Note: I may tend to diverge a bit from the norm when I write a review, mainly because there are a few key things that I’m really, really interested in, and hopefully there are some of you out there, too, that focus on these details as well. I don’t tend to analyze too much in regards to music, sound or cinematics because, honestly, unless the game sounds like a cat in a burning bag tossed into a sparking ceiling fan, or there’s more cinematics than gameplay, I don’t honestly pay much attention. What I’m focused on is the core features of the game, boiled down into graphics, story, controls and gameplay. There are exceptions to the graphics rule—as an example, I can’t think of any other look for Dead Cells or other Metroidvania-style titles–and they will be mentioned where appropriate.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Reviewed on: PS4
I grew up with two brothers in the early nineties, which meant that I spent most of my childhood either playing NES or exploring the streams and woodlands behind our latest house or apartment complex. We moved a lot when I was younger, especially after my mother suffered a serious back injury that put her out of commission and left my stepfather with the burden of supporting three children. Needless to say, the moves weren’t always voluntary (rarely so, in fact), and our financial state was always a teeter-totter of beans and mayonnaise for lunch when things were bad (yes, that’s a thing), and S&S Cafeteria for the whole family when on the upswing. If you don’t know what S&S Cafeteria is, imagine your school cafeteria on crack—extremely overblown, looks and tastes pretty good, but has a darker side that you’d rather not think about.
Around my 10th birthday, I moved up north to Pennsylvania with my father and stepmother, which is where I have remained ever since—in Pennsylvania, I mean, not with my father and stepmother. I’m 31 now and that might be a bit uncomfortable for all parties involved. Anyhow, despite the fact that I no longer had my brothers to explore with, that desire to be high up in a tree or tramping through the mud hadn’t left me. Although I never owned a BB gun or similar weapon (nothing that could actually fire projectiles, anyway), I was allowed any noise-making, imitation firearm of my choice, and I had all the old clothes and random scraps of junk that any child naturally accumulates over time. Using these trappings to my advantage, I crafted vests from old jackets, bandoliers, and holsters from discarded, worn belts and duct tape, and a satchel from an old laptop case my father recovered from some long-forgotten corporate event. With my metal-and-plastic, orange-tipped rifle slung over one shoulder, pulling on my cracked and weathered fingerless cycling gloves, I felt like every action hero, gunslinger, and outlaw that ever existed.
It has been twenty-some-odd years since those days, and I can’t remember the last time I even felt nostalgic about that time of my life, let alone reminiscent to the point of clarity. Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar’s nth prodigal child, is that reminiscence boxed into a 90-gigabyte package and sealed with a playful slap and a wink. I say a “slap and a wink” because, at least for me, RDR2 is a bittersweet experience, one that is so engaging and welcoming and exciting, yet at the same time comes with the cost of time and an amorphous sensation of loss.
In other words, if you are a gamer, and I qualify “gamer” as one who dedicates at least some time to video games on a monthly basis, you will find something to love about Rockstar’s latest foray into the mud-slung proverbial “wild west”—but it will come with a cost. That cost is time, not only in the vein that the game will take many hours to complete but also in regards to the sensation you will feel that no matter how much time you dedicate to RDR2 in a given day, it is not enough. You will fade into the world, listening to the buzz of mosquitoes and squinting at the bright morning light that filters through the blissfully-swaying leaves of a nearby tree, perhaps with the faraway sound of some passerby cursing at their horse, and you will stop. You will stop and take it in, and then, once you’ve reminded yourself that this game is an experience, that you are merely controlling so many pixels amongst other pixels, you will open your map and start plugging along.
And then things change.
Maybe you’re five minutes in, maybe fifteen, maybe even an hour, but at some point, it will hit you. You will start to feel it, that pure, unadulterated joy. Perhaps you were heading to the glowing yellow area a mile or two out, and then, all of a sudden, a woman comes tearing out of a bush towards you, screaming for help. You stop your horse so you don’t trample her, hop down (with revolver pulled and ready, of course) and offer assistance. Suddenly, she has a knife to your throat, and three men in voodoo-esque masks drop from the trees and stream towards you. You swing around with that dead eye of yours, taking them all out (one guy takes two shots to go down, but he never really had a chance anyway and you don’t mind expending the ammo), and turn back to the woman—who has since taken off, now a few hundred yards away, disappearing over a hill.
You don’t bother to chase her, instead taking the opportunity to examine the men and their strange facades. Hoping to find more information, you investigate the nearby buildings, one of which is submerged a few feet into the goop of a swamp—you visit all the other ramshackle houses first, but eventually, you get around to that half-underwater shack. You have to duck to get to the back of it, but eventually, you make it and are rewarded with a mask nailed to a board on the wall—the same type of mask the men were wearing. You take it, try it on, and generally revel in the fact that, had that woman not tried to murder you in cold blood, you would have never discovered this quaint little hovel or the ghostly visage that now adorns your face.
