It’s been the better part of a decade since I played a game from Ninja Theory. Whilst not everyone enjoyed Heavenly Sword as much as I did (although I do agree with many of the criticism levelled at it) I thought they had potential as a developer and hoped they’d go on to bigger and better things. The following decade has given them a modicum of success, although not with any titles I’ve cared to play over the years. When I saw some of the tech demos for Hellblade though I was reminded of what drew me to Heavenly Sword back in the day, and ever since then I’ve been eagerly awaiting its release. Whilst Hellblade isn’t what I had expected it’s an exceptional game in its own right, even if it will drive you slowly insane.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s plot is hard to give an introduction to without diving deep into spoilers but I shall endeavour to do so. You play as Senua, a member of a Pict who’s made a pilgrimage to…somewhere… in order to save the soul of your beloved one. You’re haunted by numerous voices who speak to you incessantly, voicing all your inner doubts, fears and, sometimes, granting you strength to push through your turmoil. The path you’re following is one dictated by Norse mythology and will ultimately lead you into one of their other worlds: Hellheim. Reality, illusions and delusions all blur together in a mess of truth and fiction, one that Senua must follow to its ultimate conclusion; wherever that takes her.
The visuals of Hellblade are stunning, utilising many of the modern features of the Unreal 4 engine to their fullest extent. Whilst the environments you’re placed in may seem large however that in of itself is an illusion as the traversable world is actually quite a lot smaller. I believe the reasons for this are two-fold: primarily it’s for performance as larger environments would necessitate heavy compromises in other areas to keep it performing at a consistent level. Secondly Hellblade isn’t a game about exploration and whilst there are a few things to be discovered if you move off the beaten track it’s certainly not the game’s main attraction. If I was being childish I’d say that was the protagonist’s hair, given Ninja Theory’s penchant for wanting to show off their physics engine, but I won’t do that…
Hellblade is billed as a action-adventure/hack and slash type game and, whilst it has elements of that, it’s actually a bit closer to a walking simulator in most respects. For the most part you’ll be walking through the environments, mis/guided by the voices in your head as others narrate your journey. There’s no levelling, loot or crafting systems to speak of but you will get some different abilities unlocked for you as the game progresses. The combat sections inbetween there are a mix of hack and slash coupled with some Souls-light style game play, focusing on movesets and reaction times. Puzzles are mostly visual in nature, pushing to you look at things in different ways in order to unlock doors, restore objects or transport you to between worlds in order to move onto the next room. In this era of modern games that attempt to do everything Hellblade is a refreshing lesson in focus, leaving all the unnecessary game elements at the door in favour of spending more time on the ones that matter.
The combat is quite enjoyable for an experienced Souls player like myself, mostly because it’s a lot easier by comparison. The standard enemy tropes are all there and their movesets are relatively predictable, meaning that for even inexperienced players it shouldn’t be too much of a blocker. The boss battles too are quite enjoyable, providing a different challenge to break up the other combat engagements. Unfortunately the ramp up in difficulty comes from the game simply throwing more of the same types of enemies at you, culminating in a final battle which is no different from all the other battles you’ve fought before. Considering the game only runs for about 6 or so hours this highly noticeable repetition is unfortunately one of Hellblade’s biggest flaws.
Puzzles are for the most part straightforward once all the mechanics have been demonstrated to you. Initially it can be a bit confusing as the solution can be visible but the way to get to it very unclear. Once you’ve figured out the various mechanics for seeing through illusions, changing perspectives and whatnot it becomes a lot easier. Hellblade does a good job of guiding you through the puzzles however there were still a few that stumped me, mostly because I couldn’t distinguish a certain visual element. Searching around for answers I can see I’m not alone with this so there’s definitely some room for improvement from a design viewpoint. Still I think that overall the puzzles are well designed, intuitive and feel like an organic part of the experience rather than an artificial blocker to progression.
Hellblade announces at the start that it’s best experienced with headphones and, whilst I largely agree with this, the reason isn’t so much due to the game’s general audio experience (although that plays a part). The reason for headphones is for the voices in your head which, maddeningly, do everything you’d expect voices in someone’s head to do. Most voices prefer one ear over another, they’ll quite often talk over the top of each other and they’ll continually provide commentary on everything that’s happening. It’s done deliberately, and for that I applaud them, but it’s also one of the reasons why I couldn’t play for more than an hour at a time. Having that going on constantly is an extremely draining experience, so much so that when they went away for the first time I had a palpable sense of relief. Hats off to Ninja Theory for developing an experience like that but make no mistake, it can make playing Hellblade an exhausting experience.
By and large the game is well polished although there are some weird glitches that can occur. Senua’s hair can go a bit wild from time to time which, whilst distracting, isn’t game breaking. I did have a few times where I got stuck in or behind invisible barriers, most notably during Sut’s trial where you are supposed to get pegged in a ring of fire to fight some Northmen. For whatever reason I was outside the barrier when it got erected which restricted my movements considerably. I was able to finish the fight and progress however but it could have easily gone the other way. I didn’t get any performance issues like others had described however I did play after the first round of patches came out. I’d hazard a guess then that these minor gameplay issues would also be sorted out in future patches.
Hellblade’s story is an extremely tragic one, something you learn about very early on. As one of the game’s core tenants is that it will lie to you with reckless abandon (as shown by the whole “All progress will be lost” thing if you die too much being a lie) it’s hard to discern just what’s true to the story and what’s not. Certainly much of it makes a lasting impression and it’s delivery is exceptional. However at the final conclusion I found myself feeling a little hollow with how things turned out. I’m not sure if it was the exhaustion from dealing with voices in my head or the fact that I didn’t quite understand what the objective truth was but that’s the feeling I was left with. Unlike similar stories that left me questioning just what happened though I didn’t turn to the Internet for answers. Maybe I will later, I don’t know. Suffice to say that whilst I think the story is well told I’m not quite sure how I feel about it overall.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an exceptionally well crafted game from Ninja Theory, showing that they’ve been no slouch in the decade since I last played one of their games. The visuals are stunning, both in terms of raw graphics as well as the visual theme and the environments its set in. The game’s focus on a few key elements rather than a whole lot of ancillary mechanics is refreshing, putting the focus firmly on telling the story. Some of its major flaws are that its combat becomes repetitive quickly, escalation in challenge only coming from increasing numbers of enemies, and that the overall story feels a little hollow at its conclusion. Still overall I think Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is still worth the price of admission, if you feel you can deal with the voices in your head that is.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 93% of the achievements unlocked.
We’re now at the point where Supergiant Games doesn’t need much of an introduction. Their breakout hit Bastion won many people over with its unique visual style and expertly delivered running commentary. Transistor, to me at least, felt like the ultimate refinement of what a Bastion-esque game would look like and for that it took my Game of the Year for 2014. Like many I had expected Supergiant to once again return to their isometric roots with their next release but that was not to be. Instead we were given Pyre, a kind of hybrid visual novel/sports game that, apart from its visuals, shares little with its developer’s previous games. It’s a massive risk, leaving behind what made you great, but the risk has paid off as Pyre is another exceptional (albeit far from perfect) title from Supergiant Games.
For your crimes against the great Commonwealth empire you were cast into the Downside; a horrid, desolate place where no one expects you to survive. As you lay there, where death seemed certain, you were saved by a trio travelling past in a large black wagon. They soon discover the reason you were cast down: you are a Reader, a skill that’s forbidden in the Commonwealth. However in the Downside this skill makes you valuable, able to discern meaning from text and various other things that can be “read”. They hand you a book, one which in it contains the means by which one may return to the Commonwealth. The path is not easy however and you’ll all need to work together as one if you are ever to make it.
Pyre’s visuals are in Supergiant’s trademark style, combining hand drawn elements with cel-shaded 3D models to give you the feeling of playing in a living cartoon. It’s still in isometric perspective too however there’s no real game play reason for this, done more for style than anything else. The maturity of Supergiant’s tools and processes using their custom MonoGame engine is quite evident now showing that there’s just as much time to developing it as the game itself. If pressed I’d say that they were only a small step behind Moon Studio’s (of Ori and the Blind Forest fame) in terms of producing this kind of visual aesthetic. Suffice to say Pyre’s visuals are beautiful, bursting with colour and are sure to keep visual boredom at bay.
Pyre’s mechanics are a complete step away from it’s predecessor’s isometric, hack and slash game play. Instead you command a triumvirate of characters who’s job it is to grab a celestial orb and dunk it into your opponent’s pyre. That does an amount of damage depending on which character does the dunking and then the round starts again. The first one to have their pyre fall to 0 loses. Each of the characters have different attributes, skills and talents that make them better/worse to use depending on the kinds of opponents you face. After each rite those who participated in it will gain experience and those on the bench will gain “inspiration” (basically rested XP). Additionally each character can hold a single talisman which can bestow on them a number of other abilities or buffs. Whilst the combat didn’t feel as deep as Transistor’s there’s still a lot to uncover with many viable builds.
