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.
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.
Almost 10 years ago the original Mass Effect debuted on the Xbox 360. The hype around it had been building for some time and I, not wanting to miss out, had purchased the console based on the rumours it was to be forever a platform exclusive. I don’t regret my decision at all and I completed the whole trilogy on the Xbox 360, even upgrading to a newer revision so that I didn’t have to deal with the jet engine that was the original’s disc drive. With Shepard’s journey over however I decided that I’d come back to PC for Andromeda, the next instalment in the Mass Effect universe. With such a high bar set for the previous trilogy (bar some inexcusable missteps) it was always going to be tough for Andromeda, but the mistakes that BioWare have made with this latest instalment go beyond reality not lining up to the hype.
Andromeda takes place between the events of 2 and 3 of the original trilogy where the races of the Milky Way have formed the Andromeda initiative. The Citadel’s council has decided to arks to the nearby Andromeda galaxy, each of them populated with 20,000 citizens and a leader known as the Pathfinder. You play as Scott/Sarah Ryder, a twin and child of humanity’s Pathfinder Alec Ryder. Your job is to find humanity a new home and begin the formation of a new galactic government in the Andromeda galaxy. Upon arrival however you quickly discover that everything isn’t as the initiative had first hoped, the Andromeda galaxy significantly changed in the years since it was first scouted. It is up to you then to make Andromeda viable, paving the way for a sustainable colony for generations to come.
Mass Effect Andromeda drops the Unreal 3 engine that powered the last trilogy in favour of the Frostbite engine. This, coupled with the significant leap in computing power afforded to us, means that Andromeda’s graphics are a massive step up over its predecessor. However this also meant that BioWare had to spend significant resources in redeveloping tools, workflows and assets which led to some significant teething issues. This most obviously manifested in “my face is tired” lady and other quirks which made it feel like the series was a generation or two behind where it should be. The patches that have come out since then have made a significant difference but it just goes to show that even the big name players can suffer when it comes to an engine change. Still, at a pure visual level, Mass Effect Andromeda is quite a looker.
In a departure from the series’ action-RPG roots Andromeda tends heavily towards an open-world game, giving you an absolutely massive galaxy to explore. Whilst the core of the series remains largely the same there’s a bevy of additional things thrown in to keep you playing. There are numerous planets which you can put outposts on but only after you’ve raised their “viability” to a certain level. In order to do that there’s dozens of tasks available like completing quests, eliminating hostile forces or unearthing an ancient technology with the power to terraform worlds. Completing these tasks also raises Andromeda’s overall viability, allowing you to bring more people out of cryopreservation which unlocks certain benefits for you. You’ve also got strike teams which you can send on missions to get you resources, items and credits. There’s also a research and crafting system which allows you to build your own customised versions of weapons and armour you find in the game. This is all on top of the run of the mill action-RPG trappings we’ve come to expect from the Mass Effect series, meaning that the scale of Andromeda is much greater than any of its predecessors.
Andromeda’s combat system has been reworked, most notably scaling down the number of abilities you have on tap at any one time (3, maximum) whilst allowing you to fully max out any of the 3 talent trees if you so wish. Additionally your control over your team mates is significantly diminished, the ability to target their powers gone and the only command you can give them is “go here”. Combat scales to your current level which means that, at the start, it’s probably a bit more challenging than it should be. Later on, when you’ve got a good set of gear and maxed out talents, things become a lot easier. Whilst I’m usually a fan of streamlined combat systems the changes made in Andromeda feel like a step back overall as it removes some of the depth that its predecessors had. No longer can I set up a devastating combo with my team mates, instead I’m left to watch over them and time my abilities that way. In the end I opted for a pure tech build with multiple constructs to do most of the work for me. There’s also a distinct lack of variety in the combat encounters as after about 6 hours you’ve probably seen every enemy, bar a few boss fights. Overall the combat feels competent but lacking the components which made it so much fun in the previous Mass Effect titles.
Progression comes in numerous forms and so often that it can be hard to figure out where you should be focusing your effort. There’s the standard levelling up and talent points which allows you to craft your ideal character. Unlike previous games where your original character class limited your talent choices Andromeda instead uses that as a kind of boost to give you access to some talents earlier than you’d otherwise be able to. From there you can either build on it or mix and match as you desire. How you spend your points also unlocks additional “profiles”, essentially another choice which allows you to bolster certain aspects of your character, which can be changed at any time. In addition to this there’s the usual loot drops which, like the combat, scale to your character’s current level. You can also research and craft your own weapons and armour, even augmenting them with different mods to give them a considerable edge over their dropped versions. However the research and crafting system requires such a heavy investment, in both time and resources, that it’s honestly not worth it when the difference is maybe a few percentage points. If you’re really, truly into making the most broken character possible then it’ll be right up your alley but otherwise it’s better to spend your time elsewhere.
