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Darksiders: Genesis Review – All Strife

One thing you sure do get with the Darksiders series is variety: the first game took heavy inspiration from the Zelda franchise, whilst the second favored lots of loot and a bigger world. The third game had a little bit of Dark Souls floating around in it, as well as a dash of the Metroidvania genre. And now we’ve got Darksiders: Genesis, a prequel that pulls the camera way out into a top-down view and throws in a few dollops of Diablo for good measure. That’s four games and four very different styles. Talk about bang for your buck, eh?

Darksiders: Genesis has actually been out for a few months on PC, but I didn’t get a chance to review it at the time. Now though, it’s launching on consoles, so with Genesis becoming available to a whole new audience, it seemed like a good time to do a review.

In the previous three games, we’ve got to play as War, Death, and Fury, but the fourth and final Horseman (Not the classic wrestling faction) has only got mentions and a brief cameo in Darksiders III. Genesis marks the proper debut of Strife, the last of the Horsemen, and the most different in terms of personality and gameplay. War, Death, and Fury are all quite serious and focused, but Strife has a sarcastic streak as wide as War’s monstrous shoulders. He’s snarky, likes to crack wise, and therefore also tends to annoy the shit out of his brothers and sister.

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Playing the straight man to Strife’s snarky sarcasm and constant humor for this adventure is the hulking mountain of anger known as War, the star of the very first Darksiders who finally got to step back onto the stage. At one point Strife merrily tries to tell a knock, knock joke, before telling War that he’s meant to reply with, “Who’s there?” War calmly states that he would never give away his location like that, and would instead just smash the door down and assault whatever poor bastard was on the other side. That’s the kind of comedy to expect in Genesis. At first, it struggled to connect with me and I found the interaction between the two Horsemen a little stiff, but as the game went on I began to enjoy the way they bounced off of each other. Truthfully, they act like siblings: sometimes arguing, disagreeing, or downright hating each other, but always willing to back the other up. That’s the kind of strange relationship I want from the Horsemen, and it’s a pleasure to finally get to actually see more than just one on-screen other than just in a cutscene.

The actual story is pretty much a basic skeleton designed to give you a tour of various environments and let you beat the crap out of hundreds of enemies. Basically, War and Strife have been dispatched by the Charred Council to investigate Lucifer who seems intent on upsetting the all-important Balance. He’s been busy granting power to various other demons, and so the bulk of the story has War and Strife paying visits to these evil beings, aiding by Samael and Vulgrim, who continues his run of appearing in every Darksiders game to date.

If you’re new to the Darksiders franchise and its bonkers lore and love of huge armor then all of this might sound a bit naff. And it kind of is. Without prior knowledge of the series the first hour or two can be a bit confusing with strange terms like The Charred Council and The Balance being thrown around. It’s goofy stuff, but somehow it works. While it’s certainly not great storytelling in the traditional sense Genesis manages to deliver a plot that doesn’t get in the way, provides an excuse for the action, and is still enjoyable in a mindless, action-romp sort of way. It’s like a good action movie; enough plot to vaguely justify all the death and give you an excuse to drink a copious amount of fizzy drinks and eat a fucking tonne of sweets.

And if you happen to be a returning veteran of Darksiders who, like me, is bafflingly invested in Darksiders lore then there are some nice new nuggets of information to be gathered up and hoarded like some sort of demonic squirrel.

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But let’s get into the actual gameplay which is actually familiar top-down hack ‘n slasher fare but executed so well that you won’t care that it isn’t dripping in goopy creativity. Provided you’re playing solo you can swap between War and Strife on the fly, and Darksiders: Genesis does a nice job of making both characters feel unique. War is all about getting up close and intimate with his foes, his massive sword dealing big damage to anything unlucky enough to be on the same planet. Unlike Strife, War can block incoming attacks in order to remain nice and close to his victims, and can also launch heavy attacks. His special abilities include unleashing spikes that erupt out of the ground or turning his skin to stone in order to soak up damage like a boss.

As for Strife, he favors his twin guns which can be fired by aiming with the right stick and pulling the trigger. Some simple melee attacks help hold back the enemy if they do manage to get close, though. And while you dish out damage Strife’s special gauge builds up and when it actives it lets Strife fire faster and hit harder.

The various levels which make up the reasonably lengthy 10-15 hour campaign are nicely sized, offering extra space for exploring. You even get to summon up Strife and War’s horses to ride around, a concept I wish got used more. It’s fun to gallop around and smash some bad guys from the saddle, but there was a lot more that could have been done with the Horsemen’s equine companions.

By searching the maps for hidden chests both War and Strife can earn special selectable modifiers for their weapons. Strife, for example, can swap between several secondary ammo types such as arcing electric bullets or a powerful beam that can rip through numerous enemies at once. War, meanwhile, can imbue his giant blade with the ability to suck up health or to add some extra types of attack. These abilities can all be easily changed on the fly, too, by bringing up a radial menu. The fact that these skills are hidden around the levels, as are other items like health shards, gives you a good reason to explore every nook and cranny.

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The real key to what makes fighting the dozens of enemy types feel good is the audio and visual cues. Through the sounds of Strife’s guns and the weight of War’s sword swings combat is given a nice, meaty impact that keeps the slaughtering satisfying and fun. The gruesome execution moves are a nice touch too, even if the zoomed out camera makes them harder to appreciate. Plus, you even get to unleash massive firey demon versions of War and Strife every now and then. Who doesn’t like that?

But it isn’t all decapitations and ballets of death. The Darksider games like a bit of platforming and puzzle-solving, and Darksiders: Genesis is no different. Top-down views are often a little iffy for accurate platforming so it’s hardly surprising that you’ll fail the occasional leap because you couldn’t gauge distances right. However, for the most part, the platforming is quite fun, largely because it never requires you to be too precise.

As for the puzzles they’ve been kept nice and simple, possibly because neither Strife nor War seems like they have the patience for tricky brain-busters when there are monsters to be smashed. Mostly it boils down to hitting a few switches or maybe matching up some symbols. Simple, easy stuff that helps break up the action a little. But there are a few fun gadgets thrown into the mix, such as Strife’s portals that can be tossed onto specific surfaces, or War’s Vorpal blade that can bounce from target to target.

The prior Darksiders games have all allowed the Horsemen to buff themselves up in various forms, and Genesis carries on that tradition, albeit with an unusual system that involves gathering Creature Cores from slain foes. Different cores offer up different bonuses from a simple increase in damage to buffing special abilities or even adding some new ones, like a chance to leave a trail of fire when you dash. On top of that collecting cores, you already have increased their total power, making them more effective. This is where things get a little more complicated: you need to slot the Cores into a giant board. When the first Core is placed it opens up the adjacent slots and so on, with different slots featuring symbols that match those on the cores. By matching symbols you get an extra power boost. If that wasn’t enough then some slots can’t make use of a fully leveled up Core’s powers. Finally, there are special slots for Major Cores – the kind you get from beating up the larger monsters and bosses – and these provide the biggest bonuses.

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It’s a cumbersome system in some ways that feels over-designed. It certainly took me a little while to properly grasp it. Once you do, though, it’s quite satisfying to use, even if it has the same problem as a lot of upgrade systems – you don’t notice the little stat increases in the actual gameplay. Just playing through on the regular difficulty you don’t actually need to pay too much attention to Cores and their placement either, but if you plan on replaying level on the harder settings then that’s where the whole system comes into its own.

It’s clear that the developers want you to tackle those tougher settings and focus on building up your Creature Cores, and I did find myself doing just that. Sadly, there’s no endgame content so you really are just going through the same levels again with tougher foes, but the gameplay is strong enough to warrant it, I feel.

All of this glorious carnage and Creature Core gathering can be experienced solo, but you can also rope a friend into the action, too. Sadly there’s no co-op specific mechanics like joint attacks or anything cool like that, but it’s still heaps of fun to have a friend lopping off limbs beside you. It makes me hope that if we ever do get to see a true Darksiders sequel with the full complement of Horsemen that four players will be able to team up in co-op. That’d be pretty sweet.

Coming from the silky-smooth action of the PC version of Darksiders: Genesis the drop-down to just 30FPS is a harsh pill to swallow. That extra smoothness makes heaps of difference in a game like this. Still, swallowing that pill wouldn’t be so much of a pain in the throat if it wasn’t for the performance problems. Even on an Xbox One X Darksiders: Genesis struggles to hold 30FPS, often dropping a few frames and thereby giving a feeling of stuttering. Occasionally it drops more than that. It never gets bad enough to ruin the game entirely or anything, but it mars the otherwise excellent combat.

