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Games Reviews

Detroit: Become Human – Amazingly, It’s Quite Good

Quantic Dream finally did it, guys – they made a good game. Not only did they make a good game, they made a really good game – not perfect, but pretty unbelievable for Quantic Dream’s standard. I went into this game with the usual expectations from my vast experience of having played all but one of QD’s previous games, and they managed to blow my expectations out of the water completely. Well done David Cage.

Detroit follows the stories of three androids in the year 2038. Presonally I feel this future would be more believable if it were set a bit later, like in the 2060s, which would follow current predictions of AI development – but that’s just me. Two of these andriods have become deviant – meaning they’ve managed to go against their programming somehow, often through being in a state of extreme stress. The third character, Connor, is an android trying to find the cause of the ‘deviant crisis’, as more and more androids go against their masters and become deviant – possibly posing a threat to the safety of mankind. You see – this is a future where intelligent androids now exist and can be purchased for as low as $900 (less than an iPhone X), meaning that most people have them to help them out with stuff – they have no rights and are not recognised as living beings so you can do whatever you want with them really. They also have replaced many people’s jobs, because you don’t have to pay them or send them home at the end of the day, and because they are capable of human interaction, manual labour, intelligent action etc, not many people’s jobs are safe. They can do pretty much anything that human can. This game is set in America, and it is stated that Androids are banned in most countries around the world because of such issues, it’s listed as a big criticism of President Warren, as she has suspiciously close connections with the one company which creates androids, cyberlife. This has created big social issues becuase a lot of people hate andriods and are scred of them so androids don’t live a great life. There’s a lot of depth to this world and I bet you can’t guess what all this is based on!

I got the most of that information not from the compulsory dialogue, but from optional readings and dialogue which can be found only if you look for it. This is something that I have praised games like Gone Home for – you get as much out of the game as you put in. If you can’t be bothered with reading stuff you won’t get the depth of the world, and that might be fine with you. There is so much in this game that has been put in as an optional extra, and I love the details – this is not something Quantic Dream has ever done before with their games and it makes it so much more interesting. Depth! Depth is so important when creating a compelling world and when creating compelling characters to populate that world. QD has managed to do this very well and have created a world I am actually interestred in knowing more about, prompting exploration and replaying. What I wrote above is just scratching the surface of the lore of this world.

Previously I complained that Quantic Dream has a problem with choices in their games. Very little ever seemed to actually matter and ‘Beyond: Two Souls’ seemed to play itself almost. Detroit fixes this problem spectacularly. This game is so much bigger in scope and in the choices that can be made, I haven’t yet counted the number of endings in this game but there are a lot. Not all the endings are very good, however. I’ve replayed the game from various points to try to get different endings, and I’ve only really felt that one or two of the endings I got were really satisfying – we still have the factor of  ‘David Cage would really like you to make this decision’ to contend with. So, while choices are given to us, there is (only sometimes) an implication there of what choice you should really go for, and going against that implication is often met with mild punishment from the game. “You made the worng choice.” I think that no choice should be ever ‘wrong’, just different – this game can be pretty black and white sometimes. You have a clear ‘good choice’ and ‘bad choice’ presented to you. I watched a friend play the game after me, and he ended up making most of the same choices as me without knowing it, and only really differed when he knew what choices I had made and wanted to see what happened when you do the other thing.

And speaking of choices: combat. Look, linking this all together is hard, okay? Beyond’s combat was weird, and I understand the choice to backpeddal the combat system back to Heavy Rain’s combat. Which was a good decision. Basically, everything is done through button prompts QTE segments. Unlike Heavy Rain, they aren’t stupid in this game. You can fail every one of them (not that I ever did), and they are actually often at least slightly challenging. I felt slightly challenged while playing this game and that’s more than I can say for any other QD game I’ve played.

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Credit: Kotaku (yeah I’m that lazy)

This game is infinitely replayable. This is partly owing to that fact that the game isn’t unwieldy long (but it’s not exactly abruptly short either), but mostly due to the flowcharts. When you complete a chapter of this game, you are presented with a flowchart of all the choices you made along with what path you went down by making those choices. It also gives you stats about the proportion of other players and what choices they made so you can know if you’re a maverick or a beta cuck normie. Sometimes the flowchart is enormous! Being able to see what choices you made, and being told that ‘at this point, you could have done something else which would have lead to a different ending to this chapter’ just simply makes you want to play the game again and do all the other things. It never tells you what the choices you could have made are, but it does tell you that there was an alternative to something you did. Sometimes I was surprised that there was a choice and prompted me to replay just to know what that would have been. Often it’s not unbelievable, one is literally if you just do nothing for 10 minutes your character dies but that’s cool to know I suppose. Also you can often guess what the other choice would be but It’s still cool to know.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that Quantic Dream has come a long way in making their interactive dramas feel more interactive, rather than a film with button prompts. And the story they tell with this game is so much more compelling than ever before. You still have the crap bits that David Cage is known for, but he’s getting better.

To briefly cover what I think of the plot – seeing that it’s the main aspect of any QD game – I think it’s pretty good. I liked the characters, but felt that Connor is the only one I really liked. Kara’s story acts entirely as a ‘B story’ and has no impact on the central conflict of the story whatsoever, but it’s quite nice I suppose. There are some scenes where I felt like I didn’t understand what the point was, and by the end of the game I thought Markus had turned into a bit of a knob but I still kinda liked him as a character. Look- there are still a lot of problems with Cage’s writing style, but he’s gotten a lot better. Someone managed to remove all the random, awkward sex scenes and I think that was probably for the best. It’s quite easy to take this story seriously because the characters have character and don’t have the personalities of damp wooden planks, which really helps (not even Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe could help that). There were no awful cliche’s or gratingly cheesy lines that I could notice. This is a well written story, but I feel like it could have a bit more depth to the actual conflict within the story – it has a certain polarising effect where it’s pretty clear that the slavary of andriods is obviously wrong, and doesn’t bring up the possibility that the andriods aren’t alive and are just simulating intelligence. There’s no ethical discussion there, which makes me feel like the story has no wider point to make about reality. It makes it hard to believe that questions wouldn’t at least be raised about the ethics of andriods and enslavement, but this world would have us believe that there isn’t even an activist group looking to get andriods some kind of rights or even raising any questions. Humans don’t seem to have even ever considered that what is being done to andriods could even be considered remotely unfair. This, for me, was the hardest thing to accept about this world. I still enjoyed the story regardless, aminly owing to the well written characters. It seems Cage’s robotic dialogue works well with andriods – clever move, David.

I’ve got to talk about the music in this game. There are three separated (for most of the game) stories starring three separate characters in this game, so it kind of makes sense to score each of these stories with different composers. Philip Sheppard, Nima Fakhrara, and John Paesano worked independently of each other to create three distinct sounds for each character. You might think this would create an inconsistent theme across the game, but it actually works unbelievably well. I didn’t know about this until after I played the game and I can’t say I noticed any inconsistency in the tone of the music. All I did notice was the GREAT score for this game and how much it carries some of the scenes and the characters. The very opening scene is a masterclass of how to open a game, the tone, the atmosphere, the dialogue, the visuals, the music all come together to create something that immediately grabs your attention and makes you want to keep going. I’d recommend giving this page a view if you want to know more about the music in this game (it’s very cool!).

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Credit: OnlySP (Yep – still lazy)

Finally, graphics. I’m sorry but I have to talk about it. They’d nailed down the textures and models for Beyond: Two Souls, so there isn’t much further they could have gone in that direction for this game, just rendering the game at a higher resolution. For this game, QD’s focus was on getting the optics of the camera right. Yeah, they did that alright. ‘Cor blimey is the depth of field well done in this game. Normally DOF fails in the transition when the focus is pulled, as the game struggles to smoothly unblur and blur objects in the scene to illustrate depth. This game does it so smoothly that it’s unnoticeable. Generally, there is a great feeling of realism with the camera and how it behaves and moves – there are no impossible shots and this contributes to the next-level standard of cinematography in this game. QD is good at cinematography, but this game is a leap forward, possibly due to them hiring a professional cinematographer to not only set up cameras but also to light scenes. This game looks good, but there is a depth to the way it looks, camera angles and lighting is deliberate in order to convey a message. Just, this game looks good.

I’m so proud of David. Cage has finally managed to make a genuinely good game and I love it. I still think there is some improvement to be made – particularly in allowing the player to deliberately choose an option they know is not the one the game wants them to choose. I’d like an ending where all the androids kill all the humans but I was robbed of it. There are a few nitpicky problems I have but I don’t know how I could explain them without you having played the game as much as I have so that’ll just have to wait until I’ve started doing video reviews of games (probably won’t happen). This game is good and you should play it even if you don’t like video games, or just watch someone else play it – I managed to amass an audience when I played it and they seemed to enjoy it. Well done David Cage.

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Games Reviews

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice – It’ll Stress You Out And You’ll Love It

It was only relatively recently that humanity even started to understand the concept of mental health, and only very recently that people have really started to take it seriously – and we still have some way to go in that direction. Back in the days of tribal people, where healthcare, in general, was not even really understood – people might have thought of people suffering from mental disorders as being slow, evil, or even an oracle who can see visions. They might have shunned these people or even burned them as witches out of pure fear.

Senua is a tribal woman living in what I can only guess is northern Britain who suffers from psychosis – meaning she hallucinates through psychedelic visions and sounds in her head. This game tells of her quest to bring back the life of Dillion – a man she loved before he died of spoilers. The game is told through the eyes and ears of Senua – the player experiences her visions and hears what she hears, and Senua isn’t having a good time of it. She’s seeing visions of scary monsters trying to kill her and occasionally of being set on fire. She doesn’t cower in fear, however, she instead fights through in her determination to reach Helheim to beg the God, Hela, for the life of Dillion.

Nothing is handed to you when you’re playing Hellblade. The game only acknowledges your presence once, when it tells you about the black rot mechanic – which is an unintrusive life countdown mechanic. Everything else is left for you to work out through trial, error, and experiance. I didn’t know I could block attacks until I accidentally pressed the corresponding button. Over the course of the game you’ll do better naturally, rather than artificially, through augmentation of stats. It should be said that the game does give you a list of controls when you pause, but that’s just a reference for if you forget. The effect of this is that every visual, which would normally be a UI element, can be explained as something that Senua is actually seeing due to her psychosis. Nothing is allowed to be intrusive and everything appears to be real for the player.

This is also true for the audio. Senua hears voices in her head, and to communicate this to the player, these voices have been recorded using binaural microphones. If you’re not familiar with the concept, I would highly recommend you listen to the Virtual Barber Shop, wearing headphones. This microphone system uses two specialised microphones with ear-shaped covers on them, placed a head’s width apart. The result is an illusion in which the listener can tell where the sounds are coming from – it sounds like noises are coming from in the room with you, rather than through your headphones. In this game, the effect used is to unnerve the player. In stressful situations, it can really throw you off if someone starts whispering right by the back of your head. This game does that a lot. Also, everyone whispering in the background is kind of creepy. A really creative use of the voices in this game is in combat – you’re friendly head voices like to warn you about enemies coming up behind you, and they like to remind you to evade some attacks rather than block them.

