A direct sequel to 2013’s The Stick of Truth, South Park: The Fractured but Whole sees players reprise their role as the titular mountain town’s New Kid, only this time, swords and sorcery give way to capes and ridiculous superpowers.
It’s classic South Park stuff - intentionally basic visuals and all - packed with the sort of crude humour, plot twists and biting satire that fans of the show know and love.
Battles in Fractured still follow the turn-based structure found in The Stick of Truth, but now offer players (and enemies) greater tactical freedom by allowing them to move around the battlefield on a grid. Rather than simply queuing up and kicking lumps out of each other, it’s now possible - with enough careful planning and the right mix of heroes - to surround and outmanoeuvre enemies, or even dodge their ranged attacks.
This new freedom is put to particularly good use in boss battles, creating some memorable fights. Highlights include outrunning an obese stripper and her one-hit-kill crush attack, simultaneously clearing a path through her minions, and a showdown with a sober Towlie, who’s immune to your attacks and instead must be pacified by igniting cannabis stores placed around the arena.
A range of QTEs crop up both when dealing out and defending against damage to boost outgoing or mitigate incoming punishment, as well as helping to build a meter that, once full, unleashes an over-the-top special attack that’s equally entertaining and devastating.
Before a fight, players can tactically select up to three other members of Coon and Friends to battle alongside them, providing you’ve already unlocked them as a buddy and aren’t on a mission that requires a specific set of characters. Finding the right team may take a bit of trial and error, as there are quite a few options to choose from, but most people should be able to assemble a preferred combination that compliments their play style nicely.
Some of your allies also have powers that can be used outside of combat to reach secret areas hidden around South Park. As an example, you can activate the Human Kite’s flying ability wherever you see a pinwheel, allowing you to reach previously inaccessible areas and rewards, such as new hero costumes and Artefacts (the latter enhancing passive powers and boosting your Might, which makes missions easier). It’s something that helps stop mundanity creeping in as you track your way back and forth across the limited reaches of the town, but, luckily, Jimmy returns to offer another fast travel option that makes things easier on that front.
The Fractured but Whole was always going to be packed with comedy gold, but buried underneath all the fart jokes and political incorrectness is an engrossing and hugely enjoyable strategy RPG.
Although you’re cast as the Amazing Butthole, whose legendary flatulence can be used to interrupt enemy attacks and even bend time, players are able to customise their avatar both visually and on a deeper level, specifically across hero classes and a range of abilities spread between brawler, speed and support archetypes. As you make progress more and more classes begin to open up, and you’re free to combine multiple, though you still only ever have four ability slots no matter how many you’re rocking, not counting your special attack.
It’s worth noting that you’re never locked into a choice, as you’re able to visit Cartman in Coon and Friends’ headquarters to switch out classes should you have a change of heart or just want to experiment with everything that’s on offer.
The Fractured but Whole was always going to be a faithful title packed with comedy gold, which is, to be fair, probably the main appeal for many, but it was surprising (maybe because I didn’t play The Stick of Truth) to find that buried underneath all the fart jokes and political incorrectness is an engrossing and hugely enjoyable strategy RPG.
After breaking away from the annual release cycle last year to put a mediocre film out instead, Assassin’s Creed Origins sees the series triumphantly return with a sequel-come-prequel that cures the rot which had begun to take hold.
From bustling cities, to barren deserts and the Great Pyramid of Giza, environments are intricately detailed and authentic.
Though you’re free to tackle quests in the order of your choosing, if you’re under the recommended character level it’s a good idea to leave them well alone. Their inflated difficulty serves as a gating mechanic to control when you can viably go where, ensuring players aren’t immediately overwhelmed, but also providing motivation to keep gathering experience points and expanding your horizon.
A variety of weapons - each with their own rarity, statistics and status effects - are steadily pumped into your inventory as rewards and need to be swapped out or upgraded regularly. Upgrading weapons simply requires you to pay a blacksmith, though to improve the rest of your gear you’ll need to go hunting or intercept shipments and use the gathered resources to craft their betters.
You’ll put everything to use in the new and improved combat system, which is more satisfying than ever. No longer do enemies take it in turns to attack, letting you counter kill them one by one, but they flank and/or fire arrows as you’re actively engaged in combat. Encounters don’t look nearly as fluently choreographed as a result, but they’re far more compelling.
