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Firewatch review

On paper, Firewatch doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a particularly exciting experience, sitting in a remote lookout tower waiting for fires to start.

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Firewatch

On paper, Firewatch doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a particularly exciting experience, sitting in a remote lookout tower waiting for fires to start.

We’ve perhaps all thought about doing something similar at one point in our lives, disappearing off to the wilderness to escape the troubles of life and eking out simpler existence sounds gloriously tempting – for a short time, at least – but Henry, the game’s protagonist, has taken the leap and actually done it. This is the basic premise of Firewatch, but to put it in such simplistic terms isn’t doing it justice; there’s significantly more to it than that.

Firewatch review screenshot 10

You don’t simply sit in a tower watching for forest fires, although there is some of that – it would be a little far-fetched as a premise if there wasn’t to be any watching of fires in a game called Firewatch – but what starts as an innocent summer spent saving the Wyoming wilderness escalates into a tale of mystery and intrigue, that has ambitions of mixing it up with the very best adventure games, past and present. The crew at Campo Santo certainly have pedigree in this regard: a number of the team have worked on Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead and Tales of Monkey Island, among others.

Traditional graphical adventure games, often known as point-and-click adventures – though very little pointing and clicking remains in the glossy, modern implementations – have grown up and out from their two-dimensional, fixed-scene beginnings into dynamic, cinematic affairs. For all the pains Telltale Games have done to remain faithful to the genre and the visual style of their various franchises, the likes of Until Dawn and Life is Strange have gone a step further, bringing a touch of Hollywood gloss to the genre. One thing that remains, however, is the notion of choice, that the actions the player takes and the way they handle certain situations within the game – especially when conducting conversations – has an impact on the way the story pans out.

The other road down which graphical adventure games have diverged is into the first-person perspective – often pejoratively known as ‘walking simulators’ for their slow pace and reduced interactivity – with Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture as the biggest and best-known successes from this sub-genre. It’s fair to say these games aren’t for everyone, and the common criticism is that the player is passing through someone else’s story like a non-corporeal ghost, gleaning second-hand information about events that have gone before with no capacity to experience or influence the story.

Firewatch review screenshot 04

Firewatch sits somewhere in between these two established paradigms of adventure. The perspective is first-person and the environment is experienced through the eyes of the protagonist, but all the key elements of the traditional point-and-click adventure – the exploration, the fetch-quests, the progressive dialogue and most importantly, the choice – have come along with Firewatch into this new perspective. There is of course the danger that fashioning two styles together could turn out as a distinctly Heath Robinson join, and Firewatch could easily have been a jack of all trades, master of none.

Thankfully Campo Santo have got the hybridisation just right, and the end result? It’s the best of both worlds, plus a little something extra for their trouble.

Press to examine

I must confess, I’m not a massive fan of the recent trend for interactive controls when manipulating objects, which is especially prevalent in the adventure genre. What is supposed to be an instinctive way of examining something you’ve found – with the character able to waggle it around freely to view it from all angles – often descends into frustration, and having to make frequent glances at the on screen prompts quickly shatters any implied feeling of realism foisted on the player by this mechanic. What is supposed to come across as a connected and intuitive extension of your body can instead appear unnatural, disjointed, and at times just plain weird. I’m usually the guy walking around frantically flapping his virtual arm, trying to put down an object that feels like it’s stuck to his disembodied meat hook by some sort of adhesive.

That being said, Firewatch is probably the nicest implementation of this control scheme that I’ve come across to date. Interactions with objects within the game feels smooth and natural, with simple and reassuringly mechanical-feeling button presses to perform interactions – none of the bloody awful hammering of buttons to open a door, or timed press-and-holds to pick things up, or swirling the analogue stick round in circles to operate a control mechanism – followed by a fluid and dynamic object manipulation system that really does feel like the arm on screen is yours.

