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PC Specialist Defiance XS review

I’ve been using the PC Specialist Defiance XS laptop – a super-thin 15.6″ gaming laptop, with an Nvidia GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU – as my day-to-day machine for almost ten weeks. How does it shape up to such an extended period of testing?

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PC Specialist Defiance XS review

Our laptop reviews are a little different to most.

Where magazines will be meeting deadlines and tech blogs will be trying to be first, we take our time. Yes, there’s value in rapidly running a dozen benchmarks, testing the battery life, measuring the noise levels, and then getting your review to the top of the Google queue; but we chart an alternate course.

The last time I bought a car – back in 2011; you don’t get rich in games journalism – it wasn’t the first drives or the test day reviews that persuaded me. It was a 100,000 km road trip road test, where a determined tester took the vehicle on a circuitous route around Europe, finally ending up at the factory the car was built at for a once-over after just over 62,000 miles.

TL;DR: One of the tiny bulbs above the rear number plate had failed. That was it. I was sold. (Both on the car, and the long-form review methodology.)

With that in mind, I’ve been using the PC Specialist Defiance XS laptop – a super-thin 15.6″ gaming laptop, with an Nvidia GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU – as my day-to-day machine for almost ten weeks. How does it shape up to such an extended period of testing?

1. Design

Defiance XS

The Defiance XS is, for the components inside – full spec below – remarkably thin and light. It’s not quite Razer Blade small, but for a laptop packing a 15.6″ screen, it’s impressive: it’s just 18.6 mm thick, for one thing. And that’s a proper 18.6 mm, all the way across; not with a super svelte scalloped front edge where the thickness measurement is taken, with a hefty hinge holding all of the core components. This laptop is genuinely 18.6 mm thick.

It also weighs just 1.9 kg in its base configuration. There’s no touch screen option here, which would add weight to the panel, but you will still probably push the build up over 2 kg by adding a mechanical hard drive instead of (or in addition to) a featherweight M.2 SSD, more sticks of RAM, and picking a GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU (over the base GTX 1060 Max-Q card).

That’s because the Defiance XS comes from UK custom laptop builder PC Specialist, and thanks to their handy on-site configurator, you can put together whatever build you like for the Defiance XS. That price could range from under a grand – with just 4 GB of RAM, no hard drive, and no OS license; perfect if you have the parts to kit it out yourself – up to a wallet-wincing three grand, if you go for 32 GB of RAM and a stupendous 4 TB of SSD storage.

Because this is from a custom builder – how can I put this politely? – you would be forgiven for thinking it may not be… the most attractive device. Where big vendors can produce custom designs on what are basically the same OEM chassis, custom system builders typically receive them in ‘stock’ configuration from Clevo or Sager. There are some ugly laptops out there from custom shops, through a combination of price point and “gamer” aesthetics, but the Defiance XS is quite lovely.

It doesn’t scream “gamer” at you at the top of its lungs, though. It has some of the things you might expect from a gaming laptop – like a lot of vents, an RGB keyboard, a proper number pad, and some accents on the WSAD keys – but it’s all tasteful and understated. The vents are slim and unimposing; they don’t look like the exhaust pipes on a battleship. The RGB lighting is subtle, almost pretty; though you can go nuts with the light show, if that takes your fancy. The WSAD keys just have four discrete arrows on them.

The Defiance XS looks great, and with a cool grey aluminium finish that is remarkably resistant to fingerprints, it feels as good as it looks.

But just because this is a stylish, muted gaming laptop, it doesn’t mean the Defiance XS doesn’t come with something of a party piece, a flashy nod to its gaming roots:

It’s like the Bat Signal in laptop form, and let’s be honest, a far better implementation of a backlit lid detail than a glowing Apple.

2. Build quality

 

Defiance XS slim

 

After more than two months with this laptop, working it very hard on a daily basis, it still feels remarkably solid. This laptop has played dozens of hours of games, written tens of thousands of words, and has travelled hundreds of miles with me, and it’s still all in top nick.

Seriously, this is going to be a very short section on build quality, because it speaks for itself.

Normally I have at least something to complain about here, even if its incredibly minor – hinge a bit too loose (or too stiff), keyboard deck too bouncy, trackpad buttons a little spongy – but I’m really struggling to come up with any gripes with the Defiance XS.

Erm, right.

The ethernet port – which in a laptop this thin is as rare as rocking horse faeces – is a little tight. It’s one of those ones that has a little fold down covering flap, so that there isn’t an open notch along the bottom edge of the laptop that you could catch on something and crack the chassis? If you have a fully booted ethernet cable in the port and the laptop is on a flat surface like a desk, you have to lift up the right hand side of the laptop slightly to unplug the cable, because the covering flap can’t open far enough below the laptop to release the RJ45 jack.

So essentially, the laptop is too thin for an ethernet port, but they included one anyway, and it’s very slightly inconvenient to unplug if you’re on a desk and not your lap.

