DEAD BY DAYLIGHT vs. FRIDAY THE 13th: THE GAME – “SMASH BROS. FOR HORROR ICONS.”

INTRODUCTION

It’s always interesting to see when two games are held as direct competitors, even if they don’t want that. Ever since the Genesis supposedly did what Nintendon’t in the 90s, there’s been a whole history of “my X is better than your Y”. Mario versus Sonic. Call of Duty versus Battlefield. Fornite versus PUBG. It’s even more painful to watch when the winner is obvious, such as when Overwatch did to Battleborn what a hungry fox does to a baby rabbit.

And one of the more recent sudden slapfights in gaming memory was between Dead By Daylight and Friday the 13th: The Game, which on the surface does make some amount of sense, both being asymmetrical multiplayer games in which a bunch of teenagers try to sneak around a hungry murdered controlled by another player, all until they either escape with their lives or end up as a small aperitif.

And though having played both before, it was only in the wake of the last Steam Sale that I found myself in possession of both titles, curious to see which was the superior time-killer (no pun intended). I’ll admit right away that I wanted Friday to be better, partly because Jason has always been my favourite movie slasher, and also because the internet seemed to have collectively given up on it, and I’m nothing if not a stalwart contrarian. Either way, let’s put them in a series of arbitrary competitions in order to see which one is the fresher kill.

 

PREMISE

I know nobody cares about plot in a multiplayer game except for me, who as ever is determined to find context where none exists and frame the ever-looping cycle of butchery as something more profound than a constant grinding of in-game resources, but for what it’s worth both games do have something of a backstory, though take very different approaches to it. Dead By Daylight is a nigh-incomprehensible jumble of vaguely Lovecraftian lore assembled to explain the contrived nature of its own gameplay, focused around some sort of spider god and multiple serial killers with way-too-long text boxes in the menu explaining their particular origins, histories, motivations and favourite pet, as well as the victims’ different thoughts, fears, relationships and preferred show to binge watch…

… Whereas in Friday the 13th, there are a bunch of campers by a lake, and Jason would rather they not be there, so he decides to murder them.

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“Ma, I think we need to talk about the monthly candle budget.”

I said it was different approaches, didn’t I? Neither is great, either eschewing detail or bloating on it, and in both the gameplay barely seems informed by the plot in the slightest. Sure, Dead By Daylight can go on about how Punky Tank-Top secretly likes the Dresden Files or how Snivels Stumblebum once got his tongue stuck to a lamppost, but none of the survivors really play any differently but for a few minor perks. And even despite not having a proper plot, I don’t think Friday really needs one, with over ten movies establishing the franchise and the basic movements for three decades in advance. So all Daylight can do is regurgitate prose at you in the waiting lobby and hope some of it sticks, which it doesn’t.

But why doesn’t it? I think part of the reason is Daylight seems very low on truly original ideas. All the playable killers have obvious one-to-one equivalents in the world of horror: knock-offs of Leatherface, the Ring girl, a Bioshock splicer, the Silent Hill nurses, even a Jason duplicate, and when they ran out of new ideas they just gave up altogether and started putting in famous horror characters via DLC, like Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers; this all leading to the odd realisation that both Leatherface and his dopey, just legally-distinct clone both share a game. Even the game’s title is a barely-changed reference to the Evil Dead.

The result of all this rampant “homage” is that there’s nothing new left to sink your teeth into, and you don’t think about the plot the moment the game stops actively showing it to you. Give this one to Friday, and next we’ll do a category that people actually care about.

 

MURDERER GAMEPLAY

So I fired up Dead By Daylight, slid into the shoes of one of several murderers and sat for about five minutes waiting for a match and twiddling my thumbs. Turns out when half the world wants to be a character type only permitted in ratios of 1-to-5, the waiting times can also be bloody murder.

Nonetheless I finally broke through into slasher central, set loose on the world with axe in hand, and immediately realised that this wasn’t going to be as much fun as it should be. Daylight’s murderers vary in powers and strengths, each one affording a somewhat different experience, but still all have one goal – chase and knock down the squishy humans, then pick them up and drop them onto any nearby hooks so Spider-God can have a nibble. They can be rescued by nearby friends, but if they spend too long waiting or get hooked too many times, they’re goners.

