The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Aogashima Volcano, Japan

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Petra, Jordan

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Hiller lake(pink lake), Western Australia

Scientists have proven the strange pink color is due to the presence of algae which is usually the cause of strange coloration. (Photo by Jean Paul Ferrero/Ardea/Caters News)

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Chittorgarh Fort, India

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Cinque Terre, Rio Maggiore, Italy

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Fairy Pools, Isle of Skye, Scotland

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Mamanuca Islands, Fiji

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Palau

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Giant’s Causeway, Ireland

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Glass Beach, California, USA

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Glow worm cave, New Zealand

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Big Island, Hawaii, USA

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

©2016 Peter Lik – Pele’s Whisper

Pamukkale, Turkey

Hot springs spilling over rock terraces. A UNESCO world heritage site.

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Santorini, Greece

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Fingal’s Cave, Scotland

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

St. Lucia

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Venice, Italy

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Zion National Park, Utah, USA

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Great Blue Hole is a large submarine sinkhole off the coast of Belize

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Horsetail Falls, Yosemite National Park

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Hvitserkur, North Iceland

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Panjin Red Beach, China

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

Sea Cliffs, Etretat, France

The 100 Most Beautiful and Breathtaking Places in the World in Pictures (part 1)

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Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 Review In Progress

I don’t know why I’m in Washington DC; some lady just told me to be here. But there are civilians in distress, armed gangs roaming the streets, and me, my pals, and the second amendment are apparently the only ones who can actually do anything about it. I have no idea what, if anything, is going on with the bigwigs I met in the White House. But so long as I’m helping folks, sending relatively bad people to bed, walking the pretty streets, and picking up a new pair of gloves every so often, I’m very happy to hang around.

In the world of Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, the USA has been ravaged by a virus and society has crumbled. While those who remain try to survive by banding together in groups of various dispositions, the Strategic Homeland Division activates highly specialized sleeper agents to try and restore order. It’s a setting ripe in potential, perhaps to tell a ripping techno-thriller story that scrutinizes the structures of our modern society and government, or perhaps to make a video game that leverages the chaos that occurs when multiple idealistic groups clash in a vie for power in a lawless city. The Division 2 only does one of these things.

It’s not the story. Throughout the entirety of The Division 2’s main campaign, never did the game spend a satisfactory amount of time on any semblance of an overarching plot, or the predicaments of its supposedly important figures. There are no character arcs, only abrupt setups and consequences. Narrative devices, like audio logs found in the world, add nothing of consequence. Even the game’s biggest macguffins–the President of the United States and his briefcase containing a cure for the virus–have a minimal amount of absolutely forgettable screen time. The opportunity to use The Division 2 to create meaningful fiction is wasted.

Instead, The Division 2 focuses its narrative chops into worldbuilding. The city, a ravaged Washington DC, initially feels a little homogenous in the way most Western cities do. But after some time, the personality of the different districts–the buildings, the landmarks, the natural spaces, and the ways they’ve been repurposed or affected by the cataclysm–begins to shine through. It’s this strength of environment which lays a very strong foundation for The Division 2 as a video game, creating an engrossing, believable, and contiguous open world.

Moving from your safehouse to the open world and your next mission area is almost entirely seamless. It’s something that was also true of the original Division, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the simple act of going from place to place in The Division 2 is one of the game’s more rewarding aspects. One road may lead to a skirmish with a rival patrol or an optional activity, another might simply give you another stirring scene of urban decay in the morning sun. An obscured shortcut through an apartment block might turn up some useful items in an abandoned home, which you might decide to donate to the makeshift settlements where civilians have attempted to rebuild their lives.

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Visiting those settlements–initially as hovels, before they gradually grow and become more charming, vibrant places thanks to your efforts in the world–becomes a strong motivator in the absence of a plot to chase. Outside main missions, which are dedicated to the weakening of rival factions and achieving indiscriminate objectives, the game’s “Projects” are one of the most lucrative means of earning experience to better your character. Projects ask you to donate resources you find out in the world and participate in side activities, encouraging you to spend more time in the world, see new areas, fight new battles, search for new equipment to use, and find enjoyment in that. The Division 2 is, after all, a game devoted to providing you with a continuous stream of gripping conflicts, valuable rewards, and a perpetual sense of progress and satisfaction from doing these things. It does those things very well.

You spend a lot of time hunkered behind cover, popping out to fire at any enemy dumb enough to expose themselves. With the large amount of weapon variety available, this familiar facet of combat is solid in itself. Add to that the ability to equip two special abilities from a possible eight–which include tools such as riot shields, drones, and from what I can gather, robot bees of some sort–and combat gets pretty interesting. But the vector that really keeps The Division 2’s combat lively for upwards of 30 hours is the behavior and diversity of its enemy types.

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That time you spend in cover? The Division 2 doesn’t want you to just stay there. You can go down very quickly if you’re out in the open, but the game has a dozen ways to alway keep you taking those risks and finding better firing positions–aggressive melee units, remote control cars equipped with sawblades, even the regular assault units regularly attempt to outflank you. Those special abilities? You absolutely need to use them to their full potential to survive some encounters, whether by throwing out the seeker mines or the automated turret to keep enemies at bay while you focus on a priority target, or perhaps utilizing the chemical launcher to start a fire and create a zone of denial.

