Despite its initial shortcomings I did end up spending quite a bit of time in Black Ops 4, the gun play being good enough to keep me interested for far longer than I had originally anticipated. I was even playing over the christmas break, reveling in the time when all the new players came on board and I could have my fill of lobbies overflowing with people who weren’t running builds as highly optimised as mine. Of course over time it got reduced back to the stable player base, the one that is typically far more skilled and, as a consequence, much more challenging to play against. Honestly though that’s COD and I’m fine with it as by the time that happens there’s usually another title coming along I want to dig into.
I never actually played the original Modern Warfare, only coming into the series when the sequel came out. I figured if it followed the formulas of the latter, mixed in with a little bit of the nostalgia for the characters and the story, then we’d likely have the makings of a solid COD entry. Whilst that’s mostly true for the campaign I can’t say that there’s any aspect of the multi-player that’s really grabbed me and I really don’t have much motivation to find out if I ever will.
In 2019, during a covert operation to recover shipments of dangerous chemical gas headed for Urzikstan, CIA SAC officer “Alex” is intercepted by unknown hostiles who kill the Marine Raiders accompanying him, and escape with the gas. Alex’s handler, Station Chief Kate Laswell , requests the assistance of SAS Captain John Price in recovering the chemicals and de-escalating the situation with Russia. Twenty-four hours later, a group of suicide bombers, affiliated with the terrorist organization Al-Qatala, attack Piccadilly Circus in London. SAS Sergeant Kyle Garrick is dispatched to contain the situation with the assistance of Price and local police forces.Afterwards, Alex is sent to Urzikstan to meet up with rebel leader Farah Karim, who agrees to join forces in tracking down the chemicals, in exchange for his aid in overthrowing Russian forces led by General Roman Barkov.
COD is always this rather odd mix of cinema level visuals in their cut-scenes which is then strongly contrasted by the not-quite-cutting-edge visuals of the game itself. This is a design decision of course, done in order to keep the game running smoothly so that your fast-paced action adventure doesn’t ever turn into a slide show. It’s also interesting to note that this Modern Warfare also brings with it a new engine as the previous one had been powering COD games since 2005. Apart from it being the engine for COD going forwards there’s scant details about what it actually improves, apart from 4K support.
Some of the levels are quite well done, although most of them are unfortunately shown at night so you don’t get a real chance to appreciate them. The game still suffers from the usual visual confusion that goes on with these kinds of games with enemies blurring into the scenery and background objects. Over time you do get used to it somewhat but after getting hit for the thousandth time from something you can’t see it does start to get a little old. Other than that there’s not much to say about Modern Warfare’s visuals, they’re just fine.
Modern Warfare follows the standard corridor shooter tropes pretty closely with only a few little different bits here or there to show off a new mechanic the game has or to have you play through what’s effectively an interactive cutscene. The single player campaign is straightforward, offering you no influence over how the story progresses and continuing at a rapid pace throughout. There’s been a ton of work in the multiplayer with the revamped Ground Warfare mode (which used to be just larger teams for the standard game modes) feeling an awful lot like Battlefield’s conquest mode. Really there’s not much more to it than that and so if you were a fan of the original then it’s a pretty good assumption to make that you’ll like this one too.
Combat is the same as it always was, fast paced with a hail of bullets always coming your way. There are times when the combat just flows and you’ll find yourself stomping your way through a level without much being able to stop you. Then there are the times when you’ll get nailed time after time by something until you figure out the exact sequence of events you need to do in order to get through. It can be a little jarring at times when it feels like the game is pushing you to rush but doing so quickly ends up with you dying. Of course the game is running completely at your pace and does a lot to baby you through sections. Indeed it got so bad that at one point I started seeing just how far the limits were on certain things like walking into trip mines when they ask you to defuse them (protip: that doesn’t work). Still I don’t play COD games to be respected and challenged as a player, I play them so I can shooty shooty hurr durr gooooooooood.
When it comes to COD games I’m a rusher. A dumb, low skill build rusher. I play that way because COD is one of the few multiplayer shooters that enables people like me to play in this way with the tiny maps, near instant respawns and certain guns that just shred people up close. This time around though it seems like they wanted to expand the map sizes a bit more and downplay the rushing angle considerably, making my kind of playstyle not particularly viable. That’s also due to the current meta which is focused on 2 guns, the M4A1 and the 725 shotgun, both of which shut down rushers pretty damn hard. I tried my hand at Ground Warfare and I honestly just found it too frustrating to play, the large maps with numerous sniper nest spots making it a game mode that just held zero interest for me. Now given I never really got into COD multiplayer much back in the day this might be a return to form for the series, I don’t know, but one thing I do know is that this isn’t the kind of COD I like to play.
The story is fine, yet another grab bag of various war stereotypes thrown in together to give you a bit of motivation for killing the bad guy of the day. I won’t comment on the politics of the story as that’s already been done to death by multiple different authors who are far more qualified than I to comment on it. Really it’s par for the course for COD games: pretty predictable with some memorable characters and it sets up for a sequel in the most obvious fashion it could. Suffice to say I’ll be interested in comparing and contrasting COD: MW2 to its decade old predecessor.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is exactly what you’d expect from the series today. Everything follows the pattern that’s been well trodden before with the changes coming in the multiplayer, most of which are for the worse in my opinion. However I might not be the kind of COD player that this instalment was catering to as I’m very much a fanboy for Treyarch more than I am for Infinity Ward. So really there’s nothing particular wrong with this instalment in the franchise, it’s just that the changes they’ve made to formula aren’t to my taste this time around. Who knows, maybe next time they will be, and it’s not like I’ll have to wait long to find out.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is available now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC right now for $99.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 8 hours play time.
