Deus Ex: Mankind Divided First Impressions

My first experience with the Deus Ex franchise was Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I thoroughly enjoyed its offering of open-ended mission structures, as well as the surprisingly unique cyberpunk, futuristic setting. I was eager to jump back into this world, this time with the series’ latest iteration, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. 

One thing that became immediately apparent was the 12-minute video offered at the beginning to catch you up to speed is almost mandatory. A huge game comes with a huge story, and Deus Ex’s story picks up right after the events of Human Revolution. The video is a welcome feature for those who, like me, haven’t kept up on their Deus Ex lore. While at the same time, I can’t help but feel those who haven’t played the first game will feel somewhat lost. There is a wealthy amount of information covered in the video, and I had some trouble keeping up, even with putting hours and hours into the previous game. 

While the story’s inaccessibility may turn away some people, those who power through that barrier will be treated to a fun game. Deus Ex main allure is it’s open mission structure gameplay. There are countless ways to accomplish your goals and fully enables the player the freedom to explore these option without discretion. There would be times where I would struggle for an hour to bypass security in a section, only to find out later there was an easier way, whether it was a secret passage I could have utilized or a guard I could have convinced to cooperate with me. This highlight adds to the game’s replayability, especially with this year’s offer of a new game plus mode, something that was criminally absent from Human Revolution.

I am a little more than 15 hours deep, but most of that time has been exploring the sandbox levels; hacking and collecting everything I see. The world of Mankind Divided will quickly make you sidetracked, as there is something new around every corner. You’ll stumble upon crime scenes to solve, computers to hack, vents to sneak in and much more in your quest to complete one mission. It creates a feeling that no matter how far off track you go from an objective, you are always in a better position in the end because of the items or upgrades you discover, or information that can be utilized later in some fashion.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a game of endless possibilities; a yarn ball with threads to pull at every angle, all of them serving you in the end. My first impression is in the books, but let us know what you think of the game in the comments below! And stay tuned for our full review coming soon (hopefully.)

Divinity: Original Sin 2 Looks Incredible

   This past week, Belgian developer Larian Studios announced that Divinity: Original Sin 2 would be following in its predecessor’s footsteps by heading to Steam’s Early Access program. If you played the first game, that’s probably enough information to get you to pull out your wallet, and all you need to know is the release date (September 15th, by the way). But if you missed out and have any interest at all in RPGs—or, you know, objectively great games—you’re going to want to start paying attention to D:OS 2.

“As a lifelong RPG fanatic, I get giddy when I see an interesting character creation tool in a game, and what Larian showed off already has me dreaming up possible builds.”

   The first Divinity: Original Sin was the single most pleasant surprises I’ve encountered in PC gaming over the last decade. A turn-based, isometric RPG in which players control up to four characters at any one time, D:OS felt like the first bright spark to a cRPG renaissance. Larian has explained since that it was something of a Hail Mary for them as the studio was facing overwhelming financial challenges in spite of their typically high-quality release history. They eventually sought out additional funding for D:OS via Kickstarter where they had an extremely successful campaign, raising over $1 million.

   Divinity: Original Sin released in 2014 to critical acclaim with many critics likening it to the classic isometric cRPGs of the late 90s. It was affectionately compared to Baldur’s Gate, and while I always felt that D:OS played dramatically different than BioWare’s classic, there was an undeniable spirit shared between the games that made it very easy to fall in love with Original Sin. D:OS didn’t have the strongest showing in terms of narrative, but its turn-based combat, its open-ended character development, and its incorrigible (and welcomed) sense of humor made for an exceptional and unique experience that you don’t often find in triple-A titles.

 Source: http://divinity.game
Source: http://divinity.game

   Larian was unafraid to take risks with D:OS, and it paid off for them. The game was a critical success as well as a financial success, and went on to win GameSpot’s Game of the Year award. In 2015, Larian released an enhanced edition of the game to PC and consoles with an updated story, fully voiced dialogue, and splitscreen co-op—its original network-based co-op having been one of the best received features of the vanilla release. PC owners of the original game even received the upgraded version free of charge as a thank you from Larian for supporting the game and the studio.

   In August, 2015, Larian took to Kickstarter once more to gain funding for Divinity: Original Sin 2. The campaign promised a large number of improvements to the series including a stronger focus on story, multiple playable character races, and an even better co-op experience in addition to an all-new PVP multiplayer game mode. Eager fans of the series swarmed to their support, and it met its $500,000 goal in less than twelve hours. By the end of the campaign, Larian had raised over $2 million and surpassed every one of their stretch goals.

   They have since done a good job of keeping Kickstarter backers in the loop over the past 12 months with regular videos featuring game director and studio founder Swen Vincke, whose energy and enthusiasm for the game is always infectious, but as the last update prior to this month had been just after PAX East ended in April, it had been a while since we’d seen anything really significant from the team on the game’s progress. This month, Larian’s released a ton of new news and footage, and during Gamescon, they gave attendees—press and fans alike—an opportunity to actually play the game, and they announced that it would be available for Early Access on Steam by the middle of next month.

“Divinity: Original Sin was the single most pleasant surprises I’ve encountered in PC gaming over the last decade”

   I haven’t been able to play the game yet, but what I’ve seen so far has me feeling very optimistic. As a lifelong RPG fanatic, I get giddy when I see an interesting character creation tool in a game, and what Larian showed off already has me dreaming up possible builds. In D:OS, players started their game with two player characters: a human man and woman for whom you chose their appearance, starting skills, and stats. There was a certain novelty in creating two player characters rather than one, but I remember feeling that it had a bizarre impact narratively on my ability to really identify with either. As a result—as I played singleplayer, anyway—the characters felt particularly shallow, and there was something awkward about controlling both sides of the dialogue whenever the PCs disagreed in a system that worked far better for co-op gaming.

   This time around, players are limited to only a single player character, although NPC companions can still be recruited throughout the course of the game (this is a party-based RPG, after all), but the ability to customize and personalize your protagonist have been greatly enhanced. There are four races available to play as: humans, dwarves, lizard people, and elves. The elves in particular look to have been given a Larian twist: tall and lanky with skin that resembles tree bark and who consume the flesh of their enemies in order to absorb their memories. It makes for an unsettling appearance that at least on the surface feels like it subverts many of the standard fantasy tropes.

