Tag Archive: activision


There was a lot of pressure on developer Infinity Ward leading up to this latest Call of Duty. Not only was the studio coming off of what was probably their worst-received game in Ghosts, but this was their first time on the new Call of Duty three-year development cycle—meaning many were expecting the team to pull out all the stops, even more so than usual. This wasn’t necessarily an easy task that could just be solved with more time, however, especially with the fact that Sledgehammer and Treyarch have continued to raise the bar for the series over the past couple of years. Even with taking all that into consideration, it can’t be denied that it seems like Infinity Ward has lost its touch, as Infinite Warfare marks another down year for Call of Duty.

Set off in a distant, yet unspecified time in the future, humanity has become split into two factions. The United Nations Space Alliance, made up of the nations on Earth, looks to peacefully explore and colonize the cosmos. The Settlement Defense Front, a group of radicals who make their home on Mars and look to consolidate the galaxy under an iron fist, was a militant faction within the UNSA that broke away in the early days of space exploration. Our solar system is now split between the two, with a flimsy peace treaty keeping everything in balance. At least, until the SDF declares war and attacks the UNSA in Geneva during Fleet Week. Now, a rag tag group of remaining soldiers must rally around Captain Nick Reyes, bring the fight to the SDF, and turn the tide of this new war back in Earth’s favor.

I understand that a large section of the Call of Duty community will likely jump right into the multiplayer and never leave it when Infinite Warfare drops. But for those who will look to play the campaign, at least once, it will be hard not to come away disappointed. Almost everything about the story itself, and some of the new gameplay revolving around space combat, left a sour taste in my mouth.

Admittedly, some of the space sequences are quite good. There are times where you’ll be floating through the void and have to use an asteroid field to sneak up to a capital ship and infiltrate it, or need to use your grappling hook to work your way to space debris as you’re pinned down with few options due to limited cover—all while enemy soldiers swarm your position in zero-g. There are other times, though, where you’ll be absolutely lost as to where you have to go or what your goal is. In those moments you feel completely helpless, dying for a piece of dialogue, cutscene, or new objective marker to guide you since you could theoretically just float off in any direction aimlessly otherwise.

Then there are the sequences where you pilot a Jackal, Call of Duty’s version of a space snubfighter. You’ll have flares, missiles, machine guns, and other armaments that you can customize your own personal Jackal with. You’ll soar into dogfights and fly around space arenas completely off rails, which can also be great fun at times.

Unfortunately, I grew up on games like Wing Commander, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, and the Rogue Squadron series, and while Infinite Warfare gets close to giving me the sort of space flight sim experience I’m always looking for, it never quite lives up to where I needed it to be. Part of that has to do with the fact that the Jackal can turn on a dime, or hover and strafe—almost like a VTOL aircraft—and then switch instantly back into dogfight mode. I understand this was to minimize the learning curve for people and make it feel like it does when you’re running around on foot, but that’s not the experience I want when getting into any sort of airborne vehicle in a game; I want it to feel like I’m flying a damn plane.

In regards to the length of the campaign, a frequent point of contention for Call of Duty titles, if you don’t do any of the optional side missions—which you select by looking at a Mass Effect-esque map and plotting your space course from the bridge of your ship—it’s probably the shortest offering from any Call of Duty yet. You could likely buzz through the experience in about three hours if you pushed it. But you’ll probably want to rush because Infinite Warfare has one of the worst-written narratives I’ve had to suffer through in quite some time.

Sure, it has its moments, but most of the dialogue is throwaway at best—and due to the short length of actual story-driven events, every character’s arc is rushed to an uncomfortable degree. For example, Staff Sergeant Omar is introduced as a hard-edged Marine who is a bit of a Luddite; he hates robots, and is particularly uncomfortable when Ethan, a fully autonomous robot soldier, joins the group. At least, for the first mission you all take together. By the time you’re ready for the next mission, suddenly Omar loves robots! Ethan is his best friend! The player never sees why this change of heart happens, but we’re just expected to swallow this pill that Omar and Ethan worked things out over lunch or something, as if someone whose beliefs are clearly deeply ingrained in them has had a change of heart over a sandwich and a soda.

The weakest aspect for Infinite Warfare’s story, however, is the villain: Rear Admiral Salen Kotch. I don’t know why Call of Duty can’t produce even passable villains anymore, nevermind good ones. Maybe part of it was Kit Harington’s lifeless acting. Or, maybe, the fact that he—like Omar and every other major character in the story that isn’t the player character, Nick Reyes—really doesn’t have any sort of progression or arc. What a coincidence that the co-lead writer for the game, Brian Bloom, was also the actor for the only character that had any depth in the game. The fact of the matter is, I didn’t like or dislike Kotch as a villain—he was just there. Like a painting hung up in a dentist’s office, he felt completely inconsequential to everything going on around me, and that’s the worst thing you could want from your primary antagonist.

If, somehow, you can look past all this, there are small positives to take away from the campaign. Even with the space setting and combat continuing the general trend of pushing Call of Duty more towards the science fiction realm and making it less relatable to its audience, the game still plays well when its just boots on the ground and you’re running around the beautiful surfaces of far-off worlds. The new futuristic weaponry walk a fine line between the guns of today and how technology might evolve them into the combat tools of tomorrow. You can also fully customize your loadout before each mission, and unlock new items by finding hidden armories around each world you explore. Several other additions—like the aforementioned side missions, and stealth sections—offer up some nice variety when you’re playing, and compliment the ever-present bombastic action sequences we expect from Call of Duty and still receive here in abundance. The side missions, as repetitive as some of them can become, do extend the experience to nearly eight hours if you do all of them. It’s never a good sign, though, when the meat of your single-player mode is found in optional objectives.

