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Friday, 13 October 2017

Halo Wars 2 - Review










Developer: 343 Industries/Creative Assembly
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox One (version played)

As I explained in my Halo Wars retrospective earlier this year, the most interesting aspect of this series isn’t the games themselves, but rather their ability to work with an input device that’s hardly suited to the demands of a real-time strategy game. It’s also worth noting that there’s been a long gap since the initial Halo Wars release. Eight years is a long time for a sequel, long enough that a lot of your potential player base perhaps never got around to playing the original.

This might explain Halo Wars 2’s attitude of playing it safe. Everything returns pretty much intact from the original. The rock-paper-scissors structure of units still forms the foundation of the game’s combat, with each unit type, be it air, infantry or vehicle, being weak to one type and strong against another.

This makes for a broad brush approach to strategy. The main challenge comes largely from working out what the enemy force is specialized in, and then finding the appropriate counter measure. So, if the enemy is building up tanks, you send in an aerial force. If they’re building up lots of marines and other infantry, some tanks of your own will put a stop to it.

Of course, there are a few additional wrinkles in order to complicate the typical combat encounter. Whilst vehicles are typically at a disadvantage when it comes to aerial units, the Wolverine comes with potent anti-air capabilities, meaning that, even if you invest heavily in one unit type, you always have some counter for an opponent’s counter.

The game’s base-building has also undergone some minor alterations and improvements from the original, whilst still remaining pretty much the same as it was. There’s now two resource types; supplies and power, that must be acquired in order to expand your forces. This presents an interesting tug-of-war for base-building decisions that wasn’t in the original game. Supplies, typically, are used for building forces, whilst power is mostly used for improving said forces and upgrading your base. Too much supply and you’ll end up with an underpowered army that’ll risk being wiped out by a more advanced force, too much power and you’ll not have much of a force at all.

The macro-focus of the game’s general flow culminates with the leaders that each force can select prior to a skirmish or online match. Here again, it’s the decisions that a player makes before the game even starts that have the most impact. Ostensibly, each of the three factions leaders for both forces (there’s a bevy of additional leaders as part of the game’s extensive DLC) focuses on one third of the game’s units. This is especially true of the game’s human forces; pick Capatain Cutter and it’s clear his focus is on infantry, whilst A.I. assistant Isabel is slanted more towards vehicles. Each leader comes with an array of powers, with more potent ones being available to unlock as battles progress and fights breakout and are a mix of cooldown-based abilities and passive bonuses.


It’s here where the Banished, the rag-tag coalition of Brute and Covenant forces, seem to have had a little more love poured into them. Whilst the UNSC’s core leaders all fit into cookie-cutter strategies; take Cutter if you want squads of marines, Isabel if you want tanks and so on, the Banished are far more loosely defined and offer a broader array of tactical applications, making them more interesting.

 Atriox’s focus is on area control, he wants to literally colonise the map as you play, with cheaper forward bonuses in order to produce a stronger economy for late game fights. His underling, Decimus, meanwhile, is happy pounding everything into the dirt at the nearest opportunity. It’s a minor aspect of Halo Wars 2 but it’s moments like this, when its game design creeps out of that nice comfortable shell and tries to experiment, as it does with the Banished, that it becomes a little more interesting and grabs your attention a little more.

Whilst the leaders, powers, build-orders and economies are all important for the game’s multiplayer, and that’s clearly the game’s focus, there is still a story mode buried in here. It plays out like a tutorial mode for the human side, slowly unveiling new units to play with each chapter, and switching back and forth between full-blown engagements which involve defending positions and building up your bases, to quieter more micro-oriented scenarios such as navigating a series of snipers and artillery along a cliff side to take out the enemy.

The game’s story mode isn’t going to win any awards, it’s hamstrung, more so than the multiplayer, by the fact that you can’t really organize individual elements of your forces. Even with the new gamepad shortcuts, which, to be fair to make wielding a pad less cumbersome, this is still a game that’s always making allowances for the hardware it’s being played on.

It explains the focus on pitched battles so much throughout the campaign. Defending fixed locations is still the primary goal for most chapters, as it was in the original, almost transforming some of the levels into a quasi tower defence game as you shuffle your forces to whichever choke point is in most need of support.

The story itself is the same convoluted mush of swishy alien tech, with the fun, gloopy Flood being replaced by no one’s favourite morass of bland Sentinel designs. The game’s plot, what there is of it, is always hamstrung by the fancy cutscenes that bookend each mission. Oh, don’t get me wrong, those cutscenes developed separately by Blur Studio, are gorgeous. However, they force whatever story-telling the game makes a stab at to bend to the whim of the game’s slick post-chapter animations, resulting in a plot that’s not just convoluted but bordering on incomprehensible, not to mention culminating in a frustrating non-ending.

The biggest bugbear here inevitably goes to the way the game’s been released. Whilst the multiplayer is undoubtedly the game’s strongest suit, anyone wanting to try out any of the new leaders is going to have to fork out for the season pass in order to get hold of any of them. Likewise, a series of new story missions are delivered as DLC.


Halo Wars 2 isn’t the worst offender with how it markets its paid expansions, but at this point it does feel like players are only getting half a game unless they shell out for that season pass. It perhaps explains why the game retails for slightly less than other AAA titles, with Microsoft perhaps experimenting with lowering the entry fee in order to pull in more revenue with the DLC pass.

Whilst charging for the additional story content is perhaps understandable, the actual “meat” of the DLC, the new leaders, doesn’t really warrant charging an arm and a leg for what amounts to a slight tactical variation on whatever force you happen to use. When Overwatch can dole out new characters for free, it’s baffling that Halo Wars 2 would let half of its potential player base feel left behind for what amounts to a few additional character types. Halo Wars 2 is too shallow for the additional leaders to dramatically change the way the game is played, but by actively cordoning them off behind a paywall (and advertising them each time you boot up the game) it leaves the impression that part of Microsoft’s intent with the game is exploring new ways to reduce the title’s pre-owned value, by all but forcing invested players to shell out for the game’s season pass. All this does is gut whatever draw the game’s otherwise competitive, multiplayer focus would seem to set out to achieve.

This becomes more apparent with Blitz mode, a horrible aberration that fuses the game’s RTS structure with that of a collectible card game. Any other time this would be casual fun; a throw away mini-game that has players building decks of “cards” (read: units/powers) and battling against other players in an area-control map. Needless to say, it’s an unbalanced mess and reeks of a developer trying to foist what would otherwise be a free-to-play title onto a paid release.

Taken on its own terms Halo Wars 2 is a decent(ish) real-time strategy game. As a way for newcomers to dip their toe into the genre, it does a good job, whilst the Halo brand helps paper over the shallowness of it all. Were it a little more daring, and didn’t nickel-and-dime its playerbase, this could have been something more, but as it stands, it’s safe, predictable, and just about pulls it off.

It has the tactical depth of a paddling pool, but it’s a comfortable paddling pool.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Tekken 7 - Review










Developer: Bandai Namco Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: Arcade, PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

As a general rule of thumb, I try and keep up with a series if I’m planning to write a review. I’d argue that to effectively write about video games (or any medium for that matter) having a firm grasp on the evolution of long-running series is important to determining whether or not a new instalment is good, bad or different in some way.

Bar a slight mess around with the Wii U version of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (yes, I’m one of the five people to have that version), my last real experience with Tekken was with the original PS2 release of Tekken 5.

Coming into Tekken 7 the most notable thing for me, despite the ten or so years away from the series, is that not a whole lot has changed. Many fighters, especially 2D ones, tend to shift and morph from instalment, changing significant gameplay elements in order for each title to encourage certain aspects and dis-incentivize others.

The evolution of the core Street Fighter games highlight this. Street Fighter 2 is dramatically different from Street Fighter 3. Similarly, regardless of where your opinion on it falls, Street Fighter V is a direct response to what Street Fighter IV did over its lifetime.

