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Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance

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Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance II, were released in 2001 and 2004, respectively. If you owned a console, and enjoyed a bit of couch co-op RPG action, they were literally the best destination for such an undertaking. Fast-paced, engaging, pretty looking (for the time) and brimming with character, they represented everything great about the genre.

And then, for many a year, they just kind of buggered off.

Now, in this locked down year of 2021, Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance releases on PC and consoles, and despite a POV switch to third person combat (more in line with 2018’s God of War) developers Tuque Games hope to recapture some of that magic. So, do they succeed?

No. No, they very much do not. It’s not even close, tbh.

Dark Alliance takes place in the cold-as-buggery region of Icewind Dale and features characters from acclaimed fantasy author RA Salvatore’s The Legend of Drizzt series. Either going solo, or with up to three mates, players will trek through various regions, fighting enemies, flogging gold and collectibles and amassing loot. It’s a pretty classic, if fairly unimaginative set up, so why then does it feel like such a tedious slog?

First up, the feel of the game is just off. All of the characters play like they’re knee deep in treacle, every command or movement taking place a beat or two too late, which gives everything a disjointed, ungainly quality. Secondly, the enemy AI is lamentably, laughably bad, to the point where you’ll begin to wonder if something went terribly wrong during development. Combine that with game balancing that is spectacularly skewed, making hits either do very little damage or killing you/them in one blow, and you’ve got a buggy, mechanically inept mess on your hands.

The thing is, even if the game was functioning properly, it would still be a bit ordinary. However, ordinary games can be fun with friends. Dark Alliance is barely tolerable even with a group of like-minded sarcastic chums. The graphics look great when still, but as soon as they move even a little, the janky animation, appalling collision detection and general lack of polish make the experience grim and frustrating.

Dungeons & Dragons is a huge IP, brimming with exciting lore and staggering depth and the potential of Dark Alliance was enormous. Sadly, other than aesthetics and an intriguing loot game, the title gets very little right. Perhaps a year from now, if the developers keep making improvements, it will rise to the level of mindless fun. But in its current state, particularly in consoles, it’s a nigh unplayable mess and should be avoided like a plague-infested goblin.

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Chivalry 2

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You know what would have sucked? Fighting in a medieval battle. Being rounded up by a bunch of douchey lords, taking up the family sword, charging across a muddy field to stab some other poor bastards who didn’t do anything to you and probably copping an axe to the bonce for your troubles. And hell, even if you did survive, the treatment for PTSD in medieval times was either leeches on your ballbag or being burnt at the stake.

Nowhere has this grim mixture of blood and mud been captured better than Chivalry 2, a game that takes one of the ugliest settings imaginable and weaves it into pure gold.

Chivalry 2 puts you in the dung-caked boots of a fighter in various fictitious medieval conflicts. You can play as knights, vanguard, footmen or archers and switch between the classes easily, unlocking new weapons along the way. Matches can feature up to 64 players in modes as vanilla as team deathmatch or as exciting as multi-part sieges where you’re either attacking or defending a series of objectives.

The bulk of the action is melee combat, with weapons feeling weighty and moving in a semi-realistic fashion. This means the fighting, while simple to pick up, actually contains a lot of depth and nuance. You’ll need to get good at blocking, parrying and knowing when to swing your weapon. That latter point is super important, because you can just as easily damage or kill your teammates when in the middle of a crush.

Honestly, it’s bloody exhilarating. Fights are epic, gore-spattered spectacles that somehow manage that perfect video game alchemy where you’ll have a good time even if you’re losing! It’s quite a trick that Torn Banner Studios have pulled off here and one that feels endlessly enjoyable to play.

Online only (apart from a tutorial and very limited offline practice mode) games are always a risk in this day and age, but Chivalry 2 appears to have the chops to go the distance. In its current incarnation, it’s an absurd amount of fun, replete with numerous modes and hours of gaming, and it’s hard to say “nay” to a game that allows you to pick up a foe’s severed head and fang it at his mates.

Chivalry 2 is a unique offering and delivers time and time again on its promise of the most authentic medieval combat simulation, without having to own a time machine.

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Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground

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It seems like only a couple of days ago we were having a squiz at a Warhammer game, and it was. However, Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground is based on the Warhammer Age of Sigmar flavour of Warhammer, which less resembles a Space Catholics vs nightmare monsters beano and more a JRR Tolkien cosplay convention with extra gore and frowning type of situation.

Storm Ground is a turn-based strategy game that puts you in charge of one of three different factions. There’s the Stormcast Eternals, who are kind of like a hair metal band’s idea of badass, all flowing cloaks and shiny armour. You’ve also got the Nighthaunt, the ethereal goths of the neighbourhood, boasting replicating powers and weaponised whinging. Oh, and finally there are the Maggotkin, a bloated bunch of pustule-covered gronks who could infect you with something nasty as soon as look at you.

