Cities Skylines After Dark – Review

 

There is no secret here – we loved Cities Skylines. So what do you do when one of the best games of the year brings you an add-on that brings you more? Well, you rejoice, naturally as ‘After Dark’ is now here. Except that probably the biggest part of it is actually free. So what are you actually getting by parting with your hard earned money? Actually, quite a bit.

It’s something that SimCity did, and to be fair to Maxis inglorious city-building swansong, it actually did it quite well. Day and night cycles made a fairly middling game look absolutely stunning, especially with some of the futuristic buildings. If there is a criticism of Cities Skylines, it was that the passage of time didn’t really feel very much like a passage of time. Part of this was because there wasn’t a night cycle, but part of it was because the timer and the date function feels rather arbitrary.

Now with the addition of the day/night cycle, it does feel like there is a certain progression but only if you don’t pay much attention to the clock. The beauty of the mode isn’t the visuals though (which are indeed absolutely lovely and don’t tax your system that much more than your current operating requirements). It’s the ability to micromanage things that are happening in those cycles. For example, the game will naturally increase crime during the night because it’s dark and criminals often work under that cover. So you can adjust your budgeting to allow for a greater police presence in the night and less of a presence in the day to balance it out. It’s useful for other things too, including trash collection (by creating a time with less traffic to operate these services).

That visual aspect, along with the micro management side of of this expansion has been added for free to the base game. But there are little bits to make going that bit further a lot more worthwhile. There are two new specialisations that bring their own challenges as well. New to the game are the Leisure and Tourism specialities, which allow you to build new bars and entertainment strip areas along with making use of beaches and hotels. So thankfully, all of your map can be used to exploit its natural beauty and give yourself challenges. Fancy making Atlantic City? Go for it!

Also added is the new dedicated lanes for buses and public services. There’s also plenty of new buildings and services for you to unlock which has been helped by the stellar job the modding community has done. In no small part, things have been implemented in to the game because they are popular mods and there is obviously a demand for them. City services, special roads and new additions to existing buildings can make life a lot easier.

For example there’s now a bus/bike lane to help the flow of traffic or at least help your services survive it. There’s a metro station built in to the airport now. There’s better train access for cargo. Lots of things can make your life easier. But make no mistake about it, this is an add-on. Not a new game, not a change in the game’s parameters or a fantasy world, it is a new bunch of stuff to stick in to the already existing stuff and help address a few issues the original had.

It’s arguable whether or not it does that. Traffic is still traffic and will still be a big issue the bigger you are. The crime rates stay fairly similar and Chirpr still overly chirps. The main focus here is that the game is just getting some more stuff. If you want to go further in to the rabbit hole for £11 then you can, but the main focus of the add-on’s title and the benefits that it directly brings are available to you now, for free, in the updated game.

Does this then negate the add-on? Possibly, it depends how much you’re willing to spend and to be honest, the game isn’t expensive so you’ve probably not payed out anywhere near what SimCity asked of you. Plus you will get some extra goodies so that also counts for something, and everyone’s thought of making their own version of Magaluf’s notorious strip in a game before so you can exploit those tourists for all their alcohol money… Haven’t they? Just me? Bugger.

Summary

Cities Skylines After Dark adds some cool new things but that’s basically all it does – Add. It’s not a game changer, or breaker. And the biggest part of the content is included for free in the day/night cycle, which you can switch off from the main menu if your system is struggling. There’s not masses there but for a game that’s got so much mod community support, it needs very little except to start the spark. Which this does.

Good Points

  • New industry specialisation
  • The day/night cycle is visually awesome
  • The biggest part of the pack is a free update

Bad Points

  • The biggest part of the pack is a free update
  • Not a lot of content beyond the cosmetic
  • Hasn’t improved certain issues like traffic congestion

Why a 7.5?

A lot of the value of the add-on will depends upon what you’re actually looking to get. And as the game has added probably the biggest part of it already, and for free, it does question how much is in the paid additional content that you’d use. In that regard, it probably doesn’t add as much as you’d have hoped but is a nice support for the game none the less.

 

 

Mad Max – Review

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So, in a spate of lyrical platitudes, I said a few months back that Mad Max would be the one game I wouldn’t be able to live without. A bit dramatic you may think but now, having played the whole game from start to finish, I’m going to try and keep that statement true whilst also being objective for this review. One thing I did do was look back at the movies, just to get a feel for the world.

Yes, I am one of those morons who will have a TV or Laptop on the side with something on it whilst I play games. Usually it’s sports or one of many repeat viewings of a TV series. This time, I decided to rewatch the Mad Max movies. It’s worth pointing out how tonally different a few things are, especially if you’re a fan. Firstly, the wasteland being as arid and desert based as it is in the game, is a complete by-product of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Fury Road. It is also worth pointing out that this Max is completely his own and mostly removed from any movie interpretations.

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So the one thing that this does is allow the characters, the franchise and the opportunity for a decent game to come to life in an incredibly large space. The wasteland is a huge empty opus in itself. A dystopian vision of a world reclaimed by sand and littered with the decay of humanity’s past and the cult fanaticism of petroleum-fuelled power, the very substance that caused the apocalypse in the first place. Yes it’s bombastic, ritualistic and occasionally garish in its interpretation of tribalism, but that’s one of the great things about it, the fantastical element that allows this crazy world to exist.

Max starts much in the same way as he does in Fury Road, by being beating up and having his car taken from him. But not before he manages to plant a baby chainsaw into the cranium of local warlord Scrotus. With the aid of an injured dog, you find your way on foot to a slightly crazy hunchback named Chumbucket who happens to be a wizard with cars and is currently building a new one, the Magnum Opus, which you have great need of after you see your beloved black Interceptor dismantled in one of the enemies camps.

