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Descenders review

The elevator pitch for Descenders is a procedurally generated downhill mountain biking game. Sounds simple enough, right?

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Descenders review

The elevator pitch for Descenders is a procedurally generated downhill mountain biking game. Sounds simple enough, right?

But rather than a mobile affair, this is a PC game, available from Steam (in Early Access). Nor is it visually simplistic, like other procedural games. Far from the voxels of Crossy Road or the beautiful flat 2D of Alto’s Adventure, or the cheap pixels of Flappy Bird – Descenders is a realistic 3D game built in Unity, and when it’s running at a lick, it’s gorgeous. It’s not free, or ad supported, or only costs a couple of quid, either; it costs the best part of twenty of the Queen’s Sterling.

It’s also not actually endless, like most games of this type. Where as you’ll snowboard forever – at least, until you crash out – in Alto’s Adventure, Descenders is split into environments and stages. That does mean there’s technically an endless stream of curves and ramps to smash your teeth on, but each course is separated by checkpoints, and the environments are fenced behind bosses, of sorts.

Allow me to explain the flow of Descenders.

After a brief tutorial on the game’s – wonderful, smooth, simple – controls, you’re dropped into a course at the top of the Highlands environment. The course, procedurally generated, has been configured with a balanced setup; that’s a fairly even mix of curves, steepness, and things upon which to perform stunts.

If you get to the bottom, you’ll move onto the next stage. Each environment is split into stages, and you’ll have branching choices of which stage to tackle next – with varying, randomised setups of curves, steepness and stunts – as you make your way across the board to the final boss stage.

Crash out, and you’ll effectively lose a life. Lose all your lives, and it’s session over. (You’ll also lose reputation, but we’ll come back to that later.) However if you perform the optional objective for the stage – get to the bottom without braking, perform three backflips, spend more than five seconds in the air, that sort of thing – you’ll gain an extra life.

And here’s where the procedural nature of Descenders starts to cause a few wobbles.

Descenders screenshot 01

Other than the mandatory first (and final) stage of an environment, you’ll be shown what the next optional objective is before you select a stage from the available branching options. This means if your next objective is for backflips, for example, then you’ll want to pick one with a high stunt rating. If you need to get to the bottom in 35 seconds, then you’ll definitely need to pick something steep… though I wouldn’t entirely recommend trying that.

Some of the objectives are, I’ll plant my flag here, flat-out impossible on certain courses. Even on the steepest run, literally eschewing the track and careening a straight line down the middle of the hill, I’ve yet to beat a course in under 40 seconds, never mind 35. Some are technically doable – like reaching the bottom without braking, or the more difficult corollary, without letting up on pedalling – but I wouldn’t recommend it. Having to achieve a set number of tricks on a course without any jumps, in spite of an apparently high stunt rating on the course selection screen, is just irritating.

If you crash part-way down a run, you’ll lose all your progress towards the bonus objective. Not only will you lose a life, you’ll also probably lose your chance of earning a replacement. You can very quickly end up throwing good lives after bad.

There’s an old adage regarding golf course design, about balancing risk with reward for a challenging experience, but because lives are limited and you need plenty to progress, you’ll achieve more in Descenders by playing carefully.

Or sneakily.

You can, for example, achieve the five seconds of airtime objective by squeezing the brakes and doing tiny bunny hops all the way down the hill. You can complete a run without braking by snaking tiny little slalom turns all the way down, so you never pick up any speed. It’s not exactly in the spirit of an extreme sport, but sometimes absolutely necessary if you want to progress. You might find yourself nursing one remaining life with the brakes on full, basically walking the bike down the hill.

Not only is it less exciting to play this way, the environments in Descenders – complete with billboard grass and frequently recurring assets – look a lot less pretty when they’re not whipping past you at speed, the way they’re intended.

That feeling, that sometimes the game’s own nature is working against it, runs through Descenders. There are some stunt types – like a wooden loop-de-loop, or jumping between the legs of a Firewatch-style tower – that you’ll probably just ride around and ignore entirely. The bonus you’ll get to your reputation by doing more risky stunts isn’t really worth the pitfall of losing another life.

And you’ll need those lives when you get to the boss stage at the end of the environment.

In the highland environment, that’s jumping over a viaduct with a moving train on it, which – with a hint of depth of field and screen shake – looks and feels amazing. It’s genuinely thrilling. In the forest environment you’ll jump onto, then off the other side of, a particularly large Firewatch tower. The canyon environment boss is, erm, a big canyon? And the peaks boss is jumping off the side of a mountain, onto a ramp that’s being suspended from a helicopter, and then onto the next mountain. It’s ludicrous, but adds a terrifying extra dimension to the game’s procedural courses.

