Hitman 3: IO hits the bullseye

There’s a moment in the opening minutes of Hitman 3’s Chongqing, China, mission when you realise that there is actually a real-life human being inside genetically engineered killer Agent 47.

The “moment” happens on an over pass near Chongqing’s train station where a young woman is staring out over the harbour, puffing on a cigarette as rain falls onto the neon-lit streets. She asks Agent 47 whether he has seen a woman with a green top. He replies he hasn’t then the woman tells 47 how the woman’s friend has been rock over the year and perhaps she has decided not to come meet her for drinks.

It’s what happens next that surprised me: Agent 47 tells the woman, sagely, that her friend agreed to meet her at 4am, in the rain, and that wasn’t the actions of someone who didn’t care. He then suggests she pick up the tab to show how much she appreciates her friendship. The conversation ends and Agent 47 goes on his way but it’s a powerful sequence with masterful writing. In those few sentences Agent 47 shows that despite a life filled with murder and mayhem, he can show human emotion when needed.

OK, touching moment in Chongqing out of the way, Hitman 3 is a truly fitting farewell for the trilogoy started by developer IO Interactive in 2016 and follows the format bedded in by the two previous games: A handful of locations (this time around 47 will visit places like Dartmoor in England, Mendoza in Argentina, Chongqing in China and Berlin), a variety of targets and multiple ways to reach your end goal.

The opening mission, for example, sees 47 infiltrating the tallest building in the world, the Sceptre in Dubai, to assassinate two wealthy targets – but he’s not alone, this time he’s assisted by former foe Lucas Grey.

As I moved to the entry point in the Sceptre, 47 bumped into a tool box that was sitting on a work platform, spilling tools from the container. I just watched as the tool box – and the tools inside – spun aimlessly for what seemed like an eternity before clattering noisily onto a girder hundreds of metres below me.

As with previous Hitman games, wardrobes, cabinets, dumpsters and freezers are 47’s best friend again – they’re great locations to stash bodies out of sight – and once again, the beauty of the Hitman games is the open-endedness of the game play. There are myriad ways to assassinate targets so they look like accidents using a variety of implements: letter openers, poisons,  exploding golf balls, cans of drink, bananas … and it’s this open-endedness that means you’ll come back to a location time and time again to eek out all its little secrets.

Something I really love about the recent Hitman games – and the opening conversations is a good example of this – is the dialogue from and between NPCs, some which might lead to important information about targets and their movements and others which are just downright amusing and fun and just add to the immersion of the game world.

Examples? One time, Agent 47 was getting getting frisked by a security guard who proclaimed “No need to flex you don’t need to impress me”. Another time, 47 was following too closely to an NPC who turned around saying “Hey, space bubble, buddy”. Then there was the time a commando radioed command after spotting 47 throw a can of soft drink at a soldier’s head:”Eyes on comedian throwing things at people.”

I sometimes found myself hiding behind a desk or object just to eavesdrop on conversations, like the NPC who was lamenting to a work colleague he thought was his friend that he had just been fired by his employer for no reason and could they still be friends.

The Hitman games are all about planning, planning and planning but sometimes, though, the series is at its finest when you bumble an assassination attempt & things turn to shit but somehow, some way, you manage to complete your task and get to an escape point. Other times, though, you’ll make such a meal of it that it’ll turn to custard mere metres from an exit point and there’s no choice but to reload a saved game and try better next time.

Of the locations in Hitman 3, I’d have to say my favourites are Berlin and the Carpathian Mountains in Romania.

Berlin is brilliant because it’s unlike previous missions in that you’re not actually sure who your target – or targets, in this case – is: Just that you need to locate the ICA agents that have infiltrated the rave at an abandoned nuclear plant and eliminate them before they spot you. The beauty here is the game forces you to get close to people until you can identify them sufficiently to mark as a target. What makes it tense, though, is the ICA agents know what you look like so it’s an intricate game of cat-and-mouse.

The Carpathian Mountains mission is brilliant because it’s set on a train and, look, I don’t want to spoil it for you but it’s a no-holds barred, all-gloves-are-off mission where Agent 47 goes weapons free without repercussions. I enjoyed it immensely.

As I said in the beginning of this write-up, Hitman 3 is a fitting farewell to this trilogy and one that I thoroughly enjoyed from start to finish, despite having the odd janky character animation and the pain-in-the-arse always online aspect which does grate from time to time, especially when you get disconnected from the server mid-location!

Developer IO Interactive’s next game is based on British spy James Bond and based on the brilliance that is Hitman, I for one, cannot wait to see where they take Double Oh Seven.

Thanks to Bandai Namco in Australia for the PC code for Hitman 3. I completed the main story then proceeded to visit the locations again, dabbled in some of the sniper challenges and played through some of the contract missions.

Dear, 2021. Please be better than 2020. Please.

As I write this, it’s 11pm on a Tuesday night on January 26. My phone tells me it’s still 27.1 deg. At 11pm at night. I’m uncomfortable, sweating and can’t sleep – so I’m writing. I’m not sure it’ll make sense or be coherent but here I am, writing because it’s too hot to sleep.

