Tag Archive: open-world

Need for Speed once led the pack in terms of the arcade racing scene. In recent years, though, it has lost what made it special while simultaneously being eclipsed by other racers in the genre. A reboot two years ago was supposed to pave the way for the series to once again find traction within the racing world, but whatever hopes EA had have likely been dashed with Need for Speed Payback, which serves as evidence that the series may just be too far off course to comeback at this point.  

Need for Speed Payback follows a small racing crew in Fortune Valley, a fictionalized version of Las Vegas built on sin and street racing. Tyler specializes in drag and traditional races, Mac in off-road and drifting, and Jess is their runner, great for getting away from the 5-0 when they crack down on the trio’s driving antics. The game starts with Tyler’s crew getting an offer from an old friend named Lina that they can’t refuse: help steal a supercar and get a payday that could set them up for life. The only ones being set-up, though, are Tyler and gang. Now, they’re out for revenge against Lina and her boss (the mysterious Collector), but will have to work their way up through Fortune Valley’s 10 car gangs to even have a shot at Lina—and maybe getting that big payday after all.

Looking to their contemporaries and racing movies for inspiration, Need for Speed Payback tries to tell a revenge story we’ve seen almost a half-dozen times already—it’s just missing Vin Diesel giving some stupid speech about family. That said, its major story beats, which mark the conclusion of each of the narrative’s five acts, are actually a lot of fun and keep things moving in an entertaining direction. Ridiculous car chases, sudden perspective switches, and Michael Bay-worthy explosions will have you slowly inch forward in your chair. And, of course, everything looks gorgeous as usual in the Frostbite engine. The cinematic approach to a lot of the scenes worked, and the only times they didn’t—when you forced other cars to wreck—is now an option that can be thankfully turned off if you’re like me and hate taking your eyes off the action. Unfortunately, it’s everything around those major beats that really let this game down.

From a story standpoint, the hardest part to get behind is the cast of characters. The bad guys were infinitely more interesting than the good guys, and I’m not sure if the voice over sessions for this were done during the recent voice actor strike, but I think you could’ve walked down Hollywood Blvd and randomly asked people to audition for this game and gotten better performances. What’s worse is it sounds like several of the actors had to perform numerous roles (which is more common than you might think), but none of them even tried to do a different voice, resulting in long conversations where it almost seems like characters are talking to themselves.

And speaking of talking to oneself, the writing in-between the major story beats is the worst kind of filler, trying desperately to distract you from the grind of the gameplay. Some of the banter between Tyler’s crew is entertaining, but most of the time you just get a desperate attempt at filling time in the quiet moments driving from mission to mission, with each character at random times seemingly breaking the fourth wall and talking to the player for no good reason. It only further illustrated from a narrative standpoint that all Ghost Games really had here was an interesting skeletal structure and not much more.

A weak narrative could’ve been overcome had the gameplay been good, but yet again, Need for Speed Payback falters almost right from the get go. Fortune Valley feels comparable in size to other Need for Speed games, but when compared to its competition in the genre like the Forza Horizon series or The Crew, things feel small. Although the world does have a nice bit of diversity with the urban downtown area, and some evergreen mountainous paths, it all feels artificially segmented at times, with so much desert serving as an unusual border for it all.

There is a lot to do in this world, though. Blatantly borrowing from Forza Horizon, Payback adds Derelicts (barn finds without the barn basically) that can be found throughout the world, built up, and customized in your garage. There are now also speed traps, drift challenges, and jumps all around the world for a way to earn “Rep,” Need for Speed’s take on an in-game leveling system that rewards you each time your status increases. You can also earn Rep points—similarly to Forza Horizon—simply by performing tricks in the world or smashing things up.

Still, the core for Payback tries to remain the racing, and moving up in Fortune Valley and knocking off the 10 gangs isn’t easy when each gang specializes in something different. Drag, drift, traditional racing, and off-road serve as the core of the story experience, with additional runner challenges available with Jess that try desperately to set up a backstory for the world—what with EA already (sadly) talking about bringing many of these characters back for a sequel.

