video games

Review: Pyre

Supergiant Games have, with just three games under their belt, become one of my favorite developers. The consistently deliver well written, gorgeously animated and brilliantly voiced games that are matched by great gameplay. The companies latest, Pyre, does all this and more, and is arguably the best game they have created. If I am honest though, the first game, Bastion, will always have a special place in my heart.

Pyre is set in the downside, a harsh hellish landscape where people convicted of crimes in a higher society, the commonwealth, are sent. Banished for all time, they must struggle to survive not only the environment but the other inhabitants. There is, however, a way back in the form of the rites.

You play as a ‘reader’ which is exactly as the name says. Literacy is banned in the commonwealth, and the few who can read are deemed worthy of banishment. This also means that in the downside, you can read the book of rites, which actually opens up most of the gameplay. As soon your character arrives you are taken in by a band of exiles called the Nightwings, and embark on a quest to return to your home.

You can be forgiven for thinking that Pyre is a visual novel, because for a lot of its play time, that is exactly what it is. You look at gorgeous artwork of the various characters and settings and read a lot of dialogue exchanges, but that isn't all that Pyre has to offer. The game is also both a sports game and an RPG, and it all combines to make something fantastic.

The Nightwings are a triumvirate, which is basically a 3 man team, who compete in the rites to win their way back to the commonwealth. They do this by playing what is essentially mystical basketball. When you embark on a rite, you must take on a competing A.I. team to grab a glowing orb and get it into the opposing teams pyre. Once one teams pyre hits zero, the match is over and the game continues. As the player, this means that win or lose, it isn’t game over.

That last point might not sound like much, but it actually really adds to the feeling that this is an established universe. The setting of Pyre existed before you booted up the game, and will exist long after you close it down for the final time. The other teams react to whether they beat you or not realistically, talking smack or telling you it won’t happen again, and it can really build up a sense of team rivalry even a lot of real world sports games fail to match.

Brilliantly, this sport isn’t just some throw away addition that the developers through in to help break up the gameplay, no, this is as deep as you can want. Each character who can take part in the rite has unique abilities that must be mastered to be truly competitive, these range from one being faster than the others or another being slow but big and powerful.

These abilities might be something relatively passive, or something more aggressive. Each character has an ‘aura’, a blue circle on the ground. If the enemy hits that, the character is banished and out of the match for several seconds, which applies for your team hitting theirs too. You can fire this aura out to try and get members of the opposing team out of the match and make your life easier.

It allows you to set up various plays, and as the roster of the Nightwings increases over the game more tactics become available to you. Finding the right balance against the team you face is crucial, and planning ahead key. It is not perfect, but it provides heart pounding moments every few seconds and the feeling of accomplishment as the last ball is thrown into the enemy pyre is second to none.

The RPG element comes in after a match, as each character that takes part earns xp and can gain new abilities which  can change not only the size of the aura people produce or how fast they run, but make that blast bounce off obstacles or ignore them completely. It might be that if one character catches the orb mid air, they are granted infinite stamina for a few seconds. Picking wisely here will allow you to tailor your play style, but if you mess up, the in game shop can help.

This shop is a merchant called Falcon Ron. He rides on his dad’s shoulders, and he is awesome. He provides Talisman’s that can grant various bonuses as RPG’s are want to do, but also an item to re-select chosen abilities. I never found a need for these, but it some people might like to switch things up more than I did.

Developers often have their own style, and Supergiant certainly have theirs, personified in Pyre. I mentioned at the start that the company always delivers well written and acted games, and this is no different here except that while Transistor and Bastion had a lot of voice acting, it takes a back seat here to let the true star - the writing - shine. It’s what brings everything together, and fleshes it out into a coherent universe.

This includes little things, like one character, Rukey, asking if you if he should keep his mustache or not. If you say no, he returns a second later without it, or just small incidental moments where you simply have a chat with a character because something is weighing on their mind.

Animation and art are other areas this developer shines, and Pyre is probably the most gorgeous game they have done to date. The way that the wagon moves on your travels around the downside, the particle effects and flashes when playing a rite, even the way just clicking on an item in the main hub area is expertly crafted and looks stunning.

That's not to mention the hand drawn art style of the character’s and maps, it is so good you could almost print and frame a screenshot for your hallway. It is the most striking style you will see in some time, and gives the whole game a very distinct look that makes it stand out.

