Review

Endless Space 2: First You Get the Dust…

When I play 4X games I have one objective in mind: acquire a single victory. On average that will take me between 15 to 18 hours to complete as that’s how long it takes to grok the fundamental mechanics that will enable me to actually win. Even with titles I’ve played before which, you’d assume, would share similar fundamentals take just as long since it’s not often I’ll go back to revisit a 4X game between releases. The original Endless Space was something of an anomaly then with my first victory coming in at a swift 10 hours. Thus when I saw its sequel come out of Early Access earlier in the year I figured great, another streamlined 4X game that I can enjoy without the massive time investment. Well here I am, 22 hours of in-game time later and I’ve only just barely managed to scrape in a win.

So much for a casual 4X experience.

Set in the distant future where the currency of the day is Dust, a nano-element material that an ancient race used as a basis for everything. Your choice of race will heavily influence how you approach the game, which mechanics prove problematic for you and what aspects of the galaxy you’re able to uncover. Like all good 4X games the story that the game tells is the one you make by how you interact with the mechanics, your AI rivals and how you develop your civilisation.

Compared to its predecessor Endless Space 2 is a leap forward in terms of graphical fidelity. Partly this is due to the massive improvements that’s been made to the base Unity engine over the past 4 years or so, as it is far more capable of producing good graphics now than it ever was. However, and I’ll dive into more depth on this later, Unity also has some limitations and these start to become rapidly apparent as you start getting well into the double digit turns. Still when the game is running it runs well and the various bits of eye candy make it a much more visually pleasing experience.

At a base level not much has changed from the original Endless Space, mechanically speaking. You’ll be placed in a procedurally generated galaxy with a random number of planets, systems and constellations (something which you can control, if you so wish). You’ll get a home system, a colony ship and a scouting ship to begin your journey in dominating the galaxy using whatever method you choose. From there it’s up to you to explore systems, research technology and grow your empire to the point where you can achieve one of the 4 victory conditions (military, science, economy or score). Layered underneath all this are the equations which drive various aspects like population growth, your approval rating and so on, each of which you’ll have to optimise if you want to reach your objective. Like I always do I tended towards a science based victory condition and, whilst I don’t think that’s the hardest (military probably is, I think) it definitely felt like one of the more challenging paths to take.

It took me about 3 or 4, 1 hour games to get a handle on the basics so that I could sustainably grow an empire to the point where I was competitive with the AI. The main reason for this was forgetting that there’s a bit of a priority in Endless Space for what you should go for. The first thing to look for when establishing a new colony is food as that will dictate how long it will take for it to go from an outpost to a full colony. After that you want to develop your industry as that will determine how quickly you can build things, reducing the time to make the colony effective. Lastly you’ll want to prioritise whatever you need for your preferred win condition which could be any of the FIDS (Food, Industry, Dust, Science) resources. Once I remembered that everything started to fall into place however that’s when the cracks in the experience started to show.

Endless Space has actually been available since October last year through Early Access. Since then it’s undergone quite a lot of development with about 3 major updates since it first debuted there. However the game still suffers from numerous issues which are, unfortunately, game breaking in nature. I had one game which, at around turn 50, could not complete the current turn. Checking the forums I saw that others had had this issue and that a save and restart could resurrect them. Not so in my case unfortunately and so that game is simply unplayable. There has been another patch since then so it’s possible that it’s playable now but, right then, there was no option but for me to restart (I don’t tend to keep saves for every turn or anything like that). There are a lot of other issues I could point to but I’ll focus on what I believe is the most critical issue for this game: performance.

So my current PC, whilst not being the latest and greatest anymore, is most certainly overkill for nearly any game I care to throw at it. Endless Space 2 is no exception to this so I was surprised when, at larger turn counts, the game would start taking minutes to finish turns and would chug heavily while doing so. Puzzled I decided to fire up task manager to monitor CPU usage and HW Monitor to monitor my graphics. What I saw heavily indicated that the majority of Endless Space 2 runs on a single computation thread as only a single core of my machine was being utilised heavily. Similarly my graphics card would barely jump above 50% utilisation. Part of the blame is likely to lie with Unity as I’ve heard multi-threading can be a challenge with that engine. But, as someone who’s had to do his fair share of multi-threaded programming of late, I can’t help but think a good chunk of the computation that Endless Space 2 is doing couldn’t be parallelized. I’m not a game developer, of course, but when my system is under-utilised and something runs poorly there’s really not many other possibilities to consider.

If you can get past those issues though the core game can be quite fun, however. In my first almost-won-this-damn-thing playthrough I got tantalisingly close to achieving a swift science victory. However, early on in the game, I had put myself at odds with the Riftborn as they were colonising a pretty strategic set of planets that I wanted. So I, of course, blockaded them and proceeded to push them back until I had what I wanted. Whilst this never escalated into full scale war it did mean that the military political faction grew in power slowly over time. Eventually they became the preferred party and, with only 2 techs of the endless left to research, ended a policy that allowed me to research tech 1 level above what I should have access to. Then, because I had little option but to clear out the Riftborn I ended up with way more colonies than I could handle. Then, about 10 turns later, my entire system was in open rebellion and that was the end of it. Thinking back on it now it’s kind of comical how I ended up making my own bed, even if it was incredibly frustrating at the time.

My one, and only, victory came care of an aggressive early expansion strategy that locked off key areas that I could exploit later on. Like most 4X games the AI will get uncomfortable with you at one point and launch an attack but, weirdly, they’ll usually do so at a fixed technology level. So, once you know what level that is, you just have to quickly research the next highest level (something I could do easily with my research advantage as Sophons). After that point it was pretty much just a waiting game with my eventual science win at 100 turns or so. Honestly, without the performance issues I think I’d probably be able to achieve victory much earlier as the later turns were taking about 3~5 minutes to resolve, especially if there was any combat involved.

Endless Space 2 is a much more ambitious version of its predecessor in almost all respects. The breadth of the world you’ll play in is much greater, the races deeper on a technical and lore level and the fundamental mechanics have many more intricacies for you to learn. Suffice to say the additional requirements meant that I spent much longer Endless Space than its predecessor. However it’s still very much shaking off its Early Access roots with numerous game breaking glitches, performance issues and general quality of life improvements needed. None of these are beyond the developer’s capability to deliver I feel and, if you’re reading this review a year or two down the line, it’s very likely that Endless Space 2 is a different game to the one I’m reviewing today.

Rating: 8.0/10

Endless Space is available on PC right now for $39.99. Total play time was 22 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.

The Surge: Our Resolve Will Bring Us Utopia.

I’d still consider myself something of a newcomer to Souls-like games, having played a grand total of 2 of them so far. It’s a style of game that, once I’m in the thick of it, I really quite enjoy but there’s a lot of mental inertia to get over before I’ll have the courage to spin them up. So when I saw The Surge pop up (both on Completionist and through Steam directly) I kept a wary eye on it for a couple weeks before I bought it. Then, the second I spin it up, I get a message from one of my friends informing me that it was far more punishing than any of the recent souls games had been. Overall I don’t think he’s wrong in that assessment although the reasons for that aren’t so much to do with the challenge itself, more from the rough edges which could do with a little more polish.

It’s the far off future and the world is in a state of ecological peril. Because of this the world economy is shattered and numerous nation states have fallen. There is one company, CREO, who is working to right his wrong by launching numerous satellites to begin rebuilding the atmosphere. You’re just an average Joe who’s been fortunate enough to land a job with them and, as part of it, you’ll be granted an exo-rig that will grant you the ability to walk again. During the installation process however something goes horribly wrong and you aren’t sedated while it’s attached to your body. Passing out from the pain you awake in what looks like a scrap yard, surrounded by people who look just like you but without their exo-rigs. What follows is your journey to discover what happened and what it means for the world.

The Surge uses Deck13’s custom, in-house engine called FLEDGE. Details are somewhat scant on what its capabilities are but this isn’t the first game that Deck13 has released using it. From the screenshots you can see that it’s definitely in-line with what we’ve come to expect from current gen games with things like dynamic lighting and realistic shadows. Some areas don’t seem as polished however with physics based objects having severe limitations in computation, often only reacting once to input before freezing in place (this is most noticeable when you break crates, for example). Additionally whilst the game has a decent amount of detail, especially when you’re in larger environments, that disappears quickly when you get up close. Overall The Surge does well visually but there’s definitely room from improvement on the in-house engine.

