Dying Light: The Following (Xbox One)

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By subverting Dying Light’s verticality, Techland reaches new heights.

When I reviewed Dying Light a year ago, I talked about its simple first rule: don’t touch the floor. A zombie survival game with a difference, Dying Light was less about combat than speed and evasion. Its unique free running motif had protagonist Kyle Crane clambering on and jumping between buildings, only venturing down to street level as a last, dangerous resort. So in its new expansion, The Following, I have to ask: where did all the buildings go? Continue reading “Dying Light: The Following (Xbox One)”

Hitman GO (PS4)

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“Poseidon is gentle with us today” Giuseppe called to his son who busied himself with untangling the nets. He had not been a young man when his wife blessed him with their only son,
but he felt only gratitude that the boy was now of an age to help out on the boat. Arthritis made even the most mundane tasks a painful chore, a reminder that there is some discomfort even in paradise.

As if on cue, the boy sat back in the stern, sweating from the exertion of wrestling with the sodden nets and pointed out over the azure sea to the blackened silhouette of the island, “What is that island, papa?” cried the boy. Giuseppe paused for a moment before answering “My son, that is hell in paradise.”

The terrible tales told by fathers to sons about the island would have given pause even to mighty Odysseus. No Siren or Cyclops dwelt there though and only the irregular walls of a villa piercing the skyline hinted at human habitation. To the locals they looked like nothing less than broken teeth, the lower jaw of some infernal beast. For all the fantasy though, the locals knew that their stories hid a worse terror still.

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“What have I done to deserve such generosity?”

Though he stood on the villa’s highest balcony, Don Rosario did not notice the fishing boat below, instead he was ruminating as to why Ennio had not patrolled the courtyard during the past ten minutes. Not for the first time did he feel a pang of regret at the laziness of sons-in-law employed out of generosity – that fannullone was probably asleep in a flower-bed.

Don Rosario was robbed of the opportunity to pursue the thought further as the strains of Ave Maria drifted from the bedroom, interrupting his thoughts. He loathed these sentimental old hymns but his wife adored them so he generally had little choice but to suppress his discomfort. Strange he thought, he was sure he’d heard his wife leave ten minutes earlier.

He returned to scowling at the courtyard, though even investigating the bedroom would probably not have saved his life. Agent 47 had committed to the kill and stepped silently out of the doorway and briefly reflected that Don Rosario was so vain a man that he’d probably appreciate being assassinated by a killer in a brushed wool Tom Ford coat with eight buttons and an ulster collar. However, he could not allow the Don the luxury of appreciating such elegance as with practiced ease he slipped a yellow scarf around the neck of the hapless Mafioso, a carefully placed knot crushing his larynx in seconds.

…and this is the verve and art of the Hitman series which distils so well into the format of a deceptively simple puzzle game. This is, however, not your daddy’s version of Go, the black and white stones of the ancient Chinese original giving way to playing pieces depicting a variety of henchmen and assorted toughs. While the original Go features even more winning variations than chess, Hitman Go presents only a handful of ways to beat each level, with extra points available for completing various optional tasks along the way such as collecting a briefcase or…er…not killing any dogs.

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I killed everyone in PETA with my nine-millimetre 

So if we don’t got Go, then what do we got? Not just the distillation of Hitman but also the essential form of many a ‘proper’ stealth game, the majority of which already operate like elaborate board games. Wait for baddie-A to move out of the eyeline of baddie-B and then move from hiding place to kill baddie-A and chuck his body down a well.

Hitman Go is just all of that without the fluff: A turn-based board game with the aim in each level being to reach the exit or bump off some poor chap who’s clearly narked the wrong people. The bad-guys are the aforementioned assorted toughs who have an idiosyncratic way of moving depending on their type. Blue-jacketed bruisers face stoically in one direction, dog-handlers pursue you relentlessly once they have sight of you and even snipers crisis-cross the playing area with them laser-scopey things that I can’t remember the name of.

