Resident Evil 4 (Ultimate HD Edition) review

Reviewed on PC.

To be honest, the main reason I went with the Halloween reviews was so that I could review a game I adore that roughly fits into the ‘horror’ box – Resident Evil 4.

In Resident Evil 4, you play as Leon S. Kennedy, a floppy-haired special agent who is tasked with searching an unnamed Spanish village for the President’s kidnapped daughter, Ashley. Upon arriving, Leon finds the occupants of the village are hostile, zombie-like, and under the control of a sinister cult. Once Leon finds Ashley, the two are pushed further into the village and come across increasingly bizarre locations and creatures. Resident Evil 4 was the first game in the series that seemed aware the dialogue and plots of the games often ended up being extremely cheesy, so it played up to this and went wild with hilarious setpieces and characters. Leon is a caricature of the American action hero, roundhouse kicking zombies in the face and spouting terrible jokes. Salazar is an inept, 3-foot tall villain who tries in vain to appear threatening. Then there is possibly the greatest video game character of all time – the merchant. The merchant is a chuckling hunchback, with an accent that sometimes sounds cockney and sometimes sounds like a pirate. He wears a longcoat that apparently has enough space to hold several attaché cases, maps, and precious stones, alongside a sizeable selection of firearms. The merchant is always close by, ready to barter with wealthy strangers. In addition, he has a part-time hustle hosting a shooting range where he offers up novelty bottle cap toys as prizes. As the single most interesting character ever, it’s a big surprise that there wasn’t a spin-off game where you play as him, intercepting strangers so that they can peruse your selection of good things on sale.

Despite the B-movie angle, Resident Evil 4 demonstrates an ability to create a really effective horror atmosphere, exemplified by the game’s sewers, laboratory, and in particular, the opening village. The twenty minutes preceding the title’s appearance have you walking down an autumnal, quiet road, occasionally stopping to fight handfuls of enemies as you get to grips with the combat system. Once you reach a cluster of houses, you then need to hold back a seemingly endless horde of zombies, with a masked, chainsaw-wielding man slowly pushing his way towards you. When it wants to be, RE4 is a fantastically oppressive horror game.

The game’s over-the-shoulder camera placement was such an effective way of facilitating third-person shooting that pretty much every game with that perspective now uses it. That said, it’s initially a little jarring when compared modern third person games, in that you can’t move it around much and aiming causes you to stand still. While this might seem clunky, it quickly becomes apparent that these factors help increase the tension of the game; to be successful in combat, you need to pick a good spot to stand your ground, shoot precisely for maximum effect and be aware of threats outside of your limited field of vision.

There is a good range of enemies to fight, with new foes regularly being thrown in to shake up the regular crowd control encounters. Many creatures have memorable and disturbing designs, and they each have vulnerabilities and strengths that you need to be aware of in order to efficiently defeat them. The best example of this is the moment when a villager’s head explodes to reveal a tentacle that can do considerable damage from range and you realise that headshots are going to be a lot riskier from now on.

The selection of weapons is also great. There are various pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles, and magnums, as well as some more unique weapons. Rather than having the guns available later on be instantly superior, each has a distinct advantage compared to the other weapons in its class, and all weapons can be extensively upgraded to become devastating. For anyone interested, my pistol of choice is the Blacktail.

Like other games in the series, the game includes some puzzles that some villain thought would be a better way of securing a door than a lock and key. Some of these are pretty fun (I really like the stained-glass window one), and they provide some downtime between combat without being so challenging they harm the pacing.

RE4 uses music very well. Like other games in the series, 4 treats you to a gorgeous track whenever you reach a safe room, and the game regularly uses droning, ambient soundscapes to heighten the tension of combat and exploration. There are also stretches of time without music, and hearing nothing but your footsteps for a while can itself be a little unnerving.

Though it was obviously designed for controller, the mouse and keyboard controls are actually quite good, and in some ways superior. On the controller, you hold the left trigger and use the left stick to aim, a scheme that is counterintuitive to newer games that all use the right stick to aim, whereas using the mouse you use the ‘same right mouse to aim, left mouse to fire’ found in the majority of shooters, with the bonus of extra precision. In addition, having quick turn as a single press of a key as opposed to a button combo is also more convenient. However, the mouse and keyboard controls are inferior for turning, as accurately rotating to get a better viewing angle is a lot easier with analogue sticks. One thing that would have been appreciated for the PC version would have been weapon hotkeys. While they wouldn’t have been true to the original, they would have eliminated the few seconds where you pop in and out of your inventory to change guns,  which can affect the flow of the game.

The one thing I really do not like about the game is the presence of quick time events, including those of the ‘furiously mash’ and ‘frantically wiggle’ kind. One in particular sticks in my mind, as you are forced to do a really unforgiving ‘furiously mash’ at the end of an extended sequence, and if you fail you are sent back several minutes to the start of the sequence.

The main technical issue I encountered when playing was enemies’ arms clipping through walls and doors. While this might add to the spookiness, it wasn’t intended and looks pretty tacky, especially since it undermines the moments when they break through a door between you. The frame rate also causes a couple of issues; a few animations play at 30FPS as opposed to 60, causing a really jarring effect where one character is moving at half speed, and while I have never experienced this problem, some people have reported slowdown if the frame rate drops.

Simply put, Resident Evil 4 is an incredibly accomplished title that continues to inform action games to this day. Along with the thoroughly enjoyable main campaign, the remastered versions contain two bonus campaigns and a challenge mode, making it extremely good value for money. Highly recommended.

 

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Deadlight: Director’s Cut review

I went back to Deadlight, and got a little further before hitting a new game-breaking bug.