What else?

The keyboard and trackpad, which are plastic rather than aluminium, of course, aren’t as fingerprint resistant as the rest of the chassis. The keyboard is comfortable to use for both typing and gaming, and the trackpad and buttons are very responsive – possibly slightly too sensitive on gesture recognition, if anything; it’s easy to zoom in/out of webpages when you’re trying to scroll – but they are more prone to picking up grease and dirt than the rest of the laptop. I haven’t worn away any of the keyboard lettering, nor have I pounded the trackpad buttons into submission, but you can definitely see hot spots around the WSAD keys and the space bar.

So yeah, when you use a laptop for hundreds of hours in a two-month period it shows a few signs of use, is the key takeaway here.

I’m really reaching here. Sorry.

3. Specs

Defiance XS ports

Because the Defiance XS is a custom shop build from PC Specialist, you can tweak the configuration to suit your budget and expectations. And because PC Specialist were sending this out for review, they sent us a high-end one. You can’t blame them: they want us to see the machine at its best.

Here’s the full configuration that we’ve been reviewing for the past two months:

  • Operating System: Windows 10 Home
  • Processor: Intel Core i7-7700HQ 2.8 GHz/3.8 GHz turbo; Quad-core
  • Chipset: Intel HM175
  • Memory: 16 GB Corsair 2400MHz SODIMM DDR4 (up to 32 GB maximum)
  • Storage: 1 TB Seagate Firecuda SSHD hard drive; 256 GB Samsung M.2 NVMe SSD
  • Screen: 15.6″ Full HD (1920×1080) 120 Hz IPS panel
  • Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1070 Max-Q 8 GB (GTX 1060 Max-Q 6GB variant also available)
  • Connectivity: Gigabit LAN; Wireless Intel AC-8265 M.2 (867Mbps, 802.11AC); Bluetooth 4.0
  • Audio & Video: 2 MP full HD webcam; Soundblaster X dual speakers
  • Ports & Connectors: 1 x HDMI Port, 2 x Mini Display Port; 3 x USB 3.1 Type A, 2 x USB 3.1 Type C; Dual headphone/mic jacks; multi-card reader
  • Battery: Integrated 4 cell 55Wh
  • Battery Life: (up to) 5 hours
  • Adaptor: 150 W external
  • Dimensions (W x D x H): 380 mm x 249 mm x 18.6 mm
  • Weight: 1.9kg base; configured 2.2 kg (approx.)

As mentioned above, the online configurator provided by PC Specialist allows you to go as high or low as your budget affords. The model we’re testing comes in at an MSRP of £1,633, though you can configure one for less. Or more. The choice is yours, really.

4. Power, cooling, and noise

Defiance XS GTX 1070 Max-Q

There are widely considered to be three drawbacks with Nvidia’s Max-Q mobile graphics cards:

  1. They’re slightly less powerful than their full-fat desktop brethren.
  2. They can be known to run hotter and louder than non-Max-Q laptops.
  3. They can lead to some funky keyboard/trackpad positions, to compensate for their unusually thin design.

Thankfully, number three isn’t an issue here. The Defiance XS has a thoroughly standard keyboard/trackpad layout, in spite of PC Specialist cramming a GTX 1070 Max-Q into an 18.6 mm thick chassis.

Numbers one and two, however? They’re definitely in play.

The differences between full-fat GTX and the GTX Max-Q graphics cards are well-documented, and it’s the same with the GTX 1070 Max-Q. While they might be an identical GPU – with the same GP104 architecture, the same 8 GB of GDDR5 RAM, and the same memory bandwidth of 256.3 MB/s – the Max-Q variant is down-clocked from 1,506 MHz to 1,215 MHz on the base frequency, and from 1,683 MHz to 1,379 MHz on the turbo clock. This is to reduce the heat output and cooling requirements of the GPU, designed for super-thin mobile devices like the Defiance XS, but also brings the peak power consumption down from 150 to 115 W. You can check out the full differences on GPUBoss.

Will you notice, in real terms? Probably not. If you sat the Defiance XS, with its GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU, down next to a desktop machine with a ‘full’ desktop GTX 1070 you’d definitely see a difference of a few frames, but we’re talking about the TV-buying phenomenon again.

Not familiar with this analogy? When you’re in an electrical store, agonising over which of the forty tellies on the wall in front of you has the best picture, scrutinising them all in minute detail for flaws, it seems like the most important decision in the world. But when you get your new TV home, it’s usually the only one in the room (unless you’re weird). You’re not comparing it to forty other televisions on a daily basis: the one in your living room will be the best TV you can see, and it’s the same with the GTX 1070 Max-Q.

Yes, it’s a little slower than the desktop version, but unless you’re planning on playing two machines side-by-side (which, again, would be weird, unless you’re a professional reviewer) you won’t even notice. It will still kick the stuffing out of almost any other mobile GPU; particularly in this small a form factor.

