Review: F.E.A.R.

Reviewed on PC.

Do you wish your tactical room clearing shooter was a little more spooky? I have the game for you.

In F.E.A.R., you play as an operative, who is part of an organisation that deals with the supernatural called First Encounter Assault Recon (or F.E.A.R.), who obviously wanted a cool acronym. At the beginning of the game, you are sent to eliminate a telepathic cannibal named Paxton Fettel, whose name sounds too much like a sort of posh meal to be threatening. Fettel has assumed control of an army of clones and assaulted a technology company. Over the course of the game you uncover the company’s dark secrets, and are increasingly pursued by a spooky J-horror girl. The premise has a lot of potential, suggesting a sort of gritty Ghostbusters, but the horror sections are brief and divided up by long stretches of military shootouts. The tone is muddied further by the inclusion of Hong Kong action elements, like bullet time and martial arts moves. If the game indulged a bit in the silliness of this mix it would have been more enjoyable, but it is played completely straight. As a result, it feels like it could have been split into two or three games with more congruent tones: a psychological horror game, a tactical shooter with impressive enemy AI, and a goofy action game with slow motion flying kicks. Some of the story is filled in by listening to people’s answering machines, but unlike the System Shock/Bioshock method of having an audio log play while you explore, you have to stay near the phone, hurting the game’s already poor pacing. The characters are all dull, which is saying something when the villains are a telepathic cannibal and a psychic demon child, and the story as a whole is just not that interesting.

F.E.A.R. regains some goodwill with it’s gameplay. It’s a first person shooter where you take on squads of soldiers that work together rather than single enemies placed around the map. These enemies are notable for their smart AI, which allows them to perform actions like flanking, sneaking, blindfiring, and crawling across the room. The enemies also shout orders and call out what you are doing, which respectively give you an opportunity to respond to their tactics and make encounters more believable. The squads feel like a genuinely challenging and intelligent enemy, particularly on higher difficulties, and so outsmarting them feels very satisfying. The problem is a lot of the game has you fighting the same squads repeatedly, and this can stretch out for long periods of time without any sense of progression. There are several enemies that aren’t copy-pasted supersoldiers – heavies, drones and robots – but these are rarely seen, and soak up way too much damage to be fun. At a few points you fight off supernatural enemies, and I think there should have been more of these skirmishes so the game would inch a little closer to the genre implied by the title. Another element that ratchets up the tedium is the environments. Almost all of the game takes place in either an empty warehouse, or an empty office, and it’s made even worse when you are forced to backtrack through these places. The levels can get so repetitive that I lost a save and was sent several chapters back, but did not realise for a while. If F.E.A.R. was a fully-fledged horror game, setting it in a single office building would create a complimentary feeling of claustrophobia, but shooters often need some sort of variety to keep things fresh, whether it’s new enemies, environments or mechanics.

The weapons are generally enjoyable to use. As well as the standard fare of pistol, SMG, battle and assault rifles, you get a shotgun that feels extremely powerful and occasionally turns foes into sickly red mist. Later on you get access to some more exotic weapons: a nailgun that pins people to walls, a beam cannon that simultaneously incinerates and electrocutes victims, and a sort of revolving cannon. These make gunfights a lot of fun, but having a cannon that causes people to evaporate removes any tension from the horror moments when spooky girl is walking towards you in slow motion. In addition, all the automatic weapons have awful accuracy and recoil, so during many combat encounters I wished I could just have a normal gun that wouldn’t praise the sun the moment I pulled the trigger. On a similar note, the melee attacks are amusing, but are rarely useful, since flinging yourself towards enemies is a good way to efficiently get killed, and so you only do them if you’re getting bored and have a health kit to spare. One other annoyance is the fact that the lean function doesn’t extend far enough, which means you have to expose about half your body when trying to shoot from cover.

F.E.A.R. puts emphasis on visual spectacle to support it’s Hong Kong action stylings. Opening fire will cause dead enemies to ragdoll, sparks to fly, dust clouds to form and broken glass shatter everywhere. The effect is amplified by activating bullet time, which makes the chaos seem almost choreographed and sort of beautiful (maybe not the evaporating people). The blood-soaked psychological sequences are also pretty interesting to see, even though they don’t ever feel threatening.

I did have some fun playing F.E.A.R.; overcoming the early gunfights made me feel like a tactical genius with lightning reflexes, but the experience lost a lot of impact after it started to seem like I was hitting quickload every time I cleared a room. On a technological level, F.E.A.R. is pretty impressive, and the AI outshines most games released since. Ultimately though, I can’t recommend a game that has a relatively short run time, yet feels like it’s dragging.

Recommended? No

Review: XCOM 2

Reviewed on PC.

XCOM 2 is rather unique. There aren’t many games where you can assemble an elite squad consisting of Emperor Palpatine, Arnold Schwarznegger, Bob Ross and Ainsley Harriet, and then send them on missions to destabilise an authoritarian alien regime.

The year is 2035, and Earth is under the control of aliens. In this timeline, XCOM, an organisation of elite soldiers brought together to combat extraterrestrial threats, were quickly overwhelmed by the invasion that took place in 2015. At the beginning of the game, remnants of XCOM recover their commander from captivity and then get to work winding the aliens up via guerilla strikes. On the whole it’s a bit more gritty than it’s predecessor; the voice acting and writing is more straight-faced, but I quite liked the slight cheesiness of the original Bradford, Vahlen and Shen.

