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The Outer Worlds: Murder on Eridanos

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The Outer Worlds was released in 2019, and on the whole, it was received very favourably. Developed with more attention paid to character and story depth than recent Bethesda entries – which was apt considering developers Obsidian created the much-loved Fallout: New Vegas in 2010 – the game sold well and was a decent-sized hit.

The problem with The Outer Worlds, though, is that it makes a great first impression and then starts to feel a little samey. Enemy variety, mission design and combat are all actually quite shallow, so by the time you’ve reached the end of the game you’re pretty much done and dusted.

About a year after the main game, the first DLC was released, and it was… okay. Called Peril on Gorgon, the unambitious yarn was oddly designed, quite repetitive and didn’t add anything of note. It was received with considerably less relish than the base game.

Now the second, and final, DLC has arrived and while Murder on Eridanos is an improvement on its predecessor, it still feels a bit like cut content flogged as DLC.

Murder on Eridanos has the player character (and crew) investigate the brutal murder of actress Ruth Bellamy, who played the iconic Halcyon Helen character on the space tellies of millions. You’ll lob over to Eridanos, investigate Rizzo’s beverage distilleries, check out the Purpleberry Orchards and get involved in some weird stuff involving mind controlling slugs, exploited workers and narky insects.

The DLC features the game’s ubiquitous snappy sense of humour, and a crime scene investigation device adds light puzzle solving mechanics, but other than that, it’s basically mildly reskinned enemy encounters between sections of a mostly entertaining story in the classic whodunnit vein.

If that sounds like we’re damning it with faint praise? Well, we are. Murder on Eridanos is a perfectly adequate bit of gear, but its lack of impact on the overall game means that it’s more of a diversion than a revelation. Considering the quality of Fallout: New Vegas DLC back in the day, it feels like a missed opportunity, albeit one with a few chuckles along the way.

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Little Nightmares 2

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Generally speaking, childhood is an unfathomable nightmare full of dark mystery and morbid misunderstanding. See, when you’re a kid, you don’t understand how the world works, don’t fully grasp the insidious banality that infects the human condition, so you tend to view things in the shadowy, mysterious manner of a creepy fairy tale.

Game devs, Tarsier Studios, know this only too well. It’s why their previous title Little Nightmares was so effective at getting under your skin and lowkey spooking you out. They continue this proud and rather morbid tradition with Little Nightmares 2, a sequel that maintains its predecessor’s quality but perhaps doesn’t innovate as much as one might like.

Plot-wise, Little Nightmares 2 is light on detail and heavy on atmosphere. You play a masked boy named Mono who needs to wend his way through poorly-lit, scary as hell environments, solving light puzzles under duress. Sometimes you’ll come across terrifying adult characters, all of whom want to kill you, and either flee from them or kill/trap them in some fashion. Shortly after the beginning of the tale, you’ll join up with Six (the protagonist from the first game) and she will assist you along the way.

Over the four or so hours of play, Little Nightmares 2 sustains a genuinely uncomfortable, eerie vibe that becomes increasingly twisted and warped, particularly in the final third. The puzzles themselves are serviceable, although occasionally a bit repetitive, and the ending appropriately dark, but it’s the little details and genuinely imaginative monsters that remain with you after the credits roll.

One creature in fact – a squawking schoolteacher beast whose neck extends endlessly like “Sweet Henrietta” from Evil Dead 2 – is easily the most disturbing creature you will see this year, certainly a scarier proposition than most recent movie monsters. So, if your loins are sufficiently girded for discomfort, and you’re okay with the relatively short length, Little Nightmares 2 offers a grim and disturbing look back at the dark side of being a confused, lost child haunted by things beyond understanding.

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Hitman 3

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The Hitman series has been popping clogs and bursting bonces since way back in the ancient year of 2000. Naturally enough, the series has gone through many changes in the two decades since, but perhaps its most unique iteration has been the trilogy of Hitman titles from IO Interactive, which began in 2016 with the rebooted Hitman and now concludes with Hitman 3. And while this version has its problems, there’s much to love here.

Hitman 3 yet again has you occupying the role of bald, barcoded man mountain Agent 47. As with the previous IO Interactive games, you’re given six huge maps, multiple targets and oodles of ways to kill them. Nowhere is this more apparent than the second level that takes place in the sprawling Carlisle Mansion in England. While 47 is there to kill the Carlisle matriarch, you also end up with the option of assuming the identity of a famous Poirot-like detective to solve a murder in the flash abode.

