Quick Thoughts on Hellblade

Ninja Theory's experimental action adventure Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is visually stunning and includes a frankly astonishing amount of innovatively produced voice work which together delivers an experience unlike anything else on the market. Unfortunately, the actual gameplay is fairly simplistic and the familiar third-person puzzle/combat mechanics manage to overstay their welcome even though the game is only about 6 hours long (and priced accordingly).

And despite handling a delicate subject matter - mental illness and psychosis - with the appropriate empathy and respect, I didn't come away from the game feeling particularly enlightened about the everyday struggles of disabled people. What Hellblade does effectively communicate is that psychological impairment must not be approached from a moralistic and judgmental perspective. A key character in the story illustrates the fact that if your treatment of mental illness is punishing and abusive you're not only failing to fight the darkness; you are the darkness. Although this is no doubt an important message, it should hopefully come as no surprise to most reasonably well-informed audiences...

That being said, the game does offer a powerfully unsettling artistic representation of what it might be like to hear voices in your head and see disturbing things that aren't part of "objective" reality (whatever that means). On a purely impressionistic level, then, Hellblade is a triumph and well worth playing through for its impeccable presentation alone (also, there's a whole lot of Norse mythology as well if you're into that sort of stuff).

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Inland Empire: Quick Thoughts on Horizon Zero Dawn

One of the best things about Horizon Zero Dawn is how the player's gradual discovery of the game's vast and stunningly detailed environments is guided by two fundamental questions; what happened to the world as we know it, and what is the socio-political landscape of this new post-apocalyptic reality? Unlike, say, The Witcher 3's comically convoluted search for Ciri or GTA5's cinematic focus on executing carefully scripted heists, the very existence of the open world itself serves as the foundation for Horizon's sprawling action adventure. Whereas world building in video games so often comes down to superfluous lore which ultimately has little bearing on the actual gameplay experience (it merely becomes more "content" to digest), developer Guerrilla Games seems to have gone to great lengths to give the player a reason to explore that is inseparable from the act of exploration.

And yet, this emphasis on setting up an epic quest that is inextricably bound up with the land being traversed does not mean that Horizon skimps on traditional storytelling as as result. Indeed, there is almost enough drama, character development and plot revelations in the extensive prologue alone (which is all I've played so far) to fit an entire game. Aloy's relationship with her adoptive father admittedly ends in a very predictable point of no return, but it nonetheless amounts to a poignant and effective story component courtesy of strong performances by Ashly Burch and JB Blanc. Meanwhile, the slow unveiling of both neo-tribal culture as well as the tragic remains of civilizations past offers fragmentary but tantalizing insights into a complex history that is as big of a mystery to the main character as the lethal robotic animals roaming the terrain. Even more so than was the case when leaving the bite-sized starting area in the last Witcher game, the end of Horizon's prologue truly feels like the beginning of a great journey.

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Sickness Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Quick Thoughts on Dishonored 2

After first having being distracted by the performance issues and also frustrated by some of the less refined stealth mechanics, I nonetheless decided to spend the better part of last weekend slowly making my way through Dishonored 2's first few levels. Well, I am now happy to report that the game has really sunk its fancy assassin-style hooks into me...

For some players, the Dishonored series is all about the improvisational flexibility and creativity of its many interlocking abilities, with which you can pull off all sorts of cool kills and daring escapes. For me, though, the main attraction is simply to take the time to explore every inch of its wonderfully detailed world and enjoy the thick steampunk atmosphere. As previously mentioned, I play the game as stealthily and non-lethally as possible - or at least as sneakily as I am able to pull off without reloading large chunks of each level - with all of the supernatural powers turned off as well as those obtrusive HUD elements disabled. So far I've played for about 15 hours and have not made it even halfway through the game yet.

Despite its technical deficiencies, the sequel is a much more visually impressive piece of work compared to the artistically inspired but somewhat blurry and washed out look of the first game. This time around, the textures are wonderfully crisp and the environments are so densely layered that it can take several minutes to recognize each individual item in a mid-sized room. Arkane's ability to conjure - or rather painstakingly construct - a sense of place is second to none, and my initial impatience has been replaced by a strong desire not to miss anything that this rich stealth experience has to offer.

While the overall plot might not be particularly engaging on its own, the game does include some interesting characters which are worth getting to know through the game's many audio logs, letters, journal entries and optional dialogue scenes that the player can eavesdrop on. As Eurogamer's Edwin Evans-Thirlwell put, "if the strongmen, aristocrats, crooks and paupers of balmy Karnaca have anything in common, [...] it's that none of them are beyond redemption." Instead of relying on gleeful misantrophy (like HITMAN) or doubling down on its horror elements (which at least the first Thief did), Arkane emphasizes the fundamentally tragic nature of its fictional universe. Indeed, the sheer sadness permeating from the stuffy apartments, gaudy palaces and winding streets of Dishonored 2 ultimately makes a stronger impression than even those disgusting bloodflies which seem to seep out of the woodwork at every turn...