Gameplay-wise, XCOM 2 is pretty much the same gripping mix of high-risk turn-based combat and base management, with a few additions to justify a new instalment. The combat has more of a focus on playing offensively and taking risks, as a large number of missions have a pretty strict turn limit. In the mid-to-late game, this has the intended effect of putting a reasonable amount of extra pressure on you, but early on, the turn counts can make some missions seem overly punishing and sometimes almost impossible. The early game encounters are particularly cruel in the fact that enemies can have access to mind control and can make soldiers panic, and your rookies have little chance to resist. The first months are the most difficult, so be prepared for several restarts while you learn the ropes.

The faster pacing is matched with a stronger emphasis on close range combat. Among others, rangers are equipped with a powerful sword, heavies now wield grenade launchers and snipers are arguably more effective using pistols. These weapons are crucial in dealing with numerous new and redesigned enemies that will charge at your troops in the hopes of smacking them with a stun lance (stun lancers have been added to the list of enemies that can fuck themselves). Base management is a bit different from before, in that you move about the world map and scan for supplies in the time between combat engagements. While everything in this part has a parallel in Enemy Unknown, it took me a bit more time to understand how everything worked. Weighing up the pros and cons of launching a mission is something I had to do more, and I let many alien attacks go ahead because Arnie was in the hospital or I would rather fly in the opposite direction to pick up supplies. One area that has been massively expanded is the character customisation. Now you can have your soldiers look more varied than broad male #1-#5 and sensibly dressed female, and it even goes as far as to let you pick a personality type and write a biography about their love of hallucinogenic drugs.

One of the big selling points of the game is the fact it has full modding support, which allowed my soldiers to spurt random quotes about the dark side of the Force in response to my order to move. Many mods expand the character customisation further, with plenty of character voicepacks, weapons and armour. There are minor tweaks, and ones to replace your soldiers with giant pigeons. Of course, a bunch of mods just aim to deal with the flaws in the game. Speaking of which…

XCOM 2 hasn’t fixed problems present in it’s predecessor, and has thrown in a few fresh ones for good measure. The game is rife with technical issues. The one you will be dealing with most is how much of a strain the game is on your hardware. My frame rate was hugely inconsistent with and without V-sync, and lowered settings didn’t really improve things. In a turn based game, frame rate issues aren’t too much of a problem, but are still unpleasant. Another huge issue is the amount of time wasted. The load times are excruciating, and you’ll see a plethora of them, especially if you quickload regularly to erase your stupid moves. Many times in combat there will be an awkward pause between actions, and I have to wonder how many hours of my current fifty are just the points where the computer took five seconds before going ‘Oh shit it’s my turn, sorry.’ The camera is still a little clumsy to use at times, especially when trying to look inside buildings and aiming grenades. There are also points when the camera will be wrenched away from you to focus on something that can cause you to misclick if it happens at the wrong time. Similarly, your control is restricted while the scientist or engineer looks at something and says ‘That’s interesting,’ but in the form of a much longer speech. The worst example is when Central Officer Bradford grabs the camera and reminds you that letting civilians die is bad with the same line you’ve heard six times before. There are also clipping issues, times when someone will shoot through walls without a line of sight and a few occurrences when a model would flash out of existence.

A more minor complaint is that I don’t feel the soundtrack is as strong as the one from Enemy Unknown. It uses a similar blend of ambient, electronic and orchestral elements, but aside from a few moments, it didn’t seem as memorable.

Ultimately, XCOM 2 felt like an expansion to Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within, and I enjoyed most of my time with it. The games in this series just have a really satisfying loop of tense combat and thoughtful management that make them hard to put down. The modding support and more in-depth character customisation add a lot of value to the engaging core gameplay, but the numerous technical issues and some points where things can feel a little unbalanced brings it’s recommendation down from highly to an ‘If you liked Enemy Unknown, get it, if you haven’t played Enemy Unknown, play it, it’s great.’

 

Recommended? Yes

Review: Half-Life

Reviewed on PC.

You know those days where nothing goes right? When you’re late to work, then you accidentally release a bunch of homicidal aliens, then the military turns up to execute everyone? No?

Half-Life is a 1998 first person shooter that had a massive influence on games that came after it. It pushed away from the waves of Doom-clones with the goal of delivering a more realistic and cinematic experience. You play as Gordon Freeman, a scientist who works at the Black Mesa facility, and tries to repel the alien threat unleashed after an experiment goes wrong. The story isn’t groundbreakingly original, but what was notable at the time was the fact the narrative is delivered by listening to NPCs and observing events in-game, rather than through cutscenes. This makes the game feel like an unbroken experience, instead of game levels divided up by plot dumps.

The game features a good variety of environments, including a labs with little puzzles to solve, areas swamped by hazardous chemicals, a rail system with a cart you can ride and the desert outside the facility. The areas don’t usually feel like believable spaces, but you feel a sense of momentum and regularly see something new to keep things interesting.

Half-Life is a shooter, so unsurprisingly, it has shooting. The game gives you the expected melee weapon, pistol, shotgun and so on, along with more unusual arms like a gauss cannon and a crossbow, and Freeman is allowed to carry all his arsenal at once, since realistic weapon limits weren’t a thing yet. As for the things receiving the bullets, the aliens are fun to fight and there are plenty of different types to keep things fresh. Fighting the aliens feels satisfying, as the weapons feel suited to combating them; sadly, the same can’t be said of the military enemies. The soldiers don’t react to incoming fire until they drop dead, and they have pretty much perfect aim, meaning some confrontations boil down to the player and the soldier pummelling each other until one drops. Add to this the fact they take a few billion rounds before feeling mildly uncomfortable and the encounters before you find the punchy weapons are pretty punishing. On the flip side, if you are the one with the drop on them, they are completely oblivious to their adjacent squadmate’s head exploding. The AI is usually quite smart, but if the soldiers can’t see you, they are easy to exploit.

