Go to your game shelf and look at your games. Do you have Lord of the Rings Monopoly? Maybe Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit, or Game of Thrones Risk? All of those games are made by USAopoly. They’ve been in the game since 1994, when they first made San Diego Monopoly for Parker Brothers. Since then, they’ve worked extensively in creating new versions of classic Parker Bros/Hasbro games like Monopoly, Risk, Clue, and even Operation. But they don’t just adapt the old. They also have spent recent years diversifying their catalog with incredibly creative new games both licensed and original. Always a big part of GenCon, USAopoly invited me to visit and take a look at their newest games with their Marketing & Events Coordinator Jake Davis.
No Leaning On The License
According to Davis, USAopoly’s philosophy when developing games is simple: is it fun, does it fit the license, and will the fans like it? And with licenses from the biggest entertainment companies in the world, they have a lot of fans to juggle. But they never take those fans love for a property to sell a game on its own.
Davis emphasized that the games USAopoly produced strive to innovate even as they emulate and that they’re always trying to find new and exciting ways to play board games. He was kind of enough to show me some examples of this philosophy in the games USAopoly debuted at GenCon.
Wizards, Dwarfs, and Purple Titans
USAopoly’s next adventure in the Harry Potter universe, Perilous Pursuits follows the plot of the 2016 Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them film. After Newt Scamander has lost his collection of magical beasts in New York, he and his friends must team up to collect them before they wreak havoc in the Muggle world. In Perilous Pursuits, the players take up the roles of Newt, Queenie, Tina, and Jacob and team up to recapture all of the missing creatures. In a sense, it is a co-op dice placement game. The action takes place on each player’s board, with the player strategically placing their dice on the board to cast spells, draw cards, and work to capture the beastie in question.
The game is absolutely gorgeous in look and feel. It surrounds assets from the film with vivid colors and patterns straight out of 1920’s New York. The character boards are incredibly sturdy and are actually recessed to both keep placed dice from moving and to give the game a much more tactile field. USAopoly even puts this attention to detail onto the dice themselves, which are embossed rather than simply painted. They feel really good in the hand and stand out even on the chaotic and colorful play boards.
Fantastic Beasts: Perilous Pursuit will go onto retail shelves in October, just in time for the Crimes of Grindelwald movie. It is recommended for ages 8+ and can be played with 2-4 players. Something that makes USAopoly stand out is that despite all the detail and craftsmanship in their games, they never retail for exorbitant prices. Perilous Pursuit, for instance, is going to retail for $29.95. It is a good year for Potterhead gamers, as USAopoly will also be releasing a Harry Potter themed edition of their popular Codenames party game. That will come out later this year and retail for $24.95.
Skewing a tad y0unger, USAopoly’s newest game in their Disney themed line will use a similar gameplay style to Passport’s Quartz game. Rather than fantasy dwarves toiling in the mines, players will instead act as one of the iconic seven dwarfs from the 1937 classic. Players will “dig” gems up from the mine and combine them to receive bonuses from their friend Snow White.
The game has the soft palette and rounded edges one expects from a Disney game. But despite appearances and obvious recommended age range, Davis is confident that older players can have just as much fun as younger ones. A great game for parents and Disney heads alike, Disney Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: A Gemstone Mining Game will hit shelves in September of this year. It can be played by up to, naturally, seven players, and will retail for $34.95.
In some ways similar to the Fantastic Beasts game, Thanos Rising pits the characters against a singular foe, in this case, the world’s grumpiest California Raisin: Thanos the Mad Titan. The players each take up the role of a “team” of heroes fighting to save the universe from Thanos’s evil scheme. The game is a race against time to recruit heroes to your team and fight to prevent the Mad Titan from getting the six Infinity Stones. The game ends when Thanos gets the gems and dusts half of reality, or when he kills all of the heroes.
The big attraction, for me, was the Thanos figure himself. While I didn’t get to sit down with the game too much, I was able to look at the little statue and it is amazing. It would make a passable display statue on its own, let alone as the centerpiece for a board game. Hefty and well detailed, there’s no question who the star of the show is. The rest of the game reflects USAopoly’s usual craftsmanship, with the hefty embossed dice and high-quality card stock that is in all their games. Even the Infinity Gems feel like a step above the regular plastic board game gems.
Unlike the other games I got to see, Thanos Rising is actually on shelves now. Recommended for ages 10+ and for up to 4 players, it retails for $49.95.
