Games

Rise of the Tomb Raider Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Rise of the Tomb Raider: Trinity Rises.

Tomb Raider’s reboot of 3 years ago was a successful one, reinvigorating a franchise that had been sidelined by newer IPs in the same genre. Indeed it was the first Tomb Raider game I had played in many years as the bug ridden Underworld was simply unplayable. The reboot was enough to spark my interest in the IP again and since the sequel was announced about a year later I’ve been eagerly awaiting the next instalment. The (thankfully short) timed exclusivity to the XboxOne was a little annoying, since I had to dodge more reviews and articles than I usually do, but finally last week I spent a good chunk of time playing through the latest Tomb Raider.

Rise of the Tomb Raider Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Rise of the Tomb Raider begins about a year after the events in the preceding instalment. Lara, after witnessing many supernatural occurrences on the island of Yamatai, seeks out answers in her father’s research notes. There she finds his white whale: the lost city of Kitezh which supposedly holds the key to immortality. Her quest sends her to Syria where she seeks out the lost tomb of an ancient prophet linked to the legend of Kitezh. It’s there however that she comes face to face with an organisation called Trinity: an ancient order dedicated to seeking out the supernatural and taking it for themselves. Lara is undeterred however and travels to Siberia where she believes the lost city of Kitezh resides.

The production values of Rise of the Tomb Raider are exceptionally high with every aspect of the game above the standard I’ve come to expect for AAA titles. Visually it is incredibly impressive with the environments being rich and detailed, ranging from wide open valleys to deep cave systems. There’s no one thing I can point to that really makes it so well crafted, more it’s the numerous small details like the trails you leave in snow or the way Lara’s gait changes after she’s had a fall. Unlike the previous instalment (which suffered from inflated expectations due to it following Crysis 3) Rise of the Tomb Raider felt impressive from the very start, a rare achievement in today’s torrent of AAA titles.

Rise of the Tomb Raider Review Screenshot Wallpaper Ruins in Syria

Rise of the Tomb Raider retains the same core game play that its predecessor did, being a combination of 3D platformer, 3rd person shooter and semi-open world exploration. The platforming functions pretty much the same as the last one did, giving you the same leeway when it comes to grabbing ledges or landing that jump perfectly. The 3rd person shooter mechanic functions largely the same although the upgrade system allows you to unlock some rather cool abilities that can change it dramatically. The semi-open world stylings mean that there’s much more to the world than just the campaign missions and, should you go exploring, you’re quite likely to be rewarded for your efforts. Overall it’s not a massive change from the previous Tomb Raider game and honestly, with the extra layer of polish this game has, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.

The puzzles and platforming sections are frequent but are, for the most part, easy enough to understand and complete without being too frustrating. In the beginning, with a limited number of mechanics at your disposal, it’s pretty easy to see how things need to be done. The difficulty starts to ramp up when you’ve got several other potential mechanics at hand, some of which aren’t explained as well as they could be. Still there was only one time when I find myself reaching for a walkthrough guide as all the other puzzles could be solved in a manageable amount of time. The platforming was a little less satisfying however as, whilst you have some leeway, it can be a little finicky about when it will pull you right or just let you fall to your death. Once you’ve worked out the quirks though (like not hitting jump if Lara is still shimmying across something) you can make up for those little quirks.

Rise of the Tomb Raider Review Screenshot Wallpaper Survival Instincts

Combat, again, feels largely the same with the game favouring head shots and thus any weapon that allows you to make them rapidly. The bow once again is the stand out weapon especially once you get the skill which does automatic head shots on up to 3 targets at once. Similar to its predecessor though there comes a time when the enemies start wearing helmets and you’ll have to land several consecutive head shots to take them down. This time around however it doesn’t feel as cheap as it did before as the increased number of stealth options provides much more opportunity to take out the heavy hitters before dealing with the rest of them. Overall the combat feels a little more streamlined with a little bit more variety on the side, should you wish to make use of it.

The skills, upgrades and crafting system is back with a few improvements to keep the pace of the game up. You can now craft arrows, other special ammo and healing on the fly if you have the required materials to do so. The mechanic of finding parts for major upgrades is still around and if you want those weapons you really will need to go exploring to complete them. The skills are interesting as early on I went for the additional XP traits something which meant that I was levelling up maybe every 20 minutes or so. Probably about halfway through the game I had all the skills I could ever want and so from there I was just unlocking things that were mildly interesting. It certainly helped to keep driving me forward as there was always a sense of progression but it did seem like I was maybe completing things a little faster than was probably intended.

Rise of the Tomb Raider Review Screenshot Wallpaper Geothermal Valley

Like its predecessor there are few rough edges on Rise of the Tomb Raider although none of them are particularly game breaking. You can quite easily glitch yourself through terrain if you roll, jump or sprint near say a set of stairs or similar. I had more than one occasion where I found myself stuck in between trees or falling forever when I jumped into a particularly cramped area. There’s also the aforementioned finicky-ness of the platforming system but once you know its limitations it’s a little easier to work around. Thankfully though many of the combat related issues are long gone although some of the enemies do seem to do wildly different amounts of damage during the same encounter.

