Expansion for The Witcher 3

I haven’t played any The Witcher 3 for some time now – I just haven’t had the time to invest into it – but Bandai Namco have released a trailer for the expansion for The Witcher 3. It’s called Hearts of Stone. Here’s the low down:

Step again into the shoes of Geralt of Rivia, a professional monster slayer, this time hired to defeat a ruthless bandit captain, Olgierd von Everec, a man who possesses the power of immortality. The expansion lets you choose your own way through an adventure that includes recruiting a crew of break-in artists, spending a night partying with a ghost and outsmarting the most bizarre creatures Geralt has ever faced.

The expansion launches October 13 and promises more than 10 hours of new adventures and introduces new characters, powerful monsters, unique romance, and a brand new storyline shaped by gamer choices. The expansion also introduces a brand new system of Runewords that significantly affects gameplay. Each Runeword will impact a different aspect of in-game mechanics and will allow the players to experiment with various strategies and tactics.

Who’s keen to check it out?


Crystal Dynamics’ Mike Brinker talks Rise of the Tomb Raider




A couple of weeks ago at XONZ, I spoke to Mike Brinker from game development company Crystal Dynamics about Rise of the Tomb Raider, the game he felt was the “quintessential Tomb Raiding experience”. Here’s the interview.


Game JunkieNZ: I really liked the reboot of Tomb Raider but do you think Lara Croft has got tougher, more hard-edged over the years?

Mike Brinker: I guess you have to look at what she went through in the last game. A lot of her story was circumstances she didn’t want to be in so she was learning to survive. There were some tough lessons during that survival but what we’re really focusing on in Rise is not just about survival but it’s about she got a taste of those mysteries, those truths that are out there. So now that’s what’s driving her. That’s what she was to uncover and expose to the world. So, she is now going in prepared and is being resourceful about that. All the systems in the game speak to that, right, and that’s about her going after those ancient truths out there.

GJNZ: What have you build on from the 2013 game? Have you built on the foundations of that game or have you tried to push the envelope in terms of game play?

MB: A bit of both. Building a sequel is important because you want to do the things you did well in the last game again – but at the same time you want to do them better – but then you want to get in some of the things that the fans want. Some of the big things we really wanted to focus on was what do the fans want. And the big one was “Bring back the tombs”. [laughs] Really, that was the huge thing. In the small taste we had today [the XONZ Rise of the Tomb Raider demo] we’re going back to those epic spaces and the big grand feel of them. There’s a through-line of history that ties in with the main story for each of them and then bringing back the deadly elements [the guardians] and then the formula for how we actually put the puzzle together, which isn’t just one in one area but multi chambers that solve the puzzle. That’s one of the things that we look at when we think about the evolution: We’re trying to keep what worked but look at what the fans want and what we can expand on. That was one of the key things.

GJNZ: Touching on bringing back more tombs, was that one of the biggest criticisms of the reboot: That it didn’t have enough tombs for people to explore?

MB: I think if you look at what the both the fans and the reviews stated is that they felt that they got puzzles but they didn’t get that sense of an ancient layer of history and that ancient scale, that epic, large unknown spaces that were really more grounded in some of the Yamatai mythos. What we ended up saying was “Sure, that worked for the last game but now we really want to delve into what those history layers are and bring that back”.

GJNZ: How much depth is involved in delving into a story line that contains an historical basis? Do you need to be historically accurate or can you take some creative license?

MB: Those are always great questions in anything creative that you do: Movies, TV, books, whatever. So we take a look to see what gamers grok [understand ] right away – and that’s usually something based in reality. That’s something that there’s a known layer of history, like we look at some of the ancient mythos for stories and characters that are involved in anything that has to do with being invulnerable, or having immortality, right? Those sort of uncoverings that we have when we’re doing our research lead to things like locations and types and styles of architecture. So, we do a lot of research in the historical side but then our creative director, Brian Horton, went to Turkey to do real world research and came back with that, so we bring all those elements in, ground it for a lot of the game, then we start to feel like “What are the elements that make things exciting as a game?”

GJNZ: What sort of philosophy does Crystal Dynamics use for the Tomb Raider game? What is the overarching ethos of the company?

