Category Archives: Game Review

Assassin’s Creed Origins Review

No story spoilers except for setting/time period.

Assassin’s Creed has often struggled to find its identity as a series in the last few years. The first few games all felt like natural successors to each other, and generally AC2, Brotherhood and Revelations either matched or improved upon their immediate predecessors. Then the series lost its way somewhat, which was a bit predictable, given that Revelations wrote out Ezio and Altair, the two most popular playable characters in the series, and Desmond Miles and Warren Vidic, the last two links to the first game, both exited in AC3.

That’s not to say the intervening games haven’t had their plus points. AC3 started the trend of having more open-world style areas, Black Flag and Freedom Cry gave us a delightful ship combat system, Rogue’s story is often praised as one of the best in the series and Syndicate’s Jacob and Evie were highlighted in reviews as the first memorable main characters since Ezio. But none of those games were perfect – the combat system often felt dated, games became increasingly buggy on release, the modern day story got increasingly hard to care about post-Desmond, and the settings just weren’t as interesting as the Crusades or renaissance Italy or Constantinople (I mean, was anyone crying out for games set in the American or French revolutions? I’ve never spoken to anyone who particularly wanted an Assassin’s Creed game in those eras).

With Assassin’s Creed: Origins, the series may finally have found its groove again.

Ptolemaic Egypt is a setting that deserves the current gen’s graphics, and boy, is the game world absolutely stunning. This is somewhere you will never get tired of exploring, and whether you’re exploring Alexandria, crossing the desert or sailing up the Nile, you’ll always be aware of how beautifully rendered everything is – and you’ll end up using the game’s photo mode a fair bit, let me tell you. It’s day/night cycle really makes a tangible difference to how the world feels, in a way only games like Horizon: Zero Dawn have done previously. Its a completely open world experience too, and while you’ll have an occasional moment where the game pauses to load the next area, its mostly pretty seamless at having you move around the map. Fast travel is available too, which helps a lot, although you have a lot of different transport options available (including horses, camels, ships and chariots).

The game’s playable characters are also a lot more memorable than in previous entries. You’ll spend most of your time playing as Bayek, the last of the Medjay, who’s a protector of the common folk but has a winning personality as well, and whose responses always seem human and believable – his outrage at atrocities, his snide dislike for corrupt officials, his sympathy for downtrodden peasants, it all seems natural and relatable. Bayek’s status as a Egyptian comes in play a lot, as he sees his country and people suffering a lot on account of their inferior status to Greeks, not to mention their vulnerability to the Romans, who are starting to encroach on Egyptian territory. You also get several levels as Bayek’s wife Aya, who’s equally compelling if not quite as likeable, as the two of them are caught between pursuing a revenge quest and trying to free Egypt from the grip of a civil war between Cleopatra and Ptolemy. The modern day stuff is kept to a minimum, but in Layla, we finally have a modern-day character who seems interesting enough to care about, even though she’s only on screen for 20 or so minutes.

The gameplay has also between heavily revamped to have a more RPG feel to things – there’s still a wide variety of weaponry available (spears, swords, axes, sceptres etc.) as well as four varieties of bows all tailored to different scenarios (hunting, stealth kills, boss fights, rapid fire etc.) which gives you a lot of scope for how you approach combat scenarios. There’s now a levelling system with numerous perks you can use to upgrade Bayek (providing him with poison darts, fire bombs and other tools, increasing his proficiency in combat or improving archery skills) and you can pretty much build his skillset as suits you. You gain XP for kills and completing missions, of which there are a multitude. In additional to the dozen or so main quests, which are fairly long and take you all over the map, there are around a hundred or so side quests, which usually involve you rescuing locals, clearing out bandit camps, dealing with animal attacks, evading Ptolemy’s soldiers or exploring tombs.

There’s a lot to do in this game in general – most tombs and camps have treasure for you to loot or captains to assassinate, and there are loads of them dotted around the map. There’s a fair amount of cities and towns too, most of which have a unique feel and plenty of inhabitants to interact with. You can become a gladiator in the arenas in Cyrene or Krokodilopolis, or a chariot racer in Alexandria. There’s a lot of sunken ships around the Nile for you to scavenge too. In short, you’ll never run out of things to do in this game – there’s almost too much of it to be honest.

Further embracing the RPG side of things, the game has a new game plus mode and an option that will scale lower level enemies to your level, if either of those things interest you. Origins also introduces variable difficulty into the series, with the standard game options of easy, normal, hard and nightmare which seem near universal at this point. Normal still presents a reasonable challenge, though it doesn’t require the precision of God of War on normal and is hardly comparable to RPG’s like Dark Souls. There’s a large variety of enemies: Human enemies are a mix of archers, spearman, standard soldiers, Brutes (heavy weapons), Elites (with shields) and bosses. There are also various animals to contend with, including Crocodiles (who are a much larger threat in water, obviously), Hippos (engage at range), hyenas (troublesome in packs), lions (surprisingly easy) and, rarely, a war elephant (these fuckers are VERY tough). Most annoying are snakes, who tend to lurk in the dark corners of tombs or caves, or worse, inside destroyable pots, and thus you often don’t see them until you run straight into them (which as snakes kill Bayek in 3-4 hits can be very irritating). Ultimately, whether you want a challenge or a stress-free run, there’ll be a difficulty setting that works for you.

The crafting system is crucial but easy to get to grips with, as you gather various metals, leathers, wood and animal skins, which can upgrade Bayek’s health, damage and the amount of equipment and arrows he can carry. Fortunately, gathering these materials is rarely a chore, as there’s only six main varieties of them, some of which can be looted from convoys of soldiers, others you can find from hunting animals or from scrapping weaponry, and if worst comes to worst, you can take a perk which allows you to purchase extra materials at shops. The currency system is more of a challenge than previous games – Bayek won’t be drowning in cash the way Ezio was, and will need to loot tombs and camps and sell old equipment a lot to have enough to buy new outfits and upgrade his weapons.

So all in all, pretty positive? Yeah, there’s one or two downsides: the game’s plot meanders a bit too much at times, not all the side quests are that interesting (some areas are definitely more fun than others) and shield combat isn’t done all that well, but overall, its such an improvement over its predecessors that I have to give it a rating of…

4.5 out of 5. Not perfect, but getting there.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey seems to be leaning even further into RPG elements (choice of main character, romance options etc.) and refining combat even further to fit ancient Greece. Fingers crossed it will be as compelling as Egypt. But for the first time in a long time, I’m actually looking forward to what the Assassin’s Creed team is working on, and that’s largely thanks to how well they’ve turned things around with origins.

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God of War (2018) Review

This one is something special.

Minor Story Spoilers – but only in terms of setting/characters, not plotline.

It’s been a while since a new PS4 game has truly gripped me. While COD: WWII and Batman: Enemy Within have kept me busy, I haven’t been blown away by anything new since Horizon Zero Dawn released last year. Until now.

This has a very different style from previous God of War games. Its more character driven, with more RPG elements and a much more open world than previous instalments. Kratos is a much more nuanced character here – in previous games he’s been defined solely by vengeance and tragedy, here he gets some slow but merited character growth. This is mainly because of his son, Atreus, who serves as Kratos’ companion and protégée throughout the game. Another change is that Kratos’ main weapon is now the Leviathan Axe, which works in a similar way to Thor’s Hammer (Kratos can recall it at will after throwing it) apart from the fact its abilities are Ice based rather than lightning based. Fans of previous games needn’t worry however, as Kratos’ Blades of Chaos do become available as an alternate weapon a third of the way through the game, which adds a bit of variety to combat. The biggest change however, is the move from Greek myth to Norse myth, which, if anything, proves far more interesting than the Greek. Kratos isn’t taking on the whole pantheon of Norse Gods here, but a few of them crash proceedings to make his task more difficult. The Norse idea of ‘Nine Realms’ is faithfully portrayed and engaging brought to life, along with many, many figures and monsters from Norse mythology.

Combat has also been significantly revamped, mainly because the third person camera is now much more tightly focused on Kratos, rendering him more vulnerable to flank attacks but giving you much better control of his own attacks. While combos still play a big part, it feels like a cross between Skyrim-esque hack and slash and the switch it up style of Arkham games – but is arguably far better than either. There are a wide variety of skill upgrades available which unlock more combos and increase damage, paid for by XP (given for defeating enemies and finishing quests). XP is also used to upgrade various Runes which Kratos can apply to his and Atreus’ weapons, which allow very powerful rune attacks and spirit summons that can only be used after lengthy cooldowns. Atreus’ bow and choke attacks are also upgradeable, and can prove very helpful in tough battles. There isn’t a levelling system as such, instead certain areas are locked off until you progress to a certain part of the story or receive a particular upgrade, usually preventing you from running into enemies that are far too strong for you (marked by a purple health bar). You are free to explore most of the map pretty quickly, but its advisable to get very good skills and gear before you even think of taking on Valkyries or other really strong enemies, who usually lurk in hidden, underground chambers.

The map size is significantly large, encompassing a sizeable part of Midgard (Earth) as well as Helheim (Realm of the Dead), Muspelheim (Realm of Fire) and various other realms from Norse mythology, all of which have a unique feel to them – and all of which look absolutely stunning. I don’t normally go for many screenshots or use photo modes while playing games, but God of War is absolutely beautifully rendered – even on my standard model PS4. I can’t think of a better looking game I’ve played. The soundtrack serves its purpose but only stands out in a few places – most of the time spent travelling instead uses background conversations between Kratos and Atreus which underpins their burgeoning  relationship and provides insight to the Mythology and History of the world they inhabit.

Aside from the main story, which I won’t spoil, there are numerous side quests from two dwarves called Brok and Sindri, who serve as the games’ shopkeepers and blacksmiths, who buy, sell and upgrade all of Kratos and Atreus equipment, in addition to the many collectibles which can be found in hidden chests or areas throughout the maps. There’s just so much to do in the 20-40 hours of gameplay, ranging from freeing imprisoned Dragons, to killing Odin’s Ravens, to defeating combat challenges in Muspelheim and solving puzzles to unlock Nornir chests and improve Kratos’ health and rage. To be honest though, exploring the map is such fun it doesn’t matter if its for a quest or just for the sake of exploring – its compelling either way – though I recommend you play through the main quest pretty frequently, as this unlocks more areas and gives you more XP than other activities (don’t worry – you can keep playing post main quest so it doesn’t matter what order you do things in).

Kratos and Atreus never feel overpowered, mainly due to the wide variety of enemies, including reavers, draugr, wolves, dark elves, trolls, werewolves, Valkyries, stone ancients and bosses, which include everything from giants to dragons to Norse Gods. This variety, added to the multitude of combos and rune attacks prevent combat ever getting repetitive or stale (the same tactics don’t work on every enemy – werewolves dodge too often for axe throws to be effective, frozen enemies are sometimes immune to axe attacks etc.). You have to switch things up a fair bit, particularly when completing challenges in Muspelheim or fighting Valkyries, who are a real challenge even on Normal difficulty.

The one thing I will say about the story is that it offers one of the most compelling Father-Son dynamics I’ve seen in gaming. Atreus and Kratos both have their flaws, but make interesting protagonists. The game does very much feels like a ‘part 1’ of their story, which can only be a good thing. Whether the Norse setting lasts 2 games or 3, I have a feeling that Ragnarok isn’t far away…

Overall God of War is the best game I’ve played on PS4. It balances difficulty, fun, story and gameplay exceeding well. I wouldn’t say its my all time favourite, but it probably is the best designed game I own. If you have a PS4, you need to get this. If you don’t have a PS4, buy one – because missing out on games this good is not an option. Who needs Elder Scrolls VI when you have this?

Rating: 5 out of 5!

Seriously people, just look at the exclusives Sony has at the moment. God of War, the Uncharted series, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Last of Us AND upcoming games like Spider-man? There is nothing on Xbox One or Nintendo Switch that even matches one of those games, let alone all of them. I get arguments about brand loyalty, price and controller layout, but the amount of quality games you can’t get without a PS4 isn’t even funny anymore. If you’re a gamer and have the cash, get one!

Call of Duty: WWII Review

Sometimes, simpler is better.

As I mentioned in my article about a possible MW2 remaster, the Call of Duty Series has lacked direction for quite a while. Infinite Warfare, quite rightly, got a massive backlash from gamers, not even because of its quality, but because they disagreed with the entire direction it took. COD is not Halo and never should be. A general rule is that the more futuristic the COD series has got, the more its popularity has declined. Advanced Warfare’s Combat Exo-suits and 2050 setting were about as far as you should push either the timeline or the technology in this series. The original Black Ops and the Modern Warfare trilogy remain the most acclaimed games in the series, and its easy to see why. They were grounded, they were relatable, and the multiplayer felt balanced.

Fortunately, the series’ producers seemed to notice that fan enthusiasm was waning, and decided to take the Call of Duty series back to its roots: World War 2. This meant no exosuits, no stupid wall-running, no drones and no OP killstreaks. And boy, is that a breath of fresh air. As a result, they’ve actually made a decent multiplayer for the first time in what seems like forever. All the standard game modes are back (Team Deathmatch, free-for-all, search and destroy, domination etc.) with the addition of a new War mode, which features teams either attacking or defending a series of varying objectives. The maps are actually all pretty good for the first time since MW2, varying from London Dockyards to a USA battleship to German artillery installations, there’s enough of them that you won’t get bored or need to purchase the expansion packs for extra variety. All playstyles are viable, even if you’ll find yourself sticking to assault rifles or SMG’s for most of it. A real bonus is that snipers are no longer as overpowered as they used to be. They’re still an ever present threat if they find a good position on the map, but most of the time they’re pretty easy to flank, and its no longer an option for snipers to try 360 no scopes and other stupid trick shots. If they try, they will die constantly. Similarly, grenades and rocket launchers will get you some kills but are far less effective than previous games – spamming the damn things doesn’t work very well. All of this provides a much more realistic experience and actually makes it challenging to earn kill/scorestreaks. These streaks range from Molotov cocktails to flamethrowers to strafing runs from fighter planes and bombers. While some are quite powerful, you won’t get one player decimating entire teams with successive kill streaks like in previous games. This all makes it far easier to get into games at low levels, and rewards skill a lot more than some previous games. The multiplayer is a definite highlight.

Zombies mode is also pretty great, and feels more accessible than it has done in a long time (it’s easier not to get hemmed into tight spaces on the maps, although you still have to know what you’re doing). The maps seem better designed than they have in a while, and the variety of zombie types has definitely improved. David Tennant even voices one of the four playable characters. Ultimately I’ll spend more time with the multiplayer, but the Zombies mode is a good one for fans who are mainly after that.

The only disappointment is the campaign. Admittedly, the gamemakers have done a good job of bringing the horrors of WWII to life. It feels real and visceral in a way other World War 2 games like COD 3 did not. But there’s nothing new on offer here. It’s the same mix of the usual COD levels (provide sniper cover, clear out enemy positions, defend chokepoints, infiltrate an enemy base ex cetera). It’s reasonably fun to play through, if not particularly challenging, but it’s really not all that memorable. Even Advanced Warfare and Ghosts’ campaigns are a cut above what you get here (as well as being significantly longer). It seems a bit like they threw something together because they thought fans expected some sort of campaign, not because they had a particularly great idea of what to include in one. Honestly, I can see why there are rumours Black Ops 4 will ditch the campaign entirely. The same old stuff just isn’t cutting it anymore.

Overall, the campaign might be a few hours of token adventure you won’t remember a day afterwards, but the fun zombies mode and brilliantly back-to-basics multiplayer make this the best Call of Duty Game since Modern Warfare 3. I’m not convinced the series is getting back to its best anytime soon, but this is a step in the right direction.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Medieval 2: Total War Review

This game may have been out well over a decade, but despite it’s successors possessing more powerful game engines, better graphics and more varied gameplay, it’s still one of the best RTS’ (Real-Time Strategy) and TBS’ (Turn-based Strategy) games of all-time. The fact is, the Creative Assembly has never matched the standards of its mighty fourth entry in the Total War series, and none of the CA’s rivals have offered a compelling alternative either. Only its predecessor, Rome: Total War, holds a similar regard in the minds of the fanbase. But why is this?

Maybe because the series’ dual style gameplay of having Real Time Battles inter-spliced with turn-based management and strategic planning was so successful. The mix of siege battles and land conflicts adds plenty of variety to the combat, while random events, bad luck and AI factions lack of predictability can often leave you scrambling to face new threats to your empire. You can also avoid one of the aspects entirely if you want to focus solely on battles or empire-building (the computer can auto-resolve battles with you playing them, or can set taxes and building policies automatically it you want it to). The campaigns are also really unpredictable. Just when you think you have a faction on the ropes, their last army ambushes you unexpectedly in the woods. Just when you’re about to overwhelm your main rivals, one of your allies suddenly turns on you and strikes at a badly defended settlement. Or, worst of all, one of your generals defects and takes either an army, or worse, a whole settlement with him. Every campaign throws up new problems and offers enough factions to please any gameplay style. Love carving enemies up with Heavy Infantry? Pick Denmark. Love using cavalry? Go for Poland. Want an endless supply of Spearman? Welcome to Italy. Want to wipe out endless hordes of infidels on crusade? Pick Egypt and fortify the hell out of your cities! The multitude of factions means that your have many weeks worth of potential gameplay ahead, as well as immense replay value.

While Rome: Total War (referred to as RTW for the rest of this article) was initially my favourite entry in the series, I have to admit that Medieval 2 does fix several problems with RTW, and has more overall depth and replay value. The more I’ve played them, the more convinced I’ve become that Medieval 2 edges out Rome. To go into detail, Rome: Total War had a couple of very irritating niggles, such as its basic and easily broken diplomacy system. Once your faction got too rich in RTW, the AI factions would instantly start demanding ridiculous sums of money for any potential deals. Worse, if your faction became too powerful, weaker AI factions would regard almost all potential financial/diplomatic offers as suspiciously generous, and would refuse them outright.

Another problem with RTW was one of balance: the four Roman factions were slightly too strong in comparison to every other faction, meaning that you would either end up sweeping the map while playing them or, if playing a different faction, would always have the Romans as your main rivals late game, not anyone else. While Egypt, Carthage and the Greek factions were capable of standing up to the Romans late game, the Barbarian factions lacked any kind of extra units or infrastructure once they upgraded their settlements to cities, meaning that whatever faction you started as, it was rather inevitable that once you destroyed the Romans you would have few rivals left capable of challenging you. Every game played out reasonably similarly as far as the AI were concerned: The Greek Cities, Gaul and Carthage would be overwhelmed by Romans within 50 turns, while the Seleucids were nearly always wiped out by a combination of Egypt, Pontus and Parthia. The final problem was that half the factions in RTW were initially locked until you beat the main campaign as the Romans, and a third were totally unplayable without editing the game files (which, fortunately, is not difficult and there are plenty of youtube videos on how to do this!).

Medieval 2 fixes all of these issues: diplomacy was considerably refined, AI’s are more reasonable in negotiations and there aren’t any real issues creating deals between small and weak factions. All factions except the Papal States, Aztecs, Mongols, Timurids and Rebels are also easily unlockable. The game is much more balanced too: I’ve done at least 20 playthroughs over the years and its never been the same AI factions that have done well in every playthrough. Sometimes France is a really strong power who wipes out The Holy Roman Empire (Medieval Germany) and kicks England off the continent, sometimes they get crushed by a combination of Milan and Portugal. Sometimes Denmark takes over the whole Northern part of the map, sometimes the HRE and Poland leave them stuck in a single province. Sure some things recur: Venice always fights Byzantium, the Moors always fight Sicily, the Pope is a dick to Egypt etc. but while you often see the same kind of conflicts, the results differ. The AI still isn’t perfect, especially on lower campaign difficulties, where some nations just sit around or merely attack one or two rebel settlements, but for the most part it’s not an issue.

Medieval 2 also refines individual characters and their various traits. Everyone from Assassins to Diplomats to Priests have numerous traits that make them better or worse at their job. This can often have annoying consequences, as Priests who lack faith often become heretics, incompetent assassins get themselves killed and Kings who lack Authority suffer defections and rebellions. Every general has four stats: command, loyalty, chivalry/dread and piety. Commanders lacking in piety may be vulnerable to execution by papal inquisitors, disloyal generals cannot be trusted, Generals strong in command will rarely lose battles and men with high dread with frighten the hell out of the enemy. While some traits are random, you are largely responsible for how your faction members develop. Leave a general in a godforsaken hellhole for 20 turns? His loyalty will drop. Execute prisoners, use assassins and exterminate cities? You’ll be more dreaded than the Mongols. Build taverns in cities where you general lives? Expect a greater chance of him becoming an alcoholic and wrecking his stats.

Medieval 2’s time period also is a major factor in gameplay. Not only do you have to contend with the Black Death (which can wipe out a good 10-50% of your forces in the affected regions) but also invasions from the Mongols (who have extremely skilled Generals and awesomely strong cavalry) and the Timurids (who have elephants. And cannons. And cannons mounted on Elephants!!!). These ramp up the difficulty factor for eastern powers like The Turks, Egypt and occasionally Russia and Byzantium. The Christian factions are largely safe from these threats but have a bigger problem: the Pope. Not only will he constantly ask you to build churches and recruit more priests, but he will also commission crusades (usually against Egypt or the Turks) that force you to send one of your armies off to the East or risk his disapproval. Fighting other Christian nations (which happens all the time given that most/all neighbouring factions are Catholic!) will lead to the Pope turning on you and either excommunicating your faction, declaring war, or worse, declaring a crusade on you. On one campaign as the Holy Roman Empire I ended up assassinating 5 successive Popes because the Papal States were being such a nuisance. Another game-changer is the invention of gunpowder, which greatly diminishes the strength of your city walls and castles. For ambitious/naval inclined players, you can also send fleets to explore the ‘New World’ which can gain you a lot of money but also puts you in conflict with the Aztecs. All these means long campaigns have plenty of pratfalls to spoil your plans and prevent things being too easy.

Rating: 5 out of 5!

The game’s expansion pack, Kingdoms, which is included with the base game on Steam, is a great extra, offering four new campaigns and several new factions. You may not care for all of them, but there’s something for everyone, and it adds hundreds of hours of extra gameplay. The following ratings are my opinion – you may like the ones I don’t or vice versa, but they’re all worth trying!

The Americas Campaign: (Factions include New Spain, The Aztecs, The Mayans and the Apache, with another 3 tribal factions unlockable)

The Americas Campaign is my least favourite of the expansions, but if you want a challenge or miss the simpler, barbarian horde factions from RTW, this might be for you! The campaign focuses on Central America and the surrounding area at the time where the Spanish are just starting to invade (England and France will turn up during the campaign as well but aren’t playable). The Aztecs and Mayans are unique factions in Medieval 2 because they completely lack technology – i.e. no artillery, no guns, no cavalry – they rely solely on infantry and foot-based archers/missile troops. While this may sound like a major disadvantage, their numbers are vast and their infantry move VERY fast, so they can hold their own against more ‘civilised’ factions, although heavy casualties are a frequent feature of their campaigns. New Spain have the technology, but lack numbers, so the early game is quite difficult for them, and fighting too many tribes at once will get them easily overrun. The Apache are a balance between the two – initially they are as undeveloped as the Aztecs/Mayans, but once they defeat any army from England, Spain or France, they can learn how to use guns and horsemen. Personally I don’t like this one much (infantry only battles can be a bit of a slog, and the numbers involved are always huge – no small skirmishes here!) though I find the Apache enjoyable to play as.

Rating: 2 out of 5

The Britannia Campaign: (Factions include England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Norway – i.e. Vikings)

One of the best campaigns is the Britannia Campaign. Scotland get a much better unit roster here than in the main campaign, while England face a somewhat harder task than normal due to low approval and lack of funds, not to mention being at war with anywhere from 2-4 of the other factions for the whole game. Ireland are interesting if you like a mix of cavalry and artillery, while Wales are immense fun if you like using archers and playing defensively. Norway are a tough faction to win with, but Viking units are always fun to use, especially their infantry, and you can basically fight whoever you want with them (though Scotland will prove a problem if you don’t see them off early).

Rating: 4 out of 5

The Crusades Campaign: (Factions include Jerusalem [England], Antioch [France], Egypt, The Turks and the Byzantine Empire).

If you liked the whole Crusade aspect of the main game, this is the expansion for you. It’s basically giving you a chance to face off with much stronger units than you’d normally have in an early game. Personally I find it the least ambitious of the four campaigns – 3 factions are basically the same as in the main game, so you’ll probably want to stick with the Crusader states unless you really loved playing as Egypt, Byzantium or the Turks (my personal favourite).

Rating: 3 out of 5

The Teutonic Campaign: (Factions include the Teutonic Order, Lithuania, Denmark and Novgorod [Russia], with Poland and the HRE unlockable)

The Best of the bunch, the Teutonic campaign gives you two very different new factions (fans of Heavy Infantry/Heavy Cavalry will love the Teutonic Order, while the more simplistic armies of pagan Lithuania may provide a decent challenge to those who found the main game easy). Denmark are really fun to play as here, as they start from a much stronger position than in Britannia or the main game, and can really carve into the HRE and Poland before testing themselves against the Teutonic Order. Similarly, Russia (Novgorod) start off much stronger but lack the easy early expansion they had in the main game. Like the Britannia campaign, there’s something for everyone here.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Overall, if you’re any kind of PC gamer who likes strategy/military games, Medieval 2 is still a must have. Its far more accessible than the most recent total war games and in my opinion, far more fun. Its also more refined than Shogun, Medieval or Rome, and thus strikes the best balance between good gameplay and accessibility. Even better, you don’t need a good gaming PC to run this, whereas good-luck getting Rome 2: Total War to run properly on average PC’s. Medieval 2 is probably my favourite PC game of all-time, and I can’t see that changing anytime soon. And if you ever get bored with it (or Rome Total War for that matter) you can always mod the hell out of them.

My Top Games of 2017

As usual for late December, here’s my take on my favourite games I’ve been playing this year. As always, some games weren’t 2017 releases but ones I’ve only just got around to this year. It’s not been a vintage year for gaming (Mass Effect: Andromeda and Star Wars Battlefront 2 both fell short of the mark for different reasons) but there’s still been some really fun entries. So here’s my top 6 and, as a bonus, my favourite bit of DLC too!

6: Guardians of the Galaxy: A Telltale Series

Telltale games may not be your thing if your main focus is gameplay (or graphics for that matter), but for story and character values they always excel. Having breathed new life into the Borderlands series and told interesting tales in the Batman and Game of Thrones universes, they’ve now turned their hands to the Guardians of the Galaxy series. I’ll forewarn film fans that this isn’t tied to the Marvel Film adaptions – the characters are the same, but aren’t voiced by the same actors nor do they look all that similar. But that isn’t an annoyance, as it allows the game makers to push the characters further than they have been in the film series. As you’d except with the Guardians, the dialogue options are often hilarious, but its the strength of the storyline that will grip you. As well as delving into Quill, Rocket, Gamora and Drax’s backstories, the 5 episode series features run-ins with Thanos, the Nova Corp, The Collector’s agents and newcomer Hela the Accuser, a Kree warrior who serves as the main antagonist. Choices in Telltale games often feel emotionally tied to characters rather than having a major impact on the overall plot, but there’s a few here that have lasting impact on the way the last two episodes play out (including whether Nebula and Mantis join the Guardians). Overall the story and characterisation make this a good entry in the series, if admittedly not a perfect one, as the quick-time events are very mixed in quality (they aren’t particularly difficult, and while the melee combat is good enough the shooting mechanics are terrible). I still enjoyed it enough though for it to scrape into sixth place on my list.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

5: Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (PS4 Exclusive). Uncharted 4 may have wrapped up Nathan Drake’s story, but given how much of a success the series has been for Naughty Dog, it seemed inevitable that a spin-off would turn up. So does the series work without its leading man? Er – yeah, of course it does. Chloe Frazer was one of the reasons Uncharted 2 remains the highlight of the series, so having her headline the 1st spin-off was a superb choice, and the less predictable pairing of her and Nadine Ross (i.e. one of the villains from A Thief’s End) works wonderfully. The game isn’t perfect – the first few levels are by-the-numbers and a touch slow, but once you get to the open-world (yes really) area of chapter 4, the game really starts to come to life. The combat is pretty much the same as Uncharted 4, with the only major addition being the ability to use C4 late game. The treasure/collectable hunting is as good as ever and the game is visually stunning (there’s a reason a screenshot from it is my current screensaver). Unlike previous uncharted games, the action takes place in only one country, India, giving it a different feel to earlier games (there’s a big focus on Indian History, Religion and Mythology – replacing the supernatural elements featured in games 1-3 and the pirate storyline from 4). Asav is a workable but not particular memorable villain, though the boss fight with him is challenging. While I agree with other reviewers that the game can sometimes seem like ‘Uncharted’s Greatest Hits’, for the most part its its own beast, and Chloe and Nadine’s turbulent but ultimately engaging relationship coupled with the stunning setting means its well worth your time (and money).

Rating: 4 out of 5

4: Injustice 2 – DC’s track record of making good video games is still intact even if its film efforts are still falling short. Injustice 2’s improved graphics and combat and its enlarged character roster make it worth the upgrade from Gods Among Us. The story mode is fun, and the multiverse events mean there’s basically hundreds of hours worth of gameplay on offer here – and that’s without factoring in the multiplayer modes. Yes the games currency and loot systems aren’t perfect, but they are far from the confusing, cash-grabbing disaster of some games we could mention (cough *Battlefront II*). It can get a little repetitive after a while, but the wide range of characters with different special moves mean its easy to switch things up a bit. Overall a great 1v1 fighting game that certainly gives you your money’s worth.

Rating: 4 out of 5

3: F1 2017 – The latest F1 sim improves on its impressive predecessor in basically every way. It adds two new practice programmes (Race strategy and fuel saving) ensuring that completing all three practice sessions is actually worthwhile, and completely rejigs the R&D tree, so you can no longer get 80% of the upgrades just from one successful season, which makes numerous seasons with the same team actually worthwhile. The difficulty slider is far less rigid that last year – you can now select any level between 1 and 100, which makes small changes possible and gets rid of the large jumps between difficulty levels that lessened my enjoyment of the 2016 edition. The best addition is the championships mode, which allows you to drive classic F1 cars from the 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s in a variety of short championships (hot lap championships, reverse grids events, sprint races, endurance races etc.) which is also an easy way to settle into the game and find what difficulty level is best for you. Overall, the game is a refined, polished version of its predecessor, which barring a few minor quibbles (overtaking can be a bit too easy on lower difficulty or with driver aids on, the safety car periods do drag on a bit) has delivered a great sim for any F1 fan. Worth the upgrade from any previous version.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

2: Skyrim Special Edition – While the Special Edition doesn’t add much beyond vastly improved graphics, it fixes a lot of annoyances the original had (loading times have been cut to about 10% of what they were, while game-ending crashes are now far-rarer if still an occasional factor). Ultimately its worth a £20 upgrade if you liked the original but got frustrated with those issues, never brought the DLC for the original (the Special Edition includes all 3 expansion packs, including the sublime Dawnguard) or want to try out some mods without buying the PC edition. As I did a full review on this already, I won’t say much more, save that Skyrim is still as fun as ever, and with no new Elder Scrolls game in sight yet, this might be a fun way of getting back into the series.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

1: Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4 Exclusive) – There was only going to be one game that could get the top spot this year. It may not be absolutely perfect (the difficulty of individual missions can jump about a bit, the new game plus mode isn’t really necessary), but it’s bloody close and more inventive that anything else on the market (seriously, if uncharted and the last of us weren’t already enough reason for PC/Nintendo/Xbox gamers to get a PS4 on the side, this is). In what was a bad year for Sci-Fi on television (excluding Black Mirror) Horizon Zero Dawn delivered one of the most compelling science fiction storylines I’ve seen in YEARS. But then again, to quote Honest Trailers ‘it takes a shit-ton of plotting to make tribal girl vs. Robot dinosaurs make sense’. Yep its that game. Set on a post-apocalyptic earth where human tribes have lost almost all knowledge of technology and are forced to survive in an oddly tranquil but dangerous environment which is roamed by robotic dinosaurs and other mechanical constructs. But as the game’s labyrinthine story unfolds, both the nature of the apocalypse (no its not a fallout-esque nuclear war) and the reasons for the dinosaurs creation (nope not aliens or anything stupid like that) become clear and are, in a way, strikingly and terrifyingly plausible in the same way some Black Mirror plotlines about rogue technology can be. The storyline is also anchored by main character Aloy, a tribal girl searching for the simple answers (who she really is and who her parents were) who is both an immensely likeable lead and probably the best new videogame character from 2017. The game’s missions range from taking down bandit camps, hunting down a mysterious sun cult, killing rogue robots and exploring ancient ruins to uncover clues (holograms, recordings, notes etc.) about the apocalypse. The robots range from the small scale Watcher and Grazer to the mighty Behemoth and Bellowbacks. While early levels feature foes you can take down with basic bows and spears, later levels see you having to employ everything from bomb slings and tripwires to shock arrows and mines to take down the humungous beasts. Part RPG (open world setting, optional side missions, various dialogue choices and upgrade options) part linear survival/stealth, it looks wonderful, is really fun to play and is extremely engaging. Add the Frozen Wilds DLC if you want an extra challenge.

Rating: 5 out of 5

And my favourite DLC is…

  1. Far Harbor (Fallout 4). Far Harbor is a rarity – a DLC that’s actually better and more engaging than the main game. Fallout DLC’s are often hit-and-miss, but Far Harbor absolutely nails what you want from a DLC: a new, exciting location to explore, new, challenging enemies and a good central storyline to get into. The location for this DLC is an island north of the main commonwealth that is covered in radioactive fog, making exploration of the monster infested island dangerous. It also adds three new major factions: a Synth refuge, the Children of Atom, and the Islanders themselves, who have been pushed back to one measly settlement by the fog and the monsters. The main storyline is engaging and it isn’t clear cut what the optimum moral choice is: the Islanders aren’t always sympathetic, the Synth leader has a pretty immoral past and not all of the Children of Atom are the antagonistic zealots their leaders are. The game gives you a lot of scope for resolving the conflict between the three factions (you can destroy the Children of Atom, allow the fog to overrun the island and kill the Islanders, make peace between the three factions or even call in the Brotherhood or Institute from the main game to wipe out the Synths). The side quests are also good, whether it be slaying the islands wide variety of mutated sea-creatures, helping out the various settlements or playing detective in a vault filled with Robobrains (one of the weirdest and most fun questlines). Far Harbor also avoids several of the pratfalls which weakened the main game: the crafting system plays a minimal role and is far less annoying than usual, while there are three major settlements to align with and do quests for, which is actually more than the main game gave us (let’s be honest, any settlement outside of Goodneighbor and Diamond City sucked in the main game). Overall, this might just be the best DLC a fallout game has given us, even if its attached to one of the weaker entries in the fallout series.

Rating: 5 out of 5!

Hopefully 2018 will be a stronger year for games. With the new Spider-Man, Vampyr, Days Gone and maybe even Last of Us Part 2, it looks pretty promising…

Star Wars: Battlefront 2 Review

Yep, I brought it. A bit of a gamble to be sure but it’s not the worst purchase I’ve made this year (for anyone interested that would be either Mass Effect: Andromeda or my rather underused Gym membership). If by some miracle you’ve missed the furore that has seen EA being repeatedly eviscerated on Reddit, Twitter and every conceivable form of social media because of this game, let me explain. Battlefront 2 costs full price at release (£50 for either console or PC) but features a levelling and reward system so slow and complex that the only way to get everything out of it was to either sink weeks-worth of time or fistfulls of extra cash into the game. Even then you aren’t guranteed to get exactly what you want, because the reward system relies on (sigh) random loot boxes, which leaves a very ‘luck of the draw’ feel to which players are rewarded most. As a result, Battlefront 2 has had the most difficult launch of any game since Mass Effect 3, whose ending got ripped to shreds by fans. And, as with that mess, EA has backed down. Sort of. Scrapping the ability to buy extra in-game currency with real cash does cut out the whole play-to-win issue, and they have reduced the cost required to unlock heroes and weapons. But the game still has plenty of other problems. So why’d I buy it? Simple: the gameplay’s actually quite good.

I loved the first remake last year (at least at launch). The multiplayer was really good, the servers were normally reliable, and everything felt pretty balanced. I didn’t really miss a substantial single-player mode because the online was nailing what I wanted from the game. Then EA messed about with it and fucked it up a bit. They did this because they wanted to sell £30-40 of DLC, which you basically had to buy to access all the new abilities and heroes the DLC packs included (the multiplayer became significantly harder if you persevered with the abilities/heroes from the base game only). The DLC was also a mixed bag (Outer Rim and Death Star were good expansions, but Rogue One and Bespin were undercooked and the maps nothing special). Although EA/DICE did balance out a lot of issues through updates, the gameplay wasn’t as pure as it had been at launch. I’ve still got the original, but I was kind of falling out of love with it, which is part of the reason I brought the new one (which EA has guaranteed will only have FREE DLC).

First up: the good news. Visually, the game’s a massive step up from its predecessor (which looked pretty damn good). The space battles in particular are stunningly rendered. You now can also play as Light or Dark Side in any of the three Star Wars eras (and you get heroes from the Prequel and Sequel trilogies into the bargain, such as Yoda, Darth Maul, Rey and Kylo Ren). Fans of the original Battlefront series will be pleased to hear that it feels a lot more like the originals than last year’s battlefront did (mainly because it has its own unique combat system and classes this time, not just a Battlefield 1 system with a Star Wars paintjob). The multiplayer has also been simplified, now there are only 5 distinct game modes: Blast (Team Deathmatch), Heroes vs. Villains, Starfighter Assault (Space Battles), Galactic Assault (Massive 40v40 game modes) and Strike (a smaller, 8v8 mode similar to Galactic Assault but easier for low level players). While the loss of modes like Cargo and Drop Zone are a slight shame, the lack of crap modes like Turning Point, Infiltration and Sabotage is an improvement, as is the new system of picking one mode and sticking with it for as long as you like (not cycling between modes, as happened in the first game’s DLC). I’m sure EA will throw in extra modes in DLC packs, but the original 5 are more than sufficient atm. The main improvement is the scrapping of power ups. Now, instead of having to memorise where power-ups appear on the battlefield, you get battle points from kills and completing objectives, which you can trade in to get access to jump troopers, flame troopers, heroes and vehicles. It’s a much better system, and ensures that only good players actually get the power-ups, which feels a lot fairer.

Heroes vs. Villains has actually been significantly improved. The new 4v4 battle between heroes is much better than the old version, simply because you don’t have to spend one of every two rounds waiting to be a hero (and getting repeatedly slaughtered as a standard soldier). Instead, each side has 4 heroes, one of which on each side will be marked as a target for the other side to kill. After a minute or so (or when a target is killed), the target player will switch (first side to 10 target kills wins). This allows for some great battles, as most heroes are pretty evenly matched (The Emperor and Lando are still pretty crap to play as but they’re the only duds). Well, they’re evenly matched unless there’s a single high level hero in play, which can get annoying very fast (especially Boba Fett, because Jedi are next to useless against him while he’s airborne).

This can be a recurring problem in the other modes. Galactic Assault, Strike and Blast can all be really fun, but players who’ve sunk time into the game or got lucky with loot boxes can repeatedly annihilate low level players (I know this is normal for multiplayer, but normally a skilled-enough player can compensate at low-level, but the difference here between low and high level players seems a bit more pronounced that it needs to be. Fortunately, there are no such problems in Starfighter Assault, i.e. Battlefront II’s best game mode. Ship combat and handling has been massively improved since the last game, the variety of Hero ships is better and they are all less overpowered. High level players won’t walk this mode, as skill is much more important than levelled abilities here. There are now 3 classes of ship: Interceptor (good at ship to ship fighting and very manoeuvrable but bad at doing damage to objectives), Bombers (highly damaging but slow and hard to manoeuvre) and Fighters (good all-rounders but not perfect at either style).

Looking at the single player, we’ve actually got a campaign this time. It’s a bit short (4-5 hours) but I suspect DLC will add to it. There are some great set pieces (The Battle of Jakku is a highlight, as are Luke and Leia’s levels) and Iden Versio makes for a compelling enough main character, even if the storyline is VERY predictable and the first few levels nothing special. Single-Player/Co-Op Arcade Mode is pretty fun, but is weakened by another stupid game mechanic, which limits the number of credits you can earn from Arcade mode in 24 hours. This seems utterly needless, given that you only get 100 credits per round (and thus would need 100 rounds worth of credits to unlock heroes like Chewbacca anyway) and disincentives you from completing the various challenges.

Overall, the gameplay, feel and look of the thing are perfect, so well done DICE. It’s just a shame you’re owned by EA, whose greed and outright stupidity have left a levelling system and in-game currency that are both needlessly complicated and rather frustrating if you’re not lucky with the loot boxes (Loot Boxes seriously need to DIE! This is the last multiplayer game I will buy which uses them. They are a toxic idea dreamt up by fat executives in suits who presumably could rival Jabba the Hutt for Greed and general Morality). In short, this game still needs work, but it is worth buying (preferably when its on sale – its worth £30, but not the £50 release price), so long as you’re willing to put the time into it. If you’re after a game you can play every so often but not consistently, ignore this. It isn’t an entry for casual gamers.

This isn’t a total failure, and it doesn’t miss the point of what fans wanted from it, but it could (and should) have been a lot better.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Injustice 2 Review

A superhero fighting game that’s actually good? Believe it or not, that’s exactly what we’ve got from NetherRealm Studios. For those who don’t know Injustice 2 is a Tekken/Street Fighter style fighting game which allows you to pit 2 DC heroes or villains against each other. Each Hero/Villain has their own abilities, attacks and Supermoves, ranging from Batman’s melee and gadget attacks to Superman’s various powers.

Minor spoilers for Single Player plotline follow.

The sequel to Injustice: Gods Among Us looks better than its predecessor and features a wider roster of DC characters. You don’t need to have played the original to get to grips with this or to follow the single player storyline (long story short: the first game featured Superman going off the rails and forming a tyrannical regime backed by Wonder Woman, Aquaman and several other superheroes after Lois Lane was murdered by Joker, only for Batman to rally other superheroes, such as Green Lantern and The Flash, against the regime and take Superman down). The story this time continues the power struggle between the two factions while also seeing Earth come under threat from Brainiac, the villain responsible for Krypton’s destruction.

The single player campaign takes between 3-4 hours depending on difficultly setting and your own proficiency. The game features an extensive tutorial mode which YOU NEED to try before jumping right in – it will take you several fights to get up to speed. While the campaign is short, there are so many single player modes that Injustice is well worth the £20/30 price tag. As well as a battle simulator and 1v1 modes, Injustice 2 introduces the ‘Multiverse’ section, which features a daily/weekly selection of challenges (involving a series of events featuring anything from 3-10 matches and an occasional high level boss fight). Multiverse challenges will often feature an additional twist, such as having a secondary hero who will occasionally support you, or added arena hazards to worry about. Given that the multiverse challenges refresh continuously, you’ll never really run out of single player. At least not until you’ve levelled EVERY character up to level 20 (the maximum) at which point only the hardest challenges or the extensive multiplayer might still provide challenges. This would take weeks if not months of gameplay, so you really don’t have to worry about running out of things to do.

As for what Heroes and Villains are available? Well put it this way: if you’re a fan of DC movies, the Arrowverse, Gotham or the various cartoons from when you were kids, you’ll be happy with the selection. Injustice 2 features:

Justice League Members: (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg, Green Lantern and Aquaman)

Batman Villains: (Harley Quinn, Joker, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, Bane)

Arrowverse characters: (Green Arrow, Supergirl, Black Canary, Firestorm, Captain Cold, Gorilla Grodd, Deadshot)

Others: Swamp Thing, Black Adam, Cheetah, Atrocitus, Blue Beetle and various other characters who you may not have heard of before also feature, but are all surprisingly fun to play as.

The season pass is well worth getting as well, as this gives you access to a whole host of extra characters, such as Starfire, The Atom, Raiden, Red Hood, Enchantress, Darkseid and, believe it or not, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!?!?! I don’t think anyone expected them, but there they are.

Incidentally my personal favourites to play as so far have been Starfire, Harley Quinn, Joker and Swamp Thing, but I’m sure everyone will have their own preferences in this game.

Injustice 2’s reward system is a bit more complicated than it needs to be (i.e. 3-4 types of currency where 2 would have really been sufficient), but its not a f*cked up mess like Battlefront II’s seems to be according to reviews, and any pay to play retards (i.e. ones who waste real money buying credits so they can level up faster) won’t actually get themselves much of an advantage in multiplayer. You may get loot crates throughout the game, that’s true, but most of the time the gear they provide is either immediately useable or only 1-3 levels above your characters level, so it isn’t a big problem. They also provide additional skins for your characters, some of which are really cool.

Overall it’s great value for money because of the wealth of potential single-player and multiplayer content. The currency system is a bit contrived and the gameplay can get repetitive, but overall its a fine fighting sim, and a must for DC fans!

Rating: 4 out of 5

Next Up: Horizon Zero Dawn (i.e. the game of the year so far).