Once you’ve got a handle on just where you want to go with your character it becomes easier to tune out the noise but that’s also the point where progression starts to slow considerably. Higher tiers of talents will require 2 levels worth of points to acquire, new armour upgrades (through drops or crafting) only come every 5 levels or so and quality of life upgrades (from cryo pods) require a significant time investment on making planets viable. Again this comes back to the game’s more open world ethos, giving the player numerous means of progression in the hopes of keeping you around longer. In any other open world game this would just be par for the course but for the Mass Effect series it feels like a big step away from what made it great.
Indeed the open-world-ness of Andromeda is, I feel, the game’s Achilles heel. Open world games tend to try to cram as much as they can in and often end up relying on repeatable missions that can be adapted easily. Andromeda is no different with many missions coming down to simple fetch quests or a small variant there of. Any of the worlds you go to are either inhabited by Kett (the enemy alien race), colonists or the Angara (the new alien race). Whilst all the worlds have their own distinct feel the all play out the same, especially when it comes to reactivating the monoliths. Whilst the planet exploration is done far better than it has ever been in the series (the Nomad being a much better version of the Mako) you’ll still be doing the exact same thing on each planet: driving around, sometimes stopping for mining nodes or a combat encounter as you trundle your way to your objective. Sometimes it can be fun when you stumble across something but it starts to wear thin pretty early on.
What this means is that the core focus of the game is somewhat blurred. With so many things to do it can be hard to discern what the main thrust of the game really is as they’re always pulling you in multiple different directions. Sure you can look to the main missions for direction but unlike previous ones it wasn’t so obvious how the side missions built up into it. Indeed one of (what I had assumed was) the core aspects of the game, finding all the other race’s arks, is actually nothing more than a side quest and completing them appears to net you no significant advantages at all. Previous Mass Effect games heavily leaned on the fact that your choices, even those outside of the main story line, had a meaningful impact. In Andromeda that really doesn’t feel like the case. It’s possible that some of my decisions might mean something in future instalments but even the original Mass Effect managed to have meaningful choices within its own play time. Suffice to say I think that Andromeda could have done with a significant reduction in scope in order to better focus on what made the series popular in the first place.
As many others have pointed out the initial release of Andromeda was plagued with various issues that made the game less than ideal. The varying quality of animation across different characters was improved significantly in the most recent update but some other fundamental issues remain. During dialogue the camera has a mind of its own, sometimes getting stuck on geometry that means it won’t have Ryder, or anyone else, in frame. There were also numerous quality of life issues like being unable to skip certain things which really should have been skipable from the start. The multiplayer experience was also something of a crap shoot, taking forever to find a game and then being a buggy mess when it finally did. The only game I managed to get into had me with unlimited abilities, ammunition and health, something which (whilst fun) I don’t think was completely intended. This may be one of those games that gets considerably better as patches and DLC are released however, so if you’re reading this in the far future take note.
The premise of the game’s story is a good one, allowing the series to continue without having to lean on the previous games’ canon to succeed. However it takes forever to become even the slightest bit interesting, requiring at least 6 hours of investment to understand just what is going on and another 14 hours to actually start piquing your interest. This is most certainly due to the disjointed, fractured nature of how the greater narrative is told, split up amongst so many different side missions that it’s hard to make sense of how it’s all supposed to fit together. The game’s overall narrative, which feels dangerously close to the previous trilogy’s in some respects, tries its best to set up the universe in which this new trilogy takes place. However this time around you’re not struggling against some unseen foe which is pulling the strings, instead you’re the glorious, benevolent colonists who’ve come to save the Andromeda galaxy from itself. In that respect a lot of the struggle feels hollow, failing to kindle a sense of purpose or drive in you.
It’s a shame because I feel like the character development is actually done pretty well for most of your crew. Jaal, the Angaran resistance fighter, is an incredibly interesting character and one that helps give you a deep insight into his people’s culture. Some of the others could use work, like Cora’s weird interactions with Asari, but overall if you want to really get to know your crew there’s every opportunity to. I, as always, seemingly feel for the one I couldn’t have her romance options locked away from me because of my gender. That was slightly disappointing and so the romance I did pursue afterwards felt a little hollow. Still I can’t blame the game for not allowing me my heart’s want.
Mass Effect Andromeda is an uncharacteristic misstep by BioWare, seemingly forgetting what made the original trilogy great in favour of expanding its horizons. The elements are there, but they’re buried underneath a trove of open-world garbage that does nothing to enhance the experience. In order to get any enjoyment out of the game you’re looking at a least 20 hours, something which makes it hard to recommend to all but the most dedicated of Mass Effect fans. There’s also a lot of teething issues resulting from the transition to the Frostbite engine, but these are things that can be fixed in patches over time. The more pressing issues, like the lack of focus and repetition that comes with open world games, is a harder challenge to solve. However BioWare is nothing if not adaptable so there’s every chance that future DLCs and patches will transform this game from its current, lacklustre state into something that is more worthy of your time.
