Street Fighter V — Issue 41

Don’t call it a come­back: SFV cleans up after launch

I’m going to be intense­ly per­son­al for a minute: My life by the time of my mid-30s was not fun. It was a time of change, reboots in near­ly every area (part­ner, career, school again), loss and learn­ing from the mis­takes of my 20s. I’m good now, but it wasn’t with­out strug­gle and pain.
And the old­est entry in the fight game can com­mis­er­ate with me because they know what that time is like. Street Fight­er V is sit­ting at the bar with me, drown­ing its sor­rows because it and the series, too, went through it in its mid-30s and like me is doing much bet­ter than one could expect after the struggle.
SFV didn’t start out as mag­i­cal as it has become. The launch was mired in prob­lems and things just weren’t where they should be. The game’s sto­ry mode didn’t launch along­side the actu­al game and the net­code was ter­ri­ble. But what a dif­fer­ence time makes. 

The sto­ry, while still not as engross­ing as past entries, has improved. It moves the SF world mythos along and makes sense if you know the series’ past. Tak­ing place between Ultra SFIV and SF3: 3rd Strike, Char­lie wakes up in a tomb and is guid­ed to steal an item from Guile, which would help him defeat M. Bison. Third Strike boss Gill dri­ves the plot over­all, tying up the loose ends between SFII and the endgame of 3rd Strike, which is the known end of the series sto­ry­line-wise. I love that Gill is tied into this as it always seemed like he was out of place as the end of SF lore. I nev­er ful­ly under­stood why he was the boss of that tril­o­gy of games except as some­thing new for Cap­com to try because every­one was sick of M. Bison by that point.

While I’m impressed with the sto­ry, I’m more impressed with the pre­sen­ta­tion. Much like its pre­de­ces­sors, SFV looks gor­geous. The back­grounds are beau­ti­ful as are most of the char­ac­ter designs. Even the menus look good. Some­times, when I start the game, I take a sec­ond just to mar­vel at the main menu and how the modes are pre­sent­ed. And let’s talk about the sound­track for a sec­ond. The music is all-around amaz­ing. Every time I get in-game, I dis­cov­er anoth­er track that I feel like I haven’t pre­vi­ous­ly heard, and I fall in love all over again. It’s so good that it’s worth track­ing down and adding to your music collection.

While I love the game, there is a big sec­tion I don’t care for: the play style. I’m an Alpha purist, specif­i­cal­ly SF Alpha 3. That’s my Street Fight­er style and has been for years. How­ev­er, SFV plays kind of stiff — a lot like SFIV — and that’s hard for me to grasp. It’s playable, obvi­ous­ly, but it’s not my style of Street Fight­er play. And that’s OK. It real­ly doesn’t detract from the game’s abil­i­ty to shine or be Street Fight­er, but it’s not my per­son­al pref­er­ence to play. It is a lot of fun to watch being played pro­fes­sion­al­ly, though.

Street Fight­er V has come a long way as the most cur­rent entry in the series. Game ele­ments have got­ten a lot of pol­ish, whether it’s fix­ing the net­code or expand­ing the ros­ter with old favorites and skins allud­ing to long-dor­mant char­ac­ters. It’s now the flag­ship game it should have been, and it’s still rul­ing the fight game roost while every­one waits for the announced Street Fight­er 6. 

Some­times, with the strug­gle comes the rewards and SFV has more than earned its life fight money.