The effort needed to take out an adversary is relatively reasonable for a shooter that prioritizes the RPG nature of its combat model, but some of the tougher enemies have additional, visible layers of protection which you need to focus on breaking if you want to land critical hits. On the flip side, some enemies have additional, obtuse weak points which can work to your advantage, but only if you can hit them. The fuel tank on the back of a flamethrower unit might be feasible, but when you start running into the terrifying robotic quadruped in post-campaign activities, whose tiny weak point only reveals itself seconds before it fires its devastating railgun, you have to assess whether you can afford to take on that challenge among all the other things pressuring you. The Division 2 throws a lot of hurdles at you, but also gives you the means to quickly counter and resolve them. Whether you can juggle that many balls at once is what keeps combat tense and exciting.

What’s also exciting is the treasure at the end of these gauntlets. These Washington locations, refashioned into memorable combat arenas, are often rewarding in their own right (a fight in a planetarium is an early standout). But improving your equipment is the vital, tangible part that keeps you feeling like you’re making progress. You receive new gear in generous amounts, some dropped by an enemy or looted from a container found in the world, others rewarded for completing a mission, and the next dose always feels in reach. The weapon variety forces you to consider something completely different to take advantage of a power boost, and the armor variety provides an impressive number of different cosmetic looks. The Division 2 incorporates a microtransaction and loot box system for its inconsequential clothing options, though these can be found in the world and earned of your own accord, too.

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Like combat, gear remains intriguing throughout Division 2 not just because of the abstract desire to have bigger numbers attached to your person and progress further through the game’s challenges, but also through a raft of “talents.” These add unique perks that complement particular skills or styles of play, like doing extra damage within a certain range, when enemies are burning, or your armor is depleted. The brands of armor also have a part to play, whereby equipping a number of pieces from a single manufacturer provide additional advantages. These bonuses become particularly attractive to obsess over in the endgame, when the world is retaken by a tougher, more merciless enemy faction called Black Tusk, and you need to ensure your ability to fight them is the best it can be.

For the hundreds of pieces you will inevitably want to discard, the ability to sell or dismantle them for parts to either purchase or craft pieces you want gives value to everything you pick up. Or you might retain them in order to move their talents to better gear of the same type, And, as a wonderful convenience, The Division 2 implements numerous features to inspect, mark, dismantle, or equip things you find so quickly and elegantly–sometimes without ever having to enter a menu–that it improves the whole experience of being in its world.

The same can be said of the game’s multiplayer integration, which allows you to easily group up and progress with friends (the game will scale any underpowered players to match the most powerful). Alternatively, you can join a clan, which opens up a variety of weekly challenges, granting valuable rewards, and which features integrated game-wide group communication options. Even if you’re only interested in playing alone (which is more challenging, but entirely feasible), the ability to matchmake with other players at any time, whether that be in the open world, before you start a mission, or when you’re at a final boss, is a very welcome feature.

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And when you beat that final boss of the game’s final mission (though, such is the Division 2’s lack of plot framing, I honestly couldn’t tell you his name to save my life) and you think you’ve finally run out of treasure to keep luring you through more fights, the metaphorical table gets flipped. Flipped hard. The Washington DC you spent so long liberating from rival factions becomes completely retaken by the aforementioned Black Tusk. You unlock three unique class specializations, each with their own skill trees to work at unlocking. Your focus on growing two-digit numbers on your character (your level) moves to three-digit numbers (the quality of your gear). Even after finishing the campaign, the game still feels enormous.

More challenging, remixed versions of campaign missions and open-world challenges featuring Black Tusk become available. The idea might sound trite, but in practice, these “Invaded” missions often leverage the new enemy types to create terrifying new combat scenarios that maintain the steady ramp-up of challenges, and they give you a fantastic reason to revisit the more memorable combat arenas with a purpose. However, there’s still a lot I haven’t seen. I’ve yet to dabble in the three Dark Zones, reward-rich areas where players can potentially find themselves up against other, malicious agents as well as the usual enemies. I’m also yet to participate in Conflict, The Division 2’s take on traditional team-based competitive multiplayer modes.

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But after spending 30 hours completing the campaign and beginning to dabble in the endgame, I’m still enamored with The Division 2. The range of enemy types continues to keep combat encounters challenging, the equipment I earn and pick up continues to feel different and valuable. The ravaged environments continue to intrigue, and sometimes they’re so stunning I find myself needing to take a screenshot before I move on. There is still so much to see in The Division 2, but I want to take the time to see it. I have absolutely no clue why I’m here or what anyone’s motivations are, and I wish I had a narrative purpose to my endless hunger for progression. But I’m glad to be here right now.

NEW ZEALAND GUNMAN INSPIRED BY MASS-MURDERER ANDERS BREIVIK

renton Tarrant, the 28-year old Australian charged with murder after he shot 49 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, put up a manifesto in the hours before his attacks in which he revealed the motives for his plans, as well as his inspiration: Anders Breivik.

In 2011 Breivik massacred 77 people, shooting to death 69 participants in a summer camp on a Norwegian island, and killed eight others by detonating a van bomb in the middle of Oslo.
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Tarrant referred to him as a “knight,” and in that context referred to Norwegian support for the Knights of the Templar (a Christian order of expert warriors) in the twelfth century.

Tarrant wrote of Muslims as “invaders,” and defined the purpose of his attack as “to show the invaders that our land will never be their land,” and that “our homeland” will remain as long as white people survive. The invaders, he said, would never be able to “replace our people.”

In the “manifesto,” Tarrant wrote that when he was young, he was “a communist, then an anarchist and finally a libertarian before coming to be an eco-fascist,” the Guardian reported.

Residents of Christchurch, New Zealand were instructed by police to remain indoors as news of the shooting attack directed at local mosques broke out Friday.

