Giving For Honor its Due

We all make mistakes. And I recently realized I made a pretty big one during my 2017 video game awards earlier this year… I completely snubbed For Honor!

For those who may not remember For Honor (I’m apparently not the only one who forgot about it during award season), it’s a multiplayer deathmatch game released by Ubisoft in which players take control of characters from one of three (soon to be four) factions: Knights, Vikings, and Samurai. Players not only swear allegiance to one of those factions during competitive seasons, but can select classes from any faction during any given match.

For Honor combines its melee combat with game modes usually found in FPSs, while throwing in fighting game-like combos and abilities, and RPG elements to progress the character classes. It’s not a perfect game – with some balancing issues still present – but it is a unique competitive multiplayer game in a time when competitive multiplayer games are a rare breed.

Not only did I fail to list For Honor in my list of the 10 best games of 2017 (a list it really should have been on), but I also failed to mention it in my award for Best Multiplayer which – looking back on things – it really should have won. Instead, I gave those honors to PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds, a game that’s fun and engrossing and started the current battle royal crave, but one that’s a lot more flawed and shallow than For Honor is.

I’ve recently started playing For Honor again with my friends, and it’s better than ever (dedicated servers now!), whereas in PUBG’s case, I played it for a while, but don’t feel the urge to go back to it, especially now that Fortnite has more or less supplanted it as everyone’s go-to battle royal title. Meanwhile, For Honor’s mixture of genres still feels fresh and original well over a year later. There’s nothing else quite like it…warts and all.

Long story short, For Honor should have been my Best Multiplayer winner of 2017, and deserved to be named among my top 10 games of last year. Better late than never.

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Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle: Donkey Kong Adventure Review

Downloadable content has become one of the more polarizing aspects of modern gaming. While the prospect of a game gaining additional replay value post-launch is enticing, many developers have used it as a cheap means to release a game before its initial vision is finished, thus charging consumers more money at a later date to make the game the complete package it should have been at launch. Well, let the Donkey Kong Adventure DLC for Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle – 2017’s surprise of the year – be a shining example of how to do DLC right. Working more as a mini-sequel as opposed to a light extension of the original game, Donkey Kong Adventure proves once again why this most unlikely of crossovers shouldn’t be underestimated.

As the title suggests, Donkey Kong Adventure takes the Mario + Rabbids formula out of the Mushroom Kingdom and into Donkey Kong Country. After a string of events sends Princess Peach’s Rabbid doppelgänger, as well as robot guide Beep-0 and a bitter and defeated Rabbid Kong into “another dimension,” they find themselves in the world of Donkey Kong (I thought Mario and Donkey Kong were part of the same world? Oh well, the Rabbids crossover changes things up I guess). Rabbid Kong goes berserk, gaining newfound strength through “bad bananas” (bananas infected with the virus from the base game), and attempts a monopoly on all the bananas of Donkey Kong Island. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with good ol’ Donkey Kong, who joins forces with Rabbid Peach, Beep-0, and the Rabbid equivalent of Cranky Kong (named Rabbid Cranky, naturally) to put a stop to Rabbid Kong’s plans.

The core gameplay remains the same; it’s still an X-COM-style tactical RPG that’s separated into two primary segments: exploration and puzzle sections, and combat. During the former, player’s control Beep-0 (who is being ridden by Rabbid Cranky like a segway), and you navigate the maps while solving the occasional puzzle to progress or collect treasure (new weapons, artwork, and music). Additionally, Donkey Kong Adventure takes a cue from Retro Studios’ Donkey Kong Country games, and includes twenty hidden puzzle pieces that must be found to unlock more secrets.

The basics of combat still remain intact: every character can move along the grid-like battlefield, perform either a primary or secondary attack, and use a special ability per turn. You can get some additional damage in by performing a slide attack during movement, and can gain more ground by performing team jumps. However, the two new characters, especially Donkey Kong himself, really change things up.

