If the name Narcosis sounds familiar, it’s probably because the game originally launched over a year ago, but, with the debut of a spanking new PS4 port, comes an opportunity for the existing versions to claw back a little spotlight for themselves. Initially taking to digital storefronts like a stone to water, the ripples have now reached our shores, but is Narcosis a horror that should’ve stayed dormant in the deep?
You probably aren’t crazy about water levels in gaming, but, In this instance, heading to the bottom of ol’ big blue serves to establish an almost alien atmosphere conducive to terror.
Developer Honor Code clearly took great care in crafting Narcosis’ world and narrative, though the same can’t quite be said when it comes to the limited gameplay. Labelled a survival horror walking simulator - we’ll let you decide whether affectionately or not - slightly tank-y controls harken back to early examples of the genre whilst conveying the immense weight of the bulky diving suit you occupy. The slow pace and initially unintuitive controls take a little getting used to, as does independently looking down to view the suit’s integrated HUD, but limited-use thrusters do accommodate sparing speed boosts.
They also allow for a spot of light platforming, which is fine, if unremarkable, whilst sides of simple puzzle solving and rudimentary combat are also thrown in to tick the necessary boxes. Fights are rare, thankfully, as you have but one cumbersome slash manoeuvre to execute with a short knife. More often than not, you’ll instead utilise an abundance of flares to distract enemies and allow you to slip by, but not always unseen. You’re predisposed to run when spotted by a deadly predator, though, in Narcosis’ case, your heavy diving suit disallows that response, contributing further tension.
Your helmet also obscures peripheral vision, adding another unnerving wrinkle, but the apparatus is far too efficient in the one area that could’ve made things outright harrowing. As we mentioned earlier, oxygen levels are limited, so you’ll continually need to accrue the element, while also doing your best to avoid any situations that’ll cause panic, resultantly accelerating your breathing and elevating your intake. It’s a novel conceit, but the game doesn’t fully commit, seemingly scared of imposing too great a challenge, resulting in the mechanic never becoming a major factor.
As such, it only really serves to keep you moving, but even that’s largely unnecessary when Narcosis is so linear. A couple of chapters make for notable exceptions, though most areas only open up into brief offshoots housing text-based collectibles serving to flesh out crew members’ characters.
While Narcosis doesn’t boast a great gameplay experience, rather just palatable, it works as a vehicle for interacting with Honor Code’s atmospheric locations and concise story. At around three hours long, it isn’t too much to ask that you stick out the relative lows in order to enjoy the twisting, psychological highs.
Following a lacklustre second outing, The Council reaches its midpoint faced with the unenviable task of recovering lost ground. Episode 3: Ripples shifts gears to have you focus on tackling conversational encounters with tactical turns of phrase, largely ditching the uninspired puzzle solving that shackled its predecessor, until a stifling blunder sees the experience nosedive just as it should be reaching a fevered pitch.
Whilst it’s possible to spark war between nations, the intimate consequences tend to prove more affecting.
With the old guard fond of early adjournments to retire to their rooms on exhausted whims, spritely Louis is left with spare time on his hands for pursuits outside of politics. Having reunited with his mother, all is not well, as she shares a thoroughly outlandish revelation alongside circumstantial evidence that almost makes it believable. Everything is called into question, making it crushingly unfortunate that, rather than being taken advantage of, any momentum grinds to a halt as you’re sent tottering off on a disconnected fetch quest.
Already the bane of gamers, this plodding section isn’t helped by inconsistencies like subtitles and verbalised dialogue conveying mismatched digits in a sequence, or conflicting quantities of objects to gather, whilst a written note incorrectly asserts that one of the items has already been found.
When you eventually return, gubbins gathered, they’re utilised in a puzzle which bravely requires absolute commitment. That closing conundrum helps to salvage things in the final moments, leaving us eager to see the consequences to follow, but far less so than we would have been if the fetch quest fat had been trimmed. While we did note that the second episode was less substantial than the first, blatant filler is most unwelcome.
