SHELTER

It was in the rapids that I lost my first cub.

There was no warning, just the sudden sense of shock as a vast wave swept through our pack, submerging us all in a rolling tide of water. Darting to the shore, I immediately counted my remaining children, silently noting a missing face. Waiting for a few moments, I clung to the hope that it had perhaps gotten itself stuck on some kind of branch or stone and would soon appear, so we could continue on as a family… However, there was no choice but to continue trekking through the wilderness – if not for progression’s sake, but for the hungry four that trailed, squealing at my feet.

Shelter is not in any form a conventional game release. Developed by independent studio, Might and Delight – best known for 2012’s Pid – it is, essentially, a badger life simulator. With no emphasis on controls or direction, the game places you into the role of a mother badger (or, sow), who must care for her five, individually patterned cubs that dance playfully around their earthy sett. Digging roots and catching smaller prey, you must keep your family fed as you travel the land, fending off danger and always keeping a close eye on the safety of your pack.

The true aspect that instantly attracted me to Shelter was its beautifully simple art style. Rendered in a very basic, I-hate-to-say-retro ruggedness, the game relies heavily on its immersive world and bright, organic patterns that certainly draw you into an atmosphere of pure, untouched nature. It becomes very clear how much Might and Delight opted to focus on character and personality throughout this experience, creating a game that feels almost as if you are playing through an intricate landscape painting – whereas, say, a studio that had tried to emulate realism in its graphics would have fallen far short of the mark, leaving us with a cold, artificial copy.

Shelter is a world that drinks deeply from your sense of concern and nurturing, quickly cementing a strong bond to your pack, without the need for introduction or additional information that most modern games rely so heavily upon. An atmospheric, acoustic soundtrack drips and fades along your journey, complimenting each subtle note of season, whilst also inspiring fear and dread with every passing danger. It is these small, immersive details that all combine so perfectly into an experience that can become heavily entwined in emotion throughout play. The huge sigh of relief as you finally manage to pounce on that elusive fox you’d been stalking, giving your cubs that little, extra boost; the careful, measured steps through the undergrowth, terrified of the hawk that circles above – the little moments and spikes of sentimentality that shape every minute along the way.

This is not by any means a long game – I counted roughly four or five stages in total – however, it certainly warrants the time spent exploring and indulging in its rich, lively environments. The gameplay itself could perhaps be compared to one giant escort mission, but it is important to note that the cubs are by no means a burden upon you, rather travelling companions that you honestly feel indebted to protect. In full circle, I began this review detailing the death of one of my own, and it was a hard blow of loss that far surpassed any other title I have played of similar ilk.

Beside being a great new addition and real victory for Steam’s Greenlight, Shelter inspires an appreciation of the hardships within nature and, ultimately, motherhood itself – a must play for any who wish to escape the decaying, urban shadow that haunts so much of our lives, for a small glimpse into the untouched circle of the animal kingdom.

Buy it on steam here or from the website here

Visit Might and Delight’s website here

GUNS OF ICARUS ONLINE

In today’s online titles, ‘Cooperative’ does not necessarily indicate ‘Teamwork’ – a fact that should leave most gamers dropping their heads in shame.

Perhaps it was that time Coolguy94 slammed you off the map with a grenade launcher in Left 4 Dead, or maybe even the session where that frankly hilarious teammate of yours decided your vehicle was the most convenient way to carry some extra C4? In any case, the multiplayer scene in the majority of current games do not benefit the conscious companion.

Enter Guns of Icarus Online, the in-progress successor of Muse Games’ 2010 airship-based turret defence title.

Sailing past its interesting, albeit shaky, origins, this newly Kickstarted incarnation of Steampunk-themed dogfighting allows for players to finally test their mettle against one another in a variety of classic gamemodes, including deathmatch and king of the hill. With a choice of 7 unique ships and 3 classes, it is up to each vessel’s team of 4 to pilot, repair and fire each gun, working closely together to secure sky domination.

The real beauty of Guns of Icarus Online, however, lies deep within its community. With a dedicated force of helpers, guides and active forums, you are never far from receiving the odd push from those of experience. Captains and crewmen alike are happy to advise on ways in which to maximise efficiency on a ship, as well as an included, if basic, tutorial that covers the core aspects of gameplay.