Rise of the Tomb raider brings a much more developed and polished plot, one that dives further into the backstory of Lara and the Croft family. Thankfully the torture porn has been dialled back somewhat, instead focusing more on the trials and tribulations of Lara trying to come to grips with her father’s past and the impact it’s having on her current situation. The introduction of a big bad “thing” in the form of Trinity is a not-so-subtle hint there’s going to be several sequels to come but they at least function decently as an antagonist. Indeed they’ll likely be the focus point of the next instalment as they go after the next supernatural artefact that they’ll use to take over the world. The supernatural themes are better done this time around be less wrought and more subtly woven in the larger narrative. Indeed it seems that the writers behind this instalment in the Tomb Raider franchise have matured significantly since they wrote the last plot.

Rise of the Tomb Raider Review Screenshot Wallpaper Frantic Climb to the Top

Rise of the Tomb raider accomplishes what many sequels don’t: improving on their predecessor whilst still retaining the core aspects which made it great. The production value is extremely high with attention paid to every little detail. The game play is as solid as ever with several streamlining changes that keep the pace of the game up for its entire duration. It might not be the picture of perfection with a few rough edges still poking through but overall the experience is so well polished that it’s easy to write off those few moments. For both fans of the Tomb Raider IP and those who just love a good action game Rise of the Tomb Raider is well worth the asking price.

Rating: 9.25/10

Rise of the Tomb Raider is available on PC, XboxOne, Xbox360 and PlayStation4 right now for $59.99, $99.95, $79.95 and $79.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 12 hours of total play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Lake

The Witness: The World is But a Puzzle For You To Solve.

I’m not one to talk about my most anticipated games but long time readers will know that I’ve been hanging out for The Witness. Braid was one of the most amazing titles of its time, demonstrating that it was possible for an independent developer to make a game that would delight and enthral thousands of people the world over. So when I heard he was working on another title of his own making, his magnum opus that would consume his entire Braid fortune, I was sold instantly. The screenshots and tentative pieces of game play only drew me in further and made me excited for its release early on the PlayStation4. However that day came and went but here we are, 2 years later, and I’ve spent the last week playing through it. Whilst it may not evoke the same level of feelings in me that Braid did it’s hard not to respect the craftsmanship of The Witness, a true masterpiece from one of the leaders of the indie game developer community.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper Opening Screen

The Witness starts without a lick of dialogue or even a starting screen. Instead you’re placed in a long corridor, a bright light at one end beckoning you to come forward. What you find when you open that door is a bright and vibrant world, one that seems to be locked behind a series of line drawing puzzles. These puzzles strictly adhere to the idea of “show, don’t tell”, guiding you through their mechanics slowly so you can feel your way around them. What happens in this world is up to you however as you are given no direction, no purpose and, above all, no restrictions bar the puzzles in front of you.

Visually The Witness feels like a cross between the cartoonish stylings of games like Team Fortress 2 and the low-poly look that’s quite trendy among the indie scene currently. The resulting visual landscapes feel like something out of a dream, lovely and beautiful to look upon but strangely devoid of detail when you get up close. The wide and varied landscape of the island means that you won’t be wanting for lack of visual variety as there’s everything from a wide desert to a swap to a snow capped mountain top for you to explore. Of course this simplicity belies the breadth and depth of the game world, something which I feel will only be fully revealed to players who invest dozens of hours into this game.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Lake

Mechanically The Witness is easy to explain at a high level although as the mechanics pile on things start to get extremely complicated. Essentially the base puzzle is drawing a line from one end to another, simple right? Well how about having to solve a maze whilst going through certain points? Or possibly having to separate different coloured blocks into 2 sections that don’t overlap? Those are just some of the simpler mechanics and, as you progress, you’ll begin to find that the puzzles cross-pollinate with each other. So a solution you’ve learnt in one puzzle might be needed to figure out another or, and this is where it gets really tricky, you’ll need to figure out how both of those mechanics combine in order to solve it.

In the beginning this process of mechanic discovery is incredibly rewarding. Each of the puzzle sets has its own language, a way of expressing to you the player what you need to do in order to solve it. For all of the mechanics these are shown in a tutorial like puzzle which demonstrates it in the most simple way possible and then progressively introduces new variables which give you the bounds of how it works. I can clearly remember after stepping out of the first area finding what looked like a secret path that was blocked by a puzzle that, on first look, was completely impossible. However after finding a tutorial near by it became clear what I needed to do and I was able to unlock my first secret, something which I had literally no idea what to do with. Still knowing that I had uncovered something that would be used later was pretty cool and kept me playing for a while longer.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper Garden Maze

Probably the most inspired part about The Witness, and this is mildly spoilery (skip to the next one if that bugs you), is that the very world you live in is actually a puzzle. I was fooling around in the desert puzzle area when I noticed that, from a particular angle, parts of the scenery looked like one of the puzzles I could solve. Sure enough by clicking on it I was greeted with an actual, solvable puzzle, one that has the most satisfying noise when you first discover it. Knowing this is both a blessing and a curse however as from then on you will be forever questioning what is part of a puzzle and what isn’t. Of course that adds yet another layer of complexity onto an already complex game and this, unfortunately, is where the wheels started to fall off the experience for me.

