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Pillars of Eternity review

When the review code came through for Pillars of Eternity, it’s fair to say I was more than a little excited.

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Pillars of Eternity

When the review code came through for Pillars of Eternity, it’s fair to say I was more than a little excited.

While some sites will go out of their way to review everything that lands on their doorstep (in an admirable attempt to catalogue everything under the sun) at Thumbsticks we take a somewhat different, more feature-like approach. You won’t find any percentages or marks out of ten here – we dropped review scores before it was cool – but you might find a qualitative assessment of the title’s place in the world, why it’s important, and if you’re really lucky we might even tell you if (in our humble opinion) it’s worth playing.

That also means we do get plenty of review codes through that we unfortunately don’t get around to playing, or if we do, we don’t get around to featuring on the site because we simply don’t have enough to say on the matter without resorting to quantitative assessments of graphics and sound and lifespan and…

Pillars of Eternity

Pillars of Eternity is very different. Where ordinarily Daniel and I will offer review codes up to the rest of the team first, by way of a small reward for writing for Thumbsticks, on this occasion you couldn’t have prised the Pillars of Eternity code from me if you were pointing a crossbow to my head. Ordinarily a professional sort, I was snarling ferociously and swinging a flail around my head (metaphorically speaking) and the team knew very well to step back, because this one was visibly important to me – I’ve been waiting a long time for a spiritual successor to the remarkable Infinity Engine role-playing games from the turn of the century – and now here it is.

Not your average review

Full disclosure: I haven’t yet finished Pillars of Eternity. Ordinarily that would be a capital offence, admitting that you were reviewing a game without finishing it, but we’re not indexing every game under the sun and this isn’t your average review. Do keep up.

Right about now, I can see from Twitter that other journos have been scrambling furiously to complete Pillars of Eternity before the review embargo is lifted at 13:00 GMT today (the day of release). I see triumphant messages that some of them have done so, cramming sixty plus hours of a monster title into less than a week, which is no mean feat and I heartily commend them for their efforts. Unfortunately I don’t have the time available to dedicate to such an almighty undertaking, with other projects and responsibilities to juggle – especially when the review code only lands a week before release – but I’ve done my best to get through as much as I physically could, so I’ve at least got plenty to talk about.

Pillars of Eternity

Interestingly, there are also nearly a hundred user ratings on Metacritic and the game doesn’t unlock for another four hours at the time of writing. I’m not exactly sure what that tells us about the gaming public and the incessant need to score and rank everything, but I certainly find it strange to say the least.

So in summary:

  1. If you do want a traditional review of Pillars of Eternity then head over to somewhere like PC Gamer or Rock Paper Shotgun – I know I will do when their reviews drop – but there’s always room for a little bit of extra analysis.
  2. You can’t always believe what you read on Metacritic.

The foundations of Pillars of Eternity

Baldur’s Gate was something of a big deal in my life, and in the computer role-playing game world on the whole. There had been great role-playing games for PC before, and there had been Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games too, but Baldur’s Gate was the first legitimately massive smash hit in the centre of that venn diagram. Role-playing games were always my jam, and I would seek out any variant I could lay my hands on – J-RPG, Action, Tactical – it didn’t matter; but as a table-top gamer in my youth I was always partial to a spot of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and Baldur’s Gate was the first time I felt it had really been done right.

And I played it a lot. I played it to absolute death, in fact, and I still loved every second of it. Sure, I knew when the bandit attacks and the double-crosses were coming, and I wasn’t in the least bit surprised by the developments of the frankly excellent plot after the first playthrough, but that’s the beauty of a game where your character is a blank canvas – if you get tired of where you’re up to, or you just fancy trying it again from a different angle, with an alternate skillset or siding with a different faction – then just hit ‘new game’ and roll right through it.

Pillars of Eternity

Sometimes you needed to do that. One of the biggest issues with Dungeons & Dragons as a whole, and therefore role-playing games with rulesets derived from it, is that it’s incredibly easy to back yourself into a corner from whence you can’t escape. You might have chosen to play through the title as a warrior, for example, and have a party built around you with other skillsets – healing, archery, offensive magic, lockpicking – but the party member resource is a finite thing and permadeath in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is a very real threat. If there are only three rogues in the entire world who can join your party and you’ve lost them all to permadeath just before you really need one to be able to unlock something/pickpocket someone/sneak past a near-unbeatable monster, then you could be a bit stuffed. You may well have other options – perhaps you can teach your mage a spell to overcome the issue, or you can grind to absurdly level your character against their own skill tree and traits to achieve the thing you need – but more often than not, you’ll throw your hands in the air and start again as a rogue yourself.

