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The Tech Deck

‘Bad Blood’ excites, but can’t correct ‘Watch Dog’ ills

Title: 'Watch Dogs: Bad Blood' (downloadable content)
Platform reviewed on: Playstation 4
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: Sept. 30, 2014

My review of 'Watch Dogs,' the digitally neurotic current-generation answer to the progression of the open-world genre, criticized the UbiSoft title for two reasons: Aiden Pearce lacked empathy, and the Chicago of the game felt constricted by gameplay limitations.

'Watch Dogs: Bad Blood' – the first (and likely only) episodic downloadable content for the game – remedies one of those ills slightly, while unsuccessfully addressing the other. Bad Blood, then, stands as a worthwhile reason to return to this passable iteration of eighth-generation, open-world action.

The game puts you in the shoes of Raymond Kenney, AKA T-Bone, the big drinkin', super hackin' ally you befriend halfway through Watch Dogs proper. T-Bone's personality is infinitely more likeable than Pearce's, and it remains so throughout the six or so hours you'll spend with Bad Blood. The reason for that is simple. While you get glimpses of the dark, cynical world that Aiden inhabits, T-Bone's story is streamlined by shedding the emotional baggage. By the end of the adventure, the story becomes much more like a buddy flick than a revenge saga, evidenced by the more-than-mildly amusing final cutscene.


T-Bone (aka Ray Kenney) is infinitely more interesting than Aiden Pearce.

Bad Blood really does nothing revolutionary with Watch Dogs' gameplay. You're still using stealth and hacking to infiltrate areas with enemies that far outgun you. There's still the focused, bullet-time gunplay that doesn't quite capture the brilliance of GTAV, but is more than serviceable. Car chases are still an arcade-y affair, made only more interesting by the hacking mechanics that can sideline pursuers in a well-timed instant.

Where Bad Blood improves upon its source material is in its mission design, the addition the new remote-controlled car and street sweep missions that force you to play the game in certain ways for high scores.

Perhaps because Bad Blood is so much shorter than Watch Dogs (10 missions to Watch Dogs' 43), the story tasks feel much more diverse, satisfying and fun. During the campaign, you'll dodge laser beams, guide your ally through mazes and use the game's hacking mechanic on an overlay of actual, in-world items. The puzzles take more thinking, the gunfights more planning and the platforming more timing. This all leads to a narrative experience that outdoes Watch Dogs in every way.

The remote-controlled car, affectionately named 'Eugene' by T-Bone, changes the way you play stealth moments of the game by offering an alternative option to taking out enemies undetected. The system doesn't work perfectly – sometimes you'll be spotted realistically by enemies you're sneaking up on with the device. But most of the time I found the car to be nearly game-breaking. Enemies won't see you until you're already close to deliver a one-hit blast of electricity that takes out even the toughtest of the game's enemies. The car, while changing your strategy, will also at times take away from the experience.


'Street Sweep' mode adds replayability and new rewards to the core 'Watch Dogs' experience.

Finally, street sweeps – introduced by a grating new female interest named Sheila Billings, a police detective who delivers missions to T-Bone by phone with potentially the least interesting sexual tension in the history of gaming – add new replayability options to the title. This is where Bad Blood shines – granting optional objectives to one-off missions that are scored against other players. It could be as simple as hacking a terminal without using weapons, or remaining undetected as you move in to kill a target in an area tagged by hacking cameras. The game could do a better job of explaining your score, however. You're simply given a number when you've completed a mission, usually lasting less than 5 minutes, and then sent on your merry way. Watch Dogs doesn't have the greatest presentation in the world, and this is another area where the package could be more player-friendly.

At $15, I can't recommend Bad Blood enough if you enjoyed the gameplay of Watch Dogs. It may also appeal to those turned off by Aiden Pearce's stolid countenance, but who still enjoyed the game's take on open-world stealth.

Verdict: 4/5 stars

Holy moly, Guacamelee! Looking back on Drinkbox’s indie hit

Title: Guacamelee!

Genre: Side-scrolling action/platformer

Platform Reviewed On: PC

Developer: Drinkbox Studios

Publisher: Drinkbox Studios

Release Date: April 9, 2013

Juan takes his super uppercut to the jaw of a skeleton foe.

Though touted as a metroidvania-style side-scroller upon its release, Drinkbox Studios' Guacamelee! can be more accurately described as an old school beat-em-up that ties in modern game art and design philosophies. It can be played as a relatively linear action/platformer, or as a metroid-lite adventure game with extra challenges to tackle and multiple routes for exploration. Though its mish-mash of ideas doesn't always result in a pristine game in a mechanical sense, Guacamelee! is so chock full of wonderful, whimsical personality that its flaws are easily overlooked.

The game tells the story of Juan, a lowly farmer who resides in a small Mexican village. After being promptly killed by an evil demon named Carlos Calaca, Juan is resurrected with the mystical abilities of a super-powered luchador and embarks on a quest to put a stop to Calaca's nefarious plot.

Guacamelee!'s ridiculousness does not stop with its premise — the game is constantly ludicrous over the entirety of its five-to-six hour duration. During their journey, players will encounter such memorable characters as an irritable, transmogrifying goat-man and a constantly intoxicated, fiery outlaw, and will clash with a wide variety of stupendously strange enemies, from bomb-throwing cacti to vicious, sombrero-wearing skeletons and beyond. 

Guacamelee!'s world and characters are brought to life by some fantastic, uniquely jagged, hand-drawn art. A few especially impressive backdrops are present, but the colorful, energetic visuals ensure that Guacamelee! never looks anything less than great — even if some of its animations are rather stilted. 

Complementing the wonderful graphics is a punchy, neo-Mexican score that contains some of the more memorable tracks in recent gaming memory. Beating up Guacamelee's bad guys feels great on its own, but it's even more fun to do so to the tune of infectiously catchy trumpet, guitar and vocal loops.

Which brings us to the next element that builds towards Guacamelee!'s ultimate success: its entertaining, deeply satisfying combat system. The game's combat is simplistic in nature. There are no pre-determined, hugely complex combo sequences to memorize. Players are given a string of basic light attacks, an uppercut, a suite of four basic special moves (though all four are not unlocked until near the end of the game), and the ability to grapple enemies and toss them across the stage — potentially into the faces of their cronies. The combat feels repetitive for the first hour or so of the experience, but once players begin to get the hang of the system, they are free to chain together their own creative combos on the fly.

What's wonderful about Guacamelee!'s combat is that no two enemy encounters play out in just the same way since players are constantly chaining their grapples, throws, and special moves in new ways to adapt to the myriad of battle scenarios that the game offers up. Mashing the ground pound and then following up with an uppercut might work when you're dealing with two burrowing enemies, but throw in a pair of flying bat creatures and a lunging, knife-wielding skeleton, and suddenly the player is forced to adapt and develop a new strategy. Spur-of-the-moment thinking is actively encouraged, keeping encounters diverse and unpredictable. 