If you’re familiar with the Souls series or Breath of the Wild you’ll feel right at home with the new mechanics, which, in very similar fashion, see you lock on and avoid incoming attacks in anticipation of a window to launch a light or heavy counter attack. Though it’s more weighty and deliberate, especially when considering the pros and cons of different weapon classes, you can get away with button bashing for the most part.
Certain types of bows can be seamlessly integrated into melee bouts, while others are better served for stealth, but all of them shed the slight feeling of ineptitude ranged weapons have carried in Assassin’s Creed previously. It’s always been far preferable to take enemies on at close range, but Origins changes that, with a headshot being just as quick and deadly as your hidden blade.
Speaking of, stealth has seen a few small tweaks as well. Similar to Metal Gear Solid V you get a brief window of slow motion in which to eliminate an enemy after being spotted, plus you’ll now scout areas from a bird’s eye perspective as Senu, your eagle. Replacing Eagle Vision with a literal eagle’s vision is a better contextual fit and eliminates any ugly screen filters, all while offering up an animal companion to bond with. If Senu strays too far, however, you’ll often need to sit through a loading screen when you warp back to Bayek, which can be off-putting.
Covert infiltrations can also be made easier by utilising the dynamic day/night cycle to your advantage, as many guards retire to bed at night, generally making patrols lighter. An ability can be purchased from the skill tree that lets you change the time of day at will, while you can also unlock a range of familiar tools like poison darts and smoke bombs to further bolster your arsenal.
Combat encounters don’t look nearly as fluently choreographed as before, but they’re far more compelling.
All of the items and abilities available through the skill tree are tempting in their own right, pulling you in every direction and prompting careful consideration for how to invest your attribute points, as the best role-playing games do. Getting all of the abilities you have your eye on will take a while, which is good for longevity, though can feel ever so slightly like you’re being pointed towards Origins’ microtransactions when the game gently reminds you about its storefront.
That said, the implementation is nowhere near as egregious as some recent examples, and you’re given 200 of the premium currency for free. There are loot boxes, but they’re bought with in-game money, plus choosing to complete a daily online quest essentially awards one for free.
While Origins is the best Assassin’s Creed since Black Flag - also maintaining that game’s excellent naval combat - we’d have liked to see more polish from a title that spent twice as long in development. Glitchy animations, clipping, pathing issues and freezes are a few examples of problem we shouldn’t be seeing. While those are here to stay without a patch from Ubisoft, the impending release of the Xbox One X should at least help cut the lengthy loading times down whilst polishing the already shiny visuals.
In spite of the issues it preserves, Assassin’s Creed Origins is a successful soft reboot that comes just in time for the series’ 10th anniversary, modernising the Brotherhood’s adventures by taking inspiration from recent greats like The Witcher 3 and Destiny. It’s very easy to lose hours at a time to Origins’ improved combat and stealth systems, not to mention the wonderful setting, motivated by the developed RPG mechanics and a soundtrack with a touch of whimsy. Here’s hoping Ubisoft keep building on this foundation instead of running the new look Assassin’s Creed into the ground.
When the original Destiny was announced, expectations were high. Activision was keen to lay out the legacy of their and Bungie’s project for the next decade, before anyone had even decrypted a single engram. Now, four years in, the franchise has established itself and Destiny 2 launches not only on console, but also on PC. Is the sequel a fresh new chapter in this saga, or just more of the same?
Bungie’s mastery over gunplay remains on point.
You still do your slaying as one of three character classes, but the choice doesn’t slam shut as many doors as you might expect in terms of playstyle and items. There are subclasses too, meaning you can work your way towards a character who has perks to match how you enjoy playing the game. As there are only 20 levels to progress through before it all becomes about your Light level - boosted by acquiring better equipment, as in the first game - the skill tree is deliberately basic, which serves to keep things straightforward and accessible for new players.
Jumping into the world of Destiny at this stage could be intimidating - all that lore and story to catch up on, right? In fact, other than a nice touch which sees your Guardian’s past exploits recounted over a series of splash screens at the beginning of the game, complete with dates and who you completed missions with, the original feels like a non-essential prologue.
Playing alone is all well and good, though you’re still very much encouraged to venture online with friends. When it comes to Raids, however, that’s absolutely required. These major set pieces see you team up in order to tackle the most devious puzzles and gargantuan enemies Destiny 2 has to offer; they’re the pinnacle of the Destiny experience, though barriers to entry mean you won’t get to enjoy them until you’ve been playing for a while.
