It’s been the better part of a decade since I played a game from Ninja Theory. Whilst not everyone enjoyed Heavenly Sword as much as I did (although I do agree with many of the criticism levelled at it) I thought they had potential as a developer and hoped they’d go on to bigger and better things. The following decade has given them a modicum of success, although not with any titles I’ve cared to play over the years. When I saw some of the tech demos for Hellblade though I was reminded of what drew me to Heavenly Sword back in the day, and ever since then I’ve been eagerly awaiting its release. Whilst Hellblade isn’t what I had expected it’s an exceptional game in its own right, even if it will drive you slowly insane.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s plot is hard to give an introduction to without diving deep into spoilers but I shall endeavour to do so. You play as Senua, a member of a Pict who’s made a pilgrimage to…somewhere… in order to save the soul of your beloved one. You’re haunted by numerous voices who speak to you incessantly, voicing all your inner doubts, fears and, sometimes, granting you strength to push through your turmoil. The path you’re following is one dictated by Norse mythology and will ultimately lead you into one of their other worlds: Hellheim. Reality, illusions and delusions all blur together in a mess of truth and fiction, one that Senua must follow to its ultimate conclusion; wherever that takes her.
The visuals of Hellblade are stunning, utilising many of the modern features of the Unreal 4 engine to their fullest extent. Whilst the environments you’re placed in may seem large however that in of itself is an illusion as the traversable world is actually quite a lot smaller. I believe the reasons for this are two-fold: primarily it’s for performance as larger environments would necessitate heavy compromises in other areas to keep it performing at a consistent level. Secondly Hellblade isn’t a game about exploration and whilst there are a few things to be discovered if you move off the beaten track it’s certainly not the game’s main attraction. If I was being childish I’d say that was the protagonist’s hair, given Ninja Theory’s penchant for wanting to show off their physics engine, but I won’t do that…
Hellblade is billed as a action-adventure/hack and slash type game and, whilst it has elements of that, it’s actually a bit closer to a walking simulator in most respects. For the most part you’ll be walking through the environments, mis/guided by the voices in your head as others narrate your journey. There’s no levelling, loot or crafting systems to speak of but you will get some different abilities unlocked for you as the game progresses. The combat sections inbetween there are a mix of hack and slash coupled with some Souls-light style game play, focusing on movesets and reaction times. Puzzles are mostly visual in nature, pushing to you look at things in different ways in order to unlock doors, restore objects or transport you to between worlds in order to move onto the next room. In this era of modern games that attempt to do everything Hellblade is a refreshing lesson in focus, leaving all the unnecessary game elements at the door in favour of spending more time on the ones that matter.
The combat is quite enjoyable for an experienced Souls player like myself, mostly because it’s a lot easier by comparison. The standard enemy tropes are all there and their movesets are relatively predictable, meaning that for even inexperienced players it shouldn’t be too much of a blocker. The boss battles too are quite enjoyable, providing a different challenge to break up the other combat engagements. Unfortunately the ramp up in difficulty comes from the game simply throwing more of the same types of enemies at you, culminating in a final battle which is no different from all the other battles you’ve fought before. Considering the game only runs for about 6 or so hours this highly noticeable repetition is unfortunately one of Hellblade’s biggest flaws.
Puzzles are for the most part straightforward once all the mechanics have been demonstrated to you. Initially it can be a bit confusing as the solution can be visible but the way to get to it very unclear. Once you’ve figured out the various mechanics for seeing through illusions, changing perspectives and whatnot it becomes a lot easier. Hellblade does a good job of guiding you through the puzzles however there were still a few that stumped me, mostly because I couldn’t distinguish a certain visual element. Searching around for answers I can see I’m not alone with this so there’s definitely some room for improvement from a design viewpoint. Still I think that overall the puzzles are well designed, intuitive and feel like an organic part of the experience rather than an artificial blocker to progression.