The handful of boss fights are a highlight of the combat experience. They, unlike some of the game's other sections, are perfect examples of a high difficulty level done wonderfully right. Each of these fights requires careful examination of patterns and well-timed attacks, and most of them, especially the hugely challenging final boss fight, are bound to take players multiple tries to best. But every time I fell to a boss, I felt inspired to try my hand again, as I knew I'd be able to put knowledge from my previous attempt into practice and get little farther this time. 

The curve-ball that Guacamelee! throws players is its dark-world/light-world system, which allows players to alternate between two states of being that have the potential to reveal new elements of the environment or allow players to hit enemies that happen to be in one world or the other. This mechanic proves to be one of Guacemelee!'s stumbling blocks. Though it seems mostly present in order to construct devious platforming challenges for players to overcome, players are sometimes forced to switch between the dark and light worlds in order to take on groups and enemies that exist, in different proportions, in both worlds. The catch is that enemies in the dark world are still able to damage Juan, even if he's in the light, and vice versa, but Juan is not capable of attacking dark- and light-world enemies simultaneously, leading to the feeling that Guacamelee! doesn't entirely play by its own rules. Some enemy encounters become downright aggravating when players are backed into a corner and forced to contend with a bombardment of melee and ranged assaults from enemies of both worlds. Thankfully, these are few and far between; Guacamelee! usually plays fair enough to convince players that death comes thanks to an error on their own part.

The light-world/dark-world mechanic is put to better use in Guacamelee!'s platforming challenges. The game's movement mechanics don't always feel tight enough to effectively execute the required actions with the necessary level of precision, but all of the challenges are do-able, and many are quite creative. Players are put in a variety of jump/dash/sprint scenarios that should test the reflexes of even the most seasoned platforming vets — and sometimes take Juan off his feet altogether. Still, the platforming sections aren't as satisfying as their combat-oriented counterparts, which can lead to the feeling that each platforming segment is simply buying time until the following moment of exhilarating beat-em-up action.

This sentiment feels like an accurate summation of the entirety of the Guacamelee! experience. Though the game's disparate elements do not ultimately contribute towards a mechanically cohesive whole, Guacamelee's strengths are great enough, and its style exuberant enough, to mostly overshadow its flaws.

Verdict: 3.5/5 stars

‘Iron Banner’ largely disappoints

One of the most widespread complaints about the multiplayer in Destiny, Bungie's latest blockbuster title, was that it stripped players of the sought-after loot that made your character feel like a bad-ass.

That legendary sniper rifle it took you fifteen bouts with a Vex boss on Venus to obtain? Bungie nerfed it to even the playing field for level 5s and level 30s alike, rendering your machine of death to nothing more than a nice cosmetic blip on your vanquished enemies' kill screens.

Bungie promised to do away with that feeling of dissatisfaction in this week's ongoing event, the Iron Banner. Better loot would equal a supreme tactical advantage in Lord Saladin's war games challenge, the developers promised.

Bungie promised gear would equate with victory in The Iron Banner.

The truth? Skill still trumps gear, and while that's OK for the casual player, the game types offered and the way progression was rewarded kept the Iron Banner from being the truly great competitive multiplayer mode Destiny needs to lengthen its shelf life.

I won't pretend I'm a master FPS competitive gamer. My best fragging matches came with Call of Duty's Modern Warfare 2, when I become more comfortable with a SPAS shotgun than my own toothbrush. Bungie games have never really been my strength - not since the three-shot pistol of Halo:CE became a thing of the past.

But Destiny just feels rights in these well-worn shooter palms. The auto rifle is satisfying, and has just enough kick to land headshots rather easily if you know where on the neck to point your sights. I've had matches where my kill-to-death ratio was well over 4, in spite of myself.

The Iron Banner, however, is a different monster. And it's not for the advertised reason.

A playlist made exclusively of “Control” matches, which pit two teams of six players against each other vying for the same three zones that add multipliers to points for kills, comprises The Iron Banner. You earn reputation for the Iron Banner just as you would any other faction in the game's Tower overworld, and there are Crucible-specific Bounties which add to your progression.

The problem is that this progression only occurs when you emerge victorious from a match, which can make playing without a dedicated group of friends a bit of a slog. The community hasn't quite figured out exactly how to handle the “Control” play type, and most of the time I found myself without a team of dedicated players who knew the dynamic of the maps to maximize kill scores.

Losing would be fine. I anticipate losing when I play online shooters. But when there's no reputation incentive to stick around for a match that's lost, many players will simply jump ship when things look rough, leaving a few dedicated players to get slaughtered by an overwhelming adversary. Making this phenomenon worse is that Bungie doesn't seem to have figured out how to let players join open Iron Banner games until late in the week. Finally on Saturday and Sunday, I started seeing new players populate matches that weren't going my way.

The Iron Banner's second sin is that gear simply doesn't amount to a sizeable advantage in battle. My Level 24 Titan was defeated by rank 6 guardians and defeated rank 29 guardians with similar frequency. The Iron Banner should be a playlist that attracts only the most dedicated Crucible players. It should also deviate from the general pattern-based gameplay of normal Crucible matches: try to string kills to unlock your super ability and attain heavy weapon ammunition, lay waste to the opposing team and repeat.

But the Iron Banner felt far too much like normal Crucible matches, with normal Crucible rewards.

Bungie seems to be listening to criticism by its fan base and promises further tweaks to the game type in future updates. But for a game that's looking for an identity, or a singular game mode to establish an identity around, the Iron Banner simply isn't it.

What is Destiny’s destiny? A review of Bungie’s latest

Title: Destiny
Genre: First-person “persistent online shooter”
Platform Reviewed On: Playstation 4
Developer: Bungie
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: Sept. 9, 2014

Researchers have established a link between visual cues and chemical responses in certain areas of a gamer's brain. It's these reactions that make us sign up for another round of Call of Duty multiplayer, just to unlock that next killstreak or weapon. The release of endorphins causes the Halo: Combat Evolved player to risk close-quarter dismemberment simply to run up behind an unsuspecting opponent and strike them in the back of the head with a satisfying, one-hit-kill “thwack” from the pistol, and there is science behind that giddy squeal that jumps from your lips when you open a chest of rarefied loot in the Borderlands series.

Destiny, Halo-creator Bungie's latest foray into console gaming, succeeds in lighting up these areas of the brain with spectacular frequency and diversity. But much like an 8th-grade science project, chemical reactions alone does not a winning, AAA-title make.

