Monthly Archives: May 2017

Tales from the Borderlands review

Tales from the Borderlands 1

From left to right: Sasha, Rhys, Fiona and Vaughn

When Tales from the Borderlands released back in 2014/2015, I have to say, I wasn’t that interested. Possessing only a basic knowledge of Gearbox Software’s original Borderlands series of action RPG’s, I simply couldn’t justify spending money on a game I had no great connection to.

Fast forward now to May 2017 and, aware that the game was available for free to PS Plus subscribers, I decided to try it out for myself; thank goodness I did. I hadn’t even reached the halfway point of episode one before I realised Tales from the Borderlands is good – surprisingly good.

Featuring a cast of absolutely wonderful characters, along with an engrossing narrative and hilarious dialogue, it’s easily one of Telltale Games’ best.

Tales from the Borderlands 4

Spoilers: Handsome Jack is back

The central storyline follows ambitious yet likeable middle manager Rhys, glib Pandoran con-artist Fiona and their rag-tag group of adventurers on their quest to unlock the secrets of the Gortys project and, ultimately, to find the vault of the traveller, wherein lies a mountain of priceless alien artefacts. Unfortunately, things don’t exactly go according to plan. Aside from the trust issues that plague the team throughout their travels, they also have to deal with ruthless gangsters, corrupt executives and experienced vault hunters, all whilst navigating a series of increasingly dangerous events they’re completely unprepared for.

Utterly enthralling from start to finish, the narrative benefits from a story that’s far more malleable than perhaps all previous Telltale games. During my back-to-back playthroughs, for example, I experienced entirely different scenes as a direct result of selecting option B rather than option A, not to mention wildly divergent relationships that changed fundamentally as a result of my responses during conversations. The result is a game that boasts a level of replayability far in excess of other, nominally linear titles.

Yet, as enjoyable as it is to mould the plot yourself, I particularly enjoyed the upbeat tone of the game. Thanks to the quality of the writing, there’re plenty of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments throughout the course of the 5 episodes, along with an overall sense of optimism and camaraderie that’s really quite refreshing in today’s cynical world. It’s not without the occasional instance of heartache of course (look out for episode 4), however, these more dramatic story beats come across as endearing and charming rather than cheesy or prosaic. It’s quite a change for Telltale Games when you consider how important bittersweet storytelling has been to the success of previous titles such as The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, but Tales from the Borderlands certainly doesn’t suffer for it.

Equally well-written and engaging are the cast of characters. Rhys, Fiona, Sasha, Gortys, Loader Bot and Scooter impress the most, not least because they’re believable. Yes, many of the exchanges between them devolve into witty badinage and oftentimes they’ll shrug off what would be traumatic experiences for you and me in no time at all, but nonetheless, they each convey a sense of humanity. They have their own hang ups, hopes and fears, and thus feel truly three dimensional.

Bringing these excellent characters to life, the performances from the hugely talented voice cast deserve equal praise. Troy Baker is typically brilliant as intelligent if out-of-his-depth salary man Rhys; Laura Bailey is perfect as charming grifter Fiona and Ashley Johnson is unsurprisingly fantastic as naïve robot Gortys. However, putting in perhaps the best performance of all, Erin Yvette is absolutely outstanding as Sasha, successfully portraying a character whose cockiness and sardonic quips could easily aggravate some players she was played by a less skilled performer.

Tales from the Borderlands 2

Athena joins the party (not the Greek Goddess of Wisdom and defensive warfare)

In terms of gameplay, dialogue wheels and quick time events are the order of the day, although a smattering of new gameplay mechanics add a touch of individuality to proceedings.

Deviating little from previous Telltale Games’ graphic adventures, the dialogue wheels feature the traditional quarter of distinctive responses that enable you to fine-tune the personalities of the two protagonists. For instance, while Rhys was selfless and considerate during my first playthrough, he was ruthlessly ambitious and self-serving throughout the second, which, in turn, fundamentally changed his relationships with the rest of the group; especially Sasha. Meanwhile, if you prefer to play in a more reactive manner entering each conversation without a particular type of reply already in mind, you’ll be pleased to hear you’re only given a few sections to select your response. As a result, there’s added weight to every decision; you’ll often find yourself wondering whether you made the right call. Accordingly, Tales from the Borderlands possesses a flexibility that’s rarely seen in linear titles. The very nature of the signature choices – the one’s that’re recorded at the end of each episode – can change, depending on Rhys and Fiona’s actions.

Between conversations, action comes in the form of quick time events. As often as not, you’re tasked with simply moving the analogue stick in the suggested direction in order to avoid an incoming attack while, on occasion, you may be required to fire Fiona’s diminutive pistol, choosing the type of elemental ammunition you deem appropriate under the present circumstances. QTE’s might not be to everyone’s tastes, however, love them or hate them, they fit this style of game perfectly. After all, it’s the flowing narrative and inter-personal relationships that ultimately resonate with the player that make these games such a joy to play: shoehorning in obligatory cover shooting sections or esoteric puzzles a la The Witness would only be a hindrance.

