Luigi’s Mansion 3 Review – Mario Is Missing

Luigi’s Mansion may directly trace its lineage to the Super Mario franchise, but the series is in many ways its complete antithesis. Whereas Mario’s adventures whisk players through vibrant worlds laden with pits, lava pools, and other platforming challenges to overcome, Luigi’s have been decidedly more methodical, trading the colorful backdrops of his brother’s titles for cobwebbed corridors, and emphasizing careful observation over quick reflex. Luigi’s Mansion 3 very much continues this tradition, but the tightly crafted set pieces developer Next Level Games has assembled here illustrate just how compelling this style of gameplay remains, and the new mechanics and freer structure make it perhaps the best installment in the series yet.

Once again, Mario’s cowardly brother finds himself unwittingly thrust into the role of hero when Mario, Princess Peach, and her entourage of Toad attendants are kidnapped shortly after the group checks into the ominously named Last Resort hotel. Luigi narrowly avoids this same fate by escaping down a laundry chute and landing in the hotel’s basement, where he soon reunites with eccentric paranormal researcher Professor E. Gadd and his trusty Poltergust–a modified vacuum cleaner that can suck up ghosts.

The Poltergust serves as the basis of Luigi’s entire range of actions in Luigi’s Mansion 3. Despite being a more adept jumper than his brother, Luigi doesn’t display any of his leaping prowess here; the lanky plumber’s feet are planted firmly to the floor throughout nearly the entire adventure. His primary means of interacting with the environment instead comes through the Poltergust’s numerous abilities. On top of being able to suck up debris and blow out air, the vacuum comes equipped with both the Strobulb and Dark-Light from Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon; the former releases a blinding flash of light that can stun ghosts and activate certain switches, while the latter reveals invisible objects and enemies.

Complementing these is a handful of satisfying new abilities. The Suction Shot fires a plunger that can attach to certain objects, allowing Luigi to swing or pull them, while the Burst releases a gust of air that knocks crowds of enemies back and lifts the plumber momentarily off the ground. The most vital addition to Luigi’s ghost-hunting repertoire, however, is the ability to slam ghosts. Latch onto a spectre with the Poltergust and you’ll charge up a meter that lets you bash them repeatedly on the floor, inflicting extra damage.

Not only do these new abilities feel like natural extensions of Luigi’s skill set, they inject a welcome bit of action to the gameplay. They also open up new approaches for taking on adversaries. In past games, ghost encounters typically amounted to first stunning them with your flashlight, then vacuuming them up. You’ll still rely primarily on the Strobulb to control crowds of enemies, but now you can slam one ghost into any others that are nearby, damaging multiple foes at once. Later encounters will force you to use the other skills at your disposal as well, making battles consistently enjoyable.

Outside of combat, the Poltergust’s most significant new feature is the ability to summon Gooigi–a gooey doppelganger of Luigi originally introduced in the 3DS remake of the first game. Gooigi’s role has been expanded here, opening up a new range of puzzles to overcome. The goopy clone retains the same abilities as Luigi, but his gelatinous body can slip through fences, grates, and even spike traps, allowing him to bypass seemingly insurmountable obstacles and discover hidden corners of the hotel. Moreover, certain enemies and objects will be much too large for Luigi to swing on his own, requiring the extra set of hands Gooigi provides, and a number of rooms feature pressure-sensitive tiles that one character will need to stand on while the other vacuums up whatever emerges.

Once you unlock Gooigi, you can play through almost the entire adventure cooperatively with another nearby player, and the game lends itself well to either co-op or solo play. Many of the puzzles you’ll encounter require Luigi and Gooigi to work in tandem, which makes exploring the hotel with a friend enjoyable. Solo players, meanwhile, can swap between Luigi and Gooigi by pressing the right thumbstick in, allowing you to quickly take control of either character as the situation demands. You’ll never encounter a scenario that cannot be overcome solo, although a handful of bosses and puzzles are clearly designed with a second player in mind. While these are still very much beatable on your own, they are a bit more cumbersome when you’re juggling control of both characters.

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Much like Dark Moon, Luigi’s Mansion 3 makes clever use of your small clutch of abilities. Every puzzle you encounter while exploring the Last Resort can be surmounted by observing your surroundings and employing some combination of these skills, although it certainly won’t seem that way for many. You’ll frequently come across puzzles that offer no obvious solution, which makes finally sussing out the answer all the more satisfying. The game rarely reuses ideas as well, so each challenge you face feels fresh.

On top of that, the hotel houses a wealth of collectibles to find. Coins, pearls, bars of gold, and other valuables are copiously tucked away in treasure chests, drawers, toilets, and any other compartment you can imagine, encouraging you to poke around. Most enticing, however, are the six unique gems on each floor. Many of these are deviously hidden, and you’ll need to study your surroundings carefully to figure out how to uncover them. Even the gems that are in plain sight will often require an outside-the-box solution before you can actually collect them, which makes taking the time to explore every nook and cranny of the building constantly rewarding.

Each floor of the Last Resort acts as its own self-contained level and adheres to a different theme, running the gamut from typical hotel amenities like restaurants and gift shops to more outlandish lodgings such as medieval castles and ancient Egyptian pyramids. Despite these disparate themes, the floors all feel of a piece, and the variety keeps the adventure pleasantly surprising throughout. Gaining access to a new floor is always a delight because you never quite know what to expect when the elevator door opens. Moreover, the game eschews the mission-based nature of Dark Moon in favor of a much looser structure. Barring a few instances, most of which occur early on in the adventure, Luigi won’t be recalled to E. Gadd’s lab after completing objectives, allowing you to explore the hotel at your leisure.

