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Let’s just get this out of the way: Mortal Kombat X is the best Mortal Kombat, period. It’s deeper, mechanically richer, and more fully featured than any of the nine games before it, hands down. On top of that, developer NetherRealm Studios has taken a bunch of risks by adding eight entirely new characters to the MK roster, while introducing fun, distinct variations to returning ones. Each of these risks pays off to varying degrees, but they also serve to highlight some of the ways in which the franchise is stuck in the past. Mortal Kombat X is an excellent fighter, and the most fun I’ve ever had with a Mortal Kombat game.

The first thing MKX does to make itself feel new and exciting to both old series fans and casual fighters is a major roster shakeup. Before DLC ever enters the picture, MKX sports a respectable 24 fighters, and a whopping one third of those are honest-to-goodness new characters; not palette swaps or tweaked alternate versions of existing ones. Few fighting games with such a deep vault of fan-favorite characters have cleaned house so completely, and MKX is so much the better for it. Sure, I go way back with guys like Kabal and Smoke, but fresh faces like Takeda and Kung Jin bring so much novelty to the table gameplay-wise that it’s hard to be sad about their absence.
Takeda is the most eye-catching new design, and he exemplifies what MKX does right with its new characters. He fights like you’d imagine a 21st-century ninja might, with an interesting mix of traditional weaponry and high-tech gadgetry. He’s got remote-controlled laser swords he can plant and recall at will, explosive kunai throwing knives, and arm-mounted, retractable grappling hooks that can open up into imposing blade-covered whips. He wields it all with a confident martial arts swagger that makes it all seem somehow plausible.

In fact, everyone conveys their fighting style more effectively than in NetherRealms’ prior games thanks to the much-improved animations. Injustice was a step in the right direction of addressing the shortcomings of 2011’s Mortal Kombat , but MKX gets the rest of the way there: dash and hit animations no longer look like hapless flailing, for instance. Little details like this used to distract me from the fighting all the time, and I’m glad to see them finally ironed out.
This helps MKX feel like the smoothest-playing Mortal Kombat ever. Walk speeds are snappier, pokes feel more useful, and with the awesome new variation system, there’s more to explore, discover, and exploit than ever before. Liu Kang has a variation where he can switch on the fly between healing and damaging stances, new grappler Torr employs an assist character to double-team opponents, Kotal Khan can place totems to grant himself temporary buffs – this is the kind of stuff you see in Persona 4 or BlazBlue, and seeing NetherRealms open up so many fun new doors is really refreshing.
One mild distraction from the excellent combat though, is the visual inconsistency between characters. Some fighters, like Scorpion or newcomer D’vorah, look excellent, with tons of little details in their faces and costumes. Others, like Sonya and Jacqui, look far less detailed, with comparatively plain facial textures. It stands out because of the high peaks MKX hits during its best moments. With two of the better-looking fighters duking it out against one of the many beautiful backgrounds, it’s one of the best-looking console games around, so it sticks out when everything isn’t up to the same high quality level.
The inconsistency that sticks out the most for me though, is the content of MKX’s so-so story mode, and how completely at odds it is with the aesthetic Mortal Kombat has built over the years. Again, NetherRealms has created something substantial for folks who like having a single-player experience, but it’s far less successful than previous attempts. The spotty writing and voice acting are largely to blame, but the real issue is that it’s weaving a tale of family and young adults coming of age in a world about death and brutality. Without the storytelling wit to do something interesting and unpredictable, it’s simply a poor fit.

The chapters set in a civil war-torn Outworld fit the Mortal Kombat tone the best, but there is just no reconciling the feel-good tale of a single father who loves his daughter in story mode with the image of him gleefully tearing a hole in her chest and proudly standing over her dead body in every other mode. Yes, of course, Mortal Kombat is ostensibly “about” Fatalities, and they’re gorier and more satisfying here than ever, but MKX’s story mode also wants to be about characters with deep ties to one another: fathers and sons, estranged lovers, budding romance, and long-standing blood-feuds finally laid to rest. Adding all of that drama to a series that began as a thrown-together story of a bunch of loners fighting to their deaths for their own reasons in strange, dangerous-feeling places leaves MKX feeling a bit confused in that regard.
There’s a small bit of this inner conflict in the excellent combat engine as well, but fortunately it matters far less. The bi-directional block button is back, and after being free of it in Injustice it simply feels limiting. Scream sacrilege all you’d like, the block button is a poor mechanic. It completely removes the left/right mixup that cross-ups are supposed to create in 2D fighters, eliminating an entire axis of mind games and setups.

Still, there’s a ton of depth to mine here. Each character has a long list of attacks and combo chains that serve different purposes, from high/low mixups to safe block strings and juggle starters. X-Rays, the MK equivalent of super moves, have been retuned to be more worth the resources they cost to execute and throws can be canceled out of and linked into full combos, giving you another meaningful way to spend meter. This makes resource management decisions that much richer. Most importantly, the ability to choose between three version of every character means there will be more matchup-specific stuff to learn, since playing against Sonya’s martial arts-focused Special Forces variant won’t prepare you for the setups she can create with her Demolitions style.
That’s what really matters in the end. Sure, the three or four-hour story mode experience feels middling and largely out of place, but that’s not what a fighting game is. It’s endless nights in the lab, months and years of experimentation and discovery, and the joy of outsmarting your opponent. Mortal Kombat X is a great fighting game – sometimes in spite of its own heritage – but great all the same.
The netcode is mostly up to the task of keeping online fights reasonably smooth, but there was usually just enough input lag to throw off my combos or punish timings relative to what I’m used to playing locally. Still, that’s a huge improvement over Mortal Kombat 9, and while online isn’t a replacement for in-person competition, it’s close enough to keep me learning and playing for a long time.

One more thing that will keep me coming back is the returning Krypt, where you unlock MKX’s humorously massive cadre of costumes, finishers, and supplemental materials. More than ever before, this interactive unlockable menu feels like a game of its own. There’s a certain thrill to spending your hard-earned “koins” to open up treasure chests that could have anything in them.
That joy is somewhat dampened by the knowledge that you can just buy your way out of the entire thing with a separate $20 unlock key. It’s not the only thing that’s been monetized, sadly: new options for executing easy, two-button Fatalities or skipping story or tower fights require tokens, which are also sold on PSN and XBL. It’s worth noting I never felt outright pushed to get any of this stuff, but between all that and the big “push X to buy Goro” message that appears when you cursor over him on the character-select screen, it’s a bit too much in-game marketing for me to be okay with. It didn’t impact my enjoyment of the experience exactly, but even a hair more aggressive, and it would have. It’s sad that we’re even in that territory.