Still, those familiar with The Council already know that you have to take the rough with the smooth, owing to its technical issues. Audio abruptly cuts out on the regular, the pitch of Louis’ voice drastically changes, some sections aren’t lip synced, extravagant period costumes clip through any and everything. Though we can’t deny it’s all a bit distracting, it’s just as often amusing, without muddying the game’s refined ambience all too much.
Ripples takes a step in the right direction, though not without catching the toe of its fancy buckled shoe and stumbling on the way. Despite the imperfections, we’re intrigued to see what curious events our remaining stays at the Mortimer estate hold in store, fingers firmly crossed that they’ll fully lean into the occult facade while refining the balance between serving a meaty helping that’s more killer than filler.
Having had the distinct pleasure of exclusively revealing the first glimpse of Warhammer: Vermintide 2 gameplay last October, the long wait for the first-person-shooter-come-brawler to arrive on console has been especially gruelling. Now that we’ve gotten our hands on it: was it worth the wait?
You’ll need to juggle priority targets and manage choke points as tidal waves of fetid flesh rage your way.
The level of customisation on offer gets altogether extensive when you also account for Vermintide 2’s loot and crafting systems. Taal’s Horn Keep serves as a sizeable hub area from which to launch your choice of the thirteen main missions, throughout which you can work towards satisfying daily challenges and career quests; completing these tasks awards the game’s strictly non-premium loot boxes, which rain a random array of weapons and gear that can be equipped to improve applicable characters, or, if you unbox a stinker, salvaged into materials used to craft new items and upgrades.
Refreshing a loadout can significantly impact how any given character plays, overhauling attributes and movesets, perhaps not always to your exact liking, but never compromising the viscerally satisfying core combat mechanics. Melee skirmishes can feel either hefty or agile, depending on your chosen armament, though always brutal as you gorily pop heads and lop limbs with each light or (particularly satisfying) charged heavy swing.
While mixing it up at close range you’ll need to be mindful to dodge and block incoming attacks from big bads, though opting for a character with more of a ranged combat style should keep you relatively out of harm's way to begin with. While letting loose with arrows, fireballs, bolts and bullets is good fun in itself, it’s almost a shame to snub one of the best first-person brawling systems around in favour of comparatively bog-standard blasting.
Still, variety is the spice of life, so mixing up your choice of hero whilst tackling repeat playthroughs of Vermintide 2’s semi-open levels - which accommodate multiple paths towards their culminating set-piece encounters, also randomising enemy and item spawns along the way - ensures things remain engaging. Throw in the lure of greater rewards when progressing to higher difficulty levels, as well as unobtrusive storytelling that allows players to easily consume their desired dose of action, and you have a package that’ll keep you busy for a good length of time.
Vermintide 2 is more in-depth than its peers in many ways, but retains the central simplicity that makes this brand of onslaught adventure so frantic and exciting. Doing so at native 4K resolution on Xbox One X, while mostly maintaining a solid frame rate, at no additional cost to Game Pass subscribers, makes for an experience that you (and preferably some friends) shouldn’t hesitate to get stuck into.
Yes, Earthfall does look a lot like Left 4 Dead. In fact, the comparison is welcomed by developers Holospark and something that they strived for as their key inspiration and focus. “We loved Left 4 Dead” said CEO Rusty Williams, when we spoke to him at EGX Rezzed earlier this year, “but we wanted more.” So, after a few years of development, including time in early access on PC, Earthfall is the end result.
While the presentation gets a solid “good” - Unreal Engine 4 would struggle to make a game look bad - it’d be nice to see a bit more fidelity in those textures (perhaps an Xbox One X update looms in the future?) and the game isn’t without some technical issues. We’ve seen a couple of crashes when things get especially hectic, plus the friendly AI more than once has stood in place, staring frantically into space as the rest of their team gets mauled around the corner.
In terms of level design, something so tightly managed in Valve and Turtle Rocks’ original, there are oversights too, with invisible walls being used to channel the player into a linear flow through areas which look as though they should be ripe to explore. Furthermore, giving players an objective marker to head for often makes the campaign feel like a pedestrian trudge between two points, rather than four survivors scraping together what they can in a desperate effort to survive.
