A runaway crowdfunding success story, Agony and its grotesque realisation of Hell recently made it to market with the help of nearly 4,000 passionate backers. While there are plenty of grisly sights to quench the thirst of the gore hounds amongst them, anyone looking for anything more than the modern interpretation of a cheap video nasty will be sorely disappointed.
Anyone looking for anything more than the modern interpretation of a cheap video nasty will be sorely disappointed.
Sneaking slows the trudging pace to an absolute crawl, which means you’ll inevitably get bored and make a run for it, almost guaranteeing that you get spotted and face swift murder. After succumbing to a screenful of bare busters, your soul leaves the body and you’re presented a window of time in which to possess a lesser thrall and pick up where you left off. Possessions are automatic on easy difficulty, but require input on normal and send you back to the last poorly-placed checkpoint in the event of failure.
Finding and eating Forbidden Fruit - or Fanny Smith apples, as we call them for reasons you can probably extrapolate - allows you to acquire and upgrade skills that’ll at least give you a better chance at survival. That’s assuming you actually want to extend the trip, mind, as masses of alternate endings and a couple of additional modes - one offering endless procedurally generated challenges and the other the chance to replay the story as a succubus - did absolutely nothing to tempt us into holding the controller for any longer than absolutely necessary.
You might think all that seems a tad harsh, but we haven’t even touched on the crippling technical issues yet. Agony’s frame rate is choppy at best, glitches prevented us from making progress on a few occasions, and the audio is completely bust. Diegetic sounds emanate from the wrong directions, while ambient effects and voice overs constantly cut in and out and jarringly loop back on themselves; missing dialogue makes the unengaging narrative harder to follow than it should be, but, more egregiously, deprives you of relishing every syllable of the hysterically awkward scripting and delivery.
Let’s not mince words here: Agony is a sub-par, early access product masquerading as a finished release. Patches can only hope to make it stably abysmal, as opposed to plain broken, so you should absolutely avoid the unnecessary agony it’ll so ironically impose upon you.
The latest entry in the rapidly expanding Focus Home Interactive stable, Vampyr is brought to life by sleeper development studio DONTNOD Entertainment (Life is Strange, Remember Me). An ambitious action RPG, Vampyr casts players as Dr. Jonathan Reid and unleashes them on an occult interpretation of 1918 London, framed by relevant Victorian themes in class, disease, race and religion.
Every single citizen you encounter has a personality, relationships and community standing within their borough.
Furthermore, should your moral compass be broken, you aren’t entirely off the hook. Mounting homicide cases may lead people to flee, stores to increase their prices due to the dangers of operation, or, if you’re a real glutton, even plunge a district into irreparable chaos and eradicate its population. That’ll lock you out of any content tied to the unfortunates at hand and also prevent you from rearing any more meat in the area, so it’s best to use your skills as a medical practitioner to craft cures from looted gubbins and subsequently use ‘em to keep the health of a borough at an even keel.
When Shadow of Mordor and later Shadow of War were lauded for their ‘revolutionary’ Nemesis Systems, which supposedly served to build meaningful rivalries, we wondered if we might’ve missed something. The community systems within Vampyr don’t fall similarly flat, realising the potential in attaching a player to what would otherwise be secondary NPCs by making every exchange consequential on multiple levels.
Exploring the quasi open world, rich with environmental detail and written lore as it is, can be as fruitful as conversing in the pursuit of useful information. You’re often kept to a relatively linear path by unpickable locks that gate progress, which isn’t an inherent issue, but is somewhat galling when you consider Jonathan has the ability to teleport and could feasibly get anywhere, but arbitrarily can’t outside of designated contextual prompts. Regardless, streets and interiors alike are a dark and moody treat to turn over for crafting components, used to upgrade weapons and produce injectable buffs that aid in violent confrontations with humans, vampires and additional beasties.
As an immortal, Dr. Reid eats bullets for breakfast, but the likes of fire and holy symbols will quickly turn the tides. Each enemy has their own unique strengths and weaknesses, which, when coupled with a range of classes, create a varied opposition that present challenge in numbers. They’ll work in synergy to bring you down, necessitating knowledge of their respective attack patterns and target hierarchy.
The community systems within Vampyr attach players to what would otherwise be secondary NPCs, making every exchange consequential on multiple levels.
