The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine Review

There’s a good argument to be made for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt as last year’s best game. Perhaps even the best game of this generation so far. CD Projekt Red brought a (dare I say unrivalled) level of craft and production to bring that world to life in a way that few could argue against. Even more impressive is its writing, with incredible multifaceted characters and storylines loaded with twists and turns. Even the side quests were packed with powerful curveballs.

After Wild Hunt’s first expansion Hearts of Stone triumphantly spun its Faustian yarn around the core game’s preexisting city of Oxenfurt, CD Projekt Red’s last hurrah for the series that made their name whisks you away to the duchy of Toussaint- a mountainous, French/ Tuscan renaissance-era-inspired land of knightly chivalry.

Geralt is summoned to Toussaint by duchess Anna Henrietta to solve an evolving string of murders of knights of the realm, victims of brutal slayings by a being known as the Beast of Beauclair. Along the way you’ll cavort with vampires, attend masquerade balls, fight in grand tourneys, and otherwise chase a trail soaked with blood and wine.

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Early on in the expansion there’s a clear shift of pace. You’ll often arrive at a scene that is currently unfolding- the immediate aftermath of something awful. Whereas many investigative portions of the base game were archaeology hours or days after the fact, an early mission in Blood and Wine has you rocking up to a small town scant moments after terrible violence. A terrified horse gallops past you in the opposite direction and soldiers lose their grip on their last moments of life, eviscerated. Following such a fresh trail of destruction really gave a sense of urgency to proceedings in a way that poring through crime scenes long after the fact just didn’t.

Since The Witcher has always been about clever subversion, I was expecting a great amount of mockery levelled at Arthurian legend and the chivalric virtues. Yet while this is a promising emergent theme early on, Blood and Wine’s story doesn’t quite pursue that line with the same dogged focus that Hearts of Stone employed with its critical eye on Faust and Pan Twardowski. Still, in true Witcher style, this is a story rife with shocking reveals and intriguing characters.  Special praise must go to Regis, a down-to-Earth friend from Geralt’s past whose inclusion will please fans of the books.

The tale that unravels in Blood and Wine is certainly engrossing and a lot of it’s just done right. The absolute highlight for me must be one of the subtler fairy tale nods in the game that has you investigating a spoon-collecting ghoul. It took me a while to see the link to Beauty and the Beast, but it’s there- but with reversed gender roles and a clever heaping of irony. There’s a subtlety there that perfectly encapsulates The Witcher. The resolution of this excellent thread serves to highlight not only the quality of CD Projekt Red’s storytelling, but also their runaway success in realising Geralt as a character.

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It’s increasingly obvious in Blood and Wine that Geralt is a fully-fledged person that we’re keeping tabs on rather than a blank slate for us to project ourselves onto. Not only does he have deep history a lot of characters that we’re just meeting, but no matter which way you choose to take each branching questline, your decisions feel right for him. Either way of resolving the problem of the spoon-collecting ghoul reveals aspects of Geralt that would ring true with anyone’s interpretation of him. It’s one of CD Projekt Red’s greatest triumphs.

Along that line, I’m extremely pleased that your Geralt’s romantic choices are honoured in Blood and Wine. Hearts of Stone’s use of Shani as a romantic prospect felt slightly too uncomfortably forced for my liking, since my Geralt was pledged to Triss yet the script called for flirtation with little room for deviation. In this expansion, though, there are occasional yet important references to whichever relationship you pursued back in the core game, if you pursued a relationship at all. It’s a great touch that really helps pay off any serious romantic storylines pursued by the player.

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Unfortunately the story’s not perfect. At one point a major antagonist promises calamity should the protagonists fail to deliver something within three days. The scene cuts to black, and the next scene opens with an establishing shot labelled “a few days later”. Why specify three in-story days when you’re going to cut to such a vague time? Why skip forwards at all when you’ve clearly set a bar for Geralt and the player? Even a couple of scenes where the protagonists fruitlessly pursue the set task for three days would be better that that. It’s an incredibly dissonant moment from a team that otherwise has a firm grasp on clear and clever writing. And when the antagonist unavoidably delivers on their awful promise, that completely throws any amount of moral ambiguity surrounding them out the window. The Witcher’s villains are often sympathetic, but any amount of empathy for this individual’s actions is lost in moments in the name of a big set piece. I’m highly suspicious that CD Projekt Red were working under constraints of time or money when they produced this portion of the game, because it sticks out  like a sore thumb.

