Wednesday, 14 March 2018



Platform tested: Xbox One
Released: 2017

Review: The original Prey, that came out in 2006, was a game that had been in considerable development time, it was positively reviewed but didn't quite make an impact. This new version is a re-imagining of the Prey premise, and not a sequel. it's heavily inspired by System Shock, which again Bioshock was inspired by. Although Prey is set on a space station it has a clear artistic inspiration from Bioshock and plays very much like it. Metroidvania type exploring with new areas unlocked after abilities that make it possible to backtrack and open them.

A great premise for a solid game then? Absolutely. But once again we see Prey failing to capture the interest of large sales numbers, but that only means that you can pick this up for a bargain!

Prey's beginning level sets the tone of the game and instantly throws a plot twist onto the player. It's a neat way to quickly get the premise and setting of the story out of the way, while still retaining a shocking and revealing moment. Set on a seemingly abandoned and huge space station, you quickly realise something has gone terribly wrong. The enemies are quickly introduced; shape shifting and aggressive aliens called the Typhoon. They're part of some experiment going on in the space station. This shape shifting ability gives way for some neat jump scares; suddenly a chair can change into an alien and start attacking.

Gameplay is close to Bioshock too; at first you rely on a wrench(!), then obtain guns and after a while you have the ability to scan and learn more power related attacks from the aliens. These powers work much like magic in a traditional RPG, letting you fire massive energy blows to enemies across the room etc. Combining these attacks are key and of course searching every little drawer and shelf for ammo, food and parts to build new weapons and upgrades. Although you could call out the game at being almost copycatting Bioshock, I personally didn't mind. It's a good game to be inspired by and Prey outdoes it's inspiration with more options and a far deeper gameplay system anyhow.

I loved wandering around the space station, travelling from a main hub to various areas such as laboratories, sleeping quarters, indoor forest areas and offices. There's always a main goal to complete and follow, but alongside there are lots of side stories with individual goals. The artstyle is beautiful too; with a classy retrostyle to the design, often blended over to high tech and modern areas. It's a great sight to behold and the non-gravity outside areas feel intense and lonely, further immersing the player in a beautifully designed world. I really enjoyed soaking in all the atmosphere of the specstation, simply because of the great design that's gone into it.

Prey is a tough game to finish, it's difficulty is much like Bioshocks; unforgiving at times. Prey even more so, there are some areas you encounter such hostile and numerous enemies you wonder if you ever will be able finish the game. But stick with it and you become the master of collecting the right ammunition and using the right abilities to fight through.

My main letdown of the game was perhaps the rather short and should I say "typica" end to the game. I kinda liked it, but it could definitely have been fleshed out with more substance at the end. Like Bioshock though, the story tells itself throughout the game and the more you explore, the more you are rewarded with a deeper layer of knowledge of the story and what has previously gone on at the spacestation. This type of storytelling requires the player to use their imagination and try to get a feeling of the atmosphere. Much like how the diary entries in the old Resident Evil games on PS1 worked.

All in all, a must-buy for fans of Bioshock or lonely space settings. It's a fantastic first person adventure which begs the player to sink into it's fascinating and creepy atmosphere. The difficulty is hard, but rewarding and forces the player to alternate attacks and learn new methods. Exploring is key and definitely a nice change of pace from shooters rushing from A to B.

One of last years top five titles and a warmly recommended game for those seeking a lengthy and well designed world to sink hours into. I found the progression of the story and gameplay well structured, keeping me interested until the very end. Do this commercially sleeper hit a favour and buy it!



Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Keep control of your layers!

Retroactive review: Layer Section

Platform tested: Sega Saturn
Release year: 1995

Review: This time for my retroactive review I'm going back to a lovely shoot 'em up, or schmup for short, on the Sega Saturn. While there are a ton of schmups made through the years, this game features a rather neat gameplay mechanic.

