Red Dead Redemption II – First Impressions

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for the opening act of Red Dead Redemption II.

Red Dead Redemption II has been out for three years now – two years for the PC version – so it’s a bit late to just be getting started with the game! However, if you’re like me and missed it when it was new, maybe you’ll find my first impressions of the game helpful or interesting.

As I said when I included Red Dead Redemption II on my list of some great games I haven’t played, there was nothing about the game that put me off. In fact, Red Dead Redemption II was incredibly appealing to me – I find American history fascinating, particularly in the 19th Century, as it was a field of study while I was at university. Rockstar is also a developer whose titles are usually well-made and fun to play; they basically perfected their open world style with Grand Theft Auto III in 2001 and haven’t looked back. So there was a lot going for Red Dead Redemption II in 2018, but as someone with limited funds for gaming I couldn’t afford it at the time. The game ended up in what I call “the pile” – a long (and growing) list of games that sound great that I just haven’t got around to playing for one reason or another!

I finally got around to playing this game – it’s widely hailed as a masterpiece.

However, Red Dead Redemption II was on sale on Steam at some point in the last few months (I forget exactly when) and I was able to pick it up at a reasonable discount. The game’s massive 119GB file size took an eternity to download on my painfully slow internet connection, but I was able to eventually get the game installed and start playing.

Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge something important that too many fans and players have overlooked: Rockstar’s treatment of some of its employees. Though not at the same level as companies like Activision Blizzard or Ubisoft, both of which have wrangled with major scandals in the past couple of years, Rockstar pushed its staff hard in the run-up to Red Dead Redemption II’s launch. “Crunch” has been a part of game development for years, and when I worked in the video games industry I experienced it firsthand. In Rockstar’s case, “crunch” wasn’t always voluntary and some members of staff and ex-members of staff have gone on record sharing the physical and mental toll it took on them and their colleagues. In short, producing Red Dead Redemption II was difficult and even harmful for some people, and it’s important we acknowledge that and call out Rockstar’s poor working environment.

Is there a visual metaphor here? Surely not…

Setting that aside, let’s talk about Red Dead Redemption II itself. If I were to pick one word to summarise the game from the perspective of a complete newbie it would be “dense.” The game has a huge amount going on, and drops you into a story that’s already ongoing from the very first moment you boot it up. Red Dead Redemption II is a sequel – technically the third entry in its series – so on the surface that seems to make sense. But the game is actually set before the previous entry in the series, despite the confusing numbering!

The opening chapter of the game serves partly as a tutorial and partly as an introduction to the story and characters. As mentioned, though, it really did feel like protagonist Arthur Morgan’s story was already in progress. He and the gang are in the process of escaping a city after a job gone wrong, and maybe players of the first two games in the series know a bit more about what happened and why, but I certainly didn’t! I still don’t, in fact!

The game’s opening chapter sets up parts of the story and some of the characters, as well as introducing players to some in-game systems.

The opening sequence also gets you acquainted with some of the game’s systems – but by no means all. The signature “dead-eye” mechanic – which works similarly to the VATS system in the newer Fallout games, allowing Arthur to slow time and lock on to specific enemies prior to shooting – was one important gameplay element that the opening act of the game didn’t go into much detail on at all.

There’s hunting wild animals, combat with guns, unarmed combat, horse riding, horse care, picking plants, doing chores around the camp… and so much more going on in Red Dead Redemption II that it’s difficult to know where to start. The game’s opening act is mostly linear, taking place in a smaller area and with only a handful of missions that Arthur has to undertake in a certain order. But after departing the opening location in the high mountains and making camp, the open world is at Arthur’s feet – and it’s a big one!

Red Dead Redemption II’s game map.

Rockstar has always excelled at world design, but I confess I wasn’t sure how well the open worlds of the Grand Theft Auto series would translate to the 19th Century. The open worlds of games like Grand Theft Auto V were based around large modern cities with roads laid out for traversal by car. The world of the 19th Century was, in many ways, bigger because of how slow travel on foot or by horse and cart was. Red Dead Redemption II’s world captures that feel perfectly, and any doubts I might’ve had about an open world game using this kind of setting melted away faster than the snow in the mountains!

The game’s open world feels authentic. If you’ve ever seen old photographs of America in the late 19th Century, or even modern depictions of the era in television shows like Deadwood, you’ll instantly recognise the look and feel of everything from small farmsteads and frontier towns to the bustling big city with its industrial revolution influence. The visuals and graphics used to bring this world to life are stunning – the game is one of the most realistic-looking I’ve ever played, with moments of genuine beauty as I traversed its open world. I feel Red Dead Redemption II sucking me in because of how impressive its world design is; I want to spend more time in this incredibly real-feeling depiction of a time and place that has long fascinated me.

Arthur on horseback in the town of Valentine.

If you’ll forgive a history nerd geeking out about small things for a moment, things like the mud on the main street of the town of Valentine – the first major town Arthur is able to visit – and the wooden boards put down to the side to walk on do so much to capture what it must’ve felt like to actually walk through a town like that. These places were dirty and muddy, just like the game depicts, and even though it might seem like such a small thing it’s actually a huge part of the immersion for me.

The colour palette is likewise exceptionally important when it comes to capturing the look and feel of the time and place that Red Dead Redemption II is set. Most things in this era were made of wood or metal, so seeing Arthur walk over dirty wooden boards or eating stew from a beaten up old metal bowl are again minor details but they add to the immersion. Brighter colours were the preserve of the wealthy, so most townsfolk Arthur encounters are wearing drab colours: browns, tans, creams, and so on.

The game makes excellent use of colour.

Many buildings have a hitching post outside for patrons’ horses – because traveling by horse was the main way folks got around in the 19th Century. Life in those days was very different – and so much worse for practically everyone than it is today! But Red Dead Redemption II gives us a taste of what it might’ve been like thanks to all of these smaller details, and because I’ve had such an interest in the history of America in this era I find it absolutely fascinating.

Countless smaller details come together to present a game world that feels real and lived-in. And that’s before we get into all of the myriad realistic elements that Red Dead Redemption II includes through its gameplay systems. Obviously a lot of games have a day-night cycle, and as far back as Shenmue in 2000 I can remember seeing things like shops closing after dark and NPCs having their own daytime and nighttime routines. But Red Dead Redemption II goes all-in on the realism. Arthur has to eat and sleep. If he gets dirty he has to change his clothes or take a bath. In cold weather he needs appropriate clothing – likewise for hot weather. His horse needs to be cleaned, fed, and taken care of too. So do individual weapons – without proper care they stop working reliably.

Gang leader Dutch van der Linde.

Around the camp Arthur has chores to do. Some of these are basic things like chopping wood – which took me back to my youth as I was often assigned that chore at home in the late summer and autumn months! But it also seems to be largely the responsibility of Arthur to keep the camp supplied and to bring in money – without regular donations of food and other supplies, the camp quickly runs out.

At points I felt like I was playing Barbie Horse Adventures and not an authentic 19th Century outlaw simulator because of how much time I was spending playing with and caring for Arthur’s horse! Brushing the horse, feeding it, giving it pats, calming it if it got scared… horses need a lot of attention in Red Dead Redemption II! Luckily as an animal-lover – both real and virtual – I had a blast doing all of these chores, and even found time for Arthur to befriend several dogs as well!

Arthur with his horse. Horse care is a big part of the game.

On the flip side, Red Dead Redemption II offers a whole lot of animals to hunt. I confess to being squeamish about hunting in person; bird shooting, rabbiting, and even fox hunting all took place in the rural area where I grew up, but even as a kid I was uncomfortable with the idea of killing animals like that. That squeamishness has extended to the virtual world too – I can’t imagine playing a hunting simulator, for example. But Red Dead Redemption II makes hunting feel like a necessary part of Arthur’s life – and there are many in-game reasons to hunt as well, from making money to crafting upgrades.

There’s an in-depth tracking system that the game uses, allowing Arthur to investigate an area using a similar “slow time” animation to the aforementioned “dead-eye” system. After detecting an animal’s track, Arthur can follow it stealthily and then use an appropriate weapon to take the animal down. Some of the animations involved in hunting are very gruesome and gory, particularly when it comes to skinning an animal for its meat and hide. But as we were talking about, these details add realism to the game. Whether you think that’s a good thing in every instance… well, that’s up to you!

An example of the game’s “dead-eye” system.

Gunplay in Red Dead Redemption II is helped immensely by the dead-eye mechanic. However, even without this the game does offer a degree of lock-on targeting – something I find incredibly helpful. The game doesn’t have difficulty options per se, but there are a few ways to make things slightly easier, such as by making the lock-on targeting easier. Proper difficulty options would definitely be an improvement, though. I haven’t been involved in that many big shootouts yet, but so far I’m impressed with the third-person shooting aspect of the game. It stands up well when compared to many other action-adventure titles.

I find the game’s characters to be compelling. The excellent voice acting and beautiful, realistic animation brings them to life in a way many games simply can’t manage. Though Arthur is the main protagonist, the bond he has with the members of the gang makes each of them feel important to the story and worth helping or protecting.

After almost twelve hours of gameplay (including a short section I had to replay after messing it up) I feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of Red Dead Redemption II. I’m only at chapter two of the game’s story, I’ve barely seen any of the open world, and I know for a fact that there are still in-game systems that I haven’t even unlocked. Red Dead Redemption II is a long game and an incredibly detailed one. I’m having a lot of fun with it right now, and it’s one of those rare titles that I find myself thinking about even hours after I stop playing. I honestly can’t wait to jump back in and play some more. It was definitely worth the wait!

Red Dead Redemption II is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. Red Dead Redemption II is the copyright of Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive. Some screenshots and promotional artwork courtesy of Rockstar Games and/or IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Luigi’s Mansion 3 – final thoughts

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Luigi’s Mansion 3.

Time flies very quickly, doesn’t it? I think that might be the single spookiest thing about my playthrough of Luigi’s Mansion 3! I started playing last October, with a view to putting out a full “Let’s Play” series of articles in the run-up to Halloween, but once Halloween had passed by I put the game on the back burner for a while.

I like Luigi’s Mansion 3. It’s a fun game with some clever mechanics involved, there aren’t any bugs or random spikes in difficulty, and overall it’s the kind of sweet, lightly scary fun that I like to see at this time of year. From my perspective, though, it just didn’t make for a great game to write about in-depth for a full series of articles.

Let’s wrap up Luigi’s Mansion 3.

The reason for that is simple: Luigi’s Mansion 3 has some fantastic gameplay but is relatively light on story. You know the premise: the spooky Hellen Gravely and King Boo have kidnapped Luigi’s friends, and over the course of a dozen or so levels – represented by the floors of the Last Resort hotel – Luigi has to fight various ghosts and spirits to get them back.

In short, the fact that I can summarise the game’s entire story in a couple of sentences encapsulates what made it a struggle to write about in such depth. I could easily write a review of the game – but to give a blow-by-blow account of every interaction on every level, which I tried to do at first, quickly became repetitive. I didn’t think the articles I was putting together were all that interesting to read, let alone entertaining, so I really didn’t know what to do with Luigi’s Mansion 3 for a while.

The game’s title screen.

I kept promising myself that I’d get back to the series once I had a better idea for making the write-ups interesting. But the only thing I could really think of was condensing the articles into fewer instalments, and even then I still didn’t like what I’d produced.

This website has involved a degree of experimentation on my part. Some things developed organically – like the weekly Star Trek theories I write when a new season is running. Others have been attempted, but for various reasons didn’t work as I initially hoped. The Luigi’s Mansion 3 series of articles has been one such disappointment.

Figuring out how to write about Luigi’s Mansion 3 was a challenge.

However, I like to think I’ve learned something worthwhile from the experience! The biggest takeaway for me is that I have more to say and more to talk about when a game has a strong narrative. Once I’d got the prologue out of the way and settled into the Luigi’s Mansion 3 gameplay loop, I found myself running out of things to say. That says something about the way I write as much as it does about games like Luigi’s Mansion 3, and I know that a lot of people have published playthroughs focusing on this game – and many other titles with a comparable style. But this is my website, and I have my own way of writing and of approaching this format!

I would definitely like to do more playthroughs – but as I approach the subject again, I need to consider the choice of games carefully. I chose Luigi’s Mansion 3 last October specifically because it had a spooky theme, but I didn’t really stop to think about how the game works and what I’d be able to write about at the end of each play session. Having learned a thing or two as a result of this experience, I’d like to think any future playthrough series will be a much more interesting read from your point of view – and a much more enjoyable writing experience from mine!

The titular Luigi.

With all of that out of the way, what did I think of Luigi’s Mansion 3? Having never played the first two games in the series, I was coming at the game from a newbie’s point of view. There were a couple of points where having a bit more knowledge of either the greater Mario franchise as a whole or the prior Luigi’s Mansion titles might’ve provided a player with a little more – but this was mostly in the form of “easter eggs” and references; nothing story-wise or gameplay-wise relied on knowledge of other games.

And that’s the way it should be! Luigi’s Mansion 2 came out for the 3DS in 2013, and the original game was a launch title for the GameCube back in 2001, so expecting Switch players in 2019 – when the game was released – to remember everything from the previous two titles would’ve been an impossible ask! I felt Luigi’s Mansion 3 was approachable and newbie-friendly.

The first title in the series was released in 2001 on the GameCube.

Nintendo’s first-party titles are almost always high quality. I didn’t encounter any bugs or glitches, and only a couple of very minor graphical issues. Luigi’s Mansion 3 looked decent even on my 4K television screen, and the Switch’s graphics in general are fantastic considering the console’s size and portability. With a file size of only a little over 6GB, Luigi’s Mansion 3 packs a lot into a small package – making it quick to download and easy to store even on the Switch’s limited internal storage.

Gameplay was fun, and offered several completely unique elements that I’ve never experienced in other titles. Luigi’s main weapon is his vacuum – the Poltergust G-00 – which makes a return from the two older titles, albeit in an updated form. This fun and unique weapon allows Luigi to tackle ghosts in a variety of ways, including slamming them into the ground, bashing them against each other, and firing a shockwave.

Gameplay was great fun.

The Poltergust can also be used to fire a plunger which can be used to interact with the environment. Though it does have applications in combat, the plunger shot was largely useful for navigating previously-blocked areas of the hotel as well as uncovering secrets and hidden items spread throughout the game world.

The addition of Gooigi – Luigi’s gooey doppelganger – made navigating levels much more interesting. Areas that Luigi couldn’t access on his own were easy for Gooigi to reach, and this had functionality both to advance the main story and for idle exploration and retrieving hidden gems. Having two playable characters with different abilities isn’t something new in video games, but Gooigi put a unique and fun spin on the concept, and came in handy on many different occasions!

Gooigi and Luigi.

Story-wise, Luigi’s Mansion 3 was pretty basic. That’s to be expected, though, and what story there was was done very well. These kinds of games don’t go all-in on big, believable narratives, and that’s absolutely fine. What mattered in Luigi’s Mansion 3 wasn’t really the story but the gameplay, and in that regard the game was an enjoyable experience.

Hellen Gravely was a King Boo superfan, and kind of a parody of a certain type of obsessive fan that I think we all see from time to time. Otherwise the story was a riff on a very familiar concept in the Super Mario series – a nefarious evil-doer has kidnapped someone special to our hero, and he must fight his way past the baddie’s minions, working his way up to defeating the big bad herself, in order to save them all.

Hellen Gravely, the game’s villain.

Trapping Mario and the others in paintings was itself a riff on the Super Mario 64 idea, at least on a superficial level, so in that sense nothing about the story of Luigi’s Mansion 3 was groundbreaking. What it did was put its own spin on a couple of existing concepts, then execute those ideas very well. As escapist entertainment it was perfectly enjoyable, and there was enough of a story to keep the game’s momentum going.

As someone who isn’t really into horror, what I liked about the setting was that it retained a spooky, creepy aesthetic, but kept things kid-friendly. I would wager that all but the most sensitive of children would be able to play and enjoy Luigi’s Mansion 3, and as a game to play in the run-up to Halloween I can hardly think of a better one! Striking the right balance in a game all about ghosts in a haunted hotel is a tricky task, and it would’ve been easy for the game to slip up and become scarier than intended. Luckily it avoided that particular pitfall.

I had fun with Luigi’s Mansion 3.

So Luigi’s Mansion 3 is an odd one for me. I failed in my mission to write up a full playthrough, but despite that I actually had fun with the game itself. The fact that it didn’t make for a good writing project is more to do with how I like to write and what I look for when it comes to writing up a full playthrough of a game. Luigi’s Mansion 3 is everything you’d want from a title of this nature.

I’ve been meaning to write this conclusion for a little while now, and October seemed like the right month once again! To those of you who tuned in for my Luigi’s Mansion 3 playthrough last year, thank you. I hope you enjoyed the pieces that I was able to write. Stick around, because I’ve got other ideas for playthroughs that – fingers crossed – will be more substantial!

Luigi’s Mansion 3 is out now for Nintendo Switch. The Super Mario franchise – including Luigi’s Mansion 3 and all other titles mentioned above – is the copyright of Nintendo. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The “remastered” Grand Theft Auto trilogy sounds like a complete rip-off…

The last couple of years have been a mixed bag when it comes to bringing back classic games. The likes of Resident Evil 2 and Crash Bandicoot have been remade from the ground up and released to critical acclaim… but then titles such as Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning and Mass Effect: Legendary Edition have been lacklustre at best, with minimal effort put into what basically amounted to a repackaging.

It’s in light of games like Mass Effect: Legendary Edition – which is one of the most disappointing titles of 2021 for me personally – that I look upon the clumsily-named upcoming title Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition. With the game seemingly quite close to release but nary a teaser video nor screenshot in sight, I can’t help but feel that it will be, at best, better described as a repackaging or a re-release… one with a hefty new price tag slapped on.

Three older games are getting the so-called “remaster” treatment from Rockstar.

When Warcraft III was “remastered” last year, the original version of the game was pulled from sale. Fans could no longer play the original Warcraft III, and that became a massive problem when the “remaster” ended up being absolutely atrocious. Promised features were missing, the game was riddled with bugs, and overall fans considered it an awful experience. With no way to return to the original version of the game, many fans were left stuck.

The reason I bring up Warcraft III: Reforged as an example of a “remaster” gone wrong is because Grand Theft Auto developers Rockstar have chosen to do the exact same thing with The Definitive Edition’s three constituent games. All three have been de-listed – industry slang meaning they’ve been removed from sale digitally – on all of the platforms where they had been available. As attention shifts to the remaster, Rockstar doesn’t want anyone to be able to purchase the original version of these games.

Warcraft III: Reforged is an example of how not to handle a remaster.

Why? That’s the obvious question. “Money” is part of the answer; Rockstar doesn’t want the renewed attention on these three games pushing people to just pick up the original versions of one or more of the titles instead of paying a reported $70 (£60-65 in the UK) for the new version. But if the remaster is anywhere close to being as good as it should be, that shouldn’t even be a concern!

In short, Rockstar’s decision to pull Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, and San Andreas from sale is the biggest and most clear indicator so far that they don’t have confidence in their own product. They’re already anticipating that the “remaster” is going to be savaged for making no changes or minimal changes to these three older games, so in order to force players to buy it and artificially inflate sales they’ve chosen to pull the original versions from sale – just like Blizzard did with Warcraft III. Despite Mass Effect: Legendary Edition’s many issues, EA and BioWare didn’t have the audacity to pull the original versions of the Mass Effect trilogy from sale.

Promo art for Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition.

I have happy memories of Grand Theft Auto. Scoring the original game in 1997 or ’98 – hot on the heels of press complaints about its violent nature and knowing it would irritate my parents – was a fun adventure and scored me bragging rights with my friends at the time! Someone I knew even got in a ton of trouble for buying the game before he turned 18! The three games from the early/mid 2000s that will be part of this remaster are also games I remember with fondness from that era. I picked up a set which included Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City for the original Xbox, then got San Andreas when it was released a couple of years later.

On the Xbox, it was possible to listen to custom soundtracks while cruising around Vice City or Los Santos. The Xbox allowed players to rip CDs to its internal hard drive, which could then be accessed in certain games – and the Grand Theft Auto titles were among them. When I lived with friends during that period, kicking back to play some Grand Theft Auto was a frequent evening and weekend pastime – and though I have no doubt I’m over-romanticising those memories (because damnit Rob, you always hogged the control pad and it drove me mad!) I still have very positive memories of these three titles as social games and as escapist entertainment with friends.

I have fun memories of playing all three games in this set.

I’m sceptical that Rockstar – a company which has spent much of the past decade milking one successful game and not creating anything new – has Grand Theft Auto’s best intentions at heart with this remaster. The price tag is already generating a fair amount of sticker shock, and rightly so, but I doubt the remaster’s issues will end there.

Where are the screenshots, teasers, trailers, and gameplay videos that we should expect to see for a game that’s supposedly weeks away from release? Having seen nothing at all except one piece of box art, I feel certain that Rockstar is hiding the game for a reason. And that reason is probably simple: The Definitive Edition will be better described as a re-release or repackaging than a “remaster.”

We’re still yet to see any screenshots or a trailer for The Definitive Edition.

The Definitive Edition – lacklustre or not – has been created for one reason, and one reason only: to get fans to shut up about the absent Grand Theft Auto 6 for a while. It’s a cheap and easy way for Rockstar to throw fans a bone while continuing to ignore the one thing that’s been requested over and over for almost eight years. Rockstar is unwilling to let go of Grand Theft Auto V and its lucrative online mode, but with fans increasingly agitated by the company’s antics – such as re-releasing the game yet again on the new PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X – they evidently felt that they had to be seen to offer something.

Remastering Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, and San Andreas was clearly seen as a way to do that without having to shift any development resources away from Grand Theft Auto V and its online mode. The wheels will come off that juggernaut sooner rather than later, though, as the backlash to the announcement of the game’s re-release on the latest generation of consoles showed. I hope Rockstar has been working on something more than The Definitive Edition for when that moment comes – because it’s coming soon.

I might’ve been tempted to go back and replay these three games, but it seems like The Definitive Edition won’t be the best option for doing so, especially not at the price that has been discussed in recent days. But fundamentally, what the Grand Theft Auto series needs is not a re-release of three older titles that are still perfectly playable in their own right, but a proper sequel. Rockstar hopes that The Definitive Edition will buy them some time. Maybe they’re right – but only if it’s any good, and nothing I’ve seen or heard so far has convinced me that it will be.

Grand Theft Auto: The Trilogy – The Definitive Edition will be released before the end of 2021 for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. The Grand Theft Auto series is the copyright of Rockstar and Take-Two Interactive. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons finally gets an update… and paid DLC

Shortly after Animal Crossing: New Horizons launched in March last year, here’s what I had to say about the game in my review: “When I compare New Horizons to New Leaf, a game that I played way more and for way longer, I feel at least a little disappointed. New Leaf seemed to offer more to do when the shine of playing a new game wore off, and it certainly offered significantly more in terms of playing with friends…”

Many of the criticisms I made of the game – most notably the lack of a significant multiplayer offering and mini-games to play with friends – still hadn’t been addressed, and as 2021 wore on the “updates” that were released for the game were incredibly threadbare. Nintendo, in their infinite wisdom, chose to make last year’s holiday-themed updates only valid for one year, meaning much of 2021 was actually spent re-adding holiday events like Easter, Halloween, and Christmas that had already been added in 2020.

Re-adding last year’s holiday events has taken up most of 2021 for New Horizons.

The Animal Crossing: New Horizons Nintendo Direct, which premiered yesterday, had the difficult task of making amends with a fanbase that has become disenchanted with the game over the past year or so. Many of New Horizons’ biggest fans hadn’t held back from criticising the game and Nintendo for the lack of proper updates and the lack of communication in 2021, and while the game remains one of the Switch’s best-selling titles, there has been a sense for some time that a lot of folks were simply burnt out and no longer enjoying the experience.

Games have a natural lifespan, so under normal circumstances I’d say that’s just to be expected! But the Animal Crossing series has always been an outlier in that regard; the games challenge players to play long-term, even just for a few minutes a day, but the repetitiveness of the activities and dialogue, combined with no significant updates or new additions, meant New Horizons’ welcome wore out far more quickly than any previous entry in the series.

Brewster and the coffee shop are returning from past games in the Animal Crossing series.

Right off the bat, yesterday’s Nintendo Direct offered a lot of new content, and it’s coming soon – in just under three weeks’ time. The addition of a coffee shop, new islands to visit by boat, a parade of shops (on a separate island), the return of classic characters, more customisation options, more DIY options (including cooking), and an expansion of other aspects of island life, with new items, more storage space, and the like are all incredibly welcome additions. The new update will give players a lot to sink their teeth into – and will probably convince me to either pick up the island I haven’t touched in months or restart the game for a new experience.

However, I do have a few points of criticism. The first is that these updates feel, for the most part, like features that could and should have been part of the game when it arrived in 2020. New Horizons wasn’t exactly threadbare when it launched, but it was missing a number of important features that were part of older games in the series that hampered its longevity. As I’ve said on more than one occasion, New Horizons is basically a “release now, fix later” title.

Kapp’n is another returning character from past games in the series.

The second concern I have, and perhaps the most significant one, is that I don’t see these updates improving the game’s long-term prospects in any meaningful way. They’re going to be a ton of fun… at first. Players who’ve stuck with New Horizons since launch will be thrilled at finally having new things to do, and new players will discover a game that feels much more feature-rich. But when it comes to long-term playing, things like new island tours by boat or a first-person camera are going to lose their shine pretty quickly – just like terraforming and other features did when the original version of the game launched last year.

These new features paper over the cracks and don’t do anything to address New Horizons’ longstanding issues. There was no mention in the Nintendo Direct broadcast of new villager dialogue, for example, which is something the game desperately needs. Anyone who’s sunk a significant amount of time into New Horizons can tell you that villagers simply don’t have much to say after a while, and what they do say is incredibly repetitive. This also extends to Isabelle’s utterly useless “announcements” at the beginning of each day – she usually has nothing of consequence to say, has only a handful of different lines of dialogue, and ignores many goings-on around the island.

No, Isabelle… it really f**king doesn’t.

New Horizons wants to offer players a home-away-from-home on a fantastical island, and the neighbours players will have and befriend are a vital part of that experience. But because the villagers have so little to say, with some common in-game occurrences literally having only one line of dialogue, it makes playing the game feel incredibly repetitive to the point of becoming off-putting. Add into the mix that there are only eight villager “personality types” yet ten villager slots, and you’re always going to have at least two villagers who have identical dialogue even under the best possible conditions.

This was a prime candidate for an overhaul. Unlike adding new gameplay features, new dialogue requires far less development time and far fewer resources. The game’s modest file size could easily handle double the current amount of dialogue – if not more. While the addition of new features like the coffee shop will give villagers a few new things to say, at the end of the day they’re still going to largely be saying the same things that they always have. Once the novelty of some of these new features has worn off, players will be back where they started.

Failing to improve and expand villager dialogue feels like a wasted opportunity – one which seriously hampers New Horizons’ long-term prospects.

Also missing from the update were multiplayer mini-games. This is a feature I’ve argued needs to be part of New Horizons on several occasions now, and while it’s possible it will come in future as paid DLC, I don’t think that’s good enough. New Horizons currently offers incredibly bad value for players who want to play with friends – Switch Online isn’t free, after all – as there really isn’t anything substantial to do in multiplayer. Nothing in this update will change that, because players will be stuck with the same things to do as before: tour their friend’s island, talk to villagers, and that’s it.

Even some of the features that this update has added feel less than they could’ve been. The coffee shop and parade of shops are in fixed locations – in the museum or on a different island. Yet with a small amount of extra effort, surely Nintendo could’ve given players the option to place new shops and new buildings around their islands? As things sit at the moment, players have one shop, one tailor’s shop, and the museum as buildings that can be placed. Islands are decently-sized, so there was scope to add at least two or three new buildings. Giving players the option to create their own parade of shops would have been fun, and it feels like a missed opportunity that the update has added no new buildings at all.

Couldn’t some of these shops have been optional additions to a player’s island?

I’ve heard some fans argue that they’ve finished designing their island now, so they wouldn’t know where to place a new building. But that’s why something like the coffee shop could have been an option: either included as part of the museum or as a separate building like it was in New Leaf.

The main shop itself has also been ignored by the new update. New Leaf offered players five levels of shop expansion, but New Horizons only has one – and it seems like that’s all there will ever be. The shop doesn’t carry a huge amount of stock: six items at the most (if seasonal items are available). There was scope to expand the shop in the same way as the museum has been expanded, growing it to make it more useful – and to give players something to aim for and work towards.

The shop is staying in its current form.

The aforementioned parade of shops, which will be present on a separate island, could have been part of a shop expansion as well. Gardening items, different wallpapers and rugs, and other such things could have been given their own section within the shop if adding more new buildings to the island was off the table – or as an alternative option.

Kapp’n doesn’t feel like he has a lot to offer based on what we saw in the broadcast. Players have already been able to visit random islands via the airport, and adding a second way to visit a second set of random islands feels like something that will have limited use and, at least based on the way I play the game, is likely not to be used very often. Even if there are multiple new plants, shrubs, and trees, once these have been found and collected I don’t really see what else Kapp’n is going to be useful for – and this really comes back to what I was saying about the update’s longevity.

Players could already visit random islands via the airport… Kapp’n doesn’t seem to offer much that’s different.

Gyroids were never my thing in past Animal Crossing games, but they were always a part of the series so it’s nice to see them return. Brewster, the character who runs the coffee shop, was a big fan of Gyroids, so it makes sense that they’d be part of the update that brought him back. The addition of new items, new furniture, wallpapers, and the like is good, and the ability to hang items from the ceiling is likewise an extra dimension to customisation. None of that will be earth-shattering, but I love a game with customisation options, so adding more ways to customise and to make the island and player’s home feel unique is certainly a good thing.

The addition of town ordinances, which were present in New Leaf, will change things up a little and improve the quality-of-life for some players. Being able to shift the island’s activity to earlier or later in the day should allow some players with tight schedules the ability to play more at a more convenient time, and that’s a positive thing. Again, though, I feel like this should really have been part of the game from the beginning – it was part of New Leaf in 2013, so it can hardly be called a “new” feature.

