The Surge – You got robots in my Dark Souls!

Robo-Souls? Dark-Bots?

Have I mentioned that I like Dark Souls?  I’m pretty sure I’ve said I like Dark Souls on at least 804 separate occasions on this blog.  Which is impressive considering I haven’t posted that many times.  That’s one of the reasons why I eagerly picked up Deck 13’s Lords of the Fallen when it was released in late 2014.  And whilst it certainly had a lot of similarities (read: had no identity of its own), it was unpolished and bland.  Since then they’ve…well they’ve not done much.  Anyone heard of TransOcean 2: Rivals?  But they have attempted to return to the Souls-like sub-genre with The Surge, and I’ll be damned if they haven’t made a pretty damn good go of it this time.

The Surge really is sci-fi Souls with a couple of little twists.  The combat system is similar with a couple of additions, scrap is used for leveling up and is handled in a similar way to souls, and equipment is improved by gathering the necessary resources and enhancing it at your bonfire equivalent.  Whilst it may not be terribly original in mechanics, it does just enough to differentiate itself from its source material.

The Surge
Unlike Dark Souls, you can find audiologs (because you gotta have those collectibles) that fill in some of the lore.

You play as Warren, arriving at his first day of his new job at Creo, a (totally not evil) company with plans to save the Earth’s atmosphere, where he will be fitted with a powered exo-skeleton (think power loaders from Aliens if you like).  The intro played with my character expectations nicely, although Warren’s apparent reason for wanting an exo-suit isn’t referenced again until the end of the game.  Anyway, Warren gets fitted for his suit (in a somewhat harrowing scene) but his neural interface that connects him to Creo fails and he is cast out on the (literal) scrap heap to fend for himself.  It seems that the neural interface has screwed up a lot of people in their exo-suits, sending them utterly insane and causing them to attack anyone who isn’t connected.  And so Warren is sent to find his way to the centre of Creo to find out what’s going on and to try to stop it.

The Surge
Most of the enemies shamble towards you before striking, but some will charge you down with surprising speed.

Even the plot plays out in a Dark Souls fashion, with snippets of information passed on by NPCs (many of whom have little side quests) that don’t give too much away.  The movement and combat mechanics are also very similar, with dodges, blocking attacks and running consuming stamina that regenerates over a short time.  Combat is very slow and deliberate, with committing to an attack at the right moment being crucial lest you suffer an enormous amount of damage from a single strike.  Weapons come in an array of shapes and sizes to suit your taste, from quick two handed weapons to slow, powerful hammers.  My personal favourite ended up being the staves (bit thanks to Drakulus for suggesting them to me!) for their ability to stagger enemies and knock them off their feet.  Armour also comes in lighter and heavier varieties that will alter your damage and stamina consumption in various ways.

The Surge
Whatever’s behind this door is bound to be friendly.

So far, so Souls.  But the selling point here is how you acquire new weapons and armour.  During combat you can target specific limbs of the enemy, and each hit fills an energy bar.  Once a certain amount of damage is done and you have enough energy, you can perform a finisher that will sever the selected limb and unlock the armour attached to it for your own use.  This is also how you gain resources to upgrade those armour pieces.  It’s an interesting approach that forces you to not hit too hard lest you kill the enemy and lose the equipment you wanted.  The energy bar also allows you to use certain buffs as well as your drone to attack opponents from range.  It’s an additional meter to manage, but its addition is an interesting one, as it drains very quickly when you aren’t attacking thus promoting an aggressive style of play more akin to Bloodborne.  A thumbs up from me on this addition.

The Surge
The finishing moves that sever limbs look impressive and are pretty quick so tend not to get old quickly.

Scrap, your souls equivalent, is collected by killing enemies and lost upon your death.  Like in Souls, you can reclaim them by finding your body, only this time you have a time limit to reach it.  Killing enemies on the way extends this time limit, but I rarely found myself running out of time.  These are used to create and upgrade equipment as well as level up your power core.  Rather than level up specific stats, this allows you to plug in more powerful augments to define your character.  The augments you can install are limited by your total level/power, meaning you can’t just jam in all the most powerful ones.  You may only be able to afford a few low level ones or one high level one and this creates an interesting balancing act.  You probably want some healing items to take with you, but that means you may not have enough power to install an upgrade for your stamina.  Each augment will increase in effectiveness (up to a limit) based on your over all core power so you can still get a decent buff from weaker options.  I really like this feature.  Not only does it force you to make some difficult choices, but it also allows you to completely respec whenever you return to the Medbay (your bonfire equivalent) as you can slot augments in and out as you see fit.

The Surge
These ones killed me so many times. I found the standard enemies more challenging than the bosses at times.

