Friday, December 08, 2023

First Play Review - Battlefield 1 [2016]

While WWI may have had only a quarter of the casualties of WWII its brutal and often more personal conflict somehow never really captured the imagination of game designers like its successor did. Now to be fair, there are about a hundred WWI games published, including combat flight-sims, real time strategy games and even some first person shooters but WWII games far exceed a thousand titles by comparison. No WWI game has ever been a AAA studio tent-pole franchise unlike Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Company of Heroes, Wolfenstein or Hidden & Dangerous to name a few. That changed surprisingly in 2016 when developers DICE who had previously developed Battlefield 1942 (and then 8 sequels) declared the 10th in the series would be called Battlefield 1 and set the game firmly in WWI.

I took the opportunity recently to play "War Stories", Battlefield 1's single player campaign. DICE departed from a more conventional linear narrative and much like Call of Duty told some stories from different perspectives. While CoD usually tells one story from different perspectives, "War Stories" are interconnected, emotionally charged vignettes that explore the diverse dynamics of World War I. You play a portion of the lives of several protagonists in different situations from a unique perspective, during one of the deadliest conflicts in history, adding a layer of authenticity and depth to the campaign. From the muddy trenches of the Western Front to the sandy deserts of Arabia, players witness the impact of war on different characters, each with their own struggles and motivations offering a human look at the oft-dehumanising events they take part in.

Using EA's Frostbite engine originally developed for the Battlefield franchise, the graphical fidelity and attention to detail shines in Battlefield 1. Lighting, weather effects, and realistic character animations contributes to the overall immersion. Each varied environment is meticulously designed, capturing the grim and harrowing nature of World War I. The diverse scenarios of intense infantry combat, stealthy operations, tank warfare and even a thoroughly enjoyable aerial campaign showcase the flexibility of the Frostbite engine. I admit some segments do feel heavily scripted which does sometimes frustratingly break the gameplay, but it never really broke the immersion.

No shortage of exceptional acting talent and voice work was brought to the fore in "War Stories". Among those lending both their voice and likeness to characters were: Ed Speelers (Outlander, Star Trek: Picard), Mark Bonnar (Napoleon), Jack Lowden (Dunkirk), Agni Scott (Spooks), Luke Tittensor, (House of the Dragon) and veteran Australian actor Peter O'Brien (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). A phenomenal score was provided by Swedish composers Johan Söderqvist and Patrik Andrén,  who also scored other games in the franchise and this coupled with the authentic weapon sounds and ambient sound design served to further immerse one in an almost cinematic experience.
Final Verdict: Much like Activision's Call of Duty, EA's Battlefield franchise is also without a doubt focussed on a multiplayer experience even to go as far as not including a single-player campaign in some releases! While the single-player experience of Battlefield 1 is indeed short-lived clocking in at roughly 8 hours, it is so technically polished and delivers such an impactful narrative experience by itself that it's certainly worth picking up when discounted to <€5. 

Technicals: 8.5 hours approx on Windows 11 with an RTX4070Ti @ 3440x1440 / 175FPS.

Bugs: One mission needs binoculars. These can glitch and you may need to reload.

Availability:  Steam €39.99, EA Store €19.99. Review copy €4.79 from Steam in November 2022

Battlefield Games (mainline only)

  • Battlefield 1942 (2002, PC)
  • Battlefield Vietnam (2004, PC)
  • Battlefield 2 (2005, PC)
  • Battlefield 2142 (2006, PC)
  • Battlefield: Bad Company (2008, PS3/X360)
  • Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (2010, PC/PS3/X360)
  • Battlefield 3 (2011, PC/PS3/X360)
  • Battlefield 4 (2013, PC/PS3/PS4/X360/XOne)
  • Battlefield Hardline (2015, PC/PS3/PS4/X360/XOne)
  • Battlefield 1 (2016, PC/PS4/XOne)
  • Battlefield V (2018, PC/PS4/XOne)
  • Battlefield 2042 (2021, PC/PS5/XSX|S)

Thursday, December 07, 2023

General and Flag Officer Nominations Finally Confirmed

In March Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) stood off against the Pentagon over its reproductive health policies, which provide funds to service members to travel out of state to seek services (including abortions) by voting to withold confirmations of general and flag officers for the entire year.

He finally lifted the block this week with the press statement “I’m not going to hold the promotions of these people any longer, We fought hard.” On Tuesday The Senate confirmed senior military nominations of some 421 officers, a massive bloc that built up over months.

SECDEF Austin released the following statement:

Below is a sample of the huge amount of confirmations: 

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Life on K2-18b? SPEARHEAD Concerned!

"We'll be ready!" Major General "Whopper" Creedon
News reports have surfaced detailing a discovery by Cambridge University scientists of a life-produced molocule on K2-18b 120 light years away.

Using the James Webb telescope, the scientists made the shocking discovery with research leader Prof Nikku Madhusudha. He indicated that on Earth at least "DMS is only produced by life. The bulk of it in Earth's atmosphere is emitted from phytoplankton in marine environments." This coupled with additionally detected methane and CO2 in the atmosphere indicates the possibility of an ocean!

Major General "Whopper" Creedon,  SPEARHEAD Deputy Commander for Global Security has said that the organisation remains cautious but ultimately is of the opinion that this is another Venus life hoax.

"In 2020 in the middle of ****** Covid we got all suited up with nuclear and high density laser weapons in preparation for a Venusian invasion that never came," grumbled Creedon. "Some science crowd in Cardiff of all places thought they saw phosphine at Venus with notions that it was of non-biological origin. This was disputed a year later and forgotten about!"

"But" Creedon added, that may be what we want the Venusians to think - and we'll be ready" he promised.

 Source: BBCNews

Sunday, August 13, 2023

First Play Review - James Bond 007: Blood Stone [2010]

While there are more James Bond games than there are movies it's not uncommon for PC gamers to have never played a Bond game. This is mainly due in part to two factors: The majority of James Bond PC games not considered great adaptations of the franchise (as most movie-based tie-ins are not) and the fact that once a publisher loses its publishing rights, the game is withdrawn from distribution so they are difficult to get hold of if you were too late in buying it. Case in point: There are at time of writing no James Bond games available to purchase for the PC.

About a dozen Bond games existed before EA games acquired the license to produce the mediocre Tomorrow Never Dies game in 1999. While they arguably failed to capture the level of success Nintendo had with GoldenEye 007, they still released several Bond games that were well received - Agent Under Fire and James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing (both consoles only) and 007: Nightfire (which sadly had a poor PC port). The Bond license changed hands to Activision in 2007 who released a mixed bag of games over the next 5 years but most natively supported the PC. 