Ordinances return from New Leaf.

Perhaps the one addition that interested me the most was the DIY expansion, particularly cooking. The addition of new vegetables and new crops seems to have opened up a range of new DIY recipes for food – and this looks like something that has the potential to be a lot of fun. New Horizons does have a number of food items already, but adding new ones and different ones that can be created is certainly something I find interesting.

DIY has been a double-edged sword in New Horizons sometimes, though. Item durability – a feature copied from the likes of Minecraft – is almost never handled well in any game, and it doesn’t work well in New Horizons. Having to constantly replace broken tools rapidly stops being fun – if it was ever fun – and the fact that DIY doesn’t work particularly well or especially intuitively has hampered the experience. For example, being able to craft more than one item at a time – particularly for one-time use items like fish bait – would massively improve the experience, as would the ability to craft tools in one step instead of two. Neither of these quality-of-life improvements has been added to New Horizons.

Being able to cook different dishes seems like a fun feature – and something actually new!

The addition of a first-person photo mode looks like fun, but the kind of gimmicky fun that I might use a few times at the most. New hairstyles might be fun for some people – and being able to represent different types of hair in a game is no bad thing. More K.K. Slider songs might be your thing… but it’s definitely not mine!

Being able to set up ladders at particular cliffs is something I can see being useful, even as the number of available inclines is slightly expanded. Also allowing players to navigate smaller gaps in between furniture is likewise something that will be useful in certain circumstances. I wouldn’t say that either are groundbreaking, but smaller quality-of-life improvements like these were definitely needed.

The ability to permanently set up ladders is a small addition, but a decent one.

So let’s talk about money. Everything we’ve discussed so far will be added for free, and that’s no bad thing. New Horizons did promise free updates when it launched. But this update will be the last free one for New Horizons, and the first paid DLC has already been announced.

Considering that there are still missing features, and that some quality-of-life additions, like new dialogue and improvements to crafting, haven’t been made, I can’t be the only one who feels it’s rather bold of Nintendo to begin demanding $25 for an expansion to the game – especially considering the expansion is based on 3DS title Happy Home Designer, and thus is hardly something we can call “new.”

New Horizons is getting its first paid DLC.

It also means that multiplayer mini-games – if they ever come to New Horizons, and it would be such a shame if they didn’t – will now almost certainly be paid DLC as well. The Happy Home Paradise DLC seems like it could be the first of many, and next year could see at least one or two more paid DLC packs as well – which would greatly increase the cost of playing New Horizons in full.

Happy Home Paradise looks like an updated riff on the Happy Home Designer concept. It does add new things, like partition walls, countertops, and so on, some of which can be brought to a player’s main island home as well. I’m not going to argue that Happy Home Paradise should’ve been free – though it absolutely could have been if Nintendo was a more customer-friendly company – but I’m not sure the timing is right considering that the base game will still be missing key features even after this latest – and final – update.

One of the features present in the DLC pack is the ability to build partition walls.

Version 2.0, which will be the final free update for New Horizons, still doesn’t get it over the line. The game is still going to be missing important features that previous entries in the series had. Some of these features – like multiplayer mini-games – gave the Animal Crossing series much of its long-term value, and without them it’s hard to see New Horizons being a game that will live up to the legacy of its predecessors. Don’t get me wrong, practically all of the additions and updates look like fun… but they look like short-term fun at best.

In addition, the game’s final update will do nothing to address player criticisms and complaints about a number of quality-of-life issues, some of which are pretty major. The lack of expanded dialogue for villagers, the lack of fixes for basic DIY issues, and a number of other points have all been ignored by Nintendo in their rush to blitz through New Horizons’ free updates so they could begin selling paid DLC. As a result, New Horizons in its base form is still not good enough for the kind of game it wants to be – and even the addition of this first paid expansion pack won’t address these concerns.

Adding a coffee shop doesn’t fix what’s fundamentally missing from New Horizons.

There are things to look forward to on the fifth of November, and I’m debating whether to jump back into the game or even start a new file in the run-up to the update going live. However, I’m already predicting that many of the new features added into the game will have a relatively short shelf-life, and while they may very well carry New Horizons into the beginning of 2022, the game’s longer-term prospects are still pretty poor.

I judge New Horizons based on how much I enjoyed its predecessor, New Leaf. I played that game on and off for more than seven years because it just had so much to offer and so much going on to convince me to keep coming back. I got bored of New Horizons within a couple of months, and while two months and 100+ hours is definitely a lot of time when compared to many other games, by Animal Crossing standards that’s nothing. Unfortunately everything I’ve seen from this update, and its paid DLC companion, tells me that New Horizons is going to get a short-term fix that will tide fans over for a little while but ultimately does nothing to address the game’s real longevity.

Maybe I’m the one who’s wrong – maybe New Horizons was never meant to be the kind of long-term project that its predecessors were. Perhaps gaming has just changed too much in the past decade or so such that a long-term experience was never something that most players were interested in. If that’s the case then I’m judging New Horizons unfairly. Maybe it was just never meant to be the long-term experience that I expected.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is out now for Nintendo Switch. Version 2.0 will launch on the 5th of November 2021 as a free update, and Happy Home Paradise will launch also on the 5th of November 2021 as paid DLC. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the copyright of Nintendo. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits – full review

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits has been out for three weeks now, and I finally got around to finishing the game the other day. I like to take my time with a game I’m enjoying, so I didn’t blitz through it at lightning speed! I’d been looking forward to Kena: Bridge of Spirits for months, and my first impressions of the game were fantastic. I already knew that I’d found something special in Kena: Bridge of Spirits, but having gone through the full experience I can now say with certainty that this is by far the best game I’ve played in all of 2021.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a rare offering: a visually beautiful game taking advantage of the best of modern graphics combined with an older style of gameplay that feels intuitive and uncomplicated. As silly as it may sound, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is unapologetically a video game – it doesn’t pretend to be an interactive movie. It also ignores many of the tropes of modern gaming: no “expansive open world,” no cluttered heads-up display with arrows pointing exactly where to go, no pop-up tips telling you precisely what combination of buttons to press to solve a puzzle. The game plays, in some respects, like a 3D action-platformer from the Nintendo 64 or PlayStation 1 era – and I’m absolutely there for that kind of classic gameplay style!

Promo artwork for Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

There are three main “levels” plus a brief tutorial, and with each stage the titular heroine Kena learns a new power that helps her navigate the game world, solve puzzles, and engage in some occasionally complex platforming. Each of the three sections is dedicated to helping track down relics and memories necessary to help a wayward spirit so that Kena can ultimately make her way to the mountain shrine. The story is mostly contained within cut-scenes that are seamlessly woven into gameplay, with Kena triggering a cut-scene upon beating a major boss or discovering a memory.

At first three levels broken down into a few different parts might not seem like a lot, and Kena: Bridge of Spirits isn’t the world’s longest game by any stretch. My playthrough, in which I completed the game and found as many hidden items and unlockables as reasonably possible, clocked in at 11 hours and 43 minutes. Anywhere from 9-12 hours seems to be a good guide based on online sources. For £30-35 (approx. $40) I felt that the game offered excellent value at that length.

Kena collecting one of the Rot.

Speaking of unlockables and collectibles, Kena: Bridge of Spirits didn’t go overboard in the way some titles do. Collecting the Rot – Kena’s adorable little companions – didn’t only feel like a natural part of gameplay, but having more Rot on your team allowed for more attacks and more powerful attacks which gave Kena an advantage particularly during boss fights. This made looking for hidden Rot feel worthwhile, and not just like typical open-world busywork in the way collect-a-thons in many modern games can.

There were also gems to collect, which were found hidden in chests, barrels, pots, and the like across the map. Gems can be spent on Rot hats, and while these aesthetic elements don’t have a gameplay impact, it was a lot of fun to collect the various hats and give different Rot different looks. By the end of the game, my 80+ Rot had dozens of different styles, including absolutely adorable ones like a dinosaur hat, a baseball cap, and even a cowboy hat. Anyone who loves animals or cute things will have a blast with the Rot and their hats, that’s for sure!

A Rot wearing the dinosaur hat – with examples of other available hats at the hat cart.

The Rot added a lot to gameplay as well. Kena could use the Rot to heal herself in combat, and the limited number of Rot Actions meant that timing became a consideration, particularly during long boss battles. Figuring out when to use the Rot and in what way added a much-needed extra dimension to combat. Otherwise, Kena had a light and heavy melee attack, a light and heavy ranged attack, and eventually a bomb as well. Each of these could be upgraded to deal more damage or to give Kena extra ammunition, and each could also be upgraded to give a Rot-powered attack.

The choice in some combat encounters was often between using a powerful Rot attack or using the Rot to heal, and it wasn’t always an easy decision to make! My personal favourite was the Rot-upgraded ranged attack, known in-game as the Rot Arrow, as this powerful attack was effective against many different enemies.

Kena using an upgraded Rot attack.

Kena was also equipped with a shield, which could also be upgraded, and a dodge/roll ability. By the end of the game she had also learned one final power: dash. In some boss fights, keeping out of range of a powerful boss who could do a huge amount of damage meant hitting the dodge button repeatedly! As the game progressed and Kena encountered a number of different enemy types, combat encounters became more varied. There were flying enemies, ghostly enemies that needed to be made corporeal before any attacks would harm them, and a range of different melee and ranged enemies, and they would appear in different combinations during combat.

If I were to make one criticism of the combat it would be that there were a couple of random difficulty spikes. At a relatively early point in the game I encountered a boss who, even on the easiest difficulty setting, could kill Kena in three hits. After he’d struck once, Kena was sent flying through the air and before she could recover had been hit a second time. This boss fight took a few attempts to complete, and while I admit I’m by no means the world’s best gamer, I felt that this spike in difficulty was noticeable. The boss was so much more difficult to defeat than any enemy before him, yet after beating him the game seemed to return to normal. It was odd – and frustrating!

This early boss fight was particularly difficult for some reason.

Aside from those couple of particularly difficult boss encounters, combat in Kena: Bridge of Spirits was outstanding. The relative simplicity of giving Kena one weapon – her magical staff – but allowing it to be used in three very different ways was interesting and fun. It also kept things uncomplicated, and I never felt like I had “forgotten” about some powerful attack or spell! Some games which offer a huge variety of weapons in a player’s arsenal can be overwhelming, and when the majority of players only use a handful of attacks at the most, there’s something to be said for keeping the options simple.

Despite that, there was still plenty of variety. Kena had light and heavy options for both melee attacks and ranged attacks, as well as a bomb – and then there were the aforementioned Rot-upgraded attacks that dealt more damage. There were enough options that I felt I had a choice of how to take out enemies and bosses, but not so many options that I felt overwhelmed or that combat was too complicated.

Kena using her ranged attack.

Kena’s magical staff and its different abilities also played a major role in traversing the game world. Arrows could be fired at targets that pulled Kena across long distances, and bombs could be used on certain highlighted areas to create new platforms for Kena to jump across. Arrows could also be fired to rotate platforms into the correct alignment, and later in the game Kena could use her dash ability to cross through portals and even jump across gaps too wide for her standard jump or double jump. Combining different powers and abilities led to plenty of variety when it came to exploring the game’s stunningly beautiful world.

There was a lot of platforming in Kena: Bridge of Spirits, and I loved that. When handled well, 3D platforming can be a huge amount of fun and offers incredibly rewarding gameplay, and Kena: Bridge of Spirits absolutely nailed that aspect of gameplay. Puzzles were complicated enough to not be incredibly obvious, yet simple enough that I never once needed to look up a solution online. I was always able to figure out what to do, where to go, and how to solve the platforming puzzles that the game presented based on what I’d learned through gameplay, and that’s a difficult balance for a game to get right!

Kena has to combine her powers and skills to traverse the game world.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits doesn’t hold your hand, though. After introducing you to a new power or attack that Kena can use, the game drops you into a new section of the map where that power can be used to its full effect. But there are no other hints pushing you in the right direction nor telling you how to solve a puzzle. It’s up to the player to use what they’ve learned and figure out how to get from point A to point B to keep the story moving, and I like that the game is bold enough not to offer too much help.

Many modern games across practically every genre hold players hands the whole time. I’ve played racing games that literally have an on-screen arrow the entire time, pointing exactly where to go, telling you when to slow down, speed up, etc. And games like Skyrim started the fad of having on-screen pointers guiding you to your precise destination. I’m a huge believer in accessibility features for disabled gamers, as I’m disabled myself, but even I consider that some of these features go too far for my personal taste. Kena: Bridge of Spirits was delightfully old-fashioned in that regard. It doesn’t drag you along the path it wants you to take, instead setting you down with all of the skills you need to walk the path alone and leaving you to do so.

Hanging from a ledge early in the game.

Fun combat and great platforming wouldn’t have been anywhere near as enjoyable, though, if Kena: Bridge of Spirits didn’t have an interesting and engaging story holding it all together. I was very keen during my playthrough to avoid spoilers, and the game was definitely much more enjoyable for experiencing the highs and lows of Kena’s journey first-hand.

Kena’s quest to reach the mountain shrine is motivated by the loss of her father, and this aspect of the story was quite emotional. Seeing Kena as a young child at one point really hammered home how this quest has been years in the making for her. At the same time, though, Kena was incredibly empathetic to the spirits she met along the way – even those she had to do battle with. Defeating one of the game’s three big bosses didn’t kill them – instead Kena, as a spirit guide, helped them overcome whatever was keeping them trapped in this world and make the transition to the spirit realm. She showed genuine empathy to everyone she encountered, and while she was on a mission of her own, she showed no hesitation when it came to getting side-tracked to help others.

Kena with her younger self in the spirit realm.

At the same time, going off in different directions didn’t feel like Kena was being sent on some disconnected side-mission. Helping Taro, the game’s first spirit, and Adira, the second spirit, were both presented as the next step to reaching the mountain shrine, and Kena was happy to help both of those spirits along with helping herself and moving her quest forward. The story thus flowed smoothly from point to point with nothing feeling unnecessary or like time-wasting fluff.

The third spirit Kena had to help was Toshi, and he was directly in the way of Kena’s progress to the mountain shrine, so once again this felt like a natural progression of the story.

That being said, I think the way the game was structured meant that coming to the aid of three spirits was probably the maximum the story could’ve gotten away with. Adding in any more might well have made them feel like unnecessary hurdles, and the fact that each spirit had three relics to collect before engaging in a boss fight would have risked becoming repetitive had it been repeated many more times. Three spirits was a good number, then, based on the way the game chose to handle each of them.

Kena helped several spirits while on her journey.

As well as learning of Kena’s father, the game had a number of emotional moments. Each of the spirits genuinely wanted to help their families or the people of their village, and letting go of what was anchoring them made all three cut-scenes after the big boss battles feel genuinely emotional. I may have shed a tear on more than one occasion!

Toward the end of the game, having collected many Rot (and many Rot hats) in different places and in different ways, Toshi stole all of the Rot from Kena after the first of two epic climactic battles. Seeing her lose her companions was heart-breaking – and definitely got me riled up for the next phase of the fight! After saving the Rot and defeating Toshi, allowing his spirit to achieve peace, the Rot were transformed back into their true form, a form which resembled a giant panther or cat. As a cat lover myself, this was an incredibly sweet moment; the high point of the game’s final story.

The Rot – restored to their true form.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits does seem to have left things open-ended, though. We didn’t get to see what happened after Kena achieved her goal and meditated at the mountain shrine, with the credits rolling after she settled down to meditate having saved and restored the Rot. Did she find her father, or information about him? Did she find something else that she didn’t know she was seeking?

Perhaps the game is teasing an expansion or sequel in future, and if that’s the case I’m absolutely going to be there! As it is, though, after the emotional loss of the Rot, the big battle to save them, and ultimately letting them go to restore their true form and bring balance back to the forest, for Kena to just plop down and close her eyes risks feeling like a bit of an anticlimactic ending. We saw her reach the goal she’d been working towards for the entire game, but we didn’t get to see what, if anything, that moment meant to her.

Kena made it to the mountain shrine… but what will happen next?

This could certainly be setting up a continuation of Kena’s story, and I’m okay with that. As things sit, her story doesn’t yet feel complete. I’m wondering what the future might hold for her! At the same time, developers Ember Lab did such a fantastic job on what is their debut game that I’d love to see them tackle a different project in future. Kena: Bridge of Spirits has been a huge success, topping the charts here in the UK and elsewhere, so the studio has the world at its feet. Should they simply move on to a sequel right away, or might they want to turn their attention to other projects?

Overall, I had a wonderful time playing Kena: Bridge of Spirits. It’s by far the best game I’ve played all year, and I don’t think it will be surpassed in the next couple of months before 2022 rolls around! It was one of those games where I didn’t want to rush through it too quickly; I wanted to preserve this moment in time and keep enjoying it for as long as I possibly could.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a visual masterpiece, a uniquely-styled game pushing modern-day graphics to their limit. It’s also a wonderful return to a style of gameplay that has fallen out of favour in recent years. Every element has clearly been lovingly crafted and honed to near-perfection, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is out now for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the copyright of Ember Lab. Some promotional artwork courtesy of Ember Lab. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits – First Impressions

Don’t worry, there aren’t going to be any big spoilers for the story of Kena: Bridge of Spirits this time. I just wanted to take a moment to share my first impressions of one of the games I’d been looking forward to all year!

Unfortunately, Kena: Bridge of Spirits is an Epic Games exclusive on PC, meaning I had to finally break my year-long streak of avoiding the company. Long story short, I had a falling-out with Epic Games last year due to getting locked out of my account, and I had hoped to avoid spending money with them again. But Kena: Bridge of Spirits proved just too tempting, so I succumbed and bought the game. It had been one of my most-anticipated games of the year, so I was content to make an exception.

Promotional artwork for Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the debut game from Ember Lab, a studio which originally worked on animation and CGI for film and television. Considering this is their first ever game, and that they’re a small studio, I’m absolutely blown away. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is incredible, and I’d be impressed if it had come from a major developer with the backing of a huge publisher. But knowing that the title is the culmination of years of hard work by a small, independent team working on their first ever interactive project leaves me speechless.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the debut game from Ember Lab.

In the couple of hours I’ve spent with Kena: Bridge of Spirits so far, the game plays beautifully. There aren’t any loading screens getting in the way of gameplay, platforming is intuitive and smooth, combat is fast-paced and exciting, the transitions from gameplay to cut-scenes and back again are well-integrated, and I haven’t found so much as a single bug, glitch, or visual goof.

Kena hangs from a ledge during an early platforming section.

Sticking with gameplay, Kena: Bridge of Spirits offers some incredibly fun adventuring. Kena has all the moves you would expect for this kind of game: she can run, jump, double-jump, and climb ledges. The Rot – Kena’s adorable companions – have a range of abilities, the most useful of which include being able to move objects and obstacles to clear a path or open up a new area for Kena, as well as occasionally pointing the way so she doesn’t get lost.

The Rot moving a platform for Kena to jump on.

Gameplay is all very intuitive, with the default controls and buttons doing everything you’d expect. The design of the game’s early levels shows a lot of thought and planning; it was always clear which path to take and I never felt like Kena was lost. There were some paths that led to dead-ends, but these seem to be areas that can be unlocked or expanded later in the game, so I should be able to return to them later.

Kena in the game’s opening level.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits isn’t heavy on dialogue, and while it was certainly pretty clear what to do and where to go, I didn’t feel the game was holding my hand and dragging me down a narrow path. To give one example, at an early point in the game the camera panned wordlessly over three vulnerable spots that Kena had to take out before she could defeat the main boss during a fight. It was obvious that these three spots needed to be hit first, but the game didn’t say so explicitly, it merely pointed me in the right direction then left me to fight the battle.

Kena takes damage in an early fight.

Combat feels great in Kena: Bridge of Spirits. Kena has a couple of primary attacks and one defensive shield. Using her shield at just the right moment can lead to a defensive parry, and she has a light and heavy attack. The Rot can also play a role in combat, but I won’t spoil exactly what they can do. Combat is fast-paced, but not so blindingly fast as to feel overwhelming. I also felt that the number of enemies present at each encounter was about right as well.

Kena performs a heavy attack on a monster.

The game offers three difficulty options at first, with a fourth “master” difficulty that unlocks after completion. For players who like a very tough challenge, this adds replayability. I’m categorically not a “hard mode” gamer by any stretch, so I’ve been playing on the easiest difficulty setting. I found that to be quite enough for my skill level! Difficulty settings change the recharge rate of Kena’s Rot companions, which will affect their ability to participate in combat encounters, and also ramps up the aggressiveness and damage of enemies. Increasing the difficulty doesn’t add additional enemies into the game.

Kena is hit by a monster and flies backwards!

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is without a doubt the most visually stunning game I’ve played all year. After traversing the game’s opening area, Kena climbed a staircase overlooking a mountain and valley, and I was blown away. I literally put down the control pad and said “woah” out loud! How many games – ever – have made me say “woah?”

I had to stop for a moment when I saw this incredibly beautiful vista so I could take it all in.

The animation and visual effects work are absolutely beautiful. Kena: Bridge of Spirits has a bright colour palette, with sunlit areas that are positively glowing. Shades of blue, yellow, white, and particularly green present a striking contrast with the “corrupted” areas of the map, which feel depressingly dark with faded greys and browns and flashes of an evil, glowing red. Ember Lab’s past as an animation studio absolutely shines through, and the animators’ work with the game’s colours is pitch-perfect.

The contrast between the verdant green living areas and the grey-brown corrupted areas is striking, and the game uses colour to great effect.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits has an aesthetic that wouldn’t be out of place in a big budget animated film from the likes of Pixar or Dreamworks. The game doesn’t prioritise gritty realism over beauty, and what results is an astonishingly pretty animated look to both its characters and environments. Kena herself is a lovingly-crafted protagonist, and everything from her hair and outfit to her magic staff just looks fantastic.

Kena – the game’s protagonist and player character.

Other characters and Kena’s Rot companions also look visually impressive. The Rot – despite their somewhat offputting name – are utterly adorable critters. Their big eyes and cute faces make them incredibly sympathetic, which is important! Their fearful nature means they tend to scatter and hide at the beginning of combat encounters, and in another game I feel like that mechanic could become annoying. But because of just how darn cute the Rot are I actually found it spurring me on! How dare those evil monsters scare my poor little Rot!

Kena is accompanied on her adventure by the Rot. And they’re adorable!

Oh, and the Rot get to wear hats. Cute, adorable little hats. The hats can be purchased using gems that are found throughout the game world – something that should be familiar to anyone who’s ever played a game like this one. One thing I liked about the way Kena: Bridge of Spirits handles collecting these gems, though, is that Kena never destroys or damages property – even in abandoned houses or ruins. She carefully opens a chest or barrel, collects the gems, and then closes it again. No need to smash or break any pots!

Kena collecting gems from a chest.

There’s also a map, as you might expect. The map was easy to navigate and seems to highlight significant points and quest-relevant locations but without being overwhelmed. Some games have maps that you can barely read for all the pins and markers, but Kena: Bridge of Spirits has a well-designed map that’s legible, useable, and fits right in with the rest of the game from an aesthetic point of view.

The in-game map is useful.

When Kena puts on a spirit mask the game enters a static first-person view. This mode allows you to spot Rot, as well as certain quest-specific items. It’s a riff on the “detective mode” present in several other games, but it’s handled in such a way as to feel like a unique experience for Kena: Bridge of Spirits.

Kena putting on a spirit mask.

And that last sentence could summarise my thoughts on the game. Kena: Bridge of Spirits takes established tropes of the adventure genre but gives them its own presentation and sets them up in a brand-new world. The gameplay is fantastic, and anyone who’s played these kinds of games in the past will feel right at home. Where it truly excels is its art style and aesthetic. The designers have to get much of the credit for the unique feel of Kena and the world she inhabits.

I’m having a great time with Kena: Bridge of Spirits! The game has met all of the expectations I could’ve had going in, and at least in terms of visuals it even exceeded them. I would have been impressed if this game had been produced by an established team of developers backed up by the resources of a huge publisher, but to know that it’s the first ever game by an independent studio is truly mind-blowing. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is fantastic – and I can’t wait to jump back in!

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is out now for PlayStation 4/5 and PC. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is the copyright of Ember Lab. Some promotional artwork courtesy of Ember Lab. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The big narrative question facing Mass Effect 4

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy, including Mass Effect: Legendary Edition.

Mass Effect 4 has a choice to make – at least it does if, as we’re all assuming, the game is planned as a sequel to the Mass Effect trilogy. The choice the developers will have to make will have knock-on effects for the entire plot of the game, and unfortunately will impact some players more than others. In short, BioWare will need to choose one of Mass Effect 3′s ending options as the foundation on which to build their new story.

We talked a little while ago about the ending options from a narrative point of view, and I came to the cop-out conclusion that all three have points in their favour as well as drawbacks. Though the “destroy” ending is seemingly favoured by a majority of players, there are still sizeable minorities who chose either “synthesis” or “control” at the climax of the story.

Which ending did you choose?

Each of the three endings are very different from one another, and each would leave the Mass Effect galaxy in a very different place. I don’t see how it would be possible for BioWare to make one game that allowed players to choose which ending to canonise; the narrative consequences are simply too different in each case to allow a single story, even a very adaptable one, to be created. Unless BioWare is prepared to essentially make three games, trying to incorporate all three endings seems like a non-starter.

There’s also the question of Commander Shepard’s fate. The teaser trailer for the next Mass Effect game that was shown off earlier in the year appeared to show Liara on a quest to either find Shepard or find their remains, and if we can infer from that that Commander Shepard will have some role to play in the game’s story – whether that’s as a playable character or not – then there needs to be some realistic way that Shepard could’ve survived the events of Mass Effect 3. As far as we know based on what we saw in the game, the only way Shepard even possibly survives is to choose the “destroy” ending.

Shepard’s possible survival was teased in Mass Effect 3.

Mass Effect 3′s ending – and really the final third of the game – was undeniably rushed, and as a result we only got a very brief epilogue showing off some of the possible consequences for each scenario. But even just in those few minutes of voiceover atop static images, we can tell that the Mass Effect galaxy ends up in a very different place depending on Shepard’s choice.

I’ve always felt that Mass Effect 3 wanted to push players toward the “synthesis” ending. That’s the one that was most difficult to unlock, and if EDI’s epilogue is to be believed it seems to lead to a technological utopia of sorts, with the rebuilding of the galaxy happening much more quickly and easily, and with the possibility of life extension for organic beings.

Turians in the aftermath of the “synthesis” ending.

But paradise doesn’t really make for an interesting story! Not only that, but synthesis was never Shepard’s goal; it was only introduced as an option right at the very end of the game with limited explanation courtesy of the Catalyst. The Catalyst would claim that synthesis – i.e. fusion of organic and synthetic life – had been its end goal since the beginning, which in effect makes it the Reapers’ objective too, as the Catalyst was the force controlling the Reapers. Shepard didn’t get the opportunity to hear anyone else’s perspective on synthesis before making their choice.

Setting aside that making such a monumental decision for every living being is not Shepard’s choice to make, “synthesis” also has some pretty disturbing implications. The way in which newly-synthesised denizens of the galaxy appear to go along with everything that’s happened, combined with the Reapers’ survival and the Catalyst’s comments about this being its own endgame, could be taken to mean that this isn’t really a victory at all for Shepard and their allies.

Did the Reapers win if Shepard chose “synthesis?”

“Control” is likewise not a strong basis for building a new story. With Shepard seizing control of the Reapers and simply directing them to leave the galaxy, the Reaper threat has not ended. Shepard may be in control for now – but how long will that control last? Can Shepard keep the Reapers under their sway indefinitely, or will millennia of isolation drive them mad?

In order for Mass Effect 4 to put the Reaper War in the rear-view mirror and move on to a new story, a decision has to be taken as to which ending is the “official” one. The popularity of “destroy”, combined with the negative consequences present in the “synthesis” and “control” options, seem to make it the only practical choice.

What will the state of the galaxy be by the time of Mass Effect 4?

My concern is that Mass Effect 4 might try to tell the same story in all three settings with a few cosmetic differences to pay lip-service to the ending choices but without really exploring in any detail what the consequences of those endings might be. Take, for example, my theory regarding the Leviathans. If BioWare wanted to make the Leviathans the main villain for Mass Effect 4, that only really works with the “destroy” ending. Consider that the Leviathans have remained hidden for millions of years following the Reapers’ first harvest. If a new force (Shepard) seized the Reapers in the “control” ending, from their point of view the Reaper threat still exists. Would they emerge from hiding? And in the case of “synthesis,” the Leviathans would be affected too. It was strongly implied in the “synthesis” epilogue that every species was now working together, so in such a case they couldn’t be villains.

That’s just one hypothetical example of how one story couldn’t be forced into three very different moulds for a new game in the series. We’ve seen smaller-scale examples of this within the Mass Effect trilogy itself, and Mass Effect 3 in particular seemed to have difficulty respecting players’ choices in previous games. To give two examples: regardless of what players did in Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2, Liara will always be the Shadow Broker in Mass Effect 3, and Udina will always be Earth’s Councillor.

Udina is always the Councillor by Mass Effect 3, no matter what players choose.

These stories were relatively minor, though, at least in comparison to the things we’re considering today! Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 did respect players’ choices and the consequences of those choices in some ways, though, making each playthrough unique. In fact it’s this aspect of the trilogy that makes it so appealing to me and to many other players – Commander Shepard feels like a different person on each playthrough and the story is tweaked to recognise that.

But the differences in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 were minor. Certain characters would be missing if they’d died in previous games, for example, but there was usually someone else to take their place. Urdnot Wreav (voiced by Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Michael Dorn) would take Wrex’s place as the clan leader if Wrex died. Ashley and Kaidan were basically interchangeable in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. And even characters like Thane, who played an important role in Mass Effect 3 when it came to the Cerberus attack on the Citadel, were replaced by a like-for-like stand-in if they’d died during the suicide mission.

If Wrex died, Wreav takes his place and the story proceeds in a very similar way.