THE VERDICT

Story only matters so much in a fighting game. Combat is king, and there’s a ton of depth to mine from Mortal Kombat X. A much-needed transfusion of new blood, along with the ability to choose between three variations of every character means we’ll be learning, grinding, and discovering for a long time to come. Its universe keeps getting harder and harder to take seriously, and its microtransactions are borderline gross, but Mortal Kombat X is a great fighting game all the same.

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There’s incredible power to Bloodborne. It’s not just an amazing dance of dodges and swipes through encounters that often push the limits of reflexes and endurance, it’s a thought-provoking experience that’s wormed its way into my mind and melted my resolve. But through perseverance, patient growth, and determined skill, it’s proved itself an unconventional adventure that ultimately gives much more than it takes – which at times can be a staggering cost. By the end, the only frustrations that don’t turn to triumphs are the technical ones. After more than 60 hours of grappling with its terrors, monsters, and the environment itself, I’m left dumbfounded by Bloodborne’s capability to draw powerful emotions from me, and make me earn the successes that I’ll remember for years to come.

Its unconventional approach to action-RPG gameplay walks a fine line between utter elation and despair as it takes us on an awe-inspiring journey through the highest peaks of satisfaction and the deepest, blackest pits of exhausted desperation. Developer From Software chooses to tell us little about how to survive its gauntlet, and yet expects feats of intelligence and perseverance in the face of its brutal, unrelenting difficulty. That balance is slightly upset by painfully long loading screens upon death or travel to different zones, but the highs of taking down one of the many intimidating bosses make up for those chunks of downtime.
Bloodborne’s semi-open world structure and hard-earned progression draw heavily from the Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls games that made From famous, though the aggressive new pace of combat is all its own.
These diving, rolling melee battles with an awesome arsenal of transforming melee weapons and tactical sidearms chiseled away my calluses and made me form new ones, even as a hardened Dark Souls veteran. Switching weapons between their light and heavy modes on the fly to string together combo-like attack chains in an engaging way injects a newfound versatility, even if it’s a less calculating kind of battle than we see in From’s earlier games.
That doesn’t make it any easier, though. Being overwhelmed by enemies is commonplace, but thanks to your ability to leech back lost health with quick counterattacks and to stun opponents with secondary weapons, I found it’s possible to sustain a constant onslaught when I’d built up enough skill.
And these tools are absolutely needed, as Bloodborne’s horrifying beasts span an imaginative range, from pedestrian insane village folk to cosmic horrors and patchwork fiends. Creature design strikes terror in many ways – enormous axe-swinging skeletons, peculiar semi-transparent childlike creatures, and subtle creepiness, like a coven of wailing, cleaver wielding hags – but each entity is well-crafted and triumphantly threatening. That’s best exemplified by the bosses, which have the power to mystify, terrify, and infuriate. I ultimately found many of those big fights much simpler than getting past the trial-and-error battles with dozens of smaller enemies I fought to reach them, but the satisfaction in each and every victory was huge.
The progression that follows those hard-fought wins is a carefully doled-out treat in Bloodborne. For one thing, the glowing pale purple lamps that serve as its version of checkpoints are scarce. Surviving long enough to reach the next point is rarely an option you can count on, but delving out of your comfort zone to find a secret shortcut back to safety brings a wave of comfort. Unfortunately, the inability to warp between these lamps without a layover back to the Hunter’s Dream (your ethereal-feeling home base) is a needless annoyance that exacerbates the issue with the extended load times.
After arriving at a destination, nearly every careful, blood-soaked step through the consistently stunning environments reveals something new about Bloodborne’s vague and cryptic lore. Whispers and clues are everywhere, begging to be interpreted. Despite a frame rate that all too often buckles under the strain of loading new areas or heavy action, the atmosphere retains its full effect. There’s a sense that this strange and dark place is alive. You could find a subtext of criticisms on real-world concepts like faith and worship in the understated dialogue, but taking each outrageously odd story point at face value is the more enjoyable path.

Yet your personal story will be created on your own terms, as you explore the spiderweb of paths and secrets that crisscross Bloodborne’s potent world. Everything is packed with hidden meaning, and spending time speaking with the forgotten citizens of the eerily rotting city of Yarnham yields new ways to interact with the world. At one point, I spoke with a victim of these dark circumstances who gifted me a family heirloom that seemed inconsequential at the time; it wasn’t until I took the time to read its description that it suddenly became a vital tool in a battle to come. Rewards in Bloodborne come with careful examination and curious effort, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There’s so much to do and see and try here that I obsessed over finding every secret, which greatly extends Bloodborne’s already lengthy playtime – though that number can easily be extended in a New Game Plus, or the refreshing procedurally generated Chalice Dungeons. These areas aren’t just more of the same – they’re loaded with items that can be carried back into the main story, exclusive weapons and bosses, and the player-versus-environment replayability that the Souls series was always missing.

And though Bloodborne is mostly an isolating and solitary experience, subtle cooperative elements enhance that in fascinating ways. Spotting (non-interactive) ghostly shades of other players passing through your area, reading warnings and tips left by people who have come before, and studying reenactments of player deaths by activating prompts on the ground all serve as cautionary tales – immensely helpful in avoiding surprises that would otherwise leap out and kill you.
Though these features are all mostly identical to their earlier iterations in Dark Souls, some things have improved. The best addition to the messaging system is the inclusion of emotes that spring to life like a hologram when someone reads the message. On the lowest rung of Old Yarnham, in a grimey alleyway corner, I used the available pick-and-choose word selection to lay down the message: “item waits ahead, but beware ambush,” then aimed and added the ‘point’ emote for a visual indicator to point to where a killer waited in the shadows. According to the rating system, it’s been very helpful to others, and that’s a great feeling. I saved lives.

