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

Review: Deus Ex

Reviewed on PC

2000’s Deus Ex gets high praise. Over the 17 years since it’s release, it has regularly ranked highly in the oh-so-important ‘greatest games ever’ lists. Whenever it’s mentioned, everyone is required by law to salute and reinstall it. It is a first person RPG, set in a cyberpunk world, with a story based around many popular conspiracy theories, most prominently the existence of the illuminati. You play as JC Denton, a man with nano-augmentation technology implanted into his body. The augmentations give him unnatural abilities; including turning invisible, lifting extraordinary weights, and more questionably, activating a dim flashlight built into his eyes that doesn’t last as long as a standard one.

Alongside your augmentations, you upgrade a set of skills that improve your proficiency in combat and environment traversal, which will help you gain access to the secrets those pesky societal elites are hiding. The non-combat skills allow you to do things like hacking, picking locks and healing with medkits more effectively. Some of the skills (primarily swimming) are quite redundant, since they are so rarely necessary and can be improved with an augmentation if needed. As usual, hacking is incredibly useful and will help you get many of the codes you need to progress, along with disabling security cameras and unlocking doors. The levels are designed to make sure you can progress even if you don’t have the skills to access the simplest route. Finding vents to sneak around in and stacking crates to build platforms are two of the most common examples. The game also accommodates more bizarre methods, such as building ladders by jumping on explosives placed on walls.

While the breaking and entering aspects are immensely satisfying, combat can feel dull. Advancing the weapon skills you prefer is important, because without training you will miss most shots, do negligible damage, and have time to make a cup of tea while you reload. This gives considerable weight to the skills you do invest in, which I appreciate; but even when developed, you have to contend with inconsistent hit detection and a lack of feedback from your attacks. On a positive note, this does mean that you’ll try to be smart when picking your fights, taking headshots while hidden and sneaking past foes whenever possible. One last frustration in combat: the small robot spider that scuttles around way too quickly to hit, while it saps your precious aug energy and health. Like System Shock 2’s psychic monkeys, these deserve a shower of nukes for being so awkward.

Combining augmentations, skills, combat and a bit of your intelligence opens a range of ways to reach your objectives; resulting in a fantastic gameplay style that has been imitated many times since. Obviously, these systems mean multiple playthroughs are worth your time, both for the different methods you can use to complete missions, and ways the story can be altered based on your actions.

Along with the intelligent gameplay, the writing is another huge strength. The story follows JC Denton uncovering increasingly elaborate plots by the government’s elite. A narrative based on conspiracies could collapse into the logical inconsistencies actual theories suffer from, but it manages to remain coherent, whether or not you think this game is claiming these plans are being carried out in the real world. In addition, the pacing is good, and despite the considerable length of the campaign, I always felt engaged. You choose from three endings, and they all make good points as to why you should consider each one, rather than a dull good/evil final cutscene. The dialogue is also fantastic, with Denton’s genuinely funny sarcastic quips being a clear highlight, and elsewhere you can enter thought provoking discussions of philosophy and politics that really make you pay attention. However, the voice acting delivering the lines is nowhere near as solid. JC’s low monotone fits his slightly tongue-in-cheek characterisation, a few of the villains are suitably menacing, but everyone else ranges from sounding bored to speaking in accents that are borderline offensive. The one that I found the strangest was the Hong Kong bartender with a pseudo-Australian accent critiquing the UN.

The music is great, taking you back to the turn of the millennium in a good way, with ambient pads, sequencer synths and hyperactive dance tracks; but also throwing in some Eastern melodies, and I hear some influence from progressive bands like Dream Theater. Two of my favourite tracks are ‘Battery Park’ and ‘NYC streets’ from the early game, and I often find my head bobbing to the more driving pieces. Sneaking around, hacking and discussing politics is even more enjoyable with these tunes in the background.

