DIABLO 3: REAPER OF SOULS REVIEW


Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls feels less like the series finale of your favorite TV show and more like an exciting one-off episode. And as far as expansions go, that’s totally fine. If you’ve been playing D3 again in anticipation of all the new content, you might be left wanting. But for those who’ve lost touch with Diablo 3, Reaper of Souls polishes the gameplay to addictive kill-and-loot perfection, making this the most fun the game’s ever been.

Since you killed Diablo (yet again) at the end of Diablo 3, Reaper of Souls pits you against a new villain: Malthael, a fallen archangel who sees humanity as a scourge upon creation. As the Nephalem, aka the people’s champ, you’ve got to fight back against Malthael’s army of reapers and their raised minions in the added Act 5, starting with the burning city of Westmarch. While hacking and slashing your way through creepy cemeteries, overgrown swamplands, mystic ruins, and otherworldly battlefields, you’ll appreciate all the grisly little details (like alleyways overflowing with dead bodies) and the abnormal color palette of browns, purples, and deep blues. Act 5 may only have a handful of new environment types, but the majority of them feel markedly different from the Diablo 3 vistas you’ve no doubt played to death at this point.

 

 

If you’re looking for an epic tale concluding the war between angels and demons, Reaper of Souls’ plot will be a bit of a let-down. By chatting with your followers from the preceding game, you’ll gain access to nifty, Loyalty-style missions that further their subplots. Unfortunately, these feel annoyingly unresolved, even if they do offer a welcome bit of backstory. The overarching plot about Malthael feels similarly serialized: you get some interesting insight into the Angel of Death’s mentality, but Act 5′s ending comes off as abrupt and inconclusive. With all the cliffhangers, it feels like no attempts were made to hide the fact that–if everything goes according to plan–this expansion is just one of many. Hey, at least there’s a boss fight against a bazooka-wielding fallen angel along the way.

While the additional Act is entertaining enough, the new Crusader class is easily Reaper of Soul’s biggest strength. This platemail-clad knight engages hellspawn from melee or mid-range–but whichever you choose, the Crusader’s focus is always on fighting huge groups of enemies at once, soaking up damage with your shield before using sweeping AoE abilities to annihilate your foes. Smiting demons with the Fist of the Heavens or clearing out a room with Blessed Hammers made from holy energy looks and feels righteous, and the Crusader’s combination of tanky fortitude, utility spells, and ally-saving abilities make it a nice addition to Diablo 3′s roster.

On top of the Crusader’s emboldening playstyle, they’re also some of the most well-written characters in the game. Both the female and male Crusader voice actors are superb, portraying warriors with a deep-set loyalty to a religious faith without being overzealous or fanatical. They’re empathetic without feeling soft, and have a penchant for making witty observations that genuinely made me laugh. Listening to the Crusader’s dialogue across all the Acts (yes, it’s more than just Act 5) is a treat, and their savvy remarks sound decidedly more self-aware and relatable than the borderline-ridiculous seething of the Demon Hunter or the Wizard’s haughty quips.

Once you’ve conquered Act 5′s six hours of story content, the newfangled Adventure Mode is there to prolong your enjoyment of Diablo 3′s incredibly fun core gameplay. Instead of sending you down a linear, plot-driven path, Adventure Mode cuts out nearly every story aspect and assigns you with Den of Evil-esque quests, encouraging you to jump around the environments and kill monsters however you so choose. To spice things up, you’ll encounter Cursed Chests, timed mini-challenges that provide a nice spike in difficulty apart from all the elite monster packs. Between the reworked difficulty system (a game-changing improvement that we discussed in our updated Diablo 3 review) and high density of enemies in Adventure Mode, there’s never a dull moment.

Topping off Adventure Mode are the Nephalem Rifts, randomized gauntlets that crank the chaos meter all the way up (in a good way). These dungeons provide a kind of exhilarating, unpredictable fun, where daunting challenge (an assortment of crazy hard bosses and elite packs) mixes with thrilling empowerment (new Pylon shrines that provide absurd temporary buffs like max movespeed or 400 percent damage). As a whole, Adventure Mode feels like the perfect facilitator of Diablo’s addictive brand of action: getting loot so you can kill monsters quicker so you can get more cool loot.

