THE GREAT DEBATE: DIFFICULTY RATINGS

THE GREAT DEBATE is a series in which we discuss a question relating to video games, and leave it to you, the reader, to make up your mind one way or another.

In this issue, we will be discussing whether or not games should have a mandatory difficulty rating attached to them, in a similar manner to the already established age rating systems. For example, a game that basically plays itself, has obvious cheats, isn’t made to challenge or doesn’t have a fail state (such as The Sims) would have a rating of one. But supremely taxing games (like the first edition of Devil May Cry 3), would be classed as a five, with all games falling somewhere on this spectrum.

From this point onward, the arguments made in favour of this change will be written normally. All the arguments made against it will be written in italics.


Yeah, we should have difficulty ratings. Nothing wrong with an impartial observer translating challenge to a number, it’s all in the customer’s benefit. In these days where it’s considered normal to try and slip information by the customer until after they’ve bought the product, I can’t really see how it can really hurt to have a little indication of what sort of game you’re dealing with.

Nope, don’t agree with that at all. Why on earth would you need such a change to begin with? Nobody’s really made a big noise over this idea, it’s clearly not an issue.

Not true, but regardless, it doesn’t mean that people wouldn’t be glad to see this system put in place. Besides, what about the times where they wish they had known in advance?

What do you mean?

Think of it like this: If you’re somebody who isn’t very good at hack-and-slash RPGs, but likes the less challenging ones as an experience, what happens when you pick up Dark Souls and find yourself getting killed over the slightest error? You might not have known of the legendary challenge before starting.

Then they find they don’t enjoy the offered experience of a particular game. That’s no big deal, it happens all the time. Annoying, yes, but just the way things go sometimes.

But this isn’t like being given a shoddy story or an odd bit of design. A challenging game will literally stop people playing the whole thing, and if they don’t know it’s challenging before they begin they might find themselves with a genuine problem of not being able to get all the content.

That’s why we have difficulty settings. Easy, medium, hard and the one that unlocks after you beat the others, usually.

But not all games have those. And as I said, they don’t all mention if they’re tough or not, and leave you to find out for yourself. The problem arises when somebody discovers they don’t like the answer, when they just want a stroll through the roses and find too many thorns to proceed.

But what about maintaining the in-game illusion?

I don’t follow.

Some games need to pretend that they’re difficult when they’re not. Hell, think of Call Of Duty, which will make you a four-star colonel for moving a targeting system over a red indicator and watching it explode. Playing the single-player in particular is usually incredibly easy, but it’s set-up visually to make you feel like it isn’t, so that you feel like a bad-ass instead. Yet sticking a flowery two on the front of the box would break the spell, and make folks realise they were playing something about as challenging as a rugby game against a nest of ducklings.

Well, too bad. I’ll sure there are games out there that didn’t like the age rating they were given either, but that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong.

Maybe not, but you’re also forgetting that difficulty is a little more contextual than content. Some people are whizzes are puzzle games and have a different frame of reference for what makes a puzzle game tough or not. How are you going to account for those super-computer types?

That’s why these are more general guidelines than definitive rules. Besides, sooner or later people would start to work out what number equates to what level of challenge just from experience and trying them out, and then the problem is solved.

But it might not hold up even within the same game! What about generally easy games with sudden, brief, difficulty spikes like The Last Of Us? Or what about Undertale, where certain playstyles turn out to be much easier than others? How are you going to rate a game successfully when turning right might give you a Crawmerax boss fight, and turning left might bring you to Dear Esther?

You do it by the most challenging elements, just to be safe, like how age ratings are done by the worst content, instead of the most frequent.

I don’t think it’ll be that simple. And we haven’t even discussed games like FTL: Faster Than Light, in which losing is an expected part of the game and yet manages to reward people even in loss. It’s easier to rate something like age content as it’s based on pure observation, but measuring challenge against an estimated level of player skill is a lot more ethereal, especially when the intention of the game has to be taken into account.

It’s less solid as a concept perhaps, but it’s not just smoke in the air. Besides, this is just a general indicator to show how tricky it would be to most people playing. Whatever flaws the system might have would be worked out with increasing time and people’s understanding of them, and the benefit is a helpful piece of consumer information that would clear up a lot of unhappy purchases, especially in the kid’s market.

I can’t see it, myself. It’s just a minor detail that can’t even be trusted on its own terms. It’s too contextual, too vague and runs the risk of being an annoyance to developers.


 
What do you think? If you have an opinion on the matter, know of an argument that didn’t appear above or just have ideas of what arguments you’d like to see done soon, please leave a comment below.

NEXT TIME: PICK ON SOMEONE YOUR OWN SIZE…

A BALLAD FOR THE PS2

These days, consoles are a rather sticky mess. They’re the necessary evil for those who feel unwilling to pay big bucks on a high-end PC. The Playstation Network gets hacked into more often than a log in a lumberyard, the Xbox One bursts into tears and breaks if you try to do anything more than look at it, and Nintendo appear to have just given up on the Wii U, already starting work on a new box of microchips that presumably won’t have controller hardware designed by a tea tray manufacturer. On top of all this they’re overpriced and restrictive with horrible user interfaces and a line of exclusives that’s more formulaic than Doctor Pepper.

But I suspect that this is about as good as it’s going to get for quite a while. Because the best console was two generations ago, and everyone seems to be neglecting what made it work. Hardly need to guess, do you? Yes, it’s the Playstation 2, Sony’s magnificent octopus (let’s see who gets THAT obscure reference), which set the bar for consoles at the time and was generally fantastic.

Not to say that everybody liked it, and I can think of one group of people who didn’t straight away – the Sega Corporation. Sony released the PS2 in March 2000, at which point sales for the Sega Dreamcast dropped like a cartoon anvil. The Dreamcast had only been out for two years, but the Xbox and GameCube hadn’t even been released yet, so the mighty PS2 was basically responsible for kicking the ladder out from underneath Sega’s final console. Within eighteen months of the Playstation’s release into the stores and homes of the world, the Dreamcast was discontinued in quiet sadness, much like the Sega Saturn before it.

The combination of two console failures seemed to break Sega as a company. Flagging profits, poor third-party support and rumours of disagreement at the upper echelons basically pushed them back to making games for other companies from then on.

So the PS2 had hit the ground running with blood in its teeth, but why was it doing this well? It was partly because the original Playstation had helped set it up, but it didn’t hurt that it had a massive advertising campaign that spanned the globe. Not to mention that backwards compatibility meant that those who bought it would know that their old games weren’t useless – remember what a nice feeling that was? Thus everyone who owned the original seemed pretty happy to buy the upgraded model. Ka-ching.

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Everybody – take off your hats in honour of this fallen hero.

To my mind, though, the big opening move that did them so much good was the DVD player. This was the first console that could play these new-fangled disc thingies, and would be the only one for a while. The GameCube and the Dreamcast had no idea what to do with such media, probably assuming they were some fragile form of coaster, and even the Xbox, released over a year later, would need an extra accessory to be able to read them properly.

But the PS2 could handle them right out of the gate, and that wasn’t nothing, especially when trying to get these consoles out to those who wouldn’t normally be interested in gaming. The Playstation 2 didn’t cost much more than a normal DVD player did, so picture this: you’re an average joe with a little disposable income and you’re out in an electronics store (back when you bought this kind of stuff in a physical store), with your heart set on a DVD player. But paying an extra twenty quid could allow you to get one, bundled with the brand new games console that all the cool kids are talking about…

Might as well, right?

And so the PS2 was suddenly a must-have both for the aspiring gamer and the film geek who likes their affordable home movie theatres. Sales just got ratcheted up another notch.

But all this is not to say that the actual launch was all onions and gravy. A lot of people were unimpressed with the lacklustre line-up of games for the PS2 when it came out, and it would have to make do with titles that were basically “good enough” like Timesplitters, a half-baked version of Unreal Tournament and the port of an arcade Tekken game.

However, this lasted it until Christmas and then to 2001, when a batch of high-profile, commercially successful games were released and really started making people sit up and take notice. Metal Gear Solid 2, Grand Theft Auto III, Tony’s Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, Silent Hill 2…The list goes on, filled with games that are still beloved today.

But we haven’t addressed the crux of the issue – this has all made the PS2 successful, but it hasn’t necessarily made it good. After all, heroin, The Big Bang Theory and Burger King all seem to be pretty popular, but that doesn’t make them worth much.

No, what made the PS2 superb was a commitment to third-party support, and being in the right place and the right time for the perfect level of technology for developers.

See, back then Sony understood that a games console is nothing more than a medium through which people want to play the actually interesting stuff. Nobody wanted a PS2 for its interface or visual appeal, they only bought it because there were video games and DVDs they wanted to try out, and this black and blue cuboid was a mandatory to accomplish that end.

