Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “action game”

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for Switch and Wii U

I don’t even know how to go about reviewing this game. Zelda is my favourite game series, but it’s hard to deny that it’s been stuck in a rut. I think the last genuine classic is almost 15 years old; Wind Waker. The following games have been good, even great, but have not captured me as much as the games that preceded it. There were two major transformative moments in the series prior to this year; 1991’s SNES classic A Link to the Past and the seminal 1997 Ocarina of Time on the N64. Since then, the series has stayed roughly within the established formula. Now, almost 20 years later, the third transformative moment for the series has arrived with Breath of the Wild. It’s not perfect, there are definite roughs around the edges, but Breath of the Wild is a game changer both for the series and open world game design in general.

I think Breath of the Wild has the greatest open world ever made because it is truly open. Even in GTA you can’t enter all the buildings, but if everything you see in Breath of the Wild is attainable, everything is reachable, everything is tangible. There was a moment I headed towards a shrine which had popped up on my sensor. I later realised that the story would have taken me to its location eventually, outside a gate near one of the main villages. Instead, I climbed up a mountain and down again to my destination, seeing a glimpse of strange ruins I would come to later. On my way up the mountain I came to a plateau upon which I had a perfect view of Death Mountain, Hyrule laid out before it. I’m not ashamed to say I got a bit teary; this was the Zelda game I dreamed about as a child, the game I wanted Twilight Princess to be and it never could. The plateau I was on served no real purpose, it wasn’t how you were clearly intended to reach this shine, but it was there and it was gorgeous and I think Nintendo put it there on purpose. The world is massive, but still feels handcrafted. I don’t think Nintendo have even heard the word procedural generation. This is the Nintendo difference, this is why I will always love this company, for all they can be infuriating.

There has been a rigid Zelda formula since A Link to the Past. You explore a bit, you do a dungeon, you get an item, you beat a boss, you explore a bit, you do a dungeon, you get an item, you beat a boss etc. There’s usually a major focus shift a bit of the way through, like A Link to the Past’s Dark World or Ocarina of Time’s 7 year timeline jump, and then you do the same thing. It’s not a bad structure by any stretch, but the spirit of adventure of the original NES game was missing. Breath of the Wild abandons the formula almost entirely. Dungeons don’t really exist anymore and are replaced with Shrines scattered around the map. There are 120 in total and most contain some kind of puzzle. Some a very brief and some are like mini-dungeons and each give you an item which can either put towards giving yourself a Heart Container or expanding your stamina wheel. There are four larger dungeon-like areas, the nature of which I will not spoil, but they never reach the scale of the previous games’ dungeons. The puzzles themselves work very differently; you no longer have a set of equipable items you use to solve a dungeon’s puzzles. That design locks you into a particular path and you can tackle Breath of the Wild’s challenges in any order you like. Instead, you are given almost all of your tools in the first hour and sent out into the world. These powers are linked to your mythical Shiekah Slate and can do things like manipulate metal objects, pause time for a moving object, freeze ice and others. The puzzles are much more physics based and designed differently to traditional Zelda puzzles, often with multiple solutions, reminding me more of something like Portal or The Talos Principle.

Zelda games have long had a clear divide between exploration and puzzling, with the two halves of the games kept distinct through the dungeon structure. Breath of the Wild unifies the two, with a little and often approach to puzzling rather than dense and lengthy challenges. Initially I saw this an entirely positive thing; some of the puzzles are truly brilliant, but as time went on my opinion shifted somewhat. There may be 120 shrines (and the four mini-dungeons), but many of these shrines (too many) are combat focused and for a lot finding the shrine itself is the puzzle. All shrines have the same visual design and music, meaning that by the end I was feeling a bit like I’d seen it all before. A few fewer shrines and more themed and expansive dungeons may have been a better approach and I hope this is what they do with the sequel. The shift to shrines from a few massive dungeons is a good thing, but I think a slightly better balance could have been struck.

Link is the most manoeuvrable and fun to control he’s even been in 3D. Almost any surface is climbable, limited only by your upgradable stamina wheel, and any height can be used as a platform to glide from with your sailcloth. This is the most tangible open world since Metal Gear Solid V. Since I finished Zelda I’ve started playing Horizon: Zero Dawn, and whilst I’m enjoying it, it feels limited after Breath of the Wild. Breath of the Wild is entirely laissez-faire about how you approach its world. If you want to climb over the mountain in front of you rather than following a path wending round it, feel free. Many open world games use mountains and rivers to guide and block your exploration, to provide barriers, but Zelda simply places them as another challenge. Exploration is almost always rewarded, maybe with a shrine or with a Korok seed which you use to expand your inventory. If you see an interesting looking spot and wonder if there’s something cool up there, there almost always is. I love exploring in games, but many open world games are unwilling to remove the leash. Even games I love like The Witcher 3 would be very hard to play without waypoints, with a world designed in such a way that you need a map to get around. Early in the game, you will be sent to go through a valley between two mountains and then get directions. You don’t need a glowing marker to show you where to go, you can just look at the key landmark. There are more HUD options if you want them, but I played very minimalist, navigating by directions from passers-by and environmental clues. The last game I bothered to do this with is Morrowind.

This openness extends to the combat, which is another significant departure from previous games. In previous games you would generally have one sword, two at most, with which to fight. I mean, sure you could whack things with the Biggoron Hammer in Ocarina of Time, but why would you when the Master Sword is better and quicker? Breath of the Wild has an aggressive weapon durability system, which has been controversial. I totally get why people would hate it: I thought I would and sort of did myself at first. Your weapons are ridiculously brittle, with many weapons barely surviving a single protracted encounter before they literally shatter, never to be seen again. Breath of the Wild isn’t a game about acquiring loot and becoming more powerful; the difficulty curve instead fluctuates. There will be moments where you are powerful, fully buffed from food, quiver filled with arrows, powerful weapon at your side when you can take on the world. There will be times when you are low on health, depleted and with no weapon of any value. Breath of the Wild nudges you away from playing one particular way, from simply approaching each encounter by charging in with a sword. You don’t want to waste your finite resource of the weapon for no reason. You are instead encouraged to be clever, using the environment or stealth to clear areas. There’s something of Metal Gear Solid V’s vast toolbox of tricks in Breath of the Wild’s design. Some may find this nudging oppressive; if I want to charge in and just use a sword than why should the game stop me having fun? I see their point, but I don’t think I would have experimented as much as I did if I didn’t have to by necessity. Other games would teach you these mechanics through pop up or tutorials, Breath of the Wild teaches you to play smart by necessity. The actual melee combat itself is pretty basic, and feels like a step backwards from Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, although the game is more about encouraging you to approach enemies in a variety of ways. Using the bow feels better in Breath of the Wild than it ever has before.

The biggest issue with the combat is a lack of enemy variety compared to previous games, with creatures like Re-Deads, Darknuts and Dodongos missing, with the world populated almost entirely with Bokobins, Moblins and Lizfalos.

