Horizon Zero Dawn Review

Introduction

Background: Dutch developer Guerilla Games released Horizon Zero Dawn on February 28, 2017. They used their proprietary game engine Decima, which will also be used to make the hotly anticipated Death Stranding. Horizon Zero Dawn has been very well-reviewed overall: it has an 89/100 on Metacritic and earned “Best Original Game” from the Game Critics Awards. Prior to the release of Horizon, Guerilla was best known for its series of Killzone games.

The TL;DR Version of this Review: I love Horizon Zero Dawn a lot! I rarely find a game that ticks off every box on my checklist of “things I want in a game.” From the riveting story, to the fun and engaging gameplay, to the expansive and detailed world, Horizon Zero Dawn not only met but exceeded all of the expectations I built for it. I was so excited when it was shown at E3 last year, I ordered the Collectors Edition. Buying in to the hype on an unknown game early on can be risky (you can find plenty of articles on why not to preorder games during E3), but I’m so happy that I did; it was worth the wait and the excitement. You can still pick up the Collectors edition from Amazon if you want – at double the price they were originally going for last June!

Check out some pictures of the Collectors Edition below:

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At the time I’m writing this review, my game completion is at 78.76% and I have 64% of trophies. I played on the “normal” difficulty setting. I’ve put about 70 hours into it, and I have completed the main story and collected all the special collectibles with plenty of content such as errands and side quests left. I played at a leisurely pace by most standards; Horizon is one of those games where individual play time will vary greatly depending on how you’re playing, and how interested you are in completion.

In May, Guerilla released a fun free update for Photo Mode. You can change time of day, brightness, exposure, camera angle, and all sorts of settings on your current scene. You can even pose Aloy, or take her out of the picture. Throw a filter on it! I had a lot of fun using this feature to take the screenshots for this article.

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This is a long review due to how much I had to say about the game, and I’ve broken it up into the following sections if you’d like to jump around:

This review will contain some spoilers, but I’ve stuck the most important spoilers in a labeled portion of the “Story” section, so if you’re planning on playing Horizon but haven’t yet, just skip that part!

Story

Amongst the wreckage of skyscrapers and city streets that once formed our world, primitive human civilizations have bloomed. It’s a prehistoric human existence, a simpler time when humans and animals shared the land – with one major twist. The beasts of this land, which the humans hunt and rely on for supplies, are made of metal and machinery rather than flesh and bone. A diverse menagerie of these robotic creatures inhabit the world, each with their own unique abilities, components, and weaknesses. You’ll spend a lot of time while exploring contending with these creatures: either avoiding them or hunting them for parts.

When I play open world games like Horizon, I tend to wander around completing side quests rather than focusing on the main quest. I enjoy game worlds and don’t want to leave them, so I don’t focus on the path that will quickly end the game. However, that was NOT the case with Horizon. I was driven to complete the main story quest. Why? Because the story is AMAZING! I was blown away by the compelling and original story. I don’t know when I lost faith in open world games, but I don’t expect to care about the main story anymore. With games like Fallout and Skyrim – games I love! – I usually think of the main story quests as the ones to be completed when you have to, or when you run out of side quests. (When I mention Fallout in this review, just assume I’m lumping 3 and 4 together and speaking of those two, specifically.) The story of Horizon Zero Dawn is like an edge-of-your-seat book and I couldn’t stop turning the pages.

Aloy was an interesting protagonist because I actually didn’t find her that likable, despite the fact that I really liked playing as her. Perhaps it’s not that she’s unlikable, but she’s not like me – lately I’m used to playing games where you customize your character to be like you, or something like Breath of the Wild, where the character you play as is voiceless and therefore doesn’t have a strong personality to clash with your self perceptions. Especially in the dialogues, Aloy is blunt and mean, with a clipped and dry tone. Even when given personality-driven dialogue options, which doesn’t happen too often, I still didn’t mesh with the way she talked to people. But that’s how Aloy is – a fiery redhead who you wouldn’t want to mess with, who has to carve out a place for herself in this world she doesn’t quite belong in, someone who grew up motherless in a society where mothers are valued above all.

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Although Aloy is such a strong character, you will come across dialogue choices during important conversations that determine the attitude with which Aloy responds. You get three options accompanied by an icon – a fist, a heart, or a brain – that represents strength/force, compassion, or intelligence. However, it’s unclear in what ways these choices affect the game, if at all. There aren’t multiple endings to the game, so always picking “fist” won’t result in a noticeable change versus always choosing “heart” – the choice just affects a small portion of a dialogue immediately after your choice. If they don’t affect the story, then the choices shouldn’t be given as though they are different branches, because it’s confusing and takes away from Aloy’s presence as a character. Is she a character we’re playing, or are we supposed to feel like we’re in the driver’s seat as players? It’s a weird and frustrating disconnect that ultimately feels to me like a game feature that wasn’t fully realized.

One last warning: MAIN STORY SPOILERS BELOW! Skip this section if you don’t want spoilers, and go right on down to Gameplay.

The story of Horizon Zero Dawn begins hundreds of years before you enter the game: in the near future of our world, the 2060s, AIs created by an irresponsible corporation malfunctioned, and their robots began to destroy the planet. A team of scientists and engineers led by Dr. Elisabet Sobeck raced against time to save humanity, and Aloy lives in the world that they saved, among the ruins of their old technology. You’re somewhere near Denver, though since the timelines diverge in the future of our world, there aren’t necessarily any recognizable Colorado landmarks.

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Beautiful scenery!

Aloy is a highly skilled hunter and survivalist with an insatiable curiosity about the Old Ones who built the metal world. Due to the questionable circumstances of her birth, Aloy began her life as an outcast of the Nora, a tribe of mother-goddess-worshipping hunters. During her childhood explorations, she finds an electronic device used by the Old Ones called a “focus,” which allows her to see data in the world that’s hidden from the naked eye. As an adult, she is able to earn full membership to the Nora through a ritual called “The Proving.” Right after she does, the tribe is attacked by an unknown foreign enemy. Now, as a specially blessed envoy of the Nora called a Seeker, Aloy must journey out of the sacred Nora lands to forbidden territory in order to investigate the threat to the Nora, as well as to investigate her own history.

There are some other societies to interact with outside of the Nora lands, including the Carja, the Oseram, and the Banuk. Each is a different take on early human societies: the Banuk are a spiritual, isolated arctic people who practice colorful cliff painting and revere the machines; the Oseram are into forging metal, making weapons and armor, and overall remind me of ancient Romans; and the sun worship and history of mass human sacrifice by the Carja inevitably begs comparisons to the ancient Aztecs. While solving inter-tribe conflicts, Aloy also begins to explore wrecked research facilities of the Old Ones, and in doing so she finds holograms that reveal the events of the past.

