Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the tag “Xbox One”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lego Dimensions: The Lego Batman Movie Story Pack for PS4, PS3, Wii U, Xbox One and Xbox 360

The Lego Dimensions story pack for The Lego Batman Movie is the last currently announced and, fittingly, it’s easily the best. The Ghostbusters 2016 and Fantastic Beasts packs were good, but the transfer from their respective franchises into Lego, at times, felt a bit weird. Lego Batman is, well, already Lego, so the transfer of franchises is essentially seamless, presenting one of my favourite Lego Dimensions experiences yet, and definitely the strongest in Phase 2 since Adventure Time.

Unsurprisingly, this is a fairly straightforward adaption of the movie, which sees a lonely Batman find a family in adopted orphan Robin, Barbara Gordon and even, oddly enough, in his rivalry with The Joker. I liked the movie a lot and the game adapts it well, with a lot of the best gags landing jut as well here. There are a handful of changes to keep things moving at a better pace, but generally this is as faithful a game version of the movie you could ask for.

This is a Lego game, so you know what to expect. In the box you receive a cool Bat-computer template for portal, the Batwing and, pleasantly, two new characters unlike the one in the other packs. Robin is athletic and can squeeze through vents and Batgirl is essentially Batman, but she can use some special computers. Batman himself, using the model from the Starter Pack, can now activate certain detective skills to find clues. It never amounts to much from the usual hit shiny things, build thing, watch thing do its thing and progress, but, for whatever reason it’s something I don’t seem to stop finding fun.

The only Phase 2 Adventure World I’ve liked has been Adventure Time’s, with most simply being dull cities and Sonic the Hedgehogs making me, quite literally, feel physically sick. Gotham is another city, and whilst it has more personality than lots of the others, it still wound up being the least interesting part of the package.
Lego games don’t vary in quality much, but insomuch as this means anything, the Lego Batman Story Pack is one of the better ones.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lego Dimensions: The Simpsons Level Pack for PS4, PS3, Wii U, Xbox One and Xbox 360

Ok, this will be the last Lego Dimensions review for a while, I promise! I skipped out on buying this one as the lack of new voice acting put me off, but I saw it on sale so picked it up anyway. Through excellent animation and the already brilliant vocal performance from the show itself, the lack of new voice acting mattered less than I’d expected, at least in the main level.

The level included in an adaption of the classic episode ‘The Mysterious Voyage of Homer’, which sees Homer eat several powerful chillies, hallucinate a strange desert landscape and seek his soulmate. It’s a great episode, one of the most visually experimental episodes with a heartfelt conclusion which shows Simpsons at its best. Lego Dimensions can’t really claim the credit for how entertaining this is, but it certainly does the episode justice.

The actual level felt a bit on the short side as these things go, but it’s certainly fun enough. The level pack gives you Homer Simpson himself, his iconic pink car and, oddly, the TV set which explodes when removed from the portal. It was a smart choice to adapt this episode, as the trippy chilli induced dream scape offers something more visually interesting than Springfield itself. There’s not much to this pack at all, but it’s certainly a fun curio for any Simpsons fan.

The Adventure World is extensive and fun to explore, but here the lack of new voice acting became a much bigger problem for me. Springfield is only such a great setting because of the characters in it and that element is pretty much missing, aside from a few archival recordings from major characters. Considering how much the Simpsons cast costs these days I understand why this wasn’t possible, but it undeniably lessens the experience.

Still, Springfield and its characters are charmingly rendered in Lego. The lack of music from the show is disappointing too, with a grating theme song ‘sound-a-like’ replacing the main tune. I can’t help but compare it to the vastly superior Adventure Time pack, which had much greater attention to detail to things like music and voice than this one.

It’s not a terrible pack all around, but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price for it. It sits above the Sonic the Hedgehog pack because this one is actually fun to play, but it sits below pretty much every other one I’ve played too.

