PC

Review: Tacoma

The walking simulator is a relatively modern genre for video games, one where story takes precedence over shooting stuff in the face, and with a great story these games can be powerful, showcasing just what the medium can do and lending credence to the growing art form of games.

My first experience with this was The Fullbright Company’s first game, Gone Home. It topped my game of the year list upon release and it’s themes have stuck with me ever since. When the developer announced its next game I was excited to say the least, and while Tacoma won’t stay with me the way Gone Home did, it is a great game in its own right.

Set aboard Lunar Transfer Station Tacoma, the game places you in the shoes of Amy, the person sent to investigate what happened on board and where exactly the crew have disappeared to. On paper, this makes it sound like a horror game, where some unknown alien menace has infested the station, but that is far from the truth. Tacoma connects you to the on board A.I via an augmented reality interface and from there the meat of the gameplay plays out.

‘Plays out’ is the right term here, as walking into certain rooms will net you a A.R. scene, recorded at some point before your character boarded the station. This could be as simple as one of the crew sat on their bunk playing guitar or as complex as a party where everyone is present. Watching these scenes delivers the story as to what happened to these people, but it also presents something games can struggle with: real lives.

The crew of the Tacoma are real people, they each have families, friends and pasts. They are struggling with something unique to them, which could be something to do with their family or their quest to do better in the gym. It’s brilliant because it makes you feel like the whole situation could be something that actually happens in real life, I got to the end and thought about the news reports that would show each crew member, and the people speculating on what is going on up there.

Unfortunately, while all this makes for a compelling and well paced game, it simply didn’t grab me in the way Gone Home did. That game's tale of a girl returning to her family home to find things aren’t as peachy as they might appear spoke to me on a fundamental level, and even four years on from it’s release I recommend it to people. I am fairly certain I won’t be doing the same with Tacoma.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a great game, and I suspect if this is your first attempt at a walking simulator then you might have a similar reaction to what I had with the developer's previous effort, I just wasn’t pulled into the world in the same way, though I will admit I was very happy and satisfied with the game's conclusion.

The good news is that the main set of characters are so diverse you are bound to find someone who speaks to you. For me it was the medic, Serah, a compelling character with a great back story, who is also dealing with a medical issue a little too familiar. Each character, each little vignette, pushes, compels you to seek out the next, not to complete the game but to find out what happened to these characters.

I just wish I got into it more, and as strange as this might sound stupid from someone whose top ten movie list has eight sci-fi films on, but the sci-fi setting actually harms Tacoma. It puts it just a step out of reach, where other games in the genre I have played were all set in the modern day, it makes for the relatively mundane but compelling story to shine through.

The space station setting here means I spend more time looking out of windows and marveling at the artistic style that getting in touch with the story, and more time wanting to learn about the universe it resides in rather than getting to know all the characters.

Tacoma is a great game, it is well paced, has a great story and a great cast of characters. My issues with it stem from the setting, which doesn’t gel with the tale being told, however cleverly it might play out. If you are looking to try a game of this style, there are far worse options out there, and as previously stated it might well give you the same reaction I had with its predecessor.

It is a worthy follow up to a stunning game, only takes a couple of hours to complete, the perfect way to spend an evening.

Review: Doom (2016)

Ah DOOM. It is the game that changed so much. ID software’s seminal shooter, while not the first FPS on the market, was responsible for many’s first foray into modding, online multiplayer, hyper violence and the first person viewpoint. I remember playing it as a kid, and it remains one of my favourite games of all time, and the series has earned its place in gaming’s hall of fame.

 

The first two games are classics in the truest sense, games that at the time were revolutionary, gaining a following that endures to this day. The third game, DOOM 3, which came out ten years after the original, doesn’t hold quite as much reverence, with many citing it as the end times for the series.

