Review: Soma

Reviewed on PC.

The description of Soma suggested a game that I would enjoy a lot: a philosophical sci-fi game set in a frightening environment. Did it live up to my expectations? Well…

In Soma, you play as Simon Jarrett, who wakes up on a strange research facility at the bottom of the ocean, with no idea how he got there. He soon gets in touch with this game’s ‘friend on a radio’s other end’, Catherine, who encourages him to complete the project the scientists were working on before things went sour (as they always do). Over the course of the game, Simon finds out how he ended up on the facility, and ruminates on the ethical issues brought up by the experiments conducted. Unfortunately, I found Simon’s reactions to events extremely unconvincing; he seemed way too calm considering the situations he found himself in. Also, the plot is usually advanced by Catherine spurting a chunk of information, and then telling Simon to find something, and instead of asking relevant questions, Simon instead will try and force a philosophical discussion about consciousness, making him sound like a pretentious douche. It’s almost like the game is screaming ‘THIS STORY IS THOUGHT-PROVOKING ARE YOU IMPRESSED?’. There are plenty of documents and audio logs to fill in backstory, but both of these have problems: the documents are often illegible, which is realistic, but is not very helpful in a narrative-focused game; and the audio logs slow your movement, intentionally blur the screen and require you to stay close to the source, and I prefer to listen to audio logs while exploring. There are also ‘moral choices’, but very few are actual choices, you simply have one option to progress. The times when a decision was available had no impact because I was already detached from the experience thanks to everything been dull, and the lack of repercussions for my actions reinforced the feeling of apathy.

This game is a walking simulator, with occasional puzzles and extremely rare stealth sections. The vast majority of your time will be spent calmly strolling through the game’s industrial facilities and ocean floor environments looking for the next item, area or puzzle needed to progress. Rooms are littered with items you can pick up and throw, and while this makes the world feel a little more interactive, it’s a completely useless feature. In a similar vein, actions like pulling levers and pushing doors open require you to make extravagant gestures with your mouse; turning a valve meant I had to clear some space on my desk in order to complete the large circular motion. The puzzles range in difficulty. Some are unbelievably simple – one has you playing dot to dot, which somehow restores power to a floor. Others are a bit more drawn out, either because they require an item that is easy to miss amongst the shit thrown everywhere, or because they are just plain unintuitive. Of the numerous puzzles in the game, I only found two of them truly interesting.

Onto the stealth sections. There are a few occasions when a spooky monster will turn up and patrol the area, and you have to avoid looking at or getting too close to them, which means you don’t get an opportunity to appreciate the monster designs. These encounters are devoid of tension for a number of reasons. The main stumbling block is the fact that if they detect and catch you, you survive their first few assaults, with slower movement and unpleasant screen effects being the only penalties until you heal up. By the way, you heal by… putting your fist in… it’s gross. In addition, the level designs and game mechanics do not always accommodate these sneaking sections, as the encounters sometimes take place in areas without anywhere to hide, meaning you either have to reveal yourself to the creature and then sprint around it, or let it hit you and hope it has moved out of the way when you get up. Thankfully, you only encounter one monster at a time, so as long as you have the space to get around them, there isn’t any real challenge.

In addition to the issues with story and gameplay, I had to deal with some serious performance problems. Disclaimer: according to, I pass the recommended settings for this game. When I selected ‘auto-detect settings’, the game put every setting on full. The game started, and I was greeted by a massively inconsistent frame rate. Even with everything turned down, the frame rate still lurched about and the only fix I could find was lowering the resolution. Once I had tackled the frame rate problems, I still had to cope with stuttering, screen tearing, texture pop-ins and some lengthy load times. If the game was graphically stunning or had lots going on at once, I could understand the performance hit, but as it is, I have to presume the game is poorly optimised and the worthless physics objects are giving the hardware a good kicking. I only ran into one bug, which caused Simon to continuously hold his PDA/key device in front of his face after using it, which was remedied when it was used again.