There is also replayability in that beating the game unlocks YOLO mode (where, like the acronym suggests, you only live once) and Specialist mode (where your equipment and body can take damage on missions, affecting things like your movement speed or aim stability if you’re not careful). There is also a theme to Infinite Warfare that I, for one, appreciated: a soldier’s duty and the difficulties that arise from it. Of course, like everything else, it loses some of the punch of its potentially powerfully impact because the short narrative ends up seeing you beaten over the head with it in the last hour or so of game time. Maybe that’s Infinite Warfare’s true theme: a lack of tact and storytelling finesse makes potentially good stories suffer.

While this campaign holds the franchise back in some ways, the multiplayer likewise lifts it up. Call of Duty has always been one of my favorite multiplayer experiences out there, and Infinite Warfare at least lives up to the series’ legacy here. Smaller maps lead to faster confrontations and less camping as a whole, really pushing you to take full advantage of the wall running and double jumping mobility afforded to you. Infinity Ward utilized Treyarch’s Pick-10 system this go around, and it lends itself to a much more balanced experience overall. They also built on Treyarch’s Specialists and created Rigs, Call of Duty’s first true class system. Unlike classes in other games, Infinite Warfare still allows players to completely customize the loadout via the aforementioned Pick-10 system. What Rigs do instead is offer three options for Payloads and Traits, abilities that can change the battlefield when they charge up, or passive ones that make you a more effective killing machine.

For example, the Merc Rig has a Payload called Bull Charge, which lets you pull out a Riot Shield and charge at your enemies, delivering instant kills to anyone caught in your path. Or, you could take Steel Dragon into battle, which gives you a powerful beam weapon that can incinerate enemies from afar. With Traits like Man-At-Arms that make this heavy class move faster, or Infusion that boosts your health regeneration speed, you can mix and match to best suit your play style and the mode you’re playing. That’s just one of the six Rigs available, and not even all of the Merc’s options—experimenting in different scenarios adds a whole new level of fun and customization to this year’s multiplayer.

Multiplayer also adds two new modes this year, but I only really enjoyed one of them. Defender is a spin-off of Uplink, but instead of trying to throw a data node through a hoop somewhere on the map, the player holding the node has to run around defenseless for a minute until the node resets, or they are gunned down and the ball can be picked up by someone else. The first team to collectively hold a node for five minutes wins the game. It’s a neat little take on a Guardian-style multiplayer mode, and especially on some of Infinite Warfare’s smaller maps, can be a hectic back-and-forth that pushes your traversal abilities to the max while requiring some epic teamwork to truly succeed.

The other mode, Frontline, is a take on Team Deathmatch, but with each team having a single locked spawn point. Players will have extra armor when they respawn on the map to help counter campers, but unfortunately it still promotes this hated multiplayer tactic far more than any other map or mode has in Call of Duty in a long time. I appreciate trying something new, but this mode left me more frustrated than anything, and feeling like I’d rather just play regular Team Deathmatch.

There are also a couple metagame additions to the multiplayer suite this go around, the first of which is Mission Teams. Players will be able to unlock and choose from one of four different factions that offer extra rewards in a multiplayer match for completing bonus objectives. For instance, the Wolverines are a no-nonsense sort of group that is all about picking enemies off, so lots of kills usually means lots of points with these guys. The Orion group, on the other hand, is more objective based, and rewards you for holding or capturing points. You can switch between the factions at your leisure as you unlock them, since obviously different groups are more effective in different modes—but Mission Teams help keep things interesting by giving you a game within the game.

The other addition is trying to collect salvage. Salvage is a new currency that allows players to unlock amped-up versions of some of their favorite weapons, with each having a different level of rarity. Players can earn salvage via unlock boxes from keys earned in multiplayer, leveling up, or trading in duplicate guns found via these other two methods. As per usual, players can also spend real world cash to buy boxes that might either have the next level of the gun they want or more salvage—and that’s where I take issue with this new system.

It’s one thing to spend real-world money on cosmetic items: calling cards, weapon camos, things like that. It’s another when buying boxes can lead directly to a currency or to a new gun altogether that is definitively better than the one you may be currently using. A perfect example is the first level unlock for the default assault rifle, which offers 20% more ammo; later unlocks include more damage and stability on top of more ammo. Yes, you can grind for salvage. Yes, you don’t have to sink a single penny into Infinite Warfare and still get all the weapons. But buying boxes does offer the chance to potentially speed up the process of acquiring weapons that are statistically better (the salvage shop even assigns a numerical value to the increases you’d get) than those available from the start or via straight leveling up, offering players with those guns clear advantages in gameplay. This is where microtransactions are a negative part of the experience, and for me this is unforgivable.

In terms of online stability, I played multiplayer in a limited review environment on a live server with the day one patch already in effect (but just before the official worldwide launch). The several hours I put in saw minimal issues in terms of matchmaking, although there were a couple of pockets of lag when we switched out of the regular playlists and into the 18-player Ground War playlist. While everything worked for the most part, the true test of online stability won’t come until the game hits the masses and is stressed far beyond what myself and a few dozen other reviewers could do.

Besides playing multiplayer online, I also played a fair amount of Zombies. I teamed up with three strangers, and was impressed with the fact that even with the wacky new setting of being trapped in an 80s B-movie, this take on Zombies felt just as strong and full of surprises as anything Treyarch had concocted over the years. New Fate and Fortune cards replace the Gobblegum from Black Ops III, and offer arguably better powers and abilities to help you survive the zombie horde. There’s also a new feature where the first time you die in the mode, you’re sent to an arcade where you can try to win your life back by playing classic Activision arcade games. Set the high score, and you’ll rejoin your team—assuming they all survive long enough but don’t beat the round to bring you back to begin with. Either way, it definitely makes dying a little less tiresome than in previous years. The four stereotypical movie characters—nerd, jock, rapper, valley girl—all add some humorous color to the mode. This was definitely a fun cast to play as, although I still think Black Ops III’s noir cast was second to none.