In order to be able to compete with these racers, you need to have the right car—but complicating your attempts is the fact that those cars handle a little too loosely, especially compared to other games currently within the arcade racing genre. So, it can require a lot of time to get used to each car because of this. However, the stock cars themselves won’t do you much good for long. Your first three cars are given to you, but after that, you need to either get parts to increase your cars’ ranking (100 is the minimum, 399 is the maximum) or buy new cars outright, with many of the best ones in each category only unlockable by winning races to begin with. So, finding new parts is the way to go, but actually getting those parts is where Payback’s most frustrating feature becomes prominent.

There are tune-up stores scattered around Fortune Valley, and in these stores you can buy and equip different parts for your cars in the form of Speed Cards. As you win races, you’ll earn a random Speed Card, which you hope will offer a better part than something you already have, thus raise the ranking. If that doesn’t work—and it usually doesn’t—you can also take in-game money you earn from winning races and buy new parts at the tune-up stores. Unfortunately, these also rarely offer you anything much better than what you currently have, and if they do, they’re exorbitantly expensive compared to your usual race winnings. This leads you to one of two routes.

The first is that any race you beat, you can re-race for more money and more random Speed Cards, and this becomes an obvious grind. It’s such a grind that what should’ve been a 10-12 hour experience ballooned to almost 20 hours for me by the time I reached the game’s end. It’s a horribly cheap way to force you to keep playing a game, especially with all the side content crammed into Payback that you might rather spend your attention on. It’s such a grind that there’s even an achievement/trophy for “grinding” through another race.

Of course, there’s also a way around that grind. That’s right, it wouldn’t be an EA-published game if it wasn’t polluted with microtransactions, and these might be some of the worst yet. When you get a Speed Card you don’t want, you can either sell it for in-game currency, or exchange it for what is called a Part Token. Three Part Tokens will allow you to spin a slot machine (yes, the mechanic is literally a slot machine) with you locking in one of the three spinners—car part (engine block, gearbox, etc.), manufacturer, or boost (nitrous, braking, acceleration, etc.)—and then crossing your fingers. With luck, you’ll get just the part you need and it’ll be a higher level than what is currently available to you in either the store or through races.

Payback does offer myriad ways to earn Speed Cards and Part Tokens. Leveling up your Rep or finishing Daily Challenges that are available will earn you Shipments, which usually carry a vanity piece for your car (colored smoke for when you burn out, novelty horns, etc), some in-game currency, and a few Part Tokens. Three Tokens per spin, though, can see you burn through Tokens quickly. So, there are also Premium Shipments that you can acquire by spending real world cash. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up like me, grinding for extra hours in a system that is purposely balanced to tempt you into those microtransactions. Oh, and to add insult to injury, when you reach the halfway point of the game, you need to buy brand new cars and do the entire building process all over again if you aren’t using a Derelict.

It’s a broken system and it’s offensive that they didn’t even try to hide the fact that it’s all one big slot machine. The Speed Card/Part Token system is by far the worst part of this game—it makes the game almost unplayable—and the alternative grind is so frustrating that I literally started to grind my teeth so badly while playing this I needed to put in a mouth guard.

What’s really sad is once you do raise your car’s level, the races themselves aren’t that difficult. They’re only challenging if you’re not at a level equal to what is recommended; I tried avoiding the grind and absolutely could not win. You also develop a familiarity with the tracks due to the aforementioned smaller world, where by the end of the game almost all the locations repeat. So, you’ll learn the best ways through a particular track, but likely end up a little bored racing through it over and over again.

Also, I found the AI to be sorely lacking. I played the game on Medium, but as long as I had a car worthy of the race, I saw the AI go haywire more often than actually try to give me a competitive challenge, almost giving me the win. Sometimes my opponents would even take themselves out of the race by making weird turns and drive themselves off cliffs; other times I saw them so focused on trying to just ram me off the road that I could easily pass them and cruise to the finish. Of course, in the runner missions against the cops, this was their primary directive, and sometimes it would be frustrating to get rammed through a barricade that was supposed to be impenetrable, leaving me unable to get back on the right side of things to finish my getaway.

All of that leads me to the glitches. Even with a day-one patch that seems to have smoothed a few things out and added some nice UI enhancements, there were still plenty of glitches to be seen. Whether the aforementioned pushing me through a barricade I wasn’t supposed to go through, or cop cars randomly spawning right in front of me, there were some moments where I wrecked and there was simply nothing I could do. I once even saw two cop cars literally spawn right on top of each other, riding each other like some horrific nature documentary.

