Tag Archives: PS4

On… The Last of Us (and Left Behind)

Warning: Some spoilers for The Last of Us and its DLC Left Behind below!

A mere three years after buying it, I’ve finally got around to completing The Last of Us. Since its original PS3 release in 2014, this has widely been held up as a masterpiece of a video game; a high-water-mark in interactive storytelling. So, what did I think of it? Well…

In short, this title deserves all the praise it gets. I’ve been playing video games for longer than I care to remember, and never have I seen such a brilliantly-realised story and group of characters. Set in a United States ravaged by a fungal infection that turns people into zombies in all but name, The Last of Us rises above the somewhat pulpy background and shows us a world not so much dying as gone beyond the control of man. This is a harsh world, filled with people who have had their humanity stripped from them by circumstance and the need to survive. Everything feeds into this, from the visceral combat that is miles away from its Hollywood-style counterpart in developer Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, to the brutality of the art direction.

You never feel comfortable in the world of The Last of Us. Even in quieter moments, there is a sense that there is some horror behind the next corner. This isn’t a game reliant on jump scares or ghastly monsters to instil disquiet; this is much more about controlled atmosphere and wonderful pacing.

“You know, Ellie, we really are the last of us.”

Really, it’s the characters that bring The Last of Us to life. The burgeoning relationship between the two main characters, Joel and Ellie, is so believable and coupled with so much emotional investment that you find yourself oddly distraught in those moments when you fall to a group of infected. Who will look after Ellie now? Thankfully, we don’t have to worry too much as game overs just restart you at the last checkpoint.

Joel isn’t a typical hero. In fact, without spoiling too much of the storyline, he isn’t really a hero at all. He’s a man haunted by his past and shaped into a blunt instrument by the world around him. As a father, it’s easy to identify with the pain he goes through and the choices he makes, leading you to question your own morality.

Ellie, 14 years old at the start, is probably the most wonderfully realised character in any video game to this point. She has known no world other than the post-epidemic one, but yet still sees things with the hope and optimism of youth. The game is really about her journey, even though the majority of the playtime is with Joel, both in a physical sense and an emotional one. Her reactions to the world, in cut-scenes and during gameplay, are so believable that sometimes it’s difficult to remember that she’s only an interactive, scripted character. She seems so real at times, and as a player you develop a palpable need to protect her. I defy anyone not to feel even the slightest of lip quivers the first time Joel calls her ‘baby girl’.

I went into The Last of Us expecting this to be a better story than a game. Whilst there’s no doubt that the narrative would work as a movie (given some appropriate trimming) or TV series, what Naughty Dog have managed to do is take advantage of the immersion you can only get with a video game to help raise The Last of Us above the level of an interactive film. By taking part in the events of the game, you truly feel involved in what’s happening, despite the fact that this isn’t an open-ended RPG with moral choices. The game is linear, but never really feels it. There’s a lot of being funneled down different corridors (in the literal and metaphorical senses) but, for the most part, you never feel confined.

I have to admit that it isn’t always an enjoyable game. This isn’t a title you can relax or unwind with, and the events that occur within it are emotionally exhausting at times. The world is a nasty one, punctuated by only a few moments of sunlight, and the people within it are often brutal. It’s telling, really, that for a game ostensibly featuring ‘zombies’, the real enemies come in the form of normal people. So, no, don’t go into this expecting an easy time of it; I also mean that in a gameplay sense, as even on lower difficulty settings this can be a tough game.

Look at how realistic that water is. Look at it!

Left Behind, bundled with the game in the remastered version I played, is a companion DLC that both fills in a gap in the main storyline and also provides something of a prequel to Ellie’s story in it. I won’t go into this too much, except to say that it is fantastic. In many ways, this might be better than the main game, though it can’t really be played in isolation. The running length is quite short: I completed it in around two hours. This is perfect, however; it really benefits from playing in a single sitting. The story it tells has no less impact than that of the main game, even though it does it in a fraction of the time. By focusing on a younger Ellie as well, it also allows you to explore the world more through the eyes of a young adult and, as such, has in places a lighter tone that contrasts well with the main storyline. The only slight criticism you could throw at it is that the relatively few combat sections feel just a bit forced. I’m not sure that they were needed, though I can understand why it was felt that they probably should be included.

