Impressions | Call Of Duty: Vanguard (Open Beta)

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I don’t normally review betas of game, which is mostly because during the last couple of years betas have moved to being pre-order bonuses rather than actual open beta tests. However, the Call of Duty: Vanguard Open Beta surprised me, and not in a good way.

Firstly, I’ll give credit where its due. Vanguard does actually innovate beyond the typical COD gameplay thanks to its adjustable lobby size system (known as “Combat Pacing”). Instead of having specific small maps (or cut-down versions of maps) for 6v6 gameplay and large maps for big-team gameplay, each of the main maps can be played at different lobby sizes. Choosing the “Tactical” pacing creates a familiar 12-player (6v6) match, and the “Assault” pacing creates a 20-28 player match, while the “Blitz” pacing creates a match of between 28-48 players depending on the map. Players can choose to search just by mode, just by pace, or by mode and pace combined.

I think this idea is clever: firstly, it allows players to control how intense an experience they want in each individual gameplay session without fundamentally overhauling the entire game’s style and pace.. Secondly, most COD games contain specific maps that are overplayed due to their chaotic and often-mindless nature (such as Shipment or any version of Nuketown) and other maps that are ignored or rejected by the playerbase due to being more open or only supporting slower-paced modes. In theory, allowing these larger maps to exist in a busier form, and these smaller maps to exist in a slower form, could be a great solution to this issue.

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I finally finished… Forza Horizon 2

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I bought Forza Horizon 2 sometime in 2018, when its upcoming delisting from the MS store was announced. However, it then fell deep into the backlog. After playing Forza Horizon 4 and finding that I preferred the original Forza Horizon‘s smaller scope and slightly more grounded nature, I returned to FH2 in the hope that it would be closer to its predecessor than its sequels.

Where it counts – the driving and racing experience – FH2 makes an excellent first impression. Its six locations across the France/Italy border allow for more environmental variety than the original game’s Colorado-inspired setting, and the dynamic weather system that brings in night races and rainstorms further enhances the game’s visual appeal. FH2 also improves offroading, giving players more freedom to tear across the map, although its delineation between driveable and non-driveable offroad areas is inconsistent – the same type of tree can be breakable in one area but an impassable, skill-chain-destroying barrier in another area.

The blur here comes from the in-game photo mode, and is nowhere near this strong in regular gameplay.

FH2 contains the same varied event types and map extras as FH1, including drift zones, speed cameras, showcase events and smashable signs. In many ways it’s a great sequel – it iterates upon the successful mechanics of the original and also expands the vision of what the Horizon Festival concept could provide.

However, while I completed every single event of the orginal Forza Horizon, I was effectively done with FH2 by the time I reached 30% game completion. I appreciated Playground Games’ attempt to create a game that reached a defined conclusion fairly quickly for casual players yet also contained plenty of challenges, events, and collectibles for dedicated open-world completionists. Normally, that’s an approach I celebrate. But it just didn’t work too well for me in this case, mainly because of the clumsy way that Playground Games handled the story elements.

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Review | Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory

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Before I discuss Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, I should make clear that I am not its intended audience. I’ve never played a Kingdom Hearts game, I’ve never played a Final Fantasy game, and I’ve had the minimum exposure to Disney that someone born in the 90s can possibly have. As such, I can only play and review MoM as a rhythm game, not as a Kingdom Hearts game. (I will mention the story later, however, because long-term KH fans will need to pay attention to this game’s ending).

MoM can be summarised as a controller-based rhythm game that takes players through songs from previous KH games in chronological order, including other spin-off games. The World Tour campaign features 140 songs across around 100 stages, and each stage is based on a location from a KH game. (Barely any Final Fantasy characters appear in MoM; its focus is on the Disney and Kingdom Hearts characters).

One of the most intriguing parts of MoM is how it approaches the core rhythm game task of hitting notes. The game’s layout during the tutorial and the early Field Battle stages suggests that its controls will be simple. Notes travel down the screen in three lanes, while three buttons can carry out regular attacks, so at first it feels like one button per lane is the way to go: LB for the left lane, A for the middle, and RB for the right lane. This works… for early songs on Beginner difficulty. After that point, the other mechanics kick in and make MoM about more than just memorisation.

