Friday, 28 October 2016

Mafia 3 - Review

Developer: Hangar 13
Publisher 2K Games
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One, PC 

One thing you can say about Mafia 3 is that it has one of the best tutorials in recent years. The first two hours or so are completely separate from the rest of the game, introducing you to the game’s protagonist, Lincoln Clay and the world he lives in. It’s a fantastic opening, and one that sets up expectations that the rest of the game fails to deliver on.

The first two Mafia games were rather unusual in that they used an open-world sandbox structure to tell a much more focused and linear story. Mafia 2’s Empire Bay might have been free and open to explore, but there wasn’t a whole lot of side content beside the main story. Its pacing and style had more in common with, say, Bioshock, than it did Grand Theft Auto. Empire Bay was very much like Rapture: a vehicle to tell a compelling story, rather than a consequence-free sandbox to mess around in.

Mafia 3 does, in a general sense at least, use its location in a similar manner to the previous two games. Once again, the setting has changed, now taking place in a fictional part of New Orleans in the late ‘60s. The game’s commitment to its time and place is by far one of its strongest elements; the soundtrack alone is perfect; Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, The Supremes, all make for a game that tries to soak you in the atmosphere and style of its time period.

Likewise, the game attempts to tell a decent yarn. Throughout the opening, we’re introduced to Lincoln Clay, a Vietnam War vet, returning home to his friends and family, only to have it cruelly snatched away from him after an altercation with the local Mafia.

What follows is a classic (and somewhat derivative) revenge plot. Clay sets about hunting down those responsible for killing his family one by one, which sets up the core of Mafia 3’s gameplay.

It’s also here where the game takes a complete right turn into utter boredom. After a slick, fast-paced opening, you’re left to reel in horror as Mafia 3 has transformed into a very bland and very repetitive Assassin’s Creed clone.

Borrowing elements from both Ubisoft and Shadows of Mordor, the bulk of Mafia 3 has you going from district to district. Slowly but surely, you undermine whatever criminal rackets that are there, be it prostitution, drugs or human trafficking, until the leader of that particular job is drawn out into the open and can be taken care of.

It’s about as bland as it sounds, and it’s made all the worse by a game that offers nothing to make this core loop even remotely interesting. Assassin’s Creed might be dull and predictable these days, but at least it gives you a few toys to play with. Mafia 3 simply offers you the usual round up of pistols, shotguns and assault rifles and hopes that will suffice.

There seems to be some effort to try and emphasize reconnaissance and strategy; staking out your opponent before you move in for the kill. Phone lines can be wire-tapped in order to give you a heads-up on nearby enemies and highlight any particular items of interest.

It’s all largely for naught, though. Mafia 3’s AI is so utterly idiotic that the same simple tricks will work time and time again. Stealth-killing guards from cover is usual the correct course in most situations, since most enemies will simply ignore what you’re doing and act like they don’t see you. Meanwhile, you bury a knife into their friend’s neck.

The overall repetitive nature of the game, which sees you do the same loop of damaging rackets, luring out the boss, taking over a district, a ridiculous nine times before the end of the game. This means that you notice what doesn’t work even more than you normally would, given how many times you see the same thing. Guards will repeatedly engage in the same three or four pre-canned animations, always grouping together into no more than pairs, whilst most will even stand conspicuously in front of boxes, the perfect place to sneak up behind them and quietly slip a knife in their back.

All of this bloat and fat also makes New Bordeaux seem incredibly hollow, despite Hangar 13’s decent attempts to make it an immersive and atmospheric place to inhabit. The cops are idiots, rarely investigating more than the very street that a crime takes place before they’ll give up. Better yet, just drive off road, I’m convinced they’re completely incapable of following you.

Between capturing districts and working your way through the mob, Lincoln is also tasked with doling out these parts of the city he’s captured to his own under-bosses. Cassandra, Burke and Vito (yes, that Vito) can all be given whichever parts of the city you like, and favouring one over the others will result in different weapons and bonuses becoming available. Shaft one of the group too much and they’ll break off with you, forcing you to hunt them down and kill them.

