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Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

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Star Wars is a dominant force at the box office, particularly since the Disney acquisition of 2012. Oh sure, there have been some disappointments where a film only made a ludicrous amount of money as opposed to an unholy chunk of change – take a bow, Solo – but ultimately the tale set in a galaxy far, far away is doing fine. So, it has to be asked, where are the video games?

Back in the day, Star Wars video games rained from the heavens. You couldn’t get away from them! And while the quality varied, there were a shitload of options to choose from. Lately, the pickings have been slim. Star Wars: Battlefront in 2015 and its sequel, Star Wars: Battlefront II have been the main entries in recent times and if you don’t like online multiplayer shooters and want, instead, to focus on a single player story-driven adventure… Tough titty, Padawan. That all changes with Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, a single player adventure that succeeds in a number of key areas, but could use further training in others.

Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order puts you in the scuffed boots of Cal Kestis, space ranga and Jedi on the run. Ever since Order 66 (where Palpatine attempted to exterminate the Jedi in Revenge of the Sith), life has been tough for the few remaining Jedi, and Cal has to live like a normal person, hiding his abilities and connection with the Force. Everything changes when the Empire finally tracks him down and he must team up with former Jedi Knight, Cere Junda and affable ship captain Greez Dritus. The trio travel from planet to planet, with Cal attempting to regain his powers, solve a larger mystery and defeat the forces aligned against him.

In practical terms, Fallen Order plays a bit like a combination of Uncharted and Dark Souls. Cal arrives at a new area, explores a bunch, gains XP, creates shortcuts and will eventually fight a boss. If he dies, he spawns back at the last meditation point (the bonfire analogue) and needs to retrieve his lost XP from his murderer. Oh, and all the enemies have respawned in the meantime.

There’s no story rationalisation for this mechanic and it feels very bolted on, as if developers Respawn Entertainment just said, ‘hey, Dark Souls is cool, let’s do that too’, and never thought about it any harder than that.

The problem with the comparison is that, FromSoftware’s games have precision, nuance and strategy baked onto the combat. Fallen Order’s combat is very janky and imprecise, often leading to cheap deaths or unearned victories. You do get used to it over time, and the lightsaber battles certainly look cool, but it feels like a missed opportunity.

Honestly, the Uncharted side of things isn’t all that much better, with the jumping and wall-running feeling a little loose and imprecise as well, which can sap some of the joy from the game’s big setpieces.

So, ultimately, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order is going to require you meeting it halfway. Can you forgive the combat jank, the stiff controls and the frequent bugs (particularly on the PS4 Pro)? Can you look past the dozen minor annoyances and drink in the engaging, if unspectacular, story? Are you so starved for Star Wars video game content that ‘pretty good’ is good enough? If the answer is yes, then you’ll likely really dig Fallen Order. For the rest of us, it’s a decent Star Wars adventure that feels like it could have used another six months in development to truly be a new hope.

 
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Death Stranding

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As the credits finally rolled on my playthrough of Death Stranding, I was reminded of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks season three from 2017. Not so much because of the shared themes and symbolism inherent to both, although a case could be made, but more the realisation that what I was experiencing was the unfiltered work of an artist who was creating something without compromise. Adore it, loathe or just plain don’t understand it, Twin Peaks season 3 was exactly what Lynch wanted to make. Even with its maddening ending and chronic overuse of Kyle MacLachlan’s “Dougie” alter-ego, which was cute at first but got very old. So too it is with Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, an overlong, indulgent work with some amazing moments but far too much of the video game equivalent of Dougie.

Death Stranding puts the player in the rapidly deteriorating boots of Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus), who is a gruff squinty man with a complicated past who delivers packages to people in a post-apocalyptic America. But this isn’t your usual apocalypse, there are no zombies roaming around here, just empty vistas of space, delivery-obsessed psychos called MULEs and invisible ghosts called BTs (Beached Things) who drag you into an inky underworld. As he travels vast distances, mostly on foot, Sam will meet characters, form alliances and slowly unravel the mystery of why the world is in such a sorry state (and who, in fact, he really is).