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When you first begin your quest, however, you’ll only have access to the basement and main lobby; to reach the rest of the hotel, you’ll need to track down elevator buttons to the other floors, and these are typically in the possession of a boss ghost. These boss encounters are another highlight; each one has a distinct personality that’s charmingly conveyed through their animations, and you’ll come across all manner of characters, from a film director melodramatically mourning the loss of his beloved director’s cone to a skittish security guard who is just as startle-prone as Luigi. These personalities help elevate the bosses above the rather forgettable ones from Dark Moon, and each battle makes use of Luigi’s skill set in clever ways.

The controls, however, will occasionally get in your way. To shine the Dark-Light, you need to hold the X button, which means you can’t move the right analog stick to adjust your aim while using that ability. The game compensates for this by letting you aim using motion controls, but it isn’t a proper replacement for dual analog; you’re limited to aiming up and down, making it an inelegant solution. The Suction Shot suffers from a similar issue; you’ll often need to hold the button down to line up your shots, making it likewise difficult to aim, particularly during high-pressure situations. None of these issues are severe enough to detract significantly from the game, but they are an occasional annoyance.

Rounding out the package are two dedicated multiplayer modes: ScareScraper and ScreamPark. The former plays out much as it did in Dark Moon, challenging up to eight players–either locally or online–to complete successive floors of a tower within a strict time limit. Each floor has a specific objective, such as defeating every ghost or collecting a certain amount of money, and you’ll need to work together to clear the challenges. ScreamPark, meanwhile, is a local-only party mode in which two teams compete against each other in mini-games. There are three different mini-games to choose from; one has teams vying to suck up the most ghosts within the time limit, while another has them floating around a pool, collecting coins while avoiding mines. Both modes can be fun diversions, particularly ScareScraper, which straddles the line between competitive and cooperative. As they stand, however, they’re comparatively shallow and lack the same appeal as the main game.

But while the multiplayer modes may not hold your attention for long, the strength of the Luigi’s Mansion series has always stemmed from the satisfaction of exploring its carefully constructed settings, and in that regard Luigi’s Mansion 3 certainly succeeds. The game may not radically diverge from the series’ formula, but it offers up another meticulously crafted set of challenges to overcome while smoothing out some of the issues that held Dark Moon back, and the sense of accomplishment you feel when you clear a particularly head-scratching obstacle is just as potent now as the first time Luigi unwillingly strapped a vacuum to his back and stepped into a haunted mansion.

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Afterparty Review – Hell Is Other People

Afterparty‘s version of hell is less fire and brimstone and more cocktails and ennui. Sure, its human inhabitants are still damned for eternity and demons still flagellate them for their sins, but that’s just the nine-to-five. To escape the drudgery of everlasting torment, demons and humans alike flock to bars and other seedy hangouts between the days’ torture. It isn’t the flashiest take on the afterlife, but that’s kind of the point. Afterparty revels in the small, personal acts of cruelty and kindness that define us, and while the ways it imparts lessons aren’t always up to task with the material, it nonetheless treads exciting ground as a story about the work it takes to be a better person.

Developed by Oxenfree creators Night School Studio, Afterparty follows Milo and Lola, a pair of recent college grads who’ve just found out they face eternal damnation. After some quick onboarding on how they’re to be tortured for the rest of eternity, the pair get a break when their turn in line comes just as the workday ends, giving them a night’s reprieve. They then learn there’s a way out of their predicament: If they can outparty The Prince of Darkness himself, they can return to the world of the living.

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Mechanically, Afterparty keeps things simple. As you walk across rich and detailed 3D backgrounds along a 2D plane, most of your interactions involve talking to the right person at the right time. This puts the spotlight on Afterparty’s strongest asset: incredibly verisimilar conversations. The dialogue is lifelike in a way you don’t find in most games; characters restart their sentences, which often have a fantastically ad-libbed quality to them; the main voice cast features whip-smart performances from Janina Gavankar, Khoi Dao, Ashly Burch, and Dave Fennoy, who all sell their cartoonish characters’ maladjustments without making them overbearing.

Afterparty touches on several topics, including the layout, structure, and the underpinnings of its underworld, which pull heavily from the Bible and Paradise Lost. It makes easy connections between businesspeople and demons, or social media platforms and hellscapes, though the comparisons are all coated in a thick veneer of simmering snark and clever turns of phrases that make the comparisons fun, even if they’re not the most imaginative ones.

Afterparty is most at home and most cutting when it delves into more intimate topics. Sister May Wormhorn, a personal demon created to harass Milo and Lola as they try to get the approvals necessary to outparty Satan, torments the pair by sifting through their rougher memories. These end up being not one-off, traumatic events, but rather the kinds of smaller slights and moments that bring out their various hangups: Lola’s ostracization from her family due to not only her complex family situation, but her skepticism in the face of her sisters’ faith; Milo’s demanding parents and search for an identity as the child of an immigrant family. These points come through in ways that are direct, but not didactic, and they make for some of the game’s strongest moments.

The aloof but clear sense of resignation that permeates throughout hell’s inhabitants also sells Afterparty’s vision of the underworld not as a prison for the world’s most violent criminals, but as the banal hangout spot for those who simply failed to do enough good. In an early exchange, Milo asks Satan what he and Lola could have done to deserve eternal damnation. Satan cuts back with a pithy anecdote about a man who will ask him the same question 50 years from now, after having set out a dress for his girlfriend knowing it would be too revealing to keep her warm in a movie theater. “The real question, Milo, is, what did you do to deserve anything else?” The way Afterparty imparts this lesson both explicitly, in the moral quandaries its explores in its characters, and in its vibrant-but-benumbing clubs, parks, and sights, makes for a powerful atmosphere.