And so, reasoned Sony, the best thing to do was to make sure that those interesting games are as numerous as possible, because that’s the bit that people are interested in. It was pretty tough to manage individual quality, so they just allowed everything and kept asking for more. In fact, a lot of trends got their footing on the Playstation 2 – remember the EyeToy? That thing felt like the embryo from which both the Wii and the Kinect grew, for better or worse. And though it was done basically as a response to the Xbox doing it later, Sony started selling adapters to play games online in 2002. Another big fad is born, the idea of online console gaming.

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… A chill rushes through the room. This is where the nightmare began.

Not that allowing every game and gimmick ever made onto your console is a move without risk. If everybody is submitting ideas, you run the risk of being the vanguard of a huge wave of crap games. One of the reasons that the Games Crash Of 1984 happened was an oversaturated market filled with sub-par titles, turning people off the medium altogether.

And sure, there were some shitty games on the PS2. Anybody who owned one probably got unlucky at least once or twice, I know I did. But with this new internet thing rapidly growing at the time and more review magazines for fans to read, it became pretty easy for high-quality games to bubble to the top and gain recognition. If critics liked a game by this new company nobody’s heard of yet named “Team Ico,” then sooner or later those who pay even a small amount of attention will hear about it.

So Sony went to work expanding their games library, perhaps as a sign of apology for the restrictive line-up they began with, and they did this very well. By the time the Playstation 2 was finally laid to rest in 2013, over a whole decade after it was invented, it had almost four thousand games under its ample belt. By comparison, the PS4 has about a quarter of that. Now, that’s not too bad considering that it’s only been out for about three years at time of writing, but consider this – there are more developers today than ever, so shouldn’t there be more games than that, as the proportions increase? Not only that, but what happened to the diversity and originality that made the PS2 library so colourful?

For that, we have to look at the mechanics of it again. At the time, the PS2 was starting to knock against the final barriers of technological representation, by which I mean that most of the things you could imagine could now be portrayed on it, as the processors were powerful enough. It might look a bit angular and polygonish (that’s a word now), but you could present nearly anything, hence the increase in new ideas coming out.

Hell, it was in this generation that the open-world sandbox – now a staple of mainstream game design – really began to catch on and become something plausible. Metroidvania games had been aspiring to the same sort of thing in 2D before then, but now it was within people’s reach to make a big city full of stuff to play with. Remember how liberating it felt to swing around in Spider-Man 2? That had only become a possibility for most designers back then.

So with more disk space and better tech to work with, people were getting creative, egged on by Sony to make as many games as possible, who were practically sending around development kits to everybody with two thumbs and a functioning brain. Everyone had a different idea of what the new big trends might be, and so people started putting a LOT of stuff out, with a greater spectrum of genres and styles than a combination Blockbuster Video and hair salon.

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Anybody who says that The Two Towers tie-in game sucks had better be ready to fight behind the bike sheds after school. I’m serious, I’ll go for the eyes if I have to.

But the barrier to entry back then wasn’t as restrictive as it was today. Today you can’t get anything on a major console without either having a huge name behind you (hence the frequently delayed Mighty No.9), or sporting photo-realistic graphics (hence The Order: 1886).

Yet for a lot of people, this isn’t possible. Designers might have a nice little idea that’s worth trying out, but it won’t get much traction on the major consoles if it’s not pretty and superficial. So nowadays it either gets dumped into Steam Early Access or just sent to the recycle bin.

But thankfully, this wasn’t so much of a problem back in the early 2000s. The technology was a lot less powerful, a lot less baffling and Sony might as well have been calling “Avengers, Assemble” when it came to developers, trying to get everybody they could find to make games. Basically, the PS2 was then what the iPhone is today – the springboard for developers who didn’t have the credit for anything more impressive, but was completely accepting of larger projects too. To continue the Marvel metaphor above, they were calling for Hawkeye and the Hulk to join their team.

So the PS2 had the kind of nuanced, experimental and wildly varied library which modern consoles can’t have these days, because the development community wasn’t limited by restrictive genre trends, inflated budgets and unreasonable standards of graphical quality. And yet the second PlayStation was one of the most technologically powerful consoles that had been made at the time, inspiring a creative wave of “what could we do with this” for those in the development business. A lovely midpoint to be in, and one that ended all too soon.

But it seems unlikely that this will be repeated. The only way it seems that this could happen again would be if companies stopped caring about graphical quality (unlikely), if easily-accessible programming equipment for developers overtook the strength of console hardware (very unlikely), and publishers didn’t feel the need to hop onto various bandwagons for the sake of the opportunistic buck (Ha!). God knows what may be happening thirty years from now, but in the near future, we shouldn’t get our hopes up.

… I feel I say that a lot these days.

The thing I find most fascinating is the clear-cut difference in style between the old consoles and the new ones. When I logged onto my old PS2, only two options came up: play the disc inside it or delete some files from storage to make room for more saved games. If you wanted to do anything else, you could fuck off – this was a gaming platform and anybody who wanted to do more could go and find a computer to piddle around on. Alright, we’ll let you play movies now and then, but that’s only on sufferance and we’d better see some time logged in with 007: Nightfire or Godhand later, you follow me?

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Maybe it’s wrong to be nostalgic over a gangland-shooting simulator, but that’s between me and my psychiatrist, thank you very much.

But when I turn on my flatmate’s Xbox One or PS4, I’m getting assaulted with various options, clambering over each other in a slightly distasteful manner. “Ooh, would you like to log into Facebook? Or search for videos online? I’ve got Amazon or Netflix if you want them? Perhaps I could interest you in uploading some photos or making a customised avatar for yourself?

“Wait, what’s that? You want to play a video game? Are you sure? Well, I suppose if you really want to. Let me start installing it, so if you could come back in a couple of hours I’ll just – ACK! OH MY GOD, YOU JUST DISCONNECTED FROM THE INTERNET! ARE YOU ALRIGHT? ARE YOU DEAD? I’M CALLING AN AMBULANCE, THIS IS ALL WRONG! AAAGH! AAAGH!”

Think of it like this. When Microsoft released the Xbox One, they proudly flaunted the second half of its name. It’s called the One because it’s the only device you’ll ever need, they told us. In fact, it’s more an entertainment system than a console.

But all the functions up above, the social media bollocks and video watching stuff? Well… I’ve got all those already. And I’m sure all of you with consoles probably do too. You have a tablet, or a laptop, or a computer, or an iPhone. Hell, most TVs come with Netflix and Amazon installed on them these days. So what’s all this additional nonsense clogging up the consoles for? It might not sound like much, but all these extra functions probably added a fair amount on to the price tag, not to mention using up processor and memory space you could’ve filled with more exploding buildings and RPG characters.

Ah, well. All we can do is play the old games on PC emulators and give a fond thought every now and then to the PS2, that faithful hound that sat by our television, proudly giving us the best experience it could manage. Oh, and you could drop it or knock it over without the thing internally self-destructing, remember that?

Yeah. Good times.

ROCKET LEAGUE REVIEW – “SIMPLE, SHORT, STUPID, SATISFYING”

As a kid I was never really into sports. Partly because I wasn’t any good at them (I lost my first tooth to an errant football planting itself in my face), but also because they all seemed pretty dull, especially when I could just turn on my Game Boy and see monsters killing each other without having to go through the laborious experiences of wearing shorts, or moving anything more strenuous than my eyes and thumbs.

But I did once write a list of things that would liven up football enough for me to watch it, and this included a number of healthy diversions spread across the field, including hidden pitfall traps, a ball that would give a taser shock at random points in the game, and at half time you do the only logical thing and release the panther.

But I wish I knew then what I know now, because I could’ve saved a lot of ink and just written three words: “rocket-powered cars.”

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Subtlety and taste kind of goes out of the window with these customisation options.

Yes, I’ve been playing Rocket League, the spicy, snacky, sporty little game that popped up on Steam one day and refused to pop back down, probably because it was being held aloft by a jet booster. Or perhaps it won’t leave the charts because Rocket League is just good, solid fun, in a very uncomplicated and accessible way.

The set-up is very simple. There is a field. There is a goal at each end of that field. There are two teams of supercars that can use rockets to boost and jump around like gymnasts trying to get noticed by a judging panel. And finally, in the middle, there is a ball. You can probably work out the rest.

No seriously, that’s it. Two teams of cars throw themselves at the giant sphere between them and hope that chaos theory will somehow end up spitting it in the enemy’s goal, because with very little communication going on and no time to type proper instructions beyond pre-programmed little phrases, the best chance you have is to try to shunt everybody else out of the way, teammates included, and punt the ball up the field before somebody else can ruin it for you.

