I, and many other gamers, hold the original Red Dead Redemption in high regard. It was a breath of fresh air for the open world genre, bringing with it not only a new setting but also a different take on what the genre could be. It’s also one of the few games that I’ll hold up as an example of a sad ending done well, one that carried some serious emotional weight that resonated strongly with those who managed to finish it. So the follow up instalment in the series was always going to have high expectations put on it, both from this reviewer and the community at large. For many the game has lived up to their expectations, delivering that open world western that many had been waiting some 8 years to see. For this old reviewer though, whilst I certainly appreciate the astonishing depth and craftsmanship behind Red Dead Redemption 2, it falls a little short but I think that says a lot more about me as a gamer than it does about the quality of this game.
RDR2 takes place some years before the original, taking you back to the time when the Van der Linde gang was still riding high as outlaws in the west. You’re Arthur Morgan, a long time and loyal member of the crew, who’s fled into the mountains after a botched robbery job in the town of Blackwater. Your motivation is simple: survive long enough until the heat dies down and you can return to the scene of the crime and collect your loot. The trials put before you will be numerous, from simple tasks of keeping your gang alive and healthy to trying to make enough money so you can realise Dutch’s vision for the new world.
As you’d expect from a several hundred million dollar production budget RDR2’s visuals are absolutely stunning, even when they’re pumped out of an aging, original PS4. The sprawling vistas of the world that Rockstar created are simply incredible and the attention to detail is second to none. The same place can seem completely different depending on the time of day or the weather which is nuanced enough to include things like dust storms or light rain vs a thunderstorm. Whilst it’ll take a little time to load initially everything after that is smooth, the game rarely needing to take a break to load you into a new area or generate an event. I’m honestly sorely disappointed that the PC didn’t get a release at the same time the consoles did as I would’ve loved to seen this game dialled up to the 9s, even on my aging beast. Perhaps we’ll see it one day but I don’t know if I’ll make the journey back to play it then. Maybe if they add a similar online mode like they did for GTA V.
As you likely already know RDR2 is an open world western game done in the tried and true style that Rockstar has perfected over their numerous hit titles over the years. The amount of things to do is huge, dwarfing any other game I’ve played. The core structure remains the same: campaign missions, side missions and progression in the form of weapons and cosmetics, with a very generous helping of additional mechanics in there to keep even the most dedicated player occupied for 100 hours or more. I’ve been playing RDR2 for about as long as I played the original, sticking to my usual campaign-first approach, and it appears I’m about 25% of the way through the main story (closer to half if you don’t count the epilogues). Honestly it’d probably be easier to list features that it doesn’t have as it really is the most complete cowboy simulator ever created.
Combat doesn’t deviate much from the original’s formula, retaining the same third person, infinite regenerating health mechanic. There are a number more weapons to choose from although most of them feel pretty similar given that the auto-aim is set quite high by default. So you’ll usually end up using whatever the most powerful gun you have at your disposal which is either your carbine or perhaps the sawn off shotguns if enemies wander in a bit too close. It might have been a bit better if the encounters weren’t all so similar, either being a one-off firefight with a few guys or a multiple wave fight where you’re basically locked in position the whole time. It’s quite clear that out and out combat like that wasn’t a particular focus for Rockstar with RDR2, mostly just serving as another mini-game among the dozens the game will offer up to you. For the kind of player who’s going to get a lot out of this game though I don’t think they’ll mind that one bit.
Unlike the original progression in RDR2 is a bit more of a nebulous affair, coming in the form of a few upgrades to your cores (health/stamina/dead eye), items in your camp and a slathering of cosmetic items that have little effect on the overall game. It’s a pretty stark contrast between the two as I remember the original having a fairly well defined upgrade path for a lot of things, like having to hunt a certain type of animal a number of times or doing a particular quest. Those kinds of missions are still around however their rewards are often just cosmetic items, meaning there’s no real reason to go after them unless you want to. That honestly took the wind out of my sails a little bit as without clear goals and their associated rewards it can feel kind of pointless to do something that might take you some time to complete. I mean, I spent a good 30 mins or so tracking down the best horse you can find in the wild and taming it because I knew where it was, but I don’t believe there’s a set of clothing that helps anything past giving me a bigger satchel.
On the flip side the lack of definitive progression mechanics means it’s largely up to you how you want to push things forward in RDR2. No longer is a toss up between doing what you’d like to do, say fishing for the world’s largest bass for hours on end, and what you need to do to improve your character or move the story forward. In the 20-something hours I’ve spent with the game not once have I hit something I wasn’t able to get past. Given that the game’s overall objective seems to be more about the world itself rather than any one particular thing within it this design choice is key to ensuring that everything remains accessible to the player. Gating things off would instantly remove that feeling of freedom which so many of Rockstar’s playerbase crave.
Going into RDR2, which I started shortly after finishing the latest Call of Duty, I had friends caution me that I might be in for a bit of…let’s call it gaming whiplash going from something so focused on constantly triggering your dopamine centers to a game that likes to take its time with you. To be honest they were 100% on the mark as originally I was really frustrated with the game’s slow pace and lack of definitive progression. Talking to them about how they play it though it became clear that RDR2 strives to be a very different kind of game, one that doesn’t much care about how long it takes for something to get done. They’d come home from a day at work, put RDR2 on and maybe fish or go hunting for a while, only doing missions if they really felt like they wanted to. For this kind of gaming, one that can be enjoyed by itself over an extended period of time, RDR2 is absolutely perfect. For someone like me? It’s antithetical.
You see my (near) weekly gaming reviews predisposes me to a certain kinds of games, usually ones that can be done in a weekend or possibly over the course of a few weeks if I can find titles to fill the gaps in. This has also meant that I’ve tended towards games that provide one or more of a few key game features: clear progression, strong narrative or shorter playtimes. RDR2 doesn’t really fit any of those particularly well (more on the narrative in a second) and so over the last 2 months I haven’t really found more than a couple hours a week here or there to go back to it. I’m not exactly bored when I’m playing it but I’m also not exactly wanting for more every time I put down the controller. Your mileage will vary of course but suffice to say I think RDR2 appeals to a wide variety of gamers but I may have excluded myself from them, given my habits.
This might have all been different if RDR’s story was going somewhere which, in my playtime, it decidedly wasn’t. For starter’s there’s a noticeable lack of an overarching narrative, something which I think the original did quite well. Sure there’s the whole “we need to get back to Blackwater” thing but that’s nothing more than a catchphrase for a couple of the characters. Instead the majority of the story is caught up in either self-contained vignettes or in short story arcs that don’t last longer than a single chapter. I had hopes for it early on when Arthur gets reacquainted with an old flame, but after that mission it wasn’t mentioned again. I’ve read stories of people having some interesting encounters, like freeing a convict on the side of the road only to meet them in town later, but that’s just an interesting tale to recount over beers, not a solid story. Perhaps I’d be a little more engrossed in it if I hadn’t completed the original over 8 years ago now as I had to look up just how many of them were in it (more than I remembered, honestly).
I think a lot of this has to do with the schism between the open world and crafted elements of the game, something which YouTuber NakeyJakey summed up in is (admittedly long but well worth it) video on the topic of Rockstar’s game design. RDR2 has a desire to be a lot of things to many different kinds of people and, as a consequence, kind of ends up somewhere in the middle. For those who find what they want in there it’s great but those who are looking for a more coherent game experience (which doesn’t preclude open world games by the way, Horizon Zero Dawn did it well) it leaves us wondering just what Rockstar was thinking. For me the end result is an exceptionally well crafted game that has a lot to offer but just didn’t manage to hook me in the same way its predecessor did.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is likely to go down for many as 2018’s game of the year but for this old gamer it sadly won’t. I can certainly appreciate the countless man hours that went into developing it as the world that they created is breathtaking in its beauty and depth. But all of this just feels like a large bag of tricks cobbled together to please those who like to make a single game their hobby. The things that elevate games like this above others in the genre, like a strong narrative or progression systems, just aren’t there, leaving players like myself wanting. Given I have a lot of time left before I go back to work in the new year I might get around to playing it more but I don’t feel I have a lot of reason to. Is it worth playing? Certainly, if only for the fact that everyone else is and you want to have something to talk to them about for the next 6 months. Honestly though you likely already know whether or not you want to play it and a rating from a single reviewer on the Internet’s backwater isn’t going to change that.
Red Dead Redemption 2 is available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $78. Game was played on the PlayStation 4 with approximately 20 hours total play time and 7% of the achievements unlocked.
