Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “June, 2017”

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

It’s been a while since a book got under my skin quite like this one. Annihilation is a book that plays with familiar ideas and themes in a unique way, bounding together familiar science fiction tropes with a palpable sense of Lovecraftian cosmic dread. In Annihilation, knowledge is deadly but irresistible, with those who are curious bringing about their own downfall.

Many of the details of the backstory are kept intentionally vague, but we do know that around 30 years before the book begins a bizarre ‘Event’ led to the creation of Area X, a fairly small section of coastal land separated from the rest of the world by a strange border. The exact natures of this land and border are unclear, so the Southern Reach organisation has sent forth 11 expeditions, of which none returned entirely intact. Annihilation is the story of the 12th expedition, as four women, known only by their job titles, set forth into Area X to attempt to unravel its mysteries. Our protagonist is the biologist and she is joined by the surveyor, the anthropologist and the psychologist. It is not long into their journey that they discover something not on their maps; a strange tunnel heading underground, which the biologist can only perceive as a ‘tower.’

Annihilation is told in the first person and is playful with the idea of an unreliable narrator. The biologist can’t quite trust her own senses and is quite upfront about the fact that she is distorting and twisting some of the information for the reader, and that some of what she sees is so indescribably alien it simply cannot be put into words. The atmosphere is pure Lovecraft; a recurring motif is our protagonist, a scientist, at the edge of something dangerous, knowing she should turn back, but utterly ruled by her curiosity and need to know, even if the consequences are hideous. Annihilation is not about eldritch and ancient beings viewing humanity with horrifying indifference, but it channels the same sense of unease.

It is the building of atmosphere which is Annihilation’s greatest triumph, particularly in scenes taking place within the tower. There is a sharpness and precision to VanderMeer’s prose; Annihilation is not a long book and could be called a longish novella rather than a full novel, but no moment is wasted. It is utterly lean and without an ounce of the flab which pervades the genre. I think Area X is meant to sound cliché; it sounds like the title of a cheesy 1950s sci-fi B-movie, but I think this intentionally bland name is to wrong-foot the reader about the kind of book they are reading and the reality of what Area X actually is. Alongside the solid world-building is very strong characterisation. The biologist is insular and driven and I loved spending time in her head.

Annihilation is the kind of book I’m going to be recommending to anyone who will listen, so I will scream into the void (this blog) to tell you to read it. I cannot wait to get to the sequels.

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Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkoswki

Fantasy series often have a ‘middle book problem’, where in telling an extremely long form story, you end up by necessity having an entire book which exits to react to events in the previous book and establish events for the next book, with little memorable actually taking place in the book itself. The absolute nadir of this concept was comfortably Crossroads of Twilight, the 10th Wheel of Time book, the most supremely uneventful book I’ve ever read. Baptism of Fire is very much a middle book, in fact it is the literal middle point of The Witcher novels (not counting the short stories). Although it may not forward the plot of the series as much as I would have liked, Sapkowski’s origin as a writer of short fiction means that the vignettes which make up this book are entertaining in their own right and it never ends up boring.

Baptism of Fire takes place not long after the end of Times of Contempt and the Thanedd coup, which saw the Chapter of Sorcerers torn apart, Ciri flung into an unknown part of the Nilfgaard empire and living as a bandit and Geralt, terribly wounded, being treated by the dryads in Brokilon. When Geralt hears from Milva, a talented human scout, that Ciri is in Nilfgaard and due to be married to Emperor Emhyr, he sets out to rescue her, along with Milva and erstwhile poet companion Dandelion. Along the way they join forces with a few new faces, such as a dwarven band led by one Zoltan Chivay and a mysterious medicine man named Emil Regis. Meanwhile, a group of sorceresses gather, human, elven, Northern, Nilfgaaardian, to form a new, all female, organisation from the ashes of the Chapter; the Lodge of Sorceresses.

