Tag Archive: Xbox One


I had a chance recently to finally play some Cuphead for the first time in quite a while. In this video, I take on the second boss, a giant slime named Goopy Le Grande. I also show off the tutorial and a little bit of the character upgrades.

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I’m sure I’ve said this before in some other reviews, but side-scrolling beat ‘em ups were my bread and butter growing up in Jersey. Whether it was X-Men or Turtles in Time, I would spend the majority of my quarters at the Electric Circuit arcade on those machines (and still fall into the trap at some of LA’s finer barcades that feature those cabinets now). So, it was with a childlike fervor that I jumped into Way of the Passive Fist, a love letter to those old-school brawlers that also offers a few unique twists that help solve the problems those classic beat ‘em ups faced.

Players take on the role of The Wanderer, a product of the volatile but mineral-rich planet of Zircon V who stalks its nearly uninhabitable wastes. Those minerals have lured in many from across the galaxy looking to get rich quick off the planet’s resources, but few are prepared for what the wastes hold quite like our protagonist. You see, The Wanderer has mastered the Art of the Passive Fist—a defensive fighting style that allows him to absorb and channel the energy expelled towards him to wear his opponents down. However, the balance is shifted when foes stronger than any he has seen before arrive on Zircon V—foes which wield enhancements similar to The Wanderer’s own mechanical gauntlet.

Way of the Passive Fist gets right to the point when it comes to what it’s about. Like the cartoons a lot of those late ‘80s/early ‘90s beat ‘em ups were based on, there isn’t a lot of story in this game—beyond telling you right away that you’re an anti-hero of sorts who is forced to save his hellish world because it’s all he’s got. Of course, older games had cartoons and comic books to help flesh out the story for potential players, so filling in narrative gaps wasn’t always a necessary task for the game. We don’t have that here with The Wanderer, and it’s sad, because it feels like a terrific world that would be ripe for further development if it wasn’t so focused on tapping into nostalgia. I could easily see the Wanderer as the star of a Saturday morning cartoon with his own action figure line, or even teaming up with other popular heroes in weird crossovers. As is—and without all the benefit of transmedia—I would’ve loved if Way of the Passive Fist could’ve given me just a tad more than it does in terms of The Wanderer’s tale.

The main reason why I want to know more about The Wanderer and Zircon V is because the rest of Way of the Passive Fist is so good. The bright, bold colors, variety of locations across the game’s 10 stages, zany henchmen that cross The Wanderer’s path, and surprising amount of enemy variety (even with the prerequisite palette swaps to signify a harder variation on each) gave Way of the Passive Fist an authentic cartoon vibe that was a feast for these older eyes. It emulates that early 90s aesthetic perfectly, as does the music, which features a tubular tempo that will get your foot tapping while the Wanderer dispatches the brightly-colored foes in his path.

What’s most impressive, though, is beyond these surface aesthetics. As hinted at in the game’s title, The Wanderer is a passive hero—instead of throwing a flurry of punches, kicks, or offensive special moves at his opponents, he lets the fight come to him. Every time an enemy tries to punch you, your job is to parry it. A successful parry will drain the stamina of the enemy, and if they run out of stamina, they will hunch over exhausted, meaning The Wanderer only has to tap them to knock them out. Some enemies will try to grab you, requiring you to dodge; others will throw things at you, which you can either parry or dodge (though a successful dodge on most of these items will let you throw them back for massive damage). Every enemy (and palette swap) has a different pattern to their attacks, so learning these patterns and how to react accordingly is necessary for success. This idea provides a fresh challenge on what is otherwise an always-straightforward genre.

While you parry your way through the adventure, you’ll also build up a combo counter. Longer combo chains will power up The Wanderer’s power gauntlet, allowing him to unleash rare offensive moves to expedite your fights. For example, a Power Punch is great for taking out a single enemy, whereas the harder-to-charge Super Slam is effective at crowd control. And, later in the game, you can unlock the Gravity Well, a screen-clearing super move that requires a combo of 25 or higher which is best reserved for dire straits. Of course, if you miss even a single parry or dodge, the counter resets, and so does the power meter—making that pattern recognition all the more important and raising the stakes for when exactly to use your special abilities.

What might be the most impressive thing about this parry-only system, however, is that it solves long-time issues found in those old-school beat ‘em ups. There is nothing more frustrating in these types of games than to think you have an opponent lined up for an attack, only to whiff because your character is slightly out of alignment with your opponent, with poor hit detection meaning your attack was for naught. Instead, enemies always having to attack you means the AI takes care of this as the enemy is always going to be aimed right at you, and all you have to do is time your button presses properly. And, even if you break that line, most times the enemy will reset, or a different, closer enemy will move in to attack. It’s a simple solution to a problem that has plagued beat ‘em ups for as far back as I can remember, and it was welcome because it really allowed me to focus on my timing more than anything.

There were a couple of hiccups with the system, however. When looking to go on the attack myself with a super move that wasn’t Gravity Well, I’d still occasionally miss if I didn’t wait for the enemy to come to me. Also, when you get later in the game and start dealing with enemies with more complex patterns, you might be tempted to position yourself so that weaker enemies with easier patterns can be used to build that combo meter again. Sometimes multiple enemies would activate, however, and two enemies would attack me simultaneously. While The Wanderer is very adept with Passive Fist, it does have the drawback that you have to always be facing your opponent to properly parry, and can only parry one move at a time. It’s a small glitch, and it didn’t happen often—but when it did, it was frustrating.

Way of the Passive Fist also solves another problem those old-school quarter munchers have had in recent years: replayability. When ­X-Men and Turtles in Time were recently re-released on home consoles with unlimited continues as an option, the charm and replayability that came about due to a lack of lives went by the wayside, leaving their lack of depth to become startling apparent. There’s already a lot more depth of gameplay in Way of the Passive Fist to start with, but it goes so far as to also offer four special sliders that can change the way you play each and every time.

I beat the game on “Way of the Warrior”, which is basically as “Medium” as you can get in Way of the Passive Fist. But, if I wanted, I could’ve cranked the Enemy Strength and Enemy Encounters number way up and turned it into “Way of the Bold Eternal Warrior” where each chapter would have extra scenes (each chapter’s smaller sections) and enemies with stronger stamina bars. I could also have made achieving combos easier by turning down Combo Mastery, so that even late parries add to my combo meter, or turned down Resourcefulness, which would have given me more health items and checkpoints. There’s any number of combinations between these four meters that make each time you play Way of the Passive Fist different than the last. And, once you beat the 10 chapters in Story (including the somewhat disappointing final boss fight), you also unlock Arcade Mode, which channels those quarter-munching days of old by giving you only a certain number of lives to try to complete the game, adding more challenge and replayability to the experience for us arcade veterans.

Way of the Passive Fist is a beautiful ode to a genre whose glory days are behind it. It’s inventive solutions to problems that have been around for generations should be appreciated, and it’s a terrific opportunity for those of us who grew up in arcades to experience something new that would’ve fit right in three decades ago. I’m not sure if the new generation of gamers will be as into it, but it made me crave a slice of greasy pizza and a soda while basking in a sense of nostalgia like few games have been able to give me recently. So, if you love beat ‘em ups like I do, Way of the Passive Fist is a unique challenge that you should definitely check out.

