Overwatch Review

Overwatch is Blizzard’s first completely new IP since 1998, and their first foray into the first person shooter. In a genre overloaded with tired, drab military and sterile Sci-Fi trappings, Overwatch joins Splatoon and Battleborn in proving there’s more than enough room for a splash of colour and personality.

A multiplayer-only shooter in the vein of Team Fortress 2, Overwatch takes ample inspiration from Valve’s hat-peddling juggernaut. You’ll play a part in either an attacking or defending team in objective-focused game modes that are tied to specific maps. These objectives range from escorting a payload to a delivery point to capturing sequential control points while the defending team attempts to hold off the assault until the timer runs out. There’s also a more directly adversarial mode in which two teams go head-to-head in an effort to catch a single control point, king-of-the-hill style. Like I said: very Team Fortress 2.

Overwatch expands on this formula, however, by taking cues from MOBAs. Don’t worry if you’re not a fan of the still-burgeoning genre, however; Overwatch is indomitably a shooter at heart. This influence only goes as far as the makeup of the characters you’ll be controlling- each of the game’s 21 heroes differ not only in weapon loadout and health, but in their cooldown-based abilities.

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Heroes are split into four broad categories- Assault, Defence, Tank, and Support. This diverse and vibrant cast of characters is Overwatch’s biggest triumph and back-of-the-box selling point. Every single hero, even the more archetypal ones, are perfectly designed to ooze a unique personality to rival the best fighting game lineups. You can tell from a glance exactly what each individual is about, and vitally each character casts a distinct silhouette to allow swift recognition by allies and foes alike. Overwatch should absolutely be celebrated for its diverse international cast; there’s a very inclusive feeling promoted by the motley crew.

Being presented with such a choice of play styles is initially dizzying. Crucially, heroes are designed so that there’s a tremendous variety within each class; there’re many different ways of getting the job done, although there’s enough common ground between characters that they’re never too jarring to switch between despite the vast differences between them.

Players that favour Tanking might plump for Reinhardt, a great hammer-wielding armoured colossus with the ability to project a massive rectangular shield that blocks incoming fire but not outgoing friendly fire. Alternatively there’s Zarya, whose laser cannon deals more damage when energy shields she casts on herself and allies block damage. Defensive players can plump for Hanzo, a bow-and-arrow sniper that can scamper up walls and hone in on distant foes with normal and scatter arrows. Or they might choose Mei, whose mastery of cryotechnology can freeze enemies in place and throw up ice walls to inhibit enemy movement. Offensively-minded players can zip about the map as cyborg ninja Genji, throwing shurikens at foes with pinpoint accuracy and reflecting bullets back at their bewildered faces with your katana. For an even faster pace, the game’s mascot Tracer holds two bullet-spraying SMGs, can blink across the battle with three swiftly-recharging dashes, and rewind time for herself to regain lost health and confuse foes.

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The hardest sell, especially for new players, has to be the Support class- these are mostly healers. Luckily, Blizzard has crafted a handful of Support heroes that pick-up-and-play with ease. Lucio is perhaps the best bet for newbies, a fast-moving DJ whose music continually heals those within range. More advanced players will flock to Mercy, whose healing ray only focuses on one target but restores health at a quick rate, as well as Zenyatta who casts an orb of harmony to heal allies and an orb of discord to debuff enemies. Rounding out the Support class is Symmetra, who can place lots of small turrets on walls and floors and has the ability to build a teleporter to get downed allies back into the fight. She can’t heal people directly- she can only throw a small shield on her allies- but on some maps she’s an invaluable asset.

Alongside the innate playability of the Support characters, your job is also made easy by the slight change to your HUD. When you’re a healer, allies’ silhouettes show though walls in a colour that represents their status- green for full health, yellow for hurt, and orange-red for critically damaged heroes.

Beyond minor hero abilities on cooldowns, each character boasts an Ultimate ability. This slowly charges by itself over time, but the process speeds up when you play your role well, be it dealing or healing damage. These abilities range from Mercy’s power to revive dead teammates in the field to Hanzo’s deadly Dragonstrike which fires two twisting, deadly spectral dragons. Ultimate abilities range in bombast, but every move has its place in the right situation.

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The variety of heroes on offer leads to an evolving metagame whereby players can switch between heroes on respawn to counter the enemy team. No matter how potentially potent each character, there’s always multiple available foils. Unfortunately, not every participant takes advantage of this mechanic, meaning you’ll occasionally get stuck in a rut because of an unchanging and unfavourable team makeup.

Another potential pitfall is that you’re likely to encounter teams that refuse to pick a tank or healer character, despite prompts on the character selection screen warning of poor lineup choices. While victory is very possible with a full team of Assault characters, it’s not very likely; I found myself having to play Support or Tank multiple games in a row to remain competitive. Every role is fun to play, but variety is the spice of this game and it can get a bit frustrating to be forced into a specific role repeatedly.

Furthermore, despite the top-notch job balancing heroes, on some maps it is very easy for a defending team to fill their ranks with a specific hero and more or less completely block out the opposition. For instance, Torbjörn is a defensive character that can build a powerful turret, very much akin to Team Fortress 2’s Engineer. One or two Torbjörns can easily be countered with a handy sniping character, but on the Volskala Industries map a team with 5 Torbjörns can cover pretty much every angle of attack with deadly crossfire. Perhaps it’s not a great idea to allow more than two players the same hero on the same team in public matches.

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Fortunately that’s not a problem on most of the maps you’ll be shooting apart. Each level is carefully designed to accommodate each of the 21 heroes’ play styles, and although some individuals end up especially suited to certain maps it’s an incredibly impressive feat on Blizzard’s part. Not only is there a grand variety in pathing and layout, but each place is as visually and culturally distinct as the heroes themselves. In a game that solely revolves around competitive play, it’s great to take in slices of London, Route 66, Gibraltar, Egypt and more within each session.

As you leap, slice, and otherwise tear up maps in competitive multiplayer, you’ll gain XP for your efforts to level up. Each level gained unlocks a new loot box, which will yield four randomised cosmetic items of variable rarity. These range from emotes and voice lines to new skins for your characters- the rarest of which go beyond a simple palette swap to reimagine the hero quite drastically. Unlocking loot boxes gets downright addictive, and I’ve often found the pull to play just one more game in order to get at another pull of the bandit’s arm. You can buy loot boxes, too, if you want to build up aesthetic options faster. While this system is undoubtedly satisfying- it’s really great when you land an awesome legendary skin for a beloved character- the growing distance between level-ups as you progress has the potential to make it really hard to resist just caving in to those microtransactions. It’s just a little bit too good at locking you into the reward of new loot, and on balance I think the system is insidious. Undoubtedly the game is worth full price, but this is just plain cheeky- even if the loot is purely cosmetic.

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Still, Overwatch is a mighty fine game with fun and variety in spades. If regular games in Quick Match start to feel too bland, there’s plenty of flavour to be found in the Weekly Brawl, a game mode that switches each week. This opening week featured the Arcade Mode, in which each hero’s health is doubled while regular and Ultimate ability cooldowns are severely reduced. I was surprised at how this changed the flow of play, with certain heroes coming into the spotlight especially empowered by the alterations while established powerhouses were considerably less appealing. This kind of weekly shake-up is precisely what this game needs, and I’m very excited to see how future events shuffle the status quo.

Blizzard has knocked it out of the park on this one. All of their history building casts of compelling characters, accommodating diverse playstyles, and tightening every knut and bolt of the resulting mad machine has somehow translated to a splendid FPS debut. Overwatch is a compelling, polished, and overwhelmingly fresh experience. Most importantly, it’s a total blast to play.

Doom Review

Like many, I was skeptical of Doom before its release. Following a lukewarm reception to the multiplayer Beta, Bethesda decided not to send out review copies of the game until its release day. While they explained this away with servers going not going live until launch day, it was enough to set off alarm bells. So I want to clear this up upfront: despite pre-release concerns, Doom is bloody fantastic.

Leaping into the campaign, Doom had me within the first three minutes. You, the Doom Marine, awake in a sarcophagus and surrounded by demons that you immediately tear apart. You don your armour and a monitor jumps to life, alerting you to the fact that the Martian facility you’re on is infested with demonic activity. The screen is taken over by the facility’s head, introducing himself as Dr Samuel Hayden. He goes on to explain that you can work together to solve this problem in a way that benefits you both… or he would, if the Doom Marine hadn’t disdainfully smashed the monitor into a nearby wall.

