Diablo III: Reaper of Souls Review

Diablo III’s first expansion is a game changer

By Sam Desatoff

Note: This review also appeared in The Collegian and can be found at collegian.csufresno.edu

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Last year’s launch of Diablo III was very much a mixed bag. While the core action-RPG mechanics were solid and enjoyable, the experience was dragged down by a number of poorly-implemented systems. For the first expansion, developer Blizzard has addressed the vast majority of problems that plagued the game, while adding enough new content to keep players busy for quite some time. The result is a game that is far more enjoyable and rewarding than it was last year.

Before the official launch of Reaper of Souls, Blizzard rolled out a hefty patch aimed squarely at overhauling those features most complained about by players. Loot 2.0 introduced the “Smart Drop” system that tailors item drops to the class you are playing. This is a large improvement over the old system that would drop items with completely random stats. Now, it is far more likely you will obtain upgrades rather than useless gear.

Blizzard has also removed the auction house from the game, stating that the focus should be on slaying monsters, not on paying gold to become stronger. This, coupled with Loot 2.0, goes a long way in improving the Diablo III experience.

Reaper of Souls brings new story content in the form of a new Act. Act V is longer than the previous four acts and offers plenty of new enemy types, side quests, and inventive boss fights that players can tackle on their way to the raised level cap of 70. Like the base Diablo III story, don’t expect anything mind-blowing in terms of plot, but the new content is enjoyable nonetheless.

After finishing the campaign, a new game mode called Adventure Mode is unlocked. Inside, you can go after bounties across all five acts in exchange for rewards. Do enough and you can enter a Nephalem Rift, a difficult dungeon with extra tough monsters. The rewards for completing a rift are more substantial than in normal dungeons and offer something to do after completing the story.

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One of the rewards for completing bounties are blood shards. The shards can be spent on gear of varying levels of rarity – from magic to legendary – with mystery properties. It’s a form of gambling, but the payoffs are laughably poor, making the shards hardly worth your time.

A new artisan – the Mystic – joins the Jeweler and Blacksmith. The Mystic allows you to reroll any stat on an item, which is great for customizing your gear to your playstyle. She also grants the ability to change the appearance of some armor and weapons, a purely aesthetic trait but it’s nice to have more options.

crusader

In the months before Reaper of Souls launched, Blizzard spent a lot of time advertising the Crusader. The new playable class has elements of Diablo II’s Paladin, but is fresh enough to keep from feeling like a rehash. The Crusader has lots of area-of-effect skills that make tearing through large groups of enemies very satisfying.
Diablo III is not the same game it was when it released, and that is completely for the better. Thanks to Loot 2.0 and the removal of the auction house, gone is the feeling that the endgame is an arduous. If you haven’t played the game since its launch, now is the perfect time to return to Sanctuary.

Final Score: 9 of 10

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Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review

Retro Studios sticks to a winning formula

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When Nintendo decided to revive the Donkey Kong Country franchise in 2010, developer Retro Studios approached the project with a keen eye for platforming. Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii offered difficult-yet-rewarding gameplay coupled with a colorful art style and a well-honed sense of humor. The end result was one of the greatest platforming experiences available last generation. For the Wii U sequel, Retro adheres closely to the formula established in Returns, but kicks up the difficulty significantly.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze opens when an army of penguins uses a massive alpine horn to summon an ice storm and freeze DK Island. Donkey Kong and friends are blown away and must traverse six separate islands filled with enemies and other obstacles in order to reclaim their home. While there are fewer levels in Tropical Freeze than were in Returns, the levels themselves are longer and offer more variety. During my time with the game, I platformed through a massive tornado, scaled a mountain in the midst of an avalanche, and rode a mine cart through an active sawmill. The action on screen is frantic and can be a little distracting, but the overall effect is absolutely charming. Underwater levels also make a return to the series and are equally filled with many large-scale set piece moments.

