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Kingdom Come: Deliverance

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After putting a significant amount of time into Kingdom Come: Deliverance one thing has been made painfully clear: being a peasant sucks. Sucks. Powerfully, prolifically and with great alacrity it is just the worst. It probably sucked in every historical period of note over the ages, but it very specifically sucks in the Kingdom of Bohemia, in the year of our Lord 1403. Said location and time period is the setting for Kingdom Come: Deliverance, which thrusts you into the somewhat gormless shoes of Henry, who – within twenty or so minutes of gameplay – has lost his parents, his home, his girlfriend and all hope, thanks to the violent whims of Hungarian king Sigismund, who has sacked the village of his birth.

In an ordinary video game this would be the jumping off point for young Henry to brew up some healing potions, craft himself a big fuck off sword, don some shiny armour and head out into town and get medieval on everyone’s arses. However Kingdom Come is no ordinary video game, for better and for worse.

Funded through a rather excellent kickstarter, Kingdom Come: Deliverance’s mission statement is to give the player as realistic and historically accurate an experience as possible. That means you can easily be killed by any foe, you get hungry and thirsty, you can get sick and die from the ailments if you don’t treat them, and due to your social status things frequently, well, suck.

So before you embark on this game you should be aware that the difficulty level is punishing, saves are limited and extremely rare and the game’s story won’t take you on any wild flights of magical fancy or indulge your desire to feel powerful. It might be played from a first person perspective like Skyrim but this is a very different beast, and about as niche a proposition as can be imagined.

For those of you with a historical bent this may just be just the antidote to the more whimsical, fantastic narratives in The Witcher 3 and the like, however even taking into account the pragmatism of the tale, KC:D has problems. At the time of writing the game is still beset by a galling number of bugs. It’s one thing to be killed in combat due to mismanaging weapons or attack timing, it’s quite another when the game decides your blow didn’t count. Plus floating mid air for no reason or characters morphing into walls, stools and – rather alarming – your own body is a deadset immersion breaker.

That being said, there’s something so fresh and weird about Kingdom Come: Deliverance it’s impossible to dismiss out of hand. In an era where games are often becoming dull, homogenized, beige experiences KC:D stands out as the oddball in the pack. It’s messy and rough around the edges – and good lord it needs some more patching – but there’s an ambition and originality at play here that gives the experience a likable freshness. That said, you’re essentially playing Revolting Peasant Simulator here so proceed accordingly. If rigorous attention to detail isn’t your jam, stay well away. However if a grounded tale sounds like you – then serf’s up, baby!

 
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Monster Hunter: World

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In the winter of 2009 I spat on my PSP, deliberately and with malice of forethought. It was a petulant rage spit in the face of a poop-flinging pink gorilla, Congalala, who kept killing me over and over in Monster Hunter Freedom Unite. Afterwards, I felt deeply ashamed as I watched the sputum lazily drip off my portable device. I emailed then deputy editor of Official Playstation Magazine (for whom I worked) and renowned spokesperson for “big porridge”, Mark Serrels, telling him of the whole confusing affair. He reacted with sensitivity typical of video game publishing and laughed like a hyena, swiftly informing the whole office of my shame. To this day Mark regularly brings up this story on social media, amusing and bemusing in equal measure.

That, in a roundabout sort of way, brings us to the present day: 2018 and there’s a new Monster Hunter game in town, Monster Hunter: World. It’s been nine years since we last tangled, game franchise, and a lot has changed. Will this be a redemptive experience – my “l33t skillz” now honed on the likes of Dark Souls and Bloodborne – or will be this another case of great expectorations?

Monster Hunter: World is an semi-open world game set in a third person perspective. You assume the role of a mute user-created character who is thrust into a thin but agreeable story involving the appearance of a huge, pseudo-Lovecraftian elder dragon, Zorah Magdaros. The overarching story is really just set dressing, however, as the meat of the game will be about you, your Palico (adorable feline assistant) and your interactions with the less-than-friendly local fauna in the game world. In other words: you’ll be hunting a shitload of monsters, friend.

