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Sine Mora EX Review

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The Shmup (short for Shoot ’em up) is the one old genre that hasn’t reclaimed its popularity. At one time the likes of Space Invaders, Galaxian, and Phoenix ruled the roost. Then when platformers became big, the genre gave us 1942, Dragon Spirit, and Xevious. Then the Beat ’em ups, and Fighting games all but conquered the arcades. But the genre had continued popularity with the likes of R-Type, U.N. Squadron, and Truxton.

After this period though, the genre began to slowly fade into obscurity. It never truly went away. It still gave the occasional notable game like Giga Wing, or Ikaruga that became darlings. Today, the genre is still around, and there are countless great games in it. It even has a devoted, hardcore fan base. But where Street Fighter IV, and Mortal Kombat 2011 brought traditional fighting games back into the limelight, the same hasn’t been the same for old-school Shoot ’em ups.  Sine Mora EX has that potential.

PROS: Beautiful visuals. Great music. Refined mechanics. Fun.

CONS: Story can be hard to follow. Mini games don’t add very much to the experience.

4K: PC, and PS4 PRO versions support it.

Originally released in 2012 as Sine Mora, Sine Mora EX is a refined version that fixes bugs, updates the graphics, and expands content. It elevates a pretty good game, to a pretty great one. The game has a minimalistic menu. You have a Story mode, which is honestly a great way to play it when you start out. Then Arcade mode, which is going to be the option for advanced players who don’t want to bother with the lore. Score Attack, for mastering levels. There is also a challenge mode which gives you 15 endurance rounds. Then there is a boss rush mode, which lets you practice boss fights. But you have to unlock them by getting to them in the storyline first. So this is really going to be for those who are interested in speed running the game upon beating it.

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Rounding things out is a Versus mode. This is a small assortment of mini games. In most of them, you’ll pick a single screen arena, and battle a friend as little robotic orbs. Some of the stages have other hazards, or obstacles to maneuver around or destroy. But it’s pretty much kill or be killed. There is one interesting mini game that is different. Here, you each shoot at ships, but if you accidentally destroy a ship that resembles yours, the game ends. They’re a fun little diversion. But really, you won’t be coming to this game for it, and you’ll want to play the main game instead.

Sine Mora EX’s main campaign is awesome. Whether you play it in Story mode or Arcade mode, you’ll be thrust into a shmup that embodies elements of every subgenre. A lot of people have called this a Bullet Hell shooter. While there are moments where the entire screen is filled with bullets, that isn’t really the case. Some boss fights employ this, but you’ll find a lot of the missions themselves do not. Instead they take the movement of something like R-Type, or Gradius, and give you the challenge of avoiding walls, while shooting down enemies, and threats.

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But there are many things that make this game stand out on its own. The most obvious one being how it handles lives, and scoring. In a lot of challenging shooters over the years, games had either a scenario where a single hit on your ship killed you, or you had a small life bar allowing for a few hits before you would be destroyed. Sine Mora EX throws those mechanics out the window, and instead puts the onus on time limit. You have to beat the clock in order to win. “Great! I can get hit as many times as need be! This game is going to be easy!” you might be exclaiming to yourself.

Well get that thought out of your head immediately. Because your life bar is the time clock. If you make a mistake, and crash into something the game shaves off a second or two. If you get shot you’ll lose a few seconds. Suddenly that game has gone from being insanely easy, to pretty challenging. Moreover, they’ve made another swerve. Getting hit makes you drop power ups! So you’ll have to pick them up immediately.  But if all of this sounds too complicated, don’t lose heart. There are a number of tools to help.

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First off, and most importantly, you’ll gain time for every bad guy you destroy. You’ll want to crush as many of them as possible because time is life in this game. Keep adding to the timer, and you’ll see it to the end. The stages also have checkpoints. When you reach one it resets the timer. So if you’re low on seconds, and you reach one you’ll be in the clear for a moment. The game also gives you a wealth of power ups, smart bombs, coins, and even bullet time to use.

That’s right. Bullet time. Now it isn’t infinite. There is a meter that lets you see how much you have, and it drains when you use it. But during those Bullet Hell moments it can be a Godsend. Particularly when you just can’t seem to figure out the spread pattern. As you play through the game you’ll be going through different periods, and characters in the story. So there are a number of different ships you’ll pilot. They’re all designed to look more like planes, but considering the different settings the stages take place in, you’d assume they have features of a star or sea ship. But I digress.

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Each of the different space planes has a unique smart bomb that can be fired. Some of them shoot a super laser, others drop a ton of grenades, some shoot a plethora of missiles. You’ll want to know the nuanced differences though because they won’t work the same way in every situation. There’s also the risk, versus reward aspect here that can be really fun. Do you try to save up your smart bombs for the bosses or do you use them now while the screen is cluttered with grunts? There are also your firepower upgrades to grab, as they make your primary fire more effective. If you can get nine of them, and not crash or get shot you’ll chew through enemies. And then there are the time bonuses, and bullet time bonuses to nab. You’ll find the bullet time works wonders.

They also added a cooperative feature to the story as a friend can play as a gunner. It isn’t quite the same has having a second ship altogether, but it does give you some reprieve. They control a satellite which acts like one of the options from the shooters of old. This allows the first player to take on primary targets while they clean up small annoyances. Handy for boss battles.

Another thing you’ll appreciate is how the game puts in some challenges that have nothing to do with shooting weak points, or avoiding a hail of bullets. In one stage you’ll come across a section filled with sensors that, should you be detected knocks off all of your time. After exploding through all of my continues, and restarting, imagine my surprise when I found I had to fly in sync with piles of garbage coming from the background to avoid detection. It’s just a small thing, but it’s different from what many might expect.

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If you play through the Story mode, you’ll get voice overs that are in line with a Star Fox game. Just with more curse words. There is however, zero percent Slippy Toad in the list of ingredients. Kidding aside, you’ll also get some monologues between stages that try to set up motivations of pilots, and give you a little bit of narrative between stages. It helps explain why you have completely different vehicles, and settings every stage. Unfortunately it doesn’t always make the most sense if you’re only passively seeing it. Because of how everything jumps around. The story is a bit more cohesive if you pay attention to every last bit of dialogue, and you re-read every word of every monologue. But even if you’re invested in the story, you’re going to miss some of it as you’ll forget some of the chatter you just heard when it becomes time to blow away enemy targets again.

That said, the story itself is actually pretty cool. It centers around characters facing an iron-fisted Empire on a planet called Seol. It declares war on an opposing nation of inhabitants called Enkie. Both of the factions master time travel. One of the characters is out for revenge when the Empire kills his son for not wiping out the Enkie. So in a number of missions, you’ll follow his story arc. But the Enkie also want revenge on the Empire for driving them toward extinction. So in other stages you’ll be playing Enkie characters.  The story is an interesting one, and it even has a pro wrestling grade swerve in it that honestly surprised me. The problem with it, is the execution. If the game had done just a tiny bit better with the cut scenes, and shown more of it, instead of having you read it, it would have been a bit easier to follow. Still, if you take the time to pay more attention on subsequent play through attempts it gets a bit more enjoyable.

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Repeatedly playing in the Arcade mode is also where you’ll notice this game’s use of difficulty scaling. The game starts you at rank C here, and if you’re not doing so hot this is about where you’ll stay. By contrast, if you’re blowing through sections with ease you can expect the game to rank you up to B or even an A! Then it will punish the crap out of you. Enemies take more hits, shoot more lasers, and things get more hectic.  If you can’t hang, the game will knock you back down a peg or two. This is also where the game has a real chance of reinvigorating the genre for those who don’t come to it as often. At the same time it gives enthusiasts something they can really sink their teeth into.  Arcade mode also lets you select different planes to start with, so you may find some work better in some missions than the ones you have to use during the Story mode. Back to Story mode a second. In that mode you’ll have eight continues (though there is a slightly harder variant of Story mode) to complete the game. If you don’t get through the entire Story campaign  You can start on a higher stage when you come back to it later. Though you’ll start the way you did at the beginning which means you’ll be outclassed.

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Arcade mode eschews all of the story elements, reduces the number of continues, and exclaims “Come and get some!” You’ll be seeing all of the same levels, and bosses but with none of the narration. This mode is also a bit harder from the outset. But if you’ve plowed through the story, and want to go back to the game again, it’s a great way to experience it again. There are even a couple of power ups you won’t see in the Story mode. The game is gorgeous enough you may just want to replay it anyway. For a small game, it boasts some pretty great production values. Mind you it isn’t going to be quite the same as something from a AAA vendor. But it does so much with so little.  Though I suppose a big part of this is the involvement of Mahiro Maeda. When one of the people behind The Animatrix is designing bosses in your game, it’s going to show.

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The Nintendo Switch version of the game (which you’re seeing in this review) looks great. It has crisp textures, nice lighting, wonderful color depth, and detailed models. All running at a full 1080p with a fast frame rate. The Xbox One port is just as good-looking, and the PS4 version will even support 4K provided of course you’re using the PS4 PRO model of the console. The PC version of course will support it as well if you have the 4K monitor or TV to display it on, and hardware in the machine to run it that high. Which shouldn’t be much, as the system requirements aren’t very high for the PC version. As far as I could tell in my time on the Switch, I saw no real issues with slowdown, stuttering, or other performance problems. The PC version also gave me no real issues.

The audio is pretty good too. Grasshopper brought in Akria Yamaoka who did the sound direction on Silent Hill. Silent Hill made great use of ambient sounds for the horror vibe. Here he combines that ambience with an electronica sound. So it gives this a cyber thriller kind of score. Which you might not think much of at first. But when the bosses show up to crush you into dust, does it ever fit the theme. It may not have the same effect as it did in Silent Hill, where the discomfort melded with the fear. But it does make the encounters even more imposing. You might not worry about monsters getting you. But you’ll probably take the giant robot spider a bit more seriously.

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While by no means an expert on the genre, I do feel like this is the most accessible shmup to come out in years. It may technically be a re-master of sorts. But the game’s attention on the Switch has been getting people talking about them again. Oddly enough if you want a physical copy of the Switch version you’ll likely have to go online, as few retailers appear to have gotten it when it came out last year. At least Stateside. Target, and Wal-Mart have it on their online sites, but not at their stores. GameStop, Best Buy, and others don’t (of this writing) seem to have it at all. But you can find it through smaller businesses usually on Amazon. There’s also the option to import the European release. If you don’t care about physical media you can download it from Nintendo’s e-shop. The Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 versions however, seem to be everywhere. You can download those on their respective stores too. The PC version is available on Steam as well.

