apex legends

Apex Legends is the Battle Royale You’ve Been Waiting For

Posted by | Feature, Opinion, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One | No Comments

In the 2014 sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow (also known as Live Die Repeat), Tom Cruise is drafted into defending Europe from the violent alien invaders. He’s quickly killed in combat, but at the same time becomes infected with the aliens’ time loop powers. Like an action movie version of Groundhog Day, Cruise repeats the same day over and over as he goes through a montage of getting quickly, and often hilariously, killed. He eventually learns how to fight back, teams up with an awesome Emily Blunt, and saves the world.

When playing a battle royale game, I often feel like Tom Cruise in those early moments of Edge of Tomorrow. I drop down. I run around frantically. I die, mercilessly. Repeat.

But Apex Legends feels different. Not only does it have the most well-refined systems I’ve seen in the genre, but it makes me want to double down and improve my gameplay rather than throw my hands up in frustration. For the reasons I’ve listed below give Apex Legends a try, even if you’ve been entirely turned off by the explosively popular genre so far.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Most battle royale games feature a team mode where groups can join, survive, and win together. Apex Legends is built from the group up for three person squads. Teamwork in Apex Legends is easier and more enjoyable, even when playing with random strangers.

From the very start players draft their characters together, then drop into the world together. Squads should stick together – though not too close, and many of the character abilities foster teamwork and coordination, such as Lifeline’s ability to call in a supply drop, and Pathfinder’s ability to create a zipline for quick travel.

apex legends

Most importantly, squads can revive and even respawn their fellow teammates. Players enter a downed state when their health depletes and can be revived. Even if they’re killed, a teammate can grab their beacon and high tail it to the nearest respawn beacon, summoning them back to the fight. Some of my most memorable and thrilling survival stories have occurred after only one of us has been left alive to bring us back from the brink.

Should’ve Put a Ping On It

The intuitive ping system is incredibly clever. It’s the primary reason why playing with random squadmates ever has a chance of succeeding. With the press of a button, a squad mate can call out and highlight weapons, ammo, enemies, loot chests, and areas of interests. I can ping sections of my inventory to tell my squad I need ammo, body armor, or a certain weapon mod, declare an area to defend, and quickly yell out where and when I saw an enemy.

All of this is done without the need for voice chat at all. That’s particularly a huge plus for younger teens and concerned parents.

Less Players, More Action

Every match features 20 squads for 60 total players. That’s a significant departure from the 100-person matches of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite. Yet even with almost half the players, the action rarely feels big and empty. Sometimes we drop in the corner of the Swamps and never run into a person until 20 minutes later. But usually there’s always another firefight around the corner.

The diverse Canyon map is filled with military bases, shanty towns, industrial walkways, steep valleys, and open desert. The map feels like the perfect size, and strikes a great balance between moments of quiet looting, tense exploration, and explosive firefights.

apex legends

Choose Your Fighter

Apex Legends takes a page from online hero shooter Overwatch in providing several unique character classes to choose from. Like Overwatch you can’t have more than one character on your team, forcing teams to balance their preferred play style. All eight current characters bring something unique and interesting, like Bangalore’s smoke bombs, Gibraltar’s dome shield (hello, Winston!), and Bloodhound’s Predator vision. Apex Legends does a fantastic job incorporating these characters and their abilities, without deviating from the core gameplay of grabbing weapons and shooting each other.

Apex Legends has been a pleasantly addictive experience. When matches go horribly wrong, as they often do, it’s over in minutes. And it takes less time than that to cue up the next match. Wait times are non-existent, and we’ve never experienced a second of lag or server issues. Releasing a complete (and free to play!) game that works right out of the gate shouldn’t be cause for celebration, but here we are.

I’ve adored my time with Apex Legends, despite having yet to win a match. I’m still Tom Cruise in the middle of figuring everything out. I die, a lot. But repeating has never been so fun.

skylanders: imaginators

Opinion: We’re Witnessing the Death of the Toys-to-Life Genre

Posted by | Opinion, PC, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox One | No Comments

Last year Disney abruptly announced they were ending Disney Infinity after three years. Earlier this year Activision gave the foreboding announcement that they would not release a new Skylanders game this year – for the first time in six years. This week Warner Bros. confirmed that they’re ceasing development on LEGO Dimensions (though online support will remain).

