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Lost Judgement

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The Yakuza games of which there are, it seems, several thousand, are an engaging, often unwieldy series of titles following assorted ne’er-do-wells in their various criminal enterprises. They’re chockers with quirky side quests, wandering perverts, time-wasting mini-games and more lore than you could shake a katana at. They also offer a rather high bar of entry for audiences who haven’t kept up with the series.

The Judgement series, a spin off from the Yakuza games, seemed an opportunity for developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio to spread their wings a little. A new focus, this time working with rather than against the law, and (mostly) new characters is a great way to shrug off some of the series’ bloat. And with 2018’s Judgement they got off to an imperfect, but solid, start with a slightly more focused adventure that just needed a little more innovation. Well, now the sequel Lost Judgement is here and if you were hoping this series might grow into something a little more ambitious… you’re not going to be deeply satisfied, hey.

Lost Judgement puts you once again in the isn’t-he-a-bit-old-for-that-leather-jacket-and-sneakers of Takayuki Yagami, a private detective who likes justice almost as much as he likes hair product. This time around, Takayuki and his associates deal with a case involving murder, high school bullying, organised crime, and enough convoluted plot twists to make Christopher Nolan go, “oof, crikey fellas, that’s starting to feel a bit forced.”

The bulk of the action takes place in the Kamurocho and Isezaki Ijincho districts, and other than a few tweaks, the gameplay is identical to the previous Judgement game. That is: you’ll lob around, have seemingly endless conversations, get pointed towards a new location, do some shallow-as-hell investigation mini-games, and get into fights all over the shop. Basically, the same as Yakuza, except with the law (sorta) on your side.

While it’s probable that Yakuza didn’t make you feel like a real Yakuza, it seemed within cooee of the concept. Lost Judgement on the other hand often feels like a reskin. You’ll pay lip service to investigations, but ultimately, it’s a point and click affair. Plus, you’re meant to stop high school bullying… by belting the shit out of actual teenagers! Seriously, it’s such a disconnect you’ll find yourself either cackling with laughter or turning the damn thing off.

The thing is, Lost Judgement is okay. The story is solid, if unnecessarily protracted, the graphics are decent, the combat slick, if a bit messy. If you like this kind of game, you’ll probably have a good time, but it’s literally nothing new. Nothing you haven’t seen before. And for the second part of a new series with all the potential in the world? That feels like a bit of a letdown.

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Aliens: Fireteam Elite

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The world abounds with mysteries, questions for which we may never know the answers, but surely one of the biggest – one that keeps many awake at night – is: why can’t they make a decent Aliens game? Now, don’t get us wrong, there have been good games based on Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 sci-fi horror flick Alien. 2014’s Alien: Isolation is a stone cold classic of survival horror that remains daks-browningly scary to this day.

However, Aliens – that classic 1986 action sequel directed by James Cameron – never seems to get a fair shake. We’d be here all day if we listed them all, but the most recent – and notorious – misstep based on the movie was Aliens: Colonial Marines. This 2013 disaster promised much and delivered little, ending up being an ugly, unimaginative, buggy and boring mess. The good news about Aliens: Fireteam Elite is that it’s significantly better than that universally despised flop. The bad news? It’s still pretty average.

Aliens: Fireteam Elite is a third person shooter that takes place in several iconic locations from the Aliens franchise, with some Prometheus mixed in for good measure. The action revolves around a three person fireteam – either player controlled or single player with bots – and it essentially plays out like a horde shooter, with wave after wave of snarling xenomorphs descending upon you like biomechanical seagulls on hot chips.

You and your fellow marines can occupy different classes and use various abilities to either make killing easier or buffing/healing your teammates and every level will end with a massive bullet sponge boss. And, uh, that’s it. That’s the game.

To be fair, Fireteam Elite doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. Developer Cold Iron certainly aren’t trying to sell this as a thrilling narrative experience, and what the game says on the tin it delivers. It’s just… isn’t this all a little unambitious? The shooting is… fine, the graphics are okay, there’s some joy to be had the first few times you mow down a horde of nasties but after a while the mind-numbing repetition kicks in. It’s kinda fun, for a while, with mates and a few adult beverages but then, most things are.

Look, at the risk of damning it with faint praise, we’ll say Aliens: Fireteam Elite has its moments and it knows what it is. However, if you’re looking for something that really captures the frenetic thrills of Aliens, that edge-of-your-seat excitement, then you’re probably going to be mostly disappointed… mostly.

