Alex Van Aken’s Top Ten Games Of 2017

Hey! I’m Alex Van Aken, Managing Editor of OK Beast. This year sure was great for interactive play, eh? Since there were so many releases, I figured I should share my top ten games of 2017. These are the games that I couldn’t get out of my head. 

10. LawBreakers

LawBreakers was one of the most mechanically interesting games to release in 2017, and I was saddened by the fact that hardly anyone played it. Despite existing as a critical success, LawBreakers just didn’t grab people. Perhaps its aesthetic was a bit tired, or maybe it was because the game launched in a heavily saturated market. Costing half the price of its competition, I was convinced Cliff Bleszinski’s return to the arena-based FPS genre would be one of commercial success. However, that didn’t happen; and as sad as that may be, LawBreakers doesn’t need my pity.

In fact, it’s the freshest a first person shooter has felt since, well, last year. For the uninitiated, LawBreakers sets its gaze on anti-gravitational combat, which weaves its way into almost every facet of the game; as each map features a large zero gravity field, usually in a prominent location.

The real fun lies in how the various characters and classes interact with the play space. Every character can shoot their weapon behind their back to create a makeshift jet pack to propel them through the environment. It feels even cooler when the backwards blindfire grants you an elimination. The assassin class utilizes a grappling hook that allows them to swing around the map, slicing through their opponents with Katanas on a whim. When swinging through one of the many anti-gravitational zones, LawBreakers suddenly transforms into a first person Spider-Man game.

In short, LawBreakers is one of the most underrated releases from 2017; and previous futuristic shooters feel like they’re missing a key part of the puzzle. If you’d like to see my bias fleshed out further, you can watch this video, which focuses on LawBreakers’ locomotion and the family of games that came before it.

9. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

If I’m being honest with you, and with myself, I didn’t enjoy playing Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. It’s focused on a journey through the Nordic Land of the Dead, and is defined by a hellish realization of mental illness and spiritual hardship that was painful to watch and experience. Regardless, Hellblade is an incredible blending of genres, and its aural and visual presentations are essential to its interactive storytelling.

I hope you’ll give the game a shot, even if It doesn’t look like your cup of tea. Senua is my favorite character that’s emerged from this medium all year, and her story was personally impactful.

8. Golf Story

Golf Story is what happens when you combine Earthbound with an activity-rich golf game, and the mixture is simply incredible. Anytime I’ve found myself on the couch over the past few months, the game has been in my hands, as its hilarious writing and challenging golf matches make it incredibly difficult to put down. Play Golf Story if you: own a Switch, love golf, or have a pulse.

7. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

I wish my experience with Wolfenstein II had gone differently. I certainly enjoyed just about every aspect of the game and loved exploring the title’s alternative version of the United States. Wolfenstein II hosts some of 2017’s strongest characters, and the way they interact with one another in the game’s main hub was hilarious.

Unfortunately, I had the most significant plot thread spoiled for me before I even started the first mission. While it certainly took a lot of the wind out of my sails, I can’t fault the game for what happened to me. Wolfenstein II’s cinematic presentation is unmatched, however I only wish the transition from the gameplay portions was smoother. For reference, many missions end with the player inputting a button prompt to trigger the scene transition; which seems counterintuitive to the game’s obvious desire to craft a dynamic and fluid story.

Regardless, I really enjoyed my time with Wolfenstein II, and can’t wait to go back and play the first game now. Yup, I still have yet to play Wolfenstein: The New Order!

6. What Remains of Edith Finch

What Remains of Edith Finch, one of the year’s many “walking simulators,” quickly climbed my list when I played it at the beginning of December. Set in a family estate, which is in the possession of its seventeen year old heir, named Edith, I quickly found myself connecting with its characters by way of its interesting vignettes; which served as an incredible narrative tool.

Throughout the story, players will follow Edith along as she explores the many rooms that make up her family’s house, as she tries to uncover the truth behind the mystery of an apparent family curse. While the main focus is certainly on the game’s visual storytelling, What Remains of Edith Finch is home to some of 2017’s best level design. While other “walking simulators” use it for context, Giant Sparrow allows its environment to play a more active role in its storytelling. In my opinion, it’s the absolute best of its kind, and raises the bar for
its competition.

5. Destiny 2

Just as its predecessor, Destiny 2 feels incredible. Every single shot, no matter the weapon, feels perfectly tuned; and each bullet consistently penetrates the armor of its intended target. The audio only enhances the combat experience, with several weapons emitting faint synth tones with every trigger pull. Every second spent in Bungie’s social shooter reminds that they operate well within their pedigree.

Since adequate power leveling requires multiple characters and the story of the first game felt so barebones, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the narrative of Destiny 2 was intriguing enough to pull me through the game several times over. There are certain moments, like walking next to the surface of the sun, that are remembered more fondly than others; but overall the missions in the game’s base campaign seem to have a sense of purpose. It prevents the leveling process from devolving into a mundane grind.

Lastly, beating The Leviathan Raid was one of my favorite video game moments of 2017. The immense challenge presented by the raid allowed my friends and me to spend a lot of time together. Even though most of our time was spent banging our heads against the wall (in hopes of stimulating the esports segment of our brains), Destiny 2’s most challenging moments were accompanied by laughter and friendly banter. I still feel guilty for the scream I emitted at 3:00am when we finally took Emperor Calus down. That session will go down as a night to remember.

4. Super Mario Odyssey

In a year that’s been mired by a few personal struggles, Super Mario Odyssey has brought so much joy into my life. Having been a dormant fan of the series since the Nintendo 64, the game’s release was a welcome arrival. Cappy, who serves as the game’s feature mechanic, was integrated so well into Mario’s base movement set; and I was constantly discovering new ways to traverse the many different kingdoms I visited.

For the first time in a very long time, I found myself adopting the tendencies of a completionist, looking inside every nook and cranny in pursuit of the next Power Moon. Honestly, I think it’s a huge testament to the game’s environmental design, because the only reason I even chased after collectibles was because the levels were so fun to move within.

With New Donk City possessing one of my favorite gameplay sequences of 2017, the Festival, Super Mario Odyssey has secured itself as one of my favorite games of the year.

3. Divinity: Original Sin 2

I should start by saying that I haven’t finished Divinity: Original Sin 2. In all actuality, I’m not even close. Usually an eighty hour role-playing game would be off-putting, as my schedule normally doesn’t allow for long play sessions. However, Divinity’s writing is clever and its world is memorable, so I haven’t really had an issue keeping up with the narrative.

I believe the game actually outpaces most other 2017 releases due to the fact that I’ve been able to fully experience its dense story with friends by my side. By having a party comprised of other human-controlled characters, every decision possesses a weightiness to it that’s not present in many other games. Similarly to older tabletop RPG’s, sometimes the party makes a choice I don’t agree with, and often the subsequent consequences aren’t necessarily fair.

However, it’s been the game’s wealth of interactive systems that have really pushed the experience over the edge for me. Similarly to this year’s Zelda title, Divinity does its best to always say “yes” to its players. The result is a near perfect melding of serious decision making and hilarious antics. Go ahead and name another game that’ll let me disguise myself as a bush, steal a bunch of meat from some lady’s hut, subsequently kill her innocent child, and then deflect all of the aggro onto another party member while I move on to loot a group of teleporting crocodiles. I’LL WAIT.

In all seriousness, Divinity: Original Sin 2 is one of my favorite multiplayer experiences of the past decade; and it’s a major step forward for both singular and cooperative storytelling. I can’t wait to dive in even deeper over the course of the next few years.

2. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds

What can I say about PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds that hasn’t been said a hundred times already? It’s a competitive experience unlike many of us have ever participated in, and it’s been heralded as such. Even with all of its technical flaws and frustrations – which I understand is a major hindrance for some – PUBG’s gameplay formula resulted in literally hundreds of hours of absolute fun.

