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.
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.
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.
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.
The revamp that Forsaken brought to Destiny 2 was sorely needed, giving it the shot in the arm that many players were longing for. To be sure it was aimed primarily at a certain crowd, those who make Destiny their hobby, but at this point in the game’s life those are the ones who Bungie needs to please the most. For myself it was a reawakening of that original Destiny spirit I had been longing for, giving me enough drive to grind out gear for the raid and ultimately, for the first time in a long while, max out my character at 600 light after some 41 more hours after I wrote my review. So when I saw Black Armory was coming out, the first of its kind of mini-expansions, I was intrigued to jump back in to see some new content and maybe even try the new raid in the first week.
Unfortunately it seems those many hours I put in beforehand just got me a ticket to the dance. To really enjoy the new mini-dlc fully I’d have to go back to the grind.
Black Armory gives you an extremely short bit of story which introduces Ada-1, the purveyor of the DLC’s namesake. Essentially they’re a weapon maker whose clientele is those not blessed with power, I.E. not you, guardian. However your relationship with The Spider has granted you access to them and Ada-1 quickly puts you to task in reclaiming their forge in order for them to start cranking out weapons again. So after about an hour or so of following a quest chain to unlock the first forge you’re then introduced to the game’s new mode, a kind of revamp of the escalation protocol with a few new mechanics thrown in the mix.
Jumping into this headfirst on day 1 wasn’t the greatest experience, something that was echoed by many other 600 light level players who tried the new content day 1. The main issue was that the light level for the first encounter started out at around 610, topping out at 630 for the final boss. This meant for those of us diving headfirst into the new encounter, especially considering it was a matchmade event, were usually met with defeat. Bungie then lowered the light level by 5, which made it a little more doable but still anything but easy even for previously maxed characters, necessitating a need to go back and begin the same grind out all over again. For some this is a non issue, indeed there were numerous examples of people reaching 640+ after the first day, but for those of us playing a single character with little interest in redoing much of the grind we just went through this experience didn’t resonate well.
You see for those who run 3 characters the 50 light level bump isn’t going to mean a lot to them, maybe a week or two of their regular grind in order to get there. For people like me though, who run a single character since that’s all they have time for, that level cap is more like 3+ weeks worth of work. That puts half of this expansion’s content (I.E. the raid) out of reach for some time. With the lack of story or other interesting activities to keep driving me forward, like the ever changing Dreaming City dialogue and ascendant challenges, the will to plough through the grind again just wasn’t there. To be sure part of this is to blame on expectations, I was somewhat hoping for a little bit of a campaign that would then plonk me into a new set of activities to grind but instead what I got was mostly the old grind with a few new things tacked onto it. I’ve already done my dash on that part and really have no interest in re-grinding all the same things again just so I can run the raid a couple times.
I think it’s clear that this kind of expansion isn’t really designed with players like me in mind. Forsaken was, to be sure, a rather long and drawn out grind but there were enough new and cool things to push me forward towards an ultimate goal. Black Armory adds all of the key trappings that used to keep me coming back but lacks that hook to keep driving me forward. This isn’t to say it’s a bad expansion, more that it’s directed at a certain subset of players who’ve been craving some kind of new content for a little while now that they’ve run the raid, got all their curated rolls and haven’t had much of a reason to login for the past month or so. I’m not one of those players, I had a goal of running the raid, which I did, then it progressed into completely smashing the raid with the best weapons, gear and mods available, and I did that too. Now though I don’t feel compelled to grind forges for new weapons, seek out the new exotics or even look into the raid. Maybe that’s because I have other games to fill that need that Destiny once met or maybe it’s due to the lack of story content, maybe it’s all those things but the long and the short of it is I don’t see much reason to log back into Destiny to play through Black Armory.
I don’t begrudge Bungie for releasing Black Armory like this though, they’re making content for their dedicated player base and I’m simply not one of them. I come back for every expansion, play it until I’ve had my fill and then I leave it again waiting until I’ve got a good reason to invest my time in it again. This time around I simply didn’t find that one hook, that one thing that pushes me to want to achieve something. That doesn’t mean it isn’t there, indeed it seems a lot of people are finding their own reasons to keep playing it, just it didn’t surface in time for me. Maybe the additional content drips for Black Armory will tempt me back eventually but, for now, Destiny 2 will remain on ice for me.
Destiny 2: Black Armory is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now as part of the Annual Pass for $34.99. Total time spent in the expansion was about 3 hours, with total playtime in Destiny 2 now totalling 171 hours.
