Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the category “PC Games”

Nier: Automata for PS4 and PC

I don’t even know where to start with this one. I never played the original Nier, although I’m aware of its cult following. I approached Nier: Automata more as a fan of Platinum Games than anything, but it’s the storytelling and fascinating themes of the game’s director, Yoko Taro, that ultimately lingers in my mind.

Nier: Automata is a sequel to the original game, but it’s set thousands of years later and the connections are slight. I didn’t feel like my enjoyment was in any way impacted by the fact that I had not played the original. Thousands of years into Earth’s future, the last vestiges of humanity have fled the Earth after an alien invasion, and now live on the moon. The aliens do not fight directly, but instead send machine lifeforms to do their dirty work. Project YorHa is an organisation of androids that fight the Machine menace on behalf of humanity. Androids 2B and 9S are sent to the surface to take down a massive machine, but soon they discover some machines acting strangely, as if they have emotions, thoughts and complex feelings and that the conflict between the androids and the machines may not be as clear cut as first thought.

It’s difficult to talk too much about Nier: Automata’s plot without spoiling what makes it so special. It does all the fundamentals right; likeable characters, clear motivations and satisfying resolution, but it also explores some pretty heady and intense ideas. The machines resemble toys more than anything else, rounded and generally harmless looking, and it is through these that Nier: Automata explores some complex philosophical themes. The nature of humanity is the core theme of this game and Nier: Automata explores this from a lot of different angles. Storylines which would just be too dark to touch with humans become explorable with machines and some of the true horror seen in Nier: Automata isn’t readily apparent. This is a story which sticks around, thought provoking and, at times, desperately moving.

The indie scene is stronger, but AAA games rarely use unique qualities of the medium in interesting storytelling ways. Examples such as BioShock and the Spec Ops: The Line are few and far between, but Nier: Automata is fascinating. I had heard beforehand that the game required multiple playthroughs to get the whole story and I was not really up for it in terms of the time investment. Actually, Nier: Automata’s multiple playthroughs are more like chapters of a larger story and it takes three to see everything. Nier: Automata is very aware of itself as a videogame, but not in an irritating, masturbatory fashion that some post-modern experiences can be. Things get weirder the longer they go on, with the first playthrough is told in a relatively straightforward fashion. It all crescendos into an audacious and hugely moving finale that simply could not have been pulled off in any other medium.

The story was my favourite part of Nier: Automata, but the core mechanics are certainly very solid as well. It’s an action-RPG, but there’s significant gameplay variety. As android 2B you’ll be hacking and slashing your way through a variety of enemies. With two weapons available at a time and a variety of ranged attacks, there are lots of options. You can also heavily customise your character using ‘plug-in chips’, some of which give passive and straightforward buffs to health or attack strength, but some are more interesting, such as introducing a counter attack. You have a limited number of slots, which can be upgraded, with elements of your UI taking up slots. You can uninstall things like the health bar or text pop ups to make room for more interesting things. The game is full of clever little things like this, even if the actual upgrade menu is cumbersome and awkward. The core combat is really fun and never fails to look stylish as hell, but it doesn’t land as one of the better Platinum combat systems. I felt myself missing the heft and variety of Bayonetta, with the combat is Nier: Automata sometimes feeling a big floaty and lacking in impact. I kept waiting for a new layer of complexity to fold into the combat and it never really does. Instead, the game introduces a clever new mechanic, which I won’t spoil, which is a lot of fun but exists almost parallel to the core melee combat rather than as an additional layer. Again, I never had a bad time slicing and dicing hordes of machines, but it would have been nice if there was a bit more to it.

Nier: Automata takes place in an open world, but I’d be hesitant to call it an ‘open world game.’ The world is quite small, and feels more like a series of connected zones rather than a coherent setting. That’s fine! After Zelda and Horizon I can’t claim to have been denied vast worlds to explore, but there is an awful lot of unnecessarily running back and forth. I don’t think a huge amount would have been lost for turning this into a more linear game. There are a range of side quests; some are pretty straightforward, but some are genuinely wonderful and contain some of the most devastating stories in the game.

One area where Nier: Automata really shines is sheer gameplay variety. There are semi-regular shoot-em-up sections in your mech suit, as well as shifts to a 2D platforming perspective. The bullet hell genre, where much of the challenge is focused on simply dodging increasingly dense waves of attacks, is a really interesting influence on Nier: Automata, and pervades all elements of the combat. I haven’t really encountered 3D bullet hell before. I still think it works best from a top down perspective, but it’s still interesting and speaks to Nier: Automata’s ambition to be a genre polymath.

Nier: Automata is a fascinating experience and a testament to the fact that interesting things can be done within AAA game development. It’s a game which waits to reveal its true cleverness and ambition, but the dawning sense of awe at what this game attempts to do was truly special. This is my first Yoko Taro game, but after Nier: Automata I don’t intend it to be my last.

 

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Yooka-Laylee for PS4, Xbox One, PC, Linux and OS X

I still remember the day I got my N64. My mum was pretty strict when it came to game consoles; she didn’t approve at all and was pretty keen to keep controllers out of my hands. My dad was a big softy though and we went to go pick it up from Toys-R-Us for Christmas. This was the UK in the 1990s and the PS1 was culturally dominant in a way I think lots of people have forgotten, but I had eyes only for the N64. My best friend had one and we’d spent countless hours playing together, but one game had caught my eye above all others. Not Super Mario 64, not Ocarina of Time; Banjo-Kazooie. I obsessed over this game, collecting every Jiggy, every Note, every Jinjo. I’ll never forget the day Nintendo Official Magazine published the secret codes to unlock the enigmatic, but ultimately pointless, Ice Key and Special Eggs, ringing my best friend to share my discovery. I awaited Banjo-Tooie with a fervour, and even though with hindsight I can see that it’s a less tight and strong experience overall than the original, I still loved it to bits at the time. The point is, cut me and I bleed Banjo.

