA

Frictional Games has attempted to merge sci-fi horror with a philosophical investigation into the mind-body problem.




Photo: Frictional Games

SOMA is, aptly, a game of two somewhat disconnected halves. A leap in terms of scope and sophistication compared to their effective but overrated Amnesia, Frictional Games has attempted to merge sci-fi horror with a philosophical investigation into the mind-body problem. The combination doesn’t always work, but when it does, it offers some exceptionally powerful moments. In a story full of twists, misdirections, and sudden revelations, everything’s a spoiler. As such, we’ll just stick to the basics: Simon Jarrett finds himself in an abandoned underwater research facility which is slowly being overtaken by a mysterious black ooze, and before even attempting to plan an escape, this everyman needs to assess the situation, shake off his disorientation, and carefully explore his new environment.

It’s unfortunate, though an arguably necessary side effect of Simon’s early obliviousness, that SOMA spends so much time wearing the trappings of a conventional first-person horror game. Past the brief but intriguing prelude, it plays for its entire first act like a low-budget BioShock or unscary Dead Space, with the impotence of monstrous adversaries quickly deflating any sensation of dread, no matter how hard the cluttered, aggressive soundscapes and video distortion employed to announce their arrival try to bully you into some measure of unease. Technically, too, the game’s a mess: Frequent autosaves freeze the action momentarily, disrupting the pace and killing immersion, while the unstable framerate occasionally plunges into single digits. The voice acting doesn’t impress either, though it’s difficult to decide whether Simon’s seeming apathy is due to an uninspired performance or a meticulously constructed clue to the game’s broader thematic concerns.

After the emphasis shifts from a mostly redundant exercise in horror to the incomparably more compelling tale of existential anguish experienced by someone who, quite literally, meets the ghost in the machine, SOMA transforms into something special, perhaps even unique. The slow descent into the lower sectors of the deep-sea station reveals itself as a metaphor for the human psyche reluctantly coming to terms with the realities of its own existence, its loss of meaning, of center, its banality.

As dispiriting as the realization is, the humility it engenders serves to elevate those rare moments of life happening in the middle of the void into something bordering on illumination: the algae partly covering the glow from a still-functioning screen exposed to the currents; a school of jellyfish radiant with neon colors, sluggishly rising toward the surface as you remain stuck in a malfunctioning elevator carrying you between stations; a random turn that takes you inside a cave whose walls are covered with countless alabaster spiders somewhere in the otherwise lifeless depths.

These are sublime moments and, like everything that SOMA does well, they could only be delivered by its chosen medium. There are those who will describe the game as a walking simulator and, true enough, it bears many of the genre’s hallmarks: Your progress is rarely challenged by the harmless monsters or simplistic puzzles, the range of meaningful interactions is limited to moving around and carrying stuff, and it relies too much for its impact on overwhelming you with environments and drip-feeding your curiosity with fragments of story. But the label tends to come with the implicit accusation of a work that’s less of a game and more of a virtual installation for players to gawk at, a charge that, in this instance at least, is patently unfair.

Frictional didn’t simply set out to create a summary of theories of consciousness from Descartes to Dennett in narrative form. Video games are the medium where everything happens in the first person and they used that quality ingeniously to implicate the player in the debate, to exploit the projection of our reassuring dualistic leanings onto the main character, deepening our identification with Simon Jarrett, especially since his every objection at self-evident truths, his every profession of confusion at entirely straightforward answers, echoes and reinforces our own denial. When the series of unexpected turns culminates into that devastating final twist, the results are all the more astonishing precisely because we were being warned all along, and SOMA emerges as the darkest video game in years, one where our victories are mere flashes of self-delusion before reality sets in.

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



Review: In Observation, the Ghost in the Shell Is the Player Itself

The setting of the game is the familiar stuff of science fiction, but the lens through which it’s viewed is not.




Photo: No Code

The setting of Observation is the familiar stuff of science fiction: a space station dotted with airlocks and hatches and run by a voice-activated artificial intelligence. But the lens through which it’s viewed is not. You play as S.A.M., the aforementioned AI armed with a battalion of unblinking eyes: the cameras that line every one of the eponymous station’s hallways. Despite his constant watch, something has gone wrong aboard the station. The Observation has spun far off course, most of its crew is gone, and neither S.A.M. nor Dr. Emma Fisher, who appears to be the station’s only survivor, know what happened.

Besides observing, most of S.A.M.’s functions are doled out piecemeal for the exclusive task of progressing through the guided storyline. He can access things like laptops and terminals. He can open (and close) doors, and he can recite whatever data he’s been asked to find by Dr. Fisher to help unravel the mystery behind the station’s crisis. Though sci-fi connoisseurs may already have ideas about where the story will end up, Observation is, despite appearances, less a game about refusing to open the pod bay doors than cooperating with Dr. Fisher. S.A.M. isn’t one to cause problems so much as help solve them by dutifully performing different tasks.

If Dr. Fisher needs to broadcast a signal, for example, you’ll need to call up the ship’s map and access cameras in the room housing the astrophysics terminal. From there, you’ll use the terminal to look up the coordinates on a black-and-white image, send those coordinates to the communications screen, and then input the numbers manually. It’s not glamorous or even particularly challenging work, but neither is being a space station’s artificial intelligence; the game’s most complex tasks involve things like tracing a schematic for clues or piloting one of the spheres floating around the zero-gravity station to reach camera blind spots.

As rote and mechanical as these operations may be, they sink you deeper into your role as the AI. The game’s excellent interface design helps you feel at one with the environment through interactions that feel tactile. Adjusting camera angles is slow and accompanied by a faint hum. Spheres are likely to bump into objects since they’re a little unwieldy and don’t turn on a dime, and their camera view fizzles accordingly. Various text displays don’t look friendly, as a smartphone display might, so much as functional. They’re rendered in stark reds, whites, greens, and grays that evoke old technology—the loud clacking of keyboards, of numbers not entered so much as forcibly pressed in. The station isn’t exactlys old-fashioned, but its occasionally clunky software feels rooted in a tangible past, as if modernization has yet to erase the vestiges of technology conceived near the turn of the century.