What then ensues is a long mission, with Chumbucket as your passenger, to explore all of the wasteland, whilst doing the bidding of various underlords trying to rebuild themselves under the dictator-like poverty enforced by Scrotus. You spend your time clearing the landscape of snipers and totems (called scarecrows), dismantling enemy oil camps and engaging in big boss fights, taking out the big ‘top dog’ of the area. All the while, systematically lowering the level of threat in the area, and finding little camps where you can liberate scrap metal, historical relics (pictures from the past) and occasionally some construction parts to help build up your base.

How deep you want to go in to this side quest construction is up to you (if you’re one of these people that needs to 100% a game for instance) but you WILL have to get involved with it. Completing these missions and the side quests increases your level and also gains access to upgrades for Max and your car. It also allows you the opportunity to explore and get to grips with the enemies, the physical combat and the car combat.

To level yourself up is very easy. Doing missions, challenges, etc will earn you Griffa tokens. You take these to the crazy wandering shaman known as Griffa. This can help upgrade your strength, length of combo holds, fuel economy, etc. But it’s worth it just to engage in the introspective story of Max’s psyche, something that Griffa seems to have a direct line to. His pointing out of Max’s confused loyalties, his own torture and the secrets in his own mind that he’s trying to run from or conveniently buries are some of the best discourse in the game.

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Customisable Max doesn’t have a massive amount of customisation, but what there is compliments the increasing level and helps in the combat like wrist guards and knuckle dusters. Most things are quite easily unlocked in this regard, although I found myself basically playing the Hobo version of Max for most of the game out of laziness. Car upgrades are pretty cool such as ramming bars, engine upgrades, upgrades to your weapons (which Chumbucket conveniently fires for you) and hood ornaments collected from the destroyed convoys you encounter. Everything does become available quite easily, despite having to complete certain side-quests in some regards to earn the upgrade. One of the cool things are pre-designed car load outs called Archangels, one of which you will need in the story. But it’s a cool aside to help collect every available version of the Magnum Opus in the game.

Car combat is one of those things that can irk people. But I feel that Mad Max does it rather well. The obvious thing is to ram and grind everything in your path (be it a car, person or structure) but the options that you unlock can make this better than the constant dosey doe of close quarters vehicular violence. Yes the harpoon can be quite overpowered and is used a lot depending on what you’re doing, but that doesn’t make it less cool to use. There’s the thunderpoon (explosive on a stick), the shotgun and the side burners, the latter of which does a lot more damage than you think, if you want some variety.

But enemies usually come in threes which means that whilst you’re having to drive around finding another guy to hit, one is either coming at you or is primed to be t-boned. So there’s always someone to bash and never just an aimless creation of donuts. There is even a sneaky way to make things easier with the drivers getting out of the vehicles which allows them to be unceremoniously punched to death, quite convenient when your own car is on fire and about to explode.

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Of course there’s even more of a bonus if you can get these people out of a car and take their vehicle back to your closest stronghold. Whilst you can only upgrade your own car, you can also use any of the cars in the game as long as you collect them, which can be very useful for races or specific tasks like ramming things or collecting scrap. Once you do get out on your own and start beating up on people, you’ll find the combat very amenable indeed.

Compared to its contemporaries, you have a much more rugged feel to fighting. That’s also to do with the opponents you’re facing being rather rugged themselves, as well as Max being, well, mad. Most of the fighting removes itself from the acrobatic martial arts of Bruce Wayne and the sword fighting skills of Talion. It’s a lot more raw and brutal with shiv and skull crushing, just adding to the unforgiving psyche that Max has. This is even more apparent as you level up and progress the fury skill, an extra powerful buff earned from multiple combos.

Whilst I have been enjoying this game, there are some problems. These problems really do become a lot more apparent in the later parts of the game and one of them is due to its contemporaries. Whilst all the media attention was sited on this game being delayed and then released at the same time as the huge giant killer of Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain (which you can read our initial impressions of here), I’m more concerned with Batman: Arkham Knight and Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.

On the face of it, these are three different games with three different franchises from three different development studios – Monolith, Rocksteady and Avalanche. However these games in a lot of areas are exactly the same. Free-flowing combat in an open-world with various base liberation and boss battles, all of which level you up. It’s a stretch but this game does feel, when you’re playing it at length anyway, incredibly similar to Mordor. Obviously it doesn’t have the Nemesis system but the feel of it is incredibly similar. The car combat is something arguably Batman should have had and Max’s story is nowhere near as good as Batman’s. But the point is there (and probably only relevant if you played a lot of the other two games, like I did) that in the space of a year three incredibly similar games have been released by the same publisher.

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That’s not a problem if you like these games. They’re very good and the technology is there to make them good. Although Mad Max suffers towards the end of the game with big frame rate issues, especially in the storms, some races and occasional battles around the top of the map where lots of things are. It’s not game breaking but it’s frustrating given how smooth the rest of the game is. The story of the game also does something rather frustrating at the end by making you completely feel like you’ve misjudged the whole thing. Not in a controversial-yet-ideological epiphany kind of way, but more of a sad and unnecessary kind of way. It does feel a bit rushed and the game also frustrates you by overusing the map at this point. You also don’t get enough of Gastown or the amazingly bleak and dead area of the Barren Wastes. There are a few missed opportunities more than anything, which is annoying given the depth the game goes to in other areas.

One of which is fuel. I never wanted for fuel at all in this game. Not because it was easily found (although it is quite easily found), but because my character levelling made me conserve fuel more and by the time I was at a point in the game where things get very fuel thirsty, I had the economy of a Nissan Leaf but with a V8 engine. Trust me, I’ve owned a old school V8 car and that petrol practically evaporates. It was also helped that I’d done a lot of searching for parts for the strongholds so every time I went back to the central one for most of the game, Jeet’s Stronghold, I maxed out all my health, ammo, fuel and water. Obviously that was my choice but it took a little bit of challenge out of the game. One of the other things I didn’t get was how the story wanted you to blow up the oil refineries and transfer tanks to help disrupt an already leaderless Scrotus clan. Surely, given his hold on the resource, blowing it up is actually not a good thing as you need it too.