Not every beat lands, however. The main plot, the one about trying to drink Satan under the table, ends in somewhat anticlimactic fashion, and the threads leading up to that finale are underwhelming. That’s in part a result of how the quandaries its characters tackle don’t have solid, definable solutions that could make for a more exciting conclusion. But it’s also because the overarching plot acts as more of a vehicle for characters to vent their frustrations with the world, the underworld, and each other than a real compelling story on its own. The snarky tone also keeps things from getting too dark, and while I appreciated the lighthearted approach, there were times I wish it would have delved into the darker, riskier territory a game set in hell might invite.

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Most of Afterparty has you simply taking in and reacting to conversations, but the ways you interact with those conversations break immersion more often than they deepen it. You interact with conversations largely by deciding when to butt in and when to say nothing. You have a limited but generous timer on how long you can respond to something before it’s no longer an appropriate response, though I did find a few spots where dialogue would skip inadvertently. The conversation choices are fairly limited, and in the instances where I was able to play through a section of dialogue a second time through, my choices didn’t actually alter the plot all that much, which made the conversation more interactive as a way to keep the game from being one long monologue than anything else.

As you hash out the various problems of demons and humans alike, you’re going to want to drink. Imbibing one of the underworldly cocktails you find at bars unlocks new dialogue options; chugging a Blue Devil (potato vodka, cigarette butts, the wailing of injured children, and a melted antoninianus coin) will make you more of a rich jerk, while a Grand Exhibitionist (bourbon, mint, sugar, and a frog’s vocal sac) will make you more of a “witty vaudevillian.” Many of these are for kicks (you can sound like a pirate while making a point if you really want), but often, you’ll need them if you want to branch a conversation a different way or build up the courage to perform certain actions to progress.

Afterparty is most at home and most cutting when it delves into more intimate topics.

It’s a neat hook that ties into the themes of the story, but it lacks depth as a central conceit. You get a flourish here and there as you affect different octaves or do impressions as you try to get two lovers to get back together, but none of the branches I went down seemed particularly influenced by my drink of choice. On a couple of occasions the game slyly hints that you should replay it to see different effects for all of your choices, but never really earns it. It highlights the larger choices you make, such as whether you turn in one of two suspects who may be a human sneaking into hell for the fun of it, in review sessions with Wormhorn (who belittles you regardless of what you pick). But aside from one major choice, I wasn’t too compelled to see other ways situations could have happened.

Beyond that, Afterparty is fairly straightforward; its puzzles are barebones (the most complicated one involved talking someone into giving me their trenchcoat so Milo and Lola could sneak into a club), and most of the drinking and club mini-games that pop up when it’s time to earn a demon’s approval are disappointing. That Afterparty keeps its interactions light is mostly to its benefit, but when it tries for something else, it doesn’t offer the kinds of powerful moments that come from a game’s mechanics and story working together to drive home a point.

Thankfully, Afterparty sticks mostly to unpacking its characters, world, moral quandaries, and how we may not always see those quandaries for how they define us. When it hits those strides, it’s a novel look at what hell might look like for most of us, a vision that turns the concept of eternal damnation into something more palpable and threatening. It fumbles when it reaches outside its comfort zone, and the focus on small moments means it lacks the grandiose ones that make our lives feel more meaningful than they might otherwise be. But again, that’s kind of the point: After all, what did we do to deserve anything else?

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Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare Review In Progress – Horrors Of War

The Modern Warfare series has always been about the messiness of modern war–the fundamentally different rules of engagement that come with a battle that has no set battlefield. When the fight could be anywhere at any time, where do you draw the line between doing what’s right and doing what has to be done?

Throughout Call of Duty: Modern Warfare‘s campaign, that line is chemical weapons. It’s a safe line to draw; people are largely in agreement that chemical weapons are beyond horrific. But there are other horrors of war, some of which Modern Warfare depicts, starkly, in strong but uncomfortable missions. Just when it could really make a point about any other aspect of modern war, it pulls back. Modern Warfare makes old observations and presents them with new flourishes. Those new flourishes do make for a good campaign and solid multiplayer. But it’s when Modern Warfare asks you to think harder that it falls short.

Campaign

In one of the game’s most distressing levels, you play Farah, a young girl in a fictional war-torn Middle Eastern country as she hides from both a Russian terrorist and the deadly gas his cohorts have unleashed on her town. To escape, you have to kill a man twice your size with his own gun. It’s a deeply uncomfortable experience. But the flashback serves to illustrate why Farah, now the leader of a group of freedom fighters, refuses to use chemical weapons or associate with anyone who does. It is a hard line she won’t cross, even though she’s had to face a lot of ugliness in the course of defending her country.

In many ways, Farah is Modern Warfare’s moral compass. There are a few key players in Modern Warfare’s proxy war, and everyone you play as–Sgt. Kyle Garrick from the UK, rogue American soldier Alex “Echo 3-1,” and sometimes Farah herself–abides by her one rule. Outside of that, though, the rules are much murkier. In getting pulled into a war between the Russian terrorists, a separatist group from Farah’s country, and the freedom fighters, US and UK military personnel disagree on how best to proceed with the situation–matters of disobeying orders, sacrificing some lives to save others, taking civilian hostages, and even torture. And on these matters, the moral compass is Captain Price.

A returning face from the original Modern Warfare and undeniably a problematic fave, Captain Price is the seasoned badass who takes the lead in most Garrick missions. Early levels with Price are among the best. As a rash and impatient Garrick, you follow Price’s directions in order to save as many people as possible from terrorists–though more than once that means watching as innocent people die while you wait to make the best possible move.