The Last of Us, then, is magnificent. Not, perhaps, a game that you would find yourself replaying often, but one that I imagine will resonate in the mind for a long time to come.

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… 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… The Order 1886

Oh, The Order 1886… You were doing so well, weren’t you? Graphics so lovely you could lose yourself in them, competent and enjoyable shooting mechanics, and a world that is relatively unique in the world of videogames. But… but… Alas, at the end of the day I just don’t think you’re a very good game.

Quite why it’s hard to put my finger on. I wish I could say it wasn’t you, it was me, but I think we both know that would be a lie. Part of the problem is that you seem so dead inside. Yes, you’re sumptuously beautiful outside but it’s all style and precious little substance. I walk through an ornately detailed room and find a mirror, only to discover that I have no reflection. I make my way through the back alleys of Victorian London and stumble upon a policeman and a lady having a conversation. They are flawlessly attired: every crease, every detail attests to the period setting. But walk between, stand right in the way of their conversation and they don’t even bat an eye-lid. They’re lifeless mannequins, displayed for the purposes of atmosphere, providing you don’t go too close.

The Order 1886
It looks lovely, doesn’t it?

Early on in The Order you find yourself engaged in a gunfight in a gentleman’s club in Mayfair. There are billiard tables that you can duck into cover behind, and – like everything else – they are exquisitely detailed. Whatever you do, though, don’t fire your gun at one and expect the balls to move even one iota. If you do then the whole illusion will be shattered like a wrecking ball through a hall of mirrors, and it becomes painfully obvious that it’s just a texture placed on a 3D object.

The Order suffers more than most from a problem I’ve touched upon before, whereby the more realistic something looks the more jarring it is when things don’t behave in the way you expect them to. It’s such a shame, as it’s obvious so much effort has gone into the way that the game looks. Unfortunately the effect you end up with is a bit like dressing a corpse: it might look alive, but it doesn’t take much to make you realise it isn’t.

Once you take away the glamour of the graphics, what you’re left with is a reasonably competent third-person cover-based shooter with a love of cutscenes and quick-time events. Ah, the cutscenes. I’m old enough to remember the mid-90s obsession with full-motion-video-based games when the CD-ROM first appeared as the game storage medium of choice. Sometimes The Order made me feel like I was playing a modern version of one of them. The pattern of many encounters, particularly near the start of the game, is: watch cutscene, walk slowly down corridor, press triangle to open door, watch cutscene, walk into room, watch cutscene, press triangle, watch cutscene, shoot something, watch cutscene. And so on.

Thankfully, the cutscenes are well-produced and serve to bolster a storyline that is intriguing if a trifle undercooked at times. Set in an alternate Victorian London, you play the role of Sir Galahad, one of Her Majesty’s Order of Royal Knights who, since the reign of King Arthur (yes, yes, I know) have protected England from half-breed werewolves, vampires and – presumably – other things that go bump in the night. It’s a well-developed world, refreshing in the way that pretty much all the detail about it is provided through the main game rather than by scores of codex entries as is often the case. I enjoyed the story itself, though was disappointed by the ending which seemed just to be begging a sequel to finish it off.  One of the game’s main twists was also painfully obvious from the get-go, and I did feel like shouting at the TV to tell Galahad not to be so stupid. That never works though, and you just end up with a sore throat and neighbours who think you’re crazy.

The Order 1886
Barry had waited a bit too long for the cutscene to finish.

Many people have criticised the length of the game, which I feel a tad unfair. It is  short: I think I probably finished it in about seven hours or so. However, had it stuck around any longer I think it would have outstayed its welcome. What hurts the game most in terms of its longevity is the replayability, or lack thereof. As a story-driven game where the main hook is discovering what happens next, and with no branching narrative path structure, once you’ve finished it there’s very little incentive to ever go back to it. The lack of multiplayer component also harms it in this regard.

