For a shooter that’s all about cooperation, Back 4 Blood (which we discussed earlier this year) is surprisingly good at being a solo game. Having spent a fair few hours with the latest horde shooter from Turtle Rock Studios (Left 4 Dead, Evolve), it’s hard to find too much fault with the single-player offering; at least gameplay wise, despite some negative reaction ahead of the game’s launch.
Although the onus to get things done will, quite rightly, always be on you as the player, we were pleasantly surprised by the bots’ display of competence. In some instances they’re especially useful, like instantly spotting enemies in a foggy marsh or darkened tunnel.
Back 4 Blood is a different beast with human players in tow; enemy numbers seem to scale accordingly, so there’s much more action when running a full team, and things can get quite frantic as a result. A relatively straightforward solo section can become a hectic fight for survival in multiplayer, an example being a battle in a diner where you’re forced to activate and defend a jukebox while swarms of enemies encroach.
It’s a pattern followed throughout the campaign: Players set out from the safe room having loaded up on supplies and weapons, scout through open areas occupied by wandering Ridden, then get set upon by the horde while defending/interacting with an objective. It’s a simple premise but one that’s executed relatively well, with a decent amount of teamwork and a little bit of luck required to get through some of the trickier scenarios.
Levels themselves are well designed and atmospheric, especially at night or with fog in play, often funnelling players into tight corridors suited to melee combat before giving them room to manoeuvre and utilise ranged equipment in more open areas. Campaign missions do revisit previous locations, however, which can get repetitive and become frustrating to navigate.
The Combat Knife card turns your basic melee bash into a deadly weapon, which is very useful.
Larger enemies come in a variety of forms, some examples being the Tallboy that swings a massive club-like arm, Crusher that grabs players and squeezes the life out of them, Reeker that spits horde-attracting bile, and Stinger that pins players in place. On their own, these mutations are quite easy to beat, but when the game throws combinations of them at you, particularly in enclosed spaces, they become formidable opponents, requiring teamwork and quick thinking to bring down.
You get to sample these bigger enemy types for yourself in the game’s PvP mode, Swarm, where two teams of four take it in turns to survive as long as possible against player-controlled Ridden. Round-based matches take place within shrinking arenas, ensuring things get suitably hectic the longer a round lasts, with the team of humans that holds out the longest declared the victor.
Playing as powerful Ridden is the highlight of this mode; we particularly enjoyed spewing toxic bile at players as a Reeker or charging an enemy team’s stronghold as an Exploder type. Swarm also seems to have a relatively healthy player base right now, as matchmaking times were always snappy.
There are also occasional boss fights, though probably the most terrifying creature in the Ridden’s arsenal is the Hag. This disturbing, maggot-like monster can swallow players whole before scurrying off and killing them. Hags are introduced by corruption cards, which the game selects randomly ahead of each level.
Random weapon drops sometimes come with imperfect attachments, like this sniper scope/revolver combo.
Corruption cards introduce a variety of challenges, from flocks of birds and alarmed doors that alert hordes if triggered, to armoured Ridden that are harder to kill. Players can try to counter some of these challenges with their own cards by building several custom decks.
Cards can grant basic rewards, such as increased ammo or health capacities, in addition to more substantial benefits, like recovering health for every melee kill. While they might not make or break most runs, cards are a nice bonus that can reward different specific playstyles.
Back 4 Blood invites direct comparisons to Left 4 Dead, though it does manage to stand on its own. The core gameplay, while admittedly familiar for anyone who’s played L4D before, remains solid and the new card system has the potential to be rewarding. Experimenting with cards also helps to boost the already high level of replayability.
There are few gaming protagonists with a more intriguing first outing than Alan Wake. Remedy Entertainment are now well-known for their love of narrative and willingness to experiment with sequencing and structure, thanks to more recent games like Quantum Break and Control. Back in the mid-2000s, however, they only had the first two May Payne titles and Death Race under their belt, a lot of ideas and an eagerness to do something original.
Remedy knows how to reward players who pay close attention, and the live-action Night Springs TV show, which heavily borrows from the format and style of The Twilight Zone, also hints at upcoming plot elements.