Back to the Past not only was on our own Top 10 list going into GenCon, but seemed to be on the list of most attendees as well. All of the people I attended the con with and many other attendees had USAopoly’s booth high on their list simply to try this game. The demo table for Back To The Past was swamped all weekend, and even while interviewing a USAopoly employee I couldn’t get a seat at the table. But I did get a good look, and its a heck of a game.
The relatively simple appearance belies a game that, according to Davis, requires a great deal of strategy. Based on the 2017 revival of the classic Genndy Tartakovsky action cartoon, players take on the role of one of Jack’s friends and work to take out Aku’s minions and defeat him before Jack goes crazy. Players gather weapons and traits in order to maximize Jack’s honor. The board, such as it is, is a series of hexagons that correspond with locations straight out of the show. This board also changes throughout the game, with the hexagons being gathered, shuffled, and laid out each round. According to Davis, this mechanic was chosen in order to increase the replay value of the game. But as Jack and his pals fight evil, Jack will slowly lose his sanity. If he goes insane before Aku is defeated, then the game is over and he will never return home.
As with Thanos Rising, Back To The Past has a major draw in the quality of its production. The figures are not just sturdy and painted in full color, but also have the heft and quality of a collectible. There’s no cheating on the details, even down to little details like Sir Rothchild’s mustache or the Scotsman’s tartan kilt.
Samurai Jack: Back To The Past was a GenCon debut and will be on store shelves starting this week. Recommended for 2-5 players aged 13+, it will retail for $34.95.
For a full range of USAopoly’s games, from GenCon or otherwise, you can go to their website at USAopoly.com.
All images courtesy of USAopoly
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Spider-Man Does Whatever a Spider Can
Over the long decades of Spider-Man games that have come and gone, the quality has varied wildly. Some have been really good games for their time. Some had a great idea carrying poor gameplay. More often they were plain bad. No matter the quality, though, one thing they all struggled with was the fundamental issue of capturing the feeling of Spider-Man.
The first Spider-Man on the Playstation was an excellent game. It was also limited in how much it could put Spidey’s real power in the hands of gamers. Maximum Carnage has many nostalgic fans, but it was just a side-scrolling beat-em up. The Spider-Man 2 movie game had terrific web-swinging, but was average or bad at everything else. Often the problems were technological. Other times they were an issue with developer skill or budget. Whatever the case no game really made you feel like the guy you read in comics.
And even more than the actual mechanics of being Spider-Man, games struggled to craft stories of the type that made Peter Parker and his crime-fighting alter-ego so iconic. Ultimately it is the relationships between Peter and his friends and foes that make him so popular. You feel an earnest connection to the conflicts driving his stories. Again, some of the failure here for his gaming adventures involves technology. Spider-Man gaming fell off significantly early in the Playstation 2 lifecycle, and gaming storytelling made significant leaps in that time. More often, though, those games just didn’t try particularly hard.
So how fares Insomniac’s attempt to finally give games a true Spider-Man game? How did they approach these problems? Were they ultimately successful? As an Insomniac Games fan since Spyro the Dragon some 20 years ago, I’m happy to say they made the best attempt yet.
Does Whatever a Spider Can
I’ll start with a pretty definitive statement here; no game has ever, ever had Spidey gameplay coming close to what Insomniac managed with this game. Not only that (and I admit this is purely opinion), Spider-Man has taken the Batman: Arkham formula and completely outdone it.
I won’t pretend the game doesn’t blatantly take the Batman formula. The combat certainly does. It’s the same directional, combo-focused, dodge-and-counter style I enjoyed across four Batman games. Thing is, it also addresses many of the problems in those games. Spider-Man’s enemies do not patiently wait as he beats down their friends. They jump in to stop you. They don’t point their guns forever like they forgot how to fire them. Those suckers get unloaded constantly. Spidey doesn’t gravitate from enemy to enemy like his fists have Bat-magnets pulled towards baddie faces. If you’re caught out of position, you’ll flail stupidly and someone will probably smack you for it.
While certainly inspired by Arkham, Spider-Man has a much more aggressive feel that perfectly suits the more agile, frantic, and plain capable nature of its superhero. Spider-Man isn’t a normal human being with crazy ninja training like Batman. He’s a true superhuman. You dodge bullets and rockets flying all over the place. You web people up, throw stuff at them, or even throw them if they’re properly restrained. Spidey flies around combat zones taking advantage of huge amounts of gadgets and suit abilities. His enemies have armor, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, whips, swords, shock gloves, and sometimes even support vehicles.
