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REVIEWS & PREVIEWS (LAST 60)


Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is every bit as fantastical as you'd hope, an RPG set in a massive world where man and animal live on the backs of tremendous beasts in a sea of clouds. The world of Alrest, simultaneously Earthly and alien, with a mysterious history that even its major players fail to truly understand, is a magical place to inhabit. It appropriately sets the stage for an epic adventure that gets more interesting as it develops, but this greatness comes after dozens of hours filled with eye rolls and bewilderment. For all the good things Xenoblade 2 eventually introduces, the 80-plus hours it takes to complete the story won't feel like time wasted, but the bad taste of the its lesser qualities is never completely washed away.

The cliched hero Rex is a naive and upbeat salvager who gets wrapped up in contract work with the game's soon-to-be villains at the start. They seek a legendary sword, which in this case is the weapon-manifestation of a human-like being known as a Blade. When a human resonates with a Blade, as Rex does with his objective, Pyra, a lifelong partnership forms. Though sentimental to a point, these bonds are also a bit lopsided as Blades are forever bound to serve their masters. Xenoblade 2 does address this as the story unravels, one of the few smart instances when the game puts itself to task. Rex doesn't quite enjoy the same full-circle maturation, sadly, though his positivity at least grows more welcome as stakes rise and other characters' outlooks sour.

Anyone familiar with Xenoblade Chronicles will rightfully recognize the way Xenoblade 2 sets you up to be surprised in the end, as characters gradually reveal secret thoughts, unveil unexpected backstories, and make moves that catch you off guard. These thought-provoking revelations reshape your understanding of the world and the point of your participation. But long before the story delivers these compelling beats, you are thrust into predictable scenarios and presented with poorly voiced characters from one scene to the next. Once again, the stout and furry Nopon creatures are an annoyance on par with Jar Jar Binks, harming would-be dramatic scenes the moment they open their mouths.

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Rex and Pyra seek Elysium, a sort of paradise atop a towering tree running through the center of Alrest. They partner with a small selection of comrades from different walks of life who surprisingly have more in common than they initially realize. You can only ever travel as a party of three, but with a Blade standing behind each character, or Driver, battles are frenzied displays. Still, Xenoblade 2 gives you a chance to breathe and strategize during its real-time bouts. Every character will dish out basic attacks automatically, which in turn fuel more advanced skills. You only ever have complete control over one character, but your allies will chime in with requests to perform certain moves. How you manage this process, and the numerous other battle mechanics, can make or break your success against the game's tougher enemies.

One of the major issues with Xenoblade 2 is that it fails to adequately educate you, with fly-by tutorials introducing cascading mechanics and terminology that's easy to mix up. The flow of combat works as follows: your auto attacks fill up a meter tied to abilities known as arts, arts fuel another meter for special attacks, special attacks can be linked from one character to the next to build up a Blade combo, Blade combos seal away certain enemy abilities, and team chain attacks--based on a meter that is also used to revive fallen teammates--can break these seals to create an elemental explosion that deals hefty damage, which successfully extends the chain attack for another round. Enemies can also be forced into tiers of vulnerability by breaking their defense, toppling them to the ground, launching them into the air, and smashing them back down, provided you execute these moves with abilities linked to cooldowns that you've hopefully kept track of, all before countdown timers close your window of opportunity. There are other systems that exist on a per-character basis, but those exclusions notwithstanding, there's already a lot to keep track of. Success comes from managing timers and meter charges and firmly grasping your available options, the latter of which is more demanding than the game initially lets on.

Thankfully Xenoblade 2 feels appropriately balanced to account for its learning curve. It's not until later in the game that mastery becomes paramount. The frustration arises, however, from the lack of reference material, which makes your desire to improve, or your ability to chase hidden paths with dangerous enemies and great rewards, difficult to realize at first. Take screenshots when the game presents you with a tutorial, because once you move to the next text bubble, that info is otherwise lost. The only other recourse is to purchase bite-sized tips from informants throughout the game, though linking partial tutorials to a merchant is hardly user-friendly, and they don't adequately cover the breadth of Xenoblade 2's mechanics.

