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Red Dead Redemption 2

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The original Red Dead Redemption came out on consoles in 2010. It was a complete anathema to most games, a truly singular piece of work. For a start it was a western, a genre of game that is so niche as to be practically nonexistent. Further, it came from Rockstar Games – a studio famous for creating the controversial Grand Theft Auto series – and yet was a measured, deliberately paced rumination on life in the old west, that rarely resorted to graphic violence or empty snark to make its point. Conceptually and creatively it was a rare and beautiful thing and in terms of the final product it was an absolute masterpiece and one of the finest video games ever created.

The idea of a sequel to this wonderful title seemed unlikely, after all, the first game was respected and critically beloved but hadn’t exactly set the world on fire sales-wise. Despite this, Red Dead Redemption 2 is here and once again the bar has been raised.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is actually a prequel to Red Dead Redemption (and has no discernible connection to Red Dead Revolver which is totally fine because it was a bit naff). This time around you play Arthur Morgan, second in command to Dutch van de Linde of the infamous Van de Linde gang (the same people you were hunting in Red Dead Redemption).

Prequels are always a risky proposition as finding out how things happened is often a disappointment, and probably should have been left to the imagination. Happily, in this case, going back in time was a good move; think Better Call Saul as opposed to the Star Wars prequels.

The original RDR was a focused narrative about a man who is forced to hunt down his former gang members. It had a classic film feel, and easily could have been the plot for a spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood as the man with no name. RDR 2, by comparison, is more like an entire TV series. The mechanics of being a member of a gang are initially daunting, because you’ll have dozens of people chasing you for help with missions, food acquisition, conflict resolution and even debt collection. The original’s mysterious man on a mission vibe is gone, but in its place is a deeper, often much more nuanced look at group dynamics at a strange, iconic time in humanity’s history.

Subtext aside, there’s also a lot going on with the story proper. Dutch and Arthur have come off a disastrous job that ended in violence and loss of life, and they spend most of the game’s massive runtime trying to piece themselves together and earn enough cash to get out of the life.

If you’ve ever seen a western, or watched a crime movie, you can probably figure out that things won’t go according to plan and there’s a bittersweet fascination in watching a group of lawless idealists facing the blunt and thuggish realities of greed and human nature.

Gameplay-wise Rockstar hasn’t exactly broken their mould. You’ll head to various characters to trigger missions, run into strangers out in the world and come across all manner of unexpected events as the dizzying array of systems come together in surprising ways.

You might start off heading towards a mission, but then a woman will call for help from the side of the road. You’ll go to help her and then – bugger! – turns out she was a honey trap and now some bandits are shooting at you. You blow those fools away, but someone witnesses the act without understanding why you shot them and now there’s a witness to a homicide! You chase after the witness, but do you threaten them or kill them? Because the last thing you need is the law on your tail, but can your hands really take being stained with more blood?

These sorts of random confluences occur all the time, often in unique and surprising ways, giving the open world a feeling of life and authenticity.

On the downside, the law are incredibly obnoxious and frequently appear to have psychic powers when they’re giving chase, which can sap the joy right quick when you’re moseying about more densely populated areas.

Perhaps this is Rockstar’s way of making you agree with Arthur who hates the big city and would rather be riding on the plain, but crikey it’ll give you the roaring shits at times!

While we’re on the subject of negatives, it should also be noted that at times the controls are a little clunky. You’ll quite often pull a gun when you’re trying to say hello and punch a horse accidentally, which is objectively hilarious but also a tad irksome. In the scheme of things these are minor, but worth nothing anyway.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is also paced unlike any other video game, including the first RDR. It’s deliberately paced, which is reviewer speak for ‘slow’. The map is massive, and your starting horses are quick to tire, and fast travel options don’t open for ages. You’ll be forced, very often, to ride across lengthy sections of America, but that’s the game training you to understand the rhythms of the title.

The game is slow because the west is slow, drink it in, don’t be in a rush to finish everything, and take your time. It’s difficult at first, particularly in the game’s slightly claustrophobic opening sections, but it becomes seductive and then utterly engaging.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is perhaps not as focused as the previous game, but it’s not trying to be. This is a sprawling epic, a whole series on Netflix as opposed to a single movie. It also has an unexpectedly emotional core that may have you tearing up at least a couple of times, and never relies on the easy cynicism of GTA V or even the constant wry disappointment that typified so many of the missions in RDR.

This is a tale to be savoured and enjoyed, it’s a fine whiskey so try and sip it if you can. Even if you ignore every side quest (and you shouldn’t!), the game is a good 50-60 hours long, so expect to be at it for a while. That’s before the online content drops some time later in the year so in terms of value for money RDR 2 is hard to beat.