MB: We’re all about being able to tell a very interesting and engaging story with a character that we can understand and relate to and I think that as a company we’re striving to build the best possible Tomb Raider experience through that lens of what’s the historical knowns then what is the interesting and fun aspects of the story.

GJNZ: And a really strong narrative?

MB: Absolutely.

rise-of-the-tomb-raider08GJNZ: In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara has Jonah [who appeared in the Tomb Raider reboot] as her, I guess, companion. What was the reason behind choosing Jonah?

MB: Well, when you look at what I was talking about in telling a good story, part of building up a good character is understanding where those strengths and where her loyalties lie and what some of the driving forces are for her about going through these adventures. So bringing Jonah into the picture is really more about understanding the tie to the last game that people who played the last game can understand but also give Lara some grounding because if she were going after all this by herself without having any person to relate this all to, to bounce ideas off of, you lose a little bit of who she is, how she is, as far as a character is concerned so Jonah is really a key part of that.

GJNZ: Tell me a little about Crystal Dynamics’ creative processes

MB: Iteration is one of the things that we look from a design side but also narrative. We have a team of writers that we work with – Rhianna Pratchett is one of those people – and we really focus heavily on iteration. It’s about “Let’s get something on paper, get it going, play with it, let’s poke it then get it in front of users right away” and say “Hey, test this: Let us know what you think”. So, we do that constantly with level design, system design, game design, and even just the story itself. We do a lot of put it out there, poke holes in it, come back, tool it, tweak it. I think one of the beauties about working at Crystal Dynamics on this game is that we have this iterative cycle that we’ve pushed to its limits.

GJNZ: There was a game play trailer that came out, I think, around E3 that was a very action orientated sequence. I think there was a bit of criticism because Lara was a bit too violent and full-on. I now see that there is a new trailer out where you can do that sequence stealthily. Every player is going to play the game differently so does that create a difficulty for a developer where some player might want to play guns blazing but another player might want to sneak over rooftops? What kinds of challenges does that open-ended design create?

MB: Oh, that’s a great one. So one of the big things about Rise of the Tomb Raider that I’m so happy and excited about for both our fans and those that want to play it both ways is that we have all those options available. So a lot of it is we work with our system to work out that problem. Something new is Lost Target. In the last game, if you distracted an enemy with an arrow, you shot it over into the weeds, he go over and look at it. The moment he looked at it he knew exactly where it came from and where you were – and he attacked. So now in Rise of the Tomb Raider we have something called Lost Target which allows the enemy to look at that arrow and say “I think it came from over there. Spread out” then the enemy force tends to go looking for where it has come from, not “There she is”. So now you have an element of the player being able to stealth their way through encounters so you have a lot more choice. You can go in guns blazing, if you want, and you can upgrade your weapons to do that or you can play it the stealth way and not kill anyone. Just distract them and get around them.

2809266-1424111574-11GJNZ: Did you play the original Tomb Raider?

MB: Oh, yeah, absolutely! That’s a good story too. I remember I was in my college [university] dorm room, right, and I remember discovering and playing this game character who was in these amazingly huge and epic spaces with grand puzzles. The way she was animated and the fluid movement … It was such a neat combination of discovery and adventure that I’d never played before so it’s funny looking back on it: Where I was, what I was doing, what I experienced and where I am now and am able to influence that. It’s really neat.

GJNZ: That’s an interesting one, isn’t it? You’ve gone from playing the game to now working on it. Were you a huge fan of the series?

MB: I experienced a lot of the first Tomb Raider on PC but I remember tailing off for 2 and 3 because I was doing other things, but going back to when I was interviewed for the job at Crystal and hearing where the franchise was going and what they were doing, I was really excited. I was super stoked to not only be able to go back and look at what the origins are but the reboot. So to me, it’s more I had that beginning and ending experience, so to speak, and the beginning was the rest of my future in the franchise. I think I’ve had the best of both worlds when I look at it.

GJNZ: Do you think that the hardcore fans of the series are really critical of what you’re doing? Is there an extra layer of pressure on you to make sure you don’t stray too much from canon? What kinds of pressures are there?

MB: Oh, there are all kinds of pressures, and not just what our fans are after. There are fans who have played all the games, they know all the detail and they will definitely remind us every single time of the detail we may have missed or the thing she [Lara] may have done. What I’m also really happy about our fan base is that they’re able to grasp what we’ve been trying to do with the reboot and they’ve really dived in.

