Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “open world game”

Horizon: Zero Dawn for PS4

I feel bit sorry for Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a hell of an achievement for many reason; the first open world game from Guerrilla Games, starring a kickass female protagonist and refining open world tropes into something interesting and new. It was the talk of the gaming town until less than a week later Zelda came out and pretty much obliterated it. I played Zelda first; as hyped as I was for Horizon, Zelda is…well, Zelda. Going back to Horizon after Zelda was interesting; after the freedom of Breath of the Wild, the first few hours of Horizon felt maddeningly restrictive. As I progressed I was able to appreciate better what this game achieves, but it was never quite able to get out of the shadow of Zelda. Others have made this point better than I, but Horizon: Zero Dawn feels like the apotheosis of an old way of making open world games and Breath of the Wild feels like the first of a newer, more genuinely open development philosophy.

Horizon: Zero Dawn takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth, long after a mysterious calamity plunged the remnants of humanity back to pre-Industrial culture, with the land roamed by increasingly hostile machines. The protagonist is Aloy, a young woman born in the lands of the matriarchal and religious Nora tribe, but branded an outcast since her birth and forced to live away from her community with fellow outcast Rost. At a young age she stumbles upon forbidden secrets of the old world and as a young adult determines to enter the Proving, a test of strength and agility which could grant her membership of the tribe. Events at the Proving catapult Aloy into the wider world as she discovers the range of Tribes and cultures that have sprung up since the apocalypse and a looming threat connected to her own mysterious heritage.

It’s a good story and well told, with some interesting twists and reveals and a successful marrying together of the modern day politics and rivalries of the present with the gradual reveal of the secrets of the past, communicated through holograms and audio tapes. It’s all anchored by Aloy, a wonderful protagonist. Hardened by a tough upbringing, she’s singularly unimpressed with those with puffed up notions of themselves and can indulge in some withering put downs. I particularly enjoyed how several male characters express their affection to Aloy throughout the game, with her brushing them off because she has far more important shit to do. The supporting cast are a bit more mixed, with standouts being Lance Reddick’s Sylens, a mysterious expert in the technology of the old world and some intriguing characters in the side quests, such as Vanasha who seeks to rescue a boy-King puppet of a ruthless Priesthood. Some dodgy voice acting for some supporting characters make some moments a bit silly and a few characters verge on bland, but in general Horizon: Zero Dawn tells a good tale with plenty of strong characters to keep me engaged.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is an action-RPG, as basically all open world games are now. You’ll spend a lot of your time exploring the vast world. It’s a beautiful setting, but the actual exploration feels hampered in some regards. First of all, the waypointing is a bit aggressive and there’s a strong feeling that Guerrilla Games would rather you stick to the path please. There’s little reason to wander off the beaten track. Of course, you could always turn the way pointing off, but where Zelda’s Hyrule was filled with clear landmarks to orient yourself and navigate, trying to work your way through Horizon’s world without way points, or constantly pausing to look at your map, would be pretty much impossible. It just isn’t designed that way. This means that Horizon lacks the sense of adventure open world games, at their best, can have. The other issue is gathering materials for crafting ammo and potions, as well as medicinal herbs for healing. Constantly stopping to pick up every plant on your way, which shows up with a big symbol on your UI, upsets the momentum and pace of your journey. It means that you’re always looking at the next plant, rather than your destination. This isn’t a problem unique to Horizon; the Far Cry games are the worst for it I’ve played, but it’s a shame to see such a beautiful setting bogged down with all these superfluous mechanics. It may be an action RPG, but most of the best moments fit into the ‘action’ category and less into the ‘RPG.’