Firewatch review screenshot 15

Part of the reason for this elevated sense of engagement with the control scheme – hell, I’m going to go so far as to say all of it – are the character animations you see from this first-person perspective. Every little thing you do, every move you make, is all perfectly captured in some of the most realistic-feeling embodiment animations you’ll ever see. If you’re walking and look down you’ll see your feet tramping through the undergrowth, along with your portly, middle-aged gut swinging around in front of you. Switch it up to a jog you’ll see your chubby, hairy arms flinging up into view. That sort of thing is fairly standard for a first-person experience, but it goes so much further than that. Here are just a handful of examples:

  • When walking down from your lookout tower there’s a section with low headroom – you’ll place your hand on the structure to project your head as you stoop under it.
  • When opening the padlock on a supply cache, your animated fingers will be working on the corresponding tumbler – you’ll also fidget and drum your fingers on the box lid.
  • When climbing – either scrambling over or down rocks, or when using ropes – the animations will vary depending on the terrain you’re traversing, and if you fall it’s realistic. And hilarious. And realistically hilarious.

This is the work of animator James Benson, who the Campo Santo team found when he was putting together a series of YouTube videos as a sort-of portfolio of his animation chops, where he re-imagined what Half-Life would look like if Gordon Freeman was more than just a gun pointing at the centre of the screen. It’s simple things, from Freeman’s hand being in view pressing buttons on the way into Black Mesa, through to him attempting to pry open the doors before resorting to crowbar for the first time or losing his glasses after taking a big hit, that make a real difference to the immersion.

Where most games are happy to use embodiment animations for simple things like pressing buttons or reloading weapons – or even for Sonic the Hedgehog-style bored character animations, like Artyom trapping his finger while tinkering with his gun in Metro: 2033 – you can see every one of those tricks realised in Firewatch and then some, and with an animation for every single thing that happens in the game it never gets boring or repetitive. It really doesn’t get much better than this.

Firewatch review screenshot 14

What Firewatch also does incredibly well is to feel accurate and of its time period – being set in the summer of 1989 – while still making allowances for the fact it is a video game. We’re all so used to mini maps and on-screen directional guides towards our next quest games often feel unnecessarily cruel without them, but without the cover of a generic sci-fi head’s up display to hide behind, making them feel in-keeping with the retro setting is a challenge. Campo Santo have achieved this beautifully by simply giving us a paper map, a pencil and a compass.

As you progress through the game and find additional annotated sections of the map, you’ll copy the information down to your own map with your pencil, and will circle objectives and key areas on the map as you go. Being armed with a compass you can of course hold this up to orient yourself, but you can also walk around with it held out in front of you – a gift to those of us who rely on quest markers – and can even walk around with the map held in front of your face, but if you do you’ll miss out on so much of a beautifully crafted world.

A painted world

The style and concept of Firewatch began life as a painting by Olly Moss, a talented artist who has produced posters and cover art for such luminaries as Studio Ghibli, Lucasfilm and J. K. Rowling. In the beginning, Moss painted some scenes as concept art for the environment, that were subsequently turned into these beautiful in-universe posters:

The challenge for Jane Ng and the team at Campo Santo was to translate this unique painted style into a first-person experience that still felt immersive and grounded around the player. It would be relatively straightforward to render this stylised, block-printed world into being and is something that the Unity engine – upon which Firewatch is built – seems to excel at delivering, but when your ambition is deliver a complex and emotional narrative with the player in the shoes of the protagonist, the danger is that a world which looked cartoon-like might shatter the immersion at any time.

There’s a plethora of really clever and interesting things they did to achieve this, from simple tricks like fog and lighting manipulation through to more complex solutions, including the increased flatness and stylisation of trees and foliage the further they are from the player’s view, or making interactive items – those that can be picked up and examined in more detail – appropriately more detailed than their surroundings, but we could talk about that for hours and we’d never really be any further forward. The net result is that Firewatch is both beautiful and unique, but if you do want to know more then check out our report on a talk Jane Ng gave about creating the art of Firewatch.

Firewatch review screenshot 05

A colleague of mine felt that Firewatch wasn’t actually as pretty as he was expecting it to be, which surprised me because everything I was seeing was simply stunning.

It’s worth pointing out at this stage he was playing on PS4 and I was using a mid-range gaming PC; he told me he did notice some stuttering and asset degradation during play, whereas my experience was glossy and flawless. It’s also worth mentioning that we’d recently been discussing Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the hyper-realistic Unreal Engine powered vision of rural England that looks as though it’s been ripped from our collective childhood memories, so I felt that perhaps the impressionist approach of Firewatch was being unfairly looked upon.

