Posts Tagged‘open world’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 8.75/10

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

Wolfenstein: Youngblood: Heir to Blazkowicz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6.5/10

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

Rage 2: Ranger Danger

It’s been 8 years since id released Rage and I think I speak for most gamers when I say we didn’t expect to see a sequel to it. At the time it was an amazing demonstration of what the new id Tech 5 but the game itself was sorely lacking. What was particularly odd was that, had the game just been a grand marketing exercise, the game would’ve done its job exceptionally well as it demonstrated graphics beyond its time that was accessible to a very large crowd. However it was only ever slated to be used internally and powered a meagre 7 (well, 5 technically) over the course of its lifetime. So when along came Rage 2, co-developed by Avalanche studios and id, I was interested to see where they’d take this IP but didn’t have high hopes for what it might deliver. Much like its predecessor there’s some great things about Rage 2 but the whole package is somewhat lacking, disappointing considering there’s 2 veteran developer houses behind this title.

Rage 2 takes place 30 years after the events of the original and shows a world that’s beginning to rebuild after the Authority was pushed back. It seems that the Authority wasn’t lying fallow and they unleash a devastating attack on your home base. Your settlement is all but wiped out in the resulting clash, saved only at the last second when you don a fallen Ranger’s suit of armour and proceed to wreak havoc with the new powers it grants you. It’s then you learn of a secret plan to destroy the Authority once and for all: Project Dagger. To complete it you’ll need the help of 3 key people in the wasteland and they’re not going to help you for free. So begins your journey into the wild wasteland left behind after the apocalypse brought by 99942 Apophis but how it unfolds is (somewhat) up to you.

Now whilst my rig is old-ish it’s by no means a slouch and so when I booted up Rage 2 to find it blurry I wondered what the heck was going on. Was it finally getting to that time when my system just wasn’t up to snuff? Did the auto-configure take a look at my computer, scoff silently, and set everything to low just to make sure I wasn’t playing a slideshow? Nope, it seems that by default dynamic rendering size is set quite aggressively and even for those rocking the latest cards you could end up with a blurry mess as the game tries to maintain 60fps. Funny thing is once I disabled everything the game ran perfectly well and looked far better to boot. Now this game isn’t running id tech unfortunately, it comes to us via the Apex engine developed by Avalanche studios which has powered other games like Just Cause 4. Comparatively Rage 2 looks a hell of a lot better but it’s far from the graphic marvel that its predecessor was. I must say as someone who’s been a big fan of the id Tech games for a long time I think it was a bit of a misstep not to use it here but I guess Avalanche must’ve been doing most of the heavy lifting on this project.

Whilst Rage 2 retains the spirit of the original’s mechanical stylings it’s a very different game to its predecessor. It’s still an open world/FPS hybrid but they’ve thrown in all the usual open world trappings we’ve come to expect and numerous RPG inspired upgrade systems just for good measure. Cars are once again a central theme with their own upgrade paths, missions and special mechanics but it’s largely a part of the game you can ignore if you so wish. There’s a heavier focus on crafting although it’s mostly rudimentary, just enabling you to craft some of consumables you’ll be blowing through routinely. It definitely feels like a more well rounded game than its predecessor does but many of these systems are quite shallow in their implementation. Indeed in the almost 9 hours I spent with it I maxed pretty much everything out, leaving little more for me to do. Given that the original, which I swore I originally gave up on finishing but apparently stuck through to the end, clocked in at 12 with much less going on you can get a sense of what I’m alluding to.

Combat is one of the standout features of Rage 2, feeling very DOOM like in its implementation. The main mechanic is overcharge which fills up as you kill enemies. The more you chain together the higher the multiplier ticks up which, when it’s maxed out at 10x, can fully charge your meter in 2-ish kills. This encourages aggressive gun play which I thoroughly enjoy although early on you won’t have the upgrades required to sustain that indefinitely. I didn’t go hunting around for the arks so I didn’t get all the weapons but I was perfectly fine standardising on the assault rifle and shotgun to get things done. The added abilities, whilst incredibly awkward to use, do help to break up the monotony of killing wave after wave of dudes, especially when you get some of the more interesting upgrades. Unfortunately the game gets pretty stagnant quickly as the enemy variety is quite low, especially with the boss fights which are all just carbon copies of each other (save for the final one). Indeed most of the game suffers from heavy asset reuse with many of the places in the open world being effectively identical to each other with just a few things changed.

The cars also feel like this thing that should mean a lot more than they do given the amount of driving you’ll have to do. I’m not sure if I’m not getting this or something but as far as I can tell there’s only one car you can upgrade, the first one you get, with all the others being set at whatever they come with. Your car is also the only one that comes with limited ammunition which is rare as hen’s teeth in the open world, necessitating regular trips back to base to make sure that you’re fully stocked up. That being said the default car, even without upgrades, is perfectly sufficient for everything you need to do in the game. Sure the upgrades make some things easier (like taking on sentry turrets) but there are usually even easier ways of doing those things than using your car. The one exception to this is doing the convoy raids which were honestly pretty damn fun, mostly because there was a lot of variety between them. Again this seems to follow the thread for the entire game: one standout thing mashed in with a whole bunch of other mediocre nonsense.

The numerous upgrade systems (there 4 total) are a bit overwhelming to start off with but thankfully most of them can be progressed by simply playing the game how you wish. Of course figuring out how to spend your various resources on things is a bit of a balancing act to start off with as there’s a smattering of things that will accelerate your progress but they’ll come at the cost of quality of life features. Now you might be thinking that’s a smart game design choice but I don’t think it’s deliberate. More I think it’s that they wanted to cram as much stuff in there so that there was a motivation to drive you to do all the things in the open world. If you’re 100%ing this game then sure, you’re going to have to do a lot of things, but for most of us mere mortals I think we’re going to get away with doing the bare minimum amount of grinding required. Towards the end of my playthrough I was just dumping points in randomly whenever I felt like it so I don’t think anyone will be wanting for upgrades.

Beyond the graphical issues there’s still a few rough edges on Rage 2, some which I didn’t really expect in this day and age. There’s a lot of interactions that require you to hold down a key in order for it to complete, pretty standard way of avoiding accidental interactions, however for some reason Rage 2’s key press detection is super janky. It’s not just one screen or a certain kind of interaction either, all things that require you to hold down a key just don’t register smoothly, if at all. Vehicles also feel a little mushy and, given that there’s no way to upgrade the handling on them, that makes driving a bit more of a chore than it needs to be. There’s also numerous issues with event triggers which most often manifests as characters simply not talking to you for 5 minutes, delaying quest completion. These sorts of things are a symptom of the larger issue of just trying to stuff to many things into the game, leaving precious little time to polish up the little greviances that are sure to dog every player’s experience.

The game seems to think that you’ll remember most of the story elements from the previous game, even though it’s been 8 long years since it was released. That’s the only reason I can come up with for the drastic pace of the first hour of the game where a bunch of stuff happens and dozens of plot threads get setup without the requisite time needed to develop them fully. From there it’s pretty light on from a story perspective with most of the characters really not given much time to develop. Maybe if I did more of the side missions there was more in there but given that the main story line didn’t even flesh out the main bad guy’s story much makes me think that I didn’t miss much of anything. I mean, I wasn’t expecting miracles here, but I would’ve thought that the writers would’ve known that most people wouldn’t really remember much about the previous game and would’ve spent some time building everything up a little more.

Rage 2 has some great stand out features but all of them are lost in the wash of the numerous mediocre pieces that come along with it. The combat feels great, giving you that same kind of visceral enjoyment that DOOM managed to bring back. The convoy events are great fun, doing a better job of car combat than even the Mad Max game did. But alongside all of this is a repetitive set of enemies, massive asset reuse, too many pointless upgrade systems and a story that’s mediocre and far from engaging. Compared to its predecessor it’s a better game but only just and that’s saying something when it’s been 8 years between drinks for this IP.

