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Mafia 3

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Mafia 3 makes a great first impression. When you boot it up, the game opens with a disclaimer, stating that this fictionalised depiction of the American South in 1968 will feature racism which, while deplorable, is accurate to the time period. Then we meet the game’s African-American protagonist – Vietnam veteran, Lincoln Clay. The game introduces us to Lincoln in a documentary style format with older versions of the surviving characters talking about their regrets and trauma from the events that you’re about to play.

It’s a stunning and original way to open a video game, and the first two to three hours of gameplay are a joy. Lincoln struggles to adjust to life post-war, and finds that his old neighbourhood has changed…and not for the better. As a poor young black man with few skills other than violence, he soon becomes involved with organised crime. This culminates with a bank heist and a betrayal by mob boss, Sal Marcano. The double cross leaves most of Lincoln’s friends and family dead, and Lincoln with a bullet in his head. Against the odds, Lincoln survives. Once fully recovered, he sets out on a path of bloody revenge, dismantling the mob in New Bordeaux, the game’s fictitious version of New Orleans.

If only Mafia 3 had managed to fully execute its stylish, violent revenge story, because there’s so much about the game, setting, and soundtrack to love. But once the open world becomes open worldy, Mafia 3’s many flaws become glaringly obvious. For a start, 90% of the vehicles handle like a dog on wet lino. They’re mostly heavy, unresponsive, ungainly dinosaurs that are a chore to maneuver. This would be less of a problem if the game featured some kind of alternative mode of transport, such as trains, buses, or perhaps fast travel, but there’s none. At all. So you’ll often find yourself driving from one end of the massive map to the other just to trigger a cut-scene and then head back somewhere else.

The map is worth mentioning too, because although it’s enormous, it’s also pretty much empty. There’s none of that sense of discovery or rewarded exploration that you get in the open worlds of Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim. Another problem is the mission structure. At first, you’ll be able to access story missions as you go along, and these are usually worth doing. But as you open up more territory and recruit underbosses to expand your empire, you’ll find yourself repeating the same handful of activities over and over again until the next story mission unlocks.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the activities were ball-tearingly awesome, but due to a combination of clunky controls and shocking enemy AI, you’ll find little joy in the twentieth seemingly identical assassination mission. Whistle for an enemy, stab them when they come to investigate, repeat a dozen times, and then kill the boss. It’s a format that you should get used to. You’ll be doing it. A lot.

On top of all that, the game features a number of bugs and glitches of varying degrees of seriousness, not to mention murky textures and inconsistent lighting, that hamper immersion and hamstring enjoyment. That being said, Mafia 3 does have some joy in it. The aforementioned story missions are usually solid and cinematic, with exciting shoot outs in memorable locations like a Ku Klux Klan rally or a sinking steamboat. The characters are mostly well drawn, and the direction and story are top notch. It’s just a pity that the game requires you to do so much dull busywork to get to subsequent chapters.

Mafia 3 has great moments where story and gameplay meet effectively, but it’s simply too artificially protracted and mechanically unexciting to be anything more than above average. Unfortunately, Mafia 3 makes you an offer you could probably refuse.

 

 
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Destiny: Rise Of Iron

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Destiny: Rise Of Iron is the latest content drop for Destiny, Bungie’s ambitious MMO/shooter hybrid. Released in September 2014, Destiny has improved a great deal since its somewhat inauspicious beginnings. The sci-fi/fantasy story was negligible upon release, and improved only very slightly with The Dark Below and House Of Wolves additions. Things took a turn for the better when The Taken King arrived, a decent-sized content addition, replete with a coherent story, improved gameplay mechanics, and – shock of all shocks – a sense of humour! Things were finally looking up for Destiny’s future, and Bungie’s alleged “ten-year plan” seemed a more attainable goal than ever.

Destiny: Rise Of Iron, then, has a lot resting on its broad shoulders, and, we’re sad to say, the results are not all that they could have been. First things first: if you haven’t played Destiny, here’s the quick recap. Destiny is a gorgeous FPS shooter with some of the most satisfying gun mechanics in modern gaming. The simple act of pulling the trigger, fighting off waves of enemies, and launching visually spectacular, gleefully destructive super attacks feels profoundly satisfying. Destiny is also extremely light on content, it suffers from an almost non-existent story, and is comically repetitive at times, particularly if you’re trying to grind up to Raid-ready light levels.

Basically your enjoyment of Destiny comes down to one question: do you have friends who regularly play the game? If the answer is no, then you might want to reconsider Destiny. The single player campaign can be a lonely old trip, and the endgame content, when you finally reach it, will likely be a nightmare. If the answer is yes, then you’re honestly in for some of the most satisfying multiplayer gaming available on consoles.