Normally, this is all there is to a Call of Duty game. However, an extra special bonus is included to those of you who jumped on the Legacy edition of the game. We’re not doing a full review of Modern Warfare Remastered, as currently you can only get this bonus through purchasing Infinite Warfare. As it is part of the package, however, I do want to give a few words on it.

It was a shock to my system to play the original Modern Warfare again after not having touched the game in nearly a decade. The new graphics has the game looking beautiful on new systems, and it plays much like how I remember it. It’s like digging up a time capsule—comparing and contrasting it to what we have today—and we can see both how far Call of Duty has come in some regards, and how far it has fallen in others. The campaign is one example of the latter. At the time, Modern Warfare was pushing the envelope for storytelling in FPS games, while in Infinite Warfare, we’re spoon-fed drivel. I do believe the multiplayer of today is better, though. Playing MWR’s competitive suite—which now also includes newer modes like Kill Confirmed, which I love—felt great. Then, unfortunately, campers, the old scorestreaks, and the map design reminded me that as beloved as it was back then, Call of Duty’s multiplayer has truly been pushed to tremendous heights over the past 10 years—and I wouldn’t change that for anything. Still, it was still nice to go back and replay Modern Warfare after so long, and it was definitely a worthwhile bonus.

That pretty much sums up how I feel about Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare in a nutshell. Call of Duty’s multiplayer continues to innovate and improve in ways that fans will absolutely love and adore with this game—minus the microtransaction pay-to-win garbage that’s trying to be snuck in. Meanwhile, this version of Zombies could stand against any other one we’ve seen over the years. The campaign, however, is a low point for the series. From almost the very beginning, it just never grabbed me the way a lot of other stories in the series did, with flat and poorly-written characters that I was left unsympathetic toward. I never felt like I had a stake in this galactic battle of supposedly humongous proportions. All we can hope is that by looking a little harder at its past with Modern Warfare Remastered, maybe Infinity Ward can still save its future as storytellers.

Publisher: Activision • Developer: Infinity Ward • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 11.04.16
7.0
Infinite Warfare is one step forward; two steps back for Call of Duty. The multiplayer is still fun, but suspect microtransactions have left me wary. The campaign also gets more wrong than right with shoddy storytelling overshadowing the usually tight FPS gameplay. At the very least, we got a Zombies experience comparable to what we’ve seen in the past—and Modern Warfare Remastered was a fun stroll down memory lane.
The Good Multiplayer and Zombies are as fun as ever.
The Bad Main narrative feels rushed, and side missions try too hard to expand what may be the shortest CoD campaign yet. Also, there looks like a pay-to-win scam is going on in multiplayer.
The Ugly SAG-AFTRA would be wise not to use this game as an example of how Hollywood talent makes video games better.
Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. A review copy was provided by Activision for the benefit of this review. EGM also took part in a review event that Activision provided room and board for to maximize our time with the game prior to release. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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Worse than crossing the streams

I love Ghostbusters. I’ve spent probably an unhealthy amount of my life memorizing lines from the movies, collecting action figures, and watching the cartoons. And yes, before you even ask, I am a god. I even enjoyed the brand new reboot with Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig—it’s not perfect, but it was surprisingly a lot of fun. So, it was nothing short of painful to have to apply our review process to Activision’s latest licensed dumpster fire based off the aforementioned reboot.

In the Ghostbusters game, the four ladies from the movie have taken their show on the road and are busting ghosts for the president in Washington D.C. However, they couldn’t just up and leave New York City defenseless incase there were any more paranormal problems. So, before they left, they recruited four brash afterlife aficionados like themselves onto the team to man the firehouse in their absence. And, wouldn’t you know it, as soon as the ladies leave, a handful of hauntings pop up.

Ghostbusters is an arcade action-shooter, done in an abstract art style reminiscent of cartoons like Extreme Ghostbusters. It works well enough, at least in terms of character design. The ghosts, ghouls, and even the ‘busters exaggerated looks and hard lines work to pop off the screen, even considering the high camera angle.

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Unfortunately, the rest of the game’s design is a disaster. The levels themselves are boring and bloated, lasting anywhere between 30 and 60 minutes, completely jettisoning the speed you’d expect from the genre—not to mention you have to traipse through the same generic graveyards, subways, and interiors the entire time. To make matters even worse, the gameplay itself is as repetitive as the level design. Each character carries three weapons: the classic proton pack, specialty guns, and grenades. This helps offer a little diversity between each character, as the shotgunner with the electric grenades has to play differently from the proton mini-gunner with the slime grenades. There are also dual proton pistols and a proton assault rifle, but once you get past the weapons, it all boils down to blasting away the same handful of enemy types after you turn every corner.

Sometimes you’ll come across a more powerful ghost who you’ll have to throw in a trap. From there, a ridiculous minigame starts, which requires you to pull in the reverse direction of the ghost and button mash for score multipliers—an idea that quickly becomes as dreary as everything else the game tasks you with. At the merciful conclusion to each stage, you tally scores and get awarded experience points that help boost the strength of your characters, but only human controlled characters can keep their points.