Quality of the games aside, the delisting issue is more problematic as  one that happens there's no advertising for Bond games that are removed from sale so it's much more difficult for casual gamers to get a hold of and enjoy them. That's an issue for this game - James Bond 007: Blood Stone when it and all of Activision's James Bond franchise games were suddenly de-listed in 2013 when Activision chose to end its license with MGM a year ahead of an eventual expiration; likely following the poor performance of its final Bond game 007: Legends

Despite its rocky position James Bond 007: Blood Stone is a 3rd-person cover-shooter that got similar praise to EA's efforts for its more original take on a Bond story rather than when a developer just lifted story beats directly from whatever movie the game is named after. Set between Quantum of Solace and Skyfall the game opens with Bond (Daniel Craig) foiling a plot to assassinate the G-20 leaders in Athens. M (Judi Dench) assigns him to recover a researcher from Istanbul where he was believed to be taken after being kidnapped. This puts Bond on his usual globe trotting hunt for the researcher and more importantly, his research, which if weaponised could be used to create a chemical WMD. The by-the-numbers Bond-outing takes him to the casinos of Monaco, a Siberian chemical refinery, the streets of Bangkok and the jungles of Burma.

Blood Stone's gameplay is fairly simplistic once you get used to the somewhat awkward control scheme. You control Bond as he traverses a mostly linear path through the varied environments. As a cover shooter, it's not too much run and gun as opposed to stealth and taking cover behind every obstacle and choosing your time to strike, making it very Splinter Cell like (it even has Conviction's mark & execute mechanic). Weapons include your Walther P99 and practically anything your enemies drop from machine guns to assault rifles when you need them. Getting shot reduces your health (obviously) and it will happen when you're out of cover for too long. Thankfully it regenerates once you're behind cover allowing you to just wait until it's full again before you shoot back.

Developers Bizarre Creations were well known for driving games having developed three Project Gotham Racing games for the Xbox. From this experience it was a given that they would have added some form of vehicular Bond action. They created an incredible boat chase, fast car-chases on the highways of Monaco and a chase involving a mega dump truck in Thailand! These sequences serve to break up the game while offering a different way to experience the action that feels as cinematic as a Bond movie.

While video games are great playgrounds for Bond type gadgets, Blood Stone game sticks to the more realistic interpretation of the Daniel Craig era, so your only gadget is really your mobile phone which admittedly does a little more than your phone does by scanning evidence, opening locks and handily identifying enemies behind walls etc. 

One stand out feature of a Bond movie is of course both the title song and it's musical score. No expense was spared in this department for the game's music. The song, entitled I'll Take It All was co-written and performed by British artist Joss Stone who also leant her likeness and voice to the game's Bond-girl Nicole Hunter. The game's score was composed by Richard Jaques (Mass Effect) who respected the essences of both John Barry and in particular David Arnold to create an original score fitting for the era. Jaques recorded brass with musicians at Abbey Road Studios, many of who played on all of the James Bond film scores over the years.

Final Verdict: Blood Stone was the PC's consolation prize in a year where Wii and DS owners got a new version of Goldeneye. While the unintuitive controls take a bit of practice and it originally averaged a mere 63% in Metacritic, the game has been re-evaluated a lot over time and is worth a look to experience a very cinematic style Daniel Craig Bond adventure.

Technicals: 6 hours approx on Windows 11 with an RTX4070Ti @ 3440x1440 / 60FPS (engine lock).

Bugs: None recorded

Availability:  This game is delisted from sale and cannot be legally obtained digitally.

James Bond Windows PC games :

  • James Bond 007: Nightfire [2002]
  • James Bond 007: Quantum of Solace [2008]
  • James Bond 007: Blood Stone [2010]
  • 007 Legends [2012]
  • Project 007 [TBC]

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

First Play Review - Horizon Zero Dawn: Complete Edition [2020]

In 2020 Sony announced it was going to begin to publish its first party games on the PC platform in order to increase profitability. I have recently enjoyed three of Sony's first party ports Spider-Man Remastered, The Last of Us Part I and God of War and after the recent untimely passing of Lance Reddick who lent his voice and likeness to Sylens, one of Horizon Zero Dawn's NPCs it was time to try out the first game published under this new initiative, an open world action RPG that was favourably received on the PlayStation. 

Horizon Zero Dawn is set 1000 years after a 21st century apocalypse which sent Earth back to basics with a difference - humanity is no longer the dominant species and the land is now roamed by belligerent 'machine life' resembling creatures from throughout the past. You portray Aloy a young tribal huntress and tracker who discovers an extraordinary AR device from "the old world" allowing her tracking and investigation abilities which give her an edge in combat in the untamed lands. Your goal is both personal, to discover your own extraordinary origins, and world-changing as you seek to end a terrible corruption which has frenzied the machines and has perhaps a more deadly agenda.

Developers Guerilla Games built Horizon Zero Dawn on three pillars, Aloy, the machines and the land. Aloy is a skilled athletic huntress but has lived a relatively sheltered life even by current 31st century standards. She is intently curious about the world which allows the player to learn about it with her. Ashley Burch lends an award-winning performance as Aloy but her character is sometimes too condescending and sarcastic and missing qualities which would allow players to connect with her such as appearing happy or even laughing at appropriate times even if only during cutscenes. Aloy learns a very simple to understand skill tree with some obvious branches to focus on skills more in tune with your play style. She employs an array of customisable weapons to take down her foes either with alacrity or stealth and precision. The weapon load-out itself takes some getting used to, among different types of bows you have slingshots, trap launchers and heavier weapons with rapid-fire bolts most with some class of elemental ammunition as some enemies are weaker to certain effects.

The machines that you will become intimately familiar with during the course of the game are not anything like I've experienced before and are certainly one of the game's major draws. Their general shapes resemble anything from horses to big cats, antelopes, birds of prey and even some dinosaurs. They have pretty solid AI and each type has different behaviours depending on the tactics you employ be it sneak attacks, traps or direct assault. Their destruction is linked to your wealth as the game's economy is based on the parts you strip from defeated machines. Also while initially your only recourse may be to evade or kill, eventually you learn the ability to 'override' machine programming making them docile or even using some as mounts!

The third pillar that the developers focused on is perhaps the most important, the world. This is the second game I've played this year that had an extraordinary environment to play in. The previous one being The Last Of Us Part I had a modern environment with some 20 years of decay, while Horizon Zero Dawn is also a post-apocalyptic game, the fact that 1000 years has passed since late 21st century society fell means that the world is far older and less recognisable. You can cross the land mounted or on foot, climb to perilous rocky heights and explore hidden bunkers of the 'old ones' some which have working machinery and secrets to reveal. You learn out about the fate of the 'old world' as you progress through the game and each artefact, text-note and audio log you find through your AR interface flashes out the world in a way that promotes exploration and discovery. To be honest I'd have even been OK with less enemies to combat so I could explore more at my leisure. 