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Deathloop

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Has there ever been a more appropriate moment in history for the time loop conceit to become popular? While huge sections of Earth’s population are stuck indoors, it seems fitting that the storytelling conceit du jour should reflect that. In 2019 we had Netflix’s Russian Doll, followed last year by the engaging Palm Springs. In the world of video games, Hades recently launched to near universal acclaim and this year saw the excellent (albeit punishingly difficult) Returnal. Well, now to that august pantheon we can add Arkane Studio’s Deathloop and friends we won’t mince words, it’s an absolutely bloody belter.

Deathloop puts you in the shoes of Cole, an assassin with amnesia, who wakes up on the island of Blackreef with no clue how he got there. It soon becomes clear that he, like the rest of Blackreef, is stuck in a time loop, one day repeating endlessly. If he ever hopes to leave, it seems, he needs to uncover the many secrets of Blackreef and kill the eight so-called Visionaries (mad scientists and brainy psychos) all in one day. If he misses one? The loop starts again. If he dies? The loop starts again. And if the sassy, insane Julianna – who follows his progress – has her way? He’ll be stuck in the loop forever.

As fun as the concept is, Deathloop’s real genius is in the execution. Arkane has a great formula with the Dishonored series and Prey, but they struggled with finding a reason to go back through the insanely gorgeous, detail-rich environments they created. In Deathloop, there’s a plot-based reason to backtrack at different times of the day, after various events have occurred, and the entire process feels like a fiendishly clever puzzle rich with hidden nooks, crannies and juicy lore snippets.

Each of the Visionaries feels like a fully fleshed human being (albeit an unpleasant one) and working out how to manipulate their weaknesses to off them in clever ways is a supreme joy. It’s not an easy task, but as you kill them you’ll manage to take their powers (in the form of Slabs), which give you the ability to teleport short distances, turn invisible, link enemies and deal damage to multiple targets at once or hurl them across the map with telekinesis. Working out how to maximise the effectiveness of these powers, in conjunction with the decent-sized arsenal you can wield, offers so much gleefully homicidal variety that it never gets old in the game’s 15-20 hour playtime.

There are so many wonderful, clever eureka moments along the way that we won’t spoil, but it’s a true testament to Arkane’s skill with level design and seemingly boundless creativity. Deathloop takes a familiar premise and gives it new life, incorporating gameplay elements from Hitman, Dishonored, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, BioShock and dozens of rogue-lites/roguelikes, immerses it in 1960s spy movie kitsch, and an ironically buoyant sense of style, and delivers what is easily one of the year’s best games and possibly one of Arkane’s finest works.

The only gameplay element that feels a bit unnecessary is the PvP gimmick where other players can invade your game (and you theirs) as Julianna. Random yahoos taking the piss isn’t a particularly appealing prospect when you’re mid-run or trying to enjoy the story, however you can play offline and just face the much less ominous AI. Actually, the enemy AI is one of the few cons in this sea of pros; it’s a bit simple at times, but this is a minor quibble when so much of what’s on offer works a treat.

Look, this is one of those situations where you should believe the hype. Deathloop is a wonderfully original, singular experience, boasting compelling story, compulsive gameplay and a startlingly original aesthetic and style. If you own a PS5 or PC, there’s absolutely no reason not to head to Blackreef and start solving this brilliant puzzle, one dead body at a time.

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Tribes of Midgard

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When you think about the life of a viking, what do you picture? Lots of pillaging? Certainly. A bit of the old stabby-stabby action? Yep. And possibly a rather fetching horned helmet atop your mighty bonce? You betcha. One thing you probably don’t think of, though, is building. And yet a good portion of your time spent in Tribes of Midgard – a viking themed game from developer Norsfell – will be building, crafting and gathering resources. Even more strange? It manages to make doing so, pretty bloody fun.

Tribes of Midgard is an odd fusion of survival game, isometric action title and roguelite. You and up to nine (!) other co-op partners are dropped into a randomly generated environment. You’ll need to pick up materials to craft tools, then use those tools to make weapons, then use those weapons to kill things and use the corpses to craft better weapons, armour and so on.

Hanging over the proceedings, is the fact that every night, monsters attack your village in an attempt to destroy the Seed of Yggdrasil, a magical tree whose destruction will mean it’s game over, baby. Oh, and there’s also a bunch of giants wandering the land and you’ll need to destroy them all to save your Nordic arse from Ragnarok.

It’s all… quite a lot. And your first dozen or so games are unlikely to end in anything other than swift death. However, the more you play, the more you unlock… the next game you’ll spawn with tools already made, weapons already in your pocket and different classes available.

