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World of Warcraft: Legion: We Meet Again, Old Friend.

There’s nothing like a World of Warcraft expansion to instil feelings of both excitement and dread. My long and sordid history with the venerable MMORPG has been well chronicled here over the years and, whilst I very much enjoy revisiting this world, it’s always something of a bittersweet reunion. Thankfully these days I know my time with World of Warcraft is limited and thus I endeavour to make the most of it before I move onto greener pastures. The developers over at Blizzard seem to be well aware of this fact and every expansion seems to cater more and more for players like myself; the ones who want the full experience but rarely have the time to commit to it like they used to. Legion, the latest expansion for World of Warcraft, is no exception to this and the few weeks I’ve spent with it post launch have been some of the most enjoyable I’ve ever had.

That’s saying something for a game that’s now over 12 years old.

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Legion takes place 2 years after the events of Warlords of Draenor and sees you returning to Azeroth. Guldan, after the defeat of Archimonde at Hellfire Citadel, has returned to the Broken Isles to open up yet another dark portal to allow the Legion to invade, this time at a scale to rival the War of the Ancients which raged some 1000 years prior. Your quest, as the champion of your chosen faction, is to travel to the Broken Isles and master the numerous artefacts of power that lay within there in order to defeat the Legion once again.

The graphics have definitely had a bump up from the previous expansion with the environments being far more detailed, the weather systems more varied and the number of graphical options available for you to tweak bumped up significantly. The engine is starting to show its age however, not being able to make use of the full amount of grunt my PC has available even when the frame rates start to drop. In the past this wouldn’t have been too noticeable but with my 144Hz, G-Sync enabled monitor any drop below 60fps is readily noticeable. I’ve managed to get it running reasonably well after tweaking numerous settings however when there’s no frame rate difference between 2xMSAA and 4xMSAA I know there’s some optimisation issues at play.  There’s also a rather weird bug that sometimes creeps up whereby I can’t run in 144Hz mode in fullscreen windowed, usually necessitating a restart of the client to fix it. Overall though it’s still a great visual experience, even if I spent more time in the config menus than I thought was appropriate.

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Legion takes many of the core ideals from Warlords of Draenor and streamlines them significantly whilst also adding in a few more changes of its own. The garrison system has been revamped and stripped down into the far more manageable class Order Hall which functions both as your base of operations and a good source of character progression. To replace what was lost by the garrison system Legion introduces World Quests, essentially randomly spawning quests that occur all over the Broken Isles that reward all sorts of loot, faction reputation and resources for your Order Hall. Weapons will no longer drop from any mobs in Legion, instead you are gifted with an artefact weapon to suit your character’s talent specialisation (in my case, the GODDAMN ASHBRINGER!!!!) which will grow with you as you play. Professions have also been given a revamp, now requiring much more investment in time completing quests rather than grinding out materials and items that will be destroyed or vendored. At its core though Legion remains true to its World of Warcraft roots and the fundamentals will be familiar to long time veterans of this game.

Combat, by and large, feels the same as it always has. Before I really got started with my Paladin I spent a good chunk of time researching which talents to go for, what the rotations are and what gear I should be looking out for. Upon logging in I was greeted with the usual cacophony of out of date interface add-ons, skills which no longer existed still hanging around on my action bars and all my macros no longer working. It didn’t take long to work everything out and the result was, once again, a very slimmed down action bar. Whilst I always enjoy levelling as Retribution it quickly becomes clear that it’s not a top tier spec anymore and so halfway through I switched to Protection. Since then I’ve quite enjoyed being able to pull numerous mobs, easily soloing up to half a dozen or more without having to break out one of my longer duration cooldowns. Tanking in dungeons feels largely the same too although it seems like I’ve lost some of the more medium-length cooldowns that I used to have, ones that would get used for those rotational boss abilities that would otherwise require a lot of healing to live through. Indeed I’m no longer the self-healing god I used to be which I think is good given the fact that I could sometimes go entire boss fights without needing a healer. All in all it feels much the same, just a little more streamlined.

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The World Quest system is probably my favourite addition in Legion as it provides a relatively steady, predictable source of gear upgrades if you’re willing to put in an hour or so per day. I have to admit that initially I cracked and bought a few items from the auction house to step up my ilvls a couple notches only to quickly replace them over the next few days. After running only a couple heroics and a single mythic dungeon I find myself at a healthy 839 ilvl, more than enough to tank the upcoming raid. Casting my mind back to Draenor this was most certainly not the case, with a solid month of grinding just barely enough to get me ready for the LFR version of the raids. The upgrades have, of course, started to slow down but that’s allowed me to focus on other areas of advancement. Thankfully the potential month between gear upgrades that I faced back when I was playing Draenor seems to be a thing of the past although I am now placing my faith in RNGJesus to give me the upgrade quests I desire.

The Order Hall system is really quite fantastic, giving you meaningful and tangible progression at every stage through the levelling process and beyond. Gone are the days where I’d have to spend an hour or two getting my garrison affairs in order before I could step out into the wider world. Instead it’s a quick trip to make sure everything is chugging along (even using the app if I don’t want to login that day) before I head out to complete my world quests for the day. Even better is the fact that there’s catchup mechanisms in place if you decide to leave World of Warcraft for a while, meaning players like me could still be competitive even after taking an extended break. It’s a possibility I really hadn’t considered in any other expansion before and Legion may be the first to bring me back before another expansion comes out.

The artefact weapons are great, giving plebs like me the feeling that I really have something truly powerful that doesn’t require months of grinding raids hoping for that one damn drop. Indeed after I came back I realised that I was still sporting a blue shield despite the numerous raids and dungeons I had completed in the previous expansion. Now I have a well levelled Truthguard filled to the brim with relics that bolster my character even further. My Ashbringer might be sitting in my bags, horribly disused now, but I can’t tell you how damn cool it was to finally have such a legendary weapon in my hands after lusting after it for so long. Indeed it was one of the few reasons I kept playing through the torturous hell that was original Naxramas, hoping beyond hope that I might get a Corrupted Ashbringer that one day might turn into the venerable weapon of World of Warcraft lore.

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Legion predictably suffers from launch day issues (although thankfully most are resolved now) but the game client does still have some perplexing issues that don’t have a clear solution in sight. For instance Legion seems to load most assets incredibly slowly, even on my RAID10 array which is capable of some pretty high bandwidth. This has led to some interesting situations where all I can see is the ground plane and nothing else, sometimes up to 10 minutes at a time. Crashes are thankfully few and far between however, although I would recommend against changing settings whilst something is happening on screen (like say riding a griffon to the next flight point). I mentioned the optimisation issues previously and I think they bear mentioning again as, really, a game like this should not struggle on my i7-5820K lavished with 32GB RAM and a GTX970 powering it. Perhaps there’s a setting or two I’ve missed which is causing my grief but it’s not obvious as to what it is.

