Ghost Of Tsushima

Tsushima is a game of three halves – the good, the mediocre, and… the not so good. It’s in no way a bad game, but it does struggle for greatness once you scratch below the surface. At its heart it’s a fairly generic open world set in one of the best open world locations. For years Assassin’s Creed fans have been shouting for medieval Japan and now if it ever happened it would face stiff comparison with what we have here, as this does with Ubisoft’s franchise.

The good starts with the graphics. Possibly the best seen on PlayStation 4 and likely the crowning achievement of this generation. A true high to go out on. Like The Last Of Us, Sucker Punch weren’t aiming for photorealism, choosing instead a slight cartoon feel to the art direction that always keeps the right side of the uncanny valley and allows the rest to shine. In this case it is entirely about physics and lighting which never, ever ceases to impress.

Particle physics and wind is what it’s all about. Everything in constant beautiful motion. Grass, hair, leaves, fire embers. The amount of small onscreen items moving independently is jaw dropping. You can spend hours just watching cherry blossom falling from the trees. Especially during some of the magical sun sets. Colour plays a huge part of this game and is often times nothing short of stunning.

All this visual splendour is crowned by lack of onscreen UI. A odd choice that having experienced you wished more games would attempt. The use of the wind to guide you to waypoints not only fits aesthetically with the overall styling of the game, but works. It’s absolutely brilliant in its implementation.

Moving to the passable we come to the combat system. It’s a good combat system that does work surprisingly well. Change stance, block, sweeping attack and jabbing. In some ways it reminds me of what Bushido Blade was trying back on the original PlayStation. The fighting feels more involved and realistic. More focus on defence and parrying. A refreshing change from the Arkham style combat systems that have become popular in recent years.

One thing I did find, early on, was taking the hit and finally accepting “easy mode” greatly improved the gameplay experience. Sure in this mode combat is just that little bit too easy, but it gives the time needed for the combat mechanics to shine and allows the player some breathing space from faffing with the controls.

The story is interesting but nothing special. A generic tale of reclaiming your land following a Mongol invasion. And the gameplay itself is pretty standard stuff. Bordering on the bad you pretty much move from one cut and paste enemy encounter to the next. The open world serving to do little more than add a little travel between each encounter that is only ever a slight variation on the last.

As the first act progressed and the game, slowly, started to reveal itself I started to find the silver coloured (on the game map) side story waypoints to be a little more interesting as, while the encounters remained very cut n’ paste, their stories give the island and game world the depth and colour the main game craves.

Combat is a lot of fun, with different stances to deal with different enemies.

Which brings us to the not so good. I found myself constantly fighting the controls. Button allocation felt wrong. Certain actions have long held button memory. Pressing ‘X’ as the main action button for instance, moved to ‘R2’ here. Instead of getting on my horse I found myself taking swipes at it. Want to go faster? hold down ‘L3’. Even tapping the touchpad for listening mode instead of bring up the main map. Everything always feels counterintuitive. I see it’s all for the combat system but I can’t help thinking the combat could have worked just as well while keeping certain generic functions where the game expects to see them.

Assassin’s Creed wants the player to be stealthy and then goes out of its way to push the player in to head on combat. Tsushima is the exact opposite. Honour, as the game explains at the start, demands facing your enemy head on. The rest of the game then pushes you in to being stealthy. Trying to maintain honour just lead to being quickly outnumbered and overrun as 5 or 6 enemies would pile into me at once. Dodge, attack, defend becoming incredibly difficult very quickly. Especially when arrow rain down while a couple of spears are prodding in your direction.

Putting the game in its easy difficulty mode and focusing on side story missions completely turned the play experience around. Suddenly we have a living, breathing, world ripe for exploration. It also allowed better time to understand gameplay mechanics that perhaps weren’t fully embedded early on. A future replay on medium difficulty shouldn’t be so challenging with a clear idea on where and when to focus your efforts.


The Last of Us, Part II

Videogames have long struggled with the trade-off between story and gameplay. It’s a dynamic that arcs back to the very birth of the medium. Jumpman rescuing Pauline from Donkey Kong (or Dizzy, Daisy, and Wizard Zaks if you will). Over the last couple of generations great strides have been made at pulling these two strands together. Highlights like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and the first Last of Us particularly showcasing the art of storytelling within a videogame framework.

Part 2 wants to tell a story. It’s very much the story that needs telling following the climax of the first game. Unfortunately this leads to similar issues faced by Red Dead Redemption 2. The need to tell a story often times feels as it’s getting in the way of gameplay – switching between playing character, extended cut scenes, and the like.

