Posts Tagged‘co-op’

Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem: I Can’t Believe it’s Not Diablo/Warhammer/etc.

Ah the launch days of a new online game. They’re almost always filled with bugs, server problems and teething issues the developers and their play testers never managed to come across. You’ll be forgiven for thinking that Early Access would be a solution to this, even if you spent oh I don’t know something like 4 years in it. Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem debuted to an audience that was hungry for a new arpg and the hype it had built up to its release ensured that its release date was not so dissimilar from the AAA games it sought to emulate, plagued with numerous issues that made the game chuggy and problematic for many and downright unplayable for an unlucky minority. However like many of its other brethren after the initial furor died down what was left was an extremely competent arpg, just one that I lost interest in after the real grind set in.

In Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem, you, Valeria, and Edric, are the three only survivors of the slaughter of Castagath. Rescued by Grand Inquisitor Heimlock, you were drafted into the Republic’s Army of the Purifiers at a very young age to be trained in the military academy and become perfect soldiers. You also had the chance to benefit from Heimlock’s occasional advice and training. This special treatment led you and your childhood friends to be named the “Children of Heimlock”. However one day it’s revealed that you’re able to channel some devastating forms of magic, something that’s very much frowned upon in this world. This begins your quest to survive and determine what your true fate really is.

I honestly couldn’t believe that the dev team chose Cryengine as the basis for their game, given its propensity for seriously high end graphics and not-so-great multiplayer support out of the box. However what the team has created is really quite something, making full use of the engine’s capabilities. The environments are massive and filled to the brim with detail although in the later, predominantly procedurally generated levels, things do start to get a bit samey. The game does shy away from the Blizzard/Diablo style of using more bright and varied colour palettes to keep visual interest up but there’s still a good helping of lighting and particle effects to keep everything from blurring into a dark background. All of this runs amazingly well, even when you get a good number of enemies on screen. That’s not to say I didn’t have any performance issues at all but I do have to admit I was trying to see how far I could tilt the thing before it fell over.

Wolcen follows the standard isometric dungeon crawler formula pretty closely with its own spin on the various tropes that I’m sure we’ll see emulations of in future games in this genre. There’s no formal classes to speak of however what weapon you decide to wield dictates which skills you’ll be able to use and, by consequence, which talents and attributes you’ll be prioritising. Skills themselves aren’t a given either, you’ll have to find them in drops from enemies or purchase them with a particular kind of currency from the right vendor. The talent tree is also quite novel, consisting of 3 rings that branch out in a constellation like fashion allowing you to choose your own path to the talents you want. There’s also a rudimentary crafting and gem system although if I’m honest I don’t think they’re actually worth using at all. Finally there’s a kind of rift like system which makes up the bulk of the end-game content, servicing as an endless grind to help rebuild a city which will confer back to you some benefits. Honestly using the term “Diablo clone” here would be a disservice to Wolcen as whilst it certainly draws inspiration from it there’s enough new things in here that I think Blizzard will be taking notice.

Combat is, for my build at least, a fast paced balls to the wall killfest that literally doesn’t stop for anything. Now I’m quite sure that the build I was running has likely been nerfed into oblivion since I stopped playing but suffice to say, when I can 2 or 3 shot pretty much any boss or mob I come across in the game it’s not likely to be long for this world. Still it was certainly fun, especially considering that it was such a glass cannon build that I had to ensure I was actively using particular skills constantly lest I cop a few hits in a row which would see me downed in short order. Of course being basically unstoppable did also mean that there wasn’t a lot of challenge left for me in the game once I reached that point, especially without an end-game grind that was building to something interesting.

It probably also didn’t help that I settled on a skill build and playstyle early on and all other variants seemed to be far, far less effective. To be sure there seems to be a lot of build variance available but speaking with my mate who tried numerous other builds none of them were as effective or useful as the good old slow 2 hander with bleeding edge. Some of the skill modifiers did make for more interesting rotations but most of the time they just allowed me to do the one thing I needed to do more efficiently or with a greater margin for error. I’m sure for those seeking to craft the one true ultimate build there’s a lot to explore and experiment with here but without a goal to work towards I can’t imagine there’s going to be much enjoyment in doing so.

Like most arpgs the progression comes thick and fast at the start but begins to slow down measurably once you hit the end game. When once you’d be able to find an upgrade or two during a dungeon run now you’re likely to go multiple runs without finding anything. Worse still you’ll likely have to spend quite a bit of time sifting through all the gear you’ve picked up to find that one upgrade, a rather tedious chore that’s unfortunately not made much easier by the inclusion of gear archetypes that are supposed to make the culling easier. I found a pair of rogue gloves early on in my endgame grind that were just flat out better than anything else the other types could provide, even though I should’ve rightly been using bruiser or heavy gear. Towards the end I was just looking for gear that appeared to be as good or better than what I was currently using and then saw if equipping it upped my character sheet DPS. A blunt tool, to be sure, but comparisons beyond that just aren’t really feasible.

It doesn’t help that the crafting system is pretty much useless, allowing you to reroll or add random attributes to your gear. Gems are also somewhat moot as you can’t combine lower tier gems to higher tier ones and the effects they provide are minimal at best. Not having a comprehensive crafting system isn’t really a major issue but it does mean that there’s really only one path for progression in the end game and that’s to grind, grind away at those dungeons. For some this is probably exactly what they want but for me? I’d kind of like the option of doing something else with my overflowing pack of loot other than vendoring it all. That or some semi-meaningful goal to grind towards.

All this taken together you’d think that I was somewhat dour on the whole Wolcen experience but apart from the last couple hours I actually really enjoyed it. Tooling around in the campaign was always fun, especially when I teamed up with my mate and we had stupid banter over the dialogue whilst we waited for the next quest step to appear. With loot being so plentiful too it was a no-brainer to share everything as well and the game’s catch up mechanics made questing with my much higher level mate very much worth it for both of us. It’s just that it feels like there’s an expiry date on the experience as once you hit a certain point with the game there’s likely not going to be much going back to it. This was much the same as Diablo III for me as whilst I spent a good lot of hours in it initially after hitting Inferno 1 and seeing the grind ahead I just decided to call it quits. I think I’ve only been back a couple times since.

There’s no denying that Wolcen was a buggy mess during its 1.0 week. For the first few days my group of mates and I would routinely get put on servers all the way around the globe which led to a less than stellar experience, even at 180ms ping. There were also the raft of issues around joining games in progress, how quest progress was handled and just a general set of problems that could only be ascribed to launch week teething issues. To be sure a lot of these got better but for one of my mates the game remained unplayable for a week and when it was useable he’d frequently crash if he used certain skills. Right now though the game seems to be in a good spot so if the initial negative press put you off it might be time to revisit it.

The world and story of Wolcen is certainly interesting although it is somewhat predictable given its use of the standard tropes for many of the game’s protagonists and their motivations. The whole thing is predicated on the big bag thing coming to town and you doing everything you can to stop it. There’s definitely more of this world to explore and I can definitely see myself coming back if they drop any story content in the near future. However for this particular instalment it’s decidedly middle of the road but hey, at least you’re not going to be playing this for the narrative right?

Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem is an extremely well thought out arpg, taking inspiration from all the right places and then applying their own brand of creativity to provide a game experience that’s quite different to what you’d expect from a run of the mill Diablo clone. The game’s initial teething issues appear to be sorted out for now and hopefully, if you’d decided to give it a miss because of that, this review can convince you that it’s still worth a look in. You might not sink as many hours as you did in Diablo or Path of Exile but it’s still something to tide you over until Diablo 4 releases sometime this year.

