Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Review

Speaking as a big fan of Assassin’s Creed, it really, REALLY needs some time off. Of the nine main console releases only three of them are really good, “Unity” messed up as many things as it fixed, and the interesting counterpoint “Rogue”‘s story offered was quickly dropped in favour of business as usual. I’ve been hoping for Victorian London for quite a while now, but not the way the series is currently being developed. Pulling back for a minute: AC Syndicate does have good points, and I’ll be elaborating on them shortly, but I need to preface the review by saying that even I’m starting to get sick of yearly Assassin’s Creed. Right, on with the review. SPOILERS ahead.

After gradually moving away from Historical accuracy (was of course has been skewed since the start), Syndicate takes a sudden left turn and drops you into a Victorian London that’s been taken over by the cast of “Gangs of New York”. Two twin Assassins Jacob and Evie Frye decide to ditch their responsibilites so they can hop on a train to Lahndahn Tahn and take down the law and order-centric society the Templars have built by creating organised crime. Brilliant. This may seem like I’m oversimplifying things, or approaching the story with a Templar bias, but the game seems to agree with my position- Jacob kills several high ranking Templars and as a result brings England literally to the brink of complete and utter ruin. Evie has to go around fixing everything so the entire country doesn’t collapse. That’s pretty much it, story wise. Jacob kills a load of people that run London, Evie sleuths around trying to find a magic cape, they have a falling out then at the end their goals collide when they murder the head Templar who happened to be using the magic cape. Also Queen Victoria turns up because of course she does. Other historical figures include Sergeant Frederick Abberline who is now a Sherlock Holmes-esque fan of disguises, Charles Dickens, who just wants to investigate ghosts, and Karl Marx, whose presence has made a load of whiny white men on the internet lose their minds and cry all over twitter. I quite liked how the game showed the Assassins to be a clumsy instrument of destruction but it’s all neatly wrapped up in the end. Also the game had an absolute belter of a villain- a man who ran a theatre, was willing to burn children and was madly in love with Jacob, but he’s barely in it. Wasted opportunity. Jacob and Evie themselves aren’t too bad at all. Jacob is much less the complete lunatic the initial footage made him look and is more a brash, well-meaning thug, and Evie is pretty much just the token sensible team mate. It’s nice to have another female protagonist though, especially after how badly Unity handled Elise, and both Twins are miles ahead of pretentious arsehole Arno. On the future side of things it’s now completely inconsequential and trivial, which is ironic considering they’ve gone back to having an actual story and not just having a faceless Ubisoft employee QA testing the new AC game. All the future elements are cutscenes seen through the eyes of drones and look really, really similar to the cutscenes in “Advanced Warfare” in terms of graphics. Main difference is these ones are all a complete waste of time.

Gameplay wise it’s a marked improvement over Unity, though it still has its share of problems. Firstly let me point out that while I only encountered two or three bad glitches, other sources have encountered an unplayable, buggy mess. The stealth is still solid, the combat is much quicker and leaner compared to Unity’s “Block, then wail on them with a blunt sword” fighting system, and they fixed that ridiculous bollocks with the hidden blade. Now you can finish off a target with any weapon, or just shoot them with a Colt Single Action Army, which wasn’t around at the time the game is set but its presence is still welcome. The actual assassination missions are as open as they were in Unity but are easily solved by sprinting in and battering your target into submission. London itself feels a bit similar to Unity’s Paris, but somehow less lively- it feels quite open and sparse. Weirdly, as depictions of Victorian London go, this one actually feels less convincing than “The Order 1886”, which had more focus on detail and tone and didn’t spread itself too thin. It does have its moments though- you can cross the Thames by freerunning across loads of boats and barges (some of which have cargo to steal and ne’er do wells to stab), but the new grappling hook launcher thing trivialises movement, and the new kidnapping element makes no sense. Basically you hold an enemy’s arm behind their back and walk them past all their mates, walking slowly to prevent the sound ring around you alerting enemies. This is fine in theory, but falls down when you consider that the enemies only react to sound, and completely ignore the sight of a person they’ll all attack on sight literally strong-arming their friends. Also this might seem like a nitpick, but the sewers are completely the same as the ones in Unity, despite the fact they made a big deal of exploring the Parisian sewers last time around.

Overall, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate feels like a holding pattern. It’s enjoyable, sure, but what’s enjoyable here was enjoyable in other games. It has no leap forward for gameplay (AC4) or story (Rogue), and the interesting elements it does have don’t make it stand-out. It’s a damn sight better than Unity, but as I said at the start of the review- it really needs to take some time off. Give it a few years to work on a new engine and refine the mechanics, drop the future nonsense and set it in Feudal Japan.

By James Lambert

Thoughts on… SOMA

This one was a surprise, all told. Frictional Games, developer of Amnesia the Dark Descent, an underwater setting, and an intriguing plot about robots who think they’re human? Open goal. Open goal with the Keeper sprawled out on the floor and you’re on side but none of the other team’s defenders are anywhere near you. Somehow, someway the ball got blasted clear over the net though- SOMA is a big disappointment. Now you may be wondering why this is a “Thoughts on…” rather than a review. That’s because while I know what happens in the story and how it all ends, I’ve only actually played up to around half way through. I got to a point where I’m wandering around dark hallways covered in meat moss, while a big, walking mass of tumors wanders around and occasionally charges at me and I’ve lost all will to go on. So this will be a general discussion on the game, but not any kind of definitive opinion. SPOILERS follow. You’ve been warned.