Quite often I surprise myself when I go back to previous reviews. I’d forgotten just how much I had enjoyed Battlefield 1 when it came out, seemingly loving the new Operations mode which kept me coming back for a while (although no longer than what I did for the review it seems). I hadn’t really been following the development for Battlefield V but on the surface it’d seem that, if you liked its predecessor, you’d like the enhancements that were coming along with this latest instalment. However this time around it felt like more of the same as there was nothing particularly innovative or novel about this latest Battlefield that grabbed me. That coupled with some rather egregious launch day issues made for a very middle of the road experience, neither completely terrible nor something I’d recommend you’d seek out and play.
Much like its predecessor Battlefield V retains the same story vignette style for its campaigns, although there was far fewer of them this time around. They all follow pivotal stories of World War II but they are all, of course, entirely fictional which seems to annoy the history buffs to no end. They’re incredibly simple in their construction, taking place in the multiplayer maps and almost entirely consisting of running from one base to another, completing some rudimentary objective before moving onto the next. It seems that DICE is taking a kind of softly-softly approach to killing off the single player experience, rather than take the direct (and more controversial) route of just killing it off completely.
The Frostbite 3 engine is looking as good as it ever has although it is starting to show its age in some places. Mostly this comes up when you’re in tight environments or up close to things where the numerous visual tricks that the engine uses start to come into stark relief. The Battlefield games have always been at their best in giant environments where you can enjoy the wide vistas before a sniper takes you out from the other side of the map. Performance is still workable although it seems that DirectX 12 support is still a little patchy, glitching out hard on me and causing a few crashes even after installing the latest drivers. I’ll touch more on that later though as there’s definitely some larger issues at play here with the usual DICE jankiness turned up a couple notches in this release.
At its core Battlefield V feels the same as it has for quite a while now, retaining its penchant for large battles on in huge spaces with all the trimmings you’d expect from a large war simulator. The classes are the same, sticking to the same 4 tropes that were defined so long ago. There’s supposedly some improved versions of other game modes but, in all honesty, I never really got around to playing them. No I spent the majority of my time in the game playing with friends in the one game mode that they never get wrong: conquest. In that regard the Battlefield experience I had felt pretty much the same as it always did, for better and for worse.
Combat remains much the same, favouring a slower paced strategic type of engagement rather than say Call of Duty’s flurry of bullets and respawns. That still brings with it all the less desirable aspects of course, like snipers being able to one shot you from places you can’t see them and one shot kill headshots from guns that really have no right to be that effective (like the Medic’s MP5 which netted me far more kills with that then even I felt was fair). The large scale battles in conquest do retain their larger than life feeling though, something which precious few games have been able to achieve. Surprisingly though even with many players taking advantage of the insane 11 day head start (my mate being one of them, dumping some 52 hours into the game before its official release) I didn’t feel as disadvantaged as I previously did. Indeed unlike previous games where a maxed out tank player could ruin the game for an entire team this time around things felt an awful lot more balanced. Either that or I’ve improved dramatically over the last few years but I doubt the countless hours I’ve spent in COD have really helped me that much in Battlefield…
The single player missions are a relatively short affair with most of them being over in an hour so. If you’re so inclined there’s a bunch of hidden collectibles strewn about the place which, if you complete the associated challenges for the mission, will give you an unique melee weapon for use in multiplayer. Honestly given how basic they are I really wasn’t inclined to search blindly around the giant maps looking for them, especially when the combat wasn’t exactly fun or enjoyable. You see most of the missions are meant to be tackled stealthy, but they don’t equip you with many tools for doing so outside of throwing shells to distract people or highlighting them with your binoculars. The AI is so extrucingatly dumb that DICE counteracted that by making them all top tier marksman, able to hit you with a pistol with sniper like accuracy. Of course you can counter this by alerting them and then running behind a door, which they’ll all then happily run towards allowing you to mow them all down.
Honestly I’m starting to get on board with the idea of not having a single player campaign at all if they’re going to be this basic. I can understand the idea of wanting to provide glimpses into various parts of the setting but I’m not particularly interest in that as a subject and, from what I’ve seen, the things depicted in there aren’t exactly what the history buffs enjoy either. Honestly I’d prefer a shorter campaign, maybe say 3~4 hours or so, that was a polished end to end experience. Heck that used to be what most of these games delivered (although I admit many derided them for the short length) so maybe their return to their roots simply hasn’t gone far enough.
I’d probably be a little more generous if Battlefield V wasn’t so unpolished on release, both for the single and multiplayer experience. Every new release of Battlefield seems to bring with the same old bugs, chief of which is a physics engine which gets routinely confused on how to simulate the most rudimentary of things. I had one instance in the single player campaign where someone spawned inside a vehicle, immediately died then started to vibrate violently as they bounced between the outside and inside of the vehicle. I had the bomb on a couple maps spawn in the ground (in an area that wasn’t destructible either, see below screenshot), preventing the team from picking it up and forcing the game into a neverending stalemate. This is somewhat par for the course with Battlefield games but, honestly DICE, it’s time for you to either develop Frostbite 4 to address these problems or find a new engine entirely.
