Samurai Shodown Hands-On: Lookin’ Sharp

Believe it or not, it’s been about a decade since we’ve seen an entry in the Samurai Shodown franchise. When a game did last release…well, it didn’t exactly leave a favorable taste in our mouths.

That’s because the game in question was Samurai Shodown Sen, or referred to in some markets as Samurai Shodown: Edge of Destiny. Rather than following the blueprint that the Neo-Geo brawlers left, it instead forged a clumsy path into 3D fighting that became instantly forgettable. As a result, SNK shelved this series, instead opting to smooth over King of Fighters into a true champion.

Now that The King of Fighters XIV has proven dominant, the publisher has returned to bring back Samurai strong, and boy has it. While the game is still waist deep in development, leading into its summer release, Samurai Shodown is shaping up to be the fighting champion we’ve waited over a decade for. We need it now more than ever.

The Legacy Lives On, Even If Some Opponents Don’t 

For those unfamiliar with Samurai Shodown, the series originally got its start in the 90’s as one of SNK’s big competitors to Street Fighter II. However, unlike other games that tried to ape the style of Capcom’s champ, Shodown served as a weapons-based brawler in an ancient land, with a number of warriors stepping up to spill blood in a valiant effort to be called the best in the land. The original game became a cult classic, leading to several sequel releases.

The reason I bring up the original Shodown is because this reboot ties very close within its nature. Instead of relying on lame 3D tactics that brought Sen down to size, Samurai Shodown instead focuses on the wondrous 2D gameplay that made the series kick off in such a sharp way to begin with. It feels like the natural brawler it was meant to be.

It also gets back to the roots of the series competition wise. There’s no fancy tricks here, just a number of familiar competitors, and some new faces, going at it in a somewhat battle to the death. Using whatever weapon they have in their arsenal, they’ll cut through opponents and utilize deadly tactics- including a devastating super technique that leans on the cinematic- to get the job done. It’s really a remarkable sight.

The game’s story is still somewhat shrouded in secrecy, but we do know it takes place in the series’ original timeline. In fact, the events unfold between the original Samurai and Samurai V, though to what extend we don’t know just yet. But we do know that a few old favorites will make their return here, along with some newcomers insisting on spilling a little blood of their own.

So Who’s In This Party So Far?

Let’s run down some of the warriors that are thrown into the mix here. We’ve got Charlotte, a brazen female strongwoman who doesn’t hold back on her fancy sword skills; Galford, a loyal soldier that calls upon his dog from time to time to assist him in combat; Earthquake, a large warrior that uses a giant chain and sickle, as well as the power of some thunderous farts (no, really, don’t try to get too close); Genjuro, a devastating samurai with a nasty backslash and the ability to draw cards into combat; Hanzo, a ninja-like master who can draw his sword like no one’s business (note: his name is actually Hanzo Hattori, so we wouldn’t be surprised if Quentin Tarantino leaned on his legacy a little for Kill Bill, to some extent); Haohmaru, the powerful samurai that became a household name with the original games; and Jubei, a one-eyed wild man who can’t be stopped with his twin blades.

That’s the rundown of older favorites thus far. We do know that a new favorite, Darli Dagger, will join the cast. She’s a not-so-traditional battler that carries a very large saw blade, which will likely make her devastating both up close and from afar. As her official description reads, she’s “the most badass and shipwright to ever sail the seven seas.”More than likely, she’s got a pirating story to back her up, to an extent.

Also joining this party is the somewhat traditional Wu-Ruixang, who is far greater in strength than her initial looks let on; and the sexy and devastating Shiki, who brings a sleek look- and a deadly attack style to whatever fight she jumps into.

Other returning favorites that we haven’t been able to play as yet include the dying warrior Ukyo Tachibana; the unpredictable jungle warrior Tam Tam; the wily Yoshitora Tokugawa; the resilient Kyoshiro; and the beautiful Nakoruru, who will no doubt have her loyal hawk by her side once again. It’s unknown if we’ll see other favorites pop up, after all, what’s a Samurai party without the troll-like Gen-An, but there’s still more room on the roster for fighters.

Overall, there’s a great group here. But what good are they if the gameplay doesn’t back them up? Fortunately, fans needn’t worry about that department, as this Samurai feels just as good as previous games did, at least thus far.

 

Cutting Into the Competition 

The gameplay for Samurai Shodown really offers something special. It feels nostalgic enough that veterans that have played the series before can jump in without missing a beat. But there’s also room for new ingredients, stuff that will make matches unpredictable in some spots, and that’s a good thing.

One of these is the inclusion of Rage Mode. This enables you to not only pump up your strength during a match, but also get closer to executing the Lightning Blade move, or what essentially serves as your super.

To execute this, you simply need to hit two attack buttons when your opponent is within range. Once that’s done, you stand on the brink of possibly making a comeback, even if you’re somewhat down on health in comparison to your opponent.

That leads into the Lightning Blade move. You can execute a spectacular attack, where the freeze frame looks like something out of a classic kung fu film. You basically pull off a powerful enough technique to slash away at half of your opponent’s energy, while striking a beautiful pose all the same. This can take a little bit of practice to execute, but it’s oh so worth it once you actually do. Think of it as a reward for putting some effort into your Samurai Shodown matches. Just remember, there’s a negative to it as well. If you build up your super meter (which is charged by attacking within the game) and miss with the technique, it empties out and you have to fill it again. Risky? Sure, but, again, worth it if you can time it just right.

However, it’s not always about offense. The game also brings something into the fray when it comes to the defensive side of things. For instance, you can actually deflect some attacks, and this proves useful for not only saving your precious health, but also disarming your opponent for a few seconds. This is crucial to landing as many hits as you can, as they won’t be able to block much without their precious weapon. So make sure you master the technique if you can.

There is another way to disarm your opponents by getting into a clash. This is essentially a contest where the two of you go blade to blade in a strong-arm battle. The one that mashes the attack buttons the quickest will come out on top, and may even be able to land a blow or two before your opponent quickly tries to recover their weapon. This is an ingredient that was in previous Samurai Shodown games, so we’re happy to see it back in action.

