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Arkham Horror: The Card Game – review

Welcome to Arkham

A downtown diner waitress discovers she is the reincarnation of an ancient sorceress and flings a spell at a masked killer … an ex-Fed with a guilty secret is facing an advancing horde of ghouls and is down to his last bullet … a studious librarian has unearthed arcane secrets in dusty tomes which gnaw at her mind until only a sliver of her sanity remains …

H.P. Lovecraft may have had his faults, but he was matchless in evoking a world where unspeakable and nameless horror simmers beneath the surface of everyday life. Today, the evocative 1920s setting and the constant menace of annihilation combine into a ‘Mythos’ which appeals – and disturbs – on many levels. And Fantasy Flight Games have as few peers when it comes to taking Lovecraft’s unique vision and translating it into a physical gaming experience which captures the dark atmosphere, desperation and lurking horror like none other.

Their latest foray into the world of the Great Old Ones is Arkham Horror: The Card Game. Using nothing more than varied decks of cards and some cardboard tokens, the game transports one to four players into the midst of a desperate struggle to delay the destruction of the world, by thwarting events set in motion by a grotesque coterie of cultists, monsters and unspeakable things with too many tentacles.

Once upon a time, there was a nameless horror…

Arkham Horror is one of the growing breed of tabletop games that places its emphasis on storytelling. Able to be played solo or cooperatively with two players (or up to four if the group owns two copies of the core set), the focus of Arkham Horror: The Card Game is to have players take on the role of an investigator, with a deck of cards representing their items, skills and talents. These plucky 1920s souls are then pitted against the forces of the Mythos in a series of three linked campaign scenarios, each featuring its own decks of cards to represent locations, plot points and random monsters or traumatic events. Before long, you forget you’re staring at little bits of cardboard and imagine yourself as street survivor Wendy Adams or ex-con Skids O’Toole, rushing breakneck through Arkham’s shady streets in a desperate attempt to uncover the identities of cultists intent on bringing about the apocalypse.

The suspension of disbelief is aided by some fabulous and atmospheric artwork, and a game mechanic which successfully blends the randomness of a draw-based card title and the immersion of a role-playing game. Each scenario has an ‘act’ deck and an ‘agenda’ deck – both of which advance via player or Mythos actions. Generally, reaching the end of the act deck counts as a victory, whereas flipping the last card of the agenda deck will result in something not-very-pleasant happening to the investigators, potentially something which lingers and carries over into the next scenario.

It’s here that the storytelling and role-playing aspects of the title come into their own. Defeat the main Big Bad in the first scenario and he’s gone for good; avoid him, and he’ll likely crop up again in the next chapter, ready to make an already tricky situation even harder. Or undergo something particularly dreadful and suffer a trauma which stays with you throughout the course of the campaign, increasing your likelihood of a hideous demise or going irrevocably insane. Though it’s not all bad news for the investigators: complete a scenario and they gain experience, which can then be used to purchase new cards or upgrade existing ones in their deck, giving them that extra edge in their ongoing struggle against the darkness.

Hidden agendas


With scenarios taking at most an hour to complete and a finite number of player cards in the core set, there have been some concerns raised about the game’s replayability. Fantasy Flight’s response is to release a steady stream of expansions, featuring new cards, scenarios, campaigns and ways to make your investigators’ lives even more miserable (and the fact it gives them a steady stream of income from fans of the game is surely a coincidence…)

Even with the core set’s three scenarios, however, there is still replayability in abundance. Yes, the plot points and twists will no longer come as a surprise, but the random elements of the game – from the cards drawn to the skill test-modifying effects of the random ‘chaos tokens’ – ensure that no two games are ever the same. In three separate playthroughs of the first scenario, I experienced two crushing failures and one skin-of-the-teeth victory – all of which were unique and memorable. In fact, like Eldritch Horror and other Fantasy Flight Lovecraft games, I swear at times that Arkham Horror: The Card Game is possessed, turning up just the wrong card at precisely the wrong moment, such as the time my poor investigator needed to uncover one more clue to win, just as her flashlight ran out of batteries and a clue-obscuring fog descended on her attic…

In fact from a replayability perspective, you can think of the game’s scenario and agenda conditions as the strategy – the things you know in advance you must do to triumph or survive. The random draws of the cards and your reactions to their effects then become the tactics – and it’s here where the game more than holds it own, with a great deal of planning and risk assessment going on, based on the ever-changing effects of the draw.