And there’s cool loot aplenty. The Loot 2.0 system (which affects both Diablo 3 and Reaper of Souls) is worlds better than the previous arrangement. Every drop feels worthwhile, from the formerly crappy grey and white weapons that now serve as basic crafting materials to the exhilarating new Legendary items, which come packed with some build-changing buffs. Upgrades come along at a much better cadence; you’re given just enough time to get attached to your best items before finding even better loot, so you won’t suffer from new gear fatigue. It’s astounding how much this relatively small change enhances Diablo 3, so that playing at any level always feels rewarding and engaging. Less game-changing–but still appreciated–is Myriam, the new Mystic crafter who ensures you can enjoy your gear to the fullest, letting you tweak some stats or alter its appearance to something that fits with whatever outfit ensemble you’ve got going on.

Attributing a score to Reaper of Souls is tricky. It’s a game that I’d highly recommend to anyone, but from a cost analysis perspective, it feels like some of the expansion’s standout aspects (Loot 2.0, rejiggered difficulty, and the axing of the auction house) are already available to those that own the base game. That said, I put around 30 hours into the game on Blizzard’s test servers, knowing full well all my progress would be wiped–and I’m still psyched to level a Crusader all over again when the expansion goes live. No, Reaper of Souls doesn’t deliver the finality that Diablo 2: Lords of Destruction did–but when Diablo 3 is this fun to play, more content automatically becomes a good thing.

 

inFamous: Second Son / PlayStation 4


Seattle is a police state. Department of Unified Protection director Brooke Augustine has set her fascist government organization loose on the God-fearing populace, abusing her power to round up those with mutant abilities. Unmanned drones patrol the skies, invasive checkpoints detain suspected bio-terrorists, and high-tech surveillance cameras monitor everyone’s actions. It’s a city built upon fear. The citizens willingly accept their new overlords because so many are scared of their friends and neighbors who are now imbued with superpowers. So when protagonist Delsin Rowe finds that he is able to absorb others’ powers, he enters a society ready to pour their hatred upon him. Do you fight those who loathe you? Or free Seattle from the chains of an oppressive dictatorship?

The world of Infamous: Second Son plays upon the recent changes that have taken place within our own society. By offering an exaggerated viewpoint of the safety-over-freedom measures that are now a part of our daily lives, we see how dangerous such a path could be, and how few people rise up if their lives remain comfortable. It’s an intriguing setup, but one that fails to stir a strong emotional response. The binary morality doesn’t show a balanced angle that could have made you sympathize with the government’s actions, even if you disagree with how those rules are enacted, and that one-sided viewpoint turns what should be a hard-hitting situation into one that’s difficult to relate to.

You see the situation through the eyes of Delsin. His youth was spent spray painting cartoonish doodles while avoiding the wrath of his older brother, Reggie, a police officer with a firm belief in what’s right and what’s illegal. Delsin’s immaturity is immediately an annoyance as he spouts terrible one-liners while shirking any responsibility. During the first hour of Second Son, you’re stuck watching cutscene after cutscene establish the fiction, and that uneven pacing feels like shackles preventing you from exploring this gorgeous world. However, once you’re set loose in Seattle, the narrative problems that haunted the early moments fade into the background as you flex your elemental muscles.

Once you’re set loose in Seattle, the narrative problems that haunted the early moments fade into the background.

Delsin has a run-in with the escaped conduit Hank, who has smoke coursing through his veins. That chance meeting transforms Delsin from just another forgotten screw-up into the potential savior of a beautiful metropolis. Through the power of smoke, you can turn into a translucent wisp at a moment’s notice. Float through air vents to propel yourself from the rain-drenched streets to the striking rooftops or drift like an ethereal shadow among the citizens compelled to fear you. The empowering sense of freedom worms its way into your heart once you realize your unbelievable potential. The slow-paced, methodical movement that defined the two earlier Infamous games has been stripped away here, replaced by a frenetic speed that has you rushing through this open world like a sentient lightning bolt.

Fights are structured for you to take advantage of your extraordinary abilities. Snipers perch upon billboards, armored vans carry reinforcements, and helicopters patrol the skies. Troops have the power of cement to complement their standard arsenal. They construct concrete walls and dive upon you with deadly might, so standing still is an easy way for you to meet a quick end. So you show off your quick feet, drifting into and out of fights, peppering aggressors with flaming missiles while you dance just out of their deadly strikes. Take too much damage, and your view becomes oversaturated while an angelic voice scores the soundtrack of your death. Unlike in previous Infamous games, your health regenerates over time, so knowing when to seek shelter and when to stay aggressive forces you to fight thoughtfully.