Mass Effect Andromeda is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $69.99, $79 and $79 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 32 hours of total playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.
Games, like all creative endeavours, are aspirational things. They all have a goal; some to tell a great story whilst others challenge you with mechanics and puzzles. One of the key things that I’ve come to judge games on is what their ambition is and how close they get to achieving it. Great games do this effortlessly whilst lesser ones struggle to realise the vision of their creators. Unravel unfortunately falls into the later camp, proudly announcing its intentions early on in the game but failing to evoke the kind of emotional response it was looking for. It is, however, one of the more beautiful and mechanically inventive games of recent memory.
You are Yarny, an adorable little creature woven out of red yarn. You find yourself in the home of an elderly lady, one filled with photographs and memories of years gone by. However it seems her most prized possession, a photograph album, has long since faded, its little woven decorations missing. So you take it upon yourself to explore the places where these memories were formed and to find those mementos of times long since past. Along the way you’ll encounter many challenges, all of which you’ll overcome using the one thing at your disposal: your yarn.
Unravel is an absolutely gorgeous game, having the same kind of “small person in a huge world” feeling that Little Big Planet did so well. The environments are incredibly detailed and are slathered in modern effects like depth of field, realistic weather and volumetric lighting. Whilst there’s some slight stylization here and there everything else aims to be far more realistic from the detail on the wood textures to the small flecks of rust on a metal bucket. All of this is amplified significantly by the beautiful original soundtrack. In terms of sheer craftsmanship there are few games, especially in the same genre, that can hold a candle to what Unravel’s team has created.
Mechanically Unravel is a 2.5D platformer, often putting you in a situation where the exit is just out of reach or hidden behind another obstacle. The novel mechanic comes from Yarny who is tethered to a specific point and only has so much length which can be used. All the other mechanics flow on from this principle, like being able to swing between points or building little yarn bridges which you can use to pull things across gaps. Like most platformers there’s also numerous secrets to be found, requiring either exploration or a keen understanding of the mechanics to unlock. It might not sound like much of a twist on the standard platform formula but it’s enough to keep things interesting over its 6 hour duration.
The puzzles start out being easy enough, usually just requiring you to pull something in one direction or get up enough momentum to leap across a gap. Where they start to get tricky is when the length of yarn you have is barely enough to make it, forcing you to optimize how you use it. For the most part this is obvious, untie knots you don’t need and find the shortest path possible, however some times it requires finding the other yarn stash which might not be immediately apparent. Probably the most frustrating ones are the timed, twitch based platforming sections which will inevitably require several tries to complete. I’m honestly not a fan of these kinds of challenges as they seem more anti-player than anything else, eliminating the skill requirement and requiring you to do it multiple times in order to progress.
Unravel also has some pretty rough edges, almost entirely brought about by the troubles that come from physics based game play. Objects will simply not behave themselves sometimes, often leading you to get stuck on a puzzle because something didn’t do the thing it was supposed to do. Quite often when you jump towards an anchor point Yarny will either not target it or will target another one. There’s also some puzzles which, if done in a certain way, will stop you from progressing leaving you with no option but to restart the entire level. Finally there are a few places where you can simply fall through the world completely, again requiring a restart. None of these issues will stop you from completing the game however they can add in enough frustration to warrant putting it down for the day.
At the beginning Unravel states, explicitly, that they’ve included a lot of mature themes in the game as that’s what they believe makes a good story. True to their word those themes are in there however they’re explored implicitly, dribbled out to you in the form of a few photographs in each level. It’s a story that everyone can relate to, sure, however Unravel is not a game that’s driven by its story. Instead it’s a beautiful platformer, one that relies on its mechanics to drive everything forward above all else. In that respect whilst it’s admirable that the Unravel team aspired to deal with issues that other games leave at the door it’s done in such a hand wavy fashion that I can’t really give them much credit for it.
Unravel is an exceptionally beautiful game, one that is complimented strongly by its inventive mechanics. The graphics and accompanying soundtrack are stunning being far above the average for other games in this genre. The platforming mechanics are done well with the additional yarn mechanic working pretty much how you’d expect it to. The experience is marred by the usual bevy of issues that come with physics based game play, not to mention a few glaring issues that will need patching sooner rather than later. The story, which is highly asiprational in nature, is too ethereal in nature to be of much impact, even if some of the themes will resonate universally. Still overall Unravel is a game that’s worth the short time it asks of you and is sure to delight those who find charm in Yarny’s cuteness.
Unravel is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation4 right now for $29.99 on all platforms. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 62% of the achievements unlocked.