Hotline Miami Review

Yes, yes I know this is late (the game came out in October 2012), but it flew right under my radar and I only just played it this weekend. Despite the delay in me buying the game, I still feel compelled to give my thoughts on it; “Hotline Miami” is one of the most interesting, addictive and downright fun games I’ve played for sometime, and if I had played it when it was released it would have been guaranteed a spot on my best of the year list.

Created by a team consisting of two people, the game is a top-down, retro-graphic, ultra-violent blood bath in which you navigate a series of areas floor by floor murdering everyone you come across. It’s heavily influenced by the Nicholas Winding Refn film “Drive” (which was also awesome) in both its style and soundtrack- a quiet, merciless killer in a distinctive jacket murdering mobsters to an 80s-esque synth score that instantly gets stuck in your head, in a good way. Thankfully, all that killing is complimented by a solid plot- you are a nameless hitman/mass murderer (nicknamed “Jacket” by fans due to his letterman jacket, as seen in the picture above) who receives answering machine messages informing him of his next hit. As the game progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that Jacket is mentally unstable, and questions are raised as to why he’s doing what he’s doing, what’s going to become of it and who the hell is leaving all those answer phone messages. The story is intriguing and well-paced throughout the short run time, and the increasingly viceral hallucinations Jacket has and visits to a trio of criptic, masked figures compliment it nicely. There are a couple of anti-climactic moments, but generally the story is solid, especially when you consider that given the gameplay style, the story could have been pretty much ignored all together.

Speaking of gameplay, it’s definitely the stand-out feature. As previously mentioned it’s from a top-down perspective, and Jacket clears out buildings of their inhabitants a floor at a time using any combination of stealth, gunfights and running around with a melee weapon painting the walls blood red. Before entering a mission you’re given a choice of what animal mask to wear, with each one granting a different perk. One mask makes your fists lethal and your execution moves faster, another prevents dogs from attacking you, and yet another allows you to kill an enemy and disarm him with a tap of the space key. The masks largely come down to preference, but each one has a definite use, and it’s a great inclusion to the game. Both you and the enemies die in one hit, and the enemies often seem to have almost superhuman reflexes in regards to turning and killing you, particularly enemies with guns on the other side of windows. This isn’t much of a problem though as you can instantly re-spawn upon death- restarting at the beginning of that floor with the same weapon you were carrying when you arrived. The instant re-spawns allow you to rapidly adapt and change your on-going plan of action; everything seemed to be going well until you alerted those two guards who rushed in and shot you, so maybe next time go a different way, use a different weapon and the like; some would say it’s best to play the game quickly- charging in and killing all who stand in your way, but I found the tactical method far more practical and satisfying when I cleared a floor. The tactical option is slightly offset by the fact that weapons spawn randomly, but you can be sure of the presence of a certain few. The game is also very brutal and violent- enemies can be sliced up, mashed into bits and blown in half upon death, and that’s not counting the finishing moves; the most prevalent being crouching over a downed goon and repeatedly slamming his head into the floor, or  approaching an enemy slumped against a wall and kicking him in the face so hard his brains fly out the back of his head. The violence – along with the atmosphere and soundtrack – really do remind me of the brutal violence in “Drive” (as I write this I’m watching parts of that film); the retro graphics also stop the violence being too explicit, but for those who enjoy a bit of gore, there’s plenty to love. The soundtrack is also excellent- it’s all incredibly catchy synth and fits the game perfectly.

Any negative points? Well, the bosses are all irritating (except for the first one) and it can often be initially tricky to work out exactly what you need to do in between your numerous deaths at said boss’ hands. They don’t take too long to figure out, but they can be annoying. The enemy A.I is also quite unpredictable in a bad way; they alternate between being seemingly deaf and stupid- ignoring their dead friends and gunshots close by – to spotting, turning on the spot and killing you despite you quietly approaching them from a considerable distance away. Again, the instant re-spawns stop this from being too much of a problem, but it can seem a little unfair sometimes. Also worth mentioning is the dreadful forced stealth level; the screen lurches around like a pro-active drunk, the screen keeps going fuzzy and if you continuously move for too long Jacket will stop and clutch his head in pain. This mission is mercifully quite short, but is the worst part of the game by far.