The atmosphere of this game is its strongest asset. If you’re going to play this game, play it with the lights off and headphones on. It’s a spooky experience to behold. From the sound design to the wild and creative visual effects, this game has got its tone nailed. I felt stressed as Senua did, felt calm when she did, and even felt a bit traumatised at times. This isn’t an experience you can get in most games; it takes real skill to get it right, and Ninja Theory must be praised for it. A lot of this, I think, comes from the authenticity of the experience – Ninja Theory worked with several mental health experts to ensure the experiences present are true to that of psychosis. There are sections of this game that are simply frightening. When atmosphere alone makes you tense up and get’s your blood pumping – that’s when you know you’ve got something good going.

This atmosphere is craftily built and very delicate – anything could destroy it, like a bug or a glitch, for instance. This game isn’t AAA. That’s something which, in the interest of fairness, should be established before continuing. This is an independent project, focusing on creating an AAA experience, but shorter – meaning it’s cheaper and less of a risky investment for publishers. It’s clear to see where they skimped out with the budget. I encountered many small glitches and bugs which ranged from negligible to very frustrating, sometimes requiring the game to be restarted. I got a couple which just meant that things didn’t trigger when they should’ve, but, because of the no-hand-holding nature of the game, I wasn’t sure whether I had just done something wrong and ended up wasting a load of time trying to solve a puzzle that doesn’t exist. These glitches weren’t too often, however, and they were easy to get past – but not good for maintaining the atmosphere.

Speaking of combat – this game has it – and this game’s combat is, like many elements of the game, very stressful. The combat style is what I would describe as being ‘half-Dark Souls’ in nature. Movements are fairly slow and deliberate, letting the player really feel the weight and brutality of this kind of combat; but it’s not as unforgiving as Dark Souls. It’s hard but not punishing – and there is an easy mode (although the game does a good job of setting the difficulty automatically). You can do all of the usual things like dodging, rolling, heavy attack, light attack, and block. The enemy types are not particularly varied – you have the usual ideas for enemy types like sword boys, shield boys, mace boys, and so on. It honestly wouldn’t bother me if the combat sections didn’t have a tendency to drag a little due to the game’s habit of throwing waves of enemies after you endlessly. I feel like more could have been done with the combat sections to make them more interesting.

Similarly, the puzzles can suffer from an over-abundance of repetitive mechanics. This game has a few really creative puzzle ideas, but once you get used to the idea of one, you won’t struggle to solve more of that one as it occurs. That said, solving them the first time can be fairly frustrating, especially when the style of puzzles has not been well established enough – you need to remember that interacting with things in this game isn’t always about pressing a button, sometimes it’s a matter of perspective. I’m not saying the puzzles are bad – they’re actually pretty good – but you’ll be in the dark for some of them until a lightbulb pops up above your head, and others can feel like they’re the same as each other, deminishing the challenge somewhat.

Playing this game has been an experience I’ll probably remember for a while yet. It evoked fear, stress, anxiety, and hope in me. The ending touched me with its message about loss and greif. It ended up being a far more profound experience than I had anticipated. Well worth whatever I paid for it.

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Games Reviews

Beyond: Two Souls – It is Bad, But That’s What Makes It Good

I was wrong about Beyond: Two Souls. I used to tell people that Quantic Dream’s 2013 ‘interactive drama’ was a terrible game. The truth is that I’d never actually played it – I’d only ever watched a YouTube playthrough. It’s what I did back then; it was before I fully realised that watching a game is a very different experience to playing a game – so I can’t really give opinions on a game I’ve not actually played. I’ve corrected this mistake in recent days and now I realise how wrong I was.

2013 was a different time. The PS3 was just about still the latest and greatest console on the market (ignoring the Wii U, of course) and I was still watching Nerd³ on YouTube – don’t judge me; I was young and stupid. I won’t get into my current opinions of Daniel Hardcastle (his real name) here because I don’t think what I have to say is very helpful. It doesn’t matter at all that I think he is bad at his job and makes really low-quality videos, and that I don’t understand why anybody watches them. All I will say is that I don’t follow his opinions on games anymore since he said that Just Cause 3 was the best game ever made – but back in 2013 I was a loyal follower. It’s fair to say that Nerd³ was, as far as I’m concerned, just a little overly harsh on Beyond: Two Souls back in the day and having rewatched the video recently, it seems to me that the majority of what he had to say was redundant and hardly becoming of a supposedly professional critic. Since I now have a PS3 I thought I might as well pick it up and see what I actually think of it.

One of my current favourite YouTubers, Raycevick, recently talked about how a bad story or script can still be enjoyed if the presentation of that story is good. In that instance, he was talking about Max Payne 3 and how the flashy graphics and soundtrack attempts to cover up the uninspired story that the game tells. This was an interesting concept to me and lead to me realising that this is a problem in many games and films that I could list – for example, two of the worst games ever, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Dear Esther. Both games were highly praised for their amazing graphics and soundtracks, but that sort of thing only goes skin deep – below the presentation of both games lies a very uninteresting story and game mechanics which achieve nothing but bore the player with their simplicity and tedium. Why is that I seem to always get hooked up on these games? I think the both of them made me so angry that I haven’t quite got over either of them – even after three years since I played either of them.

What does presentation have to do with Beyond: Two Souls? One of the reasons I wanted to have this game in my collection was the graphics. I can say, without a doubt, that Beyond represents the absolute pinnacle of what the PlayStation 3 is capable of. You’d be forgiven for thinking the game was running on a PS4; it certainly looks better than some games I’ve played on PS4. The PS3 notoriously has a bit of a strange system architecture which many developers didn’t properly know how or didn’t have the resources to fully utilise. The PS3 technically should be producing graphics far technically superior to that of the Xbox 360, but often games released on both systems often looked equally good on either. Beyond shows us what happened when a developer pushed the PS3 to its very limits for one last hurrah before the PS4 came out later that same year. In short, the graphics are stunning and I remember being very impressed back in the day – I couldn’t quite believe how good it looked. Beyond still looks good by today’s standards.

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Quick time learning event montage.

It may have just been for stylistic choices, but the whole game is played with a letterbox effect – that is black bars on covering the top and bottom of the screen. My theory is that this is to help take some of the rendering load off of the PS3’s GPU, so the game can still have a horizontal resolution of 1280, but only a vertical resolution of 544, rather than the standard 720, effectively meaning you don’t have to render a quarter of the screen. Clever – if you ask me. As a disclaimer: it’s very possible that I’m completely wrong, but I hope I’m right because that would mean I am clever. Normally, I would only have bad things to say about letterboxing in video games. It’s used in The Order: 1886 and The Evil Within (until they patched it out by popular demand) to horrible effect, but that was combined with a startlingly low field of view (FOV), and the two factors combined apparently created a horribly cramped feel – making both games unpleasant to play (I should disclose that I haven’t played either but I’ve heard people say these things). I hardly noticed the letterboxing in Beyond – to be honest, I was convinced for a while that it can’t have been there the whole time because I would have noticed it before three hours into the game when I did finally acknowledge them. I realised that the interface, the wide FOV and the style of gameplay had come together to create an experience so streamlined that not even the letterboxing could get in the way of a comfortable ride. Some would say it’s too streamlined. More on this later.

The cinematography of this game and the graphical quality is awe-inspiring throughout, but the story doesn’t quite match up to the presentation. That being said, the story is admittedly where the fun comes from. The game tells the tale of a troubled young girl named Jodie, who was born with an invisible entity sort of ‘attached’ to her. His name is Aiden and he seems quite nice but is obviously a bit scary to people who don’t understand him. Aiden can do various things like throw things around, create a forcefield around Jodie, kill people, mind control etc. Pretty useful, you might think. The only thing about it is apparently Aiden sometimes just doesn’t feel like using his powers at times when it would be quite convenient. Need a keycard to get through a door? Why not use mind control? No. Aiden doesn’t want to right now. Let’s do something more complicated and time-consuming. Jodie is in the middle of the fight with like 5 bad guys trying to kill her? Aiden’s gonna sit this one out – wouldn’t want to get in the way.

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Well at least the Green Goblin is happy.

So what actually happens in this story? That’s actually quite difficult to say. Quite a lot of things happen, but also nothing in particular happens. The game follows the life of Jodie, from a child to a teenager to an adult – but all the scenes are out of chronological order. Sometimes the order can be justified, a lot of the time it just seems random. The random order makes most things seem to have no real consequence. There’s one really long sequence in the desert which doesn’t seem to matter at all – but that’s not to say that it’s not an enjoyable part of the game – most of the sequences are pretty fun owing to the fact that many of them are pretty stupid. The story is filled with jarring clichés and painfully cheesy dialogue. The performances of the actors are pretty good considering the material they’re working with – you may have noticed Ellen Page’s and Willem Dafoe’s faces popping up in posters and the like. Quantic Dream clearly thinks this story was so much more clever and sophisticated than it actually is which makes the whole thing so much more enjoyable. There are various twists throughout, but most of them were things that didn’t really change anything in any significant way – more like just new information that can be simply ignored.

This game features dialogue choices. Most of these are timed, presumably so the player doesn’t spend too long deciding what choice to make. If they do run out of time, the game will pick a default option. This creates a weird effect – the game can mostly play itself. This is what I mean when I say that a game can be too streamlined – when it gets to the point that there is no longer any need for the player to do anything at all, why is it even a game at that point? It feels, at points, like David Cage – the game’s writer and director – only reluctantly gave the player some choices. Why did he not try and get this story produced a TV show for Netflix or something? It would have worked so much better – but would have probably been a lot less fun.

Sometimes the game wants you to make a dialogue choice based on how a character feels about something. The problem is due to the nature of how the story is told – that being out of chronological order – it’s often quite hard to know what that character thinks of that thing at that moment because it’s often not been well established. Should Jodie try it on with this guy? I dunno. I have no idea who this guy is or what his relationship is with her. The game eventually asks you if Jodie is in love with the same guy, but gives you no reason to think that she actually is other than the fact that he’s kinda hot so who wouldn’t be amiright? And then it doesn’t even matter what you choose so you wonder what the point of asking was.

A lot of the drama is lost in this game due to how it almost pretends to give you choices. Scenarios are set up in a way so that the game can very heavily hint to the player about what the game wants them to do while only subtly presenting alternative options which it clearly thinks would not be very interesting. Choices it does freely give you are very minor like what Jodie should have for dinner tonight. Defying the game’s intended path is met with much resistance, and quite often lead to no real change in the proceeding events – some things just didn’t make as much sense. Why even give me a choice if you don’t want me to choose? The good thing that comes out of this is how funny it can be to go against the intention of the design. The story is already not amazingly well told, but when the player isn’t quite taking it seriously it can be a helluva lot of fun. It reminded me a lot of the film ‘Olympus Has Fallen’, starring Gerard Butler. It’s a terrible, cheesy rip-off of an action film and it is so fun to watch because of how dumb it is.