The worst glitches came when respawning after a wreck, however. One thing Need for Speed didn’t borrow from Forza Horizon was the rewind feature; instead, when you wreck, the game puts you back on the road, usually at a speed close to what you were going before your crashed. Unfortunately, when this occurs on tight turns, sometimes you’ll spawn going at top speed right next to the wall or oddly-placed rock you initially crashed into, and then keep crashing into it. Repeatedly. So much so that you have to restart the race because there’s simply nothing else you can do to escape this infinite loop.

If you do make it through all of this, one of the few decent things about Need for Speed Payback is the multiplayer. If you’ve done enough grinding to earn yourself a top-tier car (ranked matches require cars 300 or above, casual matches can be any level), you can join the online Speedlists, a popular returning feature from 2015’s Need for Speed’s final update. This was actually a lot of fun, because it was just four to eight players going through a series of five races from the main campaign, with points being dished out a la Mario Kart at the end.

At the end of a five-race circuit comprised of either off-road or regular races (each race is voted on beforehand), the winner gets a currency and Rep prize that can be carried back to the single-player campaign. (So, this could be another way to grind, too.) The online was entirely stable in my time playing it today during the game’s launch, and the races against people were fun because actual humans performed way better than the AI did. As great as the online competition was, however, considering the narrative revolves around three best friends, it sure does feel like campaign co-op not being included was a missed opportunity.

Need for Speed Payback feels like a haphazard mess. The core of this tire fire is the progression system that tries to funnel you into microtransactions—at best, it’s a cheap way to inflate the playtime required to beat the game, and at its worst, it’s a desperate cash grab from a floundering franchise. The world is littered with glitches, the characters created are uninteresting, and the racing itself still needs work when compared to the contemporaries in the genre. The only saving grace is the major story beats at least provide a cheap adrenaline rush to wake you up from the lull the rest of the game will settle you into, and the multiplayer—if you can get a good enough car—works well, and racing human players is way more fun than grinding against this AI for 20 hours. As I crossed the finish line for the final time, though, Payback was nothing but another disappointing chapter from a once great franchise.

Publisher: Electronic Arts • Developer: Ghost Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 11.10.17
Need for Speed Payback might be a new low point for the franchise. A horrendous progression system compounded by uninteresting characters and terrible AI only illustrates how far behind this series has fallen compared to the other arcade racers out there. The multiplayer is solid, but that’s like saying at least the car wreck didn’t cause a fire, too.
The Good Speedlists work great for multiplayer.
The Bad Small world, weak characters, and the progression system is an awful grind.
The Ugly When you accidentally drift into oncoming traffic.
Need for Speed Payback is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Electronic Arts for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

People are always trying to combine things to make better and more interesting things: Peanut butter and chocolate; Batman with Superman—in comics, not in the movies; pineapple on pizza. Okay, the jury’s still out on that last one. In the case of Agents of Mayhem, though, all the best action of the 80s is being slammed together with the over-the-top humor and situations the Saints Row series was known for in a spin-off that takes place in the same universe. I recently got to go hands-on with Volition’s latest open-world foray, and it’s shaping up to be a love letter to everything great from GI Joe to Knight Rider.

In our demo, we got to play as nine of the 12 members of an elite super fighting force called Mayhem who, simply put, could care less about being heroes—the fact they’re saving the world from people even worse than them is a side bonus. They’re in it to win it for sure, but mostly just for themselves. It’s sort of like the enemy of enemy is my friend; they’re our friends just because they hate the really evil guys from a group called Legion a lot more than all of us. Each character fills a role on the team, offering up weapons and powers that make them great for different situations.


Hollywood, for example, is the team’s pretty boy who loves nothing more than, well, himself. He wields an assault rifle for great medium range damage, and can fire a grenade from his groin—don’t ask. Then there’s Hardtack, who immediately comes across as a more narcissistic Shipwreck from GI Joe. Hardtack is a shotgunner who can take a licking and keep on…errr…shotgunning. What’s great about Agents of Mayhem is that before most missions you take on, you can choose three of the 12 characters on the roster, then switching between them on the fly. Finding a balance is often the best strategy, but depending on your style, you can specialize and go heavy offense, defense, or the like.

The game takes place primarily in Seoul, South Korea. Exploring the open world to find collectibles and side missions is critical to leveling your characters, which leads to better skills and stronger survivability stats like higher defense or health. Even moving about the world provides options, as you can utilize your powers, every character’s built-in triple jump, commandeer a car from the world, or call in one of your nitrous-outfitted Mayhem cruisers (including some with Kitt-like robot voice) should you so choose to.