What I like about Rocket League is that it knows how to keep the pace up. The cars can all get from one end of the pitch to the other in about half a millisecond, the ball bounces like a space hopper doing a charity bungee jump, the games only last five minutes and even though cars explode if rammed fast enough, the respawn time is so quick that you can be back in the game before your former vehicle has finished raining on the ground in red-hot pieces.

And all this means that Rocket League is a good game for adrenaline junkies, especially when you start doing epic tricks like driving up the side of the walls on the edge of the pitch, or activating your boost mid-jump to fly forward like you’re auditioning for Iron Man. The sheer pandemonium and intentionally unwieldy controls means that your tactics will probably fail, but considering you can barely get around without barrel-rolling through the air, sheer probability means that every goal made can’t help but look superb in the instant replay, as you soar forward, farting a trail of glowing red smoke behind you like a hawk crossbred with an emergency flare.

That said, I do have some issues with Rocket League, issues significant enough that we’re just going to have to stay friends rather than getting married. The camera is probably the biggest bugbear. I’ve no objection in being able to toggle between the regular front-facing angle and the camera turning to face the ball, but both of them have their faults. You either can’t see where you’re going or you can’t see where you’re supposed to be going. This might be nullified if the camera would pull back more, allowing a wider view of the field, but for some reason it stays so close to the car that I can practically see the seat stains left by the couple who were making out in the back earlier.

Oh, and I’m not big on Rocket League’s bots. When some joyless prat decides he’s had enough of losing and quits the game (which seems to happen a hell of a lot), he gets replaced by an AI that seems to have all the driving skill and prowess of a crippled Canadian goose. One time I saw a bot-controlled car perform a perfect dribble up the field, running the ball expertly into the net at the end. Just a shame it was his own teams’ goal.

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This car comes with off-road tires, a V8 engine, and the ability to turn Spider-Man all emo and mopey. Or am I thinking of something else?

I also wonder how long Rocket League can last for the average individual. After all, my biggest problem with multiplayer modes in general is that they feel like the inevitable decay of humanity personified. When you start playing them they’re brimming with life, unexplored territory and new challenges to overcome. Then you finish all the material and become a little more cynical, a little less fun to be around, using all the techniques that guarantee you to win without remembering why you enjoyed playing it in the first place. And finally, when you’ve squeezed every drop of enjoyment you’re likely to get from it, you toss it to one side and it’s never thought about again.

The big deciding factor is the length of that first stage, and that’s why this game worries me. Sure, there’s none of the multiplayer garbage I dislike, such as having to earn equipment or getting more powerful as you level up, but there’s nothing to replace it either. No map editor, no obstacle courses, no racetracks or proper campaigns beyond a series of context-free games and the ability to tweak the physics slightly. Admittedly they just released a few new arenas, but they’re all kind of rubbish and this was the first thing of significance from a game first sent out in July last year. The best thing you can do is just pick up and wait to get bored.

And to be fair, I haven’t reached that point yet. So far I’ve been playing for eleven hours, on and off, and there’s enough raw fun that I keep coming back to it. Perhaps that’s the joy to be had in collecting TF2-style cosmetics for my car, like customisable jet streams and helmets straight out of an Asterix book, or maybe it’s just the satisfaction of thundering around smashing into people who don’t see me coming until they’re fiery wreckage in my wake, but whatever that magical little quality is, Rocket League certainly has “it.” It’s fun and stupid and colourful, and though it’s rather unvaried in content it makes for a good game to play with friends. Especially considering it’s the first game I played in ages to have splitscreen local multiplayer; a rare feat in this day and age.

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Is it me, or does this ice keep making cracking noises?

It’s funny I mentioned Team Fortress 2 earlier, because that’s what Rocket League reminds me of. A simple, fun little time-killer that’s best when experienced with friends, but perfectly serviceable on its own. The kind of game I play when I don’t have anything else I’m interested in. The only difference is that Valve’s odyssey of hats and gravel is free to play, and Rocket League will use up nearly fifteen pounds of your hard-earned income.

And is it worth it? Yeah, I think so. It’s energetic and exciting enough to allow for a good time, and the developers seem devoted enough to occasionally add new content or types of game mode. Maybe I’ll bore of it sooner or later, but my gut instinct tells me that it’ll probably be later – and that’s far better than most games manage these days.


 

7/10

Rocket League is a game that’ll be enjoyed by all, but probably doesn’t quite go far enough to earn genuine love, not without some more features added in or a sense of purpose. But there is a legitimately fun game at the core here, so pick it up if you feel you could use more backflips and explosions in your life

XCOM 2 REVIEW – “I’M BACK, BABY!”

Consider, if you will, the surprise sequel to the beloved iconic series. A glorious franchise which everyone is permanently nostalgic about returns after a long period of absence to surprise the world, and then proceeds to surprise us all again by actually being good. There’s examples like Toy Story 3, The Force Awakens and Rayman Origins, but now we have another to add to the list – XCOM 2. That’s the eleventh XCOM game, but maths is pretty hard. Or maybe this is a reboot, in which case it should still be XCOM 3 after that boring shooter business and OH FINE I’LL SHUT UP.

The previous title, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, came out in the dark days of 2012, as a reinvention of the old alien-popping PC series of the 1990s. In Enemy Unknown, a batch of E.T.s invade the earth and you hold them off with a squad of six grunts in bulky flak jackets, which get swapped out for power armour as you pinch more Klingon technology and adapt it for yourself. It’s all turn-based, tactical, testicle-twistingly-tough good fun.

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“You! Put your hands on your head and don’t even think about going Super-Saiyan!”

And it’s back for more, it seems. Turns out that all those player failures in the last game have been considered canonical, as we return to Earth twenty years later and it’s been completely conquered by the bastards we spent so much time trying to kick off the planet. They’re running a global sci-fi dystopia with soldiers on every street corner and enough government propaganda to fill a dozen copies of the Westport Independent every hour.

And the fragmented remains of the XCOM organisation aren’t going to stand for that. The rather exciting tutorial shows your white-bread sidekick from the first game breaking into an alien base to break you free, whereupon you’re brought back to their mobile spaceship base and told to do something about this cosmic menace before you’ve even pulled the disturbingly large microchip out of your brain.

So right away we see a reversal of fortunes. The combat boot is now very much on the other seven-toed foot, as before you had the backing of the world’s governments and just had to stop these little blighters at the door, shooting anything that came within a light year of the Earth’s orbit. But now they’re in power and you’re the invaders, struggling to build a scrappy resistance as you fly across the world to the various pockets of dissent, begging for money and resources like a hobo in a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier.

And I like it. It’s a good way to keep the same sort of mechanics whilst putting a new spin on them, as now everything’s gone a bit guerrilla warfare. Whilst stealth in the previous game was a far-fetched dream that died the second anybody entered your postcode, now sneaking is a central mechanic in which you navigate around the baddies’ sightlines before coming up for an explosive ambush, an experience so satisfying that most people are likely to walk away with erections like broomsticks. Yes, even the women.

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Somewhere, an alien’s head has just burst like a balloon. Yay!

There’s also a bunch of new things you can do whilst fighting off the minions of ADVENT, all of which nicely fits the ragged “Band Of Brothers” theme. You can hack doors and devices around the battlefield for an advantage, grab any pieces of tech that you see dropped by your enemies, and if one of your soldiers gets knocked out, you’ll have to physically carry him back to the EVAC point. Otherwise the innumerable Turian forces will scoop him up and he’ll wake up in a tank filled with green fluid, probably with enough torture devices pointed at him to make the Spanish Inquisition feel queasy.

But the game isn’t perfect, as nothing is. First and foremost, the big problem is that the optimisation isn’t great. Actually, it’s pretty rubbish, especially considering the engine is given all the time in the world between turns to figure out what it needs to do next and how frame rates work. Characters would occasionally shoot through objects or get punched by a brute on the other side of a wall, and both before I’d unlocked psychic powers to justify it. And loading times were even worse – I saw my team sitting in the back of the transport ship for so long that I’m pretty sure I’m entitled to frequent flyer miles. Maybe that’ll be an irrelevant snipe six months from now, when patches have brought it up to snuff, but come on. How hard is it to just release a game when it’s actually finished? They already delayed it once, and might as well have just tacked an extra fortnight onto the end to bring it up to ship-shape condition.

Or – and here’s another thought – why not add a whole extra month to the release date and get some decent voice acting in there? Sidekick Bucky Barnes from the first game is perfectly fine, in a forgettable and inoffensive way, but the new heads of engineering and research are atrocious, reading their lines like they’re in a primary school play about plasma guns and the fun of autopsies. And though this is a pretty minor gripe about characters whose only real job is to have their head balance on the top of a drop-down box, there’s more of a narrative focus on social interaction with the player in this game than there was in the last one. Fair enough, but the end result is that I can’t help but wish that Firaxis would do a Destiny on us, and quietly hire Nolan North and a couple of other professionals to redo the lines properly.