“This is one of New Zealand’s darkest days,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

“Clearly what has happened here is an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence.”

Forty-nine people were killed and more than twenty were seriously wounded in mass shootings at two mosques in New Zealand’s Christchurch on Friday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

Ardern said New Zealand had been placed on its highest security threat level. She said four people in police custody held extremist views, but had not been on any police watchlists.

Radio New Zealand quoted a witness inside the Al Noor mosque saying he heard shots fired and at least four people were lying on the ground and “there was blood everywhere”.

“Horrified to hear of Christchurch mosque shootings. There is never a justification for that sort of hatred,” said Amy Adams, a member of parliament from Christchurch.
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The Bangladesh cricket team was going to Friday prayers at the mosque, the Masjid Al Noor, when the shooting occurred but all members were safe, a team coach told Reuters.

Shootings were reported at the Al Noor Mosque, the Linwood Masjid mosque and Christchurch Hospital.

Mohan Ibrahim described events to the Herald, saying he ran for his life when he heard the shots.

Witnesses told media that a man dressed in a military-style, camouflage outfit, and carrying an automatic rifle had started randomly shooting people in the Al Noor mosque. Allegedly, the man broadcasted the killing via social media networks and is an Australian citizen by the name of Brenton Trent.

“A serious and evolving situation is occurring in Christchurch with an active shooter,” Police Commissioner Mike Bush was quoted as telling reporters. “Police are responding with its full capability to manage the situation,but the risk environment remains extremely high.”

“Many of those who would have been affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand,” Ardern said.

“They may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home and it is their home … they are us. The persons who has perpetuated this violence against us … have no place in New Zealand.”

New Zealand police detained four people on Friday after the mass shootings at two mosques in the city.

“Four are in custody. Three are men and one is a woman,” New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush told reporters in Wellington.

“There were a few reports of IEDs strapped to vehicles which we were able to secure,” he said, referring to improvised explosive devices.

He said it was not possible to assume that the attack was isolated to Christchurch, saying: “At this point in time we should never make assumptions.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

WOMEN OF THE WALL CONDEMNS POLICE ‘ABANDONMENT’ IN LETTER

Women of the Wall clashing with Orthodox worshipers

Women of the Wall clashing with Orthodox worshipers. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The legal department of the Women of the Wall sent a  letter to the police commissioner on Sunday, condemning the police’s actions as part of the events that took place on Friday.

“During the month preceding the prayer, we contacted the police and announced that an unusual number of worshipers are expected to arrive and take part in the prayer to mark the movement’s 30th anniversary, which was supposed to be held on the women’s side of the Western Wall,” wrote Chair of the Women of the Wall Anat Hoffman.

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“We even warned that rabbis have been calling on their students to arrive at the Western Wall plaza in order to protest against the Women of the Wall and to interfere with the prayer,” the letter continued. “Despite our petition, the events which took place last Friday were once again a horrifying demonstration of abuse, severely damaging women’s worship rights.”

The letter condemned the police, saying that “the police abandoned the Women of the Wall, and left them at the mercy of the brute behavior of the angry mob that surrounded them.”

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Hoffman claimed that “The police had to act with all the means at its disposal in order to protect the Women of the Wall and their right to pray, but this was not done, and therefore this is a very serious failure in the conduct of the police.”

Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman spoke at the entrance to the cabinet meeting on Friday about the events that took place at the Western Wall plaza, refusing to condemn the Orthodox demonstrators who attacked the Women of the Wall.

“The police announced that there was a provocation by the Women of the Wall. They should have been thrown out,” he said. Litzman was asked whether this justified violence and replied that “violence by the Women of the Wall? Absolutely not.”

ABBAS APPOINTS NEW PRIME MINISTER, ‘GOV’T SHOULD ENHANCE CULTURE OF PEACE

Senior Fatah official Mohammad Shtayyeh receives a designation letter from Palestinian President

Senior Fatah official Mohammad Shtayyeh receives a designation letter from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to form a new Palestinian government, in Ramallah. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Sunday asked senior Fatah official Mohammed Shtayyeh to form a new government that would “enhance the culture of peace and support the families of prisoners and martyrs.”

Shtayyeh will replace PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who resigned last January.

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Hamas immediately rejected Abbas’s decision to form a new “separatist” government and said the move would solidify the split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hamas said that it will not recognize the new government.

Shtayyeh, 61, is a politician and economic expert from a village near Nablus. He previously served as PA Minister of Housing and head of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction (PECDAR).

Shtayyeh, who is also a member of the Fatah Central Committee, holds a doctorate in economic development from the University of Sussex in the UK.

In the letter of appointment, Abbas wrote to Shtayyeh that the new government’s top priority should be “to support the decisions of the Palestinian leadership, which include restoring national unity and bringing Gaza back to the bosom of national legitimacy.”

Abbas asked Shtayyeh to take all necessary measures to hold parliamentary elections in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem as soon as possible.

Abbas said that the new government’s top priority should also be to provide “material and moral support to the victims of the occupation and their families, including martyrs, prisoners and the wounded.”

The new PA government, Abbas said in his letter, should “continue to defend Jerusalem, with its Islamic and Christian holy sites, in the face of the policies of the occupation that are aimed at changing the city’s national identity and religious and historic status.”

In addition, the new government should “continue building state institutions, boost the economy, empower women and youths, enhance the culture of peace and protect public freedoms, first and foremost the freedom of expression,” Abbas wrote.