While developing the game, Quantic Dream wanted to create an interface which will allow the player to be fully immersed in the game world and forget that they are in fact holding a controller. The chosen solution was the dots. Oh the dots, my arch nemesis. Everything that can be interacted with on screen has a little white dot over it. The player can select a dot by pointing the right analogue stick towards the dot of their choosing. Simple, right? To be fair to the game, most of the time it works fine, but some of the time it puts a dot on the screen which is in just enough of an ambiguous location that it makes it really hard to know intuitively which way the stick needs to be pushed. Often this is a problem with the up and down axis. I’d quite often be trying to interact with a dot that looked like it was below the centre of the screen, but it was actually slightly above. My theory is that this is a problem with the relative location of the dot – I’d think to push down because, relative to Jodie, the thing she is interacting with is downwards, but the camera angle places it upwards relative to the centre of the screen. Even worse is when there are two dots, one to the side and slightly up and one to the same side and slightly down. Quite often this leads to Jodie doing the wrong thing because the precision required to select one over the other is unprecedented and you having to direct her back to try again which takes up valuable time and even more valuable patience.

If you ask me, it doesn’t feel more immersive than just giving button prompts for all this stuff. The frustration of the ambiguous dots takes me out of the moment far more effectively than being given options like press X to do this, Circle to do this etc. Or perhaps the better solution could be to have the dots but have the player choose by pointing the stick and then pressing X to confirm which would prevent accidental interactions because, of course, the right analogue stick also moves the camera.

Combat is similarly weird and confusing. Any ‘movement’ (i.e. punch, kick, duck etc.) puts the game into slow motion as the player is required to push the analogue stick in the direction of that ‘movement’. So if Jodie is punching towards the left, the analogue stick must be pushed to the left. If she is jumping over something, the stick should be pushed upwards. A lot of the time, however, it’s not at all obvious which direction the combat is moving in, so you’ll more than likely push the wrong way. This would be annoying if it weren’t that it doesn’t seem to matter when you screw it up – the game will continue as if you did it correctly. I never failed a combat sequence, and I screwed up a fair number of times. It does bring up the question of why does the player have to do anything at all if it doesn’t matter when they make mistakes. The game feels like it’s playing itself. The interface is designed to not be a challenge to the player, but also to make the player feel like they are contributing. Which is effective if you are a five-year-old.

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Pretty intense combat going on here.

Ultimately, this game feels a lot like it didn’t want to be a game, and only reluctantly fits into that category. There is very little choice throughout, puzzles are simpler than Skyrim’s and the ending you get is almost solely based on the very last choice in the game. The lack of any possible meaningful interaction by the player makes this a bad game, but the silly story makes this a very fun experience regardless. The game ends with what looks like a very clear and undeniable setup for a sequel, but David Cage and Quantic Dream apparently had never planned or intended to make one. This is the biggest plot twist of the whole game; the ending is such a cliché setup for a sequel it’s almost unbelievable. If there’s not going to be a Beyond: Three Souls then what was the point in the very final scene?

I really enjoyed this game, not despite its flaws, but because of them. I can’t, with any integrity, say that I can really show this game any love but I can proudly say that I’m eagerly awaiting Quantic Dream’s new upcoming game, ‘Detroit: Become Human’, which looks (touch wood) actually kind of potentially okay. It would be a first for Quantic Dream but I like to live in hope. In the end, good or bad, it’ll certainly be fun.

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Games Reviews

Tomb Raider (1996) Is A Really Frustrating Game

I did it, guys. I completed the original Tomb Raider. It took me weeks, it subjected me to psychological fatigue I thought I would never experience with a video game and there was a point in playing Tomb Raider where I was considering if it was even worth continuing. I decided to press on and I’m glad I did; completing this game was one of my personal best achievements of my life so far – but only because I didn’t think I could do it.

I started this journey over a month ago. I wanted more games for my PlayStation, and I decided, since I’m such a fan of the two most recent Tomb Raiders (2013 and Rise Of) and how those are the only ones I’ve played, that I should play every Tomb Raider game released on a PlayStation console. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’ve completed the first one, but there are still five more before I even get to the Crystal Dynamics titles. It’s a daunting task but I’m not giving up now.

The story of this game is simple. Or it isn’t. I wasn’t really that clear on what was going on and when, but I don’t think it was actually that complicated – just told badly. I would show up to a level and not bother wondering why I was there, and eventually, I would get to a cutscene and vaguely watch without really knowing what was going on. Some of the cutscenes are right weird. It has to be forgiven, however; the game was developed by a six-person team and FMV CG cutscenes were hard to do in the mid-’90s. Still, the story is creative and takes Lara to interesting places and it’s better than no story at all I suppose.

I think that this is a game that everyone in the world has heard of, but not a lot of people I know have actually played it. Occasionally I would bring my PS1 into the living room of my house to play the game on a large screen. Almost every person who walked by would make the remark, “Oh yeah, the triangle-tits game.” I think that for most people, that is the only thing they really know about the first Tomb Raider. It’s not even something that’s noticeable most of the time; it’s very rare that the camera will point at the front of Lara, and the cutscenes use a model of Lara which has a much higher polygon count. In any case, the shape of Lara’s breasts is not something which should be the main point of discussion when there is so much more to this game.

Tomb Raider came out in a time where the DualShock controller did not yet exist, so no analogue controls for you. Now, you can imagine the difficulty in designing controls for an open 3D action platformer type thing, but I’d be lying if I wrote that Core Design did the best job they could have done with the limitations they were dealing with. Fighting with the terrible controls is a challenge in itself, let alone the actual intended challenges of the game. By the time I got halfway through the game I was just about starting to get the hang of it. I only really understood how I was supposed to be using the controls by watching videos of other people playing the game and by reading a walkthrough.

Moving Lara around can only be done slowly and carefully – not helpful when a lion pounces on Lara and you need to move around fast to survive or a puzzle requires a complex series of jumps to avoid a rolling boulder or swinging blades intent on destroying the very core or Lara’s being. Moves are completed using a sequence of buttons rather than a combination. For example, to jump in any direction you need to press the jump button followed by the direction you want to jump, but you have to do it quickly or she’ll just jump upwards. Try to press them at the same time and she’ll do one or the other and probably run off a cliff to her death. This isn’t even a limitation of the PlayStation’s hardware – just bad design.

The controls are also made more difficult due to the fact they use the ‘Dark Souls’ system (Tomb Raider is the Dark Souls of action-platformer-puzzle games!). The Dark Souls system is simply that if you press a button, Lara does an associated action. There is no backing out when you press the button. Accidentally press forward? You cannot quickly press backwards to cancel. This system has caused my death many uncountable times. I don’t even want to think about it – there is only darkness and anger there.

I found that the only real way to complete this game was by consulting a walkthrough at multiple intervals. I could have done the whole game blind, but it might have taken me at least 3 times as long, and I don’t think I would have had the patience for some of the puzzles which require you to sort of just know how to complete them for you to even have a chance. The walkthrough isn’t even just for the puzzles, it also helpfully tells you what types of jumps you have to do at what points. Depending on how far you need to go, you might need to perform a standing jump or a running jump. Do a standing jump when you needed to do a running jump and you fall short and probably die, do a running jump when you only needed to do a standing jump and you’ll overshoot and probably die, and it’s not always obvious which you need to do. Following a walkthrough makes this a lot less frustrating – the walkthrough I followed has a page dedicated to how to perform jumps in this game.

There are many enemies in this game which are hell-bent on murdering you as fast as possible – wolves, tigers, lions, bears, mutants, other people etc – but they are often quite unsuccessful. What is much more likely to kill you are the many, many, many platforming sections. Normally I like the platforming parts of these games as a bit of a break from the endless fighting but in this game, the fighting provides a break from the platforming. The final boss of this game was extremely easy to kill – just jump around and hold the shoot button – the only reason I did it four times was because of the short platforming section just after it.

The game isn’t that long if it weren’t for the many instakill platforming sections and the sparse save point system. Most levels took me at least an hour to complete and have about three save points per level. Finding a save point is a moment of great relief because you won’t need to do anything up to that point ever again. Save points are so rare that I started to use them strategically – if I found one soon after I last saved I would wonder whether it would be better to not use the save point so I could use it later. I had once saved and then realised that it would have been much better to wait to use the save point just before a very tricky bit and I ended up wasting a load of time having to redo a short section of platforming (but even a short section takes ages to do in this game). The whole experience was just so unnecessarily frustrating that I could only play it for an hour at a time before needing to take a break.

And yet there was something that always led me back to it. There was a point in the game where I questioned if it was even worth continuing or just skip to the next game, but I soldiered on and I think I’m glad I did. If I can really say that I enjoyed the experience I’m not sure, but I didn’t hate it nor did I even really dislike it. I can see why it took off at the time, but it hasn’t aged well. Tomb Raider 2 is apparently where it gets much better – you can save whenever you want. The controls haven’t changed though.

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Games Reviews

Jak and Daxter: An Uneven Bridge

Crash Bandicoot was an incredible series for Naughty Dog. It was insanely popular and skyrocketed their studio in the industry in terms of status. So, when the PS2 was on the horizon, what else was Naughty Dog going to do but scrap the whole thing and start afresh on a whole new franchise. Many people at the time thought this would be the biggest mistake Naughty Dog would ever make. But it wasn’t. What it was, was Jak and Daxter.

Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was built on a simple ambition – no loading screens. The whole game would be a big open world which can be explored to one’s heart’s content and at no point be broken up with loading screens. Quite an ambitious feat when you consider the hardware they were working with. But, because it was Naughty Dog, they managed to do it.

The game they came up with is about a young lad named Jak – because no one needed a ‘c’ in that name to begin with. Jak is mute, so the person who does all the talking is his buck-toothed friend Daxter. While not following the instructions of Jak’s guardian, Samos, they sneak off to an island and find a big pit full of an ominous liquid substance called dark eco. Daxter promptly falls in and is transformed into an ottsel. If you’re confused, an ottsel is not a real thing. An ottsel is a mix of an otter and a weasel. Predictably frustrated by his condition, the two ask Samos the sage for help. He respectfully informs them that he is unable, and they would have to go to the other sages for advice. Unfortunately, the teleportation rings aren’t working for some unknown reason so they will have to go the other sages on foot. What is even more unfortunate is the fact that the only way to get to the next sage is across a lake of lava. Keira, who’s like the sexy young woman who works for Samos (she’s the love interest), suggests using a sort hoverbike heat resistant thing that she just happens to have. To get it working, however, Jak and Daxter need to find 20 power cells.