In under two minutes, I’m on Doom’s side. It’s a game that clearly doesn’t care about the grimdark, self-serious attitude exhibited in so many modern action games. This is Doom. Of course you’re not here for bland exposition; you’re here to rip and tear the denizens of hell apart, and you’re placed in the vessel of a protagonist that wants just that.

The faceless and voiceless Doom Marine, in both these first few moments and throughout the game, is more expressive than any number of bland heroes from other games. Somehow he’s possessed of more personality than whatshisname from Quantum Break, Ratchet from this year’s Ratchet and Clank, and any number of bland hero stereotypes. The Doom Marine is pissed off and ready to rend his enemies asunder. He’s a vengeful spirit of rage packed into a suit of Praetor armour, and all of his personality- his fury, his unwillingness to compromise, and his ruthlessly straightforward efficiency- is clearly translated through excellent animation.

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And so you leap guns ablaze into one of the most ecstatically gratifying campaigns in recent memory. As if I had to tell you, Doom is an FPS with a non-regenerating health bar, a lot of guns, and hordes of enemies to tackle. While you start out with a measly pistol, your arsenal builds thick and fast with a range of incredibly chunky and potent weaponry. id Software still knows how to build a great shotgun; the combat shotgun is sure to become your go-to staple for the duration of the game. It’s in distinguished company, though, with a heavy rifle, rocket launcher, and gauss cannon sitting pretty amongst a plethora of meaty weaponry. What’s also incredibly refreshing is the fact that there’s no reloading in this game; you can fire your weapon continually until you’re entirely out of ammo.

To mix things up further, nearly all of the guns are moddable to introduce alternate fire modes. The shotgun, for instance, may be affixed with one of two modifications: an underslung grenade launcher, or the ability to rapidly unleash a triple-shot burst. These mods really do add an abundance of new strategies to employ against the hordes of Hell, and can be swapped out at the press of a button.

As well as old favourites from your roster of guns, the chainsaw returns in all its glory. This time it’s always on you, and it will instantly kill non-boss enemies. The catch is that it runs on fuel; the larger or more formidable the demon, the more fuel is required to saw them apart. Performing a chainsaw kill will always yield an abundance of ammunition, so it’s worth saving some fuel for tight spots and protracted gunfights.

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Appropriately to the series’ roots you’re very mobile, with a high movement speed, the ability to clamber up ledges, and a double-jump unlocked early on. This manoeuvrability is just as important to the flow of the game as the gunplay, since with practice and skill you can dodge enemy projectiles and attacks while returning fire in kind. It’s vital to make use of your environment to get one over on the armies of Hell.

One feature that’s been met with pre-release scepticism is the Glory Kill system. When you gravely damage an enemy without killing them, they’ll become dazed and start flashing. Melee- attacking them in this state triggers a short, violent animation where the Doom Marine tears them apart, always yielding a small amount of health. The fear was that this feature would transform the traditionally fast-paced Doom combat into a halting stop-start mess of pre-canned animations.

Instead, Glory Kills actually bolster the unrelenting gunplay, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the animations take up a perfect amount of time; they’re long enough that you’re given half a second to take a mental break and assess your situation amidst the bloody maelstrom,yet short (and varied) enough that they don’t become tiresome. Secondly, the fact that they give you health encourages you to get stuck into the thick of the action, drip-feeding you health to keep you alive and kicking.

All of these elements- the powerful arsenal, hyper manoeuvrability, and Glory Kills, combined with clever health, armour and ammo pickups, makes combat feel like equal parts survival and domination. You’re far from invincible, but you’re still damn bloody dangerous.

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These finely tuned mechanics wouldn’t be much use without good enemy and level design, but id Software excels in these areas too. Hell’s army brings forth a wonderfully realised host of abominations to face off against, with Hell Knights, Cacodemons and Lost Souls returning in rich detail. Every different foe looks great, pleasing and intimidating in equal measure, and crucially projecting distinct silhouettes to make the situation clearly readable to the player. Importantly, each different class of enemy behaves in a unique way, requiring a different strategy to make you switch weapons regularly and flavouring each new encounter with a different required approach to the assortment of cannon fodder and dangerous threats both.

On the level-design side, Doom has you running and jumping through labyrinthine environments on Mars and in Hell. There’s an almost Metroid-esque fashion to the way you’ll approach each stage, platforming and back-tracking to reveal more portions of the map. Despite the complex nature of the routes you’ll run and gun along, the quality of the environmental design is such that you won’t find yourself getting lost very often. Simple platforming also provides much-needed breaks in between the relentless action; I never felt fatigued by an over-saturation of combat, which is a serious achievement in a game with such hectically intense battles.

Jumping between Mars and Hell also switches up the scenery so you’ll not get bored of facility corridors or Physics-abandoned Hellscapes. Each level has its own distinct aesthetic and feel; it’s impressive that id could squeeze so much longevity out of the industrial Facility setting, and each time you warp to Hell you’re exploring a visually distinct portion of the dimension. id proves that just because you’re exploring barren wastelands, they don’t have to be boring or samey.

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As an extension of the level design, Doom’s collectables are really well-designed too. They’ll turn up on your map as you explore new areas, and with a couple of upgrade points into your Praetor suit they’ll be highlighted regardless. What’s great about Doom’s collectables is that they impact upon the gameplay: aforementioned weapon mods add deadly functionality to your guns; Praetor Suit and Argent Energy upgrades your suit’s systems and your survivability; Rune Trials drop you into a short challenge instance that yields ability-enhancing runes on success, like an improved double-jump or a longer range for ammo and health pickups.

On top of this, there are data logs that unlock codex entries about Doom’s world, a feature that’s actually compelling because the personality of this world and its inhabitants makes me want to learn more about them. There are also little Doomguy action figures which unlock detailed character and weapon models. Overall, I was driven to uncover as many secrets as possible during my time in Doom’s campaign, both for and the reward and the puzzle itself, and I’m sure I’ll keep coming back to comb the maps for illusive tidbits.

Doom is an incredibly slick presentation. It’s a damn fine looking game, managing to make blasted wastelands and industrial facilities visually appealing (it probably helps that the landscapes and corridors are populated by twisted horrors and flavoured by ridiculous scenes of Satanic ritual). Accompanying the rollocking ride is a soundtrack thick with heavy guitar jams that help energise and punctuate the action with aplomb. It’s fair to say that Doom is a sensory tour-de-force in terms of tactile, visual, and audio experiences.

The game is even packed with details like death animations that’ll surprise and delight well into the late game. For all this incidental and visual detail, though, there were pretty significant loading times on the Xbox One. This wasn’t too frustrating in-between levels, but loading in and out of Rune Trials proved to be a bit of a flow-breaking nuisance. Furthermore, if you load the game up and decide to select multiplayer or Snapmap modes, the whole game reloads again to select that mode from the menu. There weren’t too many noticeable bugs in the campaign, although I did experience a complete loss of dialogue audio for a good portion of the game which meant that I had to rely on subtitles for exposition. It’s a good thing I tend to automatically activate subtitles, or I would’ve missed out on a lot of context.

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Despite the widespread tepid response to the multiplayer, I personally found it quite enjoyable as a short-term distraction. Though it’s not the arena shooter everyone wanted (which might well have been better, but we have what we have), there’s something to be said for a game that lets you enter the action with a rocket launcher from the get-go. I don’t see a tremendous amount of longevity in the multiplayer mode, and it’s by far the weakest component of the game’s package, but there’s something to be said for a game that lets you pull apart an enemy demon’s skull in midair before becoming a Revenant yourself to spray rockets into retreating foes with reckless abandon.

Snapmap mode is a far more intriguing portion of Doom. It’s essentially the community-creation mode, allowing players to craft levels of their own design for others to enjoy. It’s surprisingly malleable in the same vein as Halo’s Forge mode; I’ve seen Snapmaps ranging from recreations of classic Doom levels to co-op missions, tower defence games, platforming challenges and shooting ranges. There’s ample tools for the community to come up with some really interesting creations, and highly-ranked fan-made levels are highlighted for ease of browsing.

