Posts Tagged‘rpg’

Warhammer: Vermintide 2: Left 4 Rotblood.

There’s a fairly predictable cycle in games when it comes to new genres. Typically there’ll be a bunch of relatively unknown titles that will experiment with various mechanics, setting the groundwork for the games that follow. Then comes the breakout hit, now usually an Early Access title, which gets heralded as the next big thing. Then come the clones, dozens upon dozens of clones, all of which attempt to emulate the breakout’s success. Most of these will fall by the wayside although a few will go on to develop the idea further, finding a dedicated niche for their particular brand of the new genre. Warhammer: The End Times – Vermintide did exactly that, taking the essence of the Left 4 Dead formula and reworking it into a truly unique experience. I wasn’t aware a sequel was in the works so when I saw Vermintide II, had been released I was keen to see what direction Fatshark had decided to take this IP in. By and large it’s the same game but far more of it; much of it streamlined for a much more enjoyable experience overall.

Following the events of the first game, Grey Seer Rasknitt has successfully captured the five Heroes of Ubersreik. Without the interference of the heroes, the city of Ubersreik fell to the forces of Clan Fester. Rasknitt has since ordered the construction of a massive portal known as the Skittergate, which will allow the Chaos Champion Bödvarr Ribspreader and his Rotblood army easy access to the border-city of Helmgart. However, the Skittergate continuously fails to properly operate, disallowing Bödvarr to summon the entirety of his forces. When the Skittergate disastrously fails to activate again, the resulting destruction frees one of the heroes, Markus Kruber, from captivity. He fights his way through the skaven lair and reunites with the rest of the heroes: Viktor Saltzpyre, Bardin Goreksson, Sienna Fuegonasus and Kerllian. They then band together once again to push back against the Skaven and the Rotbloods.

Vermintide II makes use of the same Autodesk Stingray engine that its predecessor did, albeit with a bunch of modern improvements such as: DirectX 12 support, volumetric lighting and fog, texture streaming and an enhanced fluid system. The levels are noticeably less barren than its predecessor too, brimming with details at nearly every corner. There’s also a lot more variety in the levels than there was previously with not every level taking place in a run down medieval town. There are a few areas which could do with some attention though, like the ones bathed in fog which seem to torpedo your performance no matter how beefy your system is. Whether or not Fatshark will continue developing on this engine though is anyone’s guess as Autodesk has discontinued development on the engine as of January this year. Suffice to say I wouldn’t expect Vermintide III in the next 2 years or so if an engine change is on the books.

The core game mechanics of Vermintide II haven’t changed much from its predecessor, retaining the same game play that made the original fun. It’s still a melee first game, one with 5 different characters and a varying array of loot to change them up a bit, however there’s also now 3 “careers” per character. Each of them changes the passive and active ability of the character whilst retaining your level, giving you an opportunity to try different playstyles without having to change classes and start levelling all over again. The loot and crafting system has been streamlined, making progression a little more clear than it previously was. The mission structure has also been streamlined, making it a bit easier to follow the campaign’s story (if that’s of interest). Overall the Vermintide II experience is very much the same as its predecessor, just refined and polished with the lessons that Fatshark has learnt over the past couple years.

Combat still feels the same with you facing down untold legions of enemies in face-to-face melee combat. With the introduction of the Chaos into the mix there’s a wider variety of enemies although, truth be told, most of them are just different skins on the same kinds of enemies. The same depth of combat remains with the intricacies of dodging, blocking and using the right weapon type all making a big difference in how challenging a particular level is for you. This time around I decided to play as the elf which, whilst incredibly fun, probably wasn’t the best choice given my penchant to get far too personal with large groups of enemies. This was largely negated by her passive (allowing me to heal up to half health) though so I think it worked out in the end. I have heard (and seen) that the dwarf is currently stupidly overpowered but haven’t had a chance to give it a go myself.

The loot system has been streamlined although the same modifier mechanics remain. Hidden throughout each of the levels are 3 tomes (which replace your healing potion), 2 grimoires (which replace your potion slot and reduce your party’s health) and potentially some loot dies. Each of these will increase the quality of the loot box you’ll get at the end of the level, should you complete it. Each of those boxes contains 3 items with the higher grade boxes having a higher chance of better gear. All of the items power is directly related to your current power so, at least in the early stages, its best to just equip whatever the highest power items are that you have. The quality of the items just increases the number of additional buffs and traits they have with exotics, the highest tier, having unique abilities. Just like its predecessor this allows for an insane amount of customisation for your character, granting you the ability to hone your playstyle to its ultimate perfection.

Crafting is best used to replace that one item you’ve had that’s lagging behind all others. Much like the loot boxes crafted items will be rolled at your current power so it’s quite unlikely that you’ll be able to get a big boost from crafting something which is already close to your current max. Instead if say all your gear is at 100 but one is at 90 crafitng a replacement for that slot will likely yield the biggest gains. Similarly, whilst you can upgrade the quality of the items, it doesn’t change their power. This is somewhat unfortunate if you have a build centered on one item and its power starts to lag but such is the loot treadmill in this game. Crafting up to exotic level is possible however, just rather expensive, so you’ll likely be able to re-craft a certain item if you need to bump up its power level. There’s also apparently “veteran” level items which are red and max stat rolled versions of their exotic counterparts but I’ve yet to see one since I’m still a scrub playing around in Recruit difficulty.

The additional polish means there’s fewer issues in Vermintide II than there was in its predecessor but it’s far from bug free. My poor dwarf friend in the screenshot above got stuck in a piece of the environment which, whilst hilarious, left him stranded there. Thankfully we had a boss spawn shortly afterwards which knocked him out but without that he would have had to leave the game completely. Some levels still have the rather irritating bug of enemies spawning behind walls or being able to clip through them, so sometimes you can end up with a packmaster pulling one of your colleagues away to a place where you can’t get to them. We even had a globedier spawn behind a wall at one point, allowing him to lob gas grenades at us unhindered whilst we tried to deal with a bile troll at the same time. If your group is skilled enough issues like this won’t stop you from completing a level but given that this doesn’t feel like intentional behaviour it’s more of a chore than a challenge.

There is a story here, one that I’m sure has some detail to it, but it seems to fade into the background. The banter between your characters is as good as ever, ensuring that I quickly grew to despise the elf I was playing because she’s just an insufferable ass. But apart from that I’d be hard pressed to tell you anything about the game’s overall story beyond the fact that the skaven teamed up with the chaos in order to sack Ubersik and we’re trying to stop them. I’ve also not managed to complete a single chapter either, my attempts at the final boss in Act 1 always meeting with disaster either through players leaving or the not-so-great bots providing little help in those fights. That all being said I have played this game for far longer than I did its predecessor so maybe, eventually, I’ll figure out what’s going on in the story.

Warhammer: Vermintide II is a solid improvement over its predecessor, retaining the core of what made the game fun and cutting away much of the extraneous cruft. The improved game engine ensures that the new, highly detailed environments are able to shine through even if a few of them could do with a bit more optimisation. Combat, levelling and crafting have all been streamlined for the better, making the overall playing experience that much better. Some of the same issues that plagued its predecessor still remain however but aren’t beyond fixing through a few good patches. Overall, for a gaming I wasn’t expecting a sequel to so soon, I’m impressed by what Warhammer: Vermintide II brings to the table and I’m sure I’ll be spending a few more good hours in it over the coming months.

Rating: 9.0/10

Warhammer: Vermintide II is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 12 hours game time and 27% of the achievements unlocked.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance

Kickstarter opened the gates to underserved gaming niches, allowing us gamers to vote directly with our wallets and see incredible games come to fruition. Not every game was a hit of course and even looking at my backing history there’s several titles in there that, had I known what they’d become, I would have put my cash somewhere else. Kingdom Come: Deliverance falls somewhere in the middle for me; on the one hand I can remember wanting to back this game as even at the concept stage it looked fantastic. However 4 years after I pledged to the Kickstarter campaign (at the Duke level) much of that hype had disappeared, lost in the some 100+ games I played in the interim. That’s possibly what has led to my lukewarm impressions of the game, even though I can definitely appreciate the amount of effort that Warhorse Studios put into it.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance starts off in the silver mining town of Skalitz with young Henry, a simple peasant, living under his mother and blacksmith father, Martin. After finishing some errands for his father, Henry joins him in completing a commissioned sword for King Wenceslaus’ hetman, Sir Radzig Kobyla. While Henry wishes to explore and see life outside of the village, Martin insists that a quieter life is much safer. Immediately after an army of Cuman and Czech soldiers under Sigismund of Luxembourg’s control attack and raid Skalitz, killing all who do not flee. Henry holds on to the sword and runs but later comes back for his mother and father, and witnesses their murder under Sigismund’s crony, Sir Markvart von Aulitz. Henry flees to the safety of the castle, but is too late, and is forced to ride out to the nearest castle of Talmberg.