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel — Issue 40

Bor­der­lands: The Pre-Sequel is a lot of retread

Stop me if you heard this one.
A group of four boun­ty hunters run amok on Pan­do­ra and open a trea­sure chest filled to the brim with loot after killing a bunch of things.
In fact, you should have stopped me, because you’ve heard that song and dance before. Twice to be pre­cise. It’s because I’ve waxed poet­i­cal­ly about two oth­er Bor­der­lands titles in pre­vi­ous issues over the past decade. It was all fine and well, that run­ning amok on Pan­do­ra. Until it wasn’t. You see, Bor­der­lands has charm and grace, know­ing when it’s hit­ting its lim­it at the bar. Bor­der­lands 2, well, you have to tell it when to stop because it thinks it can han­dle its liquor but real­ly can’t. Pre-Sequel? Brown liquor gives it courage to talk to folks a cer­tain way, and it winds up get­ting thrown out of the bar and Ubered home. It’s because Pre-Sequel thinks it’s some­thing we’ve nev­er seen before, when we all have and we’re not buying.
Bor­der­lands: The Pre-Sequel is set between the events of Bor­der­lands 1 and 2 sto­ry­line-wise but was released chrono­log­i­cal­ly after Bor­der­lands 2. Pre-Sequel tells the parts of the Bor­der­lands saga that we didn’t see hap­pen­ing simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in the first game and men­tioned in the sec­ond game: How Hand­some Jack dis­cov­ered the Vault; took over the Hype­r­i­on Cor­po­ra­tion and, by exten­sion, Pan­do­ra; and, cor­ralled an ear­li­er group to assist in his nefar­i­ous plans of dom­i­na­tion and galac­tic domin­ion. Along for the ride this time are char­ac­ters we already know from Bor­der­lands 2: Nisha Kadam, the future sher­iff of Lynch­wood and Jack’s future girl­friend; Wil­helm, pre-cyber­net­ic obses­sion and trans­for­ma­tion; Athena, wan­der­ing Pan­do­ra after the events of the Secret Armory of Gen­er­al Knoxx DLC in Bor­der­lands; and, Clap­trap, who’s assist­ed the Pan­do­ra Vault Hunters but doesn’t yet know he’s the sac­ri­fi­cial lamb of the sto­ry. These Vault Hunters are sum­moned through an EchoNet call from Jack to find the Vault on Pandora’s moon, Elpis. 
Know­ing what we know now about Jack and his motives, it’s safe to assume that there will be greed, mon­ey and shenani­gans involv­ing guns. Those are there, yes, but it’s just Bor­der­lands 2 with a slight­ly dif­fer­ent mask and a lack­ing sto­ry. Because make no mis­take: The sto­ry is not mov­ing for­ward here. It’s sole­ly meant to fill in some gaps, but it’s obvi­ous it’s not meant to be some sort of pitch-shifter that Bor­der­lands 2 or Bor­der­lands 3 were and are.
Know­ing this about the sto­ry, what you find when you get to Elpis is def­i­nite­ly a whole lot of typ­i­cal Bor­der­lands skull­dug­gery. From the begin­ning of the jour­ney once you touch down on the plan­et, the new mechan­ics of oxy­gen man­age­ment and low grav­i­ty are a pain to deal with and obnox­ious. Yes, you do need some­thing new to spice things up a bit, but it’s not imple­ment­ed with any type of pre­ci­sion or enjoy­ment. Con­stant­ly hav­ing to man­age how much oxy­gen is left while try­ing to avoid tak­ing dam­age means dis­trac­tion, and it ruins any sort of sand­box vibe the game might have been going for. Oxy­gen man­age­ment is also tak­ing prece­dence while work­ing through Bor­der­lands Begin­ning Syn­drome, or when you start a char­ac­ter in a Bor­der­lands playthrough with lit­tle to no help. The first few hours of any Bor­der­lands playthrough are slow and a slog with no help, and Pre-Sequel is no excep­tion. All oth­er mechan­ics are Bor­der­lands 2 based, so there’s noth­ing else new here of note.
Much like the non-new mechan­ics, the graph­ics are Bor­der­lands 2 based as well. So, you’re not going to see new tex­tures, though there are a few new ene­mies and NPCs to change things up a bit. The new ene­mies are slight­ly inter­est­ing, as are some of the boss­es. This has always been Bor­der­lands’ strength as fran­chise: Col­or­ful char­ac­ters that leave an impres­sion. Pre-Sequel man­ages to cre­ate some good­will with some new char­ac­ters, but they’re all in the style of Bor­der­lands 2. Bor­der­lands 2 was ser­vice­able in its graph­ics as a mar­gin­al­ly bet­ter upgrade to Bor­der­lands, so you’re get­ting that mar­gin­al upgrade here as well. The sound­track also is Bor­der­lands 2 based, so if you enjoyed that, you’re prob­a­bly going to enjoy this, too. There are a few tracks that stand out, but noth­ing spe­cial … much like every­thing else offered here.
Take Pre-Sequel for what it is: a stand­alone pack­age that real­ly should have been prepara­to­ry DLC for Bor­der­lands 2 or even fol­low-up DLC for that game. It real­ly shouldn’t have been held back after Bor­der­lands 2 because it works well as a stop­gap mea­sure between Bor­der­lands and Bor­der­lands 2. As a front-end sequel game, it’s just more of Bor­der­lands 2 — down to the reused assets and sound­track — and that doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly increase its endear­ing qual­i­ties, no mat­ter how much I love Bor­der­lands as a whole. At this point, it’s suf­fer­ing from sequel-itis.

