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The Walking Dead: A New Frontier review

Walking Dead main image

So much of episodic graphic adventure The Walking Dead: A New Frontier is right on the money. Following a group of mostly engaging characters, it tells an enjoyable story of family and loyalty brought to life by the striking, cel shaded art style that’s become synonymous with developer Telltale Games. It’s even got one hell of an ace up its sleeve in the form of everyone’s second favourite teen survivalist (after The Last of Us’ Ellie, of course), Clementine.

In fact, notwithstanding a couple of minor problems here and there, it’s difficult to pinpoint any truly glaring flaws with the finished article. Rather, like The Walking Dead: Season 2 and The Walking Dead: Michonne mini-series before it, A New Frontier’s biggest problem is an inescapable sense déjà vu.

Simply put, you can’t help but feel you’ve experienced many of these scenarios before.

Walking Dead image 1

Clem, like any self-respecting American teen, armed with a deadly weapon

Set roughly 4 years after the undead apocalypse ravaged the planet, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier chronicles the journey of protagonist Javier Garcia, who, along with sister-in-law Kate, nephew Gabe and niece Mariana, lives a peripatetic existence rather than settling in a single, potentially vulnerable location. That is, until a misunderstanding in episode one embroils them in a feud with the New Frontier; a community of not entirely unscrupulous survivors inhabiting the ruins of Richmond, Virginia, led by a tetrarchy which includes Javi’s estranged, hot-headed older brother David.

Over the course of the next 5 episodes, the narrative focuses on the Garcia family’s attempts to extricate themselves from the ministrations of this insidious and fractured society, and Javi’s desperation to keep his adopted family together.

When reduced in this way to its most basic form, the main premise hardly exudes originality, but when you factor in the various sub-plots – the most intriguing of which being the Javi-Kate-David love triangle – A New Frontier possesses enough to keep the average player invested in the tale. This is despite the odd misstep here and there, such as the actions of amiable EMT Elanor at the conclusion of episode 4 which, bizarrely, don’t appear to be affected by your previous behaviour towards her, Gabe’s unconvincing transition to adulthood or the presence of overtly ruthless thug Badger in a peaceful settlement like Richmond.

Walking Dead image 2

Clearly, the undead are also susceptible to teen angst

The absorbing if inconsistent narrative is mirrored in the cast of characters. Javi, Kate and David are welcome additions to the series, each bringing something a little bit different to proceedings. Revealed to have been a rather self-centred and irresponsible ex-baseball professional prior to Armageddon via regular flashback sequences, Javi doesn’t exactly fit the mould of a typical Walking Dead protagonist (not once does he utter “this is who we are now”), yet he still manages to shield his loved ones from the horrors that surround them. Kinder and more prudent, though similarly unprepared for parenthood, Kate resonates with the player in the same way as Sasha and Snow White from Tales from the Borderlands and The Wolf Among Us respectively, in that you’re rooting for her from start to finish and acutely aware of the perils she faces on a daily basis. Lastly, despite his fiercely protective nature which at times manifests itself in brutal fashion, David ultimately comes across as a decent man who’ll do whatever it takes to keep his family and friends safe.

However, aside from diminutive amazon Ava and enigmatic drifter Jesus (a familiar face to anyone who’s read the comic books or watched the most recent television series), the rest of the supporting cast don’t cut such distinctive figures, feeling rather like generic, updated versions of previous characters. That being said, the closest thing to a poorly designed character in the entire season is only really the stereotypically argumentative, pissy teen Gabe; a young man who’s seemingly oblivious to humanity’s plight and totally unappreciative of Javi and Kate’s efforts to defend him against the undead plague.

I’m aware I’ve only mentioned fan-favourite Clem in passing up to this point. Unfortunately, this represents her relegation to a supporting role in the events of A New Frontier – much to the chagrin of some players. It’s true there’re a handful of flashbacks that provide you with the opportunity to guide her actions directly and discover what she’s been doing since Season 2; the problem is these sections are as infrequent as they are brief. It’s a real shame Telltale Games’ decided not to explore her character arc in greater depth during these segments; watching her evolution from philanthropic adolescent to the jaded and pragmatic survivor Javi encounters in the first episode would undoubtedly have been a fascinating tale.