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Ultimately though, Grasshopper has put out a game that can be enjoyed by veterans, and newcomers alike. The easier Story mode (of which you can go with a harder version) does make things a bit more inviting for newbies. Even if the story could be executed a little bit better, it’s still pretty good for what it is. The Arcade mode is something longtime enthusiasts will more than likely love. Especially for those who may not have played the original Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Vita, and PC release. The scaling is also nice for those who are competent, but not masterful. If you love shmups, but somehow haven’t played this, pick it up. If you’ve never played a shmup, this is a great jumping on point to see if you’ll enjoy them. Hopefully we’ll see more Sine Mora in the future.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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Splatoon 2 Review

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Well folks, it’s a new year, and thanks to a nice Christmas bonus I now have a Nintendo Switch. So now I have another platform to play games on, and review. I apologize for the delay in getting out some articles to you. Just know, the end of the year gets very busy for me, leaving me not as much time as I’d like for reviewing games. All of that being said, my first Switch game purchase is a sequel to one of the best games I own for the Wii U. Is Splatoon 2 as good as its surprise hit predecessor?

PROS: Everything you loved about the original, and then some!

CONS: Convoluted voice chat. Consulting the map is worse. Drawing with thumb sticks.

AMIIBO: The older figures have as much merit as the new ones.

In a lot of ways Splatoon 2 is a much better game over its predecessor. It features a lot of new weapons, and new maps. It has a few new modes. It also takes the Nintendo Switch’s wireless capabilities to add a LAN like feature. Think in the vein of the original Xbox’s system link feature. There are new characters, and a lot of great customization options. Even the campaign is improved. There is a lot to like here.

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For those who never played the original game, be it because they didn’t have a Wii U, or because they were more enamored with something else, Splatoon 2 is a shooter. More accurately, it’s a third-person shooter with a lot of the stuff you’d find in a first-person shooter. You’ll be killing people, and blowing things up. But what really sets the game apart from every other game of its ilk is its mainline game objective.

Splatoon 2 is a very multiplayer focused team shooter. You’ll hop into game modes with other players online or offline (I’ll get to that soon enough), and fight alongside your teammates for victory. Splatoon’s trademark mode is called “Turf War”. In it, each team has to focus their efforts on painting every floor their own color. You’ll be doing this with a variety of paint, and water themed weapons, and tools that shoot ink. As is the case with many modern shooters you’ll start out with a competent gun. But as you play the game more, over time you’ll begin to level up. Once you get to around level 4 or so, you’ll be able to go into the various shops to buy newer weapons.

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Each of the weapons also comes with a perk you can use once you earn enough points by painting the floors. Some of them are things like jetpacks where you can temporarily hover above everyone dropping ink. Others are rack mounted ink missiles. Or shields. Or any other number of things. During all of the game modes, you can, and will be killing each other. But that doesn’t get your team victories. Playing the objective does. When you kill an opponent it is really just a means to buy yourself a few more moments to paint.

Seeing how the characters in the world of Inkopolis are Squid people, you can transform into a squid which results in all different kinds of strategies. As a squid you can swim under your own team’s ink. You can camp in it, waiting for enemies to walk into an ambush. You can paint walls, and swim up to higher ground. You can try to go stealth, and get around opponents so you can start painting over their ink, and change the those floors to your team’s color.

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Each of the modes lasts around five minutes per round. At the end of the Turf War the game displays an overhead look at the arena, and the team who painted more of it their color wins the round. Winning a round gets you a lot of points, which helps you level up faster.

The other modes are played under Ranked Battle, which you can begin playing once you reach a certain level. There’s Tower Control, which is a take on the push cart mechanic seen in other games. You have to hold your position on it, and the longer you do, the further toward your goal it drives. Of course the opposing team will try to kill you, and take it for themselves. If they’re able to do so, it will go in the opposite direction toward their goal.

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Splat Zones is a variant of the mainline Turf War. Only instead of painting the entire map, the game will outline two key areas to paint. If your team gets one, or both painted your color, you have to defend the position, and hold it as long as possible. At the end of the round the team that held them down the longest wins.

Finally, there’s the Rainmaker, which is another take on the push cart mechanic. But this time it’s centered around a special weapon; The Rainmaker. One player on one team will have to take it, and then get it to the goal on the opposing team’s side. The player can defend themselves with it, as it fires charged shots. But the player will instantly become the default target. The entire enemy team will try to kill them so one of their own can take it for themselves. This is the only mode where your attack performance is going to matter as much as an objective.

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Once you, and some friends have at least a B rank, you can group up into a League Battle, where you can play as a team in the various Ranked modes. The nice thing about the Ranked modes in this is that each mode has its own individual rank for you. So for instance, if you’re doing well with the Rainmaker mode, but patently average in Tower Control, you’ll see an *A* in the former, and a *C*. It’s great because if you get competitive you can see where you may need some practice.

There is also a fourth mode called Salmon Run. This mode works as a horde mode, where you have to keep waves of killer robot fish from taking you out. You’re also given a quota of eggs you need to collect during waves. These are dropped by bosses. It throws you into the grind with three other players, and you’ll have to work together to get all of the eggs, and survive. This also mixes up your load out when you play it, so you’ll be forced to learn to use weapons you might not normally choose. The only real issue with this mode is that you can’t play it all of the time. At least online. You have to be leveled up enough to do Ranked play, and the game’s servers will turn this mode on, whenever whomever manages it decides it’s playable.

 

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When you first fire up Splatoon 2, things go about the way they do in the original. It will give you a quick character customization process. After this you’ll, be thrown into a brief tutorial to get you used to the control scheme. Splatoon 2 works in TV mode by using the two Joycons in the grip included with the Switch. Or you can use a Pro Controller or equivalent. As was the case on the Wii U in Splatoon, you can play with or without gyroscopic aiming. For those who eat, sleep, and breathe a controller with their shooters, turning it off might seem like a no brainer. But honestly, I would recommend using the gyroscopic aiming. When you’re in the heat of battle, and need that smooth, yet pixel perfect aim to hit something it is a Godsend. It isn’t quite as good as using a mouse in a PC shooter, but it’s still much better than the thumb stick. Particularly when trying to hit high or low targets on an angle. And you can focus your camera at any time by pressing the Y button. Handy, if somehow you find yourself stuck looking too far off.

With the Tutorial done, you’ll be dropped into the Inkopolis hub world. Again, as in the original Splatoon, you can go to the different shops after you’ve leveled up a bit, talk to NPCs, and get video updates telling you when maps have been rotated on the servers for online multiplayer. But beyond that you can find a shady character named Murch. Murch is pretty much this game’s version of the first game’s Spyke. After you get to the proper level, you can have Murch track down outfits of the random player characters who appear in Inkopolis. For the right price. They generally won’t have the same stats, but it is a way for you to find some of the nicer clothing options early, although they’ll usually cost you more.

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As for each of the shops, again as in Splatoon one shop will have the weapons for purchase as you unlock them. You can also try them out before you buy them to see if it’s right for your play style. The others will cover shirts, shoes, and headgear. Each of these does more than simply make your character look cool. They have different attributes that will help you during your multiplayer matches. Some may boost your run speed. Some recharge your weapon’s ammo faster. Some will negate some enemy perk effects on you. As well as other potential benefits. Over time you can add other abilities to the clothes. If you ever regret some of the abilities that found their way into the clothes you can also have Murch scrub them out for a fee. At which point you’ll have to start over leveling that piece of apparel.

You can also buy food from a food truck for some temporary benefits. Beyond that you can also scan in Splatoon, and Splatoon 2 amiibo figures for some costumes. The original toys get you some of the outfits from the first game, while the newer toys get you some newer options. It should be noted if you open the Callie/Marie two pack, these toys also get you songs to listen to.  The toys will also give you access to a photo feature, and let you save load outs to them! One cool thing the original game did was implement the Wii U’s Miiverse service very well. You could post on Nintendo’s boards, and even draw fan art. But the game would post these pieces of art on walls at random in online matches.

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With the service defunct, this game does retain a draw feature. Going up to a kiosk in Inkopolis will allow you to draw pictures, or write messages that can appear in the game on the walls. The thing to keep in mind though is you’ll want to use this feature in handheld mode, as you can draw freehand that way. Sadly, if you’re using the console in TV mode you’ll have to draw with the controller. Something that doesn’t work well at all. The sticks just swing far too wildly for you to do the intricate kind of detail needed if you’re someone who loves to draw. I should also note that once Nintendo rolls out its online service, you’ll need to pay $20 a year to enjoy online multiplayer. As of this writing it costs nothing to play online. But if you haven’t kept up with gaming news over the course of 2017, it has been something to be aware of. On the plus side, the netcode is really good in this game. I ran into no lag, even when connected to a hotspot getting coffee.

If you’ve been reading thus far, worried that you can only play this game against online warriors fear not. As I mentioned earlier, Splatoon 2 has a mode that works a bit like an offline LAN. If you have a few people with Nintendo Switches meet up somewhere, you can use the system’s wireless setup to connect the consoles together allowing each of you to play against one another in teams locally in the same room. Now unlike an actual LAN, you won’t be sharing files, resources, and other stuff through a router. But, it does make for a great time that will take you back to four player F1 Race on the Game Boy. However, if each of you have an old Wii wired adapter, you can play an actual wired LAN tournament through a router. This is also handy for convention tournaments.

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But things don’t end there. If you’re not typically drawn toward multiplayer games, but you do enjoy single player action games, there is once again a campaign. Splatoon 2’s campaign is a bit more fleshed out that the original game’s was. This time instead of following Captain Cuttlefish down a sewer drain, you’ll see a mysterious woman hanging out in the back of Inkopolis square. When you follow her, you’ll find it’s actually Marie from the first game. It would seem her best friend, and fellow pop star Callie has gone missing. As an undercover agent she hires you to join her to face the Octarians.

This time around they’ve taken Callie, in addition to the Zapfish. So you have to help Marie rescue her. In the sequel you’ll again play a multitude of stages that combine elements of Super Mario Galaxy’s platforming, Metal Gear Solid’s stealth, and Doom’s circle strafing. It’s a lot of fun, and requires more than just hand, and eye coordination. Each of the stages houses blueprints, and hidden fish. If you find them you’ll get some back story for the game to read, as well as the ability to unlock some firepower for the multiplayer modes. You can also spend the tickets found in the campaign at the food truck for some boosts. Finding all of them takes some time, and some sleuthing on your part. Especially in later stages where they get pretty creative in hiding these items.

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Stages are laid out similarly to Super Mario 64. There’s an overarching hub world, with different entrances to each of the stages. Some of these are cloaked, so you’ll have to shoot them to make them appear. Things get a bit more intricate as time goes on. Every stage will put you in exponentially harder situations that will force you to learn the mechanics. Until you get to that final showdown.

Boss fights in Splatoon 2 work almost exactly as they did in Splatoon. You’ll find the weak point, attack it, and then find you’ll have to do it three times. But each time, the attack patterns become a bit more complex, and so you’ll have to employ the advanced strategies you’ve learned in order to take them down.  Aesthetically they get more, creative as they’re introduced to you too.