In fact it can’t be stressed enough that, although there are numerous other tasks to complete, including crafting potions, armour, upgrades, meals and exploring wild, varied environments, the main activity you’ll be partaking in is hunting monsters. Practically, this means you’ll start a quest, search for the monster – using helpful phosphorescent scout flies who will highlight environmental clues and monster tracks – try your best to sneak up on the beastie in question and then wail on that toothy mongrel until it breathes no more. Then you can craft fancy new trousers from its skin, bones and organs and perhaps stitch together that ladybug outfit for your cat. Hey, Claws Kinski looks adorable and you will not judge me!

Happily the combat mechanics are well-honed and surprisingly nuanced, with over 14 weapons at your disposal, all of which have distinct play styles and multiple options for upgrading, plus additional skill trees. In my 40 hours of playtime I reckon I’ve got my head around three weapons tops, with many more enticing offerings on display.

In fact the main negative that can be levelled at Monster Hunter: World is its dizzying array of systems, weapons, upgrades, crafting, armour, exploration, side quests, safaris, endgame and lore may be a trifle too dense and exhaustingly complex for casual players. Happily that’s where the “world” part of Monster Hunter: World comes into play, because you can team up with three other hunters in epic beast-battlin’ sessions to learn the tricks of the trade. Playing with others is a hoot, because even though the difficulty scales higher with more players, the ability to communicate with friends or even strangers – allows you welcome moments of respite where you can sharpen your weapon or neck a Mega Potion, which is absolutely key in overcoming the game’s tougher critters.

And make no mistake, although Monster Hunter: World is the most accessible in the franchise to date, some of those battles are as tough as nails, requiring patience, skill, timing and a cool head. It’s not quite Dark Souls-level of difficulty, but it can get tense and a bit dispiriting if you cark it after 30+ minutes of battle. That said, this makes the (hopefully) eventual victory all the more satisfying and the stuff gaming memories are made of. After all, victories are rarely memorable if they just get handed to you.

Another fantastic element of Monster Hunter: World is the various ecosystems you can explore. From the Ancient Forest (trees) to the Widlespire Waste (desert) and the absolutely jaw-droppingly beautiful Coral Highlands (Avatar!) the game delivers environments that feel alive and brimming with secrets. Hang around for a bit and you’ll see epic battles between two, sometimes three enormous monsters that occur organically and can lead to some truly awe-inspiring moments. Of course similar events happen during hunts, which can be maddening depending on the circumstance. Put simply there’s nothing predictable here and the game cleverly changes the stakes as you progress through the story and increase your Hunter Rank.

Ultimately, Monster Hunter: World is a strange but utterly engaging experience. The juxtaposition of gritty (hard as balls killer monsters!) and adorable (kitty chefs doing a dance while they make your food!) really cements the uniquely Japanese style, which may cause tonal whiplash for some. However if you can embrace both the harder sections and innate goofiness, there’s a profoundly rewarding experience waiting for you, featuring a gameplay loop with a surprising amount of depth and living, breathing environments that are a delight to explore.

Oh, and although I have punched the couch and swore so loudly the cat got the shits and left the room, after 40 hours of play? Still haven’t spat on the telly. So, you know, personal growth and that, eh.

 
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Star Wars Battlefront II

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In 2015 Star Wars Battlefront released to muted reception. On the one hand you had a title that faithfully recreated big battles from the beloved franchise set in a galaxy far, far away. On the other, the game was almost shockingly devoid of content, lacking anything even resembling a single player campaign, and seemed custom designed to sell players the DLC; where the allegedly “good” content was hidden.

The general consensus was, the game had good inside it, but had slipped too far over to the Dark Side. “Perhaps in the sequel,” we said, optimistically, “perhaps they’ll get it right in the sequel.”

Cut to 2017 and Star Wars Battlefront II is here and… well, shit, there’s a lot to unpack.

First up, let’s focus on the positive. Star Wars Battlefront II is a beautiful-looking game. It features massive multiplayer online battles and a solid, albeit slightly truncated and unambitious single player campaign. Also the flying mechanics are much improved and the actual stellar battles in Star Wars are good for once. If you’re an adult with a few mates keen to shoot online, then this is a good time, especially if you can grab it during the post-Christmas sales.

On the negative side? The game’s a mess. Not mechanically, mind you, some early onset server issues aside the game works well but the title’s progression system, the grind, is an absolutely broken, baffling clusterfuck. See, originally EA had most of the game’s content hidden behind loot crates that you – the player – receives for playing the game. These loot crates would deliver crafting materials, skins, and Star Cards. The latter of these can be used to upgrade character’s traits or weapons and unlock heroes like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Originally this progression could be hugely assisted by purchasing loot crates directly – in other words, paying real world money on top of the hundred bucks you’d already dropped on the thing.