Ken Griffey Jr.‘s Winning Run — Issue 40

The Kid’s SNES fol­low-up a guar­an­teed home run

There are a few things Rare, the bas­tion of all that is unholy in retro gam­ing, has done cor­rect­ly. One was Gold­en­Eye 007 for the Nin­ten­do 64. And anoth­er is the Ken Grif­fey Jr. MLB series.
Ken Grif­fey Jr., for the unini­ti­at­ed, is one of the best major league play­ers to have ever picked up a bat and glove. There was once a time that folks believed that Grif­fey would beat Hank Aaron’s home run record in the ’90s. Alas, once Grif­fey left the Seat­tle Mariners after the 1995 sea­son, he was nev­er the same thanks to numer­ous injuries. He’s still “that guy,” though, and it remains that his game series is one of the best in arcade base­ball. The first game was good, but the sequel — Ken Grif­fey Jr.’s Win­ning Run — is absolute fire.
Let’s start with the premise, because there actu­al­ly is some­thing of a sto­ry here. The open­ing cin­e­mat­ics show Grif­fey Jr. at the plate doing what he does best: Smack the ball. Already beloved by fans and team­mates, his hero­ics in the bot­tom of the 11th inning of the 1995 Amer­i­can League Divi­sion Series’ final game that year cement­ed the city’s love for “The Kid” and led to the birth of this sequel title. He was so beloved that when Grif­fey Jr. start­ed think­ing about retire­ment, Seat­tle active­ly cam­paigned for the Hall of Famer to sim­ply “come home” and reclaim his title of King of the King­dome. This set­up is lov­ing­ly craft­ed in just the intro, and the rest of the game is favor­able because of it. 
So, what’s inside the pack­age with a slick out­side? A lot, for a SNES game. There are sev­er­al ways to play, depend­ing on if you want a quick game or if you want to make a full 162-game sea­son of things. The MLB League mode is a great­ly appre­ci­at­ed fea­ture. In it, you can choose to play three types of sea­sons: A short 26-game sea­son, a medi­um 52-game sea­son and a full 162-game sea­son. There’s also an option to play an exhi­bi­tion game in the MLB Chal­lenge mode. I like the abil­i­ty to choose between those options, because maybe I don’t want to sit through an entire sea­son. I can’t do that in real life, so I know I don’t want to do that in a video game ver­sion. There’s even a mode to resume a pre­vi­ous­ly start­ed game. 
If you’re not so inclined to be a play­er, there’s a decent man­ag­er mode includ­ed. Ever the non-tra­di­tion­al­ist, if you’re like me and you want to skip to the end, you can run through a World Series mode where you play out the Series to crown your cham­pi­on. There’s also an All-Star mode where you can play through the tit­u­lar game and par­tic­i­pate in the Home Run Derby. 
With the wealth of options in how to play, it’s easy to actu­al­ly play. Win­ning Run doesn’t rein­vent the wheel of base­ball video game mechan­ics, which is a good thing. That means that even if you’re not a sports nut, you could prob­a­bly pick up the game and learn how to play base­ball. Base run­ning, field­ing, pitch­ing and bat­ting are easy to under­stand here, and the mechan­ics all come naturally. 
While Win­ning Run doesn’t have the MLB player’s license — nei­ther did the orig­i­nal game, either — it does have a fla­vor that com­pet­ing games at the time didn’t have: Charm and charis­ma in every detail. The graph­ics are clean, crisp and out­right beau­ti­ful. They are so well done that even 26 years lat­er, as a SNES game, they hold up. Even the menu graph­ics look great. Rare was killing it in the late por­tion of the SNES’ lifes­pan, and Win­ning Run is a stun­ning example.
And, for a moment, let’s talk about the sound­track. This is one of the few sports sound­tracks that I own. Rare’s sound team con­tin­u­ous­ly makes up for the sur­round­ing mess with qual­i­ty sound, and this is one of the best from their cat­a­logue. The main theme was fan­tas­tic, and the menu theme is out­stand­ing as well. Both themes add to the over­all pack­age and get things start­ed off right. The in-game ambi­ence is nice as is the play announc­er. Every­thing ulti­mate­ly cre­ates a good arcade base­ball feel, which you’re going to need if you’re going to slog through an entire pennant.
Tech­ni­cal­ly, aside from the lack of the MLB player’s license, there’s noth­ing wrong with Win­ning Run. The lack of play­er names and like­ness­es is a bum­mer, but it doesn’t real­ly take away from the core strengths of Win­ning Run. 
Excel­lent options, easy-to-under­stand mechan­ics and a fan­tas­tic sound­track make run­ning the bases fun in Win­ning Run. The Kid’s sequel effort paid off and bats high in the order of great sports games.

The Punisher — Issue 40

The Pun­ish­er makes good in dig­i­tal crime cleanup

Before Mar­vel vs. Cap­com became a rel­e­vant name to gamers, the com­pa­nies col­lab­o­rat­ed on oth­er games. Those games became essen­tial clas­sics to devel­op gamers who spe­cial­ized in sin­gle-com­bat titles. In 1994, Cap­com and Mar­vel brought a Final Fight-style game to the Gen­e­sis that starred comics’ most infa­mous anti-hero: Frank Cas­tle aka The Punisher.
The game fol­lows the sto­ry­line of the clas­sic Mar­vel comics series. Frank Cas­tle, a dec­o­rat­ed vet­er­an Marine, was enjoy­ing a day in the park with his fam­i­ly when they unwit­ting­ly became wit­ness­es to a mob shoot­ing. As a result, Cas­tle and his fam­i­ly were mas­sa­cred, him being the only sur­vivor. Cas­tle became deter­mined to get pay­back by any means nec­es­sary. With fel­low war­rior Nick Fury (of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Cas­tle begins his war on crime against mob boss Wil­son Fisk aka King­pin, who caused the death of his fam­i­ly and many oth­er innocents. 
The game plays sim­i­lar­ly to “Final Fight” and “Cap­tain Com­man­do.” You can choose to play as either Cas­tle or Fury and can team up in mul­ti­play­er. You start off with the basics, pro­gress­ing to com­bos and var­i­ous weapons such as hand­guns, auto­mat­ic rifles and katanas. There was lib­er­al food and oth­er pow­er-ups such as cash, gold bars and dia­monds that increased my score and restored health since the amount of ene­mies com­ing at me was nonstop. 
The graph­ics were pleas­ant enough, although they attempt­ed to copy arcade cab­i­net-qual­i­ty with lit­tle suc­cess. I will give Cap­com cred­it for mak­ing the graph­ics comic­book-like. it was like read­ing an actu­al issue of the comics includ­ing cap­tions “BLAM!” “KRAK” and BOOM!” instead of play­ing a rushed paint job of a pop­u­lar com­ic series video game. The music of each stage was also decent as Capcom’s sound team deliv­ered, keep­ing things close to what the Pun­ish­er feels like. 
With the work Cap­com put in, the atten­tion to detail made me want to pick it up to play as a return­ing com­ic book fan who knew about Cas­tle and Fury but want­ed to learn more about the King­pin and oth­er Mar­vel vil­lains such as Bush­whack­er and Bonebreaker. 
The Pun­ish­er is the first suc­cess­ful par­ing of Capcom’s know-how with Marvel’s leg­endary vig­i­lante who wastes no time dis­pens­ing his brand of jus­tice on crim­i­nals. Play­ing through this isn’t exact­ly punishment.