Sign me up for the long haul (or: Fantasy Flight, please take all my money)

As a fast-paced and thematically-rich jaunt through Lovecraft’s Mythos, Arkham Horror: The Card Game scratches an itch which the other more lengthy and involved titles in Fantasy Flight’s range do not. I’ve found myself pondering card synergies and strategies in my head whilst away from the game, and the promise of deeper, more varied scenarios in the upcoming The Dunwich Legacy campaign expansion is hard to resist. Like the equally excellent The Lord Of The Rings card game, the expansions all have a prescribed set of cards in each – so the game won’t fall into the trap of forcing you to buy loads of booster packs hoping for that one rare card to complete your set (Star Wars: Destiny has a risk of this: more news as I dabble around with that one).

So for me, Arkham Horror is my New Favourite Tabletop Game™. I can see me spending a considerable amount of time (and a chunk of my disposable income) visiting and revisiting its shady locales, building up my magic-wielding waitress’ experience as she faces a never-ending torrent of horrors with her lucky rabbit’s foot and trusty baseball bat.

And – at least until an expansion comes out that allows me to play as Sister Mary on a motorbike with a shotgun – I couldn’t be happier.

5 Elder Signs out of 5

Images © Fantasy Flight Games 2016-2017

A return to Tamriel – Elder Scrolls Online

Sometimes there’s a real advantage to being late for the party.

Jessica Mcalpin, Wood Elf Dragonknight

Nowhere is this more true than in Elder Scrolls Online, Bethesda and Zenimax’s massively-multiplayer online (MMO) title set in their beloved and acclaimed Elder Scrolls universe, released in April 2014. At launch, the game was met with an underwhelming ‘meh’ by most critics, with its uneasy marriage of single-player oriented questing and player-versus-player battling. Now, over a year later, many of Elder Scrolls Online’s initial teething problems have been ironed out — and the game world has been considerably filled with a variety of small updates and two meaty pieces of downloadable content — making the game a much more viable option to sink the online hours into.

I’ve been a frequent visitor to the world of Tamriel. Since the days of Daggerfall and Morrowind on PC, then on through Oblivion and Skyrim on the consoles, I’ve booked passage to Bethesda’s impressively rich high fantasy world many times over the decades. Each game always blew me away with its epic scope and attention to detail, with world-saving quests intertwined with character development and the kind of stats and inventory management so typical of RPGs. In my mind, they have represented the pinnacles of the single-player genre.

A whole new - yet familiar - world

And from a fantasy MMO perspective, World Of Warcraft seemed to have that side of things sewn up. I even spent an obsessive (and very lonely) month with that title about fifteen years ago before kicking the habit. I pretty much promised to myself I’d never go back to MMOs again – I knew the risks…

Then Zenimax pulled a fast one at the beginning of December. A ‘free play’ weekend, where you could download the game for gratis and play it for 72 hours …

Just like a gateway drug.

And, needless to say, I was hooked.

Jessica and the former Emperor, yesterday

But this time, the form of addiction is different. Unlike in WoW, I’m not feeling an obsession to grind and relentlessly pump up my character to be able to play with the big boys and girls. Nor am I rushing headlong into player vs player environments, or feeling like the game’s pushing me in that direction at all. I put this down to Elder Scrolls Online’s excellently-crafted single-player missions, which — give or take the odd moment here and there — do a marvellously convincing job of making you feel like you are the only hero in the land.

Sure. other players are running about all over the place. And quest givers are frequently mobbed by other peoples’ avatars, virtually queueing up to get their turn to speak to the Prophet or some other important NPC. But these moments are relatively rare, and once a quest is kicked off in earnest, the world is so massive that it hardly makes a difference at all. And indeed, it can turn out to be an advantage — even when playing ‘solo’, there have been a couple of times when a random passer-by has stepped in to help defeat a powerful enemy, or come along for part of the ride.