Bouts are fast paced and scrappy, very similar to Bloodborne both visually and mechanically, seeing you lock-on to a single target before launching attacks and dodges at the cost of stamina. Firearms can be equipped to the off-hand when using a one-handed weapon and unloaded without need to manually aim, or, alternatively, a secondary off-hand melee weapon can be used to inflict negative status effects, like a stun that presents feeding opportunities.
This is where the more unique aspects of combat come into play, as you’ll periodically want to clamp your jaws around someone’s neck to keep your blood gauge topped up - blood being required to perform a range of lesser and ultimate abilities that range from simply healing yourself to boiling an opponent’s blood. There’s really a lot at your disposal, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that combat here isn’t nearly as polished as its clear inspiration, lacking the same engaging challenge thanks to some simple exploits.
Animations can also come off as a little stiff, pulling you out of the moment in the midst of an otherwise satisfying combo, but even on the odd occasion that Vampyr underwhelms visually it continues to impresses aurally. Battlecries are particularly guttural, while theatrical voiceovers commit to the patchy script with convincing verve, all complemented by the bellowing chelos and screeching violins of an excellent - and also decidedly Bloodborne-esque - ambient soundtrack.
Whilst Vampyr can feel overly familiar in certain areas, it borrows from the top and at its core holds a unique and intelligent social framework that intertwines engaging themes and characters to birth an enthralling, meaningfully manipulable narrative. It mixes up the conventional RPG structure whilst maintaining a nice balance between management, conversation, combat and exploration to retain the same moreish X factor that made so many fall in love with the genre to begin with. If you can take the rough with the smooth, you’ll find a lot to love in what’s easily DONTNOD Entertainment’s best game yet.
Bundling the base Aragami experience alongside its new Nightfall expansion, Aragami: Shadow Edition brings the eponymous shadow assassin and his stealth exploits to Xbox One for the first time.
It’s visually very Okami, which is just one of many classic inspirations that Aragami proudly wears on its sleeve.
Taking a risk and stepping out into the light - or, better yet, painting temporary shadows into the environment for concealment beforehand - will often reward you with a collectable scroll used to purchase from a range of upgrades. Included amongst these are powerful new techniques, which draw from a limited pool of charges, as opposed to your Shadow Essence, allowing you to turn invisible, mark enemies, perform ranged kills and much more.
More opportunities open up as your arsenal grows, making what was already quite an easy outing a veritable cakewalk. While being clocked by a foe will generally result in your death, avoiding that fate isn’t much of a challenge, due to easily manipulable AI and the general advantages you’re afforded on top of your supernatural powers. Being spotted isn’t immediate cause for concern, and neither is lingering in the enemy gaze long enough for them to make you, as you’re afforded a slow motion reaction window by default (though it can be disabled).
Cutting straight through early levels is a hot knife through butter, but as the opposing Army of Light grow in size and diversity - integrating ranged bowmen and soldiers with portable light sources - you’ll be forced into an ever-so-slightly more considered approach towards the tail end of the game. As such, stealth aficionados will want to jump straight in at the highest difficulty setting to sharpen enemy wits and bolster their numbers.
Though we did crave more of a challenge - which a scoring system looks to provide, but there’s little motivation to get involved in the absence of leaderboards - there’s definitely satisfaction to be gleaned from playing the ultimate assassin, requiring only a small time investment to plot and execute a swift and deadly strike, erase the evidence and disappear without a trace.
Though we did crave more of a challenge, there’s definitely satisfaction to be gleaned from playing the ultimate assassin.
While improving your letter grade likely won’t draw you back for a second playthrough, achievements and skins awarded for completing polarising lethal and pacifist runs might just do the job, across both the main game and its Nightfall expansion.
A prequel story featuring two new playable characters, each equipped with a condensed set of fresh abilities, Nightfall spans four of the strongest chapters found in the Shadow Edition. Whether you choose to play as Shinobu or her sensei, Hyo, you’ll traverse complex new environments littered with debuting enemies and obstacles that, combined with the more limited array of shadow powers on offer, inject an engaging level of challenge that the main game mostly lacks.
It’s very apparent that Lince Works put a lot of time and effort into Nightfall, making it a rare example of an expansion that surpasses the game it’s attached to. Concise diary entries flesh out the narrative and offer a subtle guiding hand, while the buddy dynamic between its leading duo contextualises the game’s cross-platform online co-op, rather than just cloning the protagonist without explanation.