During our demo, we were able to check out five different missions. Two helped forward the story of the game as we took down high-ranking lieutenants inside Legion by blowing up basically everything in sight. Two other missions, meanwhile, were solo objectives that introduced us to new characters like Daisy, the roller derby girl with a Gatling gun and an alcohol problem (who ended up my favorite). Beating those solo missions unlocked new characters and gave us some critical backstory beats about the world and the team itself.

The last mission might’ve been the most interesting, because it was easily the most open-ended and tasked us with capturing a tower in the middle of Seoul. Capturing towers is great for experience, while also freeing areas of Seoul from Legion control. It’s a common video game activity at this point, but it definitely gave us a lot more reasons to explore the world. The mission also showed off some of the verticality of the game, as we had to climb several buildings to get to the capture point. It also highlighted the fast & frantic pace of combat, especially when swapping teammates as swarms of Legion soldiers attacked our position.


My time with Agents of Mayhem might’ve only been a small cross section of the variety of scenarios the game promises to throw players into, but it was enough to pique my interest for sure. Its cutscenes and interstitials look like they could’ve aired as part of a Saturday morning cartoon block—with more adult themes, mind you—while the action felt like a cross between what we’ve seen before in Saints Row and something like Crackdown. There’s not as much customization as some would expect from Volition, with each character having a limited number of skins for themselves, cars, and their weapons—but that’s because the cast fits more carefully into a story that pays homage in its own weird way to a bygone era. If you ever wanted to see what might happen if GI Joe took a turn for the adult, then maybe got spliced with Archer or something along those lines, Agents of Mayhem looks like it’s ready to deliver just that in the package of a fun, open-world action game.

Agents of Mayhem is dropping on August 15 for Xbox One, PS4, and PC.

I see what’s going on here. A Mafia game comes out and everyone just assumes the Italian guy from New Jersey needs to be the reviewer, like he knows something that everyone else doesn’t. Well, I might, but I’m no rat. The only thing I know and am willing to talk about is that Mafia III looks like it knew something, too, and somebody roughed it up a lot trying to find out what—because this game isn’t in great shape. If it had a mob nickname, it’d be called “Pretty,” but only in that ironic kind of way in which it really isn’t, you know what I mean?

Mafia III follows the story of Lincoln Clay, an African-American Vietnam veteran in 1968. After his final tour of duty, Clay returns home to New Bordeaux, developer Hangar 13’s take on New Orleans in much the same way Mafia II’s Empire City was based on New York and Chicago. Even amid all the racist glares, Clay is thrilled to be home, meeting up with his adopted family and father-figure Sammy—a mafia lieutenant in control of the predominantly African-American section of town called the Hollows in crime boss Sal Marcano’s empire. It’s not long before Lincoln is putting his military training back to use for Sammy, which catches Marcano’s eye. After pulling off the heist of the century to help square away Sammy’s debts to Marcano, the crime boss turns on them all and burns Sammy’s bar to the ground. Clay survives the double-cross, however, and after being nursed back to health, plans to burn Marcano’s crime empire to the ground like the mobster did to Sammy’s bar.


Let me start by saying that Mafia III’s main plot is one of the best-written stories I’ve played through in a very long time. At times it’s humorous, emotional, poignant, and with its willingness to tackle the subject of race during a tumultuous time in our nation’s history head-on, even reflective and analytical of the society we live in today. Its use of in medias res hooked me right away, dropping me right into the action, and then slowly developing the characters of Lincoln and his associates through well-timed flashbacks. Thus, allowing me to quickly care about or despise them depending on their relationship to our protagonist before smoothly merging Lincoln’s past with his present and moving forward from there.

A huge part of what made the main story so great was the audio aspect of the game. From tremendous voice acting by the cast, to one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard from a game, Mafia III is a joy to listen to. The soundtrack specifically is so deep and varied, compiling countless hits from the 1960s, that across the game’s three radio stations, you’ll be shocked when you’re still hearing new songs come on even halfway through what could easily turn into a 30-hour experience—not to mention their timing during story missions is a great way to help emphasize the emotion of the moment. Throw in original radio talk shows created for the game to reflect what’s going on both in the world at the time and the fire and brimstone Lincoln is bringing down about New Bordeaux, and driving around with the radio on has potentially never been better in a game.


