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Stellaris: Console Edition

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Console gaming is great. Oh sure, your root-dodging “PC Master Race” ballbags will call you a “casual” (like that’s a bad thing!), but you’ll be chilling on your couch, playing games on your enormous telly, like some kind of hedonistic Roman emperor. It would, however, be disingenuous to claim that consoles can deliver a perfect experience with all video game genres. Third person action/adventure? Hell yeah. Online shooter with your mates? Step right on in. Real time strategy games? Ehhhh not so much. Something about that more strategic, fiddly style of gameplay is traditionally ill-suited to lounging on the couch in your trackie-daks with a controller in one hand and a hot Milo in the other. Every so often a developer decides to give it a bash, however, and the latest to do so comes in the form of Stellaris: Console Edition.

Stellaris has actually been available on PC since 2016, and has remained a favourite for fans who like their strategy with a sci-fi edge. The basic premise has you controlling a race – be it human or other – that has just invented FTL (faster than light) technology and is ready to take its place amongst the “species of the stars”.

It’s a lofty, heady concept brimming with imagination and potential, but in practical terms involves a lot of forward planning, micromanaging and sensible distribution of resources. This sort of gameplay is practically custom-designed for PCs, with keyboards offering numerous options and commands, and the transition to console isn’t exactly smooth. Certainly, the D-pad can be used to switch things around, but it’s hardly the most elegant of solutions.

Further to the controller limitations, the game is bloody complex! Even after taking part in the game’s many welcome (although not exactly eloquent) tutorials, beginners will almost certainly feel the need to take to Youtube and watch one of the dozens of ‘how to’ videos that are available. It is, at times, a bit of a pain in the arse. However, if you do persevere, a fascinating game awaits. Will you lead your civilisation into a golden age of peace, or start a series of intergalactic wars? Will you be religious zealot, resource-hoarding arseholes or altruistic, benevolent peacekeepers?

Stellaris: Console Edition is a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have an intelligent, sprawling and thought-provoking (and time consuming!) game at your disposal. On the other, playing on console really does feel like a clumsier, lesser option. Still, madly keen strategy nerds who don’t own a decent PC will delight at finally being able to get their hands on this bad boy, and will drink in the chance to get lost in their own universe. The rest of us filthy casuals, however, will be scratching our heads and spending a whole lot of time on Youtube.

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Desperados III

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After the commercial and critical success of Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption 2, it was inevitable, and welcome, that more titles would adopt a western setting. Desperados III is the latest to do so, and evokes that cowboy era with style and finesse. However, before you strap on your spurs and dust off that hat, understand that while Desperados III shares a setting with the likes of RDR2, as a game it could not be more different; and she’s as harsh as the desert sun at noon, pilgrim.

Desperados III is actually a prequel to the earlier entries and is very much of the real time tactics genre. You will play as five characters throughout the campaign, switching in and out on the fly, and stealthy shenanigans are the order of the day. In terms of gameplay, get ready for a whole heapin’ helpin’ of trial and error, as you attempt to sneak past enemies, alert them, get shot to pieces and reload the last save point to try it all again. It can be frustrating, downright maddening at times, but the sense of satisfaction you get from pulling off a perfect series of moves is deeply gratifying.

Graphically, the isometric POV is appealing, with large sprawling environments. Character models and voice acting are both superb, although sometimes the camera can be a little fiddly. In fact, “a little fiddly” is a good description for the game as a whole, as the tiniest of wrong moves can be the difference between life and (enraging) death, and newcomers to the series or real time tactics in general, are likely in for a baptism by fire.

Having said that, if you can key into the game’s subtle, and rather unique, rhythms there’s a helluva game here, replete with clever, ever-evolving gameplay, an excellent roster of characters with complimentary abilities and genuinely head-scratching puzzles to solve. Desperados III is niche, and at times too fussy for its own good, but it’s also original and engaging and deeply compelling. Just know you’ll be using your quick save and load buttons more than your trigger fingers, and you’ll have fun breaking in this wild horse.

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Disco Elysium

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Disco Elysium isn’t like other games. Oh sure, superficially, the role-playing game from developer ZA/UM resembles titles you’ve seen before. The isometric third person point of view, the ability to level up various character traits and branching conversation trees are all typical of the RPG genre. However, it’s in the details, the nuance, that Disco sets itself apart and offers one of the most unique and fascinating games in recent memory.

Disco Elysium puts you in the well-trodden shoes of a grizzled cop who has such severe amnesia that he can’t remember a damn thing. Not his name, age, location, purpose or what the bloody hell he did the night before. Full of self-loathing and nameless remorse – not to mention some very chatty aspects of your fractured psyche – you leave the skanky, trashed hotel room you woke up in and begin to explore the city of Revachol. There’s been a murder, you see, and it’s up to you and your straight-laced partner Kim Kitsuragi to solve the mystery before tension in the town boils over into violent chaos. Or, you know, not. Because in Disco Elysium you can pretty much do as you please. Prefer to piss fart about getting trashed on booze and goey? Have at it. Want to become a rabid communist, or a dead-eyed fascist, and blurt political dogma at all and sundry? Knock yourself out. Hell, in a particularly dark turn you can even become a murderer yourself, although it’s heavily discouraged.