And it’s a great ride. Combat is suitably crunchy, both in third and first person modes. Magic and racial abilities are varied, allowing for a vast number of play styles. Jessica Mcalpin, my wood elf, is already a deadly shot with her longbow, and has a couple of fiery tricks up her leather armoured sleeves, making her a pretty handy combat all-rounder. But had I wanted to play her as a shadow-hugging assassin or a toe-to-toe melee bruiser, I could have done so with ease. The opportunities to fine-tune characters in the game are impressive, and a huge draw to keep playing and levelling up.

Have horse (and polar bear cub), will travel

So far, spending ninety percent of my time in this ‘solo’ mode of play, I’d been having an absolute blast. Here was a game with not just one region of Tamriel to explore, but the whole dang continent. An intriguing main quest, interspersed with a variety of exciting side missions, guild jobs and crafting opportunities. The promise of group cooperative dungeons somewhere out there, banding together with a few other like-minded souls to bring down a big bad…it was definitely the most fun I’d had with an RPG since Skyrim.

And then I went to Cyrodil.

Jessica contributes to the Aldmeri Dominion war effort

The game’s main player vs player zone, Cyrodil is like a totally different game. Totally different — and totally fantastic. Here, each of the game’s three main ‘factions’ are locked in a perpetual struggle to claim the Emperor’s throne at the heart of the Imperial City. To do this, a faction must hold and conquer castles and keeps across the huge region. And the only way to do this is via cooperation — rushing together on horse (or lion or lizard) back to defend a stricken outpost is one of the most thrilling gameplay experiences I’ve had in a good while … which in turn paled into insignificance when compared to the adrenaline rush of pitching into a massive battle to help defend the territory.

This is what gaming is all about.

And this is why I’ll be hanging around in Tamriel for a long, long time to come…

Existence is futile – starting out with Elite Dangerous

Elite Dangerous

Commander Jessica McAlpin is supercruising across the galaxy, heading towards the home system of a young Imperial princess, whose radical anti-slavery stance has resulted in her having almost as many enemies at home as she does out in the further reaches of space. Exiled to a dark corner of the Federation as the disgraced illegitimate daughter of a minor member of the senate and a slave, Commander Jessica feels drawn to the beleaguered princess’s cause, and will pledge her undying support — once she’s arrived in safer territory, of course.

By aiming to travel such a distance, she is pushing the limits of her entry-level starship, forced to stop and refuel every four or five hyperspace leaps — and to undertake courier and bounty hunting missions en route to help fund her progress. And although she hasn’t yet publicly pledged her allegiance to the Princess, Jessica is still the target of rogue pirates and lawless criminals, who delight in nothing more than pulling her out of hyperspace and trying to rip open her cargo hold to see what spoils lie inside.

But Jessica is committed. Not only does she desire an end to the vile practice of slavery, she would like to see the very structure of the Empire itself change into a place where every man and woman has an equal chance of success and prosperity, not just the elected few. Princess Aisling — whilst not perfect — represents Jessica’s greatest hope of seeing that happen in her lifetime. And so she continues on her quest, the memory of her mother’s final words burning in her heart …

Elite Dangerous

Of course, neither Commander Jessica nor her noble quest exist. In reality, I am just another minuscule blip in the vast galactic world of Elite Dangerous, the latest iteration of David Braben’s seminal future spaceflight simulator. Beyond a hi-tech fabric-suited pair of arms and legs, I don’t even know what Jessica looks like. And the game neither knows nor cares a great deal about me as a player: unlike other vast open titles like Skyrim or even Elder Scrolls Online, I am not the Only Hope for the galaxy, or even a fledgling hero of any repute whatsoever.

I am, in the great leveller which is Elite Dangerous’ view of things, worth absolutely nothing. Even though I’ve been playing for around ten hours, I am — at best — considered “mostly penniless” (not to mention “completely harmless”). It manages to stop short of referring to me as “utterly insignificant”, but I’m sure that’s what it thinks of me nevertheless.

Elite Dangerous

But … somehow … I’m having a marvellous time with it. Devoid of story structure, character and purpose, I have been forced to create my own. Commander Jessica’s backstory and motives exist only in my head whilst I am playing. I’ll get no reward for joining the forces of the Imperial princess. She’ll never know who I am; neither will she care if I live or die in her service.