This, combines with weak slashes, strong slashes, other super techniques and even kick and throw maneuvers, make Samurai Shodown a well-balanced game. Obviously it’s built with pros in mind, but it feels accessible to newcomers too, especially those eager to learn the mastery of certain characters. We can assure you that favorites like Haohmaru and Genjuro are worth it.

Looking Like a Champ

Next up, we have the game’s presentation. And if you’re familiar with the way that King of Fighters XIV looks, you’ll feel right at home with Samurai Shodown. That’s because it utilizes a similar engine, with 3D visuals and 2D gameplay combining together into a nearly flawless experience.

We only saw a handful of the stages that will be available within the final game, but the one that stood out for us the most was a seaside battle, which we nearly got distracted by the waves that came crashing up onto the shore. That, combined with the beautiful lighting effects in the sky, really set the stage for the battle that lied ahead.

And that leads us to the animation, which is jaw-droppingly gorgeous thus far. The characters move with great precision, just as their old counterparts did. For instance, if you launch into an uppercut-style slash with either Genjuro or Haohmaru, you can actually see where the differences between the characters lie, as well as the impact of the blade hitting into the skin of their opponent. It continues to impress- and is definitely a step ahead of the weak character models that were present in Sen. What a difference a decade makes, yeah?

On top of that, the game loads pretty quickly, so you don’t have to worry about waiting too long for matches to begin. We’re big fans of the cinematic style presentation, especially once you execute those slick Lightning Move maneuvers. Yes, as with games in the past, you can totally cut someone in half if you land the fatal blow just right. Talk about making your point in a fight.

As for audio, so far we’ve only heard Japanese voice acting within the game. But that’s a sign of loyalty for the series, as that’s how it’s worked in the past. It’s quite fun to listen to, especially with old-school favorites shouting out taunts. And the music is excellent as well, with traditional tunes that are loyal to the Samurai brand. Again, we haven’t heard everything that’ll be offered in the final version, but thus far, we like what’s been presented.

 

More Samurai Than You Can Shake a Stick At

The Samurai Shodown reboot is set to get a large amount of traction this year. The game will be present at this year’s EVO 2019 event in Las Vegas, as one of the key competitive titles. Not only that, but SNK also confirmed that it will be coming to all platforms. It’ll initially debut on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 over the summer, but later this year, it will also arrive on PC and Nintendo Switch. That should make it a key title for on-the-go battles, provided you bring a couple of Pro Controllers instead of those dinky little JoyCons. Trust us on this.

Not only that, but SNK will tip its hat to the past as well with the forthcoming Samurai Shodown Neo-Geo Collection, which will debut later this year. The game features six classic titles from the series, including the original all the way through Samurai Shodown V: Special; and will be handled by Digital Eclipse, the same emulation team that previously worked on SNK 40th Anniversary Collection. It’ll be jam packed with extras, including full game soundtracks, a fun Museum mode, and, of course, the ability to challenge others to online matches. No doubt there will be more than enough Samurai action to jump into this year.

This Blade Still Cuts Deep

While it seems like an eternity since we’ve seen Samurai Shodown in action, and even longer since we’ve seen it in a good way, it’s great to see that the series is set to return to greatness in 2019. The reboot alone looks to be worth its weight in gold, with exquisite visuals, dedicated sound recreation and razor sharp gameplay. But the fact we’re also getting a Nintendo Switch version is a bonus. And let’s not leave Samurai Shodown Neo-Geo Collection out in the cold either, as fans will no doubt snap that up faster than Earthquake picks up someone to fart on them.

It looks like this series is back on track. We’ll see just how deep the cut gets when Samurai Shodown launches this June for Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and later in the year for PC and Nintendo Switch.

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Splitgate: Arena Warfare Hands-On: Now You’re Playing With Portals

Considering how well the competitive gaming market has done over the years, it’s not a big surprise that a lot of companies want in on the action. However, just because you think you have a winning formula doesn’t always guarantee you do. Case in point: LawBreakers; a game that had a ton of potential but very little follow-through, and the developer Boss Key even closed down following the game’s release.

Splitgate

Even so, it’s always great to see a new and ambitious team give a new formula a try, and there’s something about 1047 Games’ Splitgate: Arena Warfare that truly stands out. Maybe it’s due to the fact that you can use portals just as conveniently as you can weapons.

That’s right, portals. Ever since Valve introduced these innovative little doorways with their self-named Portal series, they’ve been high on the wish list of players, and why not? They basically provide an exit to another portion of the map: a quick teleportation that can provide an excellent advantage. That is, however, if you don’t go flying off the edge of the map by accident.

The general rules of Splitgate remain intact from most other shooters: take down as many adversaries as possible and help your team win the match. The fact that players can open portals at will and use this newfound physics to their advantage provides a fresh spin on the proceedings. Can’t quite get an angle on someone that’s taking pot shots at you? Open up a portal, do a quantum-style leap from another part of the map, and hit them from the other side. It can’t be that hard, right?

At first, Splitgate takes a lot of effort to fully grasp. This isn’t one of those games where you “git gud” by accident. Instead, learn to embrace the physics from jumping through portals and mastering what your weapon has to offer. The way portals open requires you to do a deep bit of thinking as you try to get the jump on your opponents. Considering that they can leap around the map just as much as you can, it becomes tough to really get a bead on them.

The multi-dimensional build of each battle stage goes a long way in Splitgate. Once you get a grasp on what you can do with the portals and platforms, then you can really get things cooking.

Splitgate

The physics within Splitgate work as expected. For instance, if you want to build momentum going into a portal, you can do so by running on the ground. However, the real treat here is opening up a portal after falling off a ledge and opening it up on a new area where you float up onto a platform. This can take a bit to master, precision is everything, but once you do, you’ll find it’s a tactic that works wonderfully here.

Along with getting the jump on opponents offensively, Splitgate can also open them up to give you some defensive purpose. When you get ambushed and need an escape route they can provide a fresh perspective on how to take down your adversaries. A shooter like this depends on quick movement to avoid getting fragged, so you’ll need a few rounds to get into the mechanics and see all the options that are on the table for you. But once you do, you’ll find that you’re in for a treat.

