PC · PlayStation 4 · Uncategorized · Xbox One

Prey impressions: Did that coffee mug just move? DID IT JUST MOVE??

Here are my thoughts so far on Prey, the first-person shooter set in space from Bethesda. I haven’t finished the game yet but thought I’d let you know what I thought from what I’ve played. I’m playing on Xbox One using a code supplied by Bethesda

If Prey has taught me one thing, it’s this: Be wary of coffee mugs.

You heard me right: Be wary of coffee mugs. And office chairs. And globes. And bath towels. You see, in Prey, sometimes items aren’t what they seem. They could be the game’s alien life form, called a mimic, that’s out to eat your face.

Set in the year 2035 on the Talos 1 space station (in an era when John F Kennedy wasn’t assassinated and Russia and the US are working together to build the first space station), Prey is, I guess, a re-imagining (of sorts) of the original Prey, with the player controlling Morgan Yu, a scientist/test subject who has to find out what has caused a breakout of the alien mimic life form. As we’ve seen in many games before Prey, Yu can’t remember what has gone before so as he explores the Talos 1 things and events become a lot clearer.

Prey has a real Bioshock/Half Life/Dishonored feel about – and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Half Life because, well, the first weapon Yu finds is a wrench, Bioshock because Yu can upgrade his abilities (through a skill tree)  using augmentations called neuromods and Dishonored because the studio behind the Dishonored games – Arkane Studios – is also the developer behind Prey.

What follows is exploration and fetch quests as Yu wanders about Talos 1, trying to get to the bottom of what caused the mimic containment break. It’s an amalgam of several games, wrapped up into one. The mimics are the game’s enemies and smaller ones are black, spider-like creatures that can suck the life force from humans, causing them to multiply. They’re also incredibly fast and can often jump at you from nowhere. The wrench comes in handy with the smaller mimics but weapons like shotguns, a gun that fires blogs of glue and a pistol is handy against larger humanoid enemies like phantoms, which often have powers of their own and move incredibly swiftly. A nice touch are the service robots – called operators – that can be fabricated to repair your suit and heal you up. Another nice touch is that you can recycle all the junk you’ll inevitably pick up (lemon peels, scraps of paper, alcohol bottles) using recycling machines and turn them into materials, both organic and synthetic, that can be used to create equipment and weapons.

I have to admit that I jumped a few times while playing Prey. It’s not because it’s overly scary, because it’s not, but it’s because I just seem to wuss out when it comes to horror/survival games. I can watch horror movies no problem but horror video games? Man, I need to keep a spare pair of underwear handy. I guess it’s because with horror movies it’s easy to see what’s going to happen. With horror games, I genuinely find I have no idea what’s going to happen.

With no word of a lie, I stood outside the doorway of a room that was bathed in darkness for 10 minutes, not wanting to go into it, because I was worried some mimic was going to transform from a coffee mug into a spidery alien and try to eat my face. My fears are real, people. My fears are real.

I spent countless times – wrench at the ready – inching forward towards desks with coffee cups resting on them, worried one of them was a mimic. Someone I follow on social media said they found a desk with two coffee cups on it – and one of them rolled to the side, disappearing somewhere in the room. I would have lost it right there.

Eventually, Yu is able to scan the environment for mimics from a distance but, yeah, not knowing whether a coffee cup – or some other object – is actually what it appears to be is quite unnerving.

Missions are what you’d expect – go here and get a keycard that will open a door to another area, go to this room to recover something for someone who will give you a code for something – but there are  some interesting side quests that add to the back story to what happened on the Talos 1 before the mimic containment break. Talos 1 is also an interesting setting, too: It’s a living  space station with crew quarters, kitchens, reactors, medical rooms, cargo bays and nooks and crannies to explore. Prey’s story is an interesting one as well, set in a place where nothing is as it seems.

While nothing like the sequel to the original game (which came out last generation in 2006) that Human Head was working on before Bethesda canned it, so far Prey is a lot of fun that really has a Bioshock/Half Life vibe to it.

One thing is for certain: It’s made me look at coffee mugs in a whole different light.

 

PC · video games · Xbox One

Grinding Gear Games studio visit: Path of Exile going console

NB: I originally wrote this story for Fairfax NZ’s stuff.co.nz website but I’m re-publishing it here.

In an unassuming cream-coloured building in Auckland’s western suburb of Henderson (a relatively pleasant, if mostly silent, 37 minute Uber ride in lunchtime traffic from the city’s domestic airport environs),  nestled at the fringes of a car park that’s actually part of a Pak ‘n Save supermarket, something magical is happening.

And on the first floor of that cream-coloured, average looking building is Grinding Gear Games, a video game maker co-founded in 2006 by like-minded guys Chris Wilson and Jonathan Rogers in Wilson’s garage in the Auckland suburb of Newlands New Lynn that’s doing that magic.

One of the co-founders of Grinding Gear Games, Jonathan Rogers, at the company’s Henderson studio.