Sometimes you don’t mind, if you really love a game and are happy to play through every moment again, but sometimes it’s just a painful nuisance and can lead to games remaining unfinished in backlogs. Obsidian, the developers behind Pillars of Eternity, told Polygon how they’d rewritten the ruleset to prevent this from happening, which is remarkably bold for a development ambition. Pillars of Eternity is unequivocally not a Dungeons & Dragons title, then. It might look like one, and feel like one, and most of the rules and mechanics and background lore may be derived from it, but Obsidian have been very careful to rewrite the machinations of the entire universe from the ground up based on decades of experience.

A question of timeliness

The time is 13:00 GMT. Everyone else’s reviews of Pillars of Eternity are about to drop, and not only did I not finish the game before writing about it, I also haven’t finished my article before the embargo lifted. Oh well.

I’m currently trying very hard to resist the temptation to read the reviews that are springing up around me, as I don’t want to interfere with my own judgement by reading the opinions of people of whom I greatly admire and respect the judgment. Luckily I rolled higher than a nineteen on two D12s, which was a saving roll against my concentration statistic, and the article continues unfettered.

Let’s get back to what’s changed, and perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t.

Casting a resurrection spell on a genre

When Pillars of Eternity was crowdfunded on Kickstarter – where over seventy thousand backers pledged just shy of four million US dollars – the message from the backing public was apparently very clear: we very much love this style of role-playing game (that has inexplicably been somewhat out of fashion for almost fifteen years) and we’d like to see the genre come back, please. Obsidian understandably heard that as ‘we would like Baldur’s Gate 3, please’ and they kindly obliged.

Pillars of Eternity

There’s a lot of conflict in my mind when I think of Kickstarter as a medium for funding the development and (hopefully) eventual release of games. Quite aside of the risk of paying upfront for vapourware (or even sliding deadlines and partial completion as we saw with Broken Age) there is a reliance on a mutual understanding between developer and backer. Developers will of course produce videos and promotional material to support their case, engender themselves to the potential backing public, and ultimately try to raise as much cash as possible for their cause. The backing public have to make their assessment of whether to back a project or not based on this information. Sometimes, this doesn’t always play out as it should.

More disclosure: I didn’t actually back Pillars of Eternity on Kickstarter, either. As much as I love the genre and wanted to see it revived, and have adored the work of the team behind Pillars of Eternity in the past, for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to get behind the project. That doesn’t mean I was any less excited that it did smash its funding targets and the game was being made, but when the stretch goals started to appear for ‘bottomless dungeons’ and ‘bigger cities’ I had some niggling doubts creep in about what the title would turn into. Judging by my excitement when the review code came through, I had successfully buried these concerns deep down in the anticipation, but they are now resurfacing as I play through the game (slower than everyone else, it seems).

So how does it play?

One thing that was always going to be assured, with the team behind Pillars of Eternity, is that it would be an amazing story. It starts off in traditional Infinity Engine style, with a ‘hot’ start – an unsuspecting young person is minding their own business, on a journey somewhere, then all hell breaks loose and you’re thrown into a dangerous situation with a few helpers as a bit of a tutorial – before you know it you’re caught up in a twisty plot with multiple factions and a weird prophecy you seem to be at the centre of. No complaints there – the writing is sublime.

At the risk of straying into ‘actual review’ territory here, the game also looks and sounds fantastic, and the team have essentially brought the original Infinity Engine – with all its hand drawn storybook charm and atmospheric audio qualities – into a more modern era. It’s as simple as that. Resolutions are better than they ever were, the locales look fantastic and the textures are superb. Imagine following Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring from about a hundred yards overhead by a drone for the duration of the movie, and you’ll get an idea of the effect.

Pillars of Eternity

Combat looks amazing too and the bigger monsters, frenetic crowd-control moments and higher-level spells really take your breath away, but It’s not perfect. I have witnessed a few strange artefacts and animations during combat for example, where one of my characters is attacking a monster at range, but the blood and gore effects from the monster are appearing directly in front of the character, as if they were fighting toe-to-toe. Another example would be when one of my characters can’t quite decide what final direction it wants to face, so flits about like its suffering some sort of seizure, until I move it an extra step or two and it settles down.

