Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Review

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a highly-polished, well-designed, eminently enjoyable game that sits amongst the best titles of this generation on the merits of its gameplay. Extensively exploring its intricately realised environments is a peerless pleasure. It’s such a shame, then, that the game’s narrative is marred by a couple of conspicuous issues; problems that are clearly the result of Square Enix’s meddling with Mankind Divided’s development, divvying up the game’s planned content into multiple games to form a trilogy.

Two years after Adam Jensen’s trip to the sea floor and revelations about shadowy cabal The Illuminati at the end of Deus Ex: Human Revelation, tensions between augmented people and “naturals” are high. Everyone’s favourite Swiss Army Human Jensen is a double agent working for Interpol’s Prague-based anti-terrorist group Task Force 29 whilst investigating Illuminati infiltration in the organisation through collaboration with hacktivists The Juggernaut Collective. Since the “Aug Incident” at the end of the last game, where the augmented population were triggered into a lethally aggressive state through Illuminati machinations, segregation of augmented humans is well underway- a situation that’s not helped when a series of aug-linked terrorist attacks occur. Adam Jensen must juggle political motivations, widespread prejudice, and a host of experimental augmentations installed without his knowledge in pursuit of truth, justice, and the impeccably bearded way.


Gameplay wise, not much has changed since Human Revolution. Adam Jensen still controls through a mixture of first- and third-person perspectives, with a cover system optimised for stealth and a suite of unlockable and upgradeable augmentations dependant on a carefully maintained battery meter. You can pursue a range of different play styles, incorporating stealth, hacking, and all out action depending on how you apply the Praxis Kits earned through levelling up to unlock and upgrade new abilities for your semi mechanical body.

The most obvious additions to gameplay are Jensen’s new experimental augmentations – powerful new abilities that stretch his system to its limit. You can trigger thick dermal body armour, incapacitate foes with concussive or electrical blasts from your arms, and hack certain electronics from a distance to turn the tables on your foes. The drawback of these upgrades is that they require you to “overclock” your system, which can lead to issues like overheating and failure of certain augmentations at random. This is potentially mitigated by an optional item which grants you free reign to tap into all of that sweet, metallic potential risk-free.


Although sound, Mankind Divided’s gameplay could use a little bit of ironing out. For instance, you can lug unconscious or dead enemies’ bodies around to hide them from their peers. This process should be quite easy, but it’s fraught with issues. The (admittedly hilarious) rag doll bodies often catch and latch onto objects or walls when you attempt to drag them around corners. You never feel like you have a solid grip on their body either, since sometimes Adam decides to just drop the body without your knowledge or consent. Most frustratingly the command prompt on Xbox One for picking up a body is the same as the one that lets you look at your gun to switch between different ammunition types and firing modes. On more than one occasion I’ve been caught by a patrolling guard because Adam suddenly decided to take an keenly intense interest in his stun gun’s serial number while squatting guiltily over a convulsing goon.

Still, ninety-nine percent of the time the foundation of Human Revolution’s established gameplay is pretty damn solid, and Mankind Divided’s runaway triumph lies in its level and world design. The game’s hub, set around your Prague base of operations, initially seems a little bit small- you can sprint across the explorable length of the area in a couple of minutes- but it’s soon clear that the space contains multitudes of pathways. Most buildings are honeycombed with a plethora of apartments, offices, and hidden rooms. Exploring Prague feels like delving into a trove of intricate puzzle boxes requiring a mixture of approaches to crack into, and in my experience there’s always something worth finding in any given locked room. You might find valuable materials, codes to storage lockers, entire side-quests, or even story critical items you’ve stumbled across by chance- something I managed in a brief spate of apartment-diving in one of the ritzier joints. The city evolves, too, offering new opportunities as time passes and night falls to reveal that seedy black-and-gold spirit that you know and love from Human Revolution.

It’s not just Prague that gets this fastidious attention to detail. Missions that take you away from the city let you delve into similarly rich and complex areas as you fight your invisible war. Level layouts might seem to follow a more linear path than you’re used to in the sprawl, but there’s always a wealth of choice awaiting you.


That’s the design philosophy at the core of Mankind Divided: levels are built to accommodate player choice. Pretty much any approach you can imagine and spec yourself towards is supported down to rewards for each approach: you’ll gain similar amounts of XP taking enemies down through up-close stealth attacks, bombastic action, hacking their security systems to turn against them, or circumventing your opposition altogether by seeking out hidden paths. You can skip entire heavily-guarded sequences by finding and stacking enough boxes to climb up to somewhere you’re not “supposed” to be. Even the AI is remarkable; antagonise a shop’s bodyguard by stepping into and out of the stock room, and when the ensuing gunfire and panic draws police they’ll fire upon the bodyguard because they’re the one that’s seen to be breaking the rules (yes, Grand Theft Auto allowed you to call the police on people responding to your attacks first, but it’s such a rarely-seen detail in AI that it warrants mention). Mankind Divided’s world and rules always accommodate the astute and the imaginative with its potential for emergent play.

Unfortunately, although the bricks-and-mortar of gameplay guided by a beautiful design philosophy blueprint make for grand architecture to behold, there’s a serious fault in Mankind Divided’s structure. No matter how well crafted the torturously metaphorical building, a weak narrative foundation threatens to compromise the whole effort.


