Review – For Honor (Story Mode)

For Honor imagines an alternate Middle Ages in which medieval knights, Vikings and samurai all live within about five minutes of each other, which funnily enough is the kind of world I’ve imagined for so long that I feel as though I should be getting royalties from this. I’d be doing pretty well for myself, too. For Honor has shifted a remarkable number of copies considering it’s a multiplayer-focused duelling simulator. I suppose even for adults there’s an implicit desire to find out which of your favourite historical warriors are the hardest. It’s a timeless argument that has its roots somewhere in kids insisting that their dad can beat their mate’s dad in a straight fight. That idea has a lot of legs. For Honor is a franchise waiting to happen, really. Maybe the sequel will explain where all the pirates went.

One of the first things For Honor asks you to do is choose which faction to belong to. I selected the Vikings because I feel as though my life has a lot less raping and pillaging than I’d like, but it turns out the choice only applies to multiplayer, and that regardless of who you choose to align with you can play as whoever you like, thus rendering the choice utterly meaningless. I’m glad I agonised over it for half an hour, because it isn’t as though I have anything else to be doing.

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Review – Sniper Elite 4

It’s hard to explain the appeal of the Sniper Elite series. It’s one of those gaming guilty pleasures that sounds faintly perverse written down, and utterly ludicrous spoken out loud. Not that there’s anything particularly unusual about sniping in games; almost all shooters have at least one rifle, and many have whole stretches of gameplay that are dedicated to nothing but long-range marksmanship. The sniping in and of itself, though, isn’t the appeal of Sniper Elite. Things would be so much easier if it were. But, no, there’s something else that differentiates this series from other sneaky-stabby-shooty third-person games, and it’s that psychotic slow-motion X-Ray view that lets you see all the catastrophic internal trauma you’re inflicting on your victims.

Seems an odd thing to be into, doesn’t it? Certainly wouldn’t sit well around the office water cooler or the in-law’s dinner table, and you get the sense that Rebellion, the game’s developers, probably recognise this. Which, I assume, is why they continue to set the series in World War II, despite having exhausted every major theatre of the conflict. You need Nazis for this kind of thing. These games have such a throbbing stiffy for lovingly-detailed exploding organs that it would be uncomfortable if your bullets were tunnelling through the brainpans of anyone else. But killing Nazis is always guilt-free. In the context of taking on a xenophobic imperialist war-machine, it’s actually pretty satisfying to watch precisely how much irreparable damage each bullet is inflicting on the Third Reich. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway.

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Resident Evil VII – Banned Footage DLC

First, a disclaimer: The following might contain minor spoilers for Resident Evil VII, and will definitely contain some major ones for how I feel about the video game industry’s lecherous DLC practices. Mere weeks after the main game’s release, Capcom are already groping in your pockets for more cash, whispering sweet nothings in your ear about how much cheaper it would be to simply buy the season pass and have done with it. They’re probably right, but savvy gamers know that shelling out for such things ahead of time is a bit like bobbing for apples in a pool full of shark fins – you might come up with something tasty, but you’re more likely to get your face bitten off.

Still, here we are. Banned Footage, after a period of purgatorial PS4-exclusivity, is now broadly available as either two individually-priced three-part volumes, or, if you’re a daredevil, for free as part of the season pass. If you were hoping for a purchase recommendation, no such luck. Both are hit-and-miss enough that they’re equally worthwhile or worthless depending on both your disposable income, and which parts of the uneven vanilla game you found most appealing. Sorry about that.

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Review – Resident Evil VII

The problem with Resident Evil isn’t that everybody dies, it’s that nobody ever stays dead. The series has never treated mortality with any kind of permanence. In the first few games, which were fairly traditional zombie stories, that was fine. It was mostly the point. But throughout many, often ill-advised sequels, Capcom started to apply the same logic to their major characters and plot beats. Albert Wesker has been the recurring series villain for 20 years, and he was killed in the first game.

The reason for Wesker’s implausible resilience is the T-Virus – a zombie-brewing superweapon that is also responsible for all of Resident Evil’s other unanswerable narrative quandaries. Sometimes they call it the G-Virus, or the C-Virus, and sometimes it’s a parasite called Las Plagas, but functionally it’s always the same thing: Bottled contrivance. Whatever you need, story-wise, the T/G/C-Virus Parasite can provide it. Monster outbreaks in Midwestern America, rural Spain, Africa? Done. Games set on luxury cruise liners and multicar locomotives? No problem. Villains and supporting characters dying grisly but ultimately unimportant deaths? Easy. Everything that has ever happened in a Resident Evil game can be explained by this, insofar as anything that has ever happened in a Resident Evil game can be explained at all.

