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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

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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

Maneater review

Is it safe to go back in the water? We’re not sure, so we sent Callum to review Maneater. [WARNING: Contains terrible shark puns.]

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Maneater review
Tripwire

Is it safe to go back in the water? We’re not sure, so we sent Callum to review Maneater. [WARNING: Contains terrible shark puns.]

First up: the shark puns. I’m sure this is what you all came for. I assume my editor also wants a section of this article dedicated to terrible oceanic references, so let’s just get this out the way quickly. Will Maneater, the new hyper-violent shark simulator from Tripwire, sink or swim? Has its Jaws-dropping concept got any bite? Will it be a fin-tastic ride? Or is it destined to sleep with the fishes? [This was a very elaborate way of handing in your resignation, Callum – Ed.]

All out of our system? Are we done? Wonderful. Then let’s crack on.

With that out the way, many of you have likely seen the over-the-top trailers for Maneater that dropped following its announcement last year. After all, it’s hard to miss a game where players take control of a raging, hyper-aggressive bull shark with a love for human meat ripped straight from the hull of a fishing boat. Yet, now it’s here, it’s easy to recognise both the satisfying highs and debilitating lows of making a self-proclaimed “shaRkPG.”

Undeniably, the trailers’ promise that players will step into the fins of an unstoppable oceanic predator that can chomp through reinforced steel and make paddling beachgoers into mincemeat is far from unmet. This is perhaps the closest players will ever come to fulfilling the (oddly specific) fantasy of making some elderly, one-armed shark hunter bitterly recall a cliché movie monologue about their antics and for that, Maneater deserves props. However, making a 10-hour game where the one goal is to tear through an ocean’s worth of potential-prey comes with its downsides, especially in the varied gameplay department.

To add some context, Maneater sees players assume the role of a young bull-shark pup who was torn from her mother at birth and severely disfigured by a ruthless hunter named Scaly Pete. Thrown back into the vicious waters of the Gulf Coast, your mission quickly becomes to grow into a fully-fledged shark and track down the man who killed your mother, tearing your way through whatever comes in your path.

Maneater seaweed

As expected from a game about a giant, eternally ticked off oceanic predator, Maneater isn’t exactly Oscar-worthy storytelling. However, it does have a few tricks up its sleeve to make up for its thankfully silent protagonist. For one, the game is set out like a trashy American reality show, putting Chris Parnell of SNL and Rick and Morty fame as an ever-present – and frequently funny – narrator. Not only does strong writing make his “nature documentary” commentary land perfectly, but small additions like cutscenes filmed from a handheld perspective make for a pretty endearing central style.

Parnell’s commentary serves as entertaining underlining for Maneater’s gameplay, which is definitely more fleshed out than the title’s trailers may have you believe. I, for one, saw this game inaccurately labelled “GTA with sharks.” In reality, Maneater is much more at home when compared to a game like Crackdown. Beginning as a very small fish in a monumentally big pond, the core focus of the experience is battling your way through increasingly tough oceanic wildlife and human enemies as you grow bigger, gain new abilities and acquire brand new – very cool – body parts.

One of Maneater’s biggest surprises is how well balanced and fun this sense of progression is from start to finish, with my journey seeing me originally struggle against giant alligators and colossal sperm whales before actively engaging them by the end of the campaign. Maneater takes you from a weak bottom feeder to a literal apex predator, picking fights with whatever you please and watching your prey flee from you in fear.

To achieve this sense of oceanic dominance, you first have to master combat and exploration. The latter is easily the less-prevalent of the two. Scattered around the world are several major collectables and landmarks, each coming with their own set of fun easter eggs and shark-movie references. Combat, on the other hand, comprises much more of Maneater’s experience, which, unfortunately, isn’t for the best.

That’s not to say combat is bad. Once you get the hang of it, Maneater mostly relies on a fairly simple and easy to pick up control scheme, seeing players utilise a bite, tail whip, dodge, charge, and a powerful special ability. While it can rely too heavily on button-mashing – especially as tapping bite repeatedly is the key to defeating most foes – there is something morbidly satisfying about leaping from the water, grabbing a helpless human from a boat and dragging them to the sea for a gory kill.

