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Dirt 4 review

Dust off those fireproof coveralls and prepare the pace notes – it’s time to get down and dirty with Dirt 4, the latest in Codemasters’ venerable rally series.

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Dirt 4 review

Dust off those fireproof coveralls and prepare the pace notes – it’s time to get down and dirty with Dirt 4, the latest in Codemasters’ venerable rally series.

I’m not really a car guy. I grew up with posters of bands in my room, not cars or racing drivers. I get that Ayrton Senna was a legend, I do, but it was always Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell on my wall.

You might argue that doesn’t exactly make me a great choice for reviewing a rally game like Dirt 4, but I’ve always had a soft spot for rallying, and rally video games. Rallying, like golf, speaks to me on a purely selfish level. I was a handy rugby player when I was younger, but if I could have made it in any sport it would’ve been golf, because of the absolute solitude of it all.

Not that golf is solitary, of course – you can have a lovely time walking around with three friends – but the scoring system makes you an island. I could go around and shoot a 67 [Ha! He wishes! – Ed] and I’d probably deserve to win, but if someone else shoots 66? That’s absolutely fine with me. I did the best I could. I didn’t impede their round and they didn’t impede mine, and in the end, the best player won. And if I shoot a 77 then I’ve got nobody to blame but myself. It’s the solitude of the scoring that I appreciate. [Note: Does not play well with others – Ed]

And that’s the beauty of rallying, with its solo, time-attacking heart. It’s also something that Dirt 4 really nails with its career mode.

It’s a bit of an odd start, though. The game asks you if you want to play in Arcade or Simulation mode, then chucks you behind the wheel of a Ford Fiesta and lets you have at it. It’s bad. I crashed a lot, but I wasn’t competing or in an event – this was just a bit of a shakedown. Then Dirt 4 invited me to their driving skills school, which is one of my pet hates with driving games.

Ever since Gran Turismo and its infernal license system, that locked progression to later tracks and tournaments until you completed oddly specific license challenges, I’ve had an aversion to skills-based tutorials in driving games. I hate them. I know about racing lines and straight-line braking. I know about the application of power through corners and opposite lock when sliding. I even know about advanced stuff like trail braking and the slightest hint of handbrake on shallow bends on a loose surface, and these are all things I learned from actually playing rally games, not obtuse in-game driving lessons.

And those lessons did set me back a bit. I may have been astonishingly rusty in that taster session with the Ford Fiesta, but at least I was having fun, hooning about in a modest hatchback. Jumping up to a more powerful Subaru Impreza for those incongruous lessons just made things worse. I finished the driving school segment thinking, “Shit, I used to be good at driving games. Why can’t I do this any more?”

If I wasn’t reviewing it, I might’ve jacked it in. Not for good, mind you – I’m not a petulant child – but I’d certainly have taken a break from it for a few hours. Instead I ploughed on with the career mode, which includes delightful touches like setting up your team, picking its colours, livery and sponsors, and hiring staff. Before too long I started to enjoy myself.

My first event was in a borrowed Ford Fiesta, with a 1-litre turbocharged engine, and I had an absolute riot. It took place in the backwaters of America on a loose gravel road, so with a combination of front-wheel drive understeer, a peppy , zesty engine, and some gently slippery bends, it was simply sublime. Sure, I binned the Fiesta into the trees a few times and took advantage of the incredibly kind stage restart feature more than I’d care to admit, but that car on that surface really made the game come to life.

My second was in a Vauxhall Adam, also borrowed, with a faulty gearbox. Nicky Grist – veteran co-driver and stalwart of the series, from when the games were named after the late Colin McRae and Grist was his real-life co-driver – calmly informed me that there were a few issues shifting gears, and he wasn’t kidding. Once I’d scraped through in that hateful little roller skate, without third gear for the most part, I was dead set on going and buying my own car.

I went to the showroom and picked out a brand new Ford Fiesta. It instantly changed into my team’s livery – Team Thumbsticks is grey and orange, naturally – and I hit the road. I won my next two events, and by then had won enough races to progress to more locations, events, and higher classes of cars. (For reference, developers of racing games, this is a better way to curve progression than driving lessons. Stop it.)

To take on the new classes, I went to the showroom and selected a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, a 2-litre, flat-four rally monster with a huge spoiler and an all-wheel drive system, and took it to the road. And I hated it. Yes, it was a better car and it got me around quicker, but I wasn’t having much fun anymore. Even Nicky was struggling; I was getting to the corners before he’d gotten his words out, which seemed to me a sign that I was better off with the smaller cars.

