Gone Home – Review (PS4)

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I was quite excited to get the chance to play Gone Home, which had arrived on PC last year. I’d heard lots of good things about the game’s setting and atmosphere. It’s a title reminiscent of older adventure games, there isn’t a great deal of gameplay per se, it’s about unravelling the story by exploring around the environment.

Set in 1995, you play as Kaitlin Greenbriar who returns back after some months away travelling to find her family moved into a new house. To make things even weirder there is no-one home but a note on the front door from her sister Sam begging her not to look for her.

And then you’re off, first finding a way into the house and then trying to work out what has been going on in your absence. Along the way you’ll uncover clues about not only your sister but also your parents, each strand delivering more intrigue as you delve into places you probably shouldn’t – and wouldn’t under normal circumstances.

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Gone Home does a good job of making you feel this, that voyeuristic vibe that should accompany rooting around in other people’s private stuff. In a lot of games it’s sometimes easy to forget that whoever you’re investigating is a person with a history and feelings, not so in Gone Home and there were a few instances that I felt genuinely uncomfortable. I think that’s a good thing as it shows they built a believable cast of characters that you know only through clues.

I loved the design of the house itself, which was interesting and quite a big area to explore. The only downside, not unique to this game but exacerbated by the freedom to move around large swathes of the house, is that there is a lot of ground to cover if you miss a clue. Which is what happened to me.

Let me preface this by saying I appreciate that I might be the only person in the world this happened to, I’m not sure what the odds are for missing clues in the game as a lot of them are signposted well. This clue came fairly deep into the game and I, essentially, didn’t click one thing in the room. Now, that is not the developers fault – I missed the clue – but I found it really disappointing there wasn’t any sort of hint system at all. Surely after an allotted time (10/15 mins) a prompt could pop up, even if it’s asking if I want a hint as opposed to just revealing it?

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Instead what happened was I knew I’d missed something so went right back to the start of the house (more than once) and scoured every room again. For 45 mins. Just to put that in context, Gone Home is 2 hours long. So I spent a further amount of time the equivalent of almost half the game aimlessly walking around, frustrated. Eventually, thinking the game might be broken, I checked online, discovered what I had missed, went to the next clue and activated the following sequence. As I said earlier missing the clue is my fault, that’s a part of adventure games but I do feel if I’m turning to the internet in the belief your game is broken then maybe you should consider a form of hint system for next time.

And this broke the game for me. My immersion was shattered and I had lost any interest in the story. I walked away from the game and returned a few hours later to finish it but the experience was soured. Which is a shame because I imagine in a ‘clean’ run through this would be a short but interesting title.

Rating: 6/10

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Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End – Review (PS4)

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Anyone who has read this blog for a while will know about my love for the Uncharted series. Victor ‘Sully’ Sullivan remains one of my favourite game characters of all time and the dynamics of the relationship between Nate and Elena, among others, keep me coming back title after title. But after the release of Uncharted 3 and a teaser trailer for the fourth instalment, it was all change at developer Naughty Dog – the driving force of the series Amy Hennig left and The Last Of Us team took over the reigns. The game was rebooted and reimagined. So could they continue the good work laid out in the previous games?

The Last Of Us had a huge impact on the gaming landscape both in terms of design and character development in games. The concern from some corners was that the devs might make Uncharted too ‘serious’. I don’t feel that happened and, actually, I believe toning down a few sections really helped the characters shine. Uncharted 4 still has the bombastic, action filled set pieces I’ve always loved but now includes a few options to use stealth for battles if desired. There are still plenty of one liners and quips but also real conversations and moments of downtime. It’s a slow start compared to other Uncharted games but I think it benefits the game in the long run.

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The story this time is your typical ‘one last job/coming out of retirement’ fare, all based around the reappearance of Nate’s long thought dead brother, Sam. For me, Sam was an interesting character but led to a few issues with the overall Uncharted universe. I don’t recall him having been mentioned much previously but if you ignore the ‘retcon’ of back story and just enjoy the plot it isn’t too much of an issue.