He insisted that there were some issues with the PS4 visuals, so we arranged to stand atop the lookout tower at the same time of day, and take an identical screenshot for comparison. Here’s what they look like when spliced together:

Firewatch PC vs PS4 graphics comparison

PC source image, captured at 1080p with ultra settings on my PC.
PS4 source image, captured at native resolution on his PS4.

These images haven’t been tinkered with, tampered or doctored, and you can see the source images linked above. This is literally all I did for the above comparison:

  1. Overlay the PS4 image on top of the PC one in a graphics editing program.
  2. Cut off roughly the left half of the PS4 layer, so the PC image was visible underneath.
  3. Move the PS4 image about so that the tree in the middle lined up.
  4. Cropped the border of the image, so that no PC layer could be seen around the PS4 layer (where it had been moved to line up the tree).
  5. Added a dotted white line down the middle to signify the join (ignore the little white targeting reticule).
  6. Added the labels to show which part of the comparison was from which source.

While things in the long distance look nearly identical, from the middle-distance into the foreground we see a reduction in the quality of the trees, foliage and shadows, past the levels of intentional stylisation of the game. He would also find that the frame rate would stutter periodically. This isn’t therefore an isolated incident of reduced graphical fidelity in the example above, but I don’t want to get bogged down into comparing frame rates and draw distances for the purposes of this review; I’m sure the Digital Foundry folks over at Eurogamer will produce a video pitting the PC and PS4 versions against one another to compare the running frame rates before too long, but that’s not why we’re here.

Firewatch review screenshot 03

For now, we’ll simply say that – as is expected with pretty much every video game release going these days – the graphical fidelity and performance of the PC version is superior to that of its PS4 counterpart, but hopefully there’s some optimisation or adjustments the team at Campo Santo can make to get the PS4 version running closer to the PC equivalent.

What’s more important than the raw graphical performance of Firewatch is the stylistic setting and the feelings it evokes through its tone. If most first-person games are considered the gaming equivalents of the ambitious, budget-busting works, shot using specialist equipment so they look great in an IMAX theatre, Firewatch is very much the art-house indie picture of the video game world, shot on a vintage Super 8 camera to help it feel authentic to the time, making it – and us, the players – far better for the experience.

We need to talk

We’re going to talk about about the story of Firewatch for a moment now, and I’m going to do my best to avoid any spoilers. You may come away from this section of the review feeling that you haven’t learned a great deal and that’s fine: Firewatch is one of those games you should go into blind to get the best from the experience and I’d rather err on the side of caution. There will be some plot details here, but nothing you couldn’t already glean from trailers or videos produced by Campo Santo.

The game opens with the story of how Henry – our protagonist – came to be a firewatch lookout in the Wyoming wilderness. It’s told in part through branching choices, selectable from the on-screen text as you read through the prologue, and through Henry’s actions in the first-person, as he packs up his life and heads off to take up his post. It only lasts for a couple of minutes, and while some of the choices (although significant for Henry’s character) seem insignificant to your progress – and you are ultimately funnelled to the same result of him experiencing an emotional trauma and wanting to get away from it all – the choices link through into what dialogue choices you’ll be presented with and how Henry behaves throughout in the game. These choices are similar in impact to the psychiatrist sections in Until Dawn, where selecting a fear of clowns over a fear of spiders will impact how the game tries to scare you for example, but they’re far more sensitively woven into the experience; they’re also charming, funny and sad in equal measures, and are above all very real and believable.

Firewatch review screenshot 11

When Henry has arrived in the Shoshone National Park in Wyoming, and made the two day trek from his truck to his new home in the Two Forks lookout tower, he’s greeted on the radio by Delilah. Delilah is his supervisor and for the next six hours or so of gameplay – or the whole summer, in their terms – is basically the only major relationship in Henry’s life.

In another nod to the game’s fantastic use of technology – or lack thereof – their entire communication takes place over shortwave radios, the method Delilah uses to keep in contact with Henry and the other lookout towers under her supervision, although you get the distinct impression she talks to Henry a lot more than she does the others. The use of radio contact for these interactions is the foundation upon which Firewatch is built, and it’s absolutely inspired for one key reason: you are contactable from virtually anywhere on the map. This means there’s no need to trudge back and forth from nominal quest-giver to destination, then back again to collect your reward and be given a new quest, and saves what could have been an interminable string of fetch quests into a delightful jaunt through the countryside.

