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Here's 6 minutes of new and improved campaign gameplay from Halo Infinite
by Pulasthi Ariyasinghe
343 Industries gave another look at Halo Infinite's campaign today, the most we've seen of the story since last year's showcase. The Master Chief in his Mjolnir armor, the sandbox environments, weapon effects, and set pieces, all look very much improved over previous looks we've been given. Catch the over 6-minute-long overview trailer for the campaign above.
Cortana gives a quick rundown of the story leading up to Infinite before we get shown outdoor and indoor environments, followed by a whole lot of fighting both on foot and using vehicles. A Spartan assassin named "Jega 'Rdomnai" is unveiled too as a new opposing force. The grappling hook is once again shown off quite a lot here, a new addition to the series aiming to make the Master Chief a much more agile fighter.
Master Chief is also seen using a vehicle call-in station to order a Wasp from his new pilot companion before taking the fight to a Banished outpost from above. Compared to the old footage, the improvements to lighting and other visuals can be seen quite clearly.
The fan reaction to the original campaign reveal in 2020 was lukewarm, with criticism mainly being thrown at the graphics department. The title was delayed a few months later to 2021, missing out on the launch title status for the Xbox Series X|S.
Halo Infinite's campaign and free-to-play multiplayer launches on December 8 across Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. Xbox Game Pass subscribers will gain access to the campaign at launch as well. Recently, the 343 Industries also detailed the work that's going into the PC version of Halo Infinite, from implementing FOV sliders and anti-cheat to adding local hosting support for LAN parties.
By Asher Madan
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy Xbox Series X review: A fantastic but restricted adventure
by Asher Madan
This is a spoiler-free review of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
On the surface, Guardians of the Galaxy appears to be a standard third-person action game that places you in the shoes of Peter Quill, also known as Star-Lord, as you race to save the galaxy from certain doom. However, it's much more than that due to the various mechanics introduced throughout this adventure. You'll gain new abilities, solve puzzles, resolve disputes, and, of course, shoot through legions of enemies.
While the combat and puzzles are great, Guardians of the Galaxy truly shines when it focuses on the dynamics between Peter, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot. The game touches on a lot of poignant topics like the cost of war and discrimination, but at its core, it's all about overcoming loss. Through this, the title manages to become more than the sum of its parts. Read on for my impressions of this fantastic game from developer Eidos-Montréal and publisher Square Enix.
Many of you may be hesitant to pick up Guardians of the Galaxy because it's from the same publisher as Marvel's Avengers. Luckily, the focus on playing as one character, in a solely single-player game, is a refreshing change from what we got a year ago. There are no microtransactions or paid boosts. If you purchase the $69.99 Digital Deluxe Edition of Guardians of the Galaxy, you get a few high-quality outfits from the comics and films that don't impact gameplay whatsoever, like making you more resistant to damage. Better yet, the best outfits are earned through exploration and progression through the story.
It's worth keeping in mind that Guardians of the Galaxy takes place in a universe that's separate from the films. Each character has their own unique story that's revealed through this 25-hour-long experience.
Characters and story
The Guardians of the Galaxy are a team of misfits who have banded together in the wake of a massive galactic war. They take odd jobs in order to make enough units to survive in this post-war landscape. Think of them as "heroes" for hire. They're from different planets and come from dramatically different backgrounds. However, many of them have shared, conflicting pasts and it's a miracle that Peter, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot manage to work together so well.
If you're familiar with the comics or movies, you'll know that Guardians of the Galaxy takes a more lighthearted approach to universe-threatening events than, let's say, the Avengers game. This hilarious tone permeates the entire game and is enhanced by cameos from popular characters in the company's catalog, like Mantis.
If you're familiar with the latest Avengers films, you'll immediately recognize the scale of destruction possible if the main antagonist isn't stopped. If I told you what the tale revolved around, it'd ruin the surprise. Luckily, you'll know exactly what I'm alluding to once you pass the first mission. What I can say is that it's personal and definitely one every player can relate to.
Guardians of the Galaxy allows you to make a number of decisions that can take you down different branches. For example, there are dialogue and story choices like saving an animal instead of hiding a bunch of illegal equipment. Others seem like basic options to side with one character over the other, and don't have much of an impact on how the game plays out.
Choosing different prompts grants you varying allies and enemies. For example, if you successfully recount an incident where Star-Lord was inebriated and sang with a random alien, he'll help you down the line. Similarly, if you side with a character named Nikki Gold, she'll give you a device that lets you open any door on a ship called Hala's Hope. This can make traversing some environments a lot easier when you reach that part of the story. This also enhances replayability because the journey varies depending on your choices.
Prepare to manage interpersonal crises between all of the Guardians of the Galaxy members because there will be a lot. If you take the time to talk to everyone while they're on the Milano — your ship that's controllable during certain levels — you'll be able to learn more about them and hopefully, ease their anger or frustration towards you or other members of the team.