That realisation caused me to do the only sensible thing in that situation: I shut the Lancer away in the garage, never to be seen again, and bought a twenty-year-old Seat Ibiza from the small ads. And I went back to having a blast with Dirt 4 again.

That’s one of the blessed things about Dirt 4‘s career mode; like a real rally, there are different classes of cars in each event, so if you don’t want to race a particular type of car, you don’t have to. There’s a whole swathe of cars in the middle – proper rally cars, with huge spoilers and all-wheel drive systems – that I don’t touch at all. But the little hatchbacks, the sort of cars we own in real life, that sparkle when driven to the ragged edge around a Spanish mountain road or an Australian dirt track? They’re the best. The classic rally cars, pickup trucks and beach buggy-type things are a riot, too.

Which is something they really got right with Dirt 4. It’s not at its finest when it’s a technical racing simulator, though it is a very competent one; you’ll have the most fun when it’s closer to banger racing, or grass tracking, or borderline destruction derby in a car that’s probably not fit for purpose. That’s why the Top Gear The Grand Tour team always end up falling in love with the cheap, terrible cars they buy for their big challenges, and that connected feeling transfers beautifully to Dirt 4.

Oh, I should probably do the other traditional review bits too, shouldn’t I? The sound is, as you might expect, brilliant, and the music is a cheerfully eclectic mix of rock and pop accompaniments. And Dirt 4 is very pretty, save for a few missteps. While the mud’s flying and everything’s in motion – particularly in the replay mode, great for screenshots and reliving those Dukes of Hazzard airborne moments – it looks fantastic, but there’s a few things that don’t quite work.

The design team have put in what they’re probably thinking of as a bit of visual flair, to try and bring a bit of life to the static environs you’ll be careening through. A competitor car, broken down and smoking at the side of the road (with marshals waving you around) works a treat, but a flock of birds getting spooked from a bush just looks, frankly, crap. It’s supposed to happen quickly enough that you don’t notice it’s a bunch of flat sprites, but it just looks like the bush is projectile-vomiting grey goop at your car.

But it’s the fact this vomiting bush happens every single time you scorch past it – I crashed a few times from laughing at how shitty it looked, so ended up restarting the stage a few times – that has the opposite effect to making the stage feel alive. Flat sprite butterflies and bush vomit/flock of bird oddments all stand out angrily amongst an otherwise very pretty game.

But those are some pretty minor complaints, in the grand scheme of a great rally game.

Dirt 4
4

Summary

Dirt 4 has one of the best career modes you’ll see in the racing genre, at times closer to the do-whatever-you-want elements of Forza Horizon than the franchised motorsports games it seems outwardly more similar to. If you’re a real stickler for speed and technical challenge you’ll probably enjoy the ‘proper’ rally cars more than I did, but the beauty of it is that you can progress your career however the hell you want, which is delightful.

And if you are like me, that’ll probably involve chucking yourself around in sensible small hatchbacks or old bangers, with a massive smile on your face.

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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

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – Nintendo Switch review

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is the latest in an increasingly long list of last-generation game to grace the Nintendo Switch. Is it an Old West epic or a penny dreadful?

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Call of Juarez: Gunslinger - Nintendo Switch
Techland

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is the latest in an increasingly long list of last-generation game to grace the Nintendo Switch. Is it an Old West epic or a penny dreadful?

Revisiting older games on Nintendo Switch often serves as a reminder of how much things have changed in the last decade. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is one such example. Originally released on PC and consoles in 2013, it received a warm welcome and won acclaim for its clever storytelling techniques.

In the intervening years, game narratives have evolved in intriguing ways, the digital Wild West has been redefined by Red Dead Redemption 2, and the FPS genre – despite remaining the same on a mechanical level – has become increasingly entwined with RPG mechanics. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a throwback to a time when those seeds were being sewn. In some respects, it still feels modern, but in others, the lines of age are showing.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger screenshot

The good news is that Call of Juarez: Gunslinger still spins a wonderful yarn. The player assumes the role of Silas Greaves, a dyed-in-the-wool bounty hunter who regales a saloon of drunkards with far-fetched tales of his exploits. Each story ticks off a who’s who of Wild West icons, with the likes of Billy the Kid, Johnny Ringo, and The Wild Bunch all making guest appearances.