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As you can see, character customisation is generally fine. But with those kind of stats, the illusion of it being me is broken somewhat…

But thankfully X2 knows what it’s doing in all other forms of sound design, which is good. It’s an important part of atmospheric setting that’s frequently under-utilised in video games, but here we see it made the most of in order to keep immersion going. Enemies make satisfying thuds when they hit the ground, music keeps the tension high and the static-riddled communication between the troops as they creep around an alien platoon all adds to a sense of heightened drama.

There’s also more depth when it comes to soldier modelling, so I instantly did what I normally do when given character customisation and tried to recreate myself. The diversity of options isn’t great, especially when compared to something like Saints Row 4 or Fallout 4, but it doesn’t matter too much as I feel anybody who’s come to XCOM for Barbie doll dress-up is here for the wrong reason.

I also like the new steps in visual design, a lot more than the old ones. A team of folks in power armour in the old game looked like a group of action figures rather than human beings, but now there’s a real sense of care taken to how things look. This probably comes across most with entities like the new berserker, or the strangely scary sectoid, both of which look like they want to drag you into a dungeon with Buffalo Bill and see what the other side of your eyes look like. Or just hit you for half an hour, if it’s the former.

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“Um… Guys? Anybody? I don’t want to fight Clayface on my own…”

I will say though that the game has lost some of the lethal difficulty of its predecessors. It’s not unchallenging by any means, but when I finally reached the end of the campaign after a thirty-hour stretch, I found myself strangely disappointed. Admittedly there are higher difficulty settings, but even on easy mode, an older game like Enemy Unknown would stick a gun in your mouth and tell you that it’d pull the trigger if you couldn’t whistle Flight Of The Bumblebee perfectly, and in C minor to boot. XCOM 2 does the same thing, but it’s not long before you realise that it’s actually holding a potato gun, and that it only wants to hear Baa Baa, Black Sheep in a tone of your choice. As a matter of fact, the difficulty tends to curve downwards, as your soldiers rank up and you start acquiring more lethal tech. The enemy threat does accelerate, but certainly not at the same rate if you know what you’re doing.

But like I said, there are difficulty options for this, and on the whole I find myself very enamoured by XCOM 2. It works hard to do something new whilst still holding the old game as a basic template, and almost manages to attain the same level of elegance in its design.

So should you get it? Yes, most definitely. It’s fun, it’s tense, and it’s willing to give you the freedom to run your whole campaign off a cliff. Oh, and it’s priced at thirty-five pounds, rather than fifty. That alone is reason to celebrate it.


9/10

Firaxis’ new game is the natural evolution of the previous one, and though in some ways it falls slightly short, Mo Farah is also slow if you compare him to Usain Bolt. On its own terms XCOM 2 is a real winner, and deserves to be treated as such.

DUKE NUKEM FOREVER REVIEW – “AS BAD AS YOU REMEMBER”

With the news that Duke Nukem 3D has just turned 20, it seems timely that I should be reviewing… The far later entry, Duke Nukem Forever. After all, what can be said about the former that isn’t enormously obvious from the first ten minutes of gameplay or the occasional glance at a screenshot? Monsters look like cardboard cut-outs on lazy susans, the game allows you to kick people like a can-can dancer and it’s so nineties gaming that it’s almost self-explanatory.

But the 2011 revival of the classic franchise provides an interesting talking point. Duke Nukem Forever was in on-and-off development for over a decade before it was finally released to the public, and promptly shat on by most of those who played it. But when I looked at it recently I couldn’t help but notice that the Steam reviews seemed a lot more generous than I remembered everybody being five years ago. Mostly positive, eh? Could it be that the sense of wounded betrayal and disappointment in the audience at the time had all gone to taint our perceptions of this game, to the point where we felt the need to judge it more harshly? It wouldn’t be the first time that hype and an epic legacy had pushed the audience to demand unrealistic standards from something.

So I booted up DNF for the first time the other day, and turned it back off several hours later, feeling slightly ill at what I’d experienced. No, we were right the first time. This is an appalling waste of matter that deserves only to be buried far beneath the earth.

The campaign starts with a re-tread of the final boss fight of the previous game, with our beefy, brainless hero Duke beating up a one-eyed monster with only his gigantic balls of steel, alien rocket launcher and space-hopper sharp wit. Well, that’s not entirely true. The game actually starts with a first-person look at Duke pissing in a urinal, which I now suspect to be a subtle warning from a noble developer who was trying to get people to stop then and there.

But regardless, Duke defeats Cyclops-Steve after a very boring fight where you basically do nothing but strafe and hold down the right trigger; before we then cut to Duke twelve years later, having failed to age a day or even change outfits, living in a personalised skyscraper filled with his various accolades and being given a blowjob (thankfully off-screen) by two squeaky-voiced blow-up dolls in schoolgirl outfits alleging to be human woman.

So right away we see several problems. The terrifyingly misogynistic attitude gets worse as the game goes on (more on that later), but Duke himself is fairly loathsome from the word go. He’s callous, arrogant, cocky, aggressive, stupid and one-dimensional, but frustratingly nobody seems to realise it because he’s just so inherently great at everything he does. His walls are covered in tacky gold statues of himself, giant awards he’s won for his ability to wear sunglasses indoors without bumping into things, and various framed newspaper covers of him being generally fantastic. Odd that nobody realised the errors in his character here. Aside from the fact that anybody who lives in a tower stylised around himself and wrote a book entitled “Why I’m So Great” is always going to be kind of revolting, it has to be said that Mister Nukem having no personality or human flaws besides “I rule, you suck” made me end up rooting for the aliens at first.

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Duke’s enemies are almost as deformed and evil as he is. I wonder if there’s potential for a romantic sub-plot in the next game?

And the general story is no better. The aforementioned E.T.s show up and begin causing general havoc, so it’s up to Duke to save the day because… Actually, why is it only us? Fate, I suppose, or did Duke just threaten to flex to death anybody who stopped him being the main character?

The game also makes stabs at comedy every now and then, in the sense that it tries to stab the concept to death where it stands. Which was your least favourite joke? Was it Duke living on floor sixty-nine of the tower, or the fact that you can spend over-long animations punching an enemy in the testicles or slapping breasts growing out of a wall?

Perhaps the most awkward of these jokes were DNF’s pathetic attempts to undermine other shooter franchises. One bloke moans about having to help some whiner find his missing wife, just before Duke Nukem himself turns down the green Masterchief helmet with the phrase “power armour is for pussies.” Yeah, what moron would want developed character motivation or a hero that doesn’t spit bile with every line? I’m not saying Gears Of War or Halo were impeachable, but they were a damn site better than this pile of sputum, which makes mocking them even more embarrassing. At one point early on, an electronic door asks you to find a keycard, at which point Duke rolls his eyes and just wrenches it open with his freakishly-muscular hands, ho-ho-ho. But five minutes later we’re being made to find three power cells to open another door with no irony whatsoever. I feel this game is obeying the letter and not the spirit of the law, you know what I mean?

And of course there’s the sexist angle. Sure, watching all the women basically get reduced to cock-hungry bimbos is pretty miserable to see, but even from those depths the game finds a way to spiral downwards. Maybe I’m just becoming a crotchety old fool who can’t keep up with the drugs and rap music of today, but I doubt I’m alone on this – seeing the supposed “hero” quip about dozens of women getting raped by aliens and fatally exploding when the newly hatched larvae burst out of their bodies? That made me feel physically sick, and incredibly angry. It was like watching Ridley Scott’s Alien, if Scott had been an unhinged lunatic who found the body mutilation all very funny. And if that wasn’t all, the game encourages you to gun down other imprisoned, enemy-pregnant women before they can birth the monsters and put you in peril. So we literally have a game mechanic made out of shooting defenceless women put in the most hideous situation ever thought of. Fucking Christ.

I do wonder exactly what was going through the writers’ heads when they wrote this. The scribblings of a psychopath with a basement full of dead hookers would seem rational compared to that awful scene, which, by the way, was what caused me to turn it off for the first time. I couldn’t stomach any more in one playthrough, which is pretty noteworthy if nothing else.

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There were some pictures to illustrate how horrific the scenes were, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to submit you all to them. Here’s a nice, colourful picture of the game Rocket League instead.

So Duke Nukem Forever’s story is a splatter of infected diarrhoea on the bathroom wall of modern culture, but what about the gameplay?