Walking Dead image 3

Farage as he would appear to Shallow Hal

Conversely, if Telltale’s failure to create a truly original story is a little disappointing, the lack of anything other than minor refinements to the tried and tested gameplay mechanics that so perfectly suit this style of game is extremely pleasing.

The ability to cultivate your own (relatively) unique story remains the biggest draw and, from that perspective, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier matches the very best Telltale titles; even Tales from the Borderlands. The signature dialogue wheels allow you to develop Javi and, to a lesser extent, Clementine’s character’s in vastly different ways from one playthrough to another, consequently changing the course of the narrative, their personal relationships etc. etc. Meanwhile, whether a result of the studio’s years of experience or the improved processing power of current gen hardware, the momentous binary choices that are the fulcrum of each episode likewise have the potential to generate fundamental adjustments to the wider story. For instance, one character (I won’t say who) died towards the end of episode 2 on my first playthrough, but survived the entire season on my second leading to completely new exchanges and situations, vastly increasing the replayability of this otherwise linear title.

Semi-regular quick time events – press X to crush this zombie’s head, press Y to shoot an approaching bandit, that kind of thing – affords some semblance of action amidst a torrent of conversations, though certainly not enough to impress anyone who prefers more bombastic fair. Other than that, you’re restricted to walking around specific, claustrophobically small locations here and there that, aside from the odd bit of expository dialogue, merely delay the start of the next big event.

That’s not to say A New Frontier doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Although I didn’t try it myself, crowd play (making its Walking Dead debut) is a thoroughly interesting concept that does exactly what it says on the tin: it enables let’s players to cede control of decision making to the audience in one of two ways. Firstly, the host can either reserve the right to have final say on all decisions if they don’t trust their viewers; secondly, a majority vote determines how events will unfold. Whichever option you select, crowd play’s greatest attribute is its ability to provide the kind of community experience that’s such an integral part of all Telltale titles.

Walking Dead image 4

Jesus and his disciples

Elsewhere, though not quite as captivating as Firewatch or Life is Strange, the familiar cel shaded style and vibrant colour palette brilliantly convey the desolation of human civilisation. Cities lay in ruins; the rusted shells of cars litter the landscape and nature has already begun to reassert its dominance over the earth. Besides, given The Walking Dead’s comic book roots, it’s a particularly appropriate aesthetic choice.

Appealing as the visuals are, it does limit the quality of the character animations. Javi’s gait is comically unnatural, his movements incongruously jaunty, whilst the combat animations are pretty inelegant and feeble in execution. Fortunately, the largely impressive voice acting and excellent sound design helps to compensate for the problem. I’m especially fond of the bleeding effect at the edge of screen and the swell of the orchestra whenever you find yourself in a jam, a feature that never fails to ramp up the tension.

There are a few minor, almost trivial glitches worth mentioning. For one thing, the game struggles to render zombies en mass every once in a while, causing a touch of rubber banding. Additionally,  don’t be surprised if you see a recently deceased character appear suddenly in the background of a transitional scene at certain points although, if I’m honest, the latter is actually quite amusing, if immersion-breaking.

Episode length, on the other hand, is a slightly bigger issue. Whereas the component parts of Tales from the Borderlands and Game of Thrones: Season One would take a diligent player approximately 2 hours to complete, each of A New Frontier’s 5 episodes can be finished in a leisurely 90-minutes; hardly a reasonable return for your £25 season pass. It’s so frustrating when you think how straightforward it would’ve been for the developer to add an extra 30+ minutes with expanded Clementine sections or a couple of additional sequences.

I know they say you should always leave them wanting more in the entertainment business, but this is just ridiculous.

At the conclusion of episode 5, fans are reassured that Clementine’s story will be continued in an upcoming, as yet unannounced sequel. And, while I’m reasonably excited for this next chapter, I personally think the series would benefit from an extended break. Much as I enjoy all things Walking Dead, like the long-running television programme, things are beginning to feel somewhat stale and predictable.

Let’s be honest, chances are Season 4 (as I hereby dub it) will revolve around Clementine and a new group of more or less good people battling to fend off a rival gang of unscrupulous individuals, culminating in the death of at least one close companion.

For this more than any other reason, Telltale’s latest foray into the zombie apocalypse just about scrapes an 8/10.