It’s a simple, carefully-refined system designed to have a certain amount of variation while never straying too far from a core set of mechanics, which is all good. It’s also not that fun to play, which is… well, less good.

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Moments of organic terror are common for Dead By Daylight‘s survivors, yet only annoyance and frustration awaits the killer.

The big problem is the human survivors. I get that developers don’t want to weigh things too far in favour of the killer, but it seems all too easy for players to do the run-around on a bit of wall like something from the Benny Hill Show, hooting and slapping their backside, the killer impotently swinging at them with fury in their eyes. Things get even worse when they find the flashlight item that can be used to blind you and force you to drop any player you’re currently carrying. I admit right now that I wasn’t very good as a murderer – art doesn’t always reflect real life, it seems – but that was mainly because I never enjoyed it enough to keep practicing. The whole experience seems to assume that the survivors are acting cautious, timid and are prone to panic, much like people actually being chased by a psycho, and when that is the case the whole thing is a lot more enjoyable, watching them scatter like mayflies as you come charging round the corner with bloodlust behind you.

But the moment they start acting like douchebag trolls playing a game of “keep-away” with their own organs, the gameplay becomes a lot more frustrating than fun, trying to slap down annoying little titnibblers who wield design flaws as weapons, rather than actually engaging in a stimulating challenge. And of course, half of them just up-and-quit the game the moment they get caught, which is like spending twenty minutes trying to reel in a fish only for it to inexplicably explode when you pull it out of the water. I eventually found myself playing solely as the splicer lady with the throwing axes, purely so I could split some skulls without having to physically catch the bastards.

On the other side of the court, Friday has a similar problem, but in reverse. Whichever form of Jason you pick (and no option to be Cyborg Jason from the tenth film, appallingly), you’re gifted with multiple superpowers and abilities that make dealing with sex-crazed campers a doddle. Teleportation, stealth powers, concealed bear traps, lethal grab moves, throwing weapons, another kind of teleportation, ripple effects on sounds, X-ray vision and a choice of affordable drinks and finger foods, all of which means that when some little twerp gets cocky and starts trying to do the kitchen-table runaround, you have a hundred methods just to end him in the next ten seconds. I’ve seen fighter jets that were less dangerous.

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Jason’s killing power would rival John Wick’s – so what hope do a bunch of lolloping teenagers have?

It’s the teleportation and x-ray abilities that end up being the real problem. When Jason picks a player to hound eternally there’s really very little they can do to shake him, as hiding is almost impossible and the only way to get rid of him for good is to lure him to other players and hope they look tastier than you do. You know what they say: if you and your friend are trying to escape a bear, you don’t have to run faster than the bear does – just run faster than your friend. And honestly, I started feeling a bit unengaged after a while, watching Jason hack his way effortlessly through jocks with the bored detachment of a substitute teacher on the last day of school.

So playing Jason is more of a hollow power fantasy, whereas getting shoved into a Daylight killer’s boots is akin to playing whack-a-mole with slow reflexes. Both games have their moments, but usually depend having the right kind of survivors. I like how Daylight’s smaller arenas offer a greater chance of random encounters and have more variation in design, but I also like how Friday’s mechanics double down on fear and constant paranoia. Call it a close thing, but I’m reluctantly tempted to hand it over to Daylight, because spittle-flecked, violent rage is at least more involving than passionlessly pulling heads off.

 

SURVIVOR GAMEPLAY

Even before I started either game I knew the one thing I didn’t want – I didn’t want Jason or Daylight’s butchery brigade to be killable, because I knew every match would immediately devolve into half a dozen knobheads going at one brute like the third-act musical number in Shaun of the Dead.

Thankfully, both games seemed to be very much on the same page, as the emphasis is always on finding an escape rather than putting the villain’s head on a plaque. Admittedly I’m told it‘s possible to kill Jason and end the match prematurely, but I never saw it happen even after half an hour of whaling on him with baseballs bats and shotguns, so either the person telling me that was lying or the Crystal Lake Killer is as hard to kill here as he was in Jason Goes to Hell.