It’s 2017 now, and I’m not far from 20 years older than I was when I first played. Some things haven’t changed; I still have Grant Kirkhope’s Spiral Mountain theme etched into my skull and the childhood best friend was my best man, but one area that has changed is gaming. It’s not 1998 anymore. Yooka-Laylee’s reception was likely disappointing to Playtonic, formed largely by people who left Rare after not being able to handle anymore of Microsoft’s bullshit, who demonstrate clear passion for the collect-a-thon genre and a style of game that no longer exists. Yooka-Laylee is quite clearly a labour of love, which makes it all the sadder that it ultimately fails. Some have snapped back at the criticism of Yooka-Laylee by saying that it simply does what was promised, to recreate the gameplay, style and aesthetic of Banjo-Kazooie into 2017. Those criticising it are simply not the target audience.

Unfortunately, I think the issues with Yooka-Laylee run deeper than simply being a matter of personal taste and nostalgia. Banjo-Kazooie was a big, epic game, but it was very tightly designed. In terms of pure square footage, the levels really weren’t that big, but were packed to the rafters with stuff. There was a sense of wonder, as each world felt radically different to the others, offering unique style, gameplay and sweet, sweet Kirkhope music. Yooka-Laylee has fewer worlds than Banjo-Kazooie, only five overall, plus the hub world. This wouldn’t be a problem in of itself, but they’re also much bigger and, overall, have far less personality. There is probably more content in each world than in Banjo-Kazooie, each of which can be expanded, but it’s far less interesting to gather. Yooka-Laylee aims for Banjo-Kazooie, but it lands on Donkey Kong 64.

The Banjo games were never known for complex plots, but you still had a clear motivation. Banjo’s sister has been kidnapped by an evil witch who wants to make herself young again. In Yooka-Laylee the villain is Capital B, an evil businessman who creates a machine to absorb all the books in the world, to horde knowledge to then sell back. He steals the pages from a magical book in the possession of chameleon Yooka and bat Laylee, so the two set forth into his lair to get the pages back. The writing is still good, funny and silly and irreverent and oh-so-very British, as it was in Banjo. An element I really liked is that the whole game can be interpreted as a dig at Microsoft, with constant jokes at the expense of corporations and capitalism. A boss clearly modelled on Microsoft’s Kinect was particularly genius, as perhaps nothing symbolises how far Rare has fallen, or was dragged, than that useless bit of nonsense. Whilst I like the idea of Capital B, he ultimately feels like less of an engaging presence than Gruntilda, whose constant taunting and rhymes during the original game is pretty much iconic.

Although the level design is lacking, most of the core mechanics themselves are really solid. Yooka simply feels fun to control, running at a good speed and with tight platforming. Similarly to the talon trot of the Banjo games, Yooka can roll up into a ball and be ridden by Laylee for extra speed and to climb slopes, with controls that feel tight and responsive. Many people have knocked the camera, but I can’t say I ever had any major issues with it. The sheer joy of movement that 3D platformers really need is present here, even if what is layered on top of these mechanics feels lacklustre.

Yooka-Laylee has moments of greatness and charm but it is lacking something. The writing, music and strong core mechanics of Banjo are there, but the level design, variety and, ultimately, heart are not. This is clearly a labour of love and I’d like to see Playtonic have another shot; I think there’s a solid foundation here to build upon, but I’m as diehard a Banjo-Kazooie fan as you could imagine and Yooka-Laylee fell flat for me.

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Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment DLC for Switch, Wii U, 3DS, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

The third Shovel Knight campaign was the second game I ducked into on the Switch after Breath of the Wild. It was a good choice; after the sprawling grandeur of Zelda, a nice, tight platforming campaign was exactly what I needed and jumping back into the world of Shovel Knight seemed the best way to do so.

Specter of Torment tells the story of how Specter Knight came to be the ghostly presence we see in the main campaign, as well as how he first recruited the Order of No-Quarter for the Enchantress. Yet again, Yacht Club provide a masterclass in how to include story in this kind of games. It’s light, it never gets in the way, but there’s enough to add an extras layer of engagement to the rock solid platforming gameplay.

Ah yes, and speaking of the gameplay, Specter Knight is just as fun to control as Shovel and Plague Knights before him. Just as with Plague of Shadows, Specter of Torment reuses the same locations and boss fights from the base game. Although I certainly hope we get some truly new levels down the line, the subtle alterations that are made to each level make them feel distinct. Alongside Shovel Knight’s bouncing shovel and Plague Knights bombs, Specter Knight has some interesting, fun traversal mechanics. One is the ability to slash towards enemies and certain objects, launching you across the screen. This can be combed to cover large gaps, with close timing being frequently required. Less commonly, you can also grind on your scythe along rails, which is fun but perhaps a little underused.

There’s a lot of joy in catapulting yourself around the areas and the boss fights are as fun as ever, even if Specter Knight’s abilities make them a little too easy. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of an overworld this time around, with Specter of Torment instead simply containing a level select screen inside a small version of the Enchantress’ castle. It doesn’t quite feel as fully formed as Plague of Shadows, but it’s still a really fun, challenging experience.