One of the strengths of the game I believe is that while it has its somewhat unique elements, a lot of it tugs on the familiar at times and while some of the game feels a bit like you're Lara Croft entering tombs to discover secrets and loot but the tombs are like the Remnant vaults from Mass Effect Andromeda. The area you traverse is loaded with as much peril as a Far Cry game. Much of what we learn about the world before is scattered throughout the environment like The Last of Us Part I which can be illuminating as well as e voking both curiosity and sorrow. It is a very effective form of storytelling at this pace. Finally, the AI apocalypse is very reminiscent of the Terminator franchise's Skynet only here you are not the resistance, and humanity was the clear loser in that conflict... or was it?

DLC: Horizon Zero Dawn on PC is the Complete Edition and includes the expansion The Frozen Wilds which extends Aloy's adventure into an new area outside the main game's plot and can be played at any time after Level 30. I waited until after the main campaign and was glad of it as the new armour and weapons you acquire there would make of the original campaign encounters trivial. The Frozen Wilds as the name suggests is filled with ice and snow to a greater degree than the snowy areas of the original map and it's enough to make the environment quite different but no less mesmerising with periods of light and heavy snowfall brightening your surroundings at night as well as by day.

Final Verdict: With unique and exciting combat, impressive and useful stealth mechanics, an interesting and emotional plot and an extraordinary and beautiful world it requires serious nitpicking to say anything negative about the game. Aloy is a great character even if not too likeable and I get serious Far Cry vibes from the fact that every couple of hundred meters something wants to kill you! Still, I've not enjoyed a vast open world game this much since Metal Gear Solid V, but unlike that which kept me playing for hundreds of hours after the campaign, Horizon Zero Dawn is done but not forgotten after you've finished and that's a good thing. I'd say overall the game is not actually greater than the sum of it's parts, it's nonetheless a great homage to the mash-up of ideas and concepts it emulates and explores and I will play the sequel when it's released.

Technicals: 95 hours through Steam on Windows 11 with an RTX4070Ti @ 3440x1440 / 175FPS HDR native

Bugs: One crash to desktop. 

Availability: Horizon Zero Dawn: Complete Edition is available from Steam and GOG for €49.99. Review copy purchased in April 2021 for €26.69.

Horizon series releases:

  • Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4) [2017]
  • Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds (PS4) [2017]
  • Horizon Zero Dawn: Complete Edition (PC)  [2020]
  • Horizon Forbidden West (PS4/5) [2022]
  • Horizon Call of the Mountain (PS5+VR2)  [2023]
  • Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores (PS5) [2023]
  • Horizon Forbidden West: Complete Edition (PC) [2025]?

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

First Play Review - Black Mesa: Definitive Edition [2020]

Half-Life's hype reached epic proportions when it was shown off at E3 in 1997 promising extraordinary level design and outstanding enemy AI. Even the Die-Hard meets Evil Dead of the story and gameplay set it apart and upon release it clocked up over 50 Game of the Year awards. While it endured in comparison to it's contemporaries at the time, it has now alas aged considerably graphics wise over the past 25 years. While Half-Life is an expertly designed game it's sometimes difficult, even with nostalgia to brave its legendary 15-hour campaign. To much disappointment, a 2004 port to Half-Life 2's Source-engine was not the remaster that most thought it would be. While it did go a little way to improve graphical fidelity, it was basically a simple asset port, and no true incorporation of the advances in technology to the new engine such as physics, lighting or particle effects were to be had.

The lack of a serious remaster by Valve for the game and the fact that CEO Gebe Newell said that it was "inevitable" that someone would fully mod Half-Life into the Source engine, prompted a group of modders called Crowbar Collective to work for some years on a true remaster of the game which they called Black Mesa. It was never intended for commercial release and was missing the Xen chapters but it was released in 2012 to much praise. It was subsequently voted to be released on the Steam storefront by fans though Valve's 'Greenlight programme'. Valve also approached Crowbar Collective with a proposal commercially release the game in the newer version of the Source engine which they agreed to so they could fully realise the game as it was meant to be. In 2015 an early access version was first released and a full Definitive Edition release now including the Xen chapters launched on Steam in 2020.

It wasn't until this was promoted and sold that I took notice. I don't have time to investigate too many mods for games or I'd never get through the backlog but this was certainly a unique case and for a beloved game. One of the best shooters ever melded with the full engine upon which one of my favourite shooters of all time was built. The accolades and review scores were positive so it became 'essential'. Before I had finished Black Mesa the game was over I knew I could never go back and play Half-Life  ever again.

Crowbar Collective did not remake Half-Life with the same level design, enemy placement and give you only the tools to experience Gordon Freeman's adventure through the Black Mesa complex, out to the surface and eventually to Xen exactly as it was. No. That would be a small step up from what Valve did in 2004 for their own game. Here, Crowbar took the 'essence' of Half-Life, the major set pieces, events and battles and created a new take on how Gordon makes it there. It's still the same Half-Life - not to a staunch purist perhaps - but it's so polished and professional that it's hard to come to terms that it's just a glorified mod. They expanded the game to about 20 hours which is not unwelcome as the both the new and familiar environments are exciting to traverse and fight through.

All of the original elements are stunningly realised but with new twists and turns and puzzles. The puzzles don't have Valve's genius behind them but again the essence of what they did is present, the use of gravity for example, as an aspect of being able to manipulate the environment is made possible through the Source engine and is used in ways not even conceived when the original game was created. The level of detail in the broken and sparking underground complex is realised to a more modern level. While the limitations of the engine as it stands may not be on par with games of the 2020's it's still years beyond the late 90's fidelity - or lack thereof.

Despite the accolades afforded to Half-Life upon its release, it's only real issue was the Xen chapters. The setting for Half-Life's final act received the most criticism at the time, and over the successive years. Filled with bland textures and boring zero-gravity jumping puzzles, Xen was lacklustre especially when directly compared with that had come before in the game. Crowbar Collective however took five years to reimagine Xen and it's truly the crown jewel of Black Mesa. Xen is now awash with colour and activity, it begs exploration and it truly now feels otherworldly. Unlike the science facility which is instantly recognisable, Xen is almost nothing like the original save for the main set pieces which even then are quite different. It was genuinely a delight to explore and unlock the secrets and expanded plot of Xen including the exhilarating and terrifying new realisation of the major boss-battles: The Gonarch and The Nihilanth.