If you’re going to buy it, you’ve probably bought it already, but if not “Hotline Miami” is a fantastic game worth picking up. It’s an addictive, brutal game that rewards enacting a plan, with a good story, an awesome soundtrack and a great atmosphere. It’s one of the most fun games I’ve played for some time, and if you can handle the violence, it’s a challenging, interesting experience well worth checking out. Sadly I got to it too late to place it on my best of 2012 list, but it was definitely one of the best games released last year. Consider this an honorary place.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Hitman Absolution Review

Absolution Cover

Delayed I know, but I’ve finally got around to reviewing the most recent Hitman game. Firstly, I love the “Hitman” series. “Blood Money” is one of my favorite games of all time, and I hold it up as a pinnacle of the stealth genre. I had reservations about the new game since its announcement, and they were never fully alleviated as more and more details were released. As I let on in the “Best and Worst games of 2012” post, I was, and am still not happy with “Hitman Absolution”. What was once a fun, rewarding, satisfying series of games involving hiding in plain sight and picking your own methods in increasingly large levels has become a linear, deeply frustrating game that has promise, but squanders it consistently with almost every new feature that’s been added.

Firstly, the story: the previous games all had plots that were relegated largely to between mission cutscenes, and while they were interesting the gameplay wasn’t really affected if you chose to skip them and get on with all the killing. “Absolution” implements a more personal story in which world’s best assassin Agent 47 kills his old handler but then suddenly feels guilty and decides to fulfill her dying wish of protecting a little girl (created to be an assassin just as he was) from a group of angry, Southern American cliches and Powers Boothe. Firstly, now 47’s on the run from what is apparently the world’s greatest contract agency he would surely be even more cautious and secretive, not take on a little girl, enlist the help of a contact who lives in a school bus and stop wearing gloves. The more personal take on a story isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it isn’t handled very well. The characters are all forgettable and don’t particularly add anything to the game, and save for a couple of cool levels the story ends up being a reason for 47 to go from location to location without the previous excuse of having a variety of targets offered to him. 47’s newly personal stake in events now causes him to be captured, spotted and attacked now and then, as opposed to him being the ghost-like urban legend he was in the previous games.

On the gameplay side, almost all of the new or changed features are badly implemented, chief among them being the new disguise system and the instinct system. In previous games, as long as you didn’t do anything too suspicious (the guards were largely forgiving when it came to running around) you were fine, and disguises were a genuinely useful part of the excellent “hide in plain sight” stealth mechanics. I mean, there were some odd moments where you can do things like dress up as a Chinese crime boss with a ponytail and then bluff your way past his men (somehow), but it was all part of the charm. “Absolution” wanted to be different though, and so in this game everyone wearing the same outfit as you will see through your disguise and become suspicious in mere seconds, even if you’re calmly walking around in an area you’re allowed in. This can be countered with the “Instinct” system; basically detective vision from the “Arkham” games- it highlights enemies, gives hints and disguises 47 near suspicious NPCs through the medium of him lowering his head and rubbing his neck. Genius- why didn’t anyone else think of that? This disguising aspect relies on a rapidly decreasing instinct bar and you have to activate it very quickly when at close proximity. This new disguise system is deeply, deeply frustrating, and the instinct system is useful, but by no means essential. Irritatingly instinct replaces the map of previous games- a map that was an essential item for planning your route and keeping tabs on guards and essential NPCs, as well as civilians. The game also has a “Point shooting” system- basically the “Mark and Execute” system from “Splinter Cell Conviction”. A map wouldn’t be as useful as before what with the oppressive, linear, much smaller levels, but it would still be better than the instinct system, which gives you a view of the immediate few rooms. Speaking of unnecessary changes: the previous save system (save anywhere a number of times dependent on difficulty) has been replaced with limited, spread-apart, hard to find checkpoints that increase your chance of having your cover blown while you search for them. The map being removed and the save system being changed are bizarre choices that, along with the disguise system make the game feel unfair and often unbalanced- it’s a definite step backwards for the series.

There’s really not much to compliment in the game. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s not completely terrible, and that when you ignore all the bad changes it can be fun for a while until they bring it crashing back to earth, throw the leash back on and force you down a specific path with a few choices thrown in for the illusion that it’s like the old “Hitman” games. If you’re going for the “Silent Assassin” rank you’ll be restarting a lot, given how easy it is to be spotted. Which brings me to the point system- an ever present and largely unwelcome counter in the corner of the screen that scores your game and deducts points for being spotted (even by people who have only spotted you because you killed them from the front rather than behind), which can be incredibly easily if the game is feeling unfair. Elsewhere there’s the new “Contracts” mode which has you let loose in a small part of a level to mark up to three targets and have other people play the map- succeeding by killing the targets in the same way with the same weapon and outfit. It’s a nice addition, but doesn’t really add anything to the experience as a whole. The game looks nice, and David Bateson’s voice acting is as good as ever, it’s just a shame the story doesn’t match his work.