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The months between the PC launch and the console version should really have given the developers some time to apply a bit of spit and polish, but sadly pretty much all the same bugs and glitches are to be found. Enemies have a tendency to vanish during execution animations or appear several feet to the right or left of where they should be, leaving War to stab nothing but air like he’s trying to impale the Invisible Man. Bad guys also get stuck inside of scenery a fair bit, and you’ll get stuck on bits of the level, too. I even got stuck on loading screens a couple of times.

It’s definitely got some rough edges, even with those extra months between releases, but ultimately Darksiders: Genesis is actually a solid game. The mixture of combat, platforming, and puzzle-solving is compelling stuff that nicely ticks the “fun, mindless entertainment” box that floats around inside my head. And I don’t mean that as in insult. Not everything needs to be the next great work of art or full of complex, nuanced mechanics. It’s enough for a game to just be bloody good fun. That’s what Darksiders: Genesis is – bloody good fun.

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Corruption 2029 – A Lean, Mean, Tactical Machine

The Bearded Ladies are a Swedish who made an impact last year with the launch of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, a tactical turn-based action game where you controlled a small group of characters that included a mutant pig. I never got a chance to play it, but the reception was pretty good.

For their newest game – Corruption 2029 – Bearded Ladies seem to have focused their attention almost purely on the core turn-based action, leaving out the various other elements that weren’t quite so well received.

That means Corruption 2029 is a very lean game, something which some people might like and others may not. So did stripping away the fat give Corruption 2029 the body of a Greek God, or did it result in something that looks like it just needs about 20 good meals.

Right, so let’s talk about the story: there isn’t one. I think. It all takes place in a dystopian future in Corruption 2029 which is obviously a long time away….wait, this is 2020. Jesus Christ. Anyway, America has been devastated by a second civil war, because I guess America is the only place things can happen, and you find yourself in control of a small squad of three robots behind enemy lines.

Littering the environments are notes from long-gone civilians, laptops to hack and other little bits and bobs that vaguely fill in the game’s lore, but it’s fair to say that in terms of story there’s really very little given to you, and what you do get is instantly forgettable.

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Your squad gets dispatched to do a variety of basic tasks, from wiping out all the enemies on a map to rescuing a target who then needs to be escorted to a terminal or something Corruption 2029.

When you aren’t in a fight the game is played in real-time with you controlling your squad using the WASD keys and the mouse. There’s a hefty dose of stealth at play here because you can click the left mouse button to go nearly invisible, reducing the radius at which enemy units can spot your squad. There’s a lot of benefits to staying under the radar, such as medkits, grenades, and explosives that can be picked up and either saved for later or used to help you complete the mission. Plus there’re opportunities to do stuff like hack turrets.

The biggest reason to sneak around like a coward is to set up ambushes. Corruption 2029 Using silenced weapons it’s possible to actually eliminate individual enemies, or if you watch patrols carefully you can potentially take out a group without everyone else hearing the racket and coming running.

However, enemies are also capable of radioing for help so you need to set up your attacks to deal maximum damage or otherwise risk being outnumbered. It’s incredibly satisfying to pick off some guards before setting up some explosives and using them to take out a whole building that a sniper was residing in. Do things right and you can enter combat having already killed off a big chunk of the enemy.

You really do need to make use of all that stealth, too, because the game can be rather unforgiving. One mistake can lead to huge numbers of foes descending on your idiotic arse, and while it’s sometimes possible to brute-force your way to a win it usually just results in you being very, very dead. It forces you to stop, think, and execute plans with precision, which I appreciate. Or at least, I appreciate it when I actually get it right, because I have all the planning capability of a certain sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea.

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When you finally jump into a firefight proper the game swaps over to a turn-based system that will be instantly familiar to XCOM veterans. On your turn each of your soldiers gets just two action points to spend on moving, shooting, and using abilities or equipment.

Smartly, when you hover over a square that you’re considering moving to it’ll display lines of sight to nearby enemies as well as the odds of being able to hit them, because just like XCOM when you attack your success or failure comes down to chance. It’s a system that causes just as much tension as it does frustration.

Dramatic hits despite having just a 25% chance are elating, but at the same time missing a 90% shot feels like Lady Luck kicking you in the balls while wearing particularly point shoes. And like XCOM the system can occasionally go a little barmy, giving you weird odds despite standing right next to foes or even declaring you don’t have a line of sight when you clearly do. A little too frequently lines of sight mad no sense for my taste, so hopefully that gets patched.

The occasional weird mathematics isn’t enough to stop the action from being tremendously fun, though. And that fun is augmented through the various upgrades and weapons you earn as mission completion rewards. Your three soldiers have no set class, but each one can be given three implants that grant passive or active abilities, a primary weapon and a secondary.

A personal favorite of mine was to equip a sniper rifle, an upgrade that guaranteed critical hits when attacking from a height and an augmented jump ability that literally lets soldiers hurl themselves up onto buildings, even if that means leaping through roofs.

I also favored one of my soldiers touting a shotgun, bolstered armor and a handy ability to barge through walls or into hapless enemies whose lazy Sunday has now been totally fucked up. Now that’s an assault class. Other cool gear includes a mini-gun if you feel like everything in the immediate vicinity is entirely too free of holes.

While I can’t say that the whole upgrade and weapon system gave me the same anguishing choices as in XCOM, the fact that you can unlock and try out everything whenever you like means there’s plenty of room to play around.

It’s just a shame that customization doesn’t extend to your squad’s aesthetics or even their names. In something like XCOM, you can rename your goons and tinker with how they look, giving you a sense of ownership that is devastating whenever they die. In Corruption 2029 your three squad members have predefined names and look.

This made me think that perhaps the developers were going to give them distinct personalities, especially since they can’t permanently die – if they do get “killed” in combat they’ll be revived once the fight is over, and if all three are wiped out it’s just a mission failure.

But no, they have no personality and are visually damn near impossible to distinguish from each other until you give them different weapons. Even then, at a glance, it’s hard to tell which one is which. So why not let us name them and tweak how they look?

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The rest of the game’s visuals are pretty solid from a technical perspective, but a bit boring in terms of design. It doesn’t help that the developer’s last game also featured a three-person squad that had mutated animals. By comparison Corruption 2029 is very tame, opting for a much more realistic style with some lovely lighting and a good amount of detail on character models and in the environment.

The problem is it’s all rather bland and each the maps look kind of the same. Each location blurs together, and since there aren’t very many maps you’ll be playing them over and over again. This isn’t to say the game is ugly, it just needed more variety in both locations and the items strewn around the environments. There’s only so many times you can see the same buses or tanks before it becomes dull, after all.

You also don’t get as much meat on the bones as you do with something like XCOM. There’s no base building, economic management, or anything else of the sort. There are just a few missions to pick between at a time, meaning none of the insane juggling acts found in XCOM. It’s a bare-bones package, in other words, with the main campaign lasting somewhere around 10-15 hours, or a bit more if you fancy completing all the optional medals.

But it’s important to know that Corruption 2029 isn’t asking £40, instead, it retails at just £16.99, making it so much easier to forgive the limited maps or the fact that the package as a whole isn’t as beefy as other games on the market. In fact, I’m pretty impressed with the quality of the game considering its budget origins.

I didn’t run into any serious bugs or performance problems outside of one instance where a headless enemy was running around. The whole thing ran nice and smooth, though I’d still have liked some more graphical options and maybe even an in-built framerate limiter since my GTX 1080Ti kept trying to set itself on fire. But that’s the definition of a first-world problem, isn’t it?

As a tactical, turn-based game that’s lightweight on the wallet Corruption 2029 has left me impressed. The heavy emphasis on scoping out patrols, picking off stragglers, and planning an effective ambush helps set Corruption 2029 apart from other games in the genre. And then once you get into the combat proper it’s tense, tactical and tightly designed, even if the percentage system that governs attacks will sometimes leave you wanting to punch the nearest hapless human being.

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Bloodroots Review – Blood-Soaked Fun

Good old-fashioned revenge is the driving force behind hundreds or possibly even thousands of books, movies, and videogames. It’s something we can all understand; the desire to get revenge on those who have wronged us. It’s a theme often found within Westerns in particular, so it’s not surprising that Bloodroots has a Western twang to its tale of Mr. Wolf, a killer who gets betrayed by his own gang known as the bloodroots Beasts. But Mr. Wolf doesn’t stay dead. He somehow manages to bring himself back from the brink and begins to hunt his former gang-mates down, intent on putting them 6ft under.