I can’t remember a time when I was told by so many disparate people to not play a game. To be clear I don’t think the controversy surrounding Battlefront 2 is unjustified as the trend towards including what amounts to gambling in nearly every AAA title feels like a massive step backwards for the industry. More it’s the fact that the game itself looked fun, even with the microtransactions and loot boxes taken into consideration. So I went against everyone’s advice and bought a copy of the game thinking that, at the very least, it’d be worth it just to play another campaign in the Star Wars universe. Whilst that didn’t turn out to be the highlight I was hoping it to be the multi-player has been surprisingly fun, if marred somewhat by the loot box bogeyman.
The campaign centres on Iden Versio a member of the elite Inferno Squad, an Imperial Special Forces Commando unit, formed after the destruction of the first Death Star. She was on Endor when the second Death Star was destroyed by the rebels, splintering the Galactic Empire. The Emperor’s death triggered a secret contingency plan to ensure that the Empire retained control of the galaxy: dubbed Operation Cinder. Iden is then sent on a set of unusual missions to prepare for it when it becomes clear that the mission will be far more sinister than anyone planned for.
Battlefront II, like its predecessor, makes use of the Frostbite 3 engine which once again provides for some absolutely stunning visuals. Of particular note is the lighting which is simply without peer in any game I’ve played this year. Beyond that it’s impressive the amount of stuff they’ve managed to cram into every level and set piece, both in the campaign and the multiplayer. Those pretties do come at a cost however and whilst my near 3 year old machine was able to run everything on high @ 1080p I’m sure anything beyond that would’ve turned the whole affair into a slide show.
The core game remains largely the same, retaining the star card system and reworking the hero/more powerful classes to use a “battlepoint” system that allows you to buy them once you’ve accumulated enough of them through attacking other players, achieving objectives or, funnily enough, straight up dying enough times. Progression is, unfortunately, inexorably tied to the loot crates which drop star cards and crafting materials you’ll need to level up your class of choice. You can buy these crates with in-game currency you earn through playing however so you don’t have to spend money to get there but I’ll be damned if a bunch of people didn’t do exactly that. The same game modes make a return as well with the trademark 40 on 40 battles being the go-to favourite of many players. An “Arcade Mode” was introduced to get you used to the various non-standard classes, something which can be rather painful to do in the multi itself. All in all it’s pretty much the same game as Battlefront was with the progression mechanics all mixed up in a microtransaction hell.
Combat feels the same as it did in its predecessor, meaning that aiming down sights does nothing and the third person camera gives you the spatial awareness you’ll need if you want to be at all effective. Yet again it took me a little while to get used to it, my FPS tendencies that had been bedded in by Call of Duty and Destiny 2 needing to be shaken off before I felt like everything had clicked. Of course the power level between me and my foes was immediately apparent; fights that felt like they should have been even turning out to be anything but and I couldn’t go 2 steps without a sniper removing most, if not all, of my health. As I learnt the maps and started to progress a little this started to happen less often but it’s unfortunately obvious that those who’ve opened their wallets have a distinct advantage.
You see how you level a class in Battlefront II isn’t through playing them, no you level them by crafting star cards for them. Each of the cards you craft (or receive through loot boxes) adds to your “card level” for that particular class. Each of the cards has 4 power levels, each of which provides more benefits than the last. You can’t, however, craft the best card right from the get go. No instead you must craft a bunch of lesser cards (most of which you’ll likely never use) before you can unlock the next tier of upgrades. This means your best bet is to focus on a single class and craft a build that you feel most comfortable playing for a long time. After then you can start fleshing out the other classes like the upgraded troops, vehicles and hero characters. If this is sounding like a lot of work it most certainly is. I’m about 6 hours into the multi and my assault class is card level 10 with a few others around the 2 or 3 level. This hasn’t stopped me from being somewhat effective (I do about average it seems) but its hard to deny that a disproportionate number of those at the top are ones who’ve splashed a bit of cash around.
Worse still this also has a limiting effect on how you can play as the “upgraded” classes, vehicles and hero classes can feel woefully underpowered when you go from your preferred, card levelled class to them. Even if you do manage to get enough battle points to spawn one of them it’s quite likely that someone has already done the same, locking you out of playing one of them. Of course you could spend some credits to unlock another hero class (ranging in price from 5,000 to 15,000 credits) but, yet again, that’s an advantage that someone who’s shelled out cash is going to have over you. It’s possible that these issues are somewhat magnified due to my relative tardiness in getting around to playing Battlefront II but, honestly, systems like this that reward you with just flat out better gear incentivize all the wrong things in titles like this.
It’s a right shame as the game is actually playable this time around and, honestly, quite fun. Whilst there are still issues with matchmaking, like a lack of team reshuffling between matches and the lack of a leavers penalty, there’s at least a relatively healthy community on PC now. No longer do I have wait ages for a spot in the single galactic war match, hoping that I end up on the winning team so I can farm some easy credits for an hour or two. Nope instead there’s always multiple games cranking and, on average, there’s a 50/50 chance of finding yourself on the winning side. It even got to the point where I figured I should finish the campaign, just for good measure, but honestly felt that I’d much rather enjoy playing a few multi games rather than going back to it.
The reason for that is, whilst parts of the campaign have their moments, it just falls somewhat flat from a story perspective. It’s a highly predictable one for starters, following the typical “bad guy realising they’re the bad guy” trope which makes it hard to really connect with anyone in it. Like most multiplayer focused games it’s also mostly an extended showcase for the levels you’ll be playing later, loosely stitched together with fragments of a story so there’s a reason for you to visit all of them. I didn’t finish it in the end but, honestly, I had most of the story played out in my head already (and a quick trip to the wiki shows that I was pretty close to the mark). All in all, whilst it’s commendable that EA DICE listened on this one particular thing they could have at least put just a tiny bit more effort into it.
Star Wars Battlefront II is a great game that got itself mixed up in the wrong crowd. When it comes down to it the flagship game mode, Galactic War, is a bunch of fun, capturing that feeling of being part of something much larger than yourself when you’re playing it. However the whole progression system being heavily tilted towards getting you to shell out for loot boxes means that the overall experience suffers greatly as a result. EA DICE may be making steps towards fixing it but we all know what the end game is here: placate us long enough so that the idea of paying for loot boxes becomes palatable again. Honestly it’s a right shame as beneath all of this is a great game that begs to be played, one I know a lot of people would enjoy.
Star Wars Battlefront II is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $59.99. Game was played on the PC with approximately 7 hours of total play time.
Almost 10 years ago the original Mass Effect debuted on the Xbox 360. The hype around it had been building for some time and I, not wanting to miss out, had purchased the console based on the rumours it was to be forever a platform exclusive. I don’t regret my decision at all and I completed the whole trilogy on the Xbox 360, even upgrading to a newer revision so that I didn’t have to deal with the jet engine that was the original’s disc drive. With Shepard’s journey over however I decided that I’d come back to PC for Andromeda, the next instalment in the Mass Effect universe. With such a high bar set for the previous trilogy (bar some inexcusable missteps) it was always going to be tough for Andromeda, but the mistakes that BioWare have made with this latest instalment go beyond reality not lining up to the hype.
Andromeda takes place between the events of 2 and 3 of the original trilogy where the races of the Milky Way have formed the Andromeda initiative. The Citadel’s council has decided to arks to the nearby Andromeda galaxy, each of them populated with 20,000 citizens and a leader known as the Pathfinder. You play as Scott/Sarah Ryder, a twin and child of humanity’s Pathfinder Alec Ryder. Your job is to find humanity a new home and begin the formation of a new galactic government in the Andromeda galaxy. Upon arrival however you quickly discover that everything isn’t as the initiative had first hoped, the Andromeda galaxy significantly changed in the years since it was first scouted. It is up to you then to make Andromeda viable, paving the way for a sustainable colony for generations to come.
Mass Effect Andromeda drops the Unreal 3 engine that powered the last trilogy in favour of the Frostbite engine. This, coupled with the significant leap in computing power afforded to us, means that Andromeda’s graphics are a massive step up over its predecessor. However this also meant that BioWare had to spend significant resources in redeveloping tools, workflows and assets which led to some significant teething issues. This most obviously manifested in “my face is tired” lady and other quirks which made it feel like the series was a generation or two behind where it should be. The patches that have come out since then have made a significant difference but it just goes to show that even the big name players can suffer when it comes to an engine change. Still, at a pure visual level, Mass Effect Andromeda is quite a looker.
