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-

 

 

G&G Reviews: Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

Reviewer: Michael Mendis

Developer: Naughty Dog

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment

ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

Platform: PlayStation 4

 

The critically acclaimed Uncharted series has been one of Sony’s key franchises for almost a decade, and developer Naughty Dog has established themselves as one of the top-tier studios in the game industry.  Naughty Dog’s newest title, Uncharted 4, is not only their first game built from the ground up for PlayStation 4; it’s also the final game in the series, bringing protagonist Nathan Drake’s story to a close.  So does it live up to the weighty expectations that the franchise has built up for itself?

The story picks up with Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher now married and living a “normal life”; Nate is employed in a diving company searching for sunken wreckage, and Elena is back to professional writing.  They’ve left behind the life of adventure and danger that had defined them for years.  Nate can’t help but pine for the old days, though, and he’s thrown a curveball when he discovers that his brother Sam, who he thought had died many years before, is actually alive and well.  But Sam has gotten involved with some dangerous people who now expect him to find the lost treasure of pirate captain Henry Avery, and just like that Nate is swept up in another crazy adventure...but without telling Elena.

The Uncharted series is known for stellar writing, storytelling, and character development, and Uncharted 4 is no slouch compared to its predecessors.  Nate is still his lovable roguish self, bantering with the the other characters and injecting clever bits of humor into even the most perilous situations; the other characters also play off each other well, including the new faces like Sam.  Much of the overall plot should be familiar to anyone who has played (or is otherwise familiar with) the previous Uncharted games -- search ancient ruins, find clue that brings you one step closer to the treasure, repeat -- but a few narrative twists combined with the series’ hallmark dialogue and voice acting keep things interesting from beginning to end.  And while I won’t spoil any major plot points here, suffice it to say that the game’s ending does an excellent job tying up loose ends and wrapping up Nathan Drake’s story.

For those concerned about potentially objectionable content, Uncharted 4 certainly earns its Mature rating, as you spend the game killing scores of enemy soldiers throughout the game, and there is some strong language and a bit of blood present as well (though nothing in the way of gore).  It should also be noted, though, that there are some positive moral messages conveyed in the game as well; for example, this is one of the few games I can think of off the top of my head that portray marriage in both a realistic and positive light.

Like the other games in the series, Uncharted 4’s gameplay is predominantly a combination of platforming and third-person shooting.  The shooting mechanics are rock solid, allowing you to easily pop in and out of cover, grab weapons off the battlefield on the fly, and scamper about to find better vantage points.  Many combat encounters encourage you to take a stealthy approach; enemies can be marked on your HUD so that you can track their movements even when they move out of your line of sight, and if you get behind them without being seen you can take them down quietly.  In some cases you can avoid a firefight altogether by sneaking past the opposition and proceeding to the next part of the level.  All that being said, some encounters start with guns blazing, and it wouldn’t be an Uncharted game without a healthy dose of dramatic set piece moments, from fast-paced chase scenes to collapsing buildings.  The only small complaints I have are that on normal difficulty the enemy AI seems a bit too oblivious during stealth sections and generally a bit too easy to defeat in combat.  There are also a couple of one-on-one, hand-to-hand combat sequences in the game that aren’t explained well to the player, but thankfully they are short and infrequent events.

When you aren’t trading gunshots with a private army, you’ll be clambering up cliffsides and old ruins in search of Avery’s treasure.  These moments serve as a good break in the action and give the writers more opportunity to advance character development between Nate and whoever else may be with him at the moment.  Aside from a somewhat repetitive crate puzzle (find crate, push it to a spot that will let you climb up a high wall), the platforming sections are enjoyable, especially when you get the chance to swing around with the new grappling hook.  It doesn’t hurt that Uncharted 4 is visually stunning; on numerous occasions I found myself stopping during these calmer sections to admire the gorgeous vistas and lush vegetation found in many of the environments.  In addition to the platforming, there are also a few moments when you are tasked with solving a puzzle in order to find the next clue to the treasure’s location.  While the puzzles aren’t too difficult to solve, they are a nice chance to use some other brain cells and they add to the intrigue of the treasure hunt.

