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Game Review: Spider-Man PS4
Fans of Spider-Man will be happy to know that the new PS4 game does for their favorite wall-crawler what the Arkham series did for Batman, but hardcore gamers may be disappointed that in terms of groundbreaking gameplay Spider-Man on PS4 doesn’t swing too high above the watermark that Arkham set. The open world gameplay is heavily indebted to open worlds past, specifically those inhabited by Batman, Ubisoft’s many Assassins, and the Infamous gang. Spider-Man‘s Manhattan is littered with colorful icons indicating side missions to delight, distract, and occasionally bore the player. Of course this is all par for the course for the modern open world gamer. What sets Spider-Man apart is the sweet sublime feeling of swinging through the city streets, a kind of divinely relaxing routine that allows the player to forget their worries and get lost in the fun.
The story will be hard to discuss without spoilers, but I’ll try my hardest to keep this review spoiler-free. Suffice it to say that in general, the narrative takes an awfully long time to reach some familiar places, pitting Spidey against supervillains while his alter ego Peter Parker is dealing with guilt, grief and relationship woes. The game opens with Spidey on the verge of a criminal bust after eight years of work. Once a renowned mob boss is in jail, Spider-Man is forced to deal with the power vortex he’s created. A new supervillain rises to power, Mr. Negative, a photo-negative look-alike who can zombify people by unleashing their inherent darkness. This darkness idea isn’t really explored so much as it is shoehorned in amongst all the other madcap nonsense involving Dr. Otto Octavius and Norman Osborne, characters so thoroughly established that they feel like an odd mix of nostalgia and redundancy here. The story isn’t as artfully crafted as the dialogue, and eventually the crime narrative rubber-bands to a rapid conclusion, one feeling a bit short and sluggish. Thankfully the character moments are charming and nuanced enough to counter-balance these flaws.
Underwhelmed by is offerings, I rushed through the story so I could dig into what I cared about the most, swinging around the city and stopping crimes. Once the story is complete you’ll have plenty of time to explore, collect backpacks, try on new super-powered suits, and do whatever a spider can, even though sometimes ‘whatever a spider can’ feels oddly familiar to ‘whatever a bat did yesterday.’ The stealth mechanics aren’t quite as polished as Arkham‘s, but they get the job done. Combat is a bit looser and doesn’t feel as much like a rhythm/puzzle game as Arkham. Once you get a hang of the many different mechanics and how they can be hybridized to create your own natural rhythm, things get fun and fluid. Sometimes you’ll find yourself scrambling for that perfect swing or shot and inadvertently doing something more spectacular than you could have imagined. That moment of discovery and the glee that comes with it is enough to make any comic book fan feel like a kid again.
For the Spidey Squad this game is a clear no-brainer, but for everyone else I’d offer a caveat. Spider-Man feels more like a game that might have been released prior to Breath of the Wild or The Phantom Pain in terms of its workhorse aplomb. It never tries to push any boundaries or exceed expectations. It merely tries to match them and provide a game worthy of the name Spider-Man. By that metric it succeeds, and likely will pave the way for DLC and sequels that push the game engine to exciting new heights.
Game Review: The Legend of Zelda: The Oracle of Seasons
It took me many Winters, Springs, Summers and Falls to finally complete The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons. I first owned the game as a child, but Oracle of Seasons‘s often mind-bending puzzles proved too taxing for adolescent me. I put it aside, convinced that I’d eventually come back to Seasons and defeat it. Lo and behold, twenty-some odd years later, my quest is finally complete. Oracle of Seasons was just as tricky as I remembered it to be, but that made beating it all the more satisfying.
Zelda games are known for their puzzle-filled dungeons, often with occasionally mean-spirited tricks and traps. Though the series is a Nintendo staple, Seasons was developed by Capcom, and as a result that mean-spirited trollishness has been amplified to a Mega Man degree. Zelda games could always be difficult, but the developers of Seasons seem to have been hellbent on ensuring that every successive screen had a new and more taxing challenge. Few of the dungeons inspire awe or wonder or kindle the player’s imagination in the way that the dungeons in Ocarina or LTTP did. These are old-school beat-you-up and spit-you-out brawler dungeons with puzzles so occasionally head-scratching that they make the pillars in Eagle’s Tower look like child’s play. At first glance each puzzle is appealing enough, but the path to the solution is generally fraught with back-tracking, health conservation and cursing at your hand-held device.