It makes for a very fast game with more challenge than I expected. The random baddies you find on patrol are perfectly capable of stomping Spidey into the ground. While nothing close to unforgiving, the game does demand the player get a handle on the combat and understand it. Even when you have your trusty standby style and gadgets, optional challenges encourage you to try the many options in ground and aerial combat. You’ll need to in order to acquire the combat tokens used to upgrade the suits and gadgets you like.
Thankfully, this challenge has nothing to do with poor controls. Spider-Man plays like a dream. The controls are smooth, responsive, intuitive, and quickly become second-nature. This allows the player to effortlessly transition between all the tactics needed for late-game encounters. It’s no problem at all to unleash a combo, dodge someone, counter, duck through a shielded opponent’s legs, web up to an aerial enemy, and unleash a special suit move restraining them all with your web.
In fact, the random baddies can be so surprisingly tough that the boss fights feel almost disappointing. Don’t get me wrong; they play well and usually have properly sizable scope. After hours of beating on upwards of like 50 thugs at a time, though, focusing on only one or two supervillains feels almost tame. Especially when few of them try anything particularly innovative in the combat system.
(The highlights are definitely the 2 fights involving Spidey going solo against 2 supervillains. One keeps the Spidey in the air at all times, while the other involves extensive use of the environment.)
But what about the method of traveling between all these fights? How exactly did Spider-Man manage the always important web-swinging mechanic? We all remember Spider-Man 2 and want something matching it, I know. And I won’t say the physics behind Insomniac’s Spider-Man matches its PS2 predecessor.
You know what? I don’t care. Rather than go for something “realistic,” Insomniac went for fun. Give me this any day.
The most important part of the web-swinging, in my humble opinion, is to make you feel like Spider-Man as he zips around New York City. This game manages that and then some. Besides the obvious swinging from building to building, Spidey can zip to ledges and points, vault off them, dive-bomb to pick up speed, and shoot quick webs to propel him forward and maintain speed around corners. He can run up and along buildings with ease. Transitioning from one move to another really lets players keep the speed up with ease.
Insomniac definitely went for accessibility over depth. The right-trigger button puts the player in something of an automatic parkour mode, and you can basically hold it down as you go and pull off what looks like complicated web-swinging and city traversal. However, this won’t make the most of the web-swinging. There’s a learning curve before you find the groove making the most of the speed and flow the web-swinging is capable of.
While the physics may not match what Spider-Man 2 did, don’t listen to anyone who says physics play no role. You can’t swing if there’s nothing your webs can attach to. Where your webs do attach determines the speed and momentum of your swing. Combined with the zip-lines and quick webs and wall running skills, you’ll need to make the most of all these mechanics and physics to become a truly gifted web-swinger. Especially if you want to complete the various challenges and missions.
Within the story missions, Insomniac blends these gameplay elements with well-placed quick time event button presses to create impressive spectacles. Spidey swings from helicopters and stops falling cranes and smashes through glass ceilings while beating on villains. The scale of these events makes for highly memorable moments after the various side content available between them.
Spider-Man’s open world certainly tries nothing new. You stop random crimes, pick up collectibles, activate towers that fill in the map, and take photos of various landmarks. Nothing about it breaks the mold formed by dozens of open-world games before. Where Spider-Man tends to avoid monotony, though, comes from the speed of these tasks. In the time it takes to scale to a viewpoint in Assassin’s Creed, Spider-Man lets you stop a crime, collect a backpack, activate a tower, and be on your way to the next objective. None of these typically mundane tasks feel mundane because of how quickly you complete them. None of these tasks feel lazy or boring when it’s so easy to check multiple items off the list in like 3 minutes. Thus, Spider-Man’s web-swinging adds a fresh new dynamic to the familiar open-world formula.
Like with the combat, it is this speed that defines the game. If you have an aversion to this kind of open-world repetitiveness, I can’t promise this game will overcome it. If one can, though, this may be it. Besides the brisk nature of these tasks, the game also does a good job pacing them. Right when you might be sick of picking up collectibles, enemy strongholds are revealed. You get sick of that and the challenge missions show up. You get sick of random thugs and the research stations unlock.