You check your satchel to see what all you looted from the homestead and realize that you’ve hit the maximum allotment of tonics. Not to worry, because you know that if you can finally hunt down that elk that has been on your back burner for a while now, you can upgrade that sumbitch satchel of yours. When you realize what kind of trek you’re facing to get to the northlands where yon elken brothers reside, you hop on your horse and switch out your gear, replacing that plaid shotgun coat you love with its thicker, warmer version. With your mottled mare, you make your way across wide, rushing rivers, snap through leaf-sprinkled woodlands, and dash up the snowy slopes of a mountain. Finally, you are pulling out your primary rifle, the one that you have meticulously engraved, wrapped in thick leather, and gilded with the finest metals and inscriptions—you switch to the long scope you’ve added, bringing the elk into view. You call out, its antlered head pops up, and you squeeze the trigger—
You hear a door open. The cold wind from outside kicks into the house like the wind has a tendency to do, pushing open creaking doors and making the curtains dance. Your wife is home, and she has her hands full with grocery bags. “Hey, babe!” she calls out, and you are back. That sensation is gone, and you are back.
Now, don’t get me wrong here—I have taken some liberties, and I’m not saying that having a life and doing adult things is a negative thing in any way, shape or form. In fact, you could make the argument for any game that time seems to fly while you’re playing it and there never feels like enough of the day to go around. What I’m saying with RDR2 is that there is a fleeting feeling of loss that comes with realizing that you are not Arthur Morgan trudging through virgin America, that the only thing you sling is a pen when you sign the mortgage check for the month. Yes, it is bittersweet, but it is not a bad thing—rather, it is a testament to just how engrossing and rewarding Red Dead Redemption 2’s world truly is.
In case you’ve yet to realize, this is not your normal game review. It is not informative in the traditional sense that it lays out exactly what the graphics are like, or how riveting the musical score is. It does not outline the plot or pay homage to the hackneyed methods of describing a game (“As you tear across the open plains of the American Wild West, you will jump, weave and dodge other outlaws with your revolver in hand!”). RDR2 is something special, the antithesis of a title that achieves its praises based solely on previous expectations or by remixing the formula in a satisfying manner. No, Rockstar truly has created a vision of its own, a defining way forward, a species nova if you will—and that deserves an equally new way of reviewing it. It is not about what it does mechanically—it’s about how it makes you feel.
Let me sum it up like this: If you garnered even a small fragment of the expression of love that I have for this game in this article, then you already know that you will enjoy this game with every fiber of your being. If you were right there with me, imagining the sun filtering in through the trees, mentally smelling the sharply-sweet tinge of sweat and gunpowder on the cool morning air, then this game is for you. I have played many, many games throughout my life, and every once in a while one comes along that requires you to deftly balance the real world expectations with the joys of the virtual one—savoring every chance you get to spend time in the latter. Red Dead Redemption 2 is that game, pardner—I guarantee it.
All Together Now!
Overall: 5.0 Revolvers
Verdict: What are you waiting for?
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Marvel’s Spider-Man – PS4
I don’t know about you, but I remember seeing this title pop up a few months before its release and I recall thinking to myself: This could go one of two ways. To expand on that a little, I was thinking that the developer, Insomniac Games, was either going to pull out all the stops, focus on what was important in the previous titles, and completely revolutionize what it mean to play a Spider-Man game, or it was going to bomb so hard and so fast that Superman 64 was going to take it out to dinner and say “It’s not you, it’s me.” I mean, superhero games are coming off the Arkham and Lego highs—don’t bring us down now, man!
In case you don’t know by now, I really had nothing to worry about.
I played the game on PS4, and I have to say that it was a phenomenal experience. Although I often try to platinum games that I buy, I’m not always motivated to do so. However, with Spider-Man, I platinumed the game as soon as I’d completed the main storyline, and altogether it took about two weeks with 2-3 hours played most days. Your mileage may vary, of course, but if you put your mind to it, it won’t take too long to do so, and many of the trophies pop naturally as you’re playing.
Marvel’s Spider-Man looks phenomenal, and if you have an HDR-capable TV and are running it on the PS4 pro, even better. Flying through the city is as smooth as butter to begin with, and the buildings whizz by as you would expect, but the real beauty here is in the details. If you get a chance while playing, run up a building or two and really pay attention. Many of the rooms in the buildings are duplicates, yes, but if you look closely enough, there is real space in there. Now, the details of the room are just a two-dimensional image plastered on the far three walls in most cases, but it’s the fact that they even bothered with the actual three-dimensional space versus a .gif plastered on the side of the buildings. And the buildings themselves—whoo-doggy! Sparkly, crisp, and nice to look at even at 50 miles per hour as you fly by them.