Having a powerful GPU like GTX 1070 – even in its pared back, Max-Q variant – in a very thin laptop like the Defiance XS does have a bearing on noise and heat, however.

Like most gaming laptops, the Defiance XS draws cool air in from under the laptop, through fans and across heat pipes, and out of the vents on the rear of the laptop. Because the Defiance XS is so thin, those fans have to be very small, in PC component terms. And not only are smaller fans generally louder than bigger ones, they have to operate at higher frequencies to push the same amount of air, which makes them louder again.

It’s not loud at all during every day use, but the fan noise is very noticeable when the system is under load, and because there’s very little thickness of material on the bottom of the chassis between the hot components and your lap, it does get rather warm underneath.

The design of the Defiance XS is such that, mercifully, the keyboard, trackpad and palm rests never get hot, no matter what we throw at this laptop. The underside and rear vents, on the other hand, could cook your thighs if you’re not careful. The GPU peaks at around 73°C after an extensive gaming session, which isn’t a critical GPU temperature by any means – and is impressive for a device this thin and powerful – but it’s definitely on the toasty side. Using it on a desk is fine, but if you’re gaming with it on your lap we’d recommend a lapdesk – preferably one with a ventilated mesh or built-in fan, so that it doesn’t obstruct the cool air intakes under the laptop – or at the very least, a cushion.

It also uses a lot of power, when under load. Because PC Specialist is a system builder that tends to focus on gaming, the Defiance XS doesn’t come configured with any kind of extreme power-saving out of the box. It also doesn’t come with any bloatware or undesirable software, either; another benefit of a bespoke shop over big manufacturers. But because of this full throttle approach, the Defiance XS won’t get anywhere near that stated five hour battery life in its default state.

The compact chassis dictates the battery has to be relatively small for such powerful internal components – that GTX 1070 Max-Q and a desktop Core i7 processor – so you might find that the battery life feels weak. Typically, we’ve achieved two to three hours of battery life during productivity tasks, and one to two hours during intensive use. If you adjust the power management to closer resemble the bigger manufacturers settings (and Windows defaults) you might stretch that productivity use past three or four hours, but you’ll never want to be far from an electrical outlet when you’re gaming.

5. Performance, usability

Defiance XS

First up, some real world gaming benchmarks. We don’t perform synthetic benchmarking – you can find that sort of stuff online very easily – but like to include real world gaming figures, because they’re useful at a glance and many of the games make familiar frames of reference.

1080p benchmark data:

  • Batman: Arkham City (extreme preset) – 78 fps
  • BioShock Infinite (ultra preset) – 102 fps
  • Final Fantasy XV (high preset) – 50 fps
  • Gears of War 4 – (ultra preset) – 61 fps
  • PUBG (medium settings, ultra draw distance, 1080p) – average 70 fps in quiet zones / 45 fps in busy zones

This was all done as per our usual testing methodology. For the games with built-in benchmarking tools, we ran the tests five times and calculated the mean average. For PUBG, which is so variable it’s damn-near impossible to benchmark accurately, we played about 60 hours and worked out rough averages based on what we’ve seen during different play conditions in that time.

As we pointed out in the previous segment, with regards to the differences between a stock GTX 1070 and the Max-Q variant designed for ultra thin gaming laptops, you might get slightly lower frame rates than the desktop equivalent. But with figures like that for 1080p gaming – and keeping in mind the TV store analogy – it’s very hard to argue that the configuration inside the Defiance XS makes for an extremely capable machine.

You can also purchase the Defiance XS with a 4K IPS panel, for an extra £89. Our review model has a 1080p display but with one HDMI and two mini display ports, there’s nothing to say we can’t drive a 4K display with it. That increased resolution obviously has a knock-on effect on performance benchmarks, however.

2160p (4K) benchmark data:

  • Batman: Arkham City (extreme preset) – 55 fps
  • BioShock Infinite (ultra preset) – 58 fps
  • Final Fantasy XV (light/standard preset) – 36 / 24 fps
  • Gears of War 4 (low/med/high preset) – 49 / 38 / 34 fps
  • PUBG (medium settings, ultra draw distance) – average 26 fps in quiet zones / 20 fps in busy zones

Those aren’t terrible figures, and the Defiance XS can handle 4K admirably if you’re prepared to climb down from the very highest settings, but 1080p is probably the sweet spot for most users.

The Defiance XS is also a very capable VR machine. It features two USB 3.0 ports on the front left edge of the laptop, situated very close to the HDMI port, which is ideal for the cabled setup employed by most virtual reality headsets. The laptop also monstered the Steam VR and Windows Mixed Reality performance requirements, and was generally flawless during our VR testing.

