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Soulcalibur VI

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In some ways, Soulcalibur is the red-headed stepchild of the fighting game oeuvre. Not as technical and respected as the Tekken series, nor as instantly accessible as the Street Fighter franchise, it occupies a strange middle ground and has never been given the kudos that is so overdue. Happily, with Soulcalibur VI, the underrated franchise has its best chance at garnering mainstream attention, boasting a generous offering that is easy to pick up but satisfyingly deep to master.

Soulcalibur VI, like everything in 2018, is sort of a reboot, boiling down the various disparate plot threads from previous games, and plonking them down in one cohesive narrative set in the 16th Century. To be brutally frank, the story is serviceable at best, but it’s also quite clearly not the point. Ultimately both “Libra of Soul” and “Soul Chronicle” (aka: the story) modes want to get you into as many varied fights as possible, utilising various weapons and characters. Libra is the real star here, as you can create your own unique fighter and have them enter the game’s world, even levelling up and improving weapons – in an RPG-lite type of experience. Soul Chronicle offers a similar caper but using characters that already exist in the game, it’s similarly varied and offers action aplenty. These modes are legitimately impressive, and really give a sense of depth and lore (even if you end up skipping past some of the denser walls of exposition on screen).

Of course, a decent story offering would be for nothing if the game didn’t feel right, and yet again Soulcalibur delivers the goods. The combat, unlike most fighting games, is weapons-based and uses a combination of normal hits, hard hits, kicks and blocks. Once you start combining these simple elements – and take advantage of Soul Edge and Reversal Edge attacks – the variety is dizzying, but never so obtuse that it gets in the way of fun. Because, ultimately, that’s what a fighting game should be: a kicky-punchy (or hacky-slashy) good time. Soulcalibur VI delivers this and more, a gorgeously-animated, fast-paced flurry of spectacular moves and interesting modes. Feel like the lord of all creation as you tear through Libra of Soul and Arcade mode. Come falling back down to earth as you get your arse utterly spanked by a 13-year-old kid from Japan in the online component.

Soulcalibur is a great fighting game franchise, and Soulcalibur VI is, quite simply, a great fighting game. Take a chance on this unjustly overlooked combat caper and forge a violent path in this eternally retold tale.

 
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Mega Man 11

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The original Mega Man was the first game to almost break us. The year was 1988 (or thereabouts) and your heroic writer was a burgeoning nerd in an era when such people were generally called “unco” and were punched a great deal. Mega Man was the latest game we played on our beloved Nintendo Entertainment System, a deceptively simple platformer starring a robot boy with a shooty arm. As MM you’d make your way through various levels, all with specific themes (fire, scissors, bombs etc.), and fight a boss that was the culmination of said theme. Once you beat the boss you’d flog their power and move onto the next one. It sounds pretty simple in retrospect but at the time that was a staggeringly clever gameplay mechanic. One boss was giving us the roaring shits, however, as time after time we tried and failed to beat them. Eventually we called the helpline on the back of one of the many Nintendo magazines and they told us whose powers us should use to beat the boss. It was a profound relief and a glorious triumph once implemented.

Thirty years later, with three decades of challenging game experience rattling around inside our bonce, we figured the latest iteration of the game, Mega Man 11, would be a negligible challenge. We’ve played through the Dark Souls trilogy, survived Alien: Isolation and platinumed Bloodborne. This would be a piece of piss, right?

Friends, it was not a piece of piss.

Mega Man 11 basically has the same plot as the rest of them. Ubiquitous antagonist Dr. Wily is back with a bunch of brainwashed robots and it’s up to you, blue, to kick their arses and steal their toys and eventually face Wily himself. This time you’ll have the advantage of the Double Gear system that briefly allows you to slow time, boost your damage or use both at once, although you need to be careful not to overload the fiddly tech. The title offers that classic Mega Man-style gaming. Themed levels, loads of secrets, clever bosses and platforming that will on occasion make you want to primal scream at the moon, begging for an end to the horror. See, Mega Man 11 is challenging. To the point where we found ourself notching the difficulty down to [weary sigh] Casual. And hell, even then we didn’t exactly fly through the levels! We try to tell ourselves it’s because we haven’t played an MM game for years, but part of us knows it’s likely that our old man reflexes aren’t what they used to be.

The thing is, Mega Man 11 – despite or perhaps because of the learning curve – is an enormous amount of fun. It’s bright, it’s colourful, the weapons are cool and the feeling of satisfaction you get when besting a beastly boss is as satisfying now as it was way back in 1988. If you don’t like platformers, or prefer your games more forgiving, then you should probably look elsewhere but if old school gameplay with new school presentation is your thing, Mega Man 11 will have you doing the robot.