As far as cooperative multiplayer, Bloodborne is every bit as obtuse as Dark Souls ever was. It allows you to call for help from another player when you need it most, such as a boss fight that feels like a brick wall or a group of enemies you don’t feel confident in taking on alone, by ringing a Beckoning Bell; any players ringing a response bell in the area will warp into your world. The catch (since there’s always a catch in Bloodborne) is that at the same time, you open yourself up to invasion from hostile players that are actively seeking to hunt and kill other hunters. In a rare move of compassion, this time around From has wisely included a password-protected game feature so that you and a friend can connect deliberately, removing some of the ambiguity of anonymous cooperation.
THE VERDICT

Bloodborne is an amazing, exacting, and exhausting pilgrimage through a gorgeous land that imposes the feeling of approaching the bottom of a descent into madness. Though extended load times and minor frame-rate hitches have an effect on the pacing, it’s otherwise an intensely challenging and rewarding game. There’s an incredible power to unlocking its mysteries, and in succeeding, despite its demand for a pound of your flesh.

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When we first reviewed Xenoblade Chronicles for Wii in 2012, we called it an amazing game. Here’s what we said then:
“Xenoblade Chronicles is the best Japanese RPG of this generation. The fact that it looks like it’s from the last generation is its only drawback, but its technical limitations are offset by imaginative artistic direction, innovative and compelling combat, and thoughtful design. It’s a throwback to the glory days of the genre, proof that there are always new ways to tell a story. If you’ve ever felt neglected by the lack of in-depth gaming epics on the Wii, you owe it to yourself to buy this.”

So how does the port of this epic RPG made exclusively for New Nintendo 3DS stack up? It still offers the same innovative ideas, deep combat, and an expansive world full of quests to complete for well over 60 hours of play, but it’s a little harder to look at.
Developer Monster Games has done an admirable job compressing Xenoblade’s grand world into a compact form, with only the textures noticeably suffering in the transition to a smaller, low-resolution screen. The downside is that some characters and environments just don’t look very good, either up close or zoomed out. Even so, the 3DS manages to capture the spirit and overall feel of Xenoblade’s massive world. It has the same grand vistas, whether you’re free-roaming the wide-open fields of Guar Plains or the deep jungle of Makna Forest, and the technical sacrifice means this version runs at the same speedy pace as the Wii game.
Control-wise, the New 3DS feels well suited to tackle Xenoblade. Bouncing between the C-stick and face buttons feels natural. The ZL and ZR buttons mean we get useful camera options to zoom in or out, and quick access to a fast-travel system. The only bummer is that it doesn’t even try to use the 3DS touch screen. That’s an unfortunate omission, since the touch interface could have made navigating the menus a little easier.

Likewise, Despite the 3D in the title, Xenoblade Chronicles 3D’s unremarkable use of 3D doesn’t make this version feel any better. Some cutscenes benefit from added depth, but there’s no sense of dimension added to gameplay.
So outside of letting us experience this RPG on the go, Xenoblade Chronicles 3D adds very little. Collectible 3D models of the major characters and a music jukebox are neat, but having already played it on Wii, I certainly wouldn’t buy it again just for that.

THE VERDICT

Xenoblade Chronicles 3D shrinks an epic RPG into a nifty portable form. Even though the New 3DS’ speedier hardware can’t make it look quite as good as it does on the Wii, its scope and scale still make it an impressive and deep game that’s well suited for play on the go.
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Helldivers is the rare game that knows exactly what it wants to do, and does it with complete confidence and authority. So much more than just another twin-stick shooter, it presents us with incredibly varied mission sandboxes and tactical options, then respects our intelligence enough to let us figure it all out on our own or with three friends. The result is some of the most white-knuckle co-op action I’ve ever experienced.

From the opening cinematic, Helldivers wears its Starship Troopers influences on its sleeve. The tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top way in which it sets up the ongoing war between the aliens and our homeworld, Super Earth, is a clear nod to director Paul Verhoeven’s film, and it lends the action a delicious sense of both humor and danger. It’s mostly superficial in that the themes of radical Nationalism are never really explored, but the jingoistic one-liners your space marine spouts out are chuckle-worthy all the same, effectively drawing me into Helldivers’ persistent online war despite knowing my people probably started it for all the wrong reasons.
This questionable galactic war is fought on three fronts against the tech-heavy Illuminate, the gun-toting Cyborgs, and the Tyranid-esque bugs known simply as…bugs. Each faction brings a diverse set of units to bear, requiring you to either adapt your tactics, or die a horrible death. Cyborgs tote a lot of small caliber firearms, making heavy body armor a great choice to shrug off volleys that might have otherwise put you on the ground. Don’t forget to bring something to punch through armor too, or you’ll spend the better part of your mission running from mixed groups of tanks and hulking mechanized super-soldiers. On the other end of the spectrum, failing to pack some extra ammo for your shotgun against the bugs is usually a fatal mistake, since they love to get up close and personal.
Every online match of Helldivers feeds into this three-pronged war, with each front’s greatest contributors being cleverly immortalized with an ever-present leaderboard. As you and your fellow heroes retake planets by waging successful missions, the war will eventually spill over to the alien homeworld, or to your own if not enough people are fighting the good fight. Either situation leads to a timed special event where all players are called on to make one final push, or a desperate last stand. It’s a smart system that gives each mission a greater sense of purpose, not to mention an urgency to log on every day to do your part.

The real magic though, happens when you start unlocking more of Helldivers’ large arsenal of perks, weapons, upgrades, and equipment calldowns called stratagems. After over 25 hours, I still haven’t gotten everything, and from disposable anti-tank weapons, to gun-covered troop-carriers, every piece of gear feels meaningful, since each ends up being particularly useful for certain objectives or against particular foes. Capture or defend objectives call for sentry turrets, where snow-covered maps might tempt you to bring an exo-suit or a jump-pack to make traversal easier. You can only bring so much though, and adapting your loadout based on what your objectives are and what your teammates are bringing is where Helldivers exhibits much of its depth.
No matter what you bring to the fight though, Helldivers’ meaty sound effects convey the action convincingly, despite its so-so visuals. Whether you’re squeezing the last few rounds out of a heavy machine gun, or obliterating a screen full of enemies with a thundering artillery strike, everything sounds powerful and threatening.

