JRVG – Mass Effect: Andromeda

I have to temper this review with an admission; Mass Effect is my favourite game series. As such, my impartiality is severely compromised and so when I tell you that this is a truly fantastic game with many caveats, you’re probably not going to believe me.

But it is. It really is. Let’s start at the beginning.

How the fuck is it possible to travel across Andromeda without the Mass Relays that were so important in the original trilogy?!

Okay fine, on with the review.

mass-effect-andromeda-57c551725dc21

Mass Effect Andromeda (ME:A)’s pretext is quite comical; humanity is literally bricking it that giant, ancient, all-powerful machines are going to kill everyone so they decide to pile into a giant ship and unceremoniously do one to another galaxy. Presumably hoping for more places to live and fewer killer robot squids.

Leaving aside what a complete lack of faith in the heroes of the original trilogy this plan represents, it’s not a terrible idea. There are however huge logistical issues in travelling such a distance. First and foremost it takes a really long time and human beings have a tendency to die after like 80 years. So the crew of The Hyperion (AKA the USS GTFO) are frozen in cyrosleep for 6oo hundred years.

Now, this wouldn’t be much of a video game if they woke up at their destination and everything was fine. And it isn’t. In fact it’s severely fucked. The Hyperion crashes into a space cloud and forces those aboard to get their act together lickity-split as the realisation dawns that their current situation is not sustainable. Compounding the issue further is the fact that the death cloud is actually related to the banjaxed planet they were supposed to call New Earth, and is symptomatic of a much larger shitshow that is happening on its surface.

Mass Effect™ Andromeda (5).png

Time is running out, things are going wrong and there’s precious little hope. Enter Ryder. You choose one of a pair of siblings, boy Ryder or girl Ryder. The other will still exist in the game but to say much more is spoiler territory. It is your job to find your crew a new home, and you better get it sorted quickly.

True sci-fi is built on three pillars; reality re-envisioned, humanity examined and possibilities explored. Mass Effect: Andromeda nails 2 out of 3 and does a damn good job with the remainder. So I’ll break it up into the three constituent parts and explain why they are so bloody brilliant.

Reality Re-Envisioned.

It may raise an eyebrow to suggest that transplanting the games environment from the Milky Way to the Andromeda galaxy represents a newly realised reality. After all, we haven’t been further than the moon in real life, so what actual difference does this make?! My point is that within the context of Mass Effect, we have seen the Milky Way. We have navigated Citadel space, survived the Terminus Systems and travelled into the galactic core. In other words, been there and done that. Time for a new start.

wallpaper_mass_effect_andromeda_01_1920x1080

Setting sail for Andromeda changes the rules. The Milky Way as depicted in Mass Effect is one that has been settled, for the most part. There are dangerous parts where only the brave or the foolish would dare to tread but the player was always stepping into a community that predates them. Intriguing as these communities were, they were established. Andromeda on the other hand is unchartered space. You are true explorers, reaching out into the stars with little more than hope and enthusiasm in a world where literally anything is possible, going where no man has gone before.  Only the particularly jaded could object to this premise.

Humanity Explored

There is an odd narrative quirk in ME:A; the Citadel races all sent Arks to Andromeda but a large portion of the on-screen discourse centres on the idea that this is a new start for humanity. This left me feeling a little odd, I must admit. What I loved about the original was the idea of Humanity lending to something larger than itself, proving that it could contribute at the highest level. It’s also why in ME2 it felt so good to tell Cerberus, the human-centric extremist group to shove their Illusive Man up their xenophobic Normandy knock-off.