 Source: http://divinity.game
Source: http://divinity.game

   Players may also choose one of several pre-fabricated origin stories for their PCs, or they may craft one for themselves. In the case of the former, you’ll step into the shoes of a character who already has a certain set of goals and motives in the world. PC Gamer showed off an hour’s worth of gameplay, for example, as the Red Prince, a noble Lizard person stripped of his royal birthright. One other origin has you assuming the role of an elf and freed slave who keeps a hitlist of those who’ve wronged her tattooed to her skin, and as you progress through the game and exact your revenge on those individuals, you mark their names off with an ink pen included in her inventory.

   Larian’s shown glimpses of two other origin stories, and they’re promising more as development continues, but if you prefer not to take on the role of an already existing character in the game, you can craft your own origin through an innovative “tag” tool that Larian’s developed in which you select your character’ss aspirations, motivations, and other background. It helps to establish your role in the fantasy world Larian’s crafted, and your origin tags will impact how other characters in the game react to you or your actions. And as for those existing origin stories that you chose to leave behind? They’ll appear as NPCs you can add to your party over the course of the game with the same motives and personalities.

“The elves in particular look to have been given a Larian twist: tall and lanky with skin that resembles tree bark and who consume the flesh of their enemies “

   The same basic philosophy to character development appears to have remained intact from Original Sin. Players choose from a large number of classes at creation or create their own, but your starting class doesn’t lock you into any one playstyle, and skills can be leveled as you wish. It’s a system that feels more Dark Souls or Fallout than The Elder Scrolls, meaning that choices about where to invest earned skill points and talents are important but open-ended.

   One major change has been introduced to how skills and stats work, though. A new stat called memory now dictates how many active skills you can equip from your library at any one time. Players can choose to invest very little into this stat, limiting the number of active skills they have during combat but potentially increasing the effectiveness of those that they do equip, or they can increase this stat and therefore have a greater variety of skills to use albeit at potentially lower levels of effectiveness.

   Beyond the improvements Larian’s making to the mechanics of the game, they’ve set out to really overhaul their approach to narrative design. The writing in Divinity: Original Sin was often hilarious, but it always felt a little shallow. The number of fully fleshed out NPC companions available to you in the original release of the game was a paltry two (eventually increased to four), and even these characters felt a bit two-dimensional. From a tactical standpoint, it often made most sense to hire one of the far more varied henchmen-style NPCs, but doing so meant that there was even less meat on the narrative bone as they were not fleshed out with any sort of backstory or side quests.

 Source: http://divinity.game
Source: http://divinity.game

   Original Sin put players in the roles of “Source Hunters” on a quest to rout out dark magic. Taking place a thousand years after the original, D:OS 2 has inverted your role, and you now play a Sourcerer (i.e., the bad guys from the last game) struggling to survive in a world run by an inquisition-like Divine Order who blame your kind for the death of the “The Divine” and the plague of troubles that have taken root across the world since. You start your journey somewhere on an Alcatraz-like prison island for Sourcerers where you’ll meet other victims of the Order, some of whom can join you on your quest.

   The companions this time around promise to be far more interesting than in Original Sin, too. Remember that elf origin we discussed earlier? If you choose not to play as her and encounter her in the game, she’ll maintain the same motives as she would have as the player character, sometimes to the detriment of your PC or your other companions. Key to her character’s backstory is her tattooed hit list, and she’ll stop at nothing until she’s had her revenge, which could prove complicated if you intend to keep one of these characters alive.

   Interestingly, these potential conflicts remain even in cooperative multiplayer. Both players in the game share one journal for general quests, but each is given his or her own private journal that tracks progress on their unique personal quests, and it’s possible that the two may be mutually exclusive from one another. Imagine saving an important noble’s life in the game and having your vengeance-driven friend slit his throat on your way to deliver him home.

   Yeah, this is a big step from the rock, paper, scissors “arguments” of the last game. (For those who’ve never played it, there was literally a rock, paper, scissors mini game for settling disputes amongst characters. I can’t make this stuff up.)

“Imagine saving an important noble’s life in the game and having your vengeance-driven friend slit his throat on your way to deliver him home”

   Characters can form other bonds with one another, too, beyond that of wary allies of necessity. Divinity: Original Sin at one point advertised the possibility that a romance could form between the protagonist characters, but that thought never really materialized. But in D:OS 2—thanks to a stretch goal that was met during the Kickstarter campaign—romance subplots will be present between characters. In-game romance can be a divisive subject for some, with most players either loving or hating them and very few landing somewhere in between. It doesn’t sound like they’ll be required, however, and I don’t doubt that we’ll see an interesting Larian spin on those that do end up in the game.

   It’s worth pointing out that the writing team for D:OS 2 is significantly larger than the one that worked on the first game, and Larian studios announced that the venerable Chris Avellone would be involved with the project as a writer for “at least one the playable origin stories in the game.” Avellone, who left Obsidian Entertainment within only the last year, is legendary in the industry and was one of the leading creative minds behind Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, Fallout: New Vegas, and Planescape: Torment. He’s so well-respected by RPG fans, that his involvement in the game was actually one of the top requests that Larian received from Kickstarter backers during their campaign.

   Beyond character creation and storytelling, D:OS 2 should feature even more tactical depth in its combat system. The last game was widely praised for its dynamic approach to elements on the battlefield. Players could ignite grease on the ground to set enemies on fire, for example, or call down a storm to douse the flames. D:OS 2 is increasing the number of these types of interactions. Their demo footage showed players enchanting flames to heal their allies or cursing enemies to reverse the effects of said healing magic. It’s a system that looks to be particularly fun in the new PVP mode where high-level players face one another in combat.

   In one backer update, Larian showed off some new combat mechanics that came into play during a PVP match. Swen Vincke demonstrated how higher terrain could lend an advantage to ranged attackers with a 30% increase to their damage and an increased effective range for their attacks. You remember in Star Wars: Episode 3 when Obi-Wan warns Anakin Skywalker not to attack because he had the “high ground”? Yeah, it’s kind-of like that.

