NBA Live 2016 PS4 review

NBA Live 2016 PS4 review

NBA Live 16 is an improved game from last year's offering. But while shooting, passing, and dribbling all feel a bit tighter this year, the changes are too minor to push the total package beyond mediocrity. Some of the core gameplay modes are almost unchanged, and visually, NBA Live 16 floats in an awkward space between an outdated basketball sim and a poor attempt at an arcade classic. The series continues to inch toward relevance, but its deficient game modes and stunted systems fail to propel it off the bench and into the starting lineup.
If you consider each element of the on-court action--from the act of shooting to playing tight on-ball defense--it’s fair to say that NBA Live 16 is a much more playable basketball game than its immediate predecessor. Executing crossovers or hesitations and pulling up a quick jump shot actually feels good, with a new shot meter giving you a much more accurate sense of your player’s optimal release point. The previous gap between the peak of a player’s jump and the correct spot to release the ball has been tightened to eliminate any visual disconnect, and the smoother dribbling means you can fake and spin without always sloppily losing the ball or getting stonewalled by poor AI defenders.
The halftime reports by Jalen Rose are helpful and aesthetically sharp.
One-on-one, NBA Live 16 is a responsive push and pull between offense and defense. But with two full teams setting screens, rolling to the basket, crossing from corner to corner, and attempting to execute double-teams, this smooth operation capitulates quickly into a disjointed, jagged knot. Off-ball players set strange screens in the paint when called on to hold off immediate defenders, and limited layup animations force easy buckets to devolve into odd low-percentage shots--leading to offensive rebounds that send just about every player in the paint into an odd state of shock. Maybe more importantly, making long jumpers is just too easy. I put up 56 points in my first ever Rising Star game as a mostly unskilled created player, and that was from using simple screens to create just enough space to jack up a shot.
Each of the individual systems has been tightened, but when it’s all put together, NBA Live 16 has very little mechanical rhythm or consistency. This is most apparent when running the fastbreak, where you’ll often struggle to corral your team to fill gaps and take advantage of defensive breakdowns. There tend to be wonderful moments in good sports sims when it almost feels like the game knows exactly what you’re trying to do before you do it. In NBA Live 16, it can feel like the game isn’t just a few steps behind, it’s actively working against your train of thought. Even the commentary, which features noted ESPN analysts Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen, can come off as sporadic audio clips recorded in separate buildings.
Sometimes, a player decides to leave his jersey and abdomen on the bench.
Despite a few minor gameplay improvements, the quality and depth of game modes remains disappointingly low. The modes start with the Rising Star campaign, where you create a rookie player primed to become a top draft pick. You adjust his height, weight, appearance, and position--with the welcome addition of a specific shooting, slashing, or post play concentration available within the five traditional roles. After that, though, you just run through season after season of regular and post-season basketball without any story or gameplay variation to drive you. Rising Star is just a vehicle for you to boost stats and focus on a single position rather than on the entire team, and with the recently released NBA 2K16 putting such a heavy emphasis on story, Live’s Rising Star variation feels woefully undercooked and inadequate.
NBA Live 16’s Ultimate Team and Dynasty modes suffer similarly from being largely the same as last year. Collecting players in the form of cards in Ultimate Team booster packs still holds an undeniable charm, giving you hope that each booster pack will include some new, top-tier player primed to turn your entire team around. However, since it’s relatively easy to find your shooting rhythm, I nearly doubled the score of the championship Golden State Warriors in my first game with volatile shooter J.R. Smith acting as my star player. I still felt compelled to earn new cards, but the massive impact of one sharpshooter makes the collection process feel a bit unbalanced. Dynasty, which lets you run team operations as a general manager, is still just as bare-boned and uninteresting as last year. Setting up a fantasy draft, proposing trades, and signing free agents gives you something to do off the court, but without any real standout new features, there’s little draw in taking on the managerial role.
Thankfully, the addition of the online Pro-Am and Summer Circuit at least gives NBA Live 16 a whiff of freshness. Here, you take your created player and either run through progressively more difficult co-op challenges in Summer Circuit, or join a full five-on-five pickup game against nine other online players in Pro-Am. It’s in this wild, fast-moving streetball jamboree where NBA Live 16 has the ability to shine brightest. Sure, you might run into a group of ball hogs who prefer taking deep, contested threes rather than spreading the ball around the floor. But when my stitched-together team of diverse created players actually came together to form at least the semblance of a real basketball squad, I actually found myself having fun with NBA Live 16’s unpolished systems. Plus, this mode gives you much more reason to care about building up your NBA talent in Rising Star.
Beyond choosing between being a point guard or a power forward, Rising Star lets you determine style of play.
Even with improved on-court control and an online Pro-Am mode that can lead to pockets of outlandish fun, NBA Live 16 still fails to justify its existence. Its Rising Star and Dynasty modes are too underdeveloped and unvaried to remain interesting beyond the first few hours of play, and the basic dribbling, passing, and shooting tend to trip over themselves during offensive rebounds or fast breaks. NBA Live 16 is heading in the right direction, but at this pace, the series will never be able to challenge--let alone surpass--its only real contemporary.