Destiny 2 has remained unplayed since I finished my review of the Black Armory DLC, the mini-content drops not being anywhere near enough to tempt me back to the fold. When I started hearing rumours of Shadowkeep though I was hopeful for another injection of content like Forsaken; something to shake up the formula a bit and provide enough incentive for me to invest some solid hours back into Destiny again. The reality isn’t quite like that even though, given that I haven’t played for almost a year at this point, the number of changes to Destiny 2 in the interim are on par with those that Forsaken none of them are really focused on a player like me. Couple that with Shadowkeep being a new breed of expansion that’s not dependent on previous releases, set on a previous location from Destiny 1, you’re left with this weird mix of new and old. To be sure it’s far better than the mini-DLC drops that come with the various season passes but it’s lacking that same X-factor that really sucked me deep in with Forsaken.
Eris Morn has ventured deep into the caverns of the moon, seeking out a strange energy signal that’s been scratching away at the edge of her mind for some time. The Hive have also reawakened on the moon, having been dormant ever since the guardians slew Crota which brought the wrath of Oryx to our solar system. It’s down here that you discover the Pyramid, a relic of the time when the darkness was encroaching on our world, only to be pushed back at the last moment by the Traveler when it forged the guardians. Now horrendous nightmares of all sorts roam freely across the solar system, tormenting everyone with visions of close ones who’ve passed and bringing back shadows of fallen enemies. It is time once again Guardian to venture into the unknown and face the purest form of the darkness you’ve yet encountered.
Shadowkeep doesn’t bring with it any visual upgrades per se, however it does take the old Moon world and revamp it significantly. The same areas that I spent countless hours farming Helium Coils in are now far better rendered than I ever remembered them being before. That’s likely due in no small part to me playing it through a not-so-great capture card from my PS4 but still, the difference is night and day. The game still runs incredibly well, even with the newer encounters that throw insane numbers of enemies at you. After coming off The Surge 2 I had the terrible thought that my rig wasn’t really up to graphics like this anymore but thankfully I was mistaken.
If you’re like me and only just coming back to Destiny after some time then there’s going to be a slew of changes thrown at you, a lot of which are utterly meaningless in the grand scheme of things. The numerous events that have happened between then and now are still around such as Gambit Prime, the Vex Invasions, the Forges and a bunch of other things that I’m probably forgetting. The UI changes are definitely for the better, even if my muscle memory of where things used to be is now useless making some interactions an exercise in frustration. The light cap is now theoretically unlimited due to the introduction of an “artefact” item which everyone gets, adding to your power level as you gain XP. However the main caps are 950 for most gear and then 960 for “pinnacle” level loot which is essentially supposed to be a grind for those players who really need something to do. However given the fact I’ve seen numerous 960+ characters already shows that it’s not really that bad if you’re committed to it but the grind for us single character, not a lot of time to spare guys is going to be a lot tougher unfortunately.
There’s no changes to the underlying combat, that’s as great as it has ever been, but the stat and mod system has been reworked substantially. Now we’re very much into RPG territory as there’s a bunch of stats to min/max, mods to use in varying combinations and encounters that will demand you run certain builds in order to progress. This is something that the hardcore Destiny community has been requesting for sometime and so I don’t really begrudge Bungie for putting it in. For us plebs (and according to Wasted on Destiny at least half of you have played less than me) it does mean that part of the game is locked away from you behind a, thankfully somewhat easier, grind. Now I haven’t been playing since release, I think I’m into about week 3 or so, but I’m only up to light level 920ish with 20 hours in. My gut feel is it’s couple more weeks before I can get capped so I can raid. Whilst that’s not completely out of line with Forsaken what’s missing is that hook to keep me coming back. Forsaken had the ever evolving Dreaming City which was the perfect way to keep on motivating you to come back. Shadowkeep though? There’s really not much there, despite the massive reveal of the Pyramid.
To be sure there’s no end of stuff to do in there, hell I can easily lose a couple hours chasing down a couple powerful pieces of loot, but I’m not the kind of player where Destiny is my only game. If I had my way I’d definitely favour the older style system where getting raid ready didn’t take too long, a couple weeks of dedicate play for a single character solo player like myself, and then the optimisation for the raid would begin as you slowly amassed gear from it and honed your skills on the encounters. I know I’m likely in the minority of wanting something like that but if the grind isn’t going to provide me some level of satisfaction, either through meaningful progress or tidbits of lore and story, then I don’t have much else to drive me through it.
I’d probably be a little less pissy about it if the Pyramid wasn’t such a giant lore cock tease. For the uninitiated there’s been concept art of The Darkness floating around ever since the original Destiny and, you guessed it, it’s all about pyramids. To be sure there’s definitely something bigger brewing that’ll likely be revealed in this season’s DLC but I feel like this was a missed opportunity to use a massive reveal like that to create another Dreaming City like experience. Gargh, maybe I’m overthinking this.
Destiny 2: Shadowkeep is a kind of middle of the road expansion/DLC, not being a small content drop like Black Armory but still being nowhere near as big as Forsaken was. For those players who’ve been with Destiny 2 throughout the last year it’s likely the content injection they’ve been craving, a new set of goals for them to throw themselves against. For player like me though it’s probably too much and not enough all at the same time; the numerous little events that have occurred in the past year thrown at you all at once whilst the new shiny thing sort of blurs into the mix. Personally I’m a little disappointed in myself for setting my expectations so high but also at Destiny for not doing enough to meet them, even halfway. To be sure I’d prefer this kind of expansion over mini-DLCs any day of the week but I’d also rather spend a good chunk of change on a Forsaken like experience every year, if I was able.
Destiny 2: Shadowkeep is available on PC, XboxOne and PlayStation 4 right now for $54.95. Total play time in Shadowkeep was 20 hours putting the total time in Destiny 2 at approximately 191 hours.