Fights below water are slightly less entertaining, mostly because enemies become something of a pushover towards the latter half of the campaign. They can still grow intense when you come face to face with the game’s other apex predators, though: much bigger and more dangerous variations of the base game’s enemies.

Maneater alligator

However, Maneater’s structure is where it really begins to let itself down. While the core loop has its moments, it becomes evident fairly early on that most missions recycle the same “go here, kill this,” objective without any nuance or deviation. There’s simply not enough variety to warrant Maneater’s relatively padded campaign, making it something of a one-trick pony. Granted, it’s not a bad trick, but after 10 hours of the same repeated activities, the fun nature of Tripwire’s shark sim does fade.

After swimming through the game’s early areas, you’ll realise the heart of Maneater simply doesn’t have the complexity to work for more than a few hours. You’ll run through several monotonous objectives, fight an apex predator, watch a mandatory cutscene, complete some side missions, then advance on to the next level of the game where you’ll rinse and repeat. Sure, there are some fun optional objectives – such as hunting unique, named shark hunters who pose slightly more of a challenge than their weaker minions – but even these activities are so overused that they become tedious overall.

If you’re jumping into Maneater to live out your life-long fantasy of starring as a fully-grown, 500-pound bull-shark that cares more about sinking freighters than honouring the food chain, there’s no denying this is the game for you. There is a strong progression system, some hilarious gags, and some really satisfying combat that makes stalking your inferior prey all the more satisfying. Yet, it’s worth remembering that Maneater is, at its heart, a gimmick, and like all gimmicky media, it does eventually wear out its welcome.

Fin.

Maneater review
3

Summary


Platform: PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One
Developer: Tripwire Interactive
Publisher: Tripwire Interactive
Release Date: May 22, 2020


Maneater really does do what it says on the tin. It’s a hyper-violent, super fun and wonderfully tongue in cheek shark simulator that lets players live out their fantasy of becoming the ocean’s most notorious predator. Yet, it’s beyond that where Maneater struggles, as its repetitive missions and frequent padding prevent it from sustaining its 10-hour runtime.

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Reviews

Lonely Mountains: Downhill Nintendo Switch review

Lonely Mountains: Downhill rides onto the Nintendo Switch. It’s time to pump up those tyres and hit the wilderness once more.

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Lonely Mountains Downhill Nintendo Switch review
Megagon / Thunderful

Lonely Mountains: Downhill rides onto the Nintendo Switch. It’s time to pump up those tyres and hit the wilderness once more.

It’s not something we often talk about, but there’s a crispness and clarity to Lonely Mountains: Downhill. That’s not to say those words aren’t in the collective video game vocabulary, but they’re rarely used in good faith.

When people talk about crispness, or clarity, they’re almost always referring to visual fidelity. They’re talking about resolution and frame rates and antialiasing. Remember those boring old uncles at parties, who would talk incessantly about cars, or their favourite sports team, or hi-fi separates? Those drips, those human joy sponges, are the sorts of people who think a game is better because it runs a higher frame rate.

It’s time to reclaim those terms. Forget technical jargon and tedious Top Trumps; let’s use them instead to talk about something more meaningful, like crispness of vision or clarity of intent. Let’s use them to talk about something wonderful, like Lonely Mountains: Downhill.

Lonely Mountains: Downhill finds you at the top of a mountain, as all good mountain bike adventures should, with knobbly tyres beneath and a crash helmet above. There are thin margins between you and failure, as in real life. And fail you will. A lot. At times you’ll rattle down the mountainside like a ball in a Pachinko machine, hitting every tree and rock and stump, careening off every edge and into every pond.

Lonely Mountains Downhill Nintendo Switch review depth of field

You might even struggle with the controls. The game, by default, starts up with an eight-directional scheme that, try as I might, I could not fathom. Others have told me they don’t understand why, but it just intuitively works. However, the tattered gears and linkages in my primate brain could not make the correct decision at any point. Then I switched to classic Micro Machines controls – where the cyclist pivots clockwise or counter-clockwise based on the direction the nose of the bike is pointing – and it all clicked into place.

The important thing is that Lonely Mountains: Downhill isn’t unnecessarily punitive – instant reloads are critical in a game with fine margins and knife-edge failure – and, as with the controls, there are always options.