“DK can lure in enemies with his Donkey Konga inspired congo drums, which makes for a great combo with the devastating ground pound move.”

Rabbid Peach retains her blaster/sentry weaponry, along with her healing and shielding abilities. Rabbid Cranky introduces a crossbow and grenades into the mix, while also boasting an ability that allows him to attack an enemy during movement, as well as the power to put foes to sleep. Donkey Kong is the game-changer, however. Defying the standard mechanics of the game, DK doesn’t possess any firearms, instead wielding a boomerang-like banana as a weapon, and using his own fists to perform ground pounds in place of a secondary weapon. DK can hop on higher surfaces without the need of a warp pipe, and new DK pads allow him to swing from one section of a battlefield to another. DK also breaks the established rules by lacking a team jump and slide attack. Instead, DK has the more useful ability of being able to pick up teammates, enemies and objects during his movement phase. By picking up Rabbids Peach and Cranky, DK can carry and throw them to great distance, while enemies and objects can be thrown at other foes for another means of attack.

Donkey Kong’s presence alone greatly differentiates this DLC campaign from the base game, as he goes against many of the game’s mechanics while still fitting neatly into them (being paired up with two more traditional characters really brings out the best combination of old and new). If the campaign were just a bit longer, Donkey Kong Adventure would feel like a proper follow-up to Mario + Rabbids, as opposed to DLC.

Unfortunately, the short running time of the campaign may be the downside to Donkey Kong Adventure. Granted, I wasn’t expecting it to be as long as the base game, but I don’t think the overall length even reaches the halfway mark of the original campaign. That wouldn’t be too much of a complaint, except that the uniqueness that DK brings to the gameplay feels like it has more potential that goes unrealized. Not to mention the boss fights lack the variety found in Mario + Rabbid’s original release. Still, after the campaign is done, there are additional challenges to be tackled, so while I wish there were a bit more of this Donkey Kong goodness, the unlock able challenges do add a nice bit of content to the package. Another downside is that some of the technical issues still persist in the game. Nothing major, but some occasional slow-ups, as well as graphics taking some time to load still show up.

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was already one of the best games on the Nintendo Switch, and now Donkey Kong Adventure adds an exclamation point to that claim. It’s a hefty piece of DLC that differentiates itself from the core game while simultaneously adding to it. All the while, Donkey Kong Adventure pays beautiful homage to the entire Donkey Kong series. The DKC aesthetics bring out the best in Mario + Rabbids’ already stellar visuals, while hearing classic Donkey Kong tunes given new life via Grant Kirkhope’s composition is a real treat. Even the loading screens pay tribute to those of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. If Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle was the surprise hit of the Nintendo Switch, then this Donkey Kong Adventure expansion is a perfect companion piece to it, proving that, beyond all expectations, the merging of Super Mario and Ubisoft’s Rabbids (and Donkey Kong) really was a match made in heaven.

 

7

Video Game Awards 2018: Biggest Surprise

Sometimes, you just know when a game is going to be good. You can just feel it in your gut. Other times, however, a game may leave you scratching your head at first appearance, only for it to turn into something truly wonderful once you pick up the controller (or place your hands on the keyboard, as it were).

As far as 2017 was concerned, there was one obvious game that took me by surprise in the best possible way.

 

Winner: Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle

When I first heard the leaked news of a Mario and Rabbids crossover I, like many others, was dumbfounded. It just sounded so absurd it had to be some kind of joke (or worse, fanfiction!). Not only are the two franchises quite different from each other, the difference in quality has been nothing short of a night and day affair (what with Mario starring in many of history’s most beloved games, and the Rabbids…well… not so much).

Who would have thought that such a bonkers crossover would not only end up to be true, but also be one of the best Mario offshoots out there? And of all genres, it’s a strategy RPG! And the characters use guns! It’s still hard to believe this is a real game.

