My top five upcoming games

With E3 over and just over a week to kill until I get “The Last of Us” (which is apparently incredible), I figured now is a good time to briefly talk about the five upcoming games I’m most looking forward to. The criteria I’m sticking to are games that have been announced and have had footage shown for them, but not necessarily a release date (Q1 2014 and such is alright, but not “We’re making a sequel to ____ and it’ll be out sometime in the future”). So let’s get to it.

1. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2014)

Holy shit, where to start… Open-world MGS with real-time weather, vehicles, realistic day/night cycle with organic gameplay and a dark, adult, rather disturbing and unpleasant story that seems to detail that final leap from hero to terrorist for Big Boss (now called “Punished Snake”)? My money. Take it. As much as you like. A composite project consisting of “Ground Zeroes” and “The Phantom Pain”, MGS V is a new take on the series- as seen in the E3 2013 trailer the open world is beautifully detailed and the tactical options woven into the gameplay look great. The new story follows on from “Peace Walker” and involves Snake awaking from a nine year coma to find his private army and home based destroyed, his left arm cut off and “the whole world” wanting him dead, leaving him wanting revenge on a rather large scale (as seen in the first two trailers for the game). The story is the real draw here for me (I love “Metal Gear Solid 3” and I’m currently playing through “Peace Walker”, which so far is excellent, so I’m keen to see what appears to be the final chapter for “Naked Snake” as a heroic figure)- I love the new direction they’re taking with it, particularly the much darker tone, and I want to see the inevitable downfall of Big Boss and the forming of Outer Heaven. I’m also happy to see the gameplay continue to evolve from “Peace Walker”, and the series as a whole still keep the high standards I attribute to it. Big Boss’ downfall seems to have been saved for the biggest, darkest and best “Metal Gear Solid” game yet, and if they can pull it off, it’s going to be amazing.

Oh, and a quick word on the casting of Kiefer Sutherland as Snake- of course I would rather see David Hayter return to the role he made his own over every game Snake’s appeared in, but I do get why they made the change. I’m willing to wait and see how it sounds in the final game- I do like Keifer Sutherland, and were it an original character I’d applaud the choice.

2. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (November 2013)

I have wanted an “Assassin’s Creed” game about pirates since the second game. Seriously. I remember running around Forli as Ezio thinking “This is great and all, but it’d be even better if Ezio was a pirate.” Well, presumably a slow-acting Ubisoft satellite was passing over the East Midlands of England that day (for some reason) because “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” is on the way. Acting as a prequel to AC III, the game focuses on Edward Kenway- legendarily badass pirassin (if that isn’t word, it should be) and best friend to Black Beard as he steals, murders and free-runs his away through “The golden age of piracy”. The ship captain sections of AC III were very well implemented, and they’re set to return, which is a plus. The more tropical setting, tavern fights and the new focus on exploration are all promising, and even the least innovative game in the series was still decent. My only reservation is that seeing as the historical narrative is a prequel, that could mean the present day story is too, which would mean a return for Desmond. Having said that, it’s an “Assassin’s Creed” game about pirates. I’m very much giving it the benefit of the doubt at this point.

3. Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs (Late summer apparently. It was delayed again recently)

There are two genres of video games I am particularly fond of: stealth and survival horror. Like many I’m not satisfied by the current mainstream attempts at horror, particularly “Resident Evil”‘s on-going effort to tear itself asunder (although apparently “Revelations” was a return to the good times, so maybe someone at Capcom finally noticed the Resi train was hurtling towards a river and slammed the breaks on), but unlike several gaming publications and websites I am not at all of the opinion that Shinji Mikami’s “The Evil Within” is going to “save survival horror”, for two reasons: the game doesn’t sound like much at all, and survival horror doesn’t need saving- it just moved on to Steam. “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” was an amazing example of how to do horror properly, and even the mere mention of this pseudo-sequel was enough to get me excited when it was announced. Featuring a story arguably more bleak than the last one revolving around a wealth industrialist who did something unspeakable in Mexico and suffering from months worth of fevered dreams involving a machine that grinds up pigs (and other things, depending on what you consider to be a pig…) the two brief trailers look even scarier than the first game (very dark rooms, machinery and some horrific, unseen pig-monster is a great combination it seems), which in itself is an achievement. I have my eye on this one- it looks to continue the work “The Dark Descent” started.

