Discussion! Vandal’s September Backlog

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We have less than one month before every night of the week becomes flooded with TV that all looks so great.  What follows is how I’ll be filling the hours before premiere week:

John Jackson Miller, STAR WARS: A NEW DAWN
Disney/Lucasfilm kicks off their mega-reboot of the Star Wars universe begins not with a TV show or a movie, but with a book–the first book ever to be considered ‘canon’ in the ongoing battle between good and evil.  Star Wars: A New Dawn tells the story of the first team-up of Kanan Jarrus and Hera Syndulla and contains a nice foreword by Dave Filoni in which he explains the degree to which the creative teams, as well as the Lucasfilm Story Group, has changed their regard for the non-film media.

Destiny Is LiveBungie & Activision, DESTINY
I waited to buy an Xbox One for a game that was going to be worth it, and I’m betting my money and time on the game that has been at the center of the industry’s hype over the past year (sorry, Titanfall).  After playing the Beta in July, I can’t imagine the game won’t be a colossal hit, or a ton of fun.

Geoff Johns, JUSTICE LEAGUE, VOL. 4: THE GRID
As we readers of the trade paperback variety get closer to the day when we will finally read Trinity War in all its apparent glory, this collection from Johns and Reis will bring us right up to the brink of that huge crossover event.  As I maintain that this book has been the best of the New 52 across the board, I’ll be reading this one as soon as it comes out on September 16th.

Wes Ball & James Dashner, THE MAZE RUNNER
After being totally hypnotized by the trailer in August, and as there’s almost nothing else interesting coming to theaters in September, I’ll be stopping in to see how they bring another popular YA book franchise to the big screen

Teaser PosterBruno Heller et al., GOTHAM (FOX)
It’s an interesting take on the World’s Most Popular Thing, and I can’t tell if it’s going to be a big-concept police procedural or some kind of urbano-gothic Smallville.  What they’ve shown looks great, and as a Batman guy outright, I’ll not be hesitating to check in with my superhero’s new TV show (even if I have to admit that the other two guys over on The CW have shows that look more interesting right now).

October is going to be a crazy TV-heavy month for us here at the Backlog (we have some pretty ambitious plans for you readers), and things in the geekosphere are holding steady.  Thanks for a great first month!

– Vandal

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Review! Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition [No Spoilers]

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TR-DE Review 1

This first adventure of the renewed Lara Croft was great on Xbox 360 and PS3, but its port to nextgen consoles shows that the forthcoming adventures of the newly-born survivor will find their true home on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is the first game that I’ve had the pleasure to play on on my shiny new Xbox One, and while certainly doesn’t disappoint in terms of presentation, the reason this game should near the top of your Backlogs is how it successfully revives what is now an “old” franchise by synthesizing elements of some of the best games of the past decade into its renewal of Lady Croft’s adventures across the globe.  First, let me be clear: Tomb Raider: DE feels every bit a proper Lara Croft adventure in all its facets, and is exactly the update the franchise needed to become relevant again.

STORY
Firstly, its story blends together arcane spiritualism, ambitious, self-centered characters, gravity-inspired danger, and the collection of ancient relics just as any of the previous games have.  This time, Lara is on her first-ever journey as a kind of post-doc archaeologist traveling with her mentor, a “Northern bastard” named Roth whose job it is to lead the expedition in search of the lost island of Yamatai, the resting place of the ancient Queen Himiko.

TR-DE Review 3

TOMB RAIDER takes you to the island of Yamatai, a place filled with murderous maniacs and buildings that have waited for centuries to collapse at the exact moment of your arrival.

After a gambit to pinpoint the island’s location, Lara and her compatriots survive a shipwreck and are forced to navigate the mysterious island in their attempts to escape from it.  They run into a man named Mathias, whose ambitions are both similar and different to their own, As the player takes control of Lara Croft before she picks up the iconic twin pistols, he or she will battle Mathias’ maniacal followers as they endeavor to get off the island before it or its inhabitants can claim their lives.

This story rocks, and is reason enough to play the game outright.   It’s a fairly long one–I neither hurried nor dallied, but it still took me a decent week of regular play to get through it, about 17 hours of actual in-game time.  There’s a really nice balance between the more hardboiled aspects of the narrative and the fantastic ones, and by the time Lara de-mystifies the island, all of these elements combine in a spectacular finale that delivers on its story promises while looking, sounding, and playing like a nextgen game should.  I was thrilled to the end, and I can’t wait to see where the developers at Crystal Dynamics take Lara and her story next. 

GAMEPLAY
Playing Lara as the proto-Tomb Raider also really benefits from the gameplay advancements across the industry over the course of the past six or seven years.  TR:DE doesn’t contain any wildly new innovations in terms of gameplay, but it does borrow and combine some of the more welcome ones into its controls.