And that’s a shame because Blood and Wine has a frankly obscene amount of production quality and content for an expansion. Toussaint is a massive area roughly equal in size to any of the countries found in the base game, and it’ll take around 30 hours to wrap everything up. There’s dozens of contracts and side quests to play through, with highlights including the navigation of the bank’s bureaucratic system and tracking down the stolen genitals of a famous statue. Sadly too many of these missions are punctuated with bouts of unnecessary brawls and violence, whereas Hearts of Stone’s hour-long wedding scene managed to squeeze in a solitary yet appropriate fight. I just wish CD Projekt had trusted their writing to carry these small nonviolent stories. Still, slight dissonance aside the side content of Blood and Wine is as excellent as it is varied, and makes for a fine excuse to explore Toussaint’s many map markers. You’ll want to replay the story too, since you’ll only experience one of the two possible penultimate missions.

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Toussaint itself is a far cry from the war-torn swamps, forests, and towns of Velen, Novigrad, and Skellige. You can almost see how Toussaint’s inhabitants pull the wool over their own eyes as they live out their days working vineyards in idyllic countryside bursting with vibrant colour. There’s even an entirely novel accent invented for the region to really hammer in the feeling of a foreign land.

In terms of progression, the expansion offers a new levelling concept in the form of more powerful Mutations for Geralt to undergo. Levelling points and mutagens can now be traded to unlock Mutations that augment Geralt’s combat, signs, alchemy, or a mix of all three. If base development is more your thing, you quickly gain access to your own villa and vineyard to spruce up to your liking and decorate with mementoes of past adventures.

All in all, Blood and Wine achieves what it set out to be: a victorious conclusion to one of the best games of all time. It’s far from perfect, marred by occasional dissonant writing goofs and a slightly disappointing inability to commit to the implied send-up of Arthurian values. But Blood and Wine is still an exultant beast of an expansion jammed with quality content rife with wit, heart, and soul. A flawed gem is still a gem, and Blood and Wine shines alongside the best of them.

Crows Crows Crows Continues To Charm With “The Temple of No”

Crows Crows Crows is the English-based independent developer behind last year’s Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald: A Whirlwind Heist, also catchily known as DL,TT,aTTCE:AWH. A complimentary game, the Steam store trailer promised an action-packed heist romp. Upon loading into the game however, it becomes apparent that there’s only room enough for  one player at a time. The game’s backstage team have gone on strike thanks to terrible working conditions, and it’s up to you to press the switches behind the scenes directed by Simon Amstell’s voice while a fictional “player” makes their way through the game. Think The Stanley Parable, but more linear, yet lacking none of the charm or subversion.

Dr Langeskov wasn’t just a neat thumbing of the nose towards AAA game development, but a proof of concept of sorts for Crows Crows Crows: hearts full of whimsy, eyes set on the creation of “experimental games”. While Dr Langeskov’s Stanley Parable comparison is obvious, the game’s sharp wit and unique writing style certainly grabbed people’s attention and established the spirit of the studio.

Since then, Crows Crows Crows has been largely silent. There’s a weird puzzle game on their website, Report A.807, which consists of Police report details covering several burglaries around Europe. I almost didn’t stumble across the game myself; there’s a small folder icon labelled “A.807” right at the bottom of the screen that I’d predict most will either not see or outright disregard.

On Monday, Crows Crows Crows released another small complimentary game on itch.io. It’s an interactive story game made in Twine, and it’s called The Temple of No. As one amongst many delighted by Dr Langeskov, I soon set aside some time to play through it.

It’s only 10-15 minutes long, but The Temple of No is a delightful diversion for that duration. I’m not going to reveal anything else about the game; it’s a shot of simple joy that is best consumed unspoiled. Expect a slew of chuckles, a sea of personality, and a dozen tiny surprises. If nothing else, this game proves that Crows Crows Crows has the writing chops to charm and captivate its audience more than once.