By this point, the base game for Shovel Knight is bloody good value, with three excellent campaigns. Specter Knight is distinct and fun to play as, although I do hope that Yacht Club begin to move beyond the original campaign as their basis.

 

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XCOM 2 for PS4, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a great little game and the sequel builds upon its predecessor in interesting ways. The core mechanics and loop are the same, but a few clever twists keep things interesting and provide a very strong strategy experience.

In the previous game, the aliens were the guerrilla fighters, popping up, inflicting damage, then vanishing again. XCOM 2, in an interesting narrative twist, assumes that the player failed in Enemy Unknown and so the aliens have taken over the world, with the role now reversed. It is 20 years after the fall of Earth, with the planet now in the grips of the puppet ADVENT administration, with propaganda persuading the people of Earth that the aliens are benevolent and kind. XCOM are now an insurgent group, operating from a mobile military base hidden in the arctic. Word reaches XCOM that the alien administration is pursuing the mysterious ADVENT project. No one knows what it is, but they know it is bad and must be stopped.

XCOM 2 feels a little bit more plot heavy than the predecessor, but as with the last game the real joy will be in the stories you craft for yourself. Your base has a handful of scientists and military men and engineers you may be meant to care about, but I never really did. I did care about my squad of randomly generated squaddies. By sheer chance and not my radical feminist SJW agenda, I ended up with an all-female core squad and by the end I grew rather fond of my ass kicking team of alien stomping women. I felt this way about the first game as well, but it felt like there were more boring cutscenes this time around. Give me the context for what I’m doing then leave me alone, I’m not interested in anything else.

The core feel of the turn based battle system is unchanged from the previous game, but a couple of nifty adjustments shake up how the whole thing feels. Enemy Unknown was a bit easier to cheese, with the Overwatch ability being somewhat overpowered. This move meant any movement by the enemy would then cause them to be fired upon, meaning that a strategy of ‘creep forward, Overwatch, creep forward, Overwatch’ would work more often than not. Most missions in XCOM 2 are on a timer. I thought I’d hate this, but in reality it forces you to play more aggressively. You have to actively pursue your goals with every turn, taking risks to survive. I got through the last game by playing very conservatively, something which XCOM 2 refuses to let you do. The battles themselves are still hugely satisfying, with a simple class system which nonetheless allows for significant customisation. There’s a moment when your squaddies become predators rather than prey which us hugely exciting. The moment for me came when my sniper unlocked the ability to have a move refunded every time they make a kill. This meant that I could operate a strategy of whittling down the alien’s health with explosives before finishing them all off with my sniper, often going through my entire ammo pool in one round. Some may call this cheap, but I had to earn the ability to do this, by keeping my team alive long enough to develop these abilities.

A core part of XCOM is the metagame between missions, which sees you developing your base and researching new weapons and armour. This element was so satisfying in the last game and is even more so now. The sense of satisfaction from developing a new technology or building a new facility is intoxicating, all the more so because the decision about where to allocate resources is so risky. Resources are tight, particularly at the beginning and it’s more than possible to screw yourself over before a battle even begins. The core focus is on linking rebel cells into a global resistance. All the while, a bar counting up to the launch of the ADVENT project is above the map. This can be lowered in a variety of different ways, but it’s a constant reminder hanging over the player. A sense of urgency pervades the whole experience. Something about the XCOM gameplay loop of build/fight, build/fight is just so dang lovely.

The general visual design is decent, with some nasty new alien design and decent music. All told, the actual visual upgrade from the previous game is minimal, minor spit and polish aside. The biggest issue is punishing load times between missions; this is a pretty good disincentive against save-scumming, but I doubt this was intentional. A bit of added visual flair would be a neat little addition, but the general visual conservativeness doesn’t do much harm.

XCOM 2 is, pretty much, more of the same, but seemingly minor tweaks are more significant than they first seem. Strategy games often allow players to retreat to comfort zones, but XCOM 2 refuses to let you do so. It’s always pushing the player on, never allowing them to relax, which can make it an intense, but highly rewarding experience.

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Titan Souls for PS4, PS Vita, PC, OS X and Android

Titan Souls originated from a game jam, with the original prototype created in merely two days. Although expanded from these humble beginnings, the purity of vision which shines through Titan Souls demonstrates its origin. With the name Souls in the title you’d be forgiven that this is simply something riding on the coattails of Dark Souls, and whilst it was certainly a clear influence it’s still very much its own thing.

The plotting is very minimalistic, with the player simply taking control of a figure who must travel through a strange, empty land, along the way slaying the deadly ‘titans’ he encounters. These monsters don’t attack, in fact they will only fight after you’ve attacked them first, raising some interesting questions about who the real hero is here. This is a common enough theme, but the closest to a narrative hook the game can be said to have. The overall look is very simple but effective, primarily in the design of the titans themselves. An effective soundtrack also helps elevate the experience beyond its humble beginnings.

The core mechanics are incredibly simple. Played from a top-down Zelda style perspective, the player can dodge, sprint and fire an arrow. It is an arrow since you only have one, after firing it you must hold a button to pull it back to you to be fired again. The game is simply a series of boss fights. They’re deadly, fast and aggressive and a single hit kills you. In the game’s most interesting twist, the same applies to them. It only takes one strike on a boss’ weak spot to take them down, but getting a shot in on that weak spot is a hell of a challenge. This means that winning fights are usually over in seconds, but you’ll die over and over again getting to that point. You can’t move whilst firing or retrieving the arrow, so placement in the environment is key. These boss fights are brilliant, frantic and brutal and often seemingly impossible at first, until you learn their rhythms and how to manipulate them. They feel like a boss fight in Dark Souls or Bloodborne, whilst being mechanically nothing like them at all. The euphoria rush of taking down a boss you’ve been throwing yourself against is amazing. If my entire game time had been spent fighting these bosses, Titan Souls would be a perfect game, but there a couple of drawbacks, one not so serious and one more so.