However, the means by which you’re encouraged to escape in each game are very different. Daylight might have lots of maps, but the means of escape is always the same – find five generators spread out over the arena and repair them to unlock the exits, avoiding any murderers along the way via careful stealth and cooperation. Friday, on the other hand, presents multiple routes to victory but bumps up the individual difficulty and randomness associated with each one. Survive for twenty minutes for an automatic win, sure, but you could also try to fuel up a car or fix a boat to get out early, or even just repair a phone and call the cops to come rescue you, scavenging for parts distributed among the map and hoping that you can cobble together some form of exit strategy.

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Patching together generators is Daylight‘s only means of escape – but it never quite stops being tense and unnerving.

Let’s talk about the latter, which sounds clever on the surface but falls down when it comes to execution, much like how Jason does when one of his environmental kills glitches yet again. The randomness and absence of clues as to where to actually look means there’s no real strategy involved beyond just combing the world for petrol cans and batteries, and the fact that most of these escape plans require some level of teamwork means that you’re really screwed if you’re the last man standing, gormlessly wandering about the forest with a fan belt in one hand and your last will and testament in the other. It’s all a lottery, hoping against hope you’ll happen to stumble upon whichever functionally identical cabin just happens to have stockpiles of weapons and engine parts.

Daylight does the smart thing by taking the power away from the RNG and giving to the players. Generators don’t need anything to be repaired but your own two hands, but there are items to be found to give you an edge or an advantage in any situation. And even when everybody else on your team has gone up to that great big cobweb in the sky, you can still piece together an exit or find the special escape hatch that only opens up for the last survivor – provided the killer hasn’t found it first and sealed it closed.

If it sounds like I prefer Dead By Daylight’s system… yeah, that’s because I do. It feels more tightly designed, making up for a lack of variation with a core gameplay loop that’s easier to engage with, and changes the focus from fingers-crossed scavenger hunts to constant, calculated stealth. Jason nearly always gets his target the first time they meet, making things feel less frightening than inevitable, but Daylight allows you to be recover from failure, to use the environment in clever ways or find hiding spots in crucial places. There’s no tension higher than sprinting round a corner, doubling back into a closet and silently praying as something lumbers past only inches away, eyes glowing with bewildered, hateful anger… Until there’s the distant bang of somebody bollocking up generator repair, and you can almost see the monster’s ears prick up as it launches itself back into the mist, ready to begin the hunt anew.

 

TECHNICALS

Let’s get this right out of the way – as alluded to, both games have balancing issues that go beyond the small fry and end up as big fish. In Daylight’s case this is due to certain items and perks that allow the players to treat the killer like matadors abusing an angry bull, whereas Friday makes Jason a truly unstoppable killing machine; and consequently it’s barely worth trying to escape the bugger. Neither is forgivable, but there’s at least two minor mitigating factors in Daylight’s favour: 1) these offending items and perks have to be unlocked and equipped over time, not to mention requiring a bare minimal amount of skill, and 2), the game is still being patched and rebalanced from time to time, giving hope it might be fixed, whereas Friday is apparently trapped in some sort of lawsuit that means only minor alterations are being made to it, if at all.

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Friday‘s bleak, shadowed world is as quietly atmospheric as it is annoyingly glitch-ridden.

When it comes to graphics Daylight takes it again – Jason’s victims all look laughably like late-era PS2 models – but I’m reluctant to say it has the better visual and level design. Camp Crystal Lake feels like a real place, artfully designed to be eerie and unnerving, whereas the hunting grounds of Daylight just feel like video game arenas, full of chest-high walls, copied assets and no real logic or sense to the layout or environment. A better designer might’ve embraced a dreamlike sense of surreality, but this just feels fake, and consequently it’s hard to get truly immersed.

Finally, as alluded to earlier, Friday glitches like a cut-price Gameshark. Trying to perform an environmental kill always made Jason freeze like he had a bad case of stage fright, only for an awkward twenty seconds to elapse before the survivor managed to wriggle free of his grip and sprint for the horizon, loading screens would crash, and the world geography kept snagging players so often that it felt like a universe made of fishing hooks. Daylight had no such issues, cheerfully chugging along with proud, workmanlike tenacity, and consequently there’s no contest here.