In a departure from the series’ action-RPG roots Andromeda tends heavily towards an open-world game, giving you an absolutely massive galaxy to explore. Whilst the core of the series remains largely the same there’s a bevy of additional things thrown in to keep you playing. There are numerous planets which you can put outposts on but only after you’ve raised their “viability” to a certain level. In order to do that there’s dozens of tasks available like completing quests, eliminating hostile forces or unearthing an ancient technology with the power to terraform worlds. Completing these tasks also raises Andromeda’s overall viability, allowing you to bring more people out of cryopreservation which unlocks certain benefits for you. You’ve also got strike teams which you can send on missions to get you resources, items and credits. There’s also a research and crafting system which allows you to build your own customised versions of weapons and armour you find in the game. This is all on top of the run of the mill action-RPG trappings we’ve come to expect from the Mass Effect series, meaning that the scale of Andromeda is much greater than any of its predecessors.
Andromeda’s combat system has been reworked, most notably scaling down the number of abilities you have on tap at any one time (3, maximum) whilst allowing you to fully max out any of the 3 talent trees if you so wish. Additionally your control over your team mates is significantly diminished, the ability to target their powers gone and the only command you can give them is “go here”. Combat scales to your current level which means that, at the start, it’s probably a bit more challenging than it should be. Later on, when you’ve got a good set of gear and maxed out talents, things become a lot easier. Whilst I’m usually a fan of streamlined combat systems the changes made in Andromeda feel like a step back overall as it removes some of the depth that its predecessors had. No longer can I set up a devastating combo with my team mates, instead I’m left to watch over them and time my abilities that way. In the end I opted for a pure tech build with multiple constructs to do most of the work for me. There’s also a distinct lack of variety in the combat encounters as after about 6 hours you’ve probably seen every enemy, bar a few boss fights. Overall the combat feels competent but lacking the components which made it so much fun in the previous Mass Effect titles.
Progression comes in numerous forms and so often that it can be hard to figure out where you should be focusing your effort. There’s the standard levelling up and talent points which allows you to craft your ideal character. Unlike previous games where your original character class limited your talent choices Andromeda instead uses that as a kind of boost to give you access to some talents earlier than you’d otherwise be able to. From there you can either build on it or mix and match as you desire. How you spend your points also unlocks additional “profiles”, essentially another choice which allows you to bolster certain aspects of your character, which can be changed at any time. In addition to this there’s the usual loot drops which, like the combat, scale to your character’s current level. You can also research and craft your own weapons and armour, even augmenting them with different mods to give them a considerable edge over their dropped versions. However the research and crafting system requires such a heavy investment, in both time and resources, that it’s honestly not worth it when the difference is maybe a few percentage points. If you’re really, truly into making the most broken character possible then it’ll be right up your alley but otherwise it’s better to spend your time elsewhere.
Once you’ve got a handle on just where you want to go with your character it becomes easier to tune out the noise but that’s also the point where progression starts to slow considerably. Higher tiers of talents will require 2 levels worth of points to acquire, new armour upgrades (through drops or crafting) only come every 5 levels or so and quality of life upgrades (from cryo pods) require a significant time investment on making planets viable. Again this comes back to the game’s more open world ethos, giving the player numerous means of progression in the hopes of keeping you around longer. In any other open world game this would just be par for the course but for the Mass Effect series it feels like a big step away from what made it great.
Indeed the open-world-ness of Andromeda is, I feel, the game’s Achilles heel. Open world games tend to try to cram as much as they can in and often end up relying on repeatable missions that can be adapted easily. Andromeda is no different with many missions coming down to simple fetch quests or a small variant there of. Any of the worlds you go to are either inhabited by Kett (the enemy alien race), colonists or the Angara (the new alien race). Whilst all the worlds have their own distinct feel the all play out the same, especially when it comes to reactivating the monoliths. Whilst the planet exploration is done far better than it has ever been in the series (the Nomad being a much better version of the Mako) you’ll still be doing the exact same thing on each planet: driving around, sometimes stopping for mining nodes or a combat encounter as you trundle your way to your objective. Sometimes it can be fun when you stumble across something but it starts to wear thin pretty early on.
What this means is that the core focus of the game is somewhat blurred. With so many things to do it can be hard to discern what the main thrust of the game really is as they’re always pulling you in multiple different directions. Sure you can look to the main missions for direction but unlike previous ones it wasn’t so obvious how the side missions built up into it. Indeed one of (what I had assumed was) the core aspects of the game, finding all the other race’s arks, is actually nothing more than a side quest and completing them appears to net you no significant advantages at all. Previous Mass Effect games heavily leaned on the fact that your choices, even those outside of the main story line, had a meaningful impact. In Andromeda that really doesn’t feel like the case. It’s possible that some of my decisions might mean something in future instalments but even the original Mass Effect managed to have meaningful choices within its own play time. Suffice to say I think that Andromeda could have done with a significant reduction in scope in order to better focus on what made the series popular in the first place.
As many others have pointed out the initial release of Andromeda was plagued with various issues that made the game less than ideal. The varying quality of animation across different characters was improved significantly in the most recent update but some other fundamental issues remain. During dialogue the camera has a mind of its own, sometimes getting stuck on geometry that means it won’t have Ryder, or anyone else, in frame. There were also numerous quality of life issues like being unable to skip certain things which really should have been skipable from the start. The multiplayer experience was also something of a crap shoot, taking forever to find a game and then being a buggy mess when it finally did. The only game I managed to get into had me with unlimited abilities, ammunition and health, something which (whilst fun) I don’t think was completely intended. This may be one of those games that gets considerably better as patches and DLC are released however, so if you’re reading this in the far future take note.
The premise of the game’s story is a good one, allowing the series to continue without having to lean on the previous games’ canon to succeed. However it takes forever to become even the slightest bit interesting, requiring at least 6 hours of investment to understand just what is going on and another 14 hours to actually start piquing your interest. This is most certainly due to the disjointed, fractured nature of how the greater narrative is told, split up amongst so many different side missions that it’s hard to make sense of how it’s all supposed to fit together. The game’s overall narrative, which feels dangerously close to the previous trilogy’s in some respects, tries its best to set up the universe in which this new trilogy takes place. However this time around you’re not struggling against some unseen foe which is pulling the strings, instead you’re the glorious, benevolent colonists who’ve come to save the Andromeda galaxy from itself. In that respect a lot of the struggle feels hollow, failing to kindle a sense of purpose or drive in you.
It’s a shame because I feel like the character development is actually done pretty well for most of your crew. Jaal, the Angaran resistance fighter, is an incredibly interesting character and one that helps give you a deep insight into his people’s culture. Some of the others could use work, like Cora’s weird interactions with Asari, but overall if you want to really get to know your crew there’s every opportunity to. I, as always, seemingly feel for the one I couldn’t have her romance options locked away from me because of my gender. That was slightly disappointing and so the romance I did pursue afterwards felt a little hollow. Still I can’t blame the game for not allowing me my heart’s want.
Mass Effect Andromeda is an uncharacteristic misstep by BioWare, seemingly forgetting what made the original trilogy great in favour of expanding its horizons. The elements are there, but they’re buried underneath a trove of open-world garbage that does nothing to enhance the experience. In order to get any enjoyment out of the game you’re looking at a least 20 hours, something which makes it hard to recommend to all but the most dedicated of Mass Effect fans. There’s also a lot of teething issues resulting from the transition to the Frostbite engine, but these are things that can be fixed in patches over time. The more pressing issues, like the lack of focus and repetition that comes with open world games, is a harder challenge to solve. However BioWare is nothing if not adaptable so there’s every chance that future DLCs and patches will transform this game from its current, lacklustre state into something that is more worthy of your time.
Mass Effect Andromeda is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $69.99, $79 and $79 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 32 hours of total playtime and 42% of the achievements unlocked.
If you’ve ever played GTA V online you’ll know that one of its standout features is the heists. A good group of mates and I have run through them numerous times, usually late at night with each of us cradling a wine glass in the other hand. So when we starting hearing that Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands was basically just the heists part of GTA Online we decided that we’d give it a shot. Whilst it’s not exactly as we expected there are aspects that heisters from GTA will adore, especially if you’re after a game that you’ll be playing for dozens of hours.
The year is 2019 and Bolivia has fallen victim to the ruthless drug cartel, Santa Blanca. Now a narco state, producing the lion’s share of the world’s cocaine, it has caught the attention of the United States government. However it took the bombing of their embassy, and the death of one of their DEA agents, before they felt compelled to intervene. Not wanting to be seen interfering in a sovereign state’s affairs they have decided to send in you: a member of the elite unit called the Ghosts. It will be up to you to see the completion of operation Kingslayer, with its ultimate target being the leader of the cartel.
Wildlands uses the AnvilNext engine which has brought us other stunning titles such as For Honor and Steep. The environments of Wildlands are massive, spanning dozens of in-game kilometers. It makes the usual open-world trade offs, sacrificing scale for detail. The result is a game that’s exceptionally pretty when you’re flying over or driving through it but up close the repetitive assets and lack of detail start to become apparent. Performance is good overall, striking a good balance between pretty visuals and consistent frame rates. Overall it feels like a step up from similar open world titles and aptly demonstrates the versatility that the AnvilNext engine is capable of.