As for the weapons that you can use within Splitgate, they’re the general variety when it comes to what you’d typically find in a shooter. But in no way is that a bad thing. For instance, SMGs and pistols can deliver bullets at a very good range, and there are battle rifles that mix things up rather nicely as well. If you prefer a sniper class, you’ll get that with the power of a railgun that can end someone’s run pretty neatly. Of course, those of you with an explosive touch will certainly make do with the game’s rocket launchers, and that’s just what we’ve discovered from the demo that was available at PAX East last week.

In other words, it takes the arena based experience and puts it into perspective with a neat new tactic. That’s not something that’ll guarantee instant success; we’ve seen innovation in shooters before, only for interest to fall by the wayside in favor of the “next big thing.” But 1047 puts its heart right on its sleeve with the game, and there’s some stuff here that comes together pretty nicely, especially on the creative side of things.

That said, I do hope the recoil gets tweaked a little bit. It doesn’t really feel like your weapons have much heft without it, but keep in mind that the game is still in beta (you can learn more about it on Steam here), and by the time the finished release comes around, we could see all sorts of tweaks to make its play sustainable.

As far as the game’s visuals go, Splitgate runs very smoothly. It utilizes Unreal Engine technology for each of its maps, which means the frame rate is pretty sturdy. But on top of that, the Tron-esque visuals really pop to life, almost to the point that you’ll want to stay in this world a little while longer. The animations can be stiff in some places, but as a whole the game runs very smoothly, based on the multiplayer demos I took part in over the weekend.

Splitgate

Now, one thing you’ll want to keep in mind is that Splitgate wasn’t really built as a massive multiplayer shooter experience. Up to 10 friends can take part in online multiplayer at a time. While that’s not as hefty a count as, say, Battlefield V’s 64-player set-up, it is quite good for an indie-based development.

Not to mention the fact that it can be quite overwhelming when you have a gaggle of players flying all over the place thanks to portal tactics. The lesser player count actually serves as an advantage when it comes to planning tactics, and it allows the game to run at a proper speed without having to worry about all the little animations that are coming together. So far, the game runs pretty smoothly, and we don’t see why 1047 would want to mess with that by adding more players. In this case, the lesser, the merrier.

However, let’s say you’re a solo player and you want to get the hang of the action before you jump through the portal with both feet. Fortunately, Splitgate will have something to offer here. The game will enable you to go up against AI bots if you prefer, letting you master the controls and some of the weapons before attempting to thrust you into the online action. This is a welcome option, mainly because some shooters just don’t provide it. With Battle Royale games, for instance, you have to “live and learn.” That is, if you can live. Here you can tinker around, master your placements and become a lean, mean portal-taking machine.

When you do make your way online, there are various options available. There’s a fun Oddball mode that takes a cue from Rocket League, to add some competitive flair outside the norm. But if you prefer, you can also hop into the usual gamut of match-ups in Deathmatch, King of the Hill and Domination. For those thirsty for an extra special challenge, there’s also a team SWAT based mode in which you’ll fight without armor. Think you’re good? Let’s see just how good you are when you can only take so many hits before going down. Time to put those portal skills to work!

Alas, there’s a catch. For the time being, it looks like Splitgate: Arena Warfare is only heading to Steam/PC at the moment. This could change in the future, depending on the success of the game. I hope it does because something like this would be welcome on the console front, especially for the low-end $20 to $30 price tag that the developers are going for once all is said and done with development later this year. Fingers crossed.

Splitgate

For the time being, however, I like the direction that Splitgate is taking in terms of its gameplay and design. True, the long-term value of the game has yet to be weighed, depending on how the modes hold up and how much content 1047 has in mind for future updates. Currently, it has enough going for it to give it a shot, and there could be additional betas in the future that will allow you to take a test drive with it. Keep tabs on the Steam page above, and we’ll keep you informed once more information becomes available.

In the meantime, who knew that there would be someone that could handle Portals as well as Valve?!

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Castle Crashers Remastered Nintendo Switch Hands-On: Those Crazy Knights

When it came out over a decade ago, Castle Crashers took us by surprise. After all, prior to its release, the developers at The Behemoth previously became known for the side-scrolling Contra-esque shoot-em-up Alien Hominid HD.

Then Crashers landed on the Xbox 360 and took the world by storm, introducing a beautiful, hand-drawn beat-em-up akin to the old days of Final Fight and Streets of Rage but with some strategies thrown in for good measure. Sure, you could pound some buttons and beat a few enemies as a result, but it was utilizing some of the new moves you unlock over the course of the game, and trading up those precious weapons to more powerful tools, that would win you the day. Not to mention the four maidens kidnapped by your mysterious foe.

Since its initial release, Castle Crashers has spread its legacy across a number of platforms including: the PlayStation 3, PC and the Xbox One with the Remastered version that came out a little while ago. Soon, however, the Crashers will make their way to the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4, expanding their reach and audience to a whole new level. After all, the Switch by itself is a juggernaut, especially as far as beat-em-ups are concerned.

 

Sharpen Those Swords

The game places you in the midst of a fictional universe during medieval times. It’s here that the knights, the “castle crashers” in question, are having fun at a party being held by a king’s castle.

However, it isn’t long before a dark wizard chooses to crash the party, along with an army of goblins. He obtains a large gem from the king’s chair, along with the four maidens in question his daughters. Thrown off by the wizard’s attack, the king commands the knights to save the gem and the girls in no particular order.

The game supports up to four players, either online or locally. This is a known go-to tactic for many beat-em-ups like this, which go with the rule of “the more, the merrier.” Granted, that can mean more chaos if you don’t watch who you’re swinging at (maybe have “friendly fire” turned on for those first few match-ups), but it can also mean additional strength when it comes to taking on the strange bosses that the game has to offer.

Along the way, the knights can get powered up with the help of new weaponry that can be obtained through shops and sellers over the course of their journey, which is spread across a large map. There are some areas that require items in order for you to proceed, while others simply stand as the latest test before you can move forward with rescuing the next maiden. It’s all laid out beautifully, and you can try previous stages if you feel like taking on a challenge again.

All You Can Quaff

Castle Crashers isn’t one of these arcade brawlers that’s done in like a half hour’s time. The Behemoth programmed this beast with a variety of challenges that will take you a few hours to get through, either on your own or with friends in tow. That’s the best kind of beat-em-up, one that offers a continuous value as you make your way through it.