Hellblade announces at the start that it’s best experienced with headphones and, whilst I largely agree with this, the reason isn’t so much due to the game’s general audio experience (although that plays a part). The reason for headphones is for the voices in your head which, maddeningly, do everything you’d expect voices in someone’s head to do. Most voices prefer one ear over another, they’ll quite often talk over the top of each other and they’ll continually provide commentary on everything that’s happening. It’s done deliberately, and for that I applaud them, but it’s also one of the reasons why I couldn’t play for more than an hour at a time. Having that going on constantly is an extremely draining experience, so much so that when they went away for the first time I had a palpable sense of relief. Hats off to Ninja Theory for developing an experience like that but make no mistake, it can make playing Hellblade an exhausting experience.
By and large the game is well polished although there are some weird glitches that can occur. Senua’s hair can go a bit wild from time to time which, whilst distracting, isn’t game breaking. I did have a few times where I got stuck in or behind invisible barriers, most notably during Sut’s trial where you are supposed to get pegged in a ring of fire to fight some Northmen. For whatever reason I was outside the barrier when it got erected which restricted my movements considerably. I was able to finish the fight and progress however but it could have easily gone the other way. I didn’t get any performance issues like others had described however I did play after the first round of patches came out. I’d hazard a guess then that these minor gameplay issues would also be sorted out in future patches.
Hellblade’s story is an extremely tragic one, something you learn about very early on. As one of the game’s core tenants is that it will lie to you with reckless abandon (as shown by the whole “All progress will be lost” thing if you die too much being a lie) it’s hard to discern just what’s true to the story and what’s not. Certainly much of it makes a lasting impression and it’s delivery is exceptional. However at the final conclusion I found myself feeling a little hollow with how things turned out. I’m not sure if it was the exhaustion from dealing with voices in my head or the fact that I didn’t quite understand what the objective truth was but that’s the feeling I was left with. Unlike similar stories that left me questioning just what happened though I didn’t turn to the Internet for answers. Maybe I will later, I don’t know. Suffice to say that whilst I think the story is well told I’m not quite sure how I feel about it overall.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is an exceptionally well crafted game from Ninja Theory, showing that they’ve been no slouch in the decade since I last played one of their games. The visuals are stunning, both in terms of raw graphics as well as the visual theme and the environments its set in. The game’s focus on a few key elements rather than a whole lot of ancillary mechanics is refreshing, putting the focus firmly on telling the story. Some of its major flaws are that its combat becomes repetitive quickly, escalation in challenge only coming from increasing numbers of enemies, and that the overall story feels a little hollow at its conclusion. Still overall I think Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is still worth the price of admission, if you feel you can deal with the voices in your head that is.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with 6 hours of total play time and 93% of the achievements unlocked.
The class based shooter genre has seen a massive uptick in popularity over the past couple years, built off the back of exceptional titles like Overwatch and Titanfall. With that popularity comes a struggle for originality as new titles attempt to lure players in with the promise of fresh ideas. However new ideas are only part of the equation, the core game mechanics also need to be solid in order for those ideas to be able to shine through. LawBreakers, a game from Cliff Bleszinski’s new development house Boss Key Productions, brings some new ideas and solid core mechanics but has little to keep you coming back.
LawBreakers is a class-based arena shooter with 9 classes and 4 distinct game modes. The game’s tagline of “gravity defying combat” comes from the various micro-gravity zones that are scattered around the map, drastically altering your ability to move around it. The character classes are all on the RPG holy trinity spectrum with various shades of tank/healer/DPS mixed in. Of the 4 game modes 2 of them are pretty much identical (overcharge and uplink) whilst Blitzball is just capture the flag and turfwar is domination. At the conclusion of each game you’ll be given a score which determines your XP and, with each level up, you’ll be given a shiny stash box that contains decals, sprays and gear to customise your favourite character with. All in all it’s your pretty standard arena shooter affair with the low grav zones being the only real differentiator.
As you’d expect (given the developer’s pedigree) LawBreakers is built on the Unreal 4 engine and looks quite good, opting for a more realistic art style. Much like Bleszinski’s previous games it’s lavished with bright colours, outrageous neon lights and an all round exuberance of colour. When you get in the thick of the action this can be somewhat confusing visually but I’ll take that over the drab, uniform visuals so many shooters prefer any day. These visuals are also well optimised with LawBreakers never experiencing any noticeable slowdowns or lockups during my time with it.