Legion’s story is your typical World of Warcraft affair, great if you know much of the lore that proceeds it and downright confusing if you don’t. The trash quests are barely worth reading as they’re all some simple premise that will require you to do X thing Y times for a reward. The larger story arcs are more interesting, like the Paladin order hall campaign which sees you travel to Exodar and the Priests’ order hall, being engaging enough to keep you going but little beyond that. If you’re already deep into the World of Warcraft lore then there’s going to be a lot to love but otherwise there might not be much for you. Not that many of us need much motivation to go and grind relentlessly for purples, however.

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World of Warcraft: Legion is everything I’ve come to expect from Blizzard’s expansions. The core game remains mostly the same, keeping the winning formula that has seen World of Warcraft remain the king of MMORPGs for so many years. The new Order Hall and World Quest mechanics completely pander to players like myself, giving us easy progression paths that don’t necessarily require the giant time sink that they used to. The biggest let downs are in the sub-par optimisation of the now decade+ old engine and the so-so story but neither of these things really comes as a surprise to a veteran player like myself. Still I’ve very much enjoyed my time with Legion and will likely hang around to complete the newly released dungeon a couple times before I call it quits once again.

World of Warcraft: Legion is available on PC right now for $69.95. Total play time was approximately 36 hours at 110 achieving an ilvl of 839.

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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided: Us vs Them.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution was met with much trepidation when it was first released. Whilst many (like myself) enjoyed Invisible War the wider gaming community didn’t, wanting to banish it from their collective memories. The fear was that another game in the series wouldn’t be able to capture the essence of what made it good and, should it bomb, that would be it for the series forever. Thankfully that wasn’t the case and Human Revolution brought both new fans to the series and old fans back from their remastered versions of the original Deus Ex. So expectations are somewhat high for Mankind Divided, putting Eidos Montreal in the unenviable position of having to yet again improve on the Deus Ex formula whilst keeping the game fresh and interesting. Mankind Divided also comes in the midst of a small bit of controversy around it’s micro transactions and tie-ins to other parts of the franchise. Although, if I’m honest, I’m struggling to think of any AAA title that hasn’t been embroiled in some kind of online fracas.

Spoilers ahead for Human Revolution.

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Mankind Divided takes place two years after the events of Human Revolution. The world has been ravaged by the Aug Incident whereby all augmented humans flew into a rage and viciously attacked anyone at random. This has set the stage for a kind of mechanical apartheid, augmented humans now being segregated away from naturals for fear of what they might do. You’re back in control of Adam Jensen, one of the few people in the world to know the truth behind the incident. With Sarif Industries no more you’re now under the employ of Interpol as part of an elite team that responds to a myriad of different threats. You are also the only member of your team who is augmented, something which comes up far more often than you’d like. Working for Interpol isn’t just a job however, it’s your in to find out more about the Illuminati as part of the Juggernaut Collective, a group of hacktivists who are hunting down those invisible men who would dare to try and control the world. Your base of operations is in Prague however your journey will take you all over the world.

The iconic visual style of Human Revolution makes a return in Mankind Divided, albeit with the yellow hues toned down to a more realistic levels. The graphics come to us via the Dawn engine, a proprietary technology stack developed by Eidos Montreal that was based on the Glacier 2 engine which was used in Hitman: Absolution. It’s a significant step up in terms of graphical fidelity as the screenshots in my reviews will attest. The automatic graphics settings err a little cautiously so you’ll likely be able to bump up a few settings without a huge impact to your frame rate. Whilst the overall aesthetic is largely the same Mankind Divided makes far better use of secondary colours than its predecessor did, the yellow hues still present but not washing everything out. This coupled with the better lighting effects, soft shadows and all the other current generation trimmings makes Mankind Divided one of the best looking games of this year.

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Mechanically Mankind Divided is very similar to its predecessor, retaining nearly all of the original augs, combat mechanics and progression systems. The first mission gives you a taste of all the base augs, allowing you a bit of a trial run of everything before they get taken away from you and you have to decide which ones you want to keep. In true Deus Ex fashion you have a choice between stealth/guns blazing and lethal/non-lethal combat. I personally favoured the stealth, hacker and non-lethal approach which seems to be the key in finding most of the secrets in any Deus Ex game. Your weapons are also upgradeable and modifiable although the variety of firearms at your disposal feels somewhat limited. Levelling comes via the tried and true XP/levels system however it can be sped up significantly by finding or buying praxis kits, many of which are hidden in various parts of each level you’ll traverse through. The main differences between Human Revolution and Mankind Divided though are in the form of the experimental augs, both of which open up a myriad of new possibilities when it comes to sneaking around or destroying numerous enemies in one fell swoop.

Mankind Divided does a good job of making your talent choices mean something, both in terms of feeling like you’re more effective at what you’ve chosen to do and being utterly useless as what you haven’t. As someone who invested a lot of points into hacking, stealth and abilities to help me find secrets in levels I had basically no points in health, armour or any kind of survivability. This meant that, unlike Human Revolution, when I went in guns blazing I’d get shredded almost instantly. Honestly I liked that as it forced me to be far more considered in my approach than I otherwise would have been. Indeed I think that by comparison that made Human Revolution a bit too easy, giving me an out when I simply didn’t want to figure out the best stealth approach. This does mean however that my experience of run and gun combat was extremely limited, usually reserved for the last enemy standing when I couldn’t find an easy, or simple, way to take them out.

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Stealth is done exceptionally well, as we have all come to expect from the Deus Ex franchise. You’ll have numerous different ways to approach problems with nearly all areas having some kind of vent system that you can crawl through to get the drop on your quarry. The detection system works well although there are times when enemies will sometimes inexplicably become aware of your presence. Usually this is due to some kind of trigger event which the game could do a better job of warning you about before it happens. There’s also no clarity given over what constitutes an alarm or detection (for the Ghost achievement and XP) as you can be seen by a guard and take him out before he alerts others. The system seems relatively lax in that requirement though as I seemed to have gotten it more often than not. The additional tools you have at your disposal, like the tesla upgrade, make stealth a much more varied experience than it has been in previous games. Overall the likely default mode of play is well catered for in Mankind Divided which I’m sure is to the delight of all the fans.

Hacking has seen a small revamp although it retains the same node capture mechanics as its predecessor. Now you can run afoul of firewalls when attempting to capture a node, both delaying your hack attempt by one second and alerting the subroutine to your presence. You also have a bunch more tools at your disposal though so the hacking mini-game is far more involved than it used to be. Admittedly it does get a little tedious after you’ve done it 20+ times which, thankfully, the game designers have taken into account. You see in Mankind Divided you’ll actually get more XP for finding a way to open doors or login to terminals without hacking them. Whilst this often means you’ll have to hack something else in order to do so it does mean you don’t feel like you’re missing out if you don’t hack something.