There’s been a lot of talk from creator Hideo Kojima that Death Stranding is a brand new genre of game, unlike anything we’ve seen before. This statement is, honestly, nonsense. While Hideo’s usual surreal, lengthy cutscenes and striking imagery are present and feel unique to the mad auteur, the vast majority of the gameplay in Death Stranding is from the ‘fetch quest’ oeuvre. You’ll lob up to a location, speak to a hologram, take a package, deliver it bloody ages away, connect the person to the Chiral Network, get another package and lob off to deliver that. You’ll do this over and over again during the course of the game, traveling from flatlands to rocky hills, to snowy mountains to dead-looking beaches. The scenery will change but the gameplay will mostly remain the same. Package, deliver, connect, new package. Rinse and repeat.

There’s a middle section of Death Stranding where you find your groove and begin to enjoy the delivery process; usually when you’ve unlocked motorbikes or mech suits that move faster and enough weapons to stave off any attacks. Plus, the game’s online element, where other players can leave helpful materials, vehicles and even structures, is a wonderful addition and the game’s saving grace. However, much like the world in which it exists, Death Stranding suffers from dripping entropy. Hours of back and forth, followed by cut scenes, and then more back and forth is intriguing for a while, but by the time you reach the third act you’ll be begging the damn thing to end.

Kojima has always been a weird cat, but in the Metal Gear series he tempered his eccentricities with fascinating, ever-evolving gameplay. In Death Stranding you’re basically a postie who has to look after a baby strapped to his chest. Schlepping parcels for people is a curious choice for a gameplay loop, and there is joy to be found when you’ve crested the top of a mountain and one of the many songs from the game’s gorgeous soundtrack kicks in, but by the tenth time that happens it loses its sense of rueful pathos and begins to feel like a bit of a piss take.

Look, here’s the thing. Stuff like Death Stranding or Twin Peaks lean heavily into the art side of the entertainment equation and your enjoyment will be very subjective. Some people will probably really grok with Death Stranding’s meditative pace and repetitive structure, just as some people thought Dougie doing exactly the same thing for so many episodes was delightful. But for your humble reviewer, the game can’t quite sustain. Yes, the graphics are gorgeous, the world fascinating and the voice acting superb even when choking on some of the goofiest dialogue put on screen. However, overfilling bags and wombling all over creation feels a bit too much like carrying a hefty load of groceries back from the shops, and due to the protracted nature of the storytelling the game only succeeds in fits and starts. Leave it to Hideo Kojima to craft an experience that somehow manages to be simultaneously fascinating and dull – and any game that lets you have a shower with Guillermo del Toro is at the very least memorable – but ultimately Death Stranding is too often a slog rather than a victory lap.

 
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The Outer Worlds

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Just a few years ago, the bar for story-based video games was set pretty damn high. Want a rich world to get lost in? Well, let Bethesda shepherd you through the Fallout or Elder Scrolls franchises. Dig on deep, nuanced character interaction with romantic options? Hell friend, you should drink from Bioware’s cup of Mass Effect or Dragon Age. Prefer to engage with stories featuring decisions that matter? Telltale Games has you covered with multiple options, including The Walking Dead and Batman.

In recent times, however, that seems to have changed. Bethesda appear to be going through some kind of midlife crisis, releasing half-finished live service drek like Fallout 76. Bioware are on fire as well, with recent titles including the desperately disappointing Mass Effect: Andromeda and the baffling Anthem. And Telltale Games? They went bust.

The point is: it’s rough out there for folks who just want to get lost in a good story-based single player experience, without microtransactions, compulsory online connectivity or any of the other slings and arrows of outrageous monetisation. Enter The Outer Worlds, from RPG pros Obsidian Entertainment, and say goodbye to your remaining free time.

The Outer Worlds has been affectionately dubbed “Fallout in space” and while that’s a bit reductive, it’s also not entirely wrong. The game is set in a far future where humanity, being run by various megacorporations, has colonised the stars and you – the player character – are thawed out of cryogenic hibernation one day in the Halcyon Galaxy, with very little idea of what’s going on. See, you are one of the people on Hope, a lost colony ship filled with fellow icy boys, and after you’ve been woken up by the eccentric Phineas Vernon Welles, you’ll be required to go on an epic adventure to defrost your chums and maybe save the whole damn galaxy.