Rating: 7.5/10

Rage 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $99.95. Game was played on the PC for approximately 9 hours.

The Division 2: Washington’s Deep Crisis.

It’s been interesting to chart the course of The Division and Destiny as they’re both games I’ve played a lot of and each of them have had their own challenges over the years. Destiny started out strong and built on that, managing to bring me back into the fold with nearly every expansion that they released. The Division on the other hand couldn’t bring me back until Patch 1.8 when I came back into a game that had grown substantially. From there Destiny began to waver until it found its feet again in Forsaken (although I’m yet to go back after Black Armory). So I had some trepidation stepping into The Division 2, fearful that Massive might pull a Bungie and uproot all the good work they had done with the original. I’m glad to say that this isn’t the case, there are changes to be sure, but all of it seems in aid of making the game more accessible (bar one recent development, of course). At a nuts and bolts level it’s more of the same but given it’d been over a year since I last played basically everything old was new again. That and the fact that there was a renewed interest from my crew to play it meant that I had a grand old time shooting up Washington DC over the last couple months.

It’s been seven months since the Green Poison attack and Division agents have spread far and wide to help support the survivors in rebuilding society. You’re helping defend a civilian settlement when the SHD Network goes down, preventing you from communicating with other agents both locally and abroad. It’s right at this point that you receive a distress call from Washington DC: they’re under attack by a large force and need The Division’s help to repel it. You arrive on the scene shortly later and, after defeating the attack, learn that Washington has fallen into the control of 3 large factions. Your job, Agent, is to help the JTF retake the city, restore the SHD network and begin the process of rebuilding everything that has been lost.

The Snowdrop engine returns in The Division 2 with a minor tweaks to make the DX12 experience a lot better. There are some notable additions though like numerous different dynamic weather events (some which drastically change how missions play out) and an even more attention paid to the smallest of details in the game. The development team apparently used LIDAR and other GIS data to build out the bones of Washington DC before they turned it all post-apocalyptic. Now I’ve never been there myself but many I’ve played with have and they’ve all stated unequivocally how eerie the levels feel because of it. Right alongside this is the great foley work and sound track which is usually pushed aside as a small detail but it goes a long way with making the experience feel a lot more complete. Performance is also really good, even in the middle of heavy firefights with numerous things on fire. I had expected no less from Massive but it’s always nice not to be disappointed.

The Division 2 retains much of the original’s core game mechanics and structure with major changes to the loot system, abilities/talents and the gameplay loop. The major part of the game is still going to be centered around hiding in cover and shooting bad guys however how you progress is completely different. You’ll still find drops and chase the dragon for that perfectly rolled whatever which you need complete your build but the system has been revamped somewhat to dissuade you from doing that for days on end. The introduction of specialist classes is a nice way to make all of the builds more active than the previous class system was which often saw healers like me hiding behind cover for most of the mission. There are an overwhelming number of stats to min/max now which, depending on whether spreadsheets appeal to you or not, could be a good or a bad thing. Progression towards endgame is nice and linear, with predictable stage gates that you can work towards by simply playing the game in any way you want (or getting someone with higher gear score to feed you drops which works so well it feels like you’re cheating). I could go on describing the minutiae of the game but realistically it’s not going to make much of a difference to whether you’ll play it or not. That, my friends, is going to be wholly decided by whether or not you like the kind of loot grind that The Division 2 has on offer.

Combat is more refined and a whole lot more punishing than it was in the original game. Gone are the days when enemies would predictably spawn in front of you, take their cover positions and then take pot shots at you from there. No instead the AI now flanks, suppresses and is generally a royal pain in your ass which during the first few hours feels quite rough. Part of that is due to how I play games like this, favouring being right in the enemy’s face, which is a recipe for disaster most of the time. It got so bad that my mates eventually coined the term “Going Full Dave” when I’d inevitably end up face down in the middle of a bunch of enemies, a term I think I fully deserved. However as you gear up and understand how the AI works it becomes quite an enjoyable challenge, especially with some of the newer abilities like the mortar turret which is just a joy to use.

I still ended up sticking to the same weapon archetypes that I became comfortable with in the original. I mostly stuck with LMGs in the original due to their stupidly large magazines that countered the long reload times well and SMGs for their ridiculous DPS at close range. The same combo works well in The Division 2, even if I can’t get myself a 200 round LMG or a SMG that removed armour instantly. Much to my dismay shotguns are basically worthless, doing about the same amount of damage as a sniper rifle but carrying with them so much more risk that they’re just not worth using. I didn’t have much luck with sniper/marksman rifles but I’ve never really favoured them in any game I’ve played anyway (and by all accounts they are quite effective). Everyone I played with had their own set which they relied on so overall I’d have to say the weapon design is on point.

The skills are a blend of old ones that have been revamped (like the Seekers), new takes on old skills and completely new ones that shake up the game play significantly. I went back on my old faithful building initially, using the chem launcher with the heal and the hive, again with the heal, to supplement my reckless playstyle. This worked ok for the majority of the campaign however I found that I wasn’t really using the hive much and, when I did, it wasn’t particularly effective. When I chose the demolitionist specialisation though I replaced the hive with the mortar turret and, oh boy, am I glad I did. The game could have been a little clearer that it has friendly fire (just for you) as there were a couple deaths that I had no idea why they happened until I realised that I had the mortar pointing at the back of my head. Hilarious in retrospect though. Much like the weapon builds my friends and I had a diverse range of abilities selected so once again I’d say the ability design is well done, ensuring that all options are viable.

The progression through to endgame is refreshingly linear with clear activities and stage gates that you’ll need to complete in order to get through. Playing everything normally you’ll likely get to the last mission of the campaign either bang on or just before level 30. I myself had to do about an hour or so of grinding to get that last level out but you could probably skip that if you’ve been grouping for most of the game. From there you have to progress through 5 “World Tiers” which are effectively just gear score gates, forcing you to grind a bit to get enough gear up to take out a stronghold before you progress to the next one. In all honesty after doing the requisite precursor missions and a couple control points you’re likely going to be there already. Even better still if you have a friend like me who’s on WT5 and you’re on a lower tier all the gear that drops for your buddy will be at the max level for your world tier. I took one of my friends from newly minted 30 to gear score 325 in the space of 2 missions, absolutely fantastic if you’re gearing up people for end game content. I think this clear, defined progression path is what kept me coming back for so long as I always had a clear goal to work towards. Indeed it was so clear that I’ve yet to really dive into any other areas of the game except for the PVE components.

Which is why it was slightly disappointing to see that, despite basically everything in the game having a matchmaking component to it, the raid won’t. Now I’m no stranger to this challenge, I’ve made my raid career in Destiny out of grouping up with 5 other strangers on DestinyLFG.net, but I was hoping to not have to resort to that for once. It’s especially disheartening as whilst I could probably get a crew of 4 mates together to give it a crack finding another 4 is going to prove to be a royal pain in the ass. Thankfully it seems like the developers are hearing our concerns and will be bringing it in eventually although strangely cites concerns that I’d say are pretty easy to deal with. Heck DestinyLFG dealt with them years ago with a few drop down boxes. I don’t think that’s beyond Massive’s ability to deliver.