All of this culminates into an experience that isn’t so much different from those of Battlefield games past which, depending on what you’re looking for in this game, can be a good or a bad thing. For me personally the Battlefield games have always had a pretty limited lifetime for me; the lack of repetitive hits to my dopamine centers that other competitive shooters provide meaning I’ll go and seek out my fix elsewhere after I’ve had my fill of Battlefield. For others though, those who play Battlefield as their goto hobby, it’s going to mean that they’ve got more of the same experience that they want.
For me though? Battlefield V feels like it was off the mark a bit, getting just enough things wrong to make it feel a bit more middle of the road than it otherwise has. Many of the things that make the series great are still there: the massive environments with huge battles, a deep progression system that will keep players engaged for ages and new game modes which, whilst I didn’t particularly engage with them, shows that DICE at least wants to try some new things. But for every one of those positives there’s a handful of negatives as well, enough so that after 12 hours in the game I think I’ve had my fill. Sure, part of that is because Black Ops 4 has managed to get its hooks into me again, but even then I’ve played this Battlefield for longer than its predecessor and I liked that one far more. I know there’s precious few people who read these reviews to figure out what game to play but if you’ve been sitting on the fence for this one, waiting patiently for my opinion on it, I’d probably say give it a miss for now.
Maybe pick it up just before Christmas so you can own all the noobs when they get their copy 😉
Battlefield V is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59. Game was played on the PC with a total of 12 hours play time and 26% of the achievements unlocked.
Back in the day when computer graphics weren’t as capable as they are today the inclusion of full motion video was a pretty standard affair. As time went on it faded away and was mostly relegated to being a novelty for the few games that used it. The last few years have seen a resurgence of these mixed-media titles with some great examples like Quantum Break and The Late Shift showing what is possible when the line between games and movies begins to blur. Then you get the horrific messes like The Quiet Man which makes all the mistakes you could possibly think of when it comes to crossing media bounds; both in terms of how it tells a story from a cinematic perspective and how to deliver an actual, functional game.
I’m just thankful that no one but the most avid of game reviewers is likely to ever come across this.
There’s a plot in here somewhere however you’re not likely to understand what it is, I sure as shit don’t, because apart from a few breadcrumbs of dialogue at the start the game’s audio is all weird muffled sounds. Now this wouldn’t be an issue usually, I’ve played my fair share of games without a lick of dialogue, but the problem here is that much of the story is bound up in that dialogue. The game tells you at the start that subtitles will only appear for stuff you’re supposed to know but even that’s not consistent as you don’t even get subtitles when your own character is talking. So what you get is a bunch of FMV vignettes interspersed with short game play sections that appear to tell some kind of story but without any scraps of that dialogue making it through to you what you get is really a horrendously confused mess.
The Quiet Man has the audacity to bill itself as a game that(and I’m quoting from the Steam page here) “delivers an immersive story driven cinematic action experience seamlessly blending high-production live action, realistic CG and pulse-pounding action gameplay”. If you would care to cast your eyes down to the screenshot below you’ll see an example of their “realistic” CG which is honestly about 5 years behind what I’d consider passable for good graphics these days. Even worse than this is all the animations are horribly stiff and unrealistic, making the below par visuals stand out even more. Honestly I would’ve given them a pass on it if they hadn’t lauded it in their opening statement on the sale page but, come on guys, when you say realistic CG and then deliver this you deserve to get criticised for it.
Now mixed-media games, depending on how they blend the various elements together, aren’t renowned for having in depth game mechanics. Still that doesn’t usually matter as long as whatever is there is in aid of the story (since most games like this tend to be narrative-first) but The Quiet Man’s beat em up mechanic is simplistic, repetitive and worst of all terribly inconsistent. It definitely takes inspiration from other games like Batman: Arkham Asylum but it lacks any shred of refinement. There’s a bunch of fight mechanics in there that are available to you however the game never tells you how to use them, nor does it introduce challenges to you in such a way as to demonstrate how they should be used. The only way the challenge increases is that the game will throw more enemies at you in one go which just invites the already janky mechanics to start spazzing out with reckless abandon making even the simplest fight a real chore. Again I was almost willing to forgive this until the game threw about 10 fights in a row at me that were basically all the same and then the game crashed, forcing me to replay all of them again as it only checkpoints at the start of scenes.
All of this isn’t the game’s greatest sin however, that lies in the horrendous approach they took to building a story around the fact the main character is deaf. Instead of building a game (and the associated FMV sections) up from the point of view that your character can’t hear, making use of other storytelling mechanisms to convey its meaning across, they did the opposite. This means that they essentially finished a full game and move, sound design and all, then bastardised the thing into a muddled mess by removing a critical piece of the narrative structure. It wasn’t even done in a way that makes logical sense, I.E. I don’t understand when people sign at me nor do I even understand anything when the character I’m playing is speaking to others.