And yet, playing as a computer isn’t the same as feeling like one. Engaging with the game means navigating its menus and devices by lumbering through human thought processes, relying on the inefficient motor functions of sausagey fingers mashing on controllers and keyboards. When moving inside a sphere, the labyrinthine station can be confusing to navigate without stopping to check a map, making it easy to float off down the wrong hallway.

To compensate for player awkwardness, Observation specifies that S.A.M. is too damaged to operate at full capacity, but it’s not quite enough to maintain the illusion. No machines ask you to interact quickly or skirt around a fail state. While this gentleness keeps the game humming along smoothly without constantly stopping to chastise players, it makes what are ostensibly the routines of a computer feel built to accommodate humans’ comparative sluggishness, preventing you from fully inhabiting a believable role. Frantic characters simply stand and stare while they wait for you to complete even the most time-consuming of tasks.

But the player’s presence isn’t a total loss since it gives the story room for subtlety. The development of S.A.M.’s emotions is understated and even totally peripheral to the central mystery because your personal reactions to characters, the solutions you uncover, and the attachments you develop stand in for what S.A.M. feels. Your emotions are his. As the plot escalates and the suspense grows, the momentum may slow as you fiddle with a door switch, but it never stops to explain character growth because you fill in the blanks yourself. S.A.M.’s development is almost taken for granted, allowed simply to be as a part of a larger story and compelling mystery buoyed by a unique perspective. There’s a ghost growing inside S.A.M.’s mechanical shell, and after just a few hours with Observation, it turns out to be you.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Tinsley PR.

Developer: No Code Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 21, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Rage 2 Brings the Flair, but It Barely Fills Its Open World

It’s hard not to be disappointed in how little use the Wasteland has for you when you’re not dealing in lead.




Rage 2
Photo: Bethesda Softworks

The first Rage was released back in 2011, when it seemed like every game was painted in washed-out browns and grays—a visual shorthand for a world in ruin. Weirder and wilder out of the gate, Rage 2 is certainly more varied in that regard, with lush vegetation and advancements in Wasteland technology bringing modern and bracing fluorescent green and yellow glows to its environment, making for a much more colorful reality, with a striking pink visual motif cutting through almost every scene like a knife.

It’s two decades after the events of the first game, and there’s been enough peace in the post-asteroid-collision world of tomorrow for the Wasteland to develop something resembling an ecosystem capable of supporting life in the long term. And then General Cross makes his grand, violent return, wiping out the Wasteland’s seat of military power and quickly revealing that things haven’t changed as much in this world as its people would like to imagine.

There’s quite a bit of interesting world-building going on here, with the gruff warlords, scrappy survivors, and crackpot scientists of the first game joined by a motley transhumanist population that’s evolved into a slapdash DIY iteration of our modern life. Transgender bartenders and store owners are commonplace. Every human with missing limbs or other body parts seems to have their own personal, customized replacements.

The larger-than-life characters of the upper-classes range from Desdemonia, a Norma Desmond-esque vamp producing a daily televised deathmatch, to simpering scumbags like Klegg Clayton, who’s like the unholy cross between Kenny Powers and Guy Fieri. The critical NPCs who hand out the missions that advance the story are simple archetypes—save for one horrifying, Kuato-like living prosthesis—but people under their leadership are anything but.

The world of Rage 2 is a grand place to shoot things, but an even better place to simply people-watch for a spell. Strolling into new settlements and meeting these people is the most engaging part of the game, as the post-apocalyptic society feels very well conceptualized and lived-in. That said, it doesn’t take long after actually getting involved with missions and side quests to realize little has changed about Rage’s overall gameplay loop. As wonderfully realized as the world is, you only meaningfully interact with it when NPCs have missions to dole out. And those missions almost unilaterally involve driving to a specific place on the map, killing everything that moves, looting the place blind, and moving on.

The killing and looting in and of itself isn’t necessarily a detriment. There’s a lot of the same ethos going on here that fueled Id’s Doom reboot from 2016—a game that, for what it’s worth, I’ve come around to since my initial review. Every gun has a visceral heft and punch to it, bolstered here by a surprisingly vast collection of superpowers and nanomachine-aided combat enhancements. Mechanically, Rage 2 feels more like Crackdown than, well, the Crackdown game we got this year. Missions are rewarding enough where every couple of skirmishes nets you a much-needed upgrade or the materials/currency to purchase or trade for it. It’s become pretty clear in recent years how much we all need to treasure games operating at this level that aren’t abhorrently stingy with immediate gratification.

Doom, however, is a game content to just let the player plow through hordes of nameless cannon fodder for hours, and little else. It starts with the protagonist literally pushing character motivation and backstory aside so he can get some killing done. The setup is far more involved in Rage 2, and the world so much bigger, but it’s one that’s littered with distractions from the main quest, and characters whose motivations and problems beg for more nuance than Rage 2 is willing to provide. Roaming from place to place looking for either more things to kill or better, more efficient ways to do it is a huge waste of an interesting world, and if there was any lesson this type of game should have taken from the Fallout series—or, more broadly, from the Mad Max films it’s drawing so much inspiration from—it was telling dozens of tiny interpersonal tales using the deep pool of well-drawn characters at its disposal without sacrificing being a gory shootout in a desolate environment.

The actual, spatial waste just compounds the problem. Rage 2 is another in a sad class of open-world games that has trouble filling up that open world, and that’s a bigger problem when gameplay doesn’t meaningfully vary from “kill everything in sight.” There’s plenty of driving to be done, and there are races, just like in the first Rage. There’s also a tidy collection of armored vehicles to try out beyond the APC you get at the game’s start. These are the only activities that significantly stray from the one thing Rage demands from its players.

Still, it cannot be understated how good Rage 2 is at that one thing. It’s a game that works wonders in small, appreciable bursts of neon violence, engaging enough to see its comparatively brief story through to its conclusion. When it’s all over, however, it’s hard not to be disappointed in how little use the Wasteland has for you when you’re not dealing in lead.

