Review: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

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Title: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Developer: Eidos Montréal

Genre: Action-adventure

My playtime: 20 hours

My rating: 9/10

Well, I’ve just finished serving the big bad boss up some whoop-ass in the latest outing for Lara Croft, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, so I thought I’d hit y’all with my review whilst it’s still fresh in my mind. Just give me a moment to blink away the bleed-through …

I am in reality. We don’t skewer each other with pickaxes. We don’t steal resources from impoverished civilians. And we definitely don’t poke holes in endangered species …

There we go.

I’ve been a fan of Tomb Raider since Tomb Raider II, the first game I was old enough to play (oh, the hours I’ve spent pottering around blocktastic Venice). So this has to be the longest-running franchise that I’ve eagerly anticipated each release date of. Lara has been with me ever since my age had double digits, so it’s fair to say she’s had quite an impact on my life. As a child, I so desperately wanted to be her, but now I’m an adult and the opportunity to raid tombs for a living has passed me by, I’m quite content to live vicariously through Lara as she adapts and flourishes into the fourth decade of my time.

I’m a fan of all three of these latest games, but I have to say, I am particularly impressed with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It really feels like the maturation of Lara in her current iteration. They had an excellent formula is 2013, but the brew is at its best in the final episode of this trilogy. I think this is mainly due to the proportions and qualities of this world, set in the Peruvian jungle. The hub areas are vastly bigger than they are in the previous two games, and more than that, there are actual side quests. Gasp! Yes, this is a real, living, breathing world populated by actual people. Previously, our Lara has been adventuring through fantastic settings with some truly epic locations (which can definitely be said for this latest game), but they were all lacking that certain something that made them feel lifelike: life. There are NPCs galore in Shadow, beset with the usual problems that NPCs can’t solve for themselves. Poor lambs. And because you spend time in these hubs, hunting out relics and documents or completing side quests and challenges, this game feels a lot bigger than it really is. Unlike vast open worlds in which you spend most of your time trying to find the fastest way to traverse them, you’ve got to poke your nose into every nook and commit suicide several times to reach every cranny to find every bit of hidden treasure (and I’m ace at finding every way possible to commit suicide in Tomb Raider – I particularly liked being blown off a ledge, breaking my leg and then being devoured by wolves). And there is some fantastic background information about the indigenous and colonial cultures in this area. I actually stop and listen to each entry, rather than just collecting for collecting’s sake, because it’s so fascinating. The challenge tombs are also much bigger than in previous episodes, with much more involved puzzling and problem-solving. The puzzling feels far more like a significant feature of the game now, rather than just a natty bit of fun on the side. I do love a good brain challenge, and this is Tomb Raider after all. The key is in the title.

There are some nice RPG touches in this game. Right from the off, you can customise Lara’s outfit and then collect other outfits with certain bonus effects (you can even skin her in old-school Lara – ah, the memories! That bloody butler!). There are a decent number of weapons to buy or earn, and a comprehensive skill tree that allows you to build Lara’s skills in a way that’s useful for your particular play style. My preference is to be stealthy (because I just panic when all the bad guys rush me), and Lara has learned a few new tricks in this regard. She can now apply mud camo and stick to muddy walls, ready with her trusty jury-rigged knife to savage the presumably half-blind guards. The only problem I had here was that Lara was a bit too sticky for me. It took a lot of joystick waggling to get her to peel away and run to the next cover. Not great when you have to time things exactly. But as compensation, you can now put lure traps on dead bodies, attracting the presumably half-brain-dead guards to your latest kill so that a proximity bomb can blast them into oblivion. That’s great fun! Probably my favourite feature for stealth kills.

But there’s not too much RPG stuff to threaten a total change in genre. I think they’ve got the balance about right. These days, gamers expect more from an action-adventure. People like to make choices and be in control regardless of genre. It’s fun and it makes the game dynamic and personal. And at this point, we’re really getting to know this Lara and understand her choices and behaviour, even if she does cock up on an apocalyptic level. I think that’s the other aspect of this game that really makes it stand out from the others. We see Lara at her worst and best. She’s like Percival crossed with an avenging angel who’s still too young to make wise choices, but when she cocks up, she makes damn sure she puts things to rights. This is a Lara that I can really get on with: rash and flawed, but ultimately courageous and righteous. And that is just the kind of dynamic hero/anti-hero that I like in my games.