In fact, the presentation overall carries an episodic format; there are quick credits sequences and “previously on” recaps as you progress. Looking back, it’s clear to see how the multimedia stylings of Quantum Break came about. Disappointingly, though, the prequel live-action miniseries Bright Falls isn’t included in this remaster.
Darkness is an ever-present companion in the narrative, with various story beats necessitating that Wake be out in the woods, alone, at night. It gives the game an isolated feeling similar to early examples of survival horror (compounded by slightly awkward character controls).
Whether or not the game is for you depends on how exciting untangling a supernatural mystery sounds.
Additional weapons and light sources gradually become available, which help to mix up the gameplay and more efficiently eliminate harder enemy types. While this is all well and good, the unfolding narrative intrigue is the real draw. Whether or not the game is for you depends on how exciting untangling a supernatural mystery sounds. The game puts its case forward early on, telling you what you’re letting yourself in for and sticking to its guns.
In terms of the remaster itself, the visuals and particularly how it uses light – which is especially important here – are noticeably improved by Remastered developers D3T. The official comparison trailer makes it clear that the original was already punching above its weight, but now it looks sharper and plays smoother than ever thanks to 4K at 60 FPS performance on PS5, Xbox Series X and PC.
The ominous atmosphere and presentation goes a long way to immediately bring you into the story. Narratively the game can be hammy and far-fetched at times, though it’s absolutely aware of what it is; it’s easy to recommend to any fan of Remedy that hasn’t played Alan Wake before.
For returning players, besides the inclusion of the hit-and-miss DLC you may not have played, there’s not anything new or particularly different to bring you back. Since the experience was designed to remain faithful to the original release, however, that’s not a huge surprise. It might even be a positive for purists looking to relive an old favourite in search of nostalgia.
With the spooky season officially upon us, you could do far worse than picking up Alan Wake Remastered and discovering an action-adventure classic. Now’s the perfect time to book a trip to the surreal town of Bright Falls.
In Death: Unchained brings the VR Rogue-lite to Oculus Quest for an untethered, wireless experience after its debut on PSVR and PC. Clever subtitle aside, the procedurally generated shooter has been expanded with all-new content to ramp-up the difficulty and keep players busy for longer. Packed with religious iconography, is this trip to the afterlife destined for heaven or hell?
Since unlocks aren’t a complete crutch, developing your physical skill is key. Aiming takes genuine finesse without crosshairs or any form of aim assist, and getting a feel for the gradual drop of an arrow or bolt also takes some time. At first you’ll be whiffing shots at close range, before eventually hitting headshots over long distances like it’s nothing.
Solid motion tracking on the Oculus Touch controllers makes things painless, which is handy, as combat requires juggling way more than just archery. There’s a defensive shield (which can also be turned to offence with a close-range shield bash), though it often pays to physically dodge incoming projectiles and melee strikes so as to not obscure your vision. The Quest’s lack of wires can really help out here.
It’s possible to briefly trigger slow motion by bringing up the real-time arrow switching menu, which helps if you’re in a small play area and need to be careful with regards to how you move. If space is at a real premium, you can even opt to play stationary and seated. Firing teleportation arrows is probably the best movement option to match, though there is also a free locomotion setting available at launch.
Regardless of your preferred settings, a short-range teleportation shard also occupies your arsenal for clutch dodges and quickly popping around corners or through doorways. You can best use it to your advantage in attracting enemies’ attention and then retreating slightly to draw them into choke points. The AI is pretty exploitable if you pull enemies gradually, though things get hairy when you mess up and they bombard you all at once.
Special arrows can save your afterlife in these situations, doing things like freezing enemies in place and sticking them with explosives, channelling the iconic Gears of War Torque Bow. They’re an absolute must during boss encounters as well; bosses annoyingly spawn in waves of minions, so your best bet is to end the fight before it has a chance to really begin using your heaviest artillery.