There is a downside to the radio formula from a design perspective, though: radio contact is a two-way medium. This is fine for an asked-and-answered interaction where Delilah has fired the opening salvo, delivering a question to Henry that results in several branching conversation choices you can reply with in the finest tradition of point-and-click adventure games, but what happens when Henry, or rather, the player wants to tell Delilah something? It’s straightforward enough to slap a radio icon against an objective that the quest-giver has sent you to, “Go to this landmark and call me on the radio when you get there,” but having a portable radio in your hand just wouldn’t be believable if you were only using it within these narrow constraints. This is where Campo Santo took a little bit of a leap of faith with the conversational mechanics in Firewatch, and this has seriously paid off for the experience as a whole.

Firewatch review screenshot 17

You might see something up ahead that obviously needs reporting to Delilah, like a thin plume of smoke indicating a fire that needs to be investigated, but you might also have something to report that’s a little more abstract and complex. While there are many interactions that are used to progress the story forward, from rudimentary fire prevention to the mystery that evolves around Henry and Delilah, it’s often the inconsequential conversations that often hold the most joy. Report to Delilah that you think a meadow is beautiful, and she might tell you that it’s a lovely place to camp. Report to her that you’ve been stung by a bee, and she might make fun of you for being a baby. Tell her that you’ve seen some unusual stone circles in the grass and she might recommend a tourist attraction you visit on your drive home at the end of the summer, and tell her about a small body of water she discovered? She’ll probably tell you the funny story of why they had to confiscate the sign telling you what it’s called.

These are all incredibly gentle and subtle ways of building your relationship with Delilah, but it’s a two-way street. If you’re not very nice to her, or do something to downright piss her off like badgering her for something she clearly doesn’t want to talk about, she might sulk with you and not respond to your calls for a short time; at least until the next important story event comes up, in any case.

Talking to Delilah genuinely feels like having a real conversation with a real human being. I don’t think I ever found myself presented with a situation where I had to choose something I’d never say because the writers’ choices were too outlandish, and the way their relationship progresses through this natural and beautifully written dialogue – filled with as many swear words and crude jokes as it is poignant personal revelations and important discoveries, just like real life – is nothing short of an absolute masterpiece. Everybody else may as well pack up and go home: in Firewatch, Campo Santo have created the perfect video game dialogue system. It’s just that good.

Firewatch review screenshot 07

It may not have the wildly variant ‘butterfly effect’ story arcs of Until Dawn or Telltale’s offerings – truth be told, I think there’s only one possible ending here, without throwing multiple play-throughs at it to be sure – but the breadth of choice on offer in Firewatch is more about the relationship you build and the way in which you reach the end, than having any impact on the end result itself, which is an important distinction and something of a lesson in life.

Let’s also not forget that without two of the best acting performances I’ve ever come across – that’s acting performances, end of sentence; there are no ‘voice acting in a video game’ caveats here – from Cissy Jones as Delilah and Rich Sommer as Henry, this wouldn’t be such a believable story and a remarkable experience. From its beginnings as an innocent tale of burgeoning friendship and escaping personal problems (a charming undercurrent that is thankfully not lost as the story progresses through to a roller-coaster of mystery and suspense) with some moments of genuine sadness in amongst the charm and humour, Firewatch and its remarkable performances are incredible from start to finish.

In summary: Should I play Firewatch?

You’re probably wondering if there was anything about Firewatch I didn’t love and the honest truth is, there really wasn’t. I made a list, and here’s all I could come up with:

  • When Henry finds a Walkman, I would have liked to have been able to listen to some 80s tunes as I hiked the wilderness.
  • Some of the dialogue choices are a little quick, with the tempo picking up the more stressed Henry and Delilah become – my wife and I like to play branching adventure games by committee, and I had to go all unilateral on the radio at times.
  • I would have liked more of it. That’s not to say the game is too short – the narrative is tightly focused and it leaves the player wanting more, which probably means it’s the perfect length – but it’s simply a world I would love to spend more time in.
  • It would of course be nice if the PS4 version looked a little sharper, but I’m sure they’re working on that – you may prefer to play it on PC in the meantime, if you have both options available.