Life is Strange's final episode is titled Polarized

Life is Strange's final episode is titled Polarized, which is the most accurate way to describe my feelings after reaching the series' conclusion. Developer Dontnod's first episodic series tackles themes and explores emotional spaces few games have: the difficulties of being a teenager struggling for acceptance, the complicated push-and-pull of friendship between young women, the delicate balance between fear and bravery when dealing with other volatile young people. It's a story about kids--or kids on the brink of becoming adults--becoming people they never thought they'd be and learning things about one another that change their perspectives on each other, and life itself. I loved becoming Max Caulfield, using her time-rewinding powers to keep a promise no matter what the cost. But the series' finale ultimately stumbles and falls over its own conceits, sabotaging its most powerful moments with goofy dialogue and--at its more egregious--a tedious stealth sequence.
Polarized opens with Max in the dark room from the previous episode, desperate to escape and make things right. Her method of escape and the consequences stemming from this decision are predictable. In the first half of the episode, Max learns what happens when she gets everything she wants, or at least thinks she's getting everything. It all comes at a price, one that the series has been hamfistedly hinting at since Episode One. I don't mind the obviousness so much as the complete detachment of this episodes' choices from the rest of the series. Nothing you've done matters by the time you get to Polarized, with the only tweaks made by your past decisions reflected in short bits of dialogue.
This episode does an excellent job showing Max the horrors her time traveling escapades have wrought on the people around her, but some of these more serious moments are completely undermined by silly presentation, a critique that also extends to some of the acting. A serious sequence at the start of the episode, meant to be horrifying no doubt, ends up being straight-up goofy due to dialogue and the way it's delivered. Max has to watch a certain character be killed over and over again, and after each rewind the killer spouts the same line of enthusiastic, comically insulting dialogue. The sequence is set up so that you're meant to explore three or four different options and keep rewinding before you find the right one that will save a life, but hearing this same dialogue over and over again was laughable. It became funny instead of serious, draining the urgency out of an otherwise tense scene.
Max in the dark room.
There are, however, moments that make you feel genuinely uncomfortable, and it's in these that you and Max start to question her supposed altruism. Max isn't the selfless time warrior she seems to be, and in this final episode some of her dialogue options are downright vitriolic. She's become hard and a little cruel, almost ruthless in her relentlessness to keep Chloe alive and save Arcadia Bay from the impending storm. Watching Max lash out, reflect, and then crumble is the best part of this episode.
There is some great psychological spelunking going on in this episode, but it's hard to enjoy the unsettling atmosphere when you're forced to wade through it in a poorly-designed stealth sequence. This sequence, which is quite long, forces you to sneak through a labyrinthine environment with a least two flashlight-wielding characters trying to catch you at the same time. This sequence forces you do the same thing over and over to determine the guards position and find an exit--take a few steps, rewind, take a few more, rewind. It's repetitive and a cheap way of shoehorning in a puzzle using Max's time powers and it completely pulled me out of the mood. It also doesn't help that at the start the setting is very dark, with no clear direction on how to get through. So it's up to trial and error and rewinding to figure out which way to go.
The episode also spends a hefty amount of time rehashing old events, reminding Max of conversations and interactions from previous episodes in the form of audio playing over her endless wandering. She retreads familiar places and learns nothing new, although it does provide a very chilling look inside her mind. She's worn out, scared, and utterly broken. It's clear she feels she's failed everyone, and with the apocalyptic tornado waiting just offshore of the sleepy Northwestern town, she's pressured to move fast through a sequence of events that looks and functions almost exactly like the final baffling, surrealist episode of David Lynch's Twin Peaks.
If I learned anything from BioShock Infinite...
While all of this is going on, the storm Max created with the butterfly effect of her powers--Max says she created the storm but we never learn exactly how her decisions affect it--closes in on the town. The wind howls and rain drenches Max as she picks her way through the wreckage of buildings along the ocean--and yet there is no urgency. The people she encounters are calm. The sea level is rising and no one is even attempting to leave the shoreline. The tornado of the century is happening feet away and no one's hair moves. I had a hard time buying the "everyone is going to die" thing because Polarized fails to sell its apocalyptic stakes in any meaningful way.
All of this wraps up with a final choice, that--should you choose to go back and see both--is unbalanced. One possible ending is short and somewhat shallow, while the other rolls the most crushing scene in the series and then sends you on a sprawling visual journey in which Max appears to have learned something about how life works. It genuinely feels like one ending is an afterthought. But this choice is so divorced from everything you've done so far, the logical leaps characters make to come to this decision are curve balls. It's a heartbreaking climax handled clumsily.
Life is Strange paints an excellent, vivid picture of a young woman's struggle for acceptance and justice, but trips itself up by trying to make things gamey. The series is at its best when it's just letting you explore; in the beginning you're roaming the world around you, picking through pieces of other's lives, and by the end you're treading Max's subconscious. The story of Max and Chloe is a beautiful tale, but it's marred by bizarre logical leaps and leftover plot holes. Aggravating out-of-place fetch quests and stealth sequences crack the somber atmosphere and very hamfistedly remind you that you're playing a game. It's unfortunate, because I do love Life is Strange's story. I just wish the ending wasn't so mismanaged.