Emerging victorious will grant you access to the next level, though being able to start a run from that level (i.e. opting to begin from two at the menu instead of clearing one to get back there) requires hitting an arbitrary overall completion percentage first. Gating is probably intended for players’ own good, but when we’d nearly finished the final level and died it was annoying to learn that we’d need to backtrack and earn 7% more in order to spawn there for an immediate second crack of the whip.
Still, returning to the previous level, Paradise Lost, wasn’t all bad. Cathedral architecture is elaborately laid out amongst the clouds and we found that being mobile and aggressive worked best on the armies of flying cherubs and grounded witches. It can be easy to get lost in the lavish labyrinth and cherubs in particular have a nasty habit of appearing right behind you for cheap hits, but it's still a lot of fun to play the role of ordained executioner.
In Death: Unchained features an engaging sense of progression that helps to take the edge off permadeath.
A major strength of virtual reality gaming is the use of 3D audio, but the implementation here is underwhelming. Enemy sound effects never really cut through the bog standard atmospheric background score, which makes it hard to instinctively pinpoint their locations and can lead to missing enemies standing right by you.
In Death: Unchained is immensely replayable and, impressively, a grander prospect than its higher powered PC and PlayStation 4 counterparts. It’s challenging and moreish, while also being a great fit for the Oculus Quest platform specifically. Permadeath and towering reliquaries – shrines that serve as in-game shops and save points – make the game easy to play in short bursts, lending itself well to the headset’s portable nature and limited battery life.
Horror is a pretty overcrowded genre when it comes to VR, owing mostly to the platform’s greater level of immersion making it easy to provoke a reaction from players. Oculus exclusive Lies Beneath manages to differentiate itself by travelling the survival horror route while adopting a dark and pulpy comic book aesthetic. Throw in some exciting action gameplay and the team at Drifter (Robo Recall: Unplugged) could be onto a winner.
Regardless, the game does a great job of building an unnerving atmosphere through eerie environments and lighting. It’s close to pitch black at times, with only the piercing red eyes of enemies visible in the distance and the faint glow of your trusty lighter illuminating the more immediate area. PSA: If that lighter goes out and takes a few attempts to spark back up, prepare for an unpleasant jumpscare. Otherwise, the direction of its flame is a handy means of setting you on the right path and it’s light also reveals enemy weak points.
Many locations are adorned with grotesque, ornamental butchery that melds animal and human body parts; meanwhile, frantic banging emanates from the next helpless victims that are trapped inside nearby crates. The soundscape in Lies Beneath is strong on the whole and using headphones is an in-game recommendation we’d echo, but, failing that, the built-in Quest speakers do a decent job of outputting fairly immersive 3D audio.
When time comes to combat the deranged townsfolk, there are three tweakable comfort modes and three difficulty settings to ensure everyone can do so enjoyably. Whatever you opt for, Oculus Touch motion tracking works pretty much flawlessly; a great test in any VR game is to throw something, and Lies Beneath gave us no trouble lodging axes in enemy heads from meters away.
There are plenty more melee weapons to wield beyond just axes, which do different levels of damage and cover various ranges. Unfortunately, however, their collision is wildly inconsistent. Weapons collide with and lodge into certain foes and surfaces, but clip right through others, which is distracting enough to pull you out of the experience at times.
Similarly mixed is the amount of damage that specific enemy types can absorb, especially in the late stages of the game. Two identical nasties can take vastly different levels of punishment, which, in theory, could’ve served to ramp up terror through uncertainty, but is more annoying than anything else. With checkpoints being limited at that point in the game, it’s almost enough to have you pulling your hair out.
If that tempts you to drop the difficulty a notch, know that Lies Beneath significantly steps up (or down) with each setting. Easy is a cakewalk, Normal can get pretty challenging, while Hard, above and beyond to its name, is absolutely gruelling.
The difficulty level doesn’t just affect incoming and outgoing damage, but also the resources available to you in ammunition and health-replenishing foodstuffs. There’s a hard limit on what you can carry, with your back designated to a hunting rifle and a non-lethal harpoon gun, while your right and left holsters can be used to store anything from a silenced 9mm pistol to a tin of tuna.