So when ID announced a new game in the venerable series, at the time called Doom 4, then later retitled to just DOOM, people were a little worried. Added to this was the fact that a multiplayer beta received much criticism and no review copies were sent out to reviewers before hand, generally a dark sign for the quality of a game.

Those worries, thankfully, were completely unfounded. The rebooted DOOM is the classic games through and through, but with updated mechanics, graphics and design that does everything required to bring what you remember about the original hurtling into the 21st century. In short, DOOM 2016 has no right to be this good.

 

The game's campaign opens with you awakening inside an ancient crypt, brutally killing a demon and escaping to find the ‘Praetor Suit’, the armour that will provide you protection from the forces of hell. Brilliantly, ID software have continued the tradition of not really naming the protagonist, instead the logs etc that you find simply refer to you as ‘The Doom Marine’.

From there, it's all about the killing. Like the first games, this new take focuses on brutal, bloody death with unabashed glee. It is everything that made you smile when you were younger, except now you can actually legally play it (being over 18 that is). As you travel about Mars and then Hell itself, you are given the tools to take down whatever is thrown at you.

These tools range from classic DOOM weapons like the super shotgun, plasma rifle and chain gun, to new brutal melee kills that aren’t there just for show, but one of the best ways to regain health. As you shoot enemies, they eventually stagger and glow blue. Get closer and that glow turns orange and you can hit a button to perform a ‘glory kill’ which rewards you with important health and after some upgrades, Armour.

This brutality extends to another classic weapon, the chainsaw. The iconic device makes a triumphant return, and it is just as satisfying as ever to rip through demons. However, changes have been made. It now requires fuel, which is in short supply. On the plus side, taking down enemies with it rewards you with a spray of ammo pick ups for your other weapons.

The result is a glorious ballet of shooting, melee and ammo replenishment via the chainsaw, with everything covered in so much blood that you could refloat the Titanic twice over. It is a game that will offend anyone still concerned with the violence in the medium, but to those who remember, those who know, this is what DOOM has and always will be.

 

Levels are massive, with lots of area’s to explore, and explore you should. Dotted around the environment are various upgrades and secrets and help with all the destruction, and the game doesn’t make finding these a chore. The DOOM marine can mantle up to surfaces, jump and eventually double jump, and even gain an upgrade that shows all the collectible locations on the map.

It makes it a pleasure to go through the levels, though some of these upgrades are a bit pointless and it can be difficult, even with the upgrades, to truly find everything. Some power ups though, are awesome. Take for example, the machine guns micro missile upgrade. This allows you to alt fire using small explosive missiles, couple that with an late game upgrade that allows you to have infinite ammo while your Armour is above 100, and you can’t help to laugh maniacally as you rain explosions on a room full of bad guys.

The story is there mainly to give some context to your actions, and as can probably be seen from how late it is in this review, isn’t the reason to play the campaign. Gameplay rules supreme here, and while the universe is fleshed out with cut scenes and the logs found strewn throughout the levels, ultimately I just wanted to get back to the killing of hell-spawn.

By the end of the game, which will take a good chunk of time, the destructive itch will have been scratched several times over. The ripping apart of classic DOOM enemies - Imps, Cacodemons, Revenants, Pinky demons and Hell Knights to name but a few - never gets old, and combat remains fun throughout.

ID Software have included a multiplayer component, and level design section ala Halo’s Forge mode, and these are fine inclusions for the most part, but once I was finished with the campaign, I had more than my share of DOOM.

I feel like the campaign of DOOM 2016 is something I could go back to time and again. The combination of updated mechanics and classic feel make it something special, and as I said before, it never gets old.

This new take on the classic franchise is everything anyone wanted out of the latest in the series and then some, as I said at the start of this review, it has no right to be this good, and it is more than worth your time.

Review: Firewatch

*this was originally posted on thisismyjoystick

What is Firewatch? That question became a bit of a joke since its announcement, but now Firewatch is with us and I can categorically inform you it is indeed a game; a game about two people, and no destruction, no shooting and no aliens.