You are Simon, a whiny Canadian man who goes to have an experimental brain scan to help with the damage he suffered in a car crash but instead wakes up UNDER THE SEAAAAAAAAAAAAAA (wiggles fingers spookily). He’s in a research base that was cut off from the rest of the world when said rest of the world was completely annihilated, which lead to antisocial and lovely Scientist Catherine to create “The Ark”.  Put simply The Ark houses a simulation populated by copies of every crew member’s personality, and the plan is to shoot it into space. Interesting idea, that. Given some spice by the fact that due to the influence of one mad person, people keep killing themselves immediately after the upload because they believe that they will then take over the version of themselves uploaded to the Ark. Anyway Simon’s an A.I trapped in a robot body, and he and the A.I of Catherine traipse through the different bases to try and get to The Ark, which failed in its lofty aspirations of space exploration. Along the way they sometimes have to avoid monster proxies carrying out the will of the “Cancerous” (Paraphrasing) A.I that’s corrupted the base. Now I quite like the story, or at least elements of it. The A.I copying is a neat idea, I like the “Dead Space” style cult and the A.I not being a SHODAN-style computer and instead just a cancerous, technological growth spreading all over the station and keeping people alive against their will. I also quite like the robots who think they’re people- blocky things sitting on the floor, immobilised and seemingly completely unaware of what’s happened to them. My biggest problems with the story are that the good parts are few and far between- most of the time you’re stuck with Simon, who’s just annoying really. Second problem is that, like “Tales from the Borderlands”, the story and presentation would work just as well in a non-interactive medium. There is one potential scare you can get that works best with interactivity, but for the most part the plot would work just as well as a short story or a novella.

Gameplay wise is where things really fall down. It’s a horror game in the style popularised by Frictional’s own “The Dark Descent” and that lead to the likes of “Outlast”, “Slender” and all those Steam rip-offs. You sneak past enemies that you can’t look at for no reason (you can’t get near them because they’re giving off an EMP, I have no idea why you can’t look at them), you solve the odd puzzle and sometimes you go outside and have to path find underwater, which is never not irritating. Let it be known that SOMA is the game that finally made me think that this type of horror game could do with a rest. Weirdly now that Outlast 2 has been announced and I played the demo of “Layers of Fear” I’ve reversed that position, but my point stands; SOMA’s gameplay is just so dull, and most damming of all; not scary. The monsters aren’t scary at all, the only tension you get is in walking around the levels wondering what might pop out, but then it does and completely spoils the atmosphere.

SOMA couldn’t hold my attention long enough to make me finish it, but it does have some neat ideas sprinkled in among the dull, stale gameplay and boring stretches of story. Those with a predilection towards Sci-Fi might be able to power through for the story, but otherwise there’s little here that can’t be enjoyed on youtube and in the plot summary section of Wikipedia.

By James Lambert


Mad Max Review

I have to admit, I was surprised when I heard Mad Max was going to be released the same day as MGSV. It looked like a decent open world game but certainly not a real competitor to the absolute beast that is The Phantom Pain. It also runs into an age-old problem for video games in that while not a direct adaptation of any one story, it is based on a film series. A cursory look at other games based on films will paint the kind of picture a drunk with no hands might produce, so Mad Max had quite a hill to climb right out of the gate.

Set before the recent and excellent “Fury Road”, Mad Max starts with Max being chased down and stripped of his iconic car, one-sleeved leather jacket and sawn-off shotgun by son of Fury Road’s villain Immortan Joe and left to die. Fortunately he comes across a small, hunchbacked man named Chumbucket who thinks Max is the prophet in his car-based religion. He just so happens to be working on the best car ever made, he wants to make it for Max, Max wants to kill the villain and ride off into the sunset. That’s pretty much the whole plot; “Max needs a new car.” To be fair to it though that’s all the framing the game needs really; a framework on which to hang the car combat and pattering gangs of Australian cancer patients. The one thing that does really stick out about the story parts of the game (the cutscenes in particular) is the jarring lack of Australian accents. Before the game was released public pressure got Max’s accent changed from generic American to Australian, but the rest of the characters in the game have stayed Yanks. Mad Max is a series that’s been deeply routed in Australia from the start, so to encounter enemies with broad Southern American accents seems really odd, particularly when Max growls back at them in a half-Gibson, Half-Hardy drawl. Speaking of half and half, that’s the best way to describe his character design as well; his face is a mixture of the two, his jacket is straight out of Fury Road but the rest of his outfit is more Gibson. Anyway the story is light, and contrasts the films by having loads of different characters who recognise Max’s skills and want him to help them, as opposed to one or two who are skeptical of him but come around after a while.

Gameplay wise, it’s remarkably similar to Batman Arkham Knight, but in the desert and you murder people. Car combat makes up less of the game than I expected discounting free-roam, but what there is is functional enough. The car Chumbucket is building- dubbed “The Magnum Opus”- is completely customisable; armour, spikes, Boadicea wheels, even flame jets of all things, as well as aesthetic things like the body type and paint. Car combat largely consists of using harpoons to tear things down/tear things off cars and lobbing explosive spears (unironically called “Thunderpoon”) at things. The only time I really needed the car was to remove defenses from gang camps and outposts, which is where the other main gameplay element comes in. The game has what was originally a “Batman Arkham” combat system, though with its striking system it’s more like a “Sleeping Dogs” combat system; combos made from repeatedly tapping the attack button and holding it at various times, and another button to counter. The countering works fine for the most part but your the timing can be frustratingly specific, but the moves have a satisfying, simplistic brutality to them. Well, except for the occasions where Max pulls a flying armbar out his arse, which just seems out of place. It all plays like a Ubisoft game- there are hot air balloons with which to scout out unexplored parts of the map, gang camps to batter your way through and liberate, and of course, the open world itself. The map fits the tone of Fury Road very well- desolate, brutal desert stretching as far as the eye can see, the only structures monstrosities cobbled together from scrap.