Mechanically The Surge is very much a souls inspired game, taking much of the core mechanics and translating them for its sci-fi setting. Combat is the same kind of punishing, reaction based affair that we’ve all come to hate/love, pitting you against the hardest opponent possible (yourself). The levels are laid out in much the same way as well, being relatively small in the grand scheme of things but feeling much larger due to their labyrinth like layouts. The currency of choice is “tech scrap” which is the same as souls/blood echoes, dropping from defeated enemies and found in clumps lying around. The Surge’s claim to fame is its unique upgrade system which is centred on crafting and upgrading various parts of rig using the same parts gathered from enemies. This has an interesting impact on combat, making you choose between dispatching enemies quickly vs getting the materials you’ll need for an upgrade. The mod system, which is somewhat akin to talent points (although they’re infinitely swappable), allows you to further customise your character by giving you various choices such as healing items, damage boosts and other improvements which can help refine your character. Honestly I was expecting this to be a kind of cheap Dark Souls clone (partly due to Focus Home Interactive publishing it) but it’s a fully fledged game in its own right.

Combat is punishing, frustrating and rewarding; all those things that you’ve come to expect from titles in this genre. If you’ve developed habits from other souls games they won’t help you here as the movesets are nothing like them at all, although you will be more aware of when an enemy might not be finished attacking. The extra layer that The Surge brings is in the form of being able to target various body parts, allowing you to go for more vulnerable areas that are highlighted in blue. As you attack you’ll build up energy which can be used for various abilities of which there are 2 innate ones (execution and drone) and a myriad of others. Choosing to execute will, if you selected a body part, have a chance to lop that bit off so you can pick it up and use it in crafting. However, and this is a key point that the game does not make clear, if you are after crafting materials the part you’re targeting must be armoured. Whilst you can retarget mid-fight to get damage in first and then change to your chop target your chances are far higher to successfully harvest a part if you wail on it first. For the most part it’s worth just going for the unarmoured part and using your energy for healing or other abilities, only going for armoured bits when you know what you need to farm.

Which brings me to The Surge’s progression mechanisms which, at a base level, are similar to the souls games. You gather tech scrap and can use that to level your core power. Whilst there are no stats to level up each time you will need a certain amount of core power to be able to use upgraded armour and mods (some of which scale with core power). In order to get those upgrades you’ll have to lop parts off enemies (1 time each of head, leg, weapon arm, other arm and chest) which will unlock the blueprint for you to craft it back at your safe house. You’ll also level up your weapon proficiency as you battle enemies, meaning that whilst you can use any weapon you pick up it will take some investment to make them worth while. The weapons also have a bunch of stats on them but they’re much more straightforward in terms of which one will be best for your particular play style or combat situation. So whilst the system might not be as deep or esoteric as the souls system it still offers an immense amount of customisation, something which you’ll need to make good use of unless you enjoy butting your head against a brick wall constantly.

One non-technical issue that The Surge struggles with is smooth changes in difficulty from section to section. Quite often I’d go from being comfortable in battling enemies in one section to being one shot by anything in another. Unlike other souls games, where the delineation between areas can be somewhat vague and so it’s hard to judge challenge between sections, The Surge has definitive sections marked by you using a train to travel between them. Thus it’s easy to see when the difficulty level has been ratcheted up a notch or two. Most of the time this meant struggling through the first section to unlock a shortcut before spending a bit of time farming up to get the next round of upgrades before continuing on, something which the game makes rather easy to do. Thinking about it more this could be a design decision, forcing you to upgrade before you can progress, but it could definitely have been done in a smoother fashion.

 

From a technical standpoint The Surge is fairly well polished, running both smoothly and at a consistent rate on my (admittedly overkill) rig. However the camera system needs some hefty work as it has a tendency to get confused, especially during high action. There were numerous times when the camera would pan to a view where my character simply wasn’t visible, often leading to a swift death as I try to right it and run away. This is not to mention that it’s quite clear that the AI is using my inputs to change it’s actions a couple frames ahead of me, like when enemies can turn around and attack you before they see you when you sneak up behind them. Once you know this you can adjust for it, baiting the enemies into actions that you’re not going to follow through on, but it can be a real pain in the ass when it uses that advanced information against you to say, interrupt a combo or prevent an execution. There’s also some pathing issues that can occur both with your character and with the NPCs, although they’re relatively small in the grand scheme of things. These are issues that I believe are solvable and would hope that Deck13 tackles them in a future patch.

Thankfully unlike other souls games The Surge doesn’t hide the best bits of its story in vague passages hidden away in the hardest to find secrets. Most of the story progression comes through interaction with other characters, listening to audio logs and reading small tid bits of information on a few consoles. The story builds up well, feeding you small bits of information which start to come together about halfway through the game. After then the various parts of the world start getting explained more explicitly and you uncover just what is happening and what your part to play in it is. The ultimate conclusion is a little unsatisfying, mostly because it leaves things wide open for interpretation. Even the choice of endings doesn’t appear to change much although there’s the possibility that it might have some impact on a sequel. Overall I’d say the story was above average and was definitely one of the aspects of The Surge that I enjoyed.

On first look The Surge might seem like a pale imitation of the games that inspired it but it becomes much more than that upon actually playing it. Sure the combat system is fundamentally a carbon copy but the additions make it different enough that I still found it enjoyable. Progression again is largely the same with the deviants being interesting and providing a solid mechanic to build up your character from nothing to someone who takes all comers. The overall experience could do with some polish such as upgrading various parts of the engine, reworking the camera code and changing some of the AI’s behaviour to be a little more fair (but still as punishing). The story is solid and well executed even if the ultimate conclusion could have been done better. For what its worth The Surge surprised me and whilst I might not yet be a souls veteran I definitely think fans of this genre could find a lot to like in it.

Rating: 8.0/10

The Surge is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $49.99. Game was played on the PC with 21 hours of total playtime and 49% of the achievements unlocked.

Prey: Know Thy Self.

The original Prey was a stand out title for many reasons, if not for it’s good but not great critical success. Mechanically it debuted a couple novel new concepts which quickly went onto to become standard affair in many comparable titles. Additionally its story, with it’s respectful treatment of the Native American mythology, was one of the more interesting and memorable experiences of its time. The sequel set the gaming hivemind on fire with the idea of making you an alien bounty hunter but, much to the disappointment of many, it was cancelled unceremoniously 3 years ago. So when Bethesda decided to reboot the IP many were cautious, especially given the circumstances surrounding the cancellation of the previous title. Now that I’ve had the chance to play through the new Prey in its entirity I can say that, whilst it might not let you indulge in your alien bounty hunter fantasies, it is a solid title in its own right.

You are Morgan Yu, a scientist working for the TranStar corporation. In this alternate timeline president John F. Kennedy survives the assassination attempt and this pushes him to funnel more funding into the space program. As a result humanity has pushed far further into space than it has in our world and has even established lavish space based like Talos I. Today will be your first day with TranStar and before you take the rocket up to Talos I you’ll meet your brother and run through a few tests. However things don’t go exactly as planned and you begin to discover the dark secret that this space station has been hiding from everyone.

Prey uses Crytek’s CryEngine 5 and, as you’d expect, looks fantastic. Aesthetically it feels very similar to the recent Deus Ex titles, albeit without the distinctive yellow tone. Instead Prey takes on a darker theme befitting it’s survival horror aesthetic. The environments are richly detailed, something which forms a core part of the game’s mechanics. It’s hard to do the game justice in a few screenshots, especially with the low-light that’s present in nearly every area, but suffice to say it’s one of this year’s better looking games. To top it off performance is good save for a few areas which are obviously suffering from some poor optimisation. This is likely to be fixed in upcoming patches as it’s not just me having these issues.

Prey plays very similarly to the BioShock games of old, equipping you with an array of weapons, powers and choices with how to approach the game’s various challenges. The environments are littered with numerous different pathways to your objective, each of them rewarding investment in a certain set of skills. You can be the stereotypical stealthy hacker, the modern day necromancer who has an army of others at his disposal or your standard run and gunner. Some of the skills are quality of life improvements (I.E. just saving you from having to do something the long way) but there are, of course, certain sections that will be unavailable to you without the appropriate talents. The stealth system is done well, allowing you to ghost through many encounters without having to waste a single bullet. The crafting system is also well done, feeding into the RPG packrat mentality well whilst also ensuring that making items isn’t a total chore. Altogether whilst this Prey doesn’t bring with it original ideas like its predecessor it does execute its concept, ideas and mechanics well.

