Starfield: Why game delays are a good thing

If you missed the announcement, Bethesda Game Studios’ upcoming sci-fi role-playing game Starfield has been delayed. Originally planned for a November 2022 release, that has slipped back to “the first half of 2023,” which potentially means that the game is a year or more away. With Starfield having shown off a cinematic teaser and some concept art but no real gameplay yet, perhaps the delay was not entirely unexpected! Regardless, some folks are upset by this move, with some PlayStation super-fans even hailing it as a “failure” for Xbox. Obviously that isn’t the case, so today we’re going to use Starfield as an example of why delays really are a good thing.

First up, it’s never fun when a game I’m looking forward to receives a delay. I don’t think anyone is trying to pretend that a delay to a highly-anticipated title – particularly a lengthy delay of six months or more – is something that fans and players are thrilled about or want to see. Instead, I’d describe delays as “understandable.” Particularly in light of a number of recent titles that have been disappointing due to feeling like they weren’t ready to go on launch day, I think more and more players are coming around to that point of view.

Concept art for Starfield.

Increasingly, these kinds of announcements are treated with maturity and understanding by players – and you need only look to some of the comments and responses to Bethesda’s announcement about Starfield as a case in point. Yes, there are some folks who are angry or unhappy – toxicity exists within the gaming community, who knew? And there are the aforementioned PlayStation ultra-fans who are taking a victory lap. But many responses were positive, saying something along the lines of “if it needs more time, that’s okay.”

Failing to delay a game when extra development time is clearly required never ends well. A game’s reputation is largely set within a few hours of its release, and attempting to change the narrative once “it’s bad” or “it’s full of bugs and glitches” has become the overwhelming impression is nigh-on impossible. For every No Man’s Sky that manages to pull off some kind of rehabilitation, there are dozens of titles such as Anthem, Aliens: Colonial Marines, or Warcraft III: Reforged. It’s much better to launch a decent game out of the gate than to try to fix a broken mess after players are already upset.

Concept art for Starfield.

One game has done more than any other in recent years to soften attitudes in favour of delays and to remind players just how badly it’s possible to screw up a premature launch: Cyberpunk 2077. Despite receiving a significant delay earlier in 2020, Cyberpunk’s launch in December of that year was so catastrophically bad that the game ended up being forcibly removed from the PlayStation store, found itself widely criticised by players, and it even saw CD Projekt Red’s share price take a tumble from which it has yet to fully recover.

Starfield exists in a similar space to Cyberpunk 2077 – both are role-playing games, both include science-fiction elements, both are open-world titles, and so on – so many of the players anticipating Starfield have been burned already just eighteen months ago by a game that was released far too soon. Those players, perhaps more than any others, are inclined to understand the reasons behind this decision. And even folks who didn’t personally get caught up in the Cyberpunk 2077 mess are at least aware of what happened.

Cyberpunk 2077 needed a delay or two of its own.

In 2022, with so many games having been released too soon, the attitude from players in general has shifted. Where delays may once have been met with a louder backlash from those who felt disappointed, reactions today are more mature and understanding. That’s not to say toxic or aggressive individuals don’t exist or that there won’t be any criticism of such a move, but rather that the scale of backlash that delays receive is now less significant than it used to be.

At the end of the day, even the most aggressive critics of delays are still likely to buy a game that they’re excited for when it’s ready. It would take some serious self-harming spite to say “because you didn’t release the game in 2022 I’m never going to play it ever!” so from Bethesda and parent company Microsoft’s point of view, the longer-term damage is limited. That isn’t true for every company, though.

Bethesda is owned by Microsoft.

Delays have a disproportionate impact on smaller companies and independent developers, because a delay in those cases can potentially mean that there won’t be enough money to fund their project. If a developer only has enough money in the bank to keep the lights on and the computers powered up for a certain number of weeks, then there’s naturally going to be a hard limit on how far they can push back a release – and the income it brings. In those cases, more leniency can be required when assessing a game.

But when we’re dealing with Starfield, Bethesda, and Microsoft, that’s a non-issue! Backed up by one of the biggest corporations on the planet, Bethesda doesn’t need to worry about running out of cash, and from Microsoft’s point of view it’s infinitely better to ensure that Starfield gets all the time that it needs to be ready for prime-time. This is Bethesda’s first big title for Microsoft, their first new IP in years, and a game that has a lot riding on it for the success of Microsoft’s Xbox brand and Xbox Game Pass. Getting it right is so much more important than rigid adherence to arbitrary deadlines, so if release windows need to shift then from a business perspective that’s what makes the most sense.

Starfield is likely to be a big title for bringing in new Game Pass subscribers.

There are instances where release dates are announced that seem, even at the time, to be unrealistic. Bethesda’s 11th of November 2022 release date for Starfield, for instance, came eleven years to the day after another of their titles: Skyrim. In addition to getting the game out in time for the Christmas rush, there was also clearly something poetic or symmetrical about such a release date that was appealing to Bethesda. But they recognised that the release date wasn’t practical and changed it – good for them!

As consumers in this marketplace, I think we have a responsibility not only to call out and criticise companies when they get it wrong, but to at least acknowledge when a correct decision has been made. As I always say, I have no “insider information” – so I don’t know what condition the current version of Starfield may or may not be in – but if the developers, testers, and management at Bethesda have recognised that the game isn’t far enough along to be in with a realistic chance of hitting its release date, then the smart move is to announce a delay as early as possible. That seems to be what they’ve done, and I commend them for it.

Concept art for Starfield.

In an industry and a marketplace that is too demanding of its employees sometimes, delays can be incredibly welcome respite. I’ve talked before about “crunch” – a practice that I have some personal experience with having once worked in the games industry – and that’s another reason why delays can be a positive thing. Maybe Bethesda could have crunched the teams working on Starfield hard enough to get some semblance of a playable title ready in time to hit its planned release date – but if doing so would have come at the expense of those developers and their health, then I wouldn’t want to get Starfield this year.

Crunch is a bigger subject that we’ll need to talk about at length on another occasion, but if a delay like this one helps to minimise the stress and difficulty of working under such conditions, then suffice to say we have one more reason to be supportive.

I’m looking forward to Starfield, despite some missteps by Bethesda in recent years. If this delay means that the game will be significantly more polished, free from as many bugs and glitches as possible, then I’m all for it. If this delay means that developers and staff at Bethesda aren’t pushed too hard and overworked this year, then I’m all for it. And if this delay means that Starfield will be an all-around more enjoyable experience, then I’m all for it. Though there will be critics and a vocal minority of toxic “fans,” more and more players are coming around to this way of thinking. Delay Starfield if necessary, and if it isn’t ready for the first half of 2023 then delay it again! All that really matters is that the game is in the best possible shape when it finally arrives, and if that means waiting a little longer, that’s fine by me.

Starfield has been delayed and is now due for release sometime in the first half of 2023. Starfield is the copyright of Bethesda Softworks, Bethesda Game Studios, and the Microsoft Corporation. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Happy Birthday, Morrowind!

Depending on where you are in the world, today or tomorrow will mark the 20th anniversary of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The open-world role-playing game was one of a few titles in the early 2000s that genuinely changed my relationship with gaming as a hobby – and kept me engaged when I might’ve otherwise began to drift away. To me, even twenty years later it still represents the high-water mark of the entire Elder Scrolls series, and I’d probably even go so far as to call it one of my favourite games ever.

It can be difficult to fully explain how revolutionary some games felt at the time, especially to younger folks who grew up playing games with many of the modern features and visual styles that still dominate the medium today. But in 2002, a game like Morrowind was genuinely groundbreaking; quite literally defining for the very first time what the term “open-world” could truly mean.

For players like myself who cut our teeth on the pretty basic, almost story-less 2D games of the 1980s on consoles like the Commodore 64 or NES, the technological leap to bring a world like Morrowind’s to life is staggering. Considering the iterative improvements that the last few console generations have offered, it’s something that we may never see again, at least not in such a radical form. Comparing a game like Morrowind to some of the earliest games I can remember playing must be akin to what people of my parents’ generation describe when going from black-and-white to colour TV!

One thing that felt incredibly revolutionary about Morrowind was how many completely different and unrelated stories were present. There was a main quest, and it was an interesting one, but instead of just random side-missions that involved collecting something or solving a single puzzle, there were entire questlines for different factions that were just as long and in-depth as anything the main quest had to offer. It was possible to entirely ignore the main quest in favour of pursuing other stories, and that made Morrowind feel like a true role-playing experience.

For the first time (at least the first time that I’d encountered), here was a game that gave me genuine freedom of choice to be whoever I wanted to be – within the confines of its fantasy setting. There were the usual classes – I could choose whether to be a sword-wielding warrior, a sneaky archer, a mage, and so on – but more than that, I could choose which stories I wanted to participate in… and choosing one faction over another would, at least in some cases, permanently close off the other faction to that character. That mechanic alone gave Morrowind a huge amount of replayability.

To this day there are quests in Morrowind that I haven’t completed – or even started! That stands as testament to just how overstuffed this game was, and as I’ve mentioned in the past, the amount of content in Morrowind eclipses both of its sequels: Oblivion and Skyrim. Morrowind offers more quests, more factions to join, more NPCs to interact with, more types of weapons to use, more styles of magic to use, and while its open world may be geographically smaller, it feels large and certainly more varied – at least in some respects – than either of its sequels.

I first played Morrowind on the original Xbox – the console I’d bought to replace the Dreamcast after that machine’s unceremonious exit from the early 2000s console war! But the PC version gave the game a whole new lease of life thanks to modding – and mods are still being created for the game 20 years later. There are mods that completely overhaul Morrowind’s graphics, meaning that it can look phenomenal on a modern-day PC, and there are so many different player-made quests, items, weapons, characters, and even wholly new locations that the game can feel like an entirely new experience even though it’s marking a milestone anniversary.

Although modding and mod communities had been around before Morrowind came along, it was one of the first games that I can recall to genuinely lean into and encourage the practice. The PC version of Morrowind shipped with a piece of software called The Elder Scrolls Construction Set as a free extra, and it contained everything players needed to get started with modding. I even had a play with the Construction Set when I got the PC version of Morrowind a few years after its release, and while I lack the technical skills to create anything substantial, I remember it being an interesting experience.

I followed a guide I found online and managed to create a companion for the main character, as well as added doors to a specific house so it could be accessed from any of the towns on the map! I also added a few items to the game, like an overpowered sword with a silly name. By this point, Morrowind and its mods were just good fun, and as I didn’t have a PC capable of running Oblivion when that was released a few years later, Morrowind mods were an acceptable stand-in!

Before Morrowind became overladen with mods, though, there were two incredible expansion packs released for the game. This was before the era of cut-content DLC or mini DLC packs that added nothing of substance, so both Tribunal and Bloodmoon were massive expansions that were almost like new games in their own ways. Both added new areas to explore, new factions, new characters, new items, and new questlines. While Tribunal was fantastic with its air of mystery, I personally enjoyed Bloodmoon even more. I like wintery environments, and the frozen island of Solstheim, far to the north of the main map, was exactly the kind of exciting environment that I’d been looking for.

So that’s it for today, really. I just wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the anniversary of one of my favourite role-playing games, to celebrate some of the things that made it great – and continue to make it a game that I’m happy to return to and to recommend to fans of the genre. Regular readers might’ve seen Morrowind on some of my “PC gaming deals” lists around Christmas or in the summertime, and when Morrowind goes on sale on Steam, for example, the game-of-the-year edition with both expansion packs can be less than the price of a coffee. It’s also on Game Pass following Microsoft’s acquisition of Bethesda – so there’s no excuse not to give it a try, at least!

In the twenty years since Morrowind was released, many other games have imitated its open-world layout, its factions, its branching questlines, and its diversity. Some newer games have bigger worlds, more characters, and so on… but Morrowind will always be a pioneer. It may not have got everything right, but it’s a landmark in the history of video games that showed us just how immersive and real a fantasy world could feel.

As one of the first games of its kind that I ever played, I have very fond memories of Morrowind. Often when I pick up a new open-world, fantasy, or role-playing title, I’ll find myself unconsciously comparing it to Morrowind, or noting that Morrowind was the first game where I encountered some gameplay mechanic or element for the first time. It really is an incredibly important game. So happy birthday, Morrowind! Here’s to twenty years!

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is out now and can be purchased for PC or via Xbox Game Pass. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind is the copyright of Bethesda Game Studios and Microsoft. Some images above courtesy of UESP.net. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Video game spotlight: Banished

This is the first part of a new occasional series that I’ll be running here on the website in which I’ll be taking a look in more detail at some of my favourite video games. It’s a lot of fun to review brand-new games and keep up-to-date with all the goings-on in the video games industry, but sometimes it’s nice to step back and just geek out about some of my all-time favourites!

If you’re a regular reader of my gaming content you’ve probably seen me talk about Banished before; it’s a mainstay on my lists of recommended titles whenever there’s a big Steam sale! But despite having recommended Banished on several occasions going back to the website’s first month in operation in 2019, this is the first time I’ve taken a deeper look at the game.

A recent town of mine in Banished.

Banished was released in 2014 for PC, and I honestly can’t remember where I first heard about it. The early- and mid-2010s were a mess for me for all manner of reasons, and my memory isn’t great even under the best circumstances! Suffice to say that I discovered Banished shortly after its launch, and for a relatively low price of admission when compared to titles in a similar city-building space, I thought it was at least worth a shot. The fact that I’m still playing it almost eight years later should tell you how I feel about it!

What astonishes me about Banished is that its developer – Shining Rock Software – is actually just one person. A single person managed to create this incredibly intricate and challenging game, one that exists in a pretty unique niche within the overall city-building game realm. I think that’s absolutely incredible, and well worth taking a moment to consider. Banished was a labour of love – and it shows. Maybe it doesn’t have the flashiest graphics or the most complex and numerous in-game mechanics, but it brings a lot to the table regardless. I’d still include Banished as one of my all-time favourite titles even if it had been put out by an entire studio backed up by a major publisher, but the fact that it’s an indie game made by a single person is just mind-blowing.

A market, crop fields, a mine, and houses.

I usually like to play games on the easiest mode available. Particularly with fast-paced titles like action games and shooters, I find that I just don’t have the reflexes, reaction time, or just the ability to play those kinds of games at that level. This should be the subject of a longer essay sometime, but as someone with disabilities, I really do believe that difficulty options are an accessibility feature that as many games as possible should include. I’ve been playing video games for more than thirty years; if I haven’t “got gud” by now, I’m not going to! But we’ve drifted off-topic.

Banished offers several different difficulty options that can be combined in different ways to customise the experience. The number of families (and individual citizens) that the town has at the start, the harshness of the weather, and whether disasters (like fires breaking out) are switched on or off all make an impact, as does whether the randomly-generated map has more or fewer mountains. Instead of just offering a standard easy, medium, or hard mode, Banished allows players to really tailor the kind of experience they want to have – and I think that’s something more titles in the city-builder genre should try to emulate.

The “New Game” menu.

I would call Banished a game that’s deceptively complex. Its relatively small number of buildings and resources makes it seem, on the surface, that it should be relatively easy to get to grips with. Harvest enough resources to keep your small population healthy, happy, and well-fed. That’s all there is to it, right?

But when you get stuck in, there’s so much more to it than that. Balancing your resources so you aren’t over-producing and wasting storage space while also making sure you don’t produce too little of something and run out is like walking a tightrope at times! I’ve ended up in some very sticky situations because I had slightly too much or too little of something important at just the wrong moment – and it can be fatal, in some cases, if you get caught out.

Harvesting a crop of wheat in Banished.

For example, it’s tempting to use all the logs your citizens gather to construct new buildings – especially at the beginning of the game when you don’t have many. But if you burn through your supply of logs too quickly and don’t have enough citizens assigned to chop down trees or work as foresters to replace them, come winter everyone will freeze because there won’t be enough firewood! Conversely, if you construct a woodcutter’s cabin and don’t keep a careful eye on how much firewood they’re making, they can easily chop up all of the logs you have meaning you won’t have any when you want to construct the next new building!

Banished isn’t a game you can set and forget. In order to truly succeed you need to be on top of your resources pretty much all the time. Even though there aren’t that many you need to manage, it’s a balancing act to stay on top of all of them at once. A single disruptive event can completely bowl you over if you aren’t careful, and when citizens don’t have the right balance of resources their health and happiness will drop, making them less productive. In the worst case they can die – starvation, cold, disease, and so on can all spell doom for the residents of your community!

A small cluster of buildings in a forest.

Take a recent game I played as an example! While building up my town I was constantly hampered by a lack of stone to construct new buildings. Even after building a stone quarry this problem persisted for a while, so I prioritised things like building new houses closer to the quarry so I could get more stonecutters. I constructed other buildings in what I considered to be descending order of importance, prioritising things like making sure there was enough food for a growing population, which meant adding new crop fields, fishing docks, and assigning citizens to those jobs. After a while, there was an outbreak of disease – the measles, in this case. But because I hadn’t constructed any hospitals, the disease ripped through the population! By the time I’d figured out how badly I was screwed, half the town was infected. I pulled everyone off their jobs to get a hospital built, which happened in the nick of time. Doing that, however, meant that there was less food as the harvest went to waste as winter set in and the crops were still in the fields!

All in all, the citizens of my town had a very bad time because of a combination of bad luck and bad management on my part! A lot of citizens ended up dying because there was no hospital, and the disease was only stopped because a few hardy souls managed to scrape together enough resources to build a hospital from scratch at the last minute. It took a long time to recover from that!

Official Trekking with Dennis Top Tip:
Remember to build a hospital!

Like many great PC games, Banished happily encourages modding. There is (or was) a solid modding community, with mods adding in brand-new buildings, gameplay elements, and visual overhauls to name but a few. Shining Rock Software was keen from the very beginning for fans and players to get involved and develop their own mods for the game, and there are some very popular ones that really transform Banished into something different. Playing the game without any of these is fine – wonderful, even – but if you’re ready for a different experience after playing the original version, mods like Colonial Charter give Banished a whole new lease of life.

Returning to the original game, though, there’s plenty to enjoy. There are eight different types of crops, eight different types of fruit trees, and three different types of animals for the town to take care of. These are all different – and the differences aren’t merely cosmetic, either. Some crops grow faster than others, or grow better in different conditions. Citizens are healthier when they have a varied diet – and that includes multiple types of crops, fruits, meats, and the like.

Citizens walking past an orchard in the winter.

The three different animals (cows, sheep, and chickens) all produce different resources for the town, too, and at different rates. Sheep will produce wool, which is great for making clothes, and cattle will produce leather – but you’ll get an awful lot more wool per sheep than leather per cow! Chickens will produce plenty of eggs! It can be easy to overproduce wool and eggs (in my opinion, at least) once you start building a lot of animal pastures – and this can eat up storage space that could be used for other goods!

There are many strategies that players have developed in the years since Banished was released. I play the game my own way, and I’m sure you can find a strategy that works for you either through trial and error or by looking them up online! The fact that there are so many different approaches to playing the game, and so many different recommendations and suggestions for how to get started, what to build first, and so on is testament to the fact that Banished truly is a complex and deep experience.

Pastures holding sheep and chickens near a market.

Banished is a game I can get lost in for hours at a time. Building up a small town, managing its starting resources, and then establishing a trading post to bring in different crops and herds is a ton of fun. Because maps are randomly generated, Banished feels different every time. Every game starts off in a different location, with a different combination of starting resources. There are some things I usually like to do first – my top tip is to make the first building you construct a school so your citizens will always be well-educated and thus more efficient – but other than that I like to play it by ear, see what resources I have in the immediate vicinity of my starting location, and then decide how best to expand!

If you haven’t tried Banished, keep an eye out for it when Steam sales roll around; in recent years it’s often been heavily discounted, meaning you can pick it up for the price of an expensive Starbucks coffee! Even at full price, though, Banished is a game I’d happily recommend to anyone who enjoys a richly-detailed and complex city-builder or strategy game. I would caveat that by saying that Banished isn’t a “casual” game that you can absent-mindedly play while distracted!

So that’s it for this time. After having talked about Banished on a number of occasions I wanted to give it its own full article here on the website. This “video game spotlight” series will hopefully be an occasional thing I do going forward, so keep an eye out for my take on a number of other titles that I’ve enjoyed over the years in future! Happy building!

Banished is out now for PC. Banished is the copyright of Shining Rock Software. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga – first impressions

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga and the nine mainline Star Wars films.

I had a lot of fun in the days when I owned an Xbox 360 with Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga. That game brought a lot of lightheartedness to the Star Wars franchise, and was also a surprisingly complex game, with many characters to unlock and collectables to find. Going back and replaying levels didn’t feel like a chore, making it a great game to play solo or co-operatively. I had high hopes when a new Lego Star Wars title was announced, and it’s finally here after several lengthy delays!

I’m not even going to attempt a thorough playthrough in time to write a review; it will take a long time to go through the game and truly experience all that it has to offer. But for now I thought it would be worth sharing my first impressions! I’ve spent just over six hours with the game over the past couple of days, and I’ve jumped into two of the game’s stories/campaigns. I feel that’s long enough to get a feel for how the game plays – as well as to spot any major flaws or problems!

Promo art/banner for Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga.

Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga is split up into nine parts – one for each of the nine mainline films of the Skywalker Saga. On booting up the game for the first time, only three are available: The Phantom Menace, A New Hope, and The Force Awakens. Completing these unlocks the next part of that particular trilogy, and so on. It’s a neat way to organise it, and I liked that I was able to choose which trilogy I wanted to get started with. If the campaign had been entirely linear, with players having to unlock each film one by one, it would probably have been less enjoyable – and likewise, if all nine campaigns were unlocked from the start there’d be less to accomplish. All in all, this approach feels like it strikes the right balance.

I chose to start with The Phantom Menace – it’s my least-favourite film (well, tied with The Rise of Skywalker), but it’s often been my starting point when I go back to re-watch the mainline Star Wars films. As a film with a child-friendly atmosphere, it’s also one that I felt could translate well to the world of Lego! After spending a bit of time progressing through The Phantom Menace I hopped out of that campaign and loaded up A New Hope. It took me a second to figure out how to change campaigns on the fly, but it’s something the game allows you to do.

Qui-Gon Jinn with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Jar Jar Binks.

As someone who hasn’t played a Lego game in years, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised to note that, despite major visual improvements, the feel of playing a Lego game is still present. There’s a cartoon silliness that doesn’t merely begin and end with the game’s visual style, it permeates many different aspects of the gameplay as well – and that less-than-serious take has been a hallmark of Lego Star Wars games (and Lego games in general) going back to the very first iteration. All of that is still present in The Skywalker Saga.

Half the fun of Lego games has always been in roaming around the environment, looking for things to destroy, studs to collect, and hidden collectables. I have no idea how many different things are hidden across the game – but in the few hours I’ve spent with it so far I’ve found dozens, and I’ve barely scratched the surface! What I love about these hidden collectables is that it isn’t just a case of wandering around until you find an obscure part of the map that’s off the beaten track; in order to find or unlock many of them you have to solve a puzzle, run through an optional extra assignment, and things like that. Not all of these puzzles are easy, either, despite the game being aimed at kids!

C-3PO and R2D2 on Tatooine.

The Skywalker Saga would absolutely be the perfect first Star Wars game for a younger fan. Of the Star Wars games released in recent years, it’s by far the easiest to get started with – and it’s also the most complete in terms of telling the classic story of the films. Some scenes and sequences are skipped over during the story, but so far I’ve found both of the stories that I’ve played to be surprisingly deep; there’s certainly more than enough context provided by the game that even someone unfamiliar with the films could follow the story.

One thing that surprised me at least a little was the diversity of environments on display in The Skywalker Saga. The Star Wars galaxy is huge, canonically speaking, and we’ve seen a huge variety of different locales and biomes on display in the films and TV shows. But because The Skywalker Saga is a Lego game and has a cartoon feel, I wasn’t sure how well some of that would translate. It was great to see that the different interior and exterior environments all look and feel distinct from one another; that’s something that really captures the sense of scale present in Star Wars.

Promotional screenshot showing an Ewok and AT-ST on Endor.

Speaking of diversity, there’s more than one type of level in The Skywalker Saga! In addition to levels which characters must traverse on foot, there are ship-based sections where players can pilot a variety of different ships from the Star Wars galaxy. I can’t remember if this is something that has been present in prior Lego Star Wars games, but it was neat to see it here. Being able to hop into everything from starfighters to submarines adds a heck of a lot to the experience, making it feel deeper and richer. Programming and developing different modes of gameplay is no mean feat, and even though we all might have our preferences when it comes to the kinds of levels we prefer, I’d say that The Skywalker Saga is significantly better for including these different styles of gameplay.