In contrast, Tekken is just Tekken, and if you’ve ever touched the series at some point, it’s something that’s immediately understandable. Everything “feels” the same as it’s always done, characters connect with the same satisfying oomph, complete with wall bounces, splats and juggles. In its core state Tekken 7 is a job well done, which is as it should be, considering it’s one of the few modern fighting games to still be ported from a tweaked, refined and expanded arcade release.

The biggest change is the introduction of Rage Art moves, a sort of super move similar to many 2D fighters. They certainly help adjust the pace of any given match, allowing the defending player an effective catch-up mechanic when they’re lagging behind in health. There’s also a nice bit of technically to them in that, in addition to a super move, each character can spend their rage mode to unleash a powered-up version of one of their regular attacks, typically giving it additional juggling properties to allow further combos.

The character line-up is solid as well, with most of the favourites there. The highlight goes to the guest character this time around. Whilst we may never see Tekken X Street Fighter in the future, we can at least be certain that Bandai Namco nailed the feel of inserting a Street Fighter character into the Tekken universe and made it work. Akuma plays like he should, with ambiguous jumping attacks, that satisfying sweep, and most importantly, those uppercuts and fireballs. The fact that he works so well in this game is a testament to the developers, and whilst I’m not so thrilled with the constant barrage of DLC, (more on that later), it’ll be interesting, from a design standpoint, whether the game can work the same magic when Geese Howard is introduced.


The rest of the cast, like I said, is solid, if playing it somewhat safe. There’s the usual suspects here; the Mishimas, King, Law and Nina for long-time veterans of the series, as well as other standouts such as Steve, Feng and Dragunov. Some of the “new” characters raise a few eyebrows, simply because they’re not as new as they might initially seem. It’s hard to look at Gigas and not think he’s a reworking of Marduk’s moves and playstyle. The same can be said for Josie adopting many of Bruce’s moves from earlier games.

There’s a few noticeable characters missing from the roster. Lei Wulong, Tekken’s very own Jackie Chan, is suspiciously missing from the starting line-up and suggests that maybe Bandai Namco are slow-rolling some of the series’ fan favourites as DLC fodder.

Which brings us to the typical gripe when it comes to most fighting game releases. Tekken 7 is by no means the worst offender when it comes to the array of DLC it already has lined up, but it’s still a sad display. Several characters have already been announced for the game’s first “season” of DLC, which includes SNK’s Geese Howard.

Where this gets frustrating is in Bandai Namco’s decision to cordon off little extras as additional paid content. Tekken Bowl, a fun mini-game added to Tekken Tag Tournament, is now stuck behind a pay-wall and tied to the first set of additional characters. Likewise, Eliza is only available to those who’ve shelled out for a new copy of the game or are willing to stump up extra money to unlock her.

This might, might have been easier to stomach were it not for the fact that, as a port at least, Tekken 7 is a sloppy, lazy affair. Street Fighter V was rightly criticised for a rushed released that left its single player content incredibly thin on the ground, and Tekken 7 has similar problems.

If anything it’s more frustrating here, considering how long the game has been evolving during its arcade run. The arcade mode that’s in the game is shallow for starters, consisting of nothing more than four random fights followed by a showdown with Kazumi, the newest addition to the Mishima clan.

The story mode meanwhile, is downright laughable, not to mention cheap. The mode consists of nothing more than a few basic fights, hastily strapped together with a bored narrator and a ridiculous doomsday plot that sees Heihachi and Kazuya at war with each other. It’s the laziness on Bandai Maco’s part that’s the worst however. The mode is padded out with cut-scenes that are nothing more than repurposed trailers from the game’s launch, not to mention dredging up Tekken 5’s opening cinematic because damn if any more effort was going to be put into this mode.


It means that the focus, for better or worse, is on the game’s multiplayer. Which, to be fair, the game excels at, both in terms of the core gameplay and in its online functionality. Matches are snappy and easy to get into, with a match-making system that is far better than many of its rivals. I got through far more fights in Tekken 7, with much better connections, than I did in Street Fighter V or Injustice 2.

Given the competitive focus, it begs the question why a comprehensive tutorial wasn’t introduced. I’ve mentioned this several times in regard to fighting games, but one of the biggest gateways to getting into the genre is the fact that many of the biggest titles seem unwilling, or simply can’t be bothered, to provide a solid explanation of the fundamentals of the game’s mechanics. The internet goes some way to solving this problem, but doesn’t excuse the fact that the game’s don’t go nearly far enough into explain how they actually work to players that are new to them.

As with many of my fighting game reviews recently, the game itself isn’t in question, and that’s very true of Tekken 7. It plays it safe, very safe in fact, and it’ll be a question of how long the series can go merely incrementally improving on its nearly twenty year formula. That being said, the game is incredibly fun to play, it’s everything surrounding the game that’s the problem.

As a single player experience, Tekken 7 simply isn’t worth your time, especially compared to NetherRealms titles. The reams of DLC that are promised are also annoying, especially when there seems to have been an almost concerted effort to ship this console port out with as little new content as humanly possible, and then to charge for any content that it does add.

That leaves the hardcore Tekken fans as the primary target. Whether that’s enough is down to what you want to get out of it. As it stands, it’s a very solid game trapped under a cheap release and the usual array of penny pinching tactics.

Looks like I’m going to have to dust off my copy of Tekken Tag Tournament if I want to play some Tekken Bowl.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Nier: Automata - Review









Developer: PlatinumGames
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played) 

There’s arguably two kinds of people coming to play Nier: Automata. First, there’s those coming as fans of Platinum Game’s unique brand of hack ‘n’ slash; one of the few developers that manages to grasp the acrobatic, swishy coolness of anime fight sequences and marry it to mechanics that are both deep and satisfying to play.

Then, there’s those coming at the game as fans of Yoko Taro’s games. The developer has built up a reputation over the years working on the Drakengard series, which Nier is loosely connected to. So, between his cult following and Platinum’s tight design skills, Nier: Automata would seem like perfect match.

Things start off well. Perhaps the most curious element, especially earlier on, is the game’s willingness to play with entire genres, let alone mechanics. Short bursts of frenetic gameplay switch from standard third-person combat straight to bullet-hell segments as you fly your hover mech through wave after wave of enemy fire, blowing up reams of ships in the process. Even then, the game refuses to sit still, flipping to a 3D shooter sequence as enemies wrap around from all sides, abandoning the conventions of a side-scrolling shooter.

All of this is overwhelming in a thoroughly intoxicating way, and the game manages this without ever alienating players who never got to grips with the original Nier.

Its characters and world also make for an interesting start. You (initially) play as 2B (get it?), an android sent down from the moon in order to rid Earth of a plague of alien-designed robots so that the last remnants of humanity can return safely. It’s a ridiculous premise, touching on everything from Terminator to The Matrix.

It only really works thanks to the coating of anime style that drips from everywhere else. Characters are either dressed like Gothic lolitas or moody emo bad-asses, and the game just, just, has enough of a tongue-in-cheek vibe to pass it off without it all becoming too ridiculous.

It’s just as well, too, because the game is still very much an RPG as opposed to Platinum’s typically more linear affair. The stretches of barren landscape are striking enough, trading on the same beautiful apocalyptic imagery that The Last of Us used to such good effect. Human life has been wiped from the planet for so long that the Earth has achieved some kind normality, and your presence as these hyped-up sword-swinging androids can almost seem intrusive; invaders on an otherwise peaceful co-existence between the planet and its new machine lifeforms.


This open-world also sets up the core structure of the game’s main story and side quests. Missions are doled out Assassin’s Creed style, with markers on your map highlighting your way around. Side quests are handled with surprising care too, even if they suffer from bland objectives (go here and kill these enemies, pick up that item etc.). Each typically has some story or hook to underpin it and there’s not so many that they simply dissolve into the flavourless mush that can plague many open-world titles.