The core game of Wildlands is your typical open world game, throwing you into a big wide space that’s filled with missions, collectibles and random encounters that you can partake in at your leisure. Progression is a two part mechanic: the first is skill points that are gained through completing missions which can then be spent on skills but only if you have the requisite resources, collected from just about anywhere. Weapons and their various upgrades are scattered around the map, requiring a bit of leg work to craft the perfect gun for your play style. The game is always played with 4 total people in your team, whether they be friends you’ve brought in or AIs if you’re playing alone. If you’re playing on anything but the hardest difficulty the game could easily just be a run of the mill third person shooter but at the peak difficulty it’s necessary to take a far more tactical approach.
In general a mission will usually go through a few phases. The first will be recon, where you’ll utilize a drone to scout the area and tag as many of the enemy as you can. You’ll then attempt to take out as many of them as you can without alerting the rest of them which you’ll sometimes be able to do without incident. However, 9 times out of 10 I’d say, you’ll end up making a mistake that alerts everyone to your position and from there it’s a no-holds barred shoot out until one of you is dead. If you’ve got the patience though you can retreat and reset for another stealth attempt, although it’ll likely be a lot harder the second time around. After that there’s usually some objective to complete which often sends through another wave of enemies for you to take care of. Overall it’s not the most inventive game in terms of mechanics but they do blend together quite well.
Progression is pretty steady throughout the game, so long as you take the time to tag enough supplies to ensure you can level up your skills. In between levels and runs for supplies you’ll typically stumble across a weapon or mod blueprint which you can then use straight away if you get to a load out point. It’s slow enough that you don’t feel overwhelmed with options but also fast enough that you’re never wanting for the next step up. If the open world genre appeals to you then it’s likely to keep drawing you in for multiple hours. For me however things started to wear thin rather quickly.
Like all co-op games Wildlands is better with friends but even then it becomes quickly apparent just how same-y everything is. Most missions play out roughly the same, although they do get more interesting as you unlock some of the more ridiculous upgrades. Most weapons in the same class aren’t different enough to make them feel satisfying when you acquire them and you’ll often get lots of upgrades for weapons you don’t currently have. It has the same feel as a MMORPG grind but without the payoff of showing off your gear in the armory. It’s a criticism I’ve leveled at other open world games before so it’ll be a red letter day when one game manages to address it successfully.
Another notable misstep is the vehicle physics which, whilst slightly improved from the open beta, are still janky and weird when compared to other similar titles. Helicopters have a weird flight model which appears to function purely based on momentum, usually whichever vector has the highest value at any point in time. Ground vehicles are neigh on impossible to keep flipped over which leads to a whole bunch of weird and wonderful interactions. It might sound like a minor gripe but when you spend so much of the game going from point A to point B small things like this are unfortunately very noticeable. It’s not beyond fixing however, but the last patch or two didn’t make any noticeable improvements.
The story is average, not terrible but not particularly noteworthy. There are some nice touches, like the various bits of banter the team has between missions which helps flesh out the main characters. The main story line though isn’t particularly interesting as, thanks to the open world construction, there’s no real impetus driving you forward to any one objective. Indeed even the over-arching goal that the game sets out early on seems to be a million miles away all the time. Perhaps it gets better with more time invested but if a story can’t grab me in the first 4 hours then it’s not likely to do it in the next 20.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is a decent open world/RPG hybrid, one that I’m sure a certain type of player will find a lot to love in it. The visuals are definitely a step above its current peers, made even more impressive by the fact that the engine isn’t specifically designed for this type of game. The combat is challenging and rewarding, even if it starts to feel a little bit repetitive after a while. It suffers from the same spread of issues that plague all open world games, something I hope one day to see solved. The vehicle mechanics could be improved on significantly, something which would make a good bulk of the experience just that much better. Finally the story is nothing to write home about but, considering I couldn’t push myself to put more time into it, there’s every chance it gets more engrossing with a few more hours chucked in. Overall I think Tom Clancy’s Wildland’s is a competent game, just not one I think I’ll be playing without friends or sober, if I can manage it.
Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $49 on all platforms. Game was played in both the open beta and full release with approximately 8 hours spent equally across both.
The original Watch_Dogs was in many ways a success for Ubisoft Montreal, ticking all the required boxes for it to meet the standard of a AAA open world title. However the hype that built up around it, specifically from that one E3 video, led many to be disappointed with the final product. To their credit Ubisoft remained committed to the franchise and has spent the following 2 years developing Watch_Dogs sequel. Whilst at a base game level this sequel features many of the mechanics that made the original great the tone and feel of the game is radically different. That combined with improvements in some of the original’s more glaring issues makes Watch_Dogs 2 a notable improvement over its predecessor.
Watch_Dogs 2 takes place in San Francisco, the next city to install the ctOS system which integrates all city subsystems into one giant interconnected grid. You’ll play as Marcus Holloway, a young hacker who’s been targeted by ctOS for a crime he didn’t commit. Because of this he decides to join Dedsec, the hacktivist group responsible for wrecking havoc and exposing corruption. What follows is a story of Dedsec’s crusade against ctOS, the people in power who use it and any of the numerous corporations who would seek to exploit the citizens of San Francisco.
The original Watch_Dogs was criticised for failing to live up to the visuals that were seen in its E3 demo and Watch_Dogs 2 goes a long way to closing that gap. The environments are far more detailed with more cars, people and interactive objects scattered across the San Francisco backdrop. There’s notable improvements to the lighting engine, draw distances and other modern post-processing techniques like motion blur. Taking into consideration that open world games tend towards the lower end of the graphical spectrum (due to their scale) Watch_Dogs 2 is certainly one of the better looking titles in this genre. It’s still a hair shy of that fated demo, however.
As I mentioned before the core game of Watch_Dogs 2 hasn’t changed much from its predecessor, staying true to the open world norms with the inclusion of their trademark hacking mechanics. The progression mechanics have been reworked to focus around you gaining “followers” to help boost your cause, most of which you’ll gain through Watch_Dog 2’s main and side missions. The online components have been reworked significantly and are far more seamless than they used to be; the transition between offline and online play a much smoother experience. Driving has been improved significantly, no longer feeling like you’re trying to drive a boat through a sea of molasses. The stealth mechanics are also retained however there’s a little less variety in what you can hack, something which is made up for in a few new choice abilities which can cause all sorts of mayhem. Overall Watch_Dogs 2 improves on the original in nearly every respect something which Ubisoft Montreal should take some pride in.
Combat feels largely the same, still following the same two stage formula that its predecessor did. Whilst you can likely complete every mission with just hacking alone it’s very likely you’ll do something to be detected, forcing you into combat. Interestingly there doesn’t seem to be any downside to killing anyone and everyone in your path but there is a very notable downside to taking the non-lethal approach. Enemies downed in that way will eventually get back up and will alert everyone else to your presence when they do. This does add an extra element of challenge if you want to go full non-lethal, stealth based approach but without additional rewards it doesn’t seem like there’s any reason to. Indeed by the end I’d just end up using my vast hacking abilities to simply run past everyone, forgoing any notion of stealth or even non-lethal attacks.
The hacking powers are a little more interesting this time around, especially some of the end-game abilities which allow you to affect everything in the area around you. It didn’t take me long to max out the powers I wanted to get and I spent most of the game with 20 or so research points ready to spend should the need arise. Some are simple quality of life improvements (like the car unlocking one) whilst others don’t have much of a purpose other than causing a bit of mayhem here or there. Probably my favourite out of the lot was the ability to call the police on a target NPC, something which can be used to great effect when you need to get into a restricted area. If I had one complaint it’s that all the higher end powers require you to go and find another item to unlock them which becomes a bit of a chore when you have to do it for the 10th time.
The driving is thankfully much improved over its predecessor, making it actually fun to drive around rather than fast travelling. Watch_Dogs 2 also reduces the number of car chases you’ll find yourself in so you won’t be spending hours trying to escape from the endless supply of police. There also appears to a be a larger number of vehicles to choose from including my favourite: the single person electric car that seems to be as fast as any of the sports cars. The NPC drivers though still seem to suffer from random fits of craziness every so often with cars just randomly running off the road or into each other, even when I hadn’t gone near them. That could very well be intentional, to give the city a more lively feel, but I do wonder if it’s just an errant part of the AI.
