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.
“Just keep putting skill points into Thorns” – this was the advice we received the last time we played Diablo 2, over 20 years ago, but we'd need more than that to fend off the demonic forces of hell.
Those with a background in Dungeons & Dragons or anyone who knows their dexterity from their vitality will feel right at home, as the player is given five precious attribute points each level to spend however they like. It’s even possible to respec, though only once per playthrough without some extra legwork.
Levelling also pays out skill points, which are more immediately tangible, granting additional active abilities which consume mana, or passive traits which become more and more significant with each point invested.
Certain gear requires meeting specific class and attribute thresholds, which is something else to keep in mind. Looting is a big deal in general and you'll quickly find the limited inventory space filling up as a result, so item management is also a key part of getting the most out of the experience.
Keeping gear up to date is vital to avoid getting caught out and brutally cut down in your stride; even a change to one or two equipment slots can grant huge bonuses against certain enemies. Since dying drops all money and equipment until it’s retrieved from your corpse, character loadouts are something to always stay on top of.
It's clear time and care has been put into the remaster, but perhaps, in the end, Blizzard should have gone for a remake.
Baddies come in all shapes and sizes, from elemental beasts to savage demons, and at times the screen can be filled with a horde of different targets. Targeting isn't as precise as it could be on a controller, unfortunately, which can lead to some annoying deaths.
The most frustrating foes to watch out for, who come in various forms throughout the game but start appearing very early on, are the shamans, who have the power to revive their fallen allies. Of course, for those that choose to play the Necromancer class, it’s possible to beat them at their own game.
Whatever the class, it’s always possible to hire a mercenary to help out in combat and draw some enemy fire, which can make a huge difference when it comes to crowd control. This helps to make the experience feel less lonely, but, of course, you can also team up with fellow adventurers in online co-op multiplayer.
In the end, Diablo 2: Resurrected can feel a little archaic and even out of touch with what draws many to modern action games. It's clear that time and care has been put into the remaster, but perhaps, in the end, Blizzard should have gone for a full remake – look at the recent successes of Final Fantasy VII and Demon's Souls as a couple of examples within the genre.
With many fans eagerly awaiting Diablo 4, D2: Resurrected is a good opportunity to try the game that put the series on the map. The company's current lawsuit may cause some players to think twice, but as far as judging the game on its own merits, there's a lot to enjoy, and it's easy to see why the original gained such esteem two decades ago.
MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries is the latest entry in a popular franchise based on the BattleTech sci-fi strategy board game. Initially released in 2019 on PC - as the first proper MechWarrior title since 2002 - it’s now made the jump to Xbox.
Gameplay-wise, while objectives do vary, missions generally require players to drop into an area on a search and destroy run; pilots must fight their way through enemies until reaching the enemy base. Initially the game limits users to small, albeit faster, mechs with weaker weapons. That said, they're more than enough to blast and/or crush the puny armoured cars and tanks that attack during the early stages.
Targeting critical systems under an incoming onslaught is an often nerve-racking experience.
Real combat starts when the other mechs come into play. These are often tactical mudslinging matches, constantly staying on the move while dealing damage and trying to avoid each other's fire. Targeting critical systems - legs can be destroyed to severely impede movement, while arms can be shot off to entirely remove a weapon – under an incoming onslaught is an often nerve-racking experience.
There are multiple weapons on each mech, which can be swapped out depending on type. The main weapon is a basic laser with infinite ammo, but there are also gauss-cannons, long-range missiles and more to choose from. Watching the ammo count is a must, along with the mech’s heat level, otherwise they can shut themselves down during longer firefights.
There's also some fun to be had with terrain destruction; explosions will crater the ground and set it ablaze, walls crumble away under fire (or when ploughed through), while trees burst into flames as lasers sweep across them.
Unfortunately, the graphics in general aren’t quite so impressive. Mech models look decent, if not that detailed. Environmental textures are functional but poor quality when seen up close, although this is somewhat offset by the effective lighting and weather effects. Character models are very basic, looking like they could be from an Xbox 360 game.
Technical performance can be poor as well, due to the frame-rate frequently dropping during combat and heavy weather phenomenon. MechWarrior 5 also sends the Xbox One X fans into overdrive, causing a couple of crashes due to overheating. These issues might not exist on high-end PCs, though the frame-rate still isn’t perfect on Xbox Series X|S.
MW 5: Mercenaries supports cross-platform cooperative play for up to four users. This can be done at any time, but sadly, there are no PvP modes. In addition to the campaign, which seems long enough, there’s an instant action mode accommodating customisable scenarios to jump straight into. The Heroes of the Inner Sphere DLC launched alongside the game, and let’s players choose a house before conquering territory to unlock new mechs.
Ultimately, MechWarrior 5 is a good game with some clunky execution. Narratively and visually it's not too notable, but the destructive mech stomping action delivers well.
It’s been almost a decade since we last set foot on the Normandy, Captain Shepard’s iconic spaceship, and it feels good to be back. While Mass Effect: Andromeda was a perfectly passable Mass Effect experience, arguably with some of the most refined action in the series, somehow it didn’t have that special something. We just didn’t warm to the protagonist in the same way we did with Shepard - in fact, we’d struggle even to remember their name...