Borrowing from one of my previous video essays, “Battlegrounds is a game of luck and happenstance, one by which players surrender control upon entering. It’s a lottery, which doesn’t deal in absolutes, and it’s the gambling of one’s most precious asset: time. What do you fear the most? What haunts you? For many of us, it’s the unknown – which is exactly where PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds plants itself. From the onset, the coincidental nature of PUBG breeds fear into new players; and while seasoned competitors eventually adopt a more aggressive play-style, the inherent trepidation associated with the game never truly dissipates.”

As a longtime competitive multiplayer fan, the game’s one versus ninety-nine Battle Royale structure was incredibly addicting. It was my “one more match” game this year, as it so perfectly fulfilled my desire to compete and win. Also, I’m pretty sure my peers are sick of me, as I’ve followed-up every podcast appointment with an invitation to play Battlegrounds.

I could get into why PUBG’s minute design decisions elevate it above its Battle Royale competition, but that’s a conversation for another time (perhaps next week’s Game of the Year podcasts). For now, I’ll just say that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was responsible for the most fun that I’ve had with a video game this year; and it connected me with friends in a way that I really needed in order to get through some of this year’s tougher circumstances. 

1. Zelda: Breath of the Wild

There’s always been a part of me that wanted to be a Zelda fan. Despite owning a Nintendo 64 at my Mom’s house as a kid, I was never able to sink a significant amount of time into Ocarina of Time like my friends did. If I’m being honest, we just didn’t have the money to purchase video games; instead, Mom would do her best to gather a few bucks throughout the week to afford us a game rental for the weekend. Sometimes it was Super Smash Bros., but most of the time it was Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve watched Link awaken to Navi’s voice in Kokiri Forest. For the longest time, my experience with the Zelda series was one of frustration; and perhaps that’s why I’ve latched onto Breath of the Wild in such an unrelenting manner.

In a word, this year’s installment of the Zelda series has been freeing; as Breath of the Wild grants its users total agency over their journey through Hyrule. From the onset, players can leave the Great Plateau to directly confront Ganon, hunt down the titanic war machines known as Divine Beasts, or find a wild horse, tame it, and ride along the Eastern Shore like I did. The game successfully predicted and satisfied my explorative desires nigh constantly; and as a player, I felt the freedom to do anything.

It’s kind of ironic, though, as Zelda: Breath of the Wild is actually an experience defined by restraint – a word I think I’ve personally failed to mention in all of my previous discussions of the game. The game’s play space is characterized by limitations, which the player is informed of within the first hour of the game; and it’s the consistency of Breath of the Wild’s systems and mechanics that actually breeds creativity, in my opinion. As a player, I understand how weather behaves in the world. I’m aware of the temporary nature of weapons and stamina bar. Furthermore, I know the in and outs of my avatar’s toolset and am able to interact with the environment in creative and meaningful ways.

My time spent roaming Hyrule wasn’t segmented by linear content or narrative, rather it was hindered only by personal skill or wit. By coupling Breath of the Wild’s free-flowing exploration with challenging combat, gorgeous art direction, and a spacious soundtrack, Nintendo has yielded one of the most memorable video game experiences of my life. I now count myself as a Zelda fan, and it feels damn satisfying to say so.

Source: https://www.okbeast.com/2017/12/22/van-aken-top-ten-games-2017/

Best Mobile Games of 2017

When I mention mobile gaming in conversation with friends and colleagues, I’m usually met with skeptical looks, apathetic shrugs, or confusion. For the uninitiated, references to mobile games usually conjure flashbacks to pay-to-win games like Clash of Clans, endless runners, or Hearthstone; and while that’s an accurate reflection of what resides in the app store, there are so many interesting and thought-provoking experiences that are worthy of people’s time – they just need a push in the right direction. So, I compiled a list of my favorite mobile games from 2017, and I hope you’ll give a few of them a shot. Let’s get started.

This list just wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t start by highlighting Monument Valley 2, the sequel to an ethereal puzzle game that was largely responsible for opening my eyes to the potential of touch-based gaming. The experience is nothing short of cerebral, weaving ambient sounds, thoughtful color palettes, and alien architecture to create an ethereal playspace which attracts attention. Monument Valley 2 is an absolute gem, and it’s out-of-the-box puzzle design deems it worthy of your time.

Old Man’s Journey released on Steam & mobile platforms earlier this year, and it’s an absolute standout.. I was completely awestruck by Broken Rules’ art direction throughout the entirety of this 2 hour experience. Old Man’s Journey is equipped with an aesthetic that lies somewhere between watercolor and acrylic pastel, often utilizing softer palettes that give off a dreamlike glow.

At its core, Old Man’s Journey is a relaxing puzzler set in what seems to be a world largely inspired by naval exploration. You’ll guide the Old Man through pastures, towns, empty country roads, and a seaside that’s teeming with Mediterranean influence. While the narrative is somewhat predictable, all of the cutscenes are presented as old vintage paintings, with subtle animations that push each scene forward. All of this culminates into an incredibly memorable experience – one that’s only enhanced by the touch-based platform it resides on.

To briefly spare all of you from my pretentiousness and to help diversify this list, I asked OK Beast’s editor-at-large, Ian Preschel, to talk about Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Links, a free-to-play card game that released earlier this year:

This year has been great for mobile games and especially those with very popular IP behind them. Yu-Gi-Oh Duel Links released November 17th of last year and was a major hit with over 9 million downloads and counting. Fans of the series fell in love with the homages to the earlier seasons of the anime while also being able to play the game on the go.  

It’s obvious that this title was trying to learn from Hearthstone and I think that made the game better overall. This game features Deck Captains that feature popular characters from the show that you use that have special abilities and advantages that you can use in battle. This created a special  experience that I have never encountered in a previous Yu-Gi-Oh game. Also, the game had a significant amount of content to invest in. Duel Links featured various challenges that rewarded the player for using different cards and deck leaders. This was a great incentive for me to come back daily and compete and earn new cards. As a fan of online card games and the original anime, Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links quickly became one of my favorite mobile game experiences of 2017.  

While they’re two totally different games, Miracle Merchant and Card Thief are two standout titles that released in 2017, and both were developed and released by TinyTouchTales, the team that created 2015’s Card Crawl. The pair initially pulls inspiration from Solitaire, but subsequently branch off in two completely different directions.

Miracle Merchant takes the classic card game formula and brings it inside the walls of a potion master’s storefront; wherein players have to satisfy customers’ alchemic orders by mixing and matching cards from four different piles. After successfully managing their card counts and winning a game, users are rewarded with new potion recipes that will help bolster their future highscores.

Card Thief on the other hand sets its gaze on the stealth genre, and I’m of the opinion that it nails the interpretation. Playing as the titular Card Thief, you’ll need to manage your stealth points and discover the correct movement path to properly dispose of enemy guards, extinguish torches, and eventually steal the castle’s treasure.

Originally released on Steam a few years ago, Chromasquad is a tile-based combat RPG in which you’ll play as 5 stunt actors who – after quitting their day jobs as the titular Super Rangers – decide to start their own television & broadcasting studio. Right off the bat you’ll notice an uncanny resemblance between the Chromasquad and a certain group of 90’s action television heroes. Fortunately, Behold Studios manages to do Saban’s Power Rangers justice through fun writing, satisfying combat, & hearty offerings in regards to customization & progression. You’ll complete contracts to level up your studio, compete in challenging combat scenarios, & customize a team of rangers worthy of your studio’s name.