It’s here we really must broach the subject of AI. Players can either run through levels with allied bots or open up proceedings to being joined by human players online, as in L4D, but the AI in question doesn’t have the same concern for your wellbeing as it did in that game, frequently leaving you to bleed out whilst prioritising reviving fellow bots and often snatching up helpful items and weapons from under your nose.
If they were able to trigger objectives or be commanded in any way they might be more useful, but they aren’t even fans of deploying barriers or using mounted guns, which can be an issue at some of the game’s choke points, referred to in-game as ‘holdouts’. You can punch up the AI ‘skill’ to limited results, only really boosting accuracy and the eagerness to shoot first and ask questions later. But hey, at least there’s no risk of incurring significant friendly fire damage from them.
Earthfall is difficult in general, with even two players experienced in working and communicating with one another, bolstered by a couple of filler bots, seeing the ‘Normal’ difficulty setting pose a serious threat. While the higher difficulties are a stretch, the ‘Easy’ level can at times be too much its namesake, making you long for a shuffle to give a happy medium.
With only two campaigns of five twenty-or-so-minute chapters a piece, you might find Earthfall a tad pricey at £24.99, since it’s inspiration gave us double the number of iconic campaigns and an additional competitive mode, which is conspicuously absent here at present. That said, the team at Holospark are already hard at work on further campaign content which will be released free to all players (cosmetic customisation items are premium), so there’s some added value to look forward to in the future.
One particularly fun element, which pushes the suspension of disbelief in a very different direction than accepting aliens are a thing, is the fact that many levels are peppered with 3D printers to requisition guns and health stations reminiscent of Half-Life. A great idea, which could have been taken further to include attachments and further customisations, as the risk/reward mechanic whenever you encounter them (turning the power on to use them will attract a mob) is always compelling.
Though it might not be Left 4 Dead 3, Earthfall does enough to scratch the itch for players pining for a similar experience. With games developing far more post-launch than ever before it seems likely this one will continue to mutate to the needs of its player base, which doesn’t undo the fact it could have used slightly longer in the oven before final release, but what’s on offer so far is ruddy good fun, if a tad disposable.
Sometimes it’s difficult to explain exactly why something is so good without (in this case literally) giving the game away. With that in mind, rest assured that The Spectrum Retreat could well be the strongest contender for my personal Game of the Year so far.
Lone developer Dan Smith, who was awarded BAFTA Young Games Designer in 2016, has been refining this idea for years and the care and dedication poured into every asset of The Spectrum Retreat can’t be overstated. Not only does it have exceptional production values but perform flawlessly on a technical level, helping to emphasise the stark tonal contrast between the game’s two main environments.
Puzzles are cleverly and integrally woven into the narrative; perhaps better than in any other example, the great Portal included.
There are moments when you can be walking down a hallway and find yourself losing your bearings, certain that a door just turned up in front of you. Your surroundings begin to undertake more significant changes as you progress further into the mystery, and closer to the truth, as expertly realised visual distortions give clues as to where the story will turn next. As events unfold the name of the hotel, “Penrose”, suddenly takes on a more deliberate meaning.
Puzzle sections boast a similarly natural progression, managing to take fundamentally simple mechanics and build them gradually to show you the ropes without a shoehorned tutorial to speak of. The variety from just a few simple mechanics is staggering and provides an ever-increasing challenge the deeper into the rabbit hole you go.
Games often struggle to provide genuinely compelling reason for puzzles to exist within their worlds, but in The Spectrum Retreat there’s no doubt that they’re cleverly and integrally woven into the narrative; perhaps better than in any other example, the great Portal included.
Reaching the story’s conclusion is a fitting and brave cherry that tops a thoroughly compelling journey, delicately unfurled over a four or five hour runtime, emphasising just how much can be said without directly telling the player very much at all.
While you may think you’ve seen it all before with the first-person puzzle genre, The Spectrum Retreat begs you to look again and think about how you’d feel in the protagonist’s situation. The potent combination of story and gameplay places it above anything else I’ve played this year, and the entire package is both effortlessly simple and fantastically detailed. With an asking price of just a tenner, there’s no reason you should miss it.
A building just fell on me. Before the likes of Battlefield and its 'levolution’ system came along, this 2009 Red Faction reboot and it's Geo Mod 2.0 technology was producing some of the most impressive environmental destruction to date.
