Mosey on over to Kickstarter and check out Doomtown: Weird West

Howdy pardners. If you are looking for good ol’ time that is sure to end in a hoedown, then look no further than the just launched Kickstarter for Doomtown: Weird West Edition, a new base set for the excellent table top expandable card game. A (mostly) two player game that sees you battling for control of a dusty old town in a demonically singed Wild West.

What is it that makes this game so special? Most immediately obvious to new players will be the incredibly unique combat system. Form your posse and get ready to sling cards as you start by taking it turns to make shootout plays. These will be special abilities that give your cowboys, girls and thems buffs as you get ready for the show to start. Once you both pass and the lead is ready to start flying, you settle the battle with poker-like system. The cards in your deck not only represent characters, places and abilities, but also regular playing cards. Draw cards from your deck and try to form the best poker hand that you can, with the number you can draw and the number you can mulligan based on the bullets that your dudes’ cards depict. Depending on by how much the player with the winning poker hand wins by determines how many casualties the loser takes. If the loser is still feeling luck, they can decide to continue or run back to base.

Image of Doomtown Reloaded

This system becomes a brilliant moment of tension between the players as they prepare to reveal their hands. It is an amazing system to capture those scenes from classic western films, as the protagonist and antagonist stare at each other across the town square, hands hovering over their gun. More than that though, it soon becomes apparent that the implications on the system with your deckbuilding, as you need to balance having the right cards in your deck, as well as having a deck that is going to reliably be able to give you a good draw in a gunfight. Throw in extra rules such as special effects for having an illegal poker hand, as well as counters to your opponent having an illegal hand, or Jokers that can manipulate your hand rank and you end up with a real spicy bowl of beans to play with.

The deckbuilding as a whole really stands out from the pack. As well as this combat system to think about, you have to deal with the restriction of only being able to have 4 cards of particular value in your deck. You can easily spend until high noon trying to figure this puzzle out and it becomes a game unto itself. You may end up putting cards in just to make sure you pack out a particular value to make a good fight deck or perhaps you will make something a little more defensive that just generally focuses on high value cards to ensure that your spells work.

Perhaps though, what really stands out for this game is the way movement works. Unlike many other card games, Doomtown features an actual environment that you are battling over. At the beginning of the game this will consist of just you and your opponents home bases, along with the area between them that is called the town square. Soon though you will each start putting down buildings on your side of the street to start generating income and control. Control is the key to victory, as the winner of the game is the player that has more control than their opponent has influence (normally coming from dudes). This means that these buildings, or deeds as the game calls them, are vital to keep hold of. So, you need to move your dudes around the town to make sure they are protect, whilst also attacking your opponent’s deeds.

It can take a little while to get the hang of it, but the movement becomes another puzzle to try to work out. Most movement will cause your character to boot (or tap, for Magic players), meaning they won’t be able to move again. The exception to this is moving from your home base to the town square or the adjacent deeds, as well as moving from the town square to any in town deed. Similarly, when you are forming posses for shootouts, anyone at an adjacent location can be brought in, but they will need to be booted and stuck there. This results in you needing to plan out what you will be doing with your dudes on each turn and how you going to make sure they are positioned correctly to be able to defend locations or form attacks. Mix in the different location abilities and attachments and things get even more interesting. It isn’t surprising to see the game compared to chess, as threatening attacks can be just as deadly as actual attacks.

Image of the Doomtown Reloaded card No Turning Back

But what I love about Doomtown, the reason why I think it is a truly special card game, is the way all of this combines, along with the regularly excellent art work and flavour to the different characters and factions, to create exciting narratives as you play through the game. These aren’t set narratives, like you might find in the also excellent Arkham Horror, but natural western tales that emerge as you play. Sending your dude over to just sit in the bar over on your opponents side of the street, getting a posse together to run a kidnapping job on a particular valuable target, sending out your bible quoting lawman to smite diabolic demons with righteous justice or just starring down your opponent as you are both about to reveal that vital poker hand. It all creates an amazing sense of drama through these rules that evokes the western films that are so part of cinematic history. It does it with a great sense of fun too, with an extra dash of steampunk and horror thrown into the mix.

It isn’t the easiest of games to get into and some of the rules may seem a little obtuse to begin with. Getting your head around the movement restrictions can be daunting and there are times when you need to remember the differences between running a job or having a shootout. The other problem is that the mechanic that is likely to attract people into the game initially is also one that should not be jumped into without consideration. Most new players will likely get a shock as they rush into the town square for a shootout on the first turn, only to find the game quickly over in a shower of seemingly random bullets. Patience, waiting your time and building up a strong foundation is key to success and people regularly bounce of this game quickly before they learn it.

The time investment is worth it though as this is such a superbly constructed marriage of mechanics and theme.