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Trip Advisor rates this park as ‘quite stabby’ ***

Agent 47 isn’t quite defenceless though as carelessly littered around each level are silenced pistols, sniper rifles and rocks and tin-cans which distract the enemy when thrown. Before you go away thinking that this is a gun-feast after all and not suitable for children, elderly relatives or the clergy, be advised that this is an entirely bloodless affair. Hitman Go doesn’t just play like a board game, but it looks like one too. Each level looks like a specially-constructed diorama, populated by charming hand-painted figurines. When Agent 47 does rub out one of his foes, their playing piece simply gets yanked from the board and set down at the side.

The commitment to a cohesive look and feel for the game is admirable and complemented throughout by some surprisingly soothing noodley xylophone music.

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“Mama-Mia! I should’na had-a the fish!”

The game definitely loses something in its transition from mobile platforms though, where the touch-controls were a perfect fit, as was the ‘one quick go on the bus’ gameplay. The game felt sizeable on mobile, so I was surprised to romp through the whole thing in four hours on console (although it’ll take me a good while longer to achieve 100% completion). Sitting down with a console is more of a time commitment so inevitably it’s not a game with great longevity on this format.

Still, while it lasts it’s a relatively unique experience and the puzzles have just the right tension between frustrating and simple to prompt repeated attempts. Just don’t be tempted to use the ‘Hint’ option and render a short game even shorter.

8/10 Polonium-fresh

Hitman GO was reviewed with a download code of the PS4 edition, provided by Dead Good Media.

Unravel (Xbox One)

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Looking cute is no defence from a harsh world.

Presented as a cutesy platformer in the vein of Little Big Planet, Unravel isn’t what it first appears. While its hero is a child’s toy crafted from wool, the world that Yarny inhabits quickly eschews any infantile cavorting. An initial sense of playfulness (climbing oversized furniture; swinging between window boxes and sunflowers) gives way to something unremittingly bleak.

Continue reading “Unravel (Xbox One)”

Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders (Xbox One)

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Agatha Christie’s ABC murders is a game released by Microids on PS4, Xbox One and PC/MAC. I played the Xbox One version. I will say that a big reason I  reviewed this game was because I’m a huge fan of Agatha Christie’s Belgian creation Hercule Poirot, for many years I have loved David Suchet’s portrayal of this beloved character. I also love police/crime procedurals in general, Sherlock Holmes, Criminal Minds, Murder She Wrote and many more, you put a mystery or a seemingly unsolvable crime in front of me and I will watch it for hours, really hours, I have watched entire seasons of the stuff in one sitting (thanks Netflix). I was however a little nervous that because of this love that the game would not live up to my expectations. I was half right.

We begin the game in the famous Whitehaven Mansions where we meet Poirot and Hastings, I was not entirely happy with this introduction, Poirot who is known for being vain and particular about his appearance and that of his apartment appeared to be sitting at a rough wooden table in a room with an equally rough wooden floor. I mean this is Poirot, the man who habitually dusts things off with a handkerchief before sitting down! As the game progressed I did eventually get over this disappointing first impression and the rest of the apartment did look much better but it was not an auspicious beginning.

poirot-s12-ep1-hiresThe  game looks a bit like borderlands crossed with both the art nouveau and art deco periods which I felt was slightly strange, the colour palette seemed too strong and harsh. Poirot himself looked the part and the other characters weren’t too bad, Hastings and Japp seemed to be the weakest visually but that could have been because I am used to seeing the characters portrayed by Hugh Fraser and Philip Jackson respectively. The other characters seemed fine, though the possible main antagonist was way too obvious with dark shadows under his eyes, Ben even remarked when he was watching me play the game “oh that’s the bad guy then!”. The sound design was very peculiar, one character, a vegetable seller that Poirot questions sounded like the voice had been recorded in a train station or next to a road. The rest of the voices were better, a bit lacking in enthusiasm perhaps but then most of them have just had a loved one murdered!   