Second Son has a binary morality system that mirrors the black-and-white decision making from the previous games. If you’re a callous jerk, for instance, you can choose to forsake your Native American heritage to avoid punitive measures from Augustine. If you’d rather sleep with a sound conscience, take responsibility for your actions so your tribe doesn’t suffer. Without a moral gray area, these choices filter reality through a cartoonish prism where only pure good and unadulterated evil exist. Though these extreme decisions feel totally disconnected from reality, the manner in which this dichotomy exists within the framework of combat adds serious weight to your every action.

The empowering sense of freedom worms its way into your heart once you realize your unbelievable potential.

Delsin earns a single-use, screen-clearing attack no matter which side of the morality coin you fall on. When you play as a hero, you must tread with a light touch. You need to subdue enemies with smoke handcuffs instead of killing them off, and make sure you direct your attacks away from ordinary citizens. If you fail to follow these basic rules, your chain breaks, and your chance to use your most powerful attack disappears. On the villainous side, chaos is the key to earning that most treasured of prizes. Not only must you kill every attacker, but you must do so as quickly as possible. If you spend too much time between conquests, your multiplier vanishes, so you must act as aggressively as possible, indiscriminately exterminating anyone who moves.

Such opposing play styles better communicated who my Delsin was than the many tired cutscenes that encompass the rest of the narrative. During my first playthrough, I was as good as possible, so I fought with a methodical, thoughtful air that made me consider each flaming missile that I lobbed. I used restraint. When my health diminished, I hid in the shadows so as not to succumb to the angry forces. After a hectic victory, I would look upon the battlefield with wry satisfaction. My enemies lay prone before me, chained to the ground, left to think about the path they had chosen. I was both victorious and righteous. The citizenry recognized my efforts, and celebrated me when I walked the streets. I was a hero in action and word, and their fears of the unknown slowly dissipated.

It was during my second time through that I took the evil route and realized the extent of my extraordinary powers. No longer did I hold back. When an armored van would arrive, I would immediately toss missiles toward it, unconcerned about the collateral damage that would result. Overwhelmed enemies would surrender, desperate for respite, and as they walked toward me with arms raised above their heads, I would maniacally laugh as I lit their heads on fire. When bullets pierced me from every direction, I would grow angry, becoming even more reckless as I desperately tried to fill my kill quota. No one was safe when my Delsin was around. And the citizens who were taught to fear me yelled hateful remarks as I walked through the streets. The dumb ones, at least. I killed my share of loose-lipped normals.

Combat strikes a happy balance between the slow-paced affairs of the first Infamous and the overly chaotic endeavors of Infamous 2. Second Son offers speed with a purpose. So fine-tuned are your actions that you move with blinding speed and yet are always aware of your surroundings. Ensuring the action stays hectic without becoming overbearing is an extraordinary accomplishment, so much so that I happily played through twice only to still remain hungry for more. As I sprinted up the sides of buildings and called in explosive strikes, Second Son felt less like another Infamous and more like a new entry in the Prototype franchise. It’s so fast, so frenetic, and so gloriously over the top that it makes the old days of Cole McGrath slowly climbing buildings seem like a distant memory.

The citizens who were taught to fear me yelled hateful remarks as I walked through the streets.

Delsin gains access to more powers beyond the smoke you start off with, and each transforms both the action and locomotion in interesting ways. You might employ a slow-motion effect to corral your enemies in a precise manner, or mix stealth into your explosive encounters to keep enemies guessing, and such twists ensure that each showdown keeps you thinking up new tactics as you revel in the destructive glory. Sadly, the powers don’t branch in interesting ways depending on your moral choices, so though combat plays out in different ways, the weapons you use are nearly identical.

Missions present scenarios that urge you to fight in inventive ways. The myriad ways in which you flex your combat prowess left me glued to the screen as I eagerly overcame every roadblock in my way. Bosses mirror the brilliance of the normal forays by compelling you to move with speed and precision as you mount a hellacious counterattack. Fights stretch on longer than I expected, but instead of being tedious wars of attrition, they instead kept me riveted as I tried to perfect my craft. Standing up to my overpowered foes for these long battles felt like a victory well earned, and I was happy with the assortment of bosses on offer through the course of this adventure.