Firstly though, let's get the confusion of the title out of the way. It's original arcade release title in 1994 was Rayforce in Japan and the U.S., while in Europe it's titled Gunlock. For the home conversions it's titled Layer Section in Japan, while in the U.S. and Europe it's goes under the name Galactic Attack. I guess somebody forgot to file a title trademark for each region along the way?!

Luckily the actual game isn't anywhere near as confusing as it's many titles! I'll refer to the game as Layer Section as that's the name on the cover of my Japanese Saturn version and it actually explains the game's main mechanic quite well; shooting enemies in two layers. You've probably played many games in this genre before and although the rely heavily on the same principles, sometimes they feature some cool new mechanics that set them apart from the competition. Layer Section is such a title.

Schmups typically let you command a spaceship or airplane, shooting numerous enemies scrolling down towards you on the same plane. However, in LS you have the spaceships main gun for the enemies straight ahead on your plane, while underneath you on the ground is another layer that requires you to lock onto enemies below with a laser sight and fire to hit them. It gives a neat depth to the picture and a neat variation in attack methods. There's no super weapon here, like a mega bomb or anything, so the controls are very easy to grasp and simplistic; manoeuvre the ship with the d-pad, fire two different weapons with the buttons.

In general there are three types of enemies; those who always stay on the lower layer, those who rise up from the lower to the top one and those that are only on the top layer. This gives way for some hectic gameplay moments where you try firing at stuff in both layers at the same time, luckily the bottom layer becomes something you almost do by second nature as you focus on not being hit by bullets on the top layer. The enemies that rise from the bottom to the top layer often require just one hit by laser as they rise, then when they reach the top layer they require quite a bit of bullets to take down. As such you are often rewarded to quickly, and hectic, take enemies down before they reach the top layer.

Controls are super tight and fast, your spaceship is perhaps a little large in pixel count for my taste, with it's hitbox being  a bit smaller, confusingly enough, but not uncommon in the genre. The Saturn's d-pad shows off it's strong side for this type of game; rolling your thump around it to avoid oncoming fire; making the precise movement a breeze. Let's face it; the Saturns controller features probably the best d-pad ever made and is a treat to use in 2D schmups like this.

LS is a beautiful 32-bit 2D shooter. For those that have only roamed the 16-bit conversions of shooters on the Mega Drive or SNES, they're in for some really neat and detailed sprite graphics. Backgrounds and sprite layers scroll individually and are scaled around and rotated with ease on the 2D powerhouse that is the Sega Saturn. It's neat to play these advanced 2D games as they give a glimpse of what would have been if the 3D gaming revolution never happened. It's also a showcase in how the Saturn easily handled arcade perfect ports of 2D games that actually require a lot of hardware to run. Slowdowns and small, simply sprite models from the 16-bit consoles simply can't match this type of quality. Be sure to play the arcade mode though, as the Saturn mode has some cutbacks.

The game features a varied set of seven levels, with tons of detail onscreen and the depth effects with scaled sprites really help the picture "pop". There's also a pretty sprite drawn intro and ending sequence. There are literally tons of layers of sprites and scaling going on, all in 2D. Sure the Mega Drive could handle a few layers and schmup gameplay speed, while the SNES could rotate and scale sprites, but this game is just on another level all together; sprites are thrown around at ease in the bucketload, scaled and rotated in manner that gives a almost 3D depth to the levels!

Like most schmups, LS lets you progressively upgrade the power of your weapons by requiring pickups that are dropped by enemies. These upgrades are kept for each life lost, but not when you hit a continue. It's a insanely difficult game by all means and perhaps best managed in coop mode with a friend, there's a cheat to grant you 8 credits rather than the default 4, otherwise you'll have to resort to a Action Replay cartridge if you want infinite lives or invincibility. You're seriously going to get tested on the later half of LS, as the difficulty rises considerably.

