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Rust Review: Life Is Fleeting

Game Spot Reviews - Sat, 02/17/2018 - 20:00

It's hard not to have your interest piqued by Rust. Few other games strive to make you feel as helpless, vulnerable, and lost as its startling opening and outwardly confusing mechanics do. Rust wants you to think it's about survival, but it never uses the tools at its disposal to realize that. Instead it becomes a playground limited not by your understanding of its inner workings, but instead by how much time you want to spend slogging away at its tedium.

Starting stark naked on a beach with nothing more than a rock and torch on your person, Rust doesn't waste time letting you know that you're in danger. Health, hydration, and hunger bars make it immediately clear that your time on its massive island is borrowed. Without food and water (and later shelter, light, and warmth), you can slowly watch your life seep away with every passing minute. Rust attempts to guide new players with an often less-than-helpful tutorial to keep you alive longer than a handful of minutes, but it does nothing to prepare you for the real dangers its world holds.

Rust's facade is its survival mechanics, and its menagerie of crafting options and resources for you to gather up keep the illusion alive at first. You can use your otherwise useless rock to chop down trees or hammer away at different types of ore, and eventually you might gather enough to make a hatchet or pickaxe to increase your bountiful gains and speed up the process. This process quickly ramps up into more meaningful items, with the allure of modern weapons and robust armor only at the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

It's a nightmare of menus and item wheels that really slow things down to a halt. Rust might be out of Early Access, but it has so many elements that indicate otherwise. You can easily search for a building foundation in one menu, watch its building timer somewhere else on the screen, and then have it pop into your inventory, which is an entirely different menu at this point. Equip it and you have a relatively flat surface in front of you (Rust absolutely doesn't like any gradient variations and refuses to allow you to place items on them), and you're good to go. But what about moving it? You'll need an entirely separate tool for that, as well as another trip into a separate equipment wheel with options to rotate, move or otherwise dismantle one of your creations.

The cycle of gathering, crafting, and building up something to be proud of never feels rewarding. Rust doesn't have the tools you need to be creative, nor does it care about practicality when it comes to redesigning a small dwelling you might have crafted for that first chilly night out in the wilderness. Teases meant to entice you to brave Rust's other dangers fall flat fast, giving you few reasons to stick around for the tedious slog of dismantling greater weapons and gear to hopefully have the means to build them down the line.

You don't know these items exist because you see them on a list, but rather because they're probably what's being used to endlessly kill you. The island in Rust is inhabited by many other players, capping out at 250 per server. And despite only being alive for a few minutes and having nothing really of worth on your person, they will (often) waste no time in showing you how far down the food chain you really are.

In this way, Rust's true enemy shows its face: its other players. That's somewhat fascinating to ponder on for a moment. Rust has been the subject of many a think piece during its long time in Early Access, often centering around discussions of human nature and the tendencies towards violence when other options clearly present themselves. But while that makes for a neat article to read or interesting mechanic to discuss, it detracts from another vital part of the game: what it feels like to play.

Playing Rust is a frustrating experience even with a friend or two in tow and feels downright impossible to go at alone. Wandering players will attack you at a moment's notice, with their time spent in the server used to build up an arsenal that no amount of skilled play can overcome. Rust's ceiling has nothing to do with how well you understand its survival mechanics or get to grips with its clunky movement and cumbersome first-person action. It's a game that rewards those who put the most time into it first: giving them the boots to step on the ants that are any other players that might dare join after a server wipe.

Design is partly to blame for this, with Rust's server wipes a clear indicator of how little depth its survival elements hold. Some servers might routinely reset after a week of play, while all are forced to this measure within a month. The idea is to re-level the playing field--just a day or two into a fresh server is enough for towering fortresses and high-level weaponry to be crafted by those incredibly dedicated few--so that the process can start again. This wouldn't need to be a feature if Rust had any semblance of balance to it. But because time is the only commodity it rewards, it pushes itself into a corner where this is the only viable solution.