The Skywalker Saga is being pitched by publisher Warner Bros. as the definitive Lego Star Wars experience. It brings more characters to the table than ever before, as well as more levels based on all nine of the mainline Star Wars films. It’s hard to argue that – at least in 2022 – this really is as good as it gets for a fan of Lego Star Wars!

Promotional screenshot showing prequel-era Republic starships.

There are new elements that are clearly designed to modernise the familiar formula. The fact that it’s possible to level up your characters and give them gameplay upgrades is a nod to the way that this aspect that originated with role-playing games has become omnipresent in video games today. But none of that feels intrusive, and while it’s certainly possible to spend a lot of time chasing down enough studs or Kyber bricks to unlock the next upgrade, it’s also possible to have fun playing the game without paying too much attention to that side of it. I wouldn’t call these things entirely “optional,” but they’re inoffensive for players who aren’t interested or who just want to have fun playing the game.

Getting to grips with the gameplay felt easy enough. There are a few different moves and attacks that player characters can perform, and the nature of these will depend on whether the character is a Jedi, a gunslinger-type, a droid, and so on. There are ranged shots, melee attacks, jumps, and it’s possible to perform combos. Sometimes these combos will be required (enemies can block certain attacks) meaning it isn’t always possible to race through a level mindlessly hitting the X button!

Promotional screenshot showing Boba Fett.

I didn’t encounter a single bug, glitch, or graphical issue with The Skywalker Saga through my six hours of gameplay, and considering the state of some recent highly-anticipated games I think that’s pretty good! I played on PC, but the game is also available on Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Nintendo Switch.

The Switch version in particular holds a lot of appeal! Being able to play the game on the go is something I’m sure a lot of fans will appreciate, but it also just feels like a good fit in general for Nintendo’s family-friendly machine. I’m glad that The Skywalker Saga was able to get a Switch release; even more so that it was released on Switch at the same time as on every other platform.

Qui-Gon Jinn using the Force to lift a Lego object.

So I guess that’s it. Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga has been a lot of fun so far, and I can’t wait to jump back in and play some more! I’ll be curious to see how the Lego treatment works for The Rise of Skywalker; that film is tied with The Phantom Menace for being my least-favourite in the saga. The Phantom Menance managed to be fun, so I feel reasonably optimistic that, despite not enjoying the film, I’ll at least have fun with its gameplay adaptation!

I’d happily recommend The Skywalker Saga to anyone who enjoys either the Star Wars franchise or this style of kid-friendly gameplay. You won’t get a massive Elden Ring-style challenge out of it, and in terms of multiplayer you’re limited to playing with a single friend only (and I hear it works far better locally than online). But with those caveats, Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga is something I think a lot of players will be able to find enjoyment in. For kids, especially younger kids looking to get started with perhaps their first big Star Wars game, I think it’s a no-brainer.

So far, Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga has been great. For me personally, while I had fun with Lego Star Wars: The Complete Saga during the Xbox 360 era, I don’t feel the same nostalgic pull to these games as some younger folks who grew up playing them as kids might. But even so, I’m having a lot of fun and I’m happy to recommend the game to anyone still on the fence.

Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga is out now for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga is the copyright of Traveller’s Tales, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, and/or the Walt Disney Company. The Star Wars franchise 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.

Gran Turismo 7: hiding microtransactions is just plain wrong!

The video games industry is home to a growing number of incredibly shady and dodgy business practices. Microtransactions themselves qualify – especially things like in-game currencies, randomised loot boxes, and any microtransactions in games aimed at kids. But of all the corporate fuckery seen this side of the Star Wars: Battlefront II disaster, Sony and Polyphony Digital have to take the crown with Gran Turismo 7.

In case you haven’t followed the story, a quick recap. Gran Turismo 7 is the most recent game in Sony and Polyphony Digital’s long-running racing series. It was released on the 4th of March 2022, and in the weeks prior to launch, copies of the game were sent to many outlets for review. This is pretty standard – just like film critics get to see films ahead of time, video game journalists and commentators are often able to play games ahead of their launch. That’s how publications – and even some YouTubers nowadays – are able to get their reviews out before or just after a game launches.

Promo image for Gran Turismo 7.

But reviewers didn’t realise that the version of Gran Turismo 7 that they’d been playing was deceptive. And yes, “deceptive” is the right word – because there’s absolutely no way that this was anything other than intentional from Sony and Polyphony Digital. If you believe this was all an innocent mistake then I’ve got a bridge to sell you! Sony and Polyphony Digital essentially created a different version of the game for reviewers to play – a version of the game that hid the extent of Gran Turismo 7′s egregious microtransactions.

By doing this, Sony and Polyphony Digital hoped to score rave reviews for the game – a racing sim which, by all accounts, has thoroughly enjoyable gameplay. They fully intended to conceal just how heavily-monetised Gran Turismo 7 actually is, lest the microtransactions drag down the game’s review scores during its crucial release window. And do you know what? Their shady plot worked.

Logo for Sony’s PlayStation 5 console – home of Gran Turismo 7.

Gran Turismo 7 raked in rave reviews, including from a number of publications and websites that I read and would generally trust. It didn’t really occur to me that they’d all had the wool pulled over their eyes by a dishonest corporation and its equally despicable subsidiary. But that’s the reality of the situation: Sony and Polyphony Digital lied to reviewers, showed them a willfully dishonest misrepresentation of Gran Turismo 7, and hoped that they could get away with it.

Within hours of the game’s release on PlayStation 5 earlier this month, the microtransactions were switched on. An update a few days later then “rebalanced” the microtransactions to make them even worse – providing far fewer in-game rewards, making vehicles more expensive, and generally turning the game into a monetised mess that would give other microtransaction-riddled titles a run for their money. And all of this came in a game that Sony has the audacity to ask players to pay a minimum of £65 ($70) for.

Promotional art for Gran Turismo 7.

When the Battlefront II debacle exploded in late 2017, it felt like a turning point. Electronic Arts had pushed too hard and too far, and the result was a backlash that seemed, for a time anyway, to genuinely frighten some of the biggest corporations in the industry. Governments began looking at lootboxes and microtransactions in a serious way for the first time, and legislation was passed in some jurisdictions that has meant some games have had to be adjusted or even pulled from sale entirely.

There was a chance, back then, for the campaign against microtransactions and these kinds of awful, anti-consumer business practices to really have an impact, and for players to fight back and demonstrate to corporations that there are limits to how far we can be pushed around. Sadly, though, with other news stories taking up airtime, the issue fell away almost as quickly as it burst onto the scene. In the months and years since, corporations like Sony have slowly ramped up their microtransactions and other in-game monetisation plans, leading us right back to a very familiar situation.

What Sony and Polyphony Digital did with Gran Turismo 7 is worse than what Electronic Arts did with Battlefront II. Yes, really.

It should go without saying that what Sony and Polyphony Digital did is wrong. Categorically and unequivocally wrong. They lied, misrepresented their game, and arguably mis-sold a product in such an egregious and disingenuous way that it could very well fall under the legal definition of “false advertising.” Sony has never been a consumer-friendly company, make no mistake about that, but even by their standards, this is a new low.

There’s also egg on the face of a lot of reviewers, commentators, and publications – many of whom should know better than to take a company like Sony at its word. Pre-release review copies of Gran Turismo 7 still contained things like in-game currencies and the in-game microtransaction marketplace, and some reviews even made note of these things, with some particularly pro-Sony publications optimistically suggesting that the microtransactions wouldn’t be all that bad or would be “totally optional.”

Great reviews from critics, but players are making their voices heard.
Source: Metacritic, 31.03.2022

Too many publications, websites, and even social media channels and YouTubers now work hand-in-glove with corporations like Sony. Their refusal to think too critically about the obvious microtransactions and willingness to give Gran Turismo 7 excellent reviews in spite of that is testament to that. There’s a twofold fear that many professional journalists and the outlets that employ them have – on the one hand, they fear that being late with their reviews will lead to fewer clicks and thus less money, and on the other they fear that being too critical of a company’s latest title will cost them in the long run, whether that be in terms of access to review copies in future, or just in terms of what can be a profitable business relationship.

So while I’m happy to place the blame for this on Sony and Polyphony Digital, because they are the ones who lied and misrepresented Gran Turismo 7, there are quite a few reviewers and gaming publications that need to take a long look in the mirror. They are not completely innocent parties to this either, and clearly something has got to change in terms of the working relationship between the games industry, the people who cover it, and the players themselves.

More promotional art for Gran Turismo 7.

To deliberately conceal the extent of Gran Turismo 7′s microtransactions is disgusting behaviour from Sony and Polyphony Digital – but it’s more than that. It’s an admission from the corporation that they understand how unpopular and unwarranted microtransactions are in a game of this nature. At a minimum of £65 ($70) for the price of admission, many players would quite rightly expect to be able to play the full game and unlock all of the vehicles on offer.

I can’t help make a comparison to last year’s Forza Horizon 5, a game I got via Game Pass and thoroughly enjoyed. Simply by playing Forza Horizon 5 and completing races and missions, I unlocked new vehicles and in-game currency to buy other vehicles. After around 45 hours, I’d unlocked almost 100 different vehicles from trucks and four-wheel-drive cars all the way to supercars and hypercars. In Gran Turismo 7, you’d be lucky to have acquired enough in-game currency for one single vehicle after that length of play time – and the obvious reason for that is to essentially force players to pay for microtransactions.

Forza Horizon 5– last year’s big racing title – didn’t have this problem.

For me, this is beyond the pale. Sony and Polyphony Digital owe their players an apology. Moreover, they need to strip as much of the microtransaction marketplace from Gran Turismo 7 as possible – just as Electronic Arts did when the Battlefront II debacle threatened to overwhelm them. The only way to make this right in the long-term is to abandon this microtransaction model. If the game was free-to-play, it would be a different conversation – though hiding aspects of the monetisation or the prices would still be wrong. But in a game asking £65 ($70) up front from players, there was no justification for any microtransactions to begin with, let alone ones as egregious and interfering as those present in Gran Turismo 7.

Lying to reviewers and commentators will have consequences. Many publications have been burned by this, with angry players turning up to leave comments on reviews pointing out that there are particularly aggressive microtransactions in the game that they should’ve been warned about. Hopefully that will mean some of these journalists will think more carefully about how they review games like Gran Turismo 7 in future – but the reality is that it will probably just mean that players will have an even harder time knowing which reviews can be trusted.

Box art for some of the editions of Gran Turismo 7.

There was no need for Gran Turismo 7 to spend its first few weeks embroiled in controversy. This was an own goal from Sony and Polyphony Digital; a PR calamity that did not need to happen. Microtransactions shouldn’t have been present in the game to begin with, but if they were the corporation needed to be honest and up-front about that – doing whatever possible to provide a justification for their existence. Lying and covering up the microtransactions is something I regard as a tacit admission that Sony and Polyphony Digital understand that they shouldn’t have put them in the game to begin with.

This is the worst example of microtransaction misbehaviour in several years, probably since Battlefront II. I hope that lessons are learned from it. It would be great to see some collaboration between reviewers and publications in future – refusing to review a title or award it a score until the full extent of its microtransactions are known would be one way to shut this down and prevent another corporation from trying to get away with this despicable misbehaviour.

Sony Interactive Entertainment is the publisher of Gran Turismo 7.

So that’s where we’re at. If you bought Gran Turismo 7, you have my sympathies. We’ve all bought games over the years that were disappointing for one reason or another, but it can be particularly frustrating to look at a game that had so much potential to be great, but which was ruined by some corporate-mandated nonsense that really just spoilt things.

That’s really how I see Gran Turismo 7 – it’s a game that had potential, a title with seemingly excellent racing gameplay, but one that has been soiled by the truly awful way that Sony and Polyphony Digital chose to treat players. Don’t despair, though, because there are plenty of other racing games out there!

Gran Turismo 7 is out now for PlayStation 5. Gran Turismo 7 is the copyright of Sony Interactive Entertainment and Polyphony Digital. Some images used above courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Ten games to play instead of Hogwarts Legacy

Spoiler Warning: There may be minor spoilers present for some of the entries on this list.

I confess that I was excited for Hogwarts Legacy when it was announced a couple of years ago. I wasn’t aware, at that time, of J.K. Rowling’s harmful and hurtful transphobic stance, and when the game was announced I felt that it had potential. Fast-forward a couple of years and a recent “gameplay reveal” video has got a lot of fans excited. I would probably have been among them a few years ago; while Harry Potter was never my biggest fandom, I enjoyed the books and films generally speaking. But I can’t support Hogwarts Legacy – nor anything else in the Harry Potter series any longer.

J.K. Rowling doesn’t have anything besides Harry Potter. She’s had limited success with the other titles she’s tried her hand at, so it’s the Harry Potter series that keeps her relevant – and it continues to be a major revenue stream for someone who’s already a billionaire. Any time the Harry Potter series gets attention, it amplifies J.K. Rowling, increasing her platform, her reach, and ensuring her harmful transphobic views are amplified, spread worldwide, and discussed at length. Moreover, it brings in money for her, some of which she donates to anti-trans activists and groups. I don’t know exactly what cut of the proceeds she’d get for Hogwarts Legacy – but it’ll be significant. If the game sells millions of copies she could easily rake in several million pounds from it.

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.

For some folks, Harry Potter is their biggest fandom and a huge part of their life. If you’re in that category, I hope you won’t consider this a personal attack. I know that J.K. Rowling’s statements have upset a lot of people, many of whom continue to consider themselves fans of the series. If Harry Potter meant a lot to you and you can’t abandon it, that’s your decision and I’m not interested in trying to change your mind.

I’m not going to re-hash all of the arguments surrounding J.K. Rowling and her transphobia here. I don’t have the time nor am I in the right emotional headspace for that. You already know what she’s said, why people like me find it incomprehensible and harmful, and reiterating all of those points would just lead to all of us getting upset all over again. Instead what I want to do today is offer up a few alternative games, titles that are just as interesting and exciting as Hogwarts Legacy but with hopefully less bigotry.

So without further ado, here are a few games you could substitute Hogwarts Legacy with if you’re looking for something fun to play but feel unable to support J.K. Rowling. Let’s jump into the list, shall we?

Game #1:
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

A game set in an established fictional world, but taking place hundreds of years prior to the events we know and love? That sounds an awful lot like Knights of the Old Republic! I can never fully put into words how much this game blew me away when it was released in 2003. After feeling disappointed with The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, Knights of the Old Republic went a long way to restoring my faith in Star Wars in general – and one of its story twists is perhaps the greatest that I’ve ever played through in any video game.

Knights of the Old Republic sent me off on my very own Star Wars adventure, and included all of the elements that a story needs to feel truly authentic. Whether it was Jedi Knights, beeping droids, or visiting familiar worlds like Tatooine or Kashyyyk, it was an incredible ride from beginning to end.

If you don’t mind waiting a year or two, a full remake of the game is in the works!

Game #2:
Red Dead Redemption II

It took me a while to get around to trying Red Dead Redemption II, but when I played through it last year I finally understood why everyone considers it to be a masterpiece. It’s a dark, bleak, yet incredibly beautiful experience, one which recreates late 19th Century America in a way that feels incredibly real. Characters feel like actual people with thoughts, desires, and motivations, and the narrative contains some incredibly emotional sequences that left me in tears.

Red Dead Redemption II is also one of the most visually stunning games I’ve ever played. Its open world has been crafted to perfection, and is packed full of minor details that make the experience an incredibly immersive one. I literally had dreams about Red Dead Redemption II while I was in the middle of the story, and there were times last year where I would want to just drop everything I was doing to get back to playing it!

Game #3:
Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is another visually beautiful game, so much so that at one point I had to put down the control pad and just stare at the amazing scenery! It’s also an incredibly fun adventure game that I felt recaptured the feel of older 3D platformers. It wasn’t always an easy experience, as there was relatively little hand-holding, but it was incredibly fun and incredibly rewarding.

Considering that Kena: Bridge of Spirits was the debut game from brand-new developer Ember Lab, I’m even more impressed! I crowned it my “game of the year” for 2021, and with good reason. It was one of the best gaming experiences that I had last year, and even though I have a growing list of unplayed games… I’m sorely tempted to go back and revisit it!

Game #4:
Control

If a supernatural adventure is what you’re after, look no further than Control. I found the game to be incredibly atmospheric as protagonist Jesse explores a hauntingly bleak world. I definitely got sucked into the spooky world of Control, and this could make for a really fun game to play around the Halloween season thanks to the supernatural tone and some spectacular level design.

Control is also an incredibly accessible game, with lots of different options to customise and tweak the experience. One of my favourite parts of Control were the full-motion video sequences, presented in-game as recordings and clips to collect as Jesse explores deeper into the heart of the ancient and deeply unsettling building. These little snippets of lore, presented in a fun way, added so much to the experience.

Game #5:
Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

It’s been a few years since I played Dragon’s Dogma, but if I recall correctly the game has a surprisingly deep and rich magic system – something you might be looking for in an alternative to Hogwarts Legacy. Dragon’s Dogma always felt like a second-tier game; the kind of title that didn’t quite break into the uppermost echelons of gaming. But it was a fun time nevertheless, and a fun adventure to play through.

The Dark Arisen version – which is available for PC, Switch, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 – combined the base game and all of its DLC into a single package, and as a slightly older game (Dragon’s Dogma was originally released in 2012) it can be picked up quite inexpensively either second-hand or during Steam sales.

Game #6:
Elden Ring

Elden Ring is categorically not “my thing.” These kinds of difficult-for-the-sake-of-it games are simply unenjoyable for me, and as a result I have skipped Elden Ring. But I’d be remiss not to include one of the biggest releases of the year on a list like this, and many fans of the Souls-like genre have hailed it as an instant classic and the new benchmark for future titles to live up to.

Elden Ring uses an open world, it has magic, fantasy elements, and monsters to fight. It was originally billed as a game with input from A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin, though he appears to have made a limited impact on what seems to me to be another Dark Souls-inspired title. If you’re into games with punishing levels of difficulty, Elden Ring could be the one for you.

Game #7:
The Elder Scrolls IV: Skyrim

So you want to enrol in a special school to learn how to wield magic while at the same time exploring the world and going on adventures? Then why not join the Mage’s Guild in Skyrim? Or, come to that, why not do the same in Oblivion or join House Telvanni Morrowind as well? The entire Elder Scrolls series is set up perfectly for players who want to create mages, witches, necromancers, and all other kinds of magic-using characters!

Skyrim is certainly showing its age by now, even if you pick up one of the special enhanced deluxe anniversary editions that have been released endlessly over the past decade. But it’s still a beautiful game that’s fun to play, and many of its questlines and stories have a magical side that might just make up for skipping over Hogwarts Legacy.

Game #8:
Jade Empire

Jade Empire is a fun BioWare adventure game that I feel doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Released in between Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, it tends to be overlooked. Its Chinese-inspired setting is really interesting, though, and the game is populated with fun characters. There are magical elements to the game, too, although there’s a pretty big focus on martial arts-inspired combat.

Jade Empire tells a fun story, and I found it easy to get lost in its world when I first picked up the game on the original Xbox. If you’ve played other BioWare titles before then the format will be familiar – but the setting and the story are unique. I’ve always hoped that BioWare would revisit the world of Jade Empire… maybe one day!

Game #9:
GreedFall

GreedFall is another game that can feel overlooked, perhaps a game that didn’t quite break into the top tier when it was released a couple of years ago. It can feel like a title with some heavy-handed themes as it looks at the issue of colonialism – not always perfectly, I should say – but laying atop some of those deeper themes is a fun adventure in a well-constructed, lived-in world.

There are magic spells in GreedFall, with an entire character class built around the use of magic. The game’s character creator is pretty basic, but if you can look past that limitation the actual customisation options are quite extensive. It’s a fun game, and well worth a play especially considering that it doesn’t ask full price.

Game #10:
The Last Of Us Part II

I honestly didn’t expect to be putting The Last Of Us Part II on any list… ever! I didn’t enjoy the game’s story at all, as I felt it tried to be too smug, too clever, and the way in which it hacked away at some of the most basic fundamentals of storytelling – the need to have a clear protagonist and antagonist – meant the whole narrative collapsed. But if you’re really looking for a game to throw up a middle finger to a transphobe, The Last Of Us Part II could be right for you!

Despite my story complaints, the gameplay in The Last Of Us Part II is excellent. Its third-person stealth/action style is an iterative improvement over its predecessor, but it’s well-executed and feels very smooth to play. There’s also a sense of scarcity, with ammunition and supplies being hard to come by. This makes for an experience that requires a lot of thoughtful planning; rushing in guns-blazing usually doesn’t work.

As one of the few games I can recall to feature a transgender character in a major role (voiced by Star Trek: Discovery’s Ian Alexander) I felt it was worth including The Last Of Us Part II on this list.

So that’s it!

Those are ten games that I think could be worth playing if, like me, you plan to skip Hogwarts Legacy when it’s released later this year. I tried to look at titles that are in the third-person action or action/adventure space, as well as titles with magic or supernatural elements. There were plenty of other games that I could’ve included if we broadened those criteria, though, so this is by no means an exhaustive list!

I had a conversation with a friend recently, and they expressed the opinion that they would play Hogwarts Legacy as there aren’t a lot of games that would give them a similar experience. While it’s true that Harry Potter and the Wizarding World are somewhat unique, there are plenty of games – as well as novels, films, television shows, and other entertainment experiences – that draw on many of the same themes and use the same kinds of storytelling elements. Hogwarts Legacy, just like the rest of the fictional setting that J.K. Rowling created, is not irreplaceable.

That being said, I’m not here to try to force anyone to play or not play a particular game. I just wanted to contribute something positive to the overall conversation surrounding Hogwarts Legacy, and perhaps show off a few titles in a similar genre or similar space that players who are weighing up their options could consider as alternatives. If that applies to you, I hope you at least found my suggestions interesting! And if you still plan to go ahead and play Hogwarts Legacy, I genuinely hope you have a good time with the game.

Hogwarts Legacy is the copyright of Portkey Games and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. Harry Potter and the Wizarding World are trademarks of Warner Bros. Entertainment. All titles on the list 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.

Grand Theft Auto 6: a wishlist

If you haven’t heard that Rockstar just confirmed the worst-kept secret in gaming – that Grand Theft Auto 6 is in production – then you must be living under a rock! The news has been everywhere in recent days, and even made it into mainstream (i.e. non-gaming) news outlets here in the UK. It makes sense: Grand Theft Auto V is one of the best-selling entertainment products of all time, eclipsing films, television shows, and even entire franchises. What comes next is going to be of interest to a great many people.

It’s been eight months since I last looked ahead to Grand Theft Auto 6, and with the game’s official announcement doing the rounds I thought it could be fun to put together a short wishlist of things I’d personally like to see the next entry include. It goes without saying that all of this is subjective – I don’t have any “insider information” and I’m not trying to claim that the next Grand Theft Auto game needs to have any or all of these features. It’s just a bit of fun from a sometime fan of the series – and given that we know next to nothing about what the game will actually look like, why not throw some ideas of my own out there?

So without any further ado, let’s jump into my Grand Theft Auto 6 wishlist!

Number 1:
A proper single-player campaign.

A single-player mode is an essential part of the Grand Theft Auto experience.

At this stage there’s been no indication that Grand Theft Auto 6 will go all-in on its inevitable online mode… but I’m still wary. Grand Theft Auto V didn’t become the second-best-selling video game ever because of its single-player campaign (Minecraft is number one, in case you were wondering). It was the online mode that kept fans coming back – and crucially from Rockstar’s point of view, kept them spending money.

There has to be a temptation to skip the single-player campaign altogether, or else direct the vast majority of development time and resources into Grand Theft Auto 6′s online mode. I hope that some senior folks at Rockstar are pushing back on that!

Grand Theft Auto V’s online mode has been crucial to the game’s success.

That said, it’s worth pointing out that less than one-third of players have actually completed the Grand Theft Auto V single-player campaign. Rockstar’s other big release, Red Dead Redemption II, has comparable figures for completion too, so it seems that a significant number of players either don’t make it to the end of the campaign or, more likely, only turn up for the multiplayer online mode.

Despite that, Grand Theft Auto 6 would lose something significant without a decent, long single-player campaign – and I don’t just say that because it’s the part of the game that I’m most interested in! There’s still a lot of people interested in single-player titles, and Rockstar has demonstrated time and again its ability to write truly excellent stories. Moreover, a lot of people would want to play the game in single-player mode to learn the ropes before jumping into multiplayer, or just for fun in between multiplayer sessions. There are plenty of reasons to make sure that Grand Theft Auto 6 retains a solid single-player mode.

Number 2:
A customisable protagonist.

Despite its faults, Cyberpunk 2077 has a great character creator.