   As Swen and his opponent moved around the map, he also showed off “source points,” fonts of magical energy that enable the use of powerful and aptly named “source” skills. “Sourcery” plays a big role in the lore and story of the series, and this feels like a smart way to intertwine the gameplay mechanics with the narrative. In one such attack, Swen was able to unleash a hail of arrows on his opponent, but there were a number of other skills available on his toolbar that he didn’t demonstrate.

   One of the more dramatic changes being introduced to combat for D:OS 2 is its armor system. Two new armor stats are present in the game: magic armor, which renders the player immune to status ailments and/or control effects as well as absorbs elemental damage, and physical armor, which naturally acts as a layer of protection to physical accounts that must be eliminated before damage to a character’s HP can be dealt. Armor appears as an alternatively colored healthbar in the UI, and it looks reminiscent to the barriers and armor of the Mass Effect series. Larian’s explained that certain types of attacks can circumvent or pierce armor altogether, adding an additional layer of tactical depth to the combat.

   Even though D:OS 2 looks to be taking a more mature approach to storytelling than its predecessor, it looks like we can still expect a healthy dose of humor in the game, for which I’m very thankful. One of the more hilarious attacks that Swen unleashed during PVP, for instance, was a weresheep that he summoned to pester and damage an enemy character. Watching him launch the sheep through the air from across the map, I couldn’t help but laugh, and while the unique attack was humorous, it wasn’t ineffective. In other words, just as in the Worms turn-based strategy game series, D:OS’s humor shouldn’t come at the expense of tactical depth in the game.

“Even though D:OS 2 looks to be taking a more mature approach to storytelling than its predecessor, it looks like we can still expect a healthy dose of humor in the game”

   D:OS 2 looks to be improving on its predecessor in virtually every way imaginable. If that proves true, it’ll be a title that no RPG fan should pass on. Divinity: Original Sin 2 will be available on Steam Early Access September 15th. As was the case with the original Original Sin (I had to write that just once), it sounds like the version of the game available pre-release will feel more akin to a demo than a traditional Early Access title, with only limited progression available to players (e.g., the first chapter of the game).

   If you’re already a backer through Kickstarter, you’ll be able to claim your Early Access key by way of their official tool. However, Larian’s cautioned backers that while the final game will be available on both Steam and GOG, you’ll only be able to select which platform you want to play it on once. Early Access is currently scheduled exclusively for Steam, so GOG fans will need to decide whether it’s worth giving up their preferred platform to play an early build of the game.

   Divinity: Original Sin 2’s final release is still currently slated for the end of this year, but as the first was delayed several times before commercial release, take that with a grain of salt.

Review: Bound

The Summer of the Indie game continues strong with Santa Monica Studio’s latest installment, ‘Bound’.  Just like with my previous favorite, ‘Abzû’, this game is strongly reminiscent of the hit 2012 game, ‘Journey’.  But does it have what it takes to break away from this popular gameplay model and stand alone as its own entity?

The game follows the adventures of The Princess, who is a little dancer with ribbons tied to her wrists.  She is tasked with assisting The Queen with saving the kingdom from a monster who is trying to destroy it.  The games story is not particularly deep, but it is symbolic and the developers did a great job of pacing it out in this game.  At no point in my playthrough did I feel like it was dragging while I raced from point A to point B.  It’s also not a story that requires a lot of brain power to comprehend what’s going on.  After about level 2, I successfully called what was actually supposed to be represented.  Sure it created a sense of pride when what I predicted came to fruition in the end, but it would have been nice to have a little bit more depth to the actual story.

 Despite the shallow story, the visuals are stunning.  Everything that made ‘Abzû’ and ‘Journey’ peace-evoking in their settings, is sharp and harsh in this game.  The fluidity of your Princess’ movements is perfectly counteracted by the harsh geometric angles of her surroundings.  The most beautiful moments were the times where The Princess is getting bombarded with little paper airplanes in vivid colors against and she has to block them by moving in a series of piqué turns across the level.  This causes an explosion of color to manifest itself across your screen, and the combination of the fluid soft movements again sharp little paper airplanes will surely bring a smile to your face.

Not only did the developers successfully play with various angles to create a unique visual experience, they also play with the actual dimensions of the game environment.  I liked this, it kept the game from being yet another ‘Journey’ 2.0, and instead created more of a Super Mario 64 throwback.  At more than one occasion, I had to re-center myself mentally because my little Princess was upside down, or on the left wall moving either towards the ceiling or floor down.  The developers took huge inspiration from various M. C. Escher infinite staircase paintings when developing several of the areas that you play through.  This game has been confirmed to be released on the PlayStation VR, and I can’t wait to see how moments such as this translate onto that system. 

The music of this game is fitting.  It’s a combination of a hauntingly beautiful piano melody mixed with 80’s synth.  It sounds odd, but the effect is reminiscent of an old music box.  Considering the fact that you’re twirling around on various puzzles on a Princess, the effect is enjoyable.  During the actual gameplay, the music is a nice addition to everything else that is going on around your character.  You want to make your character dance, yes that is an option, to the music simply because it’s so cool.  However, trying to remember the moments of the soundtrack that really stood out, I’m at a loss.  Due to the fact that the music is so similar in its style for each level, it tends to just blend into one another.  It makes it difficult to pinpoint why exactly I enjoyed what I was hearing.  It’s just not memorable, even though it was fun to listen to during the actual game.  Audio is a huge component of the gaming experience if it’s not memorable it does potentially create a less than memorable experience for a game.

All in all, this is another fun little indie game that has been released this summer and I think it really cements the fact that the smaller game development companies totally owned the games released.  ‘Bound’ very much feels like the last huzzah of the summer game releases before we get our fall lineup.  It’s a very bittersweet game, and I feel like it embraces the bittersweet feeling of saying goodbye to Summer 2016.  This game gets a score of 7.5.  Its ho-hum storyline is easily counteracted by the originality of its puzzle execution, but it’s just too similar in the type of visual play to another game we saw release just a few weeks ago without even having the same sort of memorable soundtrack.  Even when this game releases on the PlayStation VR, this game will still receive the same score.  I foresee the only change between traditional console and VR console, for this game, being an added dynamic to the already awesome puzzle set up.  It will be fun, and will be something to definitely check out, but it won’t make up for the portions of the game that are lacking.