The default controls will be unintuitive to people expecting standard FPS controls, and there is a long list of actions that you will never use, like using the keyboard to look around. Some of the more functional controls are mapped in awkward places, including semicolon to reload and left bracket for looking down scope. It’s definitely worth remapping controls to suit you better.

The main issue you will have to deal with is getting the game to run properly. When I first launched Deus Ex, I found that the game was too dark, and the frame rate would often drop massively – on a PC that can run 2011’s Human Revolution at 60FPS on ultra settings. It is pretty much certain that you will need to install some fan-made patches to run the game on modern systems. Maybe it will add to the immersion and you’ll feel more like your l33t hacker protagonist. Even with fixes, I still experienced some problems, mainly screen tearing, but also flickering textures and the occasional crash. The game is very old at this point, so you won’t find ultra HD textures and elegant takedown animations here, but the story and gameplay more than make up for the dated look.

Deus Ex is well deserving of the acclaim it receives. The influence of it’s choice based gameplay, environmental interaction and intellectual themes can be seen in a plethora of games that emerged in the years since it’s release. You will probably have to do some tinkering to play it, but your patience will be massively rewarded with a true PC gaming masterpiece.

Recommended? Highly

Shares DNA with: System Shock 2, Fallout New Vegas, Thief 2

Review: Alien Isolation

Reviewed on PC

 

Alien Isolation is the kind of game that will be played by a lot of people who want to exacerbate their anxiety disorders, or make money by screaming at the start screen in a Youtube video named ‘SCARIEST GAME EVER HEART STOPPED HAD TO GO TO HOSPITAL’. The internet was saturated by similar first-person survival horror games for a while, but Isolation thankfully rises above many of it’s competitors.

In Alien Isolation you play as Amanda Ripley, who arrives on the space station Sevastopol looking for her mother Ellen. She is quickly sidetracked when she finds the station has fallen into ruin – paranoid humans shooting strangers on sight, malfunctioning androids, and of course the titular alien, that drops out of the vents to eviscerate anyone that catches it’s attention. Ripley then focuses on surviving the threats aboard Sevastopol and finding a way to escape. From there, the story steps into the background, and you are left to slowly crawl your way to the next objective.

The first thing I am going to comment on is the fantastic visual style. The developers decided on replicating the look and atmosphere depicted in the original Alien film. AAA budgets mean the art direction is supported by great graphics and good optimisation that should allow more people to enjoy higher video settings. It nails both the clinical civilian areas and the noisy industrial rooms, resulting in a believable simulation of being in the movie, or at the very least stepping onto the film set. The retro future style continues with the technology: instead of touch screens and holograms, you have chunky terminals, with monochrome displays that play chirpy 8-bit jingles as they boot up. This is topped off with some very tasteful cinematic effects such as lens flares (that aren’t intrusive) and a grainy filter, that gives the impression your experience is being recorded with a 70s camera. The way the game subtly guides you also deserves a clap; you are prompted to move towards green lights blooming out of the darkness, occasionally consulting your sketchy map, instead of pushing towards an icon in mid air telling you how many metres you are from your objective. Unfortunately, the visuals are sometimes let down by some issues with the anti-aliasing. Shiny surfaces will flicker intensely, and some edges are noticeably jagged, even at a distance. It’s a distracting flaw in an otherwise astonishingly good looking game.

You will spend the majority of the game sneaking around, since every hostile is very tough and you don’t have much to defend yourself with. The mechanics are pretty rudimentary: crouching reduces movement noise, you can duck under objects like tables, vents open so you can squeeze through and you can take risky peeks out of cover. In addition to these, you receive a motion tracker, allowing you to keep watch on dangers up to certain range, but since it’s beeping can also give you away, it is often worth relying on your ears for locating enemies. There is no UI indication of how visible you are or whether you are being detected, so you have to use some common sense -don’t sprint and avoid enemy line of sight. This play style obviously means the gameplay is slow and methodical, so if action is what you are after, look elsewhere. Eventually you will get hold of several weapons, but ammo is hard to find and firing will allow the alien to home in on you, making combat extremely risky.