Descenders screenshot 02

Is it stupid? Yes, but very exciting and challenging, so you’re definitely going to need to stock those precious lives for the boss jump. To further gate onward progress, you need to complete each environment (including the dizzying boss jump) three times from the beginning, before you’re granted a new checkpoint and are allowed to start a session at the subsequent environment, with a full complement of lives. It’s a balance of procedural freshness and roguelite grind that doesn’t always work.

You can have a wild time performing stunts while you’re doing it, and the procedural nature of the stages means it’s a new game every time, but the constant nag of the health meter really cramps your style. Between the limited lives and the challenges to progress, tricks and stunts are often the furthest thing from your mind.

What you do get for performing wicked stunts is a boost to reputation, and cosmetic items. It’s scant reward. I gained enough reputation to increase my rank several times, and I was invited to join a team, but I’m not entirely sure what any of that means in practical terms. (Yes, I know you get team-specific gear and access to your team’s channel on Discord, but honestly, who cares?) There are limited-time challenges in the menu, but I’ve seen none available thus far. Presumably this is because Descenders is still in Early Access, and – as well as fine-tuning and balance to the game’s procedural algorithms – there’s more to come in terms of content.

Even the game’s free practice mode, usually a chance to go wild in extreme sports games, still carries the conceit of a health meter. You won’t suffer a loss in rep if you bail, but you can’t even get away from limited lives to perform the most insane of stunts, just for fun. I’m desperately hoping for some sort of freeride or trick attack mode to make its way into the game through the course of Early Access, because if (like me) you were hoping for a bit of classic Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater or Skate, just on a mountain bike, you’ll likely be disappointed to some degree.

Finally – and I know this is a matter of petty personal taste, but while we’re talking about classic extreme sports games – if you were expecting the lively pop-punk of Tony Hawk’s, or the eclectic mix of hip hop and rock of EA’s Skate, you’re going to be even more disappointed. Descenders features a repetitive mix of dismal, borderline-unlistenable drum and bass.

And that was it. That was where the review was going to finish, until Mike Rose of No More Robots, publisher of Descenders, hit send on this tweet:

To which we made the following enquiry:

So we waited. We didn’t publish the review. And it turns out, Rose was right. The update definitely does address a big question mark people have with the game, and one we raised in our review: where the hell is a freeride mode?

But now that freeride is here, does it materially change the review? Not so much, as it happens.

Freeride mode in Descenders is, by and large, exactly the same as playing a single stage in the main game. The difference is that you’re allowed to make modifiers to the parameters of the stage before you start. You can adjust the three sliders – curves, steepness, stunts – to try and get a stage more to your liking, but the nature of the game’s procedural generation means you still might not get what you want. It’s just more likely.

You can pick your environment, and time of day, and even put on custom modifiers like the removal of the path from the centre of the course. All of this makes for interesting diversions to the standard setup, but its fairly immaterial.

Most importantly, you can modify the number of lives you have before you start in freeride. If you want to keep going over and over, without hitting a painfully “how do you do, fellow kids?” “rekt” game over screen, you can. That gives you the opportunity to take on the big tricks you daren’t risk during the game proper’s roguelite quest for progression, and to keep bailing and dusting yourself off and trying again, but honestly? It doesn’t make as much difference to my enjoyment as I thought it would.

Descenders
3

Summary


Platform: PC
Developer: RageSquid
Publisher: No More Robots
Release Date: Out now (currently in Early Access)


At the heart of Descenders is undoubtedly a very pretty and – under the right procedural circumstances – mechanically fun-to-play mountain biking game. Unfortunately the whims of procedural generation and the contrivances of its roguelite progression system tend to dampen the exhilaration and enjoyment somewhat. However if developer RageSquid can make the most of Early Access and add some additional game modes, or adjust the balance to favour extroversion and tricks over caution and staying power, they could be onto a real winner.

Oh, and some variety in the soundtrack (or maybe Spotify integration, so you can listen to your own playlists?) would be lovely, thanks.

Enjoyed this article?

Found it interesting, entertaining, useful, or informative? Maybe it even saved you some money. That's great to hear! Sadly, independent publishing is struggling worse than ever, and Thumbsticks is no exception. So please, if you can afford to, consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee.