In and of itself this would be an interesting mechanic, turning the criminal politics of Mafia life into its own game mechanic. Yet, it’s all pretty pointless. The bonuses on offer are petty at best, being nothing more than minor improvements to your guns or a boost to one of the favours you can call upon.

Each under-boss comes with their own respective favour, or “power-up” essentially, that they’ll provide you. Burke and his Irish gangsters will supply you with a new car at the drop of a hat, whilst Vito will have some of his guys come and help you out. They’ll not come in a car, mind you, they’ll simply appear in the room you’re currently occupying like they’ve beamed down from the Starship Enterprise. Immersion be damned…

You can forget about crime being fun, too. Despite spending most of the game accruing a fortune as you take over the city, that money is essentially useless, with the only option being to spend it on more guns, ammo and favours so you can do the same thing all over again. It all results in New Bordeaux feeling less like a real place and more like an artificial, and hollow, game space.

The game’s one saving grace is meant to be its story, but even that suffers from the bloat, padding and cookie-cutter game design. The game’s plot is stretched too thin with far too much watered down gameplay to make it have much impact or impetus by the time it reaches its long-winded conclusion.

It’s a massive shame, too, considering the quality of the voice cast. The story sets up Donovan, a skeezy ex-CIA guy from Lincoln’s army days, and Father James, a local priest, as the devil and angel on Lincoln’s shoulders, avoiding the typical good/evil childish dichotomy that many games fall into. Donovan is a cold-hearted cynic but also weirdly likable, largely thanks to Lane Compton’s performance. Similarly, Father James is a decent man who’s focused on doing the right thing, but he also has skeletons buried in his closet.

While the game does deserve credit for tackling racism, and more importantly having you play as a young black man in the 1960s, at the peak of the civil rights movement, Hangar 13 undercut all these interesting and bold thematic issues with their gameplay. The story regularly comments on racism but rarely does that have any impact in the context of the game. The most noticeable moment being how long the police show up at a crime scene; white wealthy districts have more frequent police patrols and faster response times, whilst poor black neighbourhoods will take far longer for the police to respond. This is about the only time the game’s themes and its gameplay dovetail.

Some of its depictions of racism are well-intentioned but clumsy. It presents the bigotry and hatred of 1960s America as something to be ashamed of, but more often than not its just another way to quickly establish someone as the next villain, another check on the “bad guy attributes” list rather than a structural system of prejudice within society as a whole.

Mafia 3 has the opportunity to explore and examine structural racism, with a black protagonist no less, within its world. It does vaguely dance around the edge of this topic, but it never really goes any further than that.

Again, it's the lifeless game world that’s largely to blame, the police are never shown, in a gameplay context at least, to be racist, mainly because the police are hardly there, they don’t do anything, there’s nothing to interact within. Mafia 3’s world can be pretty to look at, but that’s it, it’s all window dressing, and it hurts the story that Hangar 13 try to tell.

In another subversive touch the game does hint at the notion that you’re playing as a genuine psychopath. A psychopath is possibly the perfect persona to inhabit in an open world adventure, given how most people play these games. The idea that Lincoln is somehow a broken human being, as a result of what happened in Vietnam, is brought up on more than one occasion but it’s another aspect of the game’s story that seems oddly wasted and not explored enough.

Mafia 3 is a bloated mess, to put it frankly. Its cookie-cutter structure and generic gameplay elements make for a game that’s out of ideas within the first few hours but goes on for far longer than that. Its story is at least engaging, even if the revenge plot is an another cliché borrowed from similar titles.

There is promise here, at least in the concept, and its focus on a politically charged and violent period of America’s recent history is a more adventurous and challenging topic than most similar games are willing to broach. That doesn’t change the fact that Mafia 3 undermines anything that it has going for it, simply because the end result is so lifeless, and lacking in any concrete substance beneath its shiny and repetitive surface.

Friday, 21 October 2016

XCOM 2 - Review

Developer: Firaxis Games 
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, Xbox One (version played), PS4

XCOM 2 might well be a perfect sequel. Not necessarily a perfect game, mind, but as a sequel, it’s damn near perfect.