On a similar note, Red barrels’ “Outlast” (which follows a similar formula but in a modern setting) also looks to be scary, tense and enjoyable, although the story premise is less interesting in my opinion.

4. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (December 2013)

Apart from the demo released on PSN, I haven’t played “Castlevania: Lords of Shadow”. The sequel makes me want to rectify that as soon as possible. The original was a reboot to the classic franchise with a “God of War”-esque gameplay style, a few “Shadow of the Collosus” boss fights and exploration, with one big thing that stuck out for me: at the end of the game, hero Gabriel Belmont becomes Dracula, or “Dracul” as he puts it (respectively “Son of the dragon” and “The dragon” in Romanian). I thought that was an interesting move, and I’m glad to see the sequel picks up on it: the gameplay footage shown at E3 starts with Gabriel/Dracula in his castle, with human knights storming the place to try and kill him “Hammer horror” style. Dracula can feed on human enemies as well as his regular melee attacks, and upon him leaving his throne room to travel outside the sense of scale and graphical polish is excellent. So it looks like it runs and plays nice and smoothly, but the stand-out thing for me is the concept- playing as a badass, old-timey vampire who fights other monsters, drinks human blood and used to be a crusading champion for the good and the just is a great idea. In the mean time, I’m going to pick up the first game and see what I missed.

Oh, remember Alucard- Dracula’s son and the playable character for the superb “Castlevania: Symphony of the night”? Well he’s coming for Dracula, and he’s out for blood. This just keeps getting better.

5. Watch Dogs (November 2013)

Ubisoft’s cyber-terroism-’em-up could go either way, really. The shooting, takedowns and free-running are nothing new, but the real promise comes from protagonist Aiden’s super phone that can hack into a variety of objects including (but not limited to) traffic barriers, cameras, traffic lights, the city’s power grid and ATMs. Pretty much anything, within reason, and it all yields gameplay benefits. My worry is that each hack will be used in a very linear way to serve pre-planned story encounters, but I’m hoping that won’t be the case and that the gameplay will have a more organic feel to it. Although not original the shooting, chases and the like all look solid, and seem to serve the narrative nicely. I’m remaining cautiously optimistic about “Watch Dogs”, and I’ll be picking it up regardless.

So those are the five upcoming games I’m most looking forward to, but that’s not all of them- “inFAMOUS: Second Son”, “The Wolf Among Us” and “The Walking Dead: 400 Days” all caught my eye also, just not to the same extent these five did.

By James Lambert

Retroactive reviews: The Warriors and Manhunt

When it first appeared on the Europe PSN store, the “PS2 classics” section wasn’t exactly packed with gems. Sure it had “God Hand” and “Maximo”, but a lot of the other choices were mostly D-Grade titles that weren’t worth picking up when they were first released. Gradually the section added some great games to its ranks- “Max Payne” and “Deus Ex”, “Grand Theft Auto” 3, Vice City and San Andreas, and other Rockstar titles “Canis Canem Edit” and “Red Dead Revolver”. Recently the store saw the arrival of what in my opinion are Rockstar’s two best Playstation 2 titles, and indeed two of my all-time favourite games: “The Warriors” and “Manhunt”. I loved them when they first came out, but do they still hold up now? That’s the main thing I wanted to find out. So this is what this review will consist of: why the game is good in general, and is still good now?

First up: “Manhunt”.