My rave review of the story is primarily about the elements that deal with Aloy’s discovery about the truth of the past. I wasn’t as intrigued by the present-time conflicts between the warring city states. It was still interesting and well written, but that type of story line is more commonly explored in media. (See: the aforementioned Skyrim and Fallout, plus a variety of other sources from A Song of Ice and Fire to world history textbooks.) However, it is interesting to see the cultures that developed in the world of Horizon – almost prehistoric, but incorporating the debris of our old world. It’s fascinating to see our precious technology reduced to trinkets and decorations, to see our simplest inventions marveled at by people who don’t have any knowledge of our current world.

The holograms deliver the most gripping stories of the game. People who were around during Earth’s downfall come alive and walk around the scene as they did hundreds of years ago, and we get to see conversations and events that precipitated the disaster. By ferreting out the data of the past, Aloy learns about the origin of the machines, the reason for the downfall of the Old Ones, and even the mystery of her own motherless birth – she’s actually a clone of the great Dr. Sobeck, her spawning a failsafe triggered by the all-powerful guardian AI: GAIA.

Meanwhile, an evil society broken from the Carja called the Eclipse has been resurrecting the bad machines of the past and causing the other machines roaming the world to become corrupted. While the good machines will leave people alone if left alone, much like wild animals, the corrupted machines are particularly hostile. Aloy also has to stop this corruption because the corrupted machines are making the world extremely unsafe for humans.

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You can tell a machine is corrupted by the glowing red tendrils that infiltrate its body.

The most emotional twist of the story is when you discover that the geniuses of the past that you’ve been learning about, all the people who worked so hard to save the world – they didn’t. Our world as we know it was reduced to ruin, and the world that we traipse around in as Aloy is a rebuilt world, a product of GAIA, who the team built in order to resurrect life after it had been purged from Earth. Little by little, you learn their fate and you realize that they died not knowing what their work would eventually produce.

With such a unique, detailed, engaging, surprising, and emotional story, Horizon Zero Dawn has earned my respect for engaging and original game writing.

Even aside from the main story, the world is filled with interesting side stories that flesh out the world both past and present, and you can discover them as you explore. See the next section for some details!

Gameplay

Quests & Goals

Along with the main quest that propels you through the story, and side quests that give you a richer experience of the world, there are many other tasks for you to complete. Characters give you simple errands like finding missing relatives, bandit camps need to be cleared out, and zones of corrupted machines need to be eliminated. Along the way there are also some special pickups to find, which I loved because they contained additional unique stories to uncover:

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  • Banuk figures: Usually placed up on a cliff or mountain and indicated with colorful markings, each figure contains a portion of the tragic story about a Banuk artist from the past.
  • Vantage points: Data points stuck into the ground throughout the environment. Activating them reveals the landscape as it was before the world was destroyed, plays a short audio clip, and contains a text file that reveals a portion of the story about an engineer that lived in the old world right when it was ending.
  • Metal flowers: Found throughout the world within suspiciously unnatural triangles of wildflowers, each one contains a poem.
  • Ancient vessels: These don’t actually contain stories, but they are mugs with different decorations from the old world.

Even though these side stories don’t affect the main plot, they enrich the world and make it feel more real. Uncovering the side stories was one of my favorite parts of the game. Plus, once you have a complete set of these four main collectibles, you can trade the set to a specialty merchant in Meridian in exchange for a special prize box. If you have trouble locating all of collectibles, you can purchase maps from merchants that reveal the locations on the map.

Unfortunately, the dialogue scenes with characters to deliver quest or errand information are painfully stiff and halt the action. I found myself losing interest even when the information being delivered was interesting. With the main quest you don’t have this problem because usually you are engaging with dynamic information delivery such as a hologram or audio tape, during which you can move Aloy around, or a full cut scene. But with side quest characters, the conversations are just a mechanical back and forth where the view of the characters doesn’t change and you have to click through the different conversation branches.

You can easily track your progress on the various tasks, which I enjoy because I like to have a clear picture of where I stand on completion status. The hardest tasks to complete are the weapon tutorials because they have to be active in order to achieve them – this means if you are doing another task but use your weapon and forget to switch to the tutorial quest, it won’t count! Therefore, though I am certainly proficient in all weapon types, I still haven’t completed most of the tutorials! (If you do focus on doing the weapons tutorials, it’s an easy way to get lots of XP.)

Technology

Aloy has two key pieces of technology that she uses: the focus she finds as a child, and the lance which she modifies to act as an override tool. I love the contrast between the primitive lifestyles of the characters with the advanced technology and machines that they sometimes use.

  • Focus: Aloy’s focus allows her to track paths, locate signals, and identify components and weaknesses on machines. When you go into focus mode you walk really slowly, which is probably to prevent the player from constantly going around in focus mode. (Kind of like the special hearing mode Joel can use in The Last of Us.) It’s super helpful, especially when tracking the paths of machines so you can set traps for them.
  • Lance/Override tool: Aloy modifies her lance so that it can override machine technology when she jams it into certain ports. By doing so, she can open doors or make machines friendly. Check out the cauldrons around the environment and override the cores found within to gain the ability to override different types of machines. I like to override machines and make them fight for me! Plus, once overridden, certain machine species can be mounted and ridden around.

Map

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When you first start, the map is mostly obscured by clouds so you can’t see any of the details. As you explore, the clouds will lift so you can see the markers. Alternatively, by locating and overriding the Tallnecks, you can reveal large portions of the map even if you don’t walk directly over those areas. My map, which you can see above, has been completely uncovered, and since I’ve found all of the collectibles you can see their locations on the map. As you can see from some of the cauldrons I haven’t completed, when you have yet to complete them they show up on your map as blue; once you’re done, they turn green. After you discover a campfire, it will turn green and you can fast travel to it at any time. Machine zones are indicated with special icons so if you are looking for a specific component, you can go hunting for the species that carry it.

The map looks really big, but when you’re actually walking around it doesn’t take long to get from one place to another. In fact, it feels nicely walkable (or rideable, if you’re on a machine mount!). One feature I loved was the cost of fast traveling. In order to fast travel, you have to use a “Fast Travel Pack,” an item which you can either buy or craft. Because fast traveling was not free, I was more likely to walk wherever I needed to go, even if it meant retracing my steps through familiar territory. Later in the game there is a “Golden Fast Travel Pack” you can purchase which gives you unlimited fast traveling. When you’ve been most places and are just trying for completion, it’s nice to be able to easily fast travel. However, earlier in the game, walking everywhere helps to foster a sense of connection to the environment, and facilitates seamless acquisition of both fighting skills and crafting resources.

My map may look cluttered, but one very useful feature is the ability to select or deselect map markers; for example, say you wanted to look for a specific machine on the map. For instance, I wanted to find a Thunderjaw to photograph for this review!

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First, I zoomed out, and selected only the machine map markers. Once I found a Thunderjaw, I zoomed in closer and selected campfires, so I could see where I could fast travel to to get there. Nice!

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It’s also helpful if you are looking for bandit camps or cauldrons that you haven’t finished yet.