There’s been a lot of speculation about whether Grand Theft Auto 6 will include – shock horror – a girl as one of its protagonists. Cue the usual outrage from sexist morons and Twitter trolls. But I’d like to see the game go further than that, and use the character creators from games like Cyberpunk 2077 and the Saints Row series as inspiration, allowing players to craft their own, fully customisable protagonist.

A customisable character could be male, female, non-binary, trans, or anything else players want them to be. With a relatively small amount of effort, it should be possible to craft a story that a custom character can slot into, and I’ve long felt that a custom character can make a game feel more immersive. Rockstar has allowed a limited version of this in Grand Theft Auto Online – but I’m thinking bigger!

I’m thinking of a massively expanded version of the current Grand Theft Auto Online character creator!

With Rockstar’s resources, the company could build the best character creator that any video game has ever seen. Grand Theft Auto 6 could set a high bar and become the new gold standard that other games would be compared to. Maybe I’m getting over-excited, but I think there’s a lot of potential for a truly outstanding character creator considering the amount of money that Rockstar has at its disposal.

The Grand Theft Auto series is known for its sense of humour and sarcastic style, and that could absolutely carry over to the character creator too! Making incredibly silly-looking characters, or replicating the appearances of famous figures could all become part of the fun. And it would be an easy way for Rockstar to include trans and non-binary people – allowing us to feel represented in the new game.

Number 3:
Multiple protagonists.

The trio of playable characters in Grand Theft Auto V.

If a custom character creator is off the table for whatever reason, then I hope that Grand Theft Auto 6 won’t abandon the multiple protagonist approach that worked so well in its predecessor. Being able to unlock different characters, then switch between them on the fly, added a fun element to gameplay, and with each character being different and coming from a different place, there was scope to tell three very different stories that ultimately came together.

My preference would be for a custom character, I think. If handled properly, and if the character creator was well-built with plenty of choices and options, that would be the best way for Grand Theft Auto 6 to truly represent as many different folks as possible. But a group of three or four main characters, including at least one female protagonist, would be a good option too.

How about we play as a female character for once?

That being said, I can already predict that there will be a backlash from so-called “fans” in the gamer community if Rockstar shows off a female protagonist or a group of protagonists that include people from different backgrounds. “Grand Theft Auto 6 is going woke” will be the familiar, disappointing cry from too many people.

A custom character would get around that, in large part, and that’s another good point in its favour. But there’s still something appealing about having multiple playable characters, as I feel that was a feature that worked well but went underappreciated in Grand Theft Auto V.

Number 4:
Way more clothes and other customisation options.

Grand Theft Auto 6 can do better than this!

Continuing a trend from the entries above, I’d love to see Grand Theft Auto 6 offer players a lot more outfits, weapon mods, vehicle designs, and the like. Red Dead Redemption II offered a pretty wide range of outfits and some gun modification options, but I’d like to see this expanded in a big way for Grand Theft Auto 6. Again, Rockstar can look to games like Cyberpunk 2077 for inspiration – despite the myriad problems with that title, there’s no denying it has a lot of customisation options!

Part of the fun of an expansive open-world title like Grand Theft Auto 6 is getting lost in the world and feeling like you’re participating, living out an alternate life. How your character appears is a big part of that, and being able to change up the protagonist’s style – going from street to preppy to old-fashioned and beyond – is a big part of that. Making my character look the way I want them to look is all part of the immersion.

Customising a rifle in Red Dead Redemption II.

This can extend to vehicles and weapons, too. Red Dead Redemption II allowed for a degree of cosmetic weapon customisation, and that was great, but that title was set in the 19th Century and thus the cosmetic options were somewhat limited! But for a game with a more modern setting, it should be possible to have cars and guns in every shade of the rainbow for starters, and with plenty of designs, logos, and more to add to them and fully customise them. Forza Horizon 5 offers a pretty extensive vehicle customiser, and it never ceases to amaze me to see the creative designs that folks in that game have come up with!

So let’s think about adding plenty of different clothes in a variety of styles and from a variety of fashion trends! Depending on when and where the game is set there could be limitations on this, and that would be understandable, but I’d still like to see an extensive range of clothes, vehicle designs, weapon skins, and the like so I can really get stuck in and make my character stand out!

Number 5:
A brand-new setting.

Grand Theft Auto Reykjavik, anyone?

I’m kicking myself for not taking a screenshot because now I can’t find it, but I saw a poll on social media within the last couple of days asking participants where they’d like Grand Theft Auto 6 to be set. Vice City – the franchise’s Miami analogue – put in a creditable showing, but by far the most-requested setting was “somewhere new.”

Grand Theft Auto V was successful by reimagining Los Santos – a city that had first appeared in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in 2005 – but I’d like to see the next entry in the series pick a brand-new setting to explore instead of returning to somewhere that fans of the series have already been. The franchise should also avoid, in my opinion, settings that would be too similar to its recent Los Angeles stand-in, so I’d recommend avoiding coastal, tropical cities.

I wouldn’t take Grand Theft Auto back to Vice City this time if it was up to me!

I also believe that the Grand Theft Auto series works best in an American setting. The series is geared up for America, and trying to transpose it and set a new game in Asia or Europe would, in my view anyway, take away something significant that defines what Grand Theft Auto is. I know there was that London spin-off in the days when Grand Theft Auto still used a top-down perspective, but every other title has been set in the United States.

There are several really interesting choices for cities that a new game could be based on. A Washington DC analogue could look at things like power and corruption, or the game could hop over to Chicago for a story about the mob. A city based on Detroit could look at the decline of America as a manufacturing powerhouse and what effects that has had. Or Grand Theft Auto 6 could show us an updated, modern-day look at Red Dead Redemption II’s Saint Denis – a stand-in for New Orleans! Those are just a few interesting ideas, and it could be really neat to see any show up in a future game.

Number 6:
A different time period.

Back to the eighties or nineties?

Some of the best-loved Grand Theft Auto games didn’t use a modern-day setting. Vice City was set in the 1980s and San Andreas was set in the 1990s, and both games are well-remembered – despite being soiled by a recent sub-par remaster. In addition, Red Dead Redemption II took Rockstar’s signature open-world concept all the way back to the 19th Century and proved it can still work! So there’s a lot of potential, in my view, for the next Grand Theft Auto game to step out of the modern day.

There’s a lot of eighties nostalgia floating around at the moment, with films like Ready Player One and TV shows like Stranger Things cashing in on that, so that’s one possibility. It would also be interesting to step back into the 1990s and re-live the turn of the millennium all over again! There’s a lot of potential in taking advantage of a distinct time period or moment in time, and Rockstar has already demonstrated an ability to do so with past titles.

How about the seventies?

Grand Theft Auto 6 will have a difficult task to distinguish itself from its phenomenally-popular predecessor, and one way to immediately change the look and feel of the game and make it distinct would be to set it in a completely different decade. Combined with a setting that would take players away from the palm trees and beaches of California (sorry, San Andreas) I think an earlier time period could be an exceptionally interesting way to draw a line under Grand Theft Auto V and demonstrate that the new game has something very different to offer.

Somehow, Grand Theft Auto 6 has to do things that its immediate predecessor couldn’t offer. That realistically means that the new game needs either a brand-new setting or a time period that the series hasn’t visited in a while. Ideally, Grand Theft Auto 6 will offer both.

Number 7:
Cameos are fine, but let’s have new characters and a new story.

Claude from Grand Theft Auto 3 (right) had a cameo in San Andreas.

There’s going to be a huge temptation for Grand Theft Auto 6 to be an overblown sequel, stuffed full of callbacks, references, and nostalgia plays for Grand Theft Auto V – and other entries in the series. Depending on when and where the game is set, this could mean the return of familiar characters.

Cameos and the occasional reference are okay – and good fan-service in some respects – but I hope that the new game’s story will be able to stand on its own two feet. Grand Theft Auto isn’t a series that needs this kind of backwards-looking nostalgia, and every game thus far has been a distinct, standalone title. Because of the success of Grand Theft Auto V, though, there may well be some senior figures at Rockstar who aren’t prepared to fully let go.

Number 8:
Visual and gameplay improvements.

There have been some visually amazing games in recent years.
(Pictured: Kena: Bridge of Spirits)

Grand Theft Auto V is now almost nine years old, and was originally released on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Updates, patches, and new versions have certainly kept things fresh, but the game is now showing its age. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were decent consoles, capable of producing some excellent games, but with the technological improvement of two full console generations, there’s scope for Grand Theft Auto 6 to be bigger, prettier, and a better all-round experience.

Realistically this means that Grand Theft Auto 6 has to be an Xbox Series S/X and PlayStation 5 exclusive – trying to make a game that could also work on last generation’s consoles might be tempting, especially given the perennial problems of shortages and stock availability that have plagued the new consoles since launch. But going down this road will be a massive mistake – as Cyberpunk 2077 developers CD Projekt Red found to their cost.

Cyberpunk 2077 looks good (when it works).

Cyberpunk 2077 was crippled at launch by a catastrophic litany of bugs and glitches on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One specifically, and a big part of the reason why that happened is because the game is right at the technological limit of what those machines are capable of. If Grand Theft Auto 6 is going to be the game that fans are expecting, it needs a world at least as big and dense as Cyberpunk 2077′s. That means it needs to be built from the ground up with new hardware in mind.

Part of the appeal of Grand Theft Auto games is how silly they can be – so I don’t necessarily think that Rockstar needs to implement a realistic physics system or anything like that. But there are some areas where the standard open-world gameplay could be improved, and in addition to next-gen graphics it would be great if the game could feel like something new as well.

Number 9:
Proper difficulty and saving options.

Examples of difficulty settings present in Mass Effect: Legendary Edition.

Most Rockstar games don’t offer proper difficulty options. This was a complaint I had with Red Dead Redemption II as well as Grand Theft Auto V – and as I’ve said on several occasions, in 2022 there’s no excuse for not providing players with the option to change the game’s difficulty. This is such an incredibly basic feature that has been part of so many games going back decades that it amazes me that Rockstar didn’t bother with it.

Red Dead Redemption II had a feature where, after failing a specific part of a mission 3 times, it would be possible to skip ahead to the next checkpoint – and this is the only reason I was able to make it to the end of the story! But Grand Theft Auto 6 needs to do better. Difficulty settings are an accessibility feature, allowing players with disabilities and players of different skill levels access to a game. Rockstar needs to realise this and act accordingly.

Games that are too difficult aren’t fun for many players.

Also, if I save a game in a specific location, I feel like my character should still be there when I load up my save file later on. I can’t count the number of times in Red Dead Redemption II where I loaded up my save and then had to figure out where I was, where my horse was, and where my next objective was, all because the game seems to pick arbitrary locations for the player character to be when loading up a save file.

Grand Theft Auto V had a “quicksave” option which got around this – but past games in the series have relied on players returning to a safe-house or other specific location in order to save progress and load up save files. This wastes time and is an inconvenience – one that modern game design allows practically all titles to get around. So a decent save/load option, please!

Number 10:
A simultaneous PC release.

Don’t leave out PC gamers!

Grand Theft Auto V was released on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2013, but didn’t come to PC for almost eighteen months. Red Dead Redemption II likewise didn’t arrive on PC for more than a year after its debut on Xbox One and PlayStation 4. But with PC gaming having grown ever more in just the last few years, it would be a mistake to leave PC players behind.

With the game having taken so long to develop already, what’s an extra few months if it means a PC version can be released alongside consoles? It would make so much sense to bring the game to all three platforms simultaneously, making for a bigger and bolder launch than either Grand Theft Auto V or Red Dead Redemption II enjoyed. And yes, I admit that this one is pure bias – my primary gaming platform these days is a PC!

So that’s it.

Remember when Grand Theft Auto looked like this?

That’s as close as I can get to describing my “perfect” Grand Theft Auto 6! It took me well over two years from Red Dead Redemption II’s PC launch to finally get around to playing it, so don’t expect an instant review here on the website the second the new game is out! But I daresay I will pick up a copy – provided it has a single-player mode, at least – and share my thoughts and impressions.

Rockstar has previously announced games fairly close to their expected release window, so I wouldn’t be stunned to learn Grand Theft Auto 6 is currently gunning for a release before Christmas – but take that with a grain of salt. There’s been online chatter and rumours suggesting late 2023 or early 2024 as possible release windows, so I guess we’ll have to watch and wait for more information.

I’m curious to see how Rockstar will follow up one of the biggest games of all time. Grand Theft Auto V has been a juggernaut, clocking up sales for almost nine years and hardly ever dropping out of the top-ten or top-twenty bestsellers and most-played games lists. Rockstar will be hoping that Grand Theft Auto 6 can recapture the magic this time around, and will bring its significant financial resources to bear to ensure it happens. As for me, I’ll be happy if the game is fun – and if it meets some or all of the entries on my wishlist, I daresay it will be!

Grand Theft Auto 6 is currently in development and is the copyright of Rockstar Games and/or Take-Two Interactive. 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.

Microsoft buys Activision Blizzard

Well that certainly came out of nowhere! Microsoft has opened its wallet once again, this time buying up massive video games publisher Activision Blizzard for a whopping $69 billion. Nice.

After receiving criticism during the previous console generation for the lack of exclusive games on its Xbox One system, Microsoft has stepped up in a big way in the last few years. Early moves brought on board companies like Obsidian and Rare, and then last year came another shock announcement: the acquisition of ZeniMax – the parent company of Bethesda. All of those laid the groundwork for something big, and Microsoft has now added Activision Blizzard to its lineup, bringing on board hugely popular games and franchises like Call of Duty, Overwatch, World of Warcraft, and even popular mobile game Candy Crush.

Microsoft will soon own Candy Crush!

At almost ten times the price of its Bethesda purchase, Microsoft clearly has big plans for Activision Blizzard and its games. Even by the standards of other corporate takeovers, $69 billion is a lot of money – an almost unfathomable amount. As Microsoft looks to expand its Xbox and PC gaming platforms, though, it makes a lot of sense to bring on board a company like Activision Blizzard.

Keep in mind that Microsoft is currently pushing hard to take gaming as a whole in a new direction, pioneering a subscription model based on the likes of Netflix – indeed, Game Pass was originally pitched as the video game equivalent of Netflix. Though on the surface the company seems to be taking a two-pronged approach, with its Xbox home console family and PC gaming being separate, in many ways that isn’t really the case any more. Microsoft’s goal is to bring these two platforms as close together as possible, offering most games to players regardless of their chosen platform. One need only look to two of the biggest releases of the past year as an example: both Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5 came to both Xbox and PC, despite originally being franchises that were exclusive to consoles.

Forza Horizon 5 was a massive title for both Xbox and PC – and came to Game Pass on release day.

Let’s step back for a moment. My initial reaction to this news was disbelief! But after double-checking my sources and confirming that this was, in fact, not some kind of elaborate prank, my next thoughts were of the Activision Blizzard scandal, and how from Microsoft’s point of view this may not have been the best time to announce this acquisition.

There’s no denying that Activision Blizzard is a tainted brand in the eyes of many players, with the severity of the sexual abuse scandal cutting through to make the news in mainstream outlets when it broke last year. Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, the scandal is part of the reason why Microsoft may have felt that the timing was right – Activision Blizzard shares had lost basically a third of their value over the last few months (down from almost $100 per share to below $65 prior to the acquisition announcement). Microsoft arguably made a savvy deal in some respects.

Activision Blizzard is a company embroiled in scandal right now.

There also seems to be a sense from at least some quarters of the gaming press and gaming community that Microsoft is “swooping in” to save Activision Blizzard from the scandal, perhaps even preserving the jobs of some employees or protecting games and franchises from cancellation. I didn’t really expect this reaction, and while it’s safe to say there’s been plenty of criticism to balance out some of the positivity, overall the mood of players seems to be more in favour of this acquisition than opposed to it.

We should talk about exclusivity before we go any further. Despite the hopeful – almost desperate – claims being made in some quarters, Microsoft isn’t going to publish Activision Blizzard titles on PlayStation forever. Once the deal has gone through and existing contracts have been fulfilled, expect to see all of Activision Blizzard’s new titles and big franchises become Xbox, PC, and Game Pass exclusives.

Starfield is a highly-anticipated Bethesda title – and it will be an Xbox and PC exclusive following Microsoft’s acquisition of Bethesda.

This is exactly what happened with Bethesda. Some players clung to the argument that Microsoft somehow wouldn’t want to limit the sales of some of these games to Xbox and PC players only, with some even going so far as to claim that we were witnessing the “death of console exclusives.” That hasn’t happened (to put it mildly) and we’re now expecting massive games like Starfield to become Xbox, PC, and Game Pass exclusives.

When Microsoft first jumped into the home console market in 2001 with the original Xbox, a lot of games industry critics and commentators argued that the company would open its wallet and spend, spend, spend in order to compete with the likes of Sega, Nintendo, and Sony. Microsoft certainly made some sound investments in games early on, but it’s really taken almost twenty years for some of those concerns to be borne out – and by now, the gaming landscape has so thoroughly shifted that it doesn’t feel like a bad thing any more.

It’s been more than two decades since Microsoft jumped into the home console market.

When Microsoft announced the acquisitions of the likes of Oblivion, Rare, and even Bethesda, there was still a sense that the games industry was pursuing its longstanding business model: develop games, release them, sell them, turn a profit, repeat. But now I believe we’re actually in the midst of a major realignment in the way the entire games industry operates – a realignment that’s shaping up to be as disruptive as Netflix’s emergence as a streaming powerhouse in the early 2010s.

Microsoft isn’t making all of these big purchases just to make games and sell them individually. That approach will remain for the foreseeable future, of course, but it isn’t the company’s primary objective. In my view, this is all about Game Pass – Microsoft’s subscription service. Microsoft has seen how successful the subscription model has been for the likes of Netflix – but more importantly for the likes of Disney with Disney+.

Disney+ is both an inspiration and a warning for Microsoft and Game Pass.

As streaming has become bigger and bigger in the film and television sphere, more companies have tried to set up their own competing platforms. In doing so, they pulled their titles from Netflix – something we saw very recently with Star Trek: Discovery, for example, which will now be exclusively available on Paramount+. Microsoft is not content to simply license titles from other companies – like Activision Blizzard – because they fear that a day is coming soon when other companies try to become direct competitors with their own platforms – muscling in on what Microsoft sees as its turf. If Sony gets its act together and finally manages to launch a Game Pass competitor on its PlayStation consoles, Microsoft will be in an out-and-out scrap, and pre-empting that fight is what acquisitions like this one are all about.

If Netflix had had the foresight to use a portion of the money it had been making in the early 2010s to buy up film studios or television production companies, it would have lost far fewer titles over the last few years, and wouldn’t have needed to pivot so heavily into creating its own content from scratch. I think that the Activision Blizzard deal is one way for Microsoft to shore up its own subscription service ahead of a potential repeat of the “streaming wars” in the video game realm.

The official announcement image.

So it isn’t just about “more games for Game Pass” – this deal is about Microsoft’s vision for the future of gaming as a medium, and also their concerns about other companies trying to elbow their way in and become serious competitors. Spending $69 billion may be a huge financial hit up front, but if it pays off it will mean that Game Pass will remain competitive and profitable for years – or even decades – to come. That’s the attitude that I see through this move.

And I don’t believe for a moment that Microsoft is done. Activision Blizzard may be the company’s biggest acquisition to date, but it won’t be the last. When the deal is done and has officially gone through – something that most likely won’t happen for at least twelve months – expect to see Microsoft lining up its next big purchase, and it could be yet another games industry heavyweight. There have been rumours in the past that Microsoft had considered making a move for Electronic Arts, for example… so watch this space!

Could another big purchase be on the cards in the next couple of years?

As a player, these are exciting times – but also turbulent times. I increasingly feel that it’s hardly worth purchasing brand-new games, because several massive titles that I’ve spent money on have ended up coming to Game Pass. In the last few days the Hitman trilogy has arrived on the platform, Doom Eternal landed on Game Pass last year, and even Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is now on the platform less than a year after its release. What’s the point in buying any new games any more? Let’s just wait and it seems Microsoft will eventually bring them to Game Pass!

This is, of course, an attitude Microsoft wants to foster. If Game Pass is an appealing prospect, players will stop buying games. Once they’re “locked in” to the Game Pass ecosystem, Microsoft thinks it’s got them for the long haul. This is how Netflix, Disney+, and other streaming platforms view their audiences, too: once someone has been hooked in, they tend to stay hooked in. That’s why they put the majority of their time and energy into recruiting new subscribers rather than ensuring current subscribers stay signed up.

This is all about Game Pass.

So it’s an interesting moment in gaming, and one that has the potential to herald an entirely new chapter in the medium’s history. People who decry the death of buying individual titles increasingly feel like they’re on the losing side; relics of an era that’s rapidly drawing to a close. Subscriptions have basically become the norm in film and television, with sales of DVDs, Blu-rays, and the like in what seems to be terminal decline. Television viewership, along with cable and satellite subscriptions, are likewise declining.

And who really feels that the death of broadcast television is something to mourn? Subscription platforms offered viewers a better deal – so they snapped it up. If Game Pass can do the same for gaming, more and more players will jump on board.

The Call of Duty series will soon join Game Pass.

Speaking for myself, I’ve been a subscriber to the PC version of Game Pass for almost a year-and-a-half. In that time, my subscription has cost me £8 per month ($10 in the US, I think). Call it eighteen months, and that’s £144 – or roughly the same amount of money as three brand-new full-price video games. In that time I’ve played more than three games, meaning Game Pass feels like a pretty good deal. If Microsoft continues to splash its cash on the likes of Activision Blizzard, bringing even more titles to the platform without asking me to pay substantially more for my subscription, then as a consumer I gotta say it’s worth it.

One corporate acquisition on its own does not irreversibly shift the gaming landscape. But we’re on a trajectory now that I believe will see gaming move away from the old way of doing business into a new era where subscriptions will be a dominant force. There will be advantages and disadvantages to this, but I don’t see it slowing down. As the likes of Sony and even Nintendo try to compete with Game Pass, if anything we’re likely to see this trend speed up.

Watch this space – because this certainly won’t be Microsoft’s last big move.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. 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.

Forza Horizon 5 – video game review

Forza Horizon 5 was released in November for Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, and PC. It took a little while, but after spending quite a bit of time with the game over the past few weeks I’m finally ready to put pen to paper and share my thoughts!

Forza Horizon 5 is a big game. There are different kinds of races and events to participate in, ranging from multi-race championships all the way to smaller challenges and mini-events. The game’s open world is huge and offers varied terrains and scenery. And perhaps most importantly for a racing game, Forza Horizon 5 offers a veritable smorgasbord of cars to choose from.

What Forza Horizon 5 is not, though, is massively different from its predecessor. If you’ve played Forza Horizon 4 at all, you know the formula. This time around there’s more: the game world is bigger, there are more roads to drive on, more races and events to take part in, and so on. But it isn’t a fundamentally different experience – aside from the scenery changing from the quaint English countryside to the deserts, jungles, and beaches of Mexico, it’s basically an iterative instalment of the series. I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem for Forza Horizon 5; it’s a riff on the same concept, expanding it in some significant areas but without really breaking new ground. However, when the formula works, why shake it up too much? As the saying goes: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The Horizon spin-off series has always taken a more casual approach than mainline games in the Forza Motorsport series, and that trend continues here. There’s a party atmosphere that runs through the entire game, with a handful of named characters who all take a very laid-back approach to running the titular Horizon festival. That feeling extends to gameplay, too. Races are organised seemingly haphazardly, and there’s a lot of fun to be had simply by exploring the open world, making your own fun, and driving some fancy cars at high speed!

Forza Horizon 5 is perhaps the most accessible racing game I’ve played – except, maybe, for Mario Kart 8. The game is geared up for fans of arcade racing, with a “pick-up-and-play” attitude that feels perfectly aligned with the aforementioned casual, laid-back approach taken by characters within the game itself. That isn’t to say that Forza Horizon 5 presents no challenge – not at all. But this is a game that allows players to tailor the kind of challenge or fun that they want to the way that they like to play. There are options to tweak practically every aspect of single-player gameplay, meaning Forza Horizon 5 would be a great introduction to racing games for a complete newbie – but a game that experienced racing fans can enjoy as well.

As a gamer with disabilities, I always appreciate games that go out of their way to be accommodating. In Forza Horizon 5, it’s possible to slow down single-player gameplay to give players more time to react or make moves. It’s possible to see a guide line on the ground or along racetracks pointing players in the right direction. And there are different levels of assistance; cars can be set up to brake automatically, for example, as well as change gears. Forza Horizon 5 also recommends specific cars for specific races, ensuring that players who aren’t familiar with cars or racing games won’t find themselves in an unwinnable situation.