Deadlight is set in a zombie-infested imagining of Seattle in the mid-’80s. You play as Randall Wayne, a guy with the cheesiest voice ever, who is making his way to a safe zone where he hopes to find his wife and daughter. Cutscenes are delivered via gorgeous comic-style animations, but unfortunately they are in service of a cringe-inducing narrative that collates several apocalyptic stories and throws in an obvious plot twist. The dialogue is particularly weak, with some of the most unnatural-sounding conversations I have ever heard (though the developers are based in Spain so it may be a translation problem). Combined with some really exaggerated voice acting, the tone ends up being unintentionally camp. The worst part of the game is the protracted second act, where you are captured by a crazy man who calls himself ‘The Rat’, who has somehow constructed an enormous underground obstacle course full of deathtraps that he uses to test you for literally no reason at all. This section was presumably included to add some variety to the environments, but instead feels like a contrived way of stretching out the length of the game. Deadlight tries to wedge a philosophical angle into the narrative, but this basically consists of characters droning on about how ‘choices define people’ as if that is somehow a revelation.

Deadlight is a 2D platformer reminiscent of the original Prince Of Persia, with the aesthetic of Limbo mixed in. Most of your time is spent traversing the environment by jumping, crouching, climbing, rolling and sprinting. Parkour mixed with a zombie apocalypse backdrop could have been good, but the often unresponsive controls result in a lot of deaths whenever precise timing is required. Both the environments and your character are presented as silhouettes, and this can cause problems when it is unclear what is a climbable platform and what is in the background. If you stand still for a moment, arrows appear that point out the ledges on-screen, which seems like a really lazy way of alleviating the problem, and this feature isn’t much use when you are required to speed through an area.

The game also includes a few combat mechanics. The shooting is okay; you drag a line over your target and fire. The melee combat, however, is clumsy, generally consisting of mashing a button and hoping for the best. If the zombies grab you (which they will) you have to mash the same button to free yourself – straight into the grasp of another zombie, and this loop usually continues until you die.

The only thing I really liked about the game was the art style. As I have already mentioned, your character and the platforms are mostly silhouettes against a slightly more colourful background, and while this approach sometimes presents gameplay problems, it is quite nice to look at. In addition, the game occasionally makes use of lighting and perspective tricks to create some impressive visual effects, such as a moment where the lights come on to reveal a horde of zombies in the room with you.

Now for the technical problems. I ran into two issues that meant I had to close and reopen the application. The first was a point where I got stuck in a zone with textures missing, unable to do anything except press the respawn button to be dropped into the same zone. The second was a room that didn’t light up when entered, meaning I could not see the path to progress. Along with these bigger one-off problems, there were persistent issues with the hit detection and points where the character would not grab on to a ledge. The bugs combined with the poor content sealed the recommendation status.

Partway through playing Deadlight, I remembered that I had completed it a few years ago on Xbox 360, meaning it was less memorable than the shitty movie tie-in games I played when I was five. That pretty much sums up my feelings for Deadlight. Between the generic story and the clumsy gameplay, there is very little here worth recommending.

Recommended? No

System Shock 2 review

Reviewed on PC.

My third Halloween game has caused me a bit of trouble. I originally wanted to review Telltale’s Walking Dead, but it simply wouldn’t launch. After that, I gave Deadlight: Director’s Cut a go. Thirty minutes in, I ran into a bug where I would respawn in a zone with half of the textures missing, unable to do anything except press a button to respawn into the same sitution. PC master race indeed. I skipped to something I intended on doing a little later in the month: System Shock 2.

In System Shock 2, you play as a cyborg soldier who wakes up on the Von Braun spaceship. With amnesia, of course. You are contacted by a woman over the radio who tells you what to do in order to progress, in one of the earlier incarnations of a trope that continues to this day. The crew of the Von Braun have been infected with an alien parasite that enslaves them to a hive mind, and you have to fight your way through them to complete your objectives. Eventually, the soldier is forced to deal with SHODAN, a malicious AI responsible for the for the events of the previous game. A lot of the backstory is filled in by listening to audio logs that tell snippets of the story from the perspective of crew members. This method of storytelling is very effective, as you are given exposition while you are playing and the narrative in general is of a very high standard, with one exception – the end. In contrast with the unrelentingly bleak fifteen hours preceding it, the ending cutscene is really goofy, featuring comedy sound effects and a ludicrous camera whip zoom. The voice acting is a weak point, which can sometimes undermine the quality of the writing, but Terri Brosius as SHODAN is perfect. The world and story have a strong cyberpunk theme, including ideas like the individual versus the collective and human augmentation, and philosophy would be further emphasised in the game’s spiritual sequel, Bioshock.

I think SS2’s tutorial is one of the better ones. It drops you into a training facility, where you can walk into rooms that individually teach the game’s combat, hacking and psychic mechanics. You then pick three jobs your character takes on, which set your starting stats and gives you a little bit of text summarising the events of each job. This makes the tutorial more immersive, and you can run straight past the tutorial rooms if you already know how to play, which accommodates both new and veteran players.

The gameplay of System Shock 2 blends first-person shooting and RPG elements with survival horror atmosphere and resource preservation. The shooting is honestly not too bad; the bullets go where you place your reticule, and rather than having your accuracy determined by your stats (like in Deus Ex), you simply can’t use certain weapons until you have the prerequisite skill level, which I prefer. Unfortunately, the enemy hitboxes are sometimes dodgy, particularly in regards to the fucking psychic monkeys. There is literally nothing more embarrassing than assaulting a tiny monkey with a wrench and losing the fight because your swings don’t connect.

It’s probably worth mentioning the inventory. Press the inventory key, and your screen is overlaid with a grid for your items, along with an intimidating number of buttons that aren’t very self explanatory. It doesn’t help that some of the buttons open further menus to get lost in. If you want to navigate the UI efficiently, you can enrol on a seventy month training course. In hindsight, it’s pretty funny that lead designer Ken Levine included a personal message in the manual where he emphasised that improving on the original System Shock’s impenetrable UI was one of the team’s focuses.

