It’s not often that a developer simply explaining the mechanics sells me on the game. Usually if you can’t simply show how it works through a gameplay trailer or similar I’ll switch off as even high concept games can hook you with as much. Still though I was intrigued by the voiced over trailer that GrizzlyGames put on their Steam page for Islanders, a rework of typical city builder/strategy games where there’s no resources to harvest, economies to manage or little NPCs trotting around. No instead everything is based around the buildings and how much you can make of them, something which sounds simple on first take but takes some real practice to get a feel for.
Graphically Islanders has a bright and simple aesthetic, taking inspiration from the numerous low-poly games that have made the style quite popular with the indie crowd. The simplicity is also partly born out of necessity as you’ll quickly start to crow out your little island in short order, making it a bit of a visual challenge as the game progresses. The highly saturated colours coupled with the varied biomes and procedural generation of each island means you’re not likely to get bored of the visuals any time soon. After spending my time in high end visuals from AAA developers it’s been nice to go back to a more visually simple game.
The core mechanic of Islanders is intriguing: instead of it following the usual city builder or RTS trope of giving you a main base and then letting you loose to harvest resources instead you’re given a handful of buildings. Each building you place will give you a certain number of points, something you can maximise if you understand what gives them bonuses. Just blindly plonking down buildings in places that give you the most points isn’t actually a bad strategy to start off with, however you quickly realise that if you want to go after the high score you’re going to have to be a lot more strategic about it. Each of the different island biomes has different mechanics available to it and you’ll need to understand each of them in order to maximise their effect. Further to that there’s numerous late game buildings that have synergies that you’ll need to build towards and that’s when the real challenge starts to set in.
You’ll likely want to set up various areas that are dedicated to a certain kind of synergy like say an area for houses, another for mansions and an area for all your farming/brewing/logging activities. This is because those buildings not only have synergies with themselves they also have strong disaffinity with each other’s late game buildings. This is something that became painfully obvious to me after I’d clustered as many buildings together in one spot only to realise that the late game buildings were effectively useless, preventing me from going on any further. Thankfully there is an out for this but you’ll want to use it strategically lest you abandon all the good work you’ve done and, by consequence, many of those delicious points.
The mechanic I’m referring to is the ability to travel to the next island. The game does confirm with you that you want to move on but it never goes into the why of it. If you’re like me you’ll likely just hit the next island button the second it becomes available, a viable strategy in some cases, however you’re likely better placed to hang onto it until you get yourself into a corner. You see Islanders will go on for as long as you have a building (or + sign, which allows you to get more buildings) in your inventory. If you find yourself in a position where you can’t get to the next lot of buildings and you’ve got a next island available you can continue afresh there. The game will then reset the target score to just 20 above your current, giving you free reign over the next island. Whilst this isn’t always an option understanding this is what helped me go from the 8,000th ranked player to around the 800th. I’m sure there’s even deeper strategies than that but honestly, I’m happy enough with that.
Islanders does have a good amount of polish on it although you can still pull off some shenanigans with building placement if you fiddle for long enough. The platforms seem to be the easiest ones to mess around with as I was able to embed a few water platforms in places where there was no water. You can do this by finding a place where it’ll let you place it and start sliding it against one of the invisible walls the game puts there to help you with placement. Done right you can slide along them for quite a ways, giving you a lot more options than would otherwise be available. I didn’t find any other issues during my playthrough so hats off to the developers for testing it thoroughly.
There are a couple improvements I’d like though. An undo button, even if it was just for the last thing you placed, would be nice as a small quality of life improvement. I can’t tell you how many times I placed a building awkwardly only realising I could’ve done it better if I moved the camera a little bit. It’d also be nice to have a mode that allowed you to rearrange things, possibly with a higher requirement on points for each level, as it’s quite satisfying to place a building just right and have all those little tokens tinkle away onto the score board. Thinking about it more most of the things I’d like to see in the game are just things that’d make me want to play it for longer, not so much things that need to be fixed.
Islanders is a fantastic twist on the typical city builder game, stripping away the mechanical complexity and replacing it instead with skill mastery. The visuals are simple and wonderfully colourful, a trend I’m very much happy to see continue in casual titles like this. The mechanics are simple but take some time to master and even then you’re still at the hand of RNGesus. I may have only played a couple hours of Islanders but I can see it being a good distraction every so often, especially when I’ve only got one hand free (the other holding my daughter, get your mind out of the gutter).
Islanders is available on PC right now for $8.50. Total play time was 2 hours with 73% of the achievements unlocked.
After their long hiatus between Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 3 it doesn’t seem like Ubisoft is willing to let the series breath for much more than a year between releases. For some of the instalments this has been great, like the much loved Blood Dragon (which I’ve strangely not reviewed but I did complete) but it has cast a dim view on others like Far Cry Primal. With the wild success of Far Cry 5 it seems like Ubisoft was wanting to strike while the iron was hot and pushed out Far Cry: New Dawn as soon as they were able. Indeed New Dawn feels a lot like an overgrown DLC more than it does a full game, what with it borrowing so heavily from its predecessor and not adding a whole lot more in the mix. Still it was a mostly competent game in its own right, even if it was quite short by Far Cry standards.
17 years after nuclear war laid waste to the world in what has become known as The Collapse the survivors have emerged from hiding and are seeking to rebuild. You, known only as the Captain, are part of a travelling team of specialists that are helping everyone out in any way they can. One day you’re approached by someone from Hope county, Carmina, who’s settlement has come under attack from a gang of bandits called the Highwaymen. You agree to help however the gang gets wind of your impending arrival and derails your train before you can arrive. So begins your struggle to restore peace to Hope county, a task that will surely take more from you than you ever thought you could give.
The Dunia engine looks as great as ever, this time around with a more vibrant and saturated colour palette that instantly reminded me of Blood Dragon’s overblown visual aesthetic. This is very much contrary to the usual visual style that accompanies post apocalyptic games and honestly I quite like it. Sure, there’s times when it looks like someone let their toddler do the texture work, but it is both interesting and visually diverse. Interestingly it seems whatever optimisation problems were in Far Cry 5 at launch are gone as there was no need for me to tweak any settings in order to get solid performance and gorgeous visuals. Granted though the level of detail and pop-in was quite noticeable from a helicopter so it could just be better default selections than anything else. Still Far Cry maintains the standard it has long set for itself and brings a new visual flair to the post apocalyptic world that I’m sure will be replicated by others.
Where Far Cry 5 swing the pendulum more towards streamlining and simplification of the series’ core game mechanics New Dawn instead moves the needle back the other way a little whilst keeping most of the optimisations. The basics are still the same: limited weapon loadout, capturing outposts, crafting, etc. however the implementation of each varies somewhat from what Far Cry 5 did, enough so that it does play out like a very different game. There’s also some interesting mechanics that are included to keep you playing longer like infinitely upgradeable talents. recapturing outposts that get harder each time and a type of mission called expeditions that has the similar “harder each time” mechanic. It definitely seems like Ubisoft expected players to blast through the story and then continue to grind on these things for hours afterwards but, honestly, I don’t think anyone will see the appeal.