Graphically the game is a powerhouse, I’ve not seen anything like it and it’s definitely one of those games (like Driveclub or Star Wars: Battlefront) that you can use to show off what a PS4 can do. Gameplay remains largely the same, lots of climbing and firefights, although the addition of the grappling hook also gives you a lot more freedom of movement to escape from (or rush to) enemies. The AI of the enemies seems much improved and there were a few occasions that felt genuinely challenging on the Normal setting.

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I was a little disappointed that Greg Edmonson didn’t return to score but I guess the new Uncharted Naughty Dog team wanted to put their own stamp on things. Henry Jackson’s score does the job and the opening theme does hit home as expected. The voice acting is, as always, truly superb. Additionally the facial capture is among the best I’ve seen, able to capture subtle expressions of thoughtfulness or glee. Newcomers Laura Bailey and Warren Kole (as Nadine and Rafe, respectively) delivered two more great characters to the series. Rafe might actually be one of my favourite all time videogame villains.

I’ve always enjoyed the shooting in these titles and Uncharted 4 delivers again, with various weapons all feeling different to handle and having a decent heft to them. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the hand to hand combat. Taking a more Last Of Us direction meant that close quarters fistfights became a mess of button mashing and hoping for the best. There were also a few sections when climbing that weren’t immediately clear on direction and I ended up falling to my death. Having said that, at least it added some (small) stakes to climbing, which hadn’t happened in previous instalments.

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Multiplayer is back and bigger than ever, with fast paced action set around a few core modes. Uncharted multiplayer has always been a bit ‘Marmite’ but I’ve always enjoyed the fun nature of it and this game really ramps things up by introducing computer controlled side kicks and mystical abilities based on items from the series. This feels like a good move to me, the game thrives on the magic artefact theme so why not lean into it for multiplayer? Players remain a touch bullet-spongy, again not an issue for me but others may not like that style of combat. The grappling hook also comes into its own here and it’s very satisfying to take out a human opponent from up high!

I don’t want to go into detail about the story but I will say it was the most enjoyable one in the series for me. Uncharted 2, with its triple-crossing, pulp action comes a very close second but the character development in 4 is truly great. They have the benefit of this being the final game, which allows them the luxury of tying up some loose ends and I’ll finish this short section on the story by saying, as someone heavily invested in the series and characters, that I was really pleased as the credits rolled – Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a great way to wrap up the series.

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Another stellar title in the series then, as Naughty Dog continue their amazing run of games on PS4. With the increase of players on Playstation this generation lots more people will get a chance to experience Uncharted’s special brand of treasure hunting. If you haven’t already picked this up, I’d really recommend you do.

Rating: 10/10

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Call Of Duty: Black Ops III – Review (PS4)

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I quite enjoyed the last Call Of Duty game, Advanced Warfare, and Black Ops II was my favourite game in the entire series so I was really hopeful that Black Ops III would be another great experience.

In Black Ops II, I found that I enjoyed the story a lot more than the multiplayer especially with the option to change the outcome via decisions you make over the course of the game. With this new title I felt the balance had shifted in the other direction and when you’re not that into the multiplayer aspect of a game series, that can be an issue.

I fully expect to be in the minority here as I know the Call Of Duty series fast paced, twitch based, shooting is massively popular. It’s just never felt good to me. What’s on offer here for multiplayer is a solid set of maps (one of them even made my list of Top 30 Maps) and some new abilities/classes with which to play around with. In the wake of Titanfall and Advanced Warfare there is an added emphasis on movement, with the ability to jump boost along walls and gain some extra height quickly giving the game an even faster pace than before.

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Story wise, this tale of futuristic espionage treads a familiar path – you and your team take on various groups of enemies, now also featuring robots/cyborgs, as you try to unravel a mystery with the C.I.A (your employer) at its heart. One thing I did like about the campaign was that it gave you the option to play as a male or female operative, which is pretty cool. Something I didn’t like was the fact the game ran separate versions of the campaign for online and offline story modes. So if you played offline, when you returned and were online there was no way (other than switching off your internet) to continue your game… madness!

Graphically the game looks good, as you’d expect and there are no performance issues that I encountered. The campaign supports 4 player co-op play as well so if you have friends that also have the game that’s a neat way to experience the story. Zombies mode returns and there is also a new mode called Nightmares, unlocked by finishing the campaign, that puts a different spin on the story and replaces the usual enemies with Zombies.