 

VERDICT

Like I said at the beginning, I really wanted Friday to win this one, but to pronounce it the superior game would just feel dishonest. It has solid ideas, but feels patchy, like an early beta prototype that somehow made a full release. Daylight feels less ambitious, but better refined, with thought given at nearly every level and lots of nuances built in to make the challenging premise work. Giving the killer a first-person viewpoint and putting the survivors in third-person to emphasise observation versus situational awareness? That’s a good choice. Having sprinting survivors leave a temporary trail of scratches that can be followed to their location? That’s a good choice. Hiring Bruce Campbell to reprise his role as the bumbling, badass hero of Evil Dead? That’s a VERY good choice, and I can’t deny there’s something kind of brilliant about watching Ash “Hail to the King” Williams trying to evade both Freddy Krueger, the Saw killer, and Leatherface. It’s like Smash Bros. for horror icons, though sadly with no unlockable chainsaw hand to even the odds.

All that being said, I still don’t think Friday is without its charms, and also has a few really good ideas that Daylight could learn from. The way the chat volume tapers off the further you are from the source is genius, the environments somehow manage to be a lot more eerie through simple, silent, ominous subtlety, rather than smashing obvious horror visuals together until the whole place looks like an over-budgeted ghost train. Dead By Daylight is the better game, but either one might afford a fun few evenings – provided you can find the right people to play them with.

 


DEAD BY DAYLIGHT DOES WHAT FRIDON’T, WITH A MORE CAREFULLY DESIGNED SET OF MECHANICS THAT MAKE THE WHOLE THING FEEL A LOT MORE REPLAYABLE. JASON MIGHT BOAST THE BETTER WORLD AND AESTHETICS, BUT SOMEBODY’S STILL YET TO PUT A REALLY GOOD GAME IN IT.

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DRAGONBALL XENOVERSE 2 REVIEW

Nobody was more surprised than me to find out that they liked Dragonball Xenoverse. Why would I like it? I don’t much care for anime, I flat-out dislike Dragonball, and fighting games were never much my bag either. No Street Fighter obsessive, nor weeaboo hugging his Android 18 body pillow to be found here, I’m afraid. I’m too busy playing Dungeons and Dragons to engage in such loser hobbies.

So when I realised that Xenoverse was a very solid combat game that really leant into the power fantasy of it all, I suddenly realised I was having a whale of a time. Yes, the story is fanservice nonsense that wouldn’t pass muster in a third-grade writing exam, but it doesn’t intrude on gameplay much and allows you to rocket around the sky kicking aliens without issue. God bless the skip-cutscene button, a function that served me even better than the pause menu.

Which left the player free to indulge in high-octane lunacy, as you fire various beams of energy at improbably resilient foes, who all fly around smacking each other like a civil war broke out on Krypton. And the game rewarding you with new fighting techniques and characters to play as means that it all feeds nicely into itself. Colour me excited for Xenoverse 2, then.

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Joelku’s back, bitches! And this time, his dress sense is worse than ever!

But the problem is that I did something before playing Xenoverse 2 that I suspect the developers were hoping I hadn’t done recently: I played Xenoverse 1. And this, as I would soon come to realise, was a major problem.

Because Bandai-Namco’s new anime odyssey isn’t really a sequel, it’s an upgrade. It’s not like buying a new phone, it’s more akin to updating the software, and the number of assets, mechanics, powers, ideas and locations that have been copy-pasted from the first Xenoverse to the second is pretty unimpressive. I wasn’t hoping for a complete overhaul of the system, but you’re more likely to come across old content than new content as you power through the campaign in “Dragonball Xenoverse 1.5.”

But I must say that there was a rather neat function whereby you can import your created character from the first game into the second, where he then becomes an NPC that features in the story. The former protagonist has now become a de facto legend and high-ranking member of the rather scrappy and slightly stupid Time Patrollers, the recurring organisation of weirdos who go around making sure that history doesn’t change too much in the wake of irresponsible ruffians like Doctor Who, the little fez-wearing bastard.

