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Endless Backlog's review of The Raid 2.

I’m someone who enjoys playing a game that is out of his comfort zone. Usually it needs to be something completely offbeat as I usually want something a little insane as opposed to something that takes itself seriously. So this is where the adventure games genre comes in as a nice gap filler between my gaming in a year. It’s not a genre I usually take part in, and it’s frankly not one I particularly care for. On the other hand, I do admire the consistency this genre has in providing pretty well put together plots and providing settings that you have no chance of ever seeing in the triple-A space.

For instance, if you were to just look at the title of 1954: Alcatraz, you’d figure it has to be at most a Noir game. Maybe some kind of prison escape job, with some mixture of stealth and action gameplay and storytelling more in line with either what you’ve seen in Max Payne or something like LA Noire. In the adventure game space? The beat era. For the educated: The beat era is The Howl by Allen Ginsberg. For those of you who haven’t grown up much since the 90s: think Judy Funnie from Doug. For a much younger audience? Go to Netflix, watch Doug, and pay attention to Judy. That should give you an idea of what kind of literature and artwork are being depicted.

So 1954: Alcatraz is about an inmate named Joe, serving time at the infamous Alcatraz prison because of a botched armored truck heist. Usually, that’s not something that would get you into Alcatraz, but there’s a convenient explanation for that as well. Anyway there’s a two-pronged plot that focuses on him and his beatnik girlfriend Christine. Her part of the plot focuses on north beach San Francisco, and revolves around her trying to get out from the under the thumb of this germaphobe mobster guy.

It’s a plot that focuses on celebrating a lot of the beatnik era of writing and art in general, while also bringing these two plots together to a conclusion based entirely on whatever decisions you made over a handful of sequences. Unfortunately, it really leads you to a penultimate decision that overrules everything that got you there, which either lets Christine get away with the loot and ditching Joe, or something more in line with Bonnie and Clyde. A lot of this ultimately is a result of the story beginning with the relationship of the two leads being on the rocks.

It also really doesn’t help that playing the game can feel so uninspiring. The adventure game genre has built this stigma with the mainstream audience as the boring pixel-hunting genre, fueled by ridiculous logic puzzles that require little more than dumb luck to solve. While you don't have to worry about any random logic puzzles, Alcatraz at the least lives up to the stigma of pixel hunt fests. Most of the puzzles in the game really don’t require much thought. Christine’s puzzles focus on her hopping between areas like a beatnik friendly art café, a library, a park, etc. usually bringing one item or another to a specific character. Either that or she needs to use one of her tools to get into the area. Apparently in 1954, bobby pins unlocked every door imaginable.

Joe’s puzzles fall under a number of the same ideas, but most of them are in the more confined places you find in a prison, making his part of the game more dull to play because of how simple the environments are that he interacts in. Because, like Christine's puzzles, none of them will actually test your brain. Most of the puzzles have the correct solution in the area you’re already in, and usually in the most obvious of ways. For instance, to help Christine’s landlord who is sick, I had to get her soup, which was in the restaurant right down stairs, and finding the ability to read Chinese was simply looking for the symbol on the menu. Other times, even if you have an item the character is looking for, you won’t be able to hand it over right away, because it doesn’t fit an arbitrary time in the plot to make it all work. The landlord, while being irritated that Christine hasn’t paid her rent, is more than willing to take her records, which you can pick up fairly early in the game, but can’t hand them over until a little after the halfway point. Even after she already told you her price to be paid for your rent.

The most interesting the game ever gets with the puzzles are between your dealings with a priest. The game, when it clicks, has you bouncing from Joe to Christine, using this Priest as a conduit to get their plan in order. Ultimately culminating in Joe’s escape as well as Christine’s upper hand over her enemies as well.

Unfortunately, the rest of the puzzle solving is basic and all too often you’re being strung along by doing unrelated tasks before you can do exactly what you need to do to move the plot forward. It feels like the game is drawn out longer than it needs to be and the gameplay isn’t varied nor does it evolve enough to make its drawn out pacing work.