An in-game screenshot set inside the world of Mulan.
As this level is based on Mulan’s world, it features Mulan as a guest party member.

The middle lane isn’t just for hitting notes, but also for jumping (the B button), aerial hits (B then any attack), special attacks (Y) and gliding along aerial strings of notes (holding B while steering with the left stick). Almost every button on a controller has a role in MoM, so remembering which button you need to press in any moment can be the most difficult aspect of the game to get used to.

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Review | Rain On Your Parade

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When I saw the trailer for Rain On Your Parade, my initial reaction was “its probably like Untitled Goose Game, but with soaking items to cause chaos instead of moving items”. That statement isn’t entirely wrong, but it massively understates the game’s charm and character.

From start to finish, Rain on Your Parade is filled with creative levels covering a surprisingly wide range of styles for a concept that could so easily have been a one-note joke. Every part of the game fits together coherently, from the interactive start screen that acts as a pre-game controls tutorial, to the credits level that contains its own mini-games. It feels like a complete game rather than just a collection of levels. Even the world map contains hidden characters to talk to and secret areas to discover.

So what is in Rain’s world? As Rain is set inside a bedtime story, Cloudy’s epic quest to reach Seattle is filled with an eclectic mix of characters and locations. The locations include schools, beaches, moshpits, game development conferences, and desert canyons filled with lasers. Although Cloudy has to overcome rhyming villain Dr Dryspell, who wants to eradicate clouds so that he is never rained on again, they are helped along their way by a cast of eccentric friends. Some of these are typical adventurer’s mentors, like the wise old cloud, while others are more unusual; Froggie introduces himself by claiming to be the hero from “a famous 90’s video game”, and later recruits turret-wielding monkeys to help you on your way.

The first few levels of Rain are almost impossible to fail, as they are simply about getting used to the objectives system and how long the rain meter lasts. However, Rain quickly goes beyond its title and introduces new sources of power for Cloudy. Hovering over any bubbling liquid lets Cloudy rain down that liquid instead, whether its corrosive goo, coffee, cleaning fluids, or even petrol. Cloudy also gains new permanent abilities such as lightning strikes and snowfall, which can be combined to create even more chaos. To give just one example, snowing on people (hoomans, in this world) to turn them into a snowball can be followed with a lightning strike to propel that snowball around the level. Similarly, raining petrol in an unbroken line from a fire source lets you trail fire across the level and cause major destruction.

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Review | Stacking

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What do you get if you mix chimney sweeps, evil industrial tycoons, PG-rated toilet humour, and matryoshka dolls?

A charming and surprisingly entertaining adventure game.

When I first saw screenshots of Stacking, I was intrigued by its art style, but I was also unsure of whether it would actually be a complete game rather than an experiment. But once I saw that it was created by Double Fine, who have a penchant for making games that are both weird and enjoyable, Stacking jumped onto my to-do list.

Stacking‘s opening scenes lay out its setting and style quickly. The world of Stacking blends the familiar tropes of Victorian England and of early silent films. Cutscenes take place in theatre sets, accompanied by dialogue cards, piano soundtracks and film projector effects. Most importantly, every character is a matryoshka doll. This isn’t just a visual style, but the foundation of Stacking’s design.

Because protagonist Charlie Blackmore is “the tiniest Russian doll in the world” getting anywhere fast relies upon taking control of a chain of dolls, each one size bigger than the next, to get to the doll you need. (This raises some questions about how their consciousness works, how their anatomy works, and the weirdness of bodysnatching without consent…). Stacking into other dolls is essential because many of them have special abilities that you’ll need to access new areas and explore each level. Taking control of a railway maintenance doll lets you use his wrench to open an alternate route into a challenge, while taking control of a bird allows you to fly into map areas that human dolls can’t access.

The vignette effects in the corner fit with the early-20th-century style well.

