Category Archives: Gaming

Burn in the Fires of Eternal Torment… Through the Trap Door (C64)

Having being playing games for longer than I care to remember, I’ve been unfortunate to play some really, really shit ones. Particularly back in the C64 era, there was some real crappy titles that were released. Things like The Simpsons: Bart vs. the Space MutantsSanta’s Christmas Caper and Boot Camp (AKA Combat School) stick out for me, but the one game that always comes to mind when thinking of the utterly worst game I’ve ever played is Through the Trap Door.

Oh no, where’s Boney gone! Do we stage a rescue or go and find a better game instead?

For those too young to remember, The Trap Door was a stop-motion animated series voiced by Willie Rushton and featuring an amorphous blue blob named Berk. He was the resident dogsbody in an un-named castle, working for the never-seen-Thing Upstairs, who was constantly hungry and bellowing. Aided by the disembodied skull Boney and the spider Drutt, the series followed Berk’s attempts to placate his master whilst trying to remember (and usually failing) to keep the titular trap-door closed, lest one of the many terrifying monsters from below should escape. Which they usually did.

Two 8-bit games were released based on the series. The first – simply named The Trap Door – was published in 1986 by Piranha Software. Written by Don Priestly and featuring his trademark ‘giant sprite’ style, The Trap Door was actually a pretty good adventure game. A little slow, perhaps – particularly in its C64 conversion – but entertaining and very reminiscent of the TV series. Most games of the time based on TV shows bore very little resemblance to their subject matter (*cough* Thundercats *cough*), but The Trap Door did make you feel like you were playing an episode.

Two years later, the sequel – Through the Trap Door – was published. It was shit.

Part of me just wants to end there, but I feel I should elucidate a bit. The concept behind Through the Trap Door was actually a pretty good one. Who amongst we children who watched the show back in the now rather dim and distant past didn’t at one point wonder what exactly was beneath that trap door? The story (such as it was) saw Boney being kidnapped by some skeletal-bat-thing and taken beneath the trap door for some no-doubt nefarious purpose. It is thus up to Bert and Drutt to venture forth and rescue their friend from the clutches of the aforementioned skeletal-bat-thing that I don’t think had a name.

And it’s here where the problems start. Mainly because this is where the game starts.

A giant green bat-thing, a yellow frog-thing that’s supposed to be a spider and a white key-thing that is, for some unexplained reason, hovering high in the air.

The biggest issue I have with the game are the controls. As total mismatches between game style and control schemes go, I don’t think there is a better example than this. Bert controls exactly as he did in the first game – slow and clumsily. This wasn’t as much of a problem in the original Trap Door as that was more of a puzzle adventure game, where careful consideration was crucial. Through the Trap Door is much more of standard platformer, with a few puzzle elements scattered throughout. There’s a lot of avoiding enemies and make pixel-perfect jumps, and the big, fat (though admittedly nicely animated) Berk sprite just isn’t up to it. Controlling him feels constantly like you’re trying to convince a reluctant hippopotamus to climb some stairs.

But Berk is a dream to play as in comparison to Drutt. The little gray spider is here (again, as in the first game) reimagined as a yellow blob that looks more like a frog than anything else. He moves faster than Berk but – and here’s the rub – he is constantly moving by himself, normally to chase down one of the worms that frequently appear on the screen. Even when you’re controlling him, he has a mind of his own, and one that seems to have a predilection for falling down giant pits. Which is rather unfortunate, really, as what seems to below the trap-door are a lot of pits, along with terrible collision detection. I’ve seen people complaining about the annoyances caused by Trico in last year’s The Last Guardian but trust me, he has nothing on Drutt. Play as him for longer than six seconds and you’ll want to smash the keyboard to smithereens. But don’t, kids.

Controls aside, the other main problem with Through the Trap Door is just that it’s so damned hard. To clarify that a bit, I’m not complaining here about the difficulty itself – a lot of good games are hard – but with this game the toughness comes through the fault of the game rather than purposeful design and the need to acquire a particular skill-set that you build up over the course of playing. Through the Trap Door is hard because of the awful controls and the fact that it’s so utterly obtuse. I never made it past about the fourth screen, but having watched a complete playthrough on YouTube I can say that there is just no way I would have been able to figure out some of the puzzles as a kid, even assuming I’d had the patience to make it all the way through (which I haven’t even now).

You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to get Drutt to stop on this ledge without either running off-screen or leaping into the pit.

Perhaps worst of all the crimes the game commits, though, is how it squanders its premise and how utterly disappointing it is. Some games are never going to amount to much; at no point was infamous Atari title ET: The Extra-Terrestrial ever going to be anything other than a steaming pile of dung. There are chinks of light here that suggest this could have been more. The graphics, simplistic backgrounds aside, are crisp and well-animated. The game is, for the time, reasonably sizable. But it’s all for naught, as all the bad things get in the way. You’ll never appreciate the graphics because you’re be too busy swearing at the screen as Drutt starts running to the left even though you’re telling him to go right. You’ll never see most of the game has to offer because your frustrations will stop you from making it too far.