Combat

One thing that really stood out to me about Horizon is how masterfully handled the difficulty curve felt, especially for an open game world. The balance of the game design allowed for a very smooth and natural growth from barely being able to take on a Sawtooth to easily dispatching Ravagers, from not even approaching larger enemies like Tramplers to feeling confident enough to take on a whole herd. Through the ability tree upgrades (see below for more details), increased grades of weapons and armors, and expanding the health bar, Aloy slowly but surely grows from a budding brave to a skilled and confident warrior. I also liked how the main quests would force me to take down a huge machine that I wouldn’t have approached, so that it gave me the courage to kill the enemies when I would encounter them in the field.

While there are some boss-type enemies involved in the main quest (you actually have to defeat them to proceed, and you can’t just run away from them if you run out of health or ammo), the regular machine opponents are more like resources than traditional enemies. They infinitely spawn in their favored environments (marked on the map with special icons), so it’s up to you whether you practice taking out enormous Thunderjaws or quickly dispatch some Watchers and Scrappers to acquire resources. In general, the machines are easy to sneak around or sprint away from if you don’t feel like fighting, but they’re always there for you if you do want to take them on – you can adjust how much combat there is in your gameplay experience.

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Human enemies, on the other hand, seem to be a non-renewable resource. Once you take out a bandit camp, it converts into a friendly settlement and you never see those bandits again. I’ve had some random bandit encounters on the road, but I’m not sure how often (if ever) the bandits re-spawn in the environment without camps to go back to. (As of writing this article, I haven’t cleared out all the bandit camps yet.) The easiest way to take out human enemies is simply to snipe them from afar – their friends are slow to catch on, and you can pretty much take out an entire camp in secrecy. (The phrase, “Must have been the wind!” comes to mind…) In general, the machine enemies are more difficult to defeat than the human enemies, and also take more strategy since you can take advantage of their weaknesses.

Upgrades & Customization

As I’ve mentioned in sections above, there are a number of ways to customize your gameplay experience while playing Horizon, such as choosing how often to fight machines in the field, and choosing how many side quests or errands you do. My number one recommendation for all types of gamers who want the the best gameplay experience is to customize your HUD. The default display is unnecessarily crowded, constantly displaying your quest details and blocking your view of the exquisite scenery. Hide as much of it as you want, and simply brushing the touchpad will bring up the hidden details.

As Aloy defeats enemies and completes quests, she gains XP and skill points. The skill points can be used in a branching tree with escalating levels across different skill sets (hunter, prowler, etc.)

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The top tier costs one skill point, the next two, and the bottom two rows of skills cost three points each. I found it quite easy to acquire the skills I wanted and was able to do so quickly. The most useful skills are the ones that allow you to nock multiple arrows so you get extra firepower with each shot. I also really liked the skill that allowed you to pick up trip wires and traps if your enemies don’t set them off. For reference, if you’ve played it, the skill tree in HZD is very similar to the skill tree in Rise of the Tomb Raider.

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Each weapon is available from merchants in different levels – no modifier, Carja, and Shadow. (For example: War Bow, Carja War Bow, and Shadow War Bow.) Not every weapon is available at every trader, but generally once you get to Meridian all the traders past that point will have all the weapons. The higher the level, the stronger the weapon, and the more modifications you’ll be able to add – one slot for the lowest level, two slots for Carja weapons, and three slots for Shadow weapons.

The same basic rules apply for the outfits, which offer Light, Medium, or Heavy variations. They vary more on how many modification slots each one has. Modifications are looted from the corpses of machines or supply crates, or purchased from merchants. The highest level modifications are pretty hard to find. I struggled to find the best strategy for modifications; what I went with was to max out one quality for each item and switch frequently – for example, add high powered freeze resistance modifications to the already freeze resistant Banuk Ice Hunter outfit and then equip it whenever I fight Glinthawks, which spew frost attacks.

Outfits, unfortunately, limit the player to choosing full outfits – you can’t mix and match outfit components or change the colors. Also, of course, you can’t change your facial or body appearance at all due to the fact that you’re playing as Aloy, not a customized character. I thought some of the outfits were goofy looking, so I would regret if I got into a serious cut scene wearing the Banuk Ice Hunter headgear, but overall I thought the designs stemmed from really cool ideas about how primitive people would incorporate metal beasts into their attire.

Inventory

Carry capacity is always my first stop when upgrading. I love to collect resources, and I hate running out of space. Though I quickly upgraded my resource satchel to its largest size, I still ran out of space a lot. There are a lot of rare pickups, but not a lot to spend them on. For example, you need a Stalker heart to get the Shadow Heavy Armor. However, once you trade it in for the armor, there’s no reason to keep collecting more of them. But the difficult experience of getting it in the first place compelled me to keep collecting them, though eventually they had no purpose. I went through this process with all the hearts and lenses in the game, until I finally realized that what I was doing was foolish and sold them all. You need that space for resources that can be turned into ammo!

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There are two resources that I ran into trouble with: echo shells and blaze. Echo shells are used in tearblast arrows, which I love to use because they blast weapons off of enemies. (If you blast off a Ravager cannon, you can pick it up and turn it on them!) Blaze is used in a wide variety of incendiary weapons, including fire arrows, blast and flame tripwires, and bombs. (Blast tripwires are my favorite! They’re an easy way to do damage to big enemies.) Ultimately, if you’re not varying your battle techniques, it is possible to run out of even very common components. My huge mistake in this regard was keeping the rare items like hearts and lenses over common resources like blaze. The rare items sat uselessly taking up inventory space, while I quickly went through my slots of ammo resources

The complaints I once had about inventory management were addressed with an update that allows you to sort resources by their different attributes, and switch between how they’re sorted. It also made it clear which carry capacity upgrades are available, which are completed, and which require resources you don’t have at the moment – I used to waste a lot of time clicking through the carry capacity menu trying to figure out what I could, couldn’t, and needed to upgrade.

Graphics

The expansive and complex world of Horizon Zero Dawn calls for graphics that are nothing less than extraordinary – and the visuals do not disappoint. From the sweeping natural vistas of the mountain ranges, to the twisted and overgrown remains of skyscrapers, to the cramped and fractal-inspired machine cauldrons, the world comes alive in an intensely immersive way. The map feels larger than it really is since it’s packed with a variety of richly detailed and unique environments. You get to experience an icy mountaintop, wide grassy plains, a lush vegetative forest, and a desert area with stunning rock formations. I don’t know how accurate the map is compared to the actual landscape it’s based on, but even if it doesn’t replicate reality, it creates its own reality for the player.

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The delightfully diverse human inhabitants of Horizon Zero Dawn don vivid costumes and possess reasonably realistic faces. Occasionally I would catch a glitch where the mouths didn’t move in sync with the words, or the eyes would appear slightly off-focus, but overall I was impressed with the graphics on the humans. Since you often get stuck having lengthy conversations with people about errands they want you to run, it’s nice that the people actually look human. I was most impressed by the variety of looks in the world – the faces looked unique, so each character stood out in my mind as an individual person, rather than looking like the same models replicated over and over again.