In terms of customisation, each airship can be decked out with a variety of guns, allowing much room for strategy and preferred ways of assault. For example, placing a heavy gun, such as a Carronade, on the front of the Goldfish will allow for powerful, piercing strikes to quickly breach an opponent’s balloon from behind. For the classes themselves, which range between Pilot, Engineer and Gunner, there are player-defined loadouts on which tools or unique ammo types you’d like to bring to a specific match. Players are given a wide choice of vanity costumes and headgear, which can be won through claiming certain achievements, however all are available for minimal fees through Muse’s own inbuilt store. These costume pieces, despite also being nicely designed and fitting for Icarus‘ style, can most certainly be considered donations toward the game’s ever-evolving progression – the most notable being its highly anticipated Adventure Mode, which is marked to release in 2014.

Guns of Icarus Online has proven itself to be a highly entertaining – if not sometimes frustrating – title that certainly appeals to the tacticians and teamplayers of the gaming sphere. Allowing for up to 6 airships in combat at one time, it is hard to find any other game that can compare to its class, bearing in mind that it is still firmly a work in progress. Although lacking the much-wanted mechanics for boarding an enemy craft, Muse Games are rightly defiant in their decision, as pulling any form of singleplayer combat into the title would have serious effects on its current dynamic, as well as remove from the cooperative emphasis on maintaining your ship as a whole.

Overall, I highly recommend this game for its refreshing backpedal into team-based combat, where each player is absolutely vital to the success of their ship. With its ever-growing community and update additions, Guns of Icarus Online has quickly risen to become one of my most played games since its release, and I can only predict improvement in its future.

Buy Guns of Icarus Online from Steam here

Visit the website here

Guns of Icarus Online is also destined to be released on the PS4

ZENO CLASH

Effectively the equivalent of brawling your way through a Heronimus Bosch triptych – of which Chilean developer, ACE Team, were greatly inspired by – Zeno Clash offers a very unique and original take on storytelling, gameplay and, most importantly, presentation, that can both enchant and disturb you along its twisted paths.

Initially released as a Steam download in 2009 using Valve’s Source engine, Zeno Clash can appear to be rather mysterious, if not confusing, in its content and theme. Through the eyes of its rebellious, yet sullen protagonist, Ghat, the player is immediately thrust into the Frankenstein world that is Zenozoik – a cobbled together assortment of everything but the ordinary. One of many children under the looming, birdlike hermaphrodite that is Father-Mother, Ghat is forced to flee his clan after discovering a dark secret about their universal parent that subsequently ends in him taking its life. Assisted by his female companion, Deadra, the two travel far from their home into the unforgiving, violent territories that make up Zenozoik’s landscape, all-the-while hunted by Ghat’s siblings who are hungry for revenge.

Although containing an assortment of crude melee and ranged weapons, this game is centrally focused on first-person hand-to-hand combat, embracing this wholly untraditional style of gameplay with very satisfying effects. Using a simplistic control map (punch, harder punch, block, dodge, etc.), the player is given a lot of freedom to experiment and formulate a fighting style over a series of linear maps that mark each stage of Ghat’s journey, as well as his retelling of the events that lead up to his banishment. The key to Zeno Clash‘s intense combat, however, lies in its firm grounding and brutal placement within this alien world: whilst playing I often felt a rush of contradicting emotions between each combatant, reluctantly delivering the final blow to some, whereas others I felt driven by my own hate and fear to destroy – a good example of this being against the grotesque cannibal, Gabel.

In terms of story, some players may feel a little bit disappointed in comparison to the game’s otherwise bizarre design and philosophies. It is not badly written, as such, however the characters – especially Ghat – can occasionally feel a little lacking and flat, which is not helped by the speed in which the journey progresses (I completed the campaign over a period of 3-4 hours in total). It is important to note that more focus is certainly drawn to the environment and its inhabitants who you will find recycled throughout and, surprisingly enough, happy to recognise in repetition. This close-knit, community feel definitely adds to Zeno Clash‘s atmosphere, creating a sense of isolation, yet intimacy within its cast – if pummeling anyone and everything repeatedly in the face is to your favour, that is.