The meat of this story lies in Geralt’s journey south from Brokilon, through the wat torn Northlands towards the Nilfgaardian border. Along the way he, along with his group, get caught up in a few scrapes and conflicts. Where Times of Contempt was largely about magic, Baptism of Fire is more grounded, and arguably the grimmest of the series so far. I’ve read a lot of descriptions of the brutality of war in a fantasy setting, so it takes a fair bit to shock me by this point, but Baptism of Fire can be genuinely horrific. True to Sapkowski’s style though, it isn’t all war and suffering and the moments of lightness and humour work well, particularly in Zoltan’s band of dwarves as well as the ever enjoyable fop Dandelion. Still, it’s difficult to shake the sense that Baptism of Fire is an interlude, setting the stage for the next books to come. Sapkowski’s a good enough writer that even his wheel spinning is pretty enjoyable, but obviously I prefer when he is pushing the story onwards.

Geralt is as enjoyable a protagonist as ever, with an interestingly petty and vindictive side coming through, adding further layers to one of the best characters in the genre. I liked the new characters a lot, such as the acerbic but vulnerable Milva. It was also nice to see a couple more characters I was familiar with from the games, such as the generous and kind hearted Zoltan, as well the enigmatic Emil Regis, who I very much enjoyed in the Blood and Wine DLC for The Witcher 3. Geralt has a proper old school fantasy travelling band with him now and I enjoyed seeing them bicker and grow together.

Baptism of Fire is probably the weakest entry in the series so far, but it’s certainly not bad. Not enough happens, but this world and these characters are strong enough that just spending time with them is enough to provide a decent time. It’s not a reason to stop reading the series, and if you’ve got this far you’ll likely find plenty to enjoy in Baptism of Fire.

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Thumper for Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC

Thumper has one of the best marketing descriptions I’ve ever seen; ‘rhythm violence.’ It’s a lovely way to put it and sums up the general vibe of Thumper very well. I’ve played a fair few rhythm games in my time, but none that filled me with the anxiety and genuine sense of dread that Thumper does. A mechanic introduced later in the game killed a lot of my enjoyment, but for most of my time with it Thumper was an intense and unique experience.

In Thumper you play as a little beetle thing, making its way along a track in a bizarre, fractal hell-scape. There are 9 levels, with each culminating in a boss battle with a hideous, demonic face. It may not have a story, but it certainly has an atmosphere and it can be genuinely unsettling and oppressive. You must avoid obstacles in a variety of ways. The simplest are barriers, where you must simply hold a button to smash through them. Some require you to lean your beetle in a particular direction, or change into different lane to avoid sinister snake things. It’s fast, intense and noisy and it’s easy to get into the trancelike groove that the best rhythm games create. The boss battles involve you having to tap a button on these green glowing patches on the track; if you hit them all, you can launch a laser at the evil face and after four hits it goes down. It’s an interesting way to apply the mechanics to a boss fight structure. The whole thing can be punishingly hard, with it only taking two hits for you to die and then have to retry the section you’re on. For most of the early parts of the game, it generally feels fair, but an infuriating mechanic had me turn on Thumper somewhat.

Around midway through you are introduced to these gates, which mean you have to hit blue glowing paths like in the boss fights for the particular run. If you miss even one, a laser descends and damages you. This was fine at first, but when combined into boss fights it becomes punishing for the sake of being punishing. Normally when you are fighting a boss, if you miss one of the green patches you simply restart the section, with no damage or death. There’s an element of trial and error, of getting better and better at each section’s timing that’s very satisfying. In some of the later bosses you’ll hit it three times, with one to go, but then the gates will descend and you know that if you fail you will not be able to try again, but have to start the entire boss fight again. It’s a needlessly cruel mechanic and one which punishes you simply by wasting your time, utterly negating the fun sense of trial and error seen in the rest of the game.

