HITMAN 2 Review

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HITMAN 2’s pre-E3 announcement was one of those pleasant surprises you get every now and then, like finding a tenner in your coat pocket or miscounting the number of beers you’ve drunk and having some left unexpectedly. It took me a little while to fully warm to its predecessor HITMAN, due to a score attack style of gameplay and the focus moving away from natural kills towards the outlandish, but I’ll fully admit to it being an exquisite game. I still prefer Blood Money, personally, but HITMAN is a close second. This, despite being a full, non-episodic release is essentially HITMAN season 2, with some new gameplay tweaks that have been carried over to a remastered season 1, available as DLC and free if you already own the original release. For a rundown on the game’s mechanics on which the changes are layered, check out my review of season 1, because this review will only touch on them briefly.

After being duped into killing a bunch of people by a mysterious “Shadow Client” Agent 47 and his handler Diana are hired by secret society “Providence” to hunt down and kill everyone helping the Shadow Client prosecute his war against them. This leads to something that makes me a tad wary when it comes to Hitman as a series: a focus on story, and that story governing the targets. One could argue that the targets in season 1 were governed by the story, but for the most part they were still targets you were hired by people to assassinate. Here 47 and Diana have gone rogue, moving from location to location working their way through the Shadow Client’s goons and not telling the ICA what they’re up to. The story itself provides added backstory for 47, and goes back to all that business of him being a clone, with some genuinely surprising revelations for him as a character. Wisely the story is largely relegated to between mission cutscenes, and doesn’t suffer from that Absolution problem of setting up locations and then designating two random people as targets because the box says “Hitman” and not “Splinter Cell”. As for the quality of the story itself I’m still not sure what to make of it. The new details and steps taken connect well to both established lore and the elements created for season 1, it all makes sense with what’s come before and is mercifully understated and subtle compared to the grindhouse trainkwreck from Absolution. 47 never does anything out of character like constantly get himself captured, it’s all fine. There is one slight discrepancy, but I’ll wait and see what happens in season 3 (as confirmed by David Bateson) before I draw a final opinion on it.

Gameplay wise it is, much like season 1, the best it’s been. That fluid way 47 moves through the world interacting with all manner of objects and people, facilitating creativity and imagination is just as strong here as it was before, but with added tweaks. Picture in picture is back, you can now hide in foliage, blend  in with crowds and a scoring system pops for all manner of in-game actions, from wearing new disguises to shooting cameras and discovering new areas. A new progression meter ties into mastery, which is slower to accumulate, and the rewards for each level are more sparse than they were with season 1, with a weird emphasis placed on explosives. The only non-lethal, concealable melee weapon you get, for example, is a fish. Having said that, tools are much easier to find in-game, and the unlocks do give you what you need to get by, I just missed some of the gear I got in season 1. It’s still there if you have the DLC, but you’ve got to re-unlock it, and of course people who only own HITMAN 2 don’t get it. There’s also a new briefcase which can carry any item in it and acts as a silent, non-lethal melee weapon. You can’t be frisked or climb while carrying it, but it made my suit only gunfight runs a fair bit easier. Opportunties are now more involved, with 47 talking more, though it’s usually to show off his incredibly dark but quite silly sense of humour, as well as interacting with the world more. For instance in one level you can disguise yourself as a tailor and buy or steal cloth to present to a target. In another you can disguise yourself as a target’s new nurse, and after being locked in a room so his head of security can run a background check you have five minutes to escape, sneak back to you target and lead him into a different room to kill him. On the one hand it does draw you even further into 47’s world and enhances everything that made season 1 so enjoyable, on the other my personal issues with it still remain, particularly the focus being on causing outlandish comedy deaths and not the hunt itself. But that’s just me, and taken on its own merits HITMAN 2 is excellent. All of its levels are good, the only dip being its tutorial, though that does have its own set of challenges and its only real issue is it’s taking up one of the six full mission spots instead of being its own thing. The game also has more than a few homages to previous games, in particular Blood Money, which as you should know by now is a quick and easy way to get me on side. Plus its tone is genuinely tense at times; an early mission in Columbia genuinely unnerved me after managing to kill a cartel boss and escape before his guard came back to check on me like he promised to. It got to the point where I was too scared to go back into the belly of the beast in search of the level’s destructible bank of security cam footage; I just scarpered. It has some potential classics on offer, in particular the two American missions; the much publicised Miami formula one race in which 47 can kill a driver mid-run, and the quaint suburb in Vermont reminiscent of Blood Money’s “A New Life”. It also takes the series back to India, a location not seen since the original Hitman 2 which, come to think of it, is probably going to get confusing. Why didn’t they call it HITMAN Season 2?