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Overall I was a little disappointed with this instalment in the Call Of Duty series. Without an interesting story to compliment the multiplayer I didn’t feel there was enough there for me personally. In terms of the gameplay Black Ops III continues to evolve the series and brings some interesting ideas to the table but the campaign mode, while delivering something new with gender choice and co-operative play, also felt like a step backwards – especially after the way Black Ops II’s story played out. I suspect fans of the series will have loved it but there just wasn’t enough there to hook me in.

Rating: 6/10

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Tom Clancy’s The Division – Review (PS4)

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It seems like an absolute age ago that The Division was revealed at E3 2013 and gamers everywhere marveled at the footage released. Then we all remembered that Ubisoft’s previous title Watch_Dogs didn’t look quite as good as the promo materials and sighed. Over time though it felt like The Division might end up being a great game, a mix of cool story beats and multiplayer co-op.

Let’s start with the story stuff. The Division opens strongly, with an interesting video about the virus that has decimated New York. Essentially Smallpox, it was transferred to bank notes on Black Friday in an attempt to spread the virus as quickly as possible. Soon enough the city is on quarantined lockdown and the government calls on The Division – a set of sleeper agents in place for exactly this sort of emergency. You are a Division agent and your first port of call will be creating your agent. I managed to make an avatar I was happy with but the selection of faces and hair etc. is pretty limited compared to most other games, which was disappointing. Add to that the fact that your character never speaks and it means you end up not really investing in your character at all.

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Despite that strong start, the story ends up being almost non-existent. A lot of it is buried in side missions and collectibles which, excluding a few interesting side missions, felt like effort for nothing. A good example of this are the missing agent missions – essentially following a set of arrows to a point where you pick up a file and get a written paragraph about the agent. Unless I missed it these aren’t agents you ever see/interact with during the story and it was a case of wondering why I was actually bothering doing the missions, which is never a good sign. The story told by the main missions isn’t particularly interesting either and when the majority of bigger ‘boss’ enemies are just the same guys you’ve already fought with an extra bar of health, it makes things a lot less dynamic.

And that’s the real disappointment of The Division because the game itself is pretty brilliant. The control of the characters and the feel of the weapons are great. It’s a super fun, third person shooter that requires elements of teamwork to excel. You can play the game on your own and matchmake with random people to play missions (something I did a few times with no problems) but The Division is best when played with friends. It’s been compared to Destiny more times than I can remember but it’s a valid comparison, especially in the sense that playing with others makes a huge difference to the overall experience. I had a massive amount of fun in my time with the game but the lack of story really did sting, especially by the end of the game when I had no investment in either my own character or the events that were unfolding.

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As well as story content there is also a Player v Player arena called the Dark Zone, in which players defeat AI enemies for loot that needs to be extracted via helicopter. The twist is that players can turn on one another and steal each others loot. Doing so will mark you as a Rogue Agent for everyone else though, so you need to weigh up whether it’s worth it! It reminded me of the great heist mode in Kane and Lynch 2 and gives each moment spent waiting for the helicopter to arrive a large dose of tension. It was good fun, perhaps not enough to keep me playing but it might be the thing that brings me back from time to time.

Graphically I’m pleased to say that the developer got pretty damn close to those initial promo shots. The game looks gorgeous and the amount of detail is stunning – there seemed to be a wealth of different environments without reusing a ton of assets. It made every new arena feel like a different place so it was always a shame when the enemies turned up and were one of a set of generic types we’d seen hundreds of times before. I suppose that is a drawback of setting the game in the current time – you’re limited by enemy appearances unless you head further down the Warriors gang style of enemies.

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Overall The Division is a really great game in terms of how it handles and the feel of the moment to moment gameplay. It’s wrapped in an impressive representation of New York that, at times, can be jaw-dropping. The problem is that it all feels like it’s for nothing in terms of story and character. I’m really hopeful that we will see another installment of The Division because I believe there is a really solid base here to build on. They don’t need to change the gameplay much, if they can get a more involving story around it and find a better way to tell that narrative, Ubisoft might have something very special on their hands.