Clearly then the development team have learnt a great deal in the nearly two years since the original launch of Aragami, which has us eager to see what they might come up with next. When it comes to their current product, while a mixed bag, many will rightly be tempted by the prospect of playing as one of the industry’s best-realised ninjas in terms of pure, death-dealing gameplay. It’s just a shame that this power trip can come at the cost of your overall engagement, letting you breeze through the beautiful environments with a nonchalant approach to stealth and story alike.
Valentina, Beta, Alexxis, Jay… they're dead. They're all dead. While we mourn their passing, their permadeaths serve as an example of one of the greatest strengths of State of Decay 2.
As a newcomer to the series, it turns out that the complete breakdown of society can be pretty brutal.
Later, when your community swells and you gain enough influence (the game’s de facto currency), you can claim locations ranging from small, resource gathering outposts, to electricity generating power stations and even makeshift forts constructed from shipping containers. Each new locale has its own advantages and how you manage your growing empire, customising locations further with mods and upgrades, is up to you.
That said, it’s advisable that you take council from your community as morale upkeep is a constant battle in such dire circumstances, as one might expect. Sacrificing a building slot to set up a garden or fashion a lounge (in which you can install an original Xbox) can work wonders in keeping everyone cheery.
As time goes on, your survivors will improve their skills based on what actions they perform. While the game wants you to feel you're developing fleshed out characters in a manner akin to the likes of Skyrim, the reality is that skills are fairly limited, and you'll just want to make sure most of your population go for a run once in a while to boost their stamina, or they'll quickly become overwhelmed in a bout of fisticuffs.
What is unique to SoD2, and arguably the main motivator in investing you in its characters, are a collection of 100+ more mundane traits such as “Car crash survivor”, “Cat lover” and “Flatulent”, all of which have passive effects. When each survivor gains enough standing in the community their individual skill is unlocked, such as “Yoga instructor”, offering an amusing look at their pre-apocalypse lives. While these abilities sadly don't unlock a suite of oddly juxtaposed mini-games, they do offer depth at fairly low effort.
There's another side to this of course, in that not everyone gets on, so they can start fights in your absence or generally become disgruntled. If it comes to it, you might have to take the difficult decision to exile them for the greater good, though generally they do go quietly.
The same is true of the different AI factions, known as enclaves, which can get cheesed off if you repeatedly ignore their requests for help or side with other enclaves over them in disputes, potentially leading them to become hostile and spoil for a fight.
All of these elements comes together in a very compelling simulation, with the downsides to the experience so far (much of which lacked the minor polish brought by the game's hefty 6GB day one patch) being technical.
Zombies can drop in from about 20ft in the air as you approach, using vehicles places your life in the game’s hands as they can randomly flip out or explode, and the AI often behaves unpredictably, to the extent that more than once our fellow community members have perished in relatively mild peril.
Using vehicles was something we hardly dabbled in throughout the game's opening hours, assuming them to be too much of a zombie magnet, but in reality to reap the full rewards when scavenging around the map - in particular valuable resources like food or medicine - their boot/trunk space is quite essential. Casually opening a car door to obliterate a squishy zombie as you pass them at speed also never ceases to be messily fun...
Everything comes together in a compelling simulation, with the downsides to the experience so far being technical.
Another significant drawback is the lack of direction on hand for new players; a handful of prompts keep recurring, but seemingly there's little to lead you into new experiences as you’re drawn deeper into the game. On top of this, plenty of basic options like trading items between you and a follower out in the field are far from a simple button press away, taking us back to pre-Resident Evil 5 levels of AI buddy management.
Same applies in co-op, where up to three guests can venture into the host’s world and loot their own unique supplies to take back home with them, but should you want to swap items amongst one another it’s a cumbersome case of using menus to drop them on the ground before rifling through piles of stuff and picking up the relevant drops. There’s also a limiting tether that stops players from straying too far apart, but if you’re committed to watching each other’s backs that shouldn’t be too big of an issue.
Setting a few more minor bugs aside, the overall experience is stable, no doubt aided by the graphical sacrifices that see SoD2 appear visually underwhelming even with the added oomph of the Xbox One X at its disposal.
Whether SoD2 is for you depends on how you attribute value based on look and feel versus raw gameplay. If you favour the former, it certainly doesn't have many “wow” moments to entice you, or make for a particularly good sizzle reel, but the gameplay over time is undeniably compelling.