But the feeling of freedom is ample recompense for this lack of structure. I can fly to far-off systems, marvelling at the beautiful space vistas through my Eagle’s windshields. I can navigate my way through asteroid fields, drop out of hyperspace at nav beacons to hunt pirates, and even spend a happy few minutes reading the latest GalNet news at whatever starport or outpost I’m docked at. All the while, of course, Elite Dangerous continues to ignore me. Sometimes — like when I get interdicted by pirates far beyond my own level — I feel like it even hates me.

Elite Dangerous

But in my mind, I still know my efforts will make all the difference. Commander Jessica will become one of the Princess’s most valued heroes; she’ll go down in history as one of the key movers and shakers in galactic change … maybe she’ll even have a planet or a star system named after her.

And whilst she continues to exists in my mind, Elite Dangerous will let me play out my space-faring fantasies in a wonderfully immersive and challenging way.

Even if it doesn’t care.

Fallout 4 – Into The Sunset

The wasteland has opened up, and it is a surprisingly populous place.

Home run - Diamond City

Home run – Diamond City

Jessica McAlpin has been busy building her ideal post-nuclear home, adding bay-windowed balconies, comfortable upcycled seating and pictures of cats to her base of operations in Sanctuary Hills. Settlement-building is proving to be a relaxing activity, and she finds herself returning here after bouts of super mutant-slaying to unwind (and detoxify herself), sometimes doing little more than lounging on her rooftop airline seat and watching the sunset.

Sunset from Sanctuary Hills

Sunset from Sanctuary Hills

And she certainly needs somewhere to relax. Since discovering Diamond City (a bustling and thriving shanty-town built on the remnants of a baseball pitch), her to-do list reads like a pre-War telephone directory. And it’s here where one of Fallout 4’s key elements shines: the quest system is outstanding. Yes, there is the main ‘find your kidnapped son’ storyline to follow, as well as the favour-currying faction missions — but merely wandering about the environment opens the lid on so much more. Radio transmissions lead to edge-of-the-seat hostage rescue attempts; asides from security guards open up mysterious must-visit locations on the map; conversations with companions result in priorities switching mid-way through a mission. All of this succeeds in keeping the gameplay experience fresh and exciting, even if it can all be a bit overwhelming sometimes.

With a good few hours under her military helmet now, Jessica also has refined her own play style. High in charisma and luck, she always attempts to talk her way out of trouble, though is smart enough to realise this can often be an unpredictable strategy. When her silver tongue fails her, she resorts instead to seeking cover and aiming at the heads of her enemies through her sniper scope, with a pocketful of frag grenades ready to lob at any which decide to charge her down. At close quarters, she’ll switch to her heavily modded ‘Fukyu’ pipe pistol, whilst performing a graceful balletic ‘run away backwards whilst firing’ manoeuvre. It has — generally-speaking — served her well thus far, especially when aided by current companion Piper’s tendency to rush in to combat pistols blazing, selflessly soaking up the bullets…

Fukyu

Fukyu

A couple of other things help Jessica keep the upper hand during combat. Having invested in the Mysterious Stranger perk, she is always grateful when the trenchcoat-wearing figure shows up to one-shot kill an opponent; at other times, she relies on the V.A.T.S system to help her line up those headshot and criticals. All of this adds up to a combat experience that is both fluid and tactical — and most certainly never dull. Which, as the vast majority of missions result in a firefight of some kind, is just as well.

I feel that now the time has come to leave Jessica to her own devices, and wind up this account of her adventures to date. It’s the last instalment of what has amounted to a three-part review, which seems fitting for such an exceptionally deep and rewarding game — and one which I feel is going to keep my attention and enthusiasm going for several more months to come.

Romance in the wasteland

Romance in the wasteland

Especially when there are so many hats left still to find…

10/10

Fallout 4 – One week in …

One week in, and I’m both settling into the rhythm of Fallout 4, and coming to the realisation I’ve only just scratched the surface of it.

Fallout 4 - Even Dogmeat has somewhere to sleep

Jessica McAlpin, my wasteland wanderer, has made her first tentative steps out into the irradiated wilderness. After realising anything tougher than a termite had the capacity to shred her limb from limb, she concentrated on looting and pillaging everything she could get her hands on, with a particular penchant for pistols, leather armour and funny hats.