Yes, Through the Trap Door is, on reflection, the worst game I’ve ever played.

Probably.

[Thanks to MobyGames for the cover image for this blog. I couldn’t get the loading screen to appear in my emulated version… Taken from http://www.mobygames.com/game/c64/through-the-trap-door/screenshots/gameShotId,276794/ .]

I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today Without… Frontier: Elite II

Back in the dark age of computer games, when having a ‘multi-screen adventure’ was something to shout about on the back of a cassette tape inlay, along came a game called Elite that changed peoples’ perceptions of the possible. It’s hard to understand the impact the game had at the time, but if you just look at the influence it still has some thirty-odd years later, you might begin to grasp its significance.

Okay, okay: it doesn’t look great these days but you had to be there. I have no idea who Len is, incidentally.

I did play the original Elite (I had a copy on the NES, of all things) but it’s the sequel, Frontier, that I remember most fondly. Released in 1992 on the PC, ST and Amiga, Frontier basically took everything that was great about the original – the freedom, the expansive Universe – and dialed it up to eleven. Freed from the memory constraints of 8-bit computers, author David Braben created in Frontier a game that featured a singular open world (well, galaxy technically) long before the likes of Grand Theft Auto came along and popularised the concept.

You could travel to Earth, Barnard’s Star, Arcturus and thousands upon thousands more places that I can’t remember the names of, on a map intricately plotted based on real observations of the Milky Way. Apparently, anyway: I’m too stupid and ignorant to know if they were lying.

What really made Frontier stand out for me was the setting. Like many of the ‘big-box’ titles of the time, Frontier came with an extensive manual and also a copy of ‘Stories of Life on the Frontier’, a separate collection of short stories that provided some insights into the game’s world, particularly the conflict between the two galactic superpowers of the Federation and the Empire. Throughout the game you could choose to ally yourself with either faction (or both, if you wanted to be a double-crossing sneaky sneakster), completing missions for them that would raise a rank with them that was separate to your ‘Elite rating’ that gives the series its name. Higher faction ranks resulted in more dangerous missions which would reap higher monetary rewards. A bit like real-life, really, but with more lasers.

In truth, there wasn’t actually that much to do in Frontier. There were lots of missions available through the bulletin boards of the game’s various space stations and planetary bases, but the variety of these was limited to a few different types, such as ferrying passengers, delivering packages or assassinations. This didn’t matter, though: it seemed that there was a universe of possibilities through your TV screen. The procedural generation Frontier employed (again, long before the term was in common use) was clever enough to allow you to suspend your disbelief, and make it feel that everything was hand-crafted. If you’re interested in the technicalities of it all, go and look at jongware.com who have some great articles exploring it.

Bulletin boards were always full of missions and images of ugly people in strange hats.

The Amiga version that I played is, like many early 3D games, almost next to unplayable now for the modern palate. The graphics, which at the time seemed revolutionary, now look so abstract with their lack of texture mapping and horrendous jagged edges that its like being in an explosion at a geometry factory. On the hardware I played it on as well, the frame-rate can plummet in planetary locations to figures you could count on one hand, if not one finger. Space combat – honestly, never Frontier’s strongest aspect – now feels barely controllable.

None of this really matters, I guess: Frontier was amazing at the time and helped cement my love of science-fiction. I distinctly remember reading and re-reading the manuals and fiction book, buildinmg up a world in my mind. This was a game designed in some ways for the teenager, with free time coming out of their pimples. I’m not sure, even if it looked and controlled better, that I’d have the patience to play this nowadays. Frontier and – I assume – its successors such as the modern Elite: Dangerous – are games that reward a time investment that I just couldn’t commit to now.

For a time, though, Frontier was to me the greatest game ever made. Well, maybe apart from Super Mario Bros. 3. And that intro sequence will stay with me forever. I haven’t got my own video of it, so here’s one by YouTuber Trypsonite:

Note: All images in this post are from MobyGames.

Am I the Only One Who Remembers… DreamWeb

As a grizzled old man, I’m fortunate enough to remember the early days of video gaming, and looking across the gamult of its history, you can see easily a pattern that represents the growth of a man. From the early infantile days of Pong to the modern age, which in some ways seems like an early 30-year-old, clinging on to the last strands of youth. As with most things, if you look hard enough you can see the metaphor.

Lying firmly in the awkward adolescent phase is DreamWeb. The game tries so hard to be edgy it lacerates itself. As if to prove just how goddamn adult it is, the original game came packaged with a ‘Diary of a Madman’ book providing some backstory to the game, written in an authentic crazy-man scrawl font. You can tell it gets crazier towards the end as the font gets bigger AND THE AUTHOR STARTS WRITING IN CAPITALS, A PRACTICE LEFT SOLELY TO THE MENTALLY UNBALANCED. The game features violence, gore, swearing and even a sex scene.

Yes, a sex scene. In a 1994 video game. It is precisely as titilating as you would imagine.

Which is odd, because in the cutscene before the DreamWeb was shown to be circular. Time to go back to Geometry 101, red-cloak-wearing-dude.