TR-DE Review 2

Lara’s not quite ready for her iconic twin pistols yet, but the range of gear that there is to upgrade more than makes up for the omission.

The player picks up weapon and equipment upgrades as the story progresses, a system familiar to players of the Batman: Arkham games.  While Lara comes to the island with a group of people, the story works well to keep her isolated almost all of the time, a gameplay device reminiscent of the first two Dead Space games.  The combat system adopts the soft-cover, scramble-happy action of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series and the story-glorious The Last of Us,  but the shooting mechanic is far better: it is tighter and more responsive, to a large degree reminiscent of Mass Effect 3.

TR-DE Review 4

“Run, you bastards!”

CONCLUSION
Between the story and the gameplay, and the specific elements of each, lies the game’s greatest strength: balance.  It looks and plays great, the story features both hardboiled and mythic elements in just about equal measure, and the smooth mechanic of the combat system benefits strongly from a steady upgrade system that asks the player to prioritize, at first, but not to sacrifice gameplay elements in the long term.  Lara transitions from a fearful, flinching castaway to a vengeful survivor who confronts her enemies confidently and decisively.  By the end of the game, Lara is even more the puzzle-solving adventurer she has been for almost two decades.

BACKLOG PRIORITY
8.5/10 – As a game that has the responsibilities of both relaunching a very popular franchise and maintaining an existing fan base, there’s not much that Tomb Raider leaves undone: it updates gameplay for the next generation; it tells an engaging, self-contained story that focuses on character development; and it offers some genuinely memorable moments that make this a great place to start with your Xbox One or PlayStation 4.

– Vandal

Preview! ‘Assassin’s Creed: Unity’ Goes Red and Black

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AC Unity P.1

ASSASSIN’S CREED: UNITY takes us to the most revolution-y of revolutions, the French Revolution. You can also play the new installment of the franchise on the PlayStation 4.

Note: Some spoilers from previous Assassin’s Creed games follow.

On November 11, our hidden blade will have a new opportunity for use in the setting of the French Revolution. Assassin’s Creed: Unity will feature Arno Dorian, who was raised by a Templar after his Assassin father was murdered. Fans of the series will recognize this dichotomy from the prequel novel to Assassin’s Creed III which featured Haytham Kenway, a Templar who discovers his own father was an Assassin.  A new twist is a love relationship with a Templar, Elise. Although details are scarce on the sub-plot scened in the present, a recent article in Game Informer confirmed that Desmond’s story is finished and this will be something different. I can’t help but think the Ubisoft Montreal and Bioware Montreal guys have been drinking together at the local pub and resolving their main characters to rest…for good. Of course, some hold to a hope of their respective returns.

As for details on the game, there are some interesting details put forth. Unity actually started right after Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. It appears that a development group split off during ACIII. The major advancements in ACIII were arguably the weather versatile environments and ship combat that spawned the subsequent release of Black Flag. Unity has been said to return to the core principles that resonated with the first three installments of Assassin’s Creed. Players will have to get to know their targets before dispatching them. Swordplay has been redone to focus on the mechanics of fencing. Navigation has been retooled to have easier upward and downward parkour movements.

AC Unity P.2

Do you hear the people sing? DO YOU?

Perhaps the biggest change coming is a cooperative mode where friends can join in on your current mission (from the last save point) as other friendly assassins. Another substantial change is that the missions will no longer “desync” you for not being stealthy but rather adapt to how you want to play the game. Finally, the buildings themselves will actually be able to be explored on the inside with special animations & sequences for combat, escape, and general exploration.

For fans of Les Miserables, this sounds to be an enjoyable visit to the violent and dynamic period of the turn of the 18th century. This title has us at the Backlog interested enough to keep tabs on and perhaps visit our local video game store to put down a preorder. The releases of this fall weigh heavy on the size of the backlog so we may need to let it slip until Christmas. Keep posted fellow assassinos!

– Dinmyer

Discussion! Dragon Age: Inquisition Multiplayer Trailer

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The biggest news from the Xbox One dashboard remains the Dragon Age: Inquisition multiplayer trailer that BioWare revealed last week before PAX Prime in Seattle.  We’ve watched a fair few times, and present it to you below so that you can do the same:

Five things that really jump out to me, aside from the beautiful presentation that Frostbite 3 offers:

1 – Lovely lady Leliana and her voice-over.  It sounds more than a little like she’ll be the in-game contact person for our avatars during co-op, as she specifically takes responsibility for directing the missions at 0:11.

2 – The objectives that appear on the player’s HUD at 0:19 and 0:27.  We see only two here, but the on-screen directions that appear suggest that there will be a variety of things to do as we slay our way through dungeons, looting treasure and stacking DPS.