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Dixie and Cranky join Diddy and Donkey Kong this time around. With the exception of Donkey Kong, each character possesses a unique jumping ability that allows them to traverse levels in different ways – Cranky can pogo on his cane to move across spikes, Dixie’s hair can propel her higher than the other Kongs, and Diddy uses his jetpack to hover for a short time. I found myself leaning heavily on Dixie and Diddy throughout most of the game as the ability to adjust trajectory mid jump is invaluable.

My biggest complaint about the game lies with its difficulty. Tropical Freeze offers some of the most testing gameplay this side of the Dark Souls franchise. Retro has blurred the line between difficult and frustrating in a way that might discourage some. Jumps require high levels of precision and expert timing, and Retro has designed some levels to encourage trial and error. By placing horned enemies directly where your character is expected to land or moving a platform out from under your feet, memorization becomes an important method of finishing a level. Most times, this feels like the devious product of a finely-tuned gaming experience more than a device to frustrate the player. The resulting effect is two-fold: some levels become a slog and an exercise in muscle memory, but the feeling of accomplishment when you finally complete a stage is nearly unrivaled.

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Luckily, controls are very tight and responsive – I recommend playing with a Wii U Pro Controller and using the directional pad – and most of my deaths felt like they were my fault, not the game’s. Retro also provides enough extra lives that finishing the game never feels impossible, and Funky Kong returns to sell additional bonuses like extra hearts and temporary invincibility to help you along. In addition, each level features more than one checkpoint which goes a long way in alleviating many frustrations.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze showcases Retro Studios’ ability to produce an extremely polished platformer. I hope they continue to develop such fine-tuned adventures, and I certainly hope the difficulty is not too discouraging, as those who stick it out will find the most rewarding platforming experience the Wii U has to offer.

Score: 9 of 10

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Episode 6 – Xbox “None”

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Welcome to another episode of Bad Mojo. With this week’s announcement of the Xbox One, there’s a lot to be skeptical of. We break down all the details we care to remember and mostly bag on them. Also, all credit for the name of the episode goes do Leonard Torres.

In the second segment, we realized that we didn’t plan very well and had nothing to talk about. So we talked about which movies set to release this we’re most looking forward to.

In the final segment, we answer listener questions. All two of them.

Thanks for listening!

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Episode 5 – Captain Canuck

Iron Man 3 logo

In this episode of Bad Mojo, we discuss Iron Man 3 (SPOILERS), Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, and Titus Young.

We also invent a super villain, eat some chicken, debate about Peyton Manning, and ponder why Creed ever existed. So kick back, grab a sandwich, and immediately hate yourself for listening to this.

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Review – Guacamelee

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Guacamelee
Piledrive and platform through two worlds

Review by Sam Desatoff

Publisher: DrinkBox
Developer: DrinkBox
Genre: Action/Platforming
Platform: PlayStation 3/PlayStation Vita
Release Date: April 9, 2013

It’s not uncommon for developers to borrow elements of other games and use them in their own titles—this is how entire genres are created in the first place. Not every instance of imitation breeds flattery, but every once in a while a title stands out and makes us appreciate the finer points of tried-and-true design. Case in point: DrinkBox’s new downloadable game Guacamelee.

You play as Juan, an agave farmer in Mexico. When the president’s daughter is kidnapped by Calaca, a malicious skeleton from the Land of the Dead, Juan must don a magical luchador mask and suplex his way to his love’s rescue. The story is fairly mundane, but the execution is superb. The bright and colorful art
style is supplemented by humorous dialogue and entertaining cut scenes.

Guacamelee contains many references to other games

Guacamelee contains many references to other games

These story moments are charming, but they bookend the true draw of the game: the gameplay. The 2D exploration takes its cue from Metroid and Castlevania, with a map that fills out as you progress. The world is ripe with hidden treasures like heart pieces (collect three to increase your maximum health) and gold. You can also perform tasks for townspeople for extra rewards.

The “Metroidvania” influence extends to the distribution of powers as well. As you explore, you will come across areas that cannot be accessed until a new power is unlocked. This helps encourage players to revisit old areas to access new treasure. Most powers cost stamina to perform (the Guacamelee equivalent of Metroid’s energy tanks), and can be integrated into combat.