The 9 different character classes largely follow the same pattern: a couple core abilities on short-ish cooldowns with a big ultimate which is on a timer. Everyone has a “fuel” resource which, depending on your class, influences how you can use certain abilities. Mobility is a non-obvious stat which will greatly impact how you play certain characters as, depending on what skills you have, certain parts of the map will be far easier to navigate than others. Indeed a big part of LawBreakers’ game play is your movement and momentum as players who are able to move swiftly and accurately around the map will likely perform far better than others who try to play LawBreakers in a more traditional way. All that being said however the character classes all follow the standard class based shooter tropes pretty closely with easy parallels drawn between them and the classes of other games in the genre.
In terms of how LawBreakers plays it falls into the mid-TTK (time to kill) bracket, not being as fast an spammy as say Call of Duty or Titanfall but definitely faster than something like Overwatch or Team Fortress 2. This means you’re unlikely to get one shot out of no where (although that can still happen) but you’re unlikely to have a fire fight that lasts longer than 5 seconds. Changing class is relatively painless, the only thing that you’ll lose being the charge on your ultimate. If I’m honest though ultimates in LawBreakers aren’t as game changing as you’d expect them to be with some of them being quite lacklustre. Of course the character classes with not-so-great ultimates make up for it in other ways. Overall the core game mechanics feel solid but it’s the things beyond that which leave a bit to be desired.
LawBreakers playerbase has been steadily decreasing ever since launch and it shows when you go to find a match. I’ve had it take upwards of 10 minutes to find me a match at one point and, even then, it wasn’t a full one. Worse still it appears that unbalanced matches won’t get filled with new players, leading to a lot of games with one team having more players than the other. As far as I can tell there also doesn’t appear to be a punishment for leaving games either so those who choose to leave and, by consequence ruin a game, aren’t discouraged from doing so. What this has meant for me is that rarely is a game decided on which team is better, it’s the one that has more players on its team.
After sinking 3 hours into LawBreakers I felt like I’d seen it all, having played all game modes and nearly all of the character classes. The loot boxes are obviously meant to be the carrot that keeps you coming back but, honestly, I didn’t really feel any compulsion to play to farm them. Thinking about it more I just didn’t feel like there was much mechanical depth to LawBreakers for me to explore. Whilst it is a team game, and those that play together well are more likely to succeed than otherwise, it didn’t have the same “team” feeling that a game like say Overwatch had. Instead it very much felt like the Unreal Tournament of days gone past, where that one good player could easily carry a team to victory.
LawBreakers is a solidly executed class based arena shooter that lacks the required elements to take it from good to great. It follows many of the standard tropes that have defined this genre whilst attempting to carve out its own niche with some unique features. Whilst these all work well the overall game experience isn’t that far off what’s already available. Couple that with the issues with match making, no punishment for leavers and a lack of a compelling reason to keep playing and you have a game that’s great for a few hours and nothing beyond that. In retrospect the change from F2P to pay-for-play model might be a blessing for Boss Key as at the very least they’ll make some money off the actual game sales. Suffice to say whilst LawBreakers is a mechanically solid game it’s little more than that and, unfortunately, I don’t think it’ll be enough to carry the game going forwards.
Rating: 7 / 10
LawBreakers is available on PC and PlayStation 4 right now for $29.99. Game was played on the PC with 3 hours of total play time and 23% of the achievements unlocked.
Like many of my peers I spent many of my afternoons loitering around a Games Workshop store. The displays of intricately painted models tempting me to spend my meagre retail earnings on that next model to round out my army. I was rubbish at painting though, often just playing with unpainted models or enlisting my more talented friends to do the work for me. Once I was hooked into PC gaming however I left the models behind, but the love for the Warhammer universe was still very strong. So when I heard about Space Hulk: Deathwing I was incredibly excited as it’d been far too long since my last dip in this universe with Warhammer: Space Marine. However Deathwing falls appallingly short, so much so I couldn’t be bothered playing beyond the first hour.
