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Overwatch

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Overwatch is a game that should absolutely, 100% not work. At all. It combines some of the worst aspects of modern gaming:

1) There’s no plot. Like, none. It’s a vague sketch outline that can admittedly be augmented with YouTube videos but the story contained on disc makes Destiny’s butchered narrative seem like the complete works of Leo Tolstoy.

2) It’s an online only experience. Yeah, that’s right, hippie. Internet connection down? Go read a scroll by candlelight, you luddite!

3) It’s very light on content. 21 heroes and 12 maps in a series of extremely repetitive 6v6 matches.

So it’s somewhat shocking, frankly, that Overwatch works as well as it does and the reason is simple: fun. Overwatch succeeds where so many other games fail by literally being a joy to play.

The premise is this: a bunch of heroes fight in various arenas for reasons that are vague at best, but that doesn’t seem to matter. The general goal of each match will be ‘defend the thing’, ‘control the thing’ or ‘escort the thing’. The 21 heroes are uniformly delightful and engaging, each of them easily worth their own game. You’ve got Hanzo the bow-wielding samurai who can shoot deadly arrows and dragon magic. There’s D.Va the adorable gamer lady who can fight inside and out of her bright pink mech suit. Then there’s Roadhog, the self-described “one man apocalypse” who is like a morbidly obese Mad Max character with a chunky gun and a chain to ensnare foes.

There are ape heroes, builder heroes, overpowered turret heroes and one inexplicably dull ‘dude with a gun’ hero, Soldier: 76 whose inclusion seems to be an attempt to entice extremely boring teenage boys away from their latest Call of Duty sequel.

Inclusion is actually an important word for Overwatch because as well as a range of characters from various backgrounds and in various shapes and sizes – the game itself is simple enough to give filthy casuals a good time but also complicated and deep enough to keep hardcore shooter fans engaged.

This unlikely but undeniable equilibrium comes courtesy of developer, Blizzard Entertainment (World Of Warcraft, Diablo III) who have taken this balancing act and truly made it sing. Whether your hero is assault, defence, tank or healer class – they’ll all be fun to play. You’ll genuinely want to get good at your initially chosen hero but it’s tantalising to learn all the cool tricks the others can do. And you can, from the start. All the heroes are unlocked, all the powers accessible, from the first time you boot up the game.

So what, exactly, are you grinding for in Overwatch? Well, as you ascend levels you can unlock Loot Boxes that can contain randomised cosmetic items and… that’s it. There are no new weapons, no new powers – you’re literally playing this title because the responsive, exciting, beautifully-realised (albeit small) world is a wonderful place that you’ll want to spend time in.

Whether that means Overwatch will still be high on your list of must play games in six months’ time is, as yet, unknown. Blizzard are confident that their free and consistent content drops with new maps, heroes and game modes will keep the millions of players engaged but that remains to be seen. What is clear, for now, is: Overwatch is an absolute blast, especially when played with likeminded friends who want to join you for a dozen or so “just one more game” games.

 
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The Witcher III: Blood And Wine

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Witcher 3: Blood And Wine is the final piece of DLC for Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. On the one hand, it’s pretty sad that the Witcher 3 saga, one of the best games of 2015, is ending. On the other, it’s hard to be too upset when the content offered is so damn good.

Blood And Wine takes place in the as yet unseen land of Toussaint, a very different landscape to the wartorn hellholes our white-haired beast-stabber, Geralt of Rivia, has explored in the main game and previous expansion, Hearts Of Stone. Toussaint is more of a “high fantasy” setting, where knights have chivalric codes, wear colourful armour and affect a mode of verbose, poetic speech that juxtaposes beautifully (and frequently hilariously) with Geralt’s gravelly grumble talk. At first the fairy tale-hued land seems to be full of well-intentioned idiots, but a few quests in it becomes clear that not all those who proclaim their chivalry are noble, and not all beasts are monsters. Geralt’s reason for being dragged into the land of vineyards and poets is, predictably, to hunt down a monster. Said creature is offing knights in darkly ironic ways, in something like a fantasy riff on David Fincher’s Seven. However, as Geralt digs into the case it becomes clear there’s more going on under the surface, and Toussaint isn’t quite the perfumed paradise it purports to be.