One element I was very dubious of before release were the crafting and survival mechanics. I generally hate these in most games, but there’s a tactile charm to everything which makes even these irksome mechanics somehow delightful. Rather than collecting hearts from chopping grass, you heal from meals that you cook over a fire, which can also provide other buffs. Most games would just do this through a menu, with the outcome of your cooking clear based on your ingredients. Zelda is cheerfully chaotic, with cooking literally done by holding up to five items, dropping them in a pot and taking what comes out. Experimentation is rewarded and the buffs are considerable. There are areas which are too warm or cold for Link to survive, so these can be alleviated with particular outfits or foods. Zelda did something impossible; it actually made me enjoy crafting and survival. It’s essential that you take these mechanics seriously too because this game can be hard. It’s the hardest Zelda game since…Link’s Awakening maybe? It’s never cruel or capricious however and generous with autosaves.

Breath of the Wild doesn’t have the protracted opening for which most 3D Zelda games are guilty. Link awakens in a strange chamber and emerges into a Hyrule devastated by the arrival of Calamity Ganon. No clear timeline placement is offered, but the implication is that Breath of the Wild may be late in the timeline, as Ganon has abandoned any vestige of humanity or intelligence as Ganondorf, descending instead into as primal force of sheer evil. 100 years before, Hyrule had been overrun when Calamity Ganon turned the kingdom’s own highly advanced defensive Guardians against their masters. Link must piece together what happened 100 years ago and put an end to Calamity Ganon as it lurks in the ruins of Hyrule Castle.

Zelda has never had complex plots, but at their best they tap into a sense of epic destiny. Breath of the Wild is, in many ways, post-apocalyptic, and there’s a sense of melancholy and loss which pervades the whole thing. I had worried before release that Breath of the Wild would be a barren wasteland and would lack the loveable cast of weirdos which help make the series so special. Happily, this is not the case, with a cast as entertaining and eccentric as we’ve come to expect. Standouts include the charmingly positive Zora Prince Sidon and the intimidating Gerudo warrior Urbosa. The minor cast has some real stars too; I’m glad to see that the proud Zelda tradition of ridiculously effeminate carpenters is alive and well. Still, the actual plot is a bit underwhelming. We’re introduced to a key supporting player in each of the game’s four main dungeon locations, with their own subquests attached and I had been expecting, and hoping, that the game would return to them in the conclusion. The open structure and ability to approach the goals in any order make a story which feels more like a series of vignettes than an epic adventure. Nothing much can really change or grow. The lack of a true villain doesn’t help, with the mindless fury of Calamity Ganon never making anywhere near as much as an impact as Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker’s Ganondorf, or the titular Majora’s Mask.

The majesty of the open world would be nothing if it didn’t look incredible, but it really does. This is the best looking Zelda since Wind Waker, with an art style which falls somewhere between Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. I played it on the Switch and it looks amazing both on the TV and on the little screen, with beautiful bright colours and truly stunning art direction. The characters are also brilliantly expressive and funny, with charming animations. The music is minimalistic but wonderful. This isn’t a triumphant soundtrack I’ll listen to over and over again like Wind Waker and I don’t think it’s going to inspire complex tributes like Majora’s Mask, but it’s the perfect soundtrack for the game it is. A booming orchestral score would feel out of place in this Hyrule, but there are some lovely tunes in a lot of the towns and villages. Some are entirely new and some are truly stunning re-workings of songs from previous games. There are some problems; Breath of the Wild introduces voice acting to the series for the first time and the result is…mixed. Some supporting characters, particularly in the Gorons and Gerudo sound perfectly fine, but a few too many major characters are very stilted. I hated Zelda’s voice, which was breathy and a bit pathetic sounding. There are also regular framerate drops, particularly in chaotic scenes and when docked in TV mode. It’s not awful and anyone who tells you it ruins the game is an idiot who doesn’t deserve videogames, but it would undeniably be better if the framerate was more solid.

So, in summary. Breath of the Wild isn’t perfect, because no game is. What it does do is transcend its flaws, offering something which feels truly new whilst respecting the storied past of this great series. It’s a wonderful experience and Nintendo’s best game since Super Mario Galaxy. People may knock the Switch line up for only having one big game, but if you must launch a console with only one game it might as well be one of the greatest of all time.

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Gravity Rush 2 for PS4

Gravity Rush 2 is a game which veers between delightful and infuriating pretty consistently throughout its playtime, but just about balances out on delightful. I played the remastered PS4 version of the Vita original last year and those hoping that leaving a handheld for the PS4 would lead to a massive upgrade may be disappointed. Everything is shinier and bigger, but the core mechanics are the same as they were on the Vita. This leads to a game which somehow manages to have a truly magnificent sense of scale but also, at times, feel a bit small and unambitious.

Gravity Rush 2 picks up with a powerless Kat in the travelling mining colony of Banga, having been flung from Hekseville by a gravity story along with Raven and Syd. It isn’t long before she regains her powers and the colony arrive at the city of Jirga Para Lhao, a beautiful city nonetheless riven my terrible inequality and ruled by an uncaring elite. Kat sets about the save the poor of the city. The closing chapters of the game also address the dangling thread of Kat’s past and how she first came to crash, amnesiac, into Hekseville at the beginning of the first game.

The plot of Gravity Rush 2 is, overall, better than the first, but it still feels a bit incoherent. The inequality storyline in Jirga Para Lhao is easily the best part. The first game was at its best when it grounded itself in the familiar and the same is the case here. A return to Hekseville in the second half of the game strays into more bizarre territory, with a conclusion which dips into Akira-esque body horror. The final section details Kat’s backstory and it is here that the game descends into utter nonsense. The lore of this series is fairly complex and convoluted, much more than it needs to be. Gravity Rush is at its best when Kat is dealing with genuine human problems in beautiful settings. A lot of this is because Kat is so likeable as a character. She is, in many ways, your classic doofy wacky anime girl, but there’s a spine of genuine empathy and toughness which elevates her beyond that. The supporting cast is extensive, probably too much so, but there are some really loveable characters here. None are developed as well as they should be, particularly the villain of the second section who, whilst intriguing, is introduced and dispatched before we get a solid understanding of who he is.

From a mechanical stand point things are much the same, for better or for worse. Soaring through the skies is a joy, particularly in the new, more vertical oriented Jirga Para Lhao. The combat also feels a bit tightened up; I didn’t find myself soaring past enemies and missing entirely quite as much as I did in the last game. I honestly couldn’t tell you how they tightened this up, but clearly they did something because the combat actually feels good in this game which it didn’t really in the last one. A series of excellent boss fights showcase the combat best, with the level of frantic madness and escalation beginning to stray into Platinum Games territory. They’re exciting, challenging and, most importantly, really fun. New gravity powers are introduced in the ability to switch between different ‘gravity styles.’ Alongside the default we’re familiar with, Kat can also switch into the ‘Lunar style’, which makes her lighter and floatier with a range of new combat techniques, as well as ‘Jupiter style’ which makes her heavier and more powerful. Switching on the fly between the three lends combat a more tactical edge and by the end I was freely switching between the three during all combat encounters. Many games like this offer you loads of powers but you only really use a few, but I found myself using almost the entire toolbox of Gravity Rush 2, which is impressive.

