Category Archives: Geeky Stuff

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… 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… Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: Jack the Ripper DLC

WARNING: Spoilers for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and the Jack the Ripper DLC below!

Ever wanted to play as a deranged serial killer who enjoys disembowelling and mutilating prostitutes? If you answered ‘yes’ then, firstly, it may be worth talking to a therapist and, secondly, the Jack the Ripper DLC for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate might just be the expansion you’ve been waiting for.

Yes, you too can play as a crazed serial killer!
Yes, you too can play as a crazed serial killer!

Taking place around twenty years after the events of the main game, Jack the Ripper sees the series’ best assassin since Ezio, Evie Frye, investigating the disappearance of her brother which is intertwined with the killing spree of the infamous Victorian serial killer. This being an Assassin’s Creed game, obviously this is all mingled in with the story of the Brotherhood of Assassins. Thankfully it doesn’t transpire that Jack is a Templar, but rather an Assassin who has gone a bit fruitloop. As ever, some liberties with the historical setting are taken, and in this ‘reality’ Jack has pretty much taken over the entirety of London’s underworld. He also wears a sack over his head for the whole campaign. It’s never made clear why. It’s not even a very nice sack.

The story takes place in the boroughs of Whitechapel and the City of London, with the rest of the environment from the main campaign blocked off. There are a couple of new settings, a snow-draped mansion and some prison hulks, the latter of which is a very interesting and well-designed locale. In terms of gameplay, there are around seven or so main missions plus a number of ‘associate activities’. Some of them, such as the Cargo Hijack, are pretty much identical to those in the base game, but others – such as Slow Carriage Escapes and the Ripper Letters – offer a bit of a spin on the standard themes. Unfortunately a few too many of them are reliant on the utterly awful ‘kidnapping’ mechanic that Syndicate introduced, making them frustrating and less than fun.

Crap like this still happens.
Crap like this still happens.

To be honest, there’s not an awful lot here that you can’t get from the main game. There is a new ‘fear’ mechanic whereby certain new weapons and QTE-based ‘brutal takedowns’ allow you to scare some enemies, which is useful for large-scale crowd control. It’s not great, though, and I couldn’t help feeling that it would have been better if they had implemented more items or moves that you could use at a distance. You never feel in control in the same way as you do, say, in the predator encounters in the Batman Arkham games. All too often an attempt to use a fear mechanic devolves into a simple scrap with enemies that are by now so underpowered compared to your character that they don’t put up much of a challenge even in large numbers. It also all feels a little… bolted on.

Towards the end-game of AC: Syndicate I felt that I was consistently battling against or exploiting the mechanics of the game, and Jack the Ripper just carries on that. The AI remains laughably dumb at times: you can murder a guard, the body of whom is stumbled upon by their colleagues who go into ‘alert mode’ for a bit. But then, when it’s over, they just go back to their pre-defined patterns, leaving their former friend’s corpse to rot on the floor. Whilst I appreciate that some of this is done for game-play purposes, having played Metal Gear Solid V with its much more ’emergent’ AI, this all seems a bit of a retrograde step.

Also, please, Ubisoft, please: whatever you do next for Assassin’s Creed, make sure you get rid of the ridiculous ‘you must be anonymous to continue’ stipulation that applies to so many of the mission objectives. Just because a guard spotted me five minutes ago does it really mean that I can’t now open this particular door merely because a cut-scene lies behind it?

Gameplay issues aside, what really urked me about Jack the Ripper is its subject matter and the way it deals with it. There are a couple of instances where the game mentions the brutality of the crimes committed, but for the most part we get the sensationalistic claptrap that typifies the lower-grade approaches to this segment of history. What makes it worse is that there are three portions of the DLC where you play as the Ripper. I’m sure this seemed like a good idea to the people who were writing the feature bullet-points, but let’s be clear about this: you play as a psychopath who – by the game’s own admission – gets his kicks by brutalising women in the most inhumane of manners. This wouldn’t matter quite so much if the Ripper playable segments dealt with this in a meaningful way, but the truth is that they’re just the same as the normal game except that mission objectives are displayed in a ‘crazy’ font with a weird screen-effect to accompany team. Honestly, it’s all a little distasteful and adds next to nothing to the game.