That’s the premise which sets up the whole game. And also a description of the main gameplay – collecting. To collect the power cells, you have to complete a series of side quests for the villagers, as well as purchase them with these egg things that are just everywhere, and most of all – platforming. The power cells are basically just lying around the place just waiting for someone to come and get them, and all they need to do is jump around some obstacles for a bit. Once you get the 20 power cells, you get across the lava lake and fight a boss battle, and then some plot happens which means you need to now find another 20 power cells. This is the format of the whole game. To complete the game, I think you need about 80 in all – 100 if you want to 100% the game.

The game is fairly relaxed. It’ll take a long time to finish it because it is a hard game – some of the platforming is only reasonably described as a challenge, to say the least. It seems a good time to talk about eco. Eco is a magical substance which bestows upon a person a mystical property. Green eco heals, blue eco gives speed, red eco gives strength, yellow eco gives the ability to shoot projectiles at people and dark eco hurts you until you die (unless your name is Daxter apparently). Now, this is all fine in Jak 1 because it is very limited and you can only use one kind at a time. The only issue I have is that green eco serves no purpose whatsoever. Jak has a total of three hit points throughout the whole game, and the only way to regain a hit point when one is lost is collecting green eco. The thing is that you need to collect fifty balls of green eco to get one hit point back – which takes a while – and on top of that if you get hit again you’ll lose all the eco you’ve collected. I think I managed to restore a hit point about twice during my time playing the game. So it’s often easier to just die.

That’s not to say that dying matters particularly in Jak 1. It’s an important point to look at the number of checkpoints in each game. In Jak 1, they’re everywhere. You jump to a platform – that’s a checkpoint, you kill an kill an enemy – that’s a checkpoint, you walk a step forward in any direction – that’s a checkpoint. The result of this is that death no longer really matters at all apart from in boss battles. This doesn’t make the game ‘easy’ but it means you don’t ever really have to redo anything when you die – just the thing that killed you. Not that failing a section of the game is always death; a lot of the time it’s because you fell off of a precarious platform and have to go back to the start, or you took too long on a timed segment or missed the target on one of the hoverbike sections. The interesting thing about this format is that it allows you to start again as soon as you realise you failed. How many times have you played a hard game and got into a pattern of pausing and restarting the section at the slightest screw-up? Jak 1 feels like it was built on that mentality. Screwed this bit up? Just go back to the start again. This, for me at least, does so much to avoid making me frustrated at the game, because it always seems fair and every failure feels like my own. It’s just nice to play a game that’s so forgiving is all. It is a game for children after all.

Jak 2: Renegade is a dramatic departure from everything that Jak 1 is. Released only two years later, Jak 2 says goodbye to the child-friendly Disneyland style of Jak 1 for a more mature style and a teenage audience. Set after the events of Jak 1, Jak 2 begins with all the main characters driving into a portal thing and then Jak finding himself alone in a strange place called Haven City (it’s an ironic name because Haven City is actually not very nice at all). He’s tortured by Baron Praxis (the man in charge of the city) for two years until Daxter (who is still an ottsel for reasons which would be spoilers) comes to rescue him. Jak speaks for the first time, “I’m gonna kill Praxis!” Not following the colourful child-friendly fun atmosphere from the first game at all.

The game is in fact so different from the first one that you could say that Naughty Dog basically dumped all they had established with the franchise up to this point in the bin and only carried over some small components. You still have the same base four characters, but Jak 2 adds some more – well over doubling the cast. These characters are conflicted, deep and interesting (most of the time). Yes – Naughty Dog has officially entered its BAFTA-winning story writing phase. The plot is interesting but isn’t exactly going to blow you away or anything, but it did hold my attention and I found it easy to follow. Gameplay is still the focus here.

Gone is collecting. There is only one mission in the game which involves collecting anything at all (as far as I remember) and that is only to send the message that collecting is dead and Naughty Dog killed it. So, considering that Jak 1 was all collecting, what is the gameplay for Jak 2? Shooting! Violence! Platforming! (They kept that part in) Jak 2 gives you four weapons to use – a shotgun, a rifle, a mini-gun and a rocket launcher. Using these weapons, Jak must fight off hoards of creatures called metalheads (I have no idea why they have this name – nothing about them is metal) as he completes missions for the resistance who are trying to take back the city from Barron Praxis and liberate the people while also discovering Jak’s origins and uncovering the secrets of the ancient precursor civilisation. It’s cool.

Or it would be cool if it weren’t for what Naughty Dog did with the checkpoints. Where Jak 1 had a checkpoint for every step you take (and every move you make), Jak 2 goes for the polar opposite. One single checkpoint at the start of every mission. One! You have to complete every mission without dying at any point because if you die you start the whole mission again. The game does not give you enough hp, you can only heal up with health packs which are found sparingly throughout a level, and you can never level up your hp – what you have at the start is what you have at the end. Combine this with the instakill sections of quite challenging platforming coupled with the sometimes endless waves of enemies and not enough ammo for all your guns and, well, it takes a certain amount of monk-like patience to complete every one of the “65 stunning missions”.

Sometimes it’s not even dying that causes you to fail. There are a number of escort missions where your companion doesn’t even have a weapon in most cases so they die very quickly because you’re having a hard enough time keep Jak alive let alone whoever you’re supposed to be protecting. You can also fail these missions if you walk just slightly too far away from your companion. One mission involved platforming while escorting a man and protecting him from random enemies. I kept falling off of the platforms, which wouldn’t actually kill me but I had no way of getting back up without failing the mission so my only option was to restart the mission from the pause menu. This frustrated me many times and prompted me to have a civilised ‘discussion’ with my controller where I introduced it to the floor – on several occasions.

There are loads of examples I could give of what I would (in polite company) refer to as “quite unfair” missions. The racing missions are a little bit annoying but manageable. The street race mission, however, is completely ridiculous. In typical video game style, Jak must settle an argument by winning a street race with this random person. The problem is that there is no obvious path to take in order to win the race – so you have to just keep failing and eventually you’ll learn the route because it will be engraved into your memory. That’s okay, I’m not complaining about that. What I am complaining about is the wriggly twists and turns you have to execute perfectly on this quite long course. If you crash at any point – it’s over; you’ll not be able to catch up. If you don’t travel at the speed of light, however, you might avoid crashing but you won’t win the race. The incredible precision you have to perform with a PS2 controller combined with the difficulty of trying to remember what the course is going to require you to do after the next turn just makes this mission the worst. THE WORST I TELL YOU.

Missions like these normally frustrate the hell out of you until you manage to get past them using ninja gaming skills at which point you feel amazing and nothing can stop you – you’re Superman with the wind at his back, but when over half the missions in the whole game are like this it makes you question whether it’s even worth you’re time anymore; you complete a mission that you struggled with and then you just know you’re probably going to struggle just as much with the next one. That being said, finally finishing the game felt pretty incredible but I can’t decide whether that was because I was just glad I no longer had any obligation to keep playing that game or if I just genuinely was enjoying myself and not knowing it. I think I’m happy that I played the whole game and looking back at it I did enjoy the world that Naughty Dog had created. But if the game were a little easier I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more.

Jak 3 is almost exactly the same as Jak 2 – but with a few important differences. The world is even bigger and now featuring a quite large desert area which is used for driving around in – yes Jak has cars now! Just what we all wanted. I’ll get to vehicle combat later. Where Jak 2 had a mere 4 weapons, Jak 3 has 12! It’s not that hard to keep track of them all because it is the same 4 from Jak 2, but now each has 3 versions which alter the weapon’s behaviour. Also, the only gun you’ll ever need is the second tier rifle; it shoots bullets which bounce off of all the surfaces of the room until they hit someone. Goodbye aiming. Now when you enter a room with a load of enemies in it, just spin around in circles while shooting until everything in the room is dead. It is actually that easy most of the time (until you run out of ammo).

Aiming is now also improved. Where Jak 2 had sort-of half auto-aim, requiring you to slighting move towards to the enemy, which ultimately just means you’ll slowly nudge around the area in an annoying way, Jak 3 has much more controlling auto aim which is actually usable.

Jak 3 also keeps up with the trends with the option to invert the x-value of the camera control stick. This was something more and more games were doing at the time. Previously, third-person games camera system had the player push the analogue stick in the direction they want the camera to rotate around the camera. In practice, it feels more like you have to push in the opposite direction you want to look. Games started defaulting to the, what we now call, modern camera control system. I am very pleased they did.

The most important change to talk about is the checkpointing. Jak 3 features many checkpoints throughout missions rather than just one at the start. This makes the game so much more enjoyable to play and I was so pleasantly surprised whenever I died in a mission, dreading having to do the mission from the start again, only to discover that the mission had a checkpoint so I only had to do the final third of the mission. It just makes the gameplay so much better. You no longer need to train in the art of patience from ancient monks in a mountain temple in order to complete the game. That’s not to say that the game is ‘easy’, however. The checkpoints feel like a compromise between Jak 1 and 2. Not quite everywhere, but also not nowhere. For many, this is the right balance.

Vehicle driving features heavily throughout the game. Many missions involve Jak driving through the desert to do various odd jobs that don’t seem to be that important when compared to the world ending peril that Jak is also supposed to be single-handedly preventing but whatever I’ll go and heard a bunch of leapers into a pen for you ‘cos that’s important as well I suppose. For some reason, there are a bunch of randy buggers driving cars of their own who seem to have nothing better to do than literally drive directly in front of you while blasting machine gun turrets in an attempt to destroy your whole self. To avoid this you must shoot forward while swerving out of the way of any other vehicles you may encounter. The thing about swerving in this game is that the vehicle physics just loves flipping you over and sending you on a car rolling journey which will see you rolling down the entire face of the hill as the game tries to flip you over back onto your wheels which causes the car to just flip back over again until you are on flat ground – of which there is not an abundance. This can cause some frustration when you are doing a timed driving mission and you fail just because someone dodgemed into you. The driving missions in this game are easily the worst thing about it.

You know what’s better than platforming? Platforming in a car. Did I say better? My mistake. Having to platform while travelling at characteristically PS2 fixed, very fast vehicle speed is less than ideal. Jak 3 features a temple area in the map which you must go to on the regular and can only be reached using the jump car. The jump car has a button that propels the car in an upwards direction entirely to powerfully. Using this, Jak can leap over large gaps. If you’re a bit careful, you can quite easily get to the temple. Getting back from the temple is a nightmare. I’m not sure why, but leaving is just so much harder. If you fall off of the platforms (which is quite easy) the game puts you back to the temple. It doesn’t even feel like this is supposed to be part of the game, it just feels like a mistake. It’s not fun, it just stops you from getting to where you need to go. It normally would take me quite a few minutes to free myself from this section of the map. Until I discovered that you can just shoot your car and cause it to explode. It turns out that if you do that the game just takes you back to the desert city. I discovered this the final time I needed to leave the temple island. Because I am a very rational person, I got very annoyed by this.

Naughty Dog used this game as an opportunity to expand its trademarked BAFTA-winning story writing and it really comes through in this one. The story in Jak 3 is actually pretty good and features one of the best plot twists I’ve seen in a game. That being said it’s still pretty clear that for Naughty Dog, the gameplay still takes priority – which is a good thing; all I’m saying is that sometimes a character will ask Jak to do something that makes no sense at all but will lead to a standard type of video game quest, which is most of the time quite fun.