Tom is an itinerant freelance technology writer who found a home as an Editor with Thumbsticks. Powered by coffee, RPGs, and local co-op.

Reviews

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 review

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 revitalizes the dormant skate series with a frontside 180 onto modern tech.

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Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review
Activision

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 revitalizes the dormant skate series with a frontside 180 onto modern tech.

My experience with Tony Hawk has, more often than not, been mediated by Vicarious Visions.

The prolific studio once put out 14 games in a year (12 in their still-ridiculous runner-up), porting just about every popular early aughts IP to Nintendo’s handhelds. If there’s a mascot platformer you loved on consoles, chances are Vicarious Visions broke it down to its barest essentials – which usually meant a switch to 2D – and put out a Game Boy Advance version.

The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games got a similar treatment. Though Natsume’s Game Boy Color version of the original THPS is underwhelming, Vicarious Visions managed to capture much of the series charm in their subsequent GBA ports. I played a tonne of the studio’s isometric take on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4 and dumped dozens of hours into the series’ blocky DS debut, American Sk8land. Meanwhile, I somehow never made it past the Hangar on my N64 copy of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2.

For much of its 30-year history, the Activision subsidiary has had the unenviable task of making worse versions of beloved games, dumbing down the graphics and simplifying the gameplay until they had something that would keep a seven-year-old kid happy enough on a long car ride. They did impressive work for unimpressive hardware.

Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review 02

In recent years, though, Vicarious Visions has finally had the opportunity to give games glow-ups. With 2017’s Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy, the studio lovingly reimagined Naughty Dog’s decades-old original run for modern hardware, kickstarting a wave of remasters at Activision (Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled from Beenox, Spyro Reignited Trilogy from Toys for Bob) and clearing a path for a brand new Crash Bandicoot game, Crash 4: It’s About Time, set to release next month.

Now, Vicarious Visions has focused that same love and attention on remaking the series they spent the ‘00s de-making for handhelds. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is a fantastic remake of the earliest games, and a wonderful return for a series that went out on the sour note of 2015’s Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 5. It also proves that if Activision is interested in continuing to cash-in on nostalgia, Vicarious Visions is one of their most essential assets.

Pretending I’m (still) a Superman

Skating in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 feels effortlessly good – exactly how you probably remember these games feeling. Despite the fact that I hadn’t played a Tony Hawk game in almost 15 years, re-learning the controls was easy and fun. An optional, extensive tutorial with VO instructions from the Birdman himself is a nice touch.

Though getting a hang of the basics is easy, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 will push you to put it all together. The addition of the revert, which was added in THPS3, and the manual, which was originally only present in THPS2, makes pulling off long chains of combos seamless. That isn’t to say that it’s easy, though. You will almost certainly curse when you land wonky, allowing a 100,000+ combo to slip through your fingers. As a result, though, the most enjoyable part of these games is the sense of slowly learning a park’s layout until you can navigate it smartly enough to successfully rake in those massive points.

This is what I enjoy most about this game: the perfect interplay between tight level geometry and the player’s moveset. Learning level layouts is an essential part of getting good at this game. But, unlike the pattern recognition required to take down a Cuphead or Dark Souls boss, the memorization you do in Tony Hawk is creative. You are memorizing a routine, sure, but it’s a routine that you made up, that plays to your particular strengths. And while I don’t love the fact that the remake retains the originals’ old school “Complete 8 More Park Goals to Unlock [next level]” model of campaign progress, I do appreciate the way it forced me to learn the intricacies of each park; to figure out where the massive combo hotspots are hiding in parks as initially unintuitive as Burnside.

Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review 01

Vicarious Visions has done a fantastic job preserving that god-tier level design, while sprucing up the environmental art to make each level feel suitably distinct. Looking back on videos of the original games, there’s a sunny drabness to most of the levels. But, in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2, each level feels like its own unique place.

Burnside is dark, moody and rainy now in a way that borders on neo-noir. The Mall, which previously just looked empty, now feels almost apocalyptically abandoned. The School is bursting with newfound colour, and COVID-era messages about the “new normal.” All the while, the soundtrack – featuring plenty of the original tracks and some new ones that fit in perfectly – blasts a ripping array of punk, ska, metal and hip hop.

If you were a big fan of the early Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games, or if you just w11nt to see what all the fuss was about, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is a fantastic return to form for the beloved series. Activision has a fantastic platform here and I only hope they continue to build on it. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 and 4 are right there!