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5 insufferable video game companions

Main image

I wish you could be my companion

Where would the majority of video game protagonists be without their companions? If not for Wheatley’s guidance (albeit incompetent), Portal 2’s Chell would probably have succumbed to GLaDOS’ scheming long before the end credits rolled. Likewise, it’s almost certain Joel’s life would have ended prematurely and violently if he hadn’t met Ellie at the beginning of The Last of Us; the surrogate daughter that gives him a reason to keep going.

Sometimes, however, whether due to bad programming, writing or a bit of both, a title’s hero or heroine is weighed down by an attendant who inadvertently mars an otherwise enjoyable gaming experience.

Here follows – in no particular order – 5 such insufferable video game companions.

Roman Bellic – Grand Theft Auto IV

GTA IV

Roman (left) not badgering you about darts for once

Anyone who’s played GTA IV for any length of time will no doubt remember groaning with exasperation as, during burgeoning gangster Niko’s illicit adventures around Liberty City, his irksome cousin Roman calls for the 50th time that day, begging you to join him for a few jars at the nearest bar or a quick game of ten-pin bowling at the local alley.

It might sound innocuous enough, pleasant even, however, Roman seems to wait until you’re just about to start a mission on the other side of the New York-inspired metropolis before calling.

Worse still, should you reject any of his incessant requests – because, you know, you’re trying to establish a criminal empire whilst simultaneously protecting Roman from the loan sharks that want to shatter his kneecaps – his passive aggressive, peevish reaction leaves you feeling both irritated and strangely guilty. And, on those rare occasions when he’s not pestering you over the phone, he’s getting himself kidnapped by gangs of heavily-armed thugs.

After 40+ hours of his nonsense, it does at least make the crucial choice at the end of GTA IV pretty straightforward: take the deal and enjoy watching Roman get whacked on his wedding day.

Winston Smith (The Butler) – Tomb Raider 2

Released in 1997, I was a child when first I heard the unnerving rattle of Winston’s tea tray as he stalked video game doyenne Lara Croft around the grounds of Tomb Raider 2’s Croft Manor.

Restricted to the mansion itself, he’s only really a problem when you’re exploring this central hub/training area and thus isn’t as much of an annoyance as the other people on this list. Despite that, he remains the most memorable feature of the entire game; although, to be fair, that’s probably because 8-year-old me didn’t have the wit or dexterity to get past the first level, let alone complete the entire story. In other words, I spent more time with Winston than any of Tomb Raider 2’s other characters.

Still, Winston clearly had an impact on countless other players around the world. Perform a cursory search on YouTube today and you’ll find dozens of examples of one of the most popular player-created challenges of the time; locking him away in Lara’s meat fridge. I myself tried this once or twice, hoping it’d spare me from his intrusive solicitations.

Aware of this little side-objective, the developer provided players with a more aggressive solution to the problem in 1998 sequel Tomb Raider 3, allowing Lara to bring her signature pair of pistols to bear on the terrifying if well-meaning old butler.

Donald Duck – Kingdom Hearts

Kingdom Hearts

If only Donald was as silent as this picture

Unnecessarily convoluted narrative aside, I’m a big fan of the Kingdom Hearts series. Boasting enjoyable combat, a mixture of faithfully recreated fairy tale worlds and the cream of the crop from both Final Fantasy and Disney canon. What’s not to love?

Donald Duck.

Possessing a voice so irritating it makes Janet Street-Porter sound as melodious as Morgan Freeman by comparison, every word uttered by the maddening mallard is as painful as being forced to listen to an auditorium full of blackboards being scratched.

Unfortunately, as a powerful red mage, Donald is probably the most useful party member available to you; in the original Kingdom Hearts, anyway. Elemental spells like ice and fire enable him to target specific enemy weaknesses, whilst his cure spell takes the pressure off the party’s potion supply and lets Sora focus on hacking through hordes of Heartless with his Keyblade.

Long-time partner Goofy’s voice is only fractionally less unpleasant, but at least he’s capable of producing sounds that don’t render high-end ear plugs a necessity.

Any follower – The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

This entry is very much a result of the dodgy mechanics that, frustratingly, pervade Bethesda’s otherwise exceptional open world RPG Skyrim.

