Ah, sequels. We can be honest with ourselves here: everyone loves to thumb their noses at the term. "Nothing will ever be better than the original," you might've found yourself declaring haughtily. People have said so since the days of Pong, about Pong, and Pong was just a clump of one to three pixels moving side to side and bouncing off each other.
But just because a game has proven itself in the test of time doesn't mean there's no room for something better to come around. Sometimes, a sequel isn't just good, but it actually manages to be so good it squashes the original.
The Meh Factor
However, most times, sequels just fail to impress. More often than not, sequels turn out to be, at best, just more of the same. At worst, they're a shallow reminder of what a powerful marketing tool nostalgia can be, in that you can sell at least a million copies of the anything if it had a beloved franchise name on the label. Remember Star Wars, Episodes I-III? We'd rather not, either.
A lot of games that came out in the last year, and are saturating this year's holiday shopping season, are sequels, prequels, or spin-offs of big name games. That doesn't mean that sequels can't ever be great games in their own right, it's just that they're more likely to be underwhelming.
If you're looking for some solid AAA titles to pick up this holiday season, consider this a light-hearted "buyer beware." A lot of the games we'll talk about here aren't bad games, and they're most definitely not the worst a sequel can be. They're just not everything that a sequel can, and should, aspire to be.
Far Cry Primal vs. Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4
I'll admit: I'm a sucker for games set in unique time periods, which is probably why I keep buying the Assassin's Creed games and never play them beyond an average of 8% completion. On the first map. Moving on.
This sad, sorry infatuation with unusual historical eras was one of the main reasons why I went absolutely, ahem, ape over Far Cry Primal's announcement late last year. Up till that point, I hadn't played any other games in the Far Cry series; I was never a first person shooter kinda gamer, but here in Primal was an FPS that wasn't an FPS.
Back In My Day
It’s set in a fictional take on 12,000 BC, during the first migrations of a tribe of early homo sapiens. Instead of gunning down endless waves of masked terrorists with newfangled FAMAS and SOCOMs and Kalashnikovs and Sputniks, or whatever, you were stabbing saber-toothed cats with a sharp rock tied to a stick. And instead of terrorists, you were pitted in a struggle for survival against neanderthals with a penchant for cannibalism and cannibalism-related encephalitis.
In place of jeeps and ATVs, you got to tame and ride, or call into battle, a number of prehistoric beasties, such as an eagle-eyed owl for scouting or dropping primitive 'grenades' (actually just beehives) on your enemies, and giant, humvee-sized cave bears. Add to that, and Primal seemed to feature a survival element; you weren't just looking out for yourself, but you had a whole tribe of hunter-gatherers to protect: huts to build, tools to craft, food to hunt. If that doesn't sound like a recipe for a good time, then I obviously have no concept of what a good time is!
Sadly as it turned out, that much was true.
Wenja Realize You Should've Just Stayed In Bed
Don't get me wrong...Primal is actually a very solid action game that told a captivating story from the start.
Right out of the gate, you're crouched low in the grass, spear in hand, hunting a herd of unsuspecting wooly mammoth with your fellow tribesmen from the Wenja clan. The hominids you meet speak in a fictitious, but painstakingly researched prehistoric dialect. It added to the immersion of being thrust, nearly naked and afraid, into this Mesolithic world where giants roamed, and where death was the rule and survival the exception.
It doesn't take long for things to go south for your hunting party when a sabertooth ambushes your kill and promptly turns your desperate expedition into a massacre from which you emerge as the soul survivor. Battered, broken, and with your tribe facing inevitable winter starvation, you limp back to your village -- only to find it being raided by the Udam.
Led by the brutish Ull, the Udam are a rival tribe of neanderthals who believe that by consuming the flesh of the Wenja, they will cure themselves of the painful 'skull fire' disease that is ravaging their clan. With your village destroyed and your people scattered, you are left to reunite your tribe and reclaim the home your people have fought so hard to earn.
As far as backstories go, Primal masterfully weaves disparate snippets of actual and pseudohistory into a convincing mythology that propels it well past the beginning acts.
But where Primal lost me was in the disjointed hodgepodge that formed the bulk of the mid-game, ironically when the open world aspect of your adventures opens up.
You had all these things you had to do to build up your tribe, but there was actually too much to do: you couldn't go five paces in any direction without being savaged by a wild beast that was at least the size of a pickup truck, or stumbling upon a raiding party of cannibals out grocery shopping for their next meal, or having to respond to the cries of a beleaguered group of tribesmen who were probably about to be eaten by the two aforementioned threats. Actually, scratch that: it wasn't that there was too much to do, there were too much of the same things to do.