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Mankind Divided retains the same mission layout as its predecessor, putting you in a large overworld that has lots of missions for you to do and places to explore. Interestingly whilst running around and talking to everyone who will listen is a good way to get side quests it won’t get you all of them. Instead some of them are found through exploration. For instance I found the Neon quest chain by accidentally stumbling on the impromptu rave in one of the back alleys. I didn’t follow up on it much but walking through the sewers I eventually came across the end part of the quest and, not even knowing much beyond the rudimentary parts of the story that I’d picked up from conversations I’d overheard, managed to finish the mission then and there. Indeed it seems there are many missions which are found in a similar way as I had barely anything to do with the cult of the machine god or Divali, but it was obvious there were missions with them when I went through their areas later on in the game.

Now since I’d avoided much of the conversation around Mankind Divided until just before release I wasn’t aware that it’d contain microtransactions or links to other games in the universe like Deus Ex: Go. The fear that many had was that you wouldn’t be able to build your character the way you wanted to without spending real money. Having played through the entire game I can say unequivocally that is not the case as my nearly end game screenshot of my character can attest to. Sure you can’t max out every skill but that’s honestly not the point; your talent choices should be meaningful and tailored to how you want to play the game. If you’re someone who doesn’t want to seek out the secrets and wants to be a wrecking ball from the very start of the game sure, go ahead and spend the requisite cash, it doesn’t affect the way I play the game at all. If it really burns you that much then feel free to not pay and use something like CheatEngine to edit your praxis to max.

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Mankind Divided, whilst a very polished and highly refined experience, isn’t free of game breaking issues. I was one of the unfortunate souls who couldn’t play for about 3 days due to a bug which would crash when I used the subway during my third visit back to Prague. The only fix available at the time was to restart at a previous save point and not do a particular mission, something I didn’t really want to do. Thankfully Eidos was very responsive to it and managed to get a fix out in short order, allowing me to finish off my play through shortly after. There were also a few niggling little issues, many of which are detailed in the Steam community forum, which for the most part have been fixed. Suffice to say that if you’re playing Mankind Divided now rather than at launch your experience is likely to be far smoother than mine was.

I’m in two minds about Mankind Divided’s story. To be sure the world they’ve created is expansive and there’s numerous avenues of intrigue that you’re able explore fully within the confines of this game. However there’s also tons of world building they’ve done for things that are obviously going to be explored in DLCs which makes a lot of Mankind Divided feel really hollow. Indeed this is the first game I’ve played in a long time where I felt it was far too short, even at some 21 hours of play time for my first run. If the previous DLCs for Human Revolution are anything to go by there’s at least another 10 hours to come and that will, hopefully, fully explore the various story threads that are left dangling at the end of the main campaign. The story that is explored and completed within Mankind Divided is engaging and well thought out however, it’s just a shame that it’s not fully fleshed out in the retail release.

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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided retains the high standards that was set in Human Revolution. Yet again it stands out as a graphical marvel, the same iconic visual style making a comeback with all the trimmings we’ve come to expect of current generation games.The mechanics that made the franchise great are retained with the addition of new mechanics enough to keep the game play fresh and engaging. The controversy around microtransactions seems to be no more than a storm in a tea cup, not being required to fully explore the game. Its initial release into the world was plagued by some game breaking issues but Eidos was quick to respond, ensuring that we weren’t without our Deus Ex fix for long. Where Mankind Divided stumbles is in its length and exploration of its main story lines with much of it being left to the two planned DLCs which are slated for release over the coming months. To be sure Mankind Divided is still worth playing today in its current form but its definitely going to be one of those games where the director’s cut will likely surpass the original in terms of an overall experience.

Rating: 9.5/10

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99, $69 and $69 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 21 hours of total play time and 36% of the achievements unlocked.

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No Man’s Sky: The Hype Giveth and the Hype Taketh Away.

There’s almost no need to introduce No Man’s Sky, the game that was catapulted to stardom the second its concept trailers hit the Internet. The fervour surrounding it is easy to understand as it taps into that oh-so-popular survival genre that Early Access games are known for whilst upping the stakes significantly, giving you an entire universe to explore and play in. I had long been wanting a game that did full, proper space exploration for some time and so was sold on the concept early on. Then I do what I usually do, ignore any news of the game until it finally gets released and then play it with no expectations.

It seems that I might be the only person on the Internet who’s done that.

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The game that No Man’s Sky teases you with is one of infinite adventure. There are quintillions (literally) of worlds to explore, each with their own unique flora and fauna. You are The Traveller, an explorer who finds themselves wrecked on a planet far from the galactic core. For some reason you’re drawn there, wanting to make your way to the centre to see what awaits you there. However it doesn’t take long for that plan to go off the rails with various threats, distractions and curiosities getting in your way. How you journey through the galaxy is up to you though and the stories you create will be yours and yours alone.

No Man’s Sky isn’t exactly the most high fidelity game out there but that’s likely due to its procedural origins. Initially my system appeared to struggle with it, the not-so-great graphics seemingly able to bring my beast to its knees. As it turns out No Man’s Sky, for some inexplicable reason, caps your FPS at 30 on PC by default. Changing that and maxing out the settings made for a much better looking and running game. The visuals themselves are passable, better than what I’ve come to expect from most games in the genre but falling short of some of the stunning masterpieces I’ve played of late. No Man’s Sky does manage to produce some screenshot worthy moments but most of the time you’ll be in an endless expanse of more of the same. This is par for the course with procedural generation as sure, you get a lot of variations, but those variations are often not that far away from each other.

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No Man’s Sky is a survival exploration game on a galactic scale. Initially you’ll travel around your spaceship, looking for the parts you need to fix it. Then you’ll travel between planets, searching out different kinds of wildlife, plants and resources. Finally you’ll be able to travel between systems, each of which has its own set of unique features. When you’re planet side you’ll spend most of your time exploring the landscape, mining for minerals and cataloguing the various plants and animals you come across. When you launch into space you can trade with alien races, mine asteroids and engage in space based combat. You’ll also be presented with a few story related choices along the way: either you journey to the centre of the galaxy or you’ll follow the Atlas path. I couldn’t tell you how either of them pan out however as I gave up long before I reached the end but if you’re a die hard survival exploration fan there’s more than enough to keep you going here for quite some time.