Where Horizon comes to life is the combat, and this is the main arena where I think Horizon could be said to have bested Zelda. There are fights against human foes, which some have criticised but I found fun enough. The core combat mechanics are very strong, unlike in the similarly bow and arrow focused Tomb Raider reboot series, so popping off bow and arrow headshots didn’t really get boring for me. Still, the main fun to be had are with the machines. There are a good range of machines to fight and you do, genuinely, have to adapt your strategies for each one. Horizon can be punishing if you’re unprepared, you have to think smart and lay traps and plans for taking down the most dangerous foes. Taking down some of the larger machines involved some of the most satisfying gaming experiences I’ve ever had. There’s something tactile about the machines which is wonderful. Different components can be shot off to weaken them in particular ways. It can be tempting to brute force your way through some of these guys, but it’s always more rewarding to give it some actual thought. The highlight for me was taking down my first Thunderjaw, which is essentially a robot T-rex. This involved shooting off its back mounted cannons, removing laser guns from its jaws, pinning it to the ground with ropes, before picking up its own cannon and blasting it to bits. This was my preferred strategy, but I’m sure there are other methods, such as using elemental trip wires or slingshotting bombs. One element which is a little bit underdeveloped is the ability to override machines. The side quests you do to progress this ability are brilliant, but ultimately it’s not as impactful as it may seem. One machine cab be hacked to ride, but all the others just assist you in combat. It’s an interesting idea and one I hope the inevitable sequel does more interesting things with.

The main quest is pretty lengthy and involved, with some fantastic set piece moments. Horizon is a big game with lots to do and in all fairness most of it is worth doing. Many of the side quests are fascinating, with their own stories and unique scenarios, which makes some feel essential and unmissable. We’re not quite at Witcher 3 side quest quality, but it’s the closest I’ve seen any other modern Western RPG reach. Alongside the more substantial quests are a lot of standard open world fare, but even these are made more engaging than usual. You still need to climb towers to reveal the map, but in Horizon the towers are mobile robot diplodocuses which you can hack. There are bandit camps to raid, but there aren’t too many to every get boring and they’re attached to Nils, one of the more interesting supporting characters. There are optional dungeons, known as Cauldrons, which allow you to override more machines. Hunting missions are always more than ‘kill x amount of y’, and usually offer interesting gameplay challenges, such as knocking the cannon of one creature, picking it up, and using it to kill another. Horizon doesn’t waste the player’s time with busywork. It may lack the sense of gentle wonder seen in Zelda, but it also avoids the open world game curse of feeling like a list of boxes to tick.

Horizon’s world is simply gorgeous, taking in several different biomes such as desert, jungle and snowy wilderness. This is a seriously good looking game and relatively free of open world technical snafus, with the few I encountered leaning more towards funny than annoying or immersion breaking. It has a decent soundtrack too, with a soaring main theme and some intense battle music. It’s nothing particularly memorable, but it serves its purpose well. The weaker area lies in the characters, both in the animations and the voice acting. I watched a great Extras Credits video about animation recently which made me appreciate how difficult animating an open world game like this can be, but the reality is that Horizon’s characters often fail to truly come alive due to the stiffness and awkwardness of their animations. It’s difficult not to compare it to The Witcher 3, similarly open world but with much more expressive and nuanced animations. Still, the overall quality of the writing elevates these encounters and the animations were never a serious impediment to my enjoyment.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a very good game and a pretty massive achievement for Guerrilla. I truly hope this is the start of a franchise, a nice replacement for Uncharted in Sony’s line up of AAA single player blockbusters. It does feel constrained by some unnecessarily baggage in the mechanics and could do with some feature trimming, but these issues are never significant enough to ruin such a solid experience. Sony’s had a hell of a Q1 in 2017 and Horizon: Zero Dawn may be the cream of the crop.

 

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Gravity Rush 2 – The Ark of Time: Raven’s Choice DLC for PS4

I’m a big fan of the price point for this Gravity Rush 2 DLC; free. This is partially because free DLC is always welcome and partially because I don’t think I would have been very happy to have paid for this.

Raven is something of a fan favourite character and it makes perfect sense for her to be given her own story. In the confusing jumble that was Gravity Rush 2’s story, we never really found out Raven’s backstory. Taking place between Gravity Rush 1 and 2, this DLC also resolves a plot strand left hanging from the first game, the Lost Children trapped in the Ark, and so depicts Raven’s attempts to save them, as well as uncover her own history.

A lot of this DLC weirdly doubles down on the worst things about the main game, and that applies to the story as well. Gravity Rush as a series gets weirdly bogged down into its own bizarre mythology, which never succeeds in becoming more compelling than confusing and Raven’s Choice, which is a couple of hours long at most, contains all of these flaws in perfect microcosm.