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

Developer: Avalanche Studios, id Software Publisher: Bethesda Softworks Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 14, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: A Plague Tale: Innocence Will Make You Squirm But Its Story Comes Up Short

It’s unfortunate that A Plague Tale’s story falls short of its technical accomplishments.




A Plague Tale: Innocence
Photo: Focus Home Interactive

French video game developer Asobo Studio’s A Plague Tale: Innocence imagines a 14th-century France ravaged by the combined horrors of the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Plague. After witnessing the murder of their parents by religious fanatics, Amicia De Rune and her sickly younger brother, Hugo, escape their family’s affluent estate, trying to avoid being caught in the machinery of the Inquisition. What follows is a visually impressive third-person adventure game that’s focused to an almost stubborn degree on the extent to which these two young children must stealthily evade their foes, not least of which the swarms of flesh-hungry rats that have overrun the country almost as a matter of course.

Light itself is the star of A Plague Tale, as the rats that emerge from the underground will swarm and consume any living being that doesn’t remain shrouded in light. Throughout, Amicia can use lit torches to safely walk past the ghoulish critters, but these burn out, as well as draw attention from Inquisition knights. Luckily for her, she also has a slingshot at her disposal. This instrument of destruction—and distraction—is your weapon of choice at the start of the game. With it, you can use rocks to knock lanterns from your enemies’ hands, or extinguish their torches, leaving them helpless to the hungry rodents that maddeningly linger in an area. Each scenario is presented as a puzzle where the objective is to figure out how to lure enemies to a certain spot so that they can meet their certain doom.

These sequences are consistently varied, with new tools introduced across the game, such as chemicals that can be used to lure rats away from Amicia and toward your human foes. Likewise, searchlights set up by the Inquisition to provide safe pathways can be moved by the player to plunge enemies into the fatal darkness, and provide new trails for Amicia and her brother to safely traverse. And using these varied gameplay mechanisms in tandem elicits satisfying results, especially when you’re trying to overcome the unusually strong AI, which doesn’t give up as easily as enemies in similar stealth action games like Metal Gear Solid.

Being spotted by the guards who patrol an area will almost always seal your fate, as the guards will relentlessly give chase, and groups of them will work together and cover escape routes to enclose Amicia, as well as call out your position to long-range enemies, such as archers. It’s a dynamic game of cat and mouse, and there’s pleasure to be had in trying to figure out how best to take advantage of A Plague Tale’s core gameplay in order to ensure your survival.

It’s unlikely that players have come across adversaries in a video game as squirm-inducing as A Plague Tale’s rodent swarms. Their movements are realistic, and especially horrifying as the rats overpower their prey in a blood-crazed frenzy, their beady little eyes just barely reflecting the light coming from some nearby object. No less detail-rich are the dilapidated castles and plague-ridden villages you come across that conjure a tense atmosphere that rarely lets up throughout the game. Inside abandoned homes, walls are caked with grime and blood, harrowingly evoking the violence that transpired there, while exterior ruins are cloaked in darkness and fog that obscures all sorts of horrors contained within.

Given how believable this plague-ravaged world is, it’s unfortunate that A Plague Tale’s story falls short of its technical accomplishments. While the plot here is ripe for an examination of the destructive nature of Christian fanaticism, as well as the class divide between the De Rune siblings and the poor, criminal underclass they fall into, the game sidesteps deeper questions about the themes it raises. Even though it casts agents of the Inquisition as its primary antagonists, A Plague Tale is careful not to vilify any kind of faith. In fact, at one point it goes so far as to hastily introduce an archbishop character so that he can conspicuously state that none of the game’s evildoers are real Christians, at which point he’s quickly ushered out of the narrative. And perhaps as a result of the game refusing to label its villains as Christians, it leans on cartoonish, otherworldly depictions of evil taking root in medieval France. Throughout, clichés of power are carried unto absurdity, with the final boss reveal so ludicrous that you’d think we were back in the Eldritch-nightmare-themed world of Bloodborne.

It doesn’t help that A Plague Tale’s protagonists are also flimsily characterized, barely inviting the player’s emotional investment. A late-game chapter that takes place in Amicia’s head lifts more than one sequence from the Silent Hill series’s unnerving Nowhere, but it doesn’t land with any real effectiveness because the girl’s trauma still feels alien to us by that point. Indeed, by the narrative’s conclusion, the player will have spent over a dozen hours with the girl but still know little about her as a person. This is especially unfortunate given that Amicia comes across a few potential romantic partners and personal adversaries across her journey. Just as it seems as if A Plague Tale is about to fully open the door on a personal reckoning for the girl, it quickly closes it shut, ensuring that she remains a cipher.

Nothing in A Plague Tale, though, is as ineffective as Hugo’s characterization. The child’s behavior seems to pivot on a dime, either exhibiting the bearing of a helpless innocent or the wisdom of an old sage. In one scene, he throws a tantrum over the loss of family members; then, not long after, he bemoans how characters lie to him and refuse to trust him with information. Despite being terrifically voice-acted, Amicia and Hugo rarely exhibit the sort of conduct that realistically syncs up with their ages. And after a while, their lack of response to the horrors that befall so many innocent people in their midst comes to feel weirdly aloof. Of course, that flaw might be more accurately understood as the result of programming work that was less devoted to character work than making sure that the sights and sounds of rats tearing into human flesh struck the deepest of nerves.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Evolve PR.

Developer: Asobo Studio Publisher: Focus Home Interactive Platform: Xbox One Release Date: May 14, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game, Soundtrack

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Review: BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! Makes the Most of Its Two-Dimensionality

The game is clearly geared toward young players, so expect a lightweight experience.




BoxBoy! + BoxGirl!
Photo: Nintendo

You might have to think back to your childhood to remember the mystery, even magic, of a plain box, as it seemed anything could be inside of it, or that it could be imagineered into just about anything. This, perhaps, explains the unlikely triumph of the minimalist BoxBoy! series, a hybrid platformer-puzzler from HAL Laboratory that arrives on the Nintendo Switch with the release of BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! If the game’s largely black-and-white levels—with a few splashes of color to call out helpful switches or dangerous electrical traps—don’t try to awe players with fancy graphics, that’s because their gameplay is more than enough. There are over 270 levels here, and it’s to the credit of the consistently creative design of BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! that said gameplay, which consists of variations on stacking chains of boxes together so as to traverse obstacles, almost always holds up.