The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes

The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes is a drastic departure from series tradition, and at times, it shows real potential, with clever design rivaling the best of the series’ past. But those moments are few and far between. The rest is just filler in a shallow game that tries a slew of new things, but accomplishes only a few.
Tri Force Heroes is Nintendo’s second original Zelda title on 3DS after 2013’s stellar A Link Between Worlds. This new incarnation, however, is structured as a multiplayer title with a loot system, gear crafting, and cooperative dungeons with short run times.
The story opens on Hytopia, a realm wherein a witch has cursed Princess Styla with a brown, form-fitting body suit. The princess feels ugly in her new garb, and the Hytopian king puts out a call for adventurers to break the curse with a grand ballroom dress. From there, you wade through a series of puzzles and combat arenas in search of materials to break the curse.
Nintendo has told farfetched Zelda tales before, but Tri Force Heroes pushes that sentiment even farther. It tells a story of fashion gurus and designer dresses, complete with eccentric personalities and fashion tips. At first, the whimsical plot was so weird, it captivated me. But as it progressed, it deteriorated, with such poorly written characters and such inexplicable plot points, I dreaded every cutscene’s approach. This game’s final boss embraces the fashion angle so literally, it feels as if Nintendo talked itself into a corner, only to justify the grievous plot at the last second.
Despite a few great bosses, most demand similar cooperative maneuvers to bring down.
During your travels, you’ll collect materials to fashion your own new outfits. This loot system provides a rewarding feedback loop at first: complete dungeons, gather materials, fashion outfits, and gain new abilities. The Kokiri Clothes let you fire three arrows at a time. The Goron costume grants the ability to swim in lava. Some outfits change the way you approach dungeons entirely, making this new approach to character perks one of the entertaining ideas present in Tri Force Heroes.
But earning these bonuses becomes a chore. Tri Force Heroes doesn’t present the traditional Zelda open-world structure--instead it implements what feels just like a series of challenges. A warp room in the castle brings you to the Drablands, where you solve puzzles and slay monsters in expected Zelda fashion. Yet these dungeons are repetitive. Each begins with item acquisition, and proceeds through two more rooms before the boss or wave-based skirmish rear their heads.
And these dungeons are short--I finished most in under 15 minutes. This is an effort to facilitate the loot system that demands repeat playthroughs, but it has a negative effect. The puzzles--except for a few--seem too simple. You learn how to use each item. You learn their applications. And just when it seems Nintendo might delve deeper into the branching possibilities of the challenges at hand, the dungeon ends.
More often than not, there's a boss at the end of each area. My favorite is a giant Stalfos skeleton that only crumbles after all three heroes use their unique items to bring it down. But this is one of a small number of clever bosses, in a game with a slew of repetitive others. The vast majority of them ask the same question: how many heroes do you need to stack on top of one another, and when should you do so?
In Tri Force Heroes, puzzles center around Totems. This gameplay conceit allows players to carry one or both of their partners, and sometimes throw them in the hopes of reaching distant ledges, or attacking taller varieties of monsters. It leads to rare great moments when teams solve a puzzle not as individuals, but as a collective council with three essential members.
Heroes can throw each other across gaps, only to retrieve the one left behind with a subsequent boomerang throw. Others require stacking to hit otherwise untouchable switches. And I adore the fire temple, complete with all of its disappearing platforms and hazardous machinery. It encourages teamwork more than any other area. It’s one of those shining places where Tri Force Heroes capitalizes on its conceptual potential, comprising puzzles that encourage teamwork, vertical thinking, and careful motor skills.
There's a taxing dichotomy between the solo and cooperative modes, and the overall experience feels fractured.
But a day later, I replayed the same puzzles. Only this time, I tried them in single player. And when it comes to this mode, Tri Force Heroes stumbles. In place of fellow humans, Nintendo provides you with doppels--heroes that, when not being used, become lifeless statues. You can switch between them with the handheld’s touch screen, but moving each hero to the exit means carrying the others for much of the time.
By choosing to play by yourself, you invite a level of micromanagement that transforms otherwise clever dungeons into heavy slogs. The solutions to the puzzles are the same, but some bosses, and some dungeons, are exponentially harder on your own.
Because there's no online voice chat, emotes are essential to communication.
One example: a certain early boss focuses on one hero at a time, leaving its vulnerable tail open to other human players’ swords. But in single-player, switching between doppels, throwing the lifeless shells onto ledges for hearts, all while avoiding nearby lava pools, is an ordeal. There’s a taxing dichotomy between the solo and cooperative modes here, and despite the few puzzles that balance the two well, the overall experience feels fractured.
This rings true when returning to puzzles as well. Once you’ve beaten a dungeon’s boss, Nintendo offers challenges that alter your approach. One removes your swords, arming you only with bombs. Another hangs monsters from the ceiling, forcing your team to keep moving at a hurried pace. Another adds balloons to each room, asking you to pop them before moving to the next, all the while focusing on enemies, as well as the puzzle at hand.
These twists can make multiplayer more fun, as your group adapts to the changes imposed on them. However, some of them are near impossible on your own. It widens the gap between multiplayer and single player even more.
There are several barriers preventing Tri Force Heroes from being great. But through it all, one of the series' greatest traits remains strong even here: the exceptional music. Lilting flutes, snappy strings, and tense battle drums pervade every area. The music reminds me how compelling this franchise can be, and how great it often is. Nintendo has deviated from the norm with the series before--but this time, many of its changes don't work.
Consider this: in single player, Nintendo grants you the option to skip entire sections of each dungeon, so long as you're fine with the prospect of less loot. I avoided this route, but considered it often. There are hints of a great game here, and when three players are cooperating in frantic battles, or working through dynamic puzzles, it shows.
But like its story of fashion and surface appeal, there’s not much depth here, and the facade fades with time. Tri Force Heroes offers us the means to work together, but not enough reason to do so.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Assassin's Creed Syndicate Assassin's Creed Syndicate