Every way I look at it, Crows Crows Crows seems to be onto a winning strategy. They’re steadily drip-feeding us with tiny flashes of brilliance to remind us who they are and why we should care about them. For a small studio, that’s incredibly valuable. For the consumer, there’s a certain comfort in testing a studio’s output before eventually laying down money for their first proper release.

Not every indie developer can muster the resources to chase such a system. It definitely helps that the team’s made up of successful creatives like William Pugh and Jack de Quidt who’re doubtless in a much stronger position in terms of funding than the average small independent developer. Still, I have high hopes that this strategy might be as disruptive as The Stanley Parable was a few years back, with more developers following suit. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, go and enjoy The Temple of No. You’ve deserved it. Bring headphones and be ready to grin.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst Review

Mirror’s Edge always felt like a peculiar experiment that was surprised at its own existence. Back in 2007 the increasing prevalence of AAA open-world games and the upcoming Assassin’s Creed had placed parkour at the forefront of the conversation. Worlds were becoming more explorable, and the tactile promise of clambering all over it was increasingly enticing. Perhaps even more enchanting was the premise of Mirror’s Edge– controlling expert free-runner Faith from her perspective, to many the game felt like a tantalising glimpse into the future of engaging navigation as an immersive line between player and world. Did it actually rock the world? No. But it remains a cult classic because it dared to be different.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst is a reboot of the series-of-one that aims to inject more backstory and character into Faith and her world, the city of Glass. At the start of the game Faith’s been in prison for two years for reasons that a loading screen tip tells me are covered in a companion comic. Once out she’s immediately whisked away from the state-mandated prisoner release program by her old friends, the Runners. Glass is a city obsessed with jobs and status while Runners are neutral not-quite-rebels skirting on the edges of the law to live on rooftops free of the caste system. It doesn’t take long for Faith to become embroiled in a war between the Runners, Kruger-Sec (the private security/ law-enforcement arm of the ruling Conglomerate), and terrorist group Black November.

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As a Runner, your gameplay loop mainly revolves around getting from A to B in as fast and smooth-a manner as possible. On the Xbox One controller once you’re running, a press of LB corresponds to “upwards” motions like jumping, running along a wall and mantling ledges. Correspondingly LT involves descending movements- sliding under obstacles, dropping off ledges, and landing into a roll to maintain your Momentum- an important mechanic that I’ll get back to. RB swings you around 180° for speedy heel-turn or faces you away from whatever wall you’re running up/across to leap onto handy ledges. Early on you unlock a MAG Rope, which is for all intents and purposes a grappling hook to swing from, zoom up to, and pull down predetermined spots in the environment.

As in the original game, Catalyst’s parkour features highlighted objects along your path to indicate your suggested route- so vault-able ledges, ramps, swing bars, and other items of interest are emphasised in red. This time there’s even a red trail to help guide you along your path- this is called Runner’s Vision, ostensibly an overlay in Faith’s contact lens implants. This interface doesn’t always suggest the quickest route, so there’s merit to exploration, and players that don’t want their hand held can customise the system to their pleasing.

Aside from environmental obstacles, you’ll also encounter K-Sec security in your forays across Glass. There’s only a handful of enemy variants- baton wielders, gun toters, shock gloves, and armoured-yet-mobile heavy hitters. Combat has been given an overhaul, with more options for clashing with enemies head-on or zipping past them altogether. You can no longer disarm and steal bad guys’ guns. You’ve access to light attacks as well as heavy attacks that can push enemies in a desired direction: careening over ledges, stumbling over each other, or simply aside and out of your way. You can pair attacks with traversal, too- a light attack from a wall run, slide, or dropping from above will knock them aside allowing you to continue on your merry way almost unabated. Heavy attacks in this context will simply deal more damage, but it feels as satisfying to land a meaty foot-to-the-face as it does to maintain your run.

It’s in the mixing of traversal and open combat that Momentum becomes important. As you run, roll, soar and otherwise clamber across the world at speed, you build up a white bar next to your health that represents momentum. This is effectively a shield for enemy fire, explained in-world as you moving just quickly enough that you’re narrowly avoiding being shot to death. This makes brushing past a number of enemies much more possible and satisfying, and lessens the blow of enemy presence to that all-important flow of movement that characterises the game.

