Author: Dan Stapleton

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5 Minutes of Video of a Star Wars Game That Never Was

This slick-looking game never got off the ground – but something cool looks like it’s rising from its ashes.
By Dan Stapleton[1]

Don’t get your hopes up: this Star Wars space shooter is never going to exist.

Exit Theatre Mode

So says Travis B…

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South Park: The Fractured But Whole Review

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A consistently funny RPG with a strong combat system to match.
By Dan Stapleton[1]
By a wide margin, South Park: The Fractured But Whole[2] is the funniest roleplaying game since South Park: The Stick of Truth came out three years ago. This one…

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Superhot VR Review

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Make a move.

By Dan Stapleton[1]

Countless games try to make you feel like a John Wick-style action hero, a whirlwind of bullets and fists against a horde of thugs that would quickly overwhelm a mere mortal. Superhot VR[2] is one of a very few to pull it off in a believable way. By slowing time in the world around you until you move or shoot, it creates an awesome illusion that you’re thinking and reacting at superhuman speeds.

Over a few short hours, Superhot VR’s campaign puts you through a rapid-fire sequence of quick battles where you stand more or less in one spot as bright-red enemies charge you with guns, knives, and fists. If time were moving normally you wouldn’t stand a chance – they come at you from every direction, moving quickly. Even though they stand out clearly against the stark-white, untextured backgrounds, it only takes one hit to kill you, and you’d have to be an actual action hero to avoid them. But as long as you hold still, you have all the time in the world to decide how to handle the situation. It’s not until you move – raising an arm to aim, ducking your head, picking up an object, or firing a gun – that they spring into full-speed motion. That feeling of control is empowering.

Shooting, stabbing, punching, or even shattering bad guys with your mind feels great, and watching them shatter at my feet as I sidestep their bullets like Neo from the Matrix or block them with my own guns, snatch the weapons out of their hands when they get close enough, and deal out precise double-fisted pain is about as rewarding as an action game gets. The fact that a dying enemy will effectively throw his gun at you so you can catch it out of the air and use it against his friends is a very smart way to keep you from having to move too far (which is great if you have a limited VR space), and also feels like you’ve pulled off an amazing move.

I love watching them shatter at my feet as I sidestep their bullets like Neo.

The one aspect of the controls that doesn’t feel smooth and intuitive is throwing weapons and random objects within reach at enemies. Timing the release is awkward and tricky to get the hang of, and I’ve had the most success by basically shoving things at enemies instead of the natural throwing motion. But when they connect, it’s awesome to beat a guy with a shotgun by tossing a bottle at his head, or getting one last kill out of an empty pistol by chucking it at someone.

Some scenarios are easy, letting you show off by, for example, punching two guys at once as they charge you from opposite sides, or reaching into their chest, making a fist, and yanking out a la Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A few have surprising environmental hazards, like a speeding truck you have to avoid. But others are no joke: you’re just as fragile as these glass enemies, which means some levels are pretty tough because even one grazing hit from a bullet will end your run and send you back to the start of a sequence of fights. Unless you’re being extremely meticulous about watching for threats and moving only the bare minimum, you’ll probably catch some bullets you didn’t see coming – it can be especially difficult to see a bullet coming at you straight on, since the red contrail effect behind the tiny black projectile isn’t visible from that angle. Sure, it’s frustrating when you repeatedly die near the end and have to kill the same five guys over and over to get to the trouble spot, Groundhog Day-style, but the quick respawns make it as painless as possible.

Even minimal movement tests the limits of the PSVR’s single camera.

Superhot VR is a standing game that usually doesn’t require you to move your feet more than a step in any direction or turn more than 45 degrees right or left – though if you have a room-scale setup, it’ll let you make use of it. However, even minimal movement tests the limits of the PSVR’s single camera, which doesn’t cover a huge area and is difficult to set up in a way that allows you to reach the floor and aim a gun upward at a target on a balcony above you. The bigger issue is the flaky hand tracking of the Move controllers, which led to some unfair deaths. Remember, this is a game where time moves when you do, and if it thinks you’re moving when you’re not, you’re probably going to get shot in the face very quickly. Superhot VR also looks significantly sharper on the Oculus Rift or Vive than on the PSVR, but that’s not terribly important in a game with such a low-detail art style.

The short campaign is tied together by a charmingly weird VR-within-VR story that flashes perplexingly cryptic messages at you, posing questions like who’s really in control here and why it chants “super… hot… super… hot” at you when you finish a stage. It never answers any of them, but it’s certainly a unique approach to a campaign that doesn’t take itself too seriously. While each of the stages takes place in a different location, their textureless look makes it easy to miss and difficult to figure out what they’re actually supposed to be unless there’s a major distinguishing feature (such as one fight that takes place on among the passenger seats of an airliner).

