Review | The Swapper

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Full disclosure: due to my ineptness at puzzle platformers, the helpful Adoboros handled puzzle-solving, while I watched and occasionally gave him useful ideas.

When launching The Swapper, the first thing I noticed was its atmosphere (pun not intended). It’s not horror-game-tense or oppressive. Instead it’s somber and melancholy, a tone I’m unused to seeing in games. The next thing I noticed was its uncommon style. Every location and character model was hand-made in clay then digitized through photographs to create a unique world. It’s diffcult to understand just how much work went in to crafting the game, especially as it runs at 60 frames per second.

The Swapper opens as a lone astronaut is ejected into space inside an escape pod. When the pod lands, you take control of the silent astronaut, and start to explore the doomed spaceship Theseus. The remaining crew are hiding in a sealed chamber, so your path is isolated and your exploration uninterrupted … until the scenery starts asking philosophical questions.

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Review | Forza Horizon 4

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If you’ve ever played a Forza Horizon game, the core of Forza Horizon 4 is pleasantly familiar. Its most important aspects — its cars and locations — are as impressive as you would expect. FH4 refines the classic Horizon open-world gameplay and extends it across even more environments, taking you from muddy cross-country treks to snowy hills and frozen lakes.

Showcase races, which place you against showstopper competitors like planes and hovercraft, also return. Although these are fun displays featuring ingenious opponents, the showcases occupy an awkward middle ground between a setpiece spectacle and a race. Showcase races are focused on putting you and your opponent in the right positions for dramatic jump scenes and conflict points, which detracts from their stated role as a race. I have a game clip of myself trailing a Showcase opponent yet suddenly being switched to first place as a race ended. It’s a minor gripe, but that kind of switching makes Showcases feel somewhat dishonest — I believe the Showcases would have been better if they were purely a spectacle, rather than being a mixture of race and setpiece.

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Review | Spec Ops: The Line

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Last week, I finally played Spec Ops: The Line (only 6 years late!). I’d heard about its ambitious, ethically challenging story, but I’d tried to avoid spoilers. Going into the game, I knew one thing; I would have to make choices that I wouldn’t want to make.

I was expecting tough choices from The Line. However, I wasn’t expecting false choices. The Line contains a mid-game scene where protagonist Walker (and by extension, the player) is treated as if they can choose between two actions, even though the game mechanics allow only one. In the next dilemma, the game lets you continue assuming that only one choice is possible; this time, you could have done something else.

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Review | Onrush

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The ingredients of Onrush are simple. Start with the frenzied speed and crashes of Burnout: Revenge, and mix in the co-operative objectives of Overwatch. Add cartoonish, Fortnite-styled character models and emotes, then finish with cosmetic loot boxes.

Onrush is a co-operative racing combat game, where players succeed by carrying out team-based objectives. It promises relentless speed and chaotic battles. It vows to keep you in the action at all times. So, how does Onrush achieve the goal of continual speed? And what does it feel like to play?

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Review | Three Fourths Home

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Three Fourths Home is about that conversation you always wish you’d started, and that regret you might not be able to repair. More literally, it’s about talking, driving, and closure.

TFH is a piece of interactive fiction with a simple premise: protagonist Kelly is on her way home from visiting her grandparents’ now-empty house when a storm approaches. Kelly’s mum calls to locate her, and their struggle to communicate forces their complicated family dynamics to unravel there and then. The entire game is held within this one conversation; as Kelly, all you can do is keep driving and keep talking.

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Review | Watch_Dogs

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I’ve finally got my hands on Watch_Dogs and had time to give it a fair play-through, so thought I would post my first impressions. I’m currently on Act 2 of the 5-act story, and at approximately 20% game completion.