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Sadly there are a handful of sections that force you to eliminate all enemies in an area, and those encounters are by far the game’s weakest points. It’s fun to take on a couple of guys- it’ll never stop being funny to me how they stumble like baby deer and collapse when you manage to smack one hapless soldier into his hapless friend- but a whole platoon of armed bastards really highlights that this game was not tuned for extended periods of combat. Most gallingly, two of the game’s biggest fights happen in exactly the same arena. It’s much more fun when the level design takes on a “run the gauntlet”-style path, as you seamlessly dispatch the odd soldier on the way to your objective.

Catalyst now has an open-world structure, and it’s taken somewhat of a Ubisoft-esque approach. Aside from collectable “Gridleaks” (floating globs of data in the air, I guess?), audio logs and the like, there are plenty of side missions that task you with traversing paths in the city within a set time period. Quizzically the courier missions, called Fragile Deliveries, are simply time trials. You’d think from the name that you’d have to maintain your momentum without suffering a harsh fall to protect your package, yet it’s simply an A-to-B time trial where your package “breaks” if time runs out. What’s also frustrating about these missions is the fact that the suggested path was almost never quick enough to actually get me there on time, leading to a frankly annoying amount of trial-and-error before finding a successful run. I eventually just gave up on all side content to chase the main story after I found out that a particular Fragile Delivery was only doable within the time limit if you’d unlocked the MAG Rope, something I was a mission or two away from achieving. Why would you make that side mission available to players that hadn’t earned that gadget yet? What you’d done, Catalyst, is waste my time. There are community-made races scattered around the place, too, but burning out on side content left me with no interest in pursuing them.

There’s also a levelling-up system now. There are three skill trees- Movement (11 of the 18 or so nodes are bizarrely unlocked at the start of the game), Combat, and Gadgets. In most games you get a sense of progression from levelling, but in Catalyst it just feels like just another check-list that arbitrarily limits your ability to maintain pace in a game all about momentum. The noise that triggers when you unlock a node is very good, though, so it’s got that going for it.

And so we get to the story missions. You’re given a bunch of pretty varied environments to throw yourself around, both across the rooftops and delving into large corporate buildings (although I would like to take a moment to point out that for a city obsessed with hard work to earn your keep, there’s an awful lot of empty offices in daylight hours). Glass itself is undoubtedly the biggest star of the game, and no matter what structural issues the Catalyst has you can’t fault the visual and physical design of the place with its gleaming towers and bright neon hues. Catalyst is a pretty great looking game, however that’s a compliment that comes with a massive caveat- on the Xbox One, there’s a slight but noticeable blur on anything more than 10 metres or so away from you. This is probably a tweak to reduce the graphical load but sometimes this blur can transfer to characters a metre away from you, which is quite terrifying to behold.

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Aside from the addition of the MAG Rope and redesigned combat mechanics, there’s not much to Catalyst’s story missions aside from providing pretty places for you to experiment running though. Ninety percent of the time you’re simply working to get through an area, with the occasional aforementioned ill-advised combat-heavy encounter. The environments are varied enough in layout and flavour that you shouldn’t get too bored, but there’s a constant smattering of annoyances that hamper the experience.

The checkpointing system, for one, can be downright insulting. Sometimes I’d be a few minutes into a heated escape sequence before succumbing to enemy fire or miss a jump and plunge to my death. Often this led to the game reloading me to the exact point of failure, but without any enemies to be seen. This really cheapened the sense of danger that had been well-earned before one tiny mistake, and felt awfully patronising. A number of times I’d die and reload to precisely the spot I’d died, free to try again with a condescending pat on the head. Once or twice I was even teleported forwards, skipping out on a missed jump altogether. Those moments really hollowed the experience in breaking in cohesive flow of narrative. “How did you get out, Faith?” “Well, I fell down a hole, passed out, woke up and everyone had magically disappeared!”

But even that’s better than one time when I was tasked with running through an area that was collapsing beneath my feet. I died in the middle of that segment and kept being reloaded to the same spot with scant fractions of a second to gain my bearings and aim a jump properly. I had to reload that moment five times before I spotted the correct course of action, trading 30 seconds of loading time for three seconds of play each time.

