Halo 5: Guardians Review

Title
Standard

Developer

343 Industries

Publisher

Microsoft Studios

Format

Xbox One

Released

27th October 2015

“What If You Miss?” “I…Wont?”

Halo 5: Guardians is a bit of mixed bag. To use a tired old football cliché, it’s a game of two halves. On second thought, let’s put that in more of a pseudo-Dickensian way – it’s the best of Halo games, it’s the worst of Halo games. Nah, that paraphrase just looks weird now that I’ve typed it out, let’s just go with a classic; it’s 50/50. Actually, forget all these cheesy turns of phrase, I’ll just spit it out; Halo 5‘s multiplayer is great, but the campaign is a big let-down. Happy now?

Wait, don’t go! Look, I know what you might be thinking, but please don’t scream “Un Forastero!” and reach for the torches and pitchforks quite just yet. Instead, allow me to lexically backpeddle for a bit as I try to put that blunt assessment across a tad more eloquently.

Halo 5: Guardians is an okay Halo game. It’s not bad, but it’s also not great. It exceeds expectations in some areas, but severely disappoints in others. Developer 343 Industries have pushed the gameplay of the fourteen-year-old Halo franchise forward in exciting new ways with this new title, but unfortunately in doing so seem to have dropped the (odd)ball on a whole host of other equally important issues.

Un-Locke-y

Master Chief

Don’t give me that look Chief, I’m just being honest. Hey, at least the multiplayer is still good, right?

Dichotomy and duality permeate every element of Halo 5: Guardians, and it’s in the campaign mode where these themes are given centre stage. The story picks up approximately eight months after the conclusion of Halo 4‘s Spartan Ops story (and shortly after the events of the Hunt the Truth podcast), and follows the exploits of two elite Spartan fireteams; Master Chief’s original Spartan-II Blue Team and Agent Locke’s new Spartan-IV Fireteam Osiris. A certain series of events come to pass, and Locke and co. are sent to apprehend Blue Team after they go AWOL…what could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, quite a bit.

Okay, let’s bite the bullet and get the painful bit out of the way right now. Despite all the months of hype and build-up, prime time TV advertising slots and extensive (and surprisingly very good) social media campaigns, Halo 5‘s campaign is a deeply disappointing offering and the first major nadir of the series.

Considering the Halo franchise built its reputation largely on the strength of its story-driven campaigns, it’s a real shame then that Halo 5 has such an underwhelming one. The moment-to-moment gameplay is fine, and the presentation is top-notch, but ultimately a terrible script and overly linear level designs make Halo 5‘s campaign a feeble and shallow experience.

Initially, things start out on a very strong note. As you blast your way through the snowy Kamchatka cliffsides, it’s easy to see how 343’s revisions to the standard Halo formula work wonders in breathing new life into the series’ ageing systems. Gone are the Armour Abilities that granted extra abilities in Halo: Reach and Halo: 4, and in their place is a suite of new movement and combat controls that persist across campaign and multiplayer.

Known as Spartan Abilities, these new transplanted movement and combat mechanics enable players to tackle the series’ familiar first-person sci-fi shooting ranges with greatly improved skill, and a hell of a lot more style. The ability to sprint indefinitely, clamber up ledges, shoulder charge and ground pound à la Superman are all welcome new additions to your Spartan’s moveset, but specifically it’s boost and smart-link which steal the show.

Boost, as the name might unsurprisingly suggest, allows your Spartan to instantly shoot forwards in the direction of your left stick’s choosing.It’s basically a souped-up version of Halo 4‘s weedy Thruster Pack with a fractionally shorter cooldown. Though it may not sound like much on paper, these short accelerated bursts of movement irrevocably change the rhythm and pacing of traditional Halo combat for the better. Whether it’s to quickly dash to cover, dodge incoming grenade blasts or shoot towards an enemy for a snappy melee kill, using boost quickly becomes an essential part of how you navigate the battlefield. When deployed at the apex of a full speed jump, boosting also allows for increased verticality during engagements, allowing your Spartan to scale the environment with speed and aplomb. It’s speedy, snappy, and really quite brilliant.

Maybe even better than that though is the Smart-Link aiming system. Every weapon in Halo 5 can be now Smart-Linked (AKA aimed down sights) for increased accuracy – whether that weapon is an assault rifle, sniper rifle, or even a plasma sword (seriously, Smart-Link lets you make micro-adjustments to your sword lunges). It’s subtler in effect than the boost, but the ability to aim traditionally inaccurate and unwieldy automatic-fire weapons like the Assault Rifle, Covenant Plasma Rifle and Forerunner Suppressor with significantly improved accuracy across long distances greatly freshens up these previously less desirable weapons and makes them far more useful than they’ve ever been in the past. Additionally, when the aim button is pressed and held mid-air, your Spartan will activate stabilising jets which let you briefly hover in position above the ground for a few seconds to complete a tricky shot (or alternatively line up a cheeky ground pound below you). Unlike previous Halo titles, aiming is now mapped to the left trigger by default (like in Call of Duty or Destiny) and while it can take some time to adjust to this new setting, it quickly becomes second nature after only a few minutes of playing. In fact, it’s incredibly hard to imagine how you ever played the older games without Smart-Link and all the other new accoutrements at all. Truly, this is combat evolved.

Although the core gameplay of the series has been given some substantial new tweaks and improvements, the same care and attention to detail doesn’t appear to have been applied to the game’s script. Once you’ve shot your way through the first couple of levels, the threadbare nature of the plot becomes harder and harder to ignore.

Without a doubt, this is easily the weakest story in the mainstream Halo games to date. New characters are introduced with no backstory or motive, there’s hardly any significant character development at all from the start of the game to the end. Some characters have even had complete re-writes, making them hard to even recognise as the same person from when we last saw them in Halo 4. It’s jarring, strange, and very un-Halo like.

Perhaps one of the most egregious points about the campaign mode though is that it primarily focuses on Agent Locke and Fireteam Osiris, and not Chief and Blue Team. In spite of the false impression that Halo 5’s box art and marketing materials gave, this is essentially an Agent Locke game; the campaign has you playing as Locke and co. for a whopping 80% of the game, whilst Chief and his buddies are given just three paltry missions to shoot through. Considering the backlash that Bungie received for pulling a similar stunt in Halo 2 with the Arbiter, it just looks like 343 has learned absolutely nothing from the series’ past mistakes. Though a lot of players didn’t necessarily enjoy the Arbiter sections at the time, the Arbiter was undeniably an interesting new character; one who gradually develops alongside the player and shows meaningful character progression through the course of the game.

The same cannot be said for Locke. Already a boring character when he debuted in the awful Halo: Nightfall, I was actually looking forward to learning more about this secretive ONI deuteragonist and finding out what drives him to aggressively pursue the Master Chief. Incredibly, despite starring in twelve of the game’s fifteen missions, you learn absolutely nothing about Locke from the first trigger pull to the last. He has no personality, no charisma, and is completely unmemorable as a character.

Locke & Chief

Locke is a serviceable protagonist, but one utterly devoid of anything resembling a personality.

Though the other members of Fireteam Osiris help inject some much needed flavour and personality into the on-screen action (Nathan Fillion in particular does some sterling work as Buck, absolutely carrying the Osiris sections), Locke’s character remains a gaping hole in an already paper-thin script, in spite of Ike Amadi’s quality voice work. 343 undoubtedly have further plans for the character in future games, but for fuck’s sake, give Ike something – hell, anything – to work with next time. Master Chief is already one of the most bland video game characters out there as it is; his supporting cast need to be more interesting than he is, not less.

Ironically, while the game is very light on plot, it doesn’t bother to unpack some of the very lore-heavy information that actually is in the game for every player to understand. As a whole, the Halo 5‘s campaign is far too reliant on extra materials from the expanded universe of the books and comics. It offloads the responsibility to understand what’s going on and who these six brand new characters actually are (or why we should even care about them at all) to the player and makes little effort or explanation in the actual game itself to bring everyone up to speed. Which is a shame, as with the exception of Locke, these are some of the most interesting characters in the Halo universe – particularly Chief’s fellow Blue Team members, who are arguably far more intriguing than ol’ Johnny boy himself. Alas, they are simply included here to act as additional player surrogates, nothing more, nothing less.

Blue Team

Master Chief and Blue Team are relegated to a mere three of the fifteen total levels. Talk about out with the old and in with the new.

Playing the campaign co-operatively with other players naturally makes it easier to look past these narrative shortcomings and just concentrate on the great gunplay at hand. However, the lack of a dedicated matchmaking system for the campaign and no local splitscreen multiplayer option means that unless you have three other friends with their own seperate Xbones and copies of the game, you’ll be playing through it on your tod.

Which really isn’t the best way to experience things, because the accompanying Spartan AI leaves a lot to be desired. You see, your fellow computer-controlled Spartans are as ignorant as Monty Python Gumbys at best, and downright stubborn mutineers at worst. Commands can be issued to your computer-controlled teammates by looking at a point of interest/weapon/enemy and pressing up on the d-pad to get them to move there/pick that weapon up/target that enemy. It’s rudimentary stuff, and though tactically shallow it tends to work for the most part. I say ‘for the most part’ because unfortunately your AI teammates have a lot in common with the Xbox One’s Kinect sensor; they’re temperamental, finicky, and tend to struggle to understand even the most basic of instructions.

Typically, it’s when you need their help the most they’ll just flat out ignore your orders, dumbly standing still in a stationary stupor.

Or alternatively get stuck on pieces of the environment and start binking about like excited rabbits rather than help get fallen teammates back to their feet.

So much for ‘your team is your weapon’, your MJOLNIR-clad musketeers are consistently inconsistent variables you just have to oblige and babysit as you play. They’re serviceable companions when they want to play nice, but oh-so-infuriatingly irritating when they decide to go off – or more appropriately, into – the rails.

Whether you choose to play together with friends, or persevere with the computerised cretins solo, thankfully the high production values of the campaign do confer a slick layer of triple-A polish to the experience that helps to somewhat gloss over the flimsy script. Graphically, the series has never looked better, and a consistent 60fps framerate keeps the action buttery-smooth throughout. Of particular distinction is the excellent sound design; everything from the tiny tactile squeaks and strains of MJOLNIR armour to the thundering BOOM-ker-plunk-chick of Scorpion tank cannon fire has been meticulously recorded and mixed to perfection.

Perhaps most commendable of all are the inclusion of a few brief interactive combat-free sections. These small interstitial hub stages grant 343 further environmental storytelling opportunities outside of the usual FPS lens, and act as a really nice unexpected breath of fresh air to the player. Although these levels are very basic in design and execution – walk up to the indicated person/object of interest and hold X – they don’t outstay their welcome, and the chance to pause, interact and engage in dialogue with characters outside of your immediate squad lend the middle act of the campaign a more contemplative and immersive feel. These rudimentary yet promising sequences show a great deal of potential, and judging from Franchise Development Director Frank O’Connor’s recent comments about possibly exploring completely non-combat Halo experiences in future games, the ideas debuted here will hopefully be revisited and expanded upon in the series’ future in some shape or form.

As Halo 5 is a first-person shooter however, the fact that these combat-free sections are the most memorable standout sequences in the game speaks volumes about the quality of design throughout the rest of the campaign. For all the new technical and gameplay enhancements the game makes, Halo 5 never manages to match the same powerful stride of its predecessors, let alone outdo them. Crucially, it’s in terms of level design where Halo 5 feels particularly lacking. This campaign features some of the largest Spartan playgrounds yet seen in the series, but also some of the least interesting and memorable ones of the lot. Although the locations and set pieces impress in terms of sheer size and scale, they lack the sandbox magic that made the original Bungie trilogy of games zing with that potent combination of possibility and curiosity. Multiple paths can be discovered through each firezone, yes, but ultimately these tend to just offer hidden weapons or slightly different positions to shoot from, rather than offer up fundamentally different ways of tackling the level. There’s nothing here that’s comparable to the myraid ways you can bring down the first Scarab in Halo 3, or the freedom you have to plot your own course through Halo: CE‘s eponymous second level. The Halo campaigns have always been linear affairs, but Halo 5‘s feels the most restricting and one-way of them all.

This feeling of being funnelled down one specific way of playing isn’t helped by the way in which the game all too frequently wrests control away from players by taking key action sequences out of gameplay and putting them into cutscenes. Sure, the Halo games have always leant heavily on their cutscenes to deliver the bulk of their narrative, and there’s no denying that Halo 5‘s cineamatics are high-quality, beautifully rendered sequences in pretty much every regard. It’s just a shame then that they are used to interrupt the action with such frequency that they rapidly become tiresome, eye-rolling roadblocks to player involvement.

On top of that, when you actually are in control of the action, 343’s decision to overuse a recurring boss character feels particularly unwelcome. Boss fights have never been Halo‘s forte, but at least they’ve been sparingly used in the past. Not so here. This tedious antagonist plagues the second half of the campaign like a belligerent herpes infection, and has to be bested no less than seven times; each new repetition just as dull and uninteresting as the last. Forget search and destroy, this character’s prerogative is rinse and repeat.

Finally, as a parting insult to a plethora of injuries, the campaign comes to an abrupt halt with a poorly-executed cliffhanger of an ending. Again, have 343 learned nothing from their real-life forerunners? Fair enough, a sudden cut-off in the action like this is certainly an effective way of getting fans champing at the bit for the inevitable Halo 6, but for a developer of this pedigree, it’s just about the cheapest trick in the storytelling book to play. Delivered in context – at the end of a sluggish story that’s only just getting into gear during its final moments – this ending just comes off as weak, lazy and, quite frankly, insulting.

343 Ending Text

See you on Sangelios? Are you fucking kidding me?

Unlike Halo 2‘s divisive ending (which, for the record, I actually enjoyed), Halo 5‘s brutal severance simply feels unmerited, and nothing more than a cynical cop-out way for 343 to kick the olive-green can down the road for the next few years. Halo 5’s campaign looks, sounds and feels like a snazzy big budget production, and 343 unquestionably deserve credit for pushing the traditional gameplay of the series into brave new territory. That said, a superficial script and a monotonous, one-dimensional approach to level design greatly overshadow the campaign’s technical successes, and suggest that its creators have fallen out of touch with what makes a great Halo campaign. Sod Chief and the virtual reclamation; let’s hope that 343 can reclaim their own mantle of responsibility in time for Halo 6. Finish this fight…on a high?

I Need a Weapon. Please? Pretty Please?

Blue Multiplayer

Feeling blue after the campaign? Don’t be, the multiplayer is fantastic.

Every cloud has a silver lining. Luckily, it appears that the same rule apparently applies to space clouds too, as Halo 5‘s multiplayer suite goes a long way to pick up the slack of its campaign counterpart.

For a start, one of the major accomplishments of the multiplayer suite that you’ll notice right out of the gate is that everything actually works. Compared to the disastrous launch of last year’s Master Chief Collection, it’s certainly a very pleasant change, and great to see that the problems that riddled the team’s first Xbox One effort appear to have been rooted out and solved here. From day one, the matchmaking systems have been both speedy and fair, getting you into hard-fought battles faster than ever before.

Which is appropriate, as not only is this the fastest multiplayer experience in a Halo game to date, but also the most balanced one in recent years too. Halo 5 equalises the playing field by standardising Spartan Abilities for all players across all modes, so no player has any one particular movement advantage over anybody else. By the time the credits have rolled on Locke’s misadventures in the campaign, you’ll have had plenty of time to adapt to get to grips with the Spartan Abilities, but it’s only when you jump into the game’s competitive multiplayer modes that you’ll truly master them.

Although it might be painful for a Bungie-era Halo purist to hear, these new moves totally change up the pace of multiplayer. Thankfully, it’s a change that’s clearly for the better. Halo 5‘s Spartan Abilities provide players with a familiar yet refreshingly different-enough set of tools that make tackling both the maps and enemy players an absolute joy. To put it another way, this is the freshest multiplayer experience the series has boasted since the halcyon days of Halo 2.

While it can’t compete with the kinetic pace and balletic grace of Titanfall, Halo 5‘s multiplayer experience is still a lithe and limber beast in its own right. For a start, the maps feel less like traditional multiplayer map fare, and more like whacky sci-fi jungle gyms for you to scurry over and explore. They allow for all sorts of creative new approaches to playing, and there’s this really exciting newfound sense of freedom and improvisation deeply married to the moment-to-moment gameplay. Clambering and boosting allows cunning combatants to shortcut their way around the maps and get the drop on their enemies, while sprint and shoulder charge allow aggressive players to dominate in close-quarters clashes like space bulls in a sci-fi china shop.

Like special moves in a fighting game, these Spartan Abilities are powerful tools in the hands of a skilled player, but they are carefully balanced so as to never feel overpowered or unfair. For example, sprinting allows you to cover distances at a greater speed, but will negate your shield’s recharge ability until you return to walking pace. Sprinting while under fire, or running away from a firefight with depleted shields means you risk being picked off with just a single shot by another attacker. Smart-Linking enables greater firing accuracy at longer ranges, but comes with the caveat of a reduced aiming speed, so hip-firing weapons the old fashioned way tends to win the day at close range.

Perhaps the most evident case of fine-tuned balance can be observed in the aerial ground pound attack. A fully charged pound will instantly kill an enemy Spartan on contact, but executing the move comes with a number of costly risks. First, the move has to be charged for a few seconds mid-air, leaving your motionless Spartan completely exposed and an easy target for others to pick off. Secondly, if you miss your target and don’t get a clean kill, then the move’s recovery animation will leave you wide-open to a swift counterattack (usually delivered in the form of an assassination) from your intended victim. Just like a fighting game then, learning how to best utilise your abilities and how to string them together in different contexts is vital to success in Halo 5.

If the campaign is the training course, then Warzone and Arena are the exams, and oh boy, if only every exam could be as much fun as these two. Arena is the mode most in-line with traditional competitive Halo multiplayer experiences. Arena matches are all about seizing power weapons and using co-ordinated teamwork to control small tightly constructed maps. These maps are ranked four on four affairs that feel like claustrophobic rat runs, (if rat runs happened to be populated by armoured supersoldiers carrying ridiculously powerful ballistic and beam weaponry) though the recently added eight on eight fan favourite Big Team Battle mode helps to add a bit of much needed variety in terms of maps and gameplay.

Which is handy, as the selection of modes on offer in Arena is rather slim pickings indeed. You’re basically looking at just Team Arena (which houses Capture the Flag, Strongholds and other objective-focused modes), Slayer, Big Team Battle, Free-For-All, Breakout and SWAT. The new paintball inspired Breakout is a curious new addition, which plays out like a Halo version of Counter-Strike, yet it ultimately ends up feeling like a protracted, clumsier version of SWAT and, and will likely only appeal to the most hardcore of players and esports wanabees. Compared to the number of modes offered in previous games, Arena definitely feels a tad stingy at the time of writing, and the lack of dedicated unranked casual playlists to compliment the uber-competitive ones feels like a glaring omission on 343’s part. Nevertheless, for players who are of a competitive nature, an accurate skill-based matchmaking system means that you’re in for fair but close-fought battles with similarly adroit antagonists no matter which playlist you choose to play. Plus, extra modes are temporarily introduced every now and then as one-off weekend experiences for players to dip into and help spice things up a bit. Shotty Snipers anyone?