Unfortunately, as good as the game is audio-wise, it falls off a cliff at times visually. In those rare instances where everything comes together, New Bordeaux is a vibrant, diverse city that is a joy to drive through. More often than not, though, it feels like a ghost town. Even during one of the early flashbacks that has Lincoln escaping police through a Mardi Gras parade, the city never feels as alive or populated as it should, and that scene made it all the more telling with only scattered handfuls of revelers celebrating.

Also, the glitches that occur are far too frequent and major to be forgivable. At times, Lincoln was hit with some sort of latency bug, so a weird particle-shadow appeared behind him as he moved. Others, like in the screenshot below, you’d see two models of the same character in one place. In this instance, Cassandra, one of Lincoln’s own lieutenants, is both sitting while reading a book, and staring at the back wall for some reason. Sometimes NPCs would pop in and out of existence in a blink, or merge with the cover they are taking in shootouts. Once, the sky even flashed different colors rapidly as if the day/night cycle had suddenly broken (and I’m not talking about the instances before certain missions where it does accelerate so that a mission is taking place during the proper time).

Mafia III_20161012235510

The worst aspect of Mafia III, though, has to be the liberation of districts gameplay. There are 10 districts in New Bordeaux, and as part of his plan to take down Marcano, Lincoln will recruit three lieutenants of his own —Cassandra, head of the Haitian mob, Vito, Mafia II’s protagonist, and Burke, head of the Irish mob—that he can then assign parts of the city to. There’s an interesting metagame where if you play favorites, the lieutenants might turn on you, but by evenly dividing up the districts amongst the three (the tenth district, the Bayou, cannot be assigned because no one tames the Bayou) you can avoid this.

By killing high-ranking Marcano goons and destroying valuable property, you’ll draw out racket bosses, and when you bump off enough of those, you’ll draw out Marcano’s nine lieutenants and capos one-by-one. Once you kill them, you’ll win the district. To do all this, however, you’ll have to complete these same objectives over and over again, just in different parts of the city.

This lack of mission variety turns the open-world aspects of Mafia III into a grind. There isn’t even fast travel, so for many missions you’re constantly forced to just drive needlessly back and forth across the city—again, made a little better by the radio, but still annoying enough—bringing the game’s pacing to a crawl. And while it’s cool the first few times Lincoln basically goes into special forces mode, moving through warehouses to silently slaughter unsuspecting mobsters like he was again wading through Vietnam’s rice paddies looking for NVA officers, I was done with it after a few times—even though I then had to still do it another two dozen times or so. Of course, you can also go in guns blazing, but the numbers are against Lincoln, so it’s not recommended. Similarly, the game’s handful of side missions boil down to one of two types: steal a car and drive it back to your lieutenant for more money, or kill someone on Vito’s special hit-list.


It’s funny how one of the major complaints people used to make about the earlier Mafia games was how linear they were. Mafia III is definitely open-world, but the lack of variety in mission design really makes me wish the game had stayed narrower in scope. If as much thought, care, and originality had been put into all the game’s missions—instead of just those revolving around when you finally hit the story’s main beats where Lincoln claims a territory—this could have been something special. As is, though, I’d say 20 of the game’s 30 hours are a grind, and there’s only 10 hours of really worthwhile content here that could’ve been streamlined into a really stellar experience.

Mafia III tells a terrific main story. The problem is the experience is bloated by repetitive, yet necessary busy work that requires a huge time commitment to draw out would-be targets to get to the next great story beat. This dichotomy is reflected in the audio and visual aspects of the game as well, with it being a joy to listen to, but chock full of glitches that snap you out of what would otherwise be an immersive experience. This review mob boss wouldn’t put a hit out on Mafia III—it’s not that offensive—but it sure would need to do some big favors to get back in my good graces after wasting so much of my time.

Publisher: 2K Games • Developer: Hangar 13 • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 10.07.16
Mafia III’s main plot is one of the better-written stories I’ve played in recent history. The problem is the gameplay is bloated with a lot of busy work and weak side content that detracts from this great tale.
The Good Tremendous writing and great storytelling.
The Bad Tons of visual glitches and extremely repetitive gameplay.
The Ugly I spent way too much time collecting the vintage Playboys in the game. I swear it was only for the articles, though.
Mafia III is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by 2K Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

During E3 2015, I had a chance to talk to principal designer Francesco Antolini for Walmart Gamecenter about Avalanche Studios’ upcoming open-world game Just Cause 3!