The above premise isn’t a terrible one, but it’s not handled particularly well and the story can’t quite figure out what it wants to be, other than a Dragonball Tribute Band. For one thing, it never becomes clear why changing history is such a bad thing, especially when you choose to do so at one point in the narrative and nothing bad happens as a result.

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Pew pew pew! Take that, Vegeta! How dare you try to overshadow the far-less interesting protagonist! How dare you go through an engaging character arc!

Not to mention that the undisciplined, clubhouse feel of the Time Patrollers is a genuine plot flaw that only becomes more notable as you progress through the story and see just how slapdash this whole thing seems to be. I practically expect to hear that old joke being shouted out:

“What are the patroller’s coordinates?”

“Sir, I’m afraid he’s uncoordinated.”

I can’t remember where that line is from (and that’s been driving me nuts for weeks), but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t apply to the Time Patrollers. A band of well-intentioned and overpowered mooks sit on a giant island floating somewhere outside of reality, with no real rules or even method to their madness. And all of these super-bozos are being led (rather frighteningly) by a cast of oddballs that include Hitler The Elderly Aubergine, Manic Pixie Dream God, and a mopey idiot with a large sword and out-of-season overcoat. Seriously, if I got a penny for every time that Trunks screws up over the course of the game, I could buy his mother’s company three times over. Ooh, look at me picking up knowledge of the world as I play. If I keep this up, dear reader, you have full permission to blow my head off.

‘Cause I ain’t here for story, partly because it’s the same plot as last time. Some ruffian is going through history and trying to change it by granting extra power to old villains, and you drop in with your create-a-character to show them what-for, ensuring that all the established canon remains canonical. Because god forbid we do anything daring, like play with the stories a bit and see what new material we could draw from them. Did everyone just forget how cool it was when Arkham City did that?

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Oh god, I HATE when this shit happens in anime and cartoons! Stop laughing, it’s so creepy!

But much like the first Xenoverse, it’s clearly a game made for fans, by fans. You want to help Goku beat up Frieza? Done. You want to read somebody’s power level? Just slap on a scouter. You want to perform every move and ability demonstrated in the show? They’re all waiting to be unlocked. You want to collect the Dragonballs and make a wish?

Ooh, hell yes! Can I ask for immortality?

Er, actually not. We had to remove that option to prevent the game from being broken, but look! You can get a giant radish as a cosmetic item instead, gifted to you by the mighty Shenron and his universal omnipotence! Hooray for magical root vegetables!

… Mister Critic, Why do you look so angry?

Beyond that, the mechanics are pretty similar to the first game. You fly around arenas performing combos on goons with a bunch of stats and superpowers backing you up, balancing ki and stamina meters as you do. And frankly, it all works well. It was fun before and it’s fun now, but the thing that Xenoverse realised early on, as mentioned, was that the best reward for killing goons is more ways to kill goons. Most missions give you a new move or technique when you beat them, and you can swap out the attacks you know for different ones, Pokémon style. And whilst most of the abilities available here are imported from the previous game, there’s enough additions to the roster to keep things somewhat fresh.

That being said, the combat does feel a bit… Stickier than before. There’s a few new forms of basic attack to play around with that makes things more organic, but the game as an odd habit of making your character stop moving after certain attacks, whereupon somebody covered in particle effects comes around and kicks your head in. And whereas before now, when punching an enemy across the map caused you to teleport cleanly after them, now the player characters fly in a locked route to pursue them as part of the attack animation, which means you get stuck on the geometry of the world really easily, flying into mountains or buildings that were uncooperative enough to be standing there.

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“Wow, this guy tripped and fell really hard.”

Oh, and there’s a few more problems that weren’t solved from the first game. Keeping secondary objectives as a secret until the player solves them makes less sense than a warm-hearted Tory, and the fact that certain items and skills are given to you randomly at the end of each challenge is a right pain in the bum. When I power through a mission and manage to reach a perfect score, only for the game to spin a roulette wheel and decide that I don’t deserve anything better than a participation award, that’s some serious crap that no game designer should’ve been happy to sign for. Especially when I know, deep down, that some other dope has muddled through with a piss-poor performance and still been given all the planet-busting super moves. Not cool, Xenoverse.

