Sunday, September 22, 2019

Forza Horizon 4 Review

As I mentioned in my review of TimeSpinner, most of my time with the Xbox Game Pass catalog has been devoted to indie games rather than AAA titles. The one exception so far has been one of the games that drew me to Microsoft’s subscription platform when I saw it demoed at E3: Forza Horizon 4. While most racing games I play are completely removed from anything resembling real-life motorsports (e.g. Mario Kart, Fast RMX), there was something about this game’s ability to balance simulation and arcade racing that caught my interest.

Forza Horizon 4 is an open-world racing game set in an environment based on Scotland and rural England. Throughout the game, seasons can change affecting the weather and terrain. Players can drive a wide variety of automobiles, ranging from exotic sports cars to delivery trucks, around the map to enter in different racing events. Races primarily come in three forms: road races, dirt track races, and cross-country (i.e. off-road) races. Forza Horizon 4 can be played as a single-player game or as an online multiplayer game. This review will focus on the singleplayer experience.

  • It probably goes without saying that Forza Horizon 4 is absolutely gorgeous. The car models look incredible and, considering the size of the map, the environments are impressively detailed. As you would expect for a game that prominently features changing seasons, the weather effects look splendid. Part of why I wanted this game was to test my new graphics card; running the game on Ultra did not disappoint!
  • The one graphical element that does not look especially polished, is the player character (aka the Drivatar). These racecar driver characters represent the player in pre- and post-race scenes. Their appearance and movements are a little awkward but in an almost charming way. The player can customize the Drivatar's appearance with unlockable outfits, but since outfits can only be changed at one map location, I found that I didn't engage with this feature very much.
  • Of the three main types of races, I found I much preferred off-road and dirt events. These events allowed for more jumps and corner-cutting, which made them more exciting. Also, the effects of the changing weather are much more pronounced in these types of races (mud pits during rain, frozen lakes, snow, etc). Regardless of race type, I generally stuck with all-wheel drive (AWD) vehicles for better handling on all types of terrain.  
  • I appreciated that the game lets you adjust the level of realism and AI difficulty independently. I used normal realism and advanced AI settings. This made for a somewhat forgiving driving experience that allowed me to pull off drifts and get away with scraping the occasion guard rail, but still have challenging opponents to race against. If you're consistently winning (or losing) by a significant margin, the game will recommend adjustments.
  • One of my favorite features is the ability to rewind time a few seconds at any given point in a race. This keeps you from having to restart a whole race due to having a single accident. This feature prevents the game from ever getting repetitive or frustrating. (The feature can be disabled for those who want a more hardcore experience.)
  • The game breaks up regular racing with a couple of side activities. Two such activities, Wheel Spins and Barn Finds, are fun ways to get new cars rather than just buying them with race winnings. Wheel Spins are game-show like random chance opportunities that are earned throughout the game. Barn Finds are hidden locations on the map where are abandoned cars can be found; after being restored, these vehicles tend to be some of the best in the game.
  • Stunt events are another way to break up racing and get new cars. These feature some pretty cool set pieces in exotic vehicles, but unfortunately, they often involve a lengthy commute because the car is often picked up at a location fairly far from where the stunt will take place.
  • Of all the special events, my favorites were the Showcases. These involve racing matchups between highly irregular vehicle pairings (for example, in the first one you race a pickup truck against a hovercraft). While these largely exist as set pieces rather than true racing challenges, they're still a lot of fun and unlocking them serves as a satisfying goal to work towards.
  • The single-player experience is structured as a year-long event in which the seasons transition after earning the required amount of "Influence" (basically experience points) from winning races, participating in special events, and finding hidden items in the environment. Usually, a showcase event unlocks right before the season change, making it feel kind of like the racing equivalent of a boss battle. This setup makes what could have otherwise felt like an aimless sandbox still feel like a proper single-player campaign. 
  • Once you play through all four seasons in the campaign, the game switches to a live game mode, where the seasons change automatically once a week. In this mode, new sets of races and special events become available on a rotating basis. Most of these can be played as single-player or multi-player events.
I'm generally not a car guy, but I absolutely loved Forza Horizon 4. It's been my biggest pleasant surprise of the year! Since the game features so many adjustable settings to make it approachable for players regardless of skill level, I highly recommend anybody with an Xbox One or gaming PC give it a shot!

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 12 hours (main campaign with some side events)

Acknowledgment: This review was written as part of the #SportSeptember community event from the Chic-Pixel blog. Check out this post for their full calendar of monthly events!

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Time Spinner Review

When I first signed up for Xbox Game Pass on PC, I had expected that I would be using the service to play through a lot of big marquee Microsoft titles (e.g. Halo, Forza, Gears). Instead, I’ve found myself primarily using the service as a way to try out indie games that I’ve heard good things about but haven’t been motivated to seek out and buy individually. One such title came out earlier this year, TimeSpinner.

TimeSpinner is an indie platformer that is heavily inspired by the Castlevania games directed by Koji Igarashi. The story follows Lunais, a time-traveler, who uses her time manipulation abilities and other magic powers to seek revenge against the Empire after they desecrated her village and wiped out her people.

  • I’ve played a lot of Metroidvania games, but this one is by far the most upfront about its source of inspiration. Everything from the UI to the controls looks and feels straight out of Symphony of the Night or Aria of Sorrow. 
  • Like the aforementioned Castlevania games, TimeSpinner has very nice pixel art. I liked the level of detail on the design and movement of the enemies. There were also some areas that used multiple layers of parallax scrolling to make for some very cool looking backgrounds. The color pallet in most environments is quite muted, which is not my preferred aesthetic, but it's fitting to the game's tone.
  • Lunais has a variety of weapons and special attacks that can be upgraded and swapped around as the situation requires. While the combat was very simple, customizing her loadout helped keep things feeling fresh.
  • The implementation of time manipulation mechanics ended up being much more minimal than I expected. At certain warp points, you can travel back in time, which brings you to an alternate version of the map. The other time power allows you to temporarily freeze time which is useful for avoiding attacks and using frozen enemies as platforms to reach high ledges. I was hoping that manipulating time would be used for puzzle solving, but that ended up not being the case. For the most part, time travel serves primarily as a plot device.
  • TimeSpinner has a surprisingly detailed story and very rich lore. While the player gets some of this via dialog in cutscenes, much of the material is delivered via letters, journal entries, and other text documents that you find by exploring the world. There are dozens of such documents to collect and each is several pages long. This might be appealing for some players, but for me, this method of world-building did not manage to grab me. The text file approach can work for me in lengthier games where it’s spread out over many hours of gameplay (for example, see my review of Final Fantasy 13), however, in a 9-hour platformer, I’m not looking to spend lots of time reading text in menus. 
  • Despite not reading the lore files, I was still able to follow and appreciate the story reasonably well. The characters felt a little bland, however.
Overall, TimeSpinner is a well-made platformer in the style of Symphony of the Night, whose main point of differentiation, it’s lore, didn’t really click with me. A few years ago, I think this game could have made a pretty big splash, but in 2019’s crowded field of Metroidvania titles, it doesn’t really stand out. For big fans of the genre, I still think playing TimeSpinner is well worth your time; for those just looking to play the crème of the Metroidvania crop, TimeSpinner can probably be skipped.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion time: 11 hours