It’s at least a testament to the game’s flexibility that it can feel like you’ve had a substantial gameplay experience from the campaign alone, leaving it up to the player whether or not they engage with the endgame content. There’s a lot of depth to explore if you do choose to stick around, not least in gathering the coveted Exotic items and upgrades, which are outstanding weapons and armour pieces that can only be equipped sparingly. You’ll likely want to kit yourself out with these before getting competitive in the enjoyable PvP modes.
It can feel like you’ve had a substantial gameplay experience from the campaign alone, leaving it up to the player whether or not they engage with the endgame content.
Now that the initial hype for the game has slightly died down (and on that note, sorry for the delay), Destiny 2 is free to impress you on its own merits, holding your outstretched hand considerately, but firmly, to pull you into a world which asks as much as you’re willing to give.
If this is a game you’ll play for the odd hour, then there’s an excellent campaign to enjoy in its own right, but if you’ll be sinking hours at a time for the foreseeable future, that will work just as well. One side effect of this is that it’s difficult to feel that you’ve experienced everything the game has to offer, whichever camp you’re in, but more content is good content when it comes to the Destiny framework.
In the end, if you have any attachment to RPGs, MMOs, or, most specifically, FPS games, you’ll definitely find something to latch onto and enjoy in Destiny 2. Beyond that base level of pure enjoyment, the rest is up to you; if you give the game the chance, there’s far more substance here than you might first assume, presented more beautifully than ever before.
There's a reason Monolith’s Shadow of games don’t have The Lord of the Rings in their titles. You might assume that the brand recognition of Middle-earth alone (playfully aped in The Lego Movie as Middle Zealand, after all) is enough to sell a franchise – even one building on a successful debut with Shadow of Mordor back in 2014. In fact, the thing to take from Middle-earth: Shadow of War’s title is that it’s about Tolkien’s world more than his established characters.
Shadow of War takes cues from the likes of The Witcher 3, Assassin's Creed and the Batman: Arkham series.
This shared goal, coupled with the events of the first game (which aren’t thoroughly recounted), have seen the pair form a bond and now forge a new Ring of Power; one unknown to and uncorrupted by Sauron’s influence and filled with the power of Celebrimbor’s wraith form.
It's here we meet the first diversion from established Tolkien lore, which predictably invited controversy during the game’s development. The Great Spider Shelob (encountered by Frodo and Sam in The Return of the King) is depicted as a more ethereal being which generally takes the form of an attractive woman, rather than a hairy arachnid.
While it makes it easier to relate to the character, the depiction does seem unnecessarily sexualised and doesn't do much to make her compelling as a somewhat bystander in the story. Nonetheless, she’s called on to drive the plot forward with Galadriel-esque visions.
It must be said that the main characters in general are fairly uninspiring, despite the extremely cinematic and often epic presentation of the action unfolding around them. While Troy Baker's voice work as Talion fits perfectly, the warring sides of one being (himself and Celebrimbor sharing a body) can be akin to a married couple bickering, rather than two strong personalities arguing over fundamental disagreements. Their conflict isn't nearly as engaging as the world they occupy.
A big part in making this take on Middle-earth compelling is the Nemesis System, which returns to bring enemy captains to the forefront. The process often starts with interrogating a 'worm’ (a lowly orc) to gain intel on a captain's weaknesses, which will help you to defeat the boss-type characters in more convincing fashion. Later you can send death threats to achieve the opposite effect, boosting their level to heighten the challenge and thusly reap greater rewards.
A big part in making this take on Middle-earth compelling is the Nemesis System, which returns to bring enemy captains to the forefront.
What isn't clear is just how unique these characters are to each player. Will one maggot-infested captain who came back to life multiple times to taunt us appear in other games? Or is there a complex system of procedural generation at work, weaving in these memorable encounters on a somewhat user-by-user basis?
Either way, you can bump into the edges on occasion when you come across the same voice actors depicting multiple foes, but adding a personal touch does make these duels more exciting. Especially when three or four gang up on you at once and present an almost overwhelming challenge, the brutes then being promoted while taunting you on their victory should you fall.
The general orc populous are fairly obedient in only attacking one or two at a time, plus they’re either unwilling or unable to interrupt most cinematic actions like execution kills or draining the life out of grunts to regain health. Challenge comes in facing sheer numbers - which are now more common with the introduction of large-scale fort battles - though they can often be whittled down before entering open combat by engaging with the forgiving stealth system, which incorporates instant melee kills and a silent ranged bow (along with plenty of flashier abilities acquired through an upgrade tree).