Guardians of the Galaxy only allows you to control Peter and his actions. The success of every battle and dialogue choice rests on your shoulders. In my opinion, this focus is better than being able to control every character because this adds a more strategic element to gameplay. You have to learn how to command your team properly. Additionally, imagine trying to solve puzzles by having to choose what each character did all the time. Better yet, having to switch to Groot during combat just to heal or resurrect an ally. That would detract from the focused gameplay that revolves around leading a team.
Star-Lord is great at shooting anything that moves with his blasters, but that's not enough. In order to effectively take down enemies, you have to constantly direct your teammates. If you push down on the Left Bumper on an Xbox controller, time slows down and you can choose a particular ability to use against any combatant. Rapidly lowering the health of an enemy also allows you to initiate takedowns by pressing the B and Y buttons together.
Gamora does amazing single-target damage with her blade and all of her other skills are tailored towards that. Drax, oddly enough, doesn't do as much damage as Gamora, but he strikes a good balance between taking down single targets and damaging a number of enemies if he's pouncing on the ground. Rocket is by far my favorite because he has some unbelievable gadgets at his disposal. He's the only one who can throw lethal grenades, and also possesses a barrage of endless missiles. His missiles — they're unlocked as you make more progress in the campaign — can take out half a dozen opponents at a time. Lastly, Groot is good at ensnaring enemies so the rest of the team can do increased damage. Eventually, he gains the ability to heal and resurrect. This comes in handy when you're facing the final bosses of Guardians of the Galaxy. Keep in mind that standard attacks don't have a cooldown, but all special abilities do. You'll have to wait a few seconds to use them again. This includes Star-Lord's deployable overshield and Groot's healing.
Sometimes, if you keep on encountering enemies at every turn, Guardians of the Galaxy can get a little frustrating. You just want to move on to the next area. However, it's not too repetitive. Luckily, the moment you start to feel some annoyance, the story leaps forward. The pacing is almost perfect in my opinion. What does get repetitive is the combat dialogue though. Your teammates say the same phrases again and again if you take a long time to clear an area.
Guardians of the Galaxy features forgiving combat at lower difficulties, but it gets very difficult as you crank it up. Luckily, the Huddle Up ability gives you a second chance by pausing the action. If your team's not doing so well, you can always trigger this, give them a pep talk by selecting one of two dialogue options that can either heal you or the entire team, and reset cooldowns. I'd use Huddle Up when you're truly desperate because there's no reason to waste it. However, when you use Huddle Up, it plays an amazing song so there may be an added incentive to trigger it when you're in the mood to hear the game's stellar '80s music selection during combat.
Guardians of the Galaxy often manages to surprise you because, just when you think you have the hang of combat, it'll throw a boss at you that's as tall as a skyscraper. Boss battles aren't the quick time event-laden fights you'd expect. You have to target certain body parts, dodge attacks, and use your teammates' abilities to succeed. For example, let's say you're fighting a famous monster from the Marvel universe that has tentacles. You'll have to tell Groot to ensnare its tentacles, that'll give you the opportunity to do a lot of damage, and eventually, Gamora will be able to slice them off.
As you progress through the game, you gain new blaster powers. These happen automatically and you don't have to do anything to unlock them. As mentioned earlier, you have to direct your teammates, but you also have to solve puzzles. For example, you may have to melt a frozen structure to create a passageway or freeze a pipe leaking poisonous fumes in a ship. Some enemies also have shields that can be disabled by hitting them with the appropriate elemental bullets.
Your teammates also have certain strengths that come in handy, but you have to tell Gamora, Rocket, Drax, and Groot what to do. Gamora can slice a number of structures and boost you to higher ground, Rocket can hack almost anything, Drax can lift heavy objects, and Groot can create bridges. You'll need to utilize your powers and that of your team's to traverse every level.
Apart from that, Guardians of the Galaxy features Perks that allow you to increase your health, the rate of fire, or even scan enemies during combat to uncover their weaknesses. I managed to unlock all but one Perk during my first playthrough, but I imagine it'll be possible when I start New Game Plus. You can easily find crafting materials scattered in every level and they can be used at Rocket's Workbenches to make you a more capable fighter.
Lastly, there are special abilities that can be unlocked through leveling up. After every enemy encounter, you gain experience and points. These points can be used to acquire new powers for yourself or your teammates. For example, Gamora gains devastating sword skills while Groot gets area-of-effect damage. Given the fact that you can't skip enemy encounters for the most part, you shouldn't have a problem unlocking everything during your first playthrough.
Environments and exploration
This game features some basic exploration — you can find additional outfits, artifacts, lore, and upgrade materials if you venture off the beaten path — but it's still very constrained. You're essentially going from one area to the next, either fighting enemies or solving puzzles, until the end of the level. The structure is a lot like Devil May Cry 5.
Guardians of the Galaxy guides you through each area and contains over a dozen chapters. The environments are varied and you'll get to see everything from barren wastelands to frozen mountains. The enemy variety also changes a lot based on where you're at. For example, you start by fighting basic blob-like creatures and eventually take down yeti-looking fiends.
While the environments in Guardians of the Galaxy aren't recycled, there are many combat scenarios that are, especially towards the end of the game when you're tracking down a mysterious figure from the Marvel universe. Here you basically have to keep on fighting through fog, again and again, in the same exact area, until you're given the option not to. This felt a little odd to me because it's unnecessary because the game is quite lengthy as is. There's no need to pad it further.