Take the elephant in the room: the “Mechanical Apartheid”. Although not so pronounced in the game as in its misguided marketing campaign, the theme of “augmented” as a racial identity just doesn’t feel like it holds water. Although the all-but mandatory adoption of augmentations in manual labour industries essentially creates a population that “didn’t ask for this”, the issue remains that, unlike in real life racial conflicts, the persecuted group in this universe actually is inherently more dangerous than the majority. That’s even before you mention the recent Aug Incident, which shows that in a realistic worst-case scenario augmented people can be controlled by their bodily accessories to ruinous effect whether they like it or not. There are so many interesting and fitting places the game could’ve explored with augmented people, deeply exploring themes of ableism, industrialism, or expensive and ineffective healthcare systems. Instead, we have to make do with a blunt bludgeoning over the head with unsuitable theming.

That’s a shame not only due to the game’s inept allegory potentially alienating people of colour, but also because the ways the game showcases widespread prejudice are actually quite clever. Not content with just pseudo-racial slurs heaped onto dialogue, persecution bleeds into the way you interact with the world, too. Everywhere you’re seeing the state mistreating augmented people, arresting them without warrant, hassling them in the street, and exploiting them when possible. It’s stuff that would usually warrant intervention in any other game, but it’s so pervasive and widespread that you really don’t feel like you can help. An especially powerful, while simultaneously very subtle, detail is found in the game’s subway stations used to zip between Prague’s districts. You’re supposed to walk right to the end of the platform to board the train on the Aug-specific train car. Every mission marker leads you to this spot whenever you need to use the train. However, if you board the train from any of the “Naturals Only” spots, you’re greeted by a police officer at the other end and forced to wait through a 30-second cut scene where they check your papers and tell you off. It’s a small delay, but really hammers home how infuriating it can be to jump through unfair hoops.


Mankind Divided’s powerful attention to storytelling details in the environment kills me because it’s so focused on forcing a 1:1 augmented-as-race metaphor that just doesn’t fit. All that attention to detail and potential lying in the subtext is cheapened by inappropriate theming.

Aside from the game’s underwhelming use of its setting, Mankind Divided is beset by conspicuous issues of pacing. The game just barely tells enough of a complete story to justify itself as a single release, but the path to its sudden and disappointing conclusion is riddled with baffling decisions of plotting. You start the game with a full suite of upgraded abilities, but when you inevitably lose them you’re a couple of hours into the game (a move that could be defended through giving you enough time to get to grips with your many options to decide the path you’re going to pursue with upgrades, but story-wise it’s very jarring). There’s a tutorial that teaches you the ins and outs of gunplay at your office’s firing range that crops up after about five hours of play. Plot advancement is paper-thin and prolonged in a way that makes it obvious that Mankind Divided was intended to be a longer game, but has been hacked apart to fill out multiple releases- and that’s thrown a spanner into the pacing of the game’s events.

The game isn’t too short by any means- the dense world and wealth of side-missions pads out the experience admirably, but the story has not been adequately changed to make appropriate use of its allotted time post-division. The flailing attempt to appease this split is epitomised by the conclusion of the game, in which a (not joking) five minute long news report in which Eliza Cassan, the (albeit intentionally) limpest character in the whole world, covers events linked to your actions in drab monotone.You can almost feel Square Enix shoving a bookmark in the middle of the story and yanking from your hands, Eidos Montreal looking on sadly.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is a beautifully presented, eminently replayable and immersive game that offers tens of hours of Renaissance-flavoured cyberpunk escapism. While its core gameplay and world design are top-notch, the experience is sullied by significant narrative weaknesses as the game struggles to justify its most prominent theme amidst producer-driven meddling. That’s not to say that Mankind Divided isn’t worth the plunge; it’s still a fantastic game worthy of everyone’s attention. It’s just that this particular painting is too many missed strokes away from being a masterpiece.


Valley Review

On the surface, Valley seems like something of an about turn for Blue Isle Studios. The company’s previous endeavour, Slender: The Arrival, was a horror game that sought to build discomfort and tension in the player through disempowerment and an oppressive, creepy atmosphere. Valley, on the other hand, seems to build an altogether different atmosphere; one of exhilarating liberation and light-hearted wonder. It seems that the ability to invoke fear translates to the kindling of joy too, upending stunted horror protagonist agency in favour of grandstanding feats of superheroism.

You are a nameless archeologist that grunts in a male or female voice depending on which option you choose from the game’s start menu. You seek to find the mythical Life Seed (conveniently linked to whichever Tree Of Life De Jour you’d prefer), an ancient and powerful object that you’ve tracked down to an uncharted valley in the Rocky Mountains. Greeted with idyllic rolling vistas, adorable little sprite critters called Daemons, and evidence of now-deserted military presence, you stumble upon a L.E.A.F suit. This snazzy exoskeleton not only grants you with super-human mobility, but also comes equipped with the God Hand- a gauntlet with the ability to extract life force as well as bestow it upon living and once-living things.


Getting around in the L.E.A.F suit is a cinch: to start zipping over the landscape at high speeds, press the “run” button to break into a sprint. You really get going when you hit a downward slope, transferring the momentum into impressive speed- so much so that when you hit a ramp you’ll fly through the air for impressive distances, whether you hit the jump button or not. Valley’s playgrounds are filled with gently rolling hills and dips, which means you’re never far from top speed.

Other manoeuvrability upgrades are granted to you throughout the course of the game, including the ability to double-jump, run on magnetised surfaces, sprint at blisteringly high speed on energised rails, and grapple Spider-man-like from predetermined devices in the levels. Although many of these abilities are context-dependent while I’d rather have skills applicable anywhere, it’s a fun and varied power set that pushes level variety and keeps things fresh for the game’s 5-6 hour run time.

