Space Hulk: Deathwing: We Are The Emperor’s Blade.

Like many of my peers I spent many of my afternoons loitering around a Games Workshop store. The displays of intricately painted models tempting me to spend my meagre retail earnings on that next model to round out my army. I was rubbish at painting though, often just playing with unpainted models or enlisting my more talented friends to do the work for me. Once I was hooked into PC gaming however I left the models behind, but the love for the Warhammer universe was still very strong. So when I heard about Space Hulk: Deathwing I was incredibly excited as it’d been far too long since my last dip in this universe with Warhammer: Space Marine. However Deathwing falls appallingly short, so much so I couldn’t be bothered playing beyond the first hour.

You are a Librarian of the Deathwing force, the most secret and feared arm of the venerable Dark Angels chapter. You have stumbled across an ancient craft known as a space hulk, likely teaming with relics and technology from a forgotten age. It’s your charge to investigate the space hulk and to uncover the secrets locked away within its walls. This won’t be an easy task however as it is infested by armies of Tyranid genestealers, eager to tear into space marine flesh. Your powers as a psyker however give you an advantage few others have, allowing you to decimate hordes of enemies with a single thought. You are the blade of the Emperor space marine and it is time to cut through the blasphemers.

Deathwing does a great job of capturing the Gothic feel that Warhammer 40K games are renown for. The bigger environments do a great job of selling that feel with high cathedral ceilings dripping in banners and other Gothic imagery. It does have that Unreal engine vibe to it though which does make the graphics feel a step or two behind current generation titles. Since I came into this game past its initial few patches I didn’t have any performance problems to speak of, the game running fine even in high action scenes. That being said however any performance problems encountered are surely in the realm of poor optimisation or porting issues as I don’t think it’s that graphically intense.

This is where the positives of Deathwing stop however.

Taking inspiration from the tabletop game Deathwing puts you inside a massive ship laced with corridors punctuated by massive rooms. You’ll be given an objective to walk towards but you’re also free to explore the ship to find secrets. Along the way you and your squad will be set upon by the Tyranids that infest the ship and it’s your job to take them out. You’ll do this using your various bits of weaponry and psyker powers. Overall it has a very Left 4 Dead kind of feel, pitting you and a couple team mates against a horde of enemies. You’d think this would be great, the game format and IP are both exceptional in their own right, however this implementation is anything but. Indeed it commits probably the worst sin you can make with the Warhammer 40K universe.

It makes being a Space Marine boring.

The combat is just simply not enjoyable at all. Walking through hallways your radar will ping up with enemy activity and, inevitably, you’ll be jumped by something. These enemies aren’t varied nor are they smart so you’ll just sit there killing one after the other. Unlike Left 4 Dead or other similar games there’s no sense of tension at all so it’s just long periods of plodding along that are broken up every so often by holding the trigger down. This is made worse by the fact that you have a limited amount of sprint, meaning that exploration takes forever. It’d be ok if the rewards were worth it but from what I can tell they’re only cosmetic. Even the one end part of the mission, where I was supposedly set on by a “massive horde” turned out to be nothing more than me standing at a ladder and whacking at genestealers for 5 minutes.To top it all off your AI companions, whilst having some interesting banter, are as dumb as they come. Whilst this isn’t unexpected it’s yet another thing that detracts from the small amount of fun you might derive from playing Deathwing.

You’ll get upgrade points after each mission, up to a total of 4, for your performance in the mission. According to other reviews there’s only enough points to max out one of the talent trees and no way to go back and play through again with your now unlocked powers. Considering that the only interesting abilities appear to be at the end of the trees this seems a bit short sighted, severely limiting the game’s replayability appeal. Not that it really matters though as I doubt anyone who buys this game will play it more than once. The 3 talent points I got were invested in getting a psyker ability upgrade which, upon using, appeared to simply be a fire variant of the storm ability I already had. Not the most enthralling upgrade, if I’m honest.

I tried to play more, I really did, but there was simply nothing in Deathwing that kept me coming back. Many other reviewers have praised how true to the lore Deathwing is but that does little to make the game enjoyable. By contrast Space Marine did a great job of making you feel like an unstoppable war machine whilst still providing challenge. Deathwing instead makes it so a handful of genestealers could take you out whilst your brothers sit there and watch. I had really low expectations on Deathwing going in and even then I’ve been left disappointed.