Combat feels a bit wonky as something weird has happened to the hit detection. Quite often shots that seem perfectly placed will miss, seemingly for no other reason than the game just didn’t think you were shooting at what you were looking at. It seems to get better with the higher end weapons so it’s possible there’s some stat I didn’t see which was affecting my aim in a way I wasn’t anticipating. Regardless the game doesn’t really educate you about anything like that so the first few hours are likely going to be spent wondering why you’re missing half your shots. Thankfully though headshots are a one hit kill, provided you have the right tier of gear for the enemy you’re trying to kill. You’ll also need a certain level of gear to even damage certain enemies, something that doesn’t become quite apparent until you run up against someone who seems impervious to all your bullets and only goes down to grenades. Thankfully the crafting mats for those are plentiful otherwise there would’ve been quite a few frustrating missions.
The crafting system goes back to its roots somewhat with animal skins now converting to various different crafting components that you’ll need to make the higher end gear. This does mean that hunting is no longer something you do when you’re strapped for cash; no you’ll need to go out and seek certain prey if you want to have the mats necessary to craft what you want. This wouldn’t be so bad if the maps didn’t really seem to lead you to the animals they say they do, quite often you’ll just end up in a barren area trying to figure out where the animal could be hiding. You don’t need to hunt of course, you can find most mats in chests or if you’re so inclined spend actual real money on buying them, but it is the fastest method by far. As someone who did enjoy hunting high end prey in the previous instalments I didn’t mind this so much although I would like the maps to be a little more reliable.
Further progression comes in two forms: ye olde talent tree and upgrading your own settlement. You’ll likely fill out the talent tree rather quickly thanks to all the points on offer from various activities: looting shelters, doing challenges and plain old levelling up. Of course the reason there’s so many points on offer is because some of the talents can be upgraded infinitely although I’m sure they reach diminishing returns at some point. I unlocked the whole tree without too much difficulty although to be honest I was just spending them at the end as I didn’t really need anything more beyond about halfway through the game.
Upgrading your base gives you access to various perks, most of which are quality of life improvements but others unlock the higher tiers of gear and vehicles that you’ll likely be lusting after. To get these upgrades you’ll need ethanol which comes from a variety of sources but the main one is from capturing outposts. After you’ve captured them once though you can scavenge them in order to bump them up a tier which, if you then go and capture again, nets you even more ethanol. Doing it with no alarms nets you a small ethanol bonus, which is pointless for the first level honestly, but doing it undetected nets you 50% more. For the tier 3 outposts this can be quite a lot, making getting those last tier upgrades quite easy. Of course doing that is easier said than done as the enemies at the final tiers can see you a mile away. Definitely a good balance of risk vs reward anyway.
Whilst there’s still some notable jankiness around, the combat being the worst of it, a lot of the polishes and bug fixing that went into Far Cry 5 have made their way into New Dawn. Even attempting some of the old physics tricks that would create some rather hilarious moments resulted in nothing much of anything happening. Disappointing in one respect but progress nonetheless. Some of the missions with unique mechanics (like the one where you travel north) were a little hit or miss, none of them requiring me to restart the mission but did point to those special instances not getting as much love as the base engine might have. So overall, given that New Dawn and Far Cry 5 likely share a lot of things under the hood it’s good to see progress in one translating to the other.
PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
The story unfortunately doesn’t really stand on its own feet, needing to borrow heavily from the previous game and unfortunately not adding a whole lot to it. The main antagonists in the game are laughably shallow, only managing to get any semblance of a compelling backstory quite late in the game. The strongest character in the whole game is Joseph Seed and that’s really only because he was already so well developed in the previous game. Far Cry isn’t typically renowned for having a deep and compelling story but they’re usually at least got something compelling to drag you along. This time around though? I struggled to even remember some of the character’s names when writing the review and one of them is on a sign in a screenshot I took.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Far Cry: New Dawn keeps true to the series’ formula, delivering competently in that regard, but doesn’t do much more than that. Some of the changes feel like a nod back to previous games but the bulk of it is following the trend that the last few games in the series have set down. There are some things done right, like the fantastical visuals and the trickle down of improvements from Far Cry 5, but other than that there’s not much more to talk about. I can only wonder what this game might have been like if it was an expansion or DLC to Far Cry 5 instead of a standalone title as it’s not really a game for those that haven’t played it. Far Cry: New Dawn goes down then as a slight misstep from Ubisoft in the series, certainly not a fall from grace but a small smudge on an otherwise solid recent track record.
Far Cry: New Dawn is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC right now for $68. Game was played on the PC with approximately 11 hours total play time and 59% of the achievements unlocked.
There’s an increasing number of games that are made by developers as part of their own process of self reflection. For some this comes as a catharsis, a want to unburden themselves through their artistic expression. For others it is to mourn and pay tribute to those that have passed. I haven’t yet however come across a game which explored the actual process of self reflection itself which is what When The Darkness comes is to its creator. As a concept I find it thoroughly fascinating, even if the resulting execution makes for a so-so experience due to its bargain basement creation and lack of compelling narrative.
When The Darkness comes starts out in a similar vein to The Stanley Parable, with the game’s creator speaking to you about the game and how it’s basically over and you should leave. It then proceeds to dive into a series of vignettes, each of them exploring a different concept with each one becoming more abstract than the last. Depending on the choices you’ve made you’ll see different levels, each of them dealing with a particular aspect of the developer’s self exploration process such as: trying to understand the concept of meaning, how hard it is to escape past trauma and getting lost in your own thoughts without a path to find your way back.
The bog standard Unity visual flair is strong in this one although the developer did go to the effort to ensure that each level had its own visual concept that embodied their vision of the concept they wanted to explore. Some of them are quite interesting, like the one where you have to follow a path that you can only really make out if you’re walking right on the edge of it or when you have to leap from tower to tower and they only illuminate after you land on one. So whilst it’s not going to win any awards for eye candy it certainly gets points for its strong visual concepts that play directly into the game’s storytelling.
The game makes a point of telling you it has no meaning, both in how it advertises itself and numerous times over in the game proper, as well as saying it’s not something that anyone should play. Of course that’s all total bollocks as I’ve played games that truly had no meaning and ones that were never meant to be played and they are completely different beasts than something like this. I say this because I feel like it’s an overdone idea now and it feels disingenuous to the player to blurt such nonsense when it’s obvious that’s not the case. Critically it doesn’t add anything to the game’s experience either I feel as it seems like many of the things shown here are inspired by real life events that the developer has lived through. With that in mind it’s quite laughable to say that this game has no meaning as all the things it put forwards shows it does.
There’s a small narrative that ties parts of the game together although honestly it’s pretty loose and doesn’t do much to bind it all together. Given that this is mostly just an exploration of different concepts that’s not too much of an issue but I do feel like the whole experience would be a lot stronger for it. For me games always feel elevated when they’re put together as a cohesive whole and when they’re just a jumble of parts it’s just not as compelling. For what it’s worth though the story elements that are in the game are done reasonably well, they just fail to tie everything together like you’d expect. With that in mind I’d say that the developer definitely has the skills to do it, they choose not to invest their effort in it this time around. Instead they focused on each vignette individually rather than the whole.