As with many games of the late 90s and early 2000s, Half-Life includes platforming as a way to shake things up. This platforming is abysmal. The main problem is the way you move; Freeman runs at a superhuman speed and decelerates, rather than halts, when you stop pressing a movement key. The enemies posed a minimal threat in comparison with Freeman’s hyperactive sliding. During my playthrough, I skidded off a thousand ledges to my death; skidded into missiles; skidded into live grenades and skidded onto mines. First person platforming is awkward at the best of times, and adding unpredictable movement into the mix sometimes make the frustration hard to handle. I later discovered there is a button to fully stop you moving, but it’s pretty unintuitive, and I had usually overshot my target and been injured/killed before I could react. On a similar note, the ladders that do not have a platform opposite them are deathtraps, as heading down them is next to impossible, so you end up with more injuries.

The final few chapters are a let-down. The pace has been ratcheted up and you assume things are about to dramatically conclude, but instead you are greeted by the most unpleasant platforming in the game, with different gravity to the level you spent the last ten hours compensating for, topped off by a liberal helping of projectiles flying at you. One of these levels features throwing your now limited ammo at a giant spider with a huge scrotum, and most of your healing will be done by sitting in pools that give you enough time to do all your chores. While there are some visually interesting aspects to the environments (no I’m not talking about the scrotum spider), the general experience is pretty negative, and Gabe Newell himself stated he regrets the final section.

On the technical side, I didn’t have many problems. I wrote this review in July 2017, and during that month valve released an update fixing a number of bugs. It is extremely rare for a game to receive support nineteen years on, so kudos for that. One issue I did run into was NPCs’ dialogue being too quiet, which meant I missed a lot of exposition and objective updates.

Half-Life is one of the milestones in gaming, and it’s influence can be felt in most shooters that succeeded it. As a person who played it for the first time in 2017, it’s easy to zone in on the aspects that make it’s age apparent, but it still has plenty to offer the modern player. I particularly like the tone of the early game, which feels like horror as much as sci-fi. I enjoy the shooting, which is in a sweet spot between arcade-like and believable. Aside from the last few chapters, it also keeps a good pace, periodically introducing new weapons, enemies and environmental problems to keep things moving. Half-Life is still worth a play, even if you ‘weren’t there’, but be prepared for some frustration.

Recommended? Yes

Review: Mass Effect 2

Reviewed on PC.

Mass Effect 2 is another one of those ‘greatest ever’ games. It is unique amongst it’s acclaimed peers by having alien snogging as a feature, in addition to strong writing and excellent characters.

Mass Effect 2 starts with the legendary Commander Shepard being killed. Protagonists had a habit of being killed in the first few minutes in the early 2010s: Adam Jensen, Subject Delta, The Courier from New Vegas. Thankfully, a shadowy corporation reconstructs them to spend the other nineteen hours and fifty minutes combating a nightmarish alien race known as The Collectors. In the lead up to the assault, you put together a crack team of specialists, and are responsible for acquiring better equipment so you go into battle with more than a few sharpened rocks. The story is a good fit for an RPG, giving you a clear goal and a reason to take on the side missions; your ending is dependent on a combination of effort you put in, your decision making and a little bit of chance.

The characters of Mass Effect 2 are probably it’s biggest strength. They range from generic military humans to introspective assassin space frogs, all with high quality voice acting, and you are certain to find at least a few interesting. The specialists are recruited by completing main missions, but beyond the initial recruitment you will need to regularly check up on them and complete their dedicated sidequests to improve their effectiveness, and more importantly, schmooze them. These quests involve you solving a personal issue with them, but weirdly the majority include a problem with a character’s parent, so they can feel like they are retreading the same ground.

The game takes you through a number of hub worlds. When not on a mission, you can walk around your ship and interact with your crew. There are then civilian areas you can visit, with shops and optional jobs, but more importantly they are full of interesting people to talk to. These environments are often beautiful to look and do a good job of demonstrating the technology, societies and politics of universe you are in. The world building is let down a bit by the fact combat areas are quite obviously designed to facilitate cover shooting, rather than simulating a believable space.

The whole game is visually memorable, which furthers the blockbuster cinematic feel the game is going for. Along with effects like lens flare, film grain and heavy use of the colour orange, there is an excellent use of light and contrast, which leads to some fantastic looking scenes; the discussions with your boss in darkness with a sun behind him are permanently burned into my brain.

The Mass Effect series is known for it’s emphasis on player choice, and you pick most of your responses in conversations. Many conversations let you ask for a person’s thoughts on a particular topic, but a lot are morality based responses to another character, where you can pick a ‘good’, ‘bad’ or neutral response. The problem is that not committing to either all good or all bad responses means you will not have enough ‘paragon’ or ‘renegade’ points to pull off the special morality dependent actions that are regularly available. Picking the responses that seem right to you is also a problem, since the choice you click might not be anything like what the character actually says. Despite it’s numerous issues, the dialogue is often engrossing and worth paying attention to.

Mass Effect 2’s narrative is broken up by third person shooting sections. The combat is indicative of the year of release, since it is made up of taking cover and regenerating health. The cover mechanics are pretty rudimentary, since you can’t turn a corner or switch to a nearby piece of cover, but you are allowed to shoot at enemies behind or to the side of you without stepping away from your wall (which is a problem with most cover shooters outside of generally being dull). A more minor quibble is the fact the pacing of combat on PC can be stunted, since scrolling through weapons means you have to watch every gun drawing animation before you get the one you want. The formula of shootout, corridor, shootout, boss fight that most missions use can get tiresome as well, but the game sometimes shakes things up with twists like direct sunlight causing damage. Ultimately, combat is perfectly adequate, but not the main draw.