When it comes to the storyline itself? It relies too much on its two leads to make it all work. On one hand there’s something to admire about a plot where both leads are fundamentally awful people who kill, steal, double cross, and aren’t exactly against being selfish. Especially based on some of your decisions as a player. Unfortunately, neither of them are fascinating or at the least charismatic enough to keep you invested. Joe ultimately comes off as a brick, and Christine’s love for beat era writing doesn’t overrule her one-note demeanor either.

And that’s a shame because the game shows such genuine care for its setting. Between the authentic depiction of the era as well as the artwork (though I don’t think the 3D character models quite work with the hand-drawn backgrounds). It’s a game that gets the beat era in a way that either gives you the impression that they researched this topic heavily or are genuinely passionate about the subject and it’s disappointing that all this passion happens to be imprisoned in a poorly thought out adventure game.

1954: Alcatraz’s most valuable addition to my life was giving me an excuse to actually do some personal research on what the beat era was about. For the most part, it’s not my cup of tea but hey, that’s sort of the point of trying something new outside of your comfort zone. On its own merits as a videogame? The puzzles are mindless and won’t provide any source of fulfillment for the player. The plot is built around a couple who are more Whitney and Bobby than Bonnie and Clyde.

It’s an example of a game that doesn’t always need to be broken (think technical issues) to be a complete mess. The inconsistent visual design is more indicative of your experience than any puzzle or piece of dialogue in the game. Just when you’re about to find something you enjoy about the game something else right there will make you ignore it entirely.

Final Score - 4/10

Editor's note: This review is based on the Japanese version of Monster Hunter 4, from a writer who is fluent in Japanese.

 

I was on my way to my traditional local Monster Hunter spot for our weekly Sunday monster hunting. It's a restaurant specializing in tonkatsu, Japan's take on a fried, breaded pork cutlet. Not only is tonkatsu one of my favorite Japanese dishes, the owner happens to be a huge fan of video games, Monster Hunter among them. He's one of the first friends I made here in Japan, and every Sunday after he closes the shop down and his family goes home, I meet with him and another regular for some local co-op. He's already plowed through most of what the game has to offer, but he's happy to help us advance and learn about the game.

Not this time, though. He's got a cold and he feels like crap. It's understandable that he has to close down and get home early, but that leaves the two of us out in the cold. It's tough for me, but its worse for the other guy, a Japanese man my age grinding it out in company housing. This time of week is the only chance he gets to play. Our next step is obvious; we need to find a place to play Monster Hunter.

So we get in my car and drive ten minutes down the road to Googie's, a “California Diner” serving “Pizza, Pasta and Hamburg.” Sure, it's a restaurant, but it's at least open until 10 pm. All the normal places you'd use for Monster Hunter meetups are too far away for us out in the sticks. So we sit down, each quickly working our way through a bowl of ice cream and some traditional spicy-ass ginger ales, and I help him through three monster hunts, playing at our table like goddamn 5th graders. Then once the restaurant closes, I drive him back as we sing along to Queen's Greatest Hits.

That's the magic of Monster Hunter.


Monster Hunter is a game that can be described by its title. You hunt monsters. You use what you get from the monsters to make gear, which helps you hunt more monsters. That's the basic loop of the game. Of course, it's never quite that simple. There are a ton of systems in the game layered on top of the monster hunting. There's all this stuff you can take into the field: herbs and bugs and metals that you can synthesize into potions. There are meals your cat-dude-chef can cook up for you to raise your stats before a mission. You get hungry over the course of an outing, which depletes your stamina, and you can replenish it in the field with meat that you roast over a fire with a spit.

Combat in Monster Hunter could be compared to a more deliberate Dragon's Dogma, or Dark Souls without lock-on. The camera can be controlled with a virtual touch-pad on the touchscreen, or centered (either behind you or on a monster) with the left trigger. Attacks have significant windup and recovery, most of which can't be canceled by rolling. Light weapons can attack quickly, allowing players to be mobile, while heavy weapons feel appropriately cumbersome. Managing the camera can be tough, but it makes it easier to target specific regions of a monster, an essential part of bringing monsters down.