Merchants in general even manage to be confusing at first, as one location will cram as many as a dozen in a small area. Characters can carry items in special pouches that buff certain stats, such as meter generation, and while some are incredibly useful to the point of eliminating the need to grind, it's a slow process to familiarize yourself with the dozens of options available to you, and the numerous merchants that specialize in one category apiece. This also extends to a vast selection of accessories for characters and Blades, which are difficult to keep track of and compare given the game's mediocre item-management interface. Variety is good, but Xenoblade 2 throws you into the deep end a bit too early for you to appreciate the value of everything at your disposal.

To build a formidable team, you're encouraged to regularly acquire new Blades by collecting and bonding with Core Crystals, which are found in chests and dropped by defeated enemies. Despite three tiers of crystals--normal, rare, and legendary--you're never guaranteed to get one of the game's elusive rare Blades from crystals you find in the field. Save for a few varying body types, the vast majority of Blades you acquire also look nearly identical.

Looks obviously aren't everything, and even common Blades are useful as they each come with randomized buffs and stat bonuses that can make a big difference in battle. But rare Blades have unique designs, their own side quests, and a larger selection of skills and stat bonuses than common Blades. It's easy enough over time to fill out your party with rares, but opening Core Crystals becomes less attractive as diminishing returns set in. Opening 50 towards the end of the game yielded zero rare Blades, despite having unlocked only half of the rare roster.

To combat the randomness of Core Crystals, you are joined by a Blade early on named Poppi, an artificial lifeform that you can customize to your liking. The concept sounds great, but unlocking parts to modify Poppi requires you to play a shallow retro game called Tiger Tiger, where you move a chunky character through a slow-scrolling stage while picking up collectables. More annoyingly, you can't play this game freely, and must return to an early-game location and likely play a couple hundred rounds to earn enough resources for desirable upgrades. This long-winded process isn't enjoyable enough to see through, and not worth sidelining your efforts elsewhere with Blades that you can raise organically through combat.

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Blades outside of your core party can also be trained via asynchronous mercenary missions, and they return after a fixed amount of time with rewards and experience that goes towards developing their secondary abilities. Field skills, for example--traits such as lockpicking, focus, and leaping power--will allow you to access elite treasure chests and shortcuts. There are very rare instances when the game will gate you with a door that requires mastery of certain field skills, though these are exclusively linked to abilities shared among story-based Blades.

Even in these situations, you're never truly stuck. Xenoblade 2 lets you fast travel, instantly, to any major location in the game, regardless of the context in the story. This is great in a pinch, but it's also incredibly illogical. You shouldn't be able to warp out of a location to buy equipment across the world during a mission where your main objective is to escape imprisonment, but Xenoblade 2 affords you that option. No matter how silly it seems in practice, fast travelling makes it easy to hop back and forth from one incredible environment to the next. Alrest is gigantic, and following the story will only reveal a small part of what there is to see. Xenoblade Chronicles and Xenoblade Chronicles X both set a high bar for world design, and developer Monolith Soft. has once again delivered a robust collection of dazzling environments.

On this and many other levels, Xenoblade 2 exhibits admirable depth. Adventurous types that enjoy complex combat systems can easily spend more than 100 hours uncovering Alrest's secrets and developing their team of Blades, provided they can come to terms with a handful of unavoidable shortcomings. It's equal parts pleasing and frustrating, but the struggle to keep up with everything thrown your way is more of a hurdle than a roadblock. It will be a tough pill to swallow for people who aren't accustomed to the typical cliches found in many Japanese RPGs, and its often clumsy nature keeps it from being the next groundbreaking Switch game, but Xenoblade 2 is worth pursuing if you've got enough patience to let it blossom.