Mario Kart 8 (Wii U) — Issue 40

Mario Kart races back to form in Wii U edition

There comes a time in every Mario Kart fan’s life when you have to make a choice of whether you still love the series or if you don’t. I assume this, of course, because I have no idea if any­one still plays Mario Kart or not. I assume they do, and I just don’t know it. The series hit that fabled peak of ques­tion­abil­i­ty for me when Mario Kart Wii was released. GI wasn’t using a rat­ing scale when we reviewed it (editor’s note: This was reviewed in 3Q2008), but suf­fice to say it would not have received a good score. Mario Kart had a lot of work to redeem itself for me, a long­time lover of the series who start­ed in 1992. The lat­est orig­i­nal entry, Mario Kart 8, has made sig­nif­i­cant effort to pol­ish the series again.
Mario Kart, at its core, has always been about arcade rac­ing. There’s noth­ing real­is­tic about play­ing as var­i­ous Mario and oth­er gen­er­al Nin­ten­do char­ac­ters while romp­ing through var­i­ous Mush­room King­dom locales. It’s always been about the Mario charm expand­ed to fit with­in a palat­able dri­ving scheme that makes any­one a cham­pi­on go-kart enthu­si­ast. Mario Kart 8 does not shirk on this charm. If it’s a mem­o­rable Mario char­ac­ter, they’re prob­a­bly in this game. 
And, in a nod to the appeal of Nin­ten­do crossover and nos­tal­gia, there are new addi­tions from out­side the port­ly mus­ta­chioed plumber’s usu­al sus­pects: You can now play as Ani­mal Crossing’s Isabelle and The Leg­end of Zelda’s Link. While they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly con­tribute any­thing new to the series, their pres­ence is enough to elic­it excite­ment because it means Nin­ten­do is final­ly open­ing Mario Kart up to the gen­er­al ros­ter. There is much to mine from, and if you’re ques­tion­ing any of this, look at the lead Smash Bros. has tak­en in this field.
Mario Kart has always been the sort of series that takes its his­to­ry seri­ous­ly. Entries after Mario Kart: Dou­ble Dash have begun ref­er­enc­ing the pre­vi­ous tracks of yore, some­times with var­ied results. Mario Kart 8 man­ages to gath­er a lot of stel­lar new tracks and some old that aren’t favorites but will suf­fice as entries. A lot of the old­er tracks are from more recent entries but make no mis­take — they are there for the pur­pose of draw­ing you in to remind you of the good times and then send you on your mer­ry way to try the new tracks. Tug­ging at my heart strings with a mod­ern SNES Rain­bow Road remake will get you every­where, though there are caveats to these remakes. 
While the tracks are great graph­i­cal­ly, the music is hit or miss. When I say I want a Rain­bow Road throw­back, I also want the orig­i­nal music to go with it. It doesn’t need a musi­cal over­haul because the orig­i­nal music was bril­liant. I’m not sure why Nin­ten­do thought it need­ed to have the sound remade, but it wasn’t a par­tic­u­lar­ly great deci­sion. Oth­er remas­tered stage choic­es, includ­ing Grum­ble Vol­cano and Music Park, are fine. And a lot of the new tracks are great; Drag­on Drift­way and Excite­bike Are­na are def­i­nite standouts.
Graph­i­cal­ly, the game looks amaz­ing. It’s the best-look­ing Mario Kart pro­duced yet. All the char­ac­ters look life-like, and the stages are incred­i­bly detailed. Even the water par­ti­cle effects look amaz­ing. There are times when there’s a brief lull in action that I can soak up the sur­round­ings, and I’m impressed by the Wii U’s under­stat­ed capa­bil­i­ty. Mario Kart 8 shows what the sys­tem could poten­tial­ly do. It’s a tes­ta­ment also to just how good Mario Kart looks in the mod­ern era.
Now, here’s where we may have some issues. I’m not fond of the AI rub­ber­band­ing, and I haven’t been a fan of it since the Mario Kart 64 days. We are a quar­ter of a cen­tu­ry grown up and past that, and we’re still hav­ing issues with last-minute vic­to­ries by the AI. This is a known issue at this point, yet it rears its ugly head still. Also, while a lot of the new tracks are cool — Excite­bike Are­na among the best of the bunch — there are some that do absolute­ly noth­ing for me. Track selec­tion is impor­tant, and this entry has dullards. Big Blue, for what­ev­er rea­son, keeps show­ing up in mod­ern catchall Nin­ten­do games, and it’s here, too. I’m not impressed with the track at all, and they could have come up with some­thing else. 
Also, while I love the Ani­mal Cross­ing track, it needs some­thing else than the series’ cute motif and catchy music. It’s your basic, run of the mill dri­ve around in a loop track, but it needs some­thing else to give it some pop. Same thing goes for the Hyrule track. It’s basic, too. What makes this worse is that the tracks are part of the DLC bun­dle for the game. If you’re ask­ing me to spend hard-earned mon­ey on extras, the extras need to be super spe­cial. I’m not get­ting that with those two tracks, specif­i­cal­ly. Thank­ful­ly, there are oth­er extras to be had that kind of make up for those.
Over­all, this is a sol­id entry in the Mario Kart sphere of influ­ence. This is the best entry in years, and it deserves some high praise for a lot of the things that it gets right. There’s always room for improve­ment, but the rac­ing king con­tin­ues to show why it’s the arcade rac­ing champ and why it con­tin­ues to rule the road of go-karting.