“Hitman Absolution” isn’t a terrible stealth game. The oppressive disguise system and linear missions are irritating but don’t break the game; it’s highly possible to make it through missions stealthily with practice. It is, however a bad Hitman game. It’s removed what made the other games so unique and generally excellent and replaced it with elements ripped from other, popular games and a forgettable story. Although not completely devoid of enjoyment, this is huge step back for the series, and not the next-gen Hitman game I had been hoping for since first completing Hitman Blood Money several years ago.

Oh, and one last thing: the “Saints”- the assassins in PVC Nun outfits that featured in a jaw-droppingly stupid trailer for the game are just as terrible as I thought they’d be. Even without the stupid, cheesy catch phrases, they’re a genuinely offensive attempt at sex appeal in a game that doesn’t need any, and are a complete contradiction to the established M.O of the I.C.A. Why does the agency that hires 47- an assassin so incredible it’s doubted by many that he even exists- also use brash, RPG-toting women in PVC nun outfits? Food for thought.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

2012: The five best, and the five worst.

Well, better late than never I suppose. Let’s get on with it then.

The Best:

1. The Walking Dead

This was a genuinely hard choice. My most anticipated game of last year was “Max Payne 3”, and while it lived up to the hype to be one hell of a game, nothing got a reaction from me quite like “The Walking Dead”. There are technical problems, and certain outcomes are unavoidable, but the story and decisions in the game are superb, and the emotional investment the game draws out of you is remarkable. Every character in the game is interesting and feels needed, the relationship between the protagonist Lee and his charge Clementine (both genuinely likable) is genuinely touching, and the adventure game style focuses on advancing the story rather than absurd, illogical puzzles. It’s an incredible experience, and the best game released in 2012.

2. Spec Ops The Line

“Spec Ops: The Line” was a genuine, pleasant surprise when I got my hands on it last year. When it was first announced it looked like another generic war shooter where macho white men with the mental state of five year olds stomp all over brown people in the name of freedom, which couldn’t be further from the truth. What starts as a simple third person shooter quickly evolves into a gut-wrenching emotional slog through hell on earth that brings up horrific events and forces the player to move through them, no matter how dark. The story was incredible and genuinely affecting, and while the gameplay can be generic, it serves the story nicely. It was close between this and “The Walking Dead”, but while the latter edged this one out, “Spec Ops The Line” is an awesome experience, and it is essential you check it out. I mean, it’s depressing, harrowing and dark, but that’s the whole point.

3. Max Payne 3

It pains me- PAINS ME to put “Max Payne 3” here in third place. I was looking forward to this game more than any other that year, and indeed for several other years. It lived up to the hype, and was an awesome game, but from a more objective standpoint, the two games above were more worthy of first place. Anyway, “Max Payne 3”- the new setting of Sao Paulo, Brazil creates a great contrast from the first two games, provided a good amount of variety within its locations and gave the game a nice, “Man on Fire” feel (as did the plot, actually), the character of Max was darker than ever and the gameplay was intense, tight and incredibly fun. For fans of the series it was a wonderful culmination of everything leading up to it, and for those new to the games it was an excellent third person shooter. It’s a great game worth playing, but lacks the emotional impact of the first two games on this list, save for the incredible opening cutscene. Look it up.

4. Silent Hill Downpour

This one surprised me. I’m a huge “Silent Hill” fan and although I knew this game was going to suck (as do all the new Silent Hill games I’ve played), I gave it a chance anyway only to find something wonderful- it doesn’t suck. Far from it. The game has a good sense of exploration and has a number of genuinely interesting side quests, a great atmosphere, decent combat system and actually tries to do its own thing rather than wallow in the series’ past tropes (Unlike homecoming, which was terrible). It’s the best Silent Hill game since the Playstation 2 days, and is a pretty good horror game on its own merits. Like “Max Payne 3” it’s one to check out, regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of the previous games.

5. Assassin’s Creed III

Carrying on from the largely pointless “Brotherhood” and “Revelations” installments, “Assassin’s Creed III” changed the setting, time period and protagonist for the better- giving the new character a set of moves more useful for the environment, which is well realised and adds to the “Fight for Freedom” nature of the new character. The new tree climbing system was good fun, and the tweaks to the combat breathed new life into it. While not perfect (it had pretty much every problem the second game had; mainly the stealth system is very poorly implemented) but overall, it was a fun game and a good addition to the series.