Depending on what kind of rig you’re running it might not be immediately obvious that Kingdom Come is running on CryEngine. The reason is that, at least on the PC, the game wasn’t exactly optimised at launch. Now my PC is no slouch although it is just over 3 years old at this point but even it struggled to get things running properly with its default configuration (as the below screenshot will attest). Searching around the forums revealed that the game really, really struggles if it’s running on a traditional hard drive, even if that hard drive is say a RAID 10 array capable of 400MB/s throughput (like mine). Using a custom user.cfg file fixed most of the issues but moving it onto my main SSD fixed the rest. Even with all those fixed Kingdom Come is a game that, strangely, looks a lot better up close than it does from afar. Usually most games are the opposite. These issues run deeper than just the graphics though, something I’ll dive into a bit more later.

Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a true to its roots RPG, taking its inspiration more from the pen and paper variety rather than its more action oriented brethren. There’s a bevy of different stats for you to build up, each of which will require you to do certain things (like say, running to increase vitality) to level them up. Similarly there’s a lot of skills, many of which will require you to be trained in them first before you can start improving them. There’s the usual array of loot along with the requisite inventory management to go along with it. Combat also takes the form of more “traditional” medieval fights which typically means that taking on more than 1 or 2 enemies at a time is a recipe for disaster. There’s also a bunch of status mechanics like hunger, sleep and injuries, all of which will need to be addressed if you’re to stay in top fighting condition. I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few features in here too as the game is quite massive in scope and I’ve only seen a small fraction of it (for reasons I shall explain). All of this is presented in a period correct medieval setting, meaning there’s no magical powers or fantastical elements.

FPS games that deal in melee combat have always been somewhat awkward and Kingdom Come is no exception to this. The mechanics of it are pretty simple, you have an amount of stamina (tied to your current health, which is an interesting mechanic) which you use to throw punches, swing your sword and dodge/counter/block enemy attacks. With a sword or other weapon equipped you choose the direction of your strike which has a direct impact on your enemy’s ability to block it. What this results in is a game of cat and mouse with the NPCs, trying to figure out which angle to hit them from. I do get that they were going for a more realistic feel to what medieval combat would be like but it just wasn’t particularly enjoyable.

One feature that’s notably missing, and I think one that sucked a lot of the fun out of it for me, was an unlimited, on demand save. Whilst that’s changed in a recent patch (now with a save and exit function) it did mean that the game was a lot more laborious than it would otherwise be. There were a few times where I lost quite a bit of progress, whether due to my own fault or the numerous technical glitches, because the save point was quite a while back. This also meant that one of my more favourite things, quicksaving and then being a total jerk for no good reason, was stripped away. Say what you will about save scumming and what have you but things like that really do help to keep me engaged in games like this. With such a restrictive save system I no longer feel like experimenting or just having fun for 10 minutes before I break for the night. The save and exit feature somewhat addresses that but, honestly, without a quick save/load it’s really only a halfway solution.

This isn’t even mentioning the larger game design issues which made what was supposed to be the games opening hours more frustrating than they could be. You see an early mission requires you to pick a lock in order to get an item. No worries, you’re given some lock picks and a practice lock to work with to get going. So I spent a few minutes honing my skill until, unfortunately, I broke my lockpick. Alright, I thought, I’ll go into town and buy a new one. Not a single vendor in the town I was in had any and, looking up places to buy them showed that I’d probably have to spend another 30 minutes travelling (I didn’t have a horse) to get more. Great, that mission is now dead to me until I figure out a way around it. Sure it’s not like I couldn’t do other missions but these small issues are numerous and they all make Kingdom Come less enjoyable than it would otherwise be.

This isn’t to mention the numerous issues it has with performance, optimisation and game breaking glitches. In addition to the texture pop in issues the game will lag horrendously in cut scenes if you have G-Sync enabled, yet again requiring a custom config to fix. Lock picking, for some unknown reason, enables mouse acceleration meaning that you’ll need a custom mouse profile or something similar to counteract the effects (making that particular mini game incredibly frustrating). Timed events for NPCs will sometimes simply not work, like when I was told to go to the training ground to meet the captain. I waited next to it for 2 days and he never showed up, requiring me to restart the game to my last checkpoint and try again until it worked. I’m not the only one to experience weird behaviour like this either as many of the Let’s Play videos on YouTube will attest. I know that, as gamers, we’ve come to expect this kind of jank from large RPGs but that doesn’t excuse it. For some I can imagine these things are actually a source of fun but, for me, they just soured me even further on the whole experience.

Which is a right shame as the story seemed quite good. Sure it was relatively predictable how things were going to start but it was truly refreshing to play a game from the perspective of a nobody from nowhere with no prophecy or powers behind him. Careful attention was paid to fleshing out the world with bits of story, interesting conversation between NPCs and a range of dialogue options that were all dependant on how you built your character. Indeed I feel that I should probably wait another 6 months or so until the major issues have been patched out and the mods start rolling in, allowing me to mold the core game of Kingdom Come into something I’d enjoy. That way I could experience the story without having to worry about all the other elements I’m not so keen on.

To be sure Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a great game for a certain subset of gamers: those who’ve been lusting after a true to form RPG in a medieval setting. 4 years ago I thought I was one of them, my pledge on Kickstarter a testament to that, but since then it seems things have changed. I’ve become less tolerant of the jank that these large scale RPGs seem to bring with them, no longer wanting to have to deal with troubleshooting performance issues just so I can play the damn thing. I do recognise the amount of effort that goes into producing something like this though as there are many aspects of this game that I can appreciate for their objective quality. The attention to detail in the world and the story are two such elements, ones that I might be able to enjoy at a later date. If this is the first you’re hearing of Kingdom Come: Deliverance then the game might not be for you but for those Kickstarter faithful I’m sure they’ve got their moneys worth.

Rating: 7.5/10

Kingdom Come: Deliverance is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 5 hours play time and 8% of the achievements unlocked.

Destiny 2: Curse of Osiris: Simulacra.

It was only last month that I reviewed Destiny 2 and so you’d be forgiven for thinking that Bungie was quick to pull the trigger on releasing the first expansion, Curse of Osiris. For us PC only players it is indeed quite a short time, I myself only reaching light level 305 the week prior. However for console players (who I assume make up the majority) there’s been a dearth of content for the past month and many have cried out in anguish over the lack of things to do. For a multi-title gamer like myself that’s a non-issue, there’s always something else to play, but for those who’d like to make Destiny their single game of choice it has become a constant source of angst. This expansion then would hopefully satiate the crowd long enough so that Bungie could implement more wide reaching changes to incentivise players to come back again and again.

Unfortunately for those dedicated players I don’t think Curse of Osiris accomplishes that but, for people like me, it’s a well timed injection of content that will likely keep me around for just that little bit longer.

Curse of Osiris takes you to Mercury, the forward base of the Vex and home to the Cult of Osiris, a group of people who’ve dedicated themselves to an incredibly powerful warlock that was exiled by the Vanguard. He hasn’t been heard from in some time however some of Ikora’s agents relay some information that indicate he may still be alive. This then takes you to Mercury, a world that was once transformed by the Traveller into a lush garden world which was then converted into a massive machine by the Vex. That machine is actually a massive simulation engine called the Infinite Forest, a place where the Vex attempt to gather data in order to formulate strategies to accomplish their goals. Rumour has it that Osiris is alive in there, thwarting all of the Vex’s attempts to simulate their way to victory.

Graphically there’s been no changes but the new patrol area of Mercury and the raid lairs retain Bungie’s signature level design, renowned for its high level of detail and quality. Personally I’ve always been a fan of the Vex artistic direction, the Cabal and Fallen feeling rather boring and routine by comparison. So it follows that this is probably my favourite expansion so far from a visual perspective. The new patrol area isn’t particularly big nor very diverse so it does wear on you quickly. However the other environments retain the typical visual diversity I’ve come to expect from the Destiny franchise so it’s not all bad thankfully.

In terms of new content Curse of Osiris brings with it a new campaign that will run for about 2 to 3 hours, a new “raid lair” which amounts to a couple jumping puzzles and a single boss fight, and a few more progression related mechanics to make a few activities relevant. In terms of how this compares to previous expansions its pretty much as expected, the only one that seemed to drastically deviate from that being The Taken King. For this writer it came at almost the perfect time as I had cleared the raid multiple times (to the point of being able to do it in an hour with the right group), hit 305 and was starting to question whether or not I’d continue playing. So for a casual-core player like myself Curse of Osiris fit in perfectly however, for others, it’s likely too little too late.