Doom is a gigantic breath of fresh air. It’s that big burger that you didn’t know you were craving until you’ve half-devoured it with ravenous glee. The campaign experience is a constant, joyous thrill ride from breathless start to pulse-pounding finish, and the multiplayer and Snapmap sections of the game offer worthwhile distractions. Doom’s purity of vision and self-assurance make it an absolute gem, easily the most enjoyable game of its kind to come out for quite some time. It’s a Hell of a game.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review

Nathan Drake is out of the game. In an attempt at a “normal” life after too many brushes with death, the man has finally settled down with longtime flame Elena. A small number of pilfered relics and McGuffins from previous games now litter his dusty loft, mere mementos of adventures past. But when Nate’s long-lost brother Sam turns up in debt to a dangerous criminal, he’s dragged again into old, illegal ways. Make no mistake, though: while this game carries all the hallmarks of the One Last Hurrah, Naughty Dog presents an experience that leverages the series’ past to weave a tale worth telling.

This time, Drake’s chasing down Captain Henry Avery’s long-lost treasure in a quest that once again whisks him and his companions across the globe. Uncharted 4 doesn’t reinvent the series’ trademark bombastic action-adventure formula, instead introducing gentle yet meaningful tweaks to the game’s mechanics and design to improve the whole experience.

The levels you’ll clamber and swashbuckle your way through are designed to facilitate the series’ characteristic merger of traversal and combat. Graspable ledges on both natural and manmade surfaces are gently highlighted with a telltale dusting of colour, and Drake reaches out to ledges that you can climb to which makes monkeying about cliff faces feel intuitive. You can take cover behind flat objects and waist-high walls and easily mantle the latter. You know the drill, it’s par for the Uncharted course.

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What’s new is the grappling hook, which integrates itself into Uncharted’s established platforming admirably while affording an easy verticality in level design. You can use it to swing across chasms, safely rappel down steep drops, and to pull objects towards you from afar.

The platforming mechanics are as solid as ever, and enable you to fling yourself around the varied environments in an engaging and kinetic fashion whether you’re climbing up a Scottish cliff face with relative leisure or frantically attempting to outrun a hail of gunfire in Italy. Levels are less straightforward this time, though- while there’s a set path for progression through levels, there are often areas and arenas with multiple routes of advancement which does reduce that on-rails feeling.

You’ll also employ these skills in combat situations, during which you’re usually dropped into an arena patrolled by enemies unaware of your presence- although there’s a fair share of firefights that start hot. Combat this time feels more frantic and improvisational than ever before, with an emphasis on dropping in and out of stealth to eliminate your foes. You’ll sneak through high grass and leap between ledges in the vertical environments to get the (sometimes literal) drop on enemies with stealth takedowns.

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If you’re spotted, you’ve a multitude of options to spring into action with. You can hunker down behind cover to trade fire and grenades with your attackers, rapidly switching safe spots as enemy fire swiftly degrades your cover while attempting to flank you from all sides. Alternatively, you can go on the run- this is what the game really wants you to do. There’s a special thrill afforded by the chaotic firefights that ensue when you’re swinging from point to point, guns ablaze while bullets fill the air around you.

Crucially, Uncharted 4’s goons don’t know where you are if you manage to break their line of sight for a few seconds- and while they’ll still search for you, you can use the upper hand to take out a few more men without drawing fire. This not only makes stealthy gameplay achievable if you mess up and get spotted, but also really lends the feeling that you’re thinking on your feet to gain the advantage against all odds.

Combat sections aren’t actually all that prevalent in Uncharted 4; I’d estimate that probably less than a third of your time is spent engaging your adversaries. You’ll spend most of your time carefully navigating environments, solving simple yet stimulating navigational puzzles to chase down that treasure.

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That’s not to say that this game doesn’t offer its fair share of explosive action. Uncharted 4 might be the most varied AAA game released yet this year, and you’re constantly shifting between different modes of play. Ponderous exploration scenes seasoned with dialogue are interspersed with high-flying action, sudden spikes of danger yank the carpet out from under you (the all-but-patented “precarious handholds occasionally crumble under your fingers” trick is less prevalent but still very present), and you’re constantly facing new challenges and situations. Now you’re driving, now you’re shooting, now you’re solving a puzzle, now you’re in a quietly emotional scene, now you’re hanging by a thread over a 1,000-foot drop. Uncharted 4 buckles you in for one hell of a ride, and plastered a grin across my face for most of my time with it.

Despite its commitment to the series’ gameplay, Uncharted 4 offers us a different take on an Uncharted narrative. This game was led by The Last of Us directors Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, and while the story features similar beats of twists, turns and reveals to the established Uncharted formula, Uncharted 4 shows an altogether more mature, grounded emotional core.

The game’s somber reflection on Nathan Drake, a man torn between obsession with adventure and the hope of a normal life, feels like a fitting focus for the narrative. Drake continues to be a revelation with his script, voice work from Nolan North, and incredible animation contributing to make him one of the most likeable and relatable playable characters out there. That’s despite the ludonarrative dissonance that comes from a person able to kill so many people without needing therapy, although I’m not sure why people hone in on Drake so much when this issue is so widespread in games. For what it’s worth, this treasure hunt is set up as an endeavour that Drake absolutely must pursue and the foes in his way demand violent action.

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The entire cast of the game is enthralling to watch, too- stellar vocal performances all round, especially the game’s core cast of Sully, Elena, and Nate’s brother Sam, played by Troy Baker. Uncharted games always have superb scripts, and this is one of the few games that I played through without a podcast on in the background because of the constant, excellent dialogue presence. Uncharted 4 features some of the best character work out there, and I was thoroughly invested in the personal stories of these people.

Special mention must go to Uncharted 4’s facial animation; you can see the history between these characters written across their faces when they’re interacting, with every expression and eye movement immaculately represented. Character models are painstakingly rendered; if you position Nate in just the right light, you can see the cartilage in his ears.

This flair for visual polish extends to the rest of the game too, in a presentation with a frankly astounding level of detail. There’s a reason that the game has a photo mode that allows you to pause the action at any time to take screenshots, although screenshots just don’t do justice to what this game looks like in motion. Locales from around the globe are lovingly designed and rendered, often feeling like real places rather than a constructed playground. Uncharted 4 might well be the best looking game I’ve seen that’s shooting for “realism” in its graphics, and you’re sure to revel in its visual delights. This isn’t just in the wild outdoors, either; I was amazed walking through Nate’s house early on, so realistic was the depiction of a home. The way that light glanced off windows, picture frames, and tiled surfaces differently alone was eerily lifelike in itself.

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Pair this with the multitude of incidental details of animation and script like the way that Nate checks his hair when you look in the mirror, or appropriately grunts and careens a bit if you swing into a wall, and you’ve got a game that’s full to the brim with details that draw you into its world.

There are plenty of extras to chase after the credits roll, too. Completionists may want to hunt down every artifact scattered throughout the game, or play the story through again on a different difficulty level. The variety and swashbuckling glee of this game certainly lends itself to repeated play for a lark. If you’re somehow held back from replays by the notion of walking familiar ground, there are even filters that overhaul the game’s graphics, rendering the world in cel-shaded, negative, 8-bit, and rainbow-coloured variants. There’s also a multiplayer, if you fancy pitting your skills against others’.

Uncharted 4 is a beautiful, pulse-pounding, pensive, sublime experience that is, dare I say it, absolutely essential whether you played previous games in the series or not. Naughty Dog’s talent and love for this game shine through in brilliant fashion from the first moment to when the credits roll around hour 16. Uncharted 4 is a triumph in narrative, character work, and gameplay, and a great example of what polished AAA design can achieve.

Ratchet and Clank Review

Ratchet and Clank, or Ratchet and Clank (2016) as we’ll soon refer to it, is a re-imagining of the series’ first game from 2002. It’s not a remake because it ties into the recent film, which is based on the 2002 original. To make things clear: you’ll play through levels which are sometimes faithful depictions of those found in the original game, and sometimes slightly or wholly reimagined, while the story has been altered to closely fit the events depicted in the movie.

The setting is playful spacefaring science fiction. Ratchet, a mechanic of the Lombax race, is called to action when diminutive robot Clank crash-lands on his backwater planet with terrible news: Chairman Drek of the Blarg intends to tear apart populated worlds to create a new planet to replace his race’s polluted home world. The pair set off to join the idolised Galactic Rangers, led by heroic Captain Quark, in a romp through some of the planets you’ll remember from the first game.