Overall, Spider-Man takes advantage of its namesake’s abilities, along with some excellent design, to avoid a lot of the flaws in open-world gaming design. It’s a fresh, updated fusion of Batman and Assassin’s Creed. Almost everything about it plays fantastically. If you have any interest in Spider-Man or open-world games, I can’t imagine feeling dissatisfied. Even if you don’t, I think you’d enjoy this game.
Now It’s Personal
But what about the underlying story and characters driving all this gameplay? After all, who cares about gameplay if I feel no motivation around anything? If you’re a Spider-Man fan, I think you’ll be more than satisfied. Insomniac has a GREAT grasp on what makes Spidey and Peter Parker so appealing.
The game takes place 8 years after Peter acquired his powers, bypassing a lot of the “learning to use your powers” stuff we’ve seen and played a thousand times. This allowed Insomniac to build a rich history of what Spider-Man has already done, what kind of relationships he has with those in his life, and how exactly he lives his life. Insomniac uses this basis to build a story and world operating as a love letter to Spidey comics new and old.
From the beginning, we see a familiar picture: Peter Parker struggling between his personal life and his superhero responsibilities. He has a tense post-relationship dynamic with Mary Jane Watson. He helps Aunt May at a homeless shelter. His professional life takes place in a lab with Otto Octavius, who feuds with Mayor Norman Osborn. Peter isn’t the unsure kid facing these difficulties for the first time. That doesn’t mean he fails to struggle. Early in the game, he even loses his apartment after failing to pay rent on time. Said apartment is cluttered with late notices and makeshift gadgets.
To be honest, I think this is the best version of Peter Parker anyone has ever managed, even in comics. He’s a perfect blend of the struggling, responsible dork and super-capable superhero veteran. He blends effortlessly between cracking jokes and dramatic moments. One moment he’s stopping masked thugs, the next he’s freaking out over a text message MJ took the wrong way. Spider-Man never shies from leaning into these moments and letting the emotion and drama of a moment speak for itself.
Peter’s personal relationships lay at the center of the story. Both of the major villains are mentor figures to Peter. Aunt May and Mary Jane feature prominently, including in gameplay. Miles Morales is introduced during one of the game’s big twists and becomes a prominent character afterwards. A pre-Wraith Yuri Watanabe plays a Commissioner Gordon role, and the banter between her and Pete make for some of the game’s funniest moments. Even the lesser supervillains have a history with Spidey that come into play when he confronts them.
Everything is so steeped in personal history and Insomniac does a terrific job relaying that history.
One considerably controversial piece of storytelling occurs through the occasional stealth sections putting Mary Jane Watson and eventually Miles Morales in the player’s hands. Some dislike these sections for interrupting the Spider-Man gameplay with comparably weak content. I actually like them. They’re easy, forgiving, and typically do a great job giving MJ and Miles a key role in the story. They also serve as a perfect example of something I mentioned earlier: the excellent pacing keeping the open-world Spidey gameplay from becoming monotonous.
These gameplay segments are also used to great effect in some key story moments, making you really feel the tension or tragedy of the moment. Plus they do great things for player investment in those characters. Investigative journalist MJ is easily my favorite MJ ever.
The same can be said of the lab puzzles you perform for Octavius. All of the puzzles are pretty easy, quick, and give useful rewards. They help immerse the player in the shoes of Peter Parker, not just Spider-Man. Not everyone likes them, and I get it. Insomniac does, too. They let the player skip them completely while also receiving the rewards for them. It’s the storytelling purpose of these segments that matter and are why they exist.
Overall the story doesn’t hit any particularly groundbreaking beats. Does it matter when they hit the familiar beats so well? Seeing the degradation of some relationships alongside the rehabilitation of others makes for some fantastically well-told moments. Insomniac succeeds with storytelling no Spider-Man game would attempt 10-20 years ago. Some of the more dramatic plot points rank among some of my favorite video game moments in recent years.
And when it all finally comes to an end, the game pulls no punches. The final boss has all the emotion you’d expect after hours of build-up, and afterwards, Peter is forced to make one last decision perfectly representing the idea of “with great power, comes great responsibility.” In fact, the ending can be seen as a direct rebuke of an infamous Spider-Man story from the 2000s.
Overall, like with the gameplay, no Spider-Man game has ever captured his life this well. Insomniac chose to create a Spidey game for a reason, and I think their love for the character shines in every second of this experience. I wish I could delve into a more spoiler-y summary of it to make this opinion more clear.
