Stephen Duetzmann

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The Games I Played at PAX East 2017

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PAX East 2017 is behind us and I am pleased to report that it was a wild success. Tens of thousands of people descended on the Boston Convention Center for a weekend  celebrating games of all varieties. Fortunately, I was able to get my hands on a number of games that families could enjoy together. Below is a list of some of the highlights.

Steamworld Dig 2

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Steamworld Dig 2 was one of the highlights of the weekend for me. The original game was amazing, and I was immediately excited when I saw that the sequel was going to be launching this year. I was able to play through the demo they had at the show and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

The gameplay was very reminiscent of the original. Players dig downwards to gather resources and then climb back up to trade those resources in for better tools. They then repeat the process and descend further.

The gameplay might have been similar, but I didn’t find that to be disappointing. There were enough differences that it didn’t feel like it was just a rehash. The biggest difference is that there will be more boss fights throughout the sequel. The PAX East demo concluded with a boss fight with the floating head of an idol that shot our lightning in various patterns and regularly shielded itself from attacks. Defeating it was all about learning it’s patterns and taking advantage of the terrain to wall jump into its head and whack at an energy crystal atop it.

Steamworld Dig 2 will launch on the Nintendo Switch during the summer.

Northgard

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I wasn’t certain what to expect when I was invited to play Northgard. I enjoy real time strategy (RTS) games, but I tend to get bored with the standard gameplay loop of building up a big army and then pushing it to an objective. Northgard subverts all of that by being one of the first RTS games that I have played that had multiple win conditions built into it.

Players control a mighty viking clan in a quest for dominion over other clans. You can achieve that in four different ways. Domination is straightforward and requires eliminating all of the other clans on the map. Trade victories require trade and acquiring krowns (gold coins) and having active merchants. Fame victories  are all about the expansion of your territory and earning fame through various activities. Lastly, Wisdom victories can be gained by earning Lore points by assigning your villagers to be Loremasters at capturable sites on the map.

My demo was about a half hour long, but I could tell that Northgard was something special even in that short period of time.

Northard is currently available on Steam Early Access which means it is an incomplete game that is being worked on by Shiro Games. But, they expect a full release of the game to take place this fall.

Hob

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I played Hob last year was was captivated by its colorful visuals and Zelda inspired gameplay. Needless to say, I was very excited to get another chance to play the game this year.

Hob is a game where players are exploring a world that is in conflict. Technological elements are in a constant struggle with the flora and fauna of the world you are playing in. The main character has to explore this world and find his way all while dealing with this conflict and the dangers it brings with it.

I did a lot of exploration, puzzle solving, and combat in my brief demo with the game. The level design was refreshing because none of those elements stuck around so long that they got boring. I think the quality of the game will depend on whether or not they can maintain that balance over the course of the game.

Hob will be coming out later on in 2017 for PC and PS4 and I really can’t wait to see more of its secrets.

Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles

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Yonder is, essentially, a softer and gentler version of Dragon Quest Builders. I want to be clear though. That isn’t meant to be a criticism. I loved every second that spent with this game.

Players take on the role of a young boy or girl that has been shipwrecked on a, relatively, peaceful island. The goal of the game is to explore, complete quests, craft items, and farm. All of the action is lovingly rendered in the most endearing art style I have seen in a very long time. I felt like every moment I spend playing the game was like living inside of a storybook world

One of my favorite parts of the game is the farming system. You are able to craft items using the sticks, rocks, and other objects that you find throughout the world. You can then interact with a book in the corner of a farm you take over. When you do this your view of the farm changes into a grid that allows for very careful placement of the different buildings and crops. I love the neat organization of crops and other resources on grids in games. It’s part of the reason I lost so much time to Farmville on my Facebook account all those years ago.

I have been captivated by this game ever since I saw the first announcement trailer last fall. I was not disappointed with my time with it. I can imagine losing a lot of time to this game after it launches later this year on PC and PS4.

Blaster Master Zero

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I am a big fan of NES games and Blaster Master is one of the most interesting games to come from that era. It was one of the first games to combine multiple different styles of gameplay into one experience.

Blaster Master Zero by Inti Creates takes all of the “good stuff” from the original title and gives it the benefit of a fresh coat of paint. They also take advantage of more than 20 years of advances in game development.

I could tell from the jump that the game was lovingly crafted by long-time fans of the original game and its sequels. This is a very important game for like-minded fans to keep their eyes on. In fact, the game is out right now for both Nintendo Switch and Nintendo 3DS.

Graceful Explosion Machine

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Graceful Explosion Machine was a lot of fun. It is an arcade style shooter where players control a small spacecraft and navigate obstacle filled levels and try to destroy all of the enemies in them as quickly as possible.

I spoke to the developers while waiting in line to play this one and it was clear that this game was being developed by a team that had a passion for the project. All of them enjoy arcade style shooters and are excited to create one.

The biggest thing that makes this game stand out from others in its genre is the art direction. Everything is composed of simple shapes and bright colors. This helps to keep the players attention on the action as opposed to (potentially) busy visuals.

