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Prey

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I’m smashing coffee cups with my spanner. I’ve been doing this for almost ten minutes, the floor’s covered in shards of white porcelain. But I know, I just know, one of these bastard mugs isn’t what it appears to be. I’m in the kitchen of a massive space station, Talos-1, and I’ll not be leaving until the mimic reveals itself. Suddenly there is an ear-splitting screech and the next mug on my kill-list transforms into a spidery black monster that lunges at my face. I jump back and start swinging my tool like a madman, knocking over chairs and smashing glass. The mimic hits me; I start taking damage so I switch to my shotgun. I don’t have many shells left but I’ll be putting one inside this little bastard. I fire, the mimic dies and I collect its guts. I’ll be using them later to craft more ammo.

Welcome to the paranoid space madness of Prey, the latest game from Arkane Studios who recently gave us the wonderful Dishonored 2. Prey tells the tale of Morgan Yu (male or female optional), a protagonist who finds themselves part of a strange scientific experiment on a massive damaged space station, Talos-1. Why are you on the space station? Who is experimenting on you? What happened to your memory and while we’re on the subject, what the bloody hell are all those inky black monsters about? All these questions will be answered over your 15-25 hour playthrough.

Gameplay-wise Prey is a bit of a mimic itself, aping notable classics such as System Shock, BioShock, Deus Ex and Dead Space. You’ll explore the space station in a first person POV, fight mimics and other Typhon, discover secrets via computer terminals, audio logs and the occasional survivor. As the game progresses you can unlock powers possessed by the Typhon aliens. These powers include the ability to mimic objects – so you can finally live that dream of transforming into a coffee cup, hitting enemies with a massive blast of psychic energy and even necromancing corpses to get off the ground and assist you. Using these alien powers will occasionally cause a huge beast called The Nightmare to come and try to kill you, but it’s totally worth it. Although the game does include the option of staying totally human, if you’re a boring monkey.

Prey gameplay

As you slowly piece together your past, and what happened to Talos-1, you’ll have choices to make. People to save or ignore, sections of the ship to repair or destroy and numerous side quests to complete for needy Talos residents. Without getting too spoilery, these choices will greatly impact your game’s ultimate ending, although perhaps not in the way you might have assumed.

Ultimately, Prey’s best asset is the space station itself and the fascinating world-building that Arkane have achieved. The game is actually set in an alternate universe where JFK was never assassinated and the space race shifted into overdrive. I lost hours of time reading alternate history books, emails between colleagues and strange, sad little stories told dynamically through notes and environmental cues.

The more you explore the more materials you’ll find, which can be used in 3D printers to craft ammo, weapons, medkits and so on. The gameplay loop of exploring, killing a bunch of Typhon, breaking down your inventory items and crafting more useful gear becomes incredibly addictive. Combined with the slowly ratcheting tension of the story, the majority of the game is utterly compelling.

Prey does stumble a little in its final third, however, ramping the difficulty level to occasionally teeth-gritting extremes. Sporadic technical hitches also marred the experience, including one instance where a saved game file became corrupted and I was forced to redo a section that took a couple of hours. None of this is game-breaking, mind you, and Arkane have been patching away as I write this, but it’s worth noting nonetheless.

That said, lovers of cerebral sci-fi and outer space horror will find a lot to enjoy in Prey. The confused tension of the early hours, the more impressive monsters and story revelations of the middle section and even aspects of the game’s head-fucking ending will thrill and delight. Just make sure you keep an eye on those two coffee mugs over there. I swear there was only one a minute ago…

 
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Mass Effect: Andromeda

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The original Mass Effect trilogy had the feel of a trashy but engaging series of space operas. The story was compelling if derivative, the gameplay was fun albeit familiar, but it was the characters, and the player’s relationship with them, that made the series so strong. The bonds you forged, sometimes emotional, sometimes physical, with the characters – human and alien – were where the true joys of the series lay.

The series ended with Mass Effect 3, featuring a conclusion that very few found satisfying. Still, despite not sticking the landing the first three Mass Effect games are generally remembered fondly. Sadly I suspect the same will not be true for Mass Effect: Andromeda.

Released five years after ME3, Mass Effect: Andromeda is an attempt at a soft reboot: new galaxy, new characters, new adventures. In theory it’s a wonderful idea. No more Shepard baggage, no need to deal with “that” ending, a clean slate. Why then did BioWare choose to play it so damn safe and dull?

This time around players control one of the Ryder siblings as they attempt to guide the various people of The Initiative in the Andromeda galaxy. The concept of you the player being the alien in a mysterious new galaxy is a fantastic one, but it’s never even vaguely explored in a meaningful fashion. Within one or two missions everyone will be calling you “Pathfinder” and the reused, bipedal aliens you’ve seen in the original trilogy (plus two new, rather dull, also bipedal races) all react in familiar, predictable ways.