Overall, Zeno Clash, despite its flaws, is definitely worth experiencing for its creativity and fresh take on first-person combat, combining many elements from other games that inspired its design – a cross between, say, the stage-based fighting of Double Dragon and perhaps the (tamed) brutality and perspective of Chronicles of Riddick – lacking in size and freedom, however. The core factors that support this title definitely lie in its organic and natural feel, which certainly left me intrigued and wanting for more insight into the beautifully dark realm of Zenozoik. After completing its campaign, players are also given access to a Tower Challenge mode akin to Soul Calibur‘s ‘Tower of Lost Souls’, in which Ghat must complete each individual floor of ascending difficulty – a deeply satisfying addition for any player who wishes to test their mettle further within the Zeno Clash universe. I highly recommend experiencing this title, especially so with its highly anticipated sequel’s release at the end of this month.

Buy Zeno Clash from Steam here

Visit the website here

SKYRIM: DRAGONBORN DLC

Ever since Bethesda’s much anticipated release of Skyrim in 2011, one key question has been haunting our collective mind: “When are they going to let us fly a dragon?” Fast forward 2 years and it would appear that we have finally reached a compromise. Well, kind of…

The third DLC in the Skyrim roster, Dragonborn returns our chosen hero to the familiar, ash-soaked island of Solstheim – previously depicted in Morrowind‘s Bloodmoon expansion in 2003. On arrival it is discovered that the land has been plagued by a mysterious uprising of ash creatures and has fallen under the will of a second, ancient dragonborn: Miraak. Using a collection of new shouts and the arcane knowledge found within a set of powerful ‘Black Books’, Solstheim’s freedom and the fate of Tamriel lies in your hands.

If you’ve read my previous post on the Elder Scrolls, it’s pretty apparent that I am a big fan of the series and have a fair amount of background knowledge on each title – Morrowind in particular. Needless to say I was pretty excited with the announcement that Bethesda were set to recreate the architecture and atmosphere that I had previously grown so fond of, and they honestly did a very good job of it – ignoring their insistence on blanketing everything in a thick layer of snow, that is. Finally, all those classic armours, items and landscapes in vastly updated graphics – there was even the promise of no Cliff Racers to drool over! So what could possibly go wrong with a setup as flawless as that? Well, uh, quite a few things actually.

Voice acting. What is this weird joke Bethesda have been carrying on through their audio? If all their previous games have set the Dunmer with a deep, rough drawl, where has the inspiration suddenly emerged to equip all our blue-skinned friends with what I can only deduce as a dodgy attempt at a Yorkshire accent? Previous characters throughout Skyrim have certainly been victim to a serious lack of emotion, but Bethesda managed to cross the line into obscurity when they made this production choice final. Disregarding that, the island’s denizens are fairly well crafted, if a little two dimensional.

Ah, but now it is time to explore this Miraak character we have been hearing so much about; this demonic, overwhelming energy that has engulfed the land in darkness. Emerging from the void in a particularly engrossing cinematic, we are treated to a James Bond-esque monologue, detailing his evil plan and why you are too puny to step in his way, fully clothed in flowing, dark robes and one of Dragonborn‘s new Cthulu inspired masks. All in all, Miraak is pretty well placed as a villain, encompassing those dreaded feelings of ‘he’s actually quite intimidating’ and ‘I hope he doesn’t come for me’ in a nice little package. What Bethesda are really pushing for here is that knowledge is power and, as it turns out, Miraak is pretty knowledgeable – he’s even been cheating a little bit with the help of a devious God. This wisdom, though, can equally be acquired by yourself in travelling through the winding passages of the Black Books.

These sections right here are easily the most interesting and original out of the entirety of the DLC. Upon reading each book, the player is transported into the realm of Apochrypha, which is mainly composed of bubbling, tentacle-infested water and, well, books. Each section forms a labyrinthian maze of literature to explore, all the while fending off attacks from the shade-like Seekers and fish-headed Lurkers. Every aspect of this new feature screams Lovecraftian design and horror and no reference made is at all hard to miss. On completion of each Black Book, the player is allowed to acquire one of three unique perks or powers which are certainly very welcome, if a little overpowered. As of writing my current character is level 51, so in terms of necessity there is little – but thank you for the little escape!