In order to buy upgrades, you need mining resources. To get these, you play a minigame where you scan a planet and fire probes when you get a signal. Even the strongest signals only yield small amounts of resources, so if you actually want the better equipment, you will spend excruciating amounts of time in this mode. Thankfully, subsequent playthroughs start you with huge amounts of all resources, so at least the tedium is cut out of replays.

My copy of Mass Effect 2 had it’s fair share of bugs. Most problems seemed to be caused by cover, for example characters rapidly stuttering in and out of it, and Shepherd’s adventure reached a premature end when he permanently got stuck on a desk. The most spectacular of the cover bugs occurred during the final mission, when Shepard was suddenly launched high into the air and died from the resulting fall. Elsewhere, characters would occasionally become terrifying pitch black shapes with nothing but their eyes remaining, some cutscenes would have the person speaking out of frame before sliding in, and the ship on the galaxy map would sometimes refuse to move after a boring mining session.

While I’ve pointed out a lot of issues, Mass Effect 2 gives you a real feeling of being faced with an enormous threat. It’s combat may not be the most groundbreaking, but the writing and atmosphere are exemplary, and it holds up very well. The suicide mission is likely to be one of the tensest gaming moments you ever experience, so if you value story in your games, give Mass Effect 2 a play.

Recommended? Highly

Review: Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Reviewed on PC. Mild spoilers.

What mechanics do you think you’ll find in stealth game Splinter Cell: Blacklist? Metal Gear Solid style infiltrations using state of the art gadgets? Being conscious of movement speed and light levels, similar to the Thief series? How about Uncharted climbing?

Splinter Cell: Blacklist follows super spy Sam Fisher and his band of boring teammates, as they fly around the world in their mobile air base responding to attacks by a terrorist group called ‘The Engineers’. The Engineers have released a ‘blacklist’, which hints at an attack that will be carried out by the group every seven days. Fisher’s group comprises of Grim, Briggs and Charlie. Fisher himself has been stripped of both the sense of humour he had in previous appearances, and his original voice actor, in the hopes of insulting all long time fans. Grim is a long time partner of Sam, who damaged their trust in the last game, meaning a lot of this game has the two bickering while the player feels uncomfortable. Briggs is a younger field operative and seems determined to be more boring than Fisher, there’s not much more I can say about him. Charlie rounds out the crew by filling the annoying young hacker who makes bad jokes position. Most exchanges between the group feature them either walking urgently or standing around a briefing table, spitting out long lists of acronyms and looking angry. As for the villain, he is unmemorable and spouts such original lines as: ‘I’m just like you’, and ‘I’ve already won’.

The gameplay starts with a third person cover-based stealth foundation. From there, the game emphasises the fact that all missions can be tackled in three ‘distinct’ styles: ghost, which relies on completely avoiding enemies and using non-lethal takedowns when cornered; panther, which is killing enemies while undetected; and assault, which is killing enemies while detected. You are scored on which approach you take to deal with each individual enemies, with the stealthier methods predictably yielding considerably larger scores. The scores are turned into money to be spent on upgrading Fisher’s gear, but he also gets large cash bonuses for most actions. Kill a few people with the same weapon and Sam gets a chunky payment. Maybe he is supplementing his government wage with sponsorships from arms manufacturers, but this doesn’t explain him being awarded $10 000 for destroying some lightbulbs. Some of the levels are quite open, with multiple paths to compliment your choice of playstyle, but there are several sections that force either perfect stealth or direct combat. I leaned towards stealth, so when I found myself on a train in mandatory close range combat, my sneaking suit and sniper with an extended scope suddenly seemed like a waste of money. The train section wraps up with you diving through the window of a train car and instantly being shot at. On higher difficulties, it becomes apparent this part was not tested, since you can be killed before the animation is over and have to rely on luck to even have a chance to fight back.

The equipment on sale often seems redundant. To unlock the better items, you have to buy all the preceding ones in it’s category, wasting the money saved for the actual item you want. I found the pistol missed many vital shots, so in order to improve my accuracy, I bought several pistols I never used, then added as many precision attachments as the game allows. To further improve accuracy, you have to buy several upgrades to your gloves, which I suppose makes sense, but buying a bunch of gloves that look pretty much the same is never as appealing as purchasing a crossbow. With my special gloves and fully modified pistol, I centred my laser sight on a guard’s head and…still missed. Everyone turned around and Sam was promptly shot from four different directions. Later, I bought ‘armour piercing rounds’ for both my pistol and rifle, but if the shot hit an enemy’s helmet, the helmet would just be knocked off (as usual) and the guy would be free to tell all his friends where I was. This is a modern Ubisoft game, so of course some items are only accessible via DLC, logging into Uplay or by playing the tie-in mobile game (which apparently is no longer supported). Thankfully, the items aren’t even that good.

The strange design choices don’t end there. I’ve already touched on Fisher’s parkour, but it gets really hard to take this game seriously when a man in his mid 50s is diving off buildings to stab people. The Uncharted vibes are even stronger when you sprint down a linear path to dodge a missile strike, true to the sense of realism Tom Clancy games tend to go for. Elsewhere, the game has you play as Briggs for a while, and shows this change by briefly becoming a generic military first person shooter. The game throws in a few more modern warfare sections, which have you click on red target squares to simulate shooting enemies from a ridiculous height.