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I’m honestly glad I played Mad Max and it’s one of those games, like Mordor that I would play again and again, so in a way, I won’t be able to game without it being a part of my lexicon. And the one big reason why it has completely captured me is how beautiful the game is. I’ve been taking many pictures in the game using the photo mode (again something that was excellent in Shadow of Mordor) and it is glorious. The beauty of decay and entropy is something that is wonderful to look at and, outside of Chernobyl anyway, you won’t see it in real life en masse. The world that Avalanche has created is dangerous, violent, raw and poetically empty. When a storm hits, it’s incredibly vicious, loud and pretty. Many times, I risked death to get the perfect shot for a lightening bolt.

Normally for reviews, we use picture assets sent to us by the publisher but for this, we’ve used my own personal shots from the game. All of the pictures seen here are taken by me using the game’s own photo mode and shared via my PS4. It’s a testament that I trust how good these pictures look that I want to use them like this and it really shows off the vast visual beauty this game possesses. Combined with great game mechanics, excellent driving and combat, and an entertaining story that rewards the side quest grind for upgrades, Mad Max is definitely a game I’m reticent to put down. But I must for the plains of silence await me… If by plains of silence you mean doing some work.

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Mad Max is an excellent game which perfectly captures the sense of craziness and social human decay that George Miller’s movies evoke. The mechanics are sound, the game is huge and the landscape is beautiful. It’s slightly let down by its story and how close it is in gameplay to other games you’ve probably sunk time in to this year. But it’s definitely a game that will stay with you.

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  • Beautiful post-apocalyptic landscape.
  • Great fighting and car combat mechanics
  • Large open-world map that never feels the same.

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  • Story isn’t the best towards the end.
  • Quite close to other games in their gameplay.
  • Some bugs towards the end makes it feel a bit rushed.

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Whilst the game is excellent, the frame rate glitches towards the end let it down, as does the conclusion of the story. Plus there really isn’t enough to do outside of the quests and landscape liberation to take it to the next level. But the game is a great experience and one that truly deserves the plaudits if not for its beauty alone.

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This review is based on the PS4 version provided by the publisher.

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New Fallout 4 Cartoon Shows Off Talents – Strength

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That’s right, Fallout 4 is two months away today, and this new cartoon video from Bethesda is showing off one of talents that you can assign for yourself in the games attributes – Strength.

Bethesda are always very jovial when it comes to their game’s marketing and this is no different. A series of 1950s style public service cartoons are coming to help you learn about the games various attributes that you can assign to yourself. You’ll remember in Fallout 3, you did this as a rather mobile baby who had discovered the power to read. Your baby book was there, not for eating, but for deciding upon your character.

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In Fallout 4, this is going to be done very early on as well, by a visiting salesman for Vault-Tec. Whatever your character choice, he’ll come to your home and try to sell you a place in the local vault in case of nuclear doom. Spoiler – Nuclear doom ensues. But the old S.P.E.C.I.A.L. book has now given way to the vault registration form.

Never fear though as Bethesda are doing a video for each of the attributes: Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck… S.P.E.C.I.A.L. in case you didn’t get that. This first one, released today shows us how the weapon choices benefit from the strength. The stronger you are, the more you can take that and protect from “bullies.” Although the best news is a possibility of using a paddle and ball to kill people. I mean, the video says it’s a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do it, right?

Fallout 4 is due out on PC, Xbox One and PS4 on November 10th 2015, and we for one cannot wait. If you’re local to the Colchester area, be sure to check out our friends at Xtreme Gaming who are doing a community event celebrating Fallout on Friday September 18th 2015. (@Xtreme_Gaming). Keep it here for all the goodies!

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EVE’s Virtual Reality is better than your own reality

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The old marketing line of that Xenomorph attacking movie is that “in space, no one can hear you scream.” One of the best things about Virtual Reality is that when you’re in space, EVERYONE can hear you scream – scream like you’re a cross between Marlon Wayans and Ariana Richards. There’s a small part of it that is fear, but mostly it’s crazy, unbridled joy.

From the moment you fit yourself with the Oculus Rift and sit down in the cockpit of your Wraith Mark II fighter, you are amazed and a little bit giddy. Not at the disorientation, but more at the ability to see your limbs as if they were not your own. It’s not exactly out of body because you are in control buy your head turning and looking at all of these things, but still, it does a good thing of immediately displacing your own reality and dropping you directly in to the fiction.

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And drop it does. In the most fun parts of our science fiction movie history, we get launched from a tube like the best of our Battlestar Galactica/Star Wars fantasies at a terrific velocity and in to the rather crowded arena of our fleet in deep space. This of course leads to an incredibly space battle which sees you wildly flipping your head around (that from the outside must look like it’s going to fall off), desperately searching for that enemy in some excellent dogfighting. Add in to that Katee Sackhoff doing voiceover content, customisable ships and also the potential of Sony’s Project Morpheus, and you’ve got me sold.

This is the experience I took away from my time with EVE Valkyrie whilst at Gamescom. You can see the video below which is the same demo I experienced (although from the eyes of CCP) and it was also my first proper experience of VR gaming. I know, what a fool I’ve been to miss out. But I’ve always had a quiet respect and fear of EVE. It’s a game I’m sure I would absolutely love but the difficult learning arc, deep fiction and incredibly dedicated community can make it very daunting. However, I believe that Valkyrie can change that.

The great thing that CCP have done over the years is find a way to make their product, not only more appealing but more accessible to people like me. People like me who sit on the fence and haven’t been able to go further than dipping a toe. Because, let’s be honest, giant space MMORPG isn’t everyone’s cup of team. But giant virtual reality space dogfighting is. CCP have often tried to look outside of their own box, the PlayStation network game DUST 514 being a prime example (with an first person shooter that crossover over with the online play of EVE) to take the franchise away from its PC roots and expand to a console, attracting a new audience. The comic book series, EVE: True Stories is really interesting too, delivering the House of Cards-esque economic and political intrigue of actual situations in a narrative discourse with the fall of the Band of Brothers.