My only major complaint with Guardians of the Galaxy has to be its extremely linear nature when it comes to exploration and traversal. I've played countless games over the years, but this has to be one of the most rigid experiences ever. Luckily, there's one area in Guardians of the Galaxy that allows you to explore at length, and it's populated with a ton of mini-games. I won't spoil it for you, but you can go to a bar, get a drink, play the lottery, gossip, and do so much more. This was a welcome reprieve because I was really hoping Guardians of the Galaxy would allow for more freedom like the Mass Effect series.
Dialogue and music
Guardians of the Galaxy features some of the best voice acting I've ever heard in a video game. Every character is phenomenal and gives a perfect performance in my opinion. I'm usually one to nitpick when it comes to voice acting, but I honestly couldn't find any fault in this game. Drax is by far the funniest with his deadpan humor.
If you view the Xbox Series X gameplay posted above, you'll notice that everyone from Gamora to Mantis sounds natural and the conversations feel effortless. It's clear that a lot of care went into making sure the dialogue delivery was second to none because, given the film-like nature of this game, it's imperative to get that right.
Guardians of the Galaxy also features a killer soundtrack filled with hits from the 1980s. You won't be hearing a lot of the music that's in the game on YouTube because it's copyrighted. There are tons of amazing tracks that blend perfectly with gameplay. When you're on your ship, you can also select which tune to play. I've listed some of my favorite tracks below.
Never Gonna Give You Up performed by Rick Astley The Final Countdown performed by Europe Wake Me Up Before you Go Go performed by WHAM! Holding Out for a Hero performed by Bonnie Tyler We Built this City performed by Starship Hit Me With Your Best Shot performed by Pat Benetar Don't Worry, Be Happy performed by Bobby McFerrin Since You Been Gone performed by Rainbow There are over thirty fist-pumping classics in there that have universal appeal. You won't be disappointed. The rest of the soundtrack is also great and includes a bold musical score from composer Richard Jacques as well as ten original songs from Eidos-Montréal Senior Audio Director Steve Szczepkowski. Guardians of the Galaxy features a fictional band called Star-Lord — that's where Peter gets his nickname — and Szczepkowski wrote their music. While the tracks may not be as bombastic as Hit Me With Your Best Shot or Wake Me Up Before you Go Go, they fit well with the 1980s' theme.
Performance and visuals
Guardians of the Galaxy looks utterly incredible on Xbox Series X. Textures are unbelievable, but the standout feature has to be the characters' eyes. They're uncannily expressive and may just be the best eyeballs ever created in a video game. Guardians of the Galaxy is easily one of the best-looking games available right now on any platform, and there's a ray-tracing mode in the works for current-generation consoles.
The build I played lacked a major patch, but even without it, it's a polished title. I just encountered some camera glitches a few times when I was trapped in a corner fighting hordes of enemies. Other than that, there aren't any pressing issues on Microsoft's console. I didn't encounter any noticeable frame rate drops during my playthrough either.
From my analysis, Quality mode boosts the resolution to 4K, but locks the frame rate at 30 frames per second (FPS). The performance option lowers the resolution to 1440p, but the game gains the advantage of 60 FPS rendering. 60 FPS greatly improves the feel of combat because input lag is reduced.
I played the title on Quality mode because to me, Guardians of the Galaxy is more like an interactive film in an action game's wrapper. I wanted to experience it as the highest resolution possible on a 4K display. I'm glad I went with that because it was a glorious experience.
Guardians of the Galaxy isn't perfect, but Eidos-Montréal has done an excellent job with staying true to the source material and capturing the essence of every character. The game is about family, relationships, and overcoming loss, together. It has some incredibly dark moments that are masked well through the title's hilarious tone.
The combat, music, and voice acting are phenomenal, I just wish I had more freedom to explore the wondrous planets you land on. Had Guardians of the Galaxy adopted a semi-open world approach like the recent Tomb Raider games, it would've been a breakthrough experience. I'm hoping there's a sequel that gives us just that while maintaining the tone of the original.
You can purchase Guardians of the Galaxy from the Microsoft Store or the platform of your choice for $59.99. The game releases on October 26, 2021 for Nintendo Switch (Cloud), PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X|S.
Square Enix provided a review code for Guardians of the Galaxy. The game was tested on an Xbox Series X console.
Age of Empires IV review: The return of the king
by Pulasthi Ariyasinghe
The Age of Empires franchise is a real-time strategy behemoth that many spent their childhood with. Even though the genre has stagnated in the high-profile entry front, Age of Empires built a strategy landscape so strong it’s gaining popularity even today, largely thanks to excellent remasters. Now, after a 16-year hiatus, someone realized it’s time for a new mainline entry. Enter Age of Empires IV.
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings was my jam back in the day. I have fond memories of playing the campaigns repeatedly on our old Pentium computer with my brother, employing my genius tried and true tactic of building a giant army and steamrolling the AI. Who cared how much time it took? Since then I’ve pumped my time into Age of Mythology, the Command & Conquer series, Warcraft III, Star Craft II, the Age remasters, and plenty of other RTS experiences. I am by no means a highly competent competitive player, just a huge fan craving for new material.
