Last week, Sony debuted the first episode of “State of Play”. In short, this is the PlayStation version of Nintendo Direct. I think this is a great thing. It’s just another example of how E3 is dying, which I’ve been saying for years. Every year I do a blog post about E3 and in the last several years I have been very critical. I want to reiterate that my problem with E3 is not the general concept but the business model and execution. I think live gaming events for the public are a good thing. I think making them private events that only allow media while charging game companies a fortune to give the event content is preposterous and outdated. And I praised E3 for finally selling some public access tickets in my post last year. But really it’s too little and nearly too late. If drastic changes aren’t made to the model soon, the entire concept will be dead in the water if it’s not already. All that is to say that I happily support State of Play as a concept.
Let’s be honest, the content shown in this first episode was lackluster. It was a bunch of VR announcements that affect less than 10% of the entire PS4 user base, a remake we don’t really need, an indie Gauntlet clone with a minor PVP component, Concrete Genie, and footage from two AAA titles that we were already well aware of. Concrete Genie was probably the only part of that presentation that had any real value to the bulk of PS4 users. And please don’t try to tell me that presentation told you anything about Days Gone you weren’t already aware of if it’s a game you were actually interested in before watching the presentation. But the content shown isn’t why I already consider State of Play a success and ultimately a good thing.
Sony announced that they weren’t attending E3 this year months ago. They were very open and honest about the fact that they have very little to show for this year. Between such a strong 2018, with games like God of War, Detroit: Become Human, and Marvel’s Spider-Man, and the all but confirmed transition to PS5 coming in less than two years, they’re basically riding out the rest of this generation. Also remember that there are great third party titles coming out that Sony has no real reason to try to compete with directly this late in the gen when the largest user base is on their platform anyway. Games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice put plenty of money in Sony’s bank account for a fraction of the work it takes for them to make the next God of War level project. And since they’re putting out a new console soon anyway while concurrently dominating the current generation, and have the largest console multiplayer base with games like The Division 2, there’s really no reason for them to rush out anything. I genuinely believe the only reason this first State of Play was released now is that they were trying to console people who have been complaining about the lack of announcements directly from Sony since the last E3. Remember that PlayStation Experience was cancelled last year as well. In a way, this is the ideal scenario though.
When a company has nothing to show, it’s fairly common for them to say nothing, make up some bullshit, or show something way too far in advance. For whatever reason, a large number of gamers seem to be happy when the second or third thing occurs, but get livid when the first, the most honest of the three, happens. Yet Sony did none of these three things with this State of Play. They had nothing and they used it. Even with very little to show, they put together a 20 minute presentation about what was on the way, and in true Nintendo Direct style, they only showed things that will be out relatively soon. This level of transparency has never really existed in the gaming industry before from a AAA publisher and hardware manufacturer. I would much rather a company honestly tell me they have nothing than lie to me or show me stuff that may not even happen (glances at Scalebound). So for me State of Play was great even if the games shown were a combination of junk and information I already had.
I also really liked the format. I want all gaming presentations to be done like State of Play. No bullshit. No random people I don’t care about trying to make badly written jokes to transition between projects. Just a single faceless voice giving bare bones facts about upcoming projects over gameplay footage, with release dates in the not too distant future. They showed 17 games, all releasing this year, with gameplay footage, in less than 20 minutes. That’s amazing. The recent Nindie Showcase showed 18 games and took more than 25 minutes. The time of the long drawn out presentation is past. People watch these at work in a corner window or while traveling, on their phones and tablets. I don’t need pomp and drama in my games presentations. I need facts and footage in an efficient and informative manner. And there’s no resentment.
I won’t speak for everyone, but a large number of gamers are fed up with media and gaming personalities. Over the last several years, a lot of faux pas, bullshit, and disappointing moments have been perpetrated by the games industry and media, not to mention “influencers”. Much of this has been overblown, but there have also been many valid criticisms. People no longer want to see unqualified hacks or unknown randoms present games. Unless it’s an actual developer talking, I could personally do without a face at all. A large part of this comes from jealousy, and I include myself in that statement.
Why does this random millennial get to present games while I have to work my boring job? Do they game more than I do? Do they have some degree in gaming that I wasn’t aware I could get? What gives them the right above all the gamers watching to have that job? This is the thought process that has developed over a generation of random unqualified media personalities with nothing to justify their positions except a social media following getting the privilege of working alongside the games industry. It has bread a lot of bad blood that has even often spilled into development as well. Many people are kind of just done with people, which is admittedly sad but not unjustified. I appreciate that Sony recognized this in how they formatted this first State of Play. Faceless voice presenting games with a minimum amount of marketing fluff. No one to get jealous of. No experiences to envy. No reason or target to hate. Just gaming. And really isn’t that what these presentations are supposed to be about?
I genuinely liked State of Play. The content was disappointing but the way it was presented was ideal. And this also showed that Sony is willing to do State of Play presentations even when nothing huge is in the pipeline. That’s great for indie games. There are so many great smaller titles that never get any attention simply because people don’t hear about them and they don’t have the budgets for marketing. But if Sony, like current Nintendo with the Nindies Showcase, will take the time to do presentations with no spectacular announcements, that gives indie titles a real chance to shine on PlayStation consoles.