DAI MP Archer Preview

One of the 20 classes available at DRAGON AGE: INQUISITION’s launch will be the Archer, whom I will immediately dress in green and name “Ollie.”

3 – 12-character kits.  The ones we see at 0:30 include an Assassin, a Keeper, and a Legionnaire, all of which refer to specializations available to players and party members of the previous games in the Dragon Age franchise.  As the DLC will be free of charge when it comes, it’s not unreasonable to assume that we’ll have far more options than these robust dozen before too long.

4 – The crafting menu.  At 0:43, we see the option to make something called the “Highever Weave.”  This is a reference to the human noble path for warriors and rogues in Dragon Age: Origins, and suggests not only that the equipment system Inquisition will go deep, but that the lore of Thedas will be integrated in to the multiplayer mode as well.

5 – Ability combos.  One of most enjoyable things about Mass Effect 3‘s multiplayer was the trial-and-error of figuring out how to tear down Banshees with carefully timed biotic explosions, which could also be used to launch Husks into the stratosphere for fun during less-stressful waves.  Vrin and I had numerous classes set aside for just that purpose, and we have mused more than once that the Dragon Age character system might be even more suitable for cross-class devastation–we get a look at some of these at 1:01.

BioWare has also offered a FAQ on its multiplayer mode on DragonAge.com, and what they’re promising us sounds like they’ve taken the fun of Mass Effect 3‘s jolly cooperation and translated it with even more depth into the Dragon Age franchise.

There may have been some well-warranted skepticism from players and pundits alike regarding BioWare after the controversy-laden releases of both Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3, but what the Canadian developer has shown from Inquisition outstrips either of those games’ marketing strategies, and after hugely successful presentations at E3 and Gamescom, and with a huge lineup prepared at PAX Prime this weekend to showcase Inquisition, they don’t seem to have missed a beat; rather, BioWare looks better than ever.

– Vandal

Discussion! ‘Destiny’ Matchmaking

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13 days to go, friends–Destiny is on its way to rob us of sleep, sunshine, and sadness.  Today we’ll take a peek at the two matchmaking modes that Activision’s next shooter will offer players, one cooperative and one competitive.

STRIKES
Strikes are missions that, depending on the level and familiarity of the three-person fireteam, can take anywhere from 20 minutes to well over an hour of time to complete, and this is likely to increase as Bungie adds Strikes to the Destiny playlists via DLC and weekly events.

Destiny Beta Strike

Strikes are a great way to team up with your friends in the DESTINY universe, and the challenges that they are sure to offer to players look like they’ll be readily offset by regular, excellent loot drops to make the next Strike a little more manageable.

During the Beta, players were offloaded into a battle zone between  two factions of enemies—the Fallen and the Hive—and fought their way through several objectives that were similar to those featured in the other game modes.  After the final fight, each member of the participating fireteam received gear as they did when they completed story chapters, and then returned to orbit.

This game mode—the strongest that the Beta offered from a technical and cooperative perspective—boasts real challenge, as respawn rules become increasingly stringent and coordinated teamwork becomes necessary in order to finish efficiently, if at all.  We played this event several times with several different fireteam arrangements, and the party build that made the event most manageable was that of Hunter/Titan/Warlock, allowing each class’ advantages to limit the other class’ shortcomings.

This warrants Bungie’s earlier claims that the game’s focus on cooperative play would in no way be harmed by the all-but-certain popularity of the Crucible, and those less interested in competing than cooperating (as is true for us here at the Unending Backlog) wouldn’t see their rewards limited in any way.  In our trips through the Strike, all equipment rewards at the end of each time through the strike were of equipment scaled at least the level of the characters we were playing at the time, and some were even above the levels of our characters.

Destiny Beta Crucible

The Beta only featured one game mode from Destiny’s competitive gameplay, but it enjoyed a lot of participation and will surely be a hit when the game launches in two weeks.

THE CRUCIBLE
On the competitive side of Destiny, the Crucible and its competition was perhaps the most familiar element of the first person nature of the “shared-world shooter”; the one available competitive mode, Control, shares a great deal of its structure and objectives with Call of Duty’s manic ‘Domination’ mode, in which players rush to claim waypoints that contribute to their teams’ scores.  Here, though, the gameplay of Destiny really shines, as while its quality in the single-player and cooperative elements is good, the balance the game strikes between all play types loses nothing in the transition to a competitive arena.

While I was playing, I observed that the players that were winning did so with familiarity and skill within the rules of the game, and not on equipment, class, or level.  Teams that worked together were successful, and those that did not struggled.  This promises the kind of inclusive playing grounds that have made Call of Duty so successful, and it comes as no surprise that Activision’s involvement in Destiny’s development has seemingly lent the same advantages to Bungie’s new game.  If the Beta was the test that Bungie wanted it to be, the Crucible will be a very busy place for a very long time.