Rating: 8.75/10

Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem is available on PC right now for $56.95. Total playtime was 18 hours with 36% of the achievements unlocked.

Degrees of Separation: Worlds That Can Never Meet.

Thinking about my journey as a gamer it’s interesting to note how I’ve ebbed and flowed between being focused on single player experience and those enjoyed with others. To be sure part of this was due to the way I came to games in the first place, sharing the family PC with my brother and later moving onto the first generation NES console which we’d waste endless hours on. Later on, when I was blessed with my own personal PC, that I started to find an interest in gaming by myself. That was upended when I got into the LAN scene and continued in strength as the world of online gaming was unlocked when I was graced with the wonderful gift of broadband. The last decade has been a good mix of the two although I’ll admit that most of my gaming time is more on the single player side than otherwise.

Suffice to say I don’t often go looking for co-operative experiences these days, especially if they don’t come with a single player option. However Degrees of Separation caught my eye early last year and it had long been in my review queue to play with my wife when we got the time. Well, once again thanks to the bushfires that continue to rage on, we managed to sit down and make our way through it. Whilst it’s core mechanic is somewhat novel it is a rather run of the mill puzzle platformer. That being said it can be a good bit of fun when you’re playing with another, especially if they aren’t exactly experienced with this kind of game.

Ember and Rime are from two different sides of the same world: hers a warm one of endless sunshine blessed with boundless heat and his, a world of frozen beauty. They are separated by an enigmatic force, unable to reach each other nor visit each other’s world. It’s clear however that their world has suffered some great tragedy at the hands of despotic ruler and they set out together to uncover the mystery of their shared world. Working together is the only way that they’ll be able to uncover the mystery of what happened and why they both are separated from one another.

Degrees of Separation is crafted in the style of Flash games of yesteryear with its flat 2D environments, simplistic animations and limited use of modern effects. There’s an unfortunate amount of asset reuse which makes a lot of the areas feel very samey, even though they’re supposed to be completely different environments. That being said it’s not like it’s an ugly game, more that it’s just very simplistic in its implementation. I can hazard a guess that’s likely due to the developers needing to create 2 of everything: one for Ember’s world and one for Rime’s. Combine that with the various interactions that needed to be coded in and I can see why they wanted to keep things simple from a visuals perspective.

The game’s claim to fame is the two worlds of the main characters: one world is hot and the other is cold. Initially that’s all there is to it and solving most puzzles is just figuring out the order in which things need to be done with the various worlds so you can progress forward. The later worlds start to play on the divide a lot more, bringing in mechanics that make use of it in some way. However all of these new mechanics are contained within the level that they’re granted in, so this isn’t some kind of metroidvania style game where you’ll be unlocking different parts of past levels with new skills. The only metroidvania style thing in here is the main overworld which is non-linear, but realistically you’re going to have to complete a number of levels in order due to the number of unlocks required to open them.

The puzzles are almost all self-contained and we only came across one that required us to bring something in from another puzzle in order to solve it. I personally prefer it this way for a co-op setting as otherwise you end up second guessing each other’s ideas endlessly, spending countless hours trying to drag things from other puzzles around in order to try and solve them. It also means that you’ll need to be aware of the developer’s logic as you progress through the levels as if you lose sight of that then there’s going to be puzzles that you won’t be able to solve. Thankfully those seem to be few and far between as I can only remember skipping maybe 3 or so in our full playthrough.

The puzzles are also predominantly physics based with a good chunk of them requiring precise platforming and/or timing in order to complete them. Given the game’s less than stellar control implementation this can make some puzzles a little more frustrating than they need to be as objects might not react the way you expect them to or you’ll find yourself having to repeat sections over and over again because you mistimed a jump. Even I, the seasoned puzzle platform gamer that I am, struggled at times much to the delight of my wife. This could also partly be due to us playing it on console as, I’ll admit, I don’t usually do most of my platforming with a controller.

All this being said the puzzles are, for the most part, pretty straightforward and most of them should be doable for even novice gamers. Thankfully not every puzzle must be solved as you’ll only need a certain amount of scarves (the game’s collectible) to progress to another level. The only improvements I’d seek to make would be the inclusion of a map and a reworked checkpoint system as it’s something of a pain to get back to where you were after you’ve put the game down for the night.

The story is told via a voiceover that’s triggered on every new puzzle screen, which is nice, but the story itself is pretty forgettable. I think this is partly because it’s told in the third person and the characters themselves rarely interact on the screen so it’s hard to really empathise with them at all. To be sure I prefer having the story told to me as I’m playing it rather than being presented with walls of text every so often, but having the entire thing told in the third person just seemed to take a lot of the emotional investment out of it.

Degrees of Separation is a solid co-op platformer with a novel take on the genre’s mechanics. Whilst its visual style and story err on the side of simplistic the puzzle/platform mechanics are on point, requiring some real lateral thinking and cooperation to solve. Its casual nature will make it attractive to those who are looking for something to play together but can only do so in short bursts. Other than that there’s not a terrible amount to say amount Degrees of Separation and hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you know if it’s for you.

Rating: 7.5/10

Degrees of Separation is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with a total of approximately 4 hours playtime and 38% of the achievements unlocked.

Borderlands 3: What’s Up Superfans?!?!

The first 3 instalments in the Borderlands series came (relatively) thick and fast with there only being 3 and 2 years between the respective entries. Here we are now 5 years later and I, like many others I’m sure, have forgotten much about the Borderlands universe. So it was somewhat comforting that after the first hour or so I felt like I was right back where I was when I left the game last, the core game loop gets established early and you quickly figure out how to min/max your character. Considering that this core game play is what attracts and retains Borderlands fans I’m not surprised that Gearbox didn’t want to mess with it, but it does mean that for those looking for something new in the franchise are likely to be left wanting.

It’s 7 years after the events in Borderlands 2 (mirroring exactly the time that’s ticked over in real life since then) and the death of Handsome Jack has left a massive power vacuum on Pandora. In that time the Calypso Twins Troy and Tyreen have risen to power by unifying the various bandit factions under one banner: the Children of the Vault. They’ve done this by creating a massive personality cult, broadcasting their exploits across Pandora to their ravenous fans and inciting them to do their bidding. You play as a budding vault hunter who’s answered a recruiting call from the Crimson Raiders, led by the siren Lilith (one of the previously playable vault hunters). So begins your journey into the world of Pandora and beyond as you fight the Children of the Vault wherever they dare to tread.

There’s a substantial uplift in the graphics of Borderlands 3 compared to its most recent predecessor. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the previous one was still using the Unreal 3 engine and still retained support for previous generation consoles, severely limiting what Gearbox was able to achieve from a graphics perspective. 5 years and a new engine later show massive improvements across all areas although none more apparent than the lighting effects. This comes hand in hand with a completely revamped UI which is leaps and bounds better, both in terms of usability but also in its design. Indeed one of the first things I noticed was the subtle 3D effect applied to the minimap, something that makes a huge difference in navigating Borderlands 3’s large, complex levels. So whilst 5 years might have been a pretty long time between drinks for the series I’m glad to say, at least from a graphics perspective, it seems to have been well spent.

As I mentioned in my opening remarks in terms of how Borderlands 3 plays out you’re not going to see much change here. The same core game loop remains: head out on a quest or to a boss fight, kill everything you can, loot and hope that RNGesus blesses you on this day. There are 4 new character classes which, from what I can recall, are quite different to the previous offerings we got in other Borderlands titles. Probably the biggest difference now is that there’s quite a few different worlds for you to fight on, all of which have their own distinctive visual style. The real changes come in Borderlands’ end game as there’s been a few new mechanics introduced for those who want to up the challenge significantly in the hopes for some better loot.