The studio most known for the Company of Heroes franchise, Relic Entertainment, is the force behind Age of Empires IV. It is an entry that plays thoroughly into franchise strengths instead of reinventing the wheel. Has it worked out? I think it has. Here are my thoughts on this long-awaited return.
Gameplay and UI
Age of Empires IV (Age IV) builds on the foundations that made Age of Empires II such a satisfying strategy game. Factors like the asymmetrical civilizations and careful modernizations does set it apart, but from the macro and micro-management similarities to the eras it is situated in, Age IV is looking up to its predecessor for guidance on how to be great.
Age IV features literal knights in shining armor, multi-barrel gunpowder weapons, and even warships, yet the simple villager is the most important unit at hand. Keep pumping the little workers out and they will happily collect and deposit the Food, Wood, Gold, and Stone needed to keep the empire rolling and hammer out buildings ranging from houses to wonders. Without well-utilized villagers, it’s impossible to maintain an economy that can advance a civilization through the Dark, Feudal, Castle, and Imperial ages, and also power a war machine to beat the other side senseless. Waiting too long until investing into military units will end the game no matter how filled the coffers are. This balancing act between warfare and economy is what makes the series both tricky to nail and addictively fun.
Seeing the resource numbers tick up and tumble back down when lines of foot soldiers, cavalry, or something else entirely, trickle out of buildings to finally form an army feels like a great accomplishment every time. Even the most elite units have counters to balance things. Archers can rain death on most unarmored foes from afar, but a simple cavalry charge will decimate these light units if hardened soldiers, preferably some spearmen, are not there to take the hit. If high armor units are posing a problem, crossbows become the answer.
However, the key to a good army is not simply diversifying to cover all weaknesses, it’s scouting the enemy and preparing effectively, something I wish I remembered more often. The amount of information a cheap Scout can offer far outweighs anything else on the battlefield.
Being an RTS, reducing the friction between the player and the controls is vitally important. Age IV is managing this very effectively. Queuing tasks for units multiple steps ahead to focus on other things a little better, setting waypoints from barracks, building miles of stone walls to top them with archers, all function smoothly without even a minor hitch. The UI and color-coded icons on buttons are clear and straightforward about what they do, just from a glance. The previous games’ tradition of tiny artwork on buttons that require you to hover your mouse so much is no more, and I am delighted about this.
Holding down the right mouse button and dragging on the ground positions units in the desirable direction with the selected formation. A wide range of hotkeys and genre standard control groups also allow for precise and rapid adjustments. To streamline this further, Relic employs a grid system for the keyboard like many other modern strategy titles. This allows for utilizing the menu buttons of units and buildings without needing to move your hand much. It is both brilliant and restrictive, unfortunately.
The system works off the button position instead of individual hotkeys for each option. The House lives in the top left corner in the builder menu. With the default layout, pressing Q once selects Feudal age buildings, then pressing Q again selects the upper left slot, the House. If it’s something situated in the bottom right corner of any unit’s UI, it would be the V key, and so on. This translates to every single entity in the game, from unit formations to research buttons. If you’re coming from another modern RTS or are acclimated to always keeping a hand on the WASD keys like me, this will be an extremely intuitive system.
Grid keys’ restrictive problem arises from the system not being optional, it replaces the ability to set hotkeys for individual buildings or unit abilities entirely. Assigning unique hotkeys for any task, like build a house or attack move, is not possible without upending the entire grid layout. I don’t understand why both systems can’t exist as options. Adding even more to the weirdness, there’s a few hardwired shortcuts like the Alt key for camera rotation and restrictions on assigning hotkeys to extra mouse buttons.
Age IV ships with eight civilizations — Chinese, Delhi Sultanate, English, Mongols, French, Abbasid Dynasty, Holy Roman Empire, and Rus — a meager number if you’re familiar with Age of Empires II, but let’s look under the hood. In addition to unique bonuses and units, there are substantial differences in playstyles for most factions available with upsides and down.
The Delhi Sultanate gets to research all technologies for free but requires investing in Scholars to speed up the process. Tanky War Elephants also lift their military effectiveness. On the other hand, the Rus’ economy focuses on Gold bonuses for hunting animals and building near forests. Their soldiers can also make walls instead of waiting for villagers. That may sound underwhelming in comparison, but Rus are a difficult civilization to outpace from the early game thanks to those boons. However, easily the most unique are the Mongols. Playing into their nomadic nature, Mongols can freely pack up their entire city and move to a different spot on the map — insert “Imma Head Out” meme —, gains resources from burning buildings, but do not have access to any kind of walls, meaning playing on the defense is a bad idea.