A couple of extra little touches here and there ensure the gameplay feels distinctive. Rhys’ Echo Eye provides plenty of opportunities to learn more about the wider Borderlands universe and features a few amusing references to previous titles, whilst Fiona’s money gathering side-objective lets you buy a variety of cosmetic items at specific points during the season and, for those who’re willing to ignore their scruples and accrue as much cash as possible, hire polarising robot Claptrap during episode 5’s final mission (in case you were wondering, I really like the garrulous little guy).

And, with little exploration or unnecessary filler to wade through, Tales from the Borderlands is superbly paced, taking the average player no longer than a couple of hours to complete each episode. Consequently, the game feels neither too short (like the criminally brief The Walking Dead: Michonne mini-series) nor too long.

Tales from the Borderlands 3

Health and safety won’t be best pleased

Graphically speaking, Tales from the Borderlands continues the Telltales tradition of utilising a distinctive cel shaded aesthetic that benefits greatly from the superior power of current gen console hardware. The character models and environmental assets are sharper; the criminal-riddled cesspool of Pandora looks suitably grimy and dangerous, while Hyperion’s orbital headquarters Helios has an unnervingly clean and clinical appearance. The colour palette too is more vibrant and eye-catching than previous TTG titles. Likewise, although the facial animations are never going to be as expressive as the likes of Uncharted 4 or L.A. Noire so long as the developer favours stylised visuals, the PS4 and Xbox One does allow for more faithful simulacrums of human emotions; the best example I can remember off the top of my head is Fiona’s look of disgust as Rhys and Sasha make googly eyes at each other during the introduction to episode 4.

Elsewhere, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the soundtrack, exemplified by the quintet of songs that play during the intro credits to each episode. Episode 3’s Pieces of the People We Love and episode 4’s To the Top are my particular favourites, complementing two of the most engaging and amusing scenes in the entire series.

Not everything about Tales from the Borderlands is perfect, however, much as it might seem from the almost unadulterated praise I’ve showered it with hitherto. Checkpoints for one can be a tad frustrating; on more than one occasion I’ve had to repeat a section of the story, thinking the game had saved before I turned it off. It might seem like nit picking, but I don’t see why manual saves aren’t available if to prevent this from happening at all, especially if, like me, you prefer to parcel out each episode in two parts. Moreover, like previous Telltale Games titles (Game of Thrones: Season One, especially) the frame rate can be a bit ropey during the more action-heavy sections. The climactic battle at the end of episode 5, for instance, during which there are multiple characters on screen simultaneously and plenty of movement, suffers from a variety of performance issues.

Regardless of these minor draw-backs, Tales from the Borderlands is an absolute triumph of storytelling and character design. The core narrative is ceaselessly funny yet compelling, so that, like a good book, it takes a concerted effort of will to stop yourself from ploughing through it in one marathon session. Only the most cynical of individuals will fail to enjoy this wonderful adventure.

But for me, it’s the characters that steal the show. At the risk of sounding somewhat twee, Tales from the Borderlands is one of those rare games that, upon completion, leaves the player feeling as if they’re saying goodbye to a group of dear friends – which is saying a lot for someone like me who habitually eschews human contact.

All things considered, I have no hesitation whatsoever in awarding this superb game a big fat 9/10.

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5 incredible Soulsborne player achievements

Dark Souls 3

Soulsborne players are an interesting bunch. Not content with simply completing From Software’s quintet of tough-as-nails action RPG’s – the series’ catchphrase isn’t ‘you died’ for nothing – a small sub-section of players seem to derive what can only be described as a masochistic pleasure from adding their own arbitrary challenges to make the experience even more punishing.

From beating the hardest bosses without taking a single hit to manipulating the in-game avatar with a controller made of actual bananas (see here for details), the fans of auteur Hidetaka Miyazaki’s 2009 original Demon’s Souls, Victorian-Gothic tale Bloodborne and the Dark Souls trilogy of dark fantasy adventures have performed some of the most unique gaming feats you’re likely to see.

To recognise some of these truly unbelievable player accomplishments, I’ve listed 5 of the most impressive feats to date, including a single entry from each of the series’ 5 constituent titles in an effort to provide the broadest view possible of these wonderful games.

Demon’s Souls – no hit run

Released exclusively on the PS3 back in 2009 – a time when the idea of a tango-coloured, bigoted and bewilderingly unintelligent buffoon leading the free world was farcical – Demon’s Souls transformed the gaming landscape, introducing players to the amazing fantasy landscapes, colossal bosses and arcane storytelling many of us have come to love.

A 30+ hour adventure featuring hordes of brutal enemies and imposing bosses, completing the game itself without destroying half a dozen controllers in frustration along the way is an accomplishment in and of itself for the majority of those who’ve undertaken the task. Not according to YouTuber Miltymilt (let’s players and their silly aliases).

Published only a matter of days ago, this intrepid individual managed to complete the entire game without taking a single hit from any of the monstrosities lurking within the corridors of Demon’s Souls’ dark world, only suffering environmental damage and the enervating effects of certain items over the course of his 3-hour speedrun. It’s true, he does avoid confronting any enemy he doesn’t have to, but it’s an extraordinary display of skill nonetheless.