Combat feels the same, maintaining the same fast paced action that the series has become famous for. It’s all highly dependent on the gun you’re using, of course, as some will absolutely trivialise everything whilst others will make your life a living nightmare to use. There’s still the old problem of the pacing being off slightly, starting off with you being woefully under levelled and needing a good helping of side quests to bring you up to speed. Past a certain point though you’re reliant on getting those guns that have some ludicrous combination of attributes that make them wrecking machines or just work well with your current build. You will get one in short order, no question about that, but then your play style gets centered around it and switching away from it is always a painful affair. It gets a lot easier when you can carry more weapons though as dropping one at least means you still have 3 that should hopefully still be useable.

I chose Moze, the gunner class, and for the first 5 hours or so it felt pretty…well dull. The action skill converts you into a mech which basically just gives you another life to throw away and possibly give you a chance to get some more ammo for your favourite gun. As the upgrades start to pile on though it becomes a much more powerful weapon, culminating in probably one of the most fun parts of the game when you get the nuke as one of its weapons. Whilst it wasn’t exactly great for boss fights it was stupidly good at clearing out rooms full of enemies, especially those that would hide behind cover or other equally annoying places. Other utility skills like having the robot go on autopilot for 15 seconds after you eject or the turret on the back (for co-op) just make it even more useful, ensuring that it’s not just a simple one and done ability. I’m sure the other character classes have a similar experience as the giant skill trees don’t exactly lend themselves to amazing gameplay right off the hop.

Indeed this is true for pretty much every aspect of the game as it’s clear that everything has been built up with a focus on the end game experience. Early game you’ll be struggling for everything: good guns, ammunition, backpack space, you name it. As you’re levelling up your quality of life will start ticking upwards and the game becomes immensely easier to play. Of course this all changes once you complete the campaign and you get the option to play through again on True Vault Hunter mode or go into Mayhem Mode which brings with it some Diablo 3-esque Rift action with randomised enemy and player benefits/challenges. If I’m honest though I’ve never really been into the end game of the Borderlands franchise and this one is no exception.

You see whilst I will admit that it’s always fun when you get an absurdly broken gun what I absolutely detest is the grind for them. You have to spend quite a bit of time grinding a boss and/or a specific area to get the loot you’re looking for and then it’s still at the behest of RNGesus if it comes with a good roll or not. I don’t mind this if there’s mechanics available to turn shitty loot into better loot or some way to fix a bad roll on a good gun. Borderlands 3, as far as I can tell, has none of this available so whatever drops is what you’re stuck with. That may make those god rolls more exhilarating for those who are chasing them but for this old gamer I’d rather not and so once the campaign was done I was pretty much out.

The story is good, leaning heavily on the large backlog of canon that the series has developed over the last decade that the series has been in production. Old characters make an appearance and whilst some are changed in appearance none of them have really changed in style. The light hearted, every line is a joke style writing continues in this instalment too and whilst there are times when you’ll groan at what the characters are saying there are numerous, genuinely funny moments scattered throughout. The writers also did a good job of building in several well developed sub plots that all tie off nicely. Of course they had to set up for yet another sequel, as if the mechanics for that hadn’t been established already, so I’ll have to take a point or two off for that. Still, an overall well constructed story that strikes that balance between the comedic and serious elements.

Borderlands 3 has been made with a specific demographic in mind: long time fans who relish the grind for the best guns. That means there really hasn’t been much innovation from a mechanics perspective but everything surrounding that has been given a solid amount of polish to make the experience just that little bit more enjoyable. Could they have done a little bit more to shake up the formula? Perhaps but I know several die hard Borderlands fans and they’re just fine with the game how it is and they’ll be grinding weapons until there isn’t a single pearlescent left that they don’t own. For those gamers it’s a perfect game. For me though it was a great blast through the campaign that I’m more than happy to put down now.

Rating: 8.75/10

Borderlands 3 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 22 hours play time.

Remnant: From the Ashes: The Root of All Suffering.

Souls games are very much an acquired taste, one that I would have never sought to try if I hadn’t been pushed by several of my close friends to try Bloodborne. Since then I’ve tried my hand at the numerous Souls-like experiences that have came out and for the most part I’ve enjoyed them. However none of them were the kind of game I’d recommend to people wanting to get into the Souls-like genre, all of them maintaining the same brutality that made recommending them to friends (especially those who’d shied away from things like MMORPGs for similar reasons) a fools errand. Remnant: From the Ashes though maintains a lot of core Souls traits whilst making it very approachable, especially when you’re teamed up with another friend or two. To be sure it’s still not going to be to everyone’s liking but I was honestly surprised at just how much fund I had in this not quite bargain basement souls clone.

The world has been overtaken by an alien presence known only as the root. For over 100 years its tendrils have spread out everywhere, wiping out most of life as we know it. The last few remnants of humanity have holed themselves up in wards, large fortified structures that have managed to keep the root out, giving the survivors a life that few would envy. You are a champion from outside those wards, risen with a single purpose: to defeat the root and restore the world to the glory that it once held.

Seemingly taking inspiration directly from the Souls-game for everything Remnant’s graphics aren’t exactly cutting edge, even though they come to us via the Unreal 4 engine. Part of this is due to the rather large and expansive procedurally generated areas that you’ll be trudging through, something which can be rather hard to optimise well. To be sure there is some great level and set design, like the screenshot below highlights, but for the most part it certainly feels like you’re playing a previous generation game. Performance for the most part is good, the only issue I encountered was in some of the earlier levels that generated some rather long sections which my nearly 5 year old rig struggled a bit with. Overall I’d rate the graphics as good but not great.

Remnant incorporates many of the usual tropes you’ll see in a Souls-like game including the punishing combat and a wildly opaque progression system with dozens of weapons, armour sets and skills to optimise. Remnant’s claim to fame is that co-op is an expected part of the experience right from the start, rather than being something you do if you need help with a boss or a particular section. The world is also mostly procedurally generated, even to the point of some parts of it not being accessible if you don’t get the right “roll”. Thankfully this is accompanied by the oh-so-welcome map which would have otherwise made the procedurally generated world an absolute nightmare to navigate. It’s certainly different enough from your garden variety Souls-like game that it stands on its own, so much so that it seems to be attracting quite a few players who wouldn’t typically give a game like this a second look.

At a basic level Remnant’s combat follows the Souls-like trope of having punishing combat that feels quite rewarding when you feel like you’ve mastered it. However instead of it being primarily melee focused with some ranged backup Remnant is completely the opposite, with most of the combat taking place at range. To be sure you can still build yourself up to be a melee powerhouse but anyone who’s played Souls games knows that if you can defeat an enemy without getting close to them it’s going to be far easier than if you try the same thing up close. This is, I feel, the reason why Remnant feels quite a bit easier than its other Souls-like compatriots as the amount of leeway you have when dealing with enemies at range compared to when you’re in melee is quite substantial. Of course the game is designed around this so many of the enemies have ways of quickly closing the gap on you but that matters a lot less when they’re just about to fall over when they do.

The weapon mods also provide for some rather game breaking mechanics that allow you to get away with things that trivialise many of the game’s harder encounters. One of the ones you get early on, the one that summons a tree that taunts all enemies in a radius, just so happens to work on bosses as well. This becomes incredibly valuable as launching one of those can easily net you a quarter of a boss’ health as they slap away at a random tree whilst you unload round after round into them. With 2 players the uptime is considerable but with 3 it can be nigh on permanent. Of course these things that make the game easier for souls veterans like myself are going to be the things that help new players immensely so I definitely don’t think they should be removed, and of course I could just not use them, but hey I’m not made of stone. Sometimes I do want a little fun with my challenge!