Metal and robotic entities are easier to CGI than humans, so it goes without saying that the machines looked even better. They’re a really cool mixture of robot and animal, drawing inspiration from real life animals like bison, alligators, and birds. The hard metal of the machines against the natural environment contrasts beautifully, rather than clashing, creating a unique feel for the game.

Conclusion

I really enjoyed playing Horizon Zero Dawn! It’s an open world game that gives players the freedom to play in a way that meshes with their own style, while also providing a satisfying structure that enables you to systematically accomplish tasks. The world, story, and protagonist are well developed and unique. Even though this review is already absurdly long, I feel like I left out tons of thoughts. And that’s perhaps my favorite thing of all: Horizon Zero Dawn gave me a lot to think about. It manages to be both action-packed and smart, proving that you can have it both ways.

Thanks so much for reading!

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Guest Review: Sid Meier’s Civilization VI

I’m so excited to host another guest review on my blog! Unfortunately, there are too many great video games in the world for me to be able to play them all. Luckily, I have some great friends who are willing to help me out!

For this post, Becca L. shares her thoughts on Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, which was released for Windows and OS X in October 2016. The Civilization series started in 1991 with the first game, Civilization, and has enjoyed critical and commercial success throughout its many iterations. The Civilization games are turn-based strategy games in which the player develops a civilization from the ground up while conflicting or cooperating with computer controlled civilizations. There are several different win states, including victory through military domination or victory through cultural achievement. Civilization VI, the most recent installment, won “Best PC Game” from the 2016 Game Critics Awards and “Best Strategy Game” from both the 2016 Game Critics Awards and The Game Awards 2016.

Becca’s Review

I finally downloaded Civ VI for Mac recently. It’s impossible not to want to play every second of every day (just… one… more… turn!) but I’ve tried things like setting timers (does not work) and just telling myself “no” (really does not work). But of course, that is the appeal of Civ games. They have always been completely immersive, and Civ VI is, if anything, even more beautiful and engrossing than ever before.

Map

If you’re familiar with the series, you’ll notice immediately that the artwork has changed. The hexes (an innovation from Civ V) are still there, but now they are brought to life with animations that give you all the information you need at a glance. Resources, tile improvements, wonders, and districts are clearly differentiated. The level of detail is stunning: tiny doves fly above my holy site, and little fires sparkle and dance in the barracks. My once static city is now a dynamic sprawl of farms, mines, districts, wonders, and armed garrisons, all teeming with life.

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That’s right: I said sprawl. Cities now grow across hexes, instead of piling everything in a single stack. This means, among other things, that you need to be thoughtful about where you’re building those barracks and that amphitheater. It also means that each city is completely unique, since the landscape will determine where and perhaps even what you choose to build. This is a massive change from previous games, and one of my favorite developments in Civ VI.

Districts are arguably the most important addition to the game, and it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how to place them to their best advantages. Districts are huge investments: they take on average about 20 turns to produce (from a decent city, with decent production – try to place one in a newly founded city and you’re in for the long haul), and they occupy an entire hex, getting different bonuses based on landscape adjacencies. Their construction is dependent on a city’s population (unless you’re playing as a civ with special district abilities, such as Germany) so you need to be thoughtful about which districts you choose, especially in the early game. Once you build a district, you can start to develop it. For example, you’ll need the encampment district in order to build barracks, and you’ll need the campus district in order to construct science-generating buildings like the university.

Civ is as much about your neighbors and the map as it is your strategy. You can’t make your strategy in a vacuum –local resources and land formations are going to affect your gameplay. That being said, strategic resources in this game feel less necessary than ever before. You could theoretically win a domination victory, for example, without ever having access to iron, or coal, or oil. Let me explain. You don’t need strategic resources for the production of buildings, meaning that you can now build a factory without coal, and a spaceport sans aluminum. Moreover, each strategic resource makes possible the construction of two (but only two!) combat units, and civilization-unique combat units do not need access to their corresponding strategic resource. For example, France can build a unique unit comparable to the musketman without niter, and Scythia can create horse archers without a horse resource. This is a definite change from previous games, and in general I’m not sure that I like it. It has changed gameplay a lot and I think made it easier to survive without iron and oil, two previously indispensable resources. This means that you’re less likely to declare war for resources, less likely to be forced need to found new cities, and less likely to need good diplomatic relations in order to trade for them.

Diplomacy

The departure from photorealistic to a frankly cartoony character design was a risk, and I know a lot of fans are angered by the new look of the world leaders. In my opinion though, it really paid off. Your allies — and enemies– are colorful, expressive, and completely memorable.

Look at Catherine de Medici – she is drinking champagne as she watches your cities burn.

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The diplomacy interface is light-years ahead of what we had to deal with in Civ V. Each civ has a unique agenda that is visible from the start. Norway, for instance, respects other civs with strong navies, and Brazil hates civs that recruit more great people than they do. Not meeting these agendas is a recipe for bad diplomatic relations and potential unwanted declarations of war. Additionally, each civ has a randomized “secret agenda.” You need diplomatic access in order to see what this secret agenda is, and it changes every game. Some are relatively harmless – liking civs with happy cities, or civs with a big income; and some are downright terrifying. During one of my playthroughs, Victoria had a secret agenda called ‘Nuke Happy.”

The diplomacy interface is easy to use and gives all the information you need. However, there are still some bugs that I think will get patched in the next couple of months. For example, here is that scoundrel Pedro II of Brazil, denouncing innocent me for no reason.

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5+ 2 -7 +2 +6 = DENOUNCED ? So many questions.

Gameplay

I played as that champagne-drinking broad Catherine de Medici of France on my first play through. I barely had any competition for my cultural victory, which the Civ main menu tells me is the most difficult to earn. Then again, I’m playing as Catherine de Medici, and her culture benefits are out of this world. Her “flying squadron” ability gives instant access to the other civs’ secret agenda—very helpful if you’re trying to keep the peace. Catherine’s circle of ladies in waiting will also tell you which wonders other civs are trying to construct, so you can plan accordingly.

Filling up my museums, cathedrals, and amphitheaters with actual great works was possibly my favorite part of my play through. It made the cultural victory feel fun in a way it never did in the previous games (although let’s face it: no victory in Civ is more fun than domination). But in Civ VI, you can recruit actual artists as “great people” and display their works. I collected Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Rembrandt’s Abraham and Isaac. Since Catherine has espionage bonuses, at a certain point in the late game, I had my spies sneak away with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from Brazil. Pedro never discovered the heist, which is surprising, since so many of his citizens came to my cities as tourists!

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My second time around, I played as Tomyris of Scythia – going for early game military advantages and shooting for the conquest victory. I’ll be honest, I chose Tomyris basically at random because she looked like a beautiful warrior queen and I’m a sucker for that, but I couldn’t be happier with my decision.

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Tomyris’s special ability allows her to automatically build a second light cavalry unit for every one produced. Put simply, this means you can grow your army fast.