Defiance XS Steam VR

The Defiance XS makes for an excellent creative machine. We spent some time developing some of our typically over-ambitious and poorly-optimised scenes in Unity – we’re enthusiastic amateurs who like a lot of grass and trees – which it gobbled up with ease. The fact that it’s also thin and light enough to be used by road warriors, but has a full sized keyboard and plenty of screen real estate, could make the Defiance XS the ideal travelling companion for developers who visit conferences and demo regularly.

Because you can build your own specification to your own budget, the price of the Defiance XS is also compelling for business users, and unusually for a gaming laptop it doesn’t look any less professional – or “cool” – than something like a MacBook Pro or Razer Blade, if that sort of thing concerns you.

The Defiance XS is also powerful enough to be used for video editing, or even as a single machine for both playing games and streaming on simultaneously, and that’s not something we’d normally recommend with a laptop. If you are going to do that, be wary of the fan noise, however; you’ll end up with a high-pitched whine under all your audio if you’re not careful about mic positioning and wind shielding.

Honestly, I’m struggling to come up with any downsides for the Defiance XS right now. It’s a little loud under load, and the battery life isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s an incredibly powerful gaming laptop. It’s extremely thin and light for its spec, and unusually for a gaming laptop, it looks fantastic.

The bonus: you can pick it up for less than the price of the GTX 1060-powered Razer Blade or Gigabyte Aero – the gold standards of thin, light, powerful, and cool gaming laptops – with a more powerful GTX 1070 Max-Q GPU on-board. If you drop it down to a GTX 1060 Max-Q, you can pick up a Defiance XS for less than the price of a GTX 1050 Ti-powered Gigabyte Aero.

It’s hard to argue with that.

PC Specialist Defiance XS
5

Summary

Manufacturer: PC Specialist
Availability: Out now – Buy the review build or configure your own Defiance XS at PC Specialist (we may receive a commission for purchases made through third-party retail stores)


It’s not very often I find myself with very little to complain about. It’s even less often that I find myself reluctant to let a laptop go because I’ve enjoyed reviewing it – or more to the point, using it as my day-to-day machine over an extended period of time – so much.

The Razer Blade might be the name everyone wants, and it might be a little smaller and weigh a bit less, but given the balance of performance, portability, and price? The Defiance XS is the one I’d go for.

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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

Control: The Foundation DLC review

Without meaning to sound disparaging, the best thing about The Foundation – the first of two new DLCs coming to Remedy Entertainment’s most recent release– is that it’s more Control.

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Control The Foundation review
Remedy Entertainment

Without meaning to sound disparaging, the best thing about The Foundation – the first of two new DLCs coming to Remedy Entertainment’s most recent release – is that it’s more Control.

For those who played the surreal, action-adventure title when it released last year, they’ll know Control leaves you constantly wanting more. More interesting world-building collectables, more slick, engaging combat, and definitely more large-scale boss fights with severely agitated refrigerators.

Enter The Foundation which – much like Remedy’s excellent line-up of additional content for Alan Wake – builds upon the existing world of Control in a way that doesn’t feel like an afterthought or spin-off. The story itself picks up pretty much exactly where the original campaign left off, with Jesse fully embracing her new-found role as the Director as she begins to tackle a new problem occurring deep within the Oldest House.

This problem takes Jesse to The Foundation: a deep cave network far beneath the corporate offices and conference rooms that the base campaign saw players explore. Yet, all is not right within this extensive and deeply mysterious set of eerie tunnels. The Astral Plain appears to be bleeding through into The Foundation itself, causing large areas of the cave to transform into the ethereal void glimpsed briefly throughout Control’s original storyline. Jesse’s goal is to find out what’s causing these bizarre universe shifts and put a stop to them before they engulf all of the Oldest House and beyond.

From here, The Foundation opens up into another 4-5 hours of exceptional – if perhaps a little safe – Control fun, bringing back more of the desirable collectables, satisfying abilities and compelling atmosphere that made the original campaign such a joy. Best of all, it feels like a meaningful expansion of the story that begins to answer some lingering questions about the game’s bigger mysteries, while also sewing the seeds for some bigger reveals down the line.

The actual structure of The Foundation does have some alterations, however, with the core composition of the DLC feeling far more open-ended than the missions seen in the main game. Here, Jesse’s goal to figure out what’s happening throughout the mysterious cave system is split into four separate objectives, with the player being able to tackle each in whatever order they choose.

It’s a strong new string to Control’s bow, allowing for a more natural foundation for exploration as well as a more liberating sense of freedom. The DLC also features three new side-quests which, much like the main game, are interwoven with a strong sense of humour and some great twists on the game’s central mechanics.

Another major addition is a pair of new powers that will be essential to navigating The Foundation’s perilous terrain. The first allows Jesse to destroy giant crystals that emerge from the ground, freeing up paths and other obstacles, while the second gives her the ability to summon them. Neither are particularly game-changing, with both mostly factoring into platforming, but they’re a fun change of pace. They also offer some handy environmental uses in combat, with Jesse even acquiring the ability to raise crystals from the ground to violently impale enemies.