Final Verdict: This is not Half-Life as you remember it, it's both the same and very different. But in most ways, all the ways that really matter, it's better! This is the way I'll consume the Half-Life game going forward, embracing this polished masterpiece from a dedicated team of developers who clearly had a passion for the game and wanted to make their ideal version of Valve's original classic. It's time to commit Half-Life to memory and acknowledge that without it, we would not have Black Mesa today.

Technicals: 22.3 hours through Steam on RTX4070Ti @ 3440x1440 / 175FPS

Bugs: None

Availability: Black Mesa: Definitive Edition is only available from Steam for €14.99. Review copy purchased in Oct 2017 for €7.99.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Classic Review - Batman: Arkham Asylum [2009]

As much as I loved Insomniac's Marvel's Spider-Man Remastered earlier in the year, it reminded me that I hadn't played much super-hero video games at all. There had never been much overlap between them and game genres like RPGs or FPS so that did have a lot to do with it. Now as I embrace the actions-adventure genre more and more with the likes of Assassin's Creed, Tomb Raider, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Sony's recent PC ports I felt it was time to check out something that's often lauded as among the better examples of a super-hero game, this of course is the Batman: Arkham series.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is the first in a trilogy of Rocksteady Studios Batman: Arkham games. It was followed by Batman: Arkham City and Batman: Akham Knight (Batman: Arkham Origins was developed by WB in house and is a prequel game to fill the gap in development time between Arkham City and Arkham Knight). While I had read about the games over the years, all I really knew was that you are Batman and you're up against his popular rogue's gallery of villains; but not directly associated to any comic-book, TV or film version of the caped crusader, much like Spider-Man Remastered.

As Batman (the late Kevin Conroy) you deliver The Joker (Mark Hamill) to Arkham Asylum but soon realise that it was Joker's plan to come to the titular asylum, stage a takeover of the island and turn everyone in Gotham into his personal Bane-venom-powered army! Naturally Batman has to investigate the Joker's plan and subsequently thwart it by taking down dozens of inmates and some of the other more infamous Batman villains Joker has placed in his path.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is an action adventure game and I can really only compare it to Spider-Man Remastered in so far as, like Spider-Man it's one of the only games I've ever played where you don't kill anyone; as this would of course be contrary to the character. Arkham Asylum isn't just a fighting game with a Batman skin on the characters and environment, the gameplay here immerses you as Batman and fighting is just one of the tools employed to get from A to B and complete your objectives. It's possible to bypass some of the combat and evade and sneak past your foes, but that didn't strike me as fun in this setting - everyone must be brought to justice and I subdued everyone I saw - that's "my" Batman.

Combat did take a little while to learn, fighting, blocking, jumping, stunning, evading and using powerful 'takedowns' were not easy to master but once you get the hang of each move they game becomes effortless and you can enjoy the more cinematic experience of Batman breaking the bones of the nameless denizens of the asylum. The enemy types were not too varied and some needed specific approaches such as stunning knife wielders or using the batarang to hit and evade brutes at the last second. Combat became furious if you had multiple enemy types in the same 'arena' and had to employ multiple tactics one after the other, but that was when the game was at it's most exciting.

What wasn't exciting was some of the 'boss' fights. These included Scarecrow's nightmare sequences or a fight against Poison Ivy who was inside a giant plant! The perspective of the game changed from the 3rd person over the shoulder camera to a view of the platform or 'arena' and your movement no longer followed the camera - forward was 'left' for example. It took one out of the game and it was difficult to navigate, let alone fight and evade when your controls no longer did what you expected them to. I got through them eventually but they took longer than I would have liked and didn't appreciated the control and perspective forced upon you.

Batman's most famous accessory is his utility belt with an array of gadgets. You start out with Batarangs and a zip line as standard but as the game progresses you fill the belt with an array of additional gadgets that assist in your progress such as the Bat Claw which can move obstacles or remove AC vent covers before crawling about in them (you do a lot of that) and a gun that squirts a plastic explosive onto a weak surface then manually detonate it to reveal a passage or a secret. Batman's keen senses manifest as "detective mode" where he can see points of interest highlighted in his vision and usually point to something that can be manipulated in the environment to use to your advantage. This can also be use in combat where you can see the bones of your enemies.

I said I would try out the tutorial level/sequence of this now 'old' game to see if it was going to be necessary to add in a new fan made enhanced textures pack. But I was met with vibrant well-modelled characters and atmospheric surroundings. To be honest while obviously not 2020s standards, graphically it was far greater than I would have expected from a 14 year old game. I decided against any texture upgrading and left everything as the developers intended for a change.

Final Verdict: Batman: Arkham Asylum was well worth a visit even if a little late, but it's combat was fluid, gadgets were exciting and your progress as a detective was meaningful as you progressed through a pretty straightforward Batman story. Annoying boss fight mechanics kept it from being perfect but I'm certainly looking forward to trying out it's sequels in due course.

Technicals: 15.5 hours through Steam. 3440x1440 @ 62FPS (game limit) on Nvidia 4070Ti under Windows 11

Bugs: None

Availability: Batman: Arkham Asylum Game of the Year Edition is available on Steam or GOG for €19.99. Review copy purchased in Feb 2019 in a bundle with Arkham City and Arkham Knight for €9.99.

Batman: Arkham series:

  • Batman: Arkham Asylum [2009]
  • Batman: Arkham City [2011]
  • Batman: Arkham Origins [2013]
  • Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate [2013]
  • Batman: Arkham Knight [2015]
  • Batman: Arkham VR [2016]
  • Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League [2024?]

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Replay Review - Max Payne [2001]

One of the greatest video games and protagonists came to life with Remedy Entertainment's smash hit Max Payne in the summer of 2001. It took the bullet time from The Matrix, fused it with John Woo's action styling and wrapped it in a Micky Spillane inspired noirish graphic novel with an investigation and conspiracy story that even delved into Norse mythology. It may sound like a bizarre mash-up of ideas but it walked away with the BAFTA for best PC game that year. As Remedy announced a remake of Max Payne 1 & 2 last year, I said I'd go back to the original and see if it still held up.

I've gone back to Max Payne several times over a little more than 20 years. The cinematic experience of seeing your own character on screen for the whole game was a pretty new concept to me in 2001. Jedi Knight and Rainbow Six had situational 3rd person views but Max Payne was my first real 3rd person shooter and I played the hell out of it. The last time was before 2015 however when I pretty much ceased the use of my optical drive.