Exploration typically takes the form of landing somewhere on a planet, checking out what minerals are common and then cataloguing the various bits of wildlife if you’re so inclined. Initially it’s amazing to see the variety in this game, from the different wildlife, planets and alien races that you come across. However it quickly starts to become repetitive after you’ve visited a dozen planets or so as many of the basic things are the same (like the habitats the aliens use) and the procedural components start to become obvious. Still for a long time I was still motivated to follow the Atlas path as that seemed genuinely interesting. However there are, of course, barriers to your progression and that’s when you’ll start looking around for upgrades.

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Like many I began farming resources in order to earn the cash required to upgrade my ship, something that takes quite a bit of time if you do it the “legit” way. After getting frustrated with my progress I took to the Internet and found there was numerous ways to get ship upgrades without paying for them. Indeed this way was also one of the best ways to get rare materials for crafting so I spent a couple hours churning through ships. I tried to do the same with my multitool but, for one reason or another, RNGjesus simply didn’t smile on me and I maxed out at a 10 slot tool after numerous hours. This is eventually what ended up killing No Man’s Sky for me as I just couldn’t be bothered trying to farm the required upgrades to get to the next point. At least with the ships I felt like I was making some slow progress.

The combat, both ground and space based, is barely worth talking about. Your multi-tool is more than capable of taking out most foes with just the mining laser with the combat upgrades just making the process slightly faster. Space combat is janky at best as the flight model just doesn’t feel right. Even with a bunch of upgrades my weaponry didn’t feel anymore effective, probably because I seemed to get matched up against more foes to compensate for it. Since there’s really no penalty for death (if you can get your grave back, which you always can) it’s usually better to just die instead of trying to fight anymore than a couple foes. It’s a shame really as that would’ve been a great progression mechanic, one that I might’ve stuck around for if it was any good.

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No Man’s Sky is riddled with the issues that comes with procedural generation, namely all the edge cases which you simply can’t account for until people start encountering them. I’ve come across buildings that were embedded in mountains, inaccessible unless you had a good supply of grenades handy to blast your way in. Falling through the world is quite possible and easily doable if you land in a semi-awkward position. Similarly the physics engine sometimes freaks out if you clip terrain in a certain way, flinging you away with enough speed for the game to think you’ve engaged the pulse engines. There was also a couple times my frame rate dropped to slideshow levels which I could only attribute to some poorly optimised particle effects which were thankfully gone when I reloaded my last save. I’m sure some of the more egregious issues have been fixed in the weeks since I finished playing No Man’s Sky but they certainly did nothing to endear it to me.

No Man’s Sky strives to inspire a feeling of awe in you through the act of exploration. The base game does a good job of that however the ancillary plot, where The Traveller tells you that its feeling awe, is less convincing. Since there’s not a lot of build up as to why you’re trying to get to the centre (or follow the Atlas path) it’s hard to empathise with The Traveller’s varying emotions. I honestly wasn’t expecting much though, this is a procedurally generated game after all, but the disjoint between the potential of the emergent stories versus the curated plot was somewhat jarring.

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Now whilst I may have avoided the hype I’m not ignorant to the controversy that’s surrounded the release of No Man’s Sky and I do believe it merits addressing. As a standalone game No Man’s Sky is a good, but not great, title that I’m sure would appeal to certain niche. Not knowing of potential features I felt no loss at them not being there and so harbour no ill will for Hello Games. Indeed I feel like we, the gaming community, need to temper our expectations for any game lest we set ourselves up for Molyneux levels of disappointment. Sure Sony and Hello Games are partly to blame for this, whipping the community into a frenzy with teasers and interviews and whatnot, but we gamers are better than that. We’ve all been here before, with promises of games that would redefine genres or push them to new heights, only to be disappointed when the reality did not meet our expectations. If No Man’s Sky was released on Steam Greenlight for $30 and spent the next 2 years in Early Access no one would be shouting “BROKEN PROMISES” as loudly, yet because it had a full release it seems everyone feels entitled to voicing just how angry they are.

TL:DR, stop getting so hyped. It never works out how you’d expect it to.

Good but not great is the tagline I’d go with to sum up my experience with No Man’s Sky. I know of a few friends who’d love it as they’ve sunk many hours into similar games like Terraria or The Forest. For others, like me, it was an interesting aside but quickly became repetitive and so I left it behind. This isn’t unusual, indeed there have been many higher budget games which I’ve done the same with, and shouldn’t count against it if the concept interests you. Even looking back, after getting burned by the grind/upgrade cycle, I still think it’s worth playing, even if it’s just to see a few different planets and systems before it gets shelved. That might not be worth the asking price for you but that’s not a judgement I’ll make for everyone. For me, someone who got 15 hours of game time out of it, No Man’s Sky was worth it, even if I may never go back to it again.

Rating: 7.5/10

No Man’s Sky is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 15 hours of total play time and 45% of the achievements unlocked.

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Inside: All Hail the Blob.

Playdead’s Limbo inspired an entire sub-genre of atmospheric puzzler platformers. It’s one of the few games that many will finish in a single sitting; its succinct and engaging game play cementing you to your seat until it’s finished. It’s been quite a while since Limbo was released however and many have been eager for Playdead’s sophomore release. Inside was teased 2 years ago and, like all good hotly anticipated releases, was met with numerous delays before being released this year. Of course the release brings with it the question of whether or not Playdead can live up to their previous accomplishments and, perhaps, even exceed them.

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On first blush it would seem that Playdead was hoping to ride out much of the nostalgia and hype that they generated with their seminal title. Once again you find yourself in control of a lone, young boy making his way through a dark and dangerous wilderness. However where Limbo’s world was allegorical Inside’s is more literal, everything seeming fare more real than its predecessors did. You’re given just about as much instruction as you were in Limbo, leaving you to figure out what the controls are and how to interact with your environment. Once you’ve got that down you’re then left to explore this dark world and all the dangers that it contains.

Inside utilises a muted colour palette with a highly stylized aesthetic reminiscent of games like Team Fortress 2. Where Limbo used their own custom engine to produce the trademark monochromatic visuals Inside instead uses Unity with a specially developed temporal anti-aliasing filter. This is what gives Inside it’s smoothed, cinematic quality that eliminates most of the jaggies that would otherwise be present. It also, as the developers point out, has a nice side-effect of giving everything a stochastic effect which adds that slight dreamlike quality. The resulting experience is quite honestly exceptional, bringing that Limbo-like effect to the modern day.

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Like its predecessor Inside is a puzzle platformer, pitting the young boy against a myriad of challenges which will require you to figure out how best to tackle them. None of the mechanics it uses are new or inventive however they’re all tied into the theme of Inside in some way. There will be much dying, retrying and going down dead ends to try and find the various secrets scattered throughout the game. Inside is very much of the ethos of “Show, don’t tell” with the game giving you clues and hints about what it wants you to do next. It’s also a linear experience with there being one and only way to progress to the next section. It’s simple and unoriginal but Playdead made their name in defining this sub-genre and the quality of craftsmanship in all aspects of the game belies its mechanical simplicity.