As ever, the defining strength of The Foundation remains in the exceptional world-building Remedy puts at the forefront of every encounter, interaction, and area. The DLCs brand new locale is crammed full of brilliant new scraps of lore, darkly comic interactions and more intriguing details that hint at some creepy goings-on behind the scenes. If like me, discovering what made the Oldest House tick was the highlight of Control for you, then The Foundation will not disappoint.

Naturally, there’s still some frustrating combat encounters and some minor technical issues – especially for those who haven’t upgraded to the PS4 Pro or Xbox One X – but The Foundation is simply more Control, and after its exceptional debut last year, that’s far from a bad thing.

Control: The Foundation DLC review
4

Summary


Platform: PS4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One (June 25, 2020)
Developer: Remedy Entertainment
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Date: March 26, 2020 (Xbox One June 25, 2020)


With more sensational world-building, slick combat and compelling narrative, The Foundation feels like a superb next chapter to Control’s story. It might not do much with the ideas introduced within the original campaign, but with Control being one of last year’s best games, that’s far from a disappointment.

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Reviews

Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide review

Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide is an updated edition of the book first released in 2016.

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Assassin's Creed: The Essential Guide
Titan Books / Thumbsticks

Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide is an updated edition of the 2016 large-format hardback written by Arin Murphy-Hiscock and published by Titan Books. Running to 256 fully illustrated pages, it’s a weighty tome that digs deep into the lore of Ubisoft’s long-running video game series.

I love big hardback books like this. Video games, especially big open-world video games, take time to revisit, and official guides and art books are useful aid-memoirs. They give readers a chance to revisit their favourite games over a mug of coffee, rather than committing to a full playthrough.

Most game-related books focus on a particular title. Titan has released some stunning books based on individual Assassin’s Creed games in the past, but Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide has a much larger task on its hands. It attempts to piece together 14 years of mythological spaghetti from Ubisoft’s sprawling action-adventure series. And to the book’s credit, it absolutely manages to pull it off.

Assassin's Creed: The Essential Guide

The Essential Guide charts the history Assassin’s Creed, from the time of the First Civilisation, through to the formation of the Assassins Brotherhood, the rise of the Templars, and the influence of Abstergo on modern-day life. It’s a comprehensive review of the franchise’s many time-periods, locations, characters, and technology.

The overarching narrative – and some handy timeline charts – helps make sense of a series in which storytelling is often non-linear, oblique, or just plain muddled. Through the games and its spin-offs, Ubisoft has created an intriguing but complex tapestry that combines real-life history, secret wars, advanced technology, and ancient alien races. To see the dots connected so clearly is informative and illuminating.

Assassin's Creed: The Essential Guide

As you can probably gather, Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide is very much focussed on the fictional aspects of the series. And that is its biggest flaw.

If you’re enough of an Assassin’s Creed’s fan to bury your nose in its fictional history, you’d likely appreciate some content covering its global development effort. Across 22 video games, a movie, and a plethora of comics and books, there’s a wealth of production content to be explored. It’s a real shame that this aspect is completely ignored. Indeed, the book never refers to the games by title, and you won’t find a single screenshot. This is fiction presented as history.

Instead, there is a smorgasbord of illustrations and art to pore over. The level of research and detail in big-budget video games often goes unnoticed. Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide offers a welcome opportunity to see some of that work beautifully printed on the page. The Assassin’s Creed games have always been beautiful games, and this is a beautiful, well-produced book.

Given the task at hand, the quality of the text is also worth noting. It’s unfussy and economical, clear and informative. The events of the games, film, novels, and comics are all referred to, and all treated as canon. Given the tangle of ancient races, mysterious artefacts, and malignant mega-corporations the book covers, it’s quite an accomplishment.

Assassin's Creed: The Essential Guide
I’ve recently been playing the Assassin’s Creed remasters on Nintendo Switch, and this book has become a constant companion. It provides historical context for my adventures, it helps me decipher the meaning behind cryptic Abstergo emails, and it fleshes out the expansive cast of characters I encounter. Yup, Assassin’s Creed: The Essential Guide is pretty much essential.

Assassin's Creed: The Essential Guide
4

Summary

If you’re intrigued by the title of this book, you’re probably a fan of the series. And if you’re a fan of the series, this book probably is essential. The absence of production material is a disappointment, but it’s as thorough an exploration of the Assassin’s Creed universe as you could ever want. Recommended.

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Doom Eternal review

Doom Eternal? More like… no, actually, “eternal” pretty much covers it.

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Doom Eternal review
Bethesda / Thumbsticks

Doom Eternal? More like… no, actually, “eternal” pretty much covers it.