The story is very simple and yet is actually rather compelling. Mr. Wolf himself has almost nothing in terms of dialogue, but that just paints him as an unstoppable killing machine hellbent on getting revenge. Meanwhile, quiet scenes with the other gang members conversing help fill out the story as you progress through the game. They aren’t a nice bunch and so you’ll never sympathize with them or feel bad about hunting them down, but these scenes do flesh them out and help you understand how and why they came to betray their leader.

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I’m also a big fan of how the ghosts of your slain gang-mates will come and hang out at your campfire, giving them a chance to interact with Mr. Wolf. It’s a cool idea and fits in nicely with the game’s strange mixture of humor, dark moments, and Western themes. It doesn’t always manage to get that mixture just right, but for the most part, I enjoyed the unusual tone of Bloodroots.

So, you play as a murdering psycho killing other murdering psychos. But between you and your former friends stand many hapless victims that you must carve through using a top-down perspective. Pretty much anything and everything can in the environment be used as a weapon, from knives to cartwheels to a frying pan. You can ride on barrels, twirl ladders, and even smack people with a carrot or shove a fish over their head. Most weapons have a limited amount of uses before they break and you have to grab something else, but there’s always at least a few handy weapons nearby, encouraging you to always try out something else. More importantly, whatever you grab behaves differently, and learning the quirks, advantages, and disadvantages of everything is a huge part of the fun. For example, fireworks can take out a few enemies at once, but you can also use them to perform a double, triple, or even quadruple jump. Meanwhile, the saber launches you forward, but that can also easily lead to you falling off a cliff or getting surrounded if you aren’t careful.

Describing the action as fast-paced is an understatement, a bit like describing Adolf Hitler as a bit of a dick – yes, it’s not wrong, but it doesn’t really tell the whole story. Sure, you can play Bloodroots slowly and carefully, but the game feels like it wants you to go fast. Your movement speed is a health sprint. You die in just one hit and so do the enemies, so staying on the move is vital. Plus, you always need to be heading toward the next weapon because while you can always use your fists they leave you vulnerable for a second after a punch. That split-second is like a lifetime in a game where failure is a single hit away.

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Bloodroots uses the phrase “you’ll choreograph spectacular, ultra-violent combos” in its own description and I have to say it’s completely accurate. In a lot of ways, this game is more like a rhythm-puzzler. If you mistime an attack you usually get smacked and die, and the way enemies and items are laid out means there are subtle pathways through areas. If you can find them then the action feels like a gore-filled dance. Run here, a jump there, grab this, stab, stab, stab, jump onto a barrel, crash so that it sends me up onto this cliff here, grab the spear, throw it through these three guys at once.

Nailing an area in one nearly seamless run feels amazing, especially if you only barely scrape through a few incidents with some quick thinking. Dying only sends you back to the start of that encounter, and each encounter is typically only a few minutes long before you move off to the next area. And you will die. Probably a lot. Indeed, Bloodroots can be bloody infuriating at times, but that just makes figuring an area out all the more satisfying. It’s a gloriously gory puzzle, one that just so happens to involve obliterating people.

Highscores can give you a tempting reason to head back into a level and try to beat your previous efforts. I frequently got through sections on my first try but found myself knowing I could have done so much better. There are also unlockable hats that provide various different effects when replaying a level, like making enemies explode when punched or giving you a hover jump.

So the action is fast, frantic, kinetic, and gets the adrenaline pumping. It does have some flaws, though, so let’s jump into those. The first is that amidst all the mayhem it can be easy to lose track of the action and wind up dead because an enemy sneaked in and stabbed you in the face.

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The other thing that irked me was how easy it was to die by a complete accident. It’s really very easy to go flying off a cliff because you lunged through an enemy with a knife and the momentum sent you hurtling into the abyss. To be fair, that’s something you can learn to compensate for, but even then in the heat of the action it still happens and often doesn’t feel like your fault. Sometimes you can save yourself, and other times it’s as though the game holds up a giant middle finger as you plummet to your demise.

And there’s also the question of input lag. I think. It’s a little hard to tell if I’m just missing the timing or whether the game simply isn’t registering my command to pick up the weapon. Either way, it resulted in me standing there looking like an idiot because I thought I had picked up a knife and attacked with it, but actually I threw a punch at thin air before getting my head caved in. The problem is that in the thick of the action it’s bloodroots hard to tell whether it’s your own mistake or the game.

It also doesn’t help that cliff edges and jumps can be hard to judge due to the art style and the camera angles. Again, it’s a problem that becomes worse when you’re flying around the levels like a nutcase only to plunge off the edge of a building or completely misjudge where a ledge is. Things get worse when the game decides to introduce a few levels involving ice that sends you skating around. The laws of physics just seem to get thrown out the window at this point; sometimes you can stop yourself quite easily and other times you’ll go sliding to your death.

Thankfully the speed at which the game loads up the last checkpoint and the fact that there are only usually a few minutes until the next save point stops these deaths becoming too frustrating. Still, that doesn’t negate the fact that these problems exist.

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The visuals were heavily influenced by Samurai Jack and the other work of Genndy Tartakovsky. It looks pretty awesome in motion, like a blur of beautiful colors and bloodroots. You especially get to admire the lovely animation work during the final kill of each area when the game plays a quick cutscene of you brutalizing the unfortunate sap with whatever weapon you were wielding. Honestly, I wound up spending an extra hour just playing about with the various weapons so I could see all the fun murder scenes.

For the most part, the performance on my PS4 Pro was great, and bugs and glitches were non-existent. The only thing to note was that in a couple of sections the framerate dropped. It never got unplayable, but it was certainly noticeable contrasted against the normally smooth gameplay. And it does make me wonder how the regular PS4 might perform.

Now we come to the end of the review and I must, with a heavy heart, put aside my massive bias when it comes to Bloodroots. You see, dear reader, I share a bond with Mr. Wolf, the special kind of bond that can only be formed between two people who share the same name. But as a completely serious, totally dedicated videogame journalist person I must push that bond out of my mind in order to be completely fair and impartial. *cough*

Bloodroots is a lot of manic, sweaty fun for a reasonable price (£16) that has a couple of flaws, none of which manage to anything more than slightly mar the adrenaline-fuelled mixture of rhythm game, brawler and puzzler. Yeah, sometimes being the bad guy really does pay.

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Warcraft 3: Reforged Review – What The Hell, Blizzard

Warcraft 3: Reforged is not what was promised. Not even close. Indeed, it’s so far from what was originally demoed and outlined in 2018 that Blizzard is arguably guilty of blatant false advertising. Of course, we all know that games are subject to change during development as developers alter their goals or decide to tweak the graphics for better performance. But in the case of Warcraft 3: Reforged, little was ever said to indicate that the original vision wasn’t going to come to pass. Even mere weeks before the game’s launch the official website boasted features that simply aren’t present in the finished product, including reworked cutscenes. So, let’s dive into this Warcraft 3: Reforged review and see why the Internet has dubbed it Warcraft 3: Refunded.

As I finished up this review Blizzard issued a non-apology where they stated they were sorry that some people didn’t have the experience they wanted. The wording makes it so that Blizzard isn’t actually apologizing for the game and its problems, and even implies that it’s the fault of the consumers. In the same statement, they attempted to explain away Reforged’s problems by saying that they didn’t want to steer away from Warcraft 3’s original vision, which is completely at odds with their own marketing for the game. It’s also strange that the original game can no longer be bought, and that owners of the original game need to download a 30GB update that automatically updates Warcraft 3 to the Reforged version. If you want to maintain the original vision of Warcraft 3, why remove the ability to play it as it was?

It’s baffling. Warcraft 3 is beloved by millions, was integral to the success of Blizzard as a company, and holds an important spot in the annals of videogame history. Combine these things with Blizzard’s faltering reputation and one would imagine Warcraft 3: Reforged would have been a priority for Blizzard, a chance for them to celebrate their history and rebuild some of the trust they have lost. But alas, that isn’t the case.

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The first hint that something is wrong comes early in the human campaign. When Blizzard first showed off Reforged in 2018 it presented a redone version of the culling of Stratholme cutscene where there were close-up views of the characters and a much more dynamic feel. It was fantastic, and exactly what the remaster needed. With four more hours of reforged cutscenes promised by Blizzard myself and millions of others were eager to replay the campaigns so that we could experience the story of Arthas like never before. But once you arrive at the Stratholme cutscene you’re greeted with something identical to the original game with static, zoomed out cameras and awkward animations. At the time of launch Reforged’s official website still showed the updated, improved cutscene. It’s hard not to feel like we’ve been lied to.

As for the cinematics they’ve been upscaled to run at 1080p instead of the original 240p, but otherwise remain mostly untouched. I say mostly because one other cinematic involving a fight between certain characters has gotten a major overhaul that looks good initially until characters actually start moving, at which point it becomes apparent that they are stiffer than concrete.

