Fallout 4 – Review

Fallout 4’s greatest strength is also at times its greatest weakness, which can be summed up/forgiven/excused/berated (delete as appropriate to your preference on this) as “being a Bethesda game.” Even since the initial reviews came out and having talked with many people about this, it has become a bit of a Marmite subject in that you love this or hate this. But to make such an arguably condescending phrase for the game really shadows some of the problems the game has and, equally so, hides some of the best things that Bethesda Games studio has done with this entry to the Fallout franchise.

Fallout 4 moves the action of the post-apocalyptic America to Boston, giving us a world where lots of scorched woodland areas and small satellite villages surround the massive city. It is incredibly huge and I know I missed places in my run that I’d seen in videos online, so it is entirely possible for you to miss places, no matter how dedicated you are to exploring the landscape.

It is a rather beautiful landscape, even if it is borne of destruction. There’s something about the desolation of society’s constructions, mixed with reclamation by nature, which is wonderful but hard to pull off. There are times that the scope is too much for the game and concessions are made with lower resolution textures and occasional lag in the texture streaming. This becomes a lot more evident in the built up areas but there is a lot more going on that takes your attention away from the obvious issues.

The video you see above (don’t worry, no spoilers) is the wonderful Andy Kelly of PC Gamer fame (@ultrabrilliant) and his award winning Other Places series, showing you the first area of the game and how wonderfully it highlights the sense of desperation the game evokes. This is down to a multitude of things that the Bethesda Game engine does very well. The colour palette is wonderfully vibrant and dour, capturing both the positivity of the pre-war age and the decay of the post-war world. This is apparent all throughout the world in larger historical structures or even the smaller pop-up shack communities you encounter. The grass and the ground is arid, dying but not quite dead, along with the concrete blending in with its cracked and broken roads and fallen structures. Nothing ever feels like it’s the same but it’s all disorientating enough to make you think you might have been there before, really helping with the need for exploration. The lighting doesn’t do a lot compared to other RPG visual feasts but it doesn’t need to when the morning fog rolls in, or the dark electrical storm shades the sky and your immediate vision in hues of murky brownish green.

The problem with this and the design of the world and the buildings is that it doesn’t feel very human, or it feels too tied to the more angular, broken edge feel that the last generation of Fallout games had. At times the apocalypse seems to have abandoned all curvature and the more you play, the more you feel this is down to the game design and engine rather than artistic choice. The draw distance as well, with the graphical issues of texture pop in can sometimes take you out of the fantasy and into the frustration of loading. In the actual menu screen there’s one low-resolution stretched texture, and it’s obvious and sticks out like a sore thumb.

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Once you move in to the world and explore, along with your now voiced character, you get to meet the typical people you’ve come to expect from the franchise, those being the deliciously maniacal, the weaselly, the addicted, the persevering, the cynical and the violent. These people of the Commonwealth live and die by your actions, and your assumption of responsibilities. Whether it is by building a settlement, defending one for the Minutemen or making yourself a made person in some of the bigger city communities. All of the people have interesting stories and need you to do interesting things for them that will put you in mortal danger, and at times it can feel like an over reliance on the fetch quest or clearing an area of nasty things. But it also feels, more importantly, like you aren’t really in control of your character, even when the decisions on loyalties, allegiances and betrayals come to distort your moral compass.

You might find abandoning your RPG play through of the game until you’ve done it at least once to be a good idea. For long periods of the game there is much more of a focus on the gunplay and action/adventure style than there is on interacting with the world in a unique way. One of the things that the old games were great for and has been much lauded and celebrated was the freedom in how you play and approach the world with your character, like Jake Tucker’s great piece on being a cannibal in New Vegas highlights. If anything, this game suffers from two things in the story and character interaction. Firstly, it’s entirely possibly that we’ve over eulogised the previous games and were expecting, with the voice and the better speech choice system, a new advancement to the freedom we want to have. Secondly, the story and the way the narrative is constructed really limits your choices as to what you can do, at least for the initial run.

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What do I mean by this? My example in Fallout 3 is that you are a young man just going out in the world looking for your Dad, a feat that you probably didn’t expect to actually complete, therefore you can do what you want. In New Vegas you were a nameless courier who is shot and has only the drive to find out who shot you and get revenge, therefore you can do what you want. In Fallout 4 there’s a central event that drives your character that is very human and informs that relation you have to your character. It’s incredibly hard to make your character do all the bad, evil, good, charitable things you might want them to do because the human instinct to resolve the game’s central plot stops you from really doing it. It’s hard to explain it without spoiling the story, but initially it isn’t the RPG you’re probably expecting.