Second Son has top-notch combat that expertly melds substance with style. But despite the speed that separates this from previous games in the franchise, there’s a feeling of familiarity that’s impossible to shake. The Seattle in Second Son offers a stark contrast to the direction recent open-world games have taken. This is not a living, breathing world that you inhabit. Rather, it’s a playground for you to go nuts in. The people who populate the world exist only for your benefit, so it never feels like a real city. It’s an anachronistic return to what sandbox games used to be, and represents an approach that I still enjoy more than the serious options that populate store shelves. Still, I couldn’t help yearning for more concrete improvements to what I’ve already experienced. The cutting-edge visuals are laid over a decade-old formula that is still fun though sadly showing its age.

That certainly didn’t prevent me from getting 100 percent on both a good and an evil playthrough. Side missions nicely complement your story efforts so you have plenty of reason to roam if you want to spend more time in pristine Seattle. Second Son is not the tedious collect-a-thon that many open-world games are. Extra activities are clearly labeled on the map, so instead of wandering aimlessly around the rainy streets, you focus on maximizing your enjoyment. My favorite detour was spray painting inspiring messages on walls. Sure, the act of tilting the motion-enabled controller at the stencils was hardly thrilling, but seeing what artistic propaganda Delsin cooked up was always a treat.

The view from above is as dizzying as it is breathtaking.

 

Creating graffiti isn’t the only way an unusual control scheme is used. During context-sensitive situations, you must manipulate the touchpad, and though this sounds incredibly gimmicky, it actually added to my immersion. Swiping to open a door to free those suspected of being conduits engaged me more than pushing a button could, as did holding my thumbs firmly on the pad as Delsin grabbed a generator he was trying to destroy. Employing controls different from the norm is always a tricky endeavor, and Sucker Punch did a great job of ensuring these little moments added to the experience rather than distracting from your actions.

Second Son focuses on pure enjoyment. It communicates that through the excellent combat that forces you to concoct crazy tactics to overthrow the invading forces. It draws you in further through its incredible visuals that not only hint at the PlayStation 4′s impressive power, but employ a sensible artistic touch that makes Seattle a place you want to explore. It uses a complementary score to underline dramatic moments, and the sound effects pop with flair. And yet, for all of the elements in which Second Son excels, the narrative fails to carry its share of the weight. Still, don’t become mired in the negativity as Delsin so often does. Instead, just laugh at the cheesy dialogue and chortle at how extreme the morality system is. Second Son is a great game that knows exactly what it is, and sucks you in with its unfiltered fun.inFamousSecondSonPS4-4

DARK SOULS 2 REVIEW


Reviewed on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360

→ MARCH 10, 2014 Dark Souls II feels like playing baseball with a familiar, worn-in, comfortable mitt, only the rules of the sport have been slightly tweaked. Anyone worried that the sequel might rein back on the difficulty in favor of targeting a wider audience can sleep easy tonight – Dark Souls II is every bit as punishing, demanding, and ultimately rewarding as its 2011 predecessor. Its new ideas for both single-player exploration and helping and tormenting others in multiplayer don’t always quite click, but enough do to make this an exceptional game and an irresistible challenge.

As a guy who earned both the “To Link the Fire” and “Dark Lord” endgame Achievements in the original Dark Souls, I have no shame in admitting that Dark Souls II put me down hundreds of times throughout the massive, 60-hour journey. But like the original, no death was ever in vain. Each moment of failure taught me more about how Dark Souls II works that helped me get better. From learning to exploit enemy attack patterns to picking up the signs of environmental traps, the high difficulty almost never felt insurmountable.

I say “almost” because developer From Software went a little too far with a penalty that decreases your max HP every time you die.This can be counteracted by using a Human Effigy, but those items are few and far between in the early half of the campaign. While undoubtedly a hardcore feature, I found it frustrating because it slightly stifled my urge to explore the world with a fear of being too harshly penalized for failure.

But I pushed through and was rewarded for it, because the sprawling and diverse world of Dark Souls II proves to be ripe for non-linear exploration. One of my favorite elements here is that you always have at least a handful of different routes through the world at your disposal. Stuck at haunted dock full of fire-wielding marauders? Well, you can work your way down a well and find a tomb full of talking rats. Can’t get past a particularly tricky boss? Maybe head down another path to the Shaded Woods instead, and come back once you’ve leveled up.