Rating: 7/10

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Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate – Review (PS4)

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The Assassin’s Creed series arrived on the scene back in 2007 with an interesting premise but repetitive and unrefined gameplay. It was well received and when the second game arrived two years later, it had almost everything we wanted. Again the next title in the series, Brotherhood, improved and refined the way the series played and was an absolute blast. That was in 2010 and in the five years since we have had a mainline Assassin’s Creed game released every year.

Aside from 2013’s Black Flag it has been a case of diminishing returns, with not much innovation and too much clutter getting in the way of the gaming experience, culminating in 2014’s Unity, which was a broken game upon release. I didn’t finish Unity as I didn’t like the main character and felt like I had better things to spend my game time on.

As you can imagine, I approached Syndicate with some trepidation. It was ticking boxes for me pre-release: Victorian London? Check. Two main playable characters? Check. One of which is female? Check. It looked good on paper but after playing nine of these games in eight years (including a few spin off titles) the potential for burn out was extremely high. So did another new setting and main characters do anything to stop the slide of the series?

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The answer for me is a resounding yes.

Let’s start with the characters, twins Evie and Jacob Frye. For the first time in a long while I genuinely felt attached and interested in Assassin’s Creed’s main stars. As much as I enjoyed Black Flag and felt Edward Kenway was a likeable character, I didn’t really care for his story. With Syndicate I was keen to progress the story and enjoyed the freedom (some missions aside) to choose between controlling Evie or Jacob.

Both have slightly different skills, Evie is more stealth based while Jacob is more aggressive, but you can use either for most situations and be confident you won’t run into too much trouble. A huge part of their appeal is the delivery from actors Victoria Atkin and Paul Amos, both in terms of motion capture and vocal performance. The sibling banter flows freely and feels genuine enough to convince.

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The gameplay is still rooted in the maligned Assassin’s Creed template – you’ll need to climb a viewpoint to see all the side activities in an area but with climbing more efficient and easy to navigate it wasn’t too much of a hardship. The side activities were varied enough to keep me coming back, whether it was smaller stuff like protecting horse-drawn cargo, carriage racing (not a high point), bare knuckle fighting (surprisingly fun) or bigger things like taking over gang hideouts or assassinating Templars commanders. Do enough side stuff to clear out a borough of London and you trigger a gang fight, with each of these having a gang leader with back story and lines of dialogue etc. It reminded me a little of Shadow Of Mordor’s nemesis system but more static and less in depth. I’d love to see them work on this and try to incorporate something more dynamic for future titles.

There are also some interesting side missions that you can do for historical figures of the time – Dickens, Alexander Graham Bell, Darwin, Marx and even Queen Victoria have some really nice missions. In addition to that you’ll also find yourself bumping into others, like Florence Nightingale and Prime Minister Disraeli. Fun stuff and the game doesn’t take any of it too seriously, which is good.

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Another welcome new addition is the story based assassinations themselves. Nothing was more frustrating for me in previous games than sneaking up on a target, going to take them out, only for that to bring up a health bar and trigger a ‘boss fight’. Here you have the freedom to do as you like and the game also provides some ‘Hitman‘ style optional extras – interesting ways to get close to your target and perhaps activate a unique kill on them. Very cool stuff.

The game looks fantastic with some really cool lighting and a day/night cycle that also features various weather effects. Considering the issues in last year’s title I didn’t experience much in the way of technical problems. There was, of course, a bit of open-world ‘jank’, which isn’t uncommon in games of this size but there was nothing that dampened my enjoyment of the game.

Thinking of negatives, to be honest there aren’t many. I would’ve liked to have seen a little more variation in the bigger side missions – having said that I spent hours taking over London and finished them all, so they can’t have been that bad! The characters themselves handled fine but the horse drawn vehicle stuff was painful at times. I guess it would be tough to race through the streets of London in the 1860’s but a little more control would’ve been welcome. Also having the same button to get into a vehicle and pick up a dead body meant some extremely frustrating moments where the game picked the wrong option for me. Minor complaints in the grand scheme of things.

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So, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was a really positive experience for me. The fact that Ubisoft are giving the franchise a year off in 2016 is great news as it allows for some breathing space and gives them time to improve the game a lot more. We know the next game won’t be returning to London and the twins Frye but I genuinely hope we see a return to England with Evie and Jacob in the future.