Destiny: Rise Of Iron doesn’t add much new to the mix. There’s the new patrol area, The Plaguelands, which is a continuation of maps set in Old Russia. There’s a new enemy type, SIVA-infused Splicers, which like The Taken are essentially reskinned versions of foes that you’ve faced a thousand times before. There are a couple of new Strikes (which are fun) and a new Raid (which I’ve yet to properly experience) and a gorgeous looking social hub area, Felwinter Peak. The campaign missions on offer are enjoyable, but the entire questline can be easily blown through in 90 minutes or less.

Essentially Destiny: Rise Of Iron suffers from the same issues as year one Destiny: not enough content, not enough imagination, and too much grinding. That said, playing with my regular Destiny crew is still an absolute hoot. There’s “Jase-ON-too” who vents his frustration by punching his couch and swears with the alacrity of a cursing poet. There’s “Bemused-Moose” who seems to have some kind of special deal with Bungie and gets all the good drops. And there’s “yourmumsawesome”, an actual journalist who will never live his name down. This band of brothers from the Salty Little Biscuits clan are what makes Destiny: Rise Of Iron fun to play; it’s just a pity that the content itself isn’t a worthier addition.

Destiny: Rise Of Iron is a solid but inessential addition to the Destiny canon, and a step back in terms of quality from The Taken King. It’s still worth the journey for Destiny obsessives, but could have been so much more.

 
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The BioShock Collection

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The BioShock Collection comprises BioShock, BioShock 2, and BioShock Infinite, a loose trilogy of titles linked by heady philosophical themes, original environments and, in the case of the first two games at least, a profound sense of tension and fear. The original BioShock in particular is just as impressively suspenseful and engaging as it was back in 2007. All three games have been given a current gen makeover, which is extremely apparent in the case of the first two titles. BioShock Infinite was released in 2013, so while it’s prettier in this collection than on release, the upgrade is less noticeable.

The big question for HD remasters is: is this worth the $90 asking price. We’ve had a few disappointing remasters this year (we’re looking at you, Resident Evil 4), so it’s not always a simple question. With The BioShock Collection, however, if you’re on XBOX ONE or PS4, the answer is an emphatic hell yes.

BioShock’s remastering process is beauty to behold. The game is already a masterpiece, and a top ten all time title, but Blind Squirrel Games have done a superb job of making the graphics slicker, with the framerate running at a solid 60fps. Some of the gameplay mechanics can feel a little dated, but that’s due to the game being a decade old rather than poor remastering, and if you don’t currently own a copy of the game, then there’s no excuse not to take another trip down to the depths of Rapture, where politics and plasmids battle in a surreal nightmarish adventure.

BioShock 2 is the red-headed stepchild of the BioShock series. It’s essentially a somewhat artless retread of the original BioShock, and it lets you play as a Big Daddy, which is something that no one was really asking for. That said, it’s a retread of an amazing game in a brilliant location, and is well worth a second spin or first time playthrough. It also comes with DLC Minerva’s Den, which is considered some of the best extra BioShock content currently in existence. It’s not without its narrative flaws, but it’s a hell of ride nonetheless.

Rounding out the package is BioShock Infinite, a game with limitless promise that is let down by a sagging, ordinary second act and unexciting, repetitive shooter mechanics. That said, it also has one of the greatest openings and endings in video game history, and though it never hits the heights of the original BioShock, it toys with fascinating concepts that are explored in the game’s final act and the Burial At Sea DLC, which is also included.

Put simply, The BioShock Collection is an essential purchase if you (a) love BioShock and (b) own a PS4 or XBOX ONE. PC Players with high end rigs have probably experienced Rapture and Columbia as truly intended already, but console owners are in for a treat because The BioShock Collection shows how remasters should be done.

 

 
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Fallout 4: Nuka World

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Fallout 4 was released way back in the year 2015. It was a different time, a more innocent era, and generally the game was reviewed favourably. While not as deep and intricate with potential choices as Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, Fallout 4 was entertaining and engaging and well worth playing. At the back of many players’ minds was the season pass that Bethesda promised would be rich with expansive, intricate DLC. Sure, the vanilla story was a little lacking, but oh boy, we’d all be delighted when that DLC dropped.

Well, Nuka World, the final piece of Fallout 4 DLC, is here, and the overall impression of the much-touted season pass is…meh. That’s perhaps a little unfair, as there have been high points thus far. Automatron was a short but fun adventure that added a small questline and customisable robots. Far Harbor, easily the best of the DLC, added a large new location and a genuinely interesting storyline with morally ambiguous choices. The rest of the season pass, however, comprised Wasteland Workshop, Contraptions Workshop, and Vault-Tec Workshop. In case the titles haven’t clued you in, this isn’t story-based content – it’s crafting and building.