The titular mountains, lonely as they are, are split into numerous downhill trails. First, you’ll be given a free ride down, with no time pressures and no objectives. Then, once you’ve crossed all the checkpoints and reached the bottom – and you’ve had a good look at the trail – it’s time to start the challenges. Time-attacks are standard, obviously, with targets growing tighter as you improve. You can best the novice targets by sticking to the established trails, but in order to achieve the best times? You’ll need to venture off the beaten path.

Sometimes that means just clipping a corner, kissing the apex, or cutting it off altogether. That will shave off a few milliseconds from your split times. But if you chart your own route, barrelling down sheer gravel chutes or hopping down rock faces or leaping across chasms, then you can cut out huge swathes of the course. Your times will tumble as a result, which will access new challenges, bikes, and customisation options. But greater reward brings greater risk, and as your times tumble, your rider will, too.

But you’re not always in the mood for breakneck recklessness and hundreds of retries. Sometimes you want to explore without the time pressure. That’s catered for, too, with as much enjoyment to be found just in bumbling about the mountain as racing for time. The game even features hidden rest spots, beautiful dioramas where you can park your bike, park yourself, and just drink in the game’s sumptuous atmosphere.

Lonely Mountains Downhill Nintendo Switch review rest spot

There’s no music in Lonely Mountains: Downhill, either. The only sounds are the chirrups of birdsong and the crunch of knobbly tyres on dirt, gravel, and rock. And that’s as it should be. You can enjoy the silence, or you can pop in some earbuds and listen to your own soundtrack. It harkens back to my youth, skipping through the forest with grunge and punk rock on mixtape cassettes, as the new kid on the block, the Sony Discman, was too prone to skipping to be taken on such an adventure.

There’s a zenlike aspect to Lonely Mountains: Downhill that, once you’ve found it, amongst the wilderness, it grabs you. It’s remarkable clarity of design for what appears, on the face of it, as a knockabout arcade racer.

With that in mind, Lonely Mountains: Downhill also features challenges based on arriving at the bottom (relatively) safely. New trails and mountains are gated behind getting to the bottom with less than a specified number of crashes. There’s even a permadeath-like mode with no checkpoints and no restarts, and if you beat that? You can unlock the option to take on the trails at night.

And here’s the thing: there are no lighting sources, other than the pathetic white bulb on your bike’s handlebars. Nobody’s lined the trail with Tiki torches or strings of fairy lights or strategically-placed floodlights. There’s no dubious ambient glow or convenient skybox gradient. It is dark, it is stark, and it is a brilliant piece of design.

Lonely Mountains Downhill Nintendo Switch review night mode

If you’re going to succeed on Lonely Mountains: Downhill – and even more so, the night stages – you’ll need to learn the trails, their personalities and their pitfalls. In the age of procedural generation, it’s a beautiful slice of praxis to have to learn intricately-designed courses once more, to experiment, to improve, to better your own abilities and by extension, improve your times.

But exploring these handcrafted mountain dioramas is its own joy because they are just so sumptuous. It might seem simplistic at a glance, but the low poly visuals are teeming with life and are anything but low fidelity. Each stage, each scene, is carefully assembled and layered, dripping in sun shafts and particle effects and depth of field, all built with optimal viewpoints in mind.

Rather than an over-the-shoulder or orbital camera that we’re so familiar with in extreme sports games, the viewpoint on Lonely Mountains: Downhill tracks down the trail on a pre-defined path. This means you’ll be treated to the sort of perfect cinematography that you’ll never achieve with either procedural generation or user-controlled cameras. Sure, you might stumble on something beautiful every now and then if you’re in charge, but there’s a reason why open-world games wrestle control of the camera away from the player if they want to show off their most beautiful vista or their sparkliest sunset. It wants you to see the game at its most vibrant, to make sure all that time and energy setting up those moments wasn’t wasted.

Lonely Mountains: Downhill is crammed full of those moments of elegant crispness, to the exclusion of most anything else. It’s almost exhausting how postcard-pretty the game is, but don’t worry: you’ll crash into a tree or a rock before too long, and come back down to earth with an unceremonious thump.

That’s the joy of downhill mountain biking, captured in capsule form, and it’s even better now you can take it out on the trail on Nintendo Switch.

(Well, when lockdown lifts and you’re allowed outside once more. Until then, Lonely Mountains: Downhill brings a welcome slice of the outside inside.)