Soma was honestly quite painful to play. While a few times the game succeeded in making me pause and ponder, the huge stretches of walking and the near-absence of gameplay between these moments meant I was way too bored to stay properly invested, and the game feels like missed potential. If its length was cut down to a few hours, or if it was realised as a book, film, or TV series, it would be more palatable, and possibly interesting. As it is, I feel like I could get a similar, if not better, experience by wandering around the house, reading an ‘Existentialism 101’ book while throwing random objects with my free hand.

Recommended? No-ma


Review: SWAT 4

Reviewed on PC.

I’ve made a few references to tactical shooters in my reviews despite the fact I haven’t really played one for any notable length of time. SWAT 4 seemed a bit more appealing than the genre’s staples, because it challenges you to non-lethally and legally pacify armed opponents, which is an interesting twist on moving from room to room ventilating enemy skulls.

In SWAT 4, you play as the leader of (surprise!) a SWAT team, and unless you type in a different name, you are called ‘Officer Default’. Over the course of the game, you and your squad are sent in to respond to a variety of crimes, including hostage situations, terror attacks and bomb threats. Some missions are particularly memorable, such as an early one which has you enter a serial killer’s house to save his surviving victims and bring him into custody, or one where a dangerous cult has taken over a block of flats. Like developer Irrational’s other games, the levels feature detailed and believable environments, and take place in a range of locations to keep things fresh. The squad members occasionally quip about what they see, and they are given a bit of personality and humour, which is a nice way of taking them slightly beyond ‘tough guy with gun #3’, but there isn’t enough dialogue to properly flesh them out. The combination of these elements means there is an unusual atmosphere that distinguishes it from the dry, dull fare it could have been.

The game has you giving orders to your squad to methodically search the maps for civilians and hostiles. Upon spotting either, you are required to shout for them to put their hands up. They might do as you say, they might mess around and need to be subdued with pepper spray, or, if they’re armed, they might open fire. In order to minimise the risk to you and your squadmates, you have to make use of flashbang grenades, tear gas, wedges to block doors, explosives to dislodge locked doors and an OptiWand to see under doors. Doors are kind of a big thing in this game. When the gadgets fail, fast reflexes are vital to pacifying enemies, since you can be killed within a second of them seeing you. This high level of challenge means every moment of the game is tense, as impatience is severely punished. Planning is also important to success; before launching each mission, you are briefed on the situation, and it is up to you to pick suitable equipment, for example using armour piercing rounds since the suspects are wearing bullet-proof vests.

Since you’ll probably screw up quite a bit, the game keeps things fresh by randomising the locations of suspects and civvies, which means you can’t just memorise enemy positions and breeze through. There is a flipside to this, which is the fact that the randomisation can completely screw you over. Once, I opened a door and found a room to be empty. After being killed, my squad returned to that room, and upon opening the door, we were greeted by four armed goons, who wiped out three SWAT members before we could throw a flashbang.

There are other annoyances. A big one is the fact that your ‘run’ is pretty damn slow, and if you are shot in the leg, your movement speed will be reduced considerably, which can make the rest of the level a tedious slog. The game is already slow paced, it doesn’t need to be fucking sedated. On a similar note, some suspects will flee, and playing tactical Wile E.  Coyote and the Roadrunner is not fun, especially if your leg has been crippled so you’re hobbling along.

I did find a few technical issues. SWAT members would often prove they are the best of the best by getting stuck on something, meaning I would have to go back and give them encouraging nudges until they got back to doing their job. Occasionally, the squad would simply not respond to orders. While this was immediately apparent when I could see them, there were several points where I told them to follow me, then two minutes later found they had decided to give it a miss. Eventually, I became pretty paranoid about taking point, so I gave the ‘follow’ command several times, and checked they were still there every so often, making me feel a bit more like a babysitter than a SWAT leader. A few times enemies partially clipped through walls, and once a suspect’s shadow projected through a closed door. These instances saved me the effort of popping the OptiWand under the door, but obviously killed some of the tension.