The Worst:

1. I am Alive

An XBLM and PSN game tucked away early in the year safe from anyone remembering it, “I am alive” attempted to give a more grounded take on the idea of a post-apocalypse scenario, but tripped over the very first hurdle and smashed its head in. Bad game design, irritating sound and environments, logic painfully obviously being sacrificed to supplement an ineffectual atmosphere and a generally rushed feeling all around make “I am alive” the worst game I played last year. I genuinely cannot think of a single redeeming feature in the game. Not one. Give it a miss.

2. Lollipop Chainsaw

Suda 51’s latest installment smacked of a largely accepted “auteur” falling into a routine. Violent, overly quirky and obviously trying to be different, the story of vacuous, deeply irritating zombie hunting cheerleader Juliet ended up being the worst thing Suda has made by far. Repetitive, boring gameplay, irritating, unfunny dialogue and characters that are either boring, irritating or offensive were the order of the day. The abhorrent mini-games and wasted bosses didn’t help either. This is Suda being lazy- having built up his reputation with the incredible “Killer 7” and the awesome “No More Heroes”, he’s fallen into a groove. A groove that happens to be a rain-filled ditch with a dead raccoon in it.

3. Resident Evil 6:

Remember when “Resident Evil” was a survival horror franchise? Well the latest installment added in broken quick time events, vehicle sections and an over-reliance on action gameplay. The new story was built on a virus-based cover-up that is completely needless, and in order to have various points where the different playable characters meet up feels very lazy and repetitive. Moving through a spectrum of infuriating, boring, depressing (if you like the series at least- when you reflect on what it’s become) and just plain irritating, “Resident Evil 6” was a slog of repetitive, old-hat ideas strung together with a plot that was stupid even by Capcom standards. This is a series that really needs to end.

4: Hitman Absolution

As I’ll elaborate on in my review (which will be on here soon), “Hitman Absolution” is by no means a terrible game, but it is a deeply frustrating one, owing to new additions and changes that do nothing but hinder the experience. The more personal story isn’t entirely unwelcome, but the linear levels, instinct system and the fact that your cover can be blown in mere seconds for no apparent reason most certainly are. In shifting to a story focus, the sprawling, non-linear levels and immense freedom of the previous games is sacrificed for a more oppressive, reduced experience. Not a terrible game, but a step in the wrong direction for the series.

5. Dishonored/Far Cry 3

Sure to be controversial choices, I’m giving fifth worse to both games (I couldn’t choose between them) not because they were particularly bad games (although there were far better ones last year), but because of the hype surrounding them- hype they failed to live up to. “Dishonored” was supposed to be an incredible hybrid of Hitman, Thief and Deus Ex and ended up being a linear stealth game with a weak story and most choices in the game being easily ignored in favour of the much simpler “stab everyone in the neck” option, and “Far Cry 3” was supposed to have a deeply troubling, gripping “Spec Ops The Line”-esque story involving a normal man becoming a depraved, maniacal killer in order to save friends that would no longer even recognise him, but ended up being a decent if a tad boring shooter with a weak, rushed plot that was deeply disappointing. Are the games bad? No, and certainly no way near as bad as the other games on this list, but they should have been so much better.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Far Cry 3 Review

“Far Cry 3” has a genuinely interesting premise (interesting enough to melt away my skepticism and make me pick up the game for full price): a rich, vacuous douche named Jason and his rich, vacuous douche friends go on a rich, vacuous holiday to a remote, tropical island and are captured by a gang of pirates with a penchant for slave trading. Jason escapes the gang, and spends his time murdering swathes of pirates in an attempt to rescue his friends, along the way losing more and more of his humanity as he becomes more adept at killing and even starts to enjoy it. As I said, this premise is a very interesting one, in a “Spec Ops: The Line” kind of way. Interesting, but unfortunately rushed, unbelievable and generally poorly executed.