When it comes to customisation though, I have three minor problems. There should be a higher camera when it comes to building the settlements so you get a better look at what you’re building. There should be a bit more of forgiveness for being over encumbered, especially as scavenging for junk now has a practical purpose, like allowing a fast travel to a local location or something. I also want to be able to wear armour whilst wearing any type of underclothes like a suit. That’s my only feedback for things I want, everything else is a great and welcome addition. Whilst the settlement construction options aren’t massive, they are excellent as a side distraction, compared to the side quests available before in previous games for escapism. There are some rather excellent ways to adjust your guns and armour, and all of these things require a smart and well educated use of the new levelling and perk system, which is simplified and much more succinct in its practical uses. But it’s because of these things that I am really excited for the mod function to become available for the console iterations of the game.

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The games issues don’t stop with the textures, or the story, or the ancillary questing being very focused on a simple fetch or kill target. There are big frame rate issues on the console during battles thanks to the overload of AI and particles, and occasionally in areas where the build up of buildings and items can lag the game down from a mostly consistent 30fps to a lot lower. Obviously the PC users don’t have that problem but it is rather annoying and can hopefully be worked in with various patching and optimisation.

But the more time you spend with the game, its quirks, its characters and its environment, the more you forgive it its faults. In a way this is the closest you’ll get to experience Stockholm Syndrome with a game. You’ll lose hours of your life and you’ll see something in the game design and construction that will make you think that the game hasn’t come on as much you would have hoped or expected in the eight years since Fallout 3 or the five since New Vegas. But then you’ll carry on, going to the next area, wanting to find where the hell Dogmeat has got to now, and you just can’t leave it. You shouldn’t be enjoying it, everything about you is saying you should stop, but you can’t.

The biggest problem with the game is the expectation, that we didn’t know we had until the game was announced, hasn’t really been matched once we got it in our hands. But much like the other iterations, it’s the repeat play, it’s the exploration and it’s the ability to have a new experience every time you start a new game that will forgive the technical limitations, even if you don’t feel it the first few hours that you play. You can say that all of this is what Bethesda does and that “it’s a Bethesda game,” but in truth it is both Fallout’s greatest weakness and also its greatest strength.

Summary

Fallout 4 might not be the game you’ve been expecting or hoping for. There’s a definite problem in that the scope of the game isn’t realised in the technical ability of the console, at least without further patches or optimisation. As such, the controls, the feel and the general atmosphere of the game feels like the last games and by association, last generation. But in truth, we wanted more of the same but better to look at, better to control and with more things to do, and that’s exactly what we’ve got.

Good Points

  • Amazing, large world
  • The new weapon modification and settlement building is a great addition
  • So vast that you’ll need several play throughs to fully experience it

Bad Points

  • Graphics and frame rate are disappointing
  • The game feels more action/adventure than RPG at times
  • The story can sometimes feel limiting to your role playing freedom

Why a 7.5?

The hangover from the previous games is most evident in that the graphical optimisation is pretty bad at times with texture pop-in lags and frame rate drops. Plus the experience you get from it isn’t really the same as you might have had previously, and might be a bit too action focused in places compared to previous games. But it is great and much more rewarding once you’ve got in to it and play it again the way you want to. There’s lots to learn and relearn but the story and the technical issues the console versions face can sour the experience.

 

This review is based on the PS4 and Xbox One versions of the game.

 

 

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Star Wars Battlefront – Review

From the 17th to 19th Centuries, Nostalgia was thought of as a disease. If that’s the case then Star Wars is an epidemic. There isn’t a childhood memory amongst us that doesn’t involve Star Wars in some way, even if you aren’t a fan and your best mate over hyped it. But what’s incredible is that for many of us born before the late 90s, our fascination, our love, our passion and a canon of books, games, cartoons and toys all came from only 6 hours and 39 minutes of source material.

I point this out because Star Wars Battlefront takes from that time, at least in the core version before DLC. So when it comes to content that you can enjoy and play, the selections are limited. This has been well known and discussed. The majority of the mostly Online only game comes from the original movies experience and includes such levels as Hoth, Tattooine, Endor and the once mentioned Sullust (It has been mentioned in two movies but was cut from A New Hope, and has since been established in to the wider video game cannon).

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That’s not necessarily a bad thing but the lack of a cohesive narrative campaign doesn’t really give you an introduction to the levels or at what part of the story you enter them. Of course you already know so that’s not an issue, it’s Star Wars, everyone knows. But there’s a certain arrogance in that mindset and the game gives you the levels and just says “there you go, shoot everything.” I think that’s why I’m a little annoyed at the lack of a “story” mode, for want of a more descriptive emotional word. But in some ways the game is better for it. It doesn’t have that corny attachment to a certain sequence of events and is in many ways given more freedom to express the gameplay without the need to pick sides.

