Review: Dying Light: The Following

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I loved Dying Light. It took the light-RPG slashfest that was Dead Island, stripped out most of the bad bits, and added a really fun parkour system to make easily one of the finest zombie games we’ve had in the last few years. It’s one of the few games where I’ve completed every single side-quest and loved every second of it.

Sadly its first major expansion, The Following, feels like a hell of a step back.


Dying Light: The Following – Enhanced Edition (PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)

Developer: Techland

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

Released: February 9, 2016

MSRP: £15.99/$19.99

The Following takes place in the countryside bordering the city of Harran. Mr. Kyle ‘Generic as Hell’ Crane goes to investigate rumours of people who are somehow immune to the zombie virus plaguing the city, and in doing so he gets caught up in a story of cults, bandits, and lots and lots of cars.

The vast majority of the gameplay is just as it was in Dying Light, and your character and all his abilities can carry over from it. The parkour is still great, the grappling hook still adds a whole new layer of movement, and the combat still feels adequately brutal.

The Following feels a lot like the core game’s fantastic side-missions expanded out into a full campaign. You’re treated to a mystery revolving around a cult: why are they immune? Who is the Mother? What are the Faceless? It’s all really exciting stuff, and it’s certainly a step up from the generic military guff we had in Dying Light’s main campaign.

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If that was all The Following was – a few more missions in a new map – I would’ve been incredibly happy with it! Unfortunately, there is one major thing that returns from Dead Island that drags down The Following in a major way: driving.

I don’t like driving in games at the best of times – usually they control poorly, and not very many games actually do interesting things with them (car chase missions need to just stop forever, please). It often feels like vehicles are just placed in a game because it’s what is expected instead of being a fun and worthwhile feature, and nowhere is that more painfully obvious than The Following.

The few pockets of built-up areas where the already excellent parkour mechanics can shine are separated by miles and miles and miles of absolutely nothing. When there is stuff to explore, it’s great: power plants, watchtowers, water pumping stations, and farms are all enticing and detailed enough to make worth checking out. But if you want to actually get to any of them, you’re going to have to drive to it in your rickety, unresponsive buggy that slows to a crawl if you so much as graze a zombie.

Most of the missions seem built around it too: drive to the needlessly faraway place, do X, then drive all the way back again to turn the quest in. Things do get switched up a bit with forced racing segments, but thanks to the awful driving controls they still feel like an unnecessary slog. Nothing seems new or interesting here – if you’ve played a driving mission in Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row, or Sleeping Dogs, chances are you’ll experience the exact same things in The Following.

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That on its own wouldn’t be particularly egregious, but then in stumbles the poorly planned out vehicle degradation system. Crash into a tree: vehicle damage. Crash into a car: vehicle damage. Crash into a zombie: vehicle damage. Don’t even think about driving through those big, tempting pockets of squishy undead found scattered on the roads, because there’s a chance the buggy will break or run out of petrol before you come out the other side.

Once the buggy does give up the ghost, having to scavenge around for car parts on foot in that big, empty map feels like more hassle than the buggy’s actually worth. It’s nothing more than irritating padding that actively prohibits the player from having fun, and it doesn’t thematically make sense when elsewhere in-game you can stick a battery onto a machete and then drop-kick a zombie to its death.

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When it’s good, The Following feels just as good as the core game. Its characters and missions are consistently more engaging than any of the main game’s nonsense, and the urban areas are perfectly designed to make the parkour as fun as ever. If that was all The Following was, it would be great!

And then that buggy comes along and ruins everything. The world is made huge and empty just to fit it in at the cost of the already great set of mechanics Dying Light has. That problem’s made worse when even the slightest bit of fun that could’ve been had from it is let down by an arbitrary vehicle degradation systems that punishes the player for daring to have fun with it.

Sometimes ‘just more of the same’ is a good thing.

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Review: Steam Controller

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My Xbox 360 controller and I have been through a hell of a lot in the seven years since I got it.

It survived a whole summer-long binge of Left 4 Dead, came with me on my move to PC gaming, been thrown against walls because of Dark Souls, had its handles lovingly taped back on after said incidents. It’s weird placing emotional fondness onto an inanimate object, but I think I can safely say my 360 controller has been there for me in my darkest of days.

It’s now been unceremoniously dumped into a box under my desk, because I got a Steam Controller and damn is it amazing.

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Steam Controller

Manufacturer: Valve

Input: 1x USB Bluetooth dongle (included)

MSRP: £39.99/$49.99

The Steam Controller is unlike any controller I’ve used before. It gets rid of the twin analogue stick design that’s been so common ever since the PlayStation 1 days, and instead opts for a single, small stick and two huge trackpads. At first, I wasn’t convinced this would be a very good way of playing games, seeing as playing anything on a laptop’s trackpad is about as useful as controlling the game from fifty foot with a joined up collection of bendy straws.