There are many different weapon types in the game, and each one features something unique. The hammer has various charge attacks. The fast-attacking dual swords let you enter an overdrive state that drains your stamina. The charge axe switches between a fast-attacking sword mode that builds power for its devastating, yet slow, axe mode. There are shields, lances, guns, bows, and even bagpipes. Any playstyle you can think of has a weapon to go with it, and learning how to use each of your moves is a very rewarding process.

At first, Monster Hunter seems overwhelming, confusing, and sometimes outright hostile. It's tough to tell what you should be doing with all the systems at first. On top of that, early missions based around gathering, particularly the god-awful egg fetch quests, are pretty boring. In my first few hours with the game, I had a hard time seeing the appeal. It was only after I stuck with it and began to play with others that I saw the true draw: the monsters. There are a huge variety of large foes in Monster Hunter, and no fight breaks down to a simple pattern. Monsters have a variety of behaviors and states, and their animations speak volumes about their current health and coming attacks to the hunter experienced enough to notice. Each roar, each twitch, and each shuffle is a valuable tell. There are armored boars, giant spiders, poop-flinging apes, dragons, lions, snakes, and more, and they're all fun in their own ways.

As I learned my weapon and learned how to fight tough monsters, I began to understand Monster Hunter's rhythm. I learned my way through the game's levels and figured out which harvest points to go after to get my gear upgraded. By the time I learned what sort of things I wanted to synthesize, I'd unlocked a caravan system that got me the stuff I need between missions. There's a ton to learn about the game, and each step forward felt rewarding.



It's an unusually fun world to be in, despite the potentially macabre premise. All the towns you visit are lively, and the locals you interact with have vivid personalities that make them fun to be around. A successful meat grilling is met with applause, and downed players are ferried back to camp on a stretcher like a slapstick emergency. It recalls the mood of Pokemon. It's a world where I always felt welcome.

Even the game's early confusion isn't actually punishing. Missions don't end until you wipe out three times. You can bring along a huge amount of healing items with you, and you're even helpfully supplied with the basics in the earliest quests. Local and online multiplayer allow anyone to be pulled along by more powerful friends, if they so wish. It's a friendly game to learn. But it's a game that rewards mastery. A player's strength is measured by their gear, not by any kind of level. And while some attack patterns may seem impossible at first, the patient and experienced player will learn how to avoid every hit. When I started taking down once troublesome monsters, it was because I had learned how to fight them, not because I had raised some arbitrary numbers.

Over 100 hours later, I'm still finding that feeling, still learning new things. It's a fun game to play with others, as there are plenty of roles to play in a fight. I had seen the credits in the single player storyline (a basic, unoffensive story) about 40 hours in, but even now I'm finding new missions and new monsters that I had yet to encounter, new materials that let me make new gear. As better armors open up, they bring with them a plethora of skills that I can mix to suit how I want to play. It feels almost endless.



When I first purchased Monster Hunter 4, I had no idea what the Monster Hunter phenomenon was all about. But after giving it a little time, it revealed itself to be a nearly limitless puzzle, full of knowledge to share and things to learn. No matter how much you put in, it has more left to give. Because despite all the loot drops, the most powerful weapon in the game is your own experience. I normally tire of loot-based games pretty quickly, but once I began to get a grip on the game's systems, I found plenty to enjoy. Even without diving all the way down the loot hole, the process of learning a weapon, getting to know the monsters, and bringing them down with friends is one of the best coop experiences I've had.

 

Final Score - 9/10

The Killzone franchise has always managed to steal the spotlight in one form or another, either by causing drama through under delivering on it’s over-hyped promises, or by stunning gamers with its technical prowess and gorgeous visuals. Killzone: Shadow Fall is the premier launch title for the Playstation 4 and the 4th main entry in the franchise and stole the show at E3 2013 with a breathtaking gameplay demo. Guerrilla Games seized the opportunity to both showcase the abilities of Sony’s newest game console and reinvent the quickly stagnating franchise.