Max Payne had two major gimmicks. It's story was told through an extremely well done graphic novel style pages with panels appearing from the darkness as various characters voiced their speech bubbles with the subtlety of a grenade. The sheer style of this was extraordinarily unique for the time and I don't think any game I played has presented its plot so well, no matter what the quality of full motion cutscene it had.

The second gimmick was of course bullet-time. With a snap of the right click button (and a combined direction), Max would enter a slow motion bullet time as he dived and you could effortlessly target and shoot enemies with a perfection and clarity not afforded to you by real-time action. While stylistically it was The Matrix, the action was it represented was as much John Woo than anything. Only the doves were missing as Max perforated enemies with dual Uzi sub-machine pistols.

Like many other 20+ year old games, Max Payne has certainly aged - but absolutely not as much as most others of the era and certainly not once the one of the games dedicated fanbase patches with A.I. upscaled textures has been applied (in fact the 'vanilla' Max Payne game is unlikely to run natively on Win11) . The Max Payne 1, Complete FixPack - 2023 Edition is a one-stop shop fix for the Steam version, fixing the expected incompatibility issues six or seven versions of Windows later.

Final Verdict: I'm delighted that Max Payne can still be enjoyed today. Sure there's a lot of nostalgia at work but the core gameplay added with some refreshed graphics from dedicated fans make this classic well worth a revisit.

Technicals: 8.5 hours through Steam with an Nvidia 4070Ti @ 3440x1440 (Capped FPS to 60). UW support via fix pack. Win 11 HDR provided minimal enhancement.

Bugs: Vanilla Max Payne didn't run on Win 11. It ran flawlessly once the 'Complete Fix' pack had been applied

Availability: Max Payne is available from Steam for €9.99. Review copy purchased from Steam for €2.25 in Sep 2016.

Max Payne series:

  • Max Payne [2001]
  • Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne [2003]
  • Max Payne 3 [2012]
  • Max Payne 1 & 2 Remake [TBA]

Tuesday, June 06, 2023

First Play Review: Tomb Raider [2013]

I do recall trying to master the very finicky control system using the the keyboard's directional number-pad to manipulate a heavily polygonal Lara Croft in a demo of the original Tomb Raider in 1996. Despite how cool the game looked (for it's time) and it felt very Indiana Jones, unfortunately the controls weren't something I had the patience for at the time. I dismissed the game as something people probably weren't going to bother playing. Fast forward 17 years to 2013, after I had been proved wrong (a significantly rare occurrence I know) and Tomb Raider not only achieved success as one of the best selling games of the year but countless accolades from the industry and a BAFTA for it's creators. It had by 2013 spawned a whopping 8 sequels including a reboot.

In 2013, the media and industry buzz for the 9th Tomb Raider sequel, and second reboot of the franchise, simply titled Tomb Raider again was unavoidable and the game presented a new take on Lara Croft a more grittier re-imagining of the character, a more mature rated story and a more realistic setting and characters. In 2015 I saw the game on sale as a new one was release that year, so I bought Tomb Raider as it was marketed as a logical entry point into the franchise. Instead it became the foundation on which my backlog was built and it remained unplayed in the digital pile for 8 long years until this March where I finally installed it on the game's 10th Anniversary.

It wasn't so much the time I had been waiting to play it but more a recent surge in enjoying so much of the action adventure genre in the recent Sony releases that prompted me to finally see what Tomb Raider was all about and I wasn't left disappointed. In Tomb Raider, Lara and her friends are shipwrecked on the Island of Yamatai, depicted here as somewhere in the Pacific near Japan. It soon becomes clear that a belligerent force has also been stranded there for some time and are quite unfriendly to outsiders. As Lara Croft (Camilla Luddington), you must uncover the secrets of the island in order to save yourself and your friends from Yamatai before it becomes your tomb.

Tomb Raider is an action adventure game in the purest sense. Gone was the crazy control system that so put me off the original and Lara had now become as easy to control as Kratos or Spider-Man once you came to terms with the movement, camera and unique actions. Lara is athletic, nimble and traversal is genuinely exciting especially when using climbing ropes or needing to jump and catch ledges at the last second. QTEs appear to add excitement (but mostly annoyance) to key moments in the narrative. A survival mode enhances Lara's senses revealing possible hook points, or hints how to proceed.

Combat is a mix of free-form shooting and some light QTEs for stealth and close quarter combat. Lara employs a bow, pistol, shotgun and assault rifle all which can be customised and upgraded to be more useful as you begin to engage tougher, and cleverer enemies as you progress. Enhancements to combat and survival abilities allow you to engage more with the environment opening previously inaccessible areas although there's no great reason to actually do this; it's good that it's there should one want to explore and find more tombs and secrets.

Puzzles take advantage of physics but are exceedingly simple to solve allowing you to return to action without too much of a head-scratching distraction. Although the  do take you out of the action, I did find the "challenge tombs" themselves too short or to easy to solve, they're not aptly named. Sadly from reading about previous games there seems to be two modes to Tomb Raider puzzles, exceedingly easy or deathly hard but I'd want something in between. The ones here are of the easy kind and it would not have been out of place to have them occupied by cultists rather than being empty. These are option though so they don't affect the game much.

Final Verdict: For the 20 hours I played, I kept cursing myself for not playing this when I fist purchased it, and it has made me more anxious about the unplayed gems I'll find while installing other backlogged titles. There's not much to fault with Tomb Raider, yes the tombs are a bit simplistic and the QTEs are annoying but the combat is visceral, traversal exciting and the plot compelling. I hope this continues with it's two sequels.

Technicals: 19.4 hours though Steam. 3440x1440 native @175FPS with Highest graphical settings, no mods employed or were required. HDR through Windows 11 provided some enhancement.

Bugs: One crash to desktop near the beginning. It didn't repeat.

Availability: Tomb Raider is available from Steam for €17.99. Review copy purchased in June 2015 for €9.99.

The Tomb Raider Franchise (mainline only)

  • Tomb Raider [1996]
  • Tomb Raider II [1997]
  • Tomb Raider III [1998]
  • Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation [1999]
  • Tomb Raider Chronicles [2000]
  • Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness [2003]
  • Tomb Raider: Legend [2006]
  • Tomb Raider: Anniversary [2007]
  • Tomb Raider: Underworld [2008]
  • Tomb Raider [2013]
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider [2015]
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider [2018]

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Review: The Master Chief Collection - Part 2 - Halo 2: Anniversary [2020]

My successful play-through of Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary last year meant that I would soon return to the Halo universe to continue the space-opera in Halo 2: Anniversary. While gun-play, vehicles and story were good I found a significant part of the original boring and lazy as it basically had you backtracking huge sections of maps. I was assured that there'd be far less of that here and that it was much better. I didn't need this affirmation, as I'd be playing it anyway, but it was good to know.