Welcome to the blog for 2021 and to be honest, it hasn’t been a good year personally for me so far. Actually, it’s been quite shit so far, if I’m being completely honest, with the sad news that our fluffy companion of six and a half year – Drew – the Samoyed who featured in photos in many of the smartphone reviews that appeared on this blog – passed away unexpectedly on January 10. I’m devastated and he will be missed incredibly.

Anyway, back to the blog and the plan for this year. Frankly, I don’t have a plan for this year: What happens, happens. I’ll hopefully still be supported by the longtime PR across New Zealand and Australia that have continued to support me for the past few years and I’ll be able to write down my thoughts and share them with you as I have previously.

Anyway, games. You want to hear about games. At the moment, I’m playing Hitman 3 (thanks to the fine Kerrin at BandaiNamco Entertainment) and I’m loving it. Really, really loving it and I didn’t realise how much I missed Agent 47 as a video game protagonist until I started up the game.

Look, I’ve played most of the Hitman games – old and new – on various platforms and I’ve enjoyed most of them, apart from perhaps Absolution which I didn’t hate but …. I didn’t adore either. It was just “meh”, I suppose, when I think about it.

These last three Hitman games, though, are special and H3 is something really special, with great locations, great open-ended game play and as always amazing replayability where you’re always going to back to see if you can eliminate a target in some new outlandish way using a rubber duck, a banana or an exploding golf ball. Or perhaps a combination of all three.

I’ll get a review up in the coming days (early next week, probably) but in the meantime, for your viewing pleasure, here is a launch trailer for Hitman 3. Oh, and I really appreciate you for visiting. If you’re a longtime reader, I’m glad you’ve stuck around and I appreciate your support. If you’re a first time visitor, have a look around and hopefully you’ll like what you see and come back again.

Here’s to 2021 not being shit, eh?

Cyberpunk 2077: Is it playable with a four-year old graphics card?

Let’s get this out in the open from the start: This is not a review of Cyberpunk 2077 or commentary on its current state on last-generation consoles. The internet has plenty of discussion on the console versions for you to digest.

I have, however, started playing it on PlayStation 5 (the PS4 version). I’ve played a handful of hours but have decided to park it until the PS5 upgrade is available. I don’t want to refund the game as it was – as I may have said before – a gift from my children for Father’s Day – last year so I’ll stick with it.

A common theme, however, that seems to crop up is that Cyberpunk 2077 is a much better experience on PC. I reckon it is so I was keen to see how it ran on what it probably considered a mid-range PC these days because, let’s face it, not everyone can afford a high-end Intel or AMD CPU paired with an eye-wateringly expensive RTX3090 graphics card. I know I certainly can’t [I’d love to have a better GPU but can’t afford it right now. If there are any GPU manufacturers keen to hit me up you can email me at gamejunkienz@gmail.com…]

So I approached the Australian PR team for NamcoBandai to see if they would provide a PC code so I could testing the PC version on my rig: And kudos to the team, they sent me a code, redeemable through GOG.com.

For Cyberpunk 2077, developer CD Projekt Red recommends a minimum i5 3560K or Ryzen FX8310, 8Gb RAM and a nVidia GTX780 or AMD470. Recommended specifications are an Intel i7 4790 or an AMD Ryzen 3 3200G and a GTX1060 6Gb or a Radeon R9 Fury graphics card.

My PC is pretty mid-range these days, I reckon: An i5 8400, 16Gb PNY RGB RAM & a Sapphire RX580 8Gb, which is something like a four year old graphics card but its no slouch when it comes to performance. I’m playing at a resolution of 1080p on a 27-inch 144Hz LG monitor.

What I wanted to test was was simple enough: I wanted to see if I could I run Cyberpunk 2077, a game that was clearly developed for PC first and console second, on my mid-range (probably low-end to some PC owners) PC rather than a super computer which is what many reviewers seemed to play it on.

Using the optimised settings by Alex Battaglia from Digital Foundry & tweaks by YouTube channel RX580, I set about adjusting settings until I got what seemed to the ideal marriage between performance and visuals.

As you’d expect for a PC game, it has a  plethora of tweakable settings such as being able to adjust the number of pedestrians on screen, contact shadows, improved facial lighting geometry, volumetric clouds and fog and screen space reflections. I also switched on AMD’s Fidelity CAS [Contrast Adaptive Sharpening) which sharpens and optimally scales an image to see what impact that had on frame rate (it seemed to gain me a few frames). I also lowered volumetric fog to medium and Screen Space Reflections to medium. Obviously, I’m not using any ray tracing as it isn’t supported by the RX580.

I played the same story line I did on console – Nomad V – and frankly, the difference visually between PC and console is stark: Cyberpunk is without a doubt a much more visually stunning game on PC than it is on console, even without ray tracing. This is partly the reason I want to keep my console version: I want to see what the PlayStation 5 is capable of when the eventual upgrade lands and that ray tracing is shown off.

Using AMD’s in-built Radeon monitoring software, I found that Cyberpunk 2077 pushes the RX580 to its limits, with GPU utilisation sitting at 100% a lot of the time. Remarkably, the hottest the card seemed to get was around 74 degrees but the fans were definitely working overtime, sounding like a jumbo jet taking off a lot of the time.