It’s not all amazing, as sometimes the A.I. can feel overpowered for no reason at all, just taking you out before you have time just to switch your brain on. This is especially true if you turn on the extra modifiers that make things harder for great rewards.

It can also be hard to determine which characters to send home, which you have to decide periodically. While this might not seem like an issue, there are characters with abilities that will make your life easier, send the wrong one home and you have to readjust. This extends, without getting too spoiler heavy, to a story based element.

One character states that he has calculated something to do with each of the others, but at no point does the game surface that information to help you decide who to send home. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, but given the quality of the rest of the game, it is jarring to have this one bit of dialogue in there for what appears to be no reason at all.

Honestly though, they are the only bad things I can come up with. The rites are deep enough to really get your teeth into, and there is an online mode just to play against others. The art is stunning and the writing excellent, the lore created presents an interesting universe that is fully fleshed out, and gives insight into more than just the games focus.

If you want an awesome looking game that plays great and is a bit on the sporty side, give Pyre a go, to date it is the developers greatest work, and you will not be disappointed.

Review: Destiny 2

Let me say this straight away: If you didn’t like the original Destiny, stop reading and go play something you do. Destiny 2 differs in some good ways, but the core mechanic of shooting various factions of bad guys in the face remains almost completely unchanged, so if you didn’t like it then you ain’t gonna like now.

The follow up to Bungie’s loot fest is...well a loot fest, but one with a way better story, some logical and needed changes to how said loot works and some new areas and planets. That doesn’t mean to say you won’t be playing through those same places over and over again to grind out better guns and armour, but let’s be honest here, that is, and always will be, Destiny.

In the first five minutes of the campaign, Destiny 2 tells more story in a better way than the whole of vanilla Destiny combined, excluding maybe The Taken King expansion. This time around it is the faction known as the Cabal who are the big bad, with a particularly evil leader taking the fight to the guardians.

The tower, the main social hub of the first game is destroyed as is the last city for the most part, and of course the mysterious giant sphere hovering above, The Traveller is under attack. This means that your side actually starts on the back foot, as the light The Traveller provides no longer protects you, which means you are mortal again, i.e. you get killed you are dead.

Except that's not quite right because of course you get those powers back. Honestly the major beats of the story are sci-fi action movie hokum, but Dominus Ghaul, leader of the Red Legion is actually an interesting antagonist, with an agenda beyond “Lets just kill everything!”. It adds much needed backstory to the Cabal, and enriches the Destiny universe overall. Even better, you don’t have to go to a website and look up a bunch of cards to get it, it's all done in game.

On the Guardian side of the story, the main three leaders from the first game return: Cayde-6, Zavala, and Ikora Rey. They entrust saving the good guys to you for the main part, but also get their hands dirty when required, again providing good backstory to the universe. Cayde in particular is witty and great, Nathan Fallion continuing a quality voice acting streak coupled with some good and funny writing.

Once the main campaign is complete, after a few hours, the main meat of the game opens up and then it becomes, well it becomes Destiny. You return to areas, grinding out more powerful loot, you do strikes - more difficult version of missions, you run patrols, do the raid if you have friends and time and complete quests. If all this sounds familiar then you would be right, but the thing about this franchise is, at its core, it's really good.

All of the main changes to the format are quality of life improvements over the first game for the most part and improve the overall experience, but that core shooting is still just as awesome as it ever was. If you didn’t like it first time, you won’t like it second, simple as. If you did, you will find an improved experience, one that streamlines some aspects of the original.

For example, you now don’t have to return to Orbit to travel to another planet. Simply pulling up the director will allow you to go to any of the planets available, which are, apart from Earth, all new. It might sound simple, but it really was a pain in the ass in the first game and is probably the best improvement in my eyes.

Another change is that your weapon classifications have changed to Kinetic, energy and power. Again it might not sound like much, but the secondary Energy weapons allow you to take down the shields on certain enemies quickly, and deal more damage when you do. The power weapons are your sniper rifles, rocket launchers and the new grenade launcher. That last one is a bummer because I have yet to find a good one, and it seems massively unpredictable when using it.