Initially your pool of heroes is relatively small and so rites will feel pretty similar for the first few hours. As your party expands your options open up and things start to get a little more interesting although if you’re like me you’ll tend towards the combo that works best for you. You can probably continue to run that one combo for about half the game before you’ll have to make some tough decisions about how you want the game to progress from then on out. When I realised this I was a little annoyed that I was being forced away from the combo that had worked so well for me but after a little while I started to like the other available characters a lot more. Sure they weren’t as simple in their use but there were some match ups with them where they were outright broken. Indeed I think a couple of the character’s skills probably need a bit more tweaking to be a little more fair, as much as that means for a single player game.
Pamitha, for instance, can get a talisman that allows her to do extra damage and not be banished when dousing a pyre, if she’s flying when she does it. Combining this with the other flight based talents she has you can essentially always have your entire team of 3 up. If those other 2 characters happen to be the more defensively inclined ones you can pretty much guaranteed that they can never get to your pyre and you can always attack theirs. Of course if you’re finding it all a bit too easy you can ratchet up the difficulty considerably using the titan stars although the risk vs reward in that situation isn’t as great as it’s made out to be. I personally only ever used them once and was still able to max out most of the characters without too much hassle so I wouldn’t worry about not using them too much.
The combat certainly starts to lose some puff around the halfway mark, even if you’ve been using different combos. It starts to pick up again as you acquire a few more levels and sol (the in-game currency) which allows you a bit more freedom to experiment but the core mechanic never really shifts. Transistor by comparison felt a lot more rewarding when experimenting, especially when you hit on a combo that just did ridiculous things. For what its worth though when Pyre starts to lag mechanically its plot starts to kick which was great since I had struggled to engage with it during the first 4 hours or so.
Now I’m not sure if Pyre was set up like this intentionally but it has a lot of the trappings I’ve come to expect from mobile games. Each of the various sections of the game can be completed in short bursts, perhaps anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes. Early on this makes it pretty easy to put the game down as you feel like you’ve gotten somewhere and there’s little impetus to keep going. Since Pyre isn’t available on mobile yet I can only assume this is an unintentional side effect of the game’s design more than anything else.
The vast majority of the game’s story progression comes in visual novel format, walls of text flying by accompanied by various noises and unintelligible words to set the mood. This time around you won’t have the signature Logan Cunningham narration however he makes several appearances in the form of various characters in Pyre. The voice acting and backing soundtrack are as amazing as ever demonstrating once again that Supergiant Games knows how to put all these elements together in a cohesive whole. Of course if the story wasn’t any good this would be all for naught but, I’m glad to say, it is well worth the time.
It took me a while to warm to Pyre’s story and I think that’s due to a few factors. For starters I’m not the biggest fan of the visual novel format although I did like Supergiant’s take on the style. The game also doesn’t settle into its own groove until about 4 or so hours in, with new mechanics still being thrown at you up until that point. Once you get past that point however you get a bit more breathing room to focus on the various story elements and that’s when it starts to grab you. Whilst it didn’t reach the same emotional heights that I recall Transistor hitting it still managed to tug at my heartstrings at times. From what I’ve read the story has a near infinite amount of variations built into it so it’s likely your experience will vastly differ from mine depending on what choices you make and when you make them. No matter what path you take though the theme of redemption shines through and is well explored through all the various character’s story arcs.
Pyre’s deviation away from the formula that made its developer great was a risk but one that has paid off for Supergiant games. The trademark visual style continues to improve; the maturity of Supergiant’s tool chain and processes continuing to bear some exquisitely beautiful fruit. The core game mechanics are unique and manages to retain some of the more interesting aspects from previous titles. The story’s narrative around redemption takes some time to get going but once it does it sucks you right in, pushing you to do just one more rite before you put it down for the night. Before then Pyre feels a lot more like a pick up/put down kind of game but it is relatively quick to redeem itself. Pyre is most certainly a game that will delight fans of the developer but I’m sure it will have wider appeal among those who enjoy games from those who are looking to experiment a bit more with the medium.
Pyre is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.
I’d still consider myself something of a newcomer to Souls-like games, having played a grand total of 2 of them so far. It’s a style of game that, once I’m in the thick of it, I really quite enjoy but there’s a lot of mental inertia to get over before I’ll have the courage to spin them up. So when I saw The Surge pop up (both on Completionist and through Steam directly) I kept a wary eye on it for a couple weeks before I bought it. Then, the second I spin it up, I get a message from one of my friends informing me that it was far more punishing than any of the recent souls games had been. Overall I don’t think he’s wrong in that assessment although the reasons for that aren’t so much to do with the challenge itself, more from the rough edges which could do with a little more polish.
It’s the far off future and the world is in a state of ecological peril. Because of this the world economy is shattered and numerous nation states have fallen. There is one company, CREO, who is working to right his wrong by launching numerous satellites to begin rebuilding the atmosphere. You’re just an average Joe who’s been fortunate enough to land a job with them and, as part of it, you’ll be granted an exo-rig that will grant you the ability to walk again. During the installation process however something goes horribly wrong and you aren’t sedated while it’s attached to your body. Passing out from the pain you awake in what looks like a scrap yard, surrounded by people who look just like you but without their exo-rigs. What follows is your journey to discover what happened and what it means for the world.
The Surge uses Deck13’s custom, in-house engine called FLEDGE. Details are somewhat scant on what its capabilities are but this isn’t the first game that Deck13 has released using it. From the screenshots you can see that it’s definitely in-line with what we’ve come to expect from current gen games with things like dynamic lighting and realistic shadows. Some areas don’t seem as polished however with physics based objects having severe limitations in computation, often only reacting once to input before freezing in place (this is most noticeable when you break crates, for example). Additionally whilst the game has a decent amount of detail, especially when you’re in larger environments, that disappears quickly when you get up close. Overall The Surge does well visually but there’s definitely room from improvement on the in-house engine.
Mechanically The Surge is very much a souls inspired game, taking much of the core mechanics and translating them for its sci-fi setting. Combat is the same kind of punishing, reaction based affair that we’ve all come to hate/love, pitting you against the hardest opponent possible (yourself). The levels are laid out in much the same way as well, being relatively small in the grand scheme of things but feeling much larger due to their labyrinth like layouts. The currency of choice is “tech scrap” which is the same as souls/blood echoes, dropping from defeated enemies and found in clumps lying around. The Surge’s claim to fame is its unique upgrade system which is centred on crafting and upgrading various parts of rig using the same parts gathered from enemies. This has an interesting impact on combat, making you choose between dispatching enemies quickly vs getting the materials you’ll need for an upgrade. The mod system, which is somewhat akin to talent points (although they’re infinitely swappable), allows you to further customise your character by giving you various choices such as healing items, damage boosts and other improvements which can help refine your character. Honestly I was expecting this to be a kind of cheap Dark Souls clone (partly due to Focus Home Interactive publishing it) but it’s a fully fledged game in its own right.
Combat is punishing, frustrating and rewarding; all those things that you’ve come to expect from titles in this genre. If you’ve developed habits from other souls games they won’t help you here as the movesets are nothing like them at all, although you will be more aware of when an enemy might not be finished attacking. The extra layer that The Surge brings is in the form of being able to target various body parts, allowing you to go for more vulnerable areas that are highlighted in blue. As you attack you’ll build up energy which can be used for various abilities of which there are 2 innate ones (execution and drone) and a myriad of others. Choosing to execute will, if you selected a body part, have a chance to lop that bit off so you can pick it up and use it in crafting. However, and this is a key point that the game does not make clear, if you are after crafting materials the part you’re targeting must be armoured. Whilst you can retarget mid-fight to get damage in first and then change to your chop target your chances are far higher to successfully harvest a part if you wail on it first. For the most part it’s worth just going for the unarmoured part and using your energy for healing or other abilities, only going for armoured bits when you know what you need to farm.
Which brings me to The Surge’s progression mechanisms which, at a base level, are similar to the souls games. You gather tech scrap and can use that to level your core power. Whilst there are no stats to level up each time you will need a certain amount of core power to be able to use upgraded armour and mods (some of which scale with core power). In order to get those upgrades you’ll have to lop parts off enemies (1 time each of head, leg, weapon arm, other arm and chest) which will unlock the blueprint for you to craft it back at your safe house. You’ll also level up your weapon proficiency as you battle enemies, meaning that whilst you can use any weapon you pick up it will take some investment to make them worth while. The weapons also have a bunch of stats on them but they’re much more straightforward in terms of which one will be best for your particular play style or combat situation. So whilst the system might not be as deep or esoteric as the souls system it still offers an immense amount of customisation, something which you’ll need to make good use of unless you enjoy butting your head against a brick wall constantly.
One non-technical issue that The Surge struggles with is smooth changes in difficulty from section to section. Quite often I’d go from being comfortable in battling enemies in one section to being one shot by anything in another. Unlike other souls games, where the delineation between areas can be somewhat vague and so it’s hard to judge challenge between sections, The Surge has definitive sections marked by you using a train to travel between them. Thus it’s easy to see when the difficulty level has been ratcheted up a notch or two. Most of the time this meant struggling through the first section to unlock a shortcut before spending a bit of time farming up to get the next round of upgrades before continuing on, something which the game makes rather easy to do. Thinking about it more this could be a design decision, forcing you to upgrade before you can progress, but it could definitely have been done in a smoother fashion.