Despite holding a completely different tone, Chromasquad should find success in the hands of Banner Saga & FF Tactics fans. While it doesn’t hold a candle to those classics, Chromasquad DOES provide hours of entertainment through its quirky story, satisfying gameplay, and nostalgic homages. They even have a giant brain.

So those are my favorite picks of the games that released this year. I think all of them effectively utilize the touch-based platform which they reside on, and stand out among the droves of surface level free-to-play games that surround them. For the sake of time, I couldn’t mention every interesting game that I enjoyed, such as I Love Hue or TypeShift, but I think if you give any of the aforementioned games a shot, you’ll certainly enjoy your time with them.

Source: https://www.okbeast.com/2017/12/14/best-mobile-games-of-2017/

How MMORPG’s Facilitate Wonder

I can still remember my first moments in Atlas Park, standing among the shadows cast down by a statue of the city’s namesake hero. Situated on the front steps of the City Hall building, I watched in awe as heroes and heroines of all sizes and color ran through the streets of Paragon City, thwarting efforts of evil one super power at a time. Above me, paragons swirled in the air, flying and super jumping to out of reach places. In another corner of the city, a controller was suppressing the minds of his enemies while a neighboring fire blaster summoned ashes from the sky. It was all so overwhelming, in the best way possible; as there was so much opportunity to be had in this game world. I was in awe.

You see, these feelings weren’t actually exclusive to City of Heroes; in fact, I can remember my first moments in almost every massively multiplayer game that I’ve played. It’s because, by nature, MMORPG’s facilitate wonder; and that’s the very thing that makes them so special. They activate our imaginations, capitalize on our desires, and materialize the make believe.

Perceived Progression is the active display - shown through other players - of what’s achievable in a game; and it’s unavoidable in an MMO due to the social nature of the genre. It’s the very reason I used to waste hours and hours of my week walking through the halls of Ironforge in World of Warcraft. The city was the busiest social space in the game, as players from across Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms would gather to make raid preparations, train in new professions, or sell their rare treasure at the Auction House. Weathered adventurers walked the halls of the city, showing off their new armor or sword for all to see. As a beginner, this informed my imagination and added to the game’s sense of grandeur. Naturally, I would follow them around, ask questions, inspect their rare gear, and perhaps even beg for gold on occasion. Yes, I was that kid.

The point is, in single player games, the playable avatar is the highest display of power; as they have every tool they could possibly need to tackle any given scenario. They’re the hero of the story, after all. In social play, however, there’s always going to be someone better than you. Someone who can show you the ropes and act as an avatar to project your personal fantasy onto. What made that opening moment in City of Heroes so wonderful for me was the fact I knew one day that could be me. If I invested enough blood, sweat, and time, I could be the hero flying over the denizens of Atlas Park and discovering those once out of reach places.

Incentivized Exploration is certainly not unique to MMORPG’s, but nonetheless masterfully utilized by them; and works hand in hand with perceived progression to cultivate awe and amazement. It provides participants the motivation to fully observe every inch of the game world; as they’re are constantly rewarded for doing so. Climbing an oddly placed waterfall and following the riverbank upstream could lead to a secret treasure chest; just as returning to a previously discovered location at a specific time of day could trigger a special enemy encounter.

You see, when the act of adventure results in achievement, experience, and treasure, we as players are inclined to unearth the secrets of a playspace; and when we successfully do so, we then share our stories with others. Are you starting to understand, now? The genre is just one big beautiful, amazing, gross, heartfelt, and cynical loop that never ends. This is the curse of the MMORPG, and Wonderment is simply the drug that keeps us playing - and paying.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TTOzL1XPTJw

Why is Cuphead So Hard?

Cloaking itself beneath the mask of 1930’s American animation, It’s been a long while since I’ve encountered a game as brutally inconsiderate of my time as Cuphead is. In some ways, it reminds me of a stripped down version of Shadow of the Colossus, a PS2 game wherein heavy priority was placed upon boss design & the brilliant gameplay encounters that followed. These bosses are more akin to puzzles, which require multiple playthrough attempts to solve. Where Cuphead differs, however, is in its unforgiving difficulty.

Why is Cuphead so hard, though? Well, on top of the game’s use of informational overload to make things more difficult for our brains, many of Cuphead’s fights can’t be memorized due to the game’s employment of pattern variance. Pattern variance is the technique that the creators of Cuphead use to randomize in-game sequences during replays of the game. While each boss has several progression triggers throughout their fight that are reached by dealing damage, each sequence (or each segment of the boss fight) can be manipulated by the game’s engine. To better understand this idea, let’s take a quick look at one of the game’s early boss fights.

During my many attempts to defeat Ribby & Croaks, the two frogs that fuse into a slot machine, I learned that pattern variance was able to affect many aspects of Cuphead, including: the number & distance between hazards, duration of sequences, and characteristics of individual attacks. In the first phase of this fight, the frogs shoot high and low projectiles towards the player, who will have to jump, crouch, parry, and shoot to prevent themselves from taking damage. During this portion of the encounter, the order by which projectiles were launched changed nearly every time, sometimes favoring the high paths and other times being heavily focused on preventing low crouches.

Up next is the bomb phase, wherein Croaks turns into a high powered fan while Ribby throws bouncing bombs at the player, who has to prevent themselves from being pushed back too far while simultaneously dodging the incoming hazards. Initially, it was a struggle to find a rhythm, as Ribby would sometimes throw nine bombs instead of his usual six; and on occasion, Croaks’ fan transformation seemed a bit delayed and would turn on during the middle of the bomb dodging event.

Eventually the frogs transform into a slot machine, an aesthetic choice that I believe is most fitting, as it serves both form and function. After dodging a few coins and pulling the lever, Cuphead is able to finally begin the damage phase of this fight, wherein Ribby & Croaks open their mouth to release one of three different platforming segments, according to how the slots fell. Players will need to adopt multiple strategies because each of these platforming bits change the playspace in a distinct way. It’s entirely possible to get several of the same platform in a row, and if you haven’t mastered the particular segment of choice, well, then you’re out of luck.

Keep in mind, I’ve only talked about the survival aspects of this demanding performance. While platforming to save your life, you also have to damage the slot machine, as this is a player’s best chance to progress the boss’ invisible progress meter. Not to mention the summon order, directional damage, and speed of platforms change in every playthrough thanks to pattern variance.

I’m not quite sure what determines the frequency of these generated variances, but I know that every time I started to feel comfortable with Cuphead’s sequence characteristics, it adapted some small detail to throw me off of its scent. This constant building and breaking of patterns and rhythms requires reactionary decision-making, which prevents players from ever truly memorizing an encounter – a lesson learned from Contra 3 and Contra: Hard Corps.

I’m not exactly sure how we’ll all look back on the game in five or ten years, but as of right now, Cuphead’s challenge provides as incredible sense of reward that I’m not getting from many other games.

So i’m gonna continue playing and chasing after that sweet sweet Cuphead dopamine; and I hope you’ll keep watching. OK Beast releases video essays every Friday, and we also have podcasts, reviews, and other features on our website, OKBeast.com. If you liked this video, I’d love it if you would subscribe and share this video with your friends. Thanks for watching, and we’ll see you next week!

PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds' Secret Sauce

“Why is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds so Popular? So Laggy? So Hard? Addicting? Why is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds so good?”

I hear these questions frequently, and after nearly 80 hours of playtime with Brendan Green’s ARMA-III-mod-turned-internet-craze, I think I’m starting to understand the answer. Boot up PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, henceforth referred to as PUB-G, PUB-Gah, Battlegrounds, or Murder Island, and you’ll find a game that’s quite rough around the edges. Twenty percent of the time the game won’t even run on my MSI GE Series that’s configured with a GTX 970M graphics card. There’s nothing quite as infuriating as receiving a network error while running from your impending doom, only to watch your character get swept away by a swift and unfair death. I can’t remember a game previously that caused me as much frustration, anger, and apparent memory leaks as Battlegrounds has, yet it’s by far one of my favorite games of the year. So why is PUBG so popular? Why is it so good? Well, it all comes down to tension, happenstance, and ultimately, fear.