Overall, Mad Max is a solid, enjoyable game. It plays it very safe, but then that’s no bad thing given the aforementioned mountain it had to climb. The story is forgettable but by no means bad, the driving is functional and the hand-to-hand combat is brutal and fun. If you’re a fan of Mad Max, there’s definite enjoyment to be found here, and if you’re looking for a decent game to mess around with this is a good shout.

By James Lambert

Thoughts on… the way Telltale tells tales these days

So I really like Telltale games. Or at least I do for the most part. I’ve been reviewing their current series “Tales from the Borderlands” and “Game of Thrones” an episode at a time and finding it hard to gave any real meaningful commentary on them. So I thought to myself; “Why not just sum up my feelings on their current game model as a whole?” My thoughts have changed and I’m pretty much in limbo but if anything that’ll breed debate. With myself. See recently I played and reviewed “Until Dawn” and I’ve heard enough good things about “Life is Strange” to buy it and I’m planning to review it as a whole, and I have a new perspective on Telltale’s output.

The first Telltale game I played was their original series of “The Walking Dead”, which I still maintain is a masterpiece. Its character relations, the development of main protagonists Lee and Clementine and its choices made it a harrowing, gripping adventure game that knew when to guide the player through the story without sacrificing control too often. They key to the argument I’m going to make overall here is that it felt like something that needed to be a video game; there’s already the original comic book and the television adaptation of said comic book, but the game was unique in that it let you actively control what happened, be that by controlling Lee through various situations or making decisions that had dramatic consequences down the road. Though TWD season 2 maintained this tradition (while being an overall inferior product), it was “The Wolf Among Us” that marked Telltale’s next big step, coincidentally also an adaptation of a comic series. The choices felt weighty, informed by the fact that you were in a position of authority, and constantly able to abuse that authority, often with the excuse that the situation calls for it. The action scenes were more involved, the characters were all excellent and fit the noir theme the game was going for, and overall Bigby Wolf’s investigation is still the best Telltale experience I’ve had the pleasure to play. However, things took a turn for the worse after this.

Now, don’t get me wrong; as you’ll see in my reviews, there are things I really like about Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands, but after playing Until Dawn it’s dawned on me (no pun intended) that the current model for Telltale games has some real problems. I’ll start with Borderlands, as its the one I last played. The series has an excellent sense of humor; whether it be dialogue, slapstick or stylised “dream” sequences in which characters outline plans backed up by sequences in which said plans are pulled off flawlessly, they’ve got comedy nailed down. The choices do still have some weight to them, but they can’t quite nail a consistent tone. Most of the time it’s funny, then it turns really violent (more so than the games it’s based off); the two instances that spring to mind are the eye-removing scene from episode two and the face-peeling scene from episode four, which while darkly funny are still surprisingly grisly. The choices also fail to have much meaning when I can’t find a consistent motivational through-line for the characters. Rhys is the biggest problem here; I’ve made him alternate between being a corporate stooge and a decent guy dedicated to his new friends, then threw away an out-of-nowhere developing romance to pursue a dream I’d had him pretty much discard. None of this felt out of character or even odd, because he doesn’t have much of a character. My Lee Everett was a strong, intelligent and sensitive man but quick to violence and revenge if Clementine was threatened and my Bigby Wolf was a violent psychopath with a strong sense of justice who’d never put hands on a woman (apart from the fight with Bloody Mary, which was self defense). I don’t know what Rhys is, and Fiona just sort of treads water, though that’s mainly because she doesn’t have many dramatic choices to make. Overall I prefer her though, she does seem more well-rounded. Anyway, my main problem with …Borderlands (and Game of Thrones, actually), is a lack of interactivity. It still has choices and QTEs, but at several points during episode four I found myself thinking “This is great, but it’d be just as great as an animation. I don’t even care if they make the choices for me, just go for it.” That’s a frankly massive problem for a video game. It’s interactive, sure, but it’d be just as good if it wasn’t.

Game of Thrones’ best trait is its choices which, like season 1 of TWD, set it apart from the book and TV adaptation. The game does a great job of putting you in a pretty hopeless, awful world where every choice feels like the wrong one, and you constantly feel like you can’t win. But that’s all it does well; it doesn’t have the intelligence and comedy of Tales from the Borderlands, its action scenes are lacking, and its characters aren’t particularly interesting. It does its best, but it doesn’t stand out as a worthy accompaniment to other media based on the series, like TWD and TWAU do.

I’m going to finish both GOT and TFTB, but in GOT’s case it’s more out of obligation than actual investment. Borderlands is holding my attention with its wit and charm, but overall Telltale really needs to consider how they proceed from here. Interactivity needs to be brought back to the forefront, otherwise it’s just a film that stops you repeatedly to ask you a binary question. Like a David Cage game, but not complete shit.

By James Lambert


Kept you waiting, huh? James’ top five games of 2014

Yes it’s very late, but it’s here now: my top five games of last year, with choices sure to really annoy some people. But it’s my list, and I’ll put what the hell I like on it. LET’S DO THIS.

1. P.T

Yes I’m putting a no-longer-available free teaser for a cancelled game on my game of the year list, and it’s for two main reasons. First and most important is its quality; for a free teaser that uses one hallway and two rooms P.T managed to create the most effective horror atmosphere and longest-lasting scare I’ve ever got from a game. Seriously, Lisa is something that haunts me to this day, not just from her horrible jump scare, but from her constant presence throughout the teaser- she’s always around, but she’s not always willing to just kill you and get it over with. Elsewhere the imagery crammed into the short run time was constantly effective- the fetus, the fridge, the radio; it does what full-length, full-price games can only dream of doing. The second reason is that it deserves to be remembered, no matter how hard Konami tries to squash it. It’s a piece of art made all the more important to history by the circumstances surrounding it, and it’s a bloody good time. Unfortunately unless Konami say otherwise it’s gone forever, so if you’ve got it installed on your PS4, keep hold of it- of all the games I played last year, it’s the one that stuck with me the most, something I can’t say for so many other horror games.

2. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Yeah, yeah, I know: £40 demo, right? Except it’s not though. People went on about how this was a quick cash grab and a paid demo but frankly if Ground Zeroes is a paid demo, then so is Dead Rising 2: Case Zero, and people bloody love that. Plus they dropped the price before release, but anyway, moving on to the actual game. Sure Ground Zeroes was intended as a prologue to 2015’s absolute beast “The Phantom Pain”, but it actually works really well on its own merits. It re-invents Metal Gear Solid in a way not seen since MGS2 (gameplay wise I mean), even more so in fact. It’s new smooth, fluid stealth gameplay is still a joy to mess around with now, its map was a good warm-up for the huge expanses seen in TPP, and its short, tight story of Big Boss infiltrating not-Guantanamo Bay was harrowing, bleak and a beautiful prologue for what was to come. Its side ops were all fun and made good use of the same map, and overall it actually felt like something Kojima had put some time and effort into, rather than just a prologue chapter cut from the start of TPP. You could argue it should have been included in TPP, but for me it works best the way it is. It’s a good, short story that sets up everything in TPP, it tided me over and as a game, as a separate release, I enjoyed it enough for it to easily have a place on this list. Also it has a beautiful use of Joan Baez and Ennio Morricone’s “Here’s to you”, which is always a good thing.

3. Wolfenstein The New Order

This was something of a surprise, all told. On the run up to release I was intrigued by its setting and story, but suspected that it could, like a lot of games, go completely wrong when I actually got my hands on it. An update of a classic (indeed, THE classic in this case) first person shooter with an alternate history story, I imagine a lot of people would have been satisfied with The New Order being decent, or at least not shit. Well that wasn’t enough for Bethesda, who gave us the best first person shooter single player campaign I’ve played in a long time. It mixed old school fun with more modern shooter sensibilities and somehow managed to gel the two together nicely, its story was given the drama and gravity it required along with a genuine human element, and B.J Blazkowicz was reborn as a weary, beaten-down soldier whose quiet, desperate narration of events and surprising sense of humor made him seem like an actual person on top of his super-human qualities; a man with an almost-all consuming hated of Nazis, whose main skill is killing Nazis thrown into a world where the Nazis won World War II. Great gunplay, great story, absolutely worth checking out. Also it’s given me hope for the new DOOM game Bethesda’s making.

4. Shovel Knight

(Note that while I did play the original PC release of Shovel Knight in 2014, I didn’t finish the game until I played the Xbox One version this year, so this will be based on my experiences with that)

Shovel Knight is a beautiful game, and I say that as someone who never owned a NES, and has no real nostalgia for that general era of games. That’s how strong the art style, music and gameplay are; they all come together to create an amazing platformer that had me glued to the telly from start to finish. It’s fun, it’s challenging, it has a great sense of humor and it manages to pack in more genuine emotion than every game David Cage has ever made combined. The ending had the same effect on me as the ending of Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1, though they were tears of a decidedly more positive nature. So moving is the end of the game, and so well crafted is the journey preceding it that even though I beat it this year I felt compelled to put the original version on this list. It can be frustrating, as is the nature of the games from the period this emulates, but it’s a balanced, satisfying game with a great story that really needs to be experienced. Roll on whatever Yacht Club Games is doing next, and hopefully we’ll get a sequel to this beast at some point.


5. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: All Star Battle

I don’t tend to review fighting games, as a rule. I enjoy them a lot, but I have no real technical skill, nor can I critique the systems within them beyond a very basic level. I did feel able to review this though, as even by my standards “All Star Battle” is a rather simple fighting game (you can hammer square to let off a full combo that leads into a super, and perform an ultra with one button press). What it excels at, however, is being a JoJo game. Based on the manga of the same name and its currently on-going anime adaptation, it has the characters, the moves, the arenas, the style and it all works brilliantly. It does have problems, namely that it needs more arenas and its story mode is crap, but if you’re a fan of either the manga or the anime, this is an absolute must have. What it lacks in complexity as a fighting game it makes up for by lovingly re-creating the JoJo universe with care, effort and pain-staking detail. It’s fantastic as a piece of fan-service, and I’m looking forward to the same team’s next JoJo game, which I really hope gets localised (it currently only has a Japanese release date).

6. Assassin’s Creed Rogue

Unfairly swept aside as “The other one” due to being a last-gen counterpart to AC Unity that used the AC4 engine, AC Rogue actually turned out to be easily the most interesting and one of the best games in the entire series. It’s the only game to let the Templars have their say, and it shows them in a lot more reasonable light than before, to the point where it’s actually made me switch sides. Gameplay wise it was basically just AC4 but set in AC3’s world (with new areas, mind) with a few new features, but it’s the story that’s the stand out. Misguided, selfish Assassins, brutal, ruthless Templars and good people on both sides, it’s genuinely interesting, gripping story in a series where the narrative always seems to fall short of something to just keep the action going. I get the feeling they won’t, but Ubisoft really should continue with this as a series; games made by Ubisoft Sofia that let you play as Templars. They’d be a damn sight more interesting than just going through the motions with boring Assassin after boring Assassin. This, AC2 and AC4 represent the bench mark for the series, a sign that Ubisoft can make great games when they put their minds to it.