The public outcry to this pay-to-win fiasco was prolific and emphatic, so much so that EA has (at time of writing) disabled microtransactions in the game. However even without this rather insidious brand of incentivised gambling the progression in Battlefront II is an exercise in confusing tedium. Really enjoy playing as Assault Class and want to upgrade as you play? Tough shit, the loot boxes are full of randomised gear, most of which you won’t ever use. This leads the experience feeling hollow and strangely unrewarding, as opposed to Destiny 2 which is almost too generous with the loot (which is a conversation for another day).

It’s genuinely sad that a review of Star Wars Battlefront II has to feature so much gear about EA’s shonky practices, but it’s a spectre that hangs over the title. This game should have been a lay down misere, a hugely popular franchise you can play with your mates and have a few laughs. Instead we’re left with a compromised and unfulfilling experience that may be patched or reconfigured in the future, but right now this is probably not the game you’re looking for.

 

 
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Call of Duty: WWII

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I’m not sure when I stopped caring about Call of Duty. Sometime in the last five or so years the annual shooty series just dropped off my radar. This was never a deliberate or conscious uncoupling, and I remember enjoying some CoDs back in the day, but there were simply more interesting shooters out there. Call of Duty: WWII, however, managed to grab my attention. The WWII setting, the Nazi zombies mode and the overall change of pace seemed appealing. So does the result live up to the hype? Eh… mostly.

COD: WWII is an attempt by the series to get back to its roots. That means WWII and that means you’ll be storming the beaches of Normandy. Again. See the thing about WWII’s campaign is that it’s beautiful, bombastic, exciting… and yet utterly predictable. If you’ve played earlier WWII iterations of CoD, watched Saving Private Ryan or the excellent TV series, Band of Brothers you’ll know what you’re in for. Almost exactly what you’re in for.

You play the part of Ronald “Red” Daniels who is a generic farm boy stereotype who needs to finish fighting this gol’ dang war and get back to his pregnant missus. It’s a tofu bland character and fairly uninteresting, as are most of the supporting cast, save Zussman (Jonathan Tucker) who manages to breathe life into a stodgy script, playing Red’s smart arse Jewish mate. The tale follows the usual beats you’d expect, with occasional diversions like playing as a resistance member (which is fantastic) and air support (which is okay). The whole campaign lasts about six hours – which is long for CoD – and manages to occasionally eke out some pathos from the cliches. It’s not terrible, it’s not great – it’s fine.

Backing up the campaign is the multiplayer which, for many players, is where the game shines. The usual modes like variations on CTF and deathmatch play like business as usual, but the War mode is a highlight – striking a more narrative-based balance, similarly to last year’s Battlefield 1. Having more objective based modes is definitely a step forward for CoD, although playing with dead-eyed teenagers who only care about their KD ratio can be… grueling.

Finally the Nazi Zombies mode is four-player fun, where you and three chums battle waves of the goose-stepping dead, solving mild puzzles and upgrading weapons. Featuring voice acting from the likes of David Tennant and Ving Rhames this mode is a hoot, managing to be gory and even moderately scary. Although I missed the ability to craft barricades this was probably the highlight of the whole package.

Ultimately Call of Duty: WWII is solid but unextraordinary. The campaign is fine, the multiplayer enjoyable and the zombies pretty fun – but none of it feels as deep and interesting as Battlefield 1. With a few friends you regularly play with there’s a lot to enjoy here, just don’t go expecting a complete overhaul of CoD’s aging engine.

 
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Assassin’s Creed: Origins

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2017 is an important year for the Assassin’s Creed series. The last full scale game was 2015’s Syndicate which had its moments but ultimately was a bit too samey to stand out in a franchise that had been treading water since Black Flag in 2013. Assassin’s Creed Origins, benefiting from a longer development period, attempts to inject fresh life into the prolific series by going back to beginning and setting the caper in ancient Egypt. The results are good… for the most part.