Honestly, it’s a pretty decent time. The graphics are crisp and appealing, the animation slick, and the controls responsive. Playing with co-op partners can be a lot of fun, if at times chaotic, and there’s no doubt about the addictive nature of the gameplay. On the downside, there are a lot of gameplay elements that are explained poorly, so you might want to invest some time in Youtube University. Plus, without at least one other player, the experience can become a tad stale.

Tribes of Midgard is an engaging, well-conceived and decently priced bit of viking-themed survival fun. It’s unlikely to ragnarok your world and it’s certainly not the next AAA blockbuster, but its loki charms are likely to entertain all but the fussiest armchair viking.

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Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance

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Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II, were released in 2001 and 2004, respectively. If you owned a console, and enjoyed a bit of couch co-op RPG action, they were literally the best destination for such an undertaking. Fast-paced, engaging, pretty looking (for the time) and brimming with character, they represented everything great about the genre.

And then, for many a year, they just kind of buggered off.

Now, in this locked down year of 2021, Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance releases on PC and consoles, and despite a POV switch to third person combat (more in line with 2018’s God of War) developers Tuque Games hope to recapture some of that magic. So, do they succeed?

No. No, they very much do not. It’s not even close, tbh.

Dark Alliance takes place in the cold-as-buggery region of Icewind Dale and features characters from acclaimed fantasy author RA Salvatore’s The Legend of Drizzt series. Either going solo, or with up to three mates, players will trek through various regions, fighting enemies, flogging gold and collectibles and amassing loot. It’s a pretty classic, if fairly unimaginative set up, so why then does it feel like such a tedious slog?

First up, the feel of the game is just off. All of the characters play like they’re knee deep in treacle, every command or movement taking place a beat or two too late, which gives everything a disjointed, ungainly quality. Secondly, the enemy AI is lamentably, laughably bad, to the point where you’ll begin to wonder if something went terribly wrong during development. Combine that with game balancing that is spectacularly skewed, making hits either do very little damage or killing you/them in one blow, and you’ve got a buggy, mechanically inept mess on your hands.

The thing is, even if the game was functioning properly, it would still be a bit ordinary. However, ordinary games can be fun with friends. Dark Alliance is barely tolerable even with a group of like-minded sarcastic chums. The graphics look great when still, but as soon as they move even a little, the janky animation, appalling collision detection and general lack of polish make the experience grim and frustrating.

Dungeons & Dragons is a huge IP, brimming with exciting lore and staggering depth and the potential of Dark Alliance was enormous. Sadly, other than aesthetics and an intriguing loot game, the title gets very little right. Perhaps a year from now, if the developers keep making improvements, it will rise to the level of mindless fun. But in its current state, particularly in consoles, it’s a nigh unplayable mess and should be avoided like a plague-infested goblin.

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Chivalry 2

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You know what would have sucked? Fighting in a medieval battle. Being rounded up by a bunch of douchey lords, taking up the family sword, charging across a muddy field to stab some other poor bastards who didn’t do anything to you and probably copping an axe to the bonce for your troubles. And hell, even if you did survive, the treatment for PTSD in medieval times was either leeches on your ballbag or being burnt at the stake.

Nowhere has this grim mixture of blood and mud been captured better than Chivalry 2, a game that takes one of the ugliest settings imaginable and weaves it into pure gold.

Chivalry 2 puts you in the dung-caked boots of a fighter in various fictitious medieval conflicts. You can play as knights, vanguard, footmen or archers and switch between the classes easily, unlocking new weapons along the way. Matches can feature up to 64 players in modes as vanilla as team deathmatch or as exciting as multi-part sieges where you’re either attacking or defending a series of objectives.

The bulk of the action is melee combat, with weapons feeling weighty and moving in a semi-realistic fashion. This means the fighting, while simple to pick up, actually contains a lot of depth and nuance. You’ll need to get good at blocking, parrying and knowing when to swing your weapon. That latter point is super important, because you can just as easily damage or kill your teammates when in the middle of a crush.

Honestly, it’s bloody exhilarating. Fights are epic, gore-spattered spectacles that somehow manage that perfect video game alchemy where you’ll have a good time even if you’re losing! It’s quite a trick that Torn Banner Studios have pulled off here and one that feels endlessly enjoyable to play.

Online only (apart from a tutorial and very limited offline practice mode) games are always a risk in this day and age, but Chivalry 2 appears to have the chops to go the distance. In its current incarnation, it’s an absurd amount of fun, replete with numerous modes and hours of gaming, and it’s hard to say “nay” to a game that allows you to pick up a foe’s severed head and fang it at his mates.

Chivalry 2 is a unique offering and delivers time and time again on its promise of the most authentic medieval combat simulation, without having to own a time machine.