From a technical standpoint The Surge is fairly well polished, running both smoothly and at a consistent rate on my (admittedly overkill) rig. However the camera system needs some hefty work as it has a tendency to get confused, especially during high action. There were numerous times when the camera would pan to a view where my character simply wasn’t visible, often leading to a swift death as I try to right it and run away. This is not to mention that it’s quite clear that the AI is using my inputs to change it’s actions a couple frames ahead of me, like when enemies can turn around and attack you before they see you when you sneak up behind them. Once you know this you can adjust for it, baiting the enemies into actions that you’re not going to follow through on, but it can be a real pain in the ass when it uses that advanced information against you to say, interrupt a combo or prevent an execution. There’s also some pathing issues that can occur both with your character and with the NPCs, although they’re relatively small in the grand scheme of things. These are issues that I believe are solvable and would hope that Deck13 tackles them in a future patch.
Thankfully unlike other souls games The Surge doesn’t hide the best bits of its story in vague passages hidden away in the hardest to find secrets. Most of the story progression comes through interaction with other characters, listening to audio logs and reading small tid bits of information on a few consoles. The story builds up well, feeding you small bits of information which start to come together about halfway through the game. After then the various parts of the world start getting explained more explicitly and you uncover just what is happening and what your part to play in it is. The ultimate conclusion is a little unsatisfying, mostly because it leaves things wide open for interpretation. Even the choice of endings doesn’t appear to change much although there’s the possibility that it might have some impact on a sequel. Overall I’d say the story was above average and was definitely one of the aspects of The Surge that I enjoyed.
On first look The Surge might seem like a pale imitation of the games that inspired it but it becomes much more than that upon actually playing it. Sure the combat system is fundamentally a carbon copy but the additions make it different enough that I still found it enjoyable. Progression again is largely the same with the deviants being interesting and providing a solid mechanic to build up your character from nothing to someone who takes all comers. The overall experience could do with some polish such as upgrading various parts of the engine, reworking the camera code and changing some of the AI’s behaviour to be a little more fair (but still as punishing). The story is solid and well executed even if the ultimate conclusion could have been done better. For what its worth The Surge surprised me and whilst I might not yet be a souls veteran I definitely think fans of this genre could find a lot to like in it.
The Surge is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $49.99. Game was played on the PC with 21 hours of total playtime and 49% of the achievements unlocked.
The original Prey was a stand out title for many reasons, if not for it’s good but not great critical success. Mechanically it debuted a couple novel new concepts which quickly went onto to become standard affair in many comparable titles. Additionally its story, with it’s respectful treatment of the Native American mythology, was one of the more interesting and memorable experiences of its time. The sequel set the gaming hivemind on fire with the idea of making you an alien bounty hunter but, much to the disappointment of many, it was cancelled unceremoniously 3 years ago. So when Bethesda decided to reboot the IP many were cautious, especially given the circumstances surrounding the cancellation of the previous title. Now that I’ve had the chance to play through the new Prey in its entirity I can say that, whilst it might not let you indulge in your alien bounty hunter fantasies, it is a solid title in its own right.
You are Morgan Yu, a scientist working for the TranStar corporation. In this alternate timeline president John F. Kennedy survives the assassination attempt and this pushes him to funnel more funding into the space program. As a result humanity has pushed far further into space than it has in our world and has even established lavish space based like Talos I. Today will be your first day with TranStar and before you take the rocket up to Talos I you’ll meet your brother and run through a few tests. However things don’t go exactly as planned and you begin to discover the dark secret that this space station has been hiding from everyone.
Prey uses Crytek’s CryEngine 5 and, as you’d expect, looks fantastic. Aesthetically it feels very similar to the recent Deus Ex titles, albeit without the distinctive yellow tone. Instead Prey takes on a darker theme befitting it’s survival horror aesthetic. The environments are richly detailed, something which forms a core part of the game’s mechanics. It’s hard to do the game justice in a few screenshots, especially with the low-light that’s present in nearly every area, but suffice to say it’s one of this year’s better looking games. To top it off performance is good save for a few areas which are obviously suffering from some poor optimisation. This is likely to be fixed in upcoming patches as it’s not just me having these issues.
Prey plays very similarly to the BioShock games of old, equipping you with an array of weapons, powers and choices with how to approach the game’s various challenges. The environments are littered with numerous different pathways to your objective, each of them rewarding investment in a certain set of skills. You can be the stereotypical stealthy hacker, the modern day necromancer who has an army of others at his disposal or your standard run and gunner. Some of the skills are quality of life improvements (I.E. just saving you from having to do something the long way) but there are, of course, certain sections that will be unavailable to you without the appropriate talents. The stealth system is done well, allowing you to ghost through many encounters without having to waste a single bullet. The crafting system is also well done, feeding into the RPG packrat mentality well whilst also ensuring that making items isn’t a total chore. Altogether whilst this Prey doesn’t bring with it original ideas like its predecessor it does execute its concept, ideas and mechanics well.
Depending on your build combat will either be a rare event or just another fact of life. For me, whilst I took a stealth-first approach, there were many times where my patience would start to wear thin and I’d just want to blast through a particular section. The combination of a few choice powers (bullet time plus enhanced wrench damage) ensured that I could usually pick off a few enemies without having to expend much in the way of consumables. Some of the other powers didn’t work as well as I’d hoped however like the mind control power that got other enemies to fight for you. Sometimes it’d work well, allowing me to clear a room without much effort, other times the enemy would just stand there, dumbfounded and not doing anything at all. Like other, similar action RPGs constant quick saving/loading is a necessity whenever you’re engaging in combat as it’s little quirks like that which can be the difference between breezing through a section and getting stuck on it for quite some time.
Progression comes in a couple forms, most notably through Neuromods (which are akin to skill points) and weapon upgrades. Neuromods can be found throughout the game in all the usual places: tucked away in hidden areas, after critical points in the story or given to you by NPCs. You can also craft them using in-game materials although that caps out at one point and necessitates a quest to unlock an infinite crafting recipe. These are then spent on the various talent trees which are broadly split into 2 categories: human and alien abilities. Whilst it’s entirely possible to finish the game without installing any mods, or only mods from one branch (there are achievements for doing all of those), you’ll definitely be best placed by choosing those that best match your desired play style. For me I went a long time before installing any alien ones, due to some in-game commentary about what that would entail, but at one point I felt like I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to continue playing the way I was. That, to me, was a great way to make non-story based choices mean something in the greater narrative of the game.
Crafting is a big part of the game and is a two stage process. Like any RPG you’ll gather a lot of cruft along the way but instead of having to find the exact right material to make something you’ll instead put it into the recycler. It then turns everything into component materials which only take up a single inventory slot. Those materials can then be used in crafting basically anything you’d ever need. This also makes inventory space a meaningful commodity as you have to decide if 10 banana peels (not joking) are worth as much as another item. One little niggle I have with the crafting system is that you can only craft one item at a time and you’ll wait for the crafting to finish before making another. When you’re say, chugging out 10 neuromods after unlocking the unlimited recipe, it can be a bit laborious. That’s nothing that’s above a simple patch to fix, however.
I wasn’t afflicted by the save corruption issues that plagued many however there are still a few rough edges on Prey that could do with sorting out. The aforementioned areas that absolutely torpedo your performance are a big issue as any fights in there quickly turn into a slideshow. From memory I only had a single crash although others have reported numerous repeat crashes throughout their playthroughs. To be sure these are the kinds of teething issues would could have been solved prior to the official launch day if review copies were provided to the usual suspects so Bethesda’s “no review copies” policy does seem to be somewhat detrimental here. The game’s UI could also do with a little bit of tweaking to be more PC friendly but that’s a minor issue comparatively.
Prey’s narrative is one of the more interesting ones of late, even if some of its elements do seem to draw heavily on BioShock’s ideas. The choices you make in the game do heavily affect how the game progresses and it does a great job of clouding which ones are more important than others. If it wasn’t for some of the achievements popping up as I was playing through I wouldn’t have had any idea that was I trucking down the “good” path, especially considering some of the less-than-stellar things I did. The culmination of everything was very satisfying as well and, whilst I’ll always bemoan games that scream SEQUEL at the end, I am encouraged that the IP is being set up for future instalments. Overall whilst Prey isn’t a game you’d play just for the story I’m glad to say it isn’t one of the detracting elements.
Prey’s rebirth was one that was met with trepidation from its fans but I think it’s managed the reboot well. It may not be fuelling the inspiration of current game designers with new mechanics and ideas but what it does do it does well. The subtle emphasis on choice is a welcome departure from the current overt approach, allowing you to make a meaningful impact on how the story and your character progress. Wrapping this all up in an engaging narrative makes for a great experience that had me wanting to come back over multiple sessions. The execution was still a little rough around the edges in a few spots which, whilst not detracting heavily from the overall game, did leave a few black marks. Overall Prey is a successful reboot of the now decade old IP and one I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of in the future.
Prey is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 17 hours play time with 48% of the achievements unlocked.