CONCLUSION
Multiplayer modes offer players a chance to team up with or compete against their friends, and Destiny will in no way be short of that.  Both the Strike and Crucible game modes offer a lot of options for gamers of any sort, and both are certain to be regular visits for Guardians in their quest for both loot and challenge.  We are looking forward to seeing what Bungie has for us when we team up for the first time on September 9th.

– Vandal

News! Dragon Age: Inquisition WILL Feature a Co-op MP Mode

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It’s as if the Maker himself heard our pleas.

Via IGN, BioWare announced today that their colossal fantasy RPG, Dragon Age: Inquisitionwill indeed feature a cooperative game mode.  For those of you who (like we) loved the multiplayer element of the Canadian developer’s last AAA blockbuster, Mass Effect 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition will offer even more by way of map variety, gameplay elements, character progression, and gear acquisition.

Biotic explosions?  Child's play compared to a flaming sword...of flame...and a max level Mana Clash hurled at a blood mage.

Biotic explosions? Child’s play compared to a flaming sword…of flame…and a max level Mana Clash hurled at a blood mage.

We here at the Unending Backlog have been waiting for this particular announcement for some time, as the co-op mode from Mass Effect 3 was one of the game’s highlights.  It allowed players to participate in BioWare’s galaxy-spanning war against the Reapers alongside their friends, and as a similarly dire conflict looks to be at the heart of Inquisition, a chance to team up once again and collect and upgrade weapons and gear to our heart’s content is something we’ve been hoping that they would include in this game’s development.

They have, and we’re terribly, terribly excited.

Once we’ve finished celebrating and congratulating ourselves on this piece of news, and after we maybe(?) get a peek at some gameplay at Pax Prime this coming weekend, we’ll have a full preview for you here.

– Vandal

Discussion! ‘Destiny’ Explore Mode

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As the release of Destiny approaches (but not nearly fast enough), we’ll continue our look back at the Beta and discuss today the “Explore” mode, where we imagine we’ll be spending a considerable amount of time in the endorphin-filled quest for in-game gear.

Choosing ‘Explore’ from the Director takes you and your fireteam to the same areas as the story does, but it releases you from any sort of event progression and lets you run wild across the landscape.

EXPLORE MODE
Choosing the Explore option from the Director map consumed most of our  time with the Beta, as the Story chapters were over fairly swiftly.   The activities of the Explore mode, by sharpest contrast, are endless.  Players and fireteams wandered the Cosmodrome—the same area in which the sample story chapters take place—and fought endless dropships full of enemies and quested after loot drops.  These were capped out at the “uncommon” level, at least with respect to what we could use.  Players could also gain Vanguard points in the Tower by completing brief objectives, such as collecting items from slain enemies or scouting a map location, and while these were over fairly quickly, they paid off as it became possible for the player to elevate quite rapidly his reputation with her Vanguard, a class-specific handler who barters in only the finest weapons and armor (none of which were available to players in the Beta).

This game mode looks like it’s going to be rather engaging.  As with games such as Star Wars: The Old Republic or Diablo III, the loot-grab approach to gameplay becomes quickly addictive and time-consuming as the loot drops regularly from the ever-spawning enemies.  The quality and effectiveness of these pieces are sure to escalate as the player moves towards the level cap, but while the areas are vast, it is not only effortless but also enjoyable to navigate between the different, large subsections and to participate in Public Events.  These events occur randomly, and all players can join in defeating a difficult boss-level enemy or protecting an objective against waves of aggressors offloaded from a dropship.

Destiny Beta Public Event

Enemies are never in short supply in ‘Explore,’ but the baddest of the baddies show up during public events and drop the lootiest of the loot.

My sole noted omission from this game mode was the absence of a map for in-game use, which made the early hours of exploration less efficient than the later ones as the sense of the area’s geography remained hazy until I became familiar with landmarks and each areas’ unique features.  But even in a seemingly-limited Beta, there was no shortage of activities in which to invest time, and much of the best equipment I obtained via loot drops came from my time exploring the Cosmodrome.  Should this be the case for each of the environments that the full game boasts as possibilities to explore, like the Moon or Europa, players will certainly lose themselves in the vast and detailed environments and the endless quest for that perfect armor set.

CONCLUSION
Bungie has yet to really distinguish the difference between “MMO” and “shared-world shooter,” and the Explore mode really highlights how similar to an MMO that Destiny is going to feel.  Games like the aforementioned Diablo III have a similar loot system, but the repeated enemy spawns and huge areas to explore are a game mechanic far closer to its cousin, World of Warcraft.  This is sure to increase the game’s range of appeal, and as such, we’re looking forward to getting back out there to see what other secrets the Cosmodrome and the other environments offer by way of time-sinking exploration when we chose “Explore” from the Director.

– Vandal