When the Darkness Comes is an interesting exploration of different concepts through various game mechanics and visual styles. Its greatest downfall is the lack of an overarching narrative that could’ve tied the experience together better and no, the idea that the game has no meaning isn’t enough. Given that it’s free and short if you’ve never played this kind of high concept game before I definitely think it’s worth exploring. It may not be one of the highest scoring games I’ll play this year but it’s at least an interesting one and it’s certainly whet my appetite for what they may be working on next.
When the Darkness Comes is available on PC right now and is free to play. Total play time was 47 minutes with 34% of the achievements unlocked.
I’ve very much come to enjoy the new breed of city building simulators like Frostpunk and They Are Billions. I think this is mostly due to their more relaxed pace than other games I typically play, allowing me to plod along at my own pace, only spending a little bit of time here or there to fix the minor issues in the mostly automated systems. Of course part of the fun is also figuring out just how those automated systems work and, most importantly, what makes them break. Dawn of Man, from the developers who gave us Planetbase, is another title in this vein and whilst it might not have the same brutal mechanical complexity that its predecessor did it still provided me with quite a few hours of enjoyable playtime.
You’re in charge of a tribe of people at the very dawn of early civilisation. You start in the stone age with all the trials and tribulations that comes with it: the availability of food limited to what you can find and hunt, stored resources don’t last long and working in the winter is a game of life and death. It is your job as the invisible hand behind this colony to guide them from their primitive origins and get them to the Iron Age…alive preferably.
Like Planetbase before it Dawn of Man has that Unity-esque look and feel to it that many indie games do. There isn’t a huge amount of detail packed into each individual asset, made more to be looked at from above rather than up close and personal all the time, but for the kind of game this is the visuals are more than appropriate. The lack of detail is also helps ensure that the simulation engine has enough grunt to keep everything running smoothly without running into noticeable performance hiccups. I didn’t notice any performance degradation during my time with the game so it appears to be well optimised for its task. Suffice to say though you’re probably not going to be playing this game for the visuals, you’re in it more for the emergent storytelling that the engine can provide.
Dawn of Man is like pretty much any other city builder that you’d care to point to as most of the basic tasks are the same. You’ll need to provide basic resources to your colony in the form of food, water and shelter all of which you have varying means of acquiring at your disposal. Beyond that you’ll also need to accumulate knowledge points, a kind of currency you’ll gain for hitting various milestones that can then be spent at the tech tree. To advance to the next age you’ll need to unlock that age’s key technology and it’ll come at a hefty price so you’ll need your colony to be somewhat advanced to make it. Beyond that the only other real challenge is the occasional raid from other humans or possibly even a couple animals but, beyond that, there’s not much more to the game. At least at the base level anyway.
Getting into these games is always a bit of a challenge as figuring out how the various systems interact with each isn’t always obvious, nor does the game really tell you much beyond the basics in the tutorial. Typically this is usually where I’ll restart my first game a couple times over, usually as it becomes clear I’ve backed myself into a corner I can’t get out of. For Dawn of Man though I didn’t end up doing that, instead I was able to find ways out of every dire situation I found myself in. Now I don’t know if this is because I’ve played quite a few more titles like this since I played Planetbase all those years ago but it definitely felt like there were a lot more outs in Dawn of Man than I’m used to having.
I say all of this because it means there’s no funny story of me failing miserably and killing everyone, apologies! 😉
Dawn of Man follows the usual trope of keeping things simple in the beginning but adding incremental complexity as you progress through the game. Progression in this sense is pretty linear as new tech is really only unlocked when you move to a new age and you’re only going to move to a new age once you’ve stabilised your colony in the current one. Of course I was playing on the first scenario so I’m not sure how this would play out in the challenge modes, most of which seem to have another built in layer of complexity in order to ramp up the difficulty a bit more. Further to that the game has Steam Community support so I’m sure there’s likely to be many mods and improvements that’ll add all sorts of interesting nonsense to the game in the near future.
For my colony the primary challenge typically came from being out of a particular resource which would stall my progression. The first of these was tannin, required for making leather which I needed for various upgrades and things to improve my colony overall. What I usually found was that, although those resources were available, the work zones I had put down weren’t getting filled with people to complete the work, there were even people showing as underutilised. The way to get around this it seemed was to put down multiple work zones for the same resource rather than having one stacked with the same number of people. Looking through the forums on this I’m not the only one who’s struggled with this kind of challenge and indeed it seems most of the games real challenge comes from the AI wigging out and doing something completely unexpected.
I had quite a few instances of this in my game, the funniest (well, looking back it now anyway) was when half my colonists were walking around starving themselves to death. For some reason there’s certain tasks that the AI will prioritise over eating, to the point of people working themselves to death before they’ll take 10 minutes to get a meal. I eventually worked out that the problem, and honestly this shouldn’t even be a problem, was that the food I had on hand still needed to be “cooked” even though it had been already. Certain other foods can be consumed instantly and, when they’re not around, it seems the AI prefers to try and keep them working than take the required time to cook. It’s a bit of an edge case, I’ll grant you, but there’s dozens of other emergent behaviours (like the AI not respecting hard resource limits you set) that you’ll have to figure out lest they become the downfall of your colony.
Dawn of Man does tend to hide a lot of information behind dozens of menus, many of which aren’t readily accessible. A lot of good information is shown on the various tabs you can put on screen but for some things, like which colonists are idle and which ones aren’t, need quite a few clicks to get to before you can see that information. Similarly, whilst some information is packed together well (like resource limits on the places where those resources are produced) others, like milestones and knowledge point tasks, are on completely different menus. This isn’t something that’s beyond fixing and at the very least I’ll bet that someone from the community will fix it up with a mod in the not too distant future.
Once you get past the basics with Dawn of Man though there seems to be a couple tricks that enable you to basically do whatever you want. For me I found that wool, which is effectively an unlimited resource, sells quite well with traders and so I was routinely clearing them out each time they came by. This is especially good considering that you can buy tech unlocks from them, something I always ended up doing as I’d routinely have 200+ units of wool just lying around. At that point I really was just running out the clock on the game to unlock all the tech and get the last milestone though. For me though that was enough as I was plenty satisfied with the time I had spent in the game by then. More serious players will likely find a lot of enjoyment in the challenge modes and community mods but for this old player I felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth.
Dawn of Man is another competent city builder from developer Madruga Works, one that’s likely to provide many hours of entertainment to those who love this genre. It certainly felt a lot easier than other games in this genre have of late, although that could quite possible be because I’ve played a number of them over the past few years. Still if you’re after a casual, low stress city building experience then I think Dawn of Man will be right up your alley.
Dawn of Man is available on PC right now for $35.95. Total play time was 8 hours with 28% of the achievements unlocked.
When a titan of the game industry gets into a genre the anticipation is always high for what they’re going to bring to the table. The looter shooter genre which came to popularity with titles like Destiny and The Division was seemingly set to see a new competitor this year in the form of Anthem from BioWare. I have to admit, even though I tried my darndest to stay away from the hype for it, I was excited to see what it would bring to the table. Heck I was even hoping it’d become another Destiny, something I could pick up every so often when a new DLC dropped to enjoy a casual raid or two. Unfortunately though those high expectations haven’t been met and the game that we’ve received seems to be cut down in scale and burdened with numerous problems that prevent it from achieving what it set it out to do. To be sure, there’s some great fundamentals in here, but we as gamers are tired of mostly finished games; especially from AAA developers.