The game’s sound department is another strength. The music is as foreboding as expected, using some motifs from the film and continually hammering the feeling of dread. The sound design can sometimes be your best friend in keeping track of the Xenomorph, to the point where you will start to understand it’s hissing, stomping and vent clattering as a way of communicating it’s state of mind, as well as how close it is to face stabbing you.

One more positive thing that I will point out is the well thought-out control scheme for mouse and keyboard, your left hand never needs to move or stretch, which is a nice way of staving off RSIs for another few hours. On the other hand, the game does include that ‘mash button quickly and repeatedly to proceed and possibly damage your device’ QTE that I despise.

Alien Isolation does have it’s problems. Many of the humans act more synthetic than the androids: they bump into doorways when trying to pass through, their player tracking fails so they talk to the wall on my right and the lip syncing is terrible. Far more irritating were the points where the load times suddenly jumped from a few seconds to about 45 for no apparent reason, especially since it started in an area where I died a lot.

The thing that brought down the game the most was it’s pacing. It goes on far too long. At first, I admired the slow movement of the game, it’s defiant opposition to the blockbuster action of AAA titles. I liked that you would get sidetracked by a door being blocked or the power cutting out. But then these things happened so much that they became predictable. By the end I could see a functioning generator and know that once I reached the objective down the hallway, it would cut out. It dawned on me that this was padding, which meant fear would become annoyance, since I would have to head back through the zone that just took forever to cross. Eventually, I reached a climactic point where I thought the game was going to wrap up, and I would have praised it for a thrilling conclusion. But there was more. Then there was another decent point to stop at. But there was more. Maybe they wanted people to feel they were getting their money’s worth, but leaving people wanting more is better than dragging things out so apathy sets in. I honestly think that the game’s length could have been halved and it would have made Alien Isolation a masterpiece.

Ultimately, I would recommend Alien Isolation, since it gets visuals, sound and of course atmosphere so right. As for the pacing, it might be worth playing in bursts rather than binging, because for any horror, sci-fi or Alien series fan, this is definitely worth a try.

 

Recommended? Yes

 

Shares DNA with: Games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent kicked off the first person horror trend.  Every game set on a space station draws comparisons with System Shock 2, which also has a relentlessly hostile atmosphere. If the setting sounds intriguing, but you would rather be able to mow down the hideous creatures, Dead Space is probably what you are after.

Review: Hitman: Blood Money

Reviewed on PC.

I imagine Hitman would have been a hard series to pitch. A game where you murder people in some really gruesome ways, receiving more money for covering your tracks. Add to this the fact you might do all this in a Santa suit, and I can see company executives scratching their heads. Blood Money is the fourth entry in the series, and is considered by many to be the one that perfected the formula.

In Blood Money, you play a clone simply known as 47, designed to be the perfect killer, who puts his skills to use taking out a host of debauched characters in exchange for huge sums of money. It is a stealth game, but where most games in the genre encourage or require you to completely stay out of sight, the Hitman games have a disguise system, where you take a staff member’s uniform and infiltrate restricted areas by acting like the person you are dressed as. There are multiple ways to make your way through the levels, and when it comes to dealing with your targets, you are afforded a similar choice of methods. You can remain undetected and garrotte them when they are alone, trigger one of the accident kills or just spray the room with bullets. At the end of each level, instead of a score that you wouldn’t care about unless you are doing a perfectionist run, you are given in-game money that can be used to upgrade your equipment. Pulling off the hit with minimal noise and bloodshed rewards you with bonus cash, and conversely, leaving witnesses and evidence incites a penalty, as your agency has to clean up after you. This system is a brilliant method of incentivising smart play and adds a layer of immersion to the world. You’ll also want to keep down you notoriety, which builds after sloppy performance, and means eventually people will recognise you as that guy who ran around a parade waving a shotgun, making stealth a bit less viable.