After I spent a good hour or so on solving the desert puzzle I was keen to dig into a new challenge, one that would engage a different part of my brain. Sure enough I found it however after a while I started stumbling across a symbol I hadn’t seen before and couldn’t figure out how it worked. So, of course, I went searching for other puzzles but it would often come to a point where I’d find yet another mechanic which I wasn’t familiar with. Now I’m the kind of player that hates leaving things unfinished and having to trudge around the whole island to find the right mechanics didn’t really enthuse me. So I did what anyone would do in that situation, I looked the mechanic up on the Internet.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper Frozen in Contemplation

While I’m sure that’s tantamount to heresy for The Witness purists the fact of the matter was that, after spending 8 hours stumbling around solving puzzles I was still coming across new mechanics and, frankly, I was getting bored. Whilst the mechanics are novel and inspired the fact of the matter is that it always boils down to getting a line from one side to the other. So sure, there’s different things to think about, but you’ll be staring at the same grid again and again for hours on end. It was at this point I felt I just wanted to see the ending and hopefully dredge up some semblance of a story out of the game that had barely uttered more than a handful of paragraphs at me.

However if there’s  story in The Witness it’s buried so deep in all the secrets, recordings and imagery that you’re really going to have to enjoy exploration and puzzles to find it. After playing The Talos Principle I was incredibly excited for the prospect of a deep narrative in The Witness, one that would pull me along through the puzzles. What I found instead were quotes and snippets from famous scientists and, if the people I’ve been reading on Reddit are to be believed, a strung out metaphor about the development of The Witness game itself. Honestly this was my biggest disappointment with The Witness as Braid managed to do so much more with less. Perhaps someone will post a synopsis that changes my mind someday but after 10 hours of searching I’m still left wanting.

The Witness Review Screenshot Wallpaper The Final Door Opens

The Witness is an absolutely beautifully crafted game, both from an aesthetic point of view and the novel craftsmanship of its puzzles. It’s amazing to see how such a simple idea, drawing a line from one point to another, can be given such mechanical complexity. Taking that one step further and including the very world itself as part of the mechanics is an inspired achievement, one that blew me away when I finally figured it out. However the repetitive nature of the puzzles, coupled with the lack of narrative to drive you forward through those puzzles, makes it hard to keep coming back after a while. The Witness is most certainly a testament to Jonathan Blow’s dedication to perfection in all things he sets out to create however it falls short of acquiring the “must play” status that his seminal title did. Overall I believe The Witness is certainly worth playing, just maybe not to its ultimate conclusion.

Rating: 8.0/10

The Witness is available on PC and PlayStation4 right now for $29.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 10 hours of total play time and 50% of the achievements unlocked.

That Dragon Cancer Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

That Dragon, Cancer: A Memorial.

Games have been rapidly maturing as a medium, going from a distraction that was only for kids to the canvas upon which many artists now create their wares. As the medium has matured it has taken on the attributes of the others that preceded it, meaning games have been used for things beyond simple entertainment. More recently I’ve begun to see more games that are a kind of therapy, not for the user but for the game developer themselves. That Dragon, Cancer (the first title from Numinous Games) is a deeply personal journey for the developer, one that surely resonates for many, represented in a game that deals with many issues that come from battling this terrible disease.

That Dragon Cancer Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

That Dragon, Cancer follows the true story of Joel Green who was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer when he was only one year old. You’ll take on many forms throughout the journey although primarily you’ll be put in the shoes of Ryan Green, the father. Throughout the 2 hour journey you’ll walk alongside the Green family as they deal with the incredibly difficult and trying experience that is childhood cancer. What you make of the story will be as personal as the story itself as I’ve yet to read an impression that was identical to any other.

Visually That Dragon, Cancer is striking with its low poly art coupled with bright pastel colours and lighting. The minimal aesthetic is purposefully designed to have you focusing on the key elements that are on screen at any particular time (like the chemo bag in the screenshot below). Whilst it’s not exactly an unique style it is well executed, running flawlessly on even mediocre hardware. Things do seem to come unstuck a bit when the 2D and 3D elements are mixed together however I get the feeling that’s part of the developer’s intentions.

That Dragon Cancer Review Screenshot Wallpaper What Life Lies Beyond

Mechanically That Dragon, Cancer feels like an exploration with the game ebbing and weaving through various different styles of games over its short duration. Each of them has been crafted for a particular part of the narrative and for the most part they fit, however their implementation can be somewhat lacking in parts. Since this is a narrative first game however that doesn’t matter too much as they’re not designed to be blockers to progressing the story. Overall the mechanics were an ample backdrop to the main story of the game which is really the only reason you’d be playing this in the first place.

As to the story I’m in two minds. So often I was caught up in Joel’s tale, his stories echoing with my own experiences with my dad who’s currently battling cancer. However after a while the muddled progression of the story lost me, making me wonder just what exactly was going on. That coupled with the fact that I’m not exactly the religious type meant that the latter parts of the story, which are very faith heavy, meant that it began to grate on me heavily. However as a chronicle of Joel’s and the Green family’s life it is more than apt.

That Dragon Cancer Review Screenshot Wallpaper Reunited Again

That Dragon, Cancer is an extremely personal journey of one family’s battle against cancer and the challenges that it brings. As a game it is simple, favouring minimal looks and mechanics over anything else that might distract from the story. It most certainly achieves its vision of being a memorial to Joel’s life, capturing his personality and the effect he had the people he interacted with. The telling of that story though can be somewhat muddled and, if you’re not the praying type, may rub you the wrong way towards the end. Still if you or someone you know is facing the same challenges as this game describes then it’s definitely worth playing, if just to know that you’re not alone in your struggles

Rating: 7.0/10

That Dragon, Cancer is available on PC right now for $14.99. Total play time was 2 hours.

Oxenfree Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Oxenfree: You Can’t Escape The Past.