Shadow of War’s world is separated into different regions, all with their own crop of captains to work through, missions to tackle and collectables to pick up. Looking at the world map brings back the Assassin's Creed comparisons - comparisons to Ubisoft games in general, really - as you're often unable to clear the map of its many, many symbols. Enemies also respawn fairly constantly, meaning there's only limited satisfaction in cleansing an area of filthy orcses.
In the end, Shadow of War is a great game let down by drawbacks which range from nagging to difficult to ignore. The sheer number of systems and sub-systems alone mean you're still being introduced to new mechanics and working out how the game works long into the second act.
If you relish the thought of jumping back into Tolkien’s world, Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a no-brainer; there's hours of exciting entertainment to be had. Ultimately though, there's an inevitability to where the story is heading, making it difficult to feel that you're the catalyst for any great change in a world on the brink - but perhaps that's the point.
The story of Conan Exiles is one of two halves. On launch day (for Xbox One), we tried to give it a go straight out the gate and found it to be an extremely lag-ridden, buggy mess. In multiplayer players would drop out as soon as others joined and in single player things weren’t much better, with the game allowing you about five minutes of play before the sheer weight of everything which had to be loaded in around you caused a few seconds of lag for every second of normal gameplay. In short, it wasn’t something we were feeling too confident about as far as first impressions go.
One element which is yet to be explored in depth is the idea of religion, as you choose one of a handful of deities for your character to follow when creating them and each have their own altars with their own abilities. For example, if you character follows Yog, their shrine (the aforementioned fire pit) will let you cook human meat, which doesn’t spoil.
The combat is straightforward enough to be able to jump into easily, though the timing can be tricky as your character generally flinches when hit, and mashing attack at the wrong time can find you stuck in a loop of being pummelled to death. Fortunately your allies will generally (if they can be trusted) come to your aid, and the game is certainly enjoyed best as a co-op experience.
While everyone levels and learns recipes separately, crafting items for others isn’t an issue, meaning we were able to craft plenty of extra clothes and weapons in preparation for our game (before the team promptly threw themselves in a fire and wasted all that hard work...just watch the video).
As far as the endgame or wider story of the game goes, that remains to be seen. The in-game map feels quite vast and filled with different climates to explore once your party is ready to venture away from the comforts of home. Make sure you’re well prepared however, as hyenas and even dragons await you and will make short work of lone survivors.
Despite a shaky start, there’s a solid game to be enjoyed here - providing you’re happy to take the initiative and work a few things out for yourself. The soaring soundtrack feels like a cross between Jurassic Park and Mars from Holst’s The Planets Suite, adding to the sense of scale and grand adventure of proceedings. There’s still plenty of work to do before the full release in 2018, but in the meantime there’s no harm getting to grips with it, providing you think it’s worth £30, but all told it’s a yes from us.
With the indie scene arguably stronger than ever, certainly in terms of the sheer number of games released every month, standing out from the crowd has never been more difficult. First impressions for Masquerada: Songs and Shadows then, are extremely important.
The investigation generally involves going to an area and exhausting the button prompts, rather than any elementary deduction or substantial puzzles, but the commentary between characters as you journey around locales is what keeps you engaged.
These interactions aren’t mere splashes of text plastered on the screen (though NPCs do get that treatment), rather the main cast are gifted full, and convincing, voiceover alongside cheerful animations that bring the characters to life. The narrative is put across in a stylised way, conversations continuing over loading screens without the transition feeling jarring, and key frames punctuating action scenes to reveal more about our heroes.
The story hits familiar notes in family and redemption, but manages to tackle them in a way which grips you more and more as you delve deeper and get to know the cast more, rather than feeling cliché.
The narrative is put across in a stylised way, conversations continuing over loading screens without the transition feeling jarring.
Progression is a little less elegant. Though your opening gambit with Cyrus is straightforward, as soon as you’re thrown into battle as Cicero for the first time it’s entirely possible you’ll have forgotten everything due to the gap in action (hopefully you have a good memory).
Regardless, you’ll soon pick up the titular Masquerada, an ornately decorated mask - think Phantom of the Opera and you’re part way there - which bestows its user with elemental powers of either wind, fire, water or earth, but mysteriously disintegrates when its user dies, providing some further intrigue as you slowly discover more about the mysterious facade.
It seems slightly unfair to tar indie titles with the same generic, low-fi expectations when it comes to presentation, but the quality of craftsmanship on display here far outstrips the game’s humble origins to provide quality on par with Torment: Tides of Numenera, only without the density which could be a headache for some.