In ME:A all the great Citadel races, the Asari, Turians, Krogans and Salarians are turning to the human contingent to bail them out of the tricky situation they find themselves in and it’s not entirely explained why. In the original trilogy, certainly around the time of Andromeda exodus, the other species were largely mistrustful of humans who they viewed as recklessly ambitious, naïve and irreverent. So when Ryder cuts about shouting YAHOO and shooting up the place like some kind of mad space cowboy it would have been consistent if that made everyone else very nervous. Instead his behaviour is rewarded, admired and encouraged. In terms of impact on the game, it would have made the central hubs where you interact most with the administration staff of the initiative a lot more nuanced.

mass_effect_4_andromeda_sci_fi_shooter_action_futuristic_warrior_armor_mmo_online_2552x1361

That being said, there is no denying the very human element of Ryders story. He (and I say he now because mine was male) starts off as visibly insecure, uncertain and overwhelmed by the task bestowed upon him. This makes a very refreshing break from the usual hero of overwhelming self-righteous conviction, who always knows the best thing to do no matter what. Nobody listens to him, despite his position as Pathfinder (chosen one) and his attempts at corralling his squad mates into a plan of action often leads to fractious arguments. He can feign confidence and overcompensate with needlessly unilateral decisions but this too can be self-destructive.  As the game progresses, and Ryder is able to prove himself, he begins to assert his position as leader, and commands the respect of his team. It is rare for the player character to undergo this much progression over time and is accomplished well, if not expertly.

Possibilities explored.

This is perhaps the weakest part of the game’s architecture and it is here where I must temper my overall enthusiasm for both the series and this iteration with some genuine criticism. ME:A had a wonderful remit to provide players with the opportunity to settle a new galaxy. A galaxy that should have been teeming with stars, planets, life and danger. Instead we have; the cold planet, the hot planet, the jungle planet etc etc. This is something that drives me mad about science fiction. Earth is not defined by one topographical feature, so why limit yourselves when designing planets for a video game?!

Mass Effect™ Andromeda (4)

Without spoiling too much there is an opportunity to visit the capital city of a native Andromadonian species and it’s wonderfully realised. Yet it’s a hub planet, not one for exploration. The real detail, the intrigue and the propensity for discovery should have been reserved for the so called ‘golden worlds’ we were supposed to colonise. That would have made each new landfall an exciting adventure, rather than a chore. There are pockets of interest dotted around each landscape but they’re largely and unnecessarily barren. Its Assassin’s Creed 3 syndrome; plenty of space with fuck all to do.

When there is a pocket of civilisation notched out of the samey scene, it is usually underdeveloped and sparse. There is almost always a leader with problems, a faction who aren’t happy and a few hapless individuals who have lost someone/something and are making very little in the way of attempts to find them short of waiting for you to come along and save the day. These are not issues specific to ME:A but given its development length and the capacity of new generation consoles, it would have been nice to see a few steps toward cracking these old issues.

When you do the necessary to make each planet viable it provides new resources which lead to more research and development. In a nutshell; more stuff make guns go extra shooty-shooty. It’s the foremost convoluted crafting system in video game history but at least it makes sense. There’s also the supplementary feeling that you are colonising a galaxy with human life but in real terms, this has precious little impact on the game other than being something everyone is tremendously excited about.

I hate to end on a games weaknesses but they are not inconsiderable. This is a deeply flawed game, from its janky animations to its par-for-the-course plotline. They did manage to actually figure out and implement some competent combat mechanics, though they won’t do anything to impress 3rd person shooter genre fans and can hardly be considered a selling point. Overall this game is a wonderful exercise in experimentation; what they get wrong may be glaring and obvious but what they get right is auspicious and astonishing.

7/10

JRVG – Ghost Recon: Wildlands

Oh man, this game.

Its absolutely brilliant. I’ll give the a quick rundown but please bear in mind that there is precious little more to the game than this;

– You and your merry team of professional assassins (‘special forces’) get dropped into Bolivia.

– You are assigned a task; kill everyone.

– You follow through on that task with the tools at your disposal; drones, vehicles, explosives etc.

That’s all there is to it. The beauty of this game is its sheer simplicity. It doesn’t layer on the context, there’s no time allocated to establishing the characters and it certainly doesn’t keep you on rails till you know what you’re doing. Its just ‘here are some guns, go murderise all the people’.