Then there’s the fact that every objective in the game centres around traversal. Now, a great movement system can form a solid backbone for a game- just look at Spider-Man 2 or Crackdown. Mirror’s Edge certainly has a movement control scheme that’s inherently satisfying to get stuck into. But Catalyst’s problem is that that’s the whole game- races, deliveries, Grid Nodes, and story missions alike are entirely centred around speed and navigation with the most minor tweaks to the context for your actions. Your enjoyment and value gained from this game is likely to simply correlate with how long the game’s core systems can keep you entertained.

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One of the main points on Catalyst’s manifesto is the invigoration of the Mirror’s Edge’s world and characters, since the first game’s approach to such areas was pretty minimal. I was quite baffled at EA and DICE’s treatment of Faith in Catalyst’s promotion leading up to launch; she’s got an iconic design, sure, but she’s not exactly a well of personality. She just really likes running and is sometimes forced by circumstance to act against the gigantic and corrupt forces-that-be. Not exactly the most original character concept. I’m reminded of the way Square Enix hails Final Fantasy XIII’s Lightning as a big, important character that everyone loves because They Say So.

Catalyst attempts to make us empathise with Faith through the introduction of an extra-tragic backstory and the implementation of third-person cutscenes so we get more of a physical idea of her emotions than what we can read in her hand movements. Unfortunately Faith’s contribution to most of these scenes is to run into a room, pout and perhaps shout a bit, and then run out of the room again. Faye Kingslee provides as compelling and emotive-a performance as could have been extracted from the script, but I just couldn’t find myself caring all that much about Faith beyond the fact that she’s obviously on the morally right side of the conflict. She’s just a bland, surly, generically “damaged” heroine without any character traits that set her apart.

The rest of the cast aren’t very inspiring, either. The leader of Black November justifies some horrible acts of terrorism with the most banal spouting of political science as if from a high school textbook. There’s a computer genius type that, you guessed it, isn’t too good with people, preferring the company of robots. The main villain of the story doesn’t evolve past “you underlings don’t know what’s best for you”, and even gets all excited about ordering your death because he’s upper class and you’re below him and oh boy we’ve all seen this villain a hundred times.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst doesn’t say anything new. Yes, Mass Surveillance is scary. Yes, the inaction of the masses could be considered as a form of complicity with Big Brother. Yes, social immobility is bad. Most stories start with these concepts before running with them, but Catalyst is content to just keep beating you over the head with them, developing nothing original to say for its entire length.

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Even the dialogue is full of tired clichés. How many times have you heard “You know I run better alone”? I had to roll my eyes when one character asked what happened to a vastly changed area of town, and someone answered “K-Sec happened”. Catalyst is filled to the brim with insipid, flavourless dialogue and “twists” you’ll spot a mile away. The first time I saw one character, I immediately declared “there is an obvious twist involving this person”. Lo and behold, five hours later this was confirmed. I’d feel clever about it if it wasn’t such a glaringly easy development to guess. Not even Faith can summon the energy to react to the presumably life-shattering revelation.

The game doesn’t even seem to know how to wrap itself up right. The final sequence of the game isn’t a climactic battle with any of the antagonists. It’s a fight against two of the most difficult normal enemy types in the game before control is taken away from you a while Faith fights the villain in a cutscene. It’s a flat, disappointing note to end on for a game that’s supposed to be built on letting you control the interesting action.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst feels rushed. The bland writing, the cookie-cutter plot, the re-used set pieces, and the thousands of niggling problems of pacing and encounter design all coalesce to hold back a game whose core mechanics are actually very fun. Perhaps with more time to iron out the problems of writing, world, and encounter design, Catalyst wouldn’t be the frustrating thing that it is. The game’s a muddy amalgam of original Mirror’s Edge mechanics saddled with tedious writing and tired open-world design decisions that’ve been driven into the ground over the past few years. Maybe Catalyst falls short of greatness because, unlike its forebear, it doesn’t dare to be different enough.

