G&G Reviews: PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds

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Reviewer: Michael Mendis

Developer: PUBG Corporation

Publisher: PUBG Corporation

ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

Platforms: PC [reviewed], Xbox One

One of the biggest hits in the movie industry in the last decade was the Hunger Games series.  What began as novels turned into a film sensation, and part of the reason for this was because of the intensity of its premise: a group of people dropped into a large enclosed space, scrounging for weapons and fighting to the death until only one remained standing.  This free-for-all competitive format was just begging to be used effectively in a video game, and a small indie developer has accomplished just that.  When Brendan Greene (whose online username is “PlayerUnknown”) first created a mod for Arma 3 (a military shooter on PC), he set out to make a competitive game that forced players to be as careful with their in-game avatar as they are with their real lives and bodies; little did he know that he had stumbled upon a concept that would explode amongst the gaming community and support the creation of a standalone game.  This game, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, has taken the gaming world by storm, establishing itself as one of the most popular PC games of all time in just a few short months since its initial release.  Many people within our own community of gamers, those that we at G&G play with and minister to, have taken a liking to this game as well, making PUBG an important part of our outreach efforts.

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As I alluded to earlier, PUBG’s basic premise shares much with the Hunger Games setup: up to one hundred players (playing either individually or in teams of two or four) are airdropped onto one of two maps (either a large forest island or a mountainous desert area) and scavenge abandoned buildings for weapons, ammo, and other resources.  Each individual or team then fights it out to see who will be the last one standing.  As the match progresses, a damaging force field closes in around the players, covering up more and more of the map and forcing players to converge into a smaller and smaller area.  Certain places on each map wind up being hotspots for combat, particularly the towns and large buildings where resources are abundant.  As a result, the general flow of gameplay in most matches is defined by long stretches of downtime (looting buildings and traveling from place to place) punctuated by brief firefights against enemy combatants.  Despite this downtime, the tension never truly goes away, as there are no respawns in the game, and you never know when someone might have taken up a position in the distance and has you in their sniper scope.  The intensity ratchets up dramatically as the game approaches the finish: firefights increase in frequency as the safe area gets smaller, and the prospect of victory becomes intoxicating as you watch the counter in the corner of the screen show fewer and fewer other players remaining alive.  On more than one occasion I’ve found myself literally shaking after a match.

In terms of its artstyle, PUBG aims for a realistic military look, which makes sense considering the game’s origin as a mod for a military shooter.  Graphically speaking, it isn’t much to write home about; there aren’t many flashy graphical effects, even on the highest settings, and the sparseness of the environments leaves most areas of the map rather plain looking.  Tall mountain peaks and cliff sides do provide some impressive vistas, and the forest map mixes it up with both both dense forests and open fields, but overall it can’t hold a candle to realistic shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield, which are made by much bigger teams of people.

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Fortunately for PUBG, though, graphics aren’t the main appeal of the game; its draw lies in its gameplay, which stands out from other shooters both in terms of its pacing as well as many of its unique mechanics.  As mentioned above, the flow of gameplay alternates between stretches of downtime and quick, intense firefights, which contrasts with the constant fast pace of its AAA counterparts.  But that’s not all; PUBG’s scavenging and inventory system also sets the game apart.  Each abandoned building contains random resources, which means that whenever you enter a shop or house, there’s a chance you could find really valuable gear (although some of the best can only be found in the special packages that are airdropped randomly on the map throughout the match).  It also increases the stakes of the firefights; finding good armor and powerful weapons isn’t a guarantee of your survival, and the winner of any given fight can loot all the goodies off the opponent’s corpse.  Even then you can’t rest on your laurels, as gunshots attract the attention of others nearby, and you’re a sitting duck as long as you’re sifting through your inventory screen.

My biggest complaint about the game is probably its steep learning curve.  Because PUBG feels so different from other shooters on the market, it takes some time to get used to the flow of the game.  The controls are also a bit clunkier than in other games of its type, and your character doesn’t move as quickly either, which adds to the adjustment needed to play the game well.  And since PUBG lacks either a proper tutorial or a ranking system at this point, new players who don’t know what they are doing are simply dropped into a competitive scenario with people who may already be much better at the game.  This makes playing the game solo particularly difficult and potentially quite frustrating until you get the hang of it.

