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Madden NFL 18 Review

Game Spot Reviews - Sat, 08/19/2017 - 17:00

After almost 30 years, the Madden NFL series is rarely surprising. Fans think they know what to expect each year: a handful of small but meaningful mechanical tweaks, roster updates, and slight graphical bumps. Madden NFL 18, however, is highlighted by one of the most significant additions in series history--a full story mode--and a new, much more graphically capable engine. And due in large part to the Longshot story, it is a marked improvement over the last several entries in the series.

Madden has rarely tackled the personal side of football, choosing instead to present it as a chess-like competition: you are the coach and master, the players are your instruments to score. Of course, that's not how football is treated in the real world, so to see that change in Madden is intriguing in theory, and gratifying in practice. For the first time in Madden, Longshot actually references how much so many people invest in the sport, and how high the stakes are for them. For instance, main character Devin Wade, the star football player from his small Texas town, quit his college team after a family tragedy. You navigate through Wade's attempt to return to football, traveling to the NFL Combine in order to impress scouts.

Longshot is unexpectedly deep--it's a fully fledged, Telltale-style adventure game with multiple endings, broken up by short moments of playing football. It presents you with decisions that affect both the people around you and the scouts' perception of you. As with Telltale games, there's an illusion of greater choice that isn't necessarily there, but Longshot succeeds because it makes minor choices feel important. Do you reach for celebrity at the expense of Wade's best friend, Colt Cruise? Or do you carry him along at the risk of running afoul of your coach and scouts who think Wade depends on him too much?

For every moment that conveys Wade's commitment, his inner demons, and his friendship with Cruise, there are corresponding moments of absurd spectacle. Wade's journey from obscurity to superstardom unfortunately doesn't take place entirely in intimate, personal story beats a la Friday Night Lights, but rather in the spotlights of a ridiculously excessive reality show. During these sequences and the challenges it presents him with, Wade evokes annoyance, confusion, and anger at the gaminess of the reality show. The executive producer hits every trope of an over-the-top, ratings-obsessed showrunner, and Wade grows disillusioned with the entire process. He was thrust into an absurd situation that was built to manufacture drama, so it makes sense that he would be upset.

These story sequences and their associated mini-games and challenges don't fit well with the core narrative of two small-town football players trying to break into the NFL. Wade and Cruise don't need extra drama to make them care about the sport, so why does the story give us a reality show, as if to suggest that the stakes aren't high enough already?

Longshot is saved, however, by the quiet moments of introspection and camaraderie. It soars when its characters speak honestly about their love of the sport, and it nails the sense that football offers something bigger--a connection to a community, and a way to achieve greatness. Longshot's numerous flashbacks to Wade's time in high school and college show a relatable and deeply troubled character; the commentators for Wade's high school games banter about the players that they, of course, know personally; and Wade, Cruise, and the whole state championship-winning team are treated as heroes in their town for years afterwards.

In spite of its issues, this first attempt at a story mode creates an excellent foundation for future iterations. Further, when you've finished Longshot, you can dive into Madden Ultimate Team to play through some of Devin Wade's most memorable football scenarios.

Madden Ultimate Team is undoubtedly Madden's deepest mode, which has received a suite of updates to make it even more appealing to players. MUT tasks you with building a fantasy team from player cards (and yes, you can still buy packs of more powerful cards for real money). In Madden 18, you'll get player cards representing Devin Wade, Colt Cruise, and other characters from Longshot, and forming a Longshot-focused MUT team will let you participate in around 30 challenges. Although these challenges are generally not much more than normal Madden scenarios with Longshot player models, they're still entertaining enough to be worth playing.

But the main draw of MUT is multiplayer--and this year, you can team up with friends to take on others. Since Madden 25 launched in 2013, the series has conspicuously lacked any online cooperative team play. Madden 18's MUT Squads finally reintroduces it. In the mode, one person plays as the offensive captain, one plays as the defensive captain, and one plays as the coach. It's a welcome addition that gives players more options if they're not interested in the solo competitive MUT modes.

On the field, Madden 18 looks beautiful. The game is the first in the series to use EA's Frostbite engine, and as a result certain moments look nearly photorealistic. Stadiums feature minute details, while player models show everything from arm tattoos to jersey wrinkles. Stadium lighting is a particular high point; for example, afternoon sunlight--partly blocked by the stadium edges--filters down onto parts of the field and realistically illuminates players as they run into the light. The developer also comes closer than ever to finally eliminating the trademark dead eyes of Madden players. Eyes still look inhumanly glossy, but at least they move and are more detailed, and faces are more expressive.

The transition to Frostbite isn't perfect, though. Outside of stadiums, environments generally look bland and featureless, especially during certain segments of Longshot. Additionally, with more human-like player movement comes some bizarre graphical bugs, such as a player's leg clipping through his tackler's chest, or two players getting hung up on each other as they try to stand up.