“Manhunt” (released in 2003) approached the stealth genre a bit differently: as opposed to say, “Metal Gear Solid” and “Splinter Cell”‘s highly-trained military operatives sneaking into various instillations or “Thief”‘s focus on getting in and out unseen and without killing, Manhunt is about a prisoner whose execution is faked so he can be put into a series of snuff films run by Brian Cox (the actor, not the scientist. Christ, that’d be a different game) equal parts stealth game and survival horror, it’s basically you creeping around dilapidated urban jungles horribly murdering people (holding down the attack button to cycle through three levels of murder- “Hasty, Violent and Gruesome”) and, depending on how good you are, running for your life from a gang of hollering, frenzied murderers who want to kill you for money/fun/both. The game benefits from one of the same things that made the later “Max Payne 3” so good: due to them not having a large, open area to fill like in GTA, they can afford to put more focused detail into the more linear environments and its characters. The atmosphere is genuinely tense, particularly early on, the violence is visceral and brutal, and each of the game’s different gangs are unique in their look and dialouge, with a stand-out being “The Smileys”- a gang of mental patients who all think you’re their abusive, alcoholic husband named Barry. Or that you stole their shoes. The game introduces guns after a little while, and becomes more of a third-person shooter with stealth elements near the end, although the shooting is handled well, and the change feels gradual enough to not be jarring.

Any problems? Well, it can get repetitive rather quickly. The central stealth mechanic of “Hide in a shadow, lure someone over with a thrown item/hitting a wall, killing the enemy when he turns around” never really changes and gets you through every stealth situation. The story is pretty weak and doesn’t really get involving until a few cutscenes around the 2/3rds mark, and the violence, although brutal, gets repetitive quickly- each weapon has three kills, but once you’ve seen them all that’s it (this may be because I’m desensitised to video game violence now. I have killed A LOT of people in video games) The enemies also only really differ in dialogue and look, and  apart from getting increasingly more involved in their searching for you, each gang goes about the hunt in pretty much the same way.

So, it’s got good points and bad points, but does it still hold up? Short answer: yes. Yes it does. Long, more detailed answer: it depends, really. If you’ve played it before and enjoyed it as I have then you know exactly what to expect, but are more willing to overlook the repetition, and it all comes down to how much you want to play it again. As it’s simply a re-release and not an HD up-scale, that’s the deciding factor. If you’ve never played the game before, don’t own a working PS2 or original Xbox, like the sound of the game and can handle violence, then definitely pick it up. Playing it recently, the game is still tense, fun and well-written, and carries the usual Rockstar standard.

Next up, “The Warriors”

“The Warriors” was released in 2005 and based on the film of the same name (which is one of my two favorite films)- following the titular gang as they are blamed for the death of a gang leader who wants to unite every gang in New York to take over the town, and are attempting to get back home to Coney Island from the Bronx. As well as re-creating the events of the film (with some extra bits thrown in), it also shows what happened with the gang three months beforehand- as they rise from little-known brawlers contesting Coney with another gang, to a real heavy outfit worthy of a place at the meeting- bopping, wrecking and stealing along the way. I apologise for my use of the slang from the game and film, but it’s one of the many things about the game I love. The film has a slightly camp take on the gangs- they all wear matching, often colourful outfits (The Warriors all wear leather vests), and some even wear full costumes. The game re-creates the universe of the film wonderfully, and everything added to it fits in very well, particularly the “flashback missions”, which show how each of the film’s characters joined the gang. The gameplay consists mainly of traversing reasonably sized open areas fighting other gangs, robbing stores, and sometimes being chased by gangs/evading the police. The combat system is fun and quite deep while also feeling accessible- combos, light and heavy attacks, grabbing and throwing/slamming into things and a super-powered “rage mode” all keep the combat feeling satisfying for the game’s runtime. There are brief stealth sections that are decent but not brilliant, basic squad commands that are usefully implemented, side-objectives to complete and a number of useful unlockables. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the game’s extensive “rumble mode”- a local multiplayer and single player mode in which you pit different gangs (you can also make your own) consisting of  365 total characters. Also, every mission has local co-op.

Any problems? Nothing stands out- everything’s designed and programmed well, there’s a great amount of care and effort on show in the game and it’s fun from start to finish.