The Anthem is a force of pure creation, left behind by the shapers of this world along with their various relics that forged this place that we now call home. Every so often the Anthem rises again, it’s unbound power causing chaos by ripping through the land. You, a rookie tagging along with famed freelancer Haluk for your first mission, go to tackle the Heart of Rage: a cataclysm that’s being caused by a device called the Cenotaph. The mission goes horribly astray however, with many of your fellow freelancers perishing at the horrors that were created. With that the hope that many in the freelancers is dashed and you spend the next couple years taking on odd jobs to keep the lights on. However it becomes apparent that an old power, The Dominion, is seeking to control the Anthem by using the Cenotaph at the heart of rage. It’s up to you, freelancer, to ensure that the ultimate power of creation doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.
If there’s one thing that Anthem gets right it’s the visuals which set the bar for what many other games will be compared to this year. They come to us care of the Frostbite 3 engine so it’s no surprise that it’s able to pull off all the modern graphics tricks in the book. Flying through the environments is a joy, the wide vistas providing many good screenshot worthy moments as you explore the world of Bastion. It can get a little visually confusing during heavy combat scenes (with the enormous amount of particle effects everywhere) and during puzzle sections (as puzzle items blend in far too well with the background) and I don’t think that’s something that’s ever going to change unfortunately. Performance is also pretty great as I never experienced a perceptible drop in framerates whilst I was playing. I did initially tweak the settings a little bit to get it running smoother, I think just by turning off AA. Other than that I didn’t need to touch anything else for the rest of my playthrough.
Anthem’s core gameplay sticks close to the looter shooter fundamentals starting off with you picking a particular character class that will define your playstyle. As you level up you’ll unlock the others and you’re free to switch between them you may not have enough gear to make one viable at your current power level without a little grinding. There’s a core story campaign which you’ll need to complete to unlock most of the game’s content including strongholds which are the game’s endgame content. You can customize your javelin’s weapons and abilities with loot drops, all of which have their own play style and synergies with each other. There’s also the usual tropes of daily/weekly missions, world events and a rudimentary crafting system to try and drag you back day after day. When all is said and done there is a decent bit of content in Anthem, maybe a little less than there was in Destiny when it originally released, but what’s lacking is a driving force to make you want to explore it.
Combat starts out being one of the most impressive parts of Anthem with all the abilities and dynamic aerial fighting feeling like something truly new to the looter shooter genre. The abilities are the standout parts of the combat, especially when you work together with your teammates to unleash some spectacular combos that explode in a glorious cacophony of particle and sound effects. I have to admit to having quite a lot of fun in my colossus with the shock coil attachment, an AOE lightning attack that just cooked enemies around me as a I walked at them and triggered off combos left and right. The ultimate abilities are incredibly satisfying as well, allowing you to do incredible amounts of damage against even the toughest opponents if you know how to use them properly. However after a time the combat starts to get samey and that’s when the cracks start to appear.
The guns, for instance, are nearly completely useless in comparison to your abilities. You’ll often be plinking away at an enemy for what seems like an eternity with your main weapons, just killing time until you can use one of your abilities again to do some real damage. This doesn’t even change with higher tier loot unfortunately as the abilities scale much better. The abilities to don’t change much past a certain point and most of them are just variants on the same thing like the flamethrower just being a cone version of the shock coil or the various versions of the mortar and flack canons. This, coupled with the lack of mission variety, means that after a certain point every encounter starts to feel quite samey and that’s when the boredom starts to set in. This is typically where the loot grind is supposed to be the draw card but unfortunately Anthem got this completely and utterly wrong.
You’re lavished with loot from the get go, which isn’t an issue in and of itself, however it’s not entirely clear which piece of gear is better than another due to the downright confusing stats page in the forge. Most upgrades don’t really feel like they change much either, especially for upgrades that are in the same weapon or slot class. Without a meaningful power progression you don’t really feel compelled to seek out better gear. Worse still it doesn’t really seem like playing on the harder difficulties (at least pre-end game) nets you any more or better loot, completely negating the reason for taking on the additional challenge. The difference between hard and normal can also be the difference between getting stuck on a mission for an hour and getting it done in 5 minutes, further pushing you towards simply playing it on the easiest and breezing through. Whilst I didn’t bother with any endgame activities I’ve heard that this situation continues on even there which honestly doesn’t seem like a good way to increase player retention.
Flying around the environments starts out feeling exactly like what was promised back when Anthem was first demoed although, for some weird reason, they decided to limit your flight time when you’re flying between missions. This is supposed to be counteracted by you diving every so often or flying through a waterfall to cool your javelin’s jets but neither of these seem to work consistently. I could understand limiting flying in combat but for exploration? It just feels like that was done to make the world feel artificially bigger than it actually is. Even then though you can see all of the world in a pretty short timeframe if you’re so inclined as the overworld isn’t as big as it seems at first glance. You also can’t fly over any of the mountain ranges you can see in the game, instead you get pushed back down by jetstreams, further limiting how you can travel. I think many of us were drawn to this massive world that you’d be able to explore in a giant mech suit but instead what we’ve got is a limited world with limited options to explore it.
Decoupling your javelin’s look from its armament was a good idea on BioWare’s part although, weirdly, they’ve essentially given you unlimited customisation options right of the hop. Sure there’s only a couple types of javelin cosmetic sets available but you’re given dozens of different materials and unlimited colouring options right at the start of the game. This means that you can basically craft your own visual style right away without much need for you to go searching for a bit of loot to make your javelin look awesome. Whilst I appreciate the ability to do this it further diminishes the value of end game loot as part of the appeal is wearing your high tier gear in front of others, signalling you’ve done the game’s hardest challenges. Combine this with the other loot issues and you’ve basically got very little reason to pursue any end game activities at all.
This is also not mention all the base technical issues that plague the game, even after the proper “release” (side note: if the game is playable by the general public, it’s released. Anyone who says otherwise is being disingenuous to deflect negative feedback). Crashes and disconnects aren’t common place but do happen and without any kind of checkpointing system if you were in the middle (or at the end, in my case) of a mission you’ll have to do it over from the start. The UI is total garbage with even the simplest tasks taking ages to complete. Want to tag something as junk for mass deletion? That’ll take about 3 seconds to complete, just as long as it’d take for you to deconstruct the item manually. Challenges don’t track properly in the UI either and you’ll often get notified about tracking something which you’ve already tracked. Navigating between different panes defies usual UI conventions as well, often meaning you’ll end up completely quitting out of a particular menu by accident rather than going back to the previous tab. Anthem really needs some love when it comes to the quality of life department as simple things like this shouldn’t be so hard.
Anthem’s story was set up well for it to go anywhere the writer’s pleased and, for what it’s worth, I enjoyed it for the most part. Sure the villains, characters and various plot twists are predictable and one dimensional but the world behind it was pretty well fleshed out. The voice actors also did a great job of bringing the script to life as well and I was surprised at the number of big name talent I recognised reprising their roles in Anthem. Honestly had the core game been better the story could’ve really shone but, unfortunately, it’s hard to enjoy a good story when so much of the rest of the game just isn’t up to par.
