Tomorrow is in Your Hands – Thoughts on Death Stranding’s Release Date Trailer

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So Death Stranding got a nearly nine minute trailer yesterday, with a good look at the world, character interactions and a release date: November 8th. I’ve already pre-ordered the ridiculously expensive replica baby version (of course that’s a thing), and although it won’t be a full breakdown I would like to give some impressions on the game at this point.

I’ve always been into Death Stranding but I’ve had it on the back burner: I  left the dissection and speculation to others, content in the knowledge that it looked good and that I’d find out all I needed to by playing the game, whenever it came out. This trailer is what’s finally made me engage with it more actively, mainly because it’s given me the best grasp of the game so far. Norman Reedus’ Sam Bridges is a courier schlepping large boxes across a hostile, barren landscape by placing ladders over gaps and hiking over rocky hills, this much we know. Turns out he’s on a first name basis with the terminally ill U.S President, a woman named Bridget, so maybe Bridges is actually a government agency? She wants him to unite the remaining people of the U.S so they can stand together against “BTs”, the shadow ghosts from previous trailers, who are revealed through the use of the tank babies seen before, here revealed to be called “Bridge Babies”, which come from “The other side”. Presumably that’s what the “Death Stranding” is; a link between the living and dead. Sam thinks this is a lost cause, and rebuilding the country is both unnecessary and won’t do anything about the BTs, but it’s currently unclear how and why they’re here. Troy Baker’s character Higgs is the leader of a terrorist group who roam from settlement to settlement killing people, Lea Seydoux’s character is named Fragile, which leads me to believe that both she and Sam are named after their respective companies, as are all employees, and Mads Mikkelsen’s character Cliff gets a proper look in. He’s a scientist it seems like, reassuring and softly singing to a Bridge Baby in a lab, but also has those skeletal soldiers seen in previous trailers. They aren’t present when he’s in the lab, but there are shots of him in a warzone that looks like something from the first world war, covered in tar and seemingly naked, as well as rising from oil “Apocalypse Now”-style, lighting a cigarette that then sets said oil on fire, which doesn’t effect him or his soldiers. It’s interesting that he can be in two completely different states, and the title cards “Those bound to Hades” and “Those who struggle to stay connected” suggest said soldiers are some kind of malevolent power from the other side, barely kept in check by Cliff. Sam appears in the WW1 mud and blood-covered trenches in his uniform, alongisde ghost soldiers and one with a physical form he shoots, so clearly that warzone plays a part in current events and he’s capable of taking part in a conflict. Speaking of conflict, we get a look at combat out in the world as a group of goons chase after Sam: he knocks two out, dodges one and they reluctantly call off the hunt when it begins raining: a sign of the BTs’ arrival. At one point the cheery baby inside Sam’s body turns into a doll, which makes him drop to his knees and hold a gun to his head: that same doll is seen earlier strung up near Cliff, and given his clear links to BBs it’s not a stretch to think he has the ability to replace one, he may even be the one who brought them over in the first place.

Okay, so, the broad strokes I’ve gleaned from this trailer are that basically the U.S and perhaps the world is in ruin and full of shadowy ghost monsters from the land of the dead, babies from said land help the remnants of humanity see them, a terrorist group lead by Troy Baker is threatening said remnants and a courier disagrees with the President that the U.S is worth rebuilding. Also there’s a war and Mads Mikkelsen is involved. Also there’s a character in it called Die-Hardman. Now I’ve got something concrete I’m finding it easier to engage with Death Stranding, and I look forward to more information and footage coming out, hopefully a series of escalating trailers like MGSV had, all of which were ace. I’ll be reviewing it, obviously, and in the meantime I’ll probably write about any key new info or trailers, I’ll judge them on a case-by-case basis.

By James Lambert

Days Gone Review

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I wasn’t expecting much from Days Gone. The initial footage didn’t get me anywhere near as hyped as everyone insisted it should have, and as the release date grew closer I was anticipating competent but boring; well-made, but not enough to draw me in. Something like Horizon Zero Dawn. Turns out it’s an engaging good time, and although it doesn’t do anything new it does what it does well.