But a real game Mario + Rabbids is, and a damn good one at that. By placing the Mario characters in an unfamiliar setting (taking obvious inspiration from XCOM), crafting a surprisingly deep battle system, and finally giving the Rabbids the quality title they were so desperately in need of, and Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle proved to be a most pleasant surprise.

 

Runner-up: Sonic Mania

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle Review

You really can’t judge a book by its cover. Or in this case, a game by its concept. When news leaked in late 2016 that Ubisoft was making a crossover title between their Rabbids characters and Nintendo’s Super Mario franchsie – one that was rumored to involve guns – gamers were a bit skeptical (to put it lightly). With nothing to go by but those rumors, the entire concept sounded like some batty fanfiction. But now here we are in 2017, and Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a reality. And it’s a damn good game. Yes, it’s as strange as it sounds, but it’s also one of the freshest – and best – Mario games in recent years, and one of the best titles on the Nintendo Switch.

Mario + Rabbids really is unlike anything else bearing the Mario name. Though Mario’s world has always been one of surrealism, here it is the more sane of the game’s two clashing worlds. The Rabbids have run amok in the Mushroom Kingdom, bringing with them a sense of irreverence (and toilet humor) that would normally seem out-of-place in Mario’s usual fairy tale world.

The story goes like this: a genius inventor from our world, who also happens to be a Mario Bros. fangirl, has created the “Supamerge,” a device that can combine two objects together. While she’s away, a group of Rabbids arrive in her room/workplace in their inter-dimensional, time-traveling washing machine, and start chaotically playing with all the Mario memorabilia. One Rabbid, however, starts messing around with the Supamerge, and accidentally begins merging his fellow Rabbids with the objects around them. The Rabbid then hits the time washing machine with the Supermerge which, combined with all the Mario-themed items scattered about, inexplicably teleports the Rabbids – along with the genius’ robot assistant Beep-0 – to the Mushroom Kingdom.

From there, the Rabbid who stole the Supamerge accidentally ends up merging with the machine itself, thus giving himself the ability to combine objects. This Rabbid is found by Bowser Jr., who decides to use this Rabbid’s newfound ability to create a mutant Rabbid army and take over the Mushroom Kingdom while Bowser is away on vacation. Naturally, it’s up to Mario to save the day, but he’ll be getting some help from some of his usual friends, as well as a group of Rabbids who were cosplaying as Mario characters when they were merged, thus adopting those characters’ heroic traits.

It’s…it’s insane. Though it seems weird for a Mario game to be so meta as to present itself as a video game in its own story, it does seem a bit less inappropriate due to the outright insane idea behind the game itself. After all, this is a title in which Yoshi wields a machine gun. It’s not exactly the usual Mario fare.

“Depending on positioning, enemies can have 0, 50 or 100 percent cover from fire.”

Gameplay-wise, Mario + Rabbids is a tactical RPG in the vein of XCOM. The game is played in a somewhat isometric perspective, with the segments in between battles featuring some exploration and puzzle-solving elements. Players technically control Beep-0, who guides Mario and friends throughout the exploration segments. Meanwhile, the game features eight playable characters for battles, with players being able to select three of them at a time for their team.

Mario is of course mandatory to be in your party at all times, as is the case in every Mario RPG up to this point. But along the way, Mario will be joined by Luigi, Princess Peach and Yoshi, as well as four Rabbids dressed as those characters (aptly named Rabbid Mario, Rabbid Peach, etc.). Battles take place in grid-like environments, where characters take turns performing their actions. Each character is allowed three actions per turn (movement, attack, and using an ability), with the best part being that, for deeper strategy, you can swap between characters during individual actions, instead of having to blast through all of a character’s actions at a time.

These actions aren’t as simple as just making a move and attacking, however. Character placement is key to victory, and you want to be moving your character somewhere where they can cover from enemy fire, while also having enemies in their line of sight. Additionally, during the movement phase, a character can “dash” into an enemy for some extra damage, and can select a nearby teammate to perform a “team jump” to cover even more distance.