With this new Kickstarter, Pine Box Entertainment are doing a bit of a reset of the series with a new base set. They have rejigged the cards that come in this set, adding some completely new ones, adding some that were previously in expansions, balancing a few of the original cards and doing a refresh of the rules to make things clearer. Of likely more interest to those that are familiar with the game, they are also adding in some extra ways of playing the game, with the big ones being solo campaigns, co-op campaigns and 2v1 mode. Allowing for a larger player count in general is being retuned and officially supported too. Then there are also optional tweaks to the rules that can be used, referred to as Town Markers, which act much like mutators from the Unreal Tournament series, adding a bit of variety if you feel like making gunfights more deadly or mixing up the scoring system.

It’s a pretty good package for those that are familiar with the game and seems to be an excellent introduction to it for those that have never played before.

Being quite complex, my words can’t really do justice to how you actually play the game, so check out the below video to get a better feel for the mechanics. You can also try it out through a new official online version. The Kickstarter is due to finish 8th September and delivery of the game is expected to be May 2022. Price for 1 copy of the base set is $60 or around about £44.

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The Forgotten City – Marmota Monax Dies

The time loop genre seems to have had a bit of resurgence in recent years.  Film has had the very enjoyable Happy Death Day films and the recent Palm Springs.  There has also been the excellent Russian Doll playing with the format in episodic form.  Then there has been life, where each day feels much like the last whilst we were all in lockdown.

Not to be outdone, gaming has had a toy with the formula too, with notable games such as the delightful Outer Wilds and the upcoming Deathloop from immersive sims maestros Arkane.

The Forgotten City is not actually from this current wave of nostalgia for Groundhog Day, being based on a mod for Skyrim that originally came out back in 2015.  Developers, Modern Storyteller, have gone and given a sprucing up, making it standalone and shifting it over to the Unreal Engine.  The result is something that is a great story, fun mechanics and brilliant little mystery to unpick.

The game sees the player transported back in time to a hidden Roman city, tasked by the magistrate of this city with hunting someone who will be a rule breaker.  The rule they are going to break is the ultimate rule, known as the Golden Rule.  The city has only one rule and if that rule is broken then all 20-odd inhabitants will suffer the consequences, becoming one of the golden statues that you see all around the city.  Fail in finding the culprit (or break the rule yourself) and you will need to transport back in time to the start of the loop to resume your investigation.

As hooks go, it is a strong one.  It is a simple setup, but one that instantly manages to capture the imagination and forces to player to ponder many questions, both in terms of solving this particular mystery and of the wider philosophical questions regarding the Golden Rule.  Although working out who will break the rule and how to prevent them from doing it is the central mystery through most of the game, you also will stumble upon other smaller problems to solve throughout your time in this city, from finding missing persons, working out which of the gods is responsible for this rule and helping people with their troubles.  All of these connect together in quite a satisfying way and are told expertly throughout.  Even when the central purpose of the city is revealed about halfway through your time with the game and it is the answer that many familiar with these types of tales will likely expect, the further unravelling expands upon it in interesting ways.

Much of the discovery within the game is done through your dialogue with the other inhabitants in the city.  Those that want to venture into The Forgotten City should be prepared for plenty of listening to characters talking, as the city’s occupants are quite verbose.  You will be spending a large amount of time working your way through these dialogue trees with each of the 25 or so characters, as you piece together what is going and how you might be able to help them with their problems.  On occasion, you do have to pick your words with caution instead of just selecting all the options, as you might insult someone who will no longer talk to you.  For the most part though, you are just going through all the options you can.  It is fortunate then that the dialogue itself is excellent and enjoyable to go through.  Without the well written prose for the characters to be speaking, it would be hard to recommend this game, as you will spend most of the time listening to them, but developers here have done a great job of elevating the dialogue to a level that is above what you would generally see in games.  The characters are distinctive and it is clearly shown through the words they use.  The voice acting is mostly fine to listen to too, although it is clear that we are in the realms of an indie dev’s budget.  They all give it their all though and none are unpleasant to listen to.

When not talking to other characters, you will also be exploring this city.  It is a beautifully realised place to walk around, initially seeming quite small, but with a density of winding streets, along with little nooks and crannies to go pocking about in.  After a few hours, you will still find yourself stumbling into new areas that you haven’t really explored yet.  It is also just lovely to look at the smaller details too, from little shrines, to vases and ink pots.  There is an air authenticity to everything you are seeing and the short descriptions that gives the sense that this environment has been researched thoroughly and had plenty of love poured into every object’s placement.  I have no doubt that those who experts in the field of Roman history will find plenty of anachronisms, but it sells itself in this regard brilliantly.  More so than a theme park game like Assassin’s Creed, it weaves in elements of history and mythology into its tale that makes you buy these characters as real Romans.