While the gameplay is simple to pick up for anyone who's jumped into a console first-person shooter in the past 15 years, Destiny promises you more from the outset. You're constantly online, tasked in the campaign with protecting Earth from encroaching alien threats as a “Guardian,” a futuristic space marine powered by the presence of light. That's about all the exposition you're going to get. You have a fine robotic companion voiced by Peter Dinklage to give you the nuts and bolts of why you're shooting a particular set of enemies. But really, the rinse-and-repeat level design and addictive pursuit of better weapons and armor will keep you slogging forward, rather than a great narrative experience from Bungie.

Character advancement screen
Expect constant updates on your character's progress as Destiny plays out.

The world is populated by other human-controlled characters in deference to the game's massively multiplayer online game aspirations. These are the most thrilling moments of Destiny. Even if you haven't got friends to play with, you'll be thrown into the same overworld map (confined currently to Earth, the Moon, Venus, Mars and an asteroid field) with other human-controlled characters and occasionally you'll be thrown together to fight a common, massive and bullet-munching boss. These random encounters cause organic moments of teamwork and strategy that elevate Destiny above its bare-bones presentation and oft-repetitive gameplay.

The most important parts of Destiny are great. Gunplay is satisfying and diverse. Despite the open-world setting, enemies will react intelligently to your tactics and you never feel as though you're an overpowered god on the battlefield, in spite of constant loot drops and character upgrades. The tight gameplay begs additional playthroughs as each of the game's three classes, which only slightly change the way you'll play the game.

A screenshot of a Guardian looking at Earth from the Moon's surface.
Space…Bungie's first frontier. And man do they know it well.

The multiplayer suite is robust, as you'd expect in an online game, but those looking for a Halo-like competitive experience will be disappointed. The Crucible, Destiny's form of player v. player (PVP) combat, is woefully lacking in options at present and doesn't allow private lobbies for friends to team up. The map selection is also currently scant. If you play for more than an hour, you're going to be repeating maps several times. It's a testament to Bungie's longstanding expertise in crafting solid multiplayer maps that this repetition does not significantly detract from the experience.

In short, Destiny is going to scratch your first-person shooting, role-playing-game and massive-multiplayer-online gaming itches. But for how long, and to what extent, largely depends on your expectations and Bungie's continued commitment to adding new content.

Verdict: 3.5/5 stars

First reactions about today’s Apple live event

Meh.

The iPhone 6 looks cool, with its rounded glass. The 6+ is big, approaching Phablet territory. Meh.

The operating system was already announced at the last Apple event, so meh.

The watch looks rad, but if you thought the iPhone was elitist… Meh.

Combine all that “meh” with the single worst Apple live stream I've ever seen (BLACKING OUT at the “one last thing”?!! I mean, come on,) and you have probably the most disappointing Apple event I've ever seen.

Meh.

Tabs for the week

Last week was low on tabs, high on action. Check them out.

http://www.nwprepsnow.com/almanac/

Most of last week was spent working on NWPrepsNow.com, the collaborative Spokane-area high-school sports site that combine's the SR's text and photos with KHQ/SWX's video coverage. It's a pretty cool site, if high school sports is your thing. We've once again expanded our coverage by creating our new preps almanac with stats and standings, facts and figures going all the way back to the early 20th century. A lot of the data came from a gentleman named Bill Pierce who's been recording GSL stats live and via our archives for probably as long as I've been alive, so hats off to that guy :)

http://twister.net.co/
http://storj.io/

The blockchain is coming. Or something like that. The crypto and distributed consensus systems popularized by Bitcoin are going to take over the world. We're looking at the next generation of web technology, and it is sweeping up under us without most people even being aware of it. If you want to know where the internet is going, look no further than these two examples of rad technology that are pushing the boundaries.

http://162.243.200.205/

If you ever played Metroid, essentially any version, then you'll totally dig this map. Someone on #IRC shared it, and I don't know who created it or how long it will stay up, but I'd love to do something like this some day.

http://hackaday.com/2012/06/20/getting-root-on-a-sony-tv/

I have a Sony Bravia TV, and the built-in user interface is a low-resolution piece of junk. The screen itself is awesome and hi-def, so I don't know how/why it got shipped with a fuzzy, gross looking UI. As it turns out, Bravia TVs run on Linux, which means there might be some hope for it yet.

https://tails.boum.org/index.en.html

Want to use the same OS that Snowden used/uses? You need to check out Tails, a live OS that you boot from disk or thumb drive. It will work from any machine and allows you to conduct your business without leaving a trace on the host computer. Internet is run through TOR, and all the crypto you could need comes batteries included.

‘The Last of Us’ is art, don’t call it a game

Title: The Last of Us: Remastered
Genre: Cover-based stealth shooter
Platform reviewed on: Playstation 4
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Release Date: July 29, 2014

Acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert once (in)famously said, “Video games will never be art.” He clarified those statements in a 2010 blog post, saying, “Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.”

With 'The Last of Us,' Naughty Dog retorts with, “Mr. Ebert – respectfully – shove it.”

It's not that 'The Last of Us' does anything particularly new. Its zombie apocalypse story and decaying wasteland backdrop of a dying America might be called trite by the most cynical among us, given the proliferation of games like Fallout, Left 4 Dead, The Walking Dead and DayZ. The gameplay leans heavily on Naughty Dog's money franchise, The Uncharted series, and its stealth and puzzle-solving components are certainly no more robust than other standouts in those franchises.

What makes 'The Last of Us' a masterpiece – and the greatest video game I have ever played – is the sum of its parts.

Joel gazes at a water tower in 'The Last of Us: Remastered'
You're going to want to stop and enjoy the native 1080p display.

You play (for the most part) as Joel, an aging smuggler who is haunted by the death of his young daughter in the game's harrowing opening moments, just as the “infection” that we've come to understand as the zombification of the world is taking hold in Austin, Texas. Quickly in the proceedings, you'll meet Ellie – a 14-year-old girl who is immune to the virus that's turning everyone into a brain-sucking monster, slowly but surely.

You're outmatched in 'The Last of Us,' whether you're battling infected, bandits or soldiers. Bullets are scarce, health packs must be crafted and if you're spotted in open combat with multiple foes, you're going to die in spectacularly gory ways. This is a mature game, for more than just its grown-up story.

Joel and Ellie share a moment in 'The Last of Us: Remastered'
Your relationship with Ellie will evolve throughout the game.

Naughty Dog challenges every trope of video games that we've come to hold dear: clear themes of good vs. evil, 'winning' and attaining a conclusion that rewards diligent gameplay. You may hope that you can shape the narrative of Joel and Ellie through your choices, but the developers rob you of such a satisfying ending. Without giving anything away, in the end you'll wonder if your quest was worth it, and if the characters you'd grown to love were really worthy of that affection.