Which is what really should be the champion here because Battlefront is the best Battlefield game I’ve played. I have to admit that my earlier issues and problems with the game, the engine and the style are mostly unfounded. I’ve played the PS4 version but if the Xbox One release is anything like the beta was then I’m sure its visually awesome. The technical specs are that the Xbox is doing 720p, the PS4 900p, much like Battlefield 4, DICE’s last outing. But the main thing here is that they’ve refined the experience now so that they can achieve the 60fps they desired (with the occasional dip) and have the gameplay experience as close to the PC as is technically possible on these consoles. Which is a terrific achievement but it does show that the Frostbite Engine is definitely a powerful beast that requires much taming.

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The level design is not your average FPS level. Yes it has the various required elements but it is rather constricted by the source material and the size needed for the scale of the battles. As such, we get incredible lush foliage and startling snow, but we do lose a bit of a competitive edge when playing. Sullust on Walker Assault ends up with two or three flash points that are death funnels and the scale of the height means that vehicle play can be a tricky exercise in not accidentally dive-bombing into the arse of your own AT-AT.

The thing is that it doesn’t bother me and unless you are a serious, almost competitive level PC FPS player then it shouldn’t bother you at all either. What Star Wars Battlefront has nailed is the casual element of picking up, playing, having fun, putting down and returning in a few days time when you get the itch again. It’s not a constant must play-shoot-unlock guns-level up affair that so many others are and, quite honestly that will irk some players. But it does mean that it’s a game that won’t just jump off in to levels of frustrating play against people far more powerful than you. In this regard, its very nicely balanced with a small range of weapons and grenade/special gun loadouts that best serve you rather than being ridiculously overpowered.

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In fact, the only thing that does make the game unbalanced in places is the level design in certain game modes, although that really depends on how the rest of your team do, as you might have found out if you played the beta. The best way to play this of course is with friends and the co-op wave modes are great and frustrating fun, even on local split screen and the drop to 30fps. But it harkens back to the days where AI wave games were basic and fun, and I honestly haven’t had as much fun in this kind of mode since Halo 3: ODST’s Firefight. The challenge of continuously using active reload is great and the whole gun play feels as loose and wild as the movies have always portrayed.

The other problems come from a lack of spaces and map choices. Each map for each type of game does feel suitably different given the same location but it still can get a bit predictable after the tenth go around. Sullust in particular comes up way to much and doesn’t really offer a lot in enjoyment either, and it is totally a homage to the various locals from the prequels they couldn’t do (think Geonosis and Mustafar). This could have been a problem in taking the cue from the original movies as it really limits the actual planet surfaces you can use. Although who wouldn’t have loved some modes in Cloud City or even inside Jabba’s Palace.

But the veneer of Star Wars is what will entice you to this game. Not even the music but the overall atmospheric, despite some naff voice work here and there. It’s the clean and easily relatable gloss that the franchise has the power to do. But what that actually takes away from slightly is how good the base game is underneath it. I don’t know if it’s that both serve the other very well, or even if the modes would work as well without the franchise, but the marriage of both has made an excellent experience. Take away the franchise and the title and DICE have done something very good by giving us a game that is a “return to basics” simple multiplayer game and it excels because of that.

Summary

Star Wars Battlefront provides the best, the easiest and the most accessible pick-up-and-play multiplayer shooting experience on this generation of consoles. Its simplicity is enhanced by its smoothness and by really good optimisation of the Frostbite engine. This isn’t a big competitive Call of Duty type game, and that will put a lot of people off, most notably on PC. It is a video game for genre fans who might not really be as hardcore as most FPS fans and if you are the latter, you’ll see why you need to play it in moderation. The lack of a story mode and maps, along with some occasionally too open level design is the only criticism in an otherwise great casual shooter.

Good Points

  • Easy pick up and play
  • Looks beautiful
  • It’s Star Wars

Bad Points

  • It doesn’t have much to offer hardcore FPS players
  • Lack of maps, or held content for DLC
  • Some of the levels aren’t that well designed

Why an 8?

In truth this is a hard game to score because it’s such a subjective subject. Is this a good FPS game? Yes for the more casual/younger player. Is this a good Star Wars game? It looks great but in actual Star Wars content, probably not. Is it short lived? Well that entirely depends on how you play it. There are so many variables but I’m constantly being drawn to the fact that DICE have created a brilliantly accessible game in a genre that can really be dominated by die hard players and difficulty extremes and successfully whacked one of the worlds most popular and enduring franchises on it seamlessly, and still kept it fun.

 

This review is based on the PS4 version of the game.

PES 2016 – Review

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I’m just going to come out and say this straight up. PES 2016 is the best football game in years. It’s definitely the best football game of the past five years and definitely the best on this current generation of consoles. Is it the best ever? No, but that’s not because of anything the game does, more of the times we live in and I’ll tell you for why.

