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The Evil Within 2 - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Stealth is actually useful throughout
  • Sandbox design maintains a sense of narrative forward-progress
  • Strong environmental design and weather effects
  • Intriguing sci-fi premise
  • Some actual characterization this time around
  • Cathartic re-use of locations and bosses from first game

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Steep initial learning curve
  • Under-developed mechanics and controls
  • Simplistic puzzles and logistics
  • Could have benefited from more of the first game's whimsy

Overall Impression : B
Second time's the charm

The Evil Within 2 - cover

Developer:
Tango Gameworks

Publisher:
Bethesda Softworks

Platforms:
PC (via Steam),
PlayStation 4 < (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $60 USD

Original release date:
13 October 2017

Genre:
Survival horror, shooter

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood and Gore, Intense Violence,
Partial Nudity, Strong Language

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
theevilwithin2.bethesda.net/en

Okay, I said I would give up on Shinji Mikami after the first Evil Within game, but here I am giving that IP a second chance. I had heard that the expansions for Evil Within were actually pretty good, and that they even made the base game better by filling in some of the narrative gaps. But I was so furious with the base game that I sure as hell was not going to shell out more money for DLCs. If they were that integral to the core game, then they should have been included with the core game. Now that my furor over the original has faded a bit, I was hearing that the sequel is also much better than the original game and leans more heavily in the horror camp than the action shooter camp. I was dismissive of the game's announcement, and I was skeptical of the claims that the sequel was actually good, so I picked up a [relatively] cheap used copy off eBay so that I could give it a chance over the Halloween week without necessarily giving any more money to Bethesda.

The Evil Within 2 - Kidman
I feel like I missed something...
Maybe I should've played the DLC?

Besides, Shinji Mikami isn't the director this time around. Instead the sequel is directed by John Johanas, who was the director of the [supposedly] good DLC expansion packs. The first game actually did have some good ideas and set pieces within, so maybe a different directorial approach could bring those ideas out to their full potential?

A more focused package

To Johanas' credit, the game, as a whole, definitely has a more "unified" presentation. The first game felt very scattershot with regard to how it wanted the player to play. It's early chapters (which were also the most enjoyable parts of the game) were focused mostly on stealth, with a few pursuit and escape moments thrown in. It was slow, somewhat atmospheric, and built incredible tension. But those mechanics were quickly dropped in favor of shooting gallery set pieces, constant scripted ambushes, set piece boss encounters, and frantic, funhouse-ish trap / puzzle rooms. The sequel, thankfully, is much more focused. I didn't feel like I was wasting my resources by putting points into Sebastian's stealth skills (a skill tree that was completely absent from the previous game), as you can actually continue to use them over the course of the entire game. Sure, there's still scripted ambushes and puzzle rooms, but the focus is much more firmly planted in sneaking around, exploring the environments, and generally avoiding detection.

Unfortunately, there's still a bit too much of a focus on frenzied action. It detracts significantly from any sort of horror or tension that the game might be trying to build up. The autosaves are fairly generous (even though there are also manual save points in each of the game's safe houses), so enemies come in hordes, hit very hard, and deaths are going to happen. Chapter 3 basically completely desensitized me to death and put me in the habit of just standing up and letting the monsters kill me if I ever screwed up the stealth.

The Evil Within 2 - learning curve
The early combat encounters are not gentle, as they put you up against hordes of enemies.

There's a greater focus on open-ended exploration this time around, and Chapter 3 is the first open map that the player is free to explore. There's basically two main paths through it: the hard one and the easy one. The easy path is basically a straight line due north from where you start, but the game throws some curveball objectives at you that basically encourage you to try the other paths that end up being much harder. You're told about weapon caches and NPCs that you're supposed to try to save. One such weapon is the crossbow, which is actually a pretty necessary tool (because, you know, every game has to have a crossbow). It's right off to the side of where you start, but picking it up can easily lead you down a much harder path to your actual mission objective.