I guess the point I’m making is that a lot of people have been complaining about State of Play but I think it showed a great amount of potential as a format and the future of gaming news. Slowly but surely we are breaking down the walls between the developer and the gamer with more direct access to information without the need for middle men, media companies, and elitist events that most of the gaming community can’t attend for one reason or another. In my book, the future of gaming information distribution is going in the right direction.
What are your thoughts on State of Play and what this means for the future of gaming news?
When I was a young lad, back before the age of internet, always online, and microtransactions, we played many great games that made no sense but were tons of fun and super addictive in a healthy way. I can’t tell you why fat, Italian plumbers jumped on mushrooms or why blue hedgehogs felt compelled to collect golden rings, but I can tell you that the number of mushrooms I squashed and the number of rings I collected is much higher than the number of Fortnite bucks I’ve earned. One of my favorite games from my childhood was the original ToeJam & Earl (1991) for the Sega Genesis.
If I’m honest, I didn’t really understand the game as a kid. It was the original roguelike before that was an established genre. I played it often but never really knew what I was doing. I also don’t remember watching the opening movie so I don’t think I even knew what the premise of the game was back then. What I do remember is that it was one of the games that my father and uncles used to love to play and we all would play it together. I also loved the funky music and the fact that a character was named ToeJam, because that was and still is funny to me for some reason. So when I think about ToeJam & Earl, it’s always with great fondness. I eventually did go back and play the original game years later, actually watched the cutscenes, and completed it. I also completed the ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth (2002) for the XBOX. I tried ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron (1993) right after completing the first game, but I really didn’t like the different gameplay style. In any case, I have always cared a great deal about this franchise. That’s why I was ecstatic when I heard that someone was making a new installment after all these years. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to play a new ToeJam & Earl game in 2019. I kind of wish I had gotten the Switch version so I could round up my uncles and father and play it as a family once again.
ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is both a sequel and a remake of the original game. It is important to understand this going in because it informs a number of design choices that people who aren’t familiar with the original game might not like or understand. As I said previously, it’s a roguelike but it has a number of conventions specific to this franchise and not much else. It’s also important to understand this in the context of judging it. If you’re looking at it strictly as a game being released in 2019, then it’s obviously not going to stand up to most if any top tier games being released today. Or at least that would be the case if we didn’t keep getting dumpster fire AAA releases like Fallout 76 and Anthem. But if we look at this in the context of recreating a game from 1991, then it’s one of the most true to form remakes I’ve ever seen not based on a game from the modern era. That’s the context within which I played and ultimately chose to review this game.
Assuming you have played or at least looked up some footage from the original game before starting Groove!, the first thing you notice as soon as the opening cutscene starts is that the graphics are vastly improved but true to the original style. It’s like night and day even though they’re both flat environments pretending to have three dimensional qualities. This new game definitely has a bit more depth to it with things like hills and the ability to clearly see the previous level floating beneath the one you’re currently on, but it’s still the same 2D style used in the first game. The vibrant colors stand out so much in this game. Compared to original, it’s like you were looking at a dirty screen and someone finally cleaned it off. Everything is brighter and way more detailed, including ToeJam and Earl themselves. Plus there are a lot of display options. You can play full screen or windowed play in 18 different resolutions.
There is a literal hoard of earthlings in this game to interact with, both evil and good. The movement is fluid and diverse for all of them. The playable characters move very smoothly as well. There’s no skipping or lost frame rate issues, even when playing with multiple players on or offline. Not only is the movement smooth, but it’s also well animated. What I like most about the game’s graphics is the amount of variety. 68 earthlings, 67 different types of presents, 25 stages with random layouts, nine playable characters, and even multiple environments from level to level. Many of these assets are interactive as well. Even the trees and bushes can be directly interacted with. And this is all randomly generated depending on which mode you’re playing. You do see some repetitive stuff such as enemy assets reskinned in different colors in later stages. But overall there’s a lot going on in Groove! and the game handles it perfectly.
The HUD is simple but effective. You have the level counter on the top center of the screen, which also notifies the player when a piece of the spaceship is on that level. In the bottom right you have the mini-map. With the rest of the HUD being in the bottom left, showing the character’s avatar, the XP bar, the HP bar, and the power up meter. In local coop mode, the HUD for the second player appears in the top left corner of the screen. When playing with four players, the HUDs are distributed to each corner of the screen when playing in a single screen and to the top left of each box when in split screen mode. What’s really nice is you can turn the map and HUD off if you want an extra challenge. You can also make the map larger at any time by holding the map button if you need to examine it in finer detail. But really the mini-map, assuming you have a large enough screen like I do on my PC, is quite adequate. It shows you locations for special things, the entire grid of the current level you’re on, and environmental landmarks such as desert or water. I never once needed to use the enlarge map function during play.
The menus are done very nicely too. A much better, clearer font than was used in the original game. The manual, which is quite comprehensive, is broken up into clear sections with small blocks of text, making reading through the whole thing very easy to do. It’s not an overwhelmingly graphic intense game. It’s more like an art piece that combines the simplicity of the past with some of the benefits of modern graphic development to make something totally new and beautiful but still definitively retro in nature. You’re not getting the bare bones Sega Genesis graphics but you’re also not going too far and getting something odd looking like ToeJam & Earl III. Ultimately I think it’s a wonderful looking game that delivered exactly what it needed to visually.