Destiny 2 brought with it a lot of streamlining of the original’s mechanics, quite often to the benefit of both players and Bungie. However some of the changes took away some of the reasons that kept old school players coming back. Indeed many of the recent changes that have been introduced were things that were already present in the original, making it feel like we’re simply restarting the development process that was already completed. So for those who made a home in Destiny as their game of choice I can definitely understand where their concerns come from as many of the things that kept them back before simply aren’t there anymore. However for someone like myself these changes have been fantastic, allowing me to do so much more in much less time.

This is, of course, the long running debate of any MMO game: hardcores vs casuals. The hardcore players want mechanics that reward the long slog, things that take time to achieve and put them on a pedestal above those who don’t spend as much time in the game as they do. Casuals on the other hand want to experience everything the game has to offer in a much reduced timeframe. This war is, typically, won by the casuals as they usually make up the majority of a game’s player base. As I’ve grown older and I find myself with less and less time to put into games like this my consumption of these titles has shifted and those that provide mechanics to cater to my more casual-like habits get rewarded with my hard earned dollars. That’s the only reason I still play World of Warcraft from time to time as I know that I can see all the game has to offer without signing my life away. Of course I’m not every player, but I think I’m closer to the average than most hardcore players would like to think.

I mention all of this because it seems that the Destiny community at the moment is at something of a crossroads. Previous expansions typically had a decent honeymoon period where everyone would sing its praises for about 2 weeks. Then slowly the issues would start to emerge and maybe a month or so later there’d be the usual bitching about there being no content or nothing for them to do. Right now we’re just over 3 months into Destiny 2’s live and with the first expansion under its belt we’re already seeing those complaints and Bungie has even cancelled livestreams in order to address them. Regardless of the outcome of the changes the decisions Bungie makes today will set the direction of what the game is to become over the next few years; whether it follows World of Warcraft or becomes a hardcore nice like EVE: Online.

Despite all this however Destiny 2: Curse of Osiris is a fantastic, if a little short, expansion to the Destiny 2 universe. For players like myself it dropped a just the right time, hooking me right back in when I was getting ready to jump out. Fleshing out the world’s backstory through a solid campaign has always been one of my favourite parts of Destiny and this expansion delivers that well. The new progression mechanics are interesting if a little grindy for my tastes. The new raid layer brings with it some of the more interesting and unique encounters we’ve seen to date and, hopefully, that trend continues with further expansions. Overall whilst it might not be worth $20 just on its own as part of the collector’s edition or as a season pass Curse of Osiris certainly provides some good content at a reasonable price point.

Rating: 9.5/10

Destiny 2: Curse of Osiris is available right now on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox one right now for $19.99. Total time spent in Destiny 2 now totals 59 hours, approximately 8 hours spent in Curse of Osiris. 

Destiny 2: Take Back Your Light.

Coming back to Destiny has always felt like slipping back into an old pair of shoes. Every time I’d go through the same process: be overwhelmed with the changes, find my footings through the campaign and then grind my way to the requisite light level before running the raid until I got bored. I must admit that whilst I did come around to playing a FPS on a console part of me always wanted it to come to PC as I just knew it would be a killer experience. With Destiny 2 I got my wish and whilst I’ve had to spend the last month or so carefully avoiding everything to do with its release on consoles I’m glad to say it has been well worth the wait.

Earth has come under attack by the Red Legion, a band of Cabal warriors who have never known defeat. Led by their Dominus Ghaul they caged the traveller and robbed all guardians of their light. You are left powerless, the gifts that the light granted to you seemingly gone forever. Soon after you are cast back down to Earth however you are flooded with visions that draw you to a shard of the Traveller that it flung away from itself during the collapse. The area surrounding it though has been heavily corrupted and no one who has entered the region has ever returned. This is where your quest begins to restore the light and defeat the unbeatable Red Legion.

On first look the graphics of Destiny 2 felt like they’d gone backwards from what I remembered of the original Destiny and its expansions. However after tweaking a few settings and spending a good deal of time in-game it became obvious that there have been a vast number of improvements made both to the underlying engine and the artwork the game uses. Of course I’m no longer introducing artefacts by running the game through a capture card although I had largely eliminated those when I moved to an Elgato HD60 Pro a year or so ago. The big bonus is the fact that I can now run the game at a buttery smooth 144FPS, something which I can still manage on my near 3 year old rig. Interestingly I know this game is pushing the limits of my system not because of stuttering but because my PC gets noticeably warm (since I usually rest my feet on the sides of it) during play. There have been some issues of course although the last couple patches have fixed most of the more glaring ones that popped up as part of the PC release.

By and large Destiny 2 remains faithful to the original in how it plays however there’s a lot of changes made for the sake of balance and quality of life (both for the developers and the players). The weapon classes have been reworked with primaries now being locked to kinetic damage, secondaries (now “energy”) all have an element type but also share the same weapon classes as primaries. Lastly some weapons (shotguns, fusion rifles and sniper rifles) have been moved to the heavy (now “power”) slot. Classes are mostly the same with a few tweaked and some replaced outright. You’ll still do the usual level thing until you hit the max at 20 at which time you’ll begin the same kind of light grind that we’ve been familiar with for the past couple expansions. Progression is now lightening fast up to a point after which you’ll be relying on weekly milestones, exotics and rewards from being in a clan to make any meaningful progress. At its core however it’s still very much the same game as it has been for almost 3 years and that is not a bad thing.

Whilst combat hasn’t changed much it is made that much better by being on PC. Of course I’m extremely, unabashedly biased in this regard but the fact that it was a great shooter on console was always going to mean it’d be a great one on PC. It did take me a fair while to get over my controller muscle memory, reaching for triggers that no longer exist, but it wasn’t long before I felt just as home on the PC as I ever did on console. The changes to the weapon system mean that your choice of heavy is much more meaningful than it used to be although, if I’m honest, the weapons that have moved into that slot now see much less use because they’re just not as good as the alternatives. Perhaps that will change as I find myself more gear but since I’m already at 281 light I don’t think that will change much. Unfortunately some of the lag issues are still present due to Destiny’s “complicated” P2P network architecture but they’re at least not as bad as they were at the original’s launch.

Levelling up is as much of a breeze as it ever was, happening organically as you progress through the campaign’s main missions. There were only a couple times that I had to drop out of it in order to get a level or two before being able to tackle the next one. This, coupled with not needing to go back to orbit after every single mission, means the pacing of Destiny 2’s campaign feels a lot more consistent with a lot less down time. Whilst the time to max out your level is about the same overall (8 hours or so) it does feel like a lot less thanks to the streamlining. They also do a pretty good job of re-introducing everything which is great for new players although it will be somewhat confusing to long time players (doesn’t my ghost know what the taken are?). Whilst the story is probably about on par with the original its overall execution does feel a lot stronger.

The gear grind is mostly the same as it was in previous expansions however now there’s a much heavier focus on the weekly activities. Whilst you can certainly keep levelling up your light without them it’s a much longer process, reliant on exotic drops more than anything else. Gone are the days when gear would randomly roll a light level around your current one, instead (past a certain point) they’ll always roll at a predefined level. The RNG comes from whether or not they include a legendary mod which bumps their light up by 5 levels. Once you have a weapon or piece of armour in a slot with one of those you’ll then be infusing it repeatedly until you reach light level 280. After then you can craft your own legendary mods and so all gear drops basically become on par. The only gear that will drop above your light level comes from the weekly events, the raid and the exotic quests (of which there are 4 I believe). This means you’re likely to hit a plateau each week before being able to progress. Still you should be able to get raid ready in a week and be able to blast past that easily in the second.

The renewed focus on Clans, with all the benefits that come from being in one and actively participating with it, was an interesting choice by Bungie. Certainly it ran against the way I used to play the game, preferring to just do everything on my own and hitting up DestinyLFG whenever I came up short. Joining a clan with an old friend of mine has been a pretty rewarding experience and I do look forward to doing more with them as time goes on. The clan interface could be a little better however, starting one requiring you to go onto Bungie’s website, something which the in-game client doesn’t tell you about. Once you’re past that point however it’s all pretty easy and, to be fair, you’ll likely be doing most of your co-ordination in Discord anyway.

As I mentioned before the story feels like it’s very much on the same level as it has always been, scraping just the top of the greater world’s lore. The grimoire is gone and there’s a bigger focus on putting much of what was in there actually in the game. A lot of the stuff is then hidden in the side missions, something which even I haven’t really gone through yet. That being said for those that I have played they’re a lot more upfront with bits of information, especially if you take the time to follow your ghost to scan things of interest. The great voice acting by the big name cast continues in Destiny 2 and the host of new characters brings a lot of life and levity that was missing previously. That being said it’s still not a game I’d say you’d play just for the story but it’s none the less an enjoyable one.