The weight of expectations has proved to be too much for Anthem as the game we’ve received after so much anticipation has left us all wanting. To be sure the game’s opening moments are extremely fun, bringing a fresh perspective to the looter shooter genre and setting you up for what feels like an epic BioWare experience. However the shine starts to quickly wear off as it becomes apparent that there’s just not a lot of variety in the core aspects of the game and little outside that to keep you motivated. The conclusion of the main campaign is where I left Anthem as there was nothing left there that I wanted to explore. It’s a real shame honestly as it feels like Anthem could’ve avoided many of these mistakes but simply didn’t. Perhaps future DLCs and patches will bring it back up to par, much like it did for The Division and Destiny, but we gamers are long past the point of wanting to play games that aren’t finished.
Anthem is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $89.99. Game was played on the PC with 15 hours total play time and 19.5% of the achievements unlocked.
You never seen a review for a battle royale game here and that’s with good reason: I’m not a fan of them at all. I played PUBG for a few hours with a mate of mine, along with a couple hours solo to see what it was like, and honestly I just didn’t enjoy it. I like my shooters dumb and fast; the antithesis of what battle royale games typically are. When Apex Legends was announced I figured it was going to be more of the same and figured I’d leave it for more greener gaming pastures. That changed however when all of my friends started playing it relentlessly, giving me plenty of opportunity to play with a crew. Since then I’ve come to appreciate Respawn’s take on the battle royale genre, vastly improving on the formula by including numerous quality of life improvements that take nearly all the pain out of playing games like these.
Apex Legends is set in the same universe as the Titanfall series and takes a lot of design cues from its spiritual predecessors. All the weapons in the game are come directly from Titanfall, although they’re really only copies in name and look only. There’s really no plot to speak of, not that you’d be coming here looking for one, and the opening cinematic just serves to set up the characters that you get to choose from. As a big fan of the Titanfall series I can tell you that I was somewhat disappointed to hear that Respawn was working on this rather than another Titanfall game but after sinking a good amount of time into the game I think I can forgive them…for now.
Like all of Respawn’s games Apex Legends comes to us via the Source engine, albeit with a completely different kind of aesthetic to that of their previous titles. Instead of the more realistic visuals that the Titanfall series was known for Apex Legends goes for a slightly stylized look with bright colours, reminiscent of other slightly cartoony games like Team Fortress 2. That being said the world they’ve crafted is brimming with detail, enough that in my time with it I’ve yet to fully explore the single map that you’re given to play. Performance is still quite good even on my now 4 year old rig, something which I’m sure has helped broaden its appeal tremendously. That’s likely Respawn’s reason for keeping with their modded Source engine for so long as it’s far more lightweight than its competitors. Apex Legends might not do anything particularly novel visually but it certainly pulls all its varying visual elements together nicely.
The core of Apex Legends game play is the same as any battle royale: a number of players drop into a large map which constantly shrinks and the last one standing takes the crown. Whilst the addition of classes is certainly one differentiator it feels like the most minor compared to the rest of the improvements they’ve made to the formula. The inventory system has been streamlined to perfection, allowing you to loot with reckless abandon and know that you’ll always be upgrading your gear. The integrated ping system is an absolute godsend for both pub groups and organised teams alike, enabling rapid communication without the need for voice chat. The pace of the game has also been ramped up significantly, both in terms of how long matches take to complete as well as how long it takes to start one. Gone are the long downtimes between matches, replaced with a rapid fire matchmaking system that ensures you’ll never go more than a couple minutes without being in a fight. Instead of simply being a “battle royale game with X” Apex Legends feels like the new bar for what all games from this genre should be.
Whilst Apex Legends comes from the same developers who gave us Titanfall the combat is nothing like it at all. The gunplay is far more in-depth with numerous options that are sure to suit any player’s preferred style. Of course whether or not you can find your preferred kit is all up to RNJesus, so you’re forced to get good with a number of weapons so you always have something you can rely on. After a short stint trying my hand at sniping I’ve settled on a more medium range build typically consisting of a SMG (a prowler with select fire being my favourite) with either a peacekeeper or EVA-8 as my backup. This does mean of course I’m usually the first one in and the first to die but that’s pretty much my playstyle for all shooters anyway. Your mileage will vary though and the only way to figure it out is by playing.
The character classes mean a lot less than they do in other games, mostly just giving you some additional things to play with rather than actually making a huge difference to how the game plays out. I started out playing as Gibraltar, thinking that the gun shield would give me an edge in gunfights. That advantage was quickly outweighed by the fact that the shield is a massive giveaway for any enemies who might be looking for you and his other abilities didn’t really feel like they were making much of an impact to how my games were going. So I switched to Bloodhound which provided a lot more utility overall, even if the impact of their abilities still feels pretty minor overall. Realistically I think this is probably the only way you could do characters and still feel like its balanced as anything that really changed the gunplay dynamics would make it feel quite unfair. That’s why you don’t see any characters that have abilities that directly buff gun damage, reduce reload times or anything else of the sort. More the abilities are about positioning, intel and forcing your opponents to make bad decisions that you can take advantage of, adding an intriguing layer of strategy rather than simply finding the best place to camp.
The ping system goes a long way to making the pub experience much better, facilitating a higher level of communication than you’d typically find in any multiplayer game.It helps that it’s given such a prominent position during the tutorial, ensuring that everyone knows how at least the basics of it works. Of course whilst the pub experience is far better than any other battle royale game I’ve played it’s still a pale shadow compared to the experience of playing with a proper squad, especially if you’re like me and love dropping straight into the hottest zones and getting your fight on immediately. Indeed that’s probably why I’ve enjoyed Apex Legends so much more than other battle royale games; there’s a steady stream of mates to play with.
The microtransaction system doesn’t feel particularly in your face, only really showing up during the pre-match screens where you see your team and the champion’s player cards. Even with the legendary drop of crafting materials above I still don’t have enough to craft a legendary skin (that’d take 2 of the above drops) and there’s unfortunately no way to melt down other drops you’ve gotten to get more materials to use. This is all deliberate of course, forcing you to either play more or to shell out some real money to get the fancy cosmetics you’re lusting after. I’m quite fine with this approach honestly as you’re more likely to pay to lose with these kinds of things, what with all the sparkly skins that people seem to be rocking. We’ll see how long it takes me to crack before I pay a couple bucks to get a skin as I think it took me a couple hundred hours in DOTA 2 before I bought my first there.
Apex Legend’s release hasn’t been without its issues, many of which I’ve thankfully not experienced but have affected those I’ve played with. Crashes are commonplace, especially for those rocking the latest graphics cards from NVIDIA, which can often leave you a man down right at the start of a match. The servers will also turn the tick rate right down for seemingly no reason at all, making everyone move in slow motion before it starts to clear up. There’s also some weird loading issues with the pre-match lobby, sometimes dropping people before they get a chance to choose a character. Respawn is aware of all the issues and is working towards fixing them although they have said that they’re probably not going to bother putting in a reconnection feature due to their concerns around abuse. That’s somewhat disappointing so we can only hope that the work they do to increase stability makes the need for a reconnection solution moot.