If this was some experimental, indie project it’d be one thing but this is Square Enix publishing something from Human Head Studios, you know the ones who gave us the original Prey. That means this entire experience, end to end, made it through various levels of testing and review before it was dumped on the market. How they didn’t pick up on the fact that this was such a hot mess is beyond me. Of course there’s a possibility that they did and just wanted to make whatever cash they could but honestly, the people involved in this should have known better. They had aspirations of doing something like Quantum Break but should have tilted much more towards something like Late Shift as the actual game components add absolutely nothing to the story at all.
The Quiet Man fails to achieve anything that it set out to do, instead providing a frustrating, confusing experience for those who’d dare give it the time of day. The approach and execution of the creative vision is completely backwards, failing to make a compelling narrative or a game with any merit. As a mixed media production this is probably as bad as I’ve ever seen as even the games of yesteryear, with their cheesey overacting and extraordinarily poor writing, still at the very least had a kind of kitschy appeal to them. The Quiet Man lacks any of this and should serve as a black mark against the companies published it. To those who worked on these titles I’m so sorry this happened to you, I know marketing and publishing are likely the cause for this trainwreck (and not your skill as a developer), but that still doesn’t mean that the sins that The Quiet Man commits can be forgiven.
The Quiet Man is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $17.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours play time and 77% of the achievements unlocked.
5 years ago I attended my first (and, as it turns out, only) PAX event in Australia and, despite the teething issues, managed to have a rather enjoyable time. Whilst I was there I went through the expo hall and picked my way through the various indie developers who were there to showcase what they’d been working on. There I stumbled across The Voxel Agents and I spent a few moments talking to them about their game, though for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. I asked if the game contained any voxels, to which they replied no and, in what I now see as a total dick move I asked them if any of their games did which they answered no. Sensing that I was probably being one of those people, something that might be especially considering I was in full Adam Jensen cosplay at the time, I made a swift exit stage left. Imagine my surprise then when I stumbled across The Gardens Between, an intriguing time puzzle game, by those very same developers I annoyed all those years ago.
Although, and I can’t stop myself from writing this, it appears that their most recent game is still voxel-less. Sorry…I’ll see myself out…
Arina and Frendt are best friends who’ve shared many pivotal moments of their childhood together. However one day Frendt tells Arina that he’s moving away for good and they head up to their tree house to spend one last night together there. They then embark on a whimsical journey through their collective past, reliving their most cherished memories together through fantastical worlds littered with the everyday objects that played background to their story. Arina, the headstrong one, pushes forward lighting the way for the pair whilst Frendt is the thinker, manipulating the world’s objects. It’s a bittersweet tale that many of us can relate to, of close childhood friendships that are torn apart by circumstances beyond our control, but also a reminder that we’ll never lose those memories we forged together.
The Gardens Between has a stylized, simplistic art style that’s light on the textures but heavy on environmental detail. The fantastical worlds it presents are cobbled together out of everyday objects that are scaled, warped and twisted making the environments seem paradoxically real and otherworldly at the same time. Under the hood its powered by the Unity engine and thanks to the heavy investment in assets, lighting and shading effects it avoids that typical unity game sheen. Working hand in hand with the great visuals is a fantastic backing soundtrack and extensive foley work which makes the whole world come alive. Looking at their back catalogue at games it’s honestly out of left field for them and shows that they’re wanting to grow as game developers. Kudos to you.
The game’s main mechanic is a Braid-like time travel mechanic where you move time forwards and backwards to complete the puzzles. There are various items that are time independent which you can then use to change the flow of how events come to pass. How you manipulate time also has an impact on many puzzles, like some requiring you to stop time and hold it there or moving back and forward a certain amount to repeat actions. There’s also a bunch of achievements for doing less than intuitive things in certain puzzles which can be a bit of fun to chase down if the main puzzles don’t feel challenging enough. All in all it’s a relatively simple game mechanically but therein lies its charm as you’re unlikely to get stuck for very long, ensuring the story keeps moving at a steady pace.
Probably the only gripe I have is that moving forwards and backwards through time is a little slow for some of the larger puzzles which can take quite some time to unwind. This becomes quite noticeable for puzzles where you have to follow (sometimes multiple) things bouncing around a level to figure out which one you need to put your lantern on. With a start to finish time of only 2 hours though I get why they might not want to put that in, the game is short enough as it is, but even something like speeding it up the longer you hold it down would be much appreciated.