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The campaign is also done in a way that ultimately trains you for the multiplayer. But does so in a way that feels fulfilling. It doesn’t feel like padding, or that it only there as a trainer. The story is entertaining, and has a lot of funny dialogue. It’s also got a fair amount of challenge, and isn’t too long, nor is it too short. Though the final boss may irritate you a little bit with the cheap desperation moves.

Visually, the game looks slightly better than the original. With the game going up a minor notch from a 720p resolution to a 1080p resolution. A lot of the art has call backs to the original game, and even some of the old maps were retooled, and brought back. The texture work is also a little bit cleaner than in the old game. Overall, it isn’t that different from the last game. It’s still beautiful, but those hoping this would be a massive graphics leap over the old game may be left wanting a bit.

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There are a few minor complaints I have with the game though. As a veteran of the first game, the dual screen gameplay really did one thing well. That was the map screen. You could jump to a teammate’s aid at any time by touching them on your screen. In this one you can still get to them, but you have to pull up the screen mid battle, and then select them. That fraction of a second in the heat of warfare can get you killed as you’re busy pulling up the map instead of looking at the incoming threats.

Another thing I think some people won’t like, is the cumbersome way they implemented a voice chat feature. Rather than, simply including it in the game, and letting players use a common headset you have to download an app to your smart phone, and have that an arm’s length away. This doesn’t affect me as I don’t have much more than a crappy old prepaid emergency phone. (I know, I know, I’m a relic.) But for those who do, this can be inconvenient, especially when someone calls your phone, and trying to take a call while voice chatting is going to be a pain.

It’s probably better to have a cheap, old laptop nearby with Discord, or another voice group chat application on it, and just using that to strategize on the fly instead. It’s not that much different although at least you won’t have to drop out to take an important phone call while you’re in a game. You can just tell everyone in the chat you have to take the call, without inexplicably leaving.

I also found it odd that the Salmon Run can’t be played online all of the time. Shooters generally let players play their favorite modes whenever they want, and locking this one up for arbitrary reasons just seems perplexing to me. Maybe they were trying to make it feel like a Splatfest event. But then again, it is one of the offline LAN modes too.

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Fortunately, one thing that is very impressive is the soundtrack. Not only do some of the great tracks from the original show up again, but the variety is larger too. You’ll get the Pop Punk, Power Pop fix. But you’ll also get a lot of New Wave, Funk, Disco, and J-Pop too. In fact, a lot of the tracks mix a lot of these sounds together to make for something new. It really is a lot of fun to listen to. Hopefully, Nintendo will find a way to release this soundtrack as they did the first. Just at a much wider availability.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with the game. Aside from a couple of baffling decisions it does successfully move the great gameplay of the original onto Nintendo’s newer, highly successful system where more people can be exposed to it. It’s fun because even if you’re not very good at shooters, you can still do very well by focusing on the objectives. As long as you’re painting a floor, you’re getting some points, and leveling up. In fact, just like last time around, you’ll find a lot of good players don’t boast the highest Kill to Death ratios. That isn’t to say it isn’t important. It buys your team more capture time. But you don’t have to feel bad if you see your little squid combatant explode into Looney Tunes gibs constantly. I only wish they could work on solving the AFK issues that rise on occasion. If someone abandons a match, or stops playing, it’s curtains for their team. If you’re on that team it can be frustrating to find the reason you were beaten is because player 4 got zero points. Which is impossible unless you set the controller down, and walk away. But I digress.

Splatoon 2 is a great game. It is pretty much everything the first one was, with a lot more weapons, and clothing. The new mode, is pretty fun, even if it does only open up once in a while. And if you really don’t do multiplayer, the campaign is something that you’ll at the very least enjoy one play through on before trading it in or selling it off. I wouldn’t hop in if you aren’t willing to at least try a multiplayer game. At least with this being somewhat portable though, the LAN option is a great way to play locally with friends if your only concern with online are the trolls, and jerks who spoil things.  And even beyond that, the ability to join a lobby with three friends mitigates this a bit.

I know I keep repeating myself in this review. But for those who do love online competitive multiplayer though, this one is a no brainer. There are a ton of great strategies, action, and advanced movement techniques to master.  If you like online multiplayer, but are hesitant about needing to Get Good, fear not. It’s still something you can have a blast playing at a rudimentary level. Really, the only people who may want to pass are those who have no interest in competitive gaming. Though the campaign is still worth a rent for those who love a good platformer, or action romp. The issues I do have with it don’t ruin the experience by any means, but can be annoying. Still, as I said earlier, it’s a must play for Switch owners who are fans of multiplayer. Especially those who loved the original Splatoon on their Wii U machines.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

Mirage: Arcane Warfare Review

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It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Torn Banner’s Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Oh it has some issues. Weird bugs that don’t affect game play. Advanced tactics the community is split on how fair or unfair they may be. But overall it is a good game that a lot of people loved. Seriously, it’s done fairly well over the last few years. While things are tapering off of it now, it was a great example of a big game from a small studio. If you never played Chivalry, give it a spin. It goes on sale on Steam a few times a year, for a really low price. It basically took the Battlefield style of game play, put it in a Medieval setting, and gave it a deep melee system. The unique controls are a cut above most any other sword attacks in other First person shooters. Letting you “steer” your attacks. Mirage takes these swinging mechanics, and implements them into a different setting.

PROS: Improved mechanics. New magical abilities. Character designs. Customization.

CONS: Server connectivity issues. Team Objective mode isn’t as deep as it is in Chivalry.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: The swords, and sorcery bring many reminders of the IP.

On the one hand, you can think of Mirage: Arcane Warfare as Chivalry with spells. But on the other hand, you really can’t. Mirage does carry over the mouse swinging sword fighting of Chivalry. You can swing overheads, swing horizontally, and stab. You can still steer the swings (The community calls this “dragging”) in any direction. This gives you a way to fake people out. Turning vertical , and horizontal swings into diagonal, or curved swings. Or speeding them up a bit. Or slowing them down a bit. The difference here is Torn Banner has altered the system mildly. In Chivalry it was possible to move the camera so wildly, skilled players could do helicopter swings, or arch so far back, their swords could hit people behind them. Of course equally skilled players could see this coming, and either block it properly, or even back pedal, and tire the tricksters out.

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But here some of the really extreme stuff is toned down. You still have plenty of depth, but you won’t be doing some of the over the top stuff. However, Mirage adds spells into the mix. This alters the combat significantly, and while many had their doubts, it works. In fact it works so well, that it really does accent the sword fights nicely. Each of the game’s six classes, can choose three of six spells. Each unique to the specific class. To keep the game from being spam heavy these have RPG style cool down periods. So if you use a spell, it’s going to be awhile before you can use it again. The cool down periods vary depending on the spell. Spells can also complement another spell, and sometimes that means complementing a spell cast by one of the other classes on your team. This adds all kinds of depth to a pretty cool system. On top of that, blocking has been beefed up a bit over Chivalry too. Not only can you block the melee attacks that come your way, but the spells as well! Just like Torn Banner’s last game, blocking requires knowing the timings, and aiming at the tip of the attack. So becoming proficient will take a lot of practice.

Each of the classes suits a different play style. There are six, each of which has their own pros, and cons.  The Taurant is a big brooding tank character. He gets heavy swords, and axes. He dishes out a ton of punishment on enemies, and his spells continue that theme. The Vigilist takes a lot of inspiration from the Knight class in Chivalry. She gets a shield, and pole arm. Her spells are focused a lot on defending the team. Like the giant dome she can put down, that is temporarily impervious to enemy spells. Then you have the Entropist. This class acts as a combat medic, while also being a great backup. He has spells that are centered around healing teammates, as well as some nice ranged attacks. The coolest spell he has will summon a magic carpet he can fly on, and attack from.

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Rounding things out are the Vypress, who is a faster, attack-heavy class. She can dual wield weapons, and she has spells focused on movement, and misdirection. She’s one of the weaker classes, but a skilled player can avoid, and parry a lot of stuff coming their way. The Tinkerer is speedy, and has spells that are great for booby traps. The Alchemancer is Mirage’s ranged class. You can either play him as a purely ranged character, who casts fireballs from afar. Or as a melee attacker. The thing to remember though is he is even weaker than the Vypress, and doesn’t have the speed on his side. Still his spells are great for supporting teammates, and quietly sneaking around.

One departure the game makes from Chivalry is in the weaponry. Where that game had a ton of weapons for each class to unlock, and debate over placing in a load out, this game doesn’t. There are still a lot of cool weapons in the game, but each class can only choose from a primary or secondary weapon. You can’t be swinging a mace, and then decide to switch to a hatchet. This is due to the importance of the aforementioned spells. Still, the weapons you can choose from, are all pretty interesting, and have their own stats. Some have better range, while some weigh less, and can be swung faster. Some do more damage, but are slow. And the weapons can be paired with spell combinations to some great effect after you’ve experimented, and practiced enough.

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Mirage has a lot of modes to choose from as well. There is the traditional Team Death match mode, where teams compete for frags. As well as a Last Team Standing mode called Arena. Here, teams go head to head until only one of them has any survivors. There are also a variant of Capture The Flag, where one team has to grab their randomly placed Jinn, and get it to their designated spot to have it planted. While this is going on, there are control points called Demiglyphs that can be held for bonus points.

Then there’s an actual Control Point mode, where you capture Glyphs, and Demiglyphs. If you hold the point long enough, you’ll get 20 or 10 points depending on the size. Glyphs are the larger of the two, so conventional wisdom would say to go for those. But sometimes grabbing the smaller point can turn the tide too. Then there is also a push cart mode, like the ones you’ve played in other games.

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The Team Objective mode in Mirage isn’t quite the same thing as it is in Chivalry. It still works a bit like a Rush mode in that attacking, and defending teams are given objectives to perform. And they’re still a combination of game types. But it isn’t as well concealed here, as the objectives don’t have the same compelling trappings, and the variety isn’t quite as nice.

That doesn’t mean that Mirage doesn’t have anything to grip you in terms of setting or story. It just doesn’t have the historical intrigue Chivalry did, or some of the Battlefield, Medal Of Honor, Joint Ops, or even some of the Rainbow Six games did. This game goes much more into the realm of high fantasy. So think more along the lines of Hexen, Heretic, Ziggurat, or classic CRPGs in terms of setting. Though there is a lot of inspiration from ancient Arabian architecture, and design here.