This post-apocalyptic world effortlessly encourages you to leave the safety of your home and explore just one more area, run over just one more zombie or pick up just one more follower, without drowning you in endless map symbols. Nor does it penalise you too much if you decide to be really heartless and ignore individuals’ needs (*cough* Sam *cough*), resulting in an unparalleled sense of freedom that allows you to craft your own narrative without completely abandoning you to your own devices in the process.
In all, at its basic price point, the game is well worth picking it up, and if you nab it as part of a Game Pass subscription you'll likely find even better value for money. With different areas to settle, origin stories to experience, and enclaves and survivors to encounter, there's plenty to keep you busy until the previously outlined DLC expansions arrive, but, for the time being, if you'll excuse us, we have a wind power station to claim.
The fact I’ve never played Skyrim has been a dirty little secret of mine for more than half a decade now; the role-playing game that took the world by storm, and its re-releases, have simply passed me by. While shameful, this does make me almost uniquely qualified to approach Bethesda and Escalation Studios’ Skyrim VR without Sony’s future goggles taking on a rose tint. With nostalgia out of the question, how does The Elder Scrolls’ fifth instalment hold up on PlayStation VR?
Skyrim VR is the rare kind of game that you think about all day at work or school, eager to get home in order to reprise the exciting role of your in-game character.
The technical foibles hampering its execution include a familiar, but no less irritating, image drifting issue that sees your display gradually migrate to the side now and then. If you turn to follow it it only gets worse, and holding start to realign doesn’t do the job, so a quick and easy fix is to cycle your headset’s power with the inline control. The otherwise strong motion tracking on our PlayStation Move controllers also tended to go awry as they started to run low on battery, but that’s probably more to do with the hardware’s ancient tech than the software itself.
Provided you can tough these issues out and stomach the omission of a third-person camera perspective - which isn’t a big deal in VR, but it does mean you can’t fully appreciate that swanky new armour set - the positives you’re presented far outweigh the comparatively insignificant negatives.
It’s the little things that stand out, like approaching a mammoth and bolting when the towering beast postures as though about to attack; getting a real-life shiver when clouds conceal the sun and rain starts to pour in-game; nearly dying of a heart attack when a swinging log trap abruptly falls from the ceiling and crashes directly into your face. The sense of scale and depth creates an immersion that transforms the run-of-the-mill into the extraordinary, plastering a smile on your face as you internally exclaim “Now that was cool!”
Rock solid fundamentals evoke a similar response, whether you’re playing with motion controls or a standard DualShock 4. In addition to this initial choice, you're also able to adventure either seated or standing, and can tweak a range of comfort options, meaning just about everybody can jump in regardless of their virtual reality prowess.
Menus in VR can often be much less accommodating, due to finicky motion scrolling and illegible low resolution text, so it’s a real relief that Skyrim - a menu-heavy game by any account - doesn’t fall victim to these pitfalls. Both a high level of polish and some beautiful reworking make it much less of a hassle to, for example, ditch any useless items you pick up at the game’s mercy, as its point-and-click method doesn’t quite boast the finesse necessary to pluck individual gold pieces from a bowl.
VR's sense of scale and depth creates an immersion that transforms the run-of-the-mill into the extraordinary, plastering a smile on your face as you internally exclaim “Now that was cool!"
While the menus are great and all, favourite shortcuts help you bypass them to access your arsenal toute sweet, and stay in the thick of the fight. Dual-wielding Move controllers is a perfect fit for Skyrim’s mix-and-match combat, in which you can combine a range of spells, melee weapons and shields across both hands. For the first time you’re afforded total independent control, meaning you can simultaneously attack different enemies in different directions, perhaps after anticipating a flanking manoeuvre thanks to PS VR’s 3D audio output.
Getting to grips with combat can be like spinning plates at first, juggling motion and button inputs across both hands at the same time, but once you’ve got your head around it you’ll start to feel like a truly badass death dealer. The conventional system is still passable, but very stiff by comparison; it’s simply so much more involving to physically swing a sword, raise your shield to block a loosed arrow, or shoot arcane elements from the palm of your hand.