As I alluded to earlier the complex and quite often intentionally vague progression system that all Souls-like games are known for makes an appearance in Remnant. Whilst the basics are easy enough to grasp, like different armours being strong/weak against certain damage types, there’s so many different things to optimise that it can be quite a struggle to figure out how to best min/max your character. Traits, for instance, start off with simple augments that make sense but once you have 30+ of them it can be a real chore to think about whether or not having extra stamina is better than reducing stamina costs or whether you’re hitting diminishing returns with reload speed. I’m sure there’s calculators and guides galore out there, like there is always is for games like this, but it does feel like it’s more of a chore than it should be.

The progression system is auto-scaling meaning that all you need to do to unlock the next tier of upgrade materials is to upgrade an item all the way to the point of needing them. The old materials will still continue to drop which is a good thing since you’ll need them to upgrade any armour or weapons that you happen across or manage to craft. At the start you’ll be scrounging for every little bit but later on, as you move up the materials treadmill, you’ll find yourself quite flush with the older materials making any new pickup that you want to use viable. That being said I used the starter shotgun for most of the game and didn’t really struggle at all.

The boss fights are all pretty much standard DPS fights with a few interesting mechanics thrown in here and there. Unlike other Souls games where learning the move set is absolutely critical to beating the boss Remnant is usually pretty predictable, so much so that my friend and I one-shotted multiple bosses over the course of our play through. The only one that gave us significant grief was the final boss and that’s mostly because it’s the only one we did that had mechanical complexity on par with standard Souls bosses. Interesting fact too: nearly all the bosses have 2 ways of defeating them and doing the alternate kill will net you different loot. Some of them are pretty obvious whilst others are downright insane. That being said it’d be worth looking into what the alternate kill nets you as sometimes it’s really not worth the effort.

When I saw that Perfect World was the publisher for Remnant I jokingly told my mates that’d be full of jank and, unsurprisingly it is. Some of the more fun bugs we encountered along the way included me getting stuck right inside the door of a boss fight, meaning I couldn’t move from there and we had to just hope that the boss didn’t try and melee me. Bullets would simply not register on certain enemies sometimes, indicating that their hitbox wasn’t placed where you’d typically expect it to be. We had one boss bug out on us so bad that he just teleported around the room randomly, never stopping to attack us and would immediately teleport away again if we ever got close. The procedural generation also doesn’t have a ton of smarts built into it and you’ll often come across identical areas multiple times over in a single level. These are all fixable issues but it’s something to be aware of going in.

The story is nothing to write home about, being your generic hero’s adventure with you as the saviour of all humanity. Whilst it’s a lot more direct than other Souls games tend to be quite a lot of the lore is locked up in journals and other walls of texts scattered around the place, something that’s not exactly conducive to immersive and enjoyable storytelling. It probably doesn’t help that most of the characters are pretty one dimensional, usually vomiting exposition for a good 5 minutes when you first meet them then only giving you a sentence or two when you meet them after that. Its rare that you play these kinds of games for the story though so it’s unlikely to detract from your experience with Remnant.

Remnant: From the Ashes was a nice surprise, bringing with it a few new ideas to the Souls-like genre and, I feel, making it approachable to a much wider audience. The graphics might not be the greatest and sure there’s a load of jank to be found but the overall experience, especially when playing with a friend or two, is actually pretty great. It’s certainly a sum of the parts is greater than the whole kind of deal as individually the game borders on being a very B grade experience but combined they manage to stumble into A- territory. So if you’re looking for a lark with a couple mates or have been eyeing off the Souls genre for some time then Remnant: From the Ashes could well be for you.

Rating: 8.25/10

Remnant: From the Ashes is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $56.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 11 hours playtime and 55% of the achievements unlocked.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood: Heir to Blazkowicz

There’s been few IPs that have managed to achieve the same level of success that Wolfenstein series has. Each new instalment went from strength to strength, refining their formula for old-school inspired corridor shooter action whilst simultaneously working to improve their storytelling by leaps and bounds. So, as you’d expect, my expectations for Wolfenstein: Youngblood were high as I felt Machine Games had really locked their sights on what mattered. However that’s not the case with this instalment in the Wolfenstein franchise as it’s instead this kind of semi-open world co-op hybrid that’s light on the story and, frankly, pretty much everything else I’ve come to expect from this new breed of Wolfenstein games. I don’t appear to be the only one thinking this either and I think there’s a lot of us questioning the idea behind releasing 2 spin off games (the other being Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot) rather than a single, fully fledged one.

It’s 20 years since the events of The New Colossus and most of the world is now free of Nazi control. BJ and Anya have returned to America and have spent their time raising their twin girls, Jessica and Sophia, out on their ranch, teaching them the skills they’ll need to survive in this still hostile world. However one day BJ mysteriously disappears. Fearing the worst Jessica, and Sophia search for clues about where he might have gone and discover a hidden room in the attic with a map indicating Blazkowicz traveled to Nazi-occupied Neu-Paris to meet the French Resistance. Believing that American authorities will not follow Blazkowicz to Nazi France, the girls steal an FBI helicopter and a pair of powered armor suits and head for France. So begins your Nazi killing adventure as one of the twins.

Youngblood is still on id Tech 6 (the debut id Tech 7 game will be DOOM Eternal) and looks as good as it ever did. Much like my previous experiences with new Wolfenstein games though there was a lot of tweaking needed to get it looking good and performing well initially, only for me to discover that I hadn’t yet updated to the newest drivers again which made everything work perfectly. It just goes to show just how much optimisation the respective driver teams must do as it was a complete mess before I updated, chugging constantly no matter what settings I changed. Afterwards it much like I remembered although there was a noticeable decrease in environment detail, I assume due to the fact that it’s supposed to be more open-worldy. In any case it has me excited for what DOOM Eternal will look like though as it’s been a little while between drinks for id Tech engine upgrades.

Deviating significantly from the series’ formula so far Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a co-op, open-world-ish FPS game. After a few short initial missions you’re then left to run around Nazi occupied Paris to your heart’s content: exploring the world, picking up side missions, following the main story lines and all of the usual stuff you’d expect in an open world game. You can play co-op or solo, with the latter granting you an AI partner who’s not completely useless but not for the reasons you’d first assume. There’s a much heavier focus on levelling with the more powerful skill and gun upgrades locked behind levels which don’t come easy as you start to creep up in power. All being said the changes really don’t feel like they’re for the better, even in a spin-off game that might’ve just been some overwrought experiment meant to buy time between Wolfenstein 2 and 3.

Combat has also taken a more RPG bent, trading off the rapid pace of its predecessors for a more bullet-spongy kind of affair. The AI of all enemies, and I really do mean all of them, is complete pants as all they really do is shoot whilst they walk towards you. Nearly all of them can be cheesed in some way most often by positioning in such a way you can hit them but they can’t hit back. This even works for the brother tower protectors who go from being these scary mecha-nightmares to simple bullet soaks with just the right angle through a doorway. Probably the worst thing though is the lack of ammo, even with the upgraded ammo talents, as you’ll constantly run out of it for your weapon of choice. This is made all the more painful by the armour matching mechanic, requiring you to flip between guns when you come up against enemies with certain armour types. So if you, like me, try to min/max you’ll only have a handful of weapons properly upgraded and once those two are out of ammo you’ll be fighting long, slow battles until you can find some more.