Space Hulk: Deathwing does exactly what it shouldn’t: taking the idea of the venerable Space Marine and turns it into something mundane. The only commendable feature is the graphics, which do a great job of capturing the gothic feel of the Warhammer 40K universe. Apart from that all you’re left with is mediocre combat with confused AI partners at your side. Maybe this game gets a lot better past the first hour, I don’t know, but the fact of the matter is I honestly couldn’t bring myself to find out. I tried multiple times over several days but every time I just gave up, I was just not interested at all. Perhaps lore fans will find something to love here, but I certainly didn’t.

Rating: 4.5/10

Space Hulk: Deathwing is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $39.99. Total play time was 65 minutes with 17% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 19/12/2016 to 25/12/2016

Hyper Light Drifter: A Perfect Immortal Cell.

This time of year lends itself to catching up on things that may have otherwise passed you by. For this humble game reviewer it means looking back at those titles I missed, looking for something to fill the usual holiday lull. Quite often I’ll find something that I regret not playing on its release, the most obvious of which was The Talos Principle. Hyper Light Drifter was one game that I passed on multiple times: first when it found success on Kickstarter and secondly when I saw it released on Steam. When I saw it come up again during the Steam Winter sale I figured, with nothing else better to play, it was time to give it a look in. I’m glad I did too as it hearkens back to games of yesteryear, and not simply because of its graphics.

I’d usually give you a brief summation of the starting plot here but I don’t think I could rightly do that here. Hyper Light Drifter is very much a game of “show, don’t tell” and to explain the opening scenes would be reveal too much of the story. Indeed the entirety of the main plot is told through pictures and simple in-game cut scenes, leaving the interpretation of what’s actually going on up to the player. So I’ll leave the usual plot analysis until the end but I’m more than happy to discuss the various theories about the game in the comments.

Hyper Light Drifter takes the traditional approach to its pixelart visuals, favouring a more authentic recreation of the styles of games long past. Numerous new wave pixelart games favour high definition versions of pixelart graphics which, technically, aren’t faithful to what was possible during the period. Hyper Light Drifter retains much of the other aesthetic elements, such as limited colour palettes and fixed lighting, which were also present in titles from this generation. There are some elements I’m not quite sure are completely true to the era, like the overlayed glitch effects, but I’m no purist by any stretch of the imagination. It’s one of the few games that’s built on GameMaker Studio that doesn’t look like every other title built on it, a testament to the amount of effort put into honing Hyper Light Drifter’s visual aesthetic.

Hyper Light Drifter takes after classic games like Zelda: A Link to the Past and other top-down adventure games. There’s a large map with distinct sections that you’re able to walk around at your leisure, although some parts are locked off until you complete certain actions. There are various upgrades scattered around, some of which can only be obtained through defeating certain bosses or completing challenges. Where it differentiates itself is through the combat which is much more twitch focused and relies heavily on precise timing by the player for certain moves to be pulled off perfectly. Honestly it was hard to shake the “Zelda set in a sci-fi landscape” feeling when I was playing it, a feeling that it seems many other fellow reviewers share. In my opinion this is the best way to utilise a player’s nostalgia: use it as a basis to create something new and interesting rather than beating them over the head with it.

Combat has an almost Dark Souls kind of feel to it; where the real boss of the game is yourself. I can’t tell you how many times I died just because I wanted to do something fast rather than taking my time with each enemy. Indeed none of the regular enemies are that complicated and most have really obvious telegraphs that you can pick up on quickly. However, if you’re like me, you’ll want to try and kill as many as you can as quickly as you can. This will often lead to you making mistakes and, of course, your inevitable demise. Once you get a feel for the enemies, and have a couple upgrades under your belt, the combat becomes both challenging and rewarding. This is then most expertly demonstrated in Hyper Light Drifter’s standout feature: the bosses.

The bosses of Hyper Light Drifter aren’t going to win any awards for originality but they are the most enjoyable aspect of the game. Nearly all of them are multi-phased, meaning that you’re unlikely to one shot any of them. It’s refreshing to see that many upgrades, like the projectile deflecting upgrade for dash and the sword, working on bosses as well. This leads to some interesting approaches to bosses and, of course, far more interesting ways to die to them. Overall the bosses themselves aren’t particularly challenging (I don’t think I was stuck on any particular one for long) but they are hard enough to ensure that you feel somewhat accomplished when you do finally beat them. The final boss is by far the coolest out of the lot and makes for a fitting finale when you finally get to face it.