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The first thing to strike me playing thorough Ratchet and Clank was just how beautifully those planets are realised. It’s probably worth mentioning that the 2002 original got me into console gaming in the first place, and while it’s been years since I completed a whole playthrough, it was fascinating to see familiar planets and sequences rendered with current-gen technology. It’s the closest to that “playable Pixar movie” holy grail that’s been sought after for years.

Bright colours from a diverse palette pop in crisply realised alien planets. Cityscapes and less developed locales alike are alive with detail and moving parts that emphasises the feel of a vibrant and lively universe. The trademark wacky character designs are rendered with care, with delightful animation; smear techniques add expressiveness and punch to animations found in enemies’ attacks and your wrench’s swing. This all combines to build one of the most visually impressive games that can be found on consoles.

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Ratchet and Clank uses the reimagined worlds from the 2002 original as a stage for you to traverse and shoot-up vertical playgrounds with your quickly-growing arsenal of guns and gadgets. Along with the spruced-up level designs, this gameplay is similarly tweaked to account for the decade of experience Insomniac accrued making Ratchet games. Shooting aims your shots to wherever you’re pointed while you freely leap about the level, but you’re encouraged to hold the strafe button to lock the camera into more standard over-the-shoulder shooter mode. Jumping in this state makes Ratchet leap in whichever direction you’re moving, allowing him to dodge incoming fire while returning assault in kind.

Ratchet controls well, with each movement feeling tight and well-measured. These games have always controlled well, and Insomniac hasn’t re-invented the wheel unnecessarily; you’re still a leaping agent of death with a helicopter/thruster- equipped robot strapped to your back and a penchant for collecting bolts for currency, so if you found gameplay from previous Ratchet games satisfying then you won’t complain here.

A big part of the Insomniac style comes from the aforementioned arsenal of weaponry you’ll acquire as you strafe and flip through the game’s hurdles. You’ll acquire bolts from slain enemies and smashed crates that can be traded in at Gadgetron vendors in exchange for some new tools of destruction. This release features weapons from throughout the series (the Groovitron, Mr. Zurkon, and multiple variants of the RYNO appear amongst more alumni) , as well as some original entries like the Pixelizer, which turns enemies into voxel versions of themselves. The care that’s gone into this game is even more apparent when you take weapons like the Pixelizer and the Groovitron into account- the latter forces enemies to dance for a short time, for which each enemy in the game has their own dance animation. It would’ve been nice to have seen some of the more interesting weapons from the 2002 original make the cut, like the Tesla Claw and the Suck Cannon, but you’ve still got a diverse array of interesting weapons to play with that gain XP to become more potent with use.

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There’s also a modding system for your weapons that’s tied into a secondary currency you’ll find in your travels, the illusive Raritanium. These crystals can be spent at Gadgetron vendors to unlock nodes on extensive upgrade trees for each gun- you’ll pay one crystal of Raritanium to activate each modular upgrade that’s represented as a hexagonal node. These range from a slight increase in effective range or item drop rates to more potent mystery upgrades that you’ll need to surround with bought mod nodes to unlock.

All the gunplay can get really rather hectic. There’s often a lot of enemies and particle effects onscreen at once, and I often found myself confused in the hubbub which led to a few frustrating encounters. Death tends to land you just before the start of the current encounter, and I’m unsure whether that helps or harms the experience- it does lessen the pain of waiting to jump back in and meet the challenge, but you’re also robbed of much reflective downtime and the fight starts to feel trivial when setbacks of failure are so lenient. For the most part though, encounters are well designed for players to experiment with their full range of weapons and abilities, and frustrating sections whose strife can be drawn back to level design itself are few and far between.

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It is useful to take a break from all the action though, and Ratchet and Clank offers a smorgasbord of distractions and accompaniments to the core gunplay. Jetpack areas, though sparse, kick the vertical aspect of gameplay up a notch by making use of a jetpack acquired midgame to explore sprawling vistas. Rail-grinding returns, which functions as calming eye candy as you leap between airborne rails and bat away explosive mines to progress through and explore levels. Flying missions put you in the pilot’s seat of your ship, pitting you against scores of enemy craft with your machine gun fire and barrel rolls.

More substantial are sequences where you’ll play as Clank in rare occurrences where he’s separated from Ratchet. These are the slowest-paced sections of the lot, where you’ll solve simple puzzles centred around picking up and programming little robots to help you reach your goal. Juggling multiple helpers, switching them between bounce-pad, battery, and bridge-building modes might only gently tease your brain, but it’s a welcome change of pace that only sticks around long enough for you to be ready to jump back into action once again.

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There’s even a couple of collectible-shaped diversions to chase. Gold Bolts return, hidden treasures which can be used to unlock fun rewards like cheats. You’ll also find Holocards from defeated enemies and nooks and crannies of the game world. Collect trios of these and you’ll unlock content ranging from concept art to Omega versions of weapons for the Challenge Mode (this game’s version of New Game Plus). There’s a lot of this side content for fervent players to track down, and it’s another indicator of the amount of effort that’s gone into making this game a worthwhile product.

Sadly, where Ratchet and Clank’s triumphs in the gameplay and visual design departments shine, the game falls flat when it comes to its narrative elements. While levels from the 2002 game are re-rendered almost verbatim, the game’s plot is a far more faithful adaptation of the movie’s version of events. In fact, cut-scenes here actually turn out to be sequences lifted straight from the film- your PS4 even alerts you that it’s stopped recording footage because you’re watching “blocked material”.

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This means that the script from 2002’s Ratchet and Clank is mostly scrapped in favour of the film’s version of the characters. Ratchet is no longer a street-smart, selfish cynic, but rather a stereotypical bright-eyed Yes Man that answers the call to heroism without question. And Clank is no longer really a character at all, in stark contrast to the logical yet naive persona found in the original game. Our protagonists are weirdly quiet out of cutscenes, and most of their cut scene-based dialogue is blandly expository. As cliched as the tropes the original game leaned on are, at least those characters felt like they broke into the third dimension. A lot of the jokes from the original game made me laugh or smile even when I watched a supercut of the cutscenes in preparation for this review. By comparison, this game offers boring facsimiles of once-interesting characters that feel like they’re reciting a bad script in need of a first pass.

Even the series’ tongue-in-cheek humour is weakly represented here; it seems like this game can’t wait a single minute to bleat another ill-conceived jibe or unimaginative referential joke in your direction, and it gets tiring after a short while.

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There’s a really weird disparity of continuity between the game and its film footage cut-scenes, too. Later on there’s a scene where Clank springs a sudden plan into action. When asked what he’s doing, Clank turns to the camera and says meaningfully, “I’m improvising”, to which Ratchet smiles and gives a nod of recognition. This moment lifted from the movie is referencing some exchange that’s only found in the movie, and it sticks out like a sore thumb amongst a number of direct contradictions between events from cut-scenes and the game proper.

It leads to a sort of disconnect between the player and the game. The bland script, the constant stream of misfired jokes, the constant tension between the gameplay and the cut-scenes. In spite of the slavishly reimagined levels, designs and mechanics, the crucial narrative cocoon of the game has been sacrificed to resemble the film, like so many tie-in games before. Ratchet and Clank (2016) is a riotous ten hours of fun whose characters and story just won’t stick with you after the fact, and that’s a shame when you think about all of the love that’s obviously been poured into the game’s design.

Overwatch Beta Impressions

With its May 24th release date within sight, Overwatch’s open Beta is officially live. I was lucky enough to gain early access from a friend that pre-ordered the game; I’ve played through the Beta for about 8 hours, and I’m confident that I’ve experienced the game enough to share solid impressions.

Overwatch is Blizzard’s newest offering: a character-driven multiplayer FPS in the vein of Team Fortress 2. It takes ample inspiration from MOBAs too, with an emphasis on the different abilities of its varied cast of heroes.

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After a short time in the tutorials, which include matches against bots, I felt ready to jump into proper online play. You can use the Custom Game option to set up a specific match of your choice, but the Quick Match option pairs you with random maps and game types. This process, and the match objectives themselves, are thoroughly reminiscent of Team Fortress 2, framing matches around attacking and defence.