The interaction between the characters was fairly believable, again it appeared the Poirot had the most time spent on him and felt mostly right, he was witty, vain and used random french words as you would expect. His french accent however caused me a few problems when he was pronouncing english words, they sounded strange and made Poirot appear uneducated, something that is clearly untrue. Hastings was good and Poirot’s fondness for his friend was certainly apparent but it was all a bit lackluster and Japp was just terrible, agreeing with everything Poirot suggested leaving no opportunity for Poirot to shoot off any witty observations, all the character and charm seemed to have been sucked out of their interactions. This was especially disappointing for me as the Poirot/Japp relationship as slightly antagonistic friends can be very funny and would have made Japp appear less like a simpering idiot..  

2016-01-31_00009-100643171-origThe actual gameplay was strange, moving Poirot around with one thumbstick and moving the cursor equivalent (a circle) around with the other. The main issue I have is with the solving of the puzzles that make up a significant portion of the game, they are clunky and took me out of the story, did the entire population of england hide their secrets in puzzle boxes and secret compartments with elaborate opening mechanisms? Not only this but none of them could remember themselves how to open them and conveniently left clues for themselves laying around! I will admit solving puzzles like this is not my favourite pastime and this may have biased me against the mechanic, but I still feel that the amount of these puzzles in the game was excessive.

I also felt that the clue mechanic that was supposed to help you was half-assed. I tried it on a couple of occasions and instead of getting Poirot to suggest something helpful in a contextual humourous manner it just solved the first part of any puzzle for you, again taking you out of the experience. If I need a clue I am already frustrated and simply solving a part of it for me is going to annoy me even more. If anything the clue mechanic needed to be more complex, perhaps with several options or levels of “clues”, others might just want the answer but this just aggravated me, If I am playing as the world famous Belgian detective having the answer handed to me does not help the little grey cells!

WzamGrKLuu2d.878x0.Z-Z96KYqI enjoyed the actual story and the questioning of the witnesses, one of my favorite parts of the game was using the famous “little grey cells” which in this instance is turned into a fun mini game in which you have to select various clues that you have gathered to come to the correct conclusions. Playing as Poirot himself was also very enjoyable, I loved exploring and finding clues (annoying puzzles notwithstanding) and Poirot’s little comments to himself and the player were well, very Poirot!   

I did enjoy this game, I got to be Poirot after all! But the various annoyances and oddities did draw me out of the experience more times than I would have liked.  

6/10

Agatha Christie’s ABC Murders was reviewed with a download code of the Xbox One edition, provided by Microsoft Xbox

 

Virtual Humanity Part One: Despair

uwbr5e1mfanxjkc9v39fVIRTUAL HUMANITY PART ONE: DESPAIR

(This is an amended version of the original article which appeared on BXB before the server took a shit all over itself. Edits have been made in order to decrapify certain crappening elements and are not meant to hinder your enjoyment or lack thereof)

A couple of weeks ago, I vouchsafed the following unsolicited opinion to a stranger: “Art, it’s what separates us from the animals innit?”

The stranger quickly hurried away, which is unusual because loudly challenging the opinions of drunken strangers is what make our English public houses the vibrant and thrilling places that they are..

If the stranger had really put some thought into it, he might have argued that I was talking bollocks. Marine ecologist Carl Safina would certainly have agreed – in a recent TED lecture he recounted an example of a man watching dolphins in an aquarium whilst smoking a cigarette. One young dolphin observed him for a while before returning to its mother to nurse. Later on, the dolphin approached the man and spewed out a cloud of milk which resembled smoke enveloping the dolphin’s head. Safina said that the name we give for our own attempts to represent the world we see around us is ‘Art’. He further stated that, “There are capacities of the human mind which we tend to think are only of the human mind.”

