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Stellaris: Console Edition

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Console gaming is great. Oh sure, your root-dodging “PC Master Race” ballbags will call you a “casual” (like that’s a bad thing!), but you’ll be chilling on your couch, playing games on your enormous telly, like some kind of hedonistic Roman emperor. It would, however, be disingenuous to claim that consoles can deliver a perfect experience with all video game genres. Third person action/adventure? Hell yeah. Online shooter with your mates? Step right on in. Real time strategy games? Ehhhh not so much. Something about that more strategic, fiddly style of gameplay is traditionally ill-suited to lounging on the couch in your trackie-daks with a controller in one hand and a hot Milo in the other. Every so often a developer decides to give it a bash, however, and the latest to do so comes in the form of Stellaris: Console Edition.

Stellaris has actually been available on PC since 2016, and has remained a favourite for fans who like their strategy with a sci-fi edge. The basic premise has you controlling a race – be it human or other – that has just invented FTL (faster than light) technology and is ready to take its place amongst the “species of the stars”.

It’s a lofty, heady concept brimming with imagination and potential, but in practical terms involves a lot of forward planning, micromanaging and sensible distribution of resources. This sort of gameplay is practically custom-designed for PCs, with keyboards offering numerous options and commands, and the transition to console isn’t exactly smooth. Certainly, the D-pad can be used to switch things around, but it’s hardly the most elegant of solutions.

Further to the controller limitations, the game is bloody complex! Even after taking part in the game’s many welcome (although not exactly eloquent) tutorials, beginners will almost certainly feel the need to take to Youtube and watch one of the dozens of ‘how to’ videos that are available. It is, at times, a bit of a pain in the arse. However, if you do persevere, a fascinating game awaits. Will you lead your civilisation into a golden age of peace, or start a series of intergalactic wars? Will you be religious zealot, resource-hoarding arseholes or altruistic, benevolent peacekeepers?

Stellaris: Console Edition is a mixed bag. On the one hand, you have an intelligent, sprawling and thought-provoking (and time consuming!) game at your disposal. On the other, playing on console really does feel like a clumsier, lesser option. Still, madly keen strategy nerds who don’t own a decent PC will delight at finally being able to get their hands on this bad boy, and will drink in the chance to get lost in their own universe. The rest of us filthy casuals, however, will be scratching our heads and spending a whole lot of time on Youtube.

 
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The Last of Us Part II

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“Before you embark on a journey of revenge,” the old saying goes, “dig two graves”. In the case of The Last of Us Part II, that should probably be amended to “dig about three thousand bloody graves because you are going to be killing an absolute shitload of people, monsters and dogs.” Yes, the sequel to Naughty Dog’s 2013 masterpiece The Last of Us is here and it’s every bit as dark, violent and nasty as you’ve been led to expect. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is a matter of personal taste, but even hardened apocalyptic veterans should know, this is at times a very rough ride indeed.

The Last of Us ended on a beautifully bittersweet, ambiguous note. Joel, our main protagonist, decided that instead of sacrificing Ellie to cure the virus at the core of the story, he’d kill to keep her alive. Later, she questions Joel, who lies to her face. Does she believe him? We don’t know, because that’s where our story ends. It was a near-perfect conclusion to a beautiful masterpiece of a game. The Last of Us Part II opens four years later, reintroducing us to our beloved characters for the first couple of hours and then… well, something happens. An event that is so savage and shocking, it’s had gamers and journalists incandescent with rage and chucking a massive sook respectively.

After said event, Ellie is ready for revenge and sets off on a bloody journey through post-apocalyptic Seattle, killing infected and human alike to reach her final goal. If the original game was an occasionally grim road trip, Part II is a nihilistic wallow in mankind’s darkest nature featuring some of the most realistically portrayed, horrific violence in video game history. This title earns every scrap of its R-rating and then some. However, around the halfway mark the game makes a story choice that we won’t spoil, but it is designed to make the audience question everything they know. It’s smart, subversive, perhaps a little oversalted – and not exactly brimming with subtlety – but it’s a bold and unexpected move in a AAA game, which is an arena not exactly overflowing with risk-taking creative decisions. Although it’s one that has proved extremely divisive.

Story aside, The Last of Us Part II is possibly the best looking game currently on the market, certainly the PS4. The animation, character models, environments, motion capture, music and voice acting are some of the best ever seen, and the immersion you’ll feel in the 25-30 hour journey will be total. Yes, there are some clumsy moments in this grim pairing of The Road and 28 Days Later, but there are also giddy highs, soul-shattering lows and moments of pure, genuine terror.