Rating: 9/10

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Batman: Arkham Knight – Review (PS4)

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Rocksteady had a real job on its hands back in the late 2000’s – superhero games were generally very poor and the developer had been tasked with delivering a new Batman game. It was a challenge they relished and they ended up revitalizing the game genre, with seamless combat and tight scripted encounters, in 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum. The second game in the series, Arkham City, opened the game world up to a part of Gotham and laid the groundwork for the latest instalment. 2015’s Batman: Arkham Knight is the culmination of Rocksteady’s trilogy of Batman games and a showcase for the graphical capabilities of the new generation of consoles.

Set a year after the events of the previous game, Arkham Knight sees Scarecrow threatening to release a poisonous toxin throughout Gotham. When another, previously unknown, villain – the titular Arkham Knight – lends his weight to Scarecrow’s campaign of terror, it becomes apparent Batman is going to have his hands full. Luckily you’re not on your own, Alfred, Oracle, Robin and more are on hand to offer assistance.

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In the panic and chaos, all of Batman’s greatest enemies come out of the woodwork to take advantage. These villains could easily have been written in throughout the story but are instead optional side content, called ‘Most Wanted’ missions. I felt that this was one of the strongest aspects of the game, as it allowed you to delve into Batman’s relationship with those villains when you wanted to and gave you a choice as to how far you wanted to pursue them. Each villain has 4 or more missions each before you finally get to bring them to justice.

I really enjoyed the side content in Arkham Knight, even more so for the fact that along with specifically choosing to do a side mission, you might just stumble across them because the game does a great job of delivering on visual/audio cues that you might naturally gravitate towards out of curiosity. It felt really great when, for example, I noticed a building on fire in the distance and went to investigate. When I got there it triggered the option to start a Most Wanted mission. Very cool.

My main complaint of the game was the way the Batmobile was handled. Introduced as a new way of getting around Gotham, it does a serviceable job – although I preferred to just glide over the city which was just as quick, in my opinion. Unfortunately the controls never quite felt right for me, with L2 switching the vehicle to ‘Battle Mode’, as opposed to braking – which is usually L2’s function for car based control in other games. It led to numerous occasions where I ended up failing a mission because, in the heat of the moment, I instinctively hit L2 to brake and instead the Batmobile came to a stop and transformed into a tank.

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There are needlessly large car battles and even stealth Batmobile sections, both of which felt clunky and always seemed to break the pacing of the game. At one stage I almost walked away from the game entirely after an extremely draining chunk of time trying to finish one mission. Frustrating doesn’t cover it, especially as for most of the game you feel powerful and in control of combat – the Batmobile stuff just didn’t really work, sadly.

Thankfully that is the only real complaint I had with Batman: Arkham Knight, for the majority of the game I was having a blast and another of the new mechanics, Fear Takedowns, was a big reason. This ability allows you to cherry pick enemies to take out in order. Time stops and as you select targets Batman will automatically knock them out. As you upgrade the ability you can string more attacks together, mainly to be used for face to face combat. This means you can stalk your enemies first, taking them out with stealth attacks, and then confront the last four or five, taking them out immediately in quick succession.

Rocksteady do a fine job of bringing all of the Batman characters that you know and love into the final chapter of their trilogy. I’m not a big fan of Batman but I knew most of the characters here and even the ones I didn’t had interesting enough missions that I got to learn a little about them. There is a huge amount of content in the game, my playthrough was probably around 16-18 hours but that was doing a fair chunk of side content. I had finished the main storyline and completed almost half of the Most Wanted missions with an overall completion stat of 69%, so that gives you an idea of how much is here.

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As much as I loved Arkham Asylum, for me Arkham Knight is a superior game overall. Not as ground breaking as the first title in the series but more fleshed out in terms of game world and content. To have the freedom of Gotham to explore, stumbling across villain missions or just taking in the (gorgeous) sights of the broken city, is a wonderful thing. This is a game to take your time with, to savour your surroundings and the world Rocksteady have created. Unfortunately a lot of the pacing and general enjoyment is ruined by the Batmobile missions – they are forced on you too much and leave a bad, frustrating, taste. Arkham Knight is the ultimate Batman game but be prepared to suffer through a few sections to be able to appreciate it all.