If it sounds improbable that one man would cross paths with so many legendary outlaws, that’s because it probably is. Silas Greaves is the most unreliable of narrators, weaving a tapestry of deeds and perils, of heroes and villains, of lies and half-truths. Like just the real frontier, where stories were passed on, changed and embellished by word of mouth, Greaves creates folklore that is all his own.

It’s more than window dressing, however. Each story Silas recounts changes the game in interesting ways. Whole sequences rewind and play out entirely differently as Silas remembers – or reinvents – his tale. Environmental features – a ladder or a cave, for example – appear on the fly as he conjures up an escape route from a sticky situation. Enemies will even pop in and out of existence as Greaves endeavours to entertain the eager ears of his audience. And that audience also has an impact, calling Silas out on his tall tales with corrections that are then reflected in-game. The result is a story told with economy and humour in a way that feels authentic to the setting.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger screenshot

The skilful storytelling helps to obscure the fact that the game is a fairly standard first-person shooter. It’s a mostly linear affair in which various ne’er do wells considerately offer themselves up for headshots with blithe indifference. It’s a not a subtle game, either. Each level is ripped straight from Hollywood’s Wild West, with locations ranging from dusty towns and dangerous gold mines to foggy swamplands and mountain-perched railroads. It’s a pleasingly familiar greatest hits package, and all the better for it.

Gunplay also feels good, with a selection of close, mid and long-range weapons all having weight and punch. Aiming can also be fine-tuned with help from the Nintendo Switch’s gyroscope, and the console’s HD rumble is also put to effective use.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger also shows how the FPS genre was evolving with its simple progression system. Points are awards on how you dispatch your opponents – headshots are best, naturally – and as you level-up, perks unlock across three categories: Gunslinger, Ranger and Trapper. Each upgrade offers a welcome boost, although it’s often hard to feel the benefit as – on the standard difficulty at least – this is not a particularly tough game.

The game’s trickiest – and most frustratingly repetitive moments – are found in its duels and boss encounters, both of which are textbook examples of live-die-repeat game design. The game also attempts to expand upon on Red Dead Redemption’s dead eye mechanic for duel encounters. Unfortunately, the method of using both thumbsticks to maintain hand position and focus is unnecessarily fussy.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger screenshot

As for the quality of the Nintendo Switch port, it’s good news. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger runs at a consistent clip, with some occasional slowdown only evident during the game’s more demanding moments. It also looks decent enough, while some locations – such as the Union Pacific railroad bridge – are quite beautiful.

The performances are also noteworthy. The late John Cygan gives Silas Greaves a pleasing blend of world-weariness and pent-up rage, and his ongoing commentary throughout each level is another delightful narrative flourish. Pawel Blaszczak’s excellent soundtrack also sounds the part and features some memorable themes.

Elsewhere, collectable Nuggets of Truth offer a potted history of the game’s cast of characters. Completionists can replay campaign levels to find them all, and there’s an enjoyable arcade mode for some bite-sized sharpshooting thrills.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is no substitute getting Red Dead Redemption on Switch, but as a whistle-stop tour through a theme park of iconic Wild West moments, it’s a whole heap of fun. The game shows its age, but the use of an unreliable narrator pays off in spades. It’s a small scale adventure by modern standards, but one worth revisiting, particularly on Switch where there’s a comparative dearth of enjoyable shooters.

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
3.5

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Techland
Publisher: Techland
Release Date: December x, 2019


Call of Juarez: Gunslinger comes to Nintendo Switch in fine fettle. A solid port with plenty of memorable moments cover the cracks to make it a wild west story worth retelling.

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Alien: Isolation – Nintendo Switch review

Alien: Isolation docks onto the Nintendo Switch five years after its debut. We review the latest port from Feral Interactive.

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Alien: Isolation - Nintendo Switch review

Alien: Isolation docks onto the Nintendo Switch five years after its debut. We review the latest port from Feral Interactive.

Creative Assembly’s Alien: Isolation was universally admired when it debuted on Xbox, PC and PlayStation in 2014. Slow-paced, measured, and faithful in tone and spirit to its movie roots, it earned acclaim from all quarters.

The game performed well enough commercially but it wasn’t the smash hit many predicted. Five years on, the Nintendo Switch gives Alien: Isolation another opportunity chance to shine courtesy of porting wizards, Feral Interactive.