At the beginning of the Doom (2016) reboot, Doomguy wakes up in a tomb. He’s being prodded and poked by demons, which he’s obviously a bit miffed about, so he smashes their faces in. He grabs a pistol, shotgun, and his bottle-green armour, then sets off for the surface of Mars. All of this happens without breaking first person, just like Half-Life. It’s immersive and brutal and rattles along at one hell of a clip.

A voice – Dr Samuel Hayden, head science bloke of the UAC – speaks to him over an intercom. He tries to explain what’s going on. Why it’s happening. How it’s (sort of, mostly) his fault.

But Doomguy has no interest in Hayden’s mea culpa. Incensed by the presumptuousness of such unnecessary exposition, he smashes the intercom with his fist. The opening credits roll, he cocks his shotgun in time to the rising metal soundtrack, and we’re underway.

That is, in short, the smartest move Doom has ever made as a series. Doomguy really doesn’t care what’s going on or why it’s happening, and I’m going to let you in on a little secret here: neither do we. None of us could possibly care less about the “plot”, such as it is. The reason doesn’t matter. He’s here – we’re here – to rip and tear demons into little pieces of demon confetti. That’s all.

It’s disappointing, then, that Doom Eternal is absolutely chock-full of cutscenes and needless exposition. We see Doomguy animated in third-person! He has actual conversations! Nobody will shut up for a second! You can’t move without a hell priest, or a demon goddess, or some other pantomime villain soliloquising about prophecies and McGuffins and their destiny to wipe out the human race.

Doom Eternal was never going to be a narrative masterpiece. It’s about demons emerging from Mars and overrunning the Earth, and the gruff bloke who kills them all singlehandedly. It’s nonsense on stilts. But while you’re barreling through it at breakneck speed you don’t notice just how dumb it all is. When the game goes to great lengths to explain every last detail, however, to lampshade its own abject stupidity, you realise just how big those stilts are.

It’s generally just dreadful, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have the odd, ridiculous highlight. Doomguy’s intercom-punching brusqueness still rubs up against the exposition overload in amusing ways, while seeing human characters cower in his presence is never not hilarious. (And it’s also nice that, for older fans the series, some NPCs in Doom Eternal actually refer to him as Doomguy and not the far more pretentious modern invention, the Doom Slayer. You can even unlock the original game’s armour, complete with exposed abs from demon tears.)

At one point, he needs to get his ass to the centre of Mars – because reasons – but there’s no path down there. While other characters are discussing the options, or lack thereof, Doomguy silently brings up an image of an orbital BFG-10000 defence cannon on the magic space GPS system of his weird spaceship. (Yes, he has a base hub now. You need to unlock it, a room at a time, over the course of the game. It’s tedious busywork, but at least it features a nice little gallery of your collectables, in addition to that retro armour.)

“You can’t just blow a hole in the surface of Mars,” protests an NPC.

Undeterred, Doomguy punches in the coordinates, brings up a portal, grabs a plasma rifle, then goes and blows a hole in the centre of Mars. He’s a man of his word. A man of action. Thankfully, action is what Doom Eternal excels at.

Mechanically, Doom Eternal is as potent and satisfying as the series has ever been. The movement is slick, the weapons fierce, the action intense. In addition to the core item drop tactics of the 2016 reboot – use the Chainsaw on demons if you’re low on ammo; Glory Kill them if you’re low on health – you can use some new abilities to manage the fight. The Blood Punch allows you to convert potential energy from Glory Kills into a devastating haymaker. The Flame Belch, a shoulder-mounted flamethrower, causes enemies to drop shards of armour while they’re ablaze. The Ice Bomb freezes enemies solid, which means they’re stationary, they take additional damage, and there’s a chance they’ll smash into pieces. (Think Terminator 2’s liquid nitrogen scene or the Winter Blast plasmid from BioShock.)

Doom’s retro sensibilities, with pickups for health and armour, are key. It just wouldn’t work with the glowing red screen/hide behind a wall damage regeneration mechanics of other, more modern first-person shooters. Doom Eternal frequently throws you into gladiatorial arenas – from confined pits to expansive, vertiginous theatres – where you have to survive wave after wave of demons with limited resources. Sometimes a totem will enrage and empower demons until you destroy it. Occasionally, there’ll be an enormous boss demon to contend with. If you don’t learn to master the ebb and flow of the action, the extraction of health, armour and ammunition from your enemies, you won’t survive. It means you’re frequently on the cusp of death, and only well-timed, last-ditch glory kills will keep you in the fight.

It’s also a technical marvel. You’d never call Doom Eternal “beautiful” – some of the levels look more like a colonoscopy video than a game – but it’s visually impressive all the same. The gore nests and demonic temples make for ridiculous, reductive caricature, but the human facilities, the space stations and military bases and former shopping malls, show off just how impressive Id’s engine can be. Even on a base PS4, it’s fluid and slick. The lighting in particular, with nuclear-green tones signposting the path forward, really shines in the darkness.

