Plugged In

Spring has arrived, and with it comes the year’s first wave of blockbuster video game releases. Over the next few weeks we’ll see the latest installment of Ubisoft’s “Far Cry” franchise, a fresh take on Sony’s “God of War” and, of course, the definitive sign that spring has truly sprung — “MLB The Show 18.”

But before turning my focus toward the games of the not-so-distant future, let’s pause and take a moment to look back at some of the games I’ve been enjoying so far in 2018:

  • “Yakuza 6: The Song of Life”: OK, technically this one is still a few weeks away from release, but thanks to SEGA sending out early review copies I’ve had plenty of time to experience the final adventures of series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu. As this is my first experience with the “Yakuza” franchise, I found “The Song of Life” to be quite welcoming to a new player, with many of the returning key players introduced early in the story.

From a gameplay perspective, I had always heard comparisons between the “Yakuza” series and “Grand Theft Auto,” but frankly I don’t see it. Both may be open-world action games, but I found “Yakuza 6” to be far more restrictive in what I was allowed to do. That said, I certainly appreciated some of the more unique activities and side missions I was able partake in — what’s not to like about running a cat cafe and singing karaoke?

The story, which centers around Kazuma’s search for his surrogate daughter, is the true highlight of “Yakuza 6,” but coming in a close second is the combat, which strikes a comfortable balance between button-masher and combo-heavy fighting game. I also came away impressed with the amount of detail contained within the virtual Japan available to explore.

While I had fun beating up street thugs, petting cats and chatting up hostesses, “Yakuza 6” left me wanting more. And though my time with “The Song of Life” hasn’t convinced me to go back and check out previous installments in the series, I’ll definitely be looking forward to seeing what SEGA does next with the franchise. (Developer: SEGA. Publisher: SEGA. Rating: M for mature. Score: 7.3/10) 

  • “Shadow of the Colossus”: First released on the PlayStation 2 way back in 2005, this heartbreaking tale of love and sacrifice remains one of the best video games ever produced. And this remake from Bluepoint Games is the definitive version of an all-time classic.

The original “Shadow of the Colossus” was a stunning graphical achievement on the PS2 and this latest version is every bit as impressive visually. From the overall lighting to the incredible amount of detail contained in each of the 16 enormous beasts you must track down and destroy, “Shadow of the Colossus” has again established itself as one of the most beautiful games on a Sony console.

Upgrades have been made to the frame rate and draw distance, making those lengthy treks across the plains on your horse much more palatable. But wisely, the gameplay was left largely untouched outside of some improvements to the control scheme. New content includes a photo mode and the addition of hidden coins that can be collected to unlock a new weapon.

If by some chance you’ve never played “Shadow of the Colossus,” there is no better way to experience this epic journey. And thanks to the incredible work done by Bluepoint Games, returning players will be in for a treat, too. (Developer: Bluepoint Games. Publisher: SCEA. Rating: T for teen. Score: 10/10)

  • “Kingdom Come: Deliverance”: By most accounts, life during the Middle Ages was no fun. The same can’t be said for this gem of a role-playing game set during that time period — as long as you understand what you’re signing up for.

Indeed, “Kingdom Come: Deliverance” is an incredibly deep and, at times, frustratingly difficult experience. There are numerous gameplay systems at work that you must constantly monitor, everything from your hunger and thirst to the appearance of your clothes and your body odor. With so many games taking a fantastical approach to this era — “Skyrim” and “The Witcher” series immediately come to mind — the decision by developer Warhorse Games to ground “Deliverance” in reality is a welcome one.

That realism and attention to detail extends to the combat, which for me proved to be the most challenging obstacle to overcome. In the opening hours I was flailing my sword around like an untrained squire, just hoping to get lucky with enough blows to fell my opponent. But after extensive in-game training and lots of practice — along with more deaths than I care to mention — everything began to click and I was able to enter any encounter with confidence. I especially love the realistic role that armor plays, affecting everything from how damage is dealt (and absorbed) and how fast you can move to your field of vision. Finding weak spots in my opponents’ armor was often a key to victory, as well.

After a slow start, the story at the heart of “Kingdom Come: Deliverance” proved quite compelling and there are plenty of entertaining side missions and treasure hunts available to help flesh out the overall experience. I did notice a handful of bugs and a recent patch was deployed to address most of those, along with replacing the rigid default save system with a more forgiving “Save and Exit” option.

“Kingdom Come: Deliverance” isn’t your typical role-playing game. But what it lacks in magic and dragons it more than makes up for with complex gameplay, satisfying combat and an excellent story. (Developer: Warhorse Games. Publisher: Deep Silver. Rating: M for mature. Score: 9.2/10)

  • “theHunter: Call of the Wild”: Growing up, I probably spent more time in the woods with a rifle or shotgun in my hands than I did anywhere else. Hunting wasn’t just something my family did; it was who we were, it was how we put food on the table. But as I’ve gotten older, I find myself returning to those woods far less often than I would like. For those times when the urge to head afield hits, “theHunter: Call of the Wild” is there to help scratch that itch.

I’ve played countless hunting games over the years and found one thing was always missing — realism. Above all else, this is the one thing that “Call of the Wild” nails — it is without a doubt the most realistic hunting game I’ve ever played. From monitoring the ever-changing wind direction to picking paths through the wilderness that create the least amount of noise, “Call of the Wild” constantly challenges you to think like a hunter. Run through the woods with your gun drawn and you can forget about bagging a trophy buck — you’ll likely never even see an animal as they will have been spooked by your presence.

“theHunter” features two huge open worlds to explore — one set in the Pacific Northwest and another in Europe — but don’t expect to find them overrun with game. Again, this is a hunting simulation, not a shooting gallery. In fact, I’ve spent exponentially more time simply walking around and exploring the vast landscapes than I have looking down the scope of my rifle. It is both satisfying and heartbreaking to spend an hour of real-time hiking through a virtual world to put yourself into position to perhaps bag the big one, only to miss the shot or helplessly watch as your prize remains just out of range. That, in a nutshell, is “theHunter.” This is what hunting is really like, and those without patience need not apply.

Beyond the actual act of hunting, there are some RPG elements at work as you earn cash and experience points for things like making efficient kills and discovering rare landmarks. The XP can then be used to upgrade your character’s skills (though never transforming you into an overpowered killing machine) and the cash can be used to purchase better guns, ammo and gear. The game doles out these rewards slowly, so players hoping to quickly outfit their character with the best gear will likely be disappointed.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how unbelievably gorgeous “theHunter” is. I was blown away by the world developer Expansive Worlds created using Avalanche’s APEX engine. From dense, highly detailed forests to open fields of tall grass rippling in the wind, “Call of the Wild” contains the most realistic outdoor environments I’ve ever seen in a game. Granted, the animations of the animals leave something to be desired, but my goodness everything else looks amazing! I would love to see what other types of games they could build around this technology.

To paraphrase WWE superstars Sheamus and Cesaro, “theHunter: Call of the Wild” doesn’t just set the bar, it is the bar for hunting video games. This is as close as you can get to being in the woods at sunrise on opening day without having to slap on some blaze orange. (Developer: Expansive Worlds. Publisher: Avalanche Studios. Rating: T for teen. Score: 8.5/10)