DLC Review

Brothers: A tale of two sons

brother campfire

This excellent story driven downloadable action game- developed by the Swedish Starbreeze Studios- released in late 2013 to critical acclaim. The beautifully realised fantasy setting provides a fantastical backdrop to the games emotional story, dealing with the themes of adulthood and the loss of innocence. I’ve never played a game before where the control scheme is an integral part of the narrative experience.

The games gorgeous visual design brings to mind a child’s storybook bought to life. Not only informed by Scandinavia there are elements from classic children’s literature like Mary Norton’s ‘The Borrowers’ and Jules Verne’s ‘Around the world in eighty days. With a bright and vibrant colour palette, the elegant but minimalist style most reminds me of Beyond Good and Evil and belies the mature tone of the games story. Each chapter transports players to a familiar fantasy location; the castle ruin or the mountain village, but because of the art direction and the way players interact with the environment they feel fresh. While the whole journey flows seamlessly, the disparity between the aesthetic design in the latter third of the game leaves the game feeling disjointed. The developers manage to convey a grand sense of scale, not just through the two brother’s interactions with each other (Little brother will attempt to grab a chain that hangs just out of their reach needing Big brother to help him up) but also in the clever level design. Stunning vistas reward players willing to take the time with intriguing glimpses of what lies ahead or a sense of progression showing the path already taken.

Brothers tells the story of two siblings- Big brother and Little brother- as they journey to find a cure for their ailing father. Forgoing typical storytelling techniques the developers communicate the narrative through character interactions, told in its own language the obvious comparison would be Ico or Shadow of the Colossus. Early on in the game you meet an NPC sweeping her floor with a broom. If you choose to interact with her Big brother will dutifully help her with the sweeping, while Little brother tries to show off balancing the broom on his finger. Its little touches like this and the superb animations that help flesh out their personalities. The narrative does falter in the final few chapters with the introduction of a female character, adhering to videogame tropes she is used to drive the brothers apart. In a game that feels like its advancing what can be done with an interactive narrative, this dated convention feels oddly forced.

Each analogue stick on the controller represents one of the two characters with the back triggers allowing them to interact independently with objects, players simultaneously control both of the brothers to solve the simple yet clever cooperative puzzles and platforming. This unique mechanic perfectly captures the challenge of two people learning to work together (with the controls offering the player a physical representation of the bond between the two brothers). From the very first puzzle- carrying your father into town on a cart- the game teaches players the cognitive process they’ll need to complete the game; introducing new mechanics at a steady pace (and discarding them just as quickly) helps to create a huge amount of gameplay variety, making each chapter feel memorable. Those players looking for a challenging adventure game like Limbo may be disappointed, the gameplay experience is more on par with Journey.

Final Verdict:

Brothers: a tale of two sons will grip you right up to the final emotional pull of the trigger. I finished the game around the three hour mark and it speaks to the involving story and engaging gameplay that I was driven to complete the game in just one sitting.

8/10

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DLC Review

Hotline Miami:

hotline miami pizza

Released in 2012 on PC and the following year on the PS3, Hotline Miami-created by a two man team at Dennaton games-combines the 2D top down aesthetic of the first Grand Theft Auto game with the neo-noir sensibilities of films like Drive. One of my favourite downloadable titles, It’s easy to learn but hard to master gameplay is a blast to play, providing a substantial but satisfying challenge.

Set in the late 1980’s, the 16 bit top down presentation adds to the games retro charm. Wearing its Miami Vice inspired setting firmly on its sleeve from its neon drenched title screen-complemented perfectly by the track “Horse Steppin” by Sun Araw, the visual design combines to create a neon fuelled hallucinatory journey through rundown apartment buildings and convenience stores that characterise 1980’s exploitation cinema. The impressive use of colour in the game as a representation of a mood or a characters aspect juxtaposed against the visceral and over the top nature of the games violence it brings to mind the writing of Hunter S Thompson come to life. The bright and colourful design sets the game apart from the green and brown colour palate of other shooters on the market. The games soundtrack drives the gameplay, inspired by classic 1980’s electro pop- with a modern twist- it’s comparable to French artist Kavinsky and provides one of the most memorable indie videogame scores. The story is fed to players piecemeal fashion through in-game dialogue and documents found in the players’ apartment. Assuming the role of a nameless; letterman jacket clad vigilante, receiving leading messages on your answer machine- “Hi this is ‘Tim’ at the bakery. The cookies you ordered should have been delivered by now… a list of ingredients are included… make sure that you read them carefully!”- that seemingly direct you to kill (This is the framing device for the games four act structure, comprising of a total of fourteen chapters with a prelude and epilogue). The expertly crafted narrative may appear deceptively simple but is subject to the player’s interpretation.

After a brief tutorial that explains the basics of the twin stick shooter controls (it took me a while to acclimatise to this older style of play), players are given complete freedom from the outset. The fluid gameplay provides flexibility with its mix of: stealth, brutal melee combat and gunplay. The games animal masks allow you to further tailor the game to your playstyle by augmenting your character. The game certainly provides a challenge and rewards players for planning ahead but the unpredictable enemy AI means that you’ll have to change your strategy on the fly (sometimes it comes down to luck). Because the players character is no less susceptible to damage than the enemies (dying  in one hit) the game emphasises experimentation and while this trial and error approach may put some players off, the instant reload allows you to get straight back into the action removing the feeling of being punished and giving the game a frenetic pace (testing this ethos, I did find that the final boss was excessively hard). Players receive a graded rating at the end of each chapter based on their performance which can be improved with successive attempts; points earned go towards unlocking new weapons giving the game a sense of progression.

Final Verdict:

A beautiful homage to both retro gaming and the games thematic setting, the storyline and gameplay combine in such a way that I don’t think it would translate as well in another medium. Priced at £6.99, with a high amount of replayability I can’t recommend this mature title enough.

8.5/10

PGGR: Resident Evil

Past Generation Game Review: Resident Evil

In 2002 Capcom released Resident Evil on the Nintendo Gamecube, a remake by Creative Director Shinji Mikami of his seminal work from 1996. The original game blended the puzzle mechanics of adventure games, inventory management and action horror to create a new genre, “Survival Horror”. Staying true to the series horror roots the remake introduced improvements to the visual design and gameplay mechanics while serving as a coda to the Resident Evil series up until that point, it’s a combination of these improvements coupled with a sense of nostalgia that makes it one of my favourite games of all time.