Not to mention the variety of stages that you’ll take on over the course of your journey. This includes swimming in water and tackling a gigantic “cat fish” (not catfish), or fighting through a forest that’s filled with dangerous beasts- the kind that would cause a bear to poop himself relentlessly out of sheer fear. You’ll also take on tougher brutes over the course of the game, including a heavily armed black knight and eventually the wizard, who has a few surprises up his sleeve.

Along with the main game, which will take you a few hours to get through, Castle Crashers also provides some interesting side modes to check out. The first is “All You Can Quaff,” which serves as an arena challenge where various enemies come at you, and you have to cut them down to size as quickly as possible. As a result, you’ll reap a few rewards before the next wave kicks off, posing an even greater threat than the last one you faced.

There’s also a new side game that’s been added recently called Back Off Barbarian, and to describe it as simply bizarre would be doing it a disservice. This mini-game works on a board game-style set-up, where players have to move around a map while avoiding threats that continue to pursue them.

Rather than relying on simple movements to go around the board, you have to press in certain directions to progress. These are highlighted over the character’s head, so you have a good idea of what you need to do next in order to survive. The catch is that these speed up as the competition becomes more and more merciless, forcing you to react quickly in the hopes of being the last knight standing.

 

A Nice Boost Forward On the Switch

From what we could tell, The Behemoth didn’t have the PlayStation 4 version of Castle Crashers on the floor of PAX East this past week. Instead, it opted to give the focus to the Nintendo Switch version, which makes sense considering the popularity of the platform.

That said, we can’t think of a better indie game that would feel right at home on the system. Well, okay, maybe Cuphead, but we already know we’ll be getting that in a couple of weeks; Castle Crashers easily takes a pretty tight second place spot.

The developer had two different versions on hand: a portable version and a “docked” version to show off the detail on a big-screen television, and they were both great.

The handheld version of Crashers seems to run very smoothly, though it was set up in single player instead of the traditional multiplayer. That’s just fine, as the game maintained a smooth frame rate and solid hand-drawn details throughout. Not to mention that they really take up the screen in the best way possible, making this fun to watch on the portable front.

As for “docked,” it looks terrific as well. In fact, the details are right up there with the Xbox One version, with a speedy frame rate and even more attention to detail when it comes to the animations and beautiful backdrops. Oh, and the humorous moments seem a little more fun on the big-screen as well. Let’s all watch animals poop out of fear, especially the deer that goes flying off the screen.

The multiplayer component of the game still looks very dynamic with Castle Crashers on the Switch as well. Watching players team up together can be an absolute blast, especially against bosses that you’d think would be near impossible to beat. However, with the right battle crew, you can get things done.

Then there’s the sheer innovation of the boss design. Everything from the brute with the fake face mask to the “cat fish” boss we described earlier to some other enemies that pose a great challenge but also pop a little smile on your face. This is mainly due to The Behemoth’s creativity, which shines through in particular ways with each new stage you come across. No matter which way you play, you’ll find that the Nintendo Switch edition lives up to the hype.

 

Gameplay Shines Through

As for the key component that makes Castle Crashers shine, the gameplay, we’re happy to report that the Switch version didn’t lag in the least. No matter which way you decide to play, either “docked” or in portable mode, you’ll find the controls to be quite responsive.

Case in point, you’ll need to embrace a number of beat-em-up tactics when it comes to the game. This includes a pair of striking attacks that you can mix together to knock enemies into the air for multiple hits, but there are also arrows that can be fired from a distance, as well as special techniques that can be unlocked. This includes a sweet spinning attack that hits everyone from a fairly good range once it’s unlocked.

That said, you may want to keep an eye open. Some enemies don’t mind being cheap and hitting you with multiple arrows in a row. As a result, it can be quick for you to lose a life if you’re not too careful. Fortunately, there’s more than enough fruit that you can grab in a stage for a quick pick-me-up in health. Just keep an eye open, and mind your friends attempting to bogart it first. HEY, I JUST CALLED THAT APPLE, JERK!

Then there are the role-playing elements within the game. Not necessarily in the gameplay, but in the weapons and other items that you can purchase within the shops and through certain vendors. These include everything from battle axes to special gear to make your character slightly stronger. You’ll also find lots of coins that you can use as currency over the course of the game.

Not only that, but you can unlock spirit icons as well that provide a secondary boost. For instance, there’s a floating goat’s head that can actually hit someone with a quick dash attack, if they’re aligned properly. You can upgrade to new ones as you find them over the course of the game as well, in case you feel the need to mix things up.

Finally, the Nintendo Switch version of Castle Crashers comes with some great secondary characters to unlock. Hopefully, we’ll see the Pink Knight make their return, along with the Alien Hominid soldier from the Xbox 360 game of the same name. They were fun guests before, and they can be again here. And hopefully the door will be open for even more debuting faces. No one from the Nintendo family, mind you, but there’s nothing wrong with seeing a familiar face from the world of BattleBlock Theater, is there?

A Classic, Returning

While the nature of Castle Crashers remains unchanged from the past decade, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, we turn to classic beat-em-ups all the time, just for the sake of feeling the “good ol’ days” of gaming. Crashers easily falls into this category, delivering beat-em-up thrills that combine with vivid hand-drawn art and a funky soundtrack to make you feel right at home.

Though it’s too soon to tell how the Nintendo Switch version will pan out, that’s something we’re saving for the review, I am quite pleased with how it’s turned out thus far. Castle Crashers Remastered feels right at home on the Switch, whether you prefer to take your action with you during travel or want to get a few friends together for a few stages on the couch. Either way, you’re covered here.

Not only that, but Crashers’ abundant bonus content shouldn’t be missed. While the two side games are a bit strange, they’re a lot of fun as well. Additionally, the bonus goodies you can unlock, from the weapons to the characters to the bonus animal icons, really expand the game in a number of ways.

While some people have already conquered everything Castle Crashers has to offer, there are those who would feel pretty good about having it on the Switch. Count me in that group because there’s nothing wrong with another great beat-em-up making its home on Nintendo’s platform.

