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Hard choices make for a hard Clementine

Editor’s Note: In order to avoid spoiling events from previous episodes in this and the first season of The Walking Dead, the language will remain as vague as possible. That being said, some situations may still be specifically referenced. Thus, if you don’t want anything spoiled, we recommend you play previous episodes and then return to this review. Consider yourself warned.

After a less-than-stellar outing in Episode 4, the final chapter in season two of Telltale’s The Walking Dead does a fine job of bringing the stories of each remaining party member to a head before leaving Clementine with an awful decision that will change her forever.

This episode is, in many ways, the best of the season. Here, it becomes clear just how many moments that seemed innocuous at the time were actually more important than some of the more action-driven sequences over the first four episodes that led up to this thrilling conclusion.

As tensions rise, the ever-present rift in the group opens wider and wider, with Clementine stuck in the middle trying to act as the lone peacekeeper. This adds some high anxiety to what would’ve been more casual conversations earlier in the year, and it makes each vocal choice for Clementine all the more harrowing, since you didn’t know where it might steer the characters.

This focus on dialogue and character growth makes No Going Back feel more akin to the TV show than any of the preceding episodes in the series, and it’s a refreshing change of pace. There’s a minimal amount of puzzle-solving that doesn’t require Clementine to just be quick on her feet and react physically or verbally as you’d like her to, truly making her decisions feel more like your own. You don’t have the time to contemplate most answers and just have to go with your gut, which helps fix some of the haphazard pacing we’ve seen throughout much of this season.

This also allows Episode 5 to continue to add layers to Clementine, who almost seems to be growing up in front of us like a child star would on a TV show—and that only adds to the intrigue of what may happen with her in the future. My decisions continued to mold her into a character unique to my particular playthrough, and that’s a prospect that has me only looking forward to more Walking Dead.

That said, a few moments in the episode feel a little gaudy. In particular, a dream sequence seems wholly out of place, like the writers were trying to force even more drama in for no good reason. There are more than enough moments in this chapter that pull on your heartstrings as it is, and the dream simply destroys the flow of what’s otherwise the smoothest-running episode until that point. No Going Back’s already the longest of the season at just over two hours, so that particular sequence easily could’ve hit the cutting-room floor.

With that in mind, No Going Back serves as a microcosm of the entire season itself, with highs and lows that mimic the previous episodes and continue to put this season in stark contrast to the consistent greatness seen in the first. At the very least, however, the episode ends on a high note that not only serves as a fitting conclusion, showcasing the huge character growth for most of Clementine’s remaining group, but also leaving the door open for more than enough new storylines in season three.

Developer: Telltale Games • Publisher: Telltale Games • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 08.26.14
8.0

A few unnecessary sequences hold back the episode a bit, but as a whole, No Going Back serves as a fitting conclusion to season two. And thankfully, it also leaves enough room for more intrigue and drama in season three.

The Good The story takes unexpected turns when heartrending decisions need to be made.
The Bad Like much of the season, there’s an up-and-down quality to the episode, and some moments make you question their inclusion.
The Ugly Sometimes, you never truly know someone until it’s too late.
The Walking Dead: Season 2: Episode 5 – No Going Back is available on Xbox 360, PS3, PC, and iOS. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360. Review code was provided by Telltale for the benefit of this review.

A playoff contender—but not quite championship caliber

Much like how Punxsutawney Phil supposedly predicts the coming of spring each Groundhog Day, Madden can set the tone for the coming months when it pops up at the end of each August. Football fans look to the rankings to see how their team stacks up around the NFL, and gamers hope a strong showing will get the busiest season of the year off on the right foot. Of course, this isn’t always the case—especially considering the difficulties the franchise faces as an annual title. But this year’s entry, Madden NFL 15, hopes to not just signify the end of the summer gaming drought but kick off the final major gaming quarter of the year with a bang.

EA Tiburon touted a bevy of new features, tweaks to existing options, and various upgrades in the months leading up to this release. It seems they wanted to prove to gamers that they could make big strides in a single year of a Madden development cycle instead of the incremental changes we’ve seen in years past. And while some improvements definitely help the developer make a run at this lofty goal, enough stumbles on that path keep Madden NFL 15 from being a true football fanatic’s dream.