None of these things have to be used, and they can all be turned off for players who want a more realistic or challenging racing experience. The game has pre-set difficulty options, but within those pre-sets it’s possible to tweak many different individual characteristics so players can get the kind of experience that they want. This really does open up the game to many different skill levels, and Forza Horizon 5 would be a great game for someone brand-new, a kid seeking a more realistic racer than the likes of Mario Kart, and everyone else all the way up to racing simulation fanatics.

Forza Horizon 5 also brings a lot of customisation options to the table. Every car (at least, every car that I’ve unlocked so far) can be customised. Cars can be repainted in every colour of the rainbow, and can have custom liveries applied – including advertising logos for famous brands. There’s already a bustling customisation scene, with players from all over the world sharing their custom creations for others to download and use in-game. I love a game with strong customisation elements, and Forza Horizon 5 absolutely delivers in that regard!

As I was getting started with Forza Horizon 5, I actually found myself getting a little emotional. As you may know, I’m non-binary – meaning that my gender identity falls in between male and female, and I prefer to use they/them pronouns. When setting up my Forza Horizon 5 character, the option to use they/them was present alongside male and female pronouns – something that was amazing for me, and for other non-binary players as well I hope. It’s still quite rare to see games offer this option, so it was an incredibly welcome surprise.

I’m not the world’s biggest car enthusiast. My knowledge of cars mostly comes courtesy of Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the crew of Top Gear! But for people who know more about cars than I do, I reckon Forza Horizon 5 has a lot to offer. Although the game goes out of its way to be accessible and to have cars ready-to-race from the moment of being unlocked or purchased, there are still plenty of tuning options to fiddle about with. At the game’s uppermost echelons, where elite players are duking it out and races are won or lost by the millisecond, perhaps some of these things will make a difference. I’m not at that level – but some folks are, and there are tuning and customisation guides already for many of the game’s vehicles.

Although Forza Horizon 5 includes a lot of ultra-expensive supercars from manufacturers like Bugatti, Koenigsegg, and Lamborghini, I think it’s great that the game offers classic cars, “normal” street cars, and even some novelty vehicles or cult favourites as well. For example, the game includes a classic Land Rover (a personal favourite of mine), as well as every nerd’s favourite car: the DeLorean! There’s a VW Camper available, a classic Mini, a Morris Minor, as well as a Hummer, and even a car taken straight from Hot Wheels! In short, there’s fun to be had with some of these vehicles, and while some may not be suitable for winning every race or clocking the fastest time, for having fun driving around the game’s open world I think some of these additions are absolutely fantastic!

Some racing games offer light-hearted fun, and for me, Forza Horizon 5 is absolutely that kind of game. I can pick it up for even just a few minutes at a time, hop into a race or two, and then put it down knowing I can do the same thing again later on. It absolutely can be more than that; players with the inclination can take it more seriously, spend more time on their vehicles, and really push hard to get the best lap times and reach the top of the various leaderboards. That’s not the way I personally play – but the fact that Forza Horizon 5 has plenty to offer to all kinds of players is a huge mark in its favour in my book!

I’m a subscriber to the PC version of Xbox Game Pass, so for me Forza Horizon 5 was available on release day to download and play at no extra cost. On that basis, I’m thrilled with the game. That being said, for folks who don’t like the idea of a subscription or who like owning games outright, I can absolutely recommend Forza Horizon 5 as a purchase. Game Pass is a great service, but I recognise that it isn’t for everyone. When I looked at Halo Infinite a few weeks ago I said that paying £55 for just the campaign felt a bit much, so getting the game on Game Pass made a lot of sense. But there’s a heck of a lot of value in Forza Horizon 5 for players of varying skill levels and with varying levels of interest in cars – so it feels like a solid buy.

I think that’s all I have to say about this one! I’m thoroughly enjoying my time with Forza Horizon 5 and I’m looking forward to jumping back in and getting into my next race. See you on the track!

Forza Horizon 5 is out now for Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, and PC. Forza Horizon 5 is the copyright of Playground Games, Turn 10 Studios, Xbox Game Studios, and/or Microsoft. Promotional images and artwork courtesy of Xbox and Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

How long is too long?

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers are present for Dying Light 2, Red Dead Redemption II, Kena: Bridge of Spirits, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

I’ve talked a couple of times about video game length here on the website, and specifically about how some games can feel too short to offer good value at their price point. Games which cost £65 or $70 but only last five or six hours routinely get criticised for being too short, but my argument is that they’re really just priced incorrectly – had a six-hour game cost £25 instead of £65, it feels like a better price point and thus better value.

Take Ori and the Blind Forest or Kena: Bridge of Spirits as examples – relatively short games (under twelve hours) yet priced around the £30 mark. Both games felt like great value at that price point, and no one seemed to argue that they were somehow “too short.” In my review of Kena: Bridge of Spirits I even argued that padding out the game much beyond the 12-hour mark would’ve been too much.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits was the perfect length for the kind of game it wanted to be.

Over the past 24 hours I’ve seen a different argument arise online, particularly in relation to upcoming action-horror game Dying Light 2. Developer Techland recently claimed that total completion of the game is expected to take in excess of 500 hours – longer, they say, than it would take to walk from Warsaw in Poland to Madrid in Spain. That’s a distance of 2,631 kilometres, or 1,634 miles.

Long-distance hiking aside, I’ve seen a lot of folks online actually criticising Techland and Dying Light 2, proclaiming that its length “isn’t a selling point,” or that the game is “too long.” Having tackled a similar argument before with games that were said to be too short, I wanted to take a look at this and consider whether a game can indeed be too long.

This recent boast from the Dying Light 2 developers hasn’t gone down well with everyone…

In 2020 I spent in excess of 120 hours playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and the longest I spent in any single game in 2021 was Red Dead Redemption II, which took me 103 hours to complete the main story and the epilogue. I’m not a completionist who has to get every single achievement and discover every single hidden item or collectable. According to Red Dead Redemption II’s in-game progress tracker, after my 103 hours I’d completed 84% of the game.

However, the remaining 16% was – for want of a better term – fluff. It consists of collectables, travelling to obscure locations, catching at least one of every fish… in a word, boring nonsense that I had no interest in! Likewise with Animal Crossing: New Horizons – after 120+ hours I felt I’d done everything that the game had to offer at least once, and I had no real interest in continuing to dig up fossils or buy random junk from the shop to keep playing.

After more than 100 hours, I’d completed 84% of Red Dead Redemption II.

Games have a natural lifespan, just like any other entertainment product. That length will depend on what the game has to offer, how repetitive some of the tasks and missions are, and many other factors. If Red Dead Redemption II had offered another 103 hours’ worth of proper story missions, I daresay I’d have kept playing because I found the story to be engrossing – but I wasn’t going to spend that time in a fairly static endgame world where all of the missions were complete and all I had left were collectables to find and minor tasks to perform. That doesn’t hold my interest.

For some folks, though, it does. Some games encourage players to keep playing over and over again, and in some quadrants of the gaming community, it isn’t uncommon at all to find players who’ve dedicated literally years to a single game, sinking thousands or even tens of thousands of hours of playtime into titles like Minecraft, EVE Online, or even the aforementioned Animal Crossing series.

EVE Online is well-known for having very dedicated players who play for years and years.

But statistics would seem to suggest that those kinds of players – and those kinds of games – are comparatively rare. For example, in Red Dead Redemption II, most players have unlocked the achievement or trophy for completing the game’s first chapter. Yet on all platforms – Xbox, Playstation, and PC – barely one in three make it to the end of the epilogue and see the credits roll. Red Dead Redemption II has been out for more than three years, so there’s ample time for most players to have progressed that far if they’d wanted to – but it seems that the game’s length sees more and more players drop out as the story goes on.

I like a long story. I’ll happily watch a television show with seven seasons or something like the extended versions of The Lord of the Rings films. And I enjoyed my time with Red Dead Redemption II. But perhaps players who seek out these very long experiences are in a minority – achievement stats for a number of big titles would seem to bear that out.

Scarcely one in five Steam players who started Red Dead Redemption II actually managed to finish its story.

I mentioned the length-versus-value debate at the beginning, and I think a variation of this argument comes into play for long titles just as it does for short ones. If a game is unnaturally “long” because it’s padded out with repetitive fetch-quests, a massive open world that takes ages to traverse, and hundreds of hidden collectables that make no impact whatsoever on gameplay and story, then a developer shouldn’t be bragging about length. That isn’t a long game – it’s a bloated, padded one, and one that probably won’t be much fun for 80% of the time!

This is what I think people were getting at with the Dying Light 2 situation. While some folks may feel that any game can be too long to be enjoyable, the real criticism seems to be that players are concerned that the developers of Dying Light 2 are making a nonsense brag based on how the game world is going to be stuffed with minor, inconsequential fluff. Tasks like shooting 200 pigeons in Grand Theft Auto IV aren’t actually a lot of fun for most players who wanted to complete the entire game, and while finally unlocking that last achievement or trophy may provide some folks with a brief hit of dopamine, the frustration of having to track down 200 obscure, hard-to-reach locations across a large open world probably wasn’t worth it.

Shooting pigeons was a minor task in Grand Theft Auto IV.

So is Dying Light 2 “too long” at 500 hours? Until the game is in reviewers’ hands and we can find out how many of those hours are spent on fun, interesting, or original quests, I don’t think it’s possible to say. Some people may argue that 500 hours will always be too long, and for them that may well be the case. Aside from Civilization VI, I can’t think of any game in the past decade that I’ve spent much more than 100 hours playing – so I guess I’m part of that crowd as well.

In principle, though, I don’t think 500 hours has to be too long for Dying Light 2. But it depends what the game has to offer by way of story, exploration, and engaging gameplay. If the bulk of players’ 500 hours is spent chasing boring collectables or slowly trudging across an open world that’s too large for the game’s mediocre level of content, then yeah, I’d agree that it’s too long and has been overstuffed with meaningless fluff. But if there’s a long story that manages to hook players in and keep their interest, then it’s a whole different conversation.

At the end of the day, we all want different things from our games. Folks who have busy lives and other commitments might feel the need for a shorter game, or a game that they can dip in and out of easily. Players with more free time or who like to stream their gameplay on Twitch might prefer longer, open-ended games that are chock-full of collectables. We all like different things, and there really isn’t an answer to a question like this that can satisfy everyone. If you think Dying Light 2 is going to be too long for you to enjoy… don’t play it, I guess. There are plenty of shorter games out there to take your interest instead. For my two cents, I’d rather see a game have too much content than too little, and be too long rather than too short – especially if it’s charging me £60 or $70!

Dying Light 2 will be released on the 4th of February 2022 for PlayStation 4/5, Xbox One/Series S/X, Nintendo Switch, and PC. All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective developer and/or publisher. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Looking ahead to 2022

Happy New Year! As we mark the first day of 2022 (and recover from the last night of 2021) I thought it could be fun to look ahead to some of the entertainment experiences that lie before us this year. There are a plethora of films, games, and television shows on the horizon, and there are sure to be plenty of surprises and new announcements to come as well. On this occasion I’ve picked out ten films, video games, and television shows that I’m personally looking forward to in 2022.

The ongoing pandemic has caused a number of delays, and while most of these titles feel like a safe bet, it’s still possible that additional disruption will mean that we won’t see them all before the end of the year. The further out we get, the more likely such changes are – so titles which are currently aiming for a November or December release could end up slipping back to 2023.

Let’s jump into the list!

Film #1:
Morbius

Up first we have somewhat of a rarity: a Marvel film that I’m actually slightly interested in! Morbius will star Jared Leto as a mad scientist who inadvertently turns himself into a vampire. The film isn’t actually part of the main Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it’s being produced by Colombia and Sony – the latter company having the license to Spider-Man.

From my point of view, the fact that the film isn’t part of the MCU is no bad thing. Keeping up with every Marvel project increasingly feels like a full-time job considering the shared nature of the universe and the frequency of crossovers. So perhaps Morbius will be able to be enjoyed as more or less a standalone piece. I know nothing about the character or comic book source material – but I’m hoping it’ll be a fun, action-packed, slightly spooky adventure.

Film #2:
Lightyear

I was surprised by the trailer for Lightyear – the film looks so much more fun and interesting than its premise alone would have suggested! An “origin story” for Buzz Lightyear, the film purports to show us why Buzz Lightyear figures were so popular in the world of Toy Story! I noted many different visual and thematic elements from mid-century, retro sci-fi; kind of similar to the theme of the Tomorrowland park at Disneyland.

Chris Evans is set to take on the title role, and I’m genuinely looking forward to Lightyear. The film seems to have an element of mystery to it, and from the trailer it looks set to be an exciting adventure with a fun visual style. Check out my full thoughts on the trailer by clicking or tapping here.

Film #3:
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

Nicolas Cage is going to play an exaggerated, fictionalised version of himself in a film that looks set to be hilarious – and full of meme potential! I honestly thought this was a joke when I first heard about it, but the trailer already had me laughing out loud. Cage has developed a self-awareness, leaning into his reputation for making B-movies, and I think the result can only be hilarity.

In short, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is either going to be great… or it’s going to be one of those “so bad it’s good” films. There’s simply no in-between! Oh, and The Mandalorian star Pedro Pascal is also in it alongside Cage.

Film #4:
Moonfall

Disaster films are somewhat of a guilty pleasure of mine. They’re usually so far-fetched and over-the-top, but they can also be dramatic and exciting; perfect popcorn fare and a fun way to kill a couple of hours. Roland Emmerich has directed some fun ones: 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow spring to mind first and foremost. So I’m very curious to see what his latest sci-fi/disaster flick will be all about!

The premise sounds bonkers: the moon gets knocked out of orbit and is on a collision course with Earth. The film promises that the moon “is not what we think it is” … so let’s find out what the moon really is, I guess!

Film #5:
Avatar 2

The first of four planned sequels to 2009’s Avatar is scheduled for release in December this year. After more than thirteen years, James Cameron has quite a task on his hands to get people re-engaged with the fictional universe that he created, but if anyone can pull it off it’s him. Despite being an enjoyable film in its own right, Avatar never quite succeeded to the extent Cameron (and 20th Century Fox) hoped, failing to really break into the top tier of sci-fi franchises.

Avatar 2 is the first of four opportunities to change the narrative. There’s always room, in my opinion, for new sci-fi, and Avatar had some successes with its world-building. There are open questions left over from the first film – and although I’m by no means an Avatar superfan, I’m curious to see where the story will go next.

Film #6:
Untitled Super Mario Movie

The Super Mario Bros. film that was a shock announcement at a recent Nintendo Direct broadcast still doesn’t have an official title, but it’s targetting a release around the holiday season (I know we’re still processing Christmas 2021, but still!) Featuring an all-star cast including Chris Pratt, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Jack Black as Bowser, this has the potential to succeed where the 1993 version… didn’t.

Nintendo seems to have invested a decent amount of money into the project, and with a story and animation style that will hopefully be closer to the video game series than the 1993 attempt, this could be the unexpected hit of Christmas 2022!

Film #7:
Uncharted

The adaptation of the Uncharted video game series will star Spider-Man’s Tom Holland as adventurer (and discount Indiana Jones) Nathan Drake – and if you’ve been a regular around here for a while, you might recall that it made my list of films to watch in 2021 last January! But after being delayed, Uncharted looks all but certain to get a release this year (one way or another).

I had fun with the Uncharted video games on PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4. I’m cautiously interested to see how well the adaptation will work – condensing the story of even one video game into the runtime of a single film can be tricky. But I think there’s the potential for a solid action flick if all goes according to plan.

Film #8:
Jurassic World: Dominion

The legacy of Jurassic Park continues with the third entry in the reboot Jurassic World series, with Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard reprising their roles. Details of the plot are sparse at this stage, with director Colin Trevorrow keeping a lid on things, but if the story picks up in the aftermath of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom then we can expect to see dinosaurs roaming free – and not just in their island park!

A lot of fans are excited for the return of the original trio of characters: Sam Neill as Dr Alan Grant, Laura Dern as Ellie Sattler, and Jeff Goldblum as Ian Malcolm will all be making appearances in the film. An extended trailer (called the prologue) was recently released, and it’s well worth a watch!

Film #9:
Everything Everywhere All At Once

Michelle Yeoh (Star Trek: Discovery’s Philippa Georgiou) stars in this very weird-looking film about a woman who can cross over to infinite parallel universes. Evelyn seems to be tasked with saving the entire multiverse from an unknown threat, travelling to different realities and exploring different versions of herself and her own life.

The trailer was chaotic, and the plot may be tricky to follow, but Everything Everywhere All At Once looks like a wild, bonkers ride. It could be a ton of fun, so it’s one I shall watch with interest!

Film #10:
Sonic the Hedgehog 2

2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog exceeded my (admittedly rather low) expectations, and in a pandemic-disrupted year was actually one of the few cinematic highlights. Following its success will be no easy task for this sequel, but there’s definitely potential in this return to the universe of Sega’s cute mascot.

The stars of the first film (including Jim Carrey) will be returning, and the addition of other characters from the Sonic franchise looks set to expand the fun.

Video Game #1:
Six Days In Fallujah

Six Days In Fallujah is a controversial game. It intends to depict, in as realistic a manner as modern games engines will allow, the Second Battle of Fallujah, which took place in 2004. I was surprised to see the extent of the backlash that the game’s announcement received last year, not just from the expected sources like right-wing politicians, but from some games commentators and gaming outlets too.

In short, I think that it’s important to create art, particularly when the subject matter it tackles is difficult or controversial. It’s possible that Six Days In Fallujah will add nothing to the conversation around the Iraq War, but it’s equally possible that we’ll get something more than just mindless shooting. Video games can be art, and art can and should tackle difficult and complex topics. To see my full thoughts on Six Days In Fallujah, click or tap here.

Video Game #2:
Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora

Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora was a surprise announcement at last year’s E3, but with the Avatar sequels kicking off this year it makes a lot of sense to have a video game tie-in of some kind as well. Frontiers of Pandora doesn’t seem like it will be a direct adaptation of either the first or second films in the series, but rather a standalone title.

The world of Avatar seems well-suited to a video game adaptation, and with Ubisoft’s resources at its back there’s potential in this title. Taking on the role of a Na’vi warrior sounds like fun, and I’m definitely going to check out Frontiers of Pandora when it’s ready.

Video Game #3:
Mario Kart 9

At this stage there’s been no announcement of a new game in the long-running Mario Kart series. But Mario Kart 8 was released almost eight years ago, and with 2022 being the series’ 30th anniversary, the timing feels right for a new game. Nintendo loves to celebrate anniversaries with big releases, after all!

Mario Kart 8 has been one of the Switch’s big sellers since the console’s launch. But the game has a limited roster of tracks and playable characters, and after such a long wait in between titles, a growing number of players are looking for something new. 2022 would be a great time to launch Mario Kart 9 – so watch this space.

Video Game #4:
Stray

Stray is a game that lets you play as a cat. Do I need to say more? Publisher Annapurna Interactive has a great track record, having released wonderful and emotional narrative journeys like What Remains of Edith Finch and Gone Home. Indie developer Blue Twelve Studio has been working on the game for a while, and its unique premise and beautiful setting have already piqued my interest!

The game entices players to unravel an ancient mystery and figure a way to escape a decaying cyberpunk city populated by robots. The stray cat at the centre of the game will have their own robot companion, too. This game looks adorable – but it also has an unsettling, otherworldly feel that could make for a fascinating and unique adventure.

Video Game #5:
Star Trek: Resurgence

I’d been desperately hoping for a new single-player Star Trek game for years; it’s been almost a decade since the last one failed miserably. With Star Trek being back on our screens in a big way, I’m glad that ViacomCBS is finally licensing video games again. Resurgence is the single-player story-driven game I’d been hoping for – and the trailer looked great!

New developer Dramatic Labs has pedigree – many of its employees used to work for Telltale Games, whose narrative adventures were highly-praised. Telltale worked on a number of adaptations, including Batman and Game of Thrones, so Dramatic Labs seems perfectly positioned to bring a brand new Star Trek game to life. I’m really rooting for Resurgence to be a success.

Video Game #6:
Starfield

Starfield has been in development for almost a decade. Bethesda had ideas for space-themed games going all the way back to the 1990s, and even pitched a Star Trek game at one point, so in a sense Starfield has been a very long time coming! At 2021’s E3, the company was finally able to announce a release date, and while details about the game are still sparse, we have begun to learn a little more about some of the factions and locales.

Bethesda chief Todd Howard has literally promised players “Skyrim in space,” so Starfield has big shoes to fill! After Bethesda has stumbled in recent years with the likes of Fallout 76, the game also has a lot of work to do to rehabilitate the company’s image. Anything less than an exceptional game could leave the Microsoft-owned studio in trouble. I want to be excited for Starfield… but I’m trying to avoid boarding the hype train.

Video Game #7:
Saints Row

I initially wrote off the Saints Row games as being “Grand Theft Auto knock-offs,” but the truth is that they’re so much more than that. The setup is unquestionably similar – players take on the role of a criminal in an open-world city – but developers Volition brought a distinctly comedic style that made the original Saints Row and its sequels stand out.

Saints Row is a reboot, one which will supposedly bring the game back to its roots. Given that Rockstar seemingly still has no plans to release Grand Theft Auto 6 any time soon, Saints Row could be the game that scratches that open-world itch.

Video Game #8:
Test Drive Unlimited: Solar Crown

It’s been almost a decade since the last Test Drive game was released, so Solar Crown is coming late to the party! But following on from the success of other open-world racing games (like Forza Horizon 5, for example) it could be well-placed to take the racing crown this year.

Solar Crown is set in Hong Kong, and developers KT Racing have promised a 1:1 full-scale recreation of the entirety of Hong Kong island. That sounds incredibly ambitious, but I’m hopeful that they can pull it off. The result could be one of the best racing games in a long time.

Video Game #9:
Pharaoh: A New Era

I adored Pharaoh in the early 2000s. An Ancient Egyptian-themed city building game, it had all of the micromanagement you’d expect from a game of that type, but with additional features derived from its setting. For example, the Nile river could flood – so making use of flood plains became an essential gameplay element.

Pharaoh: A New Era aims to bring the game into the modern day, updating its graphical fidelity but retaining the original game’s trademark visual style and gameplay. I think it has a lot of potential to be a wonderful nostalgia trip for me – and if you missed the original twenty years ago, it could be brand-new fun for you!

Video Game #10:
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order II

At this stage we don’t know whether Jedi: Fallen Order II is even in development – though it’s heavily rumoured to be well underway. It’s a possibility for 2022, though, so I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed waiting for an official announcement. After the disappointment of Battlefront II and The Rise of Skywalker, Jedi: Fallen Order did a lot for the Star Wars franchise. It was an engaging story with some great characters – most of whom should be returning.

I’m really interested to see where Cal Kestis and his friends will go next. What adventures lie in store for them? And will we find out their ultimate fate – perhaps explaining why Cal and the others played no part in the Rebellion or the events of the Star Wars films? So many questions… but I’ll settle for another fun Star Wars adventure, even if it doesn’t answer all of them!

TV Series #1:
House of the Dragon

Despite being underwhelmed by the first trailer (and bitterly disappointed by the final season of Game of Thrones) I’m nevertheless curious to see what House of the Dragon will bring to the table. The new series has the not insignificant challenge of proving that Game of Thrones wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and that Westeros truly can be expanded into an ongoing franchise.

Honestly? The jury is still out. The television landscape has changed immeasurably since Game of Thrones’ 2010 debut, and in the big-budget high fantasy genre, House of the Dragon will face some serious competition. There’s potential in the series… but right now, I can muster curious interest rather than outright excitement.

TV Series #2:
Star Trek: Picard Season 2

After a longer-than-planned pandemic-enforced break, Picard will finally be back on our screens before too long. It isn’t clear yet whether Discovery’s unexpected mid-season break will delay Picard Season 2 from its planned February premiere, but that seems likely. Regardless, time travel and old adversaries are on the agenda for Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of La Sirena.

I confess that time travel stories aren’t always my favourites in Star Trek, so I’m perhaps less excited for Picard Season 2 than I hoped I might be. But a chance to spend more time with Picard himself, especially after the wonderfully complex presentation of the character in Season 1, is something that I’m truly looking forward to.

TV Series #3:
Star Wars: Obi-Wan Kenobi

There’s a lot of Star Wars content to come this year! Obi-Wan Kenobi is taking place in between the prequel and original trilogies, and will see Ewan McGregor reprise his role as the famed ex-Jedi. What adventures will he be able to have during his exile on the planet of Tatooine? And will those adventures feel natural or tacked-on? I guess we’re about to find out!