Depending on your build combat will either be a rare event or just another fact of life. For me, whilst I took a stealth-first approach, there were many times where my patience would start to wear thin and I’d just want to blast through a particular section. The combination of a few choice powers (bullet time plus enhanced wrench damage) ensured that I could usually pick off a few enemies without having to expend much in the way of consumables. Some of the other powers didn’t work as well as I’d hoped however like the mind control power that got other enemies to fight for you. Sometimes it’d work well, allowing me to clear a room without much effort, other times the enemy would just stand there, dumbfounded and not doing anything at all. Like other, similar action RPGs constant quick saving/loading is a necessity whenever you’re engaging in combat as it’s little quirks like that which can be the difference between breezing through a section and getting stuck on it for quite some time.

Progression comes in a couple forms, most notably through Neuromods (which are akin to skill points) and weapon upgrades. Neuromods can be found throughout the game in all the usual places: tucked away in hidden areas, after critical points in the story or given to you by NPCs. You can also craft them using in-game materials although that caps out at one point and necessitates a quest to unlock an infinite crafting recipe. These are then spent on the various talent trees which are broadly split into 2 categories: human and alien abilities. Whilst it’s entirely possible to finish the game without installing any mods, or only mods from one branch (there are achievements for doing all of those), you’ll definitely be best placed by choosing those that best match your desired play style. For me I went a long time before installing any alien ones, due to some in-game commentary about what that would entail, but at one point I felt like I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to continue playing the way I was. That, to me, was a great way to make non-story based choices mean something in the greater narrative of the game.

Crafting is a big part of the game and is a two stage process. Like any RPG you’ll gather a lot of cruft along the way but instead of having to find the exact right material to make something you’ll instead put it into the recycler. It then turns everything into component materials which only take up a single inventory slot. Those materials can then be used in crafting basically anything you’d ever need. This also makes inventory space a meaningful commodity as you have to decide if 10 banana peels (not joking) are worth as much as another item. One little niggle I have with the crafting system is that you can only craft one item at a time and you’ll wait for the crafting to finish before making another. When you’re say, chugging out 10 neuromods after unlocking the unlimited recipe, it can be a bit laborious. That’s nothing that’s above a simple patch to fix, however.

I wasn’t afflicted by the save corruption issues that plagued many however there are still a few rough edges on Prey that could do with sorting out. The aforementioned areas that absolutely torpedo your performance are a big issue as any fights in there quickly turn into a slideshow. From memory I only had a single crash although others have reported numerous repeat crashes throughout their playthroughs. To be sure these are the kinds of teething issues would could have been solved prior to the official launch day if review copies were provided to the usual suspects so Bethesda’s “no review copies” policy does seem to be somewhat detrimental here. The game’s UI could also do with a little bit of tweaking to be more PC friendly but that’s a minor issue comparatively.

Prey’s narrative is one of the more interesting ones of late, even if some of its elements do seem to draw heavily on BioShock’s ideas. The choices you make in the game do heavily affect how the game progresses and it does a great job of clouding which ones are more important than others. If it wasn’t for some of the achievements popping up as I was playing through I wouldn’t have had any idea that was I trucking down the “good” path, especially considering some of the less-than-stellar things I did. The culmination of everything was very satisfying as well and, whilst I’ll always bemoan games that scream SEQUEL at the end, I am encouraged that the IP is being set up for future instalments. Overall whilst Prey isn’t a game you’d play just for the story I’m glad to say it isn’t one of the detracting elements.

Prey’s rebirth was one that was met with trepidation from its fans but I think it’s managed the reboot well. It may not be fuelling the inspiration of current game designers with new mechanics and ideas but what it does do it does well. The subtle emphasis on choice is a welcome departure from the current overt approach, allowing you to make a meaningful impact on how the story and your character progress. Wrapping this all up in an engaging narrative makes for a great experience that had me wanting to come back over multiple sessions. The execution was still a little rough around the edges in a few spots which, whilst not detracting heavily from the overall game, did leave a few black marks. Overall Prey is a successful reboot of the now decade old IP and one I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of in the future.

Rating: 8.5/10

Prey is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 17 hours play time with 48% of the achievements unlocked.

Nier: Automata: For the Glory of Mankind

There are some games which, if not for consistent prodding from my gaming friends, I’d never give any attention to. JRPGs/hack and slash titles are a good example of this as, whilst I don’t mind them at a mechanical level, I’ve never really found anything about the genre that makes me want to come back. Indeed my last foray into this arena was with Bayonetta and, contrary to popular opinion of that particular title, I found the experience so unappealing that I decided it wasn’t worth reviewing. So whilst Nier: Automata took my eye due to its popularity and Souls-like combat I had put it to one side; to be played if I had nothing else. That was until a certain friend of mine wouldn’t stop pestering me about it every time I played a game that wasn’t Nier: Automata. You know who you are.

Set in the distant future Nier: Automata takes place on an Earth that’s been ravaged by a war between mankind and an unknown alien species. The world lays in ruins and the last of humanity has escaped to a base on the moon. The war still rages on however it is now fought between the alien machine race and a highly specialised force of androids. You are model 2B, a combat unit sent in to take out a large hostile force that has been detected. However things aren’t like they used to be, with many of the machines being neutral to your presence and only attacking you if you attack first. This, as you’ll soon find out, is symptomatic of larger changes happening on Earth.

For a game that’s supposedly only been in development since 2014 Nier: Automata’s visuals are decidedly dated. Sure there’s a grand scale about most things with towering enemies and environments that stretch into the horizon, but I’ve seen many current gen games accomplish the same with much better graphical fidelity. I’d hazard a guess that this is most likely an aesthetic choice, fitting in with the current styling of other games in the genre. There were also some weird scaling quirks which seemed reminiscent of previous gen ports with the on-screen text being blurry at certain resolutions. This was fixed by setting it to run in windowed mode and then using Borderless Gaming to upscale it to full screen windowed. Overall Automata’s visuals are average to say the least and the underlying engine could do with some love before Platinum Games’ next release.

Nier: Automata is a smattering of different mechanics all glued around a hack and slash, action RPG core. For the most part you’ll spend your time doing what you’d do in any other action RPG: walking around places, killing enemies, doing quests for people, getting loot and upgrading your character. Slapped onto this are a variety of other mini-games, most of which are variants on the bullet hell theme. The larger than life boss battles debut frequently throughout the game, pitting you against enemies several orders of magnitude larger than yourself. I’d stop short of calling Automata a true open world game as it’s fairly linear in terms of progression but there are certainly elements of the genre to be found here. Finally whilst the game can be played through and “finished” within a relatively modest time frame the game demands multiple play throughs in order to see all the endings, up to 5 at my count if you’re after the “true” finale. Truly it is a game that fits the stereotypes of the JRPG genre to a T.

Combat is equal parts bullet hell and hack and slash, a weird combination that I haven’t come across before myself. Initially the different kinds of combat are divided up neatly: the bullet hell sections taking the form of the old school top down shoot ’em up whilst the hack and slash components taking place when you’re not in a flight suit. After a while though they start to blur together with each of the different sections taking on aspects of the other. As you progress towards the final boss battles you’re essentially taking part in what amounts to a third person, hack and slash bullet hell which is as ludicrous as it sounds. True to the hack and slash genre you’ll quickly become unstoppable when facing anything but the toughest enemies which, honestly, is part of the appeal.

However the combat starts to get stale around the 4 hour mark with the low variety of enemies and lack of compelling weapon choices. Initially I thought this was because I was just missing something as Automata doesn’t hold your hand past the very basics. As it turns out a good chunk of the game’s weapons and other items are locked until future play throughs. This is a theme that’s woven throughout the game, something you’ll quickly become familiar with because the game makes no bars about showing you things that you’re unable to gain access to. For someone like me who does not enjoy being locked out of things which I’ll have to backtrack for (even if it’s within a single play through) I have to say this was probably the most annoying aspect of Nier: Automata.

Whilst I understand that the JRPG genre is famous for putting its players through the wringer with grinds I didn’t envision that having to grind the game itself would be a requirement for seeing everything it has to offer. After my initial completion I made sure to come back to see if the game could hook me back in but, honestly, replaying the exact same game again, down to the same quests and everything, simply failed to appeal to me. I’m sure there are likely parts which differentiate each play through, and maybe that’s enough for fans of the genre, but it wasn’t enough for me. Honestly I felt like the game and its story could have been much better served by collapsing it all into one cohesive arc that spanned 30+ hours, rather than repeating the same dribble 5 times over.