The one complaint we have on that front is that the game’s linear design teases us with rich locales to explore and interact with as we pass through to serve the story, but doesn’t give us the freedom to properly roam or get deep into the culture of the society we’re investigating, throwing up invisible walls to keep us on track.
Enemies have some interesting designs, but knowing the best ways to combat them can be more of a tale of trial and error than a natural learning curve. On the other hand, those at home in the genre should take to it easily and may even beg for more AI and character customisation options to allow for further engagement.
In the end, Masquerada is simply very good, and a game with a different feel to a lot of releases that are currently vying for your attention. That lack of bright light and attention-grabbing sound only serves to undersell what a high-quality experience the folks at Witching Hour Studios have produced, but don’t let that put you off.
Severed’s arrival on the Switch is a bit of a strange one. For starters, this being a game that requires a touch-screen to play means it’s one of the few titles in the Switch’s library that has to be played in handheld mode. It will display on a TV if you dock the console, but Sasha, that game’s one-armed heroine, remains completely immobile, no matter how much you manipulate the Joy-Cons.
Slicing off limbs isn’t just for sadistic kicks though, as collecting fallen body parts is key to levelling up Sasha’s abilities. With enough currency collected - be it arms, eyeballs, wings or jaw bones - you get to pick an upgrade from a simple skill tree. It may not be as dense or branching as other, more complicated RPGs out there, but the upgrades on offer in Severed’s skill tree are clear in what they do and what’s needed to unlock them, with everything feeling useful.
If you’re looking for something you can pick up and play on a commute to work or school, then Severed feels perfectly suited for such a job.
Triumphing over the bosses that wait at the end of areas also grants new abilities, such as being able to temporarily blind enemies during a fight or snatch away their buffs like speed or attack boosts. All these extra powers are displayed on your character as living armour, which is a nice way of showing the progress you’ve made. Some of them grant special access to previously inaccessible areas, but having the willpower to go back and unlock them depends on how tolerant you are of the game’s walking animation, which sees you sort of ‘transported’ between a map’s segments that are linked together to create larger, sprawling areas. This can get slightly disorientating if you move too quickly, and using the mini map in the top right of the screen actually felt like an easier, and more efficient way to get around.
During the early stages of the game, you’ll only be tackling one or two monsters at a time, but things quickly escalate and it’s not long before you’re facing three, sometimes four at once. Taking on this many is surprisingly difficult, especially if they’re packing the aforementioned buffs, as even the weaker ones with familiar attack patterns become a real challenge when backed up by their mates. Identifying the most serious threats and taking them out first is key to your success, otherwise it’s easy to end up overwhelmed and frustrated as you frantically try to fend off a barrage of attacks.
An indicator on the bottom of the screen tells you when an enemy is going to attack via a yellow bar, which, once full, means there’s one incoming. Some monsters take time to build their attacks, and can be kept out of a fight altogether if you keep jabbing away to interrupt them, while others deliver ones that can’t be stopped and must instead be blocked.
Battles are triggered by walking into white flames that are dotted periodically throughout the game’s maps, mostly in the dungeon areas. Once activated, you’re locked in until you either emerge victorious or are defeated, in which case you just respawn at the last autosave (usually only a few moments before) with full health, meaning there’s no real punishment for failure other than delaying progress. Dungeons also feature some light puzzles, but they mostly feel like an obligatory inclusion (because dungeons) and all involve simple, familiar mechanics.
Still, if you’re looking for something you can pick up and play on a commute to work or school, then Severed’s simple gameplay, coupled with some light RPG elements and a relatively low-price, means the game feels perfectly suited for such a job. Just be sure to pick up a screen protector.
At first glance, Portal Knights could be mistaken for just another Minecraft clone, but, if you keep looking, it quickly becomes apparent there’s a lot more to it than that. Having been in early access on Steam for the past year - a span of time in which developer Keen Games took constant feedback from the community - Portal Knights features the necessary depth and complexity to make it a varied and fun-filled experience in its own right.
You land at set points after using one of the aforementioned portals, which can be changed by crafting new markers once you’ve gathered a few resources and unlocked some of the more specialist crafting options by upgrading your workbench. The bench is your creative hub, and really where the Minecraft comparison is the most apt, though items are more deliberately sorted and categorised here. You’ll also need additional benches to craft specialist items, be it an anvil for Warrior gear, an archer station for Ranger gear, or an altar for souped-up Mage equipment.