Wilson and Rogers met while studying computer science at the University of Auckland.  “He was significantly more talented, and I realised if I tethered my horse to this guy, anything he’s doing will be good from a programming point of view,” says Wilson, who also studied finance while at university.

The pair also had something else in common: A love of PC action RPG games like Diablo 2, but Wilson thought they could do better, especially if they focused on the online multiplayer RPG space, an area they felt was lacking. “We were missing a game that captured the feeling of something like Diablo 2 online,” he says.   “We wanted to build an online community.”

Wilson says looking back, it was never his intention to co-found a video game studio – his programming background was focused on the security side of things – but when they saw a gap in the market they felt they could do something about.

So they set to work on making the game they wanted to play themselves. That game was Path of Exile.

“We started out as hobbyists,” says Wilson as we sit on a comfortable couch that leads off the company’s lunch room/kitchen area.

Part of the open-plan office of Grinding Gear Games.

Staff wander about the open-plan office, posters of characters from the company’s game adorning a wall as you enter the studio.  A mountain bike rests against a couch  in a room off the kitchen. There’s a BBQ on a small balcony outside. You can see Pak ‘n Save from the room we’re in.

“We didn’t think it was that hard to make a game. We initially had dreams of finishing it in a year or two,” says Wilson as we chat about the company’s history.  “It was really hard to make a game, we found out,” he says.

Fast forward 10 years, though, and Grinding Gear Games employs a tad over 100 people, the garage in Newlands New Lynn is a distant memory (Wilson tells me that his wife put up with the arrangement until the company expanded to eight employees),  and its only released one game in that time: Path of Exile.

Launched in 2013, Path of Exile is free to play but makes its money through micro transactions for cosmetic stuff like character outfits that don’t affect the game play balance.  The game is incredibly popular in North America and Europe – and it’s coming to Xbox One later this year.

Action from the Xbox One version of Path of Exile.

The console version will feature all the content that features in the PC version of Path of Exile as well as all the released expansion packs.

I have a confession: Path of Exile is not normally the type of video game I’d play if I was at home and had some time to game. It’s online only, for starters, which is not normally something I’d play (I have old fingers so tend to suck at online games and stick with single player campaigns). I have played action RPGs like Dungeon Siege and Diablo but I’m not what you’d call a master.

Playing a build of the Xbox One version, I’m an archer, firing arrows at weird beasts and teleporting around the game map. At first glance, the game seems impossibly complex: There’s something like 1500 passive skills, which themselves can be upgraded using gems. That’s mind-boggling.

At times the battles are so chaotic and frantic, with explosions, spells and electricity punctuating the game world, that I’m not sure what’s going on.  One of the dev team (I think it was Jonathan Rogers, actually) comes over and using magical commands  he plops me into one of the game’s boss battles. He warns me I’m terribly underpowered and I’ll die. He was right: I did die. A lot. It gave me a taste of what to expect, though.

The PC version of Path of Exile has seen 40 per cent growth in the past few months and boasts a base of 16 million players. Grinding Gear has big plans for the game this year, planning to release the full version of the game in China later this year, something Rogers says will be big but also a little daunting.

“Early indications are it’s going to be a big success there. We were looking at some Chinese fan sites and they have rankings of upcoming games and gauge how keen people are on the game, based on posting in forums and that sort of thing. In one of them, we were No. 2 as one of the most anticipated games so that kind of thing is looking very positive.”

As Grinding Gears’ technical director, it was Rogers’  job to get Path of Exile working on Xbox. It wasn’t an easy task. Rogers says one of the biggest challenges was getting the game’s complex user interface working on a gamepad controller, rather than the traditional mouse and keyboard used for the PC version.

“I remember when I first hooked up a controller it played like absolute garbage so it took a long time of fiddling around, of play testing, of looking at other games to see what they did. I do think the game plays really well on a controller.”

“We didn’t want to compromise the console experience. We didn’t want to dumb it down, ” Rogers says, adding the performance improvements made to the Xbox One version have been carried over to the PC version.

More from Path of Exile.

Rogers believes that releasing Path of Exile on Xbox One will open up a new audience for Grinding Gear Games, something that is exciting.

“I definitely think there is going to be a good number of players on console. We want to get at least a million players on console. We want to try and get multiple millions if we can,” he says.

Thanks to Xbox New Zealand which provided flights for me to visit Grinding Gear Studios.

PC · Xbox One · Zelda

My week in gaming: Auckland, Zelda and visiting strange planets

This week I got to do something that as a gaming writer I haven’t done in a long, long, long time: I visited a game development studio to talk about an upcoming Xbox release of a game that’s already out on PC.

A screenshot of the upcoming Xbox version of Path of Exile.

The game is Path of Exile, an action RPG made by an Auckland studio called Grinding Gear Games. If you’re a PC player, you’ve likely heard of it: Path of Exile is a free-to-play online multiplayer game that is hugely popular in Europe and America – and it’s coming to Xbox soon. No release date has been announced yet .