This is largely in part due to its overall confidence. XCOM 2 doesn’t flinch about kicking out elements of the previous game. If something didn’t work, or it was clunky, it’s gone. Even more surprising, things that were fine are still thrown out because things need to be different this time. XCOM 2 is a refreshing change to the usual safe, carbon-copy sequels that get pumped out with startling regularity amongst modern AAA titles.

I didn’t get around to covering XCOM 2 during its PC launch, primarily because I didn’t know whether my computer would even run the game without having some hiccup or other. Fortunately, whilst technical issues are still the game’s biggest issue (more on that later), the console version is at least relatively stable.

Developers Firaxis almost seem to take satisfaction in subverting player expectations. For all those people who suffered to bring an end to the alien threat in the first game, it was all for nothing. The aliens still won, and humanities last dregs of resistance have been driven underground.

XCOM 2 presents a 180 to the previous game. Whereas in Enemy Unknown you were the defender against an outside threat, here, the roles are reversed. XCOM 2 pits you as the aggressor, woefully under-equipped and against overwhelming odds, but the aggressor nonetheless.

It’s this relationship that defines most of the design decisions throughout the game. Most missions now have a timer, driving you toward action. The larger world map, where you plot your next course of action, even has its own timer in the Avatar Project; a doomsday clock that prevents you from simply stalling out the game and teching up, forcing you to make progress lest you suffer an unexpected game over.

All of this makes for a much more dynamic game than Enemy Unknown. In the original game, it was easy to settle into a creep and crawl mentality, engaging overwatch repeatedly whilst your squad crept forward under a layer of covering fire. It was arguably a sound strategy, and ensured your units remained safe, but did make for a slow, sometimes boring, pace.

XCOM 2 pulls people out of their safe, predictable XCOM strategies with its changes to the troop classes, too. All of the four major character archetypes from the original; Assault, Heavy, Support and Sniper all essentially return, albeit with different names and substantial changes to their skill sets.

The sniper has undergone the least number of alterations, at least in terms of how the character plays out. However, the addition of a substantial number of pistol skills enables them to be played as a more aggressive unit, focused on burst damage to swing the momentum back in your favour.

Meanwhile, the Heavy and Support have been upgraded to the Grenadier and Specialist, respectively. The Specialist in particular is far more interesting than the original game’s Support class ever was, in part thanks to the new handy “GREMLIN” drone they come with. The drone allows the unit to administer healing and support from long range, not to mention coming with a number of offensive options, expanding the class in a novel new direction.

These changes on the whole are for the best. They prevent XCOM veterans from simply engaging auto-pilot and using what worked last time, whilst also toning down the more broken abilities from the previous title, and giving each class multiple viable options and roles as the game progresses.

It’s the Assault class, now redesigned as the Ranger, that shows off one of XCOM 2’s subtlest but by no means insignificant features. During most missions, units begin the encounter concealed, meaning they won’t trigger enemy units until they move within a certain radius. The Ranger in particular plays with this game mechanic incredibly well, being capable of concealing themselves multiple times during a single battle once they’ve acquired some skills.

What the games stealth mechanics do however, is again, amp up the tempo and pace of each encounter. Knowing that inching forward isn’t going to trigger every pack of enemies (and enemies no longer get a free shot at you every time you spot a new mob), ensures that you can afford to be a little braver and bolder and not got shot in the face out of nowhere.

Just as your own troopers have undergone a redesign, so too have the alien forces. Firaxis know how to inject subtle elements of world-building into their gameplay. In the previous game, the Thin Man was the infiltration unit, and therefore not particularly threatening in a straight encounter.

Given that the aliens have now won the war, infiltration units are redundant, and so the Thin Men have changed into their true forms as giant, snake-like aliens capable of binding your troops and rendering them immobile. Other units likewise, have a focus on pacification and threat-control rather than invasion, with a number of the standard alien threats armed with stun rods, whilst many maps are now lined with security turrets.

It’s perhaps the weakest update the game has undergone, however. Despite some great designs on the whole, so many of the enemy units still seem carefully lifted from the previous game, whilst some of the new aliens simply replace other units’ roles. The new Viper units effectively replace the Seekers from Enemy Within for instance, and the others, such as the Mutons and Chryssalids, remain essentially unchanged.