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Review – Quantum Break

Remedy Entertainment and their games have always struck me as being smarter than most people give them credit for. They hide it well, admittedly. Max Payne, released in 2001, was on one hand a game about a man with a daft name and an awful shirt. On the other, though, it managed to combine the slowed-down akimbo gunplay of Chinese cinema with hilariously overwritten conspiracy-chewing noir, and it was a great time. Its sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, released two years later, was better still. And the games knew this about themselves. They made time for moments of silliness and self-indulgence that other titles wouldn’t. In both, the player could approach television sets and watch short, weirdly detailed little made-up shows, like the soapy Lords & Ladies and the cartoon adventures of Captain BaseBallBat-Boy, who became an unofficial series mascot. Ask someone what they remember most about either of the first two Max Payne games and the answer will probably be one of those shows.

And then there’s Alan Wake, an underappreciated camp gem of the last console generation. Its eponymous hero was an insomniac writer (Alan Wake… A. Wake… Awake… Oh, Remedy) whose terrible writing formed the backbone of a paranormal thriller that stretched the well-thumbed pages of a Stephen King novel into a season of Twin Peaks. That game had TVs too, all showing episodes of a Twilight Zone-inspired anthology series called Night Springs. But it also had scattered pages of Alan’s prose, presented as collectibles. And he’s a hack. His writing is some species of feverish fan-fiction. Yet in the game he’s ludicrously famous. You can scarcely walk anywhere without being greeted by a cardboard cut-out of him. Nobody ever mentions that he’s awful, which is obviously the joke. And as the game progresses, Alan trying to frantically re-write its story (which he already wrote in the first place – don’t ask), you realize the whole thing is in on it.

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Lie To Me – On L.A. Noire

Is there anything that better exemplifies the inherent weirdness of video games than Rockstar Games and Rockstar’s games? The company develops and publishes some of the medium’s most commercially-successful and critically-acclaimed titles – Grand Theft Auto V, the latest instalment in their flagship series, has a rating of 97 on Metacritic and made a billion dollars in 72 hours. But the company also develops and publishes the medium’s most defiantly puerile and morally-questionable titles. They are, in fact, the same titles. The aforementioned GTA V, to give one example, is at times a daring satirical masterpiece and at others legitimately offensive and inexplicably stupid. That a game can be both of these things is not entirely surprising. That it can be both so frequently and interchangeably very much is. Just how the open-world sandboxes within which Rockstar scatter their toys seek to both plumb the depths and scale the heights of American culture’s past, present and future, so too do the games that house them contain the best and worst of what the medium has to offer.

Many people of my acquaintance insist that this is intentional. That it must be. That no developer capable of such occasionally startling prescience can also be so short-sighted that they’re unable to recognise which aspects of their work are meaningless or insulting. And this may very well be true. Nobody can say for certain. It’s certainly in-keeping with Rockstar’s flagrantly cynical view of games and the people who play them; of life and the people who live it. But it strikes me as an odd way to craft an experience. Strange also is Rockstar’s approach to storytelling; their casual insistence on imbuing their stories with heart and depth and vitality, and on continually undermining those stories at every given opportunity. This, I think, neatly nutshells exactly what is so confusing and fascinating about L.A. Noire. It is a game of constant contradictions, wildly incompatible ideas, remarkable successes and mind-boggling failures. In the years since I first played it I have thought about it a great deal, and I still couldn’t say with any certainty whether or not I actually like it.

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Pokemon Go

Unsurprisingly, I’ve been playing Pokémon Go.

I use that word, “playing”, as though there’s any similarity between how one plays Pokémon Go, and how one plays another, more traditional video game, like, say, The Witcher 3, which I also finally completed this week. There isn’t. In the couple-hundred hours I spent hunting monsters with Geralt of Rivia, not once did I find any drowners, ghouls or wraiths hovering imperiously over my kitchen toastie-maker, which I caught a Zubat doing just this morning. I spent the next couple of hours outside, walking; two kilometres to hatch an incubated egg, five more to hatch another I’d found along the way, and then the whole distance in reverse because my phone was smouldering and Adam from O2 Customer Services was concerned about my data usage.

One of the most insidious things about Pokémon Go is that, unlike most smartphone games, it only records your progress when it’s open onscreen. You’d assume that this, like the constant crashes and server issues, is another symptom of the app being half-baked and unfinished, which it undeniably is. But I’m sceptical. The game’s loading screen – a silhouetted Pokémon trainer staring obliviously at his phone as a Gyarados rears in front of him – implores you to stay aware of your surroundings. Niantic Labs, the game’s developer, expect you to keep the app open. And when the app’s open, it has you.

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