What were your favorite moments of ‘Bound’?  Do you agree with our score?  How do you think this game will play out when it releases on PlayStation VR?  Let us know in the comments below!

Hearthstone: One Night in Karazhan

 Source: http://us.battle.net/hearthstone
Source: http://us.battle.net/hearthstone

     For me, Hearthstone’s winning formula is about three parts charisma, one part complexity, a dash of RNG (and therefore plenty of salt), and ample accessibility. It demands little in the way of my time, but it rewards me for logging into the game relatively frequently. I can play it virtually anywhere I have access to my phone, and the experience is rewarding and consistent regardless of which device I’m playing on, from my iPhone to my tablet PC to my gaming desktop at home. It’s challenging and exciting; it has an an active and dedicated community. But more importantly, I think, than any of this: it’s charming.

     Hearthstone is a delight to play, with all the production values you’d expect of a Blizzard title. It’s bright and colorful, it’s humorous, the music’s catchy but non-invasive, and its ties to the greater Warcraft universe reward dedicated fans and lore fiends without punishing more casual fans who may not have played a Warcraft title since the last RTS *cough* *cough*.

      And like it’s parent title, One Night in Karazhan just oozes charm. The promotional artwork for the expansion features a very toothy and comically handsome rendition of the archmage Medivh extending an invitation out to the player to a party at his home, the tower Karazhan. WOW fans will no-doubt recognize the name as a ghost-filled raid from the MMORPG, but the plot of One Night in Karazhan is set decades prior to the events that transpired in Warcraft: Orcs and Humans.

     In other words, this is Karazhan re-imagined in the disco-feverish not-too-distant past of Azeroth, and its host is not yet a demon-possessed madman, but a playboy wizard. Speaking of disco fever, the first thing I noticed when I loaded up the adventure was its theme music, which blends mystical-sounding harps with a disco boogie. It’s catchy and silly, and it perfectly summarized in a melody everything I love about Hearthstone.

      While it strays pretty far from its source material, Karazhan is full of references to the infamous raid, particularly with its primary antagonist, Prince Malchezaar, and a chessboard challenge that occurs in the first wing of the adventure. Like the other Hearthstone adventure expansions, Karazhan is being rolled out over the course of four weeks with each of the four wings comprised of three “boss” fights. Each duel features some new gimmick or game mechanic intended to deviate from the core Hearthstone formula, which means that you typically need to either build new decks or tweak existing ones to tailor them for specific challenges. Defeating a boss nets you two of the expansion’s unique cards (two copies of each, the maximum allowed per player) along with a class-specific challenge that in turn unlocks a third unique card specific to one hero class.

     It’s too early to give Karazhan a full-fledged review, but the first four challenges in the expansion already feel better-crafted and more entertaining than the other Hearthstone adventures that I’ve played. Each boss fight truly felt like a unique experience from the more typical grind of the parent game. The prologue mission, for example, actually has you assume the role of Medivh and equips you with a suitably overpowered deck of mage-flavored cards and a hero power that allows you to draw three cards once per turn. It’s as if the game thrusts you into the shoes of one of the boss characters you’ll be playing against, and it’s simply a fun experience that I drew out for as long as I could.

 Source: http://us.battle.net/hearthstone
Source: http://us.battle.net/hearthstone

     Another challenge sees you facing off against sentient plates and silverware in an obvious nod to Disney’s interpretation of Beauty and the Beast. A third replaces your deck and class again with chess pieces and game mechanics that feel tactical and, well, chess-like. This particular challenge was my favorite of the bunch, and it really does a good job of highlighting the playful spirit with which the developers seemed to have approached the expansion this time around while simultaneously remaining faithful to the source material. I’m really looking forward to what they have in store for us over the next three weeks.

     I never felt particularly challenged by any of the boss fights this time around, and only had to make some minor adjustments to an existing deck once to progress through the story, but that didn’t necessarily bother me. I was intentionally speeding through the duels as quickly as I could, and I haven’t attempted any of the fights on the far more challenging “Heroic” difficulty just yet.

      From a metagaming perspective, Karazhan is bound to have at least the same level of impact on competitive Hearthstone as its predecessors. Adventure-style expansions differ from the more standard expansions in that they promise every player the same forty-plus cards, and because each adventure carries a fairly hefty cost of admission of $20, Blizzard seems to strive to make the cards unique and powerful enough to justify the price tag. CCGs inherently feel “pay-to-win” by their nature because the more disposable money you have to throw at the game, the more dynamic your collection of cards is bound to be, but this is doubly true for Karazhan and the other adventures. None of the expansions cards can be collected by other means as they’re exempt from the game’s crafting system and do not appear in the card packs players can buy with real or in-game currency.

     It’s a bit of a double-edged sword for players who have already accepted the CCG monetization model because knowing you’re guaranteed a certain set of cards for your money gives you a chance to pre-mediate just how those cards will fit into your competitive play, but it also means that until you’re willing and able to shell out the money for them, you’re inevitably going to be playing against opponents with access to a powerful card set you don’t have.

     The cards that have unlocked in Karazhan so far don’t feel particularly overpowered to me, but they definitely bend the rules of thumb of standard card sets. The Druid, for example, receives a 1-mana, 2/2 beast, effectively providing a 2:1 return on your mana investment. It’s a relatively simple card, but it’s upsetting enough to the current balance of the early game to provide a strong advantage to the player in the first few turns. Plus, it synergizes well with other Druid staples, meaning there’s tremendous potential for uptrading against 2+ mana minions. Because the current state of Hearthstone relies heavily on beating the mana curve with sticky minions, it’s easy to imagine how a card like this could feel cheap for free-to-players.

     Bear in mind, I don’t intend this point as a criticism of Karazhan; this is par for the course for the game model, and it’s already a fact of life for Hearthstone players.

