Video Games I've been playing over the last year...

2018 has been a busy year for me and I’ve not had much time to play, let alone write about games.. Generally, it has been a mixture of interesting old games that I’d been meaning to revisit and newer games that I’d picked up for a bit of light entertainment to kill some time.

Although this is not quite a “2018 year in Review”, it should give a flavour of some of the games that have been on my radar…

Final Fantasy XII - The Zodiac Age

I picked this up as I’d played and loved the original FF12 but never actually managed to complete it, getting stuck at a particularly bothersome boss fight when it was first released and then, I think, moving to London without my PS2. This version of the game is excellent however and , while I’ve not completed it yet, have thoroughly enjoyed playing through it. The story is as strong as ever and the adjustments made (such as to the jobs board) are welcome additions. In fact, I’d say this is the most enjoyable polishing of a game that I can recall playing as it retains all of the originals charm and structure but enhances key points for a modern audience. Basically, if you like FF games and want to invest 30hrs (for the main quest) or more hours in a huge, deep game, then you’ll not go wrong with this. It is very much a JRPG, but that is no bad thing.

Titanfall 2

I picked this up on the cheap on the basis that it was meant to be a super fun shooter with a great core concept. Sadly, after playing it for 40 mins or so, I got bad motion sickness and had to stop playing. All I really got to experience was the (very slow) introduction and some light combat. It did’nt feel a game that was well suited to me, but I was willing to progress with it, until the motion sickness kicked in. I’ve probably given up on this for now.

Far Cry 3

As with TitanFall 2, I picked this up for cheap when I was at a loose end one weekend. Within an hour I knew this was not my sort of game - its all a bit too silly and the combat too cartoonish, feeling like you’re shooting dummies. Again, I am aware that I barely played the game but this feels very much like a mistaken purchase as I prefer my combat games tight, tense and tactical, in the mould of MGS or Resident Evil. This felt too bombastic and, well silly, for me to really invest time in. It’s been put to one side for now…

Elite Dangerous

Elite is, undeniably, a great game. It sets out to simulate solo space travel across our galaxy and asks questions about how you would handle inventory management, space pirates, building a reputation and exploration. The game has an amazing choice of ships, a huge variety of stations and planets to visit and jobs for you to complete for credits and reputation. It feels like an endless game. I invested what I thought was quite a lot of time into this game (easily 25 - 30 hrs), and realised that I was getting basically nowhere fast. A bit of research led me to conclude that this was the intention - the game was all about the grind and slow burn building of a reputation and connecting with other pilots. I kept playing and eventually gave up as I found myself asking the question “am i having fun?”. The answer was “yes, but not enough”. I genuinely loved the game concept but could not quite get the same level of love for it’s execution.

Maybe I’ve missed something, but as wonderful a game as it is, I was left feeling like i was POURING time into it with very little to show for it. Still, it did feel amazing to see the improvement in my ability to dock a ship! What started out as an impossibility became second nature eventually…

Pillars of Eternity

Often referred to as Loading times of eternity, this crowd funded baldurs gate esque game was a lot of fun, purely for nostalgic purposes. It also has an intentionally high difficulty level. Great story, great characters, great tactical battles and beautiful locations. Well worth playing, if you can stick the loading times which are LONG.

Shadow Tactics

Now, this is an excellent game, of which I’ve completed all but the last mission. If you remember the Commando’s game for the PC, then think of that, but in Japan. This game has a great story, beautiful graphics and reasonably deep gameplay. You command up to 5 characters in large maps, giving them commands to manipulate enemies and your environment towards certain objectives. Generally, you’re given a range of options as to how you may want to solve the problem and, it is up to you to decide how to execute (quite literally). The mission settings are varied and quite innovative. Each of the characters you control with unique skills and weaknesses. If yo want actual Tactical Espionage Action, this is a great game.

My only criticism is that he game is not really as deep as it first seems. By Mission 10, I had a fully matured approach to the levels and, generally speaking, i could follow this approach and be successful in completing the levels, which by the end began to feel samey. Also, the game generally rewards ultra conservative game play over risk taking and something could have been done to limit saving or create bigger consequences for your actions. Still, a great game that is worth picking up.

Deus Ex : Mankind Divided

Let me make this clear from the outset - Mankind Divided is one of those games that you just have to play at least once to try. It is by no means perfect, but there is so much to enjoy in the game that if you do get into, it is oh so easy to forgive some of its greater flaws. And the thing is, the game is not without its flaws by any means - in fact, it has one of the most frustrating flaws I've come across in a game, but it is well worth playing in spite of this.