Firewatch review screenshot 06

Firewatch review
5

Summary

That’s it. That’s literally all I managed to grumble about, which I think is a fairly unequivocal endorsement that you should go and play Firewatch

Enjoyed this article?

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

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

Reviews

Super Mario 3D All-Stars review

Super Mario 3D All-Stars on Switch rises above a host of small niggles to remind us that when it comes to gameplay, Nintendo’s Italian plumber is still king.

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Super Mario 3D All-Stars
Nintendo / Thumbsticks

Super Mario 3D All-Stars on Nintendo Switch rises above some small niggles to remind us that when it comes to gameplay, Super Mario is still king.

I’m not sure what it would take to satisfactorily celebrate the anniversary of an icon with Super Mario’s legacy and stature. It’s evident, however, that Super Mario 3D All-Stars has fallen short of what some fans hoped for. And although it’s easy to be disappointed by what this new Nintendo Switch collection doesn’t include, it’s thankfully easier to be entertained, enthralled, and exhilarated by what it does.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars features three titles plucked from the Nintendo 64, GameCube and Wii eras. Two of them are universally acknowledged as classics. The other is a divisive title, ripe for reappraisal. Each game runs in high-definition with a few modest enhancements such as improved HUD elements and some updated art assets. HD rumble is another welcome addition. Super Mario 64, in particular, benefits from the subtle pulses and purrs that now support Mario’s acrobatics.

This anniversary collection is completed by three soundtracks, and that’s it. If you’re a fan of Digital Eclipse’s work with the Mega Man franchise, for example, I expect you’ll be disappointed by what’s on offer here. Put simply, 3D All-Stars is a compilation of three classic games presented as close to their original format as is possible given the requirements of modern HD televisions. It is the bare minimum, then, although it’s worth noting that all three games look splendid nonetheless.

Mario 3D All-Stars artwork

Super Mario 64

Much of the disappointment surrounding this collection is directed at the presentation of Nintendo 64 classic, Super Mario 64. Unlike Activision’s Crash Bandicoot and Spyro trilogies, the All-Stars version of Super Mario 64 is not a remake, but it’s also not a full remaster. Instead, it’s the Japanese Shindō Pak Taiō version of the game presented in 4:3 ratio at 720p resolution. The frame-rate is locked tight at 30 fps, but the in-game camera is still the Lakitu-controlled experiment of incremental positioning it was in 1996. The one concession to modern gameplay expectations is a switcheroo of the horizontal camera axis, from inverted to normal.

All of this would be a problem were it not for the game still being absolutely brilliant. Those black borders on the side of the screen are disappointing, but then I tumble into a strange swirling pool of colour and land in a subterranean maze. I long jump across a ravine to escape a nasty bug. I weave through a path of tumbling boulders. I plunge into a pool of water and climb on to the back of a sea monster. I discover a small island topped by a ring of gleaming coins with a glowing star at its centre. I take the star, and I win. It’s an action movie refined into 84 blissful seconds.

Super Mario 64 - Super Mario 3D All-Stars

That’s the magic of Super Mario 64. The game’s age is almost its defining feature. Displayed in HD and released from the fuzz of a CRT screen, it looks dynamite, even at 720p. Sure, a full visual makeover would be an interesting exercise, but there’s also a chance it would shine a harsh light on the game’s limits and those hazy, out of reach borders. There is an innate beauty in the simplicity of its polygons simplicity. Unlike its successor, every shape and colour in Super Mario 64 feel deliberately positioned to create the ultimate digital playground. Whereas the muted, earthy tones The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time benefit from its Nintendo 3DS upgrade, Super Mario 64 looks and feels timeless.

For me, revisiting Super Mario 64 is an exercise in flexing 24 years of muscle memory. Newcomers might struggle with its camera or find some the trickier platforming sequences frustrating, but Mario can still turn on a dime, wall bounce with grace, and triple jump with a finesse that no other video game character can muster. Age can not diminish that, and it never will.

Super Mario Sunshine

Super Mario Sunshine has always been considered the black sheep of Mario’s 3D family. It was acknowledged as a minor classic in 2002, but over time it has been quietly pushed aside and forgotten, like a misguided holiday romance.