To those who’ve played any of the prior BoxBoy! titles, the first third of BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! is a little repetitive. In these early, solo levels, players are reintroduced to the way in which Qbby (or his be-ribboned pal Qucy) can break the rules regarding the conservation of mass energy. Qbby can generate up to six additional Qbby-sized boxes, which he can then carry or throw so as to create bridges, staircases, ladders, and so on. The obstacles he needs to contend with are also largely familiar: moving platforms, switches that need to be pressed, lasers that have be to blocked. Gradually, however, Qbby’s moveset expands, past the returning Up Hook (by which Qbby can retract through his boxchain so as to slither from point A to point B), to new skills, like being able to butt-slam stacks of blocks down through solid objects, or sliding your shapes from wall to wall, as if playing a horizontal game of Tetris.

These skills are further tested by the co-op campaign—the series’s first. As in BoxBoxBoy!, this allows for two distinct sets of boxes to be placed simultaneously (if one character tries to generate a second chain, the first disappears). More so, it allows characters to use one another as boxes, or to carry one another, jumping in tandem to reach new heights. (Rest assured, too, that this mode isn’t boxed off from solo puzzlers; it just requires players to do a lot of manual swapping between roles.) As a further bonus, the game also includes a third full campaign featuring a rectangular box, Qudy, who can generate either 2×1 blocks or 1×2 blocks, depending on whether he’s standing upright or bowed at a 90-degree angle.

That said, BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! is clearly geared toward young players, so expect a lightweight experience. That fact is readily apparent from the goofy four-panel comics that you can unlock with the medals you earn from clearing levels. Checkpoints are generous, and as no puzzle takes longer than 30 seconds to complete (once you know what you’re doing), there are none of the gauntlet-like dexterity tests so often found in other platformers. You can even use in-game currency to purchase visual hints in the middle of a puzzle, or to pick up assist items that allow you to move faster, jump higher, generate extra boxes, or become invincible. Though laudable that HAL Laboratory has ensured that anyone can beat the game, it’s frustrating that there are few ways in which to increase the challenge, beyond collecting optional crowns. You can also optimize the number of boxes used and try to cut down on the time spent clearing an area, but these are just additional hoops, not harder content.

This relative lack of challenge is compounded by the way the game’s difficulty is designed to reset with each new world. World 13, which introduces drill blocks that can be snagged by your own boxchain, gets increasingly complex across its seven levels, but it’s no harder than World 9, which offers seven levels focused on an exclusive warp portal gimmick. It’s not until the appropriately titled “The Last World” that you get to combine various mechanics, and even then, only two at a time. HAL Laboratory is leaving a slew of underutilized concepts on the table, and BoxBoy! + BoxGirl! is crying out for a Super Mario Maker-like level designer that would allow players to pick up those boxes and run wild with creativity.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Golin.

Developer: HAL Laboratory Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: April 26, 2019 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Mortal Kombat 11 Is Well-Executed, But It’s a Hell of a Grind

The game is at its most entertaining and gleeful when it is, indeed, just Mortal Kombat.




Mortal Kombat 11
Photo: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

At the heart of Mortal Kombat 11 is a great fighting game—one from a studio, NetherRealm, that clearly learned all the right lessons from not just Mortal Kombat X but Injustice 2. By and large, the studio has divined the winning formula for thoughtful, tactical, and satisfyingly brutal gameplay. Which makes it all the more baffling that much of the game seems to begrudge players their enjoyment of it.

That’s even more bewildering considering no Mortal Kombat game has ever been this comprehensive about teaching you how to actually play it. There’s an exhaustively dense tutorial that teaches you literally everything there is to know about the game’s mechanics, from the numerous strategic escape and counter moves you can perform, to the game’s Fatal Blow system, a simple two-button ultimate move that functions like a hyperviolent counterpart to Super Moves from the Injustice games. There’s even a section that explains attack frames, generously opening up a bridge for casual players who hope to one day hang tough with the pros. Most useful, however, are the character tutorials that offer a basic primer on each character’s specific moveset. It’s rare and truly heartening to see a game that doesn’t have Arc System Works’s name on it be so thorough about preparing its players for battle.

The game is also rather good at giving players just the right amount of context for each fight, via its Story Mode. Here, the game leans hard, and in winking fashion, into its Saturday-afternoon B-movie trappings. The game picks up directly after its predecessor, with the thunder god Raiden now a megalomaniac, corrupted by coming in contact with fallen Elder God Shinnok’s amulet. Seeing as this is a direct result of Raiden screwing around with the fabric of time in Mortal Kombat 9, the goddess of time herself, Kronika, steps in to correct the problem in the extreme: She decides to merge the original Mortal Kombat timeline—which covers the first game through the eighth, Mortal Kombat Armageddon—with the current one in hopes of breaking the entire space-time continuum and starting anew.

Plenty of multiverse shenanigans ensue, with old Mortal Kombat characters meeting their changed counterparts and dead villains returning to wreak havoc. The game’s story is a wild, freewheeling kung-fu/sci-fi mashup that knows better than to stop and get too bogged down in the gritty minutiae of time travel when just letting Johnny Cage quip or Scorpion and Sub-Zero beat up robot ninjas is so much more engaging.

More than anything, the Story mode provides context for the game’s bread-and-butter single-player and online Versus modes, especially with the tiny character interactions that occur before and during matches. Combine that with the expected cherry on top—a slew of brand-new creative, surreal, and horrifying Fatalities—and we could have had a Mortal Kombat 11 that was a gloriously bloody and deep fighting game that builds impressively on the gameplay principles of its forebears. But NetherRealm then proceeds to drown that game in a collection of appallingly unfriendly and unrewarding mechanics that begin to sour the entire package.