These missions range from large-scale, high-octane firefights to a carefully planned raid on a terrorist hideout with less than a dozen enemies total. You direct a woman through an embassy under siege using security cameras to make sure her path is clear. You quietly search a compound for an enemy using night vision goggles as Price watches overhead, shooting out lights to keep you hidden. Price guides you through the different approaches you need for each mission, and his mentorship–both in the mechanical skills you need to be successful and the hard choices you have to make along the way–makes these missions memorable.

While Alex’s missions don’t stick out quite as much in a gameplay sense, he gets a sniping level reminiscent of the original Modern Warfare’s “All Ghillied Up”–though with more enemies–and otherwise a few cool gadgets. His dynamic with Farah is strong, though. He follows Farah’s lead on her turf and on her terms because he believes in the cause, and they share mutual respect.

It’s disappointing, though, that Farah doesn’t play more of a role. While she is a key part of Alex’s missions and the driving force behind much of the story, you only play as her a few times. On top of the childhood flashback, there is an even more disturbing flashback later on in which you see the full extent of Farah’s resolve. Experiencing her suffering this way borders on unnecessary, as it’s already established in Alex’s missions that she’s a respected leader and a strong-willed person in general. While I liked Alex, I would have rather just played as Farah in those missions than get to know her character largely through her trauma.

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I already liked and respected Farah without that context, and despite some questionable decisions, I liked each of the main characters and their small but crucial differences in working toward the same goals. Farah and Alex are principled, whereas Garrick and Price are results-driven. Alex goes so far as to disobey orders in favor of doing what’s right, and when he’s told that would be illegal, he responds, “I’m pretty sure everything we do is illegal.” To Alex, it’s a criticism; to Price and Garrick, it’s an excuse.

That tension builds up over the course of the campaign, and because the characters are likable, it’s easy to at least consider each one’s view of what’s right. But in the end, all you get is a vague “we all did what we had to do” sentiment rather than anything more substantial or interesting. Quite a bit of what you had to do–as Garrick, as Alex, and as Farah–was unpleasant or distressing, but the questions raised by your actions aren’t interrogated further, especially the questionable side of Price’s approach. Modern Warfare’s ending isn’t bad, but it is a safe one, leaving you to think on the harder questions yourself.

If anything, Modern Warfare lets Farah down with the bizarre and much-discussed inclusion of white phosphorus as a killstreak in multiplayer. Given how strong the campaign’s emphasis is on chemical weapons being a reprehensible war crime, it’s tone-deaf to include one in multiplayer, even though one could argue–much like Alex does–that pretty much all of it is illegal at the end of the day.

Multiplayer

Outside of any thematic contradictions, Modern Warfare’s multiplayer is up to par, with a variety of game types for different kinds of players. Across all the modes, maps move away from the obvious three-lane structure in favor of nooks, crannies, and tons of cover; there’s generally a balance of close-quarters and long-range approaches. The standard, highly customizable toolkit for your chosen loadouts returns, with a good selection of perks to suit different game types and playstyles. Modern Warfare largely stays within the strong foundations of Call of Duty multiplayer without pushing them much, with the exception of the excellent Realism mode.

Undeniably the highlight of Modern Warfare’s multiplayer, Realism mode is somewhere between the familiar Core and Hardcore modes, bridging the gulf between them. Oddly enough, in a mode called “Realism,” you can take more damage than in Hardcore, and your health regenerates like it does in Core. But Realism removes the HUD entirely, going beyond Hardcore to strip out the kill feed on top of everything else. In order to confirm a kill, you have to listen for the sound effect that plays upon death, and you also have to listen for NPCs over the comms alerting you to available killstreaks and enemy intel. It’s a fantastic balance for those who want more of a chance to survive a scrap, rather than dying in one or two shots like in Hardcore, but with the rest of the challenge intact. It’s a smart, satisfying evolution, and as a stubborn Hardcore-only player, it’s one I could see myself playing exclusively going forward.

While none of the new game types are earth-shattering, some are better additions than others. TDM 20, a 10v10 version of the classic 6v6 Team Deathmatch mode, is the least inventive or warranted of them, instead functioning as a more bloated version of regular TDM with bigger maps that can make getting back into the action an overly long process. One of the two maps I’ve tried, Euphrates Bridge, also suffers from balance problems on top of that; of the two spawns, one is much closer to the bridge dividing the map, and the closer side was almost guaranteed victory in every match I played. My team once managed to flip the spawn mid-match after struggling against snipers on the bridge for a while, and from there we were able to gain the lead relatively easily.

Gunfight is the antithesis of TDM 20. It’s a one-life, 2v2 mode in which your loadout rotates each round, and the goal is to kill your two opponents with the means available to you before they get you first. Gunfight features small maps with two main routes on each, and quick coordination with your partner–a “you go left, I’ll go right” at the beginning, plus callouts over voice chat if things go haywire–can make or break the fight. With a relatively level playing field, battles are often exhilaratingly close, and it’s hard to get discouraged by a loss since rounds go by so quickly. There’s also a version where you start without any weapons and have to find a gun in the map, which is a fun scramble before the frenzy of Gunfight itself. Either way, the more arcadey bent to Gunfight keeps things light and makes both versions a great addition to the multiplayer suite, if not a huge draw.

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Ground War is somewhere in the middle. Maps are sprawling, with five control points to capture and one safe zone for each team on either end. Unlike in TDM 20, you can pretty easily get back to the fight after dying by respawning at any capture point your team owns, or on vehicles or your teammates (provided they’re not actively in a fight). Having objective points is also helpful for keeping such a large game type–it supports 64 players currently–more structured than the free-for-all of TDM. That said, matches can drag on a bit too long, as there isn’t anything to break up the constant tug-of-war for capture points.