Unfortunately, this extends to the gameplay as well. Gravity Rush is about soaring through the skies and kicking giant monsters in the eye but both games spent an unforgivable amount of time keeping you grounded, forcing you to complete arduous stealth challenges or escort missions. A good DLC either offers something new, or at least what was good about the game in microcosm, but Raven’s Choice blows up everything bad about Gravity Rush 2. There are some good moments, such as a fun boss fight and some neat differences in Raven’s power set to Kat’s, but I can’t see this being something I’d be happy to pay for.

So…good thing I didn’t! Since it’s free there are worse ways to spend your time if you still have your copy of Gravity Rush 2 lying around, but I wouldn’t nudge it to the top of your pile if I were you.

 

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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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The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Blood and Wine may very well be the best piece of DLC I’ve ever played. I’m not as dogmatically anti-DLC as some; there has been some wonderful stuff out there from companies like Bioware and Bethesda but Blood and Wine blows them away, offering an experience which I would have been happy to pay double for and an almost perfect conclusion to the Witcher. If this is the last time I get to play with Geralt then at least I’ll know he got a great send off.

Blood and Wine takes place in Toussaint, a small French inspired duchy in Nilfgaard. A series of murders by a mysterious beast have set off panic in the usually courtly and peaceful land and Duchess Anna Henrietta summons Geralt, an old friend, to find the beast and put it down. Unsurprisingly, things are not what they seem and the seemingly idyllic land of Toussaint is revealed to harbour dark secrets and a history steeped in blood and betrayal.

Toussaint is rather different to anything seen in the Witcher series so far. Some are populated war zones such as Velen and others are relatively untamed and wild like Skellige. Toussaint is a courtly land out of a fairy tale, where tournaments are fought for honour and monsters are only slain to gain the hand of a fair maiden. The arrival of the grizzled and sardonic Geralt into this gives Blood and Wine and entertaining fish out of water feeling. A great side quest sees Geralt having to deal with the bureaucracy in a bank; the sight of the hulking, scarred, twin sword wielding Geralt queuing impatiently is hilarious whilst remaining true to the character. Blood and Wine tells a brilliantly compelling story with a strong streak of moral ambivalence running through it. There are two figures who could convincingly be described as villains, but neither are true monsters and have been hurt greatly and most people would likely do the same as them in their shoes. The main weakness lies in the fact that the core antagonist simply isn’t given enough screen time. We hear a lot about what he has been through, but there’s a bit too much telling and not showing. This is a quibble though; the writing for Blood and Wine is as top notch as it always has been in this series.

Ultimately though, Blood and Wine mostly just reminded me of how much I bloody love Geralt. Most modern Western RPGs have you create your own character, which naturally results in a slight blandness in their characterisation. They can be fun and likeable; I particularly liked my Inquisitor in Dragon Age and my protagonist in Fallout 4, but the very nature of the design means they can never achieve any sort of complexity. Geralt is a deceptively brilliant character; someone hated and distrusted wherever he goes who has moved past anger into an amused sardonic looseness. There’s a feeling that he is gently mocking almost everyone he encounters. The phrase about the deepest waters being the stillest applies to Geralt; he may not show it, but we are given enough to see that Geralt is a man with deep wells of feeling and emotion, which rarely surges to the surface. More so than in many other games, I’m really going to miss Geralt. I suppose the time is right to read the original novels and get my fix.

Blood and Wine plays much the same as the main game, with the slight addition of a new levelling system tied to the Witcher mutations, which gives you something new to plough your points into. The bread and butter is the same, but there are some really cool, fun, interesting missions. I loved how almost every mission in The Witcher 3, no matter how trivial it seemed, had some kind of twist to make it feel special and Blood and Wine continues this. Some of the quests are scary, some are deeply tragic and epic and some are just plain silly. An example would be a Gwent tournament which is being protested by a group furious at the addition of a new deck (which I can only assume is a dig at irate internet commenters.) They didn’t need to do this; I would have been perfectly happy with a straightforward Gwent tournament (I bloody love Gwent) but CDProjekt always do that little more work than they have to. This is a massive expansion which would put many full priced games to shame with Toussaint being roughly the size of Velen from the main game, if more densely populated.

