Tomb Raider-Single Player (2013) Review (PC)

This much awaited reboot of the renowned Playstation franchise has been met with some controversy and cynical speculation up until its release. Tomb Raider takes the story back to Lara Croft’s roots, telling the story of how she became the iconic character she is today.

Short answer its great. The game peaks at around the first two hours in an extraordinary opening and despite flashes of absolute brilliance later, there are a few pitfalls that stop it from being something special.

Tomb Raider opens with Lara and her crew’s ship being sunk by some unknown force mid-expedition, leaving her and all the plot-important crew stranded on an unknown island. From there on its a game of survival as Lara must reunite with her companions and find a way to be rescued. But of course its not that simple.

Lara wakes to find herself tied up in what looks like some form of sacrificial ritual hall and must escape and evade her captors all the while discovering the dark secrets of the Island, spanning generations and to stop her adversaries. Cliché? Yes. But it provides a rather enjoyable blockbuster fare with a dark twist that sets it apart, even if it is sometimes a bit jarring.

The first 2 hours where you frantically sneak around the jungle, bow in hand, discovering old bunkers and remnants of lost cultures, all the while avoiding enemies is absolutely astonishing. I don’t say that lightly, it was some of the most fun I’d had in ages, mixing high concept design and set-pieces with a slow, methodical gameplay was a win-win that is rarely ever seen and had me thinking it was game of the year material right there.

I just wish Tomb Raider had remained like this, and that’s honestly my biggest complaint. It almost achieves this perfect balance of desperate survival and enjoyable action, but unfortunately falls into typical underwhelming tropes that detract from the tone way too often. Uncharted-esque cover-based gun fights ensue with the typical enemy progression of tribal, militia, soldier, heavy soldier enemies etc and a few action heavy scenes become monotonous and uninspired if you’ve played any Third Person Shooter in the last couple of years. Scenes by themselves are great, but seeing Lara jump off a collapsing building at the last second, barely grabbing onto a ledge around  50 times becomes tiresome. Further Clichés involve the likes of Shielded enemies, grenades flushing you out of cover, turrets, unreliable cover and even a weapon upgrade system. These features only act to detract from the good. At it’s worst, some sections remind you eerily of those in Spec-Ops the Line or Far Cry 3 but played completely straight faced, without the ironic commentary.

That being said, the things Tomb Raider does well, it does really well, so much so as to make it possible to forgive the somewhat repetitive and predictable nature of some of the set-pieces. For one, the game is gorgeous, straight up gorgeous, with an attention to the minutia of every texture, lighting effect etc that is rarely seen in an environment this big and open. In fact, just about everything technical about this game is sublime. Special mention should go to the sound design, the cold drips and soft echoes throughout the caves and the soft rustling of bushes make the experience wonderfully atmospheric. It should be commended that a non horror title has put this much effort into crafting sound that so well reinforces the situation and mood.

The gameplay is varied with the aforementioned gunfights, sneaking and climbing familiar again to those who have played uncharted but more refined with new mechanics and items that switch up your play style being introduced all the way through, making a replay through the old areas with the tools to get to previously unreachable locations very appealing and immensely satisfying. The controls are responsive and it was rare that I found them a burden, which really is saying something for a Third Person Shooter PC port.

On a side note, The emphasis on female empowerment and the references to so called ‘feminist-fiction’ such as ‘The Descent’ really were a pleasant and welcome surprise and Lara’s character arc is especially great, even though it can sometimes be at odds with the somewhat power-fantasy-ish gameplay.

The other Characters as well as the story are so-so but that’s made up for by having incredibly interesting lore. Notebooks and artefacts from various time periods spanning the 1940’s to the 1600’s to present day are scattered around the semi open world, helping you fill in the blanks of the main story. These also help in gaining a greater understanding of the island and its interesting history. Normally these things are shoehorned in for completionists but the writers put a lot of effort into making it interesting and they pull it off.