McGregor’s portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi was definitely one of the better elements of the prequel films. I’m not sure I’d have chosen to make this series if I were making the big decisions for Disney and Lucasfilm, but I hope to get a fun action or drama series that respects the boundaries of the original 1977 film and doesn’t tread on its toes.

TV Series #4:
Amazon’s Lord of the Rings

This series made my list last year, as I had originally expected to see it in 2021. Amazon has found some success with its adaptation of The Wheel of Time, but in a sense that show feels like an appetiser before the main course! Few other properties have such potential to bring in audiences as Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and there’s going to be a huge amount of interest in what is going to be the most expensive television series ever made.

With so little information about the characters or plot, it’s hard to know what to expect. The series isn’t going to be a new adaptation of any of the familiar books, instead drawing on a period in Middle-earth’s Second Age, millennia before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Amazon appears to be greatly influenced by Game of Thrones in the way the show’s casting and production have been handled; hopefully that’s a good thing!

TV Series #5:
Star Wars: Andor

A prequel to a prequel, Andor will focus on the character of Cassian Andor who was first introduced in 2016’s Rogue One. A Star Wars story that steps away from the Jedi and the Force is something I’ve been hoping the franchise would do more of for some time, and I feel that Andor could be a good vehicle to show us more about the Star Wars galaxy away from space magic.

The series may also show us a bit more about the early days of the Rebel Alliance, something we glimpsed in Rogue One. As a standalone piece it could be an interesting and dramatic spy thriller – and I’m hopeful that it’ll be entertaining at the very least.

TV Series #6:
Foundation Season 2

Season 1 of Foundation may not have been perfect, but it broadly succeeded at adapting a fairly dense work of sci-fi, bringing it to the small screen in an understandable way. Jared Harris put in a wonderful performance, and this complex story with some pretty deep themes ended up as a thoroughly enjoyable season of television.

We already knew that Apple TV+ had greenlit a second season of the show, and production has already begun. If Foundation can do more of the same, it’ll be a fine addition to this year’s television lineup.

TV Series #7:
The Last Of Us

The Last Of Us is one of the finest video game stories I’ve ever played through. It’s a vivid, dramatic, and occasionally harrowing story of a road trip across a hauntingly beautiful post-apocalyptic United States. Its central conceit of mushroom zombies may sound silly, but the cordyceps infection serves as the backdrop to set up an amazing character-focused story. And now it’s being adapted for television.

A TV show will suit the long and complex narrative far better than a film ever could, so in that sense I think the right decision has been made. I don’t know whether the story will be broken down into seasons or whether The Last Of Us will try to tell the entire story of the game this year – I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

TV Series #8:
Tokyo Vice

I’ve been greatly looking forward to this adaptation of a true story. Journalist Jake Adelstein spent part of his career in Japan working on crime stories in Tokyo, and his book told the true story of working for a large Japanese newspaper and the various cases and investigations he was part of.

HBO has a great track record when it comes to these short-format miniseries, and I think that Tokyo Vice has the potential to be 2022’s answer to the likes of Chernobyl – a true story adapted in a dramatic and exciting way.

TV Series #9:
The Wheel of Time Season 2

Amazon’s second high fantasy series on this list already has a full season under its belt. I enjoyed The Wheel of Time’s debut season, even though the story was quite cluttered and may have been hard to follow for some viewers. With more than a dozen books in the series left to adapt, Season 2 has its work cut out to keep up the pace.

The Wheel of Time had some great moments of characterisation and some well-crafted visual effects. Combined with a strong story I feel that the series is off to a good start – even if not every critic agrees. With Amazon’s own Lord of the Rings adaptation coming this year, Season 2 will be drawing comparisons to that show whether it wants to or not. Time to step up!

TV Series #10:
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

More than three years after Ethan Peck and Anson Mount won the hearts of Star Trek fans during Discovery’s second season, the highly-requested “Captain Pike show” is finally going to be broadcast! Strange New Worlds has promised Trekkies a return to a more episodic format, and the show could be the one to finally hook in the remaining holdouts who have been unimpressed with the franchise’s recent output.

This isn’t a ranked list, but Strange New Worlds is probably the show I’m most looking forward to this year – assuming it will be available to watch here in the UK. ViacomCBS doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to making its shows available outside of North America! But if that hurdle can be surmounted, I have high hopes indeed for Strange New Worlds.

So that’s it!

As we look ahead to some of the entertainment experiences of 2022, there’s a lot to be hopeful for. As a Trekkie, 2022 is arguably one of the biggest and most important years for the franchise in a very long time. Not only are there new and ongoing shows, but a brand-new video game and an increase in merchandise too. All of these things will hopefully cement Star Trek as ViacomCBS’ main franchise, securing its future in the longer term. I’ll be doing my best to support Star Trek this year – as long as ViacomCBS does its part too.

I hope you had an enjoyable New Year’s Eve! Now that the holiday season is more or less over, things can start to settle down and get back to normal. I adore the Christmas season, but it’s also nice to be able to unwind after what can be a stressful time of year.

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

End-of-Year Awards 2021

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers may be present for some of the entries on this list.

It’s the end of 2021, so it’s time to look back on a few of the entertainment highs (and lows) of the year! Like I did last year, I’ve picked out a few of my favourite entertainment experiences from the worlds of cinema, gaming, and television, and I’ll be giving each a totally official Trekking with Dennis award!

Most categories have a winner and a runner-up; some just have one title and in those cases they’re the winners by default. I’ve put Star Trek episodes into their own category, otherwise I’d just be saying that every TV show that I liked this year was Star Trek!

Caveat time! Obviously I haven’t watched or played anywhere close to everything that was published or released this year! The exclusion from these awards of titles such as The Last Duel or For All Mankind doesn’t mean they aren’t good; I just have no experience with them so I can’t comment. It goes without saying that everything here is entirely subjective! This is just one person’s opinion – so feel free to disagree vehemently with some or all of my choices!

With that out of the way, let’s get started!

Best Documentary:

🏆 Winner 🏆
Half-Life Histories series; Kyle Hill

There have been some interesting documentaries this year, but I wanted to highlight a semi-professional series that has been quietly ticking up views on YouTube. Kyle Hill has crafted a series of absolutely fascinating documentaries about nuclear power, nuclear weapons, and nuclear accidents – some of which were familiar to me, but several of which actually weren’t.

Nuclear weapons are an incredibly controversial topic, of course, but nuclear power is something I firmly believe that we as a species need to embrace. At least in the short-to-medium term, nuclear power offers a reliable way for humanity to meet our growing power needs while phasing out fossil fuels.

Kyle Hill’s documentaries show how early nuclear experiments could and did go wrong, but they aren’t alarmist. Hill has a gentle, almost understated style that tells these serious (and occasionally fatal) stories with due dignity and gravitas, but without sensationalising the events in question. For anyone interested in the likes of the Chernobyl disaster or the early history of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the entire series is well worth a watch.

Best Web Series:

🥈 Runner-Up 🥈
The Jimquisition; Jim Sterling

I’d like to highlight a fellow non-binary creator here. Jim Sterling – also known as James Stephanie Sterling – is a video games critic on YouTube. Their main weekly series, The Jimquisition, often highlights bad practices in the games industry and draws attention to misbehaving corporations. The Jimquisition was one of the first shows to criticise the practice of lootboxes a few years ago, for example, and this year Sterling has worked relentlessly to call out the likes of Ubisoft and Activision Blizzard.

Too many publications – even blogs and social media channels – now work hand-in-glove with big corporations in the video games industry, leading many so-called independent publications to, at the very least, be cautious in what they say about both their corporate friends and the games they review so as to maintain their level of access. The Jimquisition has always been different because it’s self-funded, leaving Sterling free to criticise as they see fit.

On a personal note, seeing Jim Sterling come out as non-binary was one factor among many as I made my own decision earlier this year to discuss my gender identity in public for the first time, and I want to thank them for their brave decision.

🏆 Winner 🏆
Tasting History with Max Miller

There really isn’t anything quite like Tasting History. There are a plethora of cooking shows and channels online – many of which are fantastic! And there are some great history shows as well, everything from mini-documentaries to living history re-enactments. Tasting History blends these two things together, as host Max Miller cooks a variety of different historical dishes, and uses those as an entry point to talk about some of the historical events and personalities associated with the food.

I love history and I love cookery shows, so Tasting History is absolutely the kind of thing that was going to appeal to me! But a fun premise alone wouldn’t be enough, and Tasting History has a well-spoken host who makes both sides of the show entertaining as well as interesting. I’ve learned a lot about different dishes and historical cultures this year, things I never would have found out about if not for Tasting History.

Best TV Special:

🥈 Runner-Up 🥈
Lego Star Wars: Terrifying Tales

After 2020’s Lego Star Wars Holiday Special had been a ton of fun, I was pleasantly surprised to see Disney+ bringing back Lego Star Wars for another outing this year. Terrifying Tales was a fun Halloween special, one which drew on many classics of the thriller and horror genres for inspiration while maintaining a child-friendly atmosphere. I’m not a huge fan of horror, so this lighter tone was just perfect for me!

Focusing on Poe Dameron, Terrifying Tales used a frame narrative to tell three different spooky stories set in all three of the Star Wars franchise’s main eras. The first short, which focused on Kylo Ren, contained more backstory for the character than the entire sequel trilogy – and I would argue that it was actually better than the minuscule character development that Kylo/Ben Solo got in the films!

Palpatine was hilarious in the vignette that featured him, and I adored the way that Terrifying Tales used the character. The third and final vignette was a parody of a Twilight Zone episode and featured Luke Skywalker, and that was pretty fun to see as well. Overall, Terrifying Tales was a cute, funny, and lightly spooky way to get ready for Halloween!

🏆 Winner 🏆
The Grand Tour: Lochdown

As we approach the pandemic’s second anniversary, we need things like Lochdown to poke fun at what’s been going on in the world. In a unique way that only Hammond, Clarkson, and May can really pull off, The Grand Tour’s special episode made a trip to Scotland one of the funniest and most entertaining bits of television I enjoyed all year.

The trio have found great success at Amazon, and free from the constraints of the BBC (both financially and in terms of content), I’d argue that The Grand Tour is leaps and bounds ahead of Top Gear. As the show has switched its focus to these kinds of special episodes, there’s been a lot of fun to be had!

I’m not really a car person. Cars have always been a means to an end for me; a mode of transportation. But the enthusiasm of the three hosts for their vehicles is infectious, and the fun they have on their wacky adventures always manages to succeed at pulling me in and making me feel like I’m right there with them.

Worst TV Series:

🏆 “Winner” 🏆
Rick and Morty Season 5

After four pretty strong and funny seasons, Rick and Morty stumbled this year. It felt to me like the writers had become a little too aware of the show’s success and place in pop culture – and didn’t really know how to handle that. Season 5 was bland and forgettable, with several episodes that didn’t even win a smile, let alone a laugh.

Rick and Morty crossed over from being a fun series with a cult following and really hit the mainstream somewhere around its third season, and clearly that’s been a double-edged sword. Too many of the attempted jokes this year came across as either desperate or else simply as gross-outs or edginess for the sake of it.

Though the show had a few successful moments, such as the scenes between Rick and Birdperson toward the end of the season, Season 5 has to be considered a failure.

Best TV series:

🥈 Runner-Up 🥈
Foundation

The first season of Foundation was imperfect but nevertheless good. The novels upon which Foundation is based are incredibly dense works that can, at points, feel more like philosophy than sci-fi, so bringing something like that to the small screen was no small challenge – but Apple TV+ stepped up.

Jared Harris put in a wonderful performance as Hari Seldon, and was joined by several actors with whom I was less familiar – but who all did an outstanding job. Foundation is also a visually beautiful series, one which makes great use of Apple’s high CGI budget. A second season has already been confirmed – so that’s something to look forward to in 2022!

🏆 Winner 🏆
The Wheel of Time

The Wheel of Time was the first of Amazon’s two big-budget fantasy shows to make it to screen. We’ll have to wait until next year for the corporation’s Lord of the Rings prequel/adaptation, but The Wheel of Time is definitely a show worth watching in its own right. It has struggled, at times, to break out from the shadows of both Game of Thrones and the aforementioned Tolkien adaptation, but I’m so glad that I gave it a chance to impress me on its own merits.

Outside of the Star Trek franchise, The Wheel of Time is unquestionably the best television show I’ve seen all year. Amazon managed to adapt the first part of a long and complex story in a way that was understandable and easy to follow, bringing a new high fantasy world to the screen for the first time. There are some fantastic performances from Rosamund Pike and Madeleine Madden in particular, making The Wheel of Time a series to get lost in.

The first season concluded recently, and a second is already on the way! I can hardly wait.

Worst Video Game:

🏆 “Winner” 🏆
Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

This is a difficult one. There were plenty of bad games this year – games with horribly intrusive monetisation, overladen with bugs, or that just plain sucked. But for me, the year’s most egregious video game failure is a so-called “remaster” that was lazy, that didn’t feel like much of an upgrade, and that left me incredibly disappointed when I consider what might have been.

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition contains a number of bugs that were present in the original versions of its three constituent games; bugs that BioWare failed to fix. Its visual upgrade, coming less than ten years after the third game in the series, was already going to be a hard sell, but there seem to be many textures that BioWare either didn’t touch at all or else did the absolute bare minimum to.

And that’s Mass Effect: Legendary Edition in a nutshell: it’s a “remaster” that tried to get away with doing the absolute bare minimum. The sad thing is that I adore the Mass Effect games – but this version was so much less than it should’ve been.

Best Video Game:

🥈 Runner-Up 🥈
Road 96

Road 96 is quite unlike anything else I’ve played all year – and probably for quite a long time before that too! The game focuses on characters, introducing players to dozens of completely unique NPCs during a branching quest to escape a totalitarian state. It’s a road trip game… but that definition scarcely does it justice.

Road 96 has a beautiful art style, too, one that really brings to life its characters and American Southwest-inspired locales. There’s a wonderful soundtrack that accompanies the game, one with a definite ’80s inspiration – which I’m totally there for! It’s hard to go into too much detail without spoiling Road 96, and it’s an experience I really think you should try for yourself in as unspoiled a manner as possible.

🏆 Winner 🏆
Kena: Bridge of Spirits

When I was thinking about my pick for “game of the year,” there was never any doubt in my mind that Kena: Bridge of Spirits would take the trophy. It’s one of the most visually beautiful games that I’ve ever played, bringing an almost Disney-esque art style to life in the most fantastic way possible.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is a modern-looking game with a distinctly old-school feel to it. The game combines elements of puzzle-solving and 3D platforming with some tight, focused combat, and the addition of the Rot – little critters that accompany Kena – is both adorable and incredibly useful. Collecting things in video games can feel like busywork, but because Kena’s power grows with every Rot she picks up, even this aspect of the game manages to feel worthwhile.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits had been one of my most-anticipated games of the year. It didn’t just meet my expectations – it surpassed them by a country mile.

Worst Film:

🏆 “Winner” 🏆
Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a film that tried to be dark and edgy and in doing so ended up robbing its source material of any of the fun and entertainment value it could’ve had. DC Comics has struggled to compete with Marvel, failing to recognise that it’s Marvel’s blend of humour and action that makes those films so appealing to many viewers. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a case in point – and a great example, in my opinion, of a film that completely misses the mark.

Perhaps to distinguish it from the likes of The Avengers, Zack Snyder’s Justice League was packed with gimmicks, too. An incredibly dark and boring colour palette drowned the film in grey, black, and brown tones, and some scenes were so poorly-lit that following the action became difficult. It was also shot in a weird 4:3 aspect ratio – again, seemingly for the sake of a gimmick.

I’m genuinely happy for fans of DC who worked hard to secure the so-called “Snyder Cut” after a long campaign. But the end result was, for me, the worst film I’ve seen all year. And this was a year where I watched Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Best Film:

🥈 Runner-Up 🥈
Raya and the Last Dragon

I paid a lot of money (by my standards, at least) to watch Raya and the Last Dragon on Disney+! Maybe I should’ve waited the extra couple of months, but I was genuinely interested to see the latest big Disney animated picture. The one surprise was the lack of any musical numbers, but despite that I had a good time with Raya and the Last Dragon.

Kelly Marie Tran put in an outstanding performance as the titular Raya, a young woman on a quest to restore the life of a dragon and reunite a fractured land loosely based on Southeast Asia. The film was dramatic and exciting, with a fun cast of characters. It’s also noteworthy that all of the main characters – heroes and villains – were women.

Now that it’s on Disney+ (and out on DVD and Blu-Ray) it’s definitely worth a watch.

🏆 Winner 🏆
Dune

I was worried that Dune would once again prove to be too difficult to adapt, but I was thrilled to see that I was wrong! Dune is a sci-fi masterpiece, and if its second instalment comes anywhere close to living up to this first part, I think we’ll be talking about the duology alongside the likes of The Lord of the Rings in years to come as being an absolute classic.

Dune is a long and occasionally dense book, so condensing it down and keeping a cinematic adaptation with a large cast of characters easy to follow was no mean feat. Director Denis Villeneuve did an outstanding job, and every aspect of the film, from its dialogue to its visual effects, are pitch-perfect.

I’ve had a review of this one in the pipeline for a while, so stay tuned in the new year – I might finally get around to finishing it!

Most Exciting Announcement:

🥈 Runner-Up 🥈
Wicked

Picture Credit: Wicked the Musical London.

I was very lucky to have seen Wicked on the stage in London early in its run, and the soundtrack has to be up there as one of the best modern musicals. The announcement of a film adaptation came as a truly welcome surprise this year, and I will follow its progress with anticipation!

A spin-off from The Wizard of Oz, Wicked purports to tell the story from “the other side” – i.e. the Wicked Witch’s point of view. Disney in particular has shown in recent years that this concept can work exceptionally well, and Wicked pulls it off. The musical and the book that inspired it are very different, but both are enjoyable in their own ways – and I hope the film will be as well!

🏆 Winner 🏆
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Remake

Early in 2021 there were rumours of a Knights of the Old Republic game being in development, but it wasn’t until September that its existence was finally confirmed. A full-scale remake of the first game in the series is being worked on, and the idea of being able to go back and replay one of my favourite Star Wars games of all time is a truly exciting one!

So far all we’ve seen has been a CGI teaser, so the game is probably a couple of years away. But it’s still good to have something like this to look forward to! After several years of very limited success under Electronic Arts, Star Wars games are now being tackled by more developers and publishers – meaning we should see more from the franchise in the years ahead. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a remake of Knights of the Old Republic II after this one!

Best Star Trek Episode:

🥈 Runner-Up 🥈
There Is A Tide…
Discovery Season 3

There Is A Tide is basically “Star Trek does Die Hard!” If that sounds like fun to you, then we are definitely on the same page! Featuring a desperate plan to re-take the USS Discovery following its capture by a villainous faction, Michael Burnham, Tilly, and several members of the bridge crew all get their chances to be action heroes.

It isn’t an entirely self-contained episode, as it brings to a head Starfleet’s conflict with the aforementioned villainous faction that had been running for much of the season, as well as containing other ongoing story threads. But it works well as a single episode, too, with an explosive and action-packed story that feels like it was lifted right out of an action blockbuster!

There Is A Tide is a great episode for Michael Burnham, but it’s also good for Admiral Vance as well. He truly seems to embody the values that Starfleet and the Federation have always held, and anyone who feels that Discovery has placed less of an emphasis on that should pay attention to Vance’s scenes in particular.

🏆 Winner 🏆
First First Contact
Lower Decks Season 2

First First Contact is an incredibly well-done episode of Lower Decks. The series’ trademark sense of humour is still present, but we see the entire crew of the USS Cerritos working hard to overcome an incredibly difficult challenge and save not only an ailing Starfleet ship but also an entire planet. The crew rise to the occasion as we always knew they could, and First First Contact hits all of the emotional highs you could ever want from an episode of Star Trek.

It’s also an episode that truly embraces the spirit of the franchise. The Cerritos’ crew aren’t faced with some horrible monster or alien to defeat, instead the puzzle that lies before them is scientific – and the solution to it has to be as well. All of the main and secondary characters get moments in the spotlight, and First First Contact even found time to further advance the relationship between Ensign Mariner and Captain Freeman.

Finally, there was an incredible moment of symmetry toward the end of the episode, as the Cerritos saved the day in a very similar fashion to how it had to be saved in the Season 1 finale. That moment was pitch-perfect – and I won’t lie… I teared up!

So that’s it!

We’ve dished out a handful of awards to some of the best – and worst – entertainment experiences of the year. 2021 is a difficult one to summarise. The ongoing disruption caused by the pandemic has been noticeable, with delays and even some cancellations getting in the way and spoiling the fun. But there were some fantastic projects across cinema, television, and video games too – including some brand-new titles that I feel have the potential to lead to ongoing franchises, or to be talked about a lot in future as classics of their various genres.

As 2022 approaches, I hope you’ll stay tuned for a lot more to come from Trekking with Dennis! In the days ahead I plan to look forward to some of the films, games, and television shows that we could enjoy throughout the coming year, so definitely stay tuned for that! And I have a number of reviews and other articles in the pipeline.

So the only thing left to do is to wish you a very Happy New Year! Whatever you have planned for tonight, I hope you have an amazing time. See you next year!

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


Check out reviews or articles featuring some of the films, games, and TV shows mentioned on this list by clicking or tapping the links below:

Lego Star Wars: Terrifying Tales

Rick and Morty Season 5

The Wheel of Time

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

Kena: Bridge of Spirits

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

Raya and the Last Dragon

Wicked

Knights of the Old Republic Remake

Discovery 3×12 There Is A Tide…

Lower Decks 2×10 First First Contact

A handful of older films, games, and TV shows that I enjoyed in 2021

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers may be present for some of the entries on this list.

At this time of year, practically every outlet – from dying newspapers to new social media channels – churns out list upon list of the best entertainment products of the year. The top threes, top fives, top tens and more of 2021 abound! I have something similar in the pipeline, but today I wanted to take a look back at a handful of films, games, and TV shows from previous years that I found myself enjoying in 2021.

I have long and seemingly ever-growing lists of films, games, and TV shows that I keep meaning to get around to! I still haven’t seen Breaking Bad, for example, nor played The Witcher 3, despite the critical and commercial acclaim they’ve enjoyed! I also have a huge number of entertainment properties that I keep meaning to re-visit, some of which I haven’t seen since we wrote years beginning with “1.” In 2021 I got around to checking out a few titles from both of these categories, and since there are some that I haven’t discussed I thought the festive season would be a great opportunity for a bit of positivity and to share some of my personal favourite entertainment experiences of 2021… even though they weren’t brand-new!

Film #1:
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03)

We’ve recently marked the 20th anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first part of Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s magnum opus. The passage of time has done nothing to detract from these amazing films, and this year a 4K Blu-Ray release has them looking better than ever before.

The early 2000s had some serious pitfalls for film and television. CGI was becoming more mainstream and many filmmakers sought to take advantage of it, but just look to the Star Wars prequels and how outdated the CGI in those titles is; it hasn’t held up well at all. The majority of the special effects in The Lord of the Rings were practical, and combined with clever cinematography even incredibly dense and complex battle sequences still look fantastic two decades on.

Though I don’t re-watch The Lord of the Rings every single year without fail, I’m happy to return to the trilogy time and again – and I almost certainly will be for the rest of my days! The Hobbit and Tolkien’s Middle-earth was one of the first fantasy worlds I encountered as a young child; I can vaguely remember the book being read to me when I was very small. The conventional wisdom for years was that The Lord of the Rings was unfilmable – but Peter Jackson proved that wrong in some style!

Film #2:
Despicable Me (2010)

I spotted this while browsing Netflix one evening, and despite having seen at least one film with the Minions, I hadn’t actually seen the title that started it all. I have to confess that I didn’t have particularly high expectations, thinking I was in for a bog-standard animated comedy. But Despicable Me has heart, and there were some genuinely emotional moments hidden inside.

The Minions got most of the attention in the aftermath of Despicable Me, and can now be found on everything from memes to greetings cards! The critters are cute, but they’re also somewhat limited – and I think it’s for that reason that I didn’t really expect too much from Despicable Me except for maybe a few laughs and a way to kill an empty evening. I was pleasantly surprised to find a much more substantial film than I’d been expecting.

There were still plenty of laughs and a ton of cartoon silliness to enjoy and to keep the tone light-hearted. But there was a surprisingly emotional story between the villainous Gru and the three children he adopts – especially Margo, the eldest. I can finally understand why the film has spawned four sequels, fifteen shorts, and a whole range of merchandise!

Film #3:
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

The Final Frontier has a number of issues that I’m sure most of you will be aware of. It arguably suffered from a little too much involvement from William Shatner, who sought to put Captain Kirk at the centre of the story at the expense of others. But The Final Frontier has some truly great character moments, including one of the final times that Kirk, Spock, and Dr McCoy would be together before The Undiscovered Country brought an end to Star Trek’s original era.