The first thing I want to say about the gameplay is that it’s buttery smooth. I was surprised at how smooth the gameplay actually is. Even when using a controller, a DualShock 4 in my case, the input works perfectly. There’s no lag. No input issues. This game works. I was very happy with how it instantly accepted my controller and gave me no issues. Now the game will not revert back to keyboard automatically if your controller gets disconnected during play. My controller ran out of battery in the middle of a game while running away from a group of enemies and I couldn’t pick up with the keyboard. My guy just stopped moving until I got the controller plugged in. The game doesn’t even pause when this happens. And since you spawn in the same spot where you died, I just kept dying until I got the controller working again. A bit of an oversight on the developer’s part, but nothing game breaking and easily fixed with a patch. HumaNature Studios is also really responsive on Twitter and is actively seeking out and listening to feedback for future patches, so this issue may very well be fixed in the near future.
The gameplay is quite simple in practice. You have to traverse 25 levels in search of 10 spaceship pieces, which are scattered randomly throughout the levels. The 10th piece is always on level 25, as stated in the manual. You traverse these levels by walking around each one trying to find an elevator. You can walk normally or sneak to avoid being seen by bad earthlings. Different presents can affect your movement as well. You also have the ability to swim through water but you can only swim for an amount of time corresponding to your current health. Meaning the larger your life bar, the longer you can swim when you’re at full health. You always start a new game with three lives but can earn more as rewards and through presents along the way. While traversing these levels you can collect money, presents, and food which also all incurs XP. Money is used to pay for services from good earthlings and to use certain items like parking meters. Presents, of which there are 67 different types, can do all sorts of things, both good and bad. They can do things like refill health, give you special powers like flight and better jumping, or reveal parts of the map. They can hurt you as well by doing things like dropping all your items, damaging you, and lowering your rank. Some presents are broken when you find them and have a chance of exploding when opened. You can also drop presents you don’t want.
You can only carry a limited number of presents at a time based on the character you choose and your current rank. Food can either restore or remove life. Rotten food, which always looks like the same types of food, hurts you while all other food helps you. Different types of food give or take different amounts of health. You can also gain XP. XP is used to increase your rank. Increasing your rank increases your stats like the size of your life bar, walking speed, and number of presents you can carry. There are a total of six stats with each character having their own strengths and weaknesses. You always start at the bottom rank at the beginning of a new game and can work your way up 15 ranks. You don’t level up automatically. Once you’ve collected enough XP, which can be gotten in many different ways, you then have to find a “wiseman” and he will increase your rank free of charge. You don’t have to increase your rank to beat the game. As soon as you find all 10 pieces of the spaceship you’ve won.
The gameplay is very simple to understand but that doesn’t make it easy. The many different enemy earthlings can be quite tricky and they often congregate in groups. Some will chase you or hit you with status effects like freezing you in place. Some will even drop you down to lower levels. Sometimes you’ll intentionally have to jump off levels to get away from enemies, causing you to have to back track and make your way up again. The map for each level always starts off blind and then expands as you explore the level you’re on. Presents are important. It’s necessary to use them often but strategically. The presents do many different things, but many of them are not identified until you’ve used them once. This means every time you find a new type of present you risk it being a bad present if you haven’t already used it previously to identify it. There is also a good earthling you can pay money to identify presents for you. I’m not 100% sure if this is true, but it seems to me that presents you’ve identified in past games will be identified in all future games. But there are also enemies and bad presents that remove your present labels and I’m not sure if this carries over to future games. It’s definitely something that I need to confirm with more research. It could also very well be completely random from game to game.
The gameplay is always the same but there are three difficulties that can be played across three modes. The “Fixed World” mode has the map stay relatively the same every game. This is a good mode to learn how to play the game once you’ve finished the tutorial. But the real challenge is when you hit “Random World” mode. This is the same gameplay but the layout of the levels changes every time. This is the roguelike experience that was spawned by the original game. There is also “Random World Hard” mode. At the start you only have Fixed World mode and then you have to reach level 10 to unlock Random World mode. But you don’t unlock Random World Hard mode until you complete a Random World run. The Hard mode is harder but not by a huge amount, in my opinion. There aren’t necessarily more enemies but they do more damage. There are also fewer presents around. Or at least that was my experience playing it. I played it in coop with a total of three players so maybe that affected the experience as well. We did manage to beat it though. You also have to take into account difficulty level and character. You can actually change your difficulty mid game whenever you want from the pause menu, but you can’t unlock prizes and achievements unless you’re in normal mode, which is considered the hardest of the three modes. Because of this, I never took the time to play in either of the two easier modes because that would be a complete waste of time. Each of the nine playable characters has their own stats, so it’s important to understand all six stats and choose the character that best fits your play style.
There are also two mini-games that you play within the game as special occurrences. The Hyperfunk Zone is kind of like a Sonic the Hedgehog style special zone. It’s a 2D side scroller where you continuously run from left to right collecting items until you run out of time or hit an exit portal. There is an ending, and an achievement for reaching it, but it’s quite a ways forward so it’s hard to achieve. It’s fairly simple to play and only requires you to press one button to dodge past exit portals. If you time it wrong then you leave the Hyperfunk Zone before reaching the end. You can also run out of time but picking up clocks extends your time in the zone. When you enter the Hyperfunk zone during coop play, all players are transported there regardless of where they are on the map. Each player plays independently but the running pace is the same. That means if you have two players and one gets out the other player can continue and the player who is out has to wait for all other players to finish.
