Welcome back to Gaming IRL, a monthly segment where several editors talk about what they've been playing in their downtime. This month, it all falls apart, as two of us admit to basically playing the same games nonstop all year. Some are still doing their jobs though, and to kick us off, UK Bureau Chief Mat Smith talks about Ubisoft's surprisingly good Mario + Rabbids game.
'Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle'
Bureau Chief, UK
Mario + Rabbids is a game of two parts. First the X-com strategic battles, which form the main meat of the game. Ubisoft has pitched the learning curve perfectly, adding new characters, with different weapons and skills, as the game progresses. Spoiler though: No Yoshi until the final chapter? Yeesh.
Skills (and weapon effects) start to playfully interact with each other by the middle of the game, and I was soon bouncing enemies into the path of Mario, whose special ability allows him to gun down any baddie that comes into his range. If Mario has the sticky-honey ability on his gun, that bad guy would then be stuck fast, making easy work for whoever else I had on the field. There's a real sense of pleasure of seeing your intricate battle plans come together. Each level has a goal (destroy all enemies, get to this area), and you're rated only by the survival rate of your three fighters, and the number of turns it took to fulfill said goal. I like this way of ranking: It's not fussy, nor did these goals ever seem unachievable.
When my battle machinations came together, and I finished a level in two, not six turns, I felt pretty darn proud of myself. (Yes, I know this is meant to be an entry-level turn-based strategy game, but it's nice to feel successful, OK?)
The other half isn't so good. There's a lot of laborious block-shifting puzzles that never really seem all that clever. They're a pain the first time around, but when you're searching old levels for collectibles, challenges and secret chapters, having to go through them all over again seems plain cruel. It's fortunate, then, that the main thrust of the game is in the battles. Enjoy the smart fighting dynamics, the expertly blended Mario / Rabbids world, and maybe some of the toilet humor. Just force your way through those between-match puzzles, and never look back.
Fire Emblem Heroes
It's been seven months since Nintendo released Fire Emblem Heroes, and I think I've played it every day since. I fell in love with the series it's based on back on the Game Boy Advance, and Intelligent Systems (its developer since the 1990 original) did a fantastic job of adapting things for mobile without over-simplifying the core mechanics. The weapon triangle and movement types are all present, but the giant maps have been pared down to an 8x6 grid, and you control just four player characters on each.
While it launched a little short on content, there is now an overwhelming amount of stuff to do in FEH. There's a campaign with almost 100 levels, which is regularly updated with new chapters. All are playable on three difficulties, and each grants you an Orb upon completion. (Orbs, which allow you to summon random heroes from a virtual slot machine, are the game's core currency.) On top of the campaign, there are rotating special modes that give out more heroes, Orbs and items.
All of these modes really just serve to strengthen your roster for the Arena, the game's PVP mode, where hundreds of thousands of players battle each week to increase their rank and gain bigger rewards. Battling isn't real-time -- you set a defense team that opponents will try to best while you battle against other users' defense teams -- but it is nonetheless engaging and truly taxing at times. You need to win seven matches in a row without losing a single character to get anything resembling a decent score, and you also need to think about which units have the highest rating and who will provide bonuses. My strong offensive heroes, for example, can effectively destroy every defense team in the game, but their overall rating (the sum of their stats) is so low that I'd never earn enough points to keep my place in the top Arena tiers.
While the campaign maps plays out like a puzzle, the Arena is more like a grueling chess match. There are almost 170 heroes to date, and at least a third of them are good enough that you'll come up against them in the Arena.
Barring minor deviations, heroes have fixed stats, but players can swap out their weapons and skills to drastically change how each works on the battlefield. To do this, you essentially destroy one hero to give up to three of their skills to another. On top of that, you can merge identical heroes for a couple of extra stat points. As your Arena opponents are unlikely to be running a unit's default skills, you have to carefully examine your opponents in a way that isn't really necessary in the PVE modes, and you also need to prepare your team for a wide set of possible combatants. Because of this, my core three characters are actually the amalgamation of 20 separate heroes. And here we get to FEH's biggest issue: economics.
Like many free-to-play games, there's a complex set of systems and items that feed into one another to keep you playing, and, ideally, spending. Intelligent Systems regularly adds seasonal banners to pull from containing new heroes with "must-have" skills, and the first hints of power creep (where new units drastically outmuscle older ones, requiring you to spend to replace them) are beginning to rear their head.