At the other end of the multiplayer spectrum is Warzone. This is pretty much the exact opposite of Arena in every single way. Billed as a large-scale ‘anything goes’ type of experience, Warzone is a non-ranked twelve on twelve battle which incorporates some choice MOBA influences into the already bustling mix.

Warzone is basically Big Team Battle, only on a much larger scale and played on much larger maps. At the start of a match, both teams spawn in at their bases, and have to clear out the occupying AI enemies (usually irritating Forerunner Crawlers) that are rushing out to meet them. Once that’s done, the battle then becomes a large scale version of Halo 4‘s Dominion/Call of Duty‘s Domination; players have to try and capture three control structures on the map to score points for their team. Extra points can also be accrued by killing enemy Spartans and taking out further AI characters that will periodically spawn into the map, with the biggest points bounties going to those players who manage to take down the difficult Legendary bosses. If a team manages to control all three control points at once, then the shielding on the enemy team’s base drops and the attackers can rush in to attack the core.

If that all sounds confusing don’t worry, the win conditions are really quite simple – the first team to accumulate 1000 points or destroy the enemy core wins; in other words, seize and hold the capture points and shoot the living daylights out of anyone and anything that isn’t on your team. But the beauty of Warzone is that rarely do matches play out in such a simple fashion. Each point capture and boss kill is a potential game-changer, and learning how to read the flow of the match and integrate this ongoing info into your personal strategy is vital. Is it better to play the long game and hold down two control points for a long, slow win or aggressively push to try and capture a third? Is it wiser to defend your core in close proximity when it’s under attack, or better to lock aggressors out of your base altogether by taking back a control point and maybe even make a heroic counter-attack in the process? In well-matched games, both teams will jostle for the lead right up to the last second, and questions like these can make or break the match. Put simply, Warzone is one of the most exciting and tactical multiplayer modes seen in a Halo game yet. Its a winning combination of surface simplicity and integral complexity that makes it the go-to mode to play in Halo 5. But…

REQ

Ta-da! Microtransactions! They finally did it!

…there’s a catch. If Warzone were Achilles, then the REQ system would be his eponymous heel. REQ is a microtransaction system 343 have implemented in Halo 5 to replace the previous loadout system of Halo 4. Primarily speaking, the REQ system controls how weapons and vehicles are distrubuted in Warzone matches. Here’s how it works. Players earn REQ points by playing matches and earning medals in multiplayer, which they can then exchange for REQ card packs – think FIFA card packs, only packed with guns and vehicles instead of overpaid prima donna crybabies. The cards in these packs can be used at REQ stations in Warzone matches to requisition (get it?) the equipment on that card for use in the current match. The cards come in three varieties – permanent unlocks (loadout weapons and their variants), one-use consumables (all vehicles and power weapons) and cosmetics (armour, helmets and gun skins).

To prevent players from just instantly spawning in with their best cards and dominating a Warzone match, REQ cards also come with an energy requirement. Energy is gradually earned as Warzone matches progress and players kill enemies and capture bases. Once a player has met the energy requirement for a REQ card, then they can call it in. It all sounds a bit faffy and complicated on paper, but in actual fact the process of calling in vehicles and weapons from REQ stations actually works pretty smoothly in game.

So what’s my beef then? Prior to the launch of Halo 5, I voiced a lot of concerns I had about how the system would be implemented in the finished game, and lamentably, most of them still stand. The REQ system is a frustrating obstacle that consistently impinges upon the player’s experience, and sets a worrying precedent for how future multiplayer modes in 343 titles are likely to be structured.

The big problem with the system is that it allows players to purchase REQ packs with their real world money. Or, to put it more accurately, the system is specifically designed to act as an arbitrary barrier between the player and the multiplayer equipment in an effort to get them to part with real cash. While it’s not directly a pay-to-win system, the REQ system has been implemented for an equally nefarious reason – to coerce players into spending money to avoid an unreasonably lengthy grinding process.

As all the cards from REQ packs are doled out at random, it can take players who don’t pay into the REQ system a ridiculous number of hours to unlock just the basic set of loadout weapons (let alone anything fancier) without spending money. Gold and Silver REQ packs guarantee two new cards for your collection, but as there’s no order or routine to how players move through the unlock system, more often than not your hard earned points just seem to get you more useless cosmetic tat. This is a significant disadvantage for a starting player, as although the starting Magnum and Assault Rifle combo is great for close to medium-range combat, these weapons simply can’t compete with the Battle Rifle and DMR at long-range on the huge Warzone maps. Players who don’t have access to these more specialised scoped weapons are consistently outgunned once both team’s energy levels get to the Level 3 mark.

Take my own absurdly long quest for a DMR as an example. Listed as one of the five basic weapon loadouts in the REQ menu, I naively assumed at the start of my first multiplayer match that I’d have my preferred long-range weapon of choice in my Spartan’s gauntlets in no time. Poor old Level 1 me, how hopelessly wrong you were.

DMR

40+ hours to unlock the basic loadout? Really?

After diligently saving up my points and clocking up 11 hours in Arena and 29 in Warzone (correct, I have no social life), I’ve only just got a DMR variant from one of my most recent pack openings. I’m sorry, but forty hours’ of playing just to unlock the basic weapons is absolutely ridiculous! Unless you’re regularly reaching into the digital wallet of yours, Halo 5 has no respect for your time in the slightest. When a task as simple as unlocking the loadout weapons (which only took playing a few matches in Halo 4 I might add) requires almost two entire days of playing time, it just comes off as hilariously out of touch with modern multiplayer design, and how the majority of people play multiplayer games today. Or, perhaps more cynically (and likely), maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe the system is designed to feel so random and uneven that spending money to get ahead on REQ packs looks like an increasingly tempting proposition. The Rolling Stones once sang, ” You can’t always get what you want”. Unfortunately in Halo 5‘s multiplayer, you can’t even get what you need. I feel you Mick, I can’t get no satisfaction either.

Using the REQ system as a crude sort of lucky dip bag to get new cosmetic items is harmless enough, but that’s because they are effectively meaningless freebies. Personally, once I’d finally unlocked most of the basic arsenal, I found that I just couldn’t care less what fancy-schmancy helmets the game decided to chuck my way anymore. That being said, even the way in which the REQ system doles out these cosmetic items at random completely removes any of the value and prestige that used to be associated with these items in previous Halo games.

Because all the multiplayer unlocks you get (save a few specific armour sets which are tied to achievements from The Master Chief Collection) come from the luck of the draw (and the depth of your wallet) it never feels like you’re actually earning any of the shiny new trinkets that land in your lap. The REQ system completely fails to capture that sense of pride you’d originally get from having to work hard at unlocking a flashy piece of armour in the old games, and strips all significance and meaning from the various bits and pieces you’re allocated from the packs.

If, for example, you came across an enemy player in Halo 3 who was rocking the Elite Ascetic helmet then you instantly knew two pieces of information about that player just from their appearance alone:

1. This player is handy with the Energy Sword, as this armour is unlocked by getting the ‘Steppin’ Razor’ achievement, which requires getting a triple-sword kill. I should keep my distance.

2. FUCKING RUN!

As anyone can earn any armour at any time with the REQ system, this interesting nuance of detail and player expression is completely lost in Halo 5. The outcome is that the ‘winnings’ of your REQ packs feel like nothing more than tawdry throwaways; each new armour unlock an empty worthless husk to add to your collection.

Perhaps I wouldn’t feel as strongly as I do about the REQ system and its randomised card nonsense if I hadn’t already played a version of Halo 5 that didn’t implement the card collecting REQ system whatsoever, and was a far better experience without them present. At EGX this year I got to try out the Halo 5 Warzone demo, in which every weapon and vehicle in the game was available for use from the off. No silly consumable cards were in play – the energy level requirements of each piece of equipment alone managed to keep the gameplay balanced – and it was absolutely fucking glorious.

In the Warzone taster I played, I was able to order up a Ghost, a Warthog, a Mantis, and a Phaeton all in the course of a single match (as could every other player), and it was a hell of a lot of fun. To recreate that same experience in the finished game today would require me to either shell out potentially hundreds of pounds on REQ packs to get the cards I need for those vehicles, or spend who knows how many more days of total play time in multiplayer to earn the necessary number of REQ points required to achieve the same ends. In other words, it’s going to be a very VERY long time before I’m going to be able to experience the same highs I felt during my first hands-on with the game.

To be fair, if implemented instead in a free-to-play game, the REQ system wouldn’t feel nefarious or gross in the slightest. In fact, in such a context, the system could arguably function as a considerate and reasonable method of mediating out new content to players at fair, reasonable costs. However, when used as the core backbone of a full price first party triple-A flagship of a game like Halo 5, it just feels completely out of place and greedy. 343 have forced a free-to-play payment scheme into a big budget game, and it’s to the detriment of an otherwise excellent multiplayer suite.

Wake Me…When You Get Another Master Chief Card, Yeah?

Osiris

That’s all folks. See you in 3-5 years for Halo 6: The Search for Locke’s Character.

So, how to conclude this ridiculously long train of thought (one that legitimately started off as an attempt to write something shorter – my bad)? If you’re a long-time fan of the franchise, or solely interested in multiplayer, then Halo 5: Guardians is still well worth your time, despite the game’s many failings. Though the campaign marks the first significant stumble of the 343 era, the multiplayer is perhaps the best iteration of the system in any Halo game to date, in spite of the heinous REQ system. Plus, while the campaign will always be painfully mediocre, the multiplayer will potentially get even better with age, given the free map updates and other new content 343 are going be periodically rolling out over the coming months. It’s a flawed and fractured package, yes, but when considered as a whole, Halo 5‘s positives manage to just about outweigh its negatives. Just.

Given the general consensus of the game from the big names and publications of the gaming world, I’m sure that 343 will take on-board the concerns of its critics to eventually deliver a Halo 6 that excels on both the campaign and multiplayer fronts. Just please 343, don’t make us all another promise like ‘Hunt the Truth’ if you know you can’t keep it.

Pros

Cons

+ Excellent gameplay

– Disappointing campaign

+ Fantastic multiplayer suite

– No campaign matchmaking or casual multiplayer playlists

+ Ongoing free multiplayer maps

– REQ pack microtransactions do not belong in a full price retail game

Tormentum: Dark Sorrow – Review

Title
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Eldritch Excellence

Well, it’s safe to say that Polish developers OhNoo Studio certainly know how to subtitle their games. When I first laid eyes upon Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, it was pretty clear that the game was going to be dark and disturbing, but quite frankly, I wasn’t at all prepared for the range of emotions it would make me feel. Revulsion, disgust and grotesquery of the highest order yes, but sadness? Regret? Despair? Surely not.

Thankfully though, OhNoo Studio completely blindsided me with their melancholic masterpiece. Upon reaching the end credits, I felt depressed, drained, but also deeply moved in ways I just completely wasn’t expecting. Tormentum is easily one of the finest point ‘n’ click adventure games that I’ve played, and one that I just can’t stop thinking about long after the credits rolled. Though it’s a fairly traditional take on the genre, the game is nonetheless a wonderfully crafted sombre and poignant gothic tale, woven together with incredible care and attention to detail throughout. Its puzzles won’t perplex you for long and the majority of its morality mechanics are predictable and formulaic, but Tormentum delivers with such confidence, style and finesse that it manages to feel both surprisingly refreshing and hauntingly original.

Zeppelin

Take a look at that picture and tell me that’s not a fantastic opening scene. Bravo OhNoo!

Starting with quite possibly one of the most instantly intriguing main menu screens I’ve ever seen, Tormentum immediately beckons you into its strange and twisted world by enveloping you in the tattered, musty robes of its mysterious hooded protagonist. Awakening from an amnestic dream, you find yourself suspended in a cage from the skeletal underbelly of a rather disturbing flesh-covered zeppelin alongside a fellow prisoner (a rather peculiar rat/weasel hybrid fellow to be precise), with no memories whatsoever of your past, or how quite how exactly you managed to end up in this rather worrying scenario. Yes, that tired old storytelling chestnut I hear you sigh, but trust me and stick with it, as from this well-worn opening cliché, Tormentum crafts a gloomy and intriguing story.

Knight

The friendly knight is only too happy to help you settle in.

Initially imprisoned, our cloaked character feels compelled to escape the gloomy castle he finds himself trapped in after receiving threats of torture-induced penitence, (completely understandable under the circumstances) and embark upon a perilous pilgrimage to a mysterious stone statue out in the wastes. However, nothing is ever quite as it seems in this strange and perilous land…

Tormentum is a concise nightmarish journey through a dark and distorted landscape, but not one without depth and heart. For a start, the game’s art direction is absolutely stunning. Heavily inspired by the works of H.R. Geiger and Zdzisław Beksiński, the game has a beautiful yet horrific painterly style, incorporating all sorts of hideous body horror elements, hellish landscapes and cruel creatures into its palette.

Desert Statues

From start to finish you’re surrounded by suffering; torture, misery, death and pain permeate each and every screen, and the effect is like journeying through a gruesome gauntlet of Bosch paintings, each one more disturbing and demented than the last. Sepulchral towers of flesh and bone wrench their gnarled towers and screaming buttresses toward the dark stormy skies as if writhing in eternal agony. Grotesque beasts and withered beings cloister in dark recesses, some acting as direct demonic deterrents, others as ominous omniscient observers. Hell, even the relatively humanoid characters you encounter aren’t reassuring in the slightest; often hissing, snarling and sneering at you, or just coldly indifferent to your presence.

Everything feels hostile, desolate and utterly alien, and there’s that familiar sickly combination of loneliness and fevered paranoia in the air that you get when playing games like Dark Souls or Silent Hill 2. At times it can feel like you’re playing an interactive Bergman film; your hooded character roams through dark catacombs, barren wastelands and decrepit mausoleums on an existential Kantian quest for answers in a hopeless, rotting world. In other words, it’s not exactly a laugh-a-minute comedy.

Wall Demon

Strangely though, despite the game’s oppressive atmosphere and visuals, Tormentum surprisingly never slips over into gratuitousness or farce. I found that the heavy mood actually instilled in me a mood of quietly morbid fascination rather than shocked disgust or unpalatable revulsion. The game’s world feels vast, oppressive and completely devoid of warmth, yet somehow it remains fascinating and dangerously exciting to explore. In fact, the closest parallel I can draw to Tormentum in terms of mood and atmosphere is possibly something like the excellent Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem; not in terms of outright horror or psychological frights per se, but that it evoked a similar cocktail of deeply uncomfortable foreboding, tinged with the morbid thrill of discovery.

Mirror Angel

Speaking of morbidity, like a lot of the best horror experiences, Tormentum has that exhilaratingly tense juxtaposition of temerity and trepidation clashing together at all times to drive you deeper into its mysterious world. Interestingly, I found that a lot of this tension came not just from the creepy art direction, but also directly from the puzzles themselves. In particular, the game does a fantastic job of forcing you into making some absolutely gut-wrenching moral choices with the various characters you encounter on your journey. Although a great deal of these choices are largely the sort of typical well-telegraphed binary good/bad nature you find in countless games (i.e. do you kill a certain character or decide to spare their life), their presentation in the context of the game’s heavy atmosphere makes them feel gripping and compelling rather than hackneyed. As the whole world is twisted and strange, it’s never quite clear whether what you’re doing is right or wrong, good or evil, caring or cruel.

Tree

As Tormentum progresses however, there’s a handful of more nuanced interactions which aren’t so transparently labelled as a clear-cut right or wrong, good or evil choices, but rather lie in much more juicy and ethically ambiguous territory – several of which left me extensively agonising over which was the right decision to make for quite some time, let me tell you. It’s here where the game excels, requiring you to make decisions that, at times, felt comparable to Telltale Games’ usual modus operandi. What’s important though is the fact that regardless of how you decide to act in the strange world of Tormentum, the fact that you can sympathise with each and every one of these wretched creatures and sorry souls you encounter, no matter how repugnantly vile, is testament to the game’s minimal yet powerful narrative.

The minimalist ambient soundtrack is also a key part of the experience, subtly contributing a great deal to the game’s atmosphere and mood. Eerie drones, dissonant horns, ominous synths and booming timpani swirl around with rustic guitars, weeping theremins, ghostly vocals and sombre strings to create a warped yet delicately melodic score. It interweaves incredibly well with the visuals, and it’s also cleverly used as a sneaky red herring in a couple of scenarios to completely deceive the player. I won’t spoil how exactly, but the audio design demonstrates an astute and admirably devious intelligence lurking below the soft harmonic surface.

Skeletons Embracing

Tormentum’s rich visual tapestries subtly use clever and deep symbolism throughout. Clever and creepy.

Whilst the game may look like a Dante-esque nightmare you can’t escape, it actually plays more like a lovely dream you enjoy spending time in. At first, on my first playthrough of the game, I often never knew whether I was safe like in prototypical point ‘n’ clicks, or one wrong click away from a grisly death at any time. Luckily for me then, OhNoo Studio wisely focussed on immersive storytelling over implementing punishing trial and error mechanics and the result is a game that relishes and rewards both your company and your curiosity. You’re never punished for exploring; rather, Tormentum encourages the player’s interest, and rewards those who take the time to really poke around in the gorgeously disturbing environments. The level of detail in each disturbingly picturesque scene is incredible, and more often than not you’ll be startled by some small thing you might have missed on your initial observations, or find a helpful detail which might shed some much needed light on your current predicament.

Cube

ITV’s gothic reboot of The Cube certainly had Phillip Schofield a little anxious.

The game’s puzzles aren’t particularly taxing, but neither are they insufficiently challenging, striking a nice equilibrium between intrigue and potential frustration. With the exception of a rather devious musical notation conundrum towards the end, you’ll rarely be held up for long, and you can comfortably complete the game in one sitting. While I can appreciate that this might well be a negative for players who really like to wrestle with a challenging set of fiendish puzzles, I personally I think that OhNoo have managed to get a nice middle ground here that makes sense for the type of game they wanted to make. The emphasis is clearly first and foremost on immersing the player in this strange world and the mysterious characters that inhabit it. Obviously, puzzle difficulty and player immersion aren’t mutually exclusive, but as the game world itself already feels hostile and uninviting, I could see that including some seriously hardcore riddles could easily put players off the game for good. Either that, or I’m probably just an idiot.

If you do happen to get stuck on a troublesome puzzle however, the game does a great job of helping you out without crossing the line into patronising hand-holding. An often overlooked part of any game is the user interface – fortunately, Tormentum has a brilliant one; it’s simple, clear and most importantly, a joy to use – the best part of which is the protagonist’s notebook. Upon discovering any important puzzle clues, your character will jot down the relevant information in its yellowed pages, which can then be later referred to at any time during puzzles etc. This saves you having to tediously traipse back and forth between a puzzle and it’s corresponding solution whilst trying to desperately remember absolutely minute visual detail, or having to write down notes yourself. While I do love that old school DIY aspect of having to keep a pen and paper handy (or perhaps ink, quill and suspiciously-fleshy parchment if you feel inclined to roleplay) when playing a good adventure game, it’s undeniably helpful to have the game provide you with persistent digital equivalents.