It also doesn’t help that Automata seems to cast aside about a decade’s worth of advancement in game development. Apart from the visuals issues that I mentioned before the game also suffers from horrendous camera controls, hit box detection issues and weird input behaviour when in forced perspective mode. Part of this is due to the fact it’s most certainly developed for the PlayStation first and then a lot of the conventions have then been remapped to the PC. Most notable of this is the lack of a dedicated dodge button on PC, something that will only be available to you if you play the game with a controller. Whilst I’m sure purists will argue that that’s the way Automata is meant to be played the issue is that other similar games, like Dark Souls 3, managed to get these kinds of things right. Perhaps I’m just used to a higher amount of polish these days but Automata definitely felt like it could use a couple more patches before I’d call it a seamless experience.

Now my impression of the story is going to be limited to a single play through but after reading through a plot synopsis I don’t think I’m missing much. There was a lot of potential for investigation into the whole “Machines vs Androids” thing, although the fact that neither 2B nor 9S could see the irony in their position irked me more than it should have. Additionally there is no where near enough development in the various character’s relationships to support the emotional connections they supposedly have, making the game’s climaxes seem hollow and forced. Maybe this is just an artefact of the game’s requirement for multiple play throughs and the story becomes better as more details are revealed to you. I’ll never know as there simply isn’t enough in the core game to keep me coming back 2 times over, let alone 5.

Nier: Automata is a smattering of different ideas, game mechanics and narrative structures that unfortunately doesn’t come together as a cohesive whole. For a game that’s had a relatively short development cycle it seems dated in almost all respects and would not be out of place as a previous generation title. The combination of bullet hell and hack and slash mechanics is novel and, for a time, provides an unique and interesting challenge. However the lack of variety in the combat, enemies and other mechanics starts to wear thin after a time. This then erodes the game’s core intent of getting you to play through it multiple times over to uncover its true nature, something which a better constructed game would have no trouble in accomplishing. My 10 hours or so in it were filled with probably 6 hours of real enjoyment, followed by 4 of tedium. Perhaps I’m missing something here that fans of the genre aren’t but I honestly don’t know what that is.

Rating: 7.0/10

Nier: Automata is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time and 34% of the achievements unlocked.

Everything: Is Everything.

If you cycled back a decade or two the generally held definition of what constituted a game was fairly rigid. Today that definition is far less defined with the indie explosion bringing us all kinds of experiences that dance on the edge of what could reasonably be called a “game”. Whilst I’ll leave that debate to one side (nestling it close by the “are games art” discussion) the games which have kindled that debate are undoubtedly some of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a gamer. Everything, which comes to us care of the developer of Mountain, is an exploration of the idea that everything is connected and how we define nebulous concepts such as self and identity.

You are something, but so is everything else. How do you define what is you and what is everything? The definition of you can change at any time as you journey through space and time. Wherever you go there is always something which is made up of something else. The worlds you explore are infinite, built upon and under one another. If this is all sounding incredibly nebulous then you’re right, it is, but that’s the beauty of the story that Everything tries to tell. As you explore you’ll be many things and each of those things will give you a new perspective on what this world is.

Everything uses a stylised, low-poly, simple texture aesthetic. It’s a procedurally generated game with various different biomes defined covering everything from lush forests to galaxies to 1D sub-atomic structures. Whilst this does meant that that there’s not much variety within a biome there’s enough of them to keep you interested in exploring for hours on end. For the most part it runs very well however once you get a bunch of entities together on screen performance starts to take a noticeable dive. That’s mostly of your own making though so it’s easy to avoid performance issues if you don’t go overboard. All said and done whilst Everything’s simplistic visuals are a nice backdrop to the game’s music, narration and core game play.

Exploration is the core mechanic of Everything as it puts you in a large world for you to explore. The mechanics of how you do this are a little esoteric and not all of them will be available to you at the start. Initially you can just move around and see the thoughts of other things as you walk past. After a while you’ll be able to become other things and then explore the world from their perspective. From there you’ll then learn about ascending and descending, essentially exploring the next “layer” in the realm of existence. There’s also a bunch of other mechanics in there like herding, dancing and a few other things but they’re essentially distractions from the main exploration mechanic. In terms of an overall objective there’s really none as Everything is meant to be experienced more than played, as evidence by the inclusion of an auto-play system which turns Everything into an overgrown screensaver.

When I first saw a demo of Everything I honestly thought it was a joke. The animations are laughably simple with animals rolling around and the various “thoughts” you come across are typically nonsense cobbled together using an algorithm. However there’s something strangely relaxing about it all, watching a big herd wander across a landscape with the soothing backing music playing away. Once you get a handle on the ascend/descend mechanics then the game starts to take on a sense of purpose as you look around you environments for new places to explore.

If I had one gripe it would be that the exploration mechanics of Everything are so obtuse, even after the tutorial, that it can be hard to feel like you’ve got a sense of control. Initially you’re limited in what you can do, which is fine given the broad scope of the game. However even after unlocking all the mechanics it can still be a bit hard to understand how to ascend or descend, what certain UI elements mean or how to direct yourself to the place you want to go. Of course you could avoid all this frustration by just letting the auto-play do its thing but, realistically, I think that’s really only meant for when you’ve become tired of doing the exploration yourself. Still if you can get past this initial barrier the experience of Everything is quite rewarding.

The story, if you could call it one, is to listen to Alan Watts‘ lecture on his theory that everything is connected. The ideas are presented in a highly consumable way and often enough that you won’t go long without stumbling across another audio log to listen to. Whilst I’ll leave the philosophical debate to the reader the ideas presented are interesting and wholly in alignment with the ideas the game wants to present. I’d be interested to know how this particular lecture played into the creation of Everything as the developer has noted that in creating Mountain he saw the potential to represent more of the world through an experience like this. Either the game was somewhat inspired by the ideas presented or they were retrofitted into the game afterwards. Either way it would be interesting to know the creator’s perspective on this.

Everything is a brilliant exploration of ideas through the use of simple graphics and mechanics. Whilst they’re a little obtuse on first glance after a while they start to make sense and that’s when you can truly take control of your journey through this game’s procedurally generated world. After slogging my way through numerous AAA titles and text adventures of late it was great to be able to sit back and simply explore without a goal to achieve. It’s not a game for everyone but, if you’re suffering epicness fatigue from the last couple months barrage of AAA titles then this might just be the unicorn chaser you need.

Rating: 8.5/10

Everything is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $14.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2 hours play time and 44% of the achievements unlocked.

Thimbleweed Park: DIGGIN!

This may come as a surprise given my gaming pedigree but I never really got into the old Lucasfilm adventure games. It wasn’t a lack of interest, more that we were a MS-DOS/PC house and my friends who loved those games were all Mac families. So I stuck to my titles and they to theirs and so I was left to discover adventure games much later in life. I tell you this because I feel a lot of what should make Thimbleweed Park good is tied up in the nostalgia associated with those games. Don’t get me wrong, nostalgia is a completely valid thing to base a game on, however for those lacking the requisite history with the product/franchise/developer those same elements can be confusing, kitchsey or downright trite. Such is my experience with Thimbelweed Park, one where I can see a lot of what I know is likely to be a huge draw card for many but simply not for me.

Thimbleweed Park puts you in charge of a whole host of characters, ranging from two detectives who couldn’t be more different, to a young girl with aspirations to become a game developer and even a clown cursed to never be able to remove his makeup. The game starts off with the detectives investigating a murder in this sleepy town of just 81 people. What follows is a deep dive into the town’s history, how it came to be and why everything seems to hinge on a single dilapidated pillow factory on the town’s outskirts.

As the game was developed by the very same people behind all those Lucasfilm Games titles it should come as no surprise that its art direction reflects them to a tee. The art is perhaps a bit more detailed than its predecessors were with things like better shading being quite noticeable on comparison. Thimbleweed Part definitely leans more towards a stylized, cartoony feel rather than a pixel-art imitation of the real world which, again, is reminiscent of its spiritual predecessors. The simplistic graphics do belies a great amount of detail in some areas however, like the bookshelves (which in most adventure games would just be decorative) containing hundreds of titles in them. This is, of course, all part of the game’s core mechanics.

