A game's setting can be just as important as the story, characters or even gameplay. For example, swapping the UK-inspired Galar region of Pokémon Sword and Shield with the desolate hellscape of Terminator: Resistance may seem like a novel idea, but roaming T-1000s won't improve your Pokémon experience. With that in mind, here are our top digital destination recommendations.
Liam | UK - Combat Flight Simulator
With Microsoft working on a new Flight Simulator, it seems appropriate to use this week’s topic as a platform to call for a return of a classic spin-off from the series: Combat Flight Simulator.
The first game, released in 1998 on PC, let you take to the skies of Europe during WW2 as a pilot of the British, U.S or German air forces. Whilst hopping into the cockpit of iconic fighter planes such as the Supermarine Spitfire or P51 Mustang was very cool, one of the best features from the original CFS were the real-life locations.
Most games I’d played up until that point all came with fictional settings, whether it was a fantasy kingdom or a far-flung system in deep space, so to be able to fly around a familiar one (namely South East England) and see towns I knew and often frequented – such as Biggin Hill – crop up in mission descriptions was a completely new and novel experience.
It was the first and only time (as far as I can remember) that a game’s setting has ever felt so grounded, which is pretty ironic considering the amount of time you spent up in the air.
If you look very closely, you can see Liam's house. We think.
Sam | Rapture - BioShock
I’m a big believer that setting(s) can absolutely make or break a game. Should that setting also be leveraged as an environmental storytelling tool, then generally players are in for a treat. Lots of rich in-game locations hold fonder memories for me than genuine holiday hotspots, largely because they’re intertwined with stories both manufactured and emergent.
Places like the Spencer Mansion (Resident Evil) and the kingdom of Lordran in Dark Souls are vast, yet simultaneously claustrophobic owing to how they gradually unfurl themselves. The best location to utilise this strategy for my money, however, is Rapture from BioShock.
Channelling spiritual predecessor System Shock - an early “immersive simulator” alongside the likes of Deus Ex and Thief, which together introduced more in-depth 3D settings to the gaming masses - BioShock perfectly marries its setting and narrative.
Buried at the bottom of the ocean to shield its resident creatives from government intervention, the opulent facade soon crumbles in conjunction with the “better” society calling it home. Not only is it metaphorically relevant, but the placement of assets and scrawlings on walls tell a supplementary tale to an already enthralling main narrative thrust.
Mirroring the concept in BioShock Infinite was novel, though the floating city of Columbia ultimately fell short by comparison. Much of the magic was gone, dispersing into the open air after being tightly contained in an underwater capsule.
Claustrophobic, yet oddly serene.
James | The Citadel - Mass Effect
Something about space has always captured my imagination. From endless weekends with the original Star Wars trilogy to learning the history of humanity's own exploration of the big black dark thing with shiny bits, it was a world filled with possibilities.
No game I've enjoyed has brought that to life so fully as the Mass Effect series, and a central location for Commander Shepard's journey is the Citadel. A huge, distinctly sci-fi superstructure, built by a long dead (or so you think) organisation, the space station spans hundreds of buildings and is home to thousands of beings.
It was the first time I got a sense of scale and other-worldly possibility, and the way different species all live together and interact, mostly peacefully, is a testament to a more compassionate future we can only aspire to.
While there were criminally inefficient lifts – designed to hide loading times on the Xbox 360's aging hardware – as you explored each level you could often see the station spanning miles off into the distance, and the great beyond past its huge petal-like array of spokes.
Better still, you can get anything you need right there, and wherever you pop into, you'll know it's Commander Shepard's favourite shop on the Citadel.
And this is Shepherd's favourite spot on the Citadel.
Share your favourite gaming location with us.
London was host to X019 last week and those lucky enough to attend the Xbox event got a chance to go hands-on with (and see footage of) some of the newest and unreleased titles coming to the platform over the next year. An extended Inside Xbox stream provided a healthy dose of reveals, announcements and updates for the rest of us. Here are our highlights.