The addictive nature of the game’s main thrust may prove enough to hold your attention for longer than the 30 hours it would take to power through the main questline.
On that note, at the beginning of the game you’re asked to choose one of three fairly bog standard character classes - Warrior, Ranger or Mage. There are a few implications to this choice, as Warriors wield melee weapons, Rangers use (you guessed it) ranged weapons and Mages play with magic wands, naturally. Aside from each class having unique unlockable abilities which you can choose between at roughly five-level intervals, they pretty much serve as loose suggestions, with characters growing based on which skills (Dexterity, Strength, etc.) you assign points to. This means you could make a beefy, tankish magic user if you felt like it, or a particularly nimble Warrior.
Whatever your build, you’ll fight enemies reminiscent of creatures you might come across in The Legend of Zelda, particularly those which add elemental typings to the same base enemy, as Breath of the Wild fans will be all too familiar with (curse you Wizzrobes!). Certain armour provides bonus defence against certain elements, and depending on how willing you are to grind the rarest materials or craft the most complex gear, you can find yourself with astonishingly high defence to absorb the wrath of most foes.
You can team up online with up to three other players if ever you require aid on your quest, with one player acting as host and everyone else coming to visit, but, beyond that, there are no additional modes. The addictive nature of the game’s main thrust may prove enough to hold your attention for longer than the 30 hours it would take to power through the main questline, however.
Portal Knights boasts more deliberate direction and increased complexity over Minecraft, while still managing to keep things straightforward enough to be accessible. The game’s design is endearing and makes basic RPG elements easy to get to grips with, proving to be a good bridge for youngsters in transitioning towards more ‘grown-up’ games, and to be good, laid-back fun for adults.
Lords of the Fallen was the first attempt at aping From Software’s popular Souls series by developer Deck13 Interactive, but it fell significantly short of matching up. Seemingly undeterred and learning from their past transgressions, The Surge (uninspiring title and all) bucks all trends by proving, on this occasion, second time is in fact the charm.
When locked onto a foe you can focus on one of six body parts, namely the head, torso, or any arm or leg. The game's systems and your current circumstance will dictate where you choose to target; focusing unarmoured areas will lead to quick kills, perfect for when you’re near death and looking to avoid combat, but taking the inherent risk in prolonging a fight by pummelling an armoured section will offer up rewards. Successive successful strikes build your energy gauge, which, when filled to the illustrated mark, allows the player to launch into a cinematic finisher on low-health enemies to sever the battered limb and claim the weapon or armour adorning it as their own. While a weapon is immediately good to go, you’ll need to craft new armour using the piece as a base schematic, gathering the materials to do so by targeting the same relevant area on additional baddies and scrapping their gear for parts.
It’s a brilliantly novel system, essentially making combat a morbid shopping spree in which you cherry pick the bits you want and cut them off your co-workers. It fundamentally changes the way you play, and, as sadistic as it may sound, the varied and violent accompanying finisher animations never ceased to satisfy.
The limb targeting system is brilliantly novel, essentially making combat a morbid shopping spree in which you cherry pick the bits you want and cut them off your co-workers.
That said, it does have its drawbacks. The busy HUD that highlights limbs and their status can be obtrusive and make it somewhat difficult to spot the more subtle tells of an incoming attack, whilst enemies can also catch you with unavoidable damage as you come out of the uninterruptible animations (despite being immune during). While those foibles are annoying, especially when one hit can be enough to immediately kill you, we found Deck13’s solution to the inevitable question of “Why doesn’t Warren - just Warren - simply loot the dead?” more amusing than anything else; corpses spontaneously combust when they hit the floor, which, while avoiding undermining their own mechanics, ranks equally on the video game nonsense scale.
In spite of the issues, combat does a great job of conveying the mechanised and improvised nature of encounters, the tools (often literal, weaponised worker’s tools) at your disposal feeling weighty and impactful or fluid and graceful dependant on which class of weapon - each with their own proficiency level that increases with use - you opt for. While there are no ranged weapons, you do acquire a companion drone that requires energy to use, much like finishing manoeuvres, and can be upgraded to gain new abilities that increase its usefulness. While dealing no significant degree of damage, it's a tactical godsend, allowing you to draw single units from groups to engage them separately and avoid being overwhelmed, or knockdown aggressive targets to dictate the pace of a battle as a couple of examples.