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is a battle royale game wherein players parachute onto an island with nothing but the clothes on their back. Think Hunger Games, Schwarzenegger in The Running Man, that mid-2000’s movie with Stone Cold Steve Austin, or you know, the actual Battle Royale movie. Anyways, the win condition of the game is to be the last man standing: the one person (or squad) who manages to successfully collect enough gear and firepower to navigate their way through countless sniper scopes, stressful firefights, creepy apartment buildings, and soul-crushingly vast wheat fields – all while being tailed by a blue forcefield that will quickly end the player’s life if they find themselves outside of its circumference. There’s also the fact that there are literally one hundred other players surrounding you, all of whom are moving around the island with their own ever changing motives and strategies. It’s a dynamic unlike any I’ve experienced before.

PUBG isn’t the first battle royale game – there are actually quite a few of them – however it’s the only one in the genre that seems so heavily focused on self-preservation; whereas other titles feel like some sort of sociopathic sport. H1Z1, which is the most similar to Battlegrounds in format, contradicts the sense of tension it tries so hard to build due to oversaturated colors & a looming fog of war that distorts the game’s sense of scale. The Culling has an actual announcer who constantly slanders opponents with grating commentary. I’d argue that Brendan Green & company manage to capitalize on their competitors’ weaker aesthetic & mood, both of which contribute to an overwhelming sense of tension in Battlegrounds.

There’s no guarantee of the caliber of loot or weapons one will discover while pillaging through houses and industrial complexes. I once watched as a squadmate and friend spent twenty-five minutes of our roughly thirty-minute match searching for anything besides a pistol or machete. Other times, it’s as if the murder island deities are smiling down upon their entertainment, showering players with AKM’s, SCAR’s, or – if they’re lucky – an AWM with an 8x scope.

Battlegrounds is a game of luck and happenstance, one by which players surrender control upon entering. It’s a lottery which doesn’t deal in absolutes; and it’s the gambling of one’s most precious asset: time. What do you fear the most? What haunts you? What keeps you up in the dark hours of the night? For many of us, it’s the unknown, which is exactly where PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds plants itself. Should I open this door? What happens if I stand up instead of laying prone? Should I sprint across this field to more quickly arrive at an advantageous position and risk being seen? Is it worth attempting to loot this power plant even though I’m only armed with a glock? Should I flee or stay to fight the disorienting voices that are pushing closer and closer to my hideout? I often say that the core philosophy of this game is more in line with old school RPG’s than modern shooters; as each singular play-through is simply a series of choices that make up the larger experience, and the only question is “Will this be the decision that kills me?”

From the onset, this coincidental nature of Battlegrounds breeds fear into new players; and while seasoned players eventually adopt a more aggressive play-style, the inherent trepidation associated with the game never truly dissipates. We’ve just learned how to cope with it. In this world, even the most innocuous task suddenly possesses excessive weight. For example, in modern multiplayer games, vehicles don’t pose much of a threat, as they exist in a reality wherein there’s always a counter measure. In Battlegrounds however, even the most dinky sedan is transformed into a symbol of hope or hopelessness, as transportation serves as a direct currency for convenience and power. There’s nothing quite as unsettling as the sound of a sputtering engine in the distance, especially when isolated from one’s squad. I’ve spent many a time frozen in place while waiting for an oncoming jeep to pass me by; and on several occasions have watched in disbelief as vehicles have ignorantly sped past my rigid frame, barely missing their opportunity to end my play-through. In any other game, we’d laugh situations like this off. In PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, this fearful disbelief, coupled with a sense of awe, serves as dark comedy which pushes players further and further into Brendan Green’s sadistic romp.

I’ve never played a game as risky as Battlegrounds. The lowliness one feels after losing a match they’ve just poured forty-five minutes into is unmatched; but with such high stakes comes even greater reward. I’ll never forget the boisterous feeling of dominance I felt after winning my first match. It’s a kind of dominance that’s soaked in both emotion and relief, and it’s one that leaves your hands shaking in the aftermath. It is, without a doubt, the ultimate high.

Tension, happenstance, and fear – one cannot exist without the other; and they all work together to create the perfect storm. They’re the twisted and hellish parallel to sugar, spice, & everything nice – a trio that mixes together so easily to create one of the most spellbinding potions I’ve ever tasted: PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.

Abstract Minimalism In Small Radios Big Televisions (Editor)

[Written by Jurge Cruz-Alvarez. Edited by Alex Van Aken]

Growing up with games’ criticism, there was always the notion that “gameplay is king.” It was a belief that for the longest time I agreed with – and to a large extent I still do. Games are interactive, after all, so I do believe that the way we interact with them should be meaningful; but the problem with this way of thinking was that at times it  prevented many in-depth conversations about the games we played (and the ones we continue to play). It also lead and can lead to not fully representing games in the light that they may have earned due to a feeling that there was something “off” about the way they were designed. I can totally envision Fireface’s Small Radios Big Televisions being one of those games that gets the critical short end of the stick because of some its shortcomings. While the game’s shortcomings that should certainly be called out, there’s something within Small Radios Big Televisions that’s worth discussion and even praise.  

Small Radios Big Televisions is a short puzzle game wherein players interact with the innards of several dioramas that are based upon real world structures by way of a controlled cursor. Players interact with aforementioned dioramas and are tasked with solving puzzles to progress the collection of a group of magnetic cassette tapes. More on the latter in a bit. The solution to the game’s puzzles can be perplexing due to the dioramas’ design and the nature by which the cursor behaves. Specifically, the cursor always wants to re-center, regardless of whether or not the player is moving an object or interacting with the environment. This janky behavior really makes it difficult to have direct input control; and it often feels as if a malevolent force is pulling you away from the objective by hindering any sort of elegant movement. While this annoyance should be mentioned, it’s not why we’re discussing Small Radios Big Televisions today. The reason we’re talking about the game is because of those cassette tapes that I mentioned earlier.

The places you visit in Small Radios Big Televisions are empty, but it’s clear that someone inhabited them at one point in time. What remain are various cassette tapes that tell the story of the individuals who became obsessed with a retro futurist vision of virtual reality, one by which they implanted cassette players into their brains in order to depict assorted, colorful scenes. Many of these virtual scenes are quite simple, such as the sun setting over a golden wheat field, or another that displays a grand portrait of the world as seen from atop a snowy mountain.

The virtual scenes that Fireface has crafted are presented in a style that is closer to abstract geometry than photorealism. It’s sharp and minimal. These scenes are also not static, and similarly to real world cassette tapes, they can be damaged once introduced to magnetic interference. In Small Radios Big Televisions, this concept leads to the total abstraction of the playable vignettes. Structures deform and deconstruct into the basic shapes that they’re comprised of. Colors change in hue and meld with others; and the game’s wonderful synthetic soundtrack suddenly becomes distorted. This sort of event causes everything to become more dynamic. The once golden field of wheat transforms into a sharp, glowing white that contrasts strongly against the pitch black soil beneath it. Taking a ride on an innocuous mine cart through the cliffside of a mountain subsequently turned into a ride through the album art of an 80’s new wave band, with neon blues and soft pinks to boot.

Rather than moving on after these strange audiovisual experiences washed over me and subsequently fulfilled their purpose of progress, I allowed myself a brief moment of personal reflection. It’s moments like these that make Small Radios Big Televisions enjoyable to me; and it’s here that the game finds ways to evoke a sense of warmth and comfort, while also maintaining an eerie and lonely feeling.