When you’re done with the story mode, there’s an infinite survival mode in which to test your Superhot skills and rack up as many kills as you can. Smashing your way through endless waves of bad guys until you get cocky and make a mistake is a great way to keep on enjoying this amazing use of virtual reality.

Superhot VR

Superhot VR is a title reimagined and redesigned from the ground up for VR and hand tracking controllers. Lose track of what’s real. Commit yourself, body and mind. Confront the evocative, elegantly brutal world of Superhot VR.

The Verdict

Superhot VR’s fantastically clever time-manipulating concept empowers you with the superhuman reflexes of a slow-motion action hero. Shattering waves of glass-like enemies while moving your face out of the path of incoming bullets is a thrilling challenge in both the cryptic story mode and the endless mode that follows.

Editors’ Choice

References

  1. ^ Dan Stapleton (people.ign.com)
  2. ^ Superhot VR (uk.ign.com)
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Back in Blazkowicz with Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus

The sequel to 2014’s most satisfying Nazi-shooter keeps up its momentum.

By Dan Stapleton[1]

In the demo I played on the PC version, Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus[2] brings back the challenging, unadulterated shooter action of Wolfenstein: The New Order in a great-looking followup to Machine Games’ reboot. To be clear there isn’t a ton that’s radically different about it mechanically: BJ still sneaks around knifing Nazis in the back before grabbing two guns and blowing the rest away. But the two levels I played each have some distinctive qualities that made them feel different from the “original” in subtle but important ways.

Like the first game, Wolfenstein 2 plays its story of resisting technologically advanced Nazis pretty straight, with strong performances from its cast. BJ and his now-pregnant girlfriend Anya, grizzled science genius Set, and the rest of the resistance fighters left standing at the end of The New Order all give convincing dramatic performances during the cinematics I saw. At the same time, The New Colossus is self-aware enough to know when it’s being ridiculous – and fully embraces it.

BJ fights his way through a surprisingly wheelchair-accessible sub.

In the opening, BJ wakes up on the stolen Nazi sub in the alternate-history 1961, but his body’s in bad shape. When the sub comes under attack he hops in a wheelchair and proceeds to roll through the surprisingly wheelchair-accessible ship, blowing away Nazis by the dozen. Fighting in a wheelchair’s an interesting twist – you can’t dual-wield because you need one hand to push your wheels, and your movement speed is jerky between pushes.

This sequence has some excellent gags: during your reunion with Set, a parade of Nazis fall into a trap in the background, each unaware that the group before them was splattered on the walls by Set’s powerful microwave beam. Later, returning villain Frau Engel takes time out from her apparent victory over the resistance to fat-shame her daughter, which doesn’t work out well for her. And when BJ calls himself “a burden” after having single-handedly killed dozens of Nazis, I laughed out loud.

Wolfenstein reminds you it’s only half joking.

After that, I skipped ahead to another mission in which BJ is equipped with an armored suit that restores his body to working order and sent to Roswell, New Mexico to nuke to a Nazi base built on top of a former secret American military facility. A parade scene in downtown Roswell gives a sense of small-town life in the Nazi-occupied United States; robed Klansmen walk around openly, but even they get stopped and harassed by soldiers and ordered to brush up on their German – or else. Shortly after, an encounter with a Nazi officer and a terrified American mother and her son in a diner is a strong moment where Wolfenstein reminds you it’s only half joking. But then we get an extended conversation between BJ and the skittish conspiracy theorist Super Spesh, which is another fun performance with some good gags to lighten the mood.

Fighting through an underground railway station and onto a high-speed train (which leads to the Area 52 base) is a full return to the mix of stealth and all-out guns-blazing action I remember from The New Order. The hatchet-based melee animations of chopping up unaware soldiers are fun and all, but I tended to go the loud route myself – because how often do you have the opportunity to grab two machine guns and mow down Nazis anymore? (Roughly as often as Wolfenstein games come out, by my count.) Using a mix of SMGs, assault rifles, and shotguns with a handful of upgrades, I tore through Nazi storm troopers, heavily armored tank dudes, attack dogs, and even super-fast terminator-like robots. When the action heats up it recaptures the same great, pure first-person shooting feeling as The New Order.

There are some tough fights, too, because Wolfenstein doesn’t go easy on you with things like regenerating health (above 10hp, anyway), and at this stage of The New Colossus BJ’s still injured and working with a 50% health pool to begin with. I died a fair amount, especially when I charged in without thinning the herd first, but most were good deaths where I went down trying to pull off some brave (read: stupid) kills.