For the £7.50 I got it for in a steam sale this was a steal. It’s worth the full price unlike a lot of AAA titles, it has actual replay value that doesn’t amount to ‘find all 100 things’ that far too many games default to. The astonishing amount of Tombs, gun parts, lore and artefacts to find and explore mean that I will probably be playing it over at least once more. Although the few places Tomb Raider squanders its potential it suffers as a result, holding it back from being what it could have been.

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The Devil Inside Review (Film).

Lets talk about the big thing first, it’s not scary. Some may say that’s subjective but honestly, people don’t seem to get the fact that waiting for something to go bang and being scary are not the same thing. They both make you feel tense but waiting for the next loud noise to come never unnerves you, makes you feel vulnerable or lets your imagination do anything apart from wonder what form the next ‘boo’ was coming. That being said, there were 2 moments in which the film actually remembered it was a horror instead of being a succession of party poppers being let off at random intervals. First was the ‘Connect the cuts’ section as seen in the trailer which managed at first to be unnerving but was handling the rest of that scene so badly it almost stooped into the realms of comedy.

The second was the scene after the baptism (no spoilers) where there was a genuine sense of overhanging dread before and after the big bang came. That would have meant nothing to you if you haven’t seen the film but, in short, there are two relatively scary moments in the film and the rest borders on comical in how hard it tries to creep the audience out.

A film trying this hard to be realistic, what with the real world setting, the faux documentary style etc is always make or break in the acting department. You know where this is going. The acting isn’t exceptionally bad but rather uninspiring and is completely devoid of enthusiasm no matter how many times each character gets thrown across a room or cries.

You would think that after witnessing an actual demon be extracted from someone that it would leave a lasting impression on the sceptical protagonist. Maybe she would start to doubt and re-evaluate everything she has taken for granted until now? If there are demons could there be such thing as ghosts? Aliens? How much do we really matter in the overall scheme of things if these higher powers actually exist? Are we really disposable pawns in the overall battle between good and evil?

Well you and I know what I’m getting at so I’ll just end this by saying that about five minutes after the encounter she is looking over the recorded footage making passing judgement about the size of the victims pupils with the futility of someone commenting on a picture of Jesus’s crusty face on the bottom of a senile ladies frying pan in on their local magazine.

The ending is bad. A woeful cop-out ‘to be continued’ but never will be because of how bad the film is type of ending pretty much sums it up. Abrupt and so completely out of nowhere in an attempt to be shocking that as the credits rolled, someone in the audience of about 10 people on a Wednesday afternoon including me and a friend actually stood up and said “really?” which led to a greater emotional outburst from the audience than anything the film achieved.

The worst thing? I almost fell asleep during the first exorcism. That isn’t some snarky brandy swilling, egotistical, made up want to be criticy talk no, I’m dead serious I was nodding of during an exorcism that lasted about 10 minutes but seemed about 30. If that’s not a testament to this films failings I don’t know what is.

The devil inside is either as dull as a Power-point presentation assembled by a fumbling old history teacher who can’t get the projector to work and so has to call one of the school ‘techies’ to stop him from rubbing the projector with oil, or merely average. the kindest thing you can say is that at least half of this film can be described as the latter.

Losing Enthusiasm to finish games.

Originally posted to Destructoid.com

I’ve noticed recently while browsing through my steam library and being met with “32 minutes played” by about half the games I own that I seem to be giving up on completing games and saying ‘I’ll get back to it some time’ far more frequently than in previous years. Now I could put this down to my maturing into an adult and not having time to dable in these silly pastimes but seeing as though I am currently at ‘300 hours played’ on Fallout 3 with about 15 being in the past week I don’t think that’s the case.

I think the true cause is the ever decreasing amount I’m paying for games.