There are some games which, if not for consistent prodding from my gaming friends, I’d never give any attention to. JRPGs/hack and slash titles are a good example of this as, whilst I don’t mind them at a mechanical level, I’ve never really found anything about the genre that makes me want to come back. Indeed my last foray into this arena was with Bayonetta and, contrary to popular opinion of that particular title, I found the experience so unappealing that I decided it wasn’t worth reviewing. So whilst Nier: Automata took my eye due to its popularity and Souls-like combat I had put it to one side; to be played if I had nothing else. That was until a certain friend of mine wouldn’t stop pestering me about it every time I played a game that wasn’t Nier: Automata. You know who you are.
Set in the distant future Nier: Automata takes place on an Earth that’s been ravaged by a war between mankind and an unknown alien species. The world lays in ruins and the last of humanity has escaped to a base on the moon. The war still rages on however it is now fought between the alien machine race and a highly specialised force of androids. You are model 2B, a combat unit sent in to take out a large hostile force that has been detected. However things aren’t like they used to be, with many of the machines being neutral to your presence and only attacking you if you attack first. This, as you’ll soon find out, is symptomatic of larger changes happening on Earth.
For a game that’s supposedly only been in development since 2014 Nier: Automata’s visuals are decidedly dated. Sure there’s a grand scale about most things with towering enemies and environments that stretch into the horizon, but I’ve seen many current gen games accomplish the same with much better graphical fidelity. I’d hazard a guess that this is most likely an aesthetic choice, fitting in with the current styling of other games in the genre. There were also some weird scaling quirks which seemed reminiscent of previous gen ports with the on-screen text being blurry at certain resolutions. This was fixed by setting it to run in windowed mode and then using Borderless Gaming to upscale it to full screen windowed. Overall Automata’s visuals are average to say the least and the underlying engine could do with some love before Platinum Games’ next release.
Nier: Automata is a smattering of different mechanics all glued around a hack and slash, action RPG core. For the most part you’ll spend your time doing what you’d do in any other action RPG: walking around places, killing enemies, doing quests for people, getting loot and upgrading your character. Slapped onto this are a variety of other mini-games, most of which are variants on the bullet hell theme. The larger than life boss battles debut frequently throughout the game, pitting you against enemies several orders of magnitude larger than yourself. I’d stop short of calling Automata a true open world game as it’s fairly linear in terms of progression but there are certainly elements of the genre to be found here. Finally whilst the game can be played through and “finished” within a relatively modest time frame the game demands multiple play throughs in order to see all the endings, up to 5 at my count if you’re after the “true” finale. Truly it is a game that fits the stereotypes of the JRPG genre to a T.
Combat is equal parts bullet hell and hack and slash, a weird combination that I haven’t come across before myself. Initially the different kinds of combat are divided up neatly: the bullet hell sections taking the form of the old school top down shoot ’em up whilst the hack and slash components taking place when you’re not in a flight suit. After a while though they start to blur together with each of the different sections taking on aspects of the other. As you progress towards the final boss battles you’re essentially taking part in what amounts to a third person, hack and slash bullet hell which is as ludicrous as it sounds. True to the hack and slash genre you’ll quickly become unstoppable when facing anything but the toughest enemies which, honestly, is part of the appeal.
However the combat starts to get stale around the 4 hour mark with the low variety of enemies and lack of compelling weapon choices. Initially I thought this was because I was just missing something as Automata doesn’t hold your hand past the very basics. As it turns out a good chunk of the game’s weapons and other items are locked until future play throughs. This is a theme that’s woven throughout the game, something you’ll quickly become familiar with because the game makes no bars about showing you things that you’re unable to gain access to. For someone like me who does not enjoy being locked out of things which I’ll have to backtrack for (even if it’s within a single play through) I have to say this was probably the most annoying aspect of Nier: Automata.
Whilst I understand that the JRPG genre is famous for putting its players through the wringer with grinds I didn’t envision that having to grind the game itself would be a requirement for seeing everything it has to offer. After my initial completion I made sure to come back to see if the game could hook me back in but, honestly, replaying the exact same game again, down to the same quests and everything, simply failed to appeal to me. I’m sure there are likely parts which differentiate each play through, and maybe that’s enough for fans of the genre, but it wasn’t enough for me. Honestly I felt like the game and its story could have been much better served by collapsing it all into one cohesive arc that spanned 30+ hours, rather than repeating the same dribble 5 times over.
It also doesn’t help that Automata seems to cast aside about a decade’s worth of advancement in game development. Apart from the visuals issues that I mentioned before the game also suffers from horrendous camera controls, hit box detection issues and weird input behaviour when in forced perspective mode. Part of this is due to the fact it’s most certainly developed for the PlayStation first and then a lot of the conventions have then been remapped to the PC. Most notable of this is the lack of a dedicated dodge button on PC, something that will only be available to you if you play the game with a controller. Whilst I’m sure purists will argue that that’s the way Automata is meant to be played the issue is that other similar games, like Dark Souls 3, managed to get these kinds of things right. Perhaps I’m just used to a higher amount of polish these days but Automata definitely felt like it could use a couple more patches before I’d call it a seamless experience.
Now my impression of the story is going to be limited to a single play through but after reading through a plot synopsis I don’t think I’m missing much. There was a lot of potential for investigation into the whole “Machines vs Androids” thing, although the fact that neither 2B nor 9S could see the irony in their position irked me more than it should have. Additionally there is no where near enough development in the various character’s relationships to support the emotional connections they supposedly have, making the game’s climaxes seem hollow and forced. Maybe this is just an artefact of the game’s requirement for multiple play throughs and the story becomes better as more details are revealed to you. I’ll never know as there simply isn’t enough in the core game to keep me coming back 2 times over, let alone 5.
Nier: Automata is a smattering of different ideas, game mechanics and narrative structures that unfortunately doesn’t come together as a cohesive whole. For a game that’s had a relatively short development cycle it seems dated in almost all respects and would not be out of place as a previous generation title. The combination of bullet hell and hack and slash mechanics is novel and, for a time, provides an unique and interesting challenge. However the lack of variety in the combat, enemies and other mechanics starts to wear thin after a time. This then erodes the game’s core intent of getting you to play through it multiple times over to uncover its true nature, something which a better constructed game would have no trouble in accomplishing. My 10 hours or so in it were filled with probably 6 hours of real enjoyment, followed by 4 of tedium. Perhaps I’m missing something here that fans of the genre aren’t but I honestly don’t know what that is.
Nier: Automata is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time and 34% of the achievements unlocked.
Almost 10 years ago the original Mass Effect debuted on the Xbox 360. The hype around it had been building for some time and I, not wanting to miss out, had purchased the console based on the rumours it was to be forever a platform exclusive. I don’t regret my decision at all and I completed the whole trilogy on the Xbox 360, even upgrading to a newer revision so that I didn’t have to deal with the jet engine that was the original’s disc drive. With Shepard’s journey over however I decided that I’d come back to PC for Andromeda, the next instalment in the Mass Effect universe. With such a high bar set for the previous trilogy (bar some inexcusable missteps) it was always going to be tough for Andromeda, but the mistakes that BioWare have made with this latest instalment go beyond reality not lining up to the hype.
Andromeda takes place between the events of 2 and 3 of the original trilogy where the races of the Milky Way have formed the Andromeda initiative. The Citadel’s council has decided to arks to the nearby Andromeda galaxy, each of them populated with 20,000 citizens and a leader known as the Pathfinder. You play as Scott/Sarah Ryder, a twin and child of humanity’s Pathfinder Alec Ryder. Your job is to find humanity a new home and begin the formation of a new galactic government in the Andromeda galaxy. Upon arrival however you quickly discover that everything isn’t as the initiative had first hoped, the Andromeda galaxy significantly changed in the years since it was first scouted. It is up to you then to make Andromeda viable, paving the way for a sustainable colony for generations to come.
Mass Effect Andromeda drops the Unreal 3 engine that powered the last trilogy in favour of the Frostbite engine. This, coupled with the significant leap in computing power afforded to us, means that Andromeda’s graphics are a massive step up over its predecessor. However this also meant that BioWare had to spend significant resources in redeveloping tools, workflows and assets which led to some significant teething issues. This most obviously manifested in “my face is tired” lady and other quirks which made it feel like the series was a generation or two behind where it should be. The patches that have come out since then have made a significant difference but it just goes to show that even the big name players can suffer when it comes to an engine change. Still, at a pure visual level, Mass Effect Andromeda is quite a looker.
In a departure from the series’ action-RPG roots Andromeda tends heavily towards an open-world game, giving you an absolutely massive galaxy to explore. Whilst the core of the series remains largely the same there’s a bevy of additional things thrown in to keep you playing. There are numerous planets which you can put outposts on but only after you’ve raised their “viability” to a certain level. In order to do that there’s dozens of tasks available like completing quests, eliminating hostile forces or unearthing an ancient technology with the power to terraform worlds. Completing these tasks also raises Andromeda’s overall viability, allowing you to bring more people out of cryopreservation which unlocks certain benefits for you. You’ve also got strike teams which you can send on missions to get you resources, items and credits. There’s also a research and crafting system which allows you to build your own customised versions of weapons and armour you find in the game. This is all on top of the run of the mill action-RPG trappings we’ve come to expect from the Mass Effect series, meaning that the scale of Andromeda is much greater than any of its predecessors.