Presentation wise there's the neat Tate mode, which is the perfect arcade conversion, like a lot of the schmup ports on the Saturn and PlayStation 1. Tate turns your TV picture from 4:3 to 3:4, the format used for most scrolling schmups in the arcades. This lets you see enemies earlier on as the scroll down towards you, rather than the standard 4:3 which cuts away the top of the picture to fit the format. It's beautiful to see the game in it's proper format and it actually makes you see the whole size of bosses and help spot enemies. If tilting your CRT TV sounds scary, demagnetising it  for the earths gravitation and all, then you can easily use a LCD flatscreen vertically without issues.

I hooked up my Saturn to a newly acquired OSSC, an analogue to digital lag-free open source converter, and played it vertically on a huge 46" flatscreen TV with scanlines. Worked perfectly and looked stunning. Here's a pic of the setup at play:

All in all, Layer Section is a great looking and fun 32-but shoot 'em up with it's neat layer mechanic, hell I even liked the typical addictive early 90's midi soundtrack! It's still one of those titles that haven't raised to ridiculous prices, yet, like most games in this genre have on the Saturn. In hindsight such games often were overlooked and badly reviewed in the 3D craze that swept over the fifth generation, but look into the more obscure 2D world of that generation and you can find some great games that give a glimpse of the 32-bit 2D future Sega bet wrongly on.

Sure, I would have liked more depth to a singeplayer experience so many years later and, but this is a pure arcade conversion; it's about trying to reach as far as you can on the lives and continues you get, beating that old highscore from the last time. "Just one more go" is the motto to go by. 



    Thursday, 22 February 2018

    Second fall of Titans

    Titanfall 2

    Platform tested: Xbox One X
    Release year: 2016

    Review: Titanfall was one of the earliest titles I bought for my Xbox One back in 2014, much to my surprise it brought back a lot of love for multiplayer first person shooter matches. You can read my positive review from back then, here. Fast forward to playing  a multiplayer beta of TF2 in late 2016 and my excitement for a sequel soured. So much in fact I I ended up playing it early this year instead. Boy was I wrong about the beta impression and should have given this sequel a second chance much earlier. It's fantastic.

    There's a part of me that's glad I waited though; I got to play this in a sweet upgraded form on my Xbox One X. Going for a ridiculously low price, like most Electronic Arts sales do, I purchased TF2 and dug in to play the singleplayer only, initially. As you may recall the rather disappointing aspect of TF1 was that it had no singlepalyer part, it was a multiplayer only game. While this is fine and it never proclaimed to be anything else, the amount of time put into the game world and the design of it, kinda made it almost beg for a singleplayer. Luckily TF2 offers just this, and not just a quick and generic singleplayer. No, it's generally a incredibly entertaining one to boot!

    TF2's campaign eases you into the way Titans work and let you do a fair amount of playing on foot first. This lets the player become familiar to the super fast movement of the pilot. As a pilot you can wallrun, take huge jumps and keep yourself airborne by parkouring around the environments. The story then puts you into a Titan, a huge armoured robot, and learns you the basics of controlling it. It's a great way to get familiar with everything in an engaging and gradual manner. You visit lush jungles with dangerous wildlife, to high tech factories and abandoned cities. The locations and tasks along the way are consistently varied. Combat shifts from small enemy engagements to huge, full-on battles. It's a hectic and fantastic campaign journey with lot of new ideas and breathtaking moments. They even managed to make each main enemy pilot into a cool boss fight, I looked forward to each one along the way!

    When I'd finished the sweet singleplayer campaign, it's approximately 8 hours long, I decided to at least give the humans versus enemy AI waves multiplayer mode Frontier a go. It was a great addition to the first game and has since been made available for TF2 too. In fact I'd recommend new players to start here, it's easier getting used to things in increasingly difficult waves of AI with the company of teammates helping out. As I played the Frontier mode it dawned on me how much I missed the TF1 online days. So I decided to test out the more classic multiplayer modes too.