The upgrade process is done well, consisting of finding little upgrade parts all over the map which you can then spend how you wish. There are some must have upgrades, like the aforementioned projectile reflecting ones, whilst others can probably be left behind (like the unlimited dash upgrade, you get 3 dashes by default). There’s also 5 additional weapons you can find scattered around the map which are mostly a matter of preference. Sure some of them help in certain situations, like the rain gun, but I stuck with the normal blaster for the most part. If you fancy yourself something of a completionist then there’s also numerous sets of armour around the map, each of which bestows a certain unique bonus to you if you’re wearing them. I myself didn’t go after them and didn’t struggle at all.

My main gripe with Hyper Light Drifter would have to be the lack of visual clarity. It’s a very busy game with highly detailed environments however it’s not completely clear what’s say, navigable ground, a drop into a bottomless pit or just part of the background scenery. Whilst the punishment for falling off the edge is low (1 health bar and being sent back to your last safe location) it can become somewhat frustrating when you’re searching for secrets. The forest map is the worst for this, its visual cues for “hey there’s something over here” often confused with your run of the mill props for the area. Further this means that some of the visual story telling is simply lost unless you really know what you’re looking for. It’s a shame because in certain aspects, like the above screenshot, it’s done brilliantly but in others it’s simply a visual mess.

Much like Dark Souls again Hyper Light Drifter’s story is told mostly through vague allusions to events with drips and drabs of text around the place explaining some points in a little detail. This means that the events of Hyper Light Drifter are very much up for interpretation and you’ll find many fan theories out there to explain events. Whilst the game play is more than sufficient to keep you engaged throughout the game’s duration it would have been nice if there was a little more of the story built into the main narrative. This is one of the cases where the lack of direct storytelling doesn’t harm the overall game that much and a troll through the forums after finishing it was a rather rewarding experience.

Hyper Light Drifter is a prime example of nostalgia done well; using the past as inspiration for a new experience that captures many of those feelings many of us felt all those years ago. The visual style is very true to the time, eschewing the current norms of high definition pixelart for a more traditional aesthetic. The combat is approachable yet challenging, ensuring that all players approaching this game will find reward in it. The bosses are by far the best aspect of Hyper Light Drifter, conjuring up many memories of the times I spent beating similar bosses back in my younger days. The only faults I can level at Hyper Light Drifter are its lack of visual clarity and direct storytelling, things that don’t detract too heavily from the core game but could definitively be improved. Overall Hyper Light Drifter is an exceptional title, one that I now wish I hadn’t passed on all those times.

Rating: 9.0/10

Hyper Light Drifter is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with approximately 5 hours of total play time and 13% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 12/12/2016 to 18/12/2016

The Technomancer: The Secrets We Keep.

There are some games I play for all the wrong reasons. Sometimes it’s to reaffirm certain biases (although there have been titles that have changed my mind) but other times I just want to play something horrendous to remind me of how good some games are. Here enters the developer Spiders, a French developer who routinely puts out B-grade games that always aspire well beyond their station. Their two previous titles, Bound By Flame and Mars: War Logs, both tried ever so hard but failed in almost every account. The Technomancer, set in the same universe as Mars: War Logs, again aspires to be an AAA title but fails in such a delightfully horrible way.

You are Zachariah Mancer, a young cadet aspiring to join the ranks of your fellow Technomancers. Your quest begins as you are initiated fully into the rank of lieutenant by journeying to an old settlement dome with your master, Sean. There you learn of the secret that Technomancers have kept ever since their founding: your powers are born out of genetic engineering that caused mutations in your body. Such a secret would see all the Technomancers enslaved like the rest of the mutants are and you are sworn to keep the secret. However one colonels obssesion with learning the secret forces your hand, pitting you against the very corporation that has been your home since birth.

The Technomancer’s graphics are a generation behind in most aspects, lacking any of the graphical enhancements that many games of this generation now have as standard. The environments have a decent amount of detail in them but it’s all relatively low poly work. The lighting effects help to hide the more egregious faults but they aren’t enough to wash away that previous gen feel. Considering other games that use the same engine (like Unravel) seem to do a lot better in this department it does make you wonder just what modifications Spiders made to the engine and if it was really worth the development time.

