Since it rebooted its Hitman franchise in 2016, IO Interactive has been putting on a level design masterclass. Each of the missions the developer rolled out in what it calls its World of Assassination series has contained a huge, intricate collection of scripted and free-form systems that create harrowing moments, presented elaborate puzzles to solve, and allowed the player to orchestrate ludicrous and often hilarious situations. Levels are designed to be played over and over so you can explore, understand, and eventually master all their moving parts, and it’s impossible to see everything one has to offer in a single playthrough (or in most cases, even two or three).
At first blush, Hitman 3 appears to be more of the same. It makes no drastic changes to the underlying formula, instead adding a few graphical upgrades and quality-of-life improvements to the existing Hitman framework. But Hitman 3 improves on the World of Assassination through consistently excellent level design–which is saying something, given how strong all the previous missions are. Hitman 3 is full of fun and fascinating ideas, many of which play with the concepts underpinning the last four years of Hitman levels.
Presumably knowing that players have spent all sorts of time mastering its many settings and systems, IO throws in some brilliant curve balls that require you to use your assassin skills and knowledge in clever, challenging new ways.
When people think of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, they’ll likely gravitate to either the comics from Bryan Lee O’Malley or the live-action film from Edgar Wright. However, one of the lesser-known strands of the Scott Pilgrim brand was the film’s licensed game tie-in. Like the film, it was not only a faithful adaptation of the comics’ tribute to geek culture and retro games, but it also happened to be a fun co-op brawler in its own right. After a sudden delisting from digital video game stores in 2014, the once-lost licensed game has scored a second life with the Complete Edition, and it hasn’t lost its exuberant style. The game’s passion for a bygone era can often be a bit overwhelming, yet it still offers a satisfying time brawling through the streets with friends.
Like its comic and film counterpart, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game sticks with the same video game-inspired conceit, but interprets it into an actual video game. After the titular character meets the girl of his dreams in Ramona Flowers, Scott and his bandmates Kim and Stephen, along with Ramona, have to fight a rogue’s gallery of evil exes seeking to disrupt the relationship. In the vein of a classic arcade brawler, the game keeps its story light to put all its energy into showing off the stunning 2D visuals of its side-scrolling beat-’em-up gameplay, which leans heavily into the splendor of the retro era.
The original game wore its inspirations–classic games like River City Ransom, Final Fight, and Final Fantasy–on its sleeve, and the Complete Edition keeps its aesthetic and core gameplay intact. What you get in this enhanced package is the full game, the four bonus modes involving zombies and dodgeball, and the extra DLC characters–which include Wallace Wells, Knives Chau, and hidden character Nega-Scott. The Complete Edition also comes with Network Mode for online play, which was a late addition in the final DLC for the original game.
Every aspect of Super Meat Boy Forever is frustrating in some way or another. It’s a runner, so you have to time your jumps and don’t have the liberty of setting yourself up perfectly before taking on a puzzle. And despite putting you on a treadmill, its levels demand incredible nuance and precision, which you’ll hone through failure after failure after failure. Super Meat Boy Forever will kick you in the teeth and expect you to stand back up, flash a bloody grin, and go after it again. And that’s exactly what happens. Though the jumps may be challenging, Forever’s incredibly precise controls give you all the tools you need to stick the landing. The runner format is different, but it opens the door for new and interesting types of complex puzzles that spawn new, captivating varieties of spectacular yell-and-throw-your-controller platforming.
Like in the real world, time has passed in the Meat Boy universe. Meat Boy and Bandage Girl, whom he saved in the original, have settled down and had a baby, Nugget. In Forever, Nugget is kidnapped, so Meat Boy and Bandage Girl go after her. (You can play as either one from the very beginning.) The story has no material effect on your gameplay, but the short cartoon cutscenes find ways to grab your attention all the same with a webtoony out-of-left-field story chock-full of references to video game canon, adorable woodland creatures, cuddly animals, and the adorable little Nugget, who often proves too adorable for even her captor to ignore.
The cutscenes are thus an entertaining reward for hard-earned progress. Following in the original Super Meat Boy’s footsteps, Forever lays out levels sprinkled with bottomless pits and buzzsaws that require quick thinking and quicker reflexes to escape. At the same time, it’s a very different game. Meat Boy or Bandage Girl constantly runs forward, and you simply control when they jump, slide, or punch. By necessity, the levels take on longer, more horizontally oriented shapes to accommodate the new system. Despite those changes, Forever still retains the essence of Super Meat Boy. Though automated movement theoretically seems like it would make the platforming less satisfying, since you aren’t in complete control, Forever’s challenge is just as captivating.
I was quite a young girl when I first got interested in video games. It was something of an awkward transition. At the time, games were largely considered “boy toys,” so moving from typical “girly” things like princess dolls and My Little Ponies into gaming was jarring at times, especially since not a lot of games catered to the cute, colorful things I’d been enjoying at playtime to that point. Sure, I loved the fantasy worlds of Mario and Sonic, but I also wished there was a fun gaming playspace for me that echoed the fluffy-cats-and-rainbow-unicorns aesthetic of my Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers.
Had my third-grade self seen Calico, an open-world animal cafe and social interaction game, she would have lost her mind. Calico embraces an aesthetic and theme that is shamelessly, unabashedly girly in the best ways–a world of happy magical girls living in pastel-colored lands with fluffy, cotton-candy trees where all kinds of lovable animals roam freely. But while Calico’s concept and visuals are a delight, the simplistic, bug-ridden gameplay dragged me kicking and screaming out of the childhood fantasy world I so wanted to exist in.
Calico starts off with your created player character inheriting a cat cafe in a faraway world where magic is very real and a part of everyday living. Your job is to fill your little cafe with animals, decorations, and cute kitty-themed pastries while exploring the world and helping your new friends with various errands. It’s a very laid-back, play-as-you-please experience in the vein of other life-sim games, but with an air of play and fairy magic baked in: You can buy potions with funny effects to use on yourself and your animal friends, like shrinking down to mini-size to cook, zooming around while riding on giant red pandas and bunnies, decorating your house with clouds, flowers, and cat paws, and collecting basically any animal in the game (that isn’t already someone else’s pet) to be a part of your cafe or your traveling posse.
Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond marks a return to the series’ historical roots as well as its first foray into virtual reality. It’s been a long time since we’ve stormed the beaches of Normandy or liberated Nazi-occupied France in a Medal of Honor game, but Above and Beyond strives to bring us back to that familiar WWII experience within the new technology. Being asked to answer the call of duty and return to the battlefield in a new Medal of Honor is an exciting prospect, but Above and Beyond is far too simple a shooter and far too restrictive to ever feel engaging like the series once was.
Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond’s campaign is composed of six major missions, each of which is broken into smaller sections, moving you from location to location as you make your way through the story. Each moment of gameplay has you moving through a small area and using a variety of WWII weaponry to take out Nazis. These moments can feature you walking around on foot or, at times, in the back of a vehicle.
Some of the action sequences can be a little too intense, including a sequence where my character was in the back of a moving truck and shooting enemies in the opposite direction, which made me especially motion sick. That said, Above and Beyond offers some great comfort options to help alleviate motion sickness. These include settings that let you tweak turning increments, turn on tunnel vision when sprinting, or even let you skip more intense action sequences entirely and continue through the story. These were enough to alleviate my own issues with motion sickness and made it possible for me to make it through every section without skipping through them. Starting up a new VR game without knowing how your mind and body will react to its movement can be intimidating, but Above and Beyond’s options help mitigate discomfort you may experience throughout its duration.