In keeping with the oppressive atmosphere, SS2 is brutally difficult. Between the lack of ammo and health items, your tiny amount of health, and enemies’ pinpoint accuracy, you will probably be struggling through the whole game. I usually appreciate challenging games, but some of this difficulty is artificial, namely the fact you have limited ammo but enemies will respawn infinitely. As a result of this, I had to end one of my playthroughs on the penultimate level because I simply didn’t have the resources to complete the boss fight.

The Von Braun is an iconic setting; a derelict, clinical ship, with dimmed lights concealing the blood splatters. The quietness of the environment is periodically broken by the tortured moans of the infected crew and the automated public service announcement that play to an audience long dead. The influence of the Von Braun as a setting can be seen in Bioshock‘s Rapture, Dead Space‘s Ishimura and Alien: Isolation‘s Sevastopol among others. It exemplifies atmospheric horror, using sound, lighting and narrative to induce fear as opposed to cheap, shallow techniques.

The music is hit and miss. The horror tension is broken early on when a horrendous ’90s rave track suddenly blows out your headphones and drowns out every other sound, which prompts most people to go straight to the options and drag the music slider to 0. This is a bit of a shame, since there are a lot great ambient electronic tracks in the soundtracks, but I tend to turn off the music, because breakbeats are only scary when you have had a lot of stimulants

In term of the graphics, the character models look particularly terrible. Combined with the stiff animations, they end up looking like marionettes with faces stretched over them, which can draw attention to the age of the game, but the environments look pretty good, especially when supported by the lighting engine.

The game has received plenty of support to make it compatible with modern systems. As a result, it is pretty unlikely you will need to mess around with the files to get it running, unlike many other games of its age. It also conforms to modern standards by offering a 1920×1080 resolution and a locked 60FPS frame rate. In addition, the default control scheme was recently changed from the notoriously archaic mappings to a much more comfortable WASD based scheme.

System Shock 2 influenced a lot of fantastic games including Bioshock, Prey, Alien: Isolation, and even the 3D Fallout titles; between the hostile, imposing setting and the blending of first-person shooting with RPG systems, there’s plenty of great ideas for modern games to draw from. As for whether the game holds today, I honestly feel like if you can get over the initial difficulty and don’t care too much about graphics, System Shock 2 is still really enjoyable eighteen years on, and mostly overcomes the limitations of its technology to create a great cyberpunk RPG.

Recommended? Yes

Resident Evil 7 review

Reviewed on PS4.

The second Halloween review, and my first review of a PS4 version, because I’m definitely not a PC master race elitist. Today I’m looking at Resident Evil 7, the newest entry to the series, which switches suplexes for scarce supplies of shotgun shells.

In Resident Evil 7, you play as Ethan Winters, who receives a strange message from his wife Mia, who was presumed dead for several years. The message leads him to a run-down plantation in the Deep South. Once inside the main house, Ethan encounters the Baker family, who have watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre too much and are intent on recreating it. To escape, Ethan is forced to confront each of the family members, and find out what has made them this way. Essentially, the narrative is segmented, so that you deal with each of the Bakers one by one, with each having their own little ‘theme’, and they sort of feel like episodes within the larger narrative, which benefits the pacing. Tonally, RE7 mixes in a little bit of goofy humour that makes it stand out from a lot of similar first-person horrors, and there is also a melancholic feeling underpinning everything, which gets stronger towards the end. Despite some leaps in logic (beyond the initial ‘why doesn’t Ethan smash a window and fuck off into the sunset?’), the story is pretty strong, and the concise run time (I completed it in eight and a half hours) means it keeps a good pace.

The gameplay is obviously inspired by the first-person chase and hide horror genre personified by games like Outlast, but throws in the series’ trademark puzzles, item scavenging and desperate combat for more variety. The game takes place in the house and a small area around it, with new sections gradually being opened up after finding keys, in a Metroidvania sort of style. The enclosed, unbroken environment encourages you to really pay attention, and exploration is often rewarded. Despite its grotesqueness, The Baker Residence is a weirdly enjoyable to look around.

While there are plenty of simple but satisfying puzzles and riddles, the real standouts are the videotapes. In these, you take control of a previous victim and play through a sequence, which will reveal clues about what Ethan needs to do to progress, with the most memorable being a Saw-styled gauntlet called ‘Happy Birthday’. These cerebral elements are what drew me in most about RE7, as the fact there were thoughtful gameplay mechanics present meant there was always something to keep me interested beyond the initial ‘BOO SPOOKY GROSS JUMP SCARE’ .

Resident Evil 7 makes sure that you are always just scraping by. First aid and ammo will only be found after carefully sweeping rooms, meaning patient players will be better equipped, but while I like how limited the inventory is early on, the fact you have to run to the item box if you are overloaded and want to combine an item you have found causes some unnecessary backtracking.

As for the combat, the numerous boss fights with the Bakers are enjoyable; they give you a chance to let rip with your precious ammo, and might even make you chuckle at how cartoonish they can get. Sadly, the majority of the combat is against ‘The Molded’, blob creatures that usually come in one of two forms: slow-moving humanoid and skittering insect. Having these as the main things to fight seems a bit uninspired, and since they can usually be evaded by sprinting past and closing doors, they don’t pose too much of a threat. The shooting is fine, and there is a pretty good Condemned-ish melee system, but having a few more enemy types would have made combat more engrossing.

While I wasn’t a fan of the theme song, and didn’t notice much of the soundtrack, I have to take a moment to say that the track that plays when you enter a safe room is gorgeous; a moody, atmospheric piece that is equal parts comforting and foreboding.