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All of this does mesh together really nicely. The swords, and sorcery will likely remind you of stuff like Masters Of The Universe, Willow, or even KRULL. The story centers around two civilizations who use magic to better their societies. Upon discovering one another, they begin to have reservations about their counterparts’ ethical standards in using magic. Eventually, tensions rise, and the two go to war with one another. Again, the design on display is beautiful. Where Torn Banner’s last game went for a more realistic look, this game goes for a cel-shaded look that is neither cartoonish or complicated. It feels closer to something like Borderlands than it does something like Team Fortress 2 or Overwatch. I just wish the game showed off the story through the tutorial rather than being something you had to read about on the game’s website. The tutorial isn’t much to write home about. It does give you a quick series of battles that get you acclimated with the basic controls. But that’s about all it does. If you’re coming into this for a campaign, you’ll want to be moving along. But if you like competitive multiplayer read on.

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Another really cool feature in the game is the customization. It isn’t quite as intricate as something like a WWE wrestling game. But it does have a fair amount you can customize. You can choose different helmets, headdresses, hair styles, skin colors, tops, accessories, and more for each of your classes. On top of that you can do this for each class in both factions. So if you want your Taurant to look one way on team purple, but a different way on team orange, you can! This gives the game a lot of personalization as you can try to make characters look the way you want. Again, not quite as deep as something Yukes would do in a wrestling game. But far beyond what many modern competitive shooters would do these days.

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When actually playing the game, most of the time things are a blast. The fine tuned swinging mechanics are wonderful, and they do combine with the new magic abilities quite nicely. Getting into a game with a group of people who communicate, and strategize can lead to some really gripping, competitive match ups. It’s one of the most fun experiences you’ll have. Mirage also supports LAN play, which makes it a great game to play with friends privately.  The audio here is also really good. The voice acting fits the look, and motif of the characters well, and the soundtrack has a nice orchestrated arrangement. It feels like the sort of thing you’d hear in an old black & white serial.

There is one big problem with the game though, and that is the unreliable servers. Most of the time you’ll connect to a game, and have a great time. But after a couple of rounds, you’ll find your ping inexplicably spiking. Going from a ping of 60 to a ping of 300 leads to a sudden rash of rubber banding, unsynchronized animations, and generally bad performance. Eventually, you’ll notice things smooth out, as your ping sinks back down to an acceptable level. But this can really turn off a player. On a day when you experience it once in a while, it is merely annoying. But on a day where it happens every other game, it will make you put the game down, and play something else. One can only hope Torn Banner can work this problem out sooner than later. Now it doesn’t appear to be as bad as what was reported about Ubisoft’s For Honor when that game launched (as that game didn’t even use dedicated servers). But it is still a blemish on an otherwise splendid game.

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As far as performance goes, it uses Unreal Engine 4, and seems fairly well optimized as of launch. My aging 760 card, and i7 4770k was able to run the game maxed out, and still crack 60 frames per second except in really frantic spots. Setting things lower made things get above 90. The biggest drain on resources appears to be the number of blood pools left by dead bodies, and the length of time corpses stay on the map. Regardless of your other settings, you can lower both of these things in the options, and you’ll see a noticeable performance gain. Obviously if you have a fairly old setup, you’ll want to move other things like texture quality, and draw distance down. As well, as shutting off Vsync, and lighting effects among other things. If you have something mid tier or higher though, playing on or near the highest settings shouldn’t be too much of a problem in most cases. Obviously, there may be some setups where this isn’t the case. But at least in my experience, performance really hasn’t been an issue.

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Overall, Mirage: Arcane Warfare is a really good game. I can certainly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Chivalry’s melee combat, and is still open to playing other kinds of competitive first-person action games. Likewise, it’s a cool game for those who want to take a break from something like Overwatch, or a modern warfare themed shooter. It’s not character focused the way Overwatch is, and it plays completely differently. Likewise, coming from a more traditional experience is also a chance to be surprised. Mirage may share some similarities with these titles, but there are far more differences to be found. Good ones.

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Be that as it may, the server issues can be a bit of a turn off, and one can only hope Torn Banner is able to iron them out sooner than later. Otherwise, as fun as it is, it could be the realm of a niche player base rather than the fairly large following its pseudo-predecessor had. Still, even if the worst case scenario came to pass, the LAN play makes for an exciting game to play with friends.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Beach Head II: The Dictator Strikes Back Review

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These days, there are all kinds of wonderful death match experiences. From Rise Of The Triad onward, First-person shooters have given players hours of competitive multiplayer. But back in the golden age, not as many games did this. Oh sure, there was the quest for the high score. However, many games had you on the same side, or alternating turns while competing for points. But when Beach Head came out it had a novel idea. Combining several games resulting in a really fun campaign. The sequel took that idea on step further.

PROS: Well crafted. As fun today, as it was when it came out years ago.

CONS: Last stage can go on too long between two great players.

MEDIC: The voice samples are some of the most memorable quips in a video game.

Beach Head II is one of the best competitive multiplayer games ever made. Released two years after the original game, it made one little change to its formula. This completely changed the dynamics of the game in this sequel. Instead of alternating turns, this game casts one player as the heroic army, and the other player as the dictator’s evil forces. The core concept is intact. There are a set number of scenes, each acting as its own arcade style game. Once that game is played, things move onto the next game, and so on. This tapestry of games, makes for an overall campaign, and storyline. Beach Head takes place during World War II. But the setting in this sequel is more contemporary.

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The first stage is an invasion. Player one air drops a squadron onto the shore, and from here they have to storm the Bastille. Player two has to do everything in their power to keep the heroes from getting inside, by using a giant turret. As the second player fires down upon the walls, the first player has to move combatants one by one, to the entrance. They can scale walls, or run down toward the next set. If they get to the bottom, they’ll succeed.  The more combatants they can get down to the bottom the better prepared for the following stage. This is also the moment you’ll see something else that makes the game memorable. This is one of the earliest computer games that implemented voice samples.

When one of the allied combatants get shot, it plays one of four samples. These are looped so the deaths will vocalize the same pattern of phrases. Even still, these are pretty great for the time, and are still pretty memorable. There are other samples that play in later stages too. Now one may think the odds are against the allied forces, and they are. But the heroes can throw grenades at the dictator’s turret. A successful throw will destroy it for big points, and the soldier will make it in, as a replacement turret spawns in.

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Stage two sees the allies taking control of the turret, and firing into the dictator’s military installation. Here the object is to provide prisoners cover as they try to shuffle along, and escape. The person playing dictator, can summon tanks, combat jeeps, a bomb expert to set traps, and even a guy on a roof dropping rocks onto the prisoner. Points are awarded to the allies for every successful rescue, while the dictator gets points for successfully murdering prisoners.

The third stage is a helicopter escape mission. The allied player loads the chopper with liberated soldiers, and attempts to get away. It’s a shmup level, but the dictator can control the many vehicles in an attempt to shoot down the chopper. If they’re successful the round starts again, with the allies trying to shuttle out any remaining prisoners. Obviously the allies get huge bonus points if they can successfully dodge all of the dictator’s assaults.

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The final stage sees the leader of the allies facing off against the dictator himself. Each on a pier facing each other. They throw knives at each other. After landing a few hits the victor will see their opponent fall into the sea. This battle goes on for ten matches. This is where the game’s one major flaw comes into play. The final battle can go on far too long. Once you have two evenly matched players, they can easily duck out, sidestep, and otherwise dodge dagger throws. A 30 minute match up of fun, can quickly become a several hour affair due to the last battle. In hindsight Access Software should have made this a two out of three falls match.

Be that as it may, the final battle is still a lot of fun thanks in part to the nice animation, and splendid sound samples. Hearing the dictator exclaim “YOU CAN’T HURT ME!” is a pretty rewarding experience. Once all of the modes are done, the final score is tallied letting you know which army was victorious.

Aside from the voice samples, the sound effects are really good. Explosions, gun fire, and other sounds are all a cut above most other games of the time. There is also a really nice chip tune of the US Marines theme song. Visually the game still holds up pretty nicely. The sprites all have a great use of shading techniques to portray details. And while not every thing is graphically impressive, it does an awful lot, with a little.

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Now in addition to the full on campaign, you can play the individual stages instead. This is nice if you really enjoy a specific level more than the other ones. But for most who go back, and play this one, going through the campaign together is really what makes things fun. One can also play through the game on their own as the allies. There are three difficulty levels, and the higher you go the more punishing it is. The highest difficulty is notoriously difficult, as the computer will rarely make a mistake. If you have nobody to play it with, it’s a fun ride. But the real entertainment comes from competing with a friend. I spent many Saturdays, and afternoons playing this with my brother, and friends from school back in the 80’s. It was one of the most fun multiplayer experiences on the Commodore 64.

But Beach Head II was also published on other computers of the time. If you collect for the Apple II or Atari 400/800 line, you can also find this game for those platforms. If you happen to live in Europe, you can also find versions for the Amstrad CPC, and the ZX Spectrum. No matter how you play it though, this is one awesome head to head game worth picking up if you have the chance.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Toxikk Review

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The arena  first-person shooter. It’s been awhile since the subgenre has been anywhere near the public eye. Oh sure, some people will tell you that Overwatch, and Team Fortress 2 are arena first-person shooters. Mainly because they have some zippy movement, and outlandish characters. But they’re not arena first-person shooters in the classic sense. When many people wish for an arena shooter they mean the very late nineties, and early two thousands. Shooters like Quake 3 Arena, The Unreal Tournament series, and even a dab of Tribes.

PROS: UT2k4-esque movement. Great weapons. Great map design.  Wonderful tutorial.

CONS: Skill Class system could use minor tweaking. Needs a bit more identity.

FATALITY: This game takes a cue from UT99, and adds environmental fatalities.

For full disclosure, I bought the Early Access pass on Steam last year. I know it makes me a bit hypocritical as I never buy EA passes normally. There’s no guarantee a game will get finished, and so I generally wait. But in this case, I caught wind of it, remembered my days in the Maximum Carnage UT2k4 clan, and was wistful. I liked what I saw at the time, but never really talked about it much because there wasn’t much content. You can’t really review something that isn’t complete.

Now that the game is done, and I’ve thoroughly played the final release, I can. The final version, is really, really good. It does everything it advertises, bringing players a game that hearkens back to the old days. Which weren’t that old, as the last UT game came out in 2007. Still, nine years is a long time in video games. There were other attempts like Nexius, but they fell flat even if they weren’t bad for a variety of reasons. They didn’t have an interesting enough look, or they weren’t talked about enough to give them a look. Or they didn’t connect with the players for other reasons.

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But with Toxikk, Reakktor, the game’s developer, seems to be trying to avoid some of those problems. For starters, there’s a demo. That gives you access to all of the game content. I’m serious. You can go download it, play to your heart’s content, and see if it’s something you’ll enjoy. But if you buy it outright you’ll get a lot of features you’re going to need if you plan on playing it with friends for a substantial amount of time.