Covering all of the bases with a melee weapon, some food and a pistol is most often your best bet to prep for enemy encounters. That’s especially true for a few set piece holdout sections reminiscent of Resident Evil 4, in which you’ll also be afforded bear traps and gasoline cans to strategically place around the battlefield. That being said, the best laid plans quickly go awry when you’re charged by tankish pigmen and forget to do something simple, like flick your wrist to reload the six shooter or cock the hunting rifle with your spare hand.
Although there are no multiplayer or secondary modes to lean on after finishing the inventive final chapter, it’s worth going back to try and find all of the collectibles for the extra lore and greater access to resources they provide through unlocks. Beating the hardest difficulty can definitely be worn as a badge of honour, while multiple endings and achievements (which a lot of Quest games don’t have) should also help to keep you coming back.
Oculus Quest is a platform that’s largely packed with shorter VR “experiences” and arcade-type games suited to brief bursts of play. That isn’t necessarily bad, considering the generally more casual audience, but it can leave some owners wanting in terms of substance. Lies Beneath brings just that, providing spine-tingling scares that can be as challenging or accessible as you’d like. While it might be frightening at times, the action and comic book leanings impart the necessary mass appeal to see it stick the landing as a flagship Oculus exclusive available on Quest.
Intense. That's the first word that springs to mind when you get to grips with Doom Eternal. The pace has ramped up even further from the lauded 2016 reboot and hits you right in the face so hard that, if you happened to be an in-game demon, you'd be inclined to evaporate into a pool of blood.
The game-changer here is the flame belch, which coats your enemies in fire and causes them to drop protective armour upon death. Armor is vital to your survival, even on lower difficulty settings. Those looking for a challenge have plenty of headroom to push themselves in Doom Eternal, while slayer gates (somewhat secret combat challenges) will push those with a real glutton for punishment even further.
Getting around as the Slayer has never felt so rapid, and traversal has taken a more vertical approach in the sequel. A dash ability combines with the familiar double jump to let you traverse huge open spaces, plus there's even wall climbing thrown into the mix, although, regrettably, it contributes frustration and variety in equal measure.
Often you can see where you need to go but getting there requires a level of dexterity that takes some time to grasp. Unhelpfully, at one point, a floating platform didn’t respawn following a failed attempt and stranded us in an area before a quick restart restored it. Fortunately, technical performance elsewhere is as impressive as the game's visual presentation.
Another weaker point was the many facets of the upgrade system, however. There are runes, which modify the game experience, weapon mods, which unlock those alternate fire modes, and suit stat points, which can be spent on another range of skills. It's a lot to absorb, and even if you have an idea of your play style it can be difficult to know which elements you will and won’t use.
You can respec skills in your ship, which hovers in orbit as a hub between levels. It starts off fairly locked down, but collecting sentinel batteries as you mow your way through levels gradually lets you access more sections of the ship. One useful area you can get to straight away is the training room, which does pretty much what it says on the tin.
Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't also mention Mick Gordon’s pounding soundtrack. The world of Doom has never been so metal, and neither has its music, complete here with a growling intergender choir. Its predecessor’s OST was exemplary, yet somehow, Eternal hits the mark even harder by slowly building to indicate trouble before exploding into frantic confrontations.
There's competitive multiplayer to dive into as well, if you fancy a distraction from the campaign. Battlemode takes an asymmetric approach as two demons tackle one fully-equipped Slayer; there’s definitely some fleeting fun to be had, but the main focus of the game is clearly its campaign.
While there are a lot of similarities to the 2016 reboot, this latest Doom outing offers more bang for your buck. Some of the shots that id Software have taken don't hit the mark, but the effort and care put into the game shines no matter where you look. It’s immensely satisfying, if relentless to the point of being dizzying at times, but Doom Eternal knows what it is and wholeheartedly embraces it to great effect.
Remedy Entertainment has a particular brand of storytelling in its games. Since Alan Wake, and even Max Payne (whose voice actor James McCaffrey returns here in a supporting role), they have done things a bit differently, holding live-action scenes in high regard and treating the experience more like a film rather than a game with some story bits thrown in.