If I’m honest the story didn’t do much to grab me early on, feeling like I was looking through someone else’s picture album: interesting to be sure but no emotional involvement from my side. Towards the end though, and I can’t quite put my finger on what did it, I started to get more invested in their story. Perhaps it was remembering similar stories from my childhood that did it, the many people I spent so much time with but then lost them to moving away or them growing apart from me. Whatever did it though the story hit home and that bittersweet feeling hit me like a truck. Growing up is filled with such sweet sorrow as what The Gardens Between shows us and, whilst we may not like to be reminded of it, I’m sure we can certainly all relate to it.
If annoying developers at conventions can lead to games like The Gardens Between I’ll be sure to do it more often as what The Voxel Agents have done here is certainly worth the price of admission. The audio visual experience is exceptional, defining a style that I hope they take forward into whatever they choose to pursue next. The game mechanics, whilst not exactly novel, do bring a new view to what time travel games can do. The story, whilst it takes some time to find its feet, is one that I feel is quite relatable to a lot of people, especially those who aren’t lucky enough to still be in contact with their childhood friends. Suffice to say if you’re looking for a break from the AAA release firehose (like I have) then The Gardens Between is certain to fit the bill.
The Gardens Between is available on PC, Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with 2 hours of total playtime and 35% of the achievements unlocked.
It’s 2006 and I’ve just moved into a new house with 2 of my friends. It was all our first time living in a share house but we were convinced that we’d avoid the disasters that had befallen all those before us. That hubris lasted about 3 months before the expected happened but shortly after something happened: we started playing Soulcalibur III together. From then on we spent many nights and weekends battling each other, refining our skills on our chosen characters. We played so much that the edges of our thumbs callused over, which we nicknamed the Soulcallus. It was also the only time I’ve ever thrown a controller across the room in frustration after an appalling 12 run losing streak against one of my mates. So the Soulcalibur series holds something of a special place in my heart and the long time between drinks for the series (6 years since V was released) has left me very much wanting. Whilst that special ingredient of my mates sitting around the couch might still be missing it’s been great to see that the Soulcalibur series is still very much in form so many years on.
Soulcalibur VI takes us back to the beginning of the series, taking us back to the 16th century. The stories will be familiar to long time fans of the series although if you’re like me, joining the series somewhat late in the piece, the campaign missions give you a good insight into the background to the main recurring characters of the series. Similarly the Libre of Soul missions, which put you as an unknown character in the same world, explore some of the events that happened around the main plot. So whilst there might not be much added to the main plotline of the Soulcalibur series it does build out the history a lot more. It should also help to attract those who may have given the series a miss until this point, even though no one really plays fighting games for the plot.
As you’d expect from a fighting game, where framerates are key, the graphics aren’t cutting edge and the art style is reminiscent of previous instalments’ highly stylized art direction. There’s certainly a lot more particle effects and in-battle cutscenes though following the current trends among fighting games to make them feel grander in scale. It certainly achieves that as pretty much every fight feels like a scene out of a shonen anime. It follows then that performance is consistent across the board with even the most visual heavy moves unable to bring about a drop in framerates. This being built on the Unreal engine (just as Tekken 7 was) I’m sure the look and performance will be the same across the multiple platforms.
Soulcalibur VI builds upon the series’ long heritage by adding on a few new mechanics and reverting others. The largest addition to the core fighting mechanics is the reversal edge, a defensive counter that locks you into a kind of rock-paper-scissors mini-game. Guard impacts have reverted back from their change in Soulcalibur V, making them a lot more straightforward in their execution. The Soul Gauge remains but now has 2 levels to it and can be used to execute high damage attacks. The previous soul gauge mechanic, whereby blocking for a long time drained it, is still there although it’s decoupled from the gauge and will now show up as a red outline on your health bar. The changes follow the larger fighting game trend to make games faster, flashier and to prevent long beatdowns from which you have little hope of recovering from. For a mostly aggressive player like myself I like these changes, even if it means that I’m more open to counters than I ever was before.
The returning characters retain their signature styles and will be instantly familiar to long time fans of the series. My personal favourite character, Ivy, felt a lot more streamlined than I remember her being with the previous instalments making her feel clunky and slow when compared to previous instalments. Looking at the world leaderboards it’s quite possible that’s due to her being a current top tier pick so maybe I’ve just lucked out this time around. Raphael by comparison feels a little more unwieldy than I remember him being although I will admit I never really did get a good handle on his preparations. I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly test out Talim, a character I lamented the omission of in Soulcalibur V (I replaced her with Viola in my roster). Suffice to say Soul Calibur VI retains the tradition of keeping the cores of the characters consistent whilst mixing them up slightly, ensuring that it doesn’t feel like the same old game.
The main campaign is well done, following Kilik’s origin story with his quest to destroy the Soul Edge. Whilst I do appreciate that there’s been a bit more effort put in than what has been done in the past I’m still not a huge fan of the visual novel style. Sure, it allows a lot more content to be created for the same price, but it’s always a lot less immersive than in-game or cinematic cutscenes. Part of this is also due to the pace, which is a little stilted thanks to the numerous loading screens that you have to go through in order to watch the dialogue, load into a fight (which you only get to do a couple of in the first hour of the campaign, which was a little annoying) and then load again to see the post-fight scenes. Still once the pace starts picking up towards the end it stands out as the best fighting game campaign I’ve ever played, even if that’s a relatively low bar to jump over.