There are tons of weapons, though they all conform to the familiar shotgun, pistol, assault and sniper rifle archetypes. In the first game these work on a cooldown rather than needing to reload, which can make for more strategic combat encounters. Any excess weapons can be assigned to teammates, sold and/or broken down into omni-gel used to skip hacking mini games and repair Shepard’s land vehicle.
In the second and third games, these more unique elements are nowhere to be found. Weapons need loading with thermal clips (presumably to speed up combat), for example.
There’s so much to cover here that it feels like we can only scratch the surface in terms of what players might discover.
Getting back to the first instalment, which has undoubtedly seen the most change, Mass Effect now has smoother combat mechanics in general. Improved cover mechanics, squad orders and a dedicated melee button are cribbed from its sequel to give players more control. That said, utilising biotic and tech powers (essentially magic and tech-based skills, respectively) can still feel quite clunky. Faster enemies are especially hard to take out, as they overwhelm the relatively immobile Commander Shepard easily.
BioWare have taken the time to smooth out the visuals and performance, too. While there’s still the odd janky animation here and there, players will notice the lighting improvements in the first game in particular, which would often require squinting to make out characters’ faces when they had helmets on.
The game runs from a fairly pedestrian, but reliable, 1080p at 30fps, all the way up to 4K UHD at an eye-watering 240fps on PC – provided the graphics card can handle it. What users get ultimately depends on whether they go for the “favour quality” or “favour framerate” graphics mode. For example, the Xbox Series X outputs up to 60fps at 4K UHD on the former setting and up to 120fps at 1440p on the latter.
Characters and companions have always been the Mass Effect series’ crown jewel, however. While there are too many noteworthy examples to shout out individually (though we have discussed some of our favourites), it’s fair to say the depth of interaction varies quite significantly both between games and between squadmates and general NPCs.
The first title doesn’t go into too much detail straight away, but, in time, players learn about how companions differ and their individual values. Relationships with some characters can develop into romantic entanglements, all depending on how users behave.
Where this system - and the accompanying dialogue - can start to creak is when users do things the game doesn’t really expect. In ME1, for example, an Asari consort is having problems with a client. Since the mission structure is fairly open, especially in the bustling Citadel, players might follow this quest line through to completion before another NPC suggests they check on the (already solved) situation.
These kinds of inconsistencies follow through to romantic connections as well. Characters that are romanceable in one game aren’t always in the next, and being reunited with them can feel jarring instead of a natural continuation as would likely be the case in a single, longer game.
Dialogue options directly link to a meter which awards users points for paragon (noble) and renegade (ruthless) behaviour, too. There are benefits to hitting either end of the spectrum, which can lead to the system feeling like it encourages suboptimal decisions in certain situations.
There’s so much to cover here that it feels like we can only scratch the surface in terms of what players might discover. For those who’ve done it all before, the nuanced characters might feel more primitive than you remember, and the gameplay transition between each game can take some getting used to.
For those who are new, Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is a real treat. It’s filled with thoughtful touches and memorable moments that are up there with some of the most dramatic set pieces in gaming history. It might not feel quite as polished as a modern game, but BioWare and EA have done the work to smooth out some of the rougher gameplay and visual edges. It’s now easier and more enjoyable than ever to follow the journey of Commander Shepard from beginning to end, allowing players to fully appreciate the epic space opera in comfort.
Sometimes you need a video game to inject some joy into your life, and that applies especially in 2020. Enter PHOGS!, the charming puzzle game about exploring with a double-headed dog in search of bone-shaped treats.
PHOGS! is easy to pick up and play and the gradual introduction of different challenges and mechanics is steady, drawing you in and having you eager to lap up just one more level.
The PHOGS (a merging of the words physics and dogs, as seen within the gameplay) exude character as you move them around. If you lazily control a single head at a time, for example, you’ll see the trailing head quickly drop off to sleep. That same level of characterisation extends to the NPCs as well, with our particular favourite being an octopus chef who's increasingly pleased with how his mountaintop soup is turning out, thanks to your help.
The game’s music has enthusiasm and beaming positivity to match, but at times relies too heavily on a short, repeated phrase that can start to grate. Fortunately each level has a new tune, meaning such earworms are fairly short-lived.
PHOGS! is an experience we’ve been hearing about for a long time, and it's a pleasure to finally have our paws on it. The sheer delight at successfully getting Red and Blue to the friendly patchwork-style snake which safeguards the end of each level can’t be overstated. It’s easy to pick up and play and the gradual introduction of different challenges and mechanics is steady, drawing you in and having you eager to lap up just one more level.
Coming into the festive season, a family PHOGS! session sounds far more appealing than a six-hour argument over Monopoly. It’s also just as fun to watch as it is to play, for any technologically-opposed family members. Coatsink and Bit Loom Games have taken a simple concept and really nailed it. If you’re in the mood for some gaming joy this Christmas, PHOGS! undoubtedly fits the bill.