Be it blithely charging into a den of enemies heedless of your attempts to slowly and carefully pick off foes one by one from a safe distance with your trusty bow, blocking doorways or disappearing altogether, poor AI hinders each and every one of Skyrim’s numerous followers.

On more than one occasion during my most recent playthrough, for instance, I was left isolated amidst a swarm of foes, frantically downing healing potions as I tried to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat, all because my chosen companion got his or herself knocked-out at the very start of the encounter contrary to my orders. The best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

You can command your follower to hang back, a tactic which does prevent them from alerting the entire dungeon to your presence before you’re ready to engage. However, apart from the fact this defeats the object of bringing some extra muscle, it can be just as infuriating to see your partner standing 20 feet away with their thumb up their arse, watching stony-eyed as you struggle to overcome a battalion of opponents single-handedly.

If they weren’t such useful decoys and effective damage sponges, I’d seriously consider playing through the entire game solo.

Hope – Final Fantasy XIII

FFXIII

Hope and Vanille: 2 of Final Fantasy’s very worst

Final Fantasy XIII isn’t a great game; some would go so far as to say it’s not even a good game. Yet, despite the unsatisfyingly linear design, cheesy script and rather dull combat, its biggest flaw is Hope; Lightning’s adolescent teammate not the “feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen”, obviously.

There isn’t simply one thing that makes him such an aggravating character, rather it’s a combination of factors. He’s surly, petulant and unaccountably blames Snow (a character not even Troy Baker can make endearing) for his mother’s death. And did I mention he sounds like a pound shop Christopher Mintz-Plasse without the awkward, underdog charm? Every time he opens his mouth you’ll wish Square Enix included a button for cracking him across the chops with the hilt of Lightning’s sword.

To cap it all off, due to the way the Crystarium works (FFXIII’s progression system), he’s the best white mage in the entire game by a comfortable margin and is therefore a vital party member for the duration of the main narrative and post-game quests, much like the aforementioned Donald Duck.

I realise there’ll be many characters equally deserving of a place on this list that don’t appear. Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Larry from The Walking Dead: Season One are two that spring to mind.

Nevertheless, I think most will agree the guys and girls who appear here withstand comparison with any of gaming’s most annoying characters.

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5 games to look out for at E3 2017

E3 image

It doesn’t seem 5 minutes ago since E3 2016 ended, yet here we are again eagerly awaiting gaming’s biggest event of the year.

Over the course of 6 action-packed days starting on the 10th of June, developers and publishers alike will gather together at the Los Angeles Convention Centre to showcase their latest games to the world’s press and, for the first time ever, a discerning public.

As always, there’s sure to be something for gamers of all shapes and sizes. However, amid the torrent of AAA blockbusters and indie gems, these 5 titles are, for my money, the ones to look out for at E3 2017.

Final Fantasy VII Remake

FFVII Remake

Two years on from that famously uproarious reveal during Sony’s 2015 presentation, and we still have precious few details about this long-awaited Final Fantasy VII Remake let alone a concrete release window.

Yes, we know that it’ll feature fast-paced action combat a la Final Fantasy XV, an episodic publishing format and a fully-voiced cast of characters, however, beyond that, there’s not much more to say.

Yet, with such little communication in the past 2 years, that seems likely to change at this year’s E3. I’m betting Square Enix will finally give us some juicy new details to keep us busy over the coming months, preferably addressing the planned expansions to the story and how the limit break and materia mechanics will work within a real-time framework.

Besides, surely Square Enix will explain more fully its decision to forgo external support and develop the game entirely in-house going forward; for instance, it’d be nice to know if the studio was unsatisfied with the way CyberConnect2 were handling the Remake, if the move will have any effect on the title’s development and why they chose to promote Haoki Hamguchi to lead designer.

As someone who feels equal parts excited and apprehensive about the game, whatever Square Enix deign worthy of public consumption, I really hope E3 2017 will go some way to alleviating my concerns.

Dreams

Dreams

One of the most interesting titles likely to make an appearance this year, Dreams is a game all about creation, sharing and pure unadulterated joy; in contrast to most of the games on this list.

First announced in 2013 and the brainchild of LittleBigPlanet creator Media Molecule, Dreams is a game of astounding ambition that looks to take the studio’s signature community creation facilities to a whole new level of depth.