These are minor irritations, and while graphical imperfections aren’t specifically what I was worried about when I didn’t back the Kickstarter, they did get the gears in my mind working back to those niggles. I fear some of them may have come to pass, in some form or another.

The risk of the spiritual successor

When you think back about the effort the team were going to, to rewrite the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset to make it the very best mechanism it can be for a computer role-playing game in addition to actually developing the game itself, you can see where the time and effort has gone. Building a role-playing game is a mammoth undertaking at the best of times, even if you are working atop a pre-existing framework and prescribed lore, but to do the whole thing from scratch? The mind boggles as to how they did it. That’s why it was an unprecedented financial ask for a video game project on Kickstarter (at the time) and the team were acutely aware of that that fact – they even highlighted it themselves during their original pitch:

“We need to raise $1.1 million to fund an experienced team to do this right. We are asking for more than a lot of the other Kickstarter projects and that’s because we are not only making a game, we are creating a whole new world. That means a new RPG system, entirely new art, new characters and animation and whole lot of lore and dialogue.”

So what we have – as a result of the Kickstarter – is a backing public who want a role-playing game the way mamma used to make, and a development team who want to move heaven and earth to do that in the cleverest way possible. I cannot argue with the logic, and I can in no way dispute that what Obsidian have delivered with Pillars of Eternity meets this fundamental pitch with style and aplomb. They have delivered a truly great game, to the specifications outlined above, and if we’re measuring it as a successor to Baldur’s Gate based on that criteria alone then it’s a massive win.

Pillars of Eternity

But that’s not what I wanted from a spiritual successor to Baldur’s Gate – I didn’t back it, precisely because of these concerns – and I’m sure there must be other people out there who feel the same way; that nagging sense of disappointment that while it is great, it could have been so much more.

Take, for example, how Fallout became the spiritual successor to Wasteland. Wasteland was a wonderful game (and you could reasonably argue it was superior to Fallout in many ways) but it was very much of its time, and in 1997 Interplay made every effort to not only produce a great game in their own right, but to move the genre forward in a productive and forward-thinking manner for the greater good of the genre. Look at where the Fallout series has travelled, and what it has become as a result of being brave.

System Shock is another great example. You won’t find me advocating that BioShock is in any way superior to the original System Shock, as they are very different games that simply share a common spirit – and Beta Grove still gives me far more nightmares than Rapture ever could – but as a spiritual successor and an evolution in the storytelling medium BioShock was a revelation, and totally worthy of carrying System Shock’s legacy forward.

Pillars of Eternity
3

Summary

Secretly, then, I was hoping that Pillars of Eternity was going to be more than it is. I was hoping for a complete revolution of the genre, not just an incredibly clever evolution of the mechanics. It’s a remarkable game and absolutely the finest example of what it is, but after waiting nearly fifteen years, I wanted it to be so much more.

It’s still really, really great. Buy it. Play it. You’ll love it.

But if – like me – you’ve been waiting all this time for it, you might just find your heart filled with an almost intangible twang of disappointment, as you silently lament what Pillars of Eternity could have been.

Enjoyed this article?

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

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

Reviews

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 review

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

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Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review
Activision

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review 02

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

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

Pretending I’m (still) a Superman

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

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

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

Tony Hawks Pro Skater 1 + 2 review 01

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

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

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

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2 review
4.5

Summary


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


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

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Reviews

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.

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.

Continue Reading

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Control: AWE DLC review

“Alan, wake up.”

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Control AWE review
Remedy Entertainment

“Alan, wake up.”

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

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

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

Control AWE screenshot 1

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

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

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

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

Control AWE screenshot 2

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

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

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

Control: AWE review
3

Summary


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


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

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EA Sports UFC 4 review

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

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EA Sports UFC 4 review
EA

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

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

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

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

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

UFC 4 Screen 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

UFC 4 Screen 8

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

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

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

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

EA Sports UFC 4 review
4

Summary

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

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

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Windbound review

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

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Windbound review
Deep Silver

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

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

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

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

Windbound Screen 6

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

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

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

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

Windbound Screen 3

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

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

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

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

Windbound screen 1

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

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

Windbound review
3.5

Summary


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


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

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