Unsurprisingly, HITMAN 2 is great. It never reaches the heights of Sapienza or Hokaido from season 1 and suffers from middle instalment syndrome with its story, but the new additions to its gameplay are welcome and it’s still a fun and rewarding experience. Nice to see IO back on their feet after Square Enix dumped them, and I’m looking forward to whatever comes next.

By James Lambert

Netflix Castlevania Season 2 Review

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Let me just start by saying that having a legendary morning star whip hidden away in a vault, given a big build up and then having it be literally called “The Morning Star Whip” and not “Vampire Killer” is a missed opportunity. Anyway, nitpick over, let’s get into it.

Drac’s back, baby, and this time it’s war. After the promising start of season 1, season 2 is a more fleshed-out affair: twice the length and acting as the middle and end to the story season 1 began. Last season established that Dracula had a human wife who was burned at the stake, he set about gorily murdering people with an army of demons for revenge, and a magician named Sypha, monster hunter Trevor Belmont and son of Dracula “Alucard” (real name Adrian) teamed up to stop him. Now the focus is put more on Dracula’s attempts to wage war on humanity, orchestrated by two human necromancers with dark pasts, an army of cloaked vampires and a selection of vampire “Generals” who aren’t named and don’t ever speak, as far as I remember. The only exceptions to this are Godbrand- a brash viking voiced by Peter Stormare, and Carmilla; a keen manipulator seeking to dethrone Dracula. Personally I found the whole usurper angle a bit played out, but it does serve the plot, and culminates in part of a set-up for season 3, so it’s not a big problem really. Plus that particular arc is swerved, leading to a great pay off. Easily the best thing about these scenes is Dracula himself, characterised as a polymath with extensive knowledge that could and would have been used to benefit humankind had humankind not done what they do best and fucked it all up. Now he is, to use a word that might sound a tad underwhelming as a description, tired. Not sleepy tired, you understand, but that kind of tired that permeates your entire body and makes you just want everything to end. He’s a proud man driven by hatred and a desire to see humanity at large pay, but without Lisa he’s a shell of his former self. The kind of man who deep down wants to die, but won’t go down without a fight. That masked sadness extends to his son Alucard, as well as Trevor; two men with an immense amount of baggage channelled into constantly slagging each other off. Trevor’s arc of dusting off the cobwebs and finally becoming a proper Belmont culminates in uncovering his family’s vault of weapons and information, the three heroes preparing for the best part of the entire series: a showdown with Dracula. In terms of story progression this one obviously has more room to breathe given its length, and while the inner turmoil of Dracula’s court isn’t as interesting as the man himself or team Belmont it all drives forward that central premise of a broken man taking out his immense well of grief and the fallout from his actions, be they Carmilla interpreting him as a mad old man in need of dethroning, Alucard having to confront his own father in mortal combat or the normies of this world being ripped apart. Combined with season 1 it makes for an excellent Castlevania story, one that goes to some interesting new places while fleshing out elements from the games. I’m sure there are plenty of references stuffed into it, but the ones I got were a fight with Symphony of the Night first bosses Gaibon and Slogra, Dracula using the SOTN save point to move the castle, an attack that looks like his fireball from Rondo of Blood, and, of course, Bloody Tears playing as Sypha, Trevor and Alucard storm the castle.