She has allied herself to two of the world’s factions: the settler-defending Minutemen, and the technology-defying Brotherhood of Steel. Glibly accepting missions from both camps, Jessica has liberated a handful of settlements, discovered some interesting bits n’ bobs of lost tech, and cleared some creepily atmospheric locales of mole rats, feral ghouls and things that look like gigantic bloated death crabs. She’s died about five dozen times, but is beginning to reduce the frequency between fatalities — thanks partly to putting a point into the Mysterious Stranger perk, which sees a … well … mysterious stranger pop up in combat from time to time to lend a helping gun-toting hand.

Fallout 4 - Diamond City

Bolstered by these tentative successes, Jessica even recently made it to Diamond City, the closest thing to civilisation still standing in the bomb-scarred wilderness. There she met with Piper, a local newshound, and gave an interview for her handwritten gossip-rag … possibly giving away too much about herself and her quest to find her kidnapped son in the process. She’s actually started to stress about this a bit, wishing she’d kept her business closer to her leather-clad chest — even if the citizens of Diamond City do treat her as something of a local celebrity…

At least she can now have the reporter tag along with her in her travels, though it tugs at her heart every time she dismisses faithful hound Dogmeat in favour of perky Piper. At least she’s built him a nice comfy kennel to lounge in when she’s not relying on him to tear the throats out of super-mutants whilst she pops at them from a safe distance…

Fallout 4 - Piper (and her funny hat)

Though she’s discovered about half a dozen settlements now, Sanctuary Hills is still where Jessica calls home. She’s actually quite enjoying tinkering with building shacks and shelters for the embryonic town’s six inhabitants, including a nice magazine rack and a bobblehead stand to display some of her rarer treasures. And she’s definitely going to keep ploughing points into the Local Leader perk, so she can build trading posts and supply lines between her shanty-towns — feeling like she’s actually making a difference in the otherwise bleak and hostile ruined world.

Other quests are opening up before her — there’s the shady Institute to track down, the mysterious ‘combat zone’ to investigate, and the faction missions to continue with; as well as random battles and encounters based on what she stumbles into on her journey,

And Fallout 4 is proving to be a fascinating journey, with an impressive depth and complexity. I’m already getting a feel for how some of the choices I’ve made will ripple through into my experience to come, which does a great job of creating a sense of narrative cohesion, even if it is a slightly stressful one. And sure, the game has faults and bugs here and there, but overall it does a fantastic job of being an immersive, gripping and rewarding role-player.

Fallout 4 - my "burgeoning" bobblehead collection

And at least now when she gets stressed, Jessica can always take time out in Sanctuary Hills to sit in her airline chair and admire her bobbleheads …

Fallout 4 – Early impressions

Two hours in, and I feel like I’m in The Walking Dead. This, should anyone be wondering, is A Very Good Thing.

Jessica McAlpin (and Dogmeat) in the wastelands

Jessica McAlpin (and Dogmeat) in the wastelands

I didn’t have to lead them, of course. I’m sure the people I rescued would have made the short trip from where I discovered them to their current rickety domicile without my help. But Fallout 4 gave me the choice — and I chose to pretend to be Rick Grimes and help carve a safe path through the wilderness, popping a few bloatflies enroute. Heck, I even had a cowboy hat on whilst I was doing it.

I have a notion that this feeling will fade as the game’s plot and environments open up into the whole wide ravaged world Bethesda have created, so — for now — I’m enjoying feeling like the leader of a small group of desperate souls, gathered together for safety in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Sanctuary, Massachusetts.

Night falls in Sanctuary and all is well (ish)

Of course, this being Fallout, there are no zombies to defend my followers from. No … it’s much worse than that. Chem-crazed raiders, rad-infected vermin, barely-alive mutants and ghouls … the wastelands of Fallout 4 are a treacherous place, where danger — and sudden death — lurk behind every irradiated boulder and desiccated tree.