GJNZ: Given the games’ historical basis, what are some of the most interesting things you’ve learnt over this journey of the past two games? over the course of the two games?

MB: Boy, that’s a good one. I think for me the most interesting stuff that we’ve learned is that the mythos of having immortality runs in a lot of different directions, not just one ancient religion or ancient version of something. It’s actually in multiple story lines and people, different ages and time periods. That, to me, has been the most interesting “Wow, I didn’t know that” part. To me, it’s been more of a discovery of all the different threads of that mythos.

GJNZC: Lastly, where do you think the franchise can go from here? What direction do you think it will head?

MB: That’s a really difficult one to answer. It’s hard to say because we’ve been so focused on this one but I think the basis for what the story is going to tell is the evolution of her character and what she’s going to be, and also that layer of history that she has yet to uncover. Those are the core elements that I don’t think will ever go away.

Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection review [PS4]

Over the course of three games, adventurer Nathan Drake, the star of developer Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, has climbed a lot of cliff faces and shimmied down a lot of drain pipes, all in the name of finding ancient treasure, most of it done with a witty quip or a punch or three.

Drake is undoubtbly one of Sony’s leading men and has been given the re-master treatment by Bluepoint Games in Uncharted The Nathan Drake Collection,  and the company has done a great job breathing new life into a series that debuted on the PlayStation 3.

Among the improvements are all three games are now targeting 1080p/60 frames a second, improved environment lighting, character models and shaders, and increased texture detail. There’s also now a speed run mode, if you’re the type of player who likes to run-n-gun it in the fasted time possible.

BluePoint has also added a photo mode, which is common for PS4 games these days, and reduced screen tearing. It’s a nice package.Oh, another nice touch is that the games keep a tally of how well you do in certain aspects (headshot, melee takedowns) and let you know how you’re doing against your online friends.

Uncharted™: The Nathan Drake Collection_20150930105359

A shot from Nepal, in one of Uncharted 2’s most thrilling levels.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves  was always my favourite game of the series, especially its Nepalese locations and its unforgettable opening moments, and if this remaster has done one thing, it’s shown me how badly the original Uncharted has fared since it’s release in 2007. Despite the remaster treatment, Drake’s Fortune hasn’t aged well, especially in terms of game play and when put up against Uncharted 2 and 3.

Talking of game play, any niggles I have are nothing to do with BluePoint but with the Uncharted series in general. Enemies sometimes seem like bullet sponges, even when you think you’ve got them square in the noggin, and at times Nathan’s punches seem weak as a wet teabag. And whoever at Naughty Dog thought it was a good idea having chase levels where you had to guide Nathan towards the player (ie pulling down on the left analogue stick to make Drake run forward) to escape a chasing threat, needs to be slapped with a wet fish and told it was a bad, bad idea.

Uncharted™: The Nathan Drake Collection_20150926101910

Nathan Drake and Sully discover the German U-boat from Drake’s Fortune.

The three Uncharted games look great, especially Uncharted 2 and 3, with the environments now lush and vibrant (unless Drake and his pals are exploring underground catacombs or caverns so things are a little gloomier) but the The Nathan Drake Collection poses the same question that all re-masters of last-generations do: Is it worth your coin if you’ve played it before?

If you haven’t played them before then, yes, the collection is worth owning (and to be honest, the collection is worth it for Uncharted 2 alone), but if you’ve played the series before it’ll be a harder sell answered by this question which you no doubt will ask yourself several times:”Do I want to play the Uncharted games again?”

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A shot from Drake’s Fortune using the photo mode.

Personally, I’ve enjoyed my time re-visiting the Uncharted series. They look fantastic and show how good the tech boffins at BluePoint games are but at times, the game play niggles frustrated me, especially with Drake’s Fortune.

That said, Uncharted The Nathan Drake Collection is a lot of fun, despite the flaws and I’m looking forward to Uncharted 4 on the PS4.

We have to remember that this is a re-master of an already established series, not a remake, so it’ll still have some of the niggles from the the original games. I really, really enjoyed playing an hour or two of each game at a time, just to see the progression between the two. If you you do decide to pick it up, I’m sure you won’t regret it.