The Technomancer is a mostly standard RPG affair; taking inspiration from other, better games in this genre and attempting to make its own special version of it. There’s 3 different fighting styles, each of which roughly equate to something from the RPG holy trinity. Each of them has a talent tree to match with an additional 4th talent tree for your Technomancy (read: electricity) spells. There’s also an additional 2 talent trees which are used for further character customization, focusing on what gear you can use and what ancillary abilities (like crafting) you have. There’s a mediocre crafting system which appears to be half done which coupled with the mediocre loot system makes for a repetitive and lacklustre gearing experience. You can also bring along 2 companions with you as well, each of which will mimic one of your fighting styles. Honestly there’s a surprising amount of stuff in The Technomancer but, unfortunately, that’s probably why it has so many issues.

Combat is unintuitive, confusing and worst of all unreliable. I can’t tell you how many times I’d appear to hit an enemy with my staff only to have it whiff through them completely without a hint of why. No damage meter saying “Miss!” or “Dodged!”, just the sound of my staff sailing through the air like it wasn’t touching anything. The combat is a half hearted attempt at recreating the Dark Souls system but unfortunately fails miserably. It doesn’t help that most of the stats appear to be totally meaningless, like when I had 140% disruption but still wouldn’t disrupt enemies when hitting them. Maybe there’s an explanation somewhere about how these stats work but they’re not explained in the game at all, not even in the stats spreadsheet that lists all these things off. So in the end you’re left to simply flip the coin at most encounters, hoping the RNG swings in you favour this time around.

Loot and crafting are similarly disappointing. The loot you’ll get will be all the same based mostly on which chapter you’re in although it seems that old areas have a high chance of yielding old loot when you revisit them. Strangely it seems like there was supposed to be more variety to this since there are some named items in the game but no where near enough to build a full character out of. Worst of all is the fact that you’ll be flooded with mats, most of which become entirely useless once you move up to the next level of crafting. Previous Spiders games allowed you to combine lower mats into higher ones, and indeed there’s text in the game that implies that this can be done, but there’s no way to do it. This wouldn’t be so bad if the system to sell the mats wasn’t so annoying to use, requiring a single click to increase the quantity you want to sell. This means that if you want to sell 200 mats, you’ll click 200 times.

Questing is also pretty unrewarding with nearly all the quests simply awarding XP and maybe some serum (cash). There are some multi-part quests which span chapters, something which you would think would lead to some awesome quest reward. Unfortunately that never happens which is a real disappointment, especially for the more involved side quests. This wouldn’t be so bad if there were amazing items that you could only buy from vendors but there aren’t and so you’re just left with a pile of serum and nothing else to show for it.

Worst of all is the endless retreading of ground you’ll do throughout the game. Sure you’ll visit new areas as the chapters roll on but the vast majority of the game takes place in the first town, Ophir. This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that enemies will respawn pretty much every time you traverse through there, necessitating a laborious 10 minute trudge to get to where you’re going every time you go there. There’s no fast travel system to speak of either, so once you’ve finished what you needed to do you’ll have to walk (and likely wade through respawned enemies, again) back to your rover to return home. I can understand that creating new levels is one of the most expensive things developers will have to do (something even legendary developer Bioware got raked over the coals for) but setting more than half the game in one area is just…boring.

As always I could forgive the majority of this game’s sins if the story was passable but, frankly, it’s not. Whilst it is interesting to see the world that was set up in Mars: War Logs continued in The Technomancer there’s just not much about it that is captivating. This is probably not helped by the fact the lines are delivered in a flat and lifeless way by pretty much all of the voice actors involved and the poor quality of the lip syncing with the character models.

Realistically all these issues are symptomatic of one thing: trying to do too much with not enough resources. All of the ideas that are implemented in The Technomancer are solid however their execution is sorely lacking. It smacks of a development team that simply didn’t have enough people or time to get the things done that they wanted to. With the average game completion hovering around 26 hours or so they could have easily cut it in half and still had a great length RPG on their hands. Instead however Spiders chose to try and pack as much in as they could and the overall quality of the game suffered as a result. Whilst this should be unsurprising (since this is kind of their thing) if Spiders ever wants to drag themselves out of the B-grade hell they’ve found themselves in they’re going to have to change the way in which they approach building games.

The Technomancer is another unfortunate swing and miss for Spiders, once again aspiring to the greatness that it never achieved. Whilst The Technomancer has all the trappings of an AAA RPG none of them are implemented well or fully, leaving the resulting experience feeling half-baked at best. To be sure though this is Spiders’ best effort to date but the mistakes that they’ve made before still seem to haunt them even to this day. I can really only recommend this if you’re as twisted as me and like playing a train wreck from time to time, just to remind you how good most games are these days.