The most obvious question when talking about Watch_Dogs is of course, what is the hacking like? Thankfully, it works really well, and is fully-integrated into the game rather than an afterthought. Simple elements, such as switching traffic light colours and opening gates, are hacked by pressing X, while more complicated challenges such as important plot-related hacks require solving a hacking puzzle, such as in the picture below. These puzzles aren’t too difficult, as most are untimed- the ones with timers so far have the timers attached to one specific data point in the puzzle, so the timer will reset by moving that piece out of action then back in play. The ctOS towers (hackable control centres that provide more map information), while including hacking elements, are mostly an environmental puzzle. These vary in difficulty from incredibly easy to quite a challenge.

Environment and Gameplay

The in-game world (based on and featuring famous buildings in Chicago, though not intending to be an exact replica) seems relatively naturalistic. For one thing, civilians don’t drive absurdly slowly and carefully. Pedestrians will make comments about protagonist Aiden if he gets in their way, and will contact the police if they see a crime committed. Having Aiden’s profiler ability on when around pedestrians will also give little tidbits of information about each one, such as their occupation, likes, recent activities or internet searches. I haven’t noticed any repeats yet, which suggests that a lot of thought went in to making lots of different pieces of information. Car and bike handling is odd when compared to other sandbox games like GTA. Handling is more arcadey and less twitchy. Aiden rarely falls from the bike, and crashes are slightly muted even without the damage protection upgrades. While this prevents a few player deaths, a downside to this handling is that high speed controls can be unresponsive enough to make races more difficult. It’s one of the few games where going slow is better for winning races. Another notes is that engine sounds are surprisingly full for a game not centered around driving, especially the sound of kickstarting a motorbike. Vehicles can be accessed from a delivery service on Aiden’s phone, and arrive quickly- however, they cannot be customised or upgraded.

Campaign missions are a bit more linear than a typical open-world game, but less linear than a typical action-adventure game. Personally I like the way Watch_Dogs has handled this: although the first hideout stands out as being a bit too guided, the rest of the game clearly tells you where to go, but then leaves it to you to get past the obstacles in your way. Most of the campaign missions so far have either been a mixture of stealth and action, or fully stealth-dependent. This works quite well, as the mini-map clearly shows enemy vision cones, so their movement patterns can be worked out. In pretty much every case, stealth is a better way to progress, with guns being a secondary option. One area where guns are clearly secondary is the inability to shoot while driving- this means when a Convoy or Fixer mission goes wrong there is nothing you can really do to defend yourself. Hacking abilities can help with stealth: in particular, the ability to hack a guards personal secret camera and manipulate their vision away from your hiding spot, and the ability to travel from camera to camera along the network in order to reach and hack the server without physically being present at the hack.

Stealth is also made easier by the fact that while AI enemies have some intelligent moments (such as telling each other to cover/ throw grenades etc), they can also be quite oblivious, failing to notice Aiden a few feet away from them. They also have variable intelligence, with some enemies being able to realise the beeping noise coming from their belt is their own explosives and throw them away in time, while others don’t realise, making for an easy kill. Hacking abilities also mean you can choose to indirectly kill AI by making electronics explode near them, or psyche them out by making doors open around them or their communications systems fail. While attempting to psyche them out is fun, and is reminiscent of Batman’s tactics in some of his games, it only has limited use here as their AI presumably wasn’t programmed for that.

Side Missions

Watch_Dogs has a lot of side-content and world-content: there are random events; many different collectibles, such as QR codes which give extra XP or plot-relevant information; real-world minigames such as Poker, Chess and Drinking Games; and unlockable Digital Trips (Augmented Reality games within the game). Completing the extra content unlocks progression rewards such as extra weapons or more cars to reques. Digital Trips are a clever addition, as they add a little something different to the Watch_Dogs world that works with the theme of the game (DT’s can be justified as paying for the downloading of a temporary mind-altering experience, which fits with the slightly drug-pusher nature of the Digital Trip sellers), while adding fun and irreverence to what is quite a dark storyline and character.

