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Middle Earth: Shadow of War

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At the deep, nuggety core of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is one simple concept: killing orcs. Yes there’s a lengthy, and somewhat tortured, story campaign, yes there is bulk loot collecting and RPG elements and yeah, naturally, there are lots of nods and callbacks to the Lord of the Rings movies/books (oh hi, Gollum!) but ultimately SoW is all about killing orcs in elaborate ways. You’ll kill them with fire, you’ll kill them with swords, you’ll kill them with spiders and big caragors. You’ll kill them in castles, you’ll kill them in on hills, you’ll kill them en masse, mate, oh fuck yes, you will!

Happily when it comes to dispatching orcs Shadow of War’s gameplay is fluid, responsive and enjoyable. It doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel first used in 2014’s Shadow of Mordor, but it adds enough new elements and mechanics to feel more engaging then a simple retread. Most impressive of all is the Nemesis system, which makes a triumphant return. For the uninitiated this system means every time you die the orc who killed you gains social status and becomes more powerful. Conversely some orcs survive their apparent deaths or humiliations and will return, bigger, badder and holding a drake-sized grudge.

These weird vendettas held against you by characters with name like Dush the Obsessed, Gurk the Angry and Trevor Maggot Pants (may have made that last one up) gives SoW a dynamic, exciting sense of tension. The same, sadly, cannot be said for the story which is all over the place. Talion remains duller then unsalted tofu and wraith partner, Celebrimbor, is still one Joy Division album away from being the bloke in his 40s who takes the whole goth thing just a little bit too seriously. They’re joined by some new characters this time, such as sexy Shelob (finally a spider character you can masturbate to!) and Bruz the Chopper, an ocker orc who is easily the most interesting character by a fairly huge margin.

You’ll occupy five large landscapes, collecting collectibles, brainwashing captains, taking over fortresses and, yes, killing many, many orcs. You can probably knock the main campaign over in 30-40 hours (which by AAA game standards is pretty damn generous) but then the game pulls some bullshit which you may find difficult to forgive. The last act, titled “Act IV: Shadow Wars”, turns the endgame into a grindfest. All those forts you spent so long taking over? Well now you’ll need to defend them against legions of tougher orcs, through some twenty increasingly difficult levels. It’s doable, but tough, and the Sauron-like spectre of microtransactions enters the proceedings because how much easier would it be to just buy some powerful orcs to buff your forts? Why not head to the online market place and buys some, my preeeecious?

For a lot of people this won’t be a deal breaker, it certainly wasn’t for me, I had a great time with this game, but there is a certain cynicism to the exercise that leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. Pay to win is a shitty design choice, especially when it locks you out of the game’s final cutscene. My suggestion? Don’t buy orcs, take a little longer and earn them by enjoying the game’s many combat options. Or just stop playing at Act IV and watch the “true ending” on Youtube. It’s a rough business that we even have to deal with this kind of nonsense, but that’s gaming in 2017. Proceed accordingly.

That one nasty little microtransactional caveat aside, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a bloody belter of a game. The Nemesis system alone makes it worth a visit, and the sheer joy of chopping up literal armies of orcs is potent and exciting. In short: ignore the cash grab and focus on the killing and you’ll have a good time.

 
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Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

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Of all the many things Dishonored 2 did right, and that list is long and impressive, it didn’t quite give enough narrative time to one of its more interesting side characters, Billie Lurk (Rosario Dawson). Happily Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is here to redress that balance and run a victory lap, reminding us how damn good this series really is.

Death of the Outsider begins right after Dishonored 2’s ending. The players who opted to kill Billie Lurk at the end of that game may be slightly confused, but those people are monsters and we shall talk of them no more. Anyway, long story short: Billie has been tasked with finding the Outsider – the living God/man who controls the Void from which all supernatural power flows – and end his eternal life. To do this Billie will need to use her own powers – transporting herself vast distances, mimicking the faces of others and astral traveling into new areas to mark enemies and secrets. In other words it’s Dishonored business as usual and that’s a good thing, for the most part.