Ultimately, The Last of Us Part II isn’t quite the perfect experience of the original (which you can grab for a song these days, if you’ve not played it). But it’s a bold, nasty, and uncharacteristically risky undertaking for an AAA studio, and an absolutely unmissable video game. If, that is, you can handle the gore, horror and heavy-handed nihilism.

The Last of Us Part II isn’t always a good time – hell, sometimes it’s genuinely harrowing – but it’s also an engrossing experience that interrogates the very notion of revenge and personal narratives. If you’ve got the stomach for it, and can deal with a story that may not go the way you’d hoped, The Last of Us Part II is a bloody, body-filled grave that you’ll very much dig.

 
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Desperados III

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After the commercial and critical success of Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption 2, it was inevitable, and welcome, that more titles would adopt a western setting. Desperados III is the latest to do so, and evokes that cowboy era with style and finesse. However, before you strap on your spurs and dust off that hat, understand that while Desperados III shares a setting with the likes of RDR2, as a game it could not be more different; and she’s as harsh as the desert sun at noon, pilgrim.

Desperados III is actually a prequel to the earlier entries and is very much of the real time tactics genre. You will play as five characters throughout the campaign, switching in and out on the fly, and stealthy shenanigans are the order of the day. In terms of gameplay, get ready for a whole heapin’ helpin’ of trial and error, as you attempt to sneak past enemies, alert them, get shot to pieces and reload the last save point to try it all again. It can be frustrating, downright maddening at times, but the sense of satisfaction you get from pulling off a perfect series of moves is deeply gratifying.

Graphically, the isometric POV is appealing, with large sprawling environments. Character models and voice acting are both superb, although sometimes the camera can be a little fiddly. In fact, “a little fiddly” is a good description for the game as a whole, as the tiniest of wrong moves can be the difference between life and (enraging) death, and newcomers to the series or real time tactics in general, are likely in for a baptism by fire.

Having said that, if you can key into the game’s subtle, and rather unique, rhythms there’s a helluva game here, replete with clever, ever-evolving gameplay, an excellent roster of characters with complimentary abilities and genuinely head-scratching puzzles to solve. Desperados III is niche, and at times too fussy for its own good, but it’s also original and engaging and deeply compelling. Just know you’ll be using your quick save and load buttons more than your trigger fingers, and you’ll have fun breaking in this wild horse.

 
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Maneater

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Sharks have been a staple of pop culture for decades, usually playing the villain in films like Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, The Shallows and about a trillion others of varying quality. Video games have also featured sharks, but mainly as an obstacle to either destroy or simply avoid getting eaten by. What we’re saying is, there’s no respect, no respect for a shark. That all changes with Maneater, a game where the player is finally put into the cartilaginous skeleton of those toothy denizens of the sea, and while it’s unlikely to change anyone’s mind on the whole shark issue, it’s an engaging splash in the water, albeit a shallow one.

Maneater opens with a stellar introduction, as you play a fully grown bull shark that menaces a beach of extremely delicious humans. However, before you can unleash total mayhem, Cajun shark hunter Pierre “Scaly Pete” LeBlanc lobs up, filming his reality TV show Maneater, captures you and rips the baby shark (doo doo doo doo doo doo) from your belly. As your mum brutally carks it, you – now playing the wee freshly born shark – manage to bite off Pete’s hand and escape into the water. This opening has the dual purpose of setting up the game’s revenge narrative and showing you how much arse a fully powered up shark can kick. Because at the beginning of the game proper, your shark is a pissweak little tacker who can be eaten by almost anything.

Gameplay wise, Maneater is about getting bigger, stronger and more deadly. A frequently hilarious voice over by Chris Parnell (Archer, Rick and Morty) guides you through the game’s various zones as you chomp other creatures (both animal and human), gain powers, unlock shortcuts and fight bosses. It’s a simple, RPG-light experience that does become a little repetitive over time, but taken in small (ahem) bite-sized chunks can be goofily enjoyable. The graphics are solid, the animation’s a little clunky and the controls are a tad simplistic, and yet for all of that, there’s a lot of fun to be had here, if you’re not feeling too demanding.