C6oLzwpW0AA5BOE

Now, the moralists among you may shout and scream that this is just another example of tyrannical American foreign policy. That the West feels it can just rock up in another country with a bag full of bombs and kill the fuck out of everyone. These people would be absolutely right. It is a military nut’s wet dream where the source of the American drug scourge can be isolated to one particular region of the world that needs the shit kicking out of it by some burly dudes with massive biceps and even bigger guns.

ghost_recon_wildlands_6-Copy

In short; the story, the context and the characters are all total shit. To enjoy this game, you do have to filter out all that noise and focus on the core gameplay for which the best comparison I can think of is Metal Gear Solid 5. You are given a target area that contains a thing or person that either needs to be collected or destroyed and then you’re left to use your imagination. Your two main approaches are running in like a cross between Rambo and Usain Bolt, firing wildly at anything that moves in the hope you’ll hit something. Alternatively you can go in all stealthy like, sniping from distance, then sneaking up on the base before someone spots you and you have to run around firing wildly etc etc. Its a game where things go from fairly badass to embarrassingly unfortunate very quickly.

C6ujBAuWsAADhFt

Wildlands is the rare kind of open world beast where the setting feels like as asset, rather than an obstacle. Before approaching a mission zone you will pray for an elevated position to begin the assault and Bolivia invariably provides. In the odd instance it doesn’t, you have to be able to adapt. Do not, however, entertain the idea that the best way to assault a mountain top fortress would be to dive out of a helicopter and onto the roof. This will end in total, humiliating disaster.

ghost_recon_wildlands_screenshot

The game provides a wonderful playground for potential fun. There is minimal handholding, just a great deal of challenge, incentive and reward. The point is that whilst this is by no means the most complex, involved or sophisticated game (the characters and plot are genuine 12 carat turd) the actual game is a refreshingly polished and exhaustive exercise in creating a joyous sandbox of possibilities.

ghost-recon-wildlands-03-670x388

6/10 – A very good game that is held back from a higher score by its one-dimensional characters and highly questionable storyline.

 

JRVG – Halo Wars 2

This is an odd one.  It stands to reason that a game set in the Halo universe would be released; I feel at this stage you could whack a Halo sticker on a plastic cup and it would sell gangbusters. So bringing Halo Wars, an actual video game, back makes sense certainly from a financial perspective. Yet its strange because its been nearly 8 years since the original. One would presume that we haven’t had a sequel in that time because there wasn’t the demand/market for it. The original sold a million units in it’s first year. Respectable for many games, perhaps quite underwhelming for a Halo game, especially when you consider just how massive the Xbox 360 user base was at that point.

0ee7ceac-1349-4af6-8e51-64e83c763a84.jpg

Presumably Microsoft crunched the numbers, polled the data, examined the chicken entrails and were left with an immutable truth; we need a Halo Wars sequel (or they realised they had nothing to launch in Q1 2017 and hashed all this together, who knows…). The fact is, it’s been released and the verdict; yeah it’s okay.

Its very difficult to come down too heavy either way on Halo Wars. It isn’t a mess by any means but it doesn’t do anything too spectacular either. The great worry shared prior to the original being released was rightly the control scheme. Specifically; how do you make a traditional real time strategy game work using a console pad? Conventional wisdom dictates that RTS games are too fiddly for the imprecision of a console thumb stick and this was backed up by all the past failed attempts to port the genre to consoles. Halo Wars mitigated (but couldn’t remedy) this by simplifying the game to the point where one-button controls were sufficient. The problem was that this meant the game felt lightweight and uninvolved, eviscerating any chance of real strategy beyond ‘everyone go here and kill the fuck out of these people’. This would not satisfy an established strategy fan and did little to turn the heads of those with a passing interest.

halo-wars-2-1080p-wallpaper

So the real draw for the original was its story and in this regard Halo Wars delivered brilliantly. Set right at the start of the conflict betwixt humanity and The Covenant, players were thrown headfirst into the first stages of a war they were already familiar with (and indeed had seen the culmination of 2 years previously in Halo 3). Stepping away from the giant green death dealing demon, Halo Wars presented a cast of new characters whilst all the time ensuring they felt familiar. The campaign of Halo Wars (a fairly tepid experience, in of itself) was punctuated with some brilliant CGI cutscenes that provided genuine insight into the established series lore, added a few new things and even threw in some fan service for funsies (three Spartan super soldiers laying waste to a pack of baying Elites has been burned in my memory). It told a story fans wanted, and the game was a pleasant backdrop to this.