The main story is not too important, going through missions 47 takes on over the course of a few years, while the FBI and a rival assassination agency try to bring him down. Instead, each level provides it’s own interesting mini story and you are briefed on the backstories of the targets, which often ease your reservations about pushing them off a cliff. It’s one of those games where your approach to it will provide personal, unique anecdotes, particularly when things go wrong and you try to clean up the mess before things get worse.

The range of locations you visit in Blood Money is impressive. Over the course of 13 missions, you’ll wreak havoc at a Mardi Gras parade, a wedding in the deep South and an opera house. The most memorable map is a party, segmented into a penthouse Heaven and a basement Hell, with many of the staff and guests wearing unsettling masks. There is a surreal feeling to the atmosphere of the game, and it is most present here. The finale sequence is also unforgettable and wraps everything up perfectly, making it one of those rare games where the quality doesn’t fizzle out towards the end.

Jesper Kyd composed the soundtrack, and it compliments the mood of Blood Money so well. It incorporates electronic, orchestral and choral music to create some truly terrifying sounding tracks. The times when a Latin choir begins chanting after you’ve caused a fatal ‘accident’ gives you the feeling of being death incarnate. There is one exception: the track ‘47 attacks’, the combat theme in a few levels, which sounds like it would be better suited in a quirky Pixar animation, rather than a game about an emotionless serial killer.

Blood money feels clunky. 47 walks slowly, so you will hold sprint constantly if you want to complete the game before the Earth flies into the sun. It’s even worse when you need to crouch. When crouched, 47 takes a sneaking pose similar to Scooby-Doo, and inches forward at a pace that makes it impossible to get behind a moving NPC. Crouching is necessary because if you walk near anyone, they will crane their neck around and spin to face you, so when you want to take someone down quietly, you sometimes resort to exploiting the AI. The world’s greatest assassin bumps into a cartel boss, waits for them to look away, ducks down and then jams a poison syringe in their neck.

The PC controls are sometimes puzzling and I had to remap a few to make them more intuitive. I don’t see why throw couldn’t have been the same button as shoot. The biggest problem on the control front is the fact that sometimes you have to shuffle about trying to position yourself so the interact prompt appears, and I didn’t realise for a while that when there are multiple interactive objects you need to hold the button and scroll to the action you want.

There are other odd design choices, like the fact that the tutorial level isn’t that much like the rest of the game. It’s linear, and there isn’t a clever accident kill available for the target, he just kneels and waits for you to pick a weapon. Stranger still is the fact the tutorial encourages you to kill most of the guards in the level, so while it does introduce you to sniper rifles and human shields as options, it glosses over the more nuanced aspects, like stealing CCTV tapes and blood trails leading NPCs to corpses. It gives the impression that Blood Money is a shooter, and it doesn’t help that this level is the demo, when the following mission would have been much more representative of the game.

In addition, I thought the ‘last man standing’ mechanic shouldn’t have been included. When your health is depleted, the screen goes red and time slows. If you get three headshots, a minimal amount of health is restored and you can continue. It’s rarely useful because you need: A) at least three enemies in the room; B) not too many enemies, so you aren’t killed straight after; C) to have a firearm equipped, since you can’t switch weapons and D) enough ammo remaining in your magazine to make the shots, since you can’t reload. Essentially, it just makes game overs really tedious.
I really enjoyed Hitman: Blood Money. It does a lot of things I like, particularly that it doesn’t scold you for non-perfectionist playstyles. While it can feel sluggish at first, the overall product is incredibly accomplished, providing a multitude of sandboxes for you to cause chaos in. It’s certainly an acquired taste, but fans of puzzle, stealth or action games could find a potential favourite in it.

Recommended? Highly

Shares DNA with: Quite hard to tell, the series is pretty unique, but I imagine the Thief and Splinter Cell series had an influence. On the descendants side, Dishonored and MGSV: The Phantom Pain give you a target and then offer a multitude of ways to deal with them.