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Hands On With Anthem

Anthem is a game that has been utterly shrouded in mystery. From its development cycle to what is planned for a post-launch release, Bioware Edmonton’s newest creation has been a complete enigma up until its first demo several weeks ago. Even looking at its official social media pages, its hard to discern what the final form of Anthem is truly intended to be, with little focus on showcasing the game’s systems. Even now, after the first leg of its public demo, the discussion surrounding Anthem is more based on the failings of the demo than what the game actually is.


Developed by Bioware and published by Electronic Arts, Anthem is an always-online MMO-lite shooter in a similar vein of Destiny 2 and features a persistent open world with drop-in-drop-out co-op gameplay. While there are certainly comparisons to be drawn between Bungie’s MMO shooter and the newest addition to the Bioware catalog, each game exists in its own circle of influence and certainly stands on its own.

On the planet of Bastion, Elder Gods once shaped the world with great machines and a force known as the Anthem of Creation. A wild and untamed elemental force, the Anthem and its melodies could create life from inanimate objects while shaping the world at its whim. Long before the rise of humanity, these gods left, leaving their relics and instruments behind on a volatile world. Now these powers threaten the very land of Bastion, and heroes have risen to meet them. Known as Freelancers, these contract-soldiers take flight in their Javelin mech suits to defend humanity from threats based on the Anthem, and those that encroach from within the very ranks of humanity itself.

This, in my opinion, is one of the more interesting and under-utilized narrative conflicts that we just haven’t seen in western game development over the last decade. Too often do we see heroes backed against a wall by an unseen or omnipotent enemy force, when sometimes the best opposition can come from nature itself. Anthem certainly has that on full display at its onset with the melodies of Bastion ripping horrific monsters into being in an instant or glassing a plain with savage licks of fire. However, this quickly turns into the introduction of a big-bad villain who attempts to weaponize the Anthem and things quickly begin to hit a tired story beat.

The narrative of Anthem is, oddly enough, one of its weaker points. Despite being known for their fantastic storytelling and wonderful narrative construction, Bioware’s strongest skill set firmly falls flat in this department, at least within the first few hours. While the introductory missions are incredibly well written and serve to inject action into the world of Bastion there is a two year time-jump immediately after this plot-line, cutting any emotional attachment to the characters we just struggled with. From there things merely chug along in Anthem, hitting story beats until the introduction of the game’s main villain.

The Monitor, leader of the Dominion and intent on wielding the fury of the Anthem.

What’s slightly more disappointing, however, is how well written the game’s wide variety of characters truly are. From your co-pilot Owen, who’s neurotically charming to a fault, to one of the Sentinels who is standoffish and uncomfortable but warms up to your character over time. Each character has a wonderful amount of time and energy put into them, with their own development arcs and unique quirks. There is a living, breathing world in Anthem, but it simply feels as if the, “why,” in existing in it doesn’t build until later in the game.

Despite the lack of why, the “How do you play in Anthem,” is incredibly fun and well worth the purchase price of the game. Most of your play time will be spent inside a Javelin, one of the Freelancer’s exo-suits. Each one is unique in its design and playstyle, fitting a different role in a traditional RPG role. Each has six unlockable equipment slots, as well as a host of unique interchangeable abilities.

The first players will have access to is the Ranger, a medium armor class Javelin. Focusing heavily on gunplay, the Ranger features abilities that veterans of Halo or Gears of War may find familiar. Starting with several artillery abilities such as grenades and missiles, this particular suit is the best for those unfamiliar with RPGs or Anthem in general; much like Soldier 76 of Overwatch, the Ranger is a great introduction for FPS players and the most versatile of each javelin. After completing the tutorial players will be able to select one of the other remaining Javelins, unlocking the others as they level up their pilot.

The Colossus is the de-facto tank of the Freelancer fleet, originally a large construction suit intended to protect workers from hazardous materials. Now the pilots of Fort Tarsis equip them as mobile siege weapons, using their bulk as an advantage in combat. Each Colossus comes equipped with a large ballistic shield, which compensates for their lack of standard energy shield. Unable to wield pistols or sub-machine gun weapons, this Javelin instead can equip heavy weapons such as rocket launchers and gatling guns. This suit is a walking siege weapon, equipped to maximize damage and come up with blunt force solutions to otherwise complicated problems.

The Interceptor is the Javelin for those looking to unlock sheer speed, being the most nimble and deadly melee combatant on the battlefield. While it boasts smaller shields than any other suit available, it recharges its shield through constant moment and speed. Standing still for the Interceptor is not the way to play. Specializing in pure damage and one-on-one combat, the Interceptor cleaves through the battlefield at lightning speed.

Hands on Anthem

New Javelins can be unlocked at pilot levels 2, 8, 16, and 24.

The final suit, and the one I spent the most playtime with, is the Storm. Wielding the elemental fury of Bastion, Storm is the casting powerhouse of the Freelancers. Boasting wide-spread area spells and effects, gunplay is used as a back-up for the destructive powers of the Anthem. Whereas other Javelins do best flitting in and out of melee combat, the Storm is best suited to hover at a distance and unleashing its fury upon the hapless enemies of the Freelancers.

Any time you step outside of the safety of Fort Tarsis, the main hub of Anthem, you’ll be loaded into one of your Javelins. Each comes loaded with several firearms be they rifles, submachine guns, pistols, shotguns or heavy ordnance. Each also has a jump-booster, a system that players can utilize to hover, glide or fly over Bastion. These jets can be activated at any time, indoors or out, but can only run for a certain amount of time; as with any flame-propulsion system it will eventually overheat.

Players can instead maximize their flight time by soaring beneath or over bodies of water, using gravity to assist their flight (such as tilting downwards or even straight down), or by flying in water-related weather patterns. This is one of Anthem’s more rewarding systems, as it simply feels good to fly and pull off various maneuvers with each Javelin especially when you can manipulate your flight pattern and stay aloft indefinitely. Each suit handles a little differently from each other based on its armor class; the beefy Colossus is sluggish and takes artillery on directly while the Interceptor rolls in and out of combat and flies as daintily as a bird.

While customization is limited when it comes to the player-character (with only one voice per sex and roughly 24 pre-rendered faces to choose from), Javelin customization is incredibly wild and varied. While each Javelin not only has replaceable parts and armaments, attainable through in-game vendors and currencies, every single color and texture of the Javelin can be customized or altered to your specifics. Leather under-linings can be changed to an all-metal super suit, capes and cloaks can be altered to be leather of any variety. Even the loadouts for your mechs can be utterly unique, turning a tanky Colossus into a long-ranged assassin or a Storm into a front-line psycher.