Despite that, the trackpads on the Steam Controller work really damn well, mostly due to the advanced haptic feedback system under the right pad that allows it to feel more like a second analogue stick than a laptop. I’ve discovered I can quite comfortably play Team Fortress 2 (and get kills!) using the controller, which is something I never liked doing on my 360 pad.

The rest of the buttons also work really well, too. I love the triggers, which are really chunky and have both haptics-driven soft activation and physical switch hard activation points, which just feels so comfortable to use. The soft and hard points can also be bound to different functions too, which I found is pretty good for stuff like aiming down ironsights or sniper scopes.

I’m a big fan of the back paddles, which are in just the right position for my hands to not require too much effort to activate, but give off a really satisfying *click* noise whenever they’re pressed. Most games I play on it have now been rebound to use the paddles to jump and crouch just because of how accessible they are.

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Speaking of rebinding controls, every button is entirely customisable for every individual game you launch through Steam, including non-Steam games. At first, the amount of options and settings Steam gave me to configure was totally overwhelming, but as I started using it more and more, I got to know my mouse joystick from my mouse region and was soon able to set up almost any game to control just how I wanted it to. There are also configurations made by members of the community, which is a great way of quickly finding optimal settings.

I’m still struggling to get some games to work, Left 4 Dead has weird sensitivity no matter what I do for example, but overall the sheer reconfigurability of the controller is a massive plus.

The biggest appeal of the Steam Controller is its ability to easily play genres not usually suitable for controllers: city sims, point-and-clicks, RTS, that sort of thing. I’ve not delved into these too much, as they’re not generally types of games I like to play anyway, but I did give Cities: Skylines a try and found that with a bit of tinkering and reconfiguring, it is an entirely viable (if someone tiring) way to play. The right pad works really well as a mouse control, and there are enough extra buttons on the controller to allow for more finely-tuned control. Even Crusader Kings 2 is playable on it!

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Ergonomically, the Steam Controller is by far the most comfortable controller I’ve ever held. The face of the controller is concave, rather than convex, which means your thumbs don’t have to stretch out to hit the farther out buttons, but instead just rotate how they would naturally. It feels strange to hold at first, but it definitely helps reduce fatigue with longer gaming sessions, especially for people like me who may have gammy hands to start with.

There are only two complaints about the physical design I’m able to make. Firstly, I think the small thumbstick on the left side of the controller is raised a bit too high and placed too close to the centre. I do feel some strain on my left thumb after a while, especially when swapping between it and the left trackpad, which is actually placed lower than the base of the stick.

Secondly, the haptics are incredibly loud. Using the right pad and its haptic-driven virtual joystick produces a constant, audible buzzing noise. While it is drowned out by the sound of the game, people who stream or record videos may need to learn to play with them disabled just to reduce audio interference.

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Other than those two problems, the Steam Controller is easily my favourite gamepad ever. I am a bit of a unique case because of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome meaning I have specific ergonomic requirements, but even then I think anybody will be able to benefit from the comfortable design and versatile controls the Steam Controller supplies.

Sorry, Xbox 360 pad. I’ve met someone new, and it’s over between us.

This review was made possible by the generous support of my Patreon backers! If you like this sort of content, please consider pledging!

Review: Firewatch

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Before it came out, I was only vaguely aware of Firewatch. I’d seen a logo here, a bit of artwork there, but hadn’t really paid attention to it, what it was, or when it was coming out.

Now that I’ve finished it, I am so, so glad that I went into Firewatch completely blind. It’s a fascinating and lovely, if sometimes bumpy, experience that is definitely my first true contender for the best game of this year.

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Firewatch

Developer: Campo Santo

Publisher: Panic Inc. and Campo Santo

Released: February 9, 2016.

Platforms: PC (reviewed), PS4

MSRPG: $19.99/£14.99

Firewatch places you in the shoes of Henry, a depressed man who’s escaped from his personal problems to an isolated job keeping an eye out for fires in a national park. Secluded away in your tower, far away from any civilisation, your only line of communication is with Delilah, your sarcastic and confident boss.

The game is a quote-unquote “walking simulator”, where Henry must hike to various locations in his sector of the park to uncover a growing, dark mystery while also trying to prevent any potential fires. There are two major components to any good walking simulator: a beautiful world to explore, and a narrative that can really hook you in. While there is one area where the game stumbles, Firewatch manages to succeed on almost all fronts.