The world of Drangelic is massive and filled with a wide variety of different locales. You’ll travel between crumbling seaside kingdoms to marshes layered with thick coats of poison to what feels like the bowels of hell itself. While the variety in places to fight and explore is great, the world of Dark Souls II lacks a certain cohesion that was present in the original. 2011′s depiction of Lordran felt it made sense in a geographic sense — no matter how fantastical the setting got, it all seemed to fit together naturally. With the variety here and the ability to fast travel on a whim, Dark Souls II feels more like a large collection of levels than one natural single world.

Despite this schism, it’s definitely a nice world to look at. Dark Souls II’s updated engine emphasizes the role of lighting in exploration. The game looks gorgeous when you’re roaming around outside in a naturally lit area, or carrying around a torch. At any bonfire, you can choose to remove your shield in favor of lighting a torch. Not only does having a flame in your hand illuminate dark corners, but some enemies will cower in fearbefore your light. A choice that makes such a visible impact is cool, but oddly enough, the torch creates a strange tradeoff. Do you want to play it safe and carry a shield, or risk death and create a more visually interesting experience?

But these lighting conundrums don’t take away from just how great it feels to play Dark Souls II. It builds upon the challenge, scope, and mystery of the original in so many different impressive ways.

One of the biggest changes to the way this world works is the expanded fast-travel system. While fast travel is available in original, you don’t unlock it until well over halfway through. In Dark Souls II, fast travel between any bonfire you’ve kindled is unlocked right from the get-go. I can’t emphasize how great it is to be able to hop around the map at my leisure. The one place it’s counterproductive is when you have to warp back to the hub area whenever you want to exchange souls for stat upgrades. That irritating and unnecessary step leads to a good chunk of wasted time. Some might like the fact that it feels like a throwback to the setup of the original Demon’s Souls, but it definitely felt like one of those “two steps forward, one step back” moments.

Oh, and remember how awful the frame rate got back in the original when you entered Blighttown? Dark Souls II runs at a steady 30 frames per second throughout the entire campaign without a hiccup. Even in areas brimming with enemies and environmental interactions, the game never slows down, meaning that you’ll never have anyone to blame for a “You Died” screen other than yourself.

Linking up with other players online changes the dynamics of play in some really interesting and challenging new ways. Dark Souls II builds on the same excellent foundation of choosing whether you want to invade other players’ games and troll them with nightmares, or take the saintly route and assist them in particularly tough battles.

The role of Covenants is also expanded and made good use of for multiplayer. For instance, joining the Rat Covenant gave me the run of an ancient tomb, including control of where to place poison pools, enemy rats, and other devious booby traps for the next non-Rat Covenant player that happens by to deal with. Think Tecmo’s Deception, and you’re pretty close to the new dynamics that From Software has created here. It’s an extremely satisfying way to express my inner evil genius.

Combat this time around is similar to the original – a strong emphasis is placed on patience, learning enemy tells, and being able to block or dodge at an instant’s notice. Minor tweaks are present – magic feels a bit underpowered this time around, and the timing necessary for parrying feels more strict – but fighting through the world is still an immensely satisfying experience. Every encounter is a miniature puzzle in of itself, and the enemies in Dark Souls II are some of the strongest stuff From Soft’s ever produced. Mummified knights who can actually guard and parry provide stiff early-game challenges. Massive armored turtles slowly stomp towards you with menace, forcing you to use your agility to combat their raw strength. And giant trolls with smaller creatures riding atop them necessitate keeping your distance and quick, calculated strikes. It’s chock full of challenge and variety.

Iconic bosses also provide a ton of memorable moments of pain and regret that eventually become triumph. They don’t have quite the same impact as those in the original Dark Souls, but to be fair, that’s probably because I was prepared for the kind of challenge they were going to throw at me. There are certainly standouts. The Mirror Knight, for example, is an amazingly tough battle set on a gorgeous tower, and features some super exciting uses of multiplayer and New Game Plus. They’re fantastic surprises I won’t spoil for you.

PLANTS VS. ZOMBIES: GARDEN WARFARE REVIEW [UPDATE]


[UPDATE 2/27/14 - See below for information on Xbox One server issues.] Changing genres mid-franchise is a tough sell, especially when you’re taking a popular series and saying “screw it, we’re making it a shooter!” Popcap’s Plants vs. Zombies is the latest to make the leap, and arguably the strangest example yet; Garden Warfare outright ditches the tactical gameplay of the original for large-scale multiplayer gunfights. No longer are you planting Bonk Choy and standing back as it clobbers zombies–you’re in the thick of it, firing peas from your pea shooter mouth and sniping zombies with the Cactus’s long-range shots. And though there are some strange design decisions and balance issues, the resulting shooter is charming, enjoyable, and wholly worthy of the Plants vs. Zombies name.