 Source: http://us.battle.net/hearthstone
Source: http://us.battle.net/hearthstone

     Other cards unique to the expansion feel less obviously powerful, and the community’s already having some negative reactions to an as-of-yet unreleased Priest card. The Priest class is arguably the weakest in the current meta, and players who were hoping to see the class get some life support don’t seem to feel like Karazhan will be the turning point for the class that they were expecting.

      It’s probably too early to tell just how deep of an impact the expansion will have on the metagame, but we’re sure to see the ripples it’ll make for weeks to come as new cards trickle into the general pool. I’ve already encountered a large number of Karazhan cards in ranked play, but nothing thus far that has deviated from the more common deck types I was already facing.

      At the end of the day, dedicated competitive Hearthstone players are going to want to pick the expansion up so as not to fall behind the meta curve. Many are already pot-committed at this point anyway, and I doubt that my impressions of the game are going to sway any such players one way or the other. For casual fans, though, I still think the expansion really holds some appeal this time around. I felt less impressed with, say, Blackrock Mountain, whose cards and challenges never really felt worth the price to me.

     With that said, twenty dollars is still a lot of money to invest into a free-to-play title, and the cards you earn in the expansion aren’t going to singlehandedly invert your win-loss ratio if you’re struggling in ranked play. To that point, if you’re new to the game and not sure just how much you’re willing to invest into it, you’re probably better off buying a few card packs to get your collection kickstarted before investing in Karazhan.

     But if you’ve got some disposable income or, like I did, have a Battle.net gift card burning a hole in your pocket, One Night in Karazhan is off to a great start and feels like the best singleplayer expansion to the game to date. Assuming the forthcoming wings feature the same kind of unique challenges as this first wave, I won’t have any reservations whatsoever recommending it to my fellow Hearthstone fans.

Final Review: No Man’s Sky

     It’s been a dream of any gamer- young or old- to one day find themselves climbing into a spaceship and get lost into a universe offering infinite possibilities. To allow them to carve out their own story in the depths of space- something straight out of a Star Trek episode. So when Sean Murray, and the crew at Hello Games first revealed their trailer for No Man’s Sky at the VGX 2013, of course, it was destined to turn heads and gather hype. However, in the years that have followed, the hype train surrounding the game reached levels that I have honestly never seen before in a video game. One of the main factors that resulted in this reaction, was Sony’s inability to get in front of the message and temper expectations, and instead only added fuel to the fire. From studio floods, game delays, street leaks, and more- Hello Games has had one hell of a development cycle, while the world watched every move closely in anticipation. While No Man’s Sky is not the “end-all” game that so many had placed on its shoulders, the ambition and technical accomplishment that Sean Murray and the team achieved is nothing short of incredible, and is surely going to be a landmark for future game development industry-wide. 

     One of the most common questions that I have received from friends and followers of The HUD since the game’s release, “Is this game worth my time and money?” Honestly, it entirely depends on what you are looking for in a game. For those that are looking for an open experience where they aren’t under constant pressure by sidequest markers and deep storylines, then this game is probably right up your alley. However, if you are looking for moment-to-moment action and a more linear experience, then this is probably where I would say this isn’t the game for you at the moment. That is the one thing that I cannot shake from playing this game- is that we are playing year 1 NMS at the moment, and this game is going to look very different in the months and years to come.

     From a gameplay standpoint, NMS is pretty straight forward once you wrap your head around the loop, after what can seem like an incredibly daunting opening scenario. Land, discover, compile resources, upgrade, then wash, rinse, and repeat. While I describe this, there is really no way to do it justice in the sense that everything is on such a grand scale and the ability to hop in your ship and fly into space at any given moment (without any loading screen), really is a feat. Thus far into the game, I have learned there is no way to measure how far you are into the game based on time alone. For example, if you tell someone that you are 150+ hours into Fallout 4, then you have a good sense that this person has seen most everything the game has to offer. Where in NMS, you can spend several hours exploring one planet alone without ever leaving the surface or visiting a space station.

     Level design is where the game starts to lose its luster after a bit. It’s weird to say this because there truly are 18 quintillion planets to land on, but after a while, they become a bit more than color swaps and environmental factors that can kill you. However, for the first dozen hours or so, you will find yourself in moments as you explore the surface of a planet that is mind boggling to think that odds are you will be the first and last person to ever set foot on the planet. But as with the law of depreciation, this element loses its luster after you start to feel like you’re landing on the same planet with different trees. 

     Now one of the most divisive aspects of this game is the story or lack-there-of. I remember shortly after the release of vanilla Destiny, most people criticized Bungie for forgetting a ‘story’. Not to be outdone, however, No Man’s Sky managed to create a larger universe with even less of a story. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate games that encourage to discover the deep lore behind the games universe, but in this case, I really can’t help but feel like the campaign was more of an afterthought rather than a focal point of the development cycle. This is where my biggest quarrel with the game lies The framework for one of the most incredible experiences in gaming history is right at their fingertips, all they have to do is give the player real incentive and background to accomplish the games one goal- journey to the center of the universe. 

     At the same time, this is where No Man’s Sky shines brightest- is its future potential. In my previous example of vanilla Destiny, look at all the content and additions the team at Bungie has made to their platform- offering some of my favorite gaming experiences in the past decade. But it took those expansions for it to reach that level. This is where NMS is at, and I am excited to see what the universe has in store for the team at Hello Games. 

     No Man’s Sky  is going to be a masterpiece to those that are looking in the right places and pleased with the loop, while it will fall flat on its face for those that go in with preconceived notions that this game really is an ‘end-all’. While I don’t think this game is going to work for everyone, I honestly believe that this game is one that you need to gain your own opinion on. In the years to come, we will see many iterations of this experience come from several different companies that will attempt to put their own spin on the ambitious formula. When you find yourself playing those games, it will mean that much more to understand where ground zero was- and what we had to do get there. 

First Impressions: No Man’s Sky

 There are very few games that have developed the kind of hype that No Man’s Sky has successfully done in the 3+ years since we first learned about it during the VGX 2013. From game delays to street leaks, there is no denying that the team at Hello Games has had their hands full, and all that time with the whole world watching in anticipation. Now there is no way that we could see every single part of the gigantic universe that is No Man’s Sky. However, with the PC release imminent and the console iteration having been in the wild for a few days, the crew at The Gamer HUD wanted to give you their first impressions of the game to help guide you in your purchasing decision and a final review set to release in the days to come. 