But before I get into that, let me tell you what the game is all about. I’m sure there are some of you moaning “It’s an Arena FPS! We know!” But I’m sure there are also a number of people out there who have never played one of them. Toxikk is an arena first-person shooter. There is no single player here. The entire game is meant to be an arcade experience where you play against friends or strangers. The core game mode is a Death match mode. Basically it’s a free for all mode, where the person with the most kills wins when the time runs out, or whoever hits the score limit first.

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But what makes the game a bit more challenging is that it uses a similar movement system to Unreal Tournament 2004’s. So instead of simply running around, and shooting people, you can make yourself harder to hit. You can double jumps. You can do massive long jumps. You can do short dodges. You can do cartwheels off of walls. This means enemies have to step up their aiming game. Likewise they can do the same thing. The maps are all designed with the movement system in mind. So you may need to use an elevator jump to get to a certain room. Or there may be a huge gap between rooftops you can’t simply jump over. But using the advanced tricks you do a dodge jump toward the left, then wall jump off of that surface to make the rest of the jump. This system makes travelling through the stages faster, and worth the time to master.

The movement system is paired with a pretty cool selection of weapons. You’ll start with a pistol, but you can run through the maps to find shotguns, sniper rifles, flame throwers, rocket launchers, plasma rifles, and even a nuclear rocket launcher. These weapons all have influences from Quake 3 Arena, and Unreal Tournament. The great thing is, they all have secondary fire modes. So you’ll have to master when to use a primary or a secondary mode. There are also health boxes, ammo boxes for each of the game’s weapons, along with armor pieces to pick up. You’ll also find some stages have a jetpack, health that takes your meter up to 200, and armor that does the same. In most cases you’ll need to know the movement system well enough to get to them though. They’re also in places where you’re a prime target. So there is a nice mix of risk, and reward. The key to victory in a Death match is to keep everyone else from getting the power ups, and good stuff. Even more than your goal of killing everyone. Because it makes them have to fight an uphill battle. All of these elements add layers of depth to what may seem simple on the surface.

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But you aren’t only getting a Death match mode to play. There’s a Team Death match, called Squad Assault where one team goes after the other.  A point capture mode, where the game puts three points on the map for your team to hold. You walk over them, turn the spots into your side’s, and try to keep it. The challenge here is that if you have enough players for the map you’ll have three endless skirmishes. You’ll want to keep some team mates on each point to ensure the other side can’t simply walk up, and take it. Whichever side took points more times wins. So if you can hang onto them longer you’ll keep the odds leaning in your favor.

There is also a Capture the flag mode called Cell Capture. Basically one side tries to steal the other’s cell, then bring it back to their base. The other side is trying the same thing simultaneously. So across the different modes you have a variety of old-school game types. But it gets better for people who love the CTF, and Point Capture modes because some of the maps feature vehicles. Just as UT2k4, and UT3 had them, so does Toxikk. In this game you get a ship that operates a bit like a helicopter, a hover craft, a jeep, and a FREAKING GUNDAM. Each of them is a blast to use, and can add a lot of tension in the battles. The ships can shoot missiles from above, cut people down with a chain gun. The Gundam can step on people, take out several people at once. The hover craft can steam roll people. The jeep can have a rider take control of a giant gun on the back of it while they drive to get the cell.

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But if all of the vehicles sound like they add insurmountable odds, they surprisingly don’t. For one, vehicles all have fairly low health. Even the Gundam. If you’re good enough at maneuvering with dodges, jumps, and the other movement tricks, you can avoid a lot of the firepower. Most of the vehicles will go down from a handful of missiles. If you’re inside a vehicle when it blows up, the other team is also getting a frag. In Cell Capture, you also can’t drive or pilot a vehicle if you’ve picked up the enemy cell. You have to make it back either on foot, or on your hover bike. And if you choose to use the hover bike, you can’t shoot any of your weapons. So you’re pretty crippled, and really have to hope your team can cover you when you’re bringing back a cell.

If the movement system sounds rather daunting to you, Toxikk does have a pretty well thought out tutorial. The very first lesson is just the movement system, and basic weapon handling. From there each lesson gives you a handle on, more, and more. I would recommend every player to at least try the tutorial before going online. Because it can at the very least give you  a handle on the basics. It will also force you to acknowledge when someone is honestly that good. Seeing someone clear a rooftop jump, while shooting down three enemies, and landing unscathed can feel intimidating.

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But that intimidation is why Toxikk has a Skill Class system. As you play the game it measures what you’re doing, and will give you a rating between 1, and 12. This is always in flux. So you can have a ranking of 8, play ten really bad rounds, and find yourself a 7. Likewise, when you improve you’ll go up. This was put in place because the developers realize a lot of people won’t have fun if they’re constantly getting crushed by 12’s with no hope of learning everything. When you go on the server browser in the full game (more on that later) you’ll see servers allow some ranks, but not others. One server may be ranked 1-4, another may be 8-12, with others in between. You have to be within those ranks to join them.

That said, there are servers that don’t utilize the system. So if you would rather learn by playing against the heavyweights than training against  a cruiserweight division, you do have that as an option. Unranked servers are also great for groups of friends because you don’t have to shut out that friend who is too green, or that other friend who is a seasoned veteran.

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Separate from the Skill Class, is point system is an MXP experience point system, and this isn’t really all too important. But if you enjoy the game, and play fairly enough, over time you can increase this number for some cosmetic armor options for your character. There’s an assortment of different heads, torso options, and camouflage options you can use to customize your look. Everyone can change the color of their combatant. But people who like the game can add a few more tweaks over time. The coolest being a fearsome skull mask. This is one of the few grievances I have though because nothing about the core game requires any grinding. Perhaps it was put in for fans of that sort of thing, without effecting the game play. But it just seems odd. Since everything is open anyway, why make costume pieces on a ladder?

It doesn’t matter too much though because everything gives you boatloads of MXP. Fragging someone. Completing a tutorial. Utilizing trick jumps in a match. Piloting a vehicle. Virtually everything aside from dying gives you some points. You even get MXP in team modes for assists. Hell, if you’re bad at the game, but just really want a cosmetic item bad enough you can play against bots on the lowest possible difficulty.

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Now people who just want to play the core game can use the free demo. It isn’t timed. You aren’t blocked from any of the levels or weapons or movement. It’s all there. But if you enjoy it, or have friends you want to play it with, it’s well worth picking up the e-tail version. Buying the game means you’ll get a server browser. So you can actually find a server you, and your friends can all join without having to worry about an outlier not being able to get in because it was a certain rank limit. Paying customers also get the ability to host their own server, be it dedicated or by playing peer-to-peer through a router. You can set up private games over the internet too.  There are other perks for buying the full game too. You get to use the character customization I talked about, as well as the game’s SDK.

What does that mean? Well you can make your own content. New stages, modes, characters, whatever you want. If you’re proficient enough in using Unreal Engine 3, the sky is the limit. Because of this, even if you don’t plan on designing mods, or stages you benefit. Buying the game means that you can also download, and install mods other players make through the Steam workshop. So there is a wealth of potential stuff you have access to if you buy the game outright.

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Unreal Tournament games were played for years after release due to the prevalence of new maps, modes, skins, characters, weapons, and other content made by fans. The same could be said for the Doom, and Quake games. So hopefully, Reakktor Studios’ insistence on taking the path set by Epic, and id many years ago will have a similar payoff.

It all hinges on a player base sticking around. At launch some of those fears were quelled as a lot of people seem to have discovered the demo, and seem to be liking it. Toxikk is a fun game I think everyone should at least try. It’s a beautiful game too. Reakktor has pushed this iteration of UE3 about as far as it can probably go. There are a lot of cool visual tricks, and filters they’ve utilized to make it keep pace with even some of the newer games on bigger budget engines coming out. The environments are gorgeous. Great textures, wonderful designs, the entire world looks like it takes place in the same universe. Even the homage levels Dekk, and Cube feel like they belong here even though their layouts are taken straight from Unreal Tournament (Deck was in all of the games), and Doom 2 (Dead Simple).

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There are a wealth of menu options too. You can tweak all kinds of graphics settings, turning off some of the visual fidelity, lighting effects, bloom, and motion blur if you’re on fairly modest hardware. You can even turn off the frame rate limiter which starts on 60. But for a game of this nature you should really push it as high as it will go. It’s a much more responsive experience, and worth dealing with some tearing if you have a standard 60hz monitor.

You can also customize your entire HUD. The colors of the weapons on your selection bar. The crosshairs on your weapons, you can  even turn off your HUD entirely if you want. The hit markers when shooting someone, the size of them, the sound it makes. All of it. That’s besides the fact you can set whatever key binds you wish, weapon priority order, and a whole lot more. Toxikk is not giving you a shortage of performance or personal style options here.

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The audio is one of the weaker points in Toxikk. The sound effects are actually really good. But the soundtrack  could stand to be markedly better. The game tries to accent everything with a score of thumping techno, and electronica. But nothing really stands out. There aren’t any catchy loops, or hooks the way its inspiration possessed. UT, and its sequels had great songs like Go Down that would be stuck in your head even months after playing. Even people who aren’t fans of electronica can enjoy the UT OST. Toxikk’s soundtrack isn’t bad. But it feels too generic at times. It fits the atmosphere of the game, but doesn’t do much beyond that.

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The only other issue I have with Toxikk  is that while the character designs are really cool, they aren’t anything you haven’t seen in other games. They could use a little bit more personality, and perhaps some fleshed out back story. The most you hear about is that there are two factions; the Drayos, and the Exocom. There isn’t much told about either group, or the world. While I do think it is imperative any multiplayer game, focus on the actual game being fun (which this absolutely does.) it could have given players a little bit more detail on its universe. It may have gotten some players a little bit more invested, by having them care about the world. The UT games did this well with much of the story being put into the world, and in bios for the characters. There was also an intro in them to explain the setting. All without having to make people play through a campaign.

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That said, I still highly recommend Toxikk. If you miss playing old school arena FPS games I think you’re going to like it immensely. If you’ve never played Q3A, or a UT game but love playing competitive shooters in other subgenres you may like it. In the short time it’s been out there are already plenty of new players learning, and adapting. That’s in addition to veterans of the old games who have discovered it. If you’ve wondered where this style of game has been, or you’re someone tiring of modern progression systems Toxikk is definitely worth looking into. If after my long-winded review, you’re still on the fence check out the demo. You have nothing to lose by doing so.

Final Score: 8 out 10

Rogue Stormers Review

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A number of years ago, Black Forest Games had released Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams, an expansion pack, and a spinoff. These games of course were continuations of the classic cult Commodore 64 game. But back in the days of the sisters, Rainbow Arts had also made one game that wasn’t consigned to cult status.