Does it still hold up? Yes, it does- it was great then, and it’s still great now. It’s still a fun, well-crafted game in its own right, and a how-to guide on how to make a movie-licence game properly. Whether you’ve seen the film or not, it’s worth picking up. Even if you’ve played the game before, it’s worth playing through again.

By James Lambert

Viva La Playstation! or, how Sony won E3

So then, it happened. The first day of E3 is over, both Microsoft and Sony have had their big conferences and we can now formally begin choosing sides in the upcoming console war. However, as first skirmishes go, I think the Sony press conference was a lot like dropping a nuclear warhead on a village of jungle pygmies. It was spectacular, horrifying, and absolutely brilliant to behold.

Microsoft was already off to a bad start, before E3 even began. Their reveal of the Xbox One, with its stupid name, ugly case and perma-kinect (because the only thing people love more than having a camera pointed at them all day is to know that it’s always listening to you). They also failed to produce anything resembling games, instead featuring an overly long video of sports personalities talking about disingenuous bollocks and then a trailer for CoD Ghosts with a motion capture dog (which will definitely die) and more sun shafts than you can shake a stick (or the laws of physics) at. Coupled with the fact that used the words TV, more times than gamers, and couldn’t manage to deliver a consistent message about DRM post reveal conference, people were understandable worried about what to expect from the new christened Xbone. However, Microsoft, after seeing the less than stellar reaction across the board promised ALL of the games at E3. And to be fair to them, they delivered pretty well on that. There were an infinitely greater number of games at their E3 conference. They even had a few decent exclusives, including Dead Rising 3, the inevitable new Halo, and possibly most shocking of all Metal Gear Solid V. except Metal Gear wasn’t actually an exclusive, they just got overexcited on twitter.

because Science, that’s why!

All in all, an acceptable performance from Sony. They set out to win people back, and I certainly don’t think it hurt. After all, this is the future. £429 for a console that won’t play used games, has to make daily check in with the cloud to function, and is always staring at you, like the brain damaged cousin of Hal from 2001, is what we can expect from a console nowadays, right? Nope! Because just a short time after, the PlayStation 4 happened.

The Sony conference started inauspiciously enough, talking about their current consoles, the PS3 and the Vita. A variety of games was detailed for each including The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto V and Batman: Arkham Origins. All very promising current gen titles. And then, things really began to get interesting. The PS4’s controller was revealed a while back at the initial announcement, but the actual hardware itself was shown in full at E3. And it was pretty. A stylish matte and shiny black affair, with blue lights that make it look like the sexy cousin of Hal from 2001. Score 1 for Sony.

They then decided to have a brief talk about the TV and movie functions of the PS4. Notice the word brief. What Microsoft spent most of its reveal time discussing was dealt with in about 5 minutes by Sony. And it then became immediately apparent that this was because any more TV stuff would get in the way of the ALL of the games. Because Sony brought a lot of games to the party. The first section of the event was used to show off some familiar (but still impressive looking) first party titles like Killzone: Shadow Fall, Driveclub and my personal ‘ohmygodfuckyes’ moment infamous: Second Son.

Then Sony pulled out the little guns. Their support for indie developers was made abundantly clear, featuring demos of Don’t Starve, Transistor and something called Secret Ponchos (which I will buy, no matter the quality). The confirmation was made that Sony will allow people to self-publish games on the PS4, making Microsoft’s demand that they find themselves a publisher seem crotchety and mean spirited.

In truth Sony could probably have left it there, and had all the hype they could have wanted. But they weren’t done. Not even a little bit. They followed up with their reveals of third party support including very impressive demos of Assassin’s Creed IV (the stream of which crashed, proving at least that it wasn’t a trailer) to the increasingly intriguing cyber-terrorist-em-up Watch_Dogs. They even showed a teaser trailer for a Mad Max game, which looks to be a nice antidote to all the serious semi-realism going on at the moment. even Square Enix got in on the action, showing off Final Fantasy 15 and the second numbered sequel in the Kingdom Hearts series.