The main problem, at least at the start of the game, is that being a sandbox the game’s plot can’t account for what the player does in between story missions. A few missions in and I had Jason wielding a bolt-action sniper rifle with perfect accuracy picking off pirate sentries before taking down the rest with stealthy machete kills. The story missions aren’t much better- the fourth mission in has Jason clearing out a camp with a pistol, having never killed anyone before. From there Jason’s character arc is rushed and lacks any real impact- it never seems like Jason regrets his actions, or that he even has any trouble murdering whole squads of pirates at a time. Characters come and go without really adding much (for the most part) and the abilities Jason gains from the upgrade system are never explained or given any context. He starts off as a dumb teenager, quickly becomes a killer, then stays a killer for the story’s run time, with it never being believable that he can do a lot of the things he does. Speaking of characters, the best of them is “Vaas”; the insane, volatile, mohawk-sporting leader of the pirates and star of the game’s box art whose every appearance is pure shouty, sweary gold. It’s strange then that given all the promotional materials he was featured in and all the hype surrounding him he only appears in the game for about fifteen minutes total before being swapped out for a much less entertaining villain. Kind of like Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs” only far less subtle and more willing to call some a “Chicken Fuck”. The story should have been Jason gradually building up his skills, taking out Vaas’ men and working his way up to a final confrontation with him, then realising afterward what he has become and questioning where he goes from there. As it stands, the story feels light and lacking in-depth. That said, it’s not completely without positives; there are memorable moments and the odd mission worth experiencing, but they’re outweighed by the negatives for the most part. Oh, and without wishing to spoil anything, both of the game’s endings suck.

Anyway, gameplay. The island is huge, lush and fun to explore with enemy camps dotted around to liberate, dilapidated radio towers to climb to reveal more of the map and an eco system that runs independently of the player’s actions- predator animals with pursue and kill herbivores regardless of what’s going on around them, animals will attack Jason if he gets too close and caged predators in enemy camps can be released to tear apart their captors. Also worth mentioning are the fire physics- a small patch of ground lit on fire can spread at an alarming rate- entire buildings can be engulfed in flames in mere seconds, and grassy areas can quickly become death traps if they’re set ablaze with you in them and you don’t notice. The whole island is fun to explore and feels a lot more natural than most open world games. The shooting mechanics are tight and responsive, and most weapons have numerous upgrades available, making your load-out down to your preferences, rather than what the game deems most useful. The enemy A.I is, for the most part competent and they can easily overwhelm you, although that’s also due in part to how quickly Jason’s health drops in a gunfight. One of the key elements in the game is that of hunting; unlike say “Red Dead Redemption”‘s hunting system that lead to money and upgrades, the hunting in “Far Cry 3” is an essential part of the game- animal skins are used to craft items like weapon holsters, wallets and backpacks. It’s helpful then, that hunting animals is handled very well.

Another point is the boss fights. If indeed they can be called boss fights. When a major villain is confronted the game cuts to a small room surrounded by darkness and Jason engages in a quicktime event-controlled knife fight; pulling impressive blade-wielding skills out of his arse that would give Leon Kennedy pause for thought. Well, this happens for two of the boss fights anyway. One of them is a trippy mind-game sequence with a disappointing conclusion. One last thing to mention is the game’s driving. Rather than handling like an arcade racer or the likes of “Grand Theft Auto”, “Far Cry 3″s driving is done entirely in first person and the cars seem to handle quite realistically (I don’t drive, but I’ve seen it enough to get the idea). Lose control near a cliff and you’re more than likely going over it; rather than being a nuisance though, it actually added to the immersion for me.

“Far Cry 3” is not a bad game. The gameplay itself is fun enough, with the huge, sprawling island being an interesting environment to explore (and set fire to), and the army of pirates being fun to cut down, either guns blazing or stealthily. The major weak link here is the over-hyped story, which feels rushed, light and at times inconsequential. If Jason had developed his skills more gradually and the game had a slower, more restricted start I feel that would have helped- I wouldn’t have minded sacrificing some gameplay freedom for a good establishing act to the story. As it stands, “Far Cry 3” is a disappointment, but is not without merit.

James Lambert
@jameslambert18

The Walking Dead review

Well, the end is upon us. Through good and bad, through horrible and slightly less horrible, through hacked off limbs, food shortages and crying children, “The Walking Dead” has brought to the table some of the best characterisation I’ve seen in video games, with a deeply emotional, harrowing narrative that ups the ante with each episode. Now it’s come to an end. Well, this initial series at least. Episode five recently hit the PSN store, which I saw as an opportunity to finally review the game as a whole.

Unlike the upcoming first person shooter “The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct”, this “Walking Dead” is an adventure game, with quick time events and an emphasis on player choice weaved through the game, which largely manifests as a speech system. Apart from cameos from Glenn and Hershel, the game doesn’t involve the cast of the TV series, instead focusing on a whole new group, pieced together largely in the first episode, with a few other members joining later. You control Lee Everett- a man who is inducted into this new, apocalyptic reality while being driven to prison for a crime he may or may not have committed. After escaping to a nearby house he meets Clementine- an eight year old girl who soon becomes very close to him, with her consistently being his guide when it comes to moral issues and the like. First off, Clementine is a rare thing in fiction for me; a genuinely likable child character. All through the game I was doing my utmost to keep her safe, happy and generally trying to make decisions that kept her in a positive place. Her relationship with Lee is touching and believable; it’s probably the best example of the excellent writing and character development in the game.