Even combat felt repetitive after the first few skirmishes; stabbing, spearing, or arrowing the bad guys was easy and intuitive enough, but fairly basic, and larger scale battles got quite buggy. Often I would whistle for my trusty tamed attack animal, only to have it appear in some random part of the map, like a distant elevated platform or walkway...where I was helpless to watch as they were slaughtered by a group of angry Neanderthals who didn't take kindly to a saber-toothed cat magically appearing in the middle of their late-night cook-out.
Turns out that cannibal cavemen are also partial to saber cat.
More Primal Problems
And driving or controlling larger beasties, like the wooly mammoth, was a nightmare exercise in avoiding small obstacles like trees and rocks that would invariably cause your ride to snag, requiring you to negotiate the large animal's painful turning radius to correct yourself. All the while, Neanderthals are pelting you with rocks and spears.
Progression, as well, was also surprisingly linear, in spite of the overabundant diversions of the open world. At some point in the mid to late game, there were simply more substantial rewards to be reaped from completing the main objectives, than letting yourself be sidetracked trying to help every wayward tribesman you met on your journeys across the overworld.
If you were looking forward to the survival elements, as I was, prepare to be disappointed. Your character could harvest meat from beasties you've successfully put down, but you only ever needed to use meat to restore your own health or to feed and tame beasts.
There's also a barebones temperature-based gating mechanic; without warm winter clothing, your character will slowly freeze to death in the tundrid north.
That was about it for the 'pure survival' challenges touted by the game; at its core, Primal is an action game, through and through. Ubisoft did eventually publish a free content patch that featured a 'hardcore survival' mode, but by that time I'd long since hung up my Spear and Bola for good.
Killing People In Video Games Is So Easy, Even A Caveman Could Do It
Having never before played any other game in the Far Cry franchise, Primal actually piqued my interest enough to try out several earlier game in the series, namely Far Cry 2 and 3. I actually found I enjoyed both earlier titles better. Somehow, the more modern settings felt like it suited the storytelling better.
Far Cry's narratives have a tendency to revolve around a very Heart of Darkness examination of the ultra-violent depths of depravity to which the human soul was capable of descending. For me, it felt more powerful seeing regular, every-day people in the modern era really 'losing it' and be forced to fight for their survival. In the brutal world of Primal, you sorta expect nearly naked savages to act like savages.
Plus, it was actually a lot more fun gunning down terrorists and then stealing their armored jeeps, which you would then proceed to ride back to their camp and gun down more terrorists. At least jeeps don't spawn in the middle of the bad guys, who then attack it.
Like I've said, Far Cry: Primal wasn't a bad game by any means. It was ambitious, and I can't help but praise the development team for taking on such an ambitious setting and doing a pretty decent job of it. It just wasn't for me.
Buy Far Cry Primal:
Buy Far Cry 3:
Buy Far Cry 4:
The Sims 4 vs. The Sims 3
This might be a contentious issue among diehard Sims 3 enthusiasts, and believe me, I hear you. The Sims 4 launch was received with, at best, lukewarm skepticism; attentive Simmers were quick to notice that the 4th installment of the successful franchise was staggeringly different from the previous one.
Gone is the more realistic art direction. Instead, the Sims 4 opts for a more cartoony look, with more exaggerated features and hyperactive seeming animations. Your Sims have new emotions and needs, and new lifetime goals. Buy and build modes are integrated into a more streamlined interface, with new functionality that promised to make it easier than ever to find, download, and integrate community-made content into your game.
Beep! Beep! All Aboard The Whaambulance
But the Sims 4 kicked up quite the hornet's nest not necessarily for what it promised, but for what was conspicuously absent from its list of features.
And for dyed in the wool Simmers, there were enough omitted features to pack a Tragic Clown Car to critical capacity. It was no longer possible to build swimming pools or customize terrain elevations on lots. Without swimming pools, there was no need for your Sim to don swimwear, so that category of clothing options was nixed. Your Sims no longer progressed through the toddler stage of life: they went straight from babies to kindergarten-aged kids.
And Then... *Gasp!*
Possibly the biggest change, and certainly the change that caused the most grief-stricken uproar among even the most dedicated members of the Sims community, was the amputation of the popular Create-a-Style feature. CASt was an incredibly powerful layer of customization featured in the previous Sims game, which allowed users to specify a pattern, color, and even blending options for nearly every texture in the game.