One of the most egregious elements of the game is the fact it is based on a checkpoint only save system. Even worse is the fact these checkpoints are sometimes quite far apart, which makes ghost styles tedious when one mistake can send you a long way back.

The controls on PC often have several functions mapped to one button. Pressing ‘E’ can kill/knock out a nearby enemy, pick up a body, knock on a door or pick up a gun. Pressing ‘Q’ once makes you snap to cover, but if you panic and press it twice, you slide instead. As you can imagine, things can go wrong when the game interprets your button press differently, and perfectionists will no doubt be annoyed by the unpredictability.

Blacklist contributes an entry to the ‘enemies that can go fuck themselves’ list – the dogs. I love dogs in real life, but here they have an almost supernatural ability to sniff you out and alert everyone to your presence. Instead of all the guns, why can’t Fisher buy a bag of treats and a few tennis balls to distract the pooches?

On the technical side, I encountered a host of issues. Environments would flicker in and out of existence, enemies would float down stairs and dead guards would sometimes ragdoll into the air. I also encountered some huge frame rate drops despite being on the lowest settings, with one area pulling my frame rate down to one per second. ONE.

Also, you to have Uplay.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy any of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist; the open levels and choice of combat style appealed to me, but the onslaught of design flaws in service of a cringeworthy narrative means it has no chance of a recommendation.

Recommended? No

Review: Max Payne

Reviewed on PC

I sat down, gazing at the evidence in front of me. Was I a crack PI, following the last few breadcrumbs from the trail? Maybe an ex-cop revisiting the case I never solved? No. I was a twenty-something loser, hoping to escape the dullness of the world by playing early 2000s bullet time shooter Max Payne. Sinatra’s baritone danced in the background as I clicked play.

In Max Payne, you take on endless waves of mobsters to avenge the murder of Payne’s wife. A pretty straightforward revenge plot, but it’s delivered in a unique way. The story is mostly advanced via graphic novel panels with voice-overs. These panels feature many of the developers and their friends as the characters, since this was a project with budget and resource limitations, and the result of this is they often look goofy no matter how dark the dialogue is. Payne himself is played by the game’s writer, Sam Lake, who pulls some of the weirdest faces I’ve ever seen. The contrast in writing and visuals can be a little jarring, but there is an obvious element of self-awareness and a meta narrative running through the game, so the sometimes inconsistent tone is eased with humour. As for the writing itself, it establishes a strong noir atmosphere, drawing heavily from staples of the genre. I am also reminded of Die Hard, with Payne’s squinting expression, final level reminiscent of Nakatomi Plaza and knife-edge shootouts. Max is voiced by James McCaffrey, who has a fitting monotone and his long metaphor-heavy monologues are always a pleasure to listen to. The other actors are more on the cheesy side, as was common around this era, but the main villain also turns in quite a good performance.

Max Payne is notable for being the game that popularised bullet time. Press the right mouse button with a direction and Max will fling himself in a direction in slow motion, allowing for a cinematic streak of headshots as you dive into a wall. It never gets old, which is good because the majority of the game will be spent popping through doorways to surprise mobsters. I think tactical shooters would be a lot more amusing if you could breach a room by having a whole squad dive in with dual SMGs. The bullet time doesn’t feel overpowered, since bullets move like projectiles in this mode, meaning you have to lead your shots. The game is also very difficult and you can be killed easily, which ties in with the idea of Max going up against ridiculous odds. This is fine, since the game accommodates fuck-ups by snapping you instantaneously back to your last save with a button press. The running and gunning is great, but like many games of it’s time, it has awkward platforming elements. The worst examples are in the ‘dream sequence’ levels, which include running along and jumping between rails thinner than the character model. Another gameplay issue which tripped me up was the fact you have to click after selecting a weapon to equip it, which might not seem like much, but often meant I would get confused for a second before being blown away by a goon’s shotgun.

As expected, it’s not the most visually arresting game on the market. Max Payne’s character model in particular is slightly scary, featuring Sam Lake’s face screwed up and then reproduced with the technology of the day. Animations are clumsy, my favourite being the weapon drawing one, where a character will hold as little of a pistol as possible, like it’s covered in faeces. The game also includes clunky in-engine cutscenes, which stand out even more when they are contrasted with the elegant graphic novel scenes.

The soundtrack is generally good. The theme song is an appropriate slow jazz track and the graphic novel cutscenes feature a variation on it that mixes very well with the voice-overs. Elsewhere, the music seems to draw from a rather eclectic range of film score influences: ‘60s spy guitar riffs, late ‘70s horror ambience and the synthesisers and electric drums of ‘80s action films. In many settings such a variety might feel uneven, but these inspirations fit well with the content of the game. The soundtrack is let down a little in the combat encounters that feature high tempo metal tracks, which make the game smell of cheese a bit too much along with reminding you of the game’s release year.

On the bug front, the most serious issue I encountered was a point where a cutscene focused on the enemies ahead of me, but then returned to gameplay with the camera still fixed on them. This is potentially gamebreaking, and the only way I could get around it was memorising the path backwards and keep moving until the camera returned to me. When I initially launched the game, I found there was no sound other than an occasional bitcrushed fart when rapidly firing a weapon. This is apparently an issue with the Steam version of game running on newer operating systems, which can be fixed with a download from the Max Payne community guide page.

Max Payne is still a lot of fun sixteen years on. The bullet time mechanic thrown into a frenetic and relentless shooter makes for engaging gameplay, and wrapping the experience in a strong narrative and thematic focus makes it easy to overlook the issues caused by it’s age and budget limitations.