The second mini-game is kind of like Guitar Hero but with buttons. You have to press corresponding buttons to a beat as they move down the screen. It works OK but the timing isn’t as clear as Guitar Hero and the feedback isn’t there with vibrations or anything so you tend to be too early or late sometimes because your eyes don’t agree with the beat, even though it looks like you were on time. This mini-game is played solo directly on the map so playing doesn’t affect other players during coop.
Groove! supports both local and online cooperative play. When playing in coop mode, only one person has to be in normal difficulty to unlock prizes at the end. This is really convenient for when playing with younger children or amateur gamers. You can enjoy the game with them while allowing them to play at an easier difficulty without losing out on prizes. Local coop supports up to four players. Each HUD is added to another corner of the screen and the screen splits for local coop so having more than four players would get way too cluttered. Online coop, which doesn’t split the screen, also supports up to four players. You don’t actually see the HUDs for other players in online coop so technically there’s no reason it couldn’t support more, but four is the maximum and honestly that’s enough for the size and scope of this game.
I really like the way the coop works because it’s not limiting like most coop games. You are playing the same game on the same map, but you can work fairly independently of each other. You have your own lives and life bars, money, and presents. But present effects are shared. Or at least some of them are like invisibility. It didn’t seem like physical enhancement presents are shared like wings or rocket boots. When one player runs out of lives they become a ghost and can take a life from another player if that other player agrees to give one up. All players show up on the mini-map so you know where you are in proximity to each other. But if one of you falls down to the previous level the other player isn’t affected. The one limitation is that players can only progress to unvisited floors together. This means that if one player reaches the elevator to the next floor first then they have to wait for the other player(s) before they can progress to the next level, even if that player has fallen down to a previous level. Thankfully though, you are immune from all damage when inside the elevator so you don’t have to worry about dying while waiting for other players to get there. Even the fake elevators give you immunity when waiting for other players in them because they don’t reveal themselves to be fake until all players have entered them.
During local coop, the game will instantly switch between shared and split screens depending on how close players are to each other. It will also split the screen if one of the players accesses the present or pause menu. The other players are unaffected. The screen splitting is dynamic so it constantly changes back and forth. It’s a horizontal split for two players, a horizontal and a vertical split for three players, and a 2×2 split for four players, all of which work fine for this gameplay. You do need a large enough monitor to play comfortably with that many players though. I can’t imagine trying to play this with four player split screen on the Switch handheld mode screen. The split can be set to dynamic or fixed. Dynamic means the screen will split based on location. The player farthest north on the map will inhabit the top screen in the event of a split. Fixed means the same player, player one, will always be on the top, or top left in the case of four players, whenever the game splits the screen regardless of your specific location on the map. This can be toggled in the pause menu at any time. There is a teleport option in coop mode that allows a player to join the rest of the group instantly but I haven’t figured out exactly what prompts this yet. I think it’s when all but one character is in the elevator waiting to move on to the next level, but I couldn’t recreate this in all situations.
During coop there is a quick chat function which is fairly easy to use. It’s all preloaded text based comments that appear over the speaking character’s head. These can be used, whether online or offline, to give other players information like where to go or that you’re waiting for them. There is also a verbal cue to tell the other player(s) to look, but that’s only in local coop. In online coop, when characters are near each other, you can see the message appear over the speaking character’s head. When not near each other the message shows up at the bottom of the screen with the avatar of the character/player speaking. In local coop the quick chat message always appears over the speaking character’s head, requiring other players to look at that player’s screen if they’re not near each other and thus in shared screen view.
The drop in and out nature of the gameplay works really well for casual and serious play. Even the online allows people to drop in and out at a whim without ending the game. You can create private and public lobbies and jump into and out of games of any difficulty, including those you haven’t unlocked yet, easily. It will also let you continue if you jump into a game and then the original host leaves for whatever reason. The only issue I experienced with the online was once I joined a game and got all the way to the end but then it disconnected me before I got to claim the prizes. I’m also not entirely sure if players can boot you or not when you join their games so that may be what happened. Normally when you get to the end of an online game, even when you joined late, you get to claim the prizes as you normally would. You do not however, unlock Random World Hard mode by completing it online. You just get the achievement and the prizes but it remains locked in your game until you complete the Random World mode first.
Overall, the gameplay is quite good. There are a few minor issues that one might consider bugs, but I’ve yet to witness anything game breaking. The gameplay is challenging but fair. There are definitely some balance issues from character to character though. ToeJam is way superior to Earl for example because of his much faster movement speed. There is also some sort of issue I can’t quite figure out where certain player combinations are forced in coop. Like when you try to join a game certain characters will be locked other than the character the host is already using. I’m not sure why this is. It may just be a bug because in local coop I can select any combination of characters I want including both retro and modern ToeJam & Earl at the same time. In any case, it’s a really fun game and I look forward to spending more time with it.