Andromeda’s combat system has been reworked, most notably scaling down the number of abilities you have on tap at any one time (3, maximum) whilst allowing you to fully max out any of the 3 talent trees if you so wish. Additionally your control over your team mates is significantly diminished, the ability to target their powers gone and the only command you can give them is “go here”. Combat scales to your current level which means that, at the start, it’s probably a bit more challenging than it should be. Later on, when you’ve got a good set of gear and maxed out talents, things become a lot easier. Whilst I’m usually a fan of streamlined combat systems the changes made in Andromeda feel like a step back overall as it removes some of the depth that its predecessors had. No longer can I set up a devastating combo with my team mates, instead I’m left to watch over them and time my abilities that way. In the end I opted for a pure tech build with multiple constructs to do most of the work for me. There’s also a distinct lack of variety in the combat encounters as after about 6 hours you’ve probably seen every enemy, bar a few boss fights. Overall the combat feels competent but lacking the components which made it so much fun in the previous Mass Effect titles.
Progression comes in numerous forms and so often that it can be hard to figure out where you should be focusing your effort. There’s the standard levelling up and talent points which allows you to craft your ideal character. Unlike previous games where your original character class limited your talent choices Andromeda instead uses that as a kind of boost to give you access to some talents earlier than you’d otherwise be able to. From there you can either build on it or mix and match as you desire. How you spend your points also unlocks additional “profiles”, essentially another choice which allows you to bolster certain aspects of your character, which can be changed at any time. In addition to this there’s the usual loot drops which, like the combat, scale to your character’s current level. You can also research and craft your own weapons and armour, even augmenting them with different mods to give them a considerable edge over their dropped versions. However the research and crafting system requires such a heavy investment, in both time and resources, that it’s honestly not worth it when the difference is maybe a few percentage points. If you’re really, truly into making the most broken character possible then it’ll be right up your alley but otherwise it’s better to spend your time elsewhere.
Once you’ve got a handle on just where you want to go with your character it becomes easier to tune out the noise but that’s also the point where progression starts to slow considerably. Higher tiers of talents will require 2 levels worth of points to acquire, new armour upgrades (through drops or crafting) only come every 5 levels or so and quality of life upgrades (from cryo pods) require a significant time investment on making planets viable. Again this comes back to the game’s more open world ethos, giving the player numerous means of progression in the hopes of keeping you around longer. In any other open world game this would just be par for the course but for the Mass Effect series it feels like a big step away from what made it great.
Indeed the open-world-ness of Andromeda is, I feel, the game’s Achilles heel. Open world games tend to try to cram as much as they can in and often end up relying on repeatable missions that can be adapted easily. Andromeda is no different with many missions coming down to simple fetch quests or a small variant there of. Any of the worlds you go to are either inhabited by Kett (the enemy alien race), colonists or the Angara (the new alien race). Whilst all the worlds have their own distinct feel the all play out the same, especially when it comes to reactivating the monoliths. Whilst the planet exploration is done far better than it has ever been in the series (the Nomad being a much better version of the Mako) you’ll still be doing the exact same thing on each planet: driving around, sometimes stopping for mining nodes or a combat encounter as you trundle your way to your objective. Sometimes it can be fun when you stumble across something but it starts to wear thin pretty early on.
What this means is that the core focus of the game is somewhat blurred. With so many things to do it can be hard to discern what the main thrust of the game really is as they’re always pulling you in multiple different directions. Sure you can look to the main missions for direction but unlike previous ones it wasn’t so obvious how the side missions built up into it. Indeed one of (what I had assumed was) the core aspects of the game, finding all the other race’s arks, is actually nothing more than a side quest and completing them appears to net you no significant advantages at all. Previous Mass Effect games heavily leaned on the fact that your choices, even those outside of the main story line, had a meaningful impact. In Andromeda that really doesn’t feel like the case. It’s possible that some of my decisions might mean something in future instalments but even the original Mass Effect managed to have meaningful choices within its own play time. Suffice to say I think that Andromeda could have done with a significant reduction in scope in order to better focus on what made the series popular in the first place.
As many others have pointed out the initial release of Andromeda was plagued with various issues that made the game less than ideal. The varying quality of animation across different characters was improved significantly in the most recent update but some other fundamental issues remain. During dialogue the camera has a mind of its own, sometimes getting stuck on geometry that means it won’t have Ryder, or anyone else, in frame. There were also numerous quality of life issues like being unable to skip certain things which really should have been skipable from the start. The multiplayer experience was also something of a crap shoot, taking forever to find a game and then being a buggy mess when it finally did. The only game I managed to get into had me with unlimited abilities, ammunition and health, something which (whilst fun) I don’t think was completely intended. This may be one of those games that gets considerably better as patches and DLC are released however, so if you’re reading this in the far future take note.
The premise of the game’s story is a good one, allowing the series to continue without having to lean on the previous games’ canon to succeed. However it takes forever to become even the slightest bit interesting, requiring at least 6 hours of investment to understand just what is going on and another 14 hours to actually start piquing your interest. This is most certainly due to the disjointed, fractured nature of how the greater narrative is told, split up amongst so many different side missions that it’s hard to make sense of how it’s all supposed to fit together. The game’s overall narrative, which feels dangerously close to the previous trilogy’s in some respects, tries its best to set up the universe in which this new trilogy takes place. However this time around you’re not struggling against some unseen foe which is pulling the strings, instead you’re the glorious, benevolent colonists who’ve come to save the Andromeda galaxy from itself. In that respect a lot of the struggle feels hollow, failing to kindle a sense of purpose or drive in you.
It’s a shame because I feel like the character development is actually done pretty well for most of your crew. Jaal, the Angaran resistance fighter, is an incredibly interesting character and one that helps give you a deep insight into his people’s culture. Some of the others could use work, like Cora’s weird interactions with Asari, but overall if you want to really get to know your crew there’s every opportunity to. I, as always, seemingly feel for the one I couldn’t have her romance options locked away from me because of my gender. That was slightly disappointing and so the romance I did pursue afterwards felt a little hollow. Still I can’t blame the game for not allowing me my heart’s want.
Mass Effect Andromeda is an uncharacteristic misstep by BioWare, seemingly forgetting what made the original trilogy great in favour of expanding its horizons. The elements are there, but they’re buried underneath a trove of open-world garbage that does nothing to enhance the experience. In order to get any enjoyment out of the game you’re looking at a least 20 hours, something which makes it hard to recommend to all but the most dedicated of Mass Effect fans. There’s also a lot of teething issues resulting from the transition to the Frostbite engine, but these are things that can be fixed in patches over time. The more pressing issues, like the lack of focus and repetition that comes with open world games, is a harder challenge to solve. However BioWare is nothing if not adaptable so there’s every chance that future DLCs and patches will transform this game from its current, lacklustre state into something that is more worthy of your time.
Mass Effect Andromeda is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $69.99, $79 and $79 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 32 hours of total playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.
If you’ve ever played GTA V online you’ll know that one of its standout features is the heists. A good group of mates and I have run through them numerous times, usually late at night with each of us cradling a wine glass in the other hand. So when we starting hearing that Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands was basically just the heists part of GTA Online we decided that we’d give it a shot. Whilst it’s not exactly as we expected there are aspects that heisters from GTA will adore, especially if you’re after a game that you’ll be playing for dozens of hours.
The year is 2019 and Bolivia has fallen victim to the ruthless drug cartel, Santa Blanca. Now a narco state, producing the lion’s share of the world’s cocaine, it has caught the attention of the United States government. However it took the bombing of their embassy, and the death of one of their DEA agents, before they felt compelled to intervene. Not wanting to be seen interfering in a sovereign state’s affairs they have decided to send in you: a member of the elite unit called the Ghosts. It will be up to you to see the completion of operation Kingslayer, with its ultimate target being the leader of the cartel.
Wildlands uses the AnvilNext engine which has brought us other stunning titles such as For Honor and Steep. The environments of Wildlands are massive, spanning dozens of in-game kilometers. It makes the usual open-world trade offs, sacrificing scale for detail. The result is a game that’s exceptionally pretty when you’re flying over or driving through it but up close the repetitive assets and lack of detail start to become apparent. Performance is good overall, striking a good balance between pretty visuals and consistent frame rates. Overall it feels like a step up from similar open world titles and aptly demonstrates the versatility that the AnvilNext engine is capable of.
The core game of Wildlands is your typical open world game, throwing you into a big wide space that’s filled with missions, collectibles and random encounters that you can partake in at your leisure. Progression is a two part mechanic: the first is skill points that are gained through completing missions which can then be spent on skills but only if you have the requisite resources, collected from just about anywhere. Weapons and their various upgrades are scattered around the map, requiring a bit of leg work to craft the perfect gun for your play style. The game is always played with 4 total people in your team, whether they be friends you’ve brought in or AIs if you’re playing alone. If you’re playing on anything but the hardest difficulty the game could easily just be a run of the mill third person shooter but at the peak difficulty it’s necessary to take a far more tactical approach.