Many of these delightful bits of kit are designed to facilitate cooperative play. The recoilless rifle, for instance, comes with a separate supply pack with extra ammo. You could carry it yourself, but the reload time between shots will make it pretty impractical to use. Have a buddy carry the supply pack though, and they can walk up to you and toss in another shell in the blink of an eye. Touches like this make a full party of four feel like a cohesive fighting unit where every member is more powerful than they would be alone. Helldivers’ drop-in co-op makes forming a party easy from the couch, online, or a mix of both, which is fortunate, because while going solo can be rewarding in its own right, you can only get so far on your own.
The fact that virtually everything is deadly, be it friend or foe, makes every mission tense. Drop pods bringing a fresh supply of ammo might unceremoniously turn a teammate to goo, or a poorly placed airstrike might do more harm than good. There’s just so much nitty gritty to get into, from going prone to let teammates safely fire past you, to using 90-degree angle shots to maximize armor penetration against enemy vehicles, and the cost of learning is almost always paid in blood – be it yours or a teammate’s. But when you and your team fire on all cylinders to turn back the intense waves of enemies coming your way long enough to dramatically hop in a dropship and make a narrow escape, the sense of accomplishment is positively euphoric.
THE VERDICT

It isn’t the prettiest game you can play on PS4, PS3 or Vita, but Helldivers is one of the most exhilarating, and you’ll get all three versions for the price of one. It pits you against seemingly impossible odds, arms you with a powerful, diverse toolset, and empowers you and a group of people to put the pieces together – and they all fit together beautifully.

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Much as I prefer to let each game stand on its own, certain games demand comparisons. In the case of Cities: Skylines, developer Colossal Order has overtly modeled its game after SimCity – not just the fundamental concept and methods of building and maintaining a simulated city from the ground up, but much of the look and feel as well. And on almost every count, Skylines compares very favorably to the former standard-bearer of the city-building genre. It is, in fact, the best of its kind to come along in a full decade – a powerful, flexible, beautiful, and all-around impressive simulation that lets you build sprawling, single-player metropolises to your heart’s content. Building has to be its own reward, though, because the lack of random events or disasters leaves the job of running these towns feeling sleepy and meditative.

Playing as part mayor, part god-king with the power to arbitrarily bulldoze your simulated citizens’ dreams and create schools with a click, building a city from scratch is mostly conventional: lay down roads with the easy-to-use tools, designate zones for residential, commercial, or industrial buildings, provide utility services, reap the tax boon, then repeat the cycle with new stuff that’s been unlocked by your growing population hitting new milestones. Skylines finds a mostly happy medium between the complexity of SimCity 4 and the relative simplicity of SimCity 2013 by automatically attaching zoneable areas to roads as they’re laid, but still holding onto obligatory busywork like laying water pipes. Those basics are all tried and true – you couldn’t have a city-builder without them – so it’s mandatory that they be done well. Cities: Skylines does that.
The first way this sim knocks it out of the park is in its scale. Each game begins as deceptively small, constricting you to a four-square-kilometer area (the same size as a SimCity map, entirely by coincidence I’m sure), but quickly allows you to buy access to an adjacent plot of land of equivalent size. Then it does this seven more times, for a total possible area of 36 square kilometers. Suffice it to say, there’s plenty of room. And while you can’t directly edit terrain while you play, there’s an included map editor where you can create any land mass you choose before you jump in – or download one from the prominently integrated Steam Workshop mod support.
With such large cities, it’s fantastic that Skylines allows you to define and regulate areas individually. Simply paint a chunk of your city with the District tool, and you can not only name it so you can spot it easily on the map, but give it unique policies that regulate everything from mandating smoke detectors to reduce fire hazards (at a cost) to legalizing recreational drug use for lower crime rates, or banning highrise buildings to create defined downtown and suburban areas. In industrial zones, you can specialize the businesses to exploit a map’s natural resources in the area to mine ore, drill for oil, farm on fertile land, or harvest trees for forestry. You can even create tax incentives for a specific type of zone within each district.
Let’s zoom in for a moment: we can see individual humans walking through the streets, going to work or school, engaging in leisure activities, or returning home by the thousands. They drive cars, take trains, and even walk dogs. (You can individually name them, but I suggest naming them Waldo, because there are so many that if you find that specific one again you I say you basically win the game.) This is where you realize the time scale becomes absurd. On the slowest speed a day lasts 10 seconds – three and a half on the fastest – which means the journey to work could last a week. But the lack of a day and night cycle means time doesn’t seem too unnatural, but rather an abstraction to serve the speed at which things are built and tax money flows in.
Making a major city’s traffic flow smoothly is a puzzle I haven’t come close to fully cracking yet, but I do feel good when I easily create overpasses and freeway onramps to experiment with routes that direct the flow and ease the gridlock… at least partially. By default, most advanced road types are locked out at the start, which makes planning a city around trains or subways nearly impossible (unless you plan on supervillain-level demolition later on), but there’s a sandbox mode that’ll allow you to build whatever you want, whenever you can afford it. (There’s also an unlimited money mode.)
Mass transit is a tricky beast. It’s not enough to lay down bus stops and train stations; you have to plot out routes individually, or no one will go anywhere. It’s easy to get lost in that, especially as routes start overlapping and it’s frustrating to get your bus stop placed on the correct side of each narrow road. But there are a lot of options, and the endorphin rush from making a red traffic data overlay turn green makes it all worth it.
Up close, buildings are colorful and detailed, right down to small animations like rooftop fans spinning. A slider in the options menu gives us control over the amount of depth-of-field blur applied to distant buildings when zoomed in, which mimics SimCity’s attractive diorama effect. Skylines doesn’t match the graphical quality of SimCity, though, and given the great numbers we see them in they don’t quite have the variety needed to prevent most neighborhoods from looking pretty much the same.
What Skylines isn’t good at is telling you what you’ve done wrong, and what problem you need to solve right now. For instance, when I hit 50,000 citizens, the gauge at the bottom of the screen that indicates what new zone type my city wanted in order to expand bottomed out. It didn’t want anything at all. Hundreds of buildings were abandoned, without explanation. How can I address the issues that are hamstringing my city when I don’t know what they are, and the in-game advisors provide no insight? I built new residential, commercial, and industrial zones and waited; eventually, without my taking any deliberate action or receiving any explanation, the zones filled and growth resumed upward of 100,000. I don’t understand why.