So it should be no surprise that the current four year development of EVE Valkyrie with the new VR technology is doing new things and pushing the envelope. If you’ve used the Oculus Rift then you’ll know that the only criticisms have been based on delivering a resolution like current monitors can and the power of the system that will be needed to power it come consumer release. But as far as the game goes, it is absolutely fantastic. But the CCP VR journey doesn’t end there either.

EVE: Gunjack is the upcoming launch title for the Samsung Gear VR, a VR headset add-on for the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. You stick your phone in the front of the Oculus developed peripheral and you’re good to go. Gunjack, developed on the Unreal 4 Engine looks absolutely excellent given the spec of the tech and and the scope it is going for. You get an incredibly similar scope of vision like you with Valkyrie but without the ship movement so it’s a lot more static. The best way to describe is is that it’s a one button shooter (the button is on the side of your headset) whilst you are in a fixed turret attacking the oncoming waves of enemies. It’s very similar to games like Space Harrier and Child of Eden with oncoming enemies in various formations with power ups abound. It’s a simple concept (perfect for mobile gaming) with a one button control (also perfect for mobile gaming) and is playable with or without the Gear VR. It also comes across very well and is just the right amount of casual for the concept and for the technology.

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Virtual Reality is constantly being touted as the future of gaming. I’ve heard it from developers, publishers, technology journalists, a random guy in a pub who frequents many business shows to sell things… By this point you’ve probably heard it from your dog in a moment of existential mania. But the problem of course has been how slow the technology has taken to get in to the consumers hands and with content for it. Just look at how 3D failed to take advantage of anything in this regard. VR however has been worked on for many years, between b-movie horror in The Lawnmower Man to crazy full body experiences. EVE has an appeal beyond it’s core online subscribers because, even if we don’t understand it or can access it, most gamers who have heard about it are secretly really interested in what’s happening in there. Whilst Valkyrie and Gunjack both give a bigger platform for exposure, they’re success will be that they’ve made it easier for more people to feel like a part of the universe.

Headset or not, one button or a controller, or a fully beefed up PC or a mobile phone, that’s what I took from playing the games. I took the connection that I’ve probably lusted for since first letting my subscription to EVE Online slip, and enjoyed every second of it. If you’re going to any conventions or shows over the rest of the year, I implore you to go and try it and see if, like me, this is the way to satisfy your EVE craving.

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Dying Light – The Following – Preview

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It’s over two years since Techland went solo from their Dead Island franchise and found a new home with publisher Warner Bros. The result was last years release, Dying Light, which was a very familiar game if you’d played any of their former franchise. But with a focus on movement and parkour that freed up the constraints in the open world city of Harran, the game was different and enjoyable enough to earn the top spot in January 2015 for sales and became the highest selling debut survival horror franchise ever.

Now, the story continues as you take Kyle Crane to a new area of the world. Gone are the sprawling decaying concrete blocks, discoloured by the eastern Mediterranean sun, as you enter a new, vast farmland area, filled with brooks, small alcoves, interesting groves with people to find and farms and industrial buildings galore. The world is apparently four times the size of Harran. It is very sparse compared to the built up Turkish town and its not the worse for it. It allows for many different approaches to an area or a situation, which I’ll come on to later. But what you will find is that the shadows have given way to the glorious rays of sun that now dominate the skies and the view, really making some lovely use of the Chrome Engine and further solidifying why the last generation of consoles would have had no chance of running these games.

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The plot sees you trying to track down a cult called The Following. Presumably to eliminate them, although I must stress that the preview we played gave us no spoilers for the plot so we have no idea what we’re looking for or who we’re killing. But kill we shall because we are given weapons and the overwhelming urge to use them. In our preview, we climbed our way around a big mountain and dived from an impossible height down to a pool of water. As we climbed out, we saw our first hint of The Following in decorated rocks, much like those you’d see of native tribes around the world. Our journey then led us up to an abandoned house where the poor unfortunate souls before us left a gun and, most importantly, a crossbow.

Then we traversed our way across the farmland that was awash with zombies. Lots of zombies. Basically, don’t traverse the field if you can help it. It’s fun to start killing things with a crossbow, hitting people in the head, as we practiced at the house by clearing the garden. But as soon as you are outside and everyone is on you, forget it. Run. Where were we running to? An old water tower by a small farm building. There were a few ways there of course, either through the throng in whatever zig zag you’d like, up the path where the throng was less or up over the pipes that went across the field. I chose the pipes and ran my way to the high vantage point.

At the top of this vantage point, we saw our prize. A car, or to be more precise a buggy. After clearing the area of militia by using our crossbows at a sniping vantage point, we zip-wired down to the ground, mopped up the remaining guys hiding inside the surrounding buildings and jumped in to the waiting buggies. We, it must be said, was me and my co-op partner and what followed was a race and a slight moment of control adjustment to work out how the buggy went forward and reversed. The race culminated, after mowing down various zombies in the road, in a massive jump and an explosion that signalled the end of our play.

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What I managed to take away from this is that it isn’t a big leap from Dying Light, which is good. We also have a large, new area to explore and traverse. Also good. We have new interesting buildings like docks, processing plants, small villages and the like. Again, good. Then there’s the rather unknown story of this cult, The Following, and the presence of militia and zombies. It certainly gives you some intriguing propositions.

The fact it isn’t a big leap also allows you to jump back in to the game very easily. I haven’t played Dying Light since November last year (before the release) and I picked up the controls like I’d never left them. Simple, natural and the buggy was pretty good once you got your head around how twitchy it is. The weapons are fun and the options you have in approaching an area are also pretty fun. But you sense that, despite a huge world that’s been promised, a lot of it is empty and just populated with aimless zombies for you to mow down. I always find that fast transportation does allow to kind of get away with vast unpopulated areas. I might be wrong, but I’d need to play and explore more.