The game looks the part, of course. Creative Assembly was granted access to a wealth production materials from Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic and the studio’s devotion to the source material is evident in every pixel. From the phosphor green screens and chunky computer banks to the padded corridors and gloomy air vents, Alien: Isolation takes the design aesthetic of the original film and makes it tangible.

Alien: Isolation - Nintendo Switch

For the most part Alien: Isolation takes place on Sevastopol Station, a space habitat struck by disaster following the arrival of a deadly Xenomorph. The station is a finely crafted piece of design that stands alongside Bioshock‘s Rapture and Half-Life 2‘s City 17 as one of the most well-realised locations to feature in a video game.

Creative Assembly’s achievement is in making Sevastopol a varied but coherent location. Areas such as the medical ward and travel bays all have their own distinct identities, but they remain consistent with the station as a whole. For all the sci-fi trappings, it feels, most of all, like a place of work. There’s a sense of real-life happening here, of Sevastopol being a home, a tour of duty, a hum-drum and claustrophobic slog for a weary workforce.

There’s also a pleasing lack of friction between the world and the player. Maps are found in spots that make sense for the station’s inhabitants, and whoever worked on the signage deserves a medal. Dimly lit air vents – a franchise trademark – are entwined throughout, offering disorienting shortcuts to new locations at the cost of shredded nerves.

Alien Isolation - Nintendo Switch

Alien: Isolation goes to great lengths to maintain this sense of unease. Doors take their own sweet time to open. Keypads respond a l-i-t-t-l-e too slowly, and saving the game is a deliberately agonising 20-second process. Even if an alien wasn’t on the loose, Sevastopol Station is a scary place to be. It’s not all stifling claustrophobia, however. Occasional, spectacular glimpses of the galaxy outside tease escape and freedom.

At the same time, Christian Henson’s evocative score continually grinds the nerves without tipping into hysteria. It’s a groan of mood and escalating fear that offers the calming reassurance of fingernails dragged down a blackboard. The undercurrent symphony of ambient beeps, ticks and whirrs only adds to the tension.

Character movement also plays its part. There’s a run button, but it’s rarely advisable to use, while the standard walking speed is just slow enough to make you feel venerable. It also took some time for me to adjust to the POV head bobbing, which, for the first few hours, actually made me feel slightly nauseous. On the flip side, there are some considerate touches to Alien: Isolation’s hunter and hunted design philosophy. When hiding – in lockers or cabinets – you can peer forward and to the side, eking out a better view of the situation without revealing yourself.

The Xenomorph is used sparingly, for the most part, and effectively so. The first time you catch sight of it unfurling from a ceiling vent is truly heart-pounding. It’s also wonderfully animated, lurching from a prowl to attack with lethal grace and constantly adapting its behaviour.

Avoiding the creature – and the multitude of murderous androids – is a cautious and drawn-out affair. A variety of tools and weapons, including the iconic Motion Detector, are on hand to assist, and there are hiding places aplenty.

It’s shame, then, that save points are sometimes few and far between. Too often, a cagey game of cat and mouse ends with the Xenomorph noshing my face off, and also wiping out ten minutes of progress.

It should be said that the atmosphere and tension, delightful as it is, papers over a simple set of fetch quests and exploratory missions. But it hardly matters, Alien: Isolation is a well-executed twist on the survival horror genre that is as fresh now as it was in 2015.

Alien: Isolation - Nintendo Switch

The story and script – from prolific comic book writer and author, Dan Abnett – are concocted from familiar ingredients but they tell a better yarn than all but two of the films.

Underpinning the story is Amanda Ripley, daughter of Ellen Ripley. She’s a one-note character in some respects – driven by little else than a desire to uncover her mother’s plight – but she’s nicely performed by Elizabeth Inglis. A flashback also puts players in the shoes of another character for an enjoyable and effective sojourn.

However, in its later stages, the game unfortunately loses some focus. A storyline involving the ship’s AI picks up the narrative slack, and although it’s well-handled, calm, psychotic computers feel old hat. As a result, the game begins to overstay its welcome.

Alien: Isolation - Nintendo Switch

Everything I’ve mentioned so far could refer to the game’s original 2014 release on Xbox and PlayStation. So what of the Switch version?

From a content perspective, the full base game is included, along with every piece of post-launch DLC. The highlights are two missions featuring the cast of the first film: Crew Expendable and Last Survivor.