Rating: 8/10

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Until Dawn – Review (PS4)

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Until Dawn has been floating around for a long time. First revealed back in 2012 as a Move focused game on PS3, it has been in the works for what seems like an age. Supermassive Games eventually scrapped plans for a last gen release and concentrated on getting the game onto PS4.

If you’re a fan of horror films then the setting of Until Dawn will feel warmly familiar. A group of teenagers head to an isolated lodge in the woods and find themselves stalked, having to survive through the night until help can get to them in the morning. But to dismiss Until Dawn as just another horror game is to do it a disservice.

While there is nothing here that revolutionizes the horror genre like Cabin In The Woods, Until Dawn does a good job of subverting some of the tropes that are even recognizable to non-horror fans (like me). There is some neat character based stuff in the game that, depending on the choices you make throughout, you get to see through interactions with the other teenagers.

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The game also does a nice job of playing with the mechanics of gaming, mixing them nicely with horror film expectations. At times my knowledge of horror films was telling me to do one thing but my gaming experience was screaming another. It made for an enjoyable game and that’s before we factor in the main reason to play Until Dawn – The Butterfly Effect.

Widely understood, and seen in the film of the same name, The Butterfly Effect is the theory that one small choice can lead to a huge change in fortune further down the road. In Until Dawn these choices stack up and can led to character deaths. This lends every choice and event a weight. Some of them might not even be direct choices, as failing quick time events could slow your character, meaning they simply aren’t there to save someone else.

This type of thing has been done in the past, most notably by Quantic Dream in titles like Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, but I think this is the best implementation of it I have experienced. Having said that, while the paths diverge depending on your choices in Until Dawn, the ending remains largely the same. This differs from something like Heavy Rain where there was a huge amount of different endings. While the ending of Until Dawn doesn’t vary wildly, the way you get there can be very different indeed. In fact you can end the game with none of the characters left alive, or they can all be still alive – it depends on what you do.

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There is also a cool mechanic in the game that asks you not to move in a tense situation. The game is literally checking your controller for movement in sections that can last for up to 10 seconds. It’s a really nice touch that helps tie you to the characters, as they hold their breath and hide from an assailant so do you!

The characters are great, a real mix of personalities that you will love and hate, and then maybe love again. Some of the arcs the characters have are interesting, if you can keep them alive long enough to see them! Graphically the game is a powerhouse with some astounding lighting and facial capture. Of course Until Dawn is not an open world game and you are very limited in where you can go. That obviously helps with concentrating the graphical power into one space.

Until Dawn is a game that begs to be played more than once, with so many variables there will always be something you’ve missed or another character to save. There are also lots of clues to find that unlock information on the backstory, as well as shedding light on the characters current predicament. As you play you will also discover various ‘Totems’, each showing you a glimpse of a future event or offering some form of guidance. These add another layer to the game because they can influence your choices, which might be a good or a bad thing.

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I didn’t have many problems with Until Dawn, there were a few small things – occasionally controlling the character was a bit of a pain, usually when the camera angle shifts and you need to switch the direction of the analogue stick, ala the old Resident Evil games. A couple of times the tone of the conversation was out of whack with what had just happened. Really small stuff in terms of the scale of the game though.

My one major gripe (and I’m not alone judging by the online reaction) is with one specific late game choice. No spoilers here so I’ll try to explain as best I can – almost all the choices in the game give you an A or B scenario. The choices are clear, it’s this or that. One particular choice far into the game appears to give you a simple choice but doesn’t give you all the info you need to make the decision. Making the wrong choice has catastrophic consequences and I just felt I would never have made that choice if I’d had all the information to hand.

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Having said that I still thoroughly enjoyed Until Dawn and it was one of those rare titles that stays with you. After I’d finished it I couldn’t stop thinking about it. About my choices, about the backstory and about what others thought of the characters and story. Having looked through some of the story branches I feel like my version of the story was pretty good, barring that unfortunate late game choice – I still might go back and replay that section! I would recommend Until Dawn to anyone, even if you don’t much care for horror this is a really cool title that sets a new bar for this type of branching story/exploration game.

Rating: 8/10

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