That's the thing about Destiny though, you will always find a loadout that works for your playstyle, and the loot comes thick and fast, so one rubbish weapon type is no big deal. That is coupled with another new addition: weapon mods. These are almost exactly like what you have used in other games, slotting one in will change the guns elemental affinity or increase its strength, a useful way to change things up. You can also feed more powerful weapons of the same type to a weaker one, improving it if you really do find one you like.

The final main combat change is for each subclass, those awesome abilities that let you shooting lightning from your hands or use a giant fire sword. They each now come with specializations, which allow you to customize your character with say, more focus on your super or helping your team keep a killstreak for longer.

It is cool but honestly it is something for the more hardcore players out there, casual types such as myself will notice little difference. That’s not to say it isn’t a good addition, but it will apply more to the raid and strikes than anything else. To be fair, that was the same in the first game with some aspects, the more you play the more nuance you will get out of the combat.

One annoying aspect is the fact that shaders now apply to just one piece of equipment, rather than your overall look, and are one use only. Again this might not seem like much, but when you can only change a couple of bits to the same colour, it can be vexing. Though to be fair, it can make for some very unique looking characters.

Those who played the first game will be wondering just how much content is in this game, as the last one was...sparse to say the least. The good news is that there is so much more to do, and exploring the maps feels so much better this time around because there are small things to find, such as regional chests with loot to grab and lost sectors, which are small PvE encounters that are a bit more of a challenge than just roaming around fighting enemies on the surface.

It doesn’t include the standard strikes, public events, random firefights, patrols and et all that dot each planet, so there is so much more to do in Destiny 2 and it really does feel like an evolution of the formula. That said, you will, inevitably, get to the end of all that, and then what?

Well, frankly, that is Destiny. You play until you can’t, put it down, and wait for the next DLC. If you have friends you can run the strikes with them, play the raid (which still doesn’t have matchmaking) and fight in the multiplayer focused Crucible. Eventually you will grow tired, and again wait for that next DLC, and if that isn’t what you want out of your gaming experience, maybe this isn’t for you. Those who get it though, who loved the first one and want more of that, well, Destiny 2 is the perfect sequel.

It won’t make you change your mind if you didn’t like the first one on a fundamental level, but if you did it's a great follow up, improving just about everything you wanted from it’s predecessor. The core shooting is still amazing, the game is as gorgeous to look at as ever, and the quality of life improvements streamline the experience in much needed ways. Destiny 2 is worthy of the time you will put into it, until the inevitable day you close it and await the next pack of content.

Review: Super Mario Odyssey

There is an old saying in gaming circles: “Never count Nintendo out”. It’s simple, to the point, and if any year in its history proves it, it’s this one. Not only did they release a fantastic console in the Switch, they dramatically overhauled The Legend of Zelda to make it probably one of the best games ever made, and now they have unleashed Super Mario Odyssey, a game shows they are still the masters of the platformer.

Talk before release was that Odyssey is a spiritual successor to the Super Mario Galaxy games, and to be honest I can see why that comparison was made. Each level has different themes and secrets to explore, and trust me there are plenty of secrets. More than that though, is the feeling you get when playing: it just feels right.

It might sound stupid, but from the first push of the thumb stick it’s like you just know everything is right, after a few minutes of play you are lost in Odyssey’s world, all your woes falling away as you explore each level. Even when you decide to move to the next, the feeling you haven’t quite found everything sticks with you, until that is you get lost again.

I played the game on a trip home from London recently. The train took just over two hours. I started playing when we set off, and put it down what I though was half an hour later. Turns out I was just twenty minutes from home and I had lost an hour and half just exploring the game, and if that doesn’t mark it out as great I don’t know what will.

Story has never been a Mario games strong point, and if I am being honest the same is true here. Shockingly Peach gets kidnapped by Bowser again, this time with the intention of forcing marriage upon the said strumpet, but he also nabs Tiara, a Bonneter who becomes the princess’ err...tiara.

Mario of course runs to the rescue, but this time is joined by Cappy, Tiara’s brother, who wants to help fight Bowser and his minions and save his sister. This is where the new game shows it’s distinctiveness. Cappy is actually a very useful little guy, Mario can throw him up, down and all around to fight enemies and collect coins, maybe even solve the odd puzzle. The most unique thing Cappy does, however, is allow Mario to ‘capture’ various creatures around each level.