Before playing the game for review I was lucky enough to play it twice, once at Gamescom and once at an event in London and the passion in the rooms for this return to form was evident. And as a football cliche, “return to form” has appeared a lot in regards of PES 2016 chatter, because it truly has. The game is going from strength to strength and with the dissolving of everything console for Konami except PES, the full attention it’s getting can only mean good things for the franchise’s future.

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It’s a future that has been built on solid ground here. Every single mode you would expect is here, the classic Master League, the challenging online play, the tournaments, licensed tournaments and the card based myClub feature. In fact, the game modes are probably the least important part of why PES 2016 is the best game at present because, whilst they are fun, they aren’t what makes the game fun to play.

But there are annoyances with these modes because of things like the teams not being up to date. I don’t mean the heavily publicised data update with transfers, but the teams themselves aren’t the same teams that are in this year’s Europa and Champions League competitions. It’s not a big issue but it’s one of the licence things that cannot be got around. The myClub feature is good and the coaching dynamic works quite well. It does feel a bit more football manager like than FIFA’s FUT but my experiences have been fraught with glitches and disconnections, some the games fault and some the players.

The Master League mode is as deep as it ever was and you can do as much or as little as you want in regards to forging your career and controlling the team. The main thing is that the menu screens are fairly easy to get around, although that’s been a thing that has plagued football games in recent years, and PES isn’t completely innocent with putting various settings in hard to locate sub-menus at times.

There are also a few things that keep the visual aesthetic apart from FIFA. You don’t have as much crowd atmosphere, a limited number of stadiums, the commentary is still a bit naff (although in truth PES commentary always was and is always better played with the Spanish commentary, because as British players it sounds more exciting and we can’t tell how broken it is), and the overall presentation is at times still trying to emulate that FIFA/Sky/Premier League visual style which would be great if not for everything else making it apparent that’s all it is, a style.

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The second biggest thing that the game has is pretty much for PS4 owners only, which is the ability to import data files and images for team, league and kit customisation. Much like its PS2 forefathers, this PES has the ability, with a great community of modders, to get around that sticky licensing issue and give us the teams. It’s not the simplest thing to do and it will take you a good hour or so to get it all edited to be the way you want it to be. But it’s worth your time doing. This is thanks to Sony’s policies allowing this, so sorry Xbox owners.

Which leads us to the most important thing – This is the best playing football game that there is available on the market right now. FIFA for all of its refinement and depth is still a very arcade run, skill and shoot affair for the most part. PES has an almost physical connection to how you play the ball, how aggressive you are, how much you pass the ball, how gassed you are when you run, the battles and tussles you go in to. This is down to two things, which are the engine and the animations. PES has always been a bit weightier in how you play, realising that the laws of physics do apply unless you’ve won many Ballon D’ors. FIFA has always been quite interchangeable in how any player can do a decent 50 yard run and shot on goal, regardless of if their stats and real life counterparts reflect that.

PES has taken a lot more care in the making sure that someone like Andy Carroll is going to be dominant in the air and a great person to hold up the ball, but is less likely to open his engines up down the wing and deliver a cross with accuracy. The FOX engine is great at making minute animations mean a lot more in the game. The physicality of a challenge is matched by new animations that help your player feel more realistic, like not having full control of a header as you’re backpeddling and off balance. What this does is it makes you respect, not only the player, but their ability and how they play. It opens you up to many different ways to actually play football, to adapt your tactics and play to your squads strengths, not necessarily your own gaming strengths, and that is magnificent.

Nothing has done that before or come close to it, and I doubt that anything will in the immediate future. In a perfect world, the contracts and money would loosen up a little and the ability to get a more immersive and in depth representation of world football would be available to the PES team. Or they would go “sod it” and completely abandon the areas of the game where it tries to do what FIFA does and makes the gameplay the stand out part of the game, much like the PS2 era did. But for now, this is the best that we have and despite some post-launch support niggles, it thoroughly deserves that praise. If this wasn’t an age where presentation and TV style run rampant in sports games, arguably over the good simulations that some games do, then this would be the best football game ever. But it’s close, damn close.

Summary

PES 2016 is the best football game available and the best that there has been for a long time. There is no doubt that the lack of FIFA sheen can put off people but, you aren’t playing football, you’re playing playing FIFA. Even some poor post-launch support hasn’t dampened the quality of the game and the experience. It might be some time before anything can better that and if anything, its attempts to present itself like FIFA at times inadvertently highlights its weaknesses.

Good Points

  • Excellent graphics
  • Great fluid and physical gameplay
  • Customisation and PS4 data importing

Bad Points

  • Poor post-launch issues
  • The non-football atmosphere is a bit naff
  • Outside of football, tires to be too much like FIFA

Why an 8.5?

This is the best football game available at the moment. It’s not the most refined, the biggest or even the most accessible. But it is the best simulation of football available now. It’s not the best ever though, that honour still goes to PES 5 for me, but in this day and age of TV and rights and licenses, it’s the closest we could possibly get.