Graphically, the game looks good pretty much everywhere, and even better, on PS4 it runs at a solid 60 frames per second, meaning it looks a lot smoother than a lot of console games. Not a PC elitist. There are a couple of distracting things about the character models though. The first is the uncanny valley effect with some of the faces, and I think it is to do with the way characters’ mouths open a little unnaturally when speaking, so that the teeth are too visible. Mia’s hair behaves really weirdly as well, as it sticks in clumps to her face and seems less affected by gravity compared to everything else. I don’t think I’ve ever been distracted by hair physics in a game before.

Unfortunately, fantastic graphics and higher frame rates come at a cost. This is one of the games the makes my PS4’s fan scream, and even with headphones it was difficult to get immersed because the ambient audio was drowned out by the sound of a games console attempting to take flight. The game only loads in a few places – when you start a game, when you start a video puzzle and when the video puzzle ends – but the load times can be pretty long, and the video ones don’t even have anything to look at or read, instead trying to disguise the fact they are loading screens with tracking and chromatic visuals.

Resident Evil 7 is pretty good overall. The characters and narrative are pretty interesting, it does a good job of building an atmosphere and rewards you for poking around the house. It’s definitely worth playing in the run-up to Halloween, and while it isn’t an industry milestone like the first or fourth entry, it is a quality survival horror, and I would definitely recommend it. Even on PS4.

Recommended? Yes

Outlast review

It’s October, so in the Halloween spirit, I’ll review some horror games. I’ll start with Outlast, which was recently given away for free by Humble Bundle.

Outlast is a first-person horror game. You play as Miles Upshur, a journalist who investigates a corrupt asylum after receiving an anonymous tip. Quickly it becomes apparent that things are very wrong, with the staff murdered and patients on the loose – several of which have taken to homicide. The backstory is fleshed out through documents and by listening to the few coherent inhabitants. The horror atmosphere is mostly established by jump scares and shock value, which might help YouTube artists make money by overreacting, but will probably seem shallow and cheap to anyone jaded – like me. As the game comes to a close, the story is explained with a load of technobabble, and the final act takes place in an environment that feels like it was lifted from a different game.

Outlast sits firmly within the ‘horror games where you can’t fight back’ camp. Most of your time will be spent walking around, observing things, and occasionally having something jump in your face and make a loud noise before moving on. There are also stealth sections, where a character will hunt you, and you need to either hide or flee to evade them. These sections usually feel more annoying than anything, mainly because the enemies are scripted to only change patrol routes when you complete an objective. Since you lack any means of distracting or stunning them, you are sometimes forced to bait them into chasing you and hope they get lost for long enough for you to pass through the door they were camping in front of. The stealth is also pretty inconsistent; one time I was spotted behind almost complete cover, yet elsewhere I crouched in front of someone, in a moderately lit corridor, and was not spotted. As a result it is often most effective to eschew tension and sprint around enemies.

Outlast’s gimmick is that the game is largely viewed through a camcorder. As well as tying into the investigative journalist theme, you need to use its night-vision mode to navigate the many pitch-black areas of the asylum. Night-vision drains the batteries, so you need to find spares. You might think this sets up a resource management element, but I never had a problem with keeping the camera topped up, since popping into the tiny branches on your otherwise linear journey rewards you with a battery nine times out of ten. The only reason you might burn through batteries is if you habitually press ‘R’ out of an FPS reloading compulsion, as the character discards the current battery, regardless of its remaining charge. While the limited view night-vision affords is good for heightening the fear of what you can’t see, it makes finding your way around the more open areas a pain, and you can miss the spooky jump scares if you have night-vision switched off.

A strong aspect of the gameplay is the movement controls. Many horror games have you walk as if your legs are submerged in butter so that lumbering enemies can keep up with you, but Outlast gives you a good level of mobility, including some fluid parkour moves like vaulting and ledge shimmying, and these make chase sequences quite fun. In a similar vein, the fact that there is a soft lock to cover when you press the lean button is great, as it alleviates those stupid moments found in many games where you peek and find you haven’t got the right angle or distance and need to readjust.

It has its moments, but Outlast mostly feels like a soulless corridor of jump scares and gruesome imagery primarily designed to generate hype. I can’t help but think of games like Alien: Isolation and Resident Evil 7, which took this formula and added deeper gameplay mechanics and unique atmospheres to create more memorable experiences, so I would recommend you play those games instead.

Recommended? No

Alpha Protocol review

Reviewed on PC.

Some games are easy to review; they are either so brilliant or so terrible that deciding whether to recommend them is instantaneous. Then there are games like Alpha Protocol, a game that has a few stellar highs, mixed with a lot of garbage. On release, it was largely dismissed as a buggy mess with mediocre gameplay, but more recently it has been called an overlooked gem, so I decided to give it a go.

Get over the cheesy title and awful theme music and you are given control of Michael Thorton, a spy recently inducted into the Alpha Protocol agency. The first few missions have you carrying out operations in the Middle East, where he is tasked with eliminating the leader of a terrorist group. Shortly after completing this operation, he is double crossed and goes rogue. The initial setting, atmosphere and generic title implied a modern espionage thriller, and then the tone suddenly flipped on it’s head when the next mission introduced a mute emo teenager with dual revolvers as a boss fight. Wait, what? Was Hideo Kojima brought in as a guest writer? From that point onwards, Alpha Protocol occasionally switched Splinter Cell for Saint’s Row, and the results were as uneven as you would expect. Dialogue is heavily emphasised in the game, and in conversations you usually pick from three types of response: suave, professional and aggressive. The character you are in conversation with will change their opinion of you depending on whether they like your responses, but because each response type is supposed to represent a different flavour of fictional spy, mixing them feels like splicing together clips from different franchises. The game continually references your behaviour and actions in dialogue, and this is easily Alpha Protocol’s greatest strength. Characters will often talk about decisions you made – sometimes considerably earlier in the game – and these comments are seamlessly integrated, so that conversations feel natural. Very few games achieve such a reactive game world, with such a massive range of outcomes, so Alpha Protocol deserves praise for this .