It would be impossible, though, for BioWare to successfully repeat this on a larger scale. The three ending options for Mass Effect 3 simply can’t lead to the same story because of how radically different everything about the galaxy necessarily must be in each scenario. Add into the mix that Mass Effect 4 may be picking up a story some years or even decades after the end of Mass Effect 3 and there’s been time for those changes to multiply. In short: one single story cannot be made to work in all three scenarios, and trying to do so will all but guarantee a disappointing experience for players.

Mass Effect 4 has a difficult task. Whatever BioWare chooses to do with the game’s story, some players who were very attached to the way they played the original trilogy are bound to be left upset. Because those games offered players different routes leading to different endings, there really isn’t any escaping that. The only glimmer of hope is that one ending choice is substantially more popular than others – and BioWare has been keeping tabs on that! The fact that the “synthesis” ending was not a big part of the game at all, only appearing right at the very end, and that “control” had been the preference of Mass Effect 3′s villains also seems to set up a situation in which the choice should be acceptable to a majority of fans of the Mass Effect trilogy. I’d wager that most players chose “destroy” on at least one of their playthroughs anyway.

So that’s it for today. Mass Effect 4 has a choice to make – and it’s a big one. As I see it, any sequel has to choose one ending over the others simply because the state of the galaxy is so radically different in each case that one single story couldn’t possibly fit all three scenarios. Despite my feelings about Mass Effect: Legendary Edition, I’m curious to see what BioWare has in store for the next part of the franchise – even though it’s still a few years away!

The next Mass Effect game is in early development and most likely won’t be released for several years. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. The Mass Effect series – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of BioWare and Electronic Arts. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Knights of the Old Republic is being remade!

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Knights of the Old Republic and Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords. Minor spoilers are also present for other iterations of the Star Wars franchise.

Remember that rumour earlier in the year about a new Knights of the Old Republic game? Well the project was officially revealed at a recent PlayStation event, and instead of being a sequel or spin-off, it’s a remake of the first title!

Unfortunately all we were treated to was a tiny CGI clip of the villainous Darth Revan. The project seems at a relatively early stage of development and likely won’t see a release for at least a year. Interestingly, the remake is being handled not by BioWare – who developed the original title – but by Aspyr, a studio known primarily for porting games to new platforms. Aspyr has previously worked on Knights of the Old Republic, bringing the game to Mac, iOS, and Android over the years. So at least they have some experience with the title!

Darth Revan was seen in silhouette in the CGI teaser.

If you’re not familiar with the plot of the original game, I encourage you to stop reading now. Not only that, but try to avoid any Knights of the Old Republic spoilers from now until release; the game is so much more enjoyable if you can experience its story unspoiled.

Speaking of story, then, while Lucasfilm Games and Aspyr have pledged to stay true to the original narrative, there is already talk of the game being “re-written” and writers are known to be attached to the project. It’s possible, then, that there will be some incidental changes along the way, even if the overall thrust of the plot remains intact.

For my two cents, I think that’s actually a positive development. Remakes should aim to be ambitious, and to adapt the stories they tell for new audiences. There’s nothing wrong with Knights of the Old Republic in its original form, but shaking up things like side-missions would be no bad thing. Remember that we’re dealing with a game from 2003 that was released on the original Xbox; there’s room to potentially expand the game beyond what it was. Levels could be redesigned to be larger and more densely-populated, for example, and characters could be given additional lines of dialogue.

The remake is being developed by Aspyr.

With the game being a full-blown remake, it seems that the dialogue will be re-recorded. This opens up possibilities for expanding the things that characters have to say, as mentioned, and it could be possible to give the game’s protagonist a voice as well. In the original game, the player could choose what to say at certain points, but the player character wasn’t fully-voiced like NPCs were. Redoing the dialogue also means that at least some characters – including fan-favourites – will be recast. However, as voice acting in video games has arguably improved since 2003, that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Interestingly, Star Trek: Voyager’s Ethan Phillips (Neelix) had a voice role in the original game. I wonder if he’ll come back?

Though Knights of the Old Republic got an Oblivion-developed sequel a year after its release, the stories of Darth Revan and the Jedi Exile were left unfinished thereafter. Though it’s very early for such speculation, it seems at least plausible to think that Knights of the Old Republic II – my personal favourite of the duology – could also get the remake treatment if this project is deemed a success. From there, could the story finally get the sequel that fans have been asking for for more than fifteen years? Perhaps that’s too much to hope for right now and we should just be happy that Knights of the Old Republic is coming back at all! But I can’t help feel that there’s at least a glimmer of hope in that regard!

Is a sequel on the cards if this remake proves to be a success?

One area where Knights of the Old Republic could definitely do with an upgrade is its character creator. The original game offered players a handful of pre-designed male and female faces to choose from, and one of three starting classes. Three additional Jedi classes were available later in the game as well. This is one aspect that has huge room for improvement! Firstly, I’d love to see a non-binary gender option alongside male and female, perhaps with the character creator including a choice of pronouns. Secondly, a detailed character creator – like the kind seen in recent games such as the Saints Row series, Black Desert Online, or even Cyberpunk 2077 – would allow players to craft their own unique character, which is something I’d argue is an essential component of any role-playing game.

There’s a lot to be hopeful for when it comes to this project, and I can add it to the list of upcoming titles I’m looking forward to. Last year I had a great time playing through Jedi: Fallen Order as well as Star Wars Squadrons, so after a few years where there weren’t many Star Wars games the franchise has enjoyed some successes in the video game space. Coming after the disappointing way the sequel trilogy ended, a return to Knights of the Old Republic and a setting millennia before the films could be the palate cleanser that Star Wars fans desperately need.

The original game’s basic character creator is one element crying out for a major update!

Ironically, it was after two disappointing Star Wars films that the original Knights of the Old Republic appeared on the scene. The game (and its sequel) went a long way to rehabilitating the Star Wars franchise for me at the time, and gave me a reason to be excited for Star Wars after The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones had left me decidedly underwhelmed. Hopefully this remake is poised to do the same.

After several recent hotly-anticipated titles have crashed and burned due to being launched too early, my advice to Aspyr and Lucasfilm is to keep working on Knights of the Old Republic until they get it right. Don’t try to push out the game before it’s ready; the “release now, fix later” business model has been a plague on the modern games industry and players shouldn’t have to put up with bug-riddled, disappointing titles. This is a remake that many Star Wars and role-playing fans have been waiting for for a long time – it’s incredibly important to absolutely nail it!

A closer look at Revan and his lightsaber in the CGI teaser.

One of my favourite memories as a gamer is sitting with the Xbox control pad in my hand, mouth open in shock as Knights of the Old Republic dropped its huge story twist. I hadn’t been expecting it as the game’s wonderful storyline unfolded, and it hit me in a way that very few moments in all of fiction ever have. It’s got to be right up there with “no, I am your father!” in The Empire Strikes Back as one of the best twists in all of Star Wars, and I can’t wait to see how the remake will approach that amazing moment. Even though I’ll know it’s coming this time, I’m still ready to be blown away all over again!

So as you can tell, I’m quite excited for Knights of the Old Republic! But I’ll do my best to avoid boarding the hype train and to keep a level head. We don’t know much more about the project at this stage, other than it’s planned as a timed PlayStation and PC exclusive, so it’ll probably be at least a year after release before it’ll come to Xbox. I hope you’ll stay tuned here on the website, because if we get any significant news about the project I’ll try my best to break it down and analyse it. When the game is finally ready, I’ll almost certainly review it – and maybe do a complete playthrough too!

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic is being developed by Aspyr and will be published by Lucasfilm Games for PC and PlayStation 5. No release date has been announced. The Star Wars franchise – including all titles and properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Lucasfilm and The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Forza Motorsport 7 – the first big mistake for Game Pass?

The Forza Motorsport series – and its Forza Horizon companion – is Microsoft and Xbox’s answer to PlayStation’s long-running Gran Turismo, and also competes well against other racing sims like Project CARS, Assetto Corsa, and many more. The games are Xbox and PC exclusives, which makes perfect sense because their developers, Playground Games and Turn 10 Studios, are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Microsoft, and the games are published under the Xbox Game Studios brand. So why, then, is Forza Motorsport 7 about to be removed from Xbox Game Pass and pulled from sale altogether?

Forza Motorsport 7 is less than four years old, having been released in October 2017. Yet for some reason the game will soon be unavailable to purchase or to play via Game Pass, effectively killing the game and reducing it to a single-player experience for those who purchased it ahead of its imminent withdrawal date. I only spotted this a couple of days ago on the Xbox Game Pass for PC app, but I felt compelled to comment.

How has Microsoft managed to lose Forza Motorsport 7 (far right) from Game Pass?

To say that all of this struck me as odd would be an understatement. Xbox Game Pass does periodically lose games, and to be fair to Microsoft and Xbox these are always announced ahead of time as has been the case with Forza Motorsport 7. But the games that tend to disappear from the service have thus far been third-party titles, and usually unimportant, smaller, older, or indie games rather than major titles. This is the first time I’ve seen a major Microsoft-published title by a Microsoft-owned studio disappear, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who wanted to figure out why this has happened.

The reason, according to Turn 10 Studios, has to do with licensing. Specifically the licenses they hold for certain vehicles and racetracks are set to expire, and when they do the game will no longer be able to be sold. Rather than pay more money to update or extend their license agreements, evidently the decision has been taken to shut down the game, remove it from Game Pass, and pull it from sale altogether.

Forza Motorsport 7 features a number of different real-world cars and racetracks – the licenses for which are apparently due to expire.

This technical, legalistic reason makes perfect sense – but it shows how ill-prepared Turn 10 Studios and Xbox Game Studios have been. This should never have happened; they should never have been caught out with such short-term licenses in the first place. There have been other occasions where games have had licensing issues – the remake of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, for example. But in every other case that I can recall, the licenses involved were musical tracks and songs featured on the game’s soundtrack, not something as integral to the game as the vehicles and racetracks themselves.

Many other racing games remain available despite being far older than Forza Motorsport 7. The aforementioned Project CARS (2015) and Assetto Corsa (2014), along with titles like F1 2014 (2014), Dirt Rally (2015), NASCAR Heat Evolution (2015), and even titles like Euro Truck Simulator 2 (2012) all use real-world vehicles and racetracks, and are still on sale at time of writing despite being older than Forza Motorsport 7. Is Microsoft skimping out on paying for longer licenses for cars and racetracks compared with other companies? That seems to be the obvious conclusion.

Older racing titles, like F1 2014, are still on sale.

In some ways, this is a reflection of gaming as a whole moving away from the “buy it and own it” model to a subscription-based model. Just like Netflix periodically loses films or television series from its service, so too will Game Pass. That’s kind of priced into the scheme when we sign up; we know that any title could be removed at any time pending license agreements on the service’s side, and that’s generally okay. Most folks are still happy with the content Netflix or Game Pass can provide, so the price is worth it.

But Game Pass losing Forza Motorsport 7 – one of Microsoft’s own titles developed and published by its own subsidiaries – is akin to Netflix losing The Witcher or Paramount+ losing ten of the eleven Star Trek films that it had… oh wait, that one already happened because ViacomCBS is pathetic at managing its own brands. But you see my point, right? The one sure thing that subscribers have when they pay for a subscription is that a company’s own titles will be available, and Microsoft has violated what feels like the only “golden rule” of these kinds of subscription services.

I hope you’ve played Forza Motorsport 7 if you wanted to, because it’ll be gone in a matter of days…

Are there mitigating circumstances? Sure. Does that excuse the loss of Forza Motorsport 7 from Game Pass? Absolutely not. If vehicle and/or racetrack licensing agreements are the issue, Microsoft should’ve done better at negotiating those licenses in the first place, or at the very least made sure that they had licensing agreements in place for longer than three-and-a-bit years. There are newer racing sims to play, for sure, but Forza Motorsport 7 simply isn’t that old. To see it removed from sale altogether after having had such a short shelf life just feels wrong.

Though Forza Horizon 5 is coming up before the end of the year, the Horizon series is a fundamentally different one; arcade-style racing to Motorsport’s simulation-oriented approach. Without Forza Motorsport 7 Game Pass won’t have a racing sim at all. It’s got F1 2019 and MotoGP 2020, but those are both much more specialised titles with limited appeal. With no new Motorsport game coming imminently, fans of this kind of racing sim will be missing out if they play on Xbox or PC, and the Game Pass service will be noticeably worse for its absence.

Xbox Game Pass will be worse for this decision.

The pace of game development has definitely slowed over the last decade, with big AAA games taking longer to make than ever before. That’s certainly a factor here; a decade ago or more we’d almost certainly have expected to see a new racing sim ready to take Forza Motorsport 7′s place. But as we enter an era of subscription services, companies need to be on the ball when it comes to these things, and ensure that they have longer licenses to make certain their games last as long as possible.

Game Pass is still good value, in my opinion, considering the sheer number of titles available. For players on a limited budget it still feels like a service that has a lot to offer. But slip-ups like this will end up costing Microsoft in the long run if they aren’t careful. Losing a third-party title might be forgiven, even if a game was popular. But losing one of their own games for a totally avoidable reason and with no like-for-like replacement is poor, and it diminishes Game Pass and the service’s reputation. Hopefully Microsoft will learn the lesson here and ensure that Forza Motorsport 8 doesn’t suffer the same ignominious fate a few years down the line.

The Forza series – including Forza Motorsport 7 and all titles mentioned above – is the copyright of Turn 10 Studios, Playground Games, and Xbox Game Studios. Other titles copyright of their respective developers, owners, and/or publishers. Some promotional screenshots used above courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Thoughts on the PlayStation 5 downgrade controversy

As we approach the PlayStation 5’s first anniversary in just a few weeks’ time, I don’t see how anyone could possibly challenge the assertion that Sony launched the console far too early. The PlayStation 5 has been out of stock since day one, and occasional shipments of consoles are either sent out to folks who pre-ordered one months earlier, or else are snapped up by bots or the occasional legitimate buyer within minutes of becoming available. To be fair, this isn’t something exclusive to Sony – Microsoft has had similar problems with the Xbox Series X and S.

As a result of ongoing shortages, Sony is clearly scrambling to make more units available as quickly as possible. Failure to do so will see the brand continue to take a hit, and if there isn’t sufficient stock in the run-up to Christmas, with parents and gamers forced to either go without for the second year in a row or buy from a scalper at over-inflated prices, the PlayStation 5 might take a long time to recover. Enter the downgrade controversy, which has been doing the rounds online in recent days.

The PlayStation 5 is still out of stock around the world.

In short, newer PlayStation 5 consoles appear to have smaller, lighter cooling systems, which obviously saves Sony a bit of money and presumably makes consoles easier and cheaper to ship around the world. The internal components are otherwise the same, but the heat-sink and cooling apparatus have been significantly changed. Many folks are calling out Sony for this, saying this represents a significant downgrade. Controversy and argument has ensued.

Let’s get the obvious things out of the way first. No one is suggesting that PlayStation 5 consoles are suddenly going to burst into flames or melt or explode or set your house on fire. That’s the dumbest, most pathetic straw-man argument I’ve seen put forward by some Sony fanboys as they try to defend the company. But it is clear that Sony has started using smaller, presumably less effective cooling solutions in newer consoles, so what’s going on? And is it a risk or a potential problem?

An original PlayStation 5 cooling setup (left) and a new one side-by-side. The new model is clearly a lot smaller.
Image Credit: Austin Evans via YouTube.

Heat is bad for sensitive electronics, like the microprocessors used in video game consoles and PCs. The reason why manufacturers spend such a large amount of time and energy on figuring out the best cooling solution is because of this plain and simple fact. If an electronic device – like a PlayStation 5 console – runs at a higher temperature, there’s a higher chance of its components wearing out sooner than if an identical machine could be cooled better and more efficiently. That’s the heart of this discussion – not straw-man arguments about “catching fire.”

So the question I have is this: was the original PlayStation 5 cooler over-engineered? Or to put it another way: was the original version essentially “too good” at its job, providing a level of cooling that the PlayStation 5’s internal components didn’t need? Anyone who’s ever built their own PC can tell you that it’s possible to go overboard with cooling – eventually you hit a point of diminishing returns where cooling is as efficient as possible. Adding more cooling capacity is meaningless if a component or machine is already cooled as efficiently as possible.

Newer PlayStation 5 consoles may look identical to older ones, but they’re lighter and with smaller coolers.

If that’s the case, and the original PlayStation 5 had more cooling capacity than it could reasonably need, then perhaps this downgrade is perfectly understandable. The difficulty with figuring this out is that the console is less than a year old, and any long-term effects from overheating aren’t known right now. These things can take several years to fully manifest, and by then it could be too late for players who’ve bought a downgraded console if indeed there is an issue there.

From Sony’s point of view, this is already a PR problem. Disassembly videos and articles by popular tech websites and YouTube channels have already highlighted the downgrade, and whether or not it represents a genuine threat to the longevity of newer PlayStation 5 consoles and their internal components, there’s no denying that some people are concerned. Not only that, but it risks Sony looking cheap, like they’re skimping out on the PlayStation 5’s internals. That perception – regardless of whether it will actually cause a problem for the average player – is a real danger for the company.

Headlines like these – from reputable outlets – could be incredibly damaging for Sony, creating a perception that will be difficult to shift.

As I mentioned at the start of this article, the launch of the PlayStation 5 has been rocky at best for Sony. “Supply chain issues” has become a buzzword for all sorts of companies over the past year or so, but the public’s tolerance for such things is limited. Add into the mix the perception that Sony is trying to circumvent some of their shortages by cheaping out on something as important as cooling and you have the makings of a significant challenge for the console’s reputation – and the company’s.

Sony will need to address this issue, and do so quickly. Their response will be significant for the future success of the PlayStation 5, because if they allow the console to acquire a reputation for being hit-and-miss or for having cheap, low-quality components, that will be hard to shift. Microsoft had to spend a lot of money repairing the damage done by the Xbox 360’s dreaded “red ring of death” in the mid-2000s, not just in terms of replacement hardware but in terms of the console’s reputation. Sony doesn’t have the financial resources of Microsoft, so they need to get this right first time around.

This could turn into a major problem for the PlayStation 5 if Sony doesn’t act fast.

In summary, then, I’m not sure whether this downgrade is a significant issue. If the original PlayStation 5 had an unnecessarily large cooling capacity – which seems unlikely, but you never know – then perhaps all this is is an attempt at efficiency. My suspicion is that Sony is trying to find ways to cut the costs of shipping given the sudden jump over the past year in the price of sending products around the world – reducing weight is a great way to save money right now, and PlayStation 5 consoles are heavy. This downgrade does have the potential to be damaging, though, as sensitive electronic components that aren’t sufficiently cooled will wear out more quickly. Any impact, however, seems likely not to arise for months if not years.

Where Sony needs to worry is in terms of reputation and PR. Right now there’s a growing image among consumers that the company is skimping out on the PlayStation 5’s internal components, and they need to act fast to prevent that from becoming the headline – especially with the holiday season approaching. The PlayStation 5 has already endured a difficult launch, but until now the biggest issue Sony has had is that folks want to buy a PlayStation 5 but haven’t been able to. If this perception sets in and takes hold, the company could soon find that many of those would-be PlayStation 5 buyers have changed their minds and don’t want a console after all – and that will be a much more difficult problem to solve.

The PlayStation 5 is out now – assuming you can find one. PlayStation, PlayStation 5, and other properties mentioned above are owned by Sony and/or Sony Interactive Entertainment. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Mass Effect 4 theory: Leviathan

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Mass Effect: Legendary Edition and its ending.

Though the release of the underwhelming Mass Effect: Legendary Edition earlier this year was partly a money-making ploy on the part of BioWare and Electronic Arts, there is another significant factor in the development of what we’ll generously call a “remaster.” Legendary Edition had the task of rehabilitating the series’ reputation following the disappointment of Mass Effect: Andromeda, and was also tasked with bringing in new fans – as well as getting existing fans hyped up – in time for the upcoming release of Mass Effect 4. In that sense, Legendary Edition does seem to have largely succeeded, as excitement for the next entry in the series is higher than it’s ever been.

No details have yet been announced for Mass Effect 4, and we’ve only had the tiniest of teases in the form of a CGI teaser trailer, so any details of the game’s story are complete unknowns. But based on what we know about the Mass Effect galaxy, perhaps it isn’t too early to speculate about what might come next for Commander Shepard and their crew… assuming Shepard is coming back, of course!

One of the key things Mass Effect 4 will have to balance is the scale of its story. Whether we get to play as Shepard or not, Mass Effect 4 will almost certainly be picking up the story in the aftermath of the Reaper War. This conflict saw the whole galaxy – led by Shepard – fighting for its very survival against a seemingly unstoppable foe, so from a narrative point of view that kind of epic tale can be hard to top.

This was the fundamental problem that befell Mass Effect: Andromeda. Even if that game had been launched in a better condition, without the bugs and visual glitches that would go on to define it for many players, the underlying story still felt anticlimactic. I’ve described Andromeda in the past as a game that feels like an overblown side-quest, and partly this is because of the story that came immediately before it. Andromeda was an attempt to branch out, to take Mass Effect away from Commander Shepard and spin it out into a larger franchise. But it failed not because of its bugs and other technical issues – though those were catastrophic in their own right – but because it told a story that many players simply weren’t interested in.

My face is tired.

Coming on the heels of the Reaper War, Mass Effect 4 has to avoid feeling anticlimactic in the way Andromeda did. But it has to balance that against telling a story that’s too derivative or repetitive; another galactic-scale threat caused by invaders from beyond the galaxy would feel like a cheap knock-off of what came before. Look to Star Wars’ old Expanded Universe for countless examples of this, as fan-fiction versions of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia battled clone after clone of Palpatine and fought dozens of bland, derivative Sith Lords and Imperial wannabes.

What comes next for the Mass Effect galaxy has to feel consistent, too, with what we already know about the setting. After Shepard succeeded at uniting the forces of practically every major faction in the galaxy, having one of them turn on the others and become an antagonist wouldn’t only be difficult to pull off narratively, it would risk upsetting fans and coming across as annoying.

The next Mass Effect game has to tell a story that follows on from the Reaper War.

So I think we can rule out stories like a krogan or turian uprising, or the sudden return of the long-dead Protheans looking to conquer the galaxy! Those kinds of stories might seem interesting – and perhaps the game will ultimately try to go down a similar path – but for the reasons mentioned I think they’d be too difficult to execute in a satisfying way.

Instead I want to focus on a faction from Mass Effect 3′s DLC – the Leviathans. The Leviathan DLC is integrated into Mass Effect: Legendary Edition (albeit not especially well; there are some issues which arise from the timing of its insertion into the story) so I think we can safely assume that it’s fully canon and that most Mass Effect fans will have played it. Leviathan introduced Commander Shepard to the titular Leviathans – ancient lifeforms with the power to control minds.

Commander Shepard meets with one of the surviving Leviathans in Mass Effect 3.

The Leviathans revealed to Commander Shepard that their species created the Reapers; much like the way the quarians created the geth, the Reapers were artificial intelligences designed to aid the Leviathans. Of course, they soon betrayed their masters, having interpreted their directive to “preserve” all life in an apocalyptic manner.

Commander Shepard encountered a handful of Leviathans hiding deep below the surface of an uncharted ocean world. These were the survivors – or more likely the descendants of survivors – of a race whose empire once spanned the entire galaxy. The Leviathans were unapologetic for their dominance of other “lesser” races, who they forced to worship them as gods. The survivor who spoke with Commander Shepard had little regard for humans or other races, and seemed only willing to act in the Reaper War out of self-interest.

The Leviathans wanted other races to worship them and pay tribute to them.

Despite being in hiding for millions of years – perhaps longer – the Leviathans’ sense of self-importance was undimmed. They regard themselves as the galaxy’s “apex race,” and used their mind control powers to attack or kill anyone they perceived as even a minor threat.

The Leviathans seem to regard the entire Milky Way galaxy as their own personal fiefdom; their domain. Sharing power or joining a broader galactic community is simply not on their agenda, and with the destruction or removal of the Reapers, it seems at least plausible that they might seize the opportunity to emerge from hiding to reclaim the empire they had lost in the distant past.

The planet 2181 Despoina was the Leviathans’ hiding place.

On a much smaller scale, this was the Protheans’ idea. At least two Prothean facilities – on Eden Prime and Ilos – were designed to host hundreds of thousands of Protheans in hibernation, to emerge after the Reaper threat had passed. The Protheans failed in their goal – though a single individual did survive – but the Leviathans didn’t. They managed to sustain a viable population at the bottom of the ocean on an uncharted world, and although we only saw a few individuals it’s possible that there are hundreds, thousands, or even more Leviathans. They may even have populations on other worlds.

Of the three endings offered to the player at the conclusion of Mass Effect 3, a Leviathan return works best with the “destroy” ending. If Shepard opted to take control of the Reapers, it stands to reason that the Leviathans would still consider them to be a threat, whereas if Shepard chose the “synthesis” ending then presumably the fusing of organic and synthetic DNA across the galaxy would also have affected the Leviathans.

The “synthesis” ending would surely have affected the Leviathans as well as everyone else.

But if the Reapers were destroyed – the most popular ending choice – suddenly the Leviathans could find themselves in a galaxy where their biggest foe has been vanquished. Not only that, but with the Mass Relay network critically damaged and the combined fleets and forces of the galaxy all massed around Earth (and feeling a lot worse for wear after months of conflict, no doubt), the Milky Way might appear to them to be practically undefended – and ripe for the taking.

Striking out from their hidden undersea base, the Leviathans could use similar tactics to the Reapers to gain control of key worlds – using their mind control abilities to sway military and political leaders and bring them into the fold. From there, Leviathans could abandon their base, taking up residence at key locations around the galaxy before the survivors of the battle for Earth even realise what’s happened.

Amidst the wreckage of the Citadel and the ruins of Earth, it might be a long time before anyone realised the Leviathans were attacking.

Repairing the Mass Relays will take time – if the assembled scientific minds can even figure out how to do so – and with communications and travel disrupted across the galaxy on account of the long war, the Leviathans could establish a commanding position even if they didn’t make their move immediately.

A power vacuum on this scale is chaotic – and many war-weary citizens and refugees might even welcome Leviathan rule if it were accompanied by stability, and if the Leviathans could provide them with basic supplies like food and shelter. By the time the Council races realise what’s happened, large swathes of the galaxy could already be under Leviathan control – perhaps even including three of the four Council homeworlds.

The Leviathans could be the next threat for Commander Shepard and the rest of the galaxy.

Fighting the Leviathans would be similar, in some ways, to fighting the Reapers – their armies would largely consist of enthralled mind controlled victims of the galaxy’s races. The difference might be that taking on an actual Leviathan would be comparatively rare – unlike the Reapers, the Leviathans don’t seem like they’d want to get involved on the front lines, preferring instead to sit back (or hide) and let their enthralled victims do their dirty work.

So that’s the extent of this theory, really. To summarise it in a single sentence: with the Reapers defeated, the Leviathans finally emerge from hiding, intent on reclaiming a galaxy they’ve always considered to be “theirs.” Commander Shepard may be pressed back into action to save the galaxy all over again, or maybe we’ll take on the role of a new character when Mass Effect 4 is ready. Please keep in mind that, as always, I don’t have any “insider information.” This is nothing more than a fan theory – and it may very well be completely wrong!

Despite how I felt about Legendary Edition, I do like the Mass Effect series. In fact, the reason I was upset at BioWare for the sloppy work and unimpressive upgrades that Legendary Edition offered was because the games are so enjoyable – the series has the potential to be so much more than Legendary Edition made of it. I’m hopeful that Mass Effect 4 will be a game worth getting excited about – but there’s no rush. If BioWare and Electronic Arts have learned anything from recent releases, it should be to take their time!

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. A new Mass Effect game – referred to above as Mass Effect 4 – is currently in development, but no release date has been announced. The Mass Effect series – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of BioWare and Electronic Arts. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Bethesda teases more information about Starfield

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Starfield.

The in-engine teaser trailer for upcoming space-themed role-playing game Starfield was a bit of a let-down at E3 back in June. There’d been a lot of hype and rumours before the event that something big was coming from Bethesda and that we’d get our first major look at the game, so to only see a highly stylised teaser that might as well have been totally “fake” wasn’t the best. But the company has recently put out three new mini-trailers showing off three of the locations in Starfield, as well as dropping some more tidbits of information about the game, so I thought we could take a look at what’s been revealed and start to get excited!

Remember, though, that too much hype can be a bad thing! Just look at the disastrous Cyberpunk 2077 as a case in point. As fun as some of these bits of Starfield news may seem, it’s worth keeping in mind that we haven’t yet had a real look at the game itself. And as much as I hate to be too negative, Bethesda doesn’t exactly have a good track record in recent years when it comes to big releases. Their overreliance on a massively out-of-date game engine is also a concern. But Starfield is still over a year away, so hopefully there’s enough time to iron out all of the issues!

With that caveat out of the way, let’s take a look at what we’ve learned about Starfield since E3 – with a healthy pinch of speculation and guesswork thrown in for good measure!

Promotional artwork for Starfield.

The United Colonies is described as “the most powerful established military and political faction in the game.” Their capital city – or capital planet, not sure how best to describe it! – looks like a futuristic Dubai or New York City; a wealthy, clean megacity. This is the city of New Atlantis, and it’s described as being a “melting pot” of different peoples.

The “melting pot” reference is clearly meant to give the city and the faction an American vibe; the United States often likes to see itself as a mixture of cultures. But it could also mean that the United Colonies is akin to something like Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets – semi-independent cultures and worlds co-existing, perhaps under some looser federal form of government.

Concept art of New Atlantis (with a starship in the foreground).

I could be way off base with this, but it seems like the United Colonies isn’t going to be an evil or villainous faction. I didn’t get the sense that this was something like Star Wars’ Empire or First Order, but the fact that it’s described as being powerful – and with a strong military to boot – could mean that the player character is operating outside of the law, or that large parts of the game take place in areas beyond the United Colonies’ jurisdiction.

There were trees on New Atlantis, so the United Colonies clearly have some respect for greenery and the environment – even if just for aesthetic reasons. This is also something I think we can assume to be positive, as at least New Atlantis doesn’t have that overly industrialised, dystopian feel of some sci-fi megacities.

Concept art of New Atlantis showing a couple of trees!