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Source: GameSpot - Reviews (Thu, 30 Nov 2017 05:00:00 -0800)

When Ubisoft Annecy's extreme sports game Steep launched last year, it sold itself on the promise of big mountain exploration. In light of this, Steep's newest expansion, Road to the Olympics, feels somewhat incongruous with the rest of the game. Something as regimented, restricted, and well-defined as the Olympics does not fit well with a game that challenges you to break all restrictions and find every nook and cranny hidden in the mountains. However, despite its name, Road to the Olympics includes much more than just the Olympics; it adds a huge swath of beautiful and brutal terrain, as well as new events that are surprisingly entertaining.

Those parts of the DLC are hidden behind the story mode, however, which is not much more than a classic longshot narrative: You are an aspiring freestyle Olympian, and you have to complete a series of events in order to make it onto the Olympic team. Your ultimate goal is to become the first freestyle athlete to win the gold medal in all three freestyle disciplines: Big Air, Slopestyle, and Halfpipe.

As you progress through training and the various pre-Olympic competitions, the story is interspersed with actual video interviews with famous winter athletes. These are probably the best moments in the mode, as it's fascinating to hear Lindsey Vonn or Gus Kenworthy talk about their training regimen, what their anxieties are, or how it feels to win a competition. Generally, Olympic athletes only ever get visibility when they are actually participating in the Olympics, so it's easy to only think of them in the context of their sports. To see highly successful athletes sitting down in street clothes and talking about their experiences with obvious passion instills a sense of humanity and relatability that we rarely otherwise get.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story doesn't match the interviews in quality. Each event feels bizarrely disconnected from the interviews, and the mode's narrator treats your character as a nameless, faceless competitor who is supposed to be taking snowboarding by storm. In addition, the actual competitions are frustratingly easy if you've played the base game. During my playthrough of the story, I never once came close to falling out of first place, and I'd routinely score two or three times higher than the other competitors. During some events, where the total score is the sum of the scores of three runs, my two-run score would be significantly higher than the competitors' three-run scores. Although its in-depth tutorial make it a great mode for newcomers, veterans of the game won't find anything particularly exciting or intriguing. Thankfully, it only takes three hours to complete, so you can quickly get through it and turn your attention to the much more rewarding parts of the expansion: the new open world and the various challenges contained within.

For all its problems, Steep does one thing particularly well: it imparts a sense of scale that's unmatched by any other winter sports game. The mountains you ski on feel immense, varied, and full of secrets--in other words, they actually feel like real mountains. They draw you in and make you want to traverse their entire breadth. Additionally, each mountain is distinct and has its own character; Steep's Denali map features massive, wide-open slopes, while the Alps are filled with craggy peaks, glacier fields, and Swiss villages. Road to the Olympics adds a Japan location, which is just as varied and, it turns out, is my favorite map in the game.

Japan's skiing is unique and very different from Western ski areas. The new map is filled with huge, sheer cliffs that bottom out into narrow ravines, glades full of small, scraggly trees as opposed to the tall evergreens of the West, and pillow fields of natural jumps and kickers that make you feel both exhilarated and slightly out of control. Steep's character models and small details have never looked good, but its scenery is gorgeous, and Japan is no exception. I found myself frequently stopping and staring out over the mountain range, or seeking out the small temples and villages that dot the mountainside.

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It's also just an incredibly fun map to ski down. Steep has arguably the best video-game skiing ever made, from the sense of speed to the ease of pulling off tricks to the smoothness of the mechanics. And Japan encourages you to experiment with those mechanics and push the game to its limits. No other map in the game has rock faces as sheer, chutes as steep, or glades as dense, and you'll have to really work to keep yourself from crashing. But unlike the Alps and Alaska, I never felt like I was fighting the game itself or going out of my way to avoid particularly nasty terrain. The new mountain wants you to throw yourself down chasms and cliffs.