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This Week in 60 Seconds: December 15, 2017

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Abbas had come under pressure from Fatah to replace Hamdallah with a representative of the faction. Hamdallah, who was first appointed prime minister in 2013, handed his resignation over to Abbas on January 29.

A year later, Abbas asked Hamdallah to form a new government that was called the Palestinian National Consensus Government because it was formed following the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement that was signed in April 2014. The government consisted mostly of independent technocrats who were loyal to Abbas and Fatah.

However, the failure of Fatah and Hamas to implement the reconciliation agreement prompted Abbas to reshuffle the cabinet and appoint new ministers a year later.

Shtayyeh responded to Abbas’s decision to appoint him as prime minister by saying that he would work to “embody an independent and sovereign Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital on the 1967 borders.” Shtayyeh also pledged to pursue the “struggle for the right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their former homes in Israel.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that the new government will not serve the interests of the Palestinians. “This government will contribute to the separation of the West Bank from the homeland,” he said.

Another Hamas spokesman, Abdel Latif al-Qanou, said that the appointment of a new PA government contradicted the talk about holding new presidential and parliamentary elections. He said that Hamas leaders last week informed the chairman of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, Hanna Nasser, that they were in favor of holding new elections.

“The appointment of the new government shows that the Palestinian Authority is not serious about the elections,” the Hamas spokesman added. “Any Palestinian institution that is formed without national consensus is an indication of the tyranny and dictatorship of the Palestinian Authority.”

Senior Hamas official Yahya Moussa denounced the appointment of Shtayyeh as a “disgrace for the people and Palestinian history.”

Days Gone Is A Familiar Experience, But That Might Not Be So Bad

The upcoming PS4 exclusive Days Gone is fast approaching its release on April 26. Coming from Bend Studio, the developers behind the Syphon Filter series and Uncharted: Golden Abyss, the third-person open-world game takes a lot of cues from previous Sony AAA titles, all while set within the popular setting of a zombie apocalypse. After a recent hands-on session with the game, GameSpot editors Edmond Tran and Alessandro Fillari came together to share their thoughts on what it was like exploring Days Gone’s take on the Pacific Northwest during harsher times.

For more on Days Gone, check out our interview with the developers from Bend Studio about the making of the game, and stay tuned for our video impressions detailing how the new open world game stacks up.

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Alessandro: So to start things off, what do you think of Days Gone in the broader sense? The basic premise is essentially Sons of Anarchy by way of The Walking Dead, and I certainly got the impression it was sticking fairly close to those sources of inspiration. Like the main character, Deacon St. John, seems like he’d fit right in within either of those shows.

Edmond: I’ve never seen SOA and I actively dislike the TV adaptation of TWD, so Days Gone didn’t spark excitement in that sense. My reaction to the trailers and demos was that it looked okay, if a bit generic. But after reading preview coverage from yourself and Oscar last year, where you both sounded pretty unimpressed, this just flew way off my radar and I had very low expectations going into my first experience of the game.

Alessandro: Yeah, I was fairly underwhelmed by last year’s demo. To reiterate a bit, in addition to it feeling a bit run of the mill as an open world game, a big factor that left me unimpressed was the poor technical performance. In the 2018 demo, this was particularly noticeable during moments when you encounter massive swarms of Freakers–zombies, basically–which made these encounters a major drag. However, this recent build of the game was far more improved. I still felt a bit underwhelmed by some parts of what Days Gone is about, but I ended up finding more to like in this newer slice.

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The Freakers

Edmond: Oh wow, I actually didn’t see any of the huge hordes of zombies–I’m sorry, “Freakers”–in my three hours of the game at all so I can’t really speak to how I found those, but I did run into one noticeable technical hiccup: I raided an enemy encampment where all the environmental dressing failed to load, so enemies were taking cover behind nothing and pickup items were floating in thin air. But I’m taking a “whatever” stance on bugs since this isn’t the final product.

Alessandro: Yeah, I saw some weird bugs as well, like some moments characters had their guns stuck to their hands during cutscenes. But anyway, the times I saw herds of Freakers during this demo were some of my favorite moments during my playthrough. The first time was in a cave, which they like to hide out in, and the other time was when I was trying to rescue a survivor. When I went back to my bike after helping this NPC out, I found it surrounded by a hoard of freakers. I tried running for my bike, but they quickly got to me and I died. It was a brutal way for Deacon to go out, but with that said, I actually really dig how much of a presence the undead have because of their sheers numbers and how easily they can catch you off guard. They’re a lot more unnerving to encounter than in most other zombies games.

Edmond: Please, Alessandro. The “Freakers” don’t like to be associated with common zombie folk, since Freakers are not actually undead, they’re just really messed up living beings, hence the hibernation in caves and their need to eat and drink. Also a factor which really makes things very uncomfortable when the game put me in a situation where I had to kill freaker CHILDREN. It’s messed up.

I saw a few other freakers types, which were basically Witches and Boomers from Left 4 Dead, or Screamers and Bloaters from State of Decay, but the kids, the “Newts”, mostly avoid you unless you’re low on health. I got into a situation where I had to beat one with a baseball bat and I don’t think I’m going to heaven anymore.

Alessandro: Yeah, Newts only appear in specific areas where they set up dens, so thankfully they don’t come up too often. It was very off-putting seeing them watch you from afar, just sort of looming in the distance. They’ll only attack if you get in their space.

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The Open World

Edmond: Which is something you don’t necessarily have to do. I hate being reductive, but I really think the best way to describe this game is a narrative- and character-focused State Of Decay with a Far Cry level of freedom in approaching scenarios.