Destiny 2 takes the legacy that the previous game and its DLCs and rebuilds it for a new era. As a long time player of Destiny on the PlayStation 4 I can say unequivocally that it’s best experienced on PC as the platform gives the game all the things it needs to really shine. Bungie have done a great job of making the game approachable for new players whilst also ensuring it’s still got the things that the fans were looking for in the next instalment in this IP. Whilst I’ve yet to fully experience everything the game has to offer (which is saying something given the fact that I’m 26 hours deep at this point) it feels like the Destiny I’ve come to know and love with a few tweaks here and there to make everyone’s life just a little easier. I look forward to dumping many, many more hours into the game and its successive DLCs.

Rating: 9.5/10

Destiny 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and XboxOne right now for $89.95. Game was played on the pc with 26 hours of total play time.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War: What Are You Willing to Sacrifice?

The sophomore release in a new game IP is always a telling experience. For the developer it means that the original release had merit, enough to warrant a sequel getting the green light. This provides them with an opportunity to hone in on what made them successful and what else they could do to improve the experience. Most critically though it sets the expectation for the overall direction of the series, showing us gamers what the developers want the game to become should it garner further future releases. For Shadow of War that direction is clear: it’s aiming to be the next big open world RPG to rival those from other veteran developers like Bioware and Bethesda. In many respects they have met this goal, delivering a game that’s several times the size of its predecessor, but that size has come at a cost.

SPOILERS FOR SHADOW OF MORDOR FOLLOW

Shadow of War takes place directly after the events of Shadow of Mordor with Celebrimbor’s memory fully restored he agrees to join with Talion to fight Sauron. Together they journey to Mt. Doom and forge a new ring of power, one that is free from Sauron’s corrupting influence. However shortly after crafting it the spider Shelob takes Celebrimbor hostage and forces Talion to hand over the newly crafted ring. Not all is lost however as she uses the ring to provide visions of the future to Talion who uses them to keep the human denizens of Mordor safe. However the ring, whilst free from Sauron’s control, still draws his eye and it’s only a matter of time before the Nazgul will come to take it away.

Just like its predecessor Shadow of War is a visually stunning game, absolutely overflowing with detail in all aspects. The aesthetic remains true to the original, retaining a muted colour palette with few flashes of colour to break things up. Whilst the opening credits of the game would have you believe it’s developed on a whole engined, dubbed Firebird, it’s still the same LithTech engine under the hood, albeit likely without the cruft required to support previous generation consoles and some improvements that 3 years worth of development typically brings. The visual fidelity didn’t come at a heavy cost either with my near 3 year old rig still able to run it at high FPS at 1080p. I’ll admit that good graphics are a shortcut to my heart and it’s great to see the series continue with the high standard that was set in the original.

On the surface Shadow of War feels familiar with the main game mechanics staying the same. The combat retains the same beat ’em up core however it’s now augmented by a whole slathering of new mechanics which add a lot more diversity to how your typical encounter plays out. The nemesis system is back again and the procedural generation system backing it now includes a whole swath of additional traits, adding a lot of variety to the Orcs that you’ll be facing. The world you’ll be playing in has also grown considerably with 5 different areas to explore, 4 of which contain keeps for you to overthrow to gain control of the region. The loot system has been significantly revamped and, much to the chagrin of everyone, now includes a microtransaction system which allows you to swap real world dollars for in game loot. Finally an online element has been added into the game, allowing you to avenge other player’s deaths and assault their keeps (both in a “friendly” way and in a ranked system). If I had to guess I’d wager that there’s about 3 to 4 times the content in Shadow of War when compared to its predecessor. Depending on how you feel about these kinds of open world games that’s either a great thing or giant red flag.

The increase in overall scale applies to the combat as well with Shadow of War really feeling like an all out war whereas Shadow of Mordor felt a lot more like isolated skirmishes. The reaction based beat ’em up core is still there however you’ll quickly find yourself dealing with many more enemies than you ever did in the original. Unfortunately the difficulty curve is mostly numbers based, throwing ever more grunts and captains at you in order to increase the challenge. The revamped nemesis system does mean that there are some ability combinations that are more deadly than others (like a top level cursed, no chance, assassin class orc that managed to kill me no less than 5 times before I could get rid of him) but once you get to level 30 or so you will have seen every combination the game has to offer. There also seems to be less tools available for dealing with large groups although I’ll admit I can’t exactly remember what made my build in the original so overpowered. Towards the end I did find a gear set that added explosions to the glaive attack, something which was an incredible amount of fun, but there wasn’t much beyond that.

Progression comes regularly both in terms of gear and skills. Unlike most RPGs where your early choices will dictate how the rest of the game unfolds for you Shadow of War’s skill trees are non-exclusive and unbound to your level. Some of the skills require campaign missions to unlock and most of the skill upgrades are level bound but, for all the base skills, there’s nothing stopping you from getting them at whatever level you chose. Considering the numerous different paths you have to get skill points (levelling, certain missions, side quests and collectables) it’s rare that you’ll ever find yourself wanting for a skill or upgrade. Indeed after about halfway through my playthrough I struggled to figure out where to spend my skill points because I already had basically everything I wanted. Of course if you want to unlock every upgrade you’re going to need all those skill points but, honestly, I don’t think there’s much point to doing so. Once you have all the base skills you’re basically as combat ready as you’ll ever be with a few key upgrade points giving you that slight extra edge should you want it.

Loot comes thick and fast but it’s tied to a RNG system that ensures getting the perfect piece for your build and/or playstyle will take some grinding to get. Pretty much every captain you defeat will drop a piece of gear and, should they have the Epic or Legendary title, a piece of gear will drop with that level. There’s some 54 pieces of legendary gear to collect and, unfortunately, they all drop at a random level that’s close to your current one. That means finding that sweet legendary early on is no where near as good finding it 10 hours later and there’s also no way to upgrade them, meaning they’re destined for the trash bin. This is, of course, part and parcel of why the microtransaction system exists, giving you a shortcut from the gear grind should you want to shell out a few bucks. There are in-game ways to earn some currency of course, the weekly challenge giving you enough to score a few chests, but the one you earn the most of can really only get you a few pieces of epic gear. The gem crafting system I pined for in Shadow of Mordor actually made it into Shadow of War and, honestly, if they had extended that to the entire loot system in some way I think it would’ve been fantastic. Instead the only way to make use of loot you don’t use anymore is to recycle it for silver which isn’t as useful as it first seems.

The grand scale of Shadow of War comes from taking the original’s ideas and copying them out about 4 times over. You now have about 5 areas to explore, 4 of which include fortresses for you to capture. So now you’ll spend a good chunk of time hunting down captains, turning them against their warchiefs and taking down fortress defences all so you can then overtake it and claim the region for yourself. The orc captains also seems to be far more aggressive in terms of when they’ll show up with the number of ambushes, blood brother revenges and other random encounters being far more frequent than I ever remember them being in the original. Indeed it got so ludicrous at one point that I had a betrayal, ambush and blood brother revenge all in one fight, pitting me against no less than 4 captains and their associated armies. I’m all for mechanics that enable emergent game play but honestly this was probably a little too much at times.

The fortress and nemesis system now extends online with you being able to take revenge on captains for killing other players and being able to attack other players fortresses with your own army. Both of these reward you with various chests and a spoils of war currency which, you guessed it, can be spent on more loot boxes. Whilst its kind of cool to see another player taking revenge for you there’s really no interaction beyond a notification. The fortress assaults are similar, only showing who was victorious. Personally it would have been nice to see something like a small movie of the player taking out the captain or the assault on your fortress as otherwise it’s just another piece of noise in the already overflowing world that is Shadow of Mordor. Of course if ranking high on a leader board is your thing then there might be a bit more in it for you with the ranked play but honestly I can’t see the attraction.

With a game of this size it’s inevitable that there’s going to be some bugs that slip through the cracks and boy, there are some doozies in Shadow of War. The physics system can get confused at times, contorting your character into all sorts of weird shapes or doing other amazing things like launching you in random directions when it can’t figure out what it should do with you. The free run system is also a little janky, at times being too aggressive in locking onto climbing points whilst at others being completely oblivious, sending you flying down to your doom. I also had numerous times when orcs voice lines would just refuse to play, the camera locked on their faces as their expression changed randomly whilst it waited on the sound file to time out. There is a watchdog timer for that thing though so whilst it appears that the game is stuck there it will eventually recover. This happened a lot during one of the scenes where you face a horde of undead orcs who, presumably, had their voices replaced with zombie like noises. These are all things that can be addressed in patches going forward so those of you who are waiting I’m sure your experience will be more polished than mine.