There are downsides to the more bombastic action sequences, however. The initial visual impression of former office workers floating lifelessly in the air, repeating the odd phrase to themselves, is extremely effective at building a creeping sense of dread, but the moment combat begins you're quickly pulled back into the fact this is a game, which lessens the impact of the otherwise excellent and foreboding atmosphere at times.
Exploration in Control is non-linear, with new areas of The Oldest House opening up to players in a Metroidvania-style fashion as they progress through the story and gain new abilities. Disappointingly, the structural changes repeatedly referred to in the lore dumps strewn throughout the building aren’t as extreme or as frequent as hinted, with the player only really getting to read about them rather than experience them.
Besides the usual gating off of sections using doors of ever increasing clearance levels, there are environmental puzzles which call on you to put your telekinetic abilities to the test to activate switches or navigate certain areas. One particular brain-teaser called The Astray Maze requires some out-of-the-box thinking, while frequent trips to the Oceanview Motel allow you to pass through the astral plane and access otherwise out-of-reach areas.
The game’s setting is deliberately bland, its harsh, brutalist architecture contrasted by the bizarre happenings taking place within its walls. As the story reveals itself, some of the initial opening intrigue dulls a little, and the vague perspective of the internal monologue from Jesse begins to grate as she's consistently nonplussed by the weirdness of the situation unfolding around her, while a few of the more interesting elements of the game seem to suffer from happening off-screen rather in front of the player.
From a technical perspective Control often struggles, even when running on Xbox One X, with substantial slowdown any time you hop in and out of menus - a frequent occurrence given the lore heavy nature of the game and the number of upgrades available to the player - and even more so when battles get hectic. While performance may suffer, Control is still a very visually impressive game, especially on PC thanks to newfangled ray tracing support.
In all, even with the performance issues, the journey is ultimately very satisfying, and a definite step up from Quantum Break, but if you weren't sold on Remedy's style beforehand then Control is unlikely to do much change your mind. Still, in these days of games as a service and battle royale bandwagoning, a strong, narrative-driven single-player experience is a rare thing, particularly if you’re a fan of Xbox, and it's one which is unlike anything else out there right now.
Based on the 2013 film of the same name, which was loosely based on Max Brooks’ original novel, World War Z the game doesn’t share a great deal in common with either. This survivalist shooter will be much more familiar to fans of Left 4 Dead, the zombie-slaying series which spawned and has defined a sub-genre for over a decade now.
There’s very little in the way of narrative motivation, rather the cathartic pleasure of mindlessly deanimating the reanimate is what’ll spur you on.
Zombies become a sort of hive mind once alerted to your presence, unflinchingly running towards their demise with no regard for anything other than killing their quarry. This is largely familiar stuff, but it takes on new life during regular scripted moments where they frantically clamber into fleshy pyramid structures to reach higher ground (launching explosives at the base to topple these is delectable) or fling themselves from above as makeshift projectiles.
You’re given enough firepower that these imposing setpieces are never outright frightening, which could be good or bad depending on your perspective. Fixed defence units including barbed wire, electrified floor panels and turrets can be placed in designated positions, while devastating heavy weaponry can be carried on your person to eradicate entire swarms single handed.
Special infected types are where you’ll need to employ a greater degree of finesse, although L4D players will already be acquainted with the sparse selection. Lurkers are Hunters that do a great job of waiting around corners before taking you by surprise with the ol’ pounce-and-pin manoeuvre. Gasbags are a marriage of Boomer and Spitter. Bulls are Chargers. Most telling of all, the Screamer is equivalent to... the Screamer.
You can mark these nasties on your teammates’ HUD, though in-game dialogue will most often vocalise their presence anyway, which is one of the few ways allied AI proves to be dependable. They can’t interact with mission objectives, don’t level up alongside you to meet the difficulty curve, and can’t be switched from the default Gunslinger class in order to compose a balanced team. You don’t even gain the ability to pause when playing offline, but hey, they’ll never incur friendly fire (which is always enabled) if you really must go solo.