Let’s start with the positive. Assassin’s Creed Origins is a beautiful game. Like, stunningly, jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The Egyptian setting proves to be the Creed’s most compelling environment in ages and you’ll lose hours, perhaps days, just wandering around the sun-dappled vistas, deadly swamps and snake-filled tombs. New character Bayek proves to be an engaging protagonist, as he embarks on a journey that begins as a fairly standard ‘revenge for the death of a beloved child’ plot but morphs into something bigger. Plus the new loot system – whereby you can grind for new weapons and armour – is addictive and rewarding, giving a genuine sense of progression and a reason to explore all nooks and crannies.

That’s the good news, now the not so good stuff. The major problem with Assassin’s Creed Origins is that what you’ll be doing remains essentially unchanged throughout the game’s 30+ hour campaign. You’ll begin by exploring areas, taking on missions and side missions, assassinating your targets… and then you’ll move to another area in the game’s outrageously enormous map and do it all again. You’ll get better gear, certainly, but the core gameplay loop remains frustratingly static. This becomes truly irksome in the game’s third act when the ending is gated by missions far too high above your level, so it will literally insist on your grinding lower level missions just to be able to play them. This kind of artificially extended gameplay is baffling in a game that is already massive and doesn’t need it at all.

Combat is conceptually a step forward, with the game adopting a hitbox system that means you’ll actually need to be near an enemy to make contact, and in a one on one situation there is fun to be had. However enemies tend to attack in group formation which makes the fighting frequently messy and lacking in precision. Hopefully Ubisoft will continue to hone this mechanic as it’s definite improvement, but not quite enough.

The story, also, feels a bit half-baked. There are certainly intriguing elements, and Bayek’s relationship with his wife, Aya, is extremely strong, but the overall narrative is so diffused and protracted it never feels as engaging as it ought to. The same applies to the voice acting which, main cast aside, is extremely ropey and veers from deadpan to broad caricature with baffling frequency.

Assassin’s Creed Origins starts strong and initially appears to be the shot in the arm the series needed, however its insistence on artificially extending gameplay in the third act and an overall lack of genuine innovation keeps it from being a true revelation. It is a good time, but it’s also a long time – and not always in a positive way. Still, if a lengthy visit to ancient Egypt sounds like your jam you’ll probably find a lot to dig in Origins – just be prepared to deal with the series’ usual baggage.

 
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Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

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2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was MachineGames’ triumphant reboot of the long lived Wolfenstein series and a belter of a game in its own right. Creative director Jens Matthies (who we chatted with recently) managed to craft a pitch-perfect game that kept the first person shooting for which the franchise is famous but added a rich, exciting and surprisingly emotional story that packed a lot of punch and ended on an all-time great note. The idea of a sequel seemed… redundant. After all, how much more narrative can be wrung out of an alternative history storyline about killing Nazis? The answer, happily, is “a shitload” because Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is here and it’s bloody spectacular.

The last time we saw jarhead protagonist William “BJ” Blazkowicz he was in all sorts of strife. His body was broken, his mission incomplete and as The New Order came to an end it was strongly implied he’d carked it, sacrificing his life for the greater good. Happily it seems you can’t keep a good BJ down, and William’s back – although he’s in bad shape. One of the first missions of the game has BJ hacking and blasting Nazis from a wheelchair and it suitably sets the visceral meets farcical tone, which often feels like a mashup between RoboCop (1987) and Inglourious Basterds (2009). Throughout the game’s campaign you’ll travel through the irradiated wasteland of Manhattan, the walled up interior of New Orleans and even leave the boundaries of Earth in the game’s most gleefully insane sequence, involving a certain Nazi demagogue whose name rhymes with “Badolf Bitler”, who has taken up work as a film director in his later years. On these trips you’ll kill yourself some Nazis. A whole bunch of them. You’ll sever their arms with a hatchet and watch them bleed out, you’ll cut throats, twist necks, split skulls and pour hot leaden death into their twitching, screaming nazi bodies in creatively violent ways that will have even the most hardened of gore hounds chuckling in disbelief. It’s profoundly cathartic stuff, particularly after some of the game’s more confronting sequences of Nazi evil.

There’s more than just gore to The New Colossus, however, as the surviving characters from The New Order return and strong new cast members are added to the roster. In fact some of the game’s best moments come from wandering around your submarine base between missions, finding collectibles, chatting with characters and getting a sense of the painstaking world-building. Like the aforementioned Inglourious Basterds, The New Colossus excels at the quiet, tension-building moments between the splattery displays. A tense walk through Nazi-occupied Roswell – where Ku Klux Klan members are being chastised for their poor German language abilities by armoured Nazis – or an acting audition where failure will prove fatal are just a couple of the game’s strongly cinematic set pieces. It’s unusual to care so deeply about characters in any game, much less a gory First Person Shooter, and yet The New Colossus makes it look easy.