The visuals are striking and there’s a sense of barely restrained chaos at all times. This being a rhythm game, most credit should go to the music. It’s not something I think anyone is going to be listening to for fun anytime soon, being mostly made up of pounding drums and intense synths. The sounds of your beetle as it careens around the track, smashing off walls and through barricades, adds more percussion to the brutal rhythm which pervades the whole experience. I could maybe have done with a bit more musical variety between levels, but I can also see why they went for one style of music and completely leant into that.

Thumper is one of the weirdest rhythm games you’ll play. I felt that in the latter portions its difficulty tipped too much towards arbitrary and cruel, rather than challenging and engaging. Still, when you’re working your way through the levels, utterly immersed in the beat, Thumper takes that classic rhythm game experience and twists it into something evil and oppressive. That’s pretty cool.

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Dreamfall Chapters for PS4, Xbox One, PC, Linux and OS X

1999’s The Longest Journey is one of my favourite games of all time, and certainly my favourite adventure game which doesn’t contain Guybrush Threepwood. Wonderful world-building and a truly epic journey which loved up to the name were held together by April Ryan, one of my favourite game protagonists ever. 2006’s sequel/spin-off Dreamfall: The Longest Journey impressed me less and I feel has actually aged much worse than its 7-year older predecessor. The long awaited Dreamfall Chapters is the third in the series and, unsurprisingly based on the name, is very much is the vein of Dreamfall rather than The Longest Journey. It is likely to be the concluding game of the entire saga and whilst elements work very well, it ultimately falls rather short. It could have worked as a 2017 style adventure game, it could have worked as a revival of a 1990s style adventure game, but instead it feels like a revival of a 2006 adventure game, which I don’t think anyone would argue is the genre’s golden age.

Dreamfall Chapters picks up a few months after the end of the last game; over in our world, the technologically advanced Stark, Zoe Castillo awakens from a coma, having forgotten the events of the previous game. To rebuild her life she moves to the continent wide mega city of Europolis, but it isn’t long before she is caught up in a new intrigue and local politics. Despite Zoe’s efforts in Dreamfall, Wati Corp have managed to release their sinister Dream Machine, which has turned many into lifeless husks, addicted to lucid dreams. Over in Arcadia, the apostle Kian Alvane has been imprisoned for betraying the Azadi Empire, who have invaded Marcuria and begun a system of oppression against magical races. To atone for his part in the death of April Ryan, Kian is recruited into the Resistance to fight his former masters and help the magicals he had previously despised. Finally, in the House of All Worlds, a strange child with mysterious powers, Saga, is born.

I’ll start out with the things I liked about the story of Dreamfall Chapters. The actual dialogue is as good as ever, with the same sharp, engaging and fully rounded characters that the series should be known for. Returning characters form The Longest Journey and Dreamfall are welcome, particularly the cowardly, sarcastic and intensely loyal Crow, my favourite sidekick in gaming history. I also really enjoyed the development of the stoic and powerful Dolmari Likho from Dreamfall, whose character develops in some interesting ways. I also really liked some of the new characters, particularly the nervous and endearing member of the magical resistance Enu, who forms an unlikely and very sweet bond with Kian. Zoe was never the most engaging protagonist, but she’s a bit better here, helped by a new and improved voice actor. I didn’t expect to like Kian as much as I did, but we find out that there is a fair bit more to him than we saw in Dreamfall and he even gets some endearingly funny moments.