New to Mortal Kombat 11 is the ability to fully customize every character to each player’s liking, from their special move loadout, to their weaponry, to their costumes, to their intro and win poses. Theoretically, it’s a wonderful idea, and there’s a plethora of options in each category to allow for some truly unique builds. The problem is that you earn most of these customization options through the Towers of Time and the Krypt.

The Towers of Time are a series of four to eight consecutive matches, not unlike the old-school Arcade modes in prior Mortal Kombat games. The caveat is that each opponent may possess randomized buffs and each stage may have various debilitating hazards. You can use buffs and magic and assist items, earned through the course of gameplay in the Towers, but the game is stingy with it all, and few are as utterly devastating as what the CPU can use. So many of the hazards and buffs that your quite aggressive CPU opponents can utilize are literally unavoidable, and, unfortunately, completing the full gauntlet of Towers for specific characters is the only definitive way to unlock the vast majority of a specific character’s arsenal.

For everything else, there’s the Krypt. What was traditionally just a spooky treasure-laden grid strictly for unlocking bonus content is now a third-person, fully explorable recreation of Shang Tsung’s island from the first game, with a motion-captured Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa performing some grandiose, scenery-chewing fanservice, reprising his role from the now-cult-classic Mortal Kombat film from 1995. That’s delightful, again, in theory. In reality, aside from a few exceptions locked to specific locations, the Krypt’s content is randomized, as are the prices for opening each treasure trove within. The game is also grudging with that currency, of which there are four different kinds. If that’s appalling enough in a game like Destiny, it’s unfathomable why that’s the case for a Mortal Kombat title’s bonus area, especially since there isn’t even a guaranteed way of getting exactly what you want for a character in the Krypt.

It’d be infuriating but understandable if this was all to funnel players to spending real money in the game’s store to unlock everything, but a revolving door of salable items means you can’t even cherry pick from there either. The end goal of all this seems to be to keep players trapped grinding for currency in the fervent hope that they will unlock something they want, but the needless grind is likely to tire players long before they actually get to unlock everything. It’s the gaming equivalent of a cable company that offers excellent internet but uses every shady tactic in the book to offer you the landline telephone package. The sole saving grace is that the game’s beating heart—its combat—is so well-executed. Mortal Kombat 11 is at its most entertaining and gleeful when it is, indeed, just Mortal Kombat. It’s at its most utterly repellent when it’s trying to be Mortal Kombat Mobile.

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

Developer: NetherRealm Studios Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 23, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Days Gone Demands Your Submission to the Content Treadmill

The game meets the baseline level of quality we might expect from a big-budgeted joint, yet it remains a tiresome, empty experience.




Days Gone
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

The second big zombie game of the year, Days Gone, is also the total inverse of the first, Resident Evil 2. Its zombies don’t shamble, and its resources aren’t doled out in a tense drip feed while you creep between cramped rooms and corridors. In Days Gone, the zombies run—namely, in vast hordes across the vast wilderness of a post-apocalyptic Oregonian open world that you navigate by foot and motorcycle. Enough time has passed to foster new societies yet not enough to uproot memories of the fall. Where Capcom’s game relied on understated linearity, the latest from developer SIE Bend Studio opts for excess, in the process clarifying the worst parts of our fascination with the sandbox fantasy.

Days Gone is, in every possible sense, a capital-M modern video game. Its world is littered with crafting materials and tasks to complete, which feed the player experience points to unlock parts of a skill tree. As you progress through the game and build up trust in different wilderness encampments, you gain access to more weapons, more skills, more parts for your motorcycle. Days Gone replicates the excruciatingly basic stealth elements of so many other games, where violent takedowns are easy and throwing distraction objects is key. You’re totally invisible if you duck into any of the conveniently placed bushes, which comes in handy when capturing outposts full of non-zombie marauders. The cruel, cliché-riddled story is of little consequence, perhaps best summarized by the fact that the game’s (initially) bearded protagonist, Deacon St. John, has the name of the woman he’s mourning tattooed on his neck. He wears a backward baseball cap and is meant to be a serious character.

Very little in Days Gone stands up to close scrutiny. Something like the crafting at first seems like a natural function of post-apocalyptic survivalist fantasy, yet the system imparts no desperation or need for resource management because every location practically leaks crafting materials out the ears. Carrying capacity is so low (and the increase for it so far down the skill tree) that there’s hardly any point to scavenging, because upgrades are only found at the checkpoints specifically marked on the map. Missions may task you with shooting and stealthing your way through zombies or humans amid various arrangements of chest-high walls, yet there’s no need to prepare; the item wheel slows the action of these encounters to an accommodating crawl, allowing you to quickly and comfortably craft anything on the spot. It’s no problem at all to repair a weapon or cobble together a Molotov cocktail while fleeing a flesh-eating horde of zombies, which, in the regrettable parlance of this new world, are referred to exclusively as “freaks” and “freakers.” A heavily zombie-infested area is called a “freakshow,” and the land outside safe encampments is called “the shit.”

Likewise, the game contrives a reason for Deacon to start over from scratch when upgrading his motorcycle but offers no explanation for why this expert survivalist has accumulated just about no weapons whatsoever in his personal gated outpost, or why his skill tree is full of things like basic shooting accuracy when he’s ostensibly been killing zombies for years. Why must he seek out gasoline so often when it’s found lying around everywhere in containers, as one of the many red objects you can shoot to blow up? “You know, we’re gonna run out of this someday,” one character alleges when you buy gas, though it’s certainly not any time soon.

The various systems of Days Gone aren’t in service to a coherent whole so much as the vague idea of an open-world video game, where everything is arbitrarily gated off as an Unlockable simply to impart a sense of progress. Of getting better. Of winning. This is world where a young girl character exists only to suffer and, in the process, affirm Deacon’s humanity—a world where there are droves of self-mutilating human cultists who are okay to slaughter because they’re “lunatics” high on PCP. You can permanently clear camps of marauders and burn zombie nests to make the map safer because this dour, violent post-apocalypse is built to be conveniently managed and maintained by the player’s hand.