Progression comes in a relatively steady stream at first and then seems to slow down considerably past level 30. That doesn’t matter a whole lot since it seems that most enemies will be matches to your level type with only a handful having strict higher levels set. Even those are still defeatable, they’ll just take that many more bullets to take down. None of the upgrades, both skill and weapon, feel particularly impactful however as most of them are just incremental upgrades to things you already have. To be sure there’s definitely a vast difference between a level 1 player and a level 30 one but with auto-scaling enemies and only minor upgrades between levels it certainly doesn’t feel like you’re really that much more powerful.

I didn’t get a chance to try it co-op (even though one of my mates has it) but in all honesty I don’t think it would’ve changed much of the experience. There’s nothing really in the game that would make it better with a friend as all the co-op mechanics amount to are your usual “you need 2 players to do this” kind of thing. I mean sure, there’s always a bit of fun banter when you’re playing with mates, but given the rather mediocre state the game is in you’re likely going to spend most of your time laughing at the game rather than with it.

The game appears to have been built with grander aspirations in mind as it comes bundled with things I really didn’t expect from the franchise. For starters there’s microtransactions which admittedly are limited to just cosmetic items but as far as I can tell there’s no other way to acquire them through playing in game. Further there’s daily and weekly missions which would indicate that the devs think this is the kind of game that you’ll keep coming back to often to progress your character. I really don’t know what kind of person would either spend money on a co-op only game or come back to level after multiple weeks as there’s really no reason to.

I was level 30-something by the end and whilst it wasn’t exactly a breeze to get through most sections (mostly due to the aforementioned issues) I certainly didn’t feel like I needed to go back and grind out a bunch of missions in order to move forward. Indeed the last boss could be cheesed in much the same way as the other bosses so it wasn’t like there was a lot to challenge me there. So who the heck are these mechanics, copied directly from the looter-shooter playbook, built into this co-op game? I really have no clue.

Co-op and open world games invite jankiness and Wolfenstein: Youngblood is absolutely no exception. Throughout the game I had all sorts of weird and wonderful things happen, most notably: enemies clipping through walls (and sometimes getting stuck there), my AI partner teleporting randomly around the room whilst refusing to press a switch to move forward, interacting with objects causing me to get stuck there and so on. It certainly feels like the id Tech 6 engine wasn’t built with this kind of purpose in mind as from playing previous games built on it I know it’s not exactly prone to having issues like this.

Whilst Machine Games and Arkane Studios would have you believe that Youngblood is a spin-off it’s really anything but as the events that happen in it are part of the core story. The narrative functions mostly as a time warp to move everything forward 20 years for the upcoming Wolfenstein 3 whilst also adding in a few more characters which I’m sure will make an appearance. Indeed for all the time you’ll spend in the game nothing much of consequence really happens. Sure, Jessica and Sophia get fleshed out, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that they won’t be the main characters in Wolfenstein’s final instalment. For a series that had been actively improving its storytelling I had hoped we’d get something from Youngblood but it seems that wasn’t to be.

Wolfenstein: Youngblood is an unfortunate misstep for the franchise; an experiment that I hope the developers see really didn’t pay off. All of the changes made don’t do anything to make the game better than its predecessors and, in many cases, actively makes it worse. I don’t think any of my gripes really bear repeating in my closing statement so I’ll just leave you with this: if you were looking for another juicy instalment in the Wolfenstein series than this isn’t it for you. You’re going to (hopefully) be far better served by Wolfenstein 3 when it comes out.

Rating: 6.5/10

Wolfenstein: Youngblood is available on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch right now for $49.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 7 hours playtime and 40% of the achievements unlocked.

Unravel 2: Between Two Yarns.

A tried and true path to making a successful sequel is to hone in on what made the original great and build from there. For some games this is an easy road to tread, sometimes involving just dusting off ideas that couldn’t make the cut originally or streamlining certain things to focus on the game’s core. For others though it can be a more painful process, forcing the developers to shed parts of the game that they felt were core to the overall experience. Unravel 2 feels like a combination of these two ideals, adding in something that I never I knew I wanted in the original (co-op) whilst dropping what I felt was the weakest part of the game (the story) which I know the developers felt was the cornerstone of their game. The result of those two changes is an experience that far exceeds that of the original, one that my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed playing together.

Whilst there appears to be some semblance of a story going on in Unravel 2, told through ghost like figures playing out scenes in the background, it is most certainly not the focus of the game. Instead, if you play the game the way I feel it’s meant to be played (with another person), the story that will develop is one of the trials and tribulations you face as you try to progress through the game. For gamer/gamer pairs it’s possibly not one of much note, but for any other kind of pairing it’s going to be about how you figure out how best to work together, the hilarious situations that evolve when you don’t and the joy you’ll experience when everything just starts working.

Unravel 2 retains the same gorgeous, lovingly detailed art style that made the original so distinct. The models, texturing and environment design are all done with near photorealistic accuracy, aided by the clever use of other visual tricks. I have the feeling that, had we played this on PC, the visuals would have shown a marked step up but regardless they still looked absolutely amazing on the PS4. Yet again the backing soundtrack is wonderful, flowing along with you as you progress through a level. Coldwood Interactive have proven yet again that they’re capable of some exceptional levels of craftsmanship when it comes to a game’s audio visual experience. I look forward to whatever project they throw themselves into next just based on that alone.

At a nuts and bolts level Unravel 2 retains the same basic mechanics as its predecessor in its puzzle/platformer mechanics. The main difference is, of course, the fact that you have another player with you and most of the novel puzzle mechanics are based around that. I’m sure there’s some differences in the single player version since not all of the puzzles could be done with just one person, even if you were controlling both Yarnies. The challenge, for me at least, was helping my dear wife through various sections and the various hilarious things that would happen along the way. To her credit though she became quite apt at the game as we continued through the levels, even completing a few of the challenges once we really started to find our groove.

Many of the puzzles aren’t exactly novel in their design, taking the form of one player needing to do X so the other player can do Y which unlocks the path to the next section. The more advanced puzzles later on and the challenges do require a good amount of lateral thinking, some of them stumping us for a good few minutes before we could carry on. The later puzzles end up mostly relying on timing and your platforming prowess which, whilst a good challenge for a gamer like myself, proved to be extremely challenging for someone like my wife who doesn’t play as often. Of course for those sections you can just hitch a ride on the more capable player, something we did every so often after a few solid tries.

The team work aspect of Unravel 2 isn’t to be underestimated and you won’t simply be able to rely on a single skilled player to make it all the way through. For instance if you’re swinging around or in mid air and your partner decides to grab the yarn (to climb up to you, for instance) you’ll instantly lose all momentum and, if you’re airborne, fall to the ground like a rock. Initially I couldn’t figure out what was happening until I accidentally did it to my wife at one stage and it was then I realised that she was the cause of the seemingly random physics engine quirks that had been plaguing us to no end. Additionally there’s a number of puzzles where you won’t simply be able to run to the end and then hoist your partner up with you as your yarn simply isn’t long enough. This means either finding a creative way to get them closer or attempting the puzzle together.

Probably the most challenging (and by extension enjoyable) puzzles were the ones where you had to each get on a platform at opposite sides of the screen. This often required a bit of lateral thinking and planning your moves out in order for it to all work out. Some of those later puzzles use mechanics which you’d either not been introduced to or weren’t explained well (like the tension of a string when you’re tying it off) which can make them a tad frustrating to solve. The hint system here was good though, initially giving you a few nudges in the right direction before just outright telling you what to do. We only needed to use that once though but for lesser skilled players I’m sure it’ll be a saving grace.