From a technical perspective, the Switch port of Alien: Isolation is a marvel. Following on from the studio’s stellar work with Grid: Autosport, Feral Interactive has again worked a small miracle. The game looks glorious in both docked and portable modes, with a crisp image, smooth movement and rocksteady frame rate. It’s, without doubt, one of the best looking games I’ve played on the Switch. Other publishers with last-generation games gathering dust should be knocking on Feral’s door with haste.

If you are a fan of the film franchise or survival horror games, Alien: Isolation is easy to recommend. The game is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s true to its source material and it jangles the nerves in the best possible way.

Alien: Isolation
4

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Feral Interactive / Creative Assembly
Publisher: Sega
Release Date: December 5, 2019


Although Alien: Isolation wanders somewhat to its conclusion, it’s a thrilling, chilling, tense and unnerving video game. It’s also that rarest of things, an excellent game based on a movie license. The sparkling port from Feral Interactive and wealth of DLC content make this an essential Nintendo Switch release.

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Terminator: Resistance review

If there’s one thing I can say about Terminator: Resistance, it’s that it almost perfectly mimics the time-travelling robotic infiltrators that stand as the imposing antagonists of every Terminator movie.

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Terminator: Resistance review
Reef Entertainment

If there’s one thing I can say about Terminator: Resistance, it’s that it almost perfectly mimics the time-travelling robotic infiltrators that stand as the imposing antagonists of every Terminator movie.

Not only does it feel like a game out of its time, reliving the glory days of cheap, early noughties movie tie-ins, but it mimics a AAA shooter despite the fact its inner workings are a robotic, emotionless void of personality. Granted, I’ve played worse shooters and experienced cheaper licensed tie-ins, but it’s rare to find a modern game that lacks as much individuality or charm as Terminator: Resistance. Much like the downwards spiralling movie franchise it spawned from, it’s an adaptation that doesn’t understand what made The Terminator so unique and suffers tenfold because of it.

If you’ve ever seen a Terminator movie, the premise should be pretty familiar. You play Jacob Rivers – a bog-standard, run of the mill action hero with the emotional range of cardboard – who is separated from his troop of elite resistance fighters during a fierce battle against Skynet: the faceless army of robotic murder bots looking to eradicate humanity. Left the sole survivor of his squadron, he bands together with a local group of civilians, journeying with them as he attempts to reunite with the resistance. Little does he know, however, that he’s being stalked by a robotic enemy known as an Infiltrator: A Terminator unit that can pose under the guise of a human form. As fans of the series can no doubt tell, the game documents the events that lead to the Terminators being sent back in the original movie and Judgment Day, discarding all the timeline changes from the bad sequels and acting as a prequel to Cameron’s masterpieces.

Terminator: Resistance screenshot

It is, at its core, a potentially interesting take on the franchise’s world and mythos, yet Resistance never puts enough effort into its plot to matter. While it could have been an interesting piece of canonical connective tissue that has yet to be explained in the movies, its awkward character models, horrific dialogue, and entirely predictable story beats make every moment unexciting or unengaging. Even when the game deals you out a selection of unimpactful moral choices, it’s hard to involve yourself with the outcomes because the characters are flat-out unlikeable and look, talk and move more robotically than their mechanical adversaries. This goes doubly so for the game’s two romantic narrative arcs, which, of course, end with the most awkward sex scenes in human history.

The gameplay, on the other hand, is more of a mixed tale. While there’s evidently been some effort here to try and mix your standard shooter campaign with some stealth, RPG, and even survival horror elements, Terminator’s reluctance to ever pick one makes it a jack of all trades but a master of none. The shooting feels weightless and grows dull after the first hour, while its RPG elements – essentially just putting points into perks – feel basic at best. The central loop of the gameplay is simple. You get put onto one side of the map with a main quest and a couple of side-objectives, shoot your way through a repetitive slog of robots, hack or lockpick through some doors, complete the mission and then run to the map’s exit. Every one of Resistance’s missions throughout its dull eight-hour campaign is virtually the same, and while you’ll face some bullet-spongey bosses on the way to the credits, it never manages to diversify the core structure at any point.

Terminator: Resistance screenshot

It also lacks difficulty. Playing the game on hard, I only ever really felt challenged through a couple of combat encounters, which is incredibly disappointing seen as the game boasts one of the most intimidating adversaries in cinema history. Despite building up the iconic T-800 units as an imposing threat, you can slice through them like a hot knife through butter, and even if you can’t, the sea of medkits in the local vicinity can heal you up in seconds flat.