Sekiro rattled me a little bit, making me wonder if I was no longer “gud” enough to play these soulslike games anymore. Part of it is definitely time, I have a lot less of that to dedicate to challenging titles ever since I became a dad, but there’s always that lingering thing in the back of my head that’s telling me father time is catching up to me. So when I saw The Surge 2 appear on Steam I was conflicted, knowing that if I didn’t smash this one then it could be the beginning of the end for me with this genre. I’m happy to report that my fears were just that and I quickly found myself thoroughly enjoying the soulslike experience that Deck13 has built with this franchise. It’s still got some very rough edges however but if you can get past them what lies beneath is a pretty great game, one that’s definitely found a comfortable niche for itself.
Taking place right after the events of the original game The Surge 2 puts you on a plane that was enroute to Jericho city at the time of the rocket launch. Unfortunately your plane is struck by the rocket after it launched, sending it careening down on the outskirts of the city. You somehow manage to survive and are evacuated to a nearby medical facility. Months later you awaken to visions of a young girl speaking to you, calling her your warrior. You quickly find out that you’ve been put in a prison medical facility and it’s been thrown into disarray as a nanite infused beast tears through it, killing anyone in its path. With little more than a hospital gown and the remnants of your restraints for weapons you set out to find out why you’ve been imprisoned and what the hell has happened to Jericho city.
Deck13 has mentioned that there has been a lot of improvements made to the FLEDGE engine in order to support the larger, more open world of The Surge 2. For many that’s meant a marked decrease in performance, myself included. Indeed to start off with the game was aggressively down-resing, so much so that it was rendering in what I can only assume was 640 x 480. Fixing that made the game a lot more legible but it quickly became apparent that my rig wasn’t really up to the task. The first performance patch and a driver update addressed it somewhat, but it’s still clear that whatever is going on under the hood is either poorly optimised or requires a ton more grunt than my near 5 year old rig can provide. It’s somewhat of a shame given that The Surge 2 doesn’t look much better than its predecessor and that ran perfectly fine. Perhaps the improvements Deck13 made become more apparent at higher resolutions, something that only a really modern PC is going to be able to provide.
The Surge 2 is an evolution of its predecessor, streamlining the experience considerably whilst leaving the core game loop mostly intact. The same soulslike combat experience is back again, requiring you to learn the movesets of your enemies so you can pummel them down and lop off their limbs. Tech scrap is still the currency and main source of progression, levelling up your core power that will enable you to use better armour and mods. The drone is now more of a standalone mechanic in its own right, no longer using energy and instead having its own ammo and differing mods that provide a whole range of different combat options. What’s really changed however is the inclusion of the online social interactions that the Dark Souls series has become famous for, allowing for a limited set of interaction with other players by leaving messages and playing an interesting version of hide and seek. The world is also much more open than it used to be with a lot more options for exploration and a truckload more sidequests for you to tackle if you want. The improvements are very much welcome, even if the game still has a little ways to go if it’s ever going to be considered to be in the same league as the games that inspired it.
Combat retains the same structure as the original with you focusing on a particular body part to wail on (either for damage or to cut off to get their armour or crafting mats). It didn’t take long for me to get back into the swing of things although there was a good 5+ hours there where things were definitely a bit of a struggle. Part of this is due to the lack of options you have at that early stage of the game, limiting your ability to craft a build specifically designed to counter the challenges you’re facing. However this is a game where certain weapons, armour and mods are simply straight up better than others and as you progress through the game it becomes possible to construct a build that renders you untouchable within certain limits.
The sharp difficulty jumps are still here, although they were a non-issue for about 60% of the game after I settled on a build that seemed to be able to deal with pretty much anything that came my way. My weapon of choice was the double-duty style, specifically the spark disciple one that did added electric damage. It was possible to blow all my stamina on attacks before they had a chance to fight back and, most of the time, would net me a stun so I could then take a beat and begin it all again. To be sure there are some enemies where this was a sub-optimal strategy, especially those that couldn’t be staggered for whatever reason, but with the amount of energy that my build would generate I never had an issue out healing them before I could get a stun off and then finish them. Later on the only mods I made to the build was to swap out the electric weapon for a nano one when enemies were immune to electric damage.
Bosses were, of course, a different beast entirely as most of them would require their own unique build in order to get past them. Mostly that was to make up for whatever weakness I had in my playstyle that the boss was able to exploit, like my penchant for dodging over blocking or the lack of a particular resistance. There were a couple where I could just go ham on them with my default build and, shockingly, was able to one shot a couple of them without too much difficulty. The harder bosses though often challenged me to change up my playstyle a bit in order to be able to get through them, like the Delver which is an absolute nightmare to get past if you don’t know how to counter block correctly. I didn’t try any of the drone focused builds although I can’t say I wasn’t tempted for a few of them as being able to rain down hell ala Remnant: From the Ashes style was quite appealing.
The progression system feeds you a steady stream of upgrades to keep you going and is thankfully well designed enough so you don’t feel completely locked into the one build you’ve optimised everything for. Scrap is easy enough to come by, especially if you’ve got a solid route to run that allows you to execute a number of enemies along the way (which increases your multiplier for tech scrap generation). At the start you’ll most likely want to be dumping your scrap into your core over upgrading your gear as later sets of gear have a large core power requirement that you won’t be able to meet. Later on it’s all about upgrading your preferred set to the maximum whilst keeping an alternate set of gear at a similar level should you find the need to switch. That being said though crafting and upgrading is pretty cheap so if you find yourself needing or wanting another gear set it’s usually not going to take you that long to get it.
The new social system is good although it does seem to take out a massive part of the game’s challenge when everyone and his dog is putting up graffiti that points towards all the secrets that the devs have tried to hide. Sure you could still try to troll with them but given there’s a rating system for them it seems like all the troll ones have long since disappeared and the only ones left are the beneficial ones. I did quite enjoy the hide and seek mini game though as it was always fun to try and find places that players wouldn’t be able to figure out or those that others simply wouldn’t be able to get to. The tech scrap you get from that early on is a real lifesaver to, often netting you a free level.