There’s also a night vision mode, NVG, for a different take on the same maps, and by its nature it makes things a bit more tense. It pretty much plays the same as the other game types, but you don’t aim down sights in night vision–you have a laser, and that laser is easy to spot. You have to be extra cautious when lining up your shots, paying close attention to sightlines and who might see where your beam is coming from. Like in the campaign, the threatening glow of these beams cutting through the darkness looks excellent, and the slight change of pace NVG affords is enough to keep it interesting and distinct from the daytime modes. Editor’s note: As of October 24, Infinity Ward has removed NVG maps from the rotation and has said it will add them in at a later time. Stay tuned for updates.

Spec Ops

As of this writing, Spec Ops is the mode I’ve had the least experience with, though it’s not one I particularly want to play much more of. On paper, it’s a co-op mode where you and a team complete a set of objectives and are rewarded with some story. You can choose one of several roles at the onset, each with its own ultimate ability–there’s a medic, for instance, that can revive fallen teammates–and as a group, you have to work together to overcome enemies while gaining intel, heading to specific objective points, and so on.

In practice, my team of four could barely complete a handful of the objectives on both of the missions we attempted. This was largely due to frustrating enemy spawning–enemies seem to generate endlessly from all directions, and it’s all too easy to get overwhelmed by them. To add insult to injury, there are also no clear waves. It’s just enemies, from everywhere, at all times. After struggling to fight them off, reviving each other was we each inevitably died, we would end up running out of ammo and dying for good.

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We tried a few different approaches on each of the two missions to try to figure it out. Splitting up was a disaster; stealth seemed to have no impact whatsoever on the number of enemies; different loadouts with PvE-friendly perks helped marginally. No matter what we did, it didn’t help our understanding of the mode itself. It’s just frustratingly, inexplicably hard. That said, I will be trying it again in the coming days to see if there was anything we were missing, and I also have to play the PS4-exclusive Survival mode as well as Spec Ops’ Classic mode.

But the pitfalls of Spec Ops don’t detract from what Modern Warfare does well. Realism mode is an excellent addition to the slate, and although not all the new multiplayer modes are great, Gunfight and the Night Vision playlist are refreshing standouts. And while the campaign ends up playing it safe in the end, it’s still a memorable one, and it lays a strong foundation for where the Modern Warfare series could go from here.

Editor’s note: This review, including the score, will be finalized once we’ve tested multiplayer on live servers and played more Spec Ops.

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Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare Review In Progress – Pay The Price

The Modern Warfare series has always been about the messiness of modern war–the fundamentally different rules of engagement that come with a battle that has no set battlefield. When the fight could be anywhere at any time, where do you draw the line between doing what’s right and doing what has to be done?

Throughout Call of Duty: Modern Warfare‘s campaign, that line is chemical weapons. It’s a safe line to draw; people are largely in agreement that chemical weapons are beyond horrific. But there are other horrors of war, some of which Modern Warfare depicts, starkly, in strong but uncomfortable missions. Just when it could really make a point about any other aspect of modern war, it pulls back. Modern Warfare makes old observations and presents them with new flourishes. Those new flourishes do make for a good campaign and solid multiplayer. But it’s when Modern Warfare asks you to think harder that it falls short.

Campaign

In one of the game’s most distressing levels, you play Farah, a young girl in a fictional war-torn Middle Eastern country as she hides from both a Russian terrorist and the deadly gas his cohorts have unleashed on her town. To escape, you have to kill a man twice your size with his own gun. It’s a deeply uncomfortable experience. But the flashback serves to illustrate why Farah, now the leader of a group of freedom fighters, refuses to use chemical weapons or associate with anyone who does. It is a hard line she won’t cross, even though she’s had to face a lot of ugliness in the course of defending her country.

In many ways, Farah is Modern Warfare’s moral compass. There are a few key players in Modern Warfare’s proxy war, and everyone you play as–Sgt. Kyle Garrick from the UK, rogue American soldier Alex “Echo 3-1,” and sometimes Farah herself–abides by her one rule. Outside of that, though, the rules are much murkier. In getting pulled into a war between the Russian terrorists, a separatist group from Farah’s country, and the freedom fighters, US and UK military personnel disagree on how best to proceed with the situation–matters of disobeying orders, sacrificing some lives to save others, taking civilian hostages, and even torture. And on these matters, the moral compass is Captain Price.

A returning face from the original Modern Warfare and undeniably a problematic fave, Captain Price is the seasoned badass who takes the lead in most Garrick missions. Early levels with Price are among the best. As a rash and impatient Garrick, you follow Price’s directions in order to save as many people as possible from terrorists–though more than once that means watching as innocent people die while you wait to make the best possible move.

These missions range from large-scale, high-octane firefights to a carefully planned raid on a terrorist hideout with less than a dozen enemies total. You direct a woman through an embassy under siege using security cameras to make sure her path is clear. You quietly search a compound for an enemy using night vision goggles as Price watches overhead, shooting out lights to keep you hidden. Price guides you through the different approaches you need for each mission, and his mentorship–both in the mechanical skills you need to be successful and the hard choices you have to make along the way–makes these missions memorable.

While Alex’s missions don’t stick out quite as much in a gameplay sense, he gets a sniping level reminiscent of the original Modern Warfare’s “All Ghillied Up”–though with more enemies–and otherwise a few cool gadgets. His dynamic with Farah is strong, though. He follows Farah’s lead on her turf and on her terms because he believes in the cause, and they share mutual respect.