Since we’re talking about Naughty Dog and I’m a nerd, we can’t not mention how impressive it is what Naughty Dog can do with that PlayStation 2 hardware. Jak 3 is the first game that actually made me realise how impressive the game looked that the time. Not only has Naughty Dog build this quite impressively large world with absolutely no loading screens (pretty much), it can also have an amazing number of things going on on screen at a time. In Jak 3, large sections of Haven City have become a war zone, and Jak needs to fly over it to get to places. The war is played out in front of your eyes as the streets are filled with enemy AI and friendly AI characters dynamically fighting with each other – in impressive numbers (for the PS2). Everywhere you look you can see different battles playing out with different groups of people and different stories going on. The animation and graphical quality Naughty Dog has achieved is also just so spectacular – especially when you compare the game to others released for the PS2 at the same time. In my head, I was picturing how not good looking Beyond Good and Evil looks in comparison, and how small the world is before you need to go through a loading screen.

I find the Jak and Daxter series quite interesting because it connects the Crash Bandicoot Naughty Dog to the Uncharted Naughty Dog, but the transition is not linear. Jak 1 is like Crash Bandicoot with an open world and a bit more focus on storytelling. Jak 3 is like Uncharted but cartoony and less grounded in reality. But Jak 2 and Jak 3 are essentially the same game in lots of ways. You could say that the Jak series is a kind of uneven bridge that has a big gap after one-quarter of the way through it. The leap taken here was startling – almost like a whole new franchise entirely. So what happened there? The answer is simple – GTA 3. GTA 3 came out and had an effect on every game around it. Loads of games at the time tried to emulate it in some way, and Jak 2 was one of those games. I think that Naughty Dog also wanted more of a focus on storytelling anyway, but GTA 3 definitely inspired the move to a more mature, darker tone. Also the open world city and shooting and all that stuff. Naughty Dog does a good job of taking that stuff and making it feel a bit more unique to Jak 2 and it doesn’t just feel like a GTA clone. Jak 2 is more ‘inspired’ by GTA 3.

That being said, I would say that I am one of those who thinks that the series definitely suffered some losses in the transition. There seems to be some debate about which game is the best. Most people go for the third one, and I can see why – it’s like Jak 2 but more balanced and less of a pain to complete. Some think Jak 2 is the best because they like the challenge of it and, arguably, the story is the best in Jak 2 according to some people. I think Jak 1 is the best. Neither of the other games in the series held the same charm and attitude I enjoyed so much while playing the first game. Yeah, it’s a game primarily designed for children, but I that doesn’t mean that adults can’t enjoy it as well. It’s just a nice game to play and I have the fondest memories of it after completing it.

Overall this series took me ages to complete, made me very angry and I constantly complained to my friends about it during my time with it. So, yeah, I enjoyed them – a lot. I would even recommend them to my friends. The trilogy was recently released on PS4 in a kind-HD remastered format. I got Jak 1 for free with another game. It’s like playing the game on PS2 but in 1080p and with a DualShock 4. They haven’t changed the button prompts so the game will ask you to press the non-existent start button on occasion, but this can be achieved by pressing the right side of the touchpad. I didn’t know that there even were PS2 games that can be emulated on the PS4, so that’s cool. The list is quite short though and doesn’t have many classics I’d like to play, like the Simpsons Hit and Run. If you’re in the market for a series of classic adventure games that are also pretty old at the same time, this is a great series to go for, and probably best experienced on the PS4 because of the HD and the non-inverted camera controls.

I apologise for the length of this and also the fact that it is twelve days late. I had a lot to say and not enough time to say it in. So I’m sorry I care about quality.

Categories
Games Reviews

Crash Bandicoot: The Legacy

Back in the good old days of the 90s, Naughty Dog was just two guys – Jason Ruben and Andy Gavin, friends from school who liked making games together. They’d been working on a few games before and had made a bit of money from it. After they wowed Universal Studios with their fighting game, Way of the Warrior, Universal decided they wanted to get into the games industry and promptly made a deal with Ruben and Gavin: “we’ll give you an office space on the Universal lot and a few employees to help you make us a few games”. They agreed and hired seven people, which was quite a lot of people in the early 90s, to help make their next title.

They’d previously worked with consoles like the Sega Genesis and the Panasonic 3DO (yes Panasonic made a games console, everyone was doing it at the time). The 3DO had the advantage of an optical drive, meaning that developers could put a lot of content into their games – 650mb was a lot in the 90s. The problem with the 3DO was that it wasn’t very powerful and neither was it very popular. Quite recently, however, Sony had just entered the console market with the PlayStation. This had an optical drive, and importantly, it was very powerful – being focused on 3D graphics. It had been released exclusively in Japan a year before and was met with wild success, knocking Nintendo and Sega off of their pedestals as the industry leaders. Naughty Dog bought a developer kit at vast expense and got to work making a game for the newly released, in America and Europe, Sony PlayStation.

Mascots were a thing for consoles back in the 80s and 90s. Nintendo had Mario, Sega had Sonic. Sony had nothing. This gave Naughty Dog an ambitious idea. They were going to, without Sony asking them to or even knowing it, make the PlayStation mascot. They decided they wanted it to be an animal like Sonic the hedgehog and wanted to follow the idea of making it an animal that most people don’t know about (apparently people don’t know what a hedgehog is in America). They decided to go for an Australian setting and therefore to pick an Australian animal. They eventually picked a Bandicoot. To this day, most people still don’t know that a Bandicoot is a real animal. Many people will Google “what kind of animal is Crash Bandicoot?”, followed quickly by “what is a bandicoot?”. He was given the name “Crash” because he is always crashing into boxes during the gameplay.

These games were a wild success and got Naughty Dog to where they are today – one of the most respected game developers in the world. Earlier this year, a remastered collection of the original trilogy was released for PS4. This meant that a studio, Vicarious Visions, had to play the original games and recreate everything. Every level, every secret, exactly the same. I’ve heard they’d done a marvellous job of it, so that’s why I bought all three of the original PS1 games and played them all the way through.

It’s been said a million times by now, but these games are all harder than most people remember. I only remember playing Crash 3 and remember getting stuck at one point and never continuing, but I don’t remember it being quite as hard as it is.

Crash 1 starts with no cutscene. You press play and the game throws you into the first level. There are actually no cutscenes at all until you reach the very end of the game. To watch the opening cutscene you have to wait on the main menu for a minute or so. It really makes a statement about the importance of the story in this game when the opening cut scene is only really there to serve as a screen saver. So it turns out that Crash has been genetically engineered in order to lead Dr Cortex’s army of bandicoots to take over the world. It goes wrong, the bad guys kidnap Crash’s sexy bandicoot girlfriend and now Crash needs to save her. A very simple story which only serves to provide some kind of motivation to the main characters, and is only there for the people who care about that.

The gameplay is your simple Crash stuff – 3D platforming including excellent level design, inventive enemies, compulsive box smashing and wompa fruit collecting. It’s all very fun and furiously frustrating. Most of the time when you screw up the game makes you feel like it was your fault, that you’re not good enough, which is actually something that takes skilled game design. You’ll screw up a lot, and when you do you’ll start screwing up even the easy bits that you got perfectly the first time. This all makes it so much better when you do finally get to the next save point because you know you’ll never have to do any of it again, but you’ll be glad you managed to do it. This is important – you don’t get angry at the game for being unfair or too hard, you get angry at yourself for being bad at the game.

If you run out of lives in Crash 1, you’ll go back to the last time you saved. So it’s fine, right? You just need to save after each level and it’s good. Oh, how naive you are, thinking you can save whenever you want. You have to earn the right to save your game in Crash 1. To save your game you have to collect three bonus coins from unmarked boxes to get into the bonus level, then you must complete the bonus level without dying. When you load the save it’ll put you back to the start of the level you got the save point on. The save points aren’t on every level, either. You’ll find one on every one out of three or four levels. Which means you might run out of lives and have to go back to redo three or four levels that you just completed, preferably without losing any lives because the number of lives you have carry over to the next level. Does this make you want to smash your head into a wall? Yes. Does it make for the best feeling in the world when you finally get a save point? Also yes.

The boss battles in Crash 1 are known for being hilariously easy in comparison to rest of the game. I agree with this knowing; the bosses are a bit pathetic in their attempt to defeat you. They’re all just scripted so once you learn what the boss is going to do, you aren’t in any real danger. Some bosses only take a few seconds to defeat once you know what they’re going to do. Naughty Dog took this advice on board when making the next games.

Crash 2 discards with the sexy bandicoot girlfriend aspect in favour of an actual female character, Coco. Coco is Crash’s sister and she’s really clever and has a pet tiger which is pretty cool. There is actually an opening cutscene to this one, but it doesn’t matter. Cortex wants to take over the world still and Crash needs to collect all the power crystals so that Cortex doesn’t have them. Coco sometimes calls Crash and tells him what’s going on with that. Crash 2 adds the idea of a warp room. The warp room is where Crash can jump through one of many portals to get to a level. This is probably so that there can be more variety in the levels, with ice levels and fire levels which wouldn’t have made sense if there was no warp room idea and all the levels were supposed to be connected like in Crash 1. The gameplay is basically the same as the first game, but just with new enemies to get angry at.

Thankfully, depending on your opinion, you are now allowed to save after each level. Now you only have to complete a level once. This makes the game a lot less infuriating but also feel so much easier. I felt that the game only really became a challenge with the final few levels. Although, this might have been because the levels are genuinely easier, or it might have been because, unlike the first game, DualShock controllers had been invented by this point, so now you don’t have to control the game using the D-Pad. In any case, this meant that where the first game took me two weeks to complete, the second only took me two days.

In Crash 3 there’s some time travel nonsense that matters as little as any of the stories in the Crash series, but it’s all very similar to the previous game, with warps rooms and so on, except now as crash progresses he gets new abilities like double jumping, extended spinning and a bazooka, which makes some of the enemies very simple to deal with – you just shoot them. You can also play as Coco now, which is pretty good because she has a jet ski and a tiger. This was the game that I remember playing most and playing it filled me with memories of a better time when life was good. I never finished it as a child, and I’m very glad that I finally did. Again, it only took me two days.

It’s said that you haven’t really finished a Crash game until you have all the gems. So you have to smash every box and complete every time trial of every level of every game. I didn’t do this, so when I say it only took me two days, that’s just how long it took to get to the end of the final boss battle of each. For some people, doing what I would count as finishing the game is just the start. I don’t really want to commit to that. I’m not that kind of person.

So then, which is the best? It depends on what experience you’re going for. If you want to have a really tough time of it but feel very rewarded at the end, I suppose you probably want to play Crash 1. If you want to just sort of have fun and chill out, Crash 3 is your game. Crash 2 is the worst one, but that’s not to say that it is bad – it’s excellent – it’s just not as good as the other two, or rather, it doesn’t do anything that Crash 3 doesn’t do, and it’s not as hard as Crash 1. I can’t speak for the N’Sane Trilogy, but apparently, it’s a very faithful remaster of the original games, and many have claimed it’s even harder.