Apex Legends is likely to down as the surprise hit of 2019, coming out of nowhere to dominate the charts with its fresh take on a genre that had started to grow stale. Its improvements come in the form of making the genre more approachable to a wider audience, reducing complexity without taking away from the depth of the gameplay. When I first saw it I didn’t think it would have anything to offer me but here I am, some 34 hours deep in it with no signs of stopping playing anytime soon. Those that were looking to unseat Fortnite as the game of choice now have a new contender they have to beat and a bar that’s been set even higher again.
Apex Legends is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for free. Game was played on the PC with 34 hours of total play time and 42% of the achievements unlocked.
Ok look, I know, I said I’d try and do this earlier than I’ve done it the last couple years. Maybe one day I’ll make good on that promise but, for now, you’ll just have to take my sincere apologies.
I was all prepped to talk about how my busy work schedule had prevented me from hitting my goal yet again last year, fully expecting that the list of games I’d be putting down here would be near the lowest it has been. However I’m pleasantly surprised to report I managed to get through an impressive 48 (even if 3 of those are technically the same game, Destiny 2) my highest total in 2 years. The number of AAA titles has definitely declined with many last year demanding a lot more time than I was able to give to them. Still I played nearly all of the games I wanted to, the only glaring omission being God of War.
As I sat down to write this no title came front of mind which, in the past, has meant that I haven’t really found anything to crown the victor. However as I was putting together the list of games I realised it wasn’t because of a lack of titles, far from it, indeed 2 of them shared the highest score (9.5) last year with a further 4 coming in second (9.25). Adding into that there are 2 honourable mentions that I want to throw into the mix as they both gave me something I wasn’t fully expecting. Suffice to say 2018 delivered solid gaming experiences in troves and I’m honestly beside myself in not getting around to doing this sooner.
As always here’s the list of games I played last year in chronological order:
In the slightly devious tradition of awarding the wooden spoon to a game this year I have the oh-so-delicious pleasure of awarding it to not one, but two games that shared last year’s lowest rating: Elementium and The Quiet Man with a score of a mere 3. Elementium was a game I should probably have never played, something that was made and put out into the world without even a basic level of care and attention to what a game should be. The Quiet Man was bad for many other reasons, not least of which was doing a game like that in a completely ass about way that ended up ruining it completely. Whereas Elementium can be pushed aside as a dev’s first attempt at trying to make something The Quiet Man is from an established developer and large publishing company: both of whom have the resources and the motive to make it not suck horrendously. But they didn’t and so they thrust that mess onto the world to torture anyone who’d dare spend the cash.
As this year’s honourable mentions list is long I’ll blast through them with a quick list of why I wanted to point them out:
With that out the way my game of the year, which if you know me as a gamer is likely blindingly obvious by now, is:
Yes, I know, it’s another David Cage game who’s story is about as deep as any Twilight fanfiction might be but I fell for it yet again. I’ll argue that what makes these games strong isn’t the narrative but the performances that the actors give to it. Further to that the fact that the best part of the game, I feel, isn’t really even the game itself made seriously think about how we can define new player interactions with the medium. Whilst I haven’t had many good conversations about it yet it’s definitely a title I’ll refer back to when thinking about the numerous gaming traditions and how changing, augmenting or even straight usurping them can add a whole new dimensionality to our video game experiences. All things said and done if you haven’t played it I strongly encourage you do, even if you don’t play it strictly for the game itself.
The two runners up are Monument Valley 2 and Gris.
I’d been hanging out for Monument Valley 2 ever since I saw it released on iOS and instantly devoured it in one sitting when I finally saw it come out. It may not have done anything particularly revolutionary with its implementation but the story they told, mostly through the use of visuals with small bits of dialogue here and there, captured my heart straight away. Reading through my review again brings all those emotions back tenfold, not least of which because I’m now the father of a daughter myself.
Gris came into my sights just before it was released and honestly if there’s anything that I’d call reviewer bait (at least for me) it’d be this game. Beautiful visuals, amazing soundtrack and a story told eloquently without the use of dialogue are all things I look for and the short game trailers were enough to convince me it was worth my time. What makes this all the more impressive is that it’s the first title from Nomada Studio. With a debut like that I am so excited to see what they deliver in the future.
2019 has already brought with it some amazing titles and some amazing upsets in expectations. My list is, as always, brimming with big names and at least one previous Game of the Year winner. Whilst my expectations are high my time is likely going to be a little limited, new baby and all, but I love gaming too much to leave them all at the door.
I’ll just have to teach her how to hold a controller.
The Resident Evil series and I go a long way back. I started playing the series with Resident Evil 2, skipping the first because I don’t think we had a PlayStation until long after it was out (we were a Nintendo household, dagnabit). For some reason though the series stuck with my brother and I, the game getting numerous replays as we sought to master its every aspect. I even remember going as far as doing a no-save run, a feat which saw me playing through until midnight, netting me the infinite ammo gatling gun. However after Resident Evil 3 (which I am very much looking forward to seeing a remake of now) my interest in the series waned I went to greener gaming pastures. It was impossible to ignore the wide critical acclaim that the remake was receiving though and, after being prompted to play it by my brother, I found myself back in the zombie infested world of Racoon City. Suffice to say if all remakes were done this way I think we’d all be far more welcoming of developers pillaging old classics.
You play as either Claire Redfield or Leon S. Kennedy, both of whom are venturing into Racoon City for their own reasons. The story starts when both of you stumble into a petrol station on the outskirts of the city, seemingly abandoned with no signs of any humans around. It quickly becomes apparent though that everyone here has turned into zombies and thankfully you bump into each other before making your escape into the town proper. As you journey towards the police station, in hopes of finding shelter and help there, you become separated and so your journey begins to escape Racoon City and, possibly, save a few others along the way.
Resident Evil 2 is based on the same RE Engine that powered Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and the visuals have definitely improved since then. The level of detail has improved significantly, the game no longer relying on the dark setting to hide away the lack of detail in certain areas. Some of this is out of necessity, given that a lot of the areas are a lot more open and bright than they were in 7. There’s also a lot of nice visual touches like the animations that play when you’re using an item and the subtle changes in colour temperature for different rooms that are lit by different sources (moon light vs incandescent lights, for example). The cutscenes are probably the only sections that highlight some of the lesser graphical aspects, the animations sometimes getting out of sync with the sounds or even the animations themselves not being quite right. Overall though I’m glad that Capcom made a concerted effort to improve upon what they delivered previously with this engine.