But that's the reason you should play 'The Last of Us.' It is less a “game” than an emotional experience that will challenge everything you know about the medium. It's also a hell of a lot of fun, and now that it's been re-released in a high-definition package with all the downloadable content to date and spiffy new graphics for $50, there's no reason not to pick it up. As a matter of fact, stop reading. Go play it.

Ellie pets a giraffe in 'The Last of Us'
The game's quiet moments will bring a tear to your eye.

Here's a bonus look at the multiplayer in The Last of Us: Remastered, which is also top-notch.

Verdict: 5/5 stars

Tabs for the week

Last week's tabs development heavy, since it's been crunch time here for a few projects. I'm also posting them late, for the same reasons. Anyway, check 'em out:

Celery is a Python script we use here at the Spokesman to perform various tasks in the background. I haven't needed to mess with it before, but last week I wrote an auto tweet app that will post the finals game scores for our high school sports site, and I wanted it to not block the __save() method on our games model, so that's an ideal use for a Celery task. Long story short, we're using a slightly older version of Celery and we don't have the greatest internal documentation on our setup so I had to do some Googling. Got it to work though, so if you follow @nwprepsnow on Twitter, you'll see game scores as soon as someone hits “done” on a game.

Two presentations on how to develop code like a Python developer and not a Java developer. Jack Diederich's presentation at PyCon 2012 is inspiring to me as a programmer because he boils down some fundamental philosophies in Python that really resonate with me: ship less code, use less classes, don't write your own exceptions. Raymond Hettinger's presentation (also a link to his slides) is fantastic in that it shows you tricks and stdlib tools to not only make your code more beautiful, but also easier to read and more performant. Both are absolutely essential, IMO.

I have this idea about using the/a bitcoin blockchain as a distributed, censorship free bookmarking service that could be used to not only sync your bookmarks across browsers, but also to create a global directory of all the links. ALL the links. Turns out, the Bitcoin protocol is… above my pay grade? Yeah, I'm just going to go with that. It's deep, difficult crypto/maths stuff that, although certainly interesting and important, is really hard to fully grasp.

I honestly don't know how I get on some of these pages, but if you wanted to purchase a manly gift for someone, any one of these would be super rad. Hint hint. Not so subtle hint, someone buy me these things.

That's it for last week, stay tuned for more!

We’ve seen games like ‘Second Son’ before, but not this pretty

Title: Infamous: Second Son
Genre: Open-world action
Platform reviewed on: Playstation 4
Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Release Date: March 21, 2014


Enjoy your powers in Infamous: Second Son.

With the promise of the next generation of console gaming comes the anticipation of a game utterly unlike anything you've played before. We expect deeper, more engrossing narratives coupled with intuitive gameplay overhauls that just may you sit back, sigh, and wonder how you ever got by with two buttons on an NES controller.
 
'Infamous: Second Son' doesn't do that. It merely takes a franchise that was a standout experience on the last generation, gives it a spit-shine and an interesting new set of characters and abilities. But while it doesn't push gaming forward in any way, it's still one hell of a good time.
 
The story sucks you in immediately. You're Delsin Rowe, a member of the Akomish tribe whose past is clearly checkered. The player is immediately introduced to the spray-tagging mechanic, a nice use of the DualShock 4's motion sensing and built-in sound system. While motion detection and the controller's touchpad are nothing more than gimmicks at this point in the PS4's life cycle, they're used to good effect in 'Second Son,' immersing you further into the game world without becoming too much of a hindrance.
 


Boss battles are infrequent, but they do break up the open-world gameplay of 'Second Son.'

From there, you're off on the grandest of the game's many fetch quests. You must attain cement-altering powers from the game's main antagonist: Brooke Augustine. As the leader of the Department of Unified Protection who has captured all of the element-controlling superheroes known as “Conduits” (or Bio-Terrorists) in the game world, Augustine has made Seattle her base of operations. You'll have a blast shredding it to pieces with smoke, neon and video powers, each with its own set of visual and combat goodies.
 
Seattle looks gorgeous, Delsin's character is incredibly detailed (down to the buttons on his denim jacket) and you'll want to stop on a rooftop all Batman-like and watch residents go about their day in a society on the brink of dystopia. In particular, Delsin's relationship with his sheriff's deputy brother, Reggie, is a high point in the game. These guys feel like brothers, and when the weight of the narrative gets too heavy, they're bantering always brings it back to a lighthearted spot.
 
Delsin and Reggie drive to Seattle to fight Augustine and the D.U.P.
The highlight of the game's story is the relationship between Delsin and his brother, Reggie.
Combat, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. Delsin becomes much too powerful as the game progresses. Unlocking a “karmic streak,” or Delsin's version of a power attack, for the neon power is dangerously close to game-breaking.
 
The game rushes to an inevitable showdown with Augustine. It packs a wallop and ingeniously includes the “learning a new power” schtick in the final boss battle that makes Delsin feel like a badass. Getting there, however, is another story. Expect some frustrating falls during the parkour that lead to “Game Over” screens.
 
Infamous: Second Son is the first truly exclusive, next-gen game on the PS4. For that reason alone, I recommend playing the title. But it isn't the huge leap forward in terms of gameplay you'd expect from a next-gen game. It's a better-than-average open world game designed with the last generation in mind that looks simply stunning and is written by people who understand the power of video-game storytelling. I recommend a bargain-bin purchase.
 
Verdict: 3.5/5 stars

iPhone 6 LEAKED

This is amazing. The new iPhone 6 was leaked and disassembled to see what was inside. This guy is sure to be blacklisted, similar to what happened to the Gawker dude.

 

‘FEZ’ takes players on perspective-altering journey

Title: FEZ
Genre: Puzzle/platformer
Platform reviewed on: Playstation 4
Developer: Polytron Corporation
Publisher: Polytron Corporation/Trapdoor
Release date (original): April 13, 2012

 


A little taste of the superb level design in 'FEZ.'

The resurgence of the platform genre can be attributed to the rise of the independent developer and the insatiable nostalgia of the modern gamer. 'FEZ,' from the somewhat schizophrenic mind of Phil Fish, plays on both of those themes to construct an experience that is as mind-bending as it is accessible, even if its physics hold it back from greatness.

You play as Gomez, a marshmallow-looking protagonist. Our only clues to his existence are his two-dimensional build and his penchant for the drums. Early in the proceedings, you're granted the titular “fez” by a nice old man who wants you to throw your entire world into a fit in order to save it. Once the fez is on your head, Gomez has the ability to shift the perspective, which the gamer accomplishes by hitting the trigger buttons of the controller. This causes the three-dimensional world to spin on its axis, revealing another two-dimensional plane that Gomez must then traverse in pursuit of yellow, phosphorescent cubes that will save the world from imploding on itself.