I always have a slight feeling of cognitive dissonance when it comes to narratives that are player controlled. On the one hand I love that it allows me to imprint myself upon the character, crafting them into the person I want them to be in the game’s world. On the other hand however I sometimes feel like doing that runs contrary to what the true nature of the character might be, especially when I’m operating on imperfect information about said character. Oxenfree, the first title from Night School Studios (who count former Telltale Games and Disney staff among them), falls somewhere in the middle but still provides a great player driven narrative experience.

Oxenfree Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Oxenfree puts you in control of Alex, a teenager on the cusp of adulthood who’s heading out to an end of year rager with a bunch of her friends. Among them are your best friend Ren, his current crush Nona, a girl who used to date your brother Clarissa and your newly minted step-brother Jonas. The night starts off normal enough with everyone engaging in a rousing game of “Truth or Slap” however things start to quickly come unraveled as Ren beguiles you into investigating some of the island’s more paranormal features. From then on the night changes from being one of drunken revelry into a fight against a paranormal force.

The visual style of Oxenfree harks back to a time of pre-rendered backgrounds with simple 3D visuals layered on top of them. The backgrounds have a kind of textured paper look about them, as if they’re part of an arts project. The character models are quite simplistic, obviously done in that way to blend in more seamlessly with the backgrounds. However unlike the games which this art style pays homage to Oxenfree makes heavy use of lighting and visual effects, both in terms of aesthetics as well as forming part of the plot mechanics. Overall, from a visual perspective, Oxenfree is very well crafted and is done in a way that amplifies the story rather than distracting from it.

Oxenfree Review Screenshot Wallpaper Dialogue Choices

In terms of gameplay Oxenfree is primarily focused on the narrative and the dialogue choices you make as a player. You’re usually given 3 different options when responding, each of which can direct the story in a certain way. The main puzzle mechanic comes in the form of a radio which you tune to different stations, either to listen in for clues or to resonate with objects which will cause something to happen. There’s also some other puzzles which range in the form of simple to nigh on impossible although thankfully the latter, even if failed completely, will not stop you from progressing the narrative.

Oxenfree gets credit for keeping the story linear in nature whilst giving you the freedom to explore should you choose to do so. Too often I’ve played similarly styled games which lock core story elements behind inordinate numbers of puzzles, detracting from the narrative. The puzzle mechanics might be simple but they’re enough to keep you engaged through the times when there’s less dialogue about. One criticism I will level at them however is the “improved” radio which just doubles the number of frequencies you have to cycle through. Honestly that just adds tedium as you have to scroll through far more things in order to find the right frequency.

Oxenfree Review Screenshot Wallpaper Its Over Right

Oxenfree’s narrative deals with a lot of heavy subjects and does so through the lens of a teenage coming of age story. The paranormal aspects, whilst being downright scary in their own way, are used more as a mechanic to explore these issues rather than just being a license to do whacky things. You, as Alex, have quite a lot of control over how the story develops and this can radically change how you feel about the characters and, most interestingly, how they feel about each other. I really can’t say much more without wading into spoiler territory but suffice to say that Oxenfree delivers a solid narrative that deals well with issues that the video game medium is still coming to grips with.

Oxenfree is a powerful narrative driven game, one that shows how simplicity in all things but story can still add up to a great experience. The visual style pays homage to simpler times where pre-rendered backgrounds were a tool to get around the limitations of thte day. The mechanics are simple and do their best to get out of the way of the story. The story is what makes Oxenfree worth playing, both from the core story aspect as well as the level of control that the player is given over shaping it. For those who love a good story, or just a decent thriller, then Oxenfree is definitely worth a play through.

Rating: 8.5/10

Oxenfree is available on PC and XboxOne right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with around 3 hours of total play time and 38% of the achievements unlocked.

Linea Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Linea: Hesitation Will Be Your End.

Reaction based games have never really been my strong suit. Ever since the brutality that is the Battletoads bike level I think I’ve been left scarred, the flashbacks of the nigh impossible stretch haunting my thoughts whenever I face a similar challenge. There is something to be said for those kinds of challenges though as, given enough tries, you will eventually succeed. However there are other reaction based games which have no such safety net, forcing you to develop strategies to cope with the unknowable path that lies before you. Linea is an example of these kinds of games, one where a random set of obstacles must be overcome in order for you to be victorious.

Linea Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

The idea behind Linea is simple: avoid all the obstacles for 60 seconds. This is, of course, much harder than it sounds as whilst the objects you need to avoid a telegraphed before they’ll reach you it’s not like you have forever to make up your mind. Hesitate, or make a wrong move that you try to correct, and you’ll likely collide with something, sending you all the way back to the start. However once you start again the pattern of objects will change which means there’s no amount of memorization that will help you succeed. Instead you have to learn to understand the visual cues being given to you and, critically, translate them into the right kind of movement.

This is where Linea’s minimalistic aesthetic is both a blessing and a curse. Whilst there’s little extraneous stuff to distract you there’s just enough to trigger you to react in the wrong ways. The level below, for instance, has obstacles that you will avoid automatically if you do nothing. However should you only look at the top or bottom half of them chances are you’ll think you need to do something to avoid them and, unfortunately, hit them. Whilst there are some repeating patterns within the randomness (or that could just be me noticing patterns in RNG, I’m not 100% sure) you’ll need to hone your reflexes in order to beat Linea, something which I simply haven’t had the patience for over the past week.