That game was Turrican, a multi scrolling action platformer. It would go on to be a pretty big deal, with sequels appearing on various computers, and consoles. Including the Super NES. Of course not every game in that series would be a Rainbow Arts game. But the first one was. One of the biggest hooks was its jetpack. Something not a lot of games have done as well. It also came out at a time when action platformers were becoming the norm.

Many innovations were happening with arcade style games. A couple of years earlier Konami would release Contra. Before that Atari would merge fantasy RPG mechanics into a top down action game with Gauntlet. Going back farther than that, we can see Robotron would give us a new control scheme. What does any of this have to do with today’s game? Quite a bit.

PROS: Looks gorgeous. Frantic, and fun combat. Cooperative multiplayer!

CONS: Brutal difficulty.

HUMOR: There’s a lot of subtle, and not so subtle comedy. Stabbygale.

Rogue Stormers started life as an Early Access game on Steam. Originally called Diesel Stormers, Black Forest Games was forced to change its name during production to avoid a lawsuit by a clothing company. But regardless of the name change, the game carved out a niche for itself. It stayed in the beta program for two years where it went over a couple of major revisions.

The final game is a combination of action platforming, and rogue like titles. At first glance some might think it is a Risk Of Rain clone with a bigger budget.(If you’ve never heard of that game CheapBossAttack recently did an excellent review of the PSVita version.) But they would be wrong. Rogue Stormers does have some similarities with that game in that it has waves of bad guys, unlockable characters, and some randomized stages. But from there the similarities really begin to end.

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Rogue Stormers actually has more in common with the games I mentioned earlier. At its heart you’ll be playing a twin stick shooter. You move through the game with one stick, and fire with the second. You’ll also be equipped with a jetpack right out of Turrican that will let you hover for a few seconds after you jump. You can also dash along the ground or in the air. So even though you’ll be in the midst of a lot of chaos, you’re also given a pretty great level of control.

Your character also has their own specific special attack. There are five characters in total. Each one with their own pros, and cons. They act as individual classes as in Gauntlet. Just as that game had different characteristics in each class, so does this game. The first character is given a machine gun, and a damage booster. As you unlock more you’ll find an opera singer with a flamethrower. A bar waitress with a shotgun, a warrior with slime themed specials, and finally a sniper. Not only do these characters have different play styles, but they all have their own personality.

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There are two main ways to play the game, a single player story mode, and then there is a Co-op mode. The story mode tosses you into six stages before a final showdown. As in multiplayer, you’re never going to play the same level twice, even though the objectives are in the same order. The game will put you into a randomly generated stage made up of around 9-12 rooms. Every time you play you’ll have a different mix of rooms but with a unique objective for each mission. Because of this, each stage is its own little adventure. You have to explore the stage thoroughly in order to find the end. You can try to rush your way to the end, but if you aren’t very good at classic action games of yester year it isn’t very advisable.

Going through the levels, you’ll find there are a number of portals in rooms. Step around half way into any given room, and these portals will open up. Hordes of orcs, and other enemy types will attack. You’ll find some reprieve after you defeat any given horde, as you pick up health, and experience points. Each of these is important to collect, and this is also one of the reasons why you may not want to rush to the objective too quickly. The game starts you off with only so much health. Taking hits from anything can damage you, and while some small arms fire may not worry you at first, it does add up. You also only have one life per game. One life. Should you die, you have to go all the way back to the start.

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Fortunately, the levels, and enemy corpses are going to drop experience points. You get to keep your level going after deaths, and restarts. Most importantly, filling an entire experience bar will give you a randomly generated perk. You get to keep these perks even after you die, so eventually the difficulty may become a bit more manageable for you as you progress. I’m not very good, but even after five or so restarts, I managed to have a few. The other thing about the single life system is that it will again, hearken back to the 1980’s arcade game feel. Back then, if you ran out of lives you started over. Oh sure, there may have been the odd game that allowed for continues. But your low score was a sign to everyone that you spent a lot more than a token.

This can be seen as or a good or a bad thing, and there are valid reasons from either viewpoint. On the bad side, one might point out that the lack of continues may mean that some players won’t see a lot of what the game has to offer. On the other hand, the campaign is only six stages in length. The meat, and potatoes are really in the gameplay. Personally, while losing can be frustrating, it somehow doesn’t feel completely unfair. It’s an awful lot like a bullet hell shooter in that regard. Again, I barely beat games like R-Type, Abadox, Gradius, or Contra when I was a kid. When I did it was after hundreds of attempts, and continues. But there was a lot of fun to be had in that challenge, and I think there is here too. Considering that you do get some perks, and other characters you get to keep once you’ve unlocked them, it does get easier.

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That being said, this is still a pretty difficult game. Most players aren’t going to burn through it in 20 minutes. But stick with it, and you’ll feel vindicated when you finally complete a mission, or defeat a boss. In addition to perks, characters, XP, and health pickups, the game does have a number of awesome weapons, and items you can use during a play through. There’s the awesome spread gun, that feels right out of Contra. Handy for taking out small mobs, or dealing big hits on bigger enemies. There are portable land mines. There are cool remote turrets. There are attachments to your primary guns that cause extra damage to enemies.

All of the game’s weapons are fun to use, and feel useful. While you might find you like using one pick up over another, you’ll never feel the secondary weapon you have is worthless. Some of them might work on one particular type of enemy better than another. But everything is still very effective. You just need to take your time, experiment with weapons, and learn how they work against each obstacle. Once you become proficient with a few of these items, and discern some of the enemy patterns things can become quite addictive.Deaths go from rage quitting to “One more game.”. I also have a word of advice for you; always pick up gold drops.

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Gold drops are another important utility in the game. Each stage will have a hidden shop room you can use to buy temporary buffs for your character. You can find gold any number of different ways. Most commonly, you can raid the corpses of fallen orcs. But there are treasure chests, that have gold, and other items too. Some require a key, usually found by exploring. There are also red colored chests, and lottery machines you can use your gold on. I wouldn’t advise the red chests, as there’s a high chance you’ll actually lose health. But the lottery machines will often give you a secondary weapon or more gold. Secondary weapons can also be found by freeing prisoners peppered throughout the land. If you do choose to go spelunking for the shops, make sure you grind as much gold as humanly possible because some of the better items are pretty pricey.

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Multiplayer also makes the game a lot more palatable, as this gives the game more replay value. Basically, the co-op mode can be played online or offline. Up to four people can play together, and it’s everything in the story mode just with your friends or strangers. Offline co-op is one of the best things about Rogue Stormers. So few games have couch multiplayer anymore. Especially on the PC. It makes this game again, feel like being in an arcade in the 80’s or 90’s. Which is great. The rogue like elements actually help it in this regard. Were this a fully traditional experience, like Turrican or Contra, or Commando players could memorize where everything is going to hit them from after a while. Seeing how they recycle rooms here that can still happen. But you also have the rooms in different areas each time. There’s always a chance to be caught off guard.

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Rogue Stormers also has a story, though it’s pretty cut, and dry. We meet an evil orc, named Hector Von Garg. He convinces the kingdom of Ravensdale to turn against the Rogue Stormers, before enslaving everyone. Now the heroes fight to dethrone him. Throughout the game you unlock bits of story lore which come in the form of newspaper clippings. The story isn’t much to write home about, but the art, and character designs most certainly are. Everything feels new, and yet familiar. Sometimes things look right out of Warcraft III, with the exaggerated looks of the orcs, and yet the game has a lot of its own style. There are clearly influences from Warhammer, but again everything still has a distinct look. From the orcs in hot air balloons, to the magic squids you can fly. Backgrounds have the gloomy, dreary atmosphere you would expect in a war-torn fantasy world. The little details in the environments give this game a nice dose of personality.

The soundtrack, and effects are also really worth a listen. The mix of electronica, rock, and orchestrated music fits the dystopian environments brilliantly. It almost feels like a sci-fi film at times, which is probably fitting considering some of the steam punk influences with some of the game’s antagonists. Composer Jonathan van den Wijngaarden brings the same quality of work to this game, as he has in many a big budget title. The results are fantastic. If you’re a fan of ambient orchestration you might want to nab the soundtrack.

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The game also has a pretty respectable level of options for you to tweak. You can change your resolution, window size, and even a number of lighting, and texture quality settings. As well as change the level, and type of anti aliasing. I would have liked to have seen some more of these options available rather than general sliders for categories. But Rogue Stormers is still a cut above other games in this regard. On the plus side you can use any number of control options. I tested the game with a Steam controller, Xbox 360 controller as well as my trusty G402 mouse. All of them worked flawlessly. While I would still recommend you use a controller, if you don’t have one, you can still be effective with  a mouse.

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Performance is pretty good overall. Though I found in my case sometimes things would chug along at maxed settings during major explosions, or if a large number of enemies appeared in certain rooms. Dialing things down slightly did help. To be fair, I was also running the game while I had a lot of other things running on the machine. Nevertheless, If you are on an older machine, consider turning off the FXAA, and SSAO, it won’t look too much different, and you may avoid some of those drops. Other than that everything ran very smoothly, and performance was really nice. The requirements aren’t absurdly high either. Minimum specifications are almost a decade old as of this writing.

 

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While the combination of bullet hell shoot ’em up, action platformer, and rogue like elements may not sound like they’ll gel to some, here they do. Rogue Stormers is a lot of fun to play, especially with three friends. It probably isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it is something I recommend picking up. Particularly to anybody who loves golden age arcade games like Robotron, or fans of those old action games on the computers, and consoles of yesteryear. Although Rogue Stormers veers that way, fans of rogue like games still might want to check it out anyway. It does use the chosen elements of that subgenre very well. Even if you’re not one for any of those types of games you may want to give it a look. It’s different enough from either it still might just appeal to you.

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The only thing keeping it away from sheer impeccable status are the lack of online players, and a couple of very minor things akin to nitpicking . Like being forcibly warped to the other players if you disagree on where to go, or the sometimes finicky flying squid. Really nothing major. Of course if you don’t have friends over very often the lack of online players might be a sticking point. But, if you can convince a few of them to nab a copy, or you’re able to plunk down a little bit extra for a two-pack, you’ve got one of the most entertaining multiplayer experiences of the year. Online or offline, Rogue Stormers is a cult game worth joining. A very difficult one. But so was Demon’s Souls.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Splatoon Review

Third Person Shooters have become one of the most popular genres since joining their First Person brethren. Nintendo has seen some minor action in these realms before. With Metroid Prime being one of its flagship entries. But that trilogy was more of an adventure game, with light combat elements. Long before that, there were Rare’s Goldeneye, and Perfect Dark. What  did both of these titles have in common? Second Party status. Nintendo’s formerly partially owned studio made these. Nintendo hasn’t had a fully First Party shooter with a competitive focus. Until now.

PROS: Focus on a different target. Family friendly as well as hobbyist friendly. Miiverse. Humor.

CONS: A little light on maps. Customization needs to be unlocked. Campaign may be too hard for young kids.