Mongol buildings roll out Each faction can also progress somewhat differently in every match when advancing to a new Age. Instead of a researching into one, villagers must be pulled from their valuable work to construct Landmarks to advance to new technology tiers. Each Landmark provides a unique and powerful bonus that should stay impactful through an entire match, and two choices are presented at each stage. These can apply permanent buffs to nearby units, be a cheaper unit-producing military facility, an economy building, or simply just a powerful castle. The choice adds another layer of intricacy depending on how the match is going at that moment. Of course, even this mechanic is subverted by a couple of civilizations. The Chinese, for instance, can build both Landmarks of each age unlike everyone else, while the Abbasid Dynasty only has a single Landmark which is upgraded similar to the classic games, freeing villager time.
However, not all civilizations are so drastically different; to keep my brain from overloading, I first tested the waters with the English and French, the lowest in the faction difficulty ratings. They play very similarly to Age of Empires II civilizations, touting simpler percentage-based bonuses, stronger defensive elements, and a few unique units. Every civilization also has an aura bonus that must be considered. These range from simple reductions of unit costs and buffs to deeper systems like tax collection, requiring a special kind of unit.
Either sticking to one or attempting to master all eight, there is something here for any type of RTS fan.
It is not an Age of Empires game without historical campaigns, and Age IV leans into the historical aspects like no other game. At launch, campaigns exist for the English, France, Mongols, and Rus. The four paths delve deep into conflicts spanning hundreds of years and are each presented with beautifully crafted live action and augmented footage with narration that give context to the wars, the cultures involved, and how they shaped the modern-day landscapes of the countries involved. Battles in a campaign can usually leap decades forward in the timeline to weave an intriguing path through major events.
There’s usually at least one ‘hero’ unit like Genghis Khan, or William the Conqueror, or a descendant to lead armies in story missions. They employ small but useful abilities to buff nearby units like adding extra damage to cavalry charges or healing. Other units can revive them If a hero goes down, so there’s no need to reach for the quick load button. Difficulty levels range from ‘Story’ where the AI treats battles like a reenactment event, to ‘Hard’ where the pressure never lets up.
The opening tournament The missions aren’t sporting simple “defeat red army” objectives either. For instance, in the memorable opening mission of the 100 Year War French campaign, a knightly chivalrous tournament sets the stage with side objectives for strengthening the available contestants. Other spins like giving the option to pay off or annihilate a secondary raiding faction, and using a small group of units to cut off supplies to an enemy siege while also defending from said siege, all keep the campaigns fresh and continually engaging. Showcasing the differences between faction playstyles I mentioned previously is a strong focus here too.
I averaged around 30 minutes per mission in campaigns — my astounding childhood strategy still works wonders —, and the game ships with around 10 missions each, per faction storyline. Considering the series’ terrific history of post-launch support, I’m looking forward to seeing more historical campaigns and factions from the rest of the world join in. Who knew history lessons can be so engaging, right?
In addition to the videos sandwiching in each campaign mission, there’s also ‘Hands on History’, one of my favorite new features. These are high budget — I'm talking piles of money only a trebuchet could throw at them —, short documentaries with expert hosts, that dive into the medieval technologies fueling these wars. The kind of stuff the History Channel doesn't broadcast anymore. These shorts unlock steadily as rewards for completing campaign missions, as if even more incentives are needed. Ever been curious about just how incendiary arrows stay lit in flight? How were castles built to withstand trebuchets? How whistling arrows were communication methods in the heat of battle? You can even watch them while matchmaking. Genius. To witness these gems in full 4K HDR, an optional download is available if you don’t mind doubling your game size.
Even with the fantastic campaign experience, multiplayer is a whole other addictive and untamable beast. Multiplayer in Age of Empires is where your dreams of crushing the enemy, like in the campaigns, get put down fast. Still, losses that bring shame to my ancestors have not stopped me from going back. Just like with any other competitive play-focused strategy game, getting good involves multitasking so hard you will wish for a third hand just to wipe your brow.
Taking calculated risks is the winning formula, but if you're bad at math like me, that's a hard problem to solve.
To ease players in, one of the best returning features from Age of Empires II to Age of Empires IV is Art of War. These are a series of tutorial scenarios made to sharpen your abilities for multiplayer, like a concentrated shot of good sense. Since metas haven't developed yet, Art of War serves the function of building a good skill foundation, making it wildly helpful to just about anyone. I'm sure the developer will add more scenarios or even modify the current lot as the community finds the most efficient methods of war. In the early days of a new strategy game, every crackpot strategy is viable depending on the opposing force’s ability to react.
There’s a wide variety of maps to force different strategies. The Black Forest map offers early protection thanks to the maze of trees in between competitors, while King of the Hill masses piles of resources in the middle of the map to overcharge expansions and conflict. Victory in a match can be achieved in different ways: destroying all landmarks of a side, capturing and holding certain strategic locations for 10 minutes, or building an ultra-expensive Wonder and defending it for 15 minutes.
A multiplayer match can end within 10 minutes or stretch out for over an hour depending on skill levels, the number of players involved, or in my case, simple hesitancy to attack early. Invading with a meager force in the early game is a greedy and intimidating tactic, a wrong move can mean you’ve basically handed the win over to the opponent on a silver platter.