Although this doesn’t count either way in terms of my review one thing I did think would be cool would be to code an AI to play the game for me. The games simplicity lends itself well to a first time project and would cover all the basics of visual processing, input management and look-ahead algorithms. This could also just be me thinking it’d be easier for me to code something than to actually, you know, beat the game myself but it’s one of the few games in a long time where I thought that would be an interesting thing to do. (For the record the last one I can remember wanting to do that for was Super Meat Boy).

Linea Review Screenshot Wallpaper Don't Choke Don't Choke

Linea is a challenging reaction based game that’s sure to delight fans of the genre. The core game is fast paced with minimal downtime, ensuring that you’re not doing much else but bashing your head against the game’s primary challenge. The minimal visual aesthetic is great to look at but also a punishing part of the core game, making it that much more difficult to visually distinguish everything on screen. Whilst it might not be my usual cup of tea I was surprised I played it for as long as I did, especially when I started craving after a few achievements.

Rating: 7/10

Linea is available on PC right now for $1.99. Total play time was 1 hour with 62% of the achievements unlocked.

Oculus Rift

The Real Cost of the Oculus Rift’s Price.

The Oculus Rift Kickstarter campaign showed that there was a want for virtual reality to start making a comeback. However the other side of that equation, the ones who’d be delivering experiences through the VR platform, weren’t really prepared to capitalize on that. There are numerous reasons for this but mostly it comes down to consumer VR still being a nascent industry with the proper tooling still not there to make the experience seamless. Unfortunately it’s something of a chicken and egg problem: standards and tooling won’t fully emerge until there’s a critical mass of users and those users won’t appear until those standards are in place. This is why the high price of the Oculus Rift consumer model costs far more than its sticker price.

Oculus Rift

Many looked towards the Oculus Rift as the definitive VR headset, something which Oculus has obviously taken into account when designing it. Whilst I, as an early adopter of many pieces of technology, may appreciate the no-holds-barred approach for devices like this I know this limits broader appeal. Whilst this is sometimes a good strategy in order to get your production line stood up (ala Tesla when they produced the Roadster and then the Model S) the Oculus already had that in the previous two iterations of the dev kit. I think what many were expecting then was the Model T of VR headsets and what they got instead was a Rolls Royce Phantom.

However Oculus is no longer the only name in the game anymore with both the HTC VIVE PRE and the PlayStationVR headsets scheduled to come out in the first half of this year. Both of these are targetting at much more reasonable price point, although they admit that their headsets are not as premium as the Oculus Rift is. Whilst Oculus’ preorders may have surpassed their expectations I still feel that they alienated a good chunk of their market going for the price point that they did. For those who balked at the Oculus’ price the other two headsets could prove to be a viable alternative and that could spell trouble for Oculus.

Whilst Oculus won’t be going anywhere soon as a company (thanks entirely to the Facebook acquisition) they will likely struggle to cement their position as the market leader in the VR headset space. Indeed the higher price point, which according to Oculus is the bare minimum they can charge for it, won’t come down significantly until economies of scale kick in. Lower sales volumes means that takes much longer to come into effect and, potentially, HTC and Sony could be well on their way to mass produced headsets that are a fraction the cost of the Oculus.

In the end it comes down to which of the headsets provide a “good enough” experience for the most attractive price. There will always be a market for a premium version of a product however it’s rare that those models are the ones most frequently purchased. Oculus’ current price point puts it out of the reach of many, a gap which HTC and Sony will rush into fill in no short order. The next year will then become a heated battle for who takes the VR crown, showing which product strategy was the right one. For now my money is on the cheaper end of the spectrum and I’m waiting to be proved wrong.

Hocus Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

Hocus: You Can’t Trust Your Eyes.

Ah the post christmas drought, where everyone is still reeling from the barrage of AAA titles that were released just in time for the holiday season and nothing else is scheduled to come out for weeks. Often this is the time where I catch up on titles from the previous year that slipped my grasp but this time around I managed to do much of that over the christmas break. So I wandered the Steam Winter sale (something which is incredibly disappointing when half of the titles are already in your library) and came across Hocus, a curious little game whose puzzles take inspiration from the mind bending drawings of M.C. Escher.

Hocus Review Screenshot Wallpaper Title Screen

The principle of the game is simple, you have a red cube and you need to get it into the little red ditch. Of course it’s not as simple as clicking on it however as the path to get to the goal isn’t as straightforward as it might look. Instead you’ll have to figure out which pieces cross where, how your perspective is being twisted and which parts of the impossible drawing are real. It’s a mind bending exercise in throwing away your preconceived ideas of geometry and figuring out just how all the bits and pieces actually fit together, something that can be a quite complex challenge once you’re in the thick of it.

Whilst Hocus most certainly started out as a mobile game I really have to commend the amount of work the developer put into the steam version of their title. The game has been fully reworked to make use of the PC platform rather than just being a straight port dump like so many others are. This goes hand in hand with the beautiful minimalistic stylings, both in terms of the game itself and the background music. This just seems to be the start for Hocus too as the developer has promised to deliver a level editor in the not too distant future.

In terms of actual game play Hocus is most certainly a satisfying challenge, providing you with numerous puzzles to try your wits against. The difficulty curve isn’t entirely linear though as some puzzles, even though they look complex on first glance, are by far the easiest. Indeed it was the seemingly simple puzzles which presented me with the most grief, probably because they really only had one true solution. Hocus’ puzzle design also fits the mobile platform better than the PC, due to the fact that it starts to feel a bit repetitive after a longer session.