Of course, while all of that might be at the heart of Small Radios Big Televisions, I’m still not very fond of what makes up the periphery. I’m not sure if most would enjoy what I found so interesting about the game, and I still hold on to my own thoughts that it doesn’t feel great to play; but perhaps others will enjoy its puzzles and won’t be put off by the game’s shortcomings. If you enjoy the idea of looking at amorphous shapes expand and contract while a vaporwave-esque soundtrack plays in parallel, then I think visiting the soft pink skies of Small Radios Big Televisions might just be worth your time.

The publisher supplied a digital press code of Small Radios Big Televisions to OK Beast. The game was played on retail PlayStation 4 Pro hardware.

Sonic Mania Review (Editor)

[Written by Blessing Adeoye Jr. Edited by Alex Van Aken]

Sonic The Hedgehog is back. Refreshed and re-energized, Sonic Mania cracks its knuckles and reinvigorates 2-D platforming without ever stepping on its own tails. Through creative level design, satisfying callbacks, and excellent new additions, Sonic Mania is a wonderful return to form for everyone’s favorite hedgehog.

Sonic Mania is a best hits collection of Sonic the Hedgehog; it contains levels and references from the 2-D Sonic games along with some new levels and a brand new coat of polish. It is more vibrant and visually detailed than any of the Sega Genesis games yet it somehow keeps the spirit, feel, and tone of the originals. Sonic Mania feels pulled right out of the Genesis era and that’s where the charm of the game stems from. Most of the time while playing Sonic Mania, I forget I’m playing a game released in 2017. Minor tweaks to the feel of speed and jumping help make the gameplay feel modern along with prettier levels and updated music. The music from Studiopolis Zone highlights some of the best the game has to offer with varied instrumentation, upbeat melodies and a smooth piano section.

It would be an insult to call Sonic Mania a remaster. The game comes packed with an assortment of levels, most of which are from previous installments of the series. These classic Sonic levels are updated and rearranged just well enough so that they keep the feel and moments from the classic games but possess enough variety and difference to keep the player guessing. The new levels are where the game shines the most. The genius of the design shines most in these new stages as there are multiple paths, unexpected twists and turns, and a large amount of spectacle for the player to enjoy.

While Sonic Mania adopts many of the best aspects of Sonic, unfortunately some of the series’ weaknesses also come along for the ride. Sonic Mania can be difficult at times. The difficulty is reminiscent of the challenge of classic Sonic games and so it is to be expected. Though, there are cases where Sonic Mania can be unfair. Most notably, when Sonic gets caught in between two closing surfaces, the player receives an automatic loss no matter whether or not you have rings. I was okay with this the first and second time this happened to me but by my eighth “Game Over” after being caught by these closing surfaces, I’d had enough. Other cases such as being kicked back to the beginning of the first act after a “Game Over”, although heartbreaking at times, provided a welcomed challenge.

Sonic Mania is purely Sonic at its core. It’s a game with moments, complexity in level design, and accessibility in gameplay. Though at some parts in can be brutal, all in all the challenge is reminiscent of the Sega Genesis games we all loved. Sonic Mania has all of the style and flare that the classic Sonic games had and it is successful in being a true homage.

LawBreakers Review

Published on OK Beast

Just as LawBreakers wastes zero time in communicating its intentions and goals to the player, I’m not going to waste your time with this review. LawBreakers is the best twitch shooter, bar none, that I’ve played in the past five years. The title harkens back to the days of Unreal Tournament, when alternative fire modes and fast movement speed were crucial to interesting FPS design. After the literal slowdown brought forth by games like Battlefield and Call of Duty, LawBreakers is a refreshing change of pace. However, what’s more interesting is how Boss Key marries reflexive combat scenarios and fluid avenues of movement to create locomotive gunplay, which – as I stated in a previous video essay – is the idea that movement and marksmanship can serve two masters.

The Harrier, a class whose laser boots serve as both a mode of transportation and as a weapon, is the total embodiment of this idea. With proper fuel management, Harriers can ski around the map in a Tribes-like fashion; with the ability to pull backwards on the analog stick at any moment to kick their feet forward to damage oncoming enemies. It’s an absolute blast launching the Assassin across a map, using her futuristic grappling hook to swing around tight corners and her arc blades to slice through waves of opponents, in ways that often feel exploitative. Seriously, at times LawBreakers feels more like a first person Spider-Man game than a first person shooter – and I love it for that.

Continuing with the super hero similes, the Enforcer is quite reminiscent of a certain D.C. Comics speedster, utilizing his distortion field to boost both his base movement speed and his weapon’s rate of fire. The Enforcer became a much more interesting role to play after my realization that I could combine his speed and LawBreakers’ backwards blindfire mechanic to propel myself through an anti-gravity zone. Using these tricks while engaged in combat makes for an energetic and downright fun battlefield; and while some classes in the game trade excessive mobility for a more balanced playstyle, every character in LawBreakers capitalizes on the game’s locomotive elements in some way. This, in turn, transforms nearly every map into a playground of sorts, filled with various hallways, rooms, and secret paths to explore.

Vertigo, a map based in the skies of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, certainly stands out among its counterparts. The map’s aesthetic and overall layout has been conducive to several special gameplay moments during my time with Boss Key’s new game. Promenade, Grandview, & Mammoth are also strong selections, each equipped with an anti-gravitational zone that serves as a pathway across the middle of the map. Redfalls, which finds its home somewhere in the Grand Canyon, is the only map in LawBreakers that doesn’t feature a zero gravity zone in a prominent location. Instead, Redfalls relies on a smaller, more symmetrical design to create pockets and bottlenecks within the environment for players to vie for control over; and it serves as a great palette cleanser when shuffled into the rotation of the matchmaking playlist.

Unfortunately, the game’s matchmaking infrastructure seems somewhat slow in its current state; often making players wait several minutes in between each match. I’d imagine that this is to accommodate those in the lobby who want to analyze their stats, equip new skins and stickers, and so forth; but honestly, it feels counterintuitive to a game that’s so obsessed with speed. Sure, it’s a minor grievance, but it’s one that annoyed me several times, especially when coupled with LawBreakers’ sluggish menu. Luckily, the rest of the game is incredible and I have no problem looking past its somewhat minor flaws.

At its worst, LawBreakers is a competent first person shooter with a few back and front end UI annoyances that should be addressed. However, at its best, LawBreakers sets itself apart from the competition effortlessly by way of its interesting classes, fluid movement, and innovative anti-gravitational map design; the latter of which makes other futuristic shooters seem amateur in hindsight. While I’m not sure it’s a game that was designed with the casual player in mind, LawBreakers, like last year’s Overwatch and DOOM, is a fresh take that injects life back into the veins of a genre that’s grown somewhat stale over the years; and it’s a video game that absolutely deserves your attention.

Oh, and those skins? They’re SO good!

Hey 2017 Games, Chill Maybe? (Editor)

[Written by Moises Taveras. Edited by Alex Van Aken]

Hello, hello, hello! What a year 2017 has been, huh? I mean for video games, let’s just ignore the world around us that’s currently caught on fire. At least for a few minutes. So, today I’m here to talk to you about how blessed gamers have been this year. Praise Lord Gaben, because he’s been making it rain all year!

More than a week ago, Greg Miller of Kinda Funny posted this tweet and upon reflection – which took all of ten seconds – I heartily concurred.

Greg Miller @GameOverGreggy

I believe 2017 is the best year of video games ever. Please Tweet me your piece of proof or your counter argument.