Rather than relying upon convoluted logic or long sequences of causes and effects, each puzzle in Stacking has up to 5 smaller solutions to discover. In the first level, these can be as simple as bringing the right doll to the right place and using their ability. Later challenges bring in a greater degree of lateral thinking, such as stacking into the largest doll you can find to use their weight to move an object around, or using one doll to lure a second doll into a new location so that you can use the second doll’s ability. The last level also introduces ability combinations. One puzzle solution required stacking into both a doll who could produce water and one who could produce a blast of cold air. After going to the correct area and using the water ability as the water doll, I then needed to quickly un-stack into the smaller doll and use the cold air ability to combine the water and cold air into ice.

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Review | Coffee Talk

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Three things that always catch my interest are reading, gaming, and coffee. So when I saw that Games with Gold was featuring a visual novel game centred on brewing coffee, I instantly downloaded Coffee Talk.

Coffee Talk was released in January 2020 and set in the near future of … September 2020. This version of Seattle is home to elves, werewolves, succubi, nekomimi, and many other species, but thankfully not to COVID-19.

As the friendly yet mysterious owner of a coffee shop that only opens at night, you attract all sorts of customers in a variety of circumstances. Over the course of two weeks in the world of Coffee Talk, you eavesdrop on, and help along, the lives of six characters. How do you do this? By listening, talking, and of course by brewing them the perfect drink they need for the situation they’re facing.

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Review | Tetris Effect Connected

Screenshot of the cooperative mechanic, which combines each player's field into one large field.
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Somehow I’ve never owned a Tetris game before, so when I discovered Tetris Effect Connected on Xbox Game Pass soon after it was released, I decided to try out this version. The graphic style showcased in the screenshots and trailers seemed impressive, and the idea of head-to-head online matches appealed to me much more than experiments such as Tetris 99.

My first impression of Tetris Effect Connected was a little negative, purely because it seemed oddly pretentious. This was mostly due to its language and exposition; the campaign is called a “Journey mode” and is described as “a voyage of emotion and discovery”, while you are referred to as a “Guardian” whose job is to help save the galaxy from a negative void that’s going to erase existence. Leaving that to one side and jumping into the gameplay, however, quickly appeased my scepticism.

Its clear from the first information screen that Tetris Effect Connected aims to be an immersive, sensory-blending experience; its encouragement to equip surround sound or wear headphones “for maximum enjoyment” is presented with the same prominence as its photosensitivity warning.

This aim is reinforced by how the Journey mode is built to be near-seamless. After completing each stage, you automatically transition into the next one, while failing a stage resets you to the start of the previous stage rather than returning you to the stage selection screen. This approach feels like its designed to absorb players into a flow state, especially as the power-up mechanic is called “the Zone”. Once you’ve filled the Zone meter by scoring points, you can activate it to slow down time and hold tetrominoes at the top of the screen until you’re ready to release them. While activated, lines that you clear won’t vanish as they normally do, but will instead stack underneath the existing game board. When the Zone activation ends, all of those lines are cleared at once, allowing for not just the titular high-scoring Tetris (4 lines cleared at once), but an Octoris (8 lines), a Decahexatris (16 lines), and even clearing more lines than the game board contains at once (an aptly-named Impossibilitris).

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Review | The Touryst

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Today I’m looking at indie game, and former Switch exclusive, The Touryst. One of my friends recommended it to me, as he found its free exploration and relatively short length relaxing.

Initially, I didn’t find it quite as peaceful, because the first thing I did was jump out of the arrival boat on the wrong side to see if I could swim in the surrounding ocean … I could, until I was eaten by a shark.

Once I respawned which let me quickly discover that there is no life counter and no major consequence for death, I began exploring the islands. The Touryst takes place across a cluster of small islands, which you travel between by boat. The boat being at the end of a boardwalk and accompanied by an ever-present Captain reminded me strongly of the balloonist in Spyro the Dragon, which added to the game’s nostalgic vibes. Some of the islands are inspired by real-life locations like Santoryn (Santorini) and Fyjy (Fiji); all of them are compact, colourful, and studded with secrets, mini-games and tasks.

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I finally finished … Saints Row: Gat Out Of Hell

An image of combat in Saint's Row: Gat Out of Hell
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According to TrueAchievements, I first played Saint’s Row: Gat Out Of Hell in July 2015. While I’ve dipped in for a couple of co-op sessions since, it’s been on my “I’ll finish this eventually” pile for years. My plan was to spend 1-2 hours finishing any remaining campaign missions on and fulfilling any close achievements, and then to retire the game completely.