It's a credit to Firaxis that they focus on how the enemy units fit into the game’s overarching narrative, but a little more variety wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Changes to the rest of the game are relatively subtle by comparison, but substantial enough. The overworld segments, where you plot your research and build new equipment, has been streamlined. Base building is less of a fussy chore this time around, and there’s a bit more strategy about what building to construct first. An early laboratory means faster research, but a workshop results in more engineers to spare. The best part about this is there’s no perfect answer.

The new randomised equipment that you can accrue from the Proving Grounds, a new facility that allows you procure specialized ammunition and heavy armaments, prevents each campaign from feeling the same. Sometimes you’ll get what you wanted, suiting up your Grenadier with a Shredder cannon, whilst other times you’ll have to simply make do with what you’ve got.

That’s certainly the mantra by which XCOM 2 lives; making do. It’s the kind of game that tortures people with OCD; you’ll have everything perfect, and then you’ll get screwed up by one single missed shot that had a 90% chance to hit. Other times, nothing will be right; you’ll want to research five things at once and be forced to make that agonizing choice over what to prioritise. From the moment a campaign starts it’s as if you’re constantly on the back foot, back-pedalling and having to come up with new tactics and combinations on the fly.

XCOM 2 has some solid world-building but very little core story. That’s because it doesn’t need one. The game’s meta-story, your own tale of soldiers barely making it back become the story in and of themselves. Games like this really bolster the notion of a genuine ludo-narrative; a story that comes about from the player’s interaction with gameplay, and XCOM 2’s design only goes to accentuate that even further.

The technical faults from the PC version are still here, although perhaps more manageable given the nature of consoles. Still, there’s some ugly moments when the game flat out stops for several minutes for no reason, and numerous bugs occur when particular skills are used in conjunction with one another. If you decide to go with the one save “Ironman” route, be sure to have a back up save file handy, no amount of skill and strategy will save you from a glitch leading to a corrupted save.

Likewise, as with other turn-based strategy games, most notably Firaxis' own Civilization, the early and mid game are still far more enthralling than late-game encounters. When things are going your way, or rather, when you have a hold of things, and the enemies cease to become more of a challenge, events become something of a routine. There’s a point when fighting one more Sectopod becomes less of a frightened thrill and instead a bit of a bore. The final boss fight is a bit of a disappointment, too, undoing the tight, tactical nature of the core game and instead throwing wave after wave of enemies at you whilst you try and take down three super-units.

XCOM 2 thrives off of the fear of the unknown, and sadly, there’s just not enough of that as you get closer to the campaign’s conclusion. It’s a problem that afflicts many strategy games; how to keep the late game interesting. Despite XCOM 2’s inspired tweaks in other areas, this is still one aspect that the game fails to improve upon.

XCOM 2 is still a great game, mind, technical warts and all. The core gameplay alone has been updated in a way that’s incredibly satisfying, feeling like a genuine sequel to Enemy Unknown as opposed to a glorified expansion pack. The tacked on multi-player is a nice extra, but the real heart and soul of this game comes from its terrific single player campaign, where the lives of your soldiers are almost always hanging in the balance. On that note at least, XCOM 2 is a great success.

Friday, 14 October 2016

République - Review

Developer: Camoflaj, Logan Games 
Publisher: GungHo Online Entertainment 
Platforms: iOS, Android, PC, PS4 (version played), Mac 

It’s nice to see the return of fixed camera angles. Camoflaj’s République has a bunch of older mechanics that it plays around with, but there’s something special about the return to the neck-craning awkwardness of having to rely on fixed camera positions. The clever twist in République’s case is that these fixed camera angles are in actual fact CCTV cameras.  It’s the perfect mechanic for the ideas that Camoflaj’s game meddles in. Surveillance, modern security, the power of the state, are all themes that the game mulls over during its five episodes.

You play as a Hope a “pre-calibrated” teenager trapped in a mysterious totalitarian state. The references are obvious, Metamorphosis, the facility that Hope finds herself trapped in, is straight out of an Orwellian nightmare.