As the title of the game implies, there is no ranged combat. Instead, Juan uses punches and kicks to stun enemies. He can then grapple and toss baddies, or he can perform special finishing moves that are purchased at a shop. The combat is satisfying—it is very easy (and fun) to rack up one hundred-hit combos. In later stages of the game, the combat scenarios can become a bit tedious as the game throws different combinations of enemy types at you, but none of it felt impassable.

Platforming feels tight and responsive, which is nice considering how precise some scenarios require you to be—unlocking a double jump in a game has not been this blissful in ages. The game approaches MegaMan levels of challenge in later stages, but is much more forgiving. Rather than boot you to the start of a level when you fail a platforming segment, Juan is instantly transported back to where he fell. This helps alleviate some of the frustration, but still allows for a feeling of satisfaction when you pass those tough challenges.

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In addition to several popular Internet memes, Guacamelee contains countless references to other video games, from Mario to Zelda, and even Journey. Some may complain about how many references DrinkBox crammed in, but they in no way detract from the fun factor of the game.

In what I hope becomes a shining example of the compatibility of the PS3 and PS Vita, Sony has implemented its “cross-buy” feature for Guacamelee. Buying the game on one system automatically unlocks it on the other. Saves can be transferred between systems without headaches, and the Vita can even be used in conjunction with the PS3 for co-op sessions. The system works well and I hope more publishers take advantage of this in the future.

Not only is Guacamelee a love-letter to many beloved franchises, it also stands well on its own in terms of gameplay and entertainment value. If you are a fan platforming and exploration, you shouldn’t miss this one.

Final score: 8.5/10

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Review – Tomb Raider

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Tomb Raider
Crystal Dynamics reinvents an icon

Review by Sam Desatoff

Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics
Genre: Action
Platforms: PS3/Xbox 360/PC
Release Date: March 5, 2013

Lara Croft is an industry mainstay. Since the original Tomb Raider released for the Sony PlayStation in 1996, she has become one of the most recognizable characters in the medium. But how do you keep a 17-year-old franchise relevant in today’s packed market? The answer came to developer Crystal Dynamics in the form a reboot. When faced with the task of reimagining Lara Croft, Crystal approached the situation with all the gravity befitting of such an icon. The result is a thrilling ride that transforms Lara from a budding and enthusiastic adventurer into a hardened survivor.

Crystal Dynamics has settled on a decidedly darker tone for the reboot of Tomb Raider, and the new direction is evident almost immediately. The game opens with the ship carrying Lara and the rest of her expedition getting torn to pieces by a storm. Lara is thrown overboard and makes her way to the nearby island where she must regroup with the other survivors of her crew. What follows is a sprawling story of ritualistic sacrifice, betrayal, and desperation. The opening cave sequence sets the pace at breakneck and does not let up until the end credits roll.

Voice actress Camilla Luddington brilliantly brings the new Lara Croft to life. The performance contains many small touches that illustrate how unsure Lara is in her abilities – she can often be heard telling herself “I can do this” and “Just keep moving.” Luddington’s work lends weight and believability to the inexperience of the new Lara, and goes a long way in selling the reboot.

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Perhaps because of the high caliber of voice work provided for Lara, however, the rest of the cast falls short in comparison. The remaining members of the expedition fall into stereotypical archetypes such as rugged father figure, spiritual sage, and tech nerd. The voice acting is not as strong with these characters, but an unintended result is that Lara shines even more when compared to the others. The characterization shines when Lara is alone and struggling against all the danger the island throws at her, but loses something when she interacts with the other survivors.

The island is divided into several hub areas, which can be revisited at any time through the fast-travel system. Each environment is full of small details and beautiful vistas, making Tomb Raider a very pretty game indeed. The appeal of returning to previous areas comes in the form of gear-gating: Some areas are locked off until Lara receives better gear, not dissimilar from games like Metroid or Castlevania. This makes story and character progression all the more satisfying. New weapons are doled out at a respectable pace, but I found myself leaning heavily on the bow, which is the first weapon you’ll acquire.