See anything you like?
X019 came as rather a nice surprise last week, almost serving the UK up its own little slice of E3. Microsoft went big for what was essentially an episode of their Inside Xbox series, revealing the first batch of new Xbox Game Studios titles and showcasing more of some we already knew to be in development.
They all looked fine, with Tell Me Why from Life is Strange developer Dontnod Entertainment being what stood out to me the most. One title I’m even more curious about is an independent effort, though.
Last Stop is set in present day London and tells a supernatural tale revolving around three different co-protagonists. It’s developed by Variable State, the team behind the excellent Virginia, which channeled The X-Files to tell an engaging narrative without a single subtitle or spoken word of dialogue. Last Stop seems even more ambitious, which immediately put it on my radar.
Elsewhere, I was pleased to hear that Project xCloud will be made available to Game Pass subscribers at no additional cost. I’m still not sold on streaming games, but I’ll give it a go for the grand old price of nothing.
I should also mention that seeing the Yakuza and Kingdom Hearts series find new homes on Xbox brought a smile to my face. Not on my own behalf, but because long-standing community member Plasma Wing has been begging for that to happen.
If Virginia is anything to go by, Last Stop should be an interesting thriller.
Like Chris, much of what got me excited about X019 was the news that more great titles were heading to Game Pass.
Whilst I never got around to completing the original Rage, the fact I can pick up both it - and the newly added sequel - through the subscription service serves as motivation to go back and give the franchise the attention it deserves. I’m also looking forward to trying Grounded and its hugely promising Honey, I Shrunk the Kids-style setting, which looks like it could be a lot of fun.
But the standout title from the show had to be West of Dead, a twin stick shooter set in a western-themed purgatory from Upstream Arcade and Raw Fury. I’m not a huge fan of procedurally generated levels, but I do love me some cel-shaded graphics, and the concept of a dead sheriff (voiced by Ron Perlman, no less) dealing out justice with a six-shooter sounds awesome.
Having got a taste of the tight gunplay and unique setting via the game’s open beta (which you can try until the 25 November) I am now very much looking forward to this game’s full release.
There's still a chance to try out the promising beta.
Having missed out on X019 altogether, and needing to catch up with our very comprehensive and exciting round-up, I'm pleasantly surprised to not see a slew of announcements which are just franchise X with another number slapped on the end – bar FFX-2's incorporation into the Game Pass library of course.
A new IP from Obsidian, hot off the success of The Outer Worlds is equally welcome, and though the people-ambling-about-in-a-coop-open-world genre is hardly under-served, it's been long enough since the cinematic gold that was Ants for the concept to feel like a breath of fresh air.
The rumblings around Project xCloud, which seems to have dispensed with the need for actual grown up product names at this stage, continue to sound good but have fairly little to show for it.
It seems clear that Microsoft is playing the long game on this one, especially compared to Google with Stadia, and while largely pulling out of EGX to focus on this event gave the company a chance to have the audience all to itself, they will need to deliver more exclusives - or just good all round game experiences – to get everyone excited enough for Project Scarlett to actually buy one.
We're going to assume that the name Project Xstream was already taken.
Let us know your highlights from X019.
The final frontier has been the setting of choice for countless titles over the years, but Surgical Scalpels are upping the ante when it comes to vacuum-based fun by putting the vast, empty void we call space front and centre in their upcoming game, Boundary.
After a brief rundown of some of the game’s basic features – customisable weapons, gun range, multiplayer modes etc. – we were handed the controls for our first match against a few members of the development crew. Despite being well experienced in the FPS genre, the lack of gravity and our newfound ability to move in six degrees of freedom initially took some getting used to.