Where Camoflaj decide to experiment is in their approach to player control. Hope might be the game’s protagonist but you don’t actually control her, at least, not in the logic of the game’s plot. Frequently, Hope will gesture towards CCTV cameras, looking through the screen at you, demolishing the fourth wall as she asks you to help her. It’s a concept that’s perhaps all the more immersive if the game is played on its native phone/tablet platform but is still effective on a TV or PC monitor.

Naturally, République combines its fixed camera angles with simple stealth gameplay and basic, classic survival horror mechanics. Guards throughout Metamorphosis, the game’s foes, can’t be tackled directly and must instead be avoided. A lucky shot of pepper spray will incapacitate one for a while, and a stun gun shock will knock one out for good, but these resources are few and far between.

It comes back to the CCTV and hacking elements that round out République’s simple, sneak and search gameplay. A handful of upgrades can be purchased at various terminals through Metamorphosis, selling information gleaned from emails and posters grants you the cash to buy these various upgrades, be it seeing through walls or highlighting guard patrol patterns. Better yet is the ability to lock doors to cut off guards chasing you. It’s weird that something so simple would be so satisfying but by giving you so much power, but having you also assist someone who is almost helpless should she get caught, you get the tension of a stealth game with the satisfaction granted from your wider and more potent move set. Being dis-empowered doesn’t have to mean being dull.

There’s a perverse thrill to hacking through a guard’s private details to find dirt on him so that you can get him arrested. It’s perhaps the most striking moment in République's story. It’s a game about Big Brother, but it flips the script somewhat, in that you’re the one playing as Big Brother. Scanning  enemy’s reveals their passports, their sordid pasts open for you to see. It’s an efficient and simple mechanic, nothing more than pointing and clicking, but emphasizes the fact that you’re the one snooping around, invading on other people’s privacy.

It’s a very basic game system and sometimes the mechanics bely that fact. Obvious stacks of boxes are there for no other reason than to give you somewhere to hide. Why the hell are there so many boxes lying around, what were the guards moving? Flashing ornaments will clue you in to areas you can duck behind to break enemy line of sight. It’s not that these are bad mechanics, but that the world and its level design frequently stutter and clash, as one makes allowances for the other.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game’s collectibles. All enemies can be pick-pocketed, and, if you’re lucky, they’ll have a vial of pepper spray to grab or a stun gun handy. Most of the time though they’ll have floppy discs of classic indie games; Hotline Miami, Gone Home, Shovel Knight and so on. It smacks of a small developer slipping in advertising for their friends, “look, guys, check out these cool games”, as Cooper, one of Hope’s few allies, delivers deadpan text-to-speech synopses of each game you pick up. Even worse, it undermines the world that Camoflaj otherwise strives to create, one where everyone is watched and all art is carefully monitored and censored. If it’s so darn horrible to live here, why does every guard seem to be lugging around part of their game collection?

I bring this up because so much of République is centred on its overall world design and story. It’s as much a point-and-click adventure game as it is a homage to ‘90s survival horror. And as a dystopian world, Metamorphosis is at times very compelling despite its flaws.

The influences are obvious here, the Overseer’s Metamorphosis is a different take on Andrew Ryan’s Randian nightmare at the bottom of the ocean. Where Bioshock, or more specifically Andrew Ryan, obsessed over the nature of capitalism, République's Overseer concerns himself more with the state. Historical figures like Lenin are praised whilst surrealist artists and subversive authors are shunned as dangerous to the peace of Metamorphosis. Books can be collected throughout the game, with each being accompanied by a short monologue by the Overseer, allowing the player to slowly gather information about him as he bloviates as to why certain artists must be purged from Metamorphosis.

He makes for a curious and effective antagonist for the first few episodes of République. The times you get a glimpse of him in the CCTV during cut-scenes his face will be pixelated, adding to the mystery. There’s a particularly chilling moment where he gloats over removing Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 from public consumption, boasting that he no longer needs to burn books, given that they are all accessed digitally, and instead can have them altered to remove any “subversive” intent. A sobering moment that hits at the game’s fears and obsessions better than many of its more grandiose moments.