What’s really under your control is the order in which you handle different zones, now a staple of any given Ubisoft open world title, to name but one frequent culprit. Here there's no handy radio tower to reveal the map though, so you'll need to roam the map the old fashioned way to discover all the EDF buildings you need to take down, tactically or by brute force.
There's something to be said for knocking the difficulty down to casual and just playing around without worrying too much about your health, but death isn’t too big of a hurdle, so (accidentally) blowing yourself up amidst the chaos isn't as bad as you might initially think. Not to mention that the AI is still extremely zealous, particularly when you're on foot, to the extent that once you have more than two enemy vehicles in pursuit it's basically a lost cause anyway.
As you tear Mars apart one smoke-less smoke stack at a time, you'll collect scrap metal which can be used to unlock and upgrade tools and abilities. It's all fairly rudimentary, but lets you boost things like the number of explosive charges you can place at once, or the number of enemies the fork-lightning-based arc welder will jump between.
Multiplayer was always a shining light for the original, seeing you don a plethora of combat and skill-enhancing backpacks that allow you to crash through walls, hover or beef up firepower for a short time. These variables made even a straight deathmatch, appropriately known as Anarchy, into a chaotic and exciting affair. In this Re-Mars-ter (we’re still undecided on whether the person that came up with that should be sacked or given a pay rise), the online community is fledgling and the early signs relatively encouraging, but you'll be left wanting if you envision yourself drilling down specific game types and levels.
While you’ll have fun regardless, especially since maps are often far more varied and interesting than the single player landscape, gameplay does show its age a bit. Elements are missing that were common even at the time, like iron sights and combat rolls, but after not too long it's fairly easy to adjust.
With that said, elements like mechs to pilot in true Aliens fashion and Wrecking Crew mode, which is a real playground for your destructive skills, do help to modernise the package a bit.
Lighting systems and draw distances (at least on the Xbox One X) showing a marked improvement over the original.
Despite gleefully ploughing through the story the first time around and it raising a nostalgic smile again in 2018, it's difficult to say revisiting Guerilla is essential. In the end then, it’s a good-not-great experience, as only a few bundled DLC missions fill out the package besides the expected suite of technical improvements.
On that front, the game holds up quite well, with the lighting systems and draw distances (at least on Xbox One X) showing a marked improvement over the original. Whether it's enough to warrant a return trip to Mars depends on how much you enjoy blowing things up, especially with a brand new Just Cause (or even, dare we say, Crackdown 3) on the horizon.
Red Faction is a franchise with a lot of potential, in both of its incarnations, which was sadly squandered by a lacklustre sequel (Armageddon) that failed to capitalise on what made this installment so good. Perhaps if the re-release does well for itself we’ll finally get the sequel it deserves.
Coatsink’s puzzle room ponderer has been perplexing non-PlayStation players for a period, but now, thanks to a better-late-than-never port, owners of Sony’s budget-friendly headset can finally get in on the fun.
You’re encouraged to tinker with the tools at your disposal and learn from each unjudging failure, ultimately reaching logical conclusions grounded in real-world physics.
That’s no mistake, as the development team were careful not to outstay their welcome, limiting the game's length to less than the latest Marvel blockbuster. With a £6.49 price tag to compensate, Esper is an easy recommendation for fans of the genre, provided they can stomach its few faults.
Regardless of your chosen method of input - be that Move, DualShock 4 or head tracking - the game’s motion controls can lack fine precision and this occasionally leads to fumbles that are out of your hands, which can be extra frustrating in the rare event you’re forced into restarting the (admittedly short) section at hand. We also encountered a bug in the very last moments of the game that put a dampener on the otherwise intriguing finale, poised to lead into the currently-Oculus-Rift-exclusive sequel, though that’s another downer in itself for those without Facebook’s brand of 3D goggles.
Still, it’s hard to hold a grudge when Esper is such a well-executed little game. It’s thoughtful and requires a reasonably high level of execution at times, but consistent in being low intensity and incredibly laid-back, making it a great choice for novice through to journeyman VR voyagers.