It’s also noteworthy that in these two levels the action never paused for any laser-cutter puzzle-solving segments as The New Order does. I can’t say I missed those much, because the stealth and action pacing lets you change things up whenever you like anyway, and there are a fair amount of newspaper articles, journals, and photos to pick up if you want to stop to smell the roses. But we’ll see what other surprises Wolfenstein 2 has in store for us on October 27 – which, by the way, is the same day as Assassin’s Creed Origins and Super Mario Odyssey. That’ll be a big day for gamers, so stick with IGN for more.

Dan Stapleton is IGN’s Reviews Editor. You can follow him on Twitter[3] to hear gaming rants and lots of random Simpsons references.

References

  1. ^ Dan Stapleton (people.ign.com)
  2. ^ Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus (uk.ign.com)
  3. ^ on Twitter (twitter.com)
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How XCOM 2: War of the Chosen Ramps Up Threats

This huge expansion boldly goes where no XCOM has gone before.

By Dan Stapleton[1]

With War of the Chosen, Firaxis is making a big move to increase XCOM 2’s tactical variety. In just the first couple of hours of a campaign, I saw several new mission types, two new soldier classes, new enemy types, some major new mechanics, and no fewer than four voice actors from Star Trek: The Next Generation. And from the look of it, there’s a lot more where that came from.

All of the missions I played – including some revamped versions of original XCOM 2 missions – felt new and different thanks to distinct objectives, and none had a “game over” turn timer where you’ll lose if it expires. I don’t mind those as much as some, but it’s great to see less reliance on that mechanic in missions. The first one I played was an introduction to two of the three new factions: the Skirmishers (Advent defectors who’ve managed to remove their own implants) and the Reapers, in which you’re arranging a meet between the two feuding factions. They both hate Advent, but the Reapers’ leader (voiced by Jonathan Frakes, AKA William Riker) doesn’t trust the Skirmishers or their leader (voiced by Denise Crosby, AKA Tasha Yar) and… seems to want to eat them. As food.

Guiding the two factions’ representatives to the meet is a three-phase story mission that introduces you to each of them individually in a short segment where you play as them and two XCOM escorts through the new abandoned city map type. These maps are full of grim and gray bombed-out buildings that contrast starkly with the gleaming Advent-built cities we’ve fought in thus far. Some of the buildings are taller than the map, so their ceilings aren’t visible – that was a little disorienting when I was trying to zoom out to get my bearings, but not a huge deal.

Fighting the Lost requires a different kind of thinking.

The most distinguishing feature of the abandoned cities, though, is the Lost: hordes of humans who’d been turned into zombies by the green gas that spewed out of the alien pods we saw dropped in Enemy Unknown. The plan doesn’t appear to have been very well thought through, though, because the Lost are now hostile to both XCOM and Advent. Fighting them requires a different kind of thinking than we’re used to: there’s a ton of them, but it’s not terribly difficult to thin the herd because killing one with a gun (not a bomb or a blade) gives you a free action. That means kills can be chained together as long as you have ammo, making auto-loader mods extremely useful against them. I also had a little success in using them against the Advent – if you can position yourself so that the Advent are between you and the Lost, they’ll attack the closest target, and at the very least they’ll soak up some Advent fire for you. (Later, we’ll get access to Lost Lure grenades that will let us control them more directly.)

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Hero soldiers are almost like starting with a fully equipped colonel.

As soon as I heard the voices of the Skirmisher and Reaper and recognized the voices of Michael Dorn and Marina Sirtis, respectively, I renamed them accordingly as Worf, Son of Mogh and Deanna Troi. (The characters come pre-made in the story mission, but can be remade as you please; if you’re not playing with the story mode enabled they’ll be generated like everyone else.) At low levels, these hero soldiers are almost like starting with a fully equipped colonel, but with less health. The Skirmishers come with a grapple ability from the Spider Suit, plus a Viper-style grab and pull move. More importantly, though, they effectively have the Rapid Fire skill that allows them to shoot without ending the turn – the Ranger doesn’t get that until you hit colonel rank.

The Reaper, meanwhile, is a super-stealth sniper who can move and then shoot, right out of the box. They also start with a Claymore mine that can stick to enemies and be detonated at will, all without breaking concealment. And if a Reaper fires from concealment, they have a chance (which starts out as 50-50) to remain concealed to strike again. Plus their concealment is even more potent than the average soldier’s, with a much shorter detection radius that will let them slip through where the rest of XCOM can’t.

