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Code Vein

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Dark Souls, FromSoftware’s iconic series, has become so ubiquitous and influential in the realm of video games it basically changed the industry. These days there’s a “[Something] Souls” for everyone. Prefer Lovecraft and monsters to knights and dragons? Well, it’s Bloodborne for you. Dig on scifi? Well, friend, The Surge series beckons. How about a samurai aesthetic? There’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice just waiting for your twitchy digits. And now we have Code Vein, which could easily be pitched as “Anime Souls” or, if you’re feeling feisty, “Dark Souls for weeaboos!”

Set in an apocalyptic, attractively cel-shaded future, Code Vein tells a story that is somehow both undercooked and bafflingly convoluted. Your player-created-character wakes to find themselves bludgeoned by leaden slabs of exposition, before being given control and instructions to find blood beads and fight monsters. Happily, once the NPCs stop banging on, the actual gameplay itself is much more comprehensible. It essentially involves you killing monsters, collecting better armour and weapons and learning new skills in the various classes you can summon at will. The amount of in-menu faffing you can get up to in this game is astonishing, and fans of deep diving RPG management will be in absolute fiddly heaven. On the downside, while the combat apes many of the best aspects of Dark Souls, it lacks that fine touch, that necessary precision, that sets the title apart. That said, Code Vein is a much easier proposition, giving you a choice of AI partners who are actually pretty useful in combat and can be tweaked to suit your play style.

Your biggest barrier to enjoying Code Vein, however, will hugely depend on your tolerance for anime nonsense. If you’re a fan of giggly vampire schoolgirls, metrosexual cheekboney blokes with perplexing hair and endless monologues that feel like beat poetry read by someone suffering from recent cranial trauma, you’re in for a treat. However, if you’re a wee bit anime agnostic… you might not get the charm. Within the opening minutes of Code Vein, a scantily clad lady – with boobs so big they jiggle when she frowns – appears, and talks at you at length, rarely getting anywhere near a coherent thought. Pay close attention to this moment, because variations of it will appear throughout your 30ish hour playthrough.

Code Vein is a strange, imaginative and frustrating proposition. It’s mostly fun, and certainly delivers an engaging world, but if a little more attention had been paid to combat precision – and a little extra work done on the story and dialogue – it could have been a legitimate classic. As it is, the mixture of baffling lore, stilted dialogue, boobtacular fanservice and item management will likely appeal to a very niche crowd who, admittedly, will embrace it like their brand new waifu.

 
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The Surge 2

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The Surge, from developers Deck13 Interactive came out in 2017, and carved a bloody, biomechanical niche as “scifi Dark Souls”. This slightly reductive description was, nonetheless, broadly accurate and the title performed well enough to justify a sequel. Well, The Surge 2 is here and while it’s not a spectacular masterpiece that addresses all the shortcomings of its predecessor, it’s still a pretty damn solid effort and shows improvement on most fronts.

The Surge 2 puts you in the boots of a survivor in Jericho City, a sprawling metropolis that is suffering in the aftermath of a bizarre surge that has rendered much of the population bugshit crazy; both human, robotic and combinations of the two. The only way to survive is to fight and the only way to fight is to upgrade. This entails ripping the limbs off your enemies and using their mech enhancements to build up your own armour and weapons, all the better for improving your chances of living just a little longer. The concept of a bonfire (in this case a Medbay) where you can reset and upgrade, but also respawn all the non-boss enemies, returns and while it remains derivative of FromSoftware’s most iconic title, it’s executed well enough to justify its existence.

The plot is a little more epic in scope this time around, although it’s mainly delivered through wooden NPC dialogue, and frankly, isn’t much chop. What does work, however, is the way levels loop back on themselves, with densely packed, smallish areas being home to all manner of secrets and shortcuts. Combat, too, feels more fluid this time around and while it’s not immune from jankiness, there’s a pleasing rhythm to the way the various weapons work and a surprising amount of potential build diversity.

Playing The Surge 2, and indeed the previous Surge title, feels a bit like watching a lower budgeted genre flick that’s rough around the edges but has a decent script and a bunch of good ideas. More specifically, 1995’s underrated cult hit Screamers, which is also about robots getting a bit too handsy with us fleshbags. The special effects/graphics are a bit shonky, the acting/voice acting is a tad stiff but the ideas shine strong and, if you’re a fan of the aesthetic, you’ll likely have a grand old, limb-tearing time on the mean streets of Jericho City.