Capcom was vehement that this was a remake, not a remaster, and that’s certainly true of the game’s core gameplay. Gone are the fixed cameras (thank goodness) replaced instead with a third person, over the shoulder view. This in of itself is a major change to how the game plays out, no longer are you limited to small, awkwardly framed sections that made even the most benign task a challenge. Instead you now have this almost open world in front of you, one that’s littered with many of the same challenges that the original had. Beyond that the game sticks to its survival horror roots, giving you precious little ammo to take on the numerous zombies that will be coming your way. This makes choosing your path through the world critical as you won’t be able to simply blast your way through everything. Stacked on top of this is a heavy focus on item management, forcing you to make decisions about what to take with you and what to leave behind. Lastly there’s a rudimentary crafting system, adding a another layer of complexity in deciding how you’ll tackle the problems at hand. All of these mechanics are, in the truest sense, the essence of what made the Resident Evil series great back in the day and their modernisation some 20 years later has proven the formula can still be successful.
Combat is, as it always is in survival horror games, a frustrating affair of never being sure if you have enough to make it through to the next stage. Zombies never really reliably go down, often just falling over and getting back up at some later stage (save for a few weapons which guarantee kills like the magnum). You’ll also be faced with situations that will make you panic and drain your reserves rapidly, leaving you with few options but to try and run past whatever is trying to kill you. Realistically the only thing in common it has with other third person shooters is the perspective you play from, everything else is more a game of strategy to minimise the use of your consumables whilst maximising the amount of distance you can cover. So whilst it might be a frustrating, seemingly random system there are a number of things you can do to increase your odds of getting through unscathed and with only a few bullets loosed.
If you’re playing on anything but the easiest mode you’ll also have to deal with the health system which retains the originals Fine/Caution/Danger levels which roughly translate to how many zombie bites you can sustain. Other things seemingly do part damage, like some boss attacks or other smaller sources of damage, but they won’t register on the inventory screen. Similarly healing items seem to indicate that they’ll have varying levels of effectiveness but they all seem to be roughly the same, either repairing you 1 level or 2. I’m sure there’s some deeper level to it, probably one that speedrunners are intimately familiar with, but for your average player there doesn’t seem to be more subtly to it than that.
The inventory system is one of the game’s core mechanics, making it hard for loot rats like myself who by default pick up everything in sight. Sometimes it can mean just having to loop back later to pick up some more crafting materials but often it can mean coming across a crucial progression item that you’ll then have to leave behind. Thus you play an optimisation game, scanning the room for everything in it and then deciding what you can and can’t take with you. It gets easier later on as you expand your inventory space, although then you’re usually carrying around more guns to deal with the game’s increased level of threat. I’d typically chide a game for making inventory management such a ballache however it’s clear that it was a core part of the game design, not something that was simply neglected. So whilst I might have been annoyed at the multiple trips I might have had to make to get everything in a room I understood that this was part of the challenge laid out before me.
Now I’m not sure if it’s my 2 decades of experience as a gamer since I played the original but the puzzles of the remake feel a lot more straightforward than they previously did. All the clues you need will come to you without the need for studious exploration and those that don’t can often be worked out with a little logic or brute force. There was only one time when I got stuck and that was due to me legging it out of a room without fully exploring it, something a second trip through fixed up immediately. I was playing on the Standard difficulty so I understand some challenges are a little harder on the top tier but even then I don’t think most seasoned gamers would struggle. For those who do there’s the easiest difficulty level which I think would cater to even the most casual of players.
It’s hard to tell what’s janky in Resident Evil 2 and what’s meant to be a core part of the game. For instance the zombies’ ragdoll physics constantly goes haywire, even when they’re not completely dead. On the one hand this could very well be deliberate as ragdolling in games often means the enemy is completely, 100% dead; something which this game really doesn’t want you to be sure of. Additionally the enemies AI breaks down around doors, sometimes they’ll break them down and follow you through whilst others will instantly forget you’re there the second you close it. Again, could be a game mechanic or could be a glitch, I really can’t be sure. It’s true to the nature of the genre somewhat, frustrating controls and random mechanics that always keep you guessing, which is also one of my biggest gripes with games like these. So either it’s part of the challenge or a frustrating lack of polish, you decide.
The story remains true to the core events of the original and retains the same ever present tension that the Resident Evil series was always so good at generating. Now I’m not typically a fan of the horror genre but it’s hard to deny how well Resident Evil 2 executes it. The game does have some rather severe pacing issues, something which I think is part due to its true to core nature and the assumed multiple playthroughs (which I have not done), but it does seem relationship progression between most of the characters happens way too fast given the time that would’ve passed (less than one night). A lot of it made sense to me given my history with the original game but for those who never played it I can imagine things might have seemed a little weird. Indeed the story seems to be the thing that recieved the least polish which is a shame but it’s still at least enough to carry you through it.
All this being said RESIDENT EVIL 2 / BIOHAZARD RE:2 sets the bar for what remakes of classic titles can be. Changing up the mechanics, completely rebuilding the environments and thoroughly modernising nearly everything about it brings about a new experience that keeps the essence of the original whilst still doing something new. Even for single playthrough gamers like myself there’s a lot to love here, from the well laid out puzzles to the min/max strategy, ensuring that there’s always a challenge at had to keep you occupied. There are some parts that could either be a lack of polish or a deliberate design decision, something that has always irked me about the survival horror genre. Still, all things considered, if all remasters or remakes were like this I think we as a gaming community would be far more welcoming to them. We may get to see more of it with a possible Resident Evil 3 remake on the horizon and I, for one, am definitely looking forward to it.
RESIDENT EVIL 2 / BIOHAZARD RE:2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $89.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 7 hours playtime and 40% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s rare these days to see concept pieces that have no ambition beyond simply existing. Most are at the very least teaser pieces designed to get you enticed into backing them on Kickstarter or buying the full title. Indeed I thought as much when I first saw What Never Was, a solo project by a developer called Acke Hallgren whose day job involves designing open world environments for AAA titles like Rage 2 and The Division, but it seems I was wrong. What Never Was stands as a piece for the developer to keep their skills sharp, all the while telling a short but interesting tale about a granddaughter going through the process of sorting through her granddad’s possessions.
You play as Sarah, the granddaughter of Howard James Wright who recently passed away. He was an adventurer, always trekking through the world in pursuit of ancient relics and meticulously documenting his travels in the various books that he authored. You’ve taken on the task that everyone dreads when a relative passes: cleaning out all their belongings. You quickly discover though that there might have been more, a lot more in fact, to the travels your grandfather took and many of the relics he’s left behind are not quite as they seem.
What Never Was is built on the UE4 engine and, like many indie titles built on the platform, has that distinct Unreal engine feel to it. Considering that the vast majority of the visuals were done by the single developer behind it though they’ve managed to achieve a decent level of detail and polish; the single level environment bristling with details for you to investigate. Coupling that with the full voice acting for every bit of dialogue you’ve got a very complete experience, even if the play time won’t run you much past an hour if you get it to 100% completion.S
The game is essentially a one room puzzle, one that most seasoned gamers won’t find too challenging. The real attraction is from clicking on all of the bits of memorabilia around the room and hearing your character reminisce about how those things played a part in their life. The one quibble I have is that the game doesn’t tell you when you’ve finished hearing all the bits of story from a particular item which often means you’ll have to keep clicking it even after you’ve finished the dialogue train to make sure you heard everything. Other than that there’s not too much to talk about except the story itself.