At this point there are more discontinued (or on hiatus) toys-to-life games than ongoing. In the span of a year we went from most major game publishers wanting a piece of the surging toys-to-life pie, to suddenly being left with a grim outlook for the future of the genre.

The concept of “toys-to-life,” that is, physical figures with built-in Near Field Communication (NFC), began with a little known toy series called U.B. Funkeys in 2007. U.B. Funkeys was a PC game with cutesy figures designed by Mattel.

I’d never even heard of it, and it looks more like a toy with a gimmicky toys-to-life mode rather than a full-blown video game. Being PC-only appeared to cause lots of technical headaches and vastly limited sales, and it was discontinued in 2010.

The House That Spyro Built

Meanwhile Activision took a chance with developer Toys for Bob (who ironically originally pitched their toys-to-life concept to Nintendo). They used a similar concept as U.B. Funkeys, using well-made physical action figures armed with NFC readers along with a “Portal of Power” that digitally transported the figures into a vibrant game world. The entire concept was still commercially uncertain, so Activision slapped a semi-recognizable brand and character on top of it. Skylanders: Spyo’s Adventure was born.

Skylanders’ immediate success was at least partially due to the exciting novelty of the toys-to-life technology. But its staying power is owed to the quality of the figures as well as the solid, kid-friendly, cooperative gameplay. Skylanders included funny characters, simple puzzles, fast-paced action, and a light-hearted Saturday Morning Cartoon story.

toys-to-life

Every year begat a pricey new Skylanders starter pack along with several waves of figures and bonus levels. Each game introduced new types of figures or concepts (you couldn’t even jump in the first two games).

The third game, Skylanders: Swap Force, was particularly noteworthy by adding swappable figures with interchangeable top and bottom halves. In many ways Swap Force represents the peak of both physical innovation and brilliant game design. Trap Team added Pokémon-style monster catching, while the most recent game, Imaginators, let you create your own digital custom Skylanders with multiple unlockable body parts and weapons.

Activision was able to leverage the series into a full-on kid franchise, saturating the Skylanders brand from everything to paper plates to an animated series on Netflix. Skylanders became the World of Warcraft of the genre, the one game that dominated its space and dared anyone else to compete with it.

To Infinity…

Disney answered the call in 2013 with Disney Infinity, an unabashed Skylanders-like game that also used NFC figures along with a portal and 3D platformer-like gameplay. Anticipation was huge; this was basically a Skylanders game but coupled with the immense backing and popularity of Disney characters and series.

Avalanche Software produced three games in three years, each modeled after a major Disney property: Disney movies, Marvel, and Star Wars. Figures ranged from superheroes to princesses to obscure Tron characters, though there was some criticism for conforming such a wide variety of characters into a uniform art style.

toys-to-life

Unlike Skylanders, Disney Infinity’s gameplay pushed more toward a Minecraft model. Players could build their own levels and content and share them online. The community that sprang up was impressive and some of the content and level designs were amazing and creative. Unfortunately official gameplay was limited almost exclusively to the playsets. Disney made the odd decision that only characters from that franchise can play in their own playset.

Between the two game series I vastly preferred Skylanders. Skylanders’ gameplay was much more RPG-like and the combat more fun and interesting. The level designs also felt more like an actual game.

Disney Infinity’s figures all controlled too similarly and simplistically, with only major differences coming with figures like Tinkerbell who could fly, or Star Wars characters with Force powers. The user-generated content was a really neat idea, but Activision wasn’t making money off of it, they needed to sell playsets and figures. If Minecraft + Disney couldn’t end up successful, what chance does anyone have?

Enter Nintendo

We may joke that Nintendo is always a step behind the times, but when they enter a new market it’s almost always hugely successful (see mobile development, and Wii sales). Nintendo introduced amiibo figures in 2014 to immediate success. Unlike all other toys-to-life games, there wasn’t an actual game to go with the figures. Instead Nintendo uses its figures to unlock goodies in other games, such as costumes or extra levels or power ups in games like Mario Kart, Smash Bros., and Super Mario Maker.

This simple concept proved so effective that a New Nintendo 3DS was built with an NFC reader to accommodate amiibo scanning. Both the Wii U and Switch came with built-in NFC readers.