Hands on Anthem

The Ranger

When it comes to the gameplay of Anthem everything just feels right. Gunplay is tight and fun to engage with, flight feels great, and even simply exploring the world is fun. However, this is where the cracks in Anthem’s designs really begin to show.

Like Dragon Age: Inquisition, Anthem moves through its narrative beats and story-progression via a mission system. While this does piece out the story and lore into palatable chunks, it also makes exploring Bastion incredibly jarring. After the completion of each mission the player will be thrust out of their Javelin and into Fort Tarsis to manage their Javelin and pick up quests. While this allows players progressing quickly to optimize their loadout this does not negate the issue for players enjoying the free-roaming aspects of Bastion. If you even want to change your firearms you will have to return Fort Tarsis, enter your loadout, adjust your guns and sit through two more loading screens to return to that open world.

It’s also clear that hovering was not entirely fleshed out in regard to combat; while the Storm is built around the concept of flying high and avoiding damage, every other Javelin can also do just that as well, minimizing the threat of any enemy encounter especially in group scenarios. This reaches a paramount point towards Anthem’s endgame, which players of more recent MMO-Lite franchises may find familiar.

As the Freelancers rebuild their forces and begin to wage war on some of the deadliest parts of the Anthem, players will earn the ability to fight against Strongholds. These multiplayer encounters revolve around silencing a dangerous relic, fighting off waves of often negligible enemies and fighting off a large boss-version of those enemies, which feels again like a large bullet sponge. As bosses have no set loot table, rewards can range from low-tier uncommon items, which I received during my time at EA Redwood, to blueprints. These blueprints can be used to create Masterwork weapons, requiring players to use Anthem’s crafting system to target and develop specific end-game pieces they want, making the end-game less a targeted experience and more of a wide-sprawling attempt to find exactly what you need blindly.

 

Hands on Anthem

Anthem’s Loadout Screen, only accessible through the Forge at Fort Tarsis.

There also doesn’t appear to be much direction in terms of what happens after the story campaign. While there have been promises from both Electronic Arts and Bioware that there will be additional content beyond the end-game, and a confirmation from producer Scylla Costa that Bioware Houston will take over the live-service aspects of Anthem, there’s no direction into what that’s going to be. For now, running Stronghold’s appears to be the entire post end-game content, meaning that this live service will be relatively deceased after players hit the end of this RPG.

So that leaves us with one major question: where does this leave Anthem? Frankly, Anthem is an incredibly fun game when you don’t look too far past the veneer and finish. While player agency isn’t as prevalent as in other Bioware games such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, neither is Anthem truly intended as a full-scale MMO nor a full-level RPG. Instead this game melds genres far more successfully than other more recent entries in the AAA sphere.

However, in comparison to those other entries, there are also quite a few gaps simply due to the setting of Bastion and the legacy of Bioware; players are used to complete agency in the designs of their characters, instead of the armor they wield. Other entries keep this customization out in the world instead of relying on older system concepts to force player evolution, allowing them to make basic adjustments on the fly instead of resetting their world to tweak a firearm. Anthem has a lot of heart, love and ingenuity baked into its very artistic essence, but the defects do stand out otherwise; some for the cracks in the façade, and others simply because Bioware has dominated this space for years.

For those interested, Anthem launches into the world on February 22nd, 2018

Disclaimer: Writer was flown out to EA’s Redwood, California Campus to preview Anthem at no cost.

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Super Smash Bros. Ultimate: Hands on at EGLX!

The Enthusiast Gaming Live Expo opened its doors once more in Toronto, Canada last weekend and with it Nintendo of Canada booted up its consoles for eager players looking to get hands on with their upcoming major releases. Ahead of its launch on December 7th I got to go hands-on with Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the latest installment in Nintendo’s hit character brawlers. Drawing from its wide slew of franchises and guesting famous characters from across the industry, Ultimate is set to be the capstone game in the series combining every character and every map from across the franchise into one final installment.

Getting into demoing Ultimate was incredibly difficult at EGLX; even on the first day the lines were wrapping around the entirety of the Nintendo booth where they were also demoing Fortnite, Pokemon Let’s Go, and other several recent releases. However, I was lucky enough to jump in early and link up with a few groups of 3 for some quick versus games. Sadly, we were only able to demo the standard point-style Versus matchups.

While Ultimate will reportedly support up to 32 players, our games were restricted to 4 players and two games each. I decided to play the same two characters for all my sessions to examine the control schemes and response times throughout. Despite the wide announcements of upcoming characters for Ultimate our selection list was incredibly small between both characters and arenas. Unlike previous iterations in the series, players will be selecting their maps prior to their characters.

In my play sessions, I engaged across four different maps, with two of them being brand new. The two returning maps, Green Hill Zone and Battlefield are both graphically wonderful, the latter maintaining its Brawl design. Both have improved resolution and minimally adjusted for play on the Switch. Playing on both of them felt much more like returning home to familiar ground than simply turning a console back on.

The first new map, Moray Towers, is designed based around Nintendo’s Splatoon franchise, and very much feels reminiscent of Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s New Pork City, distilled down to a more claustrophobic size. Featuring six vertical ramps that players can jump and fall through, map dominance relies on knowing when to retreat and re-enter combat against different opponents. It was here that I first noticed how well each pixel in Ultimate jumps off the screen, making each character stand out from the background no matter how similar the color. In previous entries in the series I often found my vision unfocused, easily losing sight of my character as the match went on. On the Switch I had no such issues, homing in on my characters quickly even in the heat of the moment on large maps.

The second newer map my team played on was the Great Plateau Tower, a Battlefield-style map plucked right from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. For fighters first spawning into the space, it simply appears as a flat battleground for the brave fighter to duel. After delivering enough damage across the landscape the tower will collapse on itself, the domed roof collapsing to reveal an additional platform. Mastering dodging early in my Smash career, that was the key to taking command of the Tower. Much akin to Brawl’s Pirate Ship room to fight is hard to find, and relies on a player that can think outside of the box until the walls come tumbling down.

