Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “stealth game”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prey for PS4, Xbox One and PC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dishonored 2 for PS4, Xbox One and PC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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CounterSpy for PS4, PS3 and PS Vita

CounterSpy had one of the best first impressions of any of the PS+ games that I’ve played so far. The first few levels were amazing and clicked with me instantly; alas, diminishing returns set in and CounterSpy ended up settling as a ‘good’ experience rather than an excellent one.

CounterSpy takes place during a Cold War inspired conflict between two nations clearly analogous for the United States and the Soviet Union. Both sides are working towards an apocalyptic weapon strike and you play as a Spy for the intergovernmental agency known as ‘Counter’ and infiltrate both sides to stop the attack. The story isn’t really a focus here, but the little writing that is featured is quite amusing and quippy.

This is a 2D stealth game, although it’s considerably slower and more methodical than something like Mark of the Ninja. It’s also much simpler, but that isn’t always a bad thing. Each level sees you bringing your spy through a 2D stage, stealthing your way through to a terminal at the end. Along the way you collect intel which gives you money, blueprints and plans which bring you closer to the end of the game. If killed or spotted by a camera, your ‘defcon’ level lowers, with the defcon system essentially acting as lives. Each side has it’s own defcon meter, although not a huge amount is done with this mechanic. You can choose whether to infiltrate the US or Soviet side after each mission, but there’s not much difference. You can raise defcon by holding particular soldiers hostage. The stealth take downs are fun, but the most interesting mechanic is a hybridising of 2D and 3D gameplay. When you snap into cover, the camera pulls into an over the shoulder 3D aim as you take out the foes in front of you with a variety of weapons. It’s pretty cool and works well, with grenade lobbing enemies preventing you from cowering in cover for too long. Stealth is certainly the best way. Although simple, I found the core mechanics of CounterSpy very enjoyable, but the whole experience is let down by one fatal flaw; the levels are randomly generated.

Now, I’m really not into procedural generation, but I can see how it works for some games, like Binding of Isaac or Spelunky. Sadly, it just doesn’t work here. The lack of handcrafted levels mean that the stages begin to feel extremely same-y very quickly. CounterSpy made a great first impression but I kept expecting something more that didn’t arrive. I can see that they were intending to make a very replayable game, but I’d rather play a great game once than play a decent one over and over. The mechanics are good but without proper level design CounterSpy fails to elevate beyond mediocre.

Thankfully, the general style of the game is excellent. The whole thing is steeped in 1960s spy thriller music and tone, with an attention grabbing cel shaded art style. There are some fantastic looking assets too, but the procedural generation means that it all begins to fade away and lose its allure by the end.

CounterSpy was a frustrating experience because there were so many elements I loved, but it’s dull level design (or lack thereof) killed the whole thing for me. There are some great things here, but just not enough. CounterSpy1

Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist for Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

I’ve never played a Splinter Cell game before, but on sale for a tenner on the Wii U seemed like a good enough deal to give it a go. Overall, it was a positive stealth experience, only slightly overshadowed by my recent playing of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes.

Blacklist follows long-time series protagonist Sam Fisher, as head of the clandestine US agency known as Fourth Echelon. A group calling themselves ‘The Engineers’ have released the ‘Blacklist’, a plan for a series of terrorist attacks on the United States with the intention of forcing them to leave nations they are currently occupying. Fisher and co travel around the world in their fancy expensive plane to head of the attacks and stop the Blacklist.

I kept expecting Blacklist to develop a sense of irony or moral ambiguity about what was happening but, no, that didn’t really happen. The whole thing is so gung-ho and macho, with Fisher doing some really questionable things. It skirts near lots of interestingly risky territory, but never does anything with it. When Fisher tortures for information, it’s always ok because he saves the day. There’s even a visit to Guantanamo Bay which contrasted heavily with the much more interesting story of Ground Zeroes. It’s not all bad; I liked the villain, and the Engineers are a genuinely interesting group. Maybe I’m missing something coming to the game new, but Blacklist almost struck me as a parody of manly American military games.

Blacklist is a stealth game, with really solid mechanics. Sneaking around, knocking people out and infiltrating areas never really stopped being enjoyable for me. The ‘mark and execute’ function was a lot of fun, which sees Fisher identifying up to three targets then shooting all three in the head if you’ve managed to knock enough people out stealthily. It looks cool and it’s really satisfying. In fact, for a stealth game the actual shooting mechanics are pretty good, but your priority will always be to stay undetected, and it’s clear that’s the best way to play. The basic mechanics are solid, but there are all other sorts of gadgets and other stuff put on top. From grenades to noise makers up to a remote controlled drone, you have a lot of tools at your disposal. More often than not though I opted to just sneak around and knock people out, but it’s nice to have options. The levels are reasonably open and very well designed and are a lot of fun to explore. There’s an upgrade system, as new suits focusing on stealth or defence can be purchased, alongside new guns and gadgets. You’ll likely end up with a lot of money after every mission, particularly if you complete optional objectives, so you’ll always be able to buy something new to suit your play style. Aside from a bafflingly unnecessary and clunky FPS section, Blacklist was fun throughout.