There is a lot to do in this game, with 27 core main story quests and many more side quests. Some are simply fun little challenges to earn experience for powering up, but a lot are more involved, containing story to flesh out the world and the characters. All round, the mission design is the game’s biggest flaw. Some of the missions are brilliant and exciting, using the gravity powers in a range of interesting and fun ways. A baffling number however, both in the story and in side missions, strip your powers from you. This is pretty much always a bad design decision; feeling powerless is not fun in a game about the joy of having super powers. To make matters worse, a lot of the time these are stealth missions, which are all awful. Stealth missions in non-stealth games were so universally bad that it became a bit of a cliché a few years ago and they started to drop off. After Final Fantasy XV did the same thing late last year, I’m scared that the dodgy stealth mission is making a comeback. Kat doesn’t control subtly, she moves in big swinging motions, which is fine because the game is meant to be about soaring through the sky, but it doesn’t work for stealth.

Visually Gravity Rush 2 is lovely, and Jirga Para Lhao deserves to be considered alongside the best cities in gaming. The mid game return to the smaller, less vertical Heskeville is therefore underwhelming, which makes sense; Heskeville was designed for a PS Vita and Jirga Para Lhao for the PS4. As soon as I was taken from Jirga Para Lhao I wanted to go back. The comic book story panels are back, which is fine, with the characters still babbling in their vaguely French sounding nonsense language. The music is lovely, with a lot of very catchy new tunes around Jirga Para Lhao. I liked the character designs much more than the last game, particularly for Lisa, the matriarch for the mining community of Banga. Gravity Rush 2 does still look like an upscaled Vita game and I suspect it was produced for around the same budget as the first game. It’s no visual marvel, but for a game where the camera spins around so much a steady frame rate is pretty vital for avoiding nausea and it remained good throughout.

Gravity Rush 2 is a game which is intensely likeable, but too irritating to love. The charming world, characters and core mechanics do manage to save it from being dragged down too far by some very suspect mission design and storytelling, and I still feel that this series has yet to reach its true potential.

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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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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a strong release surrounded by little irritations. On a mechanical and level design basis this is possibly the best that Deus Ex has ever been, but in many other ways it’s hard not to feel that Mankind Divided is a bit lacking, holding far too much back for a sequel or, worse, DLC.

Mankind Divided takes place a couple of years after Human Revolution, with our reluctant augmented hero Adam Jensen now working for Interpol in Prague. However, he is a double agent, also working for the hacker group known as The Juggernaut Collective who seek to expose the Illuminati Jensen discovered in Human Revolution. The Incident of two years before, where every augmented person in the world was thrown into a murderous rage by a force beyond their control, has left a world deeply distrustful of augs, with Prague being among the most repressive places, descending into a police state. A run in with a mysterious group of mercenaries in Dubai and a terrorist attack on a train station sees Jensen thrown back into the fray, with the future of all augmented people at stake.

I’ll say this for Mankind Divided’s story; it is ambitious. Much has been made of this games politics and the controversial adoption of the language of Black Lives Matter and apartheid, but I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong in using science fiction to hold a mirror up to the world; arguably that’s what sci-fi is for. That said, Deus Ex pretty much completely bungles its lofty aims. There is a clear attempt to make the player understand what it means to be an oppressed person; as you wander the streets you’ll suffer many slights such as abuse in the street, police harassment and ‘aug only’ train carriages. The latter is really interestingly handled because your HUD always leads you onto these carriages, although you can just choose to get onto the ‘normal’ carriages anyway. Having the actual HUD conspire in the oppression is really interesting, but the clever handling of this situation pretty much begins and ends there. The big problem is Jensen himself. I’m a straight white male living in the West, I don’t know what oppression feels like. I can hazard a guess however that it doesn’t feel like being a heavily armed cyborg killing machine. Deus Ex plays into being a power fantasy; getting stronger and stronger as Jensen is very satisfying, but this runs directly counter to the feeling of oppression we’re clearly meant to experience. This makes the whole thing seem shallow and very surface level. However, before I lay into this game too much I do want to say that I like that they tried to do more with the AAA narrative, a space which seems determined to be as apolitical as possible even whilst pumping out extremely political games like Call of Duty.

Unfortunately, the narrative problems with Mankind Divided don’t end there. Put simply, this game doesn’t really have an ending. A conspiracy is hinted at but very little is revealed. There are several plot threads which just drop off, either for a sequel or for DLC. There is nothing wrong with teasing a sequel, but the story presented must in itself be satisfying. Serialised storytelling works for TV shows where you have a new episode every week, but for games which may have a 2-4 year gap between them it just doesn’t work. The consequences of your choices are handled in an almost hilariously poor fashion, with a TV presenter literally talking to the camera for five minutes explaining all of your choices and then a cut to credits. I could not believe it. There is good stuff here, particularly in some interesting side quests, but Mankind Divided is left feeling like a transitioning story between the globetrotting grandeur of Human Revolution and a larger scale sequel in the future, but not memorable in its own right.

Thankfully, the actual minute to minute gameplay of Mankind Divided is superb. Although I’m sure it’s possible to play this game as a guns blazing killing machine, I played as a stealthy hacker type and this remains hugely satisfying. Jensen feels comfortable to control in a way he didn’t in Human Revolution. The augmentations from the previous game return; you have the classic Mega Man/Metroid problem of losing all your upgrades at the beginning, but for whatever reason it didn’t feel too irritating to me. You also have a whole load of new augmentations, a lot of which are aggressive and murder-y and so didn’t really suit my playstyle. I really only used remote hacking, which is really useful and a paralysing laser beam thing which suited my non-lethal ways. The dreaded outsourced boss fights from the last game are thankfully gone. In fact, Mankind Divided only contains one boss fight which is hilariously easy. I don’t think this is a series which needs boss fights at all; if given the option I always talked myself out of any situation anyway.

Mankind Divided is a much more focused game than its predecessors, which generally featured a couple of hubs. Prague is the sole hub setting in Mankind Divided, although you will make three jaunts off to more linear areas outside. The first of these areas, an augmented city/concentration camp, is fascinating and compelling; I could have played a whole game set there, but the following two aren’t quite as interesting. Prague itself is a great hub, with three phases throughout the story; day, night and curfew lockdown, the latter of which is deeply irritating as you have to sneak around to get anywhere, even travelling between side quests. Oh, and those side quests! While they’ve always been present in previous games, it was always the main story which stuck in my head, but the side quests in Mankind Divided are excellent, arguably the best part of the game. Don’t miss a single one. Overall, this is actually quite a short game, definitely the shortest in the series. I don’t really think this is a problem, if not for the fact that it’s hard to shake the feeling that things are being held back for DLC. I got an extra mission as a Day 1 purchase reward thing, which in the end felt quite substantial from both a gameplay and a story perspective. IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN PART OF THE MAIN GAME. The missions that are there are superbly designed, with a genuinely open structure. If you only ever follow the HUD markers, you’ll miss stuff and often get lesser outcomes in the missions. Ignoring the HUD and experimenting often pays off in a way which is quite rare in open world games. Even in games I adore like The Witcher 3, each mission plays out in a linear fashion with little real choice from the player, but in Mankind Divided you can really get quite clever with the immaculately designed environments.