2017 has indeed been a stand out year for video games, even only considering the three titles I’ve played this year. In deciding to meticulously make my way through what I considered to be the big releases, while pursuing other passions and hobbies, I’ve lagged behind quite a bit! They’re all just launching right behind one another without any regard for my time or money! Games are continually falling right on top of each other; and if you look away for one moment, another ten throw themselves onto the heap.

This is undeniably great because, you guys, there’s something for literally everyone. Nintendo fans got themselves a new console with a fantastic Zelda game, Playstation has a new leading lady and franchise in Aloy and Horizon: Zero Dawn, and Xbox freaking launched a remaster of Phantom Dust. MOBA players received reworks of Epic’s Paragonand the long-in-gestation Gigantic. RPG lovers were happy to play the mother of all JRPG’s, Persona 5, as well as the console debut of Undertale. Fighting people got ArmsTekken 7 and Injustice 2; as well as a million announcements at arguably the most lit EVO event in quite some time. Oh – and apparently Nier: Automata is the deepest game in the world. Yet, I get the feeling that come the end of the year, so much of this will be cast to the wayside with the exception of ZeldaPersona and Nier because Y’ALL, the fall rush of games is already starting and it’s only August. 

Last week alone we got Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and Lawbreakers, two games we’re particularly fond of here at OK Beast; and this week we witnessed Undertale’s console debut and the release of Sonic Mania. 2017 is relentless and if you’ve ever hated the poor pacing of your typical year, this is the overcorrection. There’s a lot of developers and projects to celebrate, however we’re not being given nearly enough time to experience them all for ourselves. In a typical year, everyone would’ve played a vast majority of the Game of the Year contenders by now because there weren’t so many releases.

With so many games, there just isn’t enough time anymore.

Not only are most gamers not able to play many of these releases, but we’re not even being allowed to miss them. This thought came up in a podcast that Blessing and Ian (both are staff of OK Beast) recorded a few weeks back. When Ian asked Blessing whether or not he’d want a mechanical sequel to Breath of the Wild, he said yes, but also shared that he likes missing games. He enjoyed the time between games that would typically allow one to be overcome with nostalgia over what a great experience that game was. Not only does Blessing feel it built a love and admiration for the experience, but that yearning, he found, began the anticipation for the inevitable follow up. He cites Grand Theft Auto 6 as an example of a game that he knows is a long way out; but can’t wait for because he has been given the time to properly play, experience and – more importantly – remember Grand Theft Auto V. 

When I finished Persona 5 after my three month odyssey into it’s depths, I felt elated for all but a second. Knowing I had fallen behind, I pushed onward to the next game, which would then inform the next piece of writing for my site. It was all about the grind. I’ve not thought about Persona 5 once since I finished it, not because I don’t love the game but because the output of fantastic games and my growing role in even the smallest of games media endeavors demands I move on. It’s now regressed from being a cherished experience to being a product on my checklist.

This time that Blessing is talking about is also handy for folks like us who like engaging in conversations on games. As a fan of the discourse, I’ve not had enough time to properly digest a game and speak to its merit or flaws and I don’t know how many others have either. Friend of the site and contributor, Chase Williams, has been my sole partner in this regard considering I “counseled” him during his trudge through Persona 5, a that game I loved and he did not. Hence the discourse. 

I know my brain isn’t making life altering connections between philosophy, art and video games, but how can it when I don’t get to think about a game for more than five minutes until the next one is up to bat? Before you say it, yes I realize I’m complaining about having a lot of a good thing. Don’t think for a moment that I don’t realize how fortunate I am to be analyzing and writing about games in this field. Games are games and games are fun (Editor’s Note: duh). 

I’ve been playing games essentially my whole life and there has never, in my lifetime, been a finer year to be a gamer. Yet with every passing release that I fail to play, my identity as a person who enjoys the medium feels less and less relevant. As much as my role as a commentator within the industry demands a constant consumption of the newest latest best, I just can’t. 

PlayStation Greatest Hits & Affordable Content Curation (Editor)

[Written by Jurge Cruz-Alvarez. Edited by Alex Van Aken]

Despite the fact that gaming has become a prevalent slice of our culture within the past two decades, the hobby has always had a barrier of entry that’s difficult to break. For years, its hefty price tag has served as a gargantuan barrier-to-entry; continuously pushing newcomers away as the video game industry chases after greater technological innovation. It’s an upsetting reality, and it appears that platform owners don’t have a vested interest in creating a path for players with low disposable income to enjoy the games they offer. This wasn’t always the case. 

However, there was a time when that path existed; and it was the only way that I, the son of two immigrants who didn’t speak english and sometimes couldn’t afford dinner, could afford to enjoy video games. That path, at least the one I’m most familiar with, was the Greatest Hits line-up of games published by Sony for the North American branch of their PlayStation platform. At the time of its creation, Sony’s Greatest Hits roster contained some of the best video games that were available on the PlayStation console. Any title that received this prestigious label would be sold to consumers for $19.99, a cost-friendly price that gave so many of us an opportunity to enjoy the hobby.

Sometimes you would wind up with a SpongeBob game, but for every licensed game released there would be at least two other solid titles – and those SpongeBob games weren’t half bad. Through the Greatest Hits program, I was able to get my hands on the games that I’d spent years coveting within the pages of Electronic Gaming Monthly. I could finally play games like Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy or licensed oddities like Dragon Ball Z: Budokai. Sony’s program allowed me to take chances on games like Burnout 3: Takedown, a game that existed within a genre that I had very little experience in. Was this curation necessary to my enjoyment of these games? Would I have eventually played these games if their price had gradually decreased over time? Perhaps. Without the Greatest Hits program, I wouldn’t have taken so many risks, as many of the featured games were outside of my comfort zone. While it was merely a smart marketing tactic on Sony’s part, I likely would’ve never played NBA Street or enjoyed titles like SSX Tricky.

For a time, there was a part of me that resented the Greatest Hits label. I understood it to be a symbol of my family’s socio-economic standing, as if Sony was telling me, “You don’t deserve this game, Jurge. You have to wait until the market seems this title as affordable.” Today, however, I realize just how significant something like the Greatest Hits line-up was to my enjoyment of video games; and how the program directly affected my current knowledge of the medium. Presently, the PlayStation 4’s Greatest Hits catalog only exists in Asian territories, strangely enough; and its absence in the Western market puzzles me. Perhaps there aren’t enough physical releases to sustain such a program, so I’d love to see the program begin to spotlight digitally-distributed video games. An online marketplace like the PlayStation Store has plenty of great games – of all styles and sizes – that would fit right in with the spirit of the Greatest Hits brand. 

Despite hosting titles with varying price points, home consoles still lack a curated list of modestly priced, good video games which could serve as a bridge to players who aren’t able to afford full-priced games. Lastly, a program such as PlayStation Greatest Hits is incredibly important because great gaming experiences shouldn’t be walled off to a certain level of class or privilege.

Gilmore Girls: Escapism in Uncertain Times (Editor)

[Written by Jurge Cruz-Alvarez. Edited by Alex Van Aken]

If ever there was a time for using media as escapism, 2016 sure would be that time. Here at Pixel Pulse Radio, we talk about pop-culture. One of the key pillars of that discussion is video games. I know many friends who use video games as a means of escape when times get tough. I used to as well, but at some point it stopped helping me; perhaps because I’ve spent recent years trying to dissect video games critically. Regardless, I miss the ability to throw myself at a game like Dynasty Warriors to forget my troubles - even if only for a few minutes.

Another topic we cover here at Pixel Pulse Radio is Gilmore Girls. It’s a topic that’s often brought up by one of the podcast’s two hosts and is welcomed begrudgingly by the other. It’s a fun bit, but I often wonder how many visitors and listeners of Pixel Pulse Radio have ever given Gilmore Girls a shot. Because it’s not just a goof, Gilmore Girls is great, and it’s a comforting and sincere show. One that I recently have been able to turn to whenever I need something to bring my spirits up.