Publisher: Household Games • Developer: Household Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 03.06.18
9.0
Way of the Passive Fist is a game out of time (in a good way). It feels like it would’ve fit right in alongside arcade cabinets from 30-years ago, with its cartoon color scheme and over-the-top soundtrack. But it’s got a modern twist that solves a lot of old-school beat ‘em ups’ biggest problems and delivers a terrific overall experience with a cornucopia of options to keep you coming back for more.
The Good Interesting twist on the classic beat ‘em ups of the early ‘90s with some surprising replayability.
The Bad Some technical hiccups, especially in later stages when the enemies really start to ramp up in difficulty.
The Ugly How easily this would have gotten a 13-episode order from DiC Entertainment—if only they were still around.
Way of the Passive Fist is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Household Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

It has been a great year for games overall, and one of the best in recent memory. I can’t remember the last time I had to wrestle with my top five as much as I had to this year, because there were honestly 15 or so games out of the 89 that I beat before official EGM game of the year voting that I could’ve slipped into these slots. After much internal deliberation, however, I hammered out a list that I think provides a variety of incredible experiences that are all more than worthy of your game-playing time.

#5 Publisher: Bethesda
Developer: MachineGames
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
There were literally three games rotating in and out of this spot for me before I finally decided that talking about how great it is to kill Nazis—and in such a variety of ways—was worthy of a nod. There have never been a more disgusting or vile people on the Earth than the Nazis; they are the ultimate evil. And, reigning havoc on this fictional Reich was cathartic at a time when people seem to be forgetting just how heinous they were. If this game weren’t already in my top five, it’d be getting a special award just for being able to kick Hitler in the face. Throw in a terrific end credits scene that should get every patriot’s heart pumping, along with just how amazingly smooth the game’s gunplay was, and there’s no doubt that Wolfenstein II should be near the top of everyone’s lists.
#4 Publisher: Supergiant Games
Developer: Supergiant Games
Platforms: PS4, PC
Pyre
The folks at Supergiant Games are nothing if not expert storytellers. In each of their games, they’ve created unique worlds that you can’t help but get sucked into, and Pyre does that again here. It finds a way to make you care about the characters in your caravan right from the get-go, and as your party grows, the roots you place in this world only become stronger until it’s almost painful for you to leave it. What’s even more amazing is that the gameplay’s main mechanic—besides chatting with your party members in standard RPG fashion—is to basically win 3-on-3 basketball games. Of course, boiling this mechanic down like that to its very core peels away the stakes that surround each game. There’s a real sense of risk here, as well as loss should you fail. Pyre is a gorgeous game, both visually and content wise, and is a can’t-miss experience.
#3 Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Platforms: Switch
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Breath of the Wild is no doubt a game-changer for one of Nintendo’s most popular flagship franchises. It was a bold choice to focus more on puzzle-solving and world interaction than combat, and it paid off. People are still discovering new ways to interact with this latest iteration of Hyrule and its inhabitants, and it again proves that few companies are as good as Nintendo at just making games that are pure fun. Plus, there is plenty of fun to be had considering how massive the game’s world is, not to mention a tremendous amount of customization here, with Link being able to wear just about anything. I could’ve done without my weapons breaking so often, and I worry about Nintendo embracing the idea of DLC with this game, but even still, this is an instant classic.
#2 Publisher: Studio MDHR
Developer: Studio MDHR
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Cuphead
It’s rare in today’s world for something to be hyped for as long as Cuphead was, and for it to then live up to that hype. And yet, somehow, it did. After 188 deaths, I had completed this game and was thrilled for every second I got to play with it. There is a randomness to each boss fight that tests your reflexes in ways few games like this can, as you can’t just sit back and memorize patterns. It’s an action-shooter, but there are definitely moments where this feels like a bullet hell, too—especially in the flying levels. On top of this, the art and musical style of 1930s cartoons is a surprisingly fresh take for a video game, and proves that sometimes what is old can be new again. Combine all this with tight controls (especially around the parry system), and Cuphead sits as one of the year’s most complete experiences if you’re like me and don’t mind the difficulty.
#1 Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Capcom
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC
Resident Evil VII
It’s rare for a game that releases in January to hold throughout the year at the top of my list, but Resident Evil 7 surprised us all in a lot of ways in 2017. It’s both a return to form and a strong step forward for the franchise. The atmosphere and intimateness of the Baker compound down in the bayou harkens back to earlier games in the series, helping to set up some truly horrific moments. The move to first-person was controversial for some, but for me I found it to be a smart step into the future that only enhanced the terror the game instilled in me. When you include the clever traps and puzzles, the unforgettable characters that were the Baker family, and the new enemies in the Molded, Resident Evil 7 quite simply might’ve saved the franchise. It also, though, was the first full game to completely support VR. Sure, the graphics took a hit, but playing with that headset on is a true test of anyone’s fortitude.
The 7th Annual “The Colors, Duke! The Colors!” Award for Most Colorful Game presented by Popsicle (not really, but I wish)
Assassin’s Creed Origins
Continuing my annual tradition of giving an award to the prettiest game of the year, Assassin’s Creed Origins’ visuals blew me away. This was one of the toughest years yet to judge for this award, but when everything was working—whether you were perched atop one of the Pyramids of Giza, or just soaring over the Nile with Senu—Assassin’s Creed Origins could take your breath away. The diversity of the landscape also played a huge part in Origins coming away with the win here, as there was so much more to explore than just the desert you likely first think of when thinking of Egypt.
The Rick Astley “Never Gonna Give You Up” Award
Injustice 2
For as great a year as it’s been in video games, few games have got me coming back for more as consistently as Injustice 2. Earning new gear in the game’s Multiverse mode has become something of an addiction, as I’m constantly trying to make my favorite characters stronger through the system. Online play has been solid—I’ve got a .540 winning percentage with my main, Batman—and the steady flood of new monthly DLC characters has kept things fresh with all these new characters to learn and arcade endings to discover. In a year full of memorable experiences, Injustice 2 just might be the most addicting.
The Don’t Let It Fall Under Your Radar Award
The Sexy Brutale
There have been a flurry of AAA-blockbusters that took our breath away this year, but we can’t forget to give indies their proper amount of love. While some smaller projects were fortunate enough to catapult themselves into the limelight from their first showing at fan expos and trade shows, others have toiled away hoping to breakthrough. The Sexy Brutale is a terrific murder-mystery with the added caveat of time-travel thrown in to help you relive the same day over and over in order to solve all the murders taking place around you. Throw in a stellar soundtrack and The Sexy Brutale is a game you might not have heard of until now, but is one you must go back and experience if you find the time.
EGM’s Best of 2017 Coverage
We’re taking a look at the best games of 2017 all week, from Christmas day through December 30th. Check back every day for our Top 25 Games of 2017, as well as our personal lists for the games we loved most this year. Check here for everything that’s been posted so far.