The environments suit the game well, but after the opening area (a gorgeous, open scrapyard area) it becomes little more than industrial areas with a slightly different colour scheme.  There are a couple of nice changes towards the end, but on the whole the game was rather stuck with what it could offer.  It does allow for some rather tense moments journeying through tight, dimly-lit corridors in which an enemy with a flame thrower could ruin your day at any moment.  These corridors often act as shortcuts that lead back to the Medbay when needed most which is a good thing considering how large some of the areas are.

The Surge
Get used to these sort of environments. Sci-Fi games can suffer from this, as there are only so many ways to do “industrial” locations.

Enemies aren’t hugely varied, with many of them being people in suits of lighter or heavier armour, wielding one weapon or another.  The occasional ranged drone or annoying pouncing walker will show up, but for the most part you’ll be fighting the same few enemies until the final area.  The showpieces are the bosses of course, of which there are 4 (5 if you count an upgraded form of one of the ordinary enemies).  Whilst these certainly look interesting, they aren’t all that challenging.  In fact, I managed to defeat 3 of the 5 (including the final boss) on my first attempt which was a little disappointing.  I get the feeling that The Surge wanted the journey to the boss to be the big challenge, as I died during my exploration of areas far more.  Sometimes these deaths felt a little cheap as I would dodge back and end up passing through barriers and falling to my death.  These little moments indicate that this is a little less than polished in places which is a pity.

The Surge
Some of the bosses have impressive scale, but they really aren’t all that challenging compared to the series it tried to imitate.

However!  I enjoyed The Surge rather a lot.  It may be a little bland in places and lacks the polish of its source material, but it really did scratch that Dark Souls itch for me.  The change from light and heavy attacks to horizontal and vertical strikes forces you to learn the best move to use to damage each body parts and the overall combat feels weighty.  Whilst this isn’t one I’m going to be rushing back to straight away, it certainly is an adventure I enjoyed for its 20 or so hours.

The Surge was developed by Deck13 and published by Focus Home Interactive.  I played the game on Xbox One and would recommend it lovers of Dark Souls and their ilk.  Whilst unpolished, it provides good, tense fun throughout its campaign.  Well played Deck13!

Injustice 2 – Stop Batman’s Murder Spree!

Batman seriously needs to cut out all that murder.

Look, even if we pretend Batman vs. Superman didn’t exist (and a lot of people would like to), Batman has been killing for a long, long time.  I’m sure he justifies it to himself:  “The fall killed him, not me.”  “He died of electrocution!  I didn’t make the electricity!”  “The Batmobile was on autopilot.  Not my fault!”  Can someone do something about it?  Does he need a therapist to deal with his serious denial issues?  Probably.  But that’s not what we’re here for.

Injustice 2
I found Harley Quinn to be my character of choice. Here she is shooting a gorilla.

Injustice 2 is the follow up to 2013’s rather good fighter: Injustice.  On an alternate Earth Superman was tricked by The Joker into killing Lois Lane and setting off a bomb, killing millions in Metropolis.  Superman kills The Joker in his rage, and decides that he will rule Earth with a regime of his creation, filled with other superheroes.  Batman, amongst others, manage to take him down and lock him away, thus saving the world.  Enter Injustice 2, in which Brainiac has come to wipe out the last Kryptonians as well as Earth.  Batman and co. try to stop him, but it quickly becomes apparent that the only one who may be able to best Brainiac may be the imprisoned Superman.

Injustice 2
Superman activating his character power to gain extra damage. Don’t worry though, I’m sure Batman will just murder him.

Normally story in fighting games isn’t really important, but NetherRealm have continued their tradition of crafting a well put together story, with excellent cutscenes and a chance to play as a large variety of characters.  Occasionally you can select between two characters and it even includes multiple (well, two) endings.  A single playthrough takes around 5-6 hours, and feels like a good length for the story it tells.  I enjoyed the campaign a great deal and got a good feel for which characters would work well for me (I settled for Harley Quinn).

Injustice 3
The cutscenes look great in most situations.

Beyond the campaign, there are the usual training and single fight options for the solo player.  There’s also the excellent Multiverse mode that provides different challenges every few hours meaning there’s always something new to try.  Perhaps there’ll be bombs falling from the sky, or the level will undulate, or maybe the whole stage will be upside down.  Not all of them are hits, but they’re all different and keep things fresh.  On the multiplayer front, there’s local and online as you’d expect.  There’s also an AI battle mode in which you select a team to take on another player’s AI team.  It’s a nice distraction that helps you unlock items, but it doesn’t really add much.