Did your Sim just purchase a fancy new lounger for the living room, but wish it came in leather that matched the couch? CASt made that possible. Did you want your Sim to strut around town in a hot pink leisure suit with a matching belt, but in zebra stripes? CASt was your tool for the job. With CASt absent from the Sims 4, all you had was a comparatively small palette of color and texture options for various clothing and upholstery pieces, which was serviceable (some might argue not even that) but left the mouth with a decided aftertaste of weaksauce.
A Step Forward On A Different Direction, But Two Steps Backward
When pressed about the removal of CASt and other features fans had been counting on, Sims 4 developers admitted it to being a "hard pill to swallow," but defended their decision on the cuts in order to streamline the engine. While it was true that the Sims 3 took forever to load each time you launched the game, it was something fans simply learned to put up with in exchange for matching leather furniture and pink zebra striped weirdos wandering around their neighborhood.
The list goes on. When the base game shipped, it was impossible to build basement levels, another feature from the Sims 3 which was sorely missed. Neighborhoods were also more spartan: gone are cars and vehicles, which came standard with the base game of Sims 3. Also notable was the return to loading screens; in the Sims 3, it was possible for your Sims to simply leave their home lot and visit their neighbors, or go exploring the neighborhood seamlessly, with no wait times. Sims 4 lets you explore some of the environs surrounding your home lot, but going further than a block or so results in a loading screen.
Maybe The Sims 5 Will Be Better?
While free content patches were released sometime during post-release that added in swimming pools, swimwear for your Sims, and returned the ability to build basements, the damage was already done. The saddest part of all is that in spite of all these changes, the Sims 4 is still actually quite a lot of fun to play; it's just that all the missing features from the Sims 3 were very difficult (and for some, too difficult) to overlook.
Buy The Sims 3:
Buy The Sims 4:
Released in 2008 to a market saturated with "shoot first, ask questions never" FPSes, the original Mirror's Edge was an underrated gem of a title that only ever amassed a fraction of the acclaim it deserved. As Faith Connors, a 'runner' delivering secret messages to an underground resistance network in a dystopian future-city, players were thrown into a three-dimensional platformer where enemies were best avoided rather than engaged in direct combat. Though eventually, Faith gains access to a firearm, her enemies routinely outgun and outnumber her, to the extent that failure to avoid detection, or losing your pursuers afterward, more often than not led to an abrupt Game Over.
Mirror's Edge was novel for its refreshing take on combat resolution through avoidance, along with its unprecedented freedom of movement and free running gameplay. Svelte, nimble, and surprisingly durable, Faith was able to slide under barriers and through narrow gaps, run up and over walls, leap from rooftop to rooftop, shimmy across ledges, and somersault and tumble over obstacles without breaking stride. Each playthrough looked visually appealing and played beautifully with smooth and intuitive controls.
Still, the game fared better than most underrated hits out in the hard, unforgiving wilds of the commercial market, and retained enough of a cult following to spawn a sequel. A prequel of sorts, Mirror's Edge Catalyst is a re-imagining of the first game, with the story revolving around Faith's origins as a runner and the reasons behind her determination to overthrow the corrupt rulers of the City of Glass.
A Second Leap Of Faith
Like the first game, Faith relies on a combination of free running, urban exploration, and parkour to help navigate the maze-like cityscape of Glass. New in the sequel are various points of interests, like ziplines and ledges, that add a bit more variety to the usual forms of travel.
The combat system has been overhauled and now more strongly emphasizes using unarmed takedowns, terrain traversal, and evasion to your advantage. Say you find yourself in a cramped corridor, and a heavily armed security guard spots you and comes at you with his handgun drawn. You'll be able to wall run, strike him in the back of the head, and use the walls as a bludgeoning implement to stun him while you make a break for it.
Loss Of Momentum
The trouble with Catalyst is that ultimately it suffers from a lack of forward momentum. Its combat controls were oddly clunky, and the abrupt switches to a third person perspective during fight scenes is jarring at best, and at worst tends to lead to some pretty accidentally hilarious (i.e., awful) graphical ragdolling glitches.
While there's much to love about the return of the free running gameplay of the first game, reviewers weren't happy that the sequel also imported the dull storyline, bland characters, and poor pacing that bogged down the original.
Storywise, Mirror's Edge could be defended as being minimalist; but there's a difference between minimalist and boring...and Catalyst, unfortunately, stumbles and lurches across that precarious border into snoozeville. Glass is your typical dystopian city run by 13 (of course it's 13) uncaring faceless corporations, so much so that it could've formed the backdrop of any number of last season's Hunger Games-inspired YA novels. And the characters aren't much better, with none really being all that memorable, let alone personable.