If art doesn’t prove a meaningful difference between you and your pet budgie, then what does? In the early years of this century, there seemed to be a rolling argument in the gaming press about whether there had ever been a truly ‘mature’ video game. I’m reasonably sure that neither side of the debate meant that Sonic the Hedgehog should get his nob out once in a while, but rather that there should be games based around specifically adult situations. While Super Car Downpayment Simulator never really took off, many were drawn to the heady delights of waiting for a bus and the frolics of getting a job in Shenmue. Such a discussion seems old hat now, but if we can now agree that the market is awash with definitely mature content, can we similarly agree on a game with specifically human content? Of course, Ken the Budgie is going to struggle with Street Fighter V, but the Street Fighter series is one of the most animalistic of all – telling stories of simple, violent struggle. In this series of features , I’m going to ask whether there has ever been a game which speaks to human experience in the same way that any number of great movies and works of literature do. Do games separate us from the animals? Has there ever been a truly existential game?
“Hadooouuuuken!”01

Last week I placed my pre-order for This War Of Mine: The Little Ones largely because I was so enthralled with the first one. Reviews have been generally, but not uniformly positive. Our editor Ben noted that it’s not a game about ‘fun’ and that it could possibly be classed as edutainment. That some reviewers do not find TWOM:TLO to be an enjoyable experience does not surprise me in the least, and I thank them for their honesty. After all, the first game met with almost universal acclaim – surprising for a title which flies in the face of what has made gaming an enjoyable pastime since – well, since gaming has been a thing.

Moving away from the idea of a fun quotient, let’s do the science bit. Gaming is supposed to be a pleasurable activity, particularly games which involve some degree of direct competition. When you’re grabbing points, flags, territory of just bragging rights over another player, several things are happening within your noggin. Certain parts of the brain associated with pleasure, such as the nucleus accumbens, amygdala and the orbitofrontal cortex are activated and there is an increase in the release of dopamine. Dopamine is best understood as ‘the pleasure chemical’. Behaviour which elicits some sort of reward has a similar effect on the brain to amphetamines and encourages repetition of that behaviour which is why crack is (to borrow a phrase) very ‘moreish’, and it’s also why people play Call of Duty until their marriages collapse.

Do animals enjoy gaming? Search ‘games for cats’ on the AppStore and you’ll quickly be disabused of any notion to the contrary.02

What, you thought I was joking?

The rewards of games are very meagre compared to – say – food and sex, which is why they fall into the category of ‘secondary rewards’. Yet, the pull towards secondary rewards can be as great as towards more fundamental ones which is why people occasionally drop dead because they played Warcraft to the exclusion of all other things. Yep, all that time you spent grabbing loot in Diablo III or stockpiling increasingly devastating weapons in Borderlands was having a similar effect on your brain as a rail of coke or a really good meal. However, This War Of Mine was (for me and others) not a pleasurable experience on that order of magnitude.

If you’ve played the original game, then I’m going to tell you a very familiar tale. Everyone in my house spent all their time crippled with depression or injury and I did terribly questionable things to survive, skirting an ever-present game-over scenario. Why did I persist in it? Because what the game does is dangle the carrot that X will improve if only Y can be achieved.

If I could get the doors secure then there’ll be less bandit raids.

If I make some animal traps, we’ll never go hungry again.

If I could get the house warm, no-one will get sick again.

It’s no spoiler to suggest that none of these things are true. Whenever you focus on one thing in TWOM (and TWOM:TLO) you’re neglecting something else. The game gets harder in obvious ways but in subtler ways too. To begin with you’ll find yourself scavenging from deserted buildings but later on the richest pickings come from places which are inhabited by downright unfriendly locals. Soon the choice becomes one of tackling the baddies head-on or pilfering from innocents. The latter option feels so awful because most players tend to make very moral choices when playing games (an examination of the choices most people made while playing Telltale’s The Walking Dead is proof enough of that), precisely because the game reinforces a normal internal narrative that we are essentially good people who want to do our best.