As with any of these large, open world games there’s going to be some level of jankiness that comes along with them. Typically they’re small issues, like sounds repeating themselves or models glitching out in fun and weird ways, but there’s also been some persistent crashing problems that have plagued the playerbase. I myself have only had 2 crashes in the time I’ve been playing but mates of mine had them at least once or twice a night. This does seem to have gotten better over time though so there’s hope that one day they’ll be gone for good. It does appear though that the raid isn’t immune to the plethora of small issues that dog the main game like an overly aggressive AI, sound problems and textures no loading correctly. Again I don’t believe these are beyond fixing but they are a small black mark against an otherwise stellar game.

The Division 2’s plot is fairly generic, as are pretty much all of the characters. Quick, name a main character in the game without looking them up. Pretty hard isn’t it? That’s because, as my good friend put it, Ubisoft and Massive are great at building out awesome, expansive worlds but suck hard at filling them with memorable characters. The good news is that you don’t really need to enjoy the overall plot to have fun and many of the missions stand on their own quite well without context from a larger overarching story. There’s numerous things that happen “because plot” which likely won’t get explained anytime soon but at the least they’re not so bad as to distract from the gameplay itself. I guess the biggest sin here is that the story is forgettable and, in all honesty, there’s far worse things that it could be.

The Division 2 is, I think, the right way to do a sequel to a game. It’s got the core of what made the original great with enough new things to keep it interesting. The lessons learnt from the past aren’t forgotten and have heavily influenced the new game loops that are core to The Division 2. There’s still improvements to be made, mostly around squashing the remaining bugs/glitches and introducing matchmaking for the raid, but otherwise I think there’s no better base for this sequel to start off from. The question is where do they go from here? These initial content tranches have been great but it remains to see if the upcoming content is going to be enough to bring me back to the fold on the regular. I’m very keen to see that though as my time with The Division 2 has been well spent and I look forward to more of it in the future.

Rating: 9.25/10

The Division 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $79. Game was played on the PC with a total of 43 hours of game time and 62% of the achievements unlocked.

Far Cry: New Dawn: Rebuild What Once Was.

After their long hiatus between Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 3 it doesn’t seem like Ubisoft is willing to let the series breath for much more than a year between releases. For some of the instalments this has been great, like the much loved Blood Dragon (which I’ve strangely not reviewed but I did complete) but it has cast a dim view on others like Far Cry Primal. With the wild success of Far Cry 5 it seems like Ubisoft was wanting to strike while the iron was hot and pushed out Far Cry: New Dawn as soon as they were able. Indeed New Dawn feels a lot like an overgrown DLC more than it does a full game, what with it borrowing so heavily from its predecessor and not adding a whole lot more in the mix. Still it was a mostly competent game in its own right, even if it was quite short by Far Cry standards.

17 years after nuclear war laid waste to the world in what has become known as The Collapse the survivors have emerged from hiding and are seeking to rebuild. You, known only as the Captain, are part of a travelling team of specialists that are helping everyone out in any way they can. One day you’re approached by someone from Hope county, Carmina, who’s settlement has come under attack from a gang of bandits called the Highwaymen. You agree to help however the gang gets wind of your impending arrival and derails your train before you can arrive. So begins your struggle to restore peace to Hope county, a task that will surely take more from you than you ever thought you could give.

The Dunia engine looks as great as ever, this time around with a more vibrant and saturated colour palette that instantly reminded me of Blood Dragon’s overblown visual aesthetic. This is very much contrary to the usual visual style that accompanies post apocalyptic games and honestly I quite like it. Sure, there’s times when it looks like someone let their toddler do the texture work, but it is both interesting and visually diverse. Interestingly it seems whatever optimisation problems were in Far Cry 5 at launch are gone as there was no need for me to tweak any settings in order to get solid performance and gorgeous visuals. Granted though the level of detail and pop-in was quite noticeable from a helicopter so it could just be better default selections than anything else. Still Far Cry maintains the standard it has long set for itself and brings a new visual flair to the post apocalyptic world that I’m sure will be replicated by others.

Where Far Cry 5 swing the pendulum more towards streamlining and simplification of the series’ core game mechanics New Dawn instead moves the needle back the other way a little whilst keeping most of the optimisations. The basics are still the same: limited weapon loadout, capturing outposts, crafting, etc. however the implementation of each varies somewhat from what Far Cry 5 did, enough so that it does play out like a very different game. There’s also some interesting mechanics that are included to keep you playing longer like infinitely upgradeable talents. recapturing outposts that get harder each time and a type of mission called expeditions that has the similar “harder each time” mechanic. It definitely seems like Ubisoft expected players to blast through the story and then continue to grind on these things for hours afterwards but, honestly, I don’t think anyone will see the appeal.

Combat feels a bit wonky as something weird has happened to the hit detection. Quite often shots that seem perfectly placed will miss, seemingly for no other reason than the game just didn’t think you were shooting at what you were looking at. It seems to get better with the higher end weapons so it’s possible there’s some stat I didn’t see which was affecting my aim in a way I wasn’t anticipating. Regardless the game doesn’t really educate you about anything like that so the first few hours are likely going to be spent wondering why you’re missing half your shots. Thankfully though headshots are a one hit kill, provided you have the right tier of gear for the enemy you’re trying to kill. You’ll also need a certain level of gear to even damage certain enemies, something that doesn’t become quite apparent until you run up against someone who seems impervious to all your bullets and only goes down to grenades. Thankfully the crafting mats for those are plentiful otherwise there would’ve been quite a few frustrating missions.

The crafting system goes back to its roots somewhat with animal skins now converting to various different crafting components that you’ll need to make the higher end gear. This does mean that hunting is no longer something you do when you’re strapped for cash; no you’ll need to go out and seek certain prey if you want to have the mats necessary to craft what you want. This wouldn’t be so bad if the maps didn’t really seem to lead you to the animals they say they do, quite often you’ll just end up in a barren area trying to figure out where the animal could be hiding. You don’t need to hunt of course, you can find most mats in chests or if you’re so inclined spend actual real money on buying them, but it is the fastest method by far. As someone who did enjoy hunting high end prey in the previous instalments I didn’t mind this so much although I would like the maps to be a little more reliable.

Further progression comes in two forms: ye olde talent tree and upgrading your own settlement. You’ll likely fill out the talent tree rather quickly thanks to all the points on offer from various activities: looting shelters, doing challenges and plain old levelling up. Of course the reason there’s so many points on offer is because some of the talents can be upgraded infinitely although I’m sure they reach diminishing returns at some point. I unlocked the whole tree without too much difficulty although to be honest I was just spending them at the end as I didn’t really need anything more beyond about halfway through the game.

Upgrading your base gives you access to various perks, most of which are quality of life improvements but others unlock the higher tiers of gear and vehicles that you’ll likely be lusting after. To get these upgrades you’ll need ethanol which comes from a variety of sources but the main one is from capturing outposts. After you’ve captured them once though you can scavenge them in order to bump them up a tier which, if you then go and capture again, nets you even more ethanol. Doing it with no alarms nets you a small ethanol bonus, which is pointless for the first level honestly, but doing it undetected nets you 50% more. For the tier 3 outposts this can be quite a lot, making getting those last tier upgrades quite easy. Of course doing that is easier said than done as the enemies at the final tiers can see you a mile away. Definitely a good balance of risk vs reward anyway.