The gameplay is where things fall apart. Essentially, Alpha Protocol is Mass Effect with an espionage skin; missions consist largely of cover-based shooting, you spend skill point on passive and active abilities, and you run around playing hacking minigames. The shooting is made a lot more awkward by using a similar aiming system to the original Deus Ex, where you need to upgrade your skill with a weapon type to be effective, and can only really hit anything when both you and the target are stationary. This wasn’t that great in Deus Ex, and it’s even worse here, where enemies are a lot more mobile and duck behind cover when your crosshair starts tightening. Thankfully, your opponents usually have terrible aim, and are prone to abruptly freezing up during a firefight, which makes most encounters really easy, even with the aiming handicap. There is also a patchy stealth system, where you crouch walk around, press a button to take down unaware enemies, and avoid security cameras. It sounds fine on paper, but while perks and equipment make mention of the amount of noise you make and your distance from enemies, there’s nothing in-game to indicate how well hidden you are, so the only way to guarantee successful sneaking is by repeatedly using the ability that makes you invisible. Specialising in stealth can also make boss fights more painful, as they are just enemies with extra health that you have to fight in enclosed arenas. Bosses usually employ one of two annoying tactics: spamming the area with explosives or stunning you with melee attacks. Both are really frustrating and present the only thing resembling difficulty, even if it is cheap and artificial. That said, on my stealthy playthrough I beat a boss in seconds by throwing three grenades from cover, so as you might be able to tell the game is not very balanced.

On the subject of cover, it is very fickle. Sometimes you won’t stick to it. Sometimes it won’t protect you from bullets. Sometimes it won’t conceal you from enemies when sneaking. These problems sort of undermine including a cover system. Using a sniper rifle is tortuous, as the mouse suddenly becomes ultra sensitive, ironically making it extremely difficult to aim them. This is particularly annoying since one mission requires you to keep the rifle’s sights perfectly over people while you scan their faces. However, the most horrific mouse problems show up in the computer hacking minigame, where you have to find two codes within a sea of scrolling letters and numbers as a timer counts down. The minigame is hard enough, but it is made excruciating by the fact that the mouse (which is required to select the second code) is not calibrated, meaning you have to make some really awkward movements to actually select the code once you have found it. This minigame is not something that can be avoided, as it is required to complete some objectives and collect intel, which crucial to understanding some of the plot and characters. The pain can be relieved by unlocking the ‘interference’ ability, which bypasses the hacking in exchange for an EMP grenade, but you have to constantly stock up if you take this route and sometimes the option is not even available. Fuck the hacking minigame.

Was there anything I liked about the gameplay? Well, I thought awarding the player perks for their dialogue choices and approach to missions was a good idea.

I have already mentioned some technical issues, but there are a few more. Textures frequently take a long time to load. The animations are often stiff and unnatural, particularly Thorton’s floating waddle when sneaking. I also have to emphasise the fact that the enemy AI is really poor and will regularly start doing something stupid, like climbing up and down ladders in a loop when they really should be shooting at you. More intrusive are the regular frame rate drops that cause the camera to jerk around and often leave you pointing in the wrong direction.

This review has probably made Alpha Protocol sound like a pile of shit, but the abundance of choices you are offered in conversations meant I was fine with pushing through the dull gameplay to see what would happen. I probably wouldn’t recommend it, but it might be worth a look just to appreciate the sheer ambition of Alpha Protocol.

Recommended? No

Review: Condemned: Criminal Origins

Reviewed on PC.

Do you feel like horror games would benefit from the option to bop the spooky people with a plank of wood? I’ve got the game for you…

Condemned: Criminal Origins is set in a city is overrun by people who have been driven to insanity and will try to murder anyone they see. You play as Ethan Thomas, an FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer in the midst of this chaos. Early on, Thomas is framed for the murder of two policemen, and goes on the run while continuing his investigation. The frame job is pretty contrived and requires you to suspend your disbelief quite a bit, and that disbelief needs launching into space when Thomas decides the best way to prove his innocence is by bludgeoning homeless people in the downtime between finding clues, as I don’t think he could claim ‘reasonable force’ for some of the executions. That said, once the game gets going, the serial killer plot is pretty good, and feels like a mix between Red Dragon and X-files. Things get gradually more surreal as the game goes on; Thomas suffers nightmarish hallucinations (like many other video game protagonists), but they are generally more unnerving and effective than most examples that come to mind, with a sequence featuring mannequins being especially memorable. The atmosphere is supplemented with a few well-timed jump scares and claustrophobic environments that merge to form a bleak, hostile atmosphere. The tone is weakened a bit whenever Thomas speaks, as he always sounds chirpy when walking around buildings full of people who want to clobber him, and kind of dopey considering his reputation as the FBI’s best investigator.

Condemned is a first person game, but mainly has you using melee weapons to fight off enemies, as opposed to BFGs. The environments are littered with items that can be picked up to use in combat, and each has a different balance of damage, range, swing speeds and block speeds. When in melee combat, you can attack, block, kick, and stun enemies with a taser. Blocking is crucial to survival, but because each weapon has a different block speed, the timing can be difficult to get a hold of early on. Once you get a feel for the rhythm, however, combat is satisfying and appropriately brutal. Firearms are present, but hard to find until the final few chapters. When you do get your hands on a gun, you are limited to however many rounds are left, as you can’t reload; once emptied, you flip it around and use it as an inferior melee weapon. The limited use of guns is balanced by them being very powerful, with the obvious advantage of being able to drop opponents from a distance, which gives you an idea of how soldiers felt the first time someone turned up with a gun on the battlefield. The moments where you rush ahead to pick up a shotgun before some douchebag wastes the three rounds loaded in it on you are fanstastic. The enemies you are up against are pretty smart; in addition to realistic behaviours like fleeing and looking for a weapon when disarmed, they will ambush you from corners, and fake attacks to throw off your block timing. In addition to combat, there is a forensic investigation mechanic, where you use the laboratories worth of gadgets Ethan is carrying to analyse and collect evidence. This sounds pretty interesting, but sadly you are prompted when to take out your equipment, the correct gadget is automatically selected, and you are given arrows showing you exactly where to point and click, meaning these sequences could really have been cutscenes.

