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.
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 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.
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).
If you’ve ever played GTA V online you’ll know that one of its standout features is the heists. A good group of mates and I have run through them numerous times, usually late at night with each of us cradling a wine glass in the other hand. So when we starting hearing that Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands was basically just the heists part of GTA Online we decided that we’d give it a shot. Whilst it’s not exactly as we expected there are aspects that heisters from GTA will adore, especially if you’re after a game that you’ll be playing for dozens of hours.
The year is 2019 and Bolivia has fallen victim to the ruthless drug cartel, Santa Blanca. Now a narco state, producing the lion’s share of the world’s cocaine, it has caught the attention of the United States government. However it took the bombing of their embassy, and the death of one of their DEA agents, before they felt compelled to intervene. Not wanting to be seen interfering in a sovereign state’s affairs they have decided to send in you: a member of the elite unit called the Ghosts. It will be up to you to see the completion of operation Kingslayer, with its ultimate target being the leader of the cartel.
Wildlands uses the AnvilNext engine which has brought us other stunning titles such as For Honor and Steep. The environments of Wildlands are massive, spanning dozens of in-game kilometers. It makes the usual open-world trade offs, sacrificing scale for detail. The result is a game that’s exceptionally pretty when you’re flying over or driving through it but up close the repetitive assets and lack of detail start to become apparent. Performance is good overall, striking a good balance between pretty visuals and consistent frame rates. Overall it feels like a step up from similar open world titles and aptly demonstrates the versatility that the AnvilNext engine is capable of.
The core game of Wildlands is your typical open world game, throwing you into a big wide space that’s filled with missions, collectibles and random encounters that you can partake in at your leisure. Progression is a two part mechanic: the first is skill points that are gained through completing missions which can then be spent on skills but only if you have the requisite resources, collected from just about anywhere. Weapons and their various upgrades are scattered around the map, requiring a bit of leg work to craft the perfect gun for your play style. The game is always played with 4 total people in your team, whether they be friends you’ve brought in or AIs if you’re playing alone. If you’re playing on anything but the hardest difficulty the game could easily just be a run of the mill third person shooter but at the peak difficulty it’s necessary to take a far more tactical approach.
In general a mission will usually go through a few phases. The first will be recon, where you’ll utilize a drone to scout the area and tag as many of the enemy as you can. You’ll then attempt to take out as many of them as you can without alerting the rest of them which you’ll sometimes be able to do without incident. However, 9 times out of 10 I’d say, you’ll end up making a mistake that alerts everyone to your position and from there it’s a no-holds barred shoot out until one of you is dead. If you’ve got the patience though you can retreat and reset for another stealth attempt, although it’ll likely be a lot harder the second time around. After that there’s usually some objective to complete which often sends through another wave of enemies for you to take care of. Overall it’s not the most inventive game in terms of mechanics but they do blend together quite well.
Progression is pretty steady throughout the game, so long as you take the time to tag enough supplies to ensure you can level up your skills. In between levels and runs for supplies you’ll typically stumble across a weapon or mod blueprint which you can then use straight away if you get to a load out point. It’s slow enough that you don’t feel overwhelmed with options but also fast enough that you’re never wanting for the next step up. If the open world genre appeals to you then it’s likely to keep drawing you in for multiple hours. For me however things started to wear thin rather quickly.
Like all co-op games Wildlands is better with friends but even then it becomes quickly apparent just how same-y everything is. Most missions play out roughly the same, although they do get more interesting as you unlock some of the more ridiculous upgrades. Most weapons in the same class aren’t different enough to make them feel satisfying when you acquire them and you’ll often get lots of upgrades for weapons you don’t currently have. It has the same feel as a MMORPG grind but without the payoff of showing off your gear in the armory. It’s a criticism I’ve leveled at other open world games before so it’ll be a red letter day when one game manages to address it successfully.
Another notable misstep is the vehicle physics which, whilst slightly improved from the open beta, are still janky and weird when compared to other similar titles. Helicopters have a weird flight model which appears to function purely based on momentum, usually whichever vector has the highest value at any point in time. Ground vehicles are neigh on impossible to keep flipped over which leads to a whole bunch of weird and wonderful interactions. It might sound like a minor gripe but when you spend so much of the game going from point A to point B small things like this are unfortunately very noticeable. It’s not beyond fixing however, but the last patch or two didn’t make any noticeable improvements.
The story is average, not terrible but not particularly noteworthy. There are some nice touches, like the various bits of banter the team has between missions which helps flesh out the main characters. The main story line though isn’t particularly interesting as, thanks to the open world construction, there’s no real impetus driving you forward to any one objective. Indeed even the over-arching goal that the game sets out early on seems to be a million miles away all the time. Perhaps it gets better with more time invested but if a story can’t grab me in the first 4 hours then it’s not likely to do it in the next 20.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a decent open world/RPG hybrid, one that I’m sure a certain type of player will find a lot to love in it. The visuals are definitely a step above its current peers, made even more impressive by the fact that the engine isn’t specifically designed for this type of game. The combat is challenging and rewarding, even if it starts to feel a little bit repetitive after a while. It suffers from the same spread of issues that plague all open world games, something I hope one day to see solved. The vehicle mechanics could be improved on significantly, something which would make a good bulk of the experience just that much better. Finally the story is nothing to write home about but, considering I couldn’t push myself to put more time into it, there’s every chance it gets more engrossing with a few more hours chucked in. Overall I think Tom Clancy’s Wildland’s is a competent game, just not one I think I’ll be playing without friends or sober, if I can manage it.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $49 on all platforms. Game was played in both the open beta and full release with approximately 8 hours spent equally across both.
Having been playing games for as long as I have it’s interesting to see certain ideas come and go. I remember about 5 years ago a quirky little offshoot of the Spore franchise was released, called Darkspore. In it you played a creature that you could modify with different pieces of…other creatures, much like you could in the original Spore game. You acquired these by defeating enemies, usually co-operatively with other players. Whilst it was never really mainstream it did manage to stick around until March this year before closing. Battleborn is a similar idea brought to us care of Gearbox, renowned for their prowess in developing loot-focused FPS RPGs. However its release coincided with the open beta weekend of Overwatch. Whilst they are decidedly different games it’s going to be a challenge for Battleborn to shine in Overwatch’s shadow, even with Gearbox’s pedigree behind it.