And solve it you shall! You’ll interview suspects, investigate clues and at the end of it all: reveal the killer. And then you can kill your target. Or kill the entire family. Or start beating the cleaning staff to death with fish. See, Hitman 3 is a sandbox in which you’re encouraged to play, and with a bit of lateral thinking you can accomplish all sorts of blackly comedic goals. This level of freedom is thrilling, especially in levels like the massive underground rave in Berlin, or the final level that takes place in a dynamic location (that we won’t spoil).

The downside, of course, is the plot is by necessity rather vague and a bit naff. Serviceable but certainly not memorable. Actually, “serviceable” is a good way to describe the graphics and controls too. They’re fine, they get the job done, but they’ve evolved very little since 2016.

Still and all, IO Interactive’s take on Hitman is popular with its fans precisely because of adaptability and versatility, not AAA slickness. Judged by that metric, Hitman 3 is the perfect conclusion to a subversive series that always looks on the bright side of death.

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Destiny 2: Beyond Light

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Destiny 2 is getting on a bit these days. First released in 2017, the venerable Bungie-developed shooter is one of the most long lived ‘games as a service’ titles, going through various updates, controversies and even owners in its journey to occupy the hearts and minds of shooter fans the world over. Now, in 2020, the latest content drop has been unleashed. Called Beyond Light, and featuring long-awaited story revelations, the result is a mixed bag but an entertaining one regardless.

Beyond Light finally, finally gets around to dealing with The Darkness in a meaningful way. The enemy has been alluded to since 2014’s Destiny, and featured in the previous expansion Shadowkeep, but this time around they’re front and centre. Not only have the pyramid-shipped ones lobbed up, they’ve gone and somehow flogged Io, Titan, Mercury and Mars! Not only that, a mad Fallen sheila by the name of Eramis has somehow worked out how to wield the power of Darkness, using Stasis to get her revenge on the forces of Light. Looks like it’s up to you, Variks and the Exo Stranger to go on another adventure, this time in the icy vistas of Jupiter’s moon, Europa. And yes friends, there will be shooting. A whole lot of shooting. Like, a staggering amount, hey.

As tends to be common with these larger content drops, Beyond Light’s story is a short but sweet five(ish) hours of engaging twists and turns with the usual slightly disappointing ending and climax with a villain who was a bit shit. Seriously, they’ve been pulling this nonsense almost every time, with 2018’s Forsaken being the only exception to the rule. Once the main campaign is concluded, a new end game pursuit opens in the form of Empire Hunts. These are quite entertaining, extended boss fights that incorporate grinding strikes and levelling up a lure for maximum rewards, and then going after the big bad with a vengeance. The biggest new addition, however, is your guardian’s ability to wield the powers of Darkness, using ice-based Stasis to freeze and shatter enemies and really give people the shits in PvP mode, Crucible.

Beyond Light is, as always, an entertaining ride. Europa is a gorgeous new environment, the boss fights in particular are very engaging this time around and of course the shooting is second to none. That said, Destiny 2 is absolutely starting to show its age. Beautiful skyboxes aside, it’s hard not to notice the reused assets, the samey enemies and the encounters we’ve done hundreds, possibly thousands of times before. Bungie’s decision to focus on 2-3 more years of Destiny 2 rather than creating a sequel has raised many eyebrows, and unless they make a seamless transition to next-gen consoles it’s hard to imagine everyone will go along for the ride.

That said, and it bears repeating, the shooting is like a soothing balm for the soul. Crisp, responsive and utterly addictive, it represents the best in the biz and is always a hoot with friends. Destiny 2: Beyond Light is a rather safe, but enjoyable, addition to the game. Plus, there’s plenty more to come, including further seasonal content and a brand new raid, Deep Stone Crypt. However, for longterm fans, it does feel like the cracks are starting to show and if Bungie wants to keep this cash cow going, they’re going to need to start thinking beyond the box.

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Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