Without a skill ceiling of any kind, Rust demands that you dedicate every waking moment you have to it if you're planning to have any sort of fun. Logging off leaves you vulnerable to attack from other players, while your shelters slowly decay should you not top them up with the right resources. And a momentary slip up means certain doom. Death means your corpse and anything you've gathered to that point is ripe for pillaging, leaving you to respawn on that same beach with just a rock, a torch, and questions about what you've actually achieved.

Rust's community might sometimes offer glimmers of hope, but it's fleeting. Every so often you can witness players making amicable agreements to trade or stumble upon a shop that needs to be both stocked and protected by players. I once ran into another survivor that handed me a hatchet and bandages to make my early game easier; a simple, memorable moment to dull the pain of the frequent deaths in the hours preceding it. Rust's mixture of trigger-happy players and often toxic in-game chats make the entire experience profusely unwelcoming and unpleasant.

Technical issues only add to the unpleasantries. Rust routinely runs into periods of incredible slowdown, tearing the game from an unlocked framerate (its options menus riddled with spelling mistakes couldn't lead me to a lock of any sort) to single digits at the most inopportune times. Animations look stiff and unnatural. Character models look ugly and dull. And both stand in stark contrast to an often-gorgeous backdrop. Rust's island is serene and pleasant to look at, with its saturated blue skies and purple haze sunsets inviting you to take pause. There's beauty to mask the repetitive models used for resources and the inconsistent textures, but not enough to make them truly go unnoticed.

Rust is also disappointing because of just how long it took to realize its own inescapable faults. Its lack of survival depth and inclination to only reward time served instead of clever play saps whatever life it might have had to give. Its survival systems show their age, while its community does its best to chase off those who might dare try surviving a new night on the island. Rust might make for an interesting discussion on what it brings out of its players, but it's not one you need to experience firsthand.

Secret Of Mana Review: Where Secrets Go, Trouble Follows

Game Spot Reviews - Sat, 02/17/2018 - 20:00

The new Secret of Mana is billed as a remake, but "reconstruction" is probably more accurate. If not for the updated graphics, it could almost be considered a port of the SNES game. Combat, magic, and movement are much the same. The new mini-map—one of the scant few quality-of-life tweaks--is the original SNES bitmap of each stage. It also ports over every mechanical flaw and obtuse element from the 1993 original. It's a strange game to assess, then; it simultaneously shows how far ahead of the curve Secret of Mana was 25 years ago, while also making its problems all the more pronounced under a modern lens.

Secret of Mana tells the tale of a spiky-haired boy named Randi who frees a mystical sword stuck in a stone. Instead of his home village giving him the King Arthur treatment, Randi is admonished for accidentally undoing the balance of the magical forces in the world. Monsters, an evil empire, and a world-ending dragon threaten to ruin the world as they know it, unless Randi can find the mystical Mana seeds and use his sword to restore order.

It's a fairly rudimentary tale of swords and sorcery, but one that's easy to see through to the end thanks to the cast's charming personalities. Newly written dialogue for the remake smooths out the original translation's rough edges, and introduces a few completely new scenes, where Randi and his cohorts--Primm and Popoi--hang out and talk over dinner every time you book a night at an inn. The remake sees our characters learn to know and love each other in new ways, and it makes a big difference in the long run.

The biggest change, of course, is the complete graphical overhaul, putting it on par with I Am Setsuna and some of the better Final Fantasy mobile ports. It maintains the original game's striking color palette, bathing the world in vibrant greens, blues and pinks. Most environments look delightful, but particularly dazzling locales like the Sprite Forest and Ice Country are breathtaking. Character models are a step up from Square Enix's previous remakes as well, though the decision to introduce voice actors yet not let characters' lips move is a jarring one. The fact that the voice acting is played so campy and cheesy--in both English and Japanese--doesn't help.

The remixed score is the same two-steps-forward one-step-back situation. For the most part, the expanded instrumentation works well. Some areas, like Matango and its '70s prog-rock theme, introduce surprisingly catchy tunes. The score keeps the original freewheeling approach as the world design, with no limits on what a particular dungeon or area might be accompanied by. But this occasionally leads to one too many strange, dissonant moments, with many of the village themes defined by the heavy use of bagpipes and accordions.