It’s not all smooth-sailing, mind. It’s clear quite early on, that, for all their skill, Platinum aren’t particularly adept at handling an open world. For each striking location, they’ll be an awkward invisible wall where there really shouldn’t be one. And whilst the world itself is open; vast and ripe for exploration, it’s also too open, too vast, with much of your time spent jamming the sprint trigger as you dash for the next objective marker at the other end of the entire map. The main quest-line has a habit of structuring itself so that you’re required to run all the way to one end of a zone only to then double back and go to the opposite side of the area.

Nier: Automata’s world lacks enough details to make repeat runs back and forth engaging for as long as it does, and this is exacerbated by a fast travel that’s not unlocked for the first few hours of the game.

Of course, you’d expect the combat to hold off any sense of repetition...and it does...for a little while. As with most of Platinum’s post-Bayonetta output, the combat is primarily governed with a two button combat scheme, with heavy attacks and light attacks that can be mixed and matched mid-combo to carry out a variety of stylish flourishes. A dodge button with the accompanying “Witch Time” rounds out the core combat, encouraging you to land a critical dodge at just the last second.

It’s a perfectly serviceable system and makes for some cinematic moments as you zip from enemy to enemy carving them up in epic fashion. Yet, serviceable is all it can really be described as. Sure, there’s a few additional RPG elements to add the odd tactical wrinkles here and there. A bevy of weapons can be bought and upgraded with a basic crafting system, and a generic collection of upgrade chips can provide you with a number of different bonuses to your health, attack power or certain move properties.

The whole thing seems lacking though, underwhelming when compared to the likes of Bayonetta, Revengeance and even Transformers. The RPG elements in particularly seem tacked on, and all of this is exacerbated by a dearth of unique enemy designs, with around three to four comprising most of the challenge throughout the game’s thirty to fourty hour runtime.

You see, Nier: Automata is a lot longer than it would initially seem. After “completing” the game’s first playthrough, which in essence is only the game’s first act, you’re left to restart the game only to play through it with 2B’s companion, 9S, and see events from his point of view.


Only, there’s little that’s new here. Entire chunks of the game are rehashed during the game’s second act. Only 9S’ hacking skill, a repetitive, bullet-hell mini-game that deals massive damage to enemies in a short space of time is really all that new, and compensates for his otherwise weaker combat abilities.

It’s not even as if the “revelations” that come with this second act are really all that shocking. A striking early game boss, a robot singer that cavorts around the battlefield like a dancer, reveals some (rather cliché) tidbits about her past when played through with 9S; but this isn’t so much seeing the story from a different viewpoint but rather revealing little bits of lore that it neglected to show you in the first place.

By the time the second act is through, Nier switches things up finally, doubling down on its existentialist plot of androids, free-will and self-determination. The game’s final act is certainly better that its tiresome middle slog but is bogged down by a combat system that’s not expanded in any way after those first few hours and also begins to suffer from enemies with bloated health bars. Fights aren’t so much a challenge later on in the game as they are a problem that you beat your head at, (and mash buttons), until they finally end.

Nier: Automata is a game that severely tests your patience. How much you’re willing to stick through it will depend on your tolerance for undergraduate level Existentialism; name-dropping Sartre and having dour conversations about free-will on the one hand, whilst wrapping it all up in an otherwise generic anime schtick about fighting giant robots.

There’s some interesting ideas here, but to get to them means suffering from a good deal of bloat, both in its gameplay and in its storytelling. Its mash-up of genres is far more interesting than its attempts at clumsy exploration of Existentialist philosophy. Furthermore, its genuine attempts to make the logic of the plot fit the game mechanics is laudable, with every “death” in Nier: Automata simply being another copy of 2B or 9S, their consciousness being uploaded into new bodies. It's a playful, fun concept, and does more for what the game is aiming for than its poorly paced and over-plotted story.

Nier: Automata manages to boast some incredible creativity but mars it by going on for far too long with mechanics that simply don’t boast enough depth. It’s understandable why the game has received so much praise, but this involves overlooking the numerous flaws in its combat, clunky writing and bloated runtime.

It’s never terrible, and better a creative misfire than a bland, forgettable success. Still, Nier: Automata is game that requires far too much patience to get the most out of it.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Rime - Review










Developer: Tequila Works
Publisher: Grey Box/Six Foot 
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Switch, Xbox One 

[Warning: This review contains potential spoilers for Rime. Read on at your own risk.] 

Rime, as with many independent adventure games, starts by making you ask questions. Why is my character here? What is he doing? What’s happened? It’s an obvious “hook”, something that any good story, regardless of medium, is likely to do, and it serves Rime well.

Developed by Tequila Works, the developers of zombie-horror side-scroller Deadlight and co-developers of the recent Sexy Brutale, Rime plays out, visually at least, like a love letter to Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Left shipwrecked on the edge of an island, the game subtly nudges you in the right direction as you guide the nameless protagonist, a young boy, inland, clambering around cliff faces and scuffling over rocks.

It’s basic platforming, but is strengthened both by Tequila Works strong sense of atmosphere and their level design. Rime is linear in the sense that there’s a clear endpoint in every location, with only a few non-essential doo-dads for the completionists to force you off the beaten track. Yet, the design of each of Rime’s locations, rather than feel like “levels” simply feel like an environment, something to explore and wander through and be gently nudged (but never cajoled) in the right direction.

The developers soon swap Windwaker for Ico/The Last Guardian, as you’re introduced to a fox companion who gently points out where you’re supposed to go with a helpful bark every now and then. After laying out its basic structure of platforming and basic puzzles, the game settles into a rewarding hum as it shuttles along its five to six hour runtime.


Rather than simply stick to one basic location, the developers structure the game around specific areas, each with their own gimmick and set of challenges to overcome. After making your way across the island, you’re transported to a desert, where a bird monster constantly harries your progress by threatening to pluck you out of the sand unless you intermittently find cover beneath rocks or structures. Meanwhile, a later area takes place in a flooded temple (again, very Zelda) and has you attempting to reawaken stick-legged robot creatures from their slumber, slowing down the pace and introducing more puzzles.

The environmental changes from area to area, along with the simple yet satisfying puzzles, help Rime to maintain a gentle but effective pace without ever becoming plodding or dull. As with Little Nightmares earlier this year, Rime has a masterful sense of incorporating storytelling into its gameplay whilst rarely breaking player control. More importantly, it serves the game’s simplicity well, with everything playing out like a charming interactive animation.

Despite the simplicity of much of its mechanics, Rime is never tedious or boring to play. Its puzzles typically revolve around the boy’s “shout” which can interact with blue structures in the environment, be they switches or jars. Likewise, later sequences expand on this concept as you lug around shiny blue orbs that both function as keys, and can be used to “super-charge” the area around you, activating multiple switches simultaneously.

By the time the game reaches its final area, there’s a sense that Rime has morphed into something very different entirely. Like I said, it’s a game that tells its story through its gameplay but in a way that never feels obscure or vague for the sake of it.

It comes with something of a surprise when Rime delivers a “twist” in its closing act, shifting into very different territory than where it started. The emotional gut-punch of its climatic reveal is genuinely moving. It was there all along, staring you right in the face.

The fact that Tequila Works manage to craft such a story and tell it through a game that’s primarily about jumping around ledges and shouting at orbs is what makes it so engaging. Granted, it’s far from original as far as writing goes, and I criticised Outlast 2 earlier this year for doing something similar with its story.


Yet, it’s how Rime achieves its story as much as the one it tells that makes it satisfying in a way that Outlast 2 could never achieve. Ever since Silent Hill 2, game worlds as a metaphor for a character’s mental state have almost become something of a cliché, a shorthand solution for creating weird imagery and not needing to have a coherent story to tie everything back to.

The reason why Rime works in this sense is twofold. For starters, it simply avoids beating you over the head with its subtext. Instead, it trusts the player to simply enjoy the journey that’s unfolding and then allow the story underneath to emerge naturally, without reams of redundant dialogue or overdone visual metaphors.