In general a mission will usually go through a few phases. The first will be recon, where you’ll utilize a drone to scout the area and tag as many of the enemy as you can. You’ll then attempt to take out as many of them as you can without alerting the rest of them which you’ll sometimes be able to do without incident. However, 9 times out of 10 I’d say, you’ll end up making a mistake that alerts everyone to your position and from there it’s a no-holds barred shoot out until one of you is dead. If you’ve got the patience though you can retreat and reset for another stealth attempt, although it’ll likely be a lot harder the second time around. After that there’s usually some objective to complete which often sends through another wave of enemies for you to take care of. Overall it’s not the most inventive game in terms of mechanics but they do blend together quite well.
Progression is pretty steady throughout the game, so long as you take the time to tag enough supplies to ensure you can level up your skills. In between levels and runs for supplies you’ll typically stumble across a weapon or mod blueprint which you can then use straight away if you get to a load out point. It’s slow enough that you don’t feel overwhelmed with options but also fast enough that you’re never wanting for the next step up. If the open world genre appeals to you then it’s likely to keep drawing you in for multiple hours. For me however things started to wear thin rather quickly.
Like all co-op games Wildlands is better with friends but even then it becomes quickly apparent just how same-y everything is. Most missions play out roughly the same, although they do get more interesting as you unlock some of the more ridiculous upgrades. Most weapons in the same class aren’t different enough to make them feel satisfying when you acquire them and you’ll often get lots of upgrades for weapons you don’t currently have. It has the same feel as a MMORPG grind but without the payoff of showing off your gear in the armory. It’s a criticism I’ve leveled at other open world games before so it’ll be a red letter day when one game manages to address it successfully.
Another notable misstep is the vehicle physics which, whilst slightly improved from the open beta, are still janky and weird when compared to other similar titles. Helicopters have a weird flight model which appears to function purely based on momentum, usually whichever vector has the highest value at any point in time. Ground vehicles are neigh on impossible to keep flipped over which leads to a whole bunch of weird and wonderful interactions. It might sound like a minor gripe but when you spend so much of the game going from point A to point B small things like this are unfortunately very noticeable. It’s not beyond fixing however, but the last patch or two didn’t make any noticeable improvements.
The story is average, not terrible but not particularly noteworthy. There are some nice touches, like the various bits of banter the team has between missions which helps flesh out the main characters. The main story line though isn’t particularly interesting as, thanks to the open world construction, there’s no real impetus driving you forward to any one objective. Indeed even the over-arching goal that the game sets out early on seems to be a million miles away all the time. Perhaps it gets better with more time invested but if a story can’t grab me in the first 4 hours then it’s not likely to do it in the next 20.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a decent open world/RPG hybrid, one that I’m sure a certain type of player will find a lot to love in it. The visuals are definitely a step above its current peers, made even more impressive by the fact that the engine isn’t specifically designed for this type of game. The combat is challenging and rewarding, even if it starts to feel a little bit repetitive after a while. It suffers from the same spread of issues that plague all open world games, something I hope one day to see solved. The vehicle mechanics could be improved on significantly, something which would make a good bulk of the experience just that much better. Finally the story is nothing to write home about but, considering I couldn’t push myself to put more time into it, there’s every chance it gets more engrossing with a few more hours chucked in. Overall I think Tom Clancy’s Wildland’s is a competent game, just not one I think I’ll be playing without friends or sober, if I can manage it.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $49 on all platforms. Game was played in both the open beta and full release with approximately 8 hours spent equally across both.
Publishers will try their hardest to time releases right, something that’s become inexorably harder due to the sheer volume of games that are released these days. It’s not uncommon now to hear of several titles, all ostensibly vying for the same market, releasing within a short period of each other. Last year’s hat trick of Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is the perfect example of this, something which you would assume was to the detriment to them all. However it seems that timing might not be everything as all of the games did respectably well. Horizon: Zero Dawn’s launch, coming in just before Zelda: Breath of the Wild, would have similarly seen foolish but it’s success says differently, its sales even eclipsing that of Zelda in its opening weeks. The reasoning for that is simple: it is an absolutely spectacular game, one that many will point to as a reason to own a PlayStation 4.
In the far future humanity has regressed back to its tribal roots. The ruins of the Old Ones are all around them, a reminder of the time when the world was dominated by metal rather than by nature. You play as Aloy, an orphan who was put in the care of Rost, a tribal outcast. He teaches you how to survive in this world but will not speak of your past, his banishment from the tribe or why you were entrusted to his care. However he does tell you of a way to learn all these things: you must win The Proving to become a brave of a tribe and win a boon from the matriarchs. This begins your journey of self discovery, one that will take you deep into this world’s past and will put you in control of its future.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is an absolutely stunning game, setting the bar for what’s possible on the PlayStation 4. This is saying something considering that I’m still playing on an original PS4, which doesn’t have all the added goodness that’s available to pro owners. As the screenshots in this review will attest to you can see just how big, expansive and detailed the environments are. They are then lavished with all the modern effects you’d care to name, making them some of the most immersive graphics I’ve seen to date. Surprisingly none of this comes with inherent performance problems either, the main game able to maintain a stable 30fps for the majority of the game. Interestingly the UI does render out at 60fps but the game itself is locked at 30fps, even on the Pro. This is all thanks to the Decima engine which has powered similar spectactular titles such as Killzone Shadow Fall and Until Dawn (it will also be bringing us Death Stranding, which is rather exciting). Suffice to say after the low-fi experience I had with Zelda it was great to have a graphical marvel like Horizon: Zero Dawn to go back to.
From a core game perspective Horizon: Zero Dawn is a traditional open-world RPG, taking inspiration from other similar AAA titles. There’s the campaign missions which will be the main source of story progression coupled with dozens of side missions, errands and various other quests to help you progress Aloy. Completing quests and killing monsters earns you XP which will level you up and grant you skill points to spend in one of 3 different trees (ostensibly combat, stealth and crafting). The crafting takes a leaf out of the Far Cry book, requiring you to hunt down certain animals for rare components to upgrade your inventory. Additionally, whilst you can purchase weapons and armour from vendors, you’ll need to hunt down certain beasts in order to be able to buy them. There’s also the usual open world trappings like climbing towers to reveal areas, hidden collectables hidden around various areas and random encounters that appear to change slightly as the game progresses. In terms of scale it might not be quite as big as Zelda was but it’s still definitely big enough to satisfy even the most hardcore open world completionist.
Combat sits inbetween Zelda and Dark Souls, being somewhat approachable but still requiring a base level of skill to get things done efficiently. Unlike some games where you can just blast your way through Horizon: Zero Dawn is much more focused on finding an enemy’s weak points and exploiting them. This can be as simple as figuring out which points to hit to give extra damage all the way through to complex mini-games that involve figuring out which component you can blow off, removing it without damaging it, then using said component against the enemy that you’re fighting. This can be somewhat frustrating at times as you might not get the opportunity to scan an enemy for its weaknesses before it engages you, leading to a drawn out engagement where you try to figure out what you need to do. Other times however the fights can be incredibly satisfying as the biggest of enemies can be felled easily should you know the right sequence of events to do in order to take them down.
One part where the combat does fall down a bit is with the camera. There’s no lock-on in Horizon: Zero Dawn, meaning that you are always going to be hunting around to ensure your enemies are within your vision. Sure, you can tag enemies to make this a bit easier, but that doesn’t save you from problems like the camera doing an about face if you dive head first into a boulder. The reasoning behind the lack of lock on is due to the focus on targeting weak points at range, rather than trying to beat your quarry into submission. A good fix would be a “snap to tagged target” button which would still require you to aim properly but would alleviate rather irritating camera wrangling that you have to do. Still it’s far from a game breaking issue and it can often be overcome by taking a more stealthy approach.
Stealth is done superbly well with most missions able to be done completely via stealth. There’s no non-lethal option here and the game won’t reward you for avoiding taking out enemies. Most small to medium sized enemies can be taken out in a single blow, although the animation is relatively long and so requires a decent amount of precise to pull off properly. Larger enemies need some more diverse tactics in order to take them out stealthily but it’s certainly still doable for some enemies. Indeed I managed to take out a bunch of shell walkers by silent striking them then disappearing behind a rock, saving me the trouble of dealing with their shields. The biggest enemies unfortunately still require a head to head fight but those are probably the most fun fights and would be a waste if they could be done via stealth.
Progression comes thick and fast in Horizon: Zero Dawn, ensuring that you’re never too long without some kind of improvement coming your way. Levels and skill points are plentiful; so much so that about half way through the game I couldn’t find a single mission that I hadn’t already out levelled. Taking the typical “take all the things” approach works a treat, ensuring that you’ve always got enough supplies to upgrade everything and for trading with vendors to get awesome gear. The RNG can be a little unforgiving at times, leaving you to constantly hunt down certain animals or machines in order to get that one part you need. However if you’ve saved basically everything you can carry you’ll often be able to craft a bunch of upgrades all in a row. Unfortunately your main spear can’t be upgraded like your other weapons can be, save for a few talents and a single upgrade that comes late in the main campaign. It’s a bit annoying since everything else goes up significantly in power, leaving the spear a feeble option in late game.