About 5 years ago I would have pitched the grandest of all trouser tents if I saw killer 7 for £15 in store, but now with the introduction of steam sales, GoG, the App store, PC indie market, the growth of Amazon, Ebay and second hand high street chains such as the wonderful CeX we have here in England I now consider for about an hour whether to buy Alan Wake for £4. With all these games at your fingertips at such low cost I think the motivation to play them diminishes. It’s not even that I don’t enjoy the games. I have absolutely fallen in love with Lone Survivor despite only having played less than an hour of it but having paid around about 75p for it in a steam sale my attitude when I’m bored tilts less towards, “lets play some Lone Survivor” and more “Let’s check CeX and see if I can get that copy of Dreamfall for 50p”. I find it sad to admit that a lot of games have almost become disposable products to me due to the throwaway prices.

My suspicions were confirmed when I think of all the games I have bought for over £30 recently I have completed or at least sunk 15+ hours into. Games such as Spec Ops:The Line, Dishonoured, Mass Effect 3 and Sleeping dogs (which I don’t really like that much anyway). The best analogy I could think of is gaming is like having a bag of sweets, the odd one tossed your way by a friend or bought as a treat is lovely, a minuscule little jellied treat. But when you bring a whole multipack home and start gorging on the first packet you look at the others in disdain. The novelty has worn off and they will sit at the back of a cupboard for months. Unless you paid £30 for that bag of sweets in which case you’re going to f****** enjoy it.

Talking about review scores.

Originally posted on Destructoid.com

Now, unlike a lot of people, I am a champion of review scores. I have heard a lot of arguments for and against that have provided valuable reasoning and critique on the ‘out of 10’ scoring but I came to realise the other day that the reason for most of the arguments is pretty much all to do with subjective pragmatics (or what YOU think the little numbers mean).

I personally take the review score as an overall round-up of how entertaining the game is, essentially a more in depth ‘get it or don’t’ scale. The problem is the fact that I have an opinion on what review score symbolises and that it differs from other people’s interpretation. The score can take on a whole new meaning depending on how you interpret it. For example, I was talking to a close friend about this very subject and when I asked him of his opinion, he said that he sees review scores as how close to ‘perfect’ the game is, with 10 being nothing of real substance to complain about that affects the core experience in any way. This seems to be the attitude DTOID adopts,  with the descriptions explaining of their scores especially when it comes to the coveted ’10’.

Let’s re-iterate how DTOID defines the 10/10:

‘10.0 /10 Flawless Victory: Games rated 10 aren’t perfect, since nothing is, but they come as close as you could get in a given genre. The new must-have game in its sector, we’re talking pure ecstasy.’

With that answer I quickly responded “Deadly Premonition 10/10”.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Deadly Premonition, and I am thankful that Jim praised the game as highly as he did but you have to be as crazy as our beloved Francis if you think that Deadly Premonition fits the criteria of near-perfect as Destructoid describes it. Now Jim does back up why he loves the game so much when he describes the game as ‘being absolutely terrible in a completely hilarious way’, but just because a game’s knowingly awful doesn’t stop it from being awful.

Now this is where reviews and scores collide and sometimes end up opposing each other, which is why I choose to take review scores as I do rather than how close to perfect something is.

But then again, how do you define perfect? If you take Perfect to mean the enjoyment factor of the game then that is perfectly reasonable to give the game a 10 or do you see it as a mixture of gameplay, narrative, sound design, controls etc standard, that means that the game obviously doesn’t fit that criteria or maybe in your opinion it does,maybe satire excuses it all or maybe because the gameplay is awful for a reason maybe that means it’s not bad but how do you define bad and…aaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!

Look, game review scores should either be a representation of entertainment value or quality as seen by the reviewer. You can’t have it both ways.

I like review scores, but they don’t seem to like me very much.

Hotline Miami Review

The scene fades into a darkened room, with three figures sit facing you; A Chicken, a Horse and an Owl. They begin berating you, ‘you are not a nice person’, ‘Why are you here?’ finally ending with four questions aimed directly at the player.

Do you like hurting other people?

Who is leaving messages on your answering machine?

Where are you right now?

Why are we having this conversation?