The environments in Mankind Divided are beautiful. Prague is the best hub in the series, with a wonderful combination of classic architecture and over the top sci-fi silliness. Exploring the city streets is hugely atmospheric and the general visual design is very strong. The same cannot be said for the character animations, which are stiff and awkward. The voice acting is a mixed bag too; there’s some good work here, but also some irritatingly bad accents, particularly some awful grating English ones. The original Deus Ex had some shocking voice acting too, but at least there it was hilariously bad (I’ll never forget that Australian bartender) but here it’s just annoying. The music is a bit of a let-down too; Deus Ex has one of the best themes in gaming so bloody use it! The moody electronica is gone and replaced with nothing memorable. I hope that in the inevitable follow up the same attention to detail is given to the other elements that was given to the environments.

Mankind Divided reminds me a bit of Metal Gear Solid V; a really good game with rock solid mechanics which just ends up feeling…lacking. I appreciate what’s there, but it’s difficult not to feel like it needs a bit more. Hopefully next time Square Enix divert resources away from microtransactions and pointless free to play game modes and put everything into making the best Deus Ex game they possibly can. I wouldn’t count on it though.

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Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate for PS4 and Xbox One

Remember when Assassin’s Creed was one of the most exciting series in gaming? Although it was mired in flaws, the original Assassin’s Creed combined together a whole bunch of gaming elements which I love (stealth, open world, parkour) in a unique setting. Unlike a lot of people, I loved the modern day stuff and was genuinely excited for the future of the series. Now, I approach every Assassin’s Creed with a sort of weariness, barely able to raise any kind of excitement. Unity was pretty much a disaster, so my hopes were not at all high for Syndicate, but thankfully it’s one of the good ones. Well, decent anyway; in my Assassin’s Creed rankings it comes in at the middle point (II, Black Flag, Brotherhood, Syndicate, Revelations, I, III, Unity). 
 
Syndicate brings Assassin vs. Templar action to Victorian London. Jacob and Evie Frye are the twin children of a legendary English Assassin and have arrived in London following his death with separate aims. Jacob seeks to overthrow Crawford Starrick, a Templar leader who rules London from the shadows and does so by taking down Starrick’s gang, The Blighters, using his own, The Rooks. Evie seeks a Piece of Eden known as the Shroud, desperate to avoid letting it fall into Templar hands. There’s also a little movement in the modern day story, although not much. 
 
I had many many issues with Unity, but the plot was one of the biggest. It was utterly incomprehensible, with nothing to latch onto apart from a fairly uninteresting central romance. Arno was the worst Assassin protagonist of the series and it managed to sideline the French Revolution, one of the most promising settings possible. Syndicate is certainly an improvement, with a compelling and charismatic villain in Starrick and a clear sense of building towards a goal. Unity and, to a lesser extent, Black Flag simply felt like a whole bunch of things happening with little to connect them, but Syndicate does hold together, with everything being in some way tied to the loosening of Starrick’s Templar grip on London. That said, the shift is essentially from ‘terrible’ to ‘mediocre.’ There’s nothing surprising or interesting in the plot and the best that can be said is that it is functional. There are some hints towards traction in the Modern Day story, but at this point I don’t know why Ubisoft still keep it around. The people who hate the modern day story don’t care and the people who like it don’t want it presented to us like this.  
 
The use of historical figures is also pretty poor; we’re a hell of a long way from Assassin’s Creed II’s Leonardo da Vinci, or even Black Flag’s Blackbeard. Figures such as Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and Alexander Graham Bell show up, but are essentially caricature versions of themselves, containing no depth whatsoever and serving no more narrative purpose than for the sake of a lazy reference. Jacob is simply not a good character, being fairly unlikeable for most of the journey. I think they were going for a loveable Ezio-esque rogue, but he just comes across like an arrogant dick. Attempts at character development are clumsy, awkward and forced. Evie is the better character, but to be honest I think she’s been overhyped. We’ve all been so desperate for a female protagonist that I think that standards have been lowered when she comes up. She may be the first female character lead character in a mainline Assassin’s Creed and hopefully Ubisoft see the positive reaction to her and don’t make her the last as I think they could do a lot better. In classic Ubisoft fashion, the one story beat I actually got a kick out of was contained in some new game DLC PS4 exclusive bollocks. So, sorry Xbox One and PC gamers, you don’t get the best story moment of the game because of Ubisoft being Ubisoft. Modern gaming! 
 
Syndicate’s core mechanics are essentially a refined version of Unity’s. Unity, for all its flaws, made some decent strides, particularly in its animations and ability to move downwards as easily as you move up, but the jankiness was overall even worse than in the earlier Assassin’s Creed games. This isn’t the case now and on a purely mechanical level Syndicate is the most comfortable game in the series to play for years. It’s still got nothing on games like Metal Gear Solid V or even Shadows of Mordor, but it’s better. The stealth has reached a point of being functional, if not actively fun and the combat has been refined too. It’s a lot faster and scrappier and even if it does absolutely nothing interesting, essentially giving up and becoming a slightly worse version of the Arkham combat, it is bearable and at times actually fun, something I haven’t been able to say for the combat in an Assassin’s Creed game…well, ever. There are a few nice fixes, like tapping a button to enter windows after the nightmare that was getting inside in Unity, but this feels like putting a bandage over a problem rather than actually fixing it. The core mechanics are rusty as hell and Assassin’s Creed still really needs to take a couple of years off and reboot all of its gameplay systems. Since that won’t happen, Syndicate does feel like the best it’s going to get.  
 
Assassin’s Creed is a series known for introducing pointless new tools that you never use and marketing the hell out of them, but lo and behold the new tools in Syndicate are actually useful and fun. The most notable is the grapple launcher, which essentially allows you to Batman your way around London. I have mixed feelings on this; Ubisoft essentially admit with this tool that climbing, a core part of the Assassin’s Creed experience, has gotten stale. So rather than replacing it with something else of radically altering the mechanics, it simply eliminates the need for climbing. In practice however, it is fun and satisfying and it’ll be impossible to go back from this in future Assassin’s Creed games. You can also drive around carriages, which has been significantly overhyped as it’s essentially just an (even) more unwieldy version of the horseback riding seen in the earlier Assassin’s Creed games.  
 