You could never accuse Ubisoft of being stingy with their games; you always get a huge amount of bang for your buck. Alongside a meaty main campaign are a whole bunch of side missions with a focus on co-op play. Of course, I was playing on the Wii U so there was literally no one else ever online. It’s not really the games’ fault though, but if you’re a Wii U owner with a taste for co-op, you may want to keep that in mind. Again, the intriguing looking multiplayer mode didn’t get a look in, so keep in mind that from a practical standpoint the Wii U version may miss a few features, even though they technically are there. All these are accessed from the plane you return to between missions, making everything feel nice and coherent and connected.Splinter-Cell-Blacklist-logo

Blacklist has a hugely bland look, but it’s functional enough and the big action moments are appropriately action-y. The voice acting is good, even if the actual characters they were playing weren’t particularly. The biggest technical issue I found were the brutal load times for almost everything. Make sure to have something to do while you wait or a lot of time will end up being wasted.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist is an unremarkable game, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. I wouldn’t pay more than £15 for it, but if you do see it for a price like that it’s definitely worth a go. You could do a lot worse.

Stealth Inc: A Clone in the Dark – Ultimate Edition for PS4

I only really got an idea of this game when the sequel was announced as, happily enough, a Wii U exclusive. Well, now I’m even more excited, as I loved Stealth Inc. It’s a hugely satisfying game, with rock solid mechanics.

There isn’t much of a story, but there’s a bit of a Portal-y esque atmosphere. You play as a clone used to test items in incredibly dangerous environments, goaded by words which appear on the wall. The plot stays in the background, but it’s funny and has a hilarious ending.

Stealth Inc is a platformer/stealth game, with a strong emphasis on puzzle solving. The levels are filled with traps and robots which will obliterate your clone in an amusingly violent manner, so sticking to the shadows is a must. Stealth Inc follows that key stealth game rule of making it clear when foes can and can’t see you, and is probably my favourite stealth experience since Mark of the Ninja. Stealth Inc does well on the puzzles as well, with some incredibly fun and well-designed levels, as well as some really strong twitch platforming. It’s not especially challenging, but really well put together and fun. There’s lots of pushing around blocks and activating switches, stuff we’ve all done before, but mixed with the stealth mechanic it comes together into something which feels very fresh.

There’s a lot of game here, with plenty of levels, with the Ultimate Edition also containing the two DLCs, one focusing on portals and the other on a back to basics challenge. Each of the 8 worlds introduces a new mechanic, so things are constantly kept fresh and exciting. The game is simplistic but stylish, but most importantly it’s clear. There’s never confusion about what will and won’t kill you, making everything feel really controlled and every death (and there will be lots), feel fair. The music is really great as well, really tense and exciting. Stealth Inc puts clarity first, to its strength.

Stealth Inc is simply a huge amount of fun, coming packed with ingenious level design and a gloriously sadistic sense of humour. Bring on Stealth Inc 2 for the Wii U!stealthulti

Dishonored: The Brigmore Witches DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Dishonored never quite clocked for me the way it did for many others, but I still enjoyed it enough to persevere all the way to the end of the story, and ‘The Brigmore Witches’ is certainly a worthy end for the game before a likely sequel.

‘The Brigmore Witches’ picks up where the previous DLC, ‘The Knife of Dunwall’, left off. Daud has now discovered the identity of the mysterious Delilah Copperspoon as a witch, and seeks to finish the task set to him by the mysterious ‘Outsider’, and discover her intentions. To do so he must enlist the help of certain seedy members of the Dunwall criminal underworld, so that he may access Brigmore Manor and the Coven that resides there.

I’ve actually enjoyed Daud’s arc more than Corvo’s of the main game. Corvo’s absolute lack of personality makes the emotional crux of the story, his relationship with the orphaned young Emily Kaldwin, feel quite disingenuous. On the other hand, we’re actually allowed to get more of a feel for Daud’s personality, and his self-torture over his murder of the Empress makes him a much more intriguing character to follow. I had wondered what role the Daud DLCs would play next to the main game, and ‘The Brigmore Witches’ does a good job of tying this narrative into the main one, revealing that Daud played a vital role behind the scenes of the main game, before his final encounter with Corvo.

Gameplay-wise ‘The Brigmore Witches’ is largely more of the same, with the carrying over of the intriguing favour system from ‘The Knife of Dunwall’ as well as all of our standard Dishonored powers and gadgets. The main gameplay addition is the introduction of cursed bone charms, which bestow massive advantages with severe penalties elsewhere, adding an interesting risk/reward element to Daud’s load out.

‘The Brigmore Witches’ is pretty substantial, with three missions encompassing several areas. The first of these missions is a return to a location from the main game, Coldridge Prison, which Corvo broke out of in the first mission. Where ‘The Knife of Dunwall’s recycling of the Flooded District was poorly implemented and lazy, ‘The Brigmore Witches’ does a much better job of making this old area feel completely fresh, as we get a completely new spin on a familiar location. The second area is the largest, and the most lengthy, but possibly the least inspired, feeling very much like ‘standard’ Dishonored rather than offering anything new. Still, it was certainly fun, and offered some of the more creative methods for dispatching your targets. The third area, the Brigmore Manor itself, was very interesting, offering some areas which felt completely unlike anything else that we’d seen in Dishonored so far. The three missions are all lengthy, clever and well designed, with no duds unlike the first DLC.

Dunwall is as lovingly crafted as ever, with the great atmosphere of the original carried over well. Although Dishonored was far from perfect, it did a great job of making its areas feel organic and lived in, and packed with stuff. This carries over well into ‘The Brigmore Witches’, with the excellent voice acting helping to ground the setting.

It’s hard not to compare ‘The Knife of Dunwall’ and ‘The Brigmore Witches’ to the Assassin’s Creed III ‘Tyranny of King Washington’ DLCs, both being assassin themed and multi-parted, but Dishonored shows DLC done right, offering twice the value for less of the cost. They’re good value for money, as replayable as the main game, and well worth your time. Dishonored Brigmore 02

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