Perhaps myself or someone else will eventually, because I think Spider-Man deserves it.
I won’t say this is the best game of the year. Not with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey currently receiving hype as the best game the series has put out in years, and definitely not with Red Dead Redemption II releasing this month. You also have to consider God of War, Monster Hunter, Dragon Ball Fighterz, etc….it’s a hard slog to proclaim Spider-Man the best of that bunch.
As a Spidey fan, though, I can’t imagine anything besides Red Dead possibly competing for the title of my favorite game this year. This is the best Spidey game yet.
There’s certainly room to improve. The game kind of bogs down in the final act, with an excessive amount of armed thugs lying around. The open world stuff could be more imaginative. Improvements can be made to the web-swinging. I’d also love to see inspired boss fights taking full advantage of the combat’s depth. Also, no symbiote suit? Really?
Considering the obvious sequel setup this game ends on, I’m sure we will get these improvements and then some. Insomniac knows how to do sequels. Just look at the sequels to Spyro the Dragon or Ratchet and Clank.
For now, though, I prefer to bask in the many, many things Spider-Man does right. I was skeptical this game would be anything more than solid, and feared the worst. Years of Spidey-related disappointments trained to temper my expectations. Instead I got something very, very good, but just short of great. But it was great enough for this Spidey fan.
You can bet that for once, I’ll be ready to pre-order a sequel immediately.
Images Courtesy of Sony Entertainment
Facade’s ‘Tortuga 1667’ Packs A Lot of Piracy Into A Small Package
Piracy comes to your table with Tortuga 1667 from Façade Games. Tortuga is a social bluffing game for 2-9 players, each game lasting between 20 and 40 minutes. Players belong to one of two (or three) sides: The British or the French. In games with an odd number of players, there is a solo Dutch pirate. Players do not know who else is on their team, and they are likely not part of the same crew.
Set up is fairly simple, thanks to Façade’s design: lay out the map, pass out starting vote cards, and set up the event deck. Most importantly, players starting locations, and therefore roles, are chosen randomly by choosing meeples out of a bag. This randomization mechanic is becoming more popular, and I love the way it streamlines set up. Also given out randomly? Your loyalty cards.
Crew members receive their role based on their position on deck. If you are at the front of the line, congratulations, you are now the captain of that ship. The person behind you, assuming there is one, is your first mate. Ideally, you trust them. The person at the back of the line is the cabin boy. This might sound like you’re low on the totem pole, but you are the only one who can move treasure once it’s been placed. It is possible to be the captain or first mate and the cabin boy, if your crew is small enough. The captain of The Flying Dutchmen goes first.
There are five locations players can go to during the game. Two ships (The Flying Dutchmen and The Jolly Roger) two row boats, and Tortuga. The titular Tortuga is where players will find themselves marooned if they are kicked off their ship. The rowboats allow access back on board either ship, but can only carry one player at a time. Similar to the ships, Tortuga also has a track with meeples filling in from top to bottom. Are you the first player on the island? Welcome, Mayor! Everyone behind the mayor has the same role: a voting member on the island.
The victory condition for Tortuga is to get the most treasure for your country by the end of the game. If you are a solo Dutch pirate, your goal is to make sure both the French and the British have the same amount of treasure at the end. The game ends when the Spanish Armada card is revealed to all players. This mechanic allows game time to fluctuate: less cards in the deck means a shorter game. It also means no one knows quite when the end will come, providing tension as the deck grows smaller.
What does play actually look like? For us it was a lot of cooperation at first. We all wanted to get treasure, regardless of which side we were on. The only way to get treasure is to work together—a captain with no crew cannot win a battle. We exchanged vague plans and preferences, hoping to come to an understanding without revealing confidential information. Eventually, people started to decide who to trust. People were kicked off boats. The mayor of Tortuga ruled over quite a few brawls. My captain betrayed me. It was a wild journey, full of cannons and mutiny.
Tortuga is a quick, dynamic, and beautifully historic game with high replayabiltiy. The packaging is stunning, as is a hallmark of Façade Games. If you have always wanted to deal with scurvy, mutineers, and stolen goods, this game is for you. If the idea of lying to your friends, marooning them on an island, and leaving them for broke makes you seasick, seek different waters.
I give Tortuga 1667 5 out of 5 Dubloons.
Images Courtesy of Facade Games
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