Well, it’s not as bad as the plot – mainly because nothing could be, besides mass genocide – but it’s boring at best and eye-rolling at worst. For twelve years of planning, it seems strange that they thought of sod-all that could make this game worth playing. Perhaps what made the finger-raising at other franchises so odd is the fact that Duke has almost nothing to throw in their faces. No equivalent of the Gravity Gun, the skyrail system or the Bulletstorm whip, no vehicles that I didn’t dread getting into, no superpowers, no interesting gadgets, nothing. Hell, if anything it feels like it’s been compromised to the games of today, with cover-shooting, two weapons slots, turrets that overheat and health that regenerates. Duke Nukem Forever, you can’t make fun of modern games, you BECAME one of them, and one of the worst games going at that.

Which isn’t to say that there’s no signs of life. Every now and then this dead horse twitches a little, though goes limp again straight after. I vaguely approved of the interactivity of the environment, and the fact that certain actions, like looking in the mirror, can increase your ego (read health) bar. It’s a clever little feature, though some of these actions take way too long and ruin the pacing. The snooker table was the worst one, because you have to knock every ball into the holes with a really unwieldy control system and no way to alter the power of your shots, and if you pot the white ball just once, you have to restart the whole thing.

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Duke Nukem Forever’s reactive environment provides many opportunities to remind yourself of what you already know. Here’s something I made earlier.

There’s also the occasional puzzle, by which I mean a really obvious thing that you do to continue, with a solution that is clear the moment all the pieces are in place. It’s funny I mentioned the Gravity gun, because a lot of them do have the tinge of a cut-price Half-Life 2 to them, what with the use of physics and environmental objects. There’s also the occasional bit of precision platforming and sequences where Duke gets shrunk to the size of an action figure, but they don’t do anything worth mentioning and are forgotten about the second they’re over.

But whether you’re fighting charging pigmen or generic alien figures with lasers, you’ll notice the difficulty curve resembles a rollercoaster designed by Escher. For most of the game it’s insultingly easy, as all weapons seem equally overpowered and ammo is lying around everywhere like it’s a Texan Christmas. Most of the single-use power-ups I found I didn’t end up trying, as I was doing fine without them.

But every now and then you have to fight a boss, which is where the challenge spikes unpredictably and with no real reason. Not because it’s hard, just unfair design. The alien queen, encountered on my second session, was the most annoying example of this. You can’t hurt her with anything other than explosives, there’s no cover to take shelter and she has all the cheapest attacks going – summoning smaller enemies who hold you in place, attacks that knock you on your arse, and one of the game’s many technical faults means you can’t hurt her when she’s performing certain attack animations. It also didn’t help that the frame rate dropped whenever I tried to do anything more elaborate than shoot one bullet at a stationary enemy, but let it not be said that the NPCs aren’t trying to do their part. Many of them have gone without textures to help the less fortunate, presumably donating them to enemies in other, better games. Oh, and at one point I was meant to be trapped inside a small construction site shack for an exciting, claustrophobic experience, but glitched outside by just walking at the wall, watching with bemusement as the enemy smashed their way into an empty structure.

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I’m not one to care about graphics much, and yet I still find myself fairly depressed by this.

I could go on with the list I made of the thousand annoyances and offensive ideas to be found here, like the overlong rail-shooter scene or the fact that the night-vision blinds you every time you turn it on, but I’m going to take a step back and try to see the overall problem, because suddenly it became very clear to me when I saw another game in my Steam library.

Do you remember in my Wolfenstein review when I said that The New Order feels like the best of both modern and old shooters combined? Well, Duke Nukem Forever feels the worst of them. From the old generation we have the horrible hero, plot and attitudes, whereas from the modern era we have dull, linear gameplay that’s either insultingly easy or unfair by design. And with this kind of cross-breeding you can only get something really misshapen at the end, kind of like Duke’s steroid-infused torso.

Thus what we have here is a game designed by a team with the apparent attitude of a badly-raised thirteen-year old boy, appealing to a diminished market from the 1990s and managing to be generally horrible to play on top of all that. So yes – we were right the first time. Kind of makes you wonder why the rights to the franchise have been so hotly contested recently, but whatever – I don’t think anybody will be going near the next game after this debacle.


 

1/10

It goes without saying that there’s nothing really praiseworthy about Duke Nukem Forever, but it’s rare that a game manages to go the other way and become actively loathsome. Failing on a technical, design and narrative level, the story of this detestable jock and his constant need to stand in the way of good taste makes me staggered that this was a game with any time put into it at all, let alone twelve years.

THE WESTPORT INDEPENDENT REVIEW – “STOP THE PRESSES, THIS ONE NEEDS EDITING”

Yes, dystopian censorship may be rotten, and sure, the erosion of civil liberties through constant societal reinforcement of broad, safe-sounding but ultimately problematic legislations based in well-meaning but ill-considered attempts to protect others from the ultimately negligible problem of offence might be a right pain in the arse, and alright, there may be some elements of restriction on our freedom of speech creeping unnoticed into Britain today, such as a certain 1986 Public Order Act or a frequently suggested proposal of banning religious criticism at the UN that both hang over our collective heads like the Twin Swords Of Damocles, always threatening to cut the ever vital cord between personal thought and public expression that enables true advancement and intellectual debate for the purposes of –

Hold on, I think my political views might be bleeding through into my work ever so slightly. Let me start again.

Whatever your opinion on the limits of censorship, I’m sure we’ve all had that slightly uncomfortable feeling of self-loathing when we’ve had to lie about something that’s important to us, or when we’ve not been brave enough to speak up when somebody needed to say something. Well, developers Double Zero One Zero have decided to digitise that emotion with The Westport Independent, a new game for mobiles that I promptly downloaded into my iPad to try out, though it is also floating around on Steam, apparently.

Those of you who know your recent indie games and have seen the screenshots may have made a connection with another notable title back from 2013. After all, The Westport Independent IS a muted colour, pixel-artwork, desk-viewing, paperwork-moving game about making tough choices with broad consequences, in which you work to either appease or undermine a fictional totalitarian government whilst trying to maintain both your own lifestyle and the lifestyles of the four people who rely on you. So yeah, a comparison to THAT game was kind of inevitable.

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Anne, you happy to write about celebrity nipslips again? What do you mean you’re not being intellectually stimulated?

Basically, The Westport Independent might as well be called Newspapers, Please. You sit at a table picking up the stories your journalists have brought in, hacking bits out or rewording the headlines, all to keep the suspicious eye of the Westport Loyalist Government off your back and trying to make ends meet.

And I have to say, it’s an intriguing little idea, one I actually like more than Papers, Please’s passport inspection as ideas go. When a story comes in about the police force hassling the homeless, you could expose this horror in all its damning glory, letting the people know what their rulers have been doing to the more unfortunate among us. Or alternatively, you could decide you don’t want a truncheon in the face and write about how recent statistics now show that the number of people living on the streets are down since last year! Sure, it’s because they’re all buried in unmarked graves, but who needs to know a little detail like that?

Or, if you just want to fly under the radar, you could just print tabloid rubbish about how some celebrity has put on weight recently, and let the grown-ups deal with the actual news, you big wuss.

What I like about The Game With The Really Boring Name is that it’s good at reminding you of what you need to be scared of, good at constantly reminding you of the consequences you should be avoiding. Because when I started off, I was full of rebellious spirit. Yes, boo to Johnny government! Those bigwigs and bureaucrats have trodden on the freedom of the individual for too long! So every story I put out was completely condemning of the ruling forces, with no propaganda and just the bare facts that the public deserved.

And then one of my writers vanished. Just disappeared one day, into the blue. The only explanation I got was a typed letter from my faceless overlords saying that they’d taken my leading reporter into custody – and that they’d be watching to see what we put out for the next few weeks.

Needless to say, I never saw him again. And from that point on, all the stories I wrote became a great deal less fiery in tone. After all, there’s always two sides to every argument, isn’t there?

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Oh, I love this show! I hope they have Wilhelm The Wacky Work Slave on this week!

There’s some other aspects that are worth mentioning. Your staff all have political leanings, some of them like the government and some don’t, and they can get quite upset if you force them to write a big exposition on how the President enjoys eating puppies, or the rebel movement is all for putting nuns in sweatshops. They may even quit (the staff, not the nuns), depending on how you pressure them, and between releasing editions they chatter in the break room, discussing how you, the big boss, have fucked up the news that week.

You can also advertise for different city districts (which the game is REALLY bad at explaining), all of which want to see different things from the news, like celebrity gossip or crime reports. One little feature I liked is that the slogan of the paper changes depending who you focus on, which shows a real sense of care about presentation and maintaining the illusion. Well done to whoever had the thankless job of making all those up – it’s the little things that matter.