The story of Shadow of War is a step up from its predecessor, partially because it has a lot more room to explore the various elements it introduces. Of course thanks to the open world nature of the game the various story lines are almost wholly separate from each other which means there’s not a lot of depth to be garnered from completing them all. I was annoyed that different versions of the game seemed to include more story than the others but it seems that those campaigns are just ancillary ones, not forming part of the main story line. The retcons to the Lord of the Rings story are an odd duck to say the least, transforming some characters into different entities completely whilst also changing the main story arc in ways that only support the game’s version of the story. I’m not a die hard Lord of the Rings fan by any stretch of the imagination but the developers had to know that making such changes wouldn’t exactly be welcomed by long time fans of the IP. Still it was interesting enough, even if I didn’t have much emotional investment in any of the characters.

One main gripe I do have to level at the overall construction of Shadow of War is the final act called Shadow Wars. After spending 21 hours in the game, 7 more than I did in the original, I thought I had come to the game’s ultimate conclusion. Not so I was told, instead I would now have to do 10 siege missions to get through to the end. Considering the grind required for 1 was on the order of an hour or so I wasn’t entirely keen to spend another 10 hours going through non-story based content to see the ending. Indeed all the reviews I’ve read since then have said that the Shadow Wars grind was simply not worth it and instead I tracked down the 3 minute ending on YouTube. Let’s just say that I’m glad I didn’t waste my time on it.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War is a monster of a game, growing the scope of the original to something that’s numerous times its size. The core of what made the original good remains in Shadow of War, providing a solid base upon with Monolith has added in a truckload of more content. However much of that content is simply copy and pasted versions of the same thing, something which open world fans are likely to enjoy but those who fell in love with the original are likely to find tedious. For this reviewer I certainly enjoyed the majority of my time with Shadow of War however I can’t say that there weren’t times I wanted to shortcut the grind. That is, of course, why the microtransaction system exists but I’ll be damned if I spend money on digital items in a single player game. Overall, whilst I think Shadow of War is a successful sequel in its own right, it is weaker in comparison to the original, if only because it seeks to exploit the success of the past rather than build on it.

Rating: 8.5/10

Middle Earth: Shadow of War is available on PC, Xbox One PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99 (base edition). Game was played on the PC with 21 hours of total playtime and 52% of the achievements unlocked.

Pyre: We Will Be Together Again Under the Stars.

We’re now at the point where Supergiant Games doesn’t need much of an introduction. Their breakout hit Bastion won many people over with its unique visual style and expertly delivered running commentary. Transistor, to me at least, felt like the ultimate refinement of what a Bastion-esque game would look like and for that it took my Game of the Year for 2014. Like many I had expected Supergiant to once again return to their isometric roots with their next release but that was not to be. Instead we were given Pyre, a kind of hybrid visual novel/sports game that, apart from its visuals, shares little with its developer’s previous games. It’s a massive risk, leaving behind what made you great, but the risk has paid off as Pyre is another exceptional (albeit far from perfect) title from Supergiant Games.

For your crimes against the great Commonwealth empire you were cast into the Downside; a horrid, desolate place where no one expects you to survive. As you lay there, where death seemed certain, you were saved by a trio travelling past in a large black wagon. They soon discover the reason you were cast down: you are a Reader, a skill that’s forbidden in the Commonwealth. However in the Downside this skill makes you valuable, able to discern meaning from text and various other things that can be “read”. They hand you a book, one which in it contains the means by which one may return to the Commonwealth. The path is not easy however and you’ll all need to work together as one if you are ever to make it.

Pyre’s visuals are in Supergiant’s trademark style, combining hand drawn elements with cel-shaded 3D models to give you the feeling of playing in a living cartoon. It’s still in isometric perspective too however there’s no real game play reason for this, done more for style than anything else. The maturity of Supergiant’s tools and processes using their custom MonoGame engine is quite evident now showing that there’s just as much time to developing it as the game itself. If pressed I’d say that they were only a small step behind Moon Studio’s (of Ori and the Blind Forest fame) in terms of producing this kind of visual aesthetic. Suffice to say Pyre’s visuals are beautiful, bursting with colour and are sure to keep visual boredom at bay.

Pyre’s mechanics are a complete step away from it’s predecessor’s isometric, hack and slash game play. Instead you command a triumvirate of characters who’s job it is to grab a celestial orb and dunk it into your opponent’s pyre. That does an amount of damage depending on which character does the dunking and then the round starts again. The first one to have their pyre fall to 0 loses. Each of the characters have different attributes, skills and talents that make them better/worse to use depending on the kinds of opponents you face. After each rite those who participated in it will gain experience and those on the bench will gain “inspiration” (basically rested XP). Additionally each character can hold a single talisman which can bestow on them a number of other abilities or buffs. Whilst the combat didn’t feel as deep as Transistor’s there’s still a lot to uncover with many viable builds.

Initially your pool of heroes is relatively small and so rites will feel pretty similar for the first few hours. As your party expands your options open up and things start to get a little more interesting although if you’re like me you’ll tend towards the combo that works best for you. You can probably continue to run that one combo for about half the game before you’ll have to make some tough decisions about how you want the game to progress from then on out. When I realised this I was a little annoyed that I was being forced away from the combo that had worked so well for me but after a little while I started to like the other available characters a lot more. Sure they weren’t as simple in their use but there were some match ups with them where they were outright broken. Indeed I think a couple of the character’s skills probably need a bit more tweaking to be a little more fair, as much as that means for a single player game.

Pamitha, for instance, can get a talisman that allows her to do extra damage and not be banished when dousing a pyre, if she’s flying when she does it. Combining this with the other flight based talents she has you can essentially always have your entire team of 3 up. If those other 2 characters happen to be the more defensively inclined ones you can pretty much guaranteed that they can never get to your pyre and you can always attack theirs. Of course if you’re finding it all a bit too easy you can ratchet up the difficulty considerably using the titan stars although the risk vs reward in that situation isn’t as great as it’s made out to be. I personally only ever used them once and was still able to max out most of the characters without too much hassle so I wouldn’t worry about not using them too much.

The combat certainly starts to lose some puff around the halfway mark, even if you’ve been using different combos. It starts to pick up again as you acquire a few more levels and sol (the in-game currency) which allows you a bit more freedom to experiment but the core mechanic never really shifts. Transistor by comparison felt a lot more rewarding when experimenting, especially when you hit on a combo that just did ridiculous things. For what its worth though when Pyre starts to lag mechanically its plot starts to kick which was great since I had struggled to engage with it during the first 4 hours or so.

Now I’m not sure if Pyre was set up like this intentionally but it has a lot of the trappings I’ve come to expect from mobile games. Each of the various sections of the game can be completed in short bursts, perhaps anywhere between 5 and 15 minutes. Early on this makes it pretty easy to put the game down as you feel like you’ve gotten somewhere and there’s little impetus to keep going. Since Pyre isn’t available on mobile yet I can only assume this is an unintentional side effect of the game’s design more than anything else.

The vast majority of the game’s story progression comes in visual novel format, walls of text flying by accompanied by various noises and unintelligible words to set the mood. This time around you won’t have the signature Logan Cunningham narration however he makes several appearances in the form of various characters in Pyre. The voice acting and backing soundtrack are as amazing as ever demonstrating once again that Supergiant Games knows how to put all these elements together in a cohesive whole. Of course if the story wasn’t any good this would be all for naught but, I’m glad to say, it is well worth the time.

It took me a while to warm to Pyre’s story and I think that’s due to a few factors. For starters I’m not the biggest fan of the visual novel format although I did like Supergiant’s take on the style. The game also doesn’t settle into its own groove until about 4 or so hours in, with new mechanics still being thrown at you up until that point. Once you get past that point however you get a bit more breathing room to focus on the various story elements and that’s when it starts to grab you. Whilst it didn’t reach the same emotional heights that I recall Transistor hitting it still managed to tug at my heartstrings at times. From what I’ve read the story has a near infinite amount of variations built into it so it’s likely your experience will vastly differ from mine depending on what choices you make and when you make them. No matter what path you take though the theme of redemption shines through and is well explored through all the various character’s story arcs.

Pyre’s deviation away from the formula that made its developer great was a risk but one that has paid off for Supergiant games. The trademark visual style continues to improve; the maturity of Supergiant’s tool chain and processes continuing to bear some exquisitely beautiful fruit. The core game mechanics are unique and manages to retain some of the more interesting aspects from previous titles. The story’s narrative around redemption takes some time to get going but once it does it sucks you right in, pushing you to do just one more rite before you put it down for the night. Before then Pyre feels a lot more like a pick up/put down kind of game but it is relatively quick to redeem itself. Pyre is most certainly a game that will delight fans of the developer but I’m sure it will have wider appeal among those who enjoy games from those who are looking to experiment a bit more with the medium.

Rating: 9.0/10

Pyre is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $19.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.

The Surge: Our Resolve Will Bring Us Utopia.