 

Departing from the grit covered, desolate battlefields of the previous entries in the series, Shadow Fall moves to the lush and diverse planet of Vekta, where the ongoing conflict between the Vetkans and the Helghast rages on. Twenty years after the destruction of their home planet of Helghan by the Vektans, the Helghast find themselves occupying half of the planet after guilt-ridden treaties had been hastily written and begrudgingly signed by both factions. The result is a wall that circles the entire planet, the proverbial “Iron Curtain” of this new cold war.

 

The planet of Vetka is a gorgeous world whose vast oceans, modern cities built upon striking sea walls, and lush environments are brilliantly contrasted by the industrial and hazy Helghast occupied territory and provides plenty of opportunities for Guerilla to flex their graphical muscle. Highly detailed environments are well-lit with many dynamic and diversely colored lights, which is a welcome change of pace to the usual gray and grit the series has come to be known for. Distance vistas and backgrounds are rarely static and are often lively with the activity of cargo platforms, moving transports, and large spacecraft, providing an excellent atmosphere to compliment the uneasy peace that has settled over Vekta.

 

 

 

You play a Vetkan Shadow Marshall named Lucas Keller who witnesses his father’s death during the Helghast’s brutal evacuation of Vetkans from their newly occupied half of Vetka. Twenty years later, Lucas finds himself as a prisoner of war on the  wrong side of the wall. He is beaten before being exchanged for a Helghast prisoner held by the Vetkans. The prisoner exchange quickly devolves into a shooting match, and Lucas is tasked with finding out who is trying to reignite the war and who was is important that the Helghast, who slaughtered a surrendering army on Helghan, would keep a Shadow Marshall alive to trade for.

 

For the first time in the series, I found myself intrigued by the characters, plot, and the surrounding universe, which has always been nothing more than an annoying necessity that provided the backdrop for the conflict, and gave a little meaning to the actions of the characters. If anything, the poor writing and unlikeable characters (mainly Rico) detracted from the overall experience of the previous games. Shadow Fall undoes the cliched good vs. evil tone by introducing many characters whose actions and words make you question their motives and ethics. Levels are filled with a variety collectibles that flesh out the setting and add a touch depth to what was always a very shallow storytelling experience. While not worthy of any awards, the narrative holds together well and only rarely falls into the trap of cliches.

 

Furthering the shift that Guerilla took with Killzone Shadow Fall is a new approach to level design and pacing. Past Killzone games have been very linear affairs with on-rails and vehicle based sections to keep things from becoming too mundane. Shadow Fall is still linear, but it takes a slight sandbox approach to its level design and often gives the player much more freedom to tackle objectives how they see fit. Levels often have multiple routes to each objective, as well as optional objectives that aid in accomplishing the main task, and exploration is rewarded by discovering the aforementioned collectibles, weapons, or adrenaline packs.

 

To emphasize this new approach, Lucas has a variety of abilities that increase his awareness of the surrounding environment or reactionary tools that are used to even the odds in a tough situation. An electronic sensor can be used to highlight enemies behind wall, while adrenaline packs can be used to revive Lucas when he is down, or slow down the game world with a bullet time effect that allows for more precision aiming.

 

 

Lucas is also accompanied by a flying robotic companion called the OWL that can be used to attack or stun enemies, deploy a shield to take cover behind, hack various terminals, deploy ziplines to unreachable areas, and revive you when you’re down. The Dualshock 4’s touch pad is used to select the different OWL abilities. Swiping across one of the four cardinal directions selects changes the ability while clicking the touch-pad recalls the OWL. It’s a clever use of the touch-pad to extend the functionality of the controller and I do hope that more developers utilize this in the future.

 

Despite the tools to detect enemies and the fact that the OWL can distract or stun targets, I rarely found myself being rewarded for stealth and relied mainly on shooting my way through the objectives. Suppressed weapons were rare, and the opportunity to quietly deal with enemies at range was few and far between, which left point-blank melee attacks as my only real option for a stealthy approach. Enemies were too easily alerted to my presence and seemed to have a telepathic connection with their friends, who would be alerted the moment you were spotted. I rarely felt that I could get the drop on my enemies despite knowing their position, and the levels quickly devolved into traditional running and gunning.