And whilst I’m not sure if the game’s scripting engine will ever see the town under attack from an invasion of these post-apocalyptic pests, the threat’s there … and I’ve already grown attached to the five folk I’ve managed to save and accept me as their leader – even batshit crazy old Ma Murphy and her drug-crazed visions of the future. So I’m committed — for now — to rebuilding Sanctuary into something approaching habitable, and seeing if I can attract a few more stragglers in the process.

My Fallout 4 experience has only just begun, The main quest has kicked off, but I sense it will be a long, long road before I even see a hint of how that’s going to end. I’ve been in a fair few combats (many of which have seen me rag-dolling to my doom) and combat is exciting and – due to the limited ammo and flimsy armour I’ve managed to scavenge so far – nerve-jangling.

Seconds later, I was dead

Seconds later, I was dead

And so far, I’m loving living in this nightmare after the American dream. The environments already hint at being massive; the side quests and other activities almost limitless. The art direction is second-to-none; the atmosphere radiated with the series’ trademark style, humour and charm. I sense I’ll be in this one for the long-haul.

I’ve chosen to play a female character, primarily because I wanted to role-play the Mad Maxine-style vengeful mother figure …

CTjfFWaWIAA6bTY

… but mainly because I knew Jessica McAlpin would look a damn sight better than a virtual version of me wearing a suit and a stetson…

Game review: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

God bless you, Mary Poppins

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

As far as my ear can tell, Ubisoft have pulled off a miracle.

Alexander Graham Bell, bumbling side mission bestower in the Quebec development team’s first crack at the Assassin’s Creed whip, is voiced by someone with an east of Scotland accent.

Often, Scots in games are voiced by the cheapest jobbing actor the software house can find who have seen Braveheart at least once. In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate however, Ubisoft have nailed it.

And that’s not all, by any means. Whilst the game’s recreation of Victorian London is one small step away from a steampunk reimagining of life one hundred and fifty years ago populated with (mostly) benign caricatures of the famous and the not-so, the attention to detail is outstanding.

From the songs the singers serenade drinkers with in corner taverns, to the pasted adverts for knife polish and sausage mincing machines. From the pristine and iconic clock face of Big Ben to the soot-stained stones of St Paul’s Cathedral. From the fashionable dresses worn by the elegant ladies of Westminster to the slovenly rags of the factory workers in Whitechapel. Everything about Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s vision of Victorian London is spot on.

Okay, maybe not everything. Perhaps not the mystical hidden musical boxes hidden about the capital’s boroughs. Maybe not the Batman-esque rope launcher, allowing you to zip up from street level to a lofty perch in a matter of moments. But hey, this isn’t a history lesson, boys and girls – this is a game.

And what a game it is.

Cor blimey, luv a duck

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Admittedly, I’m pretty much Ubisoft’s ideal customer with this title. I love the setting and time period, and I’m a huge fan of open worldliness, especially if that world is brimming with a variety of things to see and do. And — for possibly the first time since the series went out into the wide open — Ubisoft have struck a great balance here.

There are the core missions, concerned with the likeable Frye twins’ quest to take over and restore order to a London in the grip of Daniel Day Lew … er, a malevolent Templar moustache-twirler. These, punctuated by well-directed and acted cutscenes, are the tasty meat filling to the game’s wholesome and satisfying pie.

Then there are the complementary conquest activities, where the Fryes wrest control from the grasp of street gang The Blighters via a series of classic Assassin-ation style missions. Side-by-side with those are the income-generating escapades the twins can dabble in to swell their much-needed coffers: everything from bare-knuckle fights to carriage races, with a pleasing amount of random ne’er-do-well foilings thrown into the mix for good measure.

And yes, there are the collectibles – etchings, beer bottles and pressed flowers of all things… but these are for completionists only, and fortunately not required in order to keep the game moving at an excitingly brisk pace.

Perhaps the best missions of all however are those doled out by the likes of Sandy Bell and his contemporaries. Karl Marx, Charles’s Dickens and Darwin — even, with the Dreadful Crimes missions — a precocious young Arthur Conan Doyle…

These might not be required to complete the main game’s plot, but the amount of atmosphere and humour they ladle into the mix are definitely not to be missed. In the Dreadful Crimes’ case, they even introduce a new ‘detective mode’ mechanic which adds yet more variety to Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s already tasty stew.

