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Final Fantasy XV
Grade: D+
Publisher: Square Enix (2016)
Reviewed: 2017/9/17
Rating: Teen (language, mild blood, partial nudity, violence)

screenshotContributed by ptdebate of the RPG Crew and edited by the VGC.
For a game in development for 10 years Final Fantasy XV feels strangely lacking. The familiar premise concerns a chosen king (Prince Noctis) who must save the land of Eos from an encroaching evil enveloping everything in darkness (literally). After his hometown is ransacked by invaders, Noctis discovers the perpetrator was actually his own relative, and this villain turns out to be quite a character.

Aside from this narrative twist the story and characters are tragically underdeveloped. At its core, Final Fantasy XV is an action game with role-playing elements. Noctis is accompanied by three friends on his journey of revenge, but rather than leading the entire party into battle (as in past Final Fantasy games) there is only one playable character. There's no concept of turns as everything unfolds in real-time. The shallow combat system works fine when there are few enemies, but as the numbers increase it becomes nearly impossible to discern what's going on. Late-game encounters degenerate into chaotic free-for-alls. More often than not my sword would accidentally clip a teammate while wildly swinging at a horde of monsters. Magic is far more powerful than physical attacks, yet the absurdly-wide attack radius tends to inadvertently damage both you and your teammates! Certain spells are downright suicidal.

The game's free-form structure comes across as a heavy-handed effort to separate it from the previous entries criticized for being too linear. Final Fantasy XV bears the indelible mark of too many ideas thrown in a hat. Scenes seem misplaced, as if they were made in isolation and cobbled together. The resplendent soundtrack adds drama but the graphics do not impress. Elaborate hairstyles combined with low-detail textures makes it look like everyone's wearing a cheap wig. By the end of the story there's a sense of resolution to Noctis's journey, but other characters are handled in a clumsy, unsatisfying manner. Final Fantasy XV has been languishing in development hell for an eternity, but apparently that wasn't long enough. © Copyright 2017 The Video Game Critic.

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1 player 

If you like this game, try: Final Fantasy (Guest Review) (NES)
Final Fantasy VII (Guest Review) (Playstation)
Final Fantasy VIII (Guest Review) (Playstation)
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Game Boy Advance)
Guardian War (3DO)

Forza Horizon 2
Grade: D+
Publisher: Microsoft (2014)
Reviewed: 2015/4/21
Rating: Everyone

screenshotThe first Forza game for the Xbox One, Forza Motorsport 5 (Microsoft, 2013), impressed me with its unprecedented realism. Horizon 2 takes an arcade turn, favoring scenic locations and wild off-road action. The result is an uneasy mix. There's not enough realism to satisfy racing purists and not enough instant gratification to please casual gamers.

The structure of the game is confusing; the map is so cluttered with icons you don't know where to begin. The fact that you must take a "road trip" to each set of races is aggravating, especially when you just want to get down to business. A "fast travel" option is available, but it will cost you! Forza Horizon 2 is a total racket. The game lures you to locations whose sole purpose is to sell you cars and extra content for real money! See those load screens showcasing Stormy Island? Well that's an expansion pack.

This shameless hawking of DLC is unfortunate, because when you're actually driving, Horizons 2 is a damn good game. I love the handling of the cars and the vibration feedback. A green arrow keeps you on the best line and alerts you when to brake. Once you get a feel for the handling you'll skillfully swerve through traffic and gracefully slide around corners. There's no penalty for running into things. In fact, the game rewards you for destruction of property and "trading paint". There appears to be some damage modeling but it doesn't affect the racing. Crashes and wrong turns are easily remedied using the ultra-cheap "rewind" feature, much to the consternation of my friend Brent who insists "there's no rewind in racing."

The scenery features nice rolling hills but the clean, deserted towns look fake. The highlight of the game for me was racing through a city at night during a rainstorm thanks to dazzling weather effects. The off-road driving aspect of the game truly sucks because you can't see where you're supposed to go. Car aficionados will scoff at the prospect of plowing a Z4 through bushes and hay bales... with street tires no less. The game never tells you when it's saving your progress, there's no split-screen, and it crashed on more than one occasion. Forza Horizon 2 has what it takes under the hood, but Microsoft seems intent on driving this franchise into the ground. © Copyright 2015 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

If you like this game, try: Forza Motorsport 5 (Xbox One)
Forza Horizon 3 (Xbox One)
Forza Horizon 4 (Xbox One)
Destruction Derby (Playstation)
Road Trip (Playstation 2)

Forza Horizon 3
Grade: C
Publisher: Microsoft (2016)
Reviewed: 2017/3/2
Rating: Everyone

screenshotThe critics who refer to Forza Horizon 3 as an "arcade racer" make me laugh. I'm not sure what Horizon is meant to be but it's anything but pick-up-and-play. Like many Microsoft products it feels bloated and over-engineered. Horizon won't be confused for a simulation. There's no damage modeling so you can freely grind against guardrails and other cars. You'll soar off ramps, plow through fields, and peel through the surf.