In practical terms, The Outer Worlds has you fang around the Halcyon galaxy on your ship The Unreliable, getting into adventures, making tough decisions, locking horns with corporations that range from benign to downright evil, and uncovering the dark secret that has killed so many. In essence, you’ll be digging into a moderate-sized adventure (20-30 hours or so) in a massively complex universe.

While the lore of The Outer Worlds is staggering in its complexity, the actual gameplay is a lot more familiar. Obsidian created the beloved Fallout: New Vegas, and if you’ve played that game you’ve essentially played this one too. There will be hubs of NPCs you need to do stuff for, and long sections of wasteland full of marauders and monsters to kill or avoid. Eventually you’ll reach a point in the story where you’ll be required to pick a side, or change the stakes somehow, and then have to live with the consequences.

It’s a classic first-person RPG formula and while it is definitely engaging, it’s beginning to show its age. Also, this is a game by a small-to-medium sized studio, not a multi-billion dollar corporation, so don’t expect the near endless replayability of something like Fallout 4 or a dizzyingly massive game world.

Still, if you’re interested in playing The Outer Words, chances are you’re here for the writing, and the good news is, the story on offer is great. Well crafted, brimming with fascinating little details, wry comedic touches and characters you’ll actually want to talk to, this is a title that feels like a good book or a beloved TV series. So, while the shooting mechanics are fine rather than spectacular, and the loot game isn’t particularly deep, the story itself is an absolute cracker, and one you’ll think about long after the credits have rolled.

If Obsidian were trying to prove that there’s life left in the single player story-based RPG, they have absolutely succeeded. The Outer Worlds is an engaging and promising introduction to a new IP and hopefully the first of many games set in a brand new, intriguing, thought-provoking universe.

 
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Destiny 2: Shadowkeep

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What a long, strange ride it’s been for Destiny 2. Launching in September of 2017, Destiny 2 got off to what appeared to be a decent start by including a sizable, albeit shallow, campaign. However, as players reached the endgame it became clear that many of the features enjoyed in the original Destiny had been simplified or removed entirely. And so, began the inevitable backlash, as players revolted and filled reddit forums with much wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Two short and simplistic DLCs followed, Curse of Osiris and Warmind, neither of which did anything to curb the anger. Things looked grim for Bungie’s most expensive and divisive IP and then, in 2018, Forsaken appeared, boasting a nuanced story, new areas to play, multiple game modes and solid loot variety.

Destiny 2 had finally found its feet, but now it had to keep players interested in the long term. Cut to 2019, and Destiny 2’s next hefty content drop, Shadowkeep, is here and it’s brimming with both good and not-so-good, thankfully weighted on the side of the former.

Shadowkeep brings back gloomy goth bae, Eris Morn, for an adventure on the moon. The Hive has been busy building an enormous crimson-coloured fortress, The Red Keep, which looms over everything like a nightmare and it’s up to you and your fireteam to apply a liberal coating of gunfire to sort them out.

The campaign is both shockingly short and staggeringly filled with reused assets from the original Destiny, with whole sections of the map ported over and entire enemies cut and pasted with just a cheeky reskin applied.

Taken in isolation, this is some bullshit right here, however the game itself has been given numerous upgrades and tweaks. Armour 2.0, a more-fiddly RPG-style stat game, has been added and new loot now feels meaningful. Numerous new game modes like Vex Offensive, Nightmare Hunts and additions to the Crucible (the PvP hub) have been implemented, and while they’re not all winners (Nightmare Hunts are a bit bland, sadly), it makes the player feel as if there’s always something to do, something to grind for.

It should also be noted that while Shadowkeep is a paid expansion, Destiny 2 itself has gone free-to-play after Bungie split with Activision. In practical terms that means you can play most of what Destiny 2 has to offer without spending a cent, which for a game of D2’s quality is a pretty damn sweet deal. As for Shadowkeep itself, while the campaign feels a little cheap, the rest of the additions feel like significant improvements. It’s also an ongoing concern, with new modes and content dropping weekly, so for players who want Destiny 2 to feel like a one stop shop, a hobby game, Shadowkeep is a must.