The capture of a creature turns it ‘mario’, which basically means it gets the plumbers distinct moustache and cap, and let me tell you there is something quite magical about seeing a T-Rex in that state. It then grants you that creature's special ability, so for example capturing a Goomba allows you to stack more and and more on top of each other to reach high ledges or treasures. It’s a great mechanic, and allows the designers to hide things in some brilliant places.

Power Moons are the treasures I speak of, and are used to power the Odyssey, a airship the two friends use to chase down Bowser. They are placed anywhere from ‘in plain sight’ to ‘take two hours to figure out’ and each level contains more than you first think. This where you can see a similar design philosophy to Breath of the Wild. In that game something new was discovered every few minutes and the same is true here.

Turn a corner and you might find a new puzzle to solve or a hidden area containing a moon. It could lead to a boss fight or some of the purple coins littering each level, or it might even just be the top of a ridge looking out over the sea, a cool little vista for intrepid explorers to find. This is what drives you in Super Mario Odyssey, you are never quite sure what is waiting for you next.

Once the credits have rolled the game drops you back in, letting you go find all the other moons you might have missed, and I am almost certain you would have missed some if not a vast majority, there is just that many to find. It is unfortunate that revisting kingdoms means you can purchase a bunch of moons from the in game store on each without having to explore, but honestly its not that big of a deal.

There is unfortunately one major downside to the game: motion controls. Now I will always be a fan of the Wii, it was a great system that introduced gaming to the masses, but for the most part motion controls should have died with that system. Here it only works if the joy-con’s are undocked and frankly, no one plays the switch like that. Those devices are either connected to play in handheld mode or attached to the bundled controller dock that comes with the system.

I am not saying it is impossible to use the motion controls in any other state, but it’s certainly easier when the joy-con’s aren’t plugged into anything. Moving the full system around when playing in handheld mode is just a nightmare and it is jarring when playing with the controller attachment. If they had put those moves onto a face button it would have worked so much better and allowed for more creative use of the various powers by players.

To be honest though, that is the only complaint I have about the whole game. Playing is like sitting down for a chat with an old friend, after a few minutes its like you were never apart and that is what the Mario games personify, the feeling of an old friend come to see you and enjoying each others company.

Super Mario Odyssey shows Nintendo’s willingness to try new things with its core franchise, and somehow they manage to keep the same great feel the best of the previous games had. It updates everything for a new generation and I am certain this will become some of the younger gamers out there game of the generation, one of those that is looked back on in years to come with misty eyes and a slightly inflated, but no less justified sense of nostalgia. In short, it is a masterpiece.

Review: Horizon: Zero Dawn

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There is an old adage in entertainment media that products with female leads will simply not sell well enough to be worth the effort to develop them. This seems to go double for games, were only a select few have done anything close to ‘ok’ in terms of sales, and fewer still have gone on to spawn an entire franchise, with Tomb Raider and Metroid being the only real contenders and Metroid being a stretch as for almost all the games you are barely identifiable encased in Samus’ powered armour.

Looking up the list of female characters in games, distressingly few of them are women and even fewer not portrayed as either sidekicks or over sexualized. While I will freely admit that those characters who are a bit scantily clad tickle my hetero white male sensibilities (yes I am part of the problem), I also find the ability to play as a women enticing, especially if the character is written well.

Enter Aloy, star of Guerrilla Games Horizon: Zero Dawn. She is a arrow shooting, spear wielding bad ass who can tear through packs of robotic animals with ease, genuinely develops over the course of the game's story, and is never once portrayed as a damsel in distress. Aloy is, frankly, a next generation hero, someone who is already gaining popularity as cosplay and a game character Guerilla should be proud of.

Aloy’s world is a strange one. Set hundreds of years in the future, nature has reclaimed much of the planet and only ruins of our once great civilization remain. Humanity leaves in various tribes, but are united in a common enemy: the machines.

These robotic beasts have been shown in all of Horizon’s promo material and range from relatively small, to towering monsters bristling with advanced weaponry. They represent things like horses, rhino’s, birds of prey and crocodiles and each one is deadly in its own way. Aloy is dropped into this world with a...bow, not exactly the most advanced weapon ever made, but it is amazingly effective. Her mission is to figure out where she comes from, and what is going on with these machines.