Toussaint is sickeningly picturesque and a true delight to explore and marvel at. It may not compare to the PC on top settings, but I was still bloody happy on my trusty PS4. The new monster designs are brilliant and the characters look appropriately silly; there are definitely a few visual nods to Monty Python’s Holy Grail. The voice acting is outstanding, naturally, with richly realised and complex characters. The Witcher 3 is confident in the willingness of its audience to simply watch its characters talk, which suggests that CDProjekt knew how good the writing is. There’s a bit on jankyness at times, in line with the main game, but nothing which ever drew me out of the experience.

Blood and Wine is a perfect end for an almost perfect game and the send of that Geralt of Rivia deserves. I’m truly going to miss this series. Sooner rather than later I’ll read the books; I’ve grown to love this world and need to spend more time in it. They may not have created it, but CDProjekt did an incredible job bringing it to life.

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Fallout 4 for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Fallout 4 was one of my most hyped games of the year. People criticise it, but I’ve been a fan of the ‘Bethesda’ game for years; Morrowind is potentially my favourite game of all time. Fallout 4 really is a great game, with a huge amount to recommend it, but 2015 was not a year where it’s easy to dominate the open world genre. Fallout 4 has been outflanked on two open world fronts; the storytelling, world design and general mission variety has been outdone by The Witcher 3 and in terms of pure mechanics it doesn’t have anything on Metal Gear Solid V. In such as amazing year for the genre, Fallout 4 ends up feeling underwhelming.

In a break of series convention, Fallout 4 begins before the nuclear holocaust which led to the post-apocalyptic wasteland we all know and love. Our protagonist lives a happy suburban life, but is rushed into Vault 111 with their spouse and baby moments before the bombs drop. As with all the other Vaults, Vault 111 is unique and here the subjects are kept in cryogenic stasis. The protagonist slumbers away for over two hundred years before raiders arrive in the vault, kill their spouse and kidnap their baby. The main character is released into the post-apocalyptic Boston known as the Commonwealth to find their child. Along the way, they are embroiled in a conflict which will shake up the entire power structure of the Commonwealth. On one side are the Institute, a mysterious organisation which has become the boogieman of the Commonwealth, scientists which have created ‘synths’, artificially intelligent robots with unknown aims. On the other are the Brotherhood of Steel, still with their familiar motivation to horde technology setting them on a warpath against the Institute. In the middle are the rag tag band of do gooders known as the Minutemen and the Railroad, who seek to liberate synths who no longer wish to work as slaves for the Institute.

The core narrative of Fallout 4 is probably my favourite in the 3D series. A lot of people have criticised the fact that the protagonist is now fully voiced, with their own motivations separate from the player, unlike the relatively blank slates seen in Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I do understand why this bothers people, but I must say that I actually prefer this approach. There is a genuine moral ambiguity between the four factions which define the story. The Minutemen are a bit dull, but the Railroad, Institute and Brotherhood all have some serious good points, but also some real downsides; all are blinded by dogmatism. Choosing who to work with ultimately is wrenching, but powerful. That said, I hated the ending, full on loathed it, which sees the player thrown into an unconvincing conflict which feels barely justified and utterly unnecessary for the sake of ending with a bang. Plot and nuance is sacrificed on the altar of spectacle; in my opinion Fallout 4’s ending makes Mass Effect 3 look pretty damn good. The best stories are found in individual side missions, although there aren’t as many intricate tales as there were in previous games.

At its mechanical core, Fallout 4 is essentially unchanged from the previous 3D games. You’ll still be wandering through a desolated wasteland, shooting raiders and collecting loot. The combat VATS system returns, but is tweaked slightly to encourage a more active shooting experience. They claimed to have taken inspiration from Destiny, which is laughable as the shooting really doesn’t stand up. Part of me wonders if (and this will be sacrilegious) Bethesda need to choose a world to live in. Do they want to be a turn based RPG or an open world FPS with RPG elements? The compromise doesn’t quite work as well in 2015 as it did in 2008. There are two major changes in Fallout 4. One I cared about and one I didn’t. The companion system is expanded, replacing the morality system as characters pass judgement on what you do. Earning a character’s affection will gain you a new perk to boost a particular skill, but the real reward is further conversations discovering more about these characters. I really liked most of the companions and swapped them around a lot depending on what I was doing. My favourite was Nick Valentine, a synth based on the personality of a hard boiled noir cop with surprising character depth. The other major addition is a massive expansion of the crafting system, which now sees you able to mod any weapon or piece of armour to your heart’s content, finally making your junk useful as you salvage it for parts. It’s not too important though, as the weapons dropped by enemies, particularly those with the mark ‘Legendary’ tend to be good enough to get you through the game. You can also build and maintain settlements, but I never was able to muster much motivation to delve into this side of the game. For a start, the interface is horrible, but second of all I couldn’t find a compelling reason to care. Some people love this feature, but I’m glad that Bethesda didn’t make this an integral part of the experience.