There are elements of Dreamfall Chapter’s plot which work very well, but it’s origins as an episodic game expose major plot issues, which are exacerbated when the five chapters are played back to back. Seemingly major plot elements from earlier chapters vanish in later chapters, either without a trace or in brief dialogues. A seemingly key plot point in the first couple of chapters about an upcoming election in Europolis, on which Zoe works as a campaigner, fizzles out into nothing. Seemingly vital characters vanish into the aether, with the final episode in particular introducing a dazzling number of concepts and locations in its dash for the finish line. I totally get why this game had to be episodic due to the realities of crowd funding and publishing, but I can’t deny that it hurt the eventual release. If this is the final Longest Journey game as has been suggested, I would be pretty sad due to the fact that the fascinating reveal at the end of the first game has still not been addressed; the reunification of Stark and Arcadia and the so-called War of the Balance. In fact, a lot of plot points from The Longest Journey are glossed over, such as The Balance itself, the Draic Kin and the multiverse. They are referenced and touched upon, but the focus is always on the vaguer notion of ‘The Dreaming.’ During the Kickstarter, game director Ragnar Tournquist suggested a potential direct sequel to the first game, The Longest Journey Home. He has recently suggested that this is unlikely to happen which is heart-breaking as it honestly feels that there is a story left to be told. Dreamfall Chapters does a decent job of wrapping up the series, but it simply doesn’t have the time to address everything.

Dreamfall Chapters is mechanically very basic, only a very slight step up in interactivity from Telltale. There are a handful of puzzles, but they’re simple and not particularly engaging. The Longest Journey infamously went too far in the other direction, with some the most hilariously obtuse puzzle solutions in the genre. Still, at least The Longest Journey felt like, well, an adventure. Although some other locations are included, Dreamfall Chapters mostly sees you running around a smallish open world in Europolis as Zoe and in Marcuria as Kian. Most puzzles just involve wandering around these environments and there’s little sense of discovery or satisfaction in your travel. I almost wish that they’d gone the whole hog and made Dreamfall Chapters an entirely narrative, Telltale-esque experience rather than this weird hybrid, because it doesn’t really work.

For the relatively low budget, Dreamfall Chapters looks pretty nice. The environments are particularly impressive, bursting with character and life. The character models fare less well, generally stiff and fairly expressionless, but the voice acting and writing are to a high enough standard that it doesn’t feel like a major problem. Some dramatic moments come off as stiff and a bit awkward, with the visuals feeling more like an early Xbox 360/PS3 game rather than something more modern, but it never really hurt the experience for me.

There was a lot I liked in Dreamfall Chapters and I’m happy to have got some kind of ending, but ultimately the stuff I wanted to see the most does not appear. I truly hope that this isn’t the end for the series, but for something as obscure and niche as this to get an ending at all, with roughly a decade between instalments, is a hell of a thing. It may not be exactly what I wanted, but I’m still glad it exists.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – A Criminal Past DLC for PS4, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

The second DLC for Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is much meatier than the first and stands out because it offers a much more interesting setting and premise, which feels distinct from anything in the main game, something which could not have been said for the competent but familiar first DLC, System Rift. A Criminal Past starts out very interesting and takes the turn which makes it become much less interesting, but it stays engaging throughout.

A Criminal Past is framed as a therapy session for Jensen at TF-29, as he recalls a mission from before the events of Mankind Divided. He is sent undercover to infiltrate a state of the art prison for Augs, to extract a deep undercover agent who is feared to have gone rogue. Upon arrival Jensen quickly finds himself caught between the callous and sadistic warden Stenger and the charismatic leader among the inmates Flossy and it isn’t long until things escalate out of control. The setup is interesting, but a found myself zoning out of a lot of the story stuff, hitting essentially similar beats to everything we’ve seen before.

The prison setting, seeing Jensen stripped of his Augs and forced to rely entirely on his wits, was interesting in theory and starts out very well. The prison is split into two blocks, with those in one wearing red and the other in yellow. Jensen starts in red but must make his way over to yellow, where you could sneak around or you could simply steal a yellow uniform and walk around freely. There was an indication that there would be some interesting mechanics about having to follow the routine of prison life for a while to find your target, but things go wrong almost immediately and the setting quickly become much like any other Deus Ex location. Much of the DLC takes place during a riot, which is frankly much less interesting than the social stealth elements of the early section. Perhaps I was expecting too much, but there are DLCs out there that do fundamentally interesting and different things with the base game and A Criminal Past initially seemed like it may be doing the same. Instead we have a competent enough Deus Ex experience that offers more of the same.