The sound mixing presented some major problems. Listening for enemy voices or footsteps can give you an idea of the occupants of a room, which might be the little edge you need. This strategy is a lot more difficult to carry out when your squadmates bump into you and repeatedly call you a dickhead until you move out of the way. Much worse is how people shout over each other. When breaching a room, your squad will start shouting at occupants, and then the occupants will start shouting back, then you might call in to Tactical Operations Command, and then they will start talking. In the worst cases, this means you can have upwards of six people shouting at the same time, at the same volume, without much panning to clear things up. It does simulate the chaos of a SWAT raid accurately, but with headphones on it can feel more like a bad LSD trip and induce headaches.

I found SWAT 4 a pretty immersive experience. It’s highlights were the levels the reproduce the weirder side of policing, and I wish there were a few more of these. You will probably bang your head on a wall when stuck on the more challenging missions, but the game is concise enough that completing it won’t require you to take a six month course in military tactics. While it’s not exactly my kind of game, the meticulous, almost strategy-like aspects of SWAT 4 were appealing, so if you are a fan of perfectionist games, I would moderately recommend it.

Recommended? Yes

Review: Mark Of The Ninja

Reviewed on PC.

Take stealth gameplay mechanics spanning from 1997 to 2012, mash them with a hammer until they lose a dimension and you get the game being reviewed today, Mark Of The Ninja.

Mark Of The Ninja is a 2D stealth platformer game. In it you play as a nameless ninja, who takes revenge on the private military corporation that attacked his dojo. The story also throws in some mild psychological elements, as the ‘mark’ the ninja has received causes delusions and eventually complete madness. The characters are few, but well acted. Ultimately, the story is just a vehicle for the art style and gameplay.

Presentation is MOTN’s biggest strength. The game is stylised as a cartoon, with the cutscenes looking as if they have been taken straight from a TV series. The gameplay continues the art style, and features smooth animations which give the impression that everything is choreographed, even though you are in control. The game also uses its visuals to communicate vital information to the player. Footsteps, lines of sight, player visibility and more is indicated with clever on-screen cues. As a result, what you see on-screen is both a beautiful artistic image, and a diegetic UI that facilitates the stealth.

The gameplay takes a side-scrolling platformer format, and modifies it into a stealth game. The stealth is reminiscent of the sneaky action style of the Batman: Arkham games, with grappling to vantage points, climbing through floor vents and takedowns from behind being immediate comparisons. You also are extremely agile and able to climb most walls, even sometimes upside down, opening up extra options for evading guards. The game includes multiple routes to an objective, which often allows you to find a safer path around tricky areas, and the 2D format makes it easy to see how the branch relates to the level as a whole. When it works, the acrobatics and intuitive stealth systems come together to let you weave through the levels with finesse.

Unfortunately, there are a number of thing that add annoyances on top of the standard frustrations stealth games have. The one that caused the most hair-pulling was the decision to use a checkpoint save system. Checkpoints are not suited to stealth games, which always have an element of trial and error. There are sections where checkpoints are at the bookends of long puzzles that incorporate instant kill traps, some of which require near-perfect timing to overcome. As you might imagine, the difficult moments chewed up a lot more time than they should have. Following on from this point, while MOTN supports keyboard and mouse, the precise movements you sometimes have to make are not well suited to ‘WASD’. The PC version employs a system where you can use both the ‘E’ key and right mouse to interact with an object, but if the mouse is over a different interactive object, the ‘E’ key will not respond, which can lead to screw-ups in sticky situations. I also had difficulties with the QTE takedowns, as they incorporate mouse movements, which I struggled to wrap my head around. Playing with a controller eased some of these complaints, but it is not essential to use one.

Overall, I’m on the fence about Mark Of The Ninja. I love its art style and clever approach to the UI, and the fast paced 2D take on stealth game tropes was good, but a lot of my experience was frustrating due to finicky controls and a save system that wasted a lot of time.

Recommended? No

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 its gameplay. It is 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 its 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 is 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 its 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 its 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 its 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 its 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 its 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 its 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 its 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 its 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 its 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 its 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. Its 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 its 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 its 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 is 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 its 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