Lego games are nothing if not consistent, and in today’s gaming world that’s an accomplishment. Here is a series that typically has multiple releases a year and yet still finds a way to maintain a certain level of quality in terms of its gameplay and its humor. Sure, there’s a really simple base to work from, and it’s not like the graphics will push modern hardware to the brink, but the Lego games always deliver an experience the whole family can enjoy from beginning to end. The latest game, Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2, once again maintains the course for the series, and although it also adds a few new bells and whistles, there are a few new issues that crop up along the way, too.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 revolves around classic Marvel villain Kang the Conqueror. Kang has decided to stitch together a world from across both time and the multiverse and dub the resulting mishmash Chronopolis, with all the worst characters from across the timeline pledging fealty to him. Of course, in all these worlds happen to be heroes, too. Now, Marvel’s finest (minus the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and all their related characters) must find a way to band together to stop Kang and his army, and send each part of Chronopolis back to their respective place in the multiverse.

Similar to the previous Lego Marvel game, the story unfolds chapter by chapter from a hub world, in this case the aforementioned Chronopolis. Kang’s powers served as the perfect opportunity to stitch together some favorite alternate Marvel universes like Spider-Man 2099’s Nueva York, Spider-Man Noir’s Noir Universe, Captain America’s Hydra Empire, and current Marvel locales like the Inhumans’ Attilan, the Guardians of the Galaxy’s Knowhere, and an Asgard on the brink of Ragnarok. Each world has its own dedicated story chapter and is full of the kind of childish humor that’s always punctuated the series, with the heroes constantly bumbling over themselves. Throwing in the different universes only adds to the topical humor—fourth-wall breaking references to the Noir world’s sepia tone palette, for instance, and the obligatory mummy jokes in Ancient Egypt. Plus, with 18 different worlds across 20 story chapters this is easily the longest standalone Lego game yet crafted.

Chronopolis is also the largest hub world TT Games has ever created for a standalone Lego game. It’s chock full of hours of content, including racing in the streets, stopping crime—petty criminals as well as villains ranging from well known rogues like Electro to relative unknowns like Sentry-459—taking quizzes about the game, and more. Succeeding at these bonus challenges serve as extra ways to earn classic gold bricks, which can then be used to unlock even more content in the game like bonus levels, and more of the heroes on what is easily the largest roster shipped with any Lego game.

To be fair, though, due to Disney and Marvel’s recent push against promoting the X-Men and other movie properties they don’t control, the roster is a bit artificially bloated with multiple versions of Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, and the like as well as some really obscure heroes and villains from Marvel’s history. As a long time fan of Marvel’s properties, these other characters are sorely missed at times. You can give me as many superhero versions of Gwen Stacy as you want, but I’d still much rather have Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, or Cyclops.

Of course, the lack of X-Men is more a matter of personal preference than something that seriously detracts from the gameplay. As in many of the previous games, there are few differences between a lot of the characters besides aesthetic or personal appeal and maybe a different voice actor. Gameplay-wise most characters fall into only a few categories. The different Captain Americas are somewhat unique because there are switches only their shields can hit, but other characters like Dr. Strange can also reflect energy when the situation calls for it. The family of Hulks are usually fine for whenever you need to smash a wall. And you have your pick of characters that can blast or blow things up with energy: Iron Man, Captain Marvel, Thor, and even Rocket Raccoon. And with the new Ms. Marvel replacing the likes of Mr. Fantastic, and Wasp and Ant-Man’s shrinking abilities, there’s very little from the original Lego Marvel that hasn’t been replicated with different heroes here.

There are a few new gameplay mechanics at least to also take advantage of new heroes, though. There are special mazes that only Ms. Marvel can stretch through, Dr. Strange can use his magic to open up special portals with a line-tracing mechanic, and Lockjaw can teleport to normally unseen parts of a level. This comes on top of the classic Lego mechanics of smashing anything and everything in sight, occasionally rebuilding some of the stuff you’ve destroyed into something new and useful, and collecting the in-game currency, studs, to purchase more heroes and vehicles. Collecting minikits and saving Stan Lee from obvious peril also return as extra ways to earn those precious gold bricks.

Besides the massive scope of Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2’s world and its predictably large roster of characters, the game also introduces levels where as many as five characters can be in your party at once. There are several levels where you’ll be working with the entire Guardians of the Galaxy team, or the entire family of Inhumans. This allows for more complex levels and puzzles with more elements than we’ve seen before. Each character in your party can bring something new to the team to help you progress through a level. For example, Star-Lord can fly, Drax has super-strength, Rocket has beam weapons, Gamora can use her swords, and Groot could turn into a ball and roll on certain switches. By switching back and forth between them, you have different characters interacting with different parts of a stage at different times more than ever before.

There’s a downside to this, however. Back when there were only ever two characters to your team, you knew exactly whom you were switching with when playing the game solo. With five characters on a team, even when you’re facing whom you want to control, you may bounce to entirely the wrong character. This only gets worse when, after leaving a character you were just controlling, the AI decides to run off away from where you left them, or worse yet, get stuck somewhere in the environment that you can’t get them out of without restarting the level. While the added complexity to the levels that the larger teams bring is an obvious way to up the ante from prior games, it’s clear that more bugs have made it through as a result. If TT wants to keep these bigger partiers for the next major Lego adventure, it needs to iron out some of these issues first.

The AI also bugs out with the villains on occasion, with cutscenes either being slow to trigger or boss battles not entering their next stage at all for some reason. With most levels being relatively short—few should take more than 20-30 minutes to complete offering up the game in nice bite-sized chunks for those strapped for time—there are few mid-level checkpoints. Although these bugs were few and far between, they were present enough to warrant a warning here. Having to restart large portions of a level because the game glitched is always frustrating.

The Lego games aren’t just solo experiences, though. Local two-player co-op has been with the series for as far back as I can remember and it returns here and is as solid as ever. When you get too far from your partner, the awkward split-screen returns, compounding the issue of a sometimes already too static camera, but it’s nothing some solid communication can’t correct. Depending on the age of who you’re playing with, though, good luck with that.

There’s also a new addition this go around with a four-player competitive mode for multiplayer. You can now communicate with the Grandmaster at Avengers Mansion in the game, and he will welcome you into one of two games. The first is a take on your standard Deathmatch, but with the added bonus of Infinity Gems falling occasionally from the sky and boosting a player or team. The second requires players to try to paint the ground in their color by walking over blank spots. It loosely resembles something from Splatoon, but quickly can devolve into confusing chaos as players desperately try to score in the tiny arenas. Each mode has four arenas to them as well, and although this isn’t the deepest multiplayer, it makes for a nice addition to the formula. It also raises the question, however, as to why there is still no online functionality in the Lego games.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is easily the largest and most entertaining standalone project the series has produced yet. There are literally hours upon hours of fun Marvel-themed content to keep games of all ages occupied for long periods of time. Some of the drastic expansion of the gameplay and world size, however, has led to some bugs that can become frustrating at times. If you can look past some of these new technical issues added on top of some pre-existing ones, Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 should still be a fun action-adventure that the an entire family of Marvel Merry Marching Society members can enjoy.