All in all though, the expansion is solid, the lighting and art direction is great, as it was in Dying Light, and it’s really more of the same. Normally, these things end up being just missions and a few new buildings but a whole new area is a great thing from Techland and a new storyline, regardless of your thoughts on the original’s plot, is entirely welcome. If you’ve already got the season pass then you can expect it for free (I know, right? A season pass that actually includes the add-on DLC!) or if you haven’t then it’ll be $14.99. No news on a UK/EU price yet but I’m sure you can guess one.

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Gremlins Inc – Preview

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I have sunk what probably seems like a unworldly amount of time in to the mobile game versions of Ticket to Ride and Small World, and probably quite a lot of time playing the board games themselves as well. So when I was asked to go and check out a card game at Gamescom, I was a little bit reticent because I already had my perfect games and I probably knew that, if it was good, I’d lose a lot of my time to yet another game. What happened a was that I lost a lot of my time to the video game version of the game. About half an hour more than I was supposed to… Oops.

Gremlins, Inc. is the brain child of Lithuanian studio Charlie Oscar. Much like the drive to bring the games industry to the UK with tax breaks, Vilnius in Lithuania is trying to become the Eastern European regional hub for the video games industry. Charlie Oscar is a great example of this, boasting programming talent from Russia, Ukraine, Germany and even Spain. Charlie Oscar enlisted the help of Alexey Bokulev, creator of Eador. Genesis (a turn based strategy game that hasn’t done too badly itself) to create a new original world for the game. So what is it all about?

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It’s steampunk, steampunk, money-grabbing gremlins, some more steampunk and then a final bit of steampunk to add on top of that. The world of Gremlins, Inc. is populated by gremlins. Not your normal gremlins though with the aversion to water after midnight, these guys are immortal and immortality will always breed corruption, greed and power. Described as “immoral capitalist gremlins”, the idea is that you go around the board and get enough points to win the game. You do this must lie, cheat and steal the wealth of your fellow players to put yourself in the position to earn the most points, either by becoming the local governor or underhandedly keeping everybody else down. You select one of ten playable gremlins that all have their own benefits and attributes. If you imagine the robber from Settlers of Catan, well thats how you feel with every turn in Gremlins, Inc. It’s evil and it’s glorious.

You start the game with a hand of six cards. These cards have a dual function. Firstly, they act as your die for moving around the board. The board itself is a counter clockwise path with an occasional shortcut here and there for the big buildings of the world like a bank, a casino, a jail, a court and fun places like “The Inferno” and “The Astral Plane”. The first move you make is your movement so you expel the card you want to in order to move. This is where you have to think tactically because the second phase of the game is an action.

Your cards will have certain actions that can either benefit you by giving you extra gold, extra power or points, or can ruin the plans of your opponent by stealing points, sending them to jail, or utterly destroying the political gain they’ve just spent ages earning. These actions are also limited as to where you play them on the board. So if you have a card like the “Everybody Dance” card with the casino symbol on it, you can only play it while you are at the casino. This is where the strategy comes in of having to regularly change and use cards, even if they look cool, just for movement as the game can, and will, quickly turn against you.

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Of course you have this issue, as do all of the other players. This is then made even more treacherous by the board itself. There are several places across the board where you will be fleeced for bribes, be at risk of arrest for your corruption, or even have some misfortune (which could also affect other players as well as you). The good thing about this game, regardless of how high you put the points and how hard you make it to achieve a win, is that something is always happening. You’re always thinking about how you’re going to win the next round of turns and are even thinking or planning three or four turns ahead. The board is small and manoeuvrable enough to get to where you’re hoping to go in a few turns, as long as someone doesn’t ruin it for you.

This constant going back and forth in my game with production assistant Monika Dauntye was only halted when we were told how long we’d been going and that people needed to go home. It was utterly captivating and I’m really excited to play more of it with my friends when it comes to Early Access in September. There is also a board-less card game being created in conjunction with the video game version, which is easily transportable and follows the same concept (minus the die movement). Even talking with other journalists later in the day, we were all surprised how much we enjoyed it. Keep your eyes open on Steam for when it comes.

You can find more information on Gremlins, Inc. over at http://gremlinsinc.com/videogame/

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Constructor HD – Preview

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Back in 1997, a game was released by Acclaim on MS DOS and then ported to Playstation in 1998. It was a very difficult game, which took on a life of its own with a dedicated following that enjoyed its sense of humour, its challenge and, probably most importantly, its playability. This game was Constructor, developed by System 3 and it was one of the first games to successfully make the leap from PC to console in the strategy market (apart from real time games like the Command & Conquer series and possibly Sim City on SNES).

The aim of the game was simple. Build houses, get tenants, compete against the computer players (or friends on a LAN) in building more and gaining control, whilst your tenants become more unruly and moan… A lot. The game had a little bit of the dodgy dealing cockney kind of 1960s feel about it. You’d probably get the sense of the camaraderie from the original Guy Ritchie movies like Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrells, but it probably owes a lot more to the late George Cole’s Authur Daley from the Minder TV series. The problem with the game was that it was incredibly difficult. The dedication you’d need to keep any semblance of control, keeping tabs on the thugs, builders, tenants and the opposition whilst everything potentially crumbles around you, was immense. Of course as video gamers, we loved it and lapped it up like cats with a saucer of milk.

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But of course it isn’t 1997 anymore. It’s 2015 and the original game, re-released a few years ago on PSN and GOG, has certainly aged. The humour and style is still there but the years have not been kind to its 256 colour palette, its very close view or its steep learning curve. And in this age of remasters, forgotten classics and current generation accessibility, the game is going to return. Recently announced by System 3, Constructor HD is coming to PC, Xbox One and PS4 in 2016, in the hands of original developer John Twiddy. Why? Well in his words “of all the games I’ve done, this is probably the one I enjoyed the most.”

It hasn’t been for the want of trying though, as John told me after seeing the game at Gamescom “I know it’s taken a long time to get around to it, but it was never the right time. We always planned to do something.” Over the years of course the technology has moved along so that System 3 can improve on the game and give the fans, and hopefully new converts, something they’ll enjoy. A lot has certainly changed to make it more accessible, and I’m not just talking about the however many million more colours there are.

