ModNation Racers — Issue 42

The mods must be unimpressed

Mod­Na­tion Rac­ers stum­bles at start­ing line despite wealth of options

When you come for the king, you bet­ter not miss. And, as much as Mod­Na­tion Rac­ers tries to come for Mario Kart, it miss­es by quite a wide mile.
Mod­Na­tion Rac­ers tries, I’ll give it that. There’s depth to be had here for an arcade go-kart rac­er. There are var­i­ous modes to jump into, includ­ing a career mode and online and offline play. Addi­tion­al­ly, the cre­ate-a-char­ac­ter and track edi­tors are seri­ous time sinks. A once-thriv­ing and robust online store for all sorts of mods — the name of the game — is still there. The cus­tomiza­tion remains deep, with var­i­ous ways to dress your char­ac­ter and build a rig that suits your aes­thet­ic. This is where Mod­Na­tion has the advan­tage over Mario Kart, and that’s obvi­ous from the get-go. 
But under­neath the sur­face, Mod­Na­tion starts to fal­ter big time. The tracks are gener­ic and bor­ing and are gen­er­al­ly under­whelm­ing with a clunky design to the over­all feel. There was noth­ing that jumped out as inter­est­ing, and they feel slapped togeth­er and cliche. And, equal­ly as bor­ing is the char­ac­ter design. Despite the char­ac­ters being chibi-rac­ers, they aren’t cute. The super-deformed look works when you can pull it off, and Unit­ed Front Games did­n’t suc­ceed here. The char­ac­ters look gener­ic and stale with no personality.
As bland as the char­ac­ter design is, even goofi­er are the con­trols. Kart rac­ing, while not a pre­ci­sion genre, should be easy to con­trol. Mod­Na­tion Rac­ers is not easy to race in, con­sid­er­ing there’s some­thing assigned to every but­ton on the con­troller and then some. On top of that, the con­trols feel impre­cise, loose, and slop­py. Also, the speed lev­els, while cus­tomiz­able, are not tuned prop­er­ly. What should have been the eas­i­est and slow­est speed for a new­com­er still felt like the equiv­a­lent of 150CC in Mario Kart. That’s not easy, and the con­trols are unhelp­ful in deal­ing with that sen­sa­tion of speed. 
Also, some of the rac­ing mechan­ics are ques­tion­able at best. The drift­ing fea­ture is ter­ri­ble; at no point was com­plet­ing a drift pos­si­ble going as fast as I was going. And, the AI’s con­sis­tent abil­i­ty to pre­vent weapon pick­up even on the eas­i­est lev­el was grat­ing as was the con­stant bump­ing into objects and bar­ri­ers. It’s obnox­ious also that there is no weapons dis­play beyond words and a meter. Explain­ing what the weapons are and their effects would have con­tributed to more playing.
Adding insult to injury, the sound­track is gener­ic and for­get­table. Not a sin­gle track stood out, and much like the lev­el design, seemed half-thought-out and lazy. I kept hop­ing and lis­ten­ing for some­thing, any­thing, to pique my inter­est, but I was dis­ap­point­ed there also.
Mod­Na­tion suf­fers from the adage of too much of a good thing. While it’s nice to have the wealth of cus­tomiza­tion options, it comes across as what the kids call “doing too much.” Every­thing seems extra and a lit­tle bit too much. It’s try­ing too hard to tack on a lot of things that are designed to out­shine the com­pe­ti­tion when it should have focused on get­ting the basics cor­rect. Even where there is depth, some­times you have to know where to rein it in, and Mod­Na­tion Rac­ers stum­bles on the steps on the way to cast their bal­lot for them­selves as the king of kart rac­ing. It’s an admirable but ulti­mate­ly flawed chal­lenge to the throne.