Ultimately, if you’re looking for Shadowkeep to tell an interesting and twisty tale like The Taken King from D1 or Forsaken from D2, you’re in for a disappointment. However, if you want a reason to grind for new weapons, armour and an engaging excuse to sacrifice your free time at the altar of incrementally raising stats and pew-pew’ing the crap out of antisocial aliens, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep is a worthy destination.

 
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Code Vein

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Dark Souls, FromSoftware’s iconic series, has become so ubiquitous and influential in the realm of video games it basically changed the industry. These days there’s a “[Something] Souls” for everyone. Prefer Lovecraft and monsters to knights and dragons? Well, it’s Bloodborne for you. Dig on scifi? Well, friend, The Surge series beckons. How about a samurai aesthetic? There’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice just waiting for your twitchy digits. And now we have Code Vein, which could easily be pitched as “Anime Souls” or, if you’re feeling feisty, “Dark Souls for weeaboos!”

Set in an apocalyptic, attractively cel-shaded future, Code Vein tells a story that is somehow both undercooked and bafflingly convoluted. Your player-created-character wakes to find themselves bludgeoned by leaden slabs of exposition, before being given control and instructions to find blood beads and fight monsters. Happily, once the NPCs stop banging on, the actual gameplay itself is much more comprehensible. It essentially involves you killing monsters, collecting better armour and weapons and learning new skills in the various classes you can summon at will. The amount of in-menu faffing you can get up to in this game is astonishing, and fans of deep diving RPG management will be in absolute fiddly heaven. On the downside, while the combat apes many of the best aspects of Dark Souls, it lacks that fine touch, that necessary precision, that sets the title apart. That said, Code Vein is a much easier proposition, giving you a choice of AI partners who are actually pretty useful in combat and can be tweaked to suit your play style.

Your biggest barrier to enjoying Code Vein, however, will hugely depend on your tolerance for anime nonsense. If you’re a fan of giggly vampire schoolgirls, metrosexual cheekboney blokes with perplexing hair and endless monologues that feel like beat poetry read by someone suffering from recent cranial trauma, you’re in for a treat. However, if you’re a wee bit anime agnostic… you might not get the charm. Within the opening minutes of Code Vein, a scantily clad lady – with boobs so big they jiggle when she frowns – appears, and talks at you at length, rarely getting anywhere near a coherent thought. Pay close attention to this moment, because variations of it will appear throughout your 30ish hour playthrough.

Code Vein is a strange, imaginative and frustrating proposition. It’s mostly fun, and certainly delivers an engaging world, but if a little more attention had been paid to combat precision – and a little extra work done on the story and dialogue – it could have been a legitimate classic. As it is, the mixture of baffling lore, stilted dialogue, boobtacular fanservice and item management will likely appeal to a very niche crowd who, admittedly, will embrace it like their brand new waifu.

 
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The Surge 2

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The Surge, from developers Deck13 Interactive came out in 2017, and carved a bloody, biomechanical niche as “scifi Dark Souls”. This slightly reductive description was, nonetheless, broadly accurate and the title performed well enough to justify a sequel. Well, The Surge 2 is here and while it’s not a spectacular masterpiece that addresses all the shortcomings of its predecessor, it’s still a pretty damn solid effort and shows improvement on most fronts.

The Surge 2 puts you in the boots of a survivor in Jericho City, a sprawling metropolis that is suffering in the aftermath of a bizarre surge that has rendered much of the population bugshit crazy; both human, robotic and combinations of the two. The only way to survive is to fight and the only way to fight is to upgrade. This entails ripping the limbs off your enemies and using their mech enhancements to build up your own armour and weapons, all the better for improving your chances of living just a little longer. The concept of a bonfire (in this case a Medbay) where you can reset and upgrade, but also respawn all the non-boss enemies, returns and while it remains derivative of FromSoftware’s most iconic title, it’s executed well enough to justify its existence.

The plot is a little more epic in scope this time around, although it’s mainly delivered through wooden NPC dialogue, and frankly, isn’t much chop. What does work, however, is the way levels loop back on themselves, with densely packed, smallish areas being home to all manner of secrets and shortcuts. Combat, too, feels more fluid this time around and while it’s not immune from jankiness, there’s a pleasing rhythm to the way the various weapons work and a surprising amount of potential build diversity.