You are a Librarian of the Deathwing force, the most secret and feared arm of the venerable Dark Angels chapter. You have stumbled across an ancient craft known as a space hulk, likely teaming with relics and technology from a forgotten age. It’s your charge to investigate the space hulk and to uncover the secrets locked away within its walls. This won’t be an easy task however as it is infested by armies of Tyranid genestealers, eager to tear into space marine flesh. Your powers as a psyker however give you an advantage few others have, allowing you to decimate hordes of enemies with a single thought. You are the blade of the Emperor space marine and it is time to cut through the blasphemers.
Deathwing does a great job of capturing the Gothic feel that Warhammer 40K games are renown for. The bigger environments do a great job of selling that feel with high cathedral ceilings dripping in banners and other Gothic imagery. It does have that Unreal engine vibe to it though which does make the graphics feel a step or two behind current generation titles. Since I came into this game past its initial few patches I didn’t have any performance problems to speak of, the game running fine even in high action scenes. That being said however any performance problems encountered are surely in the realm of poor optimisation or porting issues as I don’t think it’s that graphically intense.
This is where the positives of Deathwing stop however.
Taking inspiration from the tabletop game Deathwing puts you inside a massive ship laced with corridors punctuated by massive rooms. You’ll be given an objective to walk towards but you’re also free to explore the ship to find secrets. Along the way you and your squad will be set upon by the Tyranids that infest the ship and it’s your job to take them out. You’ll do this using your various bits of weaponry and psyker powers. Overall it has a very Left 4 Dead kind of feel, pitting you and a couple team mates against a horde of enemies. You’d think this would be great, the game format and IP are both exceptional in their own right, however this implementation is anything but. Indeed it commits probably the worst sin you can make with the Warhammer 40K universe.
It makes being a Space Marine boring.
The combat is just simply not enjoyable at all. Walking through hallways your radar will ping up with enemy activity and, inevitably, you’ll be jumped by something. These enemies aren’t varied nor are they smart so you’ll just sit there killing one after the other. Unlike Left 4 Dead or other similar games there’s no sense of tension at all so it’s just long periods of plodding along that are broken up every so often by holding the trigger down. This is made worse by the fact that you have a limited amount of sprint, meaning that exploration takes forever. It’d be ok if the rewards were worth it but from what I can tell they’re only cosmetic. Even the one end part of the mission, where I was supposedly set on by a “massive horde” turned out to be nothing more than me standing at a ladder and whacking at genestealers for 5 minutes.To top it all off your AI companions, whilst having some interesting banter, are as dumb as they come. Whilst this isn’t unexpected it’s yet another thing that detracts from the small amount of fun you might derive from playing Deathwing.
You’ll get upgrade points after each mission, up to a total of 4, for your performance in the mission. According to other reviews there’s only enough points to max out one of the talent trees and no way to go back and play through again with your now unlocked powers. Considering that the only interesting abilities appear to be at the end of the trees this seems a bit short sighted, severely limiting the game’s replayability appeal. Not that it really matters though as I doubt anyone who buys this game will play it more than once. The 3 talent points I got were invested in getting a psyker ability upgrade which, upon using, appeared to simply be a fire variant of the storm ability I already had. Not the most enthralling upgrade, if I’m honest.
I tried to play more, I really did, but there was simply nothing in Deathwing that kept me coming back. Many other reviewers have praised how true to the lore Deathwing is but that does little to make the game enjoyable. By contrast Space Marine did a great job of making you feel like an unstoppable war machine whilst still providing challenge. Deathwing instead makes it so a handful of genestealers could take you out whilst your brothers sit there and watch. I had really low expectations on Deathwing going in and even then I’ve been left disappointed.
Space Hulk: Deathwing does exactly what it shouldn’t: taking the idea of the venerable Space Marine and turns it into something mundane. The only commendable feature is the graphics, which do a great job of capturing the gothic feel of the Warhammer 40K universe. Apart from that all you’re left with is mediocre combat with confused AI partners at your side. Maybe this game gets a lot better past the first hour, I don’t know, but the fact of the matter is I honestly couldn’t bring myself to find out. I tried multiple times over several days but every time I just gave up, I was just not interested at all. Perhaps lore fans will find something to love here, but I certainly didn’t.
Space Hulk: Deathwing is available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 right now for $39.99. Total play time was 65 minutes with 17% of the achievements unlocked.