I first played as Ridley, the infamous Space Pirate Commander from the Metroid series. Like every other character in Ultimate Ridley does have a swappable color palette, though Prime fans will be disappointed by the lack of a Metal Ridley variant. Instead his shaders are far more reminiscent of his various states of damage across the 2D entries in the series, particularly from Metroid Fusion’s X-Enhanced Ridley. He is one of the largest characters seen to date in the franchise, standing almost 4 meters in combat, double the length of Mario.

Being one of the larger characters on screen the nefarious space-dragon walks along at speeds more reminiscent of Bowser; slow and menacing like a great monster but not so slow as to feel left out of the action. This does not mean Ridley is a slower character by any stretch of the imagination, while his melee abilities are indeed slower and more devastating, several include a distinct sweet spot which multiplies his damage when unleashing attacks at the appropriate time. He can also rapidly fly across the arena, grabbing opponents for unique aerial combat and unleashing devastating combos while grinding his opponents into walls and floors. While he does feature a handful of ranged abilities these are not his bread and butter but are instead when he’s at his most vulnerable.

In charging his ranged attacks Ridley cannot hold a leveled charge like fighters such as Samus can. Instead his abilities must be charged and unleashed at the same time, filling areas of the screen to devastating effect. Much like smaller character such as Jigglypuff, Ridley can also take flight for several moments, flapping his wings repeatedly to gain altitude. His recovery move is incredibly reminiscent of the Star Fox fighters, hurling himself in any direction with a burst of dark energy. His Final Smash, however, is one of the coolest animations I’ve seen in the series.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate EGLX
Pulling any opponent in melee range, Ridley hurls them against Samus’ ship in an Injustice: Gods Among Us style cutscene. With a roar he unleashes a devastating Omega Beam, potentially blasting all of them off of the screen in a blaze of glory. While the entire animation only takes perhaps five seconds, each moment it plays out is utterly breathtaking and, for the players lucky enough to escape my wrath, incredibly awe-inspiring. Every Final Smash feels that way, even those without pre-rendered cinematics (such as Samus’ Hyper Beam) leave a distinct impression of power on the screen, and make effective usage not only devastating to opponents but jaw-dropping to watch.

Stepping into Kirby’s colorful shoes, I decided to take up the pink fluffball of terror to best test the game’s updated physics and tools. Kirby still feels fun to use and abuse, from swift dodges and devastating speed-punches to just sucking up opponents and ejecting them off of the sides of the arena. On a basic level the physics and controls for Smash Ultimate feel incredibly good, even the ability tuning is perfectly reasonable, such as Kirby’s A-Button combo now limited in its hits. Past the basics, however, thing begin to slip in quality.

Each station was restricted to using a Nintendo Switch Pro Controller which most players will find more than appropriate for Ultimate’s control scheme. In using a multitude of these controllers (on one occasion requesting a swap-out for a fresh one), controls in combat feel intrinsically stiff and restricted in comparison to other entries in the Smash franchise. Changing directional attacks mid-air, like Kirby’s Recovery attack, cannot be done within so many frames of animation of the attack. Such is the same with advanced moves like wavedashing from a stand-still being nearly impossible. Some of these difficulties are due to the increased latency in animation gaps, points in time where there is a gap between certain animations and their actions where players can influence character movement.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate EGLX

It is during these moments that advanced and pro players execute some of the game’s more difficult and previously unintended techniques, rapidly crossing the arena through minimalistic air-dashes or avoiding attacks with split-second dodges that players first taking up the game would gauge as impossible. Despite these frame gaps being larger than in Smash 4 and Brawl, these techniques are still noticeably more difficult to pull off in play with characters built for it. In discussing this with other members of my group (several of which were experienced Smash tournament veterans) they also expressed a stark disappointment at the sheer difficulty in managing these extra abilities. With Game Director Masahiro Sakurai’s previously negative comments about Smash Tournament play to The Guardian, these massive adjusts do feel as if they are intentionally purposed to an extent, which may see tournament play firmly remain with Melee as its strongest showing.

The rest of my time with Ultimate was enormously fun in experimenting with combat and items. The default spawning rate of items in this iteration feels fantastic, with new additions appearing every ten to fifteen seconds and in wide variety. Over the course of one match we had several Poke Balls and weapon items drop in, and none felt obtuse or distracting during match play unlike previous Smash installments. Each item was also incredibly fine-tuned, and we didn’t feel the need to start scrabbling for anything at the cost of our own fights. Everything felt fair to use and be hit by; there was no real moment where I was angry about a cheap Pokemon spawn or an overpowered weapon hit.

All in all, I feel remarkably confident about the home market for Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. While I am incredibly concerned about its potential future for tournament play, this is certainly the ultimate addition to a Smash fan’s collection. With a current confirmed roster of almost 80 characters and zones this will indeed be one of the greatest additions to your Nintendo library for sheer value alone. You too can add it to your collection on December 7th.

 

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Pokemon Let’s Go: Hands On At EGLX!

The Enthusiast Gaming Live Expo opened its doors once more in Toronto, Canada last weekend and with it Nintendo of Canada booted up its consoles for eager players looking to get hands on with their upcoming major releases. Ahead of its launch on November 16th, I got an opportunity at EGLX to get hands on with Pokemon Let’s Go: Pikachu, one of two versions of the upcoming Nintendo Switch game. While it’s sister-game, Let’s Go Eevee, features the titular evolutionary fox, Let’s Go Pikachu prominently features the series defacto mascot as the player’s companion in their journey through familiar fields.

Returning to the Kanto region, Pokemon Let’s Go will feature a similar journey to the one found in the original duology of games, Red and Blue. In my hands-on time with the demo, players were restricted to the Viridian Forest, one of the game’s first gauntlets prior to the major Gym circuit. While the layout and skeleton did feel the same, Viridian has long since seen not just a graphical face lift, but a smoother transition into a wide field of Pokemon diversity. In my brief playtime I encountered not only the familiar Caterpie and Weedle enemies, but also found Rattata, Nidoran and Jigglypuff sprinkled throughout the area.