The good news is that Warcraft 3 remains an outstanding RTS game and Blizzard didn’t tinker with the core gameplay too much. This is the classic RTS formula at its peak: you build up a base, set some workers to gather gold and wood, churn out units and then hurl them at the enemy while sometimes clicking madly on some stuff to make it feel like you’re actually being tactical and not just hoping for the best. The real standout is your heroes who stomp around the battlefield armed with special abilities that you can activate. During the campaigns, your heroes can gather loot that increases their stats and even level up, both things carrying over from mission to mission. It makes you grow attached to your heroes. They are the foundation of your armies, and clever use of their abilities can help turn the tide of an entire battle.

While I might joke about just hoping for the best, mostly because that’s what I do in any RTS, the truth of the matter is Warcraft had and continues to have a high skill threshold. There’s a lot of room to improve your craft and the speed at which you can dish out orders. Your build order, army composition, and hero choice can all have huge ramifications for how matches play out, especially since the four factions feel distinctly different, something which the campaigns do a good job of showing you.

Speaking of the campaigns they are simply excellent. Reforged includes the Frozen Throne expansion content, meaning you get a total of seven meaty campaigns that span the game’s four different playable factions, kicking off with the Orks before moving on to Prince Arthas as he combats a deadly plague. The RTS genre has never been known for its storytelling abilities, but Warcraft 3 manages to tell a surprisingly strong tale with interesting characters and fun twists and turns. That just makes it even more of a shame that we didn’t get the properly improved cutscenes that could have given the story extra impact.

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Still, it’s bloody amazing just how well Warcraft 3 holds up in 2020. It’s easily one of the best singleplayer RTS games on the market. The mission design is simply superb and nicely varied, even managing to include some light stealth elements. Getting through the campaign in many RTS games can feel like a slog, but Warcraft 3’s campaigns are nothing of the sort. If you’ve never experienced it before then it’s nearly impossible not to recommend picking this up for the campaigns alone.

As for the graphical upgrade, it’s…mixed. On the one hand, the character models have been completely redone and are wonderfully detailed. However, on the other hand, the animations are jerky and stiff. Partly this is because they’ve been rendered at a much lower framerate, which according to Blizzard is so that they remain compatible with the original Warcraft. Since I have no technical knowledge I can’t dispute this claim. All I can comment on is how they look in the finished game.

So, the character models look nice and detailed even if they don’t move as smoothly as they really should. The environments have also been revamped, and sadly like the character models they are a mixed bag in terms of quality; the extra color saturation that helps bring Warcraft 3 more in line with World of Warcraft is most notable within the various maps, and I reckon the boost of color looks good. However, the environments themselves are lacking in detail, especially in comparison to the character models, and the lighting model is incredibly basic. This gives levels a flat, lifeless feel. Indeed, I’d argue that the original Warcraft 3 environments often look better than these supposedly Reforged ones.

The scale of heroes, buildings, and troops also becomes a bit of a problem with the newly reworked graphics. In the original game the blocky characters that were nearly as big as the buildings around them. It wasn’t a problem, though. But now with the much more detailed, realistic character models, the strange scale looks…odd. Ork chieftain Thrall atop is monstrous wolf looks especially strange because he practically dwarfs most buildings.

Another one of the things that were promised was a complete re-working of the clumsy, old user interface but like so many other parts of Reforged that seem to have got abandoned during development. Instead, we’ve got something that looks almost identical to the original game and which takes up a horrible amount of space on the screen. There are not even any UI scaling options, either, so you’re stuck with it. According to Blizzard, the updated UI will be coming at a later date, a baffling decision. Why wouldn’t you launch a remaster with something so important to the experience?

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Nor can you rebind the keys, which is a game as reliant on hotkeys as Warcraft 3 is an incredibly stupid oversight. It’s bloody 2020, Blizzard, rebinding keys should be normal. Instead, if you really want to rebind your hotkeys you have to modify the game via the text files in the main directory.

Then there’s the little issue of performance problems. Usually, Warcraft 3: Reforged runs perfectly fine, as you’d expect of a game that isn’t very demanding. But now and then the whole thing stutters, dropping frames like an optician whose drunk at work. It isn’t enough to ruin the game or anything, but the fact that a remaster of a game as old as Warcraft 3 has performance problems at all is insane.

Outside of the meaty campaigns you can always jump online and challenge other players, provided you’re willing to get beaten into the ground repeatedly by people who seemingly never stopped playing Warcraft 3 over the years. Thankfully the influx of new players should at least give idiots like me a shot at an occasional win. However, even online play as been marred with issues as people have reported connection problems, struggling to launch custom games, and much more.

There are once again completely mad omissions to be found. For example, despite Warcraft 3 already having competitive ladders they are missing in Reforged, as is clan support and automated tournaments. Blizzard is promising these features will be added in the future, but once again the question is why weren’t they included at launch? If that wasn’t bad enough custom campaign support has vanished, too.

The final thing to talk about with Warcraft 3: Reforged isn’t really anything to do with the game as such, but is important nonetheless. You see, the original DotA was born via the custom game feature in Warcraft 3, giving rise to a whole new genre in gaming. Had Blizzard been smart at the time they would have snapped up the people responsible for creating DotA, given the resources, and tasked them with turning their idea into a fully-fledged game. Blizzard didn’t do that, though, and watched as Valve launched Dota 2, and Riot introduced League of Legends.

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Clearly wanting to avoid this situation happening again Blizzard has put far more effort into rewriting their legal documentation for Warcraft 3 than they ever put into the game itself. Now, by playing Warcraft 3 you agree to forfeit all rights to anything you create in the custom game mode, including copyrights, meaning the concept you made using Warcraft 3 can’t then be replicated somewhere else.

It’s understandable that Blizzard would want some degree of control; after all, they made Warcraft 3 and all its assets, so it’s perfectly right that they would want some say in what happens with anything created from it. However, instead of opting to create a new policy where they and the community can work together, they’ve chosen complete domination and in the process have likely killed the community’s desire to create new content. If DotA was created today in Warcraft 3: Reforged it would likely never become a whole new genre, and while I personally don’t enjoy that style of game there’s no denying the millions who do.

But at least you will still get to enjoy the raft of custom games that people have forged using the newly improved editor. Sure, you’ll have to wade through a fair bit of questionable material that people are publishing to take advantage of Blizzard’s “ownership” of their creations, but there’s some awesome stuff out there.

Even if we ignore what was promised by Blizzard and look at Reforged on its own, this is still a pretty lackluster remaster of a game that deserved so, so much better. We’ve seen a variety of classic games get fantastic remasters, especially this past couple of years. Warcraft 3 should have been an easy win for Blizzard, yet somehow they’ve managed to make Reforged worse than the original game. For every improvement there seem to be several failures.

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Ultimately that makes reviewing Reforged rather tricky. The actual core game remains absolutely brilliant. And since this is now the only way to experience Warcraft 3 I find myself wanting to recommend it to anyone who has never played the game before. Warcraft 3 helped launch entire new genres, set the stage for World of Warcraft, and was an excellent RTS in its own right. It deserves to be played. It did not, however, deserve this remake/remaster/reforging or whatever this is meant to be. When Warcraft 3: Reforged was first announced Blizzard seemed to have a clear vision of what they intended to do. Somewhere since 2018, that vision became blurred. It lost its clarity. What we’ve gotten is a strange product that doesn’t quite know what it’s meant to be. It hasn’t been reforged, it’s just been gently reheated. And maybe hit with a hammer a few times.

Blizzard, for an example of how to remaster a classic RTS game properly, go and play Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition.

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Review

Dead or School Review – Lovably Bonkers

Look, I’ve been sitting here for 30-minutes trying to figure out what to put in this intro. I got nothing. So let’s all just assume I wrote something awesome about my Dead or School review and move on with our lives, shall we? Good? Good. Let’s do this.

Dead or School has actually been out in Japan for a while on PC. Its success leads to PS4 and Switch ports, too. But now its finally come to the UK and the US in all of its side-scrolling, slashing glory. So, with big games just on the horizon is it worth playing before Doom Eternal smashes into our lives, rams its meaty hands down our collective throats, and yanks out our insides before using them as comfy cushions.

The game takes place in Tokyo where a young girl named Hisako lives underground due to the surface having been devastated decades prior to the sudden arrival of mutants. As a member of the third generation of underground dwellers, Hisako knows nothing of the surface world, her entire existence having been spent in underground railway tunnels and stations. One day Hisako’s grandmother tells her about the surface world, especially about schools where kids could play and learn.

