Video game review – The Walking Dead: Michonne (Telltale Games, 2016)

Pitching itself somewhere between a text-based adventure game, interactive movie and a comic book, Telltale’s third instalment of their Walking Dead video game series manages to do just enough to warrant excluding Michonne from the comic for half a year, without really hitting the gripping heights of the two previous releases in the series.

The story, as you may have guessed, centres around Michonne. She is in a forest and contemplating suicide when she is found by a man called Pete, who takes her to his boat and group of survivors nearby. They receive a radio signal from a nearby boat called Mobjack and choose to investigate it.

It’s fairly basic as a plot but therein lies the struggle the game makers had. They couldn’t make a groundbreaking, critical development in the story for one of the comic’s best-loved characters. Doing so would be a disservice to fans of the comic who have been reading for years, especially if not all of them are gamers.

The gameplay is very simple. You have conversations and do some point-and-click tasks in the same style as old fashioned PC adventure games. You then have a limited amount of time to react when asked questions, with the responses remembered by the characters and stored to shape their future attitudes to you.

This is interspersed with some real time event gameplay when you’re being attacked by zombies or people who you’ve managed to annoy along the way.

I enjoyed playing it, but I’m not really sure why. It was extremely easy and extremely short, and probably in hindsight felt like I was reading the comics, just in a different format. If this was published as a comic, it wouldn’t be a particularly interesting read. It’s fun, nice to have, but hardly groundbreaking.

If you can pick it up on the cheap then I’d recommend it for a couple of nights of entertainment, by don’t expect too much of it.

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Video game review – Pro Evolution Soccer 2018 (Konami, 2017)

A personal history of football gaming

In 2003, I was in the middle of a hiatus from video games. Having grown up with the thrill of the NES, graduated to the vastly improved SNES and then enjoyed the comparatively mind-blowing PlayStation, by the time the PS2 arrived I’d lost interest. I got my first serious girlfriend in 2001 and with school exams also requiring my attention, I simply didn’t have time to commit to video games.

One of my go-to games throughout my initial gaming tenure was the ever-popular FIFA series. I had the first ever instalment. Titled simply FIFA International Soccer and featuring David Platt on the cover, the isometric visuals seemed like a massive improvement on Sensible Soccer, which I’d invested a dizzying amount of hours into. I didn’t know the word “isometric”, but what I saw was a 3D game of football on my screen for the first time.

The game grew with the consoles and no football pretender got anywhere near the brilliance of the one or two releases every year.

Such was my addiction that I even had a cheat printed for FIFA 2000 in gaming magazine CVG. I never did receive my £5 for that.

So, when I visited my brother at university in early 2004 and he and his housemates were playing a football game called Pro Evo, I was initially dismissive. It didn’t have any of the real team names or play names. It looked different. The controls were back-to-front. It was highly unlikely that in the two years since I’d given up video games that FIFA had been knocked off its crown.

But then I played it.

Instantly I realised why so much praise was being heaped on it. It felt so much more like a real game of football. It was also a lot more fun. It was more balanced. There didn’t seem to be as many cheap ways to score.

I was immediately jealous that I didn’t have access to the game, though I didn’t rectify the issue for another three years when I acquired an Xbox 360 and a copy of Pro Evolution Soccer 6.

I’ve since dallied with both sides of the fence, keeping up with the various merits and failings of both series. Sometimes FIFA has edged ahead, but despite the constants that it will always have – primarily the licences and more players for online modes – the PES series has invariably been much more playable.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2018

So now we’re in 2017 and I’ve picked up a copy of the latest game in the PES series: Pro Evolution Soccer 2018. It’s the first time I’ve picked up a copy of a sports simulator on release weekend for as long as I can remember, so is has been interesting joining in the online buzz.

The FIFA and PES series have converged on a version of events that has landed with an extremely similar setup. There’s an exhibition mode, a training mode, a league mode and a cup mode. There’s also a mode, here called Become A Legend, which involves taking over the career of a single player. There’s myClub mode, which allows you to spend points earned in every game mode on random players to create a team you can take online.