That’s not to suggest there’s anything wrong with the gameplay when you take control. Much is what you expect and learned from the original. Focusing on stealth movements, exploration and crafting. However hats of to Naughty Dog who here give a masterclass on how to introduce player controls and gameplay mechanics. Tuition sequences carefully crafted and seamlessly integrated within the main story/gameplay narrative.

Still, even once the game really gets going, there were no real standout moments. No encounters that are going to live on in your memory and excite you on a replay as in the first game. In Part 1 you remember your first Bloater in the Sports Hall, Ellie being given the rifle on top some scaffolding covering Joe below picking off the army. One or two moments in Part 2, the sneak through the park with whistling Scars, come close but are quickly over and pale in comparison.

The game is centred around two main characters. Ellie from the first game and new comer Abby. Abby’s story is the focus of the second half of the game. Overall I found Abby to be the more likable and relatable character, she had a much stronger story arc and the better, more memorable, encounters all occur under her watch.

Graphically my first impression, loading up in 4K HDR, was how magnificent the original was in 720p on the PlayStation 3. We’ve come a long way – much can be scene in character models and animations in particular, especially the faces, but you certainly see why we keep hearing about “the law of diminishing returns”. Well that is until you arrive at the start of the Seattle, Day 1 chapter. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so jaw dropping gorgeous from a video game on my TV screen.

The Last of Us, Part 2, is a good game worth playing. However it does live in the shadow of the first game, a masterpiece, and is mostly more of the same but not quite as memorable. The reason is the game is more focused on its story telling. Naughty Dog had a story to tell and telling that story was the top priority over all other elements.

It is game that doesn’t know how to end however. It reaches a natural, if somewhat damp squib, conclusion and then just keeps going. You think you’ve seen an unnecessary prologue then it keeps going again. And keeps going. Making the final ending (spoiler: same damp squib; sorry) have even less impact.


Ancestors: A Humankind Odyssey

I do like to back an underdog. Many of the best and most interesting games available come not from your big AAA publishers but from the smaller, low scale development teams. Those free to do something different, like TheUltraUltra’s Echo or Tequila Work’s The Sexy Brutale. Ancestors is a download only game from Panache Digital Games of similar ilk. Ancestors is the brain child of the man behind the first Prince of Persia reboot, Sands of Time, and the first three Assassin’s Creed games.

On paper the idea for Ancestors is incredibly intriguing. Exactly the type of low key game I try going out my way to experience. We start 10,000,000 years ago when a group of Ape ancestors have descended from the tree’s in sub-Saharan Africa. Our task is to guide the species through millions of years of evolution and set them on the path to Manhood. The process necessarily slow going as new skills are learned, genetic memory is implanted, and birth mutations alter our eventual fate.

Straight out the gate the games initial problem is one of explanation. With all tutorial options dialled up to the max the game seems highly reluctant to give up its secrets. The entire first hour of gameplay spent head scratching not working out what is going on. My very first Ape-Ancestor fell to his death from a great height. The game moved immediately to the nearby Baby-Ape-Ancestor whose task it became to complete the mission back to the Ape-Ancestor tribe. Alas every movement of Baby-Ape-Ancestor flashed up an annoying HUD warning screaming at me to “get back on task”!?! Nothing for it but to delete the game save and restart from scratch.

Indeed I did end up restarting a few times as I slowly got to grips with the games mechanics and what is going on. And somehow that wasn’t totally a bad thing. The biggest lesson being to take things slowly. Don’t expect evolution to happen in a day. I found myself worrying more about the size and members of my clan than exploring the wider world were too many things wanted to kill them. And stock pilling. Foraging and stock pilling become the early order of the day.

In one early game I got in to trouble when all male members were killed. No problem I thought. Lets go for some evolution. The babies will grow up, the troupe will grow, I’ll have a new base to progress from. Alas evolution winds the clock forward without altering the group. I returned to the action with the exact same members we’d left off with a few thousand years earlier, and still no adult males. Similarly a pregnancy allows you to jump forward 15 months. But somehow I was still on year 1 and even after two such pregnancies none of the other babies had matured.

It took some searching and reading of Internet guides before things started making some semblance of sense and started settling down. In broad strokes there are four ways of progressing time. Sleeping for hourly/daily progression. Pregnancy to jump forward 15 months. Generation switch moves forward 15 years. And, finally, Evolution takes the clan forward by an indeterminate thousands of years. General gameplay is exploration and survival based with a given current goal (eg. befriend outsider, scare off animals, find landmark, etc). The game should be played as one of the grey tribe elders with a baby clinging to your back at all times. When you have killed of all the elders it is time to progress the game to the next generation – adults becoming elders, babies becoming adults. The first task in each new generation, before continuing the general survival/exploration gameplay, is to create a whole new generation of babies.