Tomyris has a lot of early game bonuses and no late game bonuses, which means that in order to survive I need to move quickly. This works for me, because warmongering penalties are relatively light in the ancient and classical eras. In this game, Mvemba a Nzinga (Kongo) and Cleopatra (Egypt) declared surprise war on me for no reason very early on, which was fantastic since my military could easily wipe Nzinga off the planet. Fun fact: early cities aren’t able to defend themselves, and open borders are the default during the very early game.

Warfare is as enjoyable as ever. Like Civ V, Civ VI doesn’t allow stacked armies, so no mega stacks of death in this game. I know some people will be disappointed by this, but for me it was a plus. You can, however, after research, combine two or three identical units to make a corps and an army (or a fleet and an armada), gaining combat bonuses.

Pros

Revised city-state system. City-state gameplay was bonkers in Civ V – they were way too important for cultural victory and the number of notifications of their petty needs, feuds, and alliances was obnoxious — and I’m so glad that they changed it for Civ VI. You still meet city-states and complete quests, but now your relations are mediated through envoys, which you earn slowly over time. Because the cultural victory has changed so much, you no longer need to be friends with city-states in order to stand a chance of winning by this route.

New Civics tree system. In fact, culture has been completely revamped. They’ve changed the “social policies” from Civ V into a Civics tree, which acts as a sort of card game that allows you to sub in and out policies as you earn them. Anything that adds more complexity to this already heavily strategic game is good by me, and I loved this update.

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As you progress through your Civics tree, you’ll eventually unlock new governments. Governments have unique bonuses, as well as legacy bonuses which stay with you even if you change governments later. More modern governments let you equip more policies, so it’s in your best interest to move beyond a classical republic or oligarchy early on to something like a monarchy or theocracy, and later to fascism, democracy, and communism. My experience with governments is that you’ll choose based on bonuses: merchant republic, with its trade route bonuses, will help you hoard gold quickly, whereas democracy will help you purchase and cultivate great people. You also get improved diplomatic relations with civs that follow the same government as you, which is useful for when you want to keep the peace. At one point, I changed my government to autocracy solely to appease Egypt while I plotted to take their capital.

Population management. Thankfully, Civ VI has returned to using city-wide happiness instead of population-wide happiness, so population management is much easier (and much more intuitive!) than in Civ V.

Finally: Sean Bean’s voice.

Cons

Frustrating map view. There are always some kinks in Civ games when they first come out – in mine, the map couldn’t zoom out far enough to see more than two of my cities at once. This changed after one of the updates, but it’s still not ideal. I miss being able to see the whole map from an eagle’s eye view.

Difficult for new players. As a first time player of Civ VI (but a longtime player of the Civ series), I did find it difficult to get all the information I need – like the hex bonuses for improvements. The Civilopedia feels especially useless (or maybe I’ve simply never needed to use it before). I had a lot of trouble at first figuring out how to expend great people after I had earned them, and the Civilopedia was no help at all.

Clever but repetitive sound design. Like previous entries in the series, each civilization has unique music that changes as you progress through different eras. In the diplomacy screen, the music of each civ will play as you talk with them. The music is incredible, but I’m putting this on the con list because the industrial age French music got old fast.

Final Thoughts

Overall, Civ VI’s increased depth of gameplay with districts, improved diplomacy, and the civics tree has added variety and fun to an already wonderful game series. The artwork and music are spellbinding. I honestly can’t imagine anyone, newcomer or veteran, not enjoying this game. But now I must return to Tomyris; she’s about to lay waste to Cleopatra’s cities.

Becca L. is an English PhD student writing on turn of the century American women authors. You can find Becca L. on Twitter at @SweetleyTrimmer.

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Review: Yoshi’s Woolly World

It may seem like I’m late to the party with this review since Yoshi’s Woolly World came out for the Wii U back in October of 2015. However, Nintendo is releasing the game for 3DS tomorrow, February 3, under the name “Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World.” Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World will contain all stages of the Wii U version along with bonus Poochy levels and 3DS exclusive features. Nintendo is also releasing a brand new knitted Poochy amiibo to coincide with the game’s release.

I originally wrote this review soon after the game came out for a different blog I had at the time, so I’ve edited it and re-posted it here to celebrate the new release. (You might notice that the format is a bit different than my recent reviews.) Keep in mind, this review is based on the Wii U version, since I have not played the 3DS version.

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In Yoshi’s Woolly World, you play as a crocheted version of Yoshi in a whimsical universe modeled off of an overturned craft basket. Yarn, buttons, crochet hooks, lace, and more compose the environment and enemies. It’s a cute, original take on a classic Nintendo character. Or, as my dad said, “it sounds like you have to be on acid to play that.”

No drugs required to have enjoy this game! YWW is incredibly fun and adorable. It’s destined to be a staple for any Nintendo fan. Since the worlds start off quite easy, it’s a great way for newbies and kids to enter the Nintendo universe. As you progress, however, the game’s puzzles escalate in difficulty, providing fun and rewarding challenges.

Jaw-dropping graphics. YWW takes full advantage of the Wii U’s capabilities, delivering a colorful, lovingly detailed world that is sure to impress and delight you. It feels like you could reach out and touch the small craft items in the world. You can even see the frayed threads pulling off of the yarn balls! With a wide variety of world types (fire, water, jungle, etc) I was continuously impressed by the level of creativity that went into making the levels out of yarn-related items.

No time limits. With such beautifully animated scenery, you’re going to want to take some time to appreciate it! Eliminating time limits allows players to focus on solving unique yarn-based puzzles, rather than trying to zip through an onslaught of enemies.

Use enemies to your advantage. The enemies are often tools you need to solve the level. For example, some can be unraveled to create yarn projectiles needed for certain pickups, and some can be bounced upon to get to otherwise unreachable areas.

No life limits. If you’re playing with someone else, this is a pretty essential feature due to the amount of times you and your partner will wind up accidentally eating each other and stealing each other’s yarn balls. However, if you both die, you have to go back to the last checkpoint!

Great incentives to play to full completion. If you get all five yarn skeins hidden in a level, you unlock a new playable Yoshi. Each one features a fun and unique themed design. If you get all five flowers on every level of a world, you unlock a bonus level. Getting every pickup and ending the level with full hearts gives you full completion. Sometimes, you unlock a mini bonus game at the end of a level!

Boosters for purchase. Having trouble with a level? At the beginning, you have the option to buy a booster badge (using gems you’ve collected in the levels and bonus games) that will give you special powers for that level. You never know when it might come in handy to have an unlimited amount of watermelon seeds to spit at enemies…

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Pictured: Yoshi’s Woolly World for Wii U box set that includes the Green Yarn Yoshi amiibo. I also picked up the Blue Yarn Yoshi. Also pictured: Yoshi and Peach Wii Remote that I happened to get in the same trip!

amiibo functionality. I’m playing with a partner, but if you’re playing solo, your Yoshi doesn’t have to be alone! Use an amiibo to add a second helper Yoshi to your levels. You can save the designs of your unlocked Yoshis to your amiibo so that your second Yoshi can display your favorite patterns. The Yoshi’s Woolly World amiibos are by far my favorite amiibos that have been released. They’re actually knitted, and they are stuffed and squishy! They are available in green, blue, pink, and a jumbo green version. As I mentioned above, a Poochy amiibo is also being released with the 3DS version. However, you do not actually need the amiibos to enjoy the game! They are just fun add-ons.

