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Madden NFL 15 Review

The last time I really found myself enjoying a Madden game was

There were a lot of very good reasons to be disappointed with Madden NFL 25. Madden NFL 15 still disappoints in a few areas, but is generally a much more consistently entertaining game.

The biggest changes in Madden NFL 15 fall on the defensive side of the ball. Plenty of Madden installments have proclaimed to "fix" defense, usually by adding some new mechanic or stick functionality that still leaves you with pretty much the same exact defensive game you've been playing for years. Once again, I think saying that Madden 15's changes somehow salve everything potentially wrong with playable defense is overstating things, but what the game does offer is a nice change of pace. First off, now players can swing the camera around while playing defense. That sounds like a small thing, but it's actually a big help when playing on the defensive line or as a linebacker. Before, I always felt the defensive players were getting obscured by the offensive line. This negates that issue, and in concert with a new defensive minigame--you can jump the snap by hitting a trigger button at the right moment--it goes a long way to helping you play more effectively. In addition to that trigger button, you will also see button icons pop up when your defender is engaged with a blocker, indicating whether you should be using finesse moves or power moves to get by them. If that makes things too easy for you, you can just shut those off entirely, but for my part, I found them to be a helpful instructional tool.

As good as all those changes are, they don't make playing defense a perfect experience. Playing in the secondary still often feels like a crapshoot, for instance. The reverse camera doesn't feel as effective when controlling a defensive back, and I still feel like I'm a liability any time I assume control of one. I did find myself pulling off a few more interceptions than I have in the past, but I can't attribute that to anything specific to this year's game. If anything, INTs are just as prevalent (or over-prevalent, depending on your opinion) as they've ever been. Hitting and tackling still has its issues as well. While I appreciate this year's control alterations--conservative and aggressive tackles have been assigned to separate buttons, and now you can square up defenders by holding down the LT/L2 button--tackles still result in a lot of strange, often awkward-looking hits. Some of this might just be leftover wonkiness from the implementation of the Infinity Engine, and it's not nearly as bad as it's been in the past. Remember a couple of years ago when players were literally tripping over each other at the end of practically every play? Yeah, it's not that bad. Still, it's odd to watch players' limbs bend and contort in inhuman ways any time they bump into one another. It's similarly disconcerting to watch players often go functionally limp when they collide, as if someone had just unplugged them from The Matrix.

That last point has more to do with graphics than gameplay, but those kinds of graphical issues stand out a good bit more now that the series has planted itself firmly on the new generation of consoles. Last year's game on Xbox One and PS4 was just a minor upgrade from the 360 and PS3 versions, but Madden NFL 15 advances the game's visual presentation significantly. Stadiums, crowds, and sidelines have never looked better, and the action on the field generally looks excellent. You may see some weirdness with marquee players and coaches not quite looking like their counterparts--which is to say nothing of the haunting looking representations of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms that pop up at the beginning of each game--but this year's player models are nonetheless a huge improvement. Of course, with that increased detail, issues like physics glitches and hiccups in tackling animations tend to stand out all the more.

Real life Phil Simms is creepy enough. Digital Phil Simms is downright nightmarish.

The offensive side of the ball hasn't seen as much alteration, but there is at least one nice addition in the form of tempo changes. Essentially, you can now toggle between the normal pace of the game, a no-huddle offense, and a deliberately sluggish "chew clock" option. The no-huddle option brings your offense to the line super quickly, though obviously limits the number of plays you can call. Chewing the clock winds the play clock all the way down to ten seconds before you break the huddle, which greatly improves the pace of late game situations. It's a really minor thing and it doesn't change the offensive game in any truly significant way, but it's a nice touch that I'm frankly sort of baffled hadn't been included previously.