Its other strength is its art-house sensibility. Rather than clutter its story and world with hints and nods to the story that’s emerging it instead takes a minimalist approach, trusting in the mood, atmosphere and beautiful soundtrack to communicate ideas that in most games would be stuffed into reams of backstory, notes and audio logs.

It's only when the absolute final reveal comes, and you finish the game, and open up the chapter select screen. All of the levels, the desert, the forest and so on, are each named after the stages of grief.

I’ve danced around the truth of what Rime is about rather than outright spoil it, but all I can say is it’s an absolutely wonderful game. It’s far from original perhaps, but that doesn’t matter so much when it’s delivered so effortlessly and in such a satisfying fashion.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Walking Dead: The New Frontier - Review








Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: Android, iOS, PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

[Warning: This review contains spoilers for previous seasons of The Walking Dead game. Read on at your own risk.]


The first season of The Walking Dead game was one of the highlights of 2012. It cemented Telltale’s now long-running formula, for better or worse, with a modified form of point-and-click adventure games. 400 Days continued that trend with its novel story-telling structure, and Telltale showed that their formula wasn’t simply a one-hit wonder when they released The Wolf Among Us, perhaps the most underrated of their licensed adaptations so far.

Then, season two hit, and I don’t think I’m the only who’d suggest that it was perhaps something of a disappointment. An awkward pace and some dumb character writing didn’t help matters, but it was the season’s muddled focus that ultimately made it a much weaker offer than its predecessor. Characters like Luke and Sarah were built up over the course of four episodes only to be unceremoniously killed, seemingly at random, with very little pay-off. Meanwhile, far less interesting characters (like Jane), were thrust into the limelight. In short, season two was not all that good, meaning The New Frontier had a lot to make up for.

And does it? Well...that’s debatable. What’s interesting right off the bat is how the game sets up the player’s relationship to Clementine. Season 1 had players interact with Clementine through Lee; shaping her world-view, for better or worse, as her teacher and guardian. Season two then had the interesting twist of having players directly control Clem, which was interesting if only because it made you wonder whether, in order to protect her, players would make more selfish decisions than usual; an intriguing aspect of the season that Telltale never really explored.

In contrast, The New Frontier casts you as Javier, a disgraced professional baseball star, who, following the onset of the outbreak, is left to take care of his nephew and niece alongside his sister-in-law, Kate. With his brother missing, Telltale cast Javier as the reluctant father figure (how reluctant depends on your dialogue choices), in effect mirroring Lee.

This is interesting precisely because of how each season has explored the player’s relationship to Clementine. In many ways, The New Frontier is the reverse of season two: you’re no longer controlling Clem, aside from a few minor flashback sequences, but are instead interacting with her through another character like in season one. Except, this is a very different Clementine from the we first encountered five years ago.

I bring up Clementine a lot, because, despite not being the focus of this season in the way she previously was, she’s still the heart and soul of this series and by far the best written part of it. Seeing her turn up, toting a shotgun, is both hilarious and horrifying. Many doomsday-based shows have explored the way that the new world order, or lack of it, changes children the most, but for The Walking Dead game this notion is far more earned. We’ve seen Clementine transform over the course of the series, giving the process that much more impact.


It’s a good job she’s there, too, because the rest of season is rather limp when left to stand on its own merits. Javier and Kate make for decent central pair for the plot to revolve around, the two are relatable, and have their share of flaws. Both are thrust into the role as makeshift parents that they never really asked for (Kate is only a step-mum to David’s kids), and a central theme of the season is the concept of what family is when everything begins to fall apart.

This would be interesting, even if it is the same, slightly hokey and somewhat overwrought ground that the rest of the The Walking Dead franchise, in all its forms, has mined for some time now. Yet, aside from Javier and Kate, almost every other character is either thoroughly unlikeable, or a complete moron.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with Javier's brother, David. Without going too far into spoiler territory, the relationship between Javier and David is the focus of a large portion of The New Frontier’s storyline, with the game even playing out flashbacks pre-apocalypse in order to flesh out the two characters and how they interact with one another. David is an ex-military man, the good son who thinks he’s done the “right thing” all his life only to find that, when he returns to civilian life, he doesn’t really fit in.

This would be a decent topic to explore and Telltale do, to a degree, do that, only they drop the ball when it comes to writing the characters. David is a thoroughly loathsome character by the end of the game, both idiotic and patronising depending on the given scene. It’s clear what the intention was; contrasting Kate’s optimistic idealism with David’s military hard-headedness, yet that doesn’t play out in the game. David’s choices are almost always entirely wrong, and the fact that the character remains unlikeable to boot makes many of the decisions in The New Frontier even easier to "solve", because there’s not really a choice to be made.

It doesn’t help that Telltale’s writing frequently positions the main female character as little more than a “thing”; a prize for both Javier and David to fight over. There’s a flashback sequence later on in the series where Javier can throw a game of baseball, deliberately missing the shot in order make his brother feel better. Likewise, there’s another scene where the brothers play dominoes, and let’s just say David doesn’t like it if he loses.


There’s a metaphor here; Javier can “lose” in order to satisfy David; hiding his (potential) feelings for Kate. Blood is thicker than water and all that. Only, this metaphor leaves Kate as merely a game piece; a ball between two squabbling brothers with little agency of her own. Considering that Kate is one of the few things that Telltale gets right with The New Frontier, it’s baffling that this subtext permeates the whole season and that Telltale deliberately place emphasis on it.

The New Frontier is a strange addition to The Walking Dead series. It’s arguably tighter and better thought out than season two ever was, mainly thanks to the fact that it doesn’t feel as if it’s being made up on the fly. There are interesting moments here, mainly thanks to its central cast of Clementine, Javier and Kate. Everything around them is poorly stitched together, however, leaving most of The New Frontier disappointing to play through, as it reaches for something interesting, and then goes and scuppers it all with dumb and lazy writing.

“Clementine’s adventures will continue”, the game cheerfully announces when you finish the fifth episode. Given how the series has played out so far, and given how lacklustre Telltale’s other, recent efforts have been, it’s debatable whether or not this is a good thing…

Friday, 1 September 2017

Hitman - Season One - Review








Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: Linux, PC, PS4 (version played), Mac, Xbox One 

Hitman Absolution wasn’t completely without merit, but it wasn’t Hitman. Having a linear structure destroyed what is arguably the best thing about the series; its freedom. Hitman is at its best when it simply plays out like a murder-happy sandbox, allowing players to do with it what they wish.

Hitman Season One gets this. Developers IO Interactive understand that the central appeal of the series is in giving players plenty of threads to follow, and then allowing them to do what they please with those different options and opportunities.

This is something that’s immediately apparent in the level design. The first major level of Season One takes place at a fashion event in Paris. There’s the main building, the cellars, the grounds out back. It’s refreshing to play a modern game that places this much focus on its level design. Each level is a puzzle, one with multiple solutions.

In fact, many of the levels can be overwhelming. The range of choices, options, angles of attack, how to get to your target and assassinate them, it's a lot to handle. It can be frustrating, not because it’s poorly made, but because there’s so much to take in.

Purists might cringe at the thought, but IO seem to have been aware of this train of thought. It’s been over ten years since Blood Money first released, and many of Hitman’s potential players might never have played a classic Hitman game before. Therefore, there’s the obligatory “assassin vision” that highlights targets and objects of interest; handy in a game that’s brimming with things that can be picked up and wielded as murder weapons.

Likewise, unique kill opportunities can be tracked via a quest marker for those wishing to follow them. Again, veterans might baulk at the idea, but it’s a welcome addition for those new to the series or struggling to find their feet. Hitman’s levels are large, dense, and, dare I say, sometimes a little convoluted, so the help is always nice for those that want it, whilst those looking for a bigger challenge can ignore them.