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2 review
4.5

Summary


Platform: PS4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One
Developer: Vicarious Visions (original games: Neversoft)
Publisher: Activision
Release Date: September 04, 2020


Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 marks the triumphant return of a beloved franchise. With a vibrant updated look and remixed soundtrack, Vicarious Vision’s remaster brings Neversoft’s stellar originals shredding into 2020.

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RPG Maker MV – Nintendo Switch Review

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an RPG maker.

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RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch review
Degica / Thumbsticks

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an RPG maker.

The tides of time, life, and a career have put paid to those ambitions, unfortunately. Unless I win the lotto or retire, I doubt I’ll ever find the time to learn how to program and design a game from the ground-up.

One hope is access to an increasing number of game-making applications designed to do much of the heavy-lifting and offer a guiding hand to aspiring creators. The RPG Maker series – currently under the stewardship of Degica – is one such example.

Ostensibly a program for PC and Mac, RPG Maker debuted in the early 1990s. The series has also made occasional appearances on consoles with versions produced for the Super Famicom, the original PlayStation, and most recently, the Nintendo 3DS.

RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch 08

The series has continued to grow in popularity by offering a comprehensive suite of tools that let users create 2D role-playing games that echo Pokémon, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest favourites of the past. Some developers have also pushed the boundaries of the platform to make genuine classics. Kan Gao’s exquisite To The Moon and Future Cat’s sublime OneShot being prime examples.

The most recent version of the program – RPG Maker MZ – was released for PC and Mac last month. Now, NIS America is bringing a port of 2015’s RPG Maker MV to PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch.

Unlike the Nintendo 3DS version – which was significantly reworked to suit to its dual-screen home – the console edition of RPG Maker MV is a seemingly straight port of the PC original. The decision to take this approach comes with its benefits and problems.

Let’s take the positive path to begin: It’s a seemingly straight port of the PC original, which is an excellent, full-featured game-creation platform with a mind-boggling array of configurable options. At a base level, anything you can create in the desktop version, you can also create here. That is a very big positive indeed.

For this review, I embarked on creating a small-scale RPG called A Short Adventure About Long Distance. Please be excited.

A Short Story About Long Distance

Development in RPG Maker MV is broken down into logical components. The map creation module lets you create overworlds, town maps, and interiors from a range of tilesets. The event editor is used apply conditions to almost every in-game object, creating reactions, triggers, and dependencies on a local or global scale. The battle system is similarly expansive, covering weapons, abilities, spells, items, and effects with every variable you can think of. You can also manage character classes and level progression with infinitesimal detail.

Keeping track of everything isn’t always easy, but development is underpinned by a well-structured database that organises everything from enemies and animations to weapons and party members. For the most part, if you can imagine it, you can make it.

If this, then everything.

The included selection of themed graphical assets is also impressive. At first glance, some of the in-game objects and building components look rather lacklustre, but they can be combined and used to create locations with variety and personality. One perk of the console version is the ability to recolour assets, increasing their usefulness a hundredfold.

There’s certainly an RPG Maker look that, despite your best efforts, you’ll never quite escape. Nonetheless, the tilesets are well designed and the results are often more impressive than you’d expect. The flexibility also extends to characters and NPCs. Mixing and matching character face parts is part Mii Maker, part anime fever dream.

On PC, RPG Maker MV is supported by a wealth of extra content that ranges from official DLC to plugins and user-created assets. RPG Maker MV on Nintendo Switch and PS4 has none of this. It’s reasonable to expect some official DLC packs in future but the absence of mods and plugins to enhance the experience is keenly felt.

And that’s the problem with RPG Maker MV on a console. The limits are just as evident as the possibilities. You can create a complex RPG, but only with the assets available. You can use character close-up images on dialogue boxes, but you can’t download the plugin to dynamically change them.

If this, then maybe that.

RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch 08

These niggles also extend to a user interface that is fundamentally unsuited a game controller. An action that would normally involve a quick mouse scroll and a right-click becomes a Monster Hunter-esque fumble of thumbsticks, triggers, and face buttons. The result? Simple. Tasks. Take. Much. More. Time.

It’s initially infuriating, although over time – mostly due to sheer repetition – navigation gradually becomes second nature.

Thankfully, RPG Maker MV on Switch supports a keyboard when docked, and in handheld mode. The touchscreen also is used for selected actions and is an absolute godsend when it comes to entering dialogue and text. However, such is the size of the Switch display you’ll need fingers the width of chopsticks to perform some of the more precise menu inputs.