What Limbo and Inside both do exceptionally well is inspire feelings in the player. There are numerous moments in Inside that inspire sheer terror or that horrible sense of foreboding should you step one foot out of place. As someone who’s typically not a fan of horror or its sub-genres it was genuinely refreshing to see this done right. This, coupled with the drip feed of information about the world that’s given to you, gives you a driving sense that this is all building to something but you can’t be sure what it is. Then comes what I think is the game’s pinnacle moment and what cements it as another brilliant title from Playdead.

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PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

The moment is, of course, when you transition from the scared boy to the blob. The entire premise of the game up until that point is you existing in a world that is hunting you, one that you should be afraid of. That all changes when you become the blob, the world now fears you, and what you might do to it. Instead of the world and its people fighting you they assist you (for the most part), trying to ensure their own survival just like you were before. The fear and tension is gone, replaced by a kind of excitement. You are now in control, even if that means you’re a strange amalgam of body parts that moan in the most horrendous way whenever you move.

Which leads us to the story. I’m firmly in the camp of the boy being controlled directly by the blob, sent on a direct mission to free it from its prison. Of course how you interpret either ending is up to you, that’s the beauty of how the story is told, but that’s the only explanation I’ve seen thus far that fits well with the events as they unfolded. Regardless of what explanation you take as true it’s hard not to appreciate the final ironic climax, the purpose of Inside being only to get outside. Inside’s story is definitely an intellectual rather than an emotional one.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

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Inside has done what many would think would be impossible: improve on the formula set by a classic and bring it into the modern age. The aesthetic retains that same Limbo-esque feeling whilst modernising it significantly, likely setting the precedent that many games will follow for years to come. The gameplay, whilst standard affair for the genre, is well polished and all done in aid of telling the story. The overall narrative, shown to you rather than told, is certain to keep people talking about it for years to come, the ultimate meaning hidden behind many clues, red herrings and good old fashioned speculation. Inside is a game that is thoroughly worth the time to play and, if you can manage it, in a single session on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Rating: 9.25/10

Inside is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 2.9 hours of total play time with 29% of the achievements unlocked.

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ABZU: Undersea Journey

Journey was one of my favourite games of its release year, blending together many well-crafted elements into an enthralling experience. Long time fans of Thatgamecompany weren’t surprised at this though as the developer had a history of delivering atmospheric titles with brilliant sound tracks. For me though it was the multiplayer aspect that made Journey shine; the co-operation through minimal communication a truly inspired mechanic. However Thatgamecompany’s usual release cycle of every 3 years has come and gone without another release, leaving us wanting for the kind of experiences that they were known to deliver. In the mean time however former art director for Thatgamecompany Matt Nava has formed a new games development house called Giant Squid Studios and their first game, ABZU, has just been released.

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It’s easy to see Matt Nava’s influence in ABZU, the main character sharing similar stylings to the main protagonist of Journey. Indeed the setting, whilst being the polar opposite of Journey’s desert, shares a lot of the same elements. After a short cut scene, which obviously holds some significance to ABZU’s plot, you’re dumped in a massive underwater world and set forth to explore. The how and why of everything are left up to you to figure out as there’s no dialogue nor walls of texts to explain anything. The only helping hand you’ll get is a few screens that fade in to let you know what the controls are, after that you’re on your own.

Borrowing yet again from it’s spiritual predecessor ABZU has the same highly-stylised, almost cel-shaded like aesthetic. Unlike the barren wastes of Journey ABZU is a world that teams with life, schools of fish and other sea creatures dancing about as you explore. These visuals are then accompanied by an incredible sound track done by Austin Wintory, the same composer behind Journey. I’ll endeavour to stop making comparisons between the two but calling it “Journey but in the sea” seems like the most apt description of what ABZU is on first glance.

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ABZU is an exploration game, one that makes full use of the underwater environment to provide you with much more freedom than traditional platformers do. You’ll be dropped into a gated off area, one that you must explore in order to find your way out. Along the way you’ll find various collectibles, unlocks and various items that are used to unblock/unlock your way through to the next section. There’s no combat to speak of however, the game preferring to gently remind you that there’s a better way than throwing yourself head on at every problem. Overall it’s a very simple game but as we’ve seen before simplicity in game mechanics doesn’t mean it isn’t a sophisticated experience.

The exploration is done mostly well, the environments being full of detail that’s worthy of exploration just by itself. Unlocking additional creatures from their underwater prisons adds them directly to the local ecosystem, sometimes changing it radically. You move at a good speed, especially with boost, making it easy to get across a map in no time at all. What’s lacking however is an indication of how complete each section is, leaving you to wonder if you really did get everything or there was something left behind. I may have just missed the signal that showed you that but I remember Journey’s version of that being very obvious and if ABZU has a similar mechanic it was far too subtle for me to pick up on.

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I did as instructed when the game asked me to use a controller however even then the controls felt a little janky. I do understand that there’s a certain amount of inertia when you’re in water however the way the character moves sometimes doesn’t quite line up with what your inputs are. It’s not unusable by any stretch of the imagination but it does make some moments far more frustrating than they need to be. I didn’t swap it out for the mouse and keyboard however, so I’m not sure if that might have resolved my issues.

The story is told through your interactions in the world, various hieroglyphics that adorn parts of the world and lots of cut scenes that paint a high level picture of what your character is trying to accomplish. Consequently there’s not a lot of meaning you can derive from ABZU directly, it’s all inferred from what you see on screen. This doesn’t prevent the game from having some truly impressive emotional moments however, many of which are reminiscent of Journey, but it does mean that the higher meaning of the game is somewhat elusive.

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ABZU is a true spiritual successor to Journey, taking all of what made its predecessor great and applying it to a whole new setting. The visual and sound design both come from direct from those who worked on Journey and their influence can be seen throughout ABZU. Mechanically it plays largely the same with the added freedom granted by being underwater used to great effect. The controls are probably the one black mark against the otherwise solid experience, making some aspects of the game just a bit tedious and awkward. Overall though ABZU is a standout debut title for Giant Squid Studios and I very much look forward to what they do next.

That is if Thatgamecompany don’t release something before them, of course!

Rating: 9.0/10

ABZU is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.

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Mirror’s Edge Catalyst: To See Through Glass.