Each character has their own role to play, with everyone having their own combinations of weapons and abilities. Luigi, for example, is a bit of a glass canon; being able to deal great damage from a distance with his sniper-like weaponry, but has the least hit points of all the characters. Meanwhile, Princess Peach is something of a tank, having a large number of hit points, a shotgun-like weapon that deals close range damage, and a shield ability that let’s her soak up half of the damage enemies do to whoever she’s protecting. Rabbid Luigi specializes in debuffing enemies, while Rabbid Peach heals allies.

Even the abilities everyone shares, such as the dashes and team jumps, have unique features depending on the individual character. Mario can, of course, damage enemies by jumping on them with a team jump, while Luigi is the only character who can team jump twice in a row, and Peach’s team jump heals allies nearby to her landing position. While the Mario characters get the better jumping benefits, the Rabbids have the more varied dashing abilities. Rabbid Peach can dash into multiple enemies, while Rabbid Mario’s dash explodes as to damage other nearby foes.

Between every character’s primary weapon, secondary weapon, and special abilities, there’s a wide range of gameplay and strategy options available for every battle. Better still, you gradually unlock more character abilities (or improve those you already have) by upgrading a character’s skill tree. By winning battles and completing certain tasks, you are awarded with Power Orbs, which are essentially experience points, and are used to customize a character’s skill trees to however the player sees fit. You can even respec the characters at any given time.

Power Orbs, as well as coins for buying weapons, come in greater numbers depending on your performance in battle. Should you keep all of your characters alive and finish off enemies within a certain amount of turns, you’ll be given a better grade and better rewards, thus giving you more incentive to thoroughly think through your strategies.

“The game pays homage not only to core Mario titles, but its expanded universe as well, including Donkey Kong Country.”

I can’t compliment the battle system enough. The battles will constantly keep you on your toes and scratching your head wondering how to best tackle the enemies and their tactics, as well as how to use the environment to your advantage. There are even some types of battles that change up the rules – such as escorting Toad or getting a character to a certain point – that add a whole other layer to the battle system’s depth and complexity.

If there’s one downside to battles, it’s that your team options are more limited than you’d like. It’s understandable that Mario has to be in your team, but on top of that, you must also have a Rabbid on your team at any given time. I can understand Ubisoft wanting players to use their characters (who wouldn’t pick all Mario characters if given the option?), but if that needed to be the case, then maybe the team size should have been expanded to four characters instead of three. There were multiple occasions where I knew I would have a battle down pat if I could have both Peach and Luigi on my team. But I couldn’t do that simply because I then wouldn’t have a Rabbid in battle. And when you consider that Princess Peach and Rabbid Peach are the only characters with healing abilities (and there are no healing items in battle), you’ll likely feel the need to have at least one of them on your team at all times. While the battle system itself is insanely fun mechanically, the team limitations can be a bit disappointing at times.

Some may lament that, at only four worlds long, the game may appear to be on the short side. And considering you don’t get Yoshi on your team until midway through the fourth world, he may come across as underutilized. But each of these four worlds are decently lengthy, consisting of nine “chapters” apiece, plus a secret chapter found in each that can only be accessed after the world is otherwise completed. Additionally, after you’ve conquered a world boss, you can replay the world and face a series of challenges which further change up the rules (finish a fight in a set number of turns, get everyone to a specific spot without dying, etc.). And there are a few “Ultimate challenges” that are only available post-game, so little Yoshi still has a lot to do, despite being a last minute addition to the story mode.

Mario + Rabbids is one of the best looking titles on the Nintendo Switch, with clean, colorful graphics that take advantage of the usual Mario aesthetics, combined with a bit more absurdity to compliment the Mushroom Kingdom’s current invaders. I did experience multiple freeze-ups during my playthrough, however. Nothing that affected gameplay, but still frequent enough to note.