Over Death of the Outsider’s 7-10 hour runtime you’ll sneak around banks, museums and cultist’s lairs, either going full on stab-happy or silent but deadly. This time around killing folks doesn’t change the ending, which means cathartic murder goes unpunished, but the lack of a “good ending” for low chaos runs is a little disappointing. Another minor letdown is that you can’t upgrade your powers in any meaningful way. Yes, you can find bone charms that buff certain characteristics, but it’s a poor substitute for genuine stat building. One addition that really works, however, are the contracts you can take from the black market. These add multiple smaller goals (including killing a mime!) and really gives you a reason to explore every nook and cranny of these large, detailed maps.

While Death of the Outsider never quite attains the genius level of its bigger siblings, it’s a solid, undeniably satisfying adventure with some cool characters and world building and an ending that manages to stick the landing. It’s not a perfect ta ta for now to Dishonored but is sure to give fans something to chew on until Dishonored 3 creeps out of the shadows.

 
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Destiny 2

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The original Destiny was revered developer Bungie’s (Halo) ambitious attempt at an shooter/MMO hybrid. It was insanely expensive, with reports suggesting a budget of around half a billion (!) dollars and released with much fanfare; however the early days of vanilla Destiny were not happy ones. While the game performed well commercially, critics were less kind. The story was painfully thin and forgettable, the systems of looting and upgrading badly explained and the game’s campaign could be knocked over in a scant three hours. The critical drubbing was reflected by an increasing audience backlash, as players found the experience ultimately a bit repetitive and empty.

Over the following months and years vanilla Destiny was improved, slowly and falteringly, until The Taken King expansion turned the game into what it should have been the whole time. It just took over a year to get there! The fact is, Destiny – as it was initially released – didn’t know what it wanted to be.

Destiny 2, on the other hand, has no such identity crisis. This time around there’s a robust, albeit slightly generic, campaign with likable characters and playtime of 8-10 hours. There are planets to explore, public events to join, Lost Sectors (space dungeons) to delve into, Adventures (side quests) to take part in and classic endgame content like Strikes and, of course, The Raid. On the PvP front the Crucible returns, with several new modes and a more focused 4v4 paradigm at play. So, the big question, is it any good?

Yes, it’s fair to say that Destiny 2 is very good, but that statement comes with a caveat. Although the advertising claims differently, Destiny 2 is a lonely old slog by yourself. Oh sure, the voice acting is uniformly decent and the locations you visit feature gorgeous, eye-melting sci-fi vistas but the single player experience can feel a little lonely. Destiny has always been about forming a fireteam and blasting the crap out of aliens, robots and alien robots with your mates, and the sequel is no exception.

Another big factor is that post campaign these games are all about grinding for loot. Imagine Diablo in space, with guns, and you’ve got the basic idea. So while you’re certainly able to play the game by yourself, it lacks the weird mixture of camaraderie, jealously and friendly one upmanship group play allows. Happily Bungie has made joining a clan easier than ever, and also tacked on guided games – where you can meet some fellow nerds and hope they can carry you through the hard stuff.

While the shooting is as peerless as ever, and the graphics and story much improved over the original, Destiny 2 still has its flaws. The new mod system is dense and confusing, and when you finally do understand it – a bloody pain in the arse. Get ready to lose a whole bunch of glimmer (in game currency), time and sanity trying to craft that elusive final bit of gear to hit the level cap. Mission variety is another sticking point, as ‘waiting for your ghost to finish opening a door while wave after wave of enemies attack’ seems to be the order of the day yet again. Occasionally the game attempts something a little different, but those flashes of inspiration are few and far between. Also the campaign’s villain, Dominus Ghaul, becomes less as less interesting and threatening as the story proceeds and in the end just sort of… stops. Also, and this is possibly the most galling flaw, there aren’t any new alien races to shoot. If this game is truly a sequel, and not the ‘1.5’ reddit so often snarkily dubs it as, where are the new alien races, Bungie? Carn.

Balancing out those problems, however, are the Strikes (which are almost all superb) and the Raid. The Leviathan Raid is one of the series’ best, a punishing version of It’s a Knockout in space with clever use of group dynamics and an unforgettable final boss fight. In fact included with this review is the clutch play of all clutch plays as my group finally bested the gold-gilt fatty in a sloppy climax that involved just two surviving players (MightyTiger242 and skaterguy845) resorting to using supers, their last few rounds of ammo and even punching to triumph.