The universe is dying. A cataclysmic event has seen all the planets and stars die out, leaving behind nothing but darkness. There is but one star left, Solus, and all the remaining life forms have gathered around it in hopes of protecting it. However many evil forces would see Solus meet its end long before its due. That is where you come in, dear Battleborn, being part of an elite group charged with defending Solus from all the threats it faces. Of course we understand that your services aren’t free and you’ll have your share of phat lewts and credits to make it worth your while. So, are you ready to save the universe?
Battleborn brings with it Gearbox’s trademark cell shaded aesthetic that was made popular with the Borderlands series. Graphically there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of improvements since The Pre-Sequel, likely because they’re both powered by the same Unreal 3 engine under the hood. However there’s usually quite a lot more going on in Battleborn so keeping the graphics at a similar level is likely to ensure it remains playable under load. In that respect it does well being able to maintain constant framerates even when there’s a cacophony of destruction happening on screen. I would have liked a few more in-game options to tweak the visuals up a little more like AA or something similar (I can’t remember seeing an option for that in-game).
Mechanically Battleborn feels very similar to Borderlands in some respects, what with it being a FPS RPG. However the progression system is vastly different with in-game levels and talent tree choices being for that particular mission or PVP match only. You’ll still get oodles of loot though, most of which is not character specific and thus can be used to customize any of the Battleborns you have unlocked. There are character and player levels however and each of those will reward you with new perks, characters and various cosmetics. The core game mechanic can either be a kind of single-instance PVE mission or a straight up PVP match. Either of them will last about 30 minutes in total and can be played solo or in groups. If it’s sounding like there’s a lot going on in Battleborn then you’re right and it’s really quite hard to summarize it in a single paragraph. If you ever played Darkspore though a lot of this will seem familiar to you as it largely similar, just with Gearbox’s usual flair for the comic and ludicrous layered on top.
Matches or missions start out the same: you and your team pick out which characters you want to use. Whilst you could say that all characters fit into the tank/dps/support paradigm most of them broach more than one of those categories. Group composition still matters however as lack of sustain, damage or the ability to soak up damage will make your life a lot harder than it should be. Once you’ve chosen your characters you’re stuck with them until the mission is over, something which can be a little annoying if you come up against another group that counters you well. Still, just like with other MOBAs, even heroes that counter each other can be overcome with skill and good teamwork, something which you’ll need a lot of to succeed in Battleborn.
The in-game progression system, whereby you can get up to 10 levels per game and choose talents to suit, is an interesting twist. It encourages you to experiment with different combinations of talents between games and helps ensure that playing the same character over and over doesn’t get boring. Similarly the loot you get through playing, which has to be activated with the in-match currency of shards, allows you to further refine your character to the situation at hand. One gripe I will make here is that the levelling system can seem to vary wildly. Sometimes I’d get level after level whilst other times, seemingly doing the same thing I was doing before, would result in a trickle of XP. This isn’t too much of an issue in the PVE scenarios however for PVP it can make quite a huge difference. I’m sure there’s an explanation for this somewhere but it’s not explained clearly in game.
Of course the hook that Gearbox built into Battleborn is the loot which comes to you via random drops or purchasing loot packs using in-game currency. The attributes are random, as is the loot quality, meaning that you’ll be working for some time to get that perfect piece of kit for your load out. I lucked out with a few good drops early on which made my healer classes quite powerful and hence tended to play them more often than not. If you’re the kind of person who spent many hours farming pearlescents then I’m sure this kind of loot system will appeal to you. However it does mean there’s a drastic gap between new and old players, something which can become readily apparent in the PVP matches. A few decent drops can close that gap a little bit, but a person with all greens is going to be far less effective than someone who’s got legendaries across the board.
Initially Battleborn is quite overwhelming as there’s just so much going on at once it’s hard to get a handle on it all. After a few hours though things start to make sense at it becomes one of those oh-so-fun min/maxing problems that RPG fans like me love. If gear is what you’re after you are best placed to do the PVE missions although getting a good group (who will mean you get more loot) can be a little hard. You can, of course, run this with friends which would make the whole thing a lot easier. Unlocking all the Battleborns will take some time however as even with my 13 hours of play time I was barely halfway through unlocking them all. I’m sure this is by design however as Gearbox is hoping that Battleborn will be the game to hook its fans for the next few years.
One small gripe I want to level at Battleborn was some of the limits of the matchmaking system. You can’t, for instance, queue for specific missions. If you’re trying to complete the main quest line this can be rather frustrating, especially when people don’t vote for the map you want to do. Additionally should the matchmaking system not find someone for you to group with it’ll put you in solo, something which I think most players would not want. Indeed there’s an option to do it privately so, by definition, choosing matchmaking means you want to play with others. This could be easily fixed by including an option to find a full group before proceeding, something which I would’ve gladly used instead of trying to struggle through a mission myself or with just one other player.
The story of Battleborn comes with Gearbox’s usual flair for the comedic and absurd. It definitely helps to lighten up what can otherwise be a bit of a dull grind, especially on some of the longer missions, although it does mean that the story doesn’t go terribly deep. Of course you’re not playing Battleborn for the story, you’re doing it for the loot, so the fact that most characters are fleshed out well is just a bonus. It looks like Gearbox are planning additional PVE story missions as part of their DLC too which will only further expand the story. Overall it’s a solid story experience that keeps it light and fun, as we’ve come to expect.
Battleborn brings a lot to the table, so much so that its hard to describe the game in a few sentences. At its heart it shares the same FPS RPG mechanics that Gearbox developed so well with the Borderlands series but the differences between the two games could not be more stark. The inclusion of both PVE and PVP game modes, both of which offer solid avenues of progression, means that Battleborn is targeted to a much wider audience than the gun grinders of Borderlands. Suffice to say if like shooting things, characters that bring with them a truckload of levity and love a good loot chase then Battleborn is right up your alley.