Secret of Mana's "anything goes" approach extends to gameplay as well. You can swap control between the three characters at any time, and they are each capable of wielding any of the game's eight weapon types. Each strike during combat initiates a recharge time where the chances of actually landing your next attack or doing decent damage improve as your character regathers their energy. This system forces you to move around the playing field as much as possible to avoid getting hit by enemies while you wait. Magic attacks can hit from anywhere, as long as your enemy is in range, but magic points are limited, and items that refill the meter are expensive. There aren't many console RPGs from the early '90s that forced you to consider so many things at once, but in 2018, it actually feels right at home.

There are, however, quite a few aspects that are less welcome by modern standards, and despite a golden opportunity to do so, nothing has been done to address them. The Ring system--the game's quick menu--is serviceable, but the color-coding used to indicate whose options, weapons, and magic you're accessing is too subtle for its own good; it gets worse as your repertoire grows over the course of the game.

It's also still extremely easy for your crew to get surrounded by lesser enemies during combat, getting smacked around from all directions with nowhere to go. Yet if you walk into another room where huge, dangerous enemies are lurking, you can often stroll right past them without raising alarm. Sometimes, the NPC A.I. being oblivious is a good thing. When that same obliviousness applies to the CPU controlled characters in your crew during a major battle, and your offensive spell caster is stuck behind a doorway, it's an unforgivable annoyance.

The original game's Grid System, where you could adjust how aggressive/passive you wanted your A.I. characters to be, is gone. In its place is a much more simplified system of dictating basic behavior, but there's not an effective way to instruct your allies to favor self preservation. Granted, that's a problem easily solved with the game's local multiplayer, where two friends can jump in at any point and control the other two characters in your crew--another area where Secret of Mana was way ahead of its time--but it's still no excuse for the issues experienced while playing solo.

Altogether, the new Secret of Mana exists in a weird nexus of being a forward-thinking RPG that occasionally shows its age, or a very modern RPG with some baffling design decisions and sub-standard A.I..

Other problems the original game didn't have, however, stem from the lack of general information. The Super Nintendo release came with a full-fledged world map and a manual which explained what store items were meant to do, and where certain cities were located in reference to major landmarks. The latter is critical once Flammie, a friendly dragon, comes into play, allowing you to travel anywhere in the world at will. None of that is included here, which could very well create a problem for newcomers since there's no place in-game that explains what anything does. That disconnect extends to weapons and armor, where there's no way to know whether a piece of equipment is better or worse than what a character is already wearing aside from buying it anyway and praying.

Altogether, the new Secret of Mana exists in a weird nexus of being a forward-thinking RPG that occasionally shows its age, or a very modern RPG with some baffling design decisions and sub-standard A.I.. Its ambitions, coupled with the outright charm of the world, are certainly more than many RPGs offer, and very few as visually dazzling as this. Secret of Mana remains an adventure worth taking, as long as you're prepared for a bumpy ride.

Look Of The Day

In Style Fashion News Feed - Fri, 02/16/2018 - 16:30

Attack Of The Earthlings Review

Game Spot Reviews - Thu, 02/15/2018 - 20:00

The premise of Attack of the Earthlings is the flip of a well-worn trope: Instead of being faced with an impending alien invasion, humans are the intergalactic terror. And (even worse, depending on your own views) the invading terrans are hopelessly incompetent capitalists, who are out to make a quick buck. As the matriarch of a race of insect-like extraterrestrials, your only goal is to wipe out the humans and stop them from plundering your home to fill up their coffers.

Structurally, Attack of the Earthlings takes nods from the likes of XCOM and other turn-based tactical games. Instead of starting with a squad, though, you're generally alone. As you consume the bodies of your enemies (an essential part of hiding corpses, of course), you can spit out smaller, weaker creatures. Play revolves around your carapaced corps and guiding the spawnlings through each level. And, as a system for expanding play and tactical options, it works well. As you go, you'll unlock new abilities to torment the colonizers as well as more varied drone types that require careful coordination. In effect, this turns Attack of the Earthlings into a satisfying, single-player team-based stealth game.