It’s disappointing, though, that Farah doesn’t play more of a role. While she is a key part of Alex’s missions and the driving force behind much of the story, you only play as her a few times. On top of the childhood flashback, there is an even more disturbing flashback later on in which you see the full extent of Farah’s resolve. Experiencing her suffering this way borders on unnecessary, as it’s already established in Alex’s missions that she’s a respected leader and a strong-willed person in general. While I liked Alex, I would have rather just played as Farah in those missions than get to know her character largely through her trauma.

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I already liked and respected Farah without that context, and despite some questionable decisions, I liked each of the main characters and their small but crucial differences in working toward the same goals. Farah and Alex are principled, whereas Garrick and Price are results-driven. Alex goes so far as to disobey orders in favor of doing what’s right, and when he’s told that would be illegal, he responds, “I’m pretty sure everything we do is illegal.” To Alex, it’s a criticism; to Price and Garrick, it’s an excuse.

That tension builds up over the course of the campaign, and because the characters are likable, it’s easy to at least consider each one’s view of what’s right. But in the end, all you get is a vague “we all did what we had to do” sentiment rather than anything more substantial or interesting. Quite a bit of what you had to do–as Garrick, as Alex, and as Farah–was unpleasant or distressing, but the questions raised by your actions aren’t interrogated further, especially the questionable side of Price’s approach. Modern Warfare’s ending isn’t bad, but it is a safe one, leaving you to think on the harder questions yourself.

If anything, Modern Warfare lets Farah down with the bizarre and much-discussed inclusion of white phosphorus as a killstreak in multiplayer. Given how strong the campaign’s emphasis is on chemical weapons being a reprehensible war crime, it’s tone-deaf to include one in multiplayer, even though one could argue–much like Alex does–that pretty much all of it is illegal at the end of the day.

Multiplayer

Outside of any thematic contradictions, Modern Warfare’s multiplayer is up to par, with a variety of game types for different kinds of players. Across all the modes, maps move away from the obvious three-lane structure in favor of nooks, crannies, and tons of cover; there’s generally a balance of close-quarters and long-range approaches. The standard, highly customizable toolkit for your chosen loadouts returns, with a good selection of perks to suit different game types and playstyles. Modern Warfare largely stays within the strong foundations of Call of Duty multiplayer without pushing them much, with the exception of the excellent Realism mode.

Undeniably the highlight of Modern Warfare’s multiplayer, Realism mode is somewhere between the familiar Core and Hardcore modes, bridging the gulf between them. Oddly enough, in a mode called “Realism,” you can take more damage than in Hardcore, and your health regenerates like it does in Core. But Realism removes the HUD entirely, going beyond Hardcore to strip out the kill feed on top of everything else. In order to confirm a kill, you have to listen for the sound effect that plays upon death, and you also have to listen for NPCs over the comms alerting you to available killstreaks and enemy intel. It’s a fantastic balance for those who want more of a chance to survive a scrap, rather than dying in one or two shots like in Hardcore, but with the rest of the challenge intact. It’s a smart, satisfying evolution, and as a stubborn Hardcore-only player, it’s one I could see myself playing exclusively going forward.

While none of the new game types are earth-shattering, some are better additions than others. TDM 20, a 10v10 version of the classic 6v6 Team Deathmatch mode, is the least inventive or warranted of them, instead functioning as a more bloated version of regular TDM with bigger maps that can make getting back into the action an overly long process. One of the two maps I’ve tried, Euphrates Bridge, also suffers from balance problems on top of that; of the two spawns, one is much closer to the bridge dividing the map, and the closer side was almost guaranteed victory in every match I played. My team once managed to flip the spawn mid-match after struggling against snipers on the bridge for a while, and from there we were able to gain the lead relatively easily.

Gunfight is the antithesis of TDM 20. It’s a one-life, 2v2 mode in which your loadout rotates each round, and the goal is to kill your two opponents with the means available to you before they get you first. Gunfight features small maps with two main routes on each, and quick coordination with your partner–a “you go left, I’ll go right” at the beginning, plus callouts over voice chat if things go haywire–can make or break the fight. With a relatively level playing field, battles are often exhilaratingly close, and it’s hard to get discouraged by a loss since rounds go by so quickly. There’s also a version where you start without any weapons and have to find a gun in the map, which is a fun scramble before the frenzy of Gunfight itself. Either way, the more arcadey bent to Gunfight keeps things light and makes both versions a great addition to the multiplayer suite, if not a huge draw.

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Ground War is somewhere in the middle. Maps are sprawling, with five control points to capture and one safe zone for each team on either end. Unlike in TDM 20, you can pretty easily get back to the fight after dying by respawning at any capture point your team owns, or on vehicles or your teammates (provided they’re not actively in a fight). Having objective points is also helpful for keeping such a large game type–it supports 64 players currently–more structured than the free-for-all of TDM. That said, matches can drag on a bit too long, as there isn’t anything to break up the constant tug-of-war for capture points.

There’s also a night vision mode, NVG, for a different take on the same maps, and by its nature it makes things a bit more tense. It pretty much plays the same as the other game types, but you don’t aim down sights in night vision–you have a laser, and that laser is easy to spot. You have to be extra cautious when lining up your shots, paying close attention to sightlines and who might see where your beam is coming from. Like in the campaign, the threatening glow of these beams cutting through the darkness looks excellent, and the slight change of pace NVG affords is enough to keep it interesting and distinct from the daytime modes. Editor’s note: As of October 24, Infinity Ward has removed NVG maps from the rotation and has said it will add them in at a later time. Stay tuned for updates.