The twist over other turn-based combat games is, there’s no save scumming here. Because you bloody can’t! Storm Ground plays with roguelike mechanics, meaning if you stuff up an encounter, it’s game over and you’ll start all over again. You will get to keep various upgrades and enhancements you’ve unlocked, mind you, but when you start your adventure, it can feel a little random and unfair. That said, once you’ve mastered a few of the mechanics, and worked out some of the more strategic ways to use your war band, there’s a lot of potential depth here.

Unfortunately, the potential is sapped by some truly broken enemy AI, where your foes at times feel like they’ve been necking turps pre-game. You can mitigate this somewhat by playing online PvP but conversely, that can be a lesson in bitter humility.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground is a technically competent, mechanically sophisticated turn-based strategy game that isn’t quite living up to its potential yet. A lack of a meaningful story combined with dodgy enemy AI and inconsistent matchmaking means there’s some work to be done, but we’ll be keeping an eye on this one to see if it gets fully Sig(mar) down the road.

 

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Necromunda: Hired Gun

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The Warhammer 40K universe is one of the most detailed, lore dense and unique settings imaginable. Originally conceived in the 1980s as a tabletop game, it has since branched out into books, comics, audio plays, animations and – most relevant for this yarn – video games.

Its irresistibly weird mix of over-the-top, operatic world building, forever wars, and social commentary seem custom designed for a great video game, yet time and time again, they don’t quite work. This latest title, Necromunda: Hired Gun is a perfect example of the problem, although that’s not to say that it’s without charm.

Necromunda: Hired Gun is set on the planet Necromunda, a dystopian nightmare hellscape that brims with industry, violence and untampered population growth. Into this mix, the player character is thrust, an aloof mercenary who just wants to make some dosh, but before long is exposed to a sprawling gang war and a larger conspiracy.

The plot is pretty standard, and not told in a particularly exciting way, but Hired Gun succeeds in one major fashion: superb, fast-paced, engaging shooting. Slick as a greasy piglet, you’ll wall run to your objective, blow the heads off nearby enemies, grapple-hook to safety and send your cybernetically enhanced mastiff down to polish off the stragglers. This is frenetic, exciting stuff, a bit like 2016’s Doom reboot but with a 40K setting to add extra levels of grime and casual nihilism. When Hired Gun works it works a treat.

The problem? It doesn’t work often enough. Graphical glitches, framerate drops, audio fuckery and even the odd hard crash beset this scrappy title, doing a lot of damage to your good will. And as a result, other ordinarily forgivable flaws like lackluster enemy AI and wonky voice acting become all the more apparent. Which is sad, because honestly, exploring these expansive, fascinating 40K locations, drinking in the atmosphere and just straight up existing in this bull goose loony universe is a treat.

So, here’s our suggestion: don’t buy Necromunda: Hired Gun quite yet. Unless you’re a 40K obsessive, you’re likely to run into problems. Wait a month or two, see if these launch issues are patched out and then revisit the concept. Because underneath the jank, Necromunda: Hired Gun is a grimdark and gory gem that just needs a bit more polishing for it to truly shine.

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Biomutant

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I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, there’s just something deeply satisfying about scavenging for scrap in the ruins of a post-apocalyptic society. The Fallout games know this, The Last of Us duology do too. Hell, any number of open world titles like Horizon Zero Dawn could tell you the same. Oh, and let us not forget Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden! Crikey, even your humble word janitor has had a crack at exploring the concept in a literary context.

Biomutant, from small indie development team Experiment 101, have added fresh wrinkles to the formula, some of which work really well, but the game as a whole has serious caveats.

Biomutant is an open world RPG adventure set in a post apocalypse where humanity has long since popped its clogs. The world now teems with adorable rodent-looking things that lob about in cute outfits and batter the shit out of one another using furry martial arts.

Your user-generated character is on a mission to save or destroy the Tree of Life, unite or exterminate multiple mammalian tribes and fight four enormous monsters.

All sounds pretty promising, right? Add to that gorgeous and unique visual design, staggering enemy variety and evocative music and it would seem the entire package is a belter.

This impression won’t last long, however. Alas, Biomutant makes a lot of dud choices. They were made, almost certainly, for budgetary reasons, which is understandable, but it doesn’t make them any easier to deal with.

First up, there’s no voice acting to speak of. All the characters speak in gibberish and a plummy Pom narrator – who sounds like a mixture of bargain basement Stephen Fry by way of a slumming David Attenborough – translates for you. Aside from the fact that the intrusive narrator is a tonal mismatch for what’s happening on screen, this means you’re always kept at arm’s length. You’re being told a story rather than living through it and it’s a real immersion-killer.