DreamWeb tries so, so hard to be cool that, in doing so, it forgets it has to be a video game as well. In my pre-blog research I’ve seen DreamWeb described as ‘one of the greatest cyberpunk games ever made’. It isn’t. It barely manages to be one of the greatest games called ‘DreamWeb.’

Eden is your improbably-named girlfriend who really could do better for herself than a bartender who thinks he’s the ‘Deliverer’.

The gameplay consists of scanning your mouse over the fairly samey-looking overhead dystopia, using the games magnifier to find pixel-wide interactive areas. There are puzzles to solve and people to talk to, of course. You play the part of Ryan Cantrememberhissecondname, who is either a mentally unhinged psychopath or the one chosen by the mystical eponymous DreamWeb to save the world. Which, of course, he just happens to do be brutally murdering several people. Apparently they going to commit some heinous event at some point, or something. It’s hard to care, to be honest. There’s some interest to be had at the start in plotting the initial assassinations, but you’re stuck on a very linear path and there’s no scope for improvisation. This is an adventure game, ultimately, and you do what it tells you to. By the time you reach the latter stages of the game, everything seems so rushed that you half suspect the developers got a bit bored with it all too.

The problem with dystopian near-future worlds is that they can be very difficult to get right without appearing trite or unbelievable. DreamWeb doesn’t, to be fair to it, fall into this trap, but the unfortunately the world it presents just has no soul. Even with the decently-written ‘Diary of a Madman’ backstory taken into account (which obviously you shouldn’t, because it’s not in the game), it’s not fleshed out enough for you to care about the detail. But then, there isn’t an air of intrigue or mystery about it either. The characters are mostly anonymous or, particularly in the case of the protagonist, hard to care about. There was never a sequel, and I can’t imagine than many would to revisit this world.

She’s probably wondering if she’ll ever get a job in a better game.

Today, DreamWeb is pretty much forgotten. If it is remembered at all, it’s because of the sex scene – a first for a ‘mainstream’ game at the time. I seem to recall that, when it was released, that was pretty much the main selling point too. Nowadays it seems remarkably tame; nothing more than a shuffle of fleshy-coloured pixels.

If you’re after a retro steampunk adventure, seek out the likes of Beneath a Steel Sky or Westwood’s brilliant 1997 Blade Runner game instead. Leave DreamWeb where it belongs: in the broom closet of forgotten games.

 

Burn in the Fires of Eternal Torment… C64 Thundercats

If you were a child of the ’80s like myself, you will remember Thundercats. Ohboyohboyohboy, Thundercats was fantastic. It had everything you could want in a cartoon series: action, cool characters, a brilliantly scary bad guy, Cheetara (although perhaps only later was that quite so appealing). And, of course, it had that theme tune. For these who can’t remember, this is how every episode of Thundercats started off:


I mean, honestly. Everything about that (well, apart from Snarf) just screams excitement, adventure and other cool things. Even now just watching it makes me tingle weirdly inside, and not just from the sight of Cheetara doing all those gymnastics.

Thundercats was pretty massive in the 80s; perhaps not up to the popularity levels of Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but certainly there weren’t many kids who hadn’t watched it or owned some of the toys. And, of course, in the 1980s where there was a successful cartoon series and toy line, there was also a home computer platformer.

To give it it’s due, for the standards of the time this wasn’t an awful game, it was just – in the context of the show – utterly, utterly disappointing. Just go and watch that intro sequence again. Go on, I’ll wait for you. Now watch this:


I mean, honestly. It’s just shit, isn’t it? How disappointed would a 10-year-old boy be having rushed back from the shops tape in hand, to sit around waiting for the game to load for 30 minutes only to be confronted with this? Well, as one of those 10-year-old boys (at the time. Not now, obviously) I can tell you: very.

The game, released by Elite Software is a clumsy mess of a title, with stupidly high difficulty, frustrating controls and an utter lack of purpose. There’s a bit of variety with some of the glider sections, but these are so difficult to control and play they make those infamous tunnel bits in Battletoads seem forgiving in comparison. In the quick emulated replay I did for this post, I couldn’t get far enough to get to one of these bits, but luckily the nice people over at MobyGames haven’t lost all of the muscle memory they accrued for the title, so there’s a screenshot below. Looks great, doesn’t it? No. No is the answer.

He’ll be dead in approximately five seconds.

It’s only whilst writing this that, having stumbled upon the Wikipedia entry for the game, I discovered that this was never meant to actually be a Thundercats title, but is actually a hastily-reskinned game called Samurai Dawn. This goes some way to explaining why it just isn’t very Thundercats-y, some graphical motifs aside.

Ultimately, Thundercats is not a very good computer game. Okay, okay: this was 1987 and standards were different then and, perhaps, nothing could really come close to the expectations I had from the cartoon. But still, the license deserved better. And still does, really. A quick Google suggests that the only other released game based on the franchise is a 2012 Nintendo DS game, which takes its cues from the prematurely-cancelled 2011 cartoon reboot (which, incidentally, if you haven’t watched then you should: it’s great) and, apparently, is also shit. Jaga will be turning in his grave.