I’d still consider myself something of a newcomer to Souls-like games, having played a grand total of 2 of them so far. It’s a style of game that, once I’m in the thick of it, I really quite enjoy but there’s a lot of mental inertia to get over before I’ll have the courage to spin them up. So when I saw The Surge pop up (both on Completionist and through Steam directly) I kept a wary eye on it for a couple weeks before I bought it. Then, the second I spin it up, I get a message from one of my friends informing me that it was far more punishing than any of the recent souls games had been. Overall I don’t think he’s wrong in that assessment although the reasons for that aren’t so much to do with the challenge itself, more from the rough edges which could do with a little more polish.

It’s the far off future and the world is in a state of ecological peril. Because of this the world economy is shattered and numerous nation states have fallen. There is one company, CREO, who is working to right his wrong by launching numerous satellites to begin rebuilding the atmosphere. You’re just an average Joe who’s been fortunate enough to land a job with them and, as part of it, you’ll be granted an exo-rig that will grant you the ability to walk again. During the installation process however something goes horribly wrong and you aren’t sedated while it’s attached to your body. Passing out from the pain you awake in what looks like a scrap yard, surrounded by people who look just like you but without their exo-rigs. What follows is your journey to discover what happened and what it means for the world.

The Surge uses Deck13’s custom, in-house engine called FLEDGE. Details are somewhat scant on what its capabilities are but this isn’t the first game that Deck13 has released using it. From the screenshots you can see that it’s definitely in-line with what we’ve come to expect from current gen games with things like dynamic lighting and realistic shadows. Some areas don’t seem as polished however with physics based objects having severe limitations in computation, often only reacting once to input before freezing in place (this is most noticeable when you break crates, for example). Additionally whilst the game has a decent amount of detail, especially when you’re in larger environments, that disappears quickly when you get up close. Overall The Surge does well visually but there’s definitely room from improvement on the in-house engine.

Mechanically The Surge is very much a souls inspired game, taking much of the core mechanics and translating them for its sci-fi setting. Combat is the same kind of punishing, reaction based affair that we’ve all come to hate/love, pitting you against the hardest opponent possible (yourself). The levels are laid out in much the same way as well, being relatively small in the grand scheme of things but feeling much larger due to their labyrinth like layouts. The currency of choice is “tech scrap” which is the same as souls/blood echoes, dropping from defeated enemies and found in clumps lying around. The Surge’s claim to fame is its unique upgrade system which is centred on crafting and upgrading various parts of rig using the same parts gathered from enemies. This has an interesting impact on combat, making you choose between dispatching enemies quickly vs getting the materials you’ll need for an upgrade. The mod system, which is somewhat akin to talent points (although they’re infinitely swappable), allows you to further customise your character by giving you various choices such as healing items, damage boosts and other improvements which can help refine your character. Honestly I was expecting this to be a kind of cheap Dark Souls clone (partly due to Focus Home Interactive publishing it) but it’s a fully fledged game in its own right.

Combat is punishing, frustrating and rewarding; all those things that you’ve come to expect from titles in this genre. If you’ve developed habits from other souls games they won’t help you here as the movesets are nothing like them at all, although you will be more aware of when an enemy might not be finished attacking. The extra layer that The Surge brings is in the form of being able to target various body parts, allowing you to go for more vulnerable areas that are highlighted in blue. As you attack you’ll build up energy which can be used for various abilities of which there are 2 innate ones (execution and drone) and a myriad of others. Choosing to execute will, if you selected a body part, have a chance to lop that bit off so you can pick it up and use it in crafting. However, and this is a key point that the game does not make clear, if you are after crafting materials the part you’re targeting must be armoured. Whilst you can retarget mid-fight to get damage in first and then change to your chop target your chances are far higher to successfully harvest a part if you wail on it first. For the most part it’s worth just going for the unarmoured part and using your energy for healing or other abilities, only going for armoured bits when you know what you need to farm.

Which brings me to The Surge’s progression mechanisms which, at a base level, are similar to the souls games. You gather tech scrap and can use that to level your core power. Whilst there are no stats to level up each time you will need a certain amount of core power to be able to use upgraded armour and mods (some of which scale with core power). In order to get those upgrades you’ll have to lop parts off enemies (1 time each of head, leg, weapon arm, other arm and chest) which will unlock the blueprint for you to craft it back at your safe house. You’ll also level up your weapon proficiency as you battle enemies, meaning that whilst you can use any weapon you pick up it will take some investment to make them worth while. The weapons also have a bunch of stats on them but they’re much more straightforward in terms of which one will be best for your particular play style or combat situation. So whilst the system might not be as deep or esoteric as the souls system it still offers an immense amount of customisation, something which you’ll need to make good use of unless you enjoy butting your head against a brick wall constantly.

One non-technical issue that The Surge struggles with is smooth changes in difficulty from section to section. Quite often I’d go from being comfortable in battling enemies in one section to being one shot by anything in another. Unlike other souls games, where the delineation between areas can be somewhat vague and so it’s hard to judge challenge between sections, The Surge has definitive sections marked by you using a train to travel between them. Thus it’s easy to see when the difficulty level has been ratcheted up a notch or two. Most of the time this meant struggling through the first section to unlock a shortcut before spending a bit of time farming up to get the next round of upgrades before continuing on, something which the game makes rather easy to do. Thinking about it more this could be a design decision, forcing you to upgrade before you can progress, but it could definitely have been done in a smoother fashion.

 

From a technical standpoint The Surge is fairly well polished, running both smoothly and at a consistent rate on my (admittedly overkill) rig. However the camera system needs some hefty work as it has a tendency to get confused, especially during high action. There were numerous times when the camera would pan to a view where my character simply wasn’t visible, often leading to a swift death as I try to right it and run away. This is not to mention that it’s quite clear that the AI is using my inputs to change it’s actions a couple frames ahead of me, like when enemies can turn around and attack you before they see you when you sneak up behind them. Once you know this you can adjust for it, baiting the enemies into actions that you’re not going to follow through on, but it can be a real pain in the ass when it uses that advanced information against you to say, interrupt a combo or prevent an execution. There’s also some pathing issues that can occur both with your character and with the NPCs, although they’re relatively small in the grand scheme of things. These are issues that I believe are solvable and would hope that Deck13 tackles them in a future patch.

Thankfully unlike other souls games The Surge doesn’t hide the best bits of its story in vague passages hidden away in the hardest to find secrets. Most of the story progression comes through interaction with other characters, listening to audio logs and reading small tid bits of information on a few consoles. The story builds up well, feeding you small bits of information which start to come together about halfway through the game. After then the various parts of the world start getting explained more explicitly and you uncover just what is happening and what your part to play in it is. The ultimate conclusion is a little unsatisfying, mostly because it leaves things wide open for interpretation. Even the choice of endings doesn’t appear to change much although there’s the possibility that it might have some impact on a sequel. Overall I’d say the story was above average and was definitely one of the aspects of The Surge that I enjoyed.

On first look The Surge might seem like a pale imitation of the games that inspired it but it becomes much more than that upon actually playing it. Sure the combat system is fundamentally a carbon copy but the additions make it different enough that I still found it enjoyable. Progression again is largely the same with the deviants being interesting and providing a solid mechanic to build up your character from nothing to someone who takes all comers. The overall experience could do with some polish such as upgrading various parts of the engine, reworking the camera code and changing some of the AI’s behaviour to be a little more fair (but still as punishing). The story is solid and well executed even if the ultimate conclusion could have been done better. For what its worth The Surge surprised me and whilst I might not yet be a souls veteran I definitely think fans of this genre could find a lot to like in it.

Rating: 8.0/10

The Surge is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $49.99. Game was played on the PC with 21 hours of total playtime and 49% of the achievements unlocked.

Prey: Know Thy Self.

The original Prey was a stand out title for many reasons, if not for it’s good but not great critical success. Mechanically it debuted a couple novel new concepts which quickly went onto to become standard affair in many comparable titles. Additionally its story, with it’s respectful treatment of the Native American mythology, was one of the more interesting and memorable experiences of its time. The sequel set the gaming hivemind on fire with the idea of making you an alien bounty hunter but, much to the disappointment of many, it was cancelled unceremoniously 3 years ago. So when Bethesda decided to reboot the IP many were cautious, especially given the circumstances surrounding the cancellation of the previous title. Now that I’ve had the chance to play through the new Prey in its entirity I can say that, whilst it might not let you indulge in your alien bounty hunter fantasies, it is a solid title in its own right.

You are Morgan Yu, a scientist working for the TranStar corporation. In this alternate timeline president John F. Kennedy survives the assassination attempt and this pushes him to funnel more funding into the space program. As a result humanity has pushed far further into space than it has in our world and has even established lavish space based like Talos I. Today will be your first day with TranStar and before you take the rocket up to Talos I you’ll meet your brother and run through a few tests. However things don’t go exactly as planned and you begin to discover the dark secret that this space station has been hiding from everyone.