Over the course of the game’s six episodes you’re sent to various locations; Paris, Italy, Marrakesh and Japan, to name but a few, all with a different focus or pace to further set them apart. Sapienza, Italy, is arguably the game’s highlight, a classic Hitman level with you tasked with taking down two targets and destroying the virus one of them has been working on in their underground lab. It’s a wide open level, a sprawling puzzle as much as much as it is a stealth-action game.

Later levels riff and play off the earlier levels to keep things fresh. Marrakesh is a mass of crowds and clustered buildings, perfect for lining up an easy sniper spot...provided you can get hold of your sniper rifle without attracting attention. Perhaps because of the game’s otherwise slim number of levels, later chapters up the difficulty considerably. Colombia is by far the game’s toughest area, and it’s most frustrating, with Agent 47 tasked with taking down four different targets across an expansive farmhouse, filled to the brim with armed security.

The levels themselves are only the beginning however, a large portion of Season One’s longevity comes from the assumption that you’ll replay the levels multiple times. Additional challenges are on offer in the form of escalation missions, with you being required to off a target in a particular fashion, and then do it again, only with another target being added each time you succeed.

Likewise, the levels themselves have more to offer the more you level up your “mastery” of each respective location. This unlocks additional equipment, disguises and starting locations for Agent 47, allowing you to further hone your plan of attack to a razor sharp edge.

It quickly comes clear that, in part, this is why Hitman fits an episodic release. It’s a series that rewards obsession and demands a certain OCD mentality in order to get the most out of each environment. The first, second, even third time you play through an area can be frustrating, because you don’t understand everything that’s at play yet, you don’t know each guards’ route, what disguise will get you into what area, and so on. It’s when you’re on your tenth or fifteenth try, that the game, strangely, becomes more interesting.

That episodic release however, deserves to be brought up because it’s at the heart of so many of Hitman’s problems. On the surface, the piecemeal release, provided it was appropriately costed, wouldn’t be an issue.

Square Enix however, have foisted so much nonsense onto the game’s serialized structure that it quickly becomes suspect. Hitman all but requires that you remain connected to the internet. Should your connection drop, you’ll be kicked back to the start screen mid-mission. Likewise, booting up a save takes longer precisely because the game seems to be communicating with online servers, despite the fact that what you’re playing doesn’t really have any online functionality besides a few specific game modes, and sharing your scores with the rest of the world.


These problems quickly make other issues immediately suspect. The hefty price tag for just half of the game creates the impression that the game was broken up in order to justify costing more, rather than because the game genuinely worked as an episodic release. Additional challenges were “timed exclusives”; available for a limited time and then struck from the game entirely.

I deliberately waited to review the game until after its physical release, primarily because others likely did the same in order to get more value for their money. The result is clear, people that waited, bided their time in order to make an informed purchase, are punished, not just with exclusive DLC nonsense, but with the game actively removing content if you didn’t buy into it early enough. This is a frankly disgusting business practice.

Several games this year have suffered as result of nonsense like this. Publishers trying to deliberately eke more money out of customers with bogus methods of buying the games is nothing new, but Hitman Season One might actually mark a new low. A largely single player game, forced to be online, and having the experience actively waste away for those that come to it later on. It smacks of Square Enix experimenting with anti-consumer release models, presumably designed to undercut the used-sales market, and the game clearly suffers for it.

The mixed response the series has received, amongst stalwart fans, seems to suggest that fans won’t be suckered into a game that’s being sold to them deliberately to hoover up more of their money with very little in return. It’s a shame that the casualty of that has been IO Interactive. For all the problems that Hitman has, the developers certainly aren’t the ones at fault, even if they’ve been the ones left to suffer the consequences.

Is the game worth playing, then, should you still be compelled to go near it? That depends. It’s a selection of great maps tied to a collection of sometimes great and sometimes mediocre targets. Almost all of Hitman’s levels have two targets. One is almost always great, and the other feels largely like an afterthought, as if there wasn’t enough time to work both targets up to the same standard.

It’s a bizarrely shallow game in others words, each level is crawling with depth, experimentation, but that only comes from constantly plugging away at the same area, again and again, with its copy-and-paste additional challenges. The game’s “mastery level” alone feels more like a free-to-play mechanic, than something that should be within a full-priced game release.

Even in this abominable state, it’s still keeping more in the spirit of Hitman than Absolution ever was, but that’s about where the positives end.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Persona 5 - Review










Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus/Deep Silver 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), PS3

Persona 5 had a lot to live up to. I don’t exaggerate when I say that Persona 3 & 4 are two of the greatest J-RPGs ever made. Persona 3 made the series what it is today; rebooting the older games and melding classic RPG mechanics with a layer of social simulation. Its successor, meanwhile, has some of the strongest character writing...well...ever.

One of the strengths of the previous two games was how unique they both were on a thematic level. Persona 3’s exploration of existentialism, and a melancholy look at death contrasted with Persona 4’s more light-hearted, but still poignant, examination of hope versus nihilism.

Persona 5 continues that tradition, bowling over any assumptions that this was going to be a safe and predictable sequel. As with the last two games, it has a primary colour, and it’s bright red. Fitting, given the subject matter. This is a game that’s about freedom, challenging authority and facing injustice.

It wastes no time setting up these themes either. Within the first hour you’re introduced to a host of characters who, quite frankly, don’t seem to want you around. The head teacher of your new school sees you as a problem student, and the guy you’re sent to live with stuffs you in the attic and tells you not to cause trouble.

This is a gritty, grimy contrast to the otherwise innocuous charm of the previous games’ school environments. Persona 5’s opening arc, essentially a tutorial, is about a gym teacher who abuses his students, driving one of them to commit suicide.

It’s a blistering gut-punch to start your game on, mining some genuinely disturbing emotional mileage from themes and story beats that other games wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Persona 5 though, is all the better for it.

This story thread soon results in your character and his friends forming the Phantom Thieves; anarchic warriors committed to rooting out injustice. As with Persona 3’s Tartarus and the Midnight Channel from Persona 4, the Phantom Thieves have to visit another world, this time through an app on their mobile phones. In this case, it’s to root out a particular villain’s subconscious, stealing their prized treasure, and forcing them to undergo a change of heart.


If the story and themes are a deviation from the previous instalments, the combat and dungeon-crawling remains relatively familiar territory. Given that you’re playing as thieves, there’s a general emphasis on stealth, ambushing enemies as you slowly explore your target’s “palace”; the home of their subconscious desires.

There’s an indication that Atlus have wanted to make these sections more evocative and tighter than in other Shin Megami Tensei games. The dungeons are more linear than before, comprised of fixed rooms and locations, rather than the procedural generation of the last two games. Likewise, the focus on stealth, ambushing foes in order to initiate combat, is given greater significance than before, bordering on a stealth mini-game. Get spotted by too many foes and you risk being booted out of your targets palace early, forcing you to return on another day in order to complete your mission.

The focus of these dungeon-crawling sequences still remains the same, however. Bonus turns are doled out for successfully striking weaknesses or inflicting critical hits. It makes for tactical forward-planning when constructing your team; whilst each party member has their own particular Persona, your main character has access to a menagerie of alter-egos that you accumulate as you progress. Since your opponents benefit from the bonus turn system in the same way that you do, there’s a Pokemon-like mentality to building up your collection of Personas, attempting to diversify their weaknesses and ensure you have a broad range of strengths.

Talking to enemies makes a return from other MegaTen games as well, adding a little more nuance to acquiring new Personas for your main character. There’s a smart risk versus reward element here, as a conversation that goes south will leave the enemy with the initiative, turning what was initially an advantage (you have to down all the enemies with super effective hits in order to initiate a dialogue), into a potentially dangerous situation.

This is still a game that rewards wiping out enemies as quickly as possible. Fights might be turn based but there’s a breezy quality to encounters, with taking down enemies with that important all-out attack being almost always the primary goal.