Another big change to this year's game is playcalling. In the past, suggested plays were limited to the old "Ask Madden" feature, which would spit up a few situationally correct plays, and way back when would also offer up a bit of John Madden-voiced coaching commentary (EA really needs to get him back in the recording booth some day). Madden NFL 15 expands on this considerably, offering up multiple suggestion options based on analytics. You'll still get a list of plays ideal for the game situation you're in, but they come with actual quantifiable data that helps explain why those plays make sense. And then there's a whole other category of plays built around suggestions from the community and how effective those plays have been in similar situations. It takes some getting used to, but I found it vastly preferable to any play-calling system this series has used in the past.

Of course, there are adjustments spread throughout the game's various modes and features, though most of these are minor in nature. Connected franchise still lets you create a player, coach or owner of your own design, and only two of those options are actually fun (sorry owner mode, you're still the worst). The big change to the mode this year is player confidence. At the top of each in-game week, you'll have the option to put your players through a series of pre-game exercises designed to boost a specific player, or an entire team's confidence. These are mostly non-playable exercises (though there are some in-game practice options available too), but there is a tangible benefit to doing them. Players with greater confidence tend to play above their stat ratings, while those lacking in confidence will more easily bottom out in arduous situations. This is essentially a play on the old hot/cold streak stuff from older games, but now you have a bit more control over it. This is nothing earth-shattering, but I think it's a nice way to handle the kinds of intangible swings inherent to professional football. I just wish it weren't the only big addition this year, because apart from some tweaks to the XP upgrading system for players (which finally make that feature feel useful), little else has changed for the better.

The same can be said for Ultimate Team, which has received a few tweaks in the name of making the mode more navigable, and not much else. It's still a mode I like a lot more in theory than in practice, as the progression of it still leans a little too heavily on inspiring the urge to pay for additional player card packs, versus just playing through the mode's offline and online challenges to earn coins. The skills challenge mode has been fleshed out with some additional trainers for specific game situations, and a surprisingly fun gauntlet mode that ramps up the ridiculousness of the regular training minigames. Online play hasn't seen any significant changes, though most of the games I played did seem a bit laggier/more stuttery than in last year's game. As always, your mileage may vary, but this was a bit more pronounced than what I've typically experienced in other EA Sports games.

If you've stayed away from Madden for a few years--and certainly, no one would blame you if you have--Madden NFL 15 does enough right to justify taking the plunge again.

All of the above changes go a long way to making this year's Madden feel the most consistently satisfying entry in the series in a good long while. While holdover issues like problematic offensive lines, sometimes clunky running mechanics, deeply confusing in-game menus, annoyingly repetitive (and periodically incorrect) commentary, and various glitches of both the minor and severe varieties are still present, I didn't find myself sighing with exasperation over them nearly as much. More often, I found myself too engaged with the act of playing video game football to care quite as much. Given that I generally like video game football quite a bit, it's sort of dispiriting to realize how long it's been since I've been able to do that. There are still a lot of things this series could stand to improve, but Madden NFL 15 represents an encouraging step forward for this series. A small step, to be sure, but still a positive one.

Divinity: Original Sin Review

Where'd the summer go? Mine disappeared into the lengthy turn-based vortex that is

I really enjoyed this game, despite the presence of a quest line involving giant spiders.

Divinity's world is one of god, men, orcs, magic--typical fantasy stuff. Players are asked to build two characters from scratch--male, female, doesn't matter--who become the leads, Source hunters looking to solve a murder. Source is a dangerously powerful form of magic long since banned for its corrupting nature. That's why you're Source hunters. Anyone found messing with Source is to be eliminated with extreme prejudice. Of course, it wouldn't be a video game if the world didn't come to an end at some point, so it doesn't take very long for Divinity to rope its characters into a near-certain apocalypse.