I'm going to start with the bad, just to lay it all on the table so you know what you are getting yourself into.

Firstly, the plot more or less falls flat. This is for two reasons, one major one (which I will come back to below), but also because the main plot in the game tries to carry on the plot from the first game and largely fails. Sure, there is some continuity - including a helpful 10 minute video reminding at the start of the game articulating the main plot points from the Human Revolution (HR), but there are many hints at characters and plot points from the first game that are essentially not followed up on or poorly articulated in the sequel. By the end of the game, sure, I had fought back against a terrorist threat, but i never really felt Mankind was Divided, the stakes were really highly or that I was fighting for the future of humanity. The real peaks of the main plot were, no spoilers, not really that exciting or resolved- it was felt very much like i was playing out someone else's story rather than shaping my own in terms of the main plot.

Secondly, and this is the major point mentioned above, the game seemingly ends 2/3 of the way through. The "final" missions stopped and the ending sequence was essentially a recap of some of the main events of the game. I looked around my living room wondering had i blacked out and missed something but basically, nope, the game just finished at the point I thought the final act was being teed up. The cynic in me thought this was because the intent was leave the game open for another sequel, but apparently (or at least according to the internet), the plug was pulled on the game and it had to be launced 2/3rds complete. It figures, and it shows.

The plot aside, there are other flaws - your player character becomes over powered in the game and, even on the 2nd highest difficulty, becomes relatively easy about half way through the game I played on "give me deus ex" and while i died multiple times, it always felt like a "good challenge" rather than "Christ this is hard". There are uninspiring game sequences - in particular where you infiltrate a neuro-network to solve a bunch of fairly boring box based puzzles - and the game restricts you to a relatively small number of game areas. While Prague is used as a hub for the game missions, a larger world is mentioned but, ultimately you've got one main area and dozen or so side areas to explore in standalone missions. In short, on occasions, the scope feels restrictive sometimes, not just tight or well managed.

Now then - if you've got this far and are a thinking "but he said he loved the game", then bear with me, because i do. Like i also said - the flaws are there, but they are oh so easy to forgive in the context of the wider game. In fact, the fact that they all feel so minor is a testament to how wonderful the core game is. 

Few games have such variety of gameplay and reward innovation as MD does. You can play as a hacker, hacker / assassin, Sniper, Non Lethal Sniper, Stealth, Stealth Assassin, Tank, Explorer and many mor different variations of traditional combat tropes. If you dont like combat you can, virtually avoid it entirely using mainly close quarters non-lethal take downs. Also, the game rewards you for varying your style -  sure, you may find it hard to switch from a tank to a stealth expert, but you can still try and while it can be hard, you can succeed. This is a game designed with flexibility in mind and it rewards innovation. Rarely - if ever - did i feel restricted in how i played the game. In fact, i enjoyed trying different tactics out my reloading my save game just to see if could complete a certain section another way. The game is that good that, in game, you want to replay sections of it. 

Then you have the side missions. And by side missions, what i really mean is world building. While the main plot falls somewhat flat, the side missions are fascinating for the most part. They play out in interesting ways, you face complex moral choices, get a much greater feel for what matters in the Deus Ex universe and, somewhat ironically, connect the game to its predecessor in a way the main plot fails to. They are also incredibly varied - you get to play detective, investigator, combat pro, explorer, political activist, people smugglerand many more roles and often have big choices that play out in interesting ways in the game. If the main plot is the spine of the game, the side missions are the heart and soul and, for the most part, where the real enjoyment can be had.

Prague. What a city. The recreation of a futuristic Prague is oppressive, hostile, beautiful, tortured and believable. As access to the different quarters of the city unfold, your appreciation of what the developers have done grows. You begin to realise that you have a sewer system to explore, a criminal underbelly you can influence - working with or against - citizens you can help or abuse, all set against an astonishingly beautiful backdrop. Just when you think you've got Prague susses, the game pulls one of its most enjoyable twists on you. Spoiler alert - but (in what turns out to be the final third of the game), the police that have already been out in force in Prague, suddenly transform the city to a curfew zone. They are heavily armored and armed, openly hostile to anyone in the street and have multiple reinforcements. You've still got to get around - i mean its not like your job is done - you've just got to be incredibly creative in how you do so and it is incredibly enjoyable. When this happens i genuinely felt like i was playing in a game that was designed around me, had given me the tools to succeed and allowed me to shape the game how i wanted. It was bloody brilliant.