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Non-Linear Levels. I was pleasantly surprised by the non-linear levels. I’m used to traditional side-scrolling worlds that force you to continually progress forward, and if you miss anything, too bad for you! The first few levels are like that, but then you start getting to worlds with multiple paths, giving you the opportunity to find the level’s items by solving yarn problems.

Bottom line. I enjoyed playing this game a lot, I had so much fun, and I would highly recommend getting it for the Wii U. It’s really fun to play with a friend, so invite someone over and knit some woolly action together!

One final note: Since I’ve only played the Wii U version, please don’t consider this a full review of Poochy & Yoshi’s Woolly World for 3DS. I emphasized the amazing graphics in my review, and you’re obviously going to lose a lot of that quality when you move it to the 3DS. However, even at the lower image quality of the 3DS, you’re still getting the cuteness and the creativity of the game. Also, I primarily played with a second person, and the 3DS version will be one player only. Personally, I will not get the 3DS game, since I already played it on the Wii U. If I didn’t have a Wii U, I would want it on the 3DS because it is such a fun and rewarding game.

 

Welcome Back!

Hey video game fans! It’s been a while since my last post. I was super busy this holiday season: not only the usual family stuff, but also an international vacation to visit my brother who was studying abroad in Hong Kong. So far this month I’ve been really focused on writing and art, so I haven’t given enough love to my gaming blog. I have been playing lots of games (of course!) but I haven’t been posting about them. That’s about to change!

Lots of exciting things are coming up in the gaming world. The Nintendo Switch is coming out in just over a month (OMG!), and yes, I have one preordered, so I’ll be able to keep you updated. 😉 Even before that comes out, I’m looking forward to (finally!) the release of Horizon Zero Dawn, which I preordered way back in June. We’ll also be getting some new Fire Emblem games, including one for the 3DS family and one for mobile devices.

Coming Soon – Posts To Get Excited About:

  • Nintendo Switch
  • Yoshi’s Woolly World review
  • A very special guest post on Civilization VI from my friend Becca
  • First impression review for Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
  • Horizon Zero Dawn Collectors Edition unboxing
  • Animal Crossing: New Leaf – Welcome amiibo post
  • Pokémon Moon review
  • Fire Emblem Heroes for mobile devices

Other than those posts that I’ve already planned, I have been brainstorming some other themed posts that I would like to do. I’m thinking of having some type of “Legend of Zelda Newbie” series, since I’m trying to finish some important Zelda games for the first time in preparation for Breath of the Wild. I would also like to get back into streaming, and I’m going to try to set up a streaming schedule so I can do it somewhat regularly.

As always, let me know if there are any types of posts you would like to see, or if you want to recommend any games you think I should play. Thanks for reading! 🙂

 

Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider 20 Year Celebration

[Spoiler Free]

Rise of the Tomb Raider finally came to PS4 on October 11, and thanks to the magic of preorders, I got it in the mail that very day! I was originally planning on writing a “First Impressions” review, but before I knew it, I had played most of the game. (Plus, I didn’t have much time to write since I was spending all of my time playing the game…)

Unboxing

The 20 Year Celebration version came packaged in a game case that mimics an old book or journal and has a built in collection of cool Tomb Raider art. Very fun! Though this was no fancy edition with replica journal and necklace like XBone got (not that I’m bitter), it’s a great addition to my collection. I love that the art book is right in the case, so you don’t have to store them separately, and it’s easy to enjoy the throwback art every time you take the game out.

20 Year Collection DLC Contents

  • Includes all previously released DLC for RotTR
  • “Blood Ties” single player story mode – also playable in VR
  • Co-op play for Endurance Mode
  • “Ultimate Survivor” difficulty for the main campaign
  • 20 Year Celebration outfit and gun
  • 5 classic Lara skins

Overall, the game contains tons of content with many hours of gameplay and high replay value due to the different modes.

Having all of the outfits and weapons up front led to some confusion on my part about what I should have and what I shouldn’t during the game. For example, I think I accidentally made it too easy for myself when I equipped a gun I had in my inventory, only to realize later that I wasn’t supposed to have a heavy pistol until way later. I wish they had been locked like the Baba Yaga: the Temple of the Witch DLC level, which only opened once you had reached a certain part in the storyline.

Story

Since this is a spoiler free review, I will discuss the story in general terms to try not to give anything away. Long story short, I think it’s great! (I may do a longer post on the story later that contains spoilers, but that’s outside the scope of this review.)

The overall story is a lovely callback to classic Tomb Raider plots. Lara’s reckless search for immortality highlights her youth, so though she has come a long way since the previous game, she still has a lot to learn about herself and life. The story incorporates elements of Lara’s family history, so you feel connected to her past, and it feels personal. In classic Tomb Raider fashion, RotTR does a great job of marrying real historical events and figures with mythology and the supernatural.

The shadow organization that acts as the enemy is a great addition to Tomb Raider lore. Secretive, militaristic, cult-like, and fanatical, they will stop at nothing to get what they want.

Locations

RotTR takes place mostly in Siberia, with some time spent in Syria and cutscenes in London (Lara’s apartment).

Syria

I appreciated that the game didn’t romanticize or stereotype Syria – you’re not in a war torn village for cultural tourism, you only see the ancient tomb that Lara is exploring. You don’t spend much time here, and it’s really more of a tutorial level.

Siberia

Ranging from dazzling ice caverns to remote forests to thriving geothermal valleys, RotTR exposes a beauty and diversity far different than the Siberian wasteland most people imagine. The location offers many exciting places to explore. You get to discover the history of the people of the land, as well as of the Soviet soldiers that were stationed there in the past.

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Croft Manor

Though Croft Manor is not a part of the main story, you can visit it during Blood Ties. It’s disconcerting to see the great manor in disrepair, with broken windows, leaky ceilings, and trees growing through the walls. By exploring every nook and cranny, from the impressive library to the dilapidated tunnels under the house, you get to discover many secrets from Lara’s past – as well as many lovely callbacks to the original games.

Characters

Since this isn’t an origin story, Lara feels more like herself – the confident, intelligent, headstrong adventurer that we recognize from the original games. Rather than discovering who she is as a survivor, like in the previous game, she is boldly cutting a path through the world and chasing her own goals.

Women characters abound in this female-forward narrative. Lara is matched with female allies and pitted against female villains. (I won’t name names for fear of spoilers.) It’s no surprise that the writer is a woman – Rhianna Pratchett. (The daughter of Terry Pratchett!). However, the RotTR team is overwhelmingly male. Looking through the credits of the game that inspired me to study video game design reminded me of how far women still have to go in the video game industry.

Racial diversity, however, is low in this mostly-white game. Though the overwhelming whiteness is disappointing, at least they didn’t rely on the trope of setting the game in a distant land and casting all the villains and minions as people of color.