Hocus Review Screenshot Wallpaper Puzzle

Hocus is a great puzzler, one that benefits greatly from the developer’s commitment to the game and the community that has cropped up around it. The minimalistic stylings are a perfect fit for this kind of game, focusing you directly on the challenge at hand. The puzzles themselves are no trifle either and are sure to provide a challenge for even the most non-linear thinkers among us. If you’re looking for another time killer for your phone or just enjoy a good non-Euclidean styled puzzler then Hocus is definitely a title you should check out.

Rating: 7.5/10

Hocus is available on iOS and PC right now for $0.99 and $1.99 respectively. Total play time was approximately 1 hour.

Games of the Year 2015

Game of the Year 2015.

As we begin this new year many of us turn our thoughts on the previous year. For us gamers it’s a time to reflect on the games we played and choose our game of the year as we’re surely going to be asked what it was from our peers. Some of us will know our answer instantly, that one stand out title that stands out above all. Others, like me, tend to struggle to nominate one game as there are usually numerous ones that can take the crown. This year, like many years before it, came down to a hard choice between a few very deserving titles. My ultimate decision though took me a good few weeks to come to, however.

Games of the Year 2015

Like many years before this one 2015 saw me playing a wide variety of games from numerous different genres. Whilst the number of console games I played might have been lower the time I spent on my console was much greater than previous years thanks to a couple stellar titles. The indie titles are as strong as ever with many great games gracing my presence. There were also several notable AAA titles although they were also mixed in with the usual chaff of sequels and other half assed titles. Still compared to some previous years 2015 was a notable improvement on the consistency of the quality of games, something I was very much thankful for.

As always below is the list of the 52 games I played and reviewed last year, in chronological order:

This year was probably the first where I couldn’t think off the top of my head which title I wanted to give the coveted wooden spoon award to. Sure some stinkers came to mind like Battlefield Hardline and The Flock but I couldn’t shake the thought that there was something else. Going through my review scores I found it, the lowest scored game for the year which likely slipped my mind due to how long ago I played it. So this year’s worst game of the year goes to 4PM, a title that strived hard to be a cinematic masterpiece but feel so horribly short. I admire those who dare to experiment with games as a medium but I can’t in good conscious say that the experience 4PM delivered was anything but atrocious. It’s one saving grace was that it was short, something which saved it from a much lower score.

There are a few honorable mentions I’d like to go through this year just because these games have managed to do things that either impressed me or kept me coming back far longer than I thought I would. The first goes to Destiny: The Taken King, an expansion (which generally wouldn’t merit a review) that managed to reinvigorate a game that was suffering from its own burdens. Whilst I may not still be playing it today I can’t say I’m not tempted to go back and throw myself back into hardcore raiding once again. In a similar vein Call of Duty: Black Ops III reignited my passion for competitive shooters, so much so that I did my first prestige. I had avoided doing that for a long time because I thought it’d kill any motivation I had for playing but it did the exact opposite.

The final honorable mention goes to Bloodborne. I have avoided the Souls series like a plague ever since they came out, not wanting to throw myself before a game that cared not for my enjoyment nor my sanity. At the behest of my friend, who jokingly agreed to watch Frozen for as long as I played (that means about 18 viewings, Chris, get on it) I picked it up knowing I was going to hate it. For the first 3 hours I did and I have the camera footage to prove it. However, after I got that first checkpoint, something changed in me. I wanted to see more. I wanted to play more. I wanted to show this game that broke me down that I would make it my slave and boy did I ever. Bloodborne goes down as the game I wanted to hate but ended up loving, something very few games have ever managed to do.

However you’re not here to listen to me waffle on what you’re here to see is what my game of the year was. Well it’s my great pleasure to say that Ori and the Blind Forest is my Game of the Year for 2015.

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It is so rare that a game makes me care so quickly for the characters and then uses those feelings of empathy against me. Just thinking about it again brings back a flood of emotions, a tumultuous mix of biting sadness and soaring beauty. I’ve given out game of the year based on those kinds of feelings alone but Ori and the Blind Forest is by far one of the most beautifully crafted games to come out in 2015. Everything from the graphics to the soundscaping to the beautiful soundtrack all merge together so well which is, in my opinion, what elevates a game from simply “great” to game of the year material. I will have to be honest though it was a tough choice between this and The Witcher 3, with Ori winning out because it does just as well with a lot less.

I am very much looking forward to 2016 as every year has brought me a new set of surprises. The releases penned for this calendar year look as good as any other and I will endeavour to play my way through as many as I can. I have found that broadening my horizons is the best way to discover new things to delight me and so I will dedicate myself to getting out of my comfort zone as often as I can this year. I will stay as true to my roots as I can though, bringing one review a week come rain, hail or shine.

Here’s to you dear reader, may the gaming year of 2016 bring you as much joy as I hope it will me.

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Star Wars Battlefront: This is Not the Star Wars Game You’re Looking For.

It’s a great time to be a Star Wars fan, as this writer is. Whilst the IP has never really been left alone it’s seen new life breathed into it with the latest movie and the hubbub that has surrounded it. Released just before the movies the revived Star Wars Battlefront game had promised to bring the big screen action to your home PC or console, putting you on the ground in some of the key battles that defined the franchise. However the controversy surrounding the game’s release has been strong with many long time fans (and the game’s original incarnation) simply straight up boycotting the game. I’ve finally managed to get some time with the title and, in all honesty, I can’t disagree with many of the issues that have been raised, some of which are made even worse by some horrendous design choices.