I spent over 3 hours in chapter 3 because the first half of that was spent dying over and over again. Admittedly, that's mostly my fault for going the wrong way, but I really feel like the game tricked me into thinking that was the intended route. Maybe that was the point? In any case, it seems like the intent is for the player to go due north to resolve the first step in the main quest, then cycle back around to the east and south to hit up each of the side missions and supply caches.

On the one hand, I always appreciate when games let me make my own mistakes and don't feel obligated to hold my hand and railroad me down a specific path. Evil Within 2 flings the doors to the world open, and says "have at it!" But where this game fails compared to other Metroidvania-style exploratory games (such as Dark Souls) is that a good Metroidvania game will clearly delineate that the harder paths involve entering a different area, complete with its own aesthetic design, enemies, and overall tone. For example, if you stray into the Catacombs or the ruins of New Londo in Dark Souls, you'll be greeted by an ominous environment, and enemies that literally can't be killed. Evil Within 2 doesn't do this. There's nothing indicated that the path is not the intended path other than the simple fact that it isn't in a straight line to the stated objective, but at the same time, there are stated bonus objectives along that harder path, and one of the ironic principles of game design is that you should usually do side content before the more important task-at-hand so that you have any potential rewards available for the main quest.

The Evil Within 2 - sandbox
There are several open, sandbox maps that do a fantastic job of creating organic set pieces for creative play.

Despite the lack of clear signposting, the more open sandbox maps of The Evil Within 2 are actually very well-crafted. Each map does a good job of spreading out a number of little set pieces, while providing the player with the freedom to approach the situation from multiple creative directions. These set pieces are also near-perfectly spaced from one another. Unlike a game like Shadow of Mordor (which felt a little cramped), you generally have plenty of room to deal with a given situation without accidentally dragging in additional enemies from an adjoining set piece challenge area. But if you get lazy or careless and try to kite the enemies too far from their patrols, then overlap with other enemy patrols becomes much more problematic.

Despite the greater focus on stealth and evasion, enemies are almost always blocking off key areas of each map. So even if you want to play stealthily, you still have to stealth your way through the enemies, rather than around them. Further, the fact that there actually is a stealth skill tree this time around means that even if you do want to play stealthily, you actually still want to dispose of as many enemies as you are practically able, since they provide the Green Gel that is used for purchasing new skills (they also often drop weapon upgrade scrap). Throughout the entire game, I actually felt much more engaged with the game, its environments, and its enemies than I ever did in the previous game.

The Evil Within 2 - teleports
There are plenty of teleports, but there's actually a structure to this reality this time around.

Perhaps my favorite thing about this game's open design is that by moving the player between multiple small maps, the game manages to maintain a sense of forward progress and momentum. Most open world sandbox games have a meandering structure and are filled with needless time-sinks. The Evil Within 2 doesn't fall into that trap. Everything that you do feels like it's in service to your larger objective: finding your daughter. The narrative rarely feels stagnant, and the window of opportunity for side content can actually close if you progress the story. A lot of this side content comes in the form of little horror vignettes that put the player through a small set piece encounter, or which provide back-story or world-building exposition. Exploring the maps could easily have degraded into just scouring for ammo and pointless collectibles, but it's much more than that. Open world developers at Bethesda and Ubisoft, and even at CD Projekt RED could maybe learn a thing or two from this game.

More Silent Hill than Resident Evil?

The one saving grace of the first Evil Within was that it actually did have a solid science fiction concept as the basis of its narrative, and as the foundation for its attempts at horror, that allowed for some neat set pieces. It was just very poorly delivered. In the first game, the sci-fi concept mostly just served as a justification for the discontinuity in game flow and world design, and as an excuse to call the game "psychological horror". The sequel delivers almost the same concept, but it's delivered in a much more straightforward, easily-digestible way, and more thoughtful manner.