Gameplay, wise little has changed, and that’s perfectly fine. Geralt takes on story missions, secondary quests and Witcher contracts. Some of them are layered, nuanced, even funny and some are forgettable. Combat sees a small upgrade with a new form of mutagen crafting and upgrading that unlocks a series of new skills, but to be honest it’s hardly going to revolutionise your play style. Yes, launching Aard with a 25% chance of freezing is fun, but it’s not a game changer on any fundamental level.

New armour sets, weapons and monsters are also added, but again – this is for completists because The Witcher 3’s big strength is story, and in that regard Blood and Wine is consistently impressive. From Geralt’s relationship with “high vampire” Regis, to the tense communications with Duchess Anna Henrietta to the various problems of class, religion and conflict, Toussaint is painted with appealing levels of depth and complexity. It also features some of the most beautiful environments the Witcher 3 has offered yet, with stunning graphics on console versions and high end PCs alike.

During the 20-30 hours of Blood And Wine, you’ll find yourself facing tough foes, difficult moral choices, and complex characters. You’ll also finally have a home to call your own, with a vineyard you can upgrade and settle down in, with whichever NPC (if any) you decide to make your partner.

Goodbyes are hard, and farewelling the Witcher 3 is especially difficult, but Blood And Wine represents a hell of a parting gift and a timely reminder of the fantastic work that CD Projekt Red did crafting The Witcher 3. So raise your glass, grab your sword, and get ready to spill plenty of blood and drink loads of wine.

 
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Dark Souls III

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It’s hard to write this review of Dark Souls III. I don’t mean that as an abstract, by the way. I’m not saying it’s intellectually difficult to define the frequently subjective appeal of this series. No, I’m saying it’s physically hard for me to keep my hands steady enough to type. Because they’re shaking, quite a lot, from the excitement of besting the final boss about 35 minutes ago.

I am suffused with a sense of bone deep satisfaction and accomplishment. I’ve spent more hours than I care to contemplate sitting in my tracksuit pants, on the couch, working my way up to the final boss, only to be rebuffed again and again and again. But that ended today. In a focused session, with much swearing and punching of ragecushions*, I finally toppled the entity (whose identity I won’t spoil) and I’m already planning my second playthrough.

See, that’s the thing about the Dark Souls series (encompassing Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls I,II and III) and FromSoftware’s other, thematically similar entry, Bloodborne – they’re tough, unforgiving and, ultimately profoundly rewarding on a weirdly psychological level. From a distance their appeal is baffling: third person, dark fantasy adventures with insanely high degrees of difficulty, obtuse, minimalist storytelling and enemies that respawn every time you die. Why would any sentient being subject themselves to that level of masochistic bullshittery?

To be honest, I don’t know. It’s a tough thing to explain. But I’ll share some experiences I jotted down in my 55 hours of playtime.

There was the moment in the cheerfully named Crucifixion Woods where I got lost. Like, powerfully, utterly, completely lost. I ran from one ill-fated encounter with a couple of giant crabs to a mob of skeletal wizards and finally met my maker at a boss who seemed to come out of nowhere. And it felt wonderful. The game opened up and swallowed me whole and it was great.

Later a literal army of skeletons chased me across a rickety rope bridge. I channelled my inner Indiana Jones and hacked at the side of the bridge. Two chops and I sent the horde of Harryhausen-esque creeps flailing to their doom. Then I climbed down the bridge like a ladder and uncovered a whole secret area… where a fire demon immediately killed me.

More recently, in a massive library area called The Grand Archives, I ran afoul of ghostly hands that burst unbidden from bookcases as I walked past them. Shortly afterwards I noticed wax-headed acolytes beaming deadly spells at me. I killed the acolytes and stumbled across a vat of boiling wax. The game prompted me to dip my head in the hot wax. Following the logic of a half-remembered nightmare, I dipped my head and found that the ghost hands could no longer hurt me. Of course, the trio of powerful knights and gargoyles still could, and did.