As with past Maddens, EA is trying to make sure that the game reflects real NFL events as much as possible, which means weekly roster and player stat updates. If a player is traded in real life, you can expect that to be represented in the game quickly. This year, EA has also added the "Play Now Live" mode, which has quickly become my favorite new feature in the game. This allows you to jump quickly into any of the week's matchups, and both teams will reflect the actual lineups set to play. As a result, I was able to select last week's preseason game between the Jaguars and Patriots, and it had already been set up with the correct time of day, stadium, and rosters. EA Tiburon has also introduced the ability to turn any Play Now Live game into a franchise, letting you jump into a full season immediately after completing a game. I was able to build upon my performance in that Jaguars-Patriots game without having to set it up in the Franchise mode menus. Even though Franchise Mode hasn't received many updates from last year's version, these starting points make it a whole lot easier and more enticing to play through an entire season.

As I progressed through my season with the Patriots, accruing both successes and failures, I noticed that the commentators started referring to events that had happened in past games--more so than in previous installments in the series. Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis debuted as Madden commentators last year, and their rapport was already great then. They have returned in Madden 18 with even more back-and-forth dialogue, covering an impressive range of situations. Most notably, though, their commentary is full of context for both the game and the season. So, when my Patriots met the Dolphins in the Wildcard round of the playoffs, both teams with a 9-7 record, Davis and Gaudin discussed how the AFC East was a particularly weak division. They referenced the other teams in the playoffs and how they got there, and they called out events from earlier in the game. Further, EA promises it will continually update the Play Now Live commentary so that Gaudin and Davis refer to what is happening in the NFL.

Overall, Madden 18 marks an unusually large shakeup in a series that, due to its annualized releases, rarely features much more than small, iterative changes. The Frostbite engine allows the game to reach new levels of realism in its visuals, and EA has put a lot of effort into constantly evolving the game to keep it in line with real-world events. But it is the Longshot story mode that defines Madden 18. Some of Longshot is unnecessary spectacle, but its lasting value comes from the humanity that it brings to the game. The moments of vulnerability and sincerity between Devin Wade and Colt Cruise during the story are worthy of celebration and give the overall game a weight that Madden hasn't had before. And if that's not enough to entice you, it's also simply a terrific football game.

Undertale Review

Game Spot Reviews - Sat, 08/19/2017 - 16:00

Update: We've now tested the PlayStation 4 version of Undertale, and have updated the score to reflect the new port.

Undertale's opening cinematic hints at a cliche RPG where you awake in a mysterious world and embark on a journey in hopes of returning to your normal life. Despite the familiar premise, you quickly discover that looks can be deceiving. While many games can take a heavy-handed approach to teaching you the basics, Undertale does so in a way that not only introduces you to the tone of the game, but teaches you not to accept anything at face value. The first character you meet compels you to play nice, but as the cheerful music turns to sinister laughter and your new "friend" declares you an idiot, you get it: expect the unexpected. Undertale makes a name for itself with unusual storytelling techniques and combat mechanics, setting itself apart from the games it seems to imitate. It's also cleverly written and constantly subverts your expectations. There are so many wonderful experiences in store that are tempting to spoil, but to go into too much detail would ruin the element of surprise: one of Undertale's best assets.

While it seems to be a game that's designed for RPG fans first and foremost, a lot of Undertale's jokes have universal appeal. A pair of comically incompetent skeletons regularly spout puns and jokes while attempting--and failing--to halt your progress, and the social ineptitude exhibited by one character when they try to express their feelings for another is a regular source of laughter. With clever characterization and unexpected responses to actions we've been conditioned to view as predictable, Undertale elicits laughter and delight with ease.

"Take the ferry for 3 gold."

You're encouraged to stop and engage with NPCs rather than charge through the story, and you should, because the varied and entertaining cast of monsters reveal valuable information about the wider world. This quality isn't unique, but here, it leads to unusual exchanges that are filled with great quips, simultaneously poking fun at games and human nature alike. The script tip-toes into parody, but an air of earnest thought lifts it above mere mockery. Silly as it can be, Undertale delivers poignant observations that challenge the status-quo.

It's also the sort of experience that encourages you to come back for a second or third round. This is especially true because, over the course of roughly five hours, you make a lot of decisions that impact the world around you. The importance of choice is often felt during combat, which lets you pick between fighting or talking your way out of conflict.

Sometimes the secret to winning is a little bit of love.

Trying to pacify opponents is a far more rewarding experience than simply fighting, and its a process that's unique to each type of enemy. To earn their favor, you have to analyse an enemy's behavior and figure out the right course of action. In one scenario, you can attempt to befriend a violent dog, in another, you might want to cheer up a ghost with low self-esteem; your success will depend on your ability to empathize and react. Navigating social puzzles is a refreshing change of pace for what seems like traditional combat, and the variety of distinct, entertaining enemies you engage with helps stave off a problem that's all-too-common in other RPGs: repetitive random encounters.