However – and there is a big however – the game ends in about the biggest let-down it can, with a conclusion that arrives too fast and is over too quickly. A stream of text scrolls up past the screen, describing how the various districts have been effected by your actions and whether they’ve ended up sitting home watching the propaganda shows, or running through the streets hitting policeman with hammers and shouting about the rise of the worker. And considering this ending happened about an hour after starting the game, it’s hard not to feel a little put out. Maybe the intention is to prompt us to play over and over, but this isn’t a rogue-like. There’s no benefit granted to those trying it on subsequent playthroughs, there’s nothing more to it than that.

I suppose it’s a testament to the quality of the game that I wanted more from it, but for what it’s worth, “North Korean Media Simulator 2016” ends too soon, and not with a bang, but with a whimper. There’s none of the branching narrative and intrigue that Papers, Please had going for it, and I would’ve liked to have seen more happen as the story develops. What about the paper getting picked up as spin doctors for the Loyalist Oppressors, or stumbling on a big conspiracy that goes to the highest rank of the rebellion? This all seems kind of obvious as a means of progressing the game, and yet none of it comes to pass. It just sort of… Stops. A bit like this paragraph is about to do.

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Sooner or later I expect to get this letter for real…

Oh, and it’s pretty damn buggy as games go. The app would often crash as I tried to start it up, it cut out during the ending scene, and I didn’t get any sound from my version of the game, despite going into the settings and moving volume sliders around like a bored DJ.

Don’t let any of this make you think that The Westport Independent isn’t worth at least a look, because on the whole I’d say it just about comes out on the positive side of things. It’s imaginative and poignant as concepts go, but it’s either not brave enough or imaginative enough (ironically) to make the most of a rather unique idea, and definitely could’ve used a few more refinements on both a design and a programming level to bring it up to snuff. What I’d love to see is some sort of sequel or big upgrade, one that pulls up the bootstraps of this small game that’s utterly brimming with potential to be something really good, but until that happens, I can’t say it’s anything more than basically OK. And that’s not just because there’s two men standing behind me with billy-clubs and Alsatians.


 

6/10

A game that could’ve been superb is let down by a lack of initiative, a shocking runtime and some rather glaring technical issues that need fixing fast. Some more material and a hearty patch could easily push this up to an eight, developers.

THE WITCHER 3: WILD HUNT REVIEW – “WHO DOESN’T LOVE SEX AND VIOLENCE?”

Right then – The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. No preamble, no introduction, this is a sodding big game with a hell of a lot to discuss, so let’s get straight into it without any of the ethereal, “ooh, look at me do a big fancy set-up” malarkey. I’m not even going to do a joke about the fact that the subtitle sounds like rhyming slang, that’s how determined I am to get at this quickly.

So, Geralt Of Rivia is back in the third and final installment of the big-name adaptation of a polish fantasy series, growlier and grizzlier than ever. Gerry himself is the aforementioned witcher, a freelance monster hunter whose day job involves showing up in villages, asking if they need any bogeymen killing, then hunting the beastie down and stabbing it to death with one of two swords. Then he collects a paycheck and moves on to the next settlement. The reason he can do this so well is because he’s the best human being that ever lived, a combination of Aragorn and Wolverine by way of a hard-bitten private detective and a bucket of gravel.

I do really like this mission statement as a core concept though, and the monster hunting missions are probably the best part of the game. Geralt investigates the scene of the crime, identifies the monster from certain clues, then tracks it down and defeats it either with a bit of swordfighting, or finding the exploit needed to banish it to the afterlife. And all the uglies you’ve got to assassinate are quite imaginatively designed, in a grim and ghastly kind of way. Sure, there’s the staples of violent fantasy enemies, like werewolves, zombies and golems, but there’s also some really fascinating concepts being added to the formula. The one that stuck with me was a type of malevolent spirit that can only come from the body of a miscarried child. As dark and horrifying as it was, it was certainly more interesting than having to kill yet another silly necromancer with futile dreams of immortality. I think I’ve killed so many dark wizards in fantasy RPGs that the profession must be in dire need of a recruitment drive.

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Who’s that Pokemon?

Oh yeah, Wild Hunt is an RPG, though not to any greatly important degree. You can power up certain spells and types of melee attack as you level, but generally the best strategy is to just decide which attack patterns you find most fun and then just start pumping all your points into that until you’re guaranteed to win. I found equipment to be much more important than Gerry’s personal stats, and that basically came to just swapping out gear every time I grabbed or crafted something that had green numbers instead of red ones. And when you buy the spell that causes enemies to fight for you then the game has very few challenges left, besides a few boss fights where they have the sense not to go shiving allies just because you asked nicely.

Fighting is a bit like a more maneuverable Assassin’s Creed, crossbred with the light-armour character build from Dark Souls. You slash your way across the battlefield, parrying when you can and rolling away when you can’t, occasionally throwing out spells and bombs if things start getting hairy. It’s just that there’s a few problems with it, the big one being that Geralt is strangely unwieldy, even out of combat. He always overshoots when he’s running somewhere and never seems to be facing the right enemy, instead locking on to some useless sidekick. And parrying is tricky enough to be essentially pointless against anything that isn’t a regular bandit with a sword, as it’s impossible to say when you should parry, whether it would work against that attack, and if doing so will leave your bearded arse stunned or not. I’d get used to rolling around like a wheel of cheese if I were you.

Of course, you could take time to prep for fights. Once you’ve fought a creature or read about it in a book somewhere, you can look it up in Geralt’s personal monster manual to see what it’s weak against. So if you fought a jam elemental last week and you know there’s one coming up, you can thumb through to its IMDB page and see that it would help beat it if you started putting butter on your sword, as well as using some spells created by the devious sorcerer Lord Warburton Hovis.

This research angle was an idea I found curiously satisfying, rewarding intelligence and forethought, not to mention reinforcing the concept that this is something our hero does for a living. The problem is that it doesn’t account for much, certainly not as much as I’d hoped. “Weakness” translates to a 10% damage increase from certain spells and single-use items, which was so insignificant as stats go that I usually didn’t bother. Every now and then you’d find an enemy that would need those exploits, like a ghoul that was invincible until you cast a certain enchantment on it, but these fights were a minority and I found myself wishing the Big Book O’ Bad Guys had been more important for survival.

But that assumes that you spend the whole game doing your Witcher day job, which probably isn’t true. The main story concerns Geralt searching for his adopted daughter Ciri, who has even better superpowers than his and for this reason is constantly being chased by a bunch of evil viking knights who want to harness her power. Along the way you’ll get dragged through a cavalcade of memorable locations and meet enough people to populate a large island, most of whom just happen to be busty women with strong personalities, magical abilities, low-cut tops and irrepressible libidos. What a strange coincidence.

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I hope this creature has a nest that needs killing. That way I get time-and-a-half.

As mocking as that sounded, it’s not poorly written by any means. I actually really like the storytelling in Wild Hunt, as it blends a certain style of creativity with nuanced characters and ethical complexity, though admittedly there are a few aspects I’m unimpressed by. There’s a dark-haired love interest who was less fun to be around than a tapeworm, and I’m bored of seeing generic racism sub-plots with elves and dwarves in fantasy games; but on the whole Witcher 3 comes out very much on top when it comes to writing, using the rather generic, bog-standard setting as a springboard for more impactful ideas and the personal arcs achieved by its colourful cast.

Mind you, the good writing doesn’t mean it’s always simple to follow, as Wild Hunt assumes, perhaps reasonably, that you played the previous two games before it. I’d only ever played the first one and briefly at that, so I found myself having to frequently click out to the biographies menu just to know who I was trying to sleep with that day. I didn’t even find out what the mythical Wild Hunt actually was until about two thirds of the way through the game, as it clearly assumed I knew already. “What, can’t you keep up? Haven’t done your homework? Well, we are going to make damn sure you regret it.”

And whilst I’m complaining about the game not telling you stuff, Witcher 3 has a nasty habit of throwing the occasional choice in your face without telling you exactly what you’re choosing. I’ve nothing against consequence, but it’s a bit raw if you don’t tell me what exactly it is I’m picking, even in the short term.

The worst offender was monetary matters. Being a fantasy ghostbuster, Geralt gets paid by people pretty frequently, but for some reason dialogue trees won’t usually tell you how much money you’re getting offered. At one point I had to choose between taking a big cash reward whilst upsetting a friend, or turning it down on principle and keeping the relationship intact. I figured I’d take the gold, hoping that I wouldn’t need to do side quests for a while and could just focus on story missions with enough to coin to keep in the black. But it turned out after I made the choice that the money I was being given amounted to about a fifth of what I already owned, and the pasty girl still had the gall to whine at me over a transaction that probably wouldn’t have paid for a single visit to the armour shop. I would’ve gambled it to make more, but playing poker doesn’t seem to be a real thing in Temeria any more. Instead, everybody’s playing with Pokémon cards. Yes, I’m being completely serious.