Each of the ten chapters takes place in a different environment, and some standouts are the library, the department store and the school. While many of these levels are similarly run-down and grimy, their unique elements are often incorporated to enhance the excellent psychological sequences, such as the aforementioned mannequins.

There are a few pretty glaring flaws with the gameplay, the main one being how you need a particular weapon to break down certain doors or smash locks, meaning weapons pretty much function as keycards. This is a problem because you can only carry one weapon, so you sometimes have to wander around looking for the shovel you missed despite the fact the sledgehammer you are carrying would probably be more effective at smashing a lock. In addition, the prompts that appear when you can smash a door are very particular about placement, when it would have made sense for the whole door to trigger the prompt. Another annoying thing is your character’s slow movement speed, which means that the shovel/key hunts are dragged out, and manoeuvrability in combat is pretty limited.

On the technical side, the game would not select my dedicated graphics card, so I had to force it through the control panel, but once that was done, the frame rate was solid the whole way through, barring a few momentary dips. The only bug that I noticed was an issue where enemies would occasionally keep running into me as if they were trying to get past, which meant I could easily kill them. I also have to point out the weird character models, which are so bulky they look like they’re trying to be wider than the meatheads in Gears Of War.

Initially, I wasn’t sold on Condemned: Criminal Origins, the illogical early plot points and my difficulty getting used to the combat meant the first hour was annoying, but as things progressed, I was sucked in by the terrifying atmosphere and the desperation of fights. I completed it in six hours on the hardest difficulty, meaning the story keeps a good pace and the gameplay doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, so I would recommend it.

Recommended? Yes

Review: Metro 2033 Redux

Reviewed on PC.

Metro 2033 is based on a post-apocalyptic novel by author Dmitry Glukhovsky. If a notice played before the main menu isn’t enough to make you aware of this fact, almost every person in the game seems to own a copy of the book, and proudly displays it as a centrepiece to their ramshackle home. I’ll be looking at the ‘Redux’ version, which overhauls a lot of the original’s gameplay, visuals, and performance.

Metro 2033 takes place after a terrible nuclear war that has left the surface of Russia inhospitable, forcing survivors to take refuge in the Moscow Metro system. You play as Artyom, who is tasked with travelling to Polis station to request help in fighting ‘The Dark Ones’ – creatures that are believed to be the next step in human evolution. In order to reach Polis, Artyom must cross territory occupied by Nazis and Communists, who aren’t letting the collapse of civilisation get in the way of extremist politics. Because this world is well fleshed-out and pretty believable (even with the more supernatural elements), it is very easy to get immersed by the game, and the atmosphere is possibly 2033‘s biggest strength. It’s also possible to play the game in Russian for extra immersion points, but the problem with this is that background dialogue is not subtitled, causing you to remember you are an uneducated fool. Artyom only speaks in loading screens, but he is developed as a character through diary entries, which are inexplicably pre-written and placed ahead of him. The entries paint quite an interesting, conflicted character, who has difficulty with spelling, punctuation and grammar. There are a lot of scripted sequences and stretches without action, so it will appeal to people who enjoy narrative-heavy games.

The gameplay is a blend between first person shooting and survival horror. The game is very linear, aside from small areas than you can take a detour into, which usually reward your inquisitive nature with supplies. As a result, the game is concise and focused, which keeps you invested over the 8-10 hour runtime. Gunplay is functional when fighting the human enemies, but it is easy to be overwhelmed by mutants since they attack in groups and move really fast, resulting in many moments where they kicked the shit out of me while I was busy reloading. Thankfully, the guns that you will be reloading in a panic are very cool. Along with standard fare like revolvers and AKs, there are some makeshift weapons, like a shotgun that is fed by a revolving cylinder, and a pneumatic air rifle that can be pumped for increased damage and accuracy. In addition, the models and animations for the weapons are great; the reload animations are particularly impressive to see. There is also a decent stealth system where you can sneak around, shooting out lights as you knock out/brutally stab your way through groups of people, though it can feel a little easy. Along with these conventional gameplay mechanics, there are some pretty unique ideas designed to emphasise the survival aspects of the game. The main one is the gas mask. In addition to simply putting it on when things get a bit smelly, you need to regularly change the filters, wipe dirt off the glass, and find a replacement when the mask gets badly damaged. Another unusual element is the currency system. You collect military-grade ammunition, which can be loaded into your weapons to increase the damage they do, or be used to purchase weapons, items and upgrades, so you have to weigh up which is going to more beneficial. The gameplay is supplemented with a lot of attention to detail, with little things like strong winds on the surface causing your gun to wildly sway when you’re trying to aim, which deepens the immersion factor.

On the whole, I like the gameplay, but it does have some problems. One of the main issues is that some of the mechanics are not explained. Over the course of Metro 2033, I couldn’t work out why a button would make Artyom look at his watch (it displays your level of concealment), why I couldn’t pass through a certain cobweb when I’d just walked straight through the last five (this one is apparently thicker and therefore needs to be burnt with your lighter), and how to charge the night-vision goggles (it’s the same button as charging your flashlight, which is also not explained). I appreciate not having my hand held, but looking in the controls didn’t clear things up, so I had to pause to check Google numerous times. It’s also easy to unintentionally load weapons with military grade ammo early on when you don’t quite understand it. Finally, there are a few button-mashing QTEs, which always make games a little less enjoyable.