 
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Borderlands 3

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The original Borderlands (2009) was an engaging cel-shaded looter shooter with an original premise and a unique sense of identity, playing out as sort of a Mad Max variant, stuffed with pop culture references. Borderlands 2 (2012), arguably the best in the series, followed and honed the premise, but added characters you actually care about and a fantastic villain in the form of smarmy sociopath Handsome Jack. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (2014) followed and felt like a bit of a step back, although still fun, and then Telltale Games’ Tales from the Borderlands (2014-15) proved there was a place in the wastes of Pandora for a little depth, nuance and, most shocking of all, legitimate pathos.

It’s no surprise, then, that anticipation has been so high for the latest entry, Borderlands 3, and now that it’s finally here we can reveal the result is… pretty damn fun.

Borderlands 3 introduces four brand spanking new playable characters. There’s Moze the Gunner, with a D.Va-style summonable mech, Amara the Siren, who hits and quips hard, FL4K the Beastmaster, a bloodthirsty AI who can use animal friends, and Zane the Operative, an Irish assassin with a range of clever tricks.

All the characters have extensive skill trees and lots of potential for build diversity, and most styles of play can be accommodated. This deadly foursome are thrust into a typically insane adventure, featuring returning Borderlands characters and brand new baddies, The Calypso Twins – basically homicidal streamers.

There was a real opportunity here for Borderlands 3 to continue Tales from the Borderlands’ trend and offer a deeper, more clever narrative. Sadly, this is completely squandered on a very by-the-numbers plot that ranges from forgettable to downright annoying. Every single character SCREAMS, seemingly constantly, and the ubiquitous fourth wall breaking can become a real grind, particularly in the game’s final third which is protracted beyond reason.

Borderlands 3 is like watching Deadpool if every single character was Deadpool and shouting their dialogue for 30 hours. It’s… not ideal.

On the plus side, Borderlands 3 has honed its shooting to a delightful degree. Gone are the floaty physics from games’ past, with a more Destiny-like feel to the boom sticks, with satisfying feedback and a meaty heft to the weapons. Being that most of the game will be running around equipping new guns, this is exactly what Gearbox Software needed to get right and it does so with much alacrity. Graphics, too, have been polished and while the cel-shaded look is never going to reach retina-stroking levels, it’s engaging and visually distinct from other games on the market.

The same, however, cannot be said for all the technical aspects, as frequent pop-in, lag, glitches and bugs galore plague Bordy to a worrying degree. This occurred mainly while playing with friends, but even solo there are a lot of rough edges here. No doubt these niggling issues will be addressed in coming patches, but it’s worth noting the launch of this title hasn’t been the pearler 2K Games was likely hoping for.

Ultimately, Borderlands 3 is fun. It’s fun despite the aggressively noisy voice acting, despite the frequent glitches and terrible UI and despite the overlong, unambitious story. It is, quite simply, an absolute hoot to team up with your mates and shoot mad bastards in the face holes and flog their guns. The technical issues will likely be improved, the story and voice acting will not, and if you’re okay with that, then Borderlands 3’s blistering ballistic thrills are probably a good fit.

 
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Monster Hunter World: Iceborne

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Monster Hunter: World was released in 2018 to a stunning amount of success, critically and commercially. The notoriously fiddly Japanese franchise has always enjoyed a sort of niche fame, but for the first time ever, general audiences were coming to the party. Now, this is often the point where good games go off the rails, as the need to satisfy a wider market dilutes what made the IP special in the first place. Happily, this proved not to be the case with MHW, and the title retained its notorious difficulty and staggering depth of RPG elements, while adding relatively easy online functionality and many quality-of-life improvements. Now the first major expansion is here, Iceborne, and it brings a lot to the party, and it’s all pretty bloody great.

Iceborne continues the cheerful, but ultimately inconsequential, Monster Hunter: World story and introduces a new (and better designed) hub called Seliana and enormous exploration area, Hoarfrost Reach. As the name suggests, the Reach is an icy environment which necessitates winter clothes and hot drinks to prevent stamina depletion. As expected, it also means a shitload of new monsters are available to hunt, kill, and craft new weapons and armour from their various bitties. It’s basically Monster Hunter business as usual, with a new Master Rank difficulty and a few new moves added to each weapon. Oh, and you can use your slinger as a grappling hook now, to fly over and weaken parts of the monster you’re battling. While individually these changes and additions don’t feel like much, when combined it feels like you’re playing the best version of this game thus far.