Cave Painting

Unfortunately, Tormentum does suffer some pacing issues in the third act, and ultimately the conclusion felt a bit heavy-handed in contrast to the wonderfully ambiguous nature of the rest of the experience. Compared to the nebulous opening, the ending feels more like a contrived deus ex machina; admittedly, although this does sit well with some crucial themes of the game, personally it just felt really at odds with the delightfully indefinite nature of the majority of the experience.

Regardless, it’s the journey not the destination that matters, and upon completing your pilgrimage across the wastes, you’ll have experienced quite the (disturbing) adventure you won’t be forgetting anytime soon. This a big month in the gaming calendar for Poland and the Polish dev scene – thanks to a little game called Witcher III: Wild Hunt – but if you’re more of a point ‘n’ clicker than a hack ‘n’ slasher, then I highly recommend Tormentum. Just remember, as Tolkien wrote:

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost.”

Statue

Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty – Review

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(Reviewed on PS4 and Xbox One)

No Alf Measures With This Fresh Meat

17 years ago, the gaming world was presented with one of its most unlikely yet most loveable mascots. Blue, alien, dopey, and most certainly odd, Abe the Mudokon made his debut in Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, released in 1997 for the original PlayStation. Developed by Oddworld Inhabitants, figure-headed by series creators Lorne Lanning and Sherry McKenna, the game introduced players all over the world to the eponymous loveable blue stitch-lipped hero of the title, and his quest to save his enslaved Mudokon people from becoming tasty snacks at the…well, figurative hands at least, of the industrial Glukkons.

A 2D side-scrolling action adventure game, Oddysee was renowned at the time for its unique art direction, detailed environments, cinematic CG cutscenes, challenging difficulty, and, of course, its oddball characters. The game’s story followed Abe, a Mudokon slave labourer (think cute blue and green aliens with rather fetching ponytails) working as a lowly floor waxer in Rupture Farms; a shady and dangerous meat packing plant run by Molluck the Glukkon (think a purple suit wearing greedy Octopus and you’re on the right lines). Hard at work waxing the factory floors late one night, Abe eavesdrops in on a Glukkon profit meeting, only to discover that Mudokon slaves are next on the menu to be chopped up and served as tasty pie fillings. Yikes!

Hearing this fantastic news, our petrified hero goes on the run and begins his adventure. Over the course of the game, Abe escapes the meat plant, seeks out his hidden power by braving two shamanistic rites of passage out in the wilds of Eastern Mudos before returning to Rupture Farms to use his new-found power to free his fellow enslaved Mudokons. Simple right? Well, not quite. You see, as far as video game characters go, Abe was just a wee bit underpowered in comparison to your regular gun slinging action hero. Unlike your typical armed to the teeth space-marine clichés, he had no guns or any physical means of defending himself; instead, all you had to rely on were your quick wits, Abe’s handy but limited possession ability and his noisy bowel (seriously) to make it through each screen in one piece…and not in several smaller bloodier ones.

Anxious Abe

Abe, our loveable schmuck/hero finds out that Mudokons are next on the menu. Gulp!

Players would need to guide Abe on his journey through traps and environmental obstacles, and past trigger-happy guards and vicious wildlife all out to kill him in a variety of increasingly unpleasant ways. Because of his positioning as a hapless everyman-sort of character (only with far-from ordinary flatulence problems) Abe became a popular mascot for the PlayStation brand back in the late ’90s. A sequel, Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus followed in 1998, before Oddworld Inhabitants moved development on new games in the series over to the big green Xbox machine, starting with Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee in 2001 and later Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath in 2005.

Anyway, I digress. Jump forward all those years to today, and our loveable blue chump has made the transition to PC and next-gen consoles in Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty – a complete HD remake of Abe’s Oddysee, with development this time being carried out by Otley-based studio Just Add Water. So, as Abe would say, “Follow me” and let’s get stuck in.

Boardroom

Molluck the Glukkon, along with the rest of Rupture Farms’ shady executives.

The gameplay in New ‘n’ Tasty is simple. Just like its 1997 predecessor, the aim of the game is to guide our hapless blue hero through each dangerous area alive. Landmines, trapdoors, electric chambers, meat grinders, flying landmines and many other horrific hazards are strewn liberally throughout the environments, usually in deadly combination with each other. Slig guards (think robotic trouser-wearing slugs with machine guns) march around with incredibly itchy trigger fingers, eager to mercilessly gun you down on sight, snickering loudly when they do (the swines), and dangerous wildlife that are more than happy to devour you become very present and real threats as you progress into the later levels. In other words, there’s a lot to worry about, and one wrong move is usually fatal.

However, it’s not just all about getting Abe out alive. Throughout the course of the game, you can choose to try and save as many fellow Mudokons as possible, simply ignore them, or, for those especially black-hearted gamers out there, actively go out of your way to kill them. How many you save/ignore/kill affects your Karma, or ‘Quarma’ as the game likes to call it, which ultimately influences which ending you’ll get. If navigating through all those previous hazards and enemies sounded difficult solo, trust me, it can be even harder with several Mudokons in tow. Saving your fellow Muds is tricky, but getting them to follow you is in fact incredibly easy; you just need to talk to them.

Chatting to your fellow Mudokons is done by using the ‘Gamespeak’ function; pressing the d-pad directional buttons when standing next to fellow Muds lets you interact using simple greetings and imperatives. This was a core feature of the original game, and it returns here with several small improvements, such as multiple variations on each response, and most importantly, a dynamic randomised library of fart sounds, which are both hilarious and actually essential to progression in certain areas of the game.

Additionally, this is the first of many fantastic improvements that Just Add Water have made to the original game. Whereas you could only give commands to one Mud at a time in Oddysee, you can now address multiple Muds at once in New ‘n’ Tasty – a feature which was only later introduced in Abe’s Exoddus. This removes a lot of the tedium that plagued the original game when you’d have to individually lead every single Mud in an area to the bird portal escape, before going back and braving all the obstacles you and your previous Mud just successfully navigated to do it all over again with the next escapee.

Bird Portal

Abe opening a bird portal for Mudokons to escape. Impressive stuff, feathery friends!

All the levels that you’ll be, running, jumping, sneaking and farting your way through have been carefully updated from the Oddysee, and some have been ever so slightly redesigned in order to better fit with the new screen mechanics. This is because one of the major changes from Abe’s Oddysee to New ‘n’ Tasty in terms of overall gameplay design is the conversion from a flip-screen camera to a scrolling one. In this sense, it’s almost like an entirely new game on a mechanical level, as all the original environments and puzzles have been built to accommodate this new change. It’s an incredibly awesome alteration to the original design that I absolutely adore; not only does it remove the small but irritating delays you’d get when moving from screen to screen in Oddysee, but it really helps the strange and wonderfully bizarre environments you’re moving through feel much more intricate and cohesive.

Don’t worry though, the new scrolling camera doesn’t suddenly make the game unfairly punishing. There’s plenty of ambient audio noises and helpful visual cues that clue you into what nearby enemies and hazards lie ahead so that you’re not constantly worried about bumping into some unseen threat that’s not currently onscreen. For example, the Sligs now have a radar-like scan ability on their visors, which keeps them challenging and effective with this new screen change; it effectively lets them search areas outside of their screen bounds. In the original, you could generally escape them by just running offscreen and hiding, whereas in New ‘n’ Tasty, they will give chase but now also stop to scan the environment when they lose you. It’s a cool mechanic, as it keeps them deadly and prevents you from running (and farting) rings around them without deviating too much from Oddysee‘s blueprint.

Slig Shooting

Watch out for Sligs, they can chase and scan for you offscreen now in New ‘n’ Tasty.

On a contrasting note, New ‘n’ Tasty does deviate from the original game’s template when it comes to difficulty, as there are now three difficulty modes to choose from when starting a new game. Rather than sticking slavishly to the Oddysee‘s challenging difficulty, which inspired Marmite style love it/hate it responses from gamers when it originally released, New ‘n’ Tasty opens things up for those completely new to the franchise. Although this might be something that returning hardcore fans of the Oddworld franchise might initially scoff at, in my opinion, offering the player a choice of difficulty options is a very considerate design decision.

On easy or medium difficulty, Abe has a health meter represented by a flock of birds (which can be viewed by pressing the Triangle/Y button), and can take a couple of bullets from a Slig before going down, as opposed to the one-shot kill of hard mode. It’s not a huge advantage; Abe still can’t take much punishment, and certain things will still kill in one hit, such as those annoying flying landmines, but this small concession to include a health meter makes many of the enemy encounters much more palatable for an unfamiliar and new audience.

Difficulty Select

The ability to choose your preferred difficulty level is a great move, giving newcomers to the series an accessible and gentler starting point without diluting the original challenge for returning hardcore fans.

New ‘n’ Tasty also implements an inspired solution to Oddysee’s spread out checkpoint system. The original game could feel incredibly punishing at times, often sending you a significantly long way back in a level upon each unlucky death. Thankfully then, the new game allows players to make their own ‘QuikSave’ checkpoints as they play, eliminating much of the frustration from a game in which difficulty and repeated deaths reign supreme. Simply tap the DualShock 4’s touchpad/Xbox One controller’s View button once to make a QuikSave, and then when things inevitably go wrong and you don’t quite time that jump right, or that pesky Slig manages to riddle Abe with bullets, never fear! Just hold the button down to instantly load your last QuikSave and you can seamlessly carry on as if that hideous yet darkly comedic death never happened.

This change to the checkpoint system doesn’t make the game significantly easier; it just makes it significantly more enjoyable to play. This is an Oddworld game afterall, and a violent death awaits Abe around every corner. Throughout your adventure with your loveable blue chum, Abe will get shot, electrocuted, minced by grinders, ripped apart by hostile wildlife and experience many other pleasant ways to go; being able to cut out the tedium of having to wait for a lengthy checkpoint load lends the game a more fast paced and arcade-y feel which suits it perfectly.

Speaking of hideously comical deaths, the fun and humour in New ‘n’ Tasty feels much more prominent this time round compared to the original game (hell, even the online manual is a hilarious read). The new ragdoll physics in play now mean that when things do go wrong (and trust me, they often do), the results are gloriously daft. Seeing Abe get shot mid-leap by a Slig, only to then flop down onto a tightly-packed pile of landmines below is both humiliating and amusing in equal measure. Abe in particular looks and moves with such charm, and the way the hideous Scrabs now barrel after you with a frightening, lurching gallop will make even the most hardcore of returning Oddworld fans tremble in their Mudokon loincloths. You will die a lot whilst playing New ‘n’ Tasty, but you’ll also be cracking up just as much, as each fantastically ridiculous demise plays out before you.

Scrab

Abe face to…well, beak, with a fearsome Scrab.

Graphically, it’s a real treat to see the game running in a buttery 60 frames per second. Having played the game on both the PS4 and Xbox One, it’s worth pointing out here that while the PS4 version remained smooth throughout, the Xbox One version did seem to repeatedly struggle to keep at steady 60. I’m no expert on framerates and I have a hard time distinguishing frame rate dips and such with the naked eye, but playing both versions of the game side by side, things did feel noticeably slower and not quite as snappy on the Xbox side of things unfortunately. However, it’s only a small disappointment, and the gameplay still manages to feel fast and enjoyable on both platforms (I haven’t personally played the PC version, but I’m sure that it’s probably closer to the PS4 version in terms of smoothness).

The Oddworld games are known for the grotesquely beautiful art direction, and New ‘n’ Tasty absolutely delivers on that front. It’s one of the first things that you’ll notice when you fire up the game, and it creates a pleasantly weird dichotomy; the levels look at once both nostalgically familiar yet also excitingly different, bursting with a vibrancy and brightness that the original sorely lacked. Even the menu screen looks fantastic, which displays Abe in all his HD glory.

Rupture Farms Escape

Even the interior shots of Rupture Farms look really vibrant and colourful.

All of New ‘n’ Tasty’s environments have been painstakingly recreated in a full 3D engine (Unity to be precise), as opposed to the pre-rendered backdrops of Oddysee, and the world looks far more interesting and detailed as a result. Oddworld itself looks nothing short of beautiful, particularly so in the more rural levels of Paramonia and Scrabania.

Paramonia

The outdoor areas are real graphical treats for your eyeballs.

The Oddworld series has never looked so alive and vibrant, even whilst you’re still inside the grimy blood-splattered interiors of Rupture Farms, the colours and lighting effects still manage to pop out at you. The early moments inside the plant showcase great big smelting vats and furnaces throw up fantastic orange embers and the glow from the swirling orange liquid metal creates some fantastic lighting effects, giving some of the early factory scenes a hellish Dante’s inferno look to them. The twilight evening sun that’s setting as you first set foot outside is another visually jaw-dropping moment, with lovely dynamic lighting from the low setting sun casting long shadows across the kennels and cages of the Stockyards.

Slig Foreground

Each level has plenty of intricate things going on in both the background and foreground.

The attention to detail is impeccable too. At various points in the game you can see Sligs on faraway platforms diligently patrolling about (and probably grumbling loudly to themselves out there in the distance), and on a more grisly note, Scrab and Paramite meat conveyor belts can be seen clunking away in the background of the early Rupture Farms levels. Outside the meat plant, the guard towers, glinting in the twilight now move like automated gun turrets and scan the environment in the foreground and background, with floodlights that sweep through the pens and catwalks that Abe’s navigating through.

Additionally, new camera angles dynamically respond to where Abe currently is in the environment, giving the game a smooth polished cinematic sheen that massively improves on the original game’s pre-canned CG transitions. The camera gracefully arcs over the scenery to track Abe as he goes through doorways, and it cinematically zooms in to create dramatic moments, and zooms out to bridge transitions between environments, all in glorious real-time 3D.

Rupture Farms Exterior

Rupture Farms, in all its orangey, industrial glory.

On the topic of moving through the lovely environments, back when the game launched in July last year on the PS4, I initially did have a couple of specific issues with New ‘n’ Tasty‘s controls, though thankfully these have since been addressed. The game’s default control scheme has been configured with today’s gamers in mind first and foremost; the original title’s controls have sensibly been revised and brought into line with what brand new players to the franchise would typically expect a platformer to handle like today.

One of these revisions is a change to the way the jump controls operate; When you pressed jump in Oddysee, it would make Abe hop forwards in the direction he’s facing; pressing jump in New ‘n’ Tasty now makes Abe jump vertically straight up in the air. This took a while to get used to as a big fan of the original Oddworld platformers, and it was hard to unlearn Abe’s original behaviours that I’d become so familiar with over the years. For other returning old school Oddworlders like me then, it can take a bit of practice to get the timing down for the hop (pressing the jump button ever so slightly before the desired direction seems to do the trick), but it’s not a massive hurdle, and likely something that a new player wouldn’t even think twice about.

Abe Hop

Whatever you do, don’t look down!

A slightly more frustrating concern however was that originally all of Abe’s movement in New ‘n’ Tasty was governed by how much pressure was applied to the left stick. Pressing the stick fully to the left or right made Abe run at full tilt, whilst applying gentler pressure caused him to plod along with his characteristic walk. Due to the overall faster pace of gameplay in New ‘n’ Tasty, having both the walk and run controls assigned on a continuum of sensitivity to the same controller input made sense for the most part, and perhaps made things a bit more intuitive for a new player who hadn’t previously played the originals.

Scrab Chase

The chase sequences and puzzles feel faster (and far more terrifying) than ever before.

However, without a clear tactile distinction between running and walking, a lot of the more intricate platforming sections quickly started to make the new movement controls feel maddeningly imprecise. I spent a decent chunk of my early hours in New ‘n’ Tasty desperately fighting my own ingrained 17-year old muscle memory until I could start to develop a feel for the appropriate walk/run sensitivity needed to make a pixel-perfect precision movement between obstacles under pressure.

For example, while navigating through the more meticulous meat drill puzzles in some of the game’s challenging secret areas, it could sometimes feel incredibly inaccurate and frustrating when I’d just slightly overshoot/undershoot the correct left stick pressure and repeatedly send Abe careening into the gnashing blades of death over and over again. After only a few such sections, I really missed being able to toggle running on and off with a separate button like you could in Oddysee.

Meat Drills

Watch your step Abe!

Thankfully though, in a very neat move, Just Add Water later patched in an optional control setting which gives you the option to assign the run control to a separate shoulder button press, just like in the original game. Problem solved – and now I have absolutely no excuse for my terrible platforming skills…sorry Abe.

Finally, to top off the whole New ‘n’ Tasty experience, Just Add Water have also not only revamped Oddysee, but added their own piece of unique content to the franchise as well. Alf’s Escape is a brand new piece of DLC that tasks players with a rather unique and interesting spin on the main game’s platforming mechanics.

Unlike the main game, you’ve only got the one Mudokon to rescue here, and it’s none other than the fan favourite, mailbag-checking, amateur shrink and barista extraordinaire of Oddworld Inhabitants himself -yup, Alf from Alf’s Rehab and Tea fame of course. The DLC is essentially an intricate and extended obstacle course for two, an elaborate Oddworld version of Takeshi’s Castle if you will, in which you first have to navigate through successfully solo, before reaching Alf’s bar and making back to the start of the level in tandem in order to escape.

The action here can get insanely fast and can require some particularly quick thinking to pull off. Having to coordinate your movements so that both Abe and Alf can escape uneviscerated is challenging, requiring both quick reactions and nimble finger dexterity in equal measure. There’s also some cool easter eggs for observant oddballs to ogle along the way, so remember to keep your eyes figuratively peeled and not literally peeled as you dodge the myriad of meat drills, swinging buzzsaws and many other nasty, sharp pointy objects that are in your way.

Abe Grin

Overall, Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty is a bit of a paradox. It feels like a completely fresh and brand new experience whilst also delivering a heady rush of nostalgia for fans of the original game. It’s faithful to the original’s legacy, whilst also carefully taking thoughtful creative liberties here and there when necessary. The smooth framerate and responsive controls make the game a real pleasure to play, and without the flipscreen changes of the original, there’s a faster and more enjoyable rhythm to the gameplay thanks to the on the go QuikSave system. If you’ve already guided Abe out of Rupture Farms (and beyond) all those years ago, then New ‘n’ Tasty will far surpass your expectations. If you’re new to the series, then get ready for a whacky and delightful adventure into the world of Odd.

From Bedrooms to Billions – Review

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Bedroom Brilliance

Feature-length films about the history of video games are sort of like buses. You wait around for one for ages, and then suddenly three good ones all turn up at once. Okay, well not exactly at once, but hey you get the idea – the point is that we’ve recently had a bunch of really great documentaries on the history of gaming released in close proximity to each other. After Zak Penn’s Atari: Game Over and Jeanette Garcia and Daryl Rodriguez’s World 1-1, From Bedrooms To Billions is the third feature film documentary that I’ve watched in recent months about the history of video games and the awesome people who make them.