While I have to say multiplayer action RPGs aren’t really my first choice for video games, the Xbox version of Path of Exile is looking pretty good.

Look out for a story from my visit in the coming weeks.

Flying from Christchurch, where I live, to Auckland, where Grinding Gear Games is, gave me a good chance to play a heap load of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the plane – and I’m really liking the game. The portable mode of the Switch is amazing and while the degrading weapons in the game is a bit of a pain in the arse (especially when a weapon breaks mid fight), I’m slowly making my way through the lands of Hyrule. I tamed a horse last night so am now wandering the lands on horseshoe-clad hooves rather than shoe leather.

The new research pods in Astroneer are quite weird, too. This one looks like a tomato, right?

Lastly, I’ve gone back to Astroneer this week after the latest update and I’m not sure what I think about it at the moment, to be honest. I still love the game (which is in early access) and its one of my best game purchases of the last year (along with Thimbleweed Park) but the new update has tinkered with the research tree – (when you land on a planet you find strange objects that can be scanned at your base that will reveal blueprints for technology like solar panels, space ship parts, batteries, etc) – and now research like the 3D printer, which is used to, obviously, print out objects, is much, much harder to find.

Developer System Era has now created a tiered research system but that means it’ll take much, much longer to find blueprints for things like the aforementioned 3D printer and the vehicles – and on some planets the research “nodes” aren’t that easy to find. I hear that the developer is looking at patching the game again to make those items much easier to find sooner rather than later.

OK, so that was my week in gaming. How was yours?

 

PC · PlayStation 4 · video games · Xbox One

Mass Effect Andromeda thoughts so far

I’m not 100 per cent sure what it is but Mass Effect Andromeda just isn’t geling with me like previous Mass Effect games did.

Sure, it’s been a while since I played and finished Mass Effect 3 (and don’t shoot me but I didn’t have a problem with the way it originally ended before fans made a noise about it and Bioware changed things), so things might be a little fuzzy in my old man brain, but I can remember the narrative and dialogue in ME3 being much better than that in Andromeda. Much, much better.

I don’t what it is with the dialogue in Andromeda. It just feels off. It doesn’t feel right. It feels forced and cliched at times. It feels clunky, too, often delivered unemotionally so I didn’t get invested in the characters and what was happening.

I tried to see if I could find my review of ME3 I did when I wrote for Fairfax NZ but I can’t find it anywhere but I know it was a game that I couldn’t put down as I guided my Commander Shepard to the final battle against the Reapers. Andromeda, which is set 600 years after Mass Effect 3, involves new characters, new situations and new enemies as you guide Pathfinder Ryder through the Andromeda system to find new worlds to inhabit.

Mass Effect Andromeda just isn’t capturing my attention like previous Mass Effect games did. I just don’t want to spend hours playing it like I did Mass Effect 3 and Mass Effect 2. Sure there are a shitload of side quests and while some are genuinely fun, most, sadly, are uninspired.

Since I started playing, the game has been patched, so some of the freaky walking stuff and creepy faces has been removed but things still look a little off to me in the character department. Environment wise, especially planet-side, things look really nice. Andromeda is generally a nice looking game – as some of the screen shots show – when it comes to planets and environments but I’m just not finding it as enjoyable as previous Mass Effect games.

I thought some of the voice acting was flat as well, with some of the voices sounded unemotional and uninterested in what was happening around them.

There’s depth to Bioware’s latest game, though, with a deep skill tree for players to customise their Pathfinder to exactly the type of hero they want. Those gamers who love tinkering with stats and the like will find much to keep them busy here as Andromeda has a lot of boosts, buffs and augments to experiment with.

Does her face look a little odd or is it just me? It’s the lips, right?
This guy’s standing just a little too close: Like bisecting my Ryder a little too close!
This NPC is called Angry Woman. Yes, Angry Woman.

The combat was solid enough, with the upgradable biotic powers useful in close quarters combat, depending on the skill tree you were going down. One thing I didn’t like, though, was a Sudoku-like puzzle that has to be solved when you tackle the game’s vaults.

I’ve never been good at Sudoku so these really frustrated the hell out of me (It wasn’t helped by the fact that most of the time you’ were forced to fight remnant forces every time you got the puzzle wrong).

The in-game menu system was confusing to navigate easily and graphical glitches abound: From NPCs doing weird things to stuff just sinking through other objects. I don’t know whether it was just my game but every time Ryder initially excited the Tempest (his spaceship) he wasn’t wearing a helmet but a split second later, he was wearing a helmet (Funnily, enough, Ryder’s squad mates weren’t wearing helmets, though). Personally, I feel as if the game could have done with a few more months in the oven, to polish things up a little.

Look, glitches aside and less-than-inspiring dialogue,  Andromeda isn’t a bad game and I’ll likely stick it out for a few more hours just to see what happens but for me, it’s just not a great, must-buy-right-now game, and that’s kind of sad when you think about it.