Before the days of ubiquitous broadband many of us would have to wait until the monthly LAN event to get our fix of multiplayer gaming. Of course this was also the time when the vast majority of games didn’t include some form of multiplayer so the long time between drinks was easy enough to handle. However since then the inclusion of some form of multiplayer in many games has diluted experiences that used to be specifically crafted for that purpose. Indeed the most rare of rare kind of multiplayer game, the one where you and bunch of mates would crowd around a TV to play, have shrunk down into a very specific niche. However there are still titles that come out every once in a while that exemplify that multiplayer-first experience of years gone by and Rocket League is one of them.
Rocket League is the sequel to the 2008 game Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle Cars which was met with a rather lukewarm reception upon its release. Being a PlayStation3 only game, one with niche appeal at best, it’s easy to see why. Rocket League takes the same basic idea, rocket powered cars playing soccer, and modernizes the idea slightly, packaging it up for today’s gaming market. The reception this time around has been far more welcoming but looking back through videos of game play from its predecessor it’s hard to see the differences that make Rocket League that much more appealing. Still the buzz was more than enough to convince me that it was worth a look in.
On first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Rocket League runs on something other than the Unreal 3 engine as it does manage to do a lot with so little. Psyonix, the developer of Rocket League and its predecessor, does have something of a history with the engine having co-developed Unreal Tournament 2004. That experience has definitely come in handy as Rocket League looks great and runs fabulously, admittedly on my incredibly over-speced PC. One thing I did note however is that it doesn’t look anywhere near as good on the PlayStation4 as it does on the PC, even when running at the same resolution. That’s just my anecdotal experience however and I’m sure it’d look great on a much larger screen (I run my PlayStation4 through a HDMI capture card to my main PC monitor)
At a basic level Rocket League is a simple game: get the ball into the opposing team’s goal. However instead of human players you’re driving around in what looks like an overgrown remote control car, one outfitted with a rocket boost system that allows you to reach incredible speeds and heights. You’ll start out by driving around on the ground, attempting to crash and bash your way through your opponents in order to score a goal. After a while though you’ll start to get a little trickier, flying through the air to intercept the ball and bringing it crashing back down to earth with incredible speed. Of course no multiplayer game is complete without a treasure trove of cosmetics behind it, allowing you to customize the look of your little racer however you see fit. For the ultra-competitive amongst us there’s ranked matchmaking and an inbuilt league system, allowing you to set up tournaments for your friends and foes alike. Taken as a whole it’s got the makings of a game with aspirations to be an eSports contender, although whether it will become one is up to the community at large.
All matches have a 5 minute timer on them meaning that, for the most part, a full game won’t take you much longer than that to complete. Of course if you or your opposing team is dominating you, and the entire team doesn’t skip the goal replays (which seems to happen all the time), it’ll take a lot longer than that as you watch every goal repeated for 30 seconds. Still it’s not the kind of game where you’ll start a game an hour before you have to do something and then find yourself running short on time. For the most part you’ll spend most of this fervently chasing the ball around the court, trying to pry it off your opponents and ramming everyone enthusiastically. You’ll get points (which are just used to determine who the MVP of the game is) for doing things like scoring and stopping goals which are a good way to encourage you to actually play properly rather than just playing like a ball obsessed puppy.
At the start the matches are chaotic and fun, with everyone racing around everywhere trying their best to wrangle their car to hit the ball in the right direction. However it didn’t take long for the matchmaking system to breakdown somewhat, often paring me with opponents who far exceeded my (and my team-mates’) own abilities. This is partially due to me being a little late to the party, coming into it almost 3 weeks after its initial release, however a good matchmaking system would ensure that, for any given match, we had a 50/50 chance of winning. So now, with the initial wave of players starting to dwindle, the people that are left behind are the ones who are more than a couple steps above rookies like myself. It’s a challenge that faces any multiplayer game that has aspirations of running for years past its original release date and unfortunately one that doesn’t have a great solution. Rocket League will still be a blast with friends, you can pick up the core mechanics in 10 minutes, but the online may end up being just as difficult to crack as other long term multiplayer games.