REmake:

Resident evil remake environment

Resident Evil’s visual design is sumptuous. Returning to the pre-rendered backgrounds of previous instalments in the franchise, environments look almost photorealistic still holding up against games from the current generation. Environments are rich in detail; moths flutter around a bare light bulb and each blade of grass reacts to your characters movements. It’s this minutiae that really brings the environments to life helping immerse the player in the game, as does the lack of any visible HUD. What struck me most was the use of light and shadow, it really helps build a foreboding and Gothic atmosphere that when combined with the static camera angles brings to mind Hitchcock thrillers like Psycho and The Birds. 3D character models look great with naturalistic movement (characters will move their heads to look at enemies, the game is full of these subtle visual touches) and emotive facial animations. But it’s the creature design that really stands out, zombies and other B.O.W’s (Bio-Organic weapons) look truly terrifying. The designs stay true to the original concepts but the updated graphics allow for more detailed enemies. Zombies look different from one another convincingly portraying them as ominous but ultimately tragic figures and the snake like Yawn (one of the great boss fights in the game) seems much larger and much more deadly. The Spencer mansion-the main setting for Resident Evil-is one of the most iconic game settings. To provide a new challenge to players the layout of the mansion was changed with new areas added. Capcom commented at the time of the games release that around seventy percent of the game had been changed or reworked, with different item locations, enemy placement and new puzzles this certainly helps keep the gameplay fresh.

The games audio design is exceptional, helping to create a sense of claustrophobic tension and the use of silence in the game as you explore the mansion really accentuates your characters isolation. All of the sound effects are excellent; from the realistic sound of firearms and the characters echoing footsteps (the sounds incrementally different from one another depending on the surface you’re walking), to the ambient effects like the sound on an encroaching thunderstorm (another nod to classic horror) that breaks the silence with only a flash of lightning as warning. This helps the world feel more immersive. Resident Evil’s soundtrack comprises entirely of instrumental pieces. Tracks like ‘Underground’ are slow burning and ratchet up the tension as players explore, with more urgent pieces like ‘Neptune Attack’ inducing fear and panic during the games set piece boss battles. The relief that comes with finding a save room cannot be understated, these save havens bring respite from the monstrosities that roam the mansion and their discovery is accompanied by Resident Evils iconic track ‘Safe haven’ which has been tweaked slightly for the remake. The most notable change to the audio design is the quality of the voice acting. The awkward pauses between characters speaking have been removed and Joe Whyte and Heidi Anderson as Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine are great in the lead roles and all of the characters performances draw you into the narrative. This is also partly a reflection of the games improved writing, dialogue no longer feels stilted.

All of the improvements to the audio and visual design give Resident Evil a more serious tone, this is most apparent in the game’s opening CG rendered cutscene.  No longer a homage to schlocky B movies the intro has a much richer atmosphere that takes cues from classic Gothic horror literature like Frankenstein and Dracula (even referencing Sherlock Holmes and the hound of the Baskervilles). Combining this with elements from modern horror; zombies are similar to the undead from George A Romero’s ‘Night of the living dead’ and the changing perspective between the S.T.A.R.S members and the view from their shoulder mounted cameras a reference to the colonial marines in ‘Aliens’. This reworked opening and changes to the game makes the remake feel more modern and relevant.

Jul .1998, Raccoon forest:

resident evil remake intro cutscene

After a series of bizarre murders on the outskirts of the Mid-West town of Raccoon City, the police send their elite task force S.T.A.R.S (special tactics and rescue service) to investigate the incident. During their search all contact is lost with the Bravo team and in response Alpha team is dispatched to find their compatriots.

Resident Evil’s storyline is seen from two different viewpoints. At the beginning of the game players choose between two playable characters, and while both characters stories touch upon the same events different dialogue options and story threads open up adding further context to the games narrative. The biggest impact is in the gameplay, even through you’ll complete the same puzzles and encounter the same enemies the challenges of the mansion have to be tackled in different ways. Story sequences change depending on the players actions. Resident Evil takes the choice based gameplay mechanics from point and click adventure games using then in real time situations. As Jill Valentine you discover an injured Richard Aiken-a member of the Bravo team-suffering from a bite wound from a giant snake. In order to help him players have to find an antidote to the snake’s poison, if the player doesn’t get the necessary item in time and return to Richard he won’t make it. Alternatively saving Richards life adds additional exposition to the story and he will help you during one of the boss encounters. There are a number of these diverging paths in the game, these have a bearing on which of the multiple endings the player receives. For players wanting to experience everything Resident Evil has to offer it will take more than one playthrough, really encouraging replayability.

Collectible documents and recordings that players find throughout Resident Evil reinforce the feeling of carrying out an investigation (which changes the tone of the game to a mystery thriller with horror elements); uncovering information expands on the games setting and puts the narrative in context. Documents range from files describing gruesome experiments to private journals, one of which borrows elements from the body horror genre detailing its owners slow transformation into a zombie (players can even take the film from the shoulder mounted camera of a deceased S.T.A.R.S member, revealing his final moments). For the remake new documents have been added not present in the original game, most of these retroactively introduce prominent characters from subsequent games like Umbrella researcher William Birkin. Capcom have also reinstated a sub-plot concerning George Trevor (The architect of the Spencer mansion) and his family, which was dropped from the pre-release version of the game.

Horror³:

Resident Evil REmake Yawn

Resident Evil’s control scheme is based around the original games “tank” controls. By pressing up or down on the D-pad the character will move in the corresponding direction but to rotate the character players use the left and right directional buttons (with B used to run). While these mechanics certainly feel tighter and provide a sense of tension, it won’t sway anyone who wasn’t a fan of the original games gameplay (and players of current generation consoles may find the controls cumbersome). The remake incorporates all of the small changes the gameplay mechanics have undergone as the series has progressed, players can perform a 180⁰ turn using the C stick on the Gamecube controller and instead of a loading screen between floors (the classic opening door loading screens are still present in the remake) characters can move up and down staircases freely. For some of the puzzle segments players will need to move objects, to do this they approach the object and press up on the D-pad.