The Crash Bandicoot trilogy is legendary amongst gamers, particularly around my age who played them as a child and remember them fondly, because nostalgia blocks out all the painful parts. It got Naughty Dog to where they are today and began their legacy of making some of the best games in the world. Well done Naughty Dog.


P.S For those wondering why I didn’t mention Crash Team Racing, it’s because it’s like £30 everywhere I look and I only have bad memories of that game.

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Games Reviews

Mass Effect: Andromeda – Not Actually the Worst Game Ever

Mass Effect: Andromeda came out a few months ago, but if you wanted a quick review from me I can only disappoint you. When the game came out, it was bombarded by the internet because of the animations and glitches. In fact, EA managed to unwittingly create a perfect storm by releasing the game early to some people – so for the majority of people, the marketing of the game was stuff like this:

Which was a bit of a disaster for sales in an environment when so many things can go wrong, and if any of them do, the sales of a game can completely fall over. Big games like Mass Effect: Andromeda need to sell well because they cost so much to make. A lot of casual fans dismissed the game because of the footage of the animations and glitches they were seeing all over YouTube, and while the reviews of the game weren’t actually bad in general, they were just not as good as most people need. At least it got over 70% on Metacritic, which is the threshold it needs to cross in order to be not a complete disaster, but it was just not good enough for casual gamers – especially at the £50 price point. The game didn’t sell well enough and it’s no surprise to anyone that EA has (apparently) ‘shelved the series’.

I would love to go into the details of why the game failed so badly on a technical level, but other people have already done that a lot more effectively than me, and with better knowledge. Firstly by Jason Schreirer of Kotaku who did some excellent investigative reporting on the subject, and secondly, there’s a great video which also covers animation in RPGs generally:

But if you can’t be bothered with that, here’s a summary: EA is in love with their Frostbite engine (and has been for years) and recently decided that all their games must use it because then they’ll all look really good. The problem with that is Bioware had barely used the Frostbite engine in the past, and because the engine is only really a graphics rendering engine, they had to rebuild a lot of the systems they had before for the other games when they used the Unreal engine. A combination of poor management and staff changes throughout the project lead to everything falling apart. A lot of the animation ended up (probably) being untouched by human hands and was left mostly to the computers to work out using advanced cyberspace computer magic. I’m surprised EA didn’t delay the game again, but I suppose this is EA we’re talking about, who would throttle a starving orphan to get an extra £10 in sales of FIFA.

Considering the nightmare of a development Andromeda had, I was genuinely impressed they managed to get such a complete game out the door. Yeah it was glitchy and the animations were often hilarious, but overall the game is playable, and I only encountered 2 game-breaking bugs, causing me to have to reload from an early save and redo some bits. It’s even quite fun. Yes, even after all the bad press it got, I still bought it (for cheaper than the normal price) fully expecting to find that I had made a horrible mistake. Given my expectations, I was very quite surprised by the game – in a good way.

Andromeda takes place after the events of Mass Effect 3, although none of the characters are aware of the events of Mass Effect 3 (probably a good thing). This is because, as the narrative dictates, after Mass Effect 2 the council decides that just in case the galaxy is wiped out by the Reapers after all, they should send a few colony ships to the nearest other galaxy: Andromeda. They all set off just before Mass Effect 3 begins, and arrive 700 years later. Thorugh some kerfuffling, you become the human Pathfinder – the person who is in charge of establishing new colonies throughout the galaxy and also sorting everything else out because apparently, no one thought to send any kind of military with the colonies to do the dangerous stuff. But that’s fine, I think all government officials should be trained in the art of combat and sent into war zones – it would more fun that way. Some stuff and things happen – you meet an alien race who are hilariously called the ‘Kett’ and some purple humanoid lion people who are all quite nice but don’t really trust outsiders. The story, in general, is okay – nothing too interesting or engaging but at least it drives things forward. I could fairly well predict the plot points that were coming up as I played through the story.

Getting into the characters for a minute, it’s worth setting this up by mentioning that the characters in the original trilogy were definitely one of the strongest points of the games. They were all interesting, varied and had rough edges – like real people. They could joke around but knew when to get serious. You knew you could depend on them in a crisis. Through the games, you got to know them very well – if you spent enough time talking to them – and because of this, I got to quite like some characters that I had, at first, disliked. This was only because I actually talked to them and helped them out with their loyalty missions. It was all very well done. Andromeda’s characters are all a lot more childish and light-hearted. The majority of the characters are people in their early 20s and not from a military background, so they aren’t hardened and they often joke around, sometimes inappropriately. I don’t want to give the impression that I hated this, I was just a bit confused by it for a while and I definitely don’t prefer it. It’s a little bit jarring if, like me, you’ve come straight from the original trilogy. I suppose it was an attempt to distance this set of characters from the characters of the Normandy. I can respect this direction, even if it comes off a little bit cheesy at times. My biggest problem was the lack of variety in the crew. Nearly everyone failed to interest me at all. I didn’t really want to get to know my crew particularly in the same way that I wanted to get to know my crew on the Normandy as Commander Shepard. Ryder (the Pathfinder) is much less of a leader on the ship than Shepard and more of a friend to everyone. I’m not such a fan of this direction, personally.

One thing I am a fan of is, however, is the new dialogue system. The original Mass Effect series had a dialogue morality system where one could choose either the good option or the bad option for what they want to say to people. If you do a lot of good things, you will be able to do special good things which will mean you can persuade other characters to do stuff – and the same for the bad dialogue options. It doesn’t amazingly matter whether you pick good or bad, It’ll just affect whether Shepard is nice to people or not. The problem with this system is that one only has to choose at the start of the game whether they want to be nice or nasty and then from that point on simply only pick the relevant dialogue options in order to unlock the late-game persuasion options. This system is abandoned in Andromeda and replaced with what emotion you want to respond with. Do you want to respond to a person emotionally, logically, professionally, or casually? This means that you’ll end up spending a lot more time thinking about your options rather than always going for the good or the bad option. In the originals, it would sometimes even point out to you what the good option and bad option is for a moral choice. Would you like to do the good thing or the bad thing to these people? Oh no! How am I going to decide?! What a conundrum!

The original idea behind Andromeda was to go back to the roots of Mass Effect, which was fantasy fulfilment and exploration. While I think the term ‘fantasy fulfilment’ sounds dodgy, I can confirm my fantasies were fulfilled by this game more effectively than in the first three games. I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation recently, and I’ve got to say, Andromeda got me feeling like I was in charge of a little spaceship, like in TNG, and that’s a great feeling. I loved the idea of flying around the galaxy and visiting new planets with my loyal crew at my heel, ready to take a pounding whenever they fail me. But that’s just my fantasy, I don’t know about you.

As for the exploration part, well I dunno about that. The game features 7 planets to wander around. They are very large areas and I only found the border of one once. However, these planets are all a bit empty. One planet is literally just a big sandy desert a la Tatooine or Jakku from the Star Wars franchise of movies. Originally, there were going to be infinite planets like No Man’s Sky, but people in Bioware questioned how that would possibly make a good game and how they could tell a story in a game world like that. The idea was scrapped and the number of planets was eventually reduced to 7. I feel as though they could have trimmed it more if it meant more variety and features on the more important and interesting planets. I didn’t feel at all compelled to properly explore the planets I was on. I quite quickly got bored of all of them before even the game would allow me to move on to another planet. I found I was rushing through the missions just so I could go somewhere else. In open world games, I’m a strong believer in ‘density over size’ of a game world. Just Cause 3’s world was big and empty – I got bored pretty quickly, the same is true for the Mad Max game. You can try to impress me all you want with how big the world is, but if there’s not a lot in it, I don’t care – I would even prefer the world were smaller. This is why open world games like Skyrim, The Witcher 3 and Horizon Zero Dawn work so well – their worlds are only as big as they need to be in order to comfortably fit all the actual stuff in them. The reason I wanted to move on to a different planet in Andromeda was that I wanted to see a different horizon and be somewhere else. I would say Bioware didn’t do an excellent job of the exploration part of things.

They didn’t screw up combat too badly at all, however. Well, that’s not entirely true – the biotics wheel is gone and you can only equip two powers before a mission which you’re stuck with. This was probably an attempt to streamline the combat, but I just think it makes the combat a lot less varied and a lot more shooty. Strategy is no longer much a concern in Andromeda and combat is a lot messier. That said, I think it still is very fun in its own way – it’s certainly more fun than a lot of third person shooters I’ve played, and a lot more varied in terms of the enemies you’re fighting, which need you to do different things in order to take them down. It’s quite like Destiny. I had fun with the combat, but I did still miss the strategy and planning involved with the previous games. I suppose you could explain it away by saying that Commander Shepard was an actual military commander and Ryder has almost no military training at all – but that just leads you to question why Ryder has been put in charge of a military team when there are people on the ship who are actually qualified to do that very thing. What are they even there for?

The game was a lot of fun and I did play it for thirty hours. However, the final four of those hours were rushed because I could feel myself getting very bored and I didn’t want to abandon the game when I felt so close to the end. The plot left lots of things unexplained – clearly setting itself up for a sequel which will never happen now (probably). Maybe the (potentially) forthcoming DLC will explain some of these things. I would say that the game is worth playing if you’re a fan of the series. And if you can get it cheap. And if you have nothing else to do – which you clearly don’t because you read all the way to the bottom of this.

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Games Reviews

Mass Effect: All You Have To Do Is Ignore The Ending

I started working on a complete playthrough of the original Mass Effect trilogy back in March, around the time Andromeda was coming out. I’d never played any of them before (except that’s not true, is it, Henry), and I wanted to experience them. ME2 has been often acclaimed as the greatest PC game of all time – or at least in the top ten. I was mainly convinced by my friend and housemate, George Pell, who’s love for the Mass Effect series knows no bounds. Although you can’t trust all his opinions; he really liked Batman Vs. Superman. I have, in the past couple of days, completed Mass Effect 3, but we’ll get to that later.

Mass Effect 1 is 10 years old, but it doesn’t look it. The gameplay feels old, but I can only imagine what people must have thought of the graphics back in 2007. This game was a case of BioWare doing what they knew very well how to do, a classic RPG. BioWare, of course, has been well known as a studio for its excellent RPGs like Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur’s Gate. As a result of this, Mass Effect is slightly confused in what it wants to be. It has a lot of quite (at the time) innovative combat systems to make it an action game, but it also feels very slow. There are long sequences of the player doing nothing.

Most notably, the lift sequences. When you get into a lift, you experience the entire lift journey. You can’t move, you are required to just stand there and wait for the lift to arrive at its destination while a news bulletin (if there is one available that you haven’t listened to let) plays to you. If you want to get to somewhere, you have to walk quite a distance to get to that place. When you land on a planet to start a mission, you quite often arrive in a random location and you have to drive to the starting area. This is a style that BioWare had been using for a long time. I quite like it in some ways; you get a real feel of the scale of everything. I can, however, understand why the decision was taken to remove this.