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Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground

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It seems like only a couple of days ago we were having a squiz at a Warhammer game, and it was. However, Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground is based on the Warhammer Age of Sigmar flavour of Warhammer, which less resembles a Space Catholics vs nightmare monsters beano and more a JRR Tolkien cosplay convention with extra gore and frowning type of situation.

Storm Ground is a turn-based strategy game that puts you in charge of one of three different factions. There’s the Stormcast Eternals, who are kind of like a hair metal band’s idea of badass, all flowing cloaks and shiny armour. You’ve also got the Nighthaunt, the ethereal goths of the neighbourhood, boasting replicating powers and weaponised whinging. Oh, and finally there are the Maggotkin, a bloated bunch of pustule-covered gronks who could infect you with something nasty as soon as look at you.

The twist over other turn-based combat games is, there’s no save scumming here. Because you bloody can’t! Storm Ground plays with roguelike mechanics, meaning if you stuff up an encounter, it’s game over and you’ll start all over again. You will get to keep various upgrades and enhancements you’ve unlocked, mind you, but when you start your adventure, it can feel a little random and unfair. That said, once you’ve mastered a few of the mechanics, and worked out some of the more strategic ways to use your war band, there’s a lot of potential depth here.

Unfortunately, the potential is sapped by some truly broken enemy AI, where your foes at times feel like they’ve been necking turps pre-game. You can mitigate this somewhat by playing online PvP but conversely, that can be a lesson in bitter humility.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground is a technically competent, mechanically sophisticated turn-based strategy game that isn’t quite living up to its potential yet. A lack of a meaningful story combined with dodgy enemy AI and inconsistent matchmaking means there’s some work to be done, but we’ll be keeping an eye on this one to see if it gets fully Sig(mar) down the road.

 

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Necromunda: Hired Gun

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The Warhammer 40K universe is one of the most detailed, lore dense and unique settings imaginable. Originally conceived in the 1980s as a tabletop game, it has since branched out into books, comics, audio plays, animations and – most relevant for this yarn – video games.

Its irresistibly weird mix of over-the-top, operatic world building, forever wars, and social commentary seem custom designed for a great video game, yet time and time again, they don’t quite work. This latest title, Necromunda: Hired Gun is a perfect example of the problem, although that’s not to say that it’s without charm.

Necromunda: Hired Gun is set on the planet Necromunda, a dystopian nightmare hellscape that brims with industry, violence and untampered population growth. Into this mix, the player character is thrust, an aloof mercenary who just wants to make some dosh, but before long is exposed to a sprawling gang war and a larger conspiracy.

The plot is pretty standard, and not told in a particularly exciting way, but Hired Gun succeeds in one major fashion: superb, fast-paced, engaging shooting. Slick as a greasy piglet, you’ll wall run to your objective, blow the heads off nearby enemies, grapple-hook to safety and send your cybernetically enhanced mastiff down to polish off the stragglers. This is frenetic, exciting stuff, a bit like 2016’s Doom reboot but with a 40K setting to add extra levels of grime and casual nihilism. When Hired Gun works it works a treat.

The problem? It doesn’t work often enough. Graphical glitches, framerate drops, audio fuckery and even the odd hard crash beset this scrappy title, doing a lot of damage to your good will. And as a result, other ordinarily forgivable flaws like lackluster enemy AI and wonky voice acting become all the more apparent. Which is sad, because honestly, exploring these expansive, fascinating 40K locations, drinking in the atmosphere and just straight up existing in this bull goose loony universe is a treat.

So, here’s our suggestion: don’t buy Necromunda: Hired Gun quite yet. Unless you’re a 40K obsessive, you’re likely to run into problems. Wait a month or two, see if these launch issues are patched out and then revisit the concept. Because underneath the jank, Necromunda: Hired Gun is a grimdark and gory gem that just needs a bit more polishing for it to truly shine.

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Biomutant

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I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, there’s just something deeply satisfying about scavenging for scrap in the ruins of a post-apocalyptic society. The Fallout games know this, The Last of Us duology do too. Hell, any number of open world titles like Horizon Zero Dawn could tell you the same. Oh, and let us not forget Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden! Crikey, even your humble word janitor has had a crack at exploring the concept in a literary context.

Biomutant, from small indie development team Experiment 101, have added fresh wrinkles to the formula, some of which work really well, but the game as a whole has serious caveats.

Biomutant is an open world RPG adventure set in a post apocalypse where humanity has long since popped its clogs. The world now teems with adorable rodent-looking things that lob about in cute outfits and batter the shit out of one another using furry martial arts.