Battleborn is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $59.99, $77 and $77 respectively. Game was played on the PC with approximately 13 hours of total play time and 24% of the achievements unlocked.
There’s a small trend developing which I like to call MMORPG-Light. Essentially developers are looking to craft the big, epic experience of a MMORPG but are concerned about the way to sustain it. Whilst Free to Play is the way many attempt to go you’re competing against so many in the same space it’s hard to stand out. The traditional subscription model is a much harder sell with only a few lumbering giants still maintaining that model going forward. Thus they choose somewhere in the middle, often in the form of regular paid expansions or season passes. We saw it first with Destiny and now with The Division, the latest game in the Tom Clancy universe.
On Black Friday a terrible disease sweeps through New York City. Known only as the Green Poison it devastates Manhattan and causes widespread chaos, requiring the city to be put into quarantine. You are an agent of The Division, an elite unit with sleeper units embedded everywhere around the world, tasked with dealing with situations like this. You are part of the Second Wave of agents, tasked with retaking Manhattan and tracking down the source of the epidemic. It won’t be easy however as the lawlessness has given rise to gangs of looters, crazed workers and paramilitary corporations looking to exploit the chaos. You will do battle with them all agent as there is no one else left who can.
The Division comes to us via a new engine called Snowdrop, developed by Massive for use on next-generation consoles (except the WiiU) and PCs. Unlike other MMORPG styled games The Division is a visual assault of detail, down the most interesting levels. For instance shooting out glass works almost exactly how you’d expect it to, with pieces breaking off and shattering much like it would in real life. Things like that, coupled with the incredible attention given to all of the environments, makes for a very immersive experience. This is what makes the relatively small world seem so impressive as there’s just so much to explore when compared to your more traditional MMORPG affair. It’s also worth mention that the sound design of The Division is well above any other game I’ve played which helps to sell you on the world even further.
The comparisons to Destiny, which would appear to be its closest relative, are somewhat apt however The Division leans much more heavily towards a more traditional MMORPG experience. There’s no classes to speak of but you can choose from an array of skills that can be unlocked through gathering supplies for various parts of your base. There’s talents and perks to choose from that allow you to further customize your character to your play style. There’s quests to be done and dungeons to plunder, all in the name of the ultimate goal of any RPG game: the quest for sweet loot. However the end game of The Division is unlike that of any other game out there, being a hybrid model of PVP and PVE. It’s a game that definitely has the potential to capture you for a long period of time, however due to its end game design it feels like there’s an expiration date for nearly all who play it.
Combat comes in the form of your standard cover-based shooter, augmented by the RPG elements of skills and talents. You’ll spend most of your time running between cover, taking shots and enemies doing much the same. Often you’ll have to strategize to make sure that certain enemies are downed quickly before others, lest they wipe your entire group. You have semi-infinite health regeneration in the form 3 bars which will regenerate over time but not into the next bar. You’re also limited by the amount of ammunition you carry although until the end game you’re never likely to run out. The variety of different kinds of weapons means that there’s something to suit almost any playstyle, although you’ll be quick to learn that close combat is as much a fool’s errand here as it is everywhere else. Overall the combat is enjoyable even if it isn’t particularly inventive.
Progression is comparatively fast paced with max level (30) reached in around 20 hours or so. Each main quest will easily give you a full level and the side quests/events giving you anywhere from 10%~20%. You’ll also be receiving lavishings of gear, talents and perks as you level up and complete quests, meaning you’re never too far off feeling like you’re getting somewhere. This can be a good or bad thing depending on who you ask as it’s far too easy to lose long stretches of time, especially when it comes to the longer, more in depth missions. For a seasoned MMORPGer like myself I liked the reduced amount of effort required to max out my character, although beyond that point things start to get a little murky.
Like with any MMORPG the end game is all about the loot and crafting your character to be the best they possibly can be. In The Division this comes through three main avenues: the Dark Zone, Challenge Modes and Phoenix credits. The Dark Zone is the open slather PVP arena that’s peppered with numerous NPCs who drop end game gear. However you can’t simply pick it up and walk out with it, instead you need to go to an extraction point to lift it out. At any point between when you pick up the loot and when you extract it another agent can kill you and take it. This leads to some rather tense situations where you’re all sitting around an extraction point, hoping no one gets any bright ideas. The Challenge Modes are simply harder versions of the regular missions which give better rewards at the end. Both of these activities give you the end game currency of Phoenix Credits which can then be redeemed for high end gear. So no matter your preferred play style you’ll be able to get end game loot but how long you keep at that is anyone’s guess.
You see once you get that gear there’s really not much more to do. My current character is already sporting half high end gear and half purples and there’s really no more content that’s beyond me. Sure, my team still struggles to do challenge modes perfectly on the first go but we can still do them in a reasonable time frame. With other MMORPGs there’d be some kind of raid or equivalent for us to try our mettle against but, in its current state, The Division lacks any further high end content. This means that for hard/casual-core players we’re likely to tap ourselves out in the coming week or so with no new content in sight for some time. Granted this is something on the order of 60+ hours worth of game play, but that’s minuscule when compared to other MMORPGs. It’s an interesting issue that Massive will need to tackle if they want to keep everyone interested between content drops.
The Division is also anything but a perfect experience, marred by weird behaviour, glitches and the ever present threat of server lag. Quite often you’ll find skills not working how they’re supposed to, physics bugs trapping you in certain places or things straight up not working at all. The server lag issue remained throughout my play time, even after the initial burst of players settled down somewhat. This usually manifests itself as damage occurring in chunks and NPCs moving in fits and bursts. Thankfully I only had one crash to speak of but I did have numerous other times where I or another party member was dumped to menu or sent back to my last safe house. Overall though the experience was good when compared to other MMORPGs, even if it was frustrating at times.
The story of The Division is interesting, having a modicum of depth to it thanks to it’s roots in Tom Clancy’s writings. It’s an interesting twist on the post-apocalyptic scene that’s all the rage currently, giving a good explanation to the “everyone is the hero” problem that many similar games face. The various enemy factions you face are given decent development, making them more than just faceless masses you need to wade through in the quest for purples. Since this is a game that’s going to evolve substantially over the coming year though it feels like the current conclusion is just a stop gap until they can get the content engine turning. Suffice to say that most people aren’t going to be play this for the plot but it provides a serviceable narrative none the less.