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Battlefront takes place on the various iconic sets that defined the Star Wars triologies. You’ll be down on the ground during the battle of Hoth, fending off imperial AT-AT walkers from the base’s power supplies. Next you’ll find yourself on the forest moon of endor, dodging and weaving through the trees to do battle with the opposing force. There’s even numerous maps on the new desert planet of Jakku where the ruins of an imperial fleet play host to numerous skirmishes and large 40 v 40 battles. There are a few single player challenges for you to try your hand at but they mostly function as a way to introduce you to some of the mechanics and to give you credits to spend on in-game unlocks. Suffice to say in terms of settings EA got a lot right, focusing on the things that fans of both the franchise and the original game wanted to see.

Battlefront stands out as the pinnacle of graphics in 2015 with the expansive environments filled with incredible amounts of detail having no rival. This should come as no surprise given its pedigree with the developer, DICE, being responsible for previous graphical marvels in the Battlefield franchise. This no doubt helps with the larger than life feeling that the game strives to create as no environment feels more alive than the ones that DICE created for this version of Battlefront. Of course if you’re wanting to see this game at its peak you’ll need to pay admission price, something which even my recently upgraded rig struggled to achieve at some points.

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Mechanically Battlefront is your typical multi-player shooter set in the Star Wars universe and many of the mechanics take their inspiration from it. There’s a variety of weapons at your disposal, the choice of which largely determine by your play style. The star card system, which allows you to pick 3 different power ups, allows you to customize your character further. The unlock system feels like the original Black Ops online mode with credits being awarded at the end of each match which you can spend to unlock gear (most of which requires a certain rank to attain). There are handful of different game modes most of which will be instantly familiar with a number of them that make use of Battlefront’s more unique mechanics like the hero powerups. Suffice to say Battlefront has all the trappings of a decent multiplayer only shooter however that’s only half the battle and, unfortunately, it’s that other half which it loses hard.

The FPS combat mechanics are a little odd, tending more towards the current console shooter trends more than its PC roots would have you believe. There’s a 3rd person mode which strangely imposes no penalties (which means you should be using it, no question) and the ADS system doesn’t provide an accuracy bonus. As someone who’s played far too many hours of Call of Duty recently this took a little getting used to but it’s serviceable once you get settled. Battlefront, like the Battlefield games before it, is one that rewards players with more powerful weapons and powerups the longer you play. This means that you’ll often come up against opponents that have far better gear than you. Whilst skill can overcome that gap in most situations it does mean for latecomers like myself you feel at a significant disadvantage for a decent period of time. This is somewhat made up for by the relatively fast levelling system, however that’d only work if the matchmaking of Battlefront wasn’t so horribly broken.

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Among the various questionable choices made (I won’t touch the DLC debacle, that’s already been done to death) Battlefront’s matchmaking does away with dedicated servers in favour of its own matchmaking service. On PC though this system simply doesn’t work 90% of the time, failing to find games or putting you in an empty lobby which never gets past half full. It’s not limited to the big game modes either as every time I’ve opened up Battlefront I’ve tried every single mode at least once to see if I can find a game. Should Battlefront have the option to queue for a full game (like its Battlefield predecessors did) this wouldn’t be an issue but alas there isn’t one. Worst still is the fact that the teams aren’t balanced or randomized after every game, meaning that should one team completely destroy the other that will likely continue indefinitely. Sure you can try and leave and rejoin, but you’ll likely get stuck trying to find another game for 30+ minutes again.

It’s a real shame because it’s these kinds of frustrations that up and kill most of my motivation to play Battlefront. The game itself is a great bit of fun, even if it’s not balanced well like other shooters are, but when it’s locked behind so much waiting I find myself drifting back to my old haunts. Sure some of these problems are due to the relatively small PC player base (some 10% of the XboxOne or PlayStation4) but even 10,000 players should be enough to ensure near instant queues for games. Unfortunately it seems like a solution to this problem won’t be forthcoming any time soon and will likely be hidden behind the dreaded season pass paywall.

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Battlefront has all the makings of a great Star Wars game, one that faithfully pays homage to the original IP, but unfortunately falls short of attaining it. The graphics are simply marvellous, easily the best of any game that was released in 2015. The game play, whilst feeling a little unpolished when compared to other similar titles, does have a certain charm to it even when you’re facing off against foes who are far beyond your own level. The matchmaking brings the whole show down, ensuring that half your play time will be spent waiting for a game which will inevitably end up being an unbalanced horror show, either in or your favour or against. Whilst I’ll likely return for a bash every so often I can’t see myself forking over the extra cash for the privilege of doing so, at least not until EA and DICE get off their collective asses to fix it.

Rating: 7.5/10

Star Wars Battlefront is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $59 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with approximately 8 hours of total play time.

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The Talos Principle: What Does it Mean to be a Person?

Even with my 1 per week review schedule there are still some games that manage to slip by. My little notepad with games I’ve flagged to review lists no less than 30 titles which I didn’t manage to get to in their year of release, some of them which received wide critical praise. Every so often though I get a chance to go back through that list and pick one lucky title to play through. On a whim I installed The Talos Principle before a recent trip down to the coast, figuring I might have a couple hours spare to see what everyone was talking about. Now, 18 hours of solid game time later, I’m incredibly glad I did as The Talos Principle really isn’t the kind of game you’d expect from the same development team behind the mindless shooter Serious Sam.