What actually happened was that I spent around 5 hours that evening finishing every activity New Hades had to offer, and unlocked the 100% activity ending. After my second evening of exploring, I had beaten up Satan, and collected every orb, book, and piece of audio commentary. Then I saved my progress and realised I was at 98% game completion…

So the day after that, I went for full 100% completion. It’s safe to say that Gat Out Of Hell caught my attention, and my time, much more this time around.

Saint’s Row: Gat Out Of Hell is a standalone expansion pack that follows on from Saint’s Row IV. It features the same open-world gameplay and upgradeable superpowers found in IV, but moves the actions to a new location – Hell itself. As Johnny Gat and Kinzie Kensington, you must prevent Satan from marrying his daughter Jezebel off to Johnny. You do this by getting supernatural assistance from a cast that includes previous Saint’s Row characters as well as famous additions like Blackbeard and William Shakespeare.

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Game Review Tier List and Review Collection

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Given that game reviews have accidentally become my most common posts on this site, I wanted to make sure I was doing them as fairly and as well as I possibly could. One part of this, for me, is figuring out how I compare games to each other. While I don’t want to get as granular as using a number or percentage system, as I think that I would then focus too hard on those numbers at the expense of looking at the individual games, I did want to add some kind of structure.

A more general tier or category list, that covers the most likely possible options without forcing reviews into a rigid scale, seemed like the best approach. While this will change in future if I need it to, the table below contains the rough framework that I’ll use for comparing games.

I’ll also keep a running list of games I’ve reviewed in each tier below – consider this post the meta-post for my game reviews!

TierDescriptionDefining Game
AmazingA game that is the best of its genre; it is so strong in design, gameplay and enjoyment that it offers an excellent experience to many different audiences.Grand Theft Auto V
BrilliantA game that is enjoyable beyond the “cool” tier; it offers a consistently good experience and does everything that you would expect from its genre and setting to a high standard.Spyro Reignited Trilogy
CoolA game that is competent and fun, but not extra-special. It might be technically good but formulaic, or its ideas might have been already done better in previous games.Team Sonic Racing
DisappointingA game that executed its concept poorly, or was marred by technical or design issues that made it difficult to enjoy.Onrush
ExperimentalA game that is so novel, or so reliant on deconstruction or meta-narrative, that it is polarising. Generally, people who like weird experimental games will enjoy it, while people who don’t like them won’t.Beyond Eyes
FailureA game that does not deliver what it promised and offers little or no fun.?
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I finally finished … skate.

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Sometimes I first play a game years, or even decades, after its release. Other times I get partway through a game, get distracted, and then revisit it years later. Calling any discussion of a long-lived or dormant game either a “review” or an “impression” feels incorrect, so the more literal title wins out. (However, I’m going to use “finished” to mean “finished by my own standards”, rather than 100% completed). 

Going from my first recorded achievement date in 2014, to completing the career mode yesterday, I took 6 years and 1 month to complete skate … somehow I doubt this is the worst offender on my backlog!

So how well did skate hold up? Was it still enjoyable in 2020?

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Review | Letter Quest: Grimm’s Journey Remastered

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Letter Quest: Grimm’s Journey Remastered (often referred to as Letter Quest Remastered) is a word-assembling RPG where you defeat monsters with your vocabulary, your scythe, and bacon.  

I was introduced to LQR by two of my friends, who assumed that I would enjoy its celebration of verbal geekery. I’m happy to say that they were correct. 

In LQR, titular young reaper Grimm must battle though the foes who are blocking him from his desired treasure … pizza. Battling is carried out by finding words in a board of Scrabble-style letter tiles; your score for each valid word becomes damage to the current enemy, who then retaliates with attacks of their own. Each defeated enemy and completed quest awards Gems, which you use to strengthen Grimm’s selection of scythes and to buy skill upgrades.

This is my best word so far. 11-letter words are uncommon, but they output tons of damage.
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Review | Aəero : Complete Edition

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Imagine flying a Wipeout-style ship along the musical ribbon from Vib-Ribbon, while dodging lasers, while playing a twin-stick shooter at the same time, and that almost sums up Aəero.