The Division is an excellent MMORPG-Light experience, finding a solid balance between more traditional mechanics and a more modern, streamlined approach. The world is exceptionally well crafted with everything from the detailed environments to the sound design to even the UI blending together to create an incredibly immersive experience. The core mechanics are solid, providing a good challenge and well paced progression. The experience isn’t seamless, although given this is Massive’s first attempt at such a game its commendable how polished the final product is. The narrative is bolstered by the Tom Clancy name and writings, even if it’s somewhat secondary to what most players will be looking for in this game. Overall The Division is an excellent game that’s been deserving of much of the hype it received before release but the true test, in how long it can continue to captivate players, is still ahead of it.
The Division is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $89.95, $99.95 and $99.95 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 37 hours of total playtime, reaching max level and completing all missions.
I, like many of my generation, spent far too much of my time in Games Workshop stores as a teenager. I’d go there to gawk that the miniatures, painted in such exquisite detail that I tried and failed to replicate. That was only half of it though, the sense of community among those of us who’d spend as much time as we could at these places was far and above anything else. Thus the rather tumultuous path that the Games Workshop has walked these past few years has been tough as many of us felt they no longer cared about us, their biggest fans. However one good thing has come out all this and that has been Games Workshop’s more generous attitude towards licensing out its IP. The latest such incarnation comes in the form of Warhammer: The End Times: Vermintide, a Left 4 Dead-esque co-op survival game that breathes new life into the genre.
You are a band of warriors in the town of Ubersreik, a city that has been overrun by the Skaven, a race of devilish rat people. With the town in peril everyone has been looking towards you to save them and there are numerous quests you must complete to keep the town safe. Some of these are simple, stopping the Skaven from poisoning the wells or destroying the food stocks, others will require you to climb to the top of massive towers to stop powerful magic from falling into Skaven hands. These will not be easy quests, dear warrior, and you’re likely to face much more than just hordes of rats along the way.
Vermintide comes to us care of the Autodesk Stingray engine, essentially a revamped version of the BitSquid engine that powered titles like Gauntlet and Magicka: Wizard Wars. In terms of capability and performance the engine really does shine, with great visuals that don’t drag your system down when the action heats up. The visual style is also very distinctive, being slightly stylized but still feeling as if it was pulled directly out of the Warhammer universe. Of course there have been some sacrifices in order to ensure performance remains consistent, meaning that some areas do feel a bit barren with little detail, but you’re usually too busy dealing with rats to notice. Considering the rather low asking price for the engine I hope to see more indie titles make use of it and the capabilities it can provide.
As I alluded to earlier Vermintide is a co-op survival game modelled directly on the framework Left 4 Dead so successfully created. You’re a band of four heroes who must make it from the start to the end whilst completing objectives along the way. You’ll be beset on all sides by hordes of Skaven including various special versions which have abilities to disrupt your team and take them out of the fight. Unlike Left 4 Dead however this is not a PVP game, instead Vermintide’s variety comes from the various character classes you can choose, the RPG like levelling and loot system and the rather deep combat mechanics that make the game much more than a simple hack and slasher. Honestly the first hour had me thinking I was simply playing the latest version of Left 4 Dead but once I dug under the surface I was incredibly impressed by the level of complexity that Vermintide has.
Unlike other survival games where melee is a last resort in Vermintide it’s your primary damage dealing mechanism. You still have a ranged weapon, limited by ammunition, but they’re usually reserved for special situations like dealing with special vermin or clearing a path through swarms. This melee focus means you have to be much more aware of what is coming at you, when its attacking and when you should either dodge or block. Sure you can ignore all of that and just go charging in however you’re likely to find yourself running out of health very quickly, something which is at a premium in this game. Indeed we were barely able to finish the first mission on easy by using that tactic and it was only after a more seasoned friend of mine showed us the ways did we start to appreciate just how complex the combat was.
The different character classes have different abilities, strengths and weaknesses, all of which you’ll need to take into consideration when crafting your party. Each character class isn’t locked into a specific role either as different items can change the way you play. I was playing the Empire Solider for the most part and could change from a damage dealer/special slayer into a front line tank by equipping a sword and shield. For other classes weapons can change them from single target to AOE focused or impart some insane abilities like arrows that are guaranteed headshots. Suffice to say there’s a lot to keep you coming back to Vermintide over and over again as the loot and character variety ensure that there’s dozens of hours of gameplay to be had.
That’s not to mention the loot system’s ingeniously evil risk vs reward system. Essentially there are various loot bolstering devices hidden around the map and each of them will reduce your ability to survive the rat onslaught. However should you make it all the way through with them you’ll get bonus loot dies at the end. Some of them are innocuous, like taking away your healing slot (but you can just drop the tome and use the healing then pick the tome back up) to others which reduce the entire parties health by 25% permanently. Suddenly a simple run becomes a balancing game of how much loot you can get vs how well you think you can survive.
There’s also a crafting system, allowing you to upgrade, salvage and “forge” better weapons for yourself. The forge is essentially just a dumping ground for all the loot you don’t want as you’ll get, at most, 2 weapons per run (1 from the roll and 1 from a level up) and you’ll need 5 to make it work. Green and higher tier items have upgrades on them which need to be unlocked using certain coloured rocks. Those rocks will come from salvaging other items that you no longer want. Overall it’s a pretty simplistic crafting system but at least it gives you the opportunity to make something of the drops that you’d otherwise get nothing from.
For all its polish though Vermintide still has a couple issues which could do with fixing. The hit detection can get a bit crazy at times, resulting in strange behaviour like pack masters being able to pull players through walls. It works two ways though so sometimes you can get special rats, like the gattling gun one, stuck in a place where they can’t hit you but you can hit them. There’s also some lag induced issues which can cause rats to flit all over the place, fall through the ground or randomly spawn out of no where. I’m assuming this is born out of its P2P hosting nature which means that game sync can get a bit weird if one or more people have a tenuous connection to the host.