Super Mario Sunshine - Super Mario 3D All-Stars

On Nintendo Switch, Sunshine finds itself upscaled to 1080p and given much-needed room to breathe with a 16:9 aspect ratio. These welcome changes are offset by a stubborn refusal to allow the inverted aiming controls to be changed, despite a reversal of the horizontal camera. The F.L.U.D.D. mechanics have also been migrated from one pressure-sensitive GameCube trigger to two digital shoulder buttons on Switch.

It’s not an ideal compromise, especially when combined with the game’s wayward camera and looser approach to level design. All of this would be a problem were not for the game being such a uniquely singular Mario experience. Aiming F.L.U.D.D. is needlessly counter-intuitive, but then I swan-dive into a stream of water, and I forget all about it. I slide down a hill and launch into a jump. I bounce from a rope and hover in the air, held aloft by two jets of water. I climb a windmill to battle Petey Piranha in a mess of water, goo, and ground-pounds.

Super Mario Sunshine is a hodge-podge of the sublime and the ridiculous, a vacation of wild highs and hangover headaches. It’s a flawed, scruffy game by Nintendo’s standards, but I predict those expecting a disaster will be pleasantly surprised.

Super Mario Galaxy

Of the games in this collection, Super Mario Galaxy requires the least amount of polish from a visual perspective. Nintendo’s artistry looks wonderful in 1080p, and the game runs a silky smooth 60 fps without any hiccups. The implementation of the Wii version’s motion controls is more of a mixed bag, however.

In docked mode, you can play with a Pro Controller or two Joy-Cons. They work well enough, but the motion aiming is not as precise as Wii players will recall, and the absence of an infrared sensor means frequent recalibration.

In handheld mode, these actions are transferred to the Switch’s touchscreen. It’s an obvious solution, but in practice, some of the more intricate levels result in a spaghetti of fingers as your hand moves back and forth from the controller to the screen in quick succession. Thankfully, Mario’s spin-jump can now be performed with a simple tap of the Y button.

Super Mario Galaxy - Super Mario 3D All-Stars

All of this would be a problem were it not for the game remaining one of the purest distillations of platforming ever committed to silicon. The touchscreen controls can be fiddly in the heat of the moment, but when that moment is a journey across a galaxy featuring castle planets, physics-defying bridges, a glass space station with constantly flipping gravity, and a gauntlet of lava-filled boulders, those problems fade away. It’s simply a joy to watch this version of Mario in action, bending the rules of space and motion across a series of varied and outrageously imaginative environments.

It’s striking how significantly video games changed in the decade between Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy, and how little they have evolved since. Despite Super Mario Odyssey‘s obvious achievements, it sits firmly in Galaxy‘s shadow. It’s another outright classic from Nintendo and a masterpiece of video game construction.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars review
4.5

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: September 18, 2020


Super Mario 3D All-Stars is a limited time release in both physical and digital formats. We can only guess at the reason but whatever misgivings you have about the nature of this collection – or its position as Nintendo’s big fall release – it’s still an essential purchase. All three games look better than ever and provide hours and hours of exquisitely designed and consistently inventive entertainment.

Enjoyed this article?

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

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Reviews

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 review

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

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Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review
Activision

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review 02

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

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

Pretending I’m (still) a Superman

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

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

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

Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review 01

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

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

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

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2 review
4.5

Summary


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


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

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RPG Maker MV – Nintendo Switch Review

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

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RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch review
Degica / Thumbsticks

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

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

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

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

RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch 08

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

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

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

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

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

A Short Story About Long Distance

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

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

If this, then everything.

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

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

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

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

If this, then maybe that.

RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch 08

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

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

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

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

RPG Maker enemy editor

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

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

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

A Short Story About Long Distance

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

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

RPG Maker MV - Nintendo Switch
4

Summary


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


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

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Control: AWE DLC review

“Alan, wake up.”

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Control AWE review
Remedy Entertainment

“Alan, wake up.”

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

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

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

Control AWE screenshot 1

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

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

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

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

Control AWE screenshot 2

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

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

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

Control: AWE review
3

Summary


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


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

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EA Sports UFC 4 review

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

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EA Sports UFC 4 review
EA

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

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

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

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

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

UFC 4 Screen 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

UFC 4 Screen 8

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

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

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

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

EA Sports UFC 4 review
4

Summary

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

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

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