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Somewhere during the Assassin’s Creed series’ 20-something games, your humble reviewer found himself checking out of the series. Not completely, mind you. There were still highpoints. 2013’s Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag was a good ‘un and 2015’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was not without its charms, however the emphasis on janky combat over stealthy assassinations, of vast but oddly repetitive environments over smaller but more detailed locations, and the increasingly level-gated content, that all but required seemingly endless grinding (looking at you AC: Origins and Odyssey) put the series firmly in the “it’s just not for me” basket. It’s a surprise then, that Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, despite suffering from some of the above-listed afflictions (but we’ll get to that later) has gone down as easy as a frosty horn of mead and a cheerful after-dinner pillage.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla tells the story of Eivor, a young (female or male, player’s choice) viking in AD 873 who leaves Norway to establish new lands in Anglo-Saxon England. Eivor is joined by bestie, and would-be king, Sigurd, his wife Randvi and a host of other Nordic chums, all with their own personalities and agendas. Over the course of the 60-something hour adventure, friends will become enemies, enemies will become friends and – of course – a mysterious ancient order of “Hidden Ones” will appear, giving the meta story its contractually mandated due. The thing is, the story is a really good one. Eivor is an intriguing lead and the RPG-light style of choices with consequences you’ll come across, add a new layer of player agency to the proceedings. This means, you’ll likely find yourself genuinely invested in the story, particularly in the relationship between Eivor and Siguard, a pairing that in true Shakespearean tradition, appears doomed from the beginning thanks to an early prophetic dream. In fact, the experience of playing the game feels a bit like binging a season of a surprisingly decent historical drama, even if some of the beats are a tad predictable.

In practical terms, Valhalla’s combat feels more grounded than Odyssey, with a pleasing sense of brutality and viciousness that feels appropriate for the subject matter. As vikings, you will pillage monasteries, burn enemies’ houses and flog anything shiny that isn’t tied down, which at the very least is a little morally ambiguous. You’ll forge alliances with various factions in England, performing tasks and solving problems, and slowly upgrade your homebase as you seek more and more power. It’s engaging, exciting stuff, which is somewhat undone by the ubiquitous Ubisoft second act that just drags on a bit too long. Other less than positive wrinkles are the bugs that, while tolerable, feel a bit out of place in a full price AAA game. Nothing breaks immersion like watching your horse fly off into the distance like a rapidly deflating equine dirigible.

Still and all, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a big return to form for the series. A fascinating period of history gorgeously realised in a massive, expansive – but nuanced – environment with a solid story and intriguing characters. If you’re even vaguely interested in viking culture, and can handle a bit of grit and gore, Valhalla is a worthy longship ride into glory.

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The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope

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Creating a game that becomes a huge hit is a blessing and a curse. Just ask Supermassive Games, who are responsible for the very unexpectedly successful Until Dawn. See, Until Dawn gave players the chance to essentially direct their own slasher movie, attempting to save the likable characters, to kill the annoying ones and see what impact their decisions would have. It was a hoot of a game, particularly effective when played half drunk with your mates peppered around the loungeroom, and it was inevitable more of the type would be made. The first of these “Dark Pictures Anthology” games was Man of Medan, which had its moments but was undone by a rather pedestrian third act twist. The latest iteration is Little Hope and while it has its charms, unfortunately it’s not quite the classic it needs to be to get this series back on track.

Little Hope tells the tale of five characters who, after a bus crash, find themselves trapped in the creepy hamlet from which this game gets its name. Little Hope is a town with a dark past, involving witch trials, murder and all manner of macabre shenanigans, many of which you’ll experience as flashbacks, jump scares and dream sequences. This is prime material for a horror yarn, and the early minutes of the game are intriguing, however, as the story wears on, a lack of structure and identity creep in.

Until Dawn worked because it was mostly set in a creepy abandoned ski resort and large house. Man of Medan worked (up until the end at least) because it was mostly taking place on an abandoned boat. Little Hope has some good moments, but utilising a whole town in the context of a story like this feels too vague and formless. Similarly, the voice acting feels oddly disengaged and inconsistent, with even good actors like Will Poulter sounding wooden and listless in their delivery.

That’s not to say that there isn’t fun to be had in Little Hope. Remember that loungeroom with your mates scenario? That remains delightfully fun, you can even do online co-op which is dandy with a headset handy. However, a game like this shouldn’t require the addition of boozy sarcasm to be fun or scary, and sadly, it’s just not all that engaging a narrative.

Visually gorgeous, sonically okay, occasionally spooky but just too inconsistent, Little Hope is serviceable but more of a reminder of the lighting-in-a-bottle experience that was Until Dawn.

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Watch Dogs: Legion

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Tell you what, there must have been some champagne corks a-popping over at Ubisoft HQ when Cyberpunk 2077 was delayed yet again. The latest (and hopefully final) delay has shoved CD Projekt Red’s insanely anticipated title back to December 10, from a much-touted November 19 launch day. That means that November of this hell year of 2020 has just one plucky cyberpunky game on the block, and that game is Watch Dogs: Legion.

The Watch Dogs series has always been an odd duck, brimming with potential that has never entirely been realised, but with Legion – set in the near-future in an Orwellian London – they’ve definitely had a red hot go this time around and created the best title in the series so far.