My biggest takeaway from this game was how much I enjoyed the different ways you could use your variety of abilities and the environment to complete objectives, whether that be to get into a place, or destroy people or things. I respect any game that attempts to emphasise a flexibility to move back and forth between stealthy and loud approaches, or the fluidity to switch between ranged, melee, and guerilla combat techniques on the fly. I like mixing things up.

Alessandro: That’s actually a pretty fair way to describe the game. You do go around collecting herbs and helping survivors in the bases around the map. It channels a lot of the survivalist-experience you’d find from State of Decay, all within a large open world like Far Cry.

And you know, I actually have to say that I ended up enjoying the setting of the Pacific Northwest a lot more than I thought I would. It went against a lot of my expectations for the region and it was pretty educational to be honest. The second area we got to explore in the demo seemed fairly close to a desert environment. It was inspired by the Belknap Crater, a real location that has a volcano. On one occasion I kinda got distracted by the beauty of the world that I totally didn’t catch an obvious ambush spot in the road that was set up by one of the enemy factions.

Edmond: Oh man, I was really caught off-guard by the random ambushes, and they led to some great watercooler moments, kinda like getting mugged in Red Dead Redemption 2. There was a moment during my session where I was wandering around, deeply focused on using the game’s tracking mechanic to search the ground for some footprints, when I got jumped and overwhelmed.

There were too many to fight close-quarters so I booked it into a nearby forest when I got an opening, dodging gunfire by weaving between the trees. I eventually ran down a hill, over a big rock, and hunkered under it. They lost sight of me but eventually, one passed right by the rock, I ambushed him as he wandered past, and thought: “thank you, varied environment for giving me that movie-like chase.” They’re definitely pitching the “high desert” and variable weather and terrain thing pretty hard. I’ve never been to Oregon, but the developers lead me to believe that there can be a blizzard in one region, real hot in another, there’s no sales tax and everyone has their own craft beer, all of which affects how enemies behave, and how your motorbike reacts.

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Deacon’s Bike

Alessandro: Yeah, your bike is like your best friend in this game. It’s your lifeline and it’ll get you out of trouble fast. In addition to some general upkeep and keeping it gassed up, you can also upgrade the different parts to make it more durable. This all ties back into the survivor camps as well, since you can only upgrade it with their mechanics once you’ve built up enough trust with these camps.

Edmond: …which you do by completing missions, side stories, and bringing back freaker ears, animal pelts, that sort of thing. The bike really felt like my own, I had to protect it and keep an eye on it at all times, especially since I couldn’t just whistle for it like a horse. I’m sure you can steal other bikes and maybe even buy a new one later in the game, but man I did not want this bike to get ruined, especially since Deacon loses his souped-up bike as part of the story in the first hour.

Alessandro: Usually when you get a bike in a game, you want to go as fast as possible and do sick jumps, but it’s like the total opposite here. I really went out of my way to avoid danger as much as possible on the bike. I seldom used the nitro boost.

Edmond: My first inclination was to use the bike to ram enemies, but that kills its durability which I certainly did not want, since it’ll then require more scrap to repair. I also really got into fuel conservation–I found myself being very light on the throttle and making the most of hills and momentum when riding it, which leads into the whole scavenging, crafting, and conservation aspect.

Alessandro: During one encounter with some freakers on the road, they literally threw themselves at my bike to take me out. It did a lot of damage to myself and the bike. Even though it gives you a lot of mobility and freedom to explore, you’re still very vulnerable on the bike, which I kinda like. It’s very much an extension of you.

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Combat Encounters

Edmond: You know what else was an extension of me? The spiked baseball bat I used across my entire session. I loved that thing so much that when it got close to breaking (most weapons have durability), I switched back to the weak-but-indestructible knife until I could get enough materials to repair the bat.

Alessandro: There are a surprising amount of melee weapons to find. It sort of reminded me of a classic beat-em-up game. You can get lead pipes and spiked bats, and even machetes. Unless you’re squaring off against heavily-armed bandits, close-range combat is generally really reliable.

Edmond: It is! Well, unless you’re fighting more than two people. But I really enjoyed relying on melee not only because it saved ammo, but because it was satisfying to perform and watch. I’m one of those Uncharted players that hip-fires like a maniac while closing the distance and then finishes with melee, and Days Gone caters to that same kind of flow. There’s even a perk that enhances the damage when do when you switch it up like this, among other perks to boost weapon damage and durability. The shooting on its own felt serviceable enough, but at this early stage I found it was only really useful when you used it in tandem with the focus/slowdown perk. What did you think about the combat?

Alessandro: For me, that was actually one of the areas where the game fell a bit flat. I mean the combat mechanics and amount of tools you have at your disposal are all well and good, but it just felt a bit unremarkable in actual practice. The mechanics on display, the slowdown shooting mechanic, and along with the variety of skills found within the fairly robust skill-tree, all of these are ideas that I’ve seen executed in plenty of other games. That’s not totally a bad thing, but the way Days Gone goes about just felt more like going down a checklist of features to have in an open-world adventure game.

Edmond: I definitely can’t argue against that, though I feel like there’s only so much you can do with a grounded, realistic setting like this without diving off the deep end. Although there is a gameplay element where you upgrade your stats with bio-injectors from the game’s CDC (Centers for Disease Control) equivalent, so who knows? Maybe we’ll get a double jump like New Dawn.

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Alessandro: I enjoyed the stealth gameplay however–which even comes with a tracking vision mode. That to me felt a bit more developed and also more in keeping with the tone. I especially liked seeing how the systems in the world would interact with one another, like when freakers attack other hostile humans.