Because not all enemies are easily wooed, you eventually need to defend yourself regardless if you intend to fight or not. Undertale handles this with a quirky mechanic that feels out of place at first, but it eventually grows on you because it makes combat engaging and unpredictable in a good way. Enemy attacks appear as waves of projectiles that fly within a square pen, and as they fly by, you have to steer a small heart icon out of their flightpath to avoid taking damage. It's an unusual mechanic, but it's simple to understand and rewarding in the sense that it lets your reflexes-rather than statistics or dice rolls--dictate the outcome of a fight.

The variety of distinct, entertaining enemies you engage with helps stave off a problem that's all-too-common in other RPGs: repetitive random encounters.

Even within combat, Undertale layers on the humor. Sometimes you're dodging bullets, but you also need to watch out for frogs, arms with flexing biceps, and even the tears of a depressed opponent. Linking the shape, size, and behavior of projectiles with enemies' personalities keeps things challenging, and opens the door for even more laughs as you fend off absurd attacks.

Hey, what are friends for?

It would be a crime not to mention Undertale's soundtrack, which is loaded with beautiful bit-based melodies that blend perfectly with the action on-screen. Each boss gets its own theme song, which do a great job of enhancing their particular personality. These tracks in particular bring energy and vigor, putting you on the edge of your seat as you try to fight or befriend your opponent. Outside of battle, tracks set the appropriate mood, too, from the quirky jingle in Temmie Village, to somber melodies that build tension near the end of the game. Regardless of its retro style, Undertale's soundtrack has timeless appeal and is great at evoking emotions.

Without spoiling the many ways it will screw with your expectations, it isn't possible to truly capture how wonderful Undertale is. You wouldn't know it with a passing glance, but it's one of the most progressive and innovative RPGs to come in a long time, breaking down tradition for the sake of invention, with great success.

Look Of The Day

In Style Fashion News Feed - Fri, 08/18/2017 - 10:00

The Pillars Of The Earth Review

Game Spot Reviews - Fri, 08/18/2017 - 01:00

For those with patience, there's a wonderful story of political corruption, self-discovery, and religious reliance to be found in The Pillars of the Earth. However, for anyone with a short attention span, it'd be hard to recommend this game as its slow pace and often drip-feed-style storytelling can make it tough to get through. Stick it out, however, and you find that this first episode (of three) hints at a larger, more meaningful story to come.

Based on Ken Follet's 1989 novel of the same name, this adventure game gives you control of two characters with intertwining stories. The first of which is Philip, an abbey Prior who's more or less responsible for a war between two English settlements. Philip, while sometimes unsure of himself, is portrayed as a considerate, mindful character. His counterpart is Jack, a child who's grown up off the grid, living in a cave with only his mother. Jack is far less sure of himself and, at the encouragement of his mother, hardly trusts the world around him.

Following these two characters is a highlight of The Pillars of the Earth, seeing the way their stories eventually come together and influence one another. But it's the story at large and its cast of secondary characters that make this world worth inhabiting. Each environment, scene, and character also has their own unique, hand-painted look to them, often with grand senses of scale and depth.

Set in the 12th century, The Pillars Of The Earth tackles plot points both grandiose and granular. After King Henry I of England dies without a set heir, his nephew and daughter feud over which of them should take his place. This clash causes turmoil in England, leading to eventual wars. And while political strife makes up a lot of the overarching story, The Pillars Of The Earth isn't afraid to dive deeper into its characters, showing quiet, intimate moments where, for example, Jack learns about his upbringing or Philip writes letters to his brother. The dichotomy between these two layers keeps you--for the most part--intrigued along the way.

A large cast of unique characters fleshes out this tale, adding secondary layers of motivation to the game's story. Within the first few minutes, you meet all of the the monks at Kingsbridge cathedral, where Philip has been named Prior. Each of them has a unique relationship with Philip, and it's your job to navigate their conversations and form alliances whenever possible. Furthermore, Jack's uncertainty about the world combines with his childhood curiosity. These moments are helped along with strong voice acting and a wonderful script that's packed with emotion.

And yet despite the interesting characters and stories that await, it's still difficult to wholeheartedly recommend Pillars of the Earth. While it's certainly not uncommon for adventure games to forego action for narrative, The Pillars of the Earth moves at a snail's pace. There is drama, but little in the way of tangible tension.

And unfortunately, there are a slew of technical issues to contend with along the way. Loading new environments often slows the framerate down to a chug (on Xbox One), and characters would sometimes talk over one another, making it difficult to follow either line of dialogue. The game also enters a load screen nearly every time it plays a new scene, which is a lot. For a game with an already slow pace, this can really hinder a lot of interest as you're forced to sit through extra screens and endure poor framerates just to get to the next story beat.

It'll be interesting to see how The Pillars of the Earth evolves over its next two episodes. As of right now, it's crafted a fascinating story full of great characters. It might not be a game for everyone as it deliberately chooses to take its time getting to the point. However, if you enjoy gripping dramas, and don't mind sitting still for a bit, The Pillars of the Earth will reward your patience with the beginning of what appears to be a fascinating tale.

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