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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.