We’ll also meet the psi-focused Templar faction later, but I didn’t have time to reach them in this demo session. If Wil Wheaton, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden, and/or Brent Spiner don’t show up in some capacity I’ll be disappointed – the more in-demand Patrick Stewart’s a long shot, but we can hope!

The new Training Center takes over some functions of the AWC.

The new Training Center takes over some functions of the AWC.

Anyway, the Skirmishers and Reapers are crazy powerful, and in fact, my biggest concern for War of the Chosen is that these hero soldiers will feel overpowered as they rank up – we’ll have to wait and see how Firaxis balances them in the late game so that they are neither dominant nor mandatory. We do know that you’ll be limited in how many of these super soldiers you’ll be able to have in your roster at once, and I can speak from experience that they’re just as squishy as any other soldier if they’re left vulnerable. At one point I found out the hard way that the new Advent flamethrower troopers have grenades when I placed Worf and another soldier next to each other in cover behind what turned out to be an explosive truck – that was an instant mission failure and restart. My Reaper was similarly put on the disabled list when a Faceless sprung out of hiding and smacked her, which also destroyed an explosive car. The Faceless died (it’d also taken reaction fire) and Deanna was left bleeding out as the mission ended. Anyway, the point is you shouldn’t leave these valuable soldiers exposed if you can help it because they won’t be cheap to replace.

Unlike the Rulers, the goal of the Chosen isn’t to wipe out your squad.

That first introductory mission culminated in a confrontation with the first of the three Chosen, the Assassin. She has some nasty hit-and-run attacks that make her tricky to pin down, especially because the version of her that I fought came equipped with Shadowstep, making her immune to reaction fire and allowing her to freely run up to my troops and have her way with them. Much like the orc captains in Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, the Chosen’s skills – and a matching set of vulnerabilities – are randomly assigned, and more will be added as they progress. Fortunately, unlike the Rulers from the Alien Hunters DLC, the goal of the Chosen isn’t to wipe out your squad, it’s to disable and interrogate them. Many of her attacks put people into a Dazed state, which effectively knocks them out for a few turns but doesn’t require a Revive skill to bring them back – you just have to get another soldier close to them before the Chosen can reach them and suck information out of their brains, or worse, grab them and teleport off the battlefield.

Beware the Hunter's line of fire.

Beware the Hunter’s line of fire.

My solution? Grenades, and plenty of ‘em.

My solution? Grenades, and plenty of ‘em. Luckily for me, the Assassin chose to retreat into a nearby building, and you don’t need to be able to see something to blow a hole in the floor beneath it and inflict both explosive and fall damage. Between that and a couple of good shots it was enough to drive her off, but who knows if the same tactic will work the next time? That unpredictability is what’s most intriguing to me about the Chosen.

After that first mission, I encountered another concern I have about the hero class soldiers: the way they’re ranked up. It’s a system that’s completely different from all of the original soldiers or even the SPARKs. Instead of picking one of two options at each rank, you use skill points that are accrued both by the individual soldier when they rank up and cumulatively by the whole squad when the execute tactical moves like flanking shots or kills from above (you have a chance to earn points when you do this) to buy any skill that’s been unlocked up to that point. It’s an interesting system, sure, and could result in a wider variety of character builds, but it seems needlessly complex next to the elegant simplicity of the normal character development. On the other hand, maybe it’ll grow on me, in which case I’d wish that all soldiers used it. Both systems existing side by side just felt strange during my first impression.

Between the first mission and the next, a lot happened on the strategic map and the Avenger. I bonded two compatible soldiers, which, at the lowest level, gives them a once-per-mission ability to make an extra move when they’re deployed on the same team together. It’s a little disappointing that every pair of soldiers gets the same ability from the bond, but we’ll see how that looks at higher levels.

Name a soldier after James Bond to bond with Bond.

Name a soldier after James Bond to bond with Bond.

Soldiers in your roster can pull their weight outside of combat.

I got to send soldiers out on my first Resistance Mission, which is an exciting new system for unlocking missions (specifically things like tracking down Chosen to counter their threats, rescuing captured soldiers, or making contact with the Templars) or gaining resources. Sure, almost all the action takes place off-screen, very similarly to the Covert Ops missions in Enemy Within, but there’s so much more to be gained. It makes the soldiers in your roster who aren’t being actively used in combat feel like they’re pulling their weight, and it’s a way for them to progress without seeing any direct action. Between this and the new fatigue system where soldiers can become tired after a mission and require some downtime before being able to go back out into the field at full strength, we’re strongly incentivized to spend some supplies on recruiting extra soldiers, and to build the Resistance Ring building to expand your capacity for simultaneous missions. Ramping that thing up early feels like it could be a viable new early-game progression path.