STEVEN BLUM?: There’s a homeless version of Mugen named Spyke who will steal clothes for you.

A smaller, younger team of Nintendo’s developers played a lot of those Nintendo 64 shooters back in the day. They initially came up with an idea of two blocks splattering ink on a floor. Competing with one another to see who could cover more of it. From that game play idea, the team built Splatoon on top of it. It’s a surprisingly captivating direction to take the genre in. For years we’ve been used to shooting at each other for frags. Even in games with team based objectives, there is an obsession with kills versus deaths. Splatoon has fragging, but the focus on turf really makes kills secondary.

Booting up Splatoon for the first time immediately puts you in a tutorial to get you accustomed to its control scheme. The game uses the Wii U gamepad in a combination of controller, and mouse look controls. If you’ve been accustomed to game pads over the last 20 years, it may take you a few minutes to get used to. But it’s actually pretty intuitive. The left stick moves your character, while the right stick just swerves the camera left, and right. You actually use the Gamepad’s gyroscopic feature as a mouse. This makes aiming much closer to a PC game. Things are fairly smooth, and easy when tracking down an enemy. The left, and right turn speed is a little slower though, so you may go back, and forth between using the stick, and moving the pad. For those who absolutely refuse to use mouse look, you can turn it off in the settings, which makes the right stick aim instead.

Once you’ve completed the tutorial you end up in a hub world. Walking straight ahead takes you into the online battles. You can play turf war against friends, or random players in four on four matches. Every match you play, whether your team wins or loses will give you some in-game currency, and experience points. Of course winning a match will give you more points, than losing. Rounds are two minutes long. In that two minutes your team has to paint as much of the floor with your ink as possible. While your team is doing this, the other team is doing the same thing. Skirmishes then break out, as you kill opponents to buy yourselves enough time to continue painting the level in your turf color. It may not seem like much, but Splatoon’s combat actually becomes pretty deep. Pressing the left shoulder trigger will turn you from a humanoid, into a squid. You can then swim in your own ink, undetected by the enemy. Spraying walls allows you to even swim up them, and onto higher terrain. If you’re running out of ink, turning into a squid, and swimming in your team’s color will reload your weapons. Each weapon comes with two secondary attacks as well. Pressing, and holding the right shoulder button will launch the first secondary. This uses up more ink, but depending on your weapon can have a variety of uses. Ink grenades, landmines, and shower curtains are just some of what you’ll see in Splatoon. Each can be used in a variety of tactical ways. The shower curtain can be placed in narrow hallways, while you paint the other side of it. You use it like a force shield in a sense. There are desperation weapons you can use as well. Filling a meter by painting over enemy ink, will let you launch them by pressing the right stick down as a button. Then you can press the right shoulder button to use it. There are ink tornadoes, Shin Hadokens, among a plethora of other options.

The gamepad touch screen also comes into play during battles. There is a fast travel option you can use. If you look at the pad, during a match you can see where your team mates are, and super jump to their location. You can also see where enemies are, so long as they aren’t swimming in their ink. This can be good, and bad. Good in the sense that you’re able to quickly come to the aid of a comrade. Bad in the sense that the opposing team can use it as an ambush. This could be even more effective had Splatoon offered a voice chat option. Unfortunately it doesn’t. While the reasons are sound when it comes to public matches (Not having to deal with sore sports hurling slurs or curse words in a family friendly game is a good thing.) it takes away communication from friends.(You also have the ability to join your friends in these matches through a friend’s filter.) It isn’t unreasonable to think someone might have 7 friends or acquaintances who might play this together online. Still, with the short match times, it isn’t too much of a detriment. You’ll still have plenty of fun, and if you’re desperate you can always conference call three friends during your games together.

While you’re in the lobby waiting for players to join up, you can also play mini games on the gamepad. These also appear on an arcade cabinet in the plaza, where you can play them at your leisure. The best of these is probably the first one, a tower climbing game, where you jump up platforms as a squid.  After levelling up to a certain ranking, you’ll be allowed to play ranked matches in addition to the standard turf wars. Every so often you should stop playing online, and re-enter the hub stage. There are stores you can enter to buy better weapons, and clothes. Clothes in this game do more than simply make your character look cool. You have to reach a rank of 4 before you can buy anything. But once you do, you’ll find the store clothing items will enhance your online play with perks. A shirt may refill your ink faster. A certain pair of shoes may make your character run faster. At the same time none of this feels really overpowered. if you can aim, and move well enough, anyone can defeat anyone. In addition to abilities, all weapons have some sort of drawback. There is a big emphasis on balance when it comes to maps, and weapons. While there are plenty of weapons to choose from, rivaling even the Call Of Duty series, there aren’t many maps. Nintendo is promising free content updates for this game, so in a few months things may be better on this front. But for now, it is a little bit lacking. Thankfully, the underlying game play is so much fun, that it shouldn’t dissuade you.

This game does a lot of little tiny things that make it feel different enough from other games in the genre to make for a vastly different feel. The atmosphere is right out of a mid nineties Nickelodeon cartoon. The music is filled with late 80’s, and mid 90’s power pop, and pop punk trappings. It’s pleasant to look at, and listen to. While it might look like a children’s game on its surface, it really does hit a vibe that screams “Everyone is welcome.” If you love your modern military shooters, you’ll have fun. If you cut your teeth on Quake, Doom, and Unreal Tournament, you’ll have fun. If you’re a parent who wants to play a shooter with your 10-year-old child, the both of you will have fun.  Very few, if any, developers have been able to implement a genre usually aimed at a 17, and up demographic, into an all ages setting.

The game also does a really great job at implementing Miiverse. Probably one of the best implementations thus far. Going through the hub world, you will find other players’ characters populating Inkopolis, with their forum posts being spouted in a cartoon bubble. Other times you will see Miiverse postings appearing as graffiti on walls. You can also go to a kiosk to post to Miiverse. It’s pretty good, and I hope it’s expanded upon either in updates, or new games. Another thing that happens fairly often are the progression updates. As you get farther in the game the two valley girl news caster characters will warp you to the hub world to watch a news brief. Sometimes this will be upon unlocking a new map, or mode. Other times it pushes along the single player campaign story. That’s right. Splatoon also features a campaign.

If you go to a certain manhole cover in the hub world you will find this old man inkling named Captain Cuttlefish. He’s a conspiracy theorist who is obsessed with proving a race of Octopi are looking to take over the world. Why? Because years ago the people of Inkopolis defeated them in a turf war, and they want revenge for it. Of course the Captain can’t prove it, but he sends you on a 5 hour-long campaign to stop them anyway. While Splatoon is focused almost entirely on the multiplayer aspect of the game, this campaign is not an afterthought. It does a pretty great job of acclimatizing newcomers to the controls of the game, and teaching multiplayer techniques. All while offering a satisfying single player experience. Much like the base game, it starts you out in hub worlds. You have to find secret entrances to each level by uncovering them with ink. When you do, you’ll enter them, and be treated to a TPS meets Super Mario Galaxy level. What I mean by that is that each one of these levels has launch sequences similar to the SMG series. You’ll kill a bunch of Octopi, look for secrets, and then launch Mario style to the next area.  At the end of each of these levels, you’ll free a Zap fish. Think of these like the game’s shines, or stars. After you beat so many stages you’ll have to contend with a boss. And make no mistake, these bosses are difficult. They add in the challenge of Nintendo’s greatest platformers’ boss puzzles, and patterns with third person shooting.

All of the stuff you need to succeed in the multiplayer, also needs to be used in this campaign. So for those who have zero interest in the competitive online combat, the campaign is still going to be compelling. Plus you can use the skills you learn in either mode in the other. The campaign is also worth playing for those who have no interest in single player. Why? Because throughout the campaign are hidden blueprints you can find, that will unlock weapons for the multiplayer mode. So the game is really poised to make you want to try everything. There is also a 1 on 1 multiplayer mode where one player plays on the gamepad, while the other uses a classic controller, and the TV set. This is played offline, and each player tries to shoot target balloons. But they can still frag each other to buy time to pick up a few more targets while the other waits for their next life to spawn.

Splatoon also has support for Amiibo figurines. There are three figures available one based each inkling, and a squid figurine. In the plaza there is a giant Amiibo figurine package. Putting one of these toys on the gamepad will give you a handful of special clothing items, and a list of challenges. The special content really has no bearing on the gameplay. The clothing items don’t give you any better perks over the main game’s. The challenges are really for a personal experience, so you don’t really have to buy any of the toys to enjoy the game. Though two of the mini games can be unlocked by beating the challenges.

Splatoon is an excellent Third Person Shooter. Nintendo has laid the seeds for what could potentially be a major franchise, and has made one of a handful of shooters that can be enjoyed by any age group. Still, it isn’t absolutely perfect. There aren’t any functional problems to speak of. Everything in the game feels great. After bingeing on the game for a couple of days non stop, I can say I rarely ran into a connection problem. I never experienced any notable lag. This game is solid in every respect. But the lack of voice chat in games with friends, and the low number of maps keep it just shy of reaching its full potential. Nintendo has plans for updates, and content. Nobody knows all of the details, but as of now things are light on the map front. It’s also going to disappoint some that you have to unlock the ability to customize your character by levelling up. Fortunately the game play in multiplayer is so good, it will keep you wanting to play in spite of those issues. The game’s single player campaign is also a great ride. It might prove difficult for some of the younger children to get a handle on, and lead to some frustration. But if your kids are pretty good at platformers like Mario, or Donkey Kong, and want to move into fast paced action games Splatoon is easy to recommend. It’s also easy to recommend to any shooter fan. It plays great, and does a number of things to move the genre in a new direction. Whether you’re a hobbyist, or a dabbler Splatoon is something you should look into.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Insurgency Review

It seems as if modern military themed shooters are a dime a dozen. Call Of Duty 4 turned the series into a nearly guaranteed seller every year. So big a seller, that over the last decade many games have taken that theme. Even games that never competed directly with its mechanics, or action movie narratives. EA’s Battlefield certainly altered itself over the years to compete with it. Other games crashed, and burned in their attempts to clone Activision’s 800 pound gorilla. So here comes an indie game looking to nip at the heels of those big budget war shooters.

PROS: Challenge. Gear mechanics. Stellar map design. Old school tactical mechanics.

CONS: High difficulty. Graphics won’t satisfy those with unreasonable expectations.

MOD SQUAD: This joins the list of video games that started life as mods for popular titles.

The developers started Insurgency as a mod for Half-Life 2. Over time, and setbacks this eventually led to the creation of an entirely new game in Source engine. If it sounds like a familiar story, that’s because it is. Many other games in recent memory have followed a similar path. The original Counter-Strike is probably the biggest example, launching not only an entirely new franchise, but the careers of developer Gearbox Software.