Players ready their weapon by holding down the right trigger (doing so restricts player movement. Strategically choosing when to attack and when to move is a large part of combat, especially during boss fights, giving combat a risk/reward dichotomy) and fire the weapon with the A button. If faced with more than one enemy, players can switch between targets using the left trigger. Players start the game with a handgun and limited ammunition, discovering more powerful weapons- like the shotgun and grenade launcher- as they progress through the game (character models are shown with their currently equipped weapon during cutscenes). One of the remakes new features is the use of defensive items. These consumable items can be used when being attacked by any of the standard enemy types by pressing the left trigger and like ammunition these items are scarce. Both Chris and Jill can use daggers (these only knock back enemies, but provide some breathing room) and each character has a character specific item, Jill can use a taser and Chris flash grenades. The game introduces the necessity to burn zombie’s bodies. If you don’t destroy the zombies head when you shoot it (in a throwback to the original game there is a randomised chance that one of your shots will be headshot) then any zombie you down will reanimate as one of the games new enemies, the Crimson head. These enemies resemble the rage virus infected zombies from Danny Boyle’s film ‘28 Days later’, they are fast and deal a higher amount of damage. Unless players conserve their ammunition it’s entirely possible to get stuck on a boss fight and have to reload a previous save or restart the game (even on the games easiest setting), instilling a sense of desperation as players have to quickly decide whether to use valuable ammunition or flee from combat.

Item management is an integral part of Resident Evil’s gameplay (Players access the status screen with the Y button. Here you can equip weapons, use items and read files. Players can also examine items, this feature allows you to manipulate objects in full 3D to reveal more about them), Jill can carry more items in her inventory but can take less damage from enemies, whereas Chris has a more robust heath system but only has six item slots. The player will also find item boxes around the mansion, here they can store excess items. This does lead to backtracking in the game as players have to swap between key items to solve puzzles and useful items like heath and ammunition. The map screen can be accessed instantly (using the Z button on the Gamecube controller); the map keeps a record of which rooms you’ve investigated (rooms that are uncoloured on the map have yet to be entered and those with a green tint have been fully explored), which doors are locked and also displays the players location. Perhaps most helpful is the indicator that tells players if there are items still to find in a room (these rooms have a red-ish tint on the map). Items now give of a distinctive visual cue to show that they can be interacted with separating them from the environments. This helps to reduce the frustration with finding key items (reducing the amount of backtracking in the game) without removing Resident Evil’s puzzle oriented gameplay.

Final Thoughts:

The remake of Resident Evil is a masterclass in how to remake a game. It builds on every facet of its predecessor, refining the Survival Horror experience. It’s the fluid way that all of the gameplay mechanics interact that means there are few games that can recreate the same sense of fear as your ammunition runs low or the thrill at defeating one of the games bosses. It’s a shame that this genre has seen such a decline, Resident Evil for the Gamecube is one of the pinnacles of Survival Horror and deserves to be played.

9/10

Article

Murder, he wrote (Why Murdered: Soul Suspect is one of my most anticipated games of 2014)

Murdered soul suspect

Around the crossover period between console generations there always seems to be some experimentation with triple A titles on the older console (Second Sight on the Playstation 2 is a prime example of this), while traditionally gameplay stagnates on new consoles as innovative gameplay is superseded by a focus on improving the technical aspects of games. Murdered: Soul Suspect definitely falls into the prior category. A supernatural detective thriller developed by Airtight games and published by Square Enix. The title was first teased back in February with the enigmatic tag line “what is the hardest case to solve?”, this certainly got my attention as did the subsequent CG trailer. But it wasn’t until I saw the stage demo from E3 that the title really impressed me (if you haven’t seen the demo and would like to check it out, click on the link here).

What looks to be a combination of the PS2 title Ghosthunter and L.A. Noire. The player assumes the role of Ronan O’Conner, a detective in the Salem Massachusetts police department. After being killed in the line of duty, Ronan finds himself trapped in limbo (a place called the Dusk) unable to pass on and sets about investigating his murder. The premise for the game certainly sounds unique (the idea for the game apparently arose when Yosuke Shiokwa -Square Enix’s creative director- tried to envisage what would have happened in Die Hard if John McClane had died halfway through the film) and while I look forward to learning more about the plot, It’s the originality of the games mechanics that stuck me the most.

The main mechanic in Murdered: Soul Suspect revolves around deducing the answers to questions that will further your investigation, this is done through a similar system to the Capcom’s point and click adventure game Glass Rose (in Glass Rose during conversations you could highlight words to investigate the subject further). It’s the way that Airtight Games have utilised several features with which you can search for clues that take beyond the usual adventure game mechanics. Because Ronan is trapped in corporeal form he can’t interact with real world objects. Instead you’ll find that objects hold important information through psychic imprints, these remnants of memories reveal brief flashbacks to scenes relating to the object and then the player has to interpret what they’ve seen. Possession can also be used to learn more about a case, whether possessing a police man to view his notebook as you look at the world through his eyes or alternatively whilst possessing a witness manipulating her train of thought to reveal new information.

When exploring Ronan will encounter evil spirits, trapped for too long in the Dusk they will try to consume him. Because enemies are much more powerful than Ronan, direct confrontations must be avoided. This introduces the games unique sudo-stealth mechanic (and definitely my favourite aspect of the game). You have the ability to pass through objects (this is such a simple concept but Airtight games have implemented it to great effect), this is key to outmanoeuvring enemies as you play hide and seek passing seamlessly through walls. Possession can also be used to avoid enemies, hiding in NPC characters till it’s safe to move again. There is an upgrade system (though the specifics haven’t been detailed yet), you can clearly see the player receiving experience for completing objectives and dealing with enemies. One of the other abilities we saw was a short range teleport. During the demo the Dev team showcased one enemy type, with more variety in the final game we’re promised that enemies will force you to create new strategies to deal with them.