My RX580 has a VRAM clock of 4210MHz and a memory clock of 2000MHz. Cyberpunk 2077 seems to be more GPU heavy than CPU heavy [CPU utilisation fluctuated from between 40% to 85%.] A one point I was using 8.2Gb of RAM (the card only has 8Gb on board).

But what about the all important frame rates? In-game it ranged between 36 frames per second right up to 48 frames per seconds. Occasionally, it even crept above 50 frames per second. I had it capped at 60FPS but I never got realistically close to that.

It did drop to 36FPS during the opening garage sequence in the nomad story line, strangely, but then rose back up to early 40s when arriving in Night City. In the van shoot out sequence early in the game, the frame rate dropped below 30 frames per second but that seem to be a common hiccup point for most players.

For the most part, though, the game averaged around 38-40 frames per second, which I’m really, really happy with, given the GPU I have. I noticed the frame rate often dropped to the mid-30s during heavy combat sequences, which is still certainly playable.

I haven’t experienced any crashes but I have had bugs and glitches. I had a weird audio one that made all the voices crackly, forcing a restart to sort it. A couple of times V’s scanner remained on screen even when I had deactivated it. Jackie, V’s friend, walked through an elevator door once and I had a classic bad-guy-caught-in-a-loop-in-an-elevator bug during a firefight. I just lobbed a grenade in: That sorted him out.

I’ve noticed signage (for the most part) and textures are definitely a lot crisper on PC than it is on PS4 version: For example, At the border station in the opening moments of the nomad story line, I couldn’t read the text on the map of the United States due to it being so blurry. On the PC version, it was crystal clear. 

Cyberpunk 2077 also has a pretty amazing photo mode and you can pretty much activate it any time you want during the game then use the in-built editor to tweak things. All the images for this write up were taken with the photo mode and showcase just how damn good the game looks on PC. I’ve also captured some footage of the game play: No spoilers, really, it’s pretty early content.

So there you have it: I’m pleasantly surprised that my RX580, an 8Gb GPU that is hardly cutting edge these days, is able to play Cyberpunk 2077 comfortably and it looks good to boot.

Look, it’s clear to me that Cyberpunk 2077 is a much superior game on PC than it is on console and while I will be playing it on my PlayStation 5 now is not the time: I’ll play through it again with another story line once the next-generation (technically it’s current-generation) upgrade has been released. I have no idea when that will be, though.

For the time being, I’ll keep plugging away with the PC version, dreaming of the day I’ll be able to afford a card capable of ray tracing.

Spider-man Miles Morales review: A new generation, a new hero

In Spider-man Miles Morales, the latest Spider-man game from longtime PlayStation darling developer Insomniac, we have a new hero for a new [console] generation.

Regular Spider-man [Peter Parker] has headed off on holiday with Mary Jane so Miles Morales is left in charge and has to protect New York city from the bad people – and guess what? Bad people come a-knocking in the guise of renegade revolutionaries the Underground and shady corporate figurehead Simon Krieger and his energy company Roxxon.

Miles was in Insomniac’s last Spider-man game and is the star of Netflix’s rather excellent Spider-man Into the Spiderverse animated movie and there’s a nice “Previously” feature at the beginning of the game that fills you in just in case you haven’t played the original game – or just plain forgot.

Right off the bat, Miles Morales looks fantastic on the PlayStation 5, with a much busier and detailed New York than the original Spider-man on PlayStation 4 [which has, incidentally, been remastered for the PlayStation 5, by the way]. Texture work is just insane on Miles and his spidey suits and Insomniac really have nailed, again, the swinging through the city streets mechanic.

The biggest thing that has impressed with with Miles Morales, though, is the super quick load times off the PS5 SSD. From pressing “continue” on the game’s menu screen to being in-game, it’s a scant four seconds. Four seconds. I know it’s four seconds because I counted every single time I played just to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming.

The PS5 version comes with two visual modes: Fidelity, which runs at 30PFS, 4K with all the graphical bells and whistles [impressive ray tracing, particle effects] and Performance which drops the resolution down [a bit] and removes the ray tracing and other things that will impact on high frame rates, delivering a pretty solid 60 frames per second.

With my eyes, I found it visually really hard to tell the difference between the two modes when I was zipping around New York. Sure, the fidelity mode looks a little bit prettier, especially with its ray tracing, but I played mostly in performance mode as movement just feels so much smoother as does combat which feels slower when dropping back to 30FPS. In fact, it’s quite jarring going back to 30 FPS with the fidelity mode, which I did sometimes only because I wanted to take some neat photos with the sweet ray tracing action.

As is the norm these days, Miles Morales has a pretty robust photo mode – although getting to it is a bit of a pain, especially when you’re mid-swing [You have to hit the pause button then scroll down to photo mode]. There must be a better way of accessing it that I don’t know about. All the photos in this review were taken from the game’s photo mode.

Spider-man Miles Morales is the game to show off to your friends and family just what the PS5 can do in terms of graphical grunt and speedy load times. It’s also a game that shows off what a talent development studio like Insomniac can do: I can only imagine what the company will be releasing with a few more years PS5 development experience under it’s already impressive belt.