The first drawback is the environments between fights. Clusters of fights are found in certain areas, but you’ve got to explore a decently sized environment to find them. The problem is that this exploration simply isn’t fun or satisfying. This is a fine looking game, but the environments aren’t interesting from a visual or design standpoint. Removing these sections entirely and reducing the game to exclusively a series of boss fights would have tightened up some of the flab. The bigger issue is the checkpointing. After dying you will wake up at a checkpoint near the boss arena. Sometimes these are right next to the boss room and sometimes it’s further away. The boss rooms are never more than 10 seconds from the checkpoint, but when you die as often as you do in this game it adds up. I think it’s trying to capture the bonfires/lanterns from the Soulsborne games, but those are different games. Titan Souls has a more arcade-y ‘just one more go’ feeling than those games, which is undermined by this delay. It may sound like a petty thing, but no one likes the feeling of their time being wasted and I felt that this really did. Simply respawning the player straight in the boss room would have been so much better.

Titan Souls is a very good game which falls short of greatness due to some frustrating issues. I liked it very much and the core concept is so strong that I hope they make another one, but more cut back and streamlined rather than more expansive as sequels generally are.

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Day of the Tentacle Remastered for PS4, PS Vita, PC, OS X, Linux and iOS

When it comes to adventure games, I’m a LucasArts man through and through. The first two Monkey Islands are a pair of my favourite games of all time and I really love Sam and Max too, but there are a lot I missed. The Day of the Tentacle is a very well renowned game which I missed first time around (I was two to be fair) so I was happy to see it pop up as a free PS+ game.

The Day of the Tentacle is actually a sequel to Maniac Mansion, one of the earliest Lucasarts games. That said, a few references aside I really didn’t feel like it held back the experience. The game opens with a sentient purple tentacle drinking the toxic run-off from the mansion of scientist Dr. Red Edison. This causes him to mutate, gaining massive intelligence and a desire to conquer the world. The nerdy and hapless Bernard, along with two friends, is summoned to the mansion to stop Purple Tentacle. The three set out in Dr. Red’s time machine to stop the Purple Tentacle from drinking the sludge, but a malfunction sees the three split up across time. Bernard remains in the present, the laid back roadie Hoagie is sent back 200 years to the signing of the United States Constitution and the deranged Laverne arrives 200 years into a dystopian future ruled by the tentacles. The three must work together across time to end the Purple Tentacle’s plans.

The whole thing is suitably silly and deranged for a Lucasarts game. I didn’t feel that it quite holds the cleverness of the Monkey Island games, particularly the cerebral and strange Monkey Island 2. It’s a lighter game, a more-pure comedy lacking in some of the genuinely heartfelt moments some of the other games have. The writing is vintage Tim Schafer, but I’m not sure if it carries the depth and humanity present in much of his other work. The Purple Tentacle itself isn’t quite enough of a presence throughout the game to come across as a genuine threat, but he’s still silly and over the top enough to be enjoyable. I liked the characters, particularly Laverne, a brilliantly unsettling, macabre and twisted figure.

This is a LucasArts SCUMM adventure game and so has all the strengths and flaws that entails. Controlling three figures across time, which can be switched at will, is a neat twist and leads to some interesting puzzles. Items can be freely swapped between the three, with the time travel element allowing events in the past to influence the future. Some of these time meddlings are amusingly clumsy, such as altering the US Constitution to ensure that there is a vacuum cleaner in the basement in the present or changing the US flag to create a tentacle costume. There are some brilliantly clever puzzle solutions, although it is naturally saddled with your classic ‘adventure game logic’ problems. The Day of the Tentacle contains one of the most ridiculous and obscure puzzle solutions I’ve seen since The Longest Journey’s ‘rubber ducky/subway key.’ I have no shame in saying that I freely used a guide whilst playing; I don’t have the time for the insane level of experimentation which would be needed to solve some of these puzzles.

The Remastered version for consoles actually works surprisingly well, with dragging the cursor around being way less irritating than I expected. You can freely switch between the remastered version, with updated visuals and music, as well as a cleaner interface, or the SCUMM original in all its glory. Call me a nostalgia bitch, but I preferred the SCUMM version. The new visuals are just a bit too clean; I liked the jagged edges of the original and seeing how expressive and vibrant the world and characters are with the limited technology. It really is a wonderful looking game in its original form, but if you’re not familiar with the SCUMM engine it may be a bit off putting. The music is really great, although again I preferred the original versions to the remastered versions. The voice acting is good too, hammy and over the top with not a degree of subtlety or nuance, as well it should be.

Without a nostalgic frame of reference, it’s difficult to talk about The Day of the Tentacle. I ran into a similar problem when I played the remaster of Grim Fandango. I just don’t have the time or inclination to play these games as they were meant to be played anymore, but even with regular usage of a guide I still enjoy them. The next LucasArts remaster is supposedly Full Throttle, another one I missed and I look forward to passively enjoying that one with a walkthrough too.