 
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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

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Assassin’s Creed Odyssey follows on from 2017’s Assassin’s Creed Origins, a game that represented Ubisoft’s attempt to get the long running series back on track after a grim few entries. Origins was good. Not breathtakingly amazing, mind you, but a solid course correction for a franchise in dire need of some fresh concepts. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Odyssey improves on Origins in most aspects, although there are still a number of issues that need ironing out.

First, let’s talk about the story because unlike many recent AC entries, it’s a pretty good one! You, the player, step into the shapely sandals of either Alexios or Kassandra in ancient Greece, in the year 431 BC. It’s kind of weird that the game takes place four hundred years before the entry titled Origins but at this stage of the game, the series has so much narrative baggage it’s a relief to enter a relatively uncluttered timeline.

The game has you trying to restore your family by tracking down the surviving members. What you do when you find them is up to you, to an extent, because Odyssey has added branching narrative elements, similar to those in the Mass Effect series or Telltale Games titles.

This is a smart move and makes the dialogue sections much more intriguing. In fact, the cutscenes in general are a series best, featuring excellent facial animation and voice acting. The world of Ancient Greece is similarly honed to perfection, offering a staggeringly enormous canvas upon which you can paint your story. Want to become a bad arse warrior who takes no shit? You can. Rather play it sneaky and stealthy? That’s an option too. The skill trees in Odyssey are much more meaningful, offering genuinely different skills for enormously different play styles.

Okay, that’s the good news. Now let’s delve into what doesn’t work.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is massive; like, legitimately enormous, which is fine. But it’s also very repetitive. Particularly after about ten hours or so when for some reason the XP is throttled and the game basically insists you take part in Every-Single-Tedious-Fetch-Quest-Offered. Oh sure, you don’t have to do them all, but if you choose not to you’ll be woefully underleveled for basically every main story mission on offer. This happened to an extent in Origins but it feels even more egregious here.

To make matters worse, the online store offers a permanent XP boost for money, basically enforcing the idea that the game is chockers with bullshit busy work that you’d rather skip and they want you to pay for the privilege. Honestly, this is the kind of shonky crap that was meant to be in Ubisoft’s past and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Now for some people, the kind of gamers who want to do every single side quest, it’s likely not a problem. But it’s a bit cheeky to claim the game can be “played your way” and then drip feed XP in a slow, grindy trickle.

Other negatives include floaty combat, frequent (though not game breaking) bugs and a general lack of mission variety. Still and all, the game looks stunning and when it’s not pissfarting about with the sort of nonsense described above it can be almost sublime.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey offers a decent story, great voice acting, improved (though imperfect) combat and meaningful, upgradable skills in a title that provides an expansive, entertaining adventure that will appeal to series vets and newcomers alike – although not without some reservations.

 
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Valkyria Chronicles 4

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In 2008, The Valkyria Chronicles was released to much acclaim and some confusion. A bizarre mix of military turn-based tactics, strategy and anime-style storytelling all wrapped up in a sketchy watercoloured aesthetic, there truly was nothing like this out there. Even people who wouldn’t play a strategy game on a dare couldn’t help but be charmed by this curious offering. Sequels were released, mainly on the PSP and mobile platforms, and a console spin-off Valkyria Revolution, hit market but none of these games could touch the singular charm of the original. Ten years later and it looks like they’re going to have another bash with The Valkyria Chronicles 4, but can lightning be caught in a bottle a second time? Kinda yeah.

The events of Valkyria Chronicles 4 occur in the same timeline as the original, however the story is told from the perspective of new characters. This is a wise move as trying to follow the byzantine competing narrative threads would be an exercise in confusion. Set on Europa, where the second Europan war is being fought, you take control of a squad of youngsters with silly hair and funny voices. The character designs are, like the predecessors, total anime nonsense. That’s part of the charm, really, but if you have a low tolerance for that sort of thing you should know that going in. If you can get past the rather goofy aesthetic, however, there is a surprising amount of story depth with solid journeys for all of the characters and even a couple of genuine emotion moments.

Gameplay-wise things are pretty much unchanged from the original. You move your troops into position, fight the enemy, move forwards and do it all again, experiencing cutscenes and story beats along the way. The mixture of exploration and real time strategy remains an intriguing one, although the mechanics aren’t quite as fresh a decade later. Graphics and animation are also fine, but not exactly spectacular. Still, that’s not really the purpose of Valkyria Chronicles 4. This almost feels like a more modern reboot of the original and for those of you who are fans of that oddball title – this is a pleasing and engaging tank ride down memory lane.