Cole’s Take:

 I have now spent a little over 18 hours playing No Man’s Sky, and one thing has been vastly apparent to me since I pressed “Start.” The individual that beats this game in 30 hours or less has made it their purpose to get to the “Center of the Universe”, with no time to slow down to enjoy the game in between. In my play time, I have learned new languages, discovered hundreds of different species, upgraded ships and weapons, and the list goes on and on. While I know that I am still several hours away from completing any story line, that is not really what No Man’s Sky is. It’s about the journey, not the destination (Very ‘meta’ of me, I know). While I will wait till the final review to go more in depth on mechanics and moment to moment gameplay, I will leave you with the thought that I have not been this engrossed in a video game in a long time- and there are no signs of stopping. This game is not going to be for everyone- and in the end, it will prove to be divisive, however, if you are looking to get lost in a vast universe with countless things to do, you have found your game.

Joe’s Take:

Love it of Hate it, No Man’s Sky is something to be experienced. I didn’t understand the hype of this game. Leading up to its release, the gameplay videos, and E3 reveals didn’t convey what this game is trying to make you experience: the thrill of discovery. 

There are very subtle details and game design choices that force you to venture out and discover. Everything has a cost. Your spacecraft uses fuel to fly. Your exo-suit requires recharging, and the tool you use to acquire these resources needs energy to function. This simple gameplay feature forces you to explore your surroundings and gather essentials to navigate No Man’s Sky’s universe successfully.

While this is just a small aspect of what makes No Man’s Sky special as the thing that truly fascinates me about this game is its vast potential through updates. The game has created a quite literal universe to build upon, and the directions the game can take from here is endless. 

You’ll also encounter creatures that defy logic and haunt your dreams. So there’s that.

Tina’s Take:

     When I first heard about this game, I was definitely not excited for it. I have a hard time playing first person style games, so I typically will stay away from those and stick with the third person styles. This struggle has caused me to have a bitter taste in my mouth when it comes to first person games. It wasn’t until about a month ago that I finally swallowed my opinions and made the choice to purchase this game when it came out. This has since become my new gaming addiction. Despite the fact that it has a first person view angle, I found that the controls and movements came to me very easily. I appreciate this because every time I have tried to play any other sort of first person game, I always end up running around in a corner like a chicken with her head cut off. The controls were very reminiscent of ‘Minecraft’. If you want an idea of what this game is all about, think of it like ‘Minecraft’ met the movie ‘Interstellar’ and the two decided to drop acid while reading 80’s Sci-Fi novels. That’s what No Man’s Sky is like. If that sounds like something you are interested in one thing to keep in mind is if you are going to get this game make sure you keep in mind that this game strongly encourages exploration. In fact, that’s what this game is pretty much all about. There is a slight story involved, but you have to find it. It’s not going to be thrown at you from the very beginning, which I personally enjoyed. It was almost like a reward for discovering something new. I also appreciated this game for the sheer possibility of discovering what’s around the corner. You start on one random planet in the middle of a random solar system. When you finally leave the planet, and you get out into the open space, it really dawns on you how massive this game is. It took me roughly 4-5 hours to finally leave my first planet and when I did, I finally saw that all that time spent exploring what I thought was a large portion of the world I landed on, was in actuality no more than the size of New York City. The developers at Hello Games made each planet truly life-size. When that dawned on me, I cried a single tear of joy knowing I will probably NEVER fully explore this game. Once this stunning realization wore off, I shot off to the next nearest planet to see what it had in store. If you liked ‘Minecraft’, this is a must add to your collection. If you didn’t, I’d recommend you steer clear.

5 Tips for Beginners of No Man’s Sky

     There is no way to over exaggerate just how big No Man’s Sky actually is, when they told us 18 quintillion planets- they weren’t joking and that wasn’t hyperbole. So for the individual that is just picking up their copy, the idea of getting dropped into the middle of all of this can seem incredibly daunting. Lucky for you, the crew here at the HUD wanted to set you up for success with some helpful tips on how to get you off on the right foot. So whether you haven’t started the game and looking to dive in, or someone that’s already begun but wants to get a better grasp of the conventions- here are 5 pro tips to make sure you are master of the universe in no time. 

1.) Learn what Elements are Associated with which Plant/Rock

While inevitable someone is reading this first tip and saying, “You’ve got to be joking me”- no I’m really not, your survival depends on it. Personally, science has never been my strong suit, however after nearly 20 hours of element hunting, I am comfortable to say I know exactly what I am looking for when I touch a worlds surface. Even though every world will look and feel different, for the most part rocks and plants will look similar or often the same that produces a particular type of element. For example, low on Plutonium? Scour the land for the spike red rocks. Seriously, the quicker you learn this, the more time you will save yourself walking up to random stuff seeing what it produces.

2.) Don’t Take Decisions Lightly

There are going to be many moments in the universe of No Man’s Sky that you find yourself faced with options in dialogue, whether it be something pertaining to the story or on a side quest. When asked to make a decision, make sure you weigh all the odds and think about what you know whether it pertains to a race of aliens that you have learned about leading up to it, or what generally what kind of a character you want to represent in the universe. Once you have made that decision- there is no going back, no do overs, nada- you decision is final and you have to live with the consequences. On multiple occasions I have stumbled upon a treasure or terminal that promises secrets, but upon my failure to answer the question correctly, the opportunity closes forever. 

3.) Upgrade Your Inventory Space Often

Nobody likes playing the “every time I pick up an item, I have to delete an item” game, so don’t. One of the main ways that you are going to make money in No Man’s Sky is going to directly tie to the resources you can carry with you, and if you don’t have room to carry a lot, you will eventually find yourself making unnecessary trips across the galaxy to pawn them off. The easiest way to upgrade your inventory slots is by hacking Signal Scanners (objects that shoot a beam of light into the air), and opting to find a Shelter. This normally brings you to a drop pod, in which you will find your upgrade. *Remember, this will cost you a fee that continually gets more expensive with each time you upgrade.