The film has some truly funny moments, too: the scene where Uhura catches Chekov and Sulu pretending to be caught in a storm being one, and Scotty’s moment of slapstick being another that never fails to win a chuckle. The Undiscovered Country was a great send-off for Star Trek’s original crew, but it was quite a heavy film with a lot of tense moments and high-octane action. The Final Frontier brings more light-hearted moments to the table, and that’s something I can appreciate when I’m in the right mood.

There are some exciting sequences too, though. The shuttle crash is a very tense and dramatic moment, and the final confrontation with the entity at the centre of the galaxy, while silly in some respects, does succeed at hitting at least some of those same dramatic highs. Though I wouldn’t suggest that The Final Frontier is anywhere near the best that Star Trek has to offer, it’s well worth a watch from time to time.

Game #1:
Control (2019)

Though hardly an “old” game, I missed Control when it was released in 2019. It had been on my list for a couple of years, and I was pleased to finally get around to playing it this year. The game had a far creepier atmosphere than I’d been expecting, with protagonist Jesse having to battle an unseen enemy called the Hiss.

One thing I really admire about Control is the way it made incredibly creative use of some fairly plain environments. The entire game takes place in what’s essentially a glorified office building, and rows of cubicles or the janitor’s workspace could, in other games, come across as feeling bland and uninspired. But Control leans into this, using the environments as a strength, juxtaposing them with incredibly weird goings-on at the Bureau of Control.

I also liked that, for the first time in years, we got full-motion video sequences in a game! FMV was a fad in gaming in the early/mid-1990s I guess, primarily on PC, and titles like Command and Conquer and Star Trek: Starfleet Academy made use of it. It had been years since I played a game with FMV elements, and it worked exceptionally well in Control – as well as being a completely unexpected blast of nostalgia!

Game #2:
Super Mario 64 (1996)

Despite the serious limitations of Super Mario 3D All-Stars on the Nintendo Switch, which I picked up last year, I can’t deny that it’s been fun to return to Super Mario 64. One of the first fully 3D games I ever played, Super Mario 64 felt like the future in the late ’90s, and even some titles released this year, such as Kena: Bridge of Spirits, owe parts of their 3D platforming to the pioneering work that Nintendo did with this game.

Super Mario 64 is and always has been good, solid fun. There doesn’t need to be an in-depth, complex story driving Mario forward to collect stars, because the game’s levels and bosses are all so incredibly cleverly-designed. Jumping in and out of different painting worlds is relatively quick and feels great, and the sheer diversity of environments is still noteworthy in 2021. Mario goes on a journey that takes him through snowy mountains, a sunken shipwreck, sunlit plains, cities, clouds, and more.

I can’t in good conscience recommend Super Mario 3D All-Stars. The way these games have been adapted for Nintendo Switch isn’t worth the asking price. But even so, going back to Super Mario 64 has been one of my favourite parts of 2021, a chance to reconnect with a game I played and loved on the Nintendo 64. If you’ve never played it, track down a copy and give it a go. You won’t regret it.

Game #3:
Red Dead Redemption II (2018)

I’d been meaning to get around to Red Dead Redemption II for three years – but I’d always found a reason not to pick it up (usually it was too expensive!) It took forever to download on my painfully slow internet connection, but it was well worth the wait. I’ve had a fascination with America in the 19th Century for as long as I can remember – I guess partly inspired by playground games of “the wild west” that were fairly common when I was young. I even had a cowboy hat, toy gun, and “Davy Crockett” hat when I was a kid!

Red Dead Redemption II transported me to that world in a way that I genuinely did not think was possible. Films and TV shows can do a great job at pulling you in and getting you lost in a fictional world, but the interactive element of video games can add to that immersion – something that was absolutely the case with Red Dead Redemption II. The amount of detail in the game’s characters and open-world environments is staggering, and having finally experienced it for myself I can absolutely understand why people hail this game as a “masterpiece.”

I wasn’t prepared for the many emotional gut-punches that Red Dead Redemption II had in store. In many ways the game tells a bleak and even depressing story, one with betrayal, death, and many examples of the absolute worst of humanity. But every once in a while there are some incredibly beautiful moments too, where characters sit together, sing, play, and revel in their bonds of friendship. Red Dead Redemption II gave me the wild west outlaw fantasy that my younger self could have only dreamed of!

TV series #1:
Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-69)

I’ve re-watched quite a lot of The Original Series this year, probably more episodes than I’d seen in the past few years. Because of its episodic nature, it’s easy to dip in and out of The Original Series, firing up an episode or two to spend an hour with Captain Kirk and the crew without feeling the need to commit to an entire season of television.

The Original Series started it all for Trekkies, and I’m always so pleased to see that modern Star Trek hasn’t lost sight of that. In this year’s episodes of Lower Decks and Discovery we’ve gotten many references and callbacks to Star Trek’s first series, keeping the show alive and relevant as we celebrated its fifty-fifth anniversary – and the centenary of its creator, Gene Roddenberry.

Though dated in some ways, many of the themes and metaphors present in The Original Series are still relevant today. Society has changed since the 1960s, but in some areas we’re still fighting the same or similar fights for acceptance, for equality, and so on. The Star Trek franchise has always had a lot to say about that, being in some ways a mirror of society and in others depicting a vision of a more enlightened, optimistic future.

TV series #2:
Fortitude (2015-18)

I went back to re-watch Fortitude this year, for the first time since its original run. The series starts very slowly, seeming at first to be little more than a murder-mystery in a different setting. But it builds up over the course of its first season into something truly unexpected, crossing over into moments of political thriller, action, and even horror.

There are some truly shocking and gruesome moments in Fortitude, and it can be a harrowing watch in places. But it’s riveting at the same time, and I managed to get hooked all over again by the complex characters, the mysteries and conspiracies, and the bleak but beautiful arctic environment.

Fortitude featured some star names among its cast, including Michael Gambon, Stanley Tucci, and Dennis Quaid – the second-most-famous Dennis to be featured on this website! Although it was fun to watch it weekly during its original run, Fortitude is definitely a show that can be enjoyed on a binge!

TV series #3:
Family Guy (1999-Present)

Family Guy’s sense of humour sometimes runs aground for me, dragging out jokes too long or failing to pay off neat setups with decent punchlines. But with the full series (up to midway through Season 20 at time of writing) available on Disney+, I’ve found myself putting it on in the background a lot this year. The short runtime of episodes, the lightheartedness, and the way many of the jokes are often disconnected from whatever nonsense plot the episodes have going on all come together to make it something I can dip in and out of while doing other things.

There are some insensitive jokes, and some entire storylines in earlier episodes have aged rather poorly. But Family Guy seldom strikes me as a show punching down; it satirises and pokes fun at many different groups. In that sense it’s kind of halfway between The Simpsons and South Park; the former being more sanitised and family-friendly, the latter being edgier and meaner.

I rarely sit down and think “gosh, I must watch the latest Family Guy episode.” But if I’m in need of background noise or something to fill up twenty minutes, I find I’ll happily log into Disney+ and put on an episode or two.

So that’s it.

There have been some great films, games, and television shows that were released in 2021. But there were also plenty of entertainment experiences from years past that, in different ways, brightened my year. As we gear up for New Year and for everyone’s end-of-year top-ten lists, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that.

I hope you had a Merry Christmas, a Happy Holiday, or just a relaxing day yesterday! I did consider writing something to mark the day, but I found that I had remarkably little to say that was different from the piece I wrote last year. 2021 has been “2020 II” in so many respects, unfortunately. However, unlike last Christmas I will be able to visit with some family members – I’ll be seeing my sister and brother-in-law later this week, which will be a nice treat! So here’s to 2021’s entertainment experiences – and as we enter the new year, it’s worth keeping in mind that we don’t only have to watch and play the latest and newest ones!

All titles on the list above are the copyright of their respective broadcaster, distributor, developer, network, publisher, studio, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Winter sale deals for PC gamers

Important:

ALL SALES DISCUSSED BELOW HAVE NOW ENDED.
Prices listed below will no longer be correct.

Check back in June/July for my picks from 2022’s summer sales.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! No, not Christmas or Hannukah – it’s time for some of the biggest sales in PC gaming! Steam, Origin, GOG, and Epic Games all have major sales right now, and there are some steep discounts and great deals to be found.

PC gaming can be incredibly expensive to get started with, especially with sky-high prices for graphics cards and other components at the moment (thanks, crypto-miners). But huge sales like these go a long way to making up for the high cost of entry in my opinion! Steam sales have rightly acquired near-legendary status among gamers, and consoles really can’t compete with the steep discounts on offer.

So this time, for the third year in a row, I’m going to pick out a few of the best deals and discounts – and maybe give you a few ideas for games to play over the holidays and into 2022!

Deal #1:
Star Trek: Voyager – Elite Force
GOG, 19% discount, £6.79

Elite Force is one of the rare Star Trek video games that broke through to players outside of the existing Star Trek fandom. For a time shortly after its release in the year 2000, the game was a must-play in the budding multiplayer first-person shooter space on PC. It was the first FPS that I played at a LAN party shortly after the turn of the millennium, and I had a blast with Elite Force.

The game has a solid campaign, too, with players taking on the role of an ensign aboard the USS Voyager. Elite Force brought back most of the cast of Star Trek: Voyager to voice their characters, further adding to the sense of immersion. And the campaign’s story is very Star Trek-y, as the USS Voyager is sucked into a void in space. GOG also has discounts on a few other Star Trek games, so check out the likes of Away Team and Hidden Evil too!

Deal #2:
Red Dead Redemption II
Epic Games/Steam, 50% discount, £27.49

After more than 100 hours across three months, I finally beat Red Dead Redemption II just a few days ago. The game is both beautiful and incredibly bleak, with an emotional story that will leave you jumping for joy and wallowing in melancholy. Stay tuned for a full write-up in the near future, because I’ve got a lot more to say about this one!

Rockstar Games took their open-world format and applied it to the late 19th Century, crafting a visually gorgeous rendition of the American Midwest and South in that era. Players take on the role of Arthur Morgan – an outlaw who rides with the Van Der Linde gang. Expect the usual chaos and mayhem as Arther robs banks and gets into shootouts, but be prepared for emotional gut-punches too. Red Dead Redemption II is a long game, but if you get stuck into it you won’t want to stop playing when it’s over.

Deal #3:
Kena: Bridge of Spirits
Epic Games, 25% discount, £23.99

Kena: Bridge of Spirits is almost certainly my favourite game of 2021. The adorable adventure game plays like a wonderful homage to older 3D titles while simultaneously making full use of decades’ worth of graphical improvements to look absolutely stunning. Kena: Bridge of Spirits was already competitively-priced, so to be able to snap it up at a discount feels like a real bargain!

One thing I admire about Kena: Bridge of Spirits is that it doesn’t hold your hand. You’re given all of the gameplay tools to navigate an area and then left to do so – there are no arrows pointing where to go nor a barrage of pop-up tips. It also features the Rot: adorable little critters who help Kena on her journey to the Mountan Shrine. You can read my full review of Kena: Bridge of Spirits by clicking or tapping here.

Deal #4:
Cyberpunk 2077
GOG/Epic Games/Steam, 50% discount, £24.99

I haven’t found many nice things to say about Cyberpunk 2077, the game which ended up being a crushing disappointment to many players who jumped aboard an out-of-control hype train. Even today, a year on from one of the worst game launches of recent times, it’s still not in a particularly good state – and as I’ve said more than once, the actual game hiding underneath the bugs and glitches could be described at best as being “above-average.”

But Cyberpunk 2077 has an interesting story, and when it works there’s no denying its dense cityscape is a sight to see. With a reasonable discount it feels like an acceptable buy, and with further patches to come in 2022, this could be a game worth picking up now with a view to playing in six months’ time once more development work has been done. Just remember to set appropriate expectations: Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t a genre-redefining experience that pushes the boundaries of what video games can be. On a good day, it’s an above-average role-playing shooter.

Deal #5:
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Steam/Origin, 63% discount, £12.94

Jedi: Fallen Order is the single-player Star Wars game that fans had been asking for for almost a decade, and served as a great palate cleanser after the controversies around Battlefront II and even The Rise of Skywalker. A fantastic story-driven action-adventure, players take on the role of abandoned ex-Padawan Cal Kestis in the years between Revenge of the Sith and the Original Trilogy.

Jedi: Fallen Order has a unique and engaging story, one that really pulled me in and made me feel like I was living through my own Star Wars adventure with Cal and the friends he met during his journey. The game is tightly-focused on lightsaber combat and a handful of Force powers, allowing less choice than some titles but honing to perfection those elements it chooses to include. Origin also offers Jedi: Fallen Order as part of a bundle with Star Wars Squadrons and Battlefront II – which could be a good deal if you haven’t played any of those titles!

Deal #6:
Shenmue I & II
Steam, 75% discount, £6.24

Although the Shenmue saga’s third entry, which was funded primarily by fans, didn’t accomplish the goal of concluding the story, the first Shenmue in particular is one of the best games that I’ve ever played and I’ll happily recommend it to fans of single-player titles for as long as I live! Originally released on the Dreamcast, Shenmue and Shenmue II follow the story of martial artist Ryo Hazuki following the murder of his father. The quest takes Ryo from his native Japan to Hong Kong and beyond.

For younger gamers who’ve grown up with 3D environments, open worlds, and the like, it’s difficult to fully communicate how revolutionary Shenmue felt when I first played it in the year 2000. It was the first game I felt was truly cinematic, and that told a story that could’ve been from a novel or a series of films. Shenmue was the game that showed me what video games could be – and it will always be special to me for that reason. Oh, and the first game has some Christmassy elements, so it’s great to play at this time of year!

Deal #7:
Fall Guys
Steam, 50% discount, £7.99

The only online game I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed from the past few years, Fall Guys is an obstacle course battle royale; a cute cartoony version of the likes of Total Wipeout. It’s an absolute blast, and there really isn’t anything quite like it on the market. Despite a recent buyout by Epic Games, Fall Guys is currently only available on Steam and PlayStation – with Xbox and Nintendo Switch versions both suffering long delays.

Fall Guys’ reputation may have been tainted by a cheating problem that plagued matches early in its life, but that was fixed a long time ago. The addition of new rounds offering new challenges has kept the game fresh, and if you’re sick of the usual shooters and third-person action-adventure games, Fall Guys could be the breath of fresh air you’ve been looking for!

Deal #8:
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
Steam, 70% discount, £3.89

A few weeks ago, Skyrim hit its tenth anniversary, and next year Morrowind will celebrate its twentieth! With The Elder Scrolls VI still years away, it could be a great time to either get back into Morrowind or to pick up the game for the first time if you missed out when it was new. Morrowind is by far my favourite Elder Scrolls game, and I think even Skyrim players will be surprised at just how much there is to do.

Morrowind has more NPCs than Oblivion or Skyrim. It has more weapon types, more magic spells, more factions to join, and two expansive DLC packs that add even more to a base game already overstuffed with content. Its text-only interface may be offputting to some players, but if you can look past that limitation you’ll find what I consider to be one of the finest role-playing games ever created.

Deal #9:
Super Woden GP
Steam, 50% discount, £5.14

Super Woden GP is a very old-school racing game with an isometric perspective. It’s a lot of fun, a throwback to the days when racing video games seemed to be based on the games kids would play with toy cars! Super Woden GP includes over 70 real-world cars and a varied mix of tracks. There’s no first-person view, and this isn’t a simulation experience by any stretch. It’s just good old-fashioned racing fun.

There have been some great racing games this year. Forza Horizon 5 is just one example! But if you want something a little different, a game that has more of a classic feel, Super Woden GP is definitely a title I can recommend.

Deal #10:
Mafia: Definitive Edition
Steam, 50% discount, £17.49

Developers Hangar 13 could show Rockstar a thing or two about how to truly make a “definitive edition!” This remake of the first Mafia game from 2002 truly transformed the game and brought it fully into the modern day. When I first played Mafia on the original Xbox I thought I was getting “Grand Theft Auto III in the ’30s,” but that doesn’t do the game justice. It’s an amazing story-driven action game in its own right.

2021 has been a year of disappointing “remasters” that, for the most part, have ended up feeling like barebones reskins or just repackaged re-releases. But Mafia: Definitive Edition, which came out in September 2020, is in a completely different league. If you missed this game the first time around, or if you haven’t played it since the early 2000s, it’s absolutely worth a buy.

Deal #11:
Halo: The Master Chief Collection
Steam, 50% discount, £14.99

Since we’re talking about great remakes, Halo: The Master Chief Collection is another fantastic release. Comprising the first six games in the Halo series, all you’re missing is Halo 5 – and if you’re planning on playing Halo Infinite at some point soon, it’s definitely worth getting reacquainted with the long-running sci-fi shooter series.

The first couple of Halo games, which came out on the original Xbox, were certainly beginning to show their age in terms of visuals, so the overhaul was greatly appreciated! I have fond memories of playing Halo: Combat Evolved with friends – both co-operatively and competitively – so for me this one can be a bit of a nostalgia trip. For the price, getting six great first-person shooters feels like a steal, so this is an easy one to recommend.

Deal #12:
Control: Ultimate Edition
Steam, 70% discount, £10.49

I played through Control for the first time earlier this year, and I had a blast! It’s a spooky game in some ways, with the malevolent Hiss an ever-present and very unnerving adversary. Control has a very clever design, making creative use of what might otherwise be fairly bland office environments to tell a genuinely engaging and interesting supernatural story.

I found Control to be one of the most accessible games I’ve had the good fortune to play. With various modes and options to cater to players with differing abilities, Control went out of its way to be as open as possible. That’s something I feel more titles need to do as we move into the new console generation.

Deal #13:
Road 96
Steam, 20% discount, £13.56

Road 96 is a unique narrative experience that feels as if it was inspired by recent events! Taking place in a fictional country that resembles the American Southwest, players must make it to the border and escape from the authorities – undertaking a road trip and meeting dozens of interesting characters en route, each with their own stories to tell.

It’s a clever game with a great soundtrack and a neat premise, very heavy on story. Road 96 also has an artistic visual style that adds to the experience. If you’re in the market for something different, a single-player game that isn’t just about shooting, Road 96 might be the indie game for you!

Deal #14:
Banished
Steam, 66% discount, £5.09

Banished is a non-violent town-building game in which you have to carefully manage limited resources to keep the population healthy and happy. It’s almost deceptively simple but very tricky to master – even with all the hours I’ve logged it’s still a challenge!

I can’t get over the fact that Banished was made by one single person. Even if it had been made by a whole studio I’d still heap praise upon it, but the fact that this entire complex experience was put together by a single developer never fails to amaze me. There are some fun mods for Banished that the fan community has made in the years since its 2014 launch – some of which add whole new ways to play. For such a low price it’s an absolute steal!

Deal #15:
Jade Empire: Special Edition
Steam, 75% discount, £3.74

If you’re a fan of BioWare’s games, make sure that you didn’t miss out on Jade Empire! Released as an Xbox exclusive in 2005, Jade Empire is a role-playing game set in a world inspired by Chinese legends. It blends martial arts and magic in a truly fun and unique experience. Released in between Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, I feel Jade Empire gets somewhat overshadowed – but it should be hailed alongside those games!

All of the trademark BioWare elements are here: well-written characters, a story with multiple endings, building up a group of characters and taking them on a journey. If you’ve played any other modern BioWare title the gameplay will feel familiar – but the story is well worth experiencing for yourself.

Bonus:
Epic Games Coupon
Epic Games, £10/$10

This one isn’t a game! But for the duration of the holiday sale, Epic Games are offering a coupon with a value of £10, $10, or the equivalent in your local currency to spend on games priced over £13.99 or equivalent. The coupon is valid even for titles which are on sale provided they’re priced above £13.99, so it can be a great way to stack up the discounts. For example, Cyberpunk 2077 would be £14.99 on Epic Games, or Red Dead Redemption II would be £17.49.

So that’s it!

We’ve picked out fifteen deals from the various PC digital shops and their big winter sales. There are a ton more games on offer at this time of year, so have a browse and maybe treat yourself to something new to play over the holidays! I know that’s what I’ll be doing!

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. 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.

Halo Infinite: first impressions

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for Halo Infinite, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and other iterations of the Halo franchise.

After the longest gap in between games since the franchise began, Halo Infinite was finally released last week. I haven’t yet completed the campaign, but I’ve spent a couple of hours with the game so far – enough time to give you my first impressions and initial thoughts about Halo Infinite.

First up, make sure you choose the right version when you go to download it! I have Game Pass for PC, and on the homepage of the Xbox app there was a big Halo Infinite icon, so I clicked it and it began to download – taking hours on my painfully slow internet connection. When it was done I booted up the game… only to find I couldn’t play the campaign, just the multiplayer! The campaign is a separate download, so I had to wait another few hours for that. Not the best start – and this should really be made clearer on the Xbox app.

Promo art for Halo Infinite.

When I was able to load the campaign, I immediately encountered an issue with the audio. I usually play games with headphones on, but although my headphones were plugged in there was no audio. After some investigating, the only way I could find to fix it came from someone else who’d had a similar problem and shared their solution on a forum – I had to go into my PC’s sound settings and change my headphone settings. Something uncomplicated but stupidly obscure; how this person figured it out I’ve no idea! It worked fine after that – but again, Halo Infinite made a poor first impression as a result.

The game opens with a cut-scene showing the Master Chief being thrown into space by an alien monster – the leader of a villainous faction called the Banished. This villain, and a couple of other Banished leaders who we’re also introduced to in cut-scenes across the game’s opening act, all feel quite generic. The vocal performances were hammy and over-the-top, and I don’t really get the impression that the leaders of the Banished are anything other than “evil for the sake of it” kind of villains. By default this makes the game less compelling and less interesting!

The game opens with Master Chief getting beaten up by this guy.

I haven’t played Halo 5; it wasn’t included as part of The Master Chief Collection when that was released on PC a couple of years ago, and it hasn’t been released as a standalone title. But the pre-release marketing and chatter about Halo Infinite seemed to indicate that the game was some kind of soft renewal of the franchise and would be a good jumping-on point for players unfamiliar with the world and lore of the Halo series – a series which, lest we forget, has recently passed its twentieth anniversary. Based on my first couple of hours with the game, I have to disagree with that.

Halo Infinite feels like an unapologetic sequel. We don’t find out why the Master Chief happened to be aboard that starship, and pretty quickly as he retrieves not-Cortana from a nearby Halo ring the game seems to reference events that took place in Halo 5 – something about Cortana going rogue and needing to be deleted. At this point I feel pretty lost with the story, with Master Chief blindly shooting his way through waves of enemies without any readily apparent goal or purpose.

I didn’t play Halo 5 so I feel a bit lost with the story.

I took a decade off from the Halo games after Reach, and it was only when I got The Master Chief Collection on PC that I played the fourth game in the series and the ODST spin-off. So I’m not the world’s biggest Halo fan by any stretch, and maybe big fans of the franchise are having a whale of a time – if so, that’s fantastic. I don’t want to detract from anyone’s enjoyment by being an old sourpuss! But Halo Infinite’s story appears to rely heavily on what came before, so for new fans or for folks who’ve been out of the loop, maybe The Master Chief Collection would be a better way to get started.

I found a couple of very odd graphical bugs during my relatively short time with the game, too. During the second mission, when Master Chief has arrived at the Halo installation, doorways appeared to glitch out: they’d appear to be solid even after “opening” and it was possible to just clip through what looked like a solid, graphically buggy door. Then shortly after, every alien of a particular kind (I think the Elites) were also completely bugged, and they ended up looking all stretched out and just broken. It’s hard to put into words, so see the screenshots below (click or tap the images for a larger version):

All of this kind of added up to mean that the game left a weaker-than-expected first impression. I’d been excited for Halo Infinite; the prospect of a franchise I remember with fondness from the days of the original Xbox getting a soft renewal and a new coat of paint was something I found genuinely appealing. I want to like Halo Infinite – but the somewhat dense backstory, a villain who feels silly at best, and a handful of bugs and glitches that should really have been fixed before launch have definitely got in the way of that.

So that’s the bad stuff out of the way. But my experience with Halo Infinite so far hasn’t been entirely negative by any stretch. There is definitely a good game at its core, one with some truly exciting and fun sci-fi shooting. The guns that I’ve used so far have been varied, ranging from standard rifles and pistols to Halo staples like the Needler. Halo Infinite’s gunplay is fluid, the environments so far have been well-designed, and were it not for those few bugs and issues that I’ve encountered I’d be giving it a ten out of ten for its gameplay.

Halo Infinite has great gunplay.