Dark Souls – Speedrun with no healing or bonfires

Very similar to the abovementioned no-hit run, LobosJr conquered this hair-pullingly difficult game without using Dark Souls’ signature Estus Flask, healing spells or bonfires to rejuvenate his character at any point during his remarkably brief journey (like Miltymilt, this particular playthrough clocks in at around the 3-hour mark).

Moreover, as he eschews bonfires altogether (the game’s checkpoints and the only place you can refill your Estus Flask), his avatar remains at soul level 1 from start to finish, limiting his damage output and stamina pool, the latter of which is vital for both dodging and performing attacks.

A set of high-quality weapons, armour and gear make the challenge slightly more feasible, however, considering I, like many others before me, have failed to complete this game in any form to this day, you can’t begrudge him these little indulgences. Besides, LobosJr has undertaken numerous other self-imposed Soulsborne tests in the past, that make this look simple by comparison as you’ll see shortly.

Dark Souls 2 – Handmaid’s Ladle

In fact, the aforementioned LobosJr makes his second appearance right now in acknowledgement of his novel approach to conquering 2014’s Dark Souls 2.

Perhaps my favourite player achievement, LobosJr successfully completes the game relying on naught but the Handmaid’s Ladle for protection; one of the title’s weakest weapons, possessing the unfortunate combination of feeble base stats and a lack of any magical or elemental effects. What’s more, this particular campaign is on new game +7, which is essentially the hardest difficulty possible boasting as it increases the enemy HP, strength and abundance.

As such, it deals only a few measly points of damage with each blow, even against even the weakest enemies, reducing every skirmish into a war of attrition. To make matters worse, its frustratingly low durability means LobosJr has to retreat to a bonfire every 2 minutes to repair his frail cooking utensil, lest it becomes even less of a threat to the demons and fallen knights who stand in his way.

It must require the patience of a saint and a fierce love of the game to finish Dark Souls 2 under these conditions.

Bloodborne – completed using feet

When I first read of about this a few months back, my first thought was that someone had been patient (or perhaps bored enough) to attempt wonderful PS4 exclusive Bloodborne without using any weapons at all, utilising the series’ standard kick action as their only form of offence instead; how wrong I was. Celesterian Games had an altogether more unbelievable challenge in mind.

While I struggled to simply beat the game, Celesterian navigated the streets of Yarnham and prevailed over his adversaries using his actual feet to control his avatar, wearing socks for at least one of the boss battles and eating during others; I guess confronting the hideous denizens of Yarnham is hungry work.

Whether he possesses freakishly long toes or has spent years training them to perform the complicated task of manipulating a controller, it puts a dampener on the sense of accomplishment I felt when I beat Vicar Amelia, Gehrman and company with my boring old hands.

Dark Souls 3 – level 1, no rolling, blocking or parrying

A simple if no less impressive achievement, my final entry comes from TolomeoR who successfully finished the entirety of the latest and perhaps final Soulsborne game – Dark Souls 3 – without recourse to rolling, blocking or parrying using a soul level 1 character.

With some many limitations in place, TolomeoR was only able to avoid incoming attacks by walking or running out of the way, in turn requiring a deep knowledge of the game’s enemies and some startlingly swift reflexes. But what I find most astonishing, is his decision to forgo the path of least resistance and challenge every single one of Dark Souls 3’s mandatory and optional bosses, including the outrageously difficult Nameless King – an opponent I haven’t even come close to defeating.

Understandably, a feat of this nature wasn’t straightforward. According to the man himself, it took approximately 60 hours of trial and error to complete; 15 of which were dedicated solely to conquering the game’s final boss, the daunting Soul of Cinder.

In future, those that enjoy ramping up the difficulty of already punishing games like the Soulsborne series will have to look to the likes of Nioh, Code Vein and The Surge, following Miyazaki’s comments on From Software’s seminal franchise last year.

According to Miyazaki, the Ringed City DLC for Dark Souls 3 marks his final foray into the fantasy universe he created, suggesting the series might be done for good. However, he did provide a glimmer of hope for fans, saying he’d be happy to pass the reins to another should anyone else one day desire to build on his outstanding work.

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Telltale Games’ 5 greatest stories (so far)

The Walking Dead season 1

Since adapting everyone’s favourite zombie drama The Walking Dead into a sensational, award winning graphic adventure back in 2012, Telltale Games has distinguished itself as one of the world’s finest development studios; one that is now regularly entrusted with globally recognised franchises including Game of Thrones, Minecraft and, most recently, Guardians of the Galaxy.

Where other games emphasise high octane action, Telltale Games focuses on creating fascinating three dimensional characters and engrossing narratives, set within a gameplay framework that’s no more complicated than dialogue wheels and the occasional quick time event. The result is some of the finest stories in the entire history of the medium.

But for those who’ve never played one of these incredible titles before, it can be difficult to know where to start. With that in mind, today’s article lists the 5 greatest stories Telltale Games has ever created; and yes, there will be numerous spoilers from here on out.

5. The Walking Dead: Season Two

Walking dead season 2

Uh, Clementine? You’ve got something on your face…

Set approximately 2 years after the events of the 2012 original, The Walking Dead: Season Two transfers the protagonist duties to adolescent orphan Clementine; a potentially risky decision given her age and the fact that she’s following in the footsteps of Season One’s of the late Lee Everett, but one that pays off emphatically.