Playing The Surge 2, and indeed the previous Surge title, feels a bit like watching a lower budgeted genre flick that’s rough around the edges but has a decent script and a bunch of good ideas. More specifically, 1995’s underrated cult hit Screamers, which is also about robots getting a bit too handsy with us fleshbags. The special effects/graphics are a bit shonky, the acting/voice acting is a tad stiff but the ideas shine strong and, if you’re a fan of the aesthetic, you’ll likely have a grand old, limb-tearing time on the mean streets of Jericho City.

 
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Borderlands 3

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The original Borderlands (2009) was an engaging cel-shaded looter shooter with an original premise and a unique sense of identity, playing out as sort of a Mad Max variant, stuffed with pop culture references. Borderlands 2 (2012), arguably the best in the series, followed and honed the premise, but added characters you actually care about and a fantastic villain in the form of smarmy sociopath Handsome Jack. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (2014) followed and felt like a bit of a step back, although still fun, and then Telltale Games’ Tales from the Borderlands (2014-15) proved there was a place in the wastes of Pandora for a little depth, nuance and, most shocking of all, legitimate pathos.

It’s no surprise, then, that anticipation has been so high for the latest entry, Borderlands 3, and now that it’s finally here we can reveal the result is… pretty damn fun.

Borderlands 3 introduces four brand spanking new playable characters. There’s Moze the Gunner, with a D.Va-style summonable mech, Amara the Siren, who hits and quips hard, FL4K the Beastmaster, a bloodthirsty AI who can use animal friends, and Zane the Operative, an Irish assassin with a range of clever tricks.

All the characters have extensive skill trees and lots of potential for build diversity, and most styles of play can be accommodated. This deadly foursome are thrust into a typically insane adventure, featuring returning Borderlands characters and brand new baddies, The Calypso Twins – basically homicidal streamers.

There was a real opportunity here for Borderlands 3 to continue Tales from the Borderlands’ trend and offer a deeper, more clever narrative. Sadly, this is completely squandered on a very by-the-numbers plot that ranges from forgettable to downright annoying. Every single character SCREAMS, seemingly constantly, and the ubiquitous fourth wall breaking can become a real grind, particularly in the game’s final third which is protracted beyond reason.

Borderlands 3 is like watching Deadpool if every single character was Deadpool and shouting their dialogue for 30 hours. It’s… not ideal.

On the plus side, Borderlands 3 has honed its shooting to a delightful degree. Gone are the floaty physics from games’ past, with a more Destiny-like feel to the boom sticks, with satisfying feedback and a meaty heft to the weapons. Being that most of the game will be running around equipping new guns, this is exactly what Gearbox Software needed to get right and it does so with much alacrity. Graphics, too, have been polished and while the cel-shaded look is never going to reach retina-stroking levels, it’s engaging and visually distinct from other games on the market.

The same, however, cannot be said for all the technical aspects, as frequent pop-in, lag, glitches and bugs galore plague Bordy to a worrying degree. This occurred mainly while playing with friends, but even solo there are a lot of rough edges here. No doubt these niggling issues will be addressed in coming patches, but it’s worth noting the launch of this title hasn’t been the pearler 2K Games was likely hoping for.

Ultimately, Borderlands 3 is fun. It’s fun despite the aggressively noisy voice acting, despite the frequent glitches and terrible UI and despite the overlong, unambitious story. It is, quite simply, an absolute hoot to team up with your mates and shoot mad bastards in the face holes and flog their guns. The technical issues will likely be improved, the story and voice acting will not, and if you’re okay with that, then Borderlands 3’s blistering ballistic thrills are probably a good fit.

 
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Monster Hunter World: Iceborne

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Monster Hunter: World was released in 2018 to a stunning amount of success, critically and commercially. The notoriously fiddly Japanese franchise has always enjoyed a sort of niche fame, but for the first time ever, general audiences were coming to the party. Now, this is often the point where good games go off the rails, as the need to satisfy a wider market dilutes what made the IP special in the first place. Happily, this proved not to be the case with MHW, and the title retained its notorious difficulty and staggering depth of RPG elements, while adding relatively easy online functionality and many quality-of-life improvements. Now the first major expansion is here, Iceborne, and it brings a lot to the party, and it’s all pretty bloody great.