Recommended? Yes

Review: Far Cry 3

Reviewed on PC.

Following on from my last review, I’m going to do another Ubisoft game. This time I’ll be looking at Far Cry 3, which received rave reviews on release, but also hinted at the kind of copy and paste design that they would be mocked for in the following years.

In Far Cry 3, you play as Jason Brody, an obnoxious twenty-something who starts the game on holiday with his friends. Things turn nasty very quickly as the group is captured by pirates who intend to sell them into slavery. It’s a really great setup, that quickly introduces the group, the island and pirate leader Vaas. Brody soon escapes and tries to save his friends, allying himself with the island’s resistance fighters. The majority of the game has a sort of 80s ludicrous action film feel, where you run around the jungle swapping between an LMG and an rocket launcher, taking out pirates by diving on them with knife drawn. The problem is the tone will sometimes awkwardly shift into either trying to be moving, having Brody occasionally reflect on how much of a monster he is becoming, or getting dark and gritty to earn that 18 rating. In one level you are handed a flamethrower and told to burn down a weed farm while a Skrillex track plays, which is fantastic, but it’s jarring to also include post rock music, scenes of torture and psychological degradation. It also references Alice in Wonderland, which is a completely original thing to do in a story with themes of madness.

The only character of note is Vaas, portrayed by Michael Mando, who gives a memorably unhinged performance. Unfortunately, he is massively underutilised and absent for large portions of the game. Apparently Vaas was only created after Mando’s audition and it’s kind of evident, since his appearances sometimes seem a bit forced. It’s weird that the villain featured in most of the promotional material could be removed and there wouldn’t be much impact on the narrative.

The gameplay is first person shooting with some stealth elements. The shooting leans towards a classic style, letting you carry up to four weapons and having you use healing items, as opposed to the two gun and regenerating health approach used in games like Call Of Duty. There is a good range of guns available, that all feel and sound phenomenal, many of which can be modified to your liking with attachments and paint jobs. Stealth is pretty straightforward, crouch and the enemy is unlikely to ever see or hear you. While undetected, you can silently eliminate enemies with a number of takedowns, such as dragging an enemy into the water before knifing them. Stealth is often the preferred approach, since going loud will usually prompt the game to throw swarms of hostiles at you. The story missions usually have you mow through a few waves of pirates to reach the next objective, with some turret sections and escort quests thrown in for originality. The real fun of the game is liberating outposts by clearing out the enemies in the area any way you like, free of the restrictions in story missions. There are plenty to get through, with a range of layouts and difficulties, and you can reset them at the end so you can go liberate them again as an overpowered deity.

Far Cry 3 boasts a huge open world, but it is mostly empty. There are some cool ruins to look around, but if you’re like me, an open world just means having to beeline towards the next objective for five minutes. The worst instance was having to journey half a kilometre to reach someone I had been talking to in person three seconds ago. It doesn’t help that driving is awful, and half my memory of both Far Cry 3 and 4 is tumbling down a hill because I missed a turn. The map is buried under a host of side quests that are mostly the same few missions repeated in a billion different locations. There are a few more ‘unique’ side missions, where someone will talk at you for a few minutes, then you run up a hill, do something mundane (for example fire your gun near someone to scare them), then return to the quest giver for your reward. Exciting. Also, if you really want to justify your AAA purchase, you can postpone your pirate fighting adventure to play poker in first person.

Visually, it’s a very good looking game. The islands are covered in the famous ‘Cry’ games foliage and the water effects are stunning. As well as the scenic jungles and beaches, the game contains some psychedelic hallucination sequences, full of bizarre effects that provide fitting eye candy. The character models are also great, with impressive animations that are complimented with facial and bodily motion capture.

In keeping with the jungle theme of the game, the PC version of Far Cry 3 is full of bugs. There was one cutscene early on that seemed like the game wanted to provide me with content for this paragraph; Brody’s friend Dennis pretended to hold a rifle, while to his side an AK47 waved about in mid-air, as a resistance soldier in the background flickered in and out of existence. This scene also featured an issue where weird grey rectangles would appear in characters’ hair textures that persisted throughout my playthrough. I also regularly experienced frame rate drops on the ‘optimal’ preset, despite surpassing the recommended specs, and even when I turned the settings down to medium there were minor hiccups.

Also you have to have Uplay to play it.

Overall, my experience with Far Cry 3 was mixed. I don’t see it as the masterpiece other people have called it, as has an inconsistent story, open world tedium, copy and paste quests and a bunch of technical issues. Despite these problems, the stealth and shooting are satisfying enough to earn a mild recommendation, since it’s really fun when it’s not trying to be profound.

Recommended? Yes

Review: Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time

Reviewed on PC

Nowadays, Ubisoft is mostly known for releasing Tom Clancy’s Tower Climbing Feather Collection 3 (pre-order now for enhanced deluxe edition DLC), but when I was young I enjoyed their more lighthearted and creative games, like Rayman and the one I’m reviewing today-Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time.

Sands of Time is a 3D platformer with hack and slash combat. Set in 9th century Persia, it follows an unnamed prince who is tricked into unleashing the sands of time, which turn almost everyone into a horrific demon. The Prince then makes his way through a palace full of these creatures, along with complex traps, in the hopes of fixing the mess he has made.