it’s looking at the future. largely because it is

PlayStation Plus was back with a vengeance also, with Sony stating that the service will continue, with no need to buy another subscription if you’re already a member when the PS4 is released. The service will continue its services of cloud saving, discount and fucktons of free games. The first being Drive Club, from the launch day, and going on to include several of the indie titles mentioned above. There was however, a small razor blade in that particular stick of candyfloss. Online play will require PlayStation Plus. However single player games and all other functions of the PS4 will not. Given that this was the Xbox 360 current scheme, and given how much content is on offer under PS+ it seems like a bit of a no brainer. On the subject of DRM and online the confirmation that PS4 games can be traded  and sold freely between players got a colossal round of applause, as did the news that there will be no need to check into the cloud every 24 hours as the Xbox does. Honestly, at that point they could have just told Microsoft to go and fuck themselves and everyone would have applauded. Which they basically did, releasing a 30 second video on how to share PS4 games. Turns out you just hand them to someone else, and that’s it.

The conference finished up with a demo of the new FPS-MMO from Bungie, Defiance. It looked pretty, looked like a lot of fun to play and most importantly, enemies dropped loot. Tasty tasty loot. And then came the death blow for Microsoft, the aforementioned nuclear detonation that laid waste to the Xbone and all who followed its heretical path. The price. £349. £80 cheaper than the Xbox One. The over the audience’s rapturous applause, you could just about hear the sound of Xboners wilting under the ice cold shower of PlayStation superiority*.

There’s no arguing that Microsoft set the bar low with their two previous conferences. They didn’t provide enough games initially, have enough indie support, 3rd party excellence, or give away crap tons of free games. But that didn’t stop Sony from picking up the bar, lifting it above their heads, and beating Microsoft into a coma with it. Granted it’s a while before both console are released, but I already feel fairly certain which camp I’ll be in.

Xbox One is dead! Long live PlayStation 4!

*I apologise for the graphic nature of this metaphor

By Reuben Williams-Smith

Impressions- The Last of Us

So the demo for “The Last of Us” tucked away on the “God of War: Ascension” disc (quick review for that, in case I don’t get round to doing a full one: it’s alright. It’s another God of War. Take that how you will) unlocked recently, and I had a look at it. It wasn’t particularly long, or expansive, but it did give me an impression of what to expect from the full game, which is out next Friday. However, given that it didn’t tell me a great deal compared to demos for other games, this will be my impressions of that demo (focusing on the controls, graphics, game mechanics and the like) and the full game, based largely on the trailers and gameplay footage released for it.

First up: the demo. It involves main protagonist Joel as he and his partner Tess escort Ellie (who’s very important to the future of the seemingly doomed remnants of humanity) through a run down office block on their way to the Capitol building. They climb in from a rain-soaked street, and traverse the building coming across two mobile “clickers” (the third stage of the infected- I’ll get back to them), one who has entered the final stage of the infection and become a stationery, mushroom-esque mound of fungus stuck to a door, and a group of “runners” at the end of the demo. The most obvious thing on display is the game’s atmosphere, which is decent. I say “decent” because there’s a distinct lack of fear in proceedings. Despite the nature of the enviroment (dark, wet, strategically-placed dead bodies and the aforementioned clickers), Joel, Tess and Ellie never really feel in any real danger. However, seeing as this is a demo designed to give players a taste of the full experience, I’ll let it slide. The graphics are also decent- doing the job well enough, as is to be expected from Naughty Dog- the character animations, looks and the detail in the environments all feel similar to the “Uncharted” series, as does the small amount of combat in the demo: the same “Switching between third person shooting and melee brawling” felt solid enough when used on the pack of runners at the end- shooting one in the face before smashing another over the head with a pipe felt intuitive enough, but the firearms also have the lack of punch or heft as those in “Uncharted”. Also briefly shown is the game’s crafting system- used to create items such as first aid kits, or stick shivs onto the end of pipes for better melee weapons. Like the combat it isn’t really used much in the demo, but it seemed useful enough. There isn’t much else to say- the trio move through the building, distract a clicker, traverse some rickety scaffolding and Joel fights some infected.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the full game, or at least what I know about it considering it has yet to be released. The game is set twenty years after a cataclysmic infection has decimated the planet, and people now live under martial law. A black-marketeer named Joel has sworn to get a fourteen year old girl named Ellie away from the military regime and turn her over to a group of freedom fighters, along the way having to deal with the military, groups of hostile human scavengers, and those affected by the infection. I’m a fan of the post-apocalypse genre, if done well (for an example of how not to do it, see “I am Alive”. Or don’t, because it was terrible.)- the “Fallout” and “Metro” series are highlights for me, as well as the excellent “Walking Dead” game, the comic book series it was based on (not the television series though), and the novel “The Road”. It’s a hard balance to get right between the human relationships, interactions with hostile humans and any monsters/mutants/zombies/infected roaming around the place. On that subject: three areas I hope will make the full game worth playing:

The Relationship between Joel, Tess and Ellie

The characterisation seen in the demo had a slight “Hannibal” feel to me- with Ellie taking the place of Abigail Hobbs, Tess filling in for Dr. Alana Bloom and Joel as Hannibal- a young girl who needs a form of protection, with two parental figures experienced in a field that will keep her safe. It wasn’t a particularly strong comparison, but it was there, however fleeting. The focus is going to be on Joel and Ellie- their relationship forming the core of the narrative and gameplay, a la Booker Dewitt and Elizabeth Comstock, and to a slightly lesser extent Lee Everett and Clementine. From what I’ve seen of the game, the relationship between the two is solid- Joel as the rough, somber lost soul searching for redemption and Ellie as the likable, useful companion. It’s a duo that’s been used a lot, but it’s a duo that works.

Interactions with hostile humans:

As seen in gameplay footage (particularly the E3 2012 demo), the human enemies are brutal, opportunistic, work in teams, and call out for help when Joel gets the upper hand. One thing that caught my eye is a brief part of a fight shown in the Red Band trailer- where a scavenger grabs Joel and attempts to drown him in a shallow pool of water; the enemies look like they’re going to take every chance they get to kill Joel and Ellie, and that’s what I like to see from the genre. They have no qualms, no reason to hold back: it IS a post-apocalyptic world after all. Fighting the human enemies should feel brutal and messy, and it should be challenging.

The nature of the infection and infected:

Naughty Dog could have gone for zombies, or indeed some kind of “Left 4 Dead”-style rabid people but they chose a different, far more interesting route: plants. The infected in “The Last of Us” have all fallen victim to a particularly aggressive fungus. As seen by the immense greenery covering the cities and towns in the game, nature is taking the planet back by force, and it seems to have found a damn good way to get rid of people (I’m reminded of the George Carlin bit about the planet defending itself from the human race by essentially creating aids) – the fungus takes over the still-living human’s body, and turns them into a feral beast whose sole purpose is to spread the infection further. It starts with the runners (the read-eyed fellows seen above), moves into a second stage involving the fungus pushing out through the hosts eyes (while they’re alive, still) and then onto the clickers (the thing at the back with the head shaped like a flower)- they hunt via echo-location and can have an insta-kill attack. They’re also rather creepy to look at. The fith and final stage (the fourth is like a clicker, but fatter, stronger and with more fungus) involves them finding a corner to die in, then becoming grafted to the surrounding walls by the fungus, which then releases spores. Jesus Christ. There’s something wonderfully, dreadfully creepy about the infection in this game- nature is taking revenge by possessing and mutilating its pray, then driving them to their deaths. It makes me think that nowhere in the world is going to be safe- nature is everywhere, and nature is the problem.

“The Last of Us” is out June 14th, but due to financial constraints it’s unlikely I’ll be reviewing it until early July. Regardless, the game looks fantastic: the infection is interesting and a great example of body-horror, the hostile humans look like a challenge to fight and the world and its central three protagonists look to be well crafted. I’m very much looking forward to it.

By James Lambert