There’s definitely been a lot of improvement in terms of the game’s overall polish when compared to its predecessor. Most of the original issues with Yarny are gone and the platforming mechanics feel a lot more solid than they previously did. Part of that is due to the lower reliance on physics based puzzles as the ones that do make use of that are still some of the more janky experiences the game has to offer. We did end up breaking the game completely at one stage where our respective Yarnies were on two sides of a stick which, for some reason, caused the physics engine to freak out and dropped the frame rate through the floor. This then buggered up the sound engine and made the game’s music start looping in a really weird fashion. Try as we might to fix it we had to restart to a previous checkpoint which, thankfully, solved the issue.

The story of my wife and I playing through Unravel 2 was an exceptionally enjoyable one, warts and all. She’s your typical sometimes gamer, able to grasp the basics quickly but hasn’t got the tens of thousands of hours of game time that I do which has honed my hand/eye coordination significantly. This lead to many great moments where she’d inadvertently hit buttons, controller flailing and all sorts of other amusing behaviours that made our time together with Unravel special. To be sure I’m not blameless here either, my bravado often resulting in my untimely demise because I figured I could make it through a puzzle quickly without considering the consequences. We did give up after doing a couple of the challenges though as they just weren’t as fun given their reliance on timing and technical skill rather than problem solving.

Unravel 2 took the best elements of the original and made them better through the addition of the co-op mechanics. The gorgeous visuals and amazing soundtrack are now signature items of Coldwood Interactive’s games, something I hope they continue to work on with any upcoming titles. Defocusing the story in favour of letting players craft their own through the simple act of playing the game results in an experience that will be very personal to those who play it with someone else. The increased polish on the core mechanics is very much welcome, even if there’s still a few minor edge cases to sort out. The original was a game that struggled to achieve its ambition whilst its sequel does so admirably, making it a much better experience overall. For gamers and non-gamers alike Unravel 2 is an experience that is well worth investing the time in.

Rating: 9.25/10

Unravel 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 8 hours of total game play and 14% of the achievements unlocked.

A Way Out: We Gotta Work Together.

Rewind the clock a decade or two and co-op games found themselves in something of a dark age. Most publishers were attempting to get players on the multi-player bandwagon, driven by increasing Internet penetration and a want to keep players engaged for longer on big name IPs. Titles like Left 4 Dead and other small squad based games breathed new life into the co-op playstyle and the indie renaissance brought with it the innovation to keep players interested. For many of the games co-op is an add-on, something to be enjoyed if you and your friends have the time to play together. Fewer are the games in which co-op is a hard requirement like it is for A Way Out. The premise, a co-op prison break, was enough to interest me with the developers (those who brought us Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons) sealing the deal. Whilst it falls a few steps short of my must-play games for this year it was certainly an interesting experience, if only for the fact that my wife and I shared a good few laughs while playing it.

Vincent Moretti is freshly incarcerated and sent to jail for murder. In jail, he meets thief Leo Caruso who had been arrested for grand theft. A group of thugs sent in by crime boss Harvey tries to murder Leo, but Vincent intervenes. While the two recover in the infirmary, they get to know each other and Leo requests Vincent’s help to steal a file from the office. Vincent complies. After the theft, Vincent senses that Leo is planning on a prison break and offers to help so he can escape too. Leo initially refuses, but begrudgingly agrees to collaborate when Vincent reveals he also has a grudge with Harvey. So begins their quest to hunt him down and exact the vengeance they crave.

Considering that this is Hazelight Studios first game (although not their first title as a team) the quality of their visual work is quite impressive. Whilst it might not reach the dizzying heights that say Far Cry 5 did it still does manage to do a lot with what its got. For people like me who are playing the game on a single console (original PlayStation 4 for reference) there are definitely some sacrifices being made in order to support the split screen parts of the game. Mostly this comes in from the lack of detail when you get up close which can become quite noticeable in the in-game cutscenes. I haven’t done a blow by blow comparison between my screenshots and the same from PC but I can hazard a guess that they wouldn’t suffer the same fate, given that the Unreal 4 engine is powering everything.

A Way Out is a split screen co-op game where you’ll be tasked with all sorts of different challenges, most of which will require you cooperating with your partner in order to complete. Some of these take the form of the usual co-op puzzle affair, like you holding down a switch to keep a door open while they go through, to some unique and interesting puzzles which I don’t think I’ve ever come across before. All the scenes are also littered with things for you to interact with from people (providing dialogue and story background) to objects which may or may not be related to the puzzle at hand. All the challenges will have multiple ways of approaching them, something which is not always readily apparent. There’s stealth and combat sections as well which will quickly make you realise that even the biggest TV will feel cramped when half of it is gone. If it sounds like there’s a lot to this game then you’re right and one the game’s weaknesses is the lack of focus on the elements which mean the most to the overall experience.

The core puzzle solving mechanics are well done, making good use of the fact that you’re required to work together. Most sections play out in a similar way: you’re given your object, a little spiel about how you might go about it and then are let loose in the room to figure it out. That room will usually have a bunch of things for you to look through although, honestly, most aren’t worth your time. Whilst its nice that some of the NPCs have a background story none of them will ever help you with anything, nor will learning random things about your environment. Indeed the objective you’re given is pretty much all the info you’ll need, all you need to do is find the requisite items and execute the right sequence. If you’re a seasoned gamer you’ll likely breeze through most of them however if, like my wife, you’re not exactly the gaming type things can get…well…

You see my wife, bless her socks, whilst having a solid history of titles she’s enjoyed (Animal Crossing, World of Warcraft and Until Dawn to name a few) she doesn’t have the same twitch reflex muscles that someone who’s invested over 200 hours into Destiny might. So there were quite a few puzzles where we’d fail in spectacular fashion, often with quite hilarious results. To her credit though towards the end she started to perform quite well, even saving my ass a couple times during the shooting sequences. This is, of course, one of the joys of local co-op and A Way Out does ensure that mismatched experience levels are catered for relatively well. Suffice to say if you’re thinking of giving this game a go the only thing stopping you was the experience of your chosen co-op partner I don’t think you have that much to worry about.

Combat could really have used more attention as the shooting feels clunky and unrefined. It’s your typical third person, cover based shooter with infinitely regenerating health but even I was struggling to reliably take down enemies. There’s also not a great deal of room to experiment with the different weapon types as you select one to begin with and there’s only a few places where you can change your selection later on. Combining this with the 50% loss of screen real estate, which makes enemies just that much harder to make out, and the shooting sections are more of a chore than they need to be. I’ll lay the blame for this partly on the fact that there are so, so many mini-games in A Way Out that it’s not surprising that some aspects received a lot less attention than they should have. Given the pedigree of the developers I had expected a relatively high amount of focus on the core elements they wanted to make good. Maybe the combat just wasn’t one of them.

 

A Way Out is a mostly trouble free experience although it does still have a few issues that will crop up from time to time. The above screenshot is a great example of what happens when the physics engine gets confused, rocketing my wife straight up after she rolled into a crate. The cover system is also a little finicky, sometimes not responding in the way you’d expect it. Thankfully these issues are both minor and uncommon so they don’t mar the overall experience too much. We did avoid a great number of the mini games however so it’s quite possible there’s all manner of bugs hiding in places I simply didn’t look.