Whilst there’s still some notable jankiness around, the combat being the worst of it, a lot of the polishes and bug fixing that went into Far Cry 5 have made their way into New Dawn. Even attempting some of the old physics tricks that would create some rather hilarious moments resulted in nothing much of anything happening. Disappointing in one respect but progress nonetheless. Some of the missions with unique mechanics (like the one where you travel north) were a little hit or miss, none of them requiring me to restart the mission but did point to those special instances not getting as much love as the base engine might have. So overall, given that New Dawn and Far Cry 5 likely share a lot of things under the hood it’s good to see progress in one translating to the other.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW

The story unfortunately doesn’t really stand on its own feet, needing to borrow heavily from the previous game and unfortunately not adding a whole lot to it. The main antagonists in the game are laughably shallow, only managing to get any semblance of a compelling backstory quite late in the game. The strongest character in the whole game is Joseph Seed and that’s really only because he was already so well developed in the previous game. Far Cry isn’t typically renowned for having a deep and compelling story but they’re usually at least got something compelling to drag you along. This time around though? I struggled to even remember some of the character’s names when writing the review and one of them is on a sign in a screenshot I took.

PLOT SPOILERS OVER

Far Cry: New Dawn keeps true to the series’ formula, delivering competently in that regard, but doesn’t do much more than that. Some of the changes feel like a nod back to previous games but the bulk of it is following the trend that the last few games in the series have set down. There are some things done right, like the fantastical visuals and the trickle down of improvements from Far Cry 5, but other than that there’s not much more to talk about. I can only wonder what this game might have been like if it was an expansion or DLC to Far Cry 5 instead of a standalone title as it’s not really a game for those that haven’t played it. Far Cry: New Dawn goes down then as a slight misstep from Ubisoft in the series, certainly not a fall from grace but a small smudge on an otherwise solid recent track record.

Far Cry: New Dawn is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC right now for $68. Game was played on the PC with approximately 11 hours total play time and 59% of the achievements unlocked.

Just Cause 4: Army of Chaos.

There aren’t many games that can get away with providing essentially the same experience over and over again whilst still being successful. Rarer still are long running IPs that, when they try to change up the formula, get lambasted for deviating from their core experience. So it seems is what has drawn the ire of many a gamer with Just Cause 4 as it’s move away from the core destruction mechanic has seen many long term fans unhappy with the direction that the game has taken. Once again though I find myself on the opposite side of popular opinion as Just Cause 4 managed to keep me engaged far longer than any of its predecessors did. Not that that means a whole lot given that many of the issues that plagued the past instalments are still present in this most recent instalment.

Once again you take control of Rico Rodriguez, former Agency operative and freedom fighter who’s been liberating dictatorships for most of his adult life. After the events of Just Cause 3, you are approached Mira Morales who convinces you to come to Solís to uncover the truth about Project Illapa, a weather weapon that Rico’s father had a hand in creating. What follows is the usual tale of fighting back against the oppressive dictatorship using any means necessary, picking apart their power structure whilst bolstering your own.

The Just Cause series has never been known for being graphically advanced and the latest instalment is no exception. Whilst the open world environments can certainly have their moments that all fades away rather quickly when you get up close, revealing previous generation graphics that are focused on performance more than anything else. There’s good reason for that of course as you’ll be taxing the physics and rendering engine constantly with all the random chaos you’ll be creating as you play. You’ll also need to do some tweaking as some of the more modern settings will do nothing but highlight the flaws in the graphics, like the motion blur and level of detail settings which can make everything look truly horrific if set incorrectly (which they are, by default). You will encounter performance issues but this is largely expected for games like this, ones where the whole point of the game is to get the physics engine to freak out and do some impressively crazy things.

Just Cause 4 retains many of the features of its predecessors whilst changing the fundamental progression mechanic (much the chagrin of its fans, so it seems). Instead of simply causing chaos by blowing this up and being a general nuisances now you’re the head of an army and you’ll need to gather troops in order to liberate areas. You still earn troops by increasing your chaos level but it’s painfully slow and other mechanics provide a much faster route to progression. Other than that the game is the same as you’ll remember it from previous instalments including the grappling hook (which now has a bunch of mods built in), leaderboards for feats that let you battle with friends and a whole raft of open world missions for you to do in order to unlock upgrades for your gear.

The combat in Just Cause 4 feels like it did in the past: chaotic, awkward and mostly enjoyable. The main issue is mobility as there’s no sprint, instead you’re suppose to grapple your way around. This is equal parts fun and frustrating as its quite easy to get yourself into awkward positions in the heat of battle. Thankfully the combat is pretty forgiving, only requiring a couple seconds of not getting shot to get you back up to full health. The weapons are also a bit samey and many of them are really ineffective against the higher tiers of enemies you’ll face. There are, of course, some absolutely ludicrous guns which are a bunch of fun to use, one of which (the lightning gun) can be both the best and worst thing for you and your enemies. After the first few fights though there’s not much variation in the encounters, the challenge instead coming from increasing numbers of enemies and waves. All in all it’s a very middle of the road experience.

The progression mechanic, where you need to acquire troops to push the front line forward and unlock a new area (giving you access to new things in your supply drops), is honestly quite laborious at first. In the early days the only way to get more troops is to increase your chaos level and this is painfully slow. I vaguely recall there being increasing multipliers in previous instalments that went up as you chained more destruction together. In Just Cause 4 there’s only one, when the “heat” is on, which is 2X and doesn’t seem to make much of an impact. This means that for the first couple hours you’re basically going to be grinding chaos in order to progress and, honestly, it was at this point that I almost put down the game.

After the first few areas though you’ll be able to unlock areas that give you troops rather than use them and you’ll quickly have more than you can use. Most areas will still require you to complete an in-region mission in order to unlock them and they are unfortunately quite repetitive, all requiring you to perform a multi-stage task in order to unlock the region. If you’re a fan of well laid out progression paths, as I am, then this is something that will keep you coming back as you’ll know how much effort you need to put in to unlock the next thing. If you were a fan of the previous system however it’s likely to be a right pain in the ass as the free form “just blow shit up” progression is gone, replaced with a repetitive grind. As someone who’d previously cheated his way through the game to unlock the campaign missions I actually prefer the way Just Cause 4 does it but I completely understand those who aren’t exactly enamored with the change.

Of course it wouldn’t be a proper Just Cause release without it being riddled with bugs, glitches and crashes galore. I had the game crash on me multiple times, sometimes when I was deliberately testing its limits and other times when nothing particularly special was happening on screen. The physics engine is as complete as any other Just Cause game, meaning there’s going to be a lot of interactions that don’t make a ton of sense. For instance I tied two of the large round fuel tanks together with the pull grapple and they started rolling towards each other. Instead of exploding in a glorious fireball they instead rolled through each other which was both disappointing and confusing. I also won’t delve into what a mess the vehicle system is, nor the default control scheme which circumvents all major game conventions for its own brand of weirdness. All of this won’t come as a surprise to fans of the series but if you’re new to it be warned, this is a high budget game that comes with high levels of jank.

The story has thankfully shed much of its borderline racist parts whilst still retaining its rather light on approach to character and plot development. It’s certainly built for long time fans of the series, bringing back the usual cast of returning characters whilst attempting to flesh out Rico’s backstory a little more. The rest of the characters are pretty one-dimensional, serving really only to support the cliche action movie style plot that’s common to the Just Cause franchise. Of course no one is playing Just Cause games for the story, although it seems a few reviews don’t seem particularly happy with the new tact that Avalanche has taken here, but if you were hoping that the narrative here would be one of the things that’d keep you engaged you’d be sorely mistaken.

Just Cause 4 is more of the same from Avalanche Studio’s flagship IP with one small difference which seems to have gain the disapproval of many of its fans. For myself I did manage to find more enjoyment in this instalment than I have in previous ones, however many of the core issues that have plagued the series for almost a decade now are still there. It’s certainly a fun distraction, likely worth picking up on sale, but if this is going to be your first time in the Just Cause series your money might be better spent elsewhere.

Rating: 7.0/10

Just Cause 4 is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $89.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 13 hours play time and 32% of the achievements unlocked.

We Happy Few: There’s so Much Joy in Forgetting.