Ultimately, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a sprawling, epic masterpiece. While the story isn’t quite as focused as the original RDR, the world and characters it offers the player are second to none.

Gorgeous to behold, fascinating to hear and an absolute delight to inhabit, RDR 2 is an embarrassment of western-style riches and a must own title in any console owner’s video game library.

 
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Call of Cthulhu: The Official Video Game

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H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy of otherworldly cosmic horror and profound loathing has cast a long shadow. How long? Well, the bloke’s been dead for 81 years and he’s still influencing popular culture to a shocking degree. The reclusive, super-talented-but-extremely-racist weirdo from Providence, Rhode Island, has left the world a unique vision of Elder Gods, slimy tentacle-faced beasties and strange cults that have had a profound effect on creative types like Alan Moore, Guillermo Del Toro, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Stuart Gordon, Thomas Ligotti and, look, bloody everyone to be honest! The dude had an impact, is what we’re saying here.

It’s natural, then, that creators of video games would be drawn to his frequently grim vision although the results have been patchy. See, Lovecraft’s stories tend to depend on unreliable narrators, often writing in journals, about things that drive you mad just by glimpsing them. This is a fantastic literary conceit but doesn’t work as well in the context of a game where you, the player, need to actually play. The latest attempt to capture the master’s mood is Cyanide’s Call of Cthulhu, based on the old tabletop RPG which itself was based on one of Lovecraft’s better-loved tales of the same name.

You play the part of grizzled war vet Edward Pierce, a private dick who drinks too much, self-medicates with pills and delivers frequent grouchy soliloquies. In 1924 Boston, Edward looks like he’s going to drink and mope himself to death until a new case takes him to Darkwater Island where shit really kicks off.

Being a Lovecraft tale lots of scary things greet old Eddie: strange family secrets, rough criminal types and terrifying Boston accents; not to mention a cult that worships a certain calamari-faced deity with a name that’s hard to spell and say…

Call of Cthulhu is, ultimately, a bit of a mood piece. The gameplay entails a lot of exploring, light puzzle solving, talking to people, putting together crime scenes with some stealth sections and very brief combat thrown in late in the tale. It is, for want of a better term, a bit of a walking simulator. The good news is it’s a pretty decent walking simulator with a solid, albeit predictable, central storyline that manages to engage for its 7-10 hour playthrough. The characters are interesting enough, the setting suitably atmospheric and while the reveals towards the end are never particularly terrifying – can Cthulhu really be all that scary in 2018 with his current market oversaturation? – they should satisfy anyone craving a light Lovecraftian perambulation.

Call of Cthulhu won’t drive you gibberingly insane with its vision of ancient Gods rising from the depths, but it provides an engaging yarn that is somewhat let down by shonky voice acting and stiff character animation. Worth a look for fans of twitchy old Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and hell – maybe if it does well there’s a chance Guillermo Del Toro’s oft shitcanned At The Mountains of Madness will live to scare the pants off us all.

 
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Soulcalibur VI

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In some ways, Soulcalibur is the red-headed stepchild of the fighting game oeuvre. Not as technical and respected as the Tekken series, nor as instantly accessible as the Street Fighter franchise, it occupies a strange middle ground and has never been given the kudos that is so overdue. Happily, with Soulcalibur VI, the underrated franchise has its best chance at garnering mainstream attention, boasting a generous offering that is easy to pick up but satisfyingly deep to master.

Soulcalibur VI, like everything in 2018, is sort of a reboot, boiling down the various disparate plot threads from previous games, and plonking them down in one cohesive narrative set in the 16th Century. To be brutally frank, the story is serviceable at best, but it’s also quite clearly not the point. Ultimately both “Libra of Soul” and “Soul Chronicle” (aka: the story) modes want to get you into as many varied fights as possible, utilising various weapons and characters. Libra is the real star here, as you can create your own unique fighter and have them enter the game’s world, even levelling up and improving weapons – in an RPG-lite type of experience. Soul Chronicle offers a similar caper but using characters that already exist in the game, it’s similarly varied and offers action aplenty. These modes are legitimately impressive, and really give a sense of depth and lore (even if you end up skipping past some of the denser walls of exposition on screen).

Of course, a decent story offering would be for nothing if the game didn’t feel right, and yet again Soulcalibur delivers the goods. The combat, unlike most fighting games, is weapons-based and uses a combination of normal hits, hard hits, kicks and blocks. Once you start combining these simple elements – and take advantage of Soul Edge and Reversal Edge attacks – the variety is dizzying, but never so obtuse that it gets in the way of fun. Because, ultimately, that’s what a fighting game should be: a kicky-punchy (or hacky-slashy) good time. Soulcalibur VI delivers this and more, a gorgeously-animated, fast-paced flurry of spectacular moves and interesting modes. Feel like the lord of all creation as you tear through Libra of Soul and Arcade mode. Come falling back down to earth as you get your arse utterly spanked by a 13-year-old kid from Japan in the online component.