Alone in the post-apocalyptic wasteland since losing her previous guardians Lee, Omid and Christa, our young heroine falls in with a group of honest, if somewhat inept and overly suspicious survivors led by the kind-hearted Luke, shortly after the beginning of episode one. The usual depredations of a world infested with hordes of zombies and ruthless bandits take their toll on the group over the course of the succeeding episodes, culminating in a typically gut-wrenching choice for Clementine between the safety of a fortified, though possibly mythical, community further north called Wellington accompanied by grizzled survivor Kenny and new born baby AJ (the child of one of her former companions), or the largely secure mall the group abandoned earlier in the tale together with pragmatic, erstwhile loner Jane and little AJ.

Season Two doesn’t quite pack the same emotional punch as the original Walking Dead or possess quite such a strong supporting cast of characters; the latter of which isn’t helped by the group’s cold and at times inexplicably harsh attitude towards Clementine. Nevertheless, it’s still a solid sequel that features plenty of the narrative-transforming choices that embody Telltale Games whilst successfully developing Clementine’s character into a believable survivor despite her age, and an even more endearing character that makes the prospect of continuing her story in The Walking Dead: A New Frontier tremendously exciting.

4. The Wolf Among Us

Wolf Among us

To be fair, the huntsman had it coming

Based on Bill Willingham’s Fables comic book series, The Wolf Among Us is essentially a detective story set in a fantasy version of 1980’s Manhattan that’s home to a small community of fairy tale characters who’ve left their mythical Homelands in the wake of a tyrannical ruler known as the Adversary. Unfortunately, life in New York isn’t as wonderful as Alicia Keys suggests, at least not for the magical population who’re reliant on extortionately expensive spells called glamours to hide their existence from the humans.

The story itself follows jaded sheriff Bigby Wolf (originally the Big Bad Wolf from the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale) as he hunts for a serial killer who it appears has been preying on a group of fables that’ve had to turn to prostitution in order to survive in this strange new world. It doesn’t take long, however, before Bigby discovers the killer’s motives aren’t as simple as they seem on the surface but are in fact symptomatic of the corruption that’s eating away at the heart of their society.

Like all good crime dramas, the narrative is certainly interesting enough to retain the average player’s attention throughout the course of the game’s 5 episodes, although it’s fair to say the second half of the series doesn’t quite realise the promise of the first. Where The Wolf Among Us does stand out, however, is in the setting. Its portrayal of well-known fairy tale characters struggling with the harsh realities of the real world is fascinating. Georgie Porgie, for instance, is no longer the harmless pervert of the original nursery rhyme having become the owner of a grotty strip club and a pimp besides since moving to America, whilst Beauty and the Beast are finding the vicissitudes of married life, combined with their growing financial woes, are putting a huge strain on their once loving relationship.

Moreover, with its gorgeous film noir aesthetic – it really is one of the studio’s prettiest titles to date – and an understated, evocative soundtrack, The Wolf Among Us deserves far more credit that it usually receives from critics and gamers alike.

3. Game of Thrones: Season One

Game of Thrones

That guy look familiar

They may not warrant more than a sentence or two in the novels, but House Forrester take centre stage in Telltales’ first foray into George R. R. Martin’s incredible fantasy world. Unsurprisingly for a tale set within the Game of Thrones universe, summarising the intricate, interconnected web of plots and sub-plots would be a monumental task in and of itself; suffice it to say, the story lives up to the renowned source material.

Taking place throughout various regions of Westeros and Essos, including Kings Landing, Meereen and Ironrath in the north (seat of House Forrester), Game of Thrones: Season One charts the trials and tribulations of this beleaguered family who’s position in the world has become extremely precarious in the wake of the Red Wedding and the decline of house Stark; their former liege lords. In a change from the usual formula, players control multiple members of the Forrester clan as they try desperately to deal with the different threats assailing them. On the front lines, severely wounded lord Rodrik fight off the intrusive meddling of their rivals the Whitehills, who’re in league with the deplorable Ramsay Snow, that jeopardises their ancestral seat, whilst eldest daughter Mira, handmaiden to Margaery Tyrell in King’s Landing, does all she can to promote her family’s interest from the capital amidst a torrent of politicking and black sheep Asher scours the seedy underbelly of Essos’s free cities in search of a trusty band of mercenaries to help him defeat the Whitehills and Bolton’s upon his return to Westeros.

There’s plenty of violence, backstabbing and swearing (though no cel shaded sex scenes, which is probably for the best), so fans of the books or television programme will find plenty to love, along with a beautifully convoluted central narrative and interesting if not totally absorbing new characters. Positives aside, it’s almost worth purchasing the £19.99 season pass just to see the iconic intro credits sequence rendered in Telltale Games’ signature art style, complete with the world-famous main theme playing in the background.

1. Tales from the Borderlands

Tales from the borderlands

Rhys in a spot of bother

I suppose I’m cheating a bit by crowning dual champions, but I really can’t pick between Telltale Games’ two greatest narratives: Tales from the Borderlands and The Walking Dead: Season One.