Watch Dogs — Issue 40

Watch who watch­es soci­ety in sur­veil­lance thriller

I am sort of a tech geek. While I do not have the lat­est gad­gets in gam­ing or mod­ern liv­ing, I love to have knowl­edge about the lat­est in dig­i­tal secu­ri­ty. Dur­ing the height of the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, I spent time off binge-watch­ing the USA net­work show “Mr. Robot.” The pro­tag­o­nist, Elliot Ander­son, was not a social but­ter­fly, but if he want­ed to know some­thing about some­one, all he needs is their dig­i­tal details and he would either help or hin­der them. Before Mr. Robot took form, Ubisoft in 2014 devel­oped a game that applied action-adven­ture ele­ments and mixed them with cyber­se­cu­ri­ty and per­son­al pri­va­cy issues involv­ing big tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies. Watch Dogs was born of that curios­i­ty.
In Watch Dogs, you take on the role of hack­er Aiden Pierce, who in 2012 was col­lab­o­rat­ing with his mentor/partner Damien Brenks on an elec­tron­ic finan­cial heist in a fic­tion­al Chica­go hotel. Unknown to the hack­ing duo, they tripped off an alarm set by anoth­er hack­er, which forces Aiden to take his fam­i­ly out of the city.
While on the run, they are pur­sued by hit­man Mau­rice Vega in a car chase that kills Aiden’s niece. Enraged, Aiden, along with partner/fixer Jor­di Chin, sets off to find Vega and his employ­er while uncov­er­ing a hideous con­spir­a­cy behind the pop­u­lar CtOS (Cen­tral Oper­at­ing Sys­tem) that has Chica­go heav­i­ly depen­dent on it.
Watch Dogs is sim­ple to play yet requires some prac­tice to be famil­iar with. Using the ana­log sticks to con­trol Aiden’s move­ments and the in-game cam­era was dif­fi­cult at first; how­ev­er, with enough prac­tice, you will have him almost invin­ci­ble. The menu for Aiden’s col­lect­ed items as well as dri­ving sce­nar­ios are like Grand Theft Auto, which I found frus­trat­ing but not unplayable. Aiden’s main weapons are a col­lapsi­ble baton and a portable device known as the Pro­fil­er. The Pro­fil­er picks up NPC info that could be used to loot or embar­rass them, depend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion. Also, you scan scale ver­ti­cal walls and crouch behind walls to hide from ene­mies. I espe­cial­ly like the abil­i­ty to hide because it’s well done in its appli­ca­tion. Dur­ing the first mis­sion of the game, I found Vega and roughed him up, hacked the base­ball stadium’s pow­er grid to cause a black­out and snuck away from the police. With the well-prac­ticed con­trols, it was easy to make this sequence work and get on with the rest of the game. That’s how smooth it should be.
The graph­ics in Watch Dogs are sharp and do well in tak­ing advan­tage of Ubisoft’s Dis­rupt engine, which pre­sent­ed the city of Chica­go and its land­marks with great care and detail. Anoth­er detail I liked was the abil­i­ty to set the time for Aiden to rest. The rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the day and night cycle was per­fect. Watch Dog’s music is a nice mix of adren­a­line and house music and con­tributed well to the over­all atmos­phere.
Watch Dogs is great to play if you want to act out your vig­i­lante hero fan­tasies, legal­ly, of course. Watch Dogs will not dis­ap­point, although I would rec­om­mend using a strat­e­gy guide to help make your first playthrough more enjoy­able.
For those who are inter­est­ed in cyber­se­cu­ri­ty like I am or want to expe­ri­ence con­trol of a city by tech­nol­o­gy, get to hacking.