Whereas the PvZ of the past was a lightweight tower defense series, Garden Warfare is a class-based third-person shooter, with plants and zombies going to war in suburban areas with guns, seeds, rockets, and petals. It’s a much more action-oriented experience, obviously, but the core of the franchise–the delightful struggle between plants and zombies–is pleasantly intact, and held up by strong core gameplay that’s enjoyable in its lunacy.

Garden Warfare lacks a single-player campaign of any kind, instead doubling down on a trio of cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes. Each dips into the same five rural levels, repurposed to scratch a different multiplayer itch, and though none are all that outstanding, they’re enjoyable in their own right. Vanquish (Team Deathmatch) and Gardens & Graveyards (Control Point/Rush Mode) are polished and engaging, and take advantage of the idiosyncrasies of the PvZ universe in 12-on-12 battles. While Vanquish doesn’t deviate from the team deathmatch archetype, G&G allows the vegetation side to defend its points with potted plants, while the zombies can spawn undead AI to help swarm the enemy’s gardens. This minor change makes the already large-scale battles feel even more massive, and gives you additional control over the mayhem.

Garden Ops flies closest to traditional Plants vs. Zombies gameplay, with a team of four plants fighting off increasingly difficult waves of zombies and battling the occasional boss wave. Sure, it’s just Gears’ increasingly prevalent Horde mode, but the premise translates perfectly into the PvZ universe. Though it lacks the scale of the 24-player skirmishes, the more intimate setup and focus on co-op make for engaging gameplay–and the ability to fortify your base with potted plants is a clever tip of the hat to the franchise’s roots (pun not intended but, wow, that worked out well). Each multiplayer level has a few locations to start the waves from, too, making up for the otherwise paltry list of multiplayer maps.

The Plant and Zombie factions each feature four unique, playable classes, and they all come with a trio of special abilities that help them stand out. While there are some that are blatantly better than the rest, they all have their own place on the battlefield–from the high-damage Zombie All-Star (who can kick explosive zombies, dash, and spawn tackling dummies) to the healing Sunflower (who can fire beams of solar light when she’s not healing her allies). There’s a good deal of asymmetry to it as well, creating a fun dynamic between the sides and making for chaotic bouts. It also lends itself to some balance problems–good luck finding anything as powerful as the one-hit-kill Chomper on the zombie side. Seriously, that guy’s a dick.

 

These eight classes (and the ability to customize them) is the most surprisingly deep part of Garden Warfare, and adds depth to the otherwise lightweight shooter. Every character has cosmetic slots that can be outfitted with a number of items, letting you don sunglasses, helmets, facial hair, oven mitts, and other random gear to change your class’s look. There are also entirely different characters you can unlock that not only totally overhaul the character’s appearance, but switches up their play-style as well. Sure, strapping a beard onto the Scientist is cool, but it’s even more exciting when you can get a totally new character skin that swaps his weapon for a telekinetic dolphin. There are even passive upgrades that can be unlocked as well, making for a huge amount of content to discover and plenty of reasons to continue playing.

New cosmetic gear, potted plants, deployable zombies, and other items are found via booster packs, which are purchased using in-game currency (at launch there aren’t any microtransactions). Yeah, rewards could technically just be doled out for successful play, but locking them behind booster packs makes them significantly more exciting. It’s a psychological trick and it works–I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t admit to playing a few extra matches just to get the slightly more expensive pack to see what was inside (in case you’re wondering, it was a few plants, a pair of goggles for the soldier, and one of six pieces needed to unlock a new Sunflower skin).

There’s nothing groundbreaking about Garden Warfare, but beneath the absurd premise there’s a clever, polished shooter with heart–even if it’s held back by balance issues and a lack of maps. Whether you have a dozen friends you want to play Gardens & Graveyards with or a small group to grind booster packs in Garden Ops, there’s a lot to like in Popcap’s first shooter. Wow, I really didn’t expect to ever write “Popcap’s first shooter” in a review.

Fast & Furious 6: Film Review


Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson and Paul Walker return for the sixth installment in the Universal’s action franchise, which is already prepping a seventh film slated for next summer.