Hearing of this magical concept Hisako vows to go to the surface and build a school, and along the way picks up a number of like-minded people who are tired of living in the darkness of the underground. Realizing the determination in Hisako’s eyes the elderly lady gives Hisako her old school uniform and her blessing.

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If it sounds crazy that’s because it is. Dead or School takes its inspiration from barmy Japanese animé and Saturday morning cartoons where the narratives can include some crazy ideas. However, once you accept the weirdness there’s actually a surprisingly heartfelt and fun story with a couple of interesting characters and a decent mystery.

The downside is that to enjoy the story you have to be willing to accept a lot of…roughness in the dialog. The issue I have is that I could never tell if it was a case of bad writing, poor translation or if it was meant to be deliberately bad in order to capture the way that many subtitled anime shows can be a bit clunky in English. Or possibly a mixture of all three of those things. There are numerous grammar errors, incorrect spelling, and loads of odd sentence structuring going on, too. It honestly reads like someone with a basic knowledge of the English language translated the whole game from Japanese, possibly with the questionable “help” of Google translate.

Ultimately I assume that the stilted writing is meant to reinforce the tongue-in-cheek tone of the game. The over-use of phrases like “super technologies” makes me wonder if it’s meant to come across as a poorly subtitled anime. If that was indeed the goal then it succeeds, but personally, whether it was intentional or not doesn’t negate the fact that I often found myself re-reading sentences because I wasn’t sure I had read it right.

Most of the story gets told via static images of characters chatting away entirely by text, but occasionally the game tries to throw in a cutscene using its 3D models and environments and OH MY VARIOUS GODS, WHAT THE HELL IS THAT!? These in-game cutscenes are horribly blurred like they’ve been rendered at 240p resolution or something.

Indeed, the first thing that struck me about Dead or School was how confused its visuals are, almost as though it’s a few different games awkwardly shoved together. The main character, for example, is drawn in a sharp, vibrant anime style, but she also appears to be 2D, like a piece of paper running across the landscape. It only gets worse when the camera shifts from its straight-on view to an angle. Meanwhile, the background is fully 3D, looks blurry, and is incredibly boring. It’s a jarring contrast, one that isn’t helped by the fact that Hisako moves and interacts with the environment like she isn’t part of it. It’s difficult to put it into words, but you can see it in the odd angles Hisako stands at or the way you’ll constantly snag on bits of the environment. And the environment itself looks distinctly cobbled together, like how a massive rock will have a railing passing straight through it, or the way that rubble placement makes no sense. To be fair, a lot of people may not notice these details, but I couldn’t stop seeing them once I started.

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Ultimately Dead or School would have fared much better if the lovely style of the characters had been applied to the whole game, rather than going for the bleak, low-res 3D world we got.

But let’s get down to how this side-scrolling slasher feels to play. Hisako somehow manages to hide a total of three weapons about her slim person, starting with a basic pokey/bashing thing. There are powerful axes that swing slow but hit hard or nimble swords that don’t burn through your stamina too quickly. Then you get a ranged weapon such as a shotgun, assault rifle, or sniper rifle. Finally, Hisako can whip out her explosive weapon which comes in the form of a rocket launcher, grenade launcher or something similar explode in nature. Can’t go wrong with ‘splosions. And I’m not going to even speculate as to exactly where Hisako was storing a big-ass launcher.

When it comes to employing these weapons in the careful dissection of enemy limbs Dead or School manages to impress, though at first, it can feel clumsy. The key to it all is the dodge system because if you manage to leap out the way at the perfect time then you get a few seconds of slow-mo and a stamina recharge in which to beat the ever-loving shit out of stuff. Speaking of stamina, that’s the second key (can you have more than one “key” thing?) to the combat, because if you run out you can’t jump, attack or dodge until it recharges. Weapon add-ons and skill points can increase your stamina or reduce the amount you burn through, but you’ll always need to keep an eye on it or risk having to stand around like a confused penguin while predators close in.

Changing between your three weapons isn’t as smooth as I’d personally like, but overall the combat feels fun. Enemies just pop into existence and you get locked into a small area with them. While it can be a bit too easy to lose track of what’s going on in the bedlam which in turn makes dodging attacks awkward, the level of chaos usually feels nicely balanced so that you’re put under pressure without being totally overwhelmed.

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A lot of glitches and problems show up in the combat encounters, such as enemies getting stuck in the scenery, tumbling into chasms or just standing around doing nothing like they’re waiting for their mum to pick them up outside the local shop. And I’ve got to say that I got stuck a couple of times, too, forcing a restart of the game.

Your skill level can make a difference in fights, but there will be quite a number of times you find yourself being decimated by higher level foes, and that’s where looting and grinding come into. By kicking ass, rescuing silly people who have got themselves stuck and completing one of the very few side-quests you can earn XP that in turns grants you skill points to spend in one of three that correspond to your three weapons. There’s nothing very exciting in these skill trees, but you can boost stuff like your stamina and health, or improve the durability of your sword or the fire-rate of your gun. Solid stuff.

The loot side of things is a little more interesting to chat about because there’s some fun stuff that works and some weaker stuff that doesn’t. Basically weapons come in a few different rarities, and then using Reinforcement Gears and Modification Gears you can bolster their attack power and randomly generate special perks for them, like summoning up an attack drone or just dishing out extra damage. On top of that each weapon can be equipped with two add-ons that will provide more stamina, decrease reloads times or something along those lines. The only limitation is that each weapon and add-on has a weight, and the total weight you can carry is determined by your level, though you can also boost it by a couple of other means.

On the one hand I appreciate how much there is to play around with the system. You can spend plenty of time just tinkering with stats and buffing your gear. What I don’t like is how building a weapon up takes a lot of grinding, but once you find a new rarity level you pretty much have to abandon improving the older version and instead focus on the newer one because. That’s because the new weapon will typically start with lower stats than your current favorite, but will be able to exceed it through upgrading. And you really do have to favor the better versions in order to keep up with the strength of the enemies. This causes a continuous grind throughout the game that can become tiresome. At one point I had upgraded my Common Great Sword to the max level before finally stumbling upon a level 1 Latest version of it. I had admitted that I unleashed a loud sigh because I knew I was going to have to start building up the new sword. I’d like to see some updates introduced to either lessen the grind of improving gear or to have the level of new drops be a bit higher.

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The map gives Dead or School an open look but it’s actually fairly linear in nature with one specific path, often requiring some backtracking to get a keycard or explosives. But there’s some opportunity for light exploration with big baddies to find guarding chests, a couple of light puzzles to solve and some daft people to rescue. It’s a nicely balanced offering: focused with a few distractions along the way, spread out across a pretty lengthy game.

You’ve likely already noticed from the images adorning this review that Dead or School is a little…titillating. There’s absolutely no sex, nudity, GH, or even innuendoes in the entire game, but every female character features sizable breasts and there are a few gratuitous images of cleavage and booty to entice the weak-willed among us. To me, that isn’t a problem, but if you aren’t a fan of such things then be warned. Plus, it’s worth keeping in mind that the sexy female characters are very much in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek Japanese anime tone that Dead or School is aiming for.

Dead or School is a weird game, and one that I’ve come to realize probably isn’t in my wheelhouse. Despite that though, there are a lot of things I appreciate about it. In a strange way, it’s like one of the many drawings my six-year-old niece hands me: it’s messy, incoherent, and could never be described as good in a traditional sense, but I love it anyway and I happily display it to the world. That’s Dead or School: it’s visually messy, rough around the edges could probably never be described as being good in a traditional sense, but I kind of like it anyway. The tiny crew of just three developers clearly put a lot of passion and love into Dead or School, and I think it has the potential to find a small, dedicated audience who can love it for what it is.

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Review

Doom Eternal Review – Hellaciously Good

Four years after Doom returned from its long exile in a tidal wave of blood and guts we’ve finally got a sequel in Doom: Eternal. But how could id Software improve on their already amazing gunplay? Did Doom 2016 really need a sequel? The answer to the first question is by using some form of black magic far beyond any mortal comprehension, resulting in gunplay so sublime that it might actually be illegal. And the answer to the second question is a resounding yes. Doom: Eternal has quashed any doubts that Doom Eternal 2016 deserved a sequel. But as amazing as Doom: Eternal is, it’s also a game with some problems, and a hell of a lot worth talking about.

Doom Eternal 2016 had a clear mission statement; it didn’t want to get in the way of you killing shit-loads of demons. It scoffed at anything that took you out of the action. Early in the game the Slayer embodies this ideal by literally smashing a screen on which someone was trying to deliver useless exposition. Who cares when there are monsters to be murdered in the most brutally satisfying ways imaginable? Doom 2016 was a no-nonsense shooter. So it’s surprising that for Doom Eternal the crew over at id Entertainment have drastically changed their tune. Now, there’s actual cutscenes and dialogue and exposition and lore. This is a perfect example of how Doom Eternal is a more complex game than its stream-lined predecessor, and why Doom Eternal isn’t better or worse than Doom 2016 – it’s just different, and you’re probably going to wind up liking one a lot more than the other.