After completing my second ghost hunt with Charles Dickens, I decided it was about time to shut down the last factory forcing children into labor. As I made my way across Westminster, zipping between rooftops with my rope launcher, a notice popped up indicating I was approaching a bounty hunt. The objective was simple--kill an important member of my rival gang--and I decided the children could wait a bit longer. I was in and out of the mission in under a minute after dropping hanging barrels on gang members, throwing down a smoke bomb and taking out the leader with a gun to the head. I ziplined out, stopping only once more to change my outfit to one that held more throwing knives, before dropping by a black market stall for a refill and dashing towards the factory. The children of London needed me.
This is Assassin's Creed Syndicate's playground. One moment you're free-running through a borough towards the next story mission, the next you're sneaking through a dilapidated building picking off criminals as you find yourself irresistibly drawn to the promise of experience points and in-game cash--not to mention notoriety among the London underground. The organic way in which missions and side projects pop up is bolstered by their placement in a gorgeous rendition of 1868 London, complete with massive factories spewing smoke into the sky and intricately detailed copies of every major landmark you can think of--all climbable, of course. Overlaying all of this is one of the best stories the Assassin's Creed franchise has told in recent years, featuring dual protagonists that are relatable and lovable. Occasionally during climbing it can feel like your freedom of movement is limited, and controls will sometimes sabotage you with some unwieldiness and counterintuitive button placement. More of the environment has been made available for you to climb on, and the rope launcher can attach to nearly all ledges, so these small occurrences of flying off the rails are inconvenient at worst. But overall combat and movement feel great, and Assassin's Creed Syndicate's story is charming, while countless amusements will keep you lost in London for hours.
Syndicate's story is an intimate, personal tale like that of last year's Assassin's Creed Unity mixed with older Assassin's Creeds' tendencies to pack in the historical figures. The modern day elements are more toned down than they were in previous Assassin games, so much so that they're barely present. You spend all your time as Jacob and Evie Frye, assassin twins who come to London in 1868. Under the leadership of Crawford Starrick, the Templars have a stranglehold on the city, and a sinister gang called the Blighters run things to their liking.
Gang fights are wild, unpredictable, and tons of fun.
The absence of any fiddling around in a present-day timeline is a boon to Syndicate's story, allowing laser-focus on the 1868 London plot. The story centers around the politics and policies of Industrial Revolution London, with Jacob and Evie fighting not only to dismantle the Templar conspiracy but also to bring justice and refuge to the city's downtrodden. Jacob and Evie also frequently fight each other, with disagreements about what it means to be an Assassin forming a tense undercurrent. Along the way, the two come into contact with a smattering of historical characters--ranging from Alexander Graham Bell (who gives the game's best items) to Charles Dickens and Karl Marx--making the Fryes tangential and sometimes integral to the great successes these individuals achieved. These interactions fit neatly into Syndicate's overall flow, and while it does seem like these figures are packed in a little too tight, the game gives breathing room to each individual story.
London feels alive. Towers breathe smoke into the sky, stations bustle with passengers and passing trains, the homeless burn fires in trash cans in alleys, and stray cats pause to look at you while you lie in wait for your target. Bystander AI can be overdramatic at times, cowering in fear indefinitely after witnessing you murder someone in front of them, but those visceral reactions are what make starting fights in public such a delight. You throw a punch in a marketplace and crowds immediately vacate the area, fleeing from your wrath. Little boys and women run and scream as you sink your blade in someone's throat. NPCs also yell at you when you loot bodies, bid you good-day as you walk by, and make whispered comments to companions about your looks. And piled on top of it all is a brilliant soundtrack, a seamless sea of tunes that capture the sadness of the poor and the determination of the Fryes. In one instance, as you climb a spire to a viewpoint, a soft soprano-and-string number kicks in, painting a picture of melancholy for the past and hope for the future. Sights and sounds combine to create an irresistible portrait of London, and make exploring for every side quest and collectible an enjoyable experience.
This doesn't look good at all.
Moving and fighting in London is also a satisfying experience, at least when controls cooperate. Combat is fluid and simple and relies mostly on the D-pad, on which directions are mapped to attack, counter, stun and shoot. If you're quick, you can punch in combos that knock enemies over and trigger some final execution moves that are brutal and beautiful. It's undeniably satisfying to chain hits and kills until you're bopping around between enemies in a gang war, flying along a circle of combatants and systematically bringing them to their knees in one fell swoop.
Free-running follows this same simplicity; hold down R2 while running and press one button to go up and another to go down. You can climb pretty much everything in London with relative ease, with the city's gorgeous details offering compelling arguments to eschew fast travel. But these controls take some time getting used to and feel counterintuitive, especially while climbing. Sometimes you'll kick off a wall when you meant to climb up or go up when you try to go down; this imprecision has characterized the series controls from the start. But in Syndicate this imprecision is infrequent, and while the controls aren't perfect they do feel much better and more fluid.
Gone are the days of snapping to cover and blending into crowds. In Syndicate, a white "Threat Ring" appears around your assassin when enemies are near. Markings on the ring show you where enemies are relative to your position, which is helpful when you're crouching in an area and can't see much. This tool makes stealth much easier and allowed me to gauge who to take out first based on how close they were and whether they'd noticed me. Then you can determine which tools to whip out of your belt, be it electric bombs or throwing knives. Do I smoke bomb this group and take out the leader under cover? Or do I just escape to a rooftop and pick them off one by one with throwing knives? Or better, make them turn on each other with hallucinogenic darts? The tools at your disposal and how you combine them is entirely up to you, and Syndicate's mission design offers ample breathing room to complete each mission in your own way.