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When playing four-player couch co-op, this isn’t much of a problem—beyond the fact that you have four people bored out of their minds instead of one. (Misery loves company, but I’ll have to make it up to my fellow EGM crew members at some point for subjecting them to this torture.) Playing by yourself, the game is easy enough to get through, but the AI does absolutely nothing to help you out. In fact, they tend to get stuck on invisible walls more often than they do anything useful in regards to busting ghosts. From my solo and co-op play sessions, it feels like the game was balanced for one-player, since more human players speed up the push through each level (still not enough to make the experience tolerable). So, Ghostbusters doesn’t even scale difficulty for multiple players.

If all this wasn’t bad enough, it only gets worse with the story, which basically copies the movie’s plot nearly point for point. You have to catch all the ghosts the ladies let get away in the film, with only two original bosses added to flesh the game out. The boss battles are a nice change of pace, but considering it is literally hours between them, they can’t salvage what appears to have been a forcibly lengthened experience to try to quantify a ridiculous price tag.

Ghostbusters tries to channel the spirit of old-school, arcade action shooters of years past, but it fails to capture any of the fun those games are known for. Even the addition of four-player couch co-op can’t save this from being a boring mess of an experience. Ghostbusters comes off as nothing short of a lazy, hastily thrown together movie cash-in attempt that can’t satisfy even the most hardcore fans of this iconic franchise, and all copies should be locked safely away in a containment unit somewhere. Light is green, trap is clean.

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Developer: FireForge Games • Publisher: Activision • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and older • Release Date: 07.12.16
2.0
Ghostbusters is a bloated, boring piece of trash that forcibly lengthened an already miserable experience to try to justify a ridiculous price tag. We can only hope to return it forthwith to its place of origin—or the nearest parallel dimension.
The Good I don’t have to play it anymore.
The Bad It is the worst kind of licensed video game. It is a cheaply thrown together, boring, repetitive mess that isn’t worth anyone’s time.
The Ugly I think I’m starting to develop PTSD from all the awful Activision licensed games I’ve had to review over the years.
Ghostbusters is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Activision for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

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Slightly better than turtle soup

Over the years, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have stayed in our collective consciousness through many of the same ways they originally permeated our culture when I was a kid: movies, cartoons, comics, action figures, etc. Some efforts have been better than others, but one area that has consistently failed the TMNT over the years has been video games. Not since the SNES days have we really had a game that got the Heroes in a Half-Shell right. So, it was with baited breath that I sat down to try Platinum Games’ take on the lean and green fighting machines in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan.

Mutants in Manhattan is basically your standard TMNT fare in terms of story, as Shredder and Krang have once again teamed up in an attempt to take over the world. They’ve enlisted the help of some evil mutants—ranging from canonical stalwarts like Bebop and Rocksteady to the lesser-known Wingnut and Armaggon—to lend a hand, and only four heroes named after Renaissance painters can put a stop to their plans.

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One thing that Platinum has consistently nailed when teaming up with publisher Activision to work on licensed games has been the art style. Whether the game as a whole was a hit like Transformers: Devastation, or a miss like The Legend of Korra, Platinum always brings these characters to life in a way that any fan can appreciate—and they do it again with TMNT. The art style blends the design that’s seen in the current Nickelodeon cartoon with a lot of hard edges and thick outlines reminiscent of Kevin Eastman’s comic book artwork, and it all looks absolutely great.

They also did a top-notch job with the audio for the game. The music and sound effects are exactly what you’d expect from a fast-paced action game, and even though they couldn’t get the cartoon cast to reprise their roles, a cavalcade of video game voice talent makes its presence felt. Nolan North, Steve Blum, Mick Wingert, Fred Tatasciore, and Ashly Burch highlight the voices behind some of the TMNT universe’s most iconic characters here. I could’ve done without the repetition of dialogue during and after every combat scenario—especially from Ashly’s April O’ Neill—but at least the lines had some gusto to them.

While it’s always appreciated when a game is easy on the eyes and ears, it’s unfortunate when that may be the highlights for a title like this. Mutants in Manhattan is broken down into nine levels, each culminating in a boss fight. Platinum once again provides an easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master combat system full of light and heavy attacks, dodges, blocks, parries, and special moves, showing their continued mastery of the hack-and-slash action genre. The issue is that you never really need to use any of the most advanced tactics until you reach that end boss fight in each chapter.

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Levels are set up as open arenas where players will have to race around and perform mundane tasks like protecting pizza trucks from the Foot Clan, returning stolen money to banks, defusing bombs, or get rid of weapons from Dimension X. Once a certain numbers of tasks are completed, you’ll get to fight the boss, but never do the tasks feel organic to the story—and once they start repeating, they quickly become tedious. This is compounded by the fact that all the foes you fight are nothing more than cannon fodder, even on the hardest difficulties. Whether it’s rock soldiers, Foot ninjas, or mousers, the enemies just drag down the pace of the game, doing nothing to force you to mix up your tactics. The levels themselves have nothing unique to them, either; every sewer, subway, and city building looks nearly identical, and when you have to return to certain places in later levels, the lack of creativity in the world becomes all the more clear.

As I mentioned earlier, the one saving grace for the combat is the boss battles. At first they shocked me with the difficulty spike they provided when compared to what led up to them. Each boss has myriad moves and patterns you’ll have to learn to overcome, and on harder difficulties, not only do they have more health and do more damage, but come at you with different attacks as well. That mix-up means you’ll have to always be on your toes, and actually put to use the dodges, parries, and special moves at your disposal.

One way to help overcome those harder difficulties is that Platinum actually included an upgrade system in the game. Between levels, you can spend battle points (awarded every time you enter combat) to improve each turtle’s special moves, or assign charms that provide a variety of effects including bonuses to item collection, attack, defense, healing, and more. It shows shades of the depth we expect from a Platinum game, making how inexplicably lackluster so many other aspects are in TMNT all the more surprising.