If I were to hazard a guess I’d say that only parts of New Atlantis will be able to be explored and visited. The teaser image depicted a huge building complex with more buildings and lights in the distance, but it seems like making all of that part of the map might be too difficult to pull off; the last thing any of us want is a bland, mostly empty map that’s superficially large but has nothing going on or no one to interact with (looking at you, Fallout 76). New Atlantis was specifically mentioned in the context of a spaceport, so perhaps the spaceport and surrounding area will be able to be visited.

Going all the way back to 1994’s Arena, Bethesda has created contiguous open worlds – that is, game worlds that are one large, single space. There have been examples where smaller areas branched off from the larger game world – such as Morrowind’s expansion pack Tribunal, for example. But by and large we’re talking about single open worlds. Starfield, with different planets to visit and a spaceship being used to travel between them, seems like it will be a game where the game world is broken into smaller chunks. Some of these planets may be quite large, but the concept represents a change from the way Bethesda has worked in the past.

Large open worlds have been a Bethesda hallmark since 1994’s Arena.

Moving away from the United Colonies brings us to Neon, a watery planet with a facility run by the Xenofresh Corporation. This floating city resembles a large oil rig, and although the upper levels look well-lit and probably quite wealthy, I wonder if the lower levels of the platform might be home to the kind of sci-fi dystopia that didn’t seem to be present on New Atlantis!

The backstory of Neon was interesting – and perhaps the closest we’ve got so far to any “lore” of Starfield. The Xenofresh Corporation established Neon as a fishing platform, but soon stumbled upon a drug called “aurora” that they used to turn Neon into a pleasure city. Neon clearly operates outside of the jurisdiction of the United Colonies, and is the only place where this drug is legal.

Concept art of the floating city of Neon.

Previous Bethesda games allowed players to take drugs and drink alcohol, complete with screen-wobbling consequences! I can’t imagine that the developers would mention this aurora drug at this stage if players weren’t going to be able to try it for themselves in-game, so I think we can be pretty confident that aurora will play some role in the game’s story. Perhaps smuggling it from Neon to planets where it’s illegal will be an option for players to make some extra cash! Neon also gave me vibes of Star Trek: Picard’s Freecloud – a similarly independent, pleasure-centric world.

The final location shown off was Akila. The Freestar Collective, of which Akila is the capital, is described as “a loose confederation of three distinct star systems.” Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but singling out the word “confederation” could indicate that this faction is villainous or adversarial. The Confederacy or Confederate States was the official name for the pro-slavery southern states that seceded in 1860-61, instigating the American Civil War. We’ve also seen the name “Confederacy” used in Star Wars, where the Confederacy of Independent Systems was the antagonist faction in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

Concept art of Akila, a city in the mountains.

Perhaps I have recent news reports on the brain, but something about the concept art for Akila reminded me of Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. The mountainous terrain, smaller buildings, and hooded or cloaked figures all gave me the impression of that kind of settlement. Perhaps a better analogy, though, would be a Wild West frontier town, and this is reinforced by the narrator saying that all of the people in the Freestar Collective place a strong emphasis on personal freedom and liberty. The whole faction seems very libertarian, then!

Akila was definitely the most Star Wars-seeming settlement, and there are several locales from the Star Wars franchise that Bethesda may have used for inspiration here. It was on this planet that we learned about the first confirmed alien enemy – the ashta, described as being a mix between “a wolf and a velociraptor.” Yikes! As above, there’s no way this critter would be mentioned at this stage if it wasn’t going to be something players could interact with, and like other iconic Bethesda open-world monsters like Fallout’s deathclaw or The Elder Scrolls’ slaughterfish, I think this is something we’re going to do battle with!

A closer look at some of the people and buildings in Akila.

So we know of three locations, each of which is controlled by a different faction. Presumably the Freestar Collective has at least two other planets under its control, as the narration specifically mentioned that the faction controls three star systems. Whether all three will be able to be visited or not is not clear, so I guess watch this space!

The Xenofresh Corporation could easily be in control of more worlds or settlements; I got the impression that it was the kind of mega-corporation that we often see in sci-fi, and thus it seems plausible that it controls holdings on other planets as well as its settlement of Neon.

The United Colonies would seem to be the most widespread and populous faction, but if players are potentially operating outside of its jurisdiction we may not get to visit all of the worlds that make up the United Colonies.

Is the United Colonies going to be similar to Star Trek’s Federation?

Then there’s the player’s faction or group – the organisation called Constellation, described as “the last group of space explorers.” The ship shown in the E3 teaser appears to belong to this group, so it’s assumed that the player will have some kind of relationship with them as well. If this faction is interested in exploration, they may not have a large settlement or permanent colony – but that’s pure speculation!

So that’s it for now. Starfield is still on course for a November ’22 release, but it goes without saying that that’s subject to change at any point between now and then. I’m tentatively looking forward to it, and nothing we’ve seen or heard so far has been offputting. If anything, these little teases are intriguing and make me want to learn more about the game, its backstory, and its factions and locales. I’m a little surprised that Bethesda didn’t include some of these details at E3; it would’ve been more impressive to give players a bit more information about the game rather than just sharing that stylised teaser trailer, and none of what’s recently been revealed seems like it couldn’t have been included a couple of months ago. This is all just backstory and concept art – things Bethesda certainly had at the time. But regardless, we’ve got another little tease of Starfield to pore over!

Starfield will be released on the 11th of November 2022 for PC and Xbox Series S/X. Starfield is the copyright of Bethesda Game Studios and Microsoft. Concept art featured above courtesy of Bethesda Game Studios and Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The odd duality of the Alien franchise

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the entire Alien franchise, including films and video games.

Perhaps Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien wasn’t supposed to spawn a decades-long franchise. It was a great standalone horror film, but even as the credits rolled there was a sense that its Xenomorph – the titular alien – was a one-trick pony.

A while ago we discussed one of the problems Star Trek has had with the Borg. In short, even the most intimidating villain can end up feeling tame once we’ve seen our heroes defeat them over and over and over again, and certainly by the latter part of Voyager’s run the Borg had fallen into that trap. The Daleks in Doctor Who have likewise lost almost all of their intimidating factor. For the Alien franchise this is compounded by the Xenomorphs being the only real adversary – and the focal point of the franchise’s films and video games.

The Alien franchise only really has one kind of alien.

Speaking of video games, it was the recently-launched Aliens: Fireteam Elite that prompted this article and this consideration of the peculiar duality of the Alien franchise. Aliens: Fireteam Elite is a co-op game that sees players team up to take the fight to the Xenomorphs, killing the titular aliens by the dozens. It’s very much an action-shooter game, and the cannon fodder getting in the way of players’ guns are the Xenomorphs.

Contrast this to the single Xenomorph that Ripley encountered in Alien, or even the Xenomorph that provided the jump-scares in 2014’s Alien: Isolation video game. A single alien is all it takes in those titles; one Xenomorph is a significant adversary for a whole crew of humans. Some entries in the franchise go down this route, making the Xenomorphs out to be almost invincible, unstoppable killing machines. Other entries portray them as weaker, more easily-defeated creatures that are often little more than a bump in the road for our heroes on the path to victory.

The new video game Aliens: Fireteam Elite prompted this article.

This is the duality of the Alien franchise; a franchise that perhaps doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. On the one hand we have the horror vibe of the original film, followed up in titles like Alien: Isolation. These horror-style Alien films and games bring with them a single Xenomorph at a time – or at most a small group – and shows how utterly unprepared and incapable humans are of defeating them in combat. On the other hand we have action-oriented entries in the series – kicking off with Aliens and epitomised by titles like Fireteam Elite – where multiple Xenomorphs can be seemingly easy to defeat.

Many sci-fi properties can manage this kind of dual tone. There are moments in Star Wars, Star Trek, and others which fit both the action or horror moulds at different points, but the key difference is that those franchises aren’t trying to use the same alien race in both cases. Some alien adversaries can be all-conquering, unstoppable foes – like the aforementioned Borg or Daleks. Others can be cannon fodder that are easily dispatched – like Stormtroopers.

Doctor Who’s Daleks have been worn out as a threatening adversary by too many stories and too many defeats.

Imagine a Star Wars film or video game where a single Stormtrooper was painted as a terrifying villain. It would work on some level, perhaps, depending on how well the story had been set up and who the protagonist was. But it’d be difficult to pull off successfully because of how we’ve come to see Stormtroopers over past iterations of the franchise – as easily-killed cannon fodder.

As Star Trek and Doctor Who began to wear out the Borg and the Daleks respectively, the fear factor these once-mighty aliens inspired started to evaporate. At the back of our minds we felt that it was only a matter of time until our heroes prevailed – because they’d done so on so many past occasions. Like with Stormtroopers in the analogy above, we stopped fearing what had come to be seen as cannon fodder.

Stormtroopers have never felt particularly threatening in the Star Wars franchise due to the role they play.

And that’s where the Alien franchise is today, at least in some respects. Every action-heavy entry in the franchise diminishes the threat and fear factor of the Xenomorphs. That doesn’t mean that making another horror title in the franchise will become impossible, because good scripts and clever writing can go a long way to carrying a film. But it does mean that the Xenomorphs themselves feel less intimidating with every outing, and will eventually reach a point where they feel played out.

I’ve recently argued that Doctor Who should probably go back on hiatus. Sixteen years have passed since its 2005 revival, and the show has pretty much run its course. The Alien franchise is a little different, because it releases fewer instalments further apart, but eventually it will reach that point if care isn’t taken to remain in control of the kinds of stories it wants to tell.

The Xenomorph Queen in Aliens.

Aliens: Fireteam Elite didn’t need to be a game with the Alien franchise license. It could’ve swapped out the Xenomorph textures for generic aliens or monsters, or it could’ve swapped them out for Borg drones and slapped a Star Trek label on. Nothing about the game looks or feels particularly “Alien” except for, well, the aliens. The story, such as it is, wouldn’t have to make many changes if the Alien license weren’t used. And under those circumstances, I have to question why it was released and why the Alien franchise continues to confuse its messaging.

Though Prometheus has made a creditable attempt to expand the lore and mythos of the Alien franchise, the Xenomorphs remain its principle alien monster. Unlike Star Trek or Doctor Who, which are able to draw on many different aliens, monsters, and settings, Alien really just has the Xenomorphs to offer. This means that the danger the franchise is in from the cheapening and diminishing of its only real foe is all the more significant.

Too many games like Aliens: Fireteam Elite will change the way audiences perceive the Xenomorphs – and make it harder to tell scary stories involving them.

Alien doesn’t work without the Xenomorphs any more than The Creature from the Black Lagoon would work without the creature from, y’know, the black lagoon. Alien doesn’t have to always use the same horror tone for its films and video games, but the move to an action-focused story naturally requires a more disposable cast of adversaries. With only one alien around, the Xenomorphs are dropped into that role; a role which, I would argue, does not really suit them nor fit with many of their depictions in the franchise.

Video games like Doom and films like Men in Black show how much fun it can be to have an action-heavy title that cuts down swathes of monsters or aliens. That concept works well in both forms of media, and audiences lap it up. But I guess it feels fundamentally different to what Alien offered in 1979, and even though its sequel Aliens in 1986 had already begun the process of transforming the franchise into something more action-oriented, that feeling persists.

1986’s Aliens had already started to transform the franchise – and the Xenomorphs.

Perhaps if the Alien franchise had stuck firmly to action after 1986 we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But in films and in video games, the franchise continues to try to do both action and horror. It almost seems as though every other title will come out with an alternate theme and tone; horror one time, action the next. This leaves the Xenomorphs in an odd situation. Their original appearance in Alien is still frightening, but every subsequent appearance in action titles, where they’re far more easily dispatched, has turned them into something less terrifying. There’s no longer a sense that Xenomorphs are truly unstoppable.

How will this play into the upcoming Alien television series? I’m not sure. But if you ask me, the people in charge of the Alien franchise need to very carefully consider their next moves. The style and tone of upcoming titles is incredibly important to get right – and once settled, it’s important to stay consistent. Right now it feels like there are two kinds of Xenomorph: the terrifyingly unstoppable ones seen in Alien, and the cannon fodder of games like Fireteam Elite. The danger is that the cannon fodder perception will creep into productions that want to have a horror vibe, and that could absolutely ruin them.

The Alien franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of 20th Century Studios and The Walt Disney Company. Some promotional artwork courtesy of the aforementioned companies. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Wrangling with the Activision Blizzard scandal

During a recent episode of the DenPod (my unscripted podcast), I said that I’ve found it difficult to know what to say about the Activision Blizzard scandal, and how to cover the story in a way that’s appropriate in style and tone. It goes without saying that what happened at Activision Blizzard, as well as the company’s pathetic reaction to it, is incredibly serious, but I feel that a lot of the commentary and discussion around the scandal, even from well-established critics and publications, missed the mark.

To briefly recap what’s been going on in case you didn’t know, Activision Blizzard has been sued by the state of California in the United States for violating the rights of female (and other) employees. Activision Blizzard is accused of fostering a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination that is so intense that at least one employee is believed to have committed suicide following an extended period of harassment. The lawsuit is ongoing and unresolved at time of writing, but Activision Blizzard has acknowledged that there are “issues” with its corporate culture, and at least one senior executive has now resigned. Activision Blizzard employees also staged a walkout in response to the company’s handling of the scandal.

Some outlets have referred to this as a “frat boy” culture (a reference to the loutish, sexually aggressive behaviour of some college fraternities in the United States), but I don’t think that term comes close to describing what’s alleged to have happened at Activision Blizzard. Nor does it do justice to the severity of the accusations.

Sexual harassment is said to be rife at Activision Blizzard.

Other reports have suggested that this kind of sexual harassment is a problem that plagues the games industry as a whole. I agree, though I’d also add that this kind of behaviour can happen at any kind of company in any industry; it’s an industry problem, not specifically a games industry one. Tackling institutional or systemic misogyny and sexual harassment in the workplace is clearly an ongoing struggle, particularly in the United States and other parts of the world where workers’ rights are not as well-protected as they are in parts of Europe, for example.

I used to work in the games industry. I spent several years with a large games company based in Germany, and as a freelancer I worked with about a dozen small and large games companies in the years after I left my position at that company. I was fortunate that, in the decade or so I spent working in the industry, I never saw or experienced harassment or bullying of that nature. But as I often say, one person’s experience is not a complete worldview, and the fact that I didn’t see sexual harassment first-hand during the years I worked in the industry doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening.

Activision Blizzard has this statement on their website – quite unironically, it seems.

In recent years we’ve learned a lot more than ever before about abusive management practices and “corporate cultures” at large video games companies. Rockstar is just one of many companies that have been called out for their awful practices during “crunch” times – and crunch is something I definitely saw and experienced first-hand during my time working in the industry. Other companies like CD Projekt Red and even the sainted Nintendo have been criticised for this as well. Then there was Ubisoft, a company which faced comparable accusations of sexual harassment – and worse – to Activision Blizzard.

All of these cases – and many more besides – follow a pattern which is all too familiar in the days of 24/7 rolling news and social media outrage mobs: the story blows up, has its five minutes in the spotlight, then disappears. News of the Ubisoft scandal broke barely a year ago, yet practically no outlets, publications, or even independent commentators have so much as mentioned it for months. New Ubisoft games like Watch Dogs: Legion, Immortals Fenyx Rising, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla have all been released since the scandal, and what happened? Practically all of the outlets and critics who went hell-for-leather against Ubisoft for all of five minutes forgot the scandal and reviewed their latest games – often giving them glowing recommendations. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has an average score from professional critics of 80/100 on Metacritic, for example.

A similar scandal involving Ubisoft doesn’t appear to have harmed its recent games.

So we come to the Activision Blizzard scandal itself. The reaction from amateur and professional commentators alike was unanimous – the company is to be condemned for not only allowing this behaviour, but rewarding those involved and covering for senior managers and executives. And that is a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with, not that it should even need to be said. Practically everyone who hears about what’s been going on at Activision Blizzard will have felt that such behaviour is unacceptable – and potentially criminal, as the lawsuit alleges. Those instincts are spot on, and I don’t disagree in the slightest.

But then I started to hear some very familiar statements and promises, accompanied by the same semi-hysterical language and, in some cases, blatant over-acting on podcasts and videos by folks trying to channel their original instinctive outrage into clicks, views, and advertising revenue. Critics and publications began inserting themselves into the story. Articles and columns weren’t about Activision Blizzard so much as they were about the writers and critics themselves, and how the scandal made them feel.

Some of this is unavoidable; when people are paid to discuss a big news story, how they feel about the story often creeps into even the most well-intentioned journalism. But in this case a lot of folks seemed to go way beyond that, promising their audiences that they will “boycott” future Activision Blizzard releases and discussing at length their own feelings and opinions on the subject. Many of these stories ceased to be about Activision Blizzard and became a “look at me” kind of thing, with publications and critics using the backdrop of the scandal to score attention, clicks, and money for themselves.

A visual metaphor.

This happens a lot on social media, where scandals and news stories are often less about the events themselves and more about the people discussing them. The term “virtue signalling” is often used to derisively critique people who feign outrage or interest in a story while it’s popular, and there seemed to be an awful lot of virtue signalling coming from professional and amateur commentators as news of the Activision Blizzard scandal was breaking.

Having been down this road before, both with companies that saw comparable scandals and with other companies that received justified or unjustified criticism, let me say this: the vast majority of the folks promising to “boycott” future Activision Blizzard titles will do nothing of the sort. A small minority may stick to their guns beyond the next few weeks and months, but eventually critics and publications will return to the company. Activision Blizzard has big releases planned, including the next Call of Duty title, a remaster of Diablo II, and the long-awaited Diablo IV. Not to mention that the company manages hugely popular online titles like Overwatch and World of Warcraft. I simply don’t believe that most of the people who’ve jumped on this story and criticised the company in such a public way will be able to resist the temptation of talking about some of these titles – particularly if hype and excitement grows, as it may for the likes of Diablo IV.

I’m pretty sure that a lot of critics and commentators will be back for Diablo IV, regardless of what they may have said about Activision Blizzard in the last few days.

We’ve been here too many times for me to have any confidence in people sticking to any promises or commitments that they may have made in the heat of a (scripted and well-planned) rant to camera about Activision Blizzard. Not only that, but the backlash a publication or critic can expect to receive for reneging on such a promise is basically non-existent. They might get a few comments calling them out for going back on their word, but that’s all. If history is any guide, most readers or viewers won’t even remember the Activision Blizzard scandal in a few weeks’ time, let alone be willing to hold a publication or critic to account for failing to live up to a commitment not to cover their future releases.

As the news of the scandal was breaking and I saw the increasingly manufactured outrage from professionals and amateurs unfolding, I felt there was no way to cover the story without getting sucked into all of this. I don’t like my website to be a space for negativity, so I shelved it and aside from a mention on my podcast I haven’t talked about the Activision Blizzard scandal until now.

Trying to step back from the quagmire surrounding the story and address it head-on is a challenge, but here we go. There needs to be a complete overhaul of Activision Blizzard from the top down. Senior executives and managers need to be investigated to see what they knew and whether or to what extent they were complicit in the behaviour or in covering it up. The company needs to make real changes to the way it deals with its employees, and there needs to be some way of enforcing that and holding the company to that commitment. If those things can’t happen, the only other option is for the company to disband and be shut down.

Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick.

In 2021 it’s so incredibly depressing that we’re still dealing with sexual harassment of women in the workplace. It feels like the kind of story that should’ve been dealt with fifty years ago or more, and the fact that this kind of behaviour can still happen, and happen so openly at a large company, is unacceptable and deserves all of the criticism it gets – and more.

But at the same time, much of the criticism that I’ve seen smacked of the kind of soft-touch, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it coverage that has been all too common in recent years. And I note echoes of similar scandals at other large companies in the video games industry that have all but disappeared despite no senior managers or executives even being fired, let alone prosecuted for their actions.

The even more depressing truth is that I expect the vast majority of critics and players to drift back to Activision Blizzard in the weeks and months ahead, regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit and regardless of whether any substantial changes are actually made at the company. Activision Blizzard will try to get away with doing the bare minimum, making superficial changes and perhaps finding a scapegoat or two to fire in public. The company will then likely spend a lot of money on a marketing blitz for upcoming titles, wooing critics with everything they can muster.

A new Call of Duty game is scheduled to be released this year.

I could be wrong, and this could be the first time a company actually sees long-lasting consequences from its customers. But I doubt it. The sad truth is that most people don’t care. They want to be left alone to play Overwatch or Call of Duty, and even if they joined in the discussion and said they’d never buy another Activision Blizzard game again, chances are it’s only a matter of months before they go back on that and quietly pick up Diablo IV or whatever game they get excited about after seeing a slick, expensive marketing campaign. The same goes for publications and professional critics. Having made hay with their righteous indignation at the company’s behaviour, they’ll go right back to reviewing their games and publishing lists of “the ten worst Call of Duty levels ever!!!” because they know hardly anyone will remember or even notice their empty words and hollow promises.

As for me, I’m not making any such commitment. I don’t play games like Call of Duty, and I can count on one finger the number of Activision Blizzard’s upcoming games I was even vaguely interested in. I’ll do my best to keep tabs on this story as the lawsuit and the fallout from it rumbles on, but I think the ending will be depressingly familiar. Activision Blizzard will bring in people to manage the “optics” of the scandal, they’ll do the bare minimum to convince people they’re taking it seriously, and sooner rather than later it’ll drop off the radar entirely. The company will lay low for a while, then return with their latest game – and most folks will have forgotten all about it. That’s what happened with Ubisoft, with Rockstar’s crunch scandal, and many, many others. Despite the way people have reacted to Activision Blizzard in recent days, I’ve seen nothing that makes me think this scandal will play out any differently.

This is why it’s been so difficult to know what to say about the Activision Blizzard scandal. It’s such a serious story that it deserves to be covered extensively, but at the same time the manufactured outrage and over-acting has been cringeworthy to watch and listen to in some quarters. I’m not calling out any one individual critic or commentator for their coverage, but as a general point this is how I feel about it. It’s been interesting to see the story hit the mainstream press, but even then it barely lasted a day before dropping out of the headlines. Activision Blizzard will try to ride this out, and for my two cents, I think most players and publications are going to let them, just as they let other companies survive their respective scandals.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective publisher, developer, etc. Some stock images courtesy of Pixabay. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Fall Guys round ranking update!

Since I last ranked all of the rounds in Fall Guys, two new seasons have arrived and added fifteen additional ones! The total number now stands at a whopping fifty-five rounds, and there are promises of more to come. Hopefully developer Mediatonic and publisher Epic Games will soon launch a Nintendo Switch version of the game, because if there’s one thing stopping Fall Guys hitting its full potential its the lack of availability on that platform!

But we aren’t here to talk about that today, and a Switch version is still on the agenda for 2021 – at least according to Nintendo. This time I’m going to take a look at the fifteen newly-added rounds, giving my thoughts and impressions on each of them. We’ll start at the bottom with my least-favourites and work up to the rounds I consider to be the best and most interesting. So let’s get started, shall we?

Number 15: Lily Leapers

I don’t hate Lily Leapers, and after a few attempts I managed to get the hang of bouncing on the trampoline-like drums. But as I’ve said in the past about a few other rounds (like Door Dash, for example) the fact that there’s literally only one type of obstacle or item across the entire round naturally makes it less interesting. The trampoline-drums are fine, but the round itself is one-dimensional because that’s all there is to do.

Bouncing on the drums causes them to make a very bass-heavy noise. When playing the game using a setup that includes speakers and a subwoofer, this bass noise is incredibly loud, disproportionately so when compared to the rest of the music and sound effects. So I think a bit of tweaking might be necessary there!

Number 14 (tie): Basketfall and Power Trip

I’m not a big fan of team rounds. Your ability to progress is entirely dependent on who you find yourself teamed up with, and some rounds can see one or two players dominate proceedings. Power Trip is perhaps the better of the two team rounds introduced in Season 4, but even so it’s possible to play very well and lose simply because the other players on your team weren’t very good. Randomness is all part of the fun – sometimes. But it can be frustrating to be on a good run and be brought crashing down because of factors beyond your control!

All that being said, I haven’t seen anywhere near as many team games in recent weeks. I’m not sure if that’s pure luck or if the frequency of team games has been adjusted in one of the updates. As a result I scarcely play either Power Trip or Basketfall any more.

Number 12: Big Shots

The only reason Big Shots isn’t higher up the list is that it’s relatively easy. I’ve seen this round eliminate literally only one or two players sometimes, simply because most folks have got the hang of it. The concept is interesting – balancing on a see-saw while dodging flying obstacles – but something needs to happen to shake it up in order to make it a more useful round once again!

Despite that, I like Big Shots. I like the way it’s a riff on other concepts from elsewhere in the game, feeling familiar yet different at the same time. Its only problem is that it doesn’t always feel like a useful round given that practically everyone can qualify!

Number 11: Lost Temple

I mentioned on a recent episode of the DenPod (my unscripted podcast) that I really like Lost Temple. The maze-like layout manages to make the drab Door Dash concept actually worthwhile, and I like the way each chamber in the maze contains a different obstacle to overcome. It’s a very fun, well-designed round that’s constantly changing and keeps you on your toes!

Why isn’t it higher up the list? A valid question! And here’s the answer: because it only appears as a finale! Lost Temple would make a fantastic round earlier in the game, and restricting it to be only a finale feels almost like a waste of a great concept.

Number 10: Short Circuit

Short Circuit is fun, and the concept of racing multiple laps of a track instead of just running from one end of a course to the other is neat. I also like the way Short Circuit has a varied mix of different obstacles, as this keeps things interesting throughout the race.

The only problem with Short Circuit is – somewhat ironically – that it can be a long round. Two laps of what is a fairly long obstacle course by the standards of Fall Guys makes for a round that’s longer than many others. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does keep Short Circuit from climbing any further up this list.

Number 9: Button Bashers

Button Bashers is unique in that it separates players into groups of two, and pits each pair against one another in the only one-on-one round in the whole game. Its arena is compact, with ten or so buttons to jump on to score points. I like the concept and I think it works well. In fact, Button Bashers could be a template for other one-against-one rounds or round variants in future.

This round doesn’t seem to come up as often as some of the others from Season 4 – as it’s dependent on there being an even number of players – so I’ve only played it a handful of times. But I recently recorded my first win, so that’s something!

Number 8: Roll On

The third round introduced using rolling cylinders, Roll On is perhaps the most interesting riff on the concept so far. Both of the other rounds are about survival; Roll On is a race to the finish line. It’s deceptively tricky, even after you think you’ve got the hang of it!

I was a little surprised to see that Roll On doesn’t use the futuristic sci-fi aesthetic of other Season 4 rounds, instead retaining the original look of the game from its launch. Was that an oversight? Did the developers run out of time or not have the resources to re-skin all of the different obstacles? Or was it a conscious choice to keep the visual style the same with Roll Off? Not sure, but it’s notable at least.

Number 7: Pegwin Pool Party

The Pegwins – robotic penguins that can be seen on many different courses – are adorable, and Season 5 added a water park-themed level where the Pegwins are the stars! It’s a cute concept, one which makes for a surprisingly chaotic round as players struggle in a relatively compact area to control the limited number of Pegwins.

The relatively small space is well-used, with different areas and obstacles adding to the challenge. When 25+ players are dumped in, the pool party really gets going and, as I said, can be very chaotic with players jumping and grabbing each other left, right, and centre! It’s wild and a lot of fun.

Number 6: The Slimescraper

As with Slime Climb before it, I’m atrocious at the Slimescraper. In fact, this round is my Fall Guys nemesis as it’s the only round I’ve never been able to qualify from! Not even once. But despite that, I love it. It’s a challenging obstacle course with plenty of different things going on, all the while the slowly-rising slime adds an additional threat.

One day – if I cross my fingers and hope for the best – I’ll finally defeat the Slimescraper!

Number 5: Bubble Trouble

Bubble Trouble is a neat round. The course is divided into four parts, with each quadrant having different jungle-themed obstacles to climb on as players pop bubbles to score enough points to qualify. The abundance of bubbles to pop makes it easy to get on the scoreboard even for newbies, and when compared to other hunt rounds like Hoopsie Legends I think it’s more enjoyable as a result.

Get lucky and be in the right area of the map at the right time and you can quickly claim plenty of bubbles – and points – all for yourself!

Number 4: Stompin’ Ground

Stompin’ Ground uses a similar concept to Snowball Survival from Season 3, but replaces the rolling snowballs with out-of-control rhinos! Because the rhinos can charge at anyone in any direction at any time, Stompin’ Ground is a round that keeps you on your toes the whole time.

Sometimes in Snowball Survival it’s possible to stand to one side and stay still until the round is over; nothing of the sort in Stompin’ Ground unless you want to be ejected from the arena!

Number 3: Skyline Stumble

Skyline Stumble is a great sci-fi themed obstacle course with a variety of different obstacles to defeat en route to the finish line. It’s tricky to get the hang of each of the different aspects, and even after playing it dozens of times I still find myself getting caught out sometimes!

This round was a great introduction to Season 4, and the futuristic visual style present for all of the Season 4 rounds is really neat. Skyline Stumble also offers different ways to make it to the finish line.

Number 2: Hoverboard Heroes

Hoverboard Heroes has a clever concept at its core. The continuously-moving platform draws inspiration from classic side-scrolling platformers, and the round has plenty of different obstacles for players to overcome. It’s not an easy round by any means, and can often result in relatively few survivors!

What I like most about Hoverboard Heroes is that it reminds me of those older platform games. The moving platform adds a lot of pressure to get past obstacles in a timely fashion lest you be left behind and unable to progress, and overall it’s a fun, challenging round.

Number 1: Treetop Tumble

So we made it to the best of the best! Treetop Tumble is everything an obstacle course should aim to be. There are different paths to the finish line. There’s a wide variety of static and moving obstacles. There are slippery slides. Cannons shooting balls. Drums to bounce on. And much more besides!

Treetop Tumble epitomises all of the things I like about Fall Guys, and is unquestionably one of my favourite rounds in the entire game as a result.

So that’s it! We’ve added the new rounds from Season 4 and Season 5 to the rankings.

Check out my earlier list (linked above and below) for my thoughts on rounds from Seasons 1-3!