Of course, once the main story is complete, Iceborne is all about the endgame and grinding for better armour, weapons and decorations. This is a game, after all, where fights can go for 45 minutes+ and even after all that time, end in failure. That aspect of the franchise hasn’t been diluted at all, and it’s something that won’t be for everyone. Finding the best builds for specific fights, joining them up to take on increasingly powerful enemies and carving new weapons to experiment with, is just as engaging – and pleasingly logical – as always and if you enjoyed that in MHW, it’s even better here. That said, Iceborne is a lot better with capable friends to help you. Certainly, you can request help from randoms, but nothing beats the sense of well-oiled camaraderie, as you best genuinely arseholey creatures like the returning Tigrex or the blade-tailed Glavenus.

Ultimately, Monster Hunter World: Iceborne is a massive, involving and game-changing expansion to one of 2018’s best games. It’s something of a niche proposition, so do your research before you make the leap to make sure it’s your jam, but fans of challenging, methodical, satisfying and strategic combat should be on this like Scoutflies on monster shit.

 
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The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan

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2015’s Until Dawn from developer Supermassive Games was an ambitious attempt to create the experience of a trashy horror movie in which you, the player, could influence and change the outcome. Featuring a stunning performance from Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), gorgeous visuals and a lively and inventive story, it was a surprise hit that spawned a VR spin-off and prequel. 2019 ushers in the next major project from Supermassive, The Dark Pictures Anthology project, where a series of standalone genre efforts will try to recapture that Until Dawn magic. Man of Medan is first cab off the rank and while it certainly has its charms, it lacks the lunatic thrills of its predecessor.

Aside from an extremely effective prologue set during WWII, Man of Medan is a contemporary tale about four Americans who hire a boat to go diving in a submerged wreck, hoping for adventure or gold. What they find, instead, are vicious pirates, bad weather and a huge, rusting hulk of an abandoned ship… that might just be haunted.

The concept of a ghost ship lost at sea is wonderful, and for its first half Man of Medan is extremely effective and atmospheric. Voice and motion capture performances are stellar, and the moody lighting, graphics and audio are top notch from the get-go. However, around the back half, and we’ll keep it vague here to avoid spoilers, a twist occurs that desperately undermines the narrative to such a degree that it never really recovers.

Until Dawn also featured a divisive twist, but it was in keeping with similar genre efforts, whereas Man of Medan’s game changer feels like it’s been lifted from an Uncharted sequel. This means that no matter which ending you get – or how many of the cast you manage to keep alive – the proceedings feel extremely anticlimactic.

On the plus side, Man of Medan is still enjoyable, and the addition of a co-op mode adds a new layer of intrigue, further enhancing the feeling of an interactive movie. You’ll certainly be engaged through the 4-6 hours it takes to complete a playthrough, but the achingly deflating (and frankly predictable) twist in the back section pretty much ensures that you won’t be making multiple runs.

The good news is the next Dark Pictures entry, Little Hope, looks fantastic so hopefully the project will get back on track in 2020. However, it has to be said, Man of Medan doesn’t quite live up to its supermassive potential.

 
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Control

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Office jobs are scary and weird, it’s an indisputable fact. You lob up to a strange, utilitarian space, spend hours with people you don’t necessarily like and pretend to care about various menial tasks and bureaucratic bullshit; all so you can make enough money to continue existing as a productive member of society. That’s to say nothing of the interdimensional beings who want to colonise your brain with their strange, unknowable consciousness and make you their slave. That last example is, perhaps, a problem unique to the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC), the main location in Remedy Entertainment’s newest brain-bending game, Control.

Control, at its most basic, is a third person action adventure that puts you in the shoes of Jesse Faden, a spunky young woman with a mysterious past and a couple of big secrets. Jesse is on the hunt for her missing brother, and her investigation has led her to the FBC, a gargantuan building whose dimensions seem to shift and change… and why are there so many office workers levitating limply in the air? Surely that’s an OH&S violation. It soon becomes clear that spooky, potentially world-ending shenanigans are afoot, and before the first act concludes Jesse is made director of the FBC, witnesses extremely scary events and develops telekinetic powers. From there, Jesse must investigate the Oldest House (the name given to the building) and unravel the mystery of The Hiss, the enemy that seems to have possessed so many unfortunate humans.

Plot-wise Control is a staggeringly ambitious effort, with a storyline that features wonderful twists, meaty lore and a sense of mood and place that rival the likes of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. Black upside-down talking pyramids, levitating, glowing-eyed ghouls and morphing sections of building are used to terrific effect, offering both fear and awe in equal measure. Gameplay-wise, things are a little more generic, with the game feeling a lot like other third person action/adventure titles; although to be fair, when Jesse develops the ability to telekinetically hurl objects at her enemies and limited flight, you’ll find yourself changing up your tactics accordingly. Still, the main reason to play Control is the story, which you’ll do so in about ten hours, and it’s absolutely worth the effort, even if the ending(s) are a little confounding.