4.) How to Make Money

Although it can be time consuming at times, depending on how upgraded your multi tool is, scoping the planets surface for massive gold looking boulders is going to be you safest bet. I have seen people randomly selling common material trying to make a few thousand on a transaction, instead when you land on a planet and it gives you an overview, look to see if the planet is rich in resources. Now all you have to do is fly around, look for gold boulders, and cash in at your nearest space station. This will allow you to buy upgrades to your inventory, as well as better ships. While this seems like common sense, you’d be surprised at how often I have had people ask how to make more money in this game.

5.) Relax, and Don’t Stress It

No Man’s Sky is a massive game, and in the first moments of the game when you are dropped onto a planet then told to go figure it out- it can be incredibly overwhelming. While there are going to be moments that you may want to walk away, just remember that the game is made of a few simple conventions: Discover, Gather Resources, Sell & Upgrade,  and Combat. The specifics are going to seem alien to you at first (oh yes I did!), but the more time you spend with it, you will find the pattern and learn to explore the galaxy with a smile on your face. This game is meant to be many things, frustrating is not one of them- so don’t let it.

Review: Headlander

     In what seems to be a renaissance period for metroidvania styled games, it has become a bit convoluted to find the ones that stand out among the rest. While Headlander does not attempt to reinvent the wheel per say, they do add enough flavor to make the experience enjoyable from beginning to end. This Double Fine developed game has all the classic flare that you would expect from one of their titles, and manages to give you plenty of laughs along the way.

     Set in a futuristic space station, they gave the game a 1970’s TV Show vibe that feels right at home between the art style the team took, and the stellar soundtrack that keeps you in the zone throughout your play through. Narrated by a mysterious voice, you are guided through the game as a human head that has the ability to attach itself onto enemy robots that vary in color- which later grants you access to different areas of the game. The gameplay loop, although simple, becomes very frantic and entertaining as you begin to upgrade your arsenal of abilities. From zooming across the screen by amping your thrusters, to the bubble shield that allows you to get close enough to your enemy to literally pull their head off- the name Headlander becomes an obvious choice of title. 

     One of the aspects of the title that I enjoyed the most, was the banter that I received from the airlock doors that I would attempt to run through, but lacked the correct color of suit that would grant me access. From awful puns such as “Are you REDdy” when I would run at the red colored door, to the direct insults doors would throw at me if I had attempted multiple times without success, “Seriously, I don’t want you near me”. While I loved the gameplay to a high degree, it was the dialogue of those around me, along with the narrator as he guided my quest to defeat the evil Methuselah, which gave me a continual smile. 

     The most important aspect of Headlander is the gameplay, which is a valuable trait, as it wants to join a genre that boasts some of the greatest games of all time. As I moved from room to room, it was becoming vastly apparent that I was getting the hang of the gameplay loop and never really faced a challenge that left me stuck for more than a few minutes. Learning your abilities is key to survival as you enter a new area, as well as the skills that the enemy robot offers as you take over their torso- Double Fine created a game that didn’t lose my attention for a single moment offering all of the special elements that make the metroidvania genre a favorite of mine. 

     Headlander is a great addition to the side scrolling action library that so many others attempt to fill. While they don’t try to change it up too drastically- the fact is that there was no need with this title. The development team at Double Fine knew exactly what they wanted to do with this game, make the metroidvania game with that flair and humor that we all know and love from their previous titles. If you are looking for a game that offers all the familiar strokes of others in its genre, but gives you a fun story with great pacing- then I couldn’t recommend this game more than I do. Fans of the genre will be pleased with what Double Fine has created, and I hope they have more like this up their sleeve as we look to the future. 

Review: Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter may be the most aptly named title ever made. Within the first few moments of Heart Machine’s latest game, you are treated to a cascade of color and sound as you introduce yourself to the character and the world you are about to explore. The opening scene is wordless, instead replaced with haunting, atmospheric music. The game creates more questions than answers at the start and instantly sets out the theme HLD is trying to put forth. You must find your purpose within it’s the world.

This 2D, old-school, action RPG is soaked in neon colors, making Hyper Light Drifter one of the more beautiful games I’ve played. The digital aesthetic HLD contains in its natural settings cause the world to connected, even with the variety of environments the game offers.  You’ll navigate wastelands, underground bases, crystallized forests and more as you try to piece together your past and your mission. Each of the different areas features unique enemies; adding variety to the game’s fast, precise action. 

Hyper Light Drifter’s combat is precise, requiring you to use the drifter’s sword attacks, dashes, and guns in every way possible to gain an edge in the game’s multiple battles. I found myself practicing the timing of ashes and counting the number of hits each enemy takes to kill to move through conflicts efficiently. I’ve learned these tactics through perseverance, as HLD surely does feature unforgiving fights. But never did I feel like the game was unfair. Every time I died it was my fault, and I had to adapt to move forward. Beyond your character’s base set of attacks, new skills, such as chain dashing or the ability to reflect back projectiles with the swing of your sword, are available for purchase using collectibles found in the environment. While these new skills aren’t required to proceed the in the story, they are extremely helpful; especially in the latter parts of the game. But people seeking the extra challenge can attempt to complete the game without any upgrades used. The game also features an interesting take on a new game plus mode, offering all upgrades unlocked at the start of the game, at the same time leaving you with reduced health, making survival depend explicitly on your skill alone.

Heart Machine has an apparent love for classic video game boss fights, as Hyper Light Drifter features fun, epic battles at the end of each area. Patterns are to be learned, and timing is to be practiced to defeat and navigate these tough bosses. The game does a great job of making you feel accomplished, as your character flourishes whenever you destroy a boss fight or complicated battle. It’s a small detail, but one I certainly appreciated. It’s as if the drifter is sharing in your joy and celebrating your victory.