These inconsistencies lay Days Gone bare as a vapid content treadmill, an “immersive” fantasy nevertheless carefully modulated to accommodate the player’s thirst for dominance. Many of the systems seem included mostly just because they’re expected of an open-world game, if not to weave the absolute thinnest of illusions that this is a hard, unforgiving existence. The game provides some pushback through enemies and resource management but not so much of it that the player might actually feel anything beyond all-encompassing authority in the shoes of the cool, tatted-up, backward-baseball-capped bikerman; running low on materials only ever requires a momentary search of your surroundings.

Even character moments are set aside as designated content. If you visit a man on his sickbed when you’re not on a mission that specifically takes you to him, you can’t interact with him at all beyond picking up whatever he’s crafted in his spare time and left in the box by the door; you visit him at your convenience, to pick up items for your trouble.

Of course, enough time, enough money, and above all enough effort has been poured into Days Gone so that it looks nice and, once you’ve upgraded beyond the absurd limitations that pad the early game, it controls okay. The game meets the baseline level of quality we might expect from a big-budgeted joint, yet it remains a tiresome, empty experience. Even the outlandishly long Red Dead Redemption 2 felt like its occasionally cumbersome elements were meant to be in service of something, regardless of how successful that game ended up being.

Days Gone is the apotheosis of the more-is-more philosophy: more bars to fill, more gates to progress, more hours of playtime, more zombies per square inch because “more” is supposed to fill the hole where some semblance of meaning ought to be, bridging the gap between one mind-numbing mission template and the next. It’s the purest example yet of the video game as mere content to be consumed, down to the very fact that each storyline you’re supposed to be emotionally invested in is marked with a completion percentage. Days Gone is a void.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment.

Developer: SIE Bend Studio Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 26, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: God’s Trigger Deliriously Gratifies the Player’s Thirst for Schlock

The game takes delight in its over-the-top violence, cheesy monologues, and nonsensical plot.




God's Trigger
Photo: Techland Publishing

Some games don’t aspire to be sprawling epics, like Witcher 3: The Hunt and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, as they have a different idea of greatness, if not pleasure. Take, for instance, Journey and David O’Reilly’s Mountain, which suggest miniature art-house films for the way they lean heavily on atmosphere or aesthetics above all else to stoke our curiosity. Others are unabashedly joyful aberrations, evoking the feverish intensity of a B movie—content with just being offbeat. They revel in schlock for its own sake, not unlike God’s Trigger, a top-down action game that’s closer in spirit to the campiness of the violent House of the Dead than the more thoughtful, neo-noir cool of Hotline Miami.

Mechanically, the game still functions more like Hotline Miami, where most of the action—planning, looking, and slaughtering—is viewed from an overhead perspective. As a fallen Angel and a banished Demon—both of whom go by the amusingly mundane names of Harry and Judy—players have to save the world from certain annihilation at the hands of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Death, Famine, War, and Pestilence. True to the threadbare plot of most B movies, Harry and Judy’s grand plan to cancel the apocalypse is brutal and straightforward: Rampage through the highest heavens, the bowels of hell, and everywhere else in between, and pulverize every corrupted being standing in your way. But whereas Hotline Miami sets out to make a statement about violence, God’s Trigger dispenses with such pretenses, wanting above all else for you to savor that endorphin rush that comes from fighting violence with bigger, badder forms of it—a spectacle that’s often capped with the cheesiest of one-liners, like “I never thought I’ll be fighting alongside a demon like her.”

God’s Trigger can be played as single-player or co-operatively, and if you chose to storm through the campaign by your lonesome, that means having to switch between Harry and Judy at opportune moments. Conversely, the game’s co-op mode not only shows more relish as you exact unholy justice against your enemies, it channels the most cliché of tropes from your average buddy-cop film along the way. For one, Harry and Judy are prone to trading barbed quips like “Am I doing this alone?!” in the midst of near-death scenarios.

The game is exceptionally good at empowering you with the means to enact such violence, and in a satisfying variety of ways. On one side we have Harry the melee warrior, armed with a celestial blade and an aura of righteous anger that grants him the strength to storm through crumbling walls. On the other we have Judy and her infernal chain-whip, which allows her to attack grunts from afar; she can also teleport a fixed distance between rooms that are separated by prison bars, incinerating her opponents when she re-materializes. Between levels, you’re awarded experience points, letting you fine-tune these skills and unlock even more techniques for bludgeoning your way through mobs of foes.

Given its emphasis on teamwork, God’s Trigger is a far more gratifying experience as a co-op shooter. The protagonists’ abilities are highly complementary; one is a close-combat fighter, while the other is a ranged hunter. Beyond that, the puzzles strewn across the levels often require players to coordinate and strategize with one another, such as having Harry and Judy pull two levers at the same time in order to open up a new route through a level. And at more challenging levels, they even have to keep their movements perfectly in sync, so as to avoid triggering deadly traps like spiked floors. Meanwhile, synchronizing Harry and Judy’s kills rewards players with additional experience points and perks, such as a bullet-time effect.

Coordinating and strategizing with a second player is so rewarding that the single-player feels beside the point, lacking as it does the thrilling unpredictability and momentum that the co-op mode delivers in spades. The solo approach, which requires overthinking one’s moves or taking a stealthy approach, flies in the face of the riotous fun found in the co-op mode.

In the vein of so many B movies that seek to provide the campiest of thrills, God’s Trigger takes delight in its over-the-top violence, cheesy monologues, and nonsensical plot. It’s what makes the game so memorable, even if that means it never defies genre expectations. God’s Trigger is no rousing masterpiece, nor does it want to be. Only time will tell if it will land in the pantheon of B movie-inspired gaming classics. Until then, sit back and enjoy how much fun and violence it lets you extract from obliterating the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

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

Developer: One More Level Publisher: Techland Publishing Platform: PC ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Blood and Gore, Suggestive Themes, Partial Nudity, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Ghost Giant Is Adorable in Small Doses but Clumsy with the Big Stuff

This VR title boasts an endearingly goofy premise, but it’s one that’s executed in bumpy fashion.