 

 

 

PC · video games · Xbox One

I just finished Thimbleweed Park – and all I want is more

About 20 minutes ago I finished Thimbleweed Park, the crowd-funded point-and-click adventure game from veteran game makers Rob Gilbert & Gary Winnick, and all I can say is: When can I sign up for the next game from these two?

Bravo, bravo, bravo, Messrs Gilbert & Winnick.

It says something about the quality of the game and how much you enjoyed playing it when you really, really, really, really hope the game makers have got another idea in the pipeline. Put it this way: I’d plonk down $US20 in a heartbeat to back another game from Ron Gilbert & Gary Winnick

I mentioned in a previous post that during my play through that the puzzles hadn’t proved too taxing. As the game nears completion things get a little tougher but they’re nothing insurmountable.

I have to admit, though, in a panicked moment when a character suddenly became unplayable and was holding an item another character needed I reached out to Ron Gilbert on Twitter as to what I should do and whether the character would return. “They will be … just wait,” he replied.

He was right. Not long afterwards the character returned and everything fell into place. I felt like a real chump, if I’m being honest, but it speaks volumes to Gilbert that he was willing to answer such an inane question from me. He must have thought I was a right plonker.

If you’re a fan of classic point-and-click adventure games like Monkey Island, Full Throttle and Maniac Mansion, then Thimbleweed Park is a real trip down memory lane and a no brainer at $NZ23.99. It was 12 of the most enjoyable hours I’ve spent playing a video game.

Oh, and if you do buy it  and play it and enjoy it, for the love of Pete, sit through until the game’s end credits have finished: There’s a sequence that will bring a smile to the faces of gamers who cut their teeth on computers like the Commodore 64 and old school games (I had to make do with a Sinclair Spectrum and an Atari ST but I still categorise myself as one of those old-school gamers).

So, Ron Gilbert & Gary Winnick, when do we hear more about your next game?

 

PC · video games · Xbox One

Astroneer: The mining/resource collecting/building game that is my go-to game right now

My base in Astroneer is coming along nicely. To the left is the rover I created with extra storage attached to carry more resources. The blue lines radiating off structures are oxygen lines. If the Astroneer runs out of oxygen he, well, dies. The space ship is directly behind the Astroneer.

 

Astroneer is a space exploration/crafting/resource gathering game that’s in pre-Alpha. That means it a long way off being finished but it’s been my go-to game lately.

I don’t want to compare it to last year’s disappointing No Man’s Sky, because the two only share a few similarities, but Astroneer’s developers, System Era s Softworks, made the right decision by putting the game into Steam’s Early Access program. It cost me $24 and I have to say it’s perhaps the best $24 I’ve spent on a game in a long, long time. It’s also available on Xbox One and from the Windows store.

In Astroneer, you blast off from an orbiting space station and land on an uninhabited planet. There you use a space vacuum to suck up resources like resin, compound, copper, aluminum etc to build a base. As you explore, you’ll come across wrecks of space craft that you can scavenge for parts and resources as well as deep caves that while containing vital resources, often contain deadly plants that spew poisonous gas.

As your base gets bigger you can make things like a 3D printer that lets you print a rover so you can drive farther, weather vanes and solar panels to power all your equipment and, eventually, a space ship that lets you blast off and explore other planets in the solar system.

As you explore the planet, you'll come across crashed space ships. They'll often contain much-needed resources and parts that can be used on other vehicles.
As you explore the planet, you’ll come across crashed space ships. They’ll often contain much-needed resources and parts that can be used on other vehicles.

It’s a hell of a lotta fun. I’ve got some videos here of my base in progress, driving the rover around and one of the randomly generated sand storms that will kill you pretty much instantly unless you’re hiding somewhere safe. Oh, it also has online co-op so you’ll be able to explore and create with a friend.

Astroneer isn’t perfect: It glitches out every now and then and my Astroneer has got stuck in structures forcing a restart, but dammit, if it isn’t fun. Even the way your Astroneer dies is comical: He can suffocate when he runs out of air and he sort of grabs his throat then spirals around, falling to the ground. It’s hilarious.

The developers have said the game could be in pre-Alpha for a least a year but they’re firing out patches pretty frequently to fix some of the problems people have encountered. I’ve noticed frame rate drops when I’ve got too many of the game’s tethers laid out and while my Astroneer is carrying a research item.

I’ve attached three game play videos I took while playing: The first one shows the progress of my base as I build; the second is footage of me driving a rover across a planet’s surface; and the third shows a violent storm as it ravages my base. I’ve seen video and photos of some people sculpting as variety of things using the game’s vacuum gun.

Look, I’m loving Astroneer and I’m excited to see where it goes in the coming months and see whether I can boldly go where no man has gone before …

 

PlayStation 4 · video games · Xbox One

Dead Rising 4 review: Jingle bells, jingle bells

Many of you may know that I have a teenage son, Mitchell, who is a pretty dab hand at stringing a few words together as well as a fine gamer (he can kick my arse when we play co-op). He’s a long time fan of the Dead Rising series so I thought who better to give Dead Rising 4 to than him. So I did. Enjoy.