The platforming makes up the majority of the game, and it’s an absolute joy. The Prince has all the staples of the genre, like jumping, mantling and shimmying around ledges. The game then throws in a bunch of flashier moves, most famously wall running. Press the special action button while running besides a wall and the Prince will sprint rapidly along it halfway up. This mechanic is most often used to glide over enormous drops or pits full of spikes, but it’s so satisfying that you’ll end up doing it whenever you see a flat wall. Other highlights are swinging around flagpoles, and bouncing between close walls to ascend or descent safely. Once you have a handle on the Prince’s moves, navigating your way through the rooms provides a fantastic sense of momentum and despite being completely linear, you feel a massive amount of freedom.

Sands of time shakes up the platforming formula up by adding time manipulation. Very early on you gain the ability to rewind time by up to ten seconds. This is possibly the most elegant anti-frustration measure in any game ever. 3D platforming can be very awkward and lead to plenty of annoying deaths, and this mechanic flips that fact on it’s head and makes it part of the experience. The opportunity to instantly correct your mistakes in an immersive way is absolutely inspired. By reducing the amount of times you actually die and are sent back to the last checkpoint, Sands of Time keeps a better pace than many games. I can’t stress enough how much of a benefit a time reversal is to both platforming and combat. A less unique-but still welcome-mechanic is slowing time, which gives you more leeway when passing through traps and lets you get free hits in combat.

The platforming and time control are fantastic, but the combat is where many complaints arise. As with the platforming, you have a wide range of moves; the system includes counters, backflip dodges and defence breaking kicks. Sadly, the potential is wasted, since the wall bounce counters blue enemies and the vault attack counters red enemies, and everything else is nowhere near as efficient. The combat encounters just throw repeated waves of the same few enemies at you, so you end up dispatching them as quickly as possible rather than having fun with the system. In addition, you have to finish every downed enemy with the Prince’s dagger. The problem with this is the attack is quite a long animation and you are vulnerable during it, so a poorly timed finisher can lead to you taking serious damage or getting knocked down. There is a glimpse of a fun combat system, that could have been capitalised on if the developers left out the finishers or cut down on the enemy swarms. Sands of Time also provides a new entrant to the list of enemies that can go fuck themselves: the bats. The only way to deal with them is let them swarm you and chip your health, then swing your sword wildly until they are gone.

That brings me on to my next complaint, the camera. The majority of the game has your usual 3D person camera controls, but occasionally it will unexpectedly switch to a fixed alternate angle. This changes the context of your movement controls, meaning you sometimes get stuck in a loop of running between two rooms because your forward button is a backwards button for the next two seconds. Eventually, you’ll end up playing more cautiously so you don’t have to rewind because the angle change meant you ran off a cliff. The camera can be hindrance in combat as well; it suffers from the common issue where your vision is obscured when strafing near tall objects.

On the bug front, I came across a few issues. The first is a common problem with modern rigs running it, where the screen will be covered in a grey fog. This is a simple fix, solved in a few minutes by changing three values in the files. At one point, I rewound time, but found I couldn’t move when I returned to the land of the living; maybe the paralysis from the huge drop carried over. When it came to vaulting over enemies, if the Prince happened to land on an elevation, he would jiggle about until he reached the floor. A weirder issue was the fact that water had the magical ability to both cure The Prince’s gaping stab wounds and massively lower the resolution of objects submerged in it.

All of these were minor distractions or inconveniences, but the sound mixing presented a much bigger issue. Character’s dialogue would often be absurdly quiet, no matter how much I tweaked the settings. This caused me to miss out on some of the amusing exchanges between The Prince and his companion Farah, the most annoying instance being an unskippable cutscene where the screen is blank and they have a long conversation. Also, a puzzle later in the game seemed completely impenetrable, until I looked it up online and it turned out you need to listen for a very quiet cue.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is a must play for any platformer fan. Wall running, flipping and bouncing your way through the palace is just pure bliss; it’s one of those games that takes you back to a time when a game’s primary focus was being fun.

Recommended? Highly

Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Reviewed on PC.

Human revolution is a prequel to the legendary Deus Ex. Released in 2011, it aimed to take the open ended gameplay and conspiracy heavy plotlines, and update them with the polish of modern AAA titles.

In Human Revolution, you play as Adam Jensen, an ex-SWAT officer, who suffers horrific injuries at the beginning of the game. In order to save him, doctors replace large sections of his body with top-of-the-range cybernetics. These ‘augmentations’ can then be upgraded to give him superhuman abilities, such as seeing through walls and dropping safely from any height. Jensen tries to track down the people responsible for his near-death and uncovers some inconvenient truths about the world he lives in.

Gameplay is crucial in these kinds of games, and Human Revolution delivers. Main missions generally require you to break into heavily guarded areas. You can do this by silently moving past everyone, showering the area with grenades, or taking an approach somewhere between these extremes. That said, the game rewards leaning toward stealth and pacifism with bonus XP and achievements. In addition, the narrative makes more sense when corporate security chief Adam Jensen doesn’t gun down everyone in the local police station.

Levels are designed to allow multiple paths, providing vents to crawl through and boxes to construct platforms with, as well as security systems to hack into and manipulate. The hacking mini-game is probably the best one I’ve played; it turns a few colours and shapes into an abstract chase sequence, and manages to be genuinely tense when the anti-tamper measures kick in and home in on you. Your augmentations also open up new routes, and while some upgrades are more universal, like the cloaking system, you’ll find a use for even the most niche aug.

One of the more controversial additions to Human Revolution is the third person cover system. Both stealth and combat playthroughs will spend a considerable amount of time attached to walls. I don’t mind it too much, but sometime the cover placement seems a little too convenient in allowing you to flank around guard patrols. I think it would have benefited from a lean button, which would accommodate people wanting to play purely in first person. This would also reduce the disorientation you can sometimes feel regularly switching from first to third person.