Injustice 2
Batman shooting people with machine guns. Did Zack Snyder direct this?

Items!  As you play, you’ll gain boxes that contain gear and colour schemes for your heroes.  Many of these have benefits to your character, from increased health and attack, to specific effects such as increased ranged damage.  This was a nice addition in the Multiverse mode, but in online matches (Player matches anyway, I didn’t notice it in Ranked) it becomes a little irritating.  Whilst this option can be turned off, most online players use this gear, meaning you can easily end up against someone with a more powerful character than you.  Also irritating is the fact that the boxes are seemingly random, meaning there’s not guarantee that you’ll get any items for a character you like.  Whilst it does encourage you to look into other characters, it can be frustrating to open 5 boxes and find not a single useful item for your level 18 character.

Injustice 2
The background often contains weapons, such as this crocodile…

The controls are as you’d expect for a fighter, with light, medium and heavy attacks, as well as a character specific ability.  I like the character abilities, as they play into each personality.  Green Lantern powers up his ring, Supergirl fires lasers from her eyes, whilst Aquaman can form a water shield to slip out of combos.  Special moves can be powered up by spending meter earned from fighting.  Meter can also be used in a Clash, which is one way of breaking out of a combo.  Players will bet chunks of their meter, with the one spending the most gaining an advantage.  Super moves can be carried out by hitting both triggers when you have a full meter which involve a brief cutscene of the attack that look excellent but can become tiresome after you’ve seen them a few times.  Also, Batman’s involves the Batwing firing missiles at his opponent.  How is he not murdering people with this?!  Robin doesn’t even have super powers!

Injustice 2
Superman getting his own back after being bullied by Batman for so long.

Speaking of how things look, this game looks beautiful.  The characters are fantastically well animated with lots of incidental detail, even when they aren’t the focus of attention.  The animation quality carries through into battle as you might expect, with moves looking fluid whether in the air or on the ground.  Apparently some of the animations are recycled from Mortal Kombat X (well done to Drakulus, Cheap Boss Attack, and Counter Attack on the CA Podcast for spotting that) which is a little disappointing.  It makes sense as they are basically the same fighting system, but it would have been nice if it had been all new.

Injustice 2
The Joker looks surprisingly spry considering he’s supposed to have died. Mind you, this is comic books were talking about.

The sound is also excellent, with great voice acting throughout.  The battles open with the two competitors threatening each other, and these change based on who is involved.  This also happens with Clashes, and it comes across as excellent attention to detail when Batman says something different when he’s fighting The Joker or Cyborg.  It certainly helps make the battles more dramatic and helps maintain that comic book style.  The music is…present.  I didn’t really notice it a great deal, so read into that what you will.

Injustice 2
Superman looks angry. Probably annoyed about Batman keeping all the murdering to himself.

Overall, this is one hell of a package, with tons of content for solo or competitive players.  It looks and sounds great and above all it’s fun!  And when it comes to games, whether it’s fun is kind of important.  More than that though, the fights are satisfying, with weighty feeling attacks that can smash opponents through walls or damage the scenery.  It’s just a shame that the gear system felt a little weak at times.

Injustice 2 was developed by NetherRealm and published by Warner Bros.  I played the game on Xbox One and you recommend it to anyone that has an interest in fighting games.  It’s accessible enough to allow beginners to have fun (you should have seen us the first time we tried it!) but has enough depth to challenge veterans.  Give it a go.  Just don’t get on Batman’s bad side.

Halo Wars 2 – A full priced game with BS micro-transactions?! Sign me up!

I was a bit torn over whether to include this in the “Games I like” or “Games I didn’t like” category.  On the one hand, the campaign is pretty good and the core multiplayer isn’t too bad either.  On the other hand, Blitz mode is just flat out BS with poor matchmaking in which you can buy power and steamroll your opposition.  And that’s not just because I suck at it.  But more on that later!  Oh, and just so you know, I put it in both categories.

Halo Wars 2
Spartans are suitably tough and can pretty much hold their own against most enemies.

I didn’t play Halo Wars.  It just didn’t interest me at the time and I couldn’t see how an real time strategy (RTS) could work with a controller.  But here I am, many years later fancying an RTS that I can pick up and play quickly.  I’ve not really played much in the genre for a long time, so a light strategy game was right up my street, plus I quite like the Halo universe.  We play…someone who is ordering UNSC troops to fight the Banished, a offshoot of the Covenant, because they are bad and live on a space station.  I didn’t follow the story at all (maybe because I didn’t play the previous installment?) but the cutscenes were nice.  I’m not playing my RTS games for plot though!  I just want to order tanks to blow stuff up!