Speaking of storming the castle; there aren’t many of them, but the action scenes are still top notch. I like how Trevor’s fighting style is generations of passed down training and skill filtered through a roaming brawler who fights dirty. The animation has a strange effect in which motion is sometimes handled with a still image except for whatever needs to draw focus, if that makes sense, which seemed unusual but worked well. The three leads teaming up with different skill sets keeps things interesting, particularly when they all fight Dracula. The animation overall is still great, as is the art style, the voice cast are excellent, and Warren Ellis’ writing still adds wonderfully surreal comedy to proceedings. That mix of humour, nods to the games and everyone clearly taking things seriously makes for an excellent adaptation that even I with my limited knowledge of the game series overall really appreciate. Also without wishing to spoil things: that very last scene. Hoo boy. Really drives home the cost of this whole endeavour.

So yeah, Castlevania season 2 delivers on the promise of that great first season, strikes a balance between drama, comedy, action and emotional gut punches and does justice to the game series that spawned it. I really enjoyed it, I’m looking forward to a potential season 3, and I’d quite like to watch both seasons back-to-back to relive the whole thing. It works wonderfully as both an adaptation of the games, and as a series in its own right. Give it a watch.

By James Lambert

Dream Daddy Dadrector’s Cut Review

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I’ve been looking forward to this for quite a while, actually. Having put the original Steam version on the back burner they suddenly announced a remastered PS4 port, and so here we are.

If you’re unfamiliar with Dream Daddy, it’s a Game Grumps-created dating sim in which you play as a character-created Dad romancing a bunch of other single Dads after moving into a new neighbourhood. You hang out with them, you make choices that they react to positively or negatively, there are minigames, that’s your lot. Now I don’t really know what a good, “normal” dating sim looks like, because my only experience with the genre is Doki Doki Literature Club, but I would imagine it sinks or swims based on its writing and how likeable the people you romance are. In that regard Dream Daddy is a success; its writing is a genuinely charming mix of rapid-fire humour and touching sincerity. It walks that tight rope of mixing word play, surreal humour and being too smart for your own good that is reminiscent of Max from Life is Strange, only far more amusing and far less annoying. Also there are puns. So many puns. The voice acting in the game is limited to noises for the most parts, but there are occasional generic lines depending on the situation, some of the voice actors are Game Grumps personnel, and it’s really distracting to hear Danny going “HEY” or doing a big, sexy sigh, or Arin expressing surprise by exclaiming “LAWRENCE OF ARABIA”, but in an amusing way, so it works. As for the Dads themselves, there are seven in total, each catering to a different taste, but all presenting largely the same path through the game, at least in terms of spirit. After meeting them all via exploring the new town with your Daughter Amanda, you agree to join social media site “Dadbook”, and from there each Dad can be taken on three dates, the third resulting in one of the game’s numerous endings, with other encounters happening either as the game dictates or being offered as optional side stuff on Dadbook. For the most part it’s a visual novel: text appears, sometimes you choose what to say, ominous black clouds fly out of your chosen paramour when they don’t like a response, hearts and/or eggplants fly out when they do. Sometimes however a minigame will kick in, be it running, mini-golf, fixing a gargoyle you broke or even stopping penguins from leaving their enclosure of all things. These minigames are decent enough, are over quickly and don’t seem to have that much of an effect on proceedings, but the game never gives you instructions or even tells you the controls, which seems like an oversight.

For me at least, most of the Dads were great, with a couple falling short and one being a non-starter because I accidentally ruined his path. Turns out,(SPOILERS) if you have sex with rugged, mysterious, Dan Avidan-voiced Robert on the first night you can’t romance him properly, closing off his ending and backstory, so that sucks (SPOILERS END). It’s personal taste though for the most part, and I had trouble choosing from three Dads when it came down to choosing whom to make my “Dream Daddy”, but a clear winner came forward when it turned out the Dad I was most physically attracted to turned out to be a massive wrestling nerd, which combined with his love of cheese, trivia nights and aforementioned massive physical attractiveness swayed me something fierce. The only Dad I didn’t like was fellow big lad Brian, his path being a one-upping Dad rivalry between himself and the player character that I personally found annoying, though the script did its best to save it.