Rating: 6.0/10

The Technomancer is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $45, $57 and $57 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 14 hours of total play time and 40% of the achievements unlocked.

The Turing Test: Are You Human?

It is rare to find games that manage to blend all of their components together into a cohesive whole. Even the most well resourced project will still suffer from the pains of integrating everything together, often leading to one or more parts just not feeling right. Games that do manage to do this however set the standard for those to come, showing that mechanics, story and sound can all be joined together to become greater than any one component. Such is The Turing Test, a near perfect combination of all its elements that makes for one of the most enthralling gaming experiences of this year.

You play as Eva, a pilot put into hibernation in orbit around Europa to act as a safe guard for the ground team on Earth. You are awoken to find out that your station AI, Tom, has lost contact with the ground team and needs you to re-establish contact with them. Upon landing you find that the entry to the base has been reconfigured in such a way that Tom cannot make his way past it alone. It is now up to you to make your way deep into the base to find out what happened to the crew and, hopefully, bring them back under the watchful eye of Tom.

The Turing Test does quite a lot with very little, the graphics erring towards visual simplicity more than anything else. It’s very reminiscent of Portal with all of the set pieces feeling like they were born out of the same design team. In puzzle based games like this such simplicity is definitely a plus, drawing your focus to the challenge at hand. The game definitely has that Unreal engine feel to it with its trademark visual flairs like its specularity mapping. It should come as no surprise then that The Turing Test ran flawlessly on my current rig and I’d suspect it’d run just fine on run of the mill hardware.

Mechanically The Turing Test is just your typical first person, physics based puzzler. Each room contains within it all the tools for you to progress through to the next challenge which is always just getting to the next room. The puzzles start off simple, requiring you to just find the right combination of what goes where, but quickly ramps up after that. In the end you’ll be facing timing puzzles, non-linear progressions and various other challenges that all seem impossible at first until you look at them from the right angle. The simple mechanics means it’s very quick to pick up and, honestly, not too hard to master either.

Now for some this might be seen as a downside as the satisfaction in puzzlers comes from the challenge in solving them. However in The Turing Test’s case the simple puzzles are part of the game’s overall rhythm. They’re designed to be solved at a certain rate, one that allows the story to progress at a steady rate. Indeed even with perfect knowledge of how to solve them I believe you’d still only just get through one puzzle before the dialogue dried up. Too often developers would include other time-wasting mechanics to extend the game’s play time but The Turing Test doesn’t. This means that both the story and game progress together, ensuring that the neither one gets in the way of the other.

This is then all brilliantly amplified by the sound track which ebbs and flows in sync with the game. Too often game soundtracks are overlooked, left as just something that needs to be there rather than an integral part of the game. Indeed for many of the recent games I’ve played I couldn’t really tell you if I enjoyed the sound track or not, it simply left no impression on me. The Turing Test however does a wonderful job of integrating the background music into the events happening in the game, amplifying all of the game’s pivotal moments.

The story itself, whilst not original nor inventive by any stretch of the imagination, is aptly paced and perfectly in sync with all of The Turing Test’s other elements. That is on the proviso though that you only play through the main areas and don’t go to the sides however. If you do unlock the secret rooms (which aren’t hard to find nor solve) the story has a very weird disconnection between what your character should know and what they appear to know. Whilst I’m sure there are some great theories as to why that could be due to the way the game’s world is set up that’s a conversation for another day.

Each of these elements, simple and concise in their own right, would only make for an average game if simply thrown together. The real beauty of The Turing Test is how well these are all worked together, the various elements integrated so well that they are much more than they are separately. Had this game been released in a world that was bereft of Portal or The Talos Principle it would be a shining star of inventive, thought provoking game play. Even in the shadow of those titles The Turing Test still stands out as an excellent piece of craftsmanship, one that should be lauded for aspiring for greatness that it easily achieves.

The only real niggle I’ll have at this otherwise exceptional game is that, due to the nature of its physically based puzzles, emergent game play can sometimes lead you astray. I’m quite sure there were several puzzles I solved in ways that wasn’t intended, mostly because I ended up at the exit door with more puzzle pieces than were required to solve it. Depending on how you swing though this might be part of the charm as I’m sure there’s numerous ways to break the puzzles. It should say a lot that that’s my only complaint about this otherwise fantastic game.