And that, right there, is how and when Destiny 2 works. When you’ve slogged through adversity and triumph on the other side. That weird bond your forge, through mutual goals and lack of sleep; and the seething jealously when everyone else gets better loot then you.

Ultimately Destiny 2 is a slick space shooter with satisfying gunplay, a decent story and engaging endgame content for days. As a single player shooter, it’s adequate, but as a group online experience it’s unmissable. Flawed but fun, Destiny 2 is a the best kind of engaging timewaster set to vampirise your social life and make a dark mockery of your responsibilities. Use it with care, Guardians.

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

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When Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End came out last year it was an epic, emotional goodbye to one of video game’s most-beloved protagonists, Nathan Drake. It was also, it has to be said, frequently a little redundant, retreading familiar territory – both in the narrative and gameplay. This isn’t a bad thing when we’re talking about a series as compulsively enjoyable as the Uncharted games, but it did mean developer Naughty Dog needed to bring something new to the table with standalone adventure, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy.

So did they succeed? Yes and no. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy features one obvious and major change: new protagonists. This time around players will be thrust into the shoes of fan-favourite character, Chloe Frazer (Claudia Black) – the smart arse Aussie/Indian treasure hunter who has teamed up with Nadine Ross (Laura Bailey) – the South African former mercenary and general bad arse.

This classic funny/square team up is the biggest joy of The Lost Legacy. Experiencing the growing friendship between Chloe and Nadine as they explore India, looking for the legendary tusk of Ganesh, is well-written and quite emotional at times. Chloe gets to be more than just a quip-machine and Nadine has layers only hinted at in her time in Uncharted 4. During the 6-8 hour playthrough I found myself genuinely invested in these two characters and their relationship to one another.

I was, however, somewhat less invested in the combat. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy features combat that is basically a cut and paste of Uncharted 4, which isn’t bad – but hasn’t improved. The gunplay still feels a tad imprecise and taking cover can be fiddly. That’s not to say there aren’t spectacular moments – they’re numerous – but in Uncharted’s quest to be an action blockbuster you can play, some of the finer gameplay touches are lost.

That said, the exploration and treasure hunting is excellent as always. Descending into Indian ruins is as atmospheric and intriguing as anything Uncharted has ever offered. The puzzles are clever enough to be a challenge but not obtuse enough to cause any real frustration. The plot moves along at a fair clip – and features one particularly enjoyable open area where you can tackle objectives at your own pace, unlocking optional secrets and even meeting some friendly monkeys! Nadine loves monkeys, you guys.

Ultimately Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is a leaner, more-focused standalone expansion worthy of the series’ reputation. The graphics are utterly, insanely gorgeous, the lead characters believable and likable and the story has enough twists and turns to keep you engaged for the duration.

 

 
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Agents of Mayhem

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Your enjoyment of Agents of Mayhem really boils down to one question: are you a fan of Saturday morning cartoons? As a youngster – or, hell, a full grown person – did/do you thrill to the slightly generic, safe violence of G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Transformers? If no, then Mayhem will cause you to roll your eyes and sigh loudly, a lot. If yes, then we have much to discuss.

Agents of Mayhem is set in a futuristic Seoul, South Korea. MAYHEM is actually an acronym for Multinational Agency Hunting Evil Masterminds, and it’s up to you – playing as twelve different heroes (fourteen with pre-order) – to stop LEGION aka League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations.

If the above paragraph sounds like insane nonsense to you, congratulations – you are correct. Agents of Mayhem is a powerfully silly story, but where it shines is with the heroes themselves. You can team up said protagonists into groups of three and switch them on the fly. Personally I enjoyed a team consisting of Daisy the alcoholic derby girl with a Gatling gun, Oni the insane, serial-killing former Yakuza who fights with fear and a silenced pistol and Braddock, a tough-as-nails former military lady who brings the pain and airstrikes. However most combinations can be effective, and unlocking each of the new characters and experimenting with them is a great deal of fun. The variety of characters you can choose from is such that even if you find half a dozen of them annoying – and you will probably will – there are likely just as many you’ll kind of dig.

The first ten or so hours of AOM are fantastic, you’ll unlock characters, defeat boss enemies, investigate underground bases and slowly take Seoul back. The problem is at around the halfway point the game stops evolving in any meaningful way. It’s still fun, mind you, but the repetition becomes a little deadening after a while and Volition’s trademark humour becomes less edgy and more annoying-younger-brother-on-a-sugar-high as time goes on.