The story of A Way Out takes a really, really long time to get going enough that my wife wasn’t particularly interested in picking it back up after our initial 2 hour session. I did manage to convince her to come back to it and, whilst the second half is a lot better, it’s probably still a bit too drawn out. Additionally given that a great deal of the story is told in retrospect a lot of tension is taken out of many of the critical plot points. Given the fact that the strongest part of the game, the final hour, is the only part that’s not told in retrospect I have to wonder why it was presented in that way in the first place. All things considered A Way Out’s story is probably best described as interesting but forgettable.

A Way Out brings another unique perspective on what co-op games can be, eschewing the current trend for drop-in/drop-out play. Hazelight Studio’s first release is of a very high standard, especially considering that it’s available on all major platforms. The game is bristling with detail something which is both one of its strongest points and also its greatest weakness. Certain parts of the game that could have used a little more love, like the stealth and combat, don’t feel as polished as they need to be. The mini games and other parts are nice but I’d trade most of them out for more focus on the core elements of the game. Finally the story suffers in its delivery, only finding its feet once it casts off the shackles of its retrospective narration. All this being said I don’t regret giving A Way Out a go and I’m sure more gaming couples could find something to love in it.

Rating: 8.0/10

A Way Out is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 5 hours of total play time and 29% of the achievements unlocked.

Warhammer: Vermintide 2: Left 4 Rotblood.

There’s a fairly predictable cycle in games when it comes to new genres. Typically there’ll be a bunch of relatively unknown titles that will experiment with various mechanics, setting the groundwork for the games that follow. Then comes the breakout hit, now usually an Early Access title, which gets heralded as the next big thing. Then come the clones, dozens upon dozens of clones, all of which attempt to emulate the breakout’s success. Most of these will fall by the wayside although a few will go on to develop the idea further, finding a dedicated niche for their particular brand of the new genre. Warhammer: The End Times – Vermintide did exactly that, taking the essence of the Left 4 Dead formula and reworking it into a truly unique experience. I wasn’t aware a sequel was in the works so when I saw Vermintide II, had been released I was keen to see what direction Fatshark had decided to take this IP in. By and large it’s the same game but far more of it; much of it streamlined for a much more enjoyable experience overall.

Following the events of the first game, Grey Seer Rasknitt has successfully captured the five Heroes of Ubersreik. Without the interference of the heroes, the city of Ubersreik fell to the forces of Clan Fester. Rasknitt has since ordered the construction of a massive portal known as the Skittergate, which will allow the Chaos Champion Bödvarr Ribspreader and his Rotblood army easy access to the border-city of Helmgart. However, the Skittergate continuously fails to properly operate, disallowing Bödvarr to summon the entirety of his forces. When the Skittergate disastrously fails to activate again, the resulting destruction frees one of the heroes, Markus Kruber, from captivity. He fights his way through the skaven lair and reunites with the rest of the heroes: Viktor Saltzpyre, Bardin Goreksson, Sienna Fuegonasus and Kerllian. They then band together once again to push back against the Skaven and the Rotbloods.

Vermintide II makes use of the same Autodesk Stingray engine that its predecessor did, albeit with a bunch of modern improvements such as: DirectX 12 support, volumetric lighting and fog, texture streaming and an enhanced fluid system. The levels are noticeably less barren than its predecessor too, brimming with details at nearly every corner. There’s also a lot more variety in the levels than there was previously with not every level taking place in a run down medieval town. There are a few areas which could do with some attention though, like the ones bathed in fog which seem to torpedo your performance no matter how beefy your system is. Whether or not Fatshark will continue developing on this engine though is anyone’s guess as Autodesk has discontinued development on the engine as of January this year. Suffice to say I wouldn’t expect Vermintide III in the next 2 years or so if an engine change is on the books.

The core game mechanics of Vermintide II haven’t changed much from its predecessor, retaining the same game play that made the original fun. It’s still a melee first game, one with 5 different characters and a varying array of loot to change them up a bit, however there’s also now 3 “careers” per character. Each of them changes the passive and active ability of the character whilst retaining your level, giving you an opportunity to try different playstyles without having to change classes and start levelling all over again. The loot and crafting system has been streamlined, making progression a little more clear than it previously was. The mission structure has also been streamlined, making it a bit easier to follow the campaign’s story (if that’s of interest). Overall the Vermintide II experience is very much the same as its predecessor, just refined and polished with the lessons that Fatshark has learnt over the past couple years.

Combat still feels the same with you facing down untold legions of enemies in face-to-face melee combat. With the introduction of the Chaos into the mix there’s a wider variety of enemies although, truth be told, most of them are just different skins on the same kinds of enemies. The same depth of combat remains with the intricacies of dodging, blocking and using the right weapon type all making a big difference in how challenging a particular level is for you. This time around I decided to play as the elf which, whilst incredibly fun, probably wasn’t the best choice given my penchant to get far too personal with large groups of enemies. This was largely negated by her passive (allowing me to heal up to half health) though so I think it worked out in the end. I have heard (and seen) that the dwarf is currently stupidly overpowered but haven’t had a chance to give it a go myself.

The loot system has been streamlined although the same modifier mechanics remain. Hidden throughout each of the levels are 3 tomes (which replace your healing potion), 2 grimoires (which replace your potion slot and reduce your party’s health) and potentially some loot dies. Each of these will increase the quality of the loot box you’ll get at the end of the level, should you complete it. Each of those boxes contains 3 items with the higher grade boxes having a higher chance of better gear. All of the items power is directly related to your current power so, at least in the early stages, its best to just equip whatever the highest power items are that you have. The quality of the items just increases the number of additional buffs and traits they have with exotics, the highest tier, having unique abilities. Just like its predecessor this allows for an insane amount of customisation for your character, granting you the ability to hone your playstyle to its ultimate perfection.

Crafting is best used to replace that one item you’ve had that’s lagging behind all others. Much like the loot boxes crafted items will be rolled at your current power so it’s quite unlikely that you’ll be able to get a big boost from crafting something which is already close to your current max. Instead if say all your gear is at 100 but one is at 90 crafitng a replacement for that slot will likely yield the biggest gains. Similarly, whilst you can upgrade the quality of the items, it doesn’t change their power. This is somewhat unfortunate if you have a build centered on one item and its power starts to lag but such is the loot treadmill in this game. Crafting up to exotic level is possible however, just rather expensive, so you’ll likely be able to re-craft a certain item if you need to bump up its power level. There’s also apparently “veteran” level items which are red and max stat rolled versions of their exotic counterparts but I’ve yet to see one since I’m still a scrub playing around in Recruit difficulty.

The additional polish means there’s fewer issues in Vermintide II than there was in its predecessor but it’s far from bug free. My poor dwarf friend in the screenshot above got stuck in a piece of the environment which, whilst hilarious, left him stranded there. Thankfully we had a boss spawn shortly afterwards which knocked him out but without that he would have had to leave the game completely. Some levels still have the rather irritating bug of enemies spawning behind walls or being able to clip through them, so sometimes you can end up with a packmaster pulling one of your colleagues away to a place where you can’t get to them. We even had a globedier spawn behind a wall at one point, allowing him to lob gas grenades at us unhindered whilst we tried to deal with a bile troll at the same time. If your group is skilled enough issues like this won’t stop you from completing a level but given that this doesn’t feel like intentional behaviour it’s more of a chore than a challenge.