Samurai Shodown 2019 — Issue 39

Show­ing up to show out

Vet­er­an fight­ing series Samu­rai Shodown returns with few flaws

SNK has done it again. Gor­geous graph­ics, fun play mechan­ics and a sol­id fight­ing game engine make up the core of one of its flag­ship fight­ing fran­chis­es fea­tur­ing samu­rai. If you’re in the mode for beau­ti­ful fight­ing in the Japan­ese feu­dal era, you’ve come to the right place in the 2019 revival of Samu­rai Shodown.

Get­ting back to the root of what makes Samu­rai Shodown fun and unique, the 2019 reboot is basic in every way. The bare­bones options mean there isn’t much to do, but if you’re look­ing to just pick a fight­er and jump in, it’s clear­ly there for that. You choose from 18 base ros­ter fight­ers and duke it out in feu­dal Japan with var­i­ous moti­va­tions. All are inves­ti­gat­ing a com­ing cat­a­stro­phe, but their inten­tion in the face of a sin­is­ter envi­ron­ment is unique. Time­line-wise, the game is set between the pre­quel Samu­rai Shodown V and the orig­i­nal Samu­rai Shodown. So, you’re get­ting a taste of the sto­ry before the main series even kicks off.

The char­ac­ters, as well as the back­grounds, are stun­ning. SNK has always been known for its impres­sive atten­tion to detail when it comes to graph­ics with Samu­rai Shodown, and this entry is no dif­fer­ent. The col­ors pop with an empha­sis on non-real­is­tic graph­ics that resem­ble what we know in the West as ukiyo‑e and wood­block paint­ings; every­thing is utter­ly gor­geous, begin­ning with the menu and options screens.

As a title set in feu­dal Japan, the music must reflect the envi­ron­ment — and it’s well done as well. The use of tra­di­tion­al Japan­ese instru­ments has always been present in Samu­rai Shodown and it’s used lib­er­al­ly and to great effect. Also, the voice work is excel­lent. We appre­ci­ate the Japan­ese lan­guage, and it sounds beau­ti­ful and clear here.

We do have an obvi­ous issue with the reboot, despite its beau­ty. There is a notice­able lack of things to do once you stop mar­veling at the graph­ics. Where are the modes beyond the stan­dard offer­ings? So much more could have been added, espe­cial­ly with the series’ his­to­ry at hand. It’s a pret­ty pack­age but it’s miss­ing a lot.

Samu­rai Shodown has been around for a long time, and this revival is just that: A return to the roots of a fan­tas­tic fight­ing game series. This entry is stun­ning and grace­ful yet just enough to whet the appetite of a fight­ing game new­com­er or a sea­soned vet­er­an. With this suc­cess, SNK now knows what it needs to do to show up and show out with the renewed inter­est in the show­stop­per that is Samu­rai Shodown.

Ghost of Tsushima — Issue 39

A ghost­ly com­pelling tale

Beau­ti­ful. Stun­ning. Breath­tak­ing. The Japan­ese coun­try­side of Tsushi­ma can only be described this way, and this is being mod­est. Immer­sion in the strug­gle and bur­den of a samu­rai lord in 13th cen­tu­ry Japan against invad­ing Mon­gols is stu­pe­fy­ing once you real­ize that it’s intri­cate­ly craft­ed in a video game. You are the ghost, the Ghost of Tsushima.

Wan­der­ing around the real island of Tsushi­ma, Japan, in 1274 is a fairy­tale. Every loca­tion and near­ly every blade of grass or tree tells a sto­ry. That sto­ry is of samu­rai lord Jin Sakai, a man des­per­ate to save his home from an invad­ing Mon­go­lian force led by the grand­son of Genghis Khan. Jin gath­ers a coun­ter­force, only to be defeat­ed and near­ly killed. In the process of heal­ing, Jin finds allies to ral­ly to the cause and peti­tions for help from the shogu­nate to defeat the Mon­gols. You become Jin in your quest to save his home and gath­er weapons and sup­plies, learn skills, acquire alliances, and fight to repeal the invaders. There is much to learn and see in the open world pre­sent­ed to you even if you aren’t a his­to­ry buff or care about the pol­i­tics, econ­o­my, or goings on of feu­dal Japan. There are no time lim­its for tack­ling mis­sions, and you are encour­aged to free roam and explore the land.

Much like any oth­er open world game I’ve ever played, what I like to call the “Metroid instinct” kicks in and I find myself search­ing every nook and cran­ny to find hid­den sup­plies and oth­er good­ies. Dur­ing my explo­ration, of course, I come across peo­ple who don’t like Jin. I note the pres­ence of bon­fires, which gen­er­al­ly indi­cates who I like to refer to as “dudes.” Dudes are the type that are gen­er­al­ly hos­tile to me and my inter­ests. Those inter­ests involve inves­ti­ga­tion and sav­ing peo­ple in the gen­er­al pop­u­lace who require the ser­vices of a skilled samu­rai and con­tract killer. This is usu­al­ly how the fight starts: Dudes notice me in my fin­ery and my mag­i­cal horse frol­ick­ing in the coun­try­side and now they want to get reck­less about things.