In its favour, the DLC is sizable and worth the money if you’re not too burnt out by the main Syndicate campaign. For me, though, it was just too much of the same, with the extra bits not really being substantial or well-implemented enough to make it worth the while.

On… Batman vs. Superman

Bat-cards on the Bat-table first: I loved Batman vs. Superman. The thing is, though, I was always going to. The film could have centred around Batman playing a six-hour game of Ludo against his Kryptonian counterpart and I would still have gladly given money to Warner Bros. to go and see it. As a huge fan of both characters – and DC stuff in general – there was never a chance that I wouldn’t enjoy the film on some level. And, indeed, I did, though I have thought a fair amount since watching it about whether or not it’s a good film.

The short answer is no, it isn’t. Given the pretty terrible reviews it’s had (at the time of writing it was on 28% at Rotten Tomatoes), this probably comes as a surprise to no-one. I can certainly see why this is the case, and in part it’s because of what BvS is and isn’t. What it isn’t is a fully-formed, singular narrative piece that can stand in isolation. It isn’t a great example of how to tell a story, nor how to draw convincing characters. This, I imagine, is the reason why critically it has failed.

As far as I can see, there are three major problems with BvS. The first is that it is trying to do too much. It’s been advertised from the very beginning that this is intended as the start of a DC Cinematic Universe, and just the first in what Warner hope will be a long-running series of films. As such, it’s trying to be a gateway to a larger world than we’ve ever seen in a DC film. Previously we’ve been concentrated solely on Superman or Batman or (shudder) Green Lantern, and – throwaway references aside – there has been no attempt to link them together. Many people who haven’t got knowledge from the comics or cartoon series may not even know that the characters are even meant to inhabit the same fictional universe. BvS is thus attempting to be a starting point for the shared continuity, as well as a blockbuster film in its own right, an introduction to a new Batman and  a semi-sequel to Man of Steel all at the same time. I can’t help feeling that’s a bit too much for any one film to handle. The Marvel films had a slightly easier job, with snippets across individual early entries eventually going together to make up a shared cinematic universe that, let’s face it, probably wouldn’t have happened if Iron Man or Captain America had been poorly received.

On the subject of Marvel, another problem with BvS is that it seems DC are attempting to distinguish themselves from their old competitors by being the ‘dark’ and ‘gritty’ counterpart to the lighter, more humourous (dare I say ‘Disneyfied’?) Marvel films. Whilst I don’t quite go along with some commentators and think they that this film (and Man of Steel) go too far down the ‘dark’ path in totality, there are moments when you just wish they would take it down a peg or two. There’s the problem that the tone and the subject matter are a bit dichotomous. Whilst it’s relatively easy to make Batman into a dark, brooding figure, it’s harder to do that with Superman without losing some of the essence of what makes the character so appealing. Superman is meant to be an ‘overgrown boy scout’, a figure of hope that Batman can never be. There are moments in the film that allude to this, but they’ve overtaken by the number that concentrate on the fear of the character. It’s hard to see how the Justice League films are going to be able to carry on in this style when they introduce characters like Aquaman and the Flash.

The final main issue I had with BvS is that the central conceit as a whole was slightly doomed from the start. Okay: any superhero fan would probably want to see two of the most iconic figures in the oeuvre battle it out on the big screen, but deep down, I think we all knew it would never really match our expectations. We always knew the story arc would have to include them meeting for the first time, fighting and then – because this is Hollywood – making friends at the end before fighting a common cause. Echoing what I said before, this was just too much. The upcoming Captain America: Civil War has had the luxury of building character relationships across at least three films beforehand. BvS just had to leap into it. Any storyline would have been pushing credibility, but in honesty the film doesn’t help itself by the tack it takes. It just rather left me asking myself whether Batman truly would have been so gullible.