Currently available at no extra cost for PS Plus subscribers throughout May, Tales from the Borderlands was an absolute revelation when I first played it a couple of weeks ago. Told largely in retrospect from the point of view of joint protagonists Rhys and Fiona – an ambitious middle-manager for the bloodthirsty Hyperion corporation and a charming, resourceful grifter respectively – the story revolves around the search for a vault key; an indescribably rare item that opens the door to a treasure trove of priceless alien technology. Each of the five episodes are simply brilliant, fitting together perfectly to form an overall narrative that’s utterly enthralling; a feat that’s particularly impressive given the game’s light-hearted, flippant tone. But what really sets this title apart is the throng of equally charismatic individuals who assist Fiona and Rhys over the course of their adventure. Fiona’s headstrong younger sister Sasha is fantastic, as are the team’s robotic companions Loader Bot and Gortys, and benevolent redneck mechanic Scooter who establishes himself as a fan favourite despite appearing only intermittently.

Bringing these wonderful characters to life is a script that’s witty and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish, yet poignant during the game’s more dramatic scenes; a cast of voice acting talent that reads as a who’s who of video game voice artists, including Troy Baker, Ashley Johnson, Nolan North, Laura Bailey, Dameon Clarke, Erin Yvette and Dave Fennoy; a rousing soundtrack featuring songs such as Busy Earnin’ by Jungle and my personal favourite Twin Shadow’s To The Top and five of the most stylish introductory sequences you’ll find in gaming or any medium for that matter.

Whether you’ve played Gearbox Software’s original Borderlands series or not, I can’t recommend this title enough: it’s simply magnificent.

1. The Walking Dead: Season One

Main image

Here’s Lee

As bleak and dramatic as Tales from the Borderlands is comical, The Walking Dead: Season One is a masterpiece of storytelling. Putting players in the shoes of likeable former university lecturer/convicted murderer Lee Everett, the game kicks off at the very outbreak of the zombie apocalypse that’s reduced the world to an unremittingly harsh and dangerous hellhole full of flesh-eating, undead monstrosities and lawless bastards. Within the first few minutes of episode one, Lee comes across a girl named Clementine who’s been hiding in her tree house alone since the catastrophe began; her parents stranded hundreds of miles away in an overrun holiday resort and her babysitter thoroughly zombified.

Forging a strong father-daughter bond almost immediately, the intrepid duo and a handful of companions decide to head to the coast in the hopes of finding a boat and riding out the worst of the apocalypse from the relative safety of the open ocean, dealing with cannibalistic farmers, mentally unstable survivors and death, so much death, along the way. The challenges facing the group aren’t too dissimilar from those featured in The Walking Dead television series or spin-off Fear the Walking Dead, however, the game’s treatment of themes such as suicide and loss, and the central relationship between Lee and Clementine make it a compelling tale nonetheless.

In addition, it shares many of the things that impressed me about Tales from the Borderlands. The colour palette is dark and evocative, the choices difficult and meaningful and, most importantly, the voice acting is exceptional; Dave Fennoy and Melissa Hutchison who play Lee and Clementine deserve especial praise for their outstanding performances.

The Walking Dead also gets extra points for the impact it’s had on the gaming industry. True, there were plenty of story-driven games before this particular one released back in 2012, yet you’d be justified in arguing that it was Telltale’s Walking Dead: Season One that put this style of game back on the map and alerted publishers to the potential of the genre. Without it, the likes of Life is Strange and Firewatch might never have seen the light of day.

Fun as it is to reminisce about Telltale Games’s great titles of the past, what excites me most is the studio’s future. Comic book aficionado’s will no doubt be keen to see what transpires in the Guardians of the Galaxy series, while myself and many others are relishing the chance to return to Westeros when Game of Thrones: Season Two releases at some point in the near future.

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Mass Effect Andromeda Review

Andromeda Initiative

Look: it’s planet Earth in a few years time

It might only be 5 months old, but 2017 has already distinguished itself an excellent year for gamers. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild undoubtedly stands out from the rest, receiving almost universal adulation from critics and players alike upon release, however, titles such as Nier: Automata, Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5 and Nioh have all contributed to make this a truly remarkable period for the industry.

Yet, despite this cavalcade of incredible games, the one I, personally, was most looking forward to at the outset of the new year was Mass Effect Andromeda; the latest title in developer BioWare’s inimitable space opera franchise and the first in 5 long years. Unfortunately, this only made my sense of frustration and disappointment all the more acute when, having finally played Andromeda myself shortly after its late-March release, I experienced first-hand the abundance of glitches, missteps and sundry other issues that plague this otherwise largely enjoyable sci-fi epic.

For all the technical issues alluded to above, the thing that’s always attracted me most to the Mass Effect series, is the extraordinary world building. The story, characters and world building is so impressive that, for me, it comfortably surpasses Star Trek and, dare I say it, even Star Wars in terms of depth and creativity. And it’s here that the game’s best features shine.