Mirror’s Edge came at a pivotal time in gaming history. The industry was leaping forward in ever greater strides with game budgets soaring and consumers ever more willing to shell out for the latest and greatest titles. However it was the time when the yearly game cycles began to take hold, the same titles regurgitated year after year and original IPs were few and far between. The Indie Renaissance was still some years away and so gamers were hungry for titles that were a break away from the norm. It wasn’t a breakout success however, generating good but not great reviews. Still the success it had led many to believe a sequel was inevitable but DICE was tight lipped on the franchise for a long time.

It wasn’t until 5 years later that we’d find out that Mirror’s Edge would be returning and it would still be another 3 after that before we’d be able to play it. Mirror’s Edge Catalyst was initially envisioned as a prequel title however it’s current incarnation sees it as a reboot of the franchise. It’s a much broader scope game, expanding on the free running concept by dramatically increasing the area you’re able to move about in and adding in some additional mechanics to keep it interesting along the way. Whilst rebooting the franchise at this point makes some sense, not many will go back to play an 8 year old game, it does lay waste to the narrative that many fell in love with.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst retains that same stark white base and vivid colour scheme that was popularised by the original title. This is then amplified by the significant improvements in lighting and environmental effects that the current generation of consoles allows, highlighting the contrast even further. The environments are quite lacking in detail however with flat textures covering nearly every surface. It’s an aesthetic that does its best to get out of the way however it can be visually confusing at times (more on that a little later). Still there are many great screenshot worthy moments, some of which I’ve included here.

Catalyst retains the base characteristics that drew many of us to its predecessor: the free running through large, open environments with numerous obstacles in your way. Layered on top of this is the usual open-world smattering of side quests, collectables and hidden areas that can be unlocked for various bonuses and whatnot. There’s also a levelling system now, meaning some abilities are locked behind level gates and talent trees requiring you to do some additional work to unlock them. Gone for good though is the ability to use weapons something that was awkwardly implemented previously (some would say for good reason). At a structural level Mirror’s Edge Catalyst feels like a bolder, more ambitious version of what the original was but it’s difficult to say that a lot of these things are outright improvements.

The core mechanics are still solid so getting from point A to B, especially if you do it flawlessly, gives you that same exhilaration that its predecessor did. There were numerous times when I found myself gliding elegantly past all obstacles, enjoying the continuous momentum and slight wind noise in my ears. The additional mechanics open up the world a bit more, however since they’re gated to specific campaign missions it can be a bit of a let down to find out that you need them to get to a certain area. The much more open world does make it a bit more interesting, especially when you’re trying to run and hide, however the actual area you can explore is far smaller than the game would have you think. You can test this by simply trying to run in one direction and you’ll often find yourself hitting a wall in under a minute or two.

I don’t remember combat being particularly enjoyable in the original and Catalyst doesn’t do much to improve on the system. The addition of the focus meter, filled when you run and depleted as you get shot, encourage you to move around more than straight up fighting. However when it comes time to fight you’ll often find yourself with basically no where to go. So then you have to engage in the unfortunately awkward and repetitive combat, using specific moves to take down each of the different types of enemies. Until you unlock some of the higher finishing moves and extra damage bonuses this can take quite some time. In the original this tedium could be broken up a bit by snagging a weapon or two but without that option you’re unfortunately locked into the monotony of grapples, kicks and punches.

I’m sure open world fanatics will find a lot to love in the ample side missions and collectables that are strewn around Glass (the city in Catalyst) but for me they became an exercise in frustration. The time trails and courier missions can almost never be done in the first half dozen tries as any mistake costs you the valuable seconds you need to make it to the end. This means a 1 minute running mission will probably take you at least 10, especially if you don’t have all the upgrades that unlock the game’s various short cut routes. I’ll admit that some of this stems from my dislike of being shown things that I can’t get and having to go back to them later on, but I do feel like there’d be a better way to craft these kinds of missions to make them more attractive.

The stark colour scheme of the original Mirror’s Edge enabled the developers to use red as an indicator of where you should go. That’s still used in Catalyst, however the objects aren’t permanently red, they’re highlighted so by your “Runner’s Vision”. This works fine about 80% of the time however sometimes if you take a wrong turn, change your mind halfway climbing up something or even just randomly you’ll lose that highlighting completely. When you’re in the middle of escaping from something this usually means your death or it can mean many seconds of frustration as you rapidly click R3 to try and get it to come back. This is definitely one case where its predecessor did a far better job with visual cues and is my biggest gripe with Catalyst.

The story is very middle of the road, not terribly bad but so forgettable that 6 weeks on from playing it I’m struggling to come up with any memorable moments. Sure it provides the backdrop for some awesome things to happen (like the below screenshot) but it doesn’t do much more than that. I’m not pining for the previous story to make a return, there wasn’t much to write about home there either, however a stronger narrative could have made some of the more glaring issues fade into the background.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a moderately successful reboot of the classic title, broadening the scope of the game significantly whilst keeping much of the core in tact. The same stark colour scheme which has since been used in numerous other titles returns successfully, draped in current generation flair. The open world vision might not be entirely to my liking but the extra space to free roam is a welcome addition. The parkour mechanics remain solid, however the progression and combat systems are questionable additions. The story does little to tie everything together but at least does nothing to break it apart. Overall Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a good-but-not-great title, one that can be enjoyed and then lent out to other curious friends.

Rating: 7.5/10

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $89.99, $99.99 and $99.99 respectively. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with 12 hours of total game time and 46% of the achievements unlocked.

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Day 36: A Journey’s End.

Waking up in an airport is a strange feeling. Those compulsions I usually have when catching flights were strangely absent since we were already checked in, been through security enough times and, if we were lucky, our terminal would be a 5 minute walk from where we were. Still I didn’t leave much to chance, giving us a full hour before the flight was set to board. Talking to the receptionist as we were checking out we were informed that we just needed to take a short train ride to get to our gate, the time we had more than sufficient to get there. Satisfied we made our way down and, surprisingly, didn’t need to ask anyone else about how to get where we needed to go.

Maybe it was just the random wing of the airport we arrived in yesterday. Who knows.

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I grabbed a coffee and my wife a coconut water, hoping that something light could quell the rumblings in her stomach. We sat down in the gate area, figuring we’d while away the remaining hour before boarding by reading or otherwise entertaining ourselves. To our surprise they started boarding people not too long later although as it turns out it was something of a two stage boarding process. First we’d have to go downstairs to go through another security check, one where they’d rifle through our carry on bags. They, of course, found the duty free in mine and informed me that they needed to put it in a box and would also need my boarding pass. Confused but not wanting to make a scene I handed them both over and kept a keen eye on the guy who had made off with them. As it turns out this is just the process for any duty free that contains alcohol coming out of Dubai and instead of it being handed to you when you exit the craft it comes out with your checked luggage. I guess all airports have their foibles.