Still, freedom is nothing new in RPGs. Where the difference comes with Disco Elysium is the fact that there’s no combat. None. At all. No random encounters, no boss fights, no trash mobs, no secret hidden enemies. While violence does exist, it’s rare and not a game mechanic. No, in this game it’s all about talking, thinking, reaching conclusions, sharing arguments, debating and banging on like you’re being paid by the word. Most conversations will include skill checks to unlock further information, or goals, and your performance in these moments is dependent on which traits you’ve upgraded on your character screen. Shockingly, pleasingly, it works a treat, giving Disco Elysium the feel of reading an engaging, smart and dense (in a good way) novel that lets you bumble through the narrative, trying to get the best result.

The uniformly excellent writing is buoyed further by the gorgeous aesthetics and design sensibility of the game, which drip with grime and despair, offering locations so vivid you can practically smell them. Smart, incisive dialogue pairs with the otherworldly score and the brilliantly realised characters will keep you guessing about the game’s numerous mysteries and conspiracies right up until the end.

Disco Elysium is smart, surprising and utterly engrossing. Get ready to spend 20-30 hours in a gorgeous, painterly world in a twisted tale that brims with both menace and wit, a dreamlike stroll through a world unlike any other and a stunningly satisfying video game that will stay with you long after you’ve woken from its surreal embrace.

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Resident Evil 3

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It’s funny how history repeats itself over and over. Case in point, Capcom’s one-two punch of Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis in 1998 and 1999 respectively. Resident Evil 2 was an undisputed masterpiece, an evolution of the survival horror formula and a game that remains a beloved classic to this day. Resident Evil 3, on the other hand, was a fun but slight affair that was shorter, simpler and just not quite as involving as its predecessor. Cut to 2020 and we have the Resident Evil 3 remake hitting stores this week and the result? Well, it’s all just a bit of history repeating…

Resident Evil 3 puts the player in the shapely shoes of Jill Valentine, who has the misfortune of being in Racoon City around the same time as the events of Resident Evil 2 are taking place. It soon becomes clear, however, that Jill’s problems are a little different, as a S.T.A.R.S-hunting beastie named Nemesis is about and wants nothing more than to kill Jill. The opening hours of RE3 are superb. Scary, atmospheric and genuinely thrilling. The devastated streets of Racoon City are an engaging backdrop, and you feel like you’re genuinely inhabiting the early hours of a zombie apocalypse. Nemesis too is initially a thrilling foe, seemingly invincible and utterly devoted to ripping your guts out.

The problem is, as the game wears on, the thrills begin to dwindle. What commences in wide open areas, eventually becomes samey corridors, and while the slightly more action-focused combat is gripping while it’s occurring, the game around it just doesn’t have the same level of care as last year’s excellent Resident Evil 2 remake. Nemesis too, becomes just a repeated boss, not stalking you like the Tyrant aka Mr. X did in the previous entry and the five hour playtime, with no second character playthrough, really doesn’t do much to dispel the sense that this is a lesser product. RE3 comes bundled with Resident Evil: Resistance, which is an engaging-for-a-while 4v1 multiplayer proposition, but can’t disguise the fact that the campaign, which is the title’s selling point, isn’t quite up to snuff.

Ultimately, Resident Evil 3 repeats the slight letdown that it proved in 1999. However, this time around, it’s a little less forgivable, particularly after the stunning Resident Evil 2 remake. Die hard horror fans will certainly find something to love in this slight but splattery offering, and the first third is brilliant, but sadly the game’s real nemesis is a lack of innovation.

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Doom Eternal

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Doom (2016) was a near-perfect reboot of the revered id Software property that dates back to ye olden times of 1993. It was fast-paced, furious, dripping with gore and just a little bit on the simplistic side in terms of gameplay and narrative. It was also an enormous hit, and paved the way for Doom Eternal, the follow-up that is bigger, more complicated and nuanced in almost every way. However, does bigger equal better in this case? Happily, the answer is a guttural grunt to the affirmative, followed by the sound of a shotgun cocking and a tasty guitar lick.

Doom Eternal once again puts the player in the oversized kicking boots of The Doom Slayer, a silent protagonist who communicates via the medium of carnage. Earth has been taken over by the forces of Hell, and 60% of the population has died horribly. It’s up to you to rip and tear your way through the fetid flesh of your foes and save what’s left of this tiny blue and green orb. You’ll also kick the guts out of a plot that involves angelic creatures, death cults, multi-dimensional travel and clever references to the franchise’s ‘90s origins. If the previous game suffered from too much simplicity, Eternal almost goes too far in the other direction. To truly get a handle on the plot you’ll have to read the various lore entries scattered around the place, which feels at odds with the fast-paced, frenetic, push-forward-and-kill gameplay loop.