Vermintide would be easy to write off as a Left 4 Dead clone but after a couple of hours you quickly realise it’s anything but. Sure the combat and core mechanics are definitely inspired by the grand daddy of this genre but the extra elements that Vermintide has makes it on its own. The character classes and loot system help keep the game fresh, even after you’ve played the same map a dozen times over. The combat retains that same high tension feeling that we all grew to love in Left 4 Dead whilst distinguishing itself with a bunch of Warhammer inspired mechanics. The crafting system and few rough edges are the few let downs of vermintide but it says a lot that those are the only negative things I have to say about it. For those who were let down by Evolve Vermintide could very well be the game that resells you on the genre.
Warhammer: The End Times – Vermintide is available on PC right now for $29.99 and coming Q1 2016 to PlayStation4 and XboxOne. Total play time was 6 hours with 22% of the achievements unlocked.
I’m in something of a love/hate relationship with online co-op games. On the one hand I think they’re amazing as some of the best times I’ve had in gaming have come from the times when a bunch of us have got together and just smashed out a couple hours on a game. Notable examples of this include Dead Island, Borderlands and Left 4 Dead. At the same time however it can be pretty difficult to get everyone online at the same time or, worse still, if you have more people who want to play than there are spots in the game it inevitably means it’ll never get played. Thankfully developers have noticed this and designed systems to alleviate at least the former of those issues. Payday 2 is one such game that lives and dies by its co-op experience but thankfully it’s a rather seamless experience, even if you can’t find any friends to play with.
You’re a career criminal who’s been on the lamb for a while. Your old friend Bain has got into contact with you as he’s in need of your skills again. He’s set you up with a safe house, some cash and a cache of weapons to get you started. From there he leaves the rest up to you, allowing you to pick and choose through various heists, purchase additional weaponry and develop your skills in whichever way you see fit. You’re not the only criminal out there however and more often than not you’ll be working side by side with many others, some who might not share your view of how these things ought to go down.
Everything about Payday 2 is optimized for fast paced action and that includes the graphics. Whilst they’re not exactly bad it’s clear that they’ve been done with FPS in mind first and since it’s a multiplatform release the limitations from the consolization are quite apparent. I had every setting set to maximum (with v-sync on) and never once saw any slow down, even in the most heavy action scenes. I don’t expect Crysis level graphics from everyone but if you’re playing Payday 2 on a PC the limitations are going to be quite apparent, but they are there for a reason.
Payday 2 plays out through various different “heists” which are essentially short, usually no longer than 30mins long but can be as short as 1 min, missions which have varying degrees of risk and reward associated with them. You have little control over all these parameters however, instead you’re given an interface where you can choose from a multitude of available heists with various properties. The more white dots something has the bigger the reward for completing it is and the yellow dots denote additional risk (which appears to translate into a tougher mission, although not always). There are also Pro Jobs which have to be comepleted in one attempt otherwise you’re sent back to crime.net to search for another one.
The jobs will be different each time you play them as pathways will be opened/closed, resources required to complete them in different areas and, if its a multi-day heist, the outcome of the previous days will determine what options are available to you. It usually comes down to a choice between maximising your profit or shortening the amount of time you need to spend on that particular mission. One of the most popular heists, the Ukrainian Job, can be done in 30 seconds although you can loot the jewelry store for extra cash which, potentially, can make you miss the early escape that’s available.
There’s 4 different character classes in Payday 2 and which one you choose will drastically alter the potential ways you have to finish a heist. Early on there isn’t much choice as the game changing skills don’t come until much later however the different equipment available to each class can be the make or break for those early level heists. I had initially chose the Enforcer class, which is essentially a soldier who deals out and soaks up damage, since all the heists I was in never worked out when we attempted to do stealth. I’ve since changed to the Technician almost exclusively for the shaped charge equipment (which allows you to blow open most things that would otherwise take ages to drill) but even then I’m still eyeing off the sentry gun tree as something that could be quite viable.
The leveling system is made up of 3 different components. The first is straight up experience, granted to you on the completion of every day of a heist, and every level grants you a skill point (and ever 10 levels gets you 2 bonus points). The higher up the skill tree the more points a particular skill costs so those top tier abilities require quite a heavy level of investment. The second is cash which is used to purchase skills, weapons and also to customize your mask. Past a certain point cash usually isn’t much of an issue, you’re never more than a mission or two away from buying anything you want, however the 3rd part of the leveling system, the unlocks, severely limits how far a large cash reserve can go.
You see whilst you’re able to buy every weapon once you reach the right levels the modifications to those weapons come as part of the “payday” you get at the end of every heist. Essentially it’s a random chance to get a drop which can be anything from mask components to weapon mods or even just additional cash. Problem with this is that it means once you get to say level 45 or so you’ll have the best weapon you can get and the only way to progress further is to get more unlocks. This is why you’ll see people preferring the single day heists that can be completed quickly and honestly its at this point that the replay value of Payday 2 diminishes rapidly as grinding out those unlocks just isn’t fun.
Payday 2 is also has quite a few quirks, one of which is pictured above. Other player characters don’t walk particularly smoothly on screen, usually twitching between walk cycles randomly. There’s also a lot of jitter on player models, almost as if the physics engine is buffering them around, which is most notable on the lobby screen before you commence a job. The hit detecting also seems to be a little weird as there were times I could nail people with a shotgun from 100m away only to have that same weapon miss when they were at point blank range. They’re not exactly game breaking issues but they are things that can cause additional frustration, something which can tip you over the edge if the heist isn’t going particularly well.
Payday 2 feels like one of those classic LAN games, one where you can just pick it up and bash it out with a couple friends for however long you feel like. The fast paced action and rudimentary level strategy is enough to make Payday 2 interesting whilst not overly complicated, significantly reducing the barrier to entry for those who want to play it. It’s not without its quirks however although I have to say that it’s probably one of the most polished games I’ve played that’s cost me less than $30. So if you’re a fan of cooperative styled games then Payday 2 has quite a lot to offer, especially if you have a few friends who have it already.