Aəero is part of a new generation of indie rhythm-action games that has sprung up since the over-saturated -Hero games met their demise and Beat Saber took VR gaming by surprise. It shares two foundations with other experimental rhythm games; a blend of various gameplay styles, and an aim of creating flow-inducing multi-sensory experiences. However, my first few minutes with Aəero felt more like a sensory assault. After reducing my TV volume, lowering the in-game volume to 40%, and lowering the vibration strength to minimal, I could then dive into its challenging and immersive gameplay.

The core gameplay of Aəero is balancing the duelling roles of the left and right analogue sticks. With the left analogue stick, players follow the ribbon of white light that traces out each song’s most salient melody. The ribbon can soar and fall with the singer’s pitch, or swoop and spiral to follow synthesizers and bass. For me, the most challenging songs are the ones which quickly swap between delicate adjustments and larger jumps or spirals. When the ribbon isn’t on-screen, players instead use the left stick to avoid obstacles and fly through narrow gaps in routes interrupted by burning lasers or crushing platforms. The right stick controls the aiming reticle, which players use to target enemies and projectiles, while the right trigger fires the ship’s laser beams. 

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Review | Dear Esther : Landmark Edition

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As Dear Esther begins, the protagonist stands at the entrance to a deserted island quickly revealed as being in the Outer Hebrides. Behind the protagonist is a short concrete path leading into the ocean. I promptly walk them into the ocean (for science, of course). As a result I discover some of the island’s mystery within seconds of playtime. My screen fills with indistinct images and pulses like a heartbeat, while the narrator’s own voice whispers “come back…”, before the protagonist reappears at the starting point. After walking into the ocean again to see if any of the environment changed as a result, and only unlocking an incongruous-seeming achievement for drowning, I start to actually play Dear Esther.

While I’ve played other Environmental Narrative Games before, I’ve somehow never played Dear Esther nor had its story spoiled. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from the game that brought ENGs into mainstream discussions.

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Review | Spyro Reignited Trilogy – Spyro 2

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Spyro 2: Gateway to Glimmer was the first game I recieved with my PS1, and also my first 3D game, so this is a nostalgic revisit for me. (As it’s named Ripto’s Rage in the Reignited Trilogy, I’ll just refer to it as Spyro 2 here). It was also one of my favourite games – I remember enjoying Idol Springs and Crystal Glacier, and finding the summer and autumn home worlds incredibly peaceful. I don’t think my 7-year-old self ever reached the final third of the original game, as it was mostly unfamiliar. This time, however, I beat Ripto at 98% completion after about 13 hours of in-game time, then reached 100% at about 14 hours (blame the Fracture Hills level for that delay!).

The major difference between Spyro the Dragon and Spyro 2 is revealed in the first cutscene, which shows off a more detailed story taking place across a larger set of worlds and also introduces you to allied characters who need Spyro’s help to take their homes back from antagonist Ripto.

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Review | Spyro Reignited Trilogy – Spyro the Dragon

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I’ve been taking my time with the Spyro Reignited Trilogy, as I wanted to enjoy each game fully without rushing them and without worrying about getting a specific completion % or making review notes along the way. I didn’t want to ruin my own experience in any way.

After completing most of Spyro the Dragon and Spyro 2, taking a break, then returning a few months later, I reached 120% completion in just over 12.5 hours of playtime. So here are my thoughts on Spyro’s renewed debut.

I didn’t remember much about the original version of Spyro the Dragon, as I played it after the second and third games, and found it less interesting in comparison. I remembered some early world themes, and the general plot of Gnasty Gnorc turning the other dragons into crystal statues, but much of the game was new to me.

The gameplay in Spyro the Dragon focuses on rescuing the crystallised dragons while collecting gems and dragon eggs. 5 dragon homeworlds are hubs that each contain portals to 5 levels: 3 standard levels based on the homeworld aesthetic, a timed flight level where you fly Spyro through obstacles, plus a boss level. The sixth homeworld, inhabited by antagonist Gnasty Gnorc, contains the remaining levels and final boss fight.

