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The Wolf Among Us Episode 2: Smoke and Mirrors | Review

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Platforms: Windows, Mac OS X, Xbox 360, PS3, IOS and PS Vita
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Rating: M (ESRB), M (ACB), 18 (PEGI)

So, after months of waiting, Episode Two of The Wolf Among us is finally here. I’ve spent the last hour or so playing it and all I have to say is…wow. Things sure escalated quickly, but man was that short!

For those of you who played Episode One of The Wolf Among Us, you’ll recall that our hero, Bigby Wolf, was tracking down suspects for a particularly nasty murder. Unfortunately, by the end of the previous episode, we ended up having more questions than answers. Thankfully things are a little bit clearer now, but there are plenty of questions that need answering, but we’ll leave that for a later date. First, we’ll get the obvious out of the way. As per Telltale Games’ usual methods, the storytelling in The Wolf Among Us Episode Two is fantastic. We played it start to finish in one go; no bathroom breaks, no snacks or anything. The episode is roughly an hour long but it answers plenty of questions that the previous instalment brought up.

Unfortunately, I can’t reveal too much about the story without spoiling it, but what I can tell you is that Bigby ends up finding connections from the prior murders to a missing persons case. This leads Bigby from a seedy bar, to a strip club, and ultimately, to an equally seedy motel where we finally get some solid information on what has been going on in Fabletown. I know this isn’t much to go on, but the story is definitely worth looking into, especially if you intend to go back and play again with different choices.

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One thing that Telltale Games is known for is episodic content that tells a strong story with plenty of choices for the player to make, along with the ability to interact with the world around you to get more information on the overall lore of the universe you are playing in. The first episode of The Wolf Among Us was filled with plenty of interactions all over every area and really made us feel like part of what was going on. The second episode…not so much. There were fewer interaction options in the areas, in fact for the most part the interactions were limited to less than ten in most instances, aside from the very end. There was very little action as well. We know action isn’t a priority in Telltale Games, but it just seemed like there was so much more going on in the previous episode.

Throughout Episode Two, there’s only one major confrontation and the rest is just interrogations where you can play the role of good or bad cop. All together for this episode, we felt more like an observer who occasionally tells Bigby how to treat people. And, as a side note, the consequences of the previous episode are already starting to show in Smoke and Mirrors which always makes things interesting.

Interacting with other characters is one thing that, as always, is quite entertaining. The interface is simple. When prompted, Bigby will have the option of up to four choices: positive, neutral, angry and sometimes humor, accompanying this is some terrific voice acting from the entire Wolf Among Us cast. Not once did the voices of the characters come off as sounding not quite right or awkward, and it’s quickly becoming one of our favourite examples of voice acting in video games today — in particular, Chuck Kourouklis for his top notch portrayal of Mister Toad.

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In terms of graphics, The Wolf Among Us continues its trend of terrific cell shaded goodness. Just like in The Walking Dead series, Telltale managed to create a game that looked like it came right off the pages of the popular graphic novels it’s based on. Everything looks like it’s lovingly drawn by hand before being plastered onto the character models. Unfortunately, that’s where Telltale Games is still working out the kinks. Don’t get me wrong, the character models look great and really fit the overall design of the world that Telltale Games is placing us in, however, the models are still very stiff and don’t always seem to move right, and the lip syncing seemed off during most of our playthrough.

So, is The Wolf Among Us Episode Two worth the months that we’ve been waiting to return to Fabletown? Yes and no, and here’s why. The episode is really short, there’s not much in terms of interaction compared to the previous episode and the character models are still a bit stiff. On the plus side, the story really moves along this time: player choices are starting to show their affects on the overall story arc, the voice acting is solid and the art style is something right out of the Fable comics that the series is based on. For those who have already bought a season pass for The Wolf Among Us, if you care about the story and want to know what happens next, Episode 2: Smoke and Mirrors is a great, though a little short, continuation of the story.

Simon Squire lives in Nova Scotia Canada and is a member of the Canadian Army. He is a lifelong gamer, and proud owner of an Xbox One, a PS3 and a decent laptop for computer gaming.
Feel free to check out his Blog where he occasionally touches on life as a parent of a child with Autism and where he highlights stories of other special kids at http://g-monkey.livejournal.com/
You can also follow him on twitter @efcfrost or zap him a message on PSN or Xbox Live where his handles for both systems is FallenRAVEN47

Review

RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure

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RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 5

A Conflicted Beginning

The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.

Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.

As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.

Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 1

With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).

Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.

Gunplay To Die For

Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.

Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.

The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.

Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.

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Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.

The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.

The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.

However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.

A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast

The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.

Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.

With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.

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To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).

Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.

A Slipshod Structure

Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.

Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.

Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.

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On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.

Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on Xbox One X.

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