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Potentially the biggest mistake made with Mutants in Manhattan, however, is the fact that the game lacks local co-op. Yes, there is an online co-op option, and local co-op might’ve required a camera shift (that actually might’ve worked out better for the game in the long run), but TMNT games traditionally have been amazing local co-op experiences. Not to mention, when you’re not playing with friends, you need to drag around three, less-than-stellar AI-controlled turtles instead, making it so TMNT could’ve benefitted greatly from giving players more options to play together. Having a friend by your side to play this game might’ve also taken the edge off of how long and boring the base levels are.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan tries something a little new with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, but in the end, it failed to captivate me or grab my attention in any significant way. The large, open arenas were unnecessary, and Platinum might’ve been better off cutting the levels in half and having twice as many boss battles. There is depth to the combat, but you rarely need it. If you’re insanely into the TMNT, this might be worth a look just to fight some classic villains—but without local co-op, good luck finding people to play with. The rest of us are going to go plug our Super Nintendos back in and play Turtles in Time for the millionth time while waiting for something better.

Developer: Platinum Games • Publisher: Activision • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 05.24.16
5.5
Another misstep with the TMNT franchise leaves me wondering if anyone will ever make a good Turtles game again. As is, Mutants in Manhattan works, but it’s just terribly boring.
The Good Solid visuals that look like a cross between the comics and cartoon.
The Bad Listless enemies and repetitive gameplay. No local co-op.
The Ugly Why is my health bar in frozen personal pizza quarter-slices? No self-respecting turtle settles for Red Baron, especially in NYC.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Activision for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

I played the first 30 minutes of Transformers Devastation, which is available now on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. I apologize in advance for the audio issues.

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A bigger, blacker CoD

Call of Duty has come a long way over the years. Every subsequent release, though, has the ever-increasing challenge of upping the ante, especially as the fiction has crossed from the historical, to the modern, and, most recently, to the future. But just when you think there is nowhere left for it to go, Treyarch finds a way to push each mode to new heights and tie it all together in its most cohesive package yet with Black Ops III.

Set in 2065, Black Ops III’s world has actually taken a step backwards in some ways when it comes to how it wages war. Due to the setup of an air-defense grid after the attacks of Raul Menendez’s hacked drones 40 years earlier, warfare has once again gotten down and dirty, with foot soldiers serving as the difference makers in combat. But mixing with the blood, sweat, and tears out on the battlefield are the oil, rust, and frayed wires of robot soldiers and augmented humans looking for that extra edge in conflicts around the world.

It is here where Black Ops III begins, when your character is critically wounded on an op that goes sideways, and forced to replace several body parts in order to survive and continue operating for the United States government. As the story progresses through the eyes of your now-supersoldier, back in the field with robotic limbs and unfathomable abilities, you and your team uncover a secret that could turn the world on its head. Worse yet, you realize you weren’t the only ones to recently find out the truth.

Black Ops III’s campaign is easily the series’ most ambitious yet from a storytelling, gameplay, and design point of view. Each chapter is longer and larger than any we’ve seen in the past, with multiple paths to objectives available to players if they are willing to explore. These massive levels substantially lengthen the campaign, pushing my first playthrough to the 10-hour mark.

The wide maps and different routes are also ideal for the return of four-player campaign co-op. For the first time since World at War, you and some buddies can tackle the campaign together, with the difficulty ramping up dynamically depending on how many players have joined you. This also adds an element of potential planning and group tactics, as you can choose to be a team that moves as one, picking off enemies as you go, or branches off and tackles objectives from multiple angles. I personally found the multiple angles suited my team’s playstyle best, especially in the campaign’s handful of traditional boss fights—which were a surprising, but not necessarily unwelcome addition for a series known for its bombastic action filled set pieces.

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The most significant addition to gameplay, though, is likely the new Cyber Cores. These are the different cybernetic abilities you can take out into the field with you. Grouped into three sets of six, each individual power can be upgraded as your character progresses.

Yes, one of the ways that Black Ops III more seamlessly brings the Call of Duty experience together is that progressing your character isn’t just limited to multiplayer. You can level up in all three modes of play, giving you specific unlocks in each one. In campaign, you not only customize your character’s armor, face, and guns, but their Cyber Cores, too.

This is done in-between levels, where you can visit a safe house that allows you to mess with your character depending on what chapter you’re going to tackle, while providing a nice respite from bullets whizzing by your ears. If you would like to be an offensive powerhouse, for example, you might want the Chaos Cyber Core that lets you shoot sonics out of your hands, debilitating all human enemies within range, or release nanobots that will swarm enemies and ignite them in flames. In the safe house you can also play a special simulation that acts as a Horde mode—which also features four-player co-op—within the campaign to test your loadouts before heading back into the story.

One of the most interesting aspects of the future setting, though, is that some of the levels are set in the virtual realm. While you can still die and have to restart from a checkpoint, these virtual levels make it so that nearly anything and everything are possible, like the inclusion of zombies for the first time in a main campaign, and even a return to Treyarch’s roots a bit with a World War II simulation that will blow your mind, all while still finding a way to progress the story.

That story, however, might be the one aspect of the campaign where things stumble a bit. Although the gameplay is phenomenal, and does a great job of really allowing you to play it however you want, Treyarch ran into the issue of having to essentially establish a brand-new world due to the 40-year jump in their continuity. Part of this takes place in the aforementioned safe houses, where people who want to dig deep into a small computer terminal will find fun articles ranging from fictional reports on major world events to fun little Easter eggs, like a failed military experiment that tried to weaponize cows.