The God Hand is also an interesting tool, but for narrative as well as mechanical reasons. You’ve an energy gauge that depletes when you use certain abilities- one unit of energy is expended to trigger a double-jump, grapple-swing using the aforementioned mid-game skill, and to grant life energy to dead trees, plants, and animals in the environment. You can refill this energy gauge by running through omnipresent orbs, arranged throughout levels like coins in a Sonic game, and by extracting life from living things around you should you become desperate- although there’s enough harmlessly obtainable energy around that I never really had to do this.


The energy gauge also doubles-up as a life bar. Fall too far off the level or land in a body of water (the L.E.A.F suit is much too heavy for swimming, the game loves to remind you each time this happens), and you’ll respawn at the cost of the health of the Valley- the grass around you is scorched and some nearby plants and animals have died, forcibly separated from their life force. This is explained by the game as a phenomenon called “quantum immortality”; rather than making use of the life energy around you to rejuvenate your body, the suit shifts you into a parallel universe where you never died in the first place. Die too many times without managing to heal the Valley, and there’ll be no living things around to trigger the failsafe and you’ll crumple amongst the barren, broken shadow of the beautiful Valley you’ve come to know. There are also enemies in the world; wildlife for some reason twisted by their deficiency in life energy. Failure to pump enough shots of the stuff their way to pacify them, and they’ll drain your energy until you die.

The death system is a stroke of narrative genius that really ties a bow around the game’s major environmental theme through inextricably tying your wellbeing to that of the world. Valley isn’t a particularly hard game- I never “properly” died, and the only deaths that I did experience were due to mistimed jumps rather than combat- but I really like the fresh take of the world around you doubling up as a life bar, and the way that frames your relationship with the game world and its inhabitant assets. Quantum undeath isn’t the only reason to bestow life upon dead plants and animals. Often, a revitalised tree will drop acorns that you need to unlock ancient doors that guard valuable upgrades and interesting tidbits.

In fact, thorough exploration is highly encouraged; not only is the game a joy to move about in, but scattered notes provide often fascinating context to this Valley and its former inhabitants. Rumination on the meaning of life after experiencing quantum immortality, musings on what the technology being built here might mean to society at large, and simple human yearnings for friends and family back home. Entries are always short enough that the flow of gameplay isn’t broken when you stop to read one. There’s also crates littering the levels that hold acorns, upgrades, and the medallions used to access a mysterious pyramid found near the end of the game.


Valley’s story in general is quite well told, if predictable and slightly contrived in places. You pick up audio recordings at the start of the game that are well acted and written to provide just the right amount of exposition in a way that lets you keep on trucking through the level. You will, however, have to look past the fact that your character has all the recordings for at least one of the narrators at the start of the game and always has the prescience to trigger them exactly when they’re appropriate to the current area. This stands out especially when you trigger a potentially-cataclysmic event, only to play the next audio log which outlines in detail the extent of the danger you just got yourself into. Minor foible aside, I was thoroughly engaged in unravelling the history of the Valley all the way up to the revelations towards the game’s close.

Valley is largely successful in what it sets out to do. Blue Isle have taken their experience in atmospheric design for horror and flipped it on its head to offer an exploration of the more positive ends of the emotional spectrum: by turns, I found myself thrilled by my character’s abilities and pleasantly soothed by the beautiful scenery and cleverly adaptive score. So much of the game’s design-to-please is spot on. The dynamism of your movements and interactions within the game’s world are sheer bliss. Weirdly, in many ways Valley feels like a victorious realisation of that 3D Sonic games have failed to achieve- pleasurable platforming and exploration at speed. Valley’s natural environments are pretty, varied, and colourful. And that soundtrack– explorative sections are backed by calm, playful orchestral melodies, while fast-paced sections have a swift audio energy that’s best punctuated when the whole cacophony seems to hold its breath as you make a particularly big jump. The instruments fade out as you fling yourself across a chasm, the chorus chiming in louder and louder as you pass the apex of your leap until all that airborne tension is released upon thunderous landing. When the game’s mechanical, visual, and sound design come together in the right way, Valley is one hell of a treat.


That’s not to say Valley’s without significant wrinkles, though. A good portion of the game is spent underneath the idyllic Valley in dreary facilities that are just about saved by the thrilling rail-running segments that break them up. Even those sequences, although home to the most screamingly high speeds available, were plagued by corners where I’d fall off the world and crash the game (hello again, 3D Sonic!). This, in turn, highlights Valley’s awful checkpointing system. Die normally and you’re reloaded to the nearest safe place to where you died, but load into a level you were halfway through (or crashed out of) and you’ll have to play the whole level again. I had to replay a certain level twice, wasting a good 20 minutes to do so, all because Valley doesn’t feature a mid-level checkpoint system for when you return to the game.

Still, for the most part, Valley shows off Blue Isle’s ability to create a thoroughly pleasant atmosphere (plus, it should be mentioned, a brief section with tense and scary qualities as a new threat rears its head late game). It’s packed with action, intrigue, and a good helping of philosophical musing to boot. If Blue Isle wished to achieve a diametric-opposite to their previous and most well-known effort, all achieved by flipping what they know about building the ambience and character of a game, then they should consider Valley a distinguished success.

Hyper Light Drifter Review

Hyper Light Drifter, for all of its clear influences, offers a world and experience that feels truly different and alien. It’s like a game, a concept album, and an experimental short film all rolled into one. Inspired by creator and Heart Machine founder Alex Preston’s life-threatening health condition, Hyper Light Drifter is an achingly beautiful, psychedelic, and weirdly personal creation that demands your attention, at least for a while.

Hyper Light Drifter is an action game in a pixel-art world set to a woozy, moody score from electronic musician Disasterpiece. The Drifter, whom the player controls, must pick through the broken land in search of a cure for their mysterious illness.