The multiplayer aspects are far better done than its predecessor was. I can remember trying to do some of the online activities in the original with most of them failing to even connect to other players. Watch_Dogs 2 by comparison (by default, you can change this) drops you in and out of other player’s games on a whim. It can be pretty awesome when you’re just driving around and a bounty hunter challenge comes up, putting you alongside law enforcement to chase down a rogue enemy player. Some of the other, hacking focused games are a little one sided, being incredibly hard for the hacker to actually successfully hack someone and get away with it (especially if the other player is armed in any way). Still they’re a fun distraction, one that I hope Ubisoft explores even further in future releases.
Watch_Dogs 2 drops the serious tone of its predecessor in favour of a more kitschy, light-hearted take. The characters are stereotypes or satires of particular hacker tropes with the overriding them following the hacktivist ideas that have been popularised by the various real world incarnations of other -sec entities. Weirdly, whilst the game has the usual disclaimer about it being a work of fiction unrelated to the real world, numerous events are carbon copies of their real world counterparts (like Martin Shrekli buying an exclusive Wu Tang album). The pacing and character development is weirdly out of step, seemingly moving at a faster pace than what the missions would imply. This might be because I was mostly doing campaign missions but surely that’s where you want the bulk of your character development to occur. Realistically I don’t think you’re supposed to read much into Watch_Dogs 2’s story but it’s disjointed nature mirror’s some of the mistakes that its predecessor made.
Watch_Dogs 2 is a solid improvement over the original, addressing many of the concerns that players had whilst retaining the core mechanics that made it worth playing. It may not be a revolutionary instalment in the series but the incremental improvements go a long way to making Watch_Dogs 2 the game that many were hoping the original would be. It’s not perfect, with some of the previous issues rearing their ugly heads again, but it definitely feels closer to what the original should have been. For fans of the open world genre there’s a lot to love in Watch_Dogs 2 and is most certainly worth checking out.
Watch_Dogs 2 is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One right now for $60.95, $77 and $77 respectively. Game was played on the PC with 18 hours of total play time and 51% of the achievements unlocked.
If there’s one game that you should buy a PlayStation for it’s Uncharted. Naughty Dog made a name for themselves by being a premier developer on Sony’s flagship console and each subsequent release of Uncharted was simply another demonstration of how they were a cut above the rest. Of course that would be nothing if the actual game itself wasn’t any good but the Uncharted series has been consistently good over it’s almost 10 year life span. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the final instalment in Nathan Drake’s story and the last title in the series that will be developed by Naughty Dog. True to their pedigree this last hurrah is a fitting end for the series and another testament to Naughty Dog’s exceptional craftsmanship when it comes to PlayStation titles.
Uncharted 4 explores the somewhat blurry past of the main protagonist, taking you back and forth between the present and the past. It’s set some time after the events of Uncharted 3 where Nate has settled down with Elena. He’s taken a job doing salvage and recovery work, a far cry from his adventuring days of years gone by. However adventure still calls to him with tantalizing prospects always nipping at his feet. It’s not until his past comes back to haunt him that he heeds the call once again. This last adventure could be the end of him or at least all the things he cares about but Nate’s obsession is a hard thing to ignore.
Uncharted 4 is an absolutely stunning game, one that clearly demonstrates just how powerful the PlayStation4 can be when it’s fully utilized. Everything from the wide open vistas of the gorgeous tropical islands to the dark, cramped caves that you explore is brimming with detail. The extensive use of modern lighting effects, particle systems and an incredibly detailed physics system makes for some of the most realistic and immersive environments that I’ve seen to date. This is shown best by the screenshots I captured below, all of which are done in-game, not during a cinematic. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise honestly as this is what Naughty Dog is known for doing but, once again, Uncharted 4 sets the bar for all future PlayStation4 titles to beat.
For long time fans of the series Uncharted 4’s game play will feel very familiar, retaining all the core mechanics of the previous games. You’ll be running, jumping and climbing your way through all sorts of environments, most of which will be falling down around you while you do it. Combat comes in the tried and true 3rd person shooter format with the same 2 weapon limitation and infinite health regeneration. The stealth system has been improved somewhat, allowing you to tag enemies before making your way around the level to take them out. There’s also extensive vehicle sections which allow you to 4WD yourself around various places giving you a nice change of pace from the usual running and jumping. Lastly you’ll be solving various weird and wonderful puzzles, some of which do require a good deal of lateral thinking to solve. All in all Uncharted 4 is, at a game play level, a final evolution of the series more than it is a revolutionary one.
Combat largely feels the same as its predecessors as you’ll be going from cover to cover, seeking out enemies and taking them out as you see fit. Weapons in the same category as each other feel largely the same, with the only differences being in special weapons like a grenade launch or a sniper rifle. Variation in the enemies you’ll fight is also relatively low with their toughness directly related to how much armour they’re wearing. This isn’t to say that the combat isn’t exciting or satisfying, it most certainly can be when you make it through in one go, it’s just nothing we haven’t seen before. However it is one of the most polished versions of this kind of game play that I’ve seen.
Stealth feels a little better than it did in previous titles however it’s still missing a few additional mechanics that would polish some of the rougher edges. For instance whilst you can run away to regain “stealth” status there’s no other way in which to regain it. It also seems like there are no silenced weapons in this game (I couldn’t find any at least) which means that there are some situations where doing it all by stealth is either incredibly difficult or just flat out impossible. Lastly since there’s literally no benefit to doing everything quietly you might as well just run and gun your way through it all since that’s so much quicker and less prone to mistakes. Indeed if you asked me what I think Uncharted 4’s weakest point was it would be this one mechanic as it’s just not up to the same standard as the rest of the game is.
Exploration has been augmented in Uncharted 4 by the addition of a grappling hook, something which strangely didn’t make an appearance in previous titles despite the story showing Drake using one often in his earlier days. This opens up a lot of the environments, allowing the developers to make them far more expansive but still enabling the player to explore them. The grappling hook also allows for some ludicrous action movie-esque scenes to take place, something which I’m definitely not adverse to. The climbing is the same as it always was which is not to say it’s bad, just that climbing in these games is a pretty passive affair. Again it’s like many elements of Uncharted 4’s game play: unoriginal but refined and polished.
The addition of vehicle sections is one of the nicer touches that Naughty Dog added to Uncharted 4 as it further opens up the environments that you’re able to explore. As a result Uncharted 4 feels so much more expansive than its predecessors did. Of course this also makes looking for the various bits of hidden treasure just that little bit more frustrating as there’s so much more area to explore. I mostly gave up on doing that unless I saw what looked like an obvious hiding spot as you could lose dozens of hours trying to find everything. I’m sure there’s a non-zero percentage of players that will love that however.
Uncharted 4’s story is everything it should be, from the writing to the voice acting to the motion capture. All of the performances in Uncharted 4 are top notch which helps to bring the on-screen visuals to life. Each of the elements I’ve discussed so far are great on their own however Naughty Dog has managed to combine them all together seamlessly into a great experience. The only gripe I have is that the story starts to drag around the last quarter or so but the finale is worth it. I really don’t want to say much more as you really should just play it, especially if you’ve been following the series since inception.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End yet again demonstrates Naughty Dog’s domination of the PlayStation 4, showcasing their expertise in creating experiences on this platform. It is by far the best looking game on PlayStation 4 to date and will be for a while to come. The core game, whilst evolutionary and familiar, is extremely well done. The improvements might be formulaic but the entire experience is tied together so well that it’s easy to overlook those aspects. As always the story is well done with the writers, voice and motion capture actors all coming together to produce a great performance. Uncharted 4, in my opinion, is the flagship title for the PlayStation 4 and a must play for anyone who owns this console.
Uncharted 4 is available on PlayStation 4 right now for $77. Total play time was approximately 12 hours with 11% of the trophies unlocked.
As a child that grew up in the late 80s/early 90s it should come as no surprise that I have a bit of a thing for the transformers franchise. I spent countless hours watching nearly all forms of the animated series and my parents would loathe to tell you just how much of their money I spent on the action figures. I can tell you now that whilst I didn’t mind the first of the recent movie adaptations I wasn’t as impressed with the instalments, only seeing them after they were released on DVD. You can then understand why I was somewhat tentative about the release of games within the Transformers franchise as whilst they’re not based directly on the movie they were almost certainly done in order to capitalize on their existence. Still there were many good reviews floating around and even my highly sceptical gamer friends were saying positive things about them so they couldn’t be half bad.
Transformers: Fall of Cybertron takes place long before the movies and starts with you, playing as Bumblebee, aboard the Autobot’s ark departing Cybertron after the last war ravaged the planet causing it to shut down. Fall of Cybertron then takes place through a series of flashbacks to the week leading up until the events at the start, showing the final battles upon Cybertron. You’ll play as both Autbots and Decepticons, giving you a feel for both side’s motivations. Eventually you’ll come full circle back to where the game originally started you at for a final epic battle between the two leaders of the Transformer armies.