Combat scenarios all usually play out in similar fashion: Lara is dropped into new environments from a vantage point. She can then choose to silently take out enemies with the bow and stealth kills, or use her guns and other gadgets. When in combat, Lara automatically takes cover behind low objects. This system
feels more natural than the sticky cover mechanics of series like Gears of War.

Because Lara is a fresh-faced adventurer, she begins the game with very few survival skills. For example, Lara starts off with no melee attacks. But as she explores, collects salvage, and takes out enemies, she gains experience points. Players can use this experience to purchase new skills such as the ability to collect ammunition from downed enemies or to highlight collectables in the environment. Players shouldn’t feel stuck with skill choices, however – as long as you spend some time exploring and searching for collectables, you should be able to obtain most of the skills available.

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While I appreciate the attempt at character progression, many of the skills are unattainable until you have unlocked a certain a number lower-tier skills. Because of the distribution of experience points, this creates an artificial barrier that feels like a cheap way to hinder progress until key story moments. Still, this gripe is minor.

The story is filled to the brim with huge set-piece moments in a way that Uncharted series could be envious of. From outrunning a plane crash to climbing a storm-ravaged tower, Tomb Raider provides a huge number of action movie-worthy moments. The controls are responsive, if a bit stiff at times. Platforming is satisfying and rarely did I feel that the game was to blame for any deaths.

Crystal Dynamics go out of their way to throw everything they can at Lara during her stay on the island. Throughout the story she is beaten, stabbed, and shot, creating a sort of Die Hard effect where, by the final moments of the game, you wonder how Lara is still standing. The reboot is much more violent than previous Tomb Raider games. Some of the deaths Lara can meet shocked me with their brutality. The punishment she takes stretches the believability of how much damage the human body can sustain, but I got more enjoyment once I set aside those preconceptions and let the game sweep me along.

Reboots are often points of contention among a franchise’s fan base, but followers of Tomb Raider shouldn’t worry. Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix have re-imagined Lara Croft for a new generation, and in doing so have made her more believable a character. If you’re a fan of the series, or good action games in general, you shouldn’t miss Tomb Raider.

Final Score: 9/10

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Episode 4 – So Many Benjamin Franklins

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So, we’ve been away for quite some time, but we’re back. It turns out we’ve been playing BioShock Infinite. We all came together to discuss the ending, SPOILERS AND ALL. If you haven’t played the game yet, it’s probably best for you to move along.

In the second segment, Robbie and Sam talk about Iron Sky, a film about moon Nazis. Yes, it’s as exciting as it sounds.

Finally, Sam and Leonard discuss Guacamelee and Injustice: Gods Among Us. It turns out that both games are really good.

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Watch Us Play System Shock 2

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With Bioshock Infinite releasing soon, we thought we’d take a look back at the game that laid the framework for the first Bioshock. Irrational Games hangs their hat on imersive storytelling, a foundation built by System Shock 2. We’re huge Bioshock fans here at Bad Mojo, but none of us have played System Shock 2. This changes now. Head over to twitch.tv/badmojoblog to watch us experience the game for the first time.

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Episode 3 – Ron Pearlman Has Sex With Gorillas

Episode 3 is here! Someone performed some black magic and there was only a week between episodes!

In this week’s episode, we discuss some Tomb Raider, the Call of Duty: Black Ops II map pack, and Far Cry 3. In later segments, Sam talks about Oz, the Great and Powerful and A Good Day to Die Hard. Also, we talk about the NFL free agency. Hooray for sports!

Again, please head to facebook.com/badmojoblog and like our page. Thanks for listening!

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Episode 2 – Sky Horses

We’ve recorded a second episode! Prepare your ear holes.

This week, we discuss things of varying levels of importance. From Tomb Raider to Sim City to the DC Comics Death of the Family event, and even more. Take a listen and let us know what you think.

Find Bad Mojo on Facebook! Head to our page and “like” us!

We’re also on Twitter! You can also find the Twitter handles for the hosts here as well.

Thanks for listening.

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