Loading times are also an improvement on last year’s Japanese release, noticeably so when moving from the database to the map editor.

RPG Maker enemy editor

The other Lavos-sized compromise is the ability to export your lovingly-crafted creations for others to play. RPG Maker MV games on PC can be exported to a variety of formats and are playable on a range of platforms. Here, you’re restricted to sharing via the game’s native online library. Fortunately, the free RPG Maker MV Player app – available from the Nintendo eShop – lets your Switch buddies download and play your games at no cost.

As for the quality of games created in RPG Maker MV, well, that’s down to you. For this review, I decided to developer a slimline 15-30 minute RPG with light combat, town exploration, and a happy ending. Even a game this simple in scope takes a lot of time, but it’s a slow, pleasurable progression of inspiration, planning, testing, and execution. The process will definitely give you an appreciation for the complexities of video game development.

I was hoping to have A Short Adventure About Long Distance completed in time for this review. Alas, it’s mired in development hell while I untangle a spaghetti bowl of cause and effect. As soon as it’s complete, I’ll update this review. Please understand.

A Short Story About Long Distance

There are multiple products on console that aim to bridge the gap between a creative spark of inspiration and a video game. Across PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, you can choose from Dreams, Super Mario Maker, Little Big Planet, Wargroove, PlataGo, and FUZE4, to name just a few. RPG Maker MV sits at the semi-professional end of the game-creation spectrum, but it’s accessible to newcomers and also has the benefit of a strong support community.

RPG Maker MV is not a shortcut to creating an excellent RPG, but it serves as an illuminating introduction to the principals and mechanics of game development. If you can cope with the idiosyncrasies of the console port, it’s an intuitive and fun to use game creation platform that can bring your RPG ideas to life.

RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch
4

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PlayStation 4
Developer: NIS America
Publisher: Degica
Release Dates: NA: Sept. 8, 2020. EU: Sept. 11, 2020. AU & NZ: Sept. 18, 2020.


As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be an RPG maker, and now I am. Creating games in RPG Maker MV is more of a grind than I expected, but the platform makes levelling up game development skills an enjoyable experience. There are compromises on console, but it’s still recommended for aspiring game creators.

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Control: AWE DLC review

“Alan, wake up.”

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Control AWE review
Remedy Entertainment

“Alan, wake up.”

Coming hot on the heels of March’s The Foundation DLC, Control’s second helping of post-launch content easily offers the more interesting setup. Picking up on the numerous teasers and easter eggs found in the original campaign, it sets out with the goal of officially crossing over the Control and Alan Wake universes, and sees Jesse Faden investigate the eerie horrors that plagued Remedy’s beloved 2008 cult-classic.

It’s without question a tantalizing elevator pitch and seeing Remedy sow the seeds for its recently announced shared universe threequel is exciting. However, AWE can’t help but feel like more of a three-hour tease than a continuation of either story. It still has its moments, but it seems Remedy sees this new narrative as a vehicle to lay the groundwork for a sequel rather than a fully-fledged tale of its own.

The story of AWE begins with Jesse receiving a strange series of messages from Wake himself, who summons her to the Investigations Sector of the Oldest House. Much like the Foundation, Investigations is an expansive new area, with fresh mysteries to uncover, side missions to complete and enemies to face. That being said, it doesn’t do much to stylistically distance itself from the grey architecture and tunnels of interwoven pipework that were explorable in Control’s campaign.

Control AWE screenshot 1

The trade-off is that players get to face Control’s most overtly horrific antagonist yet, with a nightmarish, almost Cronenbergian monster stalking your movements throughout Investigations’ eerie hallways. Discovering exactly what this terrifying creature is makes up the majority of the DLC’s narrative, with Remedy proving once again that it excels when allowed to operate in spookier territory.

Few moments prove the studio’s aptitude for all things that go bump in the night than your frequent boss encounters with this horrifying creature, who will often force you into rooms with wide stretches of pitch-black darkness illuminated only by limited light sources, where it cannot reach you. Each of these battles act as intense, high-stakes puzzles, made all the more terrifying by the fact you can see the lumbering creature stalking you from beyond your well-lit haven.