As the Drifter, you’re equipped with a thrumming energy blade to carve through foes and charge your pistol (and any other gun you find in your quest). You can also dash in any direction (an animation that’s stunningly realised with smear techniques that perfectly emphasise your snappy momentum) to avoid incoming enemy attacks and projectiles. Most attacks landed upon you by enemies deal one point of damage from your health pool of 5. You can recover lost health, however, using medical kits- although you can only initially carry 3 of these, and they’re sparingly scattered throughout levels to encourage caution.

Hyper Light Drifter Review 08

The map of Hyper Light Drifter is, at first glance, fairly simple. Branching out from the central hub town are paths to four main areas, each with their own theme, enemies, and boss. Beating each area takes you one step closer to unlocking whatever lies in the centre. You’ll need to uncover a number of purple crystals to progress through each area; some progress-critical doors require you to have found a number of these, however to “complete” an area you’ll need 4 crystals as well as to activate a special large crystal guarded by the local boss. None of this is explicitly spelled out for you; it’s simply an intuitive conclusion gleaned from your environment. A more thorough completion of the game, however, calls for the acquisition of all 8 crystals in each zone.

Travelling through each area involves a mix of combat and exploration-driven puzzle solving in a manner that’s not dissimilar to Zelda games, although considerably more freeform. The paths you’ll walk are riddled with secret passages and invisible secrets to uncover; sometimes you’ll find Gearbits (currency tied into the game’s upgrade system), sometimes you’ll find a hidden purple crystal, and occasionally you’ll find a secret room that you need to return to later on. Hyper Light Drifter’s secret-ridden levels lend even more mystery and depth to an enigmatic and enthralling world, and this sedate exploration and platforming gives the player ample time to recuperate between fierce fights.

Hyper Light Drifter Review 09

You’ll need caution and wits to make it through Hyper Light Drifter’s enemy encounters. Not only are you required to carefully observe each new encountered enemy, it’s imperative to make use of your environment to survive. Level geometry can be used to divide and conquer your sometimes-overwhelming adversaries, take cover from projectile attacks, and deadly traps can be turned to the advantage of the wily.

Even so, there are some pretty deviously laid-out challenges to overcome that will almost certainly lead to repeat deaths. Fatality can come swiftly and frequently in this game, however you’re never dropped in too far away from the offending encounter with a checkpointing system that rarely frustrated in the 6-and-a-half hours it took me to reach the end credits. I could often see exactly what my fatal mistakes were, and was for the most part able to jump in and try again almost immediately.

Hyper Light Drifter could definitely be labelled a hard game. With the action as intense and punishing as it is, there’s definitely a ramp for starting players to climb before competence is achieved. This is especially true of the area most players are likely to tackle first, which is home to frog ninja-esque enemies that are devilishly difficult to read and dodge. But when you start to read the game’s rhythms, use the environment to your advantage and keep a calm head through it all, you’ll tackle each fresh hurdle with a smile on your face. You’ll learn to be adaptable and, importantly, precise. This game is reminiscent of Dark Souls and bullet hell roguelikes like Enter the Gungeon in that way, perhaps owing as much to them as it does to the more obvious inspirations from the 8- and 16-bit eras.

Hyper Light Drifter Review 03

There’s an upgrade system in place to buff your abilities and unlock new skills. What’s impressive is how some of these options can impact gameplay. The deflecting skill allows you to slash enemy projectiles with your sword, redirecting them back at your foes and allowing for a much more proactive, aggressive approach to ranged assailants. Chain dashes allows you to, well, chain dashes together much more quickly, an invaluable trait for zipping smoothly out of danger (if you can keep cool enough to pull off the timing). Alongside these more interesting power-ups are simple upgrades for improved survivability such as an increased carrying capacity for medical kits.

Whether you’re trudging up the worn steps to a mountaintop temple or engaged in savage combat, it’s hard to deny the sheer beauty of the game. The attractive pixel art visuals are rendered in an attractive autumnal palette that giddily bleeds neon for a unique cyberpunk style that’s unlike anything I’ve seen. The enthralling visuals aren’t just for show, either; there’s a great deal of narrative duty resting on their shoulders. There’s not a single uttered word in Hyper Light Drifter: all characters chirp out some gobbledygook while pictured speech bubbles convey the meaning behind their words and stories. Zones are rife with environmental clues to the backstory of both that area and the world at large. Hyper Light Drifter might be light on explanations, but its scenes and atmosphere are pregnant with meaning.

Hyper Light Drifter Review 10

Those bewitching visuals don’t do all the work, though. Hyper Light Drifter’s atmosphere lends as much of its personality to its music as it does its looks, and Disasterpiece’s heady electronic score is just as unique as every other aspect of the game’s presentation. In the same way that I can’t imagine Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive without its soundtrack, Hyper Light Drifter’s score manages to perfectly synergise with every other aspect of the game to cement the identity of the whole. I highly, highly recommend playing through the game with headphones if you’re aiming for a bloody transcendental experience.

The game’s impenetrable story and early difficulty barrier might turn away some players early on, but with a little bit of persistence Hyper Light Drifter is a game that deserves to be played by anyone willing to give as much as they take. It’s a pulse-pounding, precise action game with an atmosphere to die for again and again. This outstandingly alien world is worth diving into.

Inside Review

You’d be forgiven for wondering just what the hell Playdead’s been doing in the six years since Limbo released. Much has changed since then; Limbo landed when highly-competent, independent games were still something of a novelty, and its relative simplicity might not hold up if it were released today. Six years of change has eroded and reformed the gaming landscape, all while Playdead toiled in near-silence on their spiritual follow-up to Limbo, Inside.