Lonely Mountains: Downhill
4

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC, PS4, Xbox One, Linux, Mac
Developer: Megagon Industries
Publisher: Thunderful Group
Release Date: May 7, 2020


Lonely Mountains: Downhill excels as both an adrenaline-fueled racer and a zenlike exploration. It’s a signal of the game’s clarity of vision and tightness of scope that it can, somehow, succeed at both. A triumph of beautiful cinematography and spinning tyres alike.

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Void Bastards – Nintendo Switch review

Suicide Squad meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as Blue Manchu bring Void Bastards to the Nintendo Switch.

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Void Bastards - Nintendo Switch review
Blue Manchu

Suicide Squad meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as roguelike FPS Void Bastards comes to the Nintendo Switch.

Blue Manchu’s Void Bastards has a simple premise. Revive a rag-tag bunch of freeze-dried prisoners stored aboard a transport vessel called the Void Ark, and send them into action on a series of derelict but dangerous spaceships. The mission is simple. Salvage the materials required to power the Void Ark for its final Faster Than Light jump home.

Each ship – which is procedurally generated from a set of common parts – is populated with a cornucopia of beasties, mutated citizens, and security systems. Limited health and a slowly depleting oxygen supply provide the impetus to make your raid as swift as possible. But, a tantalising assortment of loot on each ship tempts you to stay longer than is necessary.

If – or rather, when – you die, another prisoner is “rehydrated” and deployed. Each one can reuse any weapons and gadget upgrades you’ve obtained, and continue the objective of retrieving the required FTL parts. It’s a roguelike. You get the idea.

Void Bastards - Combat

I’m always excited for science fiction games. I’m from the generation that grew up with the original Star Wars, Ridley Scott’s Alien, Logan’s Run, and the homespun charm of the BBC’s Blake’s 7. Any game that evokes that style – and the feel of British sci-fi comics – immediately has my attention.

The flip side is that I’m not a particular fan of games that use procedural generation to create environments and levels. I like to see the artist’s hand at work, whether it’s in the design of a space to provoke a specific action, or in a beautiful vista composed to generate an emotion. It’s the main reason why No Man’s Sky never quite took off for me. Those magical, mathematically created worlds are always impressive, but part of me is also always wondering if the next planet will be even more impressive, or the next, or the next.

Void Bastards manages to avoid this problem with its procedurally generated spaceship layouts. In part, it’s a virtue of the universal truth that sci-fi corridors are sci-fi corridors are sci-fi corridors.

Void Bastards - Spaceship

Crucially, Void Bastards has just enough variety. Some ships have specific purposes. Medical ships, for example, echo the design of Sevastopol Station in Alien: Isolation. Lux Cruise vessels are decorated with plush furnishings, chandeliers, and ionic columns, with flavour added by the occasional robot maître d.

Bold changes in colour and lighting also make each ship feel different. It fittingly recalls how 1970’s Doctor Who would reuse and reconfigure small sets to create a larger sense of space. Not that there’s ever time to stand still and admire the surroundings. The moment-to-moment tension of exploration, combat, and looting never lets up.

Void Bastards’ balance of risk and reward is perfectly judged. On almost every occasion, death is the result of pushing yourself a little too far, of being a little too greedy, or a little too curious.

Even when death comes, the game has mastered the art of making the player want “one more go.” Developer Blue Manchu has cited the influence of Bioshock and System Shock, and it’s in this satisfying and repetitive gameplay loop that it’s most evident. It never gets boring.

Each run is also kept fresh by a range of prisoner attributes, buffs, and de-buffs. For example, one prisoner might have a slow walking speed or a General Grevious-like cough that attracts enemy attention. That might be offset, however, by a high percentage chance of finding ammo clips, or the ability to always find a biscuit in a ship’s break room. (Which is more helpful than you might think.)

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The thrill of reaching the evacuation point with loot intact, a horde of enemies on your tail, and a single point of health remaining is consistently rewarding. And if you make it to the end of the game – which is no easy feat on normal difficulty – you are treated to a joyously bleak payoff.