 
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Shadow of the Tomb Raider

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In 2013 when Crystal Dynamics decided to reboot the Tomb Raider franchise it couldn’t have come at a better time. Lara Croft was a beloved character in theory, but her most recent adventures at that point were lacking. The concept of seeing Lara before she was a gun-toting bad arse was a solid one, and the game remains an exciting, quite brutal, adventure experience.

2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider seemed to pitch itself as “what if Tomb Raider… but more?” The title was technically very slick, full of exciting set pieces and brimming with side content, but something was missing. Or rather, the lack of innovation in anything but technical specs was clear. Put simply: the graphics were gorgeous but the gameplay was more of the same.

2018’s Shadow of the Tomb Raider is closing out the prequel trilogy and, for good and ill, it continues Rise’s tradition of piling on more stuff without adding much in the way of innovation.

Now, for the record: if you’re really into this Nu-Tomb Raider trilogy you’ll have an absolute blast with the game. The jungle setting, Lara’s new ability to smear herself with mud and the apocalyptic plot are all rock solid, if surface-level, additions to the franchise. This is more of what you love, if you love it.

Those on the fence about these games, however, will find little that hasn’t been explored in the other two titles. The graphics are slick, the animation gorgeous, the voice acting stellar and the level design clever and intricate… and yet it really is business as usual. You’ll never be particularly surprised in Shadow of the Tomb Raider and other than a couple of plot points towards the end there’s little that feels destined to be memorable as, say, the hideous body pit in Tomb Raider.

In cinematic terms, Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a solid, but unexceptional entry in a long running franchise. It’s Mission: Impossible III rather than Ghost Protocol. Or Tomorrow Never Dies instead of Casino Royale. In short: Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an engaging action adventure with one of video game’s most iconic characters, but sadly bereft of the innovation and surprise that would raise it to ‘classic’ status.

 
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Strange Brigade

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Back before it became a seething hellscape of capering reality TV stars and xenophobic Brexit voters, Britain used to rule the world. Quite literally, actually, they had a whole empire thing going on. This gleeful colonisation was glorious for them, although not so ideal for the rest of the world. That era of ‘stiff upper lip’ no-nonsense plummy invasion is the thematic premise for Strange Brigade, a four-player co-op shooter from those barmy chaps over at Rebellion Developments.

Set in 1930, right smack bang in the middle of the era described above, archeologist Edgar Harbin uncovers the dusty tomb of Seteki, a terrifying African Queen renowned for her cruelty. Naturally digging around in the tombs of evildoers is always a bad idea and sure enough, Seteki’s spirit rises up – bringing with her an army of the undead. Who can stop this terrible turmoil from beyond the grave? Could it be you, dear reader, do you have what it takes?

The titular Strange Brigade are a group of Secret Service agents with various appealing personalities and different skills that can be tweaked along the way. Ultimately, however, you’ll be shooting. A lot. Hordes of zombies, wraiths, monsters, insects and all manner of bosses swarm towards your team and must be dispatched tout-bloody-suite. You can aid the wanton destruction by incorporating traps and supers into the mix, plus some light puzzle solving will unlock enhancements for your weapon, but this is a group shooter through and through. Happily, Rebellion – creators of the Sniper Elite series – are no strangers to shooters. The gunplay is snappy and responsive, with headshots feeling satisfying and movements well tuned. Playing alone is possible but the general sense of repetition may hamper long term enjoyment. If you can find a group of three others, however, the game truly shines, offering an agreeable mix of horde mode with traps and bosses to spice things up.

Strange Brigade is charming, featuring a tongue-in-cheek narrator and a sense of style. This charm doesn’t quite disguise the fairly simplistic nature of the gameplay loop, but it gives the title a sense of identity in a crowded market. By yourself Strange Brigade is just okay, but if you can rope in some chums, by crikey you’ll be blasting ambulatory corpses and laughing with glee until the sun finally sets on the grand old British Empire. Pip pip! Cheerio.

 
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Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition

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I’ve always considered myself to be something of a polyamorous geek; that is I can hold many different pop cultural passions in my heart at once. Certainly horror movies are my first and most notable love, but I also ardently adore video games, sensually worship excellent telly, vigorously exalt books and even give comics a friendly frotting from time to time. But for all of these most delightful lovers one particular branch of the gnarled dork tree has always eluded me: the turn-based fantasy RPG.

I’ve admired them from afar, mind you, and even dipped my toe into Pillars of Eternity and the first Divinity: Original Sin but something about the setting, characters and/or world always failed to grab me long term. That is until Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition came along and ignited a new passion in my old, cold, black little heart.

Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition (called Divinity 2 henceforth) tells the tale of a number of characters – both existing and user generated – who are “Sourcerers”: magicians who can command the power of Source. Because of this enigmatic power they are treated like second class citizens and at the start of Divinity 2 you’ll find yourself jailed by Magisters at Fort Joy – a prison island – wearing a Source-dampening collar. What you do from there is pretty much up to you, although forming a party and escaping the island is a pretty good first goal.

This isn’t a spectacularly original premise for a fantasy RPG – mysterious powers, unknown origins and a quest to embark on are all pretty well-worn elements of the genre – but what separates Divinity 2 from the pack is the quality of the details. Every character in the game, and I mean every character, is voiced and has a backstory. From the lowliest shopkeep to a random wandering crab (yes, you can talk to animals with the Pet Pal perk – and it’s highly recommended you do) you’ll find details, lore and even helpful hints on quests in the area. The game is dense with choice and options, featuring dozens of different ways to tackle even the smallest objective. Having trouble in a head-on fight? Why not sneak in via the back and sabotage a base’s oil barrel stash. Not feeling violent? Why not bribe your way into your objective, or disguise yourself as your enemy? Or turn invisible? Or summon a giant spider made of bone? Or… look, you get the idea. That’s not just for main quests either, every single quest feels meaningful and never ‘collect six radishes’ or ‘kill nine frog monsters’. Hell, I found myself investigating missing eggs for a group of chickens, only to find them murdered later – so I chatted with one of their ghosts – and had to take the surviving chook to meet its papa. Then the twist ending of that was the bloody kid was the murderer and I had the kill the bastard! Ended up with some nice trousers and a spear though so, you know, worth it.

This level of nuance and detail doesn’t come without a price, however. You’ll sometimes find yourself confused about what to do next and properly baffled by a few of the more Byzantine mechanics. Still, that’s nothing a quick trip to the game’s Wiki won’t help, and in a game as richly detailed as this there’s no shame in it. Less appealing were a half dozen or so bugs that reared their ugly little heads from time to time, but nothing a quick reload didn’t fix and one suspects they’ll be patched out soon enough.

Ultimately Divinity: Original Sin II: Definitive Edition is an embarrassment of riches. A complex, fascinating turn-based fantasy RPG of epic size and scope, with nuanced characters, rewarding combat and satisfying exploration. Whether played single player or in the game’s excellent co-op mode Divinity 2 is the kind of title that will have you calling in ‘dead’ and staying home, playing it for hours.

It also turned me into a new kind of dork and, frankly, I couldn’t be happier.

 
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Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr

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There are certain immutable truths in this strange world of ours. Hollywood will never stop churning out technically-competent-but-forgettable-remakes, films based on video games will invariably suck and the Warhammer series will continue to release a half dozen games each year, until humanity’s bones have long since turned to dust.

You can see the appeal, mind you, the tabletop gaming franchise exists in a realm of constant war, with epic battles spanning galaxies and featuring countless ghastly enemies – of the human and alien variety. And to be fair Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr (by the Emperor, what a title!) has a neat premise and engaging concept.

You play an Inquisitor (shonky future black ops types) who uncovers a conspiracy aboard an enormous abandoned vessel, and is sent on a mission that will take you all through the Caligari sector and beyond. Unlike most Warhammer entries there are genuinely intriguing concepts and ideas woven into the narrative, and playing through the story campaign feels rewarding as a result.

Unfortunately the gameplay, the majority of what you’ll be doing, is less polished and engaging. Based in a top down view similar to Diablo III, Martyr has you wandering through abandoned ships/planets/caves etc. and blasting waves of enemies as you uncover secrets and grind for loot. The shooting is… fine. It gets the job down but never feels like a joy to play, which is a problem when the action is this repetitive. You can unlock and build different weapon loadouts but they rarely amount to anything beyond ‘more bullets’ and ‘different flavours of explosion’. Plus the cover system is just terrible, having you latch onto objects seemingly at random, and never really justifying its existence.

Yet for all of that, Martyr is actually pretty fun. The environments are weird and atmospheric, the story is engaging and gleefully over-the-top and there’s a general sense of future grimdark horror/action that feels so unique it’s almost worth putting up with some of the weaker gameplay elements and general lack of innovation.

Ultimately Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr is a worthy if unspectacular addition to the already staggeringly huge (black) library of games, and while flawed this latest effort improves on the storytelling and is fun when grouped with like minded friends. It’s not the game that finally clarifies the appeal of Warhammer 40K to non-fans, but it’s another clanking mech suit footstep closer.