There’s nothing new or inventive about how Thimbleweed Park plays out and that’s very much by design. Long time fans of these specific kinds of games will be instantly familiar with the trademark grab-bag of verbs at the bottom left-hand side of the screen which dictate how you can interact with objects and NPCs. There’s your inventory which will contain a bevy of both useful and useless items, although which is which is an exercise left up to the reader. Every room is filled with details, some of which you’ll need to solve the current issue du-jour and others that will come in handy later. Indeed the structure of Thimbleweed park is done in such a way that there’s no dead-ends and no way for your character to die so you should (hopefully) never get stuck. Combine this with witty quips from all the characters, constant breaking of the fourth wall and not-so-subtle references to the developer’s previous employer and you’ve got a campy but interesting trip down memory lane…I assume.

As the game will tell you (if you listen to the pigeons, that is) Thimbleweed Park is a well designed adventure game in terms of mechanics and puzzle layout. For the first few chapters there’s always something to do and a pretty logical construction to all the puzzles. The inclusion of a to-do list for every character means that you’ll always have at least half a thought towards what you should be doing, even if it’s not immediately obvious. You will however still spend your time doing what you always do in these adventure games: trying a whole bunch of different item combinations and interactions until you finally figure out which one works. Of course once you figure it out it all makes sense, but the journey to that point can be quite frustrating at times.

Thimbleweed Park’s puzzle construction and layout might be both its greatest strength and weakness. Whilst it’s great to have a lot of avenues for progression having them early on can be something of a mixed bag. If you’re like me then you’re quite likely to chase down a bunch of red herrings that aren’t related to your current objective, just because they seem like obvious problems to solve. A good example of this is a puzzle in the diner which I cottoned onto very early on in my play through. Trouble with that was that puzzle didn’t need to be solved until right at the end of the game and so I ended up wondering what the point of it was, thinking I had wasted my time. This is in stark contrast to my general experience with adventure games (both new and old) which gate puzzles like that to keep you on track.

For people who really like to explore through everything though I don’t think this will be much of a problem. The amount of content in Thimbleweed Park is pretty impressive, putting the average completed play through at around 16 hours or so. For people like me though, those without the background in these titles or a deep interest in the story (more on that in a second) it can lend itself to frustration. This is why at around the 4 hour mark or so I gave up any semblance of dignity and headed for the walk through guides with reckless abandon. I do this because otherwise I’d be likely to quit the game in frustration and this way, at least, I can see how the story ends.

The story didn’t do much to grab me, unfortunately. Sure it’s refreshing to see a game not conform to the current norms for adventure games (both new and those in a similar style to this) but after a while some of those aspects start to lose its sheen. Breaking the fourth wall can be funny and thought provoking, but you can only do it so often before it becomes repetitive. The one-liners, repeated jokes and other story mechanics are good in moderation but that’s not something Thimbleweed Park has in large supply. I’m sure all these things that I’m mentioning as negatives are things that long time fans of these types of games say they love, and I’m not trying to take away from that. More I’m trying to show you what it looks like from an outsider coming in and, honestly, it just wasn’t all that and a bag of chips.

It probably doesn’t help that I didn’t really engage with the story past the first 4 chapters or so. The various character’s story arcs were only loosely coupled together which made their required co-operation to solve puzzles even more confusing. Again this comes back to the no-dead-end policy which, whilst ensuring the player can’t find themselves irrevocably stuck, means that certain things aren’t as tight as they could be. For me this appeared to be the story as the connecting elements just weren’t there to pull the whole thing together. Couple that with the items I mentioned before and the overall story experience just wasn’t up to the level that the hype surrounding this game would have you believe.

Thimbleweed Park is most certainly a game for the fans of the Lucasfilm Games series of years gone past, something which this old writer unfortunately let slide by. Had I not my experience of this game would likely be worlds different; a trip down nostalgia lane rather than a mediocre adventure game. All this being said though there is an inherit quality to the game, one that has obviously been shaped by the decades of experience by those who created it. So whilst it might be making my game of the year list I’m sure it’s going to be a delight to those it was made for: those with an inner child who still hold Lucasfilm Games in high regard.

Rating: 7/10

Thimbleweed Park is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, iOS and Android right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 7 hours of total play time and 55% of the achievements unlocked.

Torment: Tides of Numenera: The Tides Have Shifted.

Back in the heyday of Kickstarter game releases I backed many a title, often without much consideration to what I was actually backing. The resulting games, as you’d expect, have been a mixed affair with all of them coming in a year or two behind their optimistic schedules. Thinking back now I’m not sure what drew me to backing Torment: Tides of Numenera as I never got into Planescape Torment or Baldur’s Gate games, favouring instead RPGs that tended towards more action than anything else. Still after seeing it wasn’t some 40+ hour epic I finally decided to give Tides of Numenera a go, figuring it’d be a nice change from the massive, open world RPGs I’d been playing of late.

Set in the distant future Tides of Numenera puts you in control of the Last Castoff, a vessel of an ancient man who has the ability to migrate his consciousness between bodies. Your journey starts as you plummet towards earth in a ball of fire, burning a path across the sky. Instead of meeting your doom at the short stop at the end you’re instead transported into a strange world, one which is filled with memories that are yours but don’t belong to you. It is then that you’re confronted with an unspeakable evil, The Sorrow, which follows you everywhere you travel. What’s clear to you however is this: you have the power to shape the world and the events that take place in it, even those that have already happened.

Tides of Numenera’s styling is a throwback to simpler times, making use of pre-rendered backgrounds, an isometric viewport and simplistic graphics. The Unity engine is more than up to the task of this and I wouldn’t be surprised to see future versions of it running on iOS or Android. It’s probably a generation behind in terms of visuals when compared to similar titles although I believe that’s deliberate as the game most certainly had its focus elsewhere. All that being said there are some cool visual concepts in there, like the first memory room where you make choices about what kind of character you want to play. Overall I’d rate the visuals as competent but nothing to write home about.

When nearly any game incorporates some RPG element the definition of what constitutes a game in this genre can be a little hard to pin down. Tides of Numenera is a RPG in the truest sense of the word, setting up vast and complex systems that you can use to craft the game’s experience to your every whim. There’s a deep character, skill and talent system which has a myriad of choices that will drastically change how you interact with the world. Nearly all of the NPCs have massive sets of dialogue attached to them, some of it quest related but a lot of it dedicated to fleshing out the greater world. The encounter system blends together elements of turn-based combat and puzzle solving which, if played right, can ensure you never have to land a blow on anyone if you don’t want or need to. Couple this with a bunch of ancillary systems, all of which are done in aid of giving you choice in how the story unfolds, and you have a game that stays very true to the roots of its genre.

The encounter system is an interesting break from the now traditional RPG combat systems. Whenever you enter a “crisis” you’re presented with a bunch of options which you can either take heed of or completely ignore and lay waste to anyone or thing that stands in your way. The way other options are integrated is very interesting, like being able to talk to enemies and use a skill check to say, demoralise them thereby reducing their effectiveness in combat. In actual combat mechanic terms I’m somewhat less impressed as I’ve never really been a fan of turn-based systems. That being said, if you’d prefer to blow everything up there’s certainly more than enough choices available to you.

Progression comes to you steadily as you complete quests, defeat enemies, interact with NPCs or simply explore the world around you. If I’m honest the number of options available to you is quite overwhelming as you can never be quite sure what you might need to complete your objective. This is by design, of course, and those who’ve spent many more hours in true RPGs will likely have a better judge of what’s required than I did. Indeed as I pushed further into the game it became apparent that there was never any real hard blocks to progression, even if my preferred option was unavailable to me. If you were so inclined there was always ways to get what you wanted, it may just mean a lot more exploring and interaction than simply clicking through the right dialogue options. Some of the progression systems, like the loot, seemed almost completely unnecessary however given how much power was lent to the other systems in the game. Overall I never felt like I was struggling to progress my character further but I did find a lack of drive to go to the next objective.

Coming into this game several friends warned me that the beginning of the game was heavily loaded with world building, all care of globs of text. They were not wrong either and the vast majority of the early game is spent reading through dialogue, making choices and generally just getting to know the world and the players around you. Whilst I’m not against this per-se, indeed I’ve chided other games for neglecting world-building before, it does start to wear on you. After playing for about 4 hours I still felt like I was at the very start of the story with progress in the main campaign mission coming slowly and fitfully. By comparison the self contained side quests which much better overall but weren’t enough to draw me in.