Now there’s nothing wrong with tinkering in Fallout 4; some of it is quite fun, but a lot is resting on the shoulders of Nuka World to make that season pass worth the time and money. It certainly has a great concept. Nuka World’s story is set in The Nuka World Amusement Park, a kind of alternate reality Disneyland focused on Fallout’s iconic Nuka-Cola beverage. But this is not the happiest place on earth, especially now that gangs of raiders have taken over.

Fallout 4: Nuka World

Fallout 4: Nuka World

Nuka World’s concept is: what would you do if you were the leader of the raiders? It’s a great premise, combined with a fabulous location, and the result should be a total winner. But sadly, Nuka World’s slight, fetch-quest focused story ends up feeling like a mildly entertaining but easily forgotten diversion. You can help the raiders (which results in more story missions) or kill them (which ends the DLC far too quickly) and clear out a number of Nuka World’s themed sections. It’s fun, for a while, but ultimately leads to a series of underwhelming skirmishes that are extremely similar to the ones you’ve had before.

There are some new weapons and new enemies, there’s a new companion and power armour, but in terms of story and choice, Nuka World doesn’t compare to Far Harbor’s robust narrative. Once you’ve taken over Nuka World, the game curiously gives you the option of commanding your chosen raider faction to take over the Commonwealth. It’s a fascinating idea, raiding the very communities that you spent so long creating in vanilla Fallout 4, but again: it’s a concept that’s never given much weight or consequence. If you already purchased the season pass, Nuka World is worth a gander. It’s fun and violent and silly. But in terms of must-have DLC, Far Harbor is really the only destination that you absolutely need to see. Nuka World is worth a visit only if you desperately want to revisit the Wasteland and maybe watch it burn.

 
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Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

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As the credits rolled after the final mission of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, a trophy notification pinged on screen. That trophy read, “Pacifist: you completed Deus Ex: Mankind Divided without killing a single soul. Bosses are people too.” I found myself suffused with a genuine sense of accomplishment. At the start of the game, I had decided to play non-lethally, using a combination of stealth, stun gun, hacking, and a tranquiliser rifle. After 30-something hours of tense, engaging gameplay, I had succeeded, and damn it feels good to be a cybernetically augmented Gandhi.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is the highly anticipated follow-up to 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Set in 2029, after the shocking “Aug incident” – where augmented humans went berserk and started attacking everyone in sight – we find ourselves in a world where mankind is, you know, divided. The unaugmented humans are scared of “clanks” (the pejorative term used to describe augmented humans) and have segregated them into specific communities and camps. Naturally a large number of Augs are less than delighted with this indignity, and are becoming radicalised and ready to strike back. Society is a powder keg, and soon after Adam Jensen (the gravel-voiced, heavily augmented protagonist who inexplicably has retractable sunglasses bolted to his head) enters the story, the first spark is lit and a train station is destroyed in a shocking terrorist attack.

Jensen, an agent of Interpol who has friends and loyalties on both sides of the “mechanical apartheid”, now needs to find out who committed this latest atrocity and how to end the violence. Exactly how he does so is up to the player, but really the big two options seem to be lethally or non-lethally. Pleasingly, both options are a great deal of fun. Jensen comes equipped with the ability to briefly turn invisible, remotely hack into computers, turrets and CCTV cameras, shoot explosives, unleash blades hidden in his mechanical arms, and leap tall(ish) buildings in a single bound. He feels tough but never utterly overpowered, and players will have to think laterally if they want to triumph.

A screenshot from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

A screenshot from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

In terms of gameplay, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a lot of fun, once you get used to the initially confusing, slightly clunky, mechanics. The graphics are decent, if not spectacular, but the lighting, music and general mood of the piece is utterly engaging, particularly in the spectacular, Blade Runner-esque Golem City, a location just as evocative and intimidating as it sounds. The dialogue veers occasionally into silly territory, and some of the characters’ facial animation is a bit stiff; Jensen himself is animated like a bobblehead doll left on a dashboard, but the story will hook you. On that note, the story raises fascinating mysteries and concepts, but then ends before many of them can be resolved! This isn’t a deal breaker in a game dense with solid worldbuilding and genuinely significant side missions, but those looking for closure and a definitive answer will be disappointed.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided also comes with a new game mode, Breach, which is a more fast-paced, combat-focused hacking game that provides much-needed catharsis after you’ve been sneaking your way around air vents and storage closets.