For the most part Dream Daddy does a brilliant job of making each romance-able Dad likeable, and that combined with the genuinely funny, charming as hell script make it a very pleasant experience. It’s over pretty quickly but it’s a good time while it lasts, and acted as a palate cleanser for me between the mediocre Call of Cthulhu and the upcoming HITMAN 2.

By James Lambert

Call of Cthulhu Review

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Love him or hate him, H.P. Lovecraft’s unique horror niche of alien gods treating humanity with apathy or downright malevolence, so strange and, well, alien that the very knowledge of them drives humans insane is certainly influential. Limiting it to videogames; Darkest Dungeon, Bloodborne, Amnesia, Eternal Darkness, even stuff like Fallout and Castlevania owe a direct debt, in one way or another, to Lovecraft. This isn’t the first videogame to bear the “Call of Cthulhu” name, but unlike the bastard hard but otherwise enjoyable “Dark Corners of the Earth”‘s hodgepodge of different Mythos tales by way of a first person shooter this is based on the much loved table top game, and so boasts a focus on RPG elements like stats, dice rolls and dialogue choices as its gameplay focus.

Slightly counter-intuitively for an adaptation of said table top game, there’s only one character to pick from; grizzled private detective and survivor of World War 1’s Lost Batallion Edward Pierce. He has his own base stats that can be slightly boosted at the beginning of the game, and from then on his skills in investigation, finding hidden objects, physical strength, psychology and eloquence in discussions can be upgraded with points, but medicine and knowledge of the Mythos’ vast occult elements can only be improved in-game. More on that later, for now, the story: Edward Pierce, P.I takes on a case to look into the fiery deaths of Sarah Hawkins and her family, deemed suspicious by her Father, on the island of Darkwater, off the coast of Boston. It’s a small town once sustained by whaling, now filled with whiny fishermen who all have about three faces between them and run by a gangster who got lost on her way to an audition for some unreleased Dishonored DLC. It’s worth mentioning the faces now, just to get it off my chest, because it was genuinely distracting. The game’s clearly cheap and that’s fine: a low budget game can be amazing just as a million dollar one can be absolute dogshit, but so many people have the same face as Pierce, to the point where I wondered if it was just recycling or if they were going for a spooky plot point, though if they were it was never mentioned. At least he doesn’t look exactly like he does on the cover art, pictured above, because if I had to spend every cutscene staring at Detective Roosh V this review wouldn’t exist, so every cloud and that. That’s only a nitpick anyway, the game does a solid job with what it has. As I’m sure you can imagine the deaths of the Hawkins family aren’t as cut and dry as they appeared, Mrs Hawkins seems to have a strange link to the titular Cthulhu, as well as Great Old One Messenger Leviathan and all-new monster “The Shambler” (not as cool as the Darkest Dungeon one), all tied together by a mysterious cult and something called “The Miraculous Catch” in the past which saved the island. Unfortunately the story is weak overall. The Mysterious Catch turns out to be eerily similar to a plot point from Forbidden Siren, the aforementioned Shambler is a decent idea but a rubbish design, and other plot points are tied together and paid off, but with far less of a bang than a whimper, particularly the island’s resident mad scientist Doctor Fuller. Smartly, Pierce’s relevance to the plot comes from repeated and sustained interactions with Darkwater’s weirder and more dangerous elements, and where the story can go based on his decisions is its strongest suit. It is, for the most part, tied into the RPG decisions. Chief among them in plot relevance is Sanity, which unlike other games is not a meter that can be drained and refilled that comes with interface-altering “sanity effects” (except for Pierce freaking out to let you know you need to move away), but a meter behind the scenes changed by different encounters both mandatory and optional that unlocks different dialogue choices, ones that steer Pierce towards seeking deeper, darker truths about the nature of Darkwater and the cosmic entities that have their eye on it. Keep your sanity high and Pierce is inclined to fight and rebel against the horrors. Let it drop and he can calmly accept what’s happening and even become a part of it, if you so wish. Keeping on this theme is the dialogue choices and skill checks, governed by Pierce’s various skills. Answers to questions can be unlocked by finding different items in the environment, people can be smooth talked and strong armed, that sort of thing. Unfortunately there’s not nearly as much of it as I would have liked, and what is there isn’t clearly signposted as to the effects it has, instead all you get is a little “This will effect your destiny” notice in the corner a la Telltale, not, say, a list of everything you’ve done like in Until Dawn. Too many times the game eschews its RPG background to focus on stealth sections and ghost train scares, as well as a shooting section at one point. Ironically the game is at its blandest when it tries to spice things up, and had it relied more on RPG elements it would have been a lot more enjoyable. There are puzzles too, decent ones, but not many.