Still, despite the (somewhat) effective writing and stellar voice cast – a very game David Hayter shows up to play revolutionary David Zager, whilst Jennifer Hale lends her voice to Metamorphosis’ administrator, Mireille Prideaux – you can’t help but get the sense that a lot of République is simply churning over the same ground that both Bioshock and Metal Gear Solid 2 have mined to much better effect. After a while, the constant monologues by the Overseer become tiresome and predictable, bordering on parody with the overblown dialogue. It’s possible that’s the intention, but the game’s villain grows dull long before any mystery surrounding him has been revealed.

The final two episodes also see a dramatic drop in quality compared to the first half, both in terms of the gameplay and the overarching story. Episode four comes out of left-field, changing the rules and having you sneak around from one larger more dangerous threat rather than contending with multiple guards, but the general point of the episode is rather trite by the end and feeds into the non-ending that is the game’s final episode. Perhaps it was a product of a strained budget but République's conclusion is both disappointing and muddled, grasping at multiple plot points without providing any satisfying conclusion to any of them. Much like any over-ambitious TV series, République sets up plenty of interesting mysteries, but by the end get think of a way to get them all to resolve in a satisfactory manner.

That’s the main sticking point with République. Were its story able to stick the course it’d be a worthy playthrough regardless of the uneven stealth and sometimes generic world. Its dystopian future has been done before, and, arguably, to better effect,  but that alone wouldn’t take away from the game’s successes, along with its genuine love of classic ‘90s adventure mechanics. What inevitably kills République is that its story feels like it were all for nothing, struggling to provide any meaningful ending to the tale it’s teased for over five hours as the credits begin to roll.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Resident Evil 7: Beginning Hour & Survival Horror Game Design

The Blair Witch Project got its fame as much from its marketing campaign as it did from the actual film. It was arguably the first movie to really leverage the internet as a tool for hyping up and advertising a release. In effect, the advertising became a game in and of itself as people rushed to websites to research or uncover the real secret behind the movie.

Obviously, modern audiences in 2016 are a lot more savvy when it comes to dealing with the internet, but the premise behind Resident Evil 7: Beginning Hour works in much the same way that Blair Witch did nearly two decades ago.

Granted, Beginning Hour also has a lot of other influences closer to home. The rise and subsequent fall of P.T., that one ray of hope that Silent Hill would end its slew of poorly handled cash-in sequels, was smashed when Konami shut down the Silent Hills project after the break up with Hideo Kojima. Capcom have picked up those pieces when it comes to Beginning Hour, utilizing similar techniques with a dash of new ideas.

By far the most noticeable thing about Beginning Hour is the move to a first-person perspective. Resident Evil’s history can roughly be divided into two categories. First, there’s those games that relied on fixed camera-angles, the archetypal “survival horror” instalments, dating from the original 1996 release right through to Resident Evil Zero in 2002. Then, there’s the far more contentious “action horror” period which ranges from Resident Evil 4 (which is still an absolute masterpiece, regardless of what some people say about it) through to Resident Evil: Revelations 2 in 2015.

Beginning Hour marks what would perhaps best be described as “phase three” of Resident Evil’s core design, shifting the player to a more immersive viewpoint, as well as picking up a few design influences from the first-person horror trend that we see in Amnesia: The Dark Descent through to Alien: Isolation.

In many respects, despite the drastic changes to the series formula, Beginning Hour also sees the series attempt to recapture what the original Resident Evil set out to do. Beginning Hour is about navigation. Granted, it’s only a demo, but the core “thing”  the player does throughout the game is navigate through areas, finding keys (not necessarily literal keys but simply items designed to progress), such as the bolt cutters and fuse, and then proceeds to continue that same loop until completion.

Take your first playthrough for instance. The first thing you’ll spot is the fuse box (which you can’t do anything with), then, after maybe messing with the attic button and getting freaked out by the mannequins, you’ll end up in the kitchen. From there the player is able to easily spot the obvious cupboard with the huge lock around it, before going towards the front door, finding it locked, and picking up the bolt cutter.

