Posts Tagged‘action’

Nier: Automata: For the Glory of Mankind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.0/10

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

Mass Effect Andromeda: Pathfinder Ryder, Reporting In.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7.0/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6.5/10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9.5/10

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

Zelda: Breath of the Wild: The Cycle of Calamity.

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.

Rating: 9.75/10

Ballistic: Like Playing Pool in 3D.

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.

Rating: 6.5/10

Ballistic is available on PC right now for $12.99. Total play time was 1 hour.

For Honor: War is the Natural State of Things.

My history with fighting games runs long and deep. Street Fighter 2: Turbo was my introduction to the scene with my brother and my local friends often battling it out for hours on end. The obsession continued through multiple console generations and titles like Tekken and Soul Calibur. It’s always been a genre that has only ever done well with local multiplayer, the few forays I’ve had into online fighting games stymied by lag (a sin in a frame perfect world). So when I saw For Honor, a fighting game/hack and slash hybrid, I was instantly intrigued. However the execution has unfortunately brought back some bad memories whilst cementing a few not-so-great ones.

For ages the world of man has been at war, spurred on by the upheaval of the world that came without warning. But the world has always searched for peace and for a time it has come. However there are those who seek to return the world to war; to find the strongest to rule over the weak. You are but a pawn in this war, ordered to do the bidding of Apollyon: the one who seeks nothing more than eternal conflict. Are you a sheep who awaits their slaughter? Or will you rise as a wolf among those sheep and feast upon those who fall to your blade.

For Honor is a spectacular looking game, one that’s sure to make good use of all the horsepower available to it. This comes to us care of the AnvilNext 2.0 engine which has powered the last 2 Assassin’s Creeds, Steep and Rainbow Six Siege. All the modern trimmings like physically based rendering, proper global illumination and realistic cloth and weather systems are all present and very noticeable. It’s one of the few games which, at least on my system, looks far better in the cut scenes that aren’t pre-rendered. If you’re playing on PC it’s probably worth tweaking a few settings as the selected defaults are a little weird, like turning v-sync on by default (a sin for us G-Sync/FreeSync users). It also manages to maintain fairly consistent performance even when there’s a lot going on, something which is unfortunately rare these days.

The combination of a fighting game with a hack and slash is For Honor’s selling point; an attempt to recreate the kind of epic knightly battles we’re all used to seeing in movies. How it works in practice is thus: you’re on a battlefield with other players (and AI, if you’re playing a mode with them) and when you and another player lock eyes with each other you go into fighting mode. After that point it’s quite like a traditional fighting game with all the combos, blocks and parries that fighting game veterans will be familiar with. Of course if you’re playing with more than one other player there’s every chance you’ll be ganged up on (or be doing that yourself to others) which changes the fighting dynamics considerably. Outside of that part of the game you’ll likely be running around slaughtering the AI whilst capping points. There’s 12 classes to choose from and as you play through the game you’ll unlock new abilities and loot to customise both your looks and stats. It’s a lot to take in at first look but the mandatory tutorials ensure that you’ll have a firm grounding before you’re thrown into the mix with other players.

The online combat however unfortunately suffers from what all online fighting games have: lag. For Honor is probably the only game that I know of that utilises a peer to peer netcode that also includes each player running their own simulation. What this means is that, instead of one player keeping the game state consistent (which can give rise to the “host advantage” issue) each and every player is calculating the game state. When you’re playing this means that your ping is different to each and every player on the battle field, leading to rather inconsistent results. Moves that would appear to work perfectly on one player will seemingly fail to work on others, some players will glitch around whilst others don’t and, worst of all, one person desynching can end up completely trashing the entire game state and killing the game (I had this happen no less than 3 times).

Part of this is due to the matchmaking which seemingly struggles to find a game even at the busiest periods of the day. Even during “very high activity” periods, as identified by the game itself, it would still have to look at all regions and all player skill levels to find me a game. Undoubtedly this has led to me being matched with people who have pings in the hundreds of milliseconds to me which means we’re dozens of frames apart from each other. It might not sound like much but it can be the difference between being able to parry attacks and getting hit every single time. This lacklustre matchmaking meant that no two games played out the same way, each of them having some kind of annoying lag or netcode related glitch that impacted on game play.