In Dreams, players are essentially free to design levels and even worlds from the ground up, creating everything from basic environmental assets and sound effects, through to bespoke gameplay mechanics. In other words, it’s possible to create entirely unique games within Dreams itself. In addition, much like Media Molecule’s previous offerings, there’s an emphasis on sharing. So, if, like me, you find it painfully difficult to create anything noteworthy, you can simply download another player’s constructions to populate your levels. And, as always, the single-player campaign will teach you the basic tenets of building as you play.

With the likes of Death Stranding, The Last of Us Part II, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and perhaps even Bloodborne 2 (though I’m not getting my hopes up for the latter) on Sony’s E3 itinerary, Dreams would be an invaluable part of a remarkable show for the Japanese giant.

Days Gone

Days Gone

Not only is PS4 exclusive, third-person shooter Days Gone expected to appear at E3 2017, it will feature heavily, according to actor Samuel Witwer; the man providing the voice for protagonist Deacon St. John. Sounds good to me.

Seemingly similar in tone and aesthetic to PS3 masterpiece The Last of Us, some may accuse the title of attempting to cash in on the current, if waning, zombie craze. That, however, would be doing this extremely promising game a huge disservice.

The crowd tech alone was a revelation when it was unveiled at last year’s show, capable of filling our screens with vast hordes of freakers – SIE Bend Studio’s entry into the ever-growing undead pantheon. But, when you consider this incredible mechanic will be set within a huge open world, I don’t think I’m being too optimistic in expecting some thrilling, truly emergent gameplay when Days Gone eventually launches. And, intriguingly, that day might not be far off. Following news the development team has doubled in size over the past year, many speculate Days Gone is fast-approaching completion.

Could a release date be on the cards at E3? Maybe, though I have to say, I’d be content with learning a bit more about the core narrative, characters and the kind of missions we’ll be able to undertake during our adventures in the freaker-ridden American wilderness.

Death Stranding

Death Stranding

Roughly a week ago, Metal Gear Solid auteur Hideo Kojima posted a Tweet informing fans he’d recently been in talks with SIEA (Sony Interactive Entertainment America). He didn’t explain what was actually discussed, but the timing of the meeting alone has convinced many in the gaming world that PS4 exclusive Death Stranding – Kojima Productions’ debut project – will feature in some capacity during Sony’s press conference on the 12th of June.

After all, little is known about the game at present, aside from the identity of the actors portraying the protagonist and antagonist (The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus and Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen respectively), and that Death Stranding will be an action-adventure title in the same vein as the Uncharted series. That being said, as this is a Hideo Kojima title, it’s safe to assume there’ll be generous helpings of political allegory (revolving around pollution, it would appear), feature-length cut-scenes, innovative gameplay and quirky characters.

So, assuming it does make an appearance, we can be reasonably confident of receiving a new, more extensive trailer, though perhaps not a definitive release date. Personally, I would love to see a slice of gameplay showing us what we can expect from the dream combination of master craftsman Hideo Kojima and the incredible Decima Engine.

The Last of Us Part II

Last of Us part 2

Of all the games mentioned so far, the one I and many others would like to see most at this year’s show is The Last of Us Part II: who could resist the opportunity to experience another superlative human drama set amidst the ruins of civilisation?

Thankfully, Sony seem set to include Naughty Dog’s magnum opus during its presentation.

Taking place a few years after the events of the original, writer Neil Druckman has already confirmed two important elements. Firstly, The Last of Us Part II will focus on hate instead of love; secondly, players will step into the shoes of resourceful heroine Ellie this time around, leaving many to speculate previous protagonist Joel may no longer be on amicable terms with his surrogate daughter (have his actions at the end of The Last of Us caught up with him?) or, worse still, dead.

Unfortunately, given how early the much-anticipated sequel is through the development process – as was explained when it was first revealed at the PlayStation Experience 2016 – there probably won’t be anything substantial on offer at this year’s E3. Still, a new 60-second teaser or even a handful of screenshots would be more than enough to keep me going over the lean months to follow.

I could name dozens of other games that are well worth keeping an eye on in the build up to E3 2017; some of which I’ve already mentioned in passing.