 

This review is based on the PS4 version of the game.

 

Turtle Beach PX24 Headset – Review

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There are quite a lot of headsets available and, for the price, this isn’t a bad deal at all. The market at the moment is full of differing prices, compatibility and brands making confusion rife for people probably buying one. We do like to do some hardware reviews for those of you who might not have the time to wade through everything, and probably only see the most expensive thing on the market.

Retailing at £69.95, the Turtle Beach PX24 headset isn’t the cheapest (that honour goes to the Gioteck HC-4). You will also need an adaptor if you own an old design Xbox One pad (which, unless you’ve got the 3.5mm jack current Xbox One pad, is what everyone has), but for all other mediums you’ll be fine. The headset itself is a standard headset with a jack input so it can be used with pretty much anything. Which is great if you’re needing a headset for anything PC or Mac based, be it gaming or simple Skype calls. This is also where the mobile compatibility comes in although really it’s just a pair of headphones at this point, but if your serious about gaming and want that quality then having something multi purpose like this definitely beats the overpriced Beats.

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The sound quality is actually very good and listening to other people chat is very clear, as soon as you’ve done some minor volume adjustments on your gaming device. The foam cushions are nice and comfortable and the band part of the headset also has a foam cushion so it’s quite nice on the head. The microphone has some good quality to it and the flexible mount feels very stable and tough, but it also can’t really be moved into many positions make sure it’s away from clothing or you’ll get lots of scratching. Thankfully, you’ll notice that as the mic also plays in the headphone’s output so you can hear your own voice. This feedback is pretty good in stopping you from shouting and looking like a fool to passing people. To me, that’s one of the key components here as audio feedback on yourself is something a lot of lower priced headsets lack and is really useful.

The amplifier itself has a lot of charge to it. I’ve had it on quite a bit and even forgotten to turn it off at times, yet I haven’t had to charge it after a week. To do so is a simple micro USB cable that plugs in to anything. You have four options on your functions, changeable by a central button, which are Volume, Surround Adjust, Mic Volume and Bass Boost. All of those options are altered using the wheel on the side. On the opposite side is the platform selector (PS4/Xbox One, etc) and then two other buttons which are Mute and Superhuman Hearing.

The headset boasts the virtual surround sound option and it kind of works. It’s not as surround as you think it would be but it uses some clever panning on the audio channels. I heard it best when hearing a musical box in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, one of the many secrets you can find, and was then able to locate it by hearing the change of direction in the audio. This was mostly let down by their being less notable difference in the levels when facing the object and having your back to it, but side to side, it was fine. The speaker quality does pull this off, but it’s something that’s best served with balanced audio and not blowing your speakers out, which the next feature has the potential to do.

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The problem is that the Superhuman hearing is pretty obtuse. It kind of sounds like the headset bumps the volume loudness, trying to make it as uncompressed as it can and kill as much of the noise reduction that engineers spend so much time implementing. It doesn’t really herald any real quality boost but more of a large loudness boost that really hurts your ears if you aren’t prepared for it, or turning it on during and explosion, like I did. I’m sure if you balance the audio levels a bit better then you might like it, but it really didn’t add anything more me that the headset wasn’t already doing. If anything I turned it off pretty quickly in the hope that I didn’t bow the speakers out. If having that kind of loud audio is you’re thing then be my guest, I’ve played in bands all my life and know first hand how much my hearing sucks now. Personally, I prefer a balanced and well mastered audio being reflected in the best quality and the function, by being an amplified volume boost, looses a lot of that quality.

The build quality feels good, compared to another Turtle Beach headset I have which was uncomfortable and had bits of plastic break off it when I tossed it on to a bed one… A soft bed. It’s certainly a good entry level headset and one that’s very useful if you’re in possession of multiple systems and need an all round device and aren’t going to spend over £300 on a wireless pair of Astro’s. For sub £100 this isn’t a bad deal and is certainly comfortable enough for several hours of gaming which, to me, is possibly more important than a volume boost that makes my tinnitus ring.

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Days Out – EGX (Eurogamer Expo)

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In a new, irregular series of features, TheGameJar goes and visits gaming events and lets you know whether or not they’re any good, how much of your wallet you’ll have left and if you’ll enjoy them.

It’s true that the forced move from the well known and relatively easy to get to Earls Court to Birmingham was a bit of a sticking point for Londoners (myself practically falling in to that catchment area). When I say easy to get to, that’s a geographical and logistical misnomer. Because Birmingham and the N.E.C. in particular is the most connected place in the country outside of London. In fact its location makes travel and attendance easier for everyone across the country.