One area where Syndicate excels is in its side content and general breadth of things to do. London is split into districts under control of gang leaders and completing side activities such as assassinating or kidnapping Blighter lieutenants and liberating child laborers in factories shifts the balance of power towards the Rooks. These culminate in street fights which eventually allow you to liberate a particular area, lowering Templar presence and generally allowing everything to get a bit more safe. This side content achieves where Assassin’s Creed games often fail; they’re satisfying to complete, make narrative sense and build towards a sense of progression. There are also more story focused missions involving real life figures such as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx, which are generally quite interesting if rather shallow. There’s an extensive leveling system for both Assassins as well as the ability to upgrade your gang. Unlocking new abilities is undeniably satisfying, although the economy doesn’t really work. Getting money isn’t a problem, but many equipment and gang upgrades require materials which are most reliably found in fairly mundane side activities, like hijacking coaches, races and fighting tournaments. You never feel like you quite have enough, which the cynic in me wonders was to nudge people towards the microtransactions. I won’t harp on about those; they’re so repugnant and pathetic they’re essentially beneath my notice. You can play fine without them and if you have a single mote of intelligence you’ll steer well clear.  
 
My major concern going into Syndicate was the technical side; the frame rate was probably the worst thing about Unity. Syndicate isn’t technically perfect, in fact it isn’t even technically good, but it has reached the minimum standard for acceptability, a relief after Unity failed even to hit that. The cost of that is that the crowds, so impressive in screenshots but unplayable in action, have been cut down. If you were to compare screenshots of Unity and Syndicate you’d probably think Unity the prettier game, but in motion Syndicate wins by miles. The frame rate dipped occasionally, but the flow of play was never significantly disrupted by the technical oddities prevalent in the genre. Syndicate actually looks bloody lovely and I’ll never get tired of the thrill of exploring a faithfully realised vision of world gone by. It’s the only real reason I keep coming back to this damn series. The voice acting is fine, with no real stand out performances. A pleasant surprise was in the music, which changes as you move through different London districts. I’ve never particularly noticed the music in Assassin’s Creed games (Black Flag sea shanties aside), but its actually threaded throughout in a canny and engaging way here. They brought in a new composer, Austin Wintory for this one and I really hope they keep him around.  
 
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is no masterpiece, but it’s a playable and generally enjoyable historical adventure which is good enough for me. Perhaps my standards should raise, but I keep enjoying these games just enough to keep going. Every time they release an Assassin’s Creed I don’t like they follow up with one I do (III-Black Flag, Unity-Syndicate), which means I am not getting my hopes up for next year. If, like me, you still feel an inexplicable fondness for this creaky old monster of a series, skip Unity and come back for Syndicate. 

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Dying Light for PS4, Xbox One, PC and Linux

Dying Light is a much more interesting game than it first appears, but significantly let down by it’s stubborn refusal to abandon AAA gaming norms. The open world zombie genre is not a new one any more, but Dying Light manages to breath new energy into the genre, even if it’s not the masterpiece we see glimmers of.

The fictional Turkish city of Harran has been overwhelmed by the outbreak of a zombie virus on the eve of hosting a major Olympics-esque sporting event. The city is quarantined by the rest of the world, with aids packages arriving from the GRE (Global Relief Effort). After a GRE agent goes native in Harran with a file filled with sensitive information, Kyle Crane is hired and sent into the city. Initially simply using the local survivors to achieve his goals, Crane soon comes to suspect that the GRE are not telling the truth and begins to relate more and more with the locals he should be deceiving.

As a concept, the story isn’t particularly unique but certainly has potential. The execution leaves a hell of a lot to be desired though; the characters are flat, twists predictable and machismo overwhelming. If I were asked to demonstrate the most ‘AAA gaming’ story I know, this would be it. It’s strange, the whole plot seems based around choices; GRE or the locals, save this person or that person, this short term good for long term safety etc. I kept expecting the game to let me make a decision and then it…didn’t. That’s not to say every game needs a branching story; if anything it’s an overdone trope! The whole story seems so based around choices that I suspect that there was a branching story early in development which was scrapped; it would explain why Crane is such a blank slate of a character. I could be wrong, but regardless of the reason the story is fairly poor. There is some decent writing in the side quests, where the game lets itself be a lot sillier and stranger than it does in the main story, which makes me suspect that, as with a lot of this game, the talent for a good story is there but was held back by a rigid adherence to AAA tropes.

Dying Light’s big addition to the open world zombie genre are it’s traversal mechanics. Maybe things will change when Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst comes out next year, but for now I’m confident in saying that Dying Light has the best ever first person parkour in an open world game. It achieves that fine balance between being easy to use and allowing you to move swiftly and elegantly and not simply being an Assassin’s Creed style effortless autopilot. You can mess up and mistime jumps and you will die, but the whole thing works incredibly well. Running from zombies is a genuine thrill and you can upgrade Crane with new moves using the skill trees, giving you a palpable feeling of development, with my favourites being a grappling hook and the ability to hop on zombies’ heads as you run past. The parkour ties in really well with the mechanic which gives Dying Light its name; during the day time you’re relatively safe, but at night incredibly dangerous creatures come out and begin to stalk. They’re very difficult to take out in a fight, so you essentially have to run if one spots you. The twist is that all experience points are doubled at night and the longer you stay the larger EXP bonus you get at the end, offering a tantalising risk/reward balance. It’s a simple, clever system which works very well.

Not quite so edifying is the combat. It mostly consists of pressing the right trigger to swing a melee weapon with some simple dodging and power attack mechanics. It’s…fine. It works ok when taking down the odd zombie and there is a visceral and slightly embarrassing thrill to bloodily decapitating a rushing zombie just before it gets you. The problem is that combat should be a last resort, if you end up boxed in and unable to run, but large amounts of the latter half of the game involve monotonously slaying dozens of zombies before you can progress. The weapon crafting system may have been meant to alleviate the boredom, but fundamentally you either have heavy or light weapons and they pretty much handle the same. My only incentive to build better weapons was to make the fights go quicker. Much worse are the gun fights; the guns handle horribly, which would be fine if you only fought zombies, but there are a fair few encounters with other armed human enemies and Dying Light goes into FPS mode. The problem is that if Dying Light was an FPS it would be one of the most basic and dull that I’d played in years. Don’t be an FPS Dying Light, be an open world parkour zombie game, you’re good at that!

You can’t accuse Dying Light of being a slight experience. Dying Light pulls the Far Cry trick of coming to a conclusion before revealing an entire second map, so there’s a lot of game here. The story is lengthy and contains some great set piece moments, particularly the final mission which involves climbing a huge tower whilst being pursued by a zombie horde (even if it does all culminate in a spectacularly anti- climactic QTE). There are many side quests, and while some are simple ‘collect 5 herbs’ type deals, some are really interesting with their own narratives which often eclipse the main story. There are parkour and combat challenges if you’re into that sort of thing too. Dying Light follows the ‘Ubisoft’ formula in many ways (despite not being a Ubisoft game), but one area where it does do better is in the side quests, somewhere Ubisoft hasn’t done particularly well in lately.

Dying Light is a good looking game which runs smoothly. Harran is a cool setting, not really quite like any other open world settings I’ve been unleashed in before. We see a cool variety between the two halves of the map, something lacking when Far Cry games do the same thing. The first half is a shanty town, all rickety shacks and slums. The second is an older, more historical and beautiful side with taller buildings. This commitment to variety goes a good way to making each half feel valuable, rather than a way of artificially making the game seem bigger than it is. The voice acting is fine, although no one particularly stood out, least of all Crane himself. The music is interesting, with a combination of Vangelis-esque synths and Middle Eastern style vocals. Dying Light is refreshingly glitchless and the whole thing all works rather well.