My biggest issue with Fallout 4 comes from a direction that I actually haven’t heard criticised as much as I expected. The Radiant Quest system was introduced in Skyrim and saw randomly generated quests joining those more crafted ones. In Skyrim these were clearly marked under ‘miscellaneous quests’, meaning that you could focus on the core ones if you chose and ignore them. They were there if you wanted them and sometimes I did, but they didn’t detract from the experience. No problem. This is not the case in Fallout 4. By the time I wrapped up my time with Fallout 4, I was drowning in dull radiant quests. There are some awesome, clever, exciting side missions with great characters and interesting situations, but they are vastly outnumbered by dull ‘go here/kill this’ missions. It feels like padding; I vastly preferred the approach of Fallout 3 and New Vegas of fewer quests overall but those that were there being intricate and complex. It feels petty to complain about lack of content in a game this size, but the actual quality of what we have to do feels cheapened and stripped back. This is confirming my iffiness about procedural generation; you just can’t beat a strong developer’s vision being put into place. A mission generated by an algorithm is never going to be as good. When the missions in Fallout 4 are good they are very good, among the best in the series, but it can be hard to pick the wheat from the chaff.

That said, wandering around the Commonwealth and discovering new places and people is still a thrill and Bethesda’s best asset. The Commonwealth is stranger and more varied than the Capital Wasteland, with a genuine variety in locations which makes it satisfying to explore. All told though, no one could call Fallout 4 beautiful, particularly after playing The Witcher 3. The other Fallout games were ugly and Fallout 4 does look better; it’s far more colourful for example which I very much liked, but it can be a bit underwhelming. The character models are a big weakness, with stiff animations and facial expressions, still. It’s engine updating time at Bethesda methinks. The voice acting is very strong, thankfully strong enough to rescue the fact that the characters move and react like awkward robots. I played a female protagonist and her voice actor was excellent, inhabiting a variety of roles and showing genuine range. I can’t imagine how much work must go into voicing the protagonist of an open world game, but she pulls it off.

I want to make something clear; Fallout 4 is a really good game and I don’t regret any of the time I’ve spent with it. It does a lot of things right, but the series is beginning to feel like a series of compromises, in a way that The Witcher 3 does not. I would love to see Obsidian get another go at the Fallout series as they did with New Vegas and I’m certainly not done with this series, but this is the most underwhelmed I can recall feeling about a Bethesda game and that’s a shame.

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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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Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC

My feelings towards this game are fairly complicated. On one hand, it’s probably the most perfect stealth experience I’ve ever come across in gaming, refining open world gameplay in a way which puts other attempts to shame. It contains moments of power and profundity above almost anything else I’ve played this year. It’s also not finished and never will be.

The Phantom Pain picks up nine years after the end of Ground Zeroes and the attack on Mother Base by Skull Face and XOF. Naked Snake aka Big Boss awakens from a coma in a Cyprus hospital in 1985, scarred and weakened. The hospital is almost immediately brought under attack from a ruthless military force and supernatural threats. After making a narrow escape Big Boss meets up with Revolver Ocelot, who tasks him with rebuilding Mother Base as the mercenary company Diamond Dogs to take revenge on Skull Face. Big Boss takes on the new name of Venom Snake and undertakes a variety of missions in Afghanistan and Central Africa to discover the truth of Skull Face’s goals and how to stop him.