Here’s some capture of my playthrough of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune captured using the PS4’s share functionality. Enjoy. All of the screen shots for this write-up were capturing using the collection’s Photo mode.


XONZ 2015 in pictures: A mini, mini E3, of sorts

Last Thursday, I was kindly flown to Auckland (a city in New Zealand in the North Island) by Xbox NZ to check out XONZ, an Xbox One-dedicated showcase of upcoming games and some hardware for the Xbox One console.

The event was open to invitees today but I attended the media day on Thursday.

While there weren’t a huge number of games on display, it was a nice, intimate event where I got to show how badly I suck at Halo MP (there were a couple of rounds of one of Halo 5 Guardian’s 24-player MP modes), I got to play through a level of the soon-to-be released Rise of the Tomb Raider, ate some popcorn chicken and some Mac ‘n cheese balls and then chat with Chris Bishop (Forza 6), Kevin Franklin (Halo 5 MP) and Mike Brinker (Crystal Dynamics/Rise of the Tomb Raider).

My interviews will be up when I’ve transcribed my interviews (I’m still yet to decide whether I just publish the audio of the interviews as is, with all the noise and stuff, or transcribe them and write a story from each one. If you have a preference, let me know in the comments)

I thought, though, to tide you over until I get the interviews posted/written up, I’d post some photos I took from the event. Caveat: The photos were taken with my smartphone (an HTC One M8) and it the venue was mood-lit (translation: It was dark with lots of Xbox green) so they’re not that great but I hope they capture the event nicely.

Disclaimer: A big thanks to Xbox NZ, which flew me from Christchurch to Auckland to attend the event. I paid for my bus fare from the Airport to the city and back again, though.  I was too cheap to pay for a taxi to get me there. 

Sharp looking: The hands belong to Xbox NZ chief Steve Blackburn and he's holding the new Elite controller. It's highly customisable and in high demand, even before it's launched.

Sharp looking: The hands belong to Xbox NZ chief Steve Blackburn and he’s holding the new Elite controller. It’s highly customisable and in high demand, even before it’s launched.

Lego Dimensions

Lego Dimensions

Vault Boy: This fine chap was guarding a presentation from Bethsda for Fallout 4.

Vault Boy: This fine chap was guarding a presentation from Bethsda for Fallout 4.

Bird's eye view: The main area at XONZ was where the Halo 5 Guardian's MP matches took place.

Bird’s eye view: The main area at XONZ was where the Halo 5 Guardian’s MP matches took place.

XONZ: Bathed in Xbox green, XONZ showcased upcoming Xbox One games.

XONZ: Bathed in Xbox green, XONZ showcased upcoming Xbox One games.

Grapple, grapple, grapple in the latest Tomb Raider trailer


Lara Croft’s grapple hook gets a work out in the latest trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider, the Xbox One-bound game that’s due to hit gamers’ wallets on November 10.

Titled Descent Into Legend, the trailer  sees Lara exploring ancient tombs filled with traps and puzzles, and battles the harsh elements and landscapes in her search for the Lost City of Kitezh.

Speaking of Rise of the Tomb Raider, I’m heading to the media day for XONZ, an Xbox One showcase and will be speaking to Mike Brinker, whose lead designer on Rise of the Tomb Raider. Any burning questions you’d like me ask?

Tearaway Unfolded video review


OK, after much faffing about, I’ve managed to get my headset mic [if you’re interested, I’m using Turtle Beach’s PX22 headset} working so that it’ll record external audio so here is my first video review of PS4-exclusive, Tearaway Unfolded, from developer Media Molecule [the makers of Little Big Planet].

Apart from some notes, the narration was pretty much off the cuff so apologies if I “um” & “ah”a little too much or  it’s lacking in detailed content. It’s not perfect, and I’m  not sure if my voice really suits video, but hopefully it sounds OK.

Let me know what you think in the comments section.


Metal Gear Solid V just went all cute on me & update: I’m liking it [may contain spoilers]

Note: If you’re playing it and haven’t got far, this could spoil a really nice moment for you. You’ve been warned

A few days ago I wondered whether I’d made a mistake buying MGSV: The Phantom Pain.