The Just Cause series has always tried its best to make getting around in its world just as fun as blowing it up. Rico’s iconic grappling hook allows him to get to places cars and copters can’t easily reach. Using the parachute with the hook lets you gain altitude while covering distance. At the same time, the combination makes Rico a harder target to hit and gives him a unique angle from which he can take out his enemies.

The new wingsuit adds a new wrinkle to how Rico will get around in his home country of Medici. Once Rico reaches certain heights, whether using the parachute or via the numerous flying vehicles in the game, the wingsuit allows Rico to get to almost anywhere on the island quickly  without losing elevation. In some ways, I’m reminded of how Batman gets around in the Arkham games; Rico can dive at great speeds, then pull up at the last instance to increase his time and speed. However, Rico can go farther than Batman can in the Arkham games. Here, it’s closer to actually being able to fly without a vehicle.

The speed and ease with which you can use the wingsuit to get around, though, would’ve made the parachute almost useless. So the parachute and how it works has been completely revamped. While you can still use the parachute to gain some height, it also slows Rico’s descent.

With these new tools, Rico can pull his chute above an area he wants to infiltrate or blow up, tether his grappling hook to the ground and slowly circle above his targets. During my time playing the game, I tried this technique while staging a prison break on top of one of Medici’s hills. Rico lost only minimal height while I shot at the guards and every red cylinder I could see, causing as much chaos and havoc as possible. The parachute slowed by descent so much that I  almost become a mid-air mobile weapons platform. I happily had the height advantage, but didn’t have to worry about losing it until enemy choppers scrambled, at least.

These movement options and changes are just a sample of what designers have done with Just Cause 3. They want to give players as much freedom as possible in Avalanche Studios’ sandbox, all in the name of causing as much destruction as possible. During my extended hands-on, flying through the air and firing rockets at enemies never got old. I can’t wait to do it all again when the game hits store shelves.

Just Cause 3 will drop December 1 for Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC.

Dying to disappoint

The first Dead Island turned a lot of heads by blending open-world and RPG elements with survival horror. It lacked the polish to make a truly significant impact, but this solid core led many to believe that the inevitable follow-up would only improve on the strong foundation laid by the first game and deliver an experience that could be enjoyed by zombie slayers everywhere.

Man, were we ever wrong.

Dead Island: Riptide opens with the four heroes from the first game—along with terrorist hacker Charon and Yerema, patient zero of the Banoi outbreak—landing on a military ship in their commandeered helicopter. The soldiers on the ship immediately take everyone into custody, as a mysterious figure named Serpo wishes to experiment on the immune for undisclosed reasons. Yerema freaks when grabbed by the soldiers because of her bad experiences with male authority figures and bites one of her assailants, thus spreading the infection onto the ship.

Following a short cutscene where our heroes awaken from a drug-induced stupor and exchange pleasantries with new playable protagonist John Morgan, we take control of the characters for the first time and discover the ship has now gone to hell. After a brief tutorial segment, the carrier crashes onto the nearby island of Palanai, and a very familiar scene is laid out before us: a tropical haven torn asunder by the zombie outbreak.

And while this paradox of hell in paradise is still an interesting concept, the punch it had with the first game will be lost on returning players, as they’ve seen this before. In fact, as you continue to play through the game, you’ll realize in many instances how very few differences there are in terms of story pacing and location from the first Dead Island to Riptide. The result is usually a less than satisfying sense of déjà vu.

Even the things that were being hyped as major additions were simply meant to fool us into thinking there was something new to be found in Riptide. The “improved gunplay” we were promised has been instituted by removing most of the required gunplay from the game and putting an even stronger emphasis on your melee weapons. Using a boat to get from point A to B is available in only one section of the game—and ended up making for a more frustrating experience, as all that water consistently causes framerate drops and horrendous screen-tearing. At the least the themes of water and flooding are consistent throughout the game—even if you can avoid it in most areas.

And the new quest types we were promised? They’re there, but they’re every bit as much of a grind as the fetch quests that dominated the first game. There are still plenty of fetch quests here, too—so many that almost you almost want to willingly dive into the waiting, diseased maw of some flailing zombie just to end it all.