What it doesn’t do however is help justify the cost of travel. I booked my ticket in advance on Monday for the Thursday (I could only afford to attend for the one day). This cost me £22 but it was a timed return, so I left my home town at 7:05 and had to get the 20:05 train back. Any other choice would have thrown me up to £75 for a single ticket and £158 for an open return. There are of course cheaper ways to do it with more advanced booking, group tickets, driving yourself and even using the 10% discount code EGX put on for Virgin Trains. But compared to my incredibly open £25 London travel card from last year which allowed me to go in to central London, see sights, eat slightly less overpriced food, and enjoy a beverage by the Thames, it is an extortionate cost. One that sadly is completely out of the control of the organisers and, it seems, anyone that doesn’t own a train company.

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It doesn’t help that there is practically nothing else to do. It’s like that Tom Hanks movie “The Airport” where the guy can’t leave. The N.E.C. is Birmingham only because it isn’t close to any other major city. It’s barely in Birmingham and there is literally nothing to do. I’ve added this paragraph after reading a Midnight Resistance piece on the same event which says that the loss of the community focused events, like podcast/website community meet ups, are the real casualty here as no one can meet anymore. There’s no where to have little meet-up events and the lack of those fun, semi-industry meet ups and drinks is a real shame. As someone who runs and owns a site in the same vein, I heartily agree, and there’s never going to be any convenience for sites like us to arrange a meet-up, and we’ll never have the finances to independently arrange it. Obviously you can’t blame Gamer Network for this, this is their event for their brands. But that’s another conversation for another time.

Before I go on to the more positive sides, I do have some very practical niggles about the venue itself. The N.E.C. is a veritable maze of oversized airport-esque craziness. That’s not a problem as long as you adequately signpost where the heck you are going from the station. There was one sign that said which halls it was in, about the size of an A3 poster once you’ve traversed the long concourse from the station. Then there were occasional people pointing you in the right direction. Other events were nicely signposted with cardboard cut outs of Police Officers for the emergency services show pointing you the right way. It was like the event was a dirty afterthought for the conference centre at times. So after getting my press pass, I went to the  Wetherspoons pub in the centre to get a coffee and some breakfast (much needed after a two hour train journey). There was a few people at 9:30a.m. on this Thursday already drinking. Now, I’m not an old fuddy duddy but any alcohol before 10am is only allowed socially if you’re in an airport before going on holiday. This was a family event for video games and if you’re that desperate to have a pint with your mates, then you’re probably not going to have a good time.

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Ok, the event itself was… Alright. I had a few appointments for interviews which basically gave me no chance of playing any game. The EA both is very typically busy at all times but as the event opened, the queue for Star Wars Battlefront was over an hour long. After I finished an interview, it was three hours long. This is the same for pretty much everything with a few exceptions for what is essentially ten minutes of gameplay. This is normal for events of this type but I found myself mostly watching games by looking over the shoulders of those playing. If I had a family and was paying for this, I’d need to meticulously plan this otherwise it would be utterly frustrating. I saw a tweet this morning where someone had listened to the VideoGamer podcast whilst waiting in the queues. It’s a bit silly really.

It’s mostly silly because we’d all hoped the move to a bigger venue would mean that the expo would be… Well, bigger. But most of it only felt bigger in the aisles and walkways. The idea, we all thought, was to allow for more gaming, more fun and ultimately more of an experience. But to be honest, it didn’t really feel like that was the case. Playstation had a rather large and cramped area with two loud presenter type people more obsessed with spinning a prize wheel and garnering attention away from the Xbox stand, who were also shouting rather loudly about their game footage and drawing a crowd in a slightly larger area under the promise of free things. And they weren’t alone with YouTube Gaming doing the same although their streams and content was actually quite good, including the Gamer Network owned teams, along with Cam and Sebby, showing off games with developers and watching footage of games like Total War: Warhammer and people playing Destiny.

The problem is with these events is that the games that are supposed to take centre stage get hidden behind personalities, available space and consumer demand limitations, and the apparently more beneficial longevity of the swag generation. Stick around for this whole presentation and at the end we’ll throw T-Shirts at you. In the case of the YouTube stand, people just appeared at the right time like a sixth sense. If you’ve ever been on a boat or in a harbour where you lean over the edge with some food and suddenly lots of tiny sprats appear like a swarm of locusts in a field… That’s what this is. Maybe I am sounding old here but it’s an atrocious sight to see human beings baying for branded garments for no other reason than them just being there.

The Indie area on the other hand is cramped, busy and interesting. Pretty much like it always is, and if you are more interested in this then EGX Rezzed at Tobacco Docks in London is probably better for you. But it’s fun as long as you can get around it and look at the interesting games there, although having been to many events this year, I’ve seen a lot of the same games over and over again by now. But there are good things to be seen here.