Puzzles and exploration will revolve around more than just procedural investigation, I mentioned that Ronan had the ability to walk through walls but this is only when in the interiors of buildings. When he needs to enter a building this poses a problem (in the demo, he had to wait and follow a police officer through the lobby door when he opened it) it’s getting around puzzles like this that adds more variety to the gameplay.  There are side missions to explore which reveal more about characters trapped in the dusk along with Ronan as well as about the sordid history of the town of Salem. I’m anxious to see if the narrative incorporates mechanics like psychic imprints in its story telling and whether we’ll be able to discover more information the towns inhabitants by being able to walk through houses and apartments as the residents go about their day to day business (this mechanic was fascinating in Silent Hill 4: The Room). The final mechanic that intrigued me is the ability to interact with the environment, almost like a poltergeist. In the demo this was only shown of in a limited capacity when Ronan made a stove switch on attracting the attention of the flats occupant, so it will be interesting to see to what extent they include this in the game and whether this can be utilised during puzzles segments and what impact it will have on combat.

Murdered: Soul Suspect looks to be a completely new take on the action adventure genre. Evolving the mechanics seen in point and click adventure games (much like L.A. Noire did) the game looks to combine these with supernatural elements and a compelling narrative. This title already has me very excited and I look forward to learning more about it before its release sometime next year.

DLC Review

The Walking Dead: 400 Days

the walking dead 400 days

The Walking Dead was perhaps the surprise hit of last year. Released episodically in five parts throughout the year, Telltale games provided a fresh take on both the survival horror and zombie outbreak genres with the games point and click puzzle mechanics and an emotionally engaging storyline that much like Robert Kirkman’s original graphic novel series focuses on the on the human element. 400 Days is the sixth episode to be released acting as a mid-season special that looks to bridge the gap between the first two seasons and help introduce a new cast of characters. This is one of the best pieces of DLC I’ve played and a worthy follow up to season one.

400 Days retains the comic book aesthetic of the first season, but perhaps because of the narratives focus on a single setting I did find that the environments were more detailed than in previous episodes.  The DLC takes place over five chapters. These can be completed in any order and are manually chosen by the player from a missing person’s board by selecting the relevant characters photo, this clever mechanic helps tie the narrative together. The mechanics are the same as in the previous season. The left analogue stick moves the character while the right controls a cursor that allows you to interact with the environment. All of the dialogue options and in game actions are mapped to the face buttons on the controller, with the occasional quicktime event during action sequences. The mechanics do feel a little tighter though especially when the player has to shoot their gun in first person sequences, but the DLC also explores some different ways of utilising these mechanics. One of my favourite segments is reminiscent of the early Spielberg film Duel, though some of the situations the player sees in the chapters will be familiar tropes to anyone that’s a fan of the genre. The pacing in this episode is excellent, puzzles remain a challenge but have been streamlined so that there’s less trial and error and while there is alot of action Telltale still provides enough downtime to show those little moments of human drama; whether that’s playing a game of rock, paper, scissors to decide the outcome of an important decision or taking a break to watch someone play the guitar. Playing season one I encountered quite a few drops in the frame rate (especially during episode 3), but 400 days seems to run much more smoothly. My only complaint is that two of the five chapters could have been longer allowing us more time with the characters.

The DLC continues Telltale’s legacy of brilliantly written dialogue and incorporates the tough choices and player decisions from season one, some will test the resolve of even seasoned players. The music and voice acting were once again impeccable and each new character introduced felt unique, I never once felt that any of the characters were replacements for those from season one they each added something new to the game. Because of time constraints instead of focusing the narrative on a single character for the episode, the developers manage to weave an engaging non-linear narrative as we see the effect of the outbreak from multiple view point at a truck stop and diner in Georgia over a 400 day period from the beginning of the outbreak. The individual stories intertwine and it’s neat to see something that goes unexplained in one episode later explained in another. It also incorporates some of the decisions from season one and ties up a few of the loose ends. Though these vignettes may seem disparate to begin with, the episode ends in a very satisfying way that both incorporates the decisions you’ve made throughout the episode but also hints at what might be to come in the second season of The Walking Dead. One of my favourite aspects is that because of the focus on a single locale it allowed the developers to explore the effects of humans and zombies in more depth, using the truck stop as a microcosm of the outbreak.

Final Verdict:

Reasonably priced at £3.99 and offering a great amount of replay value, 400 days took me around two hours to complete a single playthrough, with each chapter taking between twenty and thirty minutes. It’s great to see a piece of story based DLC that’s not only well plotted but attempts something different than the main entry. By changing up the narrative style and using the existing mechanics in new ways it helps to keep 400 Days feeling fresh, something I hope Telltale continues to do in the second season of The Waking Dead when it releases this autumn.

8.5/10

CRGR: Remember Me

Current release game review: Remember me 

Remember Me-from French developers Dontnod Entertainment-has garnered mostly average reviews from critics. While this may dissuade some gamers from picking up a copy, ultimately that would be a shame as this brand new IP (though flawed) has such a lot of interesting ideas and mechanics that I really enjoyed my time with it.

Down and out in Neo-Paris:

remember me concept

What stands out most about Remember me is the games distinct art design. The world that Dontnod Entertainment have created in Neo-Paris is beautiful; remnants of the old city like the Eiffel Tower contrast with the elegant and sleek modern offices and apartment buildings that populate the skyline. Whilst below the surface the dark slums are brightened only by the gaudiness of a neon colour palate a place rife with memory addicts. This city is just begging to be explored, small details are added by Nilin’s Sensen, projecting text and visual clues into the environment an effect that is reminiscent of Minority Reports smart glass. So it’s unfortunate that the level design does little to engender itself to the player. This is perhaps because of the games linearity and general lack of interactivity within the environment. The player is ushered from corridor to corridor down linear paths where buildings and doors are blocked off by artificial barriers. When you enter a larger areas you automatically expect a combat or platforming sequence becoming predictable. Interactions with what little NPC characters there are is non-existent and because of these shortcomings the game fails to elicit the same sense of exploration as in other games in the action adventure genre.