 

In Dead Rising 4, you return to Willamette, the setting for the first game.
In Dead Rising 4, you return to Willamette, the setting for the first game.

Video games have come a long way from when they were first developed over 40 years ago. What was once a simple principle involving sending a little white ball from one side of the screen to the other between two white slabs, has now become a multi-billion dollar industry. The term “video game” is incredibly broad and continues to expand every day as new games that break the barrier of what is considered to be a conventional video game are developed.

However broad this term may be, zombies and video games go hand in hand. Raise your hand if when you think of video games, you think of zombies?( If you did in fact raise your hand, you probably shouldn’t blindly follow the instructions of an article.) All jokes aside, you wouldn’t be alone if you did put zombies and video games in the same basket. In fact, I probably would, too.

The Dead Rising series is potentially the most successful zombies franchise to date, ruling out Call of Duty zombies because technically it’s a game mode, not a primary franchise.

The Dead Rising series was the first zombie, beat ’em up game that I truly delved into and continue to thoroughly enjoy to this day. The fourth installment of the main series brings us back to its origins somewhat, as the original protagonist, Frank West, a photojournalist looking for his big scoop, is brought back with more badassery than ever before.

Dead Rising 4 is set in Willamette, just like the first game, but the world is immensely bigger. Unlike the first Dead Rising, you are not just limited to the confines of the mall the entire time, which is a welcome change, as you can explore the chaos that has unfolded in Willamette since the first outbreak. That’s right! I said the FIRST outbreak. Willamette has had a pretty unlucky run. DR4 is set sixteen years after the events of the first game, during the Christmas period, and one year after the events of Dead Rising 3, though feeling as if it acts as a soft reboot of the series. The Christmas theme does get a little irritating after a while though, I’m not going to lie.

I can’t help but feel as if Capcom have gone for style over substance in DR4, which is a real shame. For longtime fans of the series like myself who have been playing since the first game will feel a slight hint of nostalgia when entering Willamette’s Parkview mall, which was the primary setting for the first Dead Rising.

Willamette Mall in its Christmas livery.
Willamette Mall in its Christmas livery.

However similar the new Parkview mall appears visually, the flow just isn’t the same – something just doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it’s the fact that not as much focus was put into the mall itself in DR4 because it only acts as a transition point from getting one from one side of Willamette to the other, rather than the setting for the whole game like in the original.

It appears as if the mall’s main focus is pointless areas like a lacklustre go-kart track and a shipwrecked pirate ship. I feel like this primary focus on these nonsensical areas took away the nostalgic feeling from the first game and didn’t add any memorable personality. Capcom really missed out on massive opportunity to capitalize on the nostalgia and bring back an iconic classic to excite the fans. Instead the new Parkview mall just doesn’t feel the same.

What I love about Dead Rising 4, though,  is that, yes there is a clear story to follow, (a fairly decent one too, I might add) but if you just wanted to mess around and free roam, there is nothing to stop you from doing so.

If you’re feeling so inclined as to “chop till you drop” without thinking too much, you can, which is a really awesome thing. I won’t say too much about the ending because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone if they decided to purchase DR4, but I will say that it pissed me right off (but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.)

If you’re a longtime fan of the series, this is a definite pick up, as it brings back that classic Dead Rising feel into a whole new story. I wouldn’t say that the story is amazing in comparison to some other big titles of 2016, but as far as a beat’em up story goes, it is pretty great. I do not believe that anyone would be disappointed or regret their decision in purchasing Dead Rising 4, as long as they go into it treating it like a whole new game and not some direct comparison to the original.

Nostalgia is a funny effect that often leads us to believe that what we have experienced in the past is far superior to what we have now, even if it wasn’t. So my advice is, do not play Dead Rising 4 and find every single flaw or gripe with the game and constantly think that it is sub par because they changed a few minor details. Entering with an open mind guarantees that you will enjoy the game. I think that’s where most reviewers have gone wrong. They treated it as a direct sequel to the original, rather than a series reboot.

What Capcom have managed to do is recreate the same sense of absurdity through the game’s crafting system. The crafting is still hilariously fun. There are so many different combos that make absolutely no sense whatsoever but still make for a truly enjoyable experience, there is no denying that Dead Rising 4 is fun. I can’t remember the last game that I played where it was possible to have so much fun by doing absolutely nothing. There is nothing better than coming home after a long, hard day at work, putting your feet up and slaying hordes of zombies with big hulk fists.

A Christmas wreath + a car battery = a whole lot of carnage!
A Christmas wreath + a car battery = a whole lot of carnage!

To this day, the Dead Rising franchise is the only series in which I can think of, where a player would trade an assault rifle for a knife and a pair of boxing gloves. That’s what makes the game so enjoyable. The fact that you can have so much fun with something so stupid as a Christmas wreath and a car battery is an incredible thing and really speaks wonders about what Capcom has been able to achieve with the series.