At my ghastly skill level, all micro-intensive intentions to rotate out low health units, avoid being surrounded, or aim archers at squishy targets get thrown out the window when armies clash, still making satisfying pockets of chaos. As the front lines crunch together, the troops in the back automatically try to fill the gaps of falling comrades. A good hit with a Mangonel onto a group of soldiers still makes me squirm in my seat from satisfaction. And when the costly gunpowder units finally enter the fray, their brutal effectiveness makes up for their owner’s emptied treasuries, with even the most armored units, castles, and walls becoming literal cannon fodder.
There is a constant and frantic dance of trying to manage the economy while not starving your armies out of reinforcements. In so many instances I’ve had to stop a military advance because I didn’t notice my gold pile had run out and villagers have been idle for a minute (might as well call it an eternity). This requirement of dividing attention across every aspect is also why so many strategies are viable, from decoy armies and dropping a castle beside the enemy, to exhilarating last-ditch rushes at opponent Landmarks to win the game as they fall prey to tunnel visioning on the wrong things. At the end of every match, a breakdown of each player’s performance is provided by the game, and match replays are also available. Two crucial things for anyone looking to improve their playstyle.
Interestingly, in team games, the asymmetrical civilizations can cover for each other’s weaknesses and share benefits. A Mongol player could put up a few sheep spawning tents at an ally base for easier Food collection and get walls in return to cover for the Mongol’s lack of them.
The development team will be monitoring the balance in casual playlists before introducing its highly competitive 1v1-only Ranked Seasons experience and rewards in a post-launch update. The casual Quick Match system available at launch still functions using ELO rankings and supports up to eight players — 1v1 through 4v4 — offering massive maps made to contain the possible total of 1,600 units (200 per faction).
If customizability is more a priority, the included traditional server browser is the ideal way to go. Whether it be against players, bots or a combo, everything about a match can be tweaked, including specific team sizes, map choices, biomes, victory types, and more. Once mod support becomes a reality next year, this section of the game will be even more important. Chilling with a cooperative game against AI (either with friends or via matchmaking) is thankfully still an option too, where stress is markedly lower.
Graphics and performance
Undoubtedly the most divisive aspect about Age of Empires IV is its art style and graphics. From the moment the game was announced to the latest gameplay showcases, there are always "calm" debates surrounding how it looks, giving me flash backs of Civilization VI's reveal. The look of the game is something even I was hesitant about at first, especially in the ways Microsoft kept showing it off, but finally playing the game is when I came to appreciate it. Obviously, this has been a conscious decision considering Relic Entertainment's development ancestry, the deep pockets of the publisher, and the amount of care that has gone into all areas of the game.
The most obvious reasons for this direction are readability and performance. A quick glance at any battlefield in any of the six biomes gets you completely updated on the situation. Even when hundreds of units from multiple players are clashing, the colors and models cut through the clutter to provide crucial data, which is invaluable for a fast-paced real time strategy game. The same can’t be said for some faction buildings unfortunately. With weeks of playtime now under my belt, can I tell you which buildings does what from looking at the below screenshot? Sure. Would I be able to do it while being raided and trying to build a quick reaction force? It will be a real struggle, as I've found out firsthand.
What does what again? Being a PC exclusive, the lower hardware barrier of entry cannot hurt either, the minimum requirements ask for integrated GPUs after all. The performance on my aging Radeon RX 580 8GB, which delightfully sits right above the recommended tier, has been stellar, squeezing out 60+ FPS at 1080p with all settings except for Anti-Aliasing set to maximum. Granular control is offered over a sea of graphics options to squeeze out any stubborn frames. Suffice to say, if you can run the franchise’s remasters without hitches, you probably won’t have issues with Age of Empires IV.
The game can still be very pretty in motion. The rolling hillsides covered with shimmering grass or snow, quiet rivers flowing across maps as clouds cast shadows from above, dense forests spread across valleys and on top of cliffs, and cute little sheep with their bows (as Scouts lead them to their deaths) all look vibrant and pop out of the screen. Minute details such as automatically generated paths between buildings, sacks of food nearby mills, and fenced off gardens near houses also plump city density and immersion.
With all that said, even now I have friends I'm in the process of convincing to give the game a shot before judging it too harshly over the supposed subpar graphics. This will undeniably be an uphill battle for Age of Empires IV. Thankfully, Game Pass should come in clutch here.
The sound of thousands of hooves hitting the ground makes everything rumble even before the cavalry charge come into view. You can hear the fear in a villager’s voice as they defend against a wolf attack alone. Echoing whistles of Scouts as they spot rival camps. Ambient noise near busy cities. The roar of armies as they encounter enemy troops and laugh with obvious mirth after winning a skirmish. It is all distinct, clear, and just so well executed. I feel for the throats of all the voice actors who had to scream their lungs out for these recordings, but their sacrifices weren’t in vain. This is easily the most impressed and blown away I’ve been about audio in a strategy game.
Instances in the campaign like the music being pulled back as Mongol hordes approach Moscow before returning with drums just before waves of horsemen appear elevates the entire encounter. The same drums keep up the pace and crack through the air during Mongol raids in their own story. Even in multiplayer, as every sound in the battlefield is directional, my hand starts moving the camera before I even check the minimap for where the altercation is happening thanks to the precise audio.