Despite each game requiring attack and defence from each team, there’s still some variety to proceedings. Some games require teams to fight over a single capture zone, gaining points for each second that the area is under your control until your victory meter reaches 100%. Other matches allow the defending team a minute to set up defences for a capture point in a bid to prevent the attacking team from capturing it. There’s also a mode where the the attacking team must push forwards a “payload” along a linear path through the map by standing near it, while the defending team fends them off to prevent this progression. In a really nice touch, you can choose to Skirmish when you’re searching for a match group. This drops you into a map with other randoms, leaving you to play with unfamiliar heroes with no stakes while the matchmaking works its magic in the background.

Whether you’re on an attacking or defending team, you’ll need a rounded team of heroes. Overwatch’s Beta features all 21 characters that will be available in the final game, and they’re a really fun bunch to experiment and play with. Heroes fall under four categories: Offence, the high-DPS damage-dealers; Defence, characters who disrupt and manipulate enemy attackers to protect specific locations; Tanks, heroes with high defence to draw enemy fire away from their comrades; and finally Support characters who mainly take the form of healers, but essentially improve allies’ effectiveness while hampering that of the enemy team.

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Perhaps Overwatch’s greatest asset is its diverse cast of characters, and the way that different members of each category play very distinctly. You can switch your character while respawning, and it’s crucial to engage in this evolving metagame on the fly as you and the opposing team hot-switch between heroes to counter each other.

Heroes are really, really well designed, with each individual exuding a distinct personality from the moment you clap eyes on them in a way that rivals the pillars of the fighting game genre. Critically, that aforementioned diversity within each class of character is emphasised with the heroes’ abilities and Ultra abilities. Take the Tank class: Reinhardt is an ironclad giant wielding a massive hammer boasting a big energy shield that allies can shoot through, a rocket-powered boost that allows him to grasp and crush foes on walls, a ranged energy blast, and an Ultra ability that incapacitates enemies caught in its blast. Zarya, however, is a musclebound Russian woman with a large laser gun, the ability to throw a temporary shield on other players and herself, and her Ultra is a black hole that damages enemies caught in its effective radius. Different maps, scenarios, and enemy hero configurations will call for different approaches; offensive teams might plump for Reinhardt, who can hold a shield while pressing forwards, while defensive teams might better benefit from Zarya’s shielding abilities.

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While each hero is likeable in their own way, there were some characters that struck me as especially interesting to play. Mei, for instance, is a Defensive character with an ice gun. She can freeze enemies in their tracks, or shoot them with high-impact icicles that are deadly to weaker heroes and anyone struck in the head. She can also mess with attackers by throwing massive ice walls, splitting up teams, isolating problem enemies, and preventing avenues of attack and progression.

Lucio is also notable as a great healer for beginners. He’s a DJ whose music can boost movement speed or heal nearby allies, a buff that you can switch at the press of a button. While in healing mode he continually heals allies that are close by, so is largely free to shoot at enemies so long as the player takes care to stay near Tanks or fragile Offensives in danger of death. In a game that absolutely requires competent healing, it’s great to see a character that eases people into the unpopular healing role.

The Beta offers a substantial experience that I’m certain is almost identical in scope to the final game. The levelling-up system is available, in which you progress through earning XP from matches Call of Duty-style. Each level gained gifts you with a loot box that hold four randomised customisation assets for your heroes, from emotes to skins (which range from simple palette swaps to full costume overhauls). Having unlocked a fair few customisation items for my characters, I can certainly say that it’s a system that promotes progression; I’ll be sorry to see my hard-earned skins go when the Beta closes (especially my personal favourite demonic skin for Reinhardt).

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There are some issues that mar the otherwise great experience, though. While balanced teams are a must for success, some players consistently choose to play as their favourite characters no matter what, forcing you to play as a Tank or Support character for Nth game in a row if you don’t want to get pounded into the mud by a properly-balanced enemy team. The character selection screen does alert your team to weak spots in your lineup, but perhaps a firmer hand is required to regularly achieve balanced teams.

There are also some situations where it’s far too easy for a team to select a perfect storm of heroes that make progression for the opposing team incredibly difficult on certain maps. Maybe this is more of an indictment of slight balance issues, but opposing teams have on occasion locked down zones by dropping automated turrets in such a way that every conceivable angle of attack is met with maddening, unstoppable death.

Luckily, there’s still loads of time for Blizzard to tweak heroes and perhaps think their way around balance issues associated with certain hero combinations. For those that want a more level, improvisational playing-field, there’s a randomised hero mode that switches your character on death. It’s really fun if you don’t mind occasionally falling mercy to the randomiser.

Overwatch is shaping up to be a great game. The maps are great, the characters are a joy, matches are varied and fair, and the whole game is just bursting with personality and colour. While sometimes slight balance issues are apparent, Overwatch is remarkably well-designed to the extent that I’m wondering what Blizzard isn’t able to achieve.

Hitman: Sapienza Review

It’s been six weeks and a hair since Hitman: Intro Pack launched, aspiring to take a leaf from Telltale Games’ book with an episodic release format. Doubling down on the series’ trademark replayability, it seems that this game’s success would hinge on the quality of future content. If Hitman: Sapienza is anything to go on, fans can rest easy for now; Hitman is in very good hands.

Sapienza brings Hitman’s second major map and story mission, set in the eponymous Italian town. Your mark this time is noted bioengineer Silvia Caruso, a troubled genius that’s developing a deadly virus that can target specific people across the world- something of a killer app in the assassination game. His phobia of travel means that he doesn’t want to leave his luxuriant mansion, which is handily kitted out with an underground laboratory. You’re also to take out Caruso’s Head of Laboratory, Francesca De Santos, who is very capable of taking over if (when) Caruso leaves the picture. Finally, you must destroy the virus sample in the laboratory.

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As with Paris, it’s a joy to carry out the mission a number of times. There’s more to each of your targets than you’re initially aware of, and integrating your intel into assassination approaches is still tremendous fun. I was a little bit disappointed when the most obviously laid-out paths for each mark involved poisoning, but repeat playthroughs revealed some delightfully outlandish executions that topped my standing favourite kill from this game so far (that would be tipping the wife onto her husband in Paris).

The real star, though, is the map itself. Like Paris, Sapienza centres around a very classy mansion, although this map still manages to feel distinct. The streets surrounding the estate feel alive and fleshed-out, with a surprising amount of enterable buildings. Sun-bleached yellow cobbles, colourful cafes and butcher shops bustle with activity, and the backdrop of Mediterranean cliffs and sea sets a totally different tone to the mansion setting.

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I remain gobsmacked at the scale and complexity of Sapienza. Even though the crowds are thinner than last time’s Herculean effort, there are still scores of NPCs to outsmart, outmanoeuvre, and impersonate. The mansion is smaller than Paris’ too, but the streets and caves around and under the place lends a serpentine, multilayered feel that showcases the game’s continual utilisation of current-gen technology.

There are some issues with dumbass AI, though. NPCs largely react relatively intelligently to situations, with a believable spread of alert through guards and nice touches like civilians alerting guards to illegal activity, and guards carrying found weapons to lockup. But NPC behaviour is far from perfect, since I encountered a few situations where guards tried to apprehend me whilst facing the wrong way, as well as some doofy pathing. Since the whole fantasy of the game revolves around outsmarting people, that effect is diminished when those people don’t act in a believable fashion.

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Outside of Sapienza’s story mission, there’s still a wealth of side-content in the form of Escalations and Contracts. Escalations have you carrying out a series of assassinations with similar objectives- like the use of explosions to take out the mark- that get progressively more difficult. Altering your approach when stipulations like “no non-target casualties” are added to the mix makes for interesting variation.

The real meat when it comes to side content is in the Contracts mode, though. It’s good to see that the community has continued to produce a plethora of quality scenarios to play through. For those that don’t know, Contracts allows players to specify chosen NPCs in a level to be killed, as well as limitations like required weapons or disguises. Crucially, IO Interactive continues to curate and promote the best examples of player-made content, ensuring a stream of fresh content each time you log onto the game.

It seems like IO is settling into a good rhythm for now. I’m excited to see where they take the series, although I hope Episode 3 steps back from the mansion setting before it becomes a crutch. Since it’ll be set in Marrakesh, I’m hoping to see more of the streets that are so well realised in this episode. IO and Square Enix have had a hard time convincing people of the viability of their release schedule, but it seems to me that a modular Hitman might shape up to be the best choice for the series right now. Good work, IO.