(It’s also refreshing that the ubiquitous “lighting slider” doesn’t encourage you to make the game as dim as possible. Doom Eternal’s prodigious use of HDR makes a potentially very gloomy game sparkle. That the PC version doesn’t support real-time ray tracing is a surprise, though, given Id’s penchant for the cutting edge.)

Mick Gordon’s soundtrack is another consistent highlight. It’s an expansive build on his work in Doom (2016) featuring bigger soundscapes, arrangements, and a heavy metal choir. To use metal as a metaphor, which feels appropriate for Doom Eternal, it’s like Metallica progressing from 1986’s Master of Puppets – raw, untamed, seething – to their glorious 1999 live album with the San Francisco Symphony.

To extend that metaphor to the game itself is to expose the cracks in Doom Eternal, however. It’s bigger in scope, more expansive in range, and drenched with polish. And that makes it so much worse than the game that precedes it, somehow? It’s a pompous and self-important peacock of a game, a grandiose pantomime production under a thin veneer of heavy metal.

It all just feels antithetical to the core of the series, to the brilliant resurgence of the 2016 reboot. The worst criticism I can give of Doom Eternal is that it feels just that – eternal. It feels like it goes on forever. And not in a good way. Where once levels lasted 15-30 minutes, here, they can last several hours. They’re rampant and repetitive – even the perma-tense combat feels formulaic after a while – and all punctuated by a combination of tedious roadblocks, unlocks, and that ever-present, abysmal storytelling.

Doom Eternal is twice as long as the 2016 reboot and it’s evident. Somehow, it feels even longer still. Perhaps its the influence of parent company (and RPG specialist) Bethesda, or that awful notion that longer games represent better value for money, but it feels like a brilliant six-to-eight hour core game that has been spread too thin, a meagre helping of butter scraped across far too many slices of toast.

None of what’s here is inherently bad. Some of it is, in fact, very good indeed. But it’s such a shame something so lean and savage has become so bloated and overblown.

I can’t believe this is how I’m going to close a review of a Doom game, but here we are: Doom Eternal bored me to hell.

Doom Eternal
3

Summary


Platform: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Google Stadia (yes, Stadia)
Developer: Id Software
Publisher: Bethesda
Release Date: March 20, 2020


Doom Eternal features all the raw, raucous action of the 2016 reboot, but for reasons we can’t comprehend, is dragged out to an interminable length. Technically solid, blistering in parts, but lacking in soul.

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Lair of the Clockwork God review

“You clever little bastards,” I mutter to myself, for what feels like the thousandth time while playing Lair of the Clockwork God.

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Lair of the Clockwork God review
Size Five Games

“You clever little bastards,” I mutter to myself, for what feels like the thousandth time while playing Lair of the Clockwork God.

What precedes and follows this moment of realisation is, on average, twenty minutes of feeling very stupid. As a rule, I tend not to review puzzle games to a deadline. Trying to beat a complex, single correct solution scenario with no walkthrough available is incredibly stressful. And point and click adventure games are the zenith of obscure puzzling.

I tend to fixate, you see. I become determined that something must be the solution, even though all evidence suggests otherwise. I repeat the same action over and over, expecting a different result. It’s a fun way to see how many pithy quips and unique fail conditions the developers have written, if nothing else.

There’s a reason why LucasArts maintained a telephone tips hotline for its games in the 1990s. But even today, in 2020, point and click games are set in their ways. Tilting towards modernity, Ron Gilbert – the veteran LucasArts developer – included an in-universe tips hotline in Thimbleweed Park when it released in 2017.

In its bid for currency, Lair of the Clockwork God features dual protagonists. In addition to the trusty “look at” verb (always a good place to start if you’re stuck in a point and click game), Ben can turn to Dan and ask what’s going on. Dan will respond with some suggestions about what to do next. But on a couple of occasions, I had to turn to Dan’s real-life counterpart – Dan Marshall, writer, programmer and artist on Lair of the Clockwork God – to ask what to do next. Yes, just like the LucasArts tips hotline. (He has since said he regrets not putting together a walkthrough beforehand. I feel at least a little responsible for that.)

“You clever little pricks,” I grumble, for probably the thousand-and-first time, as Marshall nudges me towards a puzzle’s solution.

It may be clever, but that’s not to say the puzzles in Lair of the Clockwork God are especially highbrow or cerebral. This is a point and click game, after all. You’ll spend a good portion of your time hoarding junk that can’t possibly be useful, combining items that shouldn’t really work together, fiddling with inconspicuous detritus in the environment, and bickering with an assortment of NPCs. (And this is a very British point and click game, so there are also lots of knob jokes.)

The rest of the time is spent platforming. This is also a very clever development. Within the narrative of the Ben and Dan Extended Universe, Ben is a die-hard advocate of point and click adventuring. He carries tat in his bottomless bindle, combines it together to solve puzzles, and wouldn’t dream of doing anything so gauche as jumping. Dan, on the other hand, would dearly love to be a modern indie development darling. He believes pathos-powered, pixel-perfect platforming is the path the pair should pursue.