In the first hour, Divinity lays out its gameplay beats. Players click a customized party of warriors, thieves, and mages across a beautiful but violent world, seamlessly shifting between exploration, conversation, and combat. Though Divinity does a serviceable job of explaining its high-level concepts, it does not hold your hand and make sure you're ready to play. Divinity throws you into the deep end. Some players will love that; it's not common these days. Those lovers are, most likely, already fans of the genre. It's not uncommon to hear reports of players investing hours into Divinity, realizing they've built their characters wrong, and starting from scratch. It's easy to goof stat upgrades, and you only level every few hours. Those stories almost scared me off from even trying the game, so I kept a guide from Kotaku's Kirk Hamilton open on my iPad for the first dozen hours. It quickly became my personal bible, a cherished friend. It might not have been the purest experience, but it helped me get my feet wet, and I eventually moved forward with confidence, and crafted my own experience.

Though Divinity has a story, this game's all about combat. I've played turn-based games before, but few offer the seemingly limitless strategic freedom found in any single combat encounter. It doesn't take long to grasp the familiar mechanics. Characters have a set number of action points that regenerate each turn, and any movement, spell, or attack requires spending those points. Players and enemies swap turns, and it's always clear who's next, since it's listed at the top of the screen. What makes Divinity unique is a discrete focus on base elements. In Divinity's world, that's earth, air, fire, and water. Each of these elements play off and interact with one another, and learning those dynamics is critical to longterm success. If you dump oil on the ground, you can light it on fire, which can light enemies on fire, and burn them for several rounds. If you cause a rainstorm, that generates puddles on the map, which are susceptible to lightning strikes, and those are suddenly stun traps. The list goes on, and options expand as more party members join the group. Most battles conclude with your surroundings looking like a scorched wasteland, the ground littered with tasty loot.

My crew consisted of Roland, a ranger focused on distance attacks with elementally-tinted arrows; Susannah, a mage with earth and fire spells; Jahan, a mage with air and water spells; and Madora, a walking tank carrying an axe. We were a wrecking crew by the end. Ahead of combat, Susannah would sprinkle the ground with oil. Then, Roland would fire a charm arrow at the most powerful enemy, temporarily turning our greatest enemy into a terrifying ally. Not long after, Susannah would drop a massive boulder from the heavens, one that both ignited the oil and poisoned anyone nearby. Before anyone could recover, Jahan had summoned an ice elemental to begin freezing those still standing. Finally, Madora would lumber forward and take out anyone stupid enough to stick around. After this destructive blow-by-blow, the enemies would get a chance to fight. Chance. I'm getting teary eyed thinking about it. That's just my strategy, though. There are countless others, as characters don't have to fit into established archetypes, party members can learn every type of magic (I never even touched witchcraft!), and battles will often begin with enemies specifically designed to force you in a different direction.

Just as elemental interactions can stun and burn bad guys, you can accidentally do the same thing to yourself.

The experience is, in many ways, one of your own making. Who do you want to be? That extends beyond the combat, and into the role-playing, as well. The game doesn't have a morality meter, and doesn't judge. Players have little money at the start, but an early gold hoarding tactic involves stealing paintings in the first major city, Cyseal. If you're not caught, no one seems to notice an art thief has invaded, and vendors buy the paintings happily. After nabbing a few, the characters have a conversation about their actions, briefly reflecting on their newfound hobby. The two banter back-and-forth about whether stealing the art is immoral, but it ultimately has little impact on...anything. +1 personality bubbles sprinkle above them, but that's to reflect the tenor of the discussion, and grant a minor buff. Heck, at any time, you can (try to) kill just about any character in the game.

It often feels Larian has imposed structure on a sandbox to give players something to do, but doesn't care if you bend or break the rules. This philosophy is everywhere. Let's say you're having trouble with a particular boss. Before most major encounters, there's a conversation. This dialogue is only between the party member who initiated the conversation, and you can move other characters around while the dialogue tree is active. Get where I'm going with this? It's entirely possible to attack and kill a boss while it's talking to someone else. That always felt a step too far, but I love that it's an option. It's also possible to attack enemies before an encounter begins, which I took advantage of all the time. Sorry, goblins, about that sudden meteor shower! During a particularly rough sequence, I quarantined a set of enemies by crafting a wall of chairs. (Chairs, for whatever reason, are invincible in Divinity.) Some might call these exploits, and it's possible they're patched out, but Divinity is okay with you screwing around. Towards the end, there's a door that requires an item to open. You could go on a few more quests and find them...or spend 30 minutes bashing down the door. Your call!