Halo Wars 2
It can get a little busy at times, but for the most part the controls help you keep it together.

The game controls surprisingly well with a controller, with button holds and presses selecting groups of local or global units and button shortcuts allowing you to move around the map quickly.  Pressing X will send your soldiers to an area (there is no attack-move here, characters auto attack en route) or to attack a target, whilst Y will activate the most suitable ability for your current group (take over a tank, throw grenades at infantry etc.) Selecting a building on your base opens a radial menu to build troops and buy abilities.  This was the weaker part for me as I struggled to tell the buildings apart at times, meaning building an anti-air vehicle in the heat of battle resulted in me moving around the different buildings until I found the garage.  That aside, it controls better than I expected.

Halo Wars 2 cut scene
The cutscenes are as cool as most of the ones you’d see in the previous Halo games.

The campaign is good fun, with 12 missions (don’t expect the campaign to last much longer than 8 hours) ranging from traditional building a base and attacking the enemy, to guiding a rag tag group of survivors through enemy territory.  The units are based in the Halo universe as you’d expect, with Scorpion tanks, Hunters, and Warthogs aplenty.  Combat works on a loose rock/paper/scissors system with vehicles beating infantry, infantry beating aircraft and aircraft beating vehicles.  There are variants on this, with some vehicles being anti air and so forth, so picking the right set of units for the job is essential.  Making sure your giving the right orders to the right set of units in the heat of battle can be tricky, so getting comfortable with button shortcuts and who-beats-what is important on higher difficulties.

Halo Wars 2
Hijacking a Scarab to level an enemy base is something of a highlight…

The core multiplayer is fairly good too, pitting players or teams of players against each other in a race to build their base and eliminate their opponents quickly, or a more slow paced objective driven mode such as Domination.  These modes were fine, and facing higher level opponents didn’t guarantee they were any tougher than you, often leading to a fair(ish) fight.  Blitz mode is a different matter though.

Halo Wars 2
…but fending them off can be pretty tough.

I should love Blitz mode.  An RTS with card game and deck building elements?  Yes please!  You play cards (using energy as a limited resource) to summon units or special abilities to capture and hold control points which earn you points to win.  In theory a good deck and smart resource management should lead to victory!  But here’s the thing, you can buy card packs (with real money of course) to get new cards.  In itself this isn’t such a problem, but duplicate cards will be leveled up making them more powerful (somewhat like Clash Royale, you know, that FREE to play game?) meaning that people who spend money will have more powerful cards.  Not only that, but as your account levels up, you are given free packs meaning that a higher level player will have a distinct advantage over a lower level one.

Halo Wars 2
Getting in close to the action means you can quickly recognise the characters from the series. I remember Hunters being far tougher though.

I’ve complained about micro-transactions in full priced games before.  I can understand it in free to play games, and I get selling cosmetics in full priced releases.  But as far as I’m concerned, you do not sell power in full priced multiplayer games.  It will harm your online community and drive away new players.  I played several Blitz matches and was regularly put up against players at least 20 levels higher than me, meaning they had objectively better cards.  No matter how you spin it, a level 4 tank will always beat a level 2 one.  The poor matchmaking and power selling card packs drove me away from this mode and very much soured me on my experience of this game.  It’s a pity, because the other aspects of the game are actually pretty good, but free to play business models have no place in full price titles.

Halo Wars 2
There’s a lot happening here! And this was just on Normal mode…

Halo Wars 2 was developed by 343i and Creative Assembly and published by Microsoft.  I played the game on Xbox One and would recommend some aspects of the game.  There’s a decent enough campaign and some fun to be had in the multiplayer.  But Blitz mode is a shambles because of how the card economy works.  If you do give it a try, consider yourself warned!

Yooka-Laylee – It’s not terrible!

Quick note, I backed this on Kickstarter.  Ok, that’s out of the way.  On with the proper words!

Colourful characters!  Pretty animations!  Jokes clearly aimed at grown-ups (such as a snake called Trowzer.  Trouser Snake. PENIS JOKE!)  No, it’s not the latest movie from Pixar, it’s Yooka-Laylee, the well publicised collect-a-thon revival from (most of) the people who made the genre what it is (was?), funded through Kickstarter.  The team is mostly comprised of people from Rare, those clever sods behind Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong Country and Conker’s Bad Fur Day.  Those games have something in common, and it’s not just that they’re very successful collect-a-thons.  They’re also from around 20 years ago…

Yooka Laylee
The first world you enter is bright and vibrant. Each environment is completely different to the last.
I’ll get this out of the way: Yooka-Laylee is far from perfect.  But it is fun in spite of the flaws it contains.  Most of those flaws are hangovers from the games that it is so clearly trying to imitate.  It’s great to play a game with the same gameplay style and sense of humour as those classics, but it’s not so great to be struggling with some of the same issues that those games suffered with.  It’s nostalgia without taking into account how gaming has evolved since the glory days of the genre.