For all its faults, though, I did enjoy the film. I’ve read elsewhere that some people think it will be better viewed in several years time when the later films have arrived and make it a more ’rounded’ story. Whilst this isn’t meant to excuse any of its flaws, I think that’s arguably true. It’s worth noting as well that Ben Affleck – who I must admit I have previously doubted – is fantastic as Batman, and dominates every scene he’s in. Henry Cavill, returning as Superman, is also very good. Perhaps a different interpretation of the character than we would like, but still very good. Some of the supporting cast are less impressive. I can’t work out whether I thought Jesse Eisenberg was a good Lex Luthor, but then I don’t think I’ve ever seen a decent live-action interpretation of him, save maybe John Shea in Lois and Clark (Gene Hackman is a great actor, but the character wasn’t well-written in the Christopher Reeve films). Amy Adams returns from Man of Steel as Lois Lane with a surprisingly large role; she’s good but still strikes me as not having enough ‘spunk’ (no sniggering at the back there). Gal Gadot makes for a decent Wonder Woman, though we don’t get a great deal of time here to explore much about her.

If you’re on the fence about seeing the film, I’d say go and watch it. It’s definitely worth the price of admission and, whilst I can’t say you’ll come out of it thinking that you’ve just witnessed the greatest piece of cinematic entertainment since Orson Welles lost his sled, you’ll at least enjoy it on some level.

Riddle me this, riddle me that, who's afraid of the big black Bat?
Riddle me this, riddle me that, who’s afraid of the big black Bat?

On… Gears of War Ultimate Edition

Shamefully, I’d never played Gears of War when it was originally released back in 2007. Maybe it was the character models, perhaps the relatively short length of the single-player campaign, or it may just have been that I was a real man enough to appreciate it. Whatever the reason, I didn’t play it, so the Xbox One’s remastered version was my first time with Marcus Fenix and Dom, erm, whatever-his-second-name-is.

And did I enjoy it? Oh, yes.

Some real men, in a real game about a real war with real guns etc.
Some real men, in a real game about a real war with real guns etc.

One of the key things to know about GoW is that it’s far, far more than the sum of its parts. On the face of it, the game appears to be ‘just’ a third-person, cover-based shooter populated by men so burly they’d make Arnold Schwarzenegger blush if they stood next to him at a urinal. In fact, the game is a superbly crafted piece of entertainment that is immense fun to play and never outstays its welcome. I have to admit, I haven’t played the multiplayer component which – many would argue – is the actual meat of the thing. I can’t therefore comment on that, though by all accounts its fantastic fun.

What impressed me most about GoW was the level design and pacing. Though there are a few sections which descend a little bit too much into a routine of ‘go into room, shoot bad guys, proceed to next room’, by-and-large the flow of the game is extremely well thought-out. One moment you might be knee-deep in a fire-fight with the grotesque Locust, the next you’ll be nervously making your way through a deserted building, anxiously creeping around corners. The middle acts of the game in particular stand out for me as being a masterclass in how to build tension and design a linear path through a game. Note, incidentally, my use of the word ‘linear’ there: this isn’t a title for those who enjoy wandering off the beaten path. There are a few collectables to be found in hidden corners, but for the most part there’s no deviating from the route the game has in mind for you. This isn’t meant as a criticism; in many ways its rather refreshing to play something where you always know what you should do and where you should be heading, especially having been burned out over the last few years by massive open-world games. What makes GoW so good is the way that it all fits together, and that wouldn’t be possible were it not a linear experience.

Admittedly playing the campaign in single-player does expose the rather ropey companion AI, and as a result there are some fights that end up being much harder than they should be just because you’re having to compensate for the idiocy of the CPU. The last boss battle in particular must have taken me about twenty attempts. Okay, most of those were probably due to my utter incompetence at these kinds of games, but a good three of them at least were caused by the computer.

Never mind that, though: Gears of War is a fantastic game, every bit worthy of the ‘generation defining’ blurb splattered across the inlay of this remastered version. If you have never tried it because it just doesn’t seem like your kind of thing, do yourself a favour and give it a try, it may just surprise you.

On… Gotham S2E7 (the good one)

I’ve been a little critical of Gotham, especially this season, but episode 7 (Mommy’s Little Monster) stood out for me as being the best so far. Certainly the best this year and close to being the best in the series. Admittedly, the competition for that title isn’t exactly stellar, but still…

Needless to say, spoilers for this episode of Gotham and season two up to this point follow.