The scenery looks so realistic it's almost uninteresting. That said, it's undeniably beautiful when the sun sets and the towering skyscrapers loom against the starlit sky. The entire game has a glossy sheen and its pumping electronic dance music had me mesmerized. Horizon 3 takes place in Australia, which explains why everyone is driving on the wrong side of the road. My female guide refers to me as "monkey" - affectionately I hope.

There are plenty of races, challenges, and locations to choose from, but the map is a confusing jumble of icons. Worse yet, you'll need to travel to each event. You race both on and off-road, through jungles, deserts, and down coastal highways. A dotted arrow keeps you headed in the right direction and it's color-coded to indicate when you need to slow down. One highlight for me was racing a train while occasionally jumping over it.

The racing is enjoyable but the controls feel heavy. It's very hard for novice players to avoid veering out of control. The collision detection is inconsistent. You might blast a telephone pole into splinters and then hit a small tree that brings you to a standstill. That's when you hit the "rewind" button - if you can bear the shame. Horizon is online-centric (no split-screen) and even offline CPU racers sport annoying usernames like "geekmonkey13". I hate how load screens relentlessly plug the tantalizing Blizzard Mountain expansion pack ($20). Leave it to Microsoft to charge you extra for the best content. Upon buying a Mercedes in-game I felt the need to check my credit card statement just to make sure I hadn't actually purchased a new vehicle.

You earn points for everything in this game. Points for missing stuff. Points for hitting stuff. Points for nearly hitting stuff. The game piles on so many kinds of points that paging through the rewards after each race is tiresome. You're also supposed to earn "fans" to unlock various "festivals". Is all this really necessary? The pace of the game is further bogged down by stylish (but unnecessary) cut-scenes and frequent load screens. Forza Horizon 3 could have been great but it's nearly crushed under the weight of so much extraneous crap. © Copyright 2017 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

If you like this game, try: Forza Horizon 2 (Xbox One)
Forza Horizon 4 (Xbox One)
Horizon Chase Turbo (Nintendo Switch)
Forza Motorsport 2 (Xbox 360)
Project Gotham Racing (Xbox)

Forza Horizon 4
Grade: B
Publisher: Microsoft (2018)
Reviewed: 2019/7/21
Rating: Everyone

screenshotI've played this game off and on for months, which indicates to me Forza Horizon 4 is good but not great. I cringe when I hear this described as an arcade racer. Arcade games don't have photo-realistic cars, true physics, and real world locations. Arcade games don't have lengthy cut-scenes and endless prompts before and after each race. Granted, your car can plow through just about anything (signs, telephone poles, rock walls) without taking damage. In fact Horizon 4 actually encourages this behavior by awarding bonuses for "landscaping", "trading paint", and "awesome wreckage".

A nice variety of challenges are available at any given time and indicated on your map. Tracks take you both on-road and off, and they change with the seasons. Dirt tracks require a lot of finesse, but the street races let you build up a head of steam. I prefer the rip-roaring cross-country events which let you plow through fences and thick brush with reckless abandon. In the "behemoth challenge" you race a huge marauding hovercraft, leaving a trail of destruction.

Horizon 4 takes a while to get up to speed, beginning with a time-consuming festival sequence complete with hipster commentators. You must then drive to each new challenge, which annoyed my friends. The UK scenery is quaint but unspectacular. I like how each race begins with "Go!" instead of a count down. An arrowed line on the road conveys the best line and indicates when to slow down. The controls feel laggy at times, and sometimes the hardest thing to do is drive a straight line. I did enjoy leaning into other cars around corners and using them as guard rails. Those CPU drivers must hate me (I bet they talk about me in the break room).