I wait in anticipation.

D-Link DCS-8302LH HD wi-fi camera review

For most people, their home is easily their most valuable asset so you want to keep an eye on it when you’re not there so the bad people don’t break in and steal your tech stuff and bikes. That would just make them cry.

An easy way to keep an eye on your house is by using a wi-fi security camera that lets you view footage beaming from the camera in real-time then record any dodgy persons or notifies you that there’s some motion around your house.

D-Link, more commonly know for its routers, also does wi-fi security cameras and kindly sent me along its DCS-8302LH camera to test out. It’s priced at $NZ250 and $AU200.

Set up was super easy using D-Link’s Mydlink ap and once up and running you can view a live feed or captured footage straight from the app. You can save footage to a microSD card (you’ll have to buy one as it doesn’t come with the camera), something called Onvif profile S recording or subscribe to Dlink’s cloud-based storage service.

There are several levels of the subscription service, ranging from free (which records and saves a day’s worth of footage to the cloud and allows up to three cameras) to yearly at $NZ99 a year (which saves a month’s worth at a time and lets you connect up to 10 cameras). Being of Scottish descent, I was happy with the free subscription as my motto is “If you can get something for free, why not?”

The DCS-8302LH has a 2 megapixel lens captures footage in full HD (1080p, 30FPS), has a two-way microphone and an IR sensor which lets you capture footage day and night, an ethernet port if you don’t want to connect it via wi-fi. The camera connects using the 802.11n/g wireless protocol over the 2.4Ghz band. The field of view is 135 degrees. Oh, there’s also a siren, if you’re wanting a siren to alert everyone.

You can also set the camera to capture using audio, motion or person detection and there is also a privacy mode. You can set the camera either indoors or outdoors (D-Link recommends if it’s outdoors it under house eves or shelter) but if you install it outside, you’ll need to ensure there is a fixed power source nearby as I don’t recommend an extension cord!

The D-Link DCS-8302LH in its natural habitat. Note the fluffy dog lurking nearby …

The only issue I had in setting up the camera was that the mounting bracket – which would let me secure the camera to a pole or wall – was already attached to the base of the camera and was incredibly hard to screw loose. Not that I planned to attach it to anything but I wanted to see how easy it was to do. I eventually had to use a bread & butter knife to twist it counter clockwise to loosen it as it seemed near impossible by hand. After that initial “assistance”, it was much easier to remove.

I tested the camera positioned in a variety of spots around my home, mostly to keep an eye on the dog while I’m away from home. It was generally positioned looking out a sliding door or similar. I also set it up looking out over the relatively busy road outside the front of our house that has plenty of cars, pedestrians and cyclists passing past every day. I received a few notifications over an afternoon alerting me to walkers wandering past on their daily constitutional. I was also able to take a snapshot of captured footage then save it to my phone, which is handy if someone breaks in and there’s a clear image of the offender.

I actually found that with the motion sensitivity set to its maximum the camera is incredibly sensitive to movement, meaning sometimes I’d several notifications a day sent to my phone which was actually just the wind blowing a tag on patio furniture that was in the camera’s field of view. One highlight of all the notifications, mind you, was that I witnessed captured footage of the dog trying (and failing spectacularly) to catch a flying insect that was buzzing around annoying him. It was amusing to say the least.

The camera also has a pretty good night mode: I set it up in the house one night, in the hallway, just to see how it looked and it captured me walking to the front door and the dog following behind and sent an alert to my phone. I contemplated leaving it running overnight but realised the dog would create multiple notifications!

Look, I was impressed with D-Link’s DCS-8302LH wifi camera and while it might not be the most featured security camera around (it doesn’t have automatic tilt function, for example) for me, it seemed a reasonably priced security camera that will give you much needed little piece of mind for you, your property and your loved ones.

Win with GameJunkieNZ & PriceSpy

It’s Black Friday tomorrow (Friday, November 25) and it’s a day where many people will brave their local shopping mall to celebrate this American tradition and hope for a bargain or two on a variety of goods.

I won’t be going anywhere near a shopping mall but if you are price aggregation website PriceSpy has predicted what it thinks will be the top video games searched for this Black Friday. Here they are:

  • Fifa 21 (PlayStation 4)
  • Nintendo Ring Fit Adventure (Nintendo Switch)
  • Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (PS5/PS4)
  • Fifa 21 – Champions Edition (Xbox One)
  • Cyberpunk 2077 (PS4 and due December 10)

Liisa Matinvesi-Bassett, New Zealand country manager for PriceSpy, says  “After a crazy year where new game purchases were put on hold due to Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns, we’re expecting Black Friday to be big this year, as gamers will want to make up for lost time.

“In fact, according to a recent PriceSpy survey, 50 per cent of Kiwis intend to purchase something this Black Friday, spending on average $464.

“As well as games dropping in price on Black Friday, with two sparkly. new consoles released earlier this month, Black Friday may also offer a good time for gamers to pick up great deals on older consoles.  But before shoppers splurge the cash, we strongly recommend they conduct important price research,” says Matinvesi-Bassett.