Fall of Cybertron is a visually intensive game that has scenes ranging from wide open battlefields that seem to stretch on forever to claustrophobic corridors that you’ll barely be able to navigate around. The graphics aren’t exactly cutting edge, most likely due to this game being primarily designed for consoles, but it does quite well within those limitations. This is usually achieved through things like motion blur and extensive use of dynamic lighting, something which is extremely costly to do on a console but easily worked in for a PC port. Fall of Cybertron’s visual style is also a testament to the idea that bright colours help keep a game visually interesting for extended periods of time as I didn’t once feel like I was trudging through a repetitive environment.
Right off the bat I got the feeling that Fall of Cybertron was very similar play style to another action/shooter game, namely Warhammer 40K: Space Marine. They feel quite similar in the way they play as they’re both action oriented shooters that are broken up by sections with distinctive game play. That line though is somewhat blurry in Fall of Cybertron as once you’ve been given the ability to transform you’re pretty much free to do it whenever you want to which makes the delineation of sections somewhat moot. It can also be the different between breezing through a certain section and struggling with it for a long time as some areas are much easier in vehicle form despite them having been designed for robot form.
That being said though the combat of both forms is really enjoyable. Initially it’s pretty much just full time run and gun as you can just blast your way through everything with caring too much about strategy. As the game goes on however that kind of strategy starts to falter and you’ll find yourself having to plan your moves carefully lest you get torn apart by the hordes of other transformers waiting in the wings. Since you’re never playing the same transformer for longer than a chapter you’ll also have an unique ability each time that you’ll have to make use of which helps to keep Fall of Cybertron from feeling too repetitive.
It bears mentioning however that there really is a huge difference in the difficulty levels in Transformers: Fall of Cybertron. Now as I’m something of a power gamer I chose to go for the hardest difficulty right off the bat and for quite a while I found the challenge to be right up my alley. However there came one section (the first time when Optimus Prime sees Starscream butchering his fellow Autobots) where there really was no strategy that could get me past there. From what I could gather this was because the ramp up in difficulty level was, in essence, giving the enemies more damage and a faster reload. When confronted with 2 shotgun troopers in a confined space this meant I couldn’t take more than a single hit before keeling over and I had to reduce to the difficulty setting to pass. With this in mind I don’t feel like there’s anything to be gained from playing the game on its hardest difficulty setting as there’s not much more enjoyment to be gleaned from upping it.
Fall of Cybertron also includes an upgrade system that allows you to improve yourself and the myriad of weapons you’ll come across whilst venturing through Cybertron. Most of them are pretty bog standard things: improved reload time, upgraded damage and better accurary but once you’ve unlocked all the upgrades the last one is usually something quite unique to the weapon in question. The Riot Cannon, for example, has a last upgrade that makes every last shot in the clip do 500% damage which can be incredibly devastating if used at the right time. I’ll have to admit though that I barely touched the consumables and the other upgrades as I didn’t really feel like I needed them and I certainly didn’t struggle to complete Fall of Cybertron without them.
There’s also a couple of stealth sections where you’ll have to sneak around and avoid detection in order to move on. If I’m honest I’d have to say that these sections were my least favourite aspect of Fall of Cybertron as whilst the cloak mechanic is done well the sections built off it are less so. For instance the stealth detecting transformers will switch into a heavy armoured mode upon detecting you meaning you’ve really only got a short window to do damage to them. It would take about 3 or 4 attack cycles for me to be able to bring one down and there are sections where there are upwards of 5 or more. Sure I can understand that I probably wasn’t meant to engage them at that point but when alerting 1 alerts all of them within the area you really don’t have a lot of choice at some points.
The stealth sections also seem to run somewhat counter to the rest of the game which was very much run and gun. So every time I had to try and stealth past something, usually spending minutes waiting for them all to move out of the way so I had a clean run through, felt like hours compared to the intense action in other parts. This could be remedied by giving the stealthers some form of one shot kill to use against those detector things as then you’d have a viable strategy to take them all out. Still since these stealth sections were in the minority I won’t fault Fall of Cybertron too much for this, although there are some things I feel I have to comment on.
Fall of Cybertron has a few very noticeable glitches, at least in the PC version that I played. The screenshot above is from one of my less than favourite stealth sections where I managed to get outside the level box and ended up driving around on top of the level before falling endlessly and restarting from a checkpoint. I got there by aggroing the stealth detector bots then hiding in one of the tunnels which was quite small. Their attacks can bounce you up a little bit and it seems that in doing so this turns clip off briefly which pushed me through the level. Try as I might to get back in there was no way to do it apart from reloading which was rather frustrating.
Enemies also appear to suffer from clipping issues as well as I had several of the Jumper bots get stuck on ledges or partially in walls after they’d try to attack me. For those times I didn’t have to reload (although the one stuck in the wall with his back almost fully covered by said wall was close) but it did signal to me that there were some systematic issues at play here that could do with fixing. I don’t believe they’d be a hard fix either but since they’re not game breaking I don’t expect that we’ll see a fix to them any time soon.
The story of Fall of Cybertron is also pretty true to the Transformer’s canon and as a long time fan of the franchise this makes me quite happy. There’s not a lot of substance to it of course, thanks to its origins as a kids show and being a primarily action focused game, but all the key characters are there ensuring that fans of the Transformers will likely get to meet and/or play their favourites. Whether they’ll continue to develop the Transformers game franchise from this point on though will be interesting as I’ve heard hints that they be going off canon for the next instalment and I’m not sure how well that would work out.
Transforms: Fall of Cybertron is probably the best Transformers game I’ve played and I think that’s due to it being untied to a movie and was allowed to explore the canon in its own way. The game play, for the most part, was really enjoyable and the minor glitches and so-so stealth sections were long forgotten by the end. The praise heaped on these Transformers titles is well deserved as they’re pretty well polished experiences that are well versed in the Transformer’s universe making it an awesome experience for the fans.
Transformers: Fall of Cybertron is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox360 for $49.99, $78 and $78 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 7.2 hours of total playtime and 36% of the achievements unlocked.
I always get a little worried when I see a new instalment in a games series that has been on hiatus for a long time. Probably the best (or worst?) example of this is Duke Nukem Forever which after spending an eternity in what appeared to be an on again, off again development cycle it launched to much fanfare without a whole lot of substance behind it. Spec Ops: The Line, whilst not being in development for the entire time since the last release, comes as the first Spec Ops game to be released in 10 years and so I was weary when I dived into it. However the game touted itself as one that would push you to your limits and force you to make tough decisions, something which is rare to find in games outside RPGs.
Spec Ops: The Line takes place in an alternate reality world where Dubai has been slugged by a series of sandstorms, devastating the city and smothering the surrounding area making escape and communications next to impossible. You play as Captain Walker, a Delta Operatives agent (voiced by none other than Nolan North, the of Nathan Drake in Uncharted fame) who has been sent to investigate a distress call from the 33rd Battalion who were sent to Dubai to aid with the evacuation. Upon arriving however the situation appears to have deteriorated significantly and Walker takes it upon himself to see the evacuation completed.
Whilst Spec Ops: The Line might not have been in development for very long it still seems to suffer some of the same problems that long-in-development titles do. The graphics, for instance, aren’t particularly great when compared to other modern titles and this becomes especially clear in the pre-rendered scenes that are done in engine. The developers (there are 3 in total) could have done much worse however but overall there’s nothing that impressed me visually. You could argue that this was due to their choice of colour palette and location but I’ve seen that done well in other titles previously.
The core of Spec Ops: The Line is your run of the mill third person shooter. You get your standard 2 weapons that you can carry with you, an assortment of grenades to clear out small areas and every so often you’ll be handed the reigns of a turret or other unlimited ammunition weapon with which to dispatch hordes of enemies who throw themselves at you relentlessly. The health system is also your standard cover based regeneration model, allowing you to take unlimited hits so long as you take enough time to recover from each one. Overall there’s really nothing to distinguish it from other third person shooters of the day, save for the modicum of issues that will plague your experience.
For starters there’s the scoped weapons which in most games would make you far more accurate and they do to some extent in Spec Ops. However they don’t function the same way as you’d expect as upon zooming in you’ll find yourself staring at a part of the screen that you weren’t aiming at previously. Now this might just sound like me not getting the mechanics of it right but I’ve played my fair share of games like this and not once have I encountered zoomed scopes behaving like this. Whilst it sounds like a minor issue it did make several sections (read: anything with a sniper rifle) damn near unplayable as by the time I had righted the scope I had been used as target practice by every NPC that was on the field. Suffice to say then that I ditched the sniper rifle for good early on in the piece, sticking to 2 assault rifles instead.