Firstly, the game itself is exactly the same. Same premise, same enjoyable caricatures of British or more London stereotypes, same neat animations and unique ways of dealing with problems. Thugs can still be deployed to take over a property to intentionally piss off your tenants. Or repair men can fix, or cause, any issue that the ever more demanding occupants of your properties may come up with. You’ll have local mills and cement works ready to give you the tools and supplies you need to build your property empire. All of them though are lovingly upgraded from the original drawings to the new HD era. But the best thing though, by far, is the upgrading of the user interface.

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On the face of it, it’s exactly the same design as it was in 1997. A right sided tool bar with a ticker up top and the game being displayed in a window. But now, thanks to screen ratios and better design tools, the toolbar is much more free. It’s a part of the game window rather than your game window being a part of it. The essential information is now conveniently positioned on the sides of the screen, so as to allow more game space. The biggest improvement in this though though is in the map and view itself. as you can zoom out much further and see much more of the maps that you are playing.

One of the biggest cruxes of the original game was the limited view that you had. Another crux was that the sub-menu screens dominated the whole playing area. When you clicked to see about a house or move tenants in or any kind of sub menu, it literally took over and was a bit clumsy. But now, these menus fit on the same screen and are mostly opaque so you are never fully taken out of the action of the game. And, thanks to the original simple design of the menu, the controller works perfectly with them. There are some that still need you to go deeper like selecting individual houses but for the main part of your game, construction and assigning your workforce, you’re never away from the map.

“Because the original Playstation version was a straight port of the PC version, it never really worked that well. It was always a bit slow,” John tells me. “Where as now, with the shortcut keys I actually find it easier to play with the controller than I did with the keyboard and mouse originally.” Back in the PC/PSX days, you could have a keyboard and mouse controller, which was alright but never spot on for the PlayStation. But as John told me, the use of the controllers now allows for very quick and easy accessing of various options and submenus. Something that is a lot easier thanks to the bigger screen, easier controls and very fluid shortcuts. Of course the biggest part of all of these improvements is that game retains what it originally had, which was fun by the bucket loads.

And it has. The demo we were shown allowed us to flood an enraged tenant out of their apartment. Another allowed us to have a Young Ones-esque perpetual house party, much to the annoyance of the occupants. The wooden fences went up around an empty lot that we selected and a team of builders came in and erected a house. We made someone else happy by giving them a rather garish iron fence around their property. The metro system allows for super fast travel and the yard, your base of operations, still has that backwater hut feel about it. The kind of trailer that you’d see at the back of a scrap yard and be impressed that there’d be a fax machine in it, regardless of whether it was plugged in or not.

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The game looks great of course as the original material was cartoonish and comical enough that it kind of transcends its age. In fact the only thing that really dated Constructor was the technology and graphics. So Constructor HD really doesn’t have that much change in its design. The only thing it really has changed is the aspect ratio and the easier, less intrusive sub menu system. Although the game has had some modifications to its famously unforgiving difficulty.

It’s all about rebalancing the game, John tells me. “People got overpowered by the complaints, so we’re reigning that back in to give more balanced gameplay. For the story, similarly, we’ve got new tutorial modes because it is quite a difficult game to get in to. So we’re trying to make it for a more modern audience who want a bit more ‘pick-up-and-play’ and try and improve it for them.” But they are keeping the masochistic difficulty level. “You have to make it difficult to give someone a challenge,” according to John.

Of course it might well be the right time to start looking at strategy games on consoles. It’s not been a popular genre for the twin analogue stick machines, but Zoo Tycoon is a pretty decent game. Civilization Revolution was a fantastic game on console and the Tropico series seems to have made the leap superbly. There probably hasn’t been a better time, especially with the announcement of Halo Wars 2, for a strategy IP to make a comeback. Constructor HD will probably irk the more casual gamer and if it does, then expect the boys around to trash your house and get you to move out, you complaining tenant!

Constructor HD is due for release in January 2016 for PC, Xbox One and PS4.

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Mafia 3 – Preview

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The year is 1968. The Vietnam war has been raging for over ten years but the American public have begun to protest against the reality of the violent images dominating the headlines. President Lyndon B. Johnson declares he will not go for re-election after assuming the Presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which then sees the election of Richard Nixon at the end of the year. America begin to win the space race after Apollo 8 orbits the moon. Elvis Presley’s Comeback Special cements the artist’s place in music history. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated causing riots across the country and lead to the biggest social change in recent history. The Khmer Rouge comes in to power in Cambodia and a coup d’état sees Saddam Hussein become the Vice Chairman of the revolutionary council of Iraq leading to his assumption of total control. It’s safe to say that 2K and new studio Hanger 13 are right in saying they’ve chosen one of the most turbulent years in American and world history in which to set Mafia 3.

The story and the date are paramount to the sense of opportunity and upheaval that the America of the time presents. Mafia 3’s lead character, Lincoln Clay, comes back from the Vietnam War without a cause, without a family. He finds one in New Orleans with the Black Mob but as soon as he finds his new home, his world is once again shattered when the Italian Mob attempt to murder them all. Clay survives and starts his one man war against the Mob, starting his own “family” of close lieutenants and vying for control of The Big Easy.

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The development of the Mafia has pinged about a bit as 2K reshuffled themselves and the 2K Czech studio closed. But the newly formed Hanger 13 picked up the mantle over in California and for the past two years has been up to a lot of secret work developing the game. One of those secret things has been a lot of upgrading to the games engine. You probably wouldn’t believe it but Mafia 3 uses the Mafia 2 engine that has been heavily updated and it looks absolutely awesome. The open world of New Orleans looks great with tiny little alleys and small buildings with neon signs advertising Jazz. But it also seems to operate well enough with a lot of entities going around. The streets are a buzz of life and people trying to forget the looming threats in the world. The big graveyards with concrete tombs painted in the vibrant colours and celebrations of life are the perfect meeting grounds for New Orleans’s dark underbelly. The clubs are frequented by many people looking for fun and a good time and behind every door in these clubs, in every cellar, there could be a hideout for the mob, waiting for a hostile takeover.