So I’m really pleased with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I think the developers should all get cake for this game. They’ve done themselves proud, they’ve done the franchise proud, and they’ve made a lifelong fan very happy.

Review: God of War

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Title: God of War

Developer: SIE Santa Monica Studio

Genre: Action-adventure

My playtime: 50 hours

My rating: 9/10

I should start this review with a disclaimer: this is, in fact, the first and only God of War game I have played. To be honest, the previous episodes completely passed me by. I must have been too busy playing Assassin’s Creed! But the first thing that drew me to this 2018 game was some beautiful artwork and a huge feature article in my gaming magazine back in Autumn 2017. For me, the world and how it’s rendered is one of the most important features of a game, so I was immediately attracted to these stunning blue- and green-toned visuals. And it turns out that the concept art was telling the truth about what awaits in the game itself.

Although not a true open world (which is my preferred setting for my gaming deckchair), it still excels in its epic scope. Around almost every corner, through every canyon and behind every door is wow moment, the kind where you lift your fingers off the controls and leave only your right thumb rotating its joystick just so you can fully take in the scene. In amongst the stream of expletives uttered as I managed to die on a regular basis, the most common exclamation I made was “Oh, wow!” or “Oh my god, look at that!” Apart from the colour and the lighting, I think the real artistry lies in the height and the depth, especially, of each location. There’s a real sense of impressive scope, even in the relatively small areas of the world. You get to feel really small, which is a feeling that I always crave (living, as I do, in such a cramped and flat environment). Each area or realm creates real feeling and atmosphere. The battering winds, disrepair and unending jagged sea ice of Helheim give you a sense of the cold despair. The ethereal beauty and dusky nature of Alfheim give a sense of the endangered enlightenment.

And, yes, as I hinted above, I did die. A LOT. I’m not an amazing gamer; it can take me a while to get used to the feel of a game, and I’m especially slow at combat controls. I tend to take things far too seriously, and my mind and body go into a panic-freeze funk when the enemies approach. I will eventually develop a cool head in a game after a few hours of play, but God of War is not forgiving for gamers like me, even on the “normal” mode. There’s a really tough boss fight almost immediately, and possibly one of the steepest learning curves I’ve experienced in a game. But I would say the weapons you get to wield are fair compensation for the amount and deftness of wielding you have to do. The Leviathan Axe is definitely one of the coolest and most useful weapons in a game ever. And they really do make you utilise the full range of its awesomeness. This is the kind of game where experimenting really pays off in trying to solve puzzles or collect everything. My main tip for this game would be: look up and chuck that axe at everything!

Don’t get me wrong, this is not just an axe-chucking, beasty-slashing hack fest. There is that layer to the game (I mean, you can’t be a god of war and not decapitate a fiend or two), but it’s so much more complex than that. It’s so much more of a story than that. This game is really about a relationship, one between between a father and a son who aren’t particularly comfortable in each other’s company. Kratos is certainly not the most loving or encouraging of fathers. He spends most of the time calling Atreus “BOY!” in that marvellous Christopher Judge voice, and criticising him and generally being huffy and intolerant. But as the game plays out, there’s an evolution to their relationship that you cannot help but become completely invested in. Yeah, yeah, the game is gritty and violent, but it’s also funny and sweet, and every little interaction between the characters really means something. God of War is a very satisfying experience both as a gamer and as a human.

And, I have to add, as a story lover. I frequently went out paddling on the lake just to hear stories from Norse mythology. At first, it feels like these stories are just a bit of audio filler as you travel around the lake, but actually, they are really important to understand the context of the game. And in fact, nothing you do, see or hear in God of War can be classed as “filler”; all these environmental embellishments are critical to gaining the fullest and most rewarding experience of the game. Side quests, for example, are always optional, but here, they are central to Kratos and Atreus’s complex and developing relationship. You won’t get the intricacies and the nuances if you skip anything, or if you fail to notice the little gestures that pass between characters. Even when using the mystic gateways to fast-travel, you’ll hear stories or snippets of speculation that are crucial to understanding what’s going on. Every bit of content is all part of the story, which makes everything unmissable.