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The rest of the world-building begins in the middle of the narrative, derailing critical character development for the sake of establishing the backstory for your impending conflicts. One of the qualities that have made the Black Ops arc so great is that the conflict traditionally serves only as background noise for the characters that we get to know and love. David and Alex Mason, Woods, and Hudson were memorable characters that I adored. Black Ops III starts out similarly with this unfamiliar squad of undercover badasses, but then about a third of the way through, starts leading you down a rabbit hole around the conspiracy that you happen upon and forgets about making me want to care about any of the characters.

Although critical to the twist at the end of the campaign that will have players arguing on forums as much as Zombies enthusiasts do about that mode’s secrets, the campaign feels like it takes a break from the character development during that time to beat us over the head with themes like “Where do we draw the line with our dependence on technology” and “Americans messing with things they shouldn’t just creates more enemies.” This disrupted the narrative flow, and that became more evident just before the end when a romance subplot comes out of nowhere and the villain’s presence, predictably, is revealed to be with us since near the start of the story. I still enjoyed the campaign’s story as a whole, but I wish the conspiracy could’ve been better woven in with the characters so that the flow of everything didn’t feel so disjointed.

While on the subject of twists at the end of the campaign, the one that made me drop my controller was the reveal of a second campaign at the end of the first one. Dubbed “Nightmare,” this second campaign remixes the level order of the main campaign, but does so while providing a new protagonist, a new narrative, and new enemies.

The Nightmare campaign is a what-if version of the main campaign where all the enemies were zombies. You can’t personalize your loadout here, though. Instead, you have to rely on random magic boxes and drops from enemies in order to power up. The lack of control after having the keys to the customizable kingdom in the main campaign adds to an overall increase in difficulty considering how, even in the widest maps, the zombies will swarm you before you know what hit you. The Nightmare campaign provides a fun alternate narrative that might be stronger than the original and is also playable in four-player co-op.

But for all you Zombies fanatics out there, never fear. A more traditional Zombies experience called “Shadows of Evil”, themed on classic film noir, is also available. As that story goes, the four main characters, played by Ron Perlman, Jeff Goldblum, Heather Graham, and Neal McDonough, have each committed some horrible evil that is allowing zombies to enter their world. By working together, they’ll have to uncover the secret that supposedly somehow ties into previous Zombies entries and might save their damned souls.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t get as far as I’d normally like in Zombies, but I did get plenty of time to experiment with two major additions to the mode’s gameplay. The first is the new Gobblegum system. Each player can customize a set of five gumballs they want attributed to their person, with each gumball offering a different ability. When you find a Gobblegum machine, you can spend some of the cash you’d normally use on guns or other power-ups to get one of the five gumballs in your set at random. And just like in single-player, there is a progression here that will unlock better gumballs as you level up.

The second element is the purple flame, which can be found at different locations throughout Morg City. For a limited time, this turns players into a lightning quick plant monster with tentacles (think Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors) called “The Beast” that lets you open special doors, break boxes, and unlock the paths necessary to find all of Morg City’s secrets. There are few things more satisfying than finding new secrets and special narrative clues while killing the undead, so when combined with the hysterical dialogue that each character randomly spews, this year’s Zombies mode might be the best yet.

As great as Campaign and Zombies are, multiplayer is really Call of Duty’s bread-and-butter. Never to be outdone, the multiplayer has taken the futuristic ideas of the campaign and turned them into the slickest multiplayer suite yet.

Before you build your first loadout, though, you should check out Freerun. This short series of four time trials are a great way to teach you how best to use your wall-running abilities in multiplayer and get used to the idea of the maps’ new sense of verticality. Ramping up steadily, Freerun will show you moves you never thought possible, like running up columns or wall-jumping down narrow corridors, all while stoking your competitive fire by sticking a clock on you and daring you to get the best time.

Once your cybernetic legs are all warmed up, then you can jump into the largest selection of multiplayer modes yet. I was able to play on live servers pre-launch, and while there weren’t nearly as many people online as there will be on launch day, everything worked fine. You never know what might happen when the servers are flooded by millions of gamers, though. Multiplayer touts a bevy of returning favorites like Capture the Flag, Kill Confirmed, Team Deathmatch, Hardpoint, and many more, but Black Ops III also touts a new mode called Safeguard.

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Safeguard tasks you with defending a bomb strapped to a robot as it heads to a designated point on the map. The robot only moves when members of your team are near it, and the enemy team can slow the robot down by shooting it repeatedly. If time runs out before the robot reaches its destination, the defenders win, and if the robot makes it, the attackers win. I found the mode to be immensely difficult because standing next to the robot makes you a sitting duck, so it really requires one person to act as a direct escort, and the rest of your team to keep the enemies off your back. In that regard it has elements of CTF in it, and requires monumental amounts of teamwork whether you’re an attacker or defender.

The beauty of multiplayer now, though, centers on the chain-based fluid movement system. After a little practice, I was stringing together wall-running and double jumps so effortlessly I felt like I could single-handedly change any battle. With each map and mode having their own special nuances to cater to this movement style, surprising my opponent meant a lot more than flanking them. Knocking that sniper off the high ground wasn’t nearly as impossible anymore. And springing up out of water with assault rifle blazing added even more depth to what are some of the best-designed maps you’ll see in any Call of Duty.

The other major change we see in Black Ops III’s multiplayer is the Specialists. Sure, you can still customize and choose whatever guns or weapons you want to bring into battle, especially with the return of the beloved Pick 10 system offering another layer of balance that I feel the past two Call of Duty games have lacked. But the Specialist a player chooses gives them more of an identity online than in previous Call of Duty games, from who the player selects, to how they define their look, and finally which of their Specialist’s two special abilities they pick.