Most of the issues of the past have been dealt with although a trove of new ones have sailed in to take their place. Alongside the graphics performance issues I also got some strange glitching that would often occur at game start and, every so often, in the game itself. It was obvious the game was running in the background but the game itself didn’t render correctly at all. The UI still worked and changing the resolution seemed to fix it. The game also crashed numerous times, sometimes for no reason and others for specific encounters with certain enemies. Some of the in-game interactive elements can take a few tries to work properly, making you wonder if you’re actually meant to interact with them at all. Pathing is still an issue, something that’s made all the worse by the more complicated environments. Most of the time it’s just funny but there’s certain times where my character inexplicably pathed off something or enemies got stuck on geometry and couldn’t figure out how to get themselves out of it. Suffice to say I think, given the fact that the series has now firmly established itself as an ongoing concern, Deck13 could spend a little extra time on polishing these various elements so that future instalments in the franchise aren’t so janky.
The Surge 2’s story is pretty straightforward, if a little forgettable and simplistic. Characters from the previous game (including the player’s character) make a return and knowing the previous story does help explain some of the more esoteric elements. However if this is your first foray into the world of The Surge then you’re not going to struggle to understand what’s going on as it’s a largely standalone narrative. The story also wraps everything up pretty nicely with some potential avenues for a sequel that were left there subtly rather than being shouted loudly at the end of the main narrative. The Surge 2 definitely isn’t a game you’d play for the story but it’s at least not a massive detractor from the game.
The Surge 2 is a solid step forward for the franchise, keeping quite a lot the same and refining the rest. The game has now carved out its own little niche in the soulslike genre, extending on the formula and defining its own little tropes. One of those is an unfortunate penchant for a lack of overall polish, resulting in some fundamental issues that Deck13 should have addressed before release. Beyond those issues however lies a game with solid mechanics that will challenge your skills as a player and reward them handsomely. I have no doubt that we’ll soon be seeing another instalment in this franchise and if they can make a similar level of improvements in that as they did here I can see them continuing on for a good long time to come.
The Surge 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $69.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 22 hours play time and 59% of the achievements unlocked.
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.
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.
There’s nothing quite like an inventory puzzler to strike terror into the hearts of long time gamers. The original versions of these, like the classic LucasArts titles, often had you carrying around dozens of different items which you’d end up trying on everything just to see if you could make some progress. Worse still were the ones that allowed you to combine items, opening up a whole other world of problems for you to solve. However modern versions of these games tend to be a little more forgiving in their implementation, most now proclaiming that there are “no dead ends”, hopefully ensuring a smoother game experience. Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise certainly does a lot of things right in this regard although there’s a few times that the developer and I’s logic diverged on some key game points.
You are Agent A: spy extraordinaire who’s been tasked with hunting down Ruby La Rouge, a dastardly villain who’s been terrorizing the world. Just as you track her down however you see that she’s on the same boat as your chief only to leap from it moments later as the whole ship erupts in a massive explosion. You’re able to track her back to her hideout where you’ll begin your long and puzzle filled journey to capture her and put an end to her villainy.
Agent A has a simple, cartoony art style that blends both 2D and 3D elements together. There’s minimal texturing and no real distinction between elements that you can interact with and those you can not which does add to the game’s challenge. Most of the lighting also appears to be baked into the environments as well with harsh, strong bordered shadows being the norm. There’s also very little animation to speak of, the transitions between rooms usually being a simple zoom in and most rooms not having anything moving in them. All these elements combined together do make for a rather visually pleasing game, even if it’s on the same bandwagon that half of the indie scene seems to be on these days.
The puzzles of Agent A are your standard adventure game affair including the usual tropes such as: finding a bunch of the same item everywhere to unlock something, deciphering a code using a decoder you found somewhere else and a good dose of combining items in your inventory to get something you need. Agent A does demand that you pay more attention to the environment than you might otherwise need to in similar games as there’s often clues as to how to solve a particular puzzle littered around. The only way to navigate between sections those is to go forwards or backwards through a pre-set path, something that becomes quite a chore later in the game when you have to back your way through a dozen or so screens to get where you need to go.
Most of the puzzles aren’t too difficult, lending themselves to what I’d consider to be logical solutions that you’d be able to figure out given a minute or two. There are, of course, a few curly ones that necessitate you being either hyper-observant, lucky or in most cases reading from a walkthrough to figure out. Now none of them are on the level of the rubber ducky puzzle from The Longest Journey but there was at least 3 of them that I didn’t really have a clue how to get past and nowhere in the game indicated towards the eventual solution. I’ve certainly had worse puzzler experiences but it does still annoy me when you get stuck with an empty inventory and no perceivable way forward.
The story is a light-hearted affair, full of silly puns and terrible jokes. It’s really no surprise how the story develops or ends as most of it is foreshadowed in such an obvious way that only children and the incredibly daft won’t notice it. The game does make the cardinal sin of screaming out that a sequel will come right at the end which is something I will never forgive a game for doing. However since this game is obviously meant to be played by anyone, whether it be jaded old game reviewers like myself or your 5 year old cousin who just likes pretty colours I guess I can give it a pass this time around.
Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise is a simple puzzle game in all senses of the word. The graphics are basic but visually interesting, the puzzles aren’t particularly challenge save for a precious few that require some real outside the box thinking and the overall interaction with it isn’t particularly complicated. Could the developers have done more with it? Sure, but too often we’ve seen developers get in their own way by trying to cram too much in and end up not getting in enough of the core things to make the game coherent enough to play. So for Agent A the basics are all it needs and should you be needing a short distraction from the upcoming tide of AAA releases then it might just be worth a look in.
Agent A: A Puzzle in Disguise is available right now on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch for $14.50. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours play time and 46% of the achievements unlocked.