Add to this insanely repetitive mission design, endlessly reused assets and floaty combat, and you’ve got an overall package that fails more than it succeeds. Despite this, however, those who enjoy post-apocalyptic RPGs will find stuff to like. The open world is enormous and frequently hauntingly quiet, offering ruins to explore, scrap to scavenge and loot to equip or break down.

Plus, the crafting system is genuinely excellent, once you get your head around it, offering a huge number of weapon and armour options. It’s a pity that this variety doesn’t carry over to missions or story beats.

As it stands right now, Biomutant is a bit of a mess. Aside from the problems listed above, the PS4/PS5 version crashes with bewildering regularity. The script is tepid, the quest design unimaginative and the sense of repetition acute. And yet for all of that, those of you who enjoy scavenging for scrap in ruined worlds may find nuggets of gold in this overly ambitious pile of debris.

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Resident Evil Village

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2017’s Resident Evil VII was a bold reinvention for Capcom’s long-lived spookshow series. Changing the action to a first person perspective, and delivering a story that felt like an even more demented riff on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and other hillbilly horrors, the game was a tense, engaging triumph. Naturally, excitement for a potential sequel was high and now Resident Evil Village (VIIIage – geddit?) has arrived and despite minor flaws, it’s pretty bloody good.

Resident Evil Village puts you back in the shoes of VII’s protagonist, and man voted Most Likely to Injure His Hands Constantly, Ethan Winters. After the events of VII, Ethan has managed to make a better life with his missus, Mia, and infant daughter Rose. That is until his world is shattered, his daughter flogged, and he finds himself wandering the Transylvanian vistas of a very unpleasant European village.

What follows, in a lot of ways, feels like a bigger budgeted remake of VII. You’ve got a demented family, multiple members of which you’ll have to face in unique encounters, and a central mystery to decipher before it’s too late. The difference, other than the more gothic aesthetic, is in terms of scale. Instead of sickening Louisiana swampland, Ethan will be trekking across icy European environments, imposing castles, hideous dungeons. Instead of facing endless mouldy blokes, you’ll come across werewolves, leathery undead acolytes, bug ladies, cyborgs and, of course, an enormous sheila the internet is super thirsty for. It’s a huge array of foes, and it’s great to see such enemy variety.

Of course, having so many enemies means Village is more focused on combat than the previous entry. And, one wonderful sequence where you’re disarmed aside, this is absolutely an action-based experience. It’s Aliens, not Alien, which is great if you’re up for it, but disappointing if you were hoping Capcom would continue leaning towards more psychological horror.

Resident Evil Village is more of a carnival ghost train than a nuanced horror yarn, but it’s so effectively realised – and consistently tense throughout – that you can’t help but get swept up in the wild story, creepy atmosphere and surprisingly emotionally resonant conclusion. If you like your horror of the “balls to the wall” variety, you’d be an idiot to miss out on this Village.

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Nier Replicant

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Nier: Automata was one of the best games of 2017. A genre-straddling, fourth wall breaking, bullgoose loony trek through a robotic dreamscape that was at turns funny, sad, thought-provoking and jaw-droppingly odd. Polished gameplay, memorable locations, quality writing and unforgettable characters combined to create something truly unique.

Except, that’s not entirely true. See, Automata’s “uniqueness” was more due to the fact that it was the next evolution of an equally nuts – although in different ways – title from the same director, Yoko Taro, called Nier (or Nier Gestalt in some territories), which dropped in 2010.

The game did not do spectacularly, but it did manage to gather a loyal cult following, which helped Automata’s release no end. So, the good people at Cavia and Square Enix have dusted off Nier, prettied it up, added some new gear and released it as Nier Replicant ver.1.22474487139… so, uh, we’re just going to call it Nier Replicant.

Nier Replicant is the story of a brother and sister. The sister is Yonah, the brother is the player-named main character. In the beginning, you’ll look for a cure for Yonah’s disease, go on a bunch of fetch quests, fight shadowy ghosts called Shades and get into various shenanigans. Typical video game gear.

Then the game takes a hard left turn, and it never quite stops turning. Automata did similar things, but Replicant’s wild narrative shifts are no less engaging just because they’re expected. This is genuinely surprising, subversive stuff (that we will absolutely not spoil), and for fans of narratives that explore lofty concepts, and take risks, this can be thrilling.

That said, the gameplay is a little less accomplished than Automata. Even upgraded from 2010 standards, there are clunky elements here and for newbies to the series, Automata is definitely the superior option, mechanically speaking.