By James Lambert



Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain: A Phantom Game Reviewed by The Vanished

So then, here we are. Anyone who’s been following my articles for the past couple of years will know how much I’ve been looking forward to this. If you’re unfamiliar, this has been my most anticipated game since E3 2013, I’m a big fan of the series, and I’ve been really, really looking forward to this moment. Firstly I feel the need to clear up that I’m reviewing this on my own terms; I did not attend the Konami review event (and wouldn’t anyway), I bought the game and I’ve beaten the story fully. This review will touch upon the story briefly, but to avoid spoilers I will be saving my in-depth opinions on the story for an article that will be posted later on this year. Having said that, I will be spoiling Ground Zeroes, so be advised. Right, on with the review.

Ground Zeroes ended with Big Boss pretty much losing everything: his base, a load of his troops, even the two hostages he’d spent the duration of GZ’s main mission rescuing. Nine years later he awakens from a coma in 1984 (to Midge Ure’s surprisingly good cover of “The Man Who Sold the World”), missing an arm and with a large piece of shrapnel sticking out of his face. He escapes the hospital (now under the new codename “Venom Snake”), rejoins his right-hand-man Kazuhira Miller and sets about re-building his private army of mercenaries, this time called “Diamond Dogs”. As I said at the start I won’t go into much detail here, but as shown in the trailers it’s a story all about the severe ramifications revenge has on those who seek it, and Snake’s revenge is directed at Skull Face- the enigmatic villain introduced in Ground Zeroes. Overall the story is strong, with excellent characters and writing a cut above the likes of MGS2; it deals with rather grim, serious topics and manages to pull it off rather well. My main problem is the way the story is told: the game is split into two chapters, with the first one having a linear sequence of main story missions and supplementing Side Ops. When that’s finished, the game gives you genuinely exciting preview for chapter 2, which ends up being harder replays of previous missions, with the odd extremely crucial, fantastic story mission cropping up now and then. The formula isn’t a bad one- chapter 1 has a fair few missions dedicated to Snake assassinating high-ranking military personnel and/or rescuing prisoners for money, because he needs finances to build up Diamond Dogs. I genuinely don’t understand why chapter 2 couldn’t have just been more of the same- Venom pays the bills by murdering and/or rescuing his way through Kabul while waiting for the story to advance. The story itself is a lot less long-winded and bloated than previous games in the series. Cutscenes are now shorter and much, much less frequent. Venom speaks rarely, because he’s never really kept in the dark about anything (unless the player is), and he prefers to just get the job done. The now almost fifty-year-old Snake is fed up of being used and abused, and he spends most of his time in this game absolutely tearing shit up. The voice acting is uniformly excellent; Keifer Sutherland suits the role of Snake when he actually talks, Troy Baker is basically doing his Joel voice for Ocelot (though it fits the cowboy image) and James Horan as Skull Face is wonderfully hammy whilst simultaneously maintaining his genuine air of menace from Ground Zeroes. It’s also worth pointing out that while controversial (for obvious reasons) newcomer “Quiet” is still kind of dumb in where the idea came from, her character genuinely won me over, and the reason for her outfit is acceptable, at least for me. Having said that, her actual depiction has some real problems, most of them based around how sexualised she is. I’ll go into this in further detail in my two part thoughts on… piece coming at a later date. This is as much as I can say about the story for now, but I will say that it’s an excellent send off for the Big Boss era of MGS, and it fits into the established canon nicely. It’s a good story of revenge, camaraderie and sacrificial, and the best story in an MGS game next to MGS3.

The gameplay, on the other hand, I can talk more about. Put simply; it’s everything I was hoping for, and everything I want in a stealth game. It’s a cross between the smooth controls and accessibility of GZ  (and for a more in-depth look at how the main mechanics of the game work check out my GZ review) with the bite-size missions and base/troop management from “MGS Peace Walker”, and at time feels like a military version of “Hitman Blood Money” (one of the best stealth games, and games in general, ever made). Basically, apart from certain story missions that narrow their focus somewhat, it’s pretty much total freedom. The game offers up two large maps in Kabul, Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border region of Central Africa, filled with settlements, civilian structures and guard outposts. The game will then say (and this is where the Hitman comparison comes in) “Here’s where you’ve got to go, here’s what you’ve got to do, get on with it.”- no set paths, no right or wrong way to do it, just an area, an objective and you let loose to do whatever you think is best. This is backed up by the game’s R&D system- of the multiple units you maintain at Diamond Dogs’ “Mother Base” home, one unit is dedicated to making Snake new weapons, equipment, uniforms and the like. What they make is entirely up to you- you could have them develop a sneaking suit, silenced tranq rifle and better tranq pistol. You could instead get them to make you full battle armour, a rocket launcher and a handgun that shoots shotgun shells, or any combination in between. Add in the use of buddies (four characters including a miniature metal gear that can all be upgraded and sent out on missions with you, each with different uses and traits) and you have a different caliber of stealth game- one that offers real freedom where other games offer a “Loud” and “Quiet” path and pretend to offer real player choice. Missions feel dynamic- at any moment something could go wrong, but you have every opportunity to be prepared for it- just because you’ve done everything right so far doesn’t mean you won’t be spotted at the final hurdle, but mistakes are things to learn from, and things that are entirely possible to come back from, if you have the skills. Going open world has proved to be a wise move indeed for MGS as a series, and given the ease with which Kojima has pulled this off you’d think it had always been this way.