However, I’m just as excited to see what surprises are in store for us this year. You can bet your bottom dollar a handful of developers will somehow manage to buck the modern trend and keep their games concealed from the public until the 10th rolls around. Could this be Half-Life 3’s big moment? No, almost certainly not. Still; we can dream, can’t we?

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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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Firewatch – Review

Firewatch image 2

Firewatch is a PS4 exclusive

Beautiful and breathtaking, witty and poignant; Firewatch is an absolute joy to play. But more than this, it’s a banner title for the graphic adventure genre; one that validates this often overlooked style of game. To be honest, my only real criticism of Firewatch – released worldwide February 2016 for PS4 and PC and developed by Campo Santo – is, simply, it’s over too soon.

Set in the idyllic Shoshone national park, Wyoming, during the summer of 1989, the roughly 5-hour story puts the player in the shoes of jaded 40-year-old Henry, who’s recently taken a job as a fire lookout in one of the many isolated towers dotted throughout Shoshone’s unspoilt wilderness. After a short, semi-interactive opening sequence detailing the events that led to the weary protagonist’s current vocation, we’re introduced to Delilah; Henry’s boss and sole point of contact during the long season ahead, a person he can only reach via a pair of walkie-talkies (remember them?). Sadly for Henry – though fortunately for us – his quiet solitude is interrupted almost immediately by a series of seemingly unrelated mysteries which force him and Delilah as the only people present at the time to try and discover the cause of these strange events. From start to finish the story is relentlessly intriguing, causing the player and Henry himself to question everything that takes place throughout the course of Firewatch’s narrative. This sense of confusion is exacerbated by Henry’s utter isolation and inability to discuss his experiences with anyone except Delilah; a woman he’s never actually met face-to-face; a woman he barely knows. These two features, so effectively utilised throughout, perfectly display the both brilliance of Campo Santo’s choice of setting and skill as storytellers.

As engaging as the plot is, however, the relationship between Henry and Delilah is the real highlight in a game overflowing with class. The exceptionally written dialogue elicits a vast array of emotions from the player and is performed with aplomb by Rich Sommer (Henry) and, especially, Cissy Jones (Delilah). Alongside the glib remarks and the genuinely amusing back-and-forth exchanges between the two protagonists, the game is more than able to deal with serious concepts such as self-image in a considered and thought-provoking manner which is even more impressive given the brevity of the narrative. Of course, like all such point-and-click adventures, the player has a certain level of freedom to alter the nature of the relationship between Henry and Delilah and thus, to a certain extent, the course of the narrative itself through the use of its primary game mechanic: dialogue trees. This mutability provides Firewatch with a degree of replayability, so often absent in many more linear, action-orientated titles and results in two of the most authentic, compelling and fully-fleshed characters in recent gaming history.

Firewatch image 1

Attenborough would have a whale of a time at Shoshone

From a gameplay perspective, despite its lack of combat, RPG-esque character development or even basic puzzles which story-driven games these days often incorporate to attract a wider audience of players, it’s important to remember Firewatch is a game. As well as the familiar, reactive dialogue trees mentioned earlier, there’s an added level of depth unique to this title that should please all but the most demanding of graphic adventure fans. Specifically, this manifests itself in the player’s freedom to report to Delilah only what seems salient to the mysteries at hand; for instance, should you feel a particular piece of information is irrelevant or you distrust her opinion on a particular matter, it’s entirely up to you how to use this knowledge. Granted, it doesn’t revolutionise the graphic adventure paradigm, nonetheless, it is a pleasing mechanic that increases the player’s ability to fine-tune Henry and Delilah’s relationship and experiment with the narrative in numerous ways. In keeping with the minimalistic gameplay, Firewatch utilises a simple, easy-to-use control scheme, favouring simple navigation that allows you to orientate Henry on the fly, using the directional pad to seamlessly bring forth a paper map and compass, preserving the truly immersive nature of the experience. Outside of the, for want of a better term, main campaign, a surprising amount of freedom is given to the player to explore the topography surrounding Henry’s watch tower; though that’s not to say the park is anywhere near as immense as a standard open world game; nor should it be. As well as discovering various shortcuts that simplifies traversal, it’s possible to adopt a pet tortoise and even take photographs with an in-game disposable camera; pictures that can be printed off via Steam, if you’d like a physical, real-world copy as a memento of your time in Shoshone. All things considered, while Firewatch certainly won’t get your pulse racing, it nevertheless possesses more than enough interactive elements to keep fans of the genre happy and, more importantly, provides a much-needed alternative to the surfeit of first-person shooters and open-world epics that pervade the industry today.