On the downside the game’s conclusion isn’t quite as spectacular as The New Order, with a definite sense that this is probably the second part of a trilogy and occasionally the game communicates where you’re taking damage from poorly. Neither of these factors are deal breakers, but they’re worth noting. Also the game itself will probably take you between 10-15 hours to complete, which is long compared to the likes of Call of Duty, but without a multiplayer component some may take issue with the value for money factor, but that’s a conversation for you and your bank account.

Ultimately Wolfenstein: The New Colossus is bloody, spectacular, funny and moving. It’s at turns a black comedy, a rousing adventure and a gore-slicked action shooter – excelling at every genre pivot – and well worth your time and money. Plus, and this can’t be overstated, it’s so very much fun to kill Nazis. They’re so pretty when they die.

 
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Friday the 13th: The Game

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Just how into the Friday the 13th movies are you? Do you know how Jason “dies” at the end of every chapter? Can you explain which entries special effects maestro Tom Savini worked on and why they’re the best? Do you have a lengthy, detail-oriented pitch regarding a new F13th film that you’re happy to share with friends, strangers and the poor hapless people down the bus stop? The answers to these questions directly inform how much you will or will not enjoy Friday the 13th: The Game.

The game, you see, is a bit of a mess. Conceptually it’s kinda brilliant, mind you. It’s an asymmetrical online multiplayer dealy with up to eight players. Seven people will play as camp counselors, and they will search drawers, craft traps and try to escape the map alive. The lucky eighth player will assume the role of Jason Voorhees (currently available in ten different flavours) and hunt and kill the camp counselors before the time runs out. And that’s the game, simple and effective. Playing as Jason is a hoot, all of his various incarnations possess different powers, upgradable skills and unlockable kills – some of which are spectacularly gory and nasty. Pulling off a well-executed environmental kill or managing to burst through a closed door at just the right time is legitimately exciting, especially for an ageing gorehound who loves slasher films.

Playing as a counselor however is… less fun. See, the counselors in the movies were taking drugs, drinking and getting laid – it was a Friday the 13th tradition! In the game, however, you’ll be searching for loot in randomised locations and hoping you get lucky, and it’s just not that great a time. Most galling of all, playing Jason occurs randomly. So you could be solo queuing for an entire day without donning the hockey mask (or sack) of the big man once, which is to say nothing of the game’s numerous server issues, buggy connections, and legion of other technical hitches.

There is, however, one guaranteed way to enjoy Friday the 13th: The Game, but it’s kind of fiddly. You’ll need at least four mates, preferably seven obviously, and you just start up a custom game and only play with those friends. That way you can take turns playing Jason, band together more successfully as the camp counselors and enjoy the game to its full potential. When I played using this method it was an absolutely unmissable experience – funny and violent and scary – and showed what the game could be given the right set of circumstances.

Ultimately Friday the 13th: The Game is a lot like the Friday the 13th movie series: much better with mates, who’ve had a few drinks and are ready to overlook some quality issues and concentrate on the splatter.

 
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The Evil Within 2

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The Evil Within 2 is the sequel to 2014’s The Evil Within. The original game was helmed by Shinji Mikami, director of beloved video games Resident Evil 1 & 4, so naturally anticipation was extremely high. The result was a wildly uneven game that brought the horror hard and fast, but lacked a logical narrative thread that would have made the experience something more than a series of loosely linked horror vignettes.

The Evil Within 2 directed by John Johanas and written by Trent Haaga (who we chatted with recently) seeks to address the lack of story cohesion while still providing a solid, scary horror experience and happily succeeds for the vast majority of its playtime.

Three years after the events of the first game, protagonist Sebastian Castellanos has become a bitter, self-destructive drunk. He’s no longer a cop and spends most of his time getting pissed and lamenting the disappearance of his wife, Myra and death of his daughter, Lily. One day his old partner Juli Kidman appears with an offer too good to refuse: enter the world of STEM (basically The Matrix) and save his daughter, who isn’t actually dead after all (phew!) but is lost within STEM’s virtual realms (bummer!).