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Lego Dimensions: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them Story Pack for PS4, PS3, Wii U, Xbox One and Xbox 360

This is the second of the more extensive ‘Story Packs’ for Lego Dimensions, after 2016 Ghostbusters reboot. My feelings towards Fantastic Beasts as a movie is very similar to my feelings towards Ghostbusters; somewhere between lukewarm and positive. I’m a big Harry Potter fan but Fantastic Beasts as a movie just didn’t quite land for me; nonetheless, I liked it enough that I was happy to receive this pack as a Christmas present.

Just as with the Ghostbusters pack, this is essentially a straightforward retelling of the story of the movie. There are some funny asides and visual gags from other franchises, but nothing side-splittingly hilarious. The presentation is held back by the use of a lot of archive sound from the movie, with more subdued delivery which made sense in the movie just coming off as weird here. The newer voice acting from some of the cast is much better.

As ever, the Fantastic Beasts story pack doesn’t do anything new in terms of gameplay. The pack gives you Newt Scamander and the Niffler. Newt doesn’t offer anything unique; in fact, he has essentially the same move set as Gandalf from the starter pack and the Niffler simply allows you to use dig spots. Playing through the six story missions will take you a couple of enjoyable hours. The same enjoyably structured if entirely uncreative general unfolding of the environments which makes these games so mindlessly satisfying is in full force here and it is lacking the over-abundance of irritating boss fights which can slightly hamstring these games.

The Adventure World is fine and has some nice missions, but I must say that I’m a bit over New York as an Adventure World setting. It’s definitely more exciting than the Ghostbusters one, but compared to the beauty of the Adventure Time world or the labyrinthine complexity of the Portal 2 world, it ends up coming off a bit bland. I think these worlds are better when they move away from cities; it forces the developers to be a bit more creative. The general look is great and the voice acting solid, with the excellent soundtrack from the movie helping to elevate the experience.

These packs are getting harder and harder review because generally I feel the same about all of them. There are some I’m more enthusiastic about (Adventure Time) and some I’m less (Sonic the Hedgehog), but in general they all operate at the level of decent. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is another decent Lego Dimensions entry and I think that’s all I’m really asking for.

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Lego Dimensions: Sonic the Hedgehog Level Pack for PS4, Ps3, Wii U, Xbox One and Xbox 360

There aren’t many Lego games that you’d be able to call genuinely brilliant, but most operate comfortably at least around ‘good.’ Lego Dimensions has held on to that, with the entire experience operating at the boundary between good and great, which is fine, that’s where the series belongs. There hasn’t been much that I’ve actively disliked, until the Sonic the Hedgehog Level Pack for Lego Dimensions which is a rather miserable experience.

There isn’t much story apart from Sonic and pals fight to take down Eggman who has nefarious plans. That’s ok though and the writing is decent in that snarky self-aware way that recent Sonic games have fallen into. I’d always choose genuinely good writing, but Sonic is such a poisoned brand at this point that self-mockery does feel like the only real option left. Inside the pack you get Sonic himself, a pointless Sonic car and Tails’ plane.

The core story Level is a decent length and takes in a series of classic Sonic locations from a range of games, from Green Hill Zone through to the first level of Sonic Adventure with the whale. I’m no massive Sonic fan; in fact, I picked this up to play with a Sonic obsessed friend of mine (poor bastard) through the local co-op. I’ve played the first one and dabbled with some of the 3D ones from the early 2000s like Sonic Adventure 2 and Sonic Heroes, then more recently Sonic Generations, but it’s not a series I consider to be a real classic. A lot of the locations went over my head, but my depraved Sonic chum seemed to enjoy visiting a bunch of classic locations, so good for him I guess.

Somewhat appropriately, the Sonic Lego pack holds essentially the exact same issues as the main series; controlling a character like Sonic at high speed through a 3D environment in unbearable. Mario transitioned to 3D perfectly because it was a game about precision and tight control, but Sonic’s speed just doesn’t translate. This level pack has the same problem, with some fun moments of speed (never as fun as a proper Sonic game mind) hampered by the simple ‘puzzle solving’ that you have in the Lego games. I find these incredibly simple puzzles oddly satisfying normally, but they are an infuriating break of gameplay flow here. I was shocked by how well they were able to transfer over Portal to the Lego format, but they really didn’t manage to pull of Sonic the Hedgehog quite so well.