Ultimately, Control is a stellar story, absolutely dripping with atmosphere and jaw-dropping imagery and while the gameplay is a tad familiar, fanging office furniture at your enemies with your mind never gets old, and the labyrinthine depths of the Oldest House are bound to stick with you long after the credits roll. And hey, maybe chuck a sickie and spend some time in a slightly less terrifying office.

 
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Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden

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What is it about games where you scavenge for scrap in the ruins of the past, why are they so damn satisfying? Is it the catharsis of confronting the fear of society’s collapse in a safe environment or perhaps a frisson of sick glee at watching what happens to the world after it burns? Whatever the reason, the post-apocalypse is a provocative backdrop for media and used to great effect in tactical adventure game, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden.

Mutant Year Zero puts you in the trotters and flippers, respectively, of Bormin (a gruff pigman) and Dux (a duck bloke), as they embark on a quest handed to them by The Elder, the wise overseer of The Ark. The pair swiftly becomes a trio, with more characters introduced along the way, with various different skills that you can swap out as needed. This is a good thing, because the world of MYZ is deadly, brimming with insane Ghouls, homicidal robots and deadly cults, all of whom would be delighted in doing unspeakable things to your body meats.

Gameplay-wise, MYZ can be broken down into two distinct modes: exploration and combat. Exploration is when you lob around the various areas on the map, searching for scrap, weapon parts and loot. You can use what you find to beef up your gear back at the Ark, or spend it on much-needed med kits and grenades. Combat is the inevitable result of what happens when you run into the antisocial elements of the wasteland and takes place in a turn-based system similar to the likes of XCOM or Divinity: Original Sin. It should be noted that combat is tough, especially in the opening hours, so using stealth pre-battle to silently kill as many enemies as you can is not only recommended, it’s essential to survive. Each mutant has various powers they can use – wings to gain a high vantage, thick skin to absorb damage, mind control to even the odds – which adds new layers of strategy to the proceedings as the game progresses.

Graphically, the game’s isometric view is perfect for the material, and the character models brim with little details that sell their mutant origin. The enemies, similarly, are well designed and slickly animated, lending the game a sense of polish that’s genuinely surprising from a relatively small studio like The Bearded Ladies. Story-wise MYZ is a delight, and while your eventual playtime may only be 15-20 hours (comparatively short for the genre), it’s all killer and (mutant year) zero filler.

Ultimately, Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden is a slick, engaging and cleverly designed romp through humanity’s desiccated ruins. Brimming with engaging characters, a vivid world and tense, tough combat it’s an intense joy to play and one of the best examples of the tactical adventure genre. Plus, you can give your pigman a jaunty top hat so, you know, obviously a timeless classic.

 
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Wolfenstein: Youngblood

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2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order was as perfect a reinvention of a dusty old franchise that exists in modern gaming. Developer MachineGames took a fun-but-shallow shooter and imbued it with pathos, whimsy and a shockingly good story, all while retaining the splattery Nazi-killing fun times one expects from the Wolfenstein name. Then, in 2017, a sequel Wolfenstein: The New Colossus launched to even more acclaim, and continued the rebooted franchise’s bloody path of victory. It seemed that MachineGames, and by extension Bethesda, could do no wrong… and then Wolfenstein: Youngblood arrived.

Look, first things first: the concept of a co-op Wolfenstein is actually a brilliant idea. The shooting is so kinetic, violent and gleefully gory that it’s perfect to share with a like-minded friend; and setting the action in the (alternate) 1980s of the game’s lore, with BJ Blazkowicz’s daughters – Zofia and Jessica – as the main characters is a fantastic conceit.

The problem is the execution is so far from what it could, and should, be that it’s at times hard to understand what they’re even going for. Some good remains, the shooting is still slick and punchy, the levels look pretty and there are occasional moments of shock or surprise that liven the proceedings. Unfortunately, there’s also a U-boat worth of bad, with dull level design, repetitive missions’ structure and a move towards Diablo III or Destiny-style mission structures and level gating – with the attendant grinding and bullet sponge enemies – which stands at odds with the breakneck pace of previous Wolfensteins.

Worse still, the major aspect MachineGames got so right before – the characters, the story, the wonderful dialogue – has been supplanted with often genuinely irritating sibling banter that makes one wonder if the Blazkowicz sisters aren’t suffering from recent and extreme head trauma. “Fuck yeah, dude!” one mostly interchangeable sister will bray to the other, as you sigh and run through the same small map area once again to trigger the next objective. It’s just not all that much fun, which is a hell of a shame.