Libre of Soul is the ancillary mode where you can level up a character of your own creation. It has all the trappings of a light RPG game with weapon upgrades, XP and gold that you’ll need to gather to do things like travel, hire mercenaries to fight for you and buy food to regen health between fights. It’s a similar mode to what Killer Instinct has, essentially pitting you against an endless stream of enemies. There is a storyline in here but it’s pretty minimal and mostly serves as background to the main campaign mission to give you an insight as to why certain characters were there when they were. I played a decent amount of it and it certainly served well as a kind of extended tutorial, allowing me to get familiar with my preferred character whilst still making some progress. After spending some time in that I decided it was time to test my meddle against some real human beings and this is unfortunately where Soulcalibur VI is a bit of a let down.
Fighting games have always struggled to get online right, owing to their unique set of challenges in requiring low latency between players and the niche appeal of the games limiting the size of said playerbase. Perhaps it’s better in more populated countries but here, in Australia, I can’t name one fighting game where I’ve been able to get matches consistently. Soulcalibur VI is no exception as I’d often be waiting 5+ minutes for a ranked match, if I could ever find one. Worse still is the casual mode which takes the form of a King of the Hill game style. Essentially whoever won the last round is at the top and you have to wait your turn to beat them. If you lose, back to the bottom of the pile. When I did get in the matches were great though, the lag seeming to make little impact on my ability to pull off big combos.
What keeps me, and many others, coming back to games like this is a solid quickplay mode where we can drop in, play a few matches and then bug out. I mean sure, the ability to train while you wait is nice but it’s not enough to keep you coming back time and time again. This, coupled with the fact that I don’t live in a house with multiple other Soulcalibur players anymore, means that I haven’t put much more time into this one than I would have otherwise. It’s a bit of a shame really as I was certainly hyped for the release, hoping that I’d get suckered back into the fighting game world. Maybe it’s a good thing that I didn’t splurge $300 on that Hori Real Arcade Pro N…
Soul Calibur VI revitalises the series that’s laid dormant for the past 6 years. I’d usually lament retreading ground but, as someone who came to the series late in its life, going back to the beginning has been great in order to see the game’s history that I was only vaguely familiar with. The campaign and its ancillary story mode are great additions, even if they’re not enough by themselves to keep me coming back. The online is, unfortunately, the biggest mark against this instalment, lacking the right mode to keep people coming back for that quick fighting game hit. Still I’m hopeful that it’ll improve and hopefully the dedicated niche of fighting game enthusiasts will mean that I’ll be able to get my fighting game fix for a long time into the future.
Soulcalibur VI is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours of total playtime and 12% of the achievements unlocked.
The past 2 Call of Duty games weren’t really up to the standard that I’d come to expect from the franchise. Part of this can be attributed to Black Ops 3 being my favourite in the series, the multiplayer keeping me going for a good 150+ hours before I decided to call it quits. So my expectations were probably higher than they’d otherwise be for Black Ops 4, hoping to rekindle that love of the COD multiplayer which I’d lost for the last couple years. Whilst on one hand all the ingredients are there for that to happen again there’s been some glaring omissions and strange launch-day decisions that have marred what could’ve otherwise been yet another solid COD game from Treyarch.
This is typically where I’d give a brief synopsis of the initial plot for the game but since Black Ops 4 lacks a single player campaign I have none to give. Sure they’ve buried some meagre bits and pieces on the specialists training modes, giving you a brief cutscene here or there that speaks to why each of the character classes have their abilities, but that does not a single player campaign make. After it was announced that this was the case Treyarch confirmed unequivocally that they never intended to put a single player campaign in, citing the fact that most players simply jump straight into the multi. I have no reason to doubt that but out of the 3 Call of Duty developers they were always the ones who made the most interesting and engaging stories. Leaving that out seems like a missed opportunity, one that this reviewer certainly laments. Of course it wasn’t taken away for just any old reason as it was replaced with Blackout although whether or not the trade off was worth it will be entirely up to you. For me it certainly wasn’t (more on that later).
The Call of Duty games were never known for their cutting edge visuals, instead favouring higher performance to go along with the game’s rapid pace of combat. This trend continues with Black Ops 4 with the game striving to maintain a smooth, high frame rate experience over providing Crysis-like eye candy. There’s also less opportunity for level and set designers to showcase what the engine is capable of doing due to the game being multiplayer only. All things considered though the game looks perfectly fine for what it wants to be: a fast paced shooter. I will admit though that I figured that for the handful of cutscenes they created they would’ve spent a little more of their ridiculous budget on making them a little more cutting edge.