That's it. You now know what 'FEZ' is all about.


Have you ever had this level of joy, ever, in your life?

But, like Texas Hold 'Em, 'FEZ' will take you seconds to learn and much longer to master. Thankfully, trial and error is rewarded in the game, as falling off a ledge or a distance that Gomez can't stomach – death in most platformers – simply ends in you respawning within seconds at the point where you launched on your last, unsuccessful jump.

The level design in 'FEZ' is brilliant. You'll never find yourself in the same atmosphere for very long, and well-placed 'warp gates' that send you to hubs in the overworld keep things from devolving into monotonous back-tracking. In addition, 'FEZ' is chock-full of secrets and collectibles that beg experimentation, rather than simply looking up the solutions online.


Quoth the raven…

Where 'FEZ' falls short is in perhaps the most important of platforming features, and that is in tight gameplay. Gomez's momentum feels a tad off, and what he possesses in cuteness he lacks in responsiveness. Jumping takes a while to get used to, even to those who have wasted hours on Mario, Sonic and the like. 'FEZ' falls well short of the other great puzzle-platformer of the past generation, 'Splosion Man,' which features a protagonist that handles like an absolute dream.

Also lacking in 'FEZ' is any sort of story whatsoever. You'll complete the game and be treated to a trippy sequence that will cause your 'Matrix' sense to tingle, but alas, there's no all-important reveal to be had here (at least, not in your first playthrough). There's a new game plus option, which is laudable. But without a platinum trophy, I really have no desire to go through the game's seven hours again – even with the promise of puzzles that can only be solved the second time around.


Things get weird in the final act of 'FEZ.'

Verdict: 3.5/5 stars

Tabs for the week

Welcome to the new feature I'm adding to the Tech Deck called “Dan Gayle's Tabs for the Week,” where I'll share the best of all the Firefox tabs I have open by the end of the week. A lot of the links shamelessly come from Hacker News, others come from Twitter/FB/Reddit, others come from Googling, and others just magically appear somehow. It's a sickness I have, which…

On to the links!

http://www.rtl-sdr.com/about-rtl-sdr/
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009U7WZCA/

Thanks to Mike Tigas, I think, this combination of software and hardware allows you to create a rad software defined radio that allows you to pick up everything transmitted through the air as radio waves: Police, air-traffic control, baby monitors, weather balloon data, International Space Station chatter, everything. It's actually kind of scary.

 

https://aralbalkan.com/2891/
http://stackoverflow.com/questions/10228760/fix-a-git-detached-head

I've been having all sorts of git issues this week. Detached heads, merge conflicts, working on the wrong branch, you name it. It doesn't happen all the time, but it's one of those things that no matter how many times you run into it, you still end up googling it. Especially if you've been a good git'r and haven't dealt with those issues in weeks/months.

 

http://carlgroner.me/Python/2011/11/09/An-Introduction-to-List-Comprehensions-in-Python.html
http://scottsievert.github.io/blog/2014/07/30/simple-python-parallelism/
http://www.rafekettler.com/magicmethods.html
http://stackoverflow.com/questions/101268/hidden-features-of-python

I love Python. There's always something to learn, some feature that makes it easy for you to condense your jillions of lines of code down to an elegant and pythonic handful. For instance, the list comprehension link there. I know how to use list comprehensions, but I forgot the order of nested loops. While it can get a bit obtuse, it can really simplify and speed up your code. All the links featured here are great resources to learn some useful Python.

 

https://github.com/c-w/Gutenberg

Oh my goodness, this is awesome. The Project Gutenberg hosts all the classic public domain texts, all the Shakespeare, all the Kafka, all the everything. This python package is an interface to the entire library for use in natural language processing with something like TextBlob, which is a fantastically simple NLP library. Or you can use it to simply download the text of cool old books. Your call.

 

http://www.homelessfonts.org/

They take the handwriting of homeless people, turn it into a font, sell the font, give the money to the homeless people. Such a cool and useful concept.

 

http://myrtlestreet.blogspot.com/2011/05/are-finnish-people-asian.html?showComment=1328561490244#c6707542099362105290

This is my favorite link in here. The topic is interesting, debating if Finnish people (like myself) are essentially Mongolians. But scroll down to the comments to Anonymous. The comment starts out simple, talking about the history of the Finns in the modern era and diving a little into the genetics of Finns.

But then…

But at end of last Ice Age Finns and many related Finnic tribes and Finno-Ugric tribes did not live up north near vicinity of area that became Finland. For in 11000 BC the north was covered by Gaciers. In fact in 11000 BC light-pigmented Finnic tribes lived in the northern part of Africa and The Near East.

In Egypt they built the Great Pyramid: It was a “Pyora mittaja” or stone pyramid sky wheel measurer with shafts that measured rate of rotation of 12 night star zodiac patterns—25,920 yrs for all to make one full revolution.

And Jesus was not a Jew. His mother tongue was a Finnic tongue like Finnish. And this is why so few words that Jesus spoke were ever written down by Romans and Greeks.

In fact Biblical Scholars have always wondered why only a few words that Jesus spoke were actually written down. The reason was because the Romans and the Greeks did not understand the mother tongue of Jesus—in which he and God spoke to the local natives; the indigenous people. To be understood by the original natives living in Egypt and the Near East it was necessary that God and Jesus spoke in a Finnic tongue(s).

Words cannot describe my confusion. I've seen some cray-cray religious thoughts, but this is most certainly the most interesting.


There you have it. The best of my tabs for the week. I have a bunch more having to do with Celery/Django Celery, but I'm seriously pissed off at that right now and I don't want to talk about it.

Fallon frags Bond in ‘Goldeneye’

Do you remember those long nights in grade/secondary/high school spent gripping a sweat-drenched Nintendo 64 controller, peppering your buddies with paintballs of death while screaming at their selection of 'Oddjob'?

If so, this video of Jimmy Fallon from 'The Tonight Show' schooling Pierce Brosnan, AKA Bond 5 (depending on what you consider James Bond silver screen canon), in the game bearing his likeness might be for you.

 


  

Fallon, an avid gamer, should get some extra points, I think, for slaying Bond using the lowly DD44 Dostovei. He picks up the RC-P90 but presumably wants the flashier handgun kill. Brosnan seems to think he's playing “Slappers Only” with “Licensed to Kill” on, as you hear him talking about the one-hit kill with the fist early in the video. I think the actor knows more about the game than he's letting on.

What's your favorite memory of 'Goldeneye,' widely proclaimed as one of the best first-person shooters ever to grace consoles?

Facebook messenger isn’t the devil for the reasons you think it is

Thanks to Fox News, there is mass hysteria about the Facebook Messenger app being the Worst Thing Ever™, which is silly. The ruckus is all about how the app asks for all sorts of permissions to use the camera on your phone or access your contacts and other assorted permissions.