There are a lot of things I’ve missed out because I don’t want this to turn into a dissertation, but if you read any part of the review, let it be this part: MGSV: The Phantom Pain is easily the joint-best MGS game (with MGS3), if not THE best (which it may well be, I need more time to consider it). It’s very accessible to newcomers, its stealth is amazing; it does player choice better than the vast majority of games that claim to offer it and the whole game is an absolute joy to play (apart from one mission right near the end, but I’ll save that for my later piece). It’s an amazing achievement; an incredible amalgamation of sights, sounds, experiences and story telling and if it really is Kojima’s last Metal Gear Solid game, he could not have gone out on a bigger high. It’s easily one of the best games I’ve played this year, and I’ve no doubt it’ll end up on my list of personal favourites. Much as Kojima dropped P.T on us all to show the pretenders how horror should be done, “The Phantom Pain” shows that, though other stealth games may pop up to make a grab for the crown, no one does it like the king.

V has come to.

By James Lambert

Until Dawn Review

Anyone familiar with my work (or who knows me personally) will most likely be aware of my intense, unyielding hatred for David Cage and his assorted works. A man desperate to usher in a new age of videogames by making interactive films that fall apart under the weight of his own incompetence as a story teller, with horrible depictions of women, ideas stolen wholesale from other intellectual properties, and a tendency to throw inexplicable martial arts fights into things for no real reason. Why am I using space in a review of Until Dawn to slag off David Cage? Well, Until Dawn feels like it was made by an alternate universe David Cage, who understands the difference between homage and rip-off, and who knows how to make a well-paced story that isn’t cinematic at the expense of interactivity. Basically, it’s this sort of game done right.

One year after a group of friends enact a prank that leads to two of them being killed, the dead girls’ brother invites the group up to the family lodge where they died, as a sort of group therapy through reunion type deal. It’s the classic horror set-up; a group of teenagers alone in a lodge in the mountains/woods cut-off from the outside world. Each one fits a basic character archetype: the final girl, the nerd, the dumb blonde (not my words), the jock who’s gone up a snowy mountain in a letterman jacket and tracky bottoms- they’re recognisable characters, but not based on anyone in particular. The story follows horror lore rather closely, but mixes up locations and threats; moving from a lodge in the snowy woods to a dilapidated mine and a sanitarium all without breaking flow. It’s due in part to characters being split up, with each of them working towards a goal -whether it be to help the group or simply escape where they are- and the game just lets them get on with it. The game is done in a slightly episodic fashion, with “Previously on” segments and Peter Stormare appearing after each chapter as a therapist asking you to basically tell him what you’re scared of. The latter pays off and is generally well done. The former is quite poorly done; the game doesn’t have any break between episodes, and will instead play a cutscene then smash cut straight to “PREVIOUSLY ON UNTIL DAWN”, making the whole thing seem unnecessary. The game’s ending also seems quite sudden and convenient, but overall the story is well-paced, gripping and shows a good understanding of horror, compared to a lot of modern “Survival Horror” games. Also, though graphics aren’t something I normally mention, it’s worth pointing out that these are quite possibly the best graphics I’ve seen in a videogame. While its palette isn’t as expansive as something by Naughty Dog, the character animations and details in the game are excellent, and the facial capture in the game is genuinely amazing. Pausing the game brings up the face of whomever you’re playing as, and they all look fantastic. Clearly Supermassive didn’t mess about with all that Sony money.

Gameplay wise, it basically plays like Heavy Rain. You walk around, interact with environments, make choices and engage in quick time events. The most noteworthy parts are those last two. The choices never feel forced; they’re a mixture of dialogue and character interactions that matter partly because everyone’s a teenager, and partly because they may come back to bite you later (more on that shortly). The other choices usually come up during action or chase scenes. You’re running after someone in the woods- do you take the safe route down the path? Or do you risk sliding down a rocky hill? Do you barricade the door, or keep running and try to get a headstart? There are also times when not acting at all is the best way forward. Not that the game makes it obvious. The choices work so well because of what the game calls “The Butterfly Effect” (named for the actual theory); a dedicated list off the pause menu shows the choices you made, and the effects of that choice, expanding as the choice continues to have consequences as the story goes on. It’s nice that as well as the natural results shown in-game, it also actively details exactly what’s happened and why, which you can completely ignore if you wish. It works a lot better than Telltale’s vague “X will remember that” message. Also literally every character in the game can die, or none, or any number in between. Certain characters can only die after you reach a certain point in the story, but said story can end with everyone in the main cast having suffered a horrible, gory death. It adds a real tension to all the action scenes when you realise that one wrong move can get a character killed, and there are no do-overs. You have one save file and cannot go back until after you clear the game; someone dies, they’re dead for the whole run time. Unfortunately this can be made slightly irritating due to one particular QTE where you have to keep the controller completely still. Most of the time it’s not a big problem (it’s actually done quite well), but a slight twitch can result in failure, which happened to me right at the end of the game when I wasn’t expecting it and a character I really wanted to live got murdered. Still, there’s always my next playthrough.

My only other gripe is a slight spoiler, so skip down to the wrap-up if you want to go into the story completely blind, which I do recommend. The supernatural enemies that are hinted at for a while then finally show up late in the game are really generic. Considering what they are (an established supernatural creature), they could have looked so much more interesting than they do. But it’s just a small thing, they’re still genuinely threatening.

Overall “Until Dawn” is excellent. It handles choices better than any other game in this genre, the graphics are arguably the best ever seen in a game (certainly a console game), and it puts David Cage’s weak-sauce attempts at an interactive film game to shame; using horror lore as a jumping-off point for an intense story that grips from start to finish. It’s the PS4’s joint-best exclusive with Bloodborne, and a must-see if you own the console. Having said that, it’s quite short, so maybe wait for a price drop.