One thing that is constantly (consistently) frustrating is the controls. You keep trying to convince yourself that things will get better by design as you unlock and fix more neurons but despite increased motor control it never seems the case. The game is centred around a sub-Saharan forest with lots of necessary tree climbing. Why then does it seem utterly impossible to judge depth/direction and leap between branches? This is were more polished games add in those often unseen player aids by having you make jumps so long as you are generally close enough. Not so here, leaps to your 100ft deaths are far too common. Also basic direction control is broken. Climbing up and not being able to climb down, or move across. Lots of fighting with the camera before movement registers correctly in some instances.

This is a game that just wants to fight the player at ever turn. Which is a shame because barely scratch beneath the surface and you find something that could be very special indeed, a game just trying to get out despite itself. The whole thing just lacks that little extra polish. That last 6 months of development. It feels like time or money (or both) left the developers in a position of just not being able to cross the line. Ultimately if feels like they dumped what they had on the world and couldn’t wait to run away.


Red Dead Redemption 2

The PS3 classic RDR1 is one of my all time favourite games so my excitement was high going in to this first real PS4Pro experience with full 4K resolutions and HDR lighting. Off the bat the resolution, HDR and overall environment detail never disappoint. As with the first game, more so, the late 19th Century Wild West backdrop is the real star of the show.

But what of the gameplay itself? First impressions is of a game that it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. It’s as if the developers went out their way to perfect every element of gameplay and then tried dialling up a notch past that. The result was rarely (visuals excepted) excellence. Instead it often feels like it misses the mark, errs into parody, or other whys fails in the overall gelling of gameplay elements.

Does this game want to be an RPG? If it does the RPG elements just get in the way of the overall gameplay. Sleep, wash, dress, shave, watch your weight, feed the horse, upgrade the home camp. The level of detail pushed until it detracts.

Does this game want to be a cinematic experience? All too often the black bars descend and you’re watching a movie not playing a game. The original got he mix of story telling through gameplay spot on. The sequel actively removes player agency to further story telling.

At one point the game goes off on an Uncharted tangent with Arthur Morgan doing his best Nathan Drake impression. This short segment seems symptomatic of splitting the story into chaptered sections that really doesn’t work for this style of game. The first game did well with main story missions progressing the narrative while keeping the core open world consistent and explorable. While the map is big you do feel artificially confined to the current area, even if you’re not.

As with the level of detail in the graphics and animations, the size and scale of the world available to explore is larger than anything yet seen from Rockstar. Just the opening area explored during Chapters 1 and 2 feels like the whole area GTA V offered and equal in scale to the entire US side of the Rio Grande in the first game. Rockstar have out done themselves and entirely surpassed RDR1 in providing a seemingly realistic Wild West playground to explore. Certainly as you move into Chapter 3 the vast scale of the world on offer really makes its presence, felt even if you’re focused on one corner of it.

One of the true highlights of the first game, and GTA V for that matter, was the random encounters and more specifically the “Strangers and Freaks”. These remain in this new game but apart from a few truly unexpected comedy moments they just don’t provide the substance of the previous games. The Stranger meetings have been less memorable and feel more like thinly described fetch quests. Then again the line between story missions and side quests is ever more blurred so you’re never really sure what needs to be done to progress the narrative (hint: story missions are marked in yellow on the world map).

Story wise the game owes a lot to GTA V. The Rockstar GTA pedigree is strongly felt in this one, possibly more so than the last RDR game. While you are not switching between gang members, playing the story out at Arthur Morgan, there’s still the focus on grand heists and bank robbing. Certainly makes sense given the old west outlaw backdrop. And indeed these major heist set piece missions were the real standouts of GTA V, and so they are here too.

I found the controls to be largely infuriating. I always found myself fumbling with them. The auto-aim rarely snapping to where you expect. Getting into cover, selecting weapons, every task seemed more fiddly, more cumbersome. And that’s without the pixel perfect character positioning needed to loot, pickup, eat, or examine items.

As a prequel the story is well crafted and told in a manor we’ve come to expect from Rockstar since the early days of GTA Vice City and San Andreas. It fits perfectly setting up John Marston’s story perfectly for the previous game. But the game overall just always manages to just miss the mark.