Dying Light is a good game which shows glimmers of a great one. It is a compromised vision, trying to beat the biggest in gaming at their own…well, game. If it had stuck to the purity of its core principles, Dying Light would be a much more fondly remembered experience. Dying Light has two possible futures; in one, it is forgotten and fades into obscurity and in the other they take those core ideas and make a sequel which throws out the AAA crap and gets to the core of what made this game interesting. Fingers crossed for the latter.

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Batman: Arkham Knight for PS4 and Xbox One

Arkham Knight has had a bit of a backlash already and I’m not even talking about the botched PC port. I’m not sure if the backlash is quite fair, but it’s difficult to deny that Arkham Knight isn’t quite as impactful as Asylum and City were (I’m not going to count Origins). Asylum nailed its core mechanics pretty much out of the gate, so successive games were always going to have a tough time finding stuff to add. If Arkham Knight isn’t particularly original, it is extremely slick, offering the kind of smooth experience too often lacking in AAA gaming in this console generation.

Picking up several months after the end of Arkham City, Gotham is much changed. The Joker is dead, but new forces are moving into the power vacuum. Chief among them is Scarecrow, now horribly mutilated after his encounter with Killer Croc, who holds Gotham hostage with the threat of chemical annihilation. When the civilians are evacuated, Gotham collapses into lawlessness yet again as the criminal underworld bubbles back to the surface. Batman, his allies and the Gotham City Police Department are all that are left to stand up to Scarecrow. However, a new foe has appeared, allied with Scarecrow, the mysterious Arkham Knight. With a personal vendetta against Batman he has amassed an army with the solitary goal of ending his life.

Rocksteady did a much better job of keeping key plot details hidden than many companies, so talking about what makes Arkham Knight so compelling is difficult. Scarecrow and the Arkham Knight are good villains, but moreso than the previous games this is a story about Batman himself. I may lose some geek cred here, but I’ve never really considered Batman to be as complex a character as some think; I always prefered his rogue gallery and supporting cast. Arkham Knight is arguably the most interesting study of what makes Batman Batman that I’ve ever seen. I won’t say any more than that, only to say that the most interesting part of the plot takes place not in Gotham, but in Batman’s mind.

The core mechanics from Arkham City are present in Arkham Knight and have now been refined to something approaching perfection. The brawling is satisfying, zipping around the streets is exhilarating and the predator challenges are still wonderful. Arkham Knight is mostly interested in refinement rather than innovation, with one notable exception; the Batmobile. It’s been pretty divisive to say the least and I have mixed feelings myself. Zipping around and gliding is already one of the most enjoyable open world traversal mechanics out there and riding the Batmobile never seemed tempting. It can switch from car mode into tank mode with a press of a button, with a remarkable fluidity. It’s satisfying and easy to use and you’ll spend a lot of time blasting drones sent by the Arkham Knight. These tank battles are quite fast and fun, but some go on for way too long. My least favourite part of the game were some fairly ill advised tank ‘stealth’ sections. I applaud Rocksteady for not sitting on their laurels; they could probably have got away with it, but the Batmobile is a mixed success. It’s best moments are when it is used in puzzles, such as when you use it’s winch to move Batman up and down a broken elevator. There are some really cool moments like this, but I think we could have done with more of that and less of the combat.

This is the biggest Arkham game yet, but for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to complete it as exhaustively as I did it’s predecessors. I don’t worry about 100%ing games any more; who has the time? Asylum and City were exceptions though, but I found myself feeling nothing but resigned at the thought of hunting down a couple hundred more Riddler trophies. Much of the side content is excellent, such as a good subplot involving Riddler, but many are repetitive and dull, simply involving you doing the same thing a few times then bringing in an iconic baddie. The rogue gallery was weaved perfectly into Arkham City, but it isn’t pulled off quite so well here. I’m not claiming that the side content is bad by any stretch, but for the first time they felt like ‘Assassin’s Creed’ style side content rather than the more interesting stuff found in the previous games. Perhaps I’m being unfair; I suspect that I’d be singing this games’ praises if it has been the second in the series, but Rocksteady have already spoiled me.

Now, I’m aware that the PC port is a disaster, but Arkham Knight on PS4 is a technical marvel. It runs pretty much perfectly and I encountered no major glitches when playing. The frame rate was solid the entire time and the visual design is excellent. Gotham in the rain is a hell of a sight and Arkham Knight is frequently jaw dropping. The voice acting is outstanding, with performances which manage to improve upon excellent ones from the previous games. I want to talk about so many amazing looking and sounding moments but can’t spoil them, so will say only this; Arkham Knight is a genuine labour of love.

Arkham Knight is a great game getting an unfair amount of flak. That said, Rocksteady can’t get away with doing the same think again; Terry McGinnis now please. Batman: Arkham Beyond could be exactly what this series needs. Whatever happens, ignore the negativity (if you own a console); Arkham Knight is a great game well worth your time. batman-arkham-knight

Assassin’s Creed: Unity for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Well…that wasn’t as bad as I’d feared…but it wasn’t good either. I’m a bit of a sucker for the Assassin’s Creed series, though even I have to admit that the series has only seen three truly great games out of seven (2, Brotherhood and Black Flag). Unity definitely isn’t up there with those games, although I still overall liked it more than Assassin’s Creed 3. One thing that is certain is that this is not the revolutionary next-gen Assassin’s Creed game we were promised; in fact last year’s Black Flag outshines it in almost every regard.

Unity takes place during the French Revolution, one of the most fascinating time periods that the series has ever covered. Arno Dorian was orphaned at a young age and was raised by Francois de la Serre, a Templar who nonetheless greatly respected Arno’s Assassin father. Arno and de la Serre’s daughter, Elise, grow close and become lovers. Tragedy strikes when de la Serre is murdered and Arno is framed, sending him to the Bastille. The onset of the Revolution allows Arno and the grumpy Assassin to escape together, with Arno training as an Assassin to examine the Templar conspiracy at the heart of Paris.

So, that probably sounded a bit incoherent and that’s because it is. Putting it bluntly, Unity has by far the worst story of any Assassin’s Creed game so far. If it wasn’t for Destiny, Unity would in fact be my most disappointing game narrative released in 2014. The problems are myriad; the actual plot is convoluted and meandering with no strong narrative core to keep you going. The romance with Elise is probably meant to be this core, but it’s not particularly convincing. Arno himself is easily the blandest protagonist in franchise history, despite early attempts to set him up as the successor to Ezio. I thought Connor was boring, but at least he had the core of his identity struggle between his British father and his Native American mother. Arno has nothing. He is a void. Elise is a much better character and would have made a much better protagonist, but she’s held back from protagonist duty due to her crippling disability of being female rather than a stoic white dude.