Ultimately, Wolfenstein: Youngblood is a victim of its own prior successes. The New Order and The New Colossus were so good that they raised the bar to daunting levels, so that Youngblood’s sidequel experiment needed to be a lot better implemented to truly make it stand out. What we have, instead, is a repetitive, grindy, often very frustrating co-op experience that lacks the charm, polish and excitement we’ve come to expect from MachineGames. There are charms here, particularly if you’ve got a patient co-op partner, but ultimately Youngblood just doesn’t have the Reich stuff.

 
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The Sinking City

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The legacy of Howard Phillips Lovecraft looms large over incalculably huge swaths of popular culture. Books, movies, comics, video games, inexplicably cute toys for kids – HP has had a clammy-palmed influence on it all – which is impressive for a bloke who died in 1937. The latest video game to attempt to capture the uneasy horror and sense of dread from Lovecraft’s writing is The Sinking City from developer Frogwares, and while it’s a valiant effort, it also has some serious problems.

The Sinking City takes place in the isolated fishing town of Oakmont, Massachusetts, in the 1920s and is one of the more evocative video game locations in recent memory. You play as Charles Reed, a war veteran turned private investigator who is attempting to find the source of the vivid nightmares that assail him with terrifying regularity. As generic as the player character is, the town skews much more interesting. There are old families, racial tensions with the Innsmouthers, mysteries abound, unexplained murders and madness creeping into everyday life. It’s some classic Lovecraft gear and while the more prolific dialogue is let down by sporadically shonky voice acting, HP enthusiasts will be delighted by the various deep dives (literal and figurative) into the old master’s lore.

All good so far. Unfortunately, where The Sinking City runs into trouble (over and over again) is with the technical aspects of the game. Walking around the city in third person is adequate but combat is an unresponsive mess. The graphics look decent when nothing’s going on, but move that camera even an inch and get ready to see a bonanza of screen tearing, which is to say nothing of the clipping, pop in and slow down that will occur often and enthusiastically. No one of these elements is enough to completely ruin the atmosphere, but when they all start happening together the spell is broken.

It’s a pity too, because there are so solid ideas with the investigation aspects of the game, a Hannibal-esque “mind palace” is a great way to explore the various clues you’ve picked up, but it’s not enough to get past all the irritations that show their ugly little faces all too often.

Ultimately, The Sinking City is a conceptually strong title that suffers far too much at the hands of execution. All the bugs in the world won’t ruin the experience for the truly obsessive Lovecraft fan, but for the rest of us this eldritch horror needed a little more time being developed by The Old Ones.

 
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Warhammer: Chaosbane

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In the world of ARPGs (Action Role Playing Games), the king of the hill is, arguably, Diablo III. Blizzard’s staggeringly popular demon-hunting jamboree has managed to conquer PCs and consoles since 2012-2013 respectively; although there have been plenty of contenders to the throne. The latest example is Warhammer: Chaosbane, and while it lacks Blizzard’s honed slickness, it’s not without its charms.

Warhammer: Chaosbane is set in the dizzyingly massive Warhammer universe – the fantasy branch, not the sci-fi ‘big men in armour go shooty-shooty’ one – and tells the tale of a group of adventurers and their quest to battle a great evil and save the world of men. Players can take on this daunting task as an Imperial Soldier, High-Elf Mage, Slayer or Wood-Elf Scout. Three of these classes are a lot of fun, with the Mage in particular pulling some funky moves, but the Imperial Soldier is a bit dull, to be honest. So either by yourself, or teamed up with friends or online randoms, you’ll battle through towns, dungeons, castles and swamps on a lengthy quest for victory and a new hat with better stats.

Chaosbane doesn’t exactly break new ground in the ARPG mode, in fact if you squint really hard it can look and feel like you’re playing Diablo III, but in terms of moment-to-moment gameplay it can be a lot of fun. The controls are snappy and responsive, the combat colourful and splattery and with a group of mates it can be a blast. Problems do occur when it comes to longer term involvement, however, as the enemy types and environments do a lot of recycling. You’ll lose count of the number of times you run through the same cobbled courtyard, the same dungeon hallway, and at the time of writing there’s not a huge end-game to keep you coming back for more.

The story, also, is a whiff, with occasionally hilariously bad voice acting and an overall journey that will have you shrugging with either boredom or bewilderment. Still, it’s early days for Chaosbane – and apparently big plans are afoot for further content – so these negatives may be irrelevant in future months.

Ultimately, Warhammer: Chaosbane is an above average ARPG with oodles of future potential. If some of the rough edges, and lack of variety, can be polished over time it could be truly grand, however right now it’s stuck firmly in the kingdom of “Pretty Good”.