Enemy variety is also a little disappointing, as you end up fighting the same faceless, generic robo-soldiers over and over. If one were to be particularly kind one might suggest it’s a knowing homage to the cartoons that pulled similar crap in the 1980s, but even if that’s the case it still doesn’t make it any more engaging.

Those caveats aside, Agents of Mayhem is a lot of dumb fun. The run-and-gun gameplay is an absolute joy and triple jumping around the huge (albeit somewhat lifeless) map never stops being a blast. Like the disposable Saturday morning cartoons it seeks to emulate, Agents of Mayhem is a slight, goofy good time that offers colour and movement but it’s unlikely to leave a lasting impression.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Diablo III: Rise of the Necromancer

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A corridor full of slavering monsters greets me as I enter the dark crypt. They’re not much for formalities and charge forward, an ungainly horde of teeth, claws and homicidal intent. I sweep my hands over the ground, raising bloody spikes from the floor to impale my foes. They die badly, screaming and baying. Another wave of enemies approaches and this time I conjure the corpses of the first wave to rise, rise and attack their living compatriots…

Rise of the Necromancer is Diablo III’s first major content drop since 2014’s Reaper of Souls expansion. Gallingly, it doesn’t add any story content, but as the name suggests it does introduce a class new to Diablo III: the Necromancer.

The good news is the Necromancer is one of the best classes in the game, hewing closest to the Witch Doctor in terms of skills, but otherwise quite unique. Turning corpse piles into vengeful spiders or spears, summoning wraiths to do your bidding and literally raising the dead from the bloodied battlefield to fight alongside you feels wonderfully morbid and shockingly powerful. Fans of Diablo’s darker, gothic aesthetic will really dig on this class, and the many combinations of powers you can equip on your way to level 70 and beyond.

The bad news is that there’s no new story content in which to launch your brand spanking new necromancer, making the $21.95 price tag feel a little steep. Don’t get me wrong, if you have a regular Diablo III crew running Greater Rifts you’ve probably already purchased this bad boy and are enjoying it mightily. If, however, you’re looking for the next sizable chunk of content to make Diablo III feel brand new, you’ll likely be a little disappointed.

Ultimately Rise of the Necromancer is lots of fun, but a little slight. Still, this is a game released in 2012 that still manages to feel engaging and addictive, so maybe it’s time to jump back in and desecrate a few corpses.

 
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Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy

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Sit down, youngin’, and let us tell you a tale of yesteryear. Twas a time called the 1990s. The fashion was grunge, the movies were talky and the internet was dial-up. Mascots were all the range on consoles. Nintendo had Mario, Sega had Sonic and the PlayStation… well, the humble PlayStation featured the adventures of a gurning, cross-eyed bandicoot named Crash…

Yes, the wave of remasters continues, following on from Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, The BioShock Collection and WipeOut: The Omega Collection, we now have Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, which features remasters of the PS1 classic platformers.

The plot, such as it is, features Crash – a genetically engineered bandicoot in jean shorts – who has to stop the evil plans of the nefarious Dr. Cortex (a scenery-chewing mad scientist) with the help of sentient tribal mask, Aku Aku and sister, Coco. How does Crash accomplish this? By making his way through various themed levels of platforming of increasingly difficulty, of course! This was a game made in the ’90s and that’s how we solved things back then.

Nostalgic reboots like this can be a bit of a double-edged sword. Certainly Vicarious Visions have done a spectacular job of making that which is old look superbly slick and new again, but the gameplay of the Crash trilogy – particularly the first entry – has not aged terribly well. The controls are a tad clunky and lack a fine precision, making a number of sections more than a little frustrating. That said the second and third entries – Cortex Strikes Back and Warped, respectively – are impossibly charming in parts, with the goofy music, colourful graphics and silly animations causing grins and indulgent chuckles in equal measure.

If you can remember playing Crash back in the day, and those memories are fond, you’ll likely have a good time with the N. Sane Trilogy. It’s slight, simple and silly but that’s kind of why we liked it in the first place. Newcomers to the character, however, may be slightly baffled as to the appeal and then go and “dab” or go to a “planking party” off their heads on “the Molly”. Get off my damn lawn, you whippersnappers!