Prey uses Crytek’s CryEngine 5 and, as you’d expect, looks fantastic. Aesthetically it feels very similar to the recent Deus Ex titles, albeit without the distinctive yellow tone. Instead Prey takes on a darker theme befitting it’s survival horror aesthetic. The environments are richly detailed, something which forms a core part of the game’s mechanics. It’s hard to do the game justice in a few screenshots, especially with the low-light that’s present in nearly every area, but suffice to say it’s one of this year’s better looking games. To top it off performance is good save for a few areas which are obviously suffering from some poor optimisation. This is likely to be fixed in upcoming patches as it’s not just me having these issues.

Prey plays very similarly to the BioShock games of old, equipping you with an array of weapons, powers and choices with how to approach the game’s various challenges. The environments are littered with numerous different pathways to your objective, each of them rewarding investment in a certain set of skills. You can be the stereotypical stealthy hacker, the modern day necromancer who has an army of others at his disposal or your standard run and gunner. Some of the skills are quality of life improvements (I.E. just saving you from having to do something the long way) but there are, of course, certain sections that will be unavailable to you without the appropriate talents. The stealth system is done well, allowing you to ghost through many encounters without having to waste a single bullet. The crafting system is also well done, feeding into the RPG packrat mentality well whilst also ensuring that making items isn’t a total chore. Altogether whilst this Prey doesn’t bring with it original ideas like its predecessor it does execute its concept, ideas and mechanics well.

Depending on your build combat will either be a rare event or just another fact of life. For me, whilst I took a stealth-first approach, there were many times where my patience would start to wear thin and I’d just want to blast through a particular section. The combination of a few choice powers (bullet time plus enhanced wrench damage) ensured that I could usually pick off a few enemies without having to expend much in the way of consumables. Some of the other powers didn’t work as well as I’d hoped however like the mind control power that got other enemies to fight for you. Sometimes it’d work well, allowing me to clear a room without much effort, other times the enemy would just stand there, dumbfounded and not doing anything at all. Like other, similar action RPGs constant quick saving/loading is a necessity whenever you’re engaging in combat as it’s little quirks like that which can be the difference between breezing through a section and getting stuck on it for quite some time.

Progression comes in a couple forms, most notably through Neuromods (which are akin to skill points) and weapon upgrades. Neuromods can be found throughout the game in all the usual places: tucked away in hidden areas, after critical points in the story or given to you by NPCs. You can also craft them using in-game materials although that caps out at one point and necessitates a quest to unlock an infinite crafting recipe. These are then spent on the various talent trees which are broadly split into 2 categories: human and alien abilities. Whilst it’s entirely possible to finish the game without installing any mods, or only mods from one branch (there are achievements for doing all of those), you’ll definitely be best placed by choosing those that best match your desired play style. For me I went a long time before installing any alien ones, due to some in-game commentary about what that would entail, but at one point I felt like I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to continue playing the way I was. That, to me, was a great way to make non-story based choices mean something in the greater narrative of the game.

Crafting is a big part of the game and is a two stage process. Like any RPG you’ll gather a lot of cruft along the way but instead of having to find the exact right material to make something you’ll instead put it into the recycler. It then turns everything into component materials which only take up a single inventory slot. Those materials can then be used in crafting basically anything you’d ever need. This also makes inventory space a meaningful commodity as you have to decide if 10 banana peels (not joking) are worth as much as another item. One little niggle I have with the crafting system is that you can only craft one item at a time and you’ll wait for the crafting to finish before making another. When you’re say, chugging out 10 neuromods after unlocking the unlimited recipe, it can be a bit laborious. That’s nothing that’s above a simple patch to fix, however.

I wasn’t afflicted by the save corruption issues that plagued many however there are still a few rough edges on Prey that could do with sorting out. The aforementioned areas that absolutely torpedo your performance are a big issue as any fights in there quickly turn into a slideshow. From memory I only had a single crash although others have reported numerous repeat crashes throughout their playthroughs. To be sure these are the kinds of teething issues would could have been solved prior to the official launch day if review copies were provided to the usual suspects so Bethesda’s “no review copies” policy does seem to be somewhat detrimental here. The game’s UI could also do with a little bit of tweaking to be more PC friendly but that’s a minor issue comparatively.

Prey’s narrative is one of the more interesting ones of late, even if some of its elements do seem to draw heavily on BioShock’s ideas. The choices you make in the game do heavily affect how the game progresses and it does a great job of clouding which ones are more important than others. If it wasn’t for some of the achievements popping up as I was playing through I wouldn’t have had any idea that was I trucking down the “good” path, especially considering some of the less-than-stellar things I did. The culmination of everything was very satisfying as well and, whilst I’ll always bemoan games that scream SEQUEL at the end, I am encouraged that the IP is being set up for future instalments. Overall whilst Prey isn’t a game you’d play just for the story I’m glad to say it isn’t one of the detracting elements.

Prey’s rebirth was one that was met with trepidation from its fans but I think it’s managed the reboot well. It may not be fuelling the inspiration of current game designers with new mechanics and ideas but what it does do it does well. The subtle emphasis on choice is a welcome departure from the current overt approach, allowing you to make a meaningful impact on how the story and your character progress. Wrapping this all up in an engaging narrative makes for a great experience that had me wanting to come back over multiple sessions. The execution was still a little rough around the edges in a few spots which, whilst not detracting heavily from the overall game, did leave a few black marks. Overall Prey is a successful reboot of the now decade old IP and one I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of in the future.

Rating: 8.5/10

Prey is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 17 hours play time with 48% of the achievements unlocked.

Nier: Automata: For the Glory of Mankind

There are some games which, if not for consistent prodding from my gaming friends, I’d never give any attention to. JRPGs/hack and slash titles are a good example of this as, whilst I don’t mind them at a mechanical level, I’ve never really found anything about the genre that makes me want to come back. Indeed my last foray into this arena was with Bayonetta and, contrary to popular opinion of that particular title, I found the experience so unappealing that I decided it wasn’t worth reviewing. So whilst Nier: Automata took my eye due to its popularity and Souls-like combat I had put it to one side; to be played if I had nothing else. That was until a certain friend of mine wouldn’t stop pestering me about it every time I played a game that wasn’t Nier: Automata. You know who you are.

Set in the distant future Nier: Automata takes place on an Earth that’s been ravaged by a war between mankind and an unknown alien species. The world lays in ruins and the last of humanity has escaped to a base on the moon. The war still rages on however it is now fought between the alien machine race and a highly specialised force of androids. You are model 2B, a combat unit sent in to take out a large hostile force that has been detected. However things aren’t like they used to be, with many of the machines being neutral to your presence and only attacking you if you attack first. This, as you’ll soon find out, is symptomatic of larger changes happening on Earth.

For a game that’s supposedly only been in development since 2014 Nier: Automata’s visuals are decidedly dated. Sure there’s a grand scale about most things with towering enemies and environments that stretch into the horizon, but I’ve seen many current gen games accomplish the same with much better graphical fidelity. I’d hazard a guess that this is most likely an aesthetic choice, fitting in with the current styling of other games in the genre. There were also some weird scaling quirks which seemed reminiscent of previous gen ports with the on-screen text being blurry at certain resolutions. This was fixed by setting it to run in windowed mode and then using Borderless Gaming to upscale it to full screen windowed. Overall Automata’s visuals are average to say the least and the underlying engine could do with some love before Platinum Games’ next release.

Nier: Automata is a smattering of different mechanics all glued around a hack and slash, action RPG core. For the most part you’ll spend your time doing what you’d do in any other action RPG: walking around places, killing enemies, doing quests for people, getting loot and upgrading your character. Slapped onto this are a variety of other mini-games, most of which are variants on the bullet hell theme. The larger than life boss battles debut frequently throughout the game, pitting you against enemies several orders of magnitude larger than yourself. I’d stop short of calling Automata a true open world game as it’s fairly linear in terms of progression but there are certainly elements of the genre to be found here. Finally whilst the game can be played through and “finished” within a relatively modest time frame the game demands multiple play throughs in order to see all the endings, up to 5 at my count if you’re after the “true” finale. Truly it is a game that fits the stereotypes of the JRPG genre to a T.

Combat is equal parts bullet hell and hack and slash, a weird combination that I haven’t come across before myself. Initially the different kinds of combat are divided up neatly: the bullet hell sections taking the form of the old school top down shoot ’em up whilst the hack and slash components taking place when you’re not in a flight suit. After a while though they start to blur together with each of the different sections taking on aspects of the other. As you progress towards the final boss battles you’re essentially taking part in what amounts to a third person, hack and slash bullet hell which is as ludicrous as it sounds. True to the hack and slash genre you’ll quickly become unstoppable when facing anything but the toughest enemies which, honestly, is part of the appeal.