Your user-generated character is on a mission to save or destroy the Tree of Life, unite or exterminate multiple mammalian tribes and fight four enormous monsters.

All sounds pretty promising, right? Add to that gorgeous and unique visual design, staggering enemy variety and evocative music and it would seem the entire package is a belter.

This impression won’t last long, however. Alas, Biomutant makes a lot of dud choices. They were made, almost certainly, for budgetary reasons, which is understandable, but it doesn’t make them any easier to deal with.

First up, there’s no voice acting to speak of. All the characters speak in gibberish and a plummy Pom narrator – who sounds like a mixture of bargain basement Stephen Fry by way of a slumming David Attenborough – translates for you. Aside from the fact that the intrusive narrator is a tonal mismatch for what’s happening on screen, this means you’re always kept at arm’s length. You’re being told a story rather than living through it and it’s a real immersion-killer.

Add to this insanely repetitive mission design, endlessly reused assets and floaty combat, and you’ve got an overall package that fails more than it succeeds. Despite this, however, those who enjoy post-apocalyptic RPGs will find stuff to like. The open world is enormous and frequently hauntingly quiet, offering ruins to explore, scrap to scavenge and loot to equip or break down.

Plus, the crafting system is genuinely excellent, once you get your head around it, offering a huge number of weapon and armour options. It’s a pity that this variety doesn’t carry over to missions or story beats.

As it stands right now, Biomutant is a bit of a mess. Aside from the problems listed above, the PS4/PS5 version crashes with bewildering regularity. The script is tepid, the quest design unimaginative and the sense of repetition acute. And yet for all of that, those of you who enjoy scavenging for scrap in ruined worlds may find nuggets of gold in this overly ambitious pile of debris.

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Returnal

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When I was a nipper, sometime in the mid ‘80s, it wasn’t so easy for me to play video games. Oh sure, I had a mate with a Commodore 64, and another with an Atari 2600, but those wankers didn’t like it when I lobbed over uninvited and kept wanting to play this thing called “sport’, which was downright baffling.

This was a few years before I managed to get a Nintendo Entertainment System, so if the urge to play games hit me – and it did, often – I had to go down to the local fish and chip shop to play whatever game they had. The game could be anything, Wonder Boy in Monsterland, Altered Beast, Golden Axe – whatever – it was frequently rotated and would almost certainly be a belter.

And it would always, always, be surrounded by a cadre of local teenage gronks, oozing with acne and adolescent disdain, standing at the machine, their twenty cent pieces piled high. You’d eventually get a game, sure, but you’d spend the whole time being aware of the skinny bloke with a rattail glaring at you, a pack of durries tucked into his shirt sleeve.

I mention this because the experience of playing Returnal is, in some weird ways, very similar to those formative pseudo pinny parlour experiences. Like the twenty cent-gobblers mentioned above, Returnal is a cruel mistress, causing you to start over again and again and again. And while you don’t have to deal with the bleary, piggy little eyes of Hendo and his mates, the barrier for entry is high. Perhaps, at times, too high.

Returnal is a third person shooter roguelike (or “roguelite”, depending on your definition) where you play the astronaut Selene, who has crash landed on the mysterious planet Atropos. As Selene, you’ll find you’re stuck in a time loop where you’ll dash through six biomes, fighting increasingly difficult enemies and die over and over again. And after you die? You start right back at the beginning. And even after unlocking shortcuts and new abilities, every death means a new slog to try and get back to where you were.

Hosuemarque’s slick sci-fi bullet hell is gorgeous, the graphics are superb and silky smooth, the gameplay addictive and finely honed. When you’re having a great run, everything feels so right. The haptic feedback from the PS5’s controllers adds an extra layer of immersion and clever, if minimalist writing keeps the story compelling. However, when you go for a forty minute run, get killed right before the boss and then have to start all over again, with very little of value unlocked, it just feels… cruel for the sake of it.

Repetition is clearly an important part of a time loop game, but would the overall package really have been made worse by being able to fast travel back to a new level once you’d unlocked it? Purists would say yes, but honestly, for this old time gamer, there’s a reason we stopped bowing at the altar of those cruel twenty cent hoovers, and adopted things like save points.

Returnal is a beautiful game, and those who have no fear of steep difficulty spikes and frequent restarts will no doubt engage fully with the impressive package Housemarque have delivered here. For me, though? I’ve spent enough time having ciggie smoke blown in my face by greasy monsters while I’m trying to enjoy a game session and Returnal just feels a bit too much like that. Plus, you can’t even get a chiko roll straight afterwards to soothe the sting.

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