Maneater’s biggest strength is the change of perspective, playing as a shark is such a wonderful novelty that most gamers will be able to overlook the title’s shortcomings. It’s rough around the edges, its gameplay stops evolving about a third of the way in, and yet for all of that, Maneater is frequently a hoot. A slightly trashy B-grade proposition, fans of splattery black humour will likely find this to be… a gill-ty pleasure.

 
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Final Fantasy VII Remake

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Remakes in the video game realm have become almost as ubiquitous as their cinematic counterparts, replete with the same problems. Change too much and you lose the flavour of the original, change too little and you’ve got a lazy, unimaginative package on your hands. The best recent example of a stellar game remake would be Capcom’s excellent Resident Evil 2, a title that kept the ‘puzzle solving under duress’ concept of the original, but brought everything else up to modern standards. Final Fantasy VII Remake, possibly the most anticipated modern video game remake, is finally here and the results are pretty damn solid, with a couple of caveats.

Final Fantasy VII Remake tells the story of plucky hero Cloud Strife, an ex-SOLDIER with a mysterious past, who teams up with eco-terrorist organisation AVALANCHE, to save the city of Midgar from the evil Shinra corporation’s environmental destruction. Cloud will befriend the likes of gruff Barrett, ethereal Aerith and definitely-the-one-he-should-date Tifa on an adventure above and below Midgar. Fans of the original 1997 game might notice the setting of FFVII Remake barely comprises a quarter of that PSone classic, and indeed this particular title is the first of an-as-yet unknown number. While that’s likely to be an (understandable) sticking point for many, FFVII Remake is by no means a slender game, offering expanded and explorable versions of the original locations, all of them looking stunning and well-designed, and much more in depth storytelling.

Combat’s another area where FFVII Remake shines, boasting an intelligent and strategic style of action, that still manages to feel fast paced and kinetic. Being able to switch between characters on the fly, equip different forms of materia and unleash epic summons has been honed beautifully and the engaging violence never tires over the game’s 35 or so hours of playtime.

On the negative side of things, there’s quite a bit of filler thrown in the game. Unimaginative side missions, dull fetch quests and annoying backtracking are peppered throughout the adventure, and when set next to genuinely enthralling and exciting main missions, one has to wonder why. The easily pleased or obsessive completionists will likely want to squeeze every drop of content out of the game, but everyone else should probably just stick to the main story and experience a much more interesting journey.

Final Fantasy VII Remake looks gorgeous, sounds wonderful and when it’s firing on all cylinders is an absolute joy to play. You do have to deal with some expected anime-style bullshit, and the side quests are uniformly dull, but there’s a genuinely charming, engaging game at the core of the package. While splitting the remake into “episodes” feels a little cynical, that mercenary philosophy is thankfully nowhere to be seen in the actual title and Final Fantasy VII Remake is, for the most part, a very solid remake indeed.

 
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Resident Evil 3

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It’s funny how history repeats itself over and over. Case in point, Capcom’s one-two punch of Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis in 1998 and 1999 respectively. Resident Evil 2 was an undisputed masterpiece, an evolution of the survival horror formula and a game that remains a beloved classic to this day. Resident Evil 3, on the other hand, was a fun but slight affair that was shorter, simpler and just not quite as involving as its predecessor. Cut to 2020 and we have the Resident Evil 3 remake hitting stores this week and the result? Well, it’s all just a bit of history repeating…

Resident Evil 3 puts the player in the shapely shoes of Jill Valentine, who has the misfortune of being in Racoon City around the same time as the events of Resident Evil 2 are taking place. It soon becomes clear, however, that Jill’s problems are a little different, as a S.T.A.R.S-hunting beastie named Nemesis is about and wants nothing more than to kill Jill. The opening hours of RE3 are superb. Scary, atmospheric and genuinely thrilling. The devastated streets of Racoon City are an engaging backdrop, and you feel like you’re genuinely inhabiting the early hours of a zombie apocalypse. Nemesis too is initially a thrilling foe, seemingly invincible and utterly devoted to ripping your guts out.

The problem is, as the game wears on, the thrills begin to dwindle. What commences in wide open areas, eventually becomes samey corridors, and while the slightly more action-focused combat is gripping while it’s occurring, the game around it just doesn’t have the same level of care as last year’s excellent Resident Evil 2 remake. Nemesis too, becomes just a repeated boss, not stalking you like the Tyrant aka Mr. X did in the previous entry and the five hour playtime, with no second character playthrough, really doesn’t do much to dispel the sense that this is a lesser product. RE3 comes bundled with Resident Evil: Resistance, which is an engaging-for-a-while 4v1 multiplayer proposition, but can’t disguise the fact that the campaign, which is the title’s selling point, isn’t quite up to snuff.