Honestly? It’s been worth every second. Inside is an incredible game that’s short of almost nothing to prevent it being labelled a legitimate masterpiece. It expands upon Limbo in every single respect while wearing that beating heart on its sleeve.

It’s absolutely imperative to play it knowing as little about the game as possible, more so than the many other recent games that invite that recommendation like The Witness, Undertale, and Pony Island. Don’t waste a first impression of this game by watching a playthrough. This one’s absolutely worth a naked, hands-on experience and I hope you’ll forgive any vagueness on my part regarding Inside‘s narrative and systems.

Inside Review 01

Inside starts in the same fashion as Limbo: a young, nameless boy is dropped into a dark forest and must move forwards. You don’t know why the menacing, uniformed men are combing the woods with flashlights and rabid dogs. There’s no dialogue. There aren’t even any worded tutorial tips. You’re given even less to go on than in Limbo; at least in that game you had a clear objective in finding your sister. Here you’re just a boy on the run in an oppressive and deadly world with a much less clearly defined goal. Maybe the boy has a plan. Maybe he’s just forced to press forward out of circumstance. It’s up to you to play through and decide for yourself, inferring what you can.

Controlling the boy is a simple matter since there’s only three inputs: move, jump, and grab. But there’s so much mechanical variety built upon that bedrock. As well as simple platforming through the 2.5D environments, progression is often tied to environmental puzzles. There’s a staggering amount of variety to these puzzles, making use of elements like physics, gravity, momentum, light and shadow, musical cues, AI observation and manipulation, mind control, timing, and object placement. The game’s short 3-hour length means that you’re always confronting new obstacles and you won’t see the same puzzle twice. Even potential frustration over difficult puzzles is mitigated for two reasons. Firstly, there’s never too much environmental clutter to distract you from the solution; you can often see every relevant object onscreen at once. Secondly, checkpoints are forgiving without feeling insulting- death is quite common, yet you never lose more than a few seconds’ worth of progress.

Inside’s real achievement is its carefully maintained atmosphere of creeping horror. You’re in a cruel world dogged by beings that exude a dispassionate and ruthless air. You’ll experience fraught chases that perfectly evoke the terror not experienced since you were a child running hysterically from something fearsome, as we’ve all done at some point. It’s not necessarily those moments that’ll stay with you, though. Inside’s horror is largely of the more understated kind, tipping its hand to let you glimpse at snippets of a world gone horribly wrong. Relatively calm moments are still permeated by an all-encompassing unease and quiet atrocities are laid bare to play on primal human fears.

Inside Review 05

The 2.5D world is rendered in a highly desaturated palette, with only the occasional touch of real colour. Thick mist lingers in the background while murky waters ripple calmly. This moody world with its faceless denizens of ill intent envelops you with an immediate sense of foreboding, yet there’s a strange beauty to all the gloomy architecture. The mechanical emphasis of grasping and lugging objects around work in perfect unison with spot-on animation to give the game’s environments and characters a tangible, tactile quality that only serves to emphasise the horror.

The game’s sound design contributes as much to the atmosphere of dread as its visuals. Mostly there’s just the pitter-patter of the boy’s footsteps accompanied by his breathing, which changes when the boy becomes more panicked. In a few choice moments of revelation, though, music crests and swells to perfectly punctuate the tone of the scene in contrast with the usual feeling of being left alone with your thoughts in the quiet.

Inside shows Playdead’s mastery of storytelling without words and slick atmospheric direction all in one. You’ve got enough to build a story of your own that might differ from those inferred by each and every friend that plays it. You’ll agree on the broader details of Inside’s story, yes, but there’s a rich well of hints and other elements to wade through and discuss. I have a feeling that there’s more to Inside than they’re letting on. Chase all of the achievements and there just might be something to see for your troubles. In any case, do yourself a favour: play this game, in one sitting, alone. I think you’ll be glad you did.

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.

Mirror's Edge Catalyst Review 01

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.

Mirror's Edge Catalyst Review 03

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.

Mirror's Edge Catalyst Review 04

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.

Mirror's Edge Catalyst Review 06

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.

Mirror's Edge Catalyst Review 02

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 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.

Hearts of Stone Review 03

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.

Hearts of Stone Review 02

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.

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.

Doom Review 05

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.

Doom Review 06

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.

Doom Review 04

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.

Doom Review 01

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.

Doom Review 10

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.

Dark Souls 3 Review

From Software’s run of sequels and spiritual successors has remained largely happy with gentle iteration since the company struck gold with cult hit Demon’s Souls in 2009. Even Bloodborne, with its departure from High Fantasy to Victorian Cosmic Horror and emphasis on fast-paced, shield-less action, remained a recognisable face of the From family. Dark Souls 3 marks a familiar return to the formula that made From’s name while paying respects to its predecessors, but does so with more brains and heart than that concept might have yielded in less skilled hands.

Dark Souls 3 is set thousands of years after the original Dark Souls, where the protagonist canonically “linked the fire”, extending the life of the dying magical flame whose passing marked the land’s fall from grace. There have been many cycles of the fire failing since then, and each time a hero has risen to link it again.  In the land that now calls itself Lothric, you are the Ashen One, an undead with the potential to link the fire, rejuvenating the world anew. Instead of having the ability to regain your humanity for power and special abilities, like in previous Dark Souls games, you can now become kindled by empowering yourself with a fragment of the flame’s grace.

Dark Souls 3 is, well, Dark Souls. In terms of core gameplay mechanics and loop, it’s largely identical to previous instalments. Swings of your weapon, casting spells, and dodge-rolls temporarily deplete a rapidly-refilling stamina bar at the cost of your character’s exertion. You carry a limited number of healing items, Estus Flasks, that replenish when you rest at bonfires that double up as checkpoints and fast-travel portals. Defeating enemies that you come across in the world awards you with Souls, a currency for merchants as well as levelling up. Should you die (you will), you have one chance to return to the spot of your death to reclaim your hard-earned Souls; dying before touching your bloodstain means you’ll lose those souls forever.