We boarded on the plane, the glorious Qantas A380-800, which I had hoped would provide a better flight experience than some of the other jets we’d been on so far. Whilst the set pitches were a little better the uber-reclining chairs did make it a little awkward to get in and out. My wife did secure her favourite window seat position however, this being a 3 abreast seating configuration, meant I had to pester the poor woman beside me every time my wife wanted to get up. Overall it wasn’t too bad but it has made me wonder if paying the additional for premium economy might’ve been worth it for this trip.

Our flight was delayed due to a computer issue on the flight controller’s end which led to a backlog of flights that needed to be cleared before we could go. After we got going I looked at our tickets back to Canberra and realised that there was likely no way in hell we’d make the connection. I’ve been in this position before however and Qantas has always done right by me. I told my wife much the same and we both agreed to not worry about it until we landed.

Arriving in Australia as a citizen is by far my favourite airport experience, the automated systems streamlining you through all the way to your baggage. The longest part about the whole endeavour is the walk to get to the passport control gate. It did take some time for our luggage to arrive however, something that was exacerbated by the fact that we waited to see if our duty free would come through. As it turns out the duty free from Dubai does not come out with your checked luggage, it gets routed through to oversized luggage. After finding this out from a fellow bleary eyed traveller I wandered over to the oversized luggage section only to find various bits of luggage strewn around randomly, including a few duty free boxes. After figuring out that no one was actually claiming anything I went up to the two remaining boxes and searched for mine. Then I simply walked away with them.

Great system guys, really.

Walking over to the Qantas domestic transfer desk we were greeted with a massive line, one that was moving relatively quickly however. Walking up to the check-in counter we mentioned our flight being delayed and not 2 minutes later were we booked on the next flight down and our bags checked, no questions asked. After the experience I’ve had on some other airlines in similar situations it’s things like this that remind me way I sometimes pay a premium to fly with Qantas as they really do take a whole bunch of worry out of the equation.

The flight back was short and uneventful, the lovely modern Boeing 717 getting us there smoothly and swiftly. Indeed it’s the first one of these such flights where I haven’t felt dreadfully ill right at the end; the usual DASH-8 rattling my bones and my head until they both feel like jelly. My wife said she might try to snooze on the cab ride home although then remembered the usual state of Canberra cabs. So instead we got ourselves an Uber and found the awesome express pick up location that’s in the Canberra airport car park. We were picked up by a lovely older German fellow who had some lively banjo music playing.

Shortly we found ourselves back home and noted all the work my mum had been doing to the place while we were away. New flowers were planted in some of our pots, the roses trimmed, the interior of the house cleaned. the entry way decorated with a welcome home banner and balloons and, to our delight, the heater running. We started the process of unpacking and re-entering the lives we left behind 5 weeks ago, the pile of mail (both physical and electronic) requiring attention. The rest of the day blurs out from there, spent mostly in a semi-surreal daze.

I’m still processing a lot of thoughts from that day, and the ones that have followed it, so I’ll leave it there for now. Look for a wrap post in the coming days where I’ll sum everything up and talk about what I think this trip means now that it’s done.

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Day 35: So Long, Europe.

Even the European summer sun did not dare to peek above the clouds when we arose, our 6:30AM start time necessitating us being ready numerous hours before. The bittersweet emotions that plagued our departure the day previous were no present here, replaced with a simple stoicism of getting on with the business of returning home. Today won’t see us back home however; this is just the first leg of a journey that will take us to Dubai. It will however take the entire day from us, our final stop not coming until some 16 hours after our we awoke.

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After walking nearly the entire length of Athens airport we finally found our check-in counter, flocked by the handful of other brave inviduals who rose as early as we. It was in this line we came across a fellow Australian, a young man from Sydney who was also concluding his near 5 week tour of Europe with a last hurrah in Greece. Strangely his journey included many places we had been to as well, including Zurich and Berlin, although he had the advantage of relatives over here to show him the best places to go. He posed the question that so many had already: “So worked out where to for next year”. To be sure it’s an exciting prospect although I’m not sure if a tour of this magnitude is warranted every year.

I have, however, resigned to travel a little more often than I have of late.

All checked-in we walked around to find a light breakfast before we made our way to the departure gates. It was here that I finally had a coffee that I’d describe as passable as nearly everywhere I went couldn’t seem to scrounge up anything that compares to back home. This is probably due to me taking my morning coffee in the hotels were staying at, most of them using those god awful automated machines, but even the few I had had elsewhere were disappointing. Fully caffinated I was ready to face the horror of airport security, but not before making a quick shopping stop.

I had been looking for a particular item ever since I saw it in Ikos Oceania. It was, of course, at an extremely exorbitant price and a quick search revealed I could most likely get it duty free for a fraction of the cost. Thankfully the first shop past the boarding pass check had it, spotted by my wife in no time at all. They also had what has become my favourite part of Greek cuisine: Halva. With that sorted we were quick through security and at the gate, ready for our flight out to Zurich.

We arrived at Zurich 2 hours later to an airport that I will long hold up as the example of how airports should be done. It was clean, ultra-modern and incredibly well thought out. Not once did I have to ask anyone where anything was (this is important for later) as there was either a sign or information post in eye-shot from whereever I was. My wife and I had a lovely stroll through many of the shops, remembering Switerzlands strange obsession with cows (seriously there was a €600 cow bell in one of the stores), and enjoying a light meal before making our way to our departure gate.

Our plane to Dubai was an unusual configuration, one that allowed my wife and to both have our preferred seating options (she the window, myself the isle). Most widebody craft typically have 3 seats on the sides which precludes this although my wife has been pretty fortunate for most of this trip. This made the trip over go quickly, even though we were without our in-flight entertainment for the first hour or so.

Then we entered Dubai International Airport.

It is a behemoth of a place, dwarfing even what I remember of Bangkok airport when I flew through there once for work. Taking my usual approach of “what would a dumb tourist do” failed completely here as there were no signs pointing to the in-airport hotel which were to stay in tonight. Asking various airport staff usually got us a single direction: “yes this way”, “just take this elevator then go through security”, something which made me think that no one really knew where it was. After catching 2 trains, 1 bus and going through 3 different security points we eventually found the hotel.

Well not the right hotel as it turns out, there’s in fact 2 of them. Sigh.

I must have been oozing frustration at that point (although honestly I thought I was being a rather cool customer at the time) because whilst they first said they didn’t have a room for us, and asking us to pay $65 to upgrade, we were given a junior suite room for no charge at all. It was a decent room although I do wonder if anyone who was staying there would make use of any of the additional facilities the “suite” included in the relatively short time you’d be there for. As it was the included massage chair didn’t really function as advertised (much to my wife’s dismay) and the extra lounge area wasn’t fully curtained off, meaning light from the airport leaked into the room at all times.
Regardless we made the most of it, grabbing some fast food from down stairs and revelling in the fact that this was the first hotel room we’d stayed in this trip to have Discovery channel. We set our alarm for a much more leisurely time, hoping that our departure gate wasn’t in another terminal.