In contrast to the two other American-based documentaries, Nicola and Anthony Caulfield’s film plants its focus on the other side of the pond on the nascent UK gaming scene, chronicling what the Brits were getting up to with their computers during the ’80s. It’s essentially a celebration of Britain’s technological tenacity in the ’80s – how diligent bedroom coders transformed a fun, small-time hobby into a core part of the hulking global entertainment behemoth that the games industry is today. It’s detailed, entertaining, and pretty much essential viewing for those interested in learning more about video games (duh), the games development process, and how Britain’s talented coders played a key part in gaming’s history.

Bedrooms narratively picks things up on the advent of the first wave of affordable home computers starting to hit the market with the release of the Sinclair ZX80 in 1980, but the ball really starts rolling the following year when its successor, the ZX81, turns up on the scene and acts as the catalyst which changes everything. From this equivalent of the UK gaming scene’s big bang, things continue to go from strength to strength; we see the introduction of further cheap but powerful computers such as the BBC Micro, the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum, the gradual compartmentalisation of the development process as solo programmers banded together into small tightly-knit teams and later the rise and fall of the major British publishers in the mid-’90s just as Nintendo and Sega were battling it out for console dominance in the UK’s living rooms.

The film is presented in the usual documentary style as a series of talking head segments with a great variety of developers, journalists and other big industry figures drawn from far and wide across the gaming universe. Among the many talented developers prominently featured are people such as Mel Croucher (Deus Ex Machina), Julian Gollop (XCOM) and David Braben (Elite) to name but a few. It’s also particularly awesome to see game artists such as Mo Warden and Dawn Hollywood give their thoughts and talk about their experiences working in an industry where female voices are still unfortunately very much in the minority.

The DIY punk ethic of the early 80’s developers is particularly fascinating to learn about, and it’s this exciting combination of youth and technological possibility which fuels the drive of the film’s narrative. Hearing passionate stories directly from the pioneering legendary developers of the era such as Jeff Minter and Matthew Smith about how they would studiously slave away at their machines, quite literally all day and night, to create their games is both entertaining and inspirational in equal measure. Especially to a chump like me who probably couldn’t make a game, even if it came running up to me and dropkicked me in the face.

All the major areas of the evolving game development process are covered over the course of the film – as the technology and resources of the industry improve over the years, you hear first-hand perspectives on everything from art direction to programming, designing to writing and pretty much everything else in between. Personally, I found one of the most interesting aspects of the design process that the film explores was hearing game music composers talk about the technical limitations they had to work with when composing the early chiptune soundtracks, and how they had to think outside the box (actually, more like inside the box come to think of it) to get around them. There’s a great section where composer Martin Galway is talking about the technical constraints of the Commodore’s SID chip; struggling to get true polyphonic chords to sound clearly, he describes how he had to come up with some nifty workarounds using various filters and very quick oscillating arpeggios in order to get the effect of having several notes play at once. Nifty stuff indeed.

Interestingly, the film also explores the birth of the UK gaming press and how games coverage back then changed from being just drab, lifeless technology reports completely devoid of passion into actual games critique with the introduction of young, fresh-faced and enthusiastic writers of the day such as Gary Penn and Julian Rignall. As you might imagine, being a fellow who likes to punch out excessively long game reviews of my own, it was interesting to see how the early games magazines actually started off as the primary means of acquiring games through their long printed BASIC sequences before gradually morphing over the years to take more of a critical perspective as the industry grew.

At just over two and a half hours in length, Bedrooms is a seriously comprehensive retro retrospective. While the level and depth of detail in the documentary is easily its greatest strength, I personally felt that the pacing towards the second half felt inconsistent and slightly rushed, at which point the film seems to stumble and lose its focus somewhat. By the time Bedrooms reaches the ’90s, a lot of the details about this era are skimmed over at quite a fast pace, which really jars with the carefully detailed slower speed the rest of the film had been moving at up to this point, and it feels a rather abrupt and jarring transition as a result.

Admittedly, as the Japanese and American console behemoths start to dominate the mainstream UK gaming space, and all but a few of the original British publishers are left standing in their wake, a great deal of this era largely falls out of the scope of the documentary’s core subject matter, so I can appreciate why this isn’t dealt with in as much detail as previous sections. Thankfully though, the discussion of the similarities between the currently booming indie game scene in relation to the British ’80s heyday manages to nicely tie things up on an elegant and contemporary note.

So, if you’re interested in the history of the videogame industry, particularly about what exactly was going on in the gaming world in the swirling neon-coloured amniotic waters of ’80s Britain, then you’ve got to press pause right now, put down your controllers and keyboards and check Bedrooms to Billions out. Simultaneously entertaining and informative, the film is an impressively comprehensive document of the era which is essential viewing for pretty much anybody who loves games, their history, and where the industry might be heading in the future.

Additionally, if you’re after more British-flavoured video game retrospectives from the Caulfield duo (I know I am) then you’re in luck. The filmmakers currently have a new Kickstarter campaign ongoing, which is now fully funded at the time of writing (congratulations!) for the next chapter in their documentary series, From Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years (due out January 2016). The Kickstarter is still open for backing for a few more days (again, depending when you read this) so if you want to get behind the project yourself, then head over there and get involved. In the meantime, game on!

Evolve – Review

Goliath Roar
Standard

(Reviewed on Xbox One)

UPDATE: As of the 26th February, Turtle Rock Studios have released a patch for the Xbox One version of the game – hooray! The 1.1 patch notes on Turtle Rock’s website outline the changes and tweaks that have been made to the game; chief among them is the fact that they have resolved the issue with players repeatedly losing their progress and data. While I’ve yet to hear anything about a patch for the PlayStation 4 and PC versions of the game, I think it’s safe to assume that a similar patch must be underway for players on those platforms as well. So, while Evolve’s progression and unlock system is still tedious and problematic, on the Xbox One for now at least, you should be able to play the game online with friends without having to worry about your progress being wiped when joining matches.

Groundhog Day

Everyone knows the legend of Achilles right? The invulnerable Greek war hero, who couldn’t be injured thanks to his mother Thetis ever so conveniently dipping him in the river Styx as a baby. Thought to be an immortal warrior after his glorified river-dunking, he was killed later in life from a wound to his heel at the end of the Trojan war; the very same place on his body where he was held during said river dunking by his mother all those years ago. An immortal warrior felled by a tiny but crucially overlooked detail.

Want a sci-fi version example of the above? Take the Death Star from Star Wars. It’s the Galactic Empire’s planet-sized world-destroying spherical megaweapon; equipped with powerful tractor beams and superlasers, and staffed with armies of Imperial stormtroopers and fleet after fleet of TIE fighters to defend it. So what happens? It’s completely and utterly destroyed thanks to the explosive combination of a shoddily placed two-metre exhaust vent and a pair of well-aimed proton torpedoes.

Well, those two above examples of fatal flaws are kind of how I feel about Evolve in its current state. It’s one of the most exhilarating, addictive and joyously inventive multiplayer shooters that I’ve played in years, but unfortunately due to the game being designed around a pointless and counter-intuitive XP-based progression system, and the existence of an infuriatingly frequent progress wiping bug, the game is also one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in gaming for a long, long time.

When everything works, it’s nothing short of a dream for shooter fans who are looking for a fresh and unique multiplayer experience. When the game wipes your progress and you lose everything again for the umpteenth time, making you start back at the bottom rung of a tedious and completely unnecessary progression ladder, it’ll make you want to unleash your inner monster and destroy your living room in rage. You’ve been warned.

FUBAR

Shear

The planet Shear, in all its ominously red glory.

Okay, let me rein in my personal frustrations for a second before I go into full-on beast mode myself just thinking about how messed up the game can be and let’s talk about what the game gets right.

Designed by Turtle Rock Studios, the guys and gals who brought you the fantastic Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2, Evolve is an asymmetrical four versus one multiplayer sci-fi shooter/beat ’em up game, where four hunter players have to track and hunt down one massive player-controlled monster. When I first heard of the game, my immediate thoughts were something along the following lines:

“So the basic premise is that it’s a Left 4 Dead Tank fight, only with a giant Kaiju instead of a hench muscly zombie, and four tooled up space marines with lasers, rifles and all sorts of other sci-fi wizardry to boot? Count me in!”

Before we get caught up in the dusty catacombs of my easily amused mind, let’s go over the game’s short but sweet plot setup. Evolve takes place on the planet Shear, a human colony planet which is under attack from a new, non-native race of mysterious, alien wildlife. These monsters are incredibly powerful, cunning and intelligent, with the ability to rapidly evolve (hence the title) to ever-more increasingly powerful forms. Their numbers have increased to the point that they have entirely overwhelmed the colonists to the point of no return, and things are getting very desperate indeed.

The Hunter Team

Who ya gonna call?

As part of a last-ditch effort, a crack team of monster hunters, assembled from across the known galaxy, have been hired to help the colonists with their monster problem. Originally contracted to cull the monster population, the hunters arrive in orbit around Shear to discover that the situation has rapidly devolved (see what I did there?). The monster population is now so large that the entire planet is considered an inhospitable write-off, and the hunting expedition they signed up for is now a full-scale global planetary evacuation. So, it’s time to kill monsters, not get eaten along the way and save the population of the entire planet – not much pressure then eh?

Intergalactic Rentokil

Golitah Lurking

Insert your own personal clichéd ‘the hunter(s) becomes the hunted’ phrase here.

Evolve is essentially a digital foxhunt set on an alien planet – only the fox in question is about three storeys tall, breathes fire, and generally likes to cause a real ruckus for both humans and the local flora and fauna.

While I abhor foxhunting in real life, virtually hunting down a massive monster with three friends in tow is an incredibly exciting experience. As you might imagine, the game’s unique pacing and rhythm results directly from the power imbalance between the four hunters and the one monster. The hunters are inherently weaker than the monster, and they have to effectively co-ordinate and attack together with each of their unique weapons and abilities if they are to have any hope of taking the monster down. The monster, on the other hand, has to try and elude the hunters at first, scarpering off through the beautifully dark and grotesque environments of Shear, all the while wolfing the local wildlife along the way and hoping to buy enough time and distance to undertake the titular evolution process to get stronger and more powerful.

While there are several different game modes to play, the Hunt mode most effectively showcases the unique rhythm of Evolve‘s gameplay. In this mode, the monster gets a thirty second headstart to dash off into a level, at which point the hunter team drop in to the map and begin to hunt it. The monster, currently at stage 1, is at its most weak and vulnerable at this point, and unless controlled by a skilled player, then confrontation with the hunters can usually be fatal. After it’s eaten enough wildlife, the monster can then evolve to a stage 2, and ultimately a stage 3 – at which point, it can destroy the map’s power generator, forcing a win. The match also ends if the hunters kill the monster, or the monster kills all the hunters. Each match often consists of several stop-start scuffles between hunters and beast before a winner is victorious, and due to the game’s tight balancing between the hunters and the monsters, the clashes nearly always go right down to the wire.

Markov Vs. Goliath

Robo-Russian versus Goliath.

Matches take the form of four basic modes – the aforementioned Hunt, as well as Nest, Rescue and Defend. I’ll talk about Defend in just a second, but Rescue and Nest are slightly different riffs on the basic Hunt formula; Nest tasks the monster player with defending a clutch of its eggs from the attacking hunters, whilst Rescue pits the hunters and the monster in a frantic race to get to injured NPC colonists in the map and get them evac’d or eaten.

These modes and matches can be played as one-off single events, or collectively as part of a five-match campaign multiplayer mode called, funnily enough, Evacuation. This is where Evolve really comes into its own, and it’s the most ideal and enjoyable way to play the game in my opinion. Evacuation draws from all the game’s maps and modes and constructs a dynamic structure of events for players to fight their way through.

Each match in Evacuation functions as the equivalent of a day in the game’s story. After the opening round of Hunt, players vote on which mode they’d like to play next, with victory in each match granting their respective teams bonus XP in the form of saved or killed survivors.

Markov FP

Hunters + monster = chaos and brutality.

Evacuation ends on day five with a round of Defend, and it’s the outcome of this match which determines which team is the overall winner. Hunters have to stop the monster and its minions from destroying two power generators and finally, the evacuation ship’s fuelling pump in a tense last stand scenario. To bring up Turtle Rock’s previous work yet again, it’s like the rescue level at the end of a Left 4 Dead campaign, only with no zombies and a giant pissed off monster to shoot at instead; in other words, it’s great.

What’s really cool about Evacuation is that it functions in a similar manner to Titanfall‘s campaign mode in structure, but unlike Titanfall, the events aren’t scripted and pre-determined, and things dynamically change from match to match according to whether the hunters or the monster won the preceding match.

For example, if the hunters win and kill the monster on the Wraith Trap map, then in the next level, they are granted special teleportation gates which enable them to get around the map much faster. Likewise, if the monster wins on Wraith Trap, then the monster gets access to its own teleportation rifts which give it the movement advantage instead. So although you’ve technically only got to win on the last match in Evacuation to win the mode outright, just how easy or hard that last match in Defend is going to be is determined by how well you’ve played across the four previous matches; the outcome of the fourth match being particularly important as it gives the winning team either turrets with tougher armour or minions with tougher armour respectively. With all that bonus pot of XP on the table for the winning team, the Defend matches at the end of a close-fought Evacuation campaign often feel like a tense game of Poker…only with less pokerfaces and more poked (and presumably torn apart) faces instead.

David(s) and Goliath

Character Select

One big happy family – smile for the camera!

Moving on from such awful poker gags, from what I’ve just said about the overall structure of the game, Evolve might look overly basic, simple and repetitive at the macro level, but it’s at the micro level where things really get interesting. In particular, it’s how each character and monster in the game brings something different and special to the table. Each skill, perk and ability you choose, on top of your hunter’s/monster’s inherent abilities all feed into the flow and final outcome of the match. The attention to the smallest of minute details, such as how fast your jetpack recharges, to how damage resistant the monster’s armour is, are crucial factors in just how that next hunter on monster conflict is going to go.

However, if you’re playing the game solo, then a lot of the game’s fantastic intricacies can go largely unnoticed. Playing the game offline is alright with the AI bot companions/monsters, but it’s also rather dull to be quite frank. By all means, everything in Evolve certainly functions as a solo experience, but it’s far from ideal, and certainly not how the game was designed to be played. As a monster, you rarely feel threatened by the all AI hunter team, who don’t ever really manage to keep up with you particularly well (the Tracker AI in particular is terrible) or cause you much trouble when they do.

Likewise, playing as one of the hunters with all AI teammates is often an equally underwhelming experience. The starting Support class character Hank will often cause more harm than good by frequently calling in his orbital strike ability at the worst possible moments, scattering the team whilst completely missing the monster. Used in the hands of a skilled human player, Hank’s orbital strike is a fantastic area-denial tool, but in the hands of the questionable AI it just becomes what feels like a ridiculously annoying trolling tool.

Hank Smoking

While he may know his cigars, Dizzy has absolutely no fucking clue how to aim his orbital barrages.

Played online however, Evolve is absolutely incredible. Suddenly, once the tedium of the bots is removed, everything clicks into place and the adrenaline starts to flow. This is how the game is supposed to be experienced, with tense, anxious human players occupying both the hunter and monster positions. In a lot of ways, Evolve at its best can often feel like a really tense horror experience for both sides. There’s this constant fear that you’ve got to keep running and not get caught by the hunters early on when playing as a monster, and an equally driving fear to catch the monster as fast as possible when playing as the hunters to stop it from wiping you out later on.

Hunters Back

Shear’s environments are dark and dangerous, which gives the game a pseudo-horror vibe if you’re playing as a hunter.

In my opinion, while playing as the monster is fun, I particularly love playing as the underdog hunters, as I find the experience to be far more satisfying and exciting. Even though you’re tooled up with plenty of gear and in the dominant position at the start of the match, you still feel very vulnerable and nervous for the vast majority of the time; darting through Shear’s dark jungle environments with the rain lashing down on your screen as you’re in hot pursuit of your quarry still manages to send a bit of a chill down my spine when I know that there could be a clever monster player lurking around any corner.

When you do see this monster in amongst all the gloom, there’s just this really exciting and dangerous feeling about having spotted it. It’s this heart stopping moment where you might just catch a small dark shape in the moonlight lumbering up a cliffside in the far distance, or you get a glimpse of a leathery wing as it disappears into a nearby foliage of trees. There’s this mixed feeling of dread and joy at having seen it; you’re excited to be hot on its tail, but nervous at the prospect of engaging the brute in combat.

Goliath Attack

The hunters must work together and co-ordinate with each other if they want any hope of taking their quarry down for good.

Once you’ve caught up with the monster and trapped it in the mobile arena, then it’s time to unload all your firepower into its thick armoured hide. The action in these moments is fast, brutal and deadly. If you and your team are all synced up and communicating well, there’s just this brilliant sense of excitement and finesse to the combat. It all just flows, and there’s a real joy to seeing how each member of the team contributes to the action whilst also shoring up the others’ weaknesses. Having found the monster, the Trapper then needs to keep it contained, the Medic needs to keep everyone alive, the Assault needs to inflict as much damage as possible to the monster while it’s trapped and the Support needs to generally buff everyone’s abilities, functioning as both a second heavy damage character and impromptu escape artist when necessary. When every player on your team communicates effectively, helps each other out and generally functions as part of a well-oiled machine, then the game is incredibly fun to play from any of these positions.

Hyde FP

Meet the Kraken; part flying Cthulhu monstrosity, part electrical substation – 100% pain.

Personally, while it’s certainly exhilarating being the Assault trooper having the majority of the tête-à-tête confrontations with the monster, I find it more exciting playing as the Medic and Support classes who are more concerned with keeping the other hunters alive and kicking. There’s something really satisfying about being that steady base rock and foundation of the team who’s keeping everyone healed, and likewise it’s equally satisfying fighting as the Trapper or Assault when you know you’ve got a capable human Medic ready to patch you up when the going gets tough, or a Support who can briskly cloak the team to get them out of danger.

Even playing as a monster it’s still quite a surprisingly nerve-wracking experience. Knowing that you’ve got to run for your life as four eagle-eyed sci-fi poachers are hot on your tail (literally) is electrifying; that feeling of being persecuted for the majority of the match is incredible, and feels like something out of a claustrophobic horror game even though you’re being pursued across vast wide-open expanses of forests, canyons, tundras and swamps.

Kraken Generator

Did you know? All Krakens are also great electricians – nah, just joking, they only like to destroy things.

Evolve to a stage 3 monster however and suddenly the tables turn; the hunters become the hunted and now it’s your chance to actively pursue your human antagonists or destroy their power generator to win the match. The power trip you get when you’ve reached stage 3, knowing that you’ve managed to completely outfox your attackers and now all that’s left is to tear them to pieces is fantastic – you feel like an awesome end of level boss dishing out endless waves of pain.

Whether you’re playing as hunter or monster, what particularly keeps the game compelling and interesting to me after many hours of cumulative play is that there’s this frequent sense of wonder and possibility to be had upon discovering new tactics and uses for each hunter/monster’s abilities. Even though there are only a handful of different modes to play, the large variety of different skills, perks, hunters, monsters, maps, creatures, map modifiers and strategies to choose from can feel quite mind-blowing at times, even after several hours (alright, days) of playing.