Souls games are very much an acquired taste, one that I would have never sought to try if I hadn’t been pushed by several of my close friends to try Bloodborne. Since then I’ve tried my hand at the numerous Souls-like experiences that have came out and for the most part I’ve enjoyed them. However none of them were the kind of game I’d recommend to people wanting to get into the Souls-like genre, all of them maintaining the same brutality that made recommending them to friends (especially those who’d shied away from things like MMORPGs for similar reasons) a fools errand. Remnant: From the Ashes though maintains a lot of core Souls traits whilst making it very approachable, especially when you’re teamed up with another friend or two. To be sure it’s still not going to be to everyone’s liking but I was honestly surprised at just how much fund I had in this not quite bargain basement souls clone.
The world has been overtaken by an alien presence known only as the root. For over 100 years its tendrils have spread out everywhere, wiping out most of life as we know it. The last few remnants of humanity have holed themselves up in wards, large fortified structures that have managed to keep the root out, giving the survivors a life that few would envy. You are a champion from outside those wards, risen with a single purpose: to defeat the root and restore the world to the glory that it once held.
Seemingly taking inspiration directly from the Souls-game for everything Remnant’s graphics aren’t exactly cutting edge, even though they come to us via the Unreal 4 engine. Part of this is due to the rather large and expansive procedurally generated areas that you’ll be trudging through, something which can be rather hard to optimise well. To be sure there is some great level and set design, like the screenshot below highlights, but for the most part it certainly feels like you’re playing a previous generation game. Performance for the most part is good, the only issue I encountered was in some of the earlier levels that generated some rather long sections which my nearly 5 year old rig struggled a bit with. Overall I’d rate the graphics as good but not great.
Remnant incorporates many of the usual tropes you’ll see in a Souls-like game including the punishing combat and a wildly opaque progression system with dozens of weapons, armour sets and skills to optimise. Remnant’s claim to fame is that co-op is an expected part of the experience right from the start, rather than being something you do if you need help with a boss or a particular section. The world is also mostly procedurally generated, even to the point of some parts of it not being accessible if you don’t get the right “roll”. Thankfully this is accompanied by the oh-so-welcome map which would have otherwise made the procedurally generated world an absolute nightmare to navigate. It’s certainly different enough from your garden variety Souls-like game that it stands on its own, so much so that it seems to be attracting quite a few players who wouldn’t typically give a game like this a second look.
At a basic level Remnant’s combat follows the Souls-like trope of having punishing combat that feels quite rewarding when you feel like you’ve mastered it. However instead of it being primarily melee focused with some ranged backup Remnant is completely the opposite, with most of the combat taking place at range. To be sure you can still build yourself up to be a melee powerhouse but anyone who’s played Souls games knows that if you can defeat an enemy without getting close to them it’s going to be far easier than if you try the same thing up close. This is, I feel, the reason why Remnant feels quite a bit easier than its other Souls-like compatriots as the amount of leeway you have when dealing with enemies at range compared to when you’re in melee is quite substantial. Of course the game is designed around this so many of the enemies have ways of quickly closing the gap on you but that matters a lot less when they’re just about to fall over when they do.
The weapon mods also provide for some rather game breaking mechanics that allow you to get away with things that trivialise many of the game’s harder encounters. One of the ones you get early on, the one that summons a tree that taunts all enemies in a radius, just so happens to work on bosses as well. This becomes incredibly valuable as launching one of those can easily net you a quarter of a boss’ health as they slap away at a random tree whilst you unload round after round into them. With 2 players the uptime is considerable but with 3 it can be nigh on permanent. Of course these things that make the game easier for souls veterans like myself are going to be the things that help new players immensely so I definitely don’t think they should be removed, and of course I could just not use them, but hey I’m not made of stone. Sometimes I do want a little fun with my challenge!
As I alluded to earlier the complex and quite often intentionally vague progression system that all Souls-like games are known for makes an appearance in Remnant. Whilst the basics are easy enough to grasp, like different armours being strong/weak against certain damage types, there’s so many different things to optimise that it can be quite a struggle to figure out how to best min/max your character. Traits, for instance, start off with simple augments that make sense but once you have 30+ of them it can be a real chore to think about whether or not having extra stamina is better than reducing stamina costs or whether you’re hitting diminishing returns with reload speed. I’m sure there’s calculators and guides galore out there, like there is always is for games like this, but it does feel like it’s more of a chore than it should be.
The progression system is auto-scaling meaning that all you need to do to unlock the next tier of upgrade materials is to upgrade an item all the way to the point of needing them. The old materials will still continue to drop which is a good thing since you’ll need them to upgrade any armour or weapons that you happen across or manage to craft. At the start you’ll be scrounging for every little bit but later on, as you move up the materials treadmill, you’ll find yourself quite flush with the older materials making any new pickup that you want to use viable. That being said I used the starter shotgun for most of the game and didn’t really struggle at all.
The boss fights are all pretty much standard DPS fights with a few interesting mechanics thrown in here and there. Unlike other Souls games where learning the move set is absolutely critical to beating the boss Remnant is usually pretty predictable, so much so that my friend and I one-shotted multiple bosses over the course of our play through. The only one that gave us significant grief was the final boss and that’s mostly because it’s the only one we did that had mechanical complexity on par with standard Souls bosses. Interesting fact too: nearly all the bosses have 2 ways of defeating them and doing the alternate kill will net you different loot. Some of them are pretty obvious whilst others are downright insane. That being said it’d be worth looking into what the alternate kill nets you as sometimes it’s really not worth the effort.