At this point, though I am extremely fond of Firewatch (my unequivocally positive ramblings hitherto should have made this as clear as Channing Tatum’s lack of acting ability) I have to return to my initial criticism of the game: its brevity. Just as you begin to finally understand Henry, Delilah and Shoshone’s history, it seems the end credits start to role, leaving in its wake an acute sense of dissatisfaction and sadness to be so suddenly ejected from the story. I for one would like to have seen Campo Santo expand on key aspects of the narrative or include a few additional short sections of content that delve deeper into the history of some of the park’s previous inhabitants; something as interesting as the rest of the game that would enable me to spend another hour or two with Henry and Delilah. For this reason, I feel Firewatch falls just short of TellTales’ The Walking Dead series 1 or Square-Enix’s Life is Strange in terms of quality.

Notwithstanding this flaw, it would be almost impossible to criticise the art-direction unless you possess a sense of wonder as stunted as Victor Meldrew’s. Designed by artist Olly Moss, the setting faultlessly captures the evocative beauty of America’s national parks and the majesty of such pristine wilderness in general. It’s colourful and bursting with life, yet maintains the sense of isolation which is so fundamental to the experience. Indeed, though heavily stylised in appearance, you’ll never tire of the ceaseless parade of breath-taking vistas, if anything, you’ll regularly find yourself resisting the urge to channel your inner Attenborough and soliloquise on the gorgeous scenery. Elsewhere, the sound design is handled with impressive subtly, with a raft of natural sound effects used intelligently to emphasise Henry’s solitude and the peaceful nature of his surroundings as the situation demands, whilst the sporadic use of music is used to similarly great effect as well as capturing the late 80’s/early 90’s period.

Whether you adore or abhor ‘walking sims’ (as they’re derisively called by some) Firewatch should be experienced by all PS4 and PC gamers who yearn for variety. Though arguably too brief to be considered great, this exceptionally told story with its deep, three-dimensional characters and sublime graphics, produces a game of rare narrative quality that many a AAA title fails to match. Besides, it only costs £14.99 – cheaper than the average nightclub beer and far more memorable.

8/10

John

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Battleborn Open Beta – Impressions

Battleborn Image 1

Who will you choose?

I’ll concede that, before playing Battleborn’s 10-day open beta on PS4, I hadn’t been paying much attention to this FPS-MOBA hybrid. I was aware it was being developed by Gearbox Software (the same studio who created the wonderful, irreverent Borderlands series) and published by 2K Games, but hadn’t seen or heard anything to get me overly excited for its release this May. However, as I had some free time in my gaming schedule, I decided to take a punt on the beta and was pleasantly surprised by what I found; a fun, immersive and challenging shooter, liberally garnished with the witty and humorous flourishes we’ve come to expect from Gearbox Software. Whether or not my experiences with this generous sample of gameplay will be enough to convince me to purchase the full release, however, the following passages will relate.

To set the scene (using information sourced from elsewhere on the internet, as there’s very little narrative exposition in the beta itself), the game’s campaign focuses on Solus, the last star in the universe, which is now a hotly contested battleground between two warring factions. On one side we have the Battleborn, a diverse group of 25 elite warriors, tasked with defeating the perpetrators of the catastrophe that destroyed the other umpteen-billion stars (Brian Cox could tell you the actual figure, whilst simultaneously charming your pants off) in the cosmos. Opposing this cadre of eponymous heroes, are the enigmatic and aggressive Varelsi, whose motives at this stage are far from clear. Only 2 missions are playable from the main campaign, both of which can be enjoyed individually, with friends locally (on the same system! Who’d have thought it possible) or with up to 4 other players online, with the difficulty of each mission changing, depending on the number of participants. After the controversy of Star Wars Battlefront’s homogenous, online-only set-up, Battleborn’s configuration will be a welcome change for gamers who desire a more varied FPS experience; one which allows them to explore the game and acclimatise themselves to its exigencies, before taking that first, bold step into the world of competitive online multiplayer. Even so, there are one or two facets of the campaign, as demonstrated in the beta, that suggested it might not be an entirely thrilling experience. Most notably, I found the missions themselves to be rather long and repetitive, orientated primarily around destroying waves of AI enemies in rather lacklustre locations that don’t feel as imaginative as games of a similar artistic style; I’ll go into more detail about the graphics and aesthetic further down. Regardless of these, personal, issues, Battleborn’s undeniably fantastic sense of humour, just about, retains the player’s attention throughout the 2 missions.