Ultimately, Resident Evil 3 repeats the slight letdown that it proved in 1999. However, this time around, it’s a little less forgivable, particularly after the stunning Resident Evil 2 remake. Die hard horror fans will certainly find something to love in this slight but splattery offering, and the first third is brilliant, but sadly the game’s real nemesis is a lack of innovation.

 
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Nioh 2

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How do you create a great video game sequel? That’s the question that must have haunted the psyche of developer Team Ninja as they prepped a follow-up to 2017’s Dark Souls-esque smash hit Nioh. Do you expand the formula of the first game to such a degree that you risk alienating fans of the original? Or do you remain faithful to the prequel and brave the accusations of stagnation? It’s a tough balance to strike, but happily Nioh 2 can stand tall as an example of ‘doing it right’.

Nioh 2 is technically a prequel to Nioh, set mostly in the late 1500s (with some later chapters set further along the timeline). However, as with the first game, the story is a rather generic affair, existing only to give the player a setting and vague premise. You play the self-created character of Hide, a half-yokai Shiftling who is on an initially vague quest to fight enemy soldiers, evil yokai (demons) and grind for that perfect sword or pair of strides. Basically, it’s business as usual, with Hide doing main missions and side missions, getting stronger weapons, better armour, upgrading the frankly dizzying range of magical powers and swearing a lot when none of it makes a bloody difference against a big bastard boss who will definitely go down if you have “just one more go!”

So, yes, Nioh’s steep difficulty curve has absolutely returned for the sequel, but Nioh 2 offers so many combat options and such diverse build variety – not to mention the ability to summon help in on and offline modes – that there’s a good chance you’ll be able to bugger on through with a bit of patience. Performance-wise, Nioh 2 is a slick machine, offering the same fast-paced, often devastating combat where a single wrong move or mistimed attack can result in a messy end. The graphics are gorgeous, the animation crisp, with more enemy variety than the prequel, although the environments can start to feel a little samey as the game wears on.

Nioh 2 doesn’t reinvent the wheel. Which is a good thing, because people are pretty bloody fond of that wheel! It does, however, offer more combat and enemy variety, a large pool of weapons, a solid loot game and the ability to co-op more easily. It’s a long, sprawling, epic and tough as nails, but in a way that can be learned from and ultimately feels deeply satisfying.

 
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Doom Eternal

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Doom (2016) was a near-perfect reboot of the revered id Software property that dates back to ye olden times of 1993. It was fast-paced, furious, dripping with gore and just a little bit on the simplistic side in terms of gameplay and narrative. It was also an enormous hit, and paved the way for Doom Eternal, the follow-up that is bigger, more complicated and nuanced in almost every way. However, does bigger equal better in this case? Happily, the answer is a guttural grunt to the affirmative, followed by the sound of a shotgun cocking and a tasty guitar lick.

Doom Eternal once again puts the player in the oversized kicking boots of The Doom Slayer, a silent protagonist who communicates via the medium of carnage. Earth has been taken over by the forces of Hell, and 60% of the population has died horribly. It’s up to you to rip and tear your way through the fetid flesh of your foes and save what’s left of this tiny blue and green orb. You’ll also kick the guts out of a plot that involves angelic creatures, death cults, multi-dimensional travel and clever references to the franchise’s ‘90s origins. If the previous game suffered from too much simplicity, Eternal almost goes too far in the other direction. To truly get a handle on the plot you’ll have to read the various lore entries scattered around the place, which feels at odds with the fast-paced, frenetic, push-forward-and-kill gameplay loop.

The gameplay itself has also been iterated upon, and this is a change for the better. Doom was loads of fun, but it ultimately ended up being battles in arenas with samey looking backgrounds. Doom Eternal adds exploration, platforming, light puzzle solving and some truly novel tweaks to the formula that we won’t spoil. Naturally, the bulk of the action is, once more, fanging around arena-style areas killing everything in sight, but it’s presented in a much more interesting fashion. Another unexpected improvement is the multiplayer battle mode, which features two player controlled demons vs a player controlled Doom Slayer, which is surprisingly fun and nuanced, giving you something to hook into after the 15-20 hour single player campaign.