Super Princess Peach — Issue 42

A peachy keen adventure

Usu­al­ly, for us die-hard Mario enthu­si­asts, sav­ing Princess Peach is the name of the game when it comes to an adven­ture. After all, we start­ed way back when with Pauline in Don­key Kong and moved up to Mush­room King­dom clean up in Super Mario Bros. But occa­sion­al­ly, the script gets flipped and it’s about sav­ing Mario instead. Super Princess Peach does just that and does a damn fine, if not stereo­typ­i­cal­ly emo­tion-filled, job.
Start­ing things off with busi­ness as usu­al, Bows­er invades the Mush­room King­dom in a bid to steal Peach and wreak hav­oc. He suc­ceeds but, chang­ing things up, man­ages to cap­ture Mario and Lui­gi instead and cre­ate chaos with the Vibe Scepter, which con­trols oth­er beings’ emo­tions. Instead of hop­ing for a hero, Peach decides she must return the favor and sets out across eight worlds set on Vibe Island to save her plumber beau and his brother. 
In her quest, Peach is assist­ed by a sen­tient umbrel­la named Per­ry. Per­ry imbues Peach with Vibe meter by defeat­ing ene­mies and pro­vides oth­er tech­niques for her arse­nal. And Vibe meter is real­ly the oth­er big mechan­ic here. On the DS’ bot­tom screen, there are four emo­tions that Peach uti­lizes to solve puz­zles: Joy, Rage, Gloom and Calm. The emo­tions are inno­v­a­tive and easy to use, mak­ing con­trol­ling Peach a breeze. Rarely are the touch­screen con­trols an issue, and it’s easy to quick­ly switch among them on the fly.
Graph­i­cal­ly, Super Princess Peach is cute and vibrant, which plays well for the vibe Nin­ten­do is going for here. I expect­ed that Vibe Island would look bright and col­or­ful in most places and has a light, airy feel to it. The back­grounds pop and the char­ac­ter sprites are cute and weird in a good way. It car­ries the nor­mal Mario charm, but there’s some­thing about run­ning around as Peach with the adorable Per­ry that looks and feels gen­uine­ly refresh­ing. The sound­track is also some­thing spe­cial. It has a groovy vibe to it, and all the tracks work well with the sur­round­ings. Also, Peach’s voice act­ing is spot-on. Peach sounds exact­ly like what I would expect in mod­ern games, and I par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoyed the sound effects for the dif­fer­ent emo­tions she employs.
My only bone of con­tention is small but a big part of the game: The Vibe meter. While a nice mechan­ic as far as game­play goes, there was some­thing about it that both­ered me that I could­n’t artic­u­late when the game was released in 2006, but I can now. I’m not over­ly fond of the con­cept that Peach is led around by manip­u­lat­ing her emo­tions. It’s the con­cept that women are emo­tion-dri­ven crea­tures that jumps out at me as a lit­tle more than offen­sive. If we’re capa­ble of sav­ing our beau — which we whol­ly are, and it only took from 1985 to 2006 to show this — then we can do it with­out it implied that we’re wild­ly mood-swing­ing weirdos who are gid­dy at one moment and rag­ing or cry­ing at the next. It’s a lit­tle more than stereo­typ­i­cal misog­y­nis­tic non­sense that quite frankly was­n’t nec­es­sary to attach to an already damsel-in-dis­tress arche­type try­ing to change the sta­tus quo. The game, on its tech­ni­cal mer­its, is strong enough to stand on its own, honestly.
Despite some wonky ideas about Peach’s emo­tion­al sta­bil­i­ty and for­ti­tude, Super Princess Peach is a quaint and fun adven­ture. It’s not a game-chang­er in the Mario pan­theon but it’s easy, acces­si­ble, and adorable. I can’t ask for more out of my hop ‘n’ bop done right. It’s just peachy.

Marvel Puzzle Quest — Issue 41

A mar­velous puz­zle journey

Ah, qui­et, placid Puz­zle Quest. We’ve seen many ver­sions of the clas­sic match-three game and yet, some­how, some way there’s a unique spin added that catch­es the eye and delights. Mar­vel Puz­zle Quest, the mobile jug­ger­naut from Demi­urge Stu­dios, is a spec­tac­u­lar extra move-laden free-to-play boun­ty for on the go.

I’ve played at least two ver­sions of Puz­zle Quest and they’re decent. Hav­ing that his­to­ry helps with con­cepts and under­stand­ing some of the intri­ca­cies of MPQ, but the base match-three con­cept is not hard, though. Your goal is to match three or more like-col­ored gems (green, black, yel­low, blue, red, pur­ple, and sil­ver) to dam­age your oppo­nent until they are downed. You can have a team of one to three char­ac­ters who will take turns match­ing gems against an AI-con­trolled team. From time to time, match con­di­tions vary — espe­cial­ly depend­ing on the mode or in-game event, but the main goal is gen­er­al­ly to take out your oppo­nent as clean­ly as possible. 

The Mar­vel com­po­nent comes in through char­ac­ters to col­lect from the sto­ried com­ic book com­pa­ny. Your team and the AI’s team will be com­posed of Mar­vel char­ac­ters rang­ing from the obscure to the most recent MCU-themed ver­sions, ranked in a five-star sys­tem. Char­ac­ters have three spe­cial moves — some­times with sub­sets and pas­sives — that must be unlocked. How you obtain them is where the pay aspect comes into play. Pric­ing can be steep when you’re try­ing to build a decent ros­ter, but it’s no worse than some of the oth­er options out in the mar­ket­place right now, and it has a more sat­is­fy­ing feel to com­plet­ing a col­lec­tion here. As a well-known Mar­vel doc­tor­al can­di­date, I have had a lot of fun pulling togeth­er a ros­ter with MPQ. I know most, if not all, of the char­ac­ters and their vari­ants (thanks, Loki!), and it’s decent work to keep track of who I have earned or am still hunt­ing down. In the year that I’ve been play­ing, I’ve cre­at­ed a spread­sheet that’s updat­ed dai­ly to track where my col­lec­tion stands. It’s that deep.