Then there are many one off highlights - the bank heist mission is incredible and can be played many different ways, Jensen's take downs are super as always, one or two of the main plot twists are, genuinely, really interesting, some of the augments you can take are downright great fun to play with (the slow-down time one and exploding ball bearings are GREAT) and even the final boss fight is a blast. 

Yes - the game has some big problems, yet the fact that these problems feel so, so small when you play Deus Ex - Mankind Divided tell you all you need to know about how wonderful the game really is and why it is well worth completing. 

Life is Strange is Bloody Good (and true)

There is an interesting moment in life is strange when you begin to realise that your character, Max Caulfield, really doesn’t know what she is doing when it comes to time travel and that whatever decision you make, there is no clear good or bad outcome. That the game allows you to see both the short term outcomes of the binary choice before selecting your “preferred” option is fascinating, but what is wonderful is that the game never really shows you the “unintended consequences” of your action until it is far too late to reverse it. Herein lies the joy in playing life is strange – the game is wonderfully set up, gives you enough information to make you feel like you’re able to make an informed choice, but ultimately, you’re never really sure how your actions are going to play out – just like in real life.

That each decision carry’s weight – some on a small but emotional scale, others on a much grander or more serious note – enriches the game further. This is not a game you play through, it is a game you inhabit – you very much play the role of the characters, feel like you get to know them and get to make decisions on their behalf. Some of those decisions will immediately resonate with you, others will feel alien and uncomfortable but it is almost always fascinating to play through a game where the actual manipulating of the control pad is secondary ore even tertiary to the main components of the game itself. Just like in real life, the material side is often less important than the moral, emotional or even spiritual aspects and the decision making at the heart of the game is undeniably the standout component that makes the game such a joy to play through .

Of course, the decision making of itself is not sufficient to make it a great game. Yes, your decisions carry weight and are carefully implemented, but LIS has a significant supporting cast when it comes to describing what makes the game so great. Firstly, the characters are mostly excellent. They are believable, flawed, richly described and almost always well voice acted. Sure, some of the dialogue is a bit ropey, but by and large you feel like you are playing a role in a real living and breathing town with real people in it. Secondly, the soundtrack and art design are both first rate. While the graphics are pretty much passable, the slightly stylised environments are beautiful and the accompanying sound track is always complimentary and never intrusive. In particular, there are a couple of scenes and even loading screens where the original soundtrack or carefully selected songs just add to the emotion.

Then there is the plot. Part, clichéd teenage angst centred story with sci-fi time travel chucked in for good measure, part exportation of causality and what it means to be friends with someone, part murder mystery. It shouldn’t work, but it does, mainly because the characters are so well written. I loved getting to know Max, creating my own theories about who the serial killer was all the time wondering what the hell was going on with the doomsday hurricane that was coming. It sounds like a hot mess but really, it all just comes together and works so well.

As you can probably tell, I loved Life is Strange, even despite its problems. Sure, there are a couple of issues with pacing, not really communicating the option to explore very well earlier on and the pacing across 5 episodes doesn’t quite work. In fact, this is probably the most frustrating thing – initially released in 5 episodes, the climaxes of each are interesting and well thought out though do feel a little forced (cliff-hanger from 4 to5 in particular) and I cant help but feel it is best played ignoring the episodes and breaking as and when you like. Also, bits of the plot are sort of dull – I was, for example, simply bored by being able to wander around the same house for the 3rd time to find some car keys. GET ON WITH IT I wanted to scream.

However, these problems are minor. Play life is strange and you will have a wonderful story and characters to invest time in, a superb mystery to solve and a truly fascinating decision based game to play. You’ll weigh your decisions carefully, wonder what the right thing to do is and then make a call and not quite believe how things play out.

And the best thing is, once you’ve completed the game you’ll begin to think the same about your own real life decisions and probably both wish and not wish that you could see how the play out and rewind time.


One of the finest games on the PS4 and well worth the time and effort to play through.

 

Lee

 

PS the closest game I can compare this to is Until Dawn. Both are excellent but I have to say that I had a lot more fun with Until Dawn. Sure, life is strange is more interesting and intellectual, but Unitl Dawn is just such a blast start to finish that if I could only play or recommend one of the two games, I’d definitely go with Until Dawn over Life is Strange.