When you play TWOM, a great deal of pleasure is derived from hope. Hope that you’ll be able to accumulate the goods you need, that you’ll get better at fending off attacks and hope that you’ll make it through to the end of the conflict. Surely it’s hope then that differentiates us from the beasts of the field?

Disappointingly, that’s not it either. The ‘Reward System’ of the brain consists of more bits than it would be interesting to list. What’s important about the concept of ‘reward’ in neuroscience is that the harder someone works for something, the more they enjoy it and this is known as the ‘hedonic impact’. Doubly interesting is that this ‘enjoying’ is unaffected even when dopamine systems are blocked. Wanting is as enjoyable as having in this scenario, which might explain why a difficult game such as TWO-I’m sick of acronyms, which has limited possibility of any reward is still a pleasurable experience.
Animals know this too. Edward L Thorndike, rewarded cats who escaped a maze with food but found that even when he removed the possibility of food, they enjoyed escaping the maze. Try it at home!03

Cats in a maze.

Yet, there are two aspects of TWOM:TMWRNJ which I believe do exemplify uniquely human qualities, and I’ve already hinted at the first: Hope in the face of certain tragedy. First time I played it, I genuinely believed that I was playing a typical Roguelike in that the only outcome was a death which – at best – I might be able to stave off for a while.

This is a game which will grind you down, thwart all of your hopes, present you with impossible moral conundrums and most likely the best you’ll get out of it is the Game Over screen. Yet, Roguelikes are big business, enjoying a massive renaissance on iOS in the past few years.

If you give a crawfish electric shocks every time it leaves a cave (and this experiment has been done), soon enough it doesn’t want to leave its cave any more. If you hit a cat on the head with a spoon every time it escaped a maze, it either wouldn’t bother or would only do so in order to wrest the spoon from your grasp and do you up like a kipper.

The second is the strangely edifying sensation of despair. Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher opined that we should rejoice in our despair because it was proof that we were more than just physical matter. As nothing impermanent can suffer because it always has the hope of escape via death, then only the soul which can never die can suffer the “Sickness unto death” known as despair.

Yes, we hope in the face of impossible odds but even with that hope withdrawn, we persist regardless.

Does this make us masochists? I’d say not. My own doctor said – on the subject of smoking – that we overestimate fortune and underestimate tragedy. This is why we blithely smoke cigarettes which carry many high risks to health but also play the lottery with only a negligible chance of success.

It is a uniquely human trait to hope for the best when all else seems lost. It’s how Vincent Cochetel mentally and emotionally survived 317 days as a hostage of Chechen separatists, despite torture and seemingly-certain execution. It’s how people still go on living in places like Homs in Syria which now eerily resembles the ruins of Washington from ‘Fallout 3’.
Animals do not have the notion that they can end their own suffering through suicide, humans do and yet in the face of death, destruction and deprivation of liberty, the majority continue to yearn for a better day. This is the despair and humanity of This War Of Mine, something your budgie will never understand.04

Firewatch (PC)

firewatch-artwork-1What makes a person take a job that isolates them from society for months at a time? This question is asked, rather pointedly, moments into your first taste of the melancholic and thoughtful world of Firewatch, the debut game from Campo Santo.

As the player you already know the real answer, of course. A rather beautiful opening sequence takes you through a series of key events in the life of your character, Henry, in a style reminiscent of a Twine game. It’s a brave and unusual opening, from a brave and unusual game, and remarkably effective. Almost immediately a bond is formed with Henry, as brief snippets of text fade into view, accompanied by music and appropriate ambient sound effects. It’s one of the strongest openings I’ve seen in a game in a long time, and it’s hard not to feel moved as Henry’s touching back story reveals itself.