The sensation of speed is underwhelming with occasional slow-down. The rewind feature may seem very cheap but it's a necessary evil because you aren't allowed to miss a single gate. After each race you're awarded a load of CR rewards and "influence" points. The concept of influence is cheesy but those points let you advance to the next season, which is the highlight of the game. I absolutely love the concept of racing under diverse weather conditions, and the winter tracks are drop-dead gorgeous. The promise of unlocking each season gave me incentive to keep playing. Forza Horizon 4 may not thrill racing purists or arcade fanatics, but those in between will find a racer that will keep them occupied all year long. © Copyright 2019 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 

If you like this game, try: Forza Horizon 2 (Xbox One)
Test Drive Eve of Destruction (Playstation 2)
Al Unser Jr.'s Road to the Top (Super Nintendo)
Forza Horizon 3 (Xbox One)
Road Trip (Playstation 2)

Forza Motorsport 5
Grade: B+
Publisher: Microsoft (2013)
Reviewed: 2014/7/15
Rating: Everyone

screenshotOf the dozen games I've played so far on my Xbox One and Playstation 4, only Forza Motorsport 5 truly feels like a "next generation" title. This ultra-realistic racer offers a wide range of exotic cars and world-famous tracks from around the globe. Six different leagues each offer their own class of cars, ranging from vintage to modern. Narrated cut-scenes highlight the unique stylings and characteristics of each automobile. Car aficionados will drool over these lavish video-quality showcases, but casual gamers will wish for a skip option.

Forza 5 shoots for realism and hits its mark. The graphics, audio, and controls are top notch. When you initially step into your first car, it looks so real you might as well be watching a pre-recorded video. The car interior looks fantastic with its polished leather and lifelike hands gripping the wheel. This is the first racing game where I actually prefer the dashboard view. The way the controller feels is amazing. Not only does the vibration feedback let you feel the engine, but the triggers actually resist you, like real anti-lock brakes.

The visuals are silky smooth and an arrow guide on the road allows you to handle unfamiliar tracks with ease. The sun flares look so real you will actually squint your eyes! The cars render actual damage on the fly - one feature the Gran Turismo series has been promising for years! If you go wide on a turn and end up on the gravel, you can always hold Y to "rewind". It's cheap but habit-forming!

My friend Brent is an actual race car driver and he was impressed by the faithful rendering of the tracks (he knew every turn). As an arcade fan however I found these sparse raceways to be a little dry. An "assist" system lets you finely tune the level of difficulty, and excellent surround sound lets you hear other racers creeping up from behind. The orchestrated music is a bit dramatic, but less abrasive than most racing game soundtracks. The only major oversight is the lack of CPU racers in the split-screen mode. It's clear Microsoft put a lot of resources into Forza 5. This should be standard issue for all Xbox One owners, and car fanatics will consider it to be in "A" territory. © Copyright 2014 The Video Game Critic.

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1 or 2 players 

If you like this game, try: Gran Turismo 2 (Playstation)
Gran Turismo (Playstation)
Ridge Racer Type 4 (Playstation)
Forza Horizon 2 (Xbox One)
Gran Turismo 4 (Playstation 2)

Gears 5
Grade: C+
Publisher: Xbox Games Studios (2019)
Reviewed: 2021/3/2
Rating: Mature 17+ (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

screenshotThe first Gears of War (Xbox 360, 2006) astonished players with its gritty, photorealistic graphics. Its take-cover and revive mechanics elevated the third-person shooting genre to a whole new level. Over the years however I grew weary of the formula, which explains why I'm late to the party with Gears 5. Still, the series continues to dazzle with its stunning lighting, water effects, and aged scenery. The machinery looks so real it's a shame your interactions with it are limited to the occasionally flashing item or switch.

The duck-for-cover shooting action is intense and there's no auto-aim to bail you out. The chainsaw-equipped Lancer is still your bread-and-butter, but there are plenty of other useful weapons including the "boomstick" and "mulcher". Enemies tend to be big gray ogre types. Your reticle wavers as you unleash each burst, making aiming difficult. That said, seeing a monster's head explode like a watermelon makes it all worthwhile. Keep in mind enemies can revive each other as well, so if you see one crawling around, give it a good stomp. Other foes include annoying "juvie" monkeys, hulking Wardens, and swarms of flying red leeches. Perhaps most creepy are the red-headed robots that look like the freaky zombie from Return of the Living Dead.

The missions are fairly linear (no maps) but there are side quests. Accompanying you is a flying robot named "Jack" who can access switches remotely, fetch weapons, and temporarily blind enemies. The main protagonist of Gears 5 is a female soldier named Kait. A female? Could this be the Softer Side of Gears (TM)? Not really, but she does lend herself to an emotional storyline as she fights to keep her sanity. Her psychotic episodes are so bad they gave me a headache. I didn't care for the story but I loved the expansive snow locations, complete with a wind-powered sled to glide around in. What I hated was the nausea-inducing "galloping" camera that follows you whenever you run. Ugh! Gears 5 is a legit AAA title but I'm not feeling the love. The game may be bigger and more sophisticated but it's still subject to the law of diminishing returns. © Copyright 2021 The Video Game Critic.