Review: Prey (2017)

Reviewed on PC

Unlike many people, I found the the Prey trailers, and later the demo, intriguing. A modern immersive sim blending modern classics like Bioshock, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Arkane’s own Dishonored; set on a System Shock-esque space station, housed in a psychological thriller story. It pretty much sounded like my ideal game. It seemed like no one else cared and each had their grievances: Bethesda’s no review copy policy, Arkane’s previous release being rife with technical issues, a console only demo and the fact it’s not a game with mainstream appeal. The most common complaint, however, is that it uses the same title as 2006’s Prey, despite having nothing to do with that one, and the fact the sequel was cancelled after building incredible hype. Thankfully, some people did try it and found it was actually good.

The game begins fantastically: you wake up in your apartment with the sun beaming in, get into a helicopter and ride to work, complimented by a pulsing vaporwave tune, in one of the best title sequences I can think of. Within the first half hour you are presented with a clever twist, starting the story with a really strong foundation, though I thought they could have added a bit more length to this section to give the twist extra impact. From here you are given free rein to begin exploring, looting and chucking mugs at enemy faces.

These aspects are excellent. Exploration is heavily encouraged, as many objectives mean you will have to enter a hard to reach area. You start out with two ways to bypass a locked door – find the keycard or crawl through a maintenance hatch (or if you are a speedrunner, clip through a wall and finish the game in eight minutes). Your options quickly open up as you find Neuromods, Prey’s skill point consumables, which let you access a wide pool of skills, from hacking and repair to jumping ludicrous heights. Anyone who enjoys the Deus Ex series (particularly the Adam Jensen entries) will quickly feel at home, as you are pushed to think of creative ways to navigate around the station when your chosen upgrade are not suitable for your current route. That said, like pretty much every game that offers it, hacking will allow you to get basically anything you need quickly, the only drawback being you have to go through an annoying minigame. Later on you can choose alien powers, the most unique being ‘mimic matter’, where you can take the form of an object, for example a toilet roll. This allows you to fit through small gaps, hide from enemies and just amuse yourself with how funny an idea it is. Adding to this is the GLOO cannon, a tool that fires hardened foam. This can immobilise enemies, neutralise environmental hazards like fires and construct impromptu platforms for further traversal opportunities. Put all these together and you feel like there are endless possibilities for moving through Prey.
The level design perfectly marries these systems, offering verticality and a range of environments for you to manipulate. Talos 1 asks you to leave the beaten path and you are always rewarded for doing so. You might find supplies, which are always welcome since ammo and healing items are hard to come by. You might find emails or audio logs, which can give you some crucial information or may just tell an entertaining little story. Best of all is when poking around triggers one of the game’s quality side missions. Prey has side missions worth doing, because they mean interacting with the few survivors on the station and a number of them require some truly difficult decisions, that show maturity from the ‘nice guy no matter how illogical or nuke an orphanage out of boredom’ morality that was common for a while.

Aside from the numerous obstructions, the other challenge you need to overcome is the hostile aliens, called ‘Typhon’. These are pitch black creatures of varying shapes and sizes. Not the most creative design, but it didn’t bother me for long. The most notable is the first species you encounter, a small spider like creature with that aforementioned ability to turn into an inanimate object. This often leads to great moments, where you hear a clink besides you, turn to find two coffee mugs and try to remember where the real one was, prompting you to pay even more attention. Sadly, the combat used to confront the Typhon can be clumsy and frustrating. The mimics move incredibly fast, so hitting them accurately is difficult and this means console players will have an even worse time. Other enemies can do huge amounts of damage, and their projectiles are really hard to avoid, particularly in space sections. There was a point when I was flying around the station’s exterior looking for a tiny hatch and repeatedly lost control, smashing against a wall and my losing my sense of direction because an obnoxious EMP spell kept being cast by some wanker off-screen. Since this game has a manual save system, the regular deaths you will experience are not as much of inconvenience and you can experiment with different ways of getting avoiding them, but you will definitely feel like some deaths were due to balancing issues rather than your actions.