Yooka Laylee
The characters look great, but the incredibly annoying sounds instead of voices means there is no lip syncing. It’s a shame as I think the animation here could have been excellent.
Anyway, we play as Yooka and Laylee, a heroic duo like so many others before them.  Their peaceful days beside their shipwreck they call home is spoiled when the local business start sucking up all the books in the area, including their special golden book they found in the shipwreck.  Of course, this book is the true target of the corporations scheme, as the One Book’s pages allow the owner to rewrite the universe!  During its theft however, the pages escape and are scattered throughout the business’ tower.  Cue our heroes leaping into action to find the pages and save the day from the dastardly Capital B!

Yooka Laylee
I don’t know why, but this boss’ utter hatred of double-glazing salesmen really gave me a good chuckle.
The story is all fluff really, although the characters in it are mostly fun to read the dialogue of.  The “voice acting” though is as it was in Banjo-Kazooie et al. with silly noises rather than actual words.  It made sense 20 years ago, but these days it made me want to skip all the dialogue (you can’t) just to avoid horrible sounds.  The characters are all unique in design and often poke fun at one thing or another.  Kartos the God of Ore (a mine kart), Shovel Knight (of Shovel Knight fame) and Trev the Tenteyecle (amongst others) all stand out as being quite different to each other and offer unique challenges in each world.

Yooka Laylee Glitterglaze Glacier
Obligatory ice level!
The worlds are contained in books hidden in the tower’s hub area (which is horrible to navigate due to poor signposting) and each one is quite different to the last.  From the bright forests of Tribalstack Tropics to the grimy swamp of Moodymaze Marsh, everything looks very distinct and fits within its environment.  The Marsh contains broken old shopping trolleys as characters whilst the casino has anthropomorphic slot machines.  These characters will give you tasks to earn more pages that will allow you to access and expand further worlds.  Ranging from simply completing a race against the clock to complex platforming puzzles and the occasional boss, there are plenty of different challenges to undertake, and its easy enough to find one to do in any given level.  Some are a bit irritating though, such as navigating slides using you roll skill (tough and a bit annoying) or using physics to guide a ball into a hole (unbelievably frustrating).  If you’re going for 100% completion, which is something a lot of people like to in collect-a-thons, be prepared to take the rough with the smooth.

Yooka Laylee Shovel Knight
Totally want this guy’s autograph.
Special mention must be made to the absolute ARSE of a final boss.  I’ve already mentioned that relying on old fashioned gaming tropes is pretty hit and miss here, but this was certainly a miss.  A multi-stage boss battle that lasts nearly 15 minutes, with easy early stages and very difficult final phases and NO CHECKPOINTS!  I cannot stress how annoying this was.  Unless you’re Dark Souls, put checkpoints in your multi-phase boss fights developers.  Don’t make me waste another 10 minutes redoing the early parts to get to where I screwed up last attempt.  Don’t waste my time!

Yooka Laylee
I’ll be honest, if I’d spent long in this area I’d probably have developed a headache.
The thing is, in spite of the silly design decisions, the often cheap humour, the final boss debacle and all the other nostalgia driven features that have been ironed out through years of progress in the industry, I still found myself having fun.  Perhaps it was a return to that childlike enjoyment of a brightly coloured environment, or each mini open world having mini challenges in them to find all the items.  Maybe I’m a closet kleptomaniac.  whatever it is, for me this game was fun in spite of the missteps.  I’d read the negative early reviews and expected utter toss, but I was pleasantly surprised to find an enjoyable experience.

Yooka Laylee
This was a rather cute find: Laylee’s (the bat) TV and arm chair on the ceiling.
Yooka-Laylee was developed by Playtonic Games and published by Team 17.  I played the game on Xbox One and would recommend it if you’re feeling nostalgic and don’t mind some of those old irritations still being present.  It’s far from perfect, but it’s nice to have an updated Banjo-Kazooie to play through, dodgy camera and all.

Nioh – Sadly not starring Keanu Reeves

It may have been established by now that I quite like Dark Souls.  A lot.  Also Bloodborne, which was like Dark Souls on Gothic meth.  The intricate, connected worlds, the strategic combat, the challenge, the enemies, the bosses.  Everything in those games comes together fantastically to create gaming experiences unlike others.  You know when a series has been successful when there are so many games that clearly take their inspiration from it.  Hyper Light Drifter, Salt and Sanctuary, and Lords of the Fallen all make use of mechanics and style of this young, but venerated series.  And here comes a new challenger: Nioh, otherwise known (perhaps unfairly) as Samurai Souls.