 

Shooting in Shadow Fall is an improvement over the rest of the series, with tight and responsive controls and mostly solid shooting. Guerilla has also ditched the old sticky cover system, which would often frustrate more than help, for traditional crouching without sticking to cover. Your character will still dynamically take cover behind walls when you are crouched and will only peak over cover when looking down the sights, but you’re never stuck to cover, alleviating a lot of frustrating moments I had when I played Killzone 2 and 3. However, the way in which you take damage seemed wildly inconsistent and I often found myself being killed without much warning, which would often ruin the steady pace of progression.

 

As the the story progresses, the missions depart from the slower paced sandbox approach for a more linear shooting sequence, on-rails section, free falling sections, or the forced stealth section. Other parts have you propelling yourself in zero gravity, sometimes shooting down drones or destroying turrets, but usually just traversing space. None of these sections seem to overstay their welcome, yet few of them provide any noticeable challenge over the typical shooting and scooting. There is little enemy variety, however, save for a few shielded units that require one extra step to kill and some robotic mechs which rear their ugly heads towards the end of the game.

 

Light puzzle and platforming elements also crept into Shadow Fall's campaign in a way that is never overly challenging and never feels out of place in context of the environment or the plot, and jumping from container to container or over small crevices without being prompted by a context-sensitive command is a nice change of pace. This extends to the enemies as well, and require environmental variables to be satisfied before you can take them down.

 

The single player campaign is well-paced and fun, and does a great job of demonstrating the graphical capabilities of the Playstation 4. It takes the series in a much needed step in the right direction, but doesn't really stand out as anything special, though a few of the set pieces are memorable visual experiences and the ending pleasantly surprised me.

 

 

Accompanying the single player experience is fairly typical multiplayer component complete with AI-controlled bots. The tight shooting and movement controls found in the single player carry over to the multiplayer and the 60 frames per second help make the already solid feel of the game shine even more. Sadly, this high framerate isn’t consistent and there are often noticeable drops. Furthermore, the screen quality loses its crisp and clean look that is present in the single player.

 

Warzone, matches with rotating objectives, return in Killzone Shadow Fall, along with the ability to create your own game modes with custom rules and objectives. Guerilla regularly rotates in community made modes into the playlists in an attempt to keep the multiplayer fresh. Sadly, these playlists do not attract many players and you often find yourself back in the Warzone or Team Deathmatch playlist just so you can play with other humans.

 

Players choose from one of three classes, each with their own abilities. The assault class features assault rifles and can stun enemies or launch an attack drone to attack enemies. The scout class is equipped with sniper rifles and both support and aggressive abilities, which can highlight enemies around the player and to cloak and launch a deadly melee attack on an unsuspecting victim. The support class sports large machine guns and all abilities are tailored to a supporting role, such as the ability to place down a spawn beacon so that fallen comrades can spawn in closer to the battlefield, or the ability to place down defensive turrets. Character customization isn't all that robust, with limited unlocks and a basic loadout system that allows you to customize five separate loadouts for each class, and ranks are gained through completing challenges instead of experience points earned through killing enemies, assists, and completing objectives.

 

 

Overall, the multiplayer is a pretty standard affair with no real lasting appeal. The three classes do offer some variety but the missions that make up the Warzone are all variants on popular multiplayer game modes. The custom game types have a lot of potential, but without friends to enjoy them with you’ll be stuck playing the standard game modes as the custom game playlists stay empty. Sadly, like the single player, nothing really stands out about the multiplayer experience and there is very little here to win you over from other multiplayer shooters.

 

Killzone Shadow Fall is a solid launch title that showcases the technical abilities of Sony’s new console, and the sandbox approach to the campaign is a nice change of pace from typical point A to B of the series. However, the level design and tools at the player’s disposal are more restricting than they could have been and feel lie more of a missed opportunity than a design that rewards creativity and experimentation. The multiplayer, while unremarkable, is strong enough to be fun for awhile and will keep fans of series interested enough to keep the lobbies full for the foreseeable future. All in all, Guerrilla Games has successfully adapted the Killzone franchise to the next generation with a fun and gorgeous game that continues to forge its own identity among mainstream shooters.

 

Final Score - 7/10

Chris's backlog review of Valkyria Chronicles