Yeah, sure, the evil corporation trying to use mind control to take over the world is silly (and apparently, the developers realized this too, which bodes well for any potential further sequels). I would have much preferred if the game had been about some well-intentioned scientists inventing STEM, but being unable to control it. In any case, this time, there's actually some thought paid to the effects that this technology has on the individuals who use it, and to society at large. This more straightforward approach, however, does result in the execution feeling much more tame than the first game.

The Evil Within 2 - vignette
The incongruous side quests are framed as mini-vignettes that provide back-story and characterization.

I criticized the first game for its irrational, scattershot level design and structure. Levels felt like they were randomly arranged, and cutscenes would often fling the character to random places across the game world -- often just before you'd reach a supposed objective. This was unbelievably frustrating, but only because the game was a very action-heavy game that would mercilessly slaughter you if you weren't executing with pinpoint accuracy and optimal use of resources, and in which checkpoint restarts were happening every minute or two. Being flung around the map at random only served to kill any sense of accomplishment, desensitize the player to the environments themselves, and undermine the objective-based shooter gameplay.

In the context of a genuine horror game, however, this same design (combined with more deliberate pacing and more consistent atmosphere) could actually have come off as genius. It could create a constant sense of uncertainty that maintains player anxiety and serve to disempower the player by making their whole quest feel futile. In a horror setting, that could actually work. In an action game, it doesn't. So I actually wouldn't mind if Evil Within 2 had toyed around more with the unorthodoxically whimsical structure and pacing of the original. I'm not necessarily saying that it would have worked -- and it certainly still would have been a polarizing design -- but it might actually have served the sequel's slower, more horror-centric design.

Union is ripped apart at the seams, exposing holes in the roads -- much like Silent Hill.

The attempts that are made at the incongruous level progression actually are very successful this time around, even though they are tamed down considerably. Instead of flinging Sebastian from one random place to the other over the course of many chapters, the sequel instead throws Sebastian into smaller, self-contained, vignette-like side quests, before dumping him right back where he started.

There is actually a mostly cohesive world this time around, even though it is -- literally -- broken apart. The setting, a simulated town called Union, is literally being ripped apart, and pieces of the town seem to be floating in a void, with different chunks of the town being visible floating upside down in the sky. They're linked together by an underground network of passages that act as inter-dimensional portals between each chunk.

The Evil Within 2 - steel pipe
Hey! Don't you disrespect the steel pipe!

Ironically, despite this franchise being founded by Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, Johanas' team seems to be more very heavily influenced by the rival horror franchise Silent Hill. Union is a "small, quiet town", that just happens to have been literally ripped apart, with holes in the road exposing bottomless pits. Heck, the main plot even revolves around a father going to the town to try to rescue his missing daughter, who happens to be [so to speak] psychically connected to the town. There's even cultish undertones and a tongue-in-cheek joke about steel pipes being crafting scrap instead of an actual weapon because "it's not much more than a cudgel. Besides, you've got guns!".

Silent Hill inspirations aren't new to the franchise. Both games involves dreams, nightmares, and psychological complexes of the characters and villains being manifested. The first Evil Within included a monster that seems intended to have been a rip-off of Pyramid Head. The DLC expansion that focused on that monster even established that a sort-of popular interpretation of Silent Hill's monsters (as being actual people who the player character simply perceives as monsters) is actually the truth for The Evil Within. All that being said, The Evil Within 2 does not feel like Silent Hill in atmosphere, presentation, or narrative. If you're looking for a Silent Hill-like experience, then you'll have to keep looking.

The plot about a father searching a "small, quiet town" for his daughter seems ripped straight from Silent Hill.

That isn't to say that the Resident Evil pedigree doesn't also show its face. Both Evil Within games revel in gore, and both involve a greedy, evil, conspiratorial corporation essentially running a doomsday project.