While not having a centralized game is bizarre, it’s proven effective in lowering the cost of buy-in. There’s no pricey $70 starter pack required; all you need is the appropriate Nintendo console. Nintendo’s recognizable roster of characters have proven extremely popular for collectors, despite their limited gameplay use.

toys-to-life

Yet even Nintendo’s toys-to-life beacon is beginning to dim. Nearly 25 million figures were sold in the 2015-16 fiscal year, taking full advantage of then-popular game Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U. Super Smash Bros. used amiibo figures as RPG-like fighters you could level up.

But the first three quarters of the next fiscal year (ending March 2017) saw only 6.5 million amiibo units sold. No game since Super Smash Bros. has been able to effectively use amiibo figures beyond simply unlocking a costume or perk.

Many complaints have surrounded amiibo as little more than physical DLC you can buy for Nintendo games. There’s also the sadly typical Nintendo frustrations regarding limited supply. Amiibo figures are still popular (millions of units sold is nothing to scoff at), but without better game tie-ins like Smash Bros., the future doesn’t look good.

Everything Isn’t Awesome

LEGO Dimensions’ cancellation is equally upsetting, though probably the least surprising. Warner Bros. and Traveler’s Tales (TT Games) have been successful making fun, cooperative, family-friendly LEGO video games for over a decade. Creating a toys-to-life version, with actual LEGO toys, feels like a natural evolution.

LEGO Dimensions was released in 2015. It launched with a starter pack that took advantage of the popular LEGO Movie along with Warner Bros’ access to various movie franchises, everything from Lord of the Rings to The Goonies. They planned on a three-year cycle of expansion pack content. That’s a long time for an increasingly aging game that still supported last-gen hardware.

They would make it to the end of year two before the announcement hit this week. Figures and sets weren’t selling as well as they’d hoped, and any parent is all too familiar with how expensive LEGO sets run.

toys-to-life

They banked heavily on blockbuster movie tie-ins, which didn’t quite pan out with big sets like Ghostbusters. I also question the target audience for LEGO Dimensions. Their tie-in franchises ran the gamut from The Simpsons to 80s stuff (The A-Team, really?) to modern kiddie cartoons. I can see kids being interested in Batman and Harry Potter, but Knight Rider and Gremlins?

LEGO Dimensions’ wide-net approach has proven unsustainable, and TT Games will return to making regular LEGO games, such as the upcoming LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2.

Toys-to-Death

The future of the genre looks bleak. The only new AAA toys-to-life game on the horizon is Starlink: Battle for Atlas, which was announced during Ubisoft’s E3 press conference. It will feature buildable spaceships that will spring to digital life by attaching directly to the controller. It has a tentative Fall 2018 release date, but Ubisoft is very aware of the current market of toys-to-life games, and there’s a chance this game won’t even see the light of day.

Not all is lost. For a more indie option you have Lightseekers, which was successfully Kickstarted last year and launched earlier this year on iOS and Android.

Lightseekers uses bluetooth technology instead of requiring a portal. It has a very Skylanders aesthetic but with fully articulated figures and AR cards that can be scanned in game or played physically. Both cards and figures are actually optional, and the mobile game is completely free to play. Only the two initial launch figures are available, however, and there’s no telling whether Lightseekers can ever reach the sales numbers of the once titans of the genre.

Amiibo figures are still being produced and selling millions, and Skylanders technically hasn’t been canceled yet. It’s entirely possible Skylanders will pull an Assassin’s Creed and shift way from an annual release schedule. Meanwhile season two of Skylanders Academy just hit Netflix, and a third season is in development for next year.

Toys-to-life games are an intriguing blend of toy and game and can be a lot of fun, particularly for families. I’ve enjoyed playing both Skylanders and Disney Infinity with my young daughter (she’s only recently discovering LEGOs). I particularly enjoy the progression of leveling up Skylanders figures over years of games.

The toys-to-life genre offers the rare kind of game that both of us can enjoy equally and excel at, despite our vastly different gameplay levels and experiences.