On… Mass Effect Andromeda

Let’s get this out of the way from the start: the facial animations haven’t bothered me in the slightest. Okay, okay, character models seemed more detailed in the likes of The Witcher 3 but, a ‘dead eyes’ problem aside, Mass Effect Andromeda is perfectly serviceable in this regard. It could be better, yes, but it’s nowhere near as bad as some people might make you think.

So, anyway, with that out of the way, let’s talk Andromeda. As a huge fan of the previous games in the series I was awaiting this with breath so baited I could have used it to catch perch. Am I disappointed, like many people seem to be? No. Yes. No. Maybe. Look, it’s complicated. Maybe the best way to look at Andromeda is to consider not what it is, but what it isn’t.

Just give me a car and a a desert, and I’ll give you a lot of ‘wheeeee’s and some tyre-tracks.

Andromeda isn’t Mass Effect 4. Well, I mean, it is, obviously, but it also isn’t. The fictional universe is very much Mass Effect but the story doesn’t follow on from the ending of ME3. Rather, this follows a separate story of a group of humans, turians, salarians, asari and krogan who have decided that the Milky Way is a bit too cramped for them, and thus decided to bugger off to the nearby-in-galactic-terms-but-not-exactly-next-door Andromeda galaxy. After six hundred years of cryogenic sleep, the hardy (and some not-so-hardy) pioneers awake to find that their long-range scans seem to have been about as accurate as a ten-day weather forecast, and crash headlong into a weird wibbly-wobbly space thingy that someone had inconveniently parked in their way.

This is much more a game about exploration and discovery, and as a result perhaps lacks the focus of the original trilogy with it’s more obvious threat and narrative drive. This, I think, is likely to turn a few people off but, for more, I found it a refreshing change of pace from the original titles.

Andromeda also isn’t an open-world game. This is no Skyrim or The Witcher 3 with vast open areas to explore and do as you wish. The game very much takes its cues from Bioware’s last major release, Dragon Age Inquisition, with its multitude of large-ish open areas with multiple quests. Some of the quests are interesting and provide a decent back-story, but, it must be said, a few too many of them revert to the MMORPG form of ‘go here, press a button, go there, press the button again, repeat eight times until the quest progress bar is full’. Compared to the likes of The Witcher 3 or even, to a lesser extent, Fallout 4 the side-quests can be pretty weak.

The game suffers a little bit from a lack of places to explore. Whether it’s just because I haven’t reached the appropriate point in the game yet (though given that I’m 20-odd hours into it that seems unlikely), but whilst there is a big number of worlds that can be visited in the not-quite-as-good-as-the-Normandy-but-still-pretty-cool-Tempest, the majority of these cannot be explored on foot. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem were it not for the fact that the whole emphasis of the game is on exploration and finding a new home, yet you find yourself restricted by a set of rules hidden behind the scenes. Why is it I can land on this frozen planet but not this other one? The answer, probably, is just because a map exists for one and not the other. I realise it would have been incredibly difficult to implement, but just from the perspective of the game as a whole, procedural-generation of planets allowing them to be explorable, even if there wasn’t a whole lot that could be done there, would have improved the game massively.

See that mountain in the distance? You can’t go there.

Finally, Andromeda also isn’t a fully-tested game. Even in the patch version 1.05 that landed (at time of writing) yesterday, there are still issues. Most annoying for me, playing on PS4 Pro, are the occasionally-strobing menu backgrounds and the almost-five-minute waiting times when loading a save that took place whilst in the Nomad all-terrain-vehicle. I’ve not yet encountered anything that fundamentally breaks the game, nor had any crashes, but I can’t help feeling that another two weeks in the oven would have benefited the title.

Still, even after all that, Mass Effect Andromeda is a very good game. The combat is the best it’s ever been, even if the more ‘open’ nature of the game means that there are fewer set-piece combat moments where everything has been tuned to work together. Ryder is a likeable protagonist, with a more fleshed-out background than Shepard had in the original trilogy. I’ve not played enough of the game yet to fully comment on the storyline, but of what I have played I’ve found it decent enough and, as mentioned earlier, a good thematic change from the previous games.

TL;DR: If you liked Mass Effects 1-3 you will like this. You might not love it, and it certainly isn’t as good as it’s predecessors, but I’m enjoying it immensely.

On… Final Fantasy XV

The last time I had a new, main-entry Final Fantasy game was when my daughter was born. Almost seven years later, FFXV has come along following a development process that sounds so painful that it makes me gladder than ever that I’m not in the games industry.

At this point I haven’t completed FFXV yet but, at some 40-odd hours in, I feel sufficiently armed to provide a bit of an assessment of it. And, just to give some context to the whole thing (and because the last time I wrote something about a Final Fantasy game I almost got lynched), let’s be clear that I’ve got a pretty good history with the series: I’ve played almost every main entry from FFIII to XV, can tell my chocobos from my moogles, and own enough related merchandise that I could probably be considered a ‘fan-boy’. That said, I hated FFXIII when it came out and, though my opinions have changed somewhat since then, I do feel that at some point the series has lost its way. There was a sense of magic and fun about an entry like FFIX that somehow seems to have been lost.