Edmond: Yes! I really appreciated the quality-of-life stealth features. You really need go out of your way to mark enemies with binoculars to get their pips on the map (it’s not as generous as Far Cry), but you also get their vision cones. There’s a sound indicator, they do the hiding in bushes thing, there are a few different tools to misdirect enemies, and the line-of-sight logic actually felt natural and believable.

Alessandro: Yeah, the game does a nice job of helping you keep track of all these systems. I do hope we’ll see a lot more variety towards the later sections. However, I felt that each of the systems–stealth, combat, and exploration–were better when they were blending different mechanics together, rather than in isolation. It’s all about being super resourceful.

Edmond: For sure, it’s the ease of flowing between different states which keeps the encounters interesting, which I think they did for the three hours I played. I found certain situations where one kind of approach is just not effective–melee is impossible if there are more than two people like I mentioned before, for example, but I also found myself running low on ammo in prolonged firefights, meaning I would have to break line-of-sight, crouch-run between buildings to get across town, and find advantageous vantage points (like a hole in a boarded-up window) to get the jump and make sure my shots counted. I love doing that shit.

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Characters

Alessandro: What’s your take on Deacon, the protagonist? The game really goes out of its way to try and sell you on the really harsh struggle he goes through.

Edmond: Going in, I thought he was going to be a one-note, gruff biker dude. But I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to see that he goes through a lot of real emotional twists and turns that really do work to make you empathise with him–this is a First-Party, “Wasn’t The Last Of Us Great?”-Styled Sony Game, after all. I saw enough in the preview to suggest that he’s got range and maybe even some shit going on deep down.

I thought the performance was pretty good. He’s believably uncomfortable in some situations–there was a point where he had to coerce a teenage girl to come with him, he fumbles over his words and seemed like he had no idea what to do, so he lies to her. He visibly regrets it later on, but it’s communicated purely through his facial expressions, which I found notable.

Out in the world he’s certainly tough, but it also seems like he has some repressed anger and deep sorrow when he’s put into situations where he has to face Bad People–you can hear him breathing heavily and angrily, he mumbles things to himself like “oh so you wanna rob and murder helpless people? Well how do you like this, you scum”, that kind of thing. It certainly adds a lot of character to the game and reminds you that this is a game about Deacon, not necessarily your own survival fantasy.

To that point though, one thing I noticed about this demo was the absence of branching story choices. I saw some earlier gameplay demos where the same cutscenes we saw had moments where you had to choose what actions Deacon takes (like mercifully kill a man or leave him to the freakers, give your partner back his gun or keep it). These choices were previously pitched with the idea that you can change Deacon’s relationship to the characters and perhaps the overall narrative, Telltale Games style. Maybe they’re doubling down on the “Deacon’s story, not yours” thing. Did you see any of that stuff in your previous demos?

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Alessandro: I didn’t, actually. The recent stuff we played covered a lot of the same ground from last year’s demo. It does seem like there’s a greater focus on specific storylines for characters–which you can view in the game’s menu. That young woman that you mentioned actually opens up her own storyline called “You’re Safe Now”, which deals with her circumstances in the camp you bring her to. This particular camp has its own troubles, most of which are related to the leader who imposes some harsh rules on everyone inside the safety of the base. Deacon clashes with her numerous times, which leads to some tense moments.

But to your point, it does seem like there are moments that are prime for choices and player-agency. I do wonder if that’s even a thing in the game at this point during the section we played. There was a particular moment early where you have to make a choice in executing a particular character. They sort of linger on the scene for a bit before Deacon ends up going through with it.

I was initially a bit lukewarm on Deacon, in some cases I found him unlikable even, but I do agree that advancing the story helped humanize him a bit. I am curious to see how he’ll change towards the end-game, and what sort of storylines will come about.

Edmond: I also need to draw attention to the fact that the actor who plays Deacon, Sam Witwer, was the voice and face of the moody protagonist in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. So I think we all know how this story is going to end: Darth Vader saves him from a ravaged Earth and becomes his senpai.

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Closing Thoughts

Alessandro: I do have to say that I feel a little more positive about the game compared to last year’s demo. The world itself was a lot more expansive and varied than I expected, and it was interesting seeing how those systems sort of mingle together. However, I still have some reservations. This game has been in development for over six years, and I feel that’s very noticeable in the style and type of gameplay it employs–which is something that’s been seen in numerous other games. The zombie apocalypse feels a bit passé for me, and I’m hoping that Days Gone has a lot more going on than what I saw.

Edmond: I played a lot of DayZ, which well and truly burnt me out on the zombie thing. But I still enjoy scavenging and survival gameplay if the loop is done really well and there’s a good hook. I wanted to like State of Decay 2, but it was a little too monotonous and soulless for me. I went into Days Gone with similarly low expectations, which is probably why I ended up feeling so positive on it. The fact that Days Gone is going to be so focused on narrative, characters, and flexible combat options has me eager to put time aside for it. But like you, I also hope it has some surprises up its sleeve.

Mortal Kombat 11’s Story And Towers Should Have Solo Players Excited

When I think about my own history with Mortal Kombat, it was all about beating my brother or friends one-on-one so I could finish them with a savage fatality in MK3. It revolved around a light-hearted sense of competition wrapped in a disgustingly hilarious gore-filled fighting game. By no means has that been lost in Mortal Kombat 11, but it’s not necessarily the thing I’m most excited about. Even as I pay closer attention to the FGC and find pro-level play ever-fascinating, it’s the single-player content that I’m eager to jump into.