Set in the Wyoming wilderness, Firewatch presents an intriguing tale set against gorgeous scenery. Not everything fully works in its gameplay, but if you are in the mood for a sedate and well written story, this could well be for you.

You play as Henry, the newest inhabitant of a watchtower in a forest prone to fires during summer. It would be a lonely summer save for a handheld radio that connects him to the next tower over from his and the lone woman that lives there, Delilah.

I don’t want to spoil too much, suffice to say that a mystery starts to unfold that Henry and Delilah have to solve. Obviously, this is mainly Henry doing the figuring out, since you play as him. I will say this of the story: At no point does it turn to the fantastical to weave its tale. The story happens to Henry and Delilah, and is a good, old fashioned mystery.

Firewatch is more thriller than anything else, though it rarely builds up any real tension, but then again, that’s not really its point. Intersecting the main story is the developing relationship between the slightly broken Henry and the just as broken Delilah. They never actually meet during the entire experience, but the writing is so good that it feels like more than just a friendship develops between the two.

The meat of the story is that relationship, and how it builds up and is shaken by the mystery that unfolds around them. Henry is trying to escape his life, but you can feel the guilt in him, and I honestly felt for the guy. I sat there wondering if I wouldn’t do the same thing as him in his situation, which is a testament to the great writing permeating throughout the entirety of Firewatch.

Then there’s the feel of Firewatch. It took Henry a two day hike to get to his watch tower, and you can really feel that walk as you move around the game world. Its actually amazing what the developers have managed to do with the visuals. Yes, there are certain barriers to just wandering through the entire forest, but none are invisible walls or feel out of place, and some even come with a bit of banter between Henry and Delilah, which is a fun way to relay info to the player.

The developers at Camp Santo have done so much with so little, and at all times I felt like I was hiking through the woods looking out for any trouble makers. The view is just gorgeous from the top of the tower, and you can see some beautiful sites as you move around the wilderness. Is it on bar with actually being in the Wyoming wilderness? Even without ever being there I can say no, because there is a slightly cartoony vibe to everything.

However, this doesn’t detract from the visuals in anyway, and if anything, it adds to them. Yes, the uncanny valley this isn’t, but the world you play in is alive and real. The sound design has just enough of the ambient noises you would hear in the woods, and makes the world - and this might sound weird – feel ‘just right’.

The voice acting is absolutely fantastic, and the two actors really do make the main characters come alive. There is a ‘choose your answer’ angle to the dialogue, which doesn’t seem to affect anything other than your personal arc with the characters, and that is kinda cool. Firewatch is one of those games that you play, and what happens therein is your version of that game. It probably won’t be the same as mine or anyone else’s, and what you take away from the story is yours too.

My only issues are that it can be easy to miss dialogue trees and, secondly, the map.

The dialogue trees pop-up while talking to Delilah, and generally have a few responses to what she is saying. The system works well, but if you are moving about the world and start to interact with something, that action takes precedence over the progress in conversation, leading to a few occasions where I couldn’t respond because I was stuck in an animation and the timer ran out.

It’s a small thing, but such was the quality of the writing that I wanted to hear everything that was said, so this was massively disappointing. The other issue, the map, just isn’t stunning from a gameplay perspective. It is functional, and offers the feel of Henry hiking his way through the woods and having to orientate himself, but it got kinda of annoying to get lost because I hadn’t checked the map in the last thirty seconds. Getting lost is a joy, but objectively, the map isn’t quite fit for purpose.

 SO… WHAT IS FIREWATCH?

Firewatch is a great game. The story that unfolds is brilliantly told and set against the stunning background of a lush forest. There is no shooting, no aliens, nothing supernatural, just a great story told well. If you want the latter, this is not your game.

For everyone else, however, Firewatch is part of a new generation of games that break the mould and do something that little bit different. With such craft and beauty it really isn’t hard to call it art.