The Turing Test is a brilliant, well crafted example of what games can accomplish when all of their elements work with each other. Each element on its own is simple, from the visuals to the mechanics to the sound track, however together they form a cohesive whole that’s very much greater than the sum of its parts. The total game time doesn’t run long, maybe 3~5 hours depending on how much of a puzzle nut you are, but that entire time could be easily done in a single sitting. The Turing Test is one of those games that I will wholeheartedly recommend to any gamer as it really is worth the time.

Rating: 9.5/10

The Turing Test is available on PC and Xbox One right now for $19.99 on both platforms. Game was played on the PC with 3 hours of total playtime and 93% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 05/11/2016 to 11/12/2016

The Last Guardian: Trico…TRICO!

The work of Team ICO is renowned among the PlayStation faithful. Their two titles, ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, have attained the status of cult classics and this meant that anticipation was high for their next release. However an entire console generation came and went without a peep from them and the studio shut down in 2011. For many this was thought to be the end of their next title however work was then transferred to genDESIGN, a new studio which was filled to the brim with Team ICO staff. Development then continued on The Last Guardian and hope was renewed that we would eventually see it. Here we are, some 9 years after initial development began, and it has finally been released to us, the unwashed masses. Has the near decade of development time resulted in a game that’s worthy of the Team ICO pedigree? Or is this another Duke Nukem Forever moment?

You are a boy; an unnamed boy who finds himself trapped in a towering city of ruins. How you got there is not known but when you awoke your body was covered in markings that were not there before. Beside you lay a great beast, a Trico, chained down and in great pain. It becomes clear at that point that if you are to return to your village you will need to work together as the challenges this place poses are not to be faced alone. This realisation begins your journey, one that will see you scaling the incredible heights of these ruins, navigating the trials and tribulations that it will place on you both.

The Last Guardian’s long development cycle are obvious in the graphics which are rooted in the previous console generation. To be sure there are some impressive elements, the beast’s flowing feathers being one of them, but all the environments feel decidedly dated. There’s also some distinct performance issues in certain areas, indicating that the environments haven’t been fully optimised for the platform, an indication of issues in porting code and assets across. All this being said though The Last Guardian does manage to impress with its diverse scenery ranging from towering vistas to cramped caves and ruins. Had this been developed from the ground up for the PlayStation 4 I’d imagine it’d be vastly more impressive but such are the costs of long development cycles.

In terms of how The Last Guardian plays it’s essentially your run of the mill puzzler. The main mechanic comes from the difference in abilities between Trico and the boy, the former able to reach and leap to great heights whilst the latter able to fit into small areas. The game plays off this dichotomy, forcing you to think about who you need to use to complete a task. However you don’t have direct control over Trico’s actions, instead you issue him commands which then get interpreted depending on a number of conditions, some of which aren’t exactly that predictable. Indeed The Last Guardian does a good job of simulating what it would be like to try and wrangle a beast like this but the unfortunate reality of this is that it doesn’t exactly make for what I’d call a fun experience.

So say you need the beast to jump over a particular obstacle. Typically what you’d do is call the beast over and then climb on its back. Then, with the camera pointed in the direction you want to go, you’d do the “Jump” command (which is just the boy jibbering a bit and jumping up and down), and then hope Trico followed it. Sometimes this will work and Trico will leap successfully across. However, most of the time, Trico will either sit there, looking around at nothing in particular, or do something completely different. So what follows is an exercise in troubleshooting: am I actually able to jump that gap with Trico? Is there another location I need to be in to do that jump? Have I not satisfied all the right conditions to make him jump? What this means is you can never be quite sure if you’ve got the right solution and Trico just isn’t co-operating or if you’re barking up the wrong tree.

I can understand the design choices that influenced the creation of the beast AI mechanic and, honestly, I think it’s a brilliant idea for telling a story through mechanics. However the trouble is that with an AI that is so unpredictable the player is left guessing as to whether or not they’re playing the game correctly. Thus, for me, this meant that the moments where Trico and I are meant to be getting ever more in-sync didn’t feel like that at all. Instead it felt like I finally just got lucky enough that the bloody dog finally listened to me. I can’t tell you how many times I got stuck and had to consult YouTube videos to make sure I wasn’t going completely insane only to find out that I was doing it right all along and my AI dog just wasn’t as co-operative as the other ones.