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While going it on your own can be a valuable experience, forcing you to hone your skills in an unforgiving environment with no backup, in my time with PUBG I’ve found that I have much more fun playing on a team.  The quiet stretches of scavenging and traveling provide opportunity to chat and relax a bit, while the firefights require you and your teammates to work together, calling out enemy locations and executing strategies.  And unlike in solo play, getting your health knocked down to zero isn’t an automatic death here; instead, losing your health puts you in a downed state in which all you can do is crawl, and your teammates have a brief window of time in which they can revive you.  This sets up tense moments with players bleeding out and crawling to safety, their fate left in the hands of the one teammate forced to play the hero as he or she fights off the enemy.  Even if some members of a team die part way through a match, all of them receive credit if the surviving teammates manage to win.

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All things considered, PUBG is a great game that deserves the praise and success that it has received.  The thrill it provides through its tense gameplay and unique mechanics is unparalleled, even compared to shooters that have much bigger budgets behind them.  On top of all that, the opportunity to forge relationships with your friends through coordinated team play adds a potent social dynamic that eludes many other games.  I’ll admit that I was skeptical when I first heard about this game and started playing it; the humble graphics and steep learning curve didn’t make for a compelling experience right out of the gate.  But over time, and with a little help from my friends, I came to see how PUBG provides a fun and rewarding experience unlike anything else I had played before.

 

OVERALL SCORE: B+
 

G&G Reviews: ReCore

Reviewer: Michael Mendis

Developers: Armature Studio, Comcept

Publisher: Microsoft Studios

ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PC

 

Having recently finished ReCore, the new third-person shooter from developers Armature Studio and Comcept, I find myself of two minds when I think about this game.  In some ways, ReCore is a lot of fun, offering a well polished and entertaining experience; in other ways, it’s a shallow game that disappoints on multiple levels.  So let’s break it down and look at exactly what makes this game both good and bad at the same time.

The story is set in the distant future; natural disasters have wreaked havoc on Earth, and humanity has set its sights on another planet, one they’ve named New Eden, as their next home.  Unfortunately, the planet is still mostly sand and rock, and needs to be terraformed in order to be permanently habitable.  That’s where you come in; you play as Joule Adams, one of the crew responsible for making sure the terraforming process runs smoothly (and daughter to one of the most prominent scientists of the whole project).  When Joule wakes up from cryosleep, however, she find that things haven’t gone according to plan; humanity had created Corebots (machines made up of a large spherical AI core that are placed into metal frames) to prepare the planet, but most of them have gone rogue, and New Eden isn’t as far along in its transformation as it should be.  Now it’s up to Joule and her friendly Corebot buddy Mack to save the day.

It’s an intriguing premise, but the story itself falls flat.  Despite the fact that there aren’t many characters in the game, none of them, Joule included, receive enough development to be interesting, so none of the key dramatic moments have any weight.  The game attempts to add intrigue via audiologs scattered throughout the game world, but the backstory they provide isn’t particularly compelling, and thus fails to bring the overall narrative to life.

If the storytelling doesn’t live up to its potential, the game’s visual presentation helps make up a little bit for it.  ReCore’s art style is quite beautiful; while the planet itself consists entirely of brown rocky cliffs and sand, the man-made structures and robots dotting the landscape add spots of vibrant color that stand out against the rest of the environment.  The game’s various dungeons are also bursting with brilliant blues, greens, reds, and yellows.  While there are some rough edges (many pieces of the environment pop into view late, and the game can have a rather fuzzy look at times), ReCore is an attractive game overall.

The actual gameplay is just as mixed as the rest of the experience.  I’ll start with the good, and there’s plenty to like, thanks to the game’s highly polished controls.  Joule controls very smoothly as you dash across the open desert, scale deserted buildings, and engage in combat with enemy robots.  Choosing you Corebot companions becomes an important mechanic partway through the game; over the course of your adventure you discover new friendly cores as well as new frames, each with their own combat stats as well as traversal abilities that let you explore new places in the game world. Since you can only have two Corebots with you at any given time, you’ll need to select the right combination for the task in front of you.