My other main gripe was the lazy ending. I won’t spoil it, but it basically it’s the ending that we were told to avoid in creative writing lessons when we were 5 years old. The choices you make through the game point towards a complex, meaningful conclusion, but instead one line is said, then credits roll. My stomach sank. Had they forgotten something?. Once the credits were over the actual end played, hoping to be a mind blowing twist, but instead coming off as being insulting.

The visuals are quite interesting, mixing Dishonored’s surrealist cartoon style with art deco style and applying this to futuristic designs, but it’s not as memorable as one of Prey‘s major inspirations, Rapture from Bioshock. Unfortunately, I had some issues with textures taking ages to load or objects popping in randomly, increasing problems in zero gravity as I realised I was seconds from smashing my face into a solar panel that had suddenly appeared.

The music was handled by Doom’s Mick Gordon and it is a real strength. Along with the vaporwave track and jingles, there are reverb drenched post-rock guitars, hard hitting electronic beats in combat and dissonant horror motifs to amplify tension. These influences all mesh together to build atmosphere brilliantly and the soundtrack is very listenable on it’s own. The sound is sadly let down by issues with it being cued wrongly and sometimes the combat music will be blaring while you are casually strolling through an empty room. Thankfully, patches have particularly focused on hammering out this problem .

One last point I’ll bring up is the fact that optimisation for the most part is great, with many people reporting how well the game is performing, ending worries it would turn out badly like Dishonored 2. I will, however, point out that in one single section the frame rate dropped so badly it was almost unplayable, only being solved when I left the area. This is a known issue and hopefully will be dealt with quickly.

Ultimately, Prey does what it set out to admirably, creating an unofficial sequel to System Shock 2, that throws in elements from some of the greatest games of the last 20 years. The result is a product has a niche market, but I really enjoyed it, and despite it’s frustrating aspects, I hope it becomes a cult classic.

Recommended? If you like any of the inspirations, definitely.

Shares DNA with: System Shock 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Bioshock

Review: Tomb Raider (2013)

Reviewed on PC

Tomb Raider 2013 is a zany slapstick comedy that chronicles the first adventure of a young woman named Lara Croft, who is marooned on a spooky island with her friends Velma, Fred, Shaggy and a dog named Scooby. Not really, but that would have been a better game. The version on sale to the public is a third person action shooter with a gritty ‘realistic’ story that supposedly portrays how Lara entered a career back-flipping around dinosaurs dual wielding desert eagles.

The game starts with a shipwreck and Lara washes up on the aforementioned spooky island, before being knocked out. She comes to tied upside down and you are prompted to sway into some fire that miraculously burns all of the rope holding Lara, but not Lara herself. Then you watch her drop onto a spike that impales her through her torso. In most stories, this kind of crippling injury would be held back until the final act as a way to add tension. Here, it’s the first thing that happens, so you know that this is a mature tale because it has horrific injuries and violence. Lara is portrayed as being a survival expert throughout the game, but her first instinct is to pull out the spike, despite the fact it might be stopping the bleeding. Already the ‘gritty realism’ is receiving vomit-inducing injuries. You perform this procedure via a ‘mash one button repeatedly’ quick-time event. Quick time events are annoying at best and rapid mashing ones are the worst of all. Soon you are bombarded with QTEs, and there’s a point where you move for a bit, then you’re in a really short cutscene and the game rapidly alternates between these two states. This has the effect of making you tune out a bit since control keeps being snatched from you, especially when Lara narrowly avoids death without your input. The flip side of this is that sometimes you think this is a safe cutscene, but it turns out to be gameplay and Lara is killed in gratuitous detail.