That is what HLD does best. The game does a great job of capturing you in its world. Exploration is rewarding, but it does get a little tiresome at times. This frustration is due to HLD’s map system. The map gives you only a general sense of your location in reference to an area. This design choice makes finding your way difficult at times as you have to guess sometimes if you’re going the right way. Whereas giving me the exact location would give me a general sense of direction or quickly identify hidden areas littered throughout the world. And while I thoroughly enjoyed the environments, sounds, and combat HLD has to offer, a lot of the game’s story is up for you to interpret. Maybe a little too much. The game is wordless, with conversations reduced to pictures of incidents, and cut scenes that leave much to the imagination. I’ve played through the game three times by now, and still, have a lot of trouble piecing together a story. By leaving out most of the details, the game creates a sense of discovery and wonder, but I can’t help but feel this game would be much better with just a little more direction or clarification. By the end of the game, I completed one of the most epic adventures I’ve experienced, but I still don’t understand what I had done. All I have are theories as to what transpired in Hyper Light Drifter, but I know I definitely had fun.

Hyper Light Drifter creates a vibrant, dangerous world for you to explore. The lush colors and musical swells captivate you in between frantic and exhilarating fights but is ultimately held back by leaving it up to the player to find their purpose.

Review: Abzû

There are very few games that have left me utterly astounded and speechless after a full play through. I’m almost hesitant to write this review as I feel like any words used to describe how utterly beautiful and captivating this game is, would be doing it a disservice.  This game was more than a video game for me, it was truly a piece of art that I will remember for the rest of my life.  Although at times extremely similar to Journey, which is not a bad thing by any means, this game successfully exceeded all expectations that I had going into it and has my vote for Game of the Year.

Abzû was the first brain child of the developers at Giant Squid, and I personally feel that they truly outdid themselves.  All future games they may create will have a lot to live up to as they not only put themselves onto a pedestal, but they built the damn pedestal they’re standing on.  Just by playing through once, it became apparent to me that this game is polished.  The level of detail that these developers put into not just the world but in your character is amazing.  I’ve played through several underwater adventures in just this summer alone, and this is the only game that I feel has successfully managed to suck players in and make them feel as if they were that deep sea diver.  The movements are fluid without feeling like there is a lag in reaction time between when you press a controller button and what occurs on screen.  As you’re swimming, your characters’ movements are so lifelike that it truly feels like you are watching an undersea dance unfold before your very eyes.

Not only is it apparent that a lot of work went into just honing your characters’ movements, but the actual setting of Abzû is remarkable.  As you progress through the various zones, or “levels”, you’ll start to see a variety of sea life swimming around you.  Each species you encounter is a real creature found within the ocean, and each one was studied meticulously in order to truly capture how it would actually move in the ocean.  You can also study every single one of them.  Let’s think about this for a second, instead of just having the fish swim around as pretty background objects, the developers instead built in little “meditation” stations that allow your character to sit down and zoom into each of the various sea life swimming around in that area.  You are actually encouraged to slow down at times in order to enjoy everything that is happening in the background of the actual story.  It’s a unique gameplay that I quite enjoyed, and it really shows the confidence levels of the developers to allow a player to sit back and actually look at the game they produced.  Whether it’s intentional or not, I feel like this aspect of gameplay is often times thrown to the sidelines in order to accommodate for the action component of a game.  We often forget how important setting is when storytelling and Abzû’s change in gameplay mentality was a breath of fresh air that I hope truly dawns a shift in how it is used for future game development.

A lot has to be said about the story writers for a company, when they are able to produce a moving tale with absolutely no dialogue.  Like with Journey, a game in which many fellow reviewers are saying this game derives similarities with, this game tells most of its story with the occasional quick cut scene to kind of guide your character, as well as through the various images found along the way to your end goal.  Despite the lack of dialogue, you can’t help but feel enthralled by what is being told through the soundtrack alone.  You feel an emotional pull for your character, you feel betrayal by the various (no spoilers I promise) situations that arise as you delve deeper into the ocean.  You feel sadness, curiosity, joy, and finally hope all along the way with literally nothing to evoke these emotions except for what you as a character have experienced along the way.  Credit where credit is needed, Austin Wintory did an exceptional job with the games score.  Ever since I played Journey, I have been a huge fan of his work and Abzû did not disappoint me.  In fact, I’d be inclined to argue that Abzû’s score may outshine Journey’s simply due to the number of times where I was inclined to put down my control to just stop and listen to the beautiful melody that was pouring out of my speakers.  It’s games like these where I often times have to remind myself just how powerful of a story teller music can be.

From the moment I picked up this game, I was fully expecting a ‘Journey’ 2.0.  That alone was what compelled me to initially purchase the game, and in all honesty the entire first half is a complete ‘Journey’ throwback.  The music coupled with the initial art style is hugely inspired by that game.  It’s also impossible to look at your little diver without realizing that he is strikingly similar in appearance to your little hooded adventurer from ‘Journey’. In fact, the game actually doesn’t have anything that sets it apart as its own unique thing until about half way through.  That’s when the story really started to pick up for me and I was able to feel the goosebumps on the back of my neck.  The game leads you thinking that the story is going to unfold one way, and then half way through the game there is a HUGE plot twist and suddenly it’s going in a way you weren’t expecting (above ground gameplay in a supposedly purely underwater game…what?).  It was at that moment, and if you play the game you’ll know it when it comes, that I realized that this game was its own unique entity and that it has set itself up to be compared on truly equal footing with ‘Journey’.

About the only issue that I had with the game was that the camera movement on the PS4 was a little difficult to master.  If you are going to get this game, keep in mind that it comes standard inverted.  So if you aren’t used to that kind of camera control you will need to adjust it in the settings.  Even after adjusting, it is a little tricky to maintain an ideal camera angle.  I’ve found that this is something that happens often with underwater games, and unfortunately Abzû falls into this category.  Outside of that, once you get used to the odd camera movements this game is a must try.  I will most definitely be revisiting this gorgeous game for the next several years just for the experience.  This game is quick, it took me about an hour and half total to beat and that was even with me stopping at every single little meditation spot in order to look at all the different oceans species swimming around me.  That’s what was so beautiful about this game, it was simple yet deep.  It’s games like this that really cement my love and support for independent game developers, and why I will continue to look for similar games such as this in the future. 

What do you think?  Do you feel like it was a copycat of Journey, or do you feel like it was its own game in the same genre?  What were some of your favorite moments in the game?  Did you have any moments where you felt like the game was lacking?  Let us know in the comments below.