For all the present Alan Wake fans, these light mechanics probably sound pretty familiar to you, and yes, AWE does frequently take inspiration from Wake’s flashlight focused combat-style. It pops up most frequently in the aforementioned boss encounters and sometimes in the occasional puzzle, but one of the biggest issues with the DLC is that it doesn’t do more with it. To be honest, although it does add a useful new gun form and the ability to hurl several objects at once, there is a sense that nothing AWE brings to the table is particularly fresh.

While The Foundation offered new ways to traverse and fight enemies with its crystal-based abilities, it feels like AWE needs something similar to match that big shift in playstyle. Whether that’s the ability to wield a flashlight to battle some new, darkness-based foes or maybe just a powerful new ability that achieves the same goal, it can’t help but feel like AWE misses a pretty wide opportunity to make something special.

Control AWE screenshot 2

The same goes for the overarching story, which feels like its building to a grandiose, jaw-dropping climax but is snuffed out with little fanfare. For one, while fans are likely paying the admission fee here to see Alan Wake – he is the feature attraction after all – there’s surprisingly little of him on show. Don’t get me wrong, this without a doubt begins to highlight what a Control and Alan Wake sequel could look like, but it always feels like more of a trailer for what’s to come rather than a fully-fledged continuation of that universe. Some fans even speculated AWE would offer answers to the puzzling conclusion of Alan Wake’s American Nightmare DLC, but don’t go into this thinking it’s going to spew out new revelations for that story.

Saying all this, it’s not that AWE is bad. It’s just safe. Everything you liked about Control is still here. The combat encounters are a hell of a lot of fun, the dark sci-fi humour returns in force and, while the additional side-missions focus more on fetch-quests, they offer an entertaining diversion from the main storyline. At the end of the day, I’m sure we’ll look back on this final adventure in The Oldest House as an essential bridge between Control and whatever comes next.

It’s just, for the time being, it feels like Remedy maybe could’ve been a little more ambitious with its first major crossover.

Control: AWE review
3

Summary


Platform: PS4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Date: August 27, 2020


AWE offers an interesting first look at the future Remedy envisions for both the Alan Wake and Control franchises alongside featuring a terrifying main antagonist and some creepy boss encounters. That being said, it’s still somewhat underwhelming, acting as a teaser for the future with few crazy story beats or new features to get excited about.

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EA Sports UFC 4 review

Callum grapples with EA Sports UFC 4, and he thinks it might just be the series’ best outing to date.

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EA Sports UFC 4 review
EA

Callum grapples with EA Sports UFC 4, and he thinks it might just be the series’ best outing to date.

For a genre littered with incremental annual upgrades and a distinct lack of innovation, the EA Sports’ UFC franchise has always been a shining beacon of how to do a sports game justice. Opting for a biennial schedule, it has built itself up considerably since its admittedly rough first iteration back in 2015, introducing meaningful, transformative overhauls over the last five years and quickly becoming the best combat-sports simulation since 2011’s Fight Night Champion.

Its fourth entry, EA Sports UFC 4, is no different. While there are fewer all-encompassing changes and practically no game-altering new additions, EA Vancouver has instead spent some much-needed time refining and fine-tuning the UFC experience. Its gameplay flows more smoothly, its various modes have been polished and its new suite of accessibility options means anyone can jump in regardless of their skill level. As is usual for this constantly adapting franchise, this is easily the biggest and best EA Sports UFC package available to date.

So, what’s new in UFC 4? Not a huge amount. In truth, it’s EA Vancouver’s focus on removing tedious frustrations that truly changes how this fourth iteration feels to play. Takedowns have been switched from an irritating combination of triggers and thumbsticks to a much simpler two-button control scheme, while combos feel easier to execute with less emphasis on perfect timing.

However, It’s the clinch that easily benefits most from the tune-up, with UFC 4 completely switching up the mechanic to instigate more organic stand-up brawls. While players would previously have to engage in clunky, mini-game focused tie-ups while grappling on their feet, UFC 4 instead offers the ability to move in and out of the clinch in seconds.

UFC 4 Screen 3

Fighters merely press a button to enter the clinch, land a series of punches or knees, then push back the thumbstick to retreat to normal striking distance. Grappling-efficient fighters can even use these tie-ups to unleash huge slams or pull off impressive submission techniques, with a fighter like Jon Jones able to perform a guillotine while clinching his opponent. It often feels like that one key aspect the series’ stand-up combat was missing, and while moves from the clinch are slightly overpowered, fights generally benefit from the free-flowing pace they provide.