That’s not to say it’s completely awful. Managing to get your hands on some of the iconic, laser-powered weaponry from the movies can make for some empowering moments, and the sound design, music, and authentic visuals did awaken my nostalgia as a Terminator fan. There’s clearly been an attempt here to devise a game that is evocative of the classic movies Resistance takes influence from, and for some mega-fans of the series, that will probably be enough. Its use of side-missions also expands the world in several interesting ways, managing to take the edge of the grind of the main campaign with some more engaging side stories and fleshing out of friendly NPC’s.

Resistance also plays with a handful of strong stealth sections, which feel like where the title should’ve invested its strangely wide focus. An incredible early segment in the game sees you sneaking through a dilapidated factory overrun by Terminators, tasking you with sneaking through vents, hiding behind rubble and keeping out of the sights of this “indestructible” foe. It instils into you the ruthless nature of Terminator: Resistance’s bleak, post-apocalyptic future, as you attempt to keep away from your mechanical, robotic overlords.

Resistance just never manages to be anything more than a forgettable, mediocre shooter. It feels like a game that would release in the early years of the last generation, where it doesn’t adopt a focus but opts to try and play to the widest crowd possible, losing all semblance of identity in the process.

Terminator: Resistance screenshot

In the end, Resistance is the kind of game that’s destined to coat the bottom of bargain bins. It’s soulless, feels rushed and, worst of all, incredibly boring. If you’re a seasoned fan of the franchise and your only desire is to do battle with authentic-looking T-800 models while Brad Fiedel’s theme serenades you, then there might be something here. But if you’re looking for an engaging shooter, leave Resistance well enough alone. I hope to dear god that it won’t be back.

Terminator: Resistance
2

Summary


Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Teyon
Publisher: Reef Entertainment
Release Date: December 10, 2019


Terminator Resistance is a forgettable, dull and uninspired shooter that lacks focus and a true sense of identity. While there’s a commendable authenticity to the original movies in its design and some strong stealth sections, the game winds up a soulless shooter that lacks purpose. Not even Arnold Schwarzenegger could’ve saved this one.

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Life is Strange 2 Episode 5 review

Life Is Strange 2’s fifth and final episode, Wolves, is in many ways a fitting encapsulation of all the series’ strongest and weakest elements so far.

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Life is Strange 2 Episode 5 review
Dontnod Entertainment

Life is Strange 2’s fifth and final episode, Wolves, is in many ways a fitting encapsulation of all the series’ strongest and weakest elements so far.

While it’s, at times, an anti-climactic and somewhat rushed conclusion to the series, it’s also a poignant and emotionally rich finale that shows the weight of your choices and refrains from shying away from the more morally complex aspects of your adventure thus far. It may not be an epic final sprint that introduces some drive to a series that has often lacked it, but it is a bold and surprisingly melancholic ending that – much like the rest of the sequel – takes some big risks and ultimately succeeds because of it.

Despite the final episode ending with Sean and Daniel Diaz making their way to the Mexican border, Wolves’ first big surprise is that it takes a lengthy detour from this cliffhanger. Picking up a few weeks after the finale in a tiny desert town known as ‘Away’, around half the episode concerns the brothers planning their route across the border and bonding with their estranged mother. It’s a slow start for sure – especially after the chaotic ending of the fourth episode – but within this 90-minute segment is a lot of superb character moments for Sean, Daniel, and their mother, Karen. While most episodes this season concern the family fighting about repetitive topics, it’s refreshing to see them enjoying each other’s company and establishing the newly found bond they all share.

It’s here that Dontnod also provides this episode’s largest location to explore and scour for collectables, with the town of Away full to the brim with characters to converse with, objects to interact with, and even a treasure hunt to complete. It seems every episode I praise Dontnod’s attention to detail with these explorable locations, but it’s worth reiterating that it’s without a doubt their strongest asset. Whether it’s small decisions like leaving a loving, cold, or scathing note to your mother in her trailer, or finding small items that expand character backstories, exploring in Life Is Strange is always a rewarding experience. There’s even a returning character from the first season that makes a short appearance, and some some fun easter eggs that hint towards the fate of the main cast.

However, it can’t help but feel like a strange diversion for an episode that so desperately needs to focus on giving this story purpose. Every episode thus far this season has struggled with feeling largely aimless, and an hour and a half pitstop to explore a town and meet brand new characters can’t help but feel slow-paced and uneventful. This comes off as a moment that should occur at the midpoint in the story, not in an epilogue which looks to wrap up the main characters’ story arcs.