Black Ops 4 retains its 2 core game modes that most players will know, regular multiplayer and zombies, along with the new Battle Royal mode called Blackout. The base multiplayer games don’t deviate from the COD formula much, retaining the same Pick 10 system alongside a familiar cast of weapons. Some weapons now have the option of an Operator Mod which will significantly change the way the gun operates from simple things like massive rates of fire increases to strobe lights for one of the shotguns. Deviating from the last few titles as well is the lack of loot boxes with the only microtransactions in sight being used for buying different cosmetic skins for the specialists. Perhaps the biggest change though is the lack of automatically regenerating health, instead relegated to a piece of equipment which you’ll have you manually trigger to regenerate health. Most interesting of all is that the stim pack is actually a choice, you can replace it with another piece of gear if you so wish. For those who are really at the top of their game this gives them a very high risk/reward balance to play with, one I’ve seen used to both great and ill effect. Suffice to say the core of Black Ops 4 doesn’t deviate too much from the formula with the exception of Blackout.
To be completely open here I’m not the biggest fan of the Battle Royal format. I’ve played my share of PUBG, both on PC and mobile, and it can be enjoyable with a bunch of mates. However I like my FPS games fast and furious, something which the COD franchise has supported me with for many years. Battle Royal on the other hand is very much a slow and considered game, one that favours being patient and formulating a strategy if you want to win. Sure I could just parachute into a hot zone and likely die in the first couple minutes if I wanted to speed things up a bit but honestly, given that there’s a much more capable TDM and other modes available right there I’m far more likely to want to play that. Still in the interests of seeing everything that Black Ops 4 had to offer I figured I should give Blackout a try and, well, it’s pretty much as you’d expect: PUBG with COD weapons. I’ve heard from many that it’s a pretty great experience (which is likely given that Black Ops 4 has seen incredible sales) but for me, as a rusher type player in these kinds of games, it’s the antithesis of what I want from this kind of game. Your mileage may vary, though.
A good chunk of content for Black Ops 4 comes from 3 so right off the bat you’re going to be back in familiar territory. The same goes for the character classes with half of them being direct copy and pastes of their former selves. At first I was a little miffed at that, wanting a whole new experience, but I got over that relatively quickly as I realised it gave me a headstart on knowing the maps and which character classes I’d fit best into. A lot of the weapons have been changed around and there’s a much more wide variety of mods to choose from, making a great deal of the game’s weapons viable in PVP (so long as you can get the right unlocks done, of course). The starter classes are also well rounded as well, one of them coming with a fully kitted out gun that you won’t be able to get until level 50 or so. I’ve found the most success running with the Spitfire SMG, a bullet hose of a weapon that feels like a long range shotgun when you upgrade it with laser sights 2 and the extended mag. The ARs and shotguns were also somewhat viable depending on the map but SMGs felt like the better all round weapon if I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into.
The class abilities are a bit of a mixed bag given that they all seem to have rather lengthy cooldowns and can be real hit and miss affairs. The shock drone, radar beacon, assault pack and razor wire ones seem to be the most useful, having a direct impact on your performance in a match. Other ones like the cluster grenade and trip wire feel hit or miss, unlikely to provide a consistent boost to your ability to win matches. For some of the ultimate abilities you’ll be lucky to get 1 off per game (like the vision pulse one) whereas the other, less impactful ones (like Crash’s overheal) you’ll likely be able to get off 2~3 times easily. I’m sure this is going to be a boon for competitive teams as there’s a clear delineation between support and offensive ultimates, allowing them to fine tune team comps quite well. For pub players like me though it’ll just come down to whichever one feels best to you. I’ve standardised on Crash for the most part since that seems to help my team out the most.
I couldn’t do this review without talking about the current state of the multiplayer networking, specifically the 20hz server debacle. To put it simply the Black Ops 4’s server engine runs at 20hz, meaning all in-game events are updated 20 times per second. That sounds plenty fast enough however most modern games run at double or triple that and even Black Ops 4 itself ran at 60hz during its beta phase. The problem with this is that it leads to really inconsistent play with players able to one shot kill each other, seemingly land shots on you when you’re around a corner or, if you’re lucky, seemingly grant you super powers with the ability to kill anyone before they have a chance to react. This issue only seems to be amplify the host advantage problem as well, making some games an absolute nightmare for the opposing team. Treyarch has said that the limit on server tick rate was done to ensure that they could maintain the service during the initial rush and that it would eventually be put back up to 60hz. If they stay true to their word then Black Ops 4 might actually be a great game to pick up around the holiday season but for now, if you’re someone who’s interested in playing competitively, it may be best to give it a miss until 60hz makes a return.