The slower, considered movement of our avatar (a heavy Support class, but the floaty nature of space means nearly all classes move at a similar pace) coupled with the temptation to go blasting off across maps led to more than a few deaths as we were caught in the open by the opposition. Drift too far from the action, as we often did, and you’ll suddenly find yourself lit up on enemy radar. Linger even longer near the fringes and you’ll end up in the middle of a micro meteor shower that’ll quickly rip through your suit and health. Safe to say it took us a couple of matches before we eventually found our space legs.
Surgical Scalpels are aware that for many players, like us, this will be their first taste of zero-g combat in a competitive FPS. The development team have, therefore, tried to make gameplay as intuitive as possible by implementing a control scheme that’ll feel instantly familiar to anyone who has ever played a mainstream shooter like Call of Duty or Battlefield. Some elements are naturally going to be a little different, given the setting; there’s no jump or crouch/prone in space, after all, so those are swapped for ascend and descend abilities, while shoulder buttons traditionally saved for grenades are instead used for rotation.
Most classes – save for the Flanker, which we’ll discuss in a bit – come with a grapple that can be used to navigate close-quarter areas at a slightly faster pace than the standard thrusters allow (we used this method to pull off a particularly impressive surprise kill during one match) or quickly reach floating structures, from where players can set up ambush opportunities or catch a moment's respite to regenerate health and manually patch up any major leaks in their suit. The game also makes excellent use of the DualShock 4’s gyro sensor, which allows for easy precision aiming while on the move – a feature that was particularly handy while we were still getting to grips with zero-g traversal.
Maps themselves, like the rest of the available tech and weaponry, are in keeping with the game’s near-future aesthetic; we played one that was dominated by the scattered remains of a destroyed space station, with plenty of solar panels and pod-like compartments to hide behind. Some parts, like those huge solar panels, are destructible, with players able to shoot holes in them and peek through in a way that was very reminiscent of Rainbow Six Siege’s breakable walls.
When I asked if Surgical Scalpels had any plans to add maps set on the surface of a planet or moon where there might be a touch more gravity, I was told that it could be a possibility in the future, but that post-launch DLC would first focus on adding more classes, with three more said to be arriving at some point after the game launches. The base game will begin with five classes in total, of which we tried the Support, Recon and Flanker (there’s also a Sniper and Medic class).
The Support class is the most armoured, with a huge exoskeletal-type chassis on its back that, while bullet proof, also has the largest silhouette. Most come with two main weapons, an ability, and two secondary weapons - such as heavy cannons or missiles - that are attached to the frame of the big backpack. Recon was our favourite, thanks to a gadget that detects enemy players once it is dropped or launched. Every class’ suit will alert you with audio (and eventually visual, once they’re close enough) warnings to the presence of a nearby enemy, but having one of these beacons floating around proved to be extremely useful at helping us track down the other team’s players amongst the large map’s debris and hiding spots.
We definitely see the aforementioned Flanker class being the most popular, however, due to its “ninja-like” abilities and speedier movement. This class never shows up on enemy radar, and instead of a grapple it has a triple action quick-boost ability that easily outpaces the standard ‘sprint’ found in other classes (it also won’t reveal your position to the enemy if it overheats, unlike the latter). Even though the loadout we tried only came with a shotgun/pistol combo, the reduced range was worth the trade-off for the extra speed and stealth. We wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a nerf coming its way post-launch.
While our session drew to a close before we could really get to grips with what the game had to offer, what we did play was enough to convince us that Surgical Scalpels could have something special on their hands. First person shooters can often feel formulaic, but Boundary brings something refreshingly different to a crowded table. Once you’re over the initial (albeit gentle) learning curve, the controls prove to be comfortably intuitive, and the extra freedom of movement considerably liberating. Most importantly, underneath it all is a decent shooter that, a few pre-launch bugs aside, felt reassuringly solid, despite the unconventional lack of terra firma underfoot.
With The Outer Worlds' memorable cast still fresh in our minds, we turn our attention to the loyal companions that have followed us into danger without a thought for their own lives. A trustworthy escort or two can enhance gameplay, through either their personalities or simply the bonuses they offer. Whether they are friends, hired guns or merely folks whose interests align with our own, these are the people we'd choose to watch our backs.