As mentioned earlier, the game’s combat mechanics are serviceable, if nothing spectacular. They very much follow in the vein of Gears of War, whereby you spend the majority of your time crouching behind some conveniently-placed scenery and popping your head at now and again to shoot/be shot at. Some enemies will rush you, others lob grenades in your general direction. There’s not a great deal of variety, as you’re mainly fighting people in different colour uniforms, but it’s largely enjoyable nonetheless. The battles with werewolves are rare and disappointing, though. I seem to recall only about three or so encounters during the entirety of the game, and they all consisted of me being attacked by three werewolves who, one at a time, would charge towards me, give me chance to dodge, and then run away for a while before coming back. I’m no expert on fighting tactics, but it did strike me that they would have been better off if they’d all swarmed me at once and didn’t give me a chance to pick them off one at a time. Ah, well, I guess that’s why you never see a werewolf on Mastermind. Or do you? (No).

Oh, yes, there are also a couple of QTE battles against certain super-powerful werewolves. These are dull and it was never entirely clear how much involvement I was actually having in their outcome.

I know I’ve been excessively negative here, and it some ways that’s unfair. The Order isn’t a bad game, it just isn’t a very good game either. In fact, for several long stretches, it barely feels like a game at all. When it does let you play, and you’re in the midst of a decent gun-battle, it’s very enjoyable, but these patches don’t last very long and you’re soon back to walking at a glacial pace around environments that are aesthetically wonderful yet interactively barren.

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… Why I Got Fed Up With Destiny

There are three questions that I pretend people always ask me:

  1. Is that all your own hair?
  2. What do you have against shoes?
  3. Why did you stop playing Destiny?

And my answers would be: 1) mostly, though some of my chest hair has been donated via a Kickstarter; 2) I think the world would be a simpler place had we all got hobbit-style feet; and 3) well, it’s complicated.

A big silver ball thing. Yesterday.
A big silver ball thing. Yesterday.

As an RPG-fan who has devoted hour upon hour of my presumably-finite life-span to increasing numbers, you would think that Destiny would be a pretty good fit for me. And so did I. I pre-ordered it, played it at launch, got so far into it and then, well, just stopped. Normally I like to at least get to the end of a campaign before sticking the disc back in the case and putting into the dusty archives. I’ve made it through most of the Final Fantasies (except 12 and 13, but I’m getting to them (probably)), completed Baldur’s Gate II about eight times, and even spent at least one donkey’s year doing the same thing again and again in Mad Max (the game). But yet, Destiny just turned me off.

Maybe it was the prospect of that Paul McCartney song that I still haven’t heard, but more likely I think it was the tediously slow nature of the post-level-20 endgame. I’ve got nothing against grinding; I must have walked the equivalent of 100,000 miles around in circles in JRPGs in the hope of triggering a random battle. There always seemed a point to it, though, and an achievable target that wasn’t reliant on luck. You know in Final Fantasy IV, for instance, that if you wander around a field for long enough and fight enough pixellated monsters that you’re going to level up. Eventually you’ll get enough experience points that your stats will increase by some minuscule amount and you’ll become stronger. Destiny never seemed to offer that once you’d hit level 20; the whole ‘light points’ business never made much sense to me and it seemed an overly abstract way of providing progression. Being reliant on receiving engrams which seem to be very sporadic in how they’re dished out seemed to me that it wasn’t an adequate way of rewarding the investment I was putting into the game.

I think as I’ve got older, I’ve become more and more intolerant of things like this, where games don’t respect my time. The Ubisoft habit of filling open worlds with hordes of collectables is bad enough, but at least generally they’re optional. I don’t need to collect all the feathers in Assassin’s Creed II to get better at the game, though I might get some better armour or weaponry, or a little cutscene if I do so. Destiny, by virtue of the fact that it’s an MMO shooter where the main rewards from it are by playing against other people, was essentially forcing me into sinking a lot of time for potentially no reward.

And then there’s the story, or, rather, there isn’t. Bungie obviously made an effort to set up the background lore, what with all that business of humanity’s golden age and the giant pinball in the sky. Unfortunately the game itself contains so little in the way of narrative drive that it may as well dispense altogether with it and just tell you to go somewhere and shoot something. Which wouldn’t actually be that bad since the shooting mechanics are great and, heck, at least it’d be honest.