“So this is worth billions, huh?” queries Vin Diesel‘s big-muscled hotshot driver to Dwayne Johnson‘s even bigger-muscled federal agent as he delivers the object they’ve spent the bulk of Fast & Furiouslooking for. “Name your price,” Johnson replies to conclude what can only have been an in-joke by those responsible for a series that, through five films, has grossed $1.5 billion and still looks to be gaining speed globally. This new entry will only add mightily to the good fortunes of Universal’s biggest franchise; no matter how silly and outlandish the action gets — and it does become ridiculous — it also delivers the goods its audience expects, with the added bonus of the return of Michelle Rodriguez. In the spirit of striking while the iron’s hot, it’s no surprise that Fast & Furious 7 is already in pre-production with an announced released date of next July.

You’ve got to feel for screenwriter Chris Morgan and directorJustin Lin, who have been on board for the last four installments and each time are faced with the challenge of coming up with ever-bigger action set pieces comparable to those in Bond films and comic book spectaculars, but with the proviso that they must always feature cars. The vehicular cast is this time joined by an enormous army tank and a jet airplane that keeps charging down a runway for takeoff for what seems like seven or eight minutes, but no matter; if it stays on the ground, the F&F crew can deal with it.

The original characters in the 12-year-old franchise know about cars and not a whole lot else, although, based on their exploits in Rio two years ago, they and their newly acquired cohorts have become incredibly rich, able to live lives of leisure almost anywhere they wish around the world except the States, which would like to see them in the slammer.

Aside from money, what this band of SoCal misfits can claim (and does, repeatedly) is an ad hoc sense of family, and the easy familiarity among the cast members and between actors and audience plays an important part in the series’ success. Scruffily attractive at first and eventually more multi-cultural than Benetton, the clan immediately started breaking up — Diesel didn’t even return for 2 Fast 2 Furious, and it wouldn’t have been a big surprise to see the franchise just fold up after that series-worst entry. But the four original main leads — Diesel, Paul Walker, Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster – are finally all back for this one, along with numerous other latecomers, most notably Johnson, their lawman adversary in Rio who this time comes to them with a deal.

It seems a generic British mercenary terrorist named Shaw (Luke Evans) is one component away from completing a weapons arsenal that will threaten the world as we know it. So who’s at the top of the list among all international crime-fighters to bust this guy? No contest. Snatching up Diesel’s Dom from his love nest in the Canary Islands and Walker’s Brian from the domesticity of fatherhood with Brewster’s Mia, who’s sidelined most of the time here with a baby, Johnson’s blunt-spoken Luke Hobbs offers the team a deal they can’t refuse: Nail Shaw and they’re all pardoned.

Like many villains these days, Shaw’s skill-set embraces two realms, high-tech weaponry and martial arts. Far more importantly, however, he’s a great driver, escaping from his first encounter with the Americans in a military-style Formula 1 race car through the streets of London. To be sure, more high-speed chases follow, but they’re generally not top-grade; they’re cut too fast, the camera set-ups don’t provide a sense of maximum speed, the angles don’t always mesh well and the frequent nocturnal settings obscure the view. By contrast, some of the fighting and martial arts stuff featuring Diesel, Johnson, Shea Whigham as Shaw’s strongman and series newcomer Gina Carano(Haywire) aren’t bad.

Plot-wise, the main point of interest is how Rodriguez’s Letty, once thought dead, is worked back into the action. With no memory of her old friends or happened to her, she initially turns up as part of Shaw’s evil team and even shoots Dom, who endeavors to reawaken her to her past. This plot thread comes off well enough and sets the character up for future adventures along with the high-living Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Han (Sung Kang), Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Gisele (Gal Gadot).

One new element in the series is its sense of high-living. These were low-end working-class characters to begin with but now, with $100 million socked away, they’ve entered the world of expensive electronics, private jets and fancy international destinations. The location of a quick street race epilogue is Tokyo, wherein the identity is revealed of the British action icon who will clearly be joining the series for the next installment.