It’s not just a high-quality implementation, it’s the attention to detail. When under cover inside a forest, units acknowledge commands with hushed voices. Unit dialect evolves with the Age of their civilization. The voices of at least the English go from incomprehensible in the Dark Age to having almost modern lines in the Imperial Age. Even in the main menu, the game slowly melds in different instruments and styles of music from appropriate cultures when browsing through factions. These decorative additions did not need to be here, but the developer spent a lot of effort, and I am glad.
Instead of going back to the drawing board and ending up losing the spark that defines the series (Command and Conquer 4 anyone?), Age of Empires IV manages to tactfully take the best parts of its predecessors and build a modern and accessible experience. This translates to stellar historical campaigns bolstered by documentary-style complementary videos and the fast-paced, deeply tactical, and exciting multiplayer playgrounds. Age of Empires IV can be extraordinarily complex if you want it to be. The creeping buildup of knowledge that translates to more lively and enjoyable games is an addicting cycle whether you’re interested in competitive multiplayer or in co-op against AI with friends.
There is a massive focus on tightening up the gameplay, having visual clarity, and not being a performance hog over beautifying the experience, a divisive approach. At the same time, the attention to detail for the audio will spoil your ears with a perfect implementation across the board, making this the best sounding strategy game yet by a wide margin.
For all the campaigns that marry history lessons and entertainment, distinctive asymmetrical civilizations and their interactions with each other, a surprise was the level of polish in the experience. I’m yet to even see a bugged objective marker let alone a crash. Don't mistake this for me saying improvements aren't needed. More easily distinguishable building models would be appreciated, and the decision to lock down some hotkeys is absurd.
It has been too long since the genre has been graced with a new face from a key player in the gaming world. It is a space that is dominated by classics, and thanks to Age of Empires IV's approachability and satisfying mix of new and old mechanics, there's nothing stopping newbies, wanderers from other RTS games, or old fans wanting to see what’s new from jumping in face first and having an enjoyable time. Right now, Age of Empires IV's greatest rivals are poised to be other games in its own franchise, and I don’t think Microsoft will mind that very much.
Age of Empires IV launches on 28 October on Steam and the Microsoft Store for $59.99 on Windows. It will also be available via the Xbox Game Pass for PC and Ultimate subscriptions on day one.
This review of Age of Empires IV was conducted on a pre-release copy of the Steam version provided by Microsoft.
Weekend PC Game Deals: Pick some fights and fill your tabletop with RPGs
by Pulasthi Ariyasinghe
Weekend PC Game Deals is where the hottest gaming deals from all over the internet are gathered into one place, every week, for your consumption. So kick back, relax, and hold on to your wallets.
Humble Bundle's latest collection is focused on getting your library expanded with fighting games. The aptly named Fighting Juggernauts Bundle carries its first game with a $1 price tag, with One Finger Death Punch 2 being included.
Raising the price to the average price tier gets you Mortal Kombat XL and Slap City. But as its price is currently the same as the final tier, you can just hop over to that and also receive Injustice 2 Legendary Edition, Killer Instinct, Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid, and SoulCalibur VI for a grand total of $12. If you're interested in Soul Calibur VI's season passes, coupons for them are included as well.
There's almost two weeks left on the bundle timer at the moment.
At the same time, Humble introduced another Paradox Interactive game bundle for strategy fans. Here, $1 gets you three games: Ice Lakes, Victoria II, and Knights of Pen and Paper 2.
Stepping up to the average tier will set you back $10 right now, and let you bag copies of Tyranny, the Dynasty Starter Pack for the free-to-play Crusader Kings II, as well as Prison Architect plus its Island bound and Psych Ward DLC. The final tier adds on three more games to the selection, them being Imperator: Rome, Age of Wonders: Planetfall, and Empire of Sin, all for $18.
Ending the Humble run, another bundle appeared this week over on Fanatical. This collection carries four Rainbow Six games, including the latest entry Siege, as well as Vegas, Vegas 2, and Lockdown for $8.99.
Just as scheduled, the freebie of the week from the Epic Games Store was Among the Sleep - Enhanced Edition, taking the spot of Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse.
Among the Sleep is a horror game with an interesting twist where you take the role of a child only two years old. It Is a combat-free experience that relies on the heavy atmosphere and exploration elements to turn up the suspense. This also features better visuals, behind the scenes content, and other bonuses thanks to being the Enhanced Edition.
Epic has no stops planned for its Halloween freebie train, as coming up next on October 28 is another horror game, DARQ: Complete Edition.
In a weird free event, Ubisoft is currently offering a trial for its yet-to-launch multiplayer extreme sports title Riders Republic via the Ubisoft Connect and Epic Games Store clients. You get access to the full game for four hours through October 27, and you can even carry progress over if you ride into the full game.
Over on Steam, Fallout 76's latest free event is winding down but there's still the weekend left before the promotion closes to explore the entirety of Appalachia. Lastly, the free weekend veteran Dead by Daylight is back for another run, and this time the latest Halloween event, The Midnight Grove, is active for extra spooky-ness.