    I was pleasantly suprised to find that some of the annoyances from the beta had gone and the multiplayer matches were a blast, just like the first game. Gunning down either AI soldiers or real person pilots to gain sweet points towards a Titanfall is just as fun as back in 2014. Once you get your hands on a Titan and jump in to wreck havoc on other enemy Titans, the Titanfall games just go into this amazing zone of endless fun. You feel like a bad-ass Transformer just gunning huge weapons away at other robots. It's a fantastic feeling and great way to shift between traditional first person shooting and something rather different in one online match. The huge scaled maps work so well on multiple levels too; there's small and narrow spaces for pilots to roam on-foot, while there's huge open landscapes fort he Titans to battle out in.

    Visually Titanfall 2 is beautiful, I'm especially weak for the combination of stylish, minimalist buildings in white, combined with a orange sky and natural elements like trees and grassy fields. With everything running at a super high resolution and rock solid 60fps TF2 looks so smooth, fast and stunning in motion. Sure, TF2 doesn't quite reach the super detailed heights up close compared to the more graphical pushing singleplayer titles on console. However, it aims to make gameplay fluid and boasts an artstyle that works perfectly with the balance between large levels and the amount of available detail within it. You'll be blown away by great visuals all through the campaign and even in multiplayer it looks way better than lots of the competition. Thumbs up for a field of view slider too, letting me get a wider view of the game world. 

    It's hard to pick out anything specifically bad in TF2, it's basically TF1 with more of everything, prettier than before and just faster. More Titans and pilot setups to choose from too. If there's only nitpicking to be made I'd like to mention is that it perhaps could have tried even more new ideas as it sometimes feels so close to TF1 it's like just a graphically upgraded version in multiplayer. The singleplayer campaign could perhaps have been a couple of hours longer too, sweet but short in other words. 

    Titanfall 2 is for those seeking something a little different to the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises and considering the comibnation of single and multiplayer now it's the best place to start for beginners of the franchise. What to rate such a game then? It's better than the first game in every way, which I also gave a five star rating, but the existence of the first game keeps this second outing on the same rating, even though it's better. But man, is that a strong five star rating! Go play it!



    Saturday, 3 February 2018

    The Legacy of the precursor platformer duo

    Retroactive review: Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy

    Platform tested: PlayStation 4
    Release year: 2017
    Original release: PlayStation 2 (2001)

    Review: I remember that summer when the very first Jak and Daxter was showcased at the E3 expo in June 2001. I remember reading about it in a newspaper, highlighted as one of the games that grew out of the second wave of PlayStation 2 releases. Games built on more experienced software development for the PS2's complicated architecture. Finally developers began to become familiar with the hardware and left the bland launch line-up behind. From here on, the big PS2 titles just started rolling in. J&D was one of the first truly spectacular titles for the system. Developed by the people behind the successful Crash Bandicoot series on PS1, they had a legacy of platformers behind them and were finally going to give Super Mario 64 a worthy 3D platformer competitor for a new generation of consoles.

    Sure, we'd had Crash trying his best on the limited 3D power of the PS1, thus being more 2D than 3D. Spyro the Dragon had attempted even more so, Sega Dreamcast's Sonic Adventure had kickstarted it on this new generation and Rare had done their share of 3D platformers on the N64, but still Super Mario 64 managed to be the perfect blueprint. For me, it's legacy and first time playthrough amazement has never really been surpassed and truly testifies how perfect and revolutionary SM64 was, but we're not here to speak about that game now. However, it has to be mentioned as a backdrop as there have been a couple of titles outside of Nintendo's own that have given SM64 a run for it's money and J&D is one of these. Perhaps the best attempt too.

    J&D truly nails a colourful, cartoony and a Pixar-like artstyle, combined with lots of humour, to make a unique style of it's own. Artistically it works perfectly for the platformer genre and PS2 finally delivered the hardware needed to make that Pixar influence even more possible. Gone are the strict limitations of PS1 hardware for large 3D worlds and J&D utilises this to the fullest.