For those who are uninformed, Gilmore Girls is about the lives of single mother Lorelai Gilmore and her daughter who shares the same name but goes by Rory. They reside in the small, fictional town of Stars Hollow, nestled in a postcard-perfect forested area of Connecticut.  And really, that pretty much sums up what the show is about. It’s a narrative that appears to be, and in many ways is, very simple. But it’s depiction of a tight, rural community and the relationship between a single-mother and her daughter turns out to be very human.

I’m new to Gilmore Girls. I actually completely forgot about the show until it re-appeared on Netflix. After getting the elevator pitch, the fact that the show is about a single-mother struck a chord with me. I myself was raised by a single-mother. Granted, I’m Latino, so my experiences are incredibly different from those of the Gilmores, but we share similarities that prove to be incredibly cathartic.

When we’re introduced to Lorelai she has a management job at the Independence Inn, a local inn in Stars Hollow, but we are told that she didn’t start there. She got her professional start as a maid when she was a teenager, pregnant with Rory. During this tumultuous time, Lorelai and her child-to-be resided in a spacious shed which was nestled in the backyard of the very inn that she now works at. While it's quite apparent that they've been through the ringer, the Gilmore girls possess a tenacity that continually pushes them forward towards better days.

The sentiment that good things happen to good people can easily come off as boring or trite when used in television or film; but the Gilmores really do seem like genuine good people who put out positive energy in their small town - and you know what? I think most people want  to believe that good things really do happen to good people, and while I can only speak for my experiences, as someone who grew up with a hardworking, single-mother, I would have loved to have had a show like Gilmore Girls when I was growing up.

The quaint, fictional community of Stars Hollow is a town made to evoke a sense of Americana. Independent shops can be found on each block, the local dinner is always busy with friendly faces, and its red oak trees shine bright-green in the Summer while maintaining a cozy orange glow in the Fall. It’s a town so perfect that it would appear to be eerie were it not for the kind characters who inhabit it.

Many sitcoms and dramas struggle to find the right balance between personal character quirks and that which can be discerned as recognizable humanity within their characters; but Gilmore Girls walks the line near perfectly. Characters like Sookie St. James, a cook at the Independence Inn, or Luke Danes, the owner of a local coffee shop, all have the usual supporting character eccentricities, but their kindness and goodness always shine through. It sounds sappy, I know, and I will admit that the show can come off as too clean and as lacking in diversity; but sometimes we need the comforting reminder that kindness does in fact exist within our world. Even though Gilmore Girls is entirely fiction, it really does carry a sense of genuine altruism.

While it’s easy and sometimes fair to dismiss it as a silly or inflated early 2000's television series, Gilmore Girls provides a comfort and warmth that’s hard to find elsewhere. This is my rallying cry. Give Gilmore Girls a chance, please. If you’re no stranger to Stars Hollow, then I encourage you to revisit the show before binge-watching the upcoming Netflix revival. You deserve it.

5 Ways To Live Longer In Gears of War 4

The Coalition’s servers were flooded early last week as thousands of fans jumped into their first matches of the Gears of War 4 multiplayer beta, leaving a bloody heap of chainsawed corpses in their wake. Fan feedback has been quite positive, illustrated by the community’s incessant body count. Tomorrow, April 25th, the newly-formed studio will open their gates and invite anyone with an Xbox Live Gold subscription to participate in the Gears of War 4 beta.

Traditionally, Gears of War’s multiplayer can be frustrating for newcomers; so here are five ways to live longer during your time with the game:

Rule Number One of Gears of War multiplayer: Don’t bring a Lancer to a Gnasher fight. This is the most common mistake I see new players make, and it’s not even their fault! Gears of War’s single player campaigns have continually bred players into believing that the Lancer - a Frankenstein-like rifle-plus-chainsaw weapon - is the solution to every problem thrown their way. When not in possession of a power weapon, most players default to the Lancer. It’s powerful. It’s consistent. It’s cool (see: chainsaw-gun). However, there is a vast difference between the game’s single player and multiplayer modes.

In Gears of War multiplayer, the Gnasher shotgun rules the land. It’s only natural, as the series’ multiplayer maps are usually smaller in scope, with a heavy focus on choke points centered around various power weapons. When confined to small spaces, the Lancer is no match against the Gnasher’s potential one-shot-kill. That’s not to say there isn’t place for the Lancer, as it’s an amazing support weapon than can really ruin someone’s day. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to fight a Gnasher user who has a Lancer supporting them from behind. Gears of War 4 gives players a ton of tools to use. Once you learn when and where to use them, you’ll instantly set yourself apart from the competition.

Gears of War has always been a cover-based shooter, and the newest game doesn’t change that one bit. While you’re running around the map you’ll need to scope out the perfect piece of cover, because things can go south in a heartbeat. If you aren’t protected by cover in a fight, odds are you'll die first. That being said, “using cover” doesn’t necessarily mean bunkering down behind a pile of sandbags while you blindly spray bullets across the battlefield. When you do that, the only real good you're doing is for the enemy team, who now knows your exact location. In most cases, the best way to cover yourself from incoming fire is by standing next to a wall or column as you poke the end of your rifle out.

Besides its absolutely gorgeous graphics, the Gears franchise has always been known for its brutal executions. Everyone remembers the day that Cliff Bleszinski showed Gears of War to the world for the first time. We lost our minds as he chainsawed the Locust scum into bits and pieces. It was bloody. It was gross. It was revolutionary.

Flash-forward to today and the series has adopted dozens of different ways to execute a foe. Watch most casual Gears of War players and you'll notice their perpetual need to use the flashy - but quite fun - execution animations. Unfortunately, this is a quick way to get killed. When performing these lengthy executions on enemies who are down-but-not-out, you are leaving yourself wide open to be splattered by a member of the opposite team. If you can't seem to overcome your chainsaw addiction then don't feel bad, because even I can't help myself sometimes.

Back in 2006, Gears of War introduced the Active Reload, a mechanic designed to allow players quicker weapon reloads by tapping a button at a specific time during the normal reload process. If players managed to time their reload perfectly, they were also rewarded with increased damage. In the original trilogy, seasoned Gears players learned to unload and then reload their weapon’s magazine just before a fight, thus maximizing their damage output. This strategy, known as “Pre-Activing,” will play a prominent role in Gears of War 4. However, things are a bit different this time around, and the Pre-Active can now be triggered without unloading any ammo from your gun’s magazine.

Its important to know the effects this special reload will have on your equipped weapon. As previously stated, you will typically be rewarded with increased damage, but in some cases - like with the new Dropshot - the reload will grant greater range and control to your gun. Learning to use this mechanic will instantly increase your chances of surviving that chaotic 2-on-1 Gnasher fight. Remember, even the best Gears of War player can be beaten by a bit of knowledge and strategic preparation.

Michael Jordan couldn’t win without his team, and neither can you. What’s the number one way to die in Gears of War, besides trying to chainsaw someone as they pump an innumerable sum of bullets into your skull? Leaving your team behind. If you leave your team in the dust, you will become dust. If you play as a team, you will survive. If you survive, you win.

So that’s it. There’s everything I have to offer to a new Gears player. Regardless of whether or not you use these tips, don’t forget to have fun. That's why we play video games, after all.

My Weekend in The Division's Dark Zone

Keep running. Turn right on the next street. Don’t stop to look. Just keep running. Down into the parking deck. Sprint past the thugs. Look back for just a moment... Okay, they’re still chasing me. Dart through that alley. Radiation. Don’t stop. Now past the gas station and into the junk yard. So close to losing them. Climb the ladder. Quickly now. Get to the rappel station on the other end of the roof. Descend. Get to the end of the street. STOP. They’re waiting for me. Turn around and book it towards Madison Ave. They’re firing now. Duck and weave. More soldiers filing in on the sides of the street. I’m completely surrounded. Nowhere to run. Grab some cover and fight. Protect your loot.