Well, after a few more hours, I can report I’m actually starting to dig it. It’s really throwing up some neat little touches that I’m liking [I really like the shower on Mother Base so I can wash off all the enemy blood from Snake. Thumbs up, Mr Kojima]

I think the turning point was a mindset change. I started playing it more Splinter Cell and less Gears of War [insert any other shooter name here, if you like]. I started thinking  tactically, rather than go in guns blazing [although during one early mission I was doing incredibly well, being stealthy, until a guard spotted me carrying an unconscious buddy – then all hell broke loose]

Then this happened during the opening moments of, I think, the third mission:


Up, up & away: Yes, that’s Snake fultoning a puppy back to Mother Base.

So, I completed the mission, returned to Mother Base to wash off the blood, not really giving the puppy a second thought, then this happened as I stepped from the helicopter.

Oh, Mr Kojima, you know how to generate the “Awws” from me. Nice work.



News roundup Thursday

I know I said I didn’t usually do news, and I don’t want to be one of those gaming sites that regurgitates the same news as every other site, but, hey, it’s Friday (at least it is here in good ‘ole New Zealand) Thursday, I’ve got a three-day weekend starting from tomorrow, so here’s some stuff that’s landed in my inbox over the past 24 hours.

Uncharted Moments

With the Nathan Drake Collection due to drop on PlayStation 4 on October 7 (three days before my birthday), Sony has released a video that is said to contain developer Naughty Dog’s favourite moments from the series.

The 11 minute, 14 second video has some nice moments that should whet the appetites of gamers waiting for the remastered Nathan Drake Collection.

According to Sony, there will be a demo of the Warzone chapter of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves up on the PlayStation Store from September 29.

Sony’s VR headset given a name

sony-virtual-reality-headset-playstationSticking with PlayStation, at its Tokyo Game Show presser earlier this week, Sony announced that PlayStationVR was now the official name for its virtual reality headset.

The VR headset will have a 5.7-inch OLED panel pumping the pixels out at a resolution of 1920 x 1080 (960 x 1080 per eye) but no release date has been mentioned.

Keen to go VR with Sony? Let me know in the comments section.

Let’s Play … Tearaway Unfolded (PS4, no commentary)

The title says it all, really.

Here’s part two of my playthrough of Media Molecule’s PS4-exclusive Tearaway Unfolded. Sadly, again, there’s no audio commentary as I’m still having trouble recording external audio.

I’ll get it sorted. I promise. In the meantime, enjoy the video.

Metal Gear Solid V: Did I make a mistake buying this game?

MGS5Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the game of the moment, it seems, getting rave reviews from critics and fans of the series alike, but here’s a confession: In the two hours or so I’ve played it of it, I can’t get into it, and I’m actually starting to regret buying it. I kind of wish I’d bought Avalanche’s Mad Max instead.

Maybe it’s because I don’t have a strong history of playing the MGS series that is taking over here. The only MGS game I’ve played was MGSIV, and I didn’t like that much either. The Phantom Pain just isn’t capturing my attention. I don’t think about it every waking moment. In fact, I’ve played Tearaway Unfolded, a PS4-exclusive, than MGSV: The Phantom Pain.

I don’t know why the game’s not impacting on me. Maybe I was swept away with the hype surrounding the game, convincing me to buy it and be Big Boss. Maybe I was captivated game play I’d seen that made it look really, really great and I just had to have it. I don’t know what it is but at the moment, I almost have to force myself to play it, to justify the money that I paid for it.

I’ve heard that the first two to three hours will be make or break as to whether you’ll like it – is that right? – so maybe I have to grit my teeth and persevere until I get access to Mother Base and the ability to fulton things. I guess in a game that can give you 40+ hours of game play it’s going to have a slow start, right?

The first hour was totally confusing (Hideo Kojima has a wild imagination, that’s for sure), and to be honest, half the time I had no idea what was going on (I’ve just come across some zombie-like soldiers called the Skulls – this is also confusing the hell out of me). When I’d finished the prologue I was still none the wiser as to what had just happened.

So, have I made the right decision with MGSV and should I stick with it? Will it get better?  Or do I cut my losses, try and sell it and pick up something like Mad Max? I’ve also got Tearaway Unfolded, Forza 6 and Until Dawn to play.

I’d appreciate your thoughts in the comments section.

*I’m going to continue playing MGSV and see whether I get hooked. I’ll keep you posted!