Gears of War 4
Grade: C+
Publisher: Microsoft (2016)
Reviewed: 2017/1/28
Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence, strong language)

screenshotIf Call of Duty is the surgical strike of gaming, Gears of War represents the heavy artillery. Gears of War 4 is a high-octane third-person shooter with massive guns and brute force violence. The only thing more satisfying than turning enemies into blood spatter is slicing into them with your chainsaw attachment.

As with previous Gears titles the game has a gritty, organic look. The weathered castles and damp catacombs contrast nicely with the high-tech weaponry. A prologue takes you through a series of short skirmishes to get you (re)acquainted with basic actions like taking cover and reviving comrades. Adversaries include orc-like brutes, Terminator-style robots, and flying tentacled creatures. During bloody battles it's funny to hear robots dispense lines like "we are authorized to use force" and "antisocial behavior will not be tolerated".

The gameplay isn't particularly difficult but the lack of radar can make it hard to tell where shots are coming from. All the standard elements are here including scampering "tracker" bombs and elevators that require generator power. I don't know if the stages are cookie-cutter or the save system let me down, but several times I felt as if I was replaying the same area. Gears is always good for awe-inspiring firepower but for my money you can't beat the classic Lancer weapon. Some parts of the game give you time to set up fortifications prior to certain battles, positioning sentries and spiked barriers to help keep waves of enemies at bay.

It's a shame Gears of War 4's rich gameplay is undermined by draconian online requirements. Although several modes offer "local" multiplayer action, you'll inexplicably need to be log into servers to play these. And the game doesn't take kindly to "guest" players. That's a shame because the one time I did get the split-screen coop working it was quite fun. The horde mode, another old favorite, is crippled by the same issue. And even when you do try to log it's not uncommon to see "Gears of War services are currently unavailable - try again later". As with so many Xbox One titles, it's not so much the game at fault as it is the game around the game. And you can lay the blame squarely at the door of Microsoft. © Copyright 2017 The Video Game Critic.

1 or 2 players 


Halo 5: Guardians
Grade: B-
Publisher: Microsoft (2015)
Reviewed: 2015/12/12
Rating: Teen (blood, mild language, violence)

screenshotThe original Halo (Xbox, 2001) put the Xbox on the map, delivering PC-quality first-person shooting action on a console for the first time. I've enjoyed every iteration and spin-off of the series, and it continues to thrill. In Halo 5: Guardians you are a space marine in a four-person squad. You can issue simple orders to your comrades to move to a spot or target a creature. Better yet is how you can revive each other in the heat of battle.

Halo 5's campaign is satisfying and sometimes breathtaking. The chaotic shootouts take place in well-constructed environments that allow for various tactics. Certain levels let you drive vehicles and pilot ships. The action-packed cut-scenes are fun to watch, but please don't ask me about the story. I've been lost since Halo 2! Hell, I don't even know what character I'm controlling half the time!

You begin your adventure on vertigo-inducing cliffs of a snow-swept planet before plunging into a volcanic underground industrial facility and then riding an elevator into the sky. Guardians is a pleasure to play thanks to its silky-smooth animation, clear visuals, and crisp control. It's fun to experiment with weapons, especially since each is effective in its own way. In addition to fighting familiar Covenant forces you'll face a new breed of enemies in the form of teleporting red robots. I love how when you destroy these guys their parts separate in mid-air before disintegrating. It's an amazing effect.

I found the controls confusing at first, mainly because Microsoft was too lazy to include a manual. I quickly learned to use the boost button when you're being bum-rushed by a boss. The loading processes are seamless and the game saves your progress frequently. My biggest gripe is the same thing all real Halo fans are up-in-arms about: no local multiplayer modes. Split-screen co-op and deathmatch modes have been integral to the Halo series since day one, so this omission is unforgivable. Was it worth it Microsoft? Was it worth neutering your flagship franchise and diminishing its play value just to get it out for the holidays? Halo 5 Guardians had the potential to be great, but it comes off feeling like a half-hearted effort. © Copyright 2015 The Video Game Critic.