Now, I'm not one to tell you that Facebook isn't evil. It is, for all sorts of anti-big-corporation, anti-privacy reasons you can Google on your own. It's just not evil in the way that the fear-mongers are espousing all over the internet. (Ironically, it appears that most of the fear mongering is happening on a certain social platform that… I mean come on people. Put your money where your mouth is.)

Here is what you need to know about the Facebook Messenger app:

1) The permissions it asks for are basic to the functionality of the app. Without granting those permissions, why did you even download it? If you want to share photos with your friends via messages, guess what, the app needs permission on an operating system level to even access those photos to begin with. Same with video, same with audio, same with all the other features. On iOS, if you don't grant those permissions (which are enabled on a per-function basis, unlike Android's all-or-nothing approach), your app is a brick.

2) The permissions it asks for are the same permissions that literally every other app on your phone requests. Need to edit a photo with Camera+? Need to grant it permissions. Want to send an email with the Gmail app to someone in your contacts list? Need to grant it permissions.

3) Facebook's terms of use and privacy are exactly the same across all their apps and across their entire platform. In fact, if you already were using the Facebook app for messaging prior to using Facebook Messenger, then you've already given up your firstborn child, your blood type and your life essence to El Diablo in exchange for looking at funny cat photos.

Speaking of funny cat pics:

4) No, Facebook isn't secretly using your camera to stalk you when you're not using your phone. The fear mongers hint at it, but they won't quite come out and say it. Because it's not true. Stop it.

Now, one thing I should note is that although I have issues with Facebook, I actually really like the Facebook Messenger app. It's fast, allows me to send audio messages (which was amazing when my girlfriend was in Ireland), and works like a charm. Facebook is of course processing everything we type, but they were doing that anyway, regardless of which app I was using.

War is pretty and conventional in ‘Battlefield 4’

Title: Battlefield 4
Genre: First-person shooter
Platform reviewed on: Playstation 4
Developer: EA Digital Illusions CE (DICE)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: October 29, 2013


Watch Kip play (miserably) a portion of 'Battlefield 4.' 

If the “Fallout” series teaches us that war never changes, the “Battlefield” series' message is “war is constantly changing, and we're going to make it look as pretty and chaotic as possible.”

Battlefield 4, the latest entry in the series, is no exception, especially on the Rolls Royce of the latest generation of consoles, the Playstation 4. This review would have come quicker if there weren't a host of game-breaking bugs that plagued both the single- and multiplayer modes on consoles. Most of those issues have been ironed out, finally, and I'm happy to say Battlefield 4 is a passable way to kill in high definition.

You'll be buying Battlefield 4 for the multiplayer, however. The single-player campaign shoots (no pun intended) to mimic the high cinematic production values and frenetic pace of EA's main competitor, the “Call of Duty” franchise. As it stands, the ridiculous plot is laughably short, even by modern first-person standards (you'll complete the game's six missions – that's right, 6 – within a span of 8 hours on normal difficulty).


It always helps to have a little superior firepower.

There's barely enough time to gain attachment to your squad, though DICE pulled out the stops and hired Michael Kenneth Williams of “The Wire” (Omar) and “Boardwalk Empire” (Chalky White) fame to lend his likeness and voice to Irish, who becomes a blithering crybaby early in the proceedings.

The conceit is standard for the genre; you're a highly trained Marine on a top-secret mission to prevent the Chinese, the Russians and basically every other gas-masked, cigarette-smoking baddie from seizing control of a Chinese civil war and plunging the entire world into chaos. It sounds much cooler than it is. Most of the time you'll be watching Irish and Hannah (a Chinese intelligence officer who the writers give a lot of secrets that are never revealed) curse at each other as various clingers-on get sent to their grisly deaths.

Michael Kenneth Williams plays Irish in "Battlefield 4"
The character models are gorgeous and true-to-life.

This would be excusable if the game didn't try to shoehorn drama by making you pick which of these characters will become a martyr in the game's final act. And I'm not spoiling anything for you by saying so that isn't already broadcast by the title's very public online trophy list.

Gunplay is satisfying. An impressive arsenal of weaponry looks, sounds and feels authentic, and you'll unlock even more interesting equipment as you push forward in the campaign. There's also a scoring system so you can compare your shooting-gallery abilities with your friends. The AI is passable, though on the easier difficulty settings they'll basically sit down and beg you to pump them full of lead.

The real reason to play any Battlefield game is the multiplayer, and 4 delivers in spades on Playstation 4. Though there are a dizzying amount of game modes, Conquest is where you'll want to spend most of your time. The developers through jets, tanks, seacraft and ATVs at you to span massive maps with 63 other players. That's right; 64 players can go at it online in a slugfest whose scope is positively dizzying. If close-quarters combat is more your style, there are deathmatches and skirmishes that bring that number (and associated vehicles) down to a more manageable number.


The occasional graphical glitch (like disappearing Irish) is to be expected in a game this pretty.

Battlefield 4 is a mismatch of a potential scope-busting console first-person shooter in its multiplayer and a single-player campaign that isn't quite ready to compete with the big boys in wartime storytelling. Still, those who can't get enough of aiming down their sights should give this one a try.

Verdict: 2.5 / 5 stars

Charlie Murder is a hell-raising good time

Title: Charlie Murder
Genre: Beat ‘em up
Platform reviewed on: Xbox 360
Developer: Ska Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: August 14, 2013

My education in the side-scrolling beat ‘em up began, as most children of the ‘90s, with the spritely “Final Fight” for Super Nintendo.
There’s something incredibly satisfying about playing as an elected official – Mike Haggar, the suspendered mayor of Metro City – beating the unholy snot out of street punks. Metro City is apparently a jurisdiction where due process and reactive policing got lost somewhere in the municipal codes.

The fun of Final Fight led to other classics of the genre. Two stick out in my mind: the brilliant “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time” and 1989’s “River City Ransom.”

Turtles in Time screen
If this doesn't give you the warm fuzzies, we have nothing more to talk about.

Ska Games’ “Charlie Murder” is a love song more to the second title, with this generation’s obligatory inclusion of role-playing progression and in-game economy. (As an aside, is there any title we shouldn’t expect to have some RPG elements in the future? We’re two titles away from Mario earning extra ‘jump’ stats for every Goomba he squashes.) But it’s as much fun, and tells as compelling a story, as Konami’s most-celebrated ode to the heroes in a half-shell.

You begin dead. To learn the mechanics of the game, you’re in the “Netherworld” fighting back an unending horde of zombies. The game’s visceral aesthetic and tight controls are on display immediately, immersing you in a rich overworld that draws obvious influences from Tim Burton, Don Hertzfeldt and Ska Studio’s previous brilliant button-masher, The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai.