Spec Ops

As of this writing, Spec Ops is the mode I’ve had the least experience with, though it’s not one I particularly want to play much more of. On paper, it’s a co-op mode where you and a team complete a set of objectives and are rewarded with some story. You can choose one of several roles at the onset, each with its own ultimate ability–there’s a medic, for instance, that can revive fallen teammates–and as a group, you have to work together to overcome enemies while gaining intel, heading to specific objective points, and so on.

In practice, my team of four could barely complete a handful of the objectives on both of the missions we attempted. This was largely due to frustrating enemy spawning–enemies seem to generate endlessly from all directions, and it’s all too easy to get overwhelmed by them. To add insult to injury, there are also no clear waves. It’s just enemies, from everywhere, at all times. After struggling to fight them off, reviving each other was we each inevitably died, we would end up running out of ammo and dying for good.

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We tried a few different approaches on each of the two missions to try to figure it out. Splitting up was a disaster; stealth seemed to have no impact whatsoever on the number of enemies; different loadouts with PvE-friendly perks helped marginally. No matter what we did, it didn’t help our understanding of the mode itself. It’s just frustratingly, inexplicably hard. That said, I will be trying it again in the coming days to see if there was anything we were missing, and I also have to play the PS4-exclusive Survival mode as well as Spec Ops’ Classic mode.

But the pitfalls of Spec Ops don’t detract from what Modern Warfare does well. Realism mode is an excellent addition to the slate, and although not all the new multiplayer modes are great, Gunfight and the Night Vision playlist are refreshing standouts. And while the campaign ends up playing it safe in the end, it’s still a memorable one, and it lays a strong foundation for where the Modern Warfare series could go from here.

Editor’s note: This review, including the score, will be finalized once we’ve tested multiplayer on live servers and played more Spec Ops.

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The Outer Worlds Review – This Is My Space Jam

The Outer Worlds plays just like a Fallout game. That’s a pretty tepid description and an obvious comparison. It’s easy to take one look at the game, which strongly echoes the mechanical form of the Bethesda RPGs, and think you know what to expect. The developer, Obsidian Entertainment, was responsible for the cult-favorite Fallout: New Vegas after all. But The Outer Worlds doesn’t just play like a Fallout game. It is, surprisingly, the best possible version of a Fallout game–a potent distillation of what made that series so beloved in the first place.

The Outer Worlds adopts the most compelling innovations of modern Fallout games, emphasising immersive exploration and impactful, action-oriented combat in a game engine (Unreal Engine) that actually makes those things feel good by contemporary standards. It shares Fallout’s satirical but incredibly bleak look at the future, but is free of its tired tropes. Critically, The Outer Worlds exhibits the same depth of soul as the early Interplay and Black Isle Fallout games (as well as other games in the ’90s PC RPG genre) with a genuinely complex, interconnected narrative web of relationships and events that feel like they can change in a seemingly infinite number of ways based on the character you want to be, the variety of choices you can make, and the actions you take.

Given the studio and the key people responsible (original Fallout creators Tim Cain and Leonard Boyarsky), that last trait isn’t surprising. But it’s not the only element that makes The Outer Worlds an excellent space Western adventure–that’s just the incredibly sound foundation that elevates the game’s great world-building, wonderful characters, and multi-layered quest design, on top of punchy combat and consistently sharp writing.

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In The Outer Worlds, you are just one of the thousands of people left in hibernation on an abandoned colony ship, when a scientist of possibly ill repute frees you and enlists your help in saving the rest of your frozen peers. After a rigorous character creation process–involving a slew of variable attributes, perks, and aesthetic customization–you crash-land on a planet, alone, and from there, how you make your mark on the Halcyon system is up to you.

The crux of this sci-fi setup is that, among other things, the Halcyon system is owned and run entirely by a board of corporations, and their presence is a big deal. Whole planets are owned by corps looking to use their ecosystems as part of a larger supply chain, and numerous vending machines from different companies populate towns, trying to attract you with their bright logos and jingles. In fact, The Outer Worlds is saturated with strikingly colourful locales; the planets you’ll visit are impressively varied and sometimes beautiful, flaunting an H.G. Wells-like retro-futuristic aesthetic, the antithesis of grimdark cyberpunk.

On the first impression, corporations appear as a mostly aesthetic layer folded into the world. A number of the companies mentioned seem to mostly just exist as manufacturers of weapons and consumables–a piece of flair to keep the tone light in the same way that the Circus of Values exists in BioShock, but it’s far more ingrained than that. Corporate capitalism so deeply affects everything in The Outer Worlds, and explorations into how it can affect society on a variety of levels is a surprisingly well-considered constant, despite the semblance of parody. You’ll meet sympathetic workers whose livelihoods are only made possible by offering themselves to exploitation and indentured servitude, white-collared outlaws who are more bureaucrats than pirates, and well-meaning middle-managers who are trying to change the corporate machine from the inside. You’ll find moderates, idealists, extremists, and most things in between and around the fringes, all of which have their own feasible ideas about how to best serve the colony or themselves. By the time the climax hits, it’s clear that The Outer Worlds has its own stance on this bleak future, but that doesn’t stop the world it creates, the sojourns you take, and characters you meet along the way from being any less fascinating.