If you’ve read this far just to hear my original claim about riding dragons, then I do believe you are in luck. Yes, in Dragonborn you can now, ahem, ‘fly’ one of those winged beasts – but, not exactly in the way that statement should imply. Using ‘Bend Will’, a new shout that allows you to turn enemies into allies, the player can mount and use a dragon in combat, however you are confined into a particularly disappointing sequence of circling the battle area, with commands limited to ‘attack that’, or ‘land here’. It was a bold concept for Bethesda to push out if they had no intention of fulfilling their word on the matter, however understandably so: with so much landscape and detail to render, there would’ve been doubtless performance issues had the player been allowed to roam freely.

In terms of the plot, you would not be mistaken in feeling a little bit of deja vous. The side quests are fairly unique in part, but we’ve come here to fight that Miraak bloke, haven’t we? Already in place is the expectation of fighting your way into the big, final showdown against the nasty, old boss who’s been hounding your progress for ever so long. On playing, however, I was surprised to see that Bethesda chose to, essentially, take the Alduin route and just roll out another ‘you can only reach this place by dragon’, ‘you will not get the glory of winning it alone’ story. In a series that prides itself on intricate lore and detail, re-using tried and tested formats is fairly enjoyable, but certainly not at the peak it could have been.

I’m aware that this review has maybe appeared a little bleak, but that shouldn’t be seen as a deterrent – Dragonborn is unquestionably a worthy DLC and certainly worth shelling out for if you are a fan of Skyrim and its universe. But, as is with all things Bethesda, it has its numerous bugs and defects that should not go undetected. If, like myself, you play this title on a computer, then I strongly recommend checking out the huge number of community-created mods that patch up all the leaks Bethesda left behind. These can be found through the Steam Workshop, or, for a lot more power and depth, it is advised to use the Skyrim Nexus, which can be found with full instructions here. Solstheim itself forms a decently sized addition of explorable land to the vanilla game and introduces a good number of new enemies and items to tinker with, so should not be passed up just because of a few minor shortcomings – for those familiar with Morrowind‘s Bloodmoon, I’m sure you’ll appreciate the much-needed makeover given to those horrid little Rieklings. Overall, let it be said that I fully endorse this DLC, if just to snatch a glimpse of the ashlands once again – a safe and enjoyable purchase.

Dragonborn is available on Steam, Xbox 360 and Playstation

Buy it on Steam here

Visit the offical website here

10,000,000

‘Action’, ‘RPG’ and ‘Indie’ are three genres you have probably seen banded about a little too much recently – and there is no exception in the case of EightyEight Games’ debut PC port, 10,000,000, which washed upon our digital shores earlier this year.

Taking note of its iOS origins, I plunged into 10,000,000 with grave expectations of disappointment. “Just another failed crossover”, I began to tell myself as I flicked between screenshot after screenshot of crudely pixelated dungeons and monsters, “There is no way I am about to earn my money’s worth of enjoyment”. Well, uh, it would seem I was wrong. 8 hours overall playtime wrong, in fact.

A very simple game with little need for instruction, 10,000,000 actually does manage to work on a number of levels above its classification. On one hand you have the blatant RPG elements of grinding for experience and upgrades, the other a basic three-in-a-row matching puzzle, which earns the resource for the former. So, where does all this elusive ‘Action’ fit in, I hear you cry? Running atop it all is your tiny, fedora-equipped self, forming what is essentially a progress bar rife with chests to plunder and a variety of monsters to swing at. Whenever an obstacle is in your path, the correct tiles must be matched in order to continue, i.e. swords and staffs will deal damage, whilst keys unlock. Bearing in mind that your enemies are as eager for you to fail as you are to succeed, gameplay quickly becomes fast-paced and intense as that back wall – your only form of death – edges ever nearer.