Storyline and Characters

Aiden Pearce, anti-hero hacker extraordinaire, fits the trend for morally-ambiguous protagonists so well that he is almost clichéd. Of particular note is the Batman-style incredibly low voice, that normally signifies a character isn’t entirely on the side of the good guys.However, there are some differences, such as his preference for messing with people’s heads rather than using weapons, and, of course, his hacking abilities, having some potential to be used for good. While he works well in the game, and is a fairly interesting character, I doubt he will be memorable in the long-term. Nicky and Jackson- Aiden’s sister and nephew- are the only unambiguously-good characters. At the point of the story I’m in now, they haven’t had too much development beyond showing the effects of Lena’s death on them. Nicky’s struggle between caring about Aiden and wanting to protect Jackson from further harm has been hinted at, and is a potentially interesting storyline. However, I’m not clear whether Nicky knows about Aiden’s abilities and criminal behaviour, which would have been a good detail to clarify.Aiden’s hacking associates also seem somewhat interesting, based on the limited time I’ve met them for. Bonus points to the reveal of who the mysterious “Badboy 17” is… that one was unexpected.

Multiplayer

Multiplayer options include Tailing (observing another player without being spotted); Hacking (stealing data from another player while avoiding discovery); Races; as well as Free Roam, which was unfortunately cut for the 360. Races are quite fun, as there is a lot of freedom between checkpoints- as long as you get to the checkpoint, you can get there however you want. Players with more points in the Hacking skill tree have a slight advantage in being able to use more environmental hazards against opponents, but this isn’t a game-breaking ability.

Tailing and Hacking are very similar in practice, the main difference being that if you spotted in a Tailing mission it is an instant-lose condition, whereas if you are spotted in a hacking mission you have the chance to evade the vengeful player. Both can also vary dramatically in difficulty based on whether you are trying to hack a skilled player or a novice. A minor annoyance with Hacking is that the stealing data aspect appears superficial, with successful hacks only awarding a small amount of money and XP.

The most original MP aspect is the Mobile Challenge, where a console player has to race through a series of checkpoints while defending themselves from a tablet player, on the ctOS App, who controls police forces chasing them. App players can also create their own checkpoint courses, and challenge console racers to complete them. However, while playing MP is entertaining when it works, the MP servers have been continuously buggy so far, making it hard to find online players, or cutting out halfway through a race/mission. These connection issues have a worse effect on the app, as it is completely inaccessible when the servers aren’t full-functional. This is bit of a shame, as the Mobile Challenge is one of the most innovative parts of the game. Another minor gripe is that while Races can be played against friends, there doesn’t appear to be a way of specifically hacking/ tailing friends: it isn’t a major deal, but hacking friends can lead to some interesting experiences, so having that feature would have been nice.

Achievements

Most achievements are for completing entire sets of side-activities, such as stopping every crime, or doing every Fixer Contract (car delivery mission). This means that its not an easy 1000G- completing the main story would only get you about 1/3 of the way through, and investment in the full experience is required. However, there isn’t anything that looks impossible, and there are no missable story achievements, so multiple save files are not required.

Graphics

Every gaming media article or opinion on Watch_Dogs has focused on its graphics. This is mainly because the very first E3 trailer showing Watch_Dogs showed an incredible render that made it appear to be one of the best-looking games of this console generation. Later trailers, and the actual gameplay, were distinctly average in comparison- not horrible, but nowhere near as good as the first render. Below are the videos of the original trailer, 360, and PS$, respectively. On my 360 (using a component cable, though there doesn’t appear to be much difference between that and HDMI), it seems to be in a sort of uncanny valley, with impressive features such as the water effects and night races contrasting with the underwhelming buildings and textures, and noticeable popping-in of pedestrians and traffic. Character models are similar, being well-detailed at very close range and in cutscenes, but generic at any distance. The X1 and PS4 versions are an improvement, but not as good as the original trailer, while the PC is a controversy all of its own.