“On Black Friday last year, the shopping category of game consoles was third most-popular on PriceSpy and the most-popular product overall was the Nintendo Switch.

“But, shoppers need to remember – not everything is discounted on Black Friday, as even though the Nintendo Switch was most popular, our pricing data revealed the console increased in price (up 8 per cent).

“There are however some great deals to be found on Black Friday, but shoppers need to do their research.  For example, the shopping category of games and consoles offered the biggest overall average discount on Black Friday, at -11 per cent across all items.  Compared to other shopping categories, the discounts were less significant – mobile phones for instance, only offered an average discount of -2 per cent.”

To help gamers ensure they’re getting the best Black Friday deals, PriceSpy has some tips to prepare for Black Friday:

  • Step one – Be prepared and stay focussed Firstly, make a list of the items you are consciously looking to buy, similar to what you might do with a supermarket shop. You can do this quickly and easily using PriceSpy’s list feature, so that your ultimate wish-list is in the one place. 
  • Step two – Conduct price research Once you’ve compiled your sale shopping list, we strongly suggest you carry out important historical price research. You can do this quickly and easily using a price comparison website, like PriceSpy. Not only will this save you time, but it will help alleviate some of the pressures people feel when sale shopping. Simply search for the product you want to buy and click on the historical pricing feature.  The website will then bring up the cheapest price the product has been sold for by day, so you can get a clear perspective on how much a product ‘really’ costs. So, even if an item is being discounted by 20 per cent for example on Black Friday, shoppers can see if it is cheaper to buy at different times of the year. If the product appears to be cheapest on PriceSpy, then great, you may have found yourself a bargain – move on to step three!  If the product appears to cost less at another time of the year, then this should be a red flag! 
  • Step three – Compare prices across multiple shops Once you’re confident the price being offered by the retailer on the sale day is a good deal, the next step to take to ensure you are getting the cheapest price possible is to conduct a quick price comparison check against other retailers. Again, using the PriceSpy app or website can help shoppers do this research quickly and easily, rather than wasting hours trawl across multiple stores. Even though products have an RRP (recommended retail price), more often than not, comparing prices between retailers can change massively.  Carrying out this research can potentially save you a couple of hundreds of dollars, if not more in some instances. 

Lastly, Matinvesi-Bassett advises that the Black Friday price on your wish list game isn’t as big as what you expected it to be, wait three months after the game is first launched – as Pricespy’s historical pricing data suggests this is when prices start to reduce.

So are you going to hunt for a Black Friday bargain on Friday? I’m contemplating a second monitor for my PC but in the meantime, PriceSpy has teamed up with GamejunkieNZ to give away two of the top two most clicked on games in September.

To enter the giveaway, flick an email to gamejunkienz@gmail.com telling me what your favourite game has been in 2020 or your most anticipated game for the coming year.

The competition closes on Wednesday, December 2, and is open to New Zealand residents only [The winner will need to supply a New Zealand postal address].

Good luck.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla Review: A conversation

We like to try and mix it up a bit around here from time to time so for our Assassin’s Creed Valhalla review, guest writer Dylan Burns and myself decided to chew the fat about it. Via Google Docs, of course, not in front of a roaring fire, with a glass or port or whisky, given there’s no Trans-Tasman bubble between Australia and New Zealand … yet. So grab a glass of ale, yell “skol” at the top of your lungs, and let’s go …

Dylan: I believe that Assassin’s Creed games have passed the point where they are designed to be completed in a week or a month or even a year. As a reviewer, the prospect of grinding out 70+ hours needed to get through Valhalla’s main story and to see almost everything – all in the space of a week or two – to then present to readers a comprehensive appraisal of all that falls within, feels, to me, disingenuous to the way these titles are designed. Instead, they are crafted as something to come back to between games, to get addicted for 10 or 20 hours all over again, before getting distracted for a month or two and then coming back – repeating across the stretch of years until the next AC title comes along and you slip right into that like a transferred child that has been lulled to sleep during a night drive home.

Gerard: Oh, I agree 100% that they’re huge games now, where you need to be prepared to put in the hours to get the pay off. A cursory dozen or so hours isn’t enough in a modern AC game these days: 12 hours is barely scratching the surface. It’s the type of game that will stretch a reviewer  but – and I’m playing devil’s advocate here – I’m wondering whether the daunting task of multiple hours of exploration and game play might put the more casual player off, scared off by an open-world that seemingly stretches on forever with multiple branching storylines. I’m only a handful of hours into Valhalla and I’m quite liking what I’ve played so far: The Norse setting is definitely a highlight but, again playing devil’s advocate, I can potentially see open-world fatigue setting in for me at some point.  It seems more structured than Odyssey, which I struggled with majorly, but I’m just concerned that the game is padded out with too much to do and that fatigue will come eventually.

Visually, the mountainous vistas are just stunning, especially if you’ve trekked to a high peak and there’s no denying the landscapes are stunning and I like how you can autopilot routine things like travelling to destinations by longboat, letting me just sit back and let the game handle all the busy work.