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment • Developer: TT Games • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 11.14.17
7.5
Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is easily the largest undertaking, outside of Dimensions, for a Lego game yet. More characters and more worlds to explore are punctuated by a humorous story that’s enjoyable for gamers of all ages. Increasing the scope of the Lego games has opened the door for some less than enjoyable bugs to sneak their way at times, though.
The Good Tons of content to keep you busy in Lego Chronopolis for hours on end. The story is fun, and the local versus multiplayer mode was a pleasant surprise.
The Bad Some AI glitches for characters you don’t control, and then trying to switch to those characters, belie some uncharacteristic tech issues from TT.
The Ugly I’ve played way too many Marvel property games this year without the X-Men in them now.
Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is available on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

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
4.0
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.

After seven years of annual releases, the Assassin’s Creed series seemed to hit a wall creatively and technically. What had once been one of the more groundbreaking IPs of the last generation of consoles instead become formulaic, and even the most hardcore members of its fanbase were beginning to feel a bit fatigued. So, Ubisoft did something we don’t expect companies to do once their series goes annual: they took a year off. Now, I can’t definitively say how much that extra year of development helped the team that worked on Assassin’s Creed Origins. I can happily say, however, that it worked, and that Assassin’s Creed is back—not just in the literal sense, but in the sense that it’s again pushing the envelope of open-world action-adventure games like it did when it first debuted a decade ago.

Assassin’s Creed Origins takes fans of the series back farther than any other game has with its primary setting, as you’ll play as an Egyptian man named Bayek towards the end of the Ptolemaic Era (47 BCE to be exact). Bayek is the last of a breed of Egyptian protectors known as Medjay, but when he fails to protect his own son from a sinister threat lurking in the shadows of the country’s highest ranks of government and society, Bayek’s mission goes from one of protection to one of vengeance. With the help of his wife, Aya (who you also play as in certain missions), and other key allies, Bayek will slowly uncover the puppet masters—known only as The Order of Ancients—that have been manipulating Egypt from behind the scenes, while also potentially finding peace over what he has lost.

The story of Assassin’s Creed Origins is one of the most personal tales of the series, and Bayek’s journey (and subsequent transformation as a character over the course of the game) is easily the most complete since Edward Kenway in Black Flag. What drives Bayek is a visceral and easily-justified emotion, but his evolution as he explores the world, meets new characters, and ultimately comes to grips with his internal struggle while dealing with the obviously outward conflict against the Order is a beautiful thing to play and see unfold.

Bayek’s tale also succeeds in another pleasantly surprising way: it’s unpredictable. We know going in that Origins is a prequel to the rest of the series, that the game’s events will lead to the creation of the Brotherhood of Assassins, and of course you’re going to kill some people at some point. It could have easily drawn a straight line from the catalyst of Bayek’s rage—the death of his innocent son—to the formation of the Creed. Instead, how we get to that formation, and then what happens after we actually get there, was both shocking and tremendous fun to play. Seriously, it kept me on the edge of my seat for the entirety of my 30-hour playthrough.

The narrative also does a great job of referencing past games in subtle ways. These nods won’t detract from the experience if you’re new or have only played a couple of Assassin’s Creed games in the past, but definitely up the enjoyment factor if you’re someone like me who has played every main game up to this point. And, if you pay close attention, you’ll be rewarded by seeing how Origins fits perfectly into the chronology the series had established up so far, whether referencing the first assassin, Xerxes, or laying the groundwork for Altair, Ezio, and all the other assassins that would come after.

Origins isn’t just a return to the roots of the Brotherhood, however—it also brings back a key element from previous games that had slowly been phased out in recent iterations. Basically, you’ll get to play around in the modern era. Early in your adventure, you’ll step out of the latest version of the Animus and take control of Layla Hassan, an Abstergo employee with an axe to grind. In a real throwback, you control these segments from the same third-person viewpoint always used when inside the Animus. Layla’s story is unique in its own right, but just like Bayek’s, finds a way to fit perfectly into the Assassin’s Creed overarching narrative—it even makes that Michael Fassbender movie somehow make sense! In a way, Layla’s adventure might even be more important than Bayek’s, because it lays the groundwork for where the series can go from here.

While it’s great that this new Assassin’s Creed tale really seems to have righted the ship in terms of the narrative element of the game, what will really suck you in is all the brand new gameplay. Sure, you’re still going to skulk around in the shadows and use your hidden blade to assassinate people, and even some of the naval gameplay that really hooked people in Black Flag returns in designated sections (it’s really awesome sailing a trireme). But, I admit that I was very worried when we were first shown all the RPG elements being added to the game, with recommended levels for enemies and areas of the world, random loot drops, and potential grinds for resources to upgrade gear. After having played the story from beginning to end, though—and being allowed to craft my own Bayek through his three skill trees and adapt him to my personal playstyle—I think Origins strikes a brilliant balance between the action from the series we love and this new layer of RPG gameplay that has been introduced.

The biggest worry I think I had was the potential of being surrounded by enemies who were way higher levels than me and not being able to really advance through the game. Although the game does give you the freedom (after it takes you through your first assassination) to basically go wherever you want in the world, if you follow the main story, and then do all the side quests in each subsequent region, you should never have to worry about where your level will be. By the time you’re ready to move on, you should be right within that perfect range recommended on the world map.

Of course, this brings up the quality of the side quests. I will say that a fair amount of them do a good job of grabbing your attention while fleshing out the world and the characters. In fact, there are some side missions that are even more heart-wrenching than Bayek’s personal tragedy. It’s really easy to see an exclamation point on your HUD, learn the plight of the NPC, and then find yourself following a thread that’s several missions long, guiding you around the entire region before coming to a conclusion with a fat XP bonus, maybe a rare item, and a feeling of satisfaction.

However, in an attempt to fill the world with content and make sure you have enough opportunities to level Bayek up so as not to hit a wall in combat, there are a fair amount that felt like copy/paste fetch quests, too. This is an issue with a lot of RPGs, and not just Assassin’s Creed, and so I understand why they have to be there. Still, I could see some players getting frustrated by this fact and trying to stick to the main story, only to find they might have to do those quests for XP—and that’s when it might feel like a grind.

There’s a lot of content here in Assassin’s Creed Origins, though. Whether racing chariots, fighting in the arena, or completing side quests and main quests, Ancient Egypt is a busy place. Another way to avoid that potential XP grind is that everything in Origins gives you XP. Kill an enemy, find a new area, synchronize the world from a high point, clear an enemy barracks, finish one of the aforementioned missions, and so on, and Bayek is going to get stronger. In theory, if you really wanted, you could just run around and kill bandits to level up. Clearing a fort only nets an XP bonus once, but those soldiers will respawn at some point—or you can manually light a brazier in the fort to purposely call for reinforcements and more enemies to fight—and you can kill them again if you’d like. I also mentioned earlier that I beat the game in 30 hours, but there were still dozens of side quests for me to finish. And, after I finished the story, I was able to go back into the world and keep playing. In those 30 hours, I completed 93 total side and main quests and reached level 37, which was plenty for me to beat the main story.