The only thing that matters here is that corgi in a purse.
I can recall only using Syndicate's fast travel points three times during my entire playthrough, because with the rope launcher in your toolbox, why would you take any other route through London? The setting is so lovely, and zipping across the city like a Victorian Spider-Man makes you truly feel like the city's protector, dropping to the streets every so often to air assassinate someone. In addition to setting up aerial kills, using the rope launcher instead of fast travel allows you to organically stumble upon one of London's many sidequests and make a pit stop for extra cash. Many times, on my way to a story mission, I would zipline over a side mission and think, "Why the hell not, I'm here!" One tool helps you traverse, discover, escape, and assassinate. The rope launcher is the thing this franchise so desperately needed, and now that it's here I don't ever want to be without it.
I always feel bad for the horses in these situations.
Another new mechanic is the ability to drive carriages. I found Syndicate's vehicles relatively easy to handle. You can also do any number of things with these carriages, including hijacking them for your own purposes and hiding bodies in them. One string of side missions involved collecting wanted criminals for a policeman; I would knock them out, steal a carriage from an unwitting bystander, put the body in the car, and then drive away. In some instances the rival gang has carts on the road as well, which can devolve into some hilariously fun Grand Theft Auto-style chases. You can ram carriages as they ride up next to yours or climb up onto your own carriage’s roof to engage in fisticuffs with enemies. Hijacking moving carts is thrilling, and destruction is encouraged. There's an experience perk you can earn for destroying street lamps and other public property, so don't be shy about running people over.
Combat, grand theft carriage, and bounties all play into the game's main story, and you'll be tasked with doing all of these things over the course of Jacob and Evie's adventures. While you can switch between the twins on the fly when playing side missions, you'll be locked into playing as a certain twin for specific story tasks. Each chapter has dedicated objectives for both Jacob and Evie. Jacob's tasks cause more mayhem and utilize his talent for close-quarters combat as he seeks to bring justice to London's underdogs, often resulting in explosions and other destruction. Evie's missions mostly require sneaking around without being detected. Her objectives feel closer to the traditional Assassin's Creed story, and you'll spend time with her doing the order proud while Jacob makes a mess of everything and invests in creating his own gang, the Rooks.
"Yes, he's like this all the time."
In addition to differing personalities--with Evie constantly reprimanding Jacob while he rather humorously bumbles around achieving his squad goals--the twins have different unique skills that tie into their interpretation of what it means to be an assassin. Evie's special skills are stealth-based, with one incredibly useful ability allowing her to disappear completely while she's standing still in sneak mode. She can also hold twice as many throwing knives as Jacob and her stealth stats far exceed her brother's. She'll be the one you take with you on bounty hunting and liberation missions. Jacob is more suited for gang wars, a brawler who takes less damage and, with all skills unlocked, can bring enemies to near-death states quicker. Their differences are noticeable in gameplay, and rather than have one character you can customize either way, it's a brilliant touch to have two characters ready and available for different kinds of missions at any given time.
I cannot stress enough how deeply likeable and relatable Jacob and Evie can be. Evie is serious but sweet, tough in battle but willing to pick up the scattered papers of a stranger she bumps into on the street. She acts more like an older sister than a twin, bossing her brother around and openly deriding his more destructive decisions. Jacob is goofy, flippant, cheeky, and is more concerned about his gang and toys while his sister fulfills her oath. He makes fun of Evie's belief in ghosts and her willingness to help everyone they meet, but under all that snark it's clear he loves his sister. Their banter is sweet and at times funny, and while they are two separate entities when it comes to combat, they truly feel like two parts of the same whole. Their story is a powerful one, about duty and family, and the ease with which they communicate and the believability of their relationship showcases the draw of Syndicate's narrative. Add to this a supporting cast filled with diverse, equally believable characters, and Syndicate feels a little bit like being at a party with all of your friends.
The first rule of fight club is Evie Frye always wins fight club.
In addition to leveling up Jacob and Evie, you can level up their green-clad gang, the Rooks. I became obsessed with tricking out my gang, because having strong fighters on the streets mean you'll always have backup in a fight. Using in-game currency, you can unlock perks for your gang, such as sturdier carriages and cheap access to hallucinogenic darts. You can even pay off policeman to turn a blind eye to some of your illegal activities and assemble an army of children to bring you crafting items on the streets. Micromanaging your gang is worthwhile because it completely changes your experience in London. Having this extra layer to deal with keeps you engaged in activities outside the main story and is another fun way to leave your mark on the world.
Syndicate's story is a riveting tale of compassion and greed, but the mechanics of its climax don't carry enough urgency and drama. A final boss fight usually tests the skills you've learned throughout the game, but Syndicate's is a memorable for the wrong reasons. It's an anticlimactic scramble through moving environmental obstacles to reach the boss and trigger a quick time event. This sequence of events happens several times in order for you to beat the encounter. It's a frustrating setup that tosses all narrative tension out the window.
But a disappointing final fight and some control hitches can't diminish the charms of Assassin's Creed Syndicate. The game is a triumphant return to form for the franchise, and presents a beautifully structured tale with heart and soul to spare. Ziplining through London is thrilling, and the game allows you to organically discover missions and leaves you open-ended solutions lets you to create a meaningful, personal experience within its world. Coupled with strong, loveable leads and a seemingly endless procession of ways to leave your (fictional) mark on London's history, Assassin's Creed Syndicate is a shining example of gameplay and storytelling.