As a multiplayer player-versus-player online shooter, which is what many folks come to Halo for, I think that bodes well. I can absolutely see it being a game that keeps players hooked well into 2022 and perhaps even beyond that, as there seem to be teases of a lot more multiplayer content to come. And that’s great… for people who like that kind of game. As someone who came to Halo Infinite for its campaign, I feel underwhelmed more than anything else. Halo Infinite’s campaign isn’t exactly bad, it just isn’t as good or well-written as I’d hoped it would be.

So far, in addition to the Master Chief I’ve met two major characters: a pilot and not-Cortana – an AI named “the Weapon.” Both characters seem interesting, and I’m definitely curious to see how their stories progress as the game goes on. The voice and motion-capture performances for both characters have been great so far, with some of the Weapon’s facial expressions in particular being extraordinarily well-animated. The Halo games have come a long way from their 2001 origins in that respect. Were it not for those graphical bugs I encountered, I’d say Halo Infinite makes the franchise look better than ever.

Not-Cortana… a.k.a. the Weapon.

So I guess I need to read a synopsis of Halo 5 or something… get myself caught up with all of the story that I missed (and all the other story that I’ve forgotten about!) Maybe then I’ll have a better time as I progress through the campaign. Halo Infinite has potential, but I guess what I’d say is that I’m glad I picked it up as part of Game Pass; I’d feel far less charitable about its flaws and shortcomings had I paid £55 for it.

If you’re only interested in multiplayer, I think Halo Infinite will be a fine shooter going through 2022. Of this year’s big first-person shooter releases, there’s surely no question that Halo Infinite is the best choice by far. Battlefield 2042 and Call of Duty: Vanguard can’t compete, not by a long-shot. If you’re interested in the campaign, though, I think Halo Infinite isn’t as much of a soft reboot or fresh start as I was expecting – so make sure you’re caught up on what happened in previous games before you jump in.

Promo screenshot.

The bugs are disappointing, but so far they haven’t been so overwhelming that I felt the need to quit the game. Hopefully these issues can be patched out in the days ahead. There don’t seem to be as many reports of similar issues affecting the Xbox One or Xbox Series S/X version of the game, which is positive news for those of you using those platforms.

So that’s it, I guess. An unspectacular start, but not a terrible one. Halo Infinite could certainly do a lot worse, and in a first-person shooter market that increasingly only caters to the multiplayer crowd, it’s nice to see that Microsoft and Xbox are sticking with single-player campaigns. It’s also great that Halo Infinite got a simultaneous release on PC, and a day-one launch on Game Pass. Microsoft has become quite a player-friendly company in that regard, and I have to respect that.

If you already have Game Pass, it’s hard not to recommend Halo Infinite – you might as well give it a shot, at least. And its multiplayer mode is currently free-to-play for everyone, Game Pass subscriber or not. For £55/$60 though, the campaign alone might not be worth it. You’re probably better off signing up for Game Pass just for a month, beating the campaign, and then cancelling your subscription!

Halo Infinite is out now for PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. Halo Infinite is also available via Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Game Pass for PC. The Halo series – including Halo Infinite – is the copyright of 343 Industries, Xbox Game Studios, and Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Let’s get hyped for Star Trek: Resurgence!

Spoiler Warning: There may be minor spoilers ahead for the Star Trek franchise.

I was blindsided by the recent announcement of Star Trek: Resurgence – a brand new video game set in the Star Trek galaxy. Though there have been a couple of crappy mobile games and the ever-present Star Trek Online, it’s been almost a decade since the last single-player video game in the Star Trek franchise… and that didn’t go too well!

On the whole, Star Trek as a franchise hasn’t been especially well-served in the video game realm, despite the fact that there’s always been a significant crossover between Trekkies and gamers. When compared to the Star Wars franchise, which boasts some truly excellent games, Star Trek titles have never really managed to cut through, and with only a couple of exceptions even the best Star Trek games have mostly been the preserve of existing fans.

A new Star Trek game is warping onto our screens!

Here’s hoping that Resurgence can change that! Early indications are actually pretty good: the game’s announcement came at the Game Awards, one of the biggest industry events outside of E3. Resurgence has been picked up by a number of gaming publications and websites, featuring on several lists of the “best announcements” made at the event. Because it’s been a while since there was a Star Trek game, I think that might actually work in Resurgence’s favour to an extent!

One of the main things that seems to have piqued the curiosity of many players is the pedigree of the developer: new studio Dramatic Labs. Dramatic Labs is a studio comprised of former writers and developers at Telltale Games, the studio behind titles like the incredibly well-received The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and the Batman adaptation. Many Telltale titles were exceptionally popular, with fans praising the quality of the writing and the unique branching stories that led to multiple narrative paths and several different endings.

The bridge of the USS Resolute.

I played through Telltale’s Batman game a few years ago and it was an enjoyable experience that was something different from many other titles. These narrative adventure games put storytelling and dialogue front-and-centre, allowing players to choose what to say at key moments and to influence the direction of the story through the choices they make. When I played through Batman it felt almost like an interactive film: a deep story, well-animated cut-scenes and sequences, but with many different moments at which I could choose what happened and which way the story would proceed.

The choices in games like these aren’t always obvious. In games like Mass Effect or Fallout, for example, there’s usually a “good guy” choice and a “bad guy” choice, sometimes with a neutral option thrown in for good measure. In Mass Effect you can, for example, choose to punch a news reporter or answer her questions, and in Fallout 3 you can choose to defuse a bomb or arm it and blow up a settlement. Both examples show how players can influence the story and shake up the game world, but in both cases it’s clearly telegraphed which are “good” and “bad” options. Telltale/Dramatic Labs titles don’t always make it so obvious!

Firing a phaser in the trailer.

For example, in the Batman game I mentioned, there are several points at which you have to make decisions that can have ramifications for the rest of the game but where the choice isn’t obvious. Choosing whether to save one character or another can end up creating a new villain to fight, or choosing to attend an event in costume as Batman can lead to a wholly different outcome than if Bruce Wayne attended without his disguise. These are just examples of the kind of branching narrative choices that Dramatic Labs is teasing us with in Resurgence.

We’re also promised third-person action sequences throughout Resurgence, and we saw examples of this in the trailer too. The official announcement also lists “shuttle piloting, phaser fights, tricorder scanning, stealth, and micro-gameplay mechanics” as things we’ll be able to do in the game. I’m not sure what “micro-gameplay mechanics” means in this instance; it sounds like it could be mini-games, and things like picking locks or computer hacking spring to mind as examples from other franchises. But it all sounds like a ton of fun!

Scanning with a tricorder.

From the trailer we got a glimpse of some of these systems in effect. There was a sequence with a character wearing an EV suit on what looked like the outer hull of a starship firing their phaser, a tricorder scanning sequence that looked like a lot of fun, and some sneaking around that was potentially representative of one of the stealth sections.

The idea of having two playable characters is fun, too, and we’ve seen a number of recent games do this to great effect. While we don’t know much at all about either of the playable characters, the fact that one is a senior bridge officer and the other is a non-commissioned engineer should mean we get to see two very different perspectives on the same story. Both characters should be approaching the situation from very different starting places, and that already sounds like something that could be a lot of fun. Aside from Chief O’Brien, we haven’t spent a lot of time with enlisted personnel before, and Resurgence might actually be the first time we’ve seen an enlisted crewperson as a playable video game character.

A familiar face!

It was so great to see Spock in the trailer, and I felt that the voice actor did a creditable job at imitating Leonard Nimoy’s iconic performance. Whether Spock will have a major role to play in the story isn’t clear at this stage, but as one of Star Trek’s most legendary characters his presence should be interesting at the very least. Dramatic Labs has also teased that there may be other “fan-favourite” characters included in the game, but no details yet on who those characters could be.

Dramatic Labs promise that players will “make those similar tough choices that iconic Star Trek heroes have been forced to contend with.” This is emphasising the narrative choice aspect of the game, and reinforces what I said earlier about the difficulty of some of the choices in games of this nature. The story seems to involve two alien races “on the brink of war” – I didn’t recognise either of the alien races seen in the trailer. Resurgence sounds enthralling, and I’m really excited to get stuck in.

Players will have to make some pretty tough calls in Resurgence

We need to set appropriate expectations, though, no matter how exciting it may be to finally get a new Star Trek game after such a long time! This isn’t going to be a sprawling adventure on the scale of something like Mass Effect, nor will it be an open-world title like Cyberpunk 2077. It’s a narrative adventure game, and that (hopefully) means that we’ll get a very strong and engaging story with a good degree of choice over how it proceeds. The third-person adventure elements look fun too, and I’m excited to try out things like phaser combat and tricorder scanning.

So keep an eye out for Resurgence when it arrives in the spring. Given the developers’ pedigree, I think Resurgence has the potential to appeal to fans of narrative titles and Telltale Games as well as Star Trek fans, and as long as the game is released in a bug-free state it has a lot of potential. Star Trek feels like a natural fit for a narrative adventure title, and it reminds me in some ways of games like Deep Space Nine: Harbinger and Hidden Evil from the late 1990s/early 2000s.

I’m trying not to get over-excited! I’ve been hoping for a new single-player Star Trek game for years, and hopefully Resurgence will be the first of many as the franchise continues to grow and expand. Regardless, I’m eagerly awaiting its Spring 2022 release! I hope you’ll come back when Resurgence is out for a full review.

Star Trek: Resurgence will be released for PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X in Spring 2022. Star Trek: Resurgence is the copyright of Dramatic Labs and ViacomCBS Consumer Products. The Star Trek franchise is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Cyberpunk 2077 – one year later

It’s been exactly a year since Cyberpunk 2077 launched to critical derision, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to take a look at the game’s progress, lack of progress, and future prospects. On the 10th of December 2020, after several delays, Cyberpunk 2077 was released by CD Projekt Red – but that really isn’t the beginning of the story, and we should briefly step back and consider the absolutely ridiculous hype bubble that had grown around the game.

Here’s my two cents: no matter what state Cyberpunk 2077 had been in a year ago today, an awful lot of players would still have found it to be a disappointing experience. CD Projekt Red’s marketing team didn’t just passively sit by and allow the game’s hype to get out of control in the weeks and months before its launch, but they actively contributed to the problem.

How is Cyberpunk 2077 doing one year on?

For a bit of background, I worked for a time in the video games industry, specifically on the marketing side of things. While it’s natural for a publisher to want to see excitement around a title, care must be taken at an early stage not to allow the hype to get out of control. In the case of Cyberpunk 2077, CD Projekt Red’s marketing team seemed incapable of saying “no” – they weren’t doing a good job of managing players’ expectations, and the result was that many players built up a vision in their minds of a once-in-a-lifetime experience; a “perfect” video game. Cyberpunk 2077 was never going to live up to the hype that had been built up, no matter how good it might’ve been. At the end of the day, it’s just another video game.

I could see this hype bubble inflating, growing ever larger and slipping far out of CD Projekt Red’s control. In October 2020, a couple of months before the game’s launch, I wrote an article here on the website titled Cyberpunk 2077 and the dangers of hype in which I expressed exactly this opinion. No matter how good the game might ultimately be, I argued, CD Projekt Red had allowed the game’s hype bubble to get far too big. By allowing prospective players to set incredibly high expectations and refusing to lift a finger to rein in those expectations, the game’s publisher was setting up players for disappointment – as well as setting up the game for negative reviews.

I wrote this article back in October 2020 – before the game’s disastrous launch.

I couldn’t have known then, of course, how bad Cyberpunk 2077 was lining up to be. A last-second delay from November to December should’ve rung alarm bells, but with the pandemic causing all kinds of disruptions last year it wasn’t a huge shock. CD Projekt Red had a great reputation as being a player-friendly company, so if they said they needed a few extra weeks to give the game a final spit and polish, most players were willing to believe that that’s all it was.

Despite my scepticism of Cyberpunk 2077 being everything it was hyped up to be, I was still expecting to see a decent game in December 2020. When the dust settled, I felt sure there’d be a rock-solid role-playing first-person shooter under the hood, even if the game’s loftier promises of redefining what a single-player game could look like didn’t come to pass. To say that I was stunned by the state of the game at launch, and the reaction to it from players, would be an understatement!

Pre-release promotional artwork.

In early December 2020, CD Projekt Red could do no wrong in the eyes of players. The Polish studio’s previous title had been the critically-acclaimed The Witcher 3 in 2015, a game widely hailed as one of the best titles of the generation. With policies and practices that many folks felt were player-friendly, and a good social media team to boot, the company had one of the best reputations in the industry. That evaporated overnight, and a year later the company’s reputation remains in the toilet.

Players will put up with a lot of things – many scandals in the games industry, even very serious ones, usually end up disappearing without a trace by the time a publisher has the next AAA title ready to go. But one thing players can’t abide is being lied to – and CD Projekt Red lied about Cyberpunk 2077.

CD Projekt Red – developer and publisher of Cyberpunk 2077.

The game was not fit for purpose on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 – and even today, a full year later, it still performs far worse on those machines than it does on high-end PCs and the newer generation of consoles. CD Projekt Red knew this – because at some point during Cyberpunk 2077′s development, a decision was clearly made to prioritise next-gen consoles over what were then the current-generation machines.

CD Projekt Red had a choice during development: scrap the current-gen version and go all-in on next-gen and PC, or scale the game back so that performance on older hardware would improve. They chose to do neither, doggedly (and stupidly) pushing ahead with a plan to release the game on hardware that, even under the best possible conditions, can’t really handle it. This problem has been lessened by the extra year of development time since release, but it hasn’t gone away. Bugs and glitches remain on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and actions taken to mitigate the game’s performance issues have meant that players see things like fewer pedestrians, less traffic, and get shorter draw distances. Xbox One and PlayStation 4 players have ended up with a worse version of the game no matter how you look at things.

Cyberpunk 2077 was almost unplayable on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One when it was released.

I don’t believe for a second that CD Projekt Red’s management was blissfully unaware of the game’s impending problems this time last year. Their excuse that most developers were working on PCs so no one knew about the bugs and performance issues on home consoles is ludicrous in the extreme – and if anyone out there believes it, I’ve got a bridge to sell you. No, they knew full well that the game was not in a fit state for launch, but they went ahead and launched it anyway. And then, when things understandably went sideways, instead of coming clean and admitting they made a mistake, CD Projekt Red lied about it.

Cyberpunk 2077 is barely ready for release today, let alone a year ago. It needed many more months of development time to even get to this point, and I would argue that if it had been released today it would still have received criticism for its bugs, glitches, and other issues – especially on those older consoles. Not to mention that the overinflated hype bubble we discussed would have burst as players came to find a game that has some decidedly mediocre gameplay elements; things that other titles did better years ago.

Pre-release concept art.

To me, that’s Cyberpunk 2077′s most egregious fault. Sure, the lies on the corporate side of things are pretty crappy. It was definitely an overhyped game, too. And the bugs and glitches will forever define Cyberpunk 2077 for a great many people. But for me, I see so many gameplay elements and features underneath the bugs, performance issues, and scandals surrounding the game that just aren’t that good, or aren’t handled well within the game world. Despite its ambitions, Cyberpunk 2077 is, even on its very best day, an okay video game.

An engrossing, exciting story holds players’ interest, and I fully agree that a good story can redeem even the most mediocre of titles. But underneath that story is a game that just isn’t all that good. Its first-person shooting is okay… but hardly spectacular. I can point to many modern titles that do shooting better and in more fun ways than Cyberpunk 2077: Doom Eternal and Halo: The Master Chief Collection are two just within the single-player realm.

Shooting is a big part of Cyberpunk 2077 – and it’s an aspect of gameplay that many other titles do better.

Open-world gameplay is likewise something other titles do better. Grand Theft Auto V is still the definitive city-based open world game, and it gets so many things right that Cyberpunk 2077 gets wrong: driving, traffic, pedestrian/civilian NPC behaviour, traffic AI, mini-map/radar, police… the list goes on. Some of Cyberpunk 2077′s open-world elements feel so incredibly outdated when compared even to lesser games in a similar space – police AI and police spawning, for example, work far better and feel more intuitive in games like Saints Row 2, which came out in 2008.

I’d argue that the bugs, glitches, and performance issues actually ended up shielding Cyberpunk 2077 from some serious gripes about the way the game really works. The overnight bursting of the hype bubble surrounding the game a year ago mostly came about as a result of the bugs and the lies – players wanted to play the game they’d built up in their heads, and were angry with CD Projekt Red for releasing it before it was ready. It’s only as the game’s development continued that we’ve come to see how Cyberpunk 2077 might’ve looked had it been launched in a better state – and for a lot of folks, these gameplay elements just aren’t particularly well-made or fun. They’re certainly not innovative, meaning that despite bold claims in the run-up to the game’s release, Cyberpunk 2077 was never going to be the once-in-a-lifetime experience that many players had hoped for.

Cyberpunk 2077 has experienced quite the fall from grace.

Now that we’ve had a year to see the game in all its glory, it’s my firm belief that Cyberpunk 2077′s problems don’t begin and end with its incredibly bad launch. That launch will, justifiably, go on to define the game for the rest of its days. Very few titles before or since have seen such a spectacular implosion, and CD Projekt Red will be scrambling for years to recover from this self-inflicted wound. But as the dust settled and as the game’s development has continued, with bug fixes and patches having been rolled out over the course of this first year, we’ve seen what Cyberpunk 2077 could have been – or at least we’ve seen glimpses of that.

A strong, engaging story with some well-written dialogue and clever world-building keeps Cyberpunk 2077 interesting. Had it not been for the bugs and glitches, that might’ve been good enough to see it pick up better-than-average reviews: seven or seven-and-a-half out of ten, that kind of thing. But underneath that story, gameplay remains shallow. The game is comprised entirely of systems that other titles have done before – and in many cases have done far better. There was never anything new or innovative about Cyberpunk 2077, and the things that could’ve made it seem better than it was – such as its densely-packed open world or sense of scale – were completely ruined by the bugs and launch issues.

It’s possible that 2022 will see more updates for Cyberpunk 2077 that start to change the narrative. A next-gen console version is already on the cards for the first half of next year, for example, and there are more free updates to come in the months ahead. But as things stand, I can’t see a way to turn Cyberpunk 2077 into the game that CD Projekt Red spent eight years hyping to oblivion. It has the potential, once all the bugs are fixed, to be a decent game. But it will never be a great one.

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.

Xbox turns 20!

On the 15th of November 2001, the original Xbox launched in the United States. That makes today the 20th anniversary of the console and Microsoft’s gaming brand, so I thought we should mark the occasion with a look back! I haven’t yet had the chance to play on an Xbox Series S or X, but I’ve owned an original Xbox, an Xbox 360, and an Xbox One at different points over the past couple of decades so I like to think I’m qualified to comment on the brand!

It’s hard to remember now, especially for younger folks who’ve quite literally grown up with the games industry looking the way it does, but the Xbox was a massive risk for Microsoft in 2001. The games industry at the turn of the millennium felt settled – Nintendo and Sega were the “big boys” and PlayStation had been the new kid on the block, shaking things up as the world of gaming moved from 2D to 3D titles.

Xbox turns 20 today!

For practically all of the 1990s, it had been Japanese games companies – Sega, Nintendo, and Sony – that had dominated the video game hardware market. Challengers from the ’80s like Atari and Commodore represented American manufacturers, but they’d fallen away by the end of the decade leaving the worldwide video game hardware market the sole domain of the Japanese.

I remember reading more than one article in 2001 promising that the Xbox would be an expensive failure for Microsoft, arguing that “no one” was looking for a new console manufacturer at that time. It would be impossible to enter a market where things were already stable, and even with Microsoft’s money, challenging the mighty Sega, Nintendo, and PlayStation was just going to be a waste of time. How wrong is it possible to be, eh? We should all remember articles like those before making big predictions!

Bill Gates unveiled the Xbox and showed the console to the world for the first time in 2001.

The video games industry was far less settled in 2001 than anyone seemed to realise, of course. Sega’s Dreamcast would prove to be such a significant flop that the company ended up shutting down their hardware business altogether, and Nintendo’s GameCube – which also launched in November 2001 – would struggle to compete with the PlayStation 2 and Xbox in terms of sales.

So the market was definitely more receptive to a new entrant than a lot of folks at the time were predicting! But that isn’t why the Xbox succeeded. It helped, of course, that the console was created at a time when Sega was getting out of the way and Nintendo had uncharacteristically faltered. But those external factors weren’t key to the success of the Xbox, and anyone who claims otherwise is doing the console a disservice.

The original Xbox logo.

The Xbox was a great machine. Microsoft had decades of experience in software and plenty of money to boot – they were one of the world’s richest companies even then. Bringing their considerable experience and financial resources to bear led to the creation of a truly world-class machine, one that massively outperformed two of its three competitors in terms of raw processing power and graphical fidelity.

All of those stats would have been meaningless, though, had the console not had a killer lineup of games – and Microsoft delivered there too. Though Microsoft had made some games of their own before 2001, like Age of Empires for example, they didn’t have as much game development experience as the likes of Nintendo and Sony. While development of the Xbox was ongoing, Microsoft worked with a number of third-party developers, signing exclusive contracts and having games built for their new machine from the ground up.

The Xbox was Microsoft’s first video game console.

We can’t talk about the Xbox without talking about its “killer app” – Halo: Combat Evolved. After GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64 had proven that first-person shooters could work well on home consoles, Halo honed the console shooter genre to near-perfection. It was the must-have game of 2001 and 2002, one of the most talked-about and debated titles of the day. Nintendo and PlayStation simply didn’t have anything in reply, and Halo absolutely dominated the conversation going into 2002.

It wasn’t only the first-person shooter genre where Microsoft invested heavily. They contracted a studio called Bizarre Creations – who’d developed a racing game called Metropolis Street Racer for the Dreamcast – to work on an Xbox-exclusive racer: Project Gotham Racing. The game played differently to other racing games at the time – with an emphasis on “kudos” points rather than just winning the race. Project Gotham Racing didn’t quite succeed at eclipsing the likes of the Gran Turismo series on the PlayStation 2, but it was a fun romp nevertheless.

Halo: Combat Evolved was the console’s big launch title.

My personal experience with the original Xbox came in the wake of the Dreamcast’s demise. I’d invested in a Dreamcast as a replacement for my Nintendo 64, but when Sega announced in early 2001 – scarcely a year after its launch – that the Dreamcast would be discontinued and development would cease I knew I’d have to find a new machine again! The Dreamcast was a great console in its own way, but it felt iterative rather than transformative. When I was finally able to upgrade to an Xbox in early 2002 I was blown away by how modern-feeling the machine was.

The control pad – affectionately known as the “Duke” – was the first thing I noticed that was so much better. The addition of a second analogue stick made controlling all kinds of games so much easier and smoother, whether they were racers, shooters, or third-person adventure titles. The black and white buttons were a solid addition too, giving games more options than older control pads on other hardware. The Duke wasn’t wildly popular, though, due to its large size making it heavy and unwieldy for a lot of players. Within a matter of months, Xbox had released the S-controller as an alternative, and that design has stuck. The popular Xbox 360 control pad was based on the S-controller, and the design has remained more or less unchanged since.

The S-controller replaced the Duke – and its design has been honed and refined in the years since.

Some of my favourite gaming experiences of all time took place on the Xbox. I played my first true open-world games on the platform, with titles like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind showing off the console’s power through the size, scale, and density of their worlds – something completely unprecedented at the time. Knights of the Old Republic completely blew me away with its story, and at one point I can vividly remember sitting with the control pad in my hand, mouth open in shock at the way that game’s story unfolded. That’s a moment in gaming – and a moment as a Star Wars fan – that I will never forget!

The Dreamcast had shown me the first game that I felt was genuinely cinematic; a title that would’ve felt at home on the big screen: Shenmue. But that console still had its limitations, and relatively few Dreamcast titles came close to reaching the high bar set by Shenmue. The Xbox feels – at least to me – like the first modern video games console; the first machine to bring together all of the foundational elements of 21st Century gaming.

Knights of the Old Republic was a fantastic Xbox exclusive.

The launch of the Xbox marked a sea change in the video games industry. Sega was getting out of the market, and Microsoft jumped in. Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s Xbox would go on to be the two big powerhouses of gaming in the 2000s, settling their status as the decade wore on. It was also around this time that Nintendo stopped focusing on trying to compete with PlayStation and Xbox in terms of raw power and began looking at different ways to play – culminating in the launch of the Wii a few years later.

