The Order: 1886 (PS4) Review

The Order: 1886 (PS4) Review

The Industrial Age Knights Of The Round

Ready At Dawn may not have great storytellers, but it’s clear that their technical team is one of the best in the business, easily standing shoulder to shoulder with Naughty Dog or Sony Santa Monica. The Order is, bar none, the single best looking game of this console generation so far. Nothing else on the PS4 or Xbox One is as absurdly good looking as this game. It’s the first game to successfully achieve the dream of in-game graphics finally looking like pre-rendered cut scenes. Framerates rarely stutter, anti-aliasing is astonishing, and the light is simply the best it’s ever been on a console to date. High dynamic range lighting is in full effect, with light refraction accurately rendered even on humble tile floors. There’s a price to pay for all this visual splendour, as the game is permanently set to a 16:9 aspect ratio with black bars on the top and bottom to save on processing power. This is demo worthy presentation for the PS4, and it’s going to be THE game that retailers and tech-nerds use to show off the power of their gear. The audio is not quite as majestic, being more workman-like in usage. Sure, the subwoofer will get some rumble here and there, but rarely is surround soundscape used to good effect. Sadly, the same can be said about the actual game itself.

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Gears Of Steampunk

In a sense, The Order’s biggest problem, what really stops it from becoming an all-time classic—or even just one of THE games to own for 2015—is that it is a jack-of-all trades and master of none. In pursuing the Holy Grail of gaming, a “cinematic experience,” Ready At Dawn have crammed a lot of features into the game calculated to propel the player along in the “movie” they are playing, rather than feeling good in and of themselves. Gears of War wanted to be a shooter first, with the feeling of being a “bad ass action star in a bad ass action movie” being a distant, secondary concern. The natural consequence of that was the game was designed around making the shooting feel as good as possible and giving players a wide range of shooting activities. Ready At Dawn seemed more caught up in what the player would feel like after the experience was done, rather than worry about the quality of the experience itself. The result seems to be a design ethic of “good enough” rather than great. So while the game is never broken, and never even feels dull, neither does it ever shine with an unforgettable moment of “I can’t believe I actually survived that.”

The Order is going to be many things to many people. For gearheads, this is the ultimate tech-demo, one guaranteed to blow away an audience when shown for the first time. For the hardcore shooter crowd, it’s an obvious clone of better shooters that never quite shoots as well as its inspirations. For a more casual gamer that is looking for short burst of action with intrigue, and isn’t quite so obsessed with how innovative a title is, or how original its design philosophy, it’s a rollercoaster ride through a truly original world that mixes up steam punk and shooting in a gorgeous, distinctive way. The Order: 1886 is not masterpiece, except in the technical sense, but it does provide a good—albeit short—time for people that just want to shoot things in a beautiful looking world. If Ready At Dawn gets a second chance, perhaps the sequel will fulfill the narrative promise of the first game, but it should really polish the existing mechanics to get them to shine instead of merely be “okay.”

 To read Wayne’s extended review of The Order: 1886, pick up the Feb issue of CGM. 

Super Stardust Ultra (PS4) Review

Super Stardust Ultra (PS4) Review

Super Stardust has a longer history than most gamers probably realized, having started life in the early 90s on the Amiga computer. When Sony and Housemarque brought the series back with the fantastic PS3 game, Super Stardust HD, they kept going and there’s been versions on the PSP, Vita, and now the PS4. Admittedly, Super Stardust Ultra on the PS4 isn’t much different from the previous versions–especially Delta on the Vita–but fans of the series might not mind much.

Super Stardust was always meant to be a high-tech, 3D rendered, updated version of Asteroids. On the PlayStation formats, it found its niche perfectly. The game is gorgeous, intense, and utterly playable. This is a twin-stick shooter where the goal is to survive an onslaught of space rocks and strange alien life forms and ships across a handful of mostly burned-out looking planets.
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Each planet has four waves of rocks and enemies to conquer before a giant boss comes in to destroy you. Ultra brings back the three types of guns (Delta dumped it down to two, which frankly made more sense). There’s the rock crusher for general pesky rock things and guns for ice and gold. The Gold gun is a particularly satisfying whip of energy that’s tremendous fun to just spin around in circles, not that this is a great tactic. It’s just fun.