There are three moments from the plot of The Phantom Pain which I cannot get out of my head. They are powerful, moving and mindblowing scenes which I keep running over again and again and speak to just how good the plot of The Phantom Pain can be. It can also be almost embarrassingly bad. The Phantom Pain was quite clearly conceived as a three act game, but it fizzles out somewhere into its second act, with the first being the only part which approaches coherence. The plot of the first act about taking down Skull Face and discovering his plans is cool, but not necessarily exceptional. All of my favourite plot moments took place in the second half, but we get to this point towards the end where there is pretty much no connection between our actions and the story. We take random missions for a while and occasionally we’re summoned back to Mother Base for the next story beat. Massive plot strands are left utterly unresolved and major revelations are restrained to optional cassette tapes rather than fully fledged cutscenes. You can get glimpses of something excellent here and it’s amazing that the good bits work as well as they do, being held together by nothing much at all.

Despite all the story shortcomings, the actual stealth gameplay of The Phantom Pain may very well be flawless. I don’t say that lightly, but everything just works. That just doesn’t happen in open world games! Even The Witcher 3, a game that I loved, had some jankiness, but in The Phantom Pain there is none. The Phantom Pain differs from its predecessors in its open world design, containing two large areas, Afghanistan and Africa. Each area contains a dozen or so bases and some smaller outposts and most missions involve some sort of infiltration. What makes The Phantom Pain so special is that it follows through on the oft-made, rarely kept promise that you can play however you want. Guns blazing will work in many situations, but it’s way more fun to be sneaky. There are 50 missions (although not really, we’ll come back to that) and 150 ‘side ops.’ These missions involve a variety of tasks, some explodey and some sneaky. I’ve seen some people griping that these side missions generally return you to familiar areas, but even after visiting a base over five times I was still discovering new nooks and crannies and ways to approach the target. In this sense The Phantom Pain succeeds in expanding the high promise of Ground Zeroes’ Camp Omega.

You have a vast range of tools at your disposal and unlike in many games I actually used them! From simple weapon upgrades to more bizarre and ridiculous things later on I did not run out of new and exciting things to make. Developing new items is tied into the rather lovely Mother Base mechanic. Alongside the story you build up your base, recruiting new men and constructing new parts of the base. Building up these different areas will raise different department stats and the right levels will allow you to develop new tools and weapons to use in the field. The best part of this is that you recruit and gather resources by getting your hands dirty and using the ‘fulton’ balloon to extract them back to base. Later on you are able to identify the stats for individual soldiers and decide who you want to bring back with you. As you upgrade your fulton device you can eventually extract vehicles and advanced weaponry making the whole thing feel gloriously physical and hands-on. You can visit Mother Base between missions to boost staff morale, but it’s a bit sparse and soulless so I didn’t feel particularly attached to the physical location.

Another neat addition is the ‘buddy’ system, which lets Snake bring one of four allies with him into the field. There’s D-Horse, which is just a horse really, useful for getting around but with some amusing and surprisingly useful unlockable skills as well. There’s D-Dog, who reveals enemy locations for you and can rip out a guard’s throat. D-Walker is a mini Metal Gear which Snake can pilot, useful for more combat heavy missions and taking down vehicles. The best is Quiet, a sniper who can cover you and got me out of more than one dangerous situation. Quiet is also one of the most controversial parts of the game.

There’s not much to say about the character of Quiet that hasn’t already been said, but I’ll give it a go. My ambivalence about Quiet matches pretty nicely my feelings about the game overall. Quiet is a fascinating character, a sniper with one of the most interesting back stories I’ve encountered, an incredible presence with some absolutely wonderful scenes. She also wears pretty much nothing, with humongous breasts swaying every time she moves so much as an inch. She cavorts in the rain, loves nothing more than showing off her thong to Snake on the helicopter and will even give you a sexy sponge bath. There was an initial backlash when the character was first revealed and Kojima defended himself, saying that when we learnt the reason for her design we would be ‘ashamed of our words and deeds.’ Well, I do know the reason now and I don’t feel ashamed. A bit embarrassed for Kojima maybe. The justification for Quiet is honestly one of the dumbest things I have ever heard in all my years of gaming. I know that people saying ridiculous things in an entirely straight faced manner is a grand Metal Gear tradition, but in this sense all it does is undermine a character who, despite everything, I loved. Quiet has the potential to be a legendary character, a series best, but all anyone will remember is her character design which is genuinely awful.