When I saw that Perfect World was the publisher for Remnant I jokingly told my mates that’d be full of jank and, unsurprisingly it is. Some of the more fun bugs we encountered along the way included me getting stuck right inside the door of a boss fight, meaning I couldn’t move from there and we had to just hope that the boss didn’t try and melee me. Bullets would simply not register on certain enemies sometimes, indicating that their hitbox wasn’t placed where you’d typically expect it to be. We had one boss bug out on us so bad that he just teleported around the room randomly, never stopping to attack us and would immediately teleport away again if we ever got close. The procedural generation also doesn’t have a ton of smarts built into it and you’ll often come across identical areas multiple times over in a single level. These are all fixable issues but it’s something to be aware of going in.
The story is nothing to write home about, being your generic hero’s adventure with you as the saviour of all humanity. Whilst it’s a lot more direct than other Souls games tend to be quite a lot of the lore is locked up in journals and other walls of texts scattered around the place, something that’s not exactly conducive to immersive and enjoyable storytelling. It probably doesn’t help that most of the characters are pretty one dimensional, usually vomiting exposition for a good 5 minutes when you first meet them then only giving you a sentence or two when you meet them after that. Its rare that you play these kinds of games for the story though so it’s unlikely to detract from your experience with Remnant.
Remnant: From the Ashes was a nice surprise, bringing with it a few new ideas to the Souls-like genre and, I feel, making it approachable to a much wider audience. The graphics might not be the greatest and sure there’s a load of jank to be found but the overall experience, especially when playing with a friend or two, is actually pretty great. It’s certainly a sum of the parts is greater than the whole kind of deal as individually the game borders on being a very B grade experience but combined they manage to stumble into A- territory. So if you’re looking for a lark with a couple mates or have been eyeing off the Souls genre for some time then Remnant: From the Ashes could well be for you.
Remnant: From the Ashes is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $56.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 11 hours playtime and 55% of the achievements unlocked.
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.
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.
Yeah I know, I have a type.
Take some kind of high concept, wrap it in an intriguing art style, throw in a few interesting puzzle mechanics and back the whole thing up with a semi-decent soundtrack and you’re almost guaranteed to get a look in from me. Part of my penchant for these kinds of games was born out of my time being consumed by other things but over time I’ve grown to quite like the genre and all the weird titles it seems to produce. Vane, as you’ve likely already guessed, fits that description almost perfectly and was the second title to come to me via the new Steam recommendation engine. I’m glad to say that this time around it was bang on the money, directing me to an incredibly surreal and intriguing experience that I had not come across before.
In a ruined desert, a strange golden dust transforms a free-spirited bird into a determined young child. You are not the only one to have undergone this transformation however and the world around you is littered with evidence of a world that was once far more than what it appears to be today. Your transformation sets in motion a chain of events that will reshape the world, hopefully for the better.
Vane’s art-style is quite unique with its direct influences coming from the Team Ico games of old. That’s combined with a weird glitchy aesthetic, which gives it this strange sci-fi overtone. Indeed the styling of the world is equal parts fantastic and high-tech, giving you this feeling the environment is stuck between the fantastic and the real. Given I’ve played far too many low-poly indie games of late it’s nice to see a developer take a different angle with it instead of simply using the aesthetic as a way to get out of needing to texture too much. There were a few poorly optimised areas, mostly the larger open areas when the heavy particle effects were going, but other than them the game ran perfectly smooth.
You’ll encounter a wide variety of puzzle mechanics whilst playing Vane as it starts off as a kind of walking-simulator-esque experience as you soar around the desert looking for places to land. From there the game evolves into a kind of puzzle platformer, requiring you to explore the level to figure out how it works, look for where you need to transform and so on. Later on the game then adds in what I’ll call the “rebuilding” mechanic which appears to reconstruct the destroyed world around you. It makes for an interesting progression in terms of mechanical complexity, gradually ramping up the challenge over the game’s short length.
None of those mechanics are well introduced unfortunately, making figuring them out a rather laborious endeavour of trial and error. There’s hints around, of course, but it can be hard to tell when the game is trying to nudge you in a direction or if it’s just something that looks like it should be investigated. Vane isn’t the first game to suffer from a problem like this and it’s one of the more challenging elements to get right; making exploration worthwhile by challenging the player and not just filling the world with random rubbish to seek out.
I’d probably be a bit more lenient on Vane if it weren’t for the absolutely god awful controls that it has. Flying is honestly a major chore and it’s far too hard to perch on something, especially considering that’s one of the core mechanics. Indeed I managed to spaz out the physics engine multiple times by flying too close to something and it not being able to figure out if I should land, bounce off or do something else. This continues with the controls on the ground which feel far more wonky than they really should be. This is most aptly demonstrated in the part of the game with a procedurally generated level, often resulting in you getting stuck on geometry or sliding around randomly as the game tries to figure out how to place you. For a game that gets so much right to get a basic thing like controls so utterly wrong really perplexes me.
The story is interesting, even if it’s so hand wavy in what it shows that you could really make anything out of it. It’s obvious that you find yourself in the ruins of a once prosperous world, one that’s ravaged by what appears to be a never ending storm. However from there everything is pretty much up to your interpretation. On a hunch I just checked and there are 2 different endings although really it seems either of them are as about as satisfying as the other. All this being said I don’t think that the story of Vane was the developer’s overall focus and, whilst it’s somewhat interesting to contemplate, it’s not really the main thrust of the game.
Vane is a weird dichotomy of excellent craftsmanship in some respects and down right negligence in others. The art of Vane’s world is an eclectic mix of old world fantasy with sci-fi overtones all built up beautifully in low poly detail. The puzzle mechanics grow organically throughout the game, ramping up the challenge gradually. However the lack of any direction with the puzzles coupled with the absolutely trash controls means that the game experience is far more frustrating than it needs to be. I’ve dealt with vague puzzle mechanics before, and I can somewhat forgive them, but controls that are that wonky just makes everything worse. Hopefully future titles from Friend & Foe Games don’t incur this penalty as what they’ve built here has the makings of something truly awesome.
Vane is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 2.7 hours playtime with 39% of the achievements unlocked.