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No Place Like Home: Quick Thoughts On Skyrim's Special Edition

The vast continents of Daggerfall, the otherworldly vistas of Morrowind and the soft rolling hills of Oblivion all have their fair share of fans, respectively. For me, however, there is only one Elder Scrolls game that actually matters. It took some 20 years for this increasingly all-encompassing Western RPG series from Bethesda Game Studios to finally come into its own, but the solemn romanticism of Skyrim's rugged landscapes provided a level of escapism and immersion that I have seldom experienced in a video game before. My overall enjoyment of the game admittedly stemmed partly from a few practical quality of life improvements over earlier TES entries, such as more fluid combat and a less frustrating skill system. Above all, however, Skyrim sets itself apart by having a much more detailed and hand-crafted world to explore, without the quasi-procedural dullness which made parts of Daggerfall and Oblivion in particular so tedious to slog through. In the years preceeding Bethesda's fifth Elder Scrolls title, my general lack of enthusiasm for the open world genre had gradually started to change into grudging respect as I had discovered such rough RPG gems as Piranha Bytes' Gothic 3 and Risen. Like those games, Skyrim offered places which felt genuinely lived in and had a history which became evident by simply by walking through them (rather than, say, by reading in-game books or soaking up dull lore from wooden dialogue).

That being said, I should probably add that the particular art design and atmosphere of Skyrim simply appeals to me a great deal more than the stark exoticism of TES3 or high fantasy of TES4. Indeed, being a sentimental former metalhead from Scandinavia is probably the ideal way to experience Skyrim's particular brand of Norse kitsch. Even if there are no wailing guitars to be found in TES5, the whole goddamn presentation - with its towering dragons, manly Vikings and bloody bastard swords - practically screams "power metal album cover". Also, the environments - minus the incredibly dramatic mountain ranges (those would be more "Switzerland" than "Sweden") - are not too far off from what I see when I look out the window now in late October. Despite the hilarious accents and fantastical creatures, playing Skyrim feels like coming home...

As for the so-called "Special Edition", the PC version of this essentially console-focused release is rather meaningless, since the modest graphical upgrades only makes sense in the context of jumping from Xbox 360/PS3 to Xbox One/PS4. However, if you already own Skyrim (i.e. the main game plus all the DLCs) the Special Edition is free on Steam, and that seems about the right price for what's on offer...

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Ball and Biscuit: Thoughts on DA:I's "Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts" quest

Almost every review written about Dragon Age: Inquisition specificially mentions the story quest "Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts", so it was impossible for me to go into this without high expectations. Even so - and despite having some serious reservations about its overall design and gameplay - I was ultimately impressed and rather overwhelmed by the sheer scale and ambition of Bioware's interactive storytelling here. The developers clearly wanted to create an experience that could mirror and surpass the memorable Landsmeet event in Dragon Age: Origins, and even though I don't think they quite succeeded in that respect there's still much to drop your jaw about during the Winter Palace ball in Halamshiral.

Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts goes on literally for hours, includes several richly detailed environments designed solely for this occasion, keeps delivering elaborate cutscene after elaborate cutscene during the course of the quest and crucially includes a significant amount of player choice resulting in several possible outcomes (even the boss fight is entirely optional and easily missed). It was only while glancing through a walkthrough that I realized how many different permutations there were to the quest's ending. Even though most of these variations don't significantly impact later parts of the game, there's obviously still a daunting amount of scripting involved in making these branching paths work. In a game as large as DA:I, the inclusion of such an elaborately designed mammoth quest (which I didn't experience until well after having passed the 100 hour mark) is quite the achievement.

From a mechanical perspective there are unfortunately several glaring problems with how WEWH plays out in practice; the most glaring of which is how the game continues to treat collectible objects as a valid substitute for story content. In order to unlock all possible endings to choose from, the player inexplicably needs to track down miniature statues hidden in the environment before unlocking a few bizarrely sealed doors to access crucial information that then can then be used in dialogue. Apart from these statues there are also coins and secrets documents to pick up, which means that the gameplay often consists of running around frantically in search of missing collectibles. Needless to say, this is not a satisfying source of motivation for the player.