Cory Michael Smith as Ed Nygma, easily one of the best things about Gotham.
Cory Michael Smith as Ed Nygma, easily one of the best things about Gotham.

It probably helps that the first section of the episode centres on the two best characters in the show, the Penguin and the proto-Riddler Ed Nygma. Following on from the previous episode’s brilliant scene in which Ed semi-inadvertently strangles his girlfriend, the lovely-but-annoying Kris Kringle, after he confesses to murdering her former abusive boyfriend, there’s a wonderful sequence in which Ed is confronted by his more sinister split personality. It seems that Bad Ed has been out hiding Miss Kringle’s body whilst Good(ish) Ed has been ‘asleep’, and he has left some clues – signposted initially with the Riddler-brand question mark – for his other half to follow. In some ways this should come across as utterly ridiculous, but Cory Michael Smith does a brilliant job in making this believable. Smith is obviously relishing playing a more thoroughly villainous Nygma, and every scene with him in this episode is a treat. By the episode’s end it seems that ‘Bad Ed’ might have taken control, so it’ll be interesting to see where this goes from here.

All of that is a bit of a side-story in the episode, though, which mainly centres around Penguin and his increasingly poor mental state following the kidnapping of his mother. Galavan thinks he has the Penguin at his knees when Butch – now freed from his mind control thanks to Galavan’s sister and a whip – double-crosses his former master and lures him to the warehouse where Penguin’s mother is being held captive. Gotham hasn’t added a great deal of interest thus far to the Batman mythology, but the relationship between Penguin and his mother has been one of the standout pieces. It’s testament to actor Robin Taylor’s performance as Penguin that, even though he’s a terrible person, you really feel his pain at the utterly abrupt murder of his mother. It’s a shame that veteran comic actor Carol Kane’s performance had to come to an end (assuming there are no flashback or dream sequences), but it marks a very obvious turning point in the Penguin’s story arc.

Through a series of Machiavellian and, honestly, downright crazy machinations, Galavan manages to get himself elected major of Gotham (a polling result which was hardly in question given that all the other candidates were the wrong side of dead). His victory party is cut short by an attack by Penguin and an assortment of Penguin imitators. The sight of them waddling towards Galavan’s manor is a great scene.  A stand-off between Penguin, Gordon, Galavan and Bullock provides a fitting end to the episode, although the tension is reduced a bit since it’s fairly obvious the rules of episodic television dictate that no-one is going to die just yet. At least Gordon manages to come to the realisation that Galavan isn’t as much a servant of the light as he has made out, something that really should have been blindingly obvious from the start, but at least he’s worked it out before too long.

Yes, there are some typically rubbish bits in the episode. The scene where Gordon and Bullock trade bullets with Zsasz and anonymous goons seems utterly pointless and, frankly, ridiculous. Given that hundreds of rounds of ammunition were spent it seems ludicrous that nobody actually got hit, and everybody just walks away. The embryonic plot line featuring Bruce Wayne and Galavan’s niece (who may as well just have the word ‘Bitch’ tattooed on her forehead, it’s that obvious) is dull. Worse, it portrays Bruce as utterly naive. I realise he’s still young and isn’t Batman yet, but it just strikes the wrong chord with me that a boy who is supposed to be so haunted by the death of his parents would be taken in quite so easily. Maybe there’s a twist coming with this somewhere down the line, though. One can but hope.

Still, after a few weeks where I’ve been continually asking myself why I bother to watch it, Gotham seems at last to have taken a turn for the interesting. Hopefully the following episodes can keep up the momentum.

On… Dragon Age Inquisition DLC

Thanks to the recent EA sale on the PlayStation Store, I’ve just about got around to playing through the major bits of DLC for Dragon Age: Inquisition. I’ve been a big fan of Bioware’s stuff ever since the original Baldur’s Gate, and really enjoyed Inquisition. Okay, it suffered from too much filler and a annoying lack of codas to most of the sub-quests (I lost count of the number of times I picked up a seemingly random item only to find that I’d completed a quest I didn’t even know I was doing), but it seemed a great return to form after the somewhat weak Dragon Age II.