Taking place 600 years after the events of Mass Effect 2, Andromeda puts players in control of Ryder (who, as always, can be male or female depending on your preference). As a pathfinder representing the daring Andromeda Initiative – an enterprise composed of Human, Krogan, Asari, Turian and Salarian emigrants who’re seeking to colonise a small section of the distant Andromeda galaxy – it’s Ryder’s job to locate any potentially habitable planets within the so-called Heleus Cluster and deal with any threats or obstacles that stand in the way of the mission; and there are many. Led by megalomaniacal and somewhat derivative Archon, Ryder’s primary concern is the alien race known as the Kett, although he/she also has to deal with a range of other problems, including a mysterious phenomenon dubbed The Scourge, various groups of former Initiative representatives turned bandits, a race of ancient robotic guardians called the Remnant and an insular, terrorist sect of the otherwise peaceful if mistrustful Angara; the game’s second new species of sentient aliens. Each element is well-considered; supported by genuinely interesting fiction and seemingly plausible science.

The Archon.jpg

Space invaders

As this extremely brief summary suggests, there’s a lot to take in here, but, thankfully, the main narrative is a mostly interesting one that, while not quite as captivating as the Reaper storyline from the original Mass Effect trilogy due partly to some inconsistent writing, generally manages to maintain the player’s attention from start to finish. It’s true the sheer number of side-quests and sub-plots can distract you from the primary story and thus make the plot feel slightly disjointed at times; it’s not uncommon to find yourself rifling through the game’s comprehensive codex every so often as you desperately search for a clue as that’ll remind you what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. However, these secondary narratives are enjoyable in their own right, especially that which involves Ryder’s family history and their relationship with his/her AI implant, SAM.

The game’s characters – all of whom you can romance as you’d expect – are hit and miss. Squad mates Cora and Liam come across as bland and unforgettable though not aggravating, whilst Drack essentially serves as the updated version of Wrex or Grunt from Mass Effect’s 1 and 2 respectively; the physically imposing, uncompromising and often endearing Krogan tank. On the other hand, I found Jaal, Vetra and especially Peebee to be welcome additions to the Mass Effect mythos; a trio that wouldn’t be out of place in any of the preceding instalments. Erratic as the portrayal of Ryder’s squad mates are, it’s worse for the supporting cast of NPC’s. Sloane Kelly is about as stereotypical a gang leader as it’s possible to write without devolving into satire, Initiative director Jarun Tann is bewilderingly insipid for a character that occupies such a position of authority within the game’s story and transgender quest giver Hainly Abrams is so poorly written, it’s hard to imagine anyone at BioWare could have been happy with this version of the character. The reception of Hainly was so negative in fact, it elicited an apology from BioWare themselves, who’ve subsequently confirmed they will be patching her character in future. Ultimately, the cause of this regrettable disparity in quality is the patchy writing. Capable of amusing or even inspiring on occasion, it’s far more frequently exasperating.

Considering these problems, it’s a good thing for Andromeda that the gameplay is pretty robust and benefits from the multitude of alterations made since the release of Mass Effect 3 in 2012; though again, it’s far from flawless. The simple addition of personal jump jets enables you to zip around the terrain with an agility that was lacking in previous Mass Effect titles, increasing the number of offensive and defensive options available to you during skirmishes. BioWare has also overhauled the character progression system to facilitate far greater flexibility when building your perfect explorer/soldier/diplomat/space Lothario. Whereas previous instalments forced you to select a specific class at the commencement of your adventure, restricting the type and quantity of abilities available to your character, Andromeda adopts a more fluid approach. Every one of the game’s skills are accessible to Ryder (once you’ve spent sufficient upgrade points to acquire them), allowing you to fine-tune Ryder in whatever way best suits your play style. For instance, if you decide you would like to augment Ryder’s physical talents with a smattering of biotic powers, you can; it’s entirely up to how aggressively you invest in combat, tech and biotics. Not everything about Andromeda’s combat is quite so laudable, however. The game’s obligatory crafting system for one becomes irritatingly time-consuming towards the end of your adventure as you attempt to manufacture the highest-quality weapons and gear, whilst encounters start to feel repetitive after a few hours of play in spite of the relatively healthy assortment of enemy types you have to contend with, boiling down to little more than mass, free-for-all brawls. Andromeda’s multiplayer offering suffers from a fair amount of déjà vu as well. With just the one co-operative mode available, a tiny pool of maps and precious few options for customising your avatar, it’s not going to make much of an impact on the player base.

Combat

Jump around

Still, aside from the aforementioned surfeit of side-quests, there’s so much to explore in Heleus the mediocrity of the online mode shouldn’t cause too much consternation. Whether you’re traversing the cluster in an effort to learn more about the numerous star systems and fully immerse yourself in the experience, or speeding across one of the game’s 5 distinctive worlds in the surprisingly intuitive Nomad, helping out distressed colonists as you go, Mass Effect Andromeda is one of those non-open world titles that still manages to keep you permanently occupied.

Conversely, there are few positives to draw from the game’s customisation options. Anyone who enjoys spending a good half an hour in character creators will find the variety of options seriously disappointing here, made worse by the unappealing hair styles, facial templates and collection of distinguishing features that are available for selection; even something as simple as fashioning a realistic looking hair colour becomes a Herculean challenge. The switch to a less polarising morality system likewise seems to have fallen short of the promises made prior to the game’s release. Rather than giving you greater freedom to mould Ryder’s personality, the 2-5 response types don’t actually appear to affect the course of events in any significant way so that relationships with your team mates and NPC’s tend to develop in exactly the same way from one playthrough to the next. Forming a truly despicable anti-hero is thus impossible: gone are the days of punching journalists, extorting innocent civilians and pushing enemies through windows.