The first 40 or so hours of The Phantom Pain are truly exceptional and it feels churlish to complain when you’re given 40 hours of such high quality entertainment. The dip in quality in Part 2 is noticeable almost immediately and explains rather nicely why Konami were so keen on boot camp reviews which capped the play time at…oh yes, 40 hours! It’s odd, if we’d just been given a slightly more fleshed out Part 1 I don’t think anyone would have minded and it’s not as if Part 2 is actively horrible. A lot of the missions are old ones with new challenges imposed, but they’re actually quite fun. It just can’t live up to Part 1 and we can clearly see that far more was intended for the final release.

Unfinished games are usually something like Assassin’s Creed: Unity, where the whole experience is there but plagued with glitches and irritations. The Phantom Pain is different; it just ends. While it’s there though, we have a gloriously slick experience. If Konami do leave AAA development forever it’ll be a shame as the FOX Engine would have had a wonderful future. The Phantom Pain is a marvel, looking absolutely wonderful and running at a luxurious 60 FPS. The fundamentals are treated exactly as they should be but usually aren’t; fundamentals. The voice acting is a bit more inconsistent, with some fairly hammy performances in some quite major characters. Obviously hamminess is very Metal Gear, but it doesn’t really suit the story that they’re going for here. The originally composed music is pretty forgetful, but you can’t fault the licensed 80s classics in the soundtrack. David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ is used particularly well and there is a lovely original sung track too, but there isn’t anything that can match the theme music for Metal Gear Solid 2.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a maddening game to review because I just don’t know how to approach it. What we have is truly excellent, one of the best games of the year and an experience which has raised the bar for open world stealth. It’s all too easy to focus on what is missing and the outline for one of the best games of all time is there to see. I can’t think of another game like this, which offers 40 superlative hours yet still comes up feeling slightly unsatisfying. I doubt we’ll ever get the full story about what went down between Konami and Kojima, but I think that the best thing to do will be to let go of our dream of what this game could have been and celebrate the game that we do have.

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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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Grand Theft Auto V for PS4 and Xbox One

There aren’t many games for which I’d shell out money for a remake less than 18 months after the initial release. The fact that I have is a testament to just how impressive I find GTA V and this remake. It’s funny, this game sold like hot cakes yet I don’t know a single other person over the age of 18 who actually likes this game. Call me a philistine; I love it and Rockstar have absolutely raised the bar when it comes to current gen ports of last gen games.

I covered everything about the game itself when I reviewed GTA V when it first came out, so I’m just going to focus on what’s new. There are a few new cool additions, such as peyote plants which let you play as animals and new songs for the radio. The game also looks much better. Sure, it still doesn’t run at 60fps but the roughness around the edges has been smoothed over. People often criticise games like these for the amount of time spent travelling between actual major content rather than actually taking part in missions. I can see the issue, but for me I derive a huge amount of pleasure in just getting around, even if it’s to the same places. I gained a pretty familiar understanding of the geography of Los Santos and the surrounding environs and it’s a genuine pleasure for me to just drive around and soak up the atmosphere. I enjoyed this on the Xbox 360, but everything looked just that bit nicer on PS4 and really brought the setting to life.

The biggest addition, and the one I appreciated most, was the inclusion of a first person camera perspective. Now, I’m not saying that it’s better than the third person mode, in fact if playing for the first time it almost certainly isn’t, but it’s also a huge incentive to replay. I played the whole thing in first person, on foot and driving. The whole thing is very customisable; for example, I had it so that when I went into cover it popped out into third person in the style of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The perspective that you play a game is one of the biggest design choices that a developer must make and it’s frankly astonishing that the first person mode for a game designed for third person isn’t just functional, it’s fun. This feature alone sold me on this remaster, with new first person animations showing the effort that Rockstar put in. They could very easily have buffed up the graphics and added in a few more songs then called it a day; it still would have sold like hot cakes, but they didn’t. They put in the effort to offer a new way to play the game, one which incentivised me to return to the game a little over a year later, something I have never done before.

GTA may be a behemoth of a franchise, but it’s also one I consider to be a victim of hipster disdain. In gaming circles, it’s really not cool to love GTA V, but…well, I do! It’s brash and unsubtle and I have serious reservations about how it treats women, but it all comes together remarkably well. GTA V was brilliant on Xbox 360 and PS3; now it’s a masterpiece. gta-v-next-gen

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

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