In terms of the DLC, aside from all the various equipment packs that cost about £2.50 and give you weapons with +10 damage versus horse armour or whatever, there are three major expansion packs: Jaws of Hakkon, Descent and Trespasser. In the traditional form, I shall take a brief look at each of them in order. Obviously, there are some spoilers here for the main game and all of the DLC, so avert your eyes if you don’t want to read them.

Some professor bloke in Jaws of Hakkon.
Some professor bloke in Jaws of Hakkon.

Of all the three, Jaws of Hakkon feels the most like content that was cut from the main game. It offers a new area – the Frostback Basin – that I was expecting, given the name, to be a slippy-slidey ice world but is actually a jungle-esque place filled with spiders and treehouse complexes that would make the Yolkfolk proud. The Basin contains a number of sub-quests and, yes, more shards to spot and collect. These can either be used in the Solasan temple in the main game or in a mini-version within the Basin itself, which is quite handy but still doesn’t make jumping around after the sodding things any more fun than it was before. The main questline concerns itself with the Avvar, who I seem to remember vaguely as being some barbarian-esque tribal group. A faction of these chaps/chapettes calling themselves the ‘Jaws of Hakkon’ (presumably because it sounds a bit cool) are causing some trouble-and-strife. Alongside this, an academic from the University of Orlais believes he has found the final resting place of the last leader of the Inquistion, Ameridan. As you might expect, before too long the plot-lines converge and you’re kicking some barbarian butt.

This is all quite enjoyable, though I couldn’t never quite escape the impression that it was something originally planned for the main game but then excised for some reason. It’s a shame as well that the motivations of the Jaws of Hakkon aren’t explained fully; there are some lore documents lying around the final dungeon that go some way towards it, but mostly I felt as if I were fighting a faceless enemy. Still, the penultimate boss fight is a good one, requiring you to think much more about location and placement than normal. For my relatively high-level party (I think I was about level 23 when I started it) playing on standard difficulty, it wasn’t too challenging. There were a couple of random encounters with giants and the local wildlife that caused me some strife, but mostly it was straightforward.

For the few pounds I paid for it, I was happy enough with Jaws of Hakkon. It isn’t essential by any means (though you do get a rather nifty unique ability by playing it, which definitely helps in the later DLC) but worthwhile picking up. Perhaps it was also more enjoyable for me because I’d stopped playing the full game around a year earlier, so wasn’t burned out when I cam e to it.

For those of you who’re interested in seeing me finish off the game’s final boss, there’s an utterly unedited video here:

DLC number two is Descent, and is utterly different in form and scope to Jaws of Hakkon. Rather than being presented with a new overland area, you’re sent off to the Deep Roads to investigate some earthquakes because, well, you’re the Inquisition and that’s how you roll. Those of you reasonably well-versed in Dragon Age-lore will know that the Deep Roads are a former underground empire (but not the underground empire) which is now swarming with hordes of Darkspawn and other unsavoury types.

The marketing for Descent didn’t appeal to me: it sounded a bit too much like a dungeon crawler. In reality, whilst this is true to an extent, it offers so much more. This really did feel like a full extension to the main game, providing a brief new base of operations and new expeditions to carry out. The lack of civilization and the relatively emptiness of the maps (once you’ve cleared out the Darkspawn, at least) does make you feel that you’re treading where no-one has been for a very long time. There’s also a fairly massive addition to the lore of Thedas which you hope will be touched upon in future DA games.

An Emissary, not exactly the most lovely-looking of creatures. It must go through nail-files like nobody's business.
An Emissary, not exactly the most lovely-looking of creatures. It must go through nail-files like nobody’s business.

Descent isn’t perfect. Some people will complain about the linearity, though that didn’t bother me. The ending felt a little undercooked, and – similarly to Hakkon – the enemies you encounter are pretty faceless. You start off fighting Darkspawn, and they don’t have any kind of archdemon or broodmother controlling them that you come across. Along the way you do encounter what I think is a new breed of Darkspawn, the Emissary. These seem to have been modelled on the Architect from Dragon Age Origins: Awakening, but they don’t actually provide any dialogue. Just after the mid-way point of the DLC you find yourself under attack by an mysterious group called the Sha-Brytol. As enemies go they’re quite interesting, what with their rat-a-tat-tat bolt attack and earth-shaking. Unfortunately they don’t have a leader, and you never find out an awful lot about them other than some relatively cryptic allusions in cut-scenes. It’s a shame, really, as there was some potential there for interesting antagonists. Perhaps, though, I’m being a bit hard on Descent in this respect: the problem with the anonymous enemies is one that afflicts the whole series. Even the main Inquisition game had issues in this regard, with Corypheus never feeling to me fully fleshed out.