Dead Rising 4 was played through to completion on Xbox One using a code provided by Xbox NZ.

PC · PlayStation 4 · Xbox One

Watchdogs 2: Hacking in San Francisco

Let’s get this out of the way first, shall we?

Marcus Holloway can take selfies around the virtual city of San Francisco.
Marcus Holloway can take selfies around the virtual city of San Francisco.

I get the feeling that Watchdogs 2 is the game that Ubisoft wishes the first Watchdogs was.

The first Watchdogs was massively overhyped by Ubisoft and I think that was its downfall, to be honest. It was never going to live up to the massive expectation Ubisoft heaped upon it.

I bought Watchdogs on PC but stopped playing it after a handful of hours (I was part way through a mission where main character Aidan Pearce had to infiltrate an inner city prison) because, frankly, I lost interest.

WATCH_DOGS® 2_20161130182756Watchdogs 2, by comparison, is a complete contrast to the original. Instead of being dark and gloomy, Watchdogs 2 is popping with bright colours and sprinkled with popular culture. Its lead character Marcus Holloway is a much more personable and likeable character than Pearce ever was, too.  Holloway is a genuinely interesting character,  even if the underground hacker group that he joins is a little too clichéd and seems like the game’s writers watched too many ’80s movies to get inspiration. Marcus is quite with a witty response and has a swagger about him that just fits with the more jaunty vibe of Watchdogs 2.

With a narrative tightly focused on Marcus’ hacker group using the power of social media and popular media to bring down the conglomerate behind the increasingly pervasive ctOS, Holloway can hack just about everything in the city, from scissor lifts and control panels to garage doors and other people’s phones. It’s intuitive and works nicely and there’s something satisfying about being able to blow up an underground pipe after you’ve driven over it, causing issues to anyone pursuing you. Doing that never got tired.

WATCH_DOGS® 2_20161130180820Marcus has a few gadgets at his disposal, too, to help hack the world, with an airborne drone and small motorised drone, a RC jumper that he can deploy  to infiltrate tricky environments, places, highlight enemies and even remotely hack computers to make things easier as he skulks through enemy territory.

Like all open world games these days, Watchdog 2 is overflowing with an abundance of activities to do but I almost wondered at times if there were too many things to do. Marcus’ phone seemed to be constantly buzzing with a new quest or side mission. The story takes pot shots at popular culture (Scientology for example) but as nice looking and vibrant as Watchdogs 2 is something kept nagging at me while I was playing it, gnawing at my brain.

Then I realised what it was: I kept on comparing Watchdogs 2’s game world to that of GTAV – and Rockstar’s open-world masterpiece just kept on trumping Ubisoft’s San Francisco. GTAV just seems to do open-world so much better than the others. It’s cities looked lived in and populated. Look, Watchdogs is a great game but I guess if you put any open-world game up against GTAV, its shortcomings are always going to come to the fore.

You can pat dogs in Watchdogs 2. Nice.
You can pat dogs in Watchdogs 2. Nice.

The main story missions are the standard “Go here, do this/collect this/talk to this person then move to the next one” variety but I found Watchdogs was a lot more enjoyable and at its best when you go off the beaten track and forget about the main story missions. Doing things like using your phone’s Scout app to track down landmarks dotted about San Francisco and take a selfie in front of it to gain more followers, petting dogs, eavesdropping on conversations. Watchdogs 2 doesn’t take itself too seriously and I like that.

It has some things that niggled me. The police force in particular is really, really aggressive (in fact, I found the security forces in the game in general really aggressive). Once, I slightly grazed a police car as I negotiated a two-lane road. Instead of the minor reaction from the police I was suspecting, suddenly I was being chased by five police cars, complete with a police woman yelling at the top of her lungs for me to pull over. When I eventually stopped, I was expecting a telling off and to get arrested. Nope: Two cops pulled out guns and started shooting. Talk about over reaction, fellas.

I haven’t touched on any of the multiplayer because, frankly, I don’t really play multiplayer but there is something called seamless multiplayer which I’m guessing is when another play can enter your game and attempts to hack your phone. This happened to me twice and  you have to find the person before they download your data and escape.

The first time I didn’t find the guy (he was on an overpass above where I was) but the second time I found the guy hiding behind a bush nearby. He took off and I gave chase, trying to hit him comically with taser bolts: It didn’t work. He hijacked a motorbike and drove off. It was interesting, to say the least.

WATCH_DOGS® 2_20161130180552Watchdogs 2 is a fun game that has a lot of charm and it’s much better than the dark original and it shows that Ubisoft has learned some things as it refines its open-world games. Sure, the narrative is  a little too bogged down in clichés for my liking but I grew to (kind of) like Marcus’ fellow hackers the more the game progressed.

Watchdogs 2 isn’t my favourite game of the year and it doesn’t do anything innovative to move the open-world genre along – and if you’re bored with open-world games that tick all the required boxes, then this isn’t the game for you – but its fun for a bit, and worth a look if you want a game that has an upbeat vibe and plenty of content to keep you occupied for a while.