Ghost Giant
Photo: Thunderful Games

In Ghost Giant, players take on the role of an enormous and comforting specter that’s been accidentally summoned by the tears of an 11-year-old kitten named Louis. Unfortunately, this spirit is as clumsy as the boy turned superhero from Shazam, and in trying to calm the understandably frightened cat down, almost ends up killing him. It’s an endearingly goofy premise, though one that’s executed in bumpy fashion by this VR title, as using the PlayStation Move controllers to lift and poke physical objects rarely goes as planned.

The game’s unwieldy control scheme should come as no surprise to those who’ve played previous titles from developer Zoink!, such as Flipping Death, in which players fumble around as a spirit possessing living creatures, and Stick It to the Man, where the human protagonist comes equipped with a wacky spaghetti-like third arm. But Ghost Giant also suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, in that it can’t quite decide whether it wants to be an adorable, low-stakes exploration game or if it wants to be about capital-B big issues.

The game looks like Night in the Woods and plays a bit like Beyond: Two Souls but lacks the gravitas of either. Louis’s mom is suffering from severe depression, and Louis is rightfully terrified that if he can’t hide her ailment from the neighbors and cheer her up, she might be taken away. But that’s as far as the game goes in addressing mental illness; for the majority of the game, it’s just a puzzle to be overcome. Ghost Giant understands that not all problems can be solved by, say, baking Mom’s favorite apple pie and restoring her beloved cello, but it doesn’t respect us enough to acknowledge that most problems require hard work to resolve.

If Ghost Giant avoids similar issues of insincerity or exploitation with the other villagers in the game’s French-inspired Sancourt, it’s only because these characters lack any sort of interiority at all. They’re all plagued with low-stakes problems, all directly solved. A melancholy bird, for instance, isn’t depressed so much as it simply refuses to sing—that is, until its favorite hat is returned. And that bird’s owner doesn’t have some deep-seated issue preventing her from writing; she just misses the bird’s song. Satisfying these needs can be humorous, as when you—an actual but sadly invisible spirit—must create a bedsheet poltergeist that you can dangle in front of a ghost-hunting photographer. And some of the tasks make clever use of your size: After pulling wilted sunflowers out of the ground and reseeding a farm, you have to reach up and grab two clouds and squeeze them together to make it rain. What these literally odd jobs don’t provide is room for growth, either in the characters or in the gameplay.

That’s a shame, because it’s so obvious that more vivid, elaborate stories could have been told using these anthropomorphic denizens, like the goat landlord who’s desperate to catch some shut-eye, the avian scuba diver who dredges up trash, or the confidence-lacking lion who sets out to become a confectioner. These are well-designed characters, and they’re nicely voice-acted, which make it all the more frustrating that the player’s interactions with them are largely limited to single scenes, entirely within the context of puzzles. The same goes for the districts of this model-sized town, which don’t feel lived in so much as designed around cheap and often repetitive gimmicks, from using a magnet to fish through a creepy, cemetery-adjacent junkyard, to operating a crane in a sunny, seaside harbor.

Ghost Giant’s puzzles are as precise as the clockwork machinery around Sancourt that’s used to rotate and raise some of the varied buildings. Creative or brute-force solutions are restricted, as players are allowed only to manipulate copper objects (though you can carry and throw just about any loose inanimate object) and can only rotate around a fixed point. Why allow players to be a giant freaking ghost and give them the wider range of movement offered by VR if you’re just going to restrict that freedom? (I wish I could say this was an intentional manifestation of Louis’s mother’s depression.) There’s only one way to accomplish each task, so when players are asked to clear a bird out of a pedestrian’s path, you’ll have to lean in and physically blow on it, because nothing else is designed to frighten the bird. In another nonsensical situation, you’re required to paint a picture to get a crowd’s attention, as if slathering paint on these individuals wouldn’t make them move.

The game’s most enjoyable aspect is how you get to pull apart the walls and ceilings of miniature homes, so as to get a better look inside them. But it’s baffling that so few fixtures are detachable, and that they hold only meaningless, disparate collectibles like hats, insects, basketballs, and pinwheels. In the moment, you feel the thrill of spying on some hidden interior world, but then you’re just clumsily activating what are essentially animatronic displays. However impressive some of these dioramas and mechanisms may be on the surface, like so much of Giant Giant, they’re ultimately lifeless.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Thunderful Games.

Developer: Zoink! Publisher: Thunderful Games Platform: PSVR Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Heaven’s Vault Is a Refreshingly Cerebral Take on Navigating History

The game is ambitious for its translation mechanics and its big-picture look at the evolution of culture through the ages.




Heaven's Vault
Photo: Inkle

Archaeology in video games is descended almost exclusively from the Indiana Jones School of Marauding, where puzzles help players raid tombs or pilfer uncharted temples in competition with gun-toting rivals. Heaven’s Vault, however, has no such trappings of the violent colonialist adventure. Your primary engagement with the game is through language, as you must decipher the hieroglyphs of a fallen ancestral empire, making for a refreshingly cerebral take on navigating the remnants of history.

In Heaven’s Vault, you play as Aliya, an archaeologist who travels the flowing rivers of a spacefaring setting known as the Nebula, a network of moons containing dusty villages, farms, and more. Throughout, she sifts through the fallen empire’s ruins to the dismay and suspicion of many around her, who believe in a fatalistic doctrine, The Loop, that touts cyclical patterns in history. That which has happened will happen again, so they see no point in unearthing the past, especially when sailing the rivers is said to strip away the soul. Undeterred, Aliya continues to explore in the company of a fussy robot she calls Six, morbidly christened after the loss of his five predecessors and the presumed inevitability of a Seven.

Much of the game involves steering Aliya’s ship around those rivers, translating an ancient language she finds carved into crumbling structures and objects strewn throughout ruins. Aliya and Six are free to wander these environments, bouncing theories off one another and bickering while they piece their history back together. Deciphering the glyphs is something of a guessing game, with each word’s definition narrowed down to several possibilities that you choose by extrapolating from context. What are the glyphs on? If they’re on an object, where was it found? What are the other words? The long phrase on what you believe to be a makeshift grave, for example, might nudge you toward a tombstone-appropriate vocabulary.