Like most sequels to new franchises it's something that thematically or narratively follows an original that itself was not necessarily designed to even have a sequel but Halo 2 slots in well after the events of the original. The developers were able build upon the technical success of Halo and enhance the experience with major improvements. The writers were able to pick up threads of story from the original and meld them into a new more expansive narrative so vast they even had to end the game on a cliffhanger like The Empire Strikes Back, and just like Return of the Jedi, there was no question that a Halo 3 wouldn't be too far behind it.

If Halo was "Combat Evolved" then Halo 2 is "Combat Evolved Evolved". Master Chief has his standard load-out of weapons, but dismally retains the two weapon limit popularised by 'realistic' WWII shooters but makes zero sense considering the arsenal you could carry in a powered suit of armour (as in other such fantastical games). That said, unlike a WWII shooter, the abundance of weapons strewn about the landscape after you kill your enemies is always more than you need and makes up for the anaemic load-out. In retrospect I think I ran out of ammo twice in the whole 10 hours. The smoothness of combat actions, and picking up an expanded range of weapons from the ground and dual wielding them was genuinely cathartic and I don't know of many FPS experiences like it. 

Halo 2's action is sublime, your shields regenerate faster, you can swap weapons with your AI team mates if you prefer theirs and take control of (or sit in the gunner's seat) of any vehicle - including your enemy's by yanking him out! Enemy AI improves to where they will duck, take cover, frag you and can be more aggressive, but your own shielding, melee attacks and superior dual-wielding firepower is usually more than enough to combat any banzai charge. Level design was more varied and environments more unique here and indeed there was no backtracking over familiar ground, it was always full steam ahead adding to your sense of progress.

It's not RPG quality obviously but for a shooter Halo 2's narrative quality was boosted beyond the original (which was already not too shabby) and delved just as much into the story of the Covenant and their motivations, trials and tribulations. For a lot of the game you take control of the Covenant Arbiter, voiced by the legendary Keith David (The Thing / Platoon) and experience his battles against renegade Covenant and The Flood. It's safe to say that the simple premise of the original has been blown wide open and you can see how Halo 2 sets up the saga for years to come.

Final Verdict: An overwhelming improvement over the original and well worth playing today even if I'm quite late to the Halo party overall.

Playtime 9.8 hours through Steam on RTX4070Ti, Max graphical settings @ 3440x1440 120FPS on Windows 11. Windows HDR provided solid enhancement.

Availability: Halo 2: Anniversary is available either as a stand-alone title from either Steam or the Windows Store (€9.99) or as part of  Halo: The  Master Chief Collection (€39.99). Review copy of The Master Chief Collection purchased in Apr 2020 for €31.99.

Series Releases:

Halo: Combat Evolved [2001] (Xbox)
- Halo: Combat Evolved [2003]
Halo 2 [2004]
- Halo 2 [2007]
Halo 3 [2007]
- Halo 3: ODST [2009] (Xbox)
- Halo: Reach [2010] (Xbox)
- Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary [2011] (Xbox)
Halo 4 [2012]
- Halo: The Master Chief Collection [2014] (Xbox)
Halo 5: Guardians [2015]
- Halo: The Master Chief Collection [2020] (PC)
-- Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary
-- Halo 2: Anniversary
-- Halo 3
-- Halo 3: ODST
-- Halo: Reach
-- Halo 4
Halo Infinite [2021]

Monday, May 22, 2023

First Play Review - The Last of Us Part I [2023]

Much like as I wrote for God of War, similarly The Last of Us also wasn't the first title that peaked my interest when Sony PlayStation announced it's push into the PC game market in 2020. It was something that I saw a lot of media about especially it's high standard of plot, but it was the push of a very well received live action HBO series that prompted me not only to obtain it, but to do something I had never done for a game in the digital-distribution era before: I pre-ordered it!

I've heard of, or seen for myself the recent substandard live-action movie projects that are usually created from video-game lore such as Assassins Creed, Warcraft, Uncharted, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. Halo's TV outing is polished but would be better if it wasn't supposed to be a representation of the franchise. When I heard that The Last of Us had broken the trend and was considered great, I was left with a choice of playing the game or watching the show first.

After some deliberations I had to regard the "primary media" in this case as the video game. This is partly because it came first and also more importantly because a game experience, even a linear game is still partly a product of your input. You are not responsible for creating the game, just as you are not for a movie or a TV show, but you and your choices, your actions or inactions are part of your journey and interaction with the story. No TV or movie can replace that feelings and emotion of these interactions so for this reason, to prevent a "lesser" game experience by watching the show first, it was necessary to experience the game before the show.

I recently posted a thorough account of my pre-ordering experience and included data about the substandard state the game was released in. So other than that I will say that the first month of the game's release extensive patching was necessary to get the game to run and I even used it as an excuse to upgrade hardware. However, the game works flawlessly at time of writing so the current impression is the basis for this review.

The Last of Us is set some 20 years after a mutated Cordyceps fungus jumps to and infects humanity. The infection takes control of the brain them turning the infected into crazed, warped and relatively mindless individuals whose only purpose is to spread the infection by biting healthy uninfected humans. You are Joel, a man who has survived through this apocalypse by doing some questionable things and now reluctantly accepts the job of escorting Ellie, a young girl who may hold the key to a cure, across the mutant infested and raider occupied wasteland to her destiny. Much like God of War, you have a young companion who follows you around. At first Ellie aids you by tagging enemies you may have missed, but later she becomes armed and thus useful, not to Atraeus levels or anything but more than just a second health bar you have to keep an eye on when stealth fails.

The game is a third-person action/adventure, wandering through the post-apocalyptic terrain of both rural and urban United States. You employ upgradable ranged and melee weapons to engage gangs of lawless humans and hordes of Cordyceps infected mutants. Now while you can shoot and kill most enemies from a safe range, you have to be thorough enough at exploration to find enough ammo to do so. I'd not call this typical survival horror as you do collect (and can carry at once) about a dozen weapons and ammo, but if you try to Rambo it too often you'll likely fail and die. I found it much more satisfactory to take the Splinter Cell approach and use Joel's almost inhuman sonar-like hearing ability to pinpoint enemies, sneak up on them and take them out silently with either a shiv to the neck or a choke-hold. There was something truly wonderful about choking out a man armed with a shotgun who would kill you without hesitation with your bare hands and listen to him pathetically beg for his life before his life ends with a final breath.