For example, playing alongside a skilled human player using the Trapper Abe, I discovered that the Mobile Arena which is typically used to contain the monster within a limited arena and force it to fight, can also be used as a clever way of blocking off the monster from the injured survivors which the hunters need to save in Rescue matches. It was an incredibly effective yet incredibly simple technique that would never have occurred to me to try, and it’s testament to how flexible Evolve‘s sandbox really is.

It’s not just on the individual level that character choices and skills matter; how you pair up your choice of hunter with your teammates’ pretty much determines how you’re going to most effectively function as a unit. For example, certain groups of hunters are particularly well suited to finding the monster fast and early on in a match, but aren’t really built for dishing out or taking a lot of punishment if the monster makes it to the later stages, whilst other groups of hunters are best suited for tough, drawn-out combat scenarios that go to the bitter (and brutal) end, but aren’t particularly well suited to finding the monster early on. Experimentation with your own characters and your teammates is the key to success as a hunter.

Wraith

The Wraith; deviousness and deadliness in one conveniently slithery package.

On the monster side of things, I’ve also seen some clever monster players using unorthodox tactics that have consistently been very effective. I’ve seen stage 1 monsters who at first glance seem to be suicidal idiots waiting at the hunters drop location rather than running away like you’re supposed to, only for the monster to subsequently butcher the hunter team in record time. Impressive doesn’t quite do it justice.

From my experience of playing, there’s certainly a lot of different strategies to try out regardless of whether you’re a hunter or monster, and this great level of depth and freshness to Evolve‘s gameplay is what makes it so fascinating to play time and time again. Yes, it’s a repetitive experience (hell, technically aren’t all multiplayer experiences repetitive by their very nature?) but also a refreshing and damn fun one; Evolve in my opinion manages to absolutely nail and vastly improve upon that addictive just one more go mentality that Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 perfected.

So, you’re thinking, it’s a great game then? Well…

“Target That Weakspot!”

Dead Tyrant

In the words of the late great Steve Irwin, “Ain’t she a beauty?”

Okay, so before I delve into my problems with Evolve, it’s time for a bit of history and background information here about my relationship with the game. I’ve been one of Evolve‘s biggest fanboys pretty much right from the start, championing it for months and months on end, and so far in the review, I’ve been more than happy to excitedly shower it with praise. From the moment it was unveiled to the world with that awesome January 2014 Game Informer cover feature, I’ve been eagerly champing at the bit to get my hands on the finished thing and start blasting monsters and eating humans to my (twisted) heart’s content.

After playing the game early at the October 2014 London Comic Con, I was absolutely enthralled by the asymmetrical magic of the game’s human on beast combat, and it quickly rocketed to the top of my most anticipated games of 2015.

Shortly after Comic Con, I then played bits of both the Big Alpha and the Open Beta when they became available on Xbox Live – not too much of course, as I was already more sold on the game by this point and wanted to savour the final product and not get burnt out on these digital snippets of the final thing.

On release day, I downloaded a standard digital copy of the game, started playing, and absolutely loved it.

So what I’m trying to say is this – based on what you’ve read so far in this review, and bearing in mind what I’ve just told you about me and how much I absolutely love Evolve in these last four paragraphs, here’s my current verdict on the Evolve.

Unless you’re an amnesiac masochist with plenty of time to waste, do not buy the game right now.

As much as I adore the game on one hand, I couldn’t recommend anyone who’s interested in the game to pick it up right now in the condition it’s currently in as it has two massive problems. One of these is purely down to the way in which the game has been centrally designed, while the other is a small but disastrous bug which has been causing me and a hell of a lot of other Evolve players some major grief.

The small bug is by far the more egregious of the game’s problems, but before I can get into why it’s so poisonous and destructive to the player’s experience, I’ve first got to explain the bigger, more fundamental issue that’s part and parcel of the entire Evolve experience; the grinding.

Nose to the Grindstone

Val Progression

Unfortunately, Evolve locks off the full suite of its content behind a long and unnecessary grinding process.

The major problem I have with Evolve is that the entire game is based around an unnecessary, frustrating and pointless grinding system of unlocks. It’s a cripplingly bad design decision, a fatal harpoon in the side of what’s otherwise a glorious white whale of a success. In trying to dangle some fancy new arbitrary carrots in front of their player’s faces, Turtle Rock have actually implemented a progressions system which puts up roadblocks and gets in the way of everything their game does brilliantly.

If you pick up a standard copy of the game like I did, then you start with roughly a third of the game’s content. The other eight hunters and two monsters are locked behind a progression system which forces you to complete arbitrary objectives to level up each character’s skills. This means that you spend an awful lot of your early hours of the game playing as characters that you don’t want to play just in order to unlock other ones, and not only that, you have to play them in a way that is usually to the detriment not only of your experience but your teammates.

Often, the tasks you have to perform to unlock the next progression tier are completely counter intuitive to what you’re actually supposed to be doing as that role, or place entirely the wrong emphasis on the wrong activity at the wrong time.

Val Medgun

Val’s main responsibility is to keep everyone alive…

For example, when playing as one of the Medics, your chief responsibility to your team is to keep them healed – simple right? Yes, there’s more to it than that of course; playing as Val, the starting Medic, you also need to juggle between hitting the monster with tranquilizer darts to slow it down, and punching holes in its armour with your sniper rifle, but your first responsibility to the team is to keep the team healed.

Val Sniping

…and not just go off on a solo sniping spree.

Unfortunately, in order to level up her gear, you have to arbitrarily hit the monster X number of times with the sniper rifle, hit the monster Y number of times with the tranquilizer darts and heal Z number of health points with the med gun. Achieving the med gun one is relatively easy as it’s directly linked to you helping your team in the way you’d want a Medic class to operate, but the other two objectives are much less important to your job as the healer; yes, of course hitting the monster with sniper rounds and tranq darts is helpful, of course it is, but it’s no bloody good if half you’re team are flailing around in pools of their own entrails whilst you decide to go AWOL and snipe for a bit.

Similarly counter-intuitive objectives are present for every single character; follow Daisy for X numbers of metres as Maggie, cause Y number of damage points to the monster with mines as Markov, cause Z number of damage points with Bucket’s turrets. Why? There’s no need – why encourage players to go off and do things which aren’t always in the team’s best interest?

Because of this, you’ll frequently find yourself playing with numbskulls who are more concerned about levelling up than playing their role – chucking out mines and laying out an anally organised bunch of traps when they should be just up-close and firing away at the monster that’s currently tearing up their teammates. If these stupidly arbitrary weapon and ability progression systems were taken out, then I’m sure that people would almost undoubtedly play their crucial roles far more effectively as a result.

Hyde

The unlock system actively incentivises players to put their own selfish wants over the team’s needs. Not a good recipe for success against the monster.

This ridiculous unlock system basically boils down to one question; do you want to play your role effectively and win the match, or do you want to level up your character? As a hunter, you stand or fall as part of the team. If one player decides to just go off free roaming in order to level up their assault rifle, then you’re all totally screwed. Participation and focus from every player is vital if you want to have any hope of success as one of the hunters.

Things aren’t quite so annoying on the monster side of things – if you want to go off and level up your monster over everything else, then at least you’ve only got yourself to blame if you want to level up your rock throws over surviving – but there’s still a ton of pointless grinding to do just to unlock all three beasts.

I understand that a lot of multiplayer games have these unlock and progression systems as a way of giving the player something to work towards or to keep them from getting bored, but were they really necessary here? The game is an absolute blast to play with friends; it doesn’t need this pedantic and fiddly Battlefield/Call of Duty style progression system to keep your interest in playing. Can’t you see that Turtle Rock? Your game is fun without all this artificial padding. Did you have so little confidence in your game that you felt that the only way to retain your player base and to stop them going off and playing something else was to give them silly little meters to fill up?

What’s more is that for a game which is all about delicately managing this constantly shifting but intricately balanced asymmetrical power dynamic between hunters and monsters, the progression system means that some players will have more powerful and effective hunters and monsters than others.

The small statistical differences that you do unlock are minor at first, but once they’re fully maxed out, they can make a world of difference to how your hunter on monster encounters go down. To take Val as an example again, with every one of her skills levelled up, she can cause 10% more damage with the sniper, keep the monster drugged for 10% longer and heal 10% faster than she could at the start of the game. That added 10% on all her moves is a slight but significant advantage, and it just feels strange that you have to slave away at these progression unlocks to make your class fully effective and not have them already operate at optimum levels right from the start.

Goliath Ambush

The progression system is hands…er, Goliath paws down the most problematic aspect of the game.

The problem is that this creates a power imbalance amongst players – those who’ve played the game longer than others will have characters and monsters that are way more effective than a starting player’s roster, which just seems needlessly unfair. Just the fact that the game even rewards you for having spent more time than others to level up the characters by performing tasks which often run counterproductively to playing your chosen role feels weird and distinctly odd. Giving some players better bonuses and perks purely on the basis of them having clocked up more in-game hours than others just doesn’t sit right with me in a competitive game at all.

Couldn’t we all just have the full set of characters and monsters unlocked at max power to begin with? There’s absolutely no need for any of the excessive grinding and jumping through hoops that Evolve makes you do. If there really does have to be a sort of progression system to give players that sense of forward movement, then why couldn’t it just be tied into purely cosmetic unlocks instead? As you’ll see from a quick glance at the in-game shop, there’s a ridiculous number of paid DLC character and weapon skins available to buy – instead of holding them back there, couldn’t those skins be the unlock rewards you could dangle in front of players as incentives instead? Come on.

If Turtle Rock had chosen not to make grinding new characters and unlocks such a substantial portion of the game, then the game would be so much more enjoyable, and gameplay amongst players also probably would be far more tactical as a result.

On second thoughts, perhaps that’s exactly why Evolve released with its own Candy Crush style mobile app – there’s so much grinding to do in this game that it’s starting to look more and more like a fundamental necessity to unlocking the full game’s content, and not an optional extra anymore.

Shear Waste of Time

Wraith Attack

Something wicked this way comes…

Unfortunately, the progression system is not the only big problem with Evolve. Oh no. There’s a second, smaller but even more infuriating hazard to you losing all resolve to keep playing Evolve, and it’s a problem that’s been plaguing me incessantly from the moment I’ve picked the game up. In fact, it’s still causing me issues to this day. While it’s not a questionable design decision like the game’s progression system, the combination of the two problems pretty much killed off all desire I had to keep playing for a time. Not exactly the best feeling to have in a game’s launch week…

Well, spit it out! Just what is this annoying problem you allude to I hear you ask? The game comes complete with a small but fatally overlooked bug which commits pretty much the biggest cardinal sin in gaming that I can think of – your entire game’s progress can get completely wiped when you join a friend in the online multiplayer. For a game built primarily around online multiplayer, this is a massive, MASSIVE problem. You lose all progress, unlocks, character and monster progression and all leaderboard scores, and your game is effectively reset as if you’d never picked it up in the first place. The kicker is that the £50 you paid to get the game hasn’t also been magically reset back in your pocket either.

I’m absolutely staggered that something this basic and fundamental has been missed by such a big and capable developer – particularly when you consider that the game has had two major public testing periods prior to launch. I have no idea whatsoever on how to make a game (as you can clearly tell) but just how on earth did something this destructive to the player’s experience slip through into the final product? How did something so basic yet so intrinsically problematic to the game get missed in development? Did Turtle Rock leave their entire QA department behind when they split from Valve or something? How!?

If you want to play online with your friends – i.e. the way the game is designed to be played – then you run the risk of losing all your progress, unlocks and leaderboard scores as frequently as every couple of days. Hell, you’ve even got to set your screen boundaries again, invert your stick controls and tell the game whether you want subtitles displayed – it’s a complete factory wipe of the game, you loose absolutely everything and anything you might have had up to that point and it’s as though you’ve never played the game before in your life. What the hell? This is absolutely unacceptable in my mind, and as a result I cannot recommend picking up Evolve until this massive problem is addressed via a patch or update.

When it first happened to me, I thought this must have been a simple but unfortunate one-off glitch, and that whilst I was slightly annoyed (I hadn’t made much progress at this point) I presumed that I’d just been one of the unlucky few, and that it was a one-off. However, guess what happens next? A few days later, I accept an invite to a friend’s game and lo and behold, my rank has been reset to level 1, all my characters are gone and my hours and hours spent tediously grinding away at their progression perks have apparently gone with them. How I managed to avoid destroying my controller right then and there I’ll never know, but thankfully, I kept my calm, let out a long sigh of resignation, and started again from scratch.

But guess what? A week later and – yes, that’s right – completely reset again. So, at the time of writing, my game has been entirely reset THREE separate times within the opening fortnight of the game coming out, with two of those resets occurring just days apart from each other in the game’s opening week. It’s not a one-off glitch; it’s a bug that’s baked into the game.

Goliath Firebreath

This is pretty much identical to the reaction I had when my progress was wiped for the third time.

Once I’d finished raging quietly to myself, I started looking online and seeing more and more people complaining about the same thing. It’s not affecting absolutely everyone who plays Evolve, don’t get me wrong, but from what I’ve seen it’s not exactly just a handful of one-off cases either. Turtle Rock’s forums are full of people having the same issue, and players have posted videos to YouTube showing the moment the bug wipes out their progress in real time. It’s a total mess – I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a consistently problematic bug in all my years as a gamer, and I’m sickened that it’s happened to a game I was initially endlessly passionate about.

From my own experience, every single person that I’ve personally played Evolve with online on Xbox Live so far has had a complete progress wipe (or two) themselves, or is well aware of the glitch and they’re desperately hoping it doesn’t affect them too, like some kind of particularly virulent flu strain. There’s also a similar (but way more avoidable) issue with the game wiping player’s progress when they are logging into game from a different console, which is worth bearing in mind if you’re planning on playing Evolve on multiple PS4s/Xbox Ones.

All of this is not exactly great news when you’re trying to foster an active community of players around your brand new game eh Turtle Rock? It doesn’t bode well for the game’s online longevity when a portion of your fanbase fears to play the game online at launch for fear of losing their time and progress.

Bucket

Sadly, although Bucket is a fantastic Support character, even he can’t do a thing to restore your lost characters and progress…

To calm down for a second here, it’s worth noting that Turtle Rock are aware of the bug, and I presume they are looking into patching it at some point in the near future. Also, on a sympathetic note, if you too are one of the unfortunate sods like me who’s been struck by the frustrating bug, then 2K Support have a help page where you can get your previous characters and monsters unlocked again.

Unfortunately, they can’t restore any of your progress, highscores or unlocks for some strange reason, but hey, at least getting your characters back is some consolation for the lost hours you might have already sunk into the game.

To be fair, losing your leaderboard highscores is purely superficial, though nonetheless it can still sting a little. To toot my own horn for a brief second, going from being in the top 300 Medics in the world back to a blank slate was a little bit crushing to say the least. But the same can’t be said for losing your progress – it’s unacceptably bad, and I’m sure many that have encountered the bug will just be so angry that they’ll just not want to go back to the game again.

‘Twas Bugs That Killed the Beast

Goliath Harpoon.png

Sadly, Evolve feels rather like it’s hoist by its own petard…or harpoon in this case.

In a lot of the online discussions and reviews of Evolve I’ve read, there’s been a lot of fuss that’s been made about the game’s DLC structure; namely the fact that the game has been built as a barebones platform structure to which continual DLC will be bolted on to in the future. Whilst this is an important concern, and something that certainly looks to be the case, I’d argue that it’s not worth bothering getting worked up about any future content the game might get when the basic content the game ships with doesn’t even work with regular consistency.

The crucial takeaway fact from this review is probably this little nugget – there’s a good chance that if you play the game online, or get invited to a friend’s online multiplayer game i.e. the whole entire concept that the game is built around, you can potentially and inexplicably lose all progress when joining. Fuck it, you’ll probably just lose progress by sneezing too loudly when the game is on, it’s that temperamental and shaky. Unless you want to play the game offline by yourself (don’t, it’s painfully dull after only a few games with the bots), or you have no qualms about regularly losing all your progress every couple of days, then I’d highly recommend not picking up the game until Turtle Rock make an official announcement that they’ve dealt with and patched the problem.

However, to gradually ease off the vitriol a tad as we reach the end of this review, it’s a big testament to just how much fun and excitement there is in playing Evolve that despite being unlucky enough to get three complete progression resists within just the opening fortnight of the game’s release…the game’s just so much damn fun that I can’t help but wearily pick up the controller once again and go back for more, even though I know that I probably shouldn’t at this point.

Like a poor battered housewife, I stupidly keep deciding to start the lengthy grind process all over again, in spite of all the lost time and progress that I’d previously clocked up, and jump back into the hunt, hoping that I don’t get my hopes dashed all over again. It’s literally the definition of insanity. I repeat the same actions over and over again, each time I furtively hope that this time, maybe this one time, my progress won’t get reset. Each time, I’m bitterly disappointed, and even more disgusted with myself for even hoping that the game might just really work this time, fingers crossed.

To arrogantly re-quote myself from the beginning of the review, I’ll stand by my words that Evolve is one of the most exciting and interesting multiplayer experiences that I’ve played in years. It’s managed to reignite the long-forgotten flame in me that fell in love with online multiplayer games in the first place. Not since the glory days of Halo 3 matchmaking have I become so involved in an online multiplayer game; over the 40+ hours I’ve racked up so far, Evolve has kept me involved, interested, focussed and excited in ways that I wouldn’t have thought possible for a game that’s only got four different modes at its core. It’s asymmetrical combat is pretty much perfectly balanced between man, woman, robot, trapjaw and beast. It’s got intense moments of nail-biting dread, epic adrenaline-pumping player-controlled boss fights and a deep and interesting level of tactics and strategy to every decision and choice you make, all wrapped up in a tight, clever and intricately balanced class based shooter.

However, despite all this praise, I can’t recommend you pick up Evolve. Not right now anyway, not in the state that it’s in.

Monsters

Want to unlock all the monsters? Whatever you do, don’t play the game online!

Unlike the titanic beasts the hunter team must fight, Evolve is constantly getting caught and trapped by its own faults; it’s a powerful yet graceful beast that’s unfortunately been snared by its own egregious and intrusive progression system and small but deadly overlooked bug in its code. It’s a majestic beast of a game, but despite its intricately balanced and addictive four versus one combat loops, the game is scuppered by a frustrating clusterfuck of problems. So, whilst I definitely recommend you give Evolve a try at some point if it looks like something you’d be interested in, even as a huge fan of what the game manages to get right I’d still highly recommend not buying the game until there’s an official patch from Turtle Rock that they’ve fixed this platform-agnostic progress reset bug.

This is exactly the sort of thing a reviewer is here for in my opinion – to wade knee-deep into game, whether it’s good, bad or anywhere in between, and report back to the reader so that they don’t have to. Well, while this hasn’t exactly been a timely review by any means – I’m sure that many of you reading this who are interested in the game may well have already gone out bought the game like I did – I just hope it’s been a useful one. If you’re reading this and you’re on the fence about Evolve, then hopefully I’ve given you some potentially useful pointers to think about whether the game is worth your time.