Exploration in games used to just be about finding the secret room or a hidden easter egg that the developers left behind. For many games now exploration is a key part of the experience, sometimes completely changing the narrative or mechanics leading to a whole different kind of experience for those who invest the time to explore deep and wide. Further the exploration of things outside of the game has also become an integral part of many titles, including Sea of Solitude which seeks to explore the emotions of depression, loneliness and loss. It unfortunately does so in a rather ham fisted, stereotypical way; it’s apparent metaphorical storytelling being far more direct than I think it’s creators intended. To be sure I’m not denying that the feelings that went into creating this story aren’t real, indeed the creative director states that it was due to a breakup of hers, but it’s clear that that experience has been workshopped and massaged into a very middle of the road experience.
You play as Kay who finds herself in a world that’s been consumed by the sea with only a few scarce buildings popping out over the waves. Her boat is her only respite from the deep waters that are inhabited by monsters who taunt her endlessly. Those monsters are of her own creation however, stemming from events in her past that she has yet to deal with fully. Your journey is then one of exploring her past, uncovering the trauma that has created the monsters that now inhabit this sunken world. It’s up to you to guide her through the pain and, hopefully, come out the other side healed.
Sea of Solitude’s art style is the ever-trendy low poly chic that nearly every indie game seems to be implementing these days. The wider world isn’t exactly filled out well with a lot of noticeable asset reuse, making a lot of the more open parts of the world feel very samey. However the internal level parts are brimming with detail, each which their own distinctive style (something which I’m sure the level designers are quite proud of). Animations are a little on the simplistic side however, feeling like they’ve mostly been hand cranked which makes some characters look a lot more stilted than they should be. Overall the games visuals are quite good for Jo-Mei’s first all inhouse, standalone title.
I’ve shied away from calling games like Sea of Solitude “adventure” titles as, in my mind, that’s games like the old school LucasArts titles and their more modern equivalents. Instead I feel that games like this are more akin to puzzle platformers as their puzzles are typically self contained and usually heavily blended in platform elements. Indeed that’s pretty much Sea of Solitude in a nutshell: you’ll move between various different platforms (quite literally most of the time too), working your way through until you hit a puzzle that requires you to solve before going on. There’s two sets of collectibles for you to track down although whether or not they actually change the game in any appreciable way is unclear. Altogether Sea of Solitude is a pretty simple game mechanically and isn’t likely to challenge most players.
With all the puzzles being self contained it’s usually not terribly difficult to figure out what needs to be done. Some of them are unforgiving though, sending you all the way back to the start of the puzzle should you happen to time something wrong. Many of them are platform based which, as anyone who’s played 3D platformers before will tell you, means there’s a certain unwieldiness to them. There’ll be times when you’re pretty sure you’ve made a jump or calculated your timing perfectly only to be slapped down unceremoniously. Thankfully the game doesn’t require frame level precision nor are any of the puzzles minutes long sequences that need repeating upon failing so you won’t be struggling for hours on end to get past something.
The game also has a few rough edges that could do with some sorting out. For starters it’s not completely clear on communicating its mechanics to you, most notably during the first light beam puzzle which tells you to “focus” with the mouse…somehow. I tried doing everything I could think of with my mouse and nothing seemed to work, until I started wiggling it wildly only to find that the game had dropped the sensitivity way down, requiring quite a few long passes across the mouse pad to get the beam moving. This then extends to the rather unwieldy controls which make most things a little more challenging to navigate than they otherwise should be. Most notably this happens with the boat which makes navigating around with it quite a pain. These things aren’t beyond fixing so I hope future patches will smooth these things out.
Sea of Solitude warns you straight up that it’s going to deal with some heavy emotional content but what follows fails to really deliver any emotional impact whatsoever. There’s no real one issue at play here, more the culmination of the various storytelling choices removed any kind of empathy I had for any of the characters. The voice acting isn’t particularly great, feeling devoid of emotion save for a few choice scenes that happen later in the game. The ham-fisted approach to working through the various emotional challenges, typically done by using stereotypical exposition of scenes associated with them (Bullied at school, career focused father, depressive boyfriend), makes it hard to truly resonate with the story. Given that I’ve been through most of the trauma that the game describes myself you’d think it’d be a slam dunk but, in all honesty, it felt like someone from the outside trying to tell my own story back to me. It simply didn’t hit the mark at all.
That is really the true failing of Sea of Solitude. For all the effort put into making a great looking game the substance needed to back it up, either in the form of great mechanics or an intriguing story (perhaps both, if we’re lucky) just wasn’t there. The CEO describes this as her most personal game to date but I just don’t really get that feeling. The story, even if born out of true events, feels like it’s done at arm’s length, almost as if there’s a fear that doing so would alienate those seeking to play it. Really that was done the second they decided to partner up with EA and therefore only be allowed to release on Origin, not exactly the platform known for its vibrant indie scene. For what it’s worth I’d still like to see more from Jo-Mei but only if they can take the lessons learnt from this and make something that actually achieves some form of emotional impact.
Sea of Solitude is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 3 hours playtime and 73% of the achievements unlocked.
There are some rules of thumb in game development that can help ensure a studio is successful. The first is once you’ve discovered a successful formula, whether that’s an original title or say a deal with a publisher to make a certain type of game, stick with it and iterate on it. Another is to never build your own engine, lest you spend the majority of your budget developing it and not the game itself. Finally if you’ve got a publisher it’s likely best to stick with them, especially if you’ve had success with them previously. So for Asobo Studios to ignore all those rules in developing A Plague Tale: Innocence many would’ve thought them down right crazy, given the line of successful (albeit not exactly groundbreaking) titles they’d released in the past. The gamble has paid off in spades however as this game stands out as one of the more unique experiences of 2019; bringing together a beautiful world and great storytelling.