However the combat starts to get stale around the 4 hour mark with the low variety of enemies and lack of compelling weapon choices. Initially I thought this was because I was just missing something as Automata doesn’t hold your hand past the very basics. As it turns out a good chunk of the game’s weapons and other items are locked until future play throughs. This is a theme that’s woven throughout the game, something you’ll quickly become familiar with because the game makes no bars about showing you things that you’re unable to gain access to. For someone like me who does not enjoy being locked out of things which I’ll have to backtrack for (even if it’s within a single play through) I have to say this was probably the most annoying aspect of Nier: Automata.

Whilst I understand that the JRPG genre is famous for putting its players through the wringer with grinds I didn’t envision that having to grind the game itself would be a requirement for seeing everything it has to offer. After my initial completion I made sure to come back to see if the game could hook me back in but, honestly, replaying the exact same game again, down to the same quests and everything, simply failed to appeal to me. I’m sure there are likely parts which differentiate each play through, and maybe that’s enough for fans of the genre, but it wasn’t enough for me. Honestly I felt like the game and its story could have been much better served by collapsing it all into one cohesive arc that spanned 30+ hours, rather than repeating the same dribble 5 times over.

It also doesn’t help that Automata seems to cast aside about a decade’s worth of advancement in game development. Apart from the visuals issues that I mentioned before the game also suffers from horrendous camera controls, hit box detection issues and weird input behaviour when in forced perspective mode. Part of this is due to the fact it’s most certainly developed for the PlayStation first and then a lot of the conventions have then been remapped to the PC. Most notable of this is the lack of a dedicated dodge button on PC, something that will only be available to you if you play the game with a controller. Whilst I’m sure purists will argue that that’s the way Automata is meant to be played the issue is that other similar games, like Dark Souls 3, managed to get these kinds of things right. Perhaps I’m just used to a higher amount of polish these days but Automata definitely felt like it could use a couple more patches before I’d call it a seamless experience.

Now my impression of the story is going to be limited to a single play through but after reading through a plot synopsis I don’t think I’m missing much. There was a lot of potential for investigation into the whole “Machines vs Androids” thing, although the fact that neither 2B nor 9S could see the irony in their position irked me more than it should have. Additionally there is no where near enough development in the various character’s relationships to support the emotional connections they supposedly have, making the game’s climaxes seem hollow and forced. Maybe this is just an artefact of the game’s requirement for multiple play throughs and the story becomes better as more details are revealed to you. I’ll never know as there simply isn’t enough in the core game to keep me coming back 2 times over, let alone 5.

Nier: Automata is a smattering of different ideas, game mechanics and narrative structures that unfortunately doesn’t come together as a cohesive whole. For a game that’s had a relatively short development cycle it seems dated in almost all respects and would not be out of place as a previous generation title. The combination of bullet hell and hack and slash mechanics is novel and, for a time, provides an unique and interesting challenge. However the lack of variety in the combat, enemies and other mechanics starts to wear thin after a time. This then erodes the game’s core intent of getting you to play through it multiple times over to uncover its true nature, something which a better constructed game would have no trouble in accomplishing. My 10 hours or so in it were filled with probably 6 hours of real enjoyment, followed by 4 of tedium. Perhaps I’m missing something here that fans of the genre aren’t but I honestly don’t know what that is.

Rating: 7.0/10

Nier: Automata is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with a total of 10 hours play time and 34% of the achievements unlocked.

Torment: Tides of Numenera: The Tides Have Shifted.

Back in the heyday of Kickstarter game releases I backed many a title, often without much consideration to what I was actually backing. The resulting games, as you’d expect, have been a mixed affair with all of them coming in a year or two behind their optimistic schedules. Thinking back now I’m not sure what drew me to backing Torment: Tides of Numenera as I never got into Planescape Torment or Baldur’s Gate games, favouring instead RPGs that tended towards more action than anything else. Still after seeing it wasn’t some 40+ hour epic I finally decided to give Tides of Numenera a go, figuring it’d be a nice change from the massive, open world RPGs I’d been playing of late.

Set in the distant future Tides of Numenera puts you in control of the Last Castoff, a vessel of an ancient man who has the ability to migrate his consciousness between bodies. Your journey starts as you plummet towards earth in a ball of fire, burning a path across the sky. Instead of meeting your doom at the short stop at the end you’re instead transported into a strange world, one which is filled with memories that are yours but don’t belong to you. It is then that you’re confronted with an unspeakable evil, The Sorrow, which follows you everywhere you travel. What’s clear to you however is this: you have the power to shape the world and the events that take place in it, even those that have already happened.

Tides of Numenera’s styling is a throwback to simpler times, making use of pre-rendered backgrounds, an isometric viewport and simplistic graphics. The Unity engine is more than up to the task of this and I wouldn’t be surprised to see future versions of it running on iOS or Android. It’s probably a generation behind in terms of visuals when compared to similar titles although I believe that’s deliberate as the game most certainly had its focus elsewhere. All that being said there are some cool visual concepts in there, like the first memory room where you make choices about what kind of character you want to play. Overall I’d rate the visuals as competent but nothing to write home about.

When nearly any game incorporates some RPG element the definition of what constitutes a game in this genre can be a little hard to pin down. Tides of Numenera is a RPG in the truest sense of the word, setting up vast and complex systems that you can use to craft the game’s experience to your every whim. There’s a deep character, skill and talent system which has a myriad of choices that will drastically change how you interact with the world. Nearly all of the NPCs have massive sets of dialogue attached to them, some of it quest related but a lot of it dedicated to fleshing out the greater world. The encounter system blends together elements of turn-based combat and puzzle solving which, if played right, can ensure you never have to land a blow on anyone if you don’t want or need to. Couple this with a bunch of ancillary systems, all of which are done in aid of giving you choice in how the story unfolds, and you have a game that stays very true to the roots of its genre.

The encounter system is an interesting break from the now traditional RPG combat systems. Whenever you enter a “crisis” you’re presented with a bunch of options which you can either take heed of or completely ignore and lay waste to anyone or thing that stands in your way. The way other options are integrated is very interesting, like being able to talk to enemies and use a skill check to say, demoralise them thereby reducing their effectiveness in combat. In actual combat mechanic terms I’m somewhat less impressed as I’ve never really been a fan of turn-based systems. That being said, if you’d prefer to blow everything up there’s certainly more than enough choices available to you.

Progression comes to you steadily as you complete quests, defeat enemies, interact with NPCs or simply explore the world around you. If I’m honest the number of options available to you is quite overwhelming as you can never be quite sure what you might need to complete your objective. This is by design, of course, and those who’ve spent many more hours in true RPGs will likely have a better judge of what’s required than I did. Indeed as I pushed further into the game it became apparent that there was never any real hard blocks to progression, even if my preferred option was unavailable to me. If you were so inclined there was always ways to get what you wanted, it may just mean a lot more exploring and interaction than simply clicking through the right dialogue options. Some of the progression systems, like the loot, seemed almost completely unnecessary however given how much power was lent to the other systems in the game. Overall I never felt like I was struggling to progress my character further but I did find a lack of drive to go to the next objective.

Coming into this game several friends warned me that the beginning of the game was heavily loaded with world building, all care of globs of text. They were not wrong either and the vast majority of the early game is spent reading through dialogue, making choices and generally just getting to know the world and the players around you. Whilst I’m not against this per-se, indeed I’ve chided other games for neglecting world-building before, it does start to wear on you. After playing for about 4 hours I still felt like I was at the very start of the story with progress in the main campaign mission coming slowly and fitfully. By comparison the self contained side quests which much better overall but weren’t enough to draw me in.

So whilst I can appreciate the effort put into ensuring that the world you play in is a vast and deep one I felt that wasn’t tempered with enough progression early on to keep my interest beyond 4 hours. To be sure a lot of things happened in that time and I could start to see the tendrils of the story beginning to unfold. But there just wasn’t enough to make me want to keep going. That, coupled with the other middling progression systems, had me feeling more frustrated than anything else. I could have soldiered on but I felt I’d be doing the game a grave disservice as I’d simply stopped enjoying myself at that point. I can still see the value in it however and I’m sure for the true RPG fans out there this is one of the better experiences that have come our way recently.

It just failed to capture me, that’s all.

Torment: Tides of Numenera is a return to the beginnings of the RPG genre, one that focused on the world and the place you have it rather than points in a talent tree. It’s visuals are basic and competent, seeking to evoke the same feelings that it’s spiritual predecessors would have all those years ago. The various game mechanics are deep and complex, giving you all the options you could want to craft a character and story to your exacting specifications. The story however, due mostly to its construction within the game, failed to grab this writer, spending too much time on building the world rather than pushing forward the narrative I was a part of. That being said whilst I may have realised that Tides of Numenera isn’t so much for me that doesn’t mean it’s not for you, dear reader.

Rating: 6.5/10

Torment: Tides of Numenera is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $44.99. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours of total play time and 10% of the achievements unlocked.