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Then there’s the awesome community around games that really love just going there to see friends and have a good time. Cosplay had a smaller stage this year but it was great to see so many people being involved and enjoying it. The Rock Band 4 stage, compared by our great friends at Xtreme Gaming, was a great interactive and fun experience to get involved with (even though the surrounding people were probably sick of hearing Tribute by Tenacious D so many times). The retro gaming area is always fun and incredibly easy to get on to the old consoles and have some fun as well.

The thing is with this event is that it’s a little too big for what they’re attempting to do. Sure you can go and and have a little shop around as there’s lots to buy, you can even go and get some food and a coffee at a price not too far removed from the previous venue. You can go there and have fun if you’re patient and organised. You can even play the games that aren’t out yet if you want to wait in queues for long enough, or go and discover a gem. But with the game release silly season coming up, the cost of getting and staying in Birmingham (if you are doing multiple days) may not be worth what you get from it. If we can get better deals on travel and accommodation, then this would be a much better proposition than it currently is.

Images taken from Eurogamer and Indigo Pearl’s Twitter Feeds

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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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[tab title=”Good Points”]

  • 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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Batman Arkham Knight – Review

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Riddle me this, Chiropetra loving friends: What ever shall we do when the Arkham game ends? This really is the end according to developer Rocksteady. Their trilogy (Origins was done by a different studio so it technically doesn’t count) has seen the most critically acclaimed Batman iteration since the Nolan movies, brought expertly to life with an excellent team of developers, writers, actors and artists. I’m actually a little bit sad about it.

It is kind of refreshing in this world that (regardless of your opinion on the games season pass) a franchise isn’t being milked to death, and by that I mean annual or bi-annual releases which, given the success of the games, could easily have happened. But there is a love here for the source material and the sense of achieving a great story rather than just making a great game, so this kind of closure is essential.

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Ok, enough pontificating, this is where I tell you that Batman: Arkham Knight is my game of the year so far and that I actually like the Batmobile. After the events of Arkham City, the game begins with some dirty work from Commissioner Gordon and everything being really peachy in the normally dark and rainy Gotham. This of course lasts all of 5 minutes before the work of Scarecrow ends up evacuating the entire city leaving it open to the evil machinations of the series super-villains at large.

So yet again, you have to go forth as the caped crusader and be the vigilante that kicks everyone’s ass. You’ll encounter various foes along the way, along with various allies and be flummoxed by the mystery of who the new villain, the titular Arkham Knight, actually is. All of this whilst trying to curb the spread of gang thugs across the abandoned districts, finding all sorts of lost firefighters who they seem to have exclusively kidnapped, solving The Riddler’s little treats across the city, and much more.

It seems with every Arkham game, the combat has got smoother, the fighting more fluid and the space more apt for the style of a character such as Batman. By this I mean that the halls of the Asylum have progressed to the cramped alleys of the City and now to the streets, rooftops, and buildings of Gotham as a whole. The space to fight and to have epic one man, or even dual takedown battles, really gets your excitement level up and makes you concentrate more on how far away flying objects are, how much there is to counter and how satisfying it is to get the timing just right.

One of the things this game certainly rewards, much like Arkham City, is Batman’s flying and gliding. At times, City felt a tiny bit claustrophobic, at the lower levels, towards the ground. Gotham is huge though and the space is there for you to fly around, get to the super high places, and glide between buildings and to really enjoy and explore the city. And as you upgrade your Batmobile, launching yourself in to the air is incredibly fun, seeing the metropolis of Gotham flash past you as you catch a current.

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Which is great because it is visually wonderful. The gothic dark beauty, evocatively creating the air of Burton’s movie direction and the lighting and building density of something like Blade Runner, is in abundance here. The super structures of business made of glass and steel mixed with the old industrial buildings of Founders Island are fantastic against the backdrop of the old and regenerating styles of Bleake Island and its imposing clock tower. Miagani Island shows some of that comic book juxtaposition of the fantastical and real life with the orphanage and Wayne Tower and the huge blimps always in the sky towards the eastern edge of the map. There’s an aesthetic and colour palette representing the dankness of grimy expired industry and modern chrome that, under the dark clouds and rain, only reflects the entropy it’s trying to counter or delay. It’s a stunning visual treat.

Flying around this city and even driving around it really makes you connect to the world, despite it being very different from most open world games and their maps. Mostly the connection is familiarity with the world around them in popular culture and history. But in the case of Batman it’s like being given the opportunity to explore a landscape painting, finding all of the tiny brushstrokes of life and colour. The missions that ask you to search for things (Riddler trophies and firefighter rescues) really do give you the opportunity to experience every nook and cranny, which is a wonderful thing.

The story reflects the character of Batman and everything that has brought him up to this point. The duplicity of his morals, the violence of his pacification and his single-mindedness dictate everything that happens in Arkham Knight, along with everything that has already happened in the franchise. The mysteries that surround what is happening keep you going from point to point and the non-story specific distractions are fun to keep you from going way too deep in to the Bruce Wayne introspective rabbit hole.