Still not fully-developed

As much as the sequel is a step up from the first game, it also has plenty of problems of its own. Most of my complaints with the sequel are nagging issues rather than the foundational complaints that I had with the first Evil Within game. First and foremost is the game's erratic difficulty curve. The first few encounters against enemy hordes can be very overwhelming, especially if you try actually using the stealth tools that the game had just tutorialized. So the game gets off on the wrong foot and gives the impression that it's going to degrade into the same shooting gallery that the first one did.

After that, however, the difficulty settles down mostly on the easy side of the spectrum. The enemies have very random, jerky movements that makes it difficult to know if you'll be able to sneak up on them, but they are even more near-sighted than Metal Gear Solid guards. If you ever get caught, you can usually just run across the street or hop behind the nearest park bench, and the enemies will promptly forget that you ever existed.

The Evil Within 2 - running away
It's too easy to run away from enemies and come back with more supplies.

The focus on stealth also means that you rarely have to spend much (if any) ammunition, and you're rarely taking damage outside of the occasional scripted ambush or boss fight. So I almost always found myself fully-stocked with healing items and almost fully-stocked with ammunition. The fact that enemies don't respawn (except for the occasional scripted respawn after completing certain major story milestones) also means that once you dispatch all (or at least most) of the enemies, you can simply walk around the entire map at your leisure collecting all the loot that's available.

I did end up blowing through a lot of my ammo and health during boss fights, because a lot of them are unnecessarily frustrating to play. I especially hated the boss fight with Stefano, who teleports around the arena and is really difficult to hit.

There's also some annoying control and camera nitpicks. For example, there's a quick-turn, but doing so doesn't spin the camera round, and there's no button to center the camera. So when I turn to run away from combat, I can't see where I'm going, and I often run into obstacles or right into other enemies. Or I turn around in circles because I'm trying to rotate the camera myself. The funny thing is that I'm not sure if I would even want the camera to automatically spin around, because half the time, I actually do want a chase cam so that I can see what's pursuing me. So a camera reset button would have been nice. A "look back" cam would also be welcome.

The Evil Within 2 - sneaking through bushes
Bushes don't become transparent when you sneak through them. If you're lucky, you'll be able to see this much.

The camera also has other issues. When sneaking through bushes, there's no transparency applied to the bushes, and so they end up completely obscuring the screen. Even sneaking right up to the edge of the bush doesn't resolve the problem, since there's an over-the-shoulder camera that's behind the player character. I can aim a weapon to get a more first-person view, but even that is only partially effective.

The over-the-shoulder camera perspective is also difficult to work with in other ways. It's positioned so that Sebastian's body often blocks a third of the screen, and there's no button to switch which shoulder the camera looks over. This means that it's harder to see and aim if you're turning left than if you're turning right. Aiming also feels slightly offset. I miss a lot of shots because I have trouble gauging how close the enemies are, and my shots often go right over the enemy's right shoulder. This is especially true with the crossbow, since it has an arc. Maybe this is a problem with hitboxes, or maybe I'm missing because the game has a hidden accuracy rating for each weapon? Either way, it lead to a lot of early frustration.

And if you're going to include an aim assist (which is practically necessary for console games), then at least auto-aim at the enemy's center of mass. I found it very hard to be pinpoint accurate with the PS4 controller, but I often didn't have to be because the aim assist automatically points the reticle at the enemy's head, which only served to make some of the combat encounters far too easy.

The Evil Within 2 - stealth kill
Stealth kills sometimes don't work.

The game is very inconsistent with whether it will let me perform stealth kills, especially around corners. Part of this comes from the fact that Sebastian refuses to take cover behind certain objects that he should be able to. But even when he can enter cover, the range for such kills seems to vary wildly. Sometimes Sebastian can leap out six feet to sneak kill an enemy; other times, the enemy walks within two feet and the "sneak kill" prompt never appears. In many cases, the enemy ends up seeing me as it comes around the corner, and I get stuck having to sprint away and hide somewhere else, or I suffer a cheap death.