The Walking Dead: Michonne Episode 3 & Miniseries Review

The Guitar Hero franchise enjoyed widespread acclaim and healthy sales until Activision drove it into the ground. Content with near-nonexistent iteration, the series resigned itself to simply bombarding the rhythm-gaming public with a near-constant flow of new titles, a trend that peaked with a grand total of 7 releases in 2010. This continual influx not only bred dispassion amongst fans of the series, but surely limited the ability of the studios to develop games that felt like more than song packs.

Now I’m not saying Telltale Games have reached this point yet, or even that they’ll ever stoop to those lows. But if The Walking Dead: Michonne has highlighted anything for me, it’s the dangerous proximity of the Telltale formula to stagnation.

Other studios have taken cues from Telltale Games to actually progress the medium of choice-driven narrative games. Campo Santo, home to several Telltale alumni, wrote a beautiful playable essay on player agency and NPC interaction in Firewatch, while Supermassive Games crafted a deliciously engrossing horror story in Until Dawn, an ingenious use of the decision-driven mechanics popularised by Telltale. In other words: Telltale Games don’t have a monopoly on narrative games anymore.

The best recent release from Telltale Games is easily Tales From The Borderlands. Its success can primarily be attributed to its ingenious writing, but it also carried a worthwhile subversion to the Telltale formula in the form of unreliable narration. Most importantly, it was clear that the game was a labour of love and a clear effort to spice up the years-old core gameplay.

The Walking Dead: Michonne does not display such an attitude.

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Michonne Episode 3 directly follows the preceding episode to conclude the miniseries. As Michonne approaches the final confrontation with her adversaries, she continues to deal with hallucinations and has to pull together her allies for the climax.

As far as the story goes, Episode 3 acquits itself well enough. The climax and conclusion to the story feels earned, and the scenarios that lead you there are engaging enough. There’s a smattering of touching interaction with some children you’re charged with protecting that’s particularly well done; the Walking Dead property continues to handle children quite well. These aren’t the disgustingly annoying gnats that most video game children are. The problem is that since the preceding episodes were so short, you’ve spent so little time with the cast that it feels like you’re being manipulated into instantly investing in these characters because of their obligatory innocence. Making a sizeable number of your allies children kind of feels like a cheap way of driving player sympathy.

Another disappointment is the game’s handling of Michonne’s hallucinations and guilt complex. Michonne is a woman forged in the fires of tragedy, true, but the way that her grief over losing her daughters is visualised in this game feels clichéd and forced. It’s a blunt-force stylistic choice that fits neither the thoughtful precedent set by the series’ writing, nor my understanding of Michonne as a character. It’s in the more quiet, conversational moments that the writing truly shines: where Michonne’s concealed inner flame flickers darkly behind her eyes and words. Not that she’s all anger- Michonne is a well fleshed-out character capable of softness, and it’s clear that her ruthless efficiency is fuelled by a complex of grief, wrath, and a determination to live. But slower scenes are never given enough room to breathe as the game barrels towards the end credits.

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The length of all three episodes is certainly a factor impacting the value of the package. I’m a firm believer in case-by-case pricing, and I was originally pleased that this mini-series was accordingly priced for three Telltale Games episodes. However, with the three episodes coming in at a scarcely an hour each, the whole package clocks up only slightly more playtime than one of the longer episodes from The Walking Dead Season 1 or Tales From The Borderlands. That’s a fact that throws some doubt on the proportional pricing of Michonne, and it’s especially egregious when you account for the variation on show. More specifically, the lack thereof.

You only spend meaningful time in a couple of locations throughout Michonne. Most locations span multiple episodes; the house you’re at for the majority of Episode 3 was reached in the last third of Episode 2. The series was established on exploration of new environments, and while this is a miniseries there’s been far more diversity of location in any three sequential episodes of any other Telltale game. The places that you do visit in Michonne are drab, murky places devoid of any personality or life. The Walking Dead is not supposed to be home to exotic or vibrant settings, but that doesn’t mean you have to stare at what feels like a collection of brown smudges for three-to-four hours. It’s just an ugly production.

That’s an indictment of not just the visual design of Michonne, but the chugging game engine itself. Aside from some improvements on character models and animation, there’s not been much noticeable progression of the Telltale Tool engine over the past few years. The game stutters frequently on my decent gaming laptop, and camera transitions can feel awkwardly stilted even when it’s running as intended.