As previously mentioned, “The Walking Dead” is an adventure game. You control Lee with the left stick, and use the right stick to move a cursor round to look at, pick up or use items. During the frequent attacks from zombies, a quick time button press may appear, or you’ll have to hover the crosshair over whatever is attacking you and use a context sensitive action. This largely works well, with the speed required to successfully implement the context sensitive attacks not being unfair, but feeling rewarding when you pull it off. However, they can be messed up if you aren’t paying attention, which sometimes results in Lee’s death, or, more often you’ll get another chance. The exploring/finding items/using said items part of the game relies much more on logic than most adventure games – particularly some of the older ones – and feels involving while advancing the plot. Two stand-0ut moments include being tasked distribute four food items amongst ten people, and in the same episode coming across a man caught in a bear trap; Lee’s options being leave the man, or hack his leg off with an axe- an action that takes several attempts and is far more harrowing than any violent action game I’ve played. It’s mainly down to the context and atmosphere- it’s so heavy and dreadful and every action in the game has weight to it because you don’t know if it will come back into play later. The game points out every episode that the “Game is tailored to the way you play”, and it genuinely feels that way.

However, there are some problems. Episodes 1, 2 and 3 have technical issues- mainly in the form of freezing and the odd vanishing texture. They don’t cause too much of a problem, but they’re definitely noticeable and can be irritating at times. Fortunately, they’re ironed out by episode four. The bigger problem, however is that despite the choices you make, certain things are unavoidable. Only a certain amount and combination of characters can be present at the start of episode five, and the ones that do die can’t be saved, at least not for long. Taken as a whole, the game’s story can seem quite linear, but with a story this strong it doesn’t hurt for it to be guided sometimes. It’s certainly a lot better than the same problem in “Heavy Rain”, for example. There are plenty of choices that do make a real difference, though- the decisions you make in these moments are displayed at the end of the mission, along with the percentage of players that voted the same way as you. The majority of the choices are genuinely hard to make. This is compounded by the fact that the choices often appear suddenly and give you a very tight time limit to decide what you want to do, which works brilliantly.

The story across the five episodes is the best part of the game, when combined with the decisions. Seeing the characters grow and reveal different sides of themselves as the situation grows more and more dire is a joy to behold. A harrowing, depressing, horrible joy that wears you down and leaves you feeling drained at the end of the episode, but a joy all the same. The story and characterisation is joint-best this year with bleak, harrowing, disturbing military shooter “Spec Ops: The Line” (One of my very favorite games of the year, and indeed ever). Bascically, it demonstrates that video game stories can stand up to fiction in other media.

Despite some problems, “The Walking Dead” is a masterpiece of characterisation and storytelling. The central realtionship between Lee and Clementine is worth preserving through the game, and the two characters themselves are wonderfully endearing. It’s violent, horrible, bleak, depressing and utterly, utterly brilliant. It’s one of the best games I’ve ever played, and brought out an emotional reaction in me that other games have consistently failed to achieve. It deserves to be played. It needs to be played- to show that this sort of thing is still relevant these days.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Assassin’s Creed III Review

Image

The “Assassin’s Creed” series was desperately in need of some fresh ideas. After the amazing second game, the two direct sequels “Brotherhood” and “Revelations” took the same gameplay and included a few new changes that added very little, making them a holding pattern; filler in between the stellar “Assassin’s Creed II” and the supposedly truly next-gen “Assassin’s Creed III”. This latest installment has a whole new protagonist, a new setting, a new engine built from the ground up, some genuinely fun and useful new features, and a new take on some of the older ones. Put simply, despite still having problems “Assassin’s Creed III” is a tremendous leap forward for the series, and one of the most consistently fun games this year.