The greatest compliment I can give to Groove! in terms of writing is that it has any at all. Most roguelikes have little to no story for some reason. This game has a full story as well as in game dialog. It’s not a fully immersive, plot focused game by any means. But the fact that HumaNature Studios took the time to actually flesh out an entire narrative is a treat in and of itself. It’s a simple story that’s comprised of only two simple cutscenes and some in game dialog, but it still bookends the gameplay experience in a way that offers the player a reason to start and closure at the end. Really that’s all a game like this needs. The in game dialog is funny and there’s quite a lot of it. It takes place on the elevator rides between levels as well as during gameplay. It changes depending on how many players are in the game and who they are. Even with only one player there is still elevator dialog. It’s mostly funny comments about the game itself. Speech bubbles are also used during gameplay to tell the player things like when you’ve reached your maximum number of presents. At the same time that this happens, audible speech is used by the characters to clue you in when a speech bubble appears. There’s not much in the game as far as writing is concerned, but I’m happy with what was included. As a side note, this game has possibly the most comprehensive in game manual I’ve seen for any indie game ever. It’s split into 12 sections and has a ton of information. Taking the time to read through all of it before actually playing will help you considerably. It’s also important to note that the game can be played in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and/or Portuguese.
As this is a ToeJam & Earl game, the music is not only important but top shelf. By my count, there are 32 songs in the game. You can actually access all of these in the credits whenever you want. The music is of course quite funky, as it should be. The sound effects and voice acting are good too. Very responsive with no lag and high quality. I was also very happy with the sound mixing. The sound effects are not drowned out by the music. You can set the volume levels of the music and effects separately in increments of 5 from 0 to 100. I keep them both at 100 and it sounds fine. I really don’t have any complaints about the sound in this game and I don’t think anything else needs to be said about it. It does not disappoint.
There’s a surprisingly large amount of replay value in this game. And not just because it has random world generation and three difficulty levels. That plays a factor, as does the fact that there are nine playable characters, three of which have to be unlocked. But really there is just a ton of content to unlock and interact with. Groove! has 49 achievements and 41 unlockable rewards, each having a different effect on the gameplay. Plus you can play with other people both on and offline. There’s just a lot to do if you really want to get your money’s worth. A single game takes about one to two hours maximum depending on the difficulty you’re playing at and your pace. At $20 I think the price is OK but not amazing. You definitely can get 20 hours out of this game if you want to do everything. But if you’re just playing to complete each difficulty once then it’s a four – six hour game at best. So either make of it what you will or wait for a discount. $10 would be more than fair for this game. I give it an A+ for replay value.
It’s quite a mazing to be reviewing a ToeJam & Earl game in 2019 unironically. It took a long time to get this project started and then another four or so years to get it released after the Kickstarter campaign was successfully funded. HumaNature Studios definitely delivered. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is exactly what it needed to be. It has a few small bugs but really it’s a perfect recreation of the original game with modern conveniences and improvements added in a non-invasive way. I really can’t speak highly enough of this game. I definitely recommend it for people who like games that are just fun. It’s not too challenging. It’s not too intricate and doesn’t require a huge time commitment. It’s just a fun experience worth having and sharing with other people. And that’s really what ToeJam & Earl was always meant to be.
Sony recently announced that there would not be a PlayStation presence at E3 in 2019. The reason hasn’t really been expressed yet other than some bullshit PR speak about looking for new options to connect with their fans, but many theories are of course swirling around the internets. Now I’ve been very critical of E3 for many years now, as has been shown on this very blog. I’m a 100% in support of Nintendo’s choice to do pre-recorded Directs. I love the fact that they do multiple a year because they produce them in advance for less money than the price of doing a single E3 presentation, which gives the public even more information about games (and pricing) in advance of release. I have many complaints about the E3 format, specifically the fact that it’s not open to the public. They did allow for some public passes to be sold at this year’s E3 and I did commend them for that in my E3 2018 post. But in general it’s still too little.
My main problem with E3 is that in 2018 it’s still a media focused shill operation. We don’t actually need established gaming media events in 2018. We have the technology for studios and publishers to convey information and demos directly to the public. The media no longer serves as the gateway between consumers and studios. I can directly tweet a studio a question or complaint about a game and get a response, and I have. In fact I tweeted and got a response from Ubisoft last month. Now in this specific case it wasn’t about the experience of playing a game but I did have a question about a game and got an answer directly from the publisher in a matter of hours. What do I need IGN for when I can talk to the developers or their direct representatives directly? We can have playable demos. Sadly these have become less common as technology has progressed, which makes no sense, but the point is I don’t need to watch some asshole I don’t like play a game I’m curious about to decide whether or not I want to buy it if the developer can let me try it myself from the comfort of my home, which they have been able to do since technically the PS2. Or before if we count demo discs. I don’t need to read some crappy paid review/long form ad to figure out if I should buy a game if I can just try it myself before buying it. That’s why betas are referred to as stealth demos now.
The point is that we don’t actually need media focused gaming events anymore. The media are little more than shills for the gaming industry or political activists pretending to actually know anything about what gamers are really thinking. It makes way more sense to either have only gaming events that are open to the public to see and try new games or do away with such events altogether and have all publishers make their own Nintendo Direct style videos and release playable demos for download. I’m not saying E3 should be ended permanently. I’m saying what E3 currently is should be ended permanently. It’s an outdated concept. So if it’s for the right reasons, I’m all for Sony pulling out of E3 indefinitely.
At the same time, we don’t actually know if Sony pulled out of E3 for the right reasons. There are a number of theories floating around. Some of them, if correct, are completely valid and acceptable reasons for Sony to not attend E3 2019. Others, not so much.