However, if you were one of the people who stumbled across Automata and were blown away by its wild twists and turns, you might want to give Replicant a spin. It’s a surreal, engaging, surprisingly emotional yarn that packs a wallop, even when some of its technical shortcomings make it feel a little dated.

Not quite the equal of Automata, it’s still something of a Nier masterpiece.

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Disco Elysium: The Final Cut

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How good is the Australian Government, eh? No, seriously, what an excellent organisation, full of forward-thinking, intelligent, perceptive individuals doing a great job in a cohesive, logical fashion. So, so good.

I mean, just look at some of the decisions they enable. Like the Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) and their recent “refused classification” ruling re: Disco Elysium: The Final Cut, effectively making it impossible for anyone with a console to play this popular RPG. Sure, the cynics among you will say, “isn’t it staggeringly short sighted to arbitrarily ban a game that has been available on PC since 2019, and if anything this decision just exposes the shortcomings of a blinkered, reactionary organisation that in an international online context lacks even the barest hint of relevancy?”

Further, you callous doubters might be moved to say something along the lines of, “and while we’re on the subject, what was the point of fighting so hard to finally attain an R-rating for games if the OFLC simply refuses to classify them anyway? It speaks to a system beset by inadequate planning and a fundamental misunderstanding of the various demographics who enjoy video games. Particularly in the case of Disco Elysium, which is a (mostly) non-violent game in which drug and alcohol use isn’t painted in a positive light at all, but rather used to explore a nuanced and intelligent conversation about self destruction and the nature of the self.”

And, finally, you grim misanthropes might be moved to utter: “And with Disco Elysium: The Final Cut, now fully voiced and with added quests and improved graphics and animation, this is the best version available of an already stellar game and it’s practically a crime that a cadre of unimpressive bureaucrats have been able to flex their tepid, inconsistently-applied powers and ban a deadset masterpiece.”

To which I, an ardent fan of both the Australian government and the revered OFLC, would say: “What’s your solution then? Create a fake account by using an American or UK postcode? Attach a credit card that can be used internationally (or borrow an overseas friend’s and pay them back) and then buy said game, download it and then switch to your Australian account to play it? Is that what you’re suggesting? An investment of time that would literally only take ten minutes and will ultimately have you playing one of the best RPGs ever? A tactic sweetened by the fact that you’ll be bypassing an absurd, alarmist and frankly embarrassing ruling?” Because if that’s what you’re suggesting, we of the FilmInk family could never condone such an action, no matter how quick and easy it may be.

In conclusion: thank you, OFLC, for saving us simple, easily-influenced Aussies from the tyranny of an all-time classic game with numerous paths, choices and consequences. And thank heavens it’s not actually staggeringly simple to circumvent your-definitely-not-borderline-farcical rulings. Cheers, ta!

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Outriders

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Day leads into night, night into day and yet another looter shooter launches in a messy bloody state. The latest title to do so is Outriders from developers People Can Fly (Gears of War: Judgement, Bulletstorm), and it’s a testament to the quality of the actual gameplay that despite the many, many issues, this damn thing is fun as hell.

Outriders tells the story of humanity’s exodus from Earth, which is cactus, to the brand spanking new planet of Enoch which is meant to be a paradise and a new beginning for humankind. Of course, it doesn’t quite work out that way and after an engaging if cluttered opening, the player finds themselves in a very different world, harsh and brutal. A world where human fights human, roaming creatures fight everyone and a dark secret has dire ramifications for the continued existence of the species.

On the plus side, though, you’ll find yourself with newly minted superpowers and are now functionally immortal. So, you know, swings and roundabouts.

Outriders is a fast-paced, third person POV looter shooter playable solo or with up to two mates or randos. Although looking like a cover-based shooter, the action is far more frenetic and will usually involve you getting up in your enemy’s faces to ensure you gain health back. There are four classes including Pyromancer who can flame on, Technomancer who can spawn turrets and the like, Devastator who is your classic tank class and Trickster who can manipulate time itself. Each class feels completely unique and evidently a lot of thought has gone into the implementation of powers and how they affect gameplay.

Put simply, Outriders is a bloody hoot. The shooting/powers/looting loop never gets old, even if the story – which starts promisingly enough – ends up feeling a little limp. Under ordinary circumstances, this would be a pretty hearty recommendation, but at time of writing the game is a mess with server malfunctions, errors that delete your gear and numerous other little joy-sucking gremlins lobbing about the place.

Here’s our recommendation: give it a couple of months for all the kinks to get ironed out, and then give Outriders a go. It’s the game equivalent of a B-movie that punches well above its weight and a gory, bombastic blast to boot. It’s rough around the edges, and occasionally fairly stupid, but you’ll likely be having too much fun to care.

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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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