Soulcalibur is a great fighting game franchise, and Soulcalibur VI is, quite simply, a great fighting game. Take a chance on this unjustly overlooked combat caper and forge a violent path in this eternally retold tale.

 
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Mega Man 11

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The original Mega Man was the first game to almost break us. The year was 1988 (or thereabouts) and your heroic writer was a burgeoning nerd in an era when such people were generally called “unco” and were punched a great deal. Mega Man was the latest game we played on our beloved Nintendo Entertainment System, a deceptively simple platformer starring a robot boy with a shooty arm. As MM you’d make your way through various levels, all with specific themes (fire, scissors, bombs etc.), and fight a boss that was the culmination of said theme. Once you beat the boss you’d flog their power and move onto the next one. It sounds pretty simple in retrospect but at the time that was a staggeringly clever gameplay mechanic. One boss was giving us the roaring shits, however, as time after time we tried and failed to beat them. Eventually we called the helpline on the back of one of the many Nintendo magazines and they told us whose powers us should use to beat the boss. It was a profound relief and a glorious triumph once implemented.

Thirty years later, with three decades of challenging game experience rattling around inside our bonce, we figured the latest iteration of the game, Mega Man 11, would be a negligible challenge. We’ve played through the Dark Souls trilogy, survived Alien: Isolation and platinumed Bloodborne. This would be a piece of piss, right?

Friends, it was not a piece of piss.

Mega Man 11 basically has the same plot as the rest of them. Ubiquitous antagonist Dr. Wily is back with a bunch of brainwashed robots and it’s up to you, blue, to kick their arses and steal their toys and eventually face Wily himself. This time you’ll have the advantage of the Double Gear system that briefly allows you to slow time, boost your damage or use both at once, although you need to be careful not to overload the fiddly tech. The title offers that classic Mega Man-style gaming. Themed levels, loads of secrets, clever bosses and platforming that will on occasion make you want to primal scream at the moon, begging for an end to the horror. See, Mega Man 11 is challenging. To the point where we found ourself notching the difficulty down to [weary sigh] Casual. And hell, even then we didn’t exactly fly through the levels! We try to tell ourselves it’s because we haven’t played an MM game for years, but part of us knows it’s likely that our old man reflexes aren’t what they used to be.

The thing is, Mega Man 11 – despite or perhaps because of the learning curve – is an enormous amount of fun. It’s bright, it’s colourful, the weapons are cool and the feeling of satisfaction you get when besting a beastly boss is as satisfying now as it was way back in 1988. If you don’t like platformers, or prefer your games more forgiving, then you should probably look elsewhere but if old school gameplay with new school presentation is your thing, Mega Man 11 will have you doing the robot.

 
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Friday the 13th: Ultimate Slasher Edition

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When we first reviewed Friday the 13th: The Game back in 2017 we enjoyed a lot of things about it, but we certainly had issues. Poor online connectivity, bugs galore and no single player content to speak of hampered a wonderful premise and a horror fan’s dream come true. Well, in the later months of 2018, Friday the 13th: Ultimate Slasher Edition is here to hack and slash with renewed vigour, so how’s it go? Pretty good, with a few qualifications.

Friday the 13th: The Game is officially a hit. A hugely passionate online community and strong sales have really helped the title be all it can be. That means these days you can expect to experience better online performance (although still not perfect), a more balanced game and fewer bugs. That’s all well and good but what about the single player content fans have been clamouring for? Happily, you can now play Friday the 13th offline, wherein you take on the role of Jason Voorhees and butcher a bunch of horny teenagers – as is tradition. What’s wonderful about this mode is the ability to customise the look of your Jason and the counsellors, pick your favourite location and then use specific kills from the movies. Basically, you can unleash your inner Tom Savini and splatter those dang kids in suitably graphic and gruesome ways. Upload the results to Youtube and drink in the adoration of your fans, because here’s the somewhat sad news: Friday the 13th – both the game and movie series – are on hold at the moment because of a lengthy legal battle regarding ownership rights of the property.

That means no new movies, and no new DLC for the game. Hell, some of the advertised kills and modes for the game have been put on hold – with no obvious outcome in sight at time of writing. While this is certainly a bummer, it’s good to remember that the game as is ain’t exactly a slouch. A strong multiplayer mode, frequently hilarious single player slash-a-thon and, with the Ultimate Slasher edition, all of the emotes and outfits for your counsellors add up to a decent offering here.