If Sony has decided to quit E3 in order to revolutionize the way they present games to the public by making their own direct to consumer presentations, events, and demos, then I am all for it. I would love to see a PlayStation Direct. Even better if, like Nintendo, they do multiple a year. I would love it if PlayStation made prerecorded videos about upcoming titles and released demos to go with them. If that’s the future of PlayStation presenting information to consumers, bring it on. Even if it’s the same presentations they already do at E3 but as their own PlayStation focused event/stream, I’m fine with that. They have PlayStation Experience already, and that’s better than E3. It is open to the public to buy tickets. It does have playable demos for the public to try. If this is the future, cool. But I don’t necessarily believe either of these reasons are why PlayStation pulled out of E3. Let’s also not forget that they cancelled PSX 2018 as well.
Another theory going around, and I do believe this is the correct one, is that Sony doesn’t have any new big projects for the PS4 that haven’t already been announced so they didn’t want to spend the money, time, and effort to attend E3. This is a bullshit reason that is completely unacceptable. Let’s be clear about a few things. Assuming there are no other PS4 projects in the works that we haven’t already heard about, that in no way means that we don’t want/need more information, gameplay footage, and demos of projects we do already know about. I still don’t know what the hell Death Stranding is about. Or even what the gameplay actually is. I want more information about The Last of Us 2. I would quite literally consider masturbating to more footage of Ghost of Tsushima. And where’s gameplay footage of Nioh 2 while we’re at it? I don’t need them to announce a single new game.
There are plenty of games I already know about that I just want to see more information and footage of. That’s enough of a reason to go to E3. If that’s the reason they’re not going, it’s bullshit. I pay too much money for games, DLC, paid online subscriptions, and such for them to be pinching pennies. I overpay for the privilege to see E3 footage. That’s part of the deal. If they want to save money, I better damn well start seeing those savings translated to me, the consumer. If their cost of operation goes down, prices need to go down. Because profits sure as hell aren’t. And prices sure as hell haven’t. The excuse of “we don’t want to put the effort in to show you games we know you’re going to buy already” isn’t a valid one.
Even more worrisome is the theory that the PS5 will be announced soon and that all the aforementioned games and any other projects currently unannounced will be released for that console. Personally I don’t need a PS5 any time soon. I’m very happy with my PS4 hardware wise and I don’t even have a PS4 Pro. It plays my games fine and they look beautiful. If it still runs games smoothly, it’s all I need. So delaying everything to the PS5 doesn’t help me. Rushing out the PS5 doesn’t help me. Because I don’t want to buy a new machine to replace a machine that still works just fine. Now hopefully the PS4 will be like the PS2 where even though the next console is out, they continue to release games on the predecessor for like another decade because they still run acceptably. And let’s be honest, PS5 games will run way better on the PS4 than PS3 games ran on the PS2. So there’s not really any reason to force me to buy a new console. But even if we assume, all the new games will be on the PS5 and PS4, that’s no excuse to skip E3. They don’t get to slack off for a year and just ride the high while waiting for what their analysts believe is the best time to announce/release the next console. I’m a consumer today. I just bought multiple PS4 games in the last month. They haven’t stopped taking my money so they don’t get to stop doing their jobs. One of their jobs is relaying information about upcoming games to the consumers. So even if all the aforementioned games are being released for the PS5, if they’re going to be released on the PS4 as well, and they should be, then they need to be talking about them now. Not after they decide to announce the PS5. Especially if we’re talking about games that have already been announced to the public.
Now I hope I’m wrong. I hope this isn’t a PS5 delay ploy. I hope we’re about to enter the age of PlayStation Directs. I’m fine with E3 ending altogether, because we know XBOX can’t carry that event on its own. And I have no love for some middle man company that makes its money by charging companies that actually make products for the “privilege” of showing those products off in a physical venue while selling tickets for profit in an age where a kid in Malaysia can download 4K HD porn on his phone. That doesn’t make any sense. And if all those hack journalists have to work just a little bit harder to write think pieces about how the world is being destroyed because edgelords are beating up feminists in Skyrim Cowboy Edition, I’m fine with that too. Hopefully this is the beginning of something great. An age of gaming transparency where consumers have direct access to publishers and developers, the likes of which we have never seen before. Most likely it’s not.
I think this might be the first game I ever reviewed after I had already achieved the platinum trophy. Not the first game where I’ve finished the campaign, but specifically getting the full completion. Certainly the first open world game. For the record, I got the game day one and had acquired the platinum less than two weeks after it released. It just took me an extra week to get the review prepared. That’s short for any platinum. Much less an open world game. But length is not the only important factor when it comes to judging a game so while this is an important detail to consider, there’s a heck of a lot more to say about Marvel’s Spider-Man by Insomniac Games.
I was not actually planning on pre-ordering Spider-Man. I literally made the purchase just two days before it released and the only reason I did was because I happened to roll into some extra money that day and I wanted the collector’s pin for preordering the digital deluxe edition. Otherwise I would have absolutely waited for a price drop. And after having gotten the platinum, I would still recommend waiting for a price drop. Mostly because of how short it is. That being said, it was quite the entertaining experience, short or not.