The Adventure World looks pretty nice but made me feel physically sick. Like, actual motion sick. Now, this was admittedly because of the frame rate drop accompanying co-op play combined with the high speed and open world design but when I returned to the open world in solo play I didn’t like it that much either. The same issues that has always plagued Sonic open worlds are still present here; it’s just not fun or exciting to explore. These Adventure Worlds are rarely great, excepting the Adventure Time one, but this is easily my least favourite so far.

The overall look is good, with the Sonic characters translating over to the Lego form surprisingly well. The music not so much, with Sonic falling into the same problem of The Simpsons when it came to licencing music. You don’t get Green Hill Zone, you get something which sort of sounds like it but isn’t as good. This may sound like a minor thing, but when you’re releasing a product which is, let’s face it, primarily trying to capitalise nostalgia, these details matter.
I’m afraid that Sonic the Hedgehog is easily my least favourite of these so far. They made a good stab at converting Sonic into the Lego formula, but it’s hard to claim that they pulled it off. This one is only for the die-hard Sonic fans, although to be fair my die-hard Sonic fan mate thought even less of it than me, so make of that what you will.

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Final Fantasy XV for PS4 and Xbox One

I’m not what you’d call a massive Final Fantasy fan. I’ve only played 1-4, then 8 and then 13 of the main series, although I’ve spent more time with spin offs like Tactics Advance and Crystal Chronicles. Final Fantasy XIII was one of the worst games I’ve ever played; I hated its linearity, its lack of respect for the player and its bland protagonist. I was therefore quite intrigued by Final Fantasy XV, which looked set to reverse all of these problems; a big open world, more challenging quests and a group of loveable boy band protagonists. Final Fantasy XV has all of those things and I frequently loved it, but it shows too many scars from its troubled development to be a classic.

Final Fantasy XV follows Prince Noctis of Lucis, a land which is one of the last hold outs of independence from the conquering Niflheim Empire. The city is protected by the magic of the King, Noctis’ father Regis, who maintains a great shield protecting the capital city of Insomnia. An ambassador from Niflheim has come to offer peace and end a war that has blighted the world for years and King Regis agrees. A condition is that Noctis is to be married to his childhood sweetheart Lady Lunafreya of Tenebrae (a protectorate of Niflheim), as a political union. Noctis, alongside his friends Gladiolous, Ignis and Prompto set forth on a roadtrip to the relatively neutral city of Altissia for the wedding. It is not long before events are complicated and Noctis is plunged into a conflict which threatens the entire world of Eos.

The story for Final Fantasy XV is, unfortunately, an incoherent mess. If you thought the second half of Metal Gear Solid V (a game FFXV shares a lot in common with) shit the bed, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The immediate problem is that it is almost impossible to work out what is going on if you haven’t watched the spin off movie Kingsglaive, which takes place parallel with the opening chapters of the game. For some reason FFXV seems entirely unwilling to give the player backstory; I guess it’s trying to avoid classic exposition dumps, but anything would have been better than this. I dutifully watched Kingsglaive (not an experience I can recommend) which did finally explain what was going on, but I shouldn’t have had to in the first place. Things only get worse as it goes on, with new characters introduced and abandoned with no explanation, shockingly underdeveloped villains with impenetrably bizarre motivations and sudden, disorienting lurches in time and place. Some of these characters are likeable and I’d have loved to see more of them, but there just isn’t enough story here. By the end I had almost no clue what was happening, with major plot twists announced and then never spoken of again. There are some interesting ideas here, particularly in the intriguing and charming main villain, but pretty much every element is shockingly underdeveloped.