Since the gameplay—especially on the defensive side of the ball—was the primary focus for this year’s game, I’ll start there. The new defensive-line dynamics now allow players to jump snap counts, choose if they want to use finesse or a power move to get to the QB with a single, well-time button press, or even shed blockers to make the big hit on the running back trying to scoot by off tackle. As someone who primarily plays on the defensive line, this was a welcome leap forward: With a few quick button taps, I got past my blocker—or occasionally, admittedly, I fell flat on my face. But more importantly, I knew why my actions did or didn’t work. The responsiveness, combined with the simplicity, reignited my passion for being in the trenches.

Unfortunately, not everything on defense was such a hit. While I usually play on the D-line, sometimes I like to go into the secondary depending on the down, distance, and my play-call. I’m no Richard Sherman by any means, but I can hold my own back there, and I’ve had my fair share of user picks over the years. The Ball Hawk feature was supposed to have made a big step forward this year, and in some regards, it has. It’s never been easier to pick up the ball as it leaves the QB’s hand and make a play on it. But for some reason, even when I played a pass perfectly, my cornerbacks kept dropping the ball. I kept track, and even if I leaped at the perfect moment to catch a pass at its apex, trained my defensive backs so that their catching abilities were in the 90s, and read the receiver’s route from the get-go, I’d still only make the interception about 10 percent of the time and while, yes, a fair amount of DBs are just failed receivers, these are still unrealistic numbers. For as much as I loved playing on the defensive line, I couldn’t stand playing in the secondary—it felt unrewarding for no good reason.

Now, some might rebut that by noting that if I picked off those passes every time, I’d set new records for interceptions in a year. This is true. But I more than doubled the all-time single-season sack record while playing on the defensive line (with the horrible Damontre Moore of the New York Giants, no less!). So, if the game is purposely trying to keep my numbers in realistic realms in the secondary, it should do the same on the defensive line.

The other defense element that irked me? The new tackle cone. You’d think after the Madden 06 debacle with QB vision, that would be the last we ever saw a vision cone in the series. Even more so than back then, I found it distracting more than helpful, but I’ve also been playing Madden for 20 years now—and I’d hope that in all that time, I’d know how to make a tackle. At least this feature is only optional, however, and I can see the potential of how it could help Madden newcomers who are just trying to learn the ins and outs of the sport.

You’ll find fewer tweaks on offense, but the big difference this year revolves around QB accuracy. Thankfully, this is another winning addition for the Madden folks. Not only are QBs a lot more realistic when it comes to throws on the run (and their corresponding accuracy), but the new pass-catching animations will have you sharing a lot of clips with your buddies. One-handed grabs in the back of the end zone, stretches over the sideline while standing on tiptoes, and sliding grabs across the middle are now a lot more commonplace depending on how off your quarterback is, and these new spectacular grabs were definitely a welcome sight.

Besides the gameplay, Madden NFL 15 tries its best to help players learn the game of football, starting with the very basics. If you want to jump right in, new community playbook options offer the popular choice in different situations and give you a third opinion besides your own and the AI on what play to run. Also, Skills Trainer has seen a huge shift this year. Whether it’s teaching you the very definition of a Cover 2 versus a Cover 3 or when and where to blitz, Skills Trainer now feels like the perfect program not only to teach you about Madden, but also about football itself. The Gauntlet mode in Skills Trainer is a fun way to implement everything you learn with creative minigames, such as trying to use your blockers to avoid 10 would-be tacklers or kicking a 100-yard field goal in hurricane-force winds.

Another new feature comes in the Connected Franchise mode. Rather than the “hot/cold” system of previous years, players on your Franchise Mode team now have a “confidence” meter that can impact their on-field exploits. If an athlete who’s rated a 75 is playing really well and the team is on a winning streak, he may perform like an 80. And If he’s playing horribly and the team is on a losing streak, he might slip down to a rank around 70. I liked this idea a lot, but the game did a horrible job of explaining it in a one-minute Trey Wingo-narrated video at the start of the mode. From week to week, you can work on your confidence or on your player as a whole. There are only so many “hours” in a week, though, that you can use for training. It took me a long time to realize how important confidence really was and that I needed to spend as much time working on that as I did building up my receivers’ route-running abilities and my D-line’s block-shedding skills. The game really does a poor job laying everything out here.