From start to finish, the storyline winds up being more or less one predictable slog after another, which is a shame, since the levels are laid out beautifully and the gameplay is top notch. But for a single player experience, story and narrative are the most powerful, and usually the only driving force to keep playing a game. While Catalyst's gameplay is superb, there was simply not enough there to keep me moving onto the next wall running takedown.
Buy the original Mirror's Edge:
Buy Mirror's Edge Catalyst:
Tomb Raider (2013) and Rise of the Tomb Raider vs. The Original Series
I'll be upfront about it, guys: I've never liked any of the Tomb Raider games. Puzzles and platformers are possibly two of my least favorite gaming experiences, and the Tomb Raider games have pretty much been all about those very two genres meeting, falling in love, and then spitting out a grotesque hell-baby that grows into an unstoppable, hate-filled juggernaut who would beat me up and steal my lunch money.
And yet, I keep bringing him my money. Don't judge me.
A Brief History Of Mountain Climbing
So it was with some trepidation that I approached the Tomb Raider reboot and its subsequent sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider. And I wasn't disappointed -- if only because I went into it with exactly zero expectations whatsoever.
Sure, it looks great. The action is about as brutal and visceral as ever, and the environments and character models -- Lara in particular -- look nearly live-action quality. If you're a fan of the platforming puzzles as in the previous titles, you're in for a treat, because they're back in force.
Just how are you going to cross this gaping chasm? Why, simply by timing your jumping patterns after jury rigging a Rube Goldberg device out of this wrecked passenger plane carcass and some jungle vines. How are we going to scale this sheer cliff? I'm sure it's got something to do with this strange system of pulleys, levers, and swiveling catapult things the ancient peoples must've built right in the center of their town for no other purpose than to surmount this otherwise impassable cliff.
Maybe they built their first Starbucks up there, or something.
Are We Having Fun Yet?
The sort of gameplay never really appealed to me: standing around, backtracking, and then trial-and-erroring your way through at least a half-dozen horrible deaths does not a particularly fun experience make, especially when there's only one workable solution to the darned thing. It's not a system that rewards creativity or thinking outside the box, it's math, math in its most rigid and uncompromising form.
You're not inventing your own solution to a challenge, but reverse engineering a specific sequence of steps the designers clearly had in mind when they were putting together the level. And especially in the more challenging levels, it's not enough that you figure out these steps, but you must execute them precisely, otherwise it's a one-way trip to the bottom of a deep, dank pit and the last checkpoint, where you get to do the whole thing all over again. That's a little too much tedium.
But hey, if that's your thing, then Tomb Raider and Rise has it in spades.
There's Something About Lara
Another thing: I really, really wanted to like the new Lara. At first, I quite admired the direction her writers were taking her character. This was Lara as an ordinary person, before she became the dual-pistol-wielding, dinosaur-slaughtering, ancient alien-murdering action heroine of the earlier games. This was Lara at her most vulnerable, a scientist and explorer following in the footsteps of her estranged father, not knowing what she'll find or even what she's really looking for.
This Lara has friends, people she works with and travels with, real people she cares about in real people ways. Regrettably, all that gets shunted out the airlock right around the conclusion of the opening cinematic, and these real people quickly become really dead, or their existences gets reduced to Random Mission Objective Lara Needs to Complete.
A Brick Would Have More Stories To Tell
As for Lara herself, it seems that her writers fell prey to the all-too-common trap of wanting to make a heroine so empowered (or maybe just inoffensive) that they've drained her of nearly all personality. Even though there's plenty of first-person narration that goes on, we never really get a chance to glimpse what's really going on in Lara's head.
At best, it just doesn't seem like there's not enough thinking from a 'real,' let alone likable person that goes on in there; it's all just one mission objective after the other. For a game that set out to showcase the story of the birth of a gritty, hardened survivor, we don't really get many reasons to empathize with Lara's struggles, and so our protagonist winds up coming across as distant at best, and aloof or downright disembodied most other times.
Maybe She's Canadian
Also, is it just me, or is no one pointing out how Lara gets impaled through the torso at the end of the tutorial level, stumbles around a little bit, and then is miraculously okay by the next checkpoint? Even the bloodstains on her shirt don't stick around. I mean, hardcore survival sim Tomb Raider is not. But for the third game in the reboot, I'm banking that Lara grows chest hair, sprouts adamantium claws, and starts calling everyone 'bub.'
So while action puzzle platformer fans obviously loved and ate up the new Tomb Raider titles, for me it was just more of the same variety of meh.
Buy Tomb Raider (2013):
Buy Rise of the Tomb Raider:
The earlier Tomb Raider games are widely available on a variety of platforms including major consoles like earlier generation Sony, Sega, Nintendo systems, mobile phones, PCs and Macs.