The checkpoint system also seems to be somewhat unrefined. There are several long sections that appear to be quite well cut up into what you’d assume where check pointed areas. However it’s not consistent with some sections being well checkpointed and others seeming to ignore the game design completely, placing checkpoints only after extremely lengthy sections. It becomes rather irritating to have to repeat sections you can easily beat only to have to replay them again when some gotcha mechanic or little mistake gets you killed and was probably the sole reason why I found it rather easy to put this game down despite its relatively short length.
There’s also the inclusion of sections that are either entirely luck based or have 1 shot mechanics that aren’t completely obvious. One section that sticks in my mind is where you’re fighting off enemies only to be blasted from the side by an attack helicopter. The instructions are simply “RUN!” which I did only to find myself mowed down before I could get to the safe point. There’s no trick to it, as I found out on several attempts that followed, you just have to run in a straight line and hope that the spray of bullets misses you enough so you can make it through. There’s nothing wrong with making a section challenging, but something like that which is entirely based on luck doesn’t really add any challenge or enjoyment to the title.
Then there are the straight up glitches which will break the game completely, forcing you to reload at your last checkpoint, which could be a long way behind you. Shown above was one section where the next level section simply failed to load (that’s supposed to be a hallway, not a blue expanse of nothing) forcing me to reload. There was also another section where one of the heavy enemies just wouldn’t go down no matter how much ammunition I pumped into him. This meant I actually ran out of ammo completely which, I figured, wasn’t a problem since I should be able to melee him down. Nope, no go and so I was forced yet again to reload the section in order to progress.
Despite all this the game play is enjoyable for the most part, especially when you breeze through a section without so much as a second thought. If these issues were fixed it would rank up there as one of the more polished third person shooters out there, however when compared to other recent release like Max Payne 3 it’s hard not to focus on the faults rather than the things that Spec Ops does right. I guess what I’m getting at is that after 3 or so years in development I’d expect a heck of a lot more polish from a game like this and, unfortunately, it just isn’t there.
As long time readers will know I can forgive all sorts of grievous game play faults should the story be strong enough to carry it through. With Spec Ops: The Line touted as being a game that had you making tough choices I figured that there would be a heavy emphasis on the story and indeed there was a lot of development in the main characters and protagonists of the game. However the eventual twist and the ultimate conclusion left me feeling somewhat cheated and upon reflecting on it I can’t say that I’m satisfied with the explanation it offers.
SPOILER WARNING: Major plot spoilers below.
The problem is, as I see it, that the whole Fight Club-esque ending (it was you all along!) only really works if there’s no real indication that what you’re seeing isn’t the true reality. Throughout Spec Ops: The Line though you’re constantly thrown imagery that indicates that the world isn’t how you’re seeing it and this of course makes you doubt every single thing in the game. The final reveal then isn’t unexpected and unfortunately opens up a few gaping holes in the story that can’t be adequately explained based solely on the events in the game. They should be commended for attempting such an intricate story in a platform that doesn’t traditionally come with one but I feel it fell short of its lofty goal.
They did get the idea of choice right however as instead of putting up glaring buttons saying “PRESS X TO DO THE RIGHT THING” they instead make the choices based on your action, or lack thereof. Indeed most of the time you might not be aware that a certain choice was available to you, like in the area where you’re surrounded by civilians who will almost 1 shot you if you try to push past them, and end up making a decision you might not agree with because you didn’t think about it clearly in the heat of the moment. Whilst the ending is still a little like the endotron 3000 in Deus Ex in that you can get all 4 endings without having to replay the game and make different choices it at least retains that soft choices system.
Reading back over this review you’d be forgiven for thinking that I didn’t really like much about Spec Ops: The Line as I’ve spent the vast majority of this review listing its faults rather than its achievements. For the most part it was enjoyable although there were several times when I found myself getting frustrated with the mechanics. The story was incredibly ambitious and the soft choice system is by far my favourite aspect of this game. Sadly both these positives are marred by technical issues that only serve to distract from the core of the game. Hopefully the developers of Spec Ops: The Line recognise these faults and continue to develop the series as I believe they have an incredible amount of potential in this series and it deserves to be explored further.
Spec Ops: The Line is available on Xbox360, PlayStation 3 and PC right now for $78, $78 and $28 respectively. Game was played entirely on PC on the Suicide Mission difficulty with around 6 hours of total play time and 58% of the achievements unlocked.
This may come as something of a surprise but I missed the boat on the entire Max Payne series. It’s not like I wasn’t aware of the game, I can clearly remember playing through the opening scenes of the original, I just failed to play it through to its conclusion. The same can be said for its sequel which, being released a mere 2 years after its predecessor, wasn’t enough to grab my attention away from whatever else I was playing at the time. Max Payne 3 on the other hand grabbed my attention, partly because Rockstar was ballsy enough to release it on the same day as Diablo 3 but mainly because of the hype surrounding it. I figured it would be worth a look.
Max Payne 3 takes place 9 years after the events of the previous installment in this series, seeing Max retired from his job at the NYPD. The events of the past decade haven’t been kind to him as the burning desire for revenge and justice has faded into a deep sense of self loathing. He spends his days now getting drunk and popping pain killers like they were candy when out of the blue Raul Passos, a man claiming to be one of Max’s buddies from the academy, offers him a security gig in Brazil. He resists at first but after becoming a mob target thanks to killing the son of a mob boss he reluctantly accepts and finds himself deep in the tumultuous world of Sao Paulo.
Right off the bat Max Payne 3 delivers with impressive visuals and cinematography. It’s not often that I’ll talk about the camera work in a game, mostly because there doesn’t appear to be much thought given to it, but the framing, angles and action movie feel that you get when playing Max Payne 3 is just incredible. It’s somewhat done out of necessity as a good chunk of the game, I’d wager somewhere between 30~50% of it, takes place in either in-game cutscenes or pre-rendered video. For me personally I loved it as it gave ample attention to both the main characters and the plot allowing them to develop beautifully.
This is more impressive considering the long development time and several delays that Max Payne 3 underwent in order to get to this point. Max Payne 3 was confirmed as being in development in 2004 but it wasn’t until 2009 that it was actually announced. It then underwent a series of delays until it was finally launched just over a month ago, something that usually sees a game being released looking dated. Max Payne 3, whilst not being the pinnacle of graphical achievement, still fits well with similar titles that have been released in the past year or so. This is a testament to Rockstar’s development teams who’ve managed to pull similar miracles with other games like L.A. Noire.
What really got me about the first Max Payne was the heavy use (and I’d say overuse) of metaphor that was a major part of Max’s internal dialog. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, it certainly helped with the game’s noir direction, but I personally found it tiresome after a while. Max Payne 3, whilst still being an incredibly dark story, does away with these metaphors and instead favors more direct dialog. It feels fitting as Max Payne 3 is more of an action-thriller type game where as its predecessors were better described as gritty noir cop dramas. I’m a big fan of action games so this sits well with me, but fans of the series might not like this change of tone.
The core game is thrilling and fast paced but it has a strong strategic element that rewards a methodical approach. At its heart Max Payne 3 is your typical run and gun affair having you duck in and out of cover whilst you pick off enemies and advance forward. There is, of course, the tried and true bullet time mechanic allowing you to slow down time in order to pick off hordes of enemies that would otherwise mow you down before you got a single shot off. Indeed the tactical aspect of the game relies heavily on how you use your precious amount of bullet time to its maximum advantage, ensuring that at the end you’ve offed the maximum number of enemies without putting yourself in danger.
There are also some RPG elements in the game that reward players who have that investigative streak in them. Scattered throughout each level are pills, golden gun parts and clues pertinent to the case you’re currently working on. The pills function as a sort of life system allowing you to either refill your health meter on demand or, and I think this is probably the better way to do it, allowing you to have a final chance at taking down the enemy that took you down which will then refill your health bar. The golden guns appear to be just another collectible allowing you to make certain guns be completely gold but with no additional damage or benefit that I could see. There might be some benefit to collecting the clues but apart from the bits of back story you get from them there’s no real reason to get them. Still these things make exploring the environment worth doing and it certainly didn’t feel like a waste of time.
It’s not exactly a trouble free experience though. For some reason Max loves his trusty 1911 so much that if there’s a cutscene he’ll switch over to it regardless of whatever gun you picked up. This might sound like a minor quibble but there are some scenes where gun choice can make or break an encounter and having to switch back loses you precious seconds. There’s also the times when he inexplicably drops a gun between encounters, leaving you with the default weapons and having to play the ammo conservation game again. Again seems minor but when you have to play the same scene a couples times over until you get it right these little frustrations do start to build up.