It’s a classic, albeit slightly shopworn premise, but it does mean once Sebastian enters STEM the game doesn’t keep trying to pull the ‘this is reality… or is it?!’ trick the first game overindulged in to deadening effect. Naturally STEM is a scary, violent and horrific place and the game’s first half plays a little like The Last of Us meets Silent Hill, featuring tense treks through monster-filled neighbourhoods, with little ammunition and death potentially around every corner.

The term “survival horror” is much abused in modern games, but in the case of The Evil Within 2 it’s apt. You will be struggling to survive, relying on stealth, cunning and nerves of steel. I lost count of the number of times I’d sneak up on a group of enemies only to see my plans go tits up because one of them saw me, and I had to run, hide, set traps or die. In the 20ish hours it’ll take you to complete The Evil Within 2 your nerves will be getting a serious workout, especially if you explore the surprisingly large hub areas and take on some of the excellent side missions.

Gameplay wise The Evil Within 2 plays very much like the original, for good and ill. You’ll creep along in a third person POV, crafting ammo and healing syringes, stealth killing when you can – shooting when you can’t. The handgun handles like a slippery piglet, even fully upgraded, and in the end most battles were so messy I’d resort to using the ever reliable shotgun. This isn’t a bad thing per se, and in fact adds quite a lot to the tension of the piece, but if you’re looking for precision shooting you may be disappointed.

Boss fights feel a little lighter on the ground also. The first game would often reuse the same bosses over and over to obnoxious extremes, but the handful of boss fights in the sequel feels a little light nonetheless. Also, and this is extremely nitpicky, but Sebastian has what must be 74,000 lines that are variations on “what the fuck?” or “what’s going on?” Seb, mate, you’re in the horror Matrix – this was pretty clearly explained at the start – weird shit’s gonna happen, how about you get on with it, eh?

The Evil Within 2 is a solid, scary, tense and ultimately unexpectedly emotional experience, with a great central yarn at its core. It builds upon the foundation of the original, giving players a reason to care, while also providing numerous occasions for one to brown one’s trousers in fear. Fans of survival horror who feel ill served by modern AAA games take note: you’re not going to want to miss this one.

 
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South Park: The Fractured but Whole

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South Park: The Fractured But Whole is the follow-up to 2014’s The Stick of Truth, although you don’t need to have played that game to enjoy the new one. Fractured But Whole tells the tale of you – the new kid – who has moved to the quiet redneck mountain town of South Park. A wave of crime is sweeping through the titular town and it’s up to you and Cartman’s superhero group, Coon and Friends – to save and the day, and more specifically, a fearsomely ugly cat, Scrambles. There’s a hundred dollar reward in it, you guys. A hundred bucks!

Whereas The Stick of Truth skewered fantasy movie and game tropes, The Fractured But Whole has the superhero genre dead in its sights and there are some really funny observations. An ongoing gag about making a shitload of money through Netflix, prequel movies and tie-in TV series’ is consistently solid. Of course the game features a lot of callbacks, references and in-jokes for fans of the TV show so expect to see Raisins girls, City Ninjas, sixth graders and crab people…. Crab people. Look like crab, fight like people.

What’s most surprising about TFBW is the depth of the RPG elements. You’ll level up your character with multiple classes, equip relics and better gear and engage in some unexpectedly nuanced combat played in a turn based style. On the other hand you’ll also unlock the ability to solve puzzles with your arse – using an array of farts including the ability to stop time and shoot a hapless gerbil from your rectum. This mixture of solid game mechanics and toilet humour may cause tonal whiplash in some players, but if you’re in the mood for a 20 hour episode of South Park you’re in for a treat.

Storywise the game goes from normal to nuts in the first 15 or so hours, peaking with a sequence that somehow manages to mash up racist cops, Black Lives Matter, H.P. Lovecraft and one of his beasties. This is actually the peak of the game, a total celebration of the profane and arcane. Unfortunately the game keeps going afterwards, and the final 3-5 hours are a bit of a grind, with some fights dragging on way too long. It’s a pity that such an initially charming game ends on such a sour note, but the time that precedes it really is a lot of fun.

Ultimately South Park: The Fractured But Whole is a clever, funny, involving RPG dripping with personality and lashings of bent humour. It stumbles in its final act but the journey there is so delightfully dubious you’ll likely forgive its shortcomings.

 
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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.