As a result, what remains can’t help but feel rushed. When the brothers do eventually start making their way to the border, it appears some massive questions that deserve to be explored are passed over. Daniel asks Sean whether they will be able to live a real life in Mexico; whether running is really the best answer and how they will be able to make a living on their own. But, because the game leaves these questions until the last minute, you never get time to ponder the answers.

Even when the finale does eventually pick up speed it lacks appropriate pacing, with several major plot beats happening suddenly without feeling earned or properly set up. What is there is supremely interesting and morally grey in the best way possible, but you can’t help but feel something is missing; a piece of the puzzle out of place. In truth, it’s not the ideas that Wolves raises but the speed of which it resolves them, which is a shame when considering just how much time is spent treading water in Away for the first half of the episode.

Luckily, it leads to a moral decision that is much more difficult than the binary ‘good or evil’ choice that capped off season one’s conclusion, asking for you to make a crushingly hard call in a split second. While the road to the ending is rocky, it’s this moment that cements Life Is Strange 2 as a worthy successor and a beautifully heart-breaking story, with the outcome of your decisions leading to a number of different endings. The best part? There are no “bad” or “good” epilogues. Every single one (of which there are 7) leads to a surprisingly melancholy and bittersweet conclusion that takes your prior choices into account and shows the realistic result of your adventure.

It is without a doubt proof of how much Dontnod’s storytelling has matured and garnered nuance since Life Is Strange’s debut episode, presenting a finale that few would’ve expected after playing the first episode. Granted, while Life Is Strange 2 has definitely not been a flawless effort, it is a game that has a lot to say and one that ultimately finds an emotionally impactful way to say it. If this does happen to be the last episode in the franchise for a while – which might be the case, with Dontnod moving onto Xbox exclusive Tell Me Why then this is a fitting end, showing the hard-hitting, emotionally poignant brilliance that made Life Is Strange such a cult-hit in the first place.

Life is Strange 2 Episode 5
3.5

Summary


Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: December 3, 2019


Life Is Strange 2: Wolves is by no means a perfect finale, but it’s a heartfelt and emotionally charged conclusion that refuses to shy away from the morally complex nature of the story so far. After the credits roll, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone that doesn’t agree that the end of the Diaz Brothers’ story is impactful, unpredictable and, ultimately, deeply touching.

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Reviews

Final Fantasy VIII – Nintendo Switch review

Final Fantasy VIII might be the eighth game in the main series, but for Squaresoft on the global stage, it was the proverbial difficult second album.

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Final Fantasy VIII nintendo switch review
Square Enix / Thumbsticks

Final Fantasy VIII might be the eighth game in the main series, but for Squaresoft on the global stage, it was the proverbial difficult second album.

That’s not to say Final Fantasy games hadn’t been released in the western world before. English translations of the first, fourth, and sixth games – titled Final Fantasy I, Final Fantasy II, and Final Fantasy III, respectively – were released in the US only. But until Square’s first PlayStation release, Final Fantasy VII, stormed the global stage, it was very much a Japan first, America (maybe) second strategy.

Then came Final Fantasy VIII, a game under huge pressure to meet expectations, both critical and commercial. While Final Fantasy VII was the breakthrough hit, Final Fantasy VIII – released two years later – would form the cornerstone of Squaresoft’s (now Square Enix’s) strategy. Over the coming years, the Japanese developer and publisher would release eight-through-eleven on a yearly schedule, like Call of Duty, FIFA, or Assassin’s Creed. It boggles the mind.

What also came as shock to western audiences, on the release of Final Fantasy VIII, was just how different mainline Final Fantasy games could be. While Final Fantasy IV and VI are outwardly similar in terms of structure, gameplay and fixed character classes, the game in the middle, Final Fantasy V, was a massive departure, with its flexible, interchangeable job system. Final Fantasy VIII is as different to the games either side of it as the fifth entry was, seven years earlier. And that wasn’t always a positive.

After a somewhat weird opening cinematic (comprised of a supercut of clips from later in the game, like the opening credits from a TV sitcom), Final Fantasy VIII starts off strong. From a visual design perspective, it demonstrates Squaresoft at the height of its pomp and ambition. The characters no longer look like chibi homunculi, for starters. They were a bit irregular in the original release, as a result of hardware and resolution limitations of the time. But the remaster, on which this review is based, has cleaned them up, sanding off all the rough edges.