There are a lot of elements from other games here. The tone, environments, crafting, combat and stealth are highly reminiscent of The Last of Us. You rely on a vehicle that starts off bare bones and is upgraded over the course of the game after your personal, custom vehicle is scrapped, like in the Mad Max game. Certain smaller elements are similar to ones in Red Dead 2, The Walking Dead comic and Far Cry. It is, to be charitable, heavily influenced by other media, but that’s not a criticism. Anyway, you are a man the game insists is named Deacon St.John, a Nomad member of the Mongrels Motorcycle Club surviving in post-apocalyptic Oregon with his best friend and fellow Mongrel Boozer. The world is overrun with virus infected humans called “Freakers” and Deacon works as a bounty hunter, killing as many infected as he can as well as any antagonistic humans who kill or kidnap people from survivor camps. Each camp has their own politics and direction, dictated by their leader: Copeland is a libertarian truther who thinks mass shootings are a small price to pay for gun rights, Tucker runs a work camp repeatedly referred to by other characters as slave labour, and Iron Mike runs a camp with the only doctor around, and is determined to unite the remaining human groups against the Freaks. This includes the Rest-in-Peace “Ripper” cult, who get all messed up on PCP, slice themselves to ribbons and want to be just like the Freakers. They seem to have it in for Deek and Boozer, and the bikers hate them in return, which makes them at odds with Iron Mike’s attempt at a treaty with the Rippers. Deacon himself is surprisingly interesting as a character. When interacting with other people he’s fine, albeit prone to sarcasm and deflection, but when he’s out in the world by himself he’s constantly jabbering and swearing to himself about what he’s doing as part of some aggressive coping mechanism. He’s extremely capable, having seen combat in the Army and spent a long time controlling the one vehicle everyone in this new world uses, but rather than being stoic and above-it-all he’s flappable, angry and frustrated with his situation. It’s like the Resi 2 remake, but much more prevalent and more the result of having to do this for an extended period of time rather than a panicky response to being dropped into an extreme situation. There’s more going on in the story but it’s hard to talk about without spoiling things, so I’ll leave it at that.

So it plays like a cross between TLOU and Mad Max, and it turns out that’s a winning combination. You ride around on Deacon’s bike and clear out camps of marauders, find objects and missing people and burn out nests made by Freakers. The bike has a durability meter and a fuel gauge, both of which can be improved, so you’ll spend a fair amount of time rooting through abandoned towns and outposts looking for materials. Fortunately the bike can be refilled and repaired at outposts, scrap can be found under car bonnets or dotted around the place and unlimited-use fuel cans and petrol pumps aren’t particularly hard to find. It’s more a tool to add tension and a touch of realism rather than an annoyance, and having to creep around potentially dangerous areas looking for gear is effective. The combat is straight out of TLOU: the shooting, the melee weapons and attacks, the crafting medkits, molotovs and IEDs, the stealth; it’s all here, and it all works well. The core gameplay loop of driving out, having a gunfight and smacking Freakers over the head with a spiked bat is engaging, particularly once you start to get better gear and upgrade your bike. It’s made more interesting by the presence of the Freaks, especially groups of them, and TWD comic-style hordes; huge swarms of infected that until late in the game you have no chance against and must be avoided at all costs. There was one camp I cleared out with a large group of infected right below it, waiting for any sign of my presence so they could rush up and rip me apart. The horror elements are surprisingly strong given that you can just run back to your bike and bugger off, it’s a testament to the atmosphere the game creates.

I don’t normally talk about graphics, but it’s worth pointing out just how beautiful Days Gone can be, particularly when the real time weather system kicks in. This is the first game I’ve seen to have real time snow that actually settles and covers the ground, and the falling snow is absolutely gorgeous; many times it combined with nighttime runs through a hostile world bathed in moonlight to create a wonderful atmosphere the likes of which open world games never manage for me. One mission in particular will stick with me for some time for that very atmosphere, it was glorious. Augmenting this is the excellent soundtrack, which provides a real sense of dread when you’re out in the open, vulnerable while searching for fuel, scrap and crafting items.

Unfortunately despite the sizeable patch the game still has technical faults; objects not loading in, I fell through the world once and the framerate often drops, sometimes freezing altogether briefly. Despite the game’s overall quality it’s far too long, and what looked to be a move towards a finale turned out to be a lead-in for a whole extra chunk of story. Important things happen during that time, but having dealt with the game’s main villain another one has to be hastily introduced in order to give the unresolved plot threads and obvious foreshadowing time to be paid off. Twice I was all geared up for a final showdown of some kind only for the game to go “Woah, that was a close one, good thing everything’s calmed down again, eh?” There’s enough here for Days Gone and a sequel, and a split between the two would make things flow better. I can’t describe it for spoiler reasons (might put that in a follow up article) but there’s a definite place to split the story into two parts, which I personally think would have been for the best.

Overall, despite a few issues, Days Gone is a good game. It owes a whole lot to other IP, but everything it takes it does well, and presents them in a way that’s an engaging, fun time. Strong atmosphere, enjoyable gameplay and solid character and story combine to make Days Gone worth checking out.

By James Lambert

Mortal Kombat 11 Review

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Mortal Kombat made a comeback that’d give Resident Evil a run for its money back in 2011. After several crap PS2 entries and whatever the hell MK vs DC was trying to achieve (I’ll give it one thing: it has possibly the worst fatality in the entire series in it) MK9 was a genuinely brilliant reboot and started a new, diverging timeline. It’s not without flaw, particularly in the creepy way it treats all its female characters, but it was a much needed shot in the arm and a great fighting game. MKX was a step up from that and is, in my opinion, a modern classic of the genre. Now Mortal Kombat 11 is upon us, acting as a conclusion to the trilogy MK9 started and a culmination of this new era of MK.