And speaking of laying things out, the user interface is still a cluttered mess. I really wish they’d clean up the menu navigation so that I’m not constantly searching for the different modes on the front screen or for particular pages inside each mode. The worst in terms of user interface may be Madden Ultimate Team. The mode itself is better than ever, with hundreds of solo challenges for those who don’t want to play online, and a new team-specialty system that gives you bonuses based on what you want your team to excel in (for example, a “ground-and-pound” team will see bonuses in offensive line and running back performance), but getting around in Ultimate Team is a joke.

While on that subject, I did go online for a few matches, and everything seemed to be in tip-top shape. Of course, there were only a couple dozen people online, so we won’t see how the online play really handles until the servers are inundated with thousands more people.

My only other issue with Madden NFL 15—and this is something I hope gets patched—is the bevy of immersion-breaking glitches. There aren’t as many as in previous years, but you’ll still get your fair share of animation problems and audio issues. Some of my favorites this year include the player lying on the field who starts to spasm randomly like he’s having a seizure; the player who, when he trips over someone else, stiffens up like he’s been shot and slowly falls to the ground; and the receiver who never stops running when he gets out of bounds and endlessly rubs against the challenge review booth on the sideline. And there are just as many audio snafus as there are visual ones, like when the sideline reporter says your receiver will miss the rest of the season with an injury, only to find out after the game it’s only a 4-week injury, or when Jim Nantz says you have the least amount of interceptions in the league, when, in fact, you have the most (I’m playing with Eli Manning here—can you blame me?!). And if I have to hear Phil Simms crack the same lame joke about Jim Nantz’s golf game one more time, I’m going to start smashing some speakers around here.

Despite all this, however, Madden NFL 15 is still more of a step forward for the franchise than a step back. I’m glad to see EA Tiburon is trying to do more every year than just giving the game a roster update, and they’re putting real effort into the yearly adjustments with the franchise. It’s just regrettable that some of the changes they’ve made here clearly need to go back to the Xs and Os on the drawing board.

Developer: EA Tiburon • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 08.26.14
7.5
New defensive-line play and more defining accuracy with QBs highlight some of the many changes this year’s Madden brings to the table. Unfortunately, not all the other tweaks are nearly as successful.
The Good Revamped presentation and new defensive-line play work wonderfully and are highlights amongst this year’s changes.
The Bad Enough glitches and AI lapses to break immersion—and occasionally bring about my ire.
The Ugly Annihilating EGM freelancer extraordinaire Jason Fanelli online 31-14 and 52-7 while testing out multiplayer. Poor dude never saw it coming.
Madden NFL 15 is available on PS4, Xbox One, PS3, and Xbox 360. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review.

It’s time to play the game…

Even though 2K bought the rights to the WWE franchise last year during THQ’s liquidation, longtime developer Yuke’s had already done a lot of the heavy lifting for WWE 2K14 by the time the deal had been finalized. This year would be a different story, however: NBA 2K developer Visual Concepts had the chance to bring a few of their tricks to the table and elevate the bar for the franchise alongside Yuke’s. So, it was with great anticipation that I got a chance to go hands-on with WWE 2K15 at the annual SummerSlam preview event.

Right from the get-go, I got the sense that 2K is trying to bring WWE in line with its other major sports franchise by giving players something the series has never had before: a career mode. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play this mode, but here’s the way 2K outlined it: To begin with, you’ll create a wrestler via the same celebrated customization system we’ve seen for many years now. From there, you’ll work your way up from the WWE training facility in Florida to the developmental territory of NXT to undercards on shows like RAW and SmackDown to winning lower belts to main-eventing PPVs—and finally, with some luck, end up a WWE Hall of Famer.

Longtime fans of the series should be happy to know that this is all in addition to WWE Universe mode, where you get to be the all-powerful GM of WWE programming and put who you want in whatever kind of matches you want. Both these experiences side by side could offer the WWE franchise the one-two single-player punch it’s desperately needed over the years.