You’ll need those Souls, too, because Dark Souls 3 retains the character progression system from previous Souls games. Levelling up requires almost as much active strategy as your foes, since you select which specific character attributes to boost. It’s a delicate balancing act: do you you boost your strength for more damage, endurance for more stamina, or vigour for a blip of extra HP? As ever, Dark Souls is a min-maxer’s paradise, and people with a predilection for stats and optimisation will revel in selecting the most efficient paths to potency in battle.

Dark Souls 3 Review 02

And that battle is good. From’s combat systems rely on a formula of forethought, observation, and calculated reaction, and it all takes place in a world that’s designed with a keen sense of occupation for the player. There’s a real sense of weight and presence as you tried beaten paths and engage each foe, and (aside from the occasional glitch), hit-boxes nail the connection between weapon and enemy, as well as hostile attacks on your person.

The only exception to this is when you dodge-roll. Rolling triggers player-character invincibility for some frames of the animation, which means that if you time the action effectively, you can roll through attacks without taking damage. This mechanic works for both offensive and defensive approaches, and you’ll often find it’s better to roll towards enemies through their attacks to better exploit their weaknesses. It’s not a new feature to Dark Souls 3, but it’s worth mentioning because enemies are designed to prompt you to exploit different nooks and crannies of the combat and traversal systems that the game has on offer.

Another feature that returns, albeit from way back in Demon’s Souls, is the Focus meter, which is for all intents and purposes a mana bar. Spells are no longer limited to a defined number of uses; each incantation costs a certain amount of Focus Points (FP), which you can replenish with Ashen Estus flasks. You always hold the same amount of Estus Flasks, but you can decide on the proportion of your flasks that will be Ashen or vanilla healing varieties. I really love playing with the trade-off between healing and casting potential.

Focus points still have a use if you’re melee only, though. Each weapon now has access to Weapon Arts, which range from alternative light and heavy attacks to buffs and charge attacks. These skills drain your FP and they’re sometimes really useful for getting you out of tight situations, so Ashen Estus flasks aren’t to be sniffed at if you’ve favoured brawn in your character build.

Dark Souls 3 Review 04

Every weapon feels different too, and most feel viable for the right character build; it’s up to individuals where they want to sacrifice reach, speed, or power. Dark Souls 3’s inventory and equipment menus might feel like a handful for new players, but for experienced Souls players they’ve never been cleaner or faster to navigate. Each weapon features different stat requirements and scaling, and it’s a relative breeze to work out the specifics of each tool at your disposal, right down to just how many points of damage your dexterity stat adds to your katana. That said, though, newcomers would do well to take a look at the game manual when first working out the game’s menus; to trained eyes they’re intuitive, but there’s a lot of information onscreen for the uninitiated.

The rhythms of conflict are ingrained in you from the get-go as you ration your actions against your stamina pool and feel out the best way to deal with each enemy and each situation.  An important part of Dark Souls 3’s gameplay is that From doesn’t necessarily distinguish exploration and combat; they merge and twist them together in a way that makes the world feel alive and deadly, rather than a gauntlet scattered with enemies, that tests your wits and application of all available techniques.

Of course, the most frequent test comes in the form of the myriad enemies you’ll come across in your journey through Lothric. True to its lineage, Dark Souls 3’s world features some truly devious denizens; even the weakest enemies are capable of overpowering you if you allow yourself to be surrounded or taken by surprise. You’re forced to really look at enemies, their attack patterns and animations, dancing on the fringe of their range until you’re certain of how you should best exploit their weaknesses.

It’s almost impossible to talk about Dark Souls without mentioning difficulty nowadays. Even the series’ PR campaigns have revolved around its challenge. The game is certainly hard; it doesn’t suffer fools, punishing the unwary with swift death. That said, when you’ve learned to play the game on its own terms, it’s really not as difficult as some might make it out to be. Where rashness is discouraged, patience and preparation are rewarded, and if you’re just finding an area or encounter too difficult, you can always summon help. There’s even a covenant that summons someone to guard you should an invading player trespass upon your world.

Dark Souls 3 Review 06

That’s not to say that Dark Souls 3 doesn’t have a number of tricks up its sleeve to make you lose composure. I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say that not all enemies, or environments for that matter, are how they initially appear. Expect to be surprised. But even the most ridiculous, initially-overwhelming hurdles can be overcome with patience and a little bit of practice. No matter how much the game pounds your senses to disorient you occasionally.

Speaking of senses, Dark Souls 3 is an audiovisual delight. A graphical upgrade that’s accompanied the generation hop since Dark Souls 2 has been put to good use. The particle effects that embellish your character when kindled crackle and burn, adding a flourish of colour to highlight your power. Architecture and nature alike seethe with wild, lost grandeur. Character models from friends to foes to bosses are dripping with the classic From Software touch; it’s delightful to see that even in the fifth instalment of this spiritual series, From still hasn’t lost the ability to evoke that trademark disturbed awe. I’m appreciative of varied enemy designs, and Dark Souls 3 offers a fine menagerie of horrors to face off against, from mad villagers to hulking demons and creeping abominations.

Environments are great, too, offering a grand diversity of locales to traverse. There’s a Dark Souls 1-esque feeling to Lothric as a world, which is sure to please those that favoured its tangled, deep world design over Dark Souls 2’s more linear layout. There’s not quite that sense of complex interconnectedness here, but it’s still a joy to stumble across clever intersections and shortcuts between areas.