Enter the Gungeon Review

The most recent game to get the Devolver Digital publishing treatment, Enter the Gungeon is a top-down bullet hell shooter with roguelike trappings in the manner of Binding of Isaac and Nuclear Throne. Developers Dodge Roll have created a game that’s worthy of those comparisons; Enter the Gungeon oozes quality, personality, and moment-to-moment excitement in a package that’s likely to hook you in for just-one-more-go for ages after you meant to stop playing.

You’ll control one of four protagonists that seek the Gun That Can Kill The Past, a legendary weapon found in the Gungeon- an ancient subterranean complex where pretty much everyone is obsessed with guns.

The four characters that you control all come with different starting weapons and items. The Marine starts out with a helmet that grants extra armour, an ammo drop, and the starting pistol with the most rounds. The Pilot starts with a lock pick that allows him to try to open loot chests without expending precious keys and a small discount at the Gungeon store. The Convict starts with an extra weapon, the sawed-off shotgun, and briefly deals extra damage if hurt. Finally, the Hunter has a (adorable) dog that increases her chances of finding items like health, ammo and keys on clearing rooms, as well as a crossbow alongside her starting sidearm.

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The Marine is clearly intended as the starting character with his large pistol clip and extra armour, so I spent much of my time playing as him. When I got more used to the game, though, I started to gravitate towards playing as the Pilot and the Hunter for their increased item-finding capabilities. I think that the four characters are different enough to subtly cater to different play styles, while similar enough that it’s never too jarring to swap between them multiple times per session as the fancy takes you.

Gameplay-wise, Enter the Gungeon functions like a faster Binding of Isaac with more degrees of freedom. Your character can be moved in eight directions, however you can fire your guns with the full range of circular freedom, making navigating enemy bullets while returning fire yourself feel smooth and responsive.

A major mechanic to master is the dodge roll; Gungeon takes a leaf from Dark Souls’ book by featuring a dodge roll with invincibility for the first half of the manoeuvre. This means you can leap right through enemy fire and you won’t take damage if you don’t land in a spot occupied by bullets. The game makes sure that you understand these basic mechanics early on with a quick and clear tutorial segment, pointing out that the invincible portion of your dodge roll is when your character is diving through the air. This is more important as one might initially think because you’ll be rolling around often enough that you’ll instinctively know the length of space that you’ll be able to dive through without taking damage.

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Another important method of staving off foes’ bullets is Blanks. You’ll start out each level with two of these, and activating them clears every hostile bullet in the room while knocking enemies back. These can be crucial when you encounter new enemies or bosses with unfamiliar or difficult-to-dodge attack patterns, and are very useful if you find yourself in a pinch. Enter the Gungeon certainly understands the need to ease players into its bullet hell.

Setting foot into the Gungeon itself, you’ll crash through doors to reveal new rooms in Binding of Isaac style. You’ll flip up tables to provide temporary cover, roll explosive barrels to catch would-be ambushers in powerful explosions, and drop chandeliers onto unwitting enemies’ heads. The snappy, fast-paced combat paired with the gung-ho nature of turning the environments to your advantage gives the game the feel of a John Woo movie mashed with a quirky, Sci-Fi/ Guns-and-Sorcery aesthetic. The balletic chaos is empowered by environments packed with incidental and destructible details- tables are stacked with books and plates that scatter across the floor when flipped, along with any other obliterated objects caught in the crossfire.

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There are five levels of the Gungeon, each with their own general look and feel. The first level is the newest and most well-kept, with lots of libraries, lavish halls and walls alive with lively paintings and portraits. But as you descend levels become more decrepit and complex, and your foes more sinister.

You’re likely to repeat each level- especially the first two or three- a lot; Enter the Gungeon is a roguelike, after all, and death is always a silly mistake away. The game retains a feeling of progression, though. Beating bosses awards you with Hedgemony Credits, a persistent currency that allows you to “buy” guns from the Hub World to unlock their possibility of being dropped in the Gungeon. You’ll also stumble across and help out NPCs on your travels, who range from vendors of new guns to providers of side quests.

It helps to have this meta-progression because, like most roguelikes, you can have both good runs and bad runs. Sometimes you won’t drop enough keys to open precious loot-bearing chests, forcing you to take on bosses with your weak starting weapon. Sometimes the loot that you do get just isn’t the right tool for the job. You’ll often find yourself scrambling for money, just short of the few coins needed to buy some crucial power-up. Progression is always within reach, though, even when luck isn’t on your side. The strength of the roguelike style of play is that you’re forced to make do with what you’ve got, and while your potency is stunted on unlucky runs, you’re still very capable of dealing decent damage and battling through the hardship.

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Enter the Gungeon is characterised by its chaos, but the way the game’s designed makes that bedlam manageable to learning players. The visual design of the game is key here- enemy bullets are bright red, and pop against the enemies and environmental details within the screen’s real estate. Your fired rounds are varied in design depending on the specific gun you’re using, but they’re always distinct in their own way, too. This means you’re immediately aware of where the danger is onscreen even when you’re facing down up to a dozen targets attempting to hose you down. Even with tens, even hundreds, of individual objects onscreen, you should instinctively know where you need to dodge and weave given a bit of experience.

The gameplay is well designed, responsive and inherently gratifying, but Enter the Gungeon isn’t content to stop there. The world and its Gungeon are obsessed with guns, and the sheer dedication to laying on brilliant puns over the dungeon-crawling aesthetic is impressive. Your standard enemies are large bullets that fire guns at you, and they’re so adorable that I’m seriously considering hunting down their likeness in plush form. Most enemies are a twist on classic fantasy genre characters, though. There’s a boss based on the Beholder creature from Dungeons and Dragons, except here it carries guns and is called the Beholster. There’s a sentient, skull-faced cannon ball called the Cannonbalrog. Ghost versions of the normal bullet enemies are named Hollow Points. It’s sheer genius, and the game just keeps coming out with this originality with such aplomb that I can’t help to be endeared to the world and characters.

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The commitment to variety doesn’t stop there, though. The list of unlockable and lootable guns in this game is long and filled with weapons both classic and bizarre. You’ll pick up AK-47s and shotguns, yes, but a surprising amount of the available death-dealers are either clever references to all manner of pop culture (from James Bond to Mega Man to Ghostbusters), or wacky original ideas like the Huntsman (a shotgun with an attacked axe that swings about to block bullets when you reload), The Silencer (you throw high velocity pillows at enemies) and the Pitchfork (shoots fireballs). It’s always exciting to find a new gun and relish whatever novelties it might bring.

If I could level any criticisms at Enter the Gungeon, it’d be that there’s a bit of a slump when you move towards the level where you’re trying to unlock shortcuts to complete the game. You’re required to deliver items to an NPC to repair lifts so that you can start a new run in a specific level of the Gungeon, but the requirements are quite a tall order and you’re sometimes held back by successive unlucky runs that don’t provide enough of the needed items or currency. It’s needlessly frustrating in a game that otherwise mitigates irritation so ably.

Enter the Gungeon is a goddamn party. It’s big, silly, guns-blazing Hong Kong action movie set in a detailed world that knows how not to take itself seriously. It’s one of the hardest games out yet this year, yet it’s designed to train and inform you so that you’re always aware of just how you faltered when you succumb to the challenges of the Gungeon. And when you do, you’ll hit Quick Restart and leap right back into the action again.

Burning Out: The Video Games Industry’s Crunch Problem

“Crunch time” is the name given to a practice that’s almost ubiquitously utilised in the video games industry. Almost every game that reaches shelves, physical or virtual, is a product of at least some work carried out under periods of crunch conditions. Essentially, crunch is mandatory unpaid overtime- most developers are salaried, meaning many aren’t compensated for their extra hard work. It’s a practice that’s employed to ensure deadlines are met, although the jury is still out on whether corporate-mandated deadlines are realistic or not.

Back in 2004, the EA Spouse scandal highlighted the issue to the general public: Erin Hoffman published an online journal under the pseudonym “EA Spouse” detailing her husband’s hellish working conditions. He was working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for months, although this worsened to 12-plus hours a day, 7 days a week nearer to the game’s very final deadline. A few class action lawsuits against EA followed over lack of overtime pay, which EA settled for tens of millions of dollars each.