Kickstarter, Early Access and all the other tools that enable developers to get an idea in front of players before it’s fully formed are both a blessing and a curse. They’ve brought a lot of ideas to reality that otherwise wouldn’t have happened otherwise, bringing us unique game experiences that have helped shape the medium for the better. On the other hand they have also seen many great ideas fall prey to the tyranny of the crowd or the popular idea of the day. That is the fate that has befallen We Happy Few, a game I Kickstarted back in 2015 as it is not the game I remember backing all those years ago. The mechanics that drew me to the it initially, taking a new approach to how stealth games could function, and the intriguing narrative they sought to craft were usurped by a procedurally generated survival sim. That’s not what I, nor I think a lot of their original backers, were seeking to support.

You are Arthur Hastings, a redactor working for the Wellington Wells’ Department of Archives, Printing, and Recycling whos job is to censor and approve old news articles to make sure that only good news makes it to the good citizens of your town. In completing your job though you come across an old news article of you and your brother and suddenly it dawns on you: the whole town did a Very Bad Thing a long time ago. You refuse to take your joy and quickly discover that the town of Wellington Wells isn’t all it appears to be. Not long after skipping your prescribed medication you’re chased out of the town and find yourself among the downers, the ones who can’t or won’t take their joy. You resolve yourself to find your brother by any means necessary, even if it means remembering what that Very Bad Thing was.

We Happy Few’s graphics are heavily stylized, taking a lot of inspiration from other retrofuture games like Bioshock. The game’s visuals are at their best in the city when you’re on Joy, the vibrant and oversaturated colours really selling the idea that none of this could possibly be real and it’s all a drug induced fever dream. Unfortunately the first few hours of the game have you out in the more drab areas which are nowhere near as interesting visually. The graphics are also more inline with previous generation games, something which isn’t completely unexpected given how long it has been in Early Access. It’d probably be a little less noticeable if the procedural generation was a little more varied with the supposedly “random” bits usually consisting of the same building blocks and NPCs repeatedly. All this being said it does run particularly well, even with a lot of things on screen, so it’s got that going for it at least.

From a gameplay perspective it’s neither a true survival game nor a traditional single player RPG as it takes cues from both. You have your usual survival mechanics like food and water but they’re not critical to keep up, you’ll just have a few negative buffs applied to you if they run out. Progression comes in the form of a very traditional XP and talent system with weapon and gear upgrades coming from crafting. The world you’ll be running around in is mostly procedurally generated with certain fixed areas for story missions and the like. There’s a small smattering of open world things around as well with random encounters and side missions scattered around the map. All in all whilst it’s a pretty comprehensive game there’s a noticeable schism between the handcrafted parts and the world that the procedural engine generates. Honestly there’s large chunks of the game I think that could be wholly abandoned which would make for a much tighter experience but unfortunately I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.

Combat takes the form of the typical first person melee style, along with all the issues that come along with that. All your weapons have durability as well, meaning that you’ll need to carry an array of different implements to ensure you can whack your way out any situation you find yourself in. The game is most certainly designed with stealth in mind so it’s somewhat understandable that the combat didn’t get as much love as it should’ve. It does make for an unfortunately frustrating experience when you don’t have much choice in whether you can fight or not. On the plus side though you can walk/run faster than anyone else in the game so realistically there’s not much stopping you from simply legging it to a safe spot if you ever find yourself in a pickle.

The stealth system is much better than other comparable games although given it was meant to be the game’s flagship feature it is a bit of a let down. The traditional stealth mechanics all work as you’d expect like hiding in tall grass, getting out of line of sight and NPCs being able to be distracted by thrown objects. The social stealth system however is the real disappointment as it was originally billed as a balancing game of using Joy in order to blend in appropriately. The long and short of it is that you don’t really need to take Joy at all unless there’s a specific progression blocker for it. You can freely walk around the towns off your joy and no one will say anything and the cameras that detect you can be easily run past without causing too much of a fuss. I had hoped that once I got back into the town proper the game would start to pick up a bit with the additional mechanics at play but unfortunately it didn’t.

Progression comes in random bursts, typically at the end of story missions. Doing anything in the open world doesn’t seem to reward you with much as I never appeared to level up when I was traipsing around so in the end I just gave up on it. Crafting is also a bit of a crapshoot too as whilst you can carry a lot there’s not a lot of useful things for you to make. There’s blueprints for you to track down but honestly I never found anything worthwhile in them. That, combined with the utter lack of accessible stashes, means that you’re often carrying around a ton of useless stuff that you feel like you need to hold on to “just in case”. I toyed with the idea of tracking down a mod for the game to lift the inventory limit but frankly at that point I was already done with what We Happy Few had to offer.

The story was probably the standout part of We Happy Few which is a shame that it wasn’t given a better vehicle to shine. You see with all the running about between missions through repetitive procedurally generated terrain the pacing of the story gets completely lost. There are numerous memorable scenes, even in the game’s opening moments, but they’re then lost when it takes you half an hour of wandering about to get to the next small tidbit. The voice actors should be commended for the incredible job they did with making the characters come alive as it was during those moments that I really started to feel like there was something to like in We Happy Few. Maybe I should’ve just watched a stream of the game instead.

We Happy Few is a game that started out with a great concept that unfortunately failed in its execution. The grab bag of mechanics coupled with the procedurally generated open world meant that there was no real single driving force that pushed me to keep playing more. Instead I felt like there was just too much time between the games stand out moments, taking a bat to the story’s pacing and, most unfortunately, my enjoyment of it. I really do hope that some of the remaining games I’ve Kickstarted don’t go down a similar path as I’m beginning to lose faith in my ability to pick good ideas when they’re at such a nascent stage of their development. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong soon.

Rating: 6.0/10

We Happy Few is available on PC, Xbox One and Playstation 4 right now for $84.95. Game was played on the PC with 3 hours of total playtime and 8% of the achievements unlocked.

Red Dead Redemption 2: The Last of Our Kind.

I, and many other gamers, hold the original Red Dead Redemption in high regard. It was a breath of fresh air for the open world genre, bringing with it not only a new setting but also a different take on what the genre could be. It’s also one of the few games that I’ll hold up as an example of a sad ending done well, one that carried some serious emotional weight that resonated strongly with those who managed to finish it. So the follow up instalment in the series was always going to have high expectations put on it, both from this reviewer and the community at large. For many the game has lived up to their expectations, delivering that open world western that many had been waiting some 8 years to see. For this old reviewer though, whilst I certainly appreciate the astonishing depth and craftsmanship behind Red Dead Redemption 2, it falls a little short but I think that says a lot more about me as a gamer than it does about the quality of this game.

RDR2 takes place some years before the original, taking you back to the time when the Van der Linde gang was still riding high as outlaws in the west. You’re Arthur Morgan, a long time and loyal member of the crew, who’s fled into the mountains after a botched robbery job in the town of Blackwater. Your motivation is simple: survive long enough until the heat dies down and you can return to the scene of the crime and collect your loot. The trials put before you will be numerous, from simple tasks of keeping your gang alive and healthy to trying to make enough money so you can realise Dutch’s vision for the new world.

As you’d expect from a several hundred million dollar production budget RDR2’s visuals are absolutely stunning, even when they’re pumped out of an aging, original PS4. The sprawling vistas of the world that Rockstar created are simply incredible and the attention to detail is second to none. The same place can seem completely different depending on the time of day or the weather which is nuanced enough to include things like dust storms or light rain vs a thunderstorm. Whilst it’ll take a little time to load initially everything after that is smooth, the game rarely needing to take a break to load you into a new area or generate an event. I’m honestly sorely disappointed that the PC didn’t get a release at the same time the consoles did as I would’ve loved to seen this game dialled up to the 9s, even on my aging beast. Perhaps we’ll see it one day but I don’t know if I’ll make the journey back to play it then. Maybe if they add a similar online mode like they did for GTA V.