It is entirely possible to play FEH without spending a penny, of course, and I know many people that do. You'll get enough Orbs every month to summon 10 or so heroes, and new players, after completing the various challenges on offer, will have a roster of around 100 heroes to work with (albeit with many duplicates).
It's definitely more forgiving for free-to-play gamers than similar titles, and Intelligent Systems has been improving the overall experience virtually constantly since launch. Early issues with a very limited "stamina" pool were quickly rectified, and there have been several quality-of-life improvements and mechanical additions over the months. But the allure of spending a little to pull better heroes is strong, and once you give in to those urges, it's tough to pull back.
Gambling addiction has been fairly frequently discussed on the community Reddit and Discord, and I've spent big on certain banners. Like, way too big. If you have a predilection to gambling and/or addiction, you're probably better off leaving FEH alone. But if you trust yourself to keep your spending in check, I can't recommend it enough.
I haven't played League of Legends in ages and it's all Overwatch's fault. One-and-a-half years after Overwatch landed on my PlayStation 4, it's still the game I want to play at the end of the day. My fingers itch to load up competitive matches (at least one a day), casual games and new modes. The most recent additions, Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, showed up at the perfect time: More than a year into its tenure, Overwatch was overdue for some straight-up bullet-bonanza modes, and I consistently find myself saying, "OK, just one more round" multiple times a night. Before loading up a competitive match, of course.
I'm not sure what it is about Overwatch that keeps me coming back for more. I think it has a lot to do with the look of its entire world -- each hero is unique and packed with personality, and everything is bubbly and bright, from the maps to the animations and the character designs themselves. But, mostly, Overwatch is an engaging, stupidly fun shooter. Sorry, League. I'll be back. Eventually.
Senior Editor, Database
For a few months, it was a running joke around the office that I wasted my money by buying a Switch because I didn't buy Zelda. I still haven't bought it. Why then, did I buy a system and ignore its one outstanding game? Because all I really wanted was Splatoon 2. The original title was pretty much the only reason I had a Wii U. I especially loved the ranked battles, which added a lot of variety after I got tired of the regular battles and their Turf War mode. I played them all the time and slowly but surely worked my way up through the letter grades. I did eventually move on to other games like Tokyo Mirage Sessions. But the minute Splatoon 2 was announced for the Switch I could feel the want stirring in my soul. The need.
So, of course, I bought Splatoon 2 the day it came out. Of course I stayed home that weekend, plowing through battle after battle in Turf War because you need to be at least level 10 to compete in ranked battles. And, while I will use the regular battles to warm up whenever I turn on the game, the ranked battles are my raison d'être. I need them. And I need to improve my rank.
Every player starts out with a C- rank in the three different modes: Tower Control, Splat Zones and Rainmaker. You work your way up by winning battles while losing battles knocks you down a bit and puts you at risk of going down an entire rank. For someone who's played the game before, you would think it should be simple enough to battle back up into an "A" ranking, right?
Well, no, because Splatoon is a team-based game, and you're paired up with whatever randos happen to be online at the time. Battles at the C level are terrible, with a grab bag of players who don't understand the rules, players who just don't seem to care and people who are just awful. After struggling my way to 'C' and "C+" I noticed a huge change in the quality of the battles once I started getting matched with B-level players. The games weren't as one-sided; the players actually put some effort into it. Rather than simply struggling to increase my rank, I started having a lot more fun.
But lately, I've found my rank tanking again. A lot of players seem to content to just screw around and take their time, and the other team ends up gaining an early lead we never quite recover from. Sometimes the rest of my team is just not to be found, leaving me to guard our zones or ride the tower or run with the Rainmaker alone. I get mad. I curse. A lot. It's usually along the lines of "where the fuck are you fucks" and "what the fuck was that?" and "I fucked up" and the classic "fuck fuck fuckity fuck."
Over time I've noticed that the games seem to improve after 10PM or so. I tend to win more battles if I play late in the evening, and my rank goes up, and I was feeling pretty good about it. But why? Oh. That's when all the kids go to bed, isn't it?
Kids tend to play more in the afternoons and on weekends, and that's when my rank suffers and I end up cursing a blue streak. I've been screaming horrible, horrible things at 8-year-olds who just want to enjoy their little squid kid game. I've been screaming nasty, disgusting things at probably some little girl in Iowa who probably just really likes her avatar's pink sneakers and bucket.
Man, it's really good this game doesn't do native voice chat.
"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.