Knowing what each Specialist does and what situations their powers are best used in could turn the tide of a battle on their own, and offer yet another strategy for players to think for, and potentially plan against. For example, I played with Ruin a lot. His two abilities are Gravity Spikes, which allows him to kill everyone close to him with a shockwave when he slams the spikes into the ground, and a supercharged sprint called Overdrive. In TDM, racking up that kill count is critical so the spikes were great. But in something like CTF, grabbing the flag and then hitting Overdrive with that enhanced sprint means I can get a point for my team a lot more easily, covering half the map in a fraction of the time I used to. Considering there are nine Specialists to play around with (four to start, with others unlocked via progression), I can only imagine the strategies players will come up with.

It’s never easy to continually one-up yourself, but Treyarch seems just fine rising up to the challenge each time its turn comes up to put out a Call of Duty game. By adding progression and co-op to each mode, players have new reasons to go back and play each one more, while also providing a common thread through each part to help pull it all together. Multiplayer and Zombies are more robust than ever, and although Campaign’s story might not have been the strongest we’ve seen from series, it’s still a high-quality thrill a minute ride with a twist that will keep players talking until the series’ next installment. Simply put, Black Ops III is the deepest experience the franchise has seen thus far.

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Developer: Treyarch • Publisher: Activision • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 11.06.15
9.5
Black Ops III is the deepest Call of Duty experience to date. With not one, but two campaigns, new multiplayer modes and more robust customization, and a Zombies mode that will suck in even the most casual of players, Treyarch has once again found a way to raise the bar.
The Good More quality content than ever before crammed into a Call of Duty game.
The Bad Character development in campaign has a sharp drop off.
The Ugly Why hasn’t Activision announced a Call of Duty starring Jeff Goldblum yet?
Call of Duty: Black Ops III is available on PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Activision provided travel to and accommodation at a review event for the benefit of this review.

In an interview with Polygon, Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia speaks to the narrative aspects of Black Ops III, and reveals they went into such detail filling in the gaps between 2025 and 2065 that they created their own in-game wiki-like device for players to use.

As most Call of Duty fans will remember, the Raul Menendez initiated drone strikes of Black Ops II took place in 2025. Moving the narrative so far forward into the future with Black Ops III created some serious questions about how the world has changed since then.

Not surprisingly, that drone strike was a huge turning point in the world of Black Ops, forcing developed countries to perfect air defense systems that would make drones null and void. Thus, recreating the need for boots on the ground, which just so happen to be augmented through advanced cybernetics and reinforced by robot soldiers.

If players want to catch up on the events of the world since Black Ops II, though, Treyarch created a nifty little wiki-like device that players can easily access from their character’s safe house between missions and access it via a computer.

“We’re giving it to the player this time. This is stuff we usually do anyway, with our research,” Lamia says about giving players this kind of information. “How do we come up with these settings? We literally just did our research and project out. We’re fortunate to have experts we can talk to. We’ve become futurist experts ourselves, living in this subject matter for so long. That’s going to be there for the player. It’s important.”

Call of Duty: Black Ops III will be available for Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, and PC on November 6.

Will the new Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 feature a stand-alone Zombies story mode? Will old friends (and foes) from previous Call of Duty games reappear as the undead? Could this be the first step towards a stand-alone zombies franchise? Watch the video for the latest info!

A surprising theme for this year’s DICE Summit 2015 has been about how a company’s employees, and not IP and bottom lines, are the most important thing in the gaming industry right now.

To help support this argument, Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia took the stage to tell the story of how the developer’s now beloved Zombies co-op mode for Call of Duty almost hit the cutting room floor.

Lamia reminisced about how the studio, their release date for World at War fast approaching, was behind in development and extremely stressed following up Infinity Ward’s record-setting Modern Warfare with a game that returned to the World War II setting.

Without his knowledge, a rogue team within Treyarch began working on a side project that featured Nazi zombies. Word quickly spread throughout the studio of this fun prototype that was being passed around and worked on during off-hours, and finally it got back to Lamia.

Initially, right then and there, Lamia thought of pulling the plug on this project due to the extreme crunch Treyarch was in. But instead, he decided to actually play the prototype and wait to pass judgment until afterwards. Luckily for all us fans of zombies, Lamia was pleasantly surprised that it was actually more fun than the co-op mode they already had in the game.

The approval from Lamia gave the development team a much-needed second wind, as he allowed them to continue to polish the mode in their spare time and stretch their creative wings a bit, rewarding them for their dedication and extra effort.

After a bit of time, Lamia himself then championed the mode to the higher ups at Activision, with the consensus indeed being that the prototype was immensely fun. But PR and marketing chimed in saying it would have been confusing and too far off brand to just promote outright. This is why World at War originally featured Zombies mode as an Easter egg reward for hardcore fans who beat the main campaign (it later became so popular it was unlocked from the beginning via a patch).

Somewhat surprisingly, the fans then that took the next steps with the mode. Writing fan fiction through message boards and forums, a story began to form around Zombies and why you had to fend off this horde of Nazi undead in a bunker. This led to Black Ops’ Zombies mode forgoing any sort of PR campaign as well, as it allowed the fans to continue to build the lore themselves, with Treyarch employees adding more special Easter eggs and callbacks in subsequent games and DLC to continue fanning the flames. Even during Lamia’s presentation, Treyarch game design director David Vonderhaar continued to play with fans via social media about what could be next for the mode.