Thus begins the utter insanity known as Hotline Miami. A pretty fantastic game from Dennaton studios. Gameplay, visuals, sound and dialogue are all implemented to reinforce the central theme and create an extremely intriguing mystery that always remains interesting, if a little obtuse.

You play as an unnamed, faceless protagonist (wink, wink, player insert) who receives unknown calls from his apartment telling him to go and complete ‘jobs’ for various aliases, surprisingly enough all along the lines of ‘kill everything in a haze of 8-bit neon and electronica’. After which you might stop off for a pizza following your day of mass genocide.

In a much the same vain as Spec Ops: The Line, the heart of the game is in the reflection of the players actions back upon themselves, making you question yourself throughout the experience. The narrative (or lack thereof) is cryptic, raising far more questions than answers. While the motif of contextualised violence is handled very well, the constant curve balls thrown at you act to heighten the sense of mystery but also seem to take away from any sense of cohesion, which may lead some players to get frustrated with the story. Either way, the game will stick with you long after you’ve completed it as you try in vain to piece the meaning of it all together.

Gameplay-wise, Hotline Miami draws influence from many sources, mainly the top down action of the original GTA and the reflex based difficulty of Super Meat Boy. This game falls resolutely into the ‘you will die… a lot’ genre with the likes of I Wanna Be The Guy and Meat Boy, but proved a far less frustrating experience than one would normally come to expect from this genre. The reason for this can all be attributed to its mastery of pacing. When you die, all it takes is a simple mash of the R key and you are back where you started, with the whole process lasting little more than a second. This is integral to keeping the gameplay flowing instead of becoming infuriating, with death acting as a minor setback rather than a typical fail state.

That being said, why did the developer choose to put unskippable dialogue and cut-scenes right after various checkpoints, meaning you have to sit through a couple of agonising seconds before another attempt? The guys over at Dennaton were obviously aware that allowing for a quick respawn was important so why would they decide to fall back on that just to show you the cut-scene for the 15th time? This reaches an apex of rage quitting infuriation at certain boss encounters that had me almost turn of the game a number of times. Thankfully this does not occur too often.

Apart from that the mechanics are mostly solid, fast paced and satisfying. The controls are perfectly suited for dealing with everything thrown at you, with only the occasional cheap death coming from the randomly generated AI and their inhuman reaction times. Although this generally adds to the feeling of being underpowered and to the immense, exhausting, bloodsoaked reward when you end up clearing out a room full of thugs all better shots, and better equipped than you using nothing but your wits and skill.

The game follows a general routine of waking up in your house, receiving the call to drive to your your next mission, get in the car, screen fades to level, kill people, exit level and then head to a bar/video shop/restaurant etc before continuing. Now this might seem like an extraordinary amount of faffing around when you just want to move on and you’d be right. However, without wanting to spoil anything, there is a reason for it thematically but even so it can still seem like merely an obstacle between each action packed level.

One thing i’m surprised I haven’t mentioned yet is the soundtrack. My God is it something. the 80’s inspired, dark, electronic drones and adrenaline fueled synthy madness is the absolute high point. Being both provocative and adding so much to the gameplay, emphasising the rhythmic pounding of doors bursting open and gunshots. It is a lesson in how to create an effective score and honestly stands up there with the likes of Silent Hill and Final Fantasy.

I could go on forever talking about what Hotline Miami does right and wrong, but to sum it up, the gameplay and narrative aspects are both very enjoyable but have a little hard time gelling together on occasions. But that tenuous link is what this game is built upon, and seeing how Hotline Miami explores it is truly fascinating. It’s not for everyone but outside of personal preference, there is little wrong with it outside of the unskippable cut-scenes and the occasional cheap death. Those looking for a straight top down action shooter, get Retro-City Rampage, this is not for you. If you are interested in challenge, the dissonance between narrative and game mechanics or interesting visual design then this is perfect for you.

If this isn’t in my top 5 by the end of the year then I will be surprised.

Also this game has the absolute best title screen of any game ever, f*** me it’s worth the £8 alone!