Another standout feature is that your ship only has four weapons; each of which are mapped to a different face button. The first is a simple, low damage blaster. The second is  a laser sword that rotates around your ship. The third is a powerful, continuous laser beam that does high damage. The final weapon is a barrage of homing missiles. Players need to use all of these weapons carefully to deal with waves of enemies.

I can’t wait for this game to launch on the Nintendo Switch later this month.

Snake Pass

Snake Pass was the best game I played at PAX East 2017. It features a lovably animated snake and tasks players with helping it navigate complex 3D environments. The goal is to explore the different environments and collect three colored gems that are placed in difficult to reach locations.

What makes this game truly special is the way that the snake moves. I spoke with the developers while playing my demo and they made it clear that they studied snakes to see how they move while developing the game. This means that you can’t just power forward in order to move. You have to undulate side to side in order to gather any sort of real momentum. You can also climb by wrapping yourself around different objects in the terrain.

Sumo Digital is a company known for their racing games. This development DNA was not ignored while they were working on Snake Pass. The, somehow, managed to make this cartoon snake control like it was a car. You have to undulate side to side, but while doing so you have a “gas” button and a “break” button that keep you moving. Once I got the hang of the controls I was able to race around the demo level at a rapid pace. This gives me a lot of hope for the speed running community because I am sure that some fans of this game are going to figure out how to abuse the racing mechanics and beat these levels at incredible speeds.

final fantasy xv

Final Fantasy XV Review

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Available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One
We played on Xbox One

Final Fantasy XV is a game about a long road trip taken with friends. It all starts in the most idyllic way possible. It sputters. It comes to a full stop at points. There are arguments. There are plenty of outright fights. But, it all concludes in an almost surreal way. The funny thing about it is that I can’t imagine a better analogy for my experience playing the game.

I’ve started, stopped, and restarted this review a dozen times over in the last few days because I was (and still am) having difficulty putting my feelings into words. I have been anxiously waiting for this game almost as long as I have had children. My love for the Final Fantasy franchise is well documented so this is a tough one. But, I am a professional (sort of) so here it goes.

Final Fantasy XV is by no means perfect. There is no way that a game in development for as long as it was could be. But, it is a remarkable game that stands alongside its peers. Very few people will mark this as the high point of the series, but that’s ok. XV was never meant to be the best. It was meant to be a reminder to fans (lapsed and otherwise) what Final Fantasy is all about: transformation.

Story

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Final Fantasy XV follows the adventure of Prince Noctis and his three best friends as they travel, via a sick ride called the Regalia, to his arranged marriage to the Oracle Lunafreya. This is as straightforward of a premise as you can imagine, but things don’t stay so simple very long.

(This isn’t much of a spoiler because it happens very quickly.) Noctis’s home kingdom of Lucis comes under attack very quickly and succumbs to the might of their neighbor Nifflehiem. Everything from that point forward funnels our heroes toward an epic conflict.

I won’t lie to you. The story takes some wacky turns, but I found myself legitimately interested in what was going on and what was going to happen next with every twist.

It is impossible to talk about the story without addressing the main characters. Noctis is joined on his journey by his three best friends (Gladiolus, Ignis, and Prompto). Their friendship is a focal point of everything that happens. You see how it impacts each of them and you see the stress that it puts on their friendships. The real key is that this is a group of men who truly care about each other. There is none of the obnoxious testosterone-fueled bravado that we find in other games. The fact that I was able to see men on screen that were genuine and honest with each other and their feelings was refreshing.

Gameplay

The biggest difference from previous games in the series that people will notice, aside from aesthetics, is that XV is an action RPG. They have stripped away the turned based combat from previous games and replaced it with a fast-paced battle system that requires you to warp around the battlefield and switch between a variety of weapons to help build combos on your enemies. The description I gave may make it sound chaotic, but it doesn’t take much time at all before you are racing around the battlefield like a crazy person

One theme that XV manages to reinforce through gameplay mechanics is how small and personal this journey is for Noctis and company in spite of how epic their quest is. The biggest expression of this theme comes in the idea that the game is broken down into days. You are all but forced to rest at campsites throughout the world each night. While resting you are able to bank the exp that you earned during the day and you can even have Ignis combine ingredients you found in the field to make stat buffing food items. The fact is that these adventurers on a world spanning quest to save all mankind

The Rating

Final Fantasy XV is rated T for teen. The bulk of that T rating comes from the combat. Realistic characters are participating in action-packed combat against all manner of robots and fantastic beasts. The rest of the T rating comes from some mild language.

At the end of the day, FFXV is not a game for children. It earns its T rating and parents should be confident in that.

The Take Away

Final Fantasy XV won’t go down in history as one of the best games in the series. But, it is an excellent game that is worth playing. Final Fantasy fans, especially lapsed ones, should absolutely play this game. Everyone else? This should be on your radar if you like stylish action RPGs.

Watch Dogs 2 Review

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Available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC
We played on Xbox One

I came into Watch Dogs 2 with a skeptical mind because I’ve been burned by Ubisoft hype before. Fortunately, all of my concerns faded away quickly as I was whisked away to a virtual San Francisco to live the life of a hacker vigilante. I may be finished with the game, but it has definitely left its mark on me. Watch Dogs 2 is, unquestionably, one of the best games I have played in a very long time.