Apart from the total immersion of the story, the real standout feature of this game, for me, was the progression, something that has been well mastered here. Like I said, it’s not a huge world, but everywhere in it, they tease you with collectibles and puzzles that you can’t solve just yet because you don’t have the right equipment. Gah! It’s infuriating and excruciating! But it’s also incredibly motivating. And it adds yet another layer to the story-telling because each piece of equipment is acquired as part of the narrative. It also makes good use of a small world because it means you go back to each area a bunch of times with something new to do or discover (and a chance to spot more of those pesky eyes of Odin!). Everything is done at an appropriate time in the narrative, which makes the progression utterly satisfying and the game far less aimless than an open-world affair, where the player has more control over their own progression. It just all feels seamless without being contrived, because you still have control over where you go in the world (unlike something force-fed, like Unchartered, where you don’t get to revisit any location). And levelling up and upgrading gear is the same: you feel like you’re in control, but everything happens at an appropriate time and rate. It’s an extraordinary balance between the gamer owning their game, and the developer curating the gameplay.

And, you get to upgrade not only Kratos’s gear but also Atreus’s gear, and for me, the small boy with a bow was butt-savingly amazing in combat when my brain did its panic-freeze thing, so he’s well worth upgrading.

There are two areas of God of War that made me decide on 9/10 instead of the perfect score. Firstly, the game was too dang short! The world is pretty small, even if you do go to all the other realms, so I’d say 50–80 hours is the limit. Although I enjoyed the main story, and it’s probably one of the best main storylines I’ve played, there are only a handful of side quests, and I like to get lost in days’ worth of side quests to stall progressing through the main quests. Really, it was so good, I just wanted more! Secondly, the skill tree is entirely combat-focused, and there are quite a lot of skills to earn for each weapon. This may sound great for a gamer with excellent combat skills, but I just found it totally overwhelming. The number of button combinations you have to learn off by heart to use these skills is staggering, and most of the time, I just couldn’t get it to work because I couldn’t master the intricacies of the timings while in the heat of a battle. And anyway, in the end, I managed to play through the whole game with just the basic moveset and maybe a couple of special moves that I did manage to get the hang of, so these abundant skills for each weapon aren’t even necessary. Good news for me, but it does make earning new skills a bit pointless.

In the grand scheme of things, however, these personal niggles of mine didn’t in any way damage my enjoyment of the game. It is epic and seamless and really artfully woven. This is a real standout for me so far this year, and probably so far in my gaming history. It’s one of those above-and-beyond games where the quality of the experience lies in the details that have been so carefully placed. It’s a game, and it’s a real work of art. And you get to be BFFs with the World Serpent. What’s not to love?

Review: Assassin’s Creed Origins

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Title: Assassin’s Creed Origins

Developer: Ubisoft

Genre: Action-adventure, stealth

Playtime: 100 hours

My rating: 8/10

*SPOILER WARNING: I won’t spoil major plotlines, but I will be discussing some content and Aya’s role*

Well fellow Creedsmen, this one has been a long time coming, and I’m not just talking about the two-year hiatus since Syndicate. I’m talking about the four-year hiatus since Black Flag. We have been faithfully sitting on our hands, biding our time, waiting for Ubisoft to come back around to the good old days of Assassin’s Creed. And I’m so thrilled to say they have finally done it!

I want to describe Origins as the first truly open-world AC game, in the sense that this is a vast land including urban and rural locations that can all be accessed on virtual foot. I know Black Flag is open world, but locations are only accessible after sailing for vast distances on an ‘open’ sea. Not that I didn’t love the sailing, but there’s only so much interest at sea. And both Unity and Syndicate were entirely based in a single city, and in my book that doesn’t constitute a world. But in Origins, AC has finally begun to reach its potential.

Ancient Egypt is not only a beautiful world, but it is an extremely faithful one. Everything has been painstakingly recreated to be as realistic as it’s possible to get. The great pyramids are almost completely accurate in terms of their internal architecture, Alexandria is the centre of knowledge and culture that it really was and don’t get me started on the languages. Having a degree in linguistics, this is possibly the most thrilling aspect for me. They actually reconstructed Ancient Egyptian for this game. Reconstructing a language is no five-minute job. You have to study its modern-day descendants and work backwards to counteract all the changes that languages go through over hundreds or thousands of years. That is seriously impressive. And not only are the locals expressing the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of “He must be mad!” and “Sunday driver!”, but the Romans are speaking Latin – yes, actual Latin – and the Greeks are speaking Ancient Greek.

And I think that’s where the strengths of ACO lie. They have taken the tried and tested Assassin’s Creed formula, set it in a beautiful open world, but crucially they’ve also upgraded all the attention to detail. Origins feels like a genuinely authentic historical adventure.