As you likely already know RDR2 is an open world western game done in the tried and true style that Rockstar has perfected over their numerous hit titles over the years. The amount of things to do is huge, dwarfing any other game I’ve played. The core structure remains the same: campaign missions, side missions and progression in the form of weapons and cosmetics, with a very generous helping of additional mechanics in there to keep even the most dedicated player occupied for 100 hours or more. I’ve been playing RDR2 for about as long as I played the original, sticking to my usual campaign-first approach, and it appears I’m about 25% of the way through the main story (closer to half if you don’t count the epilogues). Honestly it’d probably be easier to list features that it doesn’t have as it really is the most complete cowboy simulator ever created.

Combat doesn’t deviate much from the original’s formula, retaining the same third person, infinite regenerating health mechanic. There are a number more weapons to choose from although most of them feel pretty similar given that the auto-aim is set quite high by default. So you’ll usually end up using whatever the most powerful gun you have at your disposal which is either your carbine or perhaps the sawn off shotguns if enemies wander in a bit too close. It might have been a bit better if the encounters weren’t all so similar, either being a one-off firefight with a few guys or a multiple wave fight where you’re basically locked in position the whole time. It’s quite clear that out and out combat like that wasn’t a particular focus for Rockstar with RDR2, mostly just serving as another mini-game among the dozens the game will offer up to you. For the kind of player who’s going to get a lot out of this game though I don’t think they’ll mind that one bit.

Unlike the original progression in RDR2 is a bit more of a nebulous affair, coming in the form of a few upgrades to your cores (health/stamina/dead eye), items in your camp and a slathering of cosmetic items that have little effect on the overall game. It’s a pretty stark contrast between the two as I remember the original having a fairly well defined upgrade path for a lot of things, like having to hunt a certain type of animal a number of times or doing a particular quest. Those kinds of missions are still around however their rewards are often just cosmetic items, meaning there’s no real reason to go after them unless you want to. That honestly took the wind out of my sails a little bit as without clear goals and their associated rewards it can feel kind of pointless to do something that might take you some time to complete. I mean, I spent a good 30 mins or so tracking down the best horse you can find in the wild and taming it because I knew where it was, but I don’t believe there’s a set of clothing that helps anything past giving me a bigger satchel.

On the flip side the lack of definitive progression mechanics means it’s largely up to you how you want to push things forward in RDR2. No longer is a toss up between doing what you’d like to do, say fishing for the world’s largest bass for hours on end, and what you need to do to improve your character or move the story forward. In the 20-something hours I’ve spent with the game not once have I hit something I wasn’t able to get past. Given that the game’s overall objective seems to be more about the world itself rather than any one particular thing within it this design choice is key to ensuring that everything remains accessible to the player. Gating things off would instantly remove that feeling of freedom which so many of Rockstar’s playerbase crave.

Going into RDR2, which I started shortly after finishing the latest Call of Duty, I had friends caution me that I might be in for a bit of…let’s call it gaming whiplash going from something so focused on constantly triggering your dopamine centers to a game that likes to take its time with you. To be honest they were 100% on the mark as originally I was really frustrated with the game’s slow pace and lack of definitive progression. Talking to them about how they play it though it became clear that RDR2 strives to be a very different kind of game, one that doesn’t much care about how long it takes for something to get done. They’d come home from a day at work, put RDR2 on and maybe fish or go hunting for a while, only doing missions if they really felt like they wanted to. For this kind of gaming, one that can be enjoyed by itself over an extended period of time, RDR2 is absolutely perfect. For someone like me? It’s antithetical.

You see my (near) weekly gaming reviews predisposes me to a certain kinds of games, usually ones that can be done in a weekend or possibly over the course of a few weeks if I can find titles to fill the gaps in. This has also meant that I’ve tended towards games that provide one or more of a few key game features: clear progression, strong narrative or shorter playtimes. RDR2 doesn’t really fit any of those particularly well (more on the narrative in a second) and so over the last 2 months I haven’t really found more than a couple hours a week here or there to go back to it. I’m not exactly bored when I’m playing it but I’m also not exactly wanting for more every time I put down the controller. Your mileage will vary of course but suffice to say I think RDR2 appeals to a wide variety of gamers but I may have excluded myself from them, given my habits.

This might have all been different if RDR’s story was going somewhere which, in my playtime, it decidedly wasn’t. For starter’s there’s a noticeable lack of an overarching narrative, something which I think the original did quite well. Sure there’s the whole “we need to get back to Blackwater” thing but that’s nothing more than a catchphrase for a couple of the characters. Instead the majority of the story is caught up in either self-contained vignettes or in short story arcs that don’t last longer than a single chapter. I had hopes for it early on when Arthur gets reacquainted with an old flame, but after that mission it wasn’t mentioned again. I’ve read stories of people having some interesting encounters, like freeing a convict on the side of the road only to meet them in town later, but that’s just an interesting tale to recount over beers, not a solid story. Perhaps I’d be a little more engrossed in it if I hadn’t completed the original over 8 years ago now as I had to look up just how many of them were in it (more than I remembered, honestly).

I think a lot of this has to do with the schism between the open world and crafted elements of the game, something which YouTuber NakeyJakey summed up in is (admittedly long but well worth it) video on the topic of Rockstar’s game design. RDR2 has a desire to be a lot of things to many different kinds of people and, as a consequence, kind of ends up somewhere in the middle. For those who find what they want in there it’s great but those who are looking for a more coherent game experience (which doesn’t preclude open world games by the way, Horizon Zero Dawn did it well) it leaves us wondering just what Rockstar was thinking. For me the end result is an exceptionally well crafted game that has a lot to offer but just didn’t manage to hook me in the same way its predecessor did.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is likely to go down for many as 2018’s game of the year but for this old gamer it sadly won’t. I can certainly appreciate the countless man hours that went into developing it as the world that they created is breathtaking in its beauty and depth. But all of this just feels like a large bag of tricks cobbled together to please those who like to make a single game their hobby. The things that elevate games like this above others in the genre, like a strong narrative or progression systems, just aren’t there, leaving players like myself wanting. Given I have a lot of time left before I go back to work in the new year I might get around to playing it more but I don’t feel I have a lot of reason to. Is it worth playing? Certainly, if only for the fact that everyone else is and you want to have something to talk to them about for the next 6 months. Honestly though you likely already know whether or not you want to play it and a rating from a single reviewer on the Internet’s backwater isn’t going to change that.

Rating: 8.5/10

Red Dead Redemption 2 is available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $78. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 20 hours total play time and 7% of the achievements unlocked.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider: To Remake the World.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s release surprised me as I hadn’t really kept track of where the next instalment was at. You’d think then that I’d have no big expectations for it but reading back over my reviews though I think they were set high given the previous game, Rise of the Tomb Raider, rated up there among many of my favourite games of that year. This is always a challenge for follow up titles and it seems that unfortunately the developers just weren’t up to the task this time around. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot to like in the newest Tomb Raider game, but like many other long running AAA titles they’ve stumbled and they’re going to have to shake things up considerably if they want the IP to be successful.

Following almost directly on from the events at the end of the previous game we find Lara and Jona tracking down the leaders of the Trinity cult. They track them down to a town in Mexico where they discover that they’re looking for an ancient artifact that can bring about the remaking of the world. Lara then finds her way into an ancient temple and steals the Dagger of Ix Chel, one part of the two things needed to accomplish this. Shortly after however she’s captured by Trinity who take the dagger from her, informing Lara that she’s just begun the end of the world. You then follow Lara’s quest to find the other half piece, the Silver Box of Chak Chel, so she can stop Trinity before they remake the world by purging everyone from it.