In that light, it’s fortunate that it’s fairly difficult to send your city into a death spiral without actively trying to, or making worse financial decisions than Greece. It has to be as deliberate as placing a sewage drain pipe directly upstream from your water pump – basically piping raw sewage into your citizens’ tap water – or borrowing more money than you can ever hope to repay. Even crime is disappointingly easy to keep in check with a single police station serving a town of 40,000.
It’s limited to man-made crisis-management because there are no earthquakes, tornadoes, destructive floods, nuclear meltdowns, zombie outbreaks, UFO or monster attacks, or anything fun like that. The only thing close to a disaster is a fire, and those don’t spread from one building to another, even if left completely unchecked. I don’t mean to fault Skylines for not cloning every single feature of SimCity, but I do consider disaster management to be a major part of running a big city, and without it Skylines lacks a certain sense of excitement that’s been a staple of the city-building genre since the beginning.
Likewise, it’s really hard to become unpopular without trying. Even during periods of what the in-game fake Twitter and an abundance of abandoned buildings would have me believe to be times of great distress, I’ve never seen the “general happiness” icon in the menu bar dip below what I’d describe as “a psychotic grin.” Those tweets (or Chirps, as they’re called) initially seem helpful, pointing to power outages and the like, but are quickly drowned out by repetitive and useless in-jokes and chatter. There’s no way to turn it off, unfortunately.
I suppose I could probably drive public opinion down if I took the bait and really tried. Skylines grants access to unique buildings like stadiums and observatories behind achievements, which range from encouraging, such as educating 50 percent of your population, to the demoralizing, such as allowing garbage to pile up, unemployment to skyrocket over 50 percent, average health to plummet, have 1,000 simultaneously abandoned buildings, or other generally unpleasant things. I haven’t brought myself to wreak that kind of destruction yet, since I do have a sort of attachment to my cities, but I have unlocked enough of them that I was able to reach the somewhat underwhelming final goal of building a Wonder – in my case a Space Elevator, which served as yet another tourist attraction. Regardless, a lack of public approval doesn’t seem to be something you need to fear in Skylines, which is slightly demotivating.
THE VERDICT

More than anything, Cities: Skylines is about the simple joy of building. It’s a really impressive and often beautiful simulation, where an amazing number of virtual people go about their business across a huge swath of land. Getting in and creating something is easy, though mastering it will require extensive research on community wikis to understand why growth is stunted even when you address your citizens’ apparent concerns. Don’t expect exciting scenarios or random events, but do expect to be impressed by the scale and many moving parts of this city-builder.

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Final Fantasy: Type-0 had me in tears after watching a chocobo bleed to death in the opening scene, and for the next 40 hours I would experience everything from sadness to disbelief as the thin but reverent story unfolded. During that same time, the zippy action-based combat made running around the world of Orience a lively experience, though viewed through an occasionally obstinate camera. Type-0 has a strange dichotomy of action and emotion, but it comes together to create a roleplaying game that works on multiple levels.

Everything in Type-0 is tied to war, which makes for some intriguing presentation of the usual Final Fantasy features. Magic comes in the form of fire bombs, lightning missiles, and ice bullets, while the story progresses via military campaigns that involve liberating towns, defending bases, and invading cities. Even chocobos are bred for war; I liked that by capturing birds in the wild and correctly breeding them, you can hatch combat-ready chocobos that help fight in sorties, or can race across the world map to quickly arrive at a destination.
The tale of an elite group of young cadets fighting an aggressive military empire serves as a reminder that it’s the young who die in war, and who are the first to be forgotten. Class Zero’s emotional struggles – like watching friends die on the battlefield and then feeling guilty because they’re unable to remember them, is incredibly moving. Unfortunately, the cringe-worthy voice acting in the English-language version sometimes distracted from the solemnity, especially when the class loudmouth Nine kept adding “yo” and “hey” after every bloody sentence. Luckily, there are humorous moments sprinkled in to lighten the mood and keep the story from getting too dark; I laughed out loud when a saucy cadet named Carla sweet-talked a military instructor, then turned around to brag about her manipulation skills.
Campaigns that involve running through city streets or infiltrating fortresses were pretty fun, but I had a hard time with the real-time strategy missions that popped up here and there. I nearly rage quit one operation because the stubborn camera and clunky controls made it hard for me to move around the battlefield. These annoying mechanical issues were inherited from the original PSP version of Type-0 (which was released exclusively in Japan back in 2011), along with a few other noticeable limitations: NPCs have blocky faces, wall textures are blurred and jaggy, and dungeons and towns are little more than long, monochromatic corridors. I was so bored by most environments that I stopped caring about them halfway through the story.
That said, the “HD” graphics in Type-0 definitely have some wonderful lighting and shading effects. This is especially apparent in the central hub area of Akademia, where marble floors gleam with a fine polish, and beams of sunlight stream brightly through large glass windows. CGI cutscenes are especially well done, with detailed animations of Eidolons soaring through the sky, and brutal close-ups of soldiers being slaughtered on the ground. Developer Hexa Drive did a great job bringing these powerful scenes to full-sized TV screens.
Final Fantasy Type-0’s best feature, though, is the rapid, action-based combat that allows you to mix and match party members to create versatile three-man squads on the battlefield. Each member of Class Zero has their own distinct weapons, abilities, combat styles, and speeds, which makes them feel like real individuals: Jack is slow-moving but can easily slice through monsters with his sword, Seven can nimbly dodge enemy soldiers while using her chain whip to deal out vicious attacks, and Rem can use her Undying Wish spell to temporarily prevent cadets from falling on the battlefield. And if one of your team members does fall, you can immediately summon another cadet from Class Zero’s reserves to replace them, or call on a powerful Eidolon to help thin out enemy ranks. (Eidolons tend to be unwieldy, though, and require the sacrifice of one of your party members in order to summon them.) You can even request NPC support units from Akademia to help you on campaigns, which is a nice way to earn special points that can be used to acquire rare items.
Whether I was fighting mundane soldiers or taking on more exciting enemies like poison-spitting serpents and giant, angry snow beasts, I felt powerful because the combat was always super fast paced. In fact, many victories were achieved in less than a minute using the handy “kill sight” and “break sight” features, which allow cadets to heavily damage or even instantly kill an enemy with a well-timed attack.
Levelling up so many cadets in order to make sure they were all combat ready required a lot of patience, but I didn’t mind since Type-0 includes a nice array of ways to beef up your characters. You can accept side quests from NPCs, train at Akademia’s battle arena, increase magic skills by attending a lecture, participate in random battles on the world map, or re-do story campaigns accessed from the main menu.