A little later you need to find your way back to the makeshift camp you set up situated literally next to the area you are in. Lara then hears the voice of her mentor figure, Roth, in her head, like he’s Obi Wan-Kenobi. Jedi Master Roth claims “You won’t always have some fancy gadget to tell you where you are, read the land and the stars and you will find your way home”. You might think this leads you to reading a map or maybe even an interesting tracking mechanic. Instead, you are prompted to press the button for ‘survival instincts’, Tomb Raider’s version of detective mode/eagle vision, that highlights where you are supposed to be going and basically solves the game’s puzzles. Lara may be short a GPS, but thankfully The Force will guide her. The game seems so set on being straight faced yet often comes across as goofy.

Tomb Raider focuses on Lara as a character, but it’s not done well. The first time she kills a person, she breaks down and weeps. It would be a strong moment, but the effect is deadened when shortly after you can headshot a few more thugs and she couldn’t care less. I think the point is supposed to be the horrors she faces on the island eventually make her a remorseless killer, but the progression is inconsistent. The descent from polite rich girl to shouting “Run you bastards!” over the course of about 12 hours isn’t convincing. In addition, she comes across as being a bit dim, especially in stealth sections when she has a habit of telling herself ‘shush’ and ‘don’t make a sound’.
The other characters are all walking clichés. Roth is ‘Old Mentor Who Knew Protagonist’s Father’, as I’ve mentioned. Then there’s ‘Obviously Going To Betray Everyone Guy’, ‘Evil Cult Leader Man’, ‘Ms Snorts With Derision At Protagonist’ and ‘Damsel In Distress Lady’. I could go on forever about the story, but hopefully I’ve conveyed the point that sliding down a muddy hill to avoid being crushed by a burning plane is at odds with the psychological character study the game thinks it is. I will leave the story here and move onto the other aspects.

The other major issue is the gameplay. It’s not bad, it’s just really generic. For the most part it functions like Uncharted; running, jumping, climbing, third person shooting from cover, regenerating health. Then there’s an abundance of QTEs, detective vision, XP bars to fill for perks and basic stealth where you can take out anyone with their back turned. It feels like every AAA system watered down and rolled into one in the hopes of appeasing everyone. This is appropriate for Uncharted, designed to be simple so anyone could pick it up, not as much for a pseudo torture film.

In the visuals department, the graphics are good but nothing outstanding, which isn’t helped by the fact the colour palette is mostly black, grey or dark brown. It goes for realistic graphics and art direction as expected, but this just ends up adding to the blandness. Bioshock Infinite released in the same month, which also told a grim story. Everything was colourful in that, proving that turning the brightness down isn’t the magic key to tonal darkness.

The soundtrack is made up of mostly tense driving rhythms, employing some exotic instrumentation, supplemented with some orchestral support featuring screeching horror violins. It’s nothing outstanding, but it fits the material. However, the sound effects for the guns stood out as a weak point. All of them sound really tinny, like they were recorded inside an aluminium can. It’s hard to grasp how traumatising these gunfights are supposed to be when the weapons sound like amplified staplers. I find Lara’s accent unconvincing as well, highlighting the problems I have with the writing. Maybe it’s because the received pronunciation makes all her threats sound really tame, no matter how many times she calls people “bastards”.

On the technical front, I haven’t encountered any real issues with the game and didn’t run into any bugs. I actually completed it on a macbook, so if a more dedicated platform is not available, if you don’t mind both low frames and textures and you still want to play it after this review, it is possible on OSX.

Overall this all culminates in a game that is extremely bland, with a massive budget and shiny graphics, but without anything of substance or an original mechanic to be seen. It sold millions of copies, so the mass appeal obviously worked, but if you are after a great story, quality gameplay, a distinctive style or mystery solving with a cartoon dog, Tomb Raider will leave you bored out of your mind.

Recommended? Not at all.

Shared DNA with: Uncharted 2, Far Cry 3, Batman: Arkham City