With only a couple of exceptions really, all of the rounds added since Season 3 debuted last winter have been great. I’m not wild about the team rounds particularly, but there’s no denying that the developers of Fall Guys are still on the ball when it comes to improving and adding to the game.

The only thing missing is a Switch version, really. Now that Season 5 has launched and the game now boasts well over fifty rounds, perhaps it’s time for Mediatonic to refocus their efforts to getting the Switch version ready and out the door. Fall Guys is the perfect game for Nintendo’s platform, and the fact that it’s been absent for an entire year has meant that the Switch’s 85+ million players haven’t had a chance to try the game for themselves. Rectifying that has to be the next objective for Fall Guys, surely!

Getting the game on Nintendo Switch needs to be a priority now.

Fall Guys continues to be a lot of fun. The game just passed its first anniversary, and though a cheating problem last year saw a lot of players abandon it, those problems have long since been resolved and in its current state it’s the perfect kind of casual game to dip in and out of. I don’t play every single day, but if I have down time and I feel like picking up a controller for a few minutes, Fall Guys is my current go-to game.

I hope this list was a bit of fun! If you disagree or feel like I’ve been too harsh on some rounds (or too lenient on others) that’s great. We all have our own opinions, and something like this is always going to be wholly subjective. Perhaps I’ll see you out there on the obstacle course, pushing you out of the way as I bid to win my next crown!

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout is out now for PC and PlayStation 4/5, with Xbox and Nintendo Switch versions in development. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout and all associated properties mentioned above are the copyright of Mediatonic and/or Epic Games. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Game length and value

From time to time a video game will come along that causes controversy for its length. Titles like last year’s Resident Evil 3 remake, PlayStation 4 launch title The Order 1886, and even Gears of War 4 have all been criticised in some quarters for being too short, and whenever such criticism is made the same keyboard warriors crawl out of the woodwork. “There’s no such thing as too short!” they exclaim, stating that a game’s length doesn’t matter so long as the game itself is good. And that’s not an unfair argument; many players would rather play an excellent game that’s 6 hours than endure a bad game for 60 hours. But that isn’t the end of the affair.

This whole discussion seems to stem from a place of wealth and privilege. If someone has a huge budget for gaming, then of course the length of a game doesn’t matter. Paying £50 or £60 for a six-hour experience is absolutely fine – but only for players who can afford it. Many folks, myself included, have a limited budget for games and gaming, and the length of time we’ll be able to enjoy a game is thus a factor in deciding whether to purchase it and whether it meets our needs, especially considering how many games are out there waiting to be played.

Last year’s Resident Evil 3 remake is one title that has been criticised for its length.

In brief, if I’m confronted with two games that are each £55 (the standard price for brand-new AAA games in the UK at present) one of which is 6 hours long and one of which is 30 hours long, one game clearly offers better value than the other; I will get more gaming for my money with the longer title. “Enjoyment” is a nebulous concept which is difficult to quantify, but if we assume both games are in the same genre and both were well-received by reviewers, one game demonstrably offers better value.

It’s uncommon for me to pick up a brand-new title at launch specifically because of how pricey games can be. Though length isn’t the only consideration when deciding which new game to pick up, it certainly can be one factor among many. Though I would never say “short games are bad,” because many aren’t and can be a lot of fun, how much time I can expect to enjoy a game for is a factor for myself and, I have no doubt, for many other players with limited funds.

Anthem was also attacked in some quarters for its short campaign.

The length-to-value calculation assumes that games are initially offered at full price – £55 or $60 for the basic version, with some ultra-special editions going for a lot more. But there is a second component to this issue, and for me it gets right to the heart of the matter. Some games, such as Ori and the Blind Forest, are competitively priced right from the moment that they launch. Both games in the Ori series didn’t ask full price, and because both games were relatively short (at around eight and ten hours respectively) they still offered good value.

If a game only has six hours’ worth of content and asks for £55 or $60 up front, it deserves all of the criticism that it gets. But if the same game were to launch for £20 or £30, practically all of that criticism would melt away. The game could be seen as good value because it would be priced accordingly. Raw length on its own isn’t the issue, the real reason why some people – especially those of us on lower incomes or with less money for gaming – can feel ripped off by a short game is that they feel like bad value.

The Ori games aren’t particularly long, but they don’t charge full price either.

Getting the best value for money isn’t always about buying the cheapest product. If I buy an incredibly cheap roll of bin liners (garbage bags) but they leak so I have to use two each time, I haven’t necessarily got the best value. If I buy a cheap pair of headphones that break, and I have to keep replacing them every few months, I haven’t necessarily got the best value. The same is true of video games: I could log on to Steam or any other digital shop right now and buy the cheapest game I could find – but there’s no guarantee I’d enjoy it or even be able to play it.

Value for money exists whatever kind of product we’re talking about, and video games are commercial products. Just like the cheapest game isn’t necessarily the best value game, nor is the longest game. But when considering all of the different factors involved in deciding whether or not to go ahead and make a purchase, for a lot of folks length absolutely can be a valid consideration.

The Order 1886 is another title that was subject to criticism.

If a game is too short, and a player only has enough money for one new game, I can quite understand that player choosing to overlook that game in favour of a longer one. For someone whose primary hobby is playing video games, how long a video game lasts can be important. If a game is over within a few hours, and can thus reasonably be beaten in a day or even in an afternoon, someone on a limited budget could find themselves stuck with nothing to play for the rest of the week or the rest of the month.

This is why length matters. It isn’t the only thing that matters, and I don’t believe that most folks on this side of the argument are trying to simplistically argue that “short game equals bad game.” But what we are saying is that short games that ask full price aren’t great value, and that some publishers need to reconsider how much they charge if their latest title is particularly short.

Game length can be one factor in determining value for money.

There are many short games that I’ve played over the years that I had a lot of fun with, and I would never say that short games are inherently bad or not worth playing. But at the same time, when reviewing a title like that you can expect to see me comment on the length and even go so far in some cases as to recommend players wait until a game’s price is reduced before picking it up. That’s simply because of my own perception of a game’s value.

Think about it like this: a six-hour game that costs $60 is charging you $10 per hour of playtime, whereas a six-hour game priced at $20 is only charging $3.33 per hour of playtime, and a game with a hundred hours’ worth of content at $60 is charging you a mere 60¢ per hour of playtime. Now it’s true that not all games and thus not all hours of gameplay are created equal, but assuming that we’re looking at games with similar review scores within the same genre then I think the comparison is apt.

Let’s conclude by answering a question: can a game be too short? No, but it can be too short to offer good value at its price point. Asking for games to be priced accordingly instead of blindly leaping to the defence of publishers who are, in some cases at least, trying to get away with overcharging and underdelivering, will see this argument all but disappear.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. Some screenshots and promotional art courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons needs a BIG update this summer

In the July episode of the DenPod (my new unscripted podcast) I talked about how some of the biggest fans of Animal Crossing: New Horizons are beginning to sour on the game, having come to realise something I commented on last year: the game feels incomplete, as though it were released before it was ready. At time of writing it has been basically three months since the game was last updated (version 1.10 came out on the 28th of April) and that update hardly added anything of consequence to the game.

New Horizons was released along with the promise of a plethora of updates, with many publications picking up the same figure: updates would continue to roll out for the game for at least three years. Less than half of that time has elapsed, yet many fans are questioning whether the next update will be the last, such has been the lack of care and lack of communication from Nintendo.

Nintendo has not done a good job at updating New Horizons, nor at keeping players informed about what’s coming next for the game.

Nintendo seems content to roll around in the money it’s made from sales of the game, no longer caring that the players who paid £55 or $60 are becoming increasingly dissatisfied. The company’s attitude seems to be “we’ve already got your money, so piss off.” After such a long time with no news and no updates, in order to win back the support of the folks who should be the game’s biggest fans Nintendo has to go all-in with the next update and bring something big to the table.

There are many, many things wrong with New Horizons in mid-2021 that make the game so much less than it could be, and a poor relation in many respects to its predecessor: 2013 Nintendo 3DS title Animal Crossing: New Leaf. As I said recently, New Horizons effectively offers players nothing to do in multiplayer, and is not worth paying for a Switch Online subscription. There simply isn’t anything to do aside from visit a friend’s island, because when you get there and you’ve had a look around, that’s it. There are no mini-games to play, there’s nothing different to collect, and compared to New Leaf – a game with such a fun multiplayer mode that I was still dabbling in it with friends more than seven years after the game’s release – New Horizons is absolutely boring.

Multiplayer mini-games on the tropical island were a huge part of New Leaf and are wholly absent in New Horizons.

The addition of multiplayer mini-games would be transformative for New Horizons as an online social experience, even if a dedicated level or area to play them wasn’t included. Simply being able to play a selection of mini-games on your island or a friend’s would give players a reason to return to the game and play together; such an incentive is sorely lacking in the current version of the game. It doesn’t seem like something that would be too difficult to implement, either, especially if it were done from the town square on a player’s island with no new characters or areas needing to be added to the game.

The next thing New Horizons needs is something it shouldn’t need… last year’s holiday events. For some inexplicable yet typically stupid Nintendo reason, 2020’s updates only added holiday-themed events (Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.) for the calendar year 2020. That means that the holidays are not present for 2021 and onward, and since New Horizons has an in-game calendar and strongly encourages players to play in real-time, this makes no sense. Why were the holidays even removed for 2021? Which incompetent moron thought that made sense?

Why were holiday events (like Toy Day, pictured above) not added for years other than 2020? That makes no sense at all.

Re-adding the holidays means Nintendo has created more work for its developers at a time when coronavirus is still having an impact on the games industry, disproportionately so in Japan. This has arguably slowed the pace of development on updates for the game, as the need to go back and re-do last year’s content is going to take time away from other aspects of development. It shouldn’t have happened to begin with, but at the very least the holiday events need to be re-added as soon as possible – and not just for 2021, either.

There are myriad quality-of-life improvements that the game is crying out for, too. Villager dialogue is perhaps the biggest, because to call the things villagers say “repetitive” would be unnecessarily kind. I’m by no means the world’s biggest New Horizons player (I sunk a little over 120 hours into the game in 2020) yet I’m completely burned out on talking to any of the villagers on my island. Even returning to the game after an absence of several months quickly became dull and boring because most of the villagers have only a handful of things to say in any given situation.

Villager dialogue is incredibly bland and repetitive.

For example, when walking into a villager’s home and finding them crafting an item, each villager “type” (of which there are only eight) has literally only got one line of dialogue that they repeat every single time. There are only eight villager types, yet there are potentially ten villager spots on a player’s island, which means a minimum of three characters will always have identical things to say. This compounded the lack of dialogue variety for me, especially when I found myself with three or four of the same villager type.

While we’re on the subject of dialogue, Isabelle’s daily announcements should either be changed to actually tell players what’s going on or else scrapped altogether. Isabelle was a popular character in New Leaf, but with Tom Nook assuming a larger role in the Resident Services building in New Horizons she takes on a much smaller role, and the daily announcements were clearly intended to expand that. But as with the villagers, Isabelle has only a handful of things to say, and these get incredibly repetitive.

No, Isabelle. No it does not.

Her daily announcements would be a great way to communicate to players things that might be taking place on the island: visiting special characters, for example. Yet Isabelle never mentions any of these, instead repeating the same uninspired line about what she supposedly watched on television. It’s just boring.

New Horizons doesn’t need voice actors to come in and record new lines for hours and hours. All of this is text-based, so writing a few more lines – or a few thousand more, even – wouldn’t be beyond Nintendo’s capabilities, and would scarcely even pad out the game’s modest file size when compared to some of the other things fans have been requesting, such as bringing back absent characters and items.

The game is in dire need of more updates and more things to do.

Speaking of which, there are several characters who could make an overdue return to the game. One of the most-requested absent characters is Brewster, a pigeon who ran a coffee shop in past games. The coffee shop could return too, either as an addition to an existing building or better yet, by being a brand-new building for players to place on their islands. Timmy and Tommy’s shop could also be expanded further, allowing it to sell more than the half a dozen or so items it currently offers each day. There’s also scope to bring in a dedicated shoe shop, gardening shop, fortune teller’s shop, or Gracie’s ultra-luxurious item shop. Whether any of these shops, which were present in New Leaf and City Folk, will make it is anyone’s guess, but many fans are asking for more shops and places to visit on their islands.

Tortimer and Kapp’n, who were present in New Leaf and earlier entries in the series, could also make a return, perhaps appearing in the town square to oversee mini-games. Though of course it would be great to get a new location for the mini-games à la New Leaf, in order to simplify things I’m sure players would be more than happy to see them visit their island like other special characters do.

The Roost – another missing feature from past games in the series.
Picture Credit: Animal Crossing Wiki

As I said when I spoke about this on the podcast, games do have a natural lifespan, and for folks who’ve sunk hundreds or even thousands of hours into New Horizons, perhaps they were always eventually going to hit the wall and arrive at the end of the road. But considering that, for me at least, the previous entry in the series managed to give me seven years’ worth of casual enjoyment, for New Horizons to have lasted less than eighteen months before even its biggest fans have become bored and burned out is poor. I think we were all expecting better from Nintendo.

A big update this summer would go a long way to making up for it, and would bring back many lapsed players – like myself, as I haven’t checked in with my island in months at this point! The addition of new buildings, like the coffee shop, would be fantastic, but what the game desperately needs is mini-games and a compelling multiplayer offering, and that really ought to be Nintendo’s focus. As I said last time, New Horizons doesn’t have a multiplayer mode in its current form. It pretends to, but when you actually try it out you find very quickly that there just isn’t anything to do. Folks who bought Switch Online to play this game surely feel they got swindled.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf can feel rather empty or even boring.

New dialogue for existing characters and villagers would also spice things up and give players a reason to actually play the game once again. A game that aims to be a gentle, slow-paced “life simulator” loses so much when the villagers on your island who are supposedly your friends feel like one-dimensional, incredibly repetitive video game characters instead of making a basic effort to make them seem like more than that. Considering all of the in-game dialogue is text, I don’t see why New Horizons can’t simply add more. It would be incredibly easy to do and wouldn’t compromise the game in any way, nor even make it significantly larger on disc.

So there we go. New Horizons needs to do something big in fairly short order to pacify its remaining playerbase and to convince folks that this once-celebrated game isn’t just a one-trick pony. Well over a year on from its release it still offers less than New Leaf did at launch in 2013, and for a game that had such promise I think that’s a real shame. I ended my original review of the game last year by saying this: “I was still playing New Leaf earlier this year, seven years on from its release. Will I still be playing New Horizons after such a long time? If I’m still alive and kicking in 2027, remind me to come back and tell you.”

Unless the game gets a significant update – and soon – there’s not even a question of playing New Horizons in 2027. I won’t even be playing it in the second half of 2021.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is out now for Nintendo Switch. The Animal Crossing series – including New Leaf, New Horizons, and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Nintendo. Some promotional screenshots courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

The “live service” spiral

Have you ever wondered why so many so-called “live service” games fail to live up to expectations and ultimately get shut down? Or why so many of these types of titles are actively despised by players all around the world?

I’ve lost count of the number of times an exciting-sounding game has been announced only for me to end up sighing with disappointment when I hear the dreaded words “live service.” To many players, those words have come to epitomise all of the worst things about gaming as a hobby in 2021, and it’s got to a point where a game has to offer something truly exceptional before I’ll even consider stepping over the live service hurdle to give it a shot.

This is how “live service” games make me feel!

I’ve talked on a number of occasions about the “release now, fix later” business model that has corrupted the modern games industry. In short, games companies see the internet as an easy way to roll out patches and fixes after a game has been released, thanks to the ubiquity of internet connectivity on every gaming platform nowadays, so they figure they can release a game in an incomplete state and fix it after launch. Though games like Mass Effect: Andromeda and Cyberpunk 2077 prove that this isn’t a phenomenon unique to live services, these kinds of titles are almost universally afflicted.

Many live service games launch with a “roadmap” – another dreaded gaming neologism that rightly turns off anyone who hears it. In lieu of actual gameplay features, levels, and content, the game arrives in a threadbare state with a so-called roadmap, which is little more than a euphemism for promises of updates and new content. All too often, though, the promised updates never arrive because the game gets shut down. The roadmap leads to a dead end.

How’s that roadmap working out for you, Anthem?

If a game felt complete – with enough characters, levels, and whatever else it needs – promises of further content would be no bad thing. It would give the game’s fans something to look forward to while they enjoyed what was available at launch. But it’s rare that a live service feels complete at launch, and most roadmaps end up promising content that should have been part of the original game.

So we come to what I’m calling the “live service spiral.” Here’s how it goes: a live service game launches to mediocre reviews from critics and players, with many criticising its threadbare state and unfinished nature. Though there is a roadmap promising further content to come at some nebulous future date, many players who were considering picking up the game instead adopt a “wait-and-see” approach, biding their time until the promised updates arrive and the game is actually worth playing. But this leads to lower-than-expected sales, which in turn means that the publisher panics and decides to cancel the roadmap, ending development on the game and cancelling planned updates and patches. The game’s remaining players drift away, disappointed, to await the next title and begin the cycle again.

The first Destiny game was an early example of this phenomenon.

In 2021, having seen so many of these live services stumble out of the gate and get unceremoniously shut down shortly thereafter, I have less and less sympathy for players who still believe the hype and get hooked in with promises. If a game isn’t good enough when it launches to be worth my time – and more importantly, my money – why should I give it either on the back of vague promises? And if you choose to invest in a live service game knowing how many have come and gone in the blink of an eye, why should I offer you my sympathy when the next one follows the pattern and also fails?

So many games have been in this position. Just in the last few years we can call to mind titles like Anthem, Star Wars Battlefront, WWE 2K20, Destiny 1, and probably Marvel’s Avengers within the next few months. So there are more than enough examples to serve as warnings that this business model is not worth investing in.

Marvel’s Avengers could be next on the chopping block.

Here’s the basic problem that games industry managers and executives can’t seem to wrap their corporate heads around: for every Fortnite or Grand Theft Auto Online there are a dozen or more Anthems or Destinys. For every title that adopts a live service model and makes a success of it, there are dozens more that fail. And if a company isn’t willing to put money and effort into creating a title that players actually want to spend their time playing, desperately chasing the faltering live service trend will always be a losing proposition.

Many live service games were doomed from the very moment they were conceived in the mind of a business executive. Someone with precious little understanding of the industry looked at Fortnite or Rainbow Six Siege, and without knowing the first thing about those games nor realising they’re about a decade too late, said to their team “make me one of those.” From that very moment the game was dead on arrival – but nobody realised it, or at least nobody had the balls to tell the publisher.

Not every game will see the success of titles like Fortnite. Companies need to set realistic expectations.

All the way through development and through the extensive marketing campaign that followed, dedicated developers tried their best to build a game to the specifications of some moron in a suit, and it was all for nothing. All of that time, effort, and money was pissed away chasing after a concept that’s already played out for a company that never understood it in the first place. In many cases, “crunch” and other abusive working practices saw developers and other employees suffer actual quantifiable harm, all for the sake of a meaningless, useless piece of shit game like Anthem. Imagine working yourself half to death for the sake of Anthem, only to see the game shut down months after it launched.

Hopefully the backlash some of these games generate, combined with lacklustre sales and continued failures to meet expectations, will see this business model slowly start to die off. But all of us need to be very careful about throwing our money into any live service game that comes along in future. Companies have proven time and again that they see these games as disposable and they’re willing to cut and run from a failing project no matter how many players get screwed over in the process. If they treat their own games with such little respect, why should we buy into such a model?

We have to find a way to break the live service spiral, to show games companies that this business model is no longer viable. Some noteworthy failures, like those mentioned above, will start to cause a rethink in corporate boardrooms, but the process needs to accelerate. Not just for the sake of us having better games to play, but for the physical and mental health of those in the industry working on these titles.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Why I’m wary of the Steam Deck

Want to listen to this article? There’s an audio version below – just click or tap the embedded YouTube video.

The newly-announced Steam Deck seems like a dream come true for a lot of gamers: a cross between the portable Nintendo Switch and a powerful gaming PC that can run modern titles. And on the surface it seems like a great idea; the Switch proved definitively that there’s a market for a handheld console that can play more than just Pokémon and Mario Kart. Lots of folks have enjoyed playing titles like The Witcher 3, Skyrim, and Doom on the go.

This marriage of a portable format with the power of a gaming PC seems like a match made in heaven then! Surely it’s just a matter of time until the reasonably-priced device becomes the next big thing in gaming, right?

Logo for the newly-announced Steam Deck.

Well let’s slow down for a minute and think about this. Firstly it’s worth pointing out that no reviewer has yet got their hands on the Steam Deck, so its claim to being a powerful handheld that can run most of the games in Steam’s library is untested, as is its screen and other hardware. But secondly, the most important reason why I’m wary of the Steam Deck is Valve’s poor track record when it comes to hardware.

Remember the Steam Controller? Valve’s big foray into the controller market aimed to create a device that could play not only games designed for a gamepad, but also games designed to be played with mouse and keyboard. The controller lasted a scant four years before Valve discontinued it following poor sales.

The Steam Controller is one of many Valve hardware products that have been unceremoniously discontinued.

The Steam Controller was originally created alongside the Steam Machine – a lineup of prebuilt gaming PCs co-created by Valve. These computers didn’t even last as long as the controller – being discontinued within three years.

There’s also been the Steam Link – a device which was designed to allow players to stream their Steam games to another device (like a television or mobile phone). That lasted a scant three years before being discontinued. Valve has also struggled to make a success of the HTC Vive – a virtual reality setup that it purchased – and its own Valve Index VR device.

The Steam Link has also been discontinued.

Then there’s SteamOS. This was Valve’s attempt to create a Linux-based operating system – and is the OS which will come preinstalled with the Steam Deck. But SteamOS hasn’t been widely adopted, and is only natively compatible with a handful of games – others can only be played via a Windows emulator which naturally impacts performance. SteamOS has been overlooked by practically everyone, and until the announcement of the Steam Deck I considered it dead and buried – the last version was released two years ago and it hasn’t been updated since.

Are you seeing a pattern yet? Valve has an appalling track record when it comes to hardware, and early adopters of practically all of the machines and devices the company has produced to date have been screwed over when Valve discontinued them and stopped providing support and updates. It’s possible that the Steam Deck will be different; an exception to the rule, so to speak. But I wouldn’t bet on that right now, and I would be very wary of picking up such a device until it’s definitively established itself as a viable platform.

Valve tried hard to make Steam Machines the “next big thing” only to dump them a few years later when it didn’t happen.

It’s not only Valve that has struggled to break into the video game hardware market. Who could forget the Google Stadia? Everyone, apparently, because Stadia is basically discontinued already, having lasted less than a year. This market is not easy to crack, and even a company like Google – with practically unlimited resources – has failed to make significant inroads.

The Steam Deck is trying to offer players a way to play higher-end PC games on a portable device. Stadia tried to offer players a way to play higher-end games without the need for an expensive PC or console. The comparison is significant, because practically nobody took up Google on that offer. Steam does have a large library of titles at its back – something Stadia definitely lacked – and though it may appeal to tech enthusiasts and other early adopters, most players already have a PC or console that can play those games. And most players interested in portable devices already have a Nintendo Switch.

The Steam Deck has a big competitor in the Nintendo Switch.

All of this overlooks a significant fact about portable PC gaming – the existence of gaming laptops! Players who want a portable PC capable of playing their games already have that option via a gaming laptop. This further erodes the market that the Steam Deck is trying to appeal to.

I’m just not sure where the Steam Deck will fit in, and who it’s trying to appeal to aside from the aforementioned enthusiasts and early adopters. And my concern with that is that when it inevitably fails to achieve the kind of sales figures in its first year that Valve is hoping for, will they simply stop marketing it and then quietly kill it off, as they’ve done on many occasions in the past? A company’s track record is well worth paying attention to before sinking your money into their latest project. Some companies doggedly support their products for years, even when things don’t seem to be going well. Valve is categorically not that kind of company.

Promotional image of the Steam Deck.

First-gen tech products are often janky, with issues that later revisions and newer models fix later on. The Steam Deck may fall into that category, though as mentioned there are still no units in reviewers’ hands to check that either way. But as a general rule, second- or third-generation iterations of a product tend to be better all-round experiences, with problems and issues encountered in early models being fixed. That’s also a concern when it comes to the Steam Deck.

Despite all of this, I can understand why people are hyped for the Steam Deck. It looks like a beefier, more powerful Nintendo Switch. And after the disappointment some fans felt at Nintendo not launching a “Switch Pro,” perhaps they’re looking at this machine as an alternative way to play games in a handheld format. The Steam Deck is a device with potential, and if some folks see it as a more affordable way into gaming than buying or building a full PC, I’m on board with that. I definitely want as many folks as possible to be able to access gaming as a hobby. But for your £349/$399 (the Steam Deck’s RRP) you could buy a PlayStation 5 (the discless version). Or you could get an Xbox Series S with enough money left over for a full year of Game Pass. Or, of course, a Nintendo Switch – a console which is already well-established and has a huge library of games, many of which are exclusive to the system.

As you can see, I’m sceptical of the Steam Deck. There are reasons to look at it with excitement, and it represents a potential new type of PC that may become more popular in future. But for a number of reasons – not least of which is Valve’s awful track record when it comes to hardware – I shan’t be picking one up on this occasion. If the device survives and thrives, it’s possible I’d consider it in future. But I have no desire to get burned by Valve as so many early adopters have been in the past.

The Steam Deck will launch in select markets in December 2021. The Steam Deck, Steam, and other properties and products mentioned above are the copyright of Valve. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Click or tap below to listen to the audio version of this article:

The OLED Nintendo Switch disappoints fans… good.

Just to clarify: I don’t want to revel in someone’s disappointment. There are valid reasons to look forward to a brand-new Nintendo console and all of the improvements that such a device could bring to upcoming games. But I was very pleased to see that the rumours about an impending “Nintendo Switch Pro” have come to naught on this occasion.

There’s a moral to this story, one which we all need to be aware of in the age of the internet: don’t believe everything you read! Not long ago I talked about how a single Twitter post sent the online Star Trek fandom into a spiral of clickbaity articles promising the return of a major character, and in this case it seems that unspecified, unsourced, anonymous “rumours” led many Nintendo fans and commentators to expect the imminent announcement of a brand-new console.

The Switch OLED version has led some fans to feel disappointed – they were hoping for something more.

It’s incredibly easy to start a rumour. Sign up for an account on a popular forum, post your bullshit, claim to have “sources” close to the company or production concerned, and Bob’s your uncle. Rumour started. Watch with glee as the internet goes wild for whatever nonsense you’ve decided to peddle. I can’t count the number of articles I’ve seen that were kicked off by these so-called “leaks,” including about major games like Grand Theft Auto 6, huge films like Star Wars Episode VIII, and many more besides. Practically all of them turned out to be completely wrong, and those few that got something right seem to have done so more by chance than because of anything legitimate.

In short, don’t believe rumours that you read on the internet, especially those which concern the games industry. Even if you read something in the mainstream games press, on a usually-reliable website, or even see something on a YouTube channel with multiple millions of subscribers, it could all be based on nonsense. Check the sources of whatever publication or outlet is reporting these rumours. Where did they get it from? If it’s an “anonymous leak” or the publication refuses to say where the rumour comes from, it should be dismissed out of hand. I’ve said on more than one occasion here on the website that I’d rather not discuss a story that turns out to be true instead of jump in and comment on every non-event sparked by one of these ridiculous anonymous posts.

Any idiot with an internet connection can start a rumour.

Obviously the reason we’re talking about all of this is because Nintendo has finally revealed to the world the latest iteration of their Nintendo Switch console, and after months of rumours that a brand-new machine was in the offing, a lot of Nintendo superfans are feeling disappointed.

The Nintendo Switch is barely four years old, having been launched in March 2017. Though early console generations could be relatively short, for the past several generations we’ve seen double that – there were eight years between the launch of the PlayStation 4 and the PlayStation 5, for example. It’s not good business sense for Nintendo to launch a completely new console this soon after the Switch’s launch; doing so would leave the millions of players who’ve only just bought one feeling like they made a mistake, and would sour Nintendo’s carefully-constructed brand.

The rumoured Switch Pro was alleged to be a machine which would have had its own exclusive games; titles which wouldn’t work on the original 2017 Switch or the Switch Lite, and this horrible naming confusion would have made the Xbox Series X and Wii U debacles look positively genius by comparison.

The rumoured “Switch Pro” has failed to materialise.

So I’m glad that the Switch OLED has turned out to be a bag of nothing; a minor upgrade with a shiny new screen, better stand, and not a lot else to offer. When one of the biggest features Nintendo can brag about in the new device’s marketing is that the dock is a different colour, you know there’s not much worth talking about!

The Switch still has years’ worth of life left in it. It’s not impossible to think it could pass the decade mark and run alongside the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X for the entirety of this generation. Its limited internal hardware will mean that ports of brand-new games will become difficult to impossible, but as game streaming rises to become a big deal in the industry, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to see a “Switch Streaming” app sometime soon that would allow players to stream games to their console that otherwise wouldn’t work. Developing something like that seems like a far better use of Nintendo’s time than making a Switch Pro.

The Switch is barely four years old – there’s plenty of life left in it yet!

Nintendo is uniquely positioned in the video game marketplace. Not only does the Switch offer Nintendo’s own, generally high-quality titles from Animal Crossing: New Horizons to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but it also allows players to take all kinds of games with them on the go. The unique selling point of the console has proven to be wildly popular with gamers of all stripes, and ditching it or mothballing it in favour of a new project would be a wasted opportunity. The Switch has already sold over 85 million units in just four years – and is already hot on the heels of the Wii, which sold just over 100 million. It’s not a stretch to think that the Switch could literally become the best-selling console ever, stealing the crown currently held by the PlayStation 2.

So it’s absolutely appropriate for Nintendo to continue to invest in the Switch. This latest iteration is just that: an iteration. A minor adjustment of the Switch to appeal to new fans and perhaps to convince some folks to upgrade to get the shinier screen. The Switch’s future success will be built on games, though, and I’m sure Nintendo has plenty of ideas in the pipeline there as well.

A sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is coming soon.