I’m not saying it’s completely perfect. As glorious a world as it is, the experience of outrunning a sandstorm in the beautifully realised desert is counteracted by the 2D vegetation. I mean, are we really still in 2D-vegetation land? And the animation isn’t great when you compare it to something like Horizon Zero Dawn. The NPCs still have cone-clothing (you know, togas that stick out like solid cones so you can see their pants when they’re lying on the ground), and their faces lack a broad range of expression. Also, for such a huge and diverse world, the main and side missions are surprisingly short and lacking in diversity. To put it in perspective, it took me about ten days to complete ACO (all main and side missions and interest points), but it took me about three months to complete The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4. I know Assassin’s Creed is all about … well … assassinating, but there’s a real lack of diversity in side activities. They are pretty much all go to a location, stab someone or clear the place out, and collect a reward. It does get a shade tedious after a while, and I found myself sighing, “Oh, another Roman camp” upon approaching a question mark.

I think the most irritating aspect of this game is Aya (Bayek’s wife). I’ve no issue with her character per se. I love a female assassin and played Evie in Syndicate at any point where I had a choice who to play. My issue is that you spend hours and hours upgrading Bayek’s skills and equipment to the point where you think you can handle the big bosses at the end of the main storyline, only to find that you’re not playing Bayek at all. You have to play as Aya, who uses the least effective weapon in the game (IMHO), has no special skills or moves and because you rarely play as her character at any other point in the game, you really have no connection to her. This vexed me greatly. I know other people have raved about how wonderful the ending to ACO is, and I know it’s a great set up for previous and future episodes, but it really made me feel like all my efforts throughout the rest of the game were completely pointless. You literally cannot prepare or give yourself any advantage for the endgame fights. As a serious strategist, this is extremely frustrating.

Okay, gripes over. The improvements to the game almost entirely outweigh the flaws. I’m just going to say one word: Senu. I’ve never been so attached to an animal in a game as I am to this wonderful eagle. She adds a dynamic to AC gameplay that I’ve no idea how I’ve got along previously without. Not only can you see the layout of tricky restricted areas from above, but you can see the whole beautiful world from above. One of the best experiences is setting your mount to follow the road and then playing as Senu, watching yourself gallop across deserts and mountains from above while spying out which resources are heading your way. In fact, I found myself rarely fast travelling anywhere because racing through the world on horse- or camelback is such a rewarding experience in itself. I’d actually be excited to discover that my next mission was 9km away!

The other marvellous addition, or I should loss, for me at least, is the removal of those stupid additional tasks to get 100% sync on missions. I was never dexterous or calm enough to achieve any of those, so I rarely had the satisfaction of properly completing a mission. No more! I can actually feel like I’m achieving things in ACO, with or without flare. I thought I would miss the minimap, but actually it’s fine without it. The only thing I do miss is knowing when I’m about to step into a restricted area. Many a time I found myself charging into a pit of Roman soldiers completely unaware. I’m also grateful that the forays into the future (as Laila) are short and sweet. I personally detest being pulled out of great gameplay to go through these laborious future episodes that could quite frankly be done away with at no great loss, but Laila seems to be quite the assassin herself and has most of the moves.

I know I was a bit derisive about the side missions earlier on, but some of them are really very engaging. I really enjoyed the more era-appropriate missions like the stargazing and tomb raiding, ones where you have to use your brain a bit more to figure things out, rather than just hide-and-stab missions. I do love a good hide-and-stab (and I realise that’s the whole premise for Assassin’s Creed) but I’m just looking for a bit more diversity to keep my interests levels from dropping off. (On a side-mission side note, I will never finish this game 100% because they want me to kill elephants. I’m sorry, I simply can’t. I know it’s very historically relevant, but it just cuts a little near for me with the current state of elephant abuse in the world. They are highly intelligent and empathetic creatures, and I just won’t do it. I can kill all the humans on the planet, but I will not cut an abused elephant to death. Just no.)

So, all in all, Assassin’s Creed Origins is a huge success for the franchise. I will say it: it is the best Assassin’s Creed game yet. There, I said it. That doesn’t mean it is without flaws, but I am entirely optimistic that Ubisoft is heading in the right direction now. They lost their way a bit, but they listened to the players, they took time off to make sure their next offering was what we wanted and they have certainly delivered. From a longtime fan to a responsive developer: thank you, thank you, thank you.