Series veterans will also be right at home with the game’s fusion system. As in other MegaTen games, fusing monsters isn’t just a quirky pass time but an outright requirement in order to stay ahead of the curve. Personas level up far too slowly to justify keeping them around forever, and so frequently making trips to the Velvet Room in order to splice various creatures together is something of a necessity.

It’s arguably even more important here than in other instalments because of the game’s social simulation mechanics. Part of what makes these Persona games what they are is that a significant portion of your playtime is devoted to building up your relationships with the people around you. Persona 5 is no different.

Atlus have made some tweaks to the social side of things by threading them back into the core theme of working as the Phantom Thieves, with each social link you acquire also providing a number of different bonuses as you level it up. Make friends with a socialist politician running for office and you’ll unlock abilities that make it easier to recruit new Personas, build up stronger connections with your party members (as with Persona 4 each of them comes with a unique social link) and they’ll gain additional abilities for use in combat.


It’s a nice touch, and one that adds even greater strategy when it comes to working on the game’s relationships. Prioritising some social links in order to gain access to specific bonuses is a valid tactic throughout the game, and all the while you’re fighting against the fact that you’re on borrowed time. There’s never enough time to do everything you want in Persona 5 and so you have to make decisions, who to spend time with, what to do after school. It’s not long until your social schedule is overflowing with things to do.

Between completing palaces and building social links, there’s also Mementos to tackle. If the game’s main dungeons have become more linear and story driven, then Mementos is the more typical, randomized floors seen in the other game. Like Tartarus, Mementos is divided up into a series of floors and zones as you progress deeper.

I’ve avoided talking about the game’s story largely due to spoilers. Atlus, likewise, seem especially nervous about spoilers, with my PS4 repeatedly telling me that every other scene is blocked from recordings and screenshots.

Thematically, Persona 5 is easily on par with its predecessors, exploring freedom, youth and, most importantly, anger at institutions of power in a way that feels earnest, genuine and remarkably poignant given the times we’re living in. It’s easily the most overtly “political” game that Atlus have written in recent years, with an anarchic sensibility. It touches on anti-capitalist themes here and there, with one villain being a business owner who sees his staff as nothing more than wage slaves, and makes for one of the game’s most interesting dungeon designs as you explore the subconscious version of his factory reimagined as a giant science-fiction fantasy staffed by robots.

Atlus manages to do all this without the themes themselves feeling pat or hokey. The game tackles these elements with enough subtlety that the player isn’t being beaten over the head, whilst still ensuring that those themes are resonant enough that it never feels flaky or vague.


It’s in the plot, then, the story that strings all these fascinating ideas together, that Persona 5 risks stumbling. The characters this time around are less engaging and memorable than those in Persona 3 & 4. It was always going to be a tough standard to live up to, but both the main party members, and the social links, never leave quite the same impression. There’s no relationship here that catches you off-guard, like Akinari in Persona 3 or Rise in Persona 4. It’s also hard not to look at some of the new teammates and just see older ones pasted over with a few different character traits; is Ryuuji really all that different from Yosuke and Kanji, isn’t Makoto just Mitsuru done all over again?

Persona 5 is so focused on its central story that the sub-plots and downtime, the moments that are arguably just as important to these games, is made much weaker. It’s made worse by the fact that the later parts of the game suffer from some poor pacing. Again, it’s difficult to articulate this without revealing massive spoilers but, as the game progresses, there’s little build-up to its climax, scenes can feel repetitive or altogether redundant (it wasn’t necessary for characters to repeat the same phone text dialogue every three or four days) as the game seems to shuffle towards its ending rather than build up to it in a suitably dramatic fashion.

None of this takes away from the fact that Persona 5 is  a fantastic game. It’s made by a team that’s still at their peak when it comes to crafting J-RPGs. It might stutter a little when compared to Atlus’ other efforts, but, barring some miracle, it will easily go down not just as one of the best RPGs of the year, but as one of the best games of 2017.

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Weird Genius of Digimon World - [Part 3]













The Town

If raising Digimon is one half of Digimon World, then it's rebuilding the town at the centre of File Island that comprises the other half of the game. Rather than simply make File Town a generic hub from which to start the game off, Digimon World uses this part of the game world for a fascinating part of its level design.

Digimon World is almost completely non-linear in terms of how its game space can be explored. A quick look at the game’s map reveals that it loops around in an ingenious fashion, with the (typically) more difficult areas being at the back of the island, furthest from where the player starts.

Yet, aside from this general tendency, there’s very little order in which the Digimon you encounter have to be recruited. Since recruiting Digimon is the goal of Digimon World rather than, say, completing specific areas or defeating bosses, there’s a much more free-form structure into how each part of the game can be completed.

It’s a tightly interconnected game world that rewards players for mastering its locations and understanding their relation to one another. It’s difficult to find an accurate modern comparison for Digimon World’s level design. It’s (sort of) like a Metroidvania structure, albeit without any abilities that cordon off specific zones. Another similar comparison would be classic survival horror level design. As with Resident Evil’s mansion, there’s numerous paths in Digimon World that interconnect various zones, meaning players that master its level design can benefit from more efficient travelling from zone to zone. This is a major benefit to the player when you consider the fact that their Digimon partner has a limited lifespan and requires feeding and taking to the toilet every few in-game hours.


Of course, recruiting Digimon feeds back into this free-form navigation. Each Digimon that joins the city typically contributes something to the place, be it a new shop, resource, or just an aesthetic improvement. Convincing Centarumon to join opens up the medical clinic, whilst Birdramon sets up a transport hub that can warp you to specific locations you’ve already visited.

It’s an incredibly satisfying gameplay element, as you eagerly wait to see what your latest Digimon friend has contributed to the town. Yet, it also reinforces the game’s focus on navigation and strategy. Being able to tackle any of the game’s areas/Digimon essentially in any order means that there’s a degree of strategy, especially early on, in terms of recruiting the most important and valuable Digimon in order to give you a head start.

I suspect this is why the game is so enjoyable to replay; precisely because each time you play through there’s the option to remix the way you experience things. Grabbing different Digimon earlier/later might make some parts harder/easier further down the road.

Likewise, this links up neatly with the slightly chaotic evolution system. Just as each playthrough is different from a non-linear exploration perspective; you can go wherever you want, it also changes based on the Digimon that you end up having. Finally, this brings together the game’s move system, which, given the different Digimon your partner can evolve into, might prioritise going to different places earlier in order to acquire specific moves. Freezeland is one of the game’s most difficult areas, yet it becomes much more enticing to get there sooner should you have evolved your partner into a water-based Digimon for example.

Chaos 

All of this sums up Digimon World’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. It’s a game that plays out differently each time you play it. Exploring one side of the map first and getting a certain evolution might make for a different experience during the second half of the game compared to another player. Despite you starting off in the exact same spot with potentially the same Digimon, you both end up in radically different places.


Yet, these two elements, its randomness and its vague design, are also what can make it so frustrating to play. It’s hard to recommend this game to people without also kindly pointing them to a guide to have at hand. Many of Digimon World’s elements could certainly do with a rework, especially its battle system, which, whilst not terrible once you’ve tackled its initial problems, still remains far from ideal. It’s also hilariously unbalanced when it comes to the game’s movepool, with some abilities being powerful to the point of broken, and others being nearly useless.

Despite these niggles, and despite me having to look at the game without the benefit of nostalgia goggles, Digimon World is a smartly designed game. Its gameplay systems; the exploration, training/battling and town-building, slot together like an intricate puzzle; three disparate gameplay concepts that gel together and enhance one another.

Bandai could have quite easily got by phoning it in, riding the coattails of Pokémon without much effort. Yet somehow, they resisted that temptation and created not only something that stands apart from Pokémon, but a game concept that still remains incredibly original to this day.