Charlie Murder title screen
Stand up and be counted, for what you are about to receive.

As it turns out, you (no matter which character you play as, each with their own distinctive style – I chose frontman Charlie, because chicks dig the lead singer) were killed by the bandmates of your nemesis, Paul, who was kicked out of Charlie Murder just before they hit it big. Now, he’s exacting revenge as “Lord Mortimer.”

The story is told through a series of Tarantino-like flashbacks, indicating just how things went so wrong between Charlie and Paul. They’re light-hearted, though darkly demented, affairs, which give ‘Charlie Murder’ the game a little more substance than the Final Fight/Double Dragon trope of a kidnapped girlfriend.


Even in video games, the craft beer craze is unavoidable.

  

Level design in ‘Charlie Murder’ is top notch, switching you on the fly from regular brawling, to puzzle-solving, to rhythm-based challenges, and back again. The in-game economy is fun, and combat is satisfying, offering you the perfect amount of variety that necessitates strategy, rather than simple mashing. The same is true of boss fights, which are mostly old-school encounters requiring you to memorize a pattern in order to survive. And, like most brawlers, ‘Charlie Murder’ is most fun with friends playing by your side.

violent scene of video game violence
Yes, there's a reason this game is rated Mature.

As an Xbox Live/Playstation Network title, it’s tough not to recommend ‘Charlie Murder.’ It’s cheap, lengthy compared to other titles in the genre (you’ll spend about eight hours completing Charlie’s story) and the soundtrack is unique. My complaints have to do with the game's polish, which is not unexpected given this is a title from an indie developer.

Sprinting (you’ll have to build momentum before you can get your character to run) makes traversing large gameplay areas a slog. It also makes the platforming portions of Charlie Murder downright unplayable, in some instances. Surely in a game where you're mashing X a sprint button could have been easily mapped to the d-pad or triggers.


You have to respect a game with atmosphere that bleeds into the loading screen.

A wonky save system will spit you out only at random waypoints in the game world after death. At best, it's an annoyance. At worst, you're stuck watching the same cut-scene over and over again. The ability to use some sort of old-school continue system, replicating plunking quarters into a machine, would make for a much smoother beat ‘em up experience.

This is all nitpicking, though. Go pick up Charlie Murder, a sixer and some friends. You won’t be disappointed.

Verdict: 4/5 stars

Why are we surprised by ‘Guardians’ success?

An unlikely hero, robbed of his parents and an identity, rises from obscurity to lead an intergalactic band of misfits to save the universe. Wise-cracking sidekicks, inspired by money, fame and revenge, join our reluctant hero against seemingly insurmountable odds. All of this occurs to an ass-kicking score and the perfect blend of action, comedy and adventure to make the science fiction tale behind it all immediately accessible to members of all demographics.

Should it surprise anyone that ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ Marvel’s latest massively successful foray into the world of cinema, posted George Lucas-like numbers this weekend?

This is not to take away from the creative storytelling of James Gunn and his co-writers. But the prevailing wisdom entering last weekend’s record-breaking haul was that digging deep into Marvel’s stable of characters and pulling out a talking raccoon and tree amounted to a massive gamble by the studio that can seemingly do no wrong.


Even Spokane7 was skeptical that 'Guardians' could draw a mainstream audience.

You can attribute the success of the film to brilliant marketing, the unbridled charisma of Hollywood’s latest “it” action/comedy actor in Chris Pratt (whose portrayal of Peter “Star Lord” Quill is already drawing comparisons to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo) or the name recognition of the greatest thing going in comic book movies right now. Understand, that’s tough for me to say as a DC Comics fanboy ever since I first picked up Alan Moore’s “For the Man Who Has Everything” in the early 1990s.

But really, why were we all so blown away by Guardians’ success? We’ve seen the template before. Throw some fresh paint on it, add in the deep Marvel cosmic mythos that has only been tapped at the most shallow level by ‘Guardians,’ and make sure your ensemble cast is rounded out by likeable character actors like Bradley Cooper, John C. Reilly and Glenn freakin’ Close, and is it any wonder this movie turned out to be the sleeper hit of the summer?

Dead story, single player in ‘Dead Island’

Title: 'Dead Island'
Platform reviewed on: Xbox 360
Developer: Techland
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release Date: September 6, 2011

It's a truism of post-apocalyptic zombie lore: Stay in a group, or your brain will be eaten.

That same can be said when playing Techland's action-adventure role playing game, Dead Island. Placing you in a first-person perspective against the shuffling (and sometimes sprinting) dead, you assume the role of one of four survivors on the fictional island getaway of Banoi. For some reason, you don't turn when you're bitten, meaning you have value to the other humans who don't have an insatiable desire for gray matter.

A walker is about to get sliced.
Step closer to my blade, young walker.

If you play alone, Dead Island will quickly become a frustrating slog through admittedly gorgeous vistas overrun with zombies. An arsenal of interesting weaponry will be at your disposal, a la another favorite of the console zombie gamer, Dead Rising. Indeed, there are many ways out there to pick up a controller and slaughter hordes of the undead. In such a crowded marketplace, a new title has to do something that sets it apart.

Unfortunately, 'Dead Island' does nothing that hasn't been done before, and much better, by other games in the genre.


Svetlana wants champagne. Because what would a post-apocalyptic RPG be without banal fetch quests?

If narrative is your thing, you'd be better off playing Telltale Games' brilliant 'Walking Dead' adaptation. 'Dead Island' tries to touch on the human cost of a zombie apocalypse, but its efforts fall flat when characters are introduced and discarded with just as quickly. You'll meet several groups of people worth saving throughout the 20+ hours you'll spend on Banoi. But the game rushes to a dissatisfying end that any gamer not a zombie to poor storytelling will see coming a mile away.


I'm going to assume this guy is my enemy, because he's pointing a gun at me. But honestly I lost interest in the plot 15 hours ago.

The weaponry in 'Dead Island' is diverse and satisfying, but doesn't do anything we haven't seen before. You can modify machetes, katanas and even brass knuckles at work benches scattered throughout the open world, as well as repair your arsenal that deteriorates with every successful, sloshy strike. You'll find one decent weapon as you level up (that's right, expect to earn XP for killing those brainless biting bastards) and stick with it, if you play anything like me, rendering the discovery of new weapons less exciting than it should be. As I said, Dead Rising's done this before, and to much greater comedic effect, so there's not much here you likely already haven't seen already.


If you don't keep that machete in good working order, it won't cut through brains like a hot knife through butter.