    The worlds and levels are huge, with an incredible draw distance for it's time. Distant enemies, platforms, machinery and puzzles can be seen for miles. The open ended structure of the game allows the player to just run towards what he or she wants to explore next. I recall walking down to the beach the very first time I played it back in the early 2000's and just seeing tons of stuff I wanted to do far into the distance. I was really impressed back then by the rich visuals and beautiful artstyle. There's obviously a linearity to the levels being connected, but there's always an option to walk back and collect more stuff you missed the first time around.

    J&D cleverly connects it's large areas by hiding loading and transitions with lifts, hoverbike rides or small paths leading from one visual styled area to the next. In fact, you can play the whole game without experiencing loading screens at all, it's an impressive feature for such and old game. I love the variety of the worlds you discover too; sandy beaches by the sea, snow covered mountains, an underwater city and a boiling, orange clad lava area. Each environment is truly memorable and bring out how diverse this game engine was. 

    Having recently gone back to the game I was also was reminded that the game has a day and night cycle! It gives every level a chance to show itself in bright light, yellow sunsets and dark moonlit nights; just a treat when it comes to incredible lighting at the time it released. Very few games did realtime lighting at all when this game launched and to think it was combined so well, it makes the game world even more immersive when playing!

    J&D plays incredibly well too, even today I had no problem controlling the game. It's fast, precise and fun. While I got frustrated at some of the grabbing mechanics, it feels unprecise and results in unfair and cheap deaths, the rest of the control system is great. It's kind of the ultimate test of time if the game holds up or not; does the game still control in a fashion that doesn't annoy or limit the player from performing the tasks needed or having fun. J&D controls just as well as modern platformers, it's joy to traverse the landscape. The balance between platforming and enemies is perfect too, unlike Ratchet &Clank overuse of enemy encounters, J&D relies much more on it's platform side. After all, that's what a platformer is about.

    While the return to this PS2 classic release was a warm and welcome one, the PS4 port has it's issues. The most obvious is bad performance occurring frequently, we're talking lots of framerate drops. Sometimes they are so severe they actually hamper the gameplay, crowded scenes with lots of effects sets the player out of pace and makes controlling Jak a pain until it settles. It's sad to not see this fixed and a missed chance for a version that could easily run at a locked 60fps on such powerful hardware. The other letdown is the low resolution bump over the PS2 game, putting this at a measly 1024*768 resolution. While it's a clear visual boost from running the game with a PS2 on a HDTV, I would have liked a stronger visual boost to such an old game. It should easily have been a 1080p@60fps game.

    J&D still stands as one of the best 3D platformers made in my opinion, between the groundbreaking and excellent Super Mario 64 and this game, nothing truly has engaged me as much in the 3D platform genre until perhaps Nintendo's own Mario games of recent years. While it may be visually dated for new and young gamers, it's still an experience I would recommend. Especially gamers from the 90's that missed it's initial launch should check this out. The gameplay and exploring is addictive and fun, it truly is one of the PS2's finest moments and should be remembered as such!



      Friday, 12 January 2018

      Back to the origins of assassinations

      Assassin's Creed Origins

      Platform tested: Xbox One X

      Review: There's been a Assassin's Creed break for two years now, following the rocky debut of their new engine in Unity and Syndicate. Both those games failed to impress the audience in new ways and Ubisoft felt the need to pull back and give the series a longer development cycle. Leaving the more modern times of revolutionary France and Victorian England behind, Origins is about going back to the series roots and finding out where it all began. This time around we are going way back in history, over 40 years before B.C. in fact, to the ancient Egypt. Have Ubisoft revolutionised the series after a short hiatus one wonders.

      Well, there's no doubt that this is a AC game. The distinct feeling when walking around, fighting or climbing is very classic for the series. The larger open world this time around reflects itself in the recreation of ancient Egypt where there are cities, but also vast areas of lush vegetation, endless deserts, huge mountains and large areas of water. There's less focus on a dense cityscape, and more about huge nature areas to explore. Not only are the enemy soldiers dangerous, but there's wildlife to consider too. Ubisoft has kind of ended up where they began with the first AC; deserts to roam and cities to discover in the middle east.