Opens: May 17 (U.K.), May 24 (U.S.) (Universal)
Production: Original Film, One Race Films
Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Sung Kang, Luke Evans, Gina Carano, John Ortiz, Shea Whigham, Elsa Pataky, David Ajala, Kim Kold
Director: Justin Lin
Screenwriter: Chris Morgan, based on characters created by Gary Scott Thompson
Producers: Neal H. Moritz, Vin Diesel, Clayton Townsend
Executive producers: Justin Lin, Amanda Lewis, Samantha Vincent, Chris Morgan
Director of photography: Stephen F. Windon
Production designer: Jan Roelfs
Costume designer: Sanja Milkovic Hays
Editors: Christian Wagner, Kelly Matsumoto
Music: Lucas Vidal
PG-13 rating, 130 minutes

StarDrive review (A failure to innovate)


Abandon all hope, those who have never played a 4X strategy game before. StarDrive is not the kind of experience that offers a welcoming introduction to the genre. Its only tutorials come in the forms of either pseudo-PowerPoint presentations or unfriendly blocks of text. The user interface does not work the way you want it to, and it’ll take you many hours (and an unholy amount of accidentally closed windows and misplaced spaceships) to get used to it. This is a game that’s as forbidding as the cold recesses of space it depicts, but once you get into it, you’ll find no shortage of enjoyable alien slaughter, spaceship destruction and planet terraforming – even if it all feels a little too familiar.

Currently, there’s only one game mode: Sandbox, where you’re plopped into a random map with a civilization of your choosing and told to conquer or assimilate all that you find. Each faction (“species” might be a more applicable term) can be played using preset traits–starting flagships, attack bonuses, etc.–or by picking your own from the game’s large lists. This allows for some very enjoyable tinkering, giving players a chance to optimize their civilization for the way they like to play. It’s also worth noting that the alien races employed in StarDrive are wonderfully weird and refreshing, from samurai bears (you read that right) to some kind of Portal-inspired AI that has a race of owls working for it (you read that right, too).

“StarDrive is not the kind of experience that offers a welcoming introduction to the genre.”

Then, with your civilization selected, it’s time go about the gruesome business of conquering the galaxy. It’s all standard 4X fare, and executed in a way that’s entirely inoffensive, but not great either. You construct ships, or custom build your own. You research technology. You conduct diplomacy, which is one area where StarDrive is behind the curve: Interstellar war negotiations are alarmingly simple, entirely unpredictable, and burdened by an especially difficult UI. You harvest resources. You colonize planets–which StarDrive is smart enough to make as simple as the click of a button, no unit-wrangling required. You invade enemy solar systems. There is nothing here that expands upon previous genre entries; it’s a paint-by-numbers 4X game with little to differentiate it from the pack.

Visually, it’s clean and crisp, with a variety of planets to stumble upon and pretty-enough space scenery to behold. But when zooming out to view a large chunk of the map, it can become hard to see much at all–units become very, very small dots–which can lead to much squinting and the occasional misplaced ship.

In addition to spacecraft, you control ground troops, which are used to take over planets or board enemy vessels. This section of the game comes off as half-baked, with planetary invasions often feeling like a crapshoot, and ships–regardless of their value–being laughably easy to take over. The first time a single space marine hops into your best frigate and goes speeding off to some corner of the galaxy, you’ll likely damn your entire intergalactic empire and close the game.

“The most fun you’re likely to have in StarDrive is the time you spend shipbuilding.”

The most fun you’re likely to have in StarDrive is the time you spend shipbuilding. You can custom-build ships from the ground up, placing bulkheads, weapons, power supplies, and command rooms on a grid system. Combined with StarDrive’s deep combat mechanics, which emphasize ship angles and weapon firing arcs, this feature becomes really fun. You’ll find great joy in fine-tuning your designs to counter your enemies’ custom units and tactics. You can also manually control ships’ movements and fire their weapons with your keyboard and mouse. While this might sound like your opportunity to slip into the cockpit of your recently invented 57-turret monstrosity and blast those samurai bears back where they come from, it’s really not. The controls are too awkward, making it maddeningly difficult to attempt anything even close to effective combat maneuvers.

Smartly, StarDrive includes robust automation features. You can have the AI take care of a lot of mundane tasks, such as managing and settling colonies, or the constructing of warp gates. This helps to lessen the overwhelming effect of StarDrive’s massive scope, letting you focus on important galaxy-conquering business.

“…it’s a paint-by-numbers 4X game with little to differentiate it from the pack.”

StarDrive is not a bad a game, per se–but it’s a lot like the games that came before it, and does little to differentiate itself from the pack. It has character, sure–what game with samurai bears wouldn’t? But when it comes time to get out there and explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate? You’ve played this before, and it was probably better. If you’re simply looking for a new game to dominate the universe in, StarDrive will serve you well enough, but those looking for a new and novel experience will need to set course for elsewhere.