So whilst I can appreciate the effort put into ensuring that the world you play in is a vast and deep one I felt that wasn’t tempered with enough progression early on to keep my interest beyond 4 hours. To be sure a lot of things happened in that time and I could start to see the tendrils of the story beginning to unfold. But there just wasn’t enough to make me want to keep going. That, coupled with the other middling progression systems, had me feeling more frustrated than anything else. I could have soldiered on but I felt I’d be doing the game a grave disservice as I’d simply stopped enjoying myself at that point. I can still see the value in it however and I’m sure for the true RPG fans out there this is one of the better experiences that have come our way recently.

It just failed to capture me, that’s all.

Torment: Tides of Numenera is a return to the beginnings of the RPG genre, one that focused on the world and the place you have it rather than points in a talent tree. It’s visuals are basic and competent, seeking to evoke the same feelings that it’s spiritual predecessors would have all those years ago. The various game mechanics are deep and complex, giving you all the options you could want to craft a character and story to your exacting specifications. The story however, due mostly to its construction within the game, failed to grab this writer, spending too much time on building the world rather than pushing forward the narrative I was a part of. That being said whilst I may have realised that Tides of Numenera isn’t so much for me that doesn’t mean it’s not for you, dear reader.

Rating: 6.5/10

Torment: Tides of Numenera is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $44.99. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours of total play time and 10% of the achievements unlocked.

Mass Effect Andromeda: Pathfinder Ryder, Reporting In.

Almost 10 years ago the original Mass Effect debuted on the Xbox 360. The hype around it had been building for some time and I, not wanting to miss out, had purchased the console based on the rumours it was to be forever a platform exclusive. I don’t regret my decision at all and I completed the whole trilogy on the Xbox 360, even upgrading to a newer revision so that I didn’t have to deal with the jet engine that was the original’s disc drive. With Shepard’s journey over however I decided that I’d come back to PC for Andromeda, the next instalment in the Mass Effect universe. With such a high bar set for the previous trilogy (bar some inexcusable missteps) it was always going to be tough for Andromeda, but the mistakes that BioWare have made with this latest instalment go beyond reality not lining up to the hype.

Andromeda takes place between the events of 2 and 3 of the original trilogy where the races of the Milky Way have formed the Andromeda initiative. The Citadel’s council has decided to arks to the nearby Andromeda galaxy, each of them populated with 20,000 citizens and a leader known as the Pathfinder. You play as Scott/Sarah Ryder, a twin and child of humanity’s Pathfinder Alec Ryder. Your job is to find humanity a new home and begin the formation of a new galactic government in the Andromeda galaxy. Upon arrival however you quickly discover that everything isn’t as the initiative had first hoped, the Andromeda galaxy significantly changed in the years since it was first scouted. It is up to you then to make Andromeda viable, paving the way for a sustainable colony for generations to come.

Mass Effect Andromeda drops the Unreal 3 engine that powered the last trilogy in favour of the Frostbite engine. This, coupled with the significant leap in computing power afforded to us, means that Andromeda’s graphics are a massive step up over its predecessor. However this also meant that BioWare had to spend significant resources in redeveloping tools, workflows and assets which led to some significant teething issues. This most obviously manifested in “my face is tired” lady and other quirks which made it feel like the series was a generation or two behind where it should be. The patches that have come out since then have made a significant difference but it just goes to show that even the big name players can suffer when it comes to an engine change. Still, at a pure visual level, Mass Effect Andromeda is quite a looker.

In a departure from the series’ action-RPG roots Andromeda tends heavily towards an open-world game, giving you an absolutely massive galaxy to explore. Whilst the core of the series remains largely the same there’s a bevy of additional things thrown in to keep you playing. There are numerous planets which you can put outposts on but only after you’ve raised their “viability” to a certain level. In order to do that there’s dozens of tasks available like completing quests, eliminating hostile forces or unearthing an ancient technology with the power to terraform worlds. Completing these tasks also raises Andromeda’s overall viability, allowing you to bring more people out of cryopreservation which unlocks certain benefits for you. You’ve also got strike teams which you can send on missions to get you resources, items and credits. There’s also a research and crafting system which allows you to build your own customised versions of weapons and armour you find in the game. This is all on top of the run of the mill action-RPG trappings we’ve come to expect from the Mass Effect series, meaning that the scale of Andromeda is much greater than any of its predecessors.

Andromeda’s combat system has been reworked, most notably scaling down the number of abilities you have on tap at any one time (3, maximum) whilst allowing you to fully max out any of the 3 talent trees if you so wish. Additionally your control over your team mates is significantly diminished, the ability to target their powers gone and the only command you can give them is “go here”. Combat scales to your current level which means that, at the start, it’s probably a bit more challenging than it should be. Later on, when you’ve got a good set of gear and maxed out talents, things become a lot easier. Whilst I’m usually a fan of streamlined combat systems the changes made in Andromeda feel like a step back overall as it removes some of the depth that its predecessors had. No longer can I set up a devastating combo with my team mates, instead I’m left to watch over them and time my abilities that way. In the end I opted for a pure tech build with multiple constructs to do most of the work for me. There’s also a distinct lack of variety in the combat encounters as after about 6 hours you’ve probably seen every enemy, bar a few boss fights. Overall the combat feels competent but lacking the components which made it so much fun in the previous Mass Effect titles.

Progression comes in numerous forms and so often that it can be hard to figure out where you should be focusing your effort. There’s the standard levelling up and talent points which allows you to craft your ideal character. Unlike previous games where your original character class limited your talent choices Andromeda instead uses that as a kind of boost to give you access to some talents earlier than you’d otherwise be able to. From there you can either build on it or mix and match as you desire. How you spend your points also unlocks additional “profiles”, essentially another choice which allows you to bolster certain aspects of your character, which can be changed at any time. In addition to this there’s the usual loot drops which, like the combat, scale to your character’s current level. You can also research and craft your own weapons and armour, even augmenting them with different mods to give them a considerable edge over their dropped versions. However the research and crafting system requires such a heavy investment, in both time and resources, that it’s honestly not worth it when the difference is maybe a few percentage points. If you’re really, truly into making the most broken character possible then it’ll be right up your alley but otherwise it’s better to spend your time elsewhere.

Once you’ve got a handle on just where you want to go with your character it becomes easier to tune out the noise but that’s also the point where progression starts to slow considerably. Higher tiers of talents will require 2 levels worth of points to acquire, new armour upgrades (through drops or crafting) only come every 5 levels or so and quality of life upgrades (from cryo pods) require a significant time investment on making planets viable. Again this comes back to the game’s more open world ethos, giving the player numerous means of progression in the hopes of keeping you around longer. In any other open world game this would just be par for the course but for the Mass Effect series it feels like a big step away from what made it great.

Indeed the open-world-ness of Andromeda is, I feel, the game’s Achilles heel. Open world games tend to try to cram as much as they can in and often end up relying on repeatable missions that can be adapted easily. Andromeda is no different with many missions coming down to simple fetch quests or a small variant there of. Any of the worlds you go to are either inhabited by Kett (the enemy alien race), colonists or the Angara (the new alien race). Whilst all the worlds have their own distinct feel the all play out the same, especially when it comes to reactivating the monoliths. Whilst the planet exploration is done far better than it has ever been in the series (the Nomad being a much better version of the Mako) you’ll still be doing the exact same thing on each planet: driving around, sometimes stopping for mining nodes or a combat encounter as you trundle your way to your objective. Sometimes it can be fun when you stumble across something but it starts to wear thin pretty early on.

What this means is that the core focus of the game is somewhat blurred. With so many things to do it can be hard to discern what the main thrust of the game really is as they’re always pulling you in multiple different directions. Sure you can look to the main missions for direction but unlike previous ones it wasn’t so obvious how the side missions built up into it. Indeed one of (what I had assumed was) the core aspects of the game, finding all the other race’s arks, is actually nothing more than a side quest and completing them appears to net you no significant advantages at all. Previous Mass Effect games heavily leaned on the fact that your choices, even those outside of the main story line, had a meaningful impact. In Andromeda that really doesn’t feel like the case. It’s possible that some of my decisions might mean something in future instalments but even the original Mass Effect managed to have meaningful choices within its own play time. Suffice to say I think that Andromeda could have done with a significant reduction in scope in order to better focus on what made the series popular in the first place.