Some special mention must be given to the fight that occurs halfway through Descent which is the toughest I recall encountering in the whole of the game thus far. With only about two supply caches nearby, you face off against a horde of Darkspawn that will keep regenerating until you defeat a certain set number of enemies. I found it a little annoying that the game didn’t make it clear that you had to go to certain areas of the map to find these enemies. As a result, it took me the best part of 75 minutes to get through the whole thing, and a fight against an Emissary Alpha who kept putting up a heavy-duty magic barrier made me have to drop the difficulty down for the first time in the whole campaign. I just couldn’t face dying and having to do the whole thing again. Maybe if I were more savvy about picking out the right places to attack the right enemies it would’ve been quicker, but first time round it was a massive slog. Fun at first, but after three quarters of an hour it just felt like a war of attrition. Still, it’s an interesting change of pace in the game.

Again, for those few of you who are interested, here’s me finally managing to defeat the Emissary Alpha:

Finally, Trespasser. I know I’ve said it already but, please, if you don’t want any spoilers for the main game as well as the DLC please immediately avert your eyes or smear them with jam so you can’t read on.

Some Elven ruins in Trespasser.
Some Elven ruins in Trespasser. They like their trees and green magic stuff.

Unlike the other two expansions, Trespasser only becomes available after the main storyline has been completed. Starting the DLC fast-forwards the timeline by about two years and removes you from Skyhold and any content you haven’t yet completed. As per the strongly-worded warning the game gives you, once you start Trespasser there is no going back. At the start you are taken to the Winter Palace in Orlais, which looks very palace-y but not, it must be said, all that wintery. The palace is playing host to the Exalted Council hosted by Divine Victoria (who I believe is either Cassandra or Leliana, depending on your choices in the main game) who are convening to discuss the future of the Inquisition. Now that the threat of Corypheus and the breaches have subsided, people across southern Thedas are beginning to question why the Inquisition still exists and why they have so many swords and other metal pointy things. I found this element of the story to be quite interesting, because it’s not often in a game that you get to see what happens after the happy ending. It always struck me as a tad odd how the great nation-states of Thedas just seemed to very quickly accept the resurrection and growth of the Inquisition during the main storyline, so it was good to see that, once the dust had settled, people were expressing their displeasure.

It’s not long however before the Council is thrown into disarray by the arrival of a distinctly-dead Qunari. A quick bit of trellis-climbing by the Inquisitor later reveals that the Qunari had arrived in the Winter Palace by means of an eluvian, those Elven magic-transporting-mirror-things seen towards the end of the main game. Without much concern or forward-planning, the Inquisitor dashes through the eluvian and ends up in some mysterious Elven ruins.

Throughout the main beats of the story, it also becomes clear that the Anchor (better known as the green swirly mark thing on the Inquisitor’s hand) is starting to become more troublesome. Again, this is quite neat as the main game never really dealt fully with the question of the long-term effects to the Inquisitor of having a big magical boil in their hand. This bleeds into the gameplay as well, since the increasing instability of the mark coupled with its exposure to ancient Elven magic causes you to gain access to some rather nifty additional abilities and increased focus gain. Part of me suspects that this is to help lower-level players get through some of the battles in the DLC’s campaign. By the time I got to play it at the maximum level 27 it was challenging in places but nothing too harsh, especially in comparison to some of the big battles in Descent. I’m not sure how it scales, but I can imagine if you were a few levels lower it could be quite hard-going.