The UI, which was obviously designed with consoles in mind, also needs some love in order for it to be usable. Menu items appear to defy common conventions for where they should be with numerous things stashed under Social or Multiplayer for inexplicable reasons. Further to this the party system, whilst allowing you to send invites in game, requires you to Shift + F2 to accept an invite through Uplay instead. I wouldn’t even bother mentioning a minor annoyance like that if it wasn’t for the fact that the parties also seem to randomly drop players whenever the game feels like it. Honestly for a game that had a relatively long closed beta, as well as a shorter open beta, I would have expected teething issues like this to be sorted already.

The loot system teeters on the edge of being pay to win with obvious gaps between players who’ve dumped cash on it and those who haven’t. Whilst it’s tempered by the fact that all loot is a trade off some are far, far better trade offs than others. This means that, when you’re not matched against similarly geared players, it’s an order of magnitude harder to win than it is otherwise. If you’re skilled enough sure, you can still beat them, but if they’re even mildly co-ordinated there’s really no point in sticking around. Indeed since there’s no penalty for leaving games you should do exactly that if winning is a distant possibility.

The amount of effort put into the single player is surprising, given that much of the game’s marketing focused on the online multi aspect. Unfortunately it’s not particularly engaging as fighting AIs are either outright cheaters or a push over. The story is also somewhat confused, seemingly searching for a reason to match up all the various factions against each other at least once and to demonstrate all the multiplayer maps. Personally if they had gone multi-only I don’t think I would’ve missed the campaign as it felt like a chore more than anything else. After I got bored of playing on hard I dropped it down to easy hoping that would improve things (being an unstoppable killing machine can be fun, for a while) but even that couldn’t slake my boredom.

Despite all this I do appreciate what Ubisoft Montreal tried to accomplish here. It’s rare these days that a game can be truly unique and For Honor, for all its faults, really is a new kind of game. There are some issues that could be fixed easily enough, like the UI and loot system, but further fundamental improvements likely aren’t possible. Fighting games and online play have always had a troubled past and Ubisoft’s attempt at fixing it simply doesn’t work as intended. I honestly don’t know how you’d go about making this work either but there has to be a solution that doesn’t lead to the consistently inconsistent experience that I had whilst playing For Honor. Hopefully Ubisoft sells enough copies this time that they can revisit the IP, potentially with a new idea for improving the netcode in hand.

Rating: 6.5/10

For Honor is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 13 hours of total play time and 78% of the achievements unlocked.

Aragami: Darkness and Light.

There are two distinct types of stealth games. The first are the ones built around the mechanic, designed in such a way that stealth permeates throughout the game. The second, and sadly much more common, is where stealth is added on as a mechanic at a later point. The difference between these two types of stealth games couldn’t be more stark, with the latter feeling out of place. The former however usually results in a much better experience as stealth is an incredibly hard mechanic to get right, if your game isn’t built around it. Aragami thankfully falls into the former camp, nailing the stealth mechanics beautifully.

You are an Aragami, a spirit of vengeance summoned by Yamiko, a young girl who has been imprisoned by the Kaiho. Her captors are adepts of the light, able to control it with deadly effects. Yamiko tells you that the Kaiho are oppressors of her people and have imprisoned her Shadow Princess along with her. It is then up to you Aragami to free her and take down the Kaiho army to free the shadow realm from oppression. How you go about this however is your choice, although sticking to the shadows is likely a wise choice.

At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Aragami was coming from Telltale as its visual style is very similar. It’s based on the Unity engine however (not Telltale’s aging game engine) and the look is generated by good old fashioned cel shading. Overall the visuals are simple and clean, with little extraneous detail thrown about. Performance on my current rig was perfect, as you’d expect, however I think it’d run perfectly fine on current generation smart phones with little change. The only complaint I’d have is that it starts to get a bit repetitive after chapter 7 or so. It does get better towards the end though as the environments get a little more varied, however.