If this process sounds impossibly daunting, the game mitigates the sheer enormity of the task by not keeping score. There are no end-of-level tallies to track your accuracy, and many of the possible translations remain just that: possibilities, denoted with a question mark. Some are eventually confirmed or debunked by repeated use or consulting another character; most never are. Each individual translation doesn’t matter so much in a pass/fail sense except in how they inform your continued understanding of the ancient language and culture.

The past in Heaven’s Vault is never totally clarified and much of your progress is theoretical, so it’s astonishing that the game provides any sense of accomplishment at all despite dealing mostly in ambiguity rather than absolutes. You really do begin to understand the more you play, learning which glyph denotes a place and then easily guessing the new word when it’s paired with one you recognize to mean, say, a liquid. Combined with environments that task players with using their growing knowledge to uncover possible functions for a building or a mechanism, the game’s sense of discovery feels truly immense. You share Aliya’s excitement, or perhaps her horror, as you’re totally enveloped in her cosmic search for answers.

But for as much as Heaven’s Vault emphasizes the futility of diminishing the messy past into something simplistic and easily digestible, its mechanics never quite escape doing so all the same. The fact that everything works out into a coherent English phrase (sans maybe a preposition or two) built from four options per word feels impossibly neat and composed. To some degree, these concessions are what makes Heaven’s Vault playable at all. When taken next to the game’s emphasis on translations that are mere possibilities and functions that are only theories, however, they’re something of a tear in the curtain meant to conceal a world that’s been neatly gamified yet making every effort to conceal itself as such.

The most challenging opposition comes less from piecing history together than simply navigating the game’s unwieldy interface, which works well at the start before buckling under the translations’ growing complexity. Hieroglyphic text you’ve found drops onto a timeline menu for what’s supposed to be easy access, until the translations clog the menu to such a degree that it borders on unusable, while the translation screen fails to hold longer phrases without asking you to scroll repeatedly back and forth. Most galling of all is the total exclusion of any sensible search function. Indeed, there’s simply no way to search the phrases by word or glyph, while paging to a “related word” is too limited to be of much use. Some amount of repetition would have set in anyway with these mechanics, yet the interface issues only ensure it arrives quite ahead of schedule. The game’s sailing is dull and saturated with similar-looking environments, to the point where you might bypass whichever nondescript rock you’re meant to find if the game didn’t automatically stop you, but it’s outright preferable to the sheer headache of stopping for even a single moment to go back to any old translations.

Despite how these issues range from irritating to outright infuriating, though, they never totally dampen the considerable accomplishments of Heaven’s Vault. This is a hugely ambitious game, both for its translation mechanics and how they provide a big-picture look at the evolution of culture through the ages. It’s an achievement that the game realizes any of those ambitions at all, and that such a rewarding sense of discovery emerges from them.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Inkle

Developer: Inkle Publisher: Inkle Platform: PC Release Date: April 16, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Dangerous Driving Does the Bare Minimum to Earn Comparison to Burnout

Though it’s abundant in hyper-realistic visuals, that isn’t enough to disguise its lack of polish in almost every other way.




Dangerous Driving
Photo: Three Fields Entertainment

Because Dangerous Driving comes to us from the former Criterion Games co-founders who developed Burnout, it was natural to expect a high-octane, edge-of-your-seat experience. But while this ostensible spiritual successor to that long-dormant series can be effectively tense as you barrel down tracks at upwards of 200 m.p.h., crashing and taking down your AI rivals on the way to first place, it isn’t long before the game slips into cyclical repetition of its core gameplay loop. Dangerous Driving riffs on the Burnout formula in only superficial ways, and though it’s abundant in hyper-realistic visuals, that isn’t enough to disguise its lack of polish in almost every other way.

Dangerous Driving features six car classes with about 10 races each. The monotony starts here. Each car, from souped-up formula cars to tuned coupes, handles the same way. Drifting in a sedan feels identical to drifting in an SUV. The bombastic, fiery end to a 200 m.p.h. sprint lacks exhilaration because the cars look like pristine, still-sealed Hot Wheels. The races also wear the same mask of familiarity. Of the 10 or so races per car class, the choices are identical, just in varying orders, and regardless of race type, the tracks are indistinguishable.

Worse, though, is the haphazard change in seasons during these races: One minute, players are speeding through autumnal vistas draped in oranges and reds, the next driving beside frozen fields blanketed in white and leafless trees. Yet somehow, the tracks remain unaffected by the changing seasons. The sudden, inexplicable season change would be forgivable if the scenery weren’t so excessively bright. Because the color contrast is so high (and no settings exist to adjust the game’s display), players will end up wrecking their cars more often than not because of the obnoxiously bright sun rays bouncing off the bright silver cars.

Dangerous Driving isn’t mechanically difficult to understand, but the AI makes the game impossible to enjoy. Rubberbanding exists in many racing games, but Three Fields Entertainment takes this frustrating feature to new and unfortunate heights with this game. The AI respawns immediately after crashing and appears right behind the player. Should players regain their position after falling behind or crashing, the AI will magically boost just five or so miles faster to maintain their lead. Your competitors turn corners perfectly, dodge oncoming traffic with ease, and maintain high speeds all while swerving through lanes. Unless players chain together boosts to get ahead, they’ll often find the computer AI no less than a car’s length behind. There’s no gratification in coming in first when players can never really pull far enough ahead and always fall annoyingly far behind.

The game, handicapped by stiff and imprecise controls and riddled with bugs, also lacks for the extras that might have allowed it to stand out from just about any other racing game. There’s an alt-rock song that plays during the menu screen, but no music to soundtrack your racing, though Dangerous Driving does allow for Spotify integration—that is, if you happen to have a premium membership. There’s no free race or time attack modes, no local split-screen, and the game has shipped without online functionality, a feature supposedly coming in the ensuing months. Which is to say that the folks at Three Fields Entertainment were only too eager to push a game into the marketplace without it possessing the bare minimum necessary to even allow it to sensibly be called a kindred spirit to Burnout.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Three Fields Entertainment.

Developer: Three Fields Entertainment Publisher: Three Fields Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: April 9, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Violence Buy: Game

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