The first new objective type involves the relatively straightforward task of saving a survivor who’s stuck on high ground, surrounded by zombies below. The second type is the highly touted siege quests. The survivor quests were fun the first couple of times, but when you realize there are literally dozens of survivors scattered about the world—too stupid to help themselves or realize that the zombies can’t climb—a part of you wants to leave these pitiful NPCs to their fate. By contrast, the siege quests are actually a lot of fun and require some complex thinking and strategy, but given that they only occur a handful of times through the entire game, I can’t help but wonder why Techland stressed something so relatively insignificant.

And that’s the kicker, really. If you played the first Dead Island, it’s hard not to notice how little has changed between the games. Even the glitches from the first game have returned, imparting the sense that Riptide needed at least another six months of polishing before ever reaching the hands of consumers. There are the little things, like radios that magically and inexplicably rotate 90 degrees when you turn them on, and big things, like times when the audio drops out completely, breaks whatever quest you’re on, and forces you to quit out and restart from your last checkpoint. The zombie respawn timer is also far too fast. In many instances I would see zombies I just wiped out literally start respawning not 15 seconds later. Polygon by polygon, they would fade back into existence right in front of me, and I’d have to run or deal with them all over again. It’s always nice when a developer uses an in-house engine, as it usually gives them mastery over that which they are trying to create, but it comes off that the Chrome engine still can’t give the smooth experience most gamers demand from a game nowadays, especially one with so much hype.

And the shortcomings aren’t just technical. The story this time around has even more plot holes, and does nothing to further develop any of the characters. Not to mention that Charon and Yerema—two of the most important characters from the first Dead Island—completely disappear once you leave the ship from the game’s opening cinematic/tutorial mission. Characters don’t ask about them, collectibles don’t explain their absence (if you can even look past the all the typos in the various collectibles’ scripts), and when you meet the bad guys again later in the game, it never comes up that two people you arrived with are just gone. Their existence is ignored in order to help further a plot that maddeningly undoes much of the first game’s. All this leads up to one of the most pitiful and poorly developed end bosses I’ve seen in a while, one that pales in comparison to the Ryder White fight from the end of Dead Island.

As much as I may be bashing Riptide, though, some of the good from the first game was able to make it over into this sequel, and there are a couple of nice new features as well. Being able to import your original character is a great touch; it was nice playing with Sam B and already having my skill trees largely filled out. Since the level cap has been raised to 70, you’re also able to further flesh your imported character, as well as try out new abilities, like the Charge maneuver. If Riptide is your first experience with the Dead Island franchise, however, there’s nothing to fear. You’ll automatically start at level 15 with a new character, so you can fill out your tree a decent amount and jump right into co-op without having to worry about other players having to carry you.

The co-op is also a critical returning feature, as many of the missions have been specifically tailored to take advantage of group play—specifically those where you have to carry weapons or supplies to a vehicle while other players cover your rear. The addictive nature of bashing zombies in the face with some trusted cohorts, especially with the weird assortment of weapons you can craft at benches, is as enjoyable as ever in Riptide.

Also, the new enemy types, like the Wrestler, the Butcher, and the Screamer—along with the addition of 13 boss zombies scattered throughout the world—provide some nice monster variety that was noticeably absent from the first game. If as much effort was put into the rest of the game as was put into creating the new zombie monstrosities, I suspect my review would have a dramatically different tone.

Still, as much as I hated the glitches and lack of story development, there were times I couldn’t put Riptide down for hours upon hours. The sheer fun of the co-op zombie-slaughtering gameplay was strong enough to carry the burden. The fact that the rest of the game can’t live up to this promising foundation is nothing short of heartbreaking. It’s a reboot of a game that only came out two years ago. It’s a nightmarish expansion pack with only a handful of new gameplay elements and two new bugs for every one that’s been fixed. If this is your first experience with the franchise, then you might be able to look past some of the more glaring flaws, but if you played the first Dead Island, Riptide is a difficult game to recommend.