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You awake to find yourself in what looks like a courtyard of a ruined castle. A disembodied voice booms, announcing itself as ELOHIM: your creator, protector and guide through this world. Should you do your tasks diligently, he says, you will be granted eternal life alongside him. The trials he has set out before you are curious ones and the various terminals dotted around the landscape contain data that seem to speak of a world beyond this one. ELOHIM only has one restriction which he has placed upon you: the grey tower that extends into the sky must not be climbed. Will you be his diligent servant and attain eternal life? Or will you defy your god and seek out what truth lies atop the tower?

The Talos Principle certainly has a nice aesthetic to it, even if the environments are somewhat barren of detail upon closer inspection. The various worlds you’ll be solving puzzles in are certainly something of a contrast to the mechanics that reside in them. The worlds often being somewhat decayed, like they’d been there for centuries, whilst the puzzle mechanics are things straight up sci-fi. You’ll probably be spending the better part of 3~4 hours in each section (more if you’re going for stars) and so they do start to feel a touch monotonous after a little while. However you don’t need to 100% complete a section to get to the next one so you can always mix it up a bit if you’re seeking more variety.

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From a raw mechanics perspective The Talos Principle is a puzzler, requiring you to collect various “sigils” which are trapped behind gates or located somewhere inaccessible until the puzzle is solved. In the beginning you only have one tool at your disposal however each section comes with additional mechanics to ramp up the challenge. The Talos Principle is also not hard and fast when it comes to solutions either, allowing you to make use of some emergent game play in order to solve a puzzle in unintended ways. Many of the mechanics that you’ll learn early on, like the fact that 2 jammers can be taken pretty much anywhere, will come into play again and again. How you learn these tricks though can be an exercise in frustration as they seem incredibly obvious once you’ve figured them out.

However the “game” part of the Talos Principle is really just a medium for the much larger part of the game: it’s story. Whilst I won’t dive into details yet (I’ll save that for the spoiler section below) suffice to say that the game’s expertly crafted story, which is woven into nearly all aspects of the game, is what will keep driving you forward. Indeed if The Talos Principle was just the mechanics described above it’d be another puzzler in the vast sea of that genre however it’s the story which elevates it far beyond that. There are few games in which I’ve worked so hard in order to unlock all the endings and apart from one of them I’m very glad I did.

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The puzzles are mostly rewarding exercises in figuring out how to exploit all the mechanics you have at your disposal in order to open the requisite gates. The beginning puzzles for each new mechanic start off easy so you can get a feel for them without a mountain of frustration. However they quickly ramp up to the point where you have to constantly question your approach to solving them. So many times I would be attempting to solve the puzzle in the way I thought it should be solved before realising that was what was stopping me from solving it. The Talos Principle is also probably one of the most devious and deceptive games I’ve ever played in that respect, playing upon the player’s assumptions in order to make the puzzles far more challenging than they really are.

That’s probably one of the most genius aspects of The Talos Principle as just as you think you’ve got them figured out they’ll throw another curve ball at you. When you figure out some puzzles actually involve other puzzles it feels revelatory, until you realise that knowing that can send you down so many wrong paths it’s not funny. Indeed you can never quite know when knowledge granted to you is going to be a blessing or a curse. Considering the game’s underlying philosophical theme, which forces you to question the very reality you find yourself in, that seems quite fitting. Even if I sometimes cursed them for leading me astray.

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MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW

I liked that, early on, you’re given a pretty good sense of what the world is and what led to its creation. Of course the nuances of the world are much harder to figure out like who ELOHIM is, who that mystery voice is in the terminals and just why exactly you’ve come to be in this world. Discovering all those facts, intertwined with various bits of philosophy and legend, give you clues towards what the ultimate truth is. For me the puzzles were simply a means to the end, hoping to find the next tidbit of information that could lead me to a better understanding of the world I now found myself in. The philosophy parts felt like a bit of a cheap shot sometimes, the voice in the terminals needling you on any inconsistency (although doing the same to it was incredibly satisfying), but it does make for some good thought provoking discussion. Still since this is a video game there is obviously one “correct” answer when, in reality, that very concept is something that should be up for debate too.

Of the three different endings my favourite was by far the transcendence one as that feels like the fulfilment of your original purpose which now leaves you to define your own. The first and easiest ending definitely felt unsatisfactory, at least from the point of view of an outside observer. I have to admit I judged the gray sigil ending incorrectly, figuring it would have you taking over as ELOHIM, but knowing what I know now becoming one of his messengers seems like the a fate that no one should choose. Perhaps this is something that’s explored in a bit more depth in the story DLC, something which I unfortunately haven’t had the time to play. Still overall The Talos Principle does an exceptional job in telling its story, even if 2 of the endings felt a little lacklustre.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

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The Talos Principle is an absolute gem of a game, expertly weaving a deep and enthralling story into a mechanically complex and rewarding puzzler. The core game is a great example of a physics based puzzler, taking inspiration from many similar titles but creating its own unique experience. Behind this though is a story which has you questioning nearly all aspects of existence, from what it means to be a person through to whether or not you can really empirically prove anything. For a game which I had only thought would get a few hours of my time The Talos Principle did an amazing job of sucking me in and ensuring I could not leave until I had completed its every challenge. For that I commend it and sincerly regret not getting to it sooner.

Rating: 9.0/10

The Talos Principle is available on PC right now for $9.99 ($49.99 usually). Total play time was 18 hours with 68% of the achievements unlocked.