I was hopeful going into FFXV that it might mark a return to form. After 40 hours, do I think it does? Well…

First things first: the game has obviously been a labour of love for the development team, who have poured their hearts and souls into this; that much is obvious. What’s also unfortunately obvious is that, despite the game’s lengthy incubation period, it probably just needed a few months or another year more in the oven. Some things are blatantly unfinished: the story is a jumble of plot-holes, with pivotal events happening off-screen and mentioned only in passing. Major characters get little or no character development, committing actions that seemingly have no motivation behind them. The open-world is large but mostly barren, and strewn with invisible walls that make navigating it an inconsistently frustrating experience. Sub-quests are plentiful, but rarely become much more involved than the standard formula of ‘go-here-do-this-come-back’. In that sense they’re very similar to those of Xenoblade Chronicles, though at least that title had the good grace to remove the necessity to return back to the quest giver for a reward.

For all this, though, FFXV is an experience that should not be missed if you have any kind of interest in the series. There are some wonderful facets to it: the combat system is frenetic and fun (if slightly shallower than it initially seems); the world is amazingly detailed; and there are just so many little touches throughout the title that it will bury its way into your heart.

Crucially, it’s the central relationship between the four main characters that defines the game. You play as Prince Noctis, and you begin with a retinue of three other characters: Ignis; Prompto; and Gladiolus. Unlike previous FF titles, this remains pretty much the extent of your party for the entire game. Whilst at first this seems a bit disappointing, the camaraderie you build up with the others means that you legitimately care for them.

Well, except for Gladiolus. He’s just an arse.

In many ways FFXV is frustrating, because it’s obvious it could have been so much more. There are so many weird decisions made during its development that sometimes you just sit back and wonder what they were thinking about. Who, for instance, thought it was a good idea to have the majority of travel in the game take place during unskippable car journeys that take literal minutes of real-time? Who decided there shouldn’t be an option to ‘wait’ and rush through the day-night cycle when so many quests and monster hunts are only possible at certain times? Who decided those bloody frog-catching quests were a good idea?

FFXV is a work of artistic genius, and, like all such things, has idiosyncrasies that are mitigated by the brilliance elsewhere. It could have been a better game, but as it stands it is a great experience.

On… Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Warning: Contains minor spoilers for Deux Ex: Mankind Divided.

Adam Jensen, antagonist of 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution and this it’s sequel, is cool. He looks cool, what with his black trench coat, carbon-fibre death arms and beard so pointy you could cut glass with it. He sounds cool, too, with his delivery drier than the surface of Mars. In fact, he’s probably a bit too cool for his own good, as he often comes across as more an impartial observer of humanity than someone invested in it.

Maybe that’s deliberate: a comment perhaps on how Jensen, augmented with so many cybernetic implants that he’s got more physically in common with a toaster than you or I, has had a portion of his humanity taken away. Or perhaps it’s a way of providing players with a cipher that doesn’t attempt to stamp too much personality onto proceedings.

Whatever the reasoning (if there is one), Jensen’s attitude highlights one of the main problems with Mankind Divided, which otherwise does so much to fix the problems of Human Revolution and emphasise what it did right. On the positive side, this is a game that excels in providing player agency and freedom to make progress the way you want to. Pretty much every scenario in the game has multiple routes to completion. The more gung-ho of us can rattle through the levels obliterating opponents with a mixture of gunfire and augment-enhanced melee, whilst those more inclined to a sneaky-sneakster approach can hide in air vents, surprising enemies with a whack to the head or a tranquiliser dart between the eyes. Where Mankind Divided really shines is not just with the sheer number of options available, but how easily you can shift your strategy as scenarios change. Whilst the AI isn’t always wholly convincing, it does a decent job and the gameplay is the most emergent I’ve seen since Metal Gear Solid V. This is no Assassin’s Creed with it’s multiple black-and-white fail-states.

You can tell it's a dystopian future from the Venetian blinds.
You can tell it’s a dystopian future from the Venetian blinds.

Presentation-wise, MD is also top-notch. The central hub city – Prague – is a beautifully rendered environment, with differing day-and-night states, complete with fantastic lighting effects. Several of the other levels also contain vistas that are worth just sitting back and looking at for a good few minutes. Character models are an improvement on Human Revolution, if still not quite first-class, and the various interface elements of the game are clean, crisp and with a consistent design motif.