An extensive arsenal of weapons – which can be modded and enhanced – also helps to keep the game varied. Identifying the best loadout for each type of ship and enemy type is an enjoyable exercise of testing and refinement. And noodling around on the workbench or galaxy map – which is also procedurally generated – to plan the most effective route is its own strategic pleasure.

The only aspect of Void Bastards that doesn’t always click is its humour. The game has a particularly British tone, or rather, tones. At one extreme you have the delightfully droll witticisms the Void Ark’s computer. Kevan Brighting’s sparkling performance evokes the work of Peter Jones as The Book in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There are also numerous references to corporate bureaucracy, finance, and employment law. They range from P45 Prisoner requisition forms to the Void Ark’s computer being a BACS Unit. A gag for fans of payroll systems, we assume.

At the other extreme is alien dialogue that frequently resorts to terms like “dick-wad” and “twat-face”. It’s a touch of vulgarity that strikes one of the game’s few bum notes. The incessant screeching of the enemy Juve – voiced by The Stanley Parable’s William Pugh – is another. Sorry, William.

Void Bastards - Screenshot

Thankfully, none of the game’s visual splendour appears to have been lost in the move to Switch. The comic book visuals look bold and crisp – in both TV and handheld modes – and the frame rate is 99% rock solid. Font size can be an issue in some menus, but it’s a beautiful game that plays to the strengths of the Switch.

Field notes

  • We have a feeling that someone at Blue Manchu must have played the classic ZX Spectrum game, Rescue.
  • Ryan Roth’s soundtrack is superb. A sublime fusion of ambience and guitar twinged electronica.
  • Those menu fonts really are small.
  • Completing the game unlocks a fun challenge mode.
  • The game’s enemy design is wonderfully bonkers, from the Trilby wearing Spooks and Glowtrotters, to the mop-topped Outpatients. Top marks.
  • And every game should have Kittybots.
Void Bastards - Nintendo Switch Review
4

Summary


Platform: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One,
Developer: Blue Manchu
Publisher: Humble Bundle
Release Date: May 7, 2020


Aside from being called Spunky Mc-Fuckface on regular occasions, this is an excellent game. Void Bastards delivers a finely-tuned mix of action, planning, and strategy, and its bite-sized structure makes it perfect for short bursts of Switch gaming.

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Resident Evil 3 review

Hot on the heels of the Resident Evil 2 remake, the Resident Evil 3 remake is here. Does Capcom stick the landing on the second attempt?

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Resident Evil 3 remake
Capcom / Thumbsticks

Hot on the heels of the Resident Evil 2 remake, the Resident Evil 3 remake is here. Does Capcom stick the landing on the second attempt?

I’ve never even played the original PlayStation release, but it’s clear to me that the strengths and weaknesses of Resident Evil 3 are ironically very similar to those levied against its 1999 counterpart. Much like the original, it follows the incredibly popular Resident Evil 2 just a year later, a game that few would disagree was one of the best 1998 (and the brilliant remake in 2019) had to offer.

It was a horror masterclass that catapulted the Resident Evil franchise back toward stardom, with incredible pacing, nail-biting scares, and a haunting atmosphere. So, in an effort to strike while the iron’s hot, Capcom have rushed with all their might to turn around a sequel, the remake of Resident Evil 3.

“Look,” says Capcom. “You guys loved Mr X, so here’s an even more punishing version of that mechanic”.

“Here you go”, they say. “You guys can have a more action-focused version of the Resident Evil formula that doesn’t chastise you for going in gung-ho”.

Much like the original 1999 version of the game, the experience that comes out the other side – while brimming with exceptional ideas and moments – feels rushed to lay down more track for the Resident Evil hype train. This is a short game, with my playthrough barely scratching the five-hour mark, and while there’s nothing wrong with a title that makes its point and leaves before it can wear out its welcome, its short runtime comes at the cost of pacing and new mechanics.

Every level, encounter, cutscene and story arc feels unexplored in Resident Evil 3 because the game spends so little time on each. You’ll visit a new area, meet a new character or encounter a new enemy type (just to be rid of it in half an hour), jumping between brilliant concepts without ever being allowed the time to see them stick. While Resident Evil 2 gradually unlocked one comprehensive hub that you could slowly and satisfyingly plunder through, Resident Evil 3 feels like a speeding train that puts you in interesting scenarios before instantly whisking you away to the next set-piece.