The gameplay itself has also been iterated upon, and this is a change for the better. Doom was loads of fun, but it ultimately ended up being battles in arenas with samey looking backgrounds. Doom Eternal adds exploration, platforming, light puzzle solving and some truly novel tweaks to the formula that we won’t spoil. Naturally, the bulk of the action is, once more, fanging around arena-style areas killing everything in sight, but it’s presented in a much more interesting fashion. Another unexpected improvement is the multiplayer battle mode, which features two player controlled demons vs a player controlled Doom Slayer, which is surprisingly fun and nuanced, giving you something to hook into after the 15-20 hour single player campaign.

Doom Eternal is a bigger, messier and worthy follow-up to the beloved 2016 title. Its slickly animated, fast-paced action remains utterly addictive, with added elements of strategy that stop it from becoming numbing or brainless, and the gloriously gruesome aesthetic makes the player feel like they’re fighting their way through a Slayer album cover. Feel the need to shower in the entrails of your enemies and cackle maniacally while you cleave their evil skulls in twain? Doom Eternal scratches that itch with a black, thorny claw wrapped in barbed wire.

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Bayonetta & Vanquish 10th Anniversary Bundle

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It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since Bayonetta and Vanquish graced consoles with their presence, and frankly it’s more than a little alarming. However, after checking various calendars and doing some light arithmetic, it turns out to be true. If you too are experiencing an existential shudder at the ever-increasing proximity of the grave, the good news is that the Bayonetta & Vanquish bundle should provide an engaging distraction from the reaper’s icy grasp!

Platinum Games excel at fast-paced, frenetic action titles. This is epitomised nowhere better than Bayonetta, a game where you play a bad-arse angel-hunting lady who looks like a sexy librarian dominatrix and has guns inexplicably attached to her (very) high heels. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s so crammed with enormous monsters, epic-scale battles and absurd bullshit (not to mention one of the most iconic protagonists in video games), that it’s almost impossible not to be charmed. The graphics have had an upgrade, and the animation is smooth and slick, and while perhaps the uninitiated may be immune to its charms, it’s a delightful return visit for the rest of us.

Vanquish is a less iconic proposition and a bit of an underappreciated classic. Less aesthetically interesting (and fan servicey) it provides a fast-paced cover shooter where the lead character spends most of his time sliding along the ground on his arse. The sense of freedom and movement is as engaging now as it was a decade ago, and while the shooting itself can’t compete with modern counterparts, it’s a solid game with thrilling movement.

Remasters like this are always a tricky proposition. There’s the chance old fans will be disappointed because the games don’t match their highly subjective, rose-tinted memories and new players may be baffled by the adoration heaped on the old fashioned titles. However, in the case of Bayonetta & Vanquish, there’s enough to like for both camps, although returning players will definitely have the better experience. Nostalgia can so often be a crutch, but in this case, it’s actually worth the trip back in time.

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Darksiders Genesis

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After the somewhat lukewarm reception to Darksiders III (which was better than many of the reviews would have you believe), the Darksiders really needed a shot in the arm to reinvigorate the franchise and prove that there’s still some life left in the old girl. This comes in the form of Darksiders Genesis, which isn’t a direct sequel but rather a side project/prequel starring old favourite War and horseman-we-haven’t-played-as-yet Strife. And the result? You know what, it’s actually pretty good!

Visually, Darksiders Genesis looks a lot like Diablo III. Isometric, top down view, colourful characters, vibrant spells and attacks plus chests to unlock. Although it has the aesthetic trappings of a looter shooter, it’s much more like a regular Darksiders game, with large explorable areas, powers to attain, bosses to battle and locations that become explorable after newer skills are learned. You can switch between War and Strife on the fly, but Strife is easily the most fun of the two. With his customisable guns, snappy one-liners and slick agility, Strife makes crossing large areas fun and can reduce hordes of enemies to twitching meat with much alacrity. War, on the other hand, is a slower, beefier bloke who can use his massive sword to deliver bulk damage but isn’t quite as nimble. Switching between the pair on the fly is a joy, particularly during some of the nastier boss fights, and adds an element of strategy to the proceedings.

Darksiders Genesis looks modestly gorgeous and plays well, but it’s clearly a lower budgeted entry. Cut scenes are mainly stills or motion comics and the game itself lasts 10-15 hours (compared to the main series games reaching 30+). The thing is, it’s a fun ten hours, replete with clever mechanics, superior level design and some cool-looking monsters. It’s a good time, not a long time, and paired with a co-op partner either locally or online, Darksiders Genesis is a colourful, violent hoot.

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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.