Nioh
Early areas in the Tower of London are mildly challenging, but nothing on what’s to come.

Nioh follows the supposed exploits of William, an Irishman who travels to 17th century Japan in pursuit of Kelley who has stolen his Guardian Spirit, Saoirse, so he can gain Amrita to release Yokai to ravage the country.  If that makes no sense to you then you’re in the same boat as me.  The plot is there, with plenty of cutscenes introducing you to various historical Japanese figures (if you’ve played the Warriors games you may recognise some), but I didn’t know what was going on at any point.  I suspect if you have some knowledge of Japanese mythology and history then you may follow it closer than I did.  Having said that, the Souls games had very convoluted plots (although they keep it more hidden) and are still very enjoyable.

Nioh
Pirate Cat is your friend throughout the game. I have no idea what the deal with this is.

They’re enjoyable because the gameplay is so well put together, and that’s very much the case here.  Combat against the humans and demons you face is quick, but requires thought.  You have light and heavy attacks for your weapons (of which there are a good few), but you also have stances.  Low, mid, and high stances give you different attacks that are suited for different opponents.  Mid stance spears are great for poking and keeping enemies at range, whilst high stance swords can destroy enemies rushing towards you if timed well.  There is a lot of depth here that allows you to find a style that suits you but gives you options when you need them.  I often stuck with a low stance sword but switched to high stance axe for enormous damage when needed.  Stamina management appears here too in the form of ki, but with ways to recover it during your combos with well timed button taps, allowing you to press the attack.

Nioh
The environments look great in most instances, with nice use of lighting and splashes of colour.

The enemies are varied, although there aren’t a huge number of them.  Standard grunts can still destroy you if you’re careless, but the powerful Yokai are the real challenge.  Axe wielding demons, tongue monsters, and bird men are all powerful foes that will take you out until you learn how to handle them effectively, it’s just a shame there aren’t more varieties.  The bosses are tremendous as you may expect, with spider demons and deadly samurai warriors providing a different challenge at the end of each stage.  The difficulty of them does vary rather wildly, with some of the early bosses being brutally difficult, whilst later ones I could defeat on my first attempt.  It may well be the case that I stuck to an approach that worked better for some bosses than others, but it didn feel like the difficulty spiked from time to time.  But the challenge is part of the point here, and just like Dark Souls, players can be summoned to assist you with bosses for some limited co-op action.  PVP is off the table for the time being though, being promised for a later update.

Nioh
How are you with giant spiders? Because they really want a hug.

Whilst the gameplay is tremendous, and kept me coming back for more side missions and main quests, the world was less engaging.  Characters didn’t really grab me, and the environments were quite bland.  There were only so many times I could fight demons in “Japanese village” or “cave” before the rot sets in.  The world looks lovely, but there was a lack of variety once again.  Further, most levels were fairly linear and lacked opportunities for exploration, although finding shortcuts back to your shrine (Nioh’s bonfire equivalent) was as satisfying as ever.  Another irritation was the amount of loot that enemies drop.  I found myself spending a lot of time rooting through my inventory, deciding what was worth keeping and what wasn’t.  And each item has so many different stats!  It’s hard to be sure if an item is objectively better or not.  Having said that, I did fine just looking at damage/defence and elemental effects, so it may be the case that there is a lot of depth for those looking for it, whilst those who want to play can get by just fine.  An accessible Souls style game!  Who would have imagined?

Nioh
This boss can sod right off. I mean, the design is fantastic, but I flat out hated this fight.  Because I sucked at it.

Nioh was developed by Team Ninja and published by Sony.  I played the game on PlayStation 4 and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys Souls games or challenging action RPGs.  I did every single side mission in this, not for loot or leveling up, but because I wanted more of the gameplay!  I’m normally a main story and some side quests kind of player, but I wanted more of the action in Nioh.  After 40+ hours of gameplay, I’d say I got my money’s worth.

Watch Dogs 2 – Surprisingly little time spent looking at dogs.

I have mentioned in the past my dislike for most open world games.  They often contain heaps of tedious filler, endless meaningless collectibles, and travel times that do little more than elongate the game.  I find this even more irritating in games of this style set in a facsimile of the real world due to it being even less likely to come across something unexpected or out of the ordinary.  So obviously I decided to pick up and play Watch Dogs 2, an open world game set in modern San Francisco.

Watch Dogs 2 City View
There’s a whole lot of city too explore. Thankfully it’s contents are mostly fun and the whole place can be navigated quickly right from the start.