Sequels

It’s not surprising then, that Bandai followed up the game with several sequels. Ironically, none of them kept the gameplay ideas of the original game. Digimon World 2 and 3 were released for the PlayStation, whilst Digimon World 4 was released across all three sixth generation consoles.

Digimon World 2 opted for being a dungeon crawler, whilst Digimon World 3 took the conventional approach of meshing the series with contemporary J-RPG elements, much like a PS1-era Final Fantasy albeit on a smaller budget. Digimon World 4 in 2005 went the route of an action-RPG, even going as far as to kit out all the Digimon with weapons

Needless to say, all of these different experiments with the franchise never paid off, and it was the original 1999 game that garnered the cult following. Finally, in 2012, Digimon World Re:Digitize saw a release exclusively in Japan on the PSP, followed by the recent worldwide release of Digimon World Next Order on the PS4 earlier this year.

Digimon World is the kind of game that needed a sequel. Not simply because it’s good and there needs to be more of it, but because it’s a game that isn’t perfect, there’s room for it to grow, develop and iron out the myriad of problems it has. It has room to evolve, in other words. I’ve yet to play either Re-Digitize or Next Order, but hopefully, that’s precisely what the game’s do; building on the core foundations of the original.

Digimon World is an example of a game that works in spite of its problems, and also because of its remarkable originality. If you’ve never played it, it’s well worth tracking down a copy in order to check it out, if only to see how many unique and fascinating ideas it has whirling around in one game.

If you do take a look at it though, you might want to keep a guide handy. You'll need it...

Friday, 28 July 2017

Outlast 2 - Review







Developer: Red Barrels Studio
Publisher: Red Barrels Studio
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

Outlast and Outlast: Whistleblower were solid foundations on which to build a contemporary horror game. Red Barrels took the minimalist design philosophy you see in Amnesia: The Dark Descent and combined it with a found footage aesthetic in order to create something that, whilst not overwhelmingly original, certainly had a good amount of polish.

Despite coming packaged with the previous two games, Outlast 2 sidesteps any newcomer problems by having its story be entirely self-contained, with only a few blink-and-you’ll-miss nods to the other instalments. Red Barrels swap the Lovecraftian setting and plot of the original (Outlast was essentially an adaptation of Lovecraft’s From Beyond short story) for the American south; replacing weirdo inmates with crazed religious zealots.

It’s a familiar enough setting, both in video games and film. Resident Evil has mined this territory multiple times both with the creepy Spanish town in RE 4 and more recently in Resident Evil 7. Still, Outlast 2 does a good enough job of creating a creepy enough setting. The weird Jim Jones-esque cult is run by Father Knoth, a batshit insane preacher with the perfect southern drawl for reeling off twisted Bible quotes.

The player character meanwhile, is another investigative journalist. Outlast 2 wastes no time throwing lead character Blake Langermann and his wife into the deep end, as the journalist duo’s helicopter crash lands on the outskirts of Father Knoth’s messed up village.

Whilst the plot and setting might be a significant change for the series, the mechanics that underpin it remain unchanged. Again, the game is distinct not so much in what it does but in how little it actually hands to the player. You can run, you can hide, be it in a barrel or a cupboard, and you can maybe survive an attack or two from an angry villager, but that’s about it.

Whether or not this is a good thing depends on how much you enjoy this modern trend in horror games. Sequences in Outlast 2 are short and tense, broken up into bits of exploration, followed by some sneaking around, and then a scripted mad dash for an escape route as you’re spotted.

In some ways it’s an odd game in that it plays differently for those that don’t play many video games. Those that aren’t familiar with the puppet strings that underpin most encounters (enemies won’t follow you past certain set locations and, despite being threatening, some enemies have ludicrously short sight ranges so as to prevent frustration) are likely to be more shocked and frightened than those that play games more frequently.


That’s the big take away from Outlast 2, it’s less a game and more a haunted house simulator. You enter a zone, find out what you need to do; be it move a gate, get a key or what have you. Then, you sneak around, monster goes boo, and you run away.

Outlast 2’s location harms it here. Whereas the original game and its expansion had twisting corridors and hallways to better disguise the boundaries of each area or “level”, much of Outlast 2 takes place outdoors, making such zones feel even more scripted and prescribed than even some of the original game’s weaker beats.

It doesn’t help that, for a sequel, Outlast 2 rarely progresses many of its mechanics. The camera returns and is essentially a torch, with its night vision mainly being in place both to up the scare and to simply see where the hell you’re supposed to be going.

Other moments seem to actually regress some concepts, rather than expand upon them. There’s a notable lack of stand out stealth sequences in this sequel. The original game’s best parts were when it slowed the pace down and eked out as much tension as it could from having you creepy around evading whatever twisted baddy was lurking around the area with you.

Outlast 2 frequently doesn’t bother with this however, favouring outright chase sequences instead of tense games of hide and seek. This leads to many moments devolving into a frustrating version of Mirror’s Edge, as you try and work out where the hell you’re meant to be running whilst looking through the grainy night-vision filter.

Of course, the story is meant to be the glue that holds these kinds of games together. Yet, Outlast 2 manages to botch this up despite having a solid atmosphere and location to draw upon. Whilst the promotional material, and even the game’s cover, push the notion that this is a game about getting out of a nightmare Jonestown, a lot of the game has more to do with Blake’s personal demons, which are explored via flashbacks.

This wouldn’t be a terrible idea, were it in any way interesting or engaging. So much of Outlast 2’s actual story is more akin to a CliffNotes version of Silent Hill 2 than anything else, tacked onto hackneyed visions and jump-scare hallucinations. By the time the game reaches its conclusion, it’s hard to care because this kind of story has been done to death in horror games (character has dark past, whole world is metaphor for dark past) at this point, and in much more creative ways than Outlast 2 ever does.


Perhaps the game’s biggest problem however, is one that it shares with its predecessor; Outlast 2 has one volume, and it’s cranked to 11 from beginning to end. Every blood-covered wall, every gory death sequence and every (obvious) jump scare is filled with over-the-top audio cues and violin stings. This is a game that wants you to know that it’s serious goddamnit, it’s serious horror and you’ll take it seriously.

Except, all this does it make the game feel weirdly more juvenile. Compare it to Resident Evil 7’s Baker family, that manage to be both tongue-in-cheek and frightening, because the writers know the concept is ridiculous and so run with it. By contrast, Outlast 2 feels increasingly dull and one-note the further you play it.

This isn’t to say that the game isn’t without its moments. The central location, when the game isn’t flinging you into hokey flashback sequences, is striking and memorable. Its gore-soaked locations, quite literally towards the end, as the entire town is trapped under a perpetual rain of gore, is more memorable and unsettling than any of its crazy residents or dumb monsters. The moments where it feels as if Blake is literally trapped in the nine circles of hell, where the game draws on a mix of Dante’s Inferno and Forbidden Siren, are its most striking and interesting sequences. Sadly, they don’t make up the majority of the game here.

Outlast 2 isn’t dreadful but it is muddled, and, if we’re being honest, a little bit lazy. It mistakes minimalist design for bland design, and hopes that the haunted house-on-rails will distract from how hollow the experience is. It’s a game with both too many ideas and not enough.

I’d say, if you were a fan of the original two games, then it might still be worth checking out. Although, they might just be the kind of people to be most let down by Red Barrel’s latest offering.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Gwent: The Witcher Card Game - Beta Impressions










Gwent: The Witcher Card Game is the latest in a long line of games spawned, primarily at least, from the absurd success of Hearthstone. I’ve covered several of them on this very site at this point, and I can’t deny that I’ll always enjoy flinging a few digital cards every now and then. Card games just manage to scratch that certain “itch” that no other game can.

Gwent is somewhat unique in that it’s not simply from a video game series, but that’s it’s spawned from a game within a game. Gwent was an absurdly involving pass time in The Witcher 3. I’d be lying if I said I spent more than a few hours playing it, my deck quickly fell behind to the point where there was little point in me continuing.