It’s also worth mentioning the very rocky launch that both the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X have endured, with shortages of key components leading to far fewer consoles being available. Even now, eight months later, tracking down a console at its recommended retail price is still difficult, and in some parts of the world is completely impossible. Any new Nintendo console would face similar issues, and with the shortage of components not looking like it’s going to ease up any time soon, such a device would have had a rough launch.

I’m sorry if you feel disappointed that there isn’t going to be a new Nintendo console this year, but in my opinion it’s for the best. There are some great positive reasons to stick with the Switch family of systems instead of trying to pre-emptively create something new, and there are plenty of negative reasons that should tell any wannabe-manufacturer that now is not a great time to consider launching new hardware. As I said at the beginning, rumours and leaks don’t mean anything. In 2021, with so much junk flying around online, unless something is outright confirmed by an official source it should always be looked at with a healthy degree of scepticism.

So I think this was the right call by Nintendo, and I hope they plan on sticking with the Switch beyond 2021 as well. There are some great Switch games out already, and I have no doubt that there are many more to come.

The Nintendo Switch and all other properties mentioned above are the copyright of Nintendo. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

We’re halfway through 2021!

It’s the last day of June, and as we bid goodbye to the month we also mark the halfway point of 2021. I think that makes it a good opportunity to take stock and look ahead to the entertainment experiences that lie before us between now and Christmas.

Pandemic-related disruptions continue across the entertainment industry, but after more than a year of evolving working practices due to coronavirus, I think it’s not unfair to say that many more projects have managed to enter or remain in production over the last few months than were able to at this point last year. This bodes well for upcoming titles across film, television, and video games, and today I’m going to pick out a small selection of each that I’m looking forward to before the end of the year.

Television:

It’s probably television that has the most to offer – at least for me personally – in the second half of 2021. There are several big shows coming up that I can’t wait to get stuck into, and I’m sure you can probably guess what some of them are!

Number 1: Star Trek: Discovery Season 4

Discovery’s third season was an entertaining ride, and succeeded at establishing the 32nd Century and the Federation’s place in it. In the aftermath of the Burn – the galaxy-wide catastrophe which devastated known space – and the shortage of dilithium, Season 4 will hopefully see the crew beginning to pick up the pieces.

The trailer for Season 4, which was shown off in April as part of Star Trek’s First Contact Day digital event, also showed Captain Burnham and the crew facing off against a “gravitational anomaly” which seemed to be wreaking havoc with the ship and the Federation at large. What is the “gravitational anomaly?” I don’t know – though I have a few theories! We’ll find out more when Discovery Season 4 premieres on Paramount+ (and on Netflix internationally) in the autumn.

Number 2: Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2

After a hilarious first season, Lower Decks is returning to our screens in August – and this time Star Trek fans the world over should be able to watch the show together. Season 1 had the difficult task of taking Star Trek into the realm of animated comedy for the first time. Having proven to be a success with that concept, Season 2 can let its hair down and really double down on what fans loved last year.

There are a couple of lingering storylines left over from the Season 1 finale that I’m genuinely interested in seeing resolved. But beyond that, I can’t wait for more wacky Star Trek-themed hijinks with Mariner, Boimler, Rutherford, and Tendi! Luckily we won’t have to wait too long for this one; Lower Decks Season 2 will debut on Paramount+ (and on Amazon Prime Video internationally) on the 12th of August – barely six weeks away!

Number 3: Star Trek: Prodigy

This one has to be tentative. Upcoming children’s show Star Trek: Prodigy has been suggested for a 2021 broadcast, but with no date confirmed as of yet, and with the aforementioned Lower Decks and Discovery taking up the Star Trek broadcast slots for much of the rest of the year, I don’t know where ViacomCBS plans to fit Prodigy in.

Despite that, as we continue to learn more details about the series, it sounds genuinely interesting and looks set to be a lot of fun. The best kids’ shows manage to have something to offer adults as well, and I hope Prodigy can manage to do that while retaining an atmosphere that’s fun for children. Out of all the recent Star Trek projects, Prodigy feels like it has the most potential to introduce the franchise to a new generation of fans. There’s currently no date on the calendar, so watch this space.

Number 4: Rick & Morty Season 5

We’ve already had two episodes of the fifth season of Rick & Morty, but there are eight more to come over the next few weeks! The trademark brand of wacky, non-sequitur humour that the show is known for is still present, and it continues to be a barrel of laughs! Rick & Morty paved the way in some respects for Star Trek: Lower Decks, and there are similarities between the two shows in terms of sense of humour and animation style.

Rick & Morty’s largely episodic nature keeps the show fresh, and while there are some jokes and storylines that perhaps take things too far, on the whole the show has largely avoided the trap of going over-the-top or falling into being offensive for the sake of it. You know the formula and main characters by now, and Season 5 seems like it’s shaping up to offer more of the same – and that’s a compliment. Rick & Morty Season 5 is ongoing on Adult Swim in the United States (and on E4 in the UK).

Number 5: Foundation

Isaac Asimov’s genre-defining epic is being adapted for the small screen by Apple, and it will star Jared Harris. Harris was fantastic in Chernobyl and also put in a stellar performance in The Terror, so I can’t wait to see what he’ll bring to the role of Hari Seldon. Foundation is an incredibly ambitious project; the seven-book series spans hundreds of years of galactic history and deals with some very deep and complex themes.

Apple TV+ is very much a second-tier streaming service. This is its first big push to change that; Apple’s first real foray into big-budget scripted television. I hope the company can use its phenomenal financial resources to do justice to one of the seminal works of science fiction.

Number 6: Dexter

I watched several seasons of Dexter in the mid/late-2000s, but eventually the series started to feel repetitive so I switched off. I’m curious, however, to see what the passage of time will do for the show and its titular anti-hero when it returns in what has been variously billed as both a “reboot” and a “continuation” depending on who you ask! The concept of Dexter was interesting when it kicked off in 2006, and hopefully the new season can recapture the magic of those early years of the show.

The idea of a show about a serial killer where the killer is known to us as the audience, and not only that but is the protagonist was genuinely different. Dexter’s work with the forensic team was a big part of what gave the show its unique mix of police/detective series along with gritty, violent drama, and I’ll be curious to see where the new season has taken the character – as that will be the key to its success.

Number 7: The Dropout

If you aren’t familiar with the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, it’s one that’s simultaneously riveting and frightening. Holmes and her startup Theranos promised to revolutionise the way blood testing works, enabling people to take blood tests without needing to visit a doctor and in a less-painful way. But it was a fraud: the technology didn’t work and Holmes and her team covered it up.

There have been several great documentaries and news broadcasts going into detail on the Theranos case, and with Holmes and others still awaiting trial it remains unresolved. This adaptation of an ABC News podcast will be the first dramatisation of the events of the Theranos scam, and despite some production setbacks it looks like it has the potential to be truly interesting when its broadcast on Hulu (and on Disney+ internationally) before the end of the year.

Number 8: Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series (full title unknown)

I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll see the first season of this incredibly expensive television show this year. With half the year gone, there hasn’t been much news about Amazon’s Game of Thrones-killer. That aside, a return to Middle-earth sounds incredible, and by taking the action away from most of the characters we’re familiar with from the films, hopefully what will result will be a genuinely different experience that doesn’t try to mimic the films too heavily.

Amazon has thrown cinema-level money at its Lord of the Rings adaptation, so I’m expecting to see something incredibly impressive for that investment.

Number 9: The Witcher Season 2

I’ve never played The Witcher 3 or any of the other games in the series. But the first season of Netflix’s adaptation of the original novels was great, and it’s always nice to see a high-budget fantasy project make it to screen! The first season debuted in late 2019, and I had half-hoped to see Season 2 before now. It’s still possible it won’t happen before the end of the year, but a recent teaser from Netflix suggests that Season 2 is in post-production and progressing nicely.

After such a long break, I feel like I should probably re-watch Season 1 before sitting down to see any new episodes! Henry Cavill will reprise his role as Geralt, and all being well Season 2 will be just as good as Season 1.

Number 10: Tokyo Vice

This true-crime series is based on the memoir of an American journalist, Jake Adelstein, who spent several years in Tokyo. In short, he documented a lot of police corruption during his tenure as a newspaper reporter in the 1990s, and given HBO’s pedigree at making high-budget series, I think there’s a lot of potential here.

Speaking as a westerner, Japan can be somewhat of a mystery. Romanticised by some, ignored by others, the truth is that many folks who’ve never set foot in Japan don’t know the first thing about Japanese life – and Tokyo Vice may just blow the lid off the seedier underbelly of Japan’s capital city in a big way. I’m calling it right now: this show could be 2021’s Chernobyl.

Film:

An increasing number of films are coming straight to streaming platforms – or being released digitally at the same time as heading to the box office. This is great news for me personally, as I’m not able to go to the cinema in person. There are some interesting titles coming up in the second half of the year.

Number 1: Jungle Cruise

In 2003 I felt that making a film based on the Disneyland/Disney World ride Pirates of the Caribbean was a stupid idea. Shows what I know, eh? Pirates of the Caribbean was great fun, so I’m hopeful that Disney’s latest ride adaptation will be as well. The Jungle Cruise ride takes theme park guests on a riverboat through – you guessed it – a jungle!

Hopefully the excitement that the ride offers will translate well to the screen. Parts of the trailer looked very CGI-heavy, and I hope that won’t be too offputting or problematic. Otherwise all I can really say is I’m looking forward to seeing what the film has to offer.

Number 2: Free Guy

Ryan Reynolds stars as a video game character who becomes sentient. I don’t know what else to say other than that sounds like a hilarious premise, one well-suited to Reynolds’ comedic style.

Video games have been the subject of many different films over the years, both as plot points and as direct video game adaptations. But no film so far has taken this approach; Free Guy looks set to be a unique experience when it arrives on the 13th of August.

Number 3: No Time To Die

This is the third or fourth time I’ve put No Time To Die on a list of “upcoming” titles. But this time it really is going to be released! Right?! Delayed by almost two years at this point, Daniel Craig’s final outing as 007 looks set to be an explosive and action-packed experience, and hopefully will bring down the curtain on his tenure in the role in suitable fashion.

The film will feature Academy Award-winner Rami Malek as its main villain, and I’m very interested to see what he’ll bring to the table. All being well, No Time To Die will be released at the end of September – and I’m curious to see whether it’ll be released on Amazon Prime Video as well, following Amazon’s acquisition of MGM.

Number 4: Encanto

We don’t know too much right now about Disney’s next big animated film. It’s set in Colombia, so there’ll be a Latin/South American feel. The film will focus on a girl who’s the only one in her family unable to use magic. I think we can expect an uplifting story of someone learning to be themselves and discover their own talents!

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who composed the soundtrack to 2016’s Moana (as well as Hamilton, In The Heights, and many others) is collaborating with Disney for a second time on the soundtrack to Encanto. That alone makes the film very exciting and worth checking out. Currently Disney aims to release Encanto in cinemas with no word on a Disney+ premiere.

Number 5: The Green Knight

I’ve long had an interest in the legends of King Arthur, and this film adaptation of one of the lesser-known Arthurian works looks set to be interesting at the very least. I got almost a horror or supernatural vibe from the trailer for The Green Knight, and while I’m not a big horror fan personally, I think the film has potential.

I’m not familiar with the director or most of the cast, so I can’t comment on the film’s pedigree. But with a decent budget and solid source material, this could be an interesting one to watch when it arrives at the end of July.

Number 6: Space Jam: A New Legacy

I don’t think I’ve re-watched the original Space Jam since it was released in 1996. But despite that, the idea of a sequel to the fun basketball-meets-Looney Tunes flick seems like it’ll be a lot of fun! Starring Star Trek: Discovery’s Sonequa Martin-Green alongside basketball legend LeBron James, the film looks set to follow a similar formula to its famous ’90s predecessor.

Nostalgia is a big deal in entertainment at the moment, so I’m not surprised to see ’90s hits like Space Jam being brought back. Hopefully A New Legacy can live up to the original film when it’s released in just a couple of weeks’ time.

Number 7: Dune

As with Foundation above, Dune is an adaptation of an absolutely iconic work of science-fiction. Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel has been notoriously difficult to bring to the screen, and while this version is the first part of a duology, in many respects the complicated story might be better served as a television series than in the cinema.

Despite that, however, I’m looking forward to Dune’s November premiere. A huge budget, visual effects that look outstanding, and a star-studded cast will hopefully all come together to make this latest adaptation a success.

Number 8: Top Gun: Maverick

It’s been a long time since I saw Top Gun, the film which propelled Tom Cruise to superstardom. To produce a sequel 35 years after the original film is, in some respects, a risk. But as already mentioned, nostalgia is a huge driving force in the modern entertainment industry, and with Cruise stepping back into the shoes of fighter pilot Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, there’s already been a huge amount of interest.

Top Gun: Maverick will come to Paramount+ shortly after its theatrical release, which will hopefully give the streaming platform – Star Trek’s digital home – a nice boost.

Number 9: The Matrix 4

Although The Matrix 4 remains on the schedule for 2021, with so little information about the production – not even a name – I think we have to call this one tentative. 2003’s Reloaded and Revolutions seemed to bring the story to a pretty definitive end, so I’ll be interested to see where a new instalment takes the sci-fi/action series.

Most of the original cast are reprising their roles, and Lana Wachowski is set to direct. After the Wachowskis came out as transgender and completed their transitions, many critics have re-evaluated The Matrix and its “red pill, blue pill” analogy through the lens of trans experiences. As someone who’s recently been exploring my own gender identity, I’ll be very curious to see what the fourth film in the series has to say about the subject.

Number 10: Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

The Resident Evil film series, which ran from 2002 to 2016, is a rare example of a successful video game adaptation on the big screen. Following 2016’s The Final Chapter, Welcome to Raccoon City aims to reboot the film franchise, and bring it closer in line with the video games that originally inspired it.

The video game Resident Evil 2 was recently remade, and that game’s success may have inspired some of the choices made for the film, including the decision to incorporate several major characters from the video game series. Even though horror isn’t really my thing, the Resident Evil films always managed to be the right mix of frightening and action-packed, and I’m hopeful for something similar from this reboot.

Video Games:

Some folks felt that this year’s E3 was a disappointment because of how many games have been pushed back to 2022. That’s another consequence of the pandemic, unfortunately! But there are still a number of exciting games coming before the end of the year.

Number 1: Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Kena: Bridge of Spirits has been on my radar for a while. Its Disney-inspired art style looks utterly adorable, and I can’t wait to give the game a try. There’s always room for this kind of single-player action-adventure title, and the premise of being a “spirit guide” who helps the newly-deceased sounds unique and fun.

I’m hopeful that developers Ember Lab, working on their first game after transitioning from digital animation, will succeed at creating an enjoyable, perhaps somewhat different experience.

Number 2: Bear and Breakfast

One of the indie highlights of E3 in my opinion, the adorable-looking, vaguely Stardew Valley-esque Bear and Breakfast is scheduled to launch before the end of the year. The premise, in case you didn’t get it, is that you run a bed & breakfast in a forest, and you’re a bear. What’s not to love about that?!

The game’s cartoony visual style looks cute, the premise sounds unique and just the right kind of silly, and I’m just really looking forward to giving Bear and Breakfast a shot.

Number 3: The Lord of the Rings: Gollum

This one has to be tentative, as there’s been very little movement on the game all year. Its absence at E3 was noticeable, and we may learn that it’s going to be delayed until next year. However, Gollum is a very interesting project. What could a game where this vile, villainous character is the star possibly have to offer? There have been antiheroes in gaming before, but few characters are as repulsive as Gollum!

And I think that’s what’s so fascinating about this title. Taking on the role of Gollum, and experiencing an adventure in Middle-earth from his perspective is almost certainly going to make for a game that’s one-of-a-kind.

Number 4: Mario Party: Superstars

Though its price seems rather steep, Mario Party: Superstars is bringing back classic boards and mini-games from the original Nintendo 64 Mario Party games. I had great fun with the first Mario Party in particular, and being able to play remastered versions sounds like a blast of nostalgia and potentially a lot of fun.

I can’t escape the feeling that Superstars might’ve been better value were it half the price, or an expansion pack for Super Mario Party instead of being a full-price standalone title. But despite that, it sounds like fun.

Number 5: Halo Infinite

After a disappointing trailer last year, Halo Infinite was delayed and reworked, ultimately meaning it didn’t launch alongside the Xbox Series X last November. Following a year-long delay, the game is now set to launch in time for Christmas, alongside a free multiplayer mode.

Since Halo Infinite will be coming to Game Pass I daresay I’ll give it a go when it comes out. After a six-year gap – the longest in the history of the series – fans will be clamouring for more from the Master Chief, as well as looking to see whether 343 Industries have finally managed to get the elusive Halo formula right. With a television series also in the works, Microsoft is investing heavily in the Halo brand.

Number 6: Age of Empires IV

Sticking with Microsoft, the next big brand they’re bringing back is Age of Empires! After the first three games were successfully remade over the last few years, the launch of Age of Empires IV is the series’ real test. Can Xbox Game Studios craft a title that successfully brings the classic real-time strategy series firmly into the modern day?

Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition in particular has built up a solid fanbase, with plenty of folks playing the game competitively online. A lot of them will be interested to try Age of Empires IV, so the game has the potential to be a success. The original Age of Empires was my first real introduction to the world of real-time strategy, so I’m rooting for the success of the latest entry in the series.

Number 7: Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga

This is another one we’ll have to call tentative. There’s been radio silence from Traveller’s Tales and Warner Bros. since the game was delayed back in April – having already been delayed twice previously. However, I’m still hopeful that we’ll see it before the end of the year – it would be a great stocking stuffer were it to launch in time for Christmas!

2006’s Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga was absolutely brilliant; a comedic, light-hearted take on Star Wars. I’m hoping this new game can live up to that legacy and bring a dose of fun to Star Wars. Maybe it’ll even make the dire Rise of Skywalker bearable!

Number 8: Road 96

I can’t actually remember where I first saw indie title Road 96. But the idea sounds great: a procedurally-generated game in which your character has to escape from a dangerous country. Some of the landscapes shown off in the trailer looked similar to the American Southwest, and I love the visual style.

Road 96 promises “thousands” of routes and non-player characters to interact with, and it sounds like this could be a game with a huge amount of replay value. I’m looking forward to trying it out for myself.

Number 9: Shredders

There have been some classic snowboarding games in years past: 1080° Snowboarding on the Nintendo 64 and SSX Tricky on the Xbox/PlayStation 2, just to give two examples. Shredders, which was announced at E3, looks like it’ll pick up the baton and offer a fun snowboarding experience.

Any game set in a wintry environment has to get its snow texture just right, and it looks as though Shredders has – at least based on pre-release trailers. I’m hopeful for a fun time when this lands on Game Pass in the run-up to Christmas.

Number 10: Forza Horizon 5

Forza Horizon 4 was great fun, and I’m hoping for more of the same from its sequel. The semi-arcade racing hops across the Atlantic to Mexico for this iteration, with promises of more cars, a bigger map, and diverse environments to race through. All of that sounds great!

Racing games often manage to look visually stunning, and Forza Horizon 5 is no exception. The game looks fantastic, and if it plays well too it could be a huge time-sink heading into the autumn!

So that’s it!

We’ve looked at ten television shows, films, and video games that I think will be fun as we cross into the second half of 2021. Summer is always my least-favourite season, with early sunrises making it harder to sleep than usual, annoying insects buzzing around, and heatwaves that make me wish I could afford air conditioning! But there are plenty of things to look forward to even as we roll through my least-favourite part of the year.

Star Trek: Discovery Season 4 has to be my highlight; if I could only choose one thing to be excited about it would be that! But Tokyo Vice is incredibly interesting too, a series which I think could blow up and become the next Chernobyl. Film-wise, Encanto looks great; any project with a soundtrack by Lin-Manuel Miranda is worth paying attention to! Dune I’m hopeful for, and The Green Knight could sneak in and become something more than I’m expecting. Kena: Bridge of Spirits is such an interesting and cute-looking video game, and a rare new IP in an entertainment landscape where sequels and franchises dominate.

2021 still has a lot left to offer, even though we’re already halfway through! I hope you found something here to get excited about – or maybe something you hadn’t heard of that you can add to your list.

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective owner, studio, developer, broadcaster, distributor, publisher, etc. Some promotional video game screenshots courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Cyberpunk 2077 returns to the PlayStation Store!

More than six months after a cataclysmic, bug-riddled launch saw Cyberpunk 2077 quite deservingly removed from sale by Sony, the game is finally back on the PlayStation Store. But is this the triumph it appears to be?

It’s been a while since we last took a look at the disastrous Cyberpunk 2077, and this seems like a good opportunity to consider the game’s progress – and how far it still has to go. On the surface, Cyberpunk 2077′s return to the PlayStation Store seems like a win for beleaguered developer CD Projekt Red. They’ll want to spin it as testament to the work put into the game since launch, and that it must be representative of a significant improvement for the game… even though its PlayStation Store listing comes with a major caveat that warns players of “performance issues” and that buying the game for PlayStation 4 is “not recommended!”

Cyberpunk 2077 is finally back on the PlayStation Store.

Let’s not forget, before we go any further, that Sony doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to gatekeeping on the PlayStation Store. Some truly awful games have been released there and allowed to remain on sale even after being shown to be buggy, unplayable messes. That’s one reason why the decision to pull Cyberpunk 2077 was so shocking! Sony allowing the game back means it’s finally at the same level as PlayStation classics like Life of Black Tiger and Sword of Fortress the Onomuzim.

The general consensus, even from Cyberpunk 2077′s remaining supporters, is that the game still has a long way to go. There are still a lot of glitches and issues to correct, but most significantly there are underlying gameplay problems, more of which become apparent with every bug fixed. Cyberpunk 2077 was rushed out the door to meet an arbitrary deadline, and the result of that isn’t just the bugs and glitches. Many aspects of the underlying gameplay just aren’t all that good.

Many elements of Cyberpunk 2077 – including driving – have been heavily criticised.

Non-player characters don’t react naturally to situations that transpire around them. There are many video clips you can find on YouTube of half a dozen characters performing an identical animation when the player takes out a gun or fires a shot. Night City’s police don’t exist dynamically in the world in the same way they do in games like Grand Theft Auto V – or Grand Theft Auto III, come to that. Instead, they spawn in when the player commits a crime – often within a metre or two of the player.

If the version of Cyberpunk 2077 that launched in December felt like an early alpha version, six months later what we have at best is the equivalent of a closed beta. It’s ready for play-testing by a large professional QA team who would report all of these bugs and glitches to the developers so they could be fixed before launch. In a game of this size, this phase of development could easily take six months or more. Being as generous as we can, Cyberpunk 2077 is still in dire need of months of development time to get to a state that’s anywhere close to acceptable.

Cyberpunk 2077 launched in an appalling state… and despite some improvements, is still nowhere close to acceptable.

And that’s before we get into new problems. CD Projekt Red and the development team are still reeling from a major hack that exposed the private data of many individuals who work for the company. That will undoubtedly have damaged morale. But to my great surprise, in recent interviews CD Projekt Red has already begun discussing its next game – which is assumed to be The Witcher 4.

They quite literally and demonstrably have not finished working on Cyberpunk 2077 and they’re already talking about moving on to new projects? Ouch. I think we can kiss goodbye to any Cyberpunk 2077 expansion packs or DLC! CD Projekt Red has also announced sales figures for the first quarter of 2021, and as you might expect given the state of the game, those numbers are catastrophically bad – Cyberpunk 2077 sold somewhere in the region of 800,000 copies. That’s less than 6% of the 13.7 million copies of the game that were sold in December 2020.

As you might expect, sales tanked following the game’s disastrous launch.

Then there are refunds to take into consideration. Many players chose to get refunds directly from Xbox, Steam, and other outlets where they’d purchased the game. This is a big part of the reason why Sony took the game down – there were so many refunds being requested, and Sony was concerned about their ability to handle all of them. CD Projekt Red directly refunded only around 30,000 players – but that doesn’t account for the vast majority who got their refunds from the shop they purchased the game from. The total number of refunds as of June – according to unofficial reports – may be in excess of two million.

Even if that number is inflated, a huge number of refunds have been paid out, and that’s had a massive impact on CD Projekt Red’s bottom line. The company has seen more than 50% wiped off the value of its share price in the last six months, and a recent investor presentation saw further falls as investors were disappointed at the lack of clarity about the company’s future – and Cyberpunk 2077 in particular.

CD Projekt Red’s stock price from June 2020 to June 2021.
Image Credit: Google Finance

I’ve spoken at length about how Cyberpunk 2077 has become the latest in a long line of “release now, fix later” failures, but the point needs to be re-emphasised: this is not how you make a video game. Players have a right to expect basic functionality and playability at the bare minimum, and even as Cyberpunk 2077 returns to the PlayStation Store, those basic expectations are still not being met. The game remains in a poor state, unworthy of being called a finished product.

As the old joke goes: if you can’t be a success in life, maybe you can still serve as a bad example. And that’s what Cyberpunk 2077 is right now: a warning to any other publisher that thinks they can get away with releasing a broken, bug-riddled, unplayable mess and promise to fix it later.

Cyberpunk 2077 will be studied in the years ahead.

I had been hopeful that Cyberpunk 2077′s updates over the last few months would kick off a No Man’s Sky-style revival, with the game crawling its way slowly toward commercial success and critical acclaim. That’s still possible – though if CD Projekt Red are already considering their next game, I’m not encouraged by that. But as things stand, the updates and patches released so far haven’t succeeded at getting the game to anywhere near its promised condition.

Some of the bugs are gone. But each bug removed seems to uncover something else about Cyberpunk 2077 that’s disappointing – in a way, the game’s reputation for being unplayable due to bugs concealed what may come to be seen as its true failing: Cyberpunk 2077 is just not that fun to play. There may be a decent story, but in terms of gameplay, what’s there is a roleplaying-shooter that’s mediocre at best, with gameplay systems that other titles did better years earlier.

The reputation of CD Projekt Red has been badly damaged by the Cyberpunk 2077 fiasco and will take a long time to recover.

Considering the financial impact on CD Projekt Red, in a way I could quite understand the desire to move on. Cutting your losses and racing ahead to a new project makes business sense in some circumstances, and may even be helpful in the medium-to-long term for team morale. I wouldn’t be shocked to hear in the next few months that there won’t be any more Cyberpunk 2077 updates; that this is as good as the game will ever get.

BioWare did this twice in recent years – with Mass Effect: Andromeda and with Anthem. So before you dismiss the notion out of hand, keep in mind that it’s happened before. Games companies are notorious for cutting their losses and abandoning underperforming projects. And if we’ve learned one thing from the Cyberpunk 2077 clusterfuck it’s that CD Projekt Red, despite their earlier glowing reputation with players, behave just like every other major games company on the planet.

If you’re still playing Cyberpunk 2077 – or holding out hope for its future success – I’m with you. I don’t want this game to be forever bad; it had so much potential and I’d like nothing more than to see it succeed. I’m just not holding my breath any more. There have been too many underwhelming updates and too many strange noises coming from CD Projekt Red.

Cyberpunk 2077 is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. Cyberpunk 2077 is the copyright of CD Projekt Red. Some promotional artwork courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Some great Steam Summer Sale deals for PC gamers!

Important: The Steam Summer Sale has now ended. Prices listed below will no longer be accurate. Check back in December for my next Steam Winter Sale list.

It’s that time of year again! For the next fortnight, PC gaming powerhouse Steam is running its annual summer sale, meaning there are some pretty great deals to be had for PC gamers. For the last few major Steam sales I’ve put together a list of a few titles that I think look like excellent value while they’re discounted, and this time is no different!

As I always say, events like the Steam Summer Sale go a long way to making PC gaming good value for money when compared to consoles. PC gaming can be pricey to get started with – especially at the moment thanks to major component shortages – but sales like this go a long way to making up for it, and over the lifespan of a PC or a single console generation, it’s quite possible to see how a PC player is able to save money compared to a console gamer!

The creation of Xbox Game Pass works counter to that, of course! And if you’re new to gaming and want to get started with a library of titles for relatively little money up front, a Game Pass subscription with either a pre-owned Xbox One or an Xbox Series S is honestly hard to beat.

But we’re not here for Game Pass on this occasion! Let’s take a look at twenty games currently on offer in the Steam Summer Sale.

Important: All prices and discounts were correct in the UK at time of writing. Prices and discounts may vary by region and are subject to change at any time. The Steam Summer Sale runs from today (24.06.2021) for two weeks (08.07.2021) after which prices listed below will no longer be accurate. Crazy Uncle Dennis and this article are not endorsed by or affiliated with Steam or Valve.

Number 1: Jade Empire: Special Edition
75% discount, £3.74

If you’ve been playing Mass Effect: Legendary Edition and are craving another BioWare roleplaying game, you could do a lot worse than the overlooked Jade Empire. Released as an Xbox exclusive in 2005, the Chinese-inspired title made its way to Steam a few years ago. Most gamers are aware of the likes of Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, but Jade Empire never quite made it to the same level.

Its graphics are certainly less shiny than modern titles, but if you can look beyond that you’ll find solid gameplay that’s easily comparable to other BioWare titles.

Number 2: Fall Guys
40% discount, £9.59

I’m not sure how long Fall Guys will remain available on Steam following a buyout by Epic Games, so if you want to get this fun obstacle course-battle royale title, now might be a good time. Fall Guys had a moment last summer before an issue with cheating and the rise of Among Us saw it slip progressively further down the rankings. But developers Mediatonic have continued to work on the game, fixing the cheating problem and releasing a number of free updates.

In mid-2021 Fall Guys is in a much better place. With Switch and Xbox releases still hopefully coming soon, the game is set for a second bite of the cherry and may see renewed interest from players. Cross-play is now enabled between PC and PlayStation at least, so getting into a game is easier than ever.

Number 3: Evil Genius 2
25% discount, £25.64

I took a look at Evil Genius 2 when it was first released earlier in the year, and it’s a lot of fun! If you’ve ever wanted to live out your Bond villain/Dr Evil fantasies, this is about as close as you can get while staying on the right side of the law! Building a secret base for your evil empire while also managing the casino used as a “front” is challenging, but if you get hooked it’s easy to sink hours into Evil Genius 2.