This is how The Outer Worlds should be played.
James | Garrus Vakarian - Mass Effect
There's few game characters who have the charisma and likeability of Garrus Vakarian. Initially cold to your character, Commander Shepard, in the original Mass Effect, he quickly stands out from the rest of your companions and only goes on to be near indispensable as both a gun hand in combat and ready with a charming quip or two in conversation.
The joy of the series is often the relationships you build with your crew, and Garrus' interactions with the other characters is endearing as much as his chit chatting with quest givers and adversaries alike. His experience and knowledge has a genuine impact on your decisions too, making you think again about the right course of action, something which is far from clear cut.
On the battlefield, in the fight against the Reapers and various factions they're in cahoots with, Garrus' gunplay is sublime, and you'll combine that with his tech powers to create a diverse supporting character you can always rely on.
There were times in the series that Shepard's journey got difficult, and every single time Garrus would be there in my party to keep pushing me forwards, have my back in combat or be a confidant with advice and support with some of the trickier moral decisions in the game.
On top of all that, it never fails to raise a smile seeing just how much he loves his calculations.
If his sharpshooting skills don't scare the enemy, that melted Halloween mask of a face just might.
Sam | Morrigan - Dragon Age: Origins
Dark Souls notwithstanding, Dragon Age: Origins is my favourite RPG of all time. A major deciding factor in that is the strength of its supporting cast of companions, my favourite among which is Morrigan.
Daughter to a haggered shapeshifter, Morrigan - also known as a Witch of the Wilds - answers the protagonist’s call to aid them in stopping the apocalyptic “Blight” from consuming Ferelden. Though the cause is noble, Morrigan is anything but a willing heroine.
She’s incredibly blunt and dry witted, perfectly brought to life by the excellent Claudia Black (Chloe Frazer in the Uncharted series). When paired with morally upstanding companions like Leliana and Alistair, constant squabbles ensue as Morrigan plays the antagonistic part of devil’s advocate. Often she’ll suggest the less moral (but more practical) solution to a problem, much to the chagrin of other party members regardless of whether or not it needed to be heard.
As a result, Morrigan can come across as uncivilised and abrasive, but the unfiltered truth of her perspective can help any hero to make the hardest decisions with all bases covered. Over time it’s possible to dull her hard edges somewhat and even to romance her, though ultimately, she’s still just serving her own desires.
Unconventional to the end and damn handy in combat, Morrigan lives up to her title by being one helluva wild witch to come to appreciate.
If a tough decision needs to be made, you can count on Morrigan to give it to you straight.
Liam | The Ghosts - Ghost Recon Wildlands
There have been so many notable companions and partners in games over the years that I struggled to pick just one. There’s Skyrim’s Lydia, a Nord sworn to carry our burdens (read: dwarven tat and pillaged foodstuffs) who also loves a spot of spelunking, or Ashley Williams (the steadfast crew member from Mass Effect, not the Bristol City centre back) for whom I sacrificed Kaiden to save during the ill-fated mission on Virmire.
Both would be worthy winners, but, in the end, I’ve gone for the AI squad from Ghost Recon Wildlands. As Sam quite rightly pointed out when we were discussing our choices in one of PTC Towers’ many luxurious spas, these guys aren’t exactly known for their winning personalities, despite their penchant for military humour (and "military" language, shown below).
I couldn’t even tell you their names (I think one was called Midas, though couldn’t say which for sure) but their ridiculously overpowered sync shot easily trumps any personality vacuum. This ability let you pick out three enemy targets which your squad would then take out on your command no matter what was in the way, be it buildings, solid steel walls or even small hills. I’ll take that over a sunny disposition any day.
By military humour, we mean it's not for young ears.
Let us know who your favourite travelling companions are.