Don't forget Epic Games has brought back its $10 coupon offer for another round, though you only get one this time. With that out of the way, have a gander at our big deals highlights for this weekend below, with major deals coming in from tabletop RPG-inspired titles, games made in France, and other special promotions:
Microsoft Flight Simulator – $47.99 on Steam Resident Evil Village – $32.99 on GamesPlanet It Takes Two – $29.99 on Steam HITMAN 3 – $29.99 on Epic Store DayZ – $26.99 on Steam No Man's Sky – $24.99 on GamesPlanet DEATH STRANDING – $23.99 on Epic Store Library Of Ruina – $22.49 on Steam Disco Elysium - The Final Cut – $21.99 on Steam Kenshi – $20.99 on Steam Hunt: Showdown – $19.99 on Steam RESIDENT EVIL 3 – $19.79 on Steam Skyrim Special Edition + Fallout 4 G.O.T.Y. – $18.54 on Steam Divinity: Original Sin 2 - Definitive Edition – $17.99 on Steam RESIDENT EVIL 2 – $15.99 on Steam Gears 5 – $15.99 on Microsoft Store Road 96 – $15.96 on Steam Dying Light Enhanced Edition – $14.99 on Steam Raft – $13.39 on Steam Monster Train – $12.49 on Steam PAYDAY 2: Legacy Collection – $12.4 o0n Steam King of Retail - Early Access – $12.05 on Steam Cultist Simulator – $11.99 on Steam Wingspan – $11.99 on Steam GreedFall – $11.89 on Fanatical Hand of Fate 2 – $10.19 on Steam Star Wars Battlefront II: Celebration Edition – $9.99 on Steam Fallout 76 – $9.99 on Steam Due Process - Early Access – $9.99 on Steam Resident Evil Revelations - Complete Pack – $9.99 on Steam Curse of the Dead Gods – $9.99 on Steam DUSK – $9.99 on Steam Slay the Spire – $9.99 on Steam Loop Hero – $8.99 on Steam Root – $8.99 on Steam A Plague Tale: Innocence – $8.79 on Fanatical The Surge 2 – $8.69 on Fanatical Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales – $7.99 on Steam 5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel – $7.91 on Steam A Way Out – $7.49 on Steam The King of Fighters '98 Ultimate Match – $7.49 on Steam For The King – $6.79 on Steam Neverwinter Nights – $5.99 on Steam Icewind Dale – $5.99 on Steam Ultimate Fishing Simulator – $5.99 on Steam Dicey Dungeons – $5.09 on Steam Titan Quest Anniversary Edition – $4.99 on Steam Unravel Two – $4.99 on Steam Resident Evil 5 – $4.99 on Steam Sunset Overdrive – $4.99 on Microsoft Store EVERSPACE – $4.49 on Steam Among the Sleep Enhanced Edition – $0 on Epic Store DRM-free Goodness
Your dose of DRM-free discounts this weekend is mostly filled with a specific type of game: strategy experiences featuring tactical pause:
Kenshi - $20.99 on GOG Torment: Tides of Numenera - $19.24 on GOG Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition - $5.99 on GOG The Last Federation - $4.99 on GOG Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak - $4.99 on GOG Overcooked: Gourmet Edition - $4 on GOG Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition - $3.99 on GOG Total Annihilation: Commander Pack - $3.59 on GOG Homeworld Remastered Collection - $3.49 on GOG Men of War: Assault Squad GOTY Edition - $2.99 on GOG Sudden Strike Gold - $2.99 on GOG Seven Kingdoms: Ancient Adversaries - $2.39 on GOG Ground Control Anthology - $2.03 on GOG Empire Earth Gold Edition - $2.03 on GOG Stronghold HD - $1.79 on GOG Haegemonia Gold Edition - $1.59 on GOG Sacred Gold - $1.49 on GOG Homeworld: Emergence - $0.99 on GOG Perimeter - $0.79 on GOG UFO: Aftermath - $0.79 on GOG Keep in mind that availability and pricing for some deals could vary depending on the region.
That's it for our pick of this weekend's PC game deals, and hopefully, some of you have enough self-restraint not to keep adding to your ever-growing backlogs. As always, there's an enormous amount of other deals ready and waiting all over the interwebs as well as in services you may already subscribe to if you comb through them, so keep your eyes open for those, and have a great weekend.
Neowin may earn a small commission from qualifying purchases.
By Asher Madan
BioShock and Control receive massive discounts in Xbox's Shocktober Sale
by Asher Madan
It's almost Halloween and Microsoft — and select publishers — have discounted a number of titles for the annual Xbox Shocktober Sale. Games from the BioShock and Darksiders franchises are available for substantially less. Below, you'll find the Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, and Xbox 360 games with their respective discounts. The deals and games marked with an asterisk are only valid for Xbox Live Gold members, so you'll need an active paid subscription for the additional discount.
Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One
Many of the games are also backward compatible so you can play them on your Xbox Series X|S or Xbox One. Even if you still only have an Xbox 360, this month you're in luck!
Which titles are you interested in? Did you buy any? Let us know in the comments below.