Of course, free-roaming around the mountain isn't the only thing you can do in Steep--it also has a Trials-like challenge system that encourages you to perfect your runs to increase your score. I've found Japan's normal challenges to be fine, but unmemorable; there's no challenge that stands out like the Cliff Jump events in the base game. It also has a distinct lack of freestyle events, which are by far the best challenges in the game.

However, Road to the Olympics also contains about a dozen different Olympic challenges that are a lot more satisfying than their story mode counterparts. Competing against yourself and the global leaderboards is more difficult and more interesting than competing against computer-controlled characters. These events do feature a commentator, though, whose lines are extremely repetitive and often unrelated to what you're doing.

The events themselves are novel and rewarding, featuring mechanics and terrain found nowhere else in the game. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the new ski racing events actually work pretty well in a game that focuses so clearly on freestyle. In fact, the Downhill ski challenge has become one of my favorites of all the activities in Steep.

Struggling to control your character while going at extremely high speeds is satisfying and entertaining, especially when you nail a difficult turn while maintaining your velocity. Also, these ski race events finally justify the existence of Steep's first-person view. Although it's impossible to ski in first person while doing jumps and flips, ski racing is perfect for it: the smooth, open tracks keep the camera stable, and it's actually helpful to see the track from a closer, less obscured perspective. In addition, hitting a jump or carving a hard turn in first person felt way more real than I was expecting. For a few moments at least, I experienced the same stomach lurches that I do when skiing in real life.

The ski races provide some much-needed novelty to Steep's core gameplay, but most of Road to the Olympics is simply more Steep. That's both good and bad; the new playground in Japan is huge, varied, and enticing, it provides a wealth of opportunities to explore and try new tricks, and there are enough challenges to keep you occupied trying to beat your own and friends' scores. However, Steep does can get repetitive; a freestyle challenge is a freestyle challenge, after all, and eventually Japan's novelty does wear off. The ski races actually present new mechanics to master, but the expansion doesn't lean into these events hard enough. Even having just a few more Downhill courses would have gone a long way toward making Road to the Olympics better.

As it is, the moments where Road to the Olympics shines are when you're shredding through waist-deep powder at breakneck speeds through a picturesque glade, or careening from the very peak of a mountain down through ravines and all the way to the base far below. The new mountain is beautiful and features a good number of opportunities, and it's a welcome expansion of Steep's playable territory. The Olympic events, meanwhile, provide nice diversions when you really want to compete against yourself. The DLC's main feature--the narrative journey to the Olympics--is flawed, unfulfilling, and frustrating, but thankfully there's enough to do elsewhere that Road to the Olympics still helps bolster and revitalize Steep's main appeal. It's good to have a new mountain to throw yourself down.

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Source: GameSpot - Reviews (Sat, 09 Dec 2017 08:00:00 -0800)

If you simply ran out of things to do in vanilla Destiny 2, its first DLC expansion, Curse of Osiris, adds a few new activities for you to take on. It introduces a new setting in Mercury, a short campaign, new weapons and gear, Strikes, Crucible maps, Adventures, among smaller things. But aside from the brief but fun Raid Lair, the new stuff in Curse of Osiris doesn't add anything substantial or interesting to Destiny 2 to make it worth revisiting.

Curse of Osiris picks up right after the end of the base game's campaign, as far as your level goes. You could go directly from the end of the Red War story to Curse of Osiris' campaign, which requires a power level of 200 to 220, without having to grind much in between. For newcomers or PC players who've had less time with the game, it's a comfortable bridge for leveling up between the lower-level vanilla content and the high-level endgame activities like the Nightfall. (Those endgame activities are a different story, but we'll get to that in a bit.)