Mass Effect: Andromeda Gameplay

Mass Effect: Andromeda Gameplay

Worse still is the game’s writing. It’s wildly inconsistent, veering from mildly interesting to jaw-droppingly infantile from moment to moment. It’s like the writers chucked the script in blender full of tropes, quirky one-liners and solemn-sounding bullshit and concocted a smoothie of staggering, derivative mediocrity. Every moment of wonder is swiftly undone by a clanger delivered by you or an NPC and it’s hard to engage with characters when they seems to change at the capricious whims of someone unseen, idiotic deity.

All this would be pretty disappointing even if the game functioned beautifully but, as you may be aware already, Mass Effect: Andromeda is beset by a bewildering number of bugs, glitches and outright broken elements. On my playthrough on PS4 I glitched through walls, fell through the ground, experienced mission markers that wouldn’t work until I reset the game and textures popping in and out like a demented fever dream. Although the combat is slicker and better tuned than previous ME games, it’s difficult to get swept up in the action when your enemies randomly hover above the ground staring into the middle distance like gormless mannequins.

The end result is that Mass Effect: Andromeda often feels like a slog. Occasional moments of combat and exploration-based excitement are buried beneath bad writing, poor characters and technical issues that sap the immersion and enjoyment with depressing regularity. There are elements of a good game buried in the mess that is Mass Effect: Andromeda, hidden beneath fetch quests and howlingly bad dialogue, but it too often feels like tedious grunt work to try and find them. Exploring a brand new alien galaxy should never feel this relentlessly average.

 
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Sniper Elite 4

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Shooting Nazis is almost as ubiquitous a trope in video games as hearts representing health pick ups or red barrels being explosive. The average 30-something gamer has probably killed over a million on screen Nazis in their life, and that’s a conservative estimate. Frankly the whole thing had started to become a bit passe in recent times but then the world went fucking nuts and suddenly Nazis are back in the zeitgeist, and positions of political power, once more.

While that’s shockingly, heart-breakingly bad news for humanity it’s a pretty sweet deal for killing Nazis in video games, which brings us to Sniper Elite 4.

Sniper Elite 4 tells the tale of Karl Fairburne, an Office of Strategic Services agent who has all the personality of unsalted tofu but boy can he shoot folks. After Karl grunts through a fairly unexciting opening cutscene you, the player, are dropped into action in a sprawling map of Italy in 1943. Immediately the game distinguishes itself from its very linear predecessors by giving you options and many of them. Naturally sniping is the main focus, but you can also lure enemies into traps, drop crates on groups or even destroy trucks or heavy ordinance while a cadre of Nazis mill around nearby, creating hilariously nasty death traps.

When you make a kill the game switches to an X-ray mode so you can see the exact impact of your bullet, or other projectile, and watch it literally tear through organs, splinter bone and smash testicles. Yes, the series’ favourite iconic testicle shot is back and it’s even more wince- and chuckle-inducing than ever before. There is an immense sense of satisfaction to be garnered from setting up and executing a perfect scrotum-smashing shot, or popping a Nazi eyeball. It’s grim and nasty but given the nature of the enemy, there’s a great deal of catharsis to be had.

On the downside Sniper Elite 4’s story is a non-event. That’s to be expected to an extent in this kind of choose-your-own-path-to-kill title, but even a touch of character or Inglourious Basterds-style gallows humour would have been appreciated and made the wholesale slaughter all the more satisfying.

That said, Sniper Elite 4 scratches an ultraviolence itch in the best kind of way. The ten generously proportioned maps offer a wealth of opportunities to kill your foes in interesting, creative ways and a surprising number of co-op and PvP modes round out the package, offering decent multiplayer options for those who want to shoot their friends and co-workers right in the ballbag.

Sniper Elite 4 knows exactly what it is, and as a way of blowing off steam, or engaging in some splattery wish-fulfillment fantasy, it’s a bloody good time.

 
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HITMAN: The Complete First Season

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The road to Hitman: The Complete First Season has been a tortuous one. After numerous delays and a missed 2015 release date, the game saw its first content drop on March of 2016, but there was a wrinkle: Hitman was going to be released episodically.

Reaction to this news was mixed, to put it charitably.

However credit where it’s due, the first batch of content – featuring a number of tutorial missions and an assassination at a Paris fashion show – was quality and hearkened back to Hitman’s best entry, Blood Money, as opposed to the more recent, critically derided Hitman: Absolution.

The problem was the monthly(ish) release schedule didn’t exactly engender a sense of momentum or a strong desire to revisit the game. Once you’d eliminated the target or targets and played a few escalation missions the whole exercise felt a little half-baked.

It didn’t help that Hitman featured a baffling ‘always online’ mechanic that in the wifi dead zone of Australia caused progress-shattering drop outs with frustrating regularity.

Many players and reviewers (including this one) decided to wait until the game was released in its entirety. So that day is now and the result is… pretty good, actually, with a few caveats.Hitman: The Complete First Season features the iconic, bald, barcoded bonce of Agent 47 who travels the world, steals other people’s clothes and ganks fools in creative, often hilarious, ways. The puckish sense of humour that’s always driven the series is present and some of the methods of dispatch are genuinely clever. Impaling a charismatic, right wing dictator on a church steeple was particularly satisfying and ending an enemy assassin during an early morning yoga session was extremely memorable. Namaste, motherfucker!