Newcomers are also catered to a lot more than in previous games, with UFC 4 specifically offering a simplified version of the game’s complex wrestling system. Grapple assist, as it’s called, strips away the more position-based style for a simplified alternative, giving players a three-prompt menu that allows them to posture up, lock their opponent into a submission, or return to their feet. Of course, it’s entirely optional, so players with more experience can instantly switch back to the more intricate wrestling options in the game’s settings.

While on the ground, players will also be met with a brand-new submission system, which switches out UFC 3’s needlessly complicated mini-game for two fresh ones. The more frequent of the pair sees the victim of the submission move a small bar around a circle, while the attacker moves a second bar on top of their opponents and tries to keep it there as long as possible. Think of it as a thumb war, just, you know, with more opportunities to break someone’s arm.

The second mini-game is used for joint submissions and works similarly. This one utilizes a much smaller gauge, however, with players using the L2 and R2 buttons to move from side to side. Both are far more intuitive than their overly complex predecessor, relying less on frantic button-mashing and prompting some fun mind-games.

As for who players can expect to utilize in combat, UFC 4 boasts the biggest and most diverse roster the franchise has offered yet. From current UFC Lightweight and Strawweight champions Petr Yan and Weili ‘Magnum’ Zhang to notorious British boxing mainstays Anthony Joshua and ‘The Gypsy King’ Tyson Fury, the roster is stacked with new names. But the standouts are easily the game’s updates to now-notorious fighters, such as cover star Jorge ‘Gamebred’ Masvidal, ‘Sugar’ Sean O’Malley and ‘The Last Stylebender’ Israel Adesanya. Some models don’t look fantastic, with Connor McGregor and Gilbert Burns standing out as particularly soulless, but for the most part, they’re on point.

Players will have the opportunity to fight in some new locations too, with the game offering a small backyard arena and, more excitingly, a stylized “Kumite” ring ripped straight from Bloodsport.

UFC 4 Screen 8

Then there’s the game’s revamped career mode, which is probably the most contentious new upgrade to UFC 4. Early on, it makes some welcome changes to the noticeably rigid career mode of UFC 3, showing you rise up through the independent scene and even giving you a chance to fight for an indie title if you so desire. However, once you reach the upper echelons of the UFC itself, it becomes less enticing, seeing you take countless uninteresting fights with little fanfare or fun.

Meanwhile, its new skill system smartly lets you build up your moves and perks through actual play, meaning any strikes you naturally lean on become more powerful as you progress. However, training camps are long and boring, especially once you reach the latter half of your fighter’s career.

There’s also the campaign’s rivalry mechanic, which feels like a wasted opportunity to sidestep the rigid structure of previous career modes. While it seems like the feature will let players call out fighters and set up dream matches, it instead falls to infrequent, fixed social media interactions and a bar which depletes every time you purposefully knock out an opponent in sparring. By the time your character is 10 years into their career, they’re locked into fighting unfulfilling opponents with no overarching goal to aspire to.

All in all, though, EA Sports UFC 4 is a solid new update to the series which introduces some much-needed quality of life improvements. Of course, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a wholly new take on the series. Like many sports games, it’s an upgrade that offers some crucial improvements and new features, so if huge innovations are what you’re after, you might be disappointed. But for fans looking for the best possible UFC experience, this is without question the most complete envisioning of the seminal MMA brand to date.

EA Sports UFC 4 review
4

Summary

Platform: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One
Developers: EA Vancouver
Publisher: EA
Release Date: August 14, 2020

Although it doesn’t offer many game-changing new features, EA Sport’s UFC 4 is without question the most comprehensive release in EA Vancouver’s MMA franchise. Setting aside some issues with the career mode, it offers a solid update to UFC 3, with smoother combat, a more accessible entry point for new players and the most complete roster of fighters yet.

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Windbound review

What’s refreshing about Deep Silver’s Windbound is that it isn’t afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve.

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Windbound review
Deep Silver

What’s refreshing about Deep Silver’s Windbound is that it isn’t afraid to wear its influences on its sleeve.

As many have noted from its pre-release trailers, it has a clear admiration for the excellent Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, adopting its sense of unbridled freedom and strikingly colourful cel-shaded art style. However, it’s also evidently found some new grounding in the survival and rogue-like genres, pulling in inspiration from the likes of Stranded Deep, Don’t Starve and The Forest.

And while Windbound does feel like a blended assortment of different games and genres, the smoothie that comes out the other side is more refreshing and fulfilling than you might expect. It’s a constant surprise how well the game’s survival elements fit within a roguelike structure, and even more surprising how snuggly both feel in the kind of expansive open-world that Windbound provides. The end result manages to make for a more laid-back survival game than you might expect, offering both a liberating open-world adventure on top of an enthralling survival experience.