I'm also curious why the developers bothered to include a flashlight toggle. Enemies aren't attracted to your flashlight, so why would you ever want to turn the light off? And if you never want to turn the light off, then why did the developers have to dedicate an entire face button to toggling the light? Why couldn't that have been used for something useful -- like toggling which shoulder the camera is positioned over, or centering the camera, or looking over your shoulder while you run away?

Similarly, the game's environments are littered with detritus such as empty bottles that can be stepped on or knocked over. At the beginning of the game, during one of the stealth tutorials, Sebastian knocks over a picture frame, and the sound of it hitting the ground alerts an enemy to your presence. This creates an impression in the player's mind that you should watch where you step so as to avoid kicking over a bottle or knocking something over. But this isn't an actual mechanic! Much like how the enemies aren't attracted to (or even aware of) the flashlight, they also don't notice the sound of bottles being kicked over, or notice a bottle rolling out from behind a possible hiding place.

Bait and switch

If you're a fan of the sandbox exploration early in the game, then you might also find yourself disappointed that the game pulls a bit of a bait-and-switch halfway through. The primary antagonist is actually defeated halfway through the game, and the next chapter (aptly titled "Another Evil") throws in a completely new villain who basically comes out of nowhere except for one small, throwaway line earlier in the game. It actually makes the first half of the game feel like it probably could have just been a DLC expansion, since the main story actually happens in the second half. The story is peppered with plot holes and other unfortunate contrivances, but none of them end up being deal-breakers (at least not for me).

The Evil Within 2 - chapter 9
Chapter 9, "Another Evil" introduces a whole new villain out of nowhere,
and completely pivots the story and general design philosophies of the entire game.

The change in villain also comes with an almost complete abandonment of the sandbox design in favor of linear dungeon-like levels. The second half feels a lot more like the first game, but never turns into the complete mess that was the first game's second half. Rather than devolving into a shooting gallery, the focus on slower-paced stealth gameplay is retained for the more linear second half, so the game remains good throughout.

There's even a bit that re-uses bosses from the previous game in a wonderfully-cathartic and empowering set piece. It doesn't feel like filler or fan service either. These fights are considerably easier than they were in the first game (because now I have a machine gun and a flamethrower -- Yippie ki yay, mother fuckers!). This provides the player with some welcome catharsis, while also allowing Sebastian (the character) to physically and emotionally overcome his own psychological baggage. If you didn't play the first game, then this moment won't have the same significance for you. For those of us who did suffer through the first game, this moment is like symbolically burning the first game disc with a flamethrower.

A do-over done right

While I'm not nearly as impressed with The Evil Within 2 when compared to other pure horror titles, like, say, Resident Evil VII or the fantastic REmake, it is a huge step up from the previous game. It blows its predecessor and many other big-budget horror games (like Silent Hill: Downpour) out of the water. It addresses almost every issue or complaint that I had with the original game, and almost serves as a "do-over" for kicking off the franchise.

The open world horror design works very well while it's present, and almost seamlessly transitions [mechanically] into the more linear second half. I'm still not sure exactly why the first half of the game is ever here, but the open design of that first half is satisfying enough that wouldn't want it removed either. I'm also not sure about the long-term appeal of this IP. They can only make games about evil, conspiratorial corporations trapping people in virtual realities with psychopaths so many times before it starts to get as stale and off-the-rails as Resident Evil. But then again, there is that cult stuff going on in the background...

The Evil Within 2 is a successful second chance for this new IP and developer. I'll probably play any DLC expansions that Tango and Bethesda happens to release for it. I might even go back and try out the DLC for the first game. And I certainly won't be as dismissive when The Evil Within 3 inevitably gets announced.

The Evil Within 2 - Tatiana
Tatiana is back, and she's just as passive-aggressively condescending as ever.

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A gamer's life...

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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