Enemy variation is another department in which 'Dead Island' woefully falls behind its competitors. Valve's brilliant 'Left 4 Dead' series, which remains the gold standard for zombie slaying in this humble gamer's opinion, forces you to switch your play style on the fly as tanks, witches and hunters swarm you mercilessly. 'Dead Island' attempts to borrow from this formula, throwing several classes at you. But the walkers vary only in their speed from the infected, who will sprint at you with a Wilhelm scream that will tingle your spine. Rams are the chargers of 'Dead Island,' straitjacketed monstrosities that bowl you over with their sprinting. Thugs will swing their arms wildly at you, meaning you should keep your distance when engaging.

But none of these enemy types ever really change how you approach a situation. The difficulty in 'Dead Island' comes not from the type of enemies thrown at you, but their aggressiveness. That's too bad, because the game shows flashes of brilliance in early portions when you're rolling up to abandoned gas stations swarming with baddies and you have to use your head to clear them out, with combustible gas cans, electrified fences and other environmental hazards. The final act of 'Dead Island' takes place in a maximum security prison on the island that takes away player choice and turns the game into a corridor shooter/brawler, much to its detriment.

Finally, playing alone is simply not fun in 'Dead Island.' This is a game meant to be played in co-op, which makes Microsoft's decision to release it for free as part of its 'Games with Gold' promotion frustrating. If you don't have friends who are still interested in this now three-year-old title, I can't recommend even a free playthrough. There is no offline co-op, either, so you'll have to find a friend online or with a LAN cable who wants to join your game.


These facial expressions pretty much sum up how much fun you'll have playing 'Dead Island' alone.

Though closer to a B-movie than a Romero classic, somehow 'Dead Island' earned enough of a following to warrant a true sequel coming to this generation of consoles. Let's hope they get that offline co-op thing shored up. Let's also hope the developers realize the need to make some noise in a genre filled with a horde-like number of competitors.

Verdict: 2/5 stars

The Riker Lean

I did not know that this was a thing, but apparently this is a thing. The Riker Lean.

Who watches the ‘Watch Dogs’? A Review

Title: 'Watch Dogs'
Platform reviewed on: Playstation 4
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: May 27, 2014

If there's anything I've learned from two generations of open-world games, it's that they must do one of two things well to be successful:

1) establish a likeable, relatable main character that causes you to engage with the story; and/or
2) give you the freedom to wreak havoc to your wildest dreams.

Option #1 allowed me to overlook the stodgy Grand Theft Auto IV, with its overly realistic physics and boat-like car driving mechanics. Option #2 endears me to the Saint's Row series, which in spite of its insipid plots and screw you-attitude to telling a believable story, actually allowed you to blow feces on people in its second installment.

Of course, the classics of the genre - Grand Theft Auto 3, Grand Theft Auto 5, Fallout 3, etc. - do both things well, focusing things for a narrative thrill ride yet also unleashing the player to his or her own devices in a satisfying way.

Despite offering neither of these things, Watch Dogs - heralded as the first exploration of the open-world genre to take advantage of next gen architecture - stands as a decent open-world title, but nowhere near the top echelon of its predecessors.

You play as Aiden Pearce, a skilled hacker whose niece fell prey to some nasty dudes who were pissed about a botched heist you pulled a few months prior to the game's setting. You're out for revenge, but the revenge story never takes - mostly because Aiden isn't remotely the most interesting character in a cadre of roguish types.

Aiden Pearce checks his pockets outside the proxy for the Chicago Tribune tower in 'Watch Dogs.'

You'll spend a lot of your time as Aiden Pearce looking forlornly at gray buildings.

Pearce's sister and her son, Jackson, also are never fully fleshed out as believable characters. There's a Little Miss Sunshine-esque tinge to Jackson, who won't speak because of the trauma at seeing his kid sister die. He finally does speak to Aiden, in what is meant to be one of the game's many supposedly touching moments that just fall flat. The same goes for the love interest in the game, a goth-punk Englander named Clara, and another hacker you'll meet as the game goes along.

The villains aren't particularly memorable, either, though the game does allow you to take down one of them in a very unique way that takes advantage of the game's mind-numbingly simple hacking mechanic. There's one prevalent minigame that appears throughout the title for intruding certain systems, and it never reaches the level of real thought-provocation or (mercifully) annoyance.

The only character who really stands out as interesting is the mostly absent Jordi, another “fixer” who's in the game for the money, not the glory. He'll appear at times to offer comic relief, stealing the show in the process. He disappears for much of the game's final third, however, only to reappear in a scene that makes little sense, much to the game's detriment.

On the second option for greatness, Watch Dogs again fails. Car chases are made less fun by the inability to fire from the vehicle, a developer choice obviously meant to force the player to use the hacking mechanic to manipulate the environment. However, when you consider GTA3, released 13 years ago, enabled the player to fire out windows, it seems odd Ubisoft didn't offer that option in Watch Dogs. It becomes increasingly annoying when your pursuers will have passengers who can fire, but you cannot.

Watch Dogs essentially funnels you from one sandbox stealth moment to the next, and it's here that the game sets itself apart from other open-world titles. Stealth in Watch Dogs works, and it's a blast to infiltrate certain areas while trying to remain unseen. The brilliant line-of-sight mechanic allows Aiden to take out groups of enemies using explosives in the environment and carried on enemies to take out thugs without even firing a bullet. The game shines when it combines these stealth mechanics with, say, unlocking a CtOS tower, the operating system that runs a living, breathing Chicago and opens up new activities on the mini-map.

Ubisoft deserves much praise for creating Chicago in the game with a high degree of fidelity to the real thing. It's actually thrilling to lead cops on a chase through Millenium Park, past the Bean and around the Willis Tower. Major props are also in order for the City Hotspots, which act just like social media in the real world. Check-in with your phone to learn real historical facts about the places you visit, with a wry sense of humor from the game's writers.

Aiden Pearce visits a city hotspot in 'Watch Dogs.'

Aiden Pearce visits a 'City Hotspot' in 'Watch Dogs' for the Playstation 4.


Gunplay is also satisfying, though once you unlock the upper tier of weapons and max out your focus meter (the obligatory bullet-time mechanic in Watch Dogs), gunfights become needlessly simple. That is, unless there's a poorly designed mission flaw that will cause enemies to spawn behind you unannounced in certain sections of the game, and without a logical reason. One rooftop fight, in particular, made no sense to this player and led to frustrating mission restarts late in the game.

You could certainly do worse than picking up Watch Dogs. There's a meaty amount of content here that is satisfying to play, if not up to snuff in terms of its highest quality peers. The story opens the door for the obligatory sequel, since the title's already made oogles of dollars. Let's hope Ubisoft looks to the things that made past entries in the genre great - while remaining true to what sets Watch Dogs apart - in the next installment.

Verdict: 3.5/5 stars

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