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Skater XL

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There was a time, back in the distant days of gaming, when skateboarding titles were all the rage. Tony Hawk Pro Skater sequels shot into the clammy palms of loungeroom skegs with almost alarming regularity and for those who preferred their kickflips to be a little more nuanced and technical, EA’s Skate trilogy had you covered. And then, for reasons pertaining to the vagaries of the industry, they all just sort of… stopped. If you wanted to pop a sick ollie, you had to do so outside, in the disgusting real world of people and sun. Now, on the eve of a Tony Hawk remaster, a new contender has entered the ring in the form of Skater XL. A game that, while brimming with potential, makes an ironic mockery of its title.

Skater XL puts you in the comfy kicks of a skater, either user-generated or pre-existing, and after a brief tutorial, you’re sent out into the world. It features a fascinating, and extremely nuanced, control system that uses the dual analogue sticks as your left and right feet. It’s fiddly at first, but you’ll soon grow accustomed to the controls and pull off some genuinely stylish tricks, made even more intriguing by the fact that the game uses real physics. In practical terms, this means every move happens organically, based on your controller movements and not cueing a pre-existing animation, which lends a high degree of individuality to your sessions.

All good news so far, yeah? The problem? That’s the entire game. There’s no story mode, no overarching purpose, no multiplayer or even things to unlock. You just sort of noodle around, popping tricks until you get bored or need to take a slash. A handful of maps with rather dull “challenges” (which are basically extended tutorials) and a fiddly video editor so you can record and upload your sessions. Now, for some people this will be enough. Your humble writer has fond (albeit vague) memories of hanging out with stoner flatmates, popping tricks in Skate and making one’s own fun as the controller was passed back and forth. If you’re up for a languid, chill session like that, Skater XL may be the ticket. If you want some kind of feedback, some kind of sense of progression or interaction with the game? You might want to look elsewhere.

Skater XL’s faults are compounded by the fact that it’s currently retailing (on console, at least) for nearly seventy dollarydoos! This is the kind of experience that would feel justified for twenty bucks or so, but being within cooee of full price is absurd. The lack of content, the occasionally janky animation and clipping, combined with a general lack of purpose, leaves Skater XL feeling more like a promising tech demo rather than a full game experience. What’s there is good, sometimes great, but it’s nowhere near enough yet to justify a purchase for any but the most obsessive of skating game fans.

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Carrion

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Even the most casual gamer will have spent hours of their in-game lives hunting and destroying monsters. Whether the setting is a pristine laboratory, an abandoned warehouse or sinister factory, it’s likely you’ll have splattered an irate organism or cranky xenomorph across it many times over. But what if you weren’t the heroic human in the story? What if, in fact, you were the slime-slicked creature crawling through the vents? That is the premise of Carrion, a game that really shows how much difference a change of perspective can make.

Carrion puts you in the pulsating biomass of a nameless beastie being experimented on in a laboratory. At the beginning of the game you manage to escape from a canister as a small but swift critter, and then it’s time to evolve, increase in size and power, and find your freedom. Oh, and you’ll massacre and absorb a metric tonne of quivering, screaming, terror-scented human flesh along the way.

Of all the many things Carrion does right, its best element by far is the way the monster feels to play. The rapid, slithering, tentacular movement remains exhilarating from minute one to the conclusion four or five hours later. Sweeping out of vents to grab scientists and rip them in half, punching through obstructions like a tumescent wrecking ball and letting out a roar before you engulf multiple victims like a wave of malignant meat is just… wonderful. If you’re of a slightly demented mindset like your humble reviewer, you’ll likely spend much of the game cackling like a cartoon banshee, much to the chagrin of flatmates and cats.

The graphics too, in a crisp engaging pixel art style, tickle all the right retro gaming receptors and are a joy to behold. Slightly less successful is some of the exploration, with a few of the environments reading too similarly to deliver legible landmarks, which can lead to some frustrating and confusing navigation loops, compounded by the lack of a map. Also, players expecting a strong narrative or enticing backstory will likely be left a little cold, because it’s pretty threadbare.