Watch Dogs: Legion tells the story of the London branch of hacktivist group, DedSec. In the opening minutes of the game, the group is almost completely destroyed and blamed for a savage act of terrorism. Since that day, security group Albion has turned London into a police state and it’s up to the loosely affiliated remains of DedSec to set things right, using their hacking skills, combat abilities and Pommy accents so broad they’d make Dick Van Dyke blush.

Watch Dogs: Legion’s story, while seasoned with a pinch of future dystopia ala Black Mirror, is still very much business as usual. You’ll have enemies to vanquish, computers to hack, civilians to convert and loads of busywork to complete. The gameplay, too, while engaging on a minute by minute basis isn’t exactly revolutionary. No, what sets Legion apart from other Watch Dogs titles is that you can recruit and then control any and every NPC that wanders around in the game’s massive map. Just think about that for a second: Every. Single. NPC. You see someone you like the look of, or scan them and realise that their skills will be useful, you can chat with them, do a short mission for them and then assume control of them, swelling the DedSec ranks with skills that are useful in certain situations, or perhaps you just thought their trousers were nice.

For instance, you recruit a tradie so you never get questioned when walking around a building site. Or perhaps you recruit a tidy fighter, if you need to get all kicky-punchy with some folks. Or a gun nut. Or a lady who can summon a construction drone you can ride like a hoverboard. Or a bloke who has weaponised cyber bees (no kidding, this actually exists). It’s impossible to overstate what a seismic shift this mechanic represents, and the near-endless options it gives you in accomplishing your goals.

Of course, playing as anyone diffuses the already overly familiar story, and it also means that most characters sound the same, which is unfortunately all a bit “oo-er guvna, let’s smash the system and ‘ave some fish and chips, by crikey”. It’s also a little hard to take the frothing anti-capitalist banter seriously when the Ubisoft store has a perpetually tumescent prompt, swollen with its desire to separate the player from their hard earned dosh.

Still and all, wonky dialogue and corporate greed aside, Watch Dogs: Legion took a big risk with its recruitment mechanic and it’s certainly paid off. And while it’s not a perfect game, and one wishes Ubisoft would push the narrative envelope a little harder, it’s a memorable, engaging romp through near-future London with oodles of systems to muck about with and trouble to start against the forces of oppression. So if you want to scratch that cyberpunk itch, and enjoy a memorable game in its own right, Watch Dogs: Legion has you covered. So quicksticks ‘op on this one and take back London, innit!

 

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Mafia: Definitive Edition

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2002 was a long time ago, both literally and figuratively. In 2002, we were one year on from September 11 and feeling very unsure about the world in which we lived. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring was tearing it up at the box office and Black Hawk Down was proving war movies could still bring it. People with good taste were listening to Queens of the Stone Age’s third studio album, Songs for the Deaf, and a bunch of deadset monsters continued to line Coldplay’s pockets by inexplicably hurling handfuls of dosh at A Rush of Blood to the Head. Oh, also, a little game by the name of Mafia came out to considerable critical acclaim.

Mafia was, at the time, a rather unique proposition. A story-focused game, told in a very cinematic fashion, that occupied a pseudo open world. Unlike the other big crime game released that year, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Mafia played it straight, with genuine attempts at pathos and historical accuracy. The story revolved around Thomas “Tommy” Angelo who, through a chance encounter, goes from a simple life driving a cab to joining the Salieri family, one of the biggest crime organisations in the fictional city of Lost Heaven.



The year is now 2020, eighteen long years from that innocent era, and Mafia has been remastered and tweaked into the slick, gorgeous-looking form of Mafia: Definitive Edition. Graphics and animation have been brought up to modern standards, and even the script has been given a punch up, with expanded and improved dialogue throughout the entire ten or so hour experience. So, is it worth the revisit? Kinda. See, while the presentation is superb, even a polished version of the script feels dated and a bit flat. It’s your usual ‘guy is seduced by the mob, realises it’s not all that it’s cracked up to be and tries to escape’ narrative you’ve seen a thousand times before. Hell, it was a bit creaky back in 2002, but in 2020? It’s practically an antique.

The gameplay also is very… adequate. Stiff driving, which is appropriate for the ancient cars you’ll be driving but not exactly a joyful time, combined with mediocre shooting mechanics make for an experience that relies heavily on your love of the original title. Are you super invested in revisiting the old favourite and willing to overlook its many archaic elements? You might have a good time. But for anyone pining for story and gameplay that feel fresh and unique, Mafia: Definitive Edition is probably not the family you’ll want to join.