The voice acting in Remember Me is good, but most performances don’t stand out. Most of the characters are videogame clichés bogged down by tropes of the genre and a lack of dialogue. Kid X-mas has an interesting backstory-a former memory hunter like Nilin now working for the state-but what made him change to the other side just isn’t explored. One of my favourite characters Olga Sedova is great, but I wish the supporting cast of characters had been given a little more screen time to better develop them instead they become interchangeable. One of the best performances comes from Nathan Nolen as Nilin’s saviour Edge. The player is never one hundred percent sure that he can be trusted when some of your goals lead to such questionable results and it’s a credit to the voice actor that he manages to remain an enigma. Kezia Burrows (the voice actress for Nilin) is the standout performance. Convincingly portraying this lost woman questioning herself every step of the way, at once vulnerable and sympathetic but she also brings strength to the role as she begins to reassert herself. The most jarring aspect of the vocal performances is the English and American accents. Because the game is set in a futuristic Paris it made sense to change to the French voice track (which I actually preferred) with subtitles in the options menu. But the subtitles are so patchy that they only appear during cutscenes, sporadically during ingame cutscenes and completely missing out the ambient dialogue. This is the same with the English language voice track and led to a problem late in the game when the player has to open a number of doors by solving riddles (while these puzzles are excellently done) because sometimes I couldn’t hear the dialogue and combining this with the poor subtitles it took me longer than it might otherwise had. The music on the other hand is great. A combination of the pulse pounding techno music of Wipeout and classical music. This is perhaps best captured by the games title track (which plays when navigating the main menu) “Nilin the memory hunter”, the piece is both beautiful and tragic with a great classical vocal performance that perfectly captures Dontnod’s vision of 2084. But its Remember me’s varied soundtrack that makes it distinct. The track “The fight” provides the backdrop to most of the combat sequences, the music’s fast tempo creates tension and adds a sense of urgency to battles. 

Remember you soon:

Olga and Nilin

Dontnod Entertainment’s inspiration for Remember Me clearly draws a lot from luminaries in the genre, with allusions to George Orwell’s 1984 and Ghost in the shell. The game also draws on real life socio-economic problems like the power of corporations and the invasive nature of technology in our lives. The story of remember me focuses on Nilin, a memory hunter who is able to take memories and bend them to her will. When the story begins she has been imprisoned in a cyber punk reimagining of The Bastille where prisoners memories are taken as a form of subjugation. After being aided in her escape by Edge-a man claiming to be a friend- you set about regaining your lost memories and taking your revenge on Memorize, the corporation behind your imprisonment. This might sound like your typical dystopian story of a hero fighting a totalitarian regime. But Remember Me bucks this trend by creating a story more about Nilin’s personal journey, this direction was unexpected and comes to the fore in the latter half of the game but it ultimately makes for a more satisfying narrative. Remember Me does a great job of making the player feel morally uncomfortable throughout the game, with Nilin’s actions taking place in a moral grey area. It really makes the player question the difference between terrorist and freedom fighter. Nilin’s own confusion is brilliantly portrayed during well crafted monologue sequences which bookend each of the 8 chapters. I enjoyed the plot but because of the games linear nature it misses out on presenting some of its most interesting ideas in a wider context, for instance it would have been interesting to see the effect of memory removal on the general population of Neo-Paris and whether people would be psychologically predisposed to repeating the same mistakes.

Most of the collectibles in Remember Me provide upgrades for Nilin. SAT patches increase Nilin’s health while focus boosts increase the amount of special attaches you can execute, for every fifth upgrade that you find one extra node is added to Nilin’s stats. Locating these upgrades is done through a fun minigame. At certain points in the environment you’ll see what looks like a cloud of data, when approached it display a picture of the area where the upgrade can be found. All the player has to do is match the picture to the exact point in the environment and collect the upgrade. There are also ways to boost the players EXP by finding Scaramechs, these small robotic parasites can be found by listening for their audio cue with 200 experience as the reward for destroying them. Mnesist data logs expand on the universe and lore of Remember Me, found throughout the game these are perhaps the most compelling collectible. These logs fill in a lot of the questions that go unanswered in the main story. Like Tomb Raider much of the information about the supporting characters is found in these logs for the players to discover. They also proffer enlightening information on the city itself, notable landmarks and the technology of 2084.

Remixing action adventure:

remember me memory remix

Remember Me incorporates many recognisable mechanics from modern action adventure games: a climbing and platforming system similar to the Uncharted series and combat resembling that from the Batman: Arkham games. For a brand new IP it certainly aims high and though there some problems with both of these mechanics the developers introduce enough original ideas to separate it from other titles in the genre.

The most original mechanic is Nilin’s ability to remix people memories. This can only be activated at certain points it the story and these four sequences stand out as the highlight of the game. Presented in a digital space you watch the memory form before it plays through once, then you are presented with an objective. By rotating the left analogue stick clockwise and anti-clockwise you can move backwards and forward through the memory (with R1 acting as fast-forward). Interacting with certain objects as you scrub through the memory will change the course of events, it could be something as small as removing the safety on a gun and it’s exciting to see what effect these changes have. These are admittedly just trial and error puzzles (there is no penalty for failing, sometimes your actions result in the persons death which creates a memory bug and have to rewind), but I always found it fun and rewarding to working out the right sequence of events to complete the objective. These tasks always left me feeling less like a hero though making me question what I was doing, morally. Changing a person’s memory to think they killed their loved one or to place the blame for an accident on them felt so manipulative and it’s a credit to the developer that their portrayal of this ultimate act of voyeurism made me feel so uncomfortable. Because they went so far down this road I would have liked to see this mechanic introduced more in the exploration of the city. Like Watchdogs as you passed by a character in the street your sensen could have shown you a information about that character.