Before I get into the story there’s one weird quirk that I think bears mentioning. For some reason the facial animations seem to be a bit hit and miss in some areas. Every so often characters will appear to completely lose control of their eyebrows, something which is both hilarious and disconcerting. Additionally some character’s upper lip animations seem to fail to apply which makes them appear to be talking through gritted teeth. Most of the time it’s not particularly noticeable but it can be an immersion breaking occurrence once you notice it.
The plot of Horizon: Zero Dawn is fantastic, starting out from simple roots and slowly building up to a crescendo that you’d be hard pressed to predict from the outset. All of the characters are given ample opportunity to develop through on-screen events with little additional flavour given by the numerous journal entries you can pick up everywhere. The pacing of some of these elements could use some work, like when you’re exploring the old metal ruins and there’s numerous audio logs around. Often in those areas I’d just end up standing still for ages whilst the audio played as otherwise it got too hard to listen to it and the normal in game dialogue. Putting that part to one side however you have a story that’s deep and rewarding, especially for those who take the time to uncover all the additional items scattered around the world.
This is only made better by the absolutely stellar cast of Horizon: Zero Dawn who do a great job of bringing the script to life coupled with the fantastic sound work. The cast consists of some big names, both from within the gaming community and from Hollywood. The soundtrack of Horizon: Zero Dawn ebbs and flows at just the right time, providing punctuation to the game’s pinnacle moments. There is one grievous fault however: it unabashedly screams sequel right after the game’s closing credits roll. Whilst I am excited at the prospect of revisiting this world there was no need to seemingly ruin the game’s ultimate climax with that post credit scene. It’s still worth experiencing but they could have done a better job at that point.
Horizon: Zero Dawn takes the mantle of queen of the PS4 exclusives now that the Uncharted series has come to a close. It’s visuals are second to none, making great use of all the power the PlayStation 4 has to offer and further amping that up for Pro owners. The game is deep and complex, it’s mechanics not offering anything particularly new but certainly showcasing an implementation that others should take note from. The story is likely to be one of the best for this year, setting up the IP for a good long time to come. There are a few small issues that bring the game down a peg or two but none of which are beyond being fixed in a future patch. Horizon: Zero Dawn is this year’s first must-play title on the PlayStation 4 and one I think many will come back to for years to come.
Horizon: Zero Dawn is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $78. Total play time was approximately 20 hours with 20% of the achievements unlocked.
For the gamers who grew in the age where Nintendo dominated the home console market there’s no series more ingrained in our psyche than that of The Legend of Zelda. I can remember spending countless hours on each of the titles, from A Link to the Past all the way up to Twilight Princess. I haven’t been back since then however, the few titles that came out over the past decade passing me by. So when I saw the first few screenshots of Breath of the Wild I was lost for words; it looked to me now what Ocarina of Time, my personal all time favourite Zelda game, looked like to me back when I was 13. Instantly I was sold, not just on the game but on it’s accompanying console. Sure I may never use it again but it was either a Switch or a WiiU and, honestly, the Switch was the better of the two. So there I was on launch day to pick up my new console and copy of Breath of the Wind and I’ve spent a great deal of the following weeks playing through it.
Truly, this is a Zelda game for the ages.
Awakening in a tomb you find yourself, Link, without any memories of what led you to here. You quickly learn that you’ve been asleep for 100 years with the land of Hyrule beset upon by the ancient evil of Calamity Ganon who is sealed inside Hyrule castle by Princess Zelda’s magic. There are a few who recognise you and are able to give you an idea of the person you once were. One thing is clear however: you are the champion who must take purge Calamity Ganon from Hyrule. Doing so won’t be easy however as the vast array of mechanical beasts that were designed to protect Hyrule have been usurped by Ganon for his own nefarious means. It is up to you then to purge the corruption from these beasts and bring them back to the light for only then will you be strong enough to face Ganon in a final battle of good and evil.
At a fundamental level Breath of the Wild’s visuals are one step behind the current generation, which is par for the course for titles on the Nintendo platform. It uses a style similar to that of Windwaker, favouring a kind of cartoony visual aesthetic. This is boosted significantly by the inclusion of modern lighting techniques, higher resolution models and textures and generous use of particle systems. For the most part things run pretty well however there are quite a few cases when the Switch would get bogged down. This is most notable in towns with a lot of NPCs in them, areas with quite a lot of visible grass or when you manage to give the physics engine a lot of work to do when you get “creative” with combat or puzzles. There’s also the issue of pop-in for larger areas on the Switch, an issue I’ve heard is a lot worse on the WiiU version. For a first party title on a new console things like this aren’t entirely unexpected, however this is their flagship title and these issues should have been caught in QA. It’s also strange to note that this is apparently completely avoided by undocking which, whilst a solution for some, isn’t the way I wanted to play Breath of the Wild.
Like all Legend of Zelda games before it Breath of the wild is a deep and expansive RPG, putting you in an absolutely massive world with countless things to do. There’s the main story line of course which follows the shrine/temple trope that’s well established in the series. There’s also just over a hundred smaller shrines which are short, self contained puzzles that award your spirit orbs (equivalent to the quarter heart containers, but can also be traded for stamina) on completion. Like many open world RPGs there’s also about a dozen or so towers for you to climb in order to unlock the map for the area, each of which presents its own set of unique challenges. Along your way you’ll collect various bits of armour, weaponry and crafting materials to make your journey easier. Gone are the gadgets of Zelda games of past (a single tear may have been shed for the lack of a hookshot) replaced instead by “runes” which allow unlimited use of a few choice abilities. You can now also climb pretty much every surface under the sun, limited only by your stamina wheel. Further to this you have a glider which allows you to leap from any height and glide gracefully down. Even this list probably only touches on less than half of what you can actually do in the game as there’s just so many things to do.
Combat is a kind of “Dark Souls Light” experience. Enemies telegraph their moves well in advance of executing them allowing you to dodge, parry or interrupt them. Depending on the enemy you’re facing they may have certain weak points you can exploit or elemental weaknesses you can make use of. Additionally some enemies are better blocked than dodged, parried rather than interrupted and so on. With previous Zelda games mostly focusing on enemies having one trick you need to work out a deeper combat experience like what Breath of the Wild provides is refreshing. There are still tricks of course (like stasis working on pretty much every enemy in the game) and learning them will make the difference between a frustrating grind and a swift beat down. The combat however highlights probably the worst mechanic in Zelda, one that tarnishes the game’s core tenet of rewarding exploration significantly.
Every item you get in the game (bar a couple, like the Master Sword and a few rewards weapons) have a limited durability. Now this isn’t the normal kind of durability which would require you to shell out cash to repair them. No instead any weapon, shield or bow you find as a limited lifetime before it breaks and disappears from your inventory. Whilst this does encourage some…creative ideas to ensure that your weapon stash is always stocked with what you need (like using crap weapons against crap enemies, since the durability hit is the same regardless) it takes out all the fun of spending ages exploring a random area in the hopes of getting rewarded with a really cool item. Every item you get is going to disappear and so you’ll horde as many as you can, using whatever is available even if its sub-optimal just so your best ones are ready just in case. Even worse if you happen to accidentally throw your weapon or use a shield to parry something that shouldn’t be parried you’ll instantly break them, potentially leaving you scant for better options. To be sure the game throws a fair amount of kit at you to ensure you’re never left wanting but it means that getting, and keeping, the best items in the game is an exercise in farming, not in rewards born out of discovery or hard work.
After an initial stint in the starting area Breath of the Wild becomes a true open world experience, allowing you to complete missions in any way you deem fit. There is, of course, an optimal way to do some things but it doesn’t appear to affect things too much. This will mean that everyone’s experience will be unique, the way in which they played through the world of the Breath of the Wild dictated by numerous factors. For instance whilst my friend and I both coincidentally did the elephant divine beast first we didn’t do any of the others in the same order, meaning the tools we had available to each other were wildly different. We were also playing the game in very different ways: me with Google and the Zelda wiki open on a second monitor and he not wanting to cheat himself (although he said asking me didn’t count!). As with all open world games this does mean there’s a bunch of repetitive stuff to do if you’re so inclined but there’s also a bevy of random encounters that are delightful (and sometimes rewarding) if you happen across them.
The more concise and logically laid out (looking at you Water Temple) temples in the form of the divine beasts really are the standout feature of Breath of the Wild. Using your map to physically alter the entire environment you’re in, whilst not a completely original concept, is executed brilliantly. It forces you to not just think of the puzzle at hand but also how the environment can be changed in order to solve it. Out of all of them my favourite has to be the camel divine beast as it was the most complex of the lot. The salamander and bird by comparison felt relatively simplistic, however that may have just been because they were the last 2 I did and I had cottoned onto all the tricks that the game designers were using. Again it’s a bit of a shame that exploration isn’t as rewarding as it could be here, with limited durability weapons and run of the mill consumables the typical reward, as some of the environment interactions needed to obtain them border on the clinically insane.