The future for the Deus Ex series is uncertain at the moment, so A Criminal Past may be the last we see of it for a while. It’s a decent enough experience, and certainly beats the much slighter System Rift, but it doesn’t follow through on it’s interesting premise and ends up feeling like a missed opportunity.

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Watch Dogs 2: Human Conditions DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Watch Dogs 2 was far better than it had any right to be. It ended up being one of my favourite games of 2016, which I don’t think I would have seen coming. Dipping back into it with DLC, I wondered if somehow I’d been bamboozled by its in-your-face energy, but the Human Conditions DLC reminded me that, no, Watch Dogs 2 really is a bloody good game.

The meat of the DLC lies in three new missions, all centred around moral lapses in Silicon Valley. One mission focuses on self-driving cars and an algorithm which determines the value of an individual’s life in the event of a crash. Another brings the return of foul mouthed rival hacker Lenni as you investigate inhumane testing of nanotechnology. The final mission is about a hacking of a hospital, which ties into a storyline involving the Bratva Russian mob. The writing for Watch Dogs 2 was so sharp and fun and it’s all the same here, genuinely well written and charming. The core DedSec team have become a hugely loveable bunch of goons. Sure, the satire hits with precisely zero subtlety, but I enjoy its message about resisting corporate control and taking back freedom. Of course, being developed by megacorp publisher Ubisoft undermines this a little bit, but there’s more political and social engagement in Watch Dogs 2 than most AAA games will attempt. The storyline about the hacked hospital felt particularly relevant, given the recent NHS hack in the UK.

Watch Dogs 2 worked itself into an immensely satisfying groove, as you control your three tools: Marcus, your little RC car thing and your drone. The missions were, in many ways, your standard base assault stuff we see in Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, but the range of genuinely useful and engaging tools at your disposal made them feel more like playgrounds for you to use all your toys. The missions in Human Conditions offer more of the same, but if they’d been a part of the main game I think they’d have been considered among the best. The only real change can be found in the addition of enemies which can jam your hacking. I’m not sure about this; adding difficulty by removing your ability to do what makes the game fun feels artificial, but unfortunately is fairly commonplace. It doesn’t ruin the experience by any stretch, but my feeling upon coming across a jammer was usually more irritation rather than a sense of excitement of a new challenge to overcome.

DLC is almost never worth it full price, so I’m happy I waited for a PSN sale. For what I paid, I think Human Conditions was worth it. If spending a bit more time with Marcus, Wrench, Sitara and Josh appeals to you, Human Conditions is certainly worth a look.

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Snake Pass for Switch, PS4, Xbox One and PC

Snake Pass is exactly the kind of game you buy when a new console comes out, software is thin on the ground, and you want an excuse to use your fancy new machine. It’s interesting and something a little bit different, but ultimately something I don’t think will be remembered as much more of an oddity. It asks the question; can you do a platformer without jumping? The answer is technically yes, but you probably shouldn’t.

Snake Pass resembles a 90s mascot 3D platformer, as we control adorable snake Noodle through a series of levels to collect a bunch of maguffins. Snakes aren’t known for their jumping skills, so we instead slither through the semi-open environments, traversing the levels by clinging to poles and stretching your long body across chasms. Controlling Noodle is weird and takes a bit of getting used to. In some ways Snake Pass resembles the ‘fumblecore’ genre, where games have intentionally difficult or fiddly controls for comic effect, like Octodad or QWOP. Moving through an environment in a good 3D platformer should be elegant and satisfying and Snake Pass is rarely either. There is however a certain satisfaction in getting better at the odd controls and I’m sure some people will become very good at moving Noodle around, although I suspect I lack the patience. My main gripe came with the introduction of failure states later on. In earlier levels it’s almost impossible to die, but many later levels have bottomless puts and spike traps and fire which can finish off poor Noodle. In the earlier levels failure felt like an opportunity to just pick up and try again, but regular deaths saw me taking on the same obstacles over and over again. I don’t think this game needed death to be a thing and I think that the core of the challenging gameplay could have been kept without it.