I’d happily recommend Evil Genius 2 to any strategy enthusiast or fan of spy thrillers. The cute, cartoony aesthetic adds to the experience as well.

Number 4: Snowrunner
20% discount, £20.79

The sequel to Mudrunner, Snowrunner is all about driving big vehicles – trucks, four-wheel drives, etc. – through difficult terrain. There really isn’t anything quite like it, and it’s a different kind of driving challenge when compared to titles like American Truck Simulator, but with a similar focus on the simulation aspect of driving.

I think Snowrunner would be absolutely cracking to play with a proper sim setup – wheel, pedals, and gearstick. But even just using a control pad it’s a lot of fun.

Number 5: Control: Ultimate Edition
60% discount, £13.99

I think I picked up Control in the last Steam sale, and just recently got around to playing through it. Control is weird, and I mean that as a compliment! I think the best way to describe it would be a psychological thriller mixed with an action game. There aren’t many true horror aspects, but there’s a lot of Lovecraftian weirdness that gives many parts of the game a creepy vibe.

Players take control of Jesse as she explores the Federal Bureau of Control – a mysterious government organisation headquartered in a very unique building! I had fun with Control, but I would caveat that I did encounter some issues with performance – poor frame-rate in particular.

Number 6: Banished
66% discount, £5.09

A mainstay of Crazy Uncle Dennis lists, Banished is an amazing city-builder. Not only must you construct buildings, but you’re also in charge of managing the citizens of your town. Ensuring that they have enough food, medicine, firewood, and other supplies is deceptively tricky, and this is a game that’s hard to master.

Banished was made by a single person. I say that every time I bring up the game, because I find it astonishing. Even if Banished had been produced by a whole studio I’d have enjoyed it, but knowing it was all programmed by a single person completely blows my mind.

Number 7: Saint’s Row 2
75% discount, £2.49

Saint’s Row 2 to me represents the pinnacle of the series, before this Grand Theft Auto-clone completely veered into the outlandish and wacky storylines that would dominate its third and especially fourth entries. If you’re bored of Grand Theft Auto V, and with a sixth entry in the series nowhere to be found, for less than the price of a coffee you could play through a game that’s as close as you can get to that experience.

Comparisons to other games aside, Saint’s Row 2 offers a ton of player customisation, even having different voices for the player character. The open world is fun to mess around in, and though the story is hardly unique it’s more than deep enough to be an enjoyable way to waste a couple of dozen hours.

Number 8: Pac-Man (Arcade Game Series)
50% discount, £1.39

Can you even call yourself “a gamer” if you don’t own at least one copy of 1980 arcade classic Pac-Man? This is one of the best-known video games of all time, and it’s quite literally a piece of gaming history. There have been many versions released over the last forty years, including some that take the basic Pac-Man concept and really mix it up. This version stays true to the 1980 original.

Gamers of a certain age have a fondness for Pac-Man, but there are a lot of younger players who’ve never tried their hand at the original. For anyone in that situation, I’d recommend giving it a shot. You’ll be experiencing a piece of video game history in the process!

Number 9: Yooka-Laylee
80% discount, £6.99

Yooka-Laylee was criticised upon release… for being a 3D platformer in the style of classics of the genre like Banjo-Kazooie. I genuinely do not understand what people were talking about if they meant that as a negative point. Yooka-Laylee was literally designed from the ground up as a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie and those types of games!

Maybe it isn’t the world’s greatest ever 3D platformer, but it’s solid, cute, and a lot of fun, and if you liked those games in their heyday on the Nintendo 64, give it a shot. If you know what you’re getting into and you aren’t asking for a life-changing experience – as some critics seemed to be – you’ll have a whale of a time.

Number 10: Death Stranding
60% discount, £21.99

From famed Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima, Death Stranding is a game that a lot of people didn’t know what to make of when it originally launched on PlayStation 4. Is it an action game? A horror game? A walking simulator? Death Stranding is a mixture of different genres and different styles of gameplay. There’s a lot of walking and exploration, and in some respects it’s a slower game as a result.

I’d tentatively put Death Stranding in a category alongside titles like Beyond: Two Souls and others by Quantic Dream. It’s interactive, and there’s a story to follow. And there is third-person action gameplay. But it’s very hard to pin it down and say what it actually is. The visuals are gorgeous, though!

Number 11: Lego City Undercover
75% discount, £6.24

Originally released as a Wii U exclusive, Lego City Undercover eventually made its way to PC. Unlike other Lego games, which adapt an existing entertainment product, it’s an original story featuring a police officer on the hunt for a vicious criminal. Weirdly for a Lego game there are some Grand Theft Auto-esque open world elements, and the story is surprisingly fun.

Lego games have always had a sense of humour, and while you won’t find anything extreme or offensive – this is a kids’ game, after all – it’s still got some real laugh-out-loud moments. I had fun with it when I was one of seven lucky people who owned a Wii U, and developer Traveller’s Tales did a good job adapting the game for PC.

Number 12: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
60% discount, £13.99

I had a lot of fun playing through Jedi: Fallen Order last summer. After the disappointment of The Rise of Skywalker I needed something to rehabilitate the Star Wars brand, and Jedi: Fallen Order delivered. As I wrote at the time, I genuinely felt like I was having my own adventure in a galaxy far, far away.

The game has a strong story with great characters and succeeded at getting me truly invested in what happened to protagonist Cal Kestis and the friends he made over the course of his journey. Coupled with great visuals and fun lightsaber-swinging gameplay, Jedi: Fallen Order was a great time all around. Not only that, but it proved once again that linear, single-player games are still viable as a concept for big publishers.

Number 13: Hades
30% discount, £13.64

Hades isn’t my usual kind of game. But having heard nothing but praise for the indie title I decided to give it a shot, and I can see why people are raving about it! Hades is a difficult rogue-like dungeon-crawler, one that gives players a degree of choice over how to set up their character before proceeding through the randomly-generated levels and tackling monsters inspired by Ancient Greek legends.

It’s a game where failure and defeat are inevitable, yet not one that punishes failing. Though dying in a game never feels great, Hades has found a way to take the sting out of defeat. It’s strangely compelling, and I found myself continuing to play long after the point where I’d have put other games down.

Number 14: Serious Sam 4
50% discount, £15.49

I played the first Serious Sam back in the early 2000s, and I found it to be an incredibly funny send-up of the first-person shooter genre at the time. Though I’m yet to play the latest instalment, which spent years in development hell before being released late last year, everything I’ve heard so far is good and I can’t wait to jump in and give it a go.

Serious Sam 4 feels like a blast of nostalgia; a throwback to when games were less about story and more about shooting as many monsters as humanly possible.

Number 15: Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition
33% discount, £10.04

In early 2020 I really got stuck into Age of Empires II, replaying one of my most-played games of the early 2000s. Microsoft put a lot of work into Definitive Edition, bringing in a new graphics engine and continuing to add to and adjust the game even now, more than eighteen months after its launch. It really is the ultimate way to play Age of Empires II.

Age of Empires II is a real-time strategy game with a medieval setting, and Definitive Edition has introduced new gameplay modes, new factions, and a bustling online multiplayer scene for when you’re done practicing against the AI. It’s a time-sink, and it’s easy to lose dozens of hours here!

Number 16: No Man’s Sky
50% discount, £19.99

No Man’s Sky will forever be defined by the criticism it received at launch for failing to live up to the lofty expectations developer Hello Games set. And that’s absolutely fair enough; the “release now, fix later” business model deserves all of the hate it gets. But in the five years since, No Man’s Sky has received a number of free updates and expansions, and has grown to be the game that was promised.

A rare success story for a game that deserved all of the criticism it got, it’s actually easy to recommend the game in its current state. It’s the space exploration and adventure game that folks thought they were signing up for five years ago. It’s a shame things went down the way that they did; had No Man’s Sky been released today, it would be celebrated.

Number 17: Far Cry 5
85% discount, £7.49

Stepping away from tropical islands and murderous dictators, Far Cry 5 saw the first-person open world series head to the United States. The game is undeniably politically charged, looking at political extremism in the American heartland, but it retains that Far Cry over-the-top action and is fun to play through.

If you can’t wait for Far Cry 6, which is due for release in October, it could be worth re-playing Far Cry 5 – or playing it for the first time if you missed out when it was new.

Number 18: Forza Horizon 4
50% discount, £27.49

If you don’t have Game Pass, Forza Horizon 4 is still good value at half price. I signed up for Game Pass specifically to play this game, and it’s been well worth it! It’s a really fun, semi-arcade racer set in an open world based on my native Britain, and there are a ton of different cars and different ways to race. I’m 100% there for all of it!

The Forza Horizon series is a half-step between arcade racers and “serious” racing sims, and if you want a game that’s designed to play just as well with a control pad as a racing wheel, this could be it.

Number 19: Terminator: Resistance
40% discount, £20.99

Terminator: Resistance flew under the radar when it launched in 2019, and a lot of folks missed out on this fun first-person shooter. Set in the world of the Terminator franchise, Resistance succeeds where several recent films failed and actually told a fun, engaging story. It’s not exactly a full-blown “AAA” game, but it’s plenty of fun nevertheless.

If you missed this one a couple of years ago, give it a shot. Any fan of the Terminator franchise ought to at least try it, and if you like first-person shooters with a slight horror vibe, you’ll have a great time.

Number 20: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
75% discount, £3.24

For me, Morrowind still represents the high-water mark of the entire Elder Scrolls series. It has more to do than Oblivion or Skyrim at practically every level: more NPCs to engage with, more factions to join, more quests, more types of magic, and even more weapon types to master. Some people are put off by its lack of voice acting and text-based interface, but to me that just adds to the experience.

Morrowind is outstanding. It’s one of the best and deepest role-playing experiences ever made, and with a few select graphical mods it looks visually stunning almost twenty years on from its original release. If you haven’t played it yet, but you loved Skyrim, you’re missing out! With The Elder Scrolls VI still years away, why not step back and play – or replay – Morrowind while you wait?

So that’s it!

If you were to buy all of the titles on the list above, you’d have spent £250.30, which I reckon is pretty good going for twenty games! I tried to get a nice mix of new and older titles, as well as perhaps one or two less well-known games that you might want to try for the first time. In addition to sales like this one offering pretty significant savings, another of the advantages of PC gaming is that the end of a console generation no longer means leaving games behind. Sure, consoles offer a degree of backwards compatibility, but for my money you can’t beat having everything in one place like you can on a PC.

So all that’s left to say is I hope you found this interesting, and perhaps found a game or two to consider picking up! There’s two weeks to get your purchases in before the sale ends, but if you miss out or you can’t participate on this occasion don’t despair! There will almost certainly be a Holiday Sale in the days leading up to Christmas, and I’ll be sure to cover that here on the website too.

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective developer, publisher, and/or studio. Some screenshots and promotional artwork courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Mass Effect 4 – a wishlist

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers present for the Mass Effect games, including Legendary Edition and Andromeda.

When rumours of a Mass Effect trilogy remaster were swirling last year, I felt sure that one of the big reasons for working on an updated version of those games would be in anticipation of a sequel. We’ve had the tiniest of teases from EA and BioWare that a new Mass Effect project is in the works, and I’m tentatively calling the game Mass Effect 4.

There’s certainly an argument to be made that the original Mass Effect trilogy was unique, and we can point to the failure of the overblown side-mission Mass Effect: Andromeda to say that other projects set in this fictional world haven’t succeeded. Perhaps the Mass Effect trilogy doesn’t need a sequel; it’s very hard to top saving the entire galaxy from a narrative standpoint, after all, so any sequel risks feeling anticlimactic.

A new Mass Effect game is coming!

Regardless of any misgivings we may have, a sequel is coming. And while it may yet be several years away – the next Dragon Age game seems likely to be BioWare’s next project – barring any major problems we will eventually see it. So this is a preliminary wishlist from a Mass Effect fan, detailing a few things that I think the next entry should and shouldn’t include.

As always, please keep in mind that I have no “insider information.” This isn’t a list of things that definitely will be part of Mass Effect 4 or any future game in the series. It’s just a fan’s wishlist, nothing more. If I include something you don’t want to see, or exclude something you think the next game needs, please keep in mind that this is just one person’s subjective opinion! With all that out of the way, let’s jump into the list.

Number 1: A sequel not a prequel.

It’s Mass Effect 4, not Mass Effect 1¾.

I’ve heard some suggestions that the next Mass Effect title could be a prequel, perhaps focusing on humanity’s first contact with the turians. Over the course of the first three Mass Effect titles we’d learn that first contact did not go smoothly and led to a brief conflict. While that could be an interesting story to see, at least in theory, I don’t think now is the right moment for a backwards look.

After the disappointment of Mass Effect 3′s ending and the failure of Andromeda, the franchise needs to re-establish itself. There is absolutely scope for a Mass Effect prequel at some point in the future, but every fan I’ve spoken to would rather see the story move forward than look backwards, at least right now.

The ending of Mass Effect 3 didn’t sit right with many fans.

It took the Star Trek franchise decades before the idea of a prequel was taken seriously, and it feels to me like Mass Effect could do more to build on what the trilogy accomplished in terms of setting, characters, and story. If Mass Effect 4 can guide the wayward franchise back to solid ground, maybe then we can reconsider the idea of making another attempt to expand beyond Commander Shepard and other familiar characters.

Though Mass Effect 3 did provide a definitive ending to Shepard’s story, and to the story of the Reaper War, all three variant endings teased that there was more to come for the denizens of the Mass Effect galaxy. Fans want to see that; we want to know what happens next.

Number 2: Bring back Commander Shepard.

*Inhales*

Some stories feel very narrow, as though the world they’re set in doesn’t exist much beyond their protagonist. Mass Effect is not one of those, and the world-building done across the trilogy has created a setting that feels truly lived-in, inhabited by billions or perhaps trillions of unique individuals. So it may seem odd to return the series’ focus to its original protagonist, but in light of the failure of Andromeda, I think that’s what needs to happen.

Although the story of the war against the Reapers was decisively concluded – one way or another – by the end of Mass Effect 3, the story of the Mass Effect galaxy and of most of our crewmates and familiar characters was not. In that sense, the trilogy ended on a cliffhanger; we got a tease of what might come next, but nothing conclusive.

Mass Effect 4 should bring back Commander Shepard.

That’s part of the reason why Andromeda was unsuccessful. It was a good idea – in theory – to try to expand Mass Effect beyond Commander Shepard, and I think that’s something we need to see more of in future. But because of the way the trilogy ended, fans wanted to know what came next for their favourite characters and races. Andromeda made absolutely no attempt to address any of that, instead trying to ignore the potential consequences of the Reaper War and tell its own story.

What BioWare and EA should have learned from the underwhelmed reaction fans had to Andromeda – aside from the need to actually finish their games before releasing them – is that sidestepping the Reaper War and its repercussions is not an option. We want to see familiar characters return, and follow the next chapter of their story.

Number 3: Significant visual and gameplay improvements over Legendary Edition.

Many textures and visual elements of Legendary Edition had not been noticeably improved and look outdated in 2021.

Legendary Edition was a disappointment. The three games themselves were fine, but they hadn’t been upgraded or worked on anywhere near as much as they could’ve been, and overall I felt that the so-called “remaster” was not worth the price. Mass Effect 4 can’t repeat that mistake. The new game needs a brand-new game engine, one suitable for a third-person role-playing shooter in the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 era.

The Mass Effect trilogy as presented in Legendary Edition was in a weird place both visually and in terms of gameplay. Some aspects aged well and felt good in 2021 – the basic cover-based shooting being a good example. But many other parts of the trilogy felt really outdated when compared to genuinely modern titles. Lip-synching is a good example – characters’ mouths in Legendary Edition seemed to flap open with the scantest connection to the dialogue supposedly being spoken. There are dozens more examples of things like that; areas where the gameplay was fine in 2007 but not 2021.

Improving things like lip-synching will make the next game feel more immersive than Legendary Edition.

Mass Effect 4 needs to address those issues and make sure they aren’t present. Nobody wants the visuals of Mass Effect 3 again – not even the Legendary Edition version. Games in 2021 can look significantly better as well as feel more expansive – look at games like Jedi: Fallen Order or Control as just a couple of examples, or even how titles like Subnautica and No Man’s Sky pushed for different gameplay mechanics and visuals.

The cinematic teaser that BioWare showed off a few months ago looked good, but any idiot can make a pretty CGI trailer. The actual game engine is where the real work needs to be done, and the adapted engine used for Legendary Edition is out of date and won’t cut it.

Number 4: Don’t re-use the same basic narrative.

Let’s not bring back the Reapers… or a stand-in for them!

Narrative is difficult to get right in any project, not least one which is taking place after a story has already been completed. Mass Effect 3 was a definitive end to the trilogy, and that leaves Mass Effect 4 with a problem. What comes next after the end of the Reaper War? Not only that, but how will players interact with a post-Reaper galaxy?

There will be a huge temptation to basically recreate the original trilogy, substituting the Reapers for some other nefarious, galaxy-threatening faction. But that would be far too derivative, and as the Star Wars franchise has learned to its cost, there is a line between paying homage to what came before and outright copying – and fans can tell the difference.

There’s a line between respectful homage and overreliance on the past. Star Wars crossed it – hopefully Mass Effect won’t.

At the same time as avoiding a simple retelling of the Reaper War, Mass Effect 4 has to manage not to feel anticlimactic. That will be very difficult, because if Commander Shepard comes back from the dead and is tasked with apprehending a minor criminal or helping Aria keep the peace on Omega, the story will feel too small in comparison to what came before.

Once again, there’s a balance to be struck. The new game needs a new story – one that doesn’t rip off the original games or try to retell the same basic “galactic threat” narrative. It also needs to have a story that can match the epic feel of the original without leaving players feeling underwhelmed. It’s a difficult path to navigate – and as we know from Star Wars, even highly accomplished storytellers can get it utterly wrong.

Number 5: Pick one ending from Mass Effect 3 and stick with it.

Whether it’s “synthesis,” “destroy,” or “control,” Mass Effect 4 needs to stick with one ending from the trilogy instead of trying to incorporate all three.

It isn’t going to be possible for one game to incorporate three totally different narratives based on the three endings of Mass Effect 3. The ending options are too different from one another for each to be the jumping-off point for the same basic story. The “destroy” ending killed off all synthetic life; “control” saw Shepard seize control of the Reapers and simply make them fly away; and “synthesis” fused synthetics and organics together. Even if the basic storyline of the game is based around something that would impact the galaxy no matter which ending were chosen, the galaxy is going to be a very different place when that narrative kicks off.

I’m all for ambitious games, but trying to incorporate all three ending choices into Mass Effect 4 would either mean BioWare would have to make three very different games in one package, or it would mean that one story would have to be forced to fit three very different settings – and that almost certainly wouldn’t work in two out of three cases.

The “control” ending is the one I feel works least well.

If Mass Effect 4 intends to bring back Commander Shepard, there’s only one option based on what we’ve seen on screen: the “destroy” ending. That ending is, according to information I could find, at any rate, the most popular among players – and I would argue that it probably best represents Shepard achieving their goal!

But Mass Effect 3 appeared to present “synthesis” in the most positive light, both during Shepard’s conversation with the Catalyst and based on EDI’s epilogue. Choosing “synthesis” as a starting point for a new game would be incredibly controversial, I think, and the changes made to everyone in the galaxy by that ending may make it hard to craft a story. It’s also an ending in which Shepard is unequivocally dead. Regardless, I think those are the two most likely choices.

Number 6: Resolve dangling story threads from Andromeda.

My face is tired… of waiting for a proper ending to Mass Effect: Andromeda.

This doesn’t need to be a big part of the game. It could literally be a collection of codex entries or other random bits of information picked up over the course of the game. In short, Andromeda’s story was left unresolved due to the decision to cancel its planned story DLC. All Mass Effect 4 would need to do is somehow acknowledge what happened with the final arks that were heading to Andromeda.

The quarian ark was the main one that I can recall being missing, and if Commander Shepard were to pick up a datapad in Mass Effect 4 that showed the quarian ark departing for Andromeda a few weeks behind schedule, we could consider the mystery resolved. The characters from Andromeda could thus continue to exist and we could assume that they all lived happily ever after.

What happened next?

There will never be a sequel to Andromeda, I think. The game was memed to death due to its bugs and glitches when it launched, and its reputation never recovered. EA’s decision to abandon the failing game meant that there was no chance of a No Man’s Sky-style rehabilitation, and the game is an overlooked part of the franchise. If people remember it at all, they remember the bugs and the memes.

Even I can’t remember every detail of Andromeda’s story. I just know that there was a sense that it ended somewhat abruptly, and if Mass Effect 4 could do something to mitigate that, even just by way of an “easter egg” for longstanding fans of the series, I think that would be great. It really wouldn’t take a lot of effort.

Number 7: A story that genuinely reflects player choices.

There are many different ways that the story could go. The game should reflect those choices properly.

The worst part of Mass Effect 3 wasn’t the “pick a colour” ending. It was the fact that, across at least the final third of the game, myriad choices that players made across the entire trilogy received no meaningful payoff. Even the War Assets that Shepard collected on the path to defeating the Reapers were only ever shown as text on a screen, and many War Assets even reused the same stock image.

Things like saving both the quarians and geth, which required players to navigate a specific path across all three games and multiple optional missions, should have been more impactful in the final push to defeat the Reapers. The fact is that Mass Effect 3 was rushed, and whatever intentions BioWare may have had ended up being cut or curtailed as a result.

The recycled War Asset image.

Mass Effect 4 simply cannot repeat this failing. The game will almost certainly follow a non-linear narrative – as is the Mass Effect tradition – with paragon and renegade options, a branching storyline, and optional side-missions. Those choices have to feel like they matter to players; if everyone gets the same basic ending regardless of how they played the game, Mass Effect 4 will receive one heck of a backlash.

It’s possible that Mass Effect 4 will be the jumping-off point for a new trilogy of games, and if that’s the case its ending may need to be simplified in order to ensure the next game in the series works as intended. But if that is the plan, the story still needs to offer a good degree of choice – and reflect those choices properly while the game is progressing.

Number 8: The return of all surviving squadmates.

Garrus needs to come back!

Mass Effect 3 picked up some criticism at the time of its release for cutting back on the number of squadmates, with very few members of Shepard’s team from the Suicide Mission in Mass Effect 2 returning in squadmate form. Practically everyone had something to do in the game – but many fan-favourite squadmates were no longer part of the team, with their appearances relegated to a mission or two at most.

Depending on many different choices across the trilogy, it’s possible for a number of squadmates from all three games to have survived – or at least to have still been alive as of the final act of the game. I would love to see Mass Effect 4 bring them all back as proper squadmates. It would take some creative writing in certain cases – Wrex, for example, appears to have a leadership role on Tuchanka in one possible version of the story – but it would absolutely be worth doing. In the Star Trek franchise, Worf, who was a character on Deep Space Nine, was able to be included in three films with the crew of The Next Generation despite having a different posting. If Star Trek can do it, Mass Effect can do it!

Wrex could be a problem, but I think it’s possible to get around that and bring him back anyway.

Not every squadmate resonated with every player, and giving fans the freedom to pick and choose from every past member of Shepard’s crew instead of being constrained to a few hand-picked ones would make the roleplaying experience so much better and more immersive. I mentioned this during my review of Legendary Edition, but “my” Commander Shepard is a different character to other Shepards. They had different friendships, different relationships, and the game is a different experience as a result. Mass Effect 4 will do its best to reflect that, no doubt, and one way to do so is to bring back every surviving squadmate.

This doesn’t mean that there can’t be one or two new characters, and indeed I’d welcome a new couple of squadmates in addition to returning favourites. The franchise needs to grow, after all!

Number 9: Allow players to carry over characters from Legendary Edition.

Players should be able to import their Legendary Edition characters to Mass Effect 4.

Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 allowed players to take their Commander Shepard from the previous game and import them. This worked really well, and meant that players could complete the entire story without having to begin from scratch with each new game. Though Legendary Edition has some problems and inconsistencies with the way this save importer works, I think it’s absolutely worth allowing players to take their version of Commander Shepard into the next game.

There are a couple of roadblocks that I can see – the first being the ending choices. If Mass Effect 4 does what I suggest and picks one ending, players who made a different choice would have to either reload their save and re-do the ending, or the importer would have to simply ignore this choice.

All decisions and all surviving squadmates should be imported as well.

However, if Mass Effect 4 is to reflect other choices, like which characters survived, which factions players chose to help and ignore, etc. then an import facility is really the only way that could happen. Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 originally came with an “interactive comic” to allow new players to make certain key decisions, but that really isn’t a great option.

Part of the reason Legendary Edition was made was to bring the Mass Effect series back into contention so that Mass Effect 4 will generate hype, excitement, and sales. It succeeded in that regard, bringing back old players, picking up many new ones, and wiping away most of the stink left over from Andromeda and, to a lesser extent, Anthem. People are looking forward to Mass Effect 4. Having played through the trilogy with our own custom characters, though, and made many decisions which impacted the Mass Effect galaxy, those characters and choices need to carry over to the next game in the series. Even if Commander Shepard isn’t coming back, Mass Effect 4 needs to have the facility for players to import their choices from the original trilogy.

So that’s it.

What happened after the Reaper War? I can’t wait to find out!

Mass Effect 4 is several years away from release, and we’re unlikely to get any more details any time soon. I don’t even want to guess at when we could see the game – it could be 2023, 2024, or even later still depending on all manner of development-side factors.

Despite that, it was a bit of fun to look ahead and consider what I’d like to see from the title. Although I felt Legendary Edition was underwhelming and not all it could’ve been for a remaster, the Mass Effect games are great fun, and the world-building is exquisite. The Mass Effect galaxy feels genuinely lived-in in a way few sci-fi or fantasy worlds ever really achieve, and I’m not alone in looking forward to finding out what happens next!

If we get any significant Mass Effect 4 news, such as casting information, a new trailer, or anything else, be sure to check back as I’ll do my best to analyse it all here on the website.

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. The Mass Effect series – including Legendary Edition and all other titles mentioned above – is the copyright of Electronic Arts and BioWare. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

E3 Roundup

Spoiler Alert: There are minor spoilers ahead for several of the games shown off at this year’s E3.

E3 2021 is over, and it was an interesting long weekend of games and gaming! I’m sure some people will come away disappointed – a lot of the games that were shown off aren’t being released imminently, with many of the bigger, most-anticipated titles not being launched until 2022. But overall, I had a good time. Because E3 was all-digital this year, the presentations were slicker and smoother, and while there were a couple of cringeworthy moments as presenters and CEOs were clearly talking to an empty room instead of a crowded auditorium, on the whole I think E3 benefits when the public stays away!

I mentioned this last year when Electronic Arts had their big annual presentation, but digital events really feel like the future. Live events have the potential to go wrong – very wrong, in some cases – and also drag on a lot longer. E3 this year was more concise, and several of the big presentations packed a lot of games into their hour or two. Though this is still a pandemic-riddled world, and that’s why E3 has gone digital this time around, I won’t be shocked to learn that future years will keep this kind of format.

With Sony skipping E3, Microsoft dominated proceedings. A number of big Xbox exclusives were shown off, and with the eyes of the world on the games industry in a way that seldom happens, I wonder if Sony will come to see the decision to stand alone as a mistake. There will be a Sony event later in the year – perhaps even this summer – but having missed the party at E3, Microsoft will come away dominating the gaming headlines in the days and weeks ahead.

Pandemic-related delays continue to afflict the industry, and some of the bigger titles shown off won’t hit shelves until next year at the earliest. Despite that, however, there are still big games coming out in the next few months – hopefully enough to tide us over until 2022! Though I didn’t subject myself to every minute of the presentations and chatter, I had fun with this year’s E3. It was generally well done, with plenty of exciting upcoming games to talk about – which is the point, after all.

Let’s take a look at my E3 roundup. I’ve picked out twenty games that I considered to be the most interesting (or the biggest) from this year’s E3. Here they are – in no particular order!

Number 1: Forza Horizon 5

Forza Horizon 4 was the game that tempted me to sign up for Xbox Game Pass last year, so I’m definitely going to take a look at the next game in this fun racing series when it’s ready. Forza Horizon 5 will see the action jump to Mexico, using a similar semi-open world to the previous game, with different types of races, a multitude of cars to choose from, and a focus on a more arcade style of racing over the simulation of the mainline Forza Motorsport titles.

Forza has grown from humble beginnings to become Microsoft’s answer to Gran Turismo, and a fine addition to the Xbox and PC lineup. Mexico is an interesting idea for a setting, and it seems like there will be plenty of dusty deserts and paradise-like tropical beaches to race around. Racing games always manage to look fantastic, and Forza Horizon 5 was definitely one of the prettiest games on show at this year’s E3.

Number 2: Avatar – Frontiers of Pandora

This one was a surprise; I don’t think anyone had it on their radar! Avatar – Frontiers of Pandora was shown off during Ubisoft’s presentation, and was really the highlight of what was otherwise a dull hour populated by updates, expansions, and sequels. The game is due for release next year, which is also when the first of four sequels to 2009’s Avatar is scheduled to hit cinemas. It doesn’t seem like the first-person action game will be a direct adaptation of the film – at least, that’s the impression I got – but the timing can’t be coincidental!

Despite Avatar becoming the highest-grossing film of all time when it was released, more than a decade later it’s not unfair to say that it hasn’t made a huge impact in the cultural landscape, even within the sci-fi genre. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say Avatar has been largely eclipsed by titles released in the decade since, and is almost forgotten at this point. Commissioning what looks to be a big-budget video game of this kind is a bit of a risk under those circumstances, but it seems like it has potential – and the Avatar sequels may succeed at establishing the basis for an ongoing franchise of which this game could be a big part. We’ll have to wait and see! So we can add this one to the pile of games I’m tentatively excited about.

Number 3: Starfield

I was rather surprised to see so little of Starfield – even though its “in engine” trailer was well put-together, and it was certainly our biggest look so far at a game Bethesda chief executive Todd Howard described as both “a new universe” and something set in the future, I had expected to see more actual gameplay. Considering Starfield is still a year and a half away, perhaps the game just wasn’t ready for a more in-depth look.