Of course, the main allure of Trespasser is that it promises to finally bring some closure to the ‘oh-my-word’ rug-pulling teaser at the end of the main game, where it was revealed that Solas was actually Elven trickster god Fen’Harel. The Inquisition remains oblivious to this, and it isn’t until almost the end that it is revealed to them. In honesty, it did strike me as somewhat unbelievable that despite being continually called ‘Agents of Fen’Harel’ but the Qunari, nobody in the Inquisition had made the connection to Solas, particularly given that most of the Elven ruins that are explored contain murals paintings in exactly the same idiom as he decorated Skyhold. It’s a shame that you don’t actually stumble upon Solas himself until the very end, but it does at least make for a rather interesting narrative dichotomy where you as the player know you’re chasing after him for the entire campaign whilst the player characters don’t.

Trespasser is a fitting end for Inquisition, and – probably in response to the furore that exploded around the release of Mass Effect 3 – provides conclusions of sorts for all the games characters. It very much marks the ending of the Inquisitor’s story, at least in terms of adventuring. As a result this truly feels like a ‘proper’ expansion to the game. Whilst it may not be as big as ‘real’ expansion packs (such as Dragon Age Origins Awakening) used to be, it offers sufficient additional story, location and characters to be a thoroughly worthwhile purchase. It also provides hints as to where the series might go next, and a number of the decisions you make in the DLC will presumably have some impact on future plays.

In summary, I’ve been pretty pleased with the DLC for Inquisition all in all. If I had to pick a personal favourite I’d go for Descent, which is odd as that’s the one I thought I’d like the least. Having said that, if you’re only going to buy one of them you probably need to go for Trespasser, since that’s the one that adds the most to the overall narrative and provides the coda to the whole game. A great effort by Bioware all together, though. Hurry up Dragon Age 4…

On… the Infinity Engine and Abstraction

As with a lot of gamers my age, I suffer from the first-world problem of having a massive backlog of things to play through. Every month the list of games I own that I’ve either never played or barely scratched the surface of gets bigger and bigger. As problems go, it’s not a bad one to have and, of course, is all really of my own making.

Anyway, it’s because of this that I’ve only just got around to seriously sitting down and playing Pillars of Eternity. This is a Kickstarter-funded RPG by Obsidian and is a call-back to the old Infinity Engine games of the late ’90s/very early 2000s.

And, well, it’s pretty damn great.

Some pillars.
Some pillars.

Back in my not-so-fevered youth I played all of the mainstream IE games, from the original Baldur’s Gate through to Icewind Dale II, and PoE certainly looks the part. Crucially, despite looking like a game built on the same technology as Baldur’s Gate, it’s been refined with just enough ‘modern’ functionality that it feels like a substantial improvement. Yes, okay, at the end of the day you’re still moving character models around pre-rendered backgrounds in an isometric view, but Obsidian have done a very good job and adding things that were missing before. For instance, you can now zoom in and watch virtual dice roll up close, and there are visual highlights for area-of-effect spells.

In some ways I guess it seems a bit odd that you would really want to create a new game in an engine first created before Tony Blair was prime minister. I can’t really see many people wanting to make games using Doom technology. What it shows is the amount of esteem that those original games are still held in. Part of the reason for this is that they were good games to start off with: well-written, deep and detailed. Another factor, though, is that they were abstract enough that they are still playable today and, in many ways, that abstraction improves the relationship players have with the games. To be honest, Baldur’s Gate looked dated back in 1998. By that point games had moved into the 3D era and, games such as Daggerfall had two years since shown how immersive a first-person RPG could be. Yet there was something about the Infinity Engine and the way it showed you the world that made you feel more involved. The limited viewpoint, combined with the detail that the pre-rendered environments could offer (particularly in comparison to 3D games of the time) worked wonderfully. In the absence of much provided by the game, your brain had to ‘fill in the gaps’, which generally speaking it’s a lot better at doing than people give it credit for. It seems to me the same effect that made 8-bit games so immersive despite the fact that no matter how good the art style, the graphics were inherently poor.

If anything, the creators of PoE have gone further in this abstraction than was ever done with the older games, perhaps with the notable exception of Planescape Torment. Dialogue is interspersed with character descriptions, and numerous in-game events are dealt with via a textual options accompanied by a static line drawing. It sounds lazy, but in actuality – providing you have a decent enough imagination – works fantastically well. Certainly, given the limited budget it’s a lot better than you would have got had they aimed for a more graphic-intensive depiction.