There are 16 levels overall and to complete each one you must collect three gemstones and return them to a plinth. This is far from all the levels have to offer through, and they’re all incredibly dense with extra collectibles to pick up. These collectibles are usually much more difficult to gather than the main gems. There are no difficulty settings in Snake Pass, but the range of collectibles add layers of difficulty within the levels themselves. You can play easy mode like me and just get the gems, but you could also go up to hard or extra hard modes and go for some of the truly evil challenges. This kind of design, simultaneously offering several layers of difficulty, isn’t easy to pull off but Snake Pass does it with an impressively light touch. I was happy with my money’s worth just making my way through the levels. I found that challenging enough, although I suspect that I may just be really bad at this game. If you want more out of Snake Pass it’s there for you; this seems like a game with really interesting speed running potential.

Snake Pass is bright and colourful, with a nice, if slightly generic, Aztek influenced world and cute character design and animation for Noodle. David Wise, best known for Donkey Kong Country, composed the soundtrack and his unique skill for jungle based platformer compositions work unsurprisingly well for Snake Pass.

I liked Snake Pass, but I found difficulty spikes towards the second half of the game more frustrating than anything else, often being based on simply balancing for a longer period of time rather than clever structures to climb. Still, I doubt you’ll play anything else like it and it suits the Nintendo Switch quite well. Digital sales aren’t yet a thing for the Switch, but when they are that might be the time to give Snake Pass a go.

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The Boy on the Bridge by M R Carey

When M R Carey announced that he was writing a prequel to The Girl with All the Gifts, I was a bit sceptical. My tolerance for prequels is generally low, as they inevitably face a pressing issue of having to justify their own existence. There have been some great prequels, but I think more that have felt pointless. The Boy on the Bridge doesn’t quite succeed in justifying its own existence and it never feels anywhere near as strong as The Girl with All the Gifts, but particularly towards the end it comes together with certain moments of power held back by an oddly arch and impersonal tone.

Readers of The Girl with all the Gifts will remember the Rosalind Franklin, a tank/lab sent out by the remaining seat of UK government of Beacon after the arrival of the cordyceps plague of hungries/zombies. Melanie and her group took refuge in the abandoned tank and it played a vital role in the closing sections of the book and

The Boy on the Bridge is the story of the Rosalind Franklin and the crew of scientists and military who populate it. The Boy on the Bridge jumps into the heads of most of the crew of the tank, sent from Beacon to try to find a cure. Dr Samrina Khan is a scientist who discovers that she is pregnant shortly into their journey. She has a strange bond with Steven Greaves, a sort of autistic-savant young man who is considered by some to be the best hope for formulating a cure. Whilst in the highlands of Sctoland, Greaves discovers a group of child hungries who act like no other hungries they’ve seen before. This discovery kicks off the events which eventually culminate with an abandoned Rosalind Franklin, somewhere in London.

Although there’s a lot that is interesting in The Boy on the Bridge, for much of my time reading I found myself wondering why this story needed to be told. Revelations, such as the cognisant child hungries, will be of no surprise to those who have read The Girl with all the Gifts and it’s difficult to say what more this adds to our understanding of the setting. Carey uses the enclosed and claustrophobic space of the Rosalind Franklin well and I enjoyed the details of the strange life they’re all having to live together. It suffers somewhat from the horror movie problems of much of the plot being based entirely around people doing very stupid, illogical things. Obviously I would rather read characters driven by emotion than logic as I’m not a robot, but too often I just found myself exasperated, when I think I was meant to be horrified.

The lack of a clear main character hurts the book; there’s no one that can rival Melanie in terms of sympathy and engagement. There are some intense moments which should hit harder than they really do, because perhaps with the exception of Greaves I never really felt like I got a grip on any of these people. Greaves is a good character and I think the novel would have worked better if structured more clearly around him, as The Girl with all the Gifts was with Melanie.