making-of-halo-wars-2-2

However Halo Wars 2 was never going to be able to rest on this particular laurel. We are now out of prequel territory and into events that run parallel to those of the current series. This is a risky move, there is an old rule in story telling that goes ‘is this the most interesting thing that’s happening right now and if not, why aren’t you showing us that’. So Halo Wars 2 has backed itself that it’s campaign story is worthy of the players time. The set up is that those characters established in HW1 now face a new threat in the form of ‘The Banished’; a ‘legendary’ band of Covenant rebels that literally nobody has mentioned in any way, shape or form prior to this point. You would have thought it would at least come up in conversation. I won’t get into the detail of what makes their existence puzzling for fear of losing you, but trust me, it makes very little sense.

halo-wars-2jpg-bf6895_1280w

It’s a contrivance that makes me sigh heavily. You already have an extremely powerful antagonist for your game, you can’t raise the stakes by simply saying ‘you think those guys were bad, wait till you see this lot’ and expect people to care. We don’t know them. They didn’t kick in the doors of The Pillar of Autumn all those years ago, slaughtering all and sundry as we frantically tried to escape amidst all the chaos, vowing revenge that these monsters would pay for what they did (just as soon as I figure out how to throw a grenade instead of switching my torch on). The Banished never destroyed Reach as Noble team valiantly sacrificed themselves to save as many people as possible. And they certainly didn’t try and explode the shit out of everything in a mad crusade against life itself.

halo-wars-2

To make this mess of a narrative even worse, there’s an insinuation that the Covenant tried to destroy The Banished at some point then gave up. I’m 89% sure that it not how wars work.

‘Meh, we gave it a good go. War over’.

If these Banished characters are so great, why are we only just learning about them now? Why would the Covenant not try more to get rid of them? And surely they would have made fairly useful allies against the Covenant? Too many questions, not enough giving a shit.

So the story is pants, how about the game itself? Specifically, is it able to build on the foundations of the original to provide a more satisfying and involved strategy experience? Sadly, it isn’t. Its just more of the same ‘select all, go here, kill them and try not to die’ rinse and repeat. This isn’t fun, and it isn’t cerebral, so its a whole load of nothing.

Bang average story. Unremarkable gameplay. 5/10

 

 

JRVG – Resident Evil 7: Biohazard

Resident Evil holds a dear place in my heart. When I was 7 years old, I eagerly awaited the release of Star Wars: Masters of Teras Kasi…

7603_front

So much so that I pestered my Dad to take me to the shops the day it was supposed to be released. He unenthusiastically obliged and we headed to the local video game retailer to make my dreams come true. After spending 5 minutes desperately searching high and low for the game, I sheepishly asked my Dad if he would speak to the owner in case the games inevitable popularity had led to an immediate sell out. However, word of the imminent release of the greatest game of all time seemed to have bypassed this particular corner of the world. Instead two grown men looked blankly at each other whilst a little boy tried his hardest not to look utterly devastated.

In an admirable attempt to remedy the situation, my father asked if there were any other games that may fill the void. What followed may be the most brazen flouting of the age-appropriate rating system that I have ever witnessed as the assistant handed me a copy of the recently released Resident Evil: Directors Cut. I was then, and remain to this day, an utter coward. I watch horror movies with my eyes shut, I don’t like to be alone on my own and I get jumpy when walking down the street late at night but I am positively fearless compared to my 7 year old self. So when I booted up Resident Evil for the first time it wasn’t long before I was near petrified. (I mean, once the weird sitcom style introduction video had ended, the one where all the characters names are read out as they each strike a pose). No, it was the now infamous scene where you happen upon a zombie mid elevenses, and it slowly twists its head round to face you. I watched it again recently, still shits me up.

I think I lasted 15 minutes into my first play through before turning it off in terror. The twisting and turning mansion, the camera angles that hide every littered threat, and the possibility that at any moment some bastard dogs could come crashing through the windows. It was pure horror because the tension built over time, it was composed and crafted to allow long periods of nothing before snapping with some perfectly timed jump scare. The atmosphere made it unbearable, but somewhere deep down I was hooked. Perhaps my first experience of an adrenaline rush I hated but couldn’t get enough of. I would never complete the game, but it stayed with me much longer than many that I have.

gfs_10835_2_16

I was far too young to realise how absolutely ridiculous certain aspects of the game were. Chiefly, the dialogue. I don’t need to rehash how bad it was, I’ll just leave this here:

Barry!