As many others have pointed out the initial release of Andromeda was plagued with various issues that made the game less than ideal. The varying quality of animation across different characters was improved significantly in the most recent update but some other fundamental issues remain. During dialogue the camera has a mind of its own, sometimes getting stuck on geometry that means it won’t have Ryder, or anyone else, in frame. There were also numerous quality of life issues like being unable to skip certain things which really should have been skipable from the start. The multiplayer experience was also something of a crap shoot, taking forever to find a game and then being a buggy mess when it finally did. The only game I managed to get into had me with unlimited abilities, ammunition and health, something which (whilst fun) I don’t think was completely intended. This may be one of those games that gets considerably better as patches and DLC are released however, so if you’re reading this in the far future take note.

The premise of the game’s story is a good one, allowing the series to continue without having to lean on the previous games’ canon to succeed. However it takes forever to become even the slightest bit interesting, requiring at least 6 hours of investment to understand just what is going on and another 14 hours to actually start piquing your interest. This is most certainly due to the disjointed, fractured nature of how the greater narrative is told, split up amongst so many different side missions that it’s hard to make sense of how it’s all supposed to fit together. The game’s overall narrative, which feels dangerously close to the previous trilogy’s in some respects, tries its best to set up the universe in which this new trilogy takes place. However this time around you’re not struggling against some unseen foe which is pulling the strings, instead you’re the glorious, benevolent colonists who’ve come to save the Andromeda galaxy from itself. In that respect a lot of the struggle feels hollow, failing to kindle a sense of purpose or drive in you.

It’s a shame because I feel like the character development is actually done pretty well for most of your crew. Jaal, the Angaran resistance fighter, is an incredibly interesting character and one that helps give you a deep insight into his people’s culture. Some of the others could use work, like Cora’s weird interactions with Asari, but overall if you want to really get to know your crew there’s every opportunity to. I, as always, seemingly feel for the one I couldn’t have her romance options locked away from me because of my gender. That was slightly disappointing and so the romance I did pursue afterwards felt a little hollow. Still I can’t blame the game for not allowing me my heart’s want.

Mass Effect Andromeda is an uncharacteristic misstep by BioWare, seemingly forgetting what made the original trilogy great in favour of expanding its horizons. The elements are there, but they’re buried underneath a trove of open-world garbage that does nothing to enhance the experience. In order to get any enjoyment out of the game you’re looking at a least 20 hours, something which makes it hard to recommend to all but the most dedicated of Mass Effect fans. There’s also a lot of teething issues resulting from the transition to the Frostbite engine, but these are things that can be fixed in patches over time. The more pressing issues, like the lack of focus and repetition that comes with open world games, is a harder challenge to solve. However BioWare is nothing if not adaptable so there’s every chance that future DLCs and patches will transform this game from its current, lacklustre state into something that is more worthy of your time.

Rating: 7.0/10

Mass Effect Andromeda is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $69.99, $79 and $79 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 32 hours of total playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands: I’m Feeling Clenchy.

If you’ve ever played GTA V online you’ll know that one of its standout features is the heists. A good group of mates and I have run through them numerous times, usually late at night with each of us cradling a wine glass in the other hand. So when we starting hearing that Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands was basically just the heists part of GTA Online we decided that we’d give it a shot. Whilst it’s not exactly as we expected there are aspects that heisters from GTA will adore, especially if you’re after a game that you’ll be playing for dozens of hours.

The year is 2019 and Bolivia has fallen victim to the ruthless drug cartel, Santa Blanca. Now a narco state, producing the lion’s share of the world’s cocaine, it has caught the attention of the United States government. However it took the bombing of their embassy, and the death of one of their DEA agents, before they felt compelled to intervene. Not wanting to be seen interfering in a sovereign state’s affairs they have decided to send in you: a member of the elite unit called the Ghosts. It will be up to you to see the completion of operation Kingslayer, with its ultimate target being the leader of the cartel.

Wildlands uses the AnvilNext engine which has brought us other stunning titles such as For Honor and Steep. The environments of Wildlands are massive, spanning dozens of in-game kilometers. It makes the usual open-world trade offs, sacrificing scale for detail. The result is a game that’s exceptionally pretty when you’re flying over or driving through it but up close the repetitive assets and lack of detail start to become apparent. Performance is good overall, striking a good balance between pretty visuals and consistent frame rates. Overall it feels like a step up from similar open world titles and aptly demonstrates the versatility that the AnvilNext engine is capable of.

The core game of Wildlands is your typical open world game, throwing you into a big wide space that’s filled with missions, collectibles and random encounters that you can partake in at your leisure. Progression is a two part mechanic: the first is skill points that are gained through completing missions which can then be spent on skills but only if you have the requisite resources, collected from just about anywhere. Weapons and their various upgrades are scattered around the map, requiring a bit of leg work to craft the perfect gun for your play style. The game is always played with 4 total people in your team, whether they be friends you’ve brought in or AIs if you’re playing alone. If you’re playing on anything but the hardest difficulty the game could easily just be a run of the mill third person shooter but at the peak difficulty it’s necessary to take a far more tactical approach.

In general a mission will usually go through a few phases. The first will be recon, where you’ll utilize a drone to scout the area and tag as many of the enemy as you can. You’ll then attempt to take out as many of them as you can without alerting the rest of them which you’ll sometimes be able to do without incident. However, 9 times out of 10 I’d say, you’ll end up making a mistake that alerts everyone to your position and from there it’s a no-holds barred shoot out until one of you is dead. If you’ve got the patience though you can retreat and reset for another stealth attempt, although it’ll likely be a lot harder the second time around. After that there’s usually some objective to complete which often sends through another wave of enemies for you to take care of. Overall it’s not the most inventive game in terms of mechanics but they do blend together quite well.

Progression is pretty steady throughout the game, so long as you take the time to tag enough supplies to ensure you can level up your skills. In between levels and runs for supplies you’ll typically stumble across a weapon or mod blueprint which you can then use straight away if you get to a load out point. It’s slow enough that you don’t feel overwhelmed with options but also fast enough that you’re never wanting for the next step up. If the open world genre appeals to you then it’s likely to keep drawing you in for multiple hours. For me however things started to wear thin rather quickly.

Like all co-op games Wildlands is better with friends but even then it becomes quickly apparent just how same-y everything is. Most missions play out roughly the same, although they do get more interesting as you unlock some of the more ridiculous upgrades. Most weapons in the same class aren’t different enough to make them feel satisfying when you acquire them and you’ll often get lots of upgrades for weapons you don’t currently have. It has the same feel as a MMORPG grind but without the payoff of showing off your gear in the armory. It’s a criticism I’ve leveled at other open world games before so it’ll be a red letter day when one game manages to address it successfully.

Another notable misstep is the vehicle physics which, whilst slightly improved from the open beta, are still janky and weird when compared to other similar titles. Helicopters have a weird flight model which appears to function purely based on momentum, usually whichever vector has the highest value at any point in time. Ground vehicles are neigh on impossible to keep flipped over which leads to a whole bunch of weird and wonderful interactions. It might sound like a minor gripe but when you spend so much of the game going from point A to point B small things like this are unfortunately very noticeable. It’s not beyond fixing however, but the last patch or two didn’t make any noticeable improvements.

The story is average, not terrible but not particularly noteworthy. There are some nice touches, like the various bits of banter the team has between missions which helps flesh out the main characters. The main story line though isn’t particularly interesting as, thanks to the open world construction, there’s no real impetus driving you forward to any one objective. Indeed even the over-arching goal that the game sets out early on seems to be a million miles away all the time. Perhaps it gets better with more time invested but if a story can’t grab me in the first 4 hours then it’s not likely to do it in the next 20.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a decent open world/RPG hybrid, one that I’m sure a certain type of player will find a lot to love in it. The visuals are definitely a step above its current peers, made even more impressive by the fact that the engine isn’t specifically designed for this type of game. The combat is challenging and rewarding, even if it starts to feel a little bit repetitive after a while. It suffers from the same spread of issues that plague all open world games, something I hope one day to see solved. The vehicle mechanics could be improved on significantly, something which would make a good bulk of the experience just that much better. Finally the story is nothing to write home about but, considering I couldn’t push myself to put more time into it, there’s every chance it gets more engrossing with a few more hours chucked in. Overall I think Tom Clancy’s Wildland’s is a competent game, just not one I think I’ll be playing without friends or sober, if I can manage it.