      In this adventure we follow the Egyptian medjay Bayek, a sort of mercenary, in his revengeful task to kill his son's murderers. Along the way he is accompanied by his wife Aya, both on a mission to kill all the people on their list of cruel and corrupt Egyptian leaders in their aim to also set Cleopatra on the throne again. The game is divided into land areas with famous cities and sites from the ancient times; including the pyramids and the lighthouse of Alexandria. The whole map is traversal, but the areas give a hint about which level you should be at before entering them.

      Origins relies heavily on leveling your character and equipment. I would say it's the closest to an RPG that the AC series has ever been, only without the magic side of that genre. Each level up grants you points to further enhance Bayeks abilities. There are ordinary, rare and legendary weapons to find, plus your armour and equipment can be upgraded with resources you find. This gives the player a purpose to take on side missions and go hunting for materials and animal skins required to craft equipment. I found this whole character leveling system really good, and the resources fairly easy to collect. it also helps that the combat feels satisfying, with proper hit detection and less scripted animations. Sword fights feel intense and the bow shooting is very satisfying, especially the first person bow with controllable arrows!

      One of the cooler new additions to the game is Senu, Bayeks pet eagle. At any time you can hit the eagle button and bring up a birds view as you control Senu from high above. He can scout for enemies, transports, animals, treasures and mission objectives. Each climb up to a high synchronisation point grants Senu better spotting abilities, a real neat feature. Flying around and taking in the sheer size of the environments is a really welcome addition to the game and fun one at that. It really makes the game engine shine, the sheer size and amount of detail from above is jaw dropping.

      Which brings me to Origins strongest point; it's incredible immersive world. I'm playing the game on Xbox One X and while the first part of the game feels a tad generic, it's when the game opens up and lets you explore it's vast and detailed world it amazes. The thickness of foliage, fields covered in thousands of flowers and strands of grass, tons of buildings, lakes, open seas, huge mountains and endless dunes of desert sand; just all come together and blow you away. It's truly a beautiful world to immerse yourself into. The sheer density of all the detail in such high resolution when playing it on the Xbox One X is incredible at times, every little corner of the world seems to be filled with detail. I fell in love with the Egypt setting.

      I found little I disliked strongly in Origins when it came to gameplay and a technical point of view, only a few small issues; the environments seem to have opened up so much that it's not really built for traversing it a high level above the ground with tons of connected buildings. Also the combat has a terrible lock-on mechanism that seems to target the enemy furthest away from you rather than the guy hitting at you, with an axe. As usual some side missions are boring and repetitive, but this is very common in RPG styled games anyway.

      No, Origins main problem is not the game itself, it's the storyline. It feels bland and non engaging. Bayek seems uninterested in the political changes that Aya cares for and wants Bayek to take part of. His only motivation is to avenge his sons killers, as such the main story with Cleopatra working her way to the throne seems trivial and sidelined. I felt Bayeks pain for his son, but I also felt his indifference towards the larger historical picture. Making the ending feel rushed too late into the game to tie itself with the whole Assassin's Creed main plotline.

      The build up of the actual secret organisation should have been a larger focus, much earlier in the game. It's sad to see a clear five star game, fall down to a four for me, but the story just brings the whole package down. It's just there with no motivation to take properly part in it, even Bayeks personal goal of revenge towards his sons killers is brought down with some unsatisfying ending cutscenes for their assassinations. I wanted to care for the story, but I didn't and the game didn't make me want to either.

      Origins is a warm and welcome return of the AC series after it's short two year hiatus, the gameplay is satisfying and it returns to some of the right design choices; the world is huge and stunningly recreates an ancient era. While it's perhaps not a revolution of any kind, it's an extremely polished AC experience this time around. Sad then, that the storyline is such a let down, but as a videogame alone it's a fantastic game. Newcomers to the series can easily drop in here and play too, it requires no prior knowledge of the lore and gameplay is probably the best of all the AC games.