There's nothing like clambering over a snow-capped mountain while exploring the hallowed lands of the Norse. Assassin's Creed Valhalla makes this experience, and many more, nothing short of breathtaking.
There's no compromise on scale, though as you travel around you'll notice the odd bit of texture pop-in. Performance is fairly solid on the whole, though we did get stuck in the environment once or twice while searching for goodies in the wilderness.
The approach to uncovering those goodies is fairly unforgiving, with only a vague spot on the in-game map to shoot for. It's a difficult balance to strike, since players tend to roll their eyes at unnecessary hand-holding, but the odd understated voice line to suggest you’re getting colder or warmer would be beneficial in some of the more complex areas.
Valhalla can suffer from a lack of direction at times, but its Nordic influence seeps into every pore, leaving plenty to get excited about.
Environments are very much divided into things you can interact with and things you can't. You can pick up health from odd pots of food that the locals seem to have absent-mindedly left simmering, but a pile of fresh apples and other fruit in a barn aren't deemed edible, for example.
Elsewhere there are more inconsistencies, with Eivor being able to climb mountains endlessly - no stamina needed, à la Breath of the Wild - yet a few consecutive dodges during combat will quickly tire the protagonist.
Fortunately, combat as a whole is reassuringly savage and satisfying. Lower level enemies are entertaining fodder, but more advanced foes require you to keep your wits about you.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla can suffer from a lack of direction at times, but its Nordic influence seeps into every pore, leaving plenty to get excited about. Strong characters, choice of approach and presentation make it a great choice for those breaking in a new next-gen console or sticking with an older platform.
While we're not quite living in the dystopian future that Watch Dogs: Legion predicts, Ubisoft Toronto couldn't possibly have imagined the world it was releasing its latest game into.
Firearms are sparse, as you'd expect in England, which favours the tech-orientated culture this series is known for. Drones of all shapes and sizes are everywhere and vehicles, as in previous titles, can be diverted with a quick hack. Environments are so interactive, in fact, that it's often difficult to focus on the small keypad in front of you as opposed to items in the surrounding area.
An option which helps to set Legion apart from the swathe of similar Ubisoft games is permadeath; if operatives die with this setting enabled, they're gone for good. Problem is, recruitable characters lack personality, so rather than hitting on a personal level it’s just annoying to lose whichever special skills or items they had access to.
Connections between characters raise questions like "Why is that construction worker being targeted by a hitman?"
One nice feature, which admittedly has the potential to get out of hand, is a HUD element that displays connections between existing recruits and recruitable characters. It raises questions like "Why is that construction worker being targeted by a hitman?" and encourages you to start to build out a wider team, members of which are connected by emergent stories. When you get into recruitment itself, however, the variety of missions is fairly limited.
Characters in general have a few shortcomings. Animation transitions are abrupt and occasionally wonky, while speech seems very skewed towards British stereotypes. That isn't necessarily a surprise, but, since you're hearing the same voice line or two whenever you get into a conversation, it gets old quickly.
While cosmetic customisation is possible via numerous shops, some of the initial character designs clash with their intended roles. It isn’t a major issue, but it is another thing that highlights the shortcomings of procedural generation in Watch Dogs: Legion. It’s much harder to care about these characters than it would be a lovingly hand-crafted cast.
Watch Dogs: Legion’s core gameplay is good fun for the most part, but its procedural cast of soulless characters don’t lend themselves to helping players be absorbed by alternate London. Still, the sights and sounds of Blighty’s capital are exciting to explore - especially in lieu of being able to amble around the city in person at present!
With The Great British Bake Off back on our screens, what better time for a sweet treat-themed party game? High Tea Frog and Coatsink present a slice of confection perfection in this bake-em-up; a serving of satisfying sponge smashing great for both distracting from the doom and gloom and venting some pent-up frustration.
Unfortunately there’s no way to set up custom matches with friends for now, as you’re limited to the more structured, standard experience online, but you’ll want to do this anyway to keep unlocking more skins for your various cakes and pastries.
The soundtrack has a similar vibe to Two Point Hospital or even Animal Crossing, which the artstyle also shares some cues, while the visual presentation overall, as well as its theme, conjures memories of frantic Overcooked sessions, but the game still stands on its own.
Cake Bash might not be absolute perfection, but it is a fun time with minimal calories.
Gameplay is solid, though extended play sessions will lead to things starting to feel repetitive, as the, at times, imprecise controls catch you out. Still, the whole experience is greatly enhanced by the joy of taking on other players and perfect for a warm up before a more longform gaming evening.
In all there is a certain charm in a game which feels distinct in the execution of its premise as well as the quality of its production for a small scale title. While we played on Xbox One, we can see greater potential in its Switch version (due out soon) in particular, due to the platform’s flexibility.
There are no soggy bottoms on show here, and with how quickly it is to tuck into, you’ll likely surprise yourself, coming out with phrases like “As an éclair, I’ve never looked better” and “Oh no, I’ve been impaled by a fork.”
Certainly more than worth checking out if you’re in need of a tasty distraction, Cake Bash might not be absolute perfection, but it is a fun time with minimal calories.
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.