The lack of single player and the 20hz servers might not sound like big issues but for someone like me, who really enjoyed Treyarch’s cerebral plots and glass smooth multi, they’re huge marks against the best Call of Duty game I’ve played in the last 3 years. To be sure I still feel that Treyarch is the one the others should follow but even this instalment feels like the weakest one from the developer to date. Perhaps I’ve begun to outgrow the series or maybe it’s taking a new direction that leads it away from me, I’m not sure, as all I really know is that the near unmitigated fun I found in previous titles has been gone for some time. Black Ops 4 has a potential redemption story ahead of it in the form of better multiplayer servers but I’ll still have that hole in my heart which only a Treyarch COD story can fill.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 retains the trademarks of the Treyarch style that, in my opinion, makes their version of the IP the best. The combat is still great, the various weapon options still a joy to fiddle with and the familiarity of old maps made the transition in that much smoother. Blackout is something that I personally could do without but it’s likely to be a drawcard for the numerous players out there who love the format and have tired of current offerings. The lack of a campaign is certainly disappointing and the inclusion of a token effort felt more insulting than if they had just left it out completely. The 20hz server issue is certainly annoying but I’m hopeful that it will be fixed as the player base declines from its launch highs. For what it’s worth I’m still enjoying the multi and I’ll probably put a few more good hours into it before I call it quits completely. Perhaps the residual hype from Black Ops 3 is what has doomed me here but I can’t help feeling that I wanted just a little bit more from Treyarch this time around.
Call of Duty: Black Ops 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 8 hours of play time.
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.
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.
Given my last 2 reviews have been for MMOs you can probably guess that I’ve been a little strapped for time to get around to playing other titles. It even got to the point where I was playing Destiny and WoW in the same night, something which I knew wasn’t going to be particularly sustainable if I wanted to keep my 1 review per week cadence going. So I went in search of some shorter titles and stumbled across Donut Country, another Annapurna Interactive published title, which seemed to be charming and, thankfully, quite short. Whilst I might have been drawn in by the game’s brevity the visual style, kitschy dialogue and simple mechanics made it far more enjoyable than I was expecting.
Racoons have moved into the quiet town of Donut County, taking over the local donut shop. Every time someone orders a donut however a mysterious hole shows up at their house, devouring everything in sight. The hole is piloted by none other than BK, one of the new racoon residents, who’s doing so in order to get enough points to get his hands on a sweet new drone. However once he falls into one of his own holes he finds the citizens of Donut Country trapped 999 feet below the surface and they’re understandably quite mad about his recent shenanigans. What follows is the story of how the town became swallowed up and their journey to get back out.
The single developer behind Donut County, Ben Esposito, set himself a few constraints when designing the game’s visual style: no lighting effects, textures or gradients. Whilst those rules aren’t adhered to 100% they are the driving force behind the games minimalistic aesthetic. The result is a kind of flat, cartoon like environment filled with bright, solid colours which is really quite charming. Indeed whilst there’s a lot of games with a similar visual style I’m actually struggling to come up with one that’s exactly like it as most games won’t go so far as to abandon the use of textures, nor even simple gradients. As someone who’s worked as a sole developer on a couple projects I can definitely appreciate setting yourself boundaries and working within them; sometimes there’s really nothing as liberating as working within a strict ruleset.
The game’s mechanics are simple: your a small hole which grows bigger as it consumes things (kind of like a reverse Katamari Damacy). There are a bunch of small challenges which will require you to get a little inventive with how you use a few mechanics but other than that the game play doesn’t deviate too much. That being said it’s kind of fun to try and figure out which things will fit and which ones don’t as sometimes you can get away with getting bigger things in if you know how to position them right. That being said this is a physics based game so there’s many opportunities for things to go pear shaped, with items flinging themselves wildly across the level and getting stuck in areas that you won’t be able to reach. Of course you’re only a restart of the level away from fixing that so it’s not that much of an issue.
The story is a simple affair, seemingly reflective of the developer’s own conversational style (as evidenced in their Gamasutra interview here). It’s a lighthearted commentary on their experiences in Los Angeles and it issues they want to touch on certainly come through. Overall though there’s not much to write home about, it’s simply there to set the scene for the various puzzles and to tie the whole thing together.
Donut County is a fun little distraction, combining simplistic art work with lighthearted dialogue for an interesting experience that’s really like no other. It’s exactly what you’d expect from a game idea that was born out from Peter Molydeux; something completely left of center that pays little heed to the creed and conventions of modern game design. After chewing my way through too very heavy game experiences over the last couple weeks I was incredibly glad to cleanse my palate with something a little lighter. So if you like me are experiencing a little fatigue with the AAA barrage that comes this time of year then Donut County is most likely the game for you.
Donut County is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $12.99. Game was played on the PC with 104 minutes of play time and 55% of the achievements unlocked.