Then, it’s back to the cupboard, grabbing the video and taking it back to the start room to watch the tape. Then, after noting the secret lever, the player can make one final trip through the house to the back door, completing the demo for the first time. To sum it all up, the path goes like this:

Starting Room → Hallway → Kitchen → Hallway 2 → Back Door → Bolt Cutter Acquired 

This path is then repeated back the other way, as the player retrieves the video tape and then repeats the loop again in a sense, whilst watching the “past” event through the eyes of the camera guy in the recording.

Now, there’s a lot of other things going on whilst you play. The creepy environment, its mise-en-scene if you like, along with the unsettling sounds and general atmosphere are what communicate the horror of the game, but, as with the original Resident Evil, the core gameplay is built through navigation/exploration.

Where Beginning Hour is really interesting is how it uses this navigation gameplay to enhance multiple playthroughs. P.T. did something similar, sure, and the core idea was likely nabbed from that demo, but where Beginning Hour differs is that the player is navigating from point to point, moving from room to room, rather than simply repeating the same loop of hallway that gradually changes. The demo goes one step even further by expanding this navigational gameplay to different time zones; players explore the house both normally and then as the cameraman on the videotape, further emphasizing this exploration-focused gameplay.

So, the crucial difference going into the second playthrough of Beginning Hour is that the player is now aware of the secret lever, and its location in the very room they start the game in. By going to the secret entrance from the start, the player is given access to the fuse, enabling them to then explore the third floor of the house, which leads to the demo’s second ending. The path then looks like this:

Starting Room → Secret Entrance → Upstairs → Third Floor Hallway → Phone Room

Note how going this route uses very little of the same locations as the first, but that it requires players have had knowledge of the whole house (in the other words, they did the standard playthrough and left through the back door). All of Beginning Hour’s “secrets” are available from the very beginning. The game doesn’t block off routes on the first playthrough but instead encourages repeat playthroughs by its clever drip feed of clues and hints from playing the game.This concept of replaying the same core gameplay loop and getting different results is fascinating and I hope in the future that more games explore this concept for design ideas.

There’s also the few interesting tidbits that the demo throws in to keep you guessing, and to keep the more curious players constantly booting up the demo once again. The dummy finger still has no practical use as far as I know. There’s also a lock pick that can be located, allowing you access to the axe that’s found in the kitchen. If you take Beginning Hour as a “vertical slice” of what we should expect in the full Resident Evil 7, then the axe, along with the “quick swap” menu shortcuts, and now the ammunition in the most recent update, it would seem to suggest combat is still on the cards to some degree, in contrast to games like Outlast.

Speaking of games like Outlast, Beginning Hour delves into the realm of found footage, with the video tape that is found in the cupboard. There’s actually a school of thought in film theory that posited the idea that the rise of found footage movies as a popular sub-genre of horror was a response to the growing popularity (and financial success) of video games. By their nature, films cannot match games in terms of visceral reaction and level of immersion. By adopting some of gaming’s techniques however, such as a forced first-person perspective, for example, they are able to tap into some of the medium’s strengths.

Games like Outlast and Beginning Hour bring this idea fall circle, with games reusing the visual aesthetic of found footage to enhance gameplay through a first-person perspective. I have a soft spot for found footage horror movies, and think that the look and style, when done right, can lend a lot to creating a sense of horror and urgency that you can’t get with a regular movie; see movies like REC for an example of this.

Perhaps the biggest bit of genius about Beginning Hour is how it has people playing the game over and over again looking for different things. There’s the creepy ghost images to spot, or random details that can be gleaned from the environment. This is a good thing for games because it reinforces the notion of strong environmental storytelling. Even more than this however, the investigation and search for clues, cross referencing with other players on the internet, becomes a game in itself, with players working as detectives in order to uncover new information. Sure, the cynic can easily called it crafty marketing (and it is) but it’s also fascinating in its own right.

By simply giving the player a few tools and then having them repeat the process in hopes of getting something different, Beginning Hour is a like its own mini puzzle box as much as it is a teaser of what’s to come. Having people rapidly do the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the stock definition of insanity. Whether Capcom realize this or not I have no idea, but it is more than a little scary.