I’m not too far into the game yet, having barely made it through the first few locations, so I don’t want to pass judgement too early. Thus far I am very much enjoying it, although it doesn’t quite seem on a par with how good I remember Baldur’s Gate II being. That may just be rose-tinted nostalgia clouding my opinions, though. I’ll try and continue to add my thoughts here as I progress (assuming I don’t get distracted by anything else).

On… Arkham Knight: A Matter of Family and the Problem With DLC

Potential spoilers for Batman: Arkham Knight – A Matter of Family DLC follow…

I finally got around to playing the A Matter of Family DLC for Arkham Knight yesterday. For those who don’t know, it’s a story-driven add-on for the main game that centres for the first time in the series around Batgirl, specifically the Barbara Gordon version of the character. Set at some point prior to the events of the original Arkham Asylum game, it revolves around Batgirl – assisted mostly ably by Time Drake’s Robin – attempting to rescue her father from the clutches of the Joker.

Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, looking suitably Bat-ish and girl-ish.
Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, looking suitably Bat-ish and girl-ish.

When it came out a few months after the release of the main game, AMoF came in for a fair bit of criticism. In some respects it’s easy to see why: it’s short and, for an add-on that’s meant to be story-focused, doesn’t really have much of one. There’s no real explanation given as to why Joker has kidnapped Commissioner Gordon. There are some mutterings about him trying to provide a ‘Valentine’s Day present’ for Batman by killing Batgirl and Robin, but that would seem to suggest that Joker at least knows who Batgirl is, and I didn’t think that he did. And aside from the fact that it makes for an interesting environment, it’s not clear why Joker felt the best place to keep Gordon is in an abandoned theme park.

Playing as Batgirl was quite interesting, though in truth she’s very similar in style of attack to Batman, albeit slightly more vulnerable and with fewer gadgets. There’s supposed to be more of a focus on hacking, which makes sense given that Barbara eventually goes on to become Oracle. Unfortunately again this seems a little undercooked, as apart from a neat bit involving a fibreglass octopus and a giant skull, all you really do is exchange some passwords and move a couple of cranes.

The DLC is short: I completed my full story playthrough in a little over two hours, and doubtless someone who is less incompetent with a controller than I could do a lot better. I wasn’t that bothered by the length, though. The DLC only costs around £5, which does seem worth it to me. I think the problem a lot of people have with DLC is that they compare it in price to the full game, where invariably it pales. If you’ve paid £40 for a game that’s provided 30 hours of entertainment, another £5 for an additional two hours seems a little mean. Still, you’d pay double that for a DVD film that lasted only 90 minutes. It’s all relative, I guess.

My real issue with AMoF was just that it didn’t do enough to differentiate it from the main game. As already noted, Batgirl plays very similarly to Batman, and the missions involve the same mix of random bad guys to beat up and predator encounters. They’re as fun as they ever are in the Arkham games, but you’ve done it all as Batman before. There are a couple of neat tricks you can pull with hacking devices to ‘frighten’ criminals and make them more vulnerable, and these are good but since they’re used so sparingly in the short campaign they don’t register a lot. It’s a real shame, as it’s obvious a lot of work has gone into the DLC. The theme park setting is neat and very well realised, fitting nicely into the Arkham style (though given how grotesque some of the exhibitions were I doubt Disneyland was ever worried about the competition). Equally, Batgirl’s animation and design are wonderful, really making me hopeful that we might get to see more of her sometime. It’s also neat seeing Harley Quinn in a costume that’s much more reminiscent of her original look in Batman: The Animated Series than the rather hypersexualised outfits she’s had in Arkham Knight and City.

The Joker and Harley Quinn in her 'Animated Series' costume.
The Joker and Harley Quinn in her ‘Animated Series’ costume.

Speaking of which, the final fight between Batgirl and Robin against Harley and the Joker is a lot of fun too. It’s over rather quickly, and won’t be much of a challenge to anybody who has beaten the main game, but it’s emphasis on the ‘tag-team-combat’ that Knight introduced and only used in a handful of occasions makes it great fun.

So… would I recommend this as a purchase? Yes, but only if you’re happy to accept the short length and still consider it worth your money. I don’t regret buying it – I did have fun playing it. However, it could have been so much more.