Though I can’t go into too much detail in this spoiler-free review, I will say that I cried at the end of the game, and again when I played the Blood Ties single player mode. So yes, you will definitely connect with the characters and the story.

Gameplay

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Lara at one of her base camps

Pros

My roommate Nick is currently playing Tomb Raider (2013), so I was easily able to compare the two games for this review. (Since I played it a couple of years ago, my memory of it was not so fresh.)

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Equipment upgrade screen
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Weapon upgrade screen

The salvage-to-crafting system has greatly improved, and feels more realistic. In RotTR, you have to gather specific resources from the environment in order to craft your supplies. For example, in order to make arrows you need hardwood from saplings and feathers from birds or their nests. Rather than everything being measured in “salvage,” salvage is now used chiefly for mechanical based improvements (like weapon upgrades), and you find much less of it (usually in crates or on enemies). I love farming, mining, and crafting in games, and these elements of RotTR made it feel a bit like Skyrim to me. Additionally, hunting feels more vital in this game. For example, I needed to go back to certain areas and hunt deer in order to have enough hides for the upgrades I wanted.

The cutscenes seamlessly transition to gameplay – so much so that I sometimes found myself standing there like a dork when I’m supposed to be going into action. This was nice because it felt very immersive, and created less separation between player and game. It’s also a nod to how incredible the graphics are.

The game has great horror elements, even before you start facing any supernatural enemies. For example, due to the sound and scene design, your first encounter with a bear is terrifying, even though it’s just a simple wild creature. RotTR does a good job of staging the “normal” dangers as ominous and scary. There are some especially good horror elements in the Baba Yaga: the Temple of the Witch DLC level.

The bow is very fun to use, and I actually found myself using it more than the guns (which I rarely do in games where both bows and guns are options). The special arrows (fire, poison, and explosive) are fun to craft and use on enemies and the environment.

There are many costumes to use, and you can change at any of your base camps. Some outfits are unlocked as you play through the game, and the 20 Year Collection also came with some new skins. Not only is it fun to change Lara’s outfit, some of the outfits come with stat bonuses.

Survival mode makes it easy to 100% the different areas if that’s something you enjoy doing, and it’s easy to turn it off if the mode makes things too easy for you. You can fast travel between your base camps to finish levels or hunt.

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Resources highlighted in survival mode

The combat is fun, with many opportunities for approaching the combat like a puzzle. There are many ways to get stealth kills and environmental features that allow you to sneak amongst the enemies. You can also craft a variety of explosives to assist you in combat, and throw items to create distractions.

Cons

Overall “Tomb Raider” mode (which I played on, and what I believe to be the standard) seems very easy (although this could be due to my notes above about the advanced guns being unlocked). However, the difficulty was not consistent. For example, in some encounters, they were so easy that I was able to take out large groups of enemies just with my axe melee attack. But then again, some encounters were very difficult, took me many tries, and I don’t think I would have been successful on a higher difficulty.

Where are the puzzles? There aren’t many true puzzles, and none that involve the culture of the story. It’s mostly environment based puzzles (shoot your arrow at the right place, cut the rope at the right time, make this jump sequence, etc). In contrast, puzzles in classic Tomb Raider games were often challenging riddles based on the culture of the environment, like when Lara has to play senet in the Last Revelation. It seems like a shame to incorporate detailed mythology, history, and back story, but not incorporate it into gameplay in an interactive way. (You finding documents which you read or listen to, but it’s not as engaging.)

Traps are very easy and far between, and survival mode basically renders them moot.

Tips & Tricks

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Here’s an example of what the map looks like. This is late in the game. You can see the goals and progress on the left.

Don’t try to get 100% of the challenges and items in the areas on your first play through. You’ll be able to go back to get everything after the final chapter. Follow the flow of the narrative or you’ll lose the thread of the story and it will have less impact. Someone calling you desperately for help isn’t going to have the same feel if you decide to go back to hunt deer or whatever before helping them.

Be careful which outfit you’re wearing when you leave the final base camp. This is the outfit you will wear throughout the final, emotional cutscenes. I wish I hadn’t been wearing the somewhat silly Sacra Umbra suit of armor, and instead had been wearing one of Lara’s normal skins.

Graphics

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Lara Croft’s face looks stunning. Compared to Tomb Raider (2013), you can see a dramatic difference in how good Lara’s face looks, even with only 2 years between the two games. The most striking improvement is in the eyes. 2013 Lara still has an off-putting “dead in the eyes” look, while RotTR Lara’s eyes have movement and look alive. In fact, the loving attention put into Lara’s animation actually makes her look younger in the sequel. Additionally, the scenery is spectacular. On one precipice overlooking a waterfall, I stood and stared at the water because it was so masterfully animated. It looked like real water! Since much of the character of a Tomb Raider game comes from its environments, it was great to see the lush scenery brought to life so vividly.

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Check out the rainbow!

Faces and landscapes look great, but Lara’s hair is distractingly bad. It moves around too much, is strangely shiny, and doesn’t look like actual hair. Unfortunately (but understandably), it’s clear that not every character got the same attention that Lara did. Many of the other characters suffer from stiff faces in the cutscenes (especially Lara’s friend from the previous game, Jonah).

The player movement has improved by leaps and bounds. While going up stairs, ice scrambling, climbing up ledges, or jumping around, it looks like Lara is interacting with the environment as a real physical being.

The Takeaway

Amazing! 13/10! This is the best game I’ve played in a long time. It improves upon 2013 Tomb Raider in many ways, but maintains the Tomb Raider atmosphere. Though I loved 2013 Tomb Raider as well, the sequel is the game that made me say, “Now this is a Tomb Raider game. The gameplay is reminiscent of Skyrim, but on a smaller scale, and it allows you to attempt to get 100% more easily. I love games that make me feel something, and a game that moved me to tears twice certainly touched my cold dead heart. On top of that, the gameplay just felt extremely streamlined and fun. On some mornings I got out of bed at 6 am just to make time to play it, and I don’t think I could praise anything more highly than that.

At Long Last: the Nintendo Switch

Today at 10am EST Nintendo put out the official first trailer for their upcoming system, once codenamed the NX, henceforth known at the Nintendo Switch. Check it out here from Nintendo’s official YouTube account:

In just 3 minutes, Nintendo blows everyone’s minds by confirming lots of details about its brand new system. Some things we suspected: the Switch combines home console gaming with handheld gaming on the go. Some were huge surprises. Skyrim for Nintendo?!? We got to see the Switch in action, and revel in all the opportunities it will provide for us to both game alone and game with friends.

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What We Know Now:

  • Release Date: March 2017
  • Detachable controllers, multiple kinds of controllers, and portability of the system
  • 3rd party partnerships

What We Still Don’t Know:

  • Price point (loosely rumored at $350)
  • Touch screen capability (seems to be absent)
  • Will it go on to replace the 3DS family?

