Mass Effect

Mass Effect feels like strange game. It seems to spend most of its time slightly missing the mark. A lot of the game feels very similar to the New Washington level of the excellent 90’s 2D platformer Flashback with lots of running backward and forwards stacking objectives to complete a mission. At the same time the overarching RPG mechanics and storyline give a very Chrono Trigger like feel to the proceedings.

Add to that a universe traversal system not too dissimilar to something like Elite that opens up a galaxy and a number of worlds to explore. This is certainly the right way to present a mutli-world space opera and one wonders why more space games haven’t exploited this method of focusing interworld travel on the galaxy map.

So far, so good, and yet something still doesn’t sit right. And the reasons are all niggly little things that add up and detract from something that should be seen as space RPG excellence.

It starts with player models and animations feeling more original XBox than 360, which isn’t too surprising given how early in the 360 generation this game was released. This is swiftly joined by some very questionable voice acting of a script written by a collective of pre-teen Dr Who fans. It’s all somehow vapid, shallow, and predictable. So much so that it quickly made Eastenders feel like Shakespeare and I soon descended in playing missions for playing missions sake rather than wanting to progress the underlying narrative.

Which brings us to combat. Maybe I’m spoiled by modern games but this felt like an early FPS struggling to use a gamepad instead of a mouse. During fighting there didn’t seem like much agency with the character model drawn to the screen. It really may as well had not been there. And as common with many early FPS aiming and shooting lacked accuracy, descending quickly into “fire in rough direction of enemy and hope enough rounds connect”.

This culminates in the final boss battle that even on the easiest difficulty setting manages to stay the wrong side of frustrating as the enemy zips around the screen and your scatter gun pot shots barely connect with your opponents health bar.

3/5

Hero Quest

In August 1991 Amstrad Action magazine put a demo of this game on their fifth regular covertape. While I didn’t play it much, being just a demo, there was something about the format of that game that grabbed me.

Hero Quest is a computer translation of a board game that only came out only a couple of years prior. At its heart it is a trapped back version of Dungeons and Dragons and similar choose your own adventure fantasy books which become popular during the 80’s. As in those games you choose to play as one of the classic Warrior, Sorcerer, Dwarf, or Elf and must explore a maze being the first player to complete a given objective.

The moment to moment gameplay follows the board game with the player rolling a virtual dice and moving a given number of moves around the maze. In gaming terms the result is a very stripped back and basic turn based RPG. The actual presentation is the familiar isometric 3D style made popular nearly a decade earlier on the ZX Spectrum in games like Knight Lore and Batman. The screen layout and player controls also who a debt to Populous.

Each mission is fairly short and without expansion discs number only around a dozen. However completion of later levels does require completion of earlier levels in order to ‘level up’ your character enough to completer those missions. As you explore mazes you will find equipment and potions, find gold and between missions are able to purchase better equipment to use going forward. A certain amount of replaying earlier levels and saving character profiles to a save disk is required to get to the end.

I’ve never played the board game but, much like later conversions like RISK, this does feel like it is faithful to the original source. This does create some minor problems with pace and randomness is battle results. Finding a way of managing your health is key, trying to to die while searching rooms to gain items that will help you not die. Likewise, constant dice rolling and square by square movement doesn’t exactly work playing single player.

3/5

Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla

After the one set in ancient Egypt (Origins) I’d kind of reached the end of my passion for UbiSoft’s premier openworld series. While I enjoyed the game the direction had moved far from it’s peeks with Brotherhood and Syndicate. The developers had chosen a move away from the stealth mission assassination gameplay and focused more in to the sprawling openworld RPG arena not a million miles away from games like The Witcher 3 or Horizon: Zero Dawn.

Much like Watchdogs: Legion it was easily the setting that drew me back. But also much like Wachdogs, as a life long resident of the areas depicted, the setting was also a bit of let down. There’s a certain amount that can be forgiven taking into account known geographical changes since the time the game is set, such as the Norfolk Broads being built in the 1800’s and drastically reshaping the landscape. But then you get things like no real feel for being in the Peak District and the Pennines. And Essex felt much hillier than I recall from living there and Maldon finding its way closer to modern day Southend.

Still there were plenty of nice touches that made it very easy to overlook and forgive and topological anomalies found. Things like jump off a synchronisation point in Essex and bumping into a local Braintree based band with a pretty funny reference to one of their more well known songs. Or seeing some possible ancient beginnings to a certain festival just south of Stonehenge.

Valhalla is a huge, huge game. Easily the longest game I’ve played to date. Most modern ‘AAA’ games tend to take me around a month to play. Just over two months later and I get to what appears to be the end of the main story missions. It all happens in such a damp squib way that if there is more then I was just happy to leave here because the game had long outstayed its welcome.

Not that the main gameplay isn’t fun. The game is very similar to Red Dead Redemption 2 and Ghost Of Tsushima in it’s moment to moment action but Ubisoft really have mastered the art of giving these games a deep breadth of activity and making encounters seem fresh and different which Tsushima in particular struggled with.

Ultimately though it’s the focus on RPG progression and the endless side objectives that brings the game to its knees. Most of the time to properly progress your characters skill level needs to be within the vicinity of the recommended level for the area or task you are heading in to. This puts a big focus on constantly levelling up and that means busy work. By the end of the game my characters level was around 260 and the game was asking for a level of 340.

Thankfully the story missions rarely needed close matches so completing that part of the game was easy but I certainly never completed all the members of The Order or got close to “The Father”. But I suppose that just gives me somewhere to start up from again when I next come round to playing this one.

3/5