I’d heard a lot of good things about this open world hacking game.  Things such as “It’s really fun with meaningful activities!” and “Don’t worry, it’s not as bland as the previous game.” (which seem like odd ways to form a compliment, but I digress). Eventually I caved and gave it a go, expecting to find the characters unlikable, the story uninteresting and the gameplay as generic as they come.  I was wrong on at least 2 of those counts, and as Meat Loaf says: 2 out of 3 ain’t bad.

Watch Dogs 2 car driving
The driving is fairly enjoyable with plenty of vehicles to choose from. The buses are not fun though, even less so when you have to drive one for a mission.

We play as Marcus, a young hacker breaking into the ctOS server farm to change his online presence so he isn’t profiled as a potential criminal based on his background.  I found this introduction and tutorial to be the weakest part of the game, I had no idea what was going on, how to play the game due to vague instructions, or why I should care about doing this.  But after this shaky start the game picks up rather quickly.  Marcus is inducted into Dedsec, an underground hacker group dedicated to bringing down companies who would abuse people’s online data for their own ends.  This is about as far as I got with the storyline before writing it off as “hackers gotta hack” and just decided to do the missions for the enjoyment rather than the plot.

Watch Dogs 2 Knight Rider Cutscene
I expected to hate the characters in this, but I actually found them to be likeable.

Thankfully, the missions are great.  Plenty of variety in mechanics, approaches and contexts meant I didn’t find myself becoming fed up of gunfights, driving tasks or stealth as in most cases there were plenty of viable options to approach a situation.  From racing a smart car stolen from a movie set to breaking into a spoof of Google I felt the tasks were mostly well paced from mission to mission.  There was the odd miss (driving a bus to pick up passengers was a pain) but for the most part they were well constructed.  This also stretched to the side missions which were mostly great fun, including ripping off a Martin Shkreli type and hacking ATM machines to give money to deserving people.  In spite of the mechanics being similar to the main missions, they were kept fresh by applying them to different contexts.

Watch Dogs 2 Zombie Mission
You can use a vision mode to scan the environment and see certain things through walls.

The game offers plenty of options for each mission which is excellent.  Sneaking through area whilst using you drones to unlock doors and mark threats is an option, but maybe you’d rather hack a police database and have someone nearby be marked as a criminal causing a police chase to distract everyone.  Maybe you could remotely control a fork lift to destroy a drug stash rather than have to fight your way to it yourself.  Or perhaps you could use Marcus’ free running skills to get on a nearby roof to scout the area out.  You can go in guns blazing, but I found this was at odds with the characters.  Straight up murder seemed a bit out of character for Marcus, although it does remain an option that isn’t penalised in any way greater than it would be in GTA or its ilk.  This is actually something I’m a fan of, as I tend to dislike GTA as a series due to not relating to the protagonist and finding them rather unpleasant.  Marcus and his cohorts are fun and seem to have something of a moral compass.  I wouldn’t mind if there was some sort of penalty of some kind for acting out of character and going on a killing spree.

Watch Dogs 2 Knight Rider Race
One of the early missions has you racing a knock off of the Knight Rider car through the city.

The graphics are rather good (with my wife at one point asking if I was playing Forza Horizon 3), with the environment looking mostly excellent apart from the occasional muddy texture when looking at buildings over a long distance.  Animations are also good or character models including some nice transitions from one animation to another.  I did come across the occasional glitch with characters floating in mid air, but this was very rare.  Sounds is fine, with the usual array of radio stations including a variety of genres (although it didn’t take long to start hearing the same songs) and well delivered voice acting lending the characters their own personality.  Seriously, the members of Dedsec are excellently written and acted and weren’t nearly as irritating as i expected them to be.

Watch Dogs 2 Martin Shkreli
Hacking people’s computers allows you to mess about with objects in their house to achieve different objectives.

The main story plus the major side missions took me about 20 hours to get through, but there was plenty left to find and do.  Whilst the bike and drone races didn’t interest me, they’re certainly a nice inclusion.  The ScoutX missions challenge you to find and take a selfie with certain landmarks around the city whilst hidden collectibles can be found to unlock more abilities (collectibles that serve a purpose?!) so there are a good variety of post game activities.  And I’ve not even mentioned the multiplayer features that allow you to co-op missions or invade another player’s world.  A good amount of varied content!

Watch Dogs 2 Hack the Planet
Just to make sure the game doesn’t aim too low, you can hack satellites.

Watch Dogs 2 was developed by Ubisoft Montreal and published by Ubisoft.  I played the game on XBox One and highly recommend it.  Once you get through the first hour you have an excellent game with a lot of fun content.  I’m not one for open world games so I may not be the best authority on the genre, but as a video game this is well worth a look.