Only time will tell if New World Interactive will follow the same trajectory. But Insurgency has the potential to  become a pretty big franchise if this title is any indication. Let’s get one thing out of the way, the entire focus here is multiplayer. There is no story driven campaign of scripted events to really speak of. There is a tutorial that has a little bit of exposition, and context. But it doesn’t go into any deep territory. There’s nothing that will remind you of more serious war movies like Platoon. It just explains that you’ve joined up with some contracted mercenaries who have been hired to fight off terrorists. The game doesn’t reference any groups or nations in order to avoid too much controversy. But just like Call Of Duty, Battlefield, and Counter-Strike you’ll be fighting in environments inspired by real world locations.

While there’s no doubt Insurgency borrows from other games, it seems to take out loans on only the good modes. There are several different modes to choose from in both , competitive, and cooperative styles of game play:

Push is fairly similar to the Rush mode you’ve likely played in any of the last few Battlefield games. There are three objectives on the map for the attacking team to claim, while the defenders have to stop them. If the attacking team succeeds, the defenders are pushed back, until they either successfully hold a position. Or, until they’re pushed back to their final position, and destroyed. There are no nodes to destroy in this mode, but the game mode works largely the same as in BF’s Rush.

Ambush is much like the Escort mode you’ve seen in Team Fortress. There are extraction zones on the map, and one team has to escort an assigned player to one of them. The assigned player has a limited load out to defend themselves. The opposing side wins if they can manage to kill off that specific player before they can make it to an extraction zone.

Firefight, and Skirmish are similar to the Conquest modes you’ve played in Battlefield. The difference between the two is that Skirmish adds a weapon cache to the mix. If destroyed, it deals a blow to the opposing team’s ability to have reinforcement tickets. Firefight replenishes tickets for a team when they capture a node on the map.  In both modes though, capturing all three nodes is essential to keeping the enemy team from being able to replenish tickets.

Strike changes things up from the other modes. By making an attacking team go after weapon caches, while defenders try to stop them. If the defenders can’t stop them they lose. They’ll also lose if they are wiped out while trying to stop the attacking team. It’s a little bit higher on the stress factor than some of the other modes as a result.

Occupy is essentially a king of the hill mode, where both teams try to hold a single position on the map. When your team is holding the position, you don’t have to worry about losing waves of lives. But the second you’re on the losing end, trying to reclaim it you do. So the game goes until time runs out, or until one side is out of lives.

But the game doesn’t end with these modes because there are a few cooperative ways to play as well. The most noteworthy mode is Hunt mode which feels like it was heavily inspired by Rainbow Six 3. In that game teams would enter a map, and plan a way to use stealth to take out computer controlled terrorists. If all of the players failed to do so they lost the game. But if even only one person was left standing at the end, the mission was successful. This mode is very similar except the maps are much larger, being a war game. It can be especially tough when dealing with night versions of the various maps, and ridiculously accurate snipers. But if you can pull it off it feels very rewarding.

The other cooperative modes aren’t quite as fun, but they will still have their fans.  Checkpoint is a lot like Push except you’ll have all of the human players fighting against the computer. In addition to that mode is the Survival mode which is effectively a horde mode. Teams try to survive against waves of computer controlled enemies for as long as humanly possible.

Once you’ve decided what kind of game you want to play you can either use the Source browser list, or you can invite friends into a group, and have the game find, and connect you to a server by itself. Having the game do it is a lot easier, and more convenient. However, it won’t always find you the closest possible server in proximity to everybody. So doing this does mean you’re going to end up on the occasional lag ridden game. Purists will want to use the Source browser to find a server to mitigate this possible problem.

When you do connect to a game you’ll be assigned to one side by default, and it is here you can choose to either switch teams or choose your class. This is where Insurgency really starts to veer away from the path taken by other team based shooters. In most games, you are given a choice of four classes, each with its own weapon tree. Over time you level up, and have access to more weapons, and upgrades for that specific class. Insurgency abandons that formula. Instead of only four classes, there can be several. Classes are dependent on the map in question, as well as the mode that is being played. They are also different in number. So there may only be three openings for say, snipers, one for an engineer, and two for other classes. Another interesting spin is that there are two sub groups in each army rather than squads of four people. Each of these subgroups can have one player lead them.

Once everyone has a class chosen, and the match is about to begin players can then choose their load outs. Each player is given a number of points to use. Each weapon, attachment for a weapon, explosive, armor, pouch, and so forth has a point value. You cannot exceed the number of points given. So you have to really think about what you want to sacrifice. Do you want to beef up your shotgun at the expense of body armor? Would you rather have extra grenades, and a side arm instead of a beefy machine gun? Perhaps you want to extend your life above all else, and you put more of your points toward armor, and pouches, instead of primary weaponry.  It’s a refreshing change from the weapon tree system so many games have used over the past decade. It hearkens back to the days of Rainbow Six where tactical games let you use whatever you wanted so long as you were going to be okay with the trade offs.

Once everyone is settled with their load outs the game will begin. Insurgency makes a lot of use of voice chat. It’s built into the game, and it’s highly recommended you take advantage of it. It’s a lot easier to be able to communicate with everyone than trying to type in the chat box. For those who don’t have a headset, you can still type, just remember you’ll need to find a good spot to hide. The game does allow you to mute individual players too though. So for those times you find you have an abusive or annoying player, you don’t have to listen to them. The game also makes very good use of Valve’s VAC anti-cheat system. It really cuts down on the number of cheaters. No game is cheater free, mind you but it does seem to be one of the better systems in place.

That said, you can expect to die an awful lot in this game. Because it does not hold your hand at all. Many of the things we’ve been trained to expect simply aren’t here. If by some miracle you survive being shot you will not regenerate health. Oh you may cease experiencing blur, but that’s only because they’re no longer shooting at you. One or two more hits from another combatant will probably finish you off. Most of the weapons in this game will put you down in three hits max. If you have the maximum amount of armor you may take a few more, but you’ll also move slower. There are no crosshairs. That’s right. No crosshairs. You’re going to have to really use your eyes, and learn to lead your targets here. You can use iron sights to make aiming slightly easier, but it is also slower. You also won’t always find time to use it when engaging three or four enemies at the same time.

Fortunately, some of the attachments for weapons like foregrips, and scopes can help you. But again, you will have to sacrifice something else in order to use them. The same can be said during night maps, where you’ll want to use night vision goggles in lieu of something else. Suppressive fire is almost as important in Insurgency as scoring frags. One of the cool features the game has to offer is the effect of debris. The game doesn’t have destructible environments, but it does have dust, and particle effects flying off of surfaces when bullets hit them. This can overwhelm people because they can’t quite figure out where they’re being shot upon from. So often times suppressive fire can lead to a retreating enemy, allowing a teammate to get them if you couldn’t. Which leads to another difficulty. Unless a server is equipped to do it, there are no notifications. If you kill someone, you won’t know without checking for a body. There are no kill cams. If you die, you won’t see a spy cam or a replay revealing who took you out. Again, a server may run a program that displays who got the jump on you, but it isn’t going to tell you where.

If all of this sounds frustrating, and difficult, that’s because it is. Very much so. But in a good way. When you think about it, it leads to much more careful plotting, and communication with your team. As opposed to other games where it’s easy to place a spot marker on someone, or consult a mini map to find an objective. In Insurgency you’ll have to pull up a large map, and risk being shot. It’s better to memorize the maps after several plays to remember where objectives are. There’s something really compelling about the ramped up difficulty. Especially if you’ve played a lot of the classic tactical games like Rainbow Six, Counter Strike, or Battlefield 1942. Doing well feels a lot more rewarding here than in many other modern shooters. Even if you do end up feeling frustrated, it’s still fun. You’ll still want to succeed, and you’ll probably want to keep playing until you do.

Insurgency doesn’t have all of the bells, and whistles of a major AAA title. Being a Source game, there are some rough edges here. Simple geometry in some areas. Decidedly, lower quality textures in others. If you’re the type who obsesses over what a game looks like rather than how it plays, you may be a little turned off. Nevertheless, Insurgency is not an ugly game. The game does a pretty respectable job at displaying lights, reflections, and shadows. The parking garage section in the Ministry stage comes pretty close to the look of the one in Battlefield 3: Close Quarters’ Operation 925 stage.  Player models aren’t highly detailed, but are on par with the ones seen in some of the older Call Of Duty games. There are also a decent number of options in the graphics menu. Making this something quite scalable.

As a matter of fact, the game has some of the lowest system requirements compared to many other games that have come out over the past 12 months. The minimum requirements list a Core 2 Duo E6600, (A processor that came out in 2006), a Direct X 9.0c compliant Video Card with 512mb of memory on it ( This version of DX came out around 2004), and 6GB of space on the hard disk. Suffice it to say, if you have a fairly old computer that can’t run most new releases, you may be able to run this. Albeit on the lowest settings.  Which still look surprisingly decent all things considered. Even in the world of independent B games, it’s rare for a new game to run okay on a nearly ten-year old computer. The game also runs on Macintosh, which should please those on Apple boxes.

But Insurgency does have some technical issues that keep it from dethroning the ARMA, Call Of Duty, Counter-Strike, and Battlefield franchises of the world. The worst problem the game has is lag. To be fair, all of those other great games certainly have issues as well. But this is a crucial area for competitive games. Being on par with the others isn’t going to help it climb the mountain. The lag issues aren’t nearly bad enough to make the game unplayable. But there seem to be nights when the hosting servers can’t seem to keep up with the traffic. It’s about as infrequent an occurrence as it is with many of the AAA shooters. But it will annoy you if it does happen during a play session.

The other problem it has comes up very rarely, but it will still infuriate people. Sometimes the game will simply close, and exit to the desktop on its own. You won’t see a box show up explaining that it has crashed. You will just see your desktop as if you had never launched the game. Again, almost every other game it competes against has bugs, glitches or crashes. It’s a shame though because it could be another chance for New World Interactive to have one over on its peers. One can only hope these connection issues, and random crashes are solved soon enough. One thing that is very encouraging, is the fact that NWI has been frequently supporting this game with updates. So hopefully they can iron out these problems.

Insurgency may not have the best in visuals, drivable vehicles, or an action packed campaign with Hollywood set pieces. But it has plenty of modes to keep you busy, a large variety of maps, weapons, and a very good communication software feature. It also has very low system requirements, widening the potential player base. The lack of hand holding is going to be very compelling for those who tire of red splashes, and kill cams. Players looking for a really good team based tactical shooter will really love Insurgency’s many competitive modes. Players who want a great cooperative mode will love the Hunt mode.  If you’re looking for a great shooter, with a ton of replay value you should definitely take a look at this game. So long as you don’t mind average graphics, and a high level of challenge. Insurgency kicks ass, and it will certainly kick yours.

Final Score: 8 out of 10