  • Thanks to Ubisoft for the PS4 review copy of Watchdogs 2.
PC · PlayStation 4 · video games · Xbox One

Dishonored 2 thoughts: Two for the price of one

Here are some impressions of Dishonored 2. I’ve sunk about 10 hours in so far but thought I’d give some thoughts before it’s too late and the game has slipped from the end of year radar. If you’re wanting a review that delves into minute features of how the movement is or how the controls feel, go elsewhere: You’re not going to find too much of that here.  Thanks for reading.

I really wish I had the far reach power that Emily Kaldwin in Dishonored 2 has.

Far reach gives Emily the ability to reach high obstacles or cover distance in a short space of time. Once it’s upgraded, you can also grab objects and generally cause havoc around the cities of Dunwall and Karnaca.

Dishonored 2_20161124204212I’ve already thought long and hard how I’d used far reach. SHAZAM! I’d far reach to the kitchen from the longue to turn on the coffee machine; KAPOW! I’d transport up to the roof to clear out the gutter beside the garage that I should have done months ago;WAP! I’d transport myself to the front of queue at the coffee van outside work. Sure, far reach is great for stealthing into buildings through high open windows or out-of-reach doors but, man, imagine the possibilities during the normal work day.

Actually, now that I think about it Domino (a power that lets Emily link up to three people together, delivering the same fate) would also make an amazingly good power to have when I’m stuck in a conversation  at a social gathering I can’t get out .

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Emily Kaldwin and Corvo Attano, the two main characters in Dishonored 2. You can play as both, this time (not at the same time, obviously).

OK, domestic use of Dishonored 2’s powers aside, the game is set 15 years after the events of the original and long story short centres around the player having to reclaim the throne of Dunwall after a usurper – Delilah – suddenly appears and seizes control. Expect a tale of supernatural powers to soon follow as you play either as Emily Kaldwin, the deposed monarch of Dunwall, or Corvo Attano, the assassin from the first game and Emily’s father and protector.

Veterans of the first game will know that there two play styles you can take with Dishonored 2:  Low chaos, where you try to be as stealthy as possible, generally strangling people unconscious and hiding the bodies; and High chaos, where it’s hell be damned and woe betide anyone that gets in front of your blade/pistol/grenade/spiritual form as you leave a bloody mess in your wake.

Like the first Dishonored, I intended to play low chaos and after the first mission all was going well: I’d killed no-one and made sure I’d hidden unconscious bodies. Sadly, as it did with the first game, everything turned to custard at the Addermine Institute and my low chaos plan went out the window. From there, it was a mixture of both play styles.

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The heart of Emily’s dead mother, Queen Jessamine, helps locate runes and bonecharms that can be used to upgrade abilities.

Part of what I like about the Dishonored games are the supernatural powers that are fuelled by magical runes and bonecharms dotted about the game world.  Corvo’s powers include Blink, which teleports him to a chosen point; Devouring swarm, which conjures up rats that dispose of dead bodies; and Bend time, which lets him slow down time, while Emily’s powers include Far reach, which propels her to another point; Shadow walk, which turns her into a shadow, and (personal favourite), Domino, which lets Emily link up to three enemies together so they share the same fate. Sure they can make Corvo or Emily overpowered at times, but hell, they’re fun.

I decided to play through as Emily as while I like Corvo, I felt that Emily was the chance to play as a new character that I hadn’t played as before. When I have a spare 20 hours or so, I’ll play through again as Corvo.

Far reach and domino were without a doubt the best powers for me while playing as Emily, and played with a mix of the two and dark vision, a sonar-like power that shows the location of nearby enemies, I was able to generally make my way through the game world without too much trouble. I really like that using a combination of the powers means you can find routes to objectives that aren’t immediately obvious. I like that about the Dishonored series: I you think about things you can usually find a couple of ways to reach a destination.

I played the PlayStation 4 version (I was keen to play the PC version but, frankly, my GPU wouldn’t be able to play the game well anyway. Plus, the issues with the PC version are well documented) and visually,  Dishonored 2 looks nice, with the rustic artistic style of the original that looks realistic in places (faces, water) but stylised in others (buildings, the general world). Karnaca also feels more a city than Dunwall did in the original game, with far more citizens going about their business

The clockwork soldiers freaked me out. Seriously.
The clockwork soldiers freaked me out. Seriously.

Enemy AI is much smarter this time around, almost to the point sometimes of being overly alert to your presence if one of them spots you, as my son found out on his way to the Clockwork Mansion during his play through and had to restart multiple times after being spotted by an overzealous guard (which alerted every other guard nearby). The clockwork soldiers in the mansion, too, are a pain in the arse if you get cornered by one.