Another new idea is Resistance Orders, a Civilization 6-like system with which you can customize a set of bonuses every month by slotting them into each faction. The first orders I had access to allowed me to reduce excavation time by 50%, halve the cost of new recruits, instantly collect supply drops, or reduce the Chosen’s rate of progress toward finding the Avenger by a third. I wasn’t able to play long enough to take advantage of them, but bonuses that powerful are certainly going to have an interesting impact on strategies.

I also encountered my first research breakthrough: a one-time bonus opportunity toward Mag Weapons when my standard operating procedure said I should pursue Resistance Communications. I was free to ignore it, but if I didn’t take it right then the shortcut would disappear for good. Again, for people like me who love to replay XCOM 2 over and over, anything that forces or tempts me out of my rut and puts me in unfamiliar situations is a great thing.

Advent doesn't care for the Lost much, either.

Advent doesn’t care for the Lost much, either.

Diving back into missions, I was impressed at how just about everything felt different. In a new variation on an assassination mission, breaking concealment started a timer to an enemy dropship arriving to extract the target. I wasn’t able to reach him before his ride showed up, but I was able to position myself between him and his extraction point so that he all but ran directly into my Ranger’s sword on his way to safety.

It makes sense to have armed people guarding a resistance outpost.

A Retaliation mission began in the familiar fashion, but it soon gave me a new objective: defend a group of civilians with help from some AI-controlled resistance soldiers. Those guys didn’t do a ton of damage to the advancing Advent, but they gave the enemy something other than my guys to shoot at and it just made more sense for there to be armed people guarding a resistance outpost instead of cowering and waiting for me to show up.

I went on a rescue mission that limited me to bringing three soldiers instead of four, but it had a “sitrep” modifier (which is visible before you enter) that gave each soldier a one-time ability to re-enter concealment. That mission was a lot like previous extractions, but without a timer and with a new enemy security level that ramps up reinforcements as it escalates. Because I focused on stealth I was able to move through and grab my captured soldier without engaging the new Advent Priest that showed up, so I’m still not exactly sure what kind of psi powers he has. But calling for extraction cranked the security level up to 10 instantly, which had new dropships full of enemies arriving every turn.

Advent yoinks supply crates out with a claw if you don't reach them in time.

Advent yoinks supply crates out with a claw if you don’t reach them in time.

Finally, I went on a reworked Supply Raid mission in which I had to reach containers before Advent could airlift them out. It’s another timer-based challenge that doesn’t involve instantly losing your whole squad if you fail, which is welcome. This goal was complicated by the fact that the map was infested with Lost zombies, a sitrep that appears on all abandoned city maps but can also appear anywhere else.

But it didn’t stop there: this is also where I encountered the second Chosen, the Hunter. Like the Assassin, he has his randomized strengths and weaknesses, but the moment he warps in he’ll start targeting your soldiers with his ultra long-range sniper rifle from across the map. I’m not sure what happens when it hits you because it’s easy to avoid; it paints a cone of effect red and strongly suggests you move out of it so you don’t get shot. Really, it’s an area-denial weapon, and because it only affects one targeted soldier at a time it’s not likely to cause an unfair situation – it just makes you rethink your approach. When I closed in on the Hunter’s location, which is given away by his targeting, he switched to combat mode and summoned an Advent soldier to help him and started hucking stun grenades at my soldiers – which is dangerous with a lot of Lost around who need to be shot. I didn’t get to finish that fight, but I’m looking forward to the opportunity for a rematch – and to meet up with the third Chosen sibling, the Warlock.

And of course, I’d be remiss to not discuss the Photobooth feature. At the end of every mission, you can hit the photo button, which lets you pose your surviving squad members in front of the map they were just on against a propaganda poster-style backdrop and write in your own text to create a poster that will appear around the Avenger. I had fun just pushing the “randomize” button and seeing what it came up with, but when I have more time I intend to come up with some good ones.

That opportunity isn’t too far off because we’re now only about seven weeks away from kicking off War of the Chosen on August 29. For more details and tidbits on War of the Chosen, check out my E3 interview with XCOM Creative Director Jake Solomon[2].

Dan Stapleton is IGN’s Reviews Editor. You can follow him on Twitter[3] to hear gaming rants and lots of random Simpsons references.

References

  1. ^ Dan Stapleton (people.ign.com)
  2. ^ E3 interview with XCOM Creative Director Jake Solomon (www.ign.com)
  3. ^ on Twitter (twitter.com)