Of course, the biggest problem is that the French Revolution has almost no bearing on the story. This story could have taken place at pretty much any point in history. The Revolution is just happening in the background whilst we focus on the much more boring struggles of byzantine scheming between the Assassins and the Templars as well as a dull romance. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the modern day story and that’s because there really isn’t one, apart from some Assassin lady speaking to you sometimes and telling you how well you’re doing. Lazy doesn’t even cover it. Ubisoft dropped the ball badly here. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I think Watch Dogs had a better story.

So, does the gameplay make up for it? Well…yes and no. We’re back in Ezio Trilogy territory, with the Frontier stuff from 3 and the ship stuff from Black Flag gone. Some will be happy about this, but it left Unity feeling a bit empty. You’re doing the same sort of stuff as the Ezio trilogy, but with less variety. There are some welcome changes, such as an ability to descend much more easily and the addition of a crouch button. The crouch doesn’t really work though with the stealth actually being better in Black Flag. The whole thing is still clunky, which has been the curse of the series for a long time. Assassin’s Creed has always been a series greater than the sum of its parts but, well, Unity is just the sum of its parts. The free running is a bit more fluid, but not much more so than in the earlier games. The combat is a lot tougher to encourage stealth, which is a good thing, but it’s still a whole amount of not-fun every time it comes up. There’s an upgrade system and a greater focus on equipment, but it’s essentially just smoke and mirrors to create an artificial sense of progression. Previous games didn’t need it and Unity doesn’t either. Ever since Assassin’s Creed 2, all the games (Revelations aside) have had something interesting to set them apart, a mechanic which defined that game. Brotherhood had the…er, brotherhood, 3 the Frontier and Black Flag the sailing. What will we remember Unity for? Well, there is nothing. This is Assassin’s Creed at its most generic and consequently the hardest to defend.

It’s not all doom and gloom though; Unity has some of the best side missions that the series has ever had. The Paris Stories bring you into contact with some familiar faces from the time, such as Madame Tussord and the Marquis de Sade as you complete missions for them, lending them a bit more intrigue than the anonymous assassination missions you received in previous games. The Murder Mysteries are great as well, as we investigate a series of areas scouring for clues before accusing the correct culprit. They’re a bit like a simpler dumbed down LA Noire, but I enjoyed the way they broke up the pace of the game. The lack of a modern day element is sorely felt, but they are replaced with the Helix Rift missions which see the player catapulted into another time period, with the best being a brief sojourn in Nazi occupied Paris, allowing us to climb the Eiffel Tower. Nonetheless, Unity never really comes together and represents the moment where I finally got sick of the core Assassin’s Creed mechanics. Oh, and there’s Co-Op, but online Co-Op is 100% not my thing, so I played one mission, hated it and moved on.

There are moments in Unity where the game genuinely looks to be fulfilling its next-gen promise. Treasure them. When you’re perched above Notre Dame watching the vast expanse of Paris below you, while hordes of people seethe below you desperate for liberty, it’s hard not to be completely stunned. Then you descend to street level…and then frame rate descends along with you. Ubisoft promised the biggest crowds in the series and they delivered, but not like this. The frame rate dips, the people glitch in and out of existence, their clothes constantly changing, any immersion crushed. I’m very forgiving with bugs, I really am; unless they render a game unplayable, I’m not sure that I’ve ever played a game which was genuinely ruined by bugs, but Unity is it. This is a game which needed months more work, but god forbid Ubisoft didn’t release two Assassin’s Creed games in a single year. This is all post-patch by the way. The game is playable, but once again Ubisoft have created a game which looks amazing in screen shots and dreadful in motion. It’s a shame because the art direction itself is top notch. The people who likely are most upset about this aren’t the fans, but the dedicated and hardworking people who lovingly crafted this wonderful Paris for us only for it to be ruined by the greed of the Ubisoft higher ups. It must be devastating.

The voice acting is competent, but bafflingly British. I get why they didn’t go for French accents as they did with Italian accents in the Ezio Trilogy, but that doesn’t mean I like it. It’s just so ridiculous and doesn’t help in the slightest with the feeling that Ubisoft half-arsed the setting. I know it’s a strange thing to fixate on, but this to me is a classic symptom of everything that’s gone wrong with Assassin’s Creed and, arguably, Ubisoft in general. Where Assassin’s Creed 2 was a game which took risks, even a risk as minor as a main character with a European accent, but Unity is terrified of anything that might possibly alienate its core audience and that includes French accents apparently.

Despite the overwhelmingly negative tone of this review, Unity is still a competent and regularly enjoyable game. There are flashes of that old magic, but the big corporate Ubisoft machine is crushing the soul from what started as one of the most inventive and exciting franchises in gaming. I have no doubt that there’s a lot of talent behind Unity and with another six months of development this could have been a genuinely great game. I’m not so pessimistic that I’ll say we’ll never have another great Assassin’s Creed game, but the trust is gone. Black Flag won me back but Unity has lost me; Ubisoft went from being the best of the ‘Big Three’ (EA, Activision, Ubisoft) to arguably the worst. Hell, at least your annual Call of Duty game functions.ACU_hero

Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes for Wii U, Wii, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox 360, PC and OS X

Oh God these games are such a guilty pleasure for me. I just can’t stop playing them; something about them just appeals to me so much. Lego have developed a really successful monopoly on all things superhero haven’t they, with the fact they also hold the rights to Marvel Lego games. Lego Batman 2 isn’t quite as good as the later Marvel game, but, as all these games are, it’s a lot of fun.

Lego Batman 2 opens at the Gotham Man of the Year awards, where Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor are up against each other. The proceedings are interrupted by an attack by the Joker, which promptly sees him captured by Batman and Robin then thrown into Arkham. Luthor breaks Joker free to help him win the imminent Presidential election, and find a stash of Kryptonite to protect his ambitions from Superman.

This was the first Lego game with voice acting, and the brilliant humour present in Lego City Undercover and Lego Marvel Superheroes hasn’t quite been perfected yet. Still, there are plenty of laughs, with most to be found in the comedy duo of the sunny Boy Scout optimism of Superman and the permanently dour attitude of Batman. The actual plot is pretty weak, lacking even the simple plot twists and fun found in other Lego games. Still, it’s worth the odd chuckle.

Lego Batman 2 plays like every other Lego game, and bears most in common with Lego Marvel Superheroes unsurprisingly. Certain abilities and characters are basically the same between games; Superman and Iron Man are basically the same, both being armed with flight, strength and the ability to melt gold stuff with laser eyes/cannon. You’ll still be smashing and building your way through a series of levels, with sections broken up by the open world, in this case Gotham City. The open worlds in these games very much peaked with Lego City Undercover, and there isn’t really much fun to be had in the open world, unless you’re an avid collector. The biggest difference is to be found in the range of costumes Batman and Robin can come across, which give them different abilities. Still, with a Lego game you know what you’re getting, and I got what I expected, which is no bad thing.