Dylan: I think that fatigue is lessened a bit by the design of things, with blue and white and gold dots all over the map. Each dot might be a little 5-minute side quest or a soldier carrying some loot or a treasure chest with armour or some new skill you can discover – so the random aspect of these is quite compelling and really helps to keep you addicted and flowing on to each point naturally. I felt that Odyssey was AC becoming a full-fledged RPG, with the levelling system and lots of loot. However, here, things seem to have taken a side-step, with levels eschewed for a Destiny-style Power system that relates to the number of skills you have unlocked (on the woefully designed skill tree, by the way) and how powerful your weapons and armour are. It’s a system that sees you less concerned with a specific number, although it still forces you to play in the kiddy pool for many hours, with some areas remaining in the red zone of over 100 or even 200 power recommended. How do you feel about the reduction in RPG systems, and in particular the lessened loot?

Gerard: I’m not sure I completely agree that the fatigue will be lessened due to the coloured dots all about the map: I felt the map could get quite busy at times with all the different icons (synchronization points, monasteries to raid, ports to visit). I liked the idea of the skill tree (designed like a star constellation) but I did find it quite hard to navigate and it wasn’t the most user friendly, was it? I can’t imagine how many hours you’d have to sink into the game to raid a level 200 location. I definitely agree that Odyssey was moving towards the series becoming more RPG-like and I feel Valhalla is still embracing that, especially given that obtaining resources from nearby monasteries is crucial in building up your settlement. I’m not sure I’m 100% sold on Valhalla’s story yet, though, and whether it will capture me for multiple hours but I definitely think it is the sort of game that you can pick up, complete a few quests, level up a bit, then move onto something else. I don’t think it’s really designed as a play from start to finish without interruption type game. Perhaps one of the biggest criticisms I have so far is the combat: It works most of the time but then other times seem quite janky. What are your thoughts?

Dylan: The combat is flat out strange. Like, I was told there is a stamina meter, but to be honest I’ve never looked at it since learning about it, and it doesn’t seem to impact my ability to completely kick arse wherever I go. In fact, the combat is so overpowered that stealth is almost completely broken/unnecessary in this game. There is absolutely no reason to stealth any section when you can run in and completely slaughter 30 enemies without fearing for your health bar or any other consequence. The only time difficulty enters into the equation is if you try and attack enemies in an area above your recommended level – but if you stick around the zones the game leads you through, you’ll cruise. 

I can see that they tried to make the combat a bit more involved, though. Parrying is essential if you want to beat bosses, and there are impossible-to-block moves (indicated by red flashes from enemies) where you need to roll away. You can also wear down enemy stamina by using heavy attacks, which then opens them up to a devastating blow by pressing in R. But again, I am getting by just fine spamming the crap out of light attack and dodging around. This is combined with enemy AI that is absolutely woeful. You can take out half a camp and still have the other half completely oblivious to the ten-minute battle that just took place next to them. 

I’ve had guards see me and not react while I mosey up to them and kill them with one blow. I’ve had them chase me for all of a few metres, before giving up and returning to patrol. They are perhaps the stupidest they’ve ever been in this series. Even the zealots are bereft of brains. I had one zealot attack me during a mission (this was a random encounter, he wasn’t scripted to be aggressive to me) and then when I lost him by hiding behind a rock, his aggressive state disappeared and he proceeded to converse with me as if he was just passing by – “Oh, isn’t it a nice day, Dane – see you later!” (I am paraphrasing here). The game is also really buggy. I’ve had lots of quests bug out on me, including a couple of freezes and crashes. It’s not at all stable and I can’t help but feel that perhaps that long tail of playing that we’ve talked about can only benefit the devs as they support and refine the experience with patches.

Gerard: I’ve assassinated a few enemies in enemy camps but just because that’s what I feel I should do from time to time: I am supposed to be an assassin, after all, although I’m not not sure the whole “stealth” game was really favoured with the vikings. You’re right about the enemy AI, too: I managed to clear one camp out without anyone being aware of what was going on around them. Oh, I think one of them got slightly intrigued but that was about it. 

Something you haven’t touched upon is the “real world”/Animus segments and I completely forgot they were part of the series janked back into the real world environment and had to endure some really cringe dialogue. These segments just don’t feel like they belong anymore and, maybe it’s because I’m not a fan of the Animus sections at all, they just felt shoehorned in there and are perhaps indicative of the AC series becoming more bloated with content with each iteration.

I’ve had the odd “player stuck on the environment” bug and one bug that forced me to restart my Xbox Series X as the longboat I was in refused to dock, despite being near shore. Valhalla is fun at times but there’s no way I can actually see myself sinking anything like 70 hours into it. I just don’t have the time or the inclination to do that. 

Dylan: Yeah, it’s easy to forget the future storyline completely, and being forced to play it out does feel like a chore. At least there are many hours in between these snippets, and they rarely last for too long before you can lose yourself once more into the animus. 

Overall, though, I love how Valhalla looks, how it plays and how it feels historically accurate, at least in terms of design and the words they use when talking to each other. I’ve always enjoyed the way AC games increase my curiosity about the eras they are set in (I borrowed and read a huge book about the history of Egypt when I started playing Origins). I don’t know a lot about viking history, but it’s enough for this to feel comfortably realistic, nestled against an absolutely gorgeous rendition of the English countryside, not to mention a breathtaking section of Norway in the opening. 