Santa bought me a PlayStation. But it's still not art

Video games are great fun but why try to categorise them as art or non-art? It's like asking if Jane Austen qualifies as sport
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
'Better a good game than a bad work of art' … Lara Croft: Tomb Raider Photograph: PR company handout
I've occasionally been asked for my comments on video games. Are they art? My quick answer, when asked, has always been a fairly curt "No".
And then guess what – Santa brought a PlayStation. Plus a variety of games, old and new. So am I all turned around on the joys of virtual play?
I certainly know (slightly) more. I am no expert (honestly, Lara Croft, I thought you could jump off that cliff without a scratch). But do I still suspect these computer game thingumajigs are the devil's mind candy? Well, no. I think they're a fantastic pastime.
The great defence of video games is that they are not the internet – no offence intended – with its ceaseless assaults on attention span. While many aspects of digital culture minimise concentration (hey you! You know who you are. Please read to the end of this short article before posting a comment …), games demand absolute attention over long periods of time. They create fictional worlds of great conviction and intensity. Above all, in an age when free online stuff is the norm, games have expensive production values and no one seems to resent paying money to reward those.
So in many ways, the world of computer games is an alternative model of digital life – a more creative, even contemplative, style of interaction. Until you post your scores online and blog about which game is better and the whole noise of random comment starts again.
Which brings me back to that old chestnut … can video games be art? And the answer is still No, or at least, Not Likely. It seems a bizarre and irrelevant question to ask. Like, if I was reading Jane Austen and you said, "But is it sport?" No, it's not sport, it's a novel. Why would it need to be anything else?
Electronic games offer a rich and spectacular entertainment, but why do they need to be anything more than fun? Why does everything have to be art?
Very few things count as Art. I would argue that very little art is actually art – because most of it fails, and failed art is not art. We just politely pretend that it is.
Better to create a good game than a bad work of art. Games give us pleasure and freedom. Art also does that, in a different way. But it is rare. I enjoy games. I hate bad art.

10 indie games to look out for in 2014

Sword fighting, retro hacking, rioting… if you're looking for something other than military shooters and fantasy RPG, start here
Riot game
Civil unrest simulator, Riot, seeks to explore the dynamics of public disorder PR
Welcome! Come through to the parlour of 2014, sir, madam, and taste of the finest delicacies and morsels this year's small developers have to offer. There is much in the way of cyberpunk, horror, and sparking neon, and would you care for a canape of David Lynch with a little Burroughs perhaps? Ah, maybe you are into feeling nihilistically bummed out? Or, you'd rather have this hors d'oeuvres containing a whole crowd rioting?… I see.
There were so many games I didn't manage to fit into this list, so don't feel bad if I didn't include your favourite: 2014 is going to be knuckle-crackingly pleasurable for small budget developers; we'll see less known developers break through and known developers do their best work. And all for only a tiny slice of the cash you'd pay for a big budget shootfest. What a time to game in, my friends.
Well. Let's start with the world's most thrilling sword fighting simulator shall we? No, it's not a rude joke, I promise.

Nidhogg (Messhof, PC)

At laaaaaaast! In fluid movements of skill and half-breath decisions, you swipe your épée low-mid-high at your opponent across clouds, mines, castles and wilds. This long-awaited local multiplayer indie game is an intricate, flowing game of fencing, in which you kick as well as slash opponents through long grass and hallways. It's out on 13 January with a Daedalus soundtrack.