Overall 
Watch_Dogs promises freedom and power, and pretty much always delivers it. However, the one area where freedom was not presented was an area that could have added whole new aspects to the game, the ability to do good. While you can stop randomised crimes for a small reputation boost, there is never the option to do anything beneficial for civilians. The only option for generic NPCs is to steal their money. When the NPC is a tax fraudster, that’s ironically funny, but when they’re a single parent then stealing money from them is straight-up villainous. If there had been the option for more heroic avenues such as returning the money stolen by criminals, I think it would have added to the game. Furthermore, the option for Robin-Hood-style robbing the rich and giving to the poor would have been an interesting advancement, especially as it would have allowed the player to customise their Aiden’s morality by choosing who they wanted to help and hurt. I would recommend Watch_Dogs, as its a decent story carried and made great by interesting mechanics, as well as being a generally fun experience. However, it may induce annoyance in completionists, and people who don’t like playing the bad guy.

Review | Mass Effect 3 (Multiplayer)

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Game reviews aren’t a genre I’ve written much about before, but Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer mode seemed like a good place to start.

However, I should probably clarify one thing first though – I haven’t played the single-player campaign of ME3. That’s mostly because the games are so good that I know finishing the story will kind of be the end of an era- the gaming equivalent of finishing the last Harry Potter book. My love for this series is based on just how awesome I’ve found the multiplayer to be- and also on completing the first game, which I bought after playing the third. Below is my explanation of just why I find this game so appealing.

Characters

In multiplayer, there are 64 available characters (originally 25, with new ones added throughout the year after release) – split across 12 alien races and various humans, in 6 attack classes. Each race has different health and shield levels, and different weapon preferences. Each character has three abilities, which can be for attack, self-defence, or team support. Some are common to many characters, such as Incinerate (a fireball attack), Overload (an electrical attack that removes enemy shields), or the ability to place a Sentry Turret. Other, more esoteric powers are unique to one character, such as Poison Strike (a teleporting semi-charge that creates a poison cloud corrupting nearby enemies).

There being so many potential powers and combinations means there are options to suit every type of playstyle. You could use a Tactical Cloak (invisibility) to hide and snipe from the farthest reaches of the level, and take enemies out before they get anywhere near the team. Or, levelling the Cloak differently, you can use it as a temporary distraction to sneak up to enemies and attack at point-blank range. Taking a Vanguard character into battle allows for a tank setup, taking damage away from teammates while dishing out far more, while taking an Adept provides Biotic powers that can put enemies in suspended animation, or throw them across the room.

Invisiblity plus a jetpack = a great character.

My first character- a fluorescent blue Human Engineer equipped with Overload and Incinerate- remained my favourite for the first few months of play. However, the release of new characters and power combinations means that role was taken firstly by the Quarian Infiltrator (the invisible sniper style mentioned above), and now the Turian Ghost Infiltrator. The TGI, pictured here in his neon glory, is one of the most powerful classes in the game when played correctly.

His abilities are the Tactical Cloak, Overload, and a Stimulant Pack that increases shield levels, weapon damage, and melee damage. Although I first started playing as him because he has both invisibility and a jetpack- a very fun combination to use.

Speaking of jetpacks leads on to one of my very few criticisms of this game. To ensure that brand new players would not be disadvantaged by playing the game months after its release, the later characters brought out were more powerful and had stronger abilities than the starting characters. While this is a good idea in theory, it was perhaps applied too strongly- when looking at the ME3 forums, very few original characters are still used due to the new ones being either more fun or simply more survivable.

The two characters that are probably too overpowered to be fair are the final ones released, the Alliance Infiltration Unit, and the Geth Juggernaut. The AIU is mostly a typical infiltrator build, but her final power is essentially temporary invincibility- while it is active, she cannot be killed. Furthermore, this ability is treated in the same way as a grenade ability, meaning she can top up her invincibility powerups at every ammunition box on a level, and keep it almost permanently active on small levels.

The Juggernaut doesn’t even need to worry about invincibility powers, because at twice the height and eight times the shield strength of any other character, almost nothing can take it down. On the lowest two difficulties, using a Juggernaut means actively having to try to be knocked down. They also cannot be hurt by the instant-kill attacks of stronger enemies. I’ve never played as one myself, because I haven’t unlocked it yet (new characters are unlocked via random cards bought in packs), but playing in matches with them I’ve seen one downed less than a handful of times.

Weapons

The same pros and cons can probably be applied to the weapons, though to a lesser extent. Weapons are easily customised, meaning the same weapon can be tweaked to fit very different characters by adding extra components. The all-rounder Phaeston assault rifle, for example, can be equipped with Ultra-light materials and a power magnifier, making it perfectly suited to backing up a Biotic class who need a very light loadout in order to use their powers quickly. On the other hand, adding an extended barrel and stability modifier makes it a useful weapon for Soldier classes to use suppressive fire.

The amount of customisation available means, similarly to characters, that there is always something new to try out. However, because there are so many weapons, even well-performing weapons can be forgotten about. Also, there are some weapons that can only be used well by specific characters or classes, making them a fairly niche option. For example, the Anti-Synthetic Rifle is incredibly powerful against one species of enemy, but useless against any other type.

Gameplay and Teams

Gameplay is pretty simple at its core- a team of 1-4 players take on waves of progressively more enemies, the aim being to survive through 11 waves. Mixed in with fighting are objective missions such as holding a specific point on the map, retrieving lost objects, or escorting a valuable drone to a safe location. That sounds like it should get repetitive quickly but in practice, it very rarely does. This might be luck on my part, as my average ability level means I have a set of characters that I can comfortably play Silver difficulty on, and a (smaller) set of characters I can use for Gold difficulty, meaning the game is rarely boringly easy or frustratingly hard.

The maps available are mostly based on different territories seen in the single-player campaign- there isn’t anything too strange on most of them, but they are all fun to play on, and all can suit different styles. The most interesting part is the addition of Hazard versions of the original maps, which add a danger that affects gameplay in some way. Some maps only have a very subtle effect (such as Giant, which adds thunder and lightning to make aiming more difficult). Others change how the map is played completely: Firebase White, which has a sniper-friendly outside area with close-quarters inside areas, gains a visibility-destroying snowstorm which forces everyone inside.

Challenge System

The multiplayer challenge system is very comprehensive, covering general challenges such as playing on each map a set amount, weapon challenges obtained by scoring points with each weapon, and alien challenges obtained by surviving matches with specific characters. This system means trying out everything in the game is encouraged, which stops people from just sticking with their favourite setup forever. It worked especially well on me, as I’ve become quite the completionist, rotating characters, weapon setups and maps to fill as many challenges as I can. It’s a good combination of being involving and accessible, meaning it’s my favourite challenge/award system of any game I’ve played (with the possible exception of the one in Black Ops II, which runs on much the same idea).

The only thing that ever bugged me about the system is that it was introduced after the game had been out for 6 months, so everything I had done before that would have counted towards a challenge didn’t count- considering the amount of work that making it retroactive would have required, that isn’t too big a deal.

The system also included weekly challenges that rewarded successful players with free weapon and equipment packs- this lasted until a year after the game’s release, and is probably the part I missed most about the game ageing.

Replayability

According to my online activity feed (from the game’s companion website), I’ve played 556 matches totalling over 176 hours of gameplay. This makes it probably my most-played game ever (the only exception to this might again be Black Ops II). Almost two years after release, the online community is still strong, and its easy to find matches online. It can also be easier to survive a match now, as the people left playing this late in the release cycle are either very new or very dedicated and skilled. Even playing against people with no headset on, and therefore without being able to communicate, 99% of people still revive their injured team-mates and protect each other.

All these reasons show why Mass Effect 3 is one of the most enjoyable and long-lasting multiplayer games I’ve ever played. Bring on ME4!