Hostile is very much the aim of the game here, hostile and violent. In a world that has been born of corruption, ruthlessness, warfare and oppression, violence is inevitably the human answer. Open world games have come on quite a way, even since Mafia 2 and one of the things that exposes a lot of the genre to criticism is violent combat. Mostly because it is taken out of an arena where violence is blindly accepted and put in to a social, close context. The game is very violent but only in the same regards as Hollywood action movies and rolling news’s normalisation of brutality. The third person perspective gives that feeling similar to GTA V and Uncharted in that the game suddenly turns from open-world exploration to cover-shooter and stealth killer. Anything from shooting guns and hiding behind scenery that slowly breaks with more bullet holes, to pulling your combat knife from your holster and lodging it deep in to the brain of your assailant via his eye socket. Car chases will ensue where the Police and the mob will chase you, highlighting the repercussions of your actions, shifting the power dynamic. But Clay is a man that knows nothing but violence. Between war and crime, it is the only way he knows how to respond effectively. This won’t be for the feint of heart.

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That dynamic shifts as you take over the various businesses and hideouts that the mob controls. You don’t just want to kill those that tried to kill you, you want to take everything from them, everything they’ve owned, everywhere they deal, you want to annihilate them completely. Your lieutenants, after you’ve enlisted them, become vital to your operation. They can be set to control these new acquisitions and have different skills that will get different bonuses out of them. They can also be called from pay phones to help your situation, like clearing your wanted level for example. If you’re a Mafia fan, you might even recognise one of them. Vito Scaletta returns from Mafia 2 but his story has moved on somewhat. He’s joined by new characters Cassandra and Burke.

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The New Orleans of the time is a vibrant and superstitious city. Louisiana is a place of the soul and of magic, the population as enraptured with voodoo and the darkness as they are with the escapism of 1968 America. The French Ward, which we were shown around in the demo, is a colourful place that feels like there is something going on everywhere. It feels like the multicultural party city it is portrayed to be and the soundtrack especially evokes that. Some excellent cuts come over the in-car radio as well as the clubs of the city. From choice riffs from Jimi Hendrix and the great hearty soul and blues of Sam & Dave, The Rolling Stones, and others, this is a game that wants to place you within a time and within an era.

From our first impressions, Mafia 3 looks like it will be a great game. Yes it’s going to be a departure from the Mafia’s we knew before. The move forward to the end of post-war America and a game at a time of social upheaval is actually quite exciting. We’ve had many games deal with sensitive points in history but never before have we had one so focused in a particular time and place that wasn’t a satirical pastiche or a historical war game. I’m interested to see more of how the game handles the time but I’m very confident in how the game handles gaming. It looks, sounds and appears to play very well and I’m looking forward to more.

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Battleborn – Preview

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Gearbox is at it again. No, it really is. Borderlands may well have been setting the bar for co-op shoot and loot FPS games, but their sights have now been set on something much more team focused and something much more competitive, despite the inclusion of a story mode. Battleborn is the studio’s latest attempt to look at the competitive scene and maybe break in to that much coveted eSports arena.

It’s something 2K hoped to crack with Evolve but, regardless of how good the game was, the amount of people playing it and the fairly long nature of play and upgrading characters hasn’t taken off as well as they’d have wanted. But Battleborn aims to capture this market, especially when Blizzard are releasing Overwatch, and give a decent and enjoyable story mode for you to play as well.

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That mode should allow for five player co-op online or via splitscreen and is what 2K are referring to as “Modular”. What that means is that you have a voting system of what missions to do next within your party, but you can also replay missions you’ve already done for better loot. So each mission is its own module or block. Loot and experience, much like Borderlands, is a key element here but, because of the competitive nature of the game, it is much quicker and easier to implement. The DNA helix is a very nice system, quite similar to those you find in MOBA’s for quick levelling and adapting your play style to suit the objective. The helix has a tier of ten different levels and you select the path you want by hitting (on the controller anyway) left or right trigger to select it. It’s quick and easy, it works well, it doesn’t take you out of the game, and it is very… Modular.

Battleborn is going to boast twenty five playable characters, some of which you’ll see in the video below. But you’ll get characters with a lot of different specalities like healing, massive destruction, speed… The usual you would expect. But it was definitely interesting to see a bit of the behind the scenes of these characters. We were treated to a look at the test game area in the game engine to see how the destruction skills of these characters are over an area and how much damage they actually do. Ambra for example can command a meteor down from the sky and compared to her small three space area staff attack, this makes the battle area look like game of Guess Who that’s close to the end – flattened. These powers are also helped by your loot improving your player. But this kind of talk doesn’t make for a great preview. So how does Battleborn play?

Well… It plays like Borderlands really. I’ve spent a good week trying to work out, from a single player co-op perspective anyway, how I can separate the two so that I can talk about the game in a bit more depth. But with the gameplay, the style, the humour, and more, everything is Borderlands-esque. When I say that, I don’t mean it’s Gearbox-esque. Gearbox is a good studio (regardless of what you think about the ex-magician in charge) and they’ve had a great success with the Borderlands games. So really, there’s no need to change the formula. But this feeling of similarity goes beyond just the basic mechanics that make those games.

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Our four player co-op mission saw us going through a fairly cavernous and empty futuristic storage complex that had been built in to an otherwise barren rock. We went through as a team, defeating the minor enemies in the way, to get to a certain checkpoint where there would be a mini-boss and then progress through to the bigger boss. On the way we can open up containers to get some power ups or health packs in the shape of little green balls, and all around us was amber shards of rock that we could destroy to earn cash. We were being guided though with a bodiless radio communication between characters at the top of the screen giving us the exposition we needed to fulfil our objective.

Our objective was to get this automated tank like unit called a “Wolf” safely to an area where it can open up a big door and where we get ambushed by these dark gangly creatures with white faces. The cash we’ve earned allows us to activate upgrades on the Wolf to help defend itself such as a big healing shield. There’s a lot in this co-op that would be good with friends albeit possibly a bit easy and, if you’ve had the six years of Borderlands, you might be asking where the differences are.