Routine (Lunar Software, PC)

A slowburn cyberpunk horror game where you must find what caused the disappearance of everyone on an abandoned moon base. First-person exploration, permadeath, deadzone aiming, no HUD: it's all full-eyed horror. The game will also be available on VR device Oculus Rift at launch, adding an extra sense of horrible dread. Atmospheric. Futuristic. Dank. Full of tension. And it's the prettiest suitor at the prom. GIVE IT TO ME.

Tangiers (Andalusian, PC/Mac)

David Lynchian stealth game Tangiers is described by its creators as, "a love letter to the avant-garde of the 20th century… set in a world built from the broken prose of Burroughs and the social dystopia brought about by Ballard's architecture." Inspired by classic PC game Thief, it applies Burroughs' 'cut-up' technique to constantly rearrange the environment based on player decisions. I love this game because it seems to emulate old ideas and create new ones, integrating some of the most interesting concepts of literature and art. Strange and dark, it comes to PC, Mac and Linux this year.

The Witness (Jonathan Blow, iOS, PC, PS4)

Whatever you think of philosophising Braid-developing leaf-on-the-wind Jonathan Blow, his next game looks set to reinvent my childhood favourite, Myst, by exploring something Cyan Inc's classic title only dabbled in: the realm of three dimensions. An atmospheric exploration puzzle game on a remote island is promised. I bet it will be good, and everyone will be upset because it will be good.

Video games and art: why does the media get it so wrong?

Another critic has taken another sideways glance – but the medium is strong enough to resist these withering ovations
Journey – is it fun? Or art? Or both?
Here is a good way to tell if a critic is having a moment of madness: they will attempt to define art. The greatest philosophers in history have floundered on the question, many simply avoided it altogether preferring to grapple with more straightforward questions – like the nature of logic, or the existence of God. Art is ethereal, boundless, its meaning as transient as the seasons. When you think you have grasped it, it slips through your fingers.
And yet here we are again (again!), with a respected critic claiming to know what art is or can ever be, and suggesting that video games cannot be included. That critic is the Guardian's own Jonathan Jones, who has been here before, decrying Moma for including a selection of computer games in its design section. Games are not art because there is no individual ownership, he insisted at the time, a contention which appeared to strike out a whole pantheon of collaborative projects from art history.
Now his affectionately expressed objection - prompted by the gift of a PlayStation 3 and a couple of mainstream releases – is that games aren't art and that we shouldn't care. "Electronic games offer a rich and spectacular entertainment," he declares, correctly, "but why do they need to be anything more than fun? Why does everything have to be art?"
Jones is an excellent writer, but as he admits, he knows very little about games – and doesn't really want to. When he last strayed on to this subject matter, I penned a counter-piece, in which I showed how generations of art critics have reacted against emerging artistic forms by immediately dismissing their worth. The shock of the new, and all that. But I ended with something along similar lines to Jones' argument:
"Are games art or aren't they? Nobody need answer. Games are beautiful and important, we can leave it there and know that we are right."
There is a key difference here though. For me, games transcend the question because they are so wonderfully complex: they are emergent and system-led, but also narrative and directed; they amalgamate electronics, audio and visuals, but also often rely on text; they need user input, and yet are authorial. But for Jones, they are mere toys, they are playthings. "Why do they need to be anything more than fun?" he asks, and though I respect my colleague, I can't help but see in this a certain amount of condescension. It is the critic's equivalent of ruffling a child's hair and sending them on their way. Why do they need to be more than fun?
So here's another question: why do films need to be more than just fun? Why does art?
Countering Jones' argument is a basic truth: games are an expressive medium. They are a form of communication. Naturally, Jones won't see that so much in the mainstream action adventures that Santa brought him; just as a movie reviewer won't see much art or meaning in a Michael Bay flick. But deeper communication is clear in the more thoughtful games that he may not have seen. In Journey, in Cart Life, in Papers Please, in Device 6, in The Stanley Parable – games that have more to say than blam, blam blam.
That Dragon, Cancer
That Dragon, Cancer
Why can't games just be fun? Because intelligent, thoughtful designers such as Navid Khonsari want to make games about serious issues like the 1979 Iranian revolution. Why can't games just be fun? Because Ryan Green is making That Dragon, Cancer, a game about how he and his wife are coping with the terminal illness of their youngest son. Green has chosen games as his medium of expression, his way of coping, because he is a game designer – it is how he thinks, and partly how he processes the world and what is happening to his family. He also sees in games an accessible way of telling people about cancer, and about hope and faith. Shall we just tell him that's not right? Perhaps you'd like to do that. I certainly don't.
Why aren't games just fun? Because games speak to people, especially young people, in ways that films and books and TV don't.
Games speak to people.
The greatest artists, you see, want to communicate in the most popular media of the time, they want to be heard. That's why Shakespeare wrote for the lice-ridden but packed theatres of London, that's why Bertolt Brecht collaborated with Fritz Lang to bring his theories to Hollywood, that's why Dickens and Dumas had their novels serialised in magazines. Why aren't games just fun? Because video games are now a language and language is a tool of expression and change. A bit like art, yes?
Here is something I feel more and more these days. And this is not so much to do with Jones, a thoughtful and engaging critic – but it is in the sphere of his article. How tired I am, how utterly exhausted I have become with a certain mainstream standpoint on games. That whole nudge and grin approach you often see when games come up on television news programmes or magazine shows, or in the culture section of newspapers; the shrugged shoulders, the grimaces of affable incomprehension. I think it's time this ended because it is really not OK to dismiss what you don't understand. Yet somehow it still happens. It happens because new is shocking and games are out there, everywhere, and they make no sense to some people, and they are closing in.
Defining art is madness, and dismissing a vast, vibrant and creative medium is folly. Here is a thought for all those who think of games in this way. Just a thought. Imagine the future – the future as represented by games, the $60bn a year medium, the most pervasive communication platform of the 21st century – imagine this future as a storm cloud above you. Well, the cloud has burst and your objections are being drowned out amid the tumult. Soon you will realise that you are Lear on the moors railing against the world, and the fool at your side is the only one who nods in agreement.