By James Lambert

Batman Arkham Knight Review

I have something of an affinity with the “Batman: Arkham” series. Arkham City was the first game I reviewed, way back when I got to go to its launch event; it essentially set this whole “Reviewingfloor” thing into motion. Arkham Asylum was fantastic- it really shook things up in terms of superhero games; its detail, gameplay and care for the source material made it the new benchmark for the genre. Arkham City took that theme and ran with it, although it sacrificed a more tightly-focused story for an open world. I even quite like Arkham Origins, even though it’s pretty much just the same thing, with some incredibly convenient story hand-waves. So now we come to Arkham Knight, the last game in the series, and a game already infamous for a broken PC port that recalled by publishers Warner Brothers. It’s the first game in the series on current-gen consoles, its open world now encompasses all of Gotham City, and it was shown to be a fair bit darker and more grim than before. It piqued my interest, certainly, but how did it turn out? Is it a fitting end to the trilogy? Some light spoilers ahead.

After the genuinely surprising death of The Joker at the end of “…City”, Scarecrow has stepped in to fill the main villain role. He’s battered and maimed after his run in with Killer Croc in “…Asylum”, he’s got a somber new voice courtesy of John Noble, and he’s threatening to fill the entire city with fear toxin. In reality this is a slightly ham-fisted way to make sure there aren’t any civilians in the game, but I’ll let it slide. I’ve got bigger fish to fry anyway. Throughout the story the key theme is Batman finally failing to save Gotham; Scarecrow hammers this home every time he addresses you over loud speakers that apparently reach every square inch of the city. Helping him in this is the titular Arkham Knight, a mysterious new villain with training, a private army of mercenaries and intimate knowledge of Batman and his various weaknesses. Who is the Arkham Knight? Well, without giving it away directly; he’s exactly who you think he is. Yes, him. Yes the reveal is disappointing. It makes sense it’s him but it’s spoiled by how much they hyped him up as a whole new character when in actual fact he’s, well he’s him. Ahem. Navigated that minefield like a pro. He’s also responsible for one of the absolute worst gameplay elements, but I’ll get to that. Rounding out the cast is the Joker, or at least a persistent hallucination of him born from exposure to Scarecrow’s fear toxin. Now you might think that bringing the Joker back is cheating really; a case of having their cake and eating it, and honestly it kind of is. Particularly when the game (SLIGHTLY HEAVIER SPOILERS) makes the ending confrontation all about him (SPOILERS END). Having said that, I can’t deny they use him well. Having him be a figment of Batman’s imagination means he has access to all of Bruce’s private knowledge, and can use it against him. He’s also genuinely funny, though in a rather dark way that suits the game’s tone. So at least two of the three villains are well done, and for the most part the plot is pretty good. It hits the bleak marks nicely, and there are times when it feels like Batman may genuinely fail, just as Scarecrow insists that he will. However, there are two key failures in the game that end up being reversed, with no real consequence. That’s where the story fell down for me, again it’s them having their cake and eating it. They want Batman to fail, but obviously Batman can’t fail because he’s Batman. It’s frustrating; they already killed The Joker, you’d think this wouldn’t be too far, especially with it being the last in the series.

Gameplay wise, it’s pretty much the same, except for new additions that just get in the way. Chief among them is the Batmobile. The Batmobile is absolutely ridiculous, and outstays its welcome after about an hour or so. No matter where he goes, no matter how unlikely it seems or how much trouble it is to take the Batmobile, Batman always finds a way to drag it along with him. They seem to have thought “Well, the Batmobile is useable for the first time, we better make the most of it”. What starts as a cool addition that adds to the whole “I’m Batman” feel quickly becomes the gameplay’s biggest weakness. The aforementioned gameplay element brought in by the Arkham Knight is having to constantly fight unmanned drone tanks. They pop up all the bloody time- you’ll be going to or from a story bit and suddenly a load of tanks will turn up, as the Arkham Knight shouts “YOU DON’T KILL PEOPLE, THAT MAKES YOU WEAK. NOW FIGHT MY UNMANNED TANKS” because that plan makes sense and doesn’t waste my time in the slightest. Elsewhere Batman has a new suit that lets him move faster, which in practical terms means you can now chain together stealth takedowns, and boss fights have been completely replaced with you and one of Batman’s mates teaming up to beat the crap out of a load of goons. It’s a step backward from the Mr Freeze boss fight, but at least you don’t have to jump out the way of charging big lads anymore. Other villains have been relegated to side missions that you have to complete in order to get the true ending (which is shit by the way), and while it’s nice to see them, the missions themselves are forgettable. The detective elements follow Arkham Origins’ lead and add synthesising voice clips of people for various uses and reviewing security footage, and these moments are a welcome addition. The combat and stealth are still really good, you don’t need me to tell you that; it’s an Arkham game. The stealth definitely seems easier though, but I don’t consider that a problem really.

Overall, this is a step backward. The story doesn’t go far enough, the ending doesn’t do the trilogy justice, and the titular Knight is a complete waste. The Batmobile spoils the gameplay every time it pops up (which is all the goddamn time), but the core gameplay of beating the shit out of criminals, jumping on them from gargoyles and doing light detective work still holds up. There’s fun to be had here, but it’s easily the weakest of the trilogy.

By James Lambert

Thoughts on… The New Hitman game

A new Hitman game you say? With sandbox levels and a map and no dumb grindhouse story where 47 keeps being captured and NO PVC STRIPPER NUNS? Colour me intrigued. They showed a gameplay trailer at E3 and I’m here to talk about it. They also showed a pre-rendered trailer that told me absolutely sod all about the game, so I’ll skip that one.