The characters themselves are a delight as well, and I sometimes found myself trying to get a close enough shot and good angle to view the crossweave patterns in some of Spider-Man’s suits. The villians here look great, too, and their costumes and suits really help bring them to life. The animations are bar-none, too, although I did notice a bit of jankiness in some of the facial animations. For instance, there were moments when a character’s eyes would make them look like they were mentally absent, perhaps in some far-off netherplane of existence, and from time to time their mouths would appear weird, like they were trying to bite their own teeth or something. Then again, I only noticed these things because A. I was looking for them, and B. Everything else looks so damn good that the off parts stuck out a bit more.
Altogether, this is a very good-looking game, and the developers deftly balanced the speed and nuances of the gameplay with the look and feel of the world.
Although superhero games are usually rife with action, violence, overt (sometimes obnoxious) bravado, or some combination thereof, Insomniac handled it masterfully in this instance. Yes, Spider-Man gets his time to shine, but Peter Parker also plays a significant role. What I mean by that is we get to see him doing his day-to-day on the streets of New York, helping out at the shelter or working with Dr. Octavius on his latest shenanigans. When Parker’s suited up, he also deals with some everyday drama and performs routine patrols while he’s not on a set path or mission. This furthers the feeling of the world being natural and full of life, while also allowing for those really intense moments to shine through.
The writing isn’t perfect—I mean, the bad guys have to sound like bad guys, right, and that can sometimes mean the villains can be a bit overly-boisterous or off-kilter—but it’s definitely on-par with some of the other great stories we see in the Marvel films or the comics. There are some twists strewn throughout if you’re unfamiliar with Spider-Man’s universe, and even if you know every nitty-gritty detail, they introduce it in a manner that is fresh and enticing. I’m definitely curious to see what the story in the follow-up game will look like, and the fact that I can confidently say “follow-up game” says a lot about how sincerely solid this title is.
Harkening back to the days of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the controls are responsive, generally feel comfortable, and are logical in the way they are constructed. Unlike those days, this iteration of Spider-Man allows you to swing around the city simply by using R2 (PS4), which allows you to bring in other buttons when needed, such as to perform tricks in mid-air (yes, I said tricks!). I really didn’t have any complaints about controlling Spidey through the city or complicated fights, and aside from a couple of instances where the camera decided to go on vacation by itself, everything flowed very well.
It’s been said before, and I have to agree—if you’ve played any of the Arkham games, Marvel’s Spider-Man’s combat is incredibly similar. Although much easier to control, Spider-Man has specific abilities that you can unlock as you go, and utilizing the web gadgets is pretty straightforward and easy to do. There were quite a few skills that I unlocked along the way, on top of the already wide assortment of tools and abilities, but I frankly didn’t really explore them. I generally stuck to 3-4 main web gadgets and repeated the same moves over and over again—granted, this was more my failing than the game’s, because I made up my mind early on that certain moves either worked better or had a bigger impact than others, so I was adamant in using those and only those throughout the rest of my playthrough. Players with a more adventurous spirit and a higher threshold of patience will probably get a goodly bit more out of the combat system than I did.
I have to say, even though Spider-Man is an open-world game and suffers from a slight case of what I call “clickin’-pox” (meaning there are icons everywhere), the quests, side-missions and points of interest are handled in a considerate way. You won’t initially open your map and find yourself bombarded with said clicky-things, as they are introduced gradually as you progress in the story. There were a few engagements that I eventually got bored with doing but pursued due to the associated trophy/trophies—one such example is the crime missions; you can only chase a van so many times before you want the van and everyone in it to die a slow, miserable death. Other than that, however, I was grateful to the developers for introducing things slowly and purposefully.
Aside from the main storyline, which was an incredibly detailed and engaging experience, the side activities are also set to a pretty high standard. Despite the aforementioned crime scenarios, I really enjoyed the drone and stealth challenges that crop up a bit later, and I truly didn’t mind repeating them until I mastered them. If you’re a trophy hunter like me, you’ll appreciate that you don’t have to master every single one to get a trophy, you’ll just need to get enough overall tokens to unlock the associated gear upgrades or suits. Generally speaking, as you swing about the city doing your thang, you’ll find plenty to distract you–in a good way.
I truly had a mix of satisfaction and disappointment when I finally saw the platinum flash in front of my eyes around 2 in the morning that day, because Spider-Man had been an invigorating experience from start to finish, and I knew I was gonna miss that sumbitch. Not only was it great to finally be back in the web-slingin’ saddle, but the way that Insomniac handled the game world, the world’s characters, and the overall story felt like justice had finally come around for Spider-Man and Peter Parker, and that made it all the more engaging and enjoyable.
If you are fan of superhero games like the previous Spider-Man or Arkham titles, action and adventure games that put you in the heat-of-the-moment, or even open-world games in general, you will find something to like in Marvel’s Spider-Man. For you trophy hunters out there, you won’t have a difficult time getting the shinies for this game, and the platinum truly does leave you feeling satisfied and ready to pick up the controller again when the DLC rolls around. I want to thank Insomniac Games for making such a killer title, and I am really looking forward to seeing what they can do with future content and iterations.
All Together Now!
Overall: 4.5 Revolvers
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