I can strongly remember Rise of the Tomb Raider opening with a wide sweeping in-game cinematic that was absolutely stunning, showing right from the start that it was a visual marvel. Shadow of the Tomb Raider by comparison doesn’t, feeling decidedly last-gen with its muted colour palettes and tendency towards tight, closed in set pieces. Now I’ll admit that it’s quite possible some of this is due to the limits of the hardware it’s running on, given my PC is nearing 4 years old at this point, but even looking back at my old screenshots they just look so much better than the ones I have here. Rise of the Tomb Raider still has its moments, some of them which can be improved dramatically by using the built in photographer mode (not used for any of these shots), but on the whole it feels like a step back in visual quality. Given that this was supposed to be the biggest budget Tomb Raider game yet, up to $100 million possibly, it does make me wonder why the graphics took a bit of a back seat.

Where Tomb Raider reinvented, Rise refined and Shadow, unfortunately, simply copies most things wholesale from its predecessors. The game play will be familiar to those who’ve played the previous two instalments with a handful of new mechanics being thrown in. You’ll start off with a lot of abilities now I vaguely remember requiring skill points to unlock previously, many of which were necessary quality of life improvements. The upgrade and crafting system is much the same, requiring a mish mash of different items gathered from both humans and beasts in order to get the best items the game has to offer. There’s also a bunch of outfits and other weapon types available for you to find if you’re into exploring every inch of the maps that the game has to offer. Many other reviews have criticised the game for becoming stale and it’s a valid point as Shadow of the Tomb Raider doesn’t bring enough new things to the table to make it feel truly distinct from its predecessor.

The stealth/combat is almost identical to Rise of the Tomb Raider with really only two new notable mechanics: covering yourself in mud and hiding on leafy walls. They’re introduced early but they don’t really make much of an impact in how combat plays out. It’s only towards the end when the enemies get infrared goggles does the mud mechanic make some sense but even then it’s not a huge change in the way stealth sections play out. So the combat flow follows the same pattern that a lot of games do: stealth around and take out as many enemies as you can before you inevitably trip up and have to go full gunslinger mode. There doesn’t appear to be much (if any) penalty for just shooting up everything in sight either so if you’re not really a fan of the stealth sections then you can simply blast right past them all. This would be more glaring if there was the same amount of combat in Shadow of the Tomb Raider as there was in previous games but I probably spent less than half of my total game time in combat.

There’s definitely a much heavier emphasis on platforming this time around with a lot more of the environments explorable. Shadow of the Tomb Raider does make that most annoying choice of showing you parts of the map you can’t access until you get a certain item, something which always gives me the shits. This was especially annoying given that the fast travel system never seemed to be available for me, preventing me from going back to places even after I had unlocked the requisite gear. There also appears to be some gear that you don’t get from completing the campaign missions as well (the rope ascender being the first that comes to mind) and I never saw it at any vendors either. So I’m not sure what happened there but even at the end of the game I didn’t have all the tools I needed to explore every part of the game. I’ll admit that towards the end I was starting to lose interest quickly so I might have missed some important side quest or some such which might’ve given me those tools I needed. Still my point stands: showing a player somewhere they can explore but forcing them to come back later is crap and I don’t like it.

Progression comes at a pretty steady pace throughout the game with basically every action you take giving you XP. There’s still a lot of skills which aren’t particularly useful and some that honestly shouldn’t be there at all. For instance the one that allows you to buy bigger resource bags from vendors feels a bit shit, it should just increase the one you have already. In fact the steady levelling is offset somewhat by the rather high cost of items bought from vendors and the fact that you have to buy the lesser version of something before you can buy the bigger one. Had I known that going in I might’ve been a little more strategic with how I spent my cash. Still it’s not like anything I bought from the vendors make a great deal of difference to how I played. The different bows and other types of weapons all feel basically the same, none conferring any real advantage or disadvantage over the other. Indeed you’re probably best placed just fully upgrading the defaults as you won’t really need much else.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider has a few rough edges, most notably in the platforming sections when Lara doesn’t respond to inputs as you’d expect her to. Quite often I had her leap in an unintended direction because I wasn’t angled in exactly the right way, causing her to leap to her doom. There’s also a few sections which, for some reason, instantly kill you when they shouldn’t, like the big tower which you can explore if you take one path down but will die instantly if you jump to it (even though it’s a fully survivable jump). The aiming also feels a little unrefined with a lot of shots that should have connected whiffing their target completely. None of this is game breaking but it does feel a little more rough than an AAA title like this should.

The story dives deeper into the Lara’s family history and the ties it has to the Trinity organisation which is, on the whole, not bad. It does jump around a fair bit with events unfolding a bit too fast which makes some plot points a little unbelievable. This has nothing to do with the mystic elements either, more you have character relationships developing too fast, events taking place in weirdly accelerated time frames and a lack of moments to let the story breathe. Indeed a lot of the flavour of the game is hidden in the collectibles which are all fully voiced but will only play if you stay in the inventory screen. It’s a big missed opportunity to have them playing in the background as you walk around as some of them are quite interesting. It’s not like they didn’t do that for other parts of the story too, like when you sit around the camp to upgrade your skills and Lara will either chat with people that are around or go through her internal monologues. Overall I think the story was probably one of the stronger elements of this instalment, it was just let down by the so-so game play.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider would be a fine game by any other standards but it seems small compared to the shoulders of the giants it stands on. The game feels like a step back for the series as a whole, with a lack of innovation and refinement in nearly all aspects of the game. It’s still very much the kind of game that rekindled the IP over 5 years ago, which might be great for some, but I’d want to see a lot more for the kind of investment the developers have made in it. To be fair it would’ve been hard to continue going from strength to strength, the weight of the hype train always weighs heavily, but for this reviewer Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels to be the weakest in the series. I still have hope for the franchise but at this time of year, when competition for a gamer’s attention is never greater, these kinds of missteps can be lethal.

Rating: 7.5/10

Shadow of the Tomb Raider is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 11 hours of total playtime and 52% of the achievements unlocked.

Monster Hunter World: Being an A-Lister Ain’t Easy.

Eastern styled RPGs have a bit of a… reputation. The most notable part of this reputation is their penchant for horrendous grinds, forcing you to spend hours upon hours drudging your way towards that next level or shiny purple. They’re also renowned for being mechanically dense, often with multiple interwoven systems that all need to be understood and exploited fully if you want to live out your power fantasy. My first brush with these kinds of games came almost a decade ago with Aion: Tower of Eternity, a game so grindy and dense that I gave up when I reached level 30, which is saying something from someone who levelled 2 characters to 60 in vanilla World of Warcraft. This was why I originally passed on Monster Hunter World when it first came out as it looked chillingly like the eastern MMORPGs I’d played in the past. However with few good titles out at the time I figured I had nothing to lose and so I gave it the old college try. Unfortunately in this instance I didn’t find a whole lot to like about the Monster Hunter experience, the depth and complexity of the games numerous mechanics lost in the seemingly endless grind that I’d have to go through to exploit them.

You are a Hunter who is traveling to the New World as part of the Fifth Fleet. As part of the Research Expedition your job is to help out in determining why the Elder Dragons migrate to the New World every ten years as part of an event called the crossing. However on your way there your fleet is attacked by Zorah Magdaros, an elder dragon the size of a mountain that was making its journey to the New World. Thankfully you wash up on shore and are able to make it to Astera, the Research Expedition’s main base of operations in the new world. From here you begin your quest to understand the elder dragons, the reason behind the crossing and how to survive in this new land filled with monsters looking to make a meal out of you.