The Story

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Players take on the role of Marcus Holloway as he joins the “Hacktivist” collective known as Dedsec and embarks on a crusade against a corrupt company gathering citizen data and selling it to the highest bidder (among other nefarious acts).

His crusade comes in the form of a quest for followers as he cruises around town completing tasks to impress the people of the internet. Completing tasks nets Dedsec followers who download their app and give the hackers a portion of their phone’s processing power. Eventually these huge numbers will give them the CPU power to hack into their target’s systems and bring them down.

This is a simple premise that would fall flat if the missions were not interesting. Fortunately, they more than pass muster. The missions that you take on in just the first dozen hours ofrso of the game involve such tasks as faking the delivery of a rap song to a reasonable facsimile of the pharma-bro Martin Shkreli, infiltrating a close-enough version of the church of Scientology, and stealing “Kit” and driving it on a wild rampage to help film a re-cut version of a movie trailer. In the meantime you can snap selfies in front of famous locations, race go-karts, and even do timed deliveries a la Crazy Taxi.

I felt compelled to keep plugging away at story missions long into the night more than once. I wouldn’t say that this is going to raise the bar on open world storytelling, but I  was very invested in their mission very early on. The idea of companies gathering too much intel on their customers and selling it happens under our noses right now. So seeing a group of hackers battle against it felt great. I genuinely wanted to see how it would turn out for these guys.

San Francisco

It is impossible to discuss Watch Dogs 2 without addressing the setting. This game takes place in a well rendered representation of the city of San Francisco. It isn’t a one to one rebuilding of the city in virtual form, but it includes all of the major neighborhoods and most of the major landmarks that you wouldn’t expect to see in the game.

Driving around the expansive map was impressive, and the varied environments did a great job of keeping the game from getting repetitive. I hope that the Watch Dogs 2’s success in rendering San Francisco convinces other companies to set games there. It really is a great place to play.

The Gameplay

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Watch Dogs 2 is an excellent open world game. The cheap comparison would be to try and weigh the game point by point with Grand Theft Auto. But, those comparisons really aren’t fair. First, GTA is genre-defining so nothing can really keep up with it in comparison. Second, the player’s role in the games’ narrative (Criminal vs Vigalante hero) is so different between the two games that it makes them feel like wholly separate games to me.

The core mechanic in Watch Dogs is, as it always has been, hacking. Players use their phone for virtually everything they do. You can hack just about every electrical device that you see in order to overcome challenges.

The gameplay loop of hacking through different cameras to gain access to new areas returns from the first game. But, the list of hackable objects (and the things you can do with them) has increased this time around. My favorite is the ability to hack an electric panel to short out slightly so it draws a guards attention only for you to activate a second power to deliver a non lethal shock to knock them out. There is even an option to cause some people’s phones to detonate like grenades (They must have had Galaxy phones I guess).

The true highlight of the game, however, are Marcus’s  quad-copter drone and his remote controlled “car.” These devices can be let lose at the push of a button and give Marcus greater reach than he would on foot without exposing him to bullet fire. As the game progressed I found myself relying on those devices to do all of my dirty work. I barely entered most compounds unless I was required to but by then, all the hacking had been done. I thought they would have been a distraction, but they are amazing additions. I can’t wait for future Watch Dogs games to see what other drone-type devices they can think of.

Online Multiplayer

The online multiplayer is cleverly done and helps to simulate a world full of hacktivists – each with their own motives and goals. Sometimes those goals align neatly. This results in cooperative missions where players can team up to break into some intensely guarded compounds. Sometimes those goals don’t align. That results in another player entering your game as a bounty hunter tasked with eliminating you.

The multiplayer was largely broken at launch for the game, so I was unable to try it. But, its goal was to seamlessly integrate other players into your world on a shared map of San Francisco.

The Rating

Watch Dogs 2 is rated M for mature and for good reason. You have the option to play as a non-lethal hacker, but failing to do so leads to almost GTA level shooting sprees. The language in this game is also off-the-charts bad. I heard more F-words in some cut scenes than non-F-words.

The Takeaway

Buy with confidence. Watch Dogs 2 is one of the best games of the year.

titanfall 2

Titanfall 2 Review

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Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
We played on Xbox One

Titanfall 2 is the EXO-Squad video game I have wanted to play since I was a teenager and never could. Some people might read that and think I am bashing the game for being derivative or unoriginal. But, that just isn’t the case. Titanfall 2 is a game that manages to take what was, essentially, a lifeless shell, and breath life and personality into it. I loved every minute of it. Read More

Battlefield 1 Review

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Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
We played on Xbox One

Battlefield 1 stands out amongst a crowd of sci-fi shooters by bringing gamers back to World War 1, one of the most brutal conflicts in human history. This was a huge risk on their part. Shooters have been trudging their way forward in time for years. There was no way to know if players would be willing to trade wall jumping for trench warfare. I was more than happy to make that trade. Battlefield 1 is a well-made shooter that focuses enough on authenticity that players might even learn a thing or two. Read More