Dark Souls 3 Review 03

While you work through Dark Souls 3, it’s increasingly apparent that the game is very aware of its ancestry. I’d go as far as to say it’s almost a kind of “remix album” of the Souls series: in places artistic assets are outright lifted from previous games, although there’s always a clever twist or subversion to proceedings. There’s a consistent sense of dilapidation to Lothric’s locations. Not in the same sense of magnificent decay that’s the hallmark of the series, but a more muted, tired kind of erosion that speaks volumes about the context of your quest: you’re fighting to save a world that’s endured perhaps countless apocalypses, only to always fall into the same horrors again and again. This worn-out world maybe doesn’t have another cycle left in it. Maybe the magic that has sustained the world for so long isn’t the force it once was. I really liked that about Dark Souls 3. It’s not afraid to hint at these massive, terrible themes, using old assets ingeniously as it does so. The major caveat to my endorsement of this approach is that you simply can’t get the most out the the experience if you haven’t played at the very least the first Dark Souls, otherwise those revelations of reference and subversion are lost.

As fond as I am of From Software’s very particular brand of game, Dark Souls 3 does suffer from many of the issues that have always plagued the series. Chief of all is the issue of communication. From the stuffed menus that I mentioned earlier to intricacies of side-quest requirements, Dark Souls 3 continues the series trend of esotericism. For instance, a vital NPC- a sorcery vendor (important to me since I went for a sorcery/dexterity character build)- disappeared permanently midway through my game, seemingly at random. After a quick google, I found that this was because I’d neglected to give him a magic scroll before beating a specific number of bosses. This isn’t something that I was made aware of at all until it was too late, and it’s forced me to re-spec my character to account for the fact that I have no-one to teach me high-end sorceries now.

Dark Souls 3 Review 01

The other main problems that plague Dark Souls 3 are of the technical variety. I find that one of the most interesting parts of Souls games is the online elements, from messages to invaders to jolly co-operation. Unfortunately, each time I boot up Dark Souls 3 I might sit through minutes and minutes of failed server calibrations. The fix that I found to somehow work was to set up an active download before signing into the game. I’ve never had those issues with previous instalments of the series, so I’m confused about how From have set up the system differently this time. The silver lining is that when you’re in the game, Dark Souls 3’s online elements are largely reliable, and there’s now a password-mediated matchmaking system that helps you pair up with friends more easily.

Some people have reported frequent crashes, especially in the PC version of the game. I’ve only encountered one hard crash myself on the Xbox One, although occasionally I’m stuck on endless loading screens for ages before resetting the game. This tends to happen in conjunction with server hiccups, like when a summon attempt fails for some reason. Otherwise, I had a fairly plain- sailing experience, although it’s worth noting that there are some prevalent issues being reported in the community to look out for.

Dark Souls 3 is a game that knows and smartly leverages its lineage to great and intelligent effect. It’s a solid, broad improvement upon its predecessors in the mechanical department that’s got the brains to take an already expansive, absorbing lore in fascinating directions. While it doesn’t have the impact of the original Dark Souls, Dark Souls 3 is every bit as fascinating-a puzzle to uncover, explore, and conquer.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Review

Assassin’s Creed is a series characterised by peaks and troughs. Since Assassin’s Creed 2 released in 2009, the series embarked on a bumpy road with a new release every year. The series has, for the most part, progressed in an incremental fashion, with small tweaks and additions adding more options and approaches to the gameplay, with the exception of the engine change that Ubisoft introduced with Assassin’s Creed 3. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is the most recent culmination of the annual efforts, and it’s something of a return to form for the series that manages to avoid feeling tired.

Set in London in 1968, Syndicate follows Assassin twins Evie and Jacob Frye in their efforts to liberate London from the Templars’ grip by cutting a bloody swathe through their ranks and hired gang, the Blighters, establishing their own gang- the Rooks- in place. In other words, it follows the same basic framework of every Assassin’s Creed game since AC2, for better or worse. Many side quests are tied to taking territory away from the Blighters and eliminating their leaders, each of which have a distinct personality and appearance, Shadow of Mordor- style. Completing main and side quests unlocks extra gear and XP to upgrade both of your characters so that they can tackle areas of London populated with enemies of a higher level.

This is the first AC game to feature dual protagonists, with Jacob favouring a confrontational approach while Evie is more cautious and stealthy. This is reflected in their separated skill trees; while your XP is shared between the two characters, you can spend their skill points to level up different areas of their respective trees. This is great because you can min-max each character at the start of the game to enjoy two different play styles rather than missing out on half of the experience until late in the game.

Speaking of the two main characters, I personally found Evie to be far and away my favourite of the two. While lots of people outright hate Jacob, I merely find him a slight annoyance at times. With his cocky swagger and relentless painful quips, it’s easy for him to get on your nerves. Evie, however, is a much more compelling and original characterisation, and while the characters’ main motivations seem to be “we want to kill the Templars because they’re nasty and mean and we don’t like them”, Evie’s efforts to live up to her revered father add a modicum of depth to her motivations which endeared her to me quite quickly.