The depth of the puz­zle engine is also sur­pris­ing. It’s not uncom­mon to strate­gize moves, match­es and board set­up to max­i­mize poten­tial dam­age in a fight. The AI is well-bal­anced, enough that I rarely feel as though it’s unfair. I also very sel­dom lose match­es now that my ros­ter is about 80 per­cent com­plete. And in terms of ros­ter-build­ing, I also tend to get my fair share of rare and pow­er­ful five-star char­ac­ters. MPQ could eas­i­ly be a mon­ey sink, but it’s avoid­ed with a lot of devel­op­er bal­anc­ing behind the scenes.

The bal­anc­ing act also extends to the dif­fer­ent modes, and it’s a job well done. There are quite a few events to choose from at any giv­en time, and they’re fun to mill around in to improve your skills and earn rewards. You can join an Alliance, which is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed. The ben­e­fits from join­ing a sol­id squad can mean get­ting a rare char­ac­ter for free, or oth­er perks you might have to pay for nor­mal­ly. The modes are nice and pro­vide a change of pace. There’s a dai­ly mode fea­tur­ing Dead­pool with dif­fer­ent require­ments; Ver­sus mode, where you face off against AI-con­trolled avatars of real teams; Puz­zle Gaunt­let, where there are solu­tion-ori­ent­ed puz­zles against teams; Sto­ry events, where pre-deter­mined sto­ries play out through match­es and cut scenes; and, time-lim­it­ed events, where you and pos­si­bly your alliance join forces to take down a boss.

Demi­urge Stu­dios also does a great job with how the game looks, as well. MPQ has some of the best mobile graph­ics of any­thing on the mar­ket right now, and the use of actu­al run com­ic book cov­ers to rep­re­sent char­ac­ters is fan­tas­tic. The back­ground art also looks amaz­ing and crisp. Demi­urge out­did them­selves and for a sev­en-year-old game, it still looks sol­id and well done. The sound­track is nice, but it’s noth­ing to write home about. I usu­al­ly keep the music turned off, but it’s by no means terrible.

If you’re into Mar­vel, you’re going to love this. You’re going to drop a lot of mon­ey try­ing to build your ros­ter, and you’re going to have fun doing it. Even if you’re not into Mar­vel that much, you’re going to find some val­ue in this. It’s a good time wrapped up in a mobile game that plays well and pro­vides a lot in small pack­age. It’s a mar­velous play no mat­ter how you look at it.

Mega Man 9 — Issue 41

Blue Bomber relives glo­ry days in No. 9

Ah, Mega Man and Dr. Wily. Capcom’s con­tri­bu­tion to video game rival­ries have bat­tled through numer­ous episodes in the 8‑bit, 16-bit and first PlaySta­tion era. These infa­mous icons have tak­en their bat­tle of good vs. evil to anoth­er bat­tle­field: next-gen­er­a­tion con­soles. Like many fans of the Blue Bomber, I won­dered how Cap­com would present Mega Man and com­pa­ny to a new audi­ence while keep­ing ded­i­cat­ed fans like myself invest­ed in new adven­tures. Mega Man 9 hit the spot.

Mega Man 9 is exact­ly like pre­vi­ous Mega Man games of the 8‑bit era: Easy to play. Using the PS3’s d‑pad made me feel that I was play­ing on the NES with sim­pli­fied con­trols. When Mega Man defeats a Robot Mas­ter, he acquires that boss’ weapon which — along with his Mega Buster — make up the meat of his con­trols. I have only two issues with this fea­ture: You can­not use a charged Mega Buster blast like in Mega Man 4; and, you must acquire weapon pow­er-ups to keep the spe­cial weapons run­ning prop­er­ly. Mega Man does have help in his lat­est adven­ture with his help­ful canine, Rush, and allies Eddie, Beat and Roll, who sup­ply spe­cial gad­gets in exchange for screws via their shop between stages. Sav­ing all col­lect­ed screws when pur­chas­ing cer­tain items is a smart move. 

The graph­ics in Mega Man 9 are 8‑bit qual­i­ty and nos­tal­gic, which I com­mend Cap­com for doing. It looks like Mega Man of yes­ter­year, which is always a good thing. The music was also a win since it stayed with each stage’s design. 

I felt that as an old­er gamer, Mega Man 9 was not only sim­ple, but also fun. I didn’t have to wor­ry about time lim­its or oth­er friv­o­lous things that would induce rage quit­ting. Every­thing was Mega Man ori­ent­ed, just as it should be.

Mega Man 9 is a game for not only Mega Man fans, but also for those who want to expe­ri­ence 8‑bit gam­ing on a next gen­er­a­tion con­sole. Who­ev­er said that gam­ing clas­sics can’t keep atten­tion like new­er triple‑A titles obvi­ous­ly have not played a clas­sic series like Mega Man and cer­tain­ly haven’t run into Mega Man 9. 
Car­ry on, Blue Bomber. Car­ry on.

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.

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.