The music is pretty good. Atmospheric moments are flavoured with sparse, melancholic guitar, while combat features suitably dramatic tracks, which escalate in tension and use musical stings to accentuate violent actions.

On the technical side, it’s a bit patchy. The frame rate is mostly consistent, but a few times it dipped considerably. There were quite a few bugs; one time I got permanently stuck on a turret, forcing me to reload from a checkpoint; a big monster kept walking into a wall; and there were quite a few flickering textures. I also found that using the chapter select would suddenly close the game, and I could not find a solution to this problem.

Metro 2033 Redux is definitely clunky; it suffers from technical issues and lacks clarity on some mechanics, but the world-building and atmosphere is of such a high quality that I really enjoyed it. I liked it enough to consider reading the book, so hopefully one of the NPCs will lend it to me.

Recommended? Yes

Review: Max Payne 3

Reviewed on PC.

Like the game I examined in my last review, Hitman: Absolution, Max Payne 3 is an entry to a beloved series that considerably changed key elements in the hopes of appeasing a modern audience as well as long-time fans. Unlike Absolution, I think Max Payne 3 got it right. Released nine years after the previous entry, 3 was the first Max Payne title developed by Rockstar Games.

In Max Payne 3, you obviously play as the eponymous hero, who flees America to work  in Brazil as a bodyguard for the wealthy Rodrigo Branco. After Branco’s wife is kidnapped, Max tries to get her back, and things progressively get grimmer from there. While the story is mostly straightforward, there are points when things can get a little contrived or confusing; when several different private military corporations turned up, I found it a little hard to keep track of their motivations. The story avoids the tongue-in-cheek moments and meta-humour found in the first two in favour of a gritty thriller style indebted to film directors like Michael Mann and Tony Scott. While the story is just okay, the vocal performances are great across the board. James McCaffery returns as Payne, delivering every line with pitch perfect sarcasm. However, the dialogue varies in quality, and while there are memorable lines like “I had killed more cops than cholesterol”, you are sometimes thrown headscratchers, like Max comparing being shot at by a helicopter in Brazil to “Baghdad with G-strings.” The story is where most problems with this game arise, since the cutscenes – while masterfully acted, directed and animated- can be extremely long, frequently interrupt gameplay and are often unskippable. I think it’s great how the game has an initial load screen and then you can potentially play through the whole thing with seamless transitions between gameplay and cutscenes, but seeing the same scenes after multiple playthroughs can get tiring, and the fact that a cutscene is sometimes played for an action as mundane as pressing a button or opening a door just hurts the flow.

The gunplay in Max Payne 3 is amazing. Aiming is smooth and accurate, thanks to the dot reticle and every weapon being precise. Bullets have a real impact, and clear headshots will always kill enemies (your head is just as vulnerable). The physics cause enemies believably stagger back when hit and collapse when killed. Combined, these elements would form a pretty solid third-person shooter, but once mixed with the series’ signature slow-motion dives, it becomes a phenomenal experience. For those that don’t know, Mr Payne has the ability to fling his body to the ground, which causes the world around him to slow and allows him to shoot accurately with reduced risk to himself. In Max Payne 3, you can shootdodge as much as you want, but if you collide with a hard object mid-flight, time will return to normal and Payne will unceremoniously clatter to the ground while the goons shooting at him laugh. Whether you bump into something or not, once Payne is on the ground, you can continue shooting until you choose to get up. A successful shootdodge where you glide across the room and kill multiple enemies, then drop to the ground and finish off the survivors is immensely satisfying. In addition, a bullet cam triggers under certain circumstances, showing your rounds hitting the enemy, similar to V.A.T.S in the newer Fallout games, and the developers had the genius idea to let you keep firing your gun with one button and slow down time with another while the cam is active. This leads to some pretty hilarious moments as you can manipulate the second an enemy realises they are fucked. The game includes a cover system, but it’s rudimentary, lacking options for turning corners or switching between pieces of cover, and hiding in cover will usually result in enemies throwing grenades or flanking you, encouraging you to play aggressively and take risks. In a similar vein, your health is restored by consumable items, and you take a lot of damage, meaning the game retains the punishing difficulty the previous games were known for. The shooting is kept fresh by the game providing new locations to stage the gunfights in every chapter. Some of the more notable locations include a nightclub, an office, a graveyard and an airport. Each of these levels has has different guns available, which encourages you to experiment and adapt to their nuances.

On the technical side, the game is really well optimised and is well suited to a mouse and keyboard control scheme, making the PC version the definitive version. The graphics are great, with detailed character and weapon models, but the nearly flawless animations steal the show, particularly the brilliant weapon switching and holstering, where Max will carry a two handed weapon in his offhand while holding a sidearm in his right.

The music is another massive strength. Rockstar brought in noise rock band Health to create the soundtrack. The result is an astonishingly good blend of electronic and ambient tracks that gradually build over the course of a level, and the tracks mix with the on-screen violence to create a kind of dreamy atmosphere. In the final chapter of the game, a vocal track, ‘Tears’, is used to punctuate the action, and this is one of those game moments that sticks in your mind for a long time.

The game is occasionally let down by glitches. The physics can screw up when you collide with something during a shootdodge, leading Max to bizarrely flail around in mid-air. The laser sights on some of the later weapons don’t show up on targets, ironically making them far less accurate than your standard reticle. Once half of the environment failed to load and then an empty car drove to Max to offer him a lift – the detective intended to be at the wheel had also not appeared.

Despite the fact it wrenches control from you constantly, I fucking love this game. I appreciate the fact that instead of shoehorning in a bunch of mechanics or lowering the difficulty to appear ‘modern’, it focuses on doing one thing supremely well: stylised shootouts. If you don’t think the game is true to the character, just consider it a dumb fun action game with a similarly moody protagonist, because Max Payne 3 is so damn enjoyable.