Right, so, the story: set a few years after the events of Doom Eternal 2016 the Slayer returns to Earth to find it being consumned by the forces of hell, and as the greatest one-man wrecking crew in the whole damn universe the Slayer sets out on a mission to single-handedly end the demonic invasion of Earth.

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We all know that the Doom Eternal Slayer is nothing short of a incredibly violent force of nature, but Doom Eternal does all it can to reinforce that. The Slayer is presented as practically God-like in every cutscene, striding through the environment while never uttering a word. At one point he clambers into a gigantic cannon and literally fires himself into a building. He’s unstoppable. He’s overwhelming. He’s pure badass if badass had just won a fucking competition for being the most badass badass. He’s the guy that makes demons afraid, and it’s awesome. Of course, he has all the emotional depth of a puddle of fly piss and the character development of a brick, but that doesn’t matter. He’s the Slayer, and he exudes violence.

Still, the game does delve into the Slayer’s past in an effort to explain exactly how he came to be ultimate incarnation of holy shit did he just rip that things head off. And while it’s doing that it also delivers a bunch of lore for the Doom Eternal franchise, some of which can be a tad baffling if you don’t pay attention. It’s actually quite good at times, too, mostly because it doesn’t overstay its welcome. You can also just ignore it or skip the cutscenes entirely if you’d prefer in order to get to the action, so that’s appreciated. Indeed, a lot of the deeper aspects of the story, including details on the Slayer, is hidden away in the Codex entries where only the die-hard fans will likely venture.

The Slayer isn’t just a God-like figure of destruction in the cutscenes, though: the combat goes out of its way to make you feel awesome. First, the sheer fluidity and smoothness of Doom Eternal 2016 is still present and as fantastic as before, but now the double jump has been augmented with a double dash, easy mantling and clambering, and the ability to swing on monkey bars that litter the combat arenas. You’ve got more movement options that ever, and once they’ve become natural you’ll be zipping around like a maniac. You don’t so much move as glide, and it feels oh so good. On top of that the weapons have got both a visual and an audio overhaul, somehow managing to sound even more orgasmically savage as they rip gobs of flesh off the demon hordes. It’s just so fucking good. Doom Eternal 2016 already had some of the greatest feeling first-person shooting in a videogame, and somehow Doom: Eternal has improved on it.

And don’t get met started on the super-shotguns meathook! This beautiful piece of design lets you grapple onto a distant enemy and reel yourself in, quickly closing distances. But you can also use ot to catapult yourself over the heads of demons, relocating from one end of the area to another in a few seconds, or to quickly save yourself from falling into a void.

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Even the demon A.I. has been tweaked so that they are more aggressive and capable of quickly surrounding you unless you take full advantage of the spacious environments that you find yourself in. And what environments those! Doom Eternal 2016 kept itself primarily to Mars and Hell, but Doom: Eternal enjoys travelling and taking in the sights, from the demonically occupied Earth to fantastical, fantasy fortresses there are a lot of amazing vistas to soak up. Stopping for even a second in a fight just isn’t an option as the enemy will descend upon you like a plague of demon locusts. It makes every battle intense and frantic and exhilarating. The best examples of this come in the form of the optional Slayer Gates that offer up the most challenging fights in the entire game – they can be so heart-pumping that I frequently walked away from the game feeling physically tired. That’s how good the shooting is.

Now we get to the added complexity of how combat works; for starters, the amount of ammo you can carry for every weapon has roughly been halved from Doom Eternal 2016, a game in which you could typically rely on a single gun if you wanted to. But now you’ll find yourself constantly swapping from one boomstick to another in order to take advantages of weaknesses and to ensure you can keep firing. Upgrading your ammo capacity helps, but to truly keep a supply of bullets you need to use the chainsaw. Whereas in Doom Eternal 2016 the chainsaw was just a fun tool you might occasionally use, here it’s absolutely essential.

The chainsaw regenerates a single bar of fuel every minute or so, though you can pick up more fuel, and using it slice through a demon rewards you with a shower of ammo and other goodies. It’s like hitting a pinata, only there’s a lot more blood, yelling and instead of a stick you have a chainsaw. So, nothing like a pinata at all, really. Big enemies will take more than a single bar of fuel, but the game cleverly keeps a constant supply of basic demon fodder running around for you to dismember.

As for getting health there are med-packs to be picked up, but like Doom 2016 your best source of healing is to cause pain. Like before you can stagger an enemy by doing enough damage, then execute a gloriously gory Glory kill. The animations for these are amazingly detailed and revel in the sheer brutality of ripping limbs, stabbing demons in the eye with their own forearm bone and yanking out eyes.

If you want to grab some armor that’s where your flame belch comes in, a recharging flamethrower that sets demons alight. Dealing damage or killing demonic dick-heads that are ablaze results in a shower of armor shards. Mind you, since the flamethrower is mapped to R by default I constantly found myself reflexively trying to reload and instead sending a burst of fire into the air. That’s not a criticism of the game, though, that’s just my own stupidity and years of muscle memory.

Finally, you get a recharging frag grenade for crowd control, plus an ice variant that lets you freeze pesky demons in place. Like the flame belch these recharge over time.

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Then there’s your arsenal of weapons, each of which boast two unlockable mods that you can swap between on the fly with a tap of F, giving every gun a total of three firing modes. Your bread-and-blood combat shotgun, for example, can also become a grenades launcher or a fully-automatic death machine that eats ammo and eats away flesh. The heavy machine gun gets a precision sniper scope or a volley of micro-missiles, and so on and so on. It’s a pleasing array of machinery, and since ammo is scarce they all get their time to shine, though you’ll certainly find favorites.

All of this adds up to combat that takes considerably more planning than shooting stuff in Doom Eternal 2016 ever did. That isn’t to imply that Doom 2016 was somehow stupid in the way it handled its combat, but it definitely preferred to let players focus purely on the carnage. Eternal wants you think about what you’re doing, be it remembering to whip out the chainsaw for some casual evisceration, identifying which demons to annihilate first or swapping weapons to best deal with the situation. On the one hand I feel like many people will prefer the simpler thrills of Doom Eternal 2016’s combat, the more focused and direct way in which it hands you a gun and lets you get on with it. But the more I played the more I came to love Doom Eternal’s combat. It still has that satisfying brutality fluidity but now its mixed with smart design that forces you to think about what you’re doing. It’s an exhilarating mix, especially on the higher difficulty levels.

Now we get to another area of added complexity; upgrades, and why there’s so many bloody different things. We start with weapon points which are a way of upgrading your weapon upgrades, and are earned via regular progression through the story and by finding bonus combat encounters that are hidden away. These let you sink points into a few different upgrades for your weapon modules, culminating in an ultimate mastery upgrade that requires you to complete a specific challenge, like using your shotgun’s full auto-mode to destroy Pinky demons. It’s worth the effort, though, because these upgrades provide huge benefits. Mind you, you can skip the challenge by spending a Mastery token that can occasionally be found in the levels.

Next up are the Praetorian tokens that are hidden throughout the various locales, and these are used to buff your suit. That means you can increase the duration of your freeze grenade or the speed at which you clamber around the environment.

After that there are Sentinel Crystals. These glowing rocks are how you expand your ammo capacity, as well as net yourself some more health and armour, both of which are handy when the legions of Hell would like nothing more than to introduce you to the wonderful health benefits of having your guts removed and used as a whip. As an added bonus if you select two upgrades in a set you get a powerful effect such as the flame belch recharging quicker.

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Still with me? Great, because there’s still a little more to go yet; Runes are quite rare and include some rather excellent upgrades. My personal recommendation is the one that increases the amount of time demons will stay in the staggered state, perfect for crowd management or for keeping a Glory kill for later. Only three Runes can be active at any one time, forcing you to make a fund decision as to what fits your method of murder best.

Okay, I promise we’re nearing the end of this bit of the review! The last things you can grab to upgrade yourself are special batteries. These chunky power cells can be slotted into doors aboard the Fortress of Doom Eternal a – a literal fortress floating in space that acts as your little home hub between missions – in order to access Praetorian tokens, Sentinel crystals, upgrade modules and even special costumes.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these upgrade systems individually. They all work nicely enough and it’s fun to explore the levels to find the various tokens and stuff. But when you consider them together as a whole there’s a real lack of cohesion. It feels like they’ve been haphazardly stacked on top of Doom Eternal’s excellent combat mechanics rather than properly worked into the gameplay.