It may seem like it’s easy to overpower Class Zero, but almost everything you do is tied to the limited amount of free time you have between military campaigns. This clever bit of time management forced me to think carefully about which activities I participated in: did I want to spend two hours talking to an NPC, or leave Akademia and lose six hours so I could go on a monster hunt? Time was of the essence, and I enjoyed having to use it wisely.
Finally, I had a little bit of an issue with the convoluted ending, which requires a second playthrough and a lot of reading up on Orience’s lore to fully comprehend. I didn’t mind relying on the in-game compendium for some things, but having to bend over backwards to understand what’s going on didn’t add anything to the story.
THE VERDICT

Type-0’s gritty tone, fast-paced action, and strategic approach to time management is a welcome change of pace from the usual Final Fantasy experience. Though an exasperating camera and clunky mission controls sometimes dampened my fun, I enjoyed meeting the Class Zero cadets and guiding them through battle. There’s definitely no other class quite like them

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Like any good turn-based tactics game, Code Name: STEAM poses tough decisions, where one wrong move can mean doom. The fact that I’m making those calls while playing as a completely eclectic assortment of Steampunk-infused historical figures and famous fictional characters, from Abe Lincoln to The Wizard of Oz’s Cowardly Lion, as they battle aliens makes this a memorable challenge that you can take seriously, even if its setting is anything but serious.

STEAM looks like a third-person shooter, but it’s just cleverly concealing turn-based action with an action-point system that lets you freely roam the map in what appears to be real time. It’s a clever mashup, and one that empowers you to make grueling decisions. I find the close camera angle effectively builds suspense as you deploy, survey the terrain, and decide how to approach the enemy on the battlefield. It’s an entertaining loop that lets you try lots of different approaches before locking in a choice by taking an action or getting too cocky and triggering an enemy’s overwatch.
With 12 gradually unlocked characters to choose from, each mission unfolds differently depending on how you load out your four-person squad. Every soldier has a unique primary weapon and passive ability that makes them distinct, and grouping them with complimentary teammates and subweapons is the key to success. The tools at your disposal increase as you unlock more characters and useful upgrades over time, like special backpacks that can increase their action points and how many regenerate on each turn.
The arsenal is wacky, but also extremely deep. Take young Tom Sawyer’s Punch Gun, which can smack a smaller enemy a few feet back. With the right ally, you can set up an elaborate deathtrap of mines and other hazards, and use Tom to shove an unsuspecting foe into its killzone. Or you can come up with even trickier solutions, like using H.P, Lovecraft’s character Randolph Carter to toss out Unspeakable Lure. This piece of meaty bait can lure enemies to their doom. STEAM comes up with dozens of smart, creative ways to control a snarling crowd of foes.
Staying alive long enough to do all of that can be tricky, though; because there’s no overhead view, you don’t always know the enemy’s position, even when they’re lurking around the corner. Avoiding ambushes means you have to think carefully about how you move forward and which foes you attack, because if you’re caught off guard, the enemy arsenal is just as nasty as your own. The AI is dauntingly effective at using overwatch to stun-combo your squad for additional damage. I just wish there was a way to speed up the alien turns, because they can sometimes go on for a long time with not much happening on screen.
The Lovecraftian aliens themselves aren’t as visually impressive as STEAM soldiers, but they’re distinct enough to tell their various types apart at a glance, and they’re no slouches in combat. Take the Nettler – this tiny, simple-looking flying alien doesn’t inflict huge amounts of damage, but it’s hard to hit, and it can instantly stun most characters. The blind Rippers, on the other hand, use sound to locate soldiers. They roll and tear through cover to go after anything they detect, and if you’re smart you can fool them into flattening their own troops. These diverse enemies can put the kibosh on your best plans, so it’s best to identify them and the best tools you have to take them down quickly.
Two-player multiplayer matches work in much the same way as single-player combat, except with a quick 60-second turn timer. After the luxury of taking unlimited stretches of time to carefully plan movements, this faster pace makes these skirmishes feel like speed chess. The manic thinking required to come up with strategies is daunting at first, but both Deathmatch and Medal Match (a race to collect dropped items from dead enemies) are a fun twist for anyone who’s conquered the 15- to 20-hour campaign.

Of the three multiplayer match types, the only one worth skipping is A.B.E. Battle, a mode where two robots who bear a striking resemblance to the United States’ 16th President beat up on each other. It tries to turn STEAM’s real-time elements into an action game, but the controls don’t translate well. Too often, it played out like a hamstrung version of Rock’em Sock’em Robots.
THE VERDICT

Code Name STEAM is a strange hybrid of turn-based tactics and action, but its simple mechanics create plenty of head-scratching decisions in single or multiplayer. Carefully selecting my squad and positioning them for maximum effect on the battlefield is tense and satisfying, even when I end up watching my goofy team crumble under a brutal counter attack.

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SID MEIER’S STARSHIPS Gold

I’ve gotten a few good turn-based fleet engagements out of Sid Meier’s Starships, but they feel like the quick tactical minigame component of a larger, more complex strategy game that isn’t here. Instead we get a confusing galactic conquest game that moves too fast for its own good. WIthout the support and context of a thoughtful war, Starships’ hex-based battles lost their luster after just a couple of days.