What we saw was interesting, though. Starfield seems to be doing something superficially similar to television series like The Expanse in the way it handles its spacecraft – a combination of modern military, industrial, and astronaut aesthetics seemed present in the design and layout of the ship we saw in the trailer. I quite like that style, it arguably gives stories a semi-realistic feel when compared to the likes of Star Trek or Star Wars, which both rely on technobabble and fictional technologies. Spaceships in Starfield are said to be fuelled by helium-3 – a real-world substance that can be used for spacecraft fuel.

But, of course, this is the studio that brought us The Elder Scrolls and the modern Fallout games, so it won’t just be a realistic spaceflight simulator! It seems as though there will be exploration involved, as well as encountering alien races!

As I predicted, Starfield will be exclusive to Xbox and PC following Bethesda’s acquisition by Microsoft. This seemed patently obvious to me, but doubtless some PlayStation fans will still be disappointed.

Number 4: Elden Ring

Upcoming hack-and-slash title Elden Ring was one of the first games shown off this year, debuting on Thursday as part of the “Summer Games Fest” presentation. I stated in my preview of E3 that Elden Ring might not be the kind of game I’m interested in, personally speaking… and having seen more of it I can now say that with certainty!

If you’re looking forward to Elden Ring, that’s fantastic. I have no doubt that for fans of certain genres it will be a fun time – but as someone who doesn’t much care for the “extreme difficulty” hack-and-slash gameplay of other FromSoftware titles, this is one I’m going to skip. Nothing in the trailer – from its dark, bland colour palette to its monsters that looked like they’ve been copied and pasted straight from one of the Dark Souls games – appealed to me, and you could’ve told me this was Dark Souls 4 and I’d have believed it.

The involvement of author George R. R. Martin did admittedly pique my curiosity when the game was first announced, and I have no doubt his input will help craft a fantasy setting that is, at the very least, interesting. But that’s about the nicest thing I can say about Elden Ring. It might have an interesting setting with enjoyable lore. Everything else about it makes it look like a game I’ll happily skip.

Number 5: Sea of Thieves crossover with Pirates of the Caribbean

What?! What on Earth did I just see? This crossover between Rare’s multiplayer pirate game Sea of Thieves and Captain Jack Sparrow from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean looks utterly bonkers, and was a total surprise. Multiplayer generally isn’t my thing, as you may know, so I haven’t played much of Sea of Thieves. But this crossover looks like a blast, and I’m sure fans of the game will have a lot of fun.

Sea of Thieves underwhelmed when it launched in 2018, with criticism for feeling rather barebones. But in the three years since launch, developers Rare have added a lot of new content, and the general consensus seems to be that the game is in a good place in 2021. This crossover with Pirates of the Caribbean will surely bring in a lot of new players, and it looks set to give Sea of Thieves a significant boost.

Number 6: The Outer Worlds 2

The Outer Worlds 2 wins the award for “funniest trailer!” Other than a very early tease at the fact that the game exists, we don’t know much at all about the sequel to Oblivion’s 2019 role-playing game. The Outer Worlds drew positive comparisons to the Fallout franchise; Oblivion having made Fallout: New Vegas a few years earlier. With Fallout 76 floundering, The Outer Worlds was talked up as a kind of spiritual successor. I think that description sells it short – The Outer Worlds is its own thing. And now a sequel is on the way which will hopefully be just as much fun and expand the world that the first game created.

As with a number of big, hyped-up titles this year, The Outer Worlds 2 isn’t coming any time soon. However, knowledge of its existence might be enough to tide fans over until its eventual release.

Number 7: Battlefield 2042

So many games nowadays are ditching their single-player campaigns to focus entirely on multiplayer, and Battlefield 2042 is the latest to do so. Sometimes it feels as though games companies are deliberately making shorter and less interesting campaigns, so that when fewer people play them they can say “see, no one wants a single-player mode! That’s why we didn’t make one!”

Battlefield 2042 was shown off with a very slick cinematic trailer, before showing off proper gameplay during Microsoft’s presentation a couple of days later. The gameplay looks… fine. If you like the Battlefield series, I daresay you’ll find this game familiar and enjoyable when it releases later in the year. Following on from 2006’s Battlefield 2142, as well as the likes of Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and even Arma III, Battlefield 2042 is taking a near-future setting that will likely allow for a degree of creativity on the part of developers Dice.

In that regard I have to say I like the diversity of settings on offer from modern shooters. Long gone are the days when everything was either sci-fi or World War II, and after the most recent entries in the series looked at World War I and World War II it makes sense to change things up and give fans a different experience. This won’t be one I dive into, but it looks like a solid shooter for folks into that kind of thing.

Number 8: Age of Empires IV

We’ve known for a while that Age of Empires IV has been in the works, but E3 finally gave us a release date: the 28th of October. I’ve had a great time with the remastered Age of Empires games over the last few years, but the initial teaser for Age of Empires IV a few months ago left me distinctly underwhelmed. The game just looked incredibly outdated, and I was genuinely worried for its prospects.

The E3 trailer, however, looked a heck of a lot better. Though Age of Empires IV will be taking a different approach to past games, and will feature fewer factions at launch, it has potential, and I shall certainly give it a try when it arrives on Game Pass this autumn. The original Age of Empires and its Rise of Rome expansion were two of my most-played games of the late 1990s/early 2000s and cemented my love of the real-time strategy genre. After successful remakes of those classic games, it’ll be great to welcome the Age of Empires series to the modern day!

Number 9: Mario Party Superstars

The Nintendo Direct broadcast began with a far-too-long look at a single new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate character that really dragged. After that weak start, however, there were a couple of interesting announcements. Mario Party Superstars is probably the one that seemed most exciting to me, as it will be bringing back boards and mini-games from the Mario Party games of the Nintendo 64 era. I have fond memories of playing the original Mario Party with friends on the N64, so this new game seems like it has the potential to be a wonderful blast of nostalgia.

There is already a Mario Party game on the Nintendo Switch, of course, and at first it seemed as though Superstars was simply going to be an expansion for that title. However, it’s a standalone game instead, and is going to be retailing for full price (£50 in the UK). That seems a bit steep to me, and it might end up putting people off. But the idea is interesting, and I’ll be curious to see how Mario Party Superstars does.

Number 10: Chivalry II

Chivalry II is already out – it launched last week. But E3 provided developers Torn Banner Studios another opportunity to plug the game, and they seized it! The game is a medieval combat multiplayer title, with players jumping into large-scale battles with dozens of others. There are a variety of different game modes, including sieges, pitched battles, and others, and despite the fact that I’m not much of a multiplayer gamer, I have to say that the fast-paced hacking and slashing looks like fun!

In a multiplayer scene dominated by first-person shooters, Chivalry II is something different. Stepping back in time to the medieval era, and arming players with swords, shields, bows, and battle-axes instead of guns and rocket launchers really does feel like a breath of fresh air. It’s likely going to remain a fairly niche game by multiplayer standards, but that’s okay. It looks like fun, and maybe I’ll be convinced to check it out some time soon.

Number 11: Shredders

I like winter time and winter-themed titles – especially when it’s summer and there’s a heatwave going on! Shredders will be an Xbox/PC exclusive snowboarding game, and it’s due for release in time for Christmas. The game looked stunning, with great visuals and a snow effect that looked incredibly realistic. The trailer was very cinematic, though, so I’ll wait to see how good the finished product looks in comparison!

There have been some great snowboarding and winter sports games over the years, and I remember games like 1080° Snowboarding on the Nintendo 64 and SSX Tricky in the Xbox days with fondness. Shredders looks to be cut from the same cloth as those older titles, so perhaps it’ll be just as much fun when it’s released this winter.

Number 12: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild II

Regular readers may recall that I haven’t played Breath of the Wild – nor indeed any Zelda game. But fans have been clamouring for a sequel to the 2017 Switch launch title ever since it was released, and Nintendo has been hard at work on Breath of the Wild II (real title unknown!) for some time now. We finally got a look at the game at E3.

It looks like… Breath of the Wild. If you liked the first game, what we saw at E3 should be encouraging because it looks very much like more of the same. Link may have new abilities or new weapons, and of course there’ll be new monsters to fight and a new story. But in terms of visuals and the way the game seems to be played, there’s nothing earth-shattering or radically different from the last game.

Number 13: Redfall

I like Redfall’s visual style. The cartoon-inspired art style takes what could’ve been a horror title, featuring a vampire apocalypse, and turns it into something more fun and casual. Billing itself as a team or co-op shooter, Redfall stars a unique cast of characters tasked with fighting off vampires. It’s a game made by Arkane, the studio best-known for the Dishonored duology, as well as a personal favourite of mine from the Xbox era, Arx Fatalis.

Redfall looks to build on the studio’s work with the Dishonored games, but at the same time will take a different approach. It’s definitely one to watch, and I like the idea of using vampires in this way. Vampires in entertainment often follow the Dracula model: one or two very powerful enemies to outsmart and defeat. Television series The Strain stepped away from that and gave us a vampire apocalypse – and it looks like Redfall will try to do something similar in its own unique way.

Number 14: Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania

Super Monkey Ball has always been a niche product, even by Nintendo’s cartoony standards! But there’s no denying that the original game was a lot of fun, and with the series hitting its 20th anniversary this year, Nintendo evidently felt that the time was right for a remaster. That’s what Banana Mania is, in case the trailer wasn’t clear – a remaster of the first three Super Monkey Ball games.

I don’t really have a lot more to say about this one. If you like Monkey Ball games, you’ll probably like Banana Mania when it launches on Switch.

Number 15: Bear & Breakfast

One of the few indie games to really shine at E3 this year was Bear & Breakfast. In short, you run a bed and breakfast (i.e. a small-scale hotel) in a forest. But you’re a bear. That’s the gimmick. The art style looks cute, the premise sounds like fun, and I liked the trailer that new developer Gummy Cat put together. I got kind of a Stardew Valley vibe from Bear & Breakfast, which is certainly no bad thing.

All I can really say is that I like this kind of management/tycoon game, and the uniqueness of the premise, combined with the neat visual style, makes Bear & Breakfast appealing to me. There’s currently no release date, but the developer hopes to have the game ready before the end of this year.

Number 16: Grounded

Grounded is currently out in early access (or a “game preview” as Microsoft calls it). For that reason I haven’t checked it out; early access games are hit-and-miss, with far more misses than hits in my experience. But developers Obsidian have been working hard on this Honey, I Shrunk The Kids-inspired title, and a new update to the game looks to add a lot more content.

Though I’m probably still going to wait until Grounded is ready for prime-time, I love the premise of being shrunk down and playing in the grass. There used to be a Disney World attraction based on the 1989 film in which you could walk through an area of the park where grass and everyday items were scaled-up to huge sizes. Grounded reminds me of that!

Number 17: Halo Infinite

We already knew Halo Infinite was in development, but after a disappointing trailer left fans upset last year, the game didn’t launch alongside the Xbox Series X in November. We got to see a little more of the game at E3, and Microsoft dropped the big news that the game’s multiplayer mode will be free-to-play. This is definitely an interesting development, but the only thing I could think was that most Xbox Series X players will already be interested in the Halo series… so I’m not sure that making the multiplayer free will see Halo Infinite pick up a lot more players! But free things are always nice.

The game has definitely been polished since last year’s controversy, and the graphics look decent. The Master Chief’s return after a long absence will definitely be attractive to fans of the series, and with a Halo television show also in production, it seems like the Halo brand is about to undergo a renaissance after a decade in which it arguably underperformed.

Though the Halo series has been a flagship for Xbox, the sheer number of other games on offer as Microsoft snaps up studios and pushes Game Pass hard makes it feel a little less relevant in 2021. Halo Infinite is shaping up to be a good game – but Xbox’s success is no longer as closely-tied to the series as it once was.

Number 18: Dying Light 2: Stay Human

Zombies have been overdone in the last few years, with so many open-world zombie horror games that the industry is more or less burned out on the concept. Dying Light 2, which fans of the original game have been anticipating since 2015, has a mountain to climb, then – but there are positive signs.

There will be no guns in Dying Light 2, with players having to make use of crafted melee weapons in the post-apocalyptic city they find themselves in. There will likewise be no vehicles – the in-universe explanation being that there is no fuel any more, since the zombie virus devastated the world. Both of those semi-realistic concepts feel like they add value to a genre that’s otherwise played out, and Dying Light 2, with its interesting parkour-based movement system carried over from the first game, may have found a niche that will bring players back.

Number 19: Rainbow Six Extraction

I enjoyed Rainbow Six in the early 2000s, and I had the first couple of games in the series on Dreamcast. Rainbow Six Siege was never my thing; a multiplayer live service just held no appeal. And though Extraction brings back characters from Siege, it does so in a very different way. With a focus on cooperative play as opposed to competitive, and with an interesting-sounding premise involving an alien parasite, Extraction has all the elements in place for a fun experience.

Some have criticised the decision to take the previously straight-laced action series in a different direction, but I think there’s a lot of potential in a series like Rainbow Six trying something new. Siege was something new itself when it launched in 2015; the series had previously been a story-centric game with a main campaign, not a multiplayer one. So let’s see what Extraction brings to the table when it launches in September.

Number 20: Slime Rancher 2

One of the most colourful and vibrant games shown off at E3, Slime Rancher 2 is the sequel to 2016’s Slime Rancher, a first-person farming/life simulator. Though we didn’t see much in the way of gameplay – nor even get any significant details – I assume at this stage that the game will take the same premise as the original title and build on it.

Expect to see more of the same, but with new varieties of slimes and perhaps some new crafting or character abilities as well. It looks like fun, and will be released in 2022.

Notable absences:

Before we wrap things up I wanted to mention a few games that were notable by their absence at E3. Though there were plenty of titles we did get to see – the list above is nowhere near comprehensive – there were some titles I was hoping or expecting to hear news of that didn’t appear for one reason or another.

Anything from the Star Wars franchise:

There had been rumours earlier in the year of a Knights of the Old Republic sequel. There’s also Jedi: Fallen Order II (though that’s an EA game, and EA didn’t have a presentation at E3 this year) and Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, which has been delayed multiple times. With so much new content to come from Star Wars, and with the brand ditching its exclusive arrangement with EA, I’m sure there must be more video games in the works. I genuinely expected to hear something about at least one of them!

Grand Theft Auto 6:

Still radio-silence on this from Rockstar, despite Grand Theft Auto publisher Take-Two Interactive having a slot at this year’s E3. We don’t even know for certain that Grand Theft Auto 6 will be Rockstar’s next big game, and with the recent announcement of a port of Grand Theft Auto V to new consoles, it seems like they’re planning to continue to milk that 2013 title for as long as possible. Disappointing.

Mario Kart 9:

As soon as Nintendo said, in the first minute of their broadcast, that they would be focusing on games releasing this year I was sure we wouldn’t see Mario Kart 9! The series’ 30th anniversary is next year, and in my opinion 2022 remains the most likely release date for the next entry in the Mario Kart series. Despite that, however, before E3 I felt there was the potential for the game to be announced in order to begin to get fans hyped up.

Hogwarts Legacy:

Originally announced for 2021 before being delayed to next year, Hogwarts Legacy still sounds like it’ll be good fun. Actual information about the game has been hard to come by, though, with no new information since last year’s reveal. The time seemed right for an update on the game’s progress, but alas!

So that’s it.

With Sony and PlayStation being absent, Microsoft and Xbox dominated proceedings. Nintendo showed off a collection of smaller games that will be of note to their existing fans, but their biggest releases – like Breath of the Wild II and the next Metroid Prime title – are still a long way off. There were plenty of interesting games, though – far more than I’ll ever be able to play!

E3 worked well in this stripped-down, audience-free format. I hope they decide to stick with it going forward, even when the pandemic settles and in-person events are okay again. I just found the whole thing much simpler and more enjoyable, with less of a focus on presenters and staging and more of a focus on the thing we all care about: games.

The games I found most interesting are listed above, but there were many more shown off as well. Practically all of the trailers are now online on YouTube and similar websites, so take a look. I’m sure there’s something for everyone!

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. Some screenshots and promotional art courtesy of Xbox, IGDB and/or E3. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition – “Death by a thousand cuts”

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the Mass Effect trilogy, including Mass Effect: Legendary Edition.

After several weeks of working my way through Mass Effect: Legendary Edition following its launch last month, I’m now in a position to put pen to paper and actually deliver a final verdict. This hasn’t been an easy process, because what I want to do is separate my thoughts and feelings about the Mass Effect trilogy from the way the games have been tweaked and presented in Legendary Edition specifically.

I adore the Mass Effect trilogy. I even stuck with Andromeda, despite its issues, and was disappointed in 2017-18 when it seemed as though that game’s failure had led to the franchise as a whole being put on the back burner by Electronic Arts. So I can hold my hands up and say I had a great time with Legendary Edition. Replaying these games that I hadn’t touched in five or six years (when I played through the trilogy several times on the Xbox 360) was a fun time.

But it was nowhere near as fun as it could’ve been. Legendary Edition represents a phenomenal missed opportunity to take these games and do more with them. For its current asking price of £55 ($60) it’s not worth it, not by a country mile. If you already own the Mass Effect games some other way, there’s very little to be gained by purchasing Legendary Edition, and while I could tentatively recommend it if it goes on sale, even that has to come with the caveat that the three games are not all that they could be. BioWare and Electronic Arts took the path of least resistance and churned out a passable but severely underwhelming upgrade.

The reason I’m headlining this review “death by a thousand cuts” is because there isn’t one single overwhelming issue I can point to that encapsulates Legendary Edition’s undoing. Instead, what we have are a collection of smaller issues and faults which work in tandem to drag the experience down and ensure that the trilogy is not all it could have been. Now that we’ve got this introduction out of the way, let’s look at as many of them as we reasonably can.

I’ve divided the individual points of criticism into four sections, then I’ll bring this review to a conclusion at the end.

Graphics/display issues:

When it comes to visuals, even in the run-up to Legendary Edition’s launch I was decidedly unimpressed, as I wrote when we got our first look at the game earlier in the year. Because the Mass Effect trilogy wasn’t made that long ago – only during the Xbox 360 era – I felt it wasn’t always possible to tell which screenshots were supposed to be from which version of the games, especially when dealing with Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. There just didn’t seem to be a particularly significant upgrade. However, we were promised sharper textures, higher resolutions, and that the games would look better than ever.

Obviously it’s easier to tell the difference when playing the games than it is when looking at compressed jpeg images and YouTube videos, and Mass Effect 1 in particular has seen some moderate upgrades. But even so, the trilogy is in a strange place visually. It feels like a half-step, with Legendary Edition looking sharper than one might expect of a game from 2007, but absolutely failing to feel like a modern game in so many respects. Some visuals look absolutely stunning. Other textures are pathetically low-res and look awful on a 4K display. The nicest thing I could say is that Legendary Edition is a mixed bag from a visual perspective, but considering a visual overhaul is basically the main objective of a remaster of this nature, that in itself is damning. Let’s look at some specific visual issues.

1: There’s a screen tearing issue on PC.

The PC version – at least in my experience – suffered greatly with screen tearing. This happens when the game and the refresh rate of a monitor are not properly synched, but it’s difficult to fix and incredibly annoying. I don’t have an unusual monitor with an obscure resolution or refresh rate; I played Legendary Edition on a 4K, 60Hz decent-quality PC monitor. This issue was also present on a 4K television which I use as an alternative display, so it’s not specific to one monitor. For reference, my PC has an Nvidia Geforce GTX 1660 6GB graphics card, which is a modern mid-range graphics card.

Mass Effect 1 suffered basically no significant screen tearing issues, but Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 both did, and it was only after wasting a lot of time messing about with display settings that I was able to lessen the issue. I couldn’t get rid of it entirely.

2: Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 have a graphics bug which reset the screen resolution multiple times.

This may be connected to the issue above, but for some reason both Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 reset my screen resolution even after I changed it manually – and it was reset to a stupid low resolution that isn’t my PC’s standard nor properly supported by my monitor. Where I had asked the games to display in either 1920×1080 or 3840×2160, several times both games reset to the lowest possible resolution that Legendary Edition supports. This was random and seemed to happen for no reason on booting up the game.

3: Textures which could have been improved further don’t look great, and some that have been improved are in meaningless areas like backgrounds.

Look at Shepard’s hand in the image above. That texture has clearly not been touched from the original version, meaning it looks pretty crappy on a 4K display. Because some textures have been improved, those that haven’t been look even worse by comparison. They stick out like (low-res) sore thumbs.

The biggest visual improvements appear to be in the background – quite literally. While exploring or on a mission, pausing to admire the scenery is actually worth doing as there are some beautiful vistas and backgrounds to see. But then Shepard will continue the mission and encounter a crappy-looking NPC whose visuals and textures haven’t been upgraded or who received only a minor upgrade, and it’ll yank you right out of the immersion.

4: Despite the upgrade, some textures are still remarkably low-res.

As above, there are a number of incredibly obvious low-resolution textures across all three games. Some appear not to have been touched or improved at all from the original versions of the games, which doesn’t make sense to me. The point of Legendary Edition was to make the Mass Effect trilogy look as good as it could; to look comparable to a modern game. If that was its objective, the fact that there are so many individual visual elements that weren’t improved should automatically give it a failing grade.

5: There are major clipping issues, even in cut-scenes.

“Clipping” is where supposedly-solid objects appear to pass through one another. Legendary Edition is quite literally full of low-level clipping issues. Though we’re not talking about anything game-breaking like falling through the floor or getting stuck in a wall, these issues are prevalent through all three games, and it can be very distracting to see Shepard’s hand pass through their gun like it was a ghost, or for a character’s arm to disappear into a solid object.

This even happens in cut-scenes, for heaven’s sake! In the image above, we can see an example of this, as Garrus’ shoulder clips through the armour around his neck. I can kind of understand how, during dynamic gameplay, occasional clipping could happen. It would still be frustrating given that the games are old and the remaster was an opportunity to fix these kinds of issues, but I could forgive it in open gameplay to an extent. But for cut-scenes to be similarly bugged is just plain ridiculous. Most characters have two or three outfits at most – it wouldn’t have been difficult or particularly time-consuming to make sure both (or all three) outfits don’t have these issues.

6: Lip-synching doesn’t work and looks pretty crappy.

As I mentioned in my initial look at Legendary Edition, lip-synching hasn’t been improved from the original games. Characters’ mouths flap open and shut all willy-nilly, with the barest connection to the words they’re supposedly speaking. Though this is something you get used to, when you compare lip-synching in Legendary Edition to modern games like Control or Jedi: Fallen Order, the difference becomes patently obvious. Is it immersion-breaking? Not really, because it’s something I found I got used to, and on alien characters like salarians or krogan it isn’t as obvious as it is on humans. But nevertheless it’s something that could have been worked on when the games were being upgraded.

Differences between the three games:

This next cluster of issues are all to do with consistency between the three games. This is something BioWare said they were working on numerous times in the run-up to the game’s release, yet there are so many examples of petty, stupid inconsistencies that make going from one game to the next an unnecessarily complicated experience. These minor things are precisely the kind of issues that a remaster or tweak of this nature is meant to address – yet BioWare wholly failed to do so.

Here are just a few examples of things working differently between all three games:

1: The pause menu.

Different menus are in different places on the pause wheel, and different buttons do different things – in Mass Effect 3, for example, there’s no “exit game” menu option, with this task being assigned to a button instead. Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 have a separate codex and journal, yet these two menus are amalgamated in Mass Effect 3. How hard would it have been to standardise the pause menus and which items are where, for heaven’s sake?

2: Some biotic and tech powers behave differently from game to game despite having the same name.

Powers – also known as talents, because Legendary Edition can’t even standardise its naming conventions – don’t always behave the same way in all three games, which is incredibly counterintuitive. Standardising this from a gameplay perspective may have been a more difficult task, but it would have been worthwhile. Notable examples are hacking, damping, and electronics, but we could also add the way weapons in Mass Effect 1 work into this category as well.

3: Hacking, bypassing, and unlocking doors.

I know for a fact this is something BioWare said they were working on! Did I miss something? Is there some hidden menu option to standardise this that I just didn’t see? Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 have mini-games to pick locks, hack computers, and so on, and Mass Effect 1 has the option to use a generic item called “omni-gel” to perform these tasks. Mass Effect 3 has no such mini-games, with a single button press and an animation accomplishing these tasks. If BioWare hadn’t said this was going to be worked on I would still think the lack of consistency was silly, but having explicitly said it would be addressed I just don’t understand what happened here.

4: Armour.

Mass Effect 1 uses a completely different system of armour for Shepard and their squad compared to Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, which use a broadly similar system. This was a prime candidate for standardising, yet BioWare ignored it and left the original system in place in Mass Effect 1, even though that system allows far less customisation and is generally worse. How hard would it have been to replace the armour in the first game with the system present in the second two games?

5: Armour at the beginning of Mass Effect 3 specifically.

Mass Effect 3 uses the same basic armour system as Mass Effect 2, as already mentioned. Yet when Shepard picks up their armour at the beginning of the third game, all customisations from Mass Effect 2 are gone and Shepard’s generic black armour is back. Considering that Mass Effect 3 doesn’t allow any customisation until well over two hours and three missions have passed, why couldn’t Mass Effect 3 have retained at least the basic colour scheme present in Shepard’s armour at the end of Mass Effect 2? This may seem petty, but customisation like this is what makes role-playing games feel immersive for many players. “My” Commander Shepard doesn’t feel right in boring black N7 armour – they need colour!

6: Maps and mini-maps.

Mass Effect 1 had a fairly comprehensive map and mini-map. Mass Effect 2 ditched this in favour of a button-press pointing Shepard in one direction using an arrow. Mass Effect 3 uses maps in peaceful areas but no maps in missions. This is a prime candidate for a feature to standardise; doing so would make the three games easier to play and would make Legendary Edition a more consistent and seamless experience.

7: Levelling.

Shepard retains their level at the beginning of Mass Effect 3 from Mass Effect 2 – but this doesn’t work when going from Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2! Either have standardised levelling across Legendary Edition – so that Shepard’s level grows from the first game to the second to the third – or make Shepard start from level 1 again in each game! One or the other – not both. Again, this is something that could have been changed for Legendary Edition, as this is exactly what a remaster is supposed to do. BioWare is selling the trilogy as a single package, yet levelling is not the same across all three games. This is a ridiculous oversight.

8: Difficulty options.

Mass Effect 3 introduces a “narrative” (i.e. ultra-easy) mode that isn’t present in Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2. Again, this makes the three games an inconsistent experience. Either have this ultra-easy mode present in all three games – considering that it’s arguably an accessibility feature it should be present – or don’t have it in Mass Effect 3. A remaster of this nature should aim to make its constituent parts as seamless as possible; inconsistent difficulty settings undermine that.

Bugs and glitches:

In this section we’re going to cover bugs, glitches, and other errors that shouldn’t be present in a released game. While it’s certainly true that Legendary Edition avoided the trap Andromeda fell into when it comes to being overly buggy, the trilogy as presented in June 2021 is not the perfect experience it ought to be.

If we were talking about a brand-new game, perhaps I’d be a little more lenient. But the Mass Effect trilogy is not new, and Legendary Edition is built on top of the existing games – they weren’t remade from scratch from the ground up. So there should be fewer bugs to begin with, and those that came up during the remastering process should have been fixed before release. Some of these are what I’d consider major – bugs which actively hamper the experience and get in the way of gameplay and/or narrative progression. In a game of this nature, that shouldn’t happen.

1: Shepard is often holding the wrong gun in cut-scenes, especially in Mass Effect 3.

This bug was present in the original version of Mass Effect 3. It’s a bug that’s now nine years old, yet BioWare still hasn’t fucking fixed it. That’s beyond pathetic, it’s atrocious and testament to how sloppily and lazily Legendary Edition was put together.

In short, in cut-scenes in Mass Effect 3 Shepard is often seen holding a “default” assault rifle weapon instead of the weapon they were equipped with by the player. This damages immersion, and as with issues above with the “wrong” armour, makes the role-play of stepping into Shepard’s shoes feel less impressive and less immersive.

On its own it would be an annoying issue, but considering it was present in Mass Effect 3 in 2012, I can’t forgive the appalling lack of care to let it slip through once again without being corrected.

2: Another lingering bug from the original Mass Effect 3 deselects all of Shepard’s weapons at the beginning of the mission to Rannoch.

When starting the mission Priority: Rannoch, all of Shepard’s weapons are de-selected, leaving them with only the basic starting pistol. This is easily overlooked, especially if you’re like me and tend to keep the same loadout for multiple missions. This bug was present in Mass Effect 3 when it launched, as I remember it from the Xbox 360 version, and forum comments can be found online from 2012-13 making note of this.

The inability of BioWare to fix pretty basic bugs that were present in the original game when releasing a so-called “remaster” is atrocious and pathetic. In this case you could argue that the bug is not particularly egregious; in my case I had to restart a mission but that’s all. But the principle remains – and the lack of care and lack of attention to detail is the point.

3: Shepard’s ability to use weapon types is still restricted in Mass Effect 2 despite promises to the contrary.

In Mass Effect 2, Shepard can only use certain weapon types depending on their character class. This is despite a promise by BioWare during development of Legendary Edition that this limitation would be removed. It’s been addressed in Mass Effect 1, allowing Shepard to use any weapon regardless of their character class. But it remains in Mass Effect 2, as highlighted in the image above (an Engineer can only use pistols and submachine guns for much of the game). This is not just a bug, but an inconsistency between the different games, something which, as noted above, makes Legendary Edition far from seamless.

4: Some cut-scenes are bugged or don’t play properly at all.

I encountered several bugged cut-scenes, including one during the first mission of the game (on Eden Prime) which sets up the entire storyline of Mass Effect 1. In that case the cut-scene didn’t render at all, with dialogue being heard over the top of a grey fog-like texture. No characters could be seen, nor any backgrounds or actions, but dialogue could still be heard. In other cases, cut-scenes didn’t trigger at the right moment, such as during the mission to Omega in Mass Effect 3. In many cut-scenes there are issues with clipping, as mentioned above, particularly characters’ outfits, armour, or weapons clipping through the environment.

5: A bug in Mass Effect 3 depicts Shepard with their helmet on in some cut-scenes even if the option to have it off is selected.