There is a story here, one that I’m sure has some detail to it, but it seems to fade into the background. The banter between your characters is as good as ever, ensuring that I quickly grew to despise the elf I was playing because she’s just an insufferable ass. But apart from that I’d be hard pressed to tell you anything about the game’s overall story beyond the fact that the skaven teamed up with the chaos in order to sack Ubersik and we’re trying to stop them. I’ve also not managed to complete a single chapter either, my attempts at the final boss in Act 1 always meeting with disaster either through players leaving or the not-so-great bots providing little help in those fights. That all being said I have played this game for far longer than I did its predecessor so maybe, eventually, I’ll figure out what’s going on in the story.

Warhammer: Vermintide II is a solid improvement over its predecessor, retaining the core of what made the game fun and cutting away much of the extraneous cruft. The improved game engine ensures that the new, highly detailed environments are able to shine through even if a few of them could do with a bit more optimisation. Combat, levelling and crafting have all been streamlined for the better, making the overall playing experience that much better. Some of the same issues that plagued its predecessor still remain however but aren’t beyond fixing through a few good patches. Overall, for a gaming I wasn’t expecting a sequel to so soon, I’m impressed by what Warhammer: Vermintide II brings to the table and I’m sure I’ll be spending a few more good hours in it over the coming months.

Rating: 9.0/10

Warhammer: Vermintide II is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 12 hours game time and 27% of the achievements unlocked.

The Division Patch 1.8: The Game We All Wanted on Release.

The 1.0 version of The Division was a pretty great experience although its end game content was somewhat lacking. Indeed at the time of writing the review I was some 37 hours in and I only racked up another 8 before calling it quits altogether. Soon afterwards the incursion patch released but, frankly, there wasn’t enough in it to bring me back. Ever since then I’ve heard rumblings of the changes they’ve made, the content that’s been added and how all of that has resulted in a very well rounded game. With a couple of my friends recommending that I come back to give it a go I figured it’d be worth a shot and, honestly, if Massive Entertainment released this back in 2016 they would’ve been staring down the barrel of several game of the year awards.

The numerous patches since then haven’t expanded the story directly per se, however with the addition of new areas, encounters and whatnot the narrative world of The Division has expanded significantly. There’s a small amount of story explaining the background of the new additions to the game but you’ll likely miss most of it if you’re not paying attention. Like before a lot of the greater world building is done through the various kinds of collectibles you can find around the place, most of which will just build out the backstory of the main campaign a little more. It’d be nice to see some story focused DLC as I really did enjoy the campaign back on initial release but honestly with the rest of the changes that have come through I can see why it was probably left on the todo list.

The Division has retained its dedication to filling the world with incredible amounts of detail, something I had completely forgotten about in the near 2 years since I last played. Indeed that detail extends beyond just throwing random stuff everywhere as the level design itself is incredibly complex as well. I couldn’t tell you how many times me and my crew managed to get ourselves lost (in areas that we must have been through dozens of times before no less) when we’re on the hunt for an objective or similar. I’d usually chalk this up as a negative but it’s actually helped keep those same areas feeling fresh for much longer than you’d otherwise expect. Unfortunately I haven’t upgraded my machine since I last played (that’s probably coming next year) so I couldn’t really bump up any of the settings from their previous defaults. Maybe next time.

The amount of different activities that have been added, as well as the ones that have been revamped, are so numerous that returning players are likely to feel pretty overwhelmed. The good news is there’s really no required activity that you have to do, nor will you find yourself struggling to progress thanks to the tweaks to how enemies (and the loot they drop) scales. Essentially you have the ability to set the overall world’s difficulty as well as the challenge of the encounter itself. The first sets the level of the loot you’ll get and the latter the amount. This is great for gearing up as you can tweak the settings to get the most out of pretty much any encounter you’ll be doing. Loot drops aren’t restricted to any particular location either, meaning no matter what you end up doing you have a chance of getting the best gear. Of course the harder, higher end activities have better guaranteed loot to entice you to take on the challenge rather than just mindlessly farming.

Like all good loot treadmills the gear which allowed me to steamroll basically any encounter was made completely redundant upon logging in. My mix of high end and purple gear nowhere near the maximum attainable power level and so the loot grind began again in earnest. All in all though it only took me about 10 hours to get to the 270 range and from there it’s all about finding the gear with the right rolls to fill out whatever build you may be going for. Of course everything is about the sets and their bonuses now and whatever bonus takes your fancy will dictate the rest of your build. For now I’m still running with the best of what I have for the most part (I was lucky enough to get a Ninjabike bag which has made things easier) but am hoping to complete a full Predator’s Mark set in the not too distant future.

Thankfully not everything is left to just pure RNG and there are various ways in order to get the gear you want or, and this is definitely something I think all RNG loot games need, a way to optimise a drop to its ultimate potential. The Division isn’t shy with lavishing you with loot however it only does so because getting the right combination of stats and talents is infinitesimally rare. The recalibration station allows you to reroll a single talent on guns and a single stat on armour which sometimes can be enough to turn it from useable into a must-have. However the optimisation station means that a perfect set of stats with bad rolls can be brought up to the top tier rolls with enough farming. Sure, you don’t want to have to do this for every item, but for that one item which amps up your build significantly it’ll be worth the price of admission. Sadly I only realised that Ninjabike didn’t work for classified sets otherwise I wouldn’t have wasted my Division Tech on it.

However even with a rag tag bunch of armour pieces and weapons you’ll likely find that pretty much everything in The Division is available to you. Whilst my friend and I have been playing for a duo for the most part we only started to really hit the challenge wall past the 10 hour mark. At that point most of the higher end activities don’t appear to scale with group size and so are balanced for full teams of 4. Unfortunately it seems matchmaking at the moment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be as we’ve often gone through whole missions with it active before someone eventually joins. Still we’ve managed to farm in other areas without too much hassle so it’s not like we’re cut off from getting those shiny teal and red items.

The Dark Zone, which used to be this weird PVE but kind of PVP area, has now found its feet with the new changes to the zone. Previously it was pretty much just a high end gear farming place, one where someone going rogue was considered rude rather than part of the game. Now rogue agents are a real threat, one you have to be cautious of if you want to plunder the sweet loot in the area. I had many great encounters in the DZ, most of which ended with me and my team dead on the floor. However nothing is sweeter than the revenge you can take on them when they try to extract out with your loot. It might not be the most efficient way to farm items, especially if you’re actively looking for trouble, but it is one of the more enjoyable ones, especially with all the stories you’ll tell afterwards.

Some things haven’t received much love in the last 2 years though, namely the UI. Whilst I still love the aesthetic and simplicity of the UI when you’re run and gunning inventory management is something of a nightmare. Scrolling through dozens of items and trying to compare them to what you have is a real chore and the gear score really only tells half the story. If you’re min-maxing a particular build it’s easy to figure out what you need but even then you’re still likely to be carrying around a bunch of other items “just in case” you want to try a different one. There’s also other parts of the inventory that aren’t well described in-game (I have 6 different types of grenades? What do I need water for?) and honestly I can’t remember if they were even explained during the campaign. This doesn’t affect the overall enjoyment of the game too much but, given the amount of polish the rest of the game received, these parts do stick out more than they otherwise would.

The Division as it stands today isn’t the game I stopped playing all those years ago. The amount of diversity in terms of items, builds and activities is an order of magnitude above the game I remember. The core game play, which I quite enjoyed, remains mostly the same with the variety coming from the numerous gear sets which change the way the game plays out dramatically. Loot is plentiful but still a pain to manage, something I had hoped would have been improved over the years. All in all though it seems the rumours surrounding The Division being a game worth playing now are well justified and if you, like me, left it long ago now is definitely the time to jump back in.

Rating: 9.25/10

The Division is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $89.95, $99.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 60 hours of total playtime (15 in patch 1.8).

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.