But that’s not all we’re getting. I got a chance to get some hands-on time with the new 2K Signature mode, which follows in the footsteps of previous years where we learned about the Monday Night Wars or the Attitude Era. This year’s incarnation will tell the stories of celebrated WWE rivalries, including Triple H versus Shawn Michaels and John Cena squaring off against CM Punk—and I got to play the first match of that latter rivalry. As with previous years, classic WWE footage will help set up the matches that you’ll relive in the ring.

Once I was actually able to step into the ring in 2K Signature and Exhibition is when things got most interesting with WWE 2K15. The first major change fans will notice? The visuals. While some models were clearly placeholders (CM Punk, for example, looked like someone just put a wig on “Stone Cold” Steve Austin in Create a Superstar), and parts of the arenas still need some touching up, the elements that were fully rendered and ready to go looked great. Cena, Cesaro, Randy Orton, and even Goldust looked unbelievably lifelike and animated as smoothly as the NBA players do in NBA 2K, so I can’t wait to see how everything looks in the final product.

The other major in-ring changes, though, came in terms of gameplay, with two new features that could rub longtime WWE fans the wrong way. The first of these is a new rock-paper-scissors-style early grapple system. In order to try to tell a more accurate story like those seen every Monday on RAW or at a monthly PPV, early grapples will be met with a minigame that starts with a button press, which signifies one of three hold attempts you’ll go for. Whoever picks the superior hold will have the advantage, and then both players will use the right stick to try to find the “sweet spot” and further progress in this new quicktime event. If you progress fully, you either escape the hold if you picked the inferior selection at the beginning, or you’ll do a minimal-damage move like an arm wrench.

The idea is that every WWE match doesn’t start off with a bunch of power moves (unless you’re Brock Lesnar). There’s a slow buildup to the moments that make us start chanting “This is awesome!” After two or three of these early grapples, business will pick up, and the action will progress like players are used to, with the full array of moves available to do damage. Personally, I didn’t mind the new minigame mechanic, but I could see how after dozens of matches, it would start to grind on some people. Thankfully, there’s an option to turn them off, though they’ll be set “on” as the default option.

The other new mechanic ties into the interface, which has also seen some changes. Wrestlers now have three lifebars, which drop from green to yellow to red—the last of which represents the best time to try to pin your opponent. You also have a percentage meter that dictates when you can use Signatures and Finishers. At 100 percent, you can bank a Signature. At 150 percent, you can bank a Finisher. You can have a Signature and three Finishers banked at any given time, though I’m sure there’ll be options to modify that as well. The last—and easily most controversial—addition is a default stamina meter that’s now included in the UI.

The issue with the stamina meter is that by the time you get to the latter stages of a match and are ready to finally use your Signature moves, perform an OMG! Moment like throwing someone through a barricade, or finally hit your Finisher and win, the stamina meter won’t let you do it. You need at least half a stamina bar alone to perform a given Finisher. And every regular move, counter, or just running around the ring depletes it. While it’s unknown if the stamina meter can be turned off, I sure hope it can, because it really ruined the pacing of all the matches I played. Yes, it does seem to fall more in line with the simulation style 2K wants to achieve, but I just don’t know if WWE fans want a pure simulation when it comes to wrestling. After all, the sport itself has the over-the-top quality of an arcade game. Moving the needle too far in the “simulation” direction could have unintended consequences, and many of my personal frustrations centered on that damned stamina meter.

There was nothing worse during my hands-on time than having three Finishers banked in the 2K Signature match between Punk and Cena—and then not being able to hit any of them because Punk was worn down. I’d have to leave the ring and walk laps around it—with the dunderheaded AI-controlled Cena slowly following behind me—until my stamina returned and I could get back in the ring, perform a GTS, and win the match. And in Exhibition mode, my opponent and I were just taking knees and catching our breath, yelling at the meter to fill up faster and helpless to do anything in the ring to further our cause.

Even with the ill-advised addition of the stamina meter, I’m more excited than not about WWE 2K15. Once all the models have a full coat of polish, the game will look better than ever before, and I’m particularly excited about the career mode. But the minor gameplay tweaks seem to give the game too many simulation aspects, and that could hurt the overall experience come October.

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Ray Carsillo interviews film producer Adrian Askarieh about his upcoming videogame-based feature films, including the upcoming Hitman: Agent 47, Deus Ex and Kane & Lynch.

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