Payday 2 is available on PC and Xbox360 right now for $29.99 and $39.99 respectively. Game was played on the PC with around 10 hours played and 33% of the achievements unlocked.
Co-op games run a fine line of balancing the game between the single and multi-player experience. You see whilst it’s great to be able to bash out a game with mates (as I often do) I can’t rely on all my friends being available when I want to play. Borderlands suffered somewhat because of this as their support for drop in/drop out co-op left a lot to be desired, leaving many to simply not play the game at all if they couldn’t get their original crew together. Dead Island, a game I picked up on G2Play to play with mates at a recent LAN, is a cross between borderlands style RPG play but in a setting much more like Left 4 Dead and it seems to have gotten this balance between play modes figured out.
You get a choice of 4 different heros: Xian Mei, Sam B, Logan Carter and Purna. The game starts out with you waking up to find the resort you’re staying in being overrun by zombies (from an unknown source) leaving you to fend for yourself. The game then centres around finding pockets of survivors on the island and helping them out, travelling between different locations on the island. Part way through a mysterious voice appears over the radio who starts helping you out in the hopes that you’ll be able to help him save his wife who’s become one of the infected.
Each of the 4 main characters represent a different character class, each with their own distinct set of advantages. I choose Purna, mostly to round out the team of 4 I initially played with, who’s a firearms expert. The character classes all have 3 talent trees that unlock new skills and perks as you level up and they’re each unique to the character in question. Depending on which skills you go for the way in which you play Dead Island can be wildly different to others, which gives the game quite a bit of replayability. I for instance didn’t put any skill points in the “Fury” tree but as a result I was devastating with melee weapons and I buffed my entire party with an aura, making some situations quite a lot easier.
The single/multiplayer balance in Dead Island is done absolutely brilliantly. I joined the game about 30 mins after my mates had started (since I was bashing out a couple StarCraft 2 games with another friend) and I was placed nearby so they could find me. I was worried about many quests showing up saying “This will not be recorded in your profile” but as it turns out side quests aren’t saved during co-op sessions, but main quest progress is. So upon jumping into single player I was greeted with a bevy of side quests to complete should I feel the need. Jumping back into multiplayer synced you up with the person who was the least progressed with the main plot, a godsend compared to Borderlands. Dead Island also takes out some of the more laborious aspects of questing, planting the objectives on the minimap so you don’t spend hours looking for that one last thing to complete that quest.
Dead Island also implements a system whereby you can join up with other people who are in a similar place in the game as you are. This will appear as a message on the right hand side of the monitor and after one key press you’ll be joined up with them. Whilst my experience with this was mixed (quite a few people simply left the game after I tried to join with them) it’s a really nice touch and can make some of the more challenging areas far more easy and enjoyable.
Not all of the quests are that well done however. The escort quests, of which one is pictured above, are extremely tedious as the NPCs don’t follow you. Instead they follow their own path (completely unknown to you) and will often throw themselves right into the middle of a horde of zombies, requiring you to fish them out. They also feel needlessly long at points, trapping you for a good 15 minutes or more in a game of follow the leader. Why this kind of quest was put in Dead Island escapes me as they feel quite out of place compared to the rest of the quests in the game.
Dead Island’s loot and inventory system is a mixed affair of getting some aspects completely right whilst others just utterly wrong. You have limited inventory slots (which can be upgraded, typical RPG affair) but crafting materials don’t take up any space in it. This is fantastic because there’s just so much crafting crap around the world that balancing an inventory around it would be nigh on impossible and ensures that when you find a vendor with that key ingredient you never find you can stock up on it for future use. Crafted items and upgrades are also very useful and, in the case of weapon mods, visibly change the weapon that they’re applied to.
Finding good items however is somewhat of a crap shoot. Early on in the game I read a tip that said “the best items are always in chests” or something to that effect. With that in mind I upgraded my lock picking still to the max so I could open up all those chests. Throughout my entire play through I found only 1 solitary non-white item (an orange level sickle) in the chests. All my other good weapons were either rewards from quests or bought from the vendors and there were maybe 5 or so blue level items that dropped from zombies. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’re better off not bothering hunting for loot and instead just using quest rewards or vendor items.
Combat in Dead Island is visceral, over the top and thoroughly enjoyable, once you get past the initial hump that is. You see that blue bar in the screenshot above? That’s the stamina bar and it limits how much you can run, jump and attack (except for guns, which have ammo). When that runs out you can’t do anything except for one thing: kick. The kick attack, which every character has, is an unlimited attack that interrupts all attacks and can’t be interrupted itself. For the first 40% of the game or so there’s really no reason not to use this attack and this attack only as you can knock down every zombie and then proceed to pummel them to death on the ground. Playing this at a LAN with all my mates in ear shot made this a rather fun experience, naming our band of heroes the Kick Squad. It was quite hilarious to see one zombie go down and then be repeatedly kicked to death by 4 people, but it made weapons in the game rather redundant for a while.
One thing that Dead Island doesn’t deliver in is the plot. Now the trailer for Dead Island was actually quite well done as it depicted a game that had both thrilling action and also a deep and meaningful plot. Honestly I was sold on buying the game after seeing that trailer, being able to play it with mates at a LAN was just the icing on the cake. However all the characters are completely unrelatable, either through being complete dicks or being horribly voice acted (my wife referred to Purna’s voice as sounding like it was done by someone in Play School). There’s also a few attempts to pull on the heart strings at various points through the use of cut scenes but honestly they don’t fit in with the environment at all. It’s made even worse by the ending, which taken into context makes little sense and is cheapened by a last ditch effort to make the ending feel bitter sweet.
Overall though Dead Island is a solid game that’s enjoyable both as co-op and as a single player experience. It’s not without it’s flaws however and whilst none of them are entirely game breaking they can be enough to make some of the time you spend in Dead Island rather tedious. Still the game looks like it could be a LAN favourite for a while to come as the 4 character classes and 3 skill trees per character gives enough variety to make sure that each play through is unique and enjoyable. If you liked Borderlands and need another fix of zombies in your life then Dead Island won’t disappoint you.