Recommended? Yes

Review: Hitman: Absolution

Reviewed on PC.

Over the course of four games, the Hitman series put together a collection of smart games that melded stealth, action and puzzle elements to simulate the experience of being a master assassin, culminating in 2006’s Blood Money. It was six years before the next instalment, Absolution, was released. At the very least, people could expect a game comparable to the previous ones, with advanced graphics and refined gameplay. Sadly, this idea was eschewed in favour of conforming to design trends popular at the time, and introducing new mechanics that didn’t mesh well together.

In Hitman: Absolution, you play as Agent 47, a clone designed to be the perfect killer. At the beginning of the game, 47 is tasked with assassinating his former handler, Diana, for betraying the agency they work for. Before her death, Diana convinces 47 to look after a girl who had been experimented on in a similar manner to 47. The girl is then snatched by a group who hope to sell her, and the story becomes a sort of grindhouse Taken from there, which sounds a lot more fun than the game actually is. The characters are all pretty revolting, which is par for the course in a Hitman game, but here the cutscenes feature oversized Mexican wrestlers, evil cowboy tycoons and assassin nuns in fetish outfits. Pick a cutscene at random, and you’re likely to hear a slew of cringe-inducing profanities, slurs and sex references, like if you took a Tarantino film and lobotomised it. I can’t tell if the tone was intended to be funny or gritty, but either way, it failed. The weirdest characterisation is 47 himself. Previously, he seemed to only care about professionalism and his fee, possessing a detached demeanour and was quite obviously a bad guy killing other bad guys; here he is portrayed as a sort of religious figure cleansing the world of sin, and gives comforting hugs while millions of dollars blow away in the wind.

So the story’s a mess, but people don’t play Hitman for the narrative. Sadly, Absolution has an onslaught of problems in the gameplay department. Many issues stem from abandoning the open ended gameplay of prior titles. Instead of each level being a large sandbox where you blend in with civilians and staff while making your way to the targets, Absolution features many smaller levels where you are being hunted by authorities straight away, meaning you’re expected to stay out of sight like any other stealth game. Disguises are still present, but they behave in a much less beneficial way; wearing the same disguise as someone else will cause them to become suspicious of you. While this makes sense when the position you’re pretending to be in is only held by a few people, having every police officer in the universe immediately hostile as soon as you pop on their uniform is ludicrous. To be effective, disguises need to be supported with the ‘instinct’ mechanic. While in instinct mode, an NPC’s scepticism of your chef credentials is delayed while 47 does something completely inconspicuous like covering his face, instead of just saying it’s his first day on the job. You have a limited amount of instinct (unless you’re on the easiest difficulty), which means you can’t use it to help you explore the level, you have to know your route and stick to it. On that note, in lieu of the clever save system in previous games, which allowed you a number of manual saves depending on your chosen difficulty, Absolution goes with a checkpoint system. Here’s my obligatory ‘checkpoint systems don’t work well in stealth games, since the genre is dependent on experimentation’, but that doesn’t begin to cover the awful implementation here. Not only are checkpoints extremely rare, they also don’t function as you would expect. When restarting from a checkpoint, pacified enemies are revived, so instead of just being set back, you are potentially spawned in a more difficult position, and the plan you have been concocting is suddenly worthless.

Absolution throws in a lot of elements from successful modern franchises, some work, most don’t. Obviously, it has the ‘glue yourself to cover all the time’ that every game that mentioned guns post-2006 was required by law to include. It also includes some action set pieces, including one where a helicopter chases 47 across the rooftops, which really emphasises the ‘silent assassin’ theme of the series. There is a sort of RPG upgrade system, where attaining a decent score on a level will slightly improve a skill, for example increasing accuracy when dual wielding. This system seems to have been included in the hopes of improving replayability, but the differences seem negligible, and some upgrades are downright redundant (increasing sprinting speed in a game where you slowly move between bits of cover springs to mind). All melee combat is a sequence of quick time events, and while I appreciate the fact that hand-to-hand actions are a lot more consistent than in Blood Money, their presence makes the game feel even more scripted and restrictive. Gunfights are seemingly encouraged, since you don’t have a silenced pistol for a considerable portion of the early game, and have the ability to mark and execute enemies. I say seemingly because there is a score counter on-screen at all times that seems designed to make you feel like you are fucking up no matter what. Knocked someone out? Score penalty. Killed anyone but the target? Penalty. Been detected? Enjoy a massive point deduction, motherfucker. The score counter is a sort of highlights how elements of this game just don’t fit together. According to the score counter, the correct way to play the game is ghosting your way through, yet there are points where mindless slaughter is carefully set up, where 47 can burst out of a giant cake firing wildly, which would have been a memorable target kill, but instead you execute a group of guards and a civilian for literally no reason.

I will admit there are some pretty impressive things about the game, but they’re mostly superficial or just improvements that you would expect after a six year break. Once you turn the bloom off that is reminiscent of taking a blowtorch to your eyes, Absolution is very good looking graphically, featuring great textures and detailed environments. The animations are great, my favourite being a badass move where 47 disarms a guard about to arrest him and takes them hostage. The controls are considerably less clunky than previous entries, the shooting feels smooth, and guns have real weight when fired. On the purely technical side, it’s well optimised, and there are plenty of video options available. There are also far fewer glitches compared to previous entries, and the only bug I noticed was clipping through walls when choking people cover.

Ultimately, Absolution kind of feels like the game someone who had only seen the box art on a Hitman game would make; they saw a guy in a suit with pistols and went from there. It almost completely misses what makes Hitman such an engaging and unique series, and instead tries to serve a really weak narrative. Maybe give it a go if you’re a big fan of the series, if not, there are far better stealth games and far better third-person shooters.

Recommended? Hitman: Absolut-ely not