The visuals are a definite standout, though there was a little bit of a missed opportunity in combining the Rabbids with traditional Mario enemies. While I enjoyed all the character designs, it does seem a bit weird that Chain Chomps and Boos are the only usual Mario baddies to show up, and even then, they show up as obstacles, not enemies. Not really a complaint, but should there be a sequel, I hope to see some Rabbids donning Koopa shells or riding Lakitu’s cloud, and maybe a Bob-omb with bunny ears.

Along with the battle system, Mario + Rabbids’ biggest highlight is its musical score. Composed by the great Grant Kirkhope, Mario + Rabbids captures a unique flair in the Mario series, but one that should stand alongside the series’ classic scores. From a handful of classic Mario tunes remixed, to the completely original tracks, Mario + Rabbids has a fantastic score that is distinctly Kirkhope. So on top of Mario, Rabbids and XCOM, the game may also bring Banjo-Kazooie to mind. And that’s just swell.

2017 has proven to be a banner year for the video game medium, with one great title being released after another. And Mario + Rabbids is a standout title among that lot. It’s a surprise no one really could have seen coming (even after information on it leaked). It combines two very different franchises, and mixes in some inspirations from others, to create something that feels completely original. It’s far and away the best Rabbids game ever made, and it’s also one of Mario’s best outings in recent memory.

 

8

ZombiU Review

ZombiU

ZombiU is a game that isn’t short on ambition, but stumbles in execution. It’s nothing short of an attempt by Ubisoft to solidify the Wii U as a console that can support “gritty” and “mature” titles like it’s competitors, and in this sense, ZombiU succeeds. It’s scary, violent, and filled with guns and exploding zombie heads. It fits right into the mold of the over saturated zombie apocalypse FPS we’ve all grown accustomed to. But as a gameplay experience, it feels clunky, unfinished, and worst of all, boring.

The player assumes the role of a survivor in the midst of a zombie outbreak. You are not armed to the brim with guns from the get-go, instead you have to track down weapons and items in a zombie-filled London. Should you manage to be killed by a zombie (which becomes an increasingly annoying habit), you will then take control of a new survivor, and you’ll have to find your zombified previous character, and kill them if you want to get your equipment back.

The setup is a nice twist on an increasingly stale genre. Making weapons and items more difficult to come across and the permanent deaths of your characters give the game a sense of urgency that has slowly disappeared from survival horror. But the tension and atmosphere can’t make up for the poorly-executed controls.

ZombiU makes some clever usage of the Wii U Gamepad, using its screen to manage your inventory and view mini-maps feels at home. But controlling your character is another story. Combat feels sloppy, with melee weapons in particular using an odd setup of multiple shoulder buttons, which makes for a slow and clunky execution. You’ll find more often than not that your survivor has  died at zombie hands not because you were too slow to act, but because your character was too slow to react to your button presses.

Multiplayer is included, but feels a bit tacked on. A survivor versus zombie mode is fun for a few quick rounds, but soon becomes repetitious and shallow.

There are some nice little ideas at work here in ZombiU (it even takes a page from Dark Souls and allows players to write messages for other players during their play through of the game), but for all its promise it all ends up being a mediocre affair. The questionable control scheme and overall sluggish pace of the game make it feel like, well, a zombie.

5

Rabbids Land Review

Rabbids Land

Rabbids Land takes Ubisoft’s questionably popular Rabbids characters, and drops them into a Mario Party-style scenario, complete with board game setup, with some mini-games thrown in between rounds for good measure.

You start by painting your Rabbid one of the colors of the rainbow, and then you’re dropped onto a game board with three other Rabbids, competing for trophies (ten or twenty) before making your way back to the center of the board to win.

You obtain these trophies by winning mini-games (three apiece), answering questions (two per correct answer) or from various bonuses provided by landing on special spaces on the game board.