A lot of comments were made about Peter Dinkledge’s somewhat muted performance as Ghost – from whom most of the plot points are delivered. He’s since been patched out and replaced Ministry of Truth style by Nolan North, but I’ve not played it since so can’t comment on much of an improvement this is. In fairness to Dinkledge, it must be hard to deliver with any conviction lines that wouldn’t seem out of place in a bad episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

“Well, Peter, you’ll be playing some kind of ill-defined floaty robot thing that can somehow resurrect people but yet still takes twenty minutes to hack some computer terminal whilst your Guardian single-handedly faces off waves of identikit bad guys. Oh, and there are wizards on the Moon.”

*Slump*

So… That’s why I stopped playing Destiny. Although I’ll probably still buy the sequel because, well, I have issues.

Arrrr-ssassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag

So, the other day I completed my first game on the swanky new PS4: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. I’ve been a fan of the series since ACII, enjoying the historical settings and sneaky-sneakster style gameplay that I find on the right side of accessible and fun, if a little overly simplistic at times. The sheer wealth of things there are to do in the open world settings is typically staggering, though I must admit I can never quite bring myself to muster up the enthusiasm to collect all 2 billion feathers/Animus fragments/amoebae/whatever they happen to be.

There be gold conveniently stored in handy treasure chests in them thar Mayan ruins.
There be gold conveniently stored in handy treasure chests in them thar Mayan ruins.

The previous game in the series, Assassin’s Creed III (I realise this sounds obvious, but the naming conventions are not the most straightforward of things to follow) was a glossy title, full of promise but unfortunately saddled with a number of bugs and poor mission design that made less than it should have been. I did enjoy ACIII, contrary to the opinions of many who thought it was incredibly poor, but it definitely wasn’t the masterpiece I’d hoped for. It wasn’t really helped by the choice of lead character; Connor Kenway (to give him his Westernised name; I’m not even going to attempt to find the special characters I’d need to properly spell out his real Native American name) was a lead lacking in charisma, who frequently made cut-scene decisions that made me want to scream at the television in frustration.

As most people who’ve played it will know, though, the one thing that ACIII really did right was that it gave you a big ship to sail, and some cannons to shoot at things. The naval combat sections of ACIII were easily one of the best bits of the game, so it kind of makes sense that Ubisoft chose to base a lot of the sequel around it. Black Flag focusses an awful lot on naval exploration and combat, with much of the world being made up of that wet watery stuff you see everywhere. This has a few repercussions: firstly, you spend a lot of time at the helm of your ship gazing at beautiful horizons; secondly, you have an awful lot of fun blasting away at enemy ships and forts; and thirdly, the traditional ground-based sections of series are minimalised a little. This latter point does mean that the on-foot sections, whilst taking up a large chunk of the game, are not as memorable as they could be. A few things stick in the mind, like a survivalist chapter centred around some Mayan ruins, but in general the colonies of Havana and Jamaica (and some other areas) won’t bury themselves into your psyche quite as much as Rome, Florence or the Frontier did.

Edward JKenway and Quartermaster 'I'm Going to Star In My Own DLC One Day' Adewale.
Edward JKenway and Quartermaster ‘I’m Going to Star In My Own DLC One Day’ Adewale.

Story-wise, ACIV can be a little lacking at times, though it’s an improvement on the latter part of its immediate predecessor, which felt like a slog through a history textbook at times. Edward Kenway isn’t a traditional assassin, coming into the ‘profession’ through a slightly less-than-conventional means. The character’s arc is a little slow to get going, and does fizzle out a bit at the end. It’s neat enough, though, and there are moments of genuine pathos. The near-future-set framing storing that takes place in Abstergo Entertainment suffers greatly from the lack of a defined central character like Desmond, and Ubisoft, Shaun and Rebecca really need more screen-time in the next game.

As with most of the recent AC games, you’re overwhelmed a little by the sheer number of things to do at times, but most of it is optional and generally quite fun. Apart from bits of the diving. That was just annoying.

So, ACIV, then. Possibly the best instalment in the franchise since Brotherhood, the game is great to play though I wonder whether bits of it will still in the mind as long as some of its predecessors.