At times, Seasons feels more like a Master Quest for those who played Link’s Awakening than a standalone story. In terms of narrative, the game is paper thin. Zelda is nowhere to be found. In her stead, Din the Goddess of Seasons plays Damsel-in-Distress, sending our hero on a quest to rescue her from the bulky bruiser General Onox. Onox, like most non-Ganon baddies, is mainly a filler villain with few distinct details. The true focus is on exploration, puzzle solving, and wrapping your head around just what the developers expect you to do next. There’s a great moment late in the game when even the NPC’s don’t feel like telling you where to go, and that sort of “you’re on your own” attitude hums throughout.
Graphically the game is wonderful to look at, even for a dated GBC title. There’s plenty of personality in Seasons, even though the writing is confined to two-line scrolling text boxes. The characters are brimming with funny dialogue and wacky animations. There are even references to Ocarina‘s cast, including Biggoron and The Windmill Musician. Many of the larger characters look better than anything on the NES, specifically Link’s kangaroo friend and the game’s final boss. In spite of all that, the game lacks a sort of coherent focus that gives it any real thematic unity. It’s a melting pot of interesting ideas, but the result is a Dagwood sandwich rather than a meal with the perfect blending of ingredients.
What it lacks in cohesion and originality, Seasons makes up for in gameplay. More could have been done to round out the game’s inventory- no hookshot or bow?- but for the most part, this entry in the Zelda series is a winner. Even when limited by hardware constraints, like the fact that you only have two buttons with which to assign inventory slots, the developers of Oracle of Seasons made a game that carries on the Zelda legacy and manages to play well even today.
Game Review: Horizon Zero Dawn
It took me a very long time to get through this game. Everyone said that the story sticks the landing, so I stuck it out too. They were right. Horizon Zero Dawn has a fantastic story and beautiful enough cut-scenes to be a great animated movie. It’s the gameplay that I’m not too sold on, both in comparison to its open world contemporaries like The Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild, or even as a standalone franchise.
There’s something not sticky enough about Horizon‘s combat. It always feels loose and lackadaisical. Critical hits and type advantages never seem to do enough damage. Every combat mission is basically the same, so it’s never clear whether it might be wise to use a blast sling, a tripcaster or even my melee staff. That’s up to my discretion, but unlike in Arkham Knight, my multitude of gadgetry feels more like a utility belt packed with balloon animals. Fights with big beasts, the selling point of the game, are often brutal and tedious affairs. Beasts are the post-apocalyptic equivalent of bullet sponges, eating arrows and bombs until you’ve brought up your scanner and pinpointed their weak points.
The scanner is really lousy too. It’s like Arkham Knight‘s detective vision, but it slows your movement speed considerably, so you can’t effectively use it mid-combat. You have to be crouched nearby, in pre-fight surveillance. This would all be well and good if the weak points on the beasts stayed highlighted. That effect fades. Rather than sending out a pulse mid-fight like the scanner in The Division, the scanner in Horizon oddly segments strategy and combat into stages. That would be functional in a game that felt strategic, but at the end of the day you’re still firing a hundred arrows into a giant robot crab.
The story is really, really good though. Don’t let my gripes about the combat fool you. It is an epic sci-fi tale with heart. Things start slow, but get considerably better by the three-quarter mark. That being said, the dialogue is not as strong as the story, often sounding wooden and awkward. There aren’t any memorable laughs or real moments of levity. Usually the game’s humor is grim, a cynical reminder of mankind’s weakness. Likewise our hero Aloy is a humorless, by-the-numbers, future-cavewoman-detective. Aside from Aloy, the only vaguely interesting performance comes from Sylens, an uncanny valley version of Lance Reddick who is constantly encouraging you to succeed while chastising you for doing it wrong.
A great game like The Phantom Pain feels like a buffet compared to the minuscule ill-sustaining meal prepared by Horizon Zero Dawn. There the gameplay was the meat. Each location was a chance to open up your toolbox and be creative. The gameplay loop of Horizon boils down to hoarding plants and fire arrows and walking through the bushes to your next destination. Aside from the story, everything in Horizon: Zero Dawn was better when John Marsden did it eight years ago.