So, even if some of those fetch quests leave a bad taste in your mouth, there’s plenty of other things to do in Origins—which leads me to the world itself. Ubisoft has crafted what is probably its most beautiful world here in Ancient Egypt, but it’s also easily the most massive. Every couple of regions feel like they could be the size of entire older Assassin’s Creed game, and the major hub cities Alexandria and Memphis, and even lesser cities like Philadelphia or Cyrene, are absolutely breathtaking. Whether it was the swamps around Krokodilopolis, the swirling sands around the pyramids of Giza (grave robbing the Pyramids might’ve been my favorite side activity), or even Bayek’s rural home region of Siwa, it never got old to just take a moment and look around at the world created here. And, if you want to get fancy, you can even take a picture in photo mode, then upload it for everyone to see.

Another worry some might have is spending a ton of time in your inventory now that a lot of enemies will drop gear for you to potentially equip. Luckily, I found the menu UI to be crystal clear, and comparing two items was as easy as just hovering over something in your inventory. Scrapping unwanted gear was also a great way to get crafting items like bronze and iron, and that made sure I was rarely lacking in the resources I needed to improve the strength of my hidden blade or increase my health by reinforcing my armor. I never felt like I was wasting time navigating the menus, and wish more RPGs had a system as straightforward as Origins.

Moving around in the world has also seen some changes this go around—although the improvements here are subtler than everything else I’ve talked about at this point. Bayek will still occasionally get caught on a rough patch of geometry in the world, but for the most part, it feels smoother than ever when climbing or parkouring around. In particular, more of the hand and footholds in the world are cleverly hidden this time, but in a way that makes it look like Bayek is accurately climbing a rock face instead of looking for conveniently-placed rocks jutting out of the side. It’s a tiny detail, but one that helps with immersion.

For combat, a lot of the buttons have been changed around. The default is now to assign your light and heavy attacks to the right shoulder buttons, and your new bow and arrows to the left shoulder. I ended up switching to the alternate control with those right shoulder button attacks being reassigned to the face buttons, because the right trigger for me will forever be how to climb in AC. Still, it’s nice to see the team trying different things, and the options are there to go back to something more comfortable if you feel the need to.

There’s also a new parry system, but I struggled to find the proper timing because it was never really clear when I was supposed to parry. I’m not saying we need symbols above an enemy’s head like in the Batman: Arkham games, but clearer tells could’ve helped here. I found it easy enough to get through the game on normal without having to parry almost the entire game, though, so that might be a system that needs to go back to the drawing board entirely.

As great as Assassin’s Creed Origins is, there are a few issues with the game, and although I’ve nitpicked here or there over the course of this review, there’s no getting around the fact that the game has some rough bugs. Sometimes the animation breaks, and you’ll end up with something that looks like a breakdancing flamingo in the middle of a pond. Or, Bayek will get caught on something he shouldn’t get caught on. Nothing crazy, mostly comical, but they’re there. Also, Alexandria is the biggest city in the game, with the most NPCs out and about at a given time, and occasionally there were some framerate drops while running through that particular city’s streets. Ubisoft had a review event for some folks to play the game on an Xbox One X (that I did not attend), and I wonder if that issue is remedied thanks to the system’s higher power, or even the PS4 Pro’s, as compared to my regular PS4.

Something that I don’t think can be fixed with more powerful hardware is some of the glitches on quests. There were easily half a dozen moments throughout the game where an NPC glitched so badly that I needed to restart the checkpoint. A lot of times they just wouldn’t go anywhere when I was told to follow them, or they wouldn’t follow me when I was asked to escort them. There was also a couple of times when the game wouldn’t recognize when I had achieved the condition to trigger the next part of the mission. The worst was when I died mid-mission on a late-game side quest where I was asked to undermine war efforts by stealing the formula for Roman fire from a nearby fort. Even still, no matter how many times I select it and try to restart the checkpoint, or even restart the game, Origins refuses to let me advance the quest—even when I achieve the objective I died on, which was to destroy some barrels full of the Roman fire. This was the only instance of this, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.

Now, considering again that I did 93 different missions, that means something went wrong often enough to be a notable nuisance for sure. Most of them were just inconvenient, and none of them experience-breaking to the point I couldn’t actually beat the game—still, I felt they needed to be pointed out, and hopefully there is a patch in the future that will smooth things out.

Despite these rough edges, Assassin’s Creed Origins has already cemented itself as one of my favorite games in the series. The world is gorgeous, there are a ton of things to do—so much so that had I not been reviewing this game, I could’ve easily sank another 10-15 hours in before touching the final missions—and the story is amongst the best told over the series’ history. Yeah, there’s some bugs, but it was impressive how the series was able to bust out of its slump and find a new way to evolve, making all those RPG elements their own in a way that feels fun and exciting. This was an epic adventure that was more than fitting for what serves as the starting point of the Assassin’s Creed storyline.

Publisher: Ubisoft • Developer: Ubisoft Montreal • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 10.27.17
9.0
Assassin’s Creed: Origins delivers a robust experience that mixes up the traditional Assassin’s Creed formula in a way that’s fresh and fun to play—but which also harkens back to the series’ roots in some welcome ways, too. It marks an evolution fans might not have even known they were waiting for, delivering one of the best overall experiences we’ve seen yet from the series.
The Good A return to form in a game that explains so much about the series’ past while laying the groundwork for its future.
The Bad There are a lot of bugs, and I’m not talking about all the beetles and scarabs in the tombs Bayek can explore.
The Ugly That beard Bayek was sporting at the beginning of the game.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

When South Park: The Fractured But Whole was announced at E3 2015, it was easily one of the biggest surprises of the show. Rumors had long persisted that Matt Stone and Trey Parker had become disenchanted with the video game-making process after South Park: The Stick of Truth (the first game they had directly worked on) spent too long in development hell for guys who were used to cranking out a new TV episode every six days. It left many wondering if Stick of Truth would be the last time the two brilliant minds would ever directly be involved with a video game again. However, the temptation to give it another go—especially after Stick of Truth’s overwhelmingly positive response from fans and critics alike, must’ve been too great. And it is only now, after calming down from laughing my butt off, that I can tell you we are all the better for them deciding to give making games a second chance—because Fractured But Whole may actually surpass its predecessor in many ways.

The story takes place shortly after the events of the first game. Your character, The New Kid—aka Butthole, aka Douchebag—has been named king for his mighty acts of flatulence. But now Cartman wants to play superheroes, and says the fate of the town—and his get rich quick superhero movie franchise—is at stake with a rash of cat-nappings happening. So, in a twisted turn of fate, New Kid is back at the bottom of the pecking order, having to work his way into everyone’s good graces in order to play with them again. Begrudgingly, Cartman allows you to join his team “Coon and Friends,” and as you fight crime alongside them, you begin to uncover a plot far more sinister than missing cats—including finding out the true origins of the New Kid and the reason his family came to South Park.

Fractured But Whole plays out like one super-long episode from the TV series. The game starts off innocent enough, but it isn’t long before events start to escalate, sticking the boys in more improbable and ultimately insane situations. Fractured But Whole also takes its time, clocking in at around a 20-hour experience, easily double that of its predecessor. All the while, it pokes fun at anything and everything it feels like from long-standing social issues like police brutality and pedophilia in the Catholic church, to less serious matters like the game industry and game development—and of course, super-hero movies and franchises. As usual, nothing is off the table for South Park, and if you love the humor of the series, then you’ll have a great idea what you’re getting into (and will likely enjoy this even more than you might some episodes just because there is so much that’s tackled here).