More importantly, though, in terms of the player's emotional investment in the storyline there's a pretty significant difference between this quest and DA:O's climactic story event. Court intrigue and political backstabbing (known by Orlesians as "The Game") is all about detachment and performance in service of personal ambition. While this is realistic enough as far as the representation of politics go, DA:O's brilliant move was to shatter all political pretense and reveal the ugly family affair at the heart of the conflict in Ferelden. While there are some significant personal dimensions to the struggles within the Orlesian nobility, it's still a far cry from what the raw emotions Loghain, Alistair and Anora have to deal with during the Landsmeet. Even from a purely political perspective, however, DA:O's antagonists (including the troubled usurper Loghain) had the distinct advantage of actually caring about the wellbeing of the kingdom. By contrast, the Orlesian pretenders to the throne do not seem particularly bothered about how their incessant infighting will affect the Empire at large; let alone the common populace. The Game" may be rich on drama, but it's conspicuously lacking in pathos.

That being said, Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts was unquestionably the high point of my DA:I playthrough. Despite an abundance of witches and enchanted mirrors in the later story quests, none of those moments are quite as magical as that one evening in Halamshiral.


Quick Thoughts on Deus Ex

Human Revolution was a robust if somewhat mundane reimagining of Ion Storm's ground-breaking original Deus Ex game from 2000. Eidos Montreal did their best to stay faithful to the core ideas underlying Warren Spector's insanely ambitious original PC RPG, while simulanteously augmenting its exo-skeleton into a more focused and stylized slice of cyberpunk adventure with structures and systems which lastgen consoles could handle. There was a definite sense that Eidos Montreal played it safe; that the end result was an enjoyable and well-intentioned action RPG which nonetheless came off as predictable and compartmentalized when compared with the sheer, untethered ambition of the first Deus Ex. Also, since it became painfully obvious that the new developer lacked the writing chops to deliver a complex and nuanced discussion on the ethics and politics of augmentation, Human Revolution didn't replace the conspiracy cocktail of the original game's feverishly over-the-top storyline with anything more meaningful and memorable from a narrative standpoint.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is the follow-up to Human Revolution, and I'm a bit skeptical that the same formula can hold up five long years after HR's release. From various reviews I've also gathered that the story deals with important real-world issues in irresponsible ways which remind me of the spineless moral relativism responsible for Bioshock Infinite's worst moments. That being said, Mankind Divided's central location of Prague feels like a much more interesting and detailed environment than the somewhat lifeless hub worlds of Human Revolution, and Adam Jensen's cinematic takedowns are still perversely satisfying to experience...

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On returning to Dragon Age: Inquisition

Despite having spent hundreds of hours playing and replaying the first two Dragon Age games, I gave up on Inquisition shortly after its release and haven't been able to return to the game properly since December 2014 - even though I've made half-hearted attempts to do so roughly every six months. The problem for me was essentially that Bioware broke my heart by unequivocally promising good PC controls and then delivered what was perhaps the most egregious example of console-oriented gameplay and UI in recent history (it wasn't a bad port from a technical standpoint, but it slavishly adhered to a gamepad-centric design philosophy to a far greater extent than DA2 ever did). Apart from the unavoidable clunkiness of the whole enterprise, the wave-based battles were tedious to slog through and none of the party members or other characters in the story managed to grab my attention. And being bored by a Dragon Age game was arguably even more tragic than merely being frustrated by misguided design decisions.

Revisiting DA:I more than a year after the release of CD Projekt RED's seminal The Witcher 3 presents its own issues. In 2014 I thought the talk about Inquisition's lack of a true open world was completely irrelevant, but after having experienced the sprawling and excessively detailed continents of TW3 the once quite impressive environments of DA:I do feel cramped, sparsely populated and even unfinished by comparison. Worse yet, though The Witcher 3's meandering narrative is certainly no better than Bioware's dense high fantasy tale, the Polish developers still managed to cram more effective drama and sheer pathos into many of TW3's side quests than anything I've seen in DA:I so far. The Dragon Age series was always in danger of being weighed down by its lore, and the plot machinations of Inquisition feel strangely impersonal and dependent on metaphysical forces which are harder to comprehend than even Geralt's mystifying need to find Dandelion...

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The Infinite Sadness of Doom II

It’s hard to deny that the visual style of id Software’s seminal first-person shooter series Doom is defined by grisly demons, blood-soaked altars, disembodied goat heads and all the rest of its (in)famously pseudo-Satanist imagery. However, I tend to associate these games (and in particular the second entry) with a highly distinctive mood comprised in equal parts of dread and despair, and powerfully underscored by Bobby Prince’s simultaneously catchy and oppressive soundtrack.

