Saturday, April 17, 2021

Oddworld: Soulstorm Review – A NEGATIVE Batch Of Brew

Playing Oddworld: Soulstorm is as arduous as Abe’s quest to liberate his Mudoken brethren from slavery. Each step is a supreme test of patience as you methodically guide your followers through challenging hazards, sweating over the fact that one slip-up could unravel all your effort. If you enjoy putting up with that old-school challenge, you might love this journey. However, if you’re a newcomer or a fan that believes this style of platformer hasn’t aged very well, turn back now. Soulstorm doesn’t do enough to modernize the series’ tedious gameplay, and a litany of severe technical hiccups spoil Abe’s attempted comeback. A reimagining of Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus, Soulstorm’s gameplay remains largely the same: you recruit and guide followers through 2D platforming stages littered with dangers. As charming as the classic Oddworld games are, they can be frustratingly difficult and that hasn’t changed much in Soulstorm. Most Slig enemies and other hazards mow Abe down instantly, and I was infuriated by how little wiggle room I had to correct course when things went sideways. Abe drops so fast that it makes the health meter seem like a cruel tease. While playing Soulstorm, I often felt like I was walking on eggshells because of that high price of failure, retracing every step, re-recruiting every Mudokon, and carefully guiding them through a gauntlet of foes is soul-crushing when it all falls apart in seconds. Dying to unexpected perils, like being suddenly gunned down by off-screen enemies, feels cheap and happens way too often. A crafting system serves as Soulstorm’s biggest addition, but it doesn’t feel necessary. You must repeatedly gather the same ingredients every time you die (by searching lockers, trash cans, and fallen foes), which wore me down in a hurry after repeatedly replaying certain sections. The crafted tools themselves, like proximity mines, smoke screens, even a flamethrower, do add a welcomed element of flexibility and improvisation to gameplay. Dropping smoke screens to create hiding spots anywhere is nice, but I wished I didn’t have to make these items myself and grew tired of digging around the same spots over and over.   Even when Soulstorm’s difficulty eases up, the gameplay is bland. The action feels largely the same from previous games in the series, and that formula doesn’t evolve significantly beyond the first few hours. Even the more interesting sequences, like facing down a giant mech aboard a speeding train, are far too punishing to be fun. I’m glad that Abe controls better now (he even has a double jump), but the controls still have a mushy unresponsiveness that makes entertaining actions, like possessing Sligs, feel like a hassle. The controls also lead to additional deaths because Abe doesn’t act as swiftly as you need him to, especially during the ill-fitting, overly demanding combat arenas that pit you against waves of baddies while you try to protect fleeing Mudokens. Soulstorm would be a tough recommendation for anyone outside of diehard fans if it performed flawlessly, but I encountered several progress-sabotaging bugs (even after installing the big day-one patch) that should scare off even those players. When I died, Mudokens sometimes failed to respawn alongside me even though my tally indicated they were still alive and under my command. That meant I lost out on turning in followers that I’d spent ages trying to safely liberate, which negatively affected my overall quarma – a vital metric in determining which of the four endings you get.  Abe occasionally gets stuck in environmental geometry, forcing a restart. At one point, I fell into an infinite loop. One escape portal permanently vanished once I reached it, forcing me to abandon followers. A gun in a late-game turret sequence failed to shoot despite working fine in previous segments. After multiple restarts, I randomly discovered that clicking the right stick “fixed” the weapon for some reason, allowing it to fire. I spent over an hour trying to lead a large group of followers through a particularly challenging area, but once I opened the exit door an invisible wall prevented me from moving forward. I was forced to restart this entire, lengthy sequence twice before the exit worked properly. Soulstorm’s gameplay pushed my patience to its limits, but these bugs sent me over the edge and made me nervous every time I started a new level. “What on Earth is going to screw me over this time?” I regularly asked myself. Soulstorm’s faults are a shame because its narrative and presentation brought a smile to my face. Abe and his pals are goofy, delightful underdogs I couldn’t help but root for. The enjoyable story is packed with heart, and the cutscenes look great. I wanted to welcome Abe into a new generation of gaming with open arms, but Soulstorm fails to make a case for why its brand of cinematic platforming works today. In fact, Soulstorm only reaffirmed that Abe’s past adventures are best viewed with rose-colored glasses.
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    Dirt 5 Xbox Series X Preview – An Impressive, Muddy Showcase

    With the new generation a month away, I finally got my hands on a true next-gen title after putting the new Xbox Series X through the paces with backwards compatible games. Dirt 5 is a visual treat; mud flings into the air as you throw on your handbreak to cut around a corner as the sun slices through deep blue sky in blinding fashion. The visual leap forward is noticeable, but I was most impressed by how smooth everything feels.

    Dirt 5 capitalizes on the speed emphasis of the Xbox Series X, loading detailed environments with several cars in just under 15 seconds; just as I was blown away by how fast the Series X can load an Xbox One game, I’m impressed by how short I have to wait once I enter an event. Speaking of events, Dirt 5 gives you multiple ways to experience a diverse offering of races, ranging from the choose-you-path career mode (complete with playful narration by Nolan North, and a mentor played by Troy Baker), and the other-the-top and creative Playgrounds.

    Dirt 5

    Career mode gets you into the action faster than I anticipated. After a short explanation of how the mode works, I’m immediately thrusted into my first Ultra Cross race (a combination of off-road and street racing) on a muddy Norwegian cliffside with waves crashing by the barriers. The better you do in each career race, the more XP, money, rep, and rewards you take home. While money is obviously used to buy new cars and upgrades, rep gives you additional sponsorship opportunities (which in-turn give you even more money) and XP levels up your profile, granting you access to more cosmetics to equip on your cars and profile.

    After taking first place in that initial event in Norway, I’m given a choice to proceed to either a Rally Raid event (the quintessential point-A-to-point-B Dirt experience) in Greece or a Land Rush event (a true battle against the elements) in China. After completing my third event, a hilly Stampede race capped off by a massive jump in Italy, I’m finally able to afford a new car; I opt for the Ford Fiesta R5 MK II. 

    Dirt 5

    I spent a bit more time in career before heading over to Playgrounds, an all-new mode that not only lets you race in creative and outlandish courses, but also create them for yourself and share them with the world. Hopping into the Discover section of Playgrounds, I’m greeted with a treasure trove of creations from other players. From a checkpoint-based course full of jumps, tight turns, and even an upward spiral to a complex skill-based track centered on smashing targets while avoiding hazards, I encountered all kinds of ways to put my driving skills to the test. On top of finding plenty of enjoyable courses like these, my competitive streak was also satisfied, as each event has a leaderboard built in, encouraging you to play again and again to top other racers.

    Once I dug into the creation tools for myself, I was easily able to craft a stunt course with a jump through a flaming hoop, a pipe to drive through (upside-down if you want), and a sharp U-turn to drift around. Thanks to pieces that snap together, it didn’t take long before the ideas in my head were brought to life on the screen. I’m excited to see what I can whip up once the final version hits and I devote more time to learning the ins and outs of the components available.

    Dirt 5

    Dirt 5 isn’t a title that’s impossible to achieve on current-gen technology, but the experience on Xbox Series X is smooth as silk. I haven’t had a chance to check out the title’s performance on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, but I continue to be pleased with the efficiency of the Xbox Series X, even on next-gen titles such as this.

    Dirt 5 launches on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC this November. It arrives on Stadia sometime next year.

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