On the downside the story has been stripped back to a bare bones sketch of a thing that honestly barely registers and inexplicably ends on a cliffhanger. Presentation wise there are flaws present too, with the character models looking similar and moving stiffly. Plus it seems like only half dozen voice actors were used over and over, which is particularly jarring when the same noisy American brays in Paris, Bangkok and Hokkaido.

That said, there is a genuine sense of satisfaction when you pull off an unlikely assassination and manage to get away, and revisiting the same six maps to wipe out tougher, smarter foes in escalation missions – and the excellent, PS4-exclusive Sarajevo Six content – gives the game legs it might not otherwise have had.

Ultimately Hitman: The Complete First Season is an experiment that works. It’s rougher around the edges than stealth stablemates Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and Dishonored 2, but it has a unique appeal and dark sense of humour for those with a flexible moral centre and a love of sociopathic experimentation.

 
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Resident Evil VII: Biohazard

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Sometime over the last two decades Capcom seemed to forget what made the Resident Evil video game franchise awesome. It wasn’t the gunplay or action movie-style cutscenes, it wasn’t the increasingly convoluted narrative or baffling plot twists and it certainly wasn’t whatever the hell Umbrella Corps was supposed to be. No, what made Resident Evil awesome was its “survival horror” core, a foundation of suspenseful, creeping fear and clammy-palmed desperation.

As the credits rolled on my first playthrough of Resident Evil VII: Biohazard, I sat back on the couch and let out a deep, shuddering breath. Over my 10 hour journey I’d been clobbered by a seemingly invincible madman, stalked by a cackling lady who controlled insects and eviscerated by my own psycho ex wielding a chainsaw. I’d fought shambling, ink-black creatures in dank sub basements and solved devious puzzles in elaborate death traps and throughout it all I was tense, on edge and often genuinely scared.

RE VII wastes little time immersing you in its grimy, horrific atmosphere. After an incredibly brief cutscene you’re thrust into the first person view of likable everyman, Ethan Winters, who has received a weird message from his missing wife, Mia. Ethan has traveled out of the city to the sprawling, unkempt rural property of the Baker family, which has clearly taken design tips from The Evil Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Initially unarmed and increasingly agitated, you’ll explore the filth-encrusted stink palace, descending into the cellar and that’s when the horror really begins.

res1A big point of contention for RE VII has been the shift from third person to first person POV. While initially jarring for longterm fans of the series, this proves to be an excellent move and increases the immersion to a huge extent. The early hours of RE VII, when you’ll find yourself with nothing but a pocket knife, handgun and very few bullets, is the literal stuff of nightmares. Every corner you turn around or door you push open can lead to a messy death, especially when the members of the Baker family are following you. As the game progresses you’ll get better weapons, including the shotgun – your new best friend – but you never feel particularly overpowered as your foes will find inventive new ways to end your existence.

Ironically for an entry that seems to be such a massive change in terms of perspective, the gameplay in RE VII most closely resembles the original 1996 classic, Resident Evil. You’ll find yourself in a focused environment, with puzzle solving opening up new regions and objectives, and you’ll constantly need to manage your inventory and backtrack through areas that were previously inaccessible. It’s classic Resident Evil through a grimy, first person perspective filter and it works to a revelatory degree.

The boss fights in particular are showcases of gleefully creative grindhouse gore and you’ll need to keep your wits about you to defeat them. This will be a recurring theme, in fact, as puzzle solving under duress is what Resident Evil does best. Are you able to craft some burner fuel for your flamethrower? Yeah? Well how about we send a hideous, clawing, insect/human hybrid creature after you at the same time? Let’s see how you fare now, professor!

res2That’s not to suggest everything in RE VII is stellar. The 10-12 hour playthrough time is a little on the short side, and while it’s nice to have an experience not artificially expanded with tedious filler I would have liked another 3-4 hours of content. Another sticking point is more subjective: there are no zombies in RE VII. They are instead replaced with a group of creatures known as Molded; filthy, slurpy, black things that gurgle and gibber and slide from ceilings and out of walls. They’re undoubtedly cool looking but RE purists may be disappointed that you’ll never fight off traditional shambling undead in first person.

Possibly the biggest bummer is the game’s third act. It isn’t bad per se but compared to the rest of the game it’s a little unimaginative. Like a lot of previous Resident Evil titles it mostly eschews horror for action and in a game that gets the horror so right for so long that’s a little disappointing.

That said, Resident Evil VII: Biohazard is easily the best RE title since part four. Capcom seem to have course corrected this sinking ship of a franchise and delivered an intense, nerve-shredding experience that delivers scares, gore and a satisfying story (almost) completely free of franchise baggage.

So grab your green herb and your shotgun, gird your loins and get ready to crawl into the murky depths of the Baker residence and beyond. Resident Evil is back and this time it’s up close and personal.