Highlights

3rd Party Partners

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I’m SO excited that Nintendo is expanding its horizons and bringing tons of 3rd party games to its system. Most notably, for me, Skyrim. Honestly Skyrim owns my soul and I would die fighting for that game. Maybe that’s beside the point, but I am excited about the prospect of being able to play Skyrim (and other previously non-Nintendo games) on the go, and experience it in a whole new way.

Another notable partner in this list is Unity. I’m so excited about this inclusion because Unity is the game engine that I’ve been studying to learn how to make games! Not sure exactly how the partnerships will work at this point. Does it just mean that games made with the engines mentioned will come to the Switch? Or will indie game makers have more access to creating games for Nintendo platforms?

Games

Six games were featured in the Switch trailer:

  • Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition
  • Mario Kart
  • Splatoon
  • NBA 2K17 (also cited as “a basketball game”)
  • new untitled Super Mario game

Splatoon’s popularity has been waning, with Nintendo recently ceasing its Splatfest events. So is the Splatoon game featured in the Switch trailer the same old game, or is it a new upcoming Splatoon game?

There have also been lots of rumors that a new Pokémon game (not Sun & Moon) will come to the Switch, and if true, that will be awesome! It will be really interesting to see the influence that Nintendo’s experience with Pokémon Go will have on their future Pokémon games.

Concerns:

What does this mean for multi-gamer households?

The Switch looks and feels to me like a personal system (like a 3DS), but it must be shared by people living together. It seems great for all the young adults living alone in the trailer, who can pack up their systems and meet their friends to play together — but what do you do if you’re sharing? Sure, it works for games like Mario Kart. But not Breath of the Wild or Skyrim, or the rumored new titles from Pokémon and Animal Crossing. I’m assuming it will have the same sort of profile system as the Wii U (so you can have multiple accounts on the same system), but that still means that only one person per household at a time will be able to enjoy the “just take it and go!” aspect of the Switch.

If the price point matches current 3DS systems, then that’s okay. But I doubt that’s the case. The Switch will probably be priced more like the Wii U (rumors are placing the Switch at 350 USD). So for a young couple of gamers living together, it won’t make sense to get two. In that case, what will we miss out on?

Let’s Get Excited!

The Switch is coming, people, and it’s coming SOON! Though it won’t be out for this year’s holiday season, it’s still close on the horizon. Prepare yourselves for lots of details to come.

Why You Should Get a Gaming Headset

I’ve been playing video games pretty much since I was born, but I recently upgraded an element of my gaming experience that I had hardly given any thought to before. Not that I don’t care about my auditory experience – I have a fairly nice surround sound system, so it hadn’t crossed my mind that I could be missing out.

Every PlayStation 4 comes with a very simple gaming headset. It’s basically just one earbud and a mic with a mute switch that plugs into your controller. It’s definitely not for listening to your games, since there’s only one ear piece. It’s for voice chat in games like Overwatch, or voice capture if you’re streaming. (Those are the only things I used it for, anyway.)

I got an upgraded headset, complete with sound to both ears (details below), and let me tell you why you should, too!

Unbelievable Immersion

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I first used my new headset with Fallout 4 (a game that yes, I somehow still haven’t finished). Suddenly, you feel like the battle is going on all around you. You can hear your companion (good ol’ Piper) engaged in combat behind you. You can hear the super mutants approaching from all sides. It feels more real. When the rad storm lightning starts cracking overhead, your instinct to get to shelter kicks in even stronger.

In action/survival games like Fallout, Uncharted, and Skyrim, using a headset heightens the urgency of the action. Since the headset blocks out the sounds from real life (think car horns, roommate’s coughs, airplanes overhead), it’s easier to forget that you’re not actually running for your life. It makes for a more cohesive, engaging gaming experience.

Dive Headfirst into the Game’s Environment

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The next game I played with my new headset, a game which made me appreciate different aspects of the wonders of my new sound experience, was The Witness. (If you haven’t played it yet, please check it out – I can’t recommend it highly enough.)

In this vibrant world which had already enchanted me with its bright color palette and brilliant level design, I suddenly felt a new connection to the strange world into which I had been dropped. It was almost as though I could feel the tall grass grazing my calves as I walked through the landscape. Perhaps because The Witness is such a quiet, solitary, and intimate game, I deeply felt the power of connecting with the environment. Essentially, the only two characters in the game are you and the environment. As an added bonus, there is a puzzle based on an audio clue that I’m sure I wouldn’t have picked up on as quickly if I were using regular surround sound.

The wind whispers around you, and the way your footsteps ring out in the quiet emphasizes your loneliness. Somehow, being able to hear the crunch of dirt, roll of sand, or squelch of mud in such crisp detail conveys the sensation that you’re really walking over these different types of ground. Whereas using a headset for action-packed games immerses you in the action, using a headset for a puzzle game like The Witness immerses you in delightful solitude.

Don’t Worry About Disturbing the Neighbors

I love my apartment, but I have thin floors and ceilings. I can hear the guy downstairs coughing, I can hear the bed upstairs creaking, and I have no doubt that they can all hear me shooting super mutants in the middle of the night. I’m the type to feel self conscious and not want to disturb people, so if I’m playing at night I often lower the volume to the point that even I can barely hear the action. It’s so much better to just be in the moment and fully enjoy the gameplay, rather than fretting that neighbors or roommates will complain. Having a headset eliminates these worries so you can game in peace. Now I don’t feel bad about waking up at 6:30 am to play Mass Effect!

My Current Headset: PlayStation Gold Wireless Stereo Headset in Jet Black

Cost: $73.00 on Amazon

Overall, this post isn’t intended to be a review of my particular headset – I just got my first one, so I can’t tell you how this compares to other headsets. I will, however, briefly go over the pros and cons of this headset according to my experience. (For what it’s worth, internet research shows that this is generally regarded to be a very good headset for an affordable price.)

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Image source

Pros

  • Wireless
  • Comfortable ear pads (and I typically have trouble feeling comfortable with over ear headphones)
  • Folds down into convenient smaller size
  • Easy to charge with the same cords that charge the controllers (as well as coming with its own shorter cord)
  • Works with my PS3, PS4, and Macbook Pro
  • Hidden mic that works well – no fiddling with mic placement to get your sound capture right

Cons

  • Occasional “popping” – typically occurs if battery is low or Bluetooth interference, but sometimes for seemingly no reason. I’ve noticed the problem more with PS3 games than PS4 games.
  • Short wireless range – you may need to get an extender
  • Somewhat flimsy construction – mine hasn’t broken yet, but one of the plastic panels came off in my hand while I was adjusting the size. (It clicked back in easily since they are designed to be switched out, though it seems extremely difficult to find plates for sale anyway)
  • They are not comfortable to wear with my glasses, so I have to wear my contacts while using them. Not a huge problem for me since I use both interchangeably, but could be a huge problem for others.

If $73 seems a bit steep for your first gaming headset, I encourage you to at least check out cheaper options (there are plenty), or simply try using regular headphones. At the very least, borrow a nice pair from a friend. You might be quickly converted, as I was!