Evolve is one of the freshest most exciting multiplayer games that I’ve ever played – but consider that fourteen days after release, I’ve got a game on my hands which has been designed for extensive online play with others, yet I daren’t play it online anymore without risking losing all my progress for the fourth time. Sound like fun to you?

Left For Dead

Alien: Isolation – Review

Title Picture
Standard

(Reviewed on Xbox One)

In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream…With Joy!

You’d have thought that after the release of the pretty much universally accepted train wreck that was Aliens: Colonial Marines back in 2013 that it was a very real possibility that we might never see another game set in the Alien franchise ever again, let alone get a spectacularly good one in the near future. However, within approximately the space of two years, we were collectively proven wrong. Creative Assembly delivered Alien: Isolation in November 2014, and it’s one of the freshest, most inventive, and cruelly difficult survival horror experiences to hit PC and consoles in recent years. To cut right to the chase; I absolutely love it.

The fact that we even have a decent game set in the Alien franchise following the toxic aftermath of Gearbox’s abortion makes Creative Assembly’s excellent efforts even more incredible in my opinion; fair enough, Creative Assembly’s game had already been long in development when Colonial Marines launched, but Gearbox’s game left such a sour taste in fan’s mouths that it seriously felt like it had totally killed off any remaining appetite for another game in the Alien franchise.

That was before Isolation had chance to punch out of its incubating development chest cavity and terrorise the survival horror crowd.

But before we delve under the lovely smooth, sleek, glistening carapace of Creative Assembly’s excellent experience, let’s take a few moments to further explore the toxic context the game launched in. That’s right, the aforementioned big white elephant (or Xenomorph) in the room, Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines.

Game Over Man! Game Over!

Gearbox Logo

Back in February of 2013 when it launched at fan’s wallets like a money-grabbing Facehugger, Gearbox Software’s Colonial Marines delivered on none of the overblown and overhyped potential it promised, and displayed a disgusting level of dishonesty and deceit in the process. The game became the go-to industry standard example of appalling bait and switch tactics, underhand last-minute day of release review embargoes and before the glut of broken and unfinished games that washed up in the latter end of 2014, it was one of the most universally derided games in recent memory.

Whilst it’s by no means the worst game I’ve ever played (hey, wouldn’t that be a fun piece to write), it certainly isn’t anywhere near what I’d consider a good game, and certainly not one that lives up to the pedigree of the Alien franchise or the James Cameron film it’s supposed to follow (yes, you read that right, follow – it’s actually considered a legit part of the Alien cannon – fuck knows why). What made it so offensive in particular was down to the way the game was marketed; how drastically different the finished product was from all the pre-release footage and gameplay sections that Gearbox kept excitedly trundling out for both press and fans to see.

With the pre-release materials showcasing fantastic looking lighting effects, intelligent Xenomorph AI, awesome looking powerloader combat scenes and, can you believe it, lifelike marine squadmates to fight alongside, the game looked great. It was basically everything you could ever hope for in an Aliens game, and it looked like one that appeared to show a great respect for its source material. Yeah, I know, from what we saw in the E3 demos prior to release, that the game was not exactly doing anything drastically different or breaking new ground per se. It probably wasn’t going to be redefining first person shooters anytime soon or providing anything other than a cheesy rehashed plot of the film with even cheesier characters and dialogue. But all of that didn’t matter; it simply looked like a great marriage of a decent first person shooter experience mixed with the Aliens franchise in an exciting and respectful way – something fans had been clamouring to get their hands on for years.

With Gearbox at the development helm, things were looking very exciting indeed. A development studio with a strong history stretching back to the early ’90s 3D Realms days of Duke Nukem, and with a known pedigree for quality most recently affirmed with the highly-acclaimed FPS shooter/RPG looter Borderlands 2 which released mere months before Colonial Marines‘ launch, they seemed like the perfect choice of developer to finally do the Alien franchise video game justice.

In particular, it was the studio’s early work on the Half-Life expansion packs that garnered them a reputation among gamers for treating external franchise source materials with the utmost respect, diligence and care it deserves. In fact, Gearbox Software’s very first major project was 1999’s Half-Life: Opposing Force, a great expansion to the original Valve classic which basically was Aliens: Colonial Marines in all but name; you play as a soldier of a crack US marine platoon who drop into the Black Mesa Research Facility of the main game to wipe out the alien invaders running amok. Sound familiar?

With all these advantages behind it, what on earth could possibly go wrong with Colonial Marines?

Unfortunately, the answer was a lot. Things went very fucking wrong indeed. FUBAR, you might even say if you were a colonial marine.

Motion Tracker

In the end, Colonial Marines, for all its hype and hyperbole, was nothing more than a clumsily cobbled together series of Alien-themed shooting galleries, with mediocre…well, everything really. Aside from a couple of decent one-off horror/stealth themed sections, the game was a gloopy mess of poor writing, hopelessly inadequate AI, weak Call of Duty corridor shooter sections, massively mis-represented graphics, dull lighting effects and poorly-implemented co-op features to name just a few of its plethora of faults. Finally, to top it all off, if you did manage to heroically slog your way through the entire campaign, an unfinished bolt-on DLC tease ending was your final reward; adding yet another insult to a by now very much gangrenous injury.

Overall, there was just this great big lacklustre feeling of disappointment permeating every aspect of the game’s design. The final game looked nothing like what had been previously shown; in fact, it was a hell of a lot worse than anything we’d been previously shown. Amazingly, the short E3 2011 demo looked more entertaining than the final game, and it actually looked like progress had been going backwards between that demo and the finished product, with many features and scenes that had been stripped out completely.

Obviously, things are of course subject to change during the course of a game’s development – it’s why it’s called development after all – and tech demos and E3 presentations are typically small, highly polished vertical slices of the finished thing. But when there’s such a huge divide between the final game you buy in the shop or online and the work-in-progress materials that the game was shown off with – worse, the game looks far worse than the work-in-progress materials – then you know something has gone horribly wrong.

What made the whole debacle so offensive to fans though was the way that Gearbox appeared to have been blatantly lying through their teeth as they falsely advertised a product they knew was nowhere near what they had so eagerly promised for so long – they pulled the classic day of release review embargo trick, which is almost always a sign of something rotten afoot.

Today, if you go back and revisit some of the Gearbox Vidocs and PR interviews that were filmed during the development of the game, they’re just laughably bad and downright dishonest. Perhaps most amusingly, the Wii U version of the game, which was heavily promoted in the run-up to release as the ideal way to play the game (using the Wii U’s gamepad as a tactile motion sensor), and was purportedly going to be the “the best-looking console version of Aliens: Colonial Marines” was quickly scrapped only months after the negative reception of the PC and other console releases. The benefit of hindsight eh?

Unsurprisingly then, much like the wild spray of the Xenomorph’s acid blood from a close-quarters 12-guage shotgun blast, Gearbox Software’s Colonial Marines burned a deep bitter hole in the hearts and minds of many Alien fans; leaving a sizzling wound that can still be felt in the gaming community’s collective consciousness to this day.

Alien

It’s true; ask any gamer today what they think about Aliens: Colonial Marines, and they will likely hiss loudly at you, Xeno-style, before trying to scurry off into a nearby (because they’re always nearby) ventilation shaft. Okay, maybe not the ventilation shaft bit, but you get the idea. It’s really not a good game by anyone’s stretch of the imagination. Admittedly, all of this pain could have been avoided by fans holding off to read the reviews before purchasing, but as the press sites were embargoed until the actual day of release, many gamers (including chumps like me) excitedly (read: stupidly) rushed to pick the game up or had it pre-ordered like the fools we are. It became an industry standard reason why pre-ordering games is not a good idea.

Looking to the future, I don’t know if we’ll ever see a decent standalone tribute to Aliens in video game form, and, quite honestly, I’m not sure that we even need or really want one nowadays anyway. So many of the popular gaming franchises we have today have already borrowed so liberally and successfully from the Aliens action film blueprint – Halo, Quake, Gears of War, and Doom to name a few – that a specifically tailor-made Aliens shooting/action game feels almost unnecessary by this point.

Plus, like it or not, it’s kind of been largely done already in the Aliens Vs. Predator games. Unlike the AVP films that were released, some of the Alien Vs. Predator series of games were actually pretty good, usually on the human marine side of things at least (Aliens Vs. Predator 2 being my personal favourite). While not a dedicated Aliens game per se, the marine campaigns usually manage to offer some fun shooty-shooty bang-bang Xenomorph sections, which although they don’t exactly re-invent the shooter rulebook, are nonetheless entertaining if you’re a fan of either of the two mega Fox franchises.

Anyway, to wrap this prelude section up, that’s enough about my stupid spendings for today, but on a final point, I’ll leave Angry Joe’s humorous and spot-on review of the game here for more of the disappointing details (and, to be fair, some of the things the game did get right):

Get Away From Her You Bitch!

Ironsights

So a whole year before Isolation had even been announced, the damage had already been done to the Alien franchise in the gaming space; both to Colonial Marines itself and any lingering hopes for a future Aliens-themed game had been effectively nuked from orbit by critics and fans alike.

Not exactly ideal conditions for making a brand new creative endeavour in the Alien franchise then. However, much to everyone’s surprise, Creative Assembly were able to facehug the massive writhing body of disappointment and cynicism that was left in the wake of Colonial Marines, incubating a brand new experience in its predecessor’s still warm corpse (I know Facehuggers don’t attach to dead bodies, but just work with me on this one okay?)

Out from that mass of uncertainty ripped forth something amazing and new; a plucky and triumphant Hadley’s Hope in the dark looming shadow of the crashed promethean wreck of Gearbox’s failure. Developed by Creative Assembly, the game is, in my humble opinion, the finest game in the Alien franchise to date, and without a doubt the best Alien game you can play.

After such a commercial and critical failure, fans and critics needed an awful lot of convincing that Isolation wasn’t going to be just more of the deeply disappointing same. Far from it; Isolation is, if you will, the hulking jet black phoenix of claws, teeth and acid blood that’s risen from the carcinogenic flames of Colonial Marines, and in my opinion, it’s easily the best game of 2014, hands, claws and vicious spiked tail down. In a way, Isolation is like the hybrid Newborn creature at the end of Alien: Resurrection; it’s the dark and brooding sci-fi of the Alien franchise mixed with the tense scares of the survival horror genre – but unlike the Newborn, it’s a beautiful mix of styles that compliment each other so well.

If, like me, you get your masochistic kicks from being locked in what’s essentially a giant game-long horror house, then you’re in luck. In the words of the late great Donald Duck, “Boy oh fucking boy!” – you’ve come exactly to the right place. Alien: Isolation is an absolutely incredible game, and absolutely essential playing if you’re a horror game fan. The game is exceptional; in its vision, in its design, in the way it really manages to pull you in and really makes you feel right there and part and parcel of its horrifying universe. Whilst there are some aspects to it which I found to be slightly problematic, and places where the glossy finish of its finely polished exoskeleton fall away a tad, overall, my thoughts on Alien: Isolation are…well, I think some crude paraphrasing of the words of Ash are in order: It’s a damn near perfect organism, and truly one of the most unique and exhilarating horror experiences available in gaming today.

Perfect Organism

Alien Game Republic

“You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you? Perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. A survivor…”

Purity is exactly the right word to use when describing the brave vision Creative Assembly had for Alien: Isolation, and just how well they managed to pull it off.

The game is a first person horror simulator, aimed at delivering a hardcore horror experience chiefly centred around the hardcore horror player. It’s a bold and risky move, particularly considering that this is Creative’s first go at a horror title, especially in an era when most mainstream horror titles tend to opt for tried and tested action/adventure gameplay simply dressed up in a horror skin to make it somewhat visually scary – i.e. The Evil Within.

It’s a risk that was well worth taking however, as Creative Assembly have not only managed to create a fantastic experience in Alien: Isolation in its own right, but also repaired a lot of the colossal damage that Colonial Marines wreaked upon the franchise in gaming circles. Like I say, I’m of the opinion that a straightforward Aliens first person shooter is probably a bit uninteresting and unnecessary by this point, but for those who do want such a game, Isolation will have definitely removed a great deal of the horrible aftertaste that Gearbox’s effort left in both fan’s and publisher’s mouths last February.

Ripley

Anyway, enough about that piece of hot mess, and let’s talk about the awesomeness that is Isolation. In a bold divergence from previous Alien video game efforts, Isolation by and large strips you of the atypical space marine power armour and pulse rifles you’re familiar with, and plants you firmly in the cream coloured Converse Hi-Tops of a civilian engineer. But not just any engineer – and no, it’s not Isaac Clarke in his civilian attire before you ask. You play as Amanda Ripley, the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley – incidentally the same Amanda Ripley that you see as an old woman in the photograph at the start of Aliens. And no, as entertaining as the thought might be to square off against the alien as an elderly OAP, Alien: Isolation thankfully takes place quite a number of years before Amanda starts drawing her pension and clattering about on her zimmerframe.

Set fifteen years after Ellen destroys the Nostromo in Alien, the twenty-six year-old Amanda (who now works for Weyland-Yutani as an engineer) is sent along with a recovery crew to retrieve the Nostromo’s flight recorder, which has been picked up by the decrepit Sevastopol Station (operated by a Weyland-Yutani competitor, Seegson, who deal primarily in second-rate synthetics), and hopefully find out what happened to her missing mother in the process.

Naturally, things quickly spiral out of control, and Amanda and her team discover that things have been going horribly wrong on the Sevastopol for quite a while. There’s frightened and dangerous humans scuttling about, terrified out of their minds and ready to shoot anything that darts out of the shadows. A multitude of murderous, malfunctioning Seegson synthetics – a cheaper line of synthetics that are of a much lower quality than Weyland-Yutani’s models – are strangely going berserk and coldly killing off survivors and anyone they consider to be breaking Sevastopol ‘protocols’. Last but certainly not least, there’s something else thudding around the cold, dark corridors of the Sevastopol…something not right, something…alien.

Not Just Another Bug Hut

Sevastopol

In a refreshing change from past games based on James Cameron’s gung-ho sequel film, the design and creative vision for the game is an overtly big love letter to Ridley Scott’s original film. Rather than the objective being to shoot your way out guns akimbo, your aim in Isolation is beautifully simple; survive.

Alien: Isolation is designed to be an incredibly stressful survival experience, a painstakingly crafted virtual simulation of just what it would be like to be in that awful nightmare of a scenario yourself – trapped, alone and afraid whilst totally stressed out. As a result, it’s an extremely immersive and especially enjoyable gaming experience, one that’s full with horrific tension and dread pervading every moment.

The game is exceptionally difficult, and this is coming from someone who masochistically (read: idiotically) plays a lot of horror games on their top whack difficulty…well…when I’m feeling particularly brave that is. I’m not saying that trying to come across as some boasting dude-bro douchebag, it’s rather that I find that horror games in particular usually benefit from being played on the highest difficulty you feel capable of tackling, as you’ll often have an experience closer to the developers original intentions. For example, playing through something like Shinji Mikami’s The Evil Within on the Nightmare setting makes that game significantly more challenging and fun to play than on the easier difficulties, and, to draw from another Mikami example, Resident Evil feels like an entirely different game depending on what difficulty you play on.

The same can’t really be said for Alien: Isolation. For the most part, the game still sets the bar pretty high when it comes to difficulty, no matter what setting you pick (although technically there is now a recently patched in exception to this, but I’ll discuss that mode a bit further in).

Ripley Side

In this sense, I consider Alien: Isolation to be the Dark Souls of the horror genre (okay, look, I know that’s a rather hackneyed expression these days, but just go with me here). It’s punishing, frustrating, and at times, seemingly impossible. But, just like how From Software’s acclaimed series has become evangelised in the eyes of its devoted fans for its unforgiving difficulty, I can’t sing high enough praises for Creative Assembly’s bold decision with Isolation to focus on delivering a hardcore Alien experience for diehard fans, potentially at the cost of losing the casual audience’s interest. Creative Assembly were determined to make their game the most fiendish and realistic simulation of being stalked by an Xenomorph; it’s a nightmare gauntlet of stress, tension and blind panic – which to be honest, is certainly not for everyone.

The gameplay takes the shape of a first person survival/exploration horror game, very much in the style of games such as Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Outlast. While some first person shooter elements are thrown into the mix from time to time, the emphasis is firmly on stealth, hiding and exploration over shooting. Amanda is an engineer, therefore not combat trained and armed to the teeth for extensive intergalactic combat like your average colonial marine, no, instead she relies more on her wits and technological wizardry to navigate the crumbling Sevastopol Station in one piece.

Blowtorch

In fact, at times, it’s almost helpful to try and forget that you’re playing a survival horror game, and to pretend that you’re, once again, donning Big Boss/Solid Snake’s skin-tight sneaking suit, and playing a first person stealth title. Only without the cardboard boxes, chaff grenades and risqué adult magazines to distract the alien with, unfortunately. However, being an engineer, Amanda is rather good at MacGyvering together rudimentary devices to help her survive, such as smoke bombs to blind humans, EMP mines to short-circuit Working Joes and noisemaker grenades to lure the alien away from her current position.

Noisemaker

As a result, whilst playing, you’ll need to be constantly collecting scrap and machine parts and cobbling together the right devices to survive each perilous situation the game throws at you. The games resource system has a similar feel to The Last Of Us, where the same sets of resources are required to build multiple devices, requiring you to pick and choose the right item for the right context. Just like in Naughty Dog’s magnum opus, where gambling with the short term needs versus long term strategy was vital to getting through Joel and Ellie’s journey, it’s essential to help Amanda survive her’s as well. Do you save those sensors and blasting caps you’ve been hoarding for a bigger, more costly specialised projects such as pipe bombs or EMP mines, or is it better to make more of the smaller, cheaper throwables which are a bit more generally suited against all enemies?

Unlike Metal Gear Solid or The Last Of Us however, detection in Isolation is practically synonymous with death. Get caught by the alien and you’re absolutely screwed, but even just getting cornered by a synthetic or even spotted by a gun-toting human is still very bad news, and it’s practically lights out. In particular, the early hours of the game, where you’ve practically got no actual firearms and usually not enough resources to make an abundance of jerry-rigged survival items pack some of the most intense and pulse-pounding panic-inducing experiences that I’ve experienced in a horror game for a long while.

Flare

On this note, one of the common misnomers about the game that I think is worth pointing out early on is that though it’s marketed as a scary and really frightening game, it’s not really. If we’re getting nit-picky, I’d personally describe Isolation as more of an intensely stressful yet exhilarating experience rather than as a prototypical spine-tingling fright-fest.

While there certainly are moments in Isolation (both dynamic and scripted) that will make you leap out of your skin, personally, I don’t think that it is a particularly scary game. Not that that’s a bad thing by any means, it’s just that it’s simply not designed to be your typical monster-closet party or jump scare fright-a-thon, nor a brooding dark psychological horror mind-fuck. It’s pretty special in this regard I reckon, as it feels quite unlike any other horror game I’ve previously played.