The Boy on the Bridge is perfectly readable and I wasn’t bored, but I can’t imagine it making anywhere near the splash of The Girl with all the Gifts. That said, an intriguing epilogue sets the stage for a potentially great follow up. I’d be all for this, moving the series forward rather than returning to the past.

 

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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – System Rift DLC for PS4, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided didn’t exactly set the world on fire and I was lukewarm on it too. It was a decent enough experience, but it felt ultimately lacking. Oddly enough, System Rift in its microcosm helped me to appreciate Mankind Divided a little more.

System Rift sees Adam Jensen contacted by former colleague from Human Revolution Frank Pritchard to execute a data heist. It’s your standard Deus Ex plot and could have been one of the meatier side missions from the main game, but it contains a few twists and turns and has a bit more to it than you might expect. It doesn’t tell a vital story to the Deus Ex canon but it’s DLC so it probably shouldn’t.

Aside from some brief prep work, the vast majority of System Rift lies in the heist itself, which is a lot of fun. For all Mankind Divided felt a bit undercooked, the core mechanics really are bloody solid. As a stealth-RPG, it’s difficult to fault. System Rift is largely vertical in construction, as you make your way upwards through a facility. The only real gameplay change lay in heat sensors, which require you to mask your body temperature by hiding next to other heat sources. It seems at first like this is going to be a bigger deal than it is. You rebuild your Jensen from scratch, so it’s easy to min-max your way into an unstoppable killing machine/hacking ninja, whatever suits your preferences. Again, System Rift offers nothing more than more Deus Ex, which I didn’t realise I wanted until I started playing.

It’s not a long DLC by any stretch, but if picked up on a digital sale for a couple of quid like I did it’s hard to fault. It’s a really solid couple of hours if you fancy dipping a toe back into the Deus Ex universe, but you won’t exactly be missing out if you give it a miss.

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Prey for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Prey is a game which has been through many iterations, so it’s impressive that such a well realised and coherent product was eventually produced. Prey is a game with a lot of really interesting ideas which don’t always amount to much and I wish had pushed further down some of its weirder paths, but functions well enough as an enjoyable and sometimes clever experience.

Prey takes place in an alternate timeline where JFK was never assassinated and his presidency led to massive expansion in the pace and ambition of the space race. It is 2032 on the research space station Talos I, which orbits Pluto on the far edge of the solar system. The protagonist, who can be male or female, is named Morgan Yu and their brother Alex runs the station. Alex has been experimenting on the Typhon, alien beings who have been harvested to bring humanity Neuromods, which alter the user’s genetics to instantaneously give them skills and powers. Predictably, the Typhon have escaped and overwhelmed the station and an amnesiac Morgan Yu must discover what happened, how to stop the Typhon, and escape Talos I.

The actual narrative at the heart of Prey is competent, but never really climbs above that. There are some very cool ideas at the beginning and again towards the end, but it’s pretty straightforward for the vast majority of its run time. Convoluted ways to get you to explore the station make the plot feel a bit cumbersome; you must get two keys, you must get to the top of the station, then go to Deep Storage but the door is voice activated so you have to go to the Crew Quarters to get a voice sample blah blah blah. The plot rarely elevates above an excuse to send you to cool places, but those cool places really do save the experience. Environmental storytelling is somewhere Arkane have really excelled in the Dishonored series and they bring that expertise to Prey. It’s a bit of a cliché by now to say that the setting is the main character but, er…well, the setting is the main character. Sorry. Where settings in similar games, such as BioShock’s Rapture, position you long after it’s downfall, Prey’s Talos I only fell hours before and there’s a constant eerie sense of being just too late. The bodies are fresh and so the little tragedies and stories you find scattered through the environment all the sadder.