It’s perhaps not as compelling as Odyssey, with a less defined story that takes a long time to circle around to its eventual direction. In simplifying the systems, particularly the loot, it seems that Valhalla may have undercut a bit too much. However, I think this map is the most enticing and hauntingly beautiful of all the AC games so far, and I just can’t get enough of moving through it, finding beautiful moments and clicking in both sticks to take a photo. I can see myself coming back to this time and again until the next AC game.

All the images but one were captured by Dylan using the game’s photo mode. Thanks to Ubisoft for the code.

Cyberpunk 2077: New trailer

Cyberpunk 2077, the latest game from the minds of CD Projekt Red (the developer behind the Witcher series), has dropped some more media for the upcoming game, which comes out on December 10 – a mere 19 days away.

I’m especially looking forward to the game as my children pre-ordered the game for me way back in 2019 as a Father’s Day present so I’m keen to cash this one in.

Local PR have dropped two new trailers: The first which shows off five minutes of game play and the second, the latest Night City wire min-featurette which shows off Johnny Silverhand (played by Keanu Reeves) and the relationship he has with the game’s main charactyer, V.

Cyberpunk 2077 is releasing for PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 and then sometime next year there will be a patch that will utilise the power of the new Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 consoles. Personally, I’ll be playing on PS5 then probably replay through it again when the upgrade hits.

Enjoy.

Stories Untold: horror without the blood & guts

The opening credits to Stories Untold, an interactive horror game from developer No Code (one of the team worked on Alien Isolation and No Code was behind the very excellent space thriller Observation), screams old school adventure games and Netflix’s Stranger Things.

Even the intro music has hints of Stranger Things (not surprisingly, the artist behind the game poster and logo was an artist on Stranger Things) and the opening adventure in the four-part series, The House Abandon, took me back to the days of my Sinclair ZX Spectrum, right down to recreating the classic Spectrum loading screen – with the modem squeals and the data lines slowly revealing a picture.

Set in the 1980s and made up of four short episodes – The aforementioned House Abandon, The Lab Conduct, The Station Process and The Last Session – all appear separate but it soon becomes clear the further you progress that they’re very much interconnected. Stories Untold is unsettling at times but not in your face jump scares.

The House Abandon opens innocently enough: “You pull up to the driveway of the family holiday home & park the car …” but the deeper you go, you soon realise that all is not what it seems in this once happy family home and something very wrong is going on here.

Played out in the style of an old school text adventure, the first episode has you using commands like look, use, read and open to perform actions: Open door, use gun, look at book, read note, flick switch. It’s incredibly atmospheric.

The Lab Conduct has you perform scientific experiments on a strange artifact known only as “23”, The Station Process takes place in an Arctic monitoring station and The Last Session reveals that all is not what it seems.

All four episodes do a fantastic job of creating unease and tension without relying on in-your-face scares. I played the game on Nintendo Switch – it’s also available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One – and the only gripe I had was although you can zoom into the text field using ZL, I still had to squint a bit to read some of the text (something that is a common problem on the Nintendo Switch).

Bottom line is, fans of text adventures, shows like Stranger Things and No Code’s Observation will be in for a real treat with Stories Untold. It shows how good writing can create tension and atmosphere without the need for graphic horror.

Big thanks to Devolver Digital’s Australian PR team Doug & Jayden for the game code – and for suggesting I give it a crack.

Xbox Series X: raw power fused with familiar Xbox DNA

Thanks to Xbox ANZ, I’ve had an Xbox Series X for the past couple of weeks to put it through its paces. Here are my thoughts, for what their worth, on Xbox’s vision for next-generation gaming.

In a handful of hours – less than six, if we’re counting – the Xbox Series X and it’s smaller sibling the Xbox Series S will launch in New Zealand and Australia.

Come the stroke of midnight on November 10, Australasian gamers will be able to get their hands on the new generation of gaming machines. Sony’s PlayStation 5 launches in New Zealand and Australia two days later on November 12. Without a doubt, it’s definitely an exciting time to be a console gamer.

Much has been made of the Xbox Series X’s design: Yes, it kind of looks like a fridge. Yes, it looks like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in all honesty, it’s no bulker than the original Xbox’s footprint, which was a hearty boy for sure, and it was actually more compact than I was expecting. It is hefty, though.

Unsurprisingly, given the consoles roots, it reminds me more of a PC than previous consoles thanks to its mini-tower design. I have it sitting vertically next to my Samsung Series 8 4K TV and it doesn’t look out of place, thanks to its minimalist design.

Out of the box, set up is incredibly simple using the Xbox smartphone app. The console updated itself (so you’ll need an active internet account for setup) as I was entering my existing Xbox account sign-in details. From booting up the console to the Xbox logo splash screen was around 14 seconds, with the boot screen often appearing about the same time I’d managed to select the right source on my TV. Using the consoles instant on feature, the boot up was less than 5 seconds.

There was a console update and there was also a firmware update for the controller. It was all remarkably stress-free and within a few minutes I was staring at a familiar-looking Xbox dashboard.