The core concept is pretty simple. You play as Kara, a member of a seafaring clan who gets shipwrecked following a violent storm. You awaken on an island in the middle of nowhere, alone and with little more than the clothes on your back and a trusty rock in your hand. From here, you’ll have to navigate across a procedurally generated landscape of islands in search of crafting items, food and magical towers which push forward the game’s story. Along the way, you’ll encounter a variety of locations, including murky swamps, harsh deserts and tropical paradises, each with their own resources and unique threats.

Windbound Screen 6

The first big deviation from most survival games is that Kara doesn’t really have many needs to attend to. Her stamina meter will slowly deplete as she grows hungry and health won’t regenerate on its own, forcing players to scavenge for food to replenish both. But, thankfully, there are no sleep meters to manage or temperamental thirst bars to watch out for. It’s the first of many signs that Windbound is a much more streamlined survival game than you’re used to, which is excellent because it means more freedom to explore without limitations.

Of course, that’s not to say the game doesn’t punish you. Death in Windbound is far more permanent than you might expect, with the game clocking you back to the first of five chapters if you’re unfortunate enough to see your health bar deplete to zero. Not only that, but all the items you amassed and the stat boosts you discovered perish alongside your progress, literally kicking you all the way back to square one.

Seeing as my winning run clocked in at around six hours, that’s a lot of time to spend on what might be a fruitless stab at reaching the credits. In truth, the permadeath focus can be a little too punishing for its own good. However, it does facilitate a type of learning most survival games don’t offer. Every run of Windbound brings a new discovery; every death teaches you to be cautious of something you were slightly too gung-ho about approaching before.

One of these exact teachings is to rely heavily on the game’s boat-building mechanic, with it quickly becoming essential to construct a ship that can withstand more than a slight gust of wind. In essence, boat-building in Windbound takes the place of crafting an intricate shelter in other survival games, especially as a sturdy craft will solve a number of your more pressing issues. You can store items on ships, use them to hide from pursuing foes and, of course, set sail to new islands in search of much-needed resources.

Windbound Screen 3

Constructing an awesome sea vessel quickly becomes Windbound’s most compelling feature, as you go from a hapless small fry in your little grass canoe to a cel-shaded Moana, skimming through the high-seas on your towering, hand-crafted sailboat.

Yet, on the opposite side, Windbound’s biggest issue is its lack of depth. While I’m completely behind the decision to strip away the classic survival tat and focus in on exploration, it can feel like there’s very little to discover after a few hours of play. Crafting boils down to slightly enhanced versions of tools you’ve utilized in the first few chapters. Sailing never evolves into something more challenging and the game’s central objective remains exactly the same.

Combat is plagued by the same problems, with slim enemy variety and clunky battles that rely on a dodge and attack system with unpredictable enemy hitboxes. Meanwhile, it often feels like there’s little reason to visit islands outside of gathering resources and accessing magical towers, which is unfortunate when they are such visually rich locations to explore. The addition of some Zelda-like dungeons with unique armour or weapons might have added a little something to sweeten the deal here. But, as it is, there were often islands I actively avoided because there was nothing to entice me off the beaten path.

Then there are Windbound’s technical issues, which are far from game-breaking but definitely noticeable. The game crashed a handful of times for me (with one resulting in around an hour’s playtime lost) while visual issues and infrequent bugs followed me throughout the campaign. None of it is going to truly ruin your time with Windbound, but there definitely will need to be a few patches.

Windbound screen 1

Other than that, what’s here is a surprisingly enticing survival game that’s a lot of fun to play. It might not be able to match the sheer scope of something like Breath of the Wild, while other survival games offer much more depth, but its combination of several different genres and styles makes for something that stands out from its more gritty, self-serious peers.

Deep Silver has clearly aimed to blend the line between the single-player adventure game and the crafting-based survival genre, and for my money, it’s a solid first attempt.

Windbound review
3.5

Summary


Platform: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Developers: Five Lives Studios
Publisher: Koch Media
Release Date: August 28, 2020


Windbound almost feels like a mixing pot of some of this decade’s most visually striking and compelling games, and for the most part, the end result is surprisingly effective. It could do with more depth, but its focus on exploration and fantastic ship-building mechanics make for a pretty liberating survival experience.

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