But then you have the combat. The game has frustrating combat. I’m not really sure what it is about it, however. I think the difficulty level may be one thing, but I think it’s mostly that the combat system is complicated. If you were to use it properly and have some fun with it, you might find that it’s not so bad, but I didn’t know this. The problem is that one (me) might assume (as I did) that the combat is mainly about shooting stuff. One would be incorrect in this assumption. It’s more about using the so-called ‘biotic powers’. Basically, magic which allows you to do various things to your enemy, such as remove their shield, set them on fire and throw them into the air etc. I didn’t really pay attention to this very well, mainly because the system wasn’t explained to me. I didn’t use them really at all until one of the AI companions started using them and my friend told me I wasn’t using them enough.

I think the game has the same problem as the Witcher 2 had, in that the game has all of these cool systems which can (and should) be used, but at no point is any of it really explained. This means players such as me will have a hard time understanding these things and will leave frustrated. I really did not enjoy the combat in Mass Effect 1, but thankfully, that is not the main part of the game. George Pell put it to me that, “Mass Effect 1 is just a game you have to get through so you can play Mass Effect 2.” I don’t entirely agree with that. There are some very good aspects to the game.

The story of the game is simple, easy to understand and at no point goes high concept and overly convoluted. There are these things called ‘Reapers’ which a long time ago wiped out this ancient civilisation called the ‘Protheans’. Now the Reapers are coming back to kill everyone again, we don’t know why but you find out in the sequels or something when the writers think of something. You are Commander Shepard of the Normandy spaceship, and the super-cool intergalactic council made you a spectre. Now you have access to lots of funding and can do what you want to protect the galaxy from any threat. You do some stuff and no one believes the Reapers are a thing so no one takes any action, so you have to take matters into your own hands. A Reaper shows up and everyone kills it and then decides they should have listened to you in the first place. Fin.

On to Mass Effect 2 now, and BioWare has done a stunning job of cutting back the fat. Not removing it entirely, just trimming it to get the balance right. Gone are the big, open planets, the long lift sequences and convoluted combat, and here is a sleeker, cooler and much more enjoyable experience. There’s been a massive improvement to the graphics and the game feels a hell of a lot more modern overall. For a game released in 2010, it seems ahead of its time.

I want to take a moment to appreciate the coolest aspect of the series. When you make a character in Mass Effect 1, it stays with you until the end of Mass Effect 3. This includes all of your decisions and the state of the galaxy you left it in. All you have to do is load the latest save file from the previous game into the next game and it’ll continue you from there. Your actions, appearance and relationships with other characters are preserved. This is, I think, the coolest thing about the series, and I wish more games did it. There are some decisions made in ME1 which directly affect choices you can make in ME3. This adds more pressure to make good decisions because a bad choice will haunt you for the rest of the series, not just the one game. It also means that you can get so easily attached to the characters; my Commander Shepard felt personal to me, she had made my decisions and she was friends with all the characters I want her to be friends with.

Back to ME2, the combat has been simplified. You could, if you’re boring, just run into a room and shoot everything. This would take a long time but there’s nothing stopping you. The combat feels a little easier and lots more enjoyable. The story is as simple as 1 – not ridiculous, simple, makes sense, I can understand it.  What’s really interesting is the system used to decide the ending. Basically, the ending is determined by how much work you put into the whole game. If you rush it, you’re unlikely to do very well at the end, but if you take the time to prepare, the ending will go well and you’ll have a great time. I think this is a good system. What’s really good is that fact you don’t know when you’ve done enough. You could go on forever, doing side quest after side quest until you’re blue in the face, but eventually, you have to bite the bullet and go for it, hoping you’re prepared for whatever comes next. It adds a lot of tension to the finale of the game.

Mass Effect 2 introduces you to a rich array of new characters to meet and get to know. The writing here is really good. I felt very attached to these characters by the end of the game – even some of the ones I thought would be really boring at first. Seeing them again in Mass Effect 3 was a nice experience, even though I’d only finished 2 about three or four days prior to starting 3. There are many break-downs of what it is that makes this the best game in the series, but I’ll give you a quick version. Every character on the crew has a ‘loyalty mission’. They approach you with a problem and you say, “Okay, mate! I’ll get right on that!” And eventually, you get around to it. These missions are reminiscent of some of the particular-character-centric episodes of Star Trek TNG, where the point of the mission is more to get to know the crew member better and grow attached to them. They are very well designed missions and I really enjoyed doing them. You don’t have to complete them all, but it is highly recommended you do.

2012 now and Mass Effect 3 now exists. The highly anticipated end to the series where everything will be explained and we’ll all feel super satisfied and we can all die happy. More on this later. Mass Effect 3 trims yet more fat from the game – too much if you ask me. The game feels a lot more high action, wave-after-wave combat, and I don’t think that is a good thing. The first thing that struck me about the game is how much more cinematic it all was. Featuring much longer cut-scenes and action sequences. Environments feel smaller and cosier, which just means there’s less to explore and everything feels a bit more cramped. And the fabled lift sequences of old? Well, the lift door on the Normandy doesn’t even open anymore in Mass Effect 3, you just click on it and tell the game what deck you want to be on, so you can sit through a boring loading screen.

And speaking of clicking and controlling stuff, WHY IS EVERYTHING DONE WITH THE ‘A’ BUTTON? There are so many buttons on the controller, but interact, roll, cover and run are all performed with the same button. I’ve been in countless scenarios where I’ve needed to run away but instead, I’ve rolled, or got into cover on the wrong side, exposing myself to enemy fire. I checked – the ‘Y’ button and the bumpers are not used for anything. The combat was reasonably entertaining but got a little stale after a while. I found myself more often just waiting for the combat scene to end than really enjoying myself with it.

So, the story. My, my – what a story. It starts out as good as expected, and indeed, most of the story is as good as expected, and then you have the end, but more on that later. For the most part, we have a sensible, simple and easy to understand story, which is both satisfying and intriguing – everything a growing plot needs. It does, however, feel like a big conclusion. By which I mean, the story is split up into three sections, the first two are about resolving some conflicts that have been around since the first game. In this way, the game doesn;t really stand up on its own and the story feels oddly structured. The whole thing feels like a film rather than an open world expansive universe. It feels like Return of the King, where the whole story was just about bringing an epic story to a close.

Okay, let’s talk about the ending. If you weren’t aware, Mass Effect 3 is infamous for having a really very bad ending. At the time people were absolutely furious at BioWare, prompting them to release an extended version of the ending for free, giving a little bit more detail about what was actually going on. I had psyched myself up for disappointment, but it was all futile, Mass Effect 3’s ending is a let down in ways no one could possibly predict.

It just doesn’t make any sense. I’ve gone through it in my mind over and over again and I still do not understand what they were getting at. It’s convoluted and unnecessary. The whole reason the Reapers exist and the whole reason they want to kill everything makes exactly 0 sense at all – and that matters. It ruins their whole image for me. Like how the prequels to Star Wars went a long way to completely ruining the character of Darth Vader. They suddenly don’t seem so cool anymore. And then you get choices for how you want to deal with the Reapers. You have three options and they all suck – there are two which go against everything you’ve worked towards for the past 80 hours of gameplay, and one which magically solves all the problems somehow and doesn’t explain it. You know why? Because it makes no sense! Without the DLC, the ending isn’t explained at all, and with the DLC it’s all explained a little better, but still not well enough to count. Think of the ending to The Matrix Revolutions – that ending makes perfect sense and is a great ending in comparison (I make this comparison because the general gist of both endings is similar). It’s not something I can easily put into words, It’s just something you have to experience.

I don’t know if it was just me, but I had some big issues with getting the games to work properly. It was because of my CPU architecture that at certain points in 1, all animated entities became pixelated black boxes, which meant I had to disable all lighting to correct it. It was, admittedly my mods which cause 3 to crash just before the final cut scene after downloading the Extended Cut DLC. But it was not my fault that 3 pauses slightly every time something new loads into the UI, like a quest marker or a new load of dialogue options. And for God’s sake, why is the use of a controller not supported on PC? I had to enable this with mods. All the assets are there, it’s just that controllers are disabled. Why?

For me, the series, in quality terms follows the Alien franchise. 1 was good in the way that it had a cult following and was a slower sort of thing. 2 was a lot more action oriented and people generally liked it a lot more. 3 felt a little rushed and lacked something fairly fundamental so it just felt lacking. It was trying to live up to the previous instalment too much and was too scared to try and stand on it’s own. It’s a real shame because the quality of the series has been so high and then the end happened and It’s hard to come back from that. I really enjoyed the games and I would definitely play them all again. The ending just left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Just like the ending of all my posts.

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Games Reviews

Horizon: Zero Dawn, Not Zero Out Of Ten

It seemed like a really dumb idea when I saw it at E3 2016. So, it’s cavemen fighting autonomous robot dinosaurs in an open world action/RPG? Sounds amazing. Not that its potential stupidity put me off at all; after seeing so many bland, generic, boring titles being shown off all week, Horizon: Zero Dawn was the only game that I vividly remember seeing and being intrigued by. I appreciated it; it was interesting. Furthermore, there have been a few films I had dismissed as being ‘probably stupid’ from the trailers and ended up loving, like Pacific Rim and Guardians of the Galaxy. I’ve become more open to stupid ideas of late. I failed to have a go at Zero Dawn at EGX 2016, due to it being tucked away in a corner of the Sony area, so I didn’t see it until it was too late to have a go. Maybe this was a good thing; it meant I went into the game with absolutely zero expectations for its quality (other than the countless reviews calling it amazing).

Right from the start of the game, it acknowledges the fact that the whole tribal, primate humans living alongside robot dinosaurs is a little bit odd. That’s fairly unavoidable. At the start, I wasn’t, to be honest, that interested in how this had come to be, but through some very clever storytelling, the game got me interested. Very interested. The game keeps giving you little pieces of the puzzle one at a time but never one big enough to give you a real idea of what the whole picture is. Until it does. When it does, suddenly, it all makes sense. Let me tell you, the back story behind this game is really cool. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for ages after I completed the game. It’s the kind of story that I just wanted to tell people about. I won’t do that here because you may wish to play the game, but I’d really like to tell you. When you get each piece of the puzzle, it changes the way you see the world. It adds perspective and context which makes the world more interesting the further in you get.

Horizon Zero Dawn™_20170307164946.jpg
Going on a little bit of hunt

The main character, Aloy (get it? Aloy, like alloy?), is an interesting person. At first, I thought she was a bit boring, but as I got to know her a bit more I started to like her. She starts the game as an outcast from the tribe, living with her father-figure, Rost (get that one as well? Rust!). The reason she is an outcast is shrouded in mystery from the get-go and all that is mentioned is that she is ‘motherless’. It’s not clear what this means, but that’s part of the fun – finding out. Aloy is very strong-willed and clear headed. The tribe she is an outcast of worship some of the machines like gods, she doesn’t. The tribe forbids people from going into ancient ruins, Aloy doesn’t care about this rule. All she wants to know is who her mother was and where she came from. That’s not to say she doesn’t care about anyone or anything else, she’s actually fairly compassionate, but her main driving force behind what she is doing is in pursuit of discovering her past.