 

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Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture for PS4 and PC

I’m a bit of a defender of the ol’ ‘walking simulator.’ Where they don’t seek to engage through mechanics, they do so through atmosphere and story. A lot of them are bad, but often that badness is laid at the feet of lacking mechanics well in reality it’s that the story or world isn’t good enough. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has been out for a while, but it’s only recently I’ve got round to playing it. This is a game which does show some annoying tropes of the genre, but through excellent storytelling and an unbeatable atmosphere manages to stand as an excellent experience.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture takes place during the 1980s, in and around a deserted Shropshire village named Yaughton. All the people are gone and in their place are dancing and shimmering balls of light, whilst ghostly voices and apparitions fill in the player on what befell the town. Yes, you discover the strange events that led to this situation, but you also drop into a lot of smaller, more personal stories about the people who lived in this town. They may not all be tied into the grand events that underpin the story, but everyone in Yaughton is the protagonist of their own lives with their own joys and tragedies.

I won’t go into specifics of the story too much, but suffice it to say that the world of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is extremely powerful. Listening to the shadows of the townsfolk speak about everything going on in their lives provide snippets of information which form part of a larger patchwork whole. I’m sure there are elements I missed; I wasn’t exhaustive in my approach to this game for reasons I’ll mention later, but the sense of piecing together the prior events is very satisfying. Despite never physically appearing in the game, some of these ordinary Shropshire residents’ stories genuinely moved me.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture doesn’t make any pretence to be a puzzle game or anything like that; this is a game where you wander about and that’s all. Thankfully, the setting is unbelievably beautiful and captures how stunningly lovely these sleepy corners of England can be. Nowhere is quite as picturesque and well laid out as Yaughton, but it’s about creating a feeling for a place rather than a faithful representation. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture triggered an odd nostalgia in me, which is strange as I have never lived in a place like Yaughton. There’s something buried into the national psyche that seems to respond to places as quintessentially ‘English’ as this. This nostalgia can manifest in very negative ways, such as calls to return to a mythic past which only worked for one specific demographic, but it’s hard to deny it’s power.

The biggest flaw of this game is an odd one, because it strikes me as an intentional design choice and I totally understand why they did it; your walk speed is too slow. The reason for this is obvious; Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a beautiful, leisurely game and should not be experienced whilst sprinting all over the place like the Doom Marine. I get it, I really do, but the walk speed is just on the edge of annoying. You can ‘sprint’, but in reality this is little more than a brisk walk. This makes backtracking feel far less appealing. I explored pretty thoroughly in the first half, but towards the back end I cut down on this and simply followed the set path. Some sort of system where you must walk slowly the first time you travel somewhere but can speed up whenever you return could have worked? I don’t know, I’m not a game designer, but the current speed is a problem.

To bring it back onto a positive, I want to mention the music, which is nothing short of stunning. A sweeping orchestral soundtrack backed by a full choir truly elevates the experience. I’ve played lots of games with good soundtracks before; Ocarina of Time is my favourite game soundtrack ever, but the game would still be great without it. Not since Thomas Was Alone have I played a game where the music is so tied into my enjoyment of a game. The game is frequently quiet, but at certain moments the orchestra will kick in with full force to an extent that’s actually breath-taking. If taken simply as an interactive showcase for composer Jessica Curry’s work, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a worthwhile experience.

If you hate walking simulators and everything they stand for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture won’t change your mind. I played it as a palate cleanser between big AAA releases, something I think I’m going to do more. I have less time to play games these days so I’ve been sticking mostly to the big releases this past year, meaning I have a backlog of cool indie games to explore. This is a game worth it for the soundtrack alone, but the unsettling and gorgeous village of Yaughton is a worthwhile place to spend a couple of hours.

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Watch Dogs 2 for PS4, Xbox One and PC

The original Watch Dogs is a game viewed harshly by history. Several factors contributed to this and to be fair a good number of these were Ubisoft’s own stupid fault. The pressures of a ridiculous level of hype, being one of the first major releases for the current console generation, an obnoxious ad campaign (iconic hat etc) and a direct attempt to position itself against GTA V, a contest it could never have possibly won, conspired to have Watch Dogs remembered as a bad game. The thing is, I don’t think it was a bad game. Sure, people were tired of the Ubisoft formula by this point and the story was pretty dire, but the core mechanics and concept were strong. Many, including myself, predicted that a sequel to Watch Dogs could build upon this solid foundation and potentially provide a similar leap to what was seen in the jump from Assassin’s Creed to Assassin’s Creed II. Rather surprisingly, it’s an even bigger leap. Watch Dogs 2 is possibly my game of the year and my favourite Ubisoft open world game since Black Flag.
Watch Dogs 2 swaps out it’s drab Chicago setting and utterly unlikeable and uncharismatic protagonist for the sunny and metropolitan San Francisco and the even sunnier dispositioned Marcus Holloway. After the events of the first game, Blume Corporation took it’s hit but has still managed to spread it’s CTOS city operating system around the world. Marcus is a young hacker who, at the beginning of the game joins DedSec, a Hacker collective with a slick marketing campaign to spread their message of dissent against those in Silicon Valley who seek to control and manipulate the populace. Marcus and a small group of odd-ball hacker pals start targeting major businesses with clear analogues to Facebook, Google, SpaceX etc. and soon draw the attention of Blume’s CTO Dusan Nemec, who seeks to crush DedSec any way he can.