Speaking of things that don’t quite feel like they’ve been woven into the game correctly, the Fortress of Doom is a fun place to explore but doesn’t add much to Doom Eternal on the whole.

It’s a spacious property with a lovely location that affords grand views of the Earth as it’s consumed by demonic forces, and comes complete with a master suite for the Slayer where collectibles can be displayed. From this floating example of gothic architecture gone crazy can listen to music from prior Doom Eternal games, replay missions and use cheat codes that you’ve discovered.

But aside from spending a few minutes to slot batteries into doors to get more upgrades I never found much of a reason to hang around the fortress. Much like the little home base in Wolfenstein: Youngblood the fortress in Doom: Eternal ultimately feels pointless. Although I do find it hilarious to imagine the mighty Slayer kicking back in his room reading the various magazines strewn around the place.

But then, who I am to judge what the Slayer can and cannot do? I mean, I never would have taken him for a platforming pro, and yet Doom: Eternal proves that despite being built like a small mountain the Slayer is actually a rather agile chap. Confused? Allow me to de-confuse you.

Between adreneline-pumping combat encounters you’ll often find yourself jumping, dashing, swinging and wall-climbing through platforming sections. Given how smooth movement feels in combat it’s unsurprising that the basics of all the climbing and jumping do feel quite solid. Eternal will have you leaping across vast chasms, hitting triggers and clinging onto floating rock coffins…er, for some reason?

And these sections do a rather good job of breaking up the action…but….but, well, they feel strange in a game about smashing demonic faces to pieces. It’s not that I don’t like them because I do, I’m just not completely sure that I like them being in Doom: Eternal. I can see these sections being one of the most divisive aspects of Eternal.

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That’s ultimately the theme of the entire game: Eternal has lost the elegance of 2016’s Doom, becoming a more bloated product. The platforming, the new cutscenes, the cluttered upgrade system, it all dilutes the incredible experience that Doom Eternal 2016 offered. But the tradeoff is a meatier game with more intense, thoughtful combat, and many people will probably really enjoy the platforming and the upgrading. Personally, I find Doom: Eternal to be the better game.

Outside of the glorious campaign, which should take you somewhere around 10-15 hours to burn through, there’s the brand new Battle Mode where two players take on the role of demons and attempt to take down one person who steps into the chunky boots of the Slayer.

As we wrap up this review let’s take a minute to talk about performance, which is nearly flawless. There’s a wealth of graphical options, and the game appears to be beautifully optimised. I didn’t run into any frame drops outside of a few frames here or there, and glitches were also pleasantly infrequent. Doom Eternal runs as smoothly as I could have hoped for, although for some reason it did occasionally decide to forget my resolution settings on firing up the game.

Considering how buttery smooth the whole game runs its amazing just how much visual punch id have packed into the game. This is a gorgeous game. It’s almost hard to notice the wealth of details on enemy models as you carve through them.

In fact, it’s not until I was going through my screenshots for this review that I really noticed some of the little details on the various demons. Probably the best part of the whole package is the lighting model that helps give everything depth. Lovely, lovely stuff.

I said near the beginning of this review that Doom: Eternal is not really a better or worse game than Doom Eternal 2016, it’s just different and some folk are going to vastly prefer one over the other. There’s no denying that Doom: Eternal is a more bloated game, and that expansion comes with some positives and negatives.

The upgrade system feels haphazardly stacked on top of the action and I’m still not convinced that the platforming – as smooth and fun as it is – feels right in a Doom game, but in terms of combat Eternal is nothing short of exceptional.

This is first-person shooting at its very best. Some will prefer the elegance of Doom 2016, but personally I preferred this more thoughtful brand of shooting that forced me to use the entire arsenal of weapons and every inch of the environment in order to stay alive. That heart-pumping combat prevails over any other small complaints I might have about Doom: Eternal.

We might all be facing one of the most challenging and uncertain times in recent memory, but we do know one thing for certain: Doom Eternal is Eternal, and hellaciously brilliant.

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Review

Half-Life: Alyx Review – A VR Masterpiece

The world might be in the middle of a pandemic that’s forced us all to huddle inside while stuffing our faces and watching Netflix, but there’s one glowing beacon of hope: thirteen years after the last adventures of Gordon Freeman we have finally got a new Half-Life. Except, it’s not Half-Life 3, it’s a prequel. And it’s in VR, so you might not be able to play it. What we have is Half-Life: Alyx, a prequel to Half-Life 2 and a very obvious passion project from Valve. This is a game designed for virtual reality and built to the highest standards. I’d actually be surprised if Valve made a profit on Half Life: Alyx because it looks and feels like a lot of money was sunk into its creation, versus the relatively small audience that can buy it. But that doesn’t matter right now. All we need to know is just how good is Half-Life: Alyx?

The first thing we need to talk about, though, is what I played Alyx on. There’s absolutely no question that Valve would love for you to experience Half-Life: Alyx on the Valve Index with all of its fancy finger-sensing technology and what have you. Since I’m not a millionaire I don’t have the Index, so instead I played through Half-Life: Alyx on the Oculus Rift S and all my opinions will come from that. But I’m going to give a spoiler for this whole review: Half-Life: Alyx is an exceptional VR experience even on the Rift S, so if you are fortunate enough own the Index then that experience will only be better.

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I think the real brilliance of Half Life: Alyx is how good Valve are at all the little interactions. Most games go too far in one direction or the either, using hefty assistance to do things or leaving players fumbling around like a newborn baby trying to play the piano. Take the recent Boneworks as an example: it’s driven by its physics system, and thus something as easy as reloading a pistol can result in you gracelessly trying to slam home a magazine, at least until you wrap your head around how everything works. Because it simulates having a body as well you can find yourself accidentally getting caught on tables because you forgot where your non-existent legs were. In many ways it’s quest for more realism is what constantly drags me out of the illusion.

In other games the level of assistance the developers use can mean the gun practically reloads itself. Again, it shatters the illusion of being there. Half-Life: Alyx finds a lovely middle-ground, helping you out just enough to make things like reloads smooth without ever feeling like it’s doing it for you. And this applies to almost everything, from opening doors to spinning handles to moving boxes around and more. The way the physics work let you play around in the world in a believable way, without awkwardly getting in the way. Valve have carefully judged everything, and it makes Alyx feel incredibly polished, thereby also keeping you feeling immersed in the action. The only time that immersion gets shattered is when a loading screen pops up. And be warned, on an old-fashioned HDD those loading times can be a bit long.

Half-Life: Alyx is actually a prequel, taking place between the events of the first two games and following the story of the titular Alyx of whom you will inhabit the disembodied hands of. The majority of the plot revolves around Alyx’s dad being kidnapped and her journey to rescue him, and that’s all I say because the narrative really is a lot of fun and best experienced with no prior knowledge of events. What you should know is that the performances in this game are excellent, and that it’s genuinely funny. And that’s because of the banter between Alyx and the constant voice in her ear, Russel. At one point Alyx is a little creeped out, so she asks Russel to just talk to her about anything, and so he launches into a tale about what a club sandwich is, describing to her this lavish, somewhat ridiculous foodstuff from before Earth’s downfall at the hands of the Combine. It’s a moment that feels believable, heart-warming and funny all at the same time, and is a prime example of how Valve handle the dialogue throughout the game. Whenever you get to meet someone in person the models are detailed and react to your presence, even flinching away when you try to prod them in the eyeball. It’s a real shame that for the majority of the game there’s nobody else around, or at least nobody that isn’t trying to shoot you.

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But what if you aren’t familiar with Half-Life? Is this still a story you can follow and enjoy? That’s a tricky question, but I believe the answer is yes, at least for the most part. The majority of the game is simply about finding Alyx’s father, so that obviously doesn’t require much Half-Life knowledge. Where you might struggle is being dumped into a world that’s already been invaded by an alien force known as the Combine. Still, you should be able to get up to speed quickly, even if the first Head Crab that leaps at your face is probably going to scare the snot out of you.

The pacing is yet another area that Half-Life: Alyx excels in, consistently managing to keep the 10-15 hour campaign feeling fun, fresh and interesting. There’s a hefty dose of light horror here, with a lot of your time spent in darkened corridors complete with flickering lights and creepy sounds, slowly making your way through the environments while waiting to see if a head crab is going to leap out to nom on your face. Patience in these moments is rewarded with a few bigger, outside areas and amazing vistas. Indeed, the opening sequence lets you see a Strider making its way across the rooftops of the city, huge cables dangling from its body. It’s a properly jaw-dropping moment.