During a preview event in Chicago, Illinois–home to developer NetherRealm Studios–I had the opportunity to spend about two hours with Mortal Kombat 11’s latest playable build. This included a roster of familiar faces such as Johnny Cage, Cassie Cage, and Kano in addition to the playable characters available during January’s reveal event. But this time, I got a taste of the game’s story mode and Towers of Time challenges, and messed around with Variations and customization. Considering the pedigree of NetherRealm and the breadth of content Injustice 2 packed in, it doesn’t come as much of surprise that MK11 follows suit.

Get ready for present-day Johnny Cage arguing with '90s Johnny Cage.
Get ready for present-day Johnny Cage arguing with ’90s Johnny Cage.
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Story Time

From the opening cutscene to the end of the first chapter, it’s apparent that MK11 touches on some of the best parts from NetherRealm’s previous work. After the stellar execution of Injustice 2’s story mode, that had a cinematic flair expected to accompany DC universe characters, you’d hope that carries over into MK11, and it does. Mortal Kombat 11 picks up where MKX’s story left off, and starts with the scene that was shown during the game’s reveal. In the Jinsei Chamber, Raiden decapitates the Elder God Shinnok just before the mysterious Kronika shows up to hint at her time-manipulating abilities, saying, “The arc of the universe bends to my will. It is only a matter of time,” and halting the flow of blood from Shinnok’s severed head.

Cut to Earthrealm, where Cassie Cage earns a promotion within the ranks of the Special Forces commissioned by… her mom, Sonya Blade. As the unit’s leader, Sonya insists it isn’t due to nepotism and tells Cassie that she has to pass one more test: to fight… her mom. You’re put in Cassie’s shoes in this chapter, and there’s still that smooth transition from cutscene to fight that gets you into the action without a hitch, blending gameplay and story seamlessly. After a brutal (yet respectful) beatdown that’s oddly humorous in context, the whole family comes together as Johnny Cage jumps in to celebrate the promotion with his daughter. But the good times are in short order; Raiden arrives to let everyone know that an evil Liu Kang and the Netherrealm army are on the prowl, and Earthrealm must hurry to take them down.

Cassie and Sonya are leading the Earthrealm Special Forces to put an end to the Netherrealm army.
Cassie and Sonya are leading the Earthrealm Special Forces to put an end to the Netherrealm army.

In the war room, Raiden, Sonya, Johnny, and Cassie gather to devise a plan for a two-pronged assault on the Netherrealm, and it turns out successful at first. Raiden mows down the hordes of brutes, raining lightning as a one-man-army while acting as a diversion for the Special Forces to infiltrate the castle. Jade and Kabal catch wind of the invasion, and start to throw hands with Jacqui Briggs and Cassie, and now you enter another playable fight. Although I’m not at liberty to discuss a few important details that close out this opening chapter, it was left on a cliffhanger when the Earthrealm army starts to get overwhelmed and Sonya falls victim to the castle’s crumbling walls. All the while, I was drawn into what MK11 is trying to do with its cast and narrative beats thanks to incredibly well-rendered character models and a high-stakes script that will have both series fans and newcomers invested. That’s not to mention the wild possibilities in store when merging timelines begin to factor into the story.

NetherRealm isn’t afraid to play fast-and-loose with its narrative and timeline. The introduction of Kronika and time manipulation may seem like an easy excuse to throw in all its characters and insert fan service at will, but it’s Mortal Kombat, and that means things were always bound to get bonkers. MK11 opens the door for some wild possibilities that are already apparent in the new story trailer (see above) by giving us a taste of not one, but two Johnny Cages riffing off of each other. It’s also evident in the trailer that this creates room for more complicated conflicts, plot twists, and ever-changing allegiances between the Netherrealm and Earthrealm.

I spoke with series creator Ed Boon about many things, but among them was story inspiration. He pointed to the writing team, stating, “They came up with this whole time bending thing and bringing characters back from the past. So when we got excited about that, a lot of it just sparked [the thought], ‘Okay, now we can do this, this and that!'” When asking NetherRealm game designer Derek Kirtzic about the direction MK11 is taking, he said, “You’re going to start seeing the resurrection of a lot of old characters. A lot of fan favorites. And it’s always just [a question of] how we can continue to expand on this universe.”

Kronika's time manipulation is sure to make the story mode a wild ride. Maybe we'll see Liu Kang face himself.
Kronika’s time manipulation is sure to make the story mode a wild ride. Maybe we’ll see Liu Kang face himself.
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The cinematic presentation is sharp as ever, and the premise is more enticing than its predecessors. It helps big time that MK11 will be a high watermark visually for the series, with a cast that’s vividly brought to life (and death). If there’s a disappointing aspect from the small snippet I played, it’s that the story mode might be a bit light on the gameplay front by having only a few fights throughout. But let me tell you about the Towers of Time.

Towers of Time

If a heavier emphasis on gameplay and challenge is what you’re looking for in MK11, you’ll want to dig into the Towers of Time mode. Here, you’re presented with a multitude of towers, each that embody a series of thematic fights in rapid succession featuring modifiers to keep things fresh. This may sound familiar since it’s essentially a parallel to Injustice 2’s Multiverse Mode.