The combat in Remember Me is another highlight. Mapped to the square and triangle buttons, by timing button presses correctly attacks can be chained into combos with the X button used to evade incoming attacks. Timing button presses is very rhythmic and button mashing will only get you so far in the game, I found it a little difficult at first and it’s worth taking the time to practice in the opening chapters as enemy combinations in the latter half of the game demand your familiarity with the system. Combos can be further customized, by pressing select you enter the combo lab and from here you are given a list of the pre set combos (longer combos are unlocked as you progress through the game). Each button press in the combo can be assigned a Pressen, these are special effects that trigger if the attack connects with an enemy. Effects range from heath restoration, making an attack deal more damage and reducing the cooldown time of your special moves. The further along the Pressen is in the combo the greater its effect. Gaining experience from defeating enemies will level Nilin up; this then allows players to unlock more Pressens which gives combos greater versatility. Enemies are designed to encourage experimentation (Pressens can be changed on the fly even during combat), Elite enforcers hurt you whenever you hit them so having a regen Pressen equipped is essential and a Skinner’s block can only be broken by using a power Pressen. To compliment the combo system are Sensens, these special attacks are triggered by holding down L2 and then selecting the power you want from the radial menu, after use Sensens require a cooldown period before being used again. These special attacks provide boosts to the power of your attacks, the ability to turn robot enemies into allies, stun groups of enemies and attach an explosive to enemies damaging anyone in its radius. These attacks work well for crowd control and come in to their own during the brilliant boss battles. The addition of a counter attack would have been nice, allowing for more fluid combat as the player waited for their focus meter to fill (this is what governs the use of Sensen attacks, filling over time when landing successive attacks on enemies but also depletes entirely when moving into a new area), instead players have to constantly dodge over swarming enemies sometimes only managing to land one attack. Though combat is predominantly melee based, Nilin can also use a ranged attack. After defeating the first boss you acquire the spammer, this adaptation to Nilin’s memory hunter glove allows you to shoot burst of data at enemies. This use of the spammer is limited (shown by a gauge on the players HUD), requiring a cooldown period. As you progress through the story you acquire further upgrades for Nilin’s glove. A junkbolt shot depletes the spammer gauge completely but deals great damage to one enemy (and can be used to break enforcer’s shields). The junkbolt can also be used to destroy structural weaknesses opening up new areas. Other Upgrades that you receive are utilised during puzzle segments. The force spammer creates a stream of data with which players can move objects in the environment. The final upgrade is the pick socket allowing the transfer of data from one source to another. While these puzzles aren’t difficult they mix up the gameplay and are fun to complete. I did encounter one bug quite late in the game. After fighting waves of enemies and two boss’s in one room a conversation with Edge should have taken place which when finished would have allowed me to open the door to the adjoining room and advance. But once I’d defeated all of the enemies the camera would still lock onto what it thought was an enemy (when in fact it was already dead) and I’d have to reload the checkpoint and do the fight again, it took me three tries to get the game to work.

The third pillar of gameplay is platforming. Climbable ledges are highlighted with orange arrows courtesy of Nilin’s Sensen, though this is a great visual flourish it emphasise the linearity of these sections (There are the occasional optional paths usually leading to hidden collectables). The problem is that platforming feels effortless, Nilin will make every jump with ease and by removing the tension of falling-something the Uncharted series implements so well-it removes the excitement. By pressing X Nilin will jump automatically grabbing hold of the ledge or drainpipe, while using the R1 button moves Nilin with greater speed. There are a number of platforming puzzles that mix up the gameplay requiring precise timing and quick movement, this culminates in an exciting chase sequence that sees Nilin pursued across Neo-Paris’s rooftops by a security gunship.

Final thoughts:

Remember Me is a very ambitious title providing an interesting take on the action adventure genre and while it doesn’t quite fulfil all of its promise this is still a very enjoyable game. Gamers who were fans of Mirrors Edge, Deus Ex: Human Revolution or just fans of Dystopian thrillers I couldn’t recommend this title enough. I really hope that Remember Me sells well enough for Capcom to continue their support of Dontnod Entertainment, I for one would love to see a sequel to this great new IP

7.5/10

CRGR: The Last of Us

Current Release Game review: The Last of Us

The Last of Us is a very personal journey through a post apocalyptic America, it evokes comparisons to classics in this genre like Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ and ‘The Walking Dead’ graphic novels. But through its clever mix of gameplay styles and by taking it’s time to establish its story and the characters that inhabit this world it becomes wholly its own. My journey took me just over seventeen hours on my first playthrough and it is one well worth taking.

Beauty in the breakdown:

the last of us environment

The game world is beautiful, though the narrative and the gameplay are both dark and violent the world of The Last of Us juxtaposes this with a bright colourful world (reminiscent of Ninja theory’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the west) where twenty year after the original outbreak of the Cordyceps virus, as humanity’s influence on the natural world has dwindled nature has reclaimed it. Skyscrapers in the city teem with plant life: a tree intrudes into a block of offices and water from a newly formed spring cuts through the remains of a hotel lobby. The range of places that that you’ll visit in The Last of Us lends the scenery a sense of variety, starting from a safe zone in Boston the player makes their way westward across the US. The changing seasons of each episode also help to give a distinctive feel to each new place you visit so that you never feel as though you’ve seeing the same building twice. Buildings and houses offer intriguing insight into the lives of their former occupants and the level of detail in all of the environments impresses, whether it’s a family picture that’s fallen of a desk in an abandoned office or a pack of dogs that have survived in the wild. All of these nuances create a believable game world, not far removed from what we recognise in our lives today. These details can equally add a darker hue to the world, passing by a sign warning of infected inside the building or finding a rotting corpse in a bathtub next to a suicide note are stark reminders that through the world outside the safety of the quarantine zone may be beautiful it can also be dangerous.

The design of each level is well thought out and while this is a mostly linear game (gameplay consists of fifty percent of the time engaging in combat and puzzle solving with the other fifty reserved for player exploration and to expand the narrative) the best way to progress is left up to the player. This isn’t a game like Deus Ex with multiple routes, but getting from point A to point B becomes a puzzle in itself with tense games of cat and mouse played out against the infected and other survivors. It’s here that all of the aforementioned minutiae of the environments gives the player ample scope when deciding on the best course of action and most of all it all feels natural. You never get the sense that a chest high wall or abandoned car was placed specifically for you to hide behind as you see in many action games, it is all very much in keeping with the art design. I did encounter a problem in two sections of the game where I’d managed to sneak past all of the enemies only to find my progress halted because I was supposed to take them out with no real indication prior to this leading to a few reloads breaking the wonderful pace of the game.

That attention to detail shows in the character design. Characters are beautifully rendered in both the in game engine and in cutscenes, during some of these I felt as if I was watching real actors. This is due to the expressive faces of the characters, they are able to convey emotions realistically which is so important for a game that is driven by its emotive narrative. Character movement is equally realistic and manages to feel natural as Joel climbs over the limb of a fallen tree or when fleeing from a group of infected, even when the characters take cover instead of sticking to the surface characters move in and out of cover naturally without a button prompt and this suits the fluidity of the games combat. All of the characters feel unique, this is done through a combination of the writing, the voice acting and their design. Each has his or her own style, regardless of the changing seasons you’ll notice that Joel and Elle tend to keep to the same colour pallet. Even in this post apocalyptic vision of America, holding on to your individuality is important.