While taking its shots at a variety of subjects, Fractured But Whole also serves as a tribute to the over 20 years of South Park television we’ve had. Whether its cameos by characters like Mr. Hanky or Towelie, to acknowledging more recent additions to the series’ canon (like collecting Member Berries for experience points), your knowledge as a fan might be tested with references to situations from all across the South Park timeline. And as well crafted as the main story may be, the real enjoyment from the game for me came in a lot of the side quests, which really up the comedy even more. For example, one of these missions sends you to rescue Mosquito from Raisin girls, while another has you try to mend the broken hearts of Craig and Tweek after a lover’s spat. With each subsequent mission (main or side), the only constant I found was that I couldn’t stop laughing at the hilarity that ensues from each situation the game throws at you.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Fractured But Whole delivers exactly what you would expect from a South Park game. Similar to Stick of Truth, the game looks like an actual episode of the show, with character and location designs ripped right from the series. Unlike Stick of Truth, though, there’s a lot more nooks and crannies to discover, with more locations within South Park having been fully developed. On top of that, the world from the last game has expanded in parallel with the series, so locations like the ruins of SoDoSoPa from Season 19 can be explored for the first time.

Audio-wise, Matt and Trey provide most of the voices (just like in the TV show), reprising the roles you’d expect them to. Musically, everything is also taken from the show, and whenever you walk into a store or shop, music from the show’s history can be heard like muzak in an elevator. Go to Tweek Bros. coffee and “Gay Fish” might be playing, or stop by the bank and “Jacking It in San Diego” could be piped over the speakers—it’s another way the game pays tribute to everything South Park.

It’s no surprise that a lot of Fractured But Whole really just follows the blueprint that was laid out by Stick of Truth while upping the ante by taking a few more risks with its writing and going bigger and better in a lot of scenarios (as you would expect from any sequel). Where Fractured But Whole really differentiates itself from its predecessor, though, is in the gameplay. While still an RPG, the basic turn-based system of the last game has been eschewed. Instead, it has been replaced with an amalgamation of an active-time battle system with an order of attack, and a grid-based tactical RPG system that reminded me of the early Mega Man Battle Network games or even a really truncated Fire Emblem. The New Kid and his team of three other South Park kids—the pool of which you’ll get to choose from will grow to almost a dozen by game’s end—will be forced to take on everything from Old People to Ninjas to Sixth Graders and more.

I found the grid system really increased the necessity to use strategy to overcome a lot of obstacles, but similar to the first game, I found most battles—at least on normal—to be relatively easy once you get used to the nuances of the system. For example, it was common early on for me to accidentally block the path of some of my fighters, since no two characters can end up occupying the same space. As you learn the abilities of each character and how best to utilize the New Kid’s super powers, these issues will naturally fade away, much like one of the New Kid’s farts in the wind.

As the game moves on and you become more accustomed to combat, not only will you have more characters to mix and match on your team, but the New Kid will learn additional powers as well. Some are based on what class you choose—such as being a Blaster like Cyclops from the X-Men or a Brutalist like the Thing from the Fantastic Four—while others revolve around the New Kid’s amazing arse. Finding the right mix of powers, and when to employ your special farting abilities, adds surprising depth to combat. You can also unlock a cornucopia of cheap knockoff hero and villain costumes to make your New Kid look exactly how you want him or her to, going along with the idea that you can truly make your own superhero to fight alongside the children of South Park with.

Farting isn’t just an offensive tool, however—it’s also critical to exploring South Park. I’m kind of chuckling to myself even as I write this as I realize how much Fractured But Whole really doubled down on your irritable bowels, but only by passing gas can you hope to fully unlock all of South Park’s secrets. One way this works is that New Kid can perform Fart-kour in the world with Human Kite to reach high rooftops, or fart in Scott Malkinson’s (Captain Diabetes) face to send him into a diabetic rage that will have him open up new paths by busting down certain walls and barriers in the world. It adds another layer of depth to the gameplay by promoting exploration probably even more so than combat.

Sadly, there are a few things that stink with Fractured But Whole’s gameplay. There’s a loose leveling system where your character doesn’t gain strength directly from leveling, but that higher levels allow you to equip more gear called Artifacts. Artifacts will boost various aspects of your character, including what sort of attacks do more damage, your general health and movement speed, or even extra health for your allies in battle. Once you reach a certain level, however, you won’t get any more Artifact slots, and the leveling system becomes sort of pointless for the last quarter of the game. The Artifact system is also somewhat arbitrary once you reach a certain level, with each new Artifact offering little to no difference to any other Artifact you might have in your possession.

Fractured But Whole also has a fair amount of glitches—mostly in combat, but also a few in the world. There were several instances where one character would be occupying multiple spots, like there were two Mrs. Cartman in Cartman’s kitchen, and I could talk to each one as if they were different NPCs. It wasn’t game-breaking, but it did hurt my immersion. In combat, there’s a worse glitch where a character’s turn may not end in a timely manner. It was never so bad that I had to restart a battle, but there were many different occasions—particularly in boss battles—where my character would perform their action, and then I’d be waiting for several minutes before I could take control of the next character. This seems like something that could be easily patched down the line, but was worrisome in the moment.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole is an absolutely hysterical game that combines truckloads of fan service with an RPG experience more realized than its predecessor. There may be a few technical hiccups along the way, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more complete experience that makes you laugh the way this one does. If you love South Park, this game is a must play.

Publisher: Ubisoft • Developer: Ubisoft San Francisco • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 10.17.17
9.0
The new combat mechanics add tons of depth and strategy to the experience, and new exploration abilities really give Fractured But Whole an overall deeper RPG feel. The game is also absolutely hysterical; if you love the humor of South Park in general, then Fractured But Whole is a must have.
The Good Some legitimate laugh out loud moments, a more developed South Park to explore, and a deeper combat system.
The Bad There are some rough glitches in combat, and the Artifact system could use some work.
The Ugly Craaaaab people. Craaaaab people.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

In recent years, Forza has surged to the head of the pack in the racing genre. Basically going annual with a steady rotation back and forth between its main series and Horizon spinoff, Forza has become synonymous with top-notch racing. Forza titles have come to be known for delivering highly customizable gameplay that caters to a range of audiences, no matter whether they’re looking for an arcade racer or sim-heavy experience—while also innovating with features like Driveatars. However, with the latest main series release in the form of Forza Motorsport 7, the franchise may have been caught looking in its rear-view mirror at the competition hot on its tail, taking its eyes off the road long enough to make a couple of costly errors that might let that competition close the gap.

Forza Motorsport 7 features a suite of offline and online modes meant to engage players like never before. The game touts 32 tracks—the most ever in a Forza game—with more than 200 different configurations. The game’s only completely brand new track, Dubai (highlighted by features like sand blowing across the asphalt), is joined by dozens of returning tracks from Forza 6 as well as fan-favorites Suzaka, Mugello, and Maple Valley (brilliantly re-created for the first time on this generation of console after being last seen in Forza 4). This balance of tracks from throughout Forza’s history goes a long way to keeping the experience feeling fresh, as players know it’ll be a while before they might see the same track twice.