Syndicate’s gameplay is no far cry from previous years. You still brutalise enemies in open combat with a mixture of attacks, block-breaking stun attacks, and reversals. You still have an arsenal of different weapons including knives, brass knuckles, canes, throwing knives, and guns. You can still approach objectives stealthily, using either verticality, social stealth, or distractions to navigate around and dispatch enemies. And you can still free-run and climb up and over any building or obstacle, with the major change in this game being the Arkham games- style grappling hook you can use to scale walls and pass between rooftops quickly. You also have an upgradeable workforce and hideout, which is this game takes the form of a train that you acquire early on. I think that the train is a perfect base of operations not only story-wise with the obvious use a renegade underground organisation has for a mobile base, but also I always felt that having more elaborate houses and mansions was more of a pain than anything else in previous games. In games all about freedom of movement, I was never endeared to the more sprawling home bases I acquired, frustratingly spreading out all of my bases’ amenities, and I couldn’t care less about the upgrades which made them nicer places to be because I never spent any real time there. With the train, all of my home base needs are contained in a nice little space within which you can’t get lost or forget where things are because it’s about as linear as an environment can get.

I think that of all the problems this game, and modern Assassin’s Creed games in general, the game’s handling mechanics are the most problematic. The free running has felt “off” since the switch to the Anvil Next engine, and Syndicate suffers terribly from the affliction. Free-running feels sticky and holds your hand too much; I’ve experienced innumerable instances of the game not letting me jump from a wall or cross a certain obstacle because it’s either not “safe”, or because the game’s context-sensitive traversal system hiccuped. In older AC games, you had much more freedom of movement, and could leap from rooftops and walls at will. You might have been more prone to injury that way, but the system felt more free and real. When the player wants to eject horizontally from a wall and none of the buttons that they know to achieve this are doing anything because there isn’t an AC Regulation Safe Landing Spot opposite them, it’s incredibly frustrating and limiting for them.

I’m also not a fan of the combat system of AC games since AC3. The move to a more simple control scheme for fighting was likely inspired by the success of the Batman Arkham games, but I don’t think the faster fighting style works for AC. When you had to hold down a trigger to block and parry attacks, the combat felt more deliberate and had a good, thoughtful flow. You had to outsmart your enemies as much as you had to overpower them. Combat in Syndicate has been streamlined to essentially hammering on enemies with near reckless abandon, occasionally interrupted by hitting dodge, parry or defence- break buttons and occasionally making use of your wider arsenal of ranged weapons. The combat isn’t necessarily bad; it just feels messy, loose, and above all, I don’t feel it fits the game.

Story-wise, Syndicate is just as close to the AC formula as it is mechanically. Assassin’s Creed games have for several years struggled to draw me into the time zone and keep me interested in the characters, and in this area Syndicate has more success than most. Previous games, while depicting vastly different eras and cultures, have evolved a kind of “sameness” in my eyes; a similarity of design that’s unmistakeable “Assassin’s Creed”, whether I’m running around Constantinople or Boston. However Syndicate’s London really does feel like a new and exciting locale to kill people in, and many of the characters are delivered with a fervour to make them distinct. Even the modern-day sections of the story are more compelling, which is unusual because it’s the least interactive they’ve ever been, since they occur exclusively in cutscene form. To be honest, given the continual feedback from fans about the dissonant and monotonous nature of these parts of the stories of past games, it’s about time Ubisoft improved on these sections.

While Assassin’s Creed Syndicate falls into many of the mechanical and story-based ruts featured by many of the AC games of recent years, there’s something about it that sets it above them. London is a delight to see and explore, the story maintained my interest in spite of its rigid compliance to established Assassin’s Creed story structure, and the underlying quality of the gameplay mechanics shine through their somewhat frustrating simplification. Syndicate is far from perfect, but if you’ve not grown overly tired of the tried-and-tested AC formula yet, it’s enough of a breath of fresh air that you should give it a go.

Image credits-

Day One Updates (Halo 5, Don’t You Want Me?)

As I write this introductory sentence, it’s 01:01AM Wednesday morning, the 28th of October 2015. I’ve formed the habit of glancing at my TV for the last couple of hours, because Halo 5 has a 9GB day one update. See, I work from 12 noon to 8PM, it takes about an hour to get home, another couple of hours to cook and eat tea as well as have some much-needed interaction with my housemates. I knew it’d take a while for the game to install; I set off the process several hours ago, but for some reason by Xbox One waited for me to try to launch the game before telling me that a 9GB update is required to play the game.

I could have gone offline and continued update-less, but since games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5 have crucial single player content locked in their day 1 updates, I feel more inclined to launch with the most up-to-date version available to me.

I understand the usefulness of day one updates. I know there’s a substantial window of time between sending a game off for certification, manufacture, et cetera and the actual release date of the game, within which window the developers are able to squirrel away at fixing bugs and the like. That’s a fine and useful way to use day one updates. It’s also understandable to gate multiplayer modes in day one patches to stop people who manage to get their hands on the game earlier than the general public from zooming ahead of everyone else.

Another argument is that day one updates allow for developers to ignore disc storage restrictions, but that can be fixed by splitting content between several discs if needs be. If you’re releasing a AAA game, it’s not that much of a monetary stretch to print extra discs. You can even funnel the money from the deals with Mountain Dew that everyone mocks you for.

But 9GB? For some people with fast internet connections due to geographical or economical reasons, that’s a paltry amount of data. For everyone else, though, it’s a royal pain in the unmentionables. I’ll admit that my work hours limit the amount of evening playtime available to me, but a system that gives the game a three hour slot to install itself on the day of purchase, and yet fails to meet that timeframe, is not a good system.

We’re increasingly moving away from a place where the majority of a gaming experience can be enjoyed without an internet connection, or where gamers have to passively jump through hoops for potentially hours just to enjoy their new purchases. It’s a complicated issue with lots of niggling caveats on both sides, but what I think the core of the matter lies in the question: “Does the player benefit in any meaningful way despite having their access to said product arbitrarily restricted by their internet connection, when the problem can be worked around in other ways?”

It’s now 01:23 and I don’t think there’s been another percent of progress yet. I know my answer.

Image credits: