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Why We Game - Locations

Why We Game - Locations

When buying a house, they say Location, Location, Location is key. And it’s the same in gaming; imagine Doom set in Tamriel. Here then are our favourite locations in gaming, places so cool, so immersive you play just to be there. Those are our homes away from home. A Plague Tale brings the Middle Ages, the 100 Years War and the Black Death together in one horrible experience - yet the nightmare of death, war, pestilence, famine is an amazing place to be. Plague Tale is the very definition of location makes a game; the final third goes a bit mystical, but the decay and misery that Amicia carries her adorable bro Hugo though brings it horribly home; this actually happened. Bioshock’s Rapture. We’ve had many blighted-future settings, it’s a stalwart of sci-fi but Rapture sends you back in time and to the future in one claustrophobic setting. It’s incredibly beautiful, even in the depths and its decay; the huge windows staring out at the bleak, cold Atlantic work so much better than some coral-infused turquoise sea, and it reminds you you’re under crushing water with no way out except deeper in – into a dead and soulless place, but one that was wonderous once. That opening where the sub drifts through the underwater city as a giant squid swishes by fills you with awe, but inside it’s like the blitz. The Art Deco design, the ornate, overwrought detail; a once-beautiful city decimated yet there’s still a wonder to it, even if you’re picking your way through rotting corpses and failed dreams. Bioshock 3’s Beyond the Sea did Rapture proud in the early levels, restoring it to its pre-war glory, where at least briefly, you can see what a beautiful idea it was. I’d live there, even after the war. I’d not last long, but it'd be worth it. Oblivion is my favourite fantasy RPG, but my fave fantasy location is its precursor, Morrowind; it was genuine high-fantasy. Those Daedric shrines, the crypts with the whispering and creaking, the old ruins, the towns carved out of the environment, the forlorn Silt Striders and vast expanses; you had to really get into the world to survive it, become like the complex, often corrupt citizens. They weren’t the jolly NPCs of Oblivion or the racist arses of Skyrim, those were survivors and you took their cues and learnt how a filthy swit carves their way through the Ashlands. Sticking with Bethesda’s glory days, you can’t list environments without mentioning Fallout 3. Everything is gone and anything that's survived is dangerous or desperate. But the communities you find, dug into any corner that can sustain them allow some hope to seep in, that humanity might survive this, and that drives you to do your part. It’s one of the few apocalypse games that doesn’t focus purely on you taking out some new totalitarian government – that is a key part, but it’s not what you take from it. It’s picking your way through the rubble, marvelling at how humanity adapts that stays with you. Fallout 3 allowed for hope, but Mad Max was about as fatalistic as you can get - it conjures images of Cormack’s The Road, where the world was dying and nothing was going to save it. Charging about in a rusted muscle car raiding camps for supplies, trading skills at settlements and living one moment to the next was both amazing and repetitive, but it was the world that gave you Max’s survivor attitude. The first half, set in a desiccated ocean bed was dusty, full of wrecks and dead whales, but the second half, in what remained of civilisation was worse; buried under sand dunes, no one’s rebuilding or looking to the future, they’re just hanging on, surviving by any horrible means necessary. It’s an incredibly nihilistic game, as it should be; how can you live in a world where you’re forced to eat maggots and watch kids die and not become an animal? Arkham City is a fantastic bat-fantasy game, but its the Escape from New York-channelling streets that convinced me I was the Bat; swooping across rooftops, hanging from gargoyles is one bat-thing, but it was the gritty, dangerous, lawless streets that got under my cowl and me into character. I am the Dark Knight. Thanks to the City. The Far Cry series has created some stunning worlds for us to blow up - a desert island, Africa, a downtrodden paradise, Tibet, but the 5th is the one that really got to me. This was real, normal, relatable, everyday Montana not some distant or exotic fantasy island, and that made the standard Far Cry experience all the more compelling; the locals, the big rigs, the American accents and love of guns; it was close to home, even if you don't live in Big Sky Country. I would chase off the god-bothering locals just so I could fish in peace. I want to retire here. Noir games tend to try too hard to replicate the look - long shadows, smoke, sharp corners. They fall into cliché, but LA Noire wasn't noir, it was an incredible reproduction of post-war 40s. I loved the monotony of investigating petty crimes just because it allowed me to ferret through 40s era knick-knacks; I never got tired of the streets, the people, the cars, hanging around Soda Bars, wandering the streets in my fedora. LA Noire was the 40s unfussily brought to life. I spent hours just taking in the extraordinary attention to the ordinary. You can’t list locations without visiting the animus. And where do you go from there? Every Assassin's Creed excelled at bringing its time-period to life and they were all staggering, from BC to AD. The Holy Land, Renaissance Italy, the American Frontier, the Caribbean, Revolutionary France, Classical Egypt, Ancient Greece; but it was Syndicate that really pulled me in. Maybe it’s because it’s my manor, but seeing London at its height, the era of Victorian arrogance, racing a horse-drawn carriage through a Pea-Souper, I became a Dickensian ne'er-do-well, skipping across the mucky Thames, dashing through back alleys and mills and factories, leaping from Big Ben, watching upper-class ladies promenade and little street urchins on the fiddle. While I struggled with Alien Isolation, I would argue some of that was due to being distracted by the extraordinary set design (not at all due to the un-kill-able Alien stalking me. Totally not that.) It so completely replicated the look of the Nostromo that it was all too easy to slip into the mind-set of Ripley (or in my scaredy-cat case, Lambert). I was amazed at the nodding birds, the drink containers, the androids doing the warm-up run, the big keys, it perfected the 70s imaginings of the future - it puts me right where I don’t want to be; up against an Alien. Sticking with outer space and the same retro-future look, all the Star Wars games reproduce George’s vision but Dark Forces II was the one to really make me feel like a Nerf Herder. Chasing through the mean streets where scum and villainy reigned just worked better than other SW games - including the modern takes - because it was the seedy underbelly where Cantina regulars lived. It’s not aged well at all, but that doesn’t matter; the environments perfectly capture the original SW feel (Not the Special Edition, I always shoot first) and tonally, it’s never been bettered. We're not some squeaky-clean Luke-wannabe, we're a Han Solo wannabe and it's a perfect world to play that character. Even with its am-dram FMV, it was the only game to make the Kessel run right to my childhood excitement about SW. I loved Borderlands’ Pandora. Not for its comic book style - for that, see The Darkness II or XIII - it's that we’re in a junkyard. Pandora was a ghost town, a once prosperous gold-rush frontier which corporations gutted then dumped when it came up empty. What remained was a shithole of tire-fires, scrap, gutted mines; all that was left was a destroyed surface and a whole bunch of people left behind to survive the bandit clans and local nasties. But it’s not the wasteland itself that I love, it’s that Pandora is the very definition of setting the scene; it immediately teaches you nothing much matters; we’re not here to save it, we’re here to pick it’s bones - you look around and think “okay, I get it”. And that’s what makes a good setting. Not exactly a location in the same way as the other games on this list, but one place I feel at home is aboard the Normandy. It’s true that with each Mass Effect, the changes and updates mean I have to relearn how to get about, but it still feels like home. Shepard doesn’t have anywhere else, and it’s where their relationships develop, their team becomes friends and pet fish go to die. It’s where you come to terms with the enormity of what’s expected of you, what needs to be done. We strike out from -and limp back to- the Normandy, and eventually watch it leave as we make our final stand against the Reapers. It represents home and hope, and in the end it’s the place where we’re remembered. Stauff’s mansion in The 7th Guest is the oldest location on this list, and the least welcoming. A haunted, rotten, evil place but one that I adore. You step into that mansion and completely get it. I’m in a murder mystery, the original Cat and the Canary, the William Castle movies I grew up on as a kid. There’s just something so wonderfully old-school about Stauff’s mansion, a proper haunted house that unnerves, rather than some jump-scare or run-hide nonsense like all Haunted House games now - it's just classy. I am a Guest, but I’d be a resident if I could. Blocky, pixelated 90s era graphics are rarely convincing, and Blood’s levels are not exactly consistent - but fighting through Friday the 13th and The Shining, carnivals and ghost towns was more interesting than Doom’s gloom or Duke’s strip-joints. But what really got me was Blood was me as a teenager. The alt-punk look, the gothic tone, the creatures straight out of Lovecraft, the Evil Dead and Carpenter refs, and the Elvia calendar - back in the nineties, to see that in the game then look up and see it on my wall meant this game was made by designers I could have a beer with. I can imagine they grew up like me, saw the same movies, wore the same band t-shirts. I’ve never felt so ‘in’ a game since - and that includes VR; unless they create a VR Elvira game. I’ll never be an astronaut or a mercenary or even remotely heroic, but it’s not always the character I play that makes me feel the part. It’s the worlds that I disappear into. Without background we’re just going through the same motions. Fantastical, realistic, sci-fi, historical, scary or surreal; tons of locations, locations, locations are just a double-click away and cost less than a mortgage. Just like in real life you worry about where the nearest shop is, is the area safe, will your car get nicked, but I’d still rather stress about Cliff Racers, a Big Daddy or tommy-gun wielding monks than what eco-rating my house has.

Prodeus

Prodeus

More Doom than Doom Created by ex-Raven employees, with levels designed by "Dragonfly", a veritable God of modern Doom level designs, Prodeus has Doom-clone written all over it, another retro-ironic game like Dusk or Ion Fury. Instead, it’s something else… it’s a Doom II WAD played in Doom Eternal with a Brutal Doom mod. It’s perfect. And it’s not even finished yet. The developers described it as a "first-person shooter of old, re-imagined using modern rendering techniques" - I describe it as “someone time-travelled to ‘93 and gave Romero a modern PC”. The standards are there – Imps, machine gunners, exploding floaters, secrets, auto-map, keys, a shotgun (or any of the planned 18 weapons). The only thing that throws me out of the 90s is I have to keep reloading. We didn’t worry about that back in my day. But then the blood and body parts splatter around you in a weirdly attractive way and you notice the world, while 90s-like, is sleek and modern. It messes with your head, how it’s merging 2020s play with 1990s aesthetics, or 1990s play with 2020 aesthetics. Not sure. It’s hard to explain but it works. It’s like young me and old me having a beer and swapping gamer war stories. The levels might be well designed but I can’t see through all the Gibs. Even Brutal Doom would think this goes a bit far. Everything is constantly soaked in red, creatures exploding all over the place like water balloons; it’s like a violent foam party. Some are standouts, like navigating a maze-like map with snipers on it and an Arena style level filled with the names of fallen beings/Kickstarters. There’s a fair amount of backtracking but it doesn’t feel like filler, and levels make some sort of twisted, frantic sense. You lean into a Speed-run way of playing, like a full-frontal assault and they’re throwing everything they have at you – which is a mistake. You feel like Arnie in Commando. The sound design is top notch too. The weapons sound so meaty I sometimes fire them even when there’s nothing in my sights (Kidding. There’s always something in your sights). A standout is one weapon’s Sniper setting which lets off a thunderclap as the bullet flies. Whoa. And the creatures cackle, scream and growl endlessly, its like playing Doom with Evil Dead on in the background. As we progress through the levels, a new kind of monster starts to appear, which the original lot seem to dislike because it can possess them – zombie-zombies? No idea what that’s all about, and we spend a lot of time recovering Runes, for no reason other than portals won’t open until we find them, but no idea what they’re all about either. I didn’t get chance to ask. This is one of those games that pulls this kinda crap on you- It does feel like there’s more going on here than we know about. Prodeus is up to something, something invasion-y but I never really miss knowing what the hell I’m doing. There's some plotting during the level loads but as I waded neck deep in gibs, I got a sense that… actually, I’ve got no idea what’s going on. Prodeus as in produce? I just got that. I think. Am I the Produce? I don’t have time to figure it out. I have a gun and it’s pointing their way, that’ll do. One thing I rediscovered while playing this is the reliance on regenerating health. I’d forgotten how much of a wuss that made me – get hit, find a hidey-hole, wait for the health to rise, return to battle. None of that here. And that brings back that sense of recklessness, that Oh F’it attitude where you just wade in, figuring you’ll take some of them with you. At times it does fall a little into Doom hero-worshipping. Many of the creatures feel like reskins and the level design doesn’t stray from the industrial and alien tone; it does occasionally feel like a total conversion but it’s in the firefights that the welding of old and new comes into its own. I can enjoy modern physics and old-school mentality. It could be argued that this is just a retail version of a Doom WAD in Brutal, and there’s dozens of those out there for free. But this isn’t a throwback or a winking, self-aware in-joke, this is a carefully crafted return to the feeling you got the first time you played Doom in ’93. Prodeus is exactly what we’ve been bitching modern shooters having been missing. You can alter the settings to get it exactly how you want; down to Wolfenstein or up to 2020 standards – you can even turn the bad guys into 2D Sprites. The final release is due before the end of this year. The Early Access version available right now doesn’t have an ending, but then it didn’t have much of a beginning either. I completed all the available levels in one awesome afternoon and it sent me spiralling to the backend of my Steam Library looking for Rise of the Triads and Redneck Rampage. There’s a level creator and of course, the most popular are Doom recreations. This is a love poem to the Doom WAD creators that kept us going. This is the Doom 3 we should have gotten. This is the future and the past of FPS. It’s my shooter of the year.

Apsulov: End Of Gods

Apsulov: End Of Gods

FBT is a Norse legend. Basically a walking sim of Doom, it’s the old ‘scientists unleashed evil and only you can stop it’ plot, but while we’ve walked those dark, threatening corridors many times, I’m loving the chance to delve into Norse legends; it looks like a Ridley Scott 1980s fever-dream. Waking on a surgical table with no memory, Alice is berated by the petulant AI that’s experimenting on her; guessing that something’s not right, Alice escapes and discovers that scientists had excavated Yggdrasil – the tree at the centre of Norse legends that connects the Nine Worlds – and now it’s growing over Earth. Using its roots, Alice must transport between Norse worlds to stop an evil force from taking over. Early on, one of the surviving scientists gives Alice a hand - after she loses hers. This arm allows her to fire largely ineffective bursts of energy at enemies, crack door locks (one of the more annoying puzzles we face), scan objects and collect data we need. I’m not entirely sure what we’re collecting, or why the AI-thing is so pissy and sends various nasties after us, but that’s because it feels so generic I don’t really pay any attention. But while its gameplay is a little tired, you never tire of just gawking at the beautiful design, story, and Norse legends brought to life. Still, art-design only gets you so far. The creatures are inspired but they all behave the same – lumber until they hear you, chase then give up if you duck behind something. If they catch up, they do weak slap attacks which Alice with her metal arm and metal attitude seems oddly susceptible to. Or we face off against huge, nightmarish creatures that patrol certain areas and we have to -mostly by luck- evade. Interestingly, rather than just die and return to a checkpoint, we’re sent all the way back to 1996 to re-enact the sequence in Prey where you’d complete a challenge in the afterlife, and get sent back to where you were before – usually to just get offed again. It’s more annoying than clever, and one of the most tiresome elements of the game. Overall it is tension-filled and tough, and the creatures are always unnerving, but just feel unnecessary. We’ve got the entire Norse pantheon to experience here, why we playing hide and seek in Doom corridors? We also have a kind of sight ability. For no good reason, folks leave clues that can only be seen with your vision. Who are they hiding this from? It does make the sneaky sequences a bit more interesting, but mostly it’s just ‘locked door, turn on sight, follow clue, get around door’ - just feels unnecessary or at least underused. Also similar to Prey, the world is often alive and pulsing, as the roots crept through the facility absorbing everything and everyone in its path. You basically follow those to the root’s end, where a portal takes you to one of the worlds, following the scientists who rather foolhardily thought would be a good idea, only to be taken apart by whatever legend lives there. Exploring the Nine, we discover more about the scientist's plans, and how they really didn’t go according to plan. Aside from that, we stroll through the world until we find a rune-like piece then beam back to the facility before some evade-the-creature sequence and follow a new root. Sadly, given this is an indie title, its often left to our imaginations when it comes to some of the beings the scientists scream about, or we just see them in the distance before a scripted event occurs, but taking a walk through the world is incredibly immersive; it’s like one-half a Grimm’s fairytale, one half a badly done stealth-shooter. It would have been so much more fun to just walk and witness those worlds for what they are, instead of the occasional, often clunky fights and threats. And the annoying puzzles. Apsulov would have been awesome as just a puzzler-walker, or had a story mode, but even on easy settings it’s not easy to keep trudging forward, the nasties and puzzles getting in the way of an amazing world brought to terrifying life. So much potential, all this mythology, and then we have to sneak about or figure out the same door-locking puzzle over and over. It is hugely impressive, beautiful to look at and thoughtfully done, but it’s disconnected from the gameplay, and rarely executed in a way that means anything and the threats feel like they’re there because the developers thought they needed to jazz it up a bit. You don’t need to jazz up a mythology that gave us the Valkyrie.

Lost Ember

Lost Ember

FBT finds the lost ember. And loses it. Essentially a four-legged Walking Sim, Lost Ember is the work of Mooneye, a tiny German Indie Studio (so tiny, the six-person team includes the office dog). A critic’s darling on release, it earned multiple awards and reviews like “endlessly fascinating” and “laudably ambitious” - it often deserves a superlative, but equally it’s just lative. In some faraway land the human civilisation has died out and a human spirit, reduced to a ball of light, is blocked from entering the ‘city of light’. It finds a reincarnated spirit in the body of a wolf, with the ability to possess the wildlife - neither can remember their past lives, or their sins, so Wolf and Ball-soul team up to resolve their pasts and reach the City of Light. As Wolf and Ball-soul progress through ruins reclaimed by nature, certain locations trigger their memories, recalling the events that led to the human’s downfall, and their part in it. It’s almost immediately clear the two souls are not strangers, and within two hours of this six-hour game you’ve figured it out – which means those next four hours feel a lot longer. It should be compelling, thought-provoking, moving - and occasionally it is, but the game falls quickly into repetition, while the plot is nothing new. Least we have a menagerie to play as. At first it’s beautiful being those animals – a parrot flying through the canopy, a humming bird buzzing through fields, a mole-thing digging tunnels, but you never really get to ‘be’ them – there’s no threats, no predators, it’s not an animal sim – we’ve done this kind of soul-slinging, NPC-controlling thing before but here it doesn’t matter what you are, you just hold down Forward. If you come up against a problem, an animal with a very particular set of skills will be nearby. The animals often have quirks – take a rest, burrow for food etc., but it seems unnecessary when the animals are just facsimiles, not realistic experiences. To its credit it keeps dropping new animals, but it doesn’t feel particularly natural, this is closer to a zoo where random animals are forced together. You never look at, say, a jungle and think “right, I need to find a monkey to scale those trees’, you just get a prompt, click and go ‘oh, I’m a grub?’ and get it done in a linear fashion rather than go play. It means no more, experience-wise, than if you’d changed your character’s clothing. The lack of immersion in the animal-world means you focus on the human story, but that’s not exactly compelling either. Plus, stopping you from investing in it is the decision to have narrative scenes play out as static statue-like shapes. Those scenes go on for several minutes, often without voice-over yet characters are curiously one-dimensional. That’s not entirely fair. The story does have a nice way of unfolding, with the Wolf seemingly cast as a villain early on, while their acts may become justified the further you go, while Ball-soul’s innocent Dory from Finding Nemo act starts to become tarnished. The game does have some larger themes and comments it’s trying to make, but it’s heavy-handed and character motivations feel forced. It would have served the story so much better to actually have the Wolf be a Wolf, see the human story play out from the point of view of both a human and an animal as they navigate a world healing itself. On top of which, Ball-soul is a ball-ache. Constantly banging on about how great everything is, how impressive humans were before they all died, it’s like being followed around by Brilliant Kid from The Fast Show. They’re the most uncynical dead person I’ve ever met. It’s like having a developer commentary on and they’re pointing out all their hard work. And Ball-soul repeats itself endlessly. I get it, impressive building work. The art design is lovely, but after a while you lose the sense of grandeur. I’m not saying I’d want it photo-realistic, but the simple look limits the amount of awe I’m experiencing. Another drag is a completely redundant collectables. Why?! It’s frustrating enough to be searching for a cut-scene unlocker, but to discover it’s just a collectable is annoying. The world does feel huge though, and we travel massive distances, across almost every kind of terrain you can imagine but it often feels a bit overstretched and the design reveals its limitations. I only have so much awe to give. But I do occasionally aww at the animals and get surprisingly attached to them. When I possessed a duckling, I found myself waddling him back to his parents rather than abandoning it, and when I beached a fish I went back and jumped into the water so it could swim off. There are moments of absolute breath-taking beauty, and a few edge-of-your-seat moments, like the hummingbird caught in high winds or the wolf running with buffalo. Other games have pulled this off with varying degrees of success – Journey or Gris for example, but this feels like a proof of concept that needs filling out. I get what it’s going for but it’s not as affecting as Mooneye think. I was moved by some later moments as the two lost souls eventually collide, but the final scene where the game tries to even it all out and make it all okay grates after what we witnessed. So close. You do often feel wild and untamed, reclaiming the ruins and world, but its not what we’re here for, we’re just charging ahead in a mostly linear way with no time to look around and not much to do. The idea that we’re reliving the final moments of this human race and at the same time get to see a world that’s doing really well without them is grand, but it doesn’t really land. I’d be perfectly happy to let them stay dead and go play with the guppy’s doing white water rafting or teach that duckling to fly.

Euro Truck Simulator 2

Euro Truck Simulator 2

FBT is not King of the Road I’ve never understood why you’d want to simulate real life. Why try to hold down a real job when I can be fighting dragons, committing crimes and saving the universe? And yet, a game where you just drive a lorry has sold millions and is rated Overwhelmingly Positive on Steam. Are there that many frustrated lorry drivers out there? Once I’ve picked an appropriately trucker-looking avatar, PW Haulage is ready for business. Except, I’m not. The biggest issue I have with ETS2 is you can’t freeroam until you’ve made enough money to buy your own rig – boring! But, I have to admit, if it just gave me a truck I’d not do anything but drive it like I stole it. The period of time where you’re freelancing odd jobs until you can start your own business is like a long-distance tutorial. And it turns out I need it. Driving a truck is hard. You really get the scale, the size, and being higher up gives you both more visibility and a sense of superiority. I always wondered how truck and bus drivers kept their nerve in those behemoths, and now I know – from up here I really do own the road. Well, I would own the road if I could get out of the parking lot. Trying to reverse an articulated truck is insane. Everything goes the opposite way, I thought I had the axis controls flipped. The game does give a top-down view to help, but it doesn’t. It's witchcraft managing to back up a truck. It just won’t behave. I can’t even work out how I get so stuck. Once I am free of the parking lot though, a massive smile breaks out. Its satisfying plodding along. It’s also terrifying. I keep forgetting about my massive backside and damaging everything, clipping kerbs and clouting parked cars – who parks on a corner anyway!? But soon I lean into it, get to know the lorry’s temperament and limitations, and soon enough I’m piling down the motorway, arm on the windowsill. While it is both relaxing and intense, eventually the novelty wears off. Motorways get boring and when I reach the depot, I again spend forever somehow getting the load into every physically impossible position except where it’s needed, and I get a bit fed up with it. It’s also just annoying having to do tons of small – in terms of return, not distance – jobs to get your truck and business. As I’m checking the jobs page I notice a Loans option… Now with a loan I have no chance of paying off, I get the cheapest truck I can and we’re off! The roads are more realistic than accurate, it’s not google maps we’re driving but it looks and feels great and I recognise a lot out of the windows. Freeroam fun. But while I do waste valuable time and money not to mention ruin my only truck trying to find my childhood home, old school, favourite pubs and the like, there’s not the detail I hoped for, including the cities you visit – I even drove for actual real-world hours from London to Prague to visit SCS’ offices, but home-town Prague was pretty much just the ring road. I get bored again, but I also feel like I gave up too easily and realise the appeal of sims is doing something right. It is hard to get out of the GTA mindset; or at least Smokey and the Bandit – I often I look at the GPS and think ‘I could just cut across that field…’ but not doing so is the reward. When you finally pull into the drop off point, there’s a real sense of achievement at piloting one of those big rigs. Behaving as you should - within an acceptable margin for typical trucker behaviour - is a really satisfying challenge and getting better jobs because of your professionalism is a real motivator. I’m enjoying the simple pleasure of driving my rig, making great time and just doing a job. Whenever you free roam in an open world like GTA, mayhem is only moments away, but here you’re enjoying the monotony. The trucks are legit and so well detailed, and I discover I have favourites – there’s so many subtleties to a cab. Although the distances and time is reduced, it’s no mean feat to set off from London for Italy, and it’s exciting switching between the road layouts and styles of the countries I pound my gas-guzzling, ozone-depleting big-rig through. Coming through! I gotta get this Basil to France. I realise – as I deliver Grapes to Cambridge - this is more than just a truck driving sim, it’s an incredibly detailed management sim. Weighing up the suicide runs (high-risk, high-reward), the long-hauls (distance vs returns) and the quick runs (fast and cheap) against the money I need to build a business, buy hubs, hire drivers, unlock better routes, there’s much more to this than working on my right arm’s tan. I’d like to say that in the end I had a fleet to rival Eddie Stobart and retired with my trophy wife to Marbella while Channel Five does a fly-on-the-wall docu series about the business. But no. PW Haulage is barely keeping the banks at bay. I am a crap hauler, but this is a good game. It’s amazed me how ETS2 makes something so seemingly mundane a really compelling experience. While it takes some perseverance, and its mostly motorways, you have to keep your wits and there’s a joy in just getting things done. The trailer parking is tougher than any boss in Dark Souls, and at times you do sit there in the cab thinking “what the hell am I doing?” but great to have some game time that doesn’t require button-mashing. The most amazing thing about ETS2 though, is this was released in 2012 - and in 2021 they’re still adding cities, new trucks, designs, improvements, fan-requests, events and contests, updating routes with detail and realism … they even added seat adjustments. A lot of it for free. Its cool they continue to support the Trucker-Sim community. Simulator games are huge and now I really see why. There’s something compelling about stepping into real shoes, not fantasy ones – and it seems everyone’s 9-to-5 is a sim game now – and more. There’s a Robot Vacuum Cleaner sim, for those who always wanted to be a Roomba. Right now, on Steam at least, there’s 28,575 truck drivers in ETS2 at this very moment. And I’m happy to be one of them. Next time I see an Argos lorry backing down a cul-de-sac to deliver a dishwasher, I’ll nod knowingly at the driver. It’s a living.

Why We Game - Enemies

Why We Game - Enemies

FBT lists all the the bad guys who’s names he didn’t catch. This isn’t about the bosses with the most complex behaviour or most evil acts. This is about their cronies, the bullet-catchers, the ones who pop up when you pick up the key, the nameless hordes we cut through. This is a memorial to the ones that sacrificed themselves. The villains in No One Lives Forever are in a class of their own; the Opera-warbling Inge, Scottish brute Armstrong, the bored Elite Guard and Volkov with his constant annoyance at everything. But the real heroes are the nameless henchmen. The one-liners and rambles you overhear make you almost sad to put them down, and more than once I got shot because I waited too long, listening to them complaining about mothers-in-law and the correlation between alcohol and criminal behaviour. NOLF2’s clown-mimes were fun for a while, bleating in French and getting stuck behind invisible walls, as well as the out of shape police in India who you'd best with a banana peel, but it was NOLF1’s observations of life as a henchman that made it such a joy to play. The bad guys in Far Cry Blood Dragon aren’t a chatty bunch, but like NOLF’s henchmen they work so well at setting the scene – this time, a classic 80s actioner; dressed in leather and a bike helmet, they look like the video cover of The Exterminator, pure straight-to-video Cannon Films bad guys which is perfect, but the real stars of the show are the Blood Dragons. When they hunker down and shimmy like a cat about to pounce … now I know what a mouse feels like. Eek. You can sneak past if you’re brave enough, but they shoot laser blasts from their eyes, change colour based on mood, chase you in jeeps like you’re in a neon Jurassic Park and bite the heads of NPCs. This might be the best game that’s named after a randomly spawning bad guy. Sticking with Far Cry, the human enemies of Far Cry 3 aren’t anything special. They’re effective enough, and ridiculously accurate but they’re not the challenge. Nature is. Getting pestered by dingoes, chased by Komodo Dragons, even pissing off a Cassowary is bad enough, but that’s nothing compared to suddenly hearing a low growl and turning to see a Tiger about to pounce, stepping on a snake, or taking a swim near a Bull Shark. The whole place is like taking a stroll in Australia. But the ultimate experience in gruelling terror is getting too close to the river’s edge. Bloody crocodiles. Nothing tops the first time you get put in a death roll. I’ve been killed by pirates because I’m too scared to jump into a river. I always feel conflicted killing my way through Bioshock. The denizens of Rapture are the most three-dimensional, complex characters I’ve ever murdered; they have more humanity than most games’ leads. The horribly disfigured Splicers with their regret and addictions are incredibly tragic. Until they catch sight of you. Then they’re gutting you with fish hooks, clambering on the ceiling, using Plasmids - they’re no longer tragic, now they’re terrifying. But the ones that I feel really bad about are the Big Daddy’s, because none of this was their own doing. Forced into the deep-sea divers’ gear, pumped full of control Plasmids and allowed only one thought - protect the little sister - they’re like the mother bear and you’re between them and their cub. When you engage one you can sense their determination; it just wants to protect a little girl. To them, you’re the monster. I feel sad when I put one down - why won’t you wake up Mr Bubbles?! I don’t know exactly why, but I love fighting the Bandit Psychos in Borderlands. There’s just something so joyous in their commitment to getting shot in the face. The larger enemies and the Skags are what they are, but the Psychos are just so insanely insane. They don’t require a great deal of tactical work to best, but they represent the only way to survive Borderlands - run towards the danger. They're no different to you really; kill everything, loot everything; the only reason you’re the hero is because you shot first. The Replicas of FEAR are pretty much the opposite of the Borderlands Bandits. They’re alive. I know it’s scripting but the replica army is aware; the way they move and react always makes for brutal gunplay, but it’s the way they panic, desperately call for backup or only hazarding shots to keep you at bay rather than go on the offensive – and even argue with each other; “Move up!”/“No fuckin’ way!” - we actually scare them which was an awesome change from most fearless FPS foes. Alma and her secrets made FEAR a thinking-man’s shooter, but I’m still convinced the Replicas are thinking too. They may not have the Replica's finesse, but I always found the troops in Half-Life to be great opponents. It might seem basic now but they pack a punch and they’re paced perfectly; aggressive, accurate and unforgiving, I loved taking them on. I can take or leave the Vortigaunts and Headcrabs, those guys stayed with me for a long time, they just seemed more determined than Dooms Zombie Riflemen. In Opposing Force those guys were my buddies which might have impressed more character onto them in HL replays, but either way they were the standard in military hardnuts for years. For me, the MVPs of Doom-era FPS were Blood’s chanting monks. They looked like Jawas on crack. They seemed to really enjoy trying to kill you; hurling dynamite and using Tommy Guns, they were like some Halloween party just got out of hand. But about the only ones that top them were those flashy wizards from Heretic that would whisper incantations as they lobbed disco balls at you, looking fab in their dazzling cloaks. In an era known for its simple playstyle, the villains of Heretic and Blood were just that little bit more dramatic, like stage-school kids compared to Doom’s bullies at the back of the bus. You can imagine the monks and wizards call everyone ‘darhling!’ and love musicals. In Oblivion you can never be sure what you’ll meet, from a bandit to a Minotaur, but it’s a prime example of enemies make a game; they’re not just there to get in your way, they help convince you the world is real. You might hear the seductive giggle of the Spriggan, encounter the Land Dreugh that looks like it escaped from Harryhausen’s studio or face any of the demonic creatures from Oblivion itself; it’s stuffed full with classic fantasy creatures that reminded you you’re not in Kanas anymore. Cyrodiil’s Great Outdoors was wonderful to get lost in, but it was what you encountered that made it real. "I don't hate you." No, but I hate myself. There’s something so gut-wrenching (and funny) about taking out the turrets in Portal. The one that says “I’m scared” when you kill it is heart-breaking. I’m sorry! Their chatter and observations make the turrets the most endearing bad guys of all time. The way they call out “is anyone there?” sounds so innocent, like they’re the ones nervous not you but what gets me is when they try to make me feel better for killing them. I’ve never felt so bad killing something. And of course, they have a great singing voice. Horizon Zero Dawn So that's my list of baddies I felt bad for killing. Sounds odd to have favourite enemies. They may be expendable, but they were memorable. Nameless henchmen help you level-up and toughen-up ready for the final reckoning. Pour one out for the ones that stuck their heads out even when they knew we’d shoot it off. I even love those Daedra that pop up in Morrowind when you steal gems from a shrine. Spell ready, grab the jewel, turn and cast. Soz not soz.

The Novelist

The Novelist

FBT is a ghost being driven out of his home by a moany family. Set around the 80s or 90s (maybe the 70s based on the lead’s porn-star moustache), the Kaplan family move into a condo on the beach where dad Dan hopes for the focus to complete his novel, while his wife tries to amuse herself and bullied son tries to fit in. But they’re not alone in this house; a voyeuristic ghost witnesses the family’s thoughts and fears, and influences Dan’s choices as he balances his work and family life. There’s two modes, Story or Stealth. In Stealth, the family can spot you and that influences their behaviour, but you can invisibly navigate by haunting light fixtures, which you can make flicker to draw their attention while you go nose through their diaries. What kind of person was I to have stuck around in the afterlife just to meddle? As well as reading their diaries we can also read their thoughts. But those are just snippets like ‘wish he’d try harder’ or ‘hope dad takes me to the beach like he promised’. You can also enter their memories, revealing what’s bothering them – Dan ignoring his wife, her wishing to join an artist’s co-op, the kid feeling lonely. This is basically a management sim – in fact, it’s just The Sims, we’re trapped in a Sims house. Actually, it’s not even as complex as a bunch of Sims milling about. This is Oblivion NPC-level stuff. They circle, mutter ‘hello’ at each other and that’s it. Within only a few minutes you’ve scoped out the house and the people, and all you do is click on thoughts, watch each one’s memory then you wait until they sleep and whisper to Dan, which dictates what action he’ll take. Whichever you chose will impact one positively, but piss off the other two. And discovering their innermost thoughts is extremely basic. There’s no real insight, just what they want to do that day. Rather than being able to make them understand what Dan is trying to achieve, you're deciding if he or they get a fun day out. If everyone would just suck it up for a few weeks and let Dan write the damn book he’d be free to indulge them, but it’s designed to be impossible rather than complex, impactful choices. Also the choices are so groan-worthy. Of course Dan gets an opportunity to do a public book reading the same day his wife has to attend a funeral. Of course his wife’s art co-op needs funds just as he gains the money for his book to be advertised. Of course he needs this particular day to finish a chapter the same day as a kids-go-free offer at a theme park. I was really hoping I’d be like The Overlook's Grady and send Dan insane, have the wife find ‘all work and no play makes jack a dull boy’ on the typewriter then chase her with an axe. But no, it's endless no-win options which quickly stops being impactful. I don’t get why we have to interfere in everything. What are we doing? Are we some good ghost that just wants to help Dan understand his family? It's also rather narrow-minded that we can only influence Dan. I know this is 70s/80s/90s but come on, how come he’s always deciding what the family does, how the wife behaves, how happy the kid is? Surely it would be more complex and rewarding for a ghost to give everyone an insight. Why can’t we influence the wife to take more of an interest in the kid, why is it all on Dan? And why is the wife so selfish as to say "Dan pays for all this... wish he didn't work so much" which is it?! You can never win. I gave wifey the money for her art project, and the next day she’s bitching about my drinking. I stop drinking, she moans I'm no fun. The book is his job yet at no point does the wife actually let him get on with it, it’s always couched like ‘I know he needs to do the book, but…’. Having said that, why the hell does Dan keep wandering away from his typewriter? She has a point. You can create compromises, where no one’s happy, but quite quickly I realised the one who was the most unhappy was me. Wandering this basic house listening to passive-aggressive complaints from three people who never actually talk to each other is infuriating. I got the worst possible ending – Dan’s book failed and he took a teaching job. The wife had to leave her art behind, they both ended up in a loveless marriage filled with affairs. And the kid? He got bullied, failed at school and wound up taking dead-end jobs and becoming a loner?! As it listed his failures, I expected it to end with him going postal. It might be an indie game but that doesn’t excuse how incredibly basic this is. We’re distanced because we’re not part of the family, and influencing Dan is far too narrow an experience. If we were a ghost looking out for the lonely kid we’d have insight, seeing the adult world from the point of view of this kid could have been heart-breaking. Especially the kid I ended up creating. As an art game exploring what it takes to keep people talking, about how communication and sacrifice are key, even one about the cliché 'life is what happens while you're busy making other plans' it totally fails. It's incredibly smug too, gleeful in the way it constantly sets you up to fail. I wanted to make the family happy, find a route for all but there's no way to create a happy unit; but the creator did – the end credits gush about how supportive and wonderful his wife was during this process. Maybe if you’d spent less time making her happy and more on the game we’d all be happier.

Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn

FBT headed for the horizon. He’s still there. I only picked up Horizon Zero Dawn because it was in the sales and I had nothing else to play – it looked like one Free-Roamer too many, a Far Cry Primal knock-off with the animals lazily reworked as robots. Gimmicky. I love proving myself wrong all the time. In the 31st Century, humans live in simple hunter-gatherer tribes, co-existing with huge mechanical beasts left behind by a long dead civilisation known as ‘the Old Ones’, which the humans deify. Recently, the robotic wildlife has started to become threatening, and a cult forms around this new breed of machines. When the cult attacks a village looking for Aloy, an outcast who was found outside an ancient sealed door belonging to the Old Ones, she sets out to discover the truth about the machines, the Old Ones, and her past… The first hour or so felt like I was playing a mod of something else. There’s practically every free-roam game you’ve ever played in here; Tomb Raider reboot, Fallout 3, Far Cry Primal, Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed 3, TES, the list of nods is endless. And it’s the same process – doesn’t matter of it’s a wild animal or wild machine, you kill it, strip it for parts, use them to craft or sell. You find traders, (their currency is metal – the one overabundant material in the place?), side missions, take over camps, craft, make choices, level-up… it’s all here. And not just games - I’m sure the plot is from an old Star Trek episode. But… it doesn’t feel derivative. The truest measure of a free-roamer isn’t when you free-roam, it’s how drawn back to the main story you are, and I never stray too far from Aloy’s self-discovery and what happened to the Old Ones. You totally buy some cataclysmic extinction event occurred and want to find out how - and why we’re no longer the dominant species. The new food chain is automated. It’s endlessly exciting going up against metal creatures with a bow and arrow. You do gain more conventional weapons, but they’re cumbersome and it’s more fun using the terrain and your wits. I rarely swap out my bows. Some animals move in herds and startling one can cause them all to run – sometimes toward you. Others are pack animals, predators, or huge, lumbering giants; a standout is clambering the roving giraffe-like machines which scan the area, unlocking the map. There’s a few surviving ‘real’ animals, and hunting those helps with crafting. Just be sure it is a salmon you think you’re shooting at. You’re always on edge, hunted, scanning the woods and grass, timing runs across open plains, peering through snow and the dark for a glint of metal or glowing eyes. It’s a living, breathing facsimile of a real world and you never stop pondering as you stare out at this metal eco-system, how did they evolve to become a species, what did the Old Ones do? It’s fairly obvious what happened but the game has some choice comments on tech reliance, mega-corps and eco-warnings, and the big reveal is brilliantly done; it feels fresh and gripping – the machines, human evolution, the creation of tribes and new religious icons, it’s so well written and there is a solid logic to the place, which you key into the further you get. A nice touch is fast travel isn’t free; you need to craft an overnight bag – there are traders later on that provide a perma-overnight bag, but its one of dozens of little touches that makes HZD feel real, and like it was made with care, a gamers’ game not some slap-dash Triple A knock off (looking at you, Cyberpunk 2077). Still, the inventory management is frustrating – traders require certain machine parts to build you a weapon and you will always drop the part they need. You end up with hundreds of pieces of junk hoping someone will trade for it, and some side missions fall into cliché find/fetch/explore/kill for me requests. But it's always a beautiful, eerie, scary place to scavenge and side-mission about in. Obviously there are some moments of ignoring the obvious – for centuries the tribes have had access to all this tech, be it in the machines or the ruins, and occasionally jury-rig weapons from it – yet they’re still one step up from Cavemen. Not one bit of reverse-engineering in hundreds of generations? Actually, the only real criticism of HZD isn’t the in-game tech it’s the game tech. HZD spends a good twenty minutes on EVERY start up trying to optimise like it’s the first time it’s been played, loading screens mean go get a coffee and make a snack, and if you let go of the keys or mouse, within a minute it’ll minimise to desktop – many an emotional cutscene was ruined by that. Although it could have done without the cult conveniently popping up at every plot point, it all falls together really nicely, and watching Aloy slowly come to realise what happened is moving – the reveal is no less powerful or emotional for you guessing it early on. And Aloy is my new hero. Unlike Tomb Raider reboot’s Lara, who wept at every cut-scene opportunity, Aloy gets shit done. She is filled with doubt and worry, overwhelmed and under-prepared, but she rises to it, pushes through and gets bolder, more assertive and becomes an absolute badass. When people say they’ve heard of her, you believe them. She’s just great company, full of pithy observations, and when she gets herself a typical over-the-radio mission giver, she’s not afraid to call them out for making her do all the work. And she has some weapons-grade sass. A favourite line, when told the Sun is ‘masculine’, was “Um... It’s a light from the sky. Never seen anything dangling from it.” This is a near perfect free-roamer. It came out of nowhere to sell 10 million copies, and it’s easy to see why. Yes, it does recycle every open-world you’ve seen, but considering the diminishing returns of the Far Cry’s and the Fallout’s, it’s amazing a new IP pulled off such a fresh, confident take. It’s like the devs just knew what we wanted, knew what worked then instead of complicating it to seem original, got out of the way and let us play. Brilliant. This game is one of the few I wished I’d bought on day one. It’s going to be my Game-In-The-Sales of the Year. The end credits had barely faded before I was into the Game Plus, excited to experience Aloy and her adventure again. And the good thing about coming to HZD years after release is the sequel is just months away. Unfortunately it’s a PS5 exclusive at launch… but Aloy is worth the wait.

Rogue Warrior

Rogue Warrior

President Regan sends his regards. Rogue Warrior is considered one of the all-time worst games. Huh? How can a shooter based on a Navy SEAL’s autobiography voiced by Mickey Rourke set in the 80s developed by the studio behind the original Aliens vs Predator game be an all-time bad? We love so-bad-it’s-good games here at PW.com, time to prove a decade of bad reviews wrong. They were right. This is bad. Like straight-to-Amazon Prime bad. Yet… this might be the best worst shooter since the Naked Gun of FPS, Medal of Honor Warfighter. Richard Marcinko and his team of crack commandos are dropped into North Korea to investigate how they’ve suddenly become a Nuclear superpower. When his team is decimated, Marcinko ignores orders to withdraw and starts a one-man war with the NK Army to avenge his men and send North Korea back to the stone age. On release, some reviewers talked about the aged level design, others focused on the bugs and glitches, many noted the bad shooter mechanics, the puddle-deep plot or the rip-off runtime, and all of them took time to mention what a potty-mouth Marcinko is. I don’t think he utters a single sentence without a fuck in it. It’s like gaming with Derek & Clive. He just can’t stop himself. I shot a fusebox to sneak unseen but Marcinko then screamed “Chew on this fuckheads!”. Shush, this is an “under the radar” op and so far you’ve done everything you can to draw attention. For a career solider it does seem as if Marcinko hates his job. He complains about absolutely everything; whenever a NK soldier appears, he’s bitching like he just got an email at 5.29. One level opens in the grounds of a mansion and Marcinko says “I hate hedge mazes”. He scared the crap out of me suddenly yelling “FUCK PISS GODDAMN SHIT!” and I thought the stress was triggering his Tourette’s – then I realised a sniper had clipped me. I think the level of offense is actually communicating how badly injured he is - walking into gunfire elicited ‘GODDAMN COCKBREATH COMMIE MOTHERFUCKERS!’ which I took to mean ‘get to cover’. Guess it beats looking down at a heart tattoo. In fact, it starts to get a little… homoerotic. He constantly yells phrases that both offend and give you pause, such as “C’mon chew it pencil dick”, “you sweet piece of shit”, “gonna be fuckin' asses bleeding” and a personal favourite, “suck my balls, my hairy fucking big balls, wrap them around your mouth”. What? He’s like Bennet in Commando, hating and loving Matrix. Marcinko’s just looking for someone to stick his knife into. Eventually though, after I got bullshit killed, I realised Marcinko is just reacting to things the way I do when gaming – I’m constantly yelling expletives during a shooter, and many are as nonsensical and offensive as Marcinko’s growls. It’s online smack talk. But when he raises the issue of hedge mazes, the cocksucking penny fucking drops – we're in a comedy. I mean, imagine if you’re some NK Solider just milling about when in the distance you hear Mickey Rourke hollering that he’s going to gut someone like a fish, or offering his hairy balls. RW is an outrageous parody of FPS and the VHS actioners we adore, from Marcinko’s opening monologue about how this mission is a “thin line between a simple op and a total goat fuck” to the simplistic run‘n’gun aesthetic – it’s basically the last thirty minutes of Commando. We’re here for the Goat Fuck, but what we get is so outrageous it leaves you shellshocked and questioning the entire FPS genre. It opens by calling us a Pussy for choosing the Easy option and thinking ourselves fucking special for picking Hard. No backstory, no moral choices, no point, just level after level of bad shooting and swearing with the occasional pause for some America, Fuck Yeah Patriotism. And let’s not forget Marcinko’s kill quote to end all 80’s actioner quotes “President Regan sends his regards.” You expect Robert Davi to play the main villain if it had one. It’s just surreal, like it’s trying to be as hilariously bad as possible. Realistically, NK’s not actually done anything wrong, they’re just protecting themselves from this hairy ball of insanity. What makes it even more dreamlike is we’re playing a real-life Navy SEAL, the inventor of SEAL Team Six – the go-to black ops group for many a shooter. This was originally based on his autobiography. Technically, RW is a ‘based on a true story’ shooter? Still, it is a terrible, terrible game, a pure linear push-forward shooter where you Wack-A-Mole the bad guys in familiar locations over and over, and it’s shockingly short - under three hours. It’s obviously a troubled, half-finished game booted out the door when they realised it was past saving; and this was publisher Bethesda’s second go at it - the first attempt was aborted, and the game restarted - and this was better? It’s missing a boss fight and ends abruptly – it’s like a regular shooter’s tutorial. But once Marcinko expressed his hatred for hedge mazes, I was on board. It’s easily the best worst game I’ve played all year. And you can get it for under a fiver on Steam. While it’s not a fan of modern systems, the forums have ideas on getting it to run, and once you do, you won’t be disappointed. Well, you will – in every way it’s possible to be bad, RW excels, but it’s just so much fun watching all this bad onscreen. Grab a beer, load it up and learn some new ways to swear. If anyone says this isn’t so bad it’s good, just quote an in-action Marcinko; “You fucking pig farmer, drop dead motherfucker, you fucking amateurs!”

Tacoma

Tacoma

Huston, we have a problem; FBT won’t leave Tacoma. By 2088, megacorps have taken over the world. And space. The only strange thing about that is the idea any company other than Amazon will exist in 2088. The Venturis Corporation, alongside its competitors, have space-hotels, apartment ‘blocks’ and retirement homes orbiting planets, where space-stations that service them are controlled by AIs with small support and research teams. An investigator, 'Amy' is sent by Venturis to the Tacoma, a station hub whose crew died after a worker-incident caused it to lose oxygen. Her mission is to discover what happened and retrieve the station’s AI. Unlike Fulbright’s magnificent Gone Home, this being set in the future and in space means you don’t instantly connect with the sci-fi surroundings. Floating through the hub, uncovering fragments of the AI’s recordings and by extension, experiencing the crew’s final moments feels distant, and the way we reveal the events is hard to connect with. Amy has a VR system that allows her to rewind, pause and play footage as a 3D recording, but the crew aren’t displayed as real people, unless the entire crew dressed up like crash-test dummies. But soon the VR system becomes great fun. You’re essentially rewinding time, watching the crew move forward or back, pausing, listening, learning what happened and getting to know them. If you’re eavesdropping on the engineers, that means the medic and botanist are chatting somewhere else at the same time; so you pause, find them, rewind and listen in. At first it’s like being invisible and skulking around a house-share, but once you crack the VR’s possibilities, you’re listening in on 4 or 5 different conversations, picking up cross-references and observations, going back to hear the reaction once someone’s out of earshot. Wish I could do this in real life; it’s like when you walk into a room and everyone stops talking, now you can stay in the room and rewind to find out. The characters are incredibly well-rounded, realistic and likeable; but they’re just caretakers, barely required beyond Union rights that dictate an AI can’t operate without human oversight, and they discuss becoming obsolete, the impact on their lives and families. Conversations reveal how workers are completely reliant on the megacorps, paid in shares and offered housing, education and so on; it’s subtle, but there’s commentary on the practices of Amazon and the like, and how modern work practices could reflect the indentured servitude of old. I can’t believe how invested/nosy I become. You can be watching the engineers and the medic walks in, but then you wonder what she was up to before, so rewind and follow her, discovering she was talking to the Administrator about something, then follow the Administrator to discover she was in a relationship with the Mission Specialist, then realise you’re not here for the goss; they mentioned something about the engineers, so spin back and return to them to relisten, realising what seemed like chat is actually relevant now you have the background; separating mission-critical comments from the day to day griping allows you to slowly focus on the story, and care about the characters. As a walking sim - well, a listening sim - there are things to do around the station outside of tracking the events. You can find recordings detailing the team’s downtime, passcodes and keys that let you further explore the characters and provide background, explaining some of their reactions and motivations. Much like Gone Home there’s a level of intimacy to it, listening in on the engineer’s romance, reading messages between the Botanist and his partner back on Earth, noticing how they all confide in Odin, the Tacoma’s honey-voiced AI. Odin, the floating triangle is a great character too. I utterly trust him because he’s voiced by the same guy who played Milton in Minerva’s Den. But can he be trusted? He's like Alexa, always listening. Of course, any AI in charge of a space station under threat is going to draw comparisons with good old HAL, and Odin was ‘raised’ by Venturis, who would rather just have Odin in charge. Midway through listening to the Botanist complaining about something, he’s interrupted by an explosion. Odin explains debris hit the hub, rupturing their oxygen tanks which in turn knocked out communications. With only 50 hours of air left and no way to call for help, the team agrees to a radical plan, which we already assume didn't work. I’ve only been at this game an hour and I really hope they made it. I start to struggle with exploring areas that characters entered and I can't find a recording of their return. It’s heart-breaking to watch the medic try to remain professional knowing what's coming. I’m all over the place, making sure I’ve listened to every scrap of recording, witnessing them basically prepare for death. They’re real, regular working people with their own insignificant problems that mean the world to them. And it’s interesting to watch how they each deal with the situation, their professional face in public and personal reaction when they find time to be alone. I’m practically floating on the edge of my seat as the plans start to come together, and then I spot something that might have tipped me to their fate; I can barely bring myself to press play when I realise there’s a recording. On finally reaching the ending it was emotional, and the right way to do it. Some were disappointed in the way it played out, but I found it near-perfect Even after witnessing everything, I was loathe to leave behind the digital ghosts of the crew. But the fate of the Tacoma solved, I return to my ship for a final ending that just felt rushed, a sudden twist that makes you go ‘oh…’ and then, credits. Oh. Tacoma doesn’t quite have the emotional heft that Gone Home did – it’s odd, considering that was just a woman nosing around her family’s drawers, while Tacoma explores how people face death, but it’s still a moving, engrossing game and the VR recording is genius – if we’d just been watching video recordings like Her Story it wouldn’t have worked. This way, we’re there with them and at times, I wanted to rewind their lives for real and warn them. The fact that we never really see them as physical people actually became one of the strongest aspects of it, you project onto the ghost-like images. It is short – maybe a little over two hours if you really rinse it. It’s timed perfectly though, I’d just have liked to have seen more about Venturis and what happened next, but in truth I was just kinda sad to be leaving the Tacoma and the future Fulbright created, as ominous as it is. One thing I never discovered though - what happened to the cat? I might need to pop back to Tacoma and make sure the kitty's okay ...

Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk 2077

FBT plays this generation’s Daikatana. Here at PW.com we love a bit of crap gaming; so much that we have an entire section, Guilty Pleasures, dedicated to games that suck but we have a soft spot for; random bugs, weird NPC actions, bad missions, incomprehensible plots, hilarious mechanics? We’re in. CP2077’s botched release was legendary; time to find some guilty pleasures in Night City. I always wanted to be a games tester, and now CP2077 has fulfilled that dream. Although I’m a few patches in, it’s not all there. NPCs appear half-rendered, walk through walls, launch themselves towards your car instead of out the way or faint when you get too close. Items go flying when you walk in, get stuck or disappear, the cars drive at right-angles, the bikes handle like a toddler’s trike and the vehicle delivery system causes pileups. Roads, and occasionally the entire city, often appear empty and the police have a laissez-faire attitude to crime; they don’t care unless you’re doing it. Late on, I get rewarded with a jacket from a gang I aligned with – and for some reason, wearing it rendered my character naked except for the jacket. I even lost my hair. I finished the game naked and bald. If I was on a desert island and this washed up, I’d honestly think it was from 2005. This is my kinda game. After an hours-long preamble, our character, “V” finds themselves in one of the most over-used plots in gaming / TV / Film / Colouring-in books. A ‘sure thing’ heist goes wrong, V witnesses a murder that could cause the city to implode, gets fingered for the crime, and dumped on the streets a wanted person with no choice but to clean up this town. I’ve cleaned up this town before. Night City is a rich above, poor below place – it looks great and you really get a sense of how corrupt it is, high-rise apartments look down on tents under freeways yet everyone is a hustler; there’s no good guys in Night City including V, but it lazily models itself on Mega-City One as designed by 80s Ridley Scott. A neon retrofuture run by megacorps isn’t new but it’s not adding anything to the genre, just regurgitating it. And the regurgitation extends to the gameplay. You’re looking at every RPG you’ve ever played, and it’s shameless in its borrowing. Yet the RPG aspects feel unnecessary – crafting, inventory management, mods, the skill tree, hacking, even the augmentations you can apply to V feel chucked in so it can call itself RPG. The relationships are clumsy, the sex-scenes straight out of Red Shoe Diaries and all the mini games infuriate, especially ‘Mind Dance’ - it’s little more than an over-complicated detective mode. But what infuriates is there’s nothing to RPG here, Night City is just a façade, like a Madame Tussaud’s of sci-fi. During the character creation you can chose what background V has (must play Mass Effect again), but that has no impact other than allows a unique dialogue choice – which the other backgrounds also have, making yours redundant. A game world like this needs to let us deep-dive, find our niche in Night City, fully explore the world and how people live in it. One area that did need exploration is the reaction by the Trans community to an image released during the marketing campaign. CD Projekt claimed their intent was to parody objectification in advertising – and in-game, it makes sense; you can alter anything about yourself, be Robocop, a Ghost in the Shell; so in a world where you can 3D-print your ideal body, how do companies advertise? By doing what they do now – sexualise, fetishize, play on fears, make you insecure. And other genders and identities are also reduced to their sex organs in the ads around the city - a clever commentary on both corporate advertising and human nature to go to whatever extreme we can reach, right? The first problem was CD Projekt using that image in their own advertising, becoming the very thing they claimed to be satirizing. Then it gets worse; there’s an ad for a TV Show, ‘Watson Whore’ which shows a Transwoman vomiting over a tagline implying oral sex. You find anal beads called the Trans Anal Exxxpress. Considering that CD Projekt have form for off-hand Transphobia on their socials, it starts to feel like it’s not advertising they’re mocking. The more that poster leered down at me, the more I started to feel uncomfortable playing, that I was complicit. I do believe it was a bone-headed, tone-deaf, insensitive image tweeted out of context that has deeper commentary in-game where everyone is fair game, but… I’m not Trans; it’s not my place to decide if it’s appropriate or acceptable. But it did piss me off. Now just wanting this to end, I concentrated on the main story; the heist was to recover a memory chip, and it contains an entire consciousness – essentially a form of life after death – which V plugged into their head and is now taking over. It’s Arkham Knight’s Joker, in both concept and character. Ten hours in and I’ve experienced nothing original. And yet… once I concentrate on the story, the game comes into focus and almost – almost – redeems itself. When we’re focused purely on V’s desperate, dangerous attempts to unpick the conspiracy and save themselves, it gets good; really good. And when Keanu’s Johnny Silverhand gets involved it’s great. Night City should never have been open-world – outside the story it’s shallow and empty, but it sets the scene brilliantly for the ideas CP2077 explores, and proves a good, well-written story doesn’t need an original setting. If this had dropped the RPG it would have been a GOTY not a Guilty Pleasure of the year. Johnny and V have an awesome, prickly relationship and they -and you- influence each other’s outlook as they navigate the mean neon streets. While its often immature, if not downright juvenile in its writing and politics, there’s some great moments and commentary on what it means to be alive in a world where you can rebuild yourself forever and humanity is all but replaced. Plus there are a ton of Keanu in-jokes, references and game Easter-eggs. Much to my shock, CP2077 won me over once it got out of its own way. If you resist the urge to roam and play it linear it’s good... I expected this to end up as a Game Rage review, but I kinda liked it. I don't fancy roaming Night City again -I didn’t even bother reloading it to play the other endings- but I will miss hanging out with Keanu... But, a linear character-study isn’t what we were promised. Cyberpunk 2077 is a perfect example of hype and why developers and publishers need to wind their necks in, get it done, and let us decide how good it is. It’s better than its reputation but it promised so much more, like it was going to be the next evolutionary step but then delivered nothing and didn’t work – faced with this shallow, disappointing, buggy mess, all that hype came across as arrogance, as if Cyberpunk2077 was going to make us it’s bitch. It’s this generation’s Daikatana. But then again, that’s on my guilty pleasures list too…

Oxenfree

Oxenfree

Olly olly oxen fbt Oxenfree is basically a teen adventure written by John Hughes, produced by John Carpenter and directed by Spielberg using watercolours. It’s great stuff; an abandoned island filled with portals, time loops and disembodied voices explored by a bunch of teens in a 2.5D world that reminds you of early adventure games. But with a modern twist. Lets get twisting. Full of beer, weed, and the usual angst, a bunch of teens take the last ferry to deserted Edwards Island, an old military base famed for the friendly-fire sinking of a US sub during the war. During their beach party, the teens explore a cave where their radio picks up a strange frequency, which causes the kids to pass out and wake in different parts of the island. Discovering some kind of mysterious time-loop, it’s up to teen Alex to reunite her friends and break the cycle of Edwards Island. Mostly, the puzzles you face are Alex closing/opening portals and affecting time-loops by dialling her radio to the right frequency. And it’s not a typical walking sim since we’re rarely alone – the focus isn’t even on the strange goings on, it’s on the characters. It’s a dialogue sim. The puzzle is how you play Alex; who she is, how she regards her friends and how they see her, and how much events from her past, like her brother dying, have impacted her. The teens chat almost constantly – about the island, the situation, their relationships, and the fact that they’re growing up and apart. They joke, get distracted, needle each other, go off on tangents and never miss a chance to flirt, and amazingly, you quickly get into being Alex and answer naturally. We get timed reactions, driving their narrative and significantly impacting the plot and ending, but it’s a lot more subtle than just paragon / renegade. A standout midway through sees Alex choosing who goes exploring with her; even those pals she’s fallen out with take great offence to not being chosen. That the teens are still concerned about how they’re regarded by their peers when there’s paranormal goings on feels accurate - it somehow effortlessly captures the subtle minefield of adolescent egos and how fragile they really are; those kinds of decisions do mean the world to a kid. You let things go or demand they be talked out, realise you have less in common with one teen and develop a better understanding of another, and cause them to like or dislike Alex, sometimes without meaning to. It’s incredibly complex and satisfying because it feels so natural, like being a teen - there’s no real right or wrong answers just emotions that mean way more than decisions. You don’t have to say anything at all, just leave opinions or worries hanging. You don’t have to have all the answers. For the most part Alex is stuck with Jonas, her unwanted, unwilling new step-brother while the other teens are Clarissa, her dead brother’s girlfriend who still harbours resentment toward Alex for what happened; Ren, her childhood friend who she’s not been spending much time with, and Nona, a hanger-on. But its up to you how all those friendships develop, how open and honest you are with them, which influences they share. Still, all this chatting isn’t getting them off the island, and its ghostly inhabitants aren’t making it easy for them. Often a ‘time displacement’ will occur, where a sequence repeats until you figure out what it wants or it shows a glimpse of a possible future - or past - if you carry on down that path, and eventually the displacements reveal more of the island’s strange inhabitants and what they want. It’s a great ghost story, but while it all comes down to Alex’s understanding and what she’s prepared to do, its those relationships that stay with you. There’s even a Game Plus mode, where Alex+ is aware of certain events from the previous play – throughout, she would realise time was looping - allowing you to further influence the outcome, possibly stopping the loop from ever occurring. Or reoccurring. The only thing that stopped me from trying again was the background music. And by background, I mean overwhelming racket that ruins the entire game. It’s the only criticism I have of Oxenfree, but it’s a big one. Composed by ‘scntfc’ (learn to spell, hipster), it’s a ‘soundscape’ for each area and stage in the story. Largely it’s like listening to every single game soundtrack from the 80s, at the same time, accompanied by a 2-year-old on pots and pans. I had to turn on the subs just to understand what was being said it’s so overwhelming. In one section there’s at least 3 different tunes playing simultaneously over the sound of a clock ticking - it’s so bad there’s a Reddit thread of people begging for a mod or hack to get shot of it. Some are convinced it’s actually a bug. It even ruins the ending, where the kids resolve their issues depending on how we interacted, followed by a touching Stand By Me style epilogue based on Alex's friendship choices, is entirely drowned out by the sound of what seems to be a Pan Pipes cover of a Metallica track. And you can’t turn it off. Alex can have her radio open at any time, and thankfully that forces the music to stop – that I preferred radio static to the soundtrack says everything. To be fair, I did listen to the soundtrack on Spotify and it's really good - just too distracting when you're knee-deep in teen angst and ghosties. Oxenfree so perfectly captures real teen conversations; pointless to everyone else but mean the world to them – and often even the most obvious answer is wrong just because they didn’t want to hear it, and it makes you think like a teen; more than once I chose an emotional response rather than an authoritative ‘we go this way’. Its amazing that we have a haunted island, horror elements, a mystery to solve, non-linear events to navigate, time-loops and death, but it’s the dialogue that compels you to push on. There’s multiple endings, but rather than good/bad, I got MY Alex's ending, decided by dozens of off-hand remarks and reactions. It was my journey – at times it literally was, during one Loop Alex’s name switched to ‘FBT’, as if I wasn’t already lost in the game. If you turn your speakers off it’s one of the best adventure games since Lucasarts shut up shop.