In the “Kold Chill” tower, I had to win four matches, one after the other, with the perk of having Sub-Zero available as an assist. I could call him into the fight for a quick attack using the right stick; directions dictate what he’d do whether it was a launching attack to initiate a juggle or a freeze that stunned my opponent for a second. Things got spicier in the “Test Your Might” tower that granted me access to Konsumables, which are modifiers that let me equip special attacks to the right stick or grant me buffs during fights. The catch here is that I had to win two rounds without my health bar replenishing after winning the first round–on top of that, the CPU-controlled opponent only had to win one round to finish the fight. It turned into this weird mix of turtling as I called in meteors and missile strikes from the Konsumable perks I equipped, but also moving in close to land a combo without taking too much damage in the process. It’s a different way to enjoy the game, and a means of acquiring new gear to tinker with the roster’s Variations.

Mortal Kombat 11 – Johnny And Cassie Cage Towers Of Time Gameplay

The Towers of Time aren’t static, though. They’ll also act as incentivized leaderboards. When I asked Ed Boon about how the mode will keep players interested beyond what’s in the launch package, he said, “we’re introducing different online game modes that are single-player-focused and give you your own personal challenge, to go up leaderboards and also earn special prizes and whatnot.” You can think of these as daily or weekly challenges, similar to ongoing events in other online games. Kirtzic described it as, “almost like an infinite amount of single player content.” If my brief time with the game is any indication, NetherRealm seems to be tackling Mortal Kombat 11’s longevity from several different directions, though we’ll have to wait and see how well these future challenges sustain interest in the game and change up the experience.

A Matter Of Time

Fighting games sometimes struggle to maintain solo players’ attention, but it seems to be a concern that’s being firmly addressed in Mortal Kombat 11. The game will have Klassic Towers and the Krypt mode in addition to the story and Towers of Time, though we weren’t able to check them out. However, none of the content would really land if it wasn’t for MK11’s heavy, satisfying fighting system that improves upon a good foundation set by NetherRealm’s previous games.

There’s also a sense of playfulness throughout the game, even as dark and violent as the game can get. Relentless gore might be a deal-breaker for some but for many, the cartoonishly over-the-top brutality is a staple that makes the series what it is. You’ll be able to see for yourself when Mortal Kombat 11 hits the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch on April 23.

Bravery Network Online Delivers A Fresh Take On Pokemon Combat, In Style

Speaking to the developers from Gloam Collective about their upcoming PC and Mac game, Bravery Network Online, they raised a point that I hadn’t considered before: despite its popularity, Pokemon’s team-based combat system is rarely imitated, leaving a gap in the market. “It’s super specific,” Gloam says, “but we found ourselves craving more games like these, and not finding any. We want to fill that void!”

Bravery Network Online http://fgpgames.com  won’t set you off as a plucky youth on a spirited adventure–it will instead present short stories in visual novel form to clue you into the world’s backstory, and the various human characters that you’ll take into battle–rough-and-tumble cuties that love nothing more than a good fight. Judging by a recent demo, combat and creativity are put front and center. I’ve never seen a cast of characters quite like these, which run the gamut from imposing fashionable warriors to equally stylish yet seemingly frail fighters.

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Gloam made a point to mention that all of the characters in Bravery Network Online are essentially immortal, a detail that explains the range of physicality among the cast, and the game’s standout combat mechanic: the use of feelings and emotions as status effects. “When we made the decision to have emotional attacks, it immediately clicked that feelings could be the status effects of the game,” Gloam explained. “Feeling is a vague word that can refer to a more physical feeling, like ‘Dizzy’ or ‘Hungry’ but can also just straight up be an emotion like ‘Guilty’ or ‘Excited.’ This theming gave us a ton of room to play in, and we loved it.”

Though you will get to build your own teams of offbeat characters, the recent demo we played had two pre-built teams, and two distinct headcanons. “Trust Punks are kind of this ragtag team being led by their elder mentor, Ferran,” says Gloam. “They are a kind of well-rounded team, with a bunch of different avenues for winning, and good for exploring a bunch of BNO’s mechanics. The Cold & The Beautiful on the other hand is a team filled with fast, gorgeous fighters. They focus on chipping their opponents away, tagging out with Escape Whip to build up charge, and then getting in the heavy hitters, Zael and Annora, to blast their foes apart.”

Gloam currently plans to ready 25 fighters for launch. The ten characters available in the demo share a few moves here and there, but they are otherwise distinct, with strong visual identities that convey their individuality.

“Seyla’s one of our favourite characters at Gloam,” says the team, “just because of how emotive she is. She has a super short fuse, and a constant drive to be the best Bravery fighter, so you can imagine how she is when it’s pretty clear she’s losing. Mechanically though, Seyla’s a ridiculously strong Physical attacker, and has a few ways of buffing herself up. A well-played Seyla can plow through an unprepared team.”

As focused as Gloam is on delivering an interesting array of fighters, it’s really all in service of making Bravery Network Online a hotbed of competition. Even though Pokemon was a direct inspiration, Gloam made some fundamental changes for Bravery Network Online’s combat system. “One of the most obvious is that we removed randomness from the game, replacing them with fighting game-style meter mechanics. Flourishing is meant to represent those times you’d get a critical hit out of nowhere, or randomly have a move give a status effect. Parrying is essentially a reskin of your opponent’s moves missing, but you control when it happens instead of it being a percent-based chance.”

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While playing the recent demo, even against computer-controlled opponents, I had to pay very close attention to the aforementioned meters and the specific fighter matchups in order to win. Bravery Network Online is built to reward careful, considered play, and while there’s no doubt benefits to the element of surprise that random blocks or heavy hits bring to the table, it’s refreshing to see a team-based battler that’s closer to game of chess than a roll of dice. In Gloam’s own words: “If you appreciate a rich strategy game with lots of room for customization and mind games, there’s plenty to explore.