This isn’t an unsolvable problem in my mind. The easiest way to tackle this would be to put say little white dots at places where you could command the beast to do something. Then, if you centre your camera on them, an outline of what the beast could do would appear. This would then give you some certainty over what actions are going to happen, removing the second-guessing which was my main source of frustration when playing. Sure this would reduce the length of the game significantly but honestly we’re long past the point of where play time is a sign of overall quality. Unfortunately I don’t think this will ever happen, especially considering the rather cryptic nature of the patch notes.

Putting the core game mechanic issues aside there’s still some other niggling issues which don’t do anything to help. The camera is a wonky beast at the best of times, often whipping around wildly when it can’t quite figure out where it should be pointing (often when you’re trying to climb Trico). The platforming mechanics are hit and miss with the boy sometimes just straight up failing to grab onto a ledge or Trico, sending you to your death. There are also some triggers which don’t seem to work initially, preventing cut scenes from occurring and blocking your progress until you retreat from the area completely or reload a checkpoint. Suffice to say that you’d think most of these kinds of issues would’ve been straightened out in the game’s long dev cycle but unfortunately that’s just not the case.

Now the story is the part which many say redeems The Last Guardians glaring faults and, personally, I’m in two minds on this. For the vast majority of my play through I didn’t think there was much to it, the various bits of dialogue so brief that they really didn’t add anything to the experience. Combine that with an uncooperative companion and I really couldn’t care what happened to the pair of them. That was until the last 30 minutes which, I admit, managed to tug on the heart strings in just the right way and for a brief moment I forgot all about the frustrations that had led to this point. So whilst I’ll commend genDESIGN for managing to do that I will not (now that I’m clear headed) give them a pass for the incredible missteps they made in designing the core game.

The Last Guardian stays true to the Team ICO formula, seeking to tell stories through game play rather than dialogue. It is, unfortunately, plagued by horrendous game design decisions that force the player to second guess not just themselves, but the game as well. This leads to an incredibly frustrating experience where you can never be sure if you’re anything right, making almost all puzzle challenges an unrewarding chore. When it works it’s brilliant and something I’d like to see more of but those moments are so rare that they’re lost in a wash of frustration and swear words. I will admit that I did a 180 on the game in its final moments, the game able to grab a hold of that tenuous connection I had built up with that dumb beast and squeeze it for all its worth. It’s hard for me to recommend the game solely on that however but if you’ve read all the way through this and are still interested in playing The Last Guardian then it might just be worth it for you.

Rating: 7.5/10

The Last Guardian is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $99.95. Total play time was approximately 8 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.

State of the Game: 28/11/2016 to 04/12/2016

Watch_Dogs 2: Join the 1337 h4x0r5.

The original Watch_Dogs was in many ways a success for Ubisoft Montreal, ticking all the required boxes for it to meet the standard of a AAA open world title. However the hype that built up around it, specifically from that one E3 video, led many to be disappointed with the final product. To their credit Ubisoft remained committed to the franchise and has spent the following 2 years developing Watch_Dogs sequel. Whilst at a base game level this sequel features many of the mechanics that made the original great the tone and feel of the game is radically different. That combined with improvements in some of the original’s more glaring issues makes Watch_Dogs 2 a notable improvement over its predecessor.

Watch_Dogs 2 takes place in San Francisco, the next city to install the ctOS system which integrates all city subsystems into one giant interconnected grid. You’ll play as Marcus Holloway, a young hacker who’s been targeted by ctOS for a crime he didn’t commit. Because of this he decides to join Dedsec, the hacktivist group responsible for wrecking havoc and exposing corruption. What follows is a story of Dedsec’s crusade against ctOS, the people in power who use it and any of the numerous corporations who would seek to exploit the citizens of San Francisco.

The original Watch_Dogs was criticised for failing to live up to the visuals that were seen in its E3 demo and Watch_Dogs 2 goes a long way to closing that gap. The environments are far more detailed with more cars, people and interactive objects scattered across the San Francisco backdrop. There’s notable improvements to the lighting engine, draw distances and other modern post-processing techniques like motion blur.  Taking into consideration that open world games tend towards the lower end of the graphical spectrum (due to their scale) Watch_Dogs 2 is certainly one of the better looking titles in this genre. It’s still a hair shy of that fated demo, however.