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The world is absolutely gorgeous, with its colourful and low-poly style. While I didn’t feel particularly drawn to explore like I was in something like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the environments I did go through were often memorable and a treat to look at. This was emphasised by the really cool camera mechanic, which gave me a limited number of photos I could take that would show up in the game’s credits, and could even be bought as physical prints. Campo Santo knew how good looking Frewatch was, and they weren’t afraid to flaunt it.

The layout of the forest was also very well designed, with enough alternate routes to dampen the irritation that came with the often frequent backtracking. Over time I grew from having to frequently consult my obtuse map because I’d gotten lost yet again, to being able to traverse through it pretty much from memory. This fit pretty really with the game’s narrative, which takes place over roughly two months and sees Henry grow into his role as part of the firewatch.

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The biggest appeal of Firewatch by far were its characters. The game’s almost entirely carried by radio conversations between Henry and Delilah, and every single bit of dialogue I heard was written and acted impeccably. Stumbling across new conversation points was a delight, and they could deftly swing from being hilarious to emotional in only a few seconds. The chemistry between the two is so endearing, and I’d happily go as far as to say this might be some of the best writing and performances I’ve seen in a game in a very long time. I really hope we get to see some more of Henry and Delilah at some point, even if it’s just as a prologue.

Unfortunately, my biggest complaint with Firewatch is with the actual story itself. It’s not an especially long game – my run was about three hours long, which is fine considering how high-quality everything else is – but it still drags on a bit with the mystery’s build-up, only to follow it with a very unsatisfying and kind of rushed conclusion.

For the majority of the game I was completely engrossed in the mystery, only for it to all be brushed away with a naff explanation in the last twenty minutes or so, leaving me wishing I’d taken more time to explore instead of getting so caught up in the events.

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Despite that, I think Firewatch is a game that’s about the journey rather than the destination. Simply listening to Henry and Delilah’s conversations, listening to them work through their personal problems, and watching them grow to be more comfortable with each other while explore a beautiful park was good enough for me.

If you’re looking for a groundbreaking plot or deep mechanics, I’d recommend you look elsewhere because I’d argue that isn’t what Firewatch is really about. If you want a fantastic world to hike through with some exceptional dialogue that isn’t afraid to explore some darker topics, I absolutely and completely recommend you take a look at Firewatch. You won’t regret it.

Review – Fallout 4

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Fun, Yet Cynical

I’m a pretty massive Fallout fan. I absorb the game’s lore and fan wiki like an obsessive sponge, and just love exploring the retrofuturistic wastelands Interplay and Bethesda have given us. The series’ black humour that never verges into over-the-top grimdark edginess, the incredibly creative locations and groups of people you come to meet; I just can’t help but love everything about the Fallout series. That’s why it pains me to say that I am somewhat disappointed by more than a few elements of Fallout 4.

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There are plenty of things to like about Fallout 4.

Fallout 4 takes place in and around Boston, Massachusetts; an area known in the Fallout universe as the technologically advanced Commonwealth. For the most part, Bethesda has managed to deliver on giving us a world worth exploring that totally lives up to the interest built during certain quest lines in Rivet City from Fallout 3.

It feels like a real place where people are surviving and thriving, unlike Fallout 3’s Capital wasteland, while also not feeling as sparse and monotonous as New Vegas’ Mojave. There’s plenty of stuff to find, and a great mix of rural and urban areas to delve into.

Fallout 3 and New Vegas were RPGs first, and shooters second. While on the whole this was the best way to go (what with the series being dubbed the “Post-Nuclear Role Playing Game” and all), it did mean that shooting in the previous games felt incredibly flat and pretty unsatisfying.

Fallout 4 took inspiration from popular shooter Destiny, and as a result massively improves on the gunplay from its predecessors. Shooting feels meaty and enemies respond to your shots, and damaging limbs has become a really viable strategy as opposed to just aiming for the head previous. It’s the combat that feels like the biggest improvement over the previous games, and dang is it fun.

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Another massive change is how one of the most ubiquitously Fallout things, the Power Armour, functions. Previously, you would simply require training to use it, and once you had acquired a suit you would be able to trudge along the Wasteland with it at all times. The armour has its own power supply, and when it runs out of juice, you can either refill it or abandon it and continue on foot. As a bonus, you take massively less damage when wearing it.

It’s a nice system, as I’ve never liked using Power Armour in the past due to the bulk of it slowing me down while doing quests. Now it serves as more of a vehicle to get you safely from point A to point B, protecting you from ambushes from the less friendly Commonwealth inhabitants.

One of the best new additions Fallout 4 is also the thing I’ve been most pleasantly surprised about: base building. I expected it to be more of a pointless, shallow little side-feature that I’d only do if a quest required me to, but oh how wrong I was. Scavenging the land to find the best materials to make my dream home in the post-apocalypse took up a hell of a lot more time than I was expecting.