Of course, there are a number of items to collect along your journey (food, for instance, gives you a little bump forward, allowing for last minute recuperation), however the main goal lies in the game’s title: 10,000,000 points must be achieved in order to gain your freedom. The developers’ original intentions aside, this is where we begin to break the fourth wall a little, and it certainly wasn’t hard to see links between our protagonist’s endless struggle and my own in playing this title. With every attempt I grew both stronger and more confident, all the while pushing for a higher score; that one step closer to victory.

It is important to note here that 10,000,000 carries the high addiction rate of most successful mobile titles and, already being a big fan of similar puzzle classic, Bejeweled, it certainly captivated my attention for the time that it lasted. This is a game that is very comfortable within its genre and will by no means make any move on trying to change that. All in all, a fun, challenging title that is extremely humble in both its motives and its pricing – worth checking out for any lover of its ilk.

Visit EightyEight’s website here

Buy it on Steam here

Buy it for iOS here

Retro Rewind: Tomb Raider (1996)

I have always been, and probably always will be, a huge PlayStation gamer. However, my particular weapon of choice is the first and the original PlayStation (or PSX) – the world’s first 32-bit console, released in 1995. The range and depth of legendary games available for the system is unrivalled, in my opinion, and I have kept not only nearly all my games, but two working consoles, and I still source games second hand. Anyway, I digress.

This is the first in a series of reviews of those classic games. My first pick is a game that is dear to my heart – the original Tomb Raider.

Before the other games, the movies, the spin-offs, and the reboots, there was this game. I loved it when it came out and I still love it now. As a then ten-year-old girl, Lara was a likeable and relatable heroine at a time when not many of them were around. There have been many debates regarding Lara’s feminist status versus her sex appeal, but she was a strong and confident female protagonist, who just happened to have big boobs (that were later reduced). And sure, the game’s graphics may be completely laughable by today’s standards – consider the iconic T-Rex battle in the third level, The Lost Valley.

Here’s the original:

 

And here’s the 2008 remake:

But in my mind, the dated visuals don’t detract from the game at all. In fact, it’s part of its charm for me. The game is still completely immersive and sucks me right in. So what if the entire game is comprised of boxes and squares around Lara’s height? So what if the textures are tiled straight onto the grid, including the water? So what if Lara’s famous breasts are triangular and they can’t animate her long plait? It’s just polygons!

The environments are still lovingly detailed and lush. The sound design in this game is second to none – the music is used sparingly and in just the right places. The Jaws-like cellos that start off the action theme still never fail to scare the crap out of me. The effects, ambient sound and creature noises are bang on the money. And of course, there is the hauntingly beautiful main theme – hearing it in the pool rooms of City of Vilcabamba never fails to give me chills. The later games became much more action-focused – Lara gained many new abilities and even friends to help her along the way. I still prefer the puzzle-based gameplay, with hints of action every so often to wake you up. The joy in Tomb Raider for me is exploring the levels, soaking up the ambience, and trying not to break your neck doing a tricky jump. I take immense satisfaction in performing exactly the right series of manoeuvres, manipulating the environment to get where I need to go.

This game also has the best story of the lot: a mystical artefact from the lost continent of Atlantis and a fallen god revived in the modern day wreaking her revenge (spoilers!). Lara’s flashback to the destruction of Atlantis is still chilling to this day. The thing I love in this game is that it is genuinely scary in some parts – not just in an oh-my-god-there’s-a-Trex-kill-it sort of way, but in a shivery, skin-crawling way. The moving fleshy walls of Atlantis and the skinless enemies are truly disconcerting. And you can’t tell me you didn’t get vertigo the first time you saw St Francis’ Folly.

Of course, the game still has its flaws. The Save Crystal system implemented for the PSX is a huge pain in the arse, forcing you to save a limited amount of times in certain locations. Later games introduced more lenient systems. Sometimes the camera angles suck, especially if the game turns Lara’s head to look in a certain direction when you don’t want it to. And some levels are prohibitively dark, which was also solved by the introduction of flares in later games. The only ability that I miss in the first game is being able to roll in mid-air, which is very handy in the midst of combat.