But, over a decade later, the majority of games developers have endured periods of crunch time: the 2015 survey by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) revealed that “crunch is still a problem: 62% indicated that their job involved crunch time; 58% said they were in crunch more than twice in the last two years; and 61% said that crunch time was expected in their workplace.” Furthermore, 44% of those that didn’t report engaging in crunch still said that they were required to work for extended work hours that weren’t labelled “crunch”. The majority of employees (31%) reported 50-59 hours per week, closely followed by those that reported 60-69 hours per week (30%).

All in all, it seems fair to say that crunch is still an omnipresent shadow over the games industry, although it’s fallen back into wider discussion due to an article published by ex-Microsoft DirectX developer and industry veteran Alex St. John. In response to Dean Takahashi’s article on VentureBeat featuring a crunch-focused interview with IGDA executive director Kate Edwards (the IGDA is launching an investigation into crunch practices in large companies), St. John published an article on VentureBeat himself in defence of crunch time.

St. John headlines the article, “Game developers must avoid the ‘wage-slave’ attitude”. “Wage-slave” is a term that he uses often in the article. Already, he’s established his view of people that want better labour rights: they’re there just for the money, without passion or heart, and are not justified in their grievances.

In defence of crunch, St. John contrasts his background to that of other people in the tech industry. He grew up in rural Alaska “with no electricity, plumbing, heating, or cable TV”, and that he’s “still thrilled by the incredibly decadent luxury of a porcelain toilets and fast food”. This humble upbringing grants St. John the perspective that he “can’t begin to imagine how sheltered the lives of of modern technology employees must be to think that any amount of hours they spend pushing a mouse around for a paycheck is really demanding strenuous work”.

The view that “pushing a mouse around” is the primary task of work is repeated in the article, as well as the notion that making games isn’t laudably difficult work. St. John continues, “They rant about the value of “work-life-balance”, how hit games can be delivered on a schedule with “proper management” and how they can’t produce their best work when their creative energies are tapped after a long forty-hour work week … sitting … at a desk…. Apparently people can even “burn out” working too hard to make … video games….”

It’s a troubling notion indeed that such a prominent figure can be so dismissive of the mental and physical effort a team of people must pour into creative projects like video games. It strikes me as astoundingly disrespectful and reductive view that St. John holds regarding labour in the games industry; while sitting at a desk and moving a mouse isn’t physically demanding in and of itself, long periods of focused concentration for 12 hours or more, every day, 6 or 7 days a week, is going to cause immense stress on the mind and body.

What’s confusing about St. John’s perspective on this matter is the fact that, years ago, he famously “burnt out” himself while working for Microsoft on DirectX. Reportedly, he would “pass out at his keyboard”, turning up to meetings “with key marks on his face”. Work seemed to have a serious effect on his personal life. In 1997 he “succeeded in getting himself fired”, and “walked out of Microsoft feeling 100lbs lighter”. This is not life experience you’d expect from a man that’s advocating crunch and decrying detractors of the practice as “wage-slaves,” attempting to diminish their complaints because they’re not “trapped in some disenfranchised third-world country forced to dig for blood diamonds to feed their families”.

Alex St. John’s stance on this issue is, perhaps, not as much of a conundrum as one might think. People stuck in terrible working conditions are often afraid to speak up because they’re “easily replaced”, but having grown wealthy off stock options and founding his own company he’s in a position to work as much as he wants without fear of being fired over unfair labour requirements. Crunch isn’t something St. John must endure as a matter of course any more; he benefits from those practices himself, and so he seeks to protect them, or so it seems to me. Hell, the man’s exploitative tendencies can be found on his personal website on a presentation with the monicker, “Recruiting, Training and Retaining GIANTS.” It’s a presentation that’s focused around squeezing as much work from your employees as possible, and having read through it I find it particularly objectionable. Amongst other things, St. John describes Autistic engineers as the “holy grail” of employees, and suggests that you work to retain not engineers themselves, but their “wives and girlfriends”. Read it yourself to see how responsible you think the proposed practices are.

A “workaholic” attitude isn’t enough to save you from the effects of overworking. Long-term mandatory unpaid overtime an inherently unfair practice unlikely to endear employees to their work. More than that, though, that amount of work is provably dangerous; even work that’s loved strains the mind and body. That’s not good for the product, and it’s not good for the people.

The silver lining in all this is that crunch is, once again, at the forefront of the conversation in response to St. John’s article. Hopefully the continued publicity on this issue, along with investigation by the IGDA, will help to bring about real change in the coming years.

Stardew Valley Review

Stardew Valley is a one-man project from Indie developer ConcernedApe (real name Eric Barone), and shows more variety, personality, and heart than most games produced by the work of dozens. It’s an open-ended country life RPG in the vein of Harvest Moon, but with touches of Animal Crossing and Minecraft as well. It’s similar to fellow recent release Salt and Sanctuary, in that it wears its inspirations on its sleeve but it transcends those stolen systems through the quality and unique personality that it shows in droves.

Your Grandfather has passed away, a last-wishes sealed letter in your possession. You’re toiling away at your oppressive office job when you decide to open it. The contents reveal that your Grandfather has left you his farm in Pelican Town, nestled in Stardew Valley. He hopes you’ll appreciate a change of pace; a fresh start. So you quit your job, pack your things, and move to Pelican Town to take up the good farming life.

But wait! The farm’s a mess, overgrown with weeds and rubble. The community centre, once the beating heart of the community, is in shambles. And your erstwhile employers, JojaMart, have set up a giant supermarket that’s set to outcompete local businesses and exert the company’s evil corporate stranglehold over the small town. Will you use your farming to help the community while turning a small profit? Or will you support the corporation, eroding the folksy charm of the town and paying your way to success?

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Your core gameplay loop revolves around deciding what you’re going to do on each day. You’ll wake up at 6AM, and you’ll be rationing your your energy throughout the day. You can regain some energy with food, but that’s a scarcity early on. In-game time moves forwards by 10 minutes every 5-ish seconds and if you don’t go to sleep by 1AM, or if you deplete your energy and are exhausted when you go to sleep, you’ll wake up the next day with a severely depleted energy bar. If you stay up too late, you’ll fall asleep where you stand and not only lose a chunk of energy the next day, but also a portion of your gold in payment to whomever dragged your sorry body back home.

It might sound like that mechanic is frustrating, but it actually lends a sense of immediacy to play. You’re forced to prioritise tasks and spend your time, and energy, wisely.

“Country life RPG” might sound like a humdrum affair, but Stardew Valley offers such variety that you’ll never be bored. You can focus on farming if you like, but there’s such a wealth of stuff to do that you can profit from farming on the back burner while chasing more active pursuits like fishing, spelunking, arcade gaming, cooking, and socialising with the other Pelican Valley residents. Each different mechanic is fully fleshed-out and rewarding, and you’re well incentivised to dip your toes into every activity.

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To grow crops on your farm, you’ll need to clear out overgrowth and till the soil. You’ll then sow the ground with seeds and water your plants each day until they’ve matured for harvest. You’ll start out small at first, but with a few upgrades and a spot of planning you’ll soon be running a tight operation, planning crop harvests and optimising your land use. Upgrades to your hoe and watering can make cultivating soil and watering crops less time-consuming, but on larger farms watering your plants each morning becomes a major drain on your time and energy. Sprinklers are a mid-game life-saver, and it’s a massive relief when you craft enough that watering your produce isn’t a sizeable chunk of your day anymore. You’ll grow a diverse set of crops in each season, selling some crops for money to re-invest in seeds while keeping some back for crafting or gifting purposes.

Fishing is another way to reel in the pennies, and it’s one of my favourite parts of the game. Really. Set up and cast out your line at a pond, river, or ocean and you’ll wait for a bite. Bait and tackle can increase your bite rate on better fishing rods, allowing you more attempts per day. If something bites, you’re presented with a minigame interface: a column with a little green bar and a fish icon. It’s your job to click to nudge the green bar upwards, keeping it behind the fish icon which represents the fish trying to escape. Early on this is really hard, since the bar is very small and initially fiddly to control. With practice, though, you’ll climb fishing proficiency levels to catch enough fish to make a serious profit. It’s a simple mechanic that’s immensely satisfying to master, and the fist-pumping rush of success after reeling in a difficult sturgeon rivals that triumphant feeling of any game.