Dead Island is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $49.99, $89 and $89 respectively. Game was played on the PC with around 15 hours of total play time (8 of those being co-op) and reaching level 38.
There’s a lot to be said for a game that genuinely treads new ground, daring to defy the current norms. I’m always a big fan of these experiments because they’re so refreshing in a world that’s constantly dominated by the same games repeatedly even if I do enjoy some of those titles. The original Portal was one of these such games bringing in a game mechanic unlike any that had come before it. Despite the unusually short length Portal managed to capture the hearts and minds of nearly everyone who played it with it’s distinctive humor and characters, spawning several memes in the process. Portal 2 picks up where its predecessor left off and will take you much deeper into the Portal universe.
This review contains spoilers about major plot events since I wouldn’t be able to review it properly without talking about them. If you’re planning to play Portal 2 sometime soon I’d recommend bookmarking this and coming back later 😉
The game starts off with an interesting tutorial that puts you as one of the test subjects in the Aperture Science laboratories. It appears that you’re one of many test subjects who are kept in a state of hibernation and a disembodied voice walks you through some exercises to make sure you’re not turning into a vegetable. When you next awake however the bright room you were in is now in a major state of disrepair and the voice from before states that you’ve been asleep for 9999 days. You’re then introduced to a new companion, Wheatley, a personality core who assists you in escaping the Aperture Science laboratory whilst also providing comic relief at nearly every turn.
Running through these run down test chambers familiarizes you with the basic portal mechanics that were the staple of the original game. Wheatley guides you along this journey and eventually finds you in the chamber of a dormant GlaDOS and attempts to acquire an escape pod for your escape. Unfortunately he activates GlaDOS who identifies you as Chell, the protagonist from the original Portal, and proceeds to send you back to the test chambers so that you can further science once again, you monster.
The next section of the game is in essence identical to its predecessor with each chamber being a single puzzle. The differences come from the environment which, whilst not as run down as the initial chambers you went through, show signs of being in disrepair with GlaDOS attempting to fix the problems as you enter each chamber. Apart from the introduction of the jump pads (devices used to make some of the velocity based puzzles a bit easier) there’s nothing really exciting about this section of the game. Indeed I found myself a times wondering how long I’d have to put up with this since whilst the original was adventurous and inventive this just seemed exploitative, a cop out seeking to cash in on the Portal IP.
It’s quite possible that I just didn’t enjoy the formulaic nature of this particular section of the game. I loved the humor in the original because GlaDOS was always attempting to maintain the appearance of being a computer without any emotions, whilst in this one she just seemed felt like a disembodied human who was angry at me for trying to kill her. Still the puzzles were enough to keep me going and I made it through to the next section, the reunion with GlaDOS.
Wheatley’s usurping of GlaDOS was an interesting plot point although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect him to turn on me immediately. However the next section proved to be my favorite by far as it takes you back to the very beginnings of Aperture Science, hidden deep underground in a former salt mine. The setting feels very 1960s post-apocalyptic, with all the remnants of the initial Aperture laboratories showing their age. The attention to detail in these parts is absolutely staggering, with the paraphernalia lining the offices giving you that distinct feeling that you’d gone back in time. I spent quite a lot of my time here just soaking in the atmosphere of it all, thoroughly enjoying the fleshing out of the Aperture back story.
Of course the old Aperture also had old test chambers too and with them comes the introduction of another new game mechanic: gels. The gels are in essence paints that can cover nearly any surface that give them a certain property. Blue for bouncing, orange for ultra speed and white for turning surfaces into ones capable of having portals on them. I found them to be quite intriguing, especially when they let you loose with a full on stream of the substances so you can paint the entire room in your chosen color, even if there’s really no point to it at all.
However this brings me to a point of difference between the puzzles in Portal 2 and its predecessor. The original Portal felt very much like there were multiple options to solving the puzzles, some of which the designers had obviously not intended (especially if you watch the speed runs). Portal 2, whilst still providing many challenges, feels a lot more like there’s only a single solution and you’re just figuring out exactly what that is. The jump pads and gels demonstrate this quite aptly since they both have to be (or have been) placed in their exact positions for the desired solution. There are some exceptions to this of course (like the first room with the white gel) but its definitely one of the areas that Portal 2 falls down in comparison to its predecessor.
Along the way you pick up GlaDOS who’s been transformed into a shadow of her former self being powered entirely by a potato. She provides some interesting commentary during your journey through the old Aperture labs and seems to get quite excited when Cave Johnson, the founder of Aperture Science, addresses you over the intercom via pre-recorded messages. She stays with you the entire time but isn’t as chatty as Wheatley was before her which I was quite thankful for when I was stuck on some of the puzzles.
Eventually you make your way back to the current Aperture labs where Wheatley has taken over the test chambers, many of which are GlaDOS’s creations with the wall panels rearranged to spell TEST in large letters across one of the walls. This of course is all leading up to the point where you face up with Wheatley in his current form in a boss fight that feels oddly-similar-yet-completely-different from the original boss fight in the original Portal. Of course nearly every mechanic you’ve used previously makes an appearance in this and for those who’ve completed the fight there’s a scene in their that tickled the space nut in me just right.
Of course whilst the single player game is the main selling point for most buyers Portal 2 ups the ante by including a separate co-op experience that you can play with a friend or random stranger on the Internet. Initially I choose to find someone randomly as none of my playing buddies were online and I must say the matchmaking system works perfectly, finding me a partner in science in under 30 seconds. Of course it’s not as enjoyable as it would be with good friends so I decided to put it off after a couple chambers, but I did give it a good run through last week.
Whilst they’ve gone to great lengths to make the co-op in Portal 2 pretty painless without voice communication it’s quite a lot better with it. Still though the pinger tool they give you, basically a laser pointer that can mark stuff or set a timer, still comes in handy when trying to guide (or be guided by) your partner. The puzzles themselves are quite interesting as well especially when GlaDOS takes you outside the test chambers to retrieve information left behind by the former human scientists. Her humor in these sections was also far more enjoyable as she taunts the robots and gets frustrated as they show human traits like high-fiving or hugging each other.