As cheesy as it sounds, this was an actual sequence I experienced while playing The Division’s Beta over the weekend. It started when I decided to ambush a group of three player-controlled Division Agents who were meandering around an extraction point in The Dark Zone; which is a quarantined area that is infused with elements of both player-vs-player and player-vs-environment encounters. I wanted the gear the other players were planning to extract. Once I decided to turn rogue -- Ubisoft’s term for acting hostile towards another player -- I lost control of the situation very quickly. My advantage on these seemingly innocent agents quickly vanished as another squad of players showed up to extract their loot. This new squad quickly realized what I was attempting to do and proceeded to aid their new allies by firing on me. I immediately fled the scene and started to plan my escape path. Of course, they followed me and an intense pursuit was now underway. Yes, you did the math correctly – there were six Division Agents chasing me through the mean streets of a snowy Manhattan.

As you previously read, things did not turn out well for me. The chase quickly ended as the other players surrounded me on both ends of a street. I was gunned down within seconds. Yes, I lost my loot and perhaps I wasted part of my afternoon; but the experience was incredibly fun and rewarding in its own right. Inside of this menacing environment, The Division transforms from a tactical buddy-shooter into a cutthroat flurry of kill-or-be-killed antics. The Dark Zone is certainly the highlight of the studio’s newest game.

While the third-person shooter finds many of its mechanics firmly planted in a simplified formula of Ubisoft’s previous Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter; it takes many cues from Destiny’s loot system and RPG-lite skill trees. In the main story, players will build up a Base of Operations by completing story missions. The further you progress through the story, the further your base progresses in its technology, medical, and security research branches. As these three branches expand, players will unlock new perks, abilities, and equipment.

All of this funnels back into The Dark Zone. A great squad will comprise itself with complimenting perks and abilities, such as a group critical damage buff or remote detonated sticky bombs. During the beta, I spent much of my time teaming up with my father who would run with a shotgun build while I covered enemies in the distance with my Police M4/ACOG setup. Our specialization? Quickly dispatching the agents who would inevitably fall behind their teammates. A few shotgun shells and a well-placed grenade can really disorient an unsuspecting team. It was incredibly rewarding to experiment with different team strategies and gear configurations.

I had a great time playing, but I certainly walked away with a few concerns for The Division. While it already seems to have more story than vanilla Destiny, I can’t help but shake the feeling of apprehension I have towards Ubisoft’s choice to base the main story around a silent protagonist. The missions that were available in the beta were fun in structure, but felt lackluster in narrative substance. For reference, I played through the instanced story missions twice to experience both difficulty settings and to see the varied dynamics between solo and group play.

Secondly, the open world seemed to lack a healthy population of enemy AI. On several occasions I ran around the map for several minutes without encountering a single enemy. This was also a problem in The Dark Zone. This needs to be fixed before the game ships in early March.

Lastly, The Division’s UI leads to a consistent problem in the Dark Zone. It should be known that whenever a player goes rogue, their name and health bar are displayed in bright red and are accompanied by a skull above the character’s head. However, anytime combat ensues, all players have the same red health bar displayed above their head. In an intense shoot-out, this often leads to accidentally shooting the wrong player, and going rogue yourself. While this helps out the enemy rogues, it often confuses everyone else and breaks the flow of combat. A simple fix to this issue would be to differentiate the health bar colors of rogues and non-hostile agents who are in combat together. While I have no problem attacking innocent players, I would at least like to know when I am doing so.

Overall, I walk away from The Division with high hopes. Whether I was giving med packs to the homeless for XP, tackling difficult missions by myself, or surprise-attacking five other players for their loot with my buddies, I was having a blast. It’s clear that this game will cater towards many different player types. Want to only play cooperative story missions? You can do that. Want to collect a variety of skinny jeans and baseball caps? Go for it. Just want to spend your time ambushing and backstabbing other players? You can do that too.

After spending a weekend with The Division, one thought resonates in my head: The Dark Zone is absolutely thrilling. It steals the show. It’s all I think about. The Dark Zone has totally and completely consumed me.

It's going to be a long two weeks until The Division releases. In the mean time, you can listen to more of Alex's thoughts on The Division via Episode 15 of Pixel Pulse Radio.

That Dragon, Cancer is a Remarkably Human Experience

Joel Green was only an infant when he was diagnosed with an Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor, a cancerous growth known to be aggressive and fast growing. Due to the vile nature of this tumor, little Joel underwent brain surgery – followed by extensive chemotherapy – to exscind the growth. Despite the treatments, the Green family would soon know tragedy; but nothing could prepare them for the degree at which they would face it. Joel would experience an unconscionable sum of tumor recurrences, coupled with years of palliative care in various hospitals and treatment facilities across the United States. Through the storm, Baby Joel remained vigilant and joyful until his death on March 13, 2014.

Shortly before his death, Joel’s parents, Ryan and Amy Davis, felt lead to design a narrative-based game surrounding Joel’s experiences. Through the development process, Ryan and Amy have mourned, wrestled with, and survived the loss of their child. Earlier this month, on what would have been Joel’s 7th birthday, Ryan and Amy released their sobering game: That Dragon, Cancer.

Players will start the game from the perspective of a duck, listening in on the Green family’s conversation as Joel is casting pieces of bread into the water. This point-and-click adventure’s power comes from its inclusion of real-life moments, thoughts, and audio clips. We listen as Joel’s brothers ask earnest and honest questions about his cancer. We are sobered when we hear the doctor’s prognosis. We cry as Ryan and Amy’s fears become fully realized. We smile when Amy and Joel race around the children’s hospital in a Mario Kart fashion. We hear the joy and hope in Joel’s laugh. That Dragon, Cancer is slow and thoughtful. It transported me through moments and memories that I will certainly remember for a long time to come.

Throughout my playthrough it became apparent that Ryan and Amy’s Christian faith is a huge facet of their personal lives. That Dragon, Cancer roots itself in the dichotomy of how two fearful parents can place their trust in God – even while watching their son suffer from a wicked illness. As someone who shares Ryan and Amy’s faith, and someone who lost a close loved one to cancer shortly after playing this game, I’ve found their steadfastness to be both edifying and terrifying.  I am challenged to find words as I read an update from the family’s blog, which was written six months after Joel’s passing:

“I listen as Ryan sings to our children before bed, and they sing along, loud and wild, and I realize we are not broken, not really. We are a strong family with an undercurrent of great sorrow and great joy. These past six months have stretched me, they have challenged everything I believe and made me re-examine everything I know. Not because what I believed or knew was wrong, but because it was incomplete, it wasn’t deep enough. It never can be, but I feel the stretching even though it is too soon for me to coherently express what is changing in me.”

I cannot fathom the loss of a child, nor do I want to. I cannot imagine the fear of telling my sons and daughter that their brother has passed; nor bear the thought of having to wake up and walk past a once-occupied room. The Green family possesses a resilience that I only dream of having.

After finishing That Dragon, Cancer, I feel a connection to Ryan and Amy Green. I feel a connection to their family. More importantly, I feel a connection to Joel. My heart is filled with gratitude as I reflect upon my time spent with That Dragon, Cancer; and Joel Evan Green’s story may be tragic, but it is one filled with beauty, love, and a transcendent hope. Numinous Games has captured my mind and attention after sharing such a raw, real story. That Dragon, Cancer is a sad story. It’s beautiful. It’s funny. It’s a remarkably human experience that every person should see, hear, and play.