It all builds up to a whole that’s just not enough. The Walking Dead: Michonne lacks the variety and personalty of its peers, and even its moments of great potential are undercut by its stunted length and overall lack of originality. I can only hope that future Telltale games can learn from this and move on.

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone Review

The promise of The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine’s Toussaint, with its injection of colour and Arthurian bent, tempted me back to the game that could be argued to be last year’s best. I’d never made time for the first expansion, The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone, rolled out last October. I’m more than glad that I decided to play through it before running headlong for the mountains of Toussaint: Hearts of Stone is, by my estimation, The Witcher 3 at its best.

The Witcher 3 was at its best when you were uncovering new and exciting stories in the world. The game is rife with dizzying twists and subversions to the fairy tales and legends from which it draws inspiration. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel; all manner of myths and legends askew through the filter of smart philosophical examination and a uniquely Eastern European perspective.

It’s appropriate, then, that Hearts of Stone runs with that strength: the expansion’s story kicks off with a spin on the Frog Prince before diving into a retelling of the Faust legend, or more specifically, the Polish folklore version of the story: Pan Twardowski. Geralt finds himself indebted to the enigmatic Gaunter O’ Dimm, a mysterious and menacing supernatural figure who needs your help. Olgierd von Everec, an immortal man, owes Gaunter payment for their Faustian contract- but first, Gaunter needs a proxy- you- to fulfil any three wishes Olgierd can dream up.

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Along the way you’ll attend a wedding with a ghost, pull off a heist, and delve into a twisted otherworldly realm. What’s really impressive is the expansion’s comfort with its own pace. There’s a fair smattering of action, but that mostly takes a back seat to indulge in socialisation, detective work, and exploration. I really admire the fact that you spend a decent amount of time- a couple of hours, maybe- at a wedding where nothing goes horribly wrong and no one dies. And it’s great. CD Projekt Red are so confident in their ability to weave an immersive collection of characters and environments to ingratiate yourself with and it’s damn refreshing to see that self-assurance shine through.

A slight disappointment is the way Hearts of Stone handles its new romance option. Shani, a returning character from the first game, accompanies Geralt for much of the adventure. Their past relationship is brought up, and the two trade will-they-won’t-they flirtations for most of their time together. Not only did this feel less believable than the corresponding relationships Geralt had with Triss and Yennefer due to the relatively short amount of time Shani is about, I also didn’t feel comfortable being forced into this dalliance on account of my Geralt’s dedication to Triss. I wish there was an option to make my romantic situation clear early on to establish clear boundaries rather than endure this dissonant interaction.

That minor annoyance aside, you’ll be hard-pressed to find such tonally rich writing elsewhere. Hearts of Stone is bursting with humour and mystery, and positively packed with dozens of clever quirks and references that one might only spot on a second playthrough.

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Hearts of Stone also continues The Witcher 3’s success in, quite simply, creeping you the hell out. The Witcher’s writing isn’t always self-serious, but there’s a fair share of grimness and tragedy that contrasts with the wealth of levity to really emphasise the dire stakes of the situations you’ll become embroiled in. You’re constantly reminded of the dangers of even vaguely associating with Gaunter O’ Dimm and Olgierd von Everec both. The Caretaker standing out amongst new foes for its chilling design. You’ll know it when you see it. There’s this pervasive sense of dread to the latter half of the expansion’s story as you peel back more of the mystery, and it’s delicious.

Alongside the main story there’s a handful of small side quests to dig into along the way, although these serve to complement your path rather than act as truly distinct distractions. There’s added nuance to character progression in Runewords and Glyphwords; these are enchantments that can be applied to weapons or armour with three rune/glyph slots, destroying the slots in the process but imbuing the item with powerful properties. It’s a nice layer of strategy that allows you to tailor your loadout towards your chosen play style.

Hearts of Stone spins a wondrous yarn. CD Projekt Red takes their time to weave a complete and engrossing story in and around the city of Oxenfurt, managing to make fresh and nuanced statements on age-old morality questions to boot- and in a way that’s only manageable in a video game emphasising choice. There’s so much richness and value here: further evidence that CD Projekt Red is a paragon of customer-facing, quality content.

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.