Overall, this game is an absolute gem, and a wonderful introduction to the series. The other games are immensely good too, but this one is still my favourite and in my opinion, the most accessible (the opening levels of TRII and III are quite difficult for a novice – hell, even difficult for me!). The levels are mostly short and sharp, which doesn’t let the game get bogged down, and later levels are just difficult enough to enjoy without (much) frustration. I dig it out every so often for a run around, and it’s time for me to attempt another play-through – once I find my PSX memory card!

 

Tomb Raider is still available second hand for PSX (PS2 compatible), or for download from the PlayStation Network. It is also available for PC download, but you will need a DOS emulator.

Borderlands 2

Pandora. A world taken over by Handsome Jack, The owner of the Hyperion Corporation.

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You are a Vault Hunter, come to Pandora to find, well, The Vault. But so is Handsome Jack. It is up to you to stop him.

Borderlands 2 is, of course, the sequel to the 2009 game Borderlands, developed by Gearbox Software and produced by 2K Games.

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Like the first game, there are different classes that you can play.  They all have their own special skills that you can upgrade as you wish. First there’s Axton, The Commando. Like Roland, from the first game, Axton throws out a large Sabre Turret, which is like having another soldier on the field, and if you beef it up right it will do all the fighting for you. Second we have Maya, the Siren. If you played as Lilith in the first game you’ll remember her ability Phasewalk, well it turns out all sirens have a different ability. Maya’s is Phaselock. Phaselock gives you the ability to hold your enemy in midair giving you time to reload, deal with other enemies, or focus on them. Maya is known as the healer in Borderlands 2 whereas in the first one it was Roland, but if you level up her skills just right her Phaselock can be one of the deadliest weapons in the game. Next there is Salvador, the Gunzerker. In Borderlands there was Brick the Berzerker who when Berzerking, would use his fists to pound his enemies. Well when Gunzerking Salvador can dual wield ANY TWO GUNS. Yes, that means you could dual wield a rocket launcher and a shotgun if you wanted. That is definitely not one little man you want to piss off. Then we have Zer0, the Assassain. This is one of the newest classes to the game. There was Mordecai, who was the Hunter in Borderlands but they are nothing alike. Zer0 has the ability to send out a hologram of himself (Yes it still does damage to enemies) so that he becomes invisibile and can do damage to his foes without being seen. This is a more difficult charachter to master and most people that play as Zer0 don’t exactly understand how to use him but when played correctly he can be one of the strongest characters in the game. And last we have Gaige, the Mechromancer. The newest edition to Pandora. Gaige is a tech wiz, and she has the ability to summon a bot named Death Trap. No matter what tree you decide to level up Gaige and Death Trap are unstoppable.

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One thing that was taken from the first game was the importance of loot. Loot is one of the most important parts of game. The higher the level the better the loot. The more people you play with (up to 4) the harder the game the better the loot. There are numerous factors that affect the level of loot you get. Never just look over anything because even if you can’t and/or don’t want to use it doesn’t mean you can’t sell it! Money is also a big deal. Never hesitate to open anything either…there is always some kind of goody hiding inside!

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Borderlands was definitely a different style game when it was released in 2009 and of course like all games it had its bugs and glitches but somehow Gearbox managed to fix them, all of them. I have only noticed one glitch in one area and its because the graphics can get incredibly intense. Other then that I haven’t noticed anything wrong with the game and neither has anyone I have talked to about it. Also unlike the first one, Gearbox has given Pandora a complete makeover. Pandora has become a more colorful planet. In the first one Pandora was a very dry, desolate place so very bland colors were used. Once the Vault was opened in the first one an element called Eriduim was being found all over and Pandora became a more beautiful planet.

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Also something new that Gearbox integrated into Borderlands 2 was character customization. Sure in the first one you can choose from a basic color palet but in Borderlands 2 you can unlock new heads and skins for your characher. All you need is a customization station and your character can be whoever you want them to be.

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Overall Gearbox Software did an amazing job with Borderlands 2. Be careful when you enter the Caustic Caverns because the game will be a bit glitchy but not enough to cause problems. I highly reccomend you give the game a chance. Revisit Pandora, find old friends, meet new ones, and above all save Pandora from Handsome Jack.