 
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Vampyr

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Some years ago, before the zombie plague swarmed all over the zeitgeist, vampires were the monster du jour. They infested popular culture, sexily biting in books (Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls), fanging it up in movies (Neil Jordan’s lush Interview with the Vampire adaptation) and even taking over the telly (Joss Whedon’s beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer). One place these toothy mongrels didn’t have much of an impact, however, was video games. In fact, vamps haven’t had anywhere near the same cultural influence on consoles and PC. We’ve had, what, Bloodrayne, Soul Reaver/Blood Omen and Castlevania and maybe a half dozen other notable titles. Compare that to the staggering number of games where you’re battling zombies, demons or Johnny Foreigner. Vampyr seeks to redress that balance, and while it doesn’t always succeed it has a hell a crack.

Vampyr puts the player in the fancy trouser of one Jonathan Reid, a doctor who at the start of the game has just been transformed into one of the undead. The game gets off to a rough start, frankly, making you sit through two endless introductory monologues and an overlong, not terribly exciting starting section that will likely leave players feeling a bit lost. Persevere, because once you arrive at the Pembroke Hospital – the location that essentially acts as your home base for most of the game – Vampyr begins to show its considerable charms. See, Johnno is a vampire but he doesn’t relish the idea of feeding on his fellow man. This leads into the game’s darkest conceit. You, the player, can feed on any NPC in the game. However they’re quite often sick, something you can help with. Then, after you’ve applied the hippocratic oath, you can feed on the very patient whose blood you just improved. It’s super dark, and a little bit funny, especially when your killing has an impact on other characters and may even shut you out of potential questlines. You end up weighing the relative value of a human life versus how much you need that XP to improve your fighting skills in a boss encounter or similar. That brings us to the other divisive element of Vampyr, the combat: it’s just okay. You flit about the screen, using a club, sword or similar and augment your vampire powers, slashing with claws, boiling blood with supers and freezing enemies with a look. It’s not bad, you understand, but it’s a tad limited. For all the Bloodborne-esque gothic aesthetic, Vampyr is no Bloodborne and the late-game boss fights can become quite aggravating if you’re not sufficiently powered up. Essentially this means you’ll often consume humans out of irritation with the fighting mechanics rather than because of the story, which is a bummer at times. That said, the story is wonderful. Dense and detailed and certainly not for people with short attention spans, but the depth of the vampire world – with its factions and in-fighting – is genuinely intriguing and well written for the most part.

Vampyr is truly a strange beast. Beautifully realised environments, strong, interesting characters and a deep, fascinating story are paired with repetitive combat, some janky animation and hit or miss voice acting. You’ll definitely need to do some of the work to appreciate its finer qualities, but my goodness they’re in there. Vampyr is like a dense novel that takes a little while to get into, but is well worth the effort. It won’t be for all tastes, but for fans of RPGs that skew a bit goth, it’s something warm and appealing to sink your teeth into.

 
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Space Hulk: Deathwing Enhanced Edition

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Space Hulk: Deathwing is the latest attempt to bring the popular tabletop gaming experience into the video game realm, with typically mixed results. The premise is on-brand bombastic and kinda cool. You play a “Librarian” of the Dark Angels 1st company of Space Marines, a group of shooty-bang-bang blokes comprised of Terminators (not the James Cameron kind). This band of hard, gruff men are tasked with heading into a massive derelict spaceship called a Space Hulk (not the Bruce Banner kind) and clear out the deadset antisocial aliens that have infested the joint and made a right mess of things.

The setting is gratifyingly comprehensible. Warhammer games tend to skew more towards lifelong fans, featuring obtuse lore and dense worldbuilding, whereas Deathwing clearly owes much of its inspiration to Aliens. The Space Hulk is looming and imposing, occupying the mech-suited boots of a Terminator feels appropriately bad arse and your base weapon is a freaking enormous chain gun. The first couple of missions are quite a bit of fun, especially if you’re playing with friends but the game’s flaws are never far away. The shooting is serviceable but never particularly satisfying and the AI – of both the enemies and your fellow soldiers – is occasionally shockingly bad. The prolific number of times a friendly terminator interpreted my “kill everything” order as “walk directly into a wall and keep doing so forever” lost its charm very quickly.

The enemies, also, are a wee bit naff from a design perspective. That may court the ire of the tabletop gaming fans, but the creatures just aren’t terribly scary – they sort of look like mildly nonplussed garden lizards and fail to raise the heart rate even when they’re pouring towards you as a wave.

Ultimately Space Hulk: Deathwing is another swing and a miss for a killer Warhammer game, but it does offer moderate thrills for undemanding fans or shooter obsessives who have three mates on call. It’s unlikely to convert anyone dubious about the IP, but offers some light fun for those willing to overlook the patina of shonkiness.