Rating: 6.5/10

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $49 on all platforms. Game was played in both the open beta and full release with approximately 8 hours spent equally across both.

Horizon: Zero Dawn: By All Mother’s Grace.

Publishers will try their hardest to time releases right, something that’s become inexorably harder due to the sheer volume of games that are released these days. It’s not uncommon now to hear of several titles, all ostensibly vying for the same market, releasing within a short period of each other. Last year’s hat trick of Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is the perfect example of this, something which you would assume was to the detriment to them all. However it seems that timing might not be everything as all of the games did respectably well. Horizon: Zero Dawn’s launch, coming in just before Zelda: Breath of the Wild, would have similarly seen foolish but it’s success says differently, its sales even eclipsing that of Zelda in its opening weeks. The reasoning for that is simple: it is an absolutely spectacular game, one that many will point to as a reason to own a PlayStation 4.

In the far future humanity has regressed back to its tribal roots. The ruins of the Old Ones are all around them, a reminder of the time when the world was dominated by metal rather than by nature. You play as Aloy, an orphan who was put in the care of Rost, a tribal outcast. He teaches you how to survive in this world but will not speak of your past, his banishment from the tribe or why you were entrusted to his care. However he does tell you of a way to learn all these things: you must win The Proving to become a brave of a tribe and win a boon from the matriarchs. This begins your journey of self discovery, one that will take you deep into this world’s past and will put you in control of its future.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is an absolutely stunning game, setting the bar for what’s possible on the PlayStation 4. This is saying something considering that I’m still playing on an original PS4, which doesn’t have all the added goodness that’s available to pro owners. As the screenshots in this review will attest to you can see just how big, expansive and detailed the environments are. They are then lavished with all the modern effects you’d care to name, making them some of the most immersive graphics I’ve seen to date. Surprisingly none of this comes with inherent performance problems either, the main game able to maintain a stable 30fps for the majority of the game. Interestingly the UI does render out at 60fps but the game itself is locked at 30fps, even on the Pro. This is all thanks to the Decima engine which has powered similar spectactular titles such as Killzone Shadow Fall and Until Dawn (it will also be bringing us Death Stranding, which is rather exciting). Suffice to say after the low-fi experience I had with Zelda it was great to have a graphical marvel like Horizon: Zero Dawn to go back to.

From a core game perspective Horizon: Zero Dawn is a traditional open-world RPG, taking inspiration from other similar AAA titles. There’s the campaign missions which will be the main source of story progression coupled with dozens of side missions, errands and various other quests to help you progress Aloy. Completing quests and killing monsters earns you XP which will level you up and grant you skill points to spend in one of 3 different trees (ostensibly combat, stealth and crafting). The crafting takes a leaf out of the Far Cry book, requiring you to hunt down certain animals for rare components to upgrade your inventory. Additionally, whilst you can purchase weapons and armour from vendors, you’ll need to hunt down certain beasts in order to be able to buy them. There’s also the usual open world trappings like climbing towers to reveal areas, hidden collectables hidden around various areas and random encounters that appear to change slightly as the game progresses. In terms of scale it might not be quite as big as Zelda was but it’s still definitely big enough to satisfy even the most hardcore open world completionist.

Combat sits inbetween Zelda and Dark Souls, being somewhat approachable but still requiring a base level of skill to get things done efficiently. Unlike some games where you can just blast your way through Horizon: Zero Dawn is much more focused on finding an enemy’s weak points and exploiting them. This can be as simple as figuring out which points to hit to give extra damage all the way through to complex mini-games that involve figuring out which component you can blow off, removing it without damaging it, then using said component against the enemy that you’re fighting. This can be somewhat frustrating at times as you might not get the opportunity to scan an enemy for its weaknesses before it engages you, leading to a drawn out engagement where you try to figure out what you need to do. Other times however the fights can be incredibly satisfying as the biggest of enemies can be felled easily should you know the right sequence of events to do in order to take them down.

One part where the combat does fall down a bit is with the camera. There’s no lock-on in Horizon: Zero Dawn, meaning that you are always going to be hunting around to ensure your enemies are within your vision. Sure, you can tag enemies to make this a bit easier, but that doesn’t save you from problems like the camera doing an about face if you dive head first into a boulder. The reasoning behind the lack of lock on is due to the focus on targeting weak points at range, rather than trying to beat your quarry into submission. A good fix would be a “snap to tagged target” button which would still require you to aim properly but would alleviate rather irritating camera wrangling that you have to do. Still it’s far from a game breaking issue and it can often be overcome by taking a more stealthy approach.

Stealth is done superbly well with most missions able to be done completely via stealth. There’s no non-lethal option here and the game won’t reward you for avoiding taking out enemies. Most small to medium sized enemies can be taken out in a single blow, although the animation is relatively long and so requires a decent amount of precise to pull off properly. Larger enemies need some more diverse tactics in order to take them out stealthily but it’s certainly still doable for some enemies. Indeed I managed to take out a bunch of shell walkers by silent striking them then disappearing behind a rock, saving me the trouble of dealing with their shields. The biggest enemies unfortunately still require a head to head fight but those are probably the most fun fights and would be a waste if they could be done via stealth.

Progression comes thick and fast in Horizon: Zero Dawn, ensuring that you’re never too long without some kind of improvement coming your way. Levels and skill points are plentiful; so much so that about half way through the game I couldn’t find a single mission that I hadn’t already out levelled. Taking the typical “take all the things” approach works a treat, ensuring that you’ve always got enough supplies to upgrade everything and for trading with vendors to get awesome gear. The RNG can be a little unforgiving at times, leaving you to constantly hunt down certain animals or machines in order to get that one part you need. However if you’ve saved basically everything you can carry you’ll often be able to craft a bunch of upgrades all in a row. Unfortunately your main spear can’t be upgraded like your other weapons can be, save for a few talents and a single upgrade that comes late in the main campaign. It’s a bit annoying since everything else goes up significantly in power, leaving the spear a feeble option in late game.

Before I get into the story there’s one weird quirk that I think bears mentioning. For some reason the facial animations seem to be a bit hit and miss in some areas. Every so often characters will appear to completely lose control of their eyebrows, something which is both hilarious and disconcerting. Additionally some character’s upper lip animations seem to fail to apply which makes them appear to be talking through gritted teeth. Most of the time it’s not particularly noticeable but it can be an immersion breaking occurrence once you notice it.

The plot of Horizon: Zero Dawn is fantastic, starting out from simple roots and slowly building up to a crescendo that you’d be hard pressed to predict from the outset. All of the characters are given ample opportunity to develop through on-screen events with little additional flavour given by the numerous journal entries you can pick up everywhere. The pacing of some of these elements could use some work, like when you’re exploring the old metal ruins and there’s numerous audio logs around. Often in those areas I’d just end up standing still for ages whilst the audio played as otherwise it got too hard to listen to it and the normal in game dialogue. Putting that part to one side however you have a story that’s deep and rewarding, especially for those who take the time to uncover all the additional items scattered around the world.

This is only made better by the absolutely stellar cast of Horizon: Zero Dawn who do a great job of bringing the script to life coupled with the fantastic sound work. The cast consists of some big names, both from within the gaming community and from Hollywood. The soundtrack of Horizon: Zero Dawn ebbs and flows at just the right time, providing punctuation to the game’s pinnacle moments. There is one grievous fault however: it unabashedly screams sequel right after the game’s closing credits roll. Whilst I am excited at the prospect of revisiting this world there was no need to seemingly ruin the game’s ultimate climax with that post credit scene. It’s still worth experiencing but they could have done a better job at that point.

Horizon: Zero Dawn takes the mantle of queen of the PS4 exclusives now that the Uncharted series has come to a close. It’s visuals are second to none, making great use of all the power the PlayStation 4 has to offer and further amping that up for Pro owners. The game is deep and complex, it’s mechanics not offering anything particularly new but certainly showcasing an implementation that others should take note from. The story is likely to be one of the best for this year, setting up the IP for a good long time to come. There are a few small issues that bring the game down a peg or two but none of which are beyond being fixed in a future patch. Horizon: Zero Dawn is this year’s first must-play title on the PlayStation 4 and one I think many will come back to for years to come.

Rating: 9.5/10

Horizon: Zero Dawn is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $78. Total play time was approximately 20 hours with 20% of the achievements unlocked.