Whilst I didn’t get enough time on the PlayStation4 version to comment on how stable it is (although tales of PlayStation4s overheating while playing it don’t bode particularly well in my book) Rocket League on PC is stable during regular play. However I had numerous, inexplicable crashes to desktop that seemed to occur randomly during the game. Sometimes it was during the initial part of the game where I was revving my engine, others whilst a bunch of us crashed into each other. Looking through the Steam folder I can’t seem to locate any crash dumps or debug logs so I can’t comment as to what’s causing it but it’s definitely an issue that I’ve yet to see a resolution for.
Rocket League demonstrates that sequels can outshine their predecessors as it took an idea that was met with lukewarm reception and turned it into the game everyone is talking about. The core game play is fun and frantic, made even better when you throw a few friends into the mix. The online multiplayer works well for the most part however newcomers might be greeted by a wall of players who are far more skilled than they are. Still that doesn’t detract from the fact that playing this game with a bunch of mates is tons of fun, something that will keep it alive for many years to come.
Rocket League is available on PlayStation 4 and PC right now for $19.99 (currently free for PlayStationPlus subscribers). Game was played on both platforms with a combined playtime of approximately 3 hours with 31% of the achievements unlocked on the PC.
I remember when I was a doe eyed teenager thinking that it would be great to make games (I know better now, of course) if I could only afford the fees to get a good engine. You see back then commercial engines were licensed for inordinate sums of money and the technical hurdle of building your own engine was fraught with danger. Over time though that has changed with old engines being open sourced, new products entering the fray and licensing models shifting to be more palatable to those who might not be able to afford huge upfront costs. Today it seems that free is now the way to go as 3 major platforms have just announced that their engines are free for all who want them, opening up a wealth of possibilities to indies and big development houses alike.
Unity has been the mainstay of many indie games for quite a while now, enabling many to create games that would’ve otherwise been impossible. They’ve also long been sympathetic to the cause, offering free (but often cut down) versions of their engine to anyone who’d ask for them. The difference between the free and paid tier has been eroded completely with both versions containing all the same features and editor. This is a big step for Unity as there was a definite rift between the paid and free versions, something that was abundantly clear to me when I was tinkering around with it. Now the difference between the tiers comes in the form of additional services and can be had for a measly $1500 (which includes a team license) or $75/month if that’s too rich for your blood. Suffice to say that I think Unity is likely to remain the king of indie engines for a long time now as even the pro tier is well within the grasp of aspiring devs.
Not to be outdone by Unity Unreal announced on the same day that their new Unreal 4 engine, which has had some incredibly impressive demos, is now free to any and all comers.The barrier to entry wasn’t particularly high before, they only charged $19 to get access to the engine and all its source, however that’s enough to stop some people from considering it in the first place. Now you’ll be able to get it everything that program gave you for free and you won’t have to pay a dime until you’re able. The limit on revenue isn’t particularly high though, only $3000 per product per quarter, before you have to shell out 5% of gross revenue something which could be a killer for some devs. Still it’s hard to deny what the engine is capable of producing so it might be an easier sell for more established dev houses.
Lastly Valve has swaggered into the picture debuting their new Source 2 engine and announcing that it will also be free to anyone who wants it. It’s been not-so-secretly released as part of the DOTA 2 development tools for the better part of a year now and by all accounts seems like a really capable next-gen engine. Source 2 appears to be the most “free” of the free engines that have debuted in the past couple days with Valve wanting no money up front for the engine nor any backend revenue should you make it big. However there is the caveat that the resulting game be released on Steam which means all sales on there give Valve their 30% cut although you’d incur this same cost regardless of which engine you used if you sold on Steam. Source 2 is then something of a loss-leader for future sales, a clever move by Valve to bring more developers onto their platform (as if there wasn’t enough already).
With this many options available now developers are now spoiled for choice when it comes to selecting an engine for a game, something you really couldn’t say even a few years ago. Whilst I think Unreal will probably be the least likely one to be used out of the current 3 I think there’s going to be some stiff competition between Unity and Source 2 as time goes on. Unity has the head start in this regard as their tools really are top notch for both novice and advanced developers alike but Source 2 has the potential to turn into something amazing based on the community that Valve seems to develop around every one of its products. The real winner in all of this is us, the gaming public, as it means more games will get made and more concepts will be explored.