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OK, I know I sound like a broken record, but we can check the genitals a couple more times?

It’s called Gwent, and basically it’s a really boring card game that seems to have taken the land by storm for some reason. There’s a bunch of side quests and tournaments related to it, but I avoided all of them after my first attempt playing almost put me to sleep. I’ve nothing against card games, I like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering, but Gwent is rather shallow and dull by comparison. All I can say is that there’s an absurd humour to watching thieves and murderers in scary taverns arguing over attack power and trading little pieces of paper with no irony whatsoever.

To conclude with, Witcher 3 is an odd duck, as it’s a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. What do I mean by that? Well, Wild Hunt should be a solid 7 on a purely logical analysis. It’s a fine set-up with a good narrative and visual artwork that’s hampered somewhat by flabby design, a little unrealised potential, fairly dodgy optimisation and a lot of Americans doing British accents – yes, we CAN always tell.

But I can’t deny that despite all of these things I kept running back to the Witcher for more. After the tedium of the first game I wasn’t expecting much, but Wild Hunt manages to click in just the right way, fitting together as elegantly as a jigsaw and becoming rather spectacular for it. It has problems, but they’re all kind of inoffensive and it works so hard to overcome them that I can’t stay mad at it for long. As compliments go that’s kind of patronising, but I can’t think of another way of putting it. I’m all grumbly and cross about frame rates and minor plot details, but then I’ll come over a hill and see the gorgeous view of a detailed world before me, the silhouette of a griffin arcing through the sky in the distance, and I think “oh, OK. I’ll shut up now.”

So Wild Hunt won me over in a big way. I guess third time really is the charm.


 

9/10

As much as it shows a certain roughness around the edges, The Witcher 3 is a fine example of a game with as much spirit, passion and honest-to-goodness excitement as something like this deserves. If a little less precision is the price to be paid for something as hugely ambitious as this, that seems to be a price worth paying every now and then.

ARE WE GO FOR POKéMON: GO?

So Pokémon: Go probably comes out this year, and considering how things might go (ha freaking ha) this could be one of the biggest phone apps that’s been released in a while. For those of you who are unaware, Nintendo has started to throw its hat into the mobile arena – read here for the probable reasons why – and one of the pioneers of that movement is Pokémon: Go, all the fun of the classic franchise brought to your iPhone or Android or whatever.

Basically, it’s all GPS based, trying to realise the spirit of the games as best as it can. As you wander around day to day, you’ll occasionally get a bleep on your phone telling you that if you walk five minutes to your left there’ll be something you can catch. Then you fight it in the time-honoured tradition, attempt to snag it inside a ball, and if you succeed you can fight other Pokémon with it. You can even trade them with other players or fight those players yourself in classic Ash Ketchum style.

There is a stupid, goofy charm to this idea, I won’t deny that. For all their fussing about with Streetpass features and Pokéwalkers, Nintendo has never quite managed to pull the series forward in the way that it’s needed for a while now, but this might be what truly moves it to a new and interesting place. The idea of walking through Hyde Park and being set upon by a pidgey, or walking down Brighton beach and seeing some goldeen appear? Yeah, that’s ridiculous and silly, but it’s also kind of wonderful for someone who spent their whole childhood working their way through the games with almost studious attention.

 

If there was ever an accessory likely to get you bullied at school, this is it. The price tag should just read “the sum total of your lunch money for the next three years.”

Which isn’t to say it will all go smoothly. As a matter of fact, at the moment I’m kind of worried about this game, because it feels like it’s going to take a sharp left before it hits Superb Street and instead go down that dark little dead-end cul-de-sac known as Micropayment Alley, where narrowed eyes watch you from every corner and there’s a toll booth every ten feet.

Well, I say “it feels like”, but there’s no “feels” to it. The game IS using a micropayment model, though the details haven’t been released yet, probably because the company is trying to work out that perfect middle ground where the most money will get coughed up by the most people. It is free to download, so it’s not completely beyond saving, but what keeps me lying awake at night is the awful thought of having to buy pokéballs at extortionate prices, with no other way to get hold of them.

And that’s odd, because considering it honestly, I think I’d be happy to pay quite a lot for this game up front if I knew there were no micropayments in it. Maybe I’d even pay as much as a regular 3DS game, depending on how many people I could battle against and how common wild Pokémon were.

But there’s something slightly sickening and guilt-inducing about paying lots of little fees, not least because it’s terrifyingly easy to lose track of how much you’ve spent, and also because I always feel like I’m trying to hack the Achilles tendons out of my lovely gaming industry. It’s distressing, quite frankly. If it was small, boring things like customising Pokémon with outfits I wouldn’t care, but I suspect that won’t be the case.

It all seems so gut-wrenchingly plausible. Fifty pence for a pokéball, one pound for a great ball, one-fifty for an ultra ball and five quid for a master ball. You want to trade? That’ll cost you. Are your Pokémon unconscious? You have to bribe Nurse Joy to wake them up. And keep that credit card ready, because you’ll need it to for held items, TMs, potions, berries, evolution, levelling up, unlocking rare Pokémon to capture and so on and so on. The basic battle system of the franchise is so multi-faceted that you could put a paywall on anything, and the popularity of Pokémon is enough that they might get away with doing so, at least financially. And as we all know, if a corporation will make some profit from a decision they’ll probably go for it, consequences be damned.

“Just one pound a month can help get a pikachu off the streets. We never knowingly put a healthy pokemon down.”

 

The only thing that I can think that might alleviate this problem is Nintendo itself. I know I’ve gone on about how strange they are, but I don’t think they’re genuinely malevolent. In fact I think they genuinely care about a lot of their products, though in most cases I can’t see why. They certainly have been reluctant to compromise them in servitude of whatever fad is popular at the moment, though this is why a lot of them stagnate badly, as Nintendo functions on a permanent nostalgia trip.

But I think that quality might – MIGHT – save Pokémon: Go from being a complete fiasco, the fact that they want to keep it somewhat respectable. For what they are, Nintendo games tend to come with a fair level of polish, and it’s possible that with the sheer anticipation and scrutiny centred on P:G they might realise that it’s smart in the long term to make this as good as they can.

It’s a possibility. Not a guarantee, not a verification, just a potential outcome. The Pokéball is most definitely in Nintendo’s court at this point. Let’s just hope we don’t have to pay for it to be there.

TOP TEN GAMES OF 2015

So as 2016 downs a bottle of Viagra and prepares to bugger us as hard as last year did, I realise I can’t get away with not doing what everybody else is doing: a comprehensive list of my Top Ten Games Of 2015. Luckily, there were some stand-outs in this otherwise incredibly boring and forgettable year, so let’s begin by getting down and dirty with a dreary but downright doggedly deserving display, demonstrably drab yet damnably difficult and delightfully daring.


 

10. Darkest Dungeon: “Though in a constant state of technical flux and still in need of refinement, the solid core of Darkest Dungeon is something that stays the same. Bleak, beautiful and superbly narrated, Darkest Dungeon drips with a palpable atmosphere.”

9. Grand Theft Auto V For The PC: “For a while I struggled to find what it was that had made this game so popular, and then I found it – the joy that comes of screwing around with friends in a world so dripping with potential chaos. That’s something it does incredibly well.”

8. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain: “A silly, boring script and an ending that screeches to a halt half an hour too early can’t detract from some very organic stealth mechanics and a nice sense of freedom. Also, pop songs from the eighties – you can’t go wrong with those.”

7. Sunless Sea: “It’s slow enough that it’s almost a deal-breaker, but then turns around and slaps you with a world so wonderfully creative that you’ll be unable to stop exploring until you’ve seen all of the perilous Unterzee. All hail the terrible might of the Dawn Machine!”

6. Dark Souls II: Scholar Of The First Sin: “Could it ever be as good as the original Dark Souls? Probably not. Does it still shine as a game anyway? You better believe it.”

5. Elite: Dangerous: “Yes, it came out late last year, but ED only started to become the game it should’ve been recently, as constant patches are ever added to make it bigger, better and more fun. The new CQC multiplayer mode is like fighting a battle from a Star Wars movie, and the rest is filled with a hundred little joys. This game is why I sit drooling for the release of the Oculus Rift.”

4. Fallout 4: “Yes, 4 is fourth. Some claim that Fallout has lost its way a little and in some respects I think they’re right, but I still found myself eating it up regardless. What it’s lost in narrative focus it nearly makes up for with tighter mechanics and a richer world than the previous ones. Maybe it falls short in comparison to the old guard, but compared to most of the games this year, it’s a powerhouse.”