But let’s move on. One of the big new changes is the hubworld, which the advertising boasted as being seven times larger than the one in the last game. Is it wrong to admit that I don’t care about this? The hubworld is just a place to pick up missions, it doesn’t need to be bigger than a single room with a sign-up sheet pinned to the wall. And hell, the last game’s base of operations was too big already, so I don’t know what the developers thought they could achieve by doubling down on that.

This problem of size is alleviated by two solutions. The first is a little hoverboard that you can beetle around on for increased speed, and let’s be clear about this – that stupid machine sucks more arse than the average colonic. It controls badly, goes alternatively either too fast or too slow, is constantly overshooting because of momentum, and if you bump into something there’s a brief, unskippable animation where your character clutches his head and wonders about the choices he made in life. The amount of times I’d be scaling the long staircase up to where the story missions are kept, only to shoot off the end of them and come crashing back down to the ground level again… Yeah, to hell with that bloody Marty McFly contraption.

The form of hubworld movement is introduced about a third of the way into the game – just let the players use their flying ability like they do in combat. And because flying is fast, easy to control, allows you to scale heights without issue and just lets you go straight over any obstacles in your path, there is never a reason to get out the hoverboard again. One wonders why we couldn’t just fly from the beginning, and the only reason I can think of is that the developers wanted to annoy me. Perhaps there is a different explanation, but I can’t think of one.

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Wait, you think I need a haircut? But I kinda like this “Sonic The Hedgehog” look!

By the way, anybody signing up for online play might find themselves getting impatient as they stare at loading screens and empty lobbies. The final thing that got carried over from the first game was the occasional crash and poor server quality, where being kicked from your match halfway in was less of an exception and more the norm. Even as I was writing this, a notification popped up from the publishers telling me that trying to use the Dragonballs in a public server was pretty likely to freeze the game, and that I should refrain from doing so if I wanted the best experience. Maybe they could’ve told me that a couple of days earlier, when that exact thing happened to me. Low effort, must try harder, etc etc.

Oh, and one other thing: Remember how certain characters could teach you their trademark moves if you beat them up for a bit, and occasionally joined you in missions if you were playing badly? They’re back, and ‘ere you resent this game for having them spawn and despawn randomly like they did in the first one, this time when they appear somewhere they have the common decency to stay put. That’s definitely an improvement, but like the ability to fly between missions, cutting out some of the RNG was a decision that didn’t feel anything less than blindingly obvious. It would’ve been an embarrassment if they hadn’t done that.

Dragonball Xenoverse 2 is indeed better than its predecessor, but not by much. A couple of stumbling steps forward does not imply some great leap of evolution, nor does it warrant forty pounds from those who already own the previous one. If I wanted to pay money to go in circles I’d charter a party bus and load it with prostitutes as we drive around a roundabout, because I’d have a better time and certainly a fresher experience.

That being said, I did just admit that Xenoverse 2 is a superior form of Xenoverse 1, a game that I like. And I probably would recommend the sequel to anybody who doesn’t own the original, because it’s a fairly enjoyable experience, but that doesn’t change the fact that I do feel a little sour about all this. It’s another time where the Steam refund policy looks like it could use a change, because it took me longer than two hours to realise that I was playing with the first game in a slightly shinier dress, all because those first two hours are mostly cutscenes and tutorials.

Those of you who are unsure about buying it should probably wait for the price to drop. Those of you who loved the first installment are getting more of the same, so you’ll probably be happy. On the other hand, anybody who isn’t big on games like the Naruto Shippuden franchise isn’t likely to be very happy. Being an unappeasable critic, I haven’t been happy since 1998, but Dragonball Xenoverse 2 did occasionally prompt some stirring of emotion that might approximate to approval. If you ever wished you’d bought the original, shell out for this extended cut. If you weren’t won over by the previous entry, this isn’t going to change your mind.