On the technical side, load times on PS4 are noticeably long, and are long when the game has to reload after you die. I wonder whether a faster drive would help load times but I’ve no idea. I also noticed frame rate drops during periods of intense melee combat where sometimes you’ll have to fend off three or four attackers. That’s not ideal when you want to block and fend off foes.

karnacadishonored2There is the odd graphical glitch every now and the odd weird thing every now and then: In one mission, an enemy that I was about to stealth knockout suddenly disappeared from view (she was also floating in mid-air instead of the railing she was supposed to be sitting on) & in the same mission, I was suddenly informed that a key character had been eliminated while I was heading towards her office – to eliminate her.  Thanks a lot, game!

I haven’t had a lot of time to play this week (plus my son is hogging the PS4) but I’ve got about three missions left until the game’s finale. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve played so far but is it as good as the original, which I played on PC? I’m really not sure yet. I’m enjoying it but I don’t think the narrative is as strong as the original game’s was.

Only three “missions” to go till I’ve really made up my mind, eh?

If you’ve got any questions about the game, ask away in the comments section and I’ll do my best to answer them.

PC · video games · Xbox One

Gears of War review: Time to rev up that lancer!

Please note, dear readers, this is a review of Gears of War 4’s campaign and not any of its MP modes. If I get time to play any of them, I’ll post my thoughts, but that said, I like single player campaigns more than MP so that might be a while …

I’ve always been a fan of the Gears of War video games.

Son of a gun: JD Fenix
Son of a gun: JD Fenix

In fact, I’ve always liked the series much more than Halo, to be honest. Maybe it’s  the over-the-top characters with larger than life calves and that it has a gun that has a freaking chainsaw attached to it, but I always liked the dude bro chemistry between original Gears characters Marcus Fenix, Dom Santiago, Damon Baird and Augustus “Cole Train”Cole as they battled the Locust.

Set 25 years after Gears of War 3, you fill the combat boots of James Dominic (JD) Fenix, the son of Gears legend Marcus Fenix, and this time around the COG (Coalition of Governments) that Marcus and his pals Dom, Cole and Baird fought for so long ago are now the enemy, with JD and colleagues Kait and Del sort of revolutionaries fighting against the machine that is now the COG.

This is a much more vibrant Gears of War game, at least compared to the dark, gritty colour tones of previous games in the series, and while it’s not unicorns and rainbows it’s nice to see colour that isn’t various shades of brown and grey.

Gears of War 4 Drone BattleGOW4 takes a while to warm up and much of that is down to the fact that for the first couple of hours all you battle are COG robots called DeeBees. Don’t give up, though, as once you start fighting the Swarm – the new enemies – things pick up for the better.

Despite a new developer, Gears of War 4 feels like a Gears game and by that I mean it’s a tightly scripted affair where rooms are combat arenas full of knee-high walls and barricades that you can hunker down behind and pick out the horde of enemies, one by one. JD smacks into walls with a satisfying thump (you can almost feel the masonry crumble as a shoulder slams into it) – and there’s always plenty of cover to move to as you advance. There are new weapons too, to mix things up a little so you don’t have to reply on the faithful lancer all the time: One that fires saw blades, while another fires projectiles that drill into the ground then explode.

Gears of War has always been about arenas where you enter a room, clear out the enemies then move towards the objective. It’s never been about open-world exploration where you can wander off the beaten track.

Narrative has never been  a strength of the Gears games and it’s pretty average here but JD Fenix is a likeable character that grew on me the more I played the game and in a nice nod to the previous Gears titles, it was nice that Marcus Fenix becomes part of the team during the latter stages of the game.

A welcome return: Marcus Fenix makes a welcome return in GOW4.
A welcome return: Marcus Fenix makes a welcome return in GOW4.

It was nice seeing The Coalition give us an older, more grizzled (could he get more grizzled?)

Marcus Fenix, a military man who has lived life as a civilian for 25 years and now lives on a farm, growing tomatoes and generally leading a quiet life (there’s a nice sequence where JD, Marcus and co make their way through Marcus’ tomato plants and Marcus complains that his plants are being destroyed).

The Coalition hasn’t reinvented Gears of War here, and I don’t think anyone expected that they would, but I felt that the middle sagged a little, with the game becoming bogged down with traipsing through Swarm-infested lairs. As you’d expect, the ending has set us up for Gears of War 5.

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Gears of War 4 looks wonderful on Xbox One – it could be the best looking game on Xbox One right now – and on PC, and it’s the third game to be released as part of Xbox’s Play Anywhere scheme where if you buy a digital copy on PC or Xbox One, you’ll get a free copy on the other platform and despite having a four-year old graphics card, I played most of the campaign on my PC. It’s incredibly scalable and my PC managed solid frame rates of close to 60 frames a second at 1080p using a mix of medium and high graphic presets. I was pleasantly surprised.

For a fan of Gears of War, I found number 4 in the series (let’s just forget that Judgement ever happened, shall we?) incredibly satisfying. It delivered all the things I wanted in a Gears game.

Now that The Coalition has got its first album out of the way, let’s see what direction the series heads in the future.