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As a result, though, Curse of Osiris' story missions feel like filler. The campaign sets up an enormous undertaking against the Vex, with infinite timelines and computer simulations and the mysterious Warlock Osiris mixed up in it all. But with a two-or-so-hour runtime, the missions rush through the interesting concepts and usher you into a simple final battle that is essentially scripted. It's not enough time to fully understand Osiris as a character, which is disappointing considering he's only ever been mentioned in Destiny lore before now.

The beautiful and varied Infinite Forest, a Vex creation designed to simulate timelines and their infinite permutations, is the most interesting addition in the expansion. Within the Forest, you can travel to a simulation of the past, a much more vibrant and lush version of Mercury that's stunning to look at. But even then, the story doesn't task you with exploring it or any other location in the Forest, instead shepherding you through areas to find codes and things that smarter NPCs can use to pinpoint your next destination for you. The lack of callbacks to Vault of Glass from Destiny 1, another time-bending Vex creation, is also a letdown.

Other than the Infinite Forest, the new destination, Mercury, is simply uninteresting to explore. It's a small circular map with one new Public Event, a new vendor, and a handful of chests and Lost Sectors. The foundation of exploration established in the base game is still good here--having a variety of options to choose from does make things feel less repetitive--but it feels like busywork with little to do at the highest level. That extends to the new Strikes, which are almost direct copies of two of the story missions, nothing more than another way to kill time.

The biggest problem with Curse of Osiris is that it locks the hardest activities, including the Prestige Nightfall and the Prestige Raid, behind its new power level cap. The recommended power for those activities is 330, which you can't reach if you don't have the Curse of Osiris DLC. So if you don't get the DLC, you suddenly don't have access to something you used to be able to do. It's also frustrating if you do get Curse of Osiris, because the higher level requirement doesn't fundamentally change these activities.

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New Heroic Adventures add Nightfall-style modifiers to the Adventures on Mercury, but those missions aren't begging to be replayed. The main incentive to do them at all is to unlock a Lost Prophecy quest from the NPC Brother Vance, which is one of most tedious fetch quests in all of Destiny 2. If you do manage to gather 10 of the necessary item (through repeating Public Events and finding chests), you unlock the Forge, where you can craft Legendary Vex weapons. But for anyone besides the most dedicated players, there's no compelling reason to do all this unless you want to redo old missions on harder difficulties in order to get loot to use when you do them again.

While some of the new loot is worth collecting--my favorites so far include the Legendary automatic scout rifle Metronome-52 and the broken but ridiculously fun Prometheus Lens Exotic--you'll likely get a lot of duplicates before you get anything you actually want to use. Because the main reward for everything you do is shiny new loot, the frustratingly high drop rate of duplicates makes grinding more disappointing than satisfying. The gunplay feels as great as ever, though, so it can be fun to experiment with new weapons, but it's not enough to sustain an expansion that adds little outside of extra busywork.

The excellent gunplay is not enough to sustain an expansion that adds little outside extra busywork.

The Raid Lair, while shorter than a typical Destiny Raid, is the one late-game addition that's worth trying. Eater of Worlds is set on Leviathan, the setting of Destiny 2's first Raid, but with a different boss and separate areas to explore. It features a mix of Destiny-style puzzles, including a platforming sequence and fun with orbs, but in a less time-consuming package that's a welcome alternative to the full Leviathan Raid. Using careful teamwork to solve puzzles is rewarding in ways that the story and simple Strikes aren't, and combining that with the right loadout and strong shooting skills shows what Destiny can be when it leaves the filler behind and makes the most out of its best mechanics.

But in almost every respect, Curse of Osiris doesn't elevate Destiny 2 beyond what it was at launch. Especially for lapsed players, the same old activities reskinned for an unremarkable new setting make them feel more like chores than ever, and the interesting ideas in the Infinite Forest aren't at all used to their potential. There's still some fun to be had in finding new weapons and maybe tackling the Raid Lair, but reaching that point is so tedious that it hardly feels worth doing.

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Source: GameSpot - Reviews (Mon, 11 Dec 2017 17:00:00 -0800)


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