In case you don’t know my views on Hitman Absolution, here they are in condensed form; as a stealth action game it’s not awful but it steals things from better games and has problems. As a Hitman game it’s an absolute travesty that messed everything up. “Blood Money” is one of my favourite games of all time; its large maps, excellent map, hide-in-plain sight stealth and genuine choice make it a genuine stand-out in the genre. If you’ve never played it, you’re the world’s greatest Hitman. You’re dropped into a large area with one or more people to kill, a map to find them with and a load of guns/melee weapons/improvised deaths with which to kill them. The game doesn’t signpost anything, it just tells you to go kill these people however you like. That was what was missing from Absolution, with its checkpoints and broken-up mini areas.

Anyway, this new one. So the trailer has what appears to be a much younger 47 (complete with barcode) arriving at a party (along the red carpet so people can see his face, because some bad ideas can’t be discouraged) to kill a very rich man who’s part of some shadowy organisation that act like dicks and mess things up for people (basically). A door is busted open with a crowbar, disguises are taken, pat-downs are enacted, and 47 murders the man with a fire axe. The trailer didn’t really show much off, but fortunately the Hitman wiki has some decent information, as well as some rather baffling information. Turns out that the game isn’t a prequel or reboot like I thought. Despite the fact 47 now looks like a twenty year old and has his barcode back (he sliced part of it off in the last game), it’s apparently set after Absolution. I thought we could leave that shit heap behind but apparently it’s remaining canon. It did tell me that the checkpoints are gone now, and that instinct (basically a rip-off of Batman’s detective vision) is out, being replaced with quick saves and the good old map. The overall story isn’t really all that important, which is great, Diana now talks to 47 mid-mission, which I really don’t like the sound of, and in every mission there are one-time-per-play-session extra objectives to optionally complete.

I really need to see some actual gameplay footage, but at this point I’m cautiously optimistic. Absolution was bloody awful as a Hitman game but they seem to be learning from it this time around, and if what I’ve read is true this could get the series back on track. I was always disappointed that Blood Money was an absolute masterpiece, then I had to wait six years for a new game that, rather than develop on said masterpiece decided to tunnel into the earth. I really hope this doesn’t suck. Really I don’t.

By James Lambert

James’ (Vault) 101(st) post: Thoughts on… Fallout 4 at E3 2015

Bethesda had a damn good showing at E3 this year. Dishonored 2 with playable Emily, eight minutes of brutal, fantastic DOOM footage and, best of all, half an hour of Fallout 4. It looks incredible, I’m here to talk about it, let’s do this thing. I’ve split it up into three main sections, and will be focusing on the game itself, not “Fallout Shelter” or the wearable Pip-Boy.

Character Creation/Pre-war
The first part of the demo shows off the pre-war introduction to the game. Turns out I was close in my predictions; you DO go into Vault 111 before the bombs go off, but you come out two hundred years later, and you aren’t the baby seen in the crib. You’re one of its parents. The couple groom themselves in a mirror and this is your character creation; you can tinker with both using dynamic sliders on every part of the face, then pick one of them to be your character. Apparently the game has around one thousand of the most popular names recorded, so that characters in the game can vocally address you by name. In the demo they settled on a generic white man named Howard.  The pre-war stuff has a genuine tension to it. Someone from Vault-Tec comes round to check your details for entry into Vault 111 (this is where you allocate your S.P.E.C.I.A.L points, of which you have a lot more than in 3 and New Vegas), then almost immediately you and your family have to run for your life through the streets to the Vault. “I love you. Both of you”, Howard says, and then the bomb hits. They refused to go into any plot details for now, but later on the showed Howard obtaining his Pip-Boy; covered in dust and fastened to the arm of a skeleton. They did say that your character is the sole survivor, so clearly something in Vault 111 goes very wrong. Speaking of the Pip-Boy, it now has 3-D models for weapons and armour, can play game cartridges (the one shown is basically Donkey Kong, but Cold War-ified), you see your character’s hand interact with it in real time, and armour is now put on limb by limb, as opposed to a whole suit. The last thing to mention here (as it won’t really fit into the other categories) is the conversation system. You can do it in third or first person and walk away from it at any time (something I’m genuinely pleased to hear), but now instead of having a list to choose from it uses the four face buttons, with a dialogue option attached to each. My main problem is dialogue options that are tied to skills; Intelligence, Speech, Strength etc. How will they factor in? Will you have to exhaust four options of dialogue before new ones pop up? It could be a nuisance.

The most surprising part of the demo. They showed off the new crafting system, used to alter/make weapons, and build houses, buildings and whole settlements. Weapons can be changed in all manner of ways, to simply adding a silencer or sight (crafted from junk scattered throughout the world), to swapping out large parts of the weapon to make it into something else. Things like taking a laser pistol and turning it into a tri-beam laser rifle. Apparently there are over fifty base weapons and over seven hundred modifications you can make. I’m really looking forward to this; if they do the crafting system well it’ll add a whole new depth to the game’s combat system. As for the buildings, it also adds a frankly unprecedented level of depth. You can craft furniture, then buildings to put it in, then water pumps, a place to plant food and a power line strung together to power everything there. You can build a massive settlement and get other people to come and live there, and draw in unique merchants. It looks like you could spend the whole game just building a town, and ignoring all the story missions. If you’re so inclined.

Finally, the presentation ended with a two minute trailer in which Howard murders a whole load of wasteland creatures and humans to the song “Atom bomb baby”. Deathclaws, Yao Guai, Raiders, Supermutant Behemoths, robots; all of them and more get gunned down and hit with a sledgehammer so hard they explode. The combat looks excellent in first person, V.A.T.S looks as good as ever, and overall the combat looks as good as everything else that’s been shown.

Fallout 4 looks amazing. The character creation, the combat, the new crafting system, the graphics; everything has clearly had so much live and time poured into it. It’s clear that Bethesda want this to be as good as it possibly can be, and it certainly looks like it will pay off. They also gave a release date: November 10th.

I can’t wait.

By James Lambert