In an absolute­ly fun mechan­ic, I tend to get into stand­offs with ban­dits. Now, my fight­ing skills here with a katana and tan­tō are not the best, but I have been known to make dudes meet their mak­er quick­ly. Sim­i­lar­ly, I’m not great with archery, but I make the best of a bad sit­u­a­tion and stealth kill my way through the coun­try­side clean­ly and quick­ly. My grasp of the con­trols is ten­u­ous at best, but that’s on me and my lack of skill and “old­er folks’ reflex­es™”. Ghost’s con­trol mechan­ics are sound and easy to pick up with a lit­tle practice.

As I explore after my fights, loot­ing what I need, I take in the scenery. Ghost of Tsushi­ma is quite pos­si­bly the most beau­ti­ful video game I have ever seen. I’ve been play­ing games a long time, and I can’t say until now that I’ve ever been just wowed by a game where I specif­i­cal­ly take in-game pho­tog­ra­phy to use as a back­ground. This is what you buy the lat­est con­sole for and the best TV for: mar­veling at the graph­ics. I’m not even on the lat­est PlaySta­tion mod­el (I’m play­ing with a PS4 Pro), and Ghost makes almost every­thing else look like stick fig­ures from the Atari 2600 era.

With a mas­ter­ful audio expe­ri­ence, Ghost has the sound and feel of a Kuro­sawa mas­ter­piece. You want to feel like the epic Sev­en Samu­rai? Turn on the Japan­ese dia­logue and Eng­lish sub­ti­tles. It’s that type of expe­ri­ence. The nat­ur­al ambiance is also nice. It’s com­fort­ing to know that pay­ing atten­tion to sounds in the envi­ron­ment can save Jin’s life when I’m explor­ing. I’ve lost count of the num­ber of times lis­ten­ing for audio cues linked to bears or dudes has helped me avoid an ambush.

While it’s a great expe­ri­ence, Ghost is not with­out its prob­lems. The cam­era work doesn’t always help when it’s time to fight. Often, I’m fight­ing the cam­era to see my ene­mies and avoid tak­ing mas­sive dam­age. The cam­era could use some refine­ment in lat­er updates. And my oth­er issue is the Leg­ends mode, added after the game’s ini­tial release. I was all geared up to play with my part­ner and then real­ized that this long-await­ed co-op mode does not sup­port local play. We were hot­ly antic­i­pat­ing being able to roam around Tsushi­ma togeth­er as we’re gamers, engrossed in the tale of Jin who absolute­ly love samu­rai. But we were high­ly dis­ap­point­ed to learn that the only co-op sup­port­ed is online. Though the mode is free, it was a mas­sive let­down to real­ize that we weren’t going to be play­ing this epic together.

Despite some minor tech­ni­cal issues, Ghost of Tsushi­ma hits the mark in a lot of areas. A com­pe­tent nar­ra­tive, open world explo­ration, stun­ning visu­als and an easy-to-grasp sys­tem are just some of the good­ies await­ing engross­ment in Jin’s tale of revenge and rev­o­lu­tion in 1274 feu­dal Japan. Ghost of Tsushi­ma scares up a great adven­ture wor­thy of all the praise one can muster.

Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 2 — Issue 39

Gun­dam sec­ond game not yet there

Pre­vi­ous­ly, I reviewed Dynasty War­riors: Gun­dam 3, which set the stage for me to try the oth­ers in the series. Lit­tle did I know, I would be learn­ing a valu­able les­son: Not every pop­u­lar fran­chise will always have best-sell­ers. An excel­lent exam­ple would be Dynasty War­riors: Gun­dam 2.

Gun­dam 2 fol­lows the same ros­ter of char­ac­ters in var­i­ous entries in the Gun­dam uni­verse, includ­ing some char­ac­ters and mobile suits that were only fea­tured in Gun­dam movies. To com­pen­sate for a lack of a sto­ry­line, DWG2 has two modes: Sto­ry, where you can play as one of a select group of char­ac­ters from their respec­tive Gun­dam series; and, Mis­sion, where you choose a char­ac­ter with var­i­ous mis­sions set in the uni­ver­sal cen­tu­ry time­line and you can inter­act with var­i­ous char­ac­ters from oth­er series. As you move along, you gain expe­ri­ence points to increase your lev­el and col­lect var­i­ous mobile suit parts. There is also a chance to earn new skills just like DWG3 as you advance to high­er levels.

Gun­dam 2 also spe­cial mis­sions where you can fight against oth­er oppo­nents to earn licens­es to pilot dif­fer­ent suits, earn the trust of oth­er char­ac­ters to fight beside you and acquire high­er-lev­el parts for mobile suits. The mobile suit lab and ter­mi­nal fea­tures help you to keep up with chang­ing events and cur­rent devel­op­ments with dif­fer­ent mobile suits.

What I like about Gun­dam 2 is that every char­ac­ter is legit in the Gun­dam uni­verse, which made me won­der if I saw the actu­al Gun­dam series with that char­ac­ter. Also, the open­ing cin­e­ma was high qual­i­ty, show­ing off the minor suits such as GMs and Zakus, who were observ­ing the OG RX-78, Strike Free­dom and Nu Gun­dam suits doing bat­tle while the Saz­abi and Psy­cho Gun­dam lurked in the shad­ows. Addi­tion­al­ly, I also appre­ci­at­ed Nam­co Bandai, Sun­rise and Koei retain­ing the orig­i­nal Eng­lish voice actors to reprise their respec­tive char­ac­ters; this gives DWG2 the need­ed cred­i­bil­i­ty as an offi­cial Gun­dam video game.