The soundtrack to The Last of Us-composed by Gustav Santaolalla- perfectly complements the mood and setting of the game. The main theme entitled ‘The Last of Us’ is a dark and moody string piece, its laconic and slow burning nature conveys a sense of isolation (a theme that seems to pervade the soundtrack). More upbeat pieces like ‘Vanishing Grace’ provide emotional respite on Ellie and Joel’s journey, with its softer tone offering the player a sense of hope, encouraging you to keep moving forward with the mature story. One of the more urgent tracks in the game ‘Infected’ reflects the feral and visceral nature of your enemies, it combines industrial sounds with pounding drums and showcases the use of music to create tension in the game.

The games sound design has been expertly composed, most notable is the games use of ambient sound in creating a realistic environment. Immersing the player in the world. Exploring a derelict office block, you hear the wind rustling the leaves on a tree as you gaze down on the scene through a collapsed wall, the silence broken occasionally by a birds call. Its these natural sounds that make this feel like a very different gaming experience. Upon entering an abandoned building the first thing you hear is silence pressing in on you, followed by the sound of your footsteps echoing off the walls as you tentatively begin to move forward, it’s this silence that creates a palpable sense of tension during exploration, broken intermittently by the brief conversations between Ellie and Joel. The comfort these conversations bring is contrasted by the fear felt from hearing other human voices, footsteps and voices increase in volume as they get nearer helping to locate and evade enemies. The most terrifying and unique sound in the game is produced by “clickers”, these blind but powerful enemies use echo location to find their prey emitting a mix of clicking and gurgling noises that keep you on edge and If spotted the clickers issue terrifying screams as they rush towards you.

Troy Baker puts in another amazing vocal performance as Joel and Ashley Johnson is equally engaging as Elle. I also thought that the voice actors who portrayed Tess and Henry were outstanding, but voice acting is collectively great with each of the supporting cast managing to convey their characters motivations and provide a compelling back story. You can tell that a lot of time and effort has gone into writing the dialogue and as I mentioned previously, this is just another part of what makes the characters feel unique.

The Last of Us:

joel and elle

Neil Druckmann’s masterful script is one of the most well crafted narratives of this generation. It manages to present a dark, violent and compelling story while its focus on character development provides greater emotional resonance. Though there are plenty of games and other mediums that deal with zombie outbreaks (and the Last of Us certainly uses some of the tropes from the genre) it manages to avoid cliché by providing fresh twists to the formula. The narrative blends seamlessly into the gameplay with cutscenes advancing the story while ambient dialogue, optional conversations and collectables are used to flesh out the world.

After a prologue set during the outbreak of a pandemic-A fungal infection called Cordyceps that turns its victims into hyper aggressive flesh eaters-that has since ravaged America (this opening sequence is one of the most immersive experiences of this generation and sets the tone for the rest of the game). We take on the role of Joel, a survivor living in the relative safety of the Boston Quarantine zone who is tasked with smuggling a teenage girl called Elle out of the city for an anti-government militia called the Fireflies. With such a narrative driven experience talking about anymore of the plot would be doing a disservice to the game, I made sure to avoid all reviews and media before the games release and the experience was so much better for it.

It’s the direction that really sets this game apart from its contemporaries. Relying on the nuances of the script and strong performances to convey a mood or a feeling, the game is full of subtle touches that help us to get a sense of the characters and show the changing inter-personal relationships: it could be as simple as a character pausing to look fondly at his wrist watch (momentarily softening his rough demeanour), or two scared children debating whether the infected have a soul. Combat is visceral and brutal, yet feels so deeply tied to the narrative to the point that it never seems gratuitous. So much effort has gone into making conversations feel organic, even the ambient dialogue feels natural. When you explore an abandoned record shop Ellie will start to leaf through the vinyl albums commenting that’s sad it is that no one will listen to this music again, through ambient and optional dialogue (when investigating certain objects a speech mark will appear over a characters head and by using triangle they will converse with you) we learn more about characters, seeing another perspective on the world is interesting and it really helps in fleshing these characters out.

The collectibles in The Last of Us are a throwback to older survival horror games. You find notes, newspapers and tape recordings that all add just that little bit more information about the world of The Last of Us. These collectables are constantly engaging (as soon as I discovered another one I would find myself reading it almost straight away) I actively sought to collect them all. After you pick up a collectable and read it the characters will comment of the contents of it, I haven’t seen this done in many games and yet this is just another subtle touch that allows us to better understand these characters.

Survival Horror evolved:

last of us clicker

The last of us uses recognisable staples of early survival horror games and incorporates both stealth and the over the shoulder gunplay seen in modern third person shooters. The player rarely has much ammunition and on the harder difficulties you’ll recall the sense of fear that the original Resident Evil instilled in players as you desperately search for something to get you through the next encounter, a feeling that seems to have been lost this generation. Do you want to sacrifice a shiv to open a locked door? Or do you hold onto the shiv, vital in defending against clickers. It’s the fluid way that all of these mechanics combine that makes the game feel fresh.

The controls will be familiar to anyone that plays third person action games. The left analogue stick controls the characters movement, while the right controls the camera. Using L1 takes the player into aiming mode where a reticule appears on screen enabling greater accuracy when shooting or an ark depicting where thrown objects will land. Accuracy decreases if your attacked or if moving whilst aiming (this causes the reticule to widen), causing a would be head shot to go wide of the mark and the R1 button is used to fire. The guns are stables of the survival horror genre: handgun, revolver, shotgun and hunting rifle. Each can be upgraded at a work bench increasing their stats like ammo capacity or reload speed, or gun specific upgrades like a scope for the hunting rifle allowing for ranged combat. Upgrades to each weapon are done in tiers and can only be accessed once the relevant tools have been found, there are five levels in all and it certainly makes the player pay attention to their surroundings as these upgrades can be the difference between survival and death. Weapons are upgraded with parts that are scavenged from around environments, promoting exploration of the semi-linier levels they are enticing rewards and feed into the risk reward dichotomy that the game revolves. Guns are not your only offensive weapons, as you progress through the game new crafting options become available allowing the player to make Molotov cocktails and nail bombs (which can be thrown at enemies or alternatively placed acting as a trip bomb).