You can have up to four party members, but there are perks for travelling with fewer.

You don't have an option to skip the game's lengthy narration, though. An NPC here, some hero chatter there. Generally, the writing is pretty good; it doesn't take itself too seriously, and it's funny. I'm a big book reader in my spare time, so I don't have a problem with Divinity dumping the equivalent of a novel on me. Unfortunately, the verbosity isn't backed up with characters and plotting worth the hours of attention devoted to it. Somewhere around the halfway mark, I was clicking through the conversations, waiting for the game to automatically populate my quest log with information on where to head next. Yet another generic end-of-the-world storyline can work when told using interesting participants, but that's not the case here. It's nothing new. The main characters are never given any significant development, serving as blank slates until a few endgame revelations that come too late. We learn more about the optional side characters who can join your party, but even those twists don't even happen until dozens of hours in. Divinity gives players broad discretion over how to play, which includes personality interpretation. This means we're left with an experience left to define itself on gameplay alone.

If we're talking about the combat, Divinity's got that covered. Unfortunately, it's the other parts of the game that got on my nerves as time went on. The first time Divinity asked me to zoom the camera in to scan the area for a tiny, pixel-sized button to unlock a door, I let it pass. When it became the fifth or sixth time, I started consulting online guides without much remorse. This focus on obscurity is prevalent throughout Divinity, and extends far beyond hunting for buttons and switches. On one hand, Divinity avoids guiding players to a solution with huge, pulsing arrows. On the other hand, it often doesn't provide you with nearly enough relevant information to reasonably determine where to go or what to do next. Both characters and quest logs are incredibly vague, and I grew tired of trying to decipher their riddles. It doesn't help some quests can easily become glitched and unsolvable. If you can't tell the difference between a bug and poor writing, there's something wrong. When it became clear this issue was not one or two quests but a prevalent issue throughout the whole game, I started regularly referencing walkthroughs to keep the story moving forward. I didn't fall in love with Divinity's world, characters, or lore. I wanted more of its relentlessly punishing combat, and this approach gave me that.

Playing Divinity to its lengthy (if predictable and stretched out) conclusion is a journey unto itself, an exhausting odyssey. The game asks much of players but rewards with them genuine, earned satisfaction. Even now, I could recite whole battles to you, days after the game's credits rolled. During one thrilling moment, I was literally biting my nails while a turn progressed. As victory became reality from the final blow, I tore off my headphones and screamed into the night. There are few games like Divinity in 2014, but it absolutely deserves to be here.

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls – Ultimate Evil Edition Review

It's handy to have another warm body around, if only to soak up some of the damage heading your way.

Diablo III has changed quite a bit in the two years since its initial release. Things like "real money auction houses" came and went, the loot system got redesigned, and an expansion was released along with a new adventure mode that gives you a new way to grind through the game without having to see the story beats time and time again. An exciting action-RPG got better and reinvigorated by that work. Now it's all bundled up into one pack for consoles. This "Ultimate Evil Edition" is a fine version of the game with effective adjustments that make the game just about as playable with a controller as it is with a mouse and keyboard.

The key to all that, of course, is direct character control. As opposed to left-clicking your way around the world, this console version of Diablo III simply lets you walk around using the left analog stick. It's a big difference, but one that still feels natural, especially if you were raised on console games like Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance. The right stick is used for a exclusive-to-consoles roll move that gives you a bit of mobility, but it never feels especially crucial. Of course, the rest of the controls have also been adapted to fit a controller, so you'll eventually have like six abilities mapped to different buttons on the controller. You can swap those abilities around however you like, which either means that you'll be able to find a setup that feels natural for you or you'll constantly be confused about which button does what, depending on what type of player you are. It all works just fine.