 

6/10

Dragonball Xenoverse 2 picks up where the old game left off, and very decisively chooses to stay there, making very little progress and refusing to develop itself beyond a few fringe aspects to gameplay. Why should you buy this when the original is still there? I’m not sure, I’ll tell you when I’ve thought of a reason.

GUNS OF ICARUS ONLINE REVIEW – “PLAYER TEMPERS ARE SKY-HIGH”

Here’s a bit of information that’ll surprise nobody: people suck.

And here’s a bit of information that’ll somehow be even less surprising than the previous one: people who play online multiplayer games suck even more.

I mean, is it even up for debate at this point? Between the pathetic shrieking, the inability to cooperate cheerfully, the ugly personalities, the permeating, eye-rolling belief that every game is the final match in some lame eSports tournament and that those who aren’t min-maxing every piece of gear are somehow not worth your time… It’s all infuriating. Why don’t you just relax and have some fun, you jackasses? You’re the collective reason why anybody with any brains at all sticks to the calm, clean waters of single player, rather than take the risk of jumping into the diseased community pool that is online gaming.

Yes, maybe I am a little bitter. I’ve never been a man for multiplayer in any major way, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate good design and understand that playing with others can add a certain spice, especially when certain choices complement that spice. Watch_Dogs is now accepted as a pile of bland wallpaper paste and Hot Topic t-shirt scraps, but that hide and seek invasion thing worked pretty well, mainly for the ability to watch other people wet themselves when they realised someone was reading their browser history. And Dark Souls figured out pretty early on that the best way to minimise the problems of online gaming is to keep the dialogue and communication to a minimum, with clear goals and objectives for everyone involved. After all, nothing brings down the experience of playing with other people like… Well, other people.

And thus we come to Guns Of Icarus Online, which is a game I only found out existed last week, but had secretly always wanted in some form or another without quite knowing it had been done already. I can’t tell if I should be pleased or annoyed by that fact. I suspect that those who read a lot of my work will be able to guess.

The basic concept of this game is that everybody gets booted into a multiplayer server, and there’s a bunch of heavily-armed steampunk-pirate-ship-blimp things that float around like the inhabitants of Fallen London had decided to re-enact a battle from Star Wars, and the result is as lethal as you’d expect. Up to four players who are all seeing everything in first-person totter around on each ship trying not to vomit, and they’re all required to perform various roles if everybody’s going to make it out alive and bring down the enemy craft.

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The landscapes and level design in Guns Of Icarus are often hauntingly beautiful and even a little chilling. This mood is frequently ruined by the static-ridden moaning supplied by your teammates.

Which immediately brings out the problem of shared responsibility, and the failing of one person quickly becoming something that everyone has to deal with. Whether it’s the captain steering you all into a cliff, or the engineer just spending the whole game cooking marshmallows by the glow of a small engine fire, the blimp getting smashed to bits is still going to mean death for everyone, whether you’re Amelia Airhart or Ted Striker.

But normally I wouldn’t worry about this sort of thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the enemy ship that bursts into flames or if it’s ours, the gameplay is still fun and shooting at distant targets is satisfying enough to be worth the effort, win or lose. It’s not like GTA V, where one person getting killed in the online mission was a genuine pain in the neck, as you all got thrown back to the start and lost progress. Yeah, you’d forgotten how much that sucked, didn’t you? I’m going to hold that grudge until the end of time.

But back to Guns Of Icarus, and let me say that the element of teamwork is a fundamental mixed bag. In my mind I was hoping for something like those scenes in Firefly or classic Star Trek, where everybody’s coordinating tactics and having a great time doing so. And when I was lucky enough to be playing with friends that was certainly the case, especially when you realise that the game is instantly made twice as good when you put on a pirate voice.