Finally, there’s the ever-popular Master League, a challenge for even the best PES player and a mainstay of the game for well over a decade. In this mode you take over a team of generic and very average players in a lower league and try to progress up the leagues and impress the owner of your club to the point that he will invest in better players for you to challenge for the top trophies.

Every mode has an equivalent in FIFA and neither are particularly better or worse than each other, so comparing the two on game mode alone won’t help anyone.

Where PES wipes the floor is with the gameplay. It has done for years and, having played the demo version of the latest FIFA, continues to do so this year.

Players are responsive and the simple controls allow basic skills to be executed immediately. Trapping the ball and close control when receiving the ball are amongst the simplest skills to master. Guesswork punts up the pitch rarely come off, reflecting real life. Calculated build up and through balls to strikers you know will outpace the defenders will often pay dividends. Try the same attack three times in a row and the defenders will learn from your efforts.

Winning in online modes is obviously never easy, but doing so feels like a huge victory and will be a crowning achievement of your abilities in the game.

There have been a handful of drawbacks I’ve noticed. Online mode has been blighted with either lack of players or poor connectivity, the latter being the first example of poor connection in any game I’ve noticed in well over a year. It’s frustrating to lose a match because of connectivity when it irreparably affects your ongoing ranking.

Player switching can be frustrating. It appears that it will never switch to a player behind the opposition, even if they’re a couple of steps away. That has been the biggest cause of conceded goals for me as I’m forced to bring a well-placed defender out of position to combat an advancing attacker, often then to have the ball played in behind me. That and the fact that the computer almost never concedes a foul will be rectified in an upcoming patch from Konami.

The final downside I’ve found is the inclusion of a handful of Legends in the game. This is great, but every copy of the game comes with Usain Bolt as a player in the myClub mode. When FIFA fans get Ronaldo but PES fans get someone who has never played professional football in his life, it does feel a little on the embarrassing side.

But that’s no problem for the wider game. When the gameplay and intelligent AI is this good, i can forgive the lack of real players. There’s always the extensive editing mode to rectify that anyway.

With an upcoming release of further game modes, including a career-spanning David Beckham career mode, this is a game that still has months of playability left in it and one I won’t be putting down for a long time.

Video game review – Yooka-Yaylee (Playtonic Games, 2017)

Version reviewed: Xbox One

Yooka-Laylee has finally arrived on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, bringing to an end one of the most successful video game crowd-sourced campaigns of all time. Launched on Kickstarter on 1st May 2015, it reached its initial target of £175,000 within 38 minutes and its stretchiest of stretch goals (£1,000,000) in 21 hours. Clearly this indicated a thirst from the fans of the studio, Playtonic Games, which had behind it four of the key players from Rare’s heyday in the mid 1990s:  Chris Sutherland, Steve Mayles, Steven Hurst, and Grant Kirkhope. 

If you’re unsure, Rare was the video gaming powerhouse that came to prominence in the 1990s with games such as Goldeneye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark and Donkey Kong Country. Both Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel Banjo-Tooie were laced with a charm and humour typical of Britain, with sign-posted gags coupled with animation that stood out at the time as exemplary. The games were also a lot of fun to play through, with the right amount of collecting and story development to keep even the most easily distracted 10-year-old interested. 

So it’s understandable that the gaming community was so enthusiastic about getting a spiritual sequel to Banjo-Kazooie.

When I started up Yooka-Laylee, the memories of Banjo-Kazooie came flooding back. As these memories engulfed my mind I couldn’t help but wonder whether time hadn’t been quite as kind to the original games as my romanticised view of them. 

The opening sequence is extremely pedestrian, with the criminal mastermind called General B. at his headquarters called Hivory Towers. There is no big wow factor, just a bit of a conversation that introduces the characters. He has created an evil device that has stolen a magical book from our heroes. This book has golden pages and within a short while we are told we must retrieve all of the pages (named “pagies”) to restore balance in the universe. Or something like that. It’s a McGuffin typical of 1990s platformers – go to several worlds and collect everything to complete the game. 

The look and feel of the game is brilliantly nostalgic for an era that doesn’t often get treated as being retro, although sadly it definitely is now. It harkens back to the Nintendo 64 era, so it’s 3D but not as beautifully rendered as more recent titles.