Should sticking with the normal difficulty setting be your speed – meaning you don’t anticipate toughing it out being a problem – just be aware that an initial playthrough should only take around five or six hours. Longevity thereafter is gleaned by upping the stakes to earn better weapons and perks, which you’ll then use to repeat the cycle, only one notch higher on the five-step difficulty rung. Levels subtly change between runs, mainly in terms of enemy and item spawn frequencies and locations, helping to keep things a little more fresh along the way.
Even with randomisation it can become repetitive if you don’t dip in and out, which makes the unique PvPvE multiplayer a smart addition. Featuring separate classes and progression to that of the campaign, the mode has five classic game types in which two teams of four fight against one another and, at the same time, CPU-controlled zombies.
Its largely no-frills approach harkens back to a period during the last console generation where almost every game had competitive multiplayer, though in an oddly nostalgic way. That feeling is certainly helped by the fact it’s competent and fun enough on a base level not to feel just tacked-on.
Levels subtly change between runs, mainly in terms of enemy and item spawn frequencies and locations, helping to keep things fresh.
There’s an established early playerbase sticking around for the interesting dynamic of undead swarms which can cut off parts of a map entirely, but how long they’ll put up with the current balance issues is up for question. You can’t switch class mid-match, so if you made a choice that doesn’t synergise well with your team or effectively counter the opposition, you’re left no choice but to ride it out or quit. Certain weapons and strategies are overpowered, namely sprinting around with a double-barrelled shotgun and unloading both slugs or popping around a corner with the (thankfully quite limited) rocket launcher, yet the funk doesn’t end when you die. Spawns are incredibly inconsistent, as sometimes you’ll pop up right in front of an enemy with no temporary invulnerability to save your bacon, or, more to your advantage, right next to an unguarded objective.
Whether online or off, in our experience, the PS4 Pro and WWZ servers at least do a good job of handling all the hectic on-screen action. Visually the game is just decent, with some jumpy animations being the biggest sore thumb, but that’s always a worthy trade-off in favour of securing a solid technical performance.
At a budget price point, World War Z offers completionists a lot of game for the money, but anybody with a more one-and-done approach might end up feeling shortchanged by the brief campaign. For either camp, in spite of the strong sense of déjà vu overpowering a few original ideas, WWZ is a good candidate to kick back and relieve a hard day's stress with whenever the time is right.
Desolation. While winter in the UK has its moments, it pales in comparison to Russia at the best of times. In the bleak future of the Metro series, after the Last War reduced the world to rubble, this oppressive landscape begets a bleak outlook, but, just beneath the surface, there is hope.
Tense and claustrophobic underground sections keep your hair standing on end, while bright open-air encounters allow for flexing your action muscles.
The game definitely feels like an epic, despite hanging onto a mostly linear structure. Even larger open areas, which have vignettes of things to explore tucked away here and there - like a makeshift enemy stronghold or an abandoned cabin - flow from one event to the next before transporting you on to another area, which will have its own feel and weather as the in-game seasons pass.
Shootouts are a mixture of musical stings and often frantic ducking for cover, as you toe the line between risk and reward by going loud. More often than not the throwing knife is your best friend in human encounters, far more effective at taking down enemies instantly and not disturbing others nearby.
Out in the open there are more monstrous creatures to tackle, transformed by the surface radiation, who you'll want to have a loaded shotgun ready for. Fortunately, there's a fairly in-depth attachments system in place to let you piece a weapon set together that suits your play style. Don't become too reliant on your equipment though, as things can break and require the odd spot of maintenance, be that pumping up a pneumatic weapon or charging your torch.
Previously, you could only tinker with your loadout at a select few vendor locations, but now these storefronts are a thing of the past. This makes way for on-the-fly resource crafting, via scavenged components, whilst also nixing the intriguing dilemma of choosing whether to utilise bullets for currency or self-preservation seen in the past games. That might seem like a loss, but it quite quickly became arbitrary as you almost inevitably amassed more ammunition than you knew what to do with.
Whether the game holds onto enough of the haunting, thriller gameplay which made the tunnels of Metro 2033 and Last Light so compelling for some is up for debate. Coming in fresh, the balance and variety of gameplay feels on point here, with tense and claustrophobic tunnel sections keeping your hair standing on end, while bright open-air encounters allow for flexing your action muscles.