You’ll get to tackle many of those track configurations in the new single-player campaign that tasks you with climbing the ranks in six different championships, culminating in the Forza Driver’s Cup. There are a variety of different circuits in each championship—usually themed around familiar motifs seen in other Forza games like Hot Hatch or Classic Muscle cars—as you try to collect enough points to stand atop the podium and unlock the next championship. Each championship also has a few Showcase events that will test your driving skills in different and exciting ways. Some, like the car bowling featured in Top Gear, return from previous games; others, like besting professional rally car driver Ken Block in a head-to-head race in identical cars, adds a more personal twist to a familiar racing mechanic, as Block gives you some narration before the race as to why you’re racing those particular cars.

I will say the commentary is a bit weak this go-around from the Forza folks. Whether it’s the game’s general narrator droning on, one of any number of professional racers who sound like they’re definitely more comfortable behind a steering wheel than a microphone, or even some Top Gear magazine editors who are taking themselves a bit too seriously, I’d usually try to skip any audio introductions and get right into each race as quickly as possible.

Fortunately, the rest of Forza 7’s presentation is stellar as usual. The game’s 700 cars—including a ton of Porsches after Microsoft’s latest partnership deal, and some other cars admittedly ported directly over from Forza Horizon 3—still look absolutely stellar on the track. And, to no one’s shock, each car handles as you would expect, with it feeling like you’re fighting to keep some cars on the track as they hit 200 MPH, while others corner like a dream even though their top speed is nothing to write home about.

Also making its way over from Horizon 3 is that game’s dynamic weather system. Night and rain are nothing new on Forza tracks. However, having the sky suddenly open up on a track three laps in on a four-lap race, or starting a race at sunset and having the sky turn pitch black over eight laps at Daytona, is a nice addition to the mainline series here.

Forza Motorsport 7 also upped its game when it comes to personalization. Not only is its vaunted car customization suite, which allows you to paint and modify the look and tuning of your car, back and bigger than ever, but you can also now customize your driver to a degree. Over 100 different track suits are available in the game, and you can make your driver (male or female) wear any of them to really send a message about who they (and, thus, you) are. I’d still love to see this taken to the next level at some point, where we can customize our suits to a level of detail that we can the cars we drive, but this is another step in the right direction for the series.

Not everything that has been added or changed about Forza 7 has been a success, though. To try to lower the barrier of entry into the series even further, a brand new Easy Mode has been added that simplifies the controls to the point where you’re barely even controlling the car anymore. While I don’t mind adding this feature for folks who might feel they really need it, I do mind the fact that the old system of rewarding more credits for those of us that like bumping up the game’s difficulty and turning off any number of assists has been abandoned. Considering how difficult it can be sometimes to purchase the really high-end cars with in-game currency, this change feels like it’s only increasing the grind.

This all leads us into the new Mods system. Mods were introduced in Forza 6 as a way to challenge yourself even further when you played the game. Some Mods would give you speed boosts, but it would come at the sacrifice of handling; others might kill your acceleration, but improve your cornering ability. Each card could be used as many times as you wanted, and were a neat little optional addition that experienced players could use to further enhance their playtime. There were also some limited-use, super-rare Mods that would modify your driving ability, but also reward credit or XP boosts.

Now, all Mods fall into this category. Every Mod you use only has one to five uses depending on rarity, and can reward you with credits or XP, and even occasionally both. In order to get these Mods, you have to spend in-game currency to open loot boxes—the more currency you spend, typically the rarer the Mod. So, you start spending in-game currency to earn more in-game currency, to spend in-game currency, to earn more in-game currency, to spend in-game currency, to earn more in-game currency, and the cycle continues. Unfortunately, it typically costs a lot more to buy those Mods than the credits you earn from using them, especially when you don’t know how many credits a given race will net you. Using a Mod that gives you an additional 30% credits at the end of the race is great, but if you don’t know if you’re winning 10,000 credits or 5,000 credits for a first-place finish means there’s also a bit of a gamble when you use the card. All in all, it makes you wonder why you would even bother with the Mod system at all at this point.

But then, there are also loot boxes that give Mods plus cars or track suits (some of which are only available in said loot boxes). So, some of the fanciest cars and prettiest track suits—not there’s that many of them—are behind this randomizer. You won’t need them to beat the game or hop online to play friends, of course, but if there is a car you really want stuck in a loot box, you’re in a pretty tough spot. There is also a new leveling system for your garage, where buying certain low-level cars will help you unlock high-level cars faster. This all seems to really try to pressure you in some not so subtle ways to buy into the game’s microtransactions system.

Also, surprisingly, a lot of online features for Forza 7 aren’t available at launch. Forza Leagues and, curiously, even the Auction House still aren’t up and running even at the writing of this review. Turn 10 says they’ll get them up soon, but we’re kind of in the dark as to when specifically. The microtransactions and store also aren’t up and running, so we can’t accurately judge how they might tempt people into spending real world cash—just that, like those other features, we know they are coming, like one of those dynamic weather storms I mentioned earlier. The rest of Forza 7’s online features seem to be working fine, and you can still easily race up to two dozen other players online at any given time with no lag thus far in our experience. Beyond that, you can upload race screens from Photo Mode or replays of your races, as well as all of your custom car designs to Forza’s servers with no issue.

Forza Motorsport 7 has done everything you’d want from a racing game sequel—more cars, more tracks, and the return of that tight gameplay—showing why Turn 10’s efforts remain the leader of the pack. The new Mod and in-game currency systems, however, really detract from what is otherwise another great racing experience—and might make you want to think twice before jumping into the driver’s seat again if you’re not big on grinding for those credits.

Publisher: Microsoft Studios • Developer: Turn 10 Studios • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 10.03.17
7.5
Forza Motorsport 7 is a really great racing game—it’s just a shame that changes to the game’s currency system undermine a fair amount of what it does right. It’s made racing feel more like a grind than in years past and no amount of new tracks or cars will change that.
The Good Game looks great and the cars all handle superbly.
The Bad Changes to how you can earn credits and the mod system increase grinding and feel like they’re paving the way for some awful microtransactions.
The Ugly A lot of these new driver suits. Yuck.
Forza Motorsport 7 is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

188 times. 188 times I died while playing Cuphead across the game’s 19 bosses, six run ‘n’ gun stages, and three mausoleum trials before finally beating it on Normal. Never across any of those deaths, though, did I ever become frustrated or angry. I only wanted to dig my heels in deeper, and my addiction for the game only grew as each subsequent boss or level offered up an enticing new challenge. Cuphead’s mix of brilliant presentation, easy to learn but hard to master gameplay, and ever-increasing difficulty has cemented it for me as a personal game of the year contender.

Cuphead tells the tale of two plucky protagonists named Cuphead and Mugman. While exploring their home of Inkwell Isle, they stumble into the Devil’s Casino and are having the time of their young lives. In fact, they’re doing so well at Craps that the Devil himself comes down to watch the boys play—and then makes them an offer they can’t refuse. If Cuphead wins on the next roll, he and Mugman will get all the casino’s riches; if he loses, however, their souls become the property of the Devil. Cuphead can’t resist the temptation, and of course the roll comes up snake eyes. While pleading for their very souls, the Devil sees potential in Cuphead and Mugman, and—more importantly to him—an opportunity. He offers the boys one last chance: serve as his debt collectors and collect the souls of everyone else that owes him on Inkwell Isle, and he’ll let them off the hook. Easy right?