Iceborne continues the cheerful, but ultimately inconsequential, Monster Hunter: World story and introduces a new (and better designed) hub called Seliana and enormous exploration area, Hoarfrost Reach. As the name suggests, the Reach is an icy environment which necessitates winter clothes and hot drinks to prevent stamina depletion. As expected, it also means a shitload of new monsters are available to hunt, kill, and craft new weapons and armour from their various bitties. It’s basically Monster Hunter business as usual, with a new Master Rank difficulty and a few new moves added to each weapon. Oh, and you can use your slinger as a grappling hook now, to fly over and weaken parts of the monster you’re battling. While individually these changes and additions don’t feel like much, when combined it feels like you’re playing the best version of this game thus far.

Of course, once the main story is complete, Iceborne is all about the endgame and grinding for better armour, weapons and decorations. This is a game, after all, where fights can go for 45 minutes+ and even after all that time, end in failure. That aspect of the franchise hasn’t been diluted at all, and it’s something that won’t be for everyone. Finding the best builds for specific fights, joining them up to take on increasingly powerful enemies and carving new weapons to experiment with, is just as engaging – and pleasingly logical – as always and if you enjoyed that in MHW, it’s even better here. That said, Iceborne is a lot better with capable friends to help you. Certainly, you can request help from randoms, but nothing beats the sense of well-oiled camaraderie, as you best genuinely arseholey creatures like the returning Tigrex or the blade-tailed Glavenus.

Ultimately, Monster Hunter World: Iceborne is a massive, involving and game-changing expansion to one of 2018’s best games. It’s something of a niche proposition, so do your research before you make the leap to make sure it’s your jam, but fans of challenging, methodical, satisfying and strategic combat should be on this like Scoutflies on monster shit.

 
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Nekrotronic VR Experience

Our roving reporter got a first hand demo by the filmmakers themselves, of the Nekrotronic VR experience, and he also got the goss about their hopes for an R rated Star Wars!
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The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan

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2015’s Until Dawn from developer Supermassive Games was an ambitious attempt to create the experience of a trashy horror movie in which you, the player, could influence and change the outcome. Featuring a stunning performance from Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), gorgeous visuals and a lively and inventive story, it was a surprise hit that spawned a VR spin-off and prequel. 2019 ushers in the next major project from Supermassive, The Dark Pictures Anthology project, where a series of standalone genre efforts will try to recapture that Until Dawn magic. Man of Medan is first cab off the rank and while it certainly has its charms, it lacks the lunatic thrills of its predecessor.

Aside from an extremely effective prologue set during WWII, Man of Medan is a contemporary tale about four Americans who hire a boat to go diving in a submerged wreck, hoping for adventure or gold. What they find, instead, are vicious pirates, bad weather and a huge, rusting hulk of an abandoned ship… that might just be haunted.

The concept of a ghost ship lost at sea is wonderful, and for its first half Man of Medan is extremely effective and atmospheric. Voice and motion capture performances are stellar, and the moody lighting, graphics and audio are top notch from the get-go. However, around the back half, and we’ll keep it vague here to avoid spoilers, a twist occurs that desperately undermines the narrative to such a degree that it never really recovers.

Until Dawn also featured a divisive twist, but it was in keeping with similar genre efforts, whereas Man of Medan’s game changer feels like it’s been lifted from an Uncharted sequel. This means that no matter which ending you get – or how many of the cast you manage to keep alive – the proceedings feel extremely anticlimactic.

On the plus side, Man of Medan is still enjoyable, and the addition of a co-op mode adds a new layer of intrigue, further enhancing the feeling of an interactive movie. You’ll certainly be engaged through the 4-6 hours it takes to complete a playthrough, but the achingly deflating (and frankly predictable) twist in the back section pretty much ensures that you won’t be making multiple runs.

The good news is the next Dark Pictures entry, Little Hope, looks fantastic so hopefully the project will get back on track in 2020. However, it has to be said, Man of Medan doesn’t quite live up to its supermassive potential.