Melee combat and this forms a big part of the game, it is hugely dynamic reacting to not only what weapon the player has equipped (and these range from  wooden boards to the more substantial baseball bat) but also the environment. If you engage someone next to a wall Joel will often push them up against it or slam their head into it. All of the combat is brutal, visceral and sometime shocking but it makes it feel all the more desperate and believable. All melee weapons degrade over time, the weaker weapons may only be good for a few blows whereas others can deal out more before they finally break. Handily on the HUD it displays the amount of hits it weapon can take and this carries over to weapons that you’ll find in the environment allowing you to easily decide whether it’s worth picking up or leaving behind. One of the most interesting adjustments is the way that The last of Us deals with the harder difficulty setting, instead of just making enemies harder, it not only lessens the resources available to the player but redistributes what is available.  On normal difficulty when you have your first encounter with a room full of infected you find an iron pipe which can withstand five blows, but on hard all your given is a wooden board, forcing you to change up your strategies

The stealth element is most reminiscent of the PS2 game Forbidden Siren 2. Instead of the ability to sightjack (allowing the player to see through the eyes of the enemy) The Last of Us utilises a mechanic called listen mode. By holding down the R2 button Joel can listen for noise, this could be footsteps, people talking or the shouts and screams of the infected and this plots the enemies in the environment with a white outline. This outline can be seen through walls and floors allowing you to plan a strategy on how best to take them on or sneak past them entirely. This mode starts off with a limited range and so you need to check enemy placement regularly as enemies on the periphery may not show up to begin with and later in the game this can be upgraded with Joel’s other attributes like heath and the speed at which he can craft. In line with the scale of difficulty this mode is disabled on the hardest setting (or can optionally be disabled in the menu). Items like bricks and bottles can also be utilised to distract enemies moving them around the levels to your advantage. By sneaking up behind an enemy and pressing triangle Joel can perform stealth take downs, by pressing square he will can choke them although this option takes time and produces more noise than using a shiv  which will instantly kill enemies (this is the most effective method for killing clickers) but uses valuable materials. The cover mechanic is most resembles the mechanic seen in Tomb Raider; Joel will automatically take cover next to an object without the need for a button prompt. This gives stealth a sense of fluidity as you can transition from cover to cover seamlessly and can be broken by simply moving away. One aspect of the game that seems jarring though is the way that your AI companions are ignored by enemies, the first time Ellie ran out in front of a clicker my heart was in my mouth. While it does take you out of the experience I can understand that this was a preferable decision to making the game one long escort mission.

Crafting gives the player the ability to create offensive and defensive items, thought some items can be found they are few and far between even on the easier difficulty settings and so this mechanic becomes integral to progressing. By pressing the select button Joel will go into his inventory, this displays what items you have previously crafted and also the materials that you have available (these are collected through exploration of the environment). Materials like alcohol have more than one use, creating either Molotov’s or first aid kits. Like the use of bullets this feeds into the survival aspect of the game as the player must choose which out of the two they need more. Like in Dark Soul’s crafting is done in game removing the safety of a pause screen. Tense situations arise as you desperately try to make a first aid kit as enemies bare down on you. All of the items you craft can be upgraded once you’ve found the corresponding manual, increasing the area of effect for a Molotov or the durability of a shiv.

Human enemies in the Last of Us have amazingly smart AI and provide a real challenge for the player. They behave realistically: aggressively hunting you down pressing their advantage of greater numbers. To attacking from long range with firearms able to flush you out into the open with Molotovs, rarely will you see them mindlessly rushing at you. Enemies range from well equipped government troops to ramshackle communities and bandits that inhabit the world outside of the Boston quarantine zone. It does seem a bit strange that violence is always the first course of action , having a mechanic where you could converse with people and attempt to work out their intentions for yourself would have been neat (but perhaps not in keeping with the linier narrative).

Players will also come up against the zombie like infected. Runners are weak and can be killed pretty easily but can overwhelm you with increased numbers and once spotted will alert other enemies to your presence. The more advanced stages of the infection leave the victim blinded as the fungus sprouts from their faces. Known as clickers, compensating for their lack of sight by using echo location they are much stronger than the runners and if caught defenceless their bites are one hit kills (these are my faveourite enemies of this generation). This leads to an interesting cat and mouse dynamic as the infected appear in mixed groups the player has to work out who poses which enemy poses the greatest threat. One element I would have liked to see was the inclusion of areas with both human and infected enemies where the player could play them off against each other just expanding the on the strategic element of combat.

Multiplayer:

last of us multiplayer

Multiplayer in The Last of Us offers two variations on team deathmatch: the aptly named Survivor mode where players only have one life per round with the winners the first team to take four of a total seven rounds and Supply Raid the traditional team deathmatch mode where each team begins with twenty respawns and killing the enemy team reduces their total to zero. I would have liked to have seen a few more modes, especially ones that included infected enemies; whether in a horde type mode or a player verses player mode (hopefully this will be released later as part of promised multiplayer DLC). One nice addition is the ability to turn teams off in the matchmaking lobby, this allows for more balanced games giving players new to The Last of Us a less steep learning curve.

By collecting resources (these can be found in stashes around the maps, looted from the corpse of an enemy you killed or awarded for completing objectives) the player levels up. In doing so new equipment, survival skills and items unlock for you to further customize your character. This system should be familiar to anyone that’s player Uncharted 2: Among thieves online, but it’s the way that the developers incorporate mechanics from the single player campaign that sets this apart. Listen mode makes the pace of games much slower as players carefully manoeuvre around the maps. The tension derived from cat and mouse games played out across entire maps is something rarely seen in multiplayer. Resource management is also important, guns come supplied with limited ammunition so resources have to be scavenged from around the map which can then be turned into additional items through crafting (this works exactly the same as in the single player campaign and takes place in real time). The most compelling part of the multiplayer is a survival meta-game. Starting multiplayer for the first time gives you a choice between two competing factions: the hunters and the Fireflies. You and your group have to survive twelve weeks, with each match representing one day. As you continue to play matches your group needs more resources to survive. If the player can collect the required amount (helpfully displayed before each match and also in the menu screen) people will join the group, if you fail members of the group will begin to go hungry or fall ill. If there is a hundred percent mortality rate you begin from week one day one again (this doesn’t reset the players level).

9/10