Zombies mode now serves as Treyarch’s signature whenever it’s their turn in the development rotation of Call of Duty. And since they’re up to bat for this year’s Call of Duty, we’d be more than a little shocked if Zombies didn’t find a way to rear its head once more.

Ray Carsillo interviews I-Wei Huang, the Toy and Character Designer for Skylanders: Trap Team, about the game’s new features during the 2014 San Diego Comic-Con

Extinguishing the spark

Back in 2010, High Moon Studios did the unthinkable: They delivered an awesome Transformers videogame. Many thought it couldn’t be done, and yet High Moon not only delivered a great game in War for Cybertron but also a solid sequel with Fall of Cybertron. They even developed some decent standalone movie titles in between.

When Activision tapped Edge of Reality to work on the next Transformers game instead, to say there was a little trepidation among fans of the Robots in Disguise would be an understatement. Unfortunately, those fears were justified.

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark tries to marry the original storyline created by High Moon Studios with the abominable canon that Michael Bay’s movies have provided, producing a horrendous patchwork plot. Half the game takes place in a flashback between War for Cybertron and Fall of Cybertron to provide the origin of the Dark Spark, a relic of unfathomable power that Megatron wants so he can turn the Autobots permanently into rust. The Autobots catch wind of this, however, so they take a break from building the Ark, the ship that will eventually take them to Earth, to put a stop to the Decepticons’ plans.

Moving back to the present day, as with everything that comes off Cybertron, the Dark Spark finds its way to Earth (no spoilers!). Lockdown, a Cybertronian mercenary who plays an integral role in the Age of Extinction movie, arrives hot on its trail and will fight Optimus Prime and company to own its power for himself.

As soon as the game gets to Earth, everything takes a sour turn. The quality of the levels there pale in comparison to those that take place on Cybertron. While repetitive design plagues most of the game’s chapters, it becomes far more evident in the Earth levels when you run around through the same bland-looking open urban environments over and over again—as opposed to the visually interesting segments you play through on Cybertron, such as Megatron’s main base, Kaon, with crumbling bridges on its approach and the prison in its underbelly, or the ancient Cybertronian ruins surrounded by a lava lake and the red desert you need to work your way across upon your exit.

The story also jumps over a cliff once you hit Earth. Lockdown’s motivations make no sense for the character, whether you’re familiar with him from his G1 story, or if you’ve been unfortunate enough to watch Age of Extinction and you’re using the game as it was intended—to learn why Lockdown came to Earth—since these provide direct contradictions to each other. Grimlock also shows up, for no rhyme or reason, and the worst part is he has the design from Age of Extinction, which makes him look more like Dinobot from Beast Wars and not the colorful tribute to the action figures and cartoons High Moon crafted in Fall of Cybertron.

If Rise of the Dark Spark had just been an interquel between High Moon’s two original games and the Earth levels and forced tie-ins to Age of Extinction weren’t included, this could’ve been a salvageable project. That’s because a few of Edge of Reality’s design decisions do have some potential. For example, they simply took the core mechanics from High Moon’s games and copied them over. From a third-person-shooter standpoint, the gameplay feels like it’s been lifted straight from Fall of Cybertron. Transforming from robot to vehicle is just as smooth as in the previous games, meaning that veterans of the more recent Transformers games will feel right at home.

On top of this, the game features a new leveling system where you earn XP from kills or completing challenges. By finishing each challenge or reaching a new XP perch, you can earn Gearboxes, which can then be opened up for characters to use in Escalation or items to be used in the campaign.

Besides the shoddy level design and weak plot, Rise of the Dark Spark also includes technical shortcomings galore. Glitches see your characters get stuck in walls or enemies melt through floors at least once per level. Mid-stage loading screens take place in the middle of a firefight countless times, decimating the game’s pacing. Of course, your friendly AI is also completely useless, which causes you to restart several sections. One particularly frustrating instance came as I was playing Drift and had Bumblebee by my side as an AI. We had to race away from a pursuing Titan mercenary and instead, Bumblebee drove toward the indestructible foe, instantly dying, and causing me to restart from the last checkpoint.

Speaking of the robots that join you on missions, the most mind-boggling decisions about Rise of the Dark Spark come from the lack of choice the game gives you. If there are multiple Transformers on each level, why not bring back the ability to choose which Transformer you play, like War for Cybertron did, or at least give us campaign co-op?

Instead of campaign co-op, though, all we get back is Escalation. This is the returning Transformers take on Horde mode, with 15 levels of enemies coming after you and three friends. While it’s still a solid take on the mode, I wish there had been a local option, and I miss Fall of Cybertron’s ability to customize my own Autobots and Decepticons. Along with this, all of competitive multiplayer has been sent to the scrap heap, too.

Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark feels like half of a good game. At times, the magic from High Moon’s efforts is captured here by Edge of Reality, but these moments are few and far between. You can’t help but feel that the forced bridge between High Moon’s series and Michael Bay’s movies rushed the project, leading to the obvious design mistakes. When you consider how many features have been cut on top of all that, Rise of the Dark Spark is nothing short of a throwback to when Transformers games were awful. In the end, this fails to deliver the type of game that fans have come to expect.

Developer: Edge of Reality • Publisher: Activision • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 06.24.14
5.0
Some solid action can’t cover up the fact that Rise of the Dark Spark feels horribly rushed, with massive splotches of shoddy design and a poor plot evident from the opening cinematic to the end credits.
The Good Action feels as good as it did in High Moon’s games; new leveling-up system.
The Bad Lazy, incoherent storytelling; boring level design; no competitive multiplayer.
The Ugly Grimlock’s movie design being used instead of High Moon’s.
Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Activision for the benefit of this review.