Alien: Isolation is extremely good at being able to quickly ratchet the tension up to absolutely unbearable levels, making it both nerve-rackingly uncomfortable and electrifyingly exciting to play. The way Isolation manages to whip you up into an unbearable pressure cooker of stress is nothing short of incredible. As I mentioned above, its closest counterpart is probably Red Barrels’ excellent Outlast; both games rely on creating an overwhelmingly powerful build up of dread, one that’s so intense in its execution and release that you end up getting so worked up and stressed out that you actually stop being scared and just start blind panicking. Isolation makes you panic to such a degree that you’re having to fight your screaming instincts and reflexes just as much, if not more so than the horrors pursuing you.

In other words, from my own point of view, the age old fear of the unknown is what typically (and predictably) gets my teeth a-chattering in horror games, and with a creature like the alien, which has become such an increasingly popular cultural icon over the years since it’s debut, I actually find it quite hard to be genuinely afraid of it to the same degree that I originally was when I first saw Alien. Plus, the clue is in the title, so it doesn’t exactly come as a shock to find that you’re going to be spending a lot of time being stalked by H.R. Geiger’s beloved creation. However, the first few hours of your Isolation will definitely test your survival horror mettle to the extreme.

But just why exactly is the game so hard, stressful and intense then, I hear you ask? Well, unsurprisingly, it’s because of that ingeniously devious Xenomorph AI. In fact, that’s a slightly wrong distinction; all the AIs in the game run under the same umbrella system as it were, and therefore they are all impressive in their own special ways. But it’s that damn Xenomorph AI that will naturally have you the most worried and on edge as you play.

Clever Girl

Clever Girl

The alien is, of course, the star of the show. From the second you first encounter it, you won’t believe just how clever and cunning its AI is. In fact, the first time I came across the Alien in the game, I was extremely cocky and naively unprepared.

To put it another way, I didn’t last long.

The first time that the creature gracefully unfurled itself from the overhead vents of the Sevastopol, I was absolutely spellbound with dread. Instantly freezing to the spot, I watched its sinuously sleek black musculature ripple and slide out from the vent and pad gently down onto the cold metal floor. Pausing for a brief moment under the harsh strip lighting, as if to admire its own liquid grace, the creature slowly raised up off its ribbed haunches, its elongated head rising as it let out a long sustained sibilant hiss. It was an utterly terrifying moment that I’ll probably have burned onto my retinas for the rest of my gaming life.

As it took in the cold dark environs of the Sevastopol, it started to prowl around the room in search of its prey. Despite my silent horror/reverie a few seconds earlier, foolishly, I wasn’t all that immediately concerned, thinking that with it being so early on in the game, I’d be okay if I didn’t do anything stupid. Being a rather precocious bastard, I shuffled further forward into the brightly lit open waiting room in a stupidly nonchalantly manner, loosely hugging nearby walls and cover all the while confidently assuming that the alien couldn’t possibly have sensed me yet.

That was, until I heard a loud rasping hiss, followed quickly by a piggish squeal of delight; an animalistic announcement that the alien had indeed seen me, and I felt the cold rush of fear flood into my hands and feet. It was only then that I realised (altogether far too late at this stage) that I wasn’t looking at this specimen down the iron sights of a trusty pulse rifle…at which point I tried to run, thinking it couldn’t possibly have seen me yet. How wrong I was…

This is the first Alien­­-based game that I’ve played that I feel has truly managed to adequately capture the proper size and scale of the Xenomorph. She towers over you at a colossal eight feet tall. It’s a genuinely terrifying sight to see the alien in its accurate proportions up close, and the early hours of the game easily provide some of the strongest and most memorable moments, as you’re able to do little other than simply just hide from this towering monstrosity. You feel woefully outclassed by this towering apex predator fright from the word go…or, perhaps more appropriately, the word “Arrrrgh!”

Unlike the vast majority of other games in the franchise where the aliens slither about on the walls and ceilings, this monster stalking you throughout the Sevastopol walks upright on its legs. Hearing its heavy thundering footsteps thudding loudly on the metallic floors creates unbearable tension. Watching the creature’s vicious tail rasping along the off-white walls when you’re hiding, often with it being only mere inches away from brushing your face and legs, can make you want to run screaming for your life. Fighting the urge to not completely freak out when the alien is nearby takes an awful lot of practice and some seriously steely nerves, but it’s something that will have to be done if you want to make it through even the earliest missions.

In addition, learning just what the alien picks up on and how it tracks you is all part of the frightful fun. Much like in Resident Evil 3, when the shock of Nemesis breaking into the room behind you snarling “S.T.A.R.S.!” felt like a massive and horrifying invasion of player privacy, trying not to panic when you hear the beast thud down in the same room as you is a similarly petrifying experience.

Tracker Tram Lounge

Of course, this wouldn’t be an Alien game without the trademark motion tracker in your sweaty panicking mitts, and it’s your primary method of keeping rough tabs on the serpentine beast stalking you, not to mention other undesirables strolling around the Sevastopol. Quite possibly one of the scariest noises heard in a horror film/game, the minimalistic pings on the grainy screen of the motion tracker are your only way of keeping track of whatever threats are crawling or thudding around out of your line of sight.

The tracker also handily doubles up as your objective waypoint navigator, giving you an approximate sense of where you need to be heading at a glance. When it’s equipped, you can choose to focus on the tracker’s display, which cleverly blurs your long-distance vision as a trade-off, or you can glance upwards from the display by pressing the left trigger to shift the focus back to your environment, but in turn this now blurs the tracker’s display. It’s a clever balancing act, as it means you can never visually cover all the bases at once.

Tracker Blips

Crucially, the motion tracker is diegetic; in other words, it means that your enemies can hear its quiet pings too if they are close enough. This makes hiding even more of a nail-biting buttock-clenching fright fest; naturally I found this out the hard way…

What I found particularly interesting about using the motion tracker’s design is that if you rely on it solely as your main observational tool, you are most likely going to end up as a human shaped donner kebab on the Xeno’s tail in next to no time. Unlike in the films where the characters almost constantly have the trackers out and beeping away, as my above clip hopefully demonstrates, having your eyes glued to it for anything more than a quick glance can prove to be a very costly mistake.

During the early hours of the game, I spent a great deal of my time hiding in lockers, like in that humiliating clip above, peering through the slats and not daring to come out (not by the hairs on my chinny-fucking-chin-chin) for fear of bumping into whatever is out there making those chilling incessant blips on the tracker.

However, you quickly learn that if you just hang around waiting for the coast to be clear, that you’re going to be waiting an absolute eternity, and most likely picked off if you repeatedly stay in the same location or the same types of hiding spaces. Much like Outlast, hiding in the specific button prompt hiding places such as the lockers or storage boxes isn’t ideal, and they are kind of a false economy in many ways. They’re often located in awkward places, leaving you with a severely restricted view of your surroundings and, crucially, a reduced audial awareness; not to mention that just the basic animations of entering and leaving your hiding spot can eat up precious seconds of valuable hiding time, as well as creating more unwanted noise. Not only that, the alien will actually tend to pick up on the sorts of places where you most often try to hide; consistently make a bee-line for the lockers and the alien will get the impression that you like to cower in them Otacon style, probably also with a patch of urine soaking through your trousers.

As a result, I found using cover by manually crouching behind environmental props (with desperately crossed fingers), or crawling under obstacles such as desks and hospital gurneys when possible to be a much safer bet. These allow you to potentially correct your manoeuvres through tricky to cross open spaces if threats are extremely close by, and offer you altogether better vantage points from which to lob items and stage diversions so you can better escape.

Regardless of when and where you choose to do your cowering, once you pluck up the courage to leave your hiding place, you need to use both your eyes and particularly your ears if you’re going to make it out alive.

They’re In The Goddamned Walls!

Crouching

Speaking of those lovely sound receptacles we call ears, sound in a horror game is, of course, an absolutely crucial facet of the design. It’s a pleasure to say that Alien: Isolation has a meticulous level of attention to detail in the audio department. The run-down Sevastopol station is a faltering, rattling fortress of metal, plastic, wires and fibreglass being torn apart at its seams, and the care and attention that Creative Assembly’s audio engineers have lavished on making this dilapidated space station sound appropriately broken and battered is incredibly impressive.

Machinery clanks and groans as you squeeze through ventilation shafts, steam pipes (that are often sneakily designed to look like the alien’s sleek cranium) explosively hiss at your passage at the most inopportune times, and the distant muffled booms and the bumpy decompressive thuds of the station being violently buffeted about in it’s orbit can easily be mistaken for the muscular thuds of the Xenomorph closing up on you.

To invoke yet another comparison to Outlast again, like that game’s player protagonist Miles Upshur, Amanda has a fully rendered body and limbs, further adding to the simulation immersion, and she will also get startled, cry out in shock and pain and whimper in fright when things are getting unbearably frightening or painful onscreen. Her voice actor, Andrea Deck, does a great job of imbuing the character with a believable and empathetic persona, a scared but determined survivor. She’s much more frightened and spooked by events than her more cool under pressure mother Ellen in the films, which allows players to feel total empathy with her (as they are probably just as scared and stressed as she is).

Of particular importance is being able to tell when the Alien is wandering around in the vents above you (usually not an immediate threat), thudding along a corridor (an extremely immediate threat), or, most mischievously, when it’s sneakily camping in ceiling ducts and waiting for you to nonchalantly stroll underneath it. If you can play with a decent set of headphones or a quality surround-sound speaker set up, you’ll have a significantly improved experience from both an audio and gameplay perspective (and you’ll probably live a lot longer too). If you don’t…well, let’s just say you’re in for a world of pain. Especially if you haven’t saved in a while…

Manual Override

Pay Phone

You see, your greatest fear in Alien: Isolation, apart from the hulking black eyeless monster mercilessly stalking you, the hordes of glitching android goons going berserk and eager to squeeze the life out of you, and the other scared, twitchy and trigger-happy human survivors hiding in the darkness of the Sevastopol station, is that of losing progress. Alien: Isolation uses an old manual saving system – you can only save your progress at designated in-game save points, the Sevastopol’s payphone boxes. This means no automatic checkpoints or continuous autosaves running in the background; if you get killed in Isolation, you have to go right back to your last save. Considering that these pay phones are few and far between, and often pretty spread out at the best of times, this means that a death can cost you an awfully big chunk of time. Particularly in the earlier hours of the game, it’s often at least twenty minutes of lost time you’ll have to make up when killed, or longer if you’re unlucky.

This decision to go with a manual, in-game saving system, is, in my opinion, an absolutely genius move, as it pairs up so beautifully with the type of atmosphere and story the game hopes to immerse you in. Although it is understandably a point of intense contention amongst players – checkpoints and autosaves are second nature for many younger gamers today, so having those safety nets taken away is quite a startling contrast – I for one thought it was an essential feature, one that is deeply fundamental to successfully anchoring and absorbing the player in the simulation, fully plugged into the matrix if you will.

Losing your progress is the video game equivalent of death for the player, and at the heart of it, this is a large part of what you actually fear most when playing a game, no matter the genre or difficulty. Death is the closest thing to a punishment you can pretty much get in a game. You desperately don’t want to die, as it means that you’ll have to replay and redo everything you’ve accomplished since your last save. As a result, modern games try and minimise the amount of replaying you’ll have to do – using features such as the aforementioned checkpoints and autosaves to stop players getting frustrated at having to replay large swathes of the game again after a death/failure.

However, one of the few genres in gaming where a developer can really push the difficulty level beyond what’s typically comfortable for the majority of players and cultivate an attitude of perseverance in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds is the horror genre. By its very nature, it’s a design choice that appeals directly to the hardcore survival horror gamer first and foremost.

Consequently, you’ll either love or hate the manual save system. Much like Marmite for that matter. I for one love the savoury tang that I get when I crack open a fresh pot of the tasty toast condiment, and incidentally I also love the feeling that I know that I absolutely have to get to the next phone booth without being eviscerated, otherwise I’m going to lose everything I’ve done since my last save.

It’s a double-edged sword (much like any sword when you think about it actually) from a design perspective; do you cater to players who want greater handholding and friendly checkpoint safety nets in their experience, or do you balance things to better accommodate the hardcore masochistic horror game audience who want a punishing challenge with plenty of risk along the way? Although it might prove problematic for some, on the whole I think that the decision to strip away the autosaves and checkpoints that proliferate modern games was totally the right one for this experience, and it compliments the story and gameplay extremely well.

Alien: Isolation‘s brutal combination of a cunning alien AI, a weak vulnerable player protagonist and limited saving opportunities is thus the closest and most direct way of getting you to truly empathise and roleplay as Amanda Ripley. Yes, it can be controller-destroyingly frustrating when you’re seconds away from getting a save when you’re hoisted into an air vent or phallically impaled with the alien’s tail from behind, but that’s kind of the whole idea. You’re meant to be scared; you’re meant to be feeling vulnerable and you’re meant to be constantly dreading being discovered and killed at any moment – just like Amanda in the reality of the game. This design choice to go with a manual save system perfectly aligns the player’s desires and goals with that of the protagonist, and it does an incredible job of really pulling you into the world and universe of the game. She’s only got one chance, and whilst you’re playing, it’ll feel like you do as well.

Yes, this is a hard game. Yes, you will pull your hair out in controller-destroying levels of frustration and scream in annoyance rather than fright when that Xeno yanks you clean out of a wall vent, or bites through your cranium for the umpteenth time. But eventually…eventually, you’ll start to improve.

In a similar fashion to the way Dark Souls players always harp on about that franchise’s rule-driven gameplay, Alien: Isolation has its own important rules to learn. What at first might feel like a futile game of punishing chance will, with a bit of practice and patience (not to mention strong nerves), eventually feel like an intricate and pulse-pounding game of space cat and mouse. Only with a massive shiny black cat with sharper claws and retractable inner-jaws, and a mouse that can cobble together rudimentary gadgets on the fly, but you get the idea.

Once you’ve submitted to the inevitable masochistic hazing of fright and frustration that is the first few hours of the game, you’ll soon have your own rules and mantras drawn up in your head that you will religiously stick to, in order to prevent becoming alien food quite so frequently. Never Run. Avoid hiding in lockers if possible. Always keep your eyes peeled and your ears open. Never ever run. Attract the alien with noisemakers to deal with hostile human threats. Never ever, ever run. Hide in the vents to lose the synths. NEVER FUCKING RUN. NOT EVEN ONCE. NEVER!

As you get more familiar with the way the alien AI in particular works, the less you’ll find yourself being killed over and over again. After sinking a good few hours into the game and getting to grips with its mechanics, most of the times when I’d be killed would be my own fault; a momentary lapse in concentration here, a foolish mistake there or an incredibly basic no-no every now and again – such as RUNNING! NEVER EVER DO IT!

However, on the flipside, it is also possible to encounter glitches where the alien seemingly has a stroke and pauses mid-game, or gets stuck for some reason in the environment. I did encounter one annoying glitch where the alien ended up being stuck paused in front of a panicking gun-happy survivor I desperately needed the beast to eviscerate so I could move past, only for some reason it didn’t want to play ball anymore so to speak. It was pretty much the only instance where I actually wanted the creature to be even more lethal than it already is…or perhaps as this particular clip below shows, was.

Thankfully, a quick pipebomb throw soon sorted out all my troubles in one fell (but messy) swoop.

Happiness Is A Smoking Door Handle

Coffee Machine

Long before I was chucking high explosives at the alien’s shiny phallic head however, a great deal of my enjoyment of the game actually came purely from just exploring the Sevastopol station in a Gone Home open-ended manner, and getting caught up in the game’s beautiful design and art direction. The simulation-like focus of the game, combined with the work of Creative Assembly’s environmental artists and their impeccable attention to detail, have made the game not only a fantastic piece of Alien fan service, but also an engrossing and intricate metroidvania-style adventure.

Blue Corridor

In fact, CA have subsequently released a patch for the game which updates it with two more difficulty modes – an even harder Nightmare mode with a nigh-on sentient alien AI and even fewer resources, plus a Novice mode, which makes the alien much less curious and absent minded, with more resources in the environment to scavenge and more health for Ripley. Whilst you can’t exactly just doss about in Novice – the alien, even though it’s significantly lobotomised and less cunning, will still end you just as rapidly if it finds you – this is a great mode if you just want to go and explore the station at your own pace, and immerse yourself in activities that you really can’t afford to do on higher difficulties (such as reading the extended computer logs) without having to worry too much about a surprise abrupt head hole-punching to interrupt you.

Cutting Door Panel

The attention to even the smallest of details make Isolation‘s most basic mechanics incredibly enjoyable moments to be savoured at every opportunity. I never thought I’d say this, but the quick time events in Isolation when interacting with tech in the game are incredibly satisfying, tangible and weighty, and some of my favourite moments in the game. It’s true – I’m being deadly serious. Removing a heavy door clamp, pulling door release levers, charging generators, diverting power switches or hoisting out and priming nuclear cores all feel like appropriately stiff and bulky manoeuvres on your controller, ones that feel ever so appropriate in the Alien universe. They make navigating the Sevastopol a real joy, with each new door panel to cut open and bulky 1970’s style computer terminal to hack genuinely feels like you could be doing it yourself. It’s incredibly immersive, and attention to such minute and mundane operations like these really provide a fantastic contrast to the really stressful and horrific moments when everything is kicking off.

Pulled Lever

What tops off all these lovely interactive sequences is that the entirety of the Sevastopol is explorable throughout the vast majority of the game. It’s essentially a deep space version of Spenser Mansion castle, only much bigger, with a nightmarish alien stalking your every move, and murderous androids in the place of zombies. New tools that you acquire along the way, such as improved blowtorches and higher clearance hacking devices allow you to access new parts of the station, and completing the on-going objectives will usually unlock new areas for you to explore as well.

Windows

This is a great move, as it allows you at pretty much any point to return to a previously explored area to pick up any supplies you may have missed on your first go through, get to a hidden secret spot you might have clocked earlier or to try and find a safer alternative path to your next objective. As a result, there’s no level structure as such when playing, just different missions and objectives to carry out as you progress through the game. The interconnectivity and permanence of the various structures and departments of the Sevastopol really help to give the station a concrete and realistic sense of place.

What’s more, just because you’ve ‘beaten’ or completed an area doesn’t mean that it’s safe. Upon returning to a previously explored location, you might now find that a bunch of scared humans are hiding out there, the Working Joes might be doing routine patrols through there at the time, and you can bet your bottom dollar that your friendly neighbourhood Xeno is never too far away, only too happy to scuttle out of an overhead vent to give you an impromptu cuddle. You can never afford to relax or drop your guard, even in familiar or previously safe spots.

Hug

Frighteningly, that also includes whilst in those satisfying interactions with items and doors in the environment. In a lot of other horror games, you are often typically granted a temporary period of invulnerability when performing mandatory actions or activating gameplay specific objects, such as opening doors or activating a save point. These features are so ingrained into some games that it’s really easy to take them for granted without realising it, and it can actually be really hard to recognise them after a while.