Set in 1349 France A Plague Tale: Innocence puts you in control of Amicia de Rune, a young noble in the rural province of Aquitaine. The plague grips the country but has thankfully yet to make its way to your lands. Things take a dark turn when the English Inquisition invades, taking your father hostage and demanding that you hand over your brother. When he refuses the Inquisition brutally murders him and anyone who stands in their way as they search the property for your brother. Your mother urges you to escape and seek out Laurentius, a doctor friend who has been treating your brother for a mysterious illness that has long plagued him. This begins your long and tortuous journey to find out why the Inquisition is after your brother and what they intend to do with him.
Asobo Studio developed their own in-house engine to power A Plague Tale: Innocence and I have to say the results are absolutely stellar. Building an engine capable of graphics like this from the ground up couldn’t have been easy, especially considering that this is also a cross platform release. Suffice to say the screenshots in this review speak for themselves, all of them taken from directly in game. Performance is also rock solid to, even when you have what appears to be thousands of rats on screen at once. The game does demand a bit of your hard disk though, enough that I moved it onto my SSD in order to play it. Still all things considered I’ve seen many more well funded development houses attempt to build engines and get nowhere near as good as what Asobo has put out here so hats off to them.
From a core gameplay perspective A Plague Tale: Innocence is a kind of stealth action game, starting off initially as a kind of stealth walking simulator before graduating more into a typical action-oriented game with largely optional stealth elements. Unlike other games which reward you more for taking the harder option (I.E. stealth) this game doesn’t really seem to mind if you go all out against every enemy, save for a few choice voice lines. Indeed the game’s progression system, whilst having a myriad of different options, heavily favours enhancing your combat abilities rather than your stealth. That being said whilst there’s a couple different routes to be taken for each level they are, for the most part, linear experiences that have a distinct right and wrong way of completing them. There are times when you can create some emergent gameplay opportunities but they’re rare and usually ill-advised. Overall it’s not a mechanically deep game but it doesn’t really need to be, the focus much more on the story and its telling.
Combat revolves around Amicia and her sling which is unfathomably accurate and ludicrously deadly. Once your combat abilities are unlocked you can one shot any unhelmeted guard which makes the stealth aspects so much easier. There’s a host of different types of ammunition you’ll be able to craft later on that unlocks the ability to get guards to take off their helmets, sick rats on them and all sorts of other abilities which have both combat and puzzle functions. About two thirds of the way through the game you’ll have all the required ammunition types and enough of them crafted to be able to take out all enemies in a level and, honestly, there’s no reason you shouldn’t. Most games would punish you severely for doing this so it’s pretty refreshing to play a game that has an obvious bent towards stealth but doesn’t really mind if you go on a murderous rampage. I’m not sure if that fits with the theme of the whole game but hey, it was fun.
Upgrades come through crafting, driven by finding various different kinds of materials around the world. Most of the upgrades rely on “blue” materials which aren’t particularly common and are shared with some of the more high end consumables. The game does try to play this off as some kind of a trade off, I.E. if you want to have that consumable (which usually gives you a second life, effectively) you might not have enough for that upgrade you’re lusting after. In my experience though you’re better off not crafting those consumables at all as all the times when you’d end up using them are encounters where you shouldn’t be needing them anyway. Hunting for these materials feels a little hit and miss as quite often most of the upgrade materials are clustered near the workbenches. There are some hidden elsewhere in the world but they’re mostly stuff you’ll already have max of anyway. I don’t think there’s enough materials in the game to upgrade everything but there’s certainly enough to get all the upgrades that matter.
It’s through these upgrades that the game slowly transitions from a game that requires stealth to one where it’s completely optional. Initially you have to be pretty tactical about who you take out and how with your limited ammo supply and the long time it takes to wind up the sling. However after a few choice upgrades you’re basically unstoppable as there’s more than enough ammunition and crafting materials around to keep you fully stocked pretty much all the time. I had figured that there might be some consequence to just taking out everyone I saw but as far as I can tell there wasn’t one. Perhaps it was the Dishonored-esque setting and gameplay setting that was making me feel that way.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is largely bug free and didn’t have any performance issues once I got past the incredibly long load times due to my RAID 10 array playing up. As I mentioned before there are some instances where you can do what appears to be something that wasn’t intended by the developers although most of the time that leads to breaking the encounter completely. The game also doesn’t do a great job of letting you know when you’re attempting something that is 100% impossible, leading to a few instances where you can think you’re doing the right thing and just failing at it when, in actual fact, you’re breaking the encounter completely. Thankfully there aren’t too many of these but there could be a few more dialogue cues or other things that would indicate when you were barking up the wrong tree completely.
The story is one of the stand out features of A Plague Tale: Innocence as it’s all fully voiced (save for a few bits of flavour text here and there) by some great voice actors. It’s somewhat confusing to begin with as the game doesn’t reveal much to you early on, leading to some slow pacing to begin with. However in the last half or so things really start to pick up and it became quite enjoyable to play through. I’m not typically one for period pieces like this but the story gave all the characters enough air time to build them up enough for me to care about them. I might not have come to like Hugo as much as other reviewers did, but I can at least see where they’re coming from.
A Plague Tale: Innocence was a nice surprise, coming out of left field in the middle of a deluge of AAA titles and standing out among them as one of the more well crafted experiences of this year. The graphics are phenomenal, brought to us by an in-house engine that I hope Asobo continues to make use of for future titles. The gameplay is an eclectic and evolving beast, one that transitions from a kind of stealth walking simulator to an almost full action RPG by the end. The story brings everything together, starting off slow but building up to a great ending that wraps everything up without committing the cardinal sin of teasing a sequel. There’s a few rough edges but nothing that’s beyond patching. So if you’re looking for a narrative focused game that doesn’t ask too much from you then A Plague Tale: Innocence could be right up your alley.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.95. Game was played on the PC with a total of 9 hours play time and 57% of the achievements unlocked.