Developer: Techland • Publisher: Deep Silver • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 04.23.13
Newcomers to the franchise will likely be more forgiving of many flaws, much like many of us were with the first Dead Island, considering the fun zombie-bashing core and unique dichotomy of an apocalypse in paradise has remained intact. Veterans of the first Dead Island, on the other hand, will feel cheated, as they’ll recognize the cheap carbon copy that Riptide actually is. Combine this with glitches galore and a plot with more holes in it than the sinking ship the game starts off on, and it’s hard to recommend Riptide to all but the most naïve of zombie enthusiasts.
The Good Enjoyable zombie hacking and co-op remains intact.
The Bad Frequent screen-tearing and quest-breaking glitches; tons of plot holes.
The Ugly The fact that I’d actually hoped this would be better than the first game.
Dead Island: Riptide is available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.

Peace, Love, Horizon

Forza has been one of the premier racing series for quite a while; the franchise has constantly provided top-tier physics, an impressive lineup of elite cars, and a variety of options to help personalize your driving experience. The setting of the game, however, has never really strayed from enclosed tracks and menus asking you where you wanted to race that day.

Enter Forza Horizon, the first open-world entry for the franchise. Horizon is set in a semi-fictional slice of Colorado where many real-world roads from the Centennial State cut together to form a twisting, turning spattering of insane driving roads along beautiful mountains, a rural expanse, and a suburban outcropping. So, what’s the reason all the in-game racers have gathered at this perfect storm of road racing? The (fictional) Horizon Festival, the Woodstock of car racing. And, naturally, you play as the young, up-and-coming nobody looking to make a name for himself and be crowned king of the festival.

Starting off in a crappy 1995 Volkswagen Corrado, you’ll race in beginner events in the hopes of earning credits to not only obtain better cars, but also to work your way up to stiffer competition until you’re finally ready to take on the champion in standard racing game fashion. Unlike previous entries in the series, Horizon offers many other ways to earn extra credits: illegal street races, promotional events where you take on unconventional vehicles like hot-air balloons or biplanes, and even racing for slips against the game’s seven bosses. In total, you’re looking at hours upon hours of racing outside of the 70 festival-sponsored races in single-player alone.

Along with the robust racing choices and the game’s main plot, there’s also the underlying quest to become popular. Yes, it does sound like something you may have had to do in high school, but in Horizon, this extra quest to do tricks or cause destruction in the environment to earn popularity points helps keep the long drive between some races entertaining as you look to move up from 250th amongst the racing fans to becoming the number one driver in their hearts. And performing enough of these tricks also adds to the in-game achievements where you can unlock more credits by performing specific stunts and maneuvers.

These new elements are all well and good, and when you jump into Forza Horizon to start, this new take feels original and exciting with the atmosphere of the festival, the radio DJ’s script, and the phenomenal soundtrack adding even more life to the scenes before you. But, as you get deeper into the game, if you’ve played any racing series besides Forza, you start to realize you’ve actually seen many of these tricks before.

Forza still does what it is known for very well in terms of physics, car choices, and customizing the driving experience. And the plot and quest for popularity are very enjoyable. But as an open-world game ,it still needs a bit of work, and the minor annoyances start to add up. The fact that the game doesn’t present a clear difference between what’s breakable in the environment and what isn’t particularly grinded my gears. I could smash up some fences but not others, and I’d be able to drive through some foliage only to be stopped suddenly by a single piece of lone shrubbery in the wilderness.

Another aspect of the open world that bothered me, especially later in the game, was how the area outside of the main festival felt like a ghost town. I loved how expansive and detailed the world was, but it barely felt like there was anyone else in it; much of the civilian traffic felt more like more random obstacles than actual people in the world. Many of the tracks also start to repeat themselves toward the end of the game, which was puzzling, considering how much unused open road there was. I also would have loved some character customization or at least some depth to the character you’re forced to play as. If I got called the “Mystery Driver” one more time, I was just gonna drive off a cliff!

All in all, Forza Horizon is a fine new take on this venerable racing series. It has a few quirks that come with the franchise’s first attempt at an open-world game, but at its heart, it’s still a solid Forza title. I can see Horizon being the start of a continuing bold new direction for the franchise, and with a bit more polish, I can even see it becoming the Forza standard. If you’re a Forza fan, this is definitely worth checking out.

SUMMARY: A different turn for the Forza folks maintains the high level of racing the series is known for, but their first open-world attempt falls flat in some ways.

  • THE GOOD: Same tight Forza physics and handling.
  • THE BAD: The open world feels empty and hollow.
  • THE UGLY: Starting the game off with a Volkswagen Corrado.

SCORE: 8.5

Forza Horizon is an Xbox 360 exclusive.