Along with it’s main missions, Human Revolution includes some great side quests. Rather than throwaway ‘collect 2569 of this’ tasks, these often take the form of investigations, which you carry out by interrogating people and compiling evidence. Each of them tells a self-contained story, as the best side missions should. ‘Shanghai Justice’ is a clear highlight, where at the final stage you interpret the evidence you found earlier, and doing so correctly leads to an incredibly satisfying conclusion.

This leads me on to another huge strength, the conversation system. Every so often you’ll enter a social mini-game, where you will try to persuade someone into divulging key information or helping you out. You need to understand their personality, and pick the response that suits them best. The options tell you exactly what Jensen will say, which avoids the unexpected outbursts in games like LA Noire, and the choices all fit into the character’s established personality, rather than being morality based. Jensen might not be quite as funny as JC Denton, but he still provides plenty of sarcastic retorts to make you grin.

The game is also famous for it’s distinctive art style. The gold filter is divisive, and my opinion wanes between thinking the smoky look complements the neo-noir tone to feeling that everything looks washed out. The environments are striking, comprising of run down streets surrounding spotless corporate buildings, and they compound the cyberpunk feel. The graphics are pretty good, but I think some of the character models are pretty weird looking; I always get distracted by Jensen’s pronounced, pointy chin and contorting mouth that doesn’t give a fuck what he’s saying. The animations in dialogue also look stiff and everyone seems to have an arm crossing compulsion.

As well as it’s look, Human Revolution’s soundtrack is well realised. Composed by Michael McCann, the music heavily employs electronic and ambient instrumentations. It lends a melancholic tone when you are in neutral zones, and dynamically escalates when entering stealth and combat to boost the tension. The soundtrack contributes massively to the establishing the dreamlike atmosphere of the game.

Human Revolution’s quality takes a huge hit when it comes to the boss fights. In contrast to the rest of the game, these fights take place in small arenas, and the only approach you can take is to spray them with your most powerful weapons. The way the bosses can easily flank you means these fights are not suited at all to the cover based combat. There are two ways to get around them. One method is to have bought the ‘director’s cut’ version of the game, which added in stealth options to boss fights (along with new bugs and performance problems). The other is to take the typhoon system augmentation (which carpet bombs the area around you) at the start of every playthrough, and as soon as a boss appears, keep using it until they drop. Not the most elegant method, but neither was letting the boss sections be handled by a different company that didn’t know anything about Deus Ex.

While performance was mostly smooth, I did experience a few pretty bad crashes. Most of these happened by entering a particular section of an alleyway, which was required for progressing one of the side quests. The issue eventually disappeared after a few restarts, but other people have reported having to edge around this ‘crash zone’.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution had big boots to fill, but it actually managed to measure up to the original. The third person cover and pre-animated takedowns risk making it blur into a thousand other games, but it’s so smart and sleek that it remains distinguished, and the end product is an engrossing debate-and-infiltrate-em-up.

Recommended? Highly

Review: Hotline Miami

Reviewed on PC

Video games have been accused many times of corrupting people’s minds. That, of course, is absolute rubbish, so here is a game about wearing a frog mask and smashing people’s heads in with a frying pan. Hotline Miami is a violent top down shooter, that apes an arcade format.

It also has crushed 2011 film Drive into a powder and snorted it, resulting in amazing visuals and music to enjoy as you kick a door into a mobster’s face.

The gameplay is the focal point here. Your nameless player character (nicknamed ‘Jacket’ by the community) gets a call at the start of each level, asking him to remove some pesky mobsters from an establishment. Jacket turns up, puts on a mask that gives him a perk, and gets to work slaughtering everyone in the building. A range of melee weapons and firearms are lying about the levels to be used and discarded rapidly. Along with the more conventional arms, you can also knock enemies to the ground by pushing a door in their face or throwing your equipped weapon at them. Enemies die in one hit, and the tension is ramped up by the fact that you do too. If you are seen by an enemy, you will often have less than a second to escape or put them down. You will die a lot, but press ‘R’ to restart and you are back in. This keeps a relentless pace, and the rapid cycling of gameplay and death blurs into a flow-like state, where your reflexes sharpen, and you can react to enemies unexpectedly appearing with perfect accuracy. It does a good job of making you feel like a coke loving hitman.

As I mentioned, the game is also highly stylised. On the visual side, the game aims to simulate a nightmarish psychedelic trip, with bright pulsating colours, 80s aesthetics and disturbing looking characters. This is all in a throwback 8-bit style which is a great match for the most part, but occasionally I have been blind sided by an enemy because they have blended in with the background, or tried picking something up thinking it was a gun, rather than an unidentified gun shaped object.

The music is phenomenal, mostly made up of driving synthwave tracks that push you to play boldly and ignore the last fifty deaths. In between missions you are treated to some ultra smooth psychedelic tracks, and the inspired choice of music makes the experience more cinematic than a lot of heavily scripted games, despite being about as ‘gamey’ as you can get.

There is very little I can pick out as being a problem, but on the bug front, enemies can sometimes get stuck on an object and start spinning rapidly like they want to drill through the floor. Apparently, the game crashed a lot on release, but ironically I didn’t run into one until after the first draft of this paragraph.

Hotline Miami delivers a hyperactive retro shooter, complemented with trippy visuals and music. If you can stomach the difficulty (and the eye gougings), it is a perfect substitute for the kind of shit the developers must have been taking to come up with it.

Recommended? Highly