Let’s all go down The Strand (have a banana)

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Even though Evie and Jacob Frye are likeable leads and the main villain Crawford Starrick is suitably menacing, the real star of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is London itself.

There are few gaming experiences to rival shimmying up to the top of Big Ben and marvelling at the view hundreds of feet below: at the teeming Thames and bustling streets; at the spires and rooftops stretching off into the far distance. Or hopping on top of your mobile train hideout and letting it transport you through all the sights and sounds of the beautifully-realised Victorian capital, just taking it all in and making you wish you had a jar of jellied eels handy.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate isn’t the best game in the world — but it is the best game in it’s own world — and a world I anticipate visiting again and again, even when I’ve completed the story, conquered London and found every beer bottle and pressed flower in Southwark.

10/10

REVIEW: Life Is Strange, Episode One

I can identify the exact moment when I fell in love with Life Is Strange.

After a relatively clichéd “dark and stormy nightmare” opening introduces 18 year-old Max Caulfield, the main character of Dontnod Entertainment‘s haunting episodic adventure game, the game switches to a much more mundane situation: Max hiding at the back of a classroom in the hallowed halls of Blackwell Academy, trying to pay attention to her lecturer’s lesson on the history of photography.

So far, so good, but nothing yet to distinguish Life Is Strange from a slew of other ‘make your decisions wisely’-style adventure games, the likes of which Telltale Games are masters of.

Then Max steps out into the corridor, and that decisive moment happens.

It’s nothing to do with the game’s much-publicised time-travelling mechanic, but something far more normal. As Max slips in her headphones and the realistic chatter of her classmates is replaced by the jangling guitar of Syd Matters’ “To All Of You”, something truly impressive occurs.

The game’s audio and visual style meld into a beautiful whole, creating something more akin to an indie movie than a videogame. As the intro credits appear superimposed over scenes of life in the school corridor, you’re struck immediately by the diversity of the other characters Dontnod have created. Sure, there are the cheerleader and jock stereotypes, but there are also the quiet kids, the ones being picked on against the lockers; the sad-eyed girls rushing from one class to another, praying they won’t get noticed; the hipster cool kids whose entire world is lived out on the screens of their cellphones.

As the song plays on and the perspective shifts to a third-person over-the-shoulder view, you realise you now have control of Max and start to guide her along the corridor. You stop at points of interest indicated by hand-lettered hotspots, causing her to look at the posters and graffiti covering the walls, then listen to her inner musings whilst all the while allowing the immersive depth of the world Dontnod have created to seep in.

Though Max’s ability to rewind time is soon revealed after she witnesses – and subsequently prevents – a disturbing event in the girls’ restroom, it is not this supernatural power which drives the game forward. Instead, in a series of well-observed interactions with classmates and teachers, it is the small everyday things which ultimately show us that life is strange, not Max’s time-warping skills.

And it’s here that the writing excels. Previous doubts of lazy stereotyping are broken down: the rich bitch is not the heartless two-dimensional cipher she might have first appeared; an outwardly smug jock shows signs of compassion; the ever-present posters of a missing girl highlight the sense of unease which all the characters seem determined to deny.

Max and Chloe (copyright Dontnod Entertainment)

Max and Chloe (copyright Dontnod Entertainment)

And through it all, the character of Max herself is far deeper than is suggested by her ironic Jane Doe t-shirt: she is a fully-rounded and sympathetic depiction of teenage self-doubt and turmoil, not some bland avatar for the player to order round campus.

As the game progresses, Max discovers hints of a myriad of mysteries lying behind Arcadia Bay’s façade. There are parallels with the work of David Lynch in some of the stranger details Max uncovers, but an equal point of reference is French TV drama Les Revenants, which Life Is Strange shares a hauntingly maudlin sense of “otherness” with.

The game’s mood-laden soundtrack, together with its hand-painted backgrounds and filmic direction, creates a dream-like atmosphere which lingers in the mind long after a play session is over. Visual motifs abound: the freedom of birds are a poignant mirror of Max’s own feelings of entrapment; deer on wooded paths become spirit guides, hinting at a truth just out of reach; symbols of vortexes and mysterious glyphs tie Max’s nightmare world and reality together with an unsettling certainty. Dontnod have created an evocative world which shimmers between realism and fantasy in a way which few forms of media match, let alone one so oft-dismissed as a videogame.