It was all rather thrilling. From my position at the helm I’d spin the wheel and turn us hard to port with a great thunder of wood and sails, bellowing commands and watching my loyal crew scamper around, wisecracking and generally enjoying themselves. Or maybe I’d be some lowly engineer cabin boy (represented by yours truly putting on a tremulous Oliver Twist voice), dashing between various parts of the ship at the whim of my commander, trying to fight back the flames and keep everything running. It’s fun, it’s endearing, it’s nuanced, but most of all it feels good to do…

… Until you enter a public lobby by yourself, and everything goes to shit. I admit that there’s not much the developers can do about their customer base acting like piss-stained chimps, but perhaps they could stop giving them abilities to annoy other people with? One particularly galling factor is that any captains in the lobby can extend the timer before the game starts, apparently indefinitely. Why the fuck is that there? What purpose does it have other than to be abused? If people aren’t ready to play, they could always just back out of the lobby and adjust their knick-knacks there, though I doubt they need it. The developers do give them two hundred seconds of prep-time at least, I’m sure they can cope with that.

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Gunfire and explosions are what makes this game fun, whether those explosions come from your cannons, your engine, or your hydrogen-filled balloon “Hindenburging.”

There’s other irritants you’ll have to endure if you want to get at the pearl of good game design. For example, I do understand why the pilot is always the de facto Captain once you start playing. He’s best positioned to survey the area, he can maneuver the ship to get the optimal angles on enemies, and in a game about teamwork it’s still probably helpful to have somebody who can buckle down and take charge when things get hairy.

That’s the theory, at least. In practice it only means that one little git with a pile of Mountain Dew bottles stacked by his chair gets a power rush to match his sugar rush, and will scream unendingly at those unfortunates who don’t do what he tells them straight away. Oh, and captains can also see what loadout you’re using and recommend different ones, which only puts more power in their hands. No, I don’t want that kind of hammer using up my limited equipment space. Yes, I know there’s no limit to how many times you can make that text box ping at me and tell me to change it, you little sod.

And see how far declining that offer gets you – either a tirade of abuse in your ear or some mouth-breather giving a disgusted groan into the microphone before he lengthily explains why your build is completely wrong and inefficient. Dude, I’m just here to blow up airships with my flamethrower turret. Why is everybody making this so goddamn difficult for me?

Because on the few occasions that the dominoes fall into place and you get a good game going, it’s actually very engaging. The maps are huge and all thick with fog, which is placed around in a manner that manages not to be overly obstructive, yet adds a layer of stealth prior to every dogfight. Hell, it manages to be creepy and tension-raising to a legitimately startling degree. There’s something skin-crawling about the silence as you float past looming mountains or damaged skyscrapers, the only sounds being the creaking of rope and timber, constantly straining your eyes to see if that’s the glint of an enemy craft inside that wall of cloud-bank.

Then, BANG! Cannon fire ‘cross the starboard bow, sir! Aagh! Get on the port turrets, you scurvy dogs! I’ll swing this tub around to greet ‘em! Mister Engineer, keep watch on those propellers, I’m pushing ‘em to all they’ve got! Direct hit, sir! Wait, what the hell’s that sound? Captain, second target approaching from the stern! They’re below us, sir! Then man your stations, and full speed ahead! Prepare to fire on my command! CHARGE!

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Hmm… Might need to break out the ol’ toolkit for this one.

At least, that’s how it should be. And with the right friends, that’s what you get. Bombastic, climactic, volcanic airship action, that comfortably blends strategy with heat-of-the-moment thinking and a nicely designed backdrop. But if you go in solo and end up with a mismatched team of nose-picking goons, you can watch something that should’ve been superb get completely ruined as an experience. Hoo-bloody-rah.

So my advice to anybody considering a purchase is this: buy if you have at least one other friend who plays, and only go on it when you know he’ll be backing you up. And when you hop into matchmaking, take your own ship and pray to god that all the other crew members besides you and your bestie are just the quiet, cooperative bots, which are clearly superior to the pond life that might replace them. Those of you who don’t have any friends up for airship battles are advised to stay clear unless you have an insanely strong stomach, and not just because of air sickness.


6.5/10

With a better community this easily could’ve been an eight or even higher, but the fact that players are permitted to act like dicks and even actively encouraged to do so means that the biggest foe in Guns Of Icarus isn’t the enemy – it’s your own crew. Scoop this one up if you’ve got comrades who you love and trust, otherwise you may want to keep your feet on the ground.