While the levels tend to be very linear, there are a few branching paths here and there that usually offer some reward, often either a new journal entry that adds to the lore, or one of the dozens of collectibles scattered throughout the game world.  The collectibles work the same way as they have in the previous games in the series -- Nate walks up to a shiny object on the screen and picks up an old artifact -- but the mechanic feels a bit shallow and dated in light of how the new Tomb Raider games handle the same idea; where Lara Croft will provide some insight into (and personal reflections on) the item she is picking up, Nate says nothing (odd, considering he’s otherwise quite the chatterbox).  It’s a minor gripe, but this mechanic in Uncharted 4 would have benefitted from a bit of evolution.

On top of the single-player campaign, Uncharted 4 also has a multiplayer mode that lets players compete with one another in one of three game types: Deathmatch (first team to 40 kills wins), Command (capture zones and KO enemy captains to earn points), and Plunder (carry the ancient idol back to your base).  The maps are well-designed and allow you to make use of the core mechanics of the game, including traversal moves like climbing up buildings and swinging across gaps.  There are also some cosmetic items (such as hats, shirts, and weapon skins) that you can use to customize your character, and which are purchased with in-game currency that you can acquire either through completing multiplayer matches or through microtransactions (AKA, real money).  Altogether, Uncharted 4’s multiplayer feels like icing on the cake; it isn’t incredibly deep, but it’s well designed and adds some extra replayability on top of the already fantastic single-player offering.

Naughty Dog has once again put together an absolutely incredible game, sending the series out with a bang.  Between the exciting gameplay, stunning visuals, and wonderfully written characters, Uncharted 4 is a gem that no PS4 owner should miss out on.


OVERALL SCORE: A+

 

G&G Reviews: Rocket League

Reviewer: Jacob Toman

Developer: Psyonix

Publisher: Psyonix

ESRB Rating: E (Everyone)

Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC [reviewed]

 

This week I was on a phone call with a pastor looking to use gaming as a platform for ministry in his local congregation, both as a form of inreach to his current church attenders, and as a means of outreach to those curious about who Jesus is and why He matters. He was looking for a game that wasn’t violent, but was competitive, and could be played quickly before a meal, a youth gathering, or a worship service. He cited his early days as a pastor when Halo was big on college campuses and how easy it was to build gospel-oriented relationships through simply playing Halo with fellow students. I encouraged him that the game he was looking for was called “Rocket League”.

I must admit, I’m confused...

Rocket League is a combustible combination of soccer and cars. The goal is simple: knock a ball into the opposing team's net more times than they do. The craziness of Rocket League is found when fast paced racing cars crash into a competitive coliseum to compare skills. This isn’t your run of the mill soccer game; this game is the love child of finely tuned physics and a game engine that births ultra-rapid gameplay.

Rocket League is much like a good road trip, enjoyable both in the journey and the destination. The fun of Rocket League made it a rather difficult game to review. During my time in Rocket League I felt like I was caught somewhere between a family friendly Nintendo Wii product and a hyper competitive online ranked eSport.

Even as I was laughing this week in playing Rocket League for this review I was stuck on this question: what makes this simple idea -- Cars + Soccer -- such a successful game?

K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple Stupid!

One of the widely recognized beauties of soccer is its simplicity. The entry barrier to soccer is possessing a ball, and then having opposite goals. In other traditional sports, the entry barrier is a bit more than ball + goals.  As soccer has mass appeal across the globe due to its simplicity, so too does Rocket League.

Rocket League isn’t overly complex with strategies, formations, set pieces or plays; it’s non stop driving action, only giving players a chance to catch their breath when a goal is scored (an instant replay is shown that lasts about 4-6 seconds). It’s this incessant pace of play that drives the arcade style action to greatness. Rocket League wasn’t released by a recognizable figure within the industry. Growing up with the likes of Madden and Fifa it may be expected that the best sports game of the year would come from a studio like 2K Games or EA Sports. Psyonix released Rocket League with a monumental success grossing over $70 Million on PS4 and PC alone (not counting the subsequent success on Xbox One).

The controls of the game are also simple and intuitive, allowing even the most casual of gamers to jump in with ease. The PC version supports gaming controllers as well as keyboard + mouse (controllers are the only option on console), and while each car in the game has its own unique feel, none of the cars are so unique that they are difficult to pilot. Nolan Bushnell, one of the fathers of the game industry, once said that “All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth” (a phrase that has come to be known as Bushnell’s Law), which is an accurate summary of the simple appeal of Rocket League.