The AI is different depending on the enemy type. Human raiders will take cover and take potshots at you, waiting until you're in the middle of reloading to assault while mutants will either instantly rush you in a frenzy or wait until you make a sound - then you better be prepared for them! You can also employ cover to hide by losing line of sight, throw objects to distract enemies or can set traps. I applaud that there are many solutions to a situation and it's entirely up to you to proceed as you wish.

As great as the story and as intense as the gameplay is here I think what cannot be overstated is how beautiful and extraordinary this world looks in its total decrepitude. The design work into realising a world that has lost the ability to properly care for it and has left it to rack and run for years comes through in every unique new area. Abandoned buildings, vehicles and artefacts of a world familiar to us now lie forgotten and unused. Joel 'collects' some books and notes from people who most likely met a horrible end and pieces together stories of their final days wheather it's diaries from when the infection was spreading to the fall of the quarantine zones where most of the uninfected human population of the world now reside. The detail of the world is staggering and tells its own story parallell to to the the one we take part in but it's no less an extraordinary part of the game.

DLC: The DLC "Left Behind" here is included with the game. It's a short story framed in the middle of the main game's journey but a lot of the narrative takes place just prior to the main game. In the DLC you take control of Ellie who wanders through an abandoned mall to locate medicine for Joel and flashes back to a previously visited abandoned mall with her BFF Riley. While not integral to the main game, it does fill in a notable gap in the narrative and is well worth playing to experience the whole story.

Final Verdict: This is truly a work of art which I believe will resonate as more frightening now in a post Covid19 pandemic world than it could ever have before. The story is compelling, emotional and at times tragic. It's gun-play and gameplay is well designed allowing multiple approaches to situations and some of the best stealth mechanics I've ever played. While it had a rocky technical start, provided you have good enough hardware you will enjoy this most welcome addition to Sony's PC gaming catalogue. I hope there will be more.

Technicals:  RTX3070Ti managed <60FPS @ 3440x1440 with High preset with medium textures with DLSS quality setting.  RTX4070Ti delivered 75+FPS @ 3440x1440 with Ultra Preset and with high textures. No resolution scaling. In game HDR on producing exceptional range.

Bugs: Daily crashes before patching to v1.0.4. Afterwards, no bugs to report.

Availability: The Last of Us Part I is available from Steam for €59.99. Review copy pre-purchased from Green Man Gaming for €49.19 on 25th Jan 2023.

The Last of Us releases:

The Last of Us [PS3] (2013)
- The Last of Us: Left Behind [PS3] (2014)
The Last of Us Remastered [PS4] (2014)
The Last of Us Part II [PS4] (2020)
The Last of Us Part I [PS5] (2022)
The Last of Us Part I [PC] (2023)

Sunday, May 14, 2023

My first digital game pre-ordering experience

I don't pre-order games. Actually I don't pre-order them now would be more correct. The last game I pre-ordered was Mass Effect 3's Collector's Edition from GameStop in 2012. This was only done because I wanted the physical edition which of course had a finite number of copies. It was the last physical game disk I ever purchased, as digital distribution was ubiquitous by then as well as easier and cheaper to manage overall. Digital editions however by their very nature do not ordinarily sell out in the same way. So unless there is some pressing need to play a game ASAP or you want some lame digital pre-order "boost" then you can certainly wait beyond release day.

Waiting is generally a good move, especially now. Some games thrive and maintain their original RRP for weeks if not months before a sale but others are released with these high hopes but alas do not perform to these hopes and we get what happened with Forspoken, a 33% discount for two weeks just seven weeks after release. Additionally an unfortunate common trend now is simply to wait before purchasing a game because it inevitably needs serious post-launch bug fixing and optimisation. So if this isn't done in a timely fashion, it may be best to actually wait for the game to be discounted before being able to enjoy an adequate experience. At time of writing I'm waiting for EA's Star Wars: Jedi Survivor's post launch bug-fixing.

So my first digital pre-order ever is now The Last of Us Part I, a PC port of a PlayStation 5 remake of an older PlayStation 3 game from 2012. I pre-ordered it because I genuinely wanted to play the game on release day, so that I'd be finished as soon as I was able, in order to watch the acclaimed HBO series which had just finished airing. After recently playing two of Sony's PC ports, God of War and Marvel's Spider-Man Remastered and reading that the developer Naughty Dog had released a successful port for an Uncharted game just a few months previous, I felt confident that there wouldn't be much of issue even though it might not be 100% there on launch day, I would still be able to start it and have it corrected in a few days or a week.

Originally the game was set to be released on March 3rd 2023 so I paid Green Man Gaming €49.19 on January 25th for my The Last of Us Part I pre-order. About 10 days later we got word that the PC release was being put back a few weeks to March 28th. There was little by way of negative reaction to this as there have been some high profile PC release failures recently and it was suspected that Sony/Naughty Dog had some polishing to do as they didn't want the negative publicity if things didn't go according to plan, such as releasing the game to a new market: PC gamers. Green Man Gaming sent me my pre-order key on Sunday, March 26th. This allowed me and others who pre-ordered the game the ability to pre-load - download the game data before the game unlocked on March 28th. Everything was going according to plan.

At about 17:00 on March 28th I loaded the game for the first time and was met with a great menu for me to examine as well as a shader compilation timer that seemed quite slow. The menu kept me distracted for a while as it was one of most feature rich menus I'd ever seen with a staggering amount of options, especially for graphics which for a new game are of high importance. Despite making selections based on it's own recommendations and doing some all important key rebinding which took probably over 15 minutes I noticed that the game was still building shaders! It hadn't frozen or anything it was just moving very slowly. I said I'd not interrupt the process by launching the game as I'd expect massive stuttering if I tried playing before shader compilation was complete, so I left it alone.

It was 45 minutes approximately before shader compilation was complete; It took less time for the entire game to download and install. But no matter it was ready to play now. It loaded up fine, but just a few minutes in, it crashed to desktop (CTD). Now obviously this is "almost" expected behaviour at this point and it didn't deter me. What did annoy me however was that it crashed twice in less than half an hour. When compared to God of War or Spider-Man that crashed only the same amount in 42+ hours I knew there was something wrong.

I examined the Steam page for the game and was met with hundreds of reports of system instability and crashing. The Steam score itself was negative. The launch was a disaster!!! I did try a few more times over the following couple of days, tweaking settings and graphical options but sadly the crashes persisted. I sent all crash and performance reports to Naughty Dog, and why not? I was basically a beta tester at this point. On April 1st I installed Patch v1.0.1.6, dropped all settings to medium preset, Turned DLSS off and capped FPS to 60 to bring VRAM usage to 7.3GB - as my limit was 8GB - and I wanted to be sure not to tax it. Sadly is crashed after 20 minutes.