In fact, quite often, these transitionary moments can usually be exploited to the player’s advantage in a lot of cases; in Resident Evil: Revelations for example, you can often temporarily avoid a multi-tentacled blow to Jill Valentine’s face by quickly opening a nearby door, as you are briefly invincible throughout the door opening animation. We are so accustomed as players to assuming we’re safe when performing the more ‘gamey’ parts of a title, that it takes a game like Isolation to tear down some of these long held adages we hold to be true and shred them to pieces.

While Ms. Valentine can use doors to grant herself temporal invulnerability, there’s no such luck for Amanda on the Sevastopol. Your constant vulnerability as Amanda Ripley is absolutely one of Alien: Isolation‘s many great strengths. You can be killed at any time when trying to navigate the Sevastopol, and you have to be constantly on your guard.

Door Hack

For example, at various points in your sneaking around the nightmarish Sevastopol, you’ll need to cut open door and vent panels with your blowtorch, and hack door keypad algorithms with your hack tool, often while a very real and physical threat is extremely close by. Tracing a cutting outline through a door panel with your blow torch or matching a basic sequence of 8-bit blocky symbols feel like overly simplistic minigames on their own, but when the alien or another threat is nigh, these activities can quickly start to feel like fiendish SAW traps of terror, particularly when you know you have to get that next door open RIGHT FUCKING NOW, or face another deadly disembowelling from behind. It’s a painfully futile and desperate exercise in trying to keep calm under pressure, and the adrenaline rush when you manage to just escape the snapping double jaws of death once again is unbelievably satisfying.

It’s An Animal. Animals Are Afraid Of Fire…

Flamethrower

Though Amanda does acquire a fair selection of tools and weapons over the course of the game (in addition to the devices and gizmos that she rustles up on the fly), you’ll still feel vulnerable and defenceless for the most part. Whilst wielding weaponry is certainly a valid and sometimes necessary option at certain points, firing off a gun or using a device usually brings the alien down on your head faster than you can say “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

It’ll also be even faster than you can say “OH FUCK!”

Having no substantial firearms or ammo in the early portions of the game, and ultimately nothing close to hand that can take the alien out of action for good is a really inspired design choice, and one that’s not often explored in the Alien universe; one that’s well known for its muscly hardass marines with fancy pulse rifles tactical smartguns and an unlimited well of gruff gung-ho bravado.

Whilst there are some traditional shooter sections and various firearms that gradually become available to you as you progress through the game (my personal favourite being a meaty bolt gun which is perfect for scalping Working Joes), you quickly learn that combat really isn’t a viable option if you want to survive for longer than five minutes. Five minutes is being quite generous actually; I found that firing my revolver would dramatically reduce my life expectancy to about minus thirty seconds and counting.

This isn’t necessarily a problem when trying to sneak past a rag-tag bunch of humans, or slink past the Xeno as silently as possible, but when you’re directly confronted by a human or synth aggressor when the alien is also nearby, you’re faced with a tricky dilemma. Do you try and attempt to gun down the killable enemies first and try to hide before the alien arrives, or is it better to make a break for it and hope you’re not detected by either party?

Whilst playing stealthily is nearly always the best option no matter the threat you’re faced with, there are sometimes choice opportunities to play the different enemies off against each other, which is both amusing and really helpful to your cause. Fling a noisemaker into a pack of humans and get ready to watch the blood fly as the alien takes them out for you; it’s a dog eat dog (or should that be Xeno eat dog?) world on the Sevastopol.

The main gamechanger that happens in the weaponry department comes when you acquire the flamethrower, whereby the game shifts the balance of power quite significantly more in your favour. Perhaps, just a little too much in your favour. With the flamethrower in your possession, you stand a significantly better chance of surviving the wickedly cunning AI’s antics than before. Delivering short quick bursts of flame to its shiny domed head will often stop the alien in its tracks, usually forcing it to rapidly leave the area via a nearby vent post-haste, allowing you to be a tad more confident as you make your way through the Sevastopol. In fact, if you’re feeling confident and provided you’ve got plenty of fuel and know what you’re doing, then you can actually confront the alien in a restricted sense; rather than skulking around in the shadows, you can brazenly spray your way down a corridor, spurting a fiery onslaught of justice at your interloper if she decides to get too close.

Flamed Alien

Thus, your relationship with the alien becomes less one of predator and helpless prey, and almost equal adversaries. Almost being the crucial word. Flamethrower ammo is sufficiently scarce throughout the game however, so even though wielding the flamethrower can feel like you’ve been granted alien immunity at times, it’s often a fleeting feeling, and the weapon feels much more like a desperate last line of defence in your limited arsenal rather than an out and out weapon as it were. Plus, when you do give the alien a taste of its own medicine in the form of a fuck-you-flambé, it’ll only encourage it to come back and search for you, even more diligently and pissed off than before. Like with the other weapons, having to actually use the flamethrower is nearly always bad news, and something you don’t throw around lightly unless you really have to.

This Is Ripley…Signing Off

HeadbiteSo, after all these pages and pages of verbal gushing from me, it really must be a perfect organism in my opinion then eh?

Well…not quite. The slight gripe that I had with the game was that it can feel a tad too long at times – which personally feels like a stupid point to raise I have to say, but to be fair, it is quite a long sustained ride that you’re in for – my own first playthrough clocked in at about twenty five hours in total. With many games being released these days with story modes that can be finished in a few quick hours, or ones that have entirely jettisoned their story elements altogether in favour of multiplayer mayhem, what’s wrong with a game that relishes telling a longer and more substantial story then you might well ask?

Well, perhaps it’s not particularly the length of the game as such, but rather the pacing of it. Generally, I thought that the game was in fact, paced extremely well. Threats are introduced gradually at first; allowing you to get a feel for each attacker’s modus operandi, before terrifying combinations of human, machine and alien are thrown at you all at once.

Unfortunately, not all of those twenty to thirty hours you’ll spend in Isolation are as thrilling and intense as your early ones. Some sections really drag on for quite a bit, and things can’t help but start to feel quite bloated after a while. In particular, what doesn’t help is the fact that the game reaches an intense climax approximately halfway through, and then there’s subsequently a rather woolly period in the middle in which the alien isn’t a threat for an extended period of time. The atmosphere becomes tense in other ways, but, as you might imagine for a game that’s named after said alien, that things just aren’t quite as gut-churningly stressful without ol’ two jaws stalking you throughout the dark catacombs of the Sevastopol. As entertaining and tense as it is to sneak past just humans and Working Joes for a while, they don’t have a comparable onscreen presence, or elicit anything near the same panic response in the player that the alien does.

Joe Attack

Thankfully, like a ripened Chest-Burster tearing through the fleshy fibres of John Hurt’s chest cavity, your deadly nemesis does burst back onto the scene eventually. I naturally don’t want to go into spoilers here of course, but I will say that fans of Ridley Scott’s original Alien Directors’ Cut may have a good idea of just how far things head south in the later stages of the game.

Combine these pacing issues with the game’s brutal difficulty, and it’s the sort of thing that I can imagine could quite quickly feel like an overwhelming and frustrating obstacle to a lot of players. As you will die over and over again, even on subsequent playthroughs, the game can leave you feeling exasperated when you’re first getting used to everything and learning the rules. Having to replay the same fifteen to twenty minute (if not longer) segment of gameplay over and over again if you’re killed before getting to that crucial save point once again can really sap the tension out of that particular segment.

Shooting Working Joe

What’s more is that despite the long campaign run-time, and the many MANY violent deaths you’ll have experienced along the way, the game unfortunately doesn’t do a great job of tying things up narratively at the end. It unfortunately feels like another classic case of sequel baiting; something directly out of the Colonial Marines playbook if I’m being honest. Rather than a satisfying self-contained ending, you’re left with an annoying ‘to be continued’ sort of ellipsis. Whilst I’m pleased that this hopefully means that Creative Assembly are keen to develop a sequel, it is regrettably a bit of an anti-climax to say the least after what was an exhilarating rollercoaster ride of a game.

Ripley Front

However, as a big fan of the Alien universe and the entire experience of Isolation as a horror simulator (can you tell I enjoyed the game an awful lot yet?), I saw the long length of the game as nothing but a positive thing in my eyes myself. You got the impression that Creative Assembly were allowed to write and design their Isolation story exactly how they wanted it to be, with little external pressure or interference from publisher SEGA or 20th Century Fox to make cuts or alterations to their creative vision – which is such a rare and unheard of thing in this industry.

There’s even a delightful bit of extra story fan service included about halfway through the game, that mimics a particular early section of Ridley Scott’s 1979 film (and one of his later ones as well, wink wink), which isn’t necessarily essential to the main gameplay, it nonetheless is a nice touch for fans of the Alien franchise.

The game’s story never feels rushed or condensed, and I found that the longer than usual playtime allowed the plot to unfold naturally, and feel significantly less ‘gamified’ than similar titles I’ve recently played. Apart from the clipped off ending, I found the game’s long length to be an extremely refreshing change; it’s so nice to play a dedicated singleplayer experience, particularly in this era of bolted-on always online multiplayer modes.

So, to conclude, the twenty-five hours it roughly took me to do my first playthrough was such an extremely enjoyable marathon of simultaneous fun, frights and stress that I’ll never forget, and one that I’ll deeply treasure and hold up as a benchmark for future survival horror titles I’ll get my greasy mitts on.

Anyway, this is Tom…the last survivor of Alien: Isolation…signing off.

Puppet Punch – Review

Title Screen
Standard

(Reviewed on iPad)

Punch Drunk

Do you like puppets? Do you like punching? Most importantly, do you like punching puppets repeatedly until they shatter into pieces? If the answer to these three questions is a firm yes, then you might well want to give Puppet Punch a look; it’s a free-to-play iOS game by developer Mech Mocha which is out now on the Apple App Store.

However, while Puppet Punch has satisfying mechanics and inspired art style which are interesting and intriguing at first, unfortunately, the game is let down by repetitive shallow gameplay loops, continuous advert interruptions and a design which, in my opinion, relies a little too heavily on microtransaction support. It’s a solid game, but one that’s let down by questionable design choices and, crucially, one that lacks that vital addictive gameplay left-hook to keep you wanting to punch on.

Pablo: First Wood

Punch and Judy

Puppet Punch is styled as a cartoony puppet theatre-themed action game; our puppet-punching pugilistic protagonist Pablo has to beat down all manner of cartoonishly demonic puppets swooping down and chucking things at him from the theatre’s roof and wings. The aim of the game is simple – batter whatever’s dropping down onto Pablo’s head by tapping on the screen to control Pablo’s flying fists of fury.

Puppet Punch’s touchscreen controls feel particularly tight and well designed – which for a game based around the concept of punching rapidly descending wooden assailants, is certainly a good thing. Punching attacks feel fast, accurate and snappy; tap anywhere on the screen and Pablo will send one of his elastic boxing glove-clad limbs hurtling towards the spot immediately with no discernable lag or delay. The onscreen action is cartoonish and satisfying, and the punch effects and that ever-so satisfying wooden crunch that accompanies your fist smashing through another fragile puppet body is always very pleasing.

Punch

There’s also some basic but slightly more involved tweaks on the basic punching formula introduced early on as well; punching enemies with a spiky shield will damage you, and you have to wait for these to disappear first before hurtling your fists of fury at them. In addition, various power ups will rain down from time to time – punching these will temporarily grant Pablo special abilities, such as invulnerable golden gloves or score multiplying ones, or trigger extra money bags to whirl around the screen for a brief period.

Although the satisfying control and feedback of the punch attacks are absolutely the game’s strength, Puppet Punch’s art direction is also worthy of mention. The art style and character animations all have a great deal of charm to them, and this simplistic visual aesthetic definitely sets it apart from Puppet Punch’s peers despite feeling a bit on the twee side at times.

The game’s essentially an endless puncher – there are no levels per se, but instead each round is themed around a different cultural identity and theme. Each round has a backdrop which is themed to a different region – Europe, Japan or India. These backdrops present various scenes of castles and landscapes from Japan, India and Europe, and each backdrop comes with its own corresponding set of puppets to bash – i.e. you fight Punch and Judy puppets on the European rounds, whilst Asian dragons and demons make up your attackers on the Japanese ones etc.

Octoboss

As a nice end of round climax, a boss puppet will appear for you to engage in gentlemanly fisticuffs with. These are particularly cool looking, and again themed to each stage’s geographical theme. The two I’ve seen are either a multi-headed Hydra-like dragon, or a spider/octopus hybrid, each having their own slightly different attack patterns and move telegraphs to learn.

 Punching Below Its Weight

Spike Punch

Cool, so the punching mechanic is well tuned, and the game looks nice too, the enemies and backdrops are interestingly themed, and there’s frequent boss battles to break up each round. What’s not to like?

Well, although the game is definitely fun, it’s simple design means that you will get tired of it quite quickly. It’s a solid physical action take on the endless runner genre – an endless puncher if you will – but it crucially lacks that addictive ‘just one more go’ quality that make games such as Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride so moreish. Within only a few minutes of play, I personally felt that I’d seen pretty much all the game had to offer, and after several hours of playing, there still just wasn’t enough here to hook me and keep me coming back for another go.

Perhaps the reason for that was because the game doesn’t particularly convey how you’re progressing very well, and when you do get to grips with the progression system, it feels really unsatisfying, and largely slanted towards making microtransaction payments to progress.

What at first looks like a numbered level or world map is actually just the upgrade/ranking tree, and unfortunately it operates in a frustrating way. Here’s how it works; when playing Puppet Punch, you will earn XP, coins (the in-game currency) and, very rarely, ‘Mechs’ (the game’s hard to come by secondary currency, which is more or less only obtainable by paying real world cash, or watching a plethora of ads).

XP Cap

You earn XP naturally as you play, but unfortunately no matter how much you earn it feels rather meaningless, as the problem is that even if you hit the required XP cap, you can’t level up without first completing three specific mission objectives. These are usually something like ‘destroy X number of puppets with Y’ or ‘use power up X on boss Y, Z number of times’. However, unlike say Temple Run, or Jetpack Joyride, where the mission objectives function as bonus incentives for the player to aim for as supplementary rewards, the missions in Puppet Punch are essential to levelling up and making progress, which makes them feel like chores.

Mission Skip

Plus, what’s more, unlike other titles, these can only be skipped by using Mechs/real cash, which can leave you totally ground to a halt if you don’t want to open your wallet to progress. Frustrating to say the least.

Collect All Parts

Collect all the parts…but…

When you actually have got all the required XP and completed the rank missions, that should be it right? Wrong. You actually just unlock the opportunity to buy the upgrade, which after what can be quite a long slog feels incredibly disappointing. These upgrades nearly always seem to require a hefty number of Mechs to unlock, so unless you’re willing to fork out some real world moolah, then you actually can’t access those previous rewards you’ve been working towards.

What’s incredible is that even if you’re lucky enough to win a power up’s constituent parts on the dodgy wheel of fortune, then you still have to buy the power up – even though you have all the parts! There’s this constant feeling that the game is always changing the goalposts while you’re playing, which just feels unfair, and it quickly eroded any determination I had to keep chasing further mission rewards.

Fire Punch

…once you do have them all, you still have to unlock the power up by paying for it with Mechs or Coins – the wheel of fortune and parts system feel practically pointless as a result.

While you can earn more Mechs by completing achievements and chain-watching advertisements, the payout is usually paltry in comparison to the effort and time required to complete the usually ridiculously long-term achievement requirements, and sitting through ad after ad to get a single Mech each time, it just feels unbearably dull. In other words, if you aren’t inclined to open your wallet to Puppet Punch, it’s going to quickly start feeling like you’re not going anywhere…fast.

What’s more, when you do go up a rank, earn the ability to unlock upgrade power up and, finally, purchase it with your hard-earned Mechs, you discover that they are all pretty much one-off temporary boosts. While these boosts are undeniably helpful – such as flame shields to protect Pablo from all attacks for a limited period of time, and blasts which clear all current enemies offscreen – as they are in limited supply and tied directly into the game’s microtransaction system, they just feel like unsatisfying add-ons. You never really earn anything permanent or get new abilities which offer an interesting new spin on the standard punching gameplay.

Bullet Bamm

Having said that, there is one exception to this; you can unlock a special gun hat power up – known as a Bullet Bamm – which adds some new swipe-gestured controlled projectile attacks to Pablo’s standard punching repertoire. In fact, these swipe controls are so much more comfortable on your hands in comparison to having to repeatedly hammer on the screen with your fingers to punch, that it’s a shame that shooting the puppets isn’t the main gameplay mechanic. Nevertheless, even though the Bullet Bamm changes up the formula somewhat, it doesn’t really invigorate things to a massive degree.

Anxious Punch

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the game is the fact that although the various puppet enemies are interesting visually and nicely themed to each stage, as they are all just reskins of the same core enemy types you’re essentially just punching away at the same enemies each and every round. The Indian puppets have the same attacks, moves and telegraphs as the European and Japanese ones. With only a couple of different basic enemy types in each round, they quickly become a bit of a blur after a short while.

Boss Punch

It’s the same situation with the boss puppets. Likewise with the standard puppets, there’s not much strategy to fighting these bosses – you just need to rapidly punch them as fast as possible when their shields are down. Over multiple plays, they quickly become more of an irritating nuisance to have to deal with rather than being a fun challenge. Like with the standard enemies, you’ll grow tired of the boss characters just as rapidly.

Unless you’re exceptionally good at the game, or you have deep enough pockets to keep shelling out for more Mechs to buy another continue, then it’s hard to make it past the early rounds without having to resort to spending Mechs and real world cash. Pablo has five heart bars that represent his health, and although you do earn back a heart for every round successfully completed, and your first continue is free (providing you watch yet another advertisement) I personally found it hard to make it past the first few rounds before getting a game over.

Speaking of deaths and game overs, you have to watch an advert if you want to continue after dying, and then after that you have to pay Mechs to keep going.

You have to watch so many ads if you want to keep playing without spending money that it quickly becomes tedious, intrusive and detrimental to the experience. You’re essentially just playing the same stages and fighting the same enemies over and over again for as long as you (or your wallet) can bear.

Looking up at the distant upper echelons of the upgrade progression tree, it’s possible to unlock new backdrops to play on, but from the game’s slow rate of progress, it looks like it would take forever to unlock them without paying cold hard cash, and even though the backdrops are nicely designed, I doubt it’s worth toiling away for them. You just keep going until you die, but as the game feels pretty much the same whether you’re on the first round or the third, there doesn’t feel like much point to continuing after a while.

Punching Out

You Gave Up

Puppet Punch has some really cool things going for it, unfortunately, it’s severely hampered by some pretty big problems. Perhaps if there was less of a focus on microtransactions and pop-up advertisements, and more variety to the levels, enemies and gameplay, then this could have been much more special and unique. It’s a shame, because for all its cheery colourful charm and tight controls, it ends up feeling like just another pay-to-win grindfest. It’s fun, but either your time and patience will take a battering on the ropes whilst you play, or your wallet – you decide which.