Tomorrow we’ll make our final journey back home. I’m excited to get back home although less so about the time it will take. Hopefully it will go quickly and all I’ll have left to do is revel in the memories of this trip.

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Day 34: A Tale of Two Airports.

That surreal feeling, the one you get when you know when you’re doing something for the last time, began to sink in swiftly after we got up. The same breakfast that we’d enjoyed day after day came with a side helping of melancholy; the gorgeous ocean views only serving as a reminder of what we’d be leaving behind. Still, as always, it was enjoyable. A brief respite before we’d leave this place leaving only the memories of the time that felt all too short. Dawdling back to our hotel room we started the process of packing everything up, making sure we hadn’t left anything behind.

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We got a call from reception, our transfer company wondering if it was ok for them to show up 10 minutes early. This posed no issue for us, since by the time we had everything backed it was almost time to go anyway, so we let them know that was fine. Soon afterwards a man in a golf buggy came down to pick us up from our room, saving us the 5 minute uphill journey back to reception with our now heavy luggage in tow. It was then I realised that I had only seen one other set of people making this same journey, everyone seemingly staying for longer than us or somehow being whisked away without anyone noticing.

The drive back was uneventful, the same countryside rolling by as when we had arrived here 6 days prior. Our driver this time around reiterated what our previous one had: we should hire a car and drive around, Thessaloniki is worth exploring and we needed to come back to Greece and explore its many sights. I’m sure these are the same lines that are repeated by many numerous times over but in the post-holiday glow you can’t help but feel the attraction of them. There’s always another place you have to explore.
We arrived tragically early at the airport; so much so that the Ryanair check-in counter was bereft of any staff who could take our luggage. This was part us leaving early and part our driver being very efficient at his job, getting us to the airport in record time. Without much to do we found ourselves some seats in eye shot of the check-in counter and whiled away the time with books and free airport Internet.

About 2 hours before our flight the Ryanair check-in people appeared and with them a long line of people who had been milling about for some time. Seasoned travellers will know Ryanair for being one of the cheapest fares you can get, that is if you can abide by all their rules and not run afoul of something that they will charge you for. When I was booking this I had no choice, unfortunately, and the extras I bought (including our checked-in baggage) ended up doubling the price of the ticket. Worse still reading some of the fare rules led me to believe that my suitcase would violate both the weight and dimensions rules, a potential €100 affair. Thankfully though we checked our luggage in with no dramas, the exorbitant price I had paid many months ago being enough to appease the Ryanair fare gods.

The flight was both amazing and completely ordinary. I was amazed at all the things that Ryanair has done in order to drive their fares down to as low as humanly possible. The seats were packed in so tight there was barely a hair’s width between my legs and the person’s seat in front of me, likely meaning they could squish in an additional row at the back. They also didn’t recline, nor did they have a seat pocket in front of them. The safety instructions were attached to the seat in front of me and the overhead luggage compartments looked like they had been developed with slot in advertising in mind. Truly it was a marvel to behold but woe betide anyone who flies with them for longer than a couple of hours.

We arrived at Athens airport a little over an hour later and made our way over to the Sofitel Athens hotel for our short, single night stay. After what we’d had experienced in Greece anything would’ve been a step down but this felt like a drop worthy of a continental shelf status. Still all we needed it was for sleep so we unpacked a few things for the night before heading out to find some dinner.

All the restaurants in the hotel were overpriced garbage, charging €35 for a buffet dinner. Disgusted we headed back over to the airport where we managed to sort out some decently priced grub along with some delightful almond truffles, all for half the price of what one buffet would have cost us. Retiring to our room we enjoyed our simple dinner over a few shows before turning in for the night, hoping to catch enough sleep before our 4:00AM start the next morning.

Tomorrow we begin our journey home in earnest, making for Dubai before our real long haul flight back to Australia. It almost seems fitting that the end to our trip should be this long, the finale to something so long and grande requiring its own epic to close off the journey. I’m certainly not looking forward to it, I think we spend some 32 hours out of the next 48 in planes, but that does mean that there’s still a few instalments left in this travel log before I close it off. They might not be the most exciting, indeed I’m sure I’ll be lamenting whatever small slight may happen to me along the way, but it will definitely give me time to reflect on the journey and it what it all means that it will be done.

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Day 33: One Last Night in Paradise.

Today was our last full day here at Ikos Oceania, a bittersweet moment for us both. On the one hand it feels like we’ve been here for almost the entire holiday, this being the longest we’ve spent in any one location. But like all holidays it feels like we’ve been fast-forwarded up to this point, implanted with the memories of the days that have gone by. We had only one goal today: to go back to the town of Nea Moudania to look for a store that we could buy a few things from.

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We didn’t get around to doing that until mid-afternoon however, spending our morning in the usual fashion: breakfast, beach and then slowly deciding what should be next on our hit list. We went up to reception to ask about the shuttle service into the town (so we wouldn’t have to walk or worry about the bikes getting stolen) only to find out it would stop running not 10 minutes from when we arrived. This also coincided with many of the shops closing as well, although for what reason I couldn’t be sure.

Defeated we started to walk back down to our room but decided on the way to walk down there anyway. Lucky we did too as it turns out that most of the shops were still open, especially the few that we wanted to visit. We didn’t find what we were looking for though, unfortunately, but it was a good walk there regardless. We then made our way back home and again went our separate ways to read and nap.

The afternoon was spent in the usual fashion: spending some time at the indoor pool to cool off before hitting up the sauna and the heated chairs. We’d taken to bringing our books along with us making the time speed along even faster. Indeed this was the first time we had to be told that the place would be closing. In hindsight it was good that it did close then or else we would’ve likely missed our dinner appointment that night.

Our last dinner was spent at the Italian restaurant, the last of the four on-site places à la carte restaurants. Our meals were fantastic, the small portions being deceptively filling especially when they were combined with the nice Chianti I had selected. Tired and full we headed back to our hotel room, slowly drifting off into the night.

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the end. Originally I had intended to stay for 7 nights here however after we got the flights sorted I noticed the heinous time out of Athens: 6:30AM. This necessitated us spending a night at the airport so we didn’t have to get up at some other wordly time in order to make it. So tomorrow we’ll likely enjoy our last breakfast, head to Thessaloniki and then spend the night in the Athens airport hotel. After there we start our journey back home and a return to normalcy.