The way the story played out I had fully expected to track down the developer and see that a full version of the game was incoming as What Never Was does an incredibly good job of setting up a world that a larger story could play out in. So I’m somewhat disappointed to see that there’s nothing in the works as this small room does an exceptional job of making you want to see more. I won’t go into more details as the game is really worth taking the 30 mins or so to play to see it for yourself.
What Never Was is a great example of a concept come to life, giving the player just enough details to want more before wrapping everything up. It being the work of a single developer makes it even more impressive as it obviously a labour of love that they just wanted the world to see. The real disappointment is that it is likely to stay a concept as I see nothing to indicate the developer wants to work on it further. It’s a real shame as I’m sure even another small vignette or two like What Never Was would we warmly welcomed by many, myself included.
What Never Was is available on PC right now for free. Total play time was 19 minutes with 50% of the achievements unlocked.
I couldn’t tell you why I never got into the Hitman series. It’s not something I’ve deliberately avoided, no I think it’s more that I’ve always had something else to play at the time it was released and, by the time I’d finished whatever I was playing, it was on to the next biggest and best title. However I have one particular friend who is…quite fond of the series and has been relentless in his pursuit to get me to try it out. So, with January not providing any much in the way of new games to play, I figured it was finally time to give the series a go, starting with Hitman 2.
This seems to have been a pretty good place to start because the story of Hitman 2 (which for the purposes of this review also includes Hitman since I played through all of those missions as well) fleshes out a lot of the background of the characters. You are Agent 47, a world renown assassin who works for the ICA: a shadowy contract killer organisation who works at the behest of the board. You and your handler Diana Burnwood are tasked with eliminating targets who pose a threat to your clients in one way or another. However as you complete your missions a pattern starts to emerge and it seems that your assassinations may be playing part in a larger game.
There really is no other game that can compare to the extraordinary amount of detail that’s crammed into each and every level of Hitman. Not only is every place bustling with numerous NPCs, many of which have their own dialogue and action sequences, the environments themselves will likely require multiple playthroughs in order for you to explore them completely. It really is quite incredible to just simply wander around the map to figure out all the different avenues that you have available to you, including the ones that may not have been intended by the game designers. On a purely visual basis the graphics aren’t exactly top tier however that’s made up for in spades with the attention that’s paid to every detail. Performance is also quite good, the game never missing a beat even on my now 4 year old PC.
Putting Hitman into a genre is a bit of a challenge as it borrows elements from many. The core mechanics are essential stealth, challenging you to find ways into various areas without being detected. Whilst I never really tried it there also seems to be a rather well developed third person shooter in there as well, at least that’s the only reason I can think of for the developers to include so many varied weapons in it. There’s also a puzzler element as well as whilst you can likely conclude most missions by simply shooting your target in the head there are many more nuanced ways to eliminate them but doing so will likely require a little digging and out of the box thinking in order to accomplish. There’s also a bunch of different modes in the game that I never tried either so there’s likely other mechanics as well that I personally haven’t experienced. Suffice to say there’s a lot to unpack in Hitman and I can see why it’s one of the few games that’s managed to do well with the episodic model: there’s just so much damn content in each mission.
The stealth is done exceptionally well, even if it is comically unrealistic with some things. NPCs will generally react negatively to behaviour that’s out of character for your current disguise, whether that be walking into places you shouldn’t be in or performing an action that wouldn’t be expected of you. There’s the typical awareness meter which functions as you’d expect it to: enemies further away taking longer to recognise you and those close up being able to recognise you instantly. There’s also the usual mix of stealth mechanics mixed in (hiding in bushes, distracting them with items, etc.) which all work well. Your main challenge is usually hiding the bodies of people whose clothes you’ve stolen which is easy enough, if you can find a place to hide them. Of course you’re very likely to stuff these things up so saving and reloading constantly quickly becomes the name of the game, that is if you’re chasing a high score of course.
Most of the time the system seems fair however it’s not immune to glitching out and behaving in strange and unpredictable ways. Certain actions can seemingly be traced back directly to you even if there’s no witnesses. One mission in particular I hid out of view and shot some gas canisters to eliminate my target. Apparently everyone of the guards nearby was able to trace where those shots came from instantly, altering everyone. There’s also times when NPCs will walk into areas that they’ve never pathed into before, all for the purpose of finding that body that you didn’t hide in a dumpster or closet. Some actions also count as murdering someone when they probably shouldn’t, like dragging someone through a small puddle or pushing them over a small railing. Of course once you know about these nuances of the stealth system you can work around them but it can be rather frustrating to have a Silent Assassin run ruined by some behaviour that you couldn’t predict and can’t fix since you didn’t save before you committed a certain action.
I predominantly played the mission stories and I have to say, whilst there’s probably a lot more to discover in replaying it without them, I had a great time just following them along. To be sure it can make some of the supposedly most difficult missions trivial but they provide a good introduction to the mechanics of the level, it’s layout and how you might go about certain things. Of course not all of them are completely straightforward and you can often find yourself in the middle of completing one without even realising it. There was one level (the Swedish banker one) where I stumbled onto the cameraman mission story without the game telling me I was on it. So what ensued was my own take on it which, honestly, was just as much fun as the other directed ones. I didn’t go back and replay any of the missions though, nor have I done any of the elusive targets, as there was more than enough content for me in just a single play through alone.
The stealth system isn’t the only thing to glitch out unfortunately as there are numerous other things that can go belly up if certain conditions are met. NPCs routines can get messed up for any number of reasons, which can sometimes mean locking you out of a particular mission objective. I had one of my targets get stuck in a loop pathing up and down a set of stairs constantly and no amount of reloads could bring him around. I have to assume that this was because I’d set up for one mission whilst attempting to complete another one which sent the AI spare. I eventually worked around it by luring him out with a trail of coins and guns, but even after that he didn’t resume his original routine. I was still able to complete the mission, just not in the way I wanted to. It’s somewhat understandable given each level’s size but it can still be frustrating to have your run ruined by glitchy mechanics.
Even though this is my first Hitman game I quite liked the story and the developers did a great job of providing background for all the characters. To be sure there are bits I’m likely missing (although my friend did give me a little insight into some of the earlier games) but even coming in at this late juncture I didn’t feel the need to reach for Wikipedia articles or plot summaries in order to understand everyone’s motivations. I was a little disappointed that they didn’t have the budget for cutscenes in between the Hitman 2 missions, instead opting for animated still shots, but they at least kept the same amount of dialogue and character development in them meaning the story could still progress. It’s a slightly cliche plotline but it’s still quite enjoyable, heck it’s likely because it’s cliche that it’s so much fun.
Hitman was a series I’d left on the shelf for a long time but I don’t think I will be any longer. The game’s flagship feature is its incredibly well crafted levels, brimming with detail at every corner. This goes hand in hand with well designed stealth mechanics, ensuring that not two playthroughs of the same level are likely to be the same. The mission stories are great for people like me, ones that tend towards wanting a guided experience but also love to experiment every now and then. The cliche story is thoroughly enjoyable, even to someone like myself who has no history with the franchise. Overall I have to say I wasn’t expecting to enjoy playing Hitman as much as I had enjoyed watching people play it on YouTube but I very much welcome the surprise.
Hitman 2 is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $84.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 15 hours playtime and 20% of the achievements unlocked.