The shrines, which are kinds of mini-temples, are also great little distractions. The fact that you’re given all the tools to complete them right at the beginning of the game is very much appreciated as it means you’re not constantly re-treading ground in order to get the next item or upgrade. I do wonder if some of them were fully tested before release however as some of them can be completely bypassed with what appears to be emergent game play mechanics. Some things seem intentional, like circuit puzzles being able to be solved by using metallic weapons or shields, but others, like the ball rolling puzzles that use motion controls, can be bypassed by turning the controller upside down. Either way the fact that you won’t be stuck in one for more than 15 minutes or so is great, especially when there’s over 100 of them to complete.
Crafting, whilst functional and rewarding, could do with a few tweaks to make it a little bit more useful. For instance, in order to cook something, you have to go to your inventory, select the ingredients, get out of the menu, throw the ingredients into a cooking pot and then wait for them to cook (skipping saves you about 2 seconds, total). You can discover various recipes by combining things together, although most of the time you’ll be focused on effects or the number of hearts something it restores. The problem here though is that if you want to make say, 10 of something, there’s no way to quickly churn them out. Instead you’ll have to repeat that process I outlined 10 times over. Worse still whilst you can “discover” recipes there’s no book or anything in them, all you can look at is food you’ve already made to see what went into it. There’s also no real way to tell an ingredients effect relative to others in its category (besides heart restoration), something which is rather annoying when it comes to making elixirs. Sure you can hazard a guess that the more rare monster part is better but it’s nigh on impossible to understand just how much better it is.
The inclusion of something like a recipe book, one that would let you say queue up cooking multiples of recipes you discovered, would go a long way to solving this issue. Additionally having something like an ingredients page in the same book, one that details relative strengths of ingredients, would make cooking a little less…messy. Sure I understand that the whole idea is to get you to explore and experiment but, honestly, after a certain point I’d like to be able to min/max things without constantly referring to wikis and Google if at all possible. There’s also a missed opportunity in allowing you to craft bits of armour, arrows and other things which could add yet another level of depth to the crafting system. Overall it’s not bad, I mean who doesn’t love the little cooking tune, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement here.
Where Breath of the Wild really starts to shine is in the absolutely staggering breadth of the world you’re in. I spent countless hours exploring numerous areas, finding inventive ways to climb mountains and trying to see how I could glide from peak to peak so I didn’t have to wrangle my horse around everywhere. Even at the point where I figured I had explored pretty much all the game I discovered not 1, but 2 whole new zones that were packed with quests and new areas to explore. If I’m honest I was only in those areas to chase down a specific set of armour for my final fight with Ganon but just getting to those points required a good hour or two of walking around to get to where I was going. It was on this specific journey I also found out that there was a kind of NPC I didn’t know existed in the game and, had I known about them earlier, it may have changed my idea on how to approach certain parts of the game.
Whilst the in-general exploration is tarnished somewhat by the lack of strong rewards (as I mentioned before) the targeted, specific exploration that you’ll do to unlock certain key things is most certainly rewarding. The master sword quest, one which sees you follow an incredibly long chain of events (if you do it normally) showcases a lot of things that you’d be kicking yourself if you missed, especially if you’re a long time Zelda fan. My quest to get the barbarian armour, and then upgrade it, took me to 3 different corners of the map and then all around the place hunting Lynels so I could get their horns. Ask anyone who’s played Breath of the Wild and they’ll likely have another story about how they spent an inordinate amount of time chasing something down and just how much of a delight it was. It was the same kind of feeling I felt when I eventually caught that blasted eel in Ocarina of Time, one of those moments that will be hard to forget.
Of course the real attraction of any Zelda game is the story and Breath of the Wild most certainly delivers here. All the usual suspects are here: you have no memory of anything, Zelda is the princess you need to save, Ganon is the evil you must defeat and the various races are still their charming selves. Strangely, unlike previous Zelda games, there’s little talk of the triforce and its influence on those who wield it. There are some references to it, mostly through the various shrines that have the same names as each of them (courage, wisdom and power) but they are no longer what imbues each of the main characters with their respective traits. However the characters are given an in depth exploration of their backstory, thankfully without resorting to massive gobs of text. Finding your lost memories reveals the nature of Zelda’s relationship with Link, her father and the people of Hyrule in great detail, something which makes the final battle with Ganon all the more satisfying.
MILD PLOT SPOILERS BELOW
Whilst not every quest or story is something I’d hold up as an example of good storytelling Breath of the Wild has some exceptional moments. Freeing each of the divine beasts, and the conversations you have with your former companions, is both an exhilarating and heart wrenching experience. The Mipha story stands out particularly in this regard, her love for Link being the link which converts even the most hardened Zora to begin to trust the people of Hyrule once again. The final battle with Ganon (which I had all 4 beasts for) had me loudly cheering at my screen, the culmination of the dozens of hours I had put into this game coming to a massive crescendo. When most games’ endings are trite, littered with not so subtle references to an incoming sequel, Zelda’s is one of perfection. It’s also very much worth collecting all the memories before you embark on the final battle as it adds another scene, one which honestly melted this jaded gamer’s heart. Just thinking of it brings back tears, it was that beautiful.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a shining example of what Nintendo is capable of when they put their minds to it. The world is incredibly expansive, begging to be explored and filled with all the story elements that we long time Zelda fans desire so much. It’s hard to summarise what makes this game great in a single, or even multiple, paragraphs as there’s just so much to love. I will temper that by saying that it is not a perfect game, like so many other reviewers are saying, but it is most certainly a title to which I will compare many to from now on. Breath of the Wild managed to do what a decade of Zelda games has failed to do before it: convince me that it was worth playing and then blow away my expectations. I don’t think I can name a game that will be forever defined by its flagship launch title but Zelda: Breath of the Wild will be forever synonymous with the Switch and all other releases will have to live in its shadow.
I don’t care what kind of gamer you are: Zelda: Breath of the Wild is worth your time.
I’m not usually a fan of reaction based games, mostly because they do a great job of highlighting just how bad I am at them. Sure there’s a sense of accomplishment once I get there, but it often feels like I’ve either brute forced my way through or just lucked out. However seeing people master games like that can be quite entertaining, like watching Rocket League pros juggle a ball like it’s nothing. Ballistic falls along similar lines for me, being incredibly frustrating to play but would definitely make for good watching should someone decide to take the time to master it.
There is a vague notion of a plot in Ballistic, you being some kind of weapon of mass destruction set out to stop someone from capturing a planet (or something along those lines). What you are is a giant geodesic ball that can roll along any surface, shooting itself in any direction at incredibly high speed. Anything you come into contact with is instantly obliterated and that includes any innocent bystanders who happen to be in the way. That sets up the premise for the game: wreck a bunch of things and then find the teleportation pad to take you to the next level. Like many skill/twitch/reaction based games it’s a simple concept that’s incredibly difficult to master.
Ballistic uses the Unreal Engine 4 which means that, at a base level, the graphics aren’t bad. They’re quite simplistic, consisting mostly of highly glossy surfaces and geometric shapes, which is fitting given the Outrun-ish theme it seems to be going for. When you’re moving everything turns into a glorious blur of neon but, when you inevitably hit something you get an up close look and things aren’t as great. All the people models have to be store bought assets as they simply don’t fit the aesthetic of the game at all. The other various models (like the guns and whatnot) fit a little better but they’ve obviously been designed to not be looked at too closely. For more skilled players this might not be an issue but for someone like me, who seemed to spend more time still than blasting past, it was hard not to notice it.
The challenges the game presents you are usually pretty simple. Most of them will be a variation on move here, kill this thing and then find this other thing to complete the level. Sounds easy in theory but wrangling the ball to do what you want it to do is a challenge all in of itself. You have a couple controls at your disposal: roll, which allows you to move whilst you’re flat on a surface. Boost which pushes you in the direction of the camera and bullet time allowing you to more precisely aim your shots. You’d think that with these tools it’d be relatively easy to navigate your way around however it’s akin to trying to play billiards in three dimensions more than anything else. In order to get to a certain point you’ll have to estimate your current momentum, what you can add via boost and your time in flight before you hit there. Doing all these things whilst you’re blasting past everything at a million miles an hour is quite the challenge.
That being said once you get a handle on how things all slot together you can more accurately place yourself than you would otherwise. Mashing the boost button the second you leave a surface is most certainly the wrong thing to do, often leading you into unrecoverable situations. Nor is attaining maximum speed the solution to everything as once you get past a certain point the amount of influence you have over where you’re going is diminished significantly. In the end the challenge that Ballistic provides is one of balance: you have to figure out the right mix of everything to achieve your objective. Suffice to say it’s not the easiest game around, one that’s barely deserving of the “casual” tag it’s got itself on Steam.
Ballistic is an extremely challenging momentum based skill game, one that this writer would likely recommend for fiends who enjoyed similar games like Rocket League. The retro soundtrack is what attracted me to it in the first place and, unfortunately, the game play wasn’t enough for me to stick around for too long afterwards. Make no mistake, this is a challenging game, one that will reward those who take the time to master its momentum based mechanics. If, like me, you were seeking something a little less intense though it might be the wrong thing for you. For a specific subset of gamers Ballistic’s challenges will provide the kind of intense action they crave however, for this old gamer, I think I’ll leave my play time with it where it stands.
Ballistic is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was 1 hour.