Nvidia released driver hotfix 531.58 and the game had Patch v1.0.1.7 to install for April 4th. The shader building process that ran on day one had to be reinitiated due to the driver change. Thankfully the patch addressed this and they only took 24m 54s, an improvement but still far to long. I returned all graphics preset to high, with exception of textures to medium which wasn't the way I wanted to play but said I'd try it together with DLSS Performance. For the first time there were no crashes during a 1h 40m game session, so things are improved. I made no changes and there was no patches two days later on April 6th but it CTD again after 30 mins.

At this point I gave in, ordered and installed an RTX4070Ti in order to (a) have enough VRAM to use the high or ultra textures which have the most impact to how a game looks and (b) in the hope that it would be powerful enough to defeat the game's instability. Initially with patch v1.0.2.1 on April 12th and v1.0.3 on April 15th there was CTD but not before 90 minutes had passed this time, a serious improvement. On April 27th a Patch to  v1.0.4 started the shaders at 30% and took less than 10 minutes to compile. Subsequently there were no crashes at all following this and the game worked perfectly on multiple days through to the end credits.


While the pre-ordering process itself worked fine and did what it was supposed to and in the end I was able to complete The Last of Us Part I within 6 weeks of release, the purposed of pre-ordering: playing immediately was not fulfilled. It wasn't fault of the pre-ordering process itself but clearly the fault of the developer/publisher which dropped the ball. 

Had I not pre-ordered,  I'd not have purchased the game on release in the state it was in - and I have followed through on this notion with Jedi Survivor which is not apparently in an acceptable state. It's unlikely I'd be pre-ordering another title any time soon especially in the current environment of PC game releasing in a clearly unfinished/unoptimised state. It was however a good learning experience.

Tuesday, May 09, 2023

First Play Review - The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings [2011]

In 2011, Polish prime minister Donald Tusk gifted US president Barack Obama a copy of The Witcher 2. It’s that big of a deal there. I don't know if Obama played The Witcher 2 but if he did, he'd have undoubtedly been impressed with the quality game that CD Projekt Red delivered to further the adventures of Geralt of Rivia based on the novels of Andrzej Sapkowski.

I really want to play The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt now it has a 'next gen' upgrade worthy of my rig. However as I mentioned back in 2018 when I reviewed The Witcher,  you play the one character throughout all three games and some of your choices are recorded and used from the final save of the previous games. So before I can ever play The Witcher 3, I need to establish my own canon by playing the previous entries. It would have been better to play The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings on the event of it's 10th Anniversary in 2021 in order to be prepared for The Witcher 3's upgrade before Christmas last year, but that did not happen. Nevertheless the situation is rectified and I'm able to now deliver my thoughts on this, the second chapter of the franchise.

While The Witcher 2 did not release in as sorry a state as did it's predecessor, the sequel did get a free post launch upgrade a year later to The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings - Enhanced Edition which from what I read, enhanced both the narrative with some additions and corrections, fixes to the gameplay and interface, new tutorials and cinematic as well as a high quality graphics enhancement. 

Gameplay wise, I quickly saw that there were vast changes to combat and abilities over it's predecessor. While my thoughts on The Witcher's combat was that it was interesting because of it's uniqueness, for the sequel it was decidedly more complex and it's difficulty, even in the early game, felt like Dark Souls all over again (even on easy mode). I would later read that the developers were influenced by Dark Souls' progenitor Demon Souls. It would seem CD Projekt employ a reverse difficulty curve where combat at the beginning of the game is more difficult than the endgame when you've upgraded your abilities, magic and equipment. They also added ranged weapons and trap laying and a skill tree of complexity not found in most MMOs. Thankfully many on the Interwebs noticed as I did and have been crafting some "fixes" for the past 10 years that make the whole combat situation better and would allow me to progress faster by removing the need for about 75% of the bloated RPG mechanics that take hours to master and even detract from the main event, the story.

After Geralt's original adventure, he still has amnesia but has thwarted an attempt on King Faltest's life by another Witcher. Alas he was unsuccessful in preventing a second attack, is framed and is forced to flee to both apprehend the assassin and clear his name. Now the whole power fantasy of saving the world and all is fine, it's why we play, but it does get somewhat repetitive. What I really like about this tale that much like Dragon Age II, the middle chapter of that saga (for now) is that you (as Geralt) are not saving the world per se but just nudging it in a path. It's a relatively short contained story of social intrigue (with magic creatures) where your actions and choices change the flow of the story and the political landscape dramatically (from what I've read about choices I didn't take) and eventually put you on course for what is assumed to be the final and far more epic third game.

So, once you modify out the combat awkwardness and get to grips with the story, there's a lot to like about The Witcher 2, Sapkowski's world is as gritty here as in the first instalment and populated with some colourful characters who display various levels of bigotry against you - you're no "chosen one" revered hero here! Geralt is a monster hunter, a good one who kills monsters because that's his job - and he does it well. Rather than just getting a command to kill 10 rats or what have you, you have to research your quarry to find weaknesses and exploit them to vanquish your foes efficiently. Yes there's a lot of story and dialogue, but it does pale in comparison to the amount of combat you have to undertake in this game. Thankfully you have your trusty swords, which can be enhanced and upgraded as you find exotic materials once you take the time to explore and Geralt has access to a plethora of  skill and combat enhancements to make certain tasks easier.

CDProjekt ditched Bioware's Aurora engine used in The Witcher and created their own REDengine, the second iteration of which powered this game. I cant speak for the original version of the game but the Enhanced Edition available now is a genuinely beautiful game with regards to it's characters and environments which, while not as varied as most RPGs, are impressive considering the game's age. It certainly doesn't look as dated now as do the original release of say Skyrim (before the 2016 remaster) or Dragon Age II does today. 

Final Verdict: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings was a genuinely wonderful experience on PC today for a decade old game. While the combat is still a bit dated and janky, this was easily "fixed" on PC and one can experience the true value of the game: it's incredibly complex but compelling and rewarding story that seems to branch wildly at several points. This is one game I know will be quite different when replayed, maybe after it's own inevitable remake in 2030 or so.

Technicals: 30 hours playtime through GOG. No UW implementation so Forced 1440p @ 175Hz. Highest graphical settings used with RTX3070Ti. Win 11 HDR provided brightness enhancement.

Availability: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is available from both Steam and GOG for €19.99. Review copy purchased for  €2.89 in May 2015 from GOG.

The Witcher Franchise:

  • The Witcher [2007]
  • The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings [2011]
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt [2015]
  • - The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Hearts of Stone [2015]
  • - The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Blood and Wine [2016]
  • The Witcher Remake [?]
  • The Witcher IV [?]