Thumper – Because “Space beetle horror musical” is a genre now.

It has long been established that I like a good rhythm action game; a genre that hasn’t had many good releases recently.  I think most people know that I also like horror games, especially those that delve in the madness tinged Lovecraftian styles of terror.  I never once thought someone would consider making a horror themed rhythm action game though.  But here we are with Thumper, a game in which a space beetle flies through some sort of wormhole towards a giant head thing, whilst terrifyingly intense industrial orchestral music (at least that’s how I’d describe it) pounds in your ears.

I would describe this game as staring into Satan’s kaleidoscope during a bad acid trip whilst listening to a black metal version of Stomp.  Think of that what you will.

Thumper boss fight
One of many colourful explosions that happen during boss fights.

In its simplest form, the game plays like a very basic Amplitude clone.  The is one lane (sometimes more) that you fly along, and you press X when you fly over a note.  There are gates that you pass through by holding X, and corners that must be navigated by holding X and pressing a direction.  The whole game is played with the X button and the analogue stick.  So far, so simple.  But good god does this get difficult.  It wouldn’t be unfair to call this the Dark Souls of rhythm action.  You learn or you die.

Thumper Corner
This is what a power sliding space beetle looks like.

Each level introduces a new layer of gameplay.  Leaping up and slamming down on alternating notes, multiple lanes, and killer snakes.  This game is weird.  Anyway, by the end of the game, you’ll have to make use of all the maneuvers in rapid succession, without missing a single note whilst going absurdly fast.  Mechanically this game is near perfect in that regard.  It teaches you each new skill and than forces you learn how to use it flawlessly before you confront the boss.  And forces is the right word here; you either learn to use your skills perfectly or you will not progress.  This is not a simple undertaking.

Just to give you an idea of just how fast this game can be.  This is a pretty tame level too…

A level is broken up into about 20 sections, each of which taking between 30 seconds and a couple of minutes.  A whole level would probably take about 20 minutes to complete, but spending over an hour on one was closer to my experience.  The stages are extremely difficult, throwing corners, notes, walls and lane changes at you at ludicrous speeds testing first your reactions, and then your memory as you inevitably die.  All this whilst the pounding, intimidating soundtracks assaults your ears.  It’s an incredibly intense experience, made even more so when a boss appears.

Thumper boss
One of the bosses. You need to play a section flawlessly to damage them.

Bosses can only be defeated by playing a section perfectly, allowing you to fire a shot at the target.  Do this 4 times and it’s job done.  That’s easier said than done though, there’s a lot to memorise (and I mean memorise, you will die) coupled with the music and the boss taking up huge swathes of your view to confuse you and throw you off.  It never felt cheap though, as everything is in time to the music, meaning that mistakes are because you weren’t focused enough, or you forgot what was coming next.  The boss designs are interesting too, ranging from tentacle triangles to the recurring Crakhed who becomes more and more deformed and horrifying from level to level.  Oh, and in case it wasn’t hard enough, there’s a Hardcore mode where death is permanent.

Thumper Colourful
It can get pretty colourful at times.

Now, this game can be playing in VR.  In fact I assumed it could only be laying in VR until I did a little research.  I get the feeling that the game was pushed as a VR product to try and sell more units (especially on the PS4), but I don’t see what VR would really add to this.  Considering this is playing in 3rd person, I’d have though VR would be a rather odd experience.  As I understand it, it allows you to look around the environment as you’re traveling, but considering how focused you need to be I would think looking around would be a mistake.  Anyway, it works without VR very well.

Thumper
That tentacle monster is one of the bosses my space beetle needs to defeat. Yes, that is a real sentence.

Thumper looks gorgeous, with lots of interesting effects around the track and the aforementioned detailed bosses.  You probably won’t have a lot of time to enjoy the graphics as you’ll be concentrating on the rhythm, but it does look great.  It runs excellently as well, with no frame rate drops that I could notice.  The sound is fantastic as well (which makes sense considering the genre), but it isn’t just the music.  The sound effects work very well too.  The clang as you swing around a corner, the blast as you slam down onto a note to attack a boss, and the snakes hissing their was past you all sound great.  And the sound of drums heralding the arrival of one of the enemies constantly filled me with dread.  Seriously, that guy was a jerk.

Thumper Tunnel
Moments of calm like this far few and far between.

Thumper was developed by Drool, a two man team!  I played the game on Playstation 4 and would strongly recommend you at least check this out.  It’s a totally different gaming experience, just be prepared that you may not finish it due to its high difficulty.  An absolute treat!