ReCore’s combat also has some interesting game mechanics that keep you on your toes.  Joule’s weapon, an automatic laser rifle, can switch between firing different colored lasers, and matching the color of your laser to the color of the enemy Corebot will deal a lot more damage.  Things can get hectic when you have half a dozen enemies on screen all with different colors, forcing you to stay moving, maintain situational awareness, and pick your targets wisely.  Finally, when you’ve weakened an enemy Corebot you have the chance to extract its core with your grappling hook; extracting a core will leave you vulnerable to other enemies for a few seconds while you pull it out, but if you succeed you’ll gain a different kind of upgrade material for your friendly bots than you would if you had just blown the enemy up.

All of this comes together nicely in the optional dungeons spread throughout the game.  Each one consists of special platforming courses or combat arenas, and completing additional tasks (find the hidden key, shoot the switches, finish in a set amount of time) will yield more rewards at the end of the dungeon.  These sections are where ReCore shines brightest, presenting the player with challenges that require you to master the game’s mechanics, and offering incentives to replay them and perfect each run.

But despite all that the gameplay has going for it, there are plenty of noticeable flaws as well.  One of the first things you’ll note about the game are the long load times when transitioning between different areas of the game.  Even though the game has been patched since launch to reduce the load times, they’re still annoyingly long; even worse, the only place you can switch out which friendly core is in which frame is at your base, meaning that anytime you need to make that change, you’ll suffer two long load times: one to teleport to the base, and another to get back to the region you were in before.  And as you discover new regions you’ll find yourself having to do more and more teleporting, which means more and more time wasted in front of loading screens.

The combat has its own disappointments.  While Joule’s weapon can switch between laser colors, she still only has one weapon, best used at mid-range, which leads the combat to feel somewhat monotonous at times; gameplay would have been more interesting had there been a selection of weapons to choose from, like a shotgun or a sniper rifle.  Joule doesn’t even have a melee ability, meaning that all battles require the same strategy of keeping enemies at arms length and hitting them with laser fire until they fall.  Each of your friendly Corebots has a unique special attack for combat, but none seem particularly more effective than others.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment, though, is how the final section of the game plays out.  It feels like the developers ran out of narrative justification for the player to explore the surrounding environment before completing the main story, and so the solution they came up with was to turn the last area into a series of dungeons, and the only way to access them...is to find and complete a whole bunch of the optional dungeons.  On the one hand, the game’s dungeons are a lot of fun; on the other hand, they all tend to run together and become monotonous after you’ve been powering through them for hours, especially when the biggest reward for completing a bunch of dungeons is just having access to more of them.  And when you’ve actually finished all that you need to and beat the final boss, the story ends rather abruptly; there just isn’t really a payoff for the effort you put into completing the game.

To add insult to injury, upon finishing the main story, I realized that there were places on the map that I simply couldn’t access.  It turns out, one of the Corebot frames that appeared in advertisements (and indeed in the cover art at the top of this very review) isn’t in the game at all, and without it, certain places can’t be reached.  It seems the developers were unable to finish everything they set out to do, and cut things from the game without giving any signal to consumers; perhaps we will see it later on as new content for the game, but if that’s the case, we’ll probably have to pay extra.

At the end of the day, it’s hard not to feel disappointed with ReCore, even though there were times when I had a lot of fun while playing it.  Plenty of effort was put into making the game feel smooth and polished, and the game’s dungeons provided some neat challenges; nevertheless, it seems that the creators bit off more than they could chew, and wound up with a product that feels rushed and incomplete.  They’re clearly a talented group of people, so hopefully they’ll be able to learn from their mistakes and produce a real gem the next time around.

 

OVERALL SCORE: C-

G&G Reviews: Mirror's Edge Catalyst

Reviewer: Michael Mendis

Developer: DICE

Publisher: Electronic Arts

ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC

 

When the original Mirror’s Edge was released back in 2008, it merged two popular game genres in a way that had never been done before.  Developer DICE (best known for creating the Battlefield first-person shooter games) created a first-person platformer: a game that took place entirely in first-person and focused not on combat (as pretty much every other game that played from the first-person perspective had), but on parkour-style climbing and jumping.  It was a unique experience that quickly gained a cult following of players who spent hours not only completing the game’s main story missions, but replaying the game’s obstacle courses to get the best times possible.  Fast-forward to 2016, and DICE has just wrapped up development on Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, a reboot that takes the mechanics of the original game and places it into a big open world.