Ultimately, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided feels more like a solid next chapter in the Human Evolution saga than a standalone experience. But when the chapters are this compelling and engaging, it’s hard to be salty about that fact. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to start my second playthrough, and this time I’m going to rain bloody death on all who even look at me sideways.

 

 
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No Man’s Sky

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No Man’s Sky has been the Schrödinger’s cat of gaming since Sony first unveiled it at E3 2014. Was this the procedurally generated space exploration game to end all games, or was it an ambitious exercise in hubris like the similarly-hyped-but-ultimately-disappointing Spore? Until it was let out of the box, it was neither and both. To say that the anticipation has been high would be a massive understatement. Now that the game has finally been released, No Man’s Sky is… well, it’s okay, pretty good even, but doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Then again, perhaps nothing could.

For those of you unfamiliar with the title, No Man’s Sky is a space exploration game. The biggest selling point has been Hello Game’s unique algorithm that generates planets as you travel along, ensuring that no two players will have the exact same experience. This has led to a staggering 18 quintillion planets being available to explore, document, and mine. That, in theory, offers a game that essentially never ends. The problem with No Man’s Sky is that despite 18 quintillion planets, there isn’t all that much variety in what to do on them.

A screenshot from No Man's Sky

A screenshot from No Man’s Sky

The game starts with you marooned on a planet. You need to fix your ship, craft new parts, and get out into space. It’s a confrontingly vague opening to a game and, ironically, one of the best bits. A fairly obtuse tutorial takes you through the mechanics of mining, crafting, shooting, and finally powering up your ship. When you first take off from the planet and launch into space – all without loading screens – it’s an amazing experience. Awe-inspiring even. Sadly, that’s about as good as it gets.

No Man’s Sky offers a lot of beautiful-looking, colourful planets with randomly generated flora and fauna, but you end up doing the same things over and over again, and it doesn’t take long before you find yourself asking: is this all there is? Sure, you’ll visit wild places, interact with alien races, and even unravel an extremely vague mystery about what lies at the heart of the universe, but the mechanics to do so are extremely simplistic and not a lot of fun. Games like Destiny are mind-numbingly repetitive but enjoyable because the core concept – say, shooting – is fun. In No Man’s Sky, none of the mechanics, other than zipping around in space, are particularly enjoyable. Mining is repetitive, crafting is cumbersome and initially annoying thanks to a bafflingly convoluted inventory management system, and shooting – both on land and in space – is a disaster. Finding various alien creatures and naming them is cute, but after the first dozen or so planets, not much changes.

That’s not to say that No Man’s Sky is bad, but it should be viewed more as a Minecraft-style chill out game, to be played in short bursts rather than epic sessions. It’s a glorious concept undone by mediocre mechanics, but it remains a fascinating experiment in game design…if only it were more fun to play.

 
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Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Lego Stars Wars: The Force Awakens is the latest in the seemingly endless series of Lego games, this time taking place in a blocky galaxy far, far away. It’s easy to be dismissive of the Lego games, mainly because there are so damn many of them, but to do so in the case of Lego Stars Wars: The Force Awakens would be doing the title, and yourself, a disservice.

The game actually begins with the final battles from Return Of The Jedi, taking the action down to Endor (Lego Ewoks!) and culminating with Luke’s last stand against The Emperor and the destruction of Death Star 2.0. It’s a clever way to ease the player back into the Star Wars universe, and it means that the game can spend longer setting up the main bulk of the action that takes place thirty years later.

In terms of gameplay, not a great deal has changed from other Lego titles. You’ll take control of a variety of characters (who you can switch between) and will do light puzzle solving; take part in fast, whimsical battles (both in the air and on the ground); create objects; and collect studs and bricks to unlock further extras. It’s Lego game Standard Operating Procedure.

Where Lego Stars Wars: The Force Awakens stands above other recent Lego titles is in the script, which balances action with humour, juxtaposing official sound bites from the movie with hilarious images (eg: Luke giving Darth Vader a clumsy crayon drawing). Add to this a number of the main cast lending their actual voices, including Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, and Carrie Fisher, and you’ve got a package that will have geeks of all ages drooling. On the downside, those of you not enchanted by the Lego games will find little here to convert you – if brick collecting and puzzle solving aren’t your bag, you should look elsewhere. But the game’s ten starting levels (and half a dozen secret unlockable ones) are great fun, especially if you’ve got a co-op partner to play and laugh with.

Much like the movie upon which it’s based, Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens offers a breezy but charming experience that will be especially welcome for younger gamers during the school holidays, but is smart and clever enough to be quite enjoyable for older fans as well.

 
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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.