Up to this point, balancing the negatives and positives hasn’t been particularly difficult, but finding complimentary things to say about Andromeda’s performance and presentation – a game that spent 5 years in development, let’s not forget – is really challenging. Frame rate drops are extremely common, the action stopping for at least 10 seconds altogether at least once a session; sound effects regularly fail to trigger, usually immediately after booting up the game; online connectivity fails just as frequently, restricting your access to the APEX missions you need to gain extra resources and enemy troops routinely become trapped within the level geometry. Character animations are even worse, which is saying something. Eyes are always difficult to render in video games, yet BioWare has partnered the habitually emotionless eyes of the game’s hundreds of individuals with death mask faces that are as rigid and lifeless as a Madame Tussauds exhibit.

Jaal

Jaal’s face is slightly more expressive than most

Similarly, looking at surfaces close up reveals grainy textures that would be considered average last generation, while the papery leaves and garish colours of the native plant life also fails to withstand closer inspection. That being said, the game can appear quite attractive, even charming from a distance. Harvarl – one of the quintet of planets you visit early in the narrative – is reminiscent of Pandora from the film Avatar; a beautiful twilit landscape decorated with flowers and trees of deep purple, blue and pink. The cut-scenes are easily the most evocative visual spectacles, as you might expect, and therefore account for roughly 90% of the screen shots taken during my 2 playthroughs.

All things considered, thanks to its combination of immaculate world building and largely entertaining combat, anyone who has fond memories of the original trilogy would be remiss to forgo Mass Effect Andromeda: it might not be as immersive as we were all hoping, but it’s not as appalling as some would suggest. Those without this sentimental like to the franchise, however, will find the profusion of bugs and slap-dash game design too obtrusive to ignore and should therefore give it a wide berth – 7/10

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Metal Gear Solid’s 5 best boss battles

Metal Gear Solid image

The Metal Gear Solid series is one of the most distinctive in the history of gaming. Alongside a cast of engaging if somewhat bizarre characters and a game world that so perfectly blends real life with science fiction, there are a number of smaller elements that combine to produce something wholly unique. The lengthy cut-scenes, cardboard boxes and heart-wrenching lamentations of Colonel Campbell whenever Snake is killed in action, for instance, will be fondly remembered by veteran players.

But for me – someone who’s been following Snake on his adventures ever since the original Metal Gear Solid released on PlayStation in 1998 – one of the franchise’s most interesting and at times innovative features are the boss battles.

With dozens of encounters to choose from, identifying the 5 that best demonstrate the brilliance of the series wasn’t an easy task. Nevertheless, the quintet recorded here will, I believe, satisfy Metal Gear Solid fans of all tastes.

5. The Boss – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

Set amidst a meadow of snow-white blossoms and absent of the rousing score that usually accompanies a Metal Gear Solid boss battle, the final confrontation of Snake Eater (my favourite game in the series, in case you were wondering) is one of the most profound not just in MGS3, but the entire series and, perhaps, gaming in general.

Notwithstanding her mentor/pupil relationship with Snake, the drama of their encounter is only heightened by the discovery that the aptly named ‘Boss’ isn’t the traitor she seems to be at the beginning of the game, rather, her defection to the Soviet Union (the enemy, obviously; the game is set in the 60’s after all) was actually part of a convoluted plan formulated by the US to allow them to reclaim ‘The Philosophers Legacy’; a sum of $100 billion collated by the eponymous ‘Philosophers’ to fund their illicit endeavours. Unfortunately, Colonel Volgin – Snake Eater’s real antagonist – launches a nuclear attack during the game’s first mission, blaming the incident on the US. As a result, The Boss is compelled to sacrifice herself to Snake; America feeling this is the only way to prove their innocence – it’s a complicated story.

The fight itself, meanwhile, is similar to those preceding it, in that players have the freedom to adopt a lethal or non-lethal approach to the battle and are compelled to rely on the game’s camouflage mechanic to overcome the highly-skilled ‘Boss’. So far, so normal. However, once Snake’s erstwhile friend is defeated and the standard post-skirmish discussion is completed, the action is suspended until the player and thus Snake chooses to finish the job with a final, echoing shot from The Bosses signature weapon, ‘The Patriot’. After this tragic denouement, creator Kojima ramps up the emotion yet further as the field of pristine white flowers suddenly erupts into a sea of crimson red, symbolising the violent end to their relationship.

4. Fatman – Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Changing tack altogether from the theatrical nature of the former, the Fatman boss fight from Metal Gear Solid 2 is a textbook example of the series’ wonderfully singular style. Before the actual battle begins, the suitably corpulent Fatman immediately sets himself apart from other boss battles with his large green bomb disposal jacket and the glass of red wine he readily downs during the usual pre-fight badinage. Oh, and he’s wearing roller skates: yes, it’s as preposterous as it sounds.

With the preamble’s out of the way, Raiden – the controversial replacement for Solid Snake – must start by disarming the handful of bombs secreted throughout the battlefield by the portly demolition expert whilst simultaneously dodging Fatman as he zips around the field taking pot shots at protagonist the player with his trusty SMG, guffawing manically all the while. Having disposed of the C4, the contest becomes pretty straight forward, the player simply alternating between taking cover behind one of the numerous storage containers dotted around the elevated platform and returning fire whenever the opportunity presents itself. And given the size of Raiden’s enemy, these openings are pretty frequent.