In Mirror’s Edge Catalyst you play as Faith Connors, a young woman who lives on the rooftops of the city of Glass, hiding from the authorities as she and her fellow “runners” earn money by secretly and quickly delivering packages for various customers.  As mentioned above, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a reboot of the original; some elements of the game’s story and lore remain the same (Glass is still a near-futuristic city run by a big brother-esque totalitarian group of corporations), while others have been altered (Faith’s sister isn’t a cop like she is in the first game).  Altogether, the story premise is quite strong, and combined with the game’s absolutely stunning art style (which has some of the best use of color that I have ever seen in gaming), this makes Catalyst one of the most intriguing and unique AAA games on the market today.

Unfortunately, the game’s actual story fails to live up to its potential.  The plot is completely forgettable, and the story’s twists are way too predictable, robbing key moments of their dramatic weight.  The characters themselves aren’t much better; most of them (including Faith) are either just as forgettable as the overall story, or else are memorable only for how annoying they are. 

If the game’s story is disappointing, the high quality of the game’s traversal mechanics helps make up for it.  Running around the city of Glass is an absolute treat; the parkour mechanics from the first game could be a bit clunky at times, but in Catalyst they have been refined and are now as silky smooth as they always should have been.  The controls take a little time to get used to, but once you have mastered the basic flow of chaining together Faith’s jumps, slides, and wall runs, you’ll quickly find yourself sailing through the city, seamlessly leaping from rooftop to rooftop and scaling tall structures.  Nailing a smooth run is incredibly satisfying, providing an experience that you just can’t find in many other games.

While traversal has seen a clear improvement from the original game, the combat mechanics unfortunately have not.  Fighting is still rather clunky and repetitive; most enemies can be defeated with a few basic attacks, and while there are several different enemy types (multiple melee classes and a ranged class), they don’t pose much of a threat once you learn their attack patterns.  Faith can perform a few fancy combat moves when attacking from high above or when jumping off of a wall, but these flashier moves aren’t essential and are only likely to make you vulnerable in the process.  On a rare occasion you’ll get to see Faith perform a cool takedown in third-person when finishing off a group of enemies, which is a nice touch, but is, as I said, quite rare; I wish I could have seen it more often in the game.

Perhaps the biggest change from the original game to Catalyst is the open world structure.  While the first game was entirely linear and mission-based, the new game sets you loose to explore Glass.  In addition to the main missions (which contain a mix of traversal and combat), there are side missions and time trials scattered throughout the city, many of which are quite challenging; while a lot of these missions simply ask you to get from point A to point B in a set amount of time, some have special modifiers (such as avoiding being spotted by guards or security cameras) to keep the player on their toes.  The basic races (time trials with no modifiers) also have leaderboards, encouraging players to really master the game’s parkour skills and learn the best routes.  On top of that, all of the story missions can be replayed to your heart’s content, giving speedrunners yet another reason to come back again and again.

Alongside the open world structure is an upgrade system; as you complete missions and challenges, Faith gains experience that allows the player to upgrade her combat skills, traversal moves, and gear.  In a way, it feels like a rather pointless mechanic; most of the important skills you need can be unlocked within the first few hours of gameplay, and aside from an unlockable tool that stuns opponents, none of the other upgrades are all that memorable.  The new grappling hook, heavily advertised in the game’s marketing, can only be used at specific spots in the environment, and its presence acts more as a way to gate players (some parts of the city can only be accessed with the hook, which you only get part way through the game) than as an addition to gameplay.  You can also unlock runner tags: customizable symbols that will appear when you hack certain billboards (and will show up in your friends’ games as well).  For some bizarre reason, though, you cannot change your tag from within the game; you have to log on to a separate website in order to do this.  Why the developers failed to implement this into the main game, saving players extra hassle, is beyond me.

Altogether, I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed with Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.  It’s not that the game doesn’t have anything good going for it; the clear improvements to the traversal mechanics and the myriad replayable missions and time trials offer plenty of fun moments.  But Catalyst’s missteps, namely the bland writing and poor combat mechanics, bring the whole game down.  And that’s a real shame considering the how unique this game is in a lot of ways, especially among big budget, AAA titles.

 

OVERALL SCORE: C-