That pacing extends to the gameplay itself. One minute you’ll be fighting head crabs that leap toward your face and shambling zombies, the next you’re in a firefight with the Combine, ducking and weaving to avoid the incoming bullets. Valve know exactly when to let the game breath with exploration or clever dialogue, and when to stick you in a fun fight or have you solve a puzzle. It meant that across the 15-hours it took for me to play through the campaign I was never bored and never got fed up with a particular idea.

Key to the way that you interact with the world of Half-Life: Alyx are the gravity gloves given to you early on. With these stylish hand warmers you can point to a distant object and then, with a sort of flick of your wrist, send it whizzing into the air in a lovely arc toward your hand where you can neatly catch it. It takes a few minutes to get the gist of how it works and occasionally you’ll struggle to aim at something specific, but once you get the hang of it the whole process feels smooth, easy and satisfying. We’ve seen mechanics like this in other VR games, but the fact that you have to flick your wrist and catch the object makes it feel more engaging in Half-Life: Alyx. And before long you’ll be firing a pistol in one hand and summoning ammo in the other.

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There isn’t a huge arsenal of weapons to pick from, but each feels distinct and look fantastic. My personal favourite of the three is the shotgun. You reload it by cracking open the barrel, feeding in slugs and then flicking the gun to snap it closed, then finally you pull back on the handle to prime it. And when you pull the trigger you’re rewarded with a satisfying boom that bounces off the walls and gives you that lovely low-down tingle. But the pistol also has a nice pop when you pull the trigger and is the gun of choice for accurate shooting. Finally, there’s a Combine weapon that’s essentially an SMG for spraying bullets. Good use of vibration through the Rift S controllers and excellent audio design ensures that all three guns feel great to use.

Likewise, while the enemy variety isn’t massive they all feel different and interesting to fight. It kicks off with the Barnacles, which are stuck to the ceilings with their long tongues dangling down, waiting to drag you up to your death. They provide an easy start, a static target that you can hone your skills on. Plus, it’s great fun to lure enemies into them, or feed them an explosive barrel. Then come the head crabs, the classic Half-Life foe. These little bastards leap toward your face, and scurry around on four legs. They aren’t exactly a huge threat, it’s really just their creep-factor that makes them intimidating. The slow-moving zombies that have been taken over by a head crab are a simple foe to battle as well, again acting more like a way of easing you into the combat. Plus, some of them have the pesky armoured head crabs clinging to their face. Then there’s the Combine themselves who engage you in heated gunfights where you can use the full extent of VR to hunker down behind cover or lean out from behind walls. I’ve got limited space in my house to play in, so I can only imagine how much more fun the fights would be if you had loads of room to move around.

I love how the combat plays out in Half-Life: Alyx. Popping out of cover to deliver a few well-aimed shots to a Combine helmet feels awesome, as does that slightly panicky unloading of shotgun shells into a surprise head crab. I also love the way you reload ammo by grabbing it from over your shoulder, presumably from some sort of infinite backpack, the same place you store all the bullets you hoover up. Slamming home a magazine or hastily feeding shells into the shotgun never gets old. Really, the only thing I didn’t like about combat is that it’s a bit easy. Even on the hardest setting you’ll likely only die a few times, and that means the fights don’t feel as tense as they probably could. But ultimately that feels like a tiny complaint given just how immersive and exhilarating the fights feel.

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It’s clear that Valve want you to take your time and explore the world they’ve created, and to encourage them ammo is scarce unless you actually go looking for it. You’ll typically find ammo hiding in boxes, on top of shelves, in drawers or cheekily glinting off in the distance. Plus, exploration rewards you with Resin, the material needed to upgrade your weapons at special stations. And if nothing else exploration is worth it just because Half-Life: Alyx looks bloody good and is packed with details where ever you look. I kept stopping off to stare at the alien fauna which would react to my presence and even occasionally try to bite my fingers. Huge set-pieces are rare but when they do occur they look amazing.

If you do happen to run out of ammo entirely, which is a possibility if you’re a bit twitchy with the trigger, then that’s when you’ll discover that Half-Life: Alyx doesn’t have any sort of melee system. Sure, you can use a chair to smack a head crab out of the air or throw a box at a Combine soldier but it won’t actually do any damage, and the Combine will probably just look at you like you’ve lost your damn mind. Honestly, I’m a little disappointed that there isn’t even a rudimentary melee system, and actually found myself reflexively grabbing things to smack an enemy with before remembering it wasn’t possible. However, Valve said that they did spend a long time trying to fit melee into the game and simply couldn’t find a system they felt worked, which is understandable. Thus far the only games that have done melee well in VR have been built almost entirely around that one idea.

I briefly mentioned upgrading your weapons, which is something else Alyx does exceptionally well. Like the guns themselves the upgrades available aren’t extensive, but each one makes a big difference and choosing between them is a genuinely tricky choice. The auto-loader for the shotgun lets you load in slugs so much faster, the laser sight for the pistol is a God-send when you’re aiming for headshots against the Combine and the mag-extender for the SMG makes blind-firing around cover a doddle. Yup, hunting down all that Resin is worth the effort.

One little thing that did bother was how you swap weapons. By pressing in the right stick you bring up a menu, and then choose your weapon by moving your whole hand up, down, left or right. For the most part this works fine enough, but when you’re in the middle of a hectic firefight and need to quickly swap weapons it becomes awkward and clumsy. Quite often I’d be trying to keep my eyes on my foes while changing weapons only to discover I’d accidentally select the multi-tool instead of my shotgun.

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Outside of shooting stuff in the face and generally messing around with the game, Valve use puzzles to help break everything up. Usually these pop up in the form of containers that need opened or pesky doors that refuse to open. You might, for example, have to use your handy multi-tool to trace and reroute wiring, or spin a globe around as you try to navigate a light to another light. There’s a few different kinds of puzzle and Valve dishes them out at a nice, steady pace, though I will admit that I let out a sigh on occasion when face with one particular type of puzzle involving moving balls of light around.

I’ve also got to give a shout out to some spectacular moments like stumbling around in the dark using a tiny wrist-mounted flash light, or a sequence dedicated to Jeff which is just bloody amazing. Trust me, you’ll learn who Jeff is and why his level might just go down as one of the best in recent memory. But truthfully many of the best moments came from just playing around, like when I caught a jumping head crab in a bucket, or when I realized I could summon a grenade off of a Combine soldier mid-fight. Half-Life: Alyx isn’t a crazy sandbox or anything, but there’s still room to just mess around.

The performance can occasionally be a tad patchy, too. Running on my GTX 1080Ti, Ryzen 1600 and 16GB of RAM I found myself dropping the settings to medium. Even then, there was some noticeably stuttering here or there, especially in the larger open areas toward the end of the campaign. And throughout it all my computer sounded like it was trying to become the next Chernobyl.

And I also run into one major problem where the game would get stuck trying to load a level in one of the later chapters. Selecting an earlier quick save and playing past that point solved the issue, though.

This isn’t the game we’ve all been waiting for. It isn’t Half-Life 3. And for those who just wanted any new Half-Life it may be frustrating that their patience hasn’t been rewarded with a brand-new game for the masses, instead it’s a VR game that loads of Half-Life fans won’t be able to play, perhaps for years to come. After all, virtual reality is not cheap and only a small percentage of gamers currently have the privilege of owning a VR headset. That tiny percentage is utterly dwarfed by the amount of fans who have been frothing at the mouth for years for a new Half-Life game.

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So why is it only in VR? Having played it, I can confidently tell you that it could work as a regular FPS, and indeed a mod already exists that lets you do just that. And it would be…er, okay. The story and characters and setting would all still be fantastic, but the gameplay would be standard first-person fare – hardly exciting. But like the Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2 it’s VR that makes Alyx special. Valve themselves said that they see Half-Life as a series that was always about pushing the limits of what technology can do, and with VR they really have done that.

With that saidm, Half-Life: Alyx is not the big new revolution in VR. It doesn’t push the boundry of VR in the sense of trying radical new concepts, and that’s fine. We have other games that are trying out completely new things, and they are amazing, but the thing we’ve all been waiting for is for VR to get a proper, honest video game. We’ve come close with stuff like Asgard’s Wrath, Boneworks and The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, but Half-Life: Alyx feels like the first true God of War or Halo – a big-budget blockbuster that’s polished until it gleams. You probably shouldn’t buy into VR just for Half-Life: Alyx in the same way you probably shouldn’t purchase a Playstation just for God of War. But you should definitely buy into VR for Half-Life: Alyx and then for the many other amazing experiences that exist, and for all the ones yet to come. It’s simply the best VR game out there, and has raised the bar of what we know to be possible.