Call of Cthulhu is a mixed bag. Its story is weak to the point where I was actively forgetting character names and previous events as I was playing it, including important ones. When the gameplay consists of dialogue options, skill checks and investigations it works well, its approach to Sanity is great and its stealth is surprisingly not terrible, but its horror is weak and everything not focused on Pierce, Sarah Hawkins and anything directly linked to them falls short. I had a good enough time with it, but as an official Lovecraft game it lacks the punch of Dark Corners of the Earth, and as a cosmic horror game it falls way short of the games I mentioned at the start of the review, unfortunately. It’s a shame, really, but maybe “The Sinking City” will have a better time with it.

By James Lambert

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review

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So then, here we are. Eight years after the greatest game ever made graced us all with its presence comes its prequel, Red Dead Redemption 2; a game I had all but given up hope on ever seeing. But it finally came out, and having completed its massive story campaign, I can finally give my opinion on the biggest game of the year. Is it better than its predecessor? Is it even any good? Please note that this review assumes you’ve finished the original Red Dead Redemption or are at least familiar with its premise, and so if you aren’t, I’d remedy that before reading this.

The year is 1899, twelve years before John Marston’s forced stab at redemption, and after a botched robbery in the posh town of Blackwater, Dutch Van der Linde and his gang are fleeing over mountains thick with snow. While they’re up there they rob a train owned by wealthy business man Leviticus Cornwall, who not only knows how to hold a grudge, he’s also funding the Pinkertons on the gang’s trail. From there it’s a jaunt across several American states, robbing, killing and changing camps whenever they inevitably bring down too much heat and have to slaughter an entire town’s worth of lawmen to escape. This bloody swathe is spearheaded by an increasingly unhinged Dutch, whose steadfast insistence that the gang do one more big score and then disappear rings increasingly hollow, and it becomes clear this life of shooting up towns and fleeing to a nearby patch of wilderness is here to stay until they’re all dead or in prison. It’s a grim story about rapidly and unavoidably approaching the end of the road, and how different people react to that, full of strong character moments and genuinely surprising developments, all handled beautifully by the script and voice acting. The linchpin in all this is new protagonist Arthur Morgan; right hand man and surrogate Son to Dutch, fiercely loyal to his unconventional family but brutally aware of their inescapable fate and powerless to talk Dutch off the path he’s keeping them on. Of course the original Red Dead Redemption tells us that it’s all going to fall apart, but it’s how it falls apart, how everyone is affected, as well as the amount of time the plot is given to build up (It’s a rather long game) that make it a story worth experiencing, and worth telling. The game also gives appreciated depth to the Marston family’s backstory, especially John. The whole thing packs a slow-burn emotional punch with a bittersweet tone throughout, like watching a cherished photograph burn and telling yourself that it isn’t too damaged and can be salvaged, but really you’re just lying to yourself, and in this particular instance things will never be the same again. When things inevitably go south it’s made both better and worse because you see it coming. You have good times, the gang works together as a big, unconventional family and has some genuinely lovely, touching character moments, but we all know how this is going to end. How it has to end. At this point I think that story-wise this is Rockstar’s best, though a lot of its context comes from the original game, with the two acting very much as companion pieces.