Overall though Portal 2 proves to be a worthy successor to the original Portal. I had had my misgivings about the game during the first half of it, feeling that the changes made to it were only skin deep. However the old Aperture labs turned me right around making me heavily invested in both the characters and the plot of the game. The puzzles, whilst many feeling like single solution jobs, still managed to keep me guessing and were incredibly satisfying once accomplished, especially considering I did not once reach for a walkthrough (although I’d put the credit for this to the game designers themselves, not my amazing playing ability). The co-op is also quite a fun experience, especially when done with a close friend. If you liked the original Portal or are fan of intriguing puzzle games then you won’t go wrong with Portal 2 and I’d highly recommend giving it a play through.
Portal 2 is available on PC, Xbox360 and Playstation 3 right now for AUD$49.99, $108 and $108 (PS3 edition includes a free Steam copy) respectively. Game was played on the PC with total game time around 7 hours for the single player and 2 hours spent on the co-op missions without finishing them all.
I couldn’t really tell you how many games I’ve played over the years that made me think “The only thing that would make this better was if I could play it with my mates”, I.E. good old fashioned co-op. I haven’t said that much to myself recently though as more and more games have some kind of multi player aspect to them, although few still allow you to run through the main story with a friend by your side. Borderlands is one of those few and after spending a week or so slogging through it and finishing the game at the tender level of 37 I’ve found myself wanting more of the rockstar-eque game play feel where you can truly be the bad ass of the wasteland of Pandora.
Rewind back about a year or so and something appeared on my PS3 that I didn’t recall downloading: the trailer for said game. Turns out that my housemate at the time had been browsing the trailer section of the Playstation store and happened across it. Back then though it was a very different beast to the game it has become today:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqra7zEBCoQ
That trailer alone was enough to sell me on the game although I barely thought about it until several months afterwards, when they decided to make the jump to cel shading. I wasn’t too sure how that would work out for them as most cel shaded games I’ve played in the past failed to add anything to the game apart from hiding bad texture jobs.
The first day after I had the game downloaded and installed I decided to give it a romp through, starting with single player. I had not been playing more than 10 minutes before one of my friends messaged me over steam to join them in a multiplayer game. This was the first let down for Borderlands for two reasons: first it needs around 4 ports opened to function properly, which is fine but an annoyance none the less. Secondly having to sign up for a GameSpy account is another small annoyance which could have easily been removed from the game since it added no benefit when the game is played via Steam. It is much the same problems that plagued Dawn of War II as you had to run 2 separate game networking programs to actually play multiplayer. Once you get past these difficulties the game does start to come into a world of its own.
Choosing Mordecai as my class I set off with the rest of my team (we had one of each class). After slogging our way through the beginner missions we finally got into our first instance, Skag Valley. I was instantly drawn back to 2004 where I ran my first instance in World of Warcraft and the memories came flooding back. Nothing is more exciting than grabbing a couple mates and beating down a challenge that a game developer has set up for you, and Borderlands is no exception. The instances are well designed and feel expansive whilst not feeling too long to make you dread the walk back to the start (in fact most of them have a quick return path). There is also, of course, the loot.
If there’s one thing that will keep gamers coming back for more its the prospect of getting that next great widget to help them slaughter their enemies with and Borderlands does this with impressive finesse. You can instantly recall the first moment when you see your first blue, purple and eventually orange drop. Even better are the weapons that function abnormally like the shotgun that shoots 8 bullets at a time that bounce off walls or the revolver that can shoot as accurately as a sniper rifle (with scope to boot!). My character managed to finish the game covered in purples with all but one weapons being orange, something which made him an almost unstoppable force when it came to shooting his share of bad guys.
This was were Borderlands really shone for me, the atmosphere set by the graphics and music made you feel like the ultimate bad-ass rockstar that’s decended upon the world of Pandora to make it your bitch. From the first time you see a head explode in a flurry of gibs to the moments when you’re surrounded by 10 raiders only to set them all on fire with your elementally enhanced SMG Borderlands makes you feel like everything’s going to hell in a handbasket, and your the pilot. I can’t tell you how many times our party was wiped almost completely out only to have one of us score a second wind and then proceed to mow down everything that took us out. Even more hilarious would be when Brick would be the one doing it, since he was usually screaming his head off and punching the crap out of something.
I’d love to say the vehicles were an important part to the gameplay but they’re really not. The FPS genre has always struggled with putting vehicles in game as if you make them too weak people don’t want to use them. Make them too strong and it can break the game. In Borderlands they feel more like a means to an end, serving as a fast means from A to B whilst still giving you the impression of a very large and open world. They are a hell of a lot of fun co-op though, but that’s mostly because I’m an ass with them and tended to ram my fellow Borderlanders off the road and flip them at every opportunity I got.
The experience is marred (but not ruined by) a decidedly made-for-console like interface. Now I’ve seen my share of console ports before and apart from those ones developed at the same time as each other the port will always suffer some lagging parts of the UI from its predecessor. For instance many of the game controls in Borderlands require you to press a key to use, instead of the more intuitive mouse click. Confirmation happens with the enter key for most things when again a mouse click would be far more appropriate. Whilst the majority of the action isn’t hampered by this all the menus, vendor interactions and inviting friends to play are plagued with illogical button choices that only serve to slow you down. Had I played this on the PS3 rather than the PC the story might have been different, but then again I don’t think I could have enjoyed it as much (there’s no cross platform multi available).
Overall Borderlands is an amazing game just for the times you’ll share with your friends romping through instances, slaying skags, raiders and Lance infantry. The loot makes the game so enjoyable that you’ll spend hours recounting the times you found that sniper rifle that could one shot enemies from across the map or that shotgun that shot rockets. The game doesn’t take itself seriously at all and this shows with the characters that, whilst shallow from a plot perspective, always bring a smile to your face when you see them.
Borderlands is available for PS3, Xbox360 and PC right now for AU$96.00, AU$98.00 and AU$54.00 respectively. Game was played on the PC through to level 37 finishing the game once with the majority of it spent with others doing co-op.