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Review | Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled [Updated]

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I rarely pay attention to upcoming games, because I dislike the media hype-to-disappointment cycle that comes with every new game. But a new version of Crash Team Racing, a game that my childhood self absolutely loved, was guaranteed to hold my interest. However, I worried that it wouldn’t be remade fairly – that CTRNF would be forced to take on the often-harmful baggage of modern gaming.

The original CTR was technically short but absurdly replayable. You could simply win each race once to reach the final boss and so nominally finish the campaign mode in 3 hours. But mastering CTR required learning the tracks inside and out to complete the challenging token races and devilish Relic races.

To me, any attempt to force attention-manipulation mechanics like season passes and time-gates into CTRNF risked ruining this tight design and its quality-over-quantity nature. So I’m disappointed that Activision and Beenox have followed the convention of including seasonal “content roadmaps”, time-locked shops and item rarity tiers. I’m happy about the prospect of continued interest and additional racers, but Activision’s attempt to shove the lifecycle mechanics of a looter-shooter or an RPG into a kart racer is shortsighted and unnecessary.

So from here I’m going to pretend those extras don’t exist, and focus on the game itself. Thankfully, the game is everything I hoped it would be.

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Review | Team Sonic Racing [Updated]

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While I generally find kart racers fun, I wouldn’t call myself a serious fan of them. Two exceptions to this are the original Crash Team Racing, which was one of my favourite games as a child, and the thoroughly enjoyable Sonic and All-Stars: Racing Transformed.

Although Team Sonic Racing (TSR) was made by the same development team as Racing Transformed, Sumo Digital, I was pessimistic about it before release. When I briefly played TSR at EGX 2018, I felt like it might be unable to differentiate itself from other kart racers. At the time, my opinion was: “Sumo Digital promise that unlockable parts will let you change your car’s looks and performance, but that’s just not the same as turning your car into an aeroplane.”

I wanted to be proved wrong, but unfortunately I can’t say that the game has done enough to change my mind. Before I follow that train of thought, I’ll explain what TSR actually is, and what it does well. 

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Review | Tyler: Model 005

Screenshot from Tyler Model 005
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This is another tag-team review from me and Adoboros; he handled the controls of Tyler: Model 005, while I helped to solve the puzzles. This review has gameplay spoilers and minor story spoilers.

During its opening sequence Tyler: Model 005 (which I’ll shorten to TM5) presents itself as a charming puzzle-platformer with a sympathetic main character — dormant robot Tyler, who wakes up confused and amnesiac after an electrical surge.

Your job as the player is to explore the house which Tyler awakens inside and to figure out what’s going on, solving environmental puzzles to access more of the house and turn on more light sources. Tyler is tiny enough to hide inside a coffee cup, making even small rooms seem vast to him, so the game’s setting isn’t as cramped as you might expect from its description.

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Review | Borderlands : Game Of The Year Edition (2019)

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Even though I’ve previously enjoyed playing Borderlands 2 and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (via co-op), I could never say the same about the original. In solo attempts, I would get stuck at about 10% campaign completion because I couldn’t navigate through the open world. Playing with friends often failed due to lag and frame rate issues. However, after two friends who adore the series both gave me rave reviews of Borderlands: Game Of The Year Edition, I joined them to try a co-op campaign again.

As there was already a Borderlands: Game Of The Year Edition in 2010, I found the name re-use illogical, especially as the 2010 release is still on sale. To avoid confusion, I’ll use Borderlands to mean the series/games in general, “the original Borderlands” to mean the 2009 release, and GOTY to mean the 2019 release. But that’s a minor issue, so I’ll get on to the actual game.

Because GOTY is a remaster rather than a remake, the core gameplay, mechanics and plot are left untouched. The story retains its sparse exposition, as well as its odd pace – it still idles for most of the game then jumps to its full intensity during the last half hour. But the impactful gunplay, chaotic elemental effects, irreverent dialogue and deranged enemies are just as entertaining as in the original Borderlands. Customising your character’s build in co-op to get full-team boosts and combine each player’s abilities allows lots of opportunities to experiment with setups and weapons (and plenty of comedy from Brick’s melee adventures).

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