Similarly, VR’s proclivity for creeping terror makes travelling the stealthy route just as intense. Nocking an arrow, pulling back the string, aiming and releasing is incredibly rewarding, as you’ll more often than not hit your mark without any kind of HUD element to serve as a visual aid. Just don’t get too comfortable sniping from a perch, as being caught unaware by the incoming axe swing of a virtual assassin-come-executioner isn’t the nice kind of surprise...
Skyrim does show its age in places, particularly with regard to its ugly and stilted NPC interactions, but small sacrifices to visual fidelity had to be made across the board in order to hit the necessary 90 frames per second for a non-nauseating time inside your headset. Just rest assured that, at its core, the game is perhaps more so than ever an incredibly in-depth and engrossing RPG with many meaningful choices of approach.
Whether you’re revisiting The Elder Scrolls V or venturing into its snow-capped mountains, vibrant countryside and deep, dark dungeons for the first time, Skyrim VR is an essential play for PlayStation VR owners. There’s more game for your money here than anywhere else on the platform, and, in spite of a few flaws, it’s pretty much all killer and no filler. With Bethesda bringing Fallout 4 and DOOM to virtual reality just next month, this is a very promising insight into what’s to come from one of the few major players supporting the burgeoning technology, and single player games along with it.
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.
A remaster of Rogue Trooper, Rebellion’s 2006 shooter based on the 2000 AD comic of the same name, Redux brings the visuals right up to date, but how has the passing of eleven years and two console generations come to impact the gameplay?
The in-game encyclopaedia reveals that so much more could have been done narratively, with a lineage of engaging comic book lore to draw from.
Linear levels offer a decent amount of elbow room, which, combined with your range of weapons and abilities, allows for some freedom of approach. A fairly robust stealth system can see you equip a silencer and snipe distant targets, then make use of cover to sneak in and mop the stragglers up with melee kills; whereas running in guns blazing from the hip, lobbing explosives every which way, is just as valid an option, thanks to a forgiving level of difficulty and AI that obviously graduated from stormtrooper academy. As ever, perhaps the most entertaining approach is a hybrid of the two, for example, deploying your rifle as a stationary turret before using a holographic decoy to lure enemies into the trap, then slipping away courtesy of your manufactured distraction. However you might choose to play, being able to craft generous amounts of resources with gathered salvage ensures you can keep stock of your favourite ammo types and continue to enjoy the game as you see fit.
Back in its day this was pretty innovative design, which has helped Rogue Trooper preemptively ensure its gameplay is still satisfying today, meeting modern standards and even being reminiscent of a more rudimentary Sniper Elite 4.
Some sharp visual upgrades and a solid technical performance, outside of a rare few hitches, help to modernise the areas that haven’t aged as well. That said, mod cons like a weapon wheel, sprint function, and the ability to shoulder swap would have been very welcome additions. A toggleable cover option would have helped in countering the sometimes overzealous automatic system, whilst we’d have also liked to disable assisted aiming, regardless of its significance to the character. Implementing these simple quality of life tweaks could have elevated the experience on the whole.
Innovative design helped Rogue Trooper preemptively ensure its gameplay is still satisfying today.
The campaign likely won’t see you past the six hour mark, cutting off before the samey string of levels start to take their toll, meaning it falls to the multiplayer suite to hold your attention in the long term. Unfortunately, it most likely won’t. There’s no competitive play on offer, just co-op, and only two modes with a sparse few maps between them. Progressive tasks players with completing an objective before the team’s shared pool of lives runs dry, while Stronghold is a horde mode in which you’ll need to survive for the allotted timespan. There are three instances of the former and two of the latter, which are also playable solo, but getting through everything either on your lonesome or with friends won’t take long at all. When you also factor in the barren matchmaking and an ill-considered achievement for killing a teammate, leading to shots in the back, the online offering becomes somewhat throwaway.
Rogue Trooper Redux’s budget price point helps to offset the relative content drought, though what’s here is good ol’ fashioned fun that, for the most part, feels current, rather than dated. Having laid the groundwork for a sequel eleven long years ago, Redux feels like Rebellion testing the waters to see if there’s justification to finally make good on a second trip to Nu-Earth, which in itself is reason to support this remaster, as that could be something special.
2014’s The Evil Within was renowned game director Shinji Mikami’s spiritual successor to the classic Resident Evil titles of his creation, so, with the seventh instalment of Capcom’s horror series successfully returning to its roots earlier this year, The Evil Within 2 needed to evolve to garner attention. Thankfully, that’s exactly what happened: TEW 2 improves and expands on its forebearer in almost every way, making for a great example of a sequel done right.