Most maps revolve around a simple form of this dynamic. You--the misunderstood, scary alien hellbeast--are understandably terrifying to the weak, squishy humans, but they have guns that punch plenty of holes in your otherwise sturdy exoskeleton. You both kill (and can be killed) with little effort, meaning that you'll need to carefully measure your approach to battle.

The high lethality leads to a few exciting moments, but more often than not, those moments are defused by the tract of humor that runs throughout. After the first few missions, though, that's not much of a problem; once you regularly have drones to control, it becomes a lot clearer that Attack of the Earthlings is plenty content with letting you be an '80s horror flick villain. This goes double because, again, you are the hulking leader of your species. With your massive claws, the ability to eat whole people, and a legion of spawned followers, it quickly becomes clear that the Earthlings have no chance. You're here for the ride... and to see what kind of gory trail you can leave behind.

Where this really fits into that classic screamer vibe is how you'll need to make your approach. You can't fit into vents, nor is it easy for you to hide. Mission pacing varies, then, based on proximal goals. Inch the queen forward, kill a few dudes, create spawn, explore more of the area, and then bring your spawn slowly back to you as you complete objectives and unlock the exit. It can get a little monotonous, but the feeling of domination that you get from leading lots of little critters through the nooks and crannies of an interstellar planetary drill meshes perfectly with the tongue-in-cheek tone of the writing.

Attack of the Earthlings takes a different, absurd tack, dropping the severe consequences of mission failure and the emergent narrative for what is essentially a sketch comedy in space.

The connective tissue and guiding mission centers on a drill that the humans have brought to your stellar doorstep. Progress starts with infiltrating the drill and climbing upward, moving away from the blue-collar employees that maintain the drill bit and toward the posh execs at the top. Not too far-flung from the tongue-in-cheek brand of humor of Futurama or The IT Crowd, the most common thread in Attack of the Earthlings' writing is the silly, incompetent nature of your would-be invaders. They are threatening, yes--but not fundamentally so.

Your first victim, a lowly guard pausing for a pee break mid-patrol, sets the tone well. You are the horrific, unholy monster from the nightmares of these poor folks; at the same time, they are so hopeless and ignorant of the threat you pose that jumping a dude as he's taking a whiz (so that you can spawn more of your demonic children) doesn't ever come off as mean-spirited. They are hapless victims--stooges who get a little bit of humanity before they are playfully yanked offscreen, leaving a bloody mess behind.

Individually, the humans aren't concerning; they aren't even really a threat, unless they have weapons. Instead, the fear they instill comes from their ability to cooperate against you--clumsy and silly though they are. Countering that, much of the game has you pulling off simultaneous kills with one or more of your minions (and you) at the same time. This helps even the field--particularly down the line, when you can bring one of three specialized drones into combat.

Each specialization is an insectoid riff on the standard trinity of character classes: warrior, mage, and rogue. Goliaths are beefy brawlers, stalkers are sneaky trap-masters, and disruptors help to control foes--opening them up to attack or allowing you to slip by. The drones themselves aren't complex or novel, but playing their strengths off of each other and using their skills to complement your abilities is a joy, especially if you can conduct them in one massive assault. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of these orchestrations to make them consistently engaging.

Attack of the Earthlings is short-lived, and the levels don't showcase its strengths as well as they could. Much of that comes from each area's heavily scripted nature; the game has a story to tell, and you can't do much to muddle with the plan. Because of that, the game doesn't feel like an organic stealth adventure. Enemies move in rote patterns, with little in the way of surprises to shake up play. This is especially true when it comes to cross-level play: Where XCOM and its contemporaries bill themselves on persistent consequences for mission choices, Attack of the Earthlings takes a different, absurd tack, dropping the severe consequences of mission failure and the emergent narrative for what is essentially a sketch comedy in space. Despite that, the game is often funny enough to warrant a rather broad recommendation.

As long as you aren't thirsty for a deep tactical foray into the great unknown, Attack of the Earthlings is a competent (and occasionally great) jab at the corporate world, and the ludicrous lengths that people will go to in order to make a buck.

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