There are plenty of characters in The Outer Worlds who I didn’t like. Reed Tobson, for example, is a snivelling factory chief in the early hours of the game who I didn’t have to think twice about undermining, and Felix, one of your potential companion characters, had such an annoyingly naive personality I avoided talking to him as much as possible. The Outer Worlds allows you to kill any character in the game (bar one), and the world will reshape and move on without them, but there’s something to be said for game’s depiction of its unappealing people, whose portrayal I admired despite my distaste. You’ll talk to a lot of people in The Outer Worlds. How much you do is up to you–you’re allowed to cut straight to get to the point or dive deeper–but chatting to the game’s entire supporting cast of non-player characters is something that never gets tiring, even if you don’t care for them, purely because of how strong the game’s writing and vocal performances are.

I never felt like I had to endure stretches of pointless or overly dramatic exchanges, both because of how focussed and subtle the script seemed to be, as well as the variety of response options for my player character which kept conversations flowing in largely natural ways. Numerous considerations for the world state let conversations take into account things you may or may not already have done throughout your campaign; brief and subtle injections of worldbuilding and lore stop conversation from being too matter of fact without losing the game’s identity, and some exceptional low-key wit works very well in sparking a periodic laugh without humour feeling like a sticking point. Solid, consistent voice direction helps keep the tone firmly measured, meaning the hours you spend absorbing the world through its people are always engaging.

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Nowhere does the strength of the game’s characters shine more strongly than in your companions, however (except for Felix; that guy is a weenie). You have the option to recruit six predetermined characters to accompany and assist you in your adventures, though the game does have tools to bolster a lone wolf character too. But having companions along for the ride is a delight, and that’s, again, because of the strength of the character writing. Companions instantly feel like fleshed-out characters of their own accord, not like they simply exist to revolve around you. They’ll converse privately with each other and chime in on conversations you have with other characters in the world, acting as sounding boards during key moments. They can, in extreme situations, leave you of their own accord if they strongly disagree with a course of action. It’s all mechanically conditional, of course, but the illusion the game builds is so endearing–spending time with these folks feels just as valuable as your pursuing the overarching goal.

Companions have their own customisable skill trees, equipment loadouts, combat tactics, and special abilities you can command them to use, which, with their cinematic camera angles, inspired battle cries, and useful status effects, never become unsatisfying to initiate. The other major tool at your disposal in combat, provided your character’s weapon skills are high enough to use it, is Tactical Time Dilation (TTD)–a time-bending mechanic that slows the action to a crawl, allowing you to give yourself some breathing room in order to analyse enemies and take the time to execute precision attacks. Hitting certain locations on enemies will let you do things like cripple or maim them, or inflict weapon-specific effects like bleed damage or knocking them unconscious. Using TTD tactically to take out key targets and attempt to control the flow of battle makes it an entertaining and useful tool, but its availability is limited and not something you can rely on entirely until you get to meaningfully upgrade it much later in the game.

Despite having strong RPG foundations, the combat in The Outer Worlds is very much focussed on first-person action, incorporating things like parries, blocks, and dodges on top of an array of melee weapons and firearms. There’s a hectic and fast-paced fluidity to combat that feels very good, however. That’s aided by some enthusiastic sound design, which does most of the heavy lifting in giving all weapons some satisfying feedback. A range of “Science weapons” bring some creative diversity in your arsenal, and features guns that have unique, entertaining properties like shrinking enemies or turning them against each other.

The only problem with combat is that on the game’s recommended Regular difficulty, it eventually turns into a cakewalk. This is satisfying in a way, of course–all the points I pumped into maxing out my handgun skills, thus becoming best gunslinger in the galaxy, did actually make me feel utterly invincible. But, it also meant I didn’t feel pushed to explore the game’s slew of combat-adjacent mechanics nearly as deeply as I would have hoped. Things like elemental damage, equipment modding, companion synergies, and the special effects allowed by consumables (which, by the way, are incredibly difficult to parse in the game’s icon-heavy menu), could all be safely ignored. The Outer Worlds has a “flaws” system that lets you purposefully shoulder restrictive debuffs in certain situations in exchange for an extra perk point, but it’s completely optional and rarely worth the tradeoff. Jumping into the “Supernova” difficulty level in a subsequent playthrough changes all that, however–combat danger increases, your ability to save your game becomes restricted, and survival mechanics like hunger and thirst are introduced, making all of the game’s mechanical considerations feel far more vital. The game is more challenging and interesting because of it, but its demanding nature definitely makes it more of a second-run option.

Toe-to-toe combat is not the only solution to your problems. The Outer Worlds allows for a variety of avenues for alternative and passive solutions–stealth, hacking, and speech-related options are available throughout the game, provided you pass the skill checks. It’s nigh impossible to complete the game without getting into at least some combat, unfortunately, but to the game’s credit, virtually every quest in the game, big or small, features branching options in terms of their paths to success and how you deal with the big, final choices you have to make to resolve disputes, which are often deliciously grey. It’s at the level where you’ll always be considering the additional ways you could have achieved something, whether that be taking a different route, finding more information out in the world, or killing the quest giver and everyone else in the town.

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When you hit the end, the game runs through a whole slew of epilogues that describe how you resolved the game’s numerous major variables and what became of them, and being shown all your exploits after some 30 hours makes the whole journey and your unique path through it really feel quite meaningful. It’s difficult to know the full extent of just how many directions something can go, and the end result of many quests can likely only ever differ in a small handful of ways, but this perception of freedom and possibilities on your first run is inspiring.

I finished The Outer Worlds wanting more, eager to jump back into the world to see extra things. It’s not a short game, but it’s one packed with such a steady stream of wonderful characters to meet, interesting places to explore, and meaningful, multi-layered quests to solve, that it didn’t feel like there was any room to get tired of it. I wanted to rewind the clock and do everything in a completely different way. The Outer Worlds is consistently compelling throughout, and it’s a superb example of how to promote traditional RPG sensibilities in a sharp, modern experience.

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