Jill!

Any clues?

No. But something’s wrong with this house!

By this point, Jill has mown down up to a dozen ravenous flesh eating zombies, had a roof nearly smush her into a ‘gibble sandwich’ (as Barry jovially exclaims, post rescue) and had two dogs banzai their way through plate glass just to have a go at chomping her. Yeah I’d say something was amiss.

Also, Jill happens upon a colleague in extremely bad shape and he actually says the word ‘ouch’. It’s glorious.

I would play the subsequent iterations of the series; Resident Evils 2 and 3 were both particularly good. I am willing to sacrifice any credibility and say I have never really played Resident Evil 4 but it is supposedly extremely well put together. So it appears it was around number 5 that things started to go a bit wrong. Resident Evil 5 abandoned any pretence to survival horror in favour of a third person shooter focus, with zombies. Except it retained the awkward controls, terrible inventory system and ridiculous setting/plot/dialogue that marred the series to this point. So it took all the worst features, sprinkled on a little latent racism (if you do insist on setting your game in Africa, be very careful with how you depict indigenous tribes), and hey presto, the franchise is in tatters. Capcom would double down on this formula by releasing Resident Evil 6, which was utter wank. I mean look at this goofy shit:

re6-620-006

The scene is set for number 7. As a little experiment, I asked a friend of mine who had little experience with Resident Evil to play the demo that was released. The intention being to see how a relative newcomer would react to the games new direction, in order to mitigate any expectations or bias that a series fan might hold.

resident-evil-7

In short, he was terrified. And so was I, just watching him. And this stands for the game proper. Its core, is raison d’etre is terror. A pure experience, crafted with real purpose to deliver a truly horrifying experience.

resident_evil_7_demo_7

To provide a bit of context; the lead character answers a message, supposedly from his missing wife, that leads him to Swamptown, Louisiana* (*this may not be its actual name). He finds a house, breaks in through the back and that’s when things go from bad to fucked. This feels like the sort of game that rests on each section being a surprise so I’ll say no more about the events of the game here.

resident-evil-7-trailers-1920x1080

All you need to know is the game is tremendously paced. The tension builds wonderfully as lighting and sound cues coalesce magnificently. The jump scares are short, sweet and powerful, made all the more effective by their relative scarcity. The urgency to continue stems from fear, rather than confusion and frustration. You will frantically search high and low for the next clue, constantly looking over your shoulder precisely because the threat is omnipresent and unpredictable. The game settles into a pattern eventually though, once the player becomes more familiar with their surroundings and the terrors within. Yet this matches the player characters increasing determination to survive. (How many times are you watching a horror movie and the main characters spend the entire time being completely dumbstruck by what’s happening. Eventually you would just sort of ‘get it’ and stop being so annoyingly surprised by everything).

resident-evil-7

Fans of the original Resident Evil games may rue the series new direction but it is a much needed shot in the arm for a franchise that had gone completely off the rails. Not only is this a bold step toward reinvention, but its also an absolute cracker of a game, in of itself.

7/10 particularly recommend to people looking to play something a bit different.

 

JRVG – Most Anticipated for 2017 – Part 1

So it’s that weird time of year when it’s still too close to Christmas for anything meaningful to be released because nobody has any cash left over and the bailiffs will be kicking the door in any day now.

However by the time the next pay-day loan is approved and the loan sharks are temporarily kept at bay, the slew of liquid shit that will pass for 2017s video game release schedule should be well under way. So in the meantime I’m going to look at those particular titles that don’t leave me colder than an OAPs home at this particularly dangerous time of year.

First up….

Resident Evil 7.