The whole game is fun. Classic, hardcore, difficult fun. Super Stardust has always been a zen-like shooting experience, where getting in the proverbial zone is an absorbing, all-consuming experience. The game balances high levels of difficulty with pristine controls and just enough strategy to make it not totally mindless. It’s not so much the satisfying shooting as the pinpoint precision of navigating a moving maze of rocks that gives Stardust such immense play value.

As a twin-stick shooter, you pilot your ship (now customizable) over a spherical landscape of doom above a planet with the left analog stick while aiming and shooting with the right stick. Switching between weapons using the L1/R1 shoulder buttons is simple and there are also mega bombs for mass destruction and the boost. The boost lets you plow through anything for a second and is especially great for quick escapes.

So, to newcomers looking for a topnotch old school shooter on their PS4, Super Stardust Ultra is a very easy recommendation. The single-player game is great and the co-op play is tons of fun. On the other hand, previous players might not be so enthused to shell out more money for a game we’ve all definitely played before. This is especially the case since, despite being almost identical to the rest of the series, Sony opted to not make Ultra cross-buy (or cross-save).
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This means you’ll have to weigh whether merely having the game on the PS4 is reason enough to buy it again. The levels of the main single-player game are virtually identical to the PS3 version, but the rock-solid 60 fps 1080p resolution makes this the best looking iteration. Also, for those of us who still love playing games in stereoscopic 3D, Super Stardust Ultra is both amazing and one of the very few 3D offerings on the PS4.

Ultra offers most of the mini-game modes that were last seen on the Vita as well (and in the DLC for the PS3 version). There’s a timed mode, survival, endless, bomber (only bombs!), and the amusing impact mode where you can only boost through obstacles to destroy them. The new streaming mode is an odd addition, where the player streams their game and those watching can vote to make things harder or easier. In theory, it’s a great idea we’ll likely seen a lot more in the future, but right now good luck finding an audience.
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Multi-player is still a sofa-based affair, which seems odd. Super Stardust Ultra supports same and split-screen options, but not online play. At this point, this is incredibly disappointing. On the bright side, there is a new four-player split or same screen option across several types of game modes, but it’s not quite a substitute for real online play.

As a long-time fan of this series, I’m still happy to see Super Stardust on the PS4. This is easily one of the best modern retro-style shooters on the market, right up there with Geometry Wars. The problem is that Stardust is clearly not evolving the way other similar series are. Ultra is nearly identical to the earlier games, when it should have been striving to broaden its own scope.

The game is great for what it is and a welcome addition to the PS4 library, but fans really deserve a true sequel at this point.

Dragon Fantasy Book II out for PS3 and Vita Today

Dragon Fantasy Book II out for PS3 and Vita Today

While Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 ReMIX is this week’s big JRPG release,There is another title coming out today that pays homage to the SNES days of gaming: Dragon Fantasy Book II.

The original Dragon Fantasy was developed for ios and PC, but after involvement from Sony Computer Entertainment America’s Pub Fund (an organization that helps fund smaller-budget titles), it was announced the sequel would be released on the Playstation Network for PS3 and Vita.

The title plays a lot like Chrono Trigger. It also shares a similar art style with other famous JRPG’s from the 16-bit era (Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Evermore). The art style seems to be faithful to its inspirations.

Dragon Fantasy Book II is not the first title to be brought in by the SCEA Pub Fund. Certain Canadian titles such as Papa & Yo and the impressive Guacamelee were both funded by the pub fund.

Dragon Fantasy Book II is available today for $14.99 on the Playstation Network.

 

MLB 13: The Show (PS3) Review

MLB 13: The Show (PS3) Review

Now that it’s March once again, that means it’s time for yet another installment of Sony’s venerable baseball franchise, MLB The Show. When I reviewed last year’s installment, I waxed philosophic about how each installment of a sports franchise is scrutinized closely for being worth another investment, to justify its existence as more than just a series of updated rosters and players. MLB 12 was a fantastic game, which built upon the strengths the series had in the past, and expanded into new areas. MLB 13 manages to once again surpass the level of quality the series had attained last year, and brought a bevy of new changes, not just in game play, but in new game modes as well.