Spider-Man is a beautiful game. Not Naughty Dog beautiful, but for a comic book game, it looks very good. What I really liked about it was the character renders. I could see the real actors in the characters and because I recognized a number of them, that impressed me. At the same time, the filler NPCs are kind of low quality. They aren’t generic, which is nice. They do look, dress, and sound different. You can even interact with them on a minor level as individuals. Because it is a comic book game, it looks like what a game based on a comic book should look like rather than actually looking like a comic book or trying too hard to look like real life. It hits that visual balance almost perfectly. The world looks great as well. I’m not from New York, but I have been there and I was very impressed with all the landmarks the game has. I have heard a number of New Yorkers complain that things are missing or flat out removed from the map. But I guess that’s to be expected. What’s really cool is that they’ve also layered in a bunch of Marvel Easter Egg locations. This includes places like the Embassy of Wakanda, the Sanctum Solarium, and the Murdock & Nelson Attorneys at Law Office. If I have to explain to you what any of those are then you’re not a Marvel Fan and it will be lost on you anyway. It is a very nice map, but it’s also very small. The whole thing is made up of only nine Infamous: Second Son style districts, none of which are particularly big.
This is a very fast paced game. Think Arkham City on steroids. You’re moving quickly with just about everything you do. Fighting is fast paced and often includes 15 or more enemies on the screen at one time. Swinging, probably one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game, is extremely fast, free roaming, and variable. By all rights it should be a blur, but no such issues occur. The game truly handles like a dream. Even playing on an original PS4, I experienced no lag or other graphics related performance issues. The loading is a little slow, but not ridiculously so. The menus look really nice as well. They’re very simple. Not overly stylized or extremely detailed. But they present everything you need in a clean and clear manner that’s very accessible at a glance.
The Spidey suits are without a doubt the most impressive visual aspect of the game. The level of detail is unreal for some of the 28 costumes available. The tips of the fingers. The fabric threads. The metal plating. It’s immaculate. The costumes look so good you can almost feel the fabric on some of them. But there are also a number of little things that really bring this game to life. Pedestrians in the streets. Planes flying over the city. The sunlight beaming on the water at dusk. Overall it’s a beautiful looking game.
The sound is expertly done in Spider-Man. It’s cartoony but practical. You hear the whooshes of his webs firing. You hear every punch and kick landed. The only thing that would have made it better was if little comic book style onomatopoeia appeared during fights. The voice acting is quite good. Each character was distinct. Many were played by actors you’re familiar with which really helped bring the audio visual experience to life. The music was good, albeit a bit repetitive, as is the case in most open world games. All in all, I was very happy with how the sound was handled in this game.
The gameplay excels in a number of places but falls way short in others. The swinging is phenomenal. The best I’ve seen in any Spider-Man game, though I haven’t played them all. What’s good about it, albeit annoying at times, is that Insomniac Games really tried to create a realistic swinging experience. You have to take into account things like distance. You can’t just swing wherever you want. If you’re above the buildings, you have to wait till you fall beneath them so you have something to web to. You can swing upward but your speed will decrease due to drag and loss of momentum. Swinging and traversal is truly an art form. But at the same time they added a number of fail safes to make the experience more manageable for amateurs. You can move in and out of swinging to parkour and wall running instantly. Spider-Man will automatically pass through, under, or between things like fire escapes and water towers when you swing into such confined spaces. It was made to be fun, not unruly. At the same time, this game sadly has terrible wall crawling mechanics. Wall running outside is great. It’s smooth and easy to control. But climbing around the inside of a room is just trash in this game. Simple maneuvers like crawling from wall to wall or wall to ceiling are so difficult. Spider-Man will do everything in his power to avoid changing between adjacent services. It’s easier just to jump off a wall and climb up the other one than to crawl between them. This was really depressing for me because what’s Spider-Man without wall crawling?
Fighting is real smooth. The pacing is fast but manageable. You have an arsenal of eight gadgets to choose from by the end of the game and they all do something quite different. What I also really liked was that when you run out of stock of a specific gadget the game will automatically revert back to basic web shooting. This is very crucial for a smooth gameplay experience. Chaining combos is really smooth and easy to do in this game, and that’s what makes it so fun. Combining gadgets in different ways makes it an experience all your own. One thing I really appreciated was that the game never stops moving. If you’re in the middle of a fight and you go to change gadgets, a gadget wheel pops up in true Insomniac Games style. But you can still get hit while it’s up. Time slows down while the wheel is up to give you time to think, but you can’t just stand there indefinitely. This balance between Dark Souls where you have no time and Ratchet & Clank where you have unlimited time worked really well for a Spider-Man game and felt very appropriate. But aiming certain gadgets and special techniques can be a real pain. You have auto aim but it mostly focuses on the nearest enemy in sight. Sometimes that’s not who you want to hit. In general though, the game plays and controls very smoothly.
Probably the worst aspect of the gameplay is its repetitive nature. The gameplay is really solid, but so much of the game is just busy work to level up your stats and gear. The game’s development system is dually based on XP and tokens. XP is gained through basically everything. Fighting, hitting milestones like distance running on walls, completing objectives, and locating special items. You can hit a maximum level of 50 and then continue to level up in a prestige way where you remain at level 50 but your stats continue to go up every time you earn a certain amount of points. Leveling is automatic as far as stats are concerned but you do have to spend skill points to learn new skills and techniques. Some skills are extremely useful and will become the cornerstone of your gameplay style. Others you’ll mostly ignore. By the time you hit max level, you can learn all the skills and still have five points to spare. The other means of development comes from tokens. There are six types you can earn. Tokens try to be more variable than XP but in the long run they just seem more repetitive. Crime tokens are a good example of this.