Twenty years ago the Xbox was seen as a risk. Now, as we look back on two decades of Microsoft’s gaming hardware, it’s patently obvious that it’s a risk that paid off – and then some! As we stumble into another new console generation, Xbox feels like a safe, solid bet. And the brand is, in many ways, just getting started. Xbox Game Pass offers fantastic value as a subscription service right now, and as Microsoft looks to harmonise their console and PC players in a single conjoined system, things are definitely changing for the better for Xbox as a brand. There have been some bumps in the road over the past couple of decades – the rocky launch of the Xbox One and the failure of Kinect being a couple of big ones – but overall, it’s been a success for Microsoft. I knew a lot of people in 2001 who would never have expected to see Xbox as one of the top two gaming platforms twenty years later.

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

New consoles one year later – was it worth it?

It’s been a whole year since the launch of the Xbox Series S/X and the PlayStation 5. The consoles debuted a week apart in early November 2020, and I thought I’d mark the occasion by taking a look back on what has to be considered a pretty rough year for both machines.

At time of writing, both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are out of stock in the UK – and this has been the case for twelve months. Occasional deliveries of consoles to retailers are either sent out to folks who pre-ordered or are snapped up within minutes of going on sale – often by bots. Availability of the less-powerful Xbox Series S has been spotty, but generally better than its more powerful cousin, which is good news for gamers on a budget. However, availability overall has been poor.

Promotional image of the Xbox Series X.

These aren’t the first machines to launch without the supplies to meet worldwide demand, and it’s likely that they won’t be the last. But as I argued last year, this particular console launch feels far worse and more egregious than practically any other. It’s certainly true that other consoles in the past had supply issues. Getting a Nintendo Wii in the UK in 2006 and into 2007 was difficult, for example. But this feels far worse than that, and when compared to the launches of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2013 it’s pretty damn bad.

As we keep hearing on the news, issues with “supply chains” abound across the world, and this was true a year ago as Microsoft and Sony prepared to launch their new consoles. Many components involved in the manufacture of the machines – from silicon to microprocessors – were feeling the pinch due to a number of factors. The pandemic had hit manufacturers in China and Taiwan hard earlier in 2020, but there were also additional pressures from a growing cryptocurrency mining craze that ate up vast numbers of graphics cards and other components. As a result of all of these factors and more, both the Xbox Series S/X and the PlayStation 5 launched with far less availability than necessary.

Two PlayStation 5 editions – with and without a disc drive.

Ever since the transition from 2D to 3D, it’s taken game developers a while to truly get to grips with new hardware and release games that can fully take advantage of the computing power on offer. As a result, for at least a couple of years following the launch of a new console many games are in transition – looking slightly better, perhaps, than the prior generation, but still nowhere near as good as they could. With the diminishing returns on offer considering that Xbox One and PlayStation 4 titles could already look decent, many games released for the two new systems over the past year haven’t really felt new or innovative.

This generation, like the one before it really, will almost certainly go down as an iterative step rather than a transformational one. When consoles from the previous generation could knock out visually-stunning titles like Red Dead Redemption II, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and Ghost of Tsushima, it really feels like there’s limited room for improvement! Put the average player in a room with the best-looking games of the last generation and some of the first titles from this generation and they’d struggle to tell the difference.

Last generation’s Red Dead Redemption II is a stunningly beautiful game with an expansive open world.

There’s a case to be made that Microsoft and Sony should’ve waited. Rather than letting down their audiences by having totally inadequate supplies, if they’d delayed their releases by a year and used that time to build up stock in anticipation of a bigger launch in 2021, we could be talking about the new consoles releasing this month. It’s still possible that they’d both sell out just like last year – but it’s also possible that the extra manufacturing time, without the pressure of fulfilling pre-orders from increasingly irate customers over the past twelve months, would have led to a better launch window for both consoles.

So I guess that’s where I come down on the issue. The consoles were launched callously by both companies without adequate levels of stock to meet the demand that they knew existed. The predictable outcome has been that scalpers and touts have been re-selling consoles all year long for close to double the recommended retail price, lining their own pockets in the process. It seems as though Sony and Microsoft don’t care about this in the slightest, and they’ve been content to leave the problem of bots and reselling to retailers. Some retailers have tried to put in place mechanisms to prevent bots from buying up every available machine, but as we’ve seen all year long these reactions have been more miss than hit.

A handful of Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 consoles being offered for sale via a popular auction website. Prices are easily approaching twice the recommended retail price for both machines.

In terms of games, both Microsoft and Sony – as well as practically all third-party developers – have pursued a year-long policy of making titles available on last-gen consoles as well as the two new machines. Only a handful of titles have been true exclusives, with PlayStation games like Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart and Returnal carrying their flag. Microsoft fans have to be content with basically no exclusives right now, with games like Forza Horizon 5 and the upcoming Halo Infinite also launching on PC and Xbox One.

Might there be some buyers’ remorse among PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X players? I would think so – especially if they paid over the odds for their console to an eBay scalper. Neither machine feels like particularly good value even at their recommended retail price, let alone at the prices folks have actually had to pay to get their hands on them! The handful of exclusive games are backed up by “enhanced” versions of last-gen titles, but in many cases I’ve genuinely struggled to tell the difference between different consoles’ versions of the same title. The improvements on offer over the past year have come in terms of things like frame rate – jumping to 60fps from 30fps for certain titles – and then in comparatively minor areas like controller battery life. These things are hard sells.

The PlayStation 5 DualSense controller.

There have been some changes over the past year, though. Microsoft’s aggressive pursuit of the Game Pass model represents great value for players on a budget, opening up an entire library of titles for a relatively low monthly fee. Sony still hasn’t caught up and doesn’t have a functional Game Pass competitor yet. Both companies have also made big moves into supporting PC gaming – with games that were once PlayStation exclusives making their way to a new platform. In lieu of having enough PlayStation 5 consoles to sell, perhaps that’s something of a consolation prize for Sony!

Overall, I can’t even be generous enough to call the past year a “mixed bag.” There are far more negatives than positives as I see it, and unless both companies can get to grips with the supply and demand issue, this Christmas will be the second in a row where folks are either going to have to pay silly money for a new console or go without. That isn’t a good look, and the longer these problems drag on the worse it will get for the reputations of both Sony and Microsoft.

Last year I felt that it was wrong to launch the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X given the low levels of stock and the myriad other issues that a pandemic-riddled world was facing. The past twelve months have done nothing to change my mind or convince me I was wrong about that. Inadequate manufacturing capacity has kept both consoles out of too many players’ hands, and those who did succeed at getting a pre-order – or more likely who paid close to double the price to a scalper – have found a perishingly small number of exclusive games on a machine that doesn’t feel like much of an improvement over the last generation. The Xbox Series S/X and the PlayStation 5 have potential – but over the past twelve months, neither have come close to reaching it.

Xbox and all other related properties mentioned above is the copyright of Microsoft. PlayStation and all other related properties mentioned above is the copyright of Sony. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only is not intended to cause any offence.

Five amazing Nintendo 64 games

Spoiler Warning: Minor spoilers are present for some of the entries on this list.

Nintendo recently launched the so-called Switch online “expansion pack” – representing incredibly poor value, but that’s beside the point. Included with the subscription are a handful of Nintendo 64 titles which the Switch can emulate. It just got me thinking about one of my favourite consoles and some of the amazing games I enjoyed back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

I upgraded from a Super Nintendo (or SNES) to a Nintendo 64 at Christmas 1997, and the console was my primary gaming machine for about three years until I picked up a Dreamcast shortly after the turn of the millennium. Though I had a PC as well at the time, it was underpowered compared to the console and couldn’t come close to matching it. Though we often think of PC gaming in 2021 as being the gold standard that consoles have to try to measure up to, it wasn’t that long ago where even an expensive PC would struggle in gaming performance next to a dedicated games console – and the Nintendo 64/PlayStation generation was certainly part of that era!

A transparent blue Nintendo 64 console – and its controller.

The Nintendo 64 was my first experience with proper 3D graphics. I’d played PC games with 3D environments before, and other games with 3D sprites, but it was only when I sat down to play Super Mario 64 that I got to fully experience a 3D virtual world. It felt like the future back then – and considering that the Nintendo 64 pioneered a number of features that are still part of gaming today, I guess I was right about that!

Aesthetically, I love the design of the Nintendo 64 and its controller. The chunky three-armed device was intimidating at first; “I don’t have three hands,” I remember thinking, “so how am I supposed to hold it?!” But having an analogue stick was a neat feature, one that felt like a massive upgrade from the wobbly joysticks or D-pads of past consoles I’d been able to play on. Navigating the new 3D environments needed a controller suited to that purpose, and the Nintendo 64’s analogue stick delivered – even if it seems a little primitive when compared to the controllers we enjoy today! Having a “trigger” also made shooting games feel all the more immersive.

A Nintendo 64 controller. What a weird design!

The Nintendo 64 had a stellar lineup of games – several of which I only got to play years later as they were unaffordable to me when I was younger and broke! Now I’m old and still broke – but at least there’s emulation! Actually, the Nintendo 64 was the console that got me into the emulation scene back in the early 2000s. After upgrading to a more powerful PC I found that I could emulate the console quite well, and had a blast re-playing a few favourites as well as playing titles I missed out on first time around. I can’t condone emulation – it’s a legal minefield and you should be careful – but if you have a decent computer and know what you’re doing you’ll have a far better (and cheaper) time than you would if you paid for a Switch online “expansion pack!”

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I’d say that the games of this era represent a transitional stage for the video games industry as a whole. Most Nintendo 64 titles feel like a half-step between the rather basic, toy-like games of earlier generations and the bigger, more in-depth and cinematic titles that we’d enjoy a few short years later. The move from 2D to 3D didn’t immediately lead to masterpieces like Shenmue or Knights of the Old Republic, but the rapid pace of technological change meant that those kinds of games were finally possible. The Nintendo 64 has some games that tried very hard to tell more adult-oriented stories, and it was around this time that I felt video games as a whole had a heck of a lot of potential to be something more.

This was an era of transition for video games.

So on this occasion – twenty-five years on from the Nintendo 64’s 1996 debut – I thought it would be fun to look at five of my favourite titles. These are just a few of the games that, for me anyway, made the Nintendo 64 great. My usual caveat applies: I’m not saying these five games are “objectively the best” Nintendo 64 games out there. If you hate all of them or don’t see your favourite on the list, that’s okay! There are plenty of Nintendo 64 games out there, and we all have our personal favourites. These are just a few of mine!

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the list – which is in no particular order.

Number 1: Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire

The Battle of Hoth.

A few years before Knights of the Old Republic would come along and absolutely blow me away, Shadows of the Empire took me on an outstanding Star Wars-themed adventure. A third-person action-adventure game with nary a Jedi nor the Force in sight, players take control of the Han Solo-inspired Dash Rendar for a wild romp across the galaxy – set during and just after the events of The Empire Strikes Back!

What I adored about Shadows of the Empire was the diversity of gameplay on display. Not only could Dash run and gun in a 3D world that looked so much better and felt way more immersive than any 2D Star Wars game I’d played previously, but he could also pilot several different vehicles – a Snowspeeder taking on AT-AT walkers on Hoth, his own spaceship, swoop bikes, and more.

Shadows of the Empire came at a time when the old Expanded Universe was really ramping up, and along with a novel and comic was technically considered canon until Disney expunged the Expanded Universe in 2013. However, being an official project with a high degree of involvement from Lucasfilm meant that the game slotted in well to the Star Wars universe, feeling genuinely connected to the events and characters of the films.

Number 2: Super Mario 64

Wheeeeeee!

Of course we’re going to talk about Super Mario 64! This was the only Nintendo 64 game I had at first, and I played it for hours and hours! Though I’d played some games on the PC – like Doom – which used pseudo-3D environments, and others which used 3D sprites for 2D gameplay, Super Mario 64 was the first truly 3D game that I played. The difference in how immersive and realistic the game felt, and how it conveyed a sense of scale that really made me feel part of its world are feelings I have never forgotten even a quarter of a century later!

Booting up Super Mario 64 for the first time was a wild experience, one that has stuck with me ever since. But the game itself was fantastic, too, with Mario on a quest to save Princess Peach by battling Bowser and his minions inside painting worlds. The unique premise allowed Super Mario 64 to show off a range of different levels and different environments, and new gameplay mechanics – some of which were inspired by past Super Mario titles – allowed a far greater degree of environmental interaction than ever before.

One level in Super Mario 64 that stands out is Wet-Dry World. Players could change the amount of water in the level, raising and lowering it both by jumping into the painting at different heights and within the level itself by touching special items. The idea that Mario could change the environment in real-time, and then use that gameplay mechanic to solve puzzles, was absolutely genius! And the game is full of other examples of this kind of radical, utterly transformative gameplay.

Number 3: GoldenEye 007

Pew! Pew!

GoldenEye took the first-person shooter concept and honed it, making excellent use of the Nintendo 64’s control pad and analogue stick. Without GoldenEye it’s hard to see how other first-person shooters on console – like the Halo series, which arrived a few years later – would have been possible. It was a pioneering title, and surely one of the best film adaptations of all time!

The Nintendo 64 upped the number of control pads and thus the number of players from two on the SNES to four – meaning four-way deathmatches were possible! Split-screen was the order of the day, of course – this was long before online gaming was commonplace – and among my friend group four-player matches were relatively rare. But when we could get a few friends together, playing GoldenEye was a blast! It had fun, fast-paced shooting, well-designed levels with plenty of variety – from maze-like corridors and small rooms to expansive larger environments – and 3D graphics that put you right in the action.

GoldenEye didn’t create the first-person shooter genre. But it took full advantage of the Nintendo 64’s impressive hardware to feel streets ahead of earlier titles – and even many games that were released around the same time. Fully 3D environments and characters instead of 2D “billboard” sprites and a plot that vaguely followed the events of the film made for a fantastic all-around title. Rare would further hone many of the techniques on display when they created Perfect Dark a few years later.

Number 4: F-Zero X

Try not to crash!

You might’ve expected me to put the venerable Mario Kart 64 on this list – especially considering how many times I’ve talked about that game here on the website! But F-Zero X doesn’t get the love it deserves, so on this occasion we can put Mario Kart 64 to one side and look at a different Nintendo 64 racer. F-Zero X is a futuristic-themed racing game, with players in spaceship-like hovercars – and they go really fast!

F-Zero X is an incredibly fast-paced racing game, meaning you often need lightning-fast reflexes! It was a blast, and the unique futuristic aesthetic set it apart from practically every other racing game on the market at the time.

Maybe F-Zero X didn’t have the best graphics. It certainly didn’t push the Nintendo 64 to its 3D limits in the way some other titles did. But despite that, it was an incredibly fun racing game, and were it not for Mario Kart 64 I might be tempted to call it my favourite racer of the era! There’s an odd charm to F-Zero X that I can’t quite put into words; it’s a genuinely different game, and that alone made it a ton of fun.

Number 5: Jet Force Gemini

Rescuing a Tribal in Jet Force Gemini!

Had it been made today, Jet Force Gemini would surely have kicked off a whole franchise! As it is, this Rare-developed title remains a one-off, but it’s an incredibly fun and exciting sci-fi adventure. Jet Force Gemini is one game I would absolutely pick to bring back for a full remake, because it seems such a shame to me that it’s all but forgotten, abandoned in the Nintendo 64 era.

An action-adventure title set in a unique sci-fi world, Jet Force Gemini had a fun and engaging story. It also had smooth shooting and a trio of fun main characters who each got a turn in the spotlight. The game had beautifully-designed levels, with some being pretty big and expansive offering different paths to get to the end.

Rescuing the Tribals – cute teddy bear-like critters – was an additional gameplay element that added a lot to each level, though the game’s insistence on finding every single one could feel like padding sometimes! But the Nintendo 64 era saw games trying out new gameplay mechanics, and the idea of having hidden collectibles would be honed and refined in future titles. Overall, Jet Force Gemini was a lot of fun – and I’d love to see its world and characters return one day.

So that’s it! Five amazing Nintendo 64 games.

The familiar Nintendo 64 logo.

There were loads more titles I could’ve chosen, so stay tuned! This is a topic I may revisit in future. The Nintendo 64 was a great console with some fantastic games. Though it does represent a half-step between older, more basic games and the immersive, cinematic experiences that were soon to come, it’s also a console that pioneered or refined many of the concepts upon which newer games – and even games today – rely.

The Nintendo 64 also had plenty of amazing games in its own right, and while it is an interesting machine from an interesting era in video game history, it’s also a console that I had a lot of fun with in the late 1990s. Back then it didn’t feel like a half-step – it felt cutting-edge, bringing 3D worlds to life and showing off far more realistic graphics than I ever thought possible! It isn’t just the nostalgia talking – the Nintendo 64 was a fantastic machine.

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

Crowdfunding and pre-ordering are completely different

One method of raising money that some game developers started using in the late 2000s and early 2010s is crowdfunding. Check out popular crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo and you can find plenty of video game projects on offer, all of which are asking for your money.

In exchange for supporting a project or helping it get started, many crowdfunded games offer players their own copy – which can be a digital download or a physical boxed version depending on the title and the amount of money invested – to be delivered when the game is finally ready. This transactional approach to crowdfunding, combined with prices that are often comparable to the “standard” price of a brand-new game, has led many players to consider crowdfunding as an extended form of pre-ordering.

Logos for Kickstarter and Indiegogo – two of the web’s biggest crowdfunding platforms.

Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth, and this fundamental misunderstanding has caused an awful lot of disappointment in recent years. It isn’t the fault of individual players, many of whom simply saw an exciting-sounding game and wanted to place their order as early as possible. Instead the fault really lies with the way these crowdfunding platforms and individual developers market their products.

When placing a pre-order for a video game, players are almost always committing their money to a project that is already fully-funded. Perhaps an indie developer has taken out a loan, or maybe we’re talking about a game produced by a larger publisher with the financial resources of their corporation. Regardless, by the time pre-orders go live for practically every title, the game’s development costs are covered and a release is assured. Some games receive delays even after accepting pre-orders, but even then a delay is usually a matter of weeks, months, or a year at the most – and the title is still being worked on.

A visualisation of buying things online…

Pre-orders are purchases – they’re a transaction between the player and the platform, shop, or publisher. As such they’re subject to a range of consumer protection laws, the most significant of which is the right to be refunded. If a pre-ordered game is cancelled, or even if a player changes their mind before release, they can simply contact the retailer or publisher and request a refund without too much hassle.

Crowdfunding, as many players have found to their cost, doesn’t work this way at all. At a fundamental level, crowdfunding is akin to a donation or an investment. As anyone who’s ever played the stock market or cryptocurrency can tell you, the value of investments can change over time, and as the developer or company you’ve donated to takes your money to use in the process of developing their game, there are no guarantees. Caveat emptor indeed.

Buyer beware!

Creating anything is an incredibly difficult and complicated process, and all manner of different unforeseeable situations can adversely impact a project. The current pandemic is an example – many films, television shows, and video games saw their production disrupted by events completely beyond their control. In short, a project may not always go as intended, and even if production goes as smoothly as possible, the end result may be radically different from its creator’s original vision.

For players who’ve donated to a crowdfunding project, this can be incredibly hard to take. They feel they were promised a particular kind of game within a given timeframe, but for any one of a thousand different reasons the game they got doesn’t align with those initial expectations or developer promises. Unfortunately there really isn’t much that can be done about this.

Many people end up angry or upset when a crowdfunded game fails to deliver.

Two examples come to mind of crowdfunding projects that didn’t go to plan. On a personal note I’ve got 2019’s Shenmue III. This title, which dedicated fans of a long-dead pair of games managed to raise an astonishing $7 million to help create, had one job as far as I was concerned: finish the story. Shenmue II had ended on a cliffhanger, and fans wanted to see protagonist Ryo Hazuki bring his quest for revenge to a conclusion. But for reasons I find utterly inexplicable, that didn’t happen. Shenmue III didn’t finish Ryo’s story.

The second example is one of the most egregious crowdfunding disasters of all time: Star Citizen. In development now for over eleven years, the game is nowhere near ready for release. While a small part of the game is available in an early alpha state, developers Cloud Imperium Games have mismanaged the project in truly epic style. With well over $300 million raised – almost all of which has been spent – Star Citizen is a complete disaster, with many of its original backers and fans now calling it a “scam” for the way it took their money.

Logo for the unreleased game Star Citizen.

Shenmue III had specific problems with its story as a result of its creator being unwilling to make cuts to the game’s bloated narrative. Star Citizen is an example of a developer getting completely out of their depth. With the amount of money Cloud Imperium Games raised growing, they felt the need to promise more features for the game. But more features meant more development time, which meant more money was needed to keep the lights on, and in order to raise more money they promised more features… leading to a catastrophic spiral from which the game will never escape. It’s a case of feature creep on an unprecedented scale.

There are plenty of other examples of disappointing crowdfunded games, including titles that ended up baring little resemblance to what had been originally promised and, of course, many games that simply never made it that far, being cancelled or simply vanishing without ever releasing so much as a teaser trailer.

Shenmue III is one of the biggest crowdfunding disappointments to me personally.

These things will always happen. In the games industry there are many examples of titles that entered development but never made it to release, including some whose details have subsequently leaked out – like Star Wars 1313, Rockstar’s Agent, and Prey 2. The key difference with those titles is that they were never being “sold” – players didn’t have to part with their money, meaning the only negative consequence of these cancellations is disappointment. On the rare occasion where a game has been cancelled after pre-orders were available that money is able to be refunded.

Because of the way crowdfunding works, players can be left out of pocket – some to the tune of thousands of pounds or dollars – if a project doesn’t go to plan. And because of the way many crowdfunded titles are marketed, players who believe that they essentially pre-ordered a game or engaged in a transaction are understandably upset. This is why we all need to educate ourselves and understand the fundamental difference between pre-ordering a game and participating in a crowdfunding campaign.

Some people invest vast sums of money in crowdfunding campaigns.

The best way I can explain it is like this:

Pre-ordering means you’re buying a game and engaging in a transaction with a company. They have already committed the financial resources to making the game, and while it can still turn out to be disappointing for all manner of reasons, your money is safe and in almost every case you’ll be able to get a refund.

Pre-ordering is a purchase; the proceeds go to the developer, publisher, and/or shop as proceeds for work already completed.

Crowdfunding is donating to a project. You aren’t purchasing anything – not even if a copy of the game is listed as a “reward” for investing your money. Your money is going to be taken by the developer to be used as part of the game’s creation, not to make a profit on a game they have already committed to making. Because a lot can go wrong or simply change during the creation of a video game, there’s a higher chance that when the game eventually releases it won’t be exactly what you expected – if it even releases at all. In any case your money is almost certainly gone, and unless you can afford to lawyer up or prove that a project was a deliberate scam or con, perpetrated by someone with no intention of creating a video game, you won’t be able to get it back.

Crowdfunding is a donation; the money is a gift which goes directly to the developer so they can fund the game’s creation.

Most projects are not scams – but that doesn’t mean things won’t go awry.

Speaking for myself, I’ve never donated to a crowdfunding campaign. Even when it came to titles like the aforementioned Shenmue III I simply concluded that I don’t have the money to lose. As someone on a low income my budget for video games – and any other entertainment product – is already low, so the idea of investing in the creation of something, no matter how “cool” it might sound, is something I’m unwilling to commit to.

Sadly, some of these failures and disappointments will lead to fewer players being willing to donate their money to crowdfunding campaigns in future. That will have an effect on some smaller independent developers for whom crowdfunding may be the only viable method of fundraising to bring their dream to life. In some cases we can lay the blame at the feet of large companies or wealthy individuals who essentially “abused” the crowdfunding model to create projects they could almost certainly have afforded to fund out of their own pockets. But some of the blame also lies at the feet of developers like Cloud Imperium Games, who have failed to deliver what they promised after more than a decade – while trying to convince players to buy in-game items that can cost upwards of $1,000. The whole thing gives crowdfunding a bad name.

Cloud Imperium Games is the company behind Star Citizen.

Your money is your own, and how you choose to spend it, donate it, or invest it is up to you. I would never tell anyone not to participate in a crowdfunding campaign, because at the end of the day it’s a personal decision. The gambler’s advice is always worth bearing in mind, though: “never invest more than you can afford to lose.” That’s true of poker games and it’s true of crowdfunding too.

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for a while; it was one of the articles I had in mind when I first created this website almost two years ago. Having spoken with several acquaintances who felt “scammed” by a crowdfunding project gone wrong, and seeing many comments and criticisms online of titles like Star Citizen from irate backers who feel – wrongly, I’m afraid – that they had something akin to a purchase guarantee or pre-order, I wanted to add my two cents to the conversation.

It’s my firm view that crowdfunding and pre-ordering are very different things, no matter how a project may be marketed. Some companies and individuals definitely cross a line, or come close to it, with how they talk about their projects and try to convince people to part with their money. But at the end of the day it’s up to us as individuals to make sure we understand what we’re getting into before we make any kind of financial commitment.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective developer, studio, publisher, 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.

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.