Visual details go a long way in bringing everything together, particularly as weather effects play with the lighting to make you feel as isolated or on edge as Artyom does. In native 4K on Xbox One X, some of the details are stunning.
Taken as a whole, the experience is a testament to the minute care and attention lavished on every element of Metro Exodus, leaving few drawbacks to speak of. Some characters feel a bit cartoonist at times, but the core interactions between Artyom and his wife alone will be enough to get you caring about the fate of this character and his community.
Upstart developer 3rd Eye Studios have an incredible pedigree, its staff owning credits on a long list of classic films and games, so it should come as no surprise that Downward Spiral: Horus Station effectively channels sci-fi cinema - specifically the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris - whilst also crafting a mechanically engaging interactive thriller.
Downward Spiral: Horus Station effectively channels sci-fi cinema, whilst also crafting a mechanically engaging interactive thriller.
The entire game takes place in zero gravity, which, to allay your immediate fears, isn’t the least bit nauseating in VR. It does take a bit of getting used to, but you always retain the same upright orientation and, as such, you’re never subject to that hopeless feeling of not knowing where’s up and what’s down. Once you’ve gotten to grips with pushing off of scenery to float around, you’ll acquire a grappling hook - which has a smooth, gradual reel to keep things comfortable - and a gun that’ll boost you onwards by expelling a charged shot of hot air.
Now that you’ve properly wrapped your brain around the revised laws of physics, it shouldn’t be long before you learn to string these initially disparate tools together into one seamless combo. There’s almost a balletic element of performance to it, which, had Marvel’s Spider-Man not just launched, we’d have said made it the best movement system we’ve seen for a while.
In similar fashion, the gunplay (toolplay?) takes a little while to really flourish, but as a steady stream of new toys come to comprise a complete arsenal, you’re actively encouraged to swap them in and out to counter the introduction of bigger and badder enemy types. We’d definitely recommend leaving the combat feature turned on, especially considering you don’t lose progress when you die.
Having a few battle scars won’t go amiss if you’re looking to play multiplayer, either. The campaign can be played in co-op, but if you want to venture into the PvP Deathmatch and/or PvE Horde modes, you’ll have to give up your pacifist ways. You’ll also very likely have to bring friends, as finding success with the barren matchmaking is unlikely.
Bar a few jarring frame drops, which are admittedly a cardinal sin in VR, playing Downward Spiral with a headset and a pair of Move controllers is a pretty great experience. That’s a big caveat for those without the proper equipment, however, as it’s also playable on a television and with the DualShock 4. Should you be required to play the game in one of those ways, it‘s an immediate no go.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of having explored Horus Station both ways, but, by comparison to VR, it’s incredibly drab to play on a flat screen. While that’s inherent to a degree, having lost a dimension in the transition, also losing the intuitive and tactile motion controls is a final nail in the coffin. Downward Spiral is a game quite literally designed around reaching out and pulling yourself into its world, which makes a stand-in button press both cumbersome and unsatisfying. It also negates the scope for creating memorable little asides, like instinctively grabbing a dart and launching it at a nearby board, only to find it hanging at the exact point you let it go - duh!
It’s swell having options and all, though when they harm the experience for anybody playing in the optimal fashion, it’s questionable as to whether they’re justified. The game doesn’t auto-detect when it should boot in VR mode, which means you’ll need to use a DualShock to activate it from the main menu, as Move inputs aren’t tracked in TV mode; we can easily live with that minor inconvenience, but a not-insignificant annoyance stems directly from it. If that standard controller is then disconnected, the game will pause and throw an error up, even when you’re actively using the Move controllers instead, meaning you’ll need to remove yourself from the atmosphere Downward Spiral so painstakingly works to preserve in order to reconnect a pad you aren’t even using at regular intervals.
Hopefully that’s something that can be hotfixed, as, when equipped with the right kit, we otherwise thoroughly enjoyed floating around the dark and mysterious halls of Horus Station. Unique movement, satisfying tools and an enthralling location sadly aren’t enough to salvage the experience for anyone without the PlayStation Move controllers and VR headset that are compulsory to a good time.