The story is actually pretty great, it twists in some interesting ways and features some memorable characters, but all of them pale in comparison to Aloy herself. The voice acting is top notch throughout with each character a believable person in the context of the world, everyone tinged with mistakes or character flaws and some outright assholes.

After a start as a small, rebellious child, outcast from her tribe to live with her adoptive father, Aloy is eventually allowed to travel the wider world.The open world is huge, with draw distances to match, a play space that is truly stunning and a place that just existing in, not even completing missions or side quests, is worth doing. Climbing up to the top of a ridge or mountain and staring out over the landscape is something made for the photo sharing features of the PS4, and made my jaw drop on several occasions, even without the grunt of the PS4 Pro and a 4K TV.

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There is plenty to do and see, but, and this is crucial to an open world game, nothing ever gets overwhelming. The map does contain hundreds of icons once you discover enough or earn the shards to buy the maps to reveal things, but most of those are simply the locations of various types of machines. The collectibles aren’t into the hundreds and I was able to collect them all pretty easily. The last game I did that on was Assassin's Creed II, so Horizon is in good company.

Improving Aloy’s skills and weapons rarely feels like a chore, with most of the materials required gained through the excellent battles against machines. The combat system is expertly crafted, and never gets old even when fighting human enemies, though admittedly these battles are never as interesting as battling even the smallest robots.

Each fight can be approached in different ways, but I found sneaking around and picking my shots the most effective. For example, I came upon a pack of Striders (robot horses essentially), so I snuck up through long grass to conceal my movements. These machines have ‘blaze’ canisters on their backs, so I shot one with a fire arrow. This caused the canister to ignite, resulting in an explosion that killed the target and severely damaged nearby Striders allowing me to pick them off one by one.

That tactic is so satisfying to pull off, though it comes with a downside. Because I destroyed the canister, I couldn’t loot that corpse for it, and this risk/reward mechanic comes into play often. With many machines I can do a similar thing, but I get less back than if I attacked them in a more conventional way. This extends to making ammo for the various weapons, as this takes resources such as those blaze canisters and wood, but also metal shards.

Shards are also the game's currency, so until you get to a point where you have the weapons and armour you are comfortable with, making ammo depletes your ability to purchase items. Killing enemies and machines will net you more and selling things to ample merchants dotted around solves this, but it is an interesting way to get people to think about the combat.

Each weapon also comes with tutorial missions, such as ‘trip three medium sized enemies’ for the trip caster, a weapon that fires wires that might explode or be charged with electricity. These are great experience earners but more than that get you to experiment with other weapons, even if it is just to complete them for the experience. Personally I found a good load out that allowed me to take on even the biggest machines with relative ease, but I also played on default difficulty.

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Everything about playing the game is absolutely spot on, combat, missions, side quests. The biggest problem, and Horizon’s only major weakness is animation. I am not talking about animation out the world either, every human, every machine or animal moves perfectly even during combat. I am talking about during cut scenes, and it is absolutely atrocious at times.

Aloy just won’t stay still during scenes, her head is always moving, whether she is talking or not. This goes for the character she is talking to too, but she is the worst culprit. It would be better if this movement was in anyway smooth or natural but it’s not, it is a twitchy bouncy mess, giving Aloy a look of perpetual confusion and the disposition of someone suffering from Parkinson's disease than the naive outcast girl they paint her as in the writing.

It’s frustrating because every other part of the game is of such high quality that this one problem brings the package down, and does so unfairly. Playing the game is so much fun it never gets old, but these broken animations wear out very quickly and pull you out of the experience almost instantly after a while. It can be overlooked, but that then means losing out on an interesting story if you were to skip them or look at your phone.

After 50+ hours with it, I can tell you that Horizon: Zero Dawn is a fantastic game, well worth your time. The problems around the animation are not so bad that they spoil the act of playing, and you can certainly have plenty of fun running about the world without even doing the missions or side quests. The combat is stellar and the designs of the machines are awesome in some cases, providing genuinely intimidating foes to conquer.

The missions are generally great, providing a cool story with some twists and turns and take Aloy on a journey to discover her place in the world. It’s just those damn cut scenes, the game deserves better and while it is a small thing, it ultimately brings the whole thing down from ‘classic’ to ‘great’.Still, shooting robotic dinosaurs in the eyes with arrows is so much fun you would be silly not to give it a go.

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.