Still and all, the story is not what Carrion is about. This is the type of clever indie game that saw the incredible third act of Playdead’s Inside and went “yeah, let’s do a whole game of that!” and it’s as giddy and satisfying as that sounds. Certainly, the short length and repetitive gameplay will give some pause, but for those who always felt like The Thing from John Carpenter’s The Thing got a raw deal, Carrion will provide splattery catharsis. And in the end, it turns out ol’ mate Friedrich Nietzsche was right: when fighting monsters you yourself do become a monster… and it’s a fucken hoot!

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Warhammer 40K: Mechanicus

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As the sun rises lofty and pleasant in the sky each day, so too do Warhammer 40K games arrive for PC and consoles with often staggering regularity. Sometimes they are good, sometimes they’re a bit shit and most often they’re just… fine. Warhammer 40K: Mechanicus belongs in the first category, praise the Omnissiah, and while it’s not a perfect game there’s more than enough good stuff here to keep 40K acolytes and casuals alike engaged with its niche charms.

Mechanicus is a tactical turn-based game that puts the player in the chunky boots of the Adeptus Mechanicus order, a bunch of tech-priests and their servitors, who are technologically augmented zealots. You’ll need the tech and the zeal as you quest to salvage strange technology from the massive Necron tomb world of Silva Tenebris, and deal with the recently woken Necrons who are less than pleased with you flogging their gear. However, the player is given some choice in which missions to take, and depending on how you proceed through the game determines the sort of ending you’ll get.

In practical terms, the gameplay feels like a more focused X-COM, with turn-based combat and clever distribution of assets and tech being the order of the day. It can be a little dizzying at first, but the difficulty ramps up slowly enough to alleviate total confusion, and by the halfway point you’ll likely be tearing through tombs like a pro. As always, the best thing about 40K games is the rich, bizarre lore. Your humble reviewer has never been within cooee of the tabletop game upon which this is based, but any title that features “tech priests” who worship machine gods, augment their own bodies with robot parts and bicker about heresies against a sleeping undead Emperor deity is going to be the kind of willfully weird that works.

The graphics are crisp, the gameplay is addictive and the soundtrack – by Guillaume David – is one of the best in recent memory, brimming with over-the-top space gothic charm. Warhammer 40K: Mechanicus won’t be for everyone, and if you dislike turn-based gear you should flee like an outnumbered servant of Chaos. However, for those attuned into the gleefully strange 40K rhythms, Mechancius is a machine worth worshipping.

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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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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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Team Sonic Racing

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Dear reader, there was a time in our video game history, in that halcyon decade known as the ‘90s, when nary a console gaming system was connected to the internet. Mainly because the internet, at least how we understand it today, didn’t exist. Therefore, if you wanted to enjoy a multiplayer experience in your own loungeroom you’d have to physically bring people into your home and play the damn thing in person, with split screen. Twas a simpler time. The undisputed king of the loungeroom was Mario Kart 64, a game where you could play as various Nintendo characters and hoon around bright, cartoony tracks and hit each other with shells. Over the years that followed, kart games have come and gone, and video game experiences have skewed ever more online, but even without the warm haze of nostalgia, it has to be said that the loungeroom kart experience has been missed.

Enter Team Sonic Racing, the newest kart kid on the block, who would really prefer you ignore the various iterations of Mario’s vroom vroom fun times and focus on the bright blue fella. Team Sonic Racing, as the name suggests, takes characters from the Sonic the Hedgehog IP and throws you and your mates into an array of colourful tracks where you kart about, picking up power ups and questing to best your opponents, human and AI alike. In terms of new gameplay mechanics, it offers some intriguing team-based additions, like faster speeds when you follow your teammates closely and supers that are more powerful if you launch them simultaneously. These are actually smart additions, making the gameplay less mindless than your usual kart gear, and it’s an undisputedly fun time.

On the negative side, and this is a little subjective, but Sonic and friends have always been a bit… dull as characters. Honestly, the most impact that Sonic has ever made was with his nightmarish (and soon to be amended) movie trailer appearance. With the dead eyes and the teeth… those weird, human-like teeth. Point is, without much in the way of personality, it’s hard for the Sonic agnostic among us to get particularly worked up over the hero character’s antics.

Ultimately, however, the entire reason for Team Sonic Racing’s existence can be boiled down to a single question: do you want a kart game you can play with your mates? Because Team Sonic Racing is available on PS4, XBOX, Nintendo Switch and PC, unlike the (admittedly superior) Mario Kart 8 which is Switch only. So, if you have a group of likeminded chums who seek to return to those barely remembered days on the couch – or if you’re so young you’d like to have that experience for the first time – Team Sonic Racing offers an engaging, if unspectacular, reason for a group hoon with some sparkly animal friends. Freaky teeth not included.