The actual plot of Watch Dogs 2 is fine. It’s a bit amorphous as Ubisoft open world games generally are by design and the Silicon Valley parody stuff is more cute than actually perceptive, perhaps excepting a brilliant commentary on the thinly veiled racism that can plague tech communities. It’s functional and enjoyable and flows naturally, a basic expectation which frankly hasn’t been seen in a Ubisoft open world game since…Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood maybe? There is a bizarre shift into darker territory which is introduced and abandoned in the space of about 45 minutes, with the rest of the game holding a breezy and irreverent turn. This section is something of a blight on this game, feeling like a distasteful reminder of Aiden Pierce’s grim story of the original. The reason I enjoyed Watch Dogs 2’s story so much are the characters. Marcus is the best Ubisoft protagonist since Ezio; his seemingly unrelenting positivity is infectious and his unconditional and enthusiastic support for his friends is unbelievably endearing. He’s impossible not to root for. The same goes for the supporting cast, with Ubisoft going a long way to prove how important diversity is in creating an interesting narrative. When your core cast are all from different places and have different lived experiences, their interactions become more nuanced and complex. It’s pretty basic really. I came to love all of the core DedSec crew, from Sitara the acerbic but loyal brand manager for DedSec, to Josh the hacking prodigy who is clearly somewhere on the autistic spectrum, to Horatio the laid back and calming leader of the outfit. The star has to be Wrench, who wears a mask at all times which display emojis to show his feelings. I know it sounds awful, but he’s a massively endearing character. Yes, he’s the constantly wisecracking comic relief but there’s a lot more to him than that and he’s involved in a few of the story’s most heartfelt moments. These characters and more are brilliantly written and presented with nuance and a fantastic voice acting performance; this is BioWare levels of characterisation, seen for the first time from Ubisoft.
Although Watch Dogs 2 has a funny and light tone (mostly) throughout, it still shows a startling willingness to tackle more serious issues, particularly racism. Marcus is an African-American and I had in all honesty expected Ubisoft to simply avoid the addressing the elephant in the room; this is a story with all sort of elements which intersect with racism in America but I honestly didn’t think they’d have the bravery to explore it directly. Marcus is a positive and optimistic person, dealing with the racism around him with a sort of world weary sardonic humour, but there’s a current of anger running through him which is electrifying to watch. A lot of this comes from his relationship with Horatio, who is also black, with scenes following only the two showing how differently they have been forced to view their surroundings to others around them, particularly in the predominantly white Silicon Valley. I’m a white guy in England; I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America, but Watch Dogs 2 makes a stab at helping me understand and that’s a noble goal for game development if ever I’ve heard one.

So, enough harping on about the story. Watch Dogs 2’s core gameplay loop is fairly simple; drive to a place and hack into it somehow, usually requiring a physical presence from the player at some point. You have a huge range of options at your disposal, with a genuinely open approach to the game design. Compare this to Assassin’s Creed which has increasingly about following one ‘correct’ path, Watch Dogs 2 is content to let you approach objectives with remarkable freedom. All of your phone hacking abilities from the first game are back, so you’ll be hacking security cameras, blowing up fuse boxes to incapacitate guards and manipulating vehicles and machinery. Added to your arsenal are a little RC car which can be used to complete ‘physical hacks’ but is extremely vulnerable if spotted as well as a drone which can be used to scan the environment and used as a platform from which to launch more powerful hacks. Alongside Marcus himself, you essentially have three player characters in operation at any one time. In this sense, Watch Dogs 2 actually surpasses GTA V; I liked the three-character structure there, but it was mostly narrative and missions which genuinely took advantage of it were pretty rare. In Watch Dogs 2, this multi-part structure is essential. If you use the RC car well, there are many missions where you need never enter the area at all. When you do need to get your hands dirty, there are a lot of weapons available but I didn’t ever use any but the trusty stun gun. Sure, you have your requisite heavy weaponry, but the game is so much more fun when treated as a stealth experience and dishing out mass murder with grenade launchers just feels wrong and completely out of synch with the Marcus we know. It is clear that Ubisoft inserted these weapons into Watch Dogs 2 because it’s an open world game and that’s just what you do, but they’re not fun to use and an expansion of non-lethal options would have been a better use of resources. There is a levelling up system, which is fine and works pretty much as you’d expect.

Watch Dogs 2 is a generous game, with a lengthy and exciting main campaign which switches things up regularly to keep everything fresh. Watch Dogs 2 also has the best side content in a Ubisoft game for years. There are loads of cool side missions, each multi-part with their own stories, fully voice acted and generally approached with almost the same care as the main missions. There’re definitely far fewer side tasks in Watch Dogs 2 to the last game, but what is here is significantly better. Alongside that you have a whole load of other activities, pretty much all of which (sailboat racing aside) are fun. Rather than traditional city races, you instead complete stunt courses showcasing areas of the environment you may otherwise miss and these are genuinely the most fun I’ve ever had with driving side missions in an open world game. Drone races are fun too, again mostly serving to show off the environment. Even the collectibles, which provide points for the upgrade system, are usually hidden behind a cool hacking puzzle. I didn’t have the time to 100% Watch Dogs 2, but I wish I did because Watch Dogs 2 bats one of the highest averages for quality to quantity I’ve seen in an open world game.