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Accrue enough money and building resources, and you’ll be able to pay the local carpenter to build farm buildings like a silo, coop, barn, and stable, enabling the rearing of farm animals. You’ll want to build the silo first, since your animals mainly eat hay. Sadly the game doesn’t explicitly tell you this, encouraging you to build a coop but not telling you about the importance of the silo. Nor does it mention that you should pet your livestock every day to improve their mood and quality of produce. Despite this initial poor communication, I really enjoyed rearing and caring for my animals. I was really attached to my little guys, which was really helped by the game’s excellent name generator that threw up memorably absurd words like “Jiskers”, ‘Snerters”, and “Bumbus”.

“Bumbus”. I love this game.

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Venture into the mines, and things take a turn for the Minecraft or Terraria. You’ll come across a range of enemies that you’ll fend off with simple sword swipes, as well as rocks and ore veins galore to mine valuable stone, minerals, and metallic ore for smelting. The mines are comprised of 120 levels, and every 5 levels you’ll unlock the ability to travel directly to that floor via lift anytime you return. As you progress you’ll find new types of ore veins and more devilish enemies to encounter.

Exploring the mines, however, really does illustrate how short Stardew Valley’s days are. After taking care of you crops it’s a mad dash to the mines, which depending on random rolls may or may not put some serious obstacles in the way of your progression. You often don’t have much time in the mines past maybe 11PM before you have to hightail it back home so you’re not running on fumes the next day.

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All of the resource gathering and progression feeds into the renovation of the Community Centre. Stardew Valley makes sure you’ve got clear goals in the form of quests, but your main objective in the game will probably be the completion of Bundles in the Community Centre. These Bundles require you to acquire and pledge different resources, from crops to fish to forage to money. The kicker is that most of these resources are limited to certain seasons; for example you can only grow parsnips in the Spring, and Tiger Trout can only be caught in the Fall or Winter.

It’s not thankless progression though; you’re rewarded, often quite handsomely, for each Bundle you complete, and there are significant rewards when you manage to complete a set of Bundles. You’ll access new areas with exotic resources, unlock whole new activities, and receive potent additions to your farm. It’s all wrapped up in a mysterious, Ghibli- reminiscent spirits-of-the-valley narrative that’s as endearingly charming as the rest of the game.

You’re not just driven by progression of your farm and resources in Stardew Valley; taking a leaf from Animal Crossing’s book, it feels really rewarding to develop your relationship with the townspeople. Players that choose to engage with the community (which I’d highly recommend for a first playthrough) will find an inherently likeable cast of oddities. It’s really a joy getting to know each new and colourful character, and I’d wager that each player will find several favourites early on. I’ve taken a particular shine to Linus, a homeless man that lives in a tent by the river, Rasmodius the wizard, and the wanderlust-afflicted Abigail. You can improve your relationship with each different person by talking to them and working out which gifts they like most, and you’re even eventually able to marry certain characters. Improving your friendship with individuals leads to rewards in the form of shared recipes as well as little cutscenes that showcase your blossoming bond together.

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The relationship system wouldn’t feel so satisfying if the characters weren’t likeable. Luckily, Stardew Valley’s characters are really sympathetic and well written. Despite the limited amount of dialogue, each character’s unique personality shines through their visual design, animation, and lines. ConcernedApe has even vowed to keep adding dialogue to the game post-launch.

A big part of Stardew Valley’s charm lies in its exhaustively, intricately fleshed-out world. Colours are bright, plants sway and rustle in the wind, wild animals dart out of sight, and the whole world transforms with each season. Alongside Hyper Light Drifter, we’re really spoiled for beautifully rendered retro-style presentation right now. A lot of the visual design leans heavily on Harvest Moon, but there’s such a unique energy to Pelican Town and its surrounding locales that the game develops on its own aesthetic. Take into account the characteristically chill soundtrack, and you’ve got yourself an experience that’s as enthralling to the senses as it is mechanically accomplished.

I don’t imagine that I’ll stop being amazed by Stardew Valley anytime soon. ConcernedApe has created a charming, detailed, and complete product that transcends its influences to sit amongst, perhaps even beyond, them. There is so much love packed into every pixel of this game; the world thrums with life and personality, colour, and music. It’s a wide-open experience that supports the easily-overwhelmed with simple-to-follow quests and progression systems. There’s always something new to chase each day, some tantalisingly close goal in your crosshairs, and even the lighter days always feel important. The games that Stardew Valley invokes are, generally, not for me. But this game makes each component meaningfully fun and engaging in a way that keeps me coming back for more. I think I’ll keep checking in for some time.

Diablo 3 Is Mindless, and That’s Why I Like It

I love it when a game challenges me. I’m very much obsessed with eking out the mystery to The Witness’ island, and working out the solution to each of the puzzles with as little help as possible. I loved juggling my potions, decoctions and meditations to keep on top of the most difficult enemies of The Witcher 3. I’ve written before that Dark Souls is my favourite game, and that game requires a lot of theorising about the flavour text from many disparate items just to get at the lore, never mind the constant wariness it demands from its players.

I recently played through Diablo 3 Ultimate Evil Edition for the first time in co-op with a friend, and found it a mindless, almost automatic experience. That’s what I found made it refreshing, though.

I’d been playing through Rise of the Tomb Raider at the same time, and while it’s a great game, I found it a bit tiring. I get that way when I play games with lots of little collectables and side content. I’m constantly looking for side passages for the fear of missing out on useful upgrades and cool snippets of narrative. A lot of the time this anxiety is minor, but occasionally something about that state of mind doesn’t quite gel with the flow of the game somehow and I find it overshadows the experience. I think in the case of RotTR it’s the floaty way that Lara controls; it worked really well in the previous game which was pretty linear action fare, but with a little bit more freedom and emphasis on seeking out the nooks and crannies of the world the floaty movement didn’t quite “click” for me in the same way.

It was really refreshing, then, to come to Diablo 3 for a bit of a cool-down each evening. Of course I’d have a much different experience if I were partaking in a hardcore playthrough, risking the permanent death of my character, but on a Normal first run-through I was quickly playing on autopilot while chatting about whatever with my co-op companion. I just picked my favourite abilities and rained death upon our enemies while enjoying rapidly-regenerating health and a ring that spawns ridiculously overpowered kamikaze imps.

As a side note, the Nagelring is a ridiculously overpowered item that completely breaks pretty much every boss encounter in the game. It spawns up to four of the aforementioned imps, one of which screams and catapults in glorious death throes across the screen when it’s replaced by a newly spawned imp when you have four. Not only is this hilarious in cutscenes that are trying their level best to be poignant or dramatic or climactic, it also reduces bosses to zero hit points in literally seconds. Before I get the chance to graze them with one of my Demon Hunter’s crossbow bolts. This served to cheapen the game’s most dramatic encounters, yes, but it also provided a steady drip of hilarity that didn’t get old by the time I completed the fifth and final act. It should absolutely be nerfed, but it’s given me too great-a time not to mention.

While ostensibly in a semi-randomly-generated, wide-open world, Diablo 3 still operates very linearly. There’s not too much in the way of side quests and areas as you progress through the story, and while you’re rewarded for seeking out nooks and crannies, you get along just fine without indulging every single side avenue. The maps can get fairly large, but never feel too sprawling and you can easily check the map for areas that haven’t been filled in by your presence yet. It makes it really easy to know when you’ve swept up in an area, which relieves a significant amount of stress for me.

There are lots of games which are similarly simple and therapeutic. Take any game by Thatgamecompany; Flow, Flower, and Journey each require very little mental input from the player, and provide satisfying ways to spend your time. Those games are enrapturing experiences though, pulling you into their worlds and fantasies. And while Diablo 3 failed to make me invested in its world and mythology (although I very much enjoyed its lavish cutscenes), it succeeded in providing me with something that I could muddle through with very little challenge yet still bestowing a sense of stimulating satisfaction from wiping enemies and loot from an area.

So that’s why I cherished my time with Diablo 3. The story utterly failed to interest me, and I was overpowered to the point of wiping away any sense of challenge. But I could run about as a gradually more ridiculous (in terms of power and garb) female demon hunter, raining death down upon demonic hordes with a buddy, laughing at bosses melting under the might of my suicidal exploding imps. It was utterly unchallenging for a change, and I loved it.

Image credits- us.battle.net