This is both a good and bad thing.

I don’t know whether it was intentional, but the camera issues that blighted video games for years has come back to bite us again. It’s highly frustrating and was the cause of several issues in the opening world when all I was doing was simply jumping between platforms. It’s poor design that this can cause failure and unfortunately my patience isn’t quite the same as two decades ago – I genuinely don’t have hours and hours to sink into video games per week so wasting 30 minutes jumping up some platforms just isn’t something I enjoy.

The soundtrack, however, is on the positive side of nostalgia and one that brilliantly fits with the retro design of the game. David Wise, Grant Kirkhope and Steve Burke are behind it, and these were frequently involved with Rare’s most famous soundtracks. I’m annoyed I didn’t opt for the soundtrack option when I originally backed it, but I’m sure there will be a way to rectify this soon! 

Rextro can go swivel


As the game progresses, so does the difficulty. This generally means that the collectibles aren’t sat in such obvious positions on the level, hidden in holes and requiring more skill to unlock. By the final world, the frustration at poor controls and cameras comes back and you’re left wishing you’d never started the mini-golf challenge in the first place.

A key part of the game is the Rextro Arcade challenges, which take 8-bit-inspired gaming and set mini challenges to beat the game and then the high score. These largely provide a lot of fun to proceedings until the bugs take over and you’re left short of a high score through no fault of your own.

The end result on initial play through is one that almost hits the spot but makes me wish they’d had a longer player testing period. This often gets pushed back if programming overruns, and there will doubtless been a lot of back and forth between the coding and testing departments. I just wonder whether everyone’s view became muddied before the final release of the game.

Video game review – Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens (TT Fusion, 2016)

TT Games had a surprise hit in 2005 with their video game based on the Star Wars prequel trilogy. It offered fun for all ages, with a blend of humour and in-joke references mixed with gameplay complicated enough to keep grown-ups and youngsters entertained for hours; the perfect gaming experience for parents playing through with their children. This was quickly followed by another based on the original trilogy, which was met with even more success. Then came an Indiana Jones version along with Batman in 2008. Then Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean,, Lord of the Rings, more Star Wars, more Batman, Marvel, Jurassic World… The list goes on. It has to be admitted that the games have gone down in quality since that original triumph, but never has the result been as poorly executed as The Force Awakens.

The problem isn’t just that it’s trying to make too much of a small amount of source material, nor the lack of humour in the script (they chose to use dialogue from the film, a departure from the norm).

BB-8!

No, the biggest crime here is the terrible glitches that blight the entire game. These can derail you at any point, but tended to occur late in the levels with something simply not working, usually meaning the entire level needs to be replayed. One example is on level eight, “Starkiller Base”, which requires Chewbacca to throw an explosive to open a particular set of doors. The only problem was that the bomb couldn’t be thrown, nothing could help the situation and 30 minutes of gameplay had to be redone to progress. Similarly, on the level titled The Finale, there was a glitch whereby Finn snapped to shooting mode too early and couldn’t complete essential actions to progress the main battle between Rey and Kylo Ren. Again, 30 minutes of gameplay wasted.

Elsewhere, there were simple audio glitches with music getting looped or the whole game falling silent. All this contributed to a feeling that any time a puzzle wasn’t easy to figure out (in hindsight one of the best parts of the game) there was an assumption that the game had glitched and a restart was needed.

The fault of this, presumably, lies squarely with the testing team at TT Fusion. Remarkably, the list of individuals involved with the testing, according to the end credits, was huge. This game should never have been signed off from QA testing, but even worse is the fact that no patches have been released to fix these issues despite the number of people complaining across the internet. Just search “Lego Force Awakens glitches” to see how many people are suffering.

Furthermore, having been fairly diligent with retrieving the collectibles in each level, I was met with a score of 27.1% on completion of the main story. This serves to underline the mis-balanced nature of the meaty content of the game and a ridiculous list of collectibles that are clearly there to falsely inflate the amount of gameplay on offer.

The sad thing is that there is a good game here, buried underneath all the complaints and issues. Perhaps TT Games should stop spreading themselves so thinly, because there is no chance that I will be picking any more Lego games in the future unless I know they are glitch-free.