The meat of the game concerns Henry taking a job as a fire lookout in a national park in Wyoming, an apparently real job that entails living alone in a tower and staring out of the window for 3 months looking out for fires or fire hazards. It’s lonely and quiet work, which gives the player a lot of time for wondering off on their own, exploring their surroundings and enjoying stunning views of the environment around them.

firewatch_140830_01The game also gets good value out of its central conceit. It’s your first day on the job, which lets your boss handle a lot of tutorial dialogue without it seeming strange or forced. The game slowly reveals itself in a very natural and comfortable way, gradually unfurling your primary means of interaction and establishing a tone and setting that really get under your skin. The wilds of Wyoming are truly beautiful, with just enough sense of wilderness to reinforce the isolated sense of loneliness and exposure that the game delivers so well.

Of course, it goes with saying that visually this game is stunning! Many games have offered the user a camera to record their favourite moments for posterity, but Firewatch is probably the most natural home this mechanic has ever found. It’s hard to walk twenty steps in this glorious environment without something wonderful, some new vista that triggers an irresistible urge to start snapping away, and each foray out into the wilderness that the game sends you on seems to take place at a different time of day, shifting the lighting and the tone to breathe new life into familiar territory.

Also of note is some pitch perfect sound design, with sparing but beautifully placed snatches of haunting music, and a meticulously detailed soundscape that immerses the player perfectly into the world around them. Meticulous attention to detail is present at every turn, as footstep sounds match the terrain perfectly, wooden beams creak in the wind and birdsong intensifies at dawn and dusk.

firewatch_150615_02Mechanically there is a passing whiff of “Metroidvania” to the core game mechanics, as the player slowly gathers up a number of new tools, some of which provide new interaction options with the world. Additionally the player’s own familiarity with their surrounding grants them greater range of movement, as they learn new cut-throughs and short-cuts to assist their navigation of what initially seems an overwhelmingly confusing and large area of land, but quickly becomes very manageable. Some of the later tools seem somewhat under-utilised, with one in particular only seeming to really be used once in the entire game, but still they provide a useful sense of progression and add to the player’s feeling of growing mastery over the world around them.

After the first few early jaunts into the surrounding landscape, that function as much as an extended tutorial as anything else, a proper narrative thread emerges, and the player is plunged into an intriguing mystery. The story is paced well, and delivered excellent through some truly stand-out writing and voice acting, but still I found myself wishing I could just have carried on as a forest ranger doing mundane tasks for a little longer. The urgency that the story adds to proceedings is wonderfully executed, and surely this sense of my paradise being shattered is part of the intention of the writer, but I still resented the way it constricted my options. It feels like the game loses some of its early freedom at this point, as the player is railroaded slightly into moving from event to event.

firewatch_150615_05Nevertheless, the plot is a strong one, and had me on the edge of my seat wondering how everything was going to resolve itself. In fact, Firewatch was cruising to “classic” status in my mind right up until the final few minutes, when frustratingly all the intrigue and confusion of the central storyline just burned away to nothing. Several new locations seem to pass in a blur and the story ends abruptly in a disappointing denouement that manages to be both implausible and unsatisfyingly mundane. Several loose ends are left hanging in this finale, which after the excellent writing that characterised most of the game makes me genuinely wonder if the developers simply ran out of money and had to rush out a slightly different ending to the one they had initially planned.

However, despite this profoundly disappointing destination, the journey through Firewatch remains a pretty remarkable experience, and one that I would recommend to anyone on the fence. I would have happily just worked as a lookout for another 3 months of game time without any narrative popping up at all, just chilling out in the canyon, enjoying the back and forth banter with Delilah, stomping out the occasional campfire and picking up litter for the entire time. That’s surely a mark of how successful this game is as an example of world-building. Fittingly, like the conflagrations you are supposed to be preventing, Firewatch ends in a bit of a mess, but while it burns, it’s really rather beautiful.

 

8/10

Firewatch was reviewed with a download code of the PC edition, provided by Campo Santo