The differences of course are going to be in the competitive arena which will have three game types. Incursion sees you trying to destroy the enemy base whilst AI minions battle it out for mid-ground supremacy, Devastation is a deathmatch-come-king of the hill type game and Meltdown which sees you throwing minions to their deaths for points (much like a reverse Lemmings really). The humour of Gearbox is there and there’s a lot of different character choices with their own styles to make that experience a lot more fun and unique, and there’s going to be a lot of differences in the arsenal that can keep it fresh at least.

But even with the new colour palette and the slightly more fantastical art look, I still felt the game was a bit too close to Borderlands to have its own identity at the moment. Although that maybe exactly what you want. It certainly works well enough and the gameplay is fun but there wasn’t enough there yet, and I stress the word yet, for me to be sinking hours in to this and enjoying that time. I think what I want at this stage is just a bit more of Battleborn’s lore to come to the front, a bit more of the weapons and loot to be explained and more examples of how it all implements to your gameplay and character progression. Battleborn definitely looks like a game that can stand on its own but still has that air of a younger sibling about it. I’m sure as soon as we get towards the end of the year and some beta testing starts appearing, we’ll be able to see how much it has grown up.

Battleborn is currently due for release on February 9th 2016 on PC, PS4 and Xbox One

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PES 2016 – Preview

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Every year it’s the same – A few promises of new excellence and a vain hope that this year will be better than last. It all sounds like lyrics to a 90s alt-rock song or a cringingly created poem for TV montages, but it is a fair and accurate representation of how fans of football games feel every August when we wait and see how FIFA and PES stack up. We all root for the underdog and wait for the excellence we once knew to return, and every year we say “it just might.” This year I am saying “IT DEFINITELY WILL.”

The thing with FIFA is that fans of Football games don’t actually play it. Football fans do because it scratches their itch for a quick 10 minutes of play, or they become helplessly addicted to the ultimate team mode like us older types used to get addicted to collecting Panini and Merlin sticker albums. But to actually play football, a virtual representation of the difficulty and tactical skill of the beautiful game, we football fans have always preferred Pro Evolution Soccer or PES (or Winning Eleven).

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The problem was that the game, for the past six years or so, hadn’t really caught up with the changing technology and just as it was, it changed again. The best football games lists will always include either PES 4 or PES 5 and last years PES 2015 was a hugely celebrated step in the right direction. But that list should definitely make some room for PES 2016. Playing it, I felt transported back to the days where I worked in an office and did a charity day every month where people just paid to come and play in their breaks. PES 2016 has that magic of creating stunning football again.

Firstly, let’s address the licences because the first thing people say is “oh, it doesn’t have every team with the correct kit”. Well boo hoo. Nothing ever used to have that and we always forgave PES because the gameplay was much better. But PES has all the licences you can dream of except the Premier League. All of Europe, a select few other clubs, international kits, the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League and the recently announced Euro 2016 tournament are all here. There are going to be a couple of teams from the Premier League as always, so keep your ears open to hear more on that.

Of course there are several features that PES has always had and a lot of new ones. There’s a refined Master League and the myClub feature (kind of like the FUT) makes a return. You’ll also see some excellent use of the FOX engine which the studio used last year. The FOX engine if you don’t know is the Kojima Productions engine that’s powering Metal Gear Solid V’s Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain. As such there’s several things that the game can do compared to other games.

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You’ll get the ability to completely change what you’re doing while you play. Now by this I mean that the animation of what your player is doing is no longer locked. So you can abort out of a run, move, tackle or shot and really change what your doing quickly and reactively to what’s going on around you. The AI is going to make the player think more about runs and passing moves, as it will find the space and the runs and you need to be able to read it. Not just you sending your player on his way, it’s also going to be up to you react to your team. The collision system is much improved as well giving players a much more physical way to play the game.

 

That physicality directly translates to your controller. The game is much smoother than it has been and, dare I say it, even feels a bit weightier. There’s a gravity to the game and the movement that’s realistic and physical but not concrete or too light to be flying all over the place. It’s a very well balanced movement system and it might take some newer players a while to get used to. For the seasoned PES veterans however, this will take you back. I had a lovely animation where I was running under the ball, whilst fighting off an attacker and managed to head it away whilst turning my head, not my whole body, my head only. It was wonderful to see this kind of real physicality in the game.

One of the things that’s also improved thanks to the FOX engine is the graphical fidelity. Player textures are much better now and not just a shiny layer of lighting. The pitches and stadiums are just as well presented and dynamic weather will feature. So you can have a spat of rain, or a gleam of sunshine if you’re playing anywhere above Birmingham, and the game will change accordingly. There’s more to do with dynamic celebrations as well, much better keeper animations (something FIFA tried last year and half succeeded in). The TV presentation isn’t as TV heavy as FIFA’s but it’s nice and we in the UK get Peter Drury to voice our commentary. There’s also image editing on the PS3/PS4 too so there’s some great customisation options.

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PES is celebrating it’s 20th year. For the past two decades it has had some big highs and some very big lows. But 2015’s iteration was the first to really show the light and won a few awards. That in turn has obviously spurred the team on and they’ve really made a great effort here. From the time that I played it, I got the same feeling as I did back in the PES 4 & 5 days, where you’d share a memory card to get all the kits, and you’d work relentlessly just so you could hit that one perfect pass or catch that one perfect volley. You’d practice for hours in the training ground just so that when the time came, you knew where to aim that free kick and could let fly and be your own star of your imaginary football heroism. I think this could be the best PES in years and quite possibly the best Football game. You don’t have to wait long to make up your own mind either, but for me, PES has returned and will definitely ruffle a few feathers in the dressing room.

PES 2016 is due for release on September 18th 2015 in the UK and September 15th 2015 in the Americas on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC.

A demo will be released on August 13th 2016.

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