When it comes to sports simulation games, particularly baseball games, there is no true rival to The Show. Sure, MLB2K comes out with a new game each and every year, but it’s really only for Xbox users, as for PS3 owners there’s no real reason to not choose The Show. This year, it really feels like they listened to fans of the series, and made natural improvements that improved the game play. The menus are smoother and cleaner, and there’s been an emphasis on enhancing the simulated experience. To this end, the sound effects of the crowd have been further developed, as they are more responsive and reactive to the on-field game play. Coupled with this, SCEA has downplayed the commentator tracks, which previously had been a bit oppressive in past iterations of The Show. Personally, I wasn’t really against the commentators, but they did get quite repetitive, and it felt like there weren’t many new lines recorded each and every year. Once you owned a few installments of the franchise, you’d heard the same lines over and over again. You can still hear the same old standbys, but the plentiful nature of the narration has been severely stripped down and limited. When you put this together with the increased crowd effects, it’s a nice touch.

In recent years, one of the more difficult-to-master techniques in the game has been that of hitting, and to help with this SCEA has introduced a new difficulty level, which is long overdue: the new Beginner mode. When selecting difficulties, I really like how you can select different difficulties for hitting, batting and fielding, allowing you to play to your strengths as a player. If you’re really good at pitching, like I am, you might select all-star difficulty, but if you’re really lacking as a hitter, you can put it on beginner. For beginner mode when hitting, there’s also varying levels of beginner mode, and as you manage to make contact with the ball, you rank up through six different levels. They haven’t added new control methods this year, but instead have retained the various options from prior games. This is a big plus, because it allows the game for greater customization. When playing against two friends, I used analog pitching, one instead opted for pulse pitching, and the last friend used the classic meter pitching mode.

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The Road To The Show (RTTS) mode, long my favourite game mode in The Show, has had some small improvements, including smoother loading, and a more intuitive leveling up mechanism. While fast-forwarding to the player’s next interaction in the game, instead of just having a static loading screen, you actually have the option to watch the game play out from the dugout, or watching it happen digitally on the game screen. It’s a nice touch.

There are two new game modes this year, including The Show mode which allows you to play match-ups from any particular day in the season, similar to a recent game mode in NHL 13. The other new game mode is the new Postseason mode, which allows you to pick a couple teams and play through a post-season experience. The sound effects are amped up, and the feeling of the game feels different than a simple exhibition game. I played in postseason mode against two friends of mine, and it was a great deal of fun.

MLBreview.jpgThis year the developers have added online competitive functionality to Home Run Derby, which feels long overdue, and yet I’m glad that they waited till they got down the mechanics of how to make it work. My only complaint about the online Home Run Derby was that it felt a bit too easy to hit home runs, although still quite challenging when going up against rival players. Prior to the release of the game, I really wasn’t sure how the developers would be able to make a competitive Home Run Derby work, but they really surpassed any expectations I might have had. Instead of having each player go through their series of swings sequentially, each player hits at the same time, and you can see your ball’s trail compared to other players’.

This year once again features the ability to use save data on either the PS3 or Vita, and shuffle it between the two platforms. When using RTTS, for example, you can upload your save file to the cloud and then use it on the other platform, and it’s totally seamless. This year’s only real cross-play functionality, however, is that Vita players can play against PS3 players during the online Home Run Derby.

MLB 13 is a fantastic new installment in the franchise, which manages to both balance the strengths of prior installments while also adding in new ideas and elements. I’m always impressed that SCEA doesn’t just rest on their laurels each and every year, as it always feels like they take the time to address fan concerns, and add in new ideas and elements to better the overall product and experience. The little things, such as ensuring that each team has two throwback uniforms this time around, help add to the overall package. The Vita version of the game is far superior to MLB 12 for Vita, as it has a much smoother interface, the graphics are superior, there are more animations in the game, and the menus aren’t glitchy. Additionally, the game hasn’t (thus far) proven itself prone to random crashes/freezes, which is what happened with last year’s installment. Overall, this is yet another fantastic package, and well worth the additional investment into the franchise. SCEA hasn’t disappointed me yet, and I look forward to even more innovations in next year’s installment.