Stylistically, Cuphead is an absolutely gorgeous game. Its visuals harken back to the 1930s cartoons of Fleischer Studios (originally known as Inkwell Studios in the 1920s and paid homage with the name of the world, Inkwell Isle), who were best known for Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman cartoons. There’s even little scratch marks on each “frame”, much like you would see back in the old days on original animation cels. This classic look came from the fact that everything in Cuphead was similarly hand drawn and then scanned into computers. It’s no wonder then the game was delayed so long, especially when it shifted from primarily being a boss rush title to include some run ‘n’ gun segments, but the wait has been worth it.

Cuphead’s music similarly draws its inspiration from almost 100 years ago. Big band orchestras play fitting themes for each boss and section of Inkwell Isle. More haunting themes fill your ears against ghost trains, while more carnival-driven fare pumps through your speakers against crazed clowns. (My personal favorite theme is King Dice’s, who serves as the gatekeeper between each section of the Isle.) There is even a barbershop quartet that is happy to shortly serenade Cuphead and Mugman if you can put the band back together in the game’s overworld.

Where Cuphead excels even more than its art motif, though, is in its gameplay. As someone who cut his teeth on games like Mega Man and Contra growing up, I immediately felt right at home in the run ‘n’ gun style Cuphead offers up—even if it still leans more heavily on the boss rush aspects of its original premise (whether on the ground or even in the air). Each boss has multiple forms, and there’s definitely a trial-and-error aspect to everything as you learn how the bosses move and attack. But there’s still a real test of skill here that makes it all the more enticing. While each boss has a certain number of attacks—and there are some patterns apparent with each—there is also always some randomness, too, forcing you to still think on your feet.

A perfect example of this comes very early on with the Ribbit Brothers, one of the game’s first bosses. Although their first two forms are rather straightforward, their final form is literally that of a slot machine that will attack you three different ways—but there’s no way of telling what that way will be until the wheels on their face stop spinning. This is the first, but far from the last, example of Cuphead forcing you to adapt to what it throws at you in the moment, going beyond simple pattern recognition.

And if you think the game’s co-op feature (where a second player controls Mugman) will make things easier, you’d be mistaken. It makes sense that a boss’s health scales upward with two characters on screen, so both players need to be on their game to try to get past each boss. One neat feature if one character dies, though, is there’s a last chance to save them where you can parry (pressing the jump button again at the perfect time) off the ghost of your fallen comrade to give them one health point back. However, I’m saying this from experience: be careful when choosing your co-op partner. If all you’re doing is jumping on them to save their life, it gets old quick.

Cuphead also succeeds in giving the player agency enough to find their own way of beating bosses. Although you start the game with the straightforward Peashooter, you can purchase weapons and powers from coins found usually in hard to reach places in the game’s six run ‘n’ gun stages from Porkrind the Pig’s store to expand Cuphead and Mugman’s arsenals. I personally found the Spread Shot—which fires short-range projectiles in three directions, sort of like a shotgun—to be my personal favorite, but there are also homing shots, bouncing shots, and even shots that fire in one direction and then turn around like a boomerang to sail back the way they came. You can also get special boosts at Porkrind’s, like coffee that will continuously fill your special meter, or extra health that comes at the sacrifice of attack power. Mixing, matching, and finding your favorite combinations to fit your play style is critical to beating Cuphead, but it’s also part of the fun.

One of my most pleasant surprises with the game, though, came in the form of the Mausoleum challenges. There are three haunted mausoleums on Inkwell Isle, and the only way to bust all the ghosts inside is to use the parry move on each of the pink poltergeists. It’s a great way to really perfect this important move that you’ll need later against the game’s hardest bosses, and clearing each mausoleum rewards you with one of three special moves (like temporary invincibility) which are only available when your special meter is completely full. I just wish there were a few more of these around the island, because even more than the six run ‘n’ gun stages, they were a really fun change of pace given no shooting was involved whatsoever.

The only issue I ever had with Cuphead was that there were a couple of small glitches. Over my 188 lives, there were exactly two instances (about 1.1% of the time) where a boss would freeze up in the form that it was in. That allowed me to just wail away as it didn’t attack me for some reason until it shifted to its next phase, unless it was already in its final phase—at which point it just died. It was a weird hiccup when this happened for sure, and I don’t know what ever caused it. I’m sure I’d probably have a handful more deaths, too, had this not occurred twice, but it never really took away from the fun of the game, nor did it affect my score against each boss negatively. But since you unlock Expert mode after beating the game on normal, I had more than enough reason to come back to try to beat each boss properly anyway.

Cuphead is an absolute gem of a game. My playthrough on normal only took about eight hours to finish, but there’s replayability with trying to get high scores on each boss and coming back to try out the three difficulty levels. The gameplay is incredibly tight, and each boss offers up a new challenge whose addictiveness is only trumped by that feeling of accomplishment once you beat it. The art style is absolutely magnificent, and the world is full of little secrets that will have you searching every nook and cranny. There may be a glitch here or there, but they’re never something so frustrating that will make you want to turn the game off. In fact, I may never turn Cuphead off, period. It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun with a game, and in my book, Cuphead is an instant classic.

Publisher: Studio MDHR • Developer: Studio MDHR • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 09.29.17
9.5
Cuphead is an addictive mix of fun and frustration that will constantly keep you coming back for more. It’s amazing combination of terrific gameplay, tremendous style, and an original concept immediately catapults it into every game of the year discussion.
The Good The art style, the music, and the addictively difficult gameplay.
The Bad The occasional glitch that suddenly makes those difficult bosses incredibly easy.
The Ugly How much power I waste now keeping my Xbox One on and the game playing so I can listen to its music all night long.
Cuphead is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Studio MDHR for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

Loyalty and hard work still pays off sometimes, folks. Phil Spencer, who has been with Microsoft since 1988, has again risen through the company’s ranks. After taking over as head of Xbox in 2015, Spencer helped guide Microsoft’s gaming interests past a rough Xbox One launch to again become competitive this latest console generation. Microsoft’s gaming division officially turned a corner recently when it saw its operating income increase by 34 percent last reporting period.

His new title is that of executive vice president of gaming and joins Microsoft’s senior leadership team as its 16th member. Spencer now reports directly to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. Before the promotion, Spencer reported to Terry Myerson, who is also on the leadership team and serves as executive vice president of the Windows and Devices Group. Spencer will likely still work closely with that group, as they share several resources.

Spencer thanked the fans for their support and tweeted that this was a “great show of commitment” by Microsoft to the gaming division, which at one point many believed might get spun off or sold. This would appear to be the final nail in the coffin for that idea.

This was only one of two moves this week by Microsoft, though, as they do a little internal reshuffling. Their Enterprise Mobility and Security team has now also been moved into the aforementioned Windows and Devices Group, likely to help with security features for all Windows 10 devices.