The actual atmosphere in Prey is, at least in the early stages, incredible. The world design is fantastic. Unlike Dishonored, Talos I is open and explorable, with some light Metroidvania elements. Talos I holds together as a coherent location, with a sense of variety matched with a general tonal consistency. I like settings which place you in one, dense, fully realised location and Prey pulls this off well. The thrill of exploration is somewhat hindered by brutal load times on PS4, which becomes a particularly significant issue during backtracking heavy later portions of the game. Exploring the station, poking about and finding little secrets, is the best part of the game by far. Alongside the main quest there are a handful of side quests, some of which are straightforward but some are really interesting and can directly affect the ending. There are some really interesting NPCs clinging onto life on Talos I, and I enjoyed lending them a hand.

The Typhon foes themselves are a bit of a mixed bag; the humanoid Phantoms aren’t particularly intimidating and some of the latter foes are more annoying than anything else. The standout enemies are the Alien facehugger-esque Mimics, which can disguise themselves as random objects. This is such a clever idea I can’t believe it’s never been done before. As you walk around you might see an object that seems a bit out of place, or catch a movement out of the corner of your eye. When you return to a location you’ll be asking yourself ‘was that mug there last time?’ At least in the early stages, it’s genuinely frightening. Of course, when you batter a few dozen with a wrench they become less engaging and more of a nuisance. The weapons don’t feel great in general, but the most interesting is definitely the multi-purpose glue gun, which can freeze enemies in place, put out fires or even create platforms allowing you to get to out-of-reach areas. It’s another clever idea in a game with plenty of them.

The actual core feel of the controls take a while to get used to, with a clunkiness that never quite goes away. This isn’t necessarily an issue at first; this is a horror game after all, but it becomes more and more pronounced as the game goes on. There are a range of upgrades available, some being to improve hacking and physical strength, as well as your standard health or stamina, but later on you can access Typhon abilities, with powerful attacks or the ability to transform yourself into any object like a Mimic. These work really well from a traversal standpoint; the promise of genuinely being able to pursue your own playstyle persists from Dishonored. You could hack open a door, or crawl through vents, or you could turn into a mug and roll through a gap. It really does work very well, but the combat abilities never quite work so well. The game speaks to you like you’re becoming an inhuman badass as you amass powers, but everything feels so clunky that you never feel it. I avoided combat at all costs, which was fine because for much of the time Prey is a perfectly serviceable stealth game. A late game twist makes stealth much more difficult and combat harder to avoid, but despite being bulked up with powers I never wanted to use them because they weren’t satisfying and the enemies were bullet sponges. I resorted to just running everywhere dodging enemy fire, which worked a little bit too well and got me thorough most encounters quite nicely, even if I did have to contend with the horrendous load times. It’s not exactly the way I think the game was meant to be played, but unfortunately that way just wasn’t fun. As I said, this only really becomes an issue in the latter parts of the game, but it did leave a stain on the experience.

Prey looks very nice, both in the setting and in the stylised human characters. The Typhon are creepy enough, but a bit vague and shadowy and PG. Aside from the Mimics, their designs are generally a bit lacklustre. An area Prey really shines in in the sound design. Prey uses ambient sound very well, where the falling of a coffee mug can herald the launch of a Typhon ambush. The voice acting is solid as well, but Prey also has a hell of a soundtrack. Heavy on the synths, it avoids feeling too kitschy and retro. The soundtrack elevates otherwise irritating action beats. It runs well and I encountered no glitches, so Prey seems to be a well put together package.

Prey is an interesting game, but I don’t think it’s a classic. It pulls from many sources of inspiration, but aside from the already iconic Mimics, it’s difficult to imagine it having much of an impact of its own. I had a good time for the most part, but the truly dreadful final act mars the experience, for the sake of what feels purely like an artificial inflation of the play time. Still, this is exactly the kind of game worth picking up in a couple of months after a price drop. In fact, considering the sales weren’t great, you probably won’t have to wait that long.

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