Set in Colonial America and featuring such events as the original Boston Tea Party, The Declaration Of Independence and the rise to prominence of one George Washington, the story focuses on two characters: a starting character whose identity and motivation should be left a secret – despite the fact that given when the game was released many people will already know about him – and Ratonhnhaké:ton (Rah-doon-ha-kay-dun), otherwise known as Connor- a Native American-English Assassin. What he lacks in the charm and suaveness of Ezio Auditore, Connor makes up for in his actions, his undeniably noble cause and his sheer bad-assery; no other Assassin has felt this powerful, nimble or fun to play. The story mainly focuses on Connor attempting to keep his village safe from people trying to buy his land and/or murder his people, and him constantly getting angry at distractions from “Patriots” who while helping him are attempting to ascertain freedom, and can’t seem to do it without his help. The “Rise against oppression” story feels a lot more relevant with this character than Ezio starting a revolution in Rome, which again adds to Connor’s character. Another nice touch is Connor learning how to climb trees and freerun as a teenager, then transferring his skills to rooftops when he finally reaches a frontier town. The story doesn’t have as strong characters as the second game, but the way it’s told and the fact that it takes its time to develop Connor and his world gives it a definite richness. The game now features dynamic weather and seasons changing, which add to the atmosphere, along with the returning day/night cycle. This is also the conclusion to Desmond Miles’ story, which in my eyes is undoubtedly a good thing. His story was always dull, slow and interrupted the flow of the historical sections.  Many people have made a fuss about the game’s ending, but given what was leading up to it the conclusion makes sense, and didn’t bother me at all.

In terms of gameplay additions, the two biggest ones are being able to freerun in trees, and the new naval missions in which Connor captains a ship for various tasks, and often involve attacking other ships, and sometimes boarding them, killing everyone on board and leaping off again before it explodes. The tree climbing fits in like a dream- it’s as easy and smooth as climbing buildings and feels like an essential part of gameplay- it’s a genuinely useful extension rather than something to mess around with once or twice. The navel missions, while not essential, are very fun to play, easy to get to grips with and instill hope in me that Ubisoft could make a good pirate game if they tried. A “Red Dead Redemption”-esque hunting system has been added, which doesn’t really add much but is a good way to make money, the missions in the game offer new elements and refine the mission types of previous games and the destructible towers and districts to take over have respectively been given objectives to complete and groups of rioting civilians to aid you. Aside from the new tree-climbing elements the freerunning as a whole has been refined and updated, making it flow more smoothly than ever, and Connor has all-new animations, which often feel more dynamic and realistic. The combat system has been tweaked; working on the counter attack-based foundation the timing has been changed, and besides certain enemy types, any weapon can counter any attack, and two enemies can now be countered at once, should they attack you in unison. New weapons including a bow, a flintlock pistol and Kunai-style rope darts all have their own uses and overall the combat feels a lot more fun and visceral. The Desmond sections of the game are all rather brief, but are infinitely superior to all his previous gameplay sections because they finally let Desmond sneak around and fight guards among people in modern times. The game now has regenerating health (with a delay in open combat) and the armour system from the last three games has been completely removed. The regenerating health aspect was apparently implemented to remove the instant healing factor that carrying medicine brought in the last games, but really doesn’t make too much of a difference. Neither does the new lack of armour.

As previously mentioned, there are problems. Despite its belief to the contrary “Assassin’s Creed”‘s stealth elements have always been fundamently flawed: often when tasked with not raising any alarms the mission can fail if one guard, separated from the others, spots you but is killed immediately before he can alert anyone to your presence. Fewer missions in this game have the “no alarms” tenant than previous installments, but when they do appear, they are as much of a problem as before. This series works best when it’s implementing the free running and/or open combat sections, and Ubisoft need to either phase out the stealth elements or vastly improve them for next time. The controversy surrounding the seemingly one-sided narrative (there were worries Connor would be exclusively attacking the British redcoats, which wasn’t helped by the live-action trailer) is mostly alleviated- Connor IS killing templars, but the people helping him in his quest happen to be on the Colonial rebel side, and he’s generally fighting for freedom, so it’s not explicitly favoritist but it’s sometimes iffy. Another small problem is the loading screen when Desmond is travelling to different locations in his story- a shot of him and his supporting characters in a van with a blurry, horribly rendered background. When this first happened there wasn’t a loading icon, and I actually thought the game was just broken. This is more of a niggle than a serious problem, but it seemed lazy and out of place in the rest of the game.