This is the 23rd iteration in the Resi series, despite what its title is unashamedly trying to get away with, but it might be the first since the hugely underrated Resident Evil 3 to actually bother with the survival-horror bit of what is, ostensibly, a survival-horror franchise.

residenteviljpg-19a941_1280w

Fans of the original games will be delighted to hear that the emphasis is back on atmospheric tension, jump scares and genuine suspense. As oppose to enormous men punching boulders at people (seriously). The camera has switched to a first person perspective and the silliness has been toned down considerably, at least the short demo that was released earlier last year would seem to suggest so anyway, you never can trust Capcom.

I applaud the attempt to do something a bit different with the series whilst also returning to it’s roots. Should be decent, will probably still be shit.

Halo Wars 2. 

A game I’m quite frankly astonished actually exists. The original was fun, if lightweight and fiddly, and could hardly claim to be such a success that a sequel was warranted. Especially one that is being released nearly 10 years later. Think Age of Empires but with Halo twats and you’re in the right sort of territory.

rer7qy6onnxuzqgupcplv7

This will be popular amongst Halo fans, who are the worst, but that’s about it. Meh.

Horizon Zero Dawn.

Notice the distinct lack of any punctuation in that title. So to be clear, this game is called Horizon Zero Dawn, not Horizon: Zero Dawn which would at least make a miniscule amount of sense.

3126129-horizonzerodawn_screens_septevent_3840x2160_01-2

Thankfully, the game itself looks fairly promising with good mixture of adventure, combat and original storytelling. If I were a betting man, I would place a wager on this being the sleeper hit of the year. If it works, and isn’t a glitchy pile of wank (eh, The Last Guardian?).

Mass Effect: Andromeda.

mass_effect_4_andromeda_sci_fi_shooter_action_futuristic_warrior_armor_mmo_online_2552x1361

Game of the year.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands.

ghost_recon_wildlands_screenshot

Shooty shooty bang bang. A Trump voters wet dream where a bunch of paramilitary maniacs subvert the protocols of national sovereignty by invading Bolivia and shoot up the place, because drugs.

To be continued…

 

 

JRVG – Worst of 2016

5 – Quantum Break

TV these days is brilliant and by contrast video games are turd. You will not remedy (LOLZ NAILED IT) this by shoehorning the former into the latter. Quantum Break, an otherwise passable physics-based shooter, expects you to take regular 20 minute breaks to watch decent actors squirm through pants dialogue and dodge mighty plot holes.

Fun? Nope. Immersive? Hell no. Buy? Definitely not.

4- Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare

We all know the classic definition of insanity but I would like to add a further qualifier; do the same thing over and over whilst simultaneously eating glass. That is how it feels to play COD:IW. It’s the same old shit, with the same old problems, in space.

3 – Uncharted 4

Seriously. Let it die.

2 – The Last Guardian

Glitchy beyond belief, tedious gameplay and no attempt to explain what on earth is happening. But hey, at least the dog-cat-bird thing is cute, right? Absolutely not; it’s fucking horrifying.

1- Final Fantasy XV

This is one of the most inexcusable pieces of shit currently available to purchase with actual human money.

 

JRVG – Best of 2016

5 – Tom Clancy’s The Division

Pants when it came out. Decent after an update. Brilliant with it’s new survival mode. A very solid persistent multiplayer game with the best ‘shoot all the guns’ gameplay of 2016.

4 – Ark: Survival Evolved

Ride a velociraptor. Build a gorgeous ocean view villa. Slap the shit out of a dodo.  It’s Minecraft for grown ups; go and play it.

3 – Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Not a universally popular game by any means but a very good one in my opinion. Silly sci-fi story, reasonable nods to real world social issues (by no means as clumsy as was portrayed) and a nice variety of death-dealing robot superpowers.

2 – Watch Dogs 2

Probably the best open world game since Grand Theft Auto 5. Genuinely funny, great fun to play around with (once you get over the slightly clunky controls) and additional marks are awarded on the basis of simply not being Watch Dogs 1.

1 – Battlefield 1

Creating an original first person shooter for the new generation of consoles was always going to be a huge ask. It’s a format that has been done to death, and then repeatedly done again to the genre’s decaying corpse (yes you, Call Of Duty). Yet against all odds, DICE and EA managed to put together an exciting, refreshing and brilliantly entertaining game that stays the right side of respecting the subject matter.