With those winning strategies under your belt, you’ll be earning plenty of Tech Scrap, a resource gathered by defeating enemies and serving much the same purpose as Souls do in the series bearing their name. In a twist carried over from Lords of the Fallen, the longer you stay out in the field, the more you earn, with a growing multiplier goading you into taking risks you probably shouldn’t. In doing so, you put your entire pot on the line, as when you die (and you will die) all of the Tech Scrap on your person falls to the ground and you have but one brief chance to reclaim it - if you die again or let the 02:30 timer (which can be topped up by getting kills) deplete before retrieving it, it’s gone for good.
Better to be safe than sorry is a good mantra to adopt, frequently returning to the bonfire-like Medbays to make use of all that glorious Scrap, even at the cost of resetting your multiplier and repopulating the area. Medbays are much less prevalent than bonfires, with strictly one per area, but this is balanced out by the fact you can safely bank Tech Scrap to use at a later time and occasionally find Medstations to replenish your health and items out in the wild. You’ll use Scrap to upgrade your gear - and make sure you do so frequently, because needlessly hoarding it will be your downfall - via the game’s simplified RPG systems. Rather than allocating points to specific stats, you boost your Core Power, which allows you to equip more/better equipment by having the necessary juice to power it.
That might mean you don some fancy armour modules, or that you affix an additional implant, the latter offering one of a range of active and passive perks that range from carrying additional healing items, to earning more energy, to increasing your stamina and far more beyond that. The system allows you to respec to your heart’s content, experimenting with different loadouts to discover one that fits your play style and sees the pieces fall into place. You won’t be able to get too comfortable, however, as if you were to opt for an energy-focused, lumbering tank (for example) that wouldn’t serve you well in all walks, so you’ll need to be flexible and mix things up on those occasions.
The customisation system allows you to respec to your heart’s content, experimenting with different loadouts to discover one that fits your play style and sees the pieces fall into place.
Core Power also serves as a gating mechanic, with paths opened up by overcharging electrical systems where you meet the requirement. These often serve as satisfying shortcuts back to the warm embrace of a Medbay, with environments constantly looping back on themselves in a considered display of intelligent level design.
Areas hold all manner of secrets and loot-based rewards, compelling you to explore every corner of the world, but they aren’t seamlessly interconnected or nearly as sprawling and varied as those that inspired them. That’s not to say they aren’t good - great, even - but by openly drawing comparison to arguably the very best in the business, they begin to fall short.
With no map or objective markers, Deck13 place trust in their design and the intelligence of their players to be able to intuitively follow the game’s nonlinear progression, which sometimes requires you to backtrack to put new items and abilities to use. This makes any and all progress feel satisfyingly earnt, rather than something you just take as given. The same approach is adopted for side missions (delivered by fellow survivors in awkward conversational exchanges), whereby it’s entirely on you to peruse the end goal without any form of handholding; if you can’t find what you’re looking for, you quite simply don’t complete them.
Open spaces generally betray the location of a boss, with battles being disappointingly infrequent considering their consistent high quality. Fights are unforgiving, drawn-out affairs that will generally require a few trial and error deaths before everything clicks and you figure out their attack patterns, your optimum positioning, and your windows of opportunity. With no multiplayer to speak of, and, thus, no summoning a co-op partner for help, you have to ‘get good’ and surmount these significant obstacles independently.
Often large and imposing, transforming themselves and their stages in an intimidating display as battles progress, the mechanised bosses match up to many of the Souls series’ famed behemoths in terms of visuals and mechanics, but are less memorable thanks by and large to the accompanying soundtrack. An industrial sound that, while fitting, is totally generic unsuccessfully stands in for bombastic scores that inspire fear whilst mirroring a boss’ unique personality and movement.
Despite suffering some shortfalls, once you sink your teeth into The Surge’s innovative customisation suite and find what works for you, the game’s core pillars of combat and exploration become immensely rewarding to engage with. With the Souls series officially on hiatus, The Surge offers up a riveting equivalent with plenty of its own merit, though doesn't quite best what is, to borrow a phrase from Dark Souls’ own Oscar of Astora, a game so grossly incandescent.
A reboot of 3D Realms’ 2006 shooter, Prey finds itself fighting an uphill battle. Sharing little but its name with the original, while standing in for what looked to be a promising sequel in Prey 2, many fans of the property are approaching this 2017 reimagining with a justified degree of trepidation. Whether you fall into that camp or not, reset assured, Prey was always very safe in the hands of Arkane Studios (Dishonored).