In many ways, Doom II is gaming’s foremost post-apocalyptic masterpiece. It’s abundantly clear from the very first level that the invasion of Earth by creatures from an alien (or perhaps all too familiar) dimension has already reduced our beloved home to a haunting shadow of its former self. Languishing in the dismal afterglow of the Fall and enclosed by the single most demoralizing skybox in all of video gaming, Doom II’s appropriately hellish vistas are far more depressing than even the blown-out nuclear wasteland of Fallout 3 (which, at the very least, had a quiet serenity going for it). From the desolate husks of major population hubs (levels like “Downtown” or “Suburbs”) to the most mundane of human infrastructures (“The Waste Tunnels”, “The Factory”), everything that once signified civilized life on this planet is now crawling with supernatural horrors. All of this is unnerving and scary, to be sure, but most of all it is downright sad, in that distinctly post-apocalyptic sense of being stuck between a memory of what once was and the desire for a new beginning which will surely never come.

It’s important to remember that Doom II is not subtitled Monsters on Earth or Demons on Earth; it is called Hell on Earth. Despite the exuberant creativity inherent in the game’s memorable enemy design, the fiery fiends consuming your flesh are not the main attraction here; they are rather like pentagrams signifying our unforgivable transgressions and fall from Grace. Indeed, as any diehard fan of Event Horizon (or The Divine Comedy, for that matter) will tell us, hell is only a word. As if it wasn’t obvious enough from its title, Doom is about judgement; about being in a state of total despondency trapped in a world gone utterly mad. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here...

Now, my biggest complaint with what I’ve seen so far of the much-discussed next installment in the series would be that there doesn’t seem to have been any attempt whatsoever to reclaim that tragic quality of Doom II. With its nu metal-infused trailers and gleeful melee kills, Doom 2016 somehow comes off as more rather than less juvenile than what a bunch of twentysomething male geeks brainstormed together in the early days of FPS design. That, if anything, is rather sad...


First impressions of the HTC VIVE

I now own an HTC Vive, currently the most expensive and complicated consumer-level piece(s) of equipment available in this brave new generation of Virtual Reality (Oculus Rift is slightly cheaper and doesn't require an extreme home makeover).

Though the spatial requirements are undeniably daunting, after playing around with the Vive for a while it's definitely the room-based experience - combined with the great and extremely accurate wireless controllers - which makes this a much more compelling thing than earlier prototypes like the Oculus Developer's Kit or cheaper alternatives such as the Samsung Gear VR (which I also have, for whatever reason). The headset's resolution is alright but still not as great as you'd want it to be for a lot of traditional games, and it's first when you start physically interacting with non-existent objects within a fake 3D space that VR really clicks. As for the launch line-up, there are not a lot of truly essential products out there but Tilt Brush is beautiful and Job Simulator is a really funny toolbox of clever ideas (as is Valve's own The Lab, featured in this video).

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Some (Additional) Thoughts on Everybody's Gone to the Rapture

British developer The Chinese Room's somber mood piece, Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, is now available on PC. When I played through the Playstation 4 version last year I felt it lacked the mystery and haunting qualities of the developer's first game, Dear Esther, which had a similar structure but a more esoteric and literary style. EGR was still an enthralling experience in its own right, however, and ultimately proved memorable enough to stick with me for the rest of 2015 - and not just by virtue of having a jaw-droppingly amazing soundtrack by Jessica Curry.

Everybody's Gone to the Rapture is a story about character just as much as it's a narrative with characters in it. The game's sleepy countryside community - with its gossiping neighbors, romantic entanglements and family feuds - is a setting that lends itself to melodrama, and, in so doing, invites an essentially moralistic reading of the disembodied has-beens which the player spends his or her time eavesdropping on during the course of the story. Though constantly engaged in dialogue and argument with themselves and others, their actions in face of the unnervingly quiet apocalypse happening all around them frequently speak louder than words.

All the actors on the virtual stage are faced with the same dire existential threat and go through the same initial phases of disbelief, shock and bewilderment, but it's what happens next - when the end truly draws near - that defines them. Some deny the truth, most try to escape, others resign themselves to the inevitable, a few fret over the possibility for redemption and many rage at the dying of the light (or the light of dying, as it were). However, there are also those who - as demonstrated in the game's most moving scenes - focus their attention on alleviating the suffering of others. The hand they were dealt - whether by meaningless chance, cruel fate, alien science or perhaps the whims of an inscrutable deity with a weakness for theatrics - was just as miserable as everyone else's, but they did the bloody best they could and thus made a difference, if only for a little while.

And if the game has any religious message (as an admittedly too literal and simplistic interpretation of the title would seem to suggest) beyond its vague and rather unsatisfying sci-fi trappings, it would be that such acts of selfless devotion to one's fellow human beings is what will truly echo in eternity, long after the chattering ghosts of light have faded away from a village that God remembered to forget.

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