The standard board game gameplay is rather bland. Think Mario Party but without the fun.  The mini-games can provide small doses of entertainment, and use the Wii U Gamepad in interesting ways, but the effects are short-lived, both because all mini-games are limited to two players (despite this being a four-player party game), and also because their are only a handful of mini-games to begin with. You can honestly play a single round of Rabbids Land and see most of the mini-games the title has to offer within minutes.

The character animations can be fun, with the Rabid’s cartoonish antics providing some comedy that will especially be appreciated by younger audiences. But character animations aside, the game doesn’t do much to show off the Wii U’s graphical capabilities.

Rabbids Land may provide a small sampling of fun for a round or two, but the sheer lack of variety in mini-games and the lack of depth in the rest of the package will all but ensure your visit to Rabbids Land will be short-lived.

3

Rayman Legends Review

Rayman Legends

As a follow-up to Rayman Origins, Rayman Legends retains much of the side scrolling mayhem of its predecessor, while ironing out some of Origins’ shortcomings.

First and foremost, level progression has been streamlined so players can go at their own pace. Each of the game’s world’s and stages are accessed by jumping into paintings in a central hub. You’ll still need to collect Lums (think Mario’s coins) and rescue creatures called Teensies in order to unlock more stages, but often multiple stages are unlocked all at once, leaving players to decide where they should go next.

The difficulty has been better balanced from Origins. There are still plenty of difficult moments, but its less demanding, and less punishing than its predecessor. Some platforming veterans may cry foul at the game’s more accessible approach, but its more stable difficulty curve makes for a more enjoyable, less frustrating game.

Characters such as Rayman, Globox and Teensies are playable, just as in Origins. They are now joined by a cute barbarian girl named Barbara. Various other characters can be unlocked throughout Legends, though they are mainly just reskins. The Wii U version even includes versions of Rayman and Globox decked out as Mario and Luigi.

Legends benefits for being just as much fun to play alone or with friends. The recent craze of four-player sidescrollers finds a good balance here. It never feels empty when playing alone nor does it feel overcrowded with four.

The gameplay remains unchanged from Origins. Rayman and friends have all the moves they Rayman Legendslearned in the 2011 title, and have no room to learn any new tricks here. Whether or not this absence of new mechanics is a means to make the game more accessible or just a cop out for a lack of ideas is up for debate.

Thankfully, the level design makes up for any other creative missteps. The stages here are a chaotic frenzy of platforming. There’s rarely a moment that doesn’t keep players on their toes. There’s always something to be jumped over, bounced on, or slapped into oblivion. The best are the music stages, which require you to progress through the level in sync to the background music. The music selections include such crazy mashups as a salsa version of Eye of the Tiger and the theme music from Kill Bill sung in a giggle-inducing gibberish. Sadly, the music stages are few, and not all of them feature such creative twists on licensed music.

The Wii U version features stages built around the wii U Gamepad, in which players take control of a creature called Murphy. Murphy doesn’t take part in the platforming, but works as a sort of cursor through the Gamepad’s touchscreen. Murphy can interact with the environment in ways to help out Rayman and hinder enemies. He can even double the points awarded for Lums.

The Murphy stages are a bit of a bittersweet deal, however. They are creative, and make good use of the Gamepad. But they are intended for a multiplayer crowd. These stages are vastly more fun with one player controlling Murphy and the others controlling Rayman and company. If played by oneself, the player must take turns playing as the platforming character and as Murphy, which not only makes for awkward breaks in gameplay, but also leaves a less-than-reliable AI in control of the platforming character when the player takes control of Murphy.

The visuals are a bright, cartoonish treat. The hand-drawn visuals of Origins return, with added flairs in lighting and shading. The music is equally as delightful and silly.

Rayman Legends may feel like more of an extension of Origins than a full-on sequel (it even includes most of Origins’ best stages), but its a darned entertaining game filled with style and charm. It’s not the most creative platformer out there, but its so fun you might not even care.

7