Without any games installed, the high-speed SSD had around 800Gb free and with five games installed, I still had 6725Gb of space to play with. For me, that’s plenty of space but you can expand the storage space when you need it using proprietary storage solutions which slots into the rear of the machine.

Powered up, the Series X actually ran quieter than I was expecting, too, especially given how much hardware is crammed into its tight form factor. It’s designed so that all the heat created by the console is drawn upwards, exiting via a massive 130mm exhaust fan at the top (which has a neat green effect that shifts as you move your perspective when you’re looking at it. It’s hard to describe). The engineering clearly works as when I put my hand over the massive air exhaust at the top, I felt the gentlest of breezes, even when the console was under load.

In a nod to Digital Foundry and it’s technical analysis, I used an infra-red temperature reader that I bought for one of my son’s science projects many moons ago to check the console temperature: At idle, the front was sitting at around 20deg Celsius while the grilled top above the exhaust fan sat at about 25.6deg. Under load – a solid session of Gears Tactics – the exhaust recorded a temperature of 45deg. It was warm but not hot.

See the green colour? It’s applied so that it appears to move as you change your view.

The XSX comes with one controller and it looks like … well, an Xbox controller: That’s not a criticism it’s just an observation. It’s roughly the same size as an Xbox 360 controller (minus the battery compartment on the bottom, of course) but smaller than the original Xbox’s duke controller.

I always have liked the design of the Xbox controllers and the XBX’s feels familiar and comfortable to hold. It also has a nice textured back. The controller is an evolution of all the Xbox controllers before it: The triggers feel more refined as do the shoulder buttons. There’s also a dedicated screen capture button on the face, which is nice touch.

The only technical issues I encountered was after a few days the console decided it didn’t like the HDMI connection on my TV that I’d selected and turned itself off a few seconds after booting up. Changing to another HDMI port, which the TV automatically identified as an Xbox, seemed to sort the issue out.

It’s all about the software, baby

Microsoft kindly supplied a handful of game codes and while some of them weren’t optimised for the Xbox Series X yet, I tested out Ori & The Will of the Wisps, Gears of War 5, Yakuza: Like A Dragon, Gears Tactics, The Touryst, and Red Dead Redemption to test the backwards compatibility functionality. I would have loved to have tested out Assassin’s Creed Valhalla but the supplied game code, while pre-loading the game, wouldn’t unlock the game until until November 10, the consoles launch day which was kind of frustrating.

As time of writing, games that had been optimised for Xbox Series X were Gears of War 5, The Touryst, Gears Tactics, Forza Horizon 4 and Sea of Thieves. Games that would be optimised at or before launch included Watch Dogs Legions, Yakuza: Like A Dragon, Dirt 5, Destiny 2 and Tetris Effect Connected.

Gears Tactics looks great and plays great on Xbox Series X.

Gears of War 5 already looked great on Xbox One but it looks even better on Xbox Series X and performs a lot better, too. Colours are more vibrant, textures are much higher resolution, especially on a 4K TV. The frame rate is much more stable, too. Gears Tactics, too, plays extremely well and is a nice addition to the Xbox family. If you haven’t played it, I recommend it highly.

Ori looks gorgeous, too, even in its unoptimised state, as does The Touryst (allowing up to 120FPS, I understand), but Like A Dragon looks, well, like the Yakuza games did on PlayStation: Nice but not ground breaking.

It’s a shame, though, that Halo Infinite wasn’t ready for the console’s launch (Master Chief is still plastered across the back of the console’s box) as I feel the Xbox Series X really does need a strong console-selling first-party game at launch – and Halo would have been that game.

And how was the Backwards Compatibility mode? It’s good and while disappointingly, Batman Arkham City isn’t one of the compatible games, Red Dead Redemption is, requiring a 7.4Gb update, and it looks remarkably superior to the original 360 format that I played it on: Visuals are much, much sharper with higher resolution textures and much faster transitions between game play and cut scenes.

BC is a great option if you have a large Xbox 360 library and no longer have your Xbox 360 or Xbox One console but for me, I want a new console to bring me new games and new experiences: Not play old games but with better frame rates.

The verdict

To me, hardware aside, the Xbox Series X is more a refinement of what came before, not an evolution: The dashboard is a refined version of that of the Xbox One (to this day, I believe the most impressive Xbox dashboard was from the original Xbox: That was truly innovative) and the controller is a refinement of previous controllers. Not bad things in themselves but I was expecting a little more innovation in those areas.

The Xbox 360 controller on the left, the Xbox Series X controller on the right. You can see refinements in the D-pad, buttons and sticks but the shape remains relatively the same.

I feel Xbox have played it a little safe in terms of UI and controller design, here, but in terms of raw power, the XSX is a winner and I really look forward to seeing what the future holds – and what developers can do with the power under the hood.

I’ve also heard older hardware like the Xbox One series are starting to creak under more graphically intensive titles so it seems the timing is right for a new generation of more powerful console, but – and there’s always a but – I feel all this power is being squandered at the moment without some strong first-party games to really showcase what the hardware it is truly capable of. Those games will come, of course, with time.

For the time being, though, the Xbox Series X has laid robust foundations for the future. Now, Xbox needs to build on those foundations in the months and years to come.