Skylines 2 appears to be the distinct result of a dev team looking out at other places to find beauty and, more importantly, designing with an aim toward getting players interested in thinking of themselves as people making aesthetic choices. It’s thrilling.
After 30 hours and counting, the world of Lords of the Fallen is one I have enjoyed visiting, but ultimately dread inhabiting. Quality-of-life elements, like the option to create your own checkpoints in designated areas, are often jeopardized by an actual checkpoint found two houses later, after you just used up a rare resource. Magic classes, which are introduced as "advanced" in the character creator, actually seem integral, with item descriptions, weapons, and rather powerful spells demanding a stat commitment that knights or archers simply can't afford. Seamlessly switching between realities, as impressive as it looks in action, isn't new. Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and The Medium boasted their SSD-powered tech years prior, while Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver showcased similar ideas to Umbral with its Spectral Realm decades ago.
Players face a variety of crises, anomalies, and dilemmas throughout the campaign, presented in the form of two- to three-paragraph story cards and an array of options for pushing the story forward. Some of these stories are directly based on episodes of The Next Generation, while others are original to the game. They're all written in a prose style that's more flippant than you might expect from Trek, though in line with the flavor text of Stellaris or a tabletop strategy game. What's impressive about the setup of these story scenarios is how, despite their costs and rewards being the same across campaigns, I found that the material needs of whatever empire I was playing nearly always guided me towards making the kinds of choices that my faction would likely make on the show. Choosing the most humane or diplomatic option was always practical as the Federation, but often not affordable as the Klingons or Cardassians. It feels appropriate to Trek's ethos that the galaxy's more brutal powers make some dubious or cruel choices, not because they're "evil," but because that's where their circumstances lead them. Disrupting that is possible, but it takes a lot more work.
At certain points, I couldn’t help but feel like this game was trying to do a little too much. Dealing with themes of climate change, generational trauma, community, and loss is a lot to pack into one game. It also presented an ambitious number of character perspectives for players to navigate. Still, life today with all its woes also feels like a little too much, and I respect a team that unflinchingly sails into the headwinds of the weighty issues that have come with life in 2023.
Ultimately, Total War: Pharaoh is an attempt to provide an accessible experience that delivers what feels like an abridged version of a world history course. Most of the systems in Pharaoh offer glimpses of greatness, but aren’t deep or refined enough to deliver a memorable grand strategy experience. Creative Assembly’s take on the Bronze Age is not thematic enough to engage a novice, but not accurate or expansive enough to appeal to Total War veterans, leaving us with a Total War title that’s unlikely to stand the test of time.
With such a wide array of tweaks, updates, and iterations, Counter-Strike 2 is a significant move forward for the franchise. The community is alight again, and I’m as excited as I’ve been for Valve’s shooter in more than 10 years. Counter-Strike is back, and if the current trend of improvements continues, it’s only going to get better from here out.
Forza Motorsport is serious business. Put the time in, Turn 10 is saying; do your laps, shave off the seconds, make that one small tweak, grind out that win. I respect its focus, and its refusal to pander to fun-addled Horizon players, instead offering them a clearly articulated invitation to join its more austere church. This is a game about going round in circles, a little bit faster every time, and it’s quite unapologetic about it.
With Mortal Kombat 1, NetherRealm has made an admirable effort to refresh its gameplay mechanics and differentiate its latest entry from the recent trilogy of games. On some fronts, particularly around the story, audiovisual presentation, and accessibility, it’s a huge step forward. But some very visible elements, especially online play, do not represent the same leap. Even after a four-year gap since Mortal Kombat 11, Mortal Kombat 1 feels like it needed a bit more time to cook. But with a commitment to seasonal content and the next six fighters already revealed as part of the game’s first Kombat Pack, it’s clear that Mortal Kombat 1 will grow over time and, hopefully, improve.
Admittedly, there are days where it feels like friendship in this quaint little town is conditional, an odd feeling that everyone wants something from you: 10 pieces of paper for fixing a flimsy wall, two matcha lattes for a thirsty neighbor, a sports drink for an aspiring athlete. At one point, a vendor even jokingly requests 120 blocks of wood to build their store — a joke to be had at your expense. But if you can shelve these uncomfortable thoughts, Mineko’s Night Market can be a place to linger for a few hours. Be it chipping away at your laundry list of mundane but comforting chores or selling some handmade kitty kitsch at the night market, this cozy sim is an invitation to slow down and smell the roses. Or rather, pet the cats, as they flop over in contentment, their purrs resonating from deep within their bellies.
Resident Evil 4: Separate Ways greatly improves upon the storytelling and importance of Ada’s side story, serving as a template for future Resident Evil games’ expansions. It’s a condensed and accelerated version of the remake’s story that fleshes out behind-the-scenes events, and its ending enticingly teases the next possible remake in Capcom’s horror franchise. It can feel repetitive in parts, underrealized in others, but it’s a meaty piece of content that’s worth playing if the Resident Evil 4 remake left you hungering for more.
Hopefully, with time and consideration, Payday 3 can usurp its predecessor, but for now, that predecessor looms large over the new game’s launch. Even if the moment-to-moment gameplay has been improved, the soul of Payday is clearly in the systems that surround it, which is where this threequel is sorely lacking.
Lies of P’s contributions to the genre are slow burns. There’s just enough intrigue at the beginning to lure you into the world, and thankfully, it pays off. The game surprised and engulfed me with its grim tale, in which greed and obsession for power turned a city against itself. Despite a clear obligation to pay homage to its pioneers, it carves its own reality — one in which you decide which illusions to believe in.
But this season’s Madden could also be someone’s first, and the reason they become a die-hard fan of the franchise. Some of my most cherished memories are of playing an old copy of Madden NFL 04 with friends, sifting through franchise mode and drafting custom rosters without even playing a game until the crack of dawn. Every football fan has their favorite game, and will tell you that each year’s entry has flaws. Madden NFL 24 has flaws, as well, but it offers more customization than ever, even if it’s just barely more. I can’t wait to dive into Madden NFL 28.