The Evil Within 2 improves and expands on its forebearer in almost every way, making for a great example of a sequel done right.
While perhaps a little difficult to wrap your head around initially, STEM’s alternate reality is a fantastic means to remove all barriers and let The Evil Within’s design run riot. You’re relentlessly shown exciting new visuals, bolstered by HDR compatibility, all of which are so considered in their grotesquery that they achieve a morbid beauty. Just as you wouldn’t generally link beauty and brutality, The Evil Within 2 revels in making further juxtapositions feel natural next to one another, be that in reality-based and abstract settings, affluence and dilapidation, or low and high technologies.
This serves to complement another of the game’s villains, the artist Stefano, a character that has more than a little in common with BioShock’s fantastic Sander Cohen, complete with his very own Fort Frolic. Using human flesh as his canvas, you’ll bear witness to many of his works, and, somewhat disturbingly, very likely stop to calmly admire them with the fitting accompaniment of an original (and excellent) classical music track.
Having gone quasi-open world, the game’s two truly sandbox areas (one of which is cheekily recycled as a faux third) are, thankfully, packed with exciting and significant optional activities. Compliments for open world design are thin on the ground these days - we, along with many others, have grown tired of the map-filling, tedious brand of busywork many games have come to rely upon. The Evil Within 2’s unique boss encounters, side missions, collectibles and secrets put that issue to rest however, maintaining consistently high quality whilst also serving to fill in the wider narrative and bridge the three-year gap between instalments. This makes scouring the crumbling streets of Union a thoroughly enriching experience, akin to exploring Batman: Arkham City for the first time.
STEM’s alternate reality is a fantastic means to remove all barriers and let the The Evil Within’s design run riot. You’re relentlessly shown exciting new visuals.
What’s more, especially if you up the difficulty to Nightmare, this nonlinearity sees the survival element begin to shine. You might clamber onto a rooftop and use your sniper scope to scout a location in the distance, spotting a tempting loot pile surrounded by enemies before weighing whether or not it's worth pursuing; perhaps you then make some supplies via the simple new crafting system, these convincing you to head in with stealthy intent. You’re spotted. An unnerving chase begins, more and more enemies emerging from all directions, drawn by the ruckus, as you narrowly avoid an incoming swipe and hurriedly slip into the nearest safehouse, breathing a heavy sigh of relief as you stand, shaken, behind the boundary door. That’s just one example of the many possible, and quite memorable, self-contained stories The Evil Within 2’s emergent gameplay can facilitate, in much the same vein as State of Decay.
Frequently breaking away from the open areas for more linear main story segments, as well as trips through a series of tunnels called The Marrow, had us longing to return at times. This feeling isn’t helped by the fact that these sections occasionally force either open combat or stealth on the player, rather than leaving them to choose their own method of approach. Both play styles are at least engaging, with a highly customisable loadout of loud, punchy firearms and a versatile tactical crossbow making up the bulk of your offence, while conventional-but-satisfying hidden melee kills and a slightly dodgy cover system mostly comprise the sneaky side of things.
Having a sizeable arsenal at your disposal unfortunately relieves many of the malformed cast of enemies of their scare factor; provided you’re actively scavenging for resources, you’ll never be in any desperate need for either ammunition or medical supplies, even on the hardest difficulty setting. Throughout a playthrough, which should last around twenty hours, ways to manipulate the dopey AI and reliably spot enemies lying in ambush also become apparent, further tipping the odds in your favour.
Other than some great late game boss encounters, The Evil Within 2 gradually leaks horror until there’s little left to be scared of; this might be either welcome or disappointing, depending on how much you like sitting in your own leakage. Maintaining the first game’s body burning mechanic - which saw enemies have the potential to spring back to life if their corpse wasn’t ousted using a limited supply of matches, à la the Resident Evil remake - would likely have helped the game remain more engaging on that front, however.
All in all, despite a weaker second act by comparison to the superb first, The Evil Within 2 is a mechanically gripping game. It’s a sophisticated mix of old and new, along with Western and Japanese influences, thanks to its diverse development staff. A considered audiovisual feast that, in a year where Resident Evil 7 convinced us first-person perspectives and VR were the unchallenged future of survival horror, compellingly challenged that notion.
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.
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.