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Trials Rising

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The Trials games are weird, narky little titles that absolutely should not work and yet somehow, against all odds, do. The premise is thus: you’re a little 2D bloke (or lady) and you ride a motorbike through increasingly evil courses involving the need for speed, precision, stunt skills and nerves of steel. The tracks get harder and more elaborate and the player gets sweaty and more frustrated, until you either run out of tracks (unlikely) or rage quit (extremely likely).

And yet despite obviously being a lower budget title, with 2D courses and occasional moments of graphical glitching, Trials games are utterly compelling. Trials Rising, the latest incarnation, is no exception to the rule and in fact features some of the cleverest, most devious and darkly diabolical courses in the series’ history. You’ll cackle with laughter as your manage to just survive an insane jump leaping through fire, you’ll punch the couch in spit-flecked frustration as a second later you’re coat-hangered by the lip of a ramp you hadn’t previously been aware of. You’ll repeat the courses over and over again, trying to shave precious seconds off your best time, and why? Because the real metagame of any Trials title is beating your mate’s high score.

Ironically, Trials Rising’s biggest problem is the opposite of most AAA games. As a critic one gets wretchedly tired of reviewing yet another tentpole title that doesn’t revolutionise or even vaguely evolve the core gameplay or mechanics, yet Trials Rising has done that and, uh… it’s not great. See, the way you unlock new tracks in previous Trials games was by getting better and better scores on existing tracks, which unlocks new areas. While that mechanic still exists here, to some degree, the main method of unlocking involves grinding random tracks that have new objectives like “30 back flips” or “finish in under a minute”. This sort of randomised content would be fine if it was optional, but it rather steals the thunder – and indeed the whole joy of progression – from previous games.

Other additions to the formula like online multiplayer and the ability to do tracks with your mates are fun, if inessential, but the progression system is a real bummer and feels antithetical to the precision and discipline required to “git gud” at these games.

Ultimately Trials Rising remains a worthy addition to a somewhat niche series, and features some of the most clever, wonderfully torturous tracks in the masochistic series’ history. However a new, frankly baffling, progression system steals the game’s thunder in a confounding fashion. Well worth a squiz for veterans and newbies alike, however, particularly if you have a group of competitive friends whose tears you wish to drink like salty, salty wine.

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Valkyria Chronicles 4

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In 2008, The Valkyria Chronicles was released to much acclaim and some confusion. A bizarre mix of military turn-based tactics, strategy and anime-style storytelling all wrapped up in a sketchy watercoloured aesthetic, there truly was nothing like this out there. Even people who wouldn’t play a strategy game on a dare couldn’t help but be charmed by this curious offering. Sequels were released, mainly on the PSP and mobile platforms, and a console spin-off Valkyria Revolution, hit market but none of these games could touch the singular charm of the original. Ten years later and it looks like they’re going to have another bash with The Valkyria Chronicles 4, but can lightning be caught in a bottle a second time? Kinda yeah.

The events of Valkyria Chronicles 4 occur in the same timeline as the original, however the story is told from the perspective of new characters. This is a wise move as trying to follow the byzantine competing narrative threads would be an exercise in confusion. Set on Europa, where the second Europan war is being fought, you take control of a squad of youngsters with silly hair and funny voices. The character designs are, like the predecessors, total anime nonsense. That’s part of the charm, really, but if you have a low tolerance for that sort of thing you should know that going in. If you can get past the rather goofy aesthetic, however, there is a surprising amount of story depth with solid journeys for all of the characters and even a couple of genuine emotion moments.

Gameplay-wise things are pretty much unchanged from the original. You move your troops into position, fight the enemy, move forwards and do it all again, experiencing cutscenes and story beats along the way. The mixture of exploration and real time strategy remains an intriguing one, although the mechanics aren’t quite as fresh a decade later. Graphics and animation are also fine, but not exactly spectacular. Still, that’s not really the purpose of Valkyria Chronicles 4. This almost feels like a more modern reboot of the original and for those of you who are fans of that oddball title – this is a pleasing and engaging tank ride down memory lane.

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