Where Mankind Divided falls down is with its plot and the disconnect between game and narrative. ‘Ludonarrative dissonance’ is one of those terms that gamers like to bandy about a lot, mainly because it sounds quite intelligent, and is often applied to titles such as Uncharted where Nathan Drake’s Hollywood-hero aesthetic in cut-scenes fails to mesh convincingly with his crazed-gun-man approach to combat encounters. Here the problem is that Deus Ex provides a world that is realistic, but where the actions of most players won’t be. My first instinct, for instance, when leaving Jensen’s apartment at the beginning of the game was to try and break into everyone else’s rooms in the building. Entering the top-secret Interpol headquarters, before going to my mission objective I preferred to wander around hacking people’s computers whilst they stood about ten feet away. Of course, you can argue that these were my play choices, but by allowing you the freedom to do these things and effectively incentivising them with XP rewards and consumables, the game is pushing you towards actions that don’t sit well with the narrative.

The plot also doesn’t really go anywhere. It starts off quite strong, with Jensen thrown into the middle of a conspiracy and then a terrorist attack, but following this it takes a while to get going again and then, when it does, it pretty much ends without much of a coda. I came away with the distinct feeling that I was missing not just the final chapter, but a whole volume. Perhaps this will come in DLC, though I can’t help but think the amount of story remaining really requires a whole new game.

Much has been made elsewhere of the political overtones of the game, in particular the segregation the narrative presents between augmented and ‘natural’ humans. This didn’t overly bother me, though at times it did seem to be laid on a little thick. Possibly the worst crime the game commits with regards to this is that it doesn’t provide a great deal of commentary to it; arguably this is down to the game’s primary aim to offer you as much agency as possible, but it does still come across as a bit empty.

Despite these nagging issues with the narrative, this is still most definitely a game worth playing. The sheer number of ways to play compensate somewhat for the relatively short length, and the top-notch presentation demonstrate that this is a game that’s had a lot of money spent on it.

Plus, Adam Jensen’s beard is cool.

Great Jensen's beard!
Great Jensen’s beard!

On… The Witcher 3 DLC

Let’s get this out of the way right from the start: the DLC for The Witcher 3 is the best example of the form I’ve ever seen. There have been some good pieces of add-on content in the past (Mass Effect 2: Lair of the Shadow Broker, ME3: Citadel, Oblivion: Shivering Isles, etc.) but they are all trampled into the Velen mud by what CD Projekt Red have produced here.

Beware if you wish to read further: spoilers for the main Witcher 3 campaign as well as Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine are contained herein.

Released late last year, Hearts of Stone was the first major piece of DLC and features around 10-15 hours worth of content. At first glance it might seem slightly uninspiring, not least of all because there’s no new area to explore. Well, actually that’s a bit of a lie: the expansion does provide new parts of Velen to traipse around in, but there’s no new ‘whole’ map area as such.

What makes HoS so fantastic though is its storyline. Whilst there are, as you would expect, a number of various sub-quests, the main meat of the package concerns Geralt’s encounters with Gaunter O’Dimm. Rather cleverly, this is a character who initially appeared right at the start of the main campaign in a role so subtle that most people (myself included) would have forgotten about it until reminded by the DLC. The character of Gaunter is fascinating – his exact nature never truly revealed, but there are hints enough that he is an incarnation of evil. Your slow re-introduction to him takes place over a series of quests, initially focusing around new character Olgierd von Everec. To begin with, Olgierd seems to be the antagonist, but it soon becomes apparent that instead he’s something of a sympathetic character, drawn too deep into a situation he can no longer control.

HoS in many ways makes for a better campaign than the Wild Hunt itself did: it has the advantage of taking place over a smaller scale, and thus becomes much more involving for the player. Whilst Wild Hunt was very, very good, the need for it to take in the political machinations of Nilfgaard and Redania (amongst others) often lent it a layer of abstraction. HoS has none of this, really, and instead focuses on a small set of characters whose motivations and actions you come to know intimately. Indeed, the most memorable parts of the DLC are perhaps those that deal with the smallest matters. The wedding scene, for instance, wickedly subverts expectations set by the main campaign and external touch-points like Game of Thrones by being pretty much uneventful. Yet it stays with you because of the wonderful character development it employs, plus a fair amount of humour.

By the time HoS ends you have a completely different view of the world it presented than you did when it started, and that’s much to its credit. The character of O’Dimm will stick long in the mind, his cavalier ambivalence and macabre wit making for one of the best villains I think I’ve ever seen in a video game.

Touissant, not in Arizona.
Touissant, not in Arizona.

The second expansion, Blood and Wine, is a different beast. It’s hard to guage the ‘size’ of it, as mileage can vary, but to me it felt a good two-and-half times as big as HoS. This also adds a new map area, the southern duchy of Touissant. A rich, vibrant land with more than a hint of the Mediterranean about it, Touissant is an area vastly different to the war-torn Velen and the beautiful but harsh Skellige.

Due to the nature of the Wild Hunt’s main storyline, Blood and Wine by necessity needs to take place before the former’s conclusion. Thematically, however, the expansion is very much a coda to Geralt’s adventures. I’d suggest, in fact, if you buy the whole game packaged complete with the DLC, that you finish the main story first before tackling this. Not because of any difficulty issues (although the enemies here are tougher than most in the main game), but simply because the story works better.