Watch Dogs 2 got some flack on release for excessive texture pop in on a standard PS4 (as opposed to a PS4 Pro). Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but Watch Dogs 2 has put in a technically excellent performance for me. It looks lovely, particularly the wonderful character models, and the frame rate was solid throughout. Other games I’m currently playing are clearly struggling on the PS4 hardware (more to follow on those soon), but I genuinely didn’t feel that way in Watch Dogs 2. San Francisco is a great setting and it’s fun to take in its hipster atmosphere. There are all sorts of lovely hidden details in this game, such as a bad poetry competition to be found in the game’s parody of Burning Man, or random passers-by photobombing you as you take selfies. Considering that this was an inevitable game churned out by a corporate AAA machine, there’s a surprising amount of love poured into Watch Dogs 2.

Watch Dogs 2 didn’t sell particularly well, probably for a few reasons, such as proximity to major releases like Call of Duty, Battlefield and Final Fantasy XV, but in part it is surely a reaction to the disappointing first game. I get it, Watch Dogs was an unlikeable experience. It’s a bit different to Assassin’s Creed because whilst the first game was deeply flawed, the potential was obvious and experience generally likeable despite that. Watch Dogs just wasn’t charming or exciting the way Assassin’s Creed was, but don’t let that put you off Watch Dogs 2. This is a game where it feels like Ubisoft have learnt the lessons of their flawed open world design and rectified the majority of those problems; I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next and hoping poor sales don’t put Ubisoft off Watch Dogs 3.

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Dishonored 2 for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Before writing this I looked back at my old review for the first Dishonored and was surprised by how negative it read. My memories of it are quite fond, but clearly something about it turned me off whilst I was playing. Dishonored 2 still contains a fair few of the foibles of the first game, but is overall a much stronger experience, supported by some truly brilliant level design.

Dishonored 2 takes place 15 years after the conclusion of the first game and assumes that you had the ‘Low Chaos’ happy ending, with Emily Kaldwin sat on her mother’s throne with her father Corvo at her side. Since the events of the first game, Corvo has been training Emily to defend herself in case any situations arise again  like those of the first game. Emily’s rule has been shaken by a series of murders across the Empire of Emily Kaldwin’s enemies by a murderer known as the ‘Crown Killer.’ Suspicion naturally falls upon Emily and her assassin father, but it seems a conspiracy is afoot to damage Emily’s reputation. The conspiracy comes to a head when the palace is invaded by Delilah Copperspoon, a witch who players may remember from the DLCs for the first game, who takes the palace claiming to be Emily’s aunt. With the help of traitors in Emily’s midst, Delilah seizes the throne and encases either Emily or Corvo in stone, with the player choosing who to play as for the duration of the game. The plot plays out the same however, with Emily or Corvo managing to escape the palace to head to Karnaka, a city on the Southernmost continent of Serkonos where the first murders by the ‘Crown Killer’ took place. On the journey, Emily or Corvo are visited (or revisited) by The Outsider, who places their mark upon them, granting them powers to help them undercover the conspiracy against Emily and, eventually, take down Delilah.

There’s a lot to like in Dishonored 2’s story, but I still felt a bit let down. The best storytelling in the series remains in the Daud DLCs for the original. I’ve only played as Emily so far (I’ll replay as Corvo at some point), but she’s a strong enough protagonist. I didn’t really get much sense for who she is as a person and the narrative opportunities inherent of playing a literal Empress hiding out among the poorest and most destitute in the furthest corner of her Empire isn’t really explored as fully as it should. The influence of this experience upon Emily and her approach to rule is touched upon, but it really should have been the emotional core of the story. As it stands, Dishonored 2 doesn’t really have an emotional core. The characters a likeable enough, but none are really given time to develop. Far too much world building is consigned to books and letters; these are fine as supplements, but I feel they’re a bit too central here. Dishonored 2 is an undoubtedly competent storytelling experience, but I kept waiting for a moment when the whole thing clicked for me and it never did. It’s a fascinating world that Arkane has created here, but it still feels a bit underused.

Mechanically things are largely unchanged. Emily does feel slightly different to play as than Corvo, but not drastically. The core mechanics were rock solid in the original and they’re rock solid here too. Teleporting all over the place never gets old. There are some little quality of life tweaks which I appreciated, such as the ability to easily quick save and quick load at almost any time. There are some stealth games which are more fun when things go wrong and you should just run with it, but I don’t think Dishonored 2 is one of those games. The ability to quickly reload after screwing up is a lovely little quality of life change. Possibly my biggest issue with the first Dishonored was the limited mana when it came to using your powers. I found myself regularly drained of the ability to use any powers. This happened far less in Dishonored 2. I don’t know if this is because your mana bar is larger, whether powers drain it less or simply that the potions which refill it are more plentiful, but it didn’t happen nearly as much as it did in the first game. Dishonored 2 is more about mechanical refinement rather than revolution, which is fine because that’s really all it needed.

The big step up can be found in the level design. Dishonored is at its best when in enclosed locations, mansions and palaces and the like. Prowling the streets is less fun and makes stealth far more a matter of trial and error. Karnaka’s streets are less annoying than Dunwall’s, but the best moments are still inside and the balance felt better tipped towards these sort of locations in Dishonored 2. The standout has been one of 2016 gaming’s big discussion points; The Clockwork Mansion. The Clockwork Mansion is the mansion of evil genius inventor Kiren Jindosh and is designed to change and transform with the pull of many different switches spread around the house, all powered by elaborate clockwork. This is the best level, but far from the only stand out. There are some wonderfully elaborate and devilishly complex locales which are a joy to explore. Hunting down collectibles is almost always boring, but Dishonored 2’s Runes and Bonecharms, found by equipping the possessed heart of the former Empress, are a joy to find. The first reason is that they’re actually useful; Runes are used to upgrade and unlock your abilities and Bonecharms provide passive bonuses. The second reason is that these Runes and Bonecharms are usually placed in interesting locations, locations which you’d almost certainly miss if you skipped the collectibles. Dishonored 2 nudges you towards fully experiencing its maps without making it feel like an obligation; a very tricky thing to pull off.