The thing is, for all these flaws, there is one element of the story which the developers absolutely nailed and that is the relationship between your four party members. Where Final Fantasy games have tended to have sprawling parties made up of members which join throughout the journey, in FFXV you start and finish with the same core four, outside of a couple of brief guest appearances. I was surprised to see an all male party in this day and age, but after playing the game it feels like a legitimate creative choice. The lovely boys of FFXV are pretty much the least toxically masculine bunch of lads I’ve seen. They clearly love and support each other throughout the entire story, to the point that any tiff is a bit hard to watch. It’s hard not to get attached to this lot, even though they can’t be called complex characters by any means. The tough guy with a heart of gold Gladiolus, the wise-cracking but insecure Prompto and the responsible and fastidious Ignis are characters I became really fond of by the end, with the best moments of writing to be found in their little joke-y asides to each other as they adventure around Eos. One of the most charming details are the passive skills each party member has, distinct from combat. Noctis can fish, Gladiolus can scavenge, Ignis can cook and, best of all, Prompto can take photographs, which was displayed at the end of each day. These skills develop over time, so watching Prompto’s photos get better and better is really charming stuff. The lighter, road trip stuff works really well, but does feel completely at odds with the oppressive ‘evil empire’ narrative looming over everything. FFXV has an interesting approach to open world design mechanically, but it’s story is not built for an open world at all. That said, few open world games do pull this off, with only The Witcher 3 coming to mind as one that does.

FFXV ditches the turn based battles entirely for something much more engaging. All battles are in real time. Holding one button attacks, whilst holding another allows you to dodge. Noctis is the only playable character and can equip four different weapons at once, which can be switched on the fly. Different enemies are weak to different weapons. Noctis also has the ability to warp around the area, sometimes to strike directly into foes and sometimes to reach high ground which speeds up health and MP regeneration. Alongside this, Noctis can also activate techniques to be used by one of his three bros. Positioning is key, as back attacks (as well as parries) can trigger link strikes where Noctis double teams an enemy alongside one of the team. All these elements combine into a system which is fast, frantic and really engaging. It looks hack and slash-y at first, but that will get you obliterated later on and you have to play more defensively and intelligently. Constant motion is key, with magic functioning like a grenade. There are a lot of complex mechanics at play, but they all feel valuable and build towards a genuinely unique and engaging battle system. One flaw is that it perhaps isn’t quite visceral enough, with strikes having that weightlessness which usually comes with MMOs. More visual and audio feedback to make the strikes more satisfying would be icing on the cake, but the cake is still delicious. Delicious FFXV combat cake. Unfortunately, the camera really suffers in indoor locations like buildings and caves and is really made for wide open spaces where you can zip all over the place. Precise placing becomes pretty much impossible and in a lot of these encounters all I could do was spam potions to stay alive.

As is usually the case with these games, the core gameplay mechanic is the combat, but FFXV offers a first for the series in their first truly seamless open world. The world is vast and beautiful and isn’t bound by traditional Western fantasy tropes. In fact, the setting is bizarrely modern for the most part, with mobile phones and cars and advanced technology. I’m a real fan of this sort of science-fantasy setting and wish we saw it more often in games. As strange as it all is, it works in practice and Eos is a genuine pleasure to explore. The landscapes vary from desert to lush plains to rocky volcano, with a good variety of scenery. The game reminded me a bit of Earthbound, in that it evokes 1950s Americana without really understanding it, a style of world building I find oddly endearing. You’ll be exploring on foot, on a chocobo or by your fancy car. The diving is extremely limited, you can’t go off road so generally it’s better to just let your buddy Ignis drive and take in the scenery, all whilst listening to your friends babble away to each other or classic Final Fantasy tunes through the CD player. I quite enjoyed the long drives for the scenery, but if this sort of thing would bore you it could be a turn off. When you’ve been somewhere once you can fast travel, which is somewhat hindered by lengthy load times. Night is dangerous in Eos, so you can stay at motels or caravans or camp in the wilderness, where Ignis can cook you a nice meal (if you have the right ingredients) which offer significant buffs for the following day. There’s a unique rhythm to FFXV that I haven’t seen in other open world games and it evokes the feeling of a road trip with friends very well.