Overall, “Assassin’s Creed III” is a great new game in the series. It’s familiar enough to appeal to fans of the existing games, but different enough to be worth a purchase. The new setting is well realised and the game’s new engine works wonders on the graphics, animations and new weather and season cycles. The newly tweaked free running and combat systems are incredibly fun, the new elements to the game are generally useful and fun, and the refined old ones fit in with the new ones well. Largely living up to the hype, this latest installment to the “Assassin’s Creed” series is well worth a purchase to existing fans or newcomers, and a genuinely revolutionary sequel.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

Dishonored Review

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(This review was originally written for and posted at http://www.whatson.uk.com/blog by myself)

“Dishonored” seemed all set to be the game of the year. A steampunk stealth ’em up that appeared to contain the best elements of games like “Deus Ex”, “Hitman Blood Money” and “Bioshock” all combined in a sprawling, horrific world created by the man who designed Half-Life 2’s “City 17”. After gathering an incredible amount of critical acclaim and a having a whole lot of pleasant adjectives attributed to it the popular opinion seems to be that this is truly something special; a game to remember for a long time to come. However, after playing through it I can say that although a fun, reasonably satisfying stealth game, “Dishonored” does not deliver on its promises, and many of the much touted choices in the game are needless window dressing.

The story is a very simple one, and never really deviates from convention: you are Corvo- the bodyguard of the empress of Dunwall and her daughter. After she is assassinated by teleporting ninjas, you are accused of her murder and thrown in prison. After escaping with the help of a group of loyalists, you set out on a series of missions to assassinate or otherwise neutralise various key targets in an effort to remove the man who took the empress’ place and clear your name. Aiding you is a magical being known only as “The Outsider”, who burns a mark into Corvo’s hand that allows him access to magical abilities. There’s a very weak twist near the end of the game, and the plot never really goes beyond “Hey Corvo, good job killing (Target). Go have a lie down, then go kill (Another Target).” Basically it’s hard to care about events when the only exposition is that it’s a good job I killed that last target. The city of Dunwall is a mixture of steampunk and futuristic technology, and for the most part is reasonably well fleshed out. Everything is powered by whale oil, the obtaining of which is rapidly wiping out the great mammal- as documented in the game’s genuinely interesting readable books. Look deeper though, and there isn’t a great deal to find. The missions feel decidedly linear, despite its assurances that you have a multitude of choices available during a a hit.

Speaking of choices, they’re one of the game’s biggest problems. During certain missions (During your approach to where the target is) the game will pause and you will be told that you have a large number of options on how to proceed. That’s fine in theory, but the first problem is that the options only really extend to getting in and out of a building. As for the process of neutralising guards and finding your target, anything other than a stealthy playthrough will sap you of health, magic and ammo and then most likely get you killed. The game seems to be biased towards stealth, with the controls, powers and aforementioned difficulty when attacking enemies head on seeming tailor made to a stealth game. The second problem is that most of the game’s inventive elements are completely needless. During the run up to the game’s release date a “Creative kills” trailer was released- showing such things as waiting for an enemy to fire his gun, then stopping time, possessing him and positioning him in front of the bullet. This and most of the other “Inventive” kills require the guards to be alerted to Corvo’s presence, which they won’t be because it’s best to play it stealthily. Finally, despite there being multiple ways to traverse the environments and dispose of enemies, a combination of the “Blink” (Teleport) power and cutting throats from behind is so effective that everything else just seems like a waste of time that you’ll use once to see what it does and then go back to just sneaking up on people. They all have uses, but it never once felt like I NEEDED to use them. Yes, that’s most likely predominantly due to my play style, but if you make it through a game without feeling the need to use the majority of powers at your disposal it says something about the powers themselves and the way the game incorporates them.

On the positive side, the stealth gameplay is fun, and does feel rewarding when you do it right. Blinking around an area stabbing guards in the neck without anyone knowing you’re there is great, particularly as I’m a big stealth fan. The game makes good use of height, both for recon purposes and as a place to attack from, and Corvo for the most part feels nicely nimble. Sometimes aiming the blink power can be a tad fiddly, especially if you’re moving, but it doesn’t happen too often. The non-lethal methods of removing targets are quite inventive, too; a stand-out example being doing a job for a local gangster in exchange for him taking two rich, cretinous brothers and shaving their heads, cutting their tongues out and putting them to work in their own horrific mines. It does remove killing the targets yourself, but the non-lethal options do add something to proceedings, for the most part.

How much you enjoy Dishonored will partly depend on how you look at it. If viewed as an open, non-linear, choice-filled stealth-action game, it’s a disappointment. If viewed as a linear stealth game with large environments with room for exploration and primary choice of lethal or non-lethal, then it’s an enjoyable game with good stealth elements. However, even in that regard it falls short of something like “Hitman Blood Money”.

“Dishonored” is by no means a bad game, but given what was promised it’s disappointing.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18