As I mentioned before the core game of Watch_Dogs 2 hasn’t changed much from its predecessor, staying true to the open world norms with the inclusion of their trademark hacking mechanics. The progression mechanics have been reworked to focus around you gaining “followers” to help boost your cause, most of which you’ll gain through Watch_Dog 2’s main and side missions. The online components have been reworked significantly and are far more seamless than they used to be; the transition between offline and online play a much smoother experience. Driving has been improved significantly, no longer feeling like you’re trying to drive a boat through a sea of molasses. The stealth mechanics are also retained however there’s a little less variety in what you can hack, something which is made up for in a few new choice abilities which can cause all sorts of mayhem. Overall Watch_Dogs 2 improves on the original in nearly every respect something which Ubisoft Montreal should take some pride in.

Combat feels largely the same, still following the same two stage formula that its predecessor did. Whilst you can likely complete every mission with just hacking alone it’s very likely you’ll do something to be detected, forcing you into combat. Interestingly there doesn’t seem to be any downside to killing anyone and everyone in your path but there is a very notable downside to taking the non-lethal approach. Enemies downed in that way will eventually get back up and will alert everyone else to your presence when they do. This does add an extra element of challenge if you want to go full non-lethal, stealth based approach but without additional rewards it doesn’t seem like there’s any reason to. Indeed by the end I’d just end up using my vast hacking abilities to simply run past everyone, forgoing any notion of stealth or even non-lethal attacks.

The hacking powers are a little more interesting this time around, especially some of the end-game abilities which allow you to affect everything in the area around you. It didn’t take me long to max out the powers I wanted to get and I spent most of the game with 20 or so research points ready to spend should the need arise. Some are simple quality of life improvements (like the car unlocking one) whilst others don’t have much of a purpose other than causing a bit of mayhem here or there. Probably my favourite out of the lot was the ability to call the police on a target NPC, something which can be used to great effect when you need to get into a restricted area. If I had one complaint it’s that all the higher end powers require you to go and find another item to unlock them which becomes a bit of a chore when you have to do it for the 10th time.

The driving is thankfully much improved over its predecessor, making it actually fun to drive around rather than fast travelling. Watch_Dogs 2 also reduces the number of car chases you’ll find yourself in so you won’t be spending hours trying to escape from the endless supply of police. There also appears to a be a larger number of vehicles to choose from including my favourite: the single person electric car that seems to be as fast as any of the sports cars. The NPC drivers though still seem to suffer from random fits of craziness every so often with cars just randomly running off the road or into each other, even when I hadn’t gone near them. That could very well be intentional, to give the city a more lively feel, but I do wonder if it’s just an errant part of the AI.

The multiplayer aspects are far better done than its predecessor was. I can remember trying to do some of the online activities in the original with most of them failing to even connect to other players. Watch_Dogs 2 by comparison (by default, you can change this) drops you in and out of other player’s games on a whim. It can be pretty awesome when you’re just driving around and a bounty hunter challenge comes up, putting you alongside law enforcement to chase down a rogue enemy player. Some of the other, hacking focused games are a little one sided, being incredibly hard for the hacker to actually successfully hack someone and get away with it (especially if the other player is armed in any way). Still they’re a fun distraction, one that I hope Ubisoft explores even further in future releases.

Watch_Dogs 2 drops the serious tone of its predecessor in favour of a more kitschy, light-hearted take. The characters are stereotypes or satires of particular hacker tropes with the overriding them following the hacktivist ideas that have been popularised by the various real world incarnations of other -sec entities. Weirdly, whilst the game has the usual disclaimer about it being a work of fiction unrelated to the real world, numerous events are carbon copies of their real world counterparts (like Martin Shrekli buying an exclusive Wu Tang album). The pacing and character development is weirdly out of step, seemingly moving at a faster pace than what the missions would imply. This might be because I was mostly doing campaign missions but surely that’s where you want the bulk of your character development to occur. Realistically I don’t think you’re supposed to read much into Watch_Dogs 2’s story but it’s disjointed nature mirror’s some of the mistakes that its predecessor made.

Watch_Dogs 2 is a solid improvement over the original, addressing many of the concerns that players had whilst retaining the core mechanics that made it worth playing. It may not be a revolutionary instalment in the series but the incremental improvements go a long way to making Watch_Dogs 2 the game that many were hoping the original would be. It’s not perfect, with some of the previous issues rearing their ugly heads again, but it definitely feels closer to what the original should have been. For fans of the open world genre there’s a lot to love in Watch_Dogs 2 and is most certainly worth checking out.

Rating: 9.0/10

Watch_Dogs 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $60.95, $77 and $77 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 18 hours of total play time and 51% of the achievements unlocked.