Monster Hunter World has that distinct, eastern RPG art style to it which (for whatever reason) tends to favour slightly worse graphics that are made up for with lavish amounts of detail. Honestly it feels like a game that would’ve came about at the end of the PlayStation 3’s development cycle, not a current gen title. Part of that is likely due to the multiplayer components with the potential for a lot to be going on at any one time. Still there are current generation MMORPGs with higher player caps that have managed far better visuals so I’m guessing that this was a stylistic choice more than anything. This all aside Monster Hunter World is a visually diverse and detailed game, overflowing with colour and visual spectacles. The areas might not be large in scale but they’re full of hidden paths and secret areas, making them feel a lot larger. If this kind of game appeals to you though the visuals aren’t really going to matter, it’s the grind you’re really here for.

Monster Hunter World embodies the eastern RPG archetype to a T, favouring deep mechanical systems that give the player seemingly endless choices in how you approach the game. There are no classes or talent trees to speak of, instead your progression is tied to your weapon of choice and armour set, both of which you’ll upgrade numerous times over the course of the game. The core of the game’s progression centers on the various crafting and upgrade systems, most of which require you to go out and hunt certain monster types to get the items required. Sprinkled over the top of all this is your usual RPG flair with town hubs, vendors and side quests galore that are certain to keep the completionists out there busy for hundreds of hours. Combat comes in the form of a kind of dark souls-esque type experience although it feels thoroughly less refined than its FromSoftware counterparts. In all honesty in the 16 hours I was playing it I still felt like I hadn’t scratched the surface of the game with many of the game’s mechanics still left untouched. Monster Hunter World certainly demands a lot from its players and unfortunately, for this old gamer, I just couldn’t find the strength to keep going back.

Now I’m not one to shy away from the kind of combat that Monster Hunter World puts forward but it honestly felt incredibly unrefined in its implementation. The Dark Souls inspired combat system brings with it a good set of mechanics but utilising them feels like a real hit and miss affair. For starters a monster’s hit box seems to be a finicky affair, sometimes registering as a hit on you whilst at other times simply moving you out of the way. Similarly the target lock mechanic flails wildly whenever there’s more than a few places you can target, often whipping you between different parts of the monster (or other monsters in the vicinity) as you try to position yourself around it. Getting on a monster’s back also doesn’t seem to work as it demonstrated most of the time, often failing to latch when I landed directly on the monster’s back but inexplicably working when I’d barely brush the top of their head. Even the resistance/weakness system felt really ineffective as I ground specifically for a set of weapons to fight one beast only to find that they didn’t make a lick of difference in the actual fight. Maybe I’m just not getting it, but if you can’t understand a game’s combat system after 16 hours then honestly I fault the game, not the player.

 

I’ll partly lay the blame of that at Monster Hunter World’s utterly glacial pace of progression. Even the most basic of upgrades requires gathering a substantial amount of materials and then, when you do craft it, the benefits are slim at best. In typical min/maxer fashion I tried dumping all my mats and time into crafting a decent set of starter gear (the bone set you see above) and honestly I couldn’t really tell you how much of a difference it made. I even tried grinding out some of the higher level sets of gear but with each monster kill taking 20 minutes or so to complete (if the fucker didn’t “leave the area” right at the end) getting a new set of gear would likely take hours. It got so bad that in the end I simply crafted a hodge podge set made up of the best crafting mats I had and even then that didn’t seem to reap any kind of benefit. Again I’m happy to admit that this is likely a failing on my part to understand the greater complexities that are hiding within Monster Hunter World’s various mechanical systems but if 16 hours of gameplay and intense Googling can’t get me there I’m really not sure what can.

Credit where credits due though, Monster Hunter World does have one of the deepest and most integrated crafting systems I’ve seen in quite some time. For most games there’s going to be a stock standard build that you can head straight for that will ensure your victory. For Monster Hunter World though there’s really no one-size fits all build that’s guaranteed to turn you into an overpowered god. Instead you’ll need to tailor your gear to your weapon choice, play style and prey that you’re chasing. This results in a near infinite number of builds, all of which appear to be viable (at least from what I can glean from various Reddit threads). I can definitely understand the appeal of such a system, heck I myself have invested many hours in games that had similar deep mechanical roots, it’s just unfortunate that I wasn’t able to find that hook to keep me playing.

There are some pretty notable issues with game on a technical level, some of which I think are inherent and others that are most certainly due to the porting process. The game’s graphical performance was horrendous when I started playing, something which I found out was a known issue. This was mostly fixed by using the Special K mod developed by Kaldaien which also allowed me to run the game in borderless windowed mode (although the game still seemed to have some teething issues with that). The netcode also seemed extremely fragile, something which is wholly attributable to Capcom. This is because there’s no native network framework for Monster Hunter World to make use of like it does on consoles (think PSN and Xbox Live) which mean they had to develop their own. When I first started playing it seemed to work fine but however after a week or so I found myself unable to get into any online games at all. Then, inexplicably, it started working again with no changes made on my end. I then foolishly decided to try a multiplayer quest only to have my teammates drop from my game session halfway through a monster fight. Honestly whilst its admirable that Capcom didn’t want to outsource the porting I can’t help but feel that maybe, just maybe someone else could have done a better job.

This isn’t also mentioning the various game design issues with the game’s core being focused on controller based play that doesn’t translate well to the PC platform. The default layout that’s chosen for you isn’t exactly congruent to keyboard and mouse play and even the MMORPG styled layout isn’t a whole lot better. The various menus are also incredibly obtuse with numerous different options hidden in random areas, necessitating a whole lot of flipping around in order to find the thing you’re looking for. I’m sure given enough time I could remap the keys or find mods that would make it better but honestly it’s not like UI design for games like this is an unsolved problem space. I managed to stumble my way through, to be sure, but honestly it feels like a game made for a different kind of gamer playing on a different kind of platform. If it’s any consolation I’m happy to admit I’m likely not Capcom’s target demographic for this particular title.

I figured that I’d at least play the campaign through to completion just to see how the game’s story pans out. I didn’t manage that as the overall plot is just too shallow and the use of a mute protagonist just served to highlight all of its flaws. I certainly liked the premise, travelling to a new world to understand a phenomenon that has eluded everyone so far, but there just wasn’t enough character or plot development to keep me that interested. Some of the things also don’t make a terrible amount of sense, like the fact that the various fleets don’t appear to talk to each other very much or why parts of the island are seemingly inaccessible despite you being able to fly everywhere. Again maybe the story depth is buried somewhere I didn’t look but if the game can’t at least tempt me in that direction then I’m more likely to conclude nothing is there.

Once again I find myself on the opposite side of popular opinion, gazing at a wildly successful title and wondering what everyone sees in it. I can certainly appreciate the depth of game play that Monster Hunter World presents, embodying (for better or worse) the stereotypical JRPG grindfest that so many people enjoy. However for me I just couldn’t find the appeal, even after ploughing in more hours than I typically would in an attempt to find that hook. I’m willing to admit that there might be something in there that I’d enjoy but I just couldn’t find it. Perhaps playing with friends could have changed my opinion as I’ve enjoyed many a trashy online experience so long as I had my mates by my side. Maybe the game is just for a different demographic than the one I fit into, I don’t know. It’s quite possible you’ll look at all the gripes listed here and chide me for my opinion, thinking that’s the whole reason you should be playing Monster Hunter World. If that’s the case then you’ll likely find the enjoyment I missed in Monster Hunter World.

Rating: 6.5/10

Monster Hunter World is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 16 hours play time and 22% of the achievements unlocked.