One disappointment is that, despite the subtitle of ‘DC Superheroes’ and with the exception of Superman, the other members of the Justice League play quite a minor role, only showing up at the very end. They seem like they’d be fun to play too; the Flash’s speed seemed really enjoyable for the very brief time I got to play as him, and the Green Lantern got to use his ring for a light twist on the typical building mechanics in the series. I guess I don’t really want any more Lego Batman, I want Lego Justice League, more in keeping with the epic scale of Lego Marvel Superheroes.

It looks as charming as these games always do, with the voice acting being as top notch as ever. The music has some nice little touches too, with the highlight being John William’s Superman Theme kicking in every time you lift off as Superman in Gotham. There’s a lot of polish in these games, and Traveller’s Tales really commit to whatever series they’re adapting with such gusto.

This is a Lego game, and you know what you’re going to get? Like DC heroes and like the Lego games; you’ll probably like it! Apathetic towards DC heroes and the Lego games; there’s nothing here for you.Legobatman2

Watch Dogs for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC

If there’s ever been a game which has fallen victim to its own hype, it’s got to be Watch Dogs. From the stunning E3 reveal to release, anticipation spiralled downwards and downwards, until Watch Dogs was released to a fair amount of apathy from the gaming community (not that this hurt sales figures mind you). I have no sympathy whatsoever for Ubisoft though; Watch Dogs had one of the most obnoxious marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen. From the ludicrous amount of collectors editions, to their fumbling of the visual downgrade, to the ridiculous description of Aiden Pearce’s baseball cap as iconic before the game even released, Watch Dogs became synonymous with the idea of games as a product, rather than games as an experience. It’s a shame really, because behind all of that Watch Dogs is actually a pretty damn good game, and if Ubisoft had cut down on the hyperbole it might have been much more warmly received.

Watch Dogs is set in a Chicago under the sway of CTOS, a city wide network run by the shadowy Blume Corporation and follows Aiden Pearce, a hacker and criminal, who at the opening of the game has successfully robbed the Merlaut Hotel with his partner Damien. Whilst hacking their accounts, Aiden comes across a strange file, before being intercepted by another mysterious hacker. Scared for his family, Aiden flees with them to the nearby town of Pawnee. In a tunnel, an assassination attempt crashes the car and takes the life of Lena, Aiden’s niece. Aiden becomes consumed with vengeance, and uses his prodigious hacking skills to hunt down those responsible for Lena’s death, in the process discovering a conspiracy stretching all the way to the top of Chicago.

The story isn’t exactly ground breaking, but it gets the job done, with a good supporting cast and some nice villains. Watch Dogs has one crippling narrative problem however, and that is its protagonist Aiden Pearce. Aiden is possibly one of the worst protagonists in gaming. He’s a bland, gravelly voiced anti-hero cliché, utterly devoid of anything approaching personality. He makes the Master Chief’s and Marcus Fenix’s of the world look like Hamlet. He’s also utterly unsympathetic; I think we’re meant to feel sorry for Aiden, but all I felt was disgust. Don’t get me wrong, games can get away with unsympathetic protagonists, but they have to at least be interesting or entertaining; look at the trio from GTA5 for an example of this done right. You can also sort of get away with a boring protagonist if they’re likeable enough. What you can not get away with is unsympathetic and boring. That’s Aiden Pearce. There are some members of the supporting cast who could have made genuinely interesting protagonists, but none of them are grumpy, male or white enough to qualify. Aiden is a millstone around Watch Dog’s neck, a character who drags the entire experience down.

Watch Dogs is hardly the revolutionary experience Ubisoft suggested, but it is nonetheless a fine addition to the open world city game genre. Where it was promised as something which might dethrone GTA, in reality Watch Dogs is closer to the similarly canine sounding Sleeping Dogs; a game which takes most of its cues from GTA whilst offering some cool features of its own. The main feature is, of course, the hacking. This is usually accomplished by holding a button over a reticule, causing the desired effect to occur. This can be the raising or lowering of bridges, or appearance of road spikes, or cause transformers to explode, taking out enemies. In fact, at its best, there are times where objectives can be finished without even making a physical presence in the location, simply hopping between security cameras and using the environment to take out enemies. I liked to use a hybrid approach of hacking and quick headshots, assisted by the bullet time ‘focus’ that can be activated with a click of the right stick. The combat is actually really good, significantly better than GTA5s, with Aiden being much less of a bullet sponge than your average protagonist, requiring a fair bit more thought and strategy. You probably could play the whole game guns blazing, but it’d be hard, and not as much fun. Watch Dogs has also come under considerable flack for the driving, which is even more arcadey than that in Sleeping Dogs, but I actually liked it, particularly when using a bike. Watch Dogs just plays very nicely, lacking the chunkiness which can often blight this genre.

This is also a massive game. The main story is lengthy and pleasantly epic in scope, and there’s a vast amount of side stuff. Happily enough, it’s actually all a lot of fun, particularly compared to Ubisoft’s usual efforts in this department. This is a Ubisoft game, so it follows the Assassin’s Creed/Far Cry 3 structure of climbing high points in the map to unlock surrounding side content, and there is a lot of it. The collectibles are actually pretty worthwhile, with the ‘voyeur’ collectible letting you gain glimpses into people’s lives, some of which are hilarious, and some actually really moving. The side missions are numerous and varied, and never really got dull for me. You can even ‘check in’ to areas in the map Foursquare style, if that’s something that appeals to you. The biggest side attraction however are the ‘Digital Trips’, surprisingly deep mini-games which throw Aiden into bizarre situations. There’s ‘Madness’, which sees Aiden seeking to mow down demons in a hellish nightmare world. There’s ‘Alone’, where Chicago has been taken over by robots and Aiden must stealthily liberate it. Next is ‘Psychedelic’, where Aiden bounces around the world on colourful flowers. Finally there’s ‘Spider Tank’, in which the player takes control of the titular vehicle and wreaks havoc. All are incredibly fun, and well developed, with most even containing their own skill trees. There are plenty of things to quibble with about Watch Dogs, but value for money is not one of them.

Much has been said of the visual downgrade Watch Dogs suffered between the E3 showing and release. Again, Ubisoft shot themselves in the foot because Watch Dogs actually is quite a nice looking game, but it will never seem like it compared to what was promised at E3. Particularly in the rain at night, Chicago looks beautiful. The rustic charms of Pawnee outside Chicago offer a nice variety. The character designs are generally good, although Aiden is ridiculously over designed. The voice acting is generally brilliant, particularly in the case of fellow hackers Clara and T-Bone. The exception is, once again, Aiden. You noticing a pattern? Thankfully even Aiden can’t ruin the music, which is synth heavy and tense, and really helps to bring a solid edge of drama to the proceedings.

Watch Dogs is far from perfect, but I actually liked it a lot. It’s been widely written off, which I think is slightly unfair, although I won’t be shedding any years for Ubisoft over this. The inevitable Watch Dogs sequel, which I hope is over a year away but probably isn’t, should be able to fix a lot of the problems here, and Ubisoft will have another franchise to push obsessively. If you can separate the game from the business, Watch Dogs is a damn fine game and definitely worth a go.watch-dogs-video-game-wallpaper

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