I could go on, but I won’t. Half the fun of Dark Souls III is the joy of discovery. The moment when you realise that chest you were fighting towards was in fact a toothy Mimic ready to feast on your delicious flesh or what you thought was a shortcut is in fact filled with poisonous rats. There’s a rhythm to the proceedings and if you learn to be patient and methodical, you’ll eventually emerge triumphant.

Gameplay wise, Dark Souls III has learned a few tricks from Bloodborne. The combat is faster and much more responsive. There will still be moments where a heavy blow feels unfair or the camera a tad unwieldy but overall there’s a lot to love. Graphically this is a beautiful game, with massive environments brimming with more enemies than ever before. The downside to this is sporadic framerate issues which are distracting, but rare enough that they won’t ruin the immersion.

Ultimately, a few stumbles aside, Dark Souls III is a worthy (allegedly final) chapter in a series that is both confounding and compelling. It’s not quite the focused Lovecraftian masterpiece that is Bloodborne, but it improves on almost every aspect of Dark Souls II. It’s dense, sprawling and rich with secrets – but they won’t reveal themselves easily.

So gird your loins, grip your weapon and step into the darkness… and may the flames guide thee.

 

*Ragecushions – are cushions specifically used to scream into and/or punch. If that sounds absurd you’ve clearly not played a Souls game before.

 

 
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Fallout 4 (Game)

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I’m trudging through an irradiated swamp in the wasteland on the way to a community under attack by feral ghouls. My robot butler, Codsworth, chats amiably about nothing in particular as I make sure I’ve got enough ammo for the battle to come. I avoid the gigantic mosquitoes and ready my hunting rifle… when suddenly the heavens issue an almighty bang! A UFO, damaged and flaming, comes streaking out of the sky, flies over the swamp and crashes with a concussive thud nearby.

“You know, ma’am, I rather think we should investigate that,” Codsworth dryly observes. I walk over to the flaming wreckage. Nothing’s inside the craft but there’s blood, green in colour, leading in slimy streaks away from the crash site. I follow and eventually enter a cave. Inside is an alien, pissed off, who starts blasting at me, but I’m ready. I fire my rifle and explode his tumescent, extra-terrestrial head. Digging through his pockets I find a unique Alien Blaster. I add the weapon to my inventory and head back out into the wasteland.

Welcome to Fallout 4, Bethesda’s latest iteration in the beloved series about a post-apocalyptic, alternate reality earth. This time, the action takes places in what remains of Boston, in the year 2287, on a quest that is initially about finding your stolen son in a world gone mad. However, anyone who has ever played a Bethesda game, like Fallout 3 or Skyrim, will tell you the main story is largely a backdrop for the random encounters and strange journeys you embark upon in this massive, open-world action RPG.

When it comes to size and sheer volume of content, Fallout 4 does not disappoint. The game is huge. Even just playing the main story missions with no side quests would take a good few days of uninterrupted play, but when you factor in the various side quests and exploration, crafting options for DIY settlements (a new addition for this iteration) and just wandering about, getting lost and discovering things for the hell of it, Fallout 4 offers potentially hundreds of hours of play.

On the downside, the RPG elements have been stripped back and simplified this time around. This means that levelling up is less meaningful and, curiously, the emphasis of playstyle seems almost exclusively action-based, with most problems being solved via shooting. There’s nothing wrong with shooting in video games, mind you, but one of the exciting elements of Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas was you could quite often talk or use guile to extricate yourself from a sticky situation, lending more depth to the proceedings.

Presentation-wise there are also a few niggling problems. The graphics and environments are beautiful-looking, especially on high-end PCs, but the character models and facial animations are oddly stiff, heading into uncanny valley territory. This is a problem that is particularly noticeable in 2015, when Witcher 3 proved RPGs can be as beautiful as they are massive. It may seem like a surface-level problem, but it’s hard to emotionally connect to a character who looks like a slightly baffled mannequin.

Still, in terms of offering a persistent, strange and darkly humorous world, Fallout 4 is hard to beat. Exploring the ruined remains of a once proud and thriving society is always poignant and the level of immersion and intrigue is likely to keep you hooked for many dark days and radioactive nights.