Doom Eternal is a bigger, messier and worthy follow-up to the beloved 2016 title. Its slickly animated, fast-paced action remains utterly addictive, with added elements of strategy that stop it from becoming numbing or brainless, and the gloriously gruesome aesthetic makes the player feel like they’re fighting their way through a Slayer album cover. Feel the need to shower in the entrails of your enemies and cackle maniacally while you cleave their evil skulls in twain? Doom Eternal scratches that itch with a black, thorny claw wrapped in barbed wire.

 
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Bayonetta & Vanquish 10th Anniversary Bundle

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It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years since Bayonetta and Vanquish graced consoles with their presence, and frankly it’s more than a little alarming. However, after checking various calendars and doing some light arithmetic, it turns out to be true. If you too are experiencing an existential shudder at the ever-increasing proximity of the grave, the good news is that the Bayonetta & Vanquish bundle should provide an engaging distraction from the reaper’s icy grasp!

Platinum Games excel at fast-paced, frenetic action titles. This is epitomised nowhere better than Bayonetta, a game where you play a bad-arse angel-hunting lady who looks like a sexy librarian dominatrix and has guns inexplicably attached to her (very) high heels. It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s so crammed with enormous monsters, epic-scale battles and absurd bullshit (not to mention one of the most iconic protagonists in video games), that it’s almost impossible not to be charmed. The graphics have had an upgrade, and the animation is smooth and slick, and while perhaps the uninitiated may be immune to its charms, it’s a delightful return visit for the rest of us.

Vanquish is a less iconic proposition and a bit of an underappreciated classic. Less aesthetically interesting (and fan servicey) it provides a fast-paced cover shooter where the lead character spends most of his time sliding along the ground on his arse. The sense of freedom and movement is as engaging now as it was a decade ago, and while the shooting itself can’t compete with modern counterparts, it’s a solid game with thrilling movement.

Remasters like this are always a tricky proposition. There’s the chance old fans will be disappointed because the games don’t match their highly subjective, rose-tinted memories and new players may be baffled by the adoration heaped on the old fashioned titles. However, in the case of Bayonetta & Vanquish, there’s enough to like for both camps, although returning players will definitely have the better experience. Nostalgia can so often be a crutch, but in this case, it’s actually worth the trip back in time.

 
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Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire

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Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire actually released on PC back in 2018, to much acclaim and joyful nerding. It has taken its sweet arse time being ported to consoles, but happily that day has finally arrived, and the result is largely positive.

Deadfire is a direct sequel to Pillars of Eternity, and opens with the player’s stronghold Caed Nua being given a boot party by antisocial deity Eothas. What’s a player character to do, other than assemble a crew, grab a boat and chase that mongrel god and find out just what the hell his bloody problem is. Naturally, the main story’s broad blockbuster quality stands in stark contrast to the dozens and dozens of hours of side quests, tasks, random exploration and dungeon crawling the large world offers hardy adventurers. It’s your classic Obsidian jam. However, an element that offers a much-improved experience is a revamped turn-based combat mode, which for console players in particular is a blessing from the various Gods.

See, playing with mouse and keyboard makes POE’s ‘real time with pause’ style of battle intuitive and responsive. On an XBOX or PS4 controller? Not so much. The speed and dexterity required to get all your ducks in a row pretty much guarantees all but the very best and most experienced players a rough old time. With turn-based combat that’s all changed, making the game feel more in line with the excellent port of Divinity: Original Sin 2. That’s not to say Deadfire is easy, because it’s not. At all. Even in turn-based combat, if you’re not paying attention you can die swiftly at the hands (or claws) of almost any foe. Expect loads of micromanagement, party stat optimising and wiki research during your 80-100 hour playthrough of the game, which includes all the DLC to date.

So, excellent combat, deep story, cool and interesting world, all good news, yeah? Okay, so now comes the bad. It can be summarised in two words: loading times. The console versions of Deadfire both suffer from ludicrously long load times between interiors, exteriors and other areas. This is a problem in a game that puts so much emphasis on exploration. Now, it should be noted that patches are ongoing to improve performance, but it can be aggravating and immersion-breaking.

Ultimately, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire is a cracking RPG yarn. If you can look past the sporadic technical issues and egregious load times, you’re in for a deep, nuanced and engrossing adventure. Just make sure to say goodbye to your free time, because Deadfire is a time vampire beyond compare.