These Pokemon practically leap off of the screen with the Swtich’s small yet powerful hardware. As with most games I’ve played before on the system, no matter how bright the background or powerful the color palette, each Pokemon I encountered took center stage as they darted through the wild underbrush. That’s right, wild Pokemon are now present on the overworld in lieu of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest’s visible enemy encounters, allowing you to target specific pocket monsters or avoid ones you’d rather not face. That’s not to say that they’re simply passive creatures; if necessary they will engage and charge you if you’re not careful. Fighting the wilderness and trainers simply doesn’t feel as exhausting as it has in past entries.

Pokemon Let's Go

Here I found is where the direction that Nintendo has taken the franchise has met seamlessly with the traditional pacing of what Game Freak has laid before. The Battle System will be instantly familiar to veterans of the franchise, featuring the same 4-move turn-based combat the series is known for. New moves have been injected, however, as alongside Thunder Shock, Tail Whip and Growl my Pika-partner took flight with balloons and dive-bombed its enemy with gusto. It’s impossibly difficult to utterly revamp such a celebrated and fundamental game mechanic, so instead Let’s Go has taken a distinctly different route in invigorating the series.

Unlike past iterations, PLG has taken queues from Niantic’s hit mobile release, Pokemon Go, and has dynamically changed encountering and capturing Wild Pokemon. Whereas installments have repeated the Trainer Battle System players are familiar with, Pokemon Let’s Go instead pits you against Wild Pokemon alone with nothing but a Poke Ball and your sharp reflexes. Capturing Pokemon now requires you to track their movement across the screen and time your movements to avoid their deflecting techniques. Timing your throws with the shrinking targeting reticle will also increase the efficacy of your capture; the smaller the circle, the greater chance your wild target will stay in that little ball.

Capturing Pokemon has also been gamified to a greater extent than it has in the past. Much like Pokemon Go, capturing repeated species of the same creature rewards a multi-capture bonus. Wild Pokemon now also come in a variety of sizes, visually alerting you if one is smaller or much larger than average. Noticing these at the booth, I inquired with the Nintendo staff if these had any particular importance, but I was told that these were purely cosmetic and did not directly affect statistics or gameplay. To quote the attendant at the Nintendo Booth, “Some people just like to have a large Rattata!”

Pokemon Let’s Go

The biggest addition to the Let’s Go line is of course your companion Pokemon. Displaying and promoting the bond between critter and Trainer is the focus of these games, making their intent known every step of the way. Returning from it’s celebrated inclusion in HeartGold and SoulSilver, Pokemon will now follow you in the overworld. While the titular duo will ride on your avatar’s shoulders, other Poke-members of your party can follow behind your character as you adventure throughout the world. While only the basic Kanto starter Pokemon were available to demo in such a regard, the present Nintendo Employees did confirm that every Pocket Monster will be available to follow your character on your journey.

Customization and interaction has also been reinforced with distinct importance. You can, at any time, play with your Pikachu! During my demo time I got up close and personal with my shocking murine in the interaction system originally released with Pokemon Diamond and Pearl. Picking up Razz Berries and other items found throughout the world, Pikachu and Eevee can be fed and played with, responding to player interactions and feedback intelligently. In scratching Pikachu I discovered he loved head pats and ear-scritches, but nose boops were enough to threaten me with an electric shock.

In my demo my little partner was wearing a costume very similar to my trainer avatar, sporting a smart baseball cap and jacket. Across from me a young couple playing their game remarked and gushed over a similar outfit that their Eevee was dolled up in and the group of us appreciated these light touches. In talking to my Nintendo Rep she eagerly confirmed that this was a feature of the game, and that more costumes could be unlocked as players delved deeper and deeper into Kanto. Part of the charm, she remarked, was that Nintendo wanted characters to develop a special bond with their chosen partner as the game progressed. Costuming is intended to be wide and dynamic, letting players dress up their partner however they wish, whenever they wish.

Pokemon Let’s Go

As a long time player of the franchise, there was one question on my mind throughout. My first venture in the series was Pokemon Yellow, a special expanded edition of the original releases that saw Pikachu as your starter Pokemon whom followed you in a manner similar to that of Pokemon Let’s Go. However, much to my chagrin even in my adult years, Pikachu could never be evolved meaning that you either had a constantly underpowered member of your team or your companion was banished to Bill’s PC forever. I did ask if Pikachu and Eevee could evolve in Pokemon Let’s Go, but my representative simply didn’t have an answer for me. At the first opportunity we both jumped on the Booth Manager who deflected the question initially, but later admitted it was an answer he didn’t have either.

Controlling the game admittedly felt incredibly satisfying. While demoing Pokemon Let’s Go, the Nintendo booth was equipped with the Poke Ball Plus controllers, a three buttoned motion controller included with the deluxe edition of the games. Movement and menu selection was controlled with the central depressable control stick, while a button was located on the top red section of the ball to act as a cancel button. Controlling the game in this manner felt like a leap from the anime into reality, even with the twitchy weightlessness the control stick possessed. Motion controls felt just as responsive, either slinging Poke Balls with a flick of the wrist or hurling them with a hat-backwards-Ash-Ketchum-toss. Both were exceptionally responsive in the capturing segments, and the Plus controller possesses just enough to work for Trainer Combat.

Let’s Go plays just as well with a standard Switch Joy-Con, fully capable of the same motion controls and still feeling as solid in your hand as the Plus. I did ask about portability during my time, wondering how players were expected to go about this when the Switch was undocked. My representative confirmed for me that motion controls were indeed optional, even when docked, allowing players to be as interactive with the game as they want.

I also asked what the depth of the game was: would the Kanto region be the only realm to explore with our new partners? While my representative did confirm that Kanto was the main focus, I received multiple contradictory answers on if it was the only limit to the game. Despite being told that Kanto was all that was intended to be included, she later recanted and said that future expansions were possible depending on sales figures for the sister games.

Pokemon Let’s Go

With time under my belt, I’m fully confident that Pokemon Let’s Go will be a wonderful addition to an already incredibly strong franchise. Everything completely flows together to fulfill the ideal Trainer fantasy, from the bond of your partner to the feeling of encountering Pokemon in the wild. It injects just enough life to make the slog that is the Viridian Forest a welcome place to return to and re-experience on brand new hardware. I for one am deeply anticipating the rest of the game, to live in the Pokemon World with a better appreciated player fantasy. For now, I wait with bated breath for its release on November 16th.

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