Themed as a classic, old-timey adventure serial - complete with spiffingly British narrator and an affinity for alliteration (which can be toned down if the gusto gets your guts, though I’d advise averting your eyes if that’s the case) - Strange Brigade’s arcade action compiles and injects existing industry ideas with a persistent panache, shaking feelings of familiarity and raising a rip-roaring ride through 1930s Egypt.
Strange Brigade’s arcade action compiles and injects existing industry ideas with a persistent panache, shaking feelings of familiarity and raising a rip-roaring ride.
Though rifles are still very much present, here a more likely choice of primary weapon would be a shotgun or submachine gun, which can then be complemented by your choice of secondary firearm and thrown explosive. As you amass armfuls of gold throughout the course of any given level, you’ll also be able to roll the dice on a powerful prototype weapon - like an explosive crossbow or punch-packing blunderbuss - anonymously nestled within identifiable crates. These beefcakes have a limited ammo supply to counteract their immense strength, but perhaps more devastating are ultimate character abilities.
Unleashed after charging a magical amulet with the souls of defeated dastards, each brigadier has three additional bespoke abilities to unlock by collecting sets of relics generally hidden away within puzzle-gated nooks. These hidey-holes can also contain gems which slot into weapons to imbue them with passive buffs, allowing for easier crowd control and with that more efficient use of the booby traps that litter each uncharted environment.
Once you’ve familiarised yourself with the ins and outs of all the singular systems governing combat in Strange Brigade, there’s a real art to stringing everything together into one maintained and satisfying stream of destruction.
When you aren’t busy wreaking havoc, you’ll be exploring a range of lush, forgotten locales that are gorgeously vivid on Xbox One X. They’re surprisingly sprawling, often featuring multiple routes to your destination, all while the sounds of moving mechanisms and twinkling treasures beckon you to double back and scour every surface in search of secrets. The classic environmental enigmas you’ll uncover offer up tangible rewards and ensure that there’s reason to revisit the nine lengthy campaign missions in order to deeper delve their depths.
That said, before diving back into the campaign you’ll probably want to try your hand at the pair of accompanying modes in Score Attack and Horde. The former sees you undertake solo excursions on linear, re-purposed campaign sections whilst aiming to combo kills and satisfy a list of secondary challenges like beating par times and not taking damage. Think Mercenaries mode from more recent instalments of Resident Evil, but with greater consistency between runs to allow for really nailing the perfect strategy down.
Once you’ve familiarised yourself with the the singular systems governing combat, there’s a real art to stringing them together into one maintained stream of destruction.
Horde is almost what it says on the tin, only sharing more in common with Call of Duty’s fan favourite Zombies mode than Epic’s eponymous Gears of War 2 trendsetter. You’ll weather an insane undead onslaught across four exclusive maps that expand as waves progress, and also by your own hand, should you choose to spend gold on accessing new areas and their guaranteed goodies. Doing so isn’t exactly the no-brainer it sounds, as you’ll also need to piecemeal purchase a loadout having started with just a solemn sidearm.
This makes Horde a great place to experiment with new loadouts, which, coupled with a moving base of operations to prevent you from getting too comfortable in any one location, stops things growing stale as you’d otherwise be relying on the same old strategies across a whopping 75 total waves. That’s no small undertaking, so you can thankfully step away at any point and then pick back up from right around where you left off.
Weighing in at a reduced asking price, Strange Brigade feels anything but budget and features enough content that you might call it a steal. That’s certainly a relief, as outwardly it was easy to speculate that the Season Pass and its promise of new levels, characters and more might be required in compiling a complete package.
Strange Brigade bears its inspirations for all to see, but while many of the influential games and modes we’ve mentioned are overdone nowadays, Rebellion commit to their goofy theme with such enthusiasm that they’ve captured a formative time in cinema not previously brought to the medium with such verve. This unique sense of fun will make you nostalgic for a period you probably didn’t see, and by a long shot, while the copious conundrums make it an action co-op caper not quite like any other.