Ostensibly, the main plot-line concerns a vampiric beast stalking the duchy, murdering a seemingly unconnected group of nobles. As the story builds, though, it touches more obviously on the topics of home, family and belonging. There is a wondrous juxtaposition between the traditional Geralt, perennial outcast, and the homestead vineyard that he acquires and potentially builds up over the course of the expansion. Additionally, whilst the Witcher series has always been in some ways a dark counterpoint to more traditional high-fantasy fare, here the inversions of tropes are laid bare. Towards the end of the expansion’s main story there’s a wonderful segment where Geralt enters a fairytale world, at first glance seeming peaceful before rapidly showing its corrupted side. Seeing Geralt take part in a dark (well, darker I guess) version of Little Red Riding Hood is a complete joy.

BaW is a campaign that deals with endings, of a sort. Whilst none of us can lay claim to living the life of a Witcher, the questions the game asks regarding where we wish to settle, literally and figuratively, are ones we can all empathise with. At its conclusion you feel as if Geralt’s story is complete. Okay – there could be extra adventures put in if needed – but all the pieces of the jigsaw have been put into place.

Narrative aside, BaW astounds as well because of the sheer generosity of the content it offers. At £15.99, the expansion contains more hours of gaming than most standalone, full-price titles. There are sub-quests galore, additions to character development, new gear sets, and so on. Also, it looks absolutely amazing.

I mean, seriously, it's lovely, isn't it?
I mean, seriously, it’s lovely, isn’t it?

All of this gushing probably makes it obvious that I can’t recommend Witcher 3’s DLC sets highly enough. They take everything that was great about the main game and simultaneously condense it whilst expanding on it. The only word of warning I would give is that, given the length of the main campaign and the DLC, it might not be a good idea to attempt it all in one go, for fear of burning out. I took a break of several months between finishing the main game and approaching both DLCs, and at the end of Blood and Wine I did almost wish I’d had an extra hiatus before it. Still, it seems rather petty to complain about having too much.

The addition of Hearts of Stone and Blood and Wine probably make The Witcher 3 the best computer RPG ever. I’ll admit it’s not my favourite (Mass Effect and Baldur’s Gate II top it), but as an achievement of narrative, technology and scope it is, quite simple, untouchable.

On… Uncharted 4

Warning: Spoilers for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End contained below.

Blimey, this is a lovely game. Lovely to play, lovely to look at, lovely to hear. Just lovely. At times its loveliness is so pronounced that it makes you want to reach out and stroke your TV screen. Don’t do that, though, as you’ll get fingerprints all over it and immediately feel embarrassed.

Uncharted 4 is one of those games that, if you dissemble it to its constituent parts, doesn’t seem to add up to very much, yet somehow the finished product is spectacular. On paper it should be rather like The Order 1886: a linear, story-based romp interspersed with shooty bits. And, yes, it is that (plus some jumpy bits and car-drivey bits), but whereas The Order felt dead and leaden, this feels full of life. Maybe it’s the stunning graphics. The vistas of Scotland and Madagascar in particular are the most astonishing I’ve seen since The Witcher 3. Maybe it’s the characters. If wise-cracking Nathan Drake urked you before then, well, he won’t endear himself to you this time. But if, like me, you enjoyed the breezy, almost effortless charm of the main cast then you’ll certainly get your fair share of entertainment here. Maybe it’s the gunplay. True, it’s not best-in-class but is easy to pick up and, most importantly, fun. Most of the weapons have a satisfying heft to them, and there’s enough variety so that you feel you’re constantly finding new items throughout the length of the game.

Most likely, it’s everything together that makes this game what it is.

Nathan Drake doing what he does best: standing perilously close to the edge of a cliff.
Nathan Drake doing what he does best: standing perilously close to the edge of a cliff.

What’s most pleasing is that, considering this is the fourth game in the series (well, fifth if you count Vita prequel Golden Abyss), this is actually the one that differs most from the pre-set formula. There’s an increased focus on stealth which, wonderfully, never descends to the level of insta-death fails (I’m looking at you again, The Order). The pacing also seems better, with more sensible gaps between the all-out shooting sections. And whilst you never feel that you’re free to explore the world, there are multiple sections where you have more scope for moving off the beaten path. I found particularly impressive the way that the game signposts and funnels you down particular routes without ever really making you feel as if you being forced to go in a specific direction. There are no mini-maps, waypoints or HUD routes here, yet you never feel lost.

Special mention should be made of the game’s story, and if you’re really worried about spoilers you should step away now. Superficially, Uncharted 4 centres around a hunt for the lost treasure of long-dead if not long-Johned pirate Captain Avery. In actuality, the story is more concerned with the question of obsession and the notion of what we do after the adventure of youth is over. The game ends with the idea that, as life moves on, you shouldn’t give up on your dreams entirely, but perhaps you do need to adjust them and consider them in light of what else you’ve gained. The introduction of Nathan Drake’s brother Sam, whilst admittedly feeling slightly shoe-horned into the series’ continuity, provides an interesting juxtaposition. Despite Sam being the elder brother, his time spent languishing in a Spanish jail means that he essentially plays the role of Nathan in the early games: driven to find the treasure more than anything else.