It wouldn’t be a game without gameplay, and in this game, the gameplay is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s an RPG at heart, but it’s more of a Witcher 3 RPG than a Skyrim RPG. You don’t ultimately make decisions about anything that would change the outcome of the story (which is not like The Witcher 3) and you can’t change what Aloy is as a character (which is like the Witcher 3), but you choose how you treat people and what missions you want to do for people. The main RPG elements are in the levelling system and the equipment you pick up. It’s completely open world, so once you get past the start of the game, you can go wherever you want in the world and do any mission. Like in The Witcher 3, you get missions from people, but you won’t be able to do all of them at first. You’ll open the mission screen and it’ll tell you that the next main mission is for level 19 characters, but there are some side missions for level 16 and under you can do.

I like this system a lot. It forces you not to rush the main mission too much and actually do some side quests so by the time you’ve done those side quests, you’ll have levelled up a few times and be ready for the next main mission. It avoids problems like that seen in Arkham Knight, where you’ll have side quests but there is no real incentive to actually do them, so one might end up just doing the main missions and rushing through it all. This is not an issue in Zero Dawn. It also helps that the side quests are actually quite interesting and have a little variety, Rocksteady, meaning I didn’t dread having to do some side quests out of a resignation they would be terribly boring and the same thing over and over again.

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The most fearsome of beasts

Combat in this game actually quite reminds me of the new Tomb Raider games, but somehow mixed with The Witcher 3 and then tweaked quite a lot. I think it’s the reliance of the bow in the game. It’s not a system that is simply about you pelting arrows into a damage sponge until it falls (not that it wouldn’t work as a strategy). It requires you to quickly assess each new enemy and decide what the best way of tackling it is. Some machines are vulnerable to things like fire or freeze damage. In these cases, one should bombard the enemy with fire arrows or freeze bombs until a meter is filled. In the case that it is vulnerable to freeze damage, the meter will fill and the enemy will slow down and become more susceptible to regular damage. This isn’t something I concerned myself with until later in the game where it got a lot tougher requiring me to try harder. You can also get ‘tear’ arrows which removes parts of your mechanical enemy. This is useful for enemies with big guns strapped on them; you can tear them off and pick them up to give them a good old taste of their own medicine. This is a great way to add some variety into a combat system. If you hadn’t guessed by now, I’m a stickler for diversity in game mechanics.

There is also quite a lot of fun to be had in stealth. Dotted around the world you’ll find bandit camps. Surprisingly enough you need to kill all the bandits to liberate the area and the prisoners of the bandits. This is where I think the designers borrowed a little from games like Far Cry because it feels rather similar. You have the same camp alarm system which you’ll need to destroy to avoid backup coming should you be sighted by anyone, and you have the tagging system which allows you to track enemies down. I did all of these with stealth. I would simply hide in a bush and snipe with my sniper’s bow. It was actually a lot of fun and gives you some good rewards for doing it.

In most scenarios, you have the ability to stealth it, and I would recommend that course of action considering that otherwise, it gets very difficult when you have to fight a million enemies at once. I’ve never succeeded by doing that.

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Actual screenshot I took

I’m not sure how much further I can go with this without mentioning the graphics. They’re pretty good. As is a common theme in this review, I wasn’t convinced at first. Probably because this was just after I’d finished Uncharted 4, which I don’t think is a fair comparison. Zero Dawn also has a slightly cartoony art-style which threw me off at first. The game looks good. Really good. I think it’s one of the best looking games on PS4. Considering the hardware it’s running on, it’s very impressive. One of my lectures at my University has been constanly mentioning the graphics in this game and talking about how good it looks on a PS4.

Zero Dawn features a ‘photo mode’ which I have spent a very long time playing with. It works in the same way many other photo modes have worked – you can adjust pretty much any setting of the camera and move it around and what not. It’s a testament to the very attractive visuals that very often while I was doing something, I would pause the game and go into photo mode to take a quick few screenshots. What lets this system down is the limitations of the PS4 itself. By default, pressing the ‘share’ button opens a sharing interface which allows you to record a video, take a screenshot and upload stuff to YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. I changed this so that pressing the share button once just takes a screenshot. Unfortunately, the PS4 takes around two seconds to think about it before it actually does it. This can be very annoying especially at times when I wanted to take a screenshot during a cutscene where timing is critical. I would have to press the button two seconds before I see the image I want to screenshot using mystical foresight powers.

A slightly weird thing about this game is the world design. The world is diverse with some areas being snowy like the Arctic and some areas being Death Vally conditions. This wouldn’t be so strange if it weren’t so sudden in transition. You start off the game in a forest area where it gets a bit snowy in places, and then you are allowed through a big gate. Beyond the gate is a pure hot sandy desert. This was, of course, completely outrageous and ruined all hope of emersion as I was crushed by the unrealistic nature of this.

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It’s a great, big world out there

It’s a good sign then, that this is the only slightly reasonable criticism I can come up with this game. The world feels deep and real, the characters have personality and feel fresh. We know there will be sequels, and all I can say about that is I am very interested in what the story is going to be. The end of the game left no real openings apart from an after-credits cutscene which teased at what direction it might go in. Guerrilla Games, please don’t go in this direction, because it would be a very annoying way to continue the series onwards.

So, yeah, this game is good. If you have a PS4, I would highly recommend it. I look forward to the sequels whenever they happen, and I will probably be playing it a few more times before they do.

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Games Reviews

Uncharted 4 – Best of the Bunch

I wrote before about Uncharted 1 and 2, remarking that if I ever got around to finishing the 3rd and 4th games I would review them as well. Well look what happened – I stormed through 3 and enjoyed 4. Here follows a collection of my thoughts on the matter.

Uncharted 1, 2 and 3 were a struggle. I enjoyed the story and the exploring but I didn’t enjoy the combat – not one bit. At first, I didn’t mind it. After a few hours, the repetitiveness wore me down. I dreaded a section of combat coming up, and I got very frustrated. The mere thought of getting stuck on another battalion of nasty people gave me the collywobbles I tell you. I needed to take regular breaks from playing to cool off, because as I got more frustrated the less patient I got, so I was playing worse, leaving me in a bit of an unending circle. At one point I took a break that lasted over a month, and because of these breaks, I didn’t get to the end of Uncharted 3 until almost a year had passed. I got very angry and I often questioned why I was bothering with it.

It was all worth it. All the struggle, the frustration, the shouting at my screen. I’m so pleased I persevered; Uncharted 4 is incredible. Without this instalment of the franchise, I’d have probably called the whole project of playing the series a boondoggle. Almost every complaint I had about the previous games has been resolved and that has made this game inordinately enjoyable. In short, Uncharted 4 is being added to my private, metaphorical hall of bloody excellent games that I love like a father loves his favourite child – and not my pit of games I despise like that same father might chain his least favourite child to a radiator and ignore them.

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PS4 takes a screenshot every time you get an achievement (It rarely looks good)

Combat – my main complaint about 1, 2 and 3. Combat in Uncharted 4 is actually quite good, however. In fact, it is very enjoyable. I actually, if you can believe it, really like the combat in Uncharted 4. Variety is rife and well welcomed. Level design is much more interesting, giving you different ways of tackling different groups of enemies in an assortment of ingenious and interesting approaches. And most importantly, stealth. Stealth actually exists in Uncharted 4, in an achievable way. You could sneak about a little bit in preceding instalments, but you were always doomed to failure. Someone would always spot you when most of the people were still about, and the games gave you no chance to get out of sight before every bad guy in the room knew where you were, and once they know that, they know forever – you can’t loose them. You’ve got one chance, that’s it. Uncharted 4 gives you the possibility of stealthing a level full of bad guys and gives you the tools you need to be able to do it – enemy tagging, awareness meters, bushes to hide in and so on. I found that it was a lot more fun to take each level slowly and sneak the whole thing, taking out each enemy at a time. When someone spotted me, I’d simply jump into bush around a corner and they’d loose me. I’d climb up next to a window and defenestrate the next fool who walks past. Being able to stealth all the time meant that I actually sometimes wanted to just run-and-gun some levels for some more variety. Combat in Uncharted 4 is what it should have been in all the past games and more.

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It does indeed

One of the things I really liked about the games of the past was the stories they told. The characterization and adventure of it all really are fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable. However, it must be said that 4’s is the best. It’s a lot less silly and more grounded in reality but in a good way. Somehow, the treasure not being some mystical and unexplained force made it all a lot easier to get into. In 2 particularly, it was about saving the world. 4 is about finding billions of dollars worth of treasure. I prefer the latter motivation if I’m brutally honest; it seems more human.

I also preferred the choice made to drop all the characters constantly questioning whether the end goal is worth the means. Every uncharted game has some point where a character asks Nathan, “This big pile of treasure or whatever you’re looking for is totally not worth risking your life for! Quit while you’re ahead!” It gets a bit tedious after a while. In 4, Nathan is only doing this because he has to. He’s not actually interested in the treasure because of money, he’s interested in the treasure because he needs the money for reasons that are explained in the plot. His motivations for risking his life in the way he does is much more relatable and that is another thing that makes the plot more enjoyable. You feel like you’re in it together and you can get right on board with it.

The game also admits that Uncharted is a bit of a rip-off of Indiana Jones. There are so many references I could point out. From talk of people being abducted by inter-dimensional beings to ‘bad dates’ while looking at some grave stones. I don’t know why I enjoyed this so much, but I really did. By the way, when the character in question mentioned the inter-dimensional beings, they also remarked that they thought this was a stupid idea. I liked that one particularly.

As always with Naughty Dog, the graphics are incredible when you consider the hardware the game is running on and will leave anyone in awe of how amazing and wonderful the world is. Uncharted 4 brings it to another level of incredible graphics. The world looks so real, the people resemble real humans to a startling level of accuracy. If only my PS4 would keep a little quiet, instead of imitating an industrial hair dryer, trying to keep cool while rendering these complex and beautiful images, but that’s a criticism of PS4 rather than this game.

It’s actually a little bit surreal. I was used to the thoroughly PS3 looking people in the prior games but in this new game, all the people look the same but so much more clear. It’s like when a character in a video game is based on a real person and the first time you see them is after playing the game they were in. They look so much the same but also different and it’s a little bit unsettling.

Some change must have happened in Naughtydog before The Last Of Us; they’re doing much more story driven games. I like it; they are very good at it. The best – no one better. Finishing Uncharted 4 made me excited for whatever games Naughtydog plan to do next. The Last of Us 2 cannot come quicker – if it’s anything like the first one and Uncharted 4, it’ll be a very compelling reason to get a PS4.