In Lair of the Clockwork God you get to do both, switching between characters – and playstyles – to simultaneously solve puzzles and progress the adventure. Sometimes that’s together. Sometimes that’s at odds with one another. But it’s always filled with humour, heart, and occasional heroism. (And knob jokes.)

Conceptually, it’s a bit like fusion cuisine. The individual elements are great. The idea of fusing them together seems sound. And yet, you always run the risk that smushing the two together will render the sum inferior to the component parts. Experience tells us that fusion cuisine rarely works.

Thankfully, both facets of Lair of the Clockwork God complement each other. The platforming lurches from super-easy to Super Meat Boy, but it’s an ideal foil for Ben’s deliberate, obstinately slower pace. As Ben combines inventory items to upgrade Dan’s abilities – “If you’re going to do that, at least call it ‘crafting’,” Dan insists – with double jumps, wall grabs, and even a whacking great gun, the game opens up in an almost Metroidvania fashion. That was a pleasant surprise.

From gently introducing this mechanic through opening a door – Dan stands on a floor plate, because platformers don’t use items, while Ben throws a nearby wall switch – this dual-protagonist tango forms the backbone of the game. Later, Dan can carry Ben on piggyback to cart the adventurer to new stuff to interact with, and the pair can even teleport to one another. (And Ben’s grin when he’s on his buddy’s back is just adorable.)

Lair of the Clockwork God piggy back

Swapping characters to solve puzzles becomes second nature, even if it’s easy to jumble the controls and stumble at times. As a result, Lair of the Clockwork God is probably the first point and click game that’s actually better on a controller. Except for one bit where you need a keyboard to type into a computer terminal. (The game’s Steam store page lists controller support as “partial” as a result. There’s also a raft of brilliant accessibility features which are gratefully received.)

It’s fusion cuisine, then, but this time it actually works. Not only does it work, but both parts – that could grow hollow or repetitive in isolation – are improved by the other, by the alternation and changes in cadence. It’s a sort of beautiful symbiosis. A metaphor for Ben and Dan’s enduring friendship, perhaps.

“You clever little sods,” I say aloud, to nobody in particular. I’ve lost count of how many times that thought has entered my head.

But what is most clever about Lair of the Clockwork God, and the thing that makes the game so special, is the way it weaves its narrative and themes into the experience. That’s what also makes it such a bloody difficult game to review. I want to tell you about all the brilliant moments! And there are so many of them! I want to shout about all of the tricks and callbacks and creative curveballs Marshall and Ward throw out in the game’s 7-10 hours! But if I do, I’ll rob you of the joy of uncovering them for yourselves.

Broadly speaking, the narrative takes place in the titular lair of the Clockwork God. It’s a computer system that protects the human race from all the apocalypses, but something has gone awry. The machine has forgotten why humanity deserves protecting, and it’s up to Ben and Dan to teach the Clockwork God feelings. To do that, they’ll play through artificial “constructs” – snippets of narrative and gameplay, themed and designed to elicit certain emotions – to restore the Clockwork God’s database of empathy and prevent all the apocalypses.

And that’s all I’m going to say. I don’t want to spoil it. But the themes of Lair of the Clockwork God touch on everything from mortality to game design, and the manner in which these themes are delivered – with some left-field design choices and deliberately dissonant sequences – is exceptional.

Think about that bit in The Witness, where you turn around and realise the starting area was a puzzle the whole time. Or when you piece the case together in Return of the Obra Dinn. Or when you finally get what’s going on in Portal. Or, you know, all of the Stanley Parable. Lair of the Clockwork God is made up of so many of these moments, deftly woven, strung together, and concealed through sleight of hand and ingenious narrative. The fourth wall is smashed, the meta-narrative is bold, and the resulting ride is a wild one.

But other narrative-driven puzzle games revel in their challenge. They invite the player to defy their creator. The experience is gladiatorial and their reward is extrinsic. In Lair of the Clockwork God, you don’t feel like you’re clever because you bested Marshall and Ward’s best-laid plans. They beckon you in. You’re allowed to cotton on. They build you up. They make you feel clever because they’re letting you in on the scheme as it unfolds. It’s collaborative, and it’s kind, and the experience is far richer for it.

“You clever little bastards,” I say directly to Dan Marshall and Ben Ward.

You clever little bastards.

Lair of the Clockwork God
4.5

Summary


Platform: PC
Developer: Size Five Games
Publisher: Size Five Games
Release Date: February 21, 2020


Dan Marshall has said publicly that if Lair of the Clockwork God doesn’t sell well enough, it will most likely be Ben and Dan’s final adventure. And if that’s how it transpires, then this game will be a fitting swansong. But if there’s any justice in the world it will sell hand over fist, because it’s a brilliant, joyous, clever and generous experience.

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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 10, 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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