Much has been made of the game’s extensive attention to detail: alongside the more common customisation elements like being able to buy and combine separate layers of clothing and trim and style Arthur’s hair and beard, which grow in real time, are more elaborate features like having to eat and sleep, feed and brush horses, cock/pump guns after each shot and mud, blood and snow accurately appearing on Arthur’s clothing. Now, some of that might sound like annoying, survival game bullshit, but it’s less drastic than it sounds. Not eating makes you lose weight which makes you faster but able to take less damage (the reverse is true if you’re overweight) and can slow the rate at which your health regenerates, but will never kill you. Arthur’s task of providing food for the camp raises morale, but can be ignored, hunting can be circumvented by just buying meat from a butcher, and cocking guns after each shot is a simple case of pressing the fire button again. It’s all there to add an extra layer of depth for those who want it, and for those who don’t the negative effects are easily avoided with the bare minimum of effort: brush and feed your horse now and then, scoff down one of the numerous tins of baked beans scattered around the place, that sort of thing. Personally I really like this approach, particularly the outfit and hair customisation, and I’m glad Rockstar didn’t go full on survival game route, nagging the player to drink something every five minutes lest they suddenly die of dehydration. There’s one place this slightly backfires for me personally, though it’s largely down to it setting off my OCD: how Arthur carries his weapons. When on horseback you can use any weapon you own, but when on foot you can take two one-handed and two two-handed weapons with you, the latter being slung over Arthur’s back and left shoulder. That’s great, no problems there. The problem arises in the game’s repeated overriding of my choices and giving me guns I didn’t select. I’d instruct Arthur to only take a pump-action shotgun over his shoulder, instead I’d have a repeater there and a bolt action rifle on my back, the latter being a similar weapon with slower load times and a smaller clip, so it just dangled there upsetting me and being neither use nor ornament. This might not sound like a big thing, but the aforementioned OCD means I’m very particular about these things, and given how important this game is I’d feel remiss if I didn’t give an honest, thorough account of my opinions. Fortunately I have no complaints about what you do with those weapons. Combat is satisfying thanks to weighty guns, weapon customisation, dual wielding and a more expansive dead eye system. There’s also all new full-on gore, if you’re into that, which I am, and proper stealth options in the form of stealth kills, a bow and fast crouch running. Duelling is far easier and more straight forward, and hand to hand combat is vastly improved. Rather than swing away at an enemy with no sense of how much damage you’re doing, waiting for a chance to ground your opponent to seemingly no avail, here you mash one button to punch an enemy with clear damage, one button to parry their strikes and another to grab them.

The map is more varied than the previous game, despite having a lot of the same locations in it. Alongside the desert and snowy mountains is a large area modelled on Louisiana, with a bayou, warring Confederate families living in plantation houses and a big, industrial city standing in for New Orleans. There’s a lot more greenery, with most of the gang’s hideouts being in the woods, as well as a Native American reservation and a cave system occupied by a gang of people who murder civilians and pose their bodies in horror tableau. It’s a huge map, and you can no longer fast travel from a camp you set up. Fast travel now happens from Arthur’s tent after paying to open it up, and stage coaches can only go to towns you’ve already visited. The game also has rare moments of choice, sometimes the usual “Kill or spare” situation, but interestingly you can also prevent entire missions happening by flat out refusing to help whomever offers you them. It doesn’t happen a lot, for obvious reasons, but it’s a nice touch, and the one time I used it it felt like the more natural outcome to the situation I was in.

So then, just how good IS Red Dead 2? Extremely. It’s a beautifully written and acted story, given room to breathe offering a slow burn emotional punch that sticks with you, married to satisfying gun play, exploration and character customisation enhanced by a smattering of attention to detail seldom seen in games, and even more seldom done well. It’s a masterpiece that lived up to the hype, and that’s more than enough to warrant praise and a recommendation. But the question remains: is it better than the original, and therefore the new best game ever made? Yes, yes it is.

By James Lambert