In each of the nine districts on the map, random crimes can happen at any time that you’re not in a mission/challenge. Dealing with crimes is optional and successfully stopping them nets you one to three crimes tokens. These tokens, when used in combination with other types, can be used to unlock suits and develop/unlock gadgets. Each district has you stop 20 crimes to get 100% completion. There are only a few types of crimes committed by four separate groups of criminals. You have to stop five of each. Almost all the crimes are the same. You fight a group of enemies without dying and you get your tokens. Occasionally you have to take out some snipers, locate a missing person, or stop runaway vehicles, but mostly it’s just win a fight. That’s nearly 180 random fights to deal with for a full completion. Plus chasing them down when they randomly appear on the map. It gets old. All the types of tokens work similarly. You do the same things over and over in order to unlock gear. There are little bonus objectives in each of these token missions/challenges, most of which you ultimately need to complete to get enough tokens to unlock everything, but after a while it all becomes a grind. It’s artificial additional playtime and many of the challenges aren’t even fun. Especially the challenge token missions. Some of them are just terrible and you’ll replay them over and over to try to get the gold completion for the additional tokens.
The story missions are great. I’d say 90% of the main campaign missions are absolute gold. Sometimes you have to play as people other than Spider-Man or Peter Parker and that can be boring and annoying at times, but all the story Spider-Man stuff was great. The boss fights. The stealth missions. The chase scenes. I was happy with all of it. Even the photography missions were pretty fun once I got used to them. The side missions are pretty good too. Really if the game wasn’t padded so much and was priced around Insomniac Games usual stuff, it would be a shorter but ultimately stronger game overall. The gameplay is great for the most part at a mechanical level, but the full completion gets old. The fact that you can hit level 50 (max level) well before the end of the game without mindlessly grinding says a lot about how much padding is in such a small map.
This was one the best written comic book games I ever played. The writing is the way a comic book game should be. The villains are justified while also being over the top. There are multiple villains that show up over the course of the story and they all make sense. They aren’t just popping up to give you something to do. The story weaves them all together very well. The way they wrote Otto Octavius was just amazing. If you know the characters you know he’s going to become a problem later on, but the way they developed him over the course of the game was MCU quality writing. I was so impressed by the campaign narrative in this game. But it’s not just the plot that’s well written. This is a Spider-Man game. That means dialog is everything and the dialog is strong. The quips are funny and cheesy. JJ Jameson is a radio host who randomly appears on your feed while swinging around the city and he’s hilarious. Modernizing him away from newspapers and into podcasting was the right touch.
What’s really important to note is that this game isn’t just about Spider-Man. It’s also about Peter Parker, Miles Morals, and Mary Jane Watson. All of them play major roles in the plot of the game and act as playable characters at some point in the narrative. It’s not just a story about heroes and villains. It’s a story about people. And even some of the villains get some real character development, which is a good thing. The relationships and interactions the characters have with each other, including the villains, is what really makes this a great comic book experience. Probably the best game Insomniac Games ever wrote.
Defining the replay value is a bit tough with this one. Especially having gotten the platinum in a single playthrough that took only 30-ish hours, which as I’ve said is short for an open world game in my opinion. The truth is that if you get 100% completion there are still some things you can do, like try to get golds in all the Task Master challenges and finish all the base challenge objectives, but you don’t gain anything from doing it. You do continue to get stronger by collecting XP even after you hit max level, but you don’t really need it by that point. Now of course the difficulty you play on will also play a factor here. The game has no difficulty based trophies and lets you change the difficulty level mid-game whenever you want. I played through the whole game on the hardest difficulty so there’s no reason for me to play it again. But if you didn’t play it on hard, maybe you’d want to do that in a second playthrough. But honestly, having unlocked and completed everything, I don’t really have any interest in playing through the game again. It was a great one and done experience with nothing left that I feel the need to do. Especially since I unlocked all the costumes and gadgets already. There will be a New Game Plus mode added soon, but I really don’t see any reason to play it after having gotten the platinum. DLC is on the way, so there’s that, but that doesn’t factor into replay value and probably won’t add enough content to justify the $80 price tag for the deluxe edition.
On the other hand, this game has without a doubt the best, most addictive photo mode I’ve ever seen. It’s an amazing experience. It’s not perfect. There are definitely limitations with it that shouldn’t be there. But it’s genuinely one of the most entertaining parts of the game. You have so many filters, frames, and stickers at your disposal. You can take pictures anywhere, including cutscenes. And they can be manipulated in so many ways. I almost took the time to make my own comic book with screenshots created in the photo mode. And you really could. I took literally more than 3,000 pictures over the course of the game. Which I’m still not finished sorting as I write this, by the way. That does add quite a bit of value and length to the overall experience. Especially when you consider the 28 costumes you can take pictures in.
Overall I’m very happy with how Spider-Man turned out. Insomniac Games did a great job. It’s not a flawless game and I think it was a bit overhyped with all the 9’s it received, but it’s definitely one of the top games I’ve played in 2018. I would absolutely recommend playing this game but I will also say you can stand to wait for a price drop.