How­ev­er, despite the good, the bad parts stick out like sore thumbs. When I try to fight in oth­er bat­tle­fields, I’m restrict­ed in mov­ing, which weak­ens my attacks, and leaves me vul­ner­a­ble. Also, the in-game cam­era was VERY unhelp­ful, espe­cial­ly in boss fights with giant ene­mies where I was pilot­ing my mobile suit on low ener­gy while run­ning and avoid­ing attacks by giant ene­mies like Psy­cho Gun­dam, Big Zam, and Queen Mansa. I also found cer­tain parts of the game have unre­al­is­tic time lim­its to fight ene­mies to achieve cer­tain objec­tives. Final­ly, I found the biggest insult to me as a Gun­dam fan was the graph­ics; these feel like cheap knock-off paint jobs of Gun­dam and low­er-rank mobile suits alike. To be fair, the asso­ci­at­ed pilots look like their ani­me coun­ter­parts, but the suits were not giv­en the same treat­ment. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I would also be remiss if I did not include the LONG wait to obtain skills, unlike in DWG3. I could unlock and pur­chase new skills in addi­tion to lev­el­ing up char­ac­ters more effi­cient­ly via train­ing ses­sions in the lat­ter game’s shop.

There are hits and miss­es that the qual­i­ty assur­ance teams should have noticed, but there are bright spots such as music and voice act­ing being excel­lent. I would still play Gun­dam 2 when I have free time, but Bandai Nam­co did such a rush job on it that I feel jus­ti­fied almost not rec­om­mend­ing it. I’m just glad that DWG3 is a far supe­ri­or prod­uct and sticks to the essen­tials that make Gun­dam, well, Gun­dam. Dynasty War­riors: Gun­dam 2 is on the way but not quite there.

Nobunaga’s Ambition — Issue 39

Ambi­tious guide to greatness

I’m appar­ent­ly no bat­tle­field gen­er­al. I learned this fas­ci­nat­ing tid­bit about myself with­in a rather rough short sea­son of my gam­ing life through dis­as­trous deci­sions and lack of prepa­ra­tion. My troops weren’t ready, I didn’t have enough hors­es and my crops failed to sus­tain my gar­ri­son. Even my samu­rai and nin­ja were tak­en out quick­ly. I was out­manned, out­matched and dec­i­mat­ed before I knew what hit me. Suf­fice to say, if I had been Oda Nobuna­ga, feu­dal Japan would have been in sham­bles like my men­tions on Twit­ter these days. That is the way in Nobunaga’s Ambition.

Ambi­tion is not for the faint of heart. It requires seri­ous plan­ning, thought­ful tac­ti­cal strikes, and good resource man­age­ment. At its core, Nobunaga’s Ambi­tion is a war sim­u­la­tion that takes you through feu­dal Japan’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary peri­od, where uni­fi­ca­tion was the goal and Nobuna­ga was the man to do it — pos­si­bly. While you can choose to be Nobuna­ga, you can be any oth­er num­ber of gen­er­als from dif­fer­ent regions of Japan at the time. You’re tasked with rais­ing an army, gath­er­ing and main­tain­ing sup­plies, and defend­ing your region while con­quer­ing oth­ers in a bid to uni­fy all of Japan under your shogunate.

You roam around the Japan­ese coun­try­side with your troops and chal­lenge the oth­er gen­er­als in a turn-based bat­tle some­times to the death. If suc­cess­ful, your name will be men­tioned in his­to­ry as a great gen­er­al and the uni­fi­er, much as his­to­ry played out with Nobunaga’s vic­to­ry over Shogun Ashik­a­ga Yoshi­a­ki in 1582 and his suc­ces­sors’ bat­tles after his death.

The premise is unique, though to ful­ly appre­ci­ate what it is you’re doing and why, you prob­a­bly will have to be a his­to­ry geek or inter­est­ed in Asian his­to­ry. It’s niche but fun with a lot of his­tor­i­cal edu­ca­tion thrown in.

Its niche con­text aside, the game is fun to play once you ful­ly get into the sim­u­la­tion. It’s a very 1993 pre­sen­ta­tion. The graph­ics are small for the maps, but they’re rem­i­nis­cent of the graph­ics of the time for the SNES and Win­dows games. The stand­out among the graph­ics, though, are the gen­er­al por­traits. They’re col­or­ful — as are the oth­er graph­ic ele­ments — but are also beau­ti­ful­ly detailed. For a SNES game, the graph­ics are top notch and still can com­pete with the big titles of the era.

The music can be a lit­tle grat­ing but it’s not over­ly ter­ri­ble. There are a few dif­fer­ent songs for the menus and bat­tle, and while slight­ly tin­ny, they are OK in a short-term play setting.

If you’re into strat­e­gy sim­u­la­tions and Japan­ese his­to­ry, let curios­i­ty strike and set­tle in for a rous­ing bat­tle. Nobunaga’s Ambi­tion is enough to get you start­ed in the genre and is des­tined to lead to greater things.