EA hit with Battlefield 4 lawsuit – but does it have merit?

US law firm claims publisher mislead investors in runup to release of troubled shooter Battlefield 4
Battlefield 4
Battlefield 4 – the shooter has been plagued by glitches and server issues since its release
Electronic Arts is preparing for court once again. On Tuesday, law firm Robbins, Geller, Rudman and Dowd filed a class action lawsuit against the publisher on behalf of investors who bought stock in the company between 24 July and 3 December.
The suit alleges that EA violated the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 by allegedly providing "materially false and misleading statements" about military shooter, Battlefield 4. Before the release of the game, Electronic Arts issued strong fiscal guidance to investors, based on the "purported" strength of the latest Battlefield title. "The price of Electronic Arts’ stock steadily climbed on these statements," reads the law firm's statement, "reaching a Class Period high of $28.13 per share by August 23, 2013 and allowing certain of Electronic Arts’ senior executives to sell their Electronic Arts stock at artificially inflated prices."
However, after the launch of the game on 29 October – but most obviously following the arrival of the PlayStation 4 version on 15 November – there have been numerous problems with the software, especially its online multiplayer component. Hundreds of players hit game forums and news sites complaining that they were unable to connect or were being continually booted from servers. Earlier this month developer EA DICE announced that it would put all other development projects on hold until the issues with Battlefield 4 had been resolved.
The lawsuit goes on to point out that after EA's announcement stock value fell, closing at $21.01 on 5 December, "sending the share price down more than 28% from its Class Period high".
The allegation, then, is that Electronic Arts executives raised expectations about Battlefield 4 in October knowing that the game was "riddled with bugs and multiple other problems".
The lawsuit alleges: "With an inflated share value, senior execs were then able to offload shares, selling more than $13.2m of stock at fraud-inflated prices."
"Meritless action"
In a statement issued to US games site Polygon, Electronic Arts has said: "We believe these claims are meritless. We intend to aggressively defend ourselves, and we're confident the court will dismiss the complaint in due course."
So is this a meritless case? "Robbins, Geller, Rudman and Dowd handled the Enron class action," says Alex Tutty from UK law firm Sheridans. "They are a securities law firm, this is what they do. The firm obviously believes there is a case to answer, and in order to take it forward they need to find a plaintiff – someone who has suffered financial harm in this period due to purchasing shares on the basis of the statements made.
"This is a problematic case, and it doesn't look good for EA, simply from a PR point of view. Looking at the fact as presented by Robbins, Geller, Rudman and Dowd, there does seem to be a case to answer. However, we've only seen one side of the argument. Companies do give this sort of guidance, and it is important to be accurate, but it is just guidance based on what they know at the time. You'd have to prove that they knowingly gave false information, and it would be difficult to know about all the bugs that would crop up on the PlayStation 4 version. EA can probably produce a lot of evidence to suggest they didn't perceive the extent of the problem, or didn't have sight of it until after launch."
Robbins, Geller, Rudman and Dowd now has until February to find a lead plaintiff – if it succeeds, court beckons. In the background, Battlefield 4 has not performed as well as its predecessor at retail – according to industry news site, MCV, UK sales are down 69% compared to Battlefield 3. However, several Triple A franchises, including Assassin's Creed and Battlefield's rival Call of Duty have found the transition from current consoles to the next-gen machines difficult, with sales down across the board.
Whatever the case, this lawsuit has the potential to set an interesting precedent in terms of publisher culpability for problematic launch software. Several major titles have similarly suffered from bugs, glitches and server failures this year, including Diablo III and GTA Online, the multiplayer component of Grand Theft Auto V.
This is not the first potentially expensive legal action EA has had to contend with. Earlier this year, the publisher settled on a lawsuit filed against Zynga for copyright infringement concerning the latter's game, The Ville. And in 2012, EA also settled on a complicated lawsuit with Activision over the departure of game developers Jason West and Vincent Zampella from the Activision-owned Infinity Ward to the EA-published Respawn Studios.