Life Is Strange (copyright Dontnod Entertainment)

Life Is Strange (copyright Dontnod Entertainment)

Graphically, the atmospheric painted backgrounds give the title much of its style. Character models are well done, though a little limited in texture and animation. That said, one or two lines of dialogue are enough to imbue them with more life and personality than an infinite number of polygons ever could. This, after all, is a game about pushing the emotional envelope, not the technological one.

Gameplay is hardly taxing, but the pleasure comes from experiencing the world, from letting its atmosphere seep deep inside. Each conversation becomes an opportunity to uncover a little more, either about Arcadia Bay’s hidden secrets or more often the emotional state of one of the characters Max shares her world with. And although the opportunity constantly exists to invoke her special power and rewind time to solve some light puzzle elements, the mechanic is more commonly used to play out alternate conversation choices: to learn more from a snatched snippet of conversation, or from a hidden note or photograph concealed in a drawer or a box.

It’s here, where the game plays most to its genre, that a suspension of disbelief is most required. As Max snoops about a friend’s room in plain sight, it’s hard to imagine her not being noticed – though the game itself acknowledges this, with Max giving herself a wry “I’m so nosey today” aside during one particular stalker-ish segment. The thirst for more detail about the world of Life Is Strange smooths over this slight crack however, and it is easily forgiven.

By the end of this first episode, there are far more questions than answers: but this generates a compulsion to return and accompany Max on the next episode of her melancholic adventure, as she attempts to discover why she appears to have been chosen as an ‘everyday hero’.

Life Is Strange (copyright Dontnod Entertainment)

Life Is Strange (copyright Dontnod Entertainment)

And to Dontnod’s credit, it is not the gameplay which provides this drive, but the desire to spend more time in the moving and lingering world they have created, a world which resonates with such poignancy that it promises to be that rarest and strangest of things: a videogame which can stand proud as a fully-formed piece of art.

9.5/10

Buffy The Vampire Slayer – The Rewatch: Season 2 #1 – #2

Buffy: When She Was BadReturning for a full 22-show run after the success of the first season, the second arc of Buffy The Vampire Slayer immediately shows its hand as a more mature and deeper piece of storytelling with the character-driven first episode When She Was Bad.

Returning for a new term at Sunnydale High after spending the summer in LA, Buffy has changed. Gone is the wise-cracking feisty young girl of season one; in her place is a distant and troubled teenager, plagued by nightmares of her death at the hands of the Master. Xander, Willow and Giles immediately notice the change, as does Angel, returning this season as a main character.

Buffy’s altered behaviour culminates in a pivotal dance scene at The Bronze, where she gyrates seductively around and against a bemused Xander whilst Angel watches on with rising jealousy. After this, it is Cordelia of all characters who highlights to Buffy how her behaviour is affecting others, setting in motion a chain of events which finally sees the Slayer put her demons to rest.

The episode is a strong opener, establishing the core cast and introducing the character conflicts which play out so fatefully in this — potentially the series’ finest — season. And although the second episode — the ‘monster of the week’ style Some Assembly Required — is less affecting, it still contains enough character-driven nuances to make it an enjoyably effective watch.

Some Assembly RequiredRiffing on the Frankenstein story, the episode sees Buffy and the gang rescue Cordelia – now very much part of the core cast – from a pair of misguided science geeks who aim to use her to complete a particularly gruesome project. And though this tale has its moments, the episode shines brightest when it is focusing on the interplay between the main characters, particularly Buffy and Angel and the embryonic relationship between Giles and Miss Calendar: both made more poignant on a rewatch when you know where their fates are heading…

Together, the first two episodes are a great example of the show’s appeal: mixing humour, action, b-movie horror and deep characterisation, whilst also foreshadowing events and relationships yet to unfold.

And the prospect of the next episode, where fan favourites Spike and Drusilla make their debut appearance, is enticing indeed…

Fringe – the first few days

Now my reviews have been written, I finally can rank the shows in order of preference (4 and 5-star shows only)…

Not a bad haul for only 4 days. If this keeps up, we could be in for a vintage Fringe…