The story follows on from MKX: starting with Dark Raiden taking the fight to Netherrealm rulers Liu Kang and Kitana. Raiden and company succeed, only for their progress (and Raiden) to be undone by new villain Kronika and her control of time. Kronika’s plan is to rewind events to the beginning of time because Raiden decapitating Shinnok has undone her careful “balance” that basically entails good and evil being at war forever. Living versions of Revenants, past versions of characters and Shao Kahn are all brought into the present day, with the original, good Raiden arriving to replace his dark counterpart. Factions quickly establish themselves: Kronika and the villains in the cast vs Raiden and the heroes, with the thunder god desperately seeking to avoid losing himself to anger and avoid his fated cock ups. The story has fun with time travel shenanigans, but a surprisingly large amount of it is dedicated to carrying on character development from X. Cassie and Johnny Cage remain the hearts of the story, Raiden, Liu Kang, Jax and Kotal Kahn (among others) all make real progress when they have their time in the sun and it feels like a satisfying continuation to the much-needed advancement MKX presented. It’s a good story, all told.

The biggest change to the game is the inclusion of Injustice 2’s gear system, albeit with less of a focus on stat boosts, and using said gear to create custom variations. Each character has two to start, and while moves can be freely attributed to custom loadouts extra fatalities, gear, skins, intros and outros must be unlocked either in the Krypt or the “Towers of Time”. The Krypt is as it was in X; a sort of dungeon crawler mode with puzzles and a load of chests to unlock with in-game currency. The Towers are similar to the ones in X, only they have modifiers carried over from the now missing “Test your luck” mode, and until a recent update (on PS4 at least) unfair difficulty. They still can be tricky, but they’re a lot more feasible now, and you earn a lot more money for doing them. I tried them before the update and some of them were utter bullshit, so while their initial inclusion was frustrating I am glad NetherRealm have taken feedback on board and solved the issue so quickly. The Krypt is mostly random now apparently, and while on the one hand it is likely you’ll get something good, you might end up opening several boxes in a row filled with ToT power ups and concept art. One point in the Krypt’s favour is that it takes place on Shang Tsung’s island, and it’s neat to freely explore the setting of the original Mortal Kombat.

Fortunately none of this has any real bearing on the gameplay, which is as fun as ever. For me Mortal Kombat, at least this modern run, is a series that’s unique in that it requires me to learn combos involving strings of button presses. Of the big, mainstream series Tekken incorporates movement in such a way that I never bother with long strings and in Street Fighter I use a combination of special moves and normals strung together with proper timing. I play other fighting games too, but the two examples above are enough to make my point, and in the interest of time I won’t go off on a detailed tangent. I find MK’s special moves a tad finicky and occasionally prone to failure given their input method, and while I do use them I prefer to learn a handful of attack strings and use those, again with proper timing. This approach to combos makes it easier for me to try different characters and branch out. In MKX I ended up with Erron Black and Mileena as my mains, and though I haven’t had that long with 11 I’ve settled into a comfortable groove with Scorpion and Sub Zero (the best they’ve ever been) and now I’m playing around with Erron’s new moveset and Kabal: drawn to his aesthetic, situation and powers. A big part of fighting games for me is their characters, and it’s nice to be able to pick ones I find likeable or cool and then be able to learn them well enough to feel like I can actually play them.

It plays a lot like MKX, but with two main differences: firstly, stamina has been replaced with a recharging two use bar for environmental interaction. Secondly EX attacks are governed by a similar meter, and X-Ray moves have been replaced with “Fatal Blows”, which can only be used when you drop to a certain amount of health, like rage arts from Tekken 7. I like this change; having EX attacks be separate makes me more prone to using them, and Fatal Blows are a double edged sword that can give you a way to come back from the brink, but make beating down your opponent increasingly risky as you race to the bottom of their health bar. Custom variations are a great idea; choosing special moves to layer on top of a standard set is inspired and feels like a natural progression for variations, and the gear and skins feel more natural than the Injustice 2 method of just gluing bits of tat to character’s outfits.

Mortal Kombat 11 is great. The changes have a positive effect on gameplay while it retains the same high standard it’s had for eight years now and the addition of custom variations is fantastic. Now that the Towers of Time have been toned down they’re an enjoyable part of the game, and the core fighting gameplay is satisfying and fun. The story is good for the most part and great when it focuses on character development, and as a conclusion to the trilogy MK9 started it works well, and has me hyped for potential future games. In a genre crowded with excellent series Mortal Kombat absolutely still belongs, and it’s more than willing to show you why.

By James Lambert