Back in its near-mythical origins, the Fallout games were played in a bizarre parallel dimension called 'third person isometric.' Gameplay experienced frequent pauses, not because of framerate stutters, but because combat took place in what was called 'turns.' I could go on, but let's not get too mired in the classic world of Fallout that was, and probably will never be again. Let's talk about Fallout 3, the critically acclaimed 2008 reboot to the franchise, and its successor, Fallout 4.
Almost Every Article About Fallout Has At Least One Section Titled 'War Never Changes', And This One Is No Exception: War, War Never Changes
In more ways than one, Fallout 3 represented a reimagining of the series. It was an entirely new kind of game for a new generation.
Set in an alternate reality where everything from cars to personal robot assistants were powered by good ol' fashioned nuclear energy, Fallout 3 takes place some decades after the bombs inevitably fell. Humanity has been relegated to living in highly advanced underground superstructures known as vaults.
Fallout 3 starts precisely at the moment of your character's birth to an unnamed woman and Liam Neeson -- ahem, sorry. An unnamed woman and James, a character voiced by Liam Neeson. Fast forward to when your character is celebrating their 19th birthday, when your father James mysteriously and abruptly leaves the vault for the hostile and irradiated world above. This causes the paranoid Overseer of your vault, which was always kind of a creepy guy anyway, to send security forces after you, forcing you to escape and roam the wastes in search of your father.
Mutants, Monsters & Mobsters
Along the way, you'll face off with mutants, horrifying irradiated creatures, drug-addled raiders, ghouls, and actually a number of relatively decent folk eking out what passes for survival in the wastes. Even for a jaded cynic like me, who has psychologically enshrined the older Fallout titles as untouchable classics, Fallout 3 was strangely engrossing. In execution, it bore a lot of similarities to Skyrim, but with science and guns and mutants. (Not surprising, since it shares the same game engine and developer as Skyrim.)
Fallout 3 was also quite personally remarkable for me since it represented one of the few of Bethesda's open world sandboxy games where I've actually followed the main storyline all the way through, and enjoyed every minute of it.
Welcome Back To The Wasteland
Then came along Fallout 4, which told the story of an entirely different survivor in a different part of wastelanded America. Fallout 4 was a lot more of the same, but it did succeed in doing more, a lot more than its predecessor.
In addition to the open world exploration, you had more ways of engaging with your NPCs. You had settlements -- whole clans of other survivors you could meet and help re-establish a foothold of civilization out in the waste. Construct buildings, establish safehouses, install water purifiers and electric generators. Build turrets and arm guards with the weapons and piecemeal scraps of armor you find on your travels. Fallout 4 was certainly ambitious; it set the bar high and gave you a lot more things to do. The trouble was, it doesn't do any of these things particularly well.
Fallout 4's Biggest Nuclear Meltdowns
Settlements were nice, but ultimately the experience was kind of hollow. Buildings were buggy, the interface was all over the place, and it wasn't always clear what the fairly strict tech tree wanted you to build, and in what order. Worst of all, your settlers quickly degenerated into samey-samey procedurally generated drones that were drained of all personality once you recruited them to join your colony.
Even major side characters (Preston, the internet made you famous, and for all the wrong reasons) started repeating the same lines over and over again as they kept giving you random sidequest after procedurally generated random sidequest, it seemed, every time you turned your camera around to face them.
Fewer Whiny Settlers, More Driving With The Top Down
Yeah, being able to piece together and then ride in your own suit of Ironman-style Power Armor was pretty rad. Yes, it's still a lot of fun blowing up Super Mutants. But where Fallout 4 lost me was, ultimately, that it tried to give you so many different things to do, you wound up not wanting to do any of them. And also as an unintended result, it feels like your actions had very little impact on the overall narrative the game was trying to spin.
The overabundance of side content further detracted severely from the main storyline; in the end, I just didn't care enough to keep playing Fallout 4, not in the same way that I actually cared about finding James in Fallout 3.
Buy Fallout 3:
Buy Fallout 4:
We ask a lot out of our games. When a game takes on the mantle of a popular franchise, is it too much to ask that they at least be worthy of the name? Some would say that's unfair, that a game should be allowed to perform on its own merit. On the flip side, if you didn't want the added expectations, if you didn't want your merits to be weighed against a king's in his own court, then maybe you shouldn't have put on the crown.
To be completely fair, on their own merit, these titles aren't bad games. In fact, they're fairly decent to solid titles, and if you're a fan of the gameplay they offer, or heck, even of the franchise they represent, they're worth giving a try. But when weighed against the quality and staying power of their predecessors, the hard truth is that these sequels just don't live up to their names.