Final Fantasy VIII remaster best looking guy here

The heroes – with the entire party present on the screen for the first time in the series – may be impressive, and the game’s hand-painted backdrops look as pretty as ever, but the interplay between controllable characters and FMV is where Final Fantasy VIII shines. Often, it’s restricted to a mundane trucking shot as the characters stroll through the campus of their boarding school-cum-military academy. But on sequences like the chase through Dollet, where you’re running into the foreground while a giant robot spider is smashing through the scenery behind you? It’s scintillating stuff.

While these spectacle sequences frequently punctuate Final Fantasy VIII, and they always stand out as a highlight, the story they help to tell is often cheesy, occasionally baffling, and rarely as impactful as the writers intended. It’s a melting pot of fairy tales and sci-fi gibberish, where our heroes fight to save the world from an evil sorceress and her knight who want to compress time, for some reason. Along the way, you’ll run into so many tropes – manifest destiny, convenient amnesia, deus ex machina, manic pixie dream girl – that Final Fantasy VIII feels like a patchwork quilt of RPG stereotypes.

And then there are the time-bending elements. Specifically, the flashback/dream sequence elements with Laguna Loire. Before playing the Final Fantasy VIII remaster, it had been almost 20 years since the last time I met Laguna. But the moment Squall, Zell and Selphie started clutching their heads and falling asleep, my heart sank. And on playing through it all again, sadly, that element of the game hasn’t improved with age. At all. Even a little bit.

Final Fantasy VIII remaster Laguna Loire

Laguna may be the poster boy for everything that’s wrong with Final Fantasy VIII, but it was the game’s mechanics that caused consternation among players back in 1999. Gone are the traditions of learned spells and magic points, replaced instead with the twin concepts of the draw and the junction.

The heroes “junction” Guardian Forces – companion monsters, somewhere between series staple summons and Pokémon – that allow them to wield their power. That includes summoning the GFs to assist in battle, but also, grants the power to draw, store, cast, and junction magic.

Players draw magic from enemies, or from draw points found around the world, then junction magic to their stats to improve them. Junction magic to your stats and those numbers will go up; junction magic to your attack or defence to deal or defend those elements. It’s an opportunity to customise your characters, who – aside from their differing limit breaks – are basically empty vessels, but it’s also a mechanic that lends itself to grinding. You will spend hours upon hours drawing low-level magic from enemy fodder, refining it into higher-level magic, hooking that magic up to your stats, then doing it all over again. If you have to rely on those Guardian Forces in combat, you’ll spend countless more hours watching overlong summon monster cinematics.

Final Fantasy VIII remaster Bahamut Guardian Force

Final Fantasy VIII may have incredible presentation and a (mostly) fun story, but the level of grind involved in something so simple as stocking spells sucks all the fun out of it. And if you really want to max out everything, including all the Guardian Forces, magic, and weapons, you’ll need to play Triple Triad (Final Fantasy VIII’s card minigame) against nearly every NPC in the game. Triple Triad is almost as maddening monotonous as drawing magic. It’s like playing a grind-heavy modern MMO. On your own.

Thankfully, the Final Fantasy VIII remaster – reviewed here on Nintendo Switch, but also available on PS4 and Xbox One – redresses these issues with some much-needed quality of life improvements. There are cheatier enhancements, like boosts to HP and limit gauges, but it is the speed boost that makes all the difference. A simple click of the left thumbstick speeds gameplay up threefold. Drawing magic, summing GFs, and playing Triple Triad whiz past in a flash, while cleverly, Nobuo Uematsu’s brilliant score plays at regular speed.

Final Fantasy VIII may still be deeply flawed, but the speed boost makes the worst bits bearable. Then, and only then, is the game’s ridiculius brilliance allowed to shine through. I still hate Laguna, though. Even 20 years apart won’t change my mind on that.

Final Fantasy VIII
4

Summary


Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC
Developer: Square Enix, DotEmu
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: September 3, 2019


Final Fantasy VIII isn’t without its flaws, and it spreads them fairly evenly across story, mechanics, and pacing. Happily, the speed boost on offer in the remaster fixes the pacing, which effectively papers over the cracks in the grind-heavy mechanics. What you’re left with is a fun, somewhat silly, and beautiful RPG. And on Nintendo Switch, you can play it anywhere. This really is the best way to play Final Fantasy VIII.

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