Aragami, as I mentioned before, is a stealth game. You’re put in an area, given a goal to reach and are left up to get to the other end. Combat is non-existent as one hit from any threat will instantly kill you however you are able to dispose of your enemies, if you deem it necessary. Whilst you’ll initially have to rely on your wits to get through each level you’ll find scrolls that grant you talent points along the way. These will give you a smattering of different abilities to deal with the various situations that the game presents you with. The puzzles are pretty basic however, varying little beyond disabling barriers. Mechanically it’s a simple game but the difficulty comes in how you choose to play it.

Like most stealth veterans I immediately chose the no-kill, complete stealth route. Surprisingly though this is probably the easiest (or second easiest, possibly) route to choose as all you have to contend with there is making it through in one piece. So for the next chapter I attempted to kill everyone which proved to be a much more challenging task. Not only do you have to avoid being spotted you also have to ensure no one finds the corpses you leave behind. I eventually gave up doing it as it always seemed like someone would stumble across the bodies, no matter how well I thought I had cleared out a particular area.

Of course doing that becomes a lot easier if you invest a few points in the right talents, one of which allows you to completely remove bodies. There’s enough scrolls about the place that you could easily max out most of the useful talents in a single play through. Of course there’s a few quality of life ones you probably want to go for first, like the one that reveals where all the scrolls are. Others like the invisibility one are quite useful for just blazing through otherwise laborious sections, something that becomes a life saver later on in the game. There’s definitely a good amount of replayability in Aragami because of these talent choices, something which I’m sure the completist crowd will enjoy.

Aragami is mostly mechanically sound, however there are a few quirks which can trip you up if you’re not careful. It’s clear there’s certain places you’re not supposed to be able to shadow step to, but you can if you get the angles right. Things like tree branches, leaves or other semi-odd geometry provide ample places for getting yourself stuck or completely bypassing an otherwise mandatory challenge. Additionally the invisibility power, with its upgrade to make you apparently completely silent, doesn’t seem to work that way 100% of the time. There were a couple times I ran past someone only to have them alert the entire place I was there. Whilst I can understand that happening if I ran directly into them I can remember not even being near them when it happened on more than one occasion. Overall these issues aren’t massive, but are annoying when they happen.

The lack of variety in the layouts and mechanics does start to wear on you after a while. Around the halfway point I found I could really only play a chapter or two before getting bored. Towards the end things started to get a little more interesting but the first 3 hours or so felt like they dragged on quite a bit. Since the game announces to you just how many things you’re going to have to do (get 5 talismans! yay!) it instantly makes you feel like you’re on an extended fetch quest. Couple that with trying to find the scrolls and you’re probably not going to enjoying yourself that much. Indeed I think the middle couple hours could’ve probably been removed without much impact to the game or narrative.

The story is, unfortunately, quite mediocre. It’s clear pretty early on what the twist is going to be which is only made worse by the weirdly out of place dialogue. The writing wouldn’t be out of place in say, a modern anime or something similar, but Aragami seems to want to be taken seriously. However that’s just not possible with the way the main characters interact with each other. Towards the end things start to work out a little better but since there’s really no build up it’s all quite hollow. It also appears that there must’ve been a big rewrite of the story at some point as the final lines, which allude to the game’s previous name Twin Souls: The Path of Shadows, reveal information that had not been spoken of or alluded to at all. Considering this is Lince Works’ first game I’ll give them a pass, for now.

Aragami is a competent stealth platformer with beautiful cel shaded graphics and a great backing soundtrack. Taking the notion that the no-kill, full stealth route is the hardest and turning it on its head is a great twist on the regular stealth idea. Aragami is however let down by its repetitiveness and lacklustre story, a mistake many first time indie game developers make. Still for those of us who enjoy a good stealth-first game there are few titles like Aragami and fewer still from indie developers. If you’re looking for something to bridge the gap between the next bout of AAA releases and need a stealth fix then Aragami might just be for you.

Rating: 7.5/10

Aragami is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 5 hours of total play time and 67% of the achievements unlocked.

Hyper Light Drifter: A Perfect Immortal Cell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9.0/10

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

The Technomancer: The Secrets We Keep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6.0/10

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