Uncovering Talos I’s many dark secrets is an unending treat.
You’re free to prowl the detailed station at will, though certain areas are cordoned off until you acquire the relevant skills or items to proceed; as a result, the world slowly unfurls around you in a way that’s not dissimilar to a classic ‘metroidvania’ game. With high character mobility and constant branching paths to accommodate different playstyles, the lavish level design saw us obsessively scour every surface not for medkits, ammo and crafting components, but for the sheer pleasure of it.
Mind-bending microgravity sections in which you fly through claustrophobic maintenance tunnels and around the ship’s huge exterior further contribute to making Talos I a thoroughly memorable - and, dare we say, iconic - setting that ranks amongst gaming’s very best.
Of course, the encounters you face in these quintessential halls play no small part in the achievement. Prey’s enemies are the otherworldly Typhon, a pitch black alien race that look and act as though they stepped out of the static on a television screen. Harvesting human life to multiply, they come in many shapes and sizes, from the hulking Nightmare that crops up for repeat mini-boss encounters, to the invisible Poltergeists that violently throw you around via telekinesis, to the spider-like Mimics that hide in plain sight.
Mimics in particular imbue the experience with a suffocating sense of unease, posing as unassuming, inanimate objects to ensure you’re never certain of your immediate safety. Their unpredictable nature rarely affords you the opportunity to stand at ease, making Prey a game you play on edge, constantly scanning environments with a critical eye for anything that looks out of place. When a Mimic attacks, generally blindsiding and causing you to jump in the process, the ensuing panic has seen us forget about the shotgun in our hands and frantically throw mugs instead.
Paired with a lack of regenerating health and limited resources, enemies become imposing predators, relegating the player to the fitting role of prey. Despite that, there’s a relatively vast breadth of options when it comes to combatting the Typhon threat; a range of satisfying firearms and alien abilities can be used in conjunction with one another to create powerful combined attacks, set traps and get the drop on your opposition.
Enemies are imposing predators, relegating the player to the fitting role of prey.
Neuromods - the game’s eye-injected upgrade currency - are used to purchase skills from a whopping six trees, with the embarrassing wealth of abilities on show making it difficult to choose. Everything looking enticing is a great problem to have, mind, especially as diversifying can position you to take the upper hand. Scanning enemies with the Psychoscope gleans knowledge on their abilities, strengths and weaknesses, so it pays to be somewhat a jack of all trades to ensure you have the tools to take advantage of this information. That said, whatever your build, it’s generally a good idea to disable an enemy with the stun gun or innovative GLOO Cannon (which can also be used to create makeshift cover and platforms) before launching your attack.
Talos I’s security measures are configured to target Typhon DNA, so there’s a risk associated with acquiring abilities from the alien trees. Accruing enough will eventually turn the system against you, but, while investing in some hacking upgrades will remedy that by bringing them back onside, it won’t help quite so much when the Nightmare makes you a higher priority target. Rather than being drawbacks that prevent you from experiencing some of the game’s most fun and powerful abilities, these mechanics materialise as dynamic balancing tweaks that shouldn’t put you off experimenting with everything on offer.
Prey’s audio is worthy of special mention too, thanks by and large to legendary sound designer and composer, Mick Gordon. After delivering last year’s face-melting DOOM soundtrack, heavy metal gives way to a building, synthetic sound that’s menacing and intense. Atmospheric ambient sound, harrowing, distorted Typhon murmurings, punchy explosions and gunfire, along with repeating motifs that accompany specific events make for an all-round aural treat.
Whilst we’ve lavished Prey with a lot of praise, rough inevitably comes with the smooth. Distracting texture pop-in is prevalent, FPS dips crop up occasionally and load times between areas are fairly lengthy. In addition to these technical issues, a number of glitches were peppered throughout: dialogue went awry when we accidentally skipped straight to a later objective, items would randomly be absent from animations, and an objective marker became stuck directly in the centre of the screen throughout the duration of an entire area.
Though these niggles did impact Prey’s otherwise stellar sci-fi horror experience, in the grand scheme of things, they barely put a crease in Morgan Yu’s space suit. Prey is tense and unnerving, while at the same time playful and explorative. Its central mystery compels you to delve deep into the bowels of the expertly-crafted setting, Talos I, engaging in (or even avoiding) rewarding and tactical combat along the way. Arkane have a fundamental understanding of quality game design, utilising that here to produce another fantastic video game for their growing collection.