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Just Cause 3
Grade: C
Publisher: Square Enix (2015)
Reviewed: 2016/10/2
Rating: Mature (blood, intense violence, strong language)

screenshotIf you're in the mood for a rip-roaring summer adventure, Just Cause 3 has what you need! The game boasts breathtaking island scenery, high-speed racing action, wanton violence, and chair-rocking explosions. The action begins with our hero Rico Rodriguez balancing himself on the wing of a flying plane while firing a rocket launcher at missile bases below. After parachuting down to the ground you'll discover Rico's amazing multi-use grappling hook. Not only will it pull you up cliffs in an instant; you can even use it to zip along the ground! Better yet, tethering flammable objects together lets you trigger widespread devastation.

Instead of subjecting you to tutorials Just Cause 3 thrusts you into exciting scenarios that will have you mowing down enemy soldiers, crashing helicopters, and igniting massive chain reactions. The explosions are supremely satisfying - the best I've seen. Just running around blowing up stuff is as much fun as I've had with my Xbox One. I also enjoyed the town liberation missions which reward you for performing a checklist of destructive acts.

Just Cause 3 succeeds on the instant gratification front but stumbles in terms of quality control. First, why in the hell is it necessary for me to "sign in" to play a single-player game? Apparently certain parts of the game have me competing against other people...? It seems like a contrived gimmick to justify the online requirement. Online gaming breeds bugs and you'll find more here than an Indiana Jones film. Eye-rolling glitches and unexplainable events occur early and often. A car will explode yet the soldier taking cover behind it will remain unscathed, frozen in time.

The mission objectives are vague. A character in the game will tell me to meet him "outside of town" yet I have no idea which town he's referring to. The controls could be better too. Tethering objects together is so tricky I often inadvertently pulled myself into the ensuing explosion! When driving one button serves as a handbrake but the others will violently eject you from your vehicle. It's so frustrating when you hit the wrong button!

Still, the results can be hilarious. The first time I tested my wingsuit I did a perfect face plant into a bridge! The framerate in this game is all over the place. When it's smooth the game is lovely but when it's choppy it can be hard to stomach. Worst of all, the game crashed on me multiple times - unacceptable for a console title! It's hard to believe this game is the third in a series because it feels so haphazard. The sad part is, Just Cause 3 could have been great if they ditched the online garbage and incorporated a little quality control. © Copyright 2016 The Video Game Critic.

1 player 


Killer Instinct
Grade: C
Publisher: Microsoft (2014)
Reviewed: 2014/12/21
Rating: Teen (blood, mild suggestive themes, violence)

screenshotThe words "Killer Instinct" elicit fond memories of my SNES days, so I was stoked about this Xbox One launch title. Imagine my disappointment to learn the new Killer Instinct had been relegated to being a download-only online experiment with each character sold separately. Forget that! Fast forward one year when I walked into a Best Buy and found this game on disc - and at a bargain price!

Yes, this is a fully functional fighting game with a nice selection of characters and all the obligatory modes (arcade, training, survival, versus, on-line, etc). The intro music is just as I remember, only remastered to sound more edgy. The graphics are absolutely phenomenal with jaw-dropping characters and amazing dynamic backgrounds. The reimagined fighters are awesome. Instead of your everyday skeleton warrior, Spinal is a pirate ghost living in a rainy ship graveyard complete with a kraken. Sabrewolf's castle looks like something from a 1930's-era horror flick - with vintage music to match. Fulgore reminds me of Predator, and I love how his armor clanks as he gets pounded. Eight "season one" characters are included and I also noticed a few "season two" characters have been added since the initial install (available online only).

Killer Instinct adopts Street Fighter IV's winning formula with 3D graphics and 2D gameplay. The basic controls are responsive and the special moves will feel familiar to fighting fans. The emphasis is on combos, so once you start laying into your opponent, show no mercy! I enjoyed battling my friends in local versus mode, but the single-player modes left me feeling empty. I don't know why they keep score because high scores aren't saved anywhere. Instead the game saves a million statistics like the number of fights, character usages rates, combo breakers, shadow bars gained per match, etc.

What's missing is a sense of progression. You can increase the level of each character, but to what end? To unlock concept art, backgrounds, and songs? You have to invest a lot of time to unlock anything, or you can buy the stuff with real money instead. The game constantly badgers you about new content for sale under the guise of "news". This bastardized version of Killer Instinct was clearly designed with one purpose, and that is to milk your wallet for all it's worth. This is one business model that needs to die in a fire. One side of me wants to embrace Killer Instinct for its good looks and tight gameplay, but it's hard to enjoy a game that's constantly reminding you how incomplete it is. © Copyright 2014 The Video Game Critic.

1 or 2 players 



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