Ultimately, like the majority of online FPS titles, the biggest selling point of the game is its PVP capabilities. Though the final game will include 3 different competitive modes, only 2 were playable during the beta: Incursion and Meltdown. Incursion splits 10 players into two teams of 5 and tasks them with destroying 2 opposing AI mechs, whilst simultaneously defeating as many enemy players as possible for a better individual score. Suffering from the same pacing issues as the story operations, I nonetheless enjoyed Incursion’s highly tactical combat and emphasis on co-operative play; an important theme that permeates the entire game but is perhaps most noticeable here. Meanwhile, your objective in Meltdown is to lead groups of diminutive AI ‘minions’ (not the incomprehensible, yet unaccountably endearing one’s from Despicable Me – fun as it would be for certain people to see them incinerated) to machines located in pre-set areas on the map, at which they willingly sacrifice themselves to appease ‘the dark lord’ (not Sauron, Voldemort or Donald Trump – as far as I’m aware). The first team of 5 to successfully euthanise 500 of the poor little bastards are named winners and, like Incursion, receive an individual score based on enemy players defeated and minions sacrificed. Meltdown, on average, offers a more rapid experience than its counterpart, due chiefly to the condensed arena in which the action takes place. It’s also a more testing environment that makes it slightly trickier to overcome human-controlled foes; though to be fair, that could be I’m a personal issue based on my desperately average FPS abilities.

Battleborn image 2

The combat can be rather hectic

Moving on to the gameplay mechanics themselves, I was really impressed with the variety of playable characters and the customisation and development options available. Indeed, though the size of the character roster is impressive in and of itself, what excites most is the uniqueness of every single Battleborn. Each and every one has their own specialities and specific uses within the broader categories of melee fighter, healer, support and ranged warrior, allowing players to identify a play-style that best suits their skills. Finding a fair balance between new and experienced players appears to have been an important consideration as well if the multiplayer’s initial set-up is anything to go by. At the beginning of each online operation, every participant begins with a level 1 character and can only unlock additional abilities if they perform well during play, ensuring Battleborn veterans don’t enter each new match in an overpowered state, without actually handicapping them in an intrusive manner. That’s not to say there are no permanent records of your success or benefits to regular play. A command score chronicles your past victories and gives you access to a variety of titles as your general abilities progress, whilst individual Battleborn likewise have a general ‘affiliation’ level, giving you access to additional attires, taunts and ability buffs. Furthermore, your performance in battle is rewarded with a form of currency which can be used to purchase loot, which is in turn used to create a loadout composed of temporary buffs that can be applied during combat.

Before summarising my overall experiences, I think it important to clarify my earlier remark regarding the slightly uninspiring art design. Although I recognise Battleborn employs the same colourful style as Borderlands, managing to replicate the comic book aesthetic that Gearbox Software is known for (one which clearly suits this type of game perfectly), I nonetheless feel the results lack a sense of distinctness and visual impact, because of these similarities. Given the widely differing subject matter of the 2 IP’s, I would (perhaps unfairly) expect something more evocative, engaging and encapsulating of the inherent mysteriousness of space. Of course, this is only a small concern and, if the wonderfully written and performed dialogue is anything to go by (Cristopher Sabat – Vegeta from DBZ – provides the voice for Rath!) it won’t make the slightest difference to the majority of fans.

All things considered, though I had an unexpectedly good time playing the Battleborn beta, at heart I’m someone who prefers RPG’s and games in general which incorporate complex, character-driven narratives. So, although I would be happy to play this again in the future, it isn’t quite engrossing enough to convince me into parting with £40 upon its release on 03/05/2016. Notwithstanding my gaming proclivities, I would strongly urge any FPS or MOBA aficionado to pick up a copy as soon as possible; you’ll have an absolute blast.

John

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