That’s not to say what’s contained in this small package is entirely lacklustre. In truth, what makes Resident Evil 3’s breakneck pace all the more frustrating is just how much the game has to offer.

As most fans of the franchise will already know, Resident Evil 3 puts players back in the boots of Jill Valentine, one of the two protagonists from the first Resident Evil. Traumatised by the events she witnessed surviving the zombie-infested corridors of the Spencer Mansion, Jill is currently living out her days in her apartment in Racoon City before, lo and behold, a zombie infestation breaks out and the heroine is launched back into action.

While Resident Evil 2 was a much more exploration-focused affair, one of the first things you’ll notice about Resident Evil 3 is that it’s much more linear. Despite my criticisms of the pacing, that’s not always a bad thing. Traversing levels constantly offers something new, and while some might lament the distinct dearth of traditional Resident Evil puzzles, there’s much less time spent trekking back through areas as the game keeps pushing you forward. It also leaves a lot more time for Jill to shine as a character through frequent set-pieces and gorgeous cutscenes, with her sarcastic personality and tough attitude making her a much more likeable protagonist than the relatively dry offerings of Leon and Claire.

Alongside that, combat feels more refined and streamlined, with the addition of an unbreakable knife, weightier guns, and ways to dispatch enemies using the environment around you. Perhaps the best of all is a nifty dodge roll that allows players, if timed right, to avoid enemies and open a brief window of slow-motion to land some attacks. The roll itself can be unreliable, especially because you can often get hit mid-roll, but it’s a significant addition all the same. In turn, the game feels far more combat-focused than the last, which makes for a welcome change of pace in comparison to Resident Evil 2’s more puzzle-focused gameplay.

To cement this position, the Resident Evil 3 remake also provides some brand new playable sections surrounding former side-character Carlos, who’s two core missions go hard on the action. Ammo in these segments is plentiful and enemies are dealt in bigger numbers. Sure, Carlos is a much less investable protagonist than Jill – and his gameplay is much less tense and gratifying than hers – but it’s still interesting to see parts of the games that lean closer tonally towards the later entries in the Resident Evil series.

Yet – and you’ve no doubt be waiting for this all along – the real star here is Nemesis. Yes, he’s terrifying. Yes, he’s intimidating. And, yes, he will absolutely batter you silly until you learn how best to outrun him. From the moment he enters, there’s a sense that your time playing Resident Evil 2 was preparing you for this, as the grotesque monster stalks you through the streets, cutting you off as you try to lose him, pulling you back If you stray too far, spawning beefy enemies to help drain your ammo, and walking through any damage you throw his way.

From the game’s incredible opening prologue to around the three-hour mark, all you do is fear the big hulking behemoth, as you listen out for his faint footsteps or his horrifying monotone chanting of the word “STARS”. Much like Mr X, he’s an absolute masterclass in horror design, especially with the addition of him eerily waiting for you outside locations and jumping down from unpredictable vantage points.

Then, as fast as he appeared, Nemesis is gone, quickly relegated to typical boss fights and uninspired QTE encounters. What was initially the crowning achievement of the game is gone far too early with almost no warning, once again reigniting that feeling that, while there’s a great game here, it’s reduced to something of a highlight reel rather than a fully fleshed-out experience.

While the emergent encounters you have with early Nemesis stand as some of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had playing Resident Evil, there’s always that small part of you that knows it could’ve been so much more.

Sadly, that sentiment holds true for almost all of Resident Evil 3. There’s a great game here, don’t get me wrong, and for fans of the franchise, it’s a healthy second helping of Resident Evil 2’s gameplay. However, there’s always a frustrating desire for Resident Evil to stop for a minute and take its time. Mirroring the 1999 original perhaps a little too closely, it often feels like an inconsequential next step for a franchise that had just managed to get back to its feet.

Resident Evil 3 review
3.5

Summary


Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PC, Xbox One
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Release Date: April 3, 2020


There’s a lot about Resident Evil 3 to love. Its combat is meatier, its linearity makes for an interesting change of pace, and Nemesis is pure nightmare fuel in all the right ways. Yet, the game’s pace is simply too hasty for its brief runtime. In the end, it’s an enjoyable – but noticeably rushed – remake, that never quite matches the heights of its outstanding predecessor.

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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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