A Masterpiece of Choices

While the basic gameplay is simple and straightforward, players have a number of ways to tailor the game to their liking.  Matches consist of 2-8 players, so you can choose whether you want to square off a single opponent 1v1, jump into the 4v4 Chaos Mode, or go somewhere in between.  Psyonix has also experimented with other game types, including Hoops mode (released to celebrate March Madness 2016) and Hockey mode.

Rocket League’s beautiful options extend beyond the gameplay and into the business model of the product.  It’s quite affordable compared to most top tier sports games; at $29.99, it’s half the price of EA’s Madden and FIFA titles, or 2K Games’ NBA and NHL franchises.

Rocket League is one of the few major online games to support cross platform play between PC users and PlayStation 4 users, and the first to support cross platform play between PC and Xbox One (Microsoft also made waves when they recently signaled a willingness to support play with other console platforms like PlayStation, but nothing has come of that so far). The ability to play a game across multiple platforms ends the social dilemma that occurs with every new console generation. Gamers, up until only recently, have had to choose a sub group to align themselves with: the PC subculture or the Console subculture (which itself is split between Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo consoles).*

*Thanks to the rapid pace of mobile technology development over the last decade, there is now a third major subculture of gamers that play mainly via their mobile device.

With Rocket League, gamers can choose to play this game on any platform they like and can still happily play against or alongside an opponent or friend on a completely different style of gaming machine. This increases the total population of available players for Rocket League matches every moment the game servers are live. Typical online gaming companies will have to first release a product, and then establish itself as a service based brand providing for the needs of the users who first brought into the release of the product. Another layer of complexity is added when the choice of gaming platform is presented.

Accolades of greatness

Rocket League has quickly risen to the top of the popularity charts in almost every tangible category – sales, live viewership, critical awards, multiplayer events and concurrent players. Across the spectrum of critics, Rocket League has been praised from major industry contributors like Playstation Universe’s “Best Sports Game of E3” and The Game Awards 2015 winner as “Best Independent Game” and “Best Sports/Racing Game”. At the 19th Annual D.I.C.E. awards in February of 2016 Rocket League won the “Sprite Award” alongside with notables Undertale and Kerbal Space Program and “Best Design” at the 2016 Game Developers Choice Awards.

(http://www.psu.com/feature/28978/PlayStation-Universe-2015-Awards---Best-Multiplayer-Game)

(http://www.pcgamer.com/best-multiplayer-2015-rocket-league/)

(http://www.interactive.org/news/19th_dice_awards_finalists.asp)

(http://www.gamechoiceawards.com/winners/)

The next Halo?

Through a mixture of my own experience in Rocket League and in chatting with fellow players online (both using voice communication in game, and text based chat) I’ve come to hold the opinion that Rocket League has the potential to be the next “Halo”. In the early 2000’s, dorm rooms were packed with students gathering around television sets, grabbing a controller, and sharing a caffeinated meal of greasy pizza and Mountain Dew. These students may not have known each other the night before, but someone posted on the dorm message boards that there would be a Halo tournament open to all who could attend. This style of event swept through colleges, high school lock-ins, youth groups, and with the proliferation of high speed home internet, the digitalized globe. Regardless of skill level, Halo endeared itself both as a game for the hardcore gamer, as well as fun and intuitive enough for the casual new player.

The above paragraph could be written again to describe the gathering game of this current mixed casual/hardcore generation of gamers. Those who are into sports will be drawn into Rocket League due to the high skill cap, similarly to the early eSports heroes of the Halo tournament scene. Those who are a bit more casually interested in a fast-paced, arcade style, hot seat experience will find it through Rocket League’s availability to play online, at home, alone, or with a friend or spouse next to them.

Easy to pick up and hard to put down, Rocket League has found a combination of intuitive gameplay and pleasing aesthetics that has wrought it nothing but spectacular success since its release in July 2015. Perhaps this is exactly what makes Rocket League so good: the simplicity of its core game mechanics allow for a spectrum of engagement that encompasses both casual hot-seat gamers, to hardcore eSports enthusiasts.

Whether you are someone who enjoys a party game with friends on the couch, or a hardcore competitive eSports expert, Rocket League is a game you will definitely want in your repertoire.

OVERALL SCORE: A+