My houses in Megaton or The Strip in previous games were something I used only to sleep in if I needed to, and never really felt like a home to me. I never bothered putting up ornaments or storing my items when I knew I’d have a pack-mule of a companion to do all the work for me. But my little settlements across the Commonwealth were mine. I’d put the work into making them habitable and safe, and I was going to make damn sure they succeeded. It was a really nice palette cleanser after utterly annihilating a band of raiders, or climbing around a Super Mutant camp.

What it does well, Fallout 4 does really well. It makes it all the more disappointing that there are some pretty huge issues with it too.

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One of the most interesting things Bethesda teased us with up to launch was the inclusion of a pre-war segment. The world of Fallout before the bombs dropped has always had an air of mystery and curiosity around it, so having the ability to see it for myself was incredibly exciting.

So imagine my disappointment when the entire pre-war segment amounted to not much more than choosing your character and getting to the underground Vault. I had no sense of attachment or loss once I’d moved on through to long after the bombs simply because I wasn’t given any time to be invested in it or the family that would revolve around much of the main plotline.

It served as a neat narrative purpose for players new to Fallout by making the playable character just as unaware of the workings of the Commonwealth as we are, but it also felt like a big kick in the teeth for those of us who have been invested in the series for a number of years.

Fallout 4’s habit of skipping past what makes Fallout so special pervades the entire game. From the 15 or so hours I’ve spent on it, a lot of the dark humour that the previous games had is long gone. Fallout 4 feels like it’s been designed by Bethesda’s marketing department to be as sellable and “safe” as possible: there’s Nuka-Cola, there’s Super Mutants, and there are Vaults, but they’re all icons that can be easily pressed into memorabilia. There hasn’t been anything or anyone who felt as special to me as Megaton’s Moira Brown or Freeside’s The King, nor locations like Oasis, the Sierra Madre or Little Lamplight. It’s just been sad people in the post-apocalypse surviving the post-apocalypse while being sad, and not much else.

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Fallout has never had particularly well-designed menus: if it isn’t Fallout 3 and New Vegas’ clunky Pip-Boy, it’s Fallout’s weirdly unresponsive metal shutters, and Fallout 4 is no exception to this. The Pip-Boy has returned, and probably through some dark arcane magic they’ve managed to make it even more fiddly and difficult to use than before. I have yet to find a decent way flipping between submenus and have had to jump quickly between using my keyboard and the mouse depending on what information I want to look at. It just feels utterly awkward to use, and that’s before you consider how unhelpful the new equipment system is.

One of the big changes from Fallout 3 and New Vegas is that armour can now be equipped on individual body parts: a leather left arm, a metal right leg, that sort of thing. It may give some ideal opportunities to cosplay as bloody Edward Elric if you want, but when you’re just trying to get the best out of what you have in a pinch, it can be a massive, massive pain in the arse. It also means playing dress-up with outfits is often not worth the hassle of remembering exactly which boiled leather left big toe you had equipped when heading back out on the road.

Weaponry isn’t much easier to control either. The new hot bar would, in theory, function the exact same as previous games: weapons are assigned to number keys that will equip and unequip them as you press the number. In practice, the icons that represent each item are vague and totally unhelpful when organising which gun goes where, and so often I found myself just hopping into the Pip-Boy and equipping them that way rather than risk accidentally pulling out a teeny-tiny little stick when going up against a Super Mutant.

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Previously I mentioned that the last few Fallout games had a bit of an imbalance between their shooter and RPG elements. While Fallout 4 has drastically improved its shooter elements, it hasn’t necessarily balanced the scales as the reworked RPG mechanics fall completely flat.

The new stat system revolves itself heavily around the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system for absolutely everything. Whereas before S.P.E.C.I.A.L. worked as a baseline for your character to grow from, now they define exactly who you play as at all times. Gone are the days of levelling up your speech, now you have to put points into your charisma instead.

This feels like a simplification too far, as it can be difficult at times to know which skills you want to improve are related to which stat. Whereas before I could just improve my lockpicking skill directly, now I have to improve my perception enough to unlock the perk that lets me pick more complicated locks. Spreading one skill out over multiple points feels totally unnecessary to me while also making the entire affair pretty shallow as you just can’t level up essential skills are quickly.

Had Fallout 4 come out under any other name, I would’ve absolutely and vocally recommended it. The gunplay is solid, the world is well-designed, the new base-building system is deeply involving, and the entire thing is just fun to play. However, the magic of New Vegas and Fallout 3 seems to have all been washed away with the increased popularity of a post-Skyrim Bethesda and all the possibilities for memorabilia that entails. It just doesn’t feel like a Fallout game to me. It’s just a few cutesy robots and a godawful UI.