3. Witcher 3: Wild Hunt: “Expect a review for this one soon, though I’ll confess that after the boring mess that was the first Witcher game, I didn’t have high hopes for Wild Hunt. But powerful character arcs, a rich, tangible atmosphere, a variety of fun missions and a surprisingly engaging core theme of “supernatural pest control” makes Witcher 3 one of the best fantasy games in a long time.”

2. Tales From The Borderlands: “Telltale returns to form with a story filled with lovable characters and mountains of ridiculous excitement, proving that they can make us laugh as well as cry. One of their strongest creations and a shining star in the growing genre of interactive narrative.”

1. Undertale: “Holy cow. Undertale reminds me of why I love video games, of the moments where everything comes together perfectly and I find myself blown away. And yet it’s so outside the box that I can barely describe it – and I’m not sure I should try. Those of you who haven’t played it should come to it fresh, because it’s totally worth it and will stay with you forever. An amazing soundtrack, an unbeatable story and more heart than anything I’ve seen in ages. My Game Of The Year by a country mile.”


 

Happy New Year to all of you out there! I never expected that people would enjoy this site as much as they say they do, and I hope that you’ll all have as much fun reading these articles as I do writing them.

Anyway, lovely to see you. Mwah, mwah, party streamers, champagne corks, etc. Now let’s all give up on our resolutions and get back into those terribly unhealthy habits again. Cheers!

THE BINDING OF ISAAC: REBIRTH REVIEW – “CHILD ABUSE IS SURPRISINGLY FUN”

So let’s take note. Last time we did a review, it was about an indie game with bullet-hell elements primarily available on Steam, focusing around the traumatic experiences of a small child. The time before that it was a gruesome action game from 2014 that turned out to be a lot deeper and more thoughtful than a person might think at first glance.

So now we’ve split the difference and decided to take a look at The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth. It’s a pretty timely choice considering the first DLC pack, “Afterbirth,” has just been released to the public, in the way that one releases a bear into a primary school and sits back to observe the results.

Rebirth was released in November last year as a remake of the original indie title; “The Binding Of Isaac” in 2011, and it’s not an easy game to summarise. Perhaps “Rogue Legacy” by way of a mental asylum? “Nuclear Throne” in your crazy aunt’s cellar? “Don’t Starve” in the brain of a Westboro Baptist Church member?

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Jesus, where to begin?

Actually this is harder than I thought, because before we can compare The Binding Of Isaac to anything, we have to say exactly what it’s about, and that’s not easy. It was made by a guy named Edmund McMillen and may say an uncomfortable amount about his psychological profile. At least that’s what I find myself thinking as I watch the little lightbulb-shaped protagonist weep at a misshapen monster, in the hope that it’ll go away and leave him to wallow in his own excrement.

On the surface, it’s a story about a child trying to escape his home, clearly inspired by the biblical story of Abraham and maybe a few bad acid trips as well. The rather minimalist but engaging intro sequence shows the infant boy Isaac living a peaceful life with his bloated mother, who spends all day watching evangelists on TV and growing increasingly enthralled by their nonsense. When she starts hearing voices from god telling her to take away Isaac’s toys and lock him in his room, things get increasingly crappy for her beleaguered son, and when she finally gets the order to kill him, Isaac decides that he’s not going to hang around much longer and escapes into the basement. A basement that has been locked from the outside and covered up so people won’t find it, but I’m sure that’s no big deal, right?

And there’s the framework for the gameplay, a procedurally-generated set of labyrinths set beneath Isaac’s house, all filled with hordes of ugly enemies. Rebirth stitches some pre-made rooms together, dumps you in one of them and tells you to find the boss monster that’s sitting on the hatch leading down to the next level. Your goal is get as far down as you can and hopefully find an escape. Good luck with that.

The actual style of the game is a “rogue-like” top-down bullet-hell shooter, the kind that would’ve been played with two-separate joysticks in an arcade. You make Isaac beetle around rooms with WASD and shoot in various directions with the arrow keys. Hit E to drop bombs, SPACE and Q to use special items that you’ve picked up and – hey presto! You now know everything you need to know to play. It’s really that simple.

And I’m not degrading it for that. Simple isn’t a bad thing, not always, and Rebirth has perfected the school of “Easy to learn, difficult to master,” with some of the deeper levels being more deadly than a holiday in Syria but always rewarding the player for skill and competence.

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The basement gets darker than you might believe.

There’s also a staggering number of special items, some of which are triggered at will by the aforementioned player, but others just adjust Isaac’s appearance and stats permanently with no way to undo them. And considering they refuse to describe themselves or what effect they have until after you take them, poor little Isaac could end up quite a bit different to how you’d prefer.

I actually like this quite a lot. It does sometimes come with nasty surprises, such as taking an item that’s completely detrimental to your playstyle and only finding out AFTER it’s glued to your character, but there’s certainly enough pick-ups to make for a fresh experience each time and they’re diverse enough that they don’t get old.

It’s the aesthetic flavour that makes the game special, though. Rebirth is a game about coming face to face with the worst elements of humanity, mythology and psychology, and they’re reflected in a combination of monsters, objects and concepts that all meld together surprisingly well, in a style I can’t help but think of as “Horror-Lite.” Horrible, yes, but presented in a way that takes the edge off just enough not to seem genuinely harrowing. On the surface it looks like a crude game about killing monsters with literal blood, sweat and tears, not to mention urine and shit, but it’s actually a lot deeper and a lot darker than that.

You see, I’m not convinced that the basement isn’t just meant to be a metaphor for Isaac’s damaged psyche. Aside from the fact that the rooms get more surreal and disgusting as you descend through them, there’s a lot of imagery that feels like it was based on a perversion of a healthy child’s mind, as well as monsters that seem like misunderstood interpretations of religious figures and poorly-explained concepts. Isaac fights sentient poo, the four horseman, mutated spiders, angry sperm, the devil made flesh, huge tapeworms, the trickster god Loki, an impossibly large version of his own mother and about a hundred variations of himself, all twisted and deformed in some way, as though Isaac was wracked with self-loathing and felt the need to destroy himself by proxy.

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…VS Marvel VS Capcom VS Mortal Kombat VS DC…

By the way, everything you’re capable of follows these disturbing themes too. Isaac attacks enemies by blinking tears at them (more effective than you think) and most of the items you find are suggestive of some traumatic experience that he’s adapted into something useful. For example, wooden spoons and belts make him run faster. I hope I don’t have to explain it any more than that.

But on the other hand, it’s the items that are probably Rebirth’s biggest weakness. The diversity, creativity and sheer bloody number of them is good, but some of them are fairly inconsistent with the game’s themes and it becomes slightly annoying to see something obviously out of place, when everything else has been maintaining the dour, ghastly atmosphere so well. I don’t see how a reference to a sub-par internet video meme about firing lasers from your mouth relates to a game about the darkness in the human heart and the dangers of a highly religious upbringing. Or is it just me?

Maybe that’s a bit nitpicky as criticisms go, but this one isn’t – the game needs to be balanced better. You unlock more characters with different stats and abilities as you go, as well as new items, and some of them are frighteningly effective when combined. Sticking a severed cat’s head in the hand of the “Azazel” character will promptly make you the most powerful thing since Robocop took up jedi training, to the extent where a person with no real talent could breeze through the toughest levels and take down most bosses in a single attack.

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Who would’ve thought that child abuse and religious dogmatism could’ve turned out so poorly? At this rate, the only jobs Isaac will be qualified for are going to be child pageantry and wearing sandwich boards with “THE END IS NIGH” written on them.

I’m also not sold on the fact that now I’ve completed the game a fair few times, there doesn’t seem to be anything to strive for. Admittedly, it’s designed to be played over and over again, but to begin with that made more sense, as more items and characters were unlocked each time for subsequent playthroughs in classic “rogue-like” style. But now I’ve got the majority of everything there doesn’t seem to be much more to do. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed what there was and it’s taken me a long time to do so, but the prospect of being made to repeat it over and over ad infinitum only makes me wonder how long that can really be entertaining. It’s the curse of multiplayer brought through to singleplayer.

Of course, I could buy the new Afterbirth DLC, which promises to have much, much more of all of this stuff. And I probably will, because The Binding Of Isaac: Rebirth is a very good game. It’s challenging, unique and manages to tread the delicate line between fascinating horror and repulsive horror perfectly. It also manages the clever task of taking a core set of mechanics and pushing their limitations, whilst still staying loyal to the basic format.

Yes, maybe it’s crazy, but it’s my kind of crazy, so drop your pants, tear up your bible and make burbling noises with your lips as you join me down here in the basement.

At least you won’t be lonely.


 

8.5/10

Some experiences are unique enough to be worth trying for that reason alone, and Rebirth is certainly one of those. On top of which, it’s also well-designed with an excellent difficulty curve and a bucketload of material that should delay the inevitable sense of repetition for a good, long time.