I’m very saddened and worried to see all these death notices pile up. It reminds me of another genre that was mined, exploited, and died all too quickly just a few years ago – rhythm games with physical instruments. Like that genre, toys-to-life requires pricey initial buy-ins and upkeep, and physical goods are not exactly cheap for companies to produce. I was hoping game publishers learned their lesson about over saturating a lucrative, but expensive market. Time will whether toys-to-life games will meet a similar wistful end, or find the right balance to remain a welcoming avenue for family-friendly gaming.

rapture

Returning to Rapture as a Mom

Posted by | Opinion, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One | No Comments

Anyone who knows me knows that the original BioShock is my favorite game of all time. I doubt I need to explain its appeal, but let’s just say it’s the perfect combination of story and gameplay that I’ve ever seen and it has one of the best, if not the best, stories in a game. If you haven’t played it you should. Like, right now.

Me with my probably toxic Adam extractor.

Me with my probably toxic Adam extractor.

One of the things that was always striking to me about the game was the elements of the Little Sisters and their Big Daddy protectors. I’ve long been a lover of creepy-cute anything. so the Little Sisters were right up my alley. I even dressed up as one for Halloween one year, complete with Adam extractor that my husband and I hand-made. We broke up a bunch of those neon glow bracelets and put them is a small jar. In hindsight, that was probably not a completely non-toxic thing to do, but, hey. It looked cool.

So needless to say, when I heard about the BioShock Collection, which includes remastered versions of all of the games and their single-player DLC, I was ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to go back to that fascinating place called Rapture. As I started up the game and went through the opening sequence, I was literally bouncing with excitement. You know how some older things don’t quite hold up when you see them later? BioShock wasn’t like that. I had the same experience of excitement and then awe as Andrew Ryan’s speech ended to reveal the first images of Rapture.

I took my time and slowly explored through the first area of the game leading up to the introduction of the Little Sisters. I remembered this part because it was one of the coolest moments in a game full of cool moments. The first time I played the game years ago, I watched in fascination as the little girl repeatedly stabbed a corpse to extract the Adam. My reaction this time around was different and not really what I was expecting.

Just like with everything else in the world, I was now looking at this display through a mom lens. And not only a mom, but a mom of a little girl who is now about the same age as the Little Sisters look to be in the game. I wanted to run to her and pick her up and tell her how what she was doing was wrong. I was physically in distress. I think only mothers can know what this means, but when your child cries, you are physically uncomfortable. It feels like your arms and chest are going to jump right out of your body. But the distress only got worse.

WARNING – The video below shows some graphic gameplay from BioShock. It illustrates the action of saving a Little Sister.

I couldn’t run to the girl like I wanted and needed to because the game makes you watch a sequence where someone hits the girl and then she screams to summon her Big Daddy. It was hard to sit there and watch helplessly as the scene played out. For the first time, I felt a huge amount of empathy for the faceless hulking beast that is a Big Daddy. If anyone were to hit my daughter I too would want to bang them up against a wall and stab them through the stomach with a huge arm drill.

Later, when the game introduces you to the gameplay element of rescuing or harvesting the Little Sisters, there was no question what would happen. Even before I was a mom, I couldn’t bring myself to harvest them, even when I was attempting a second playthrough to get the alternate ending. In this part as well, the game kept me from responding the way I would have liked. As the little girl cowered in the corner, I didn’t want to go up to her and grab her. I wanted to bend my knee, hold out my hand and tell her it was going to be ok. But, regardless of your intentions, you roughly pick up the girl. Seeing her push against my hand and say, “No! No! No no!” was another moment that hit hard. Anyone with a preschooler hears that a lot. Hearing it in a little girl’s voice made it all the worse.

But then the stress finally stops. You can rub her face and head and she turns into a normal little girl who thanks you for saving her. That part of the gameplay always touched me, but this time around, everything was turned up a notch. I haven’t yet made it to the Little Sister Orphanage, but now I know I probably need to expect some new reactions there as well. The seeds of anger toward Dr. Tenenbaum for doing this to little girls have already been planted. I know I have to act as an ally to her later in the game, and I’m not sure how that’s going to play out in my brain.

But does all of this change my love of this game? Not at all. If anything I love it more. It’s managed to stir up such visceral emotions, and no game or movie or any other type of media has ever come close to doing that for me in the same way. Even after all of these years, BioShock continues to surprise me and I think that’s a testament to just how good of a game it is.