When you’re first setting out from your homeworld with a two-ship fleet to win independent planets over to your cause before rival empires do, mission variety is pretty good: escorting a friendly ship to a destination, preventing an enemy from reaching theirs, navigating a maze of asteroids while handicapped by a limited view distance, taking out a VIP enemy ship, hunting stealth fighters – there are quite a few. The problem is, most of those missions are either extremely easy due to the barely upgraded ships having few capabilities (just zip behind your target and blast their weak rear shields at point-blank range for one-shot kills), or so hard my entire fleet was wiped out on the first turn – effectively ending the game before it got started.
Upgrading your individual ships is one of the coolest things about Starships, because they’ll change appearance based on every point you plug into engines, shields, armor, long or short-range weapons, stealth, sensors, torpedoes, or fighters. That creates a wide variety of ship design variations stemming from the three base vessels (associated with which starting bonus you pick for your faction). Those choices are meaningful, too, since a ship with fast engines and close-range weaponry has very different utility from a slow one that sits in the rear launching long-range torpedoes and fighters.
Other than that, though, Starships doesn’t look great – even for a game clearly designed to run on the iPad. Ships get some good beauty shots thanks to the action camera, which shows projectiles launching and hitting targets, but the weapon and explosion effects are so poor I’m surprised Firaxis wanted the camera anywhere near them. Plus, the many asteroids that serve as “cover” for ship battles look terrible. I’ve even had intermittent but major frame rate problems on both PC and my iPad 3, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.
In later, more tactically interesting battles, fleets become large and durable enough to trade blows for a while, sometimes scoring random critical hits that disable shields, engines, or weapons. I find myself easily winning battles in which the mission select screen predicts I have less than 40% chance of victory, because after all, a single-player tactical game is only as good as its AI. This AI is just alright.
Torpedoes battles are some of the best fun. You launch them on one turn, and then on the next they continue on that course as you view them from a chase-cam perspective. Hitting a button to detonate them at the right moment to catch an enemy ship (or two) in the blast radius is an interesting dash of real-time action added to a turn-based tactical game, and a clever means of area-denial. Equipping a fleet of four ships with torpedo launchers and blanketing an entire area with them is a great tactic for demolishing an entire fleet in one of the larger battles to take an enemy homeworld. It would be a great mind-game weapon to use in multiplayer… if Starships had multiplayer. Which it doesn’t. Also, the iOS version’s controls make targeting these warheads a huge pain.
After one of those big battles, the strategic game falls apart a bit. Because each empire has only one fleet, if you soundly defeat a rival in combat once, you can basically roll through all their territory until you’ve used up all your fleet’s stamina. Or, the same thing can happen to you – one bad battle can mean the whole thing comes crumbling down. It’s especially confusing to watch that happen, because during the AI turns everything moves so fast it’s hard to know what’s going on, and there’s no meaningful summary of events. Big swaths of the galaxy can change hands quickly, meaning there may be nothing you can do to stop a swing that puts a rival faction over the 51% galactic territory control they need to win suddenly.

Within a day, I’d won my first game on Hard difficulty – and that’s before I understood half of the mechanics, like why I had to manage five different resources. If you can get hold of a couple of the exceptionally powerful Wonders – such as the one that lets you launch fighters that can attack on that same turn and the one that lets you move first in every battle – mopping up the opposition in just a few hours becomes a cakewalk even if you’ve ignored much of the complexity of upgrading your planets’ resource production and disregarded the rudimentary diplomacy system entirely.
THE VERDICT

Sid Meier’s Starships’ battles held my attention for a handful of games, after which point the tactical AI’s behavior became exploitable and the strategic layer became too muddled and unpredictable. So I say so long to Starships after a brief time, but I’ll always remember its neato torpedoes.

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Though absolutely gorgeous and wonderfully atmospheric, The Order: 1886 is a deeply conflicted thing. Even more than its secret battle against the monsters of legend, The Order’s greatest struggle is ultimately its own internal tug-of-war between telling a beautifully presented story and granting the level of interactivity we’ve come to expect from a game. In the end, a lopsided commitment to perfecting style and plot comes at the cost of sluggish pacing, a look-but-don’t-touch world, and paint-by-numbers gunplay.

On the surface, that approach pays off. The Order is thick with exquisitely detailed environments that showcase the grand opulence of London built atop poverty-stricken slums. It’s populated by characters that are generally well-developed, motivated, and believable. And there’s a concerted effort to extend that fantastic polish into a seamless experience, merging gameplay with its many lengthy cutscenes as it delivers a generally good historical-fantasy story.
In seven hours in developer Ready At Dawn’s alternate version of London, I rubbed elbows with historical figures like legendary inventor Nikola Tesla, who serves as the The Order’s gadget guy. His involvement allows for fantastic Victorian super-weapons that never were: the Arc Gun, the Thermite Rifle, and the bazooka-like Shoulder Cannon. I investigated the dealings of the famed East India Company, and heard stories of a new serial killer called Jack the Ripper. And I did all this as the strong and reserved Sir Galahad, a member of The Order – the Victorian-era incarnation of the Knights of the Round Table. By pulling these threads from history and myth, The Order: 1886 weaves an engaging and convincing patchwork of historical fiction that I want to spend time in. But I was genuinely surprised when the story abruptly ended – leaving multiple characters and secondary arcs dangling in the wind in an obvious sequel setup. It left me wanting to know what’s next for this world.

However, maintaining its scripted, linear storytelling means that when The Order must relinquish control outside of combat, it does so only enough to allow for the most basic of interactions with its world. Between lengthy cutscenes, there are long periods of restrained movement where you’re meant to simply walk, taking in the sights and listening to character dialog. It’s an issue that’s somewhat mitigated by the fact The Order: 1886 is just so damn polished, so there is plenty to keep the eye occupied, but this too suffers from diminishing returns as the super-scripted segments strip you of any freedom. Constantly being ripped from gameplay to cutscene to restrained walking segment back to cutscene is a pervasive whiplash of false starts.
Even when you’re specifically instructed to touch something, there’s rarely a moment of interactivity that isn’t expressed with a quick-time event. They’re at their best when you’re trading slashes with hulking monsters – where slow reactions or imprecision will find you watching Galahad’s throat ripped out in some impressive horror-movie gore. But these moments are the exception, rather than the rule, and most of it is simply pushing carts, pulling ropes, turning levers, or flipping over carts to climb ledges or continue down the set path.
When a quick-time event won’t do, we’re pushed into disappointingly generic cover-based shooting and stealth segments against equally generic, human enemies. And though these sequences are certainly interactive, The Order: 1886 does little to elevate them beyond their most basic elements. The encounters in which you actually fight the monsters that are billed as such a large part of the game are dwarfed by those in which you’re simply whack-a-mole shooting goons. I lost count of the times I traded small-arms fire with waves of hapless guards and fodder until an ally says “That’s all of them,” and it was time to move on.