For those like me, new Gwent gives us a reason to jump straight back to slinging cards. The game system has been largely overhauled, not in any dramatic fashion, but changes clearly had to be made to change something from a throw-away mini-game into something that can be balanced for play between human opponents.

For me, the game’s most intriguing aspect is how little it resembles other card games. Look at Hearthstone and you see the basic skeleton of Magic: The Gathering draped over simplified mechanics and chunky card art. Elder Scrolls Legends does something similar. By the time you reach Eternal, you have a game that’s gone full-circle; baking in more complex Magic mechanics but still trying to fit them into Hearthstone’s accessible interface.

It’s hard at this point to not think that the free-to-play card game genre has become, well, a bit inbred, and Gwent’s biggest plus is that it shows there’s far more interesting and original design spaces to mine for those willing to do the leg work. If nothing else, I hope it causes other developers to think a little more in what they can do when it comes to designing yet another free-to-play card game.

Mechanics

Rather than operate on a card combat basis, Gwent functions by having players commit cards to the board that are worth a set value of points. Each card typically comes with some rules text to change its function in some way. For instance, you’ve got the battle-hardened warrior that gets stronger each round, or the siege machine that takes points off the opposing side each turn by firing at them.

Furthermore, there’s the concept of rows. Cards can be committed to either the front rank, the ranged rank or the siege rank. Whilst some cards don’t have a choice about what rank they occupy (it’s printed on the card) others can be positioned in any row, adding an additional layer of tactics.


If that were all there were to Gwent, it’d simply be a case of playing the biggest and baddest thing and being done with it. There isn’t, after all, any resource or mana cost to any of the game’s cards, another interesting difference from similar card games. Matches, however, take place over three rounds, with players drawing ten cards at the start of the game, two additional cards in the second round, and another if the game runs into the third.

Passing on your turn, rather than playing a card, gives up any further plays you can make in that round, but allows you to save cards for future rounds. Gwent can perhaps best be summed up by the idea of losing the battle to win the war; it’s rarely the kind of game where doggedly playing the “best” card turn after turn will win you the game. Sometimes, it’s best to give up your chaff, throwing away weaker cards in order to, hopefully, tease stronger ones out of your opponent’s hand.

All this means that many games of Gwent are about eeking out the tiniest margins in the hopes of achieving victory. Card advantage in Gwent is devastating; going into a second round and being two or even three cards down is likely going to be the end of you. The game lacks the tactile, board-smashing fun of a daft game of Hearthstone but that makes it no less satisfying. Craftily pushing your opponent to commit one more card to the board, before folding the round anyway, is the kind of “yomi” that makes Gwent so fun to play.

With no randomness to speak of (a few cards have some general RNG, but it’s scarce for the most part), Gwent is both fun and strategic, rewarding players for optimal lines of play and a good understanding of the game’s systems. It might not always look or sound particularly exciting, but there’s depth to the gameplay here, and Gwent is certainly better off as a result.

Classes

Given that there’s no resource system, Gwent separates its three-hundred or so available cards across five separate classes. Each represents a country or faction from the Witcher series, with a number of neutral cards rounding out the card pool.

As you’d expect, each class has specific things it’s good at, or a selection of strategies it wants to focus on. Skellige decks are better suited to focus on graveyard synergies, for instance, with a number of cards getting better in later rounds of the game. Likewise, Nilfgaard decks are the best at using spies. Spy cards are played on your opponent’s side of the table, but typically coming with powerful abilities, or, given the way the game’s rounds work, allowing you to stay in the round another turn whilst not really playing a “proper” card.

All five of these classes currently come with three different heroes, each of which typically highlight that faction’s signature themes or strategies. So, weather-based monster decks for instance, clearly want to use Dagon, with his ability to “spawn” new weather effects on to the board.

All of these elements; the ten-card hand at the start of the game (with the option of three single-card mulligans) and the “heroes” which nudge you into particular strategies, make for a game that’s about having a plan in mind even before the game starts, and then trying to implement it. This is refreshing when compared to Hearthstone and its ilk, where the biggest question each turn, typically, comes from whether to simply trade away on the board or start attacking your opponent’s face. More than anything else that Gwent does right, it’s that it simply asks interesting (and different) questions in each game.

Wrench in the Works

Of course, there’s always issues, and so far, given that this is the Beta, there’s definitely some here.

As with the rest of the game, Gwent’s issues are themselves unique. A lot of its weaker aspects and potential problems are spawned precisely because it does other specific things really well, or at the very least, differently from other collectible card games.

First off; card acquisition. Gwent’s free-to-play model is about as generous as its counterparts. Gold is accumulated for each string of daily wins; first six, then twelve, then eighteen and so on, leaving players to decide for themselves how much grinding/investment they want to put into the game each day without being hamstrung by a limited number of quests/challenges.

It’s possible even, that the game is more generous than similar games. Decks are comprised of a minimum of twenty-five cards, with all silver and gold cards (you can have a maximum of six and four of these respectively) being singletons in your deck. This means piecing together a deck, in theory, is perhaps quicker than in other card games.

That’s where part of the problem comes from, however. In order to take this aspect into account, accruing cards in Gwent feels slower than in, say, Hearthstone or Eternal. Whereas those games,  feel like they’re doling out new cards to you on a regular basis, it takes longer in Gwent simply because there’s less to actually collect. You’ll build a deck faster, but the cards will feel as if they’re coming to you slower, which means grinding it out with the same deck over and over again.

By far the biggest issue so far, however, is that the game’s strategic qualities risk undermining it’s enjoyment for those without the best cards. Like I said, Gwent is fun precisely because it avoids the lazy randomness that has come to riddle Hearthstone, but because of this, and because the game typically rewards decks that function as engines; there’s the issue where the player with the better cards typically wins a lot more often.

The randomness inherent in many card games allows weaker players to not only “catch up” or even win a game or two, but it also highlights a different kind of skill. That randomness forces players to conjure up new strategies on the fly, or to adjust old ones, the chaos baked into the game’s systems is what makes for a challenge. Randomness isn’t a particular elegant mechanic, but it does prevent stale gameplay scenarios.

In contrast, Gwent is very much a game built around enacting a plan and then sticking to it. Skellige decks built around graveyard interactions want to dump their weaker cards in round one, so that they’re ready and waiting to be resurrected back in rounds two and three for significantly more value. Northern Realms decks that are built around siege units, want to get those out early and then use “crew” cards to trigger additional benefits off of the units they’ve already played.


Obviously, to a certain degree this is the simple synergy at the heart of most card games, and it’s a good thing. However, some games of Gwent can feel futile when played against a player with stronger cards and a linear plan to their deck. Without any randomness stopping them (meaning they’ll almost certainly get to play some of the cards they want), and no real “spoiler” effects aside from a few damage cards and weather abilities, games can feel non-interactive and predetermined, as the opposing player snuffs you out with their superior card power and more potent engine.

It leads to an awkward quandary for Gwent. On the one hand, the lack of RNG is certainly a good thing, and makes for a satisfying, tactical game that rewards smart play. Yet, it also highlights the pay-to-win nature of these kinds of games even more than their more random counterparts. The moment there’s a power level difference in player’s decks in Gwent, it almost certainly begins to feel like an uphill battle.

There’s a strong basis for a solid game here. CD Project should be commended for building a CCG that’s genuinely unique and not simply a reskin or subtle change to one of the preceding game’s systems. The artwork, the different decks, and the breeziness that it all plays out make it satisfying to play but without getting bogged down in stuffy rules management.

The main issue for the game at the moment is making that grind worth going for. Players willing to part with plenty of money from the get go will likely get more from the game at the this point, which makes sense, I suppose. But, if the game is to have any lasting and long-term appeal, it’d perhaps best work at finding unique ways for games not to become too prescribed or engaged in auto-pilot.

If the good parts of the game are anything to go by, however, CD Projeckt definitely have the ability.