Review: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

Title: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Developer: Naughty Dog

Genre: Action-adventure

Playtime: 20 hours

My rating: 7/10

I’ve played all three previous Uncharted games, and I have to say I’m quite fond of these wee 15-20 hour adventure outings. I’ve been a gaming-life-long fan of Tomb Raider, and I was introduced to Uncharted as a male version of Tomb Raider. Generally speaking, I’m more of a massive-open-world-RPG-hundreds-of-hours-of-play type girl, but there is something very attractive about playing through a shorter, more concentrated story, as opposed to getting lost in days of side quests.

And in Uncharted 4, the story is really the strongest aspect of this game, and the way that the story is woven into the gameplay is really impressive. For example, when you’re fighting with your allies, they aren’t just present and plugging away and you’re just imagining that it’s a cooperative and bonding exercise. In Uncharted 4, it genuinely is cooperative and bonding. You can be mashing away on your buttons, and out of the blue, your brother hauls some thug off you and holds his arms so you can smash his face in. This makes the combat more than just plain old combat, it makes it part of the story and gives it that smooth, choreographed feeling you get in films. It turns my blundering about and button mashing into something stylish and purposeful.

The blending between gameplay and scripted storyline is seamless. You can be having a conversation while driving the car, ditch your allies mid-chat to poke around some ruin, and when you come back, they reintroduce the same conversation with a “Where were we?” type line. The car chase scene is probably my favourite for this kind of experience. I died a few times and blundered about a LOT of times, but somehow this game managed to stitch together all my blunderings into a coherent scene. There were such a lot of variables of behaviour that I introduced, but in the end it all seemed like what I did was on purpose. It made for a very satisfying scene, especially for Mrs Die-A-Lot over here.

There were points, however, at which I felt like the story was taking over from the gaming. There are a LOT of very lengthy cut scenes in this game, and at times I felt frustrated that it was starting to feel a bit like a long film interspersed with a few minutes of interactive gaming. This is the aspect of short adventure games that I don’t like so much: they can be over-scripted, and this is certainly the trap that Uncharted 4 has fallen into. Often I felt like it was heavily choreographed and I was simply pushing buttons in the right direction. This is probably just personal preference, but I like a game where my decisions have an impact on the dynamics of the game, or even just a game that allows me to make decisions. I know, I know, this is not an RPG. I’m playing Nathan Drake, not my own creation of a character, but the only decision-making that went on in this game was whether to approach a combat situation by stealth or by gunpoint.

I guess what I’m saying is there’s not much in the way of mental stimulation, beyond the strong storyline. Yes, there are a few puzzles (which is my favourite aspect of any adventure game!), but actually these dry up about halfway through the game and it devolves into pushing buttons in the right direction. On which point I would also like to mention that the controls are still a nightmare like in previous Uncharted games. I can’t even begin to count how many times Nate committed suicide because I was pressing the right buttons but he decided I wasn’t.

And while we’re talking about Nate, he can still be quite an irksome character. He’s still unbelievably dumb and overly trusting of bad guys (I was shouting the plot twist at him hours before he twigged himself) and he’s still painfully patronising towards his wife, Elena. All my innards twisted about themselves in a giant cringe when he uttered “That’s my girl” as Elena made a very easy jump that even I could make in real life. Even after she has proved herself more than capable throughout Uncharted history. I mean, he might as well have just patted her on the head and made me implode. And Elena is fulfilling that age-old male fear of wife forcing husband to give up all his dreams and adventures in life and completely emasculating him. That vexes me greatly, and I constantly wanted to smash her insensitive, selfish face in every time it appeared on the screen. It’s infuriating that this kind of male-female interaction is still happening in games. And worst of all, it makes me dislike the characters that I have to play with.

So overall, there are some really great gaming aspects to Uncharted 4, but there are also a lot of frustrating aspects. I originally got my hands on this game because the Official Playstation Magazine WILL NOT stop raving on about how it’s the best game ever made ever in the history of gaming ever. But I beg to differ. I can see what makes them excited about Uncharted 4 – it’s smooth and the story is very engaging and every scene gets me excited because they are all different and you’re not just repeating gameplay like many games demand… But it certainly doesn’t rank in my top ten favourite games – the cut scenes are dominating and some of the main characters are highly slappable and there’s not enough mental stimulation. It’s definitely worth a play though, just for the story alone, which is most definitely the standout aspect of this game.