Max Payne 3 also seems to be the only game in the world where picking up a gun with a laser sight attached to it makes you less accurate than not having one at all. You see with your default targeting reticle you have no kick back and the bullets land exactly where you aim them. With a laser sight your aim suffers from wild kick back and at medium to long distances you can’t even make the dot out meaning you’re basically spray and praying the whole time. It’s not really a problem until late in the game when everyone seems to be packing laser sights and you have no choice but to pick up one of their weapons. That did make some of the final scenes far more frustrating than they should have been.
There’s also some sections where no matter how many pills you’ve got left over that you’ll get instantly one shot. This is fine in some circumstances, like when you’re trying to guide a player away from one area, but when it’s a part of a boss fight that’s not particularly obvious (the one in the police station comes to mind) getting one shot only serves to break your immersion as you try to figure out just what the hell you need to do to progress to the next scene. Thankfully these kinds of encounters weren’t common and most of them could be overcome with a little bit of planning and clever use of bullet time.
However for all these little irritations the story of Max Payne 3 is what brings the game together. I might not be a long time fan of the series but I readily empathized with Max and his motivations, even if I didn’t identify with his self-destructiveness early on in the game. The plot, whilst being semi-obvious after about an hour or two in (although I will admit I identified the wrong character as being the protagonist), is more than enough to carry Max through a torrent of bad guys, explosions and ludicrous situations. You’re not going to find any deep meanings here but I felt it was enough to keep me planted in my seat for the majority of Max Payne 3.
I really didn’t know what to expect when I came into Max Payne 3 and I think that lack of expectations is what led me to be so pleasantly surprised by what it had to offer. Thinking back to the little experience I had with the original I get the feeling that people who’ve played through its predecessors might not like the change in overall tone that Max Payne 3 takes but for people like me who are basically new comers to the series there is a lot to love in this most recent installment. If you’re a fan of games that are heavy on action with a story that doesn’t feel like it was written by the developers then Max Payne 3 will definitely be a game you’d enjoy and I’d definitely recommend you give it a play through.
Max Payne 3 is available on PlayStation 3, Xbox360 and PC right now for $78, $78 and $89.99 respectively. Game was played entirely on PC on the hard difficulty with around 7 hours of total play time.
At first glance Red Dead Redemption was a game that wasn’t up my alley at all. For starters whilst I love open worlds and the opportunities they allow for emergent gameplay I’m always cautious when it comes to sandbox style games. Rockstar has arguably mastered the format with their Grand Theft Auto series but even their most compelling release to date (GTA IV) failed to capture me long enough to play the game all the way to the end. Additionally I’ve never been much of a western fan instead finding myself engulfed in science fiction and pure fantasy, finding the genre to be a little too bland for my tastes. Still the hype and critical acclaim that Red Dead Redemption managed to garner itself was not lost on me and not having delved into a good console game in a while I set myself the goal of playing through this title to the bitter end. What followed was a highly engrossing tale that ultimately left me with feelings that I’m still working through as I write this post.
The story begins with you playing a grizzled cowboy named John Marston who appears to be forced onto a train against his will by some upper class looking folks. As the story progresses you find out that he used to run in a gang and the government is using him to track his friends down to either capture or kill them. His initial attempts don’t go so well but thanks to the kindness of some local strangers he makes it through. The tale then leads on from there in usual Rockstar style with story missions appearing on a radar marked with a letter and random missions popping up in the form of strangers asking for help, events happening as you ride by and a variety of mini-games to play to pass the time. The free form nature of the game enables you to craft your own unique story for John Marston as he wanders the wild west looking for his pals of a life he’s trying to leave behind.
Now credit here were it’s due. Rockstar have created a world that feels alive, open and deceptively real. There are vast, breathtaking vistas around almost every corner and even though you could ride across the entire place in less than half an hour you still have this undeniable feeling that you’re in a world that’s a million times bigger than yourself. The NPCs whilst extremely shallow in their depths of interactivity make the areas come alive with their sound bites of commentary and, once you hit a certain point, make you feel like a living legend. The addition of NPCs in the form of wildlife that form the basis of many mini games add that extra bit of flavour that make you feel like you’re actually out in the west, able to make your living off the land.
The actual gameplay of Red Dead Redemption is actually quite a complicated beast but in true Rockstar form it’s progressively revealed to you over the course of the introductory missions so that it doesn’t overwhelm you completely. The meat of the game lies within the storyline missions which can be activated by approaching any of the giant letters on your map. In addition to the story line missions there are also “stranger” missions where you can help out various people who you’ve only just met. When you’ve tapped out all of these options there’s also the mini games which take the form of various leisure activities you’d expect in the wild west (poker, blackjack, horseshoes, etc) as well as jobs which can include things like breaking horses, herding cattle and chasing down bounties.
Now I won’t lie to you but whilst there is an incredible breadth to the number of activities which you can do after a while they do start to sort of meld into each other. Many of the story line missions are quite similar in that you’ll go to the mission giver, see a cut scene, proceed to ride for about 5 minutes whilst Marston and whoever you picked up share some dialog and then you get to your destination to either shoot up some bad guys or do one of the mini games. It is enjoyable for the first couple times and the trip to the destination is quite reminiscent of what happened in the various GTA incarnations but after a while you get bored having to spend so long riding everywhere just so they can flesh out the characters a bit more. This is where the sandbox genre falls down in my opinion as while you can almost do anything in this world in the end it detracts from the uniqueness of the story line missions making everything feel like just another obstacle that needs to be passed.
Combat in Red Dead Redemption is nothing revolutionary in terms of what it accomplishes but does give enough variety to make sure you’re not left feeling like a one trick pony. Rockstar took the tried and true Gears of War style combat in that you’ll be running and gunning from behind cover whilst having no visible health bar (save for the sound going muted and the screen being covered in blood splatters). Shooters on consoles are notoriously fiddly and to combat this Rockstar added in an aimbot that locks onto a target if you aim in their general direction. Whilst I appreciated the addition (the game would’ve been tiresome without it) when it was taken away for certain things like say, using a gatling gun, I found myself hating these sequences rather than reveling in them. This was wholeheartedly made up for with the ability to be able to lasso and hogtie people in the game, which I used with reckless abandon whenever I had the chance. Strangely though you can’t hogtie any animal, even a hog! Although you are able to lasso them and, in what I assume is a bug, glide blissfully over any terrain as your prey runs scared from you. You can also do this with other people’s horses and is probably my favourite way to travel somewhere random when feeling bored in Red Dead Redemption.
PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW BELOW HERE:
Now as for the story and its conclusion those of you who followed me on Twitter can already guess as to how I felt about the whole ordeal. After spending 20 hours getting to know the man that was John Marston I’ll admit I became sentimentally attached to the former criminal who’s been trying to mend his ways. After chasing down the last of his former gang and riding home to the tear inducing song Compass by Jamie Lidell I fully expected to see the credits role as John embraced Abegail for the first time in what felt like forever. However the proceeding missions felt hollow as they put you right back at the start of the game and strip you of a few key things (like being able to change your outfit). I knew that in the end something bad was coming for him but really what eventuated was worse than I thought of.
You see in the final moments of John’s life where he’s gunned down by no less than 20 American soldiers there was nothing really noble about it. I can appreciate the noble sacrifice for his wife and son (who are now free from his past) and the harsh reality is that it probably rings true to what would of happened back in those days. Still I wanted at least the opportunity to be able to make a last stand that would end in a shoot out that I couldn’t win instead of Marston walking out and being cowardly gunned down. I also admit that my anger at John’s end stems from a real feeling of grief at his loss, as just writing that down has me fighting back a tear.
In the end I do what I always do when that happens, I look for answers. After looking around for a bit I found that there was a stranger mission available after the end where Jack gets revenge for his father. I went and did it and whilst I felt somewhat redeemed in the fact that Edgar Ross finally got what he deserved (with me emptying at least 15 bullets into him) there was still this hollow feeling I couldn’t shake, almost to the point of me loading up my last saved game with Marston still alive in it so I could pretend like it never happened.
In the end Rockstar made yet another great game that has captured the hearts of nearly everyone who’s played it. Whilst I might be uncomfortable with the last few hours I spent with it I still can’t deny the fact I spent a good 20 hours of my life on the game and I don’t regret a single minute of it. The game is not without its issues but if you’re a fan of Rockstar and the sandbox worlds that they create then you won’t feel out of place in the wild west world of Red Dead Redemption.
Red Dead Redemption is available right now on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 right now for AU$88 and AU$88 respectively. Game was played on the PlayStation 3 with around 21 hours of reported play time and 73% overall completion.