Alongside the lengthy main quest, there are a plethora of side quests, most of which are unfortunately quite bad. The Witcher 3 spoiled me for good quests, but even Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition had better side missions than this. They’re generally repetitive ‘go here – kill this’ or ‘go here- collect this’ affairs. I actually don’t always mind this if it’s wrapped up in an interesting side story, but FFXV’s side missions are so mundane it’s almost funny. There’s a very lengthy quest chain about acquiring vegetables for example. Sometimes these quests will lead you to optional dungeons, which are actually really cool. This is frustrating as there’s no way of knowing which quest chains will eventually become worthwhile and which will stay boring forever. I’m sure I missed some decent content because I couldn’t bear to do another fetch quest. I actually preferred the straight up bounty hunter mission, which simply send Noctis and crew to go kill some monster then come back. The monsters encountered are often rare and these provided some of the more memorable encounters, whilst containing no story at all. I did a fair few side missions because I liked the world and wanted to spend plenty of time in it, but after I finished the main story I couldn’t quite bear to do any more. FFXV has an open world, but in many ways it isn’t designed as an open world game and this is typified through the side missions.

FFXV has the opposite structure to FFXIII. Where FFXIII was linear for the first half and then apparently opens up in the second (I never could make it that far myself), FFXV tears you from the open world in the second half of the story. You can return through hilariously convoluted means, but from a story perspective you’re out and the rest of the game is pretty much linear. It is here that the game falls apart to a spectacular degree. Other games have done this before; Metal Gear Solid V also had a strong first half that fell apart in the second, but at least the core mechanics remained fun even if it was repetitive. Since the second half of the game is mostly set in closed, cramped locations, the previously mentioned camera issues come to the fore making almost no combat encounters in the second half as fun as those in the first. FFXV throws you into some bafflingly awful moments, compounded by the fact that the story utterly collapses at this point too. A truly dreadful boss encounter and a stunningly ill-advised stab at survival horror stand out as memorably awful, but the whole thing isn’t good. The actual final hour is pretty cool, with a great boss fight and a cool location, but overall the whole second half is disastrous. Where the first half is a flawed but loveable diamond in the rough, the second loses everything that makes the core flaws of the game bearable.

Similarly, to The Last Guardian, FFXV shows its age in some places and it’s clear that this is a game originally intended for the PS3. The character models for less important NPCs are pretty poor and a lot of the animations very stiff and awkward. The environment is gorgeous with a genuinely unique setting, but significant texture pop in and an overall fuzziness to the visuals don’t allow it to shine as well as it should. I actually love the visual design for this game and these flaws don’t really hold it back from being a spectacular game to take in at times, but some of the visual impact is undeniably robbed. The voice acting is good for the core four boys and much of the supporting cast, but some of the NPC voice acting is hilariously bad. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between how characters look and how they speak. Although the setting itself feels like a well thought out and plausible, the characters in it really don’t. This would be fine if, instead of believable characters, we had grandiose and silly characters instead, but we don’t get that either. There’s a bizarre sense of lavish attention to detail in things that don’t really matter, such as the wonderfully rendered and believable food, but ignoring things that really do. The music is lovely, obviously, although the excellent main theme isn’t quite heard enough. It would only kick in sometimes whilst in the field and is interrupted with every combat encounter, meaning that it’s impact is robbed by the less memorable battle theme.

FFXV is a frustrating and disappointing game with an undeniable charm. I’ve made the comparison a few times, but FFXV made me think of Metal Gear Solid V a lot. Both were heavily delayed entries in a long running, beloved series. Both were awaited with rabid anticipation. Both are known for convoluted storytelling and melodrama. Both released essentially unfinished, with clear scars from where content was cut. The thing is, I still maintain that for its flaws Metal Gear Solid V is a genuinely great game, even a masterpiece. I can’t quite say the same for Final Fantasy XV. I’ve enjoyed my time with it and I don’t regret it, but this is nowhere near the experience it should be. That said, I love the basic idea of a road trip game and the world itself and I hope they learn lessons from this game and release a sequel. Maybe an all-female team next time?

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Watch Dogs 2 for PS4, Xbox One and PC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dishonored 2 for PS4, Xbox One and PC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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