It’s certainly one of Sons of Liberty’s easier fights and therefore probably won’t give the average player much of a headache, but the character of Fatman – erring just on the right side of amusing rather than stupid – is undoubtedly memorable and provides some welcome light-hearted relief from the story’s more severe concepts.

3. Ray – Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

Nostalgia and wish fulfilment unite to make this otherwise mediocre boss fight into one of the most enjoyable in the whole series. Set amidst the ruins of Shadow Moses – the location of Snake’s very first mission back in 1998 – the fight against Metal Gear Ray differs from past confrontations between man and machine. Instead of pitting his experience and skill against this imposing bi-pedal tank, the prematurely aged Snake (the cause of his expedited maturity having been explained earlier in the narrative) fights fire with fire as he himself pilots the iconic Metal Gear Rex from the original Metal Gear Solid.

Armed with the full suite of weaponry that anyone who finished the 1998 classic will well remember, the clash of these titans showcases the spectacle that is such a huge part of the series, thanks in no small part to the booming score that accompanies the fight and the gradual destruction of the battleground itself as the two colossal mechs launch barrage after barrage of high-powered ordinance at one another.

Again, it’s not a particularly challenging clash; a few well-placed salvos from the Rex’s missile launcher should be enough to bring down Ray within the space of 10 minutes. But it’s this relative simplicity that makes it such a pleasurable encounter, giving players the time to relish the experience of controlling Rex whilst drinking in the delightfully familiar surroundings many will remember from their childhood; rendered faithfully by the PS3 in clear and crisp high definition.

2. The End – Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

I’m not ashamed to admit it, I must have spent a good hour slowly wearing The End down the first time I fought him back in 2004. For me, the indescribably tense game of cat and mouse between Naked Snake and this nonagenarian, technically deceased sniper was an incredibly protracted affair as I flitted between whatever cover the jungle afforded, my teenage self dreading the report of his sniper rifle any time I had to switch position or scour the underbrush for signs of my adversary; a sense of tension that was only increased by the sheer size and complexity of the battlefield, and the seemingly benevolent sounds of chirruping birds and groaning frogs that serve as the soundtrack to the skirmish.

Now obviously, that’s not typical of this confrontation; there are plenty of people on YouTube who’ve beaten him in 15 minutes without too much trouble. Still, thankfully for me and others of similar skill, developer Konami saw fit to provide the player with a couple of workarounds that essentially allow you to bypass the encounter entirely. Firstly, it’s possible to launch a pre-emptive strike at the climax of a cut-scene earlier in the narrative. As The End’s wheeled away from the aforementioned discussion, players with sufficiently quick reflexes have just enough time to take him out in a couple of shots; the only danger is the wheel that hurtles towards the player’s area of concealment once the underhanded deed is done. It’s my favourite method for defeating this difficult enemy and the one I’ve utilised on all subsequent playthroughs.

Alternatively, if you find such an action somewhat reprehensible (I don’t), you can wait for him to die of old age; seriously. By saving your game shortly after the standard battle begins and leaving your current file untouched for a week thereafter, upon your return, you’ll find The End has died of waiting his fate confirmed by a quick codec call from Snake’s supporting crew who award him the victory by default. It might be a bit long-winded, but it spares you the hassle of meeting the decrepit sniper mano-a-mano as well as displaying the brilliant sense of humour that permeates the entire series.

1. Psycho Mantis – Metal Gear Solid

For many fans, this is the pre-eminent battle in the entire series. Indeed, you’d be hard pushed to find a boss battle in any game that’s quite as innovative and unique as this fight from the first Metal Gear Solid.

Before you even have the opportunity to fire your first shot, Snake is treated to an exhibition of Psycho Mantis’ powers. The gas mask-wearing academic kicks things off by triggering the rumble pack inside the player’s controller, showcasing his telekinetic abilities specifically. After this novel introduction, he proceeds to ‘read your mind’ by naming some of the other PS1 titles stored on your memory card as well as the frequency with which you’ve saved your game hitherto. The cherry on the icing on the cake, however, emerges once the action commences and the player discovers the only way to actually damage Psycho Mantis is to plug their controller into the second port (unless you use the long-winded tracer shot method which I won’t go into here). When first released, players without an internet connection had to repeatedly badger Colonel Campbell via the codec until he mercifully decided to throw Snake a bone and reveal the key to success.

From this this point onwards, the fight is pretty straightforward, yet 20 years after the its release, this battle doesn’t fail to impress. It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt Hideo Kojima’s mastery of game design; his ability to use all the tools at his disposal to create ground-breaking features and mechanics in a way few others in the industry can replicate.

Regretfully, since Kojima’s well-publicised split from Konami, it’s possible we won’t see this level of craftsmanship ever again in the Metal Gear Solid series; in fact, if Metal Gear Survive is anything to go by, we’re in for a steady decline going forward. Still, at least we have the auteur’s first solo project – Death Stranding – to look forward to in the not too distant future.

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