The game's interface and menus have also had to be rebuilt for controllers and living rooms, meaning there's a ton of big-ass text in the menus. The equipment and skills sections are built with radial menus, making it fairly easy to get around and check out different item types. The arrows on each item make it easy to see, in a basic sense, if an item is going to help you out or not. And there's a junk system in place to make it easy to flag the stuff that you want to sell or salvage next time you're back in town. It took me an hour or two to get used to each system, since each one feels like it's about one or two button presses too many, but once I became familiar with how Diablo III handles things, it eventually became second nature. Still, having to button deep into menus to dig into the numbers and real stats on an item is kind of a pain, and it's the one spot where I missed the PC's relative elegance.

Adventure mode lets you chop up the world into bite-sized chunks.

Beyond that, this is Diablo III with the Reaper of Souls expansion included. The story is a little boneheaded but largely stays out of the way, giving you hours and hours of satisfying action-RPG combat and interesting abilities to choose from as you devise numerous ways to blow up skeletons, demons, shambling tree men, evil goat men, devils, fallen angels, zombies, vomiting zombies, barrels, tables, and whatever the hell else happens to be around your character when things start jumping off. The destructible set dressing strewn across Diablo's dungeons ended up being one of my favorite visuals in the entire game--as you begin combat, anything that isn't bolted down just seems to get blown up during the ensuing fray.

One thing I'll say about the way this Ultimate Evil Edition is packaged is that the game doesn't do a great job of transitioning you from the main campaign into what used to be expansion content. Reaper of Souls exists as a fifth act to the main game, so once you beat the main game's final boss, rather than get any sense of meaningful closure you're just thrust into the next area after a couple of cinematics. Without the context that Act V is separate from the rest, the transition feels disjointed and rough. Also, the game has a closing cinematic, but since it's the closing cinematic for the expansion, it doesn't really feel like it has enough of a meaningful impact. It goes out with a whimper, not a bang, complete with a dialogue window that pops up after beating the final boss that pretty much says "push X to go to the main menu." It makes an already ignorable story feel even flimsier.

That's why it'd be great if you could just hop into adventure mode without beating the game's story first. Adventure mode lets you skip around the game at will and take on an endless series of bounties set across the same landscapes used in story mode. Most of them are relatively short, so if you have an hour or two, you could complete a set of five bounties and be on your way. It's a great way to segment the game into smaller, more manageable chunks, if that's your thing. The endgame mode also allows you to explore various "rifts," which are separate areas that throw enemies together in new configurations and help ensure that you've always got something to do, whether you're grinding up to level 70 or taking it beyond the maximum level with the game's paragon system, allowing you to further build up max level characters. There are also 10 different difficulty settings. Do yourself a favor and start on hard, as a minimum, and don't be afraid to creep up to something higher if you're getting bored. The difficulties are really misnamed--hard most definitely isn't "hard."

Feel free to work your way up the difficulty tree, the names sound scarier than they actually are.

The game looks fine on the PS4, roughly in line with what you'd expect out of the PC version at 1080p, though the frame rate would pop and hitch on occasion, usually when large enemies are in the process of blowing up and spitting loot all over the ground. There's some great music to fit with the action and, overall, it presents quite well.

It's great with a group and fine if you're playing alone, but I'd still say that, if you're able, the PC version is the one to get unless you're specifically looking for a local co-op mode. Barring that, though, the console versions of Diablo III are well-built and adapted to a controller quite well, so at some point it becomes a matter of preference. If you're excited about the genre and love to smash enemies to watch a series of numbers go up as you collect better and better gear, this is a good way to fulfill those needs.