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The Outer Worlds: Peril on Gordon

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The Outer Worlds was released just under a year ago, in that ancient halcyon age of 2019. Critical consensus (including our own) was that while the game was imperfect, it captured much of the black humour, RPG mechanics and interesting, nuanced story that wasn’t on display in the latest iterations of Fallout or Mass Effect. Yes, some of the action was a bit repetitive, and the enemy variety a tad lacking, but there was a lot to like about the title. Peril on Gorgon represents the first major DLC drop for the game and the result, honestly, is a bit of a disappointment.

Peril on Gorgon tells a mostly self-contained story that predominantly takes place on the Gorgon asteroid, and it involves (yet again) a science experiment gone terribly wrong. You’ll need to explore the rather drab asteroid as you piece together what happened and choose what to do with that information, which is fine, in theory, but the final revelation is profoundly underwhelming. In fact, the whole DLC feels like a retelling of the plot of Joss Whedon’s Firefly movie, Serenity. That flick’s a lot of fun, don’t get us wrong, but it does make the narrative lose its mystique once you’ve worked out what’s happening.

Peril on Gorgon makes its first mistake right out of the gate. It’s DLC that exists after the beginning of the game but before the ending, so if you don’t have a save file in that area, it’s tough titty, my friend, you’ll have to start a whole new game. Happily, your humble reviewer had a save in the sweet spot, but it couldn’t help but make the entire DLC feel like cut content from the main game. Perhaps, if this 4-6 hour digression had appeared in the vanilla campaign, it would have felt more at home, however as a DLC it seems slight and half baked. The player level cap is raised to 33, there are a handful of new weapons and armour, but a total lack of new abilities or companions can’t help but hammer home the feeling of half arsedness. And the fact that you’re fighting predominantly the same old enemies, that you got bored of in the main game, is just a bummer.

The Outer Worlds: Peril on Gorgon, fundamentally, is just a very average experience. While it does offer more Outer Worlds, which is welcome in theory, it also provides poor level design, samey encounters and an overall sense of been there, done that. If you haven’t played The Outer Worlds yet (and you absolutely should) it might fatten out the campaign, but otherwise you’d have to be pretty hard-up to peer into the eyes of this gorgon.

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Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning

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In 2012, approximately 745 years ago in video game terms, an action RPG called Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was released on PC, PS3 and XBOX360. Developed by Big Huge Games and 38 Studios, the game was a massive, sprawling, ambitious combination of rich storytelling (by acclaimed fantasy scribe R.A. Salvatore), strong imagery (by Spawn creator Todd McFarlane) and fast-paced, intuitive combat rarely seen in RPGs at the time. It launched to mostly positive reviews and sold in decent numbers. The assumption was, this would be the first chapter in an increasingly epic series, a fresh face on the RPG landscape. Fate, however, weaves a twisted tapestry and not long afterwards, 38 Studios filed for bankruptcy (due to staggering fiscal mismanagement) and Kingdoms of Amalur was destined to forever be known as that endearing one hit wonder. Cut to: 2020, unofficial year of the remaster, and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is back as… Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning. Oof. And to be honest, the title isn’t the only misstep here.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning has one of the strongest openings in RPG history. You’re a corpse, manhandled by dwarves onto a groaning pile of your fellow deceased, when suddenly you shuffle the mortal coil back on and begin your adventure. Why and how you’re alive, what the deal is with the invading hordes and your connection to fate itself are all questions you’ll need to explore over the course of this extremely large (60-100 hour) adventure. So, that’s the story. What’s new in this 2020 remaster? Erm, not a great deal, just quietly. The graphics have been given a minor polish, and the animation runs at a mostly solid 60 frames per second, but in terms of meaningful additions or even quality of life changes (like the ability to loot multiple corpses at once), there’s sweet Fanny Adams on offer.

So, while the combat is still fast-paced and flowing, and the story remains intriguing particularly in the main quests, Kingdoms can’t help but feel very dated indeed. Multiple fetch quests, large empty-feeling environments and exposition delivered via text dumps all chip away at your enjoyment. At nearly a decade old, Kingdoms feels particularly molested by the passage of time. On the plus side, for console owners this represents the only way to get the game and it looks as good as it has ever been. For hardcore fans of the original this may well be enough, and don’t get us wrong – there’s a lot of game here and if you’re able to overlook its shortcomings, much adventure awaits. For those of us hoping the game might get a remaster experience comparable to the likes of BioShock: The Collection or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, sadly this has proven to be an epic fantasy.



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