For those who have been playing since day one, Friday the 13th: Ultimate Slasher Edition is probably not a must buy. However, if you’ve yet to experience the gleeful, albeit occasionally slightly shonky, thrills contained within, this is by far the best version of the experience. And if you can rope in a group of horror-loving mates to help you enact your Friday franchise fantasies? Then you’re in for a hell of a gory good time.

Do it, armchair Jasons, do it for mother!

 
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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey follows on from 2017’s Assassin’s Creed Origins, a game that represented Ubisoft’s attempt to get the long running series back on track after a grim few entries. Origins was good. Not breathtakingly amazing, mind you, but a solid course correction for a franchise in dire need of some fresh concepts. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Odyssey improves on Origins in most aspects, although there are still a number of issues that need ironing out.

First, let’s talk about the story because unlike many recent AC entries, it’s a pretty good one! You, the player, step into the shapely sandals of either Alexios or Kassandra in ancient Greece, in the year 431 BC. It’s kind of weird that the game takes place four hundred years before the entry titled Origins but at this stage of the game, the series has so much narrative baggage it’s a relief to enter a relatively uncluttered timeline.

The game has you trying to restore your family by tracking down the surviving members. What you do when you find them is up to you, to an extent, because Odyssey has added branching narrative elements, similar to those in the Mass Effect series or Telltale Games titles.

This is a smart move and makes the dialogue sections much more intriguing. In fact, the cutscenes in general are a series best, featuring excellent facial animation and voice acting. The world of Ancient Greece is similarly honed to perfection, offering a staggeringly enormous canvas upon which you can paint your story. Want to become a bad arse warrior who takes no shit? You can. Rather play it sneaky and stealthy? That’s an option too. The skill trees in Odyssey are much more meaningful, offering genuinely different skills for enormously different play styles.

Okay, that’s the good news. Now let’s delve into what doesn’t work.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is massive; like, legitimately enormous, which is fine. But it’s also very repetitive. Particularly after about ten hours or so when for some reason the XP is throttled and the game basically insists you take part in Every-Single-Tedious-Fetch-Quest-Offered. Oh sure, you don’t have to do them all, but if you choose not to you’ll be woefully underleveled for basically every main story mission on offer. This happened to an extent in Origins but it feels even more egregious here.

To make matters worse, the online store offers a permanent XP boost for money, basically enforcing the idea that the game is chockers with bullshit busy work that you’d rather skip and they want you to pay for the privilege. Honestly, this is the kind of shonky crap that was meant to be in Ubisoft’s past and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Now for some people, the kind of gamers who want to do every single side quest, it’s likely not a problem. But it’s a bit cheeky to claim the game can be “played your way” and then drip feed XP in a slow, grindy trickle.

Other negatives include floaty combat, frequent (though not game breaking) bugs and a general lack of mission variety. Still and all, the game looks stunning and when it’s not pissfarting about with the sort of nonsense described above it can be almost sublime.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey offers a decent story, great voice acting, improved (though imperfect) combat and meaningful, upgradable skills in a title that provides an expansive, entertaining adventure that will appeal to series vets and newcomers alike – although not without some reservations.

 
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Valkyria Chronicles 4

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In 2008, The Valkyria Chronicles was released to much acclaim and some confusion. A bizarre mix of military turn-based tactics, strategy and anime-style storytelling all wrapped up in a sketchy watercoloured aesthetic, there truly was nothing like this out there. Even people who wouldn’t play a strategy game on a dare couldn’t help but be charmed by this curious offering. Sequels were released, mainly on the PSP and mobile platforms, and a console spin-off Valkyria Revolution, hit market but none of these games could touch the singular charm of the original. Ten years later and it looks like they’re going to have another bash with The Valkyria Chronicles 4, but can lightning be caught in a bottle a second time? Kinda yeah.

The events of Valkyria Chronicles 4 occur in the same timeline as the original, however the story is told from the perspective of new characters. This is a wise move as trying to follow the byzantine competing narrative threads would be an exercise in confusion. Set on Europa, where the second Europan war is being fought, you take control of a squad of youngsters with silly hair and funny voices. The character designs are, like the predecessors, total anime nonsense. That’s part of the charm, really, but if you have a low tolerance for that sort of thing you should know that going in. If you can get past the rather goofy aesthetic, however, there is a surprising amount of story depth with solid journeys for all of the characters and even a couple of genuine emotion moments.

Gameplay-wise things are pretty much unchanged from the original. You move your troops into position, fight the enemy, move forwards and do it all again, experiencing cutscenes and story beats along the way. The mixture of exploration and real time strategy remains an intriguing one, although the mechanics aren’t quite as fresh a decade later. Graphics and animation are also fine, but not exactly spectacular. Still, that’s not really the purpose of Valkyria Chronicles 4. This almost feels like a more modern reboot of the original and for those of you who are fans of that oddball title – this is a pleasing and engaging tank ride down memory lane.