Cover shooting falls into the old comfort zone where lining up the camera and popping out to kill an enemy becomes a rinse-and-repeat cycle of near invulnerability thanks to your vial of Blackwater – The Order’s secret serum you can drink (via a quick-time event) to revive yourself from the verge of death. While the weapons look great and pack some creative punch, it’s unfortunate we’re not given a lot of interesting tactical situations to shoot our way out of.
Though it’s not especially challenging, the whole process of shooting is made more annoying by the ever-present black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. They’re intended to create a letterboxed, “cinematic” look. But when I was behind cover, I was much more interested in being able to see what was happening in my limited vertical screen space than having a wider aspect ratio. That frustration led me to avoid crouching behind cover as much as possible, which in turn led to the majority of my deaths occurring when I left cover looking for insta-kill, quick-time melee takedowns.
Rare fights against werewolves are absolutely the best parts of The Order’s action, mostly because their hit-and-run attacks are fast and less predictable than trading shots with the cookie-cutter guard, shotgunner, or sniper. Unfortunately, the knights of The Order are part-time monster hunters at best.

THE VERDICT

The basic conflict at the heart of The Order: 1886 is that considerations for a cinematic approach are prioritized above the needs of basic gameplay. Its best aspects are its stunning looks, atmosphere, and style – which are truly fantastic – and entertaining fiction. But the shallow, slow, and generic quick-time event-riddled gameplay make it feel like an experience that would’ve been better served by a non-interactive movie than a game. With no multiplayer, and no reason to revisit the short and stunted single-player campaign once it’s been completed, there just isn’t a lot to it.

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It may be squalid and zombie-infested, but Dying Light’s city of Harran isn’t a depressing wasteland – it’s a vibrant, ambitious, open-world playground. Here, buildings are for climbing, the undead are there to be destroyed in creative ways, and there’s always something interesting to be discovered nearby.
It takes a while for that to become clear, though; at first, you might even think Dying Light is really about running scared from mobs of seemingly unconquerable zombies, who can quickly drain your stamina and wear out your improvised weapons. Don’t be fooled,[Note: Final review posted February 2, 2015] .

Yes, it’s a struggle to survive in Dying Light’s early hours. Combat is initially clumsy, with the diverse and deadly zombies able to soak up a disturbing amount of punishment before they die for good. Jumping – which is unintuitively mapped to shoulder buttons on consoles – can take a while to get used to. Getting mobbed is usually a death sentence. So is attracting the attention of the much more dangerous things that come out when daytime dynamically gives way to night, at which point the focus shifts to tense stealth — or, if you’re discovered, an adrenaline-pumping sprint for the nearest safe point.
Before long, though, you’ll build up a skill set that turns your rotting foes into objects of fun, letting you vault across their shoulders, quickly slice them apart with dramatic slow-motion kills, or trick them into gathering around explosives before blasting them all into the sky. Even nighttime becomes an opportunity to raise skills faster thanks to increased XP gain, rather than a period of sheer terror. It all feels great, too; once you adjust to the controls, Dying Light’s first-person parkour becomes natural and fluid, and weaving high-speed paths through its decaying slums and picturesque old-world buildings is so much fun that I almost don’t hate the lack of a fast-travel option.
Combat, meanwhile, gets increasingly satisfying, although it never quite loses its awkwardness. Even when expertly shredding zombies with elementally charged tools of death I built myself, strikes are still heavy and clumsy. And while the guns you’ll find later can pop heads from a distance, their low rate of fire and zombie-attracting noise makes them more of an occasional quick fix than a game-changing weapon. To Dying Light’s credit, though, your adversaries are surprisingly capable; while the rank-and-file Biters are dumb and fun to manipulate, more powerful enemies – like the quick, agile Virals – are formidable close-quarters opponents, ducking your strikes and sidestepping out of your reach while looking for an opening to attack. Hostile bandits are even deadlier, able to dodge and block at close quarters, throw knives from a distance, and use guns and group tactics to kill you if you get overconfident.

That Dying Light’s world is so entertaining is important, because it’s unexpectedly huge. Finishing the campaign took me more than 34 hours, with a 68 percent completion rate. The story is serviceable enough, focusing on an undercover agent who becomes a savior to infected survivors and a thorn in the side of a maniacal warlord, but the most surprising thing about it might be its lack of surprises. Similar games have primed me to expect shocks and betrayals that will yank the metaphorical rug out from beneath me, and yet apart from a few big twists early on, Dying Light plays it mostly straight, with little nuance and few hidden agendas from its interesting (but underdeveloped) characters and entertainingly cliché villains. In a way it’s almost refreshing, even if the end result is nothing special.
A big chunk of my time, though, was spent on detours into side quests, which are where the storytelling really shines. Taking on one of the many requests from random survivors might lead to something ordinary, like a fetch quest – but more often than not, they’re multi-part adventures with their own short storylines, which frequently start out as seemingly run-of-the-mill tasks and escalate into something much more lurid and creepy. A search for a missing person, for example, might turn into a hunt for progressively more unsettling clues in a seemingly abandoned apartment building, and a routine rescue mission might turn out to be a trap set by a conniving madman. These are some of Dying Light’s most memorable moments, and they make exploring its world even more rewarding.
While it’s entirely playable as a single-player game, Dying Light is – like most things – better with friends along. Up to three co-op partners can jump in at any time to help you carve up undead hordes, watch your back while you’re picking locks, or pursue campaign missions, and while the online matchmaking is still fairly hit-or-miss on PS4, online sessions are smooth and stable once they get going.
It’s also useful to have friends around if your game is invaded through the “Be the Zombie” mode, which lets a random player jump into your world as a super-powered monster with zipline tendrils and zombie-summoning spit. Playing as said monster is hugely enjoyable, especially after you’ve unlocked some of its grosser attacks, but it feels one-sided unless you’re going up against at least two human players.
PC Impressions
Other than moderately better visuals, the PC version’s biggest leg up on its console counterparts is its customizable keyboard-and-mouse controls. Keeping track of the assorted key functions can be a little trying when things get frantic, but using the space bar to jump still feels more immediately natural than R1 or RB on PS4 or Xbox One. (Gamepads are, of course, supported.) Early on, there were reports that Dying Light would hang before dialogue or cutscenes, but these issues appear to have been patched, and the PC version now mostly runs smoothly for us, with only rare hitching while areas load. There is, however, an occasional issue with some textures popping in at low resolution and sticking that way. The PS4 version has a similar problem, but while it quickly corrects itself, textures that show up blurry on PC tend to stay that way.

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