Dishonored 2 is a lovely looking game, even playing on my standard PS4. Karnaka is a location more to my taste than the rather drab Victorian London-esque setting of Dunwall. Karnaka feels a bit more Mediterranean, perhaps with elements of North Africa. There’s a visual flair to this game which makes prowling around it’s locations all the more immersive and exciting. The excitement of genuinely not knowing what weird thing you’ll see around the next corner is a huge draw, with no lacklustre locales like the original’s Flooded District. The voice acting is good, but hardly exceptional. It has a pointlessly all-star cast. Sam Rockwell plays a corrupt military commander, Pedro Pascal a gang leader and Rosario Dawson as the one who smuggles you out of Dunwall. They do a fine job, but no better than any professional voice actor would have done. We’re not quite as pointlessly star studded as Destiny (remember that Bill Nighy was in that game?), but the money spent on these big names would have been better spent on some more NPC voice actors, who recur over and over again.

Dishonored 2 is a major improvement on the first game, although I must say I still don’t really ‘get’ this series. I like it, but a lot of people love it and I just, well, don’t. Still, considering the quality of the first game’s DLC I’ll certainly be keeping my copy to see where they go next.

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Minecraft: Story Mode for PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC, OS X, iOS and Android

So…this was a weird one. I have no particular love for the Minecraft brand; I’ve dabbled and I have huge respect for it as a game and learning tool, but it’s just not for me. Telltale’s brand of narrative games are almost as far from the huge freedom of Minecraft that you can get, but I fancied a narrative game to play over 5 episodes and thought what the hell. I bit off a bit more than I could chew because it wasn’t long until the series was extended to 8. Last year I was surprised to find myself enjoying Tales from the Borderlands much more than Game of Thrones despite massively preferring the latter franchise and this year I’ve been surprised to find myself enjoying Minecraft: Story Mode far more than Telltale’s Batman.

Minecraft: Story Mode is split into two distinct arcs across the first and final halves of the season. The protagonist is Jesse, male or female, who alongside his friends and trusty pet/bestie Reuben (a pig) enters a building competition in his home town. It isn’t long before Jesse is pulled into world changing events as maniacal genius Ivor releases a ‘Wither Storm’, a huge creature which grows continuingly, destroying the land. Jesse and his friends set forth to find the Order of the Stone, legendary warriors who slew the Ender Dragon many years earlier for their help in stopping the Wither Storm. The second half sees Jesse and his friends expelled from their world and unable to find their way back, wandering between a series of strange alternate worlds on their quest back home.

Recent Telltale games have struggled with openings and Minecraft: Story Mode is no exception. The tone is oddly dark and portentous; I had been expecting a lighter and breezier affair. The whole Wither Storm arc doesn’t really work; the general aesthetic doesn’t match a bizarre sense of impending doom the game aims for and the characters are too broad to carry this sort of emotional range needed to support this kind of story. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the characters, but most never get beyond that point of likeability into being something more interesting. There’s a general feeling that things just aren’t as funny as they should be. There are some heartfelt moments towards the end of the first arc when I realised I was genuinely invested in what was going on, but it just takes too long to get there. There are some great moments in this first arc, but it is in the second that the potential for this series comes into its own. Seeing Jesse and his friends travelling to a new world each episode opens up the range of scenarios that can be explored and the most interesting moments can be found here. From a murder mystery pastiche in a mansion to a rogue AI to a Hunger Games style tournament, there’s a feeling of looseness and fun in the final four episodes somewhat lacking in the earlier ones. If Telltale choose to do a second season (and I would be surprised if they didn’t) I hope that this is the approach they stick with.

Minecraft: Story Mode is a Telltale game and plays as such. There are some nods towards the normal Minecraft experience; there are crafting tables and you will sometimes have to…y’know, craft things, but this is very limited. You are essentially just arranging the items you will have picked up automatically to advance the game in a particular order. There’s nothing more to it than that. There are hints towards a more full-fledged combat system than the usual QTEs, but it’s not particularly fun and drops off towards the end. If ever there was a time to get out of the comfort zone and open up the experience a bit, it was here, but Telltale played it safe and stuck with the formula. It’s one that worked well, but it’s hard not to feel that diminishing returns are setting in, or perhaps already had set in a while ago.

The blocky look of Minecraft works surprisingly well, particularly in the character models which are much more expressive than you would expect. The voice acting is to a high standard as it has to be for this sort of game. I normally choose female characters in games, but I had to go for the male this time so I could hear Patton Oswalt, who I’m very fond of, as Jesse. He does a great job and the supporting cast do too although I struggle to think of any truly stand out performances. Telltale games are often unforgivably janky, with low framerates and dodgy textures. Minecraft: Story Mode doesn’t really have this problem, probably due to the simpler art style and runs as well as a game like this should. The music was surprisingly good too, with lots of keyboard and synths making action scenes genuinely exciting.

Minecraft: Story Mode does very much feel like Telltale on autopilot but is a decent enough experience despite all that. I enjoyed the hour or so a week I played with my fiancé, an approach which perhaps softens some of the flaws. This is far from the best Telltale game and doesn’t come close to The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us or Tales from the Borderlands, but it’s still likeable enough anyway.

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