It’s unusual for game series to end in a ‘planned’ way: normally they go on either forever or until the sales figures drop too much. Uncharted 4 is very much a ‘goodbye’ to the series or, at the very least, to the series as we know it. There could be more Uncharteds after this, but I think it’s fair to say – some DLC aside – Nathan Drake’s treasure-hunting days are over. That’s nothing to be sad about, though. The series definitely ends on a high and, as the game tells you, you can’t keep doing the same thing forever.

Remember that bit in Ocarina of Time when you could see Death Mountain and actually go to Death Mountain? This isn't like that.
Remember that bit in Ocarina of Time when you could see Death Mountain and actually go to Death Mountain? This isn’t like that.

Of course, an Uncharted game wouldn’t be an Uncharted game without some amazing set-pieces. Whilst there’s nothing here that quite matches the train sequence in Uncharted 2,  you’d have to be a cynical cove indeed not to be caught up in the thrills presented by the Madagascan car chase or the escape from the Scottish church. It helps that everything is presented in such a stunning way, with very few performance problems (I think I noticed maybe three or four slight frame drops throughout my time with the game). Naughty Dog have a reputation for squeezing wonders out of PlayStation hardware, and they haven’t disappointed here.

If any criticism can be levelled at U4 it’s that it is still a linear adventure at heart. This didn’t concern me – I’ve spent too much time in aimless open worlds – but if you’re coming to the game expecting something akin to an RPG then you’re not going to be happy. There are the normal Uncharted hidden treasures to uncover, though they don’t do an awful lot aside from unlock some special game modes and other ‘goodies’ in the option menu. The Vita title Golden Abyss had some interesting codex entries fleshing out the treasures, and I was a bit disappointed to find those missing here. I’m also not sure how much replay value there is here, particularly if you don’t touch the multiplayer (which I didn’t).

All of this is criticism for the sake of it, though. Uncharted 4 is one of the best games I’ve played this generation.

On… Treasure Island Dizzy

Some twenty-six years ago I went to the local newsagents and picked up a game that would change my life. That newsagents was down the road, and that game was Treasure Island Dizzy.

Treasure_Island_Dizzy_1

If you had anything to do with UK 8-bit home computer scene you will be aware of Dizzy: he was an anthropomorphic egg with an penchant for somersaults and puzzle-solving. Treasure Island was the second game in the series, released to an unsuspecting world in 1989. It’s hard to overemphasise how obsessed with Dizzy I became: something about the games, their cartoon-esque environments and characters spoke to me in a way that few other games at the time did. And it all started for me back with Treasure Island.

Looking back at the game now, it’s hard to understand quite why it struck such a chord. Some things – the Pyramids, the music of Mozart, Ghostbusters – have survived the test of time and remain as wondrous now as they were at their point of creation. Treasure Island Dizzy is not one of those things. Hailing from a time when the rules of game design were still struggling to creep forth from the primeval sludge of an 8-bit assembler, TID is full of things that just wouldn’t make it past a focus group today.

Take the end-game. After spending hours working your way through puzzles that vary from the obvious to the obscure, you get to the game’s last screen only to be told that to pass the final obstacle you need to collect thirty golden coins. The likelihood is that, by this point, you will have collected some but not all of these, mainly because a large number of them are hidden behind objects in the game world that look exactly the same as everything else. Without a guide to assist, the only way you’d ever find them all is by attempting to pick up every single bit of screen estate in the game. I’m struggling to think of any decent reason, save artificially extending the length of the game, why this was put in.

Couple that with the game’s single-life system (something which turns out to have been the result of a late-game bug that couldn’t be resolved in time for release) and you’ve got one of those recipes for frustration that old games often exhibited.

Having said that, there are some stand-out moments that stick in the mind. Finding the snorkel and realising that there’s a whole other island to explore is pretty cool, as is the underwater exploration.

The former residents of the island had created a complex treehouse village, lifts and randomly left snorkels lying around.
The former residents of the island had created a complex treehouse village, lifts and randomly left snorkels lying around.

I played the Commodore 64 version, which was ported by Ian Gray, and in similar style to a lot of budget releases from Codemasters it was a pretty poor conversion. I’m assuming it was a port of the Spectrum version (though it may have been the CPC), and aside from getting rid of some colour-clash and added some admittedly good music there isn’t much that takes advantage of the Commodore’s better graphics. To be fair, though, there is a charm to the art style. It’s not quite the ‘cartoon adventure’ that the marketing promised, but it’s pretty close given the restrictions of the hardware.

Playing the game today makes me sad, in the way that looking back at my wedding photos does. I want the game to make me happy, to make me remember the days when life was simpler. But it doesn’t. With the passing years has come too much recognition of how games should work and play, and Treasure Island Dizzy just hasn’t got enough of them. The insta-deaths, single life, frustration of the end-game, obscure puzzles, whilst all admittedly standards of the time just don’t hold up any more. *Sigh*.

Treasure Island Dizzy: it seemed a great game a quarter of a century ago, but just isn’t any more. And that makes me want to cry.