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Which leads us to the elephant in this room, the Batmobile. I like the Batmobile. The transition from ridiculous supercar to hovering tank is fluid, the arsenal and upgrades at your disposal are great and the driving is smooth and incredibly easy, especially if you aren’t normally a car guy. People that have played games with tanks in like World of Tanks, BattleZone and others will probably get on really well with it. The easy to read firing arcs of all the different enemy drones, encouraging the evasive action needed, make it an experience that isn’t jarring or too steep a learning curve. The puzzles that require the Batmobile all use a different part of the car and a different use of it as well, showing how man and machine can be quite symbiotic.

The criticisms I have is that the world occasionally doesn’t make a lot of room for the Batmobile when it is required, making the whole operation a little bit clumsy. That is something that isn’t helped by the controller layout with L2 on my PS4 pad activating the battle (tank) mode – normally L2 would be your brake or reverse in any vehicle. It’s something you get used to but you will slip up, especially if you do play a lot of games that involve driving. The other issue I have is how reliant of the Batmobile some of the missions are. There are many tanks and vehicles that the Arkham Knight’s militia employ and sometimes there are far too many to destroy or navigate in the casual missions.

The secondary problem with this is that it makes the side missions incredibly repetitive, especially if you’ve completed the main story. You kind of want to complete it but at the same time, it can feel very grindy and after awhile, the sense of achievement fades in to relief that it’s over, which is a far cry from how you feel throughout the main part of the game. In fact, it’s very similar to the work you need to do in another Warner Bros. game, Shadow of Mordor. A surprise hit of 2014, after the main story finishes there isn’t the greatest of incentives to fully complete it. With Batman, you can complete what you need to finish the game to your satisfaction but to 100% it and get the reward/achievement for it is a slog that you might not wish to partake in. But the other way you can look at it is that, if these are the only holes we can pick (well known platform issues aside) then Rocksteady have really succeeded.

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One thing I have to mention, as I’ve said it to friends that have played it and to those that haven’t, is that the voice acting in this game is phenomenal. As far as game voicing goes, we always look to big names like Troy Baker and Nolan North in recent times to turn out stellar performances, and they are present here too. But the Arkham series has had the magnificence of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill in the past reprising the roles they voiced on the animated TV series. Arkham Knight is no exception to that style. Everyone is stellar, and one in particular is worthy of an award if such a thing existed, as the performance was just perfect. Tara Strong is brilliant as is Tasia Valenza and Jonathan Banks (Mike from Breaking Bad) makes an excellent debut as a video game voice actor with Commissioner Gordon.

The thing is with this acting talent and the strength of the story is that the presentation becomes a magnificent thing. Excellent use of the game camera can turn one moment of insignificance in to a brilliant cacophony of entertainment, terror and danger. Flashbacks are brilliantly utilised and the slow reveals of plot are magnificently constructed in the game environment. Whilst some games can just portray this in a cutscene or a filmic way, Batman: Arkham Knight has done it in a beautifully encapsulating way, without falling in to the gaming cliché of quick time events or removing you too far from the action.

All of this combined is why this is my game of the year so far. The future for Rocksteady is solid, with Warner Bros having invested heavily into the studio and hopefully giving them some solid franchises with which to work their magic, especially if they’re involved in anything regarding the DC universe. But for their Batman swan song, it is a lesson in how to create a brilliant game with a potentially saturated franchise and ultimately, how to end a story. The answer to the introductory question, we can only cry. Cry lots with sadness that this won’t happen again and with joy that it was wonderful while it was here. Thank you Rocksteady.

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The end of a great era of Batman games and a brilliant game by itself. A fantastic story, a huge beautiful city, wonderful gameplay, and superb visuals are only hampered by some subjective issues with the controls of the Batmobile and the repetitiveness of some side quests that overuse the vehicle. Batman: Arkham Knight is the greatest way to say goodbye to this wonderful series of games.

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[tab title=”Good Points”]

  • Gotham is dark and beautiful.
  • Fantastic story and voice acting.
  • Excellent fluid fighting and gameplay.

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[tab title=”Bad Points”]

  • Some repetitive side missions and over-reliance on the Batmobile.
  • Slightly odd driving controls for Batmobile.
  • There won’t be any more Arkham games cries

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[tab title=”Why a 9.5?”]

This is my pole position contender for game of the year. I really connected with the voice acting and the artistic construction of Gotham. The colours, the light, the rain, the brooding… Everything made this an excellent vehicle to deliver a great story and the gameplay is expertly refined. I liked the Batmobile and the slight issues I have with that and the missions are the only things keeping this from a higher score.

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This review was based on the PS4 version of the game.

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