Outside of chilling out at the Roman baths and philosophising about Pluto, you will also be playing around with the looping mechanic.  This does become central to solving many of the problems that you will encounter and it is handled with a subtlety that exudes most other areas of the game.  As you begin a loop with the items and knowledge that you left the previous loop with, there are plenty of opportunities to manipulate events the way you need them to go.  It even will allow for a few different solutions to the same problem.  For example, a woman is poisoned and the remedy is being extortionately sold by a merchant.  You can steal the remedy, breaking the Golden Rule and forcing you to restart the loop with the remedy still in your possession.  Alternatively, you can also steal money from the merchant and buy the remedy with his own money.  For those thinking with loops, yes that does mean he ends up with the money you stole in the other loop plus his money in that current loop, but there is still a delicious irony to buying something with the merchant’s own money (and yes, you could keep stealing his money and resetting the loop over and over again).

You are guided through these puzzles quite a bit with objectives, but the player does use their noggin just enough to feel smart whilst doing it.  I’m not sure if anyone is likely to ever feel particularly stuck trying to think how to solve the puzzles on offer, but there is just enough working your way through some of these to make it satisfying.  It also gives a good pacing to the game, with you never really wondering what to do next.  There is normally plenty of different tasks on offer that when you aren’t sure how to proceed with one you can just go doing something else until the solution presents itself.

It also manages to mostly avoid the pitfall of repetition that can present itself with loop mechanics.  Although there will be occasions that you need to go through repeated dialogue (mostly all skippable), the game offers a few nice tricks to make sure it is limited.  There is a character that you meet when first arriving that can be tasked for completing a few of the quests for you once you have done them once, meaning each loop doesn’t require you to start by running around the city.  This also smartly feeds into one of your later quests too.  There aren’t too many failure states that force you to repeat the loop either.  The way Modern Storyteller have managed to avoid frustration with this mechanic is one of the most impressive elements of the game, with the tight 6-8 hours that you spend with the game being mostly an act of discovery.

There are few stumbling points that should be mentioned though.  There are one or two more linear areas that are less interesting.  One of these also features quite a bit of combat, something that is irrelevant for the most part and likely shouldn’t have been included.  The enemies faced offer a very uninteresting foe to fight, as they simply charge at you.  The weapon you have to defeat them is also not the most pleasant to use.  The game does give you a prompt to warn you that a dialogue choice will lead to action and horror elements, so it is avoidable if you wish.  How that actually effects the development of the story though I’m not sure, as it leads to quite a big reveal, as well as giving you access to an important item that allows you to access many previously unreachable areas (this might be accessible without doing the questline though).  A later area that also featured combat didn’t present that warning, but it might just have been because I had already gone with the earlier quest.  Not doing either of these appears as if they would definitely cut you off from some of the endings, particularly the true ending.

This only takes up a brief moment with your time in The Forgotten City though and I don’t think they should deter anyone that fancies a good mystery.  The stories and characters are superb throughout and I was eager to uncover each of the endings (I managed 3 out of the 4, with the one listed as the third in the achievements remaining elusive to me).  When I did reach the true ending, I felt satisfied with my time there.  I don’t think there would be a huge opportunity for replaying, but this is a smartly told tale that will stay with me for some time and raises some interesting questions that I could ponder long after the credits rolled.  Anyone that is interested in good writing in their games should take a trip across the river to The Forgotten City.

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Death’s Door – Something to crow about

Shot from Death's Door.  A narrow path leading to the top of cliff.  A big door floats in the air.  The playable character, a small crow, is shown standing in front of a bigger crow.
A path off a cliff with a crow at the end of it… seems familiar

Death.  It’s the universal constant that unites us all.  Even more so in the world of video games where ending life is generally our main interaction with the virtual worlds that we inhabit.

In Death’s Door, our role as bringer of death is made literal.  In this world, the task of introducing souls to their maker is carried out by crows, known as reapers.  You play as one of these reapers, exploring lands as you hunt down a soul that got away.

Developers Acid Nerve, follow up there 2015 game Titan Souls, with a game that can be said to also be heavily inspired by Dark Souls.  These comparisons only really feel particularly surface level deep.  For the former, your character does collect souls as part of their job and we have doors for returning to a hub world that act like the bonfires of Lothric, but the comparison can really end there.  Instead, Acid Nerve have created a game that should be talked about in its own rights and celebrated for its excellent, unique systems.

Played from an isometric-like angle, Death’s Door has you controlling your crow around this unusual world.  Exploration of this world is key to progression, but lets first take a look at the combat.  The elements here are quite simple.  You have your standard attack button for your melee weapon, which can be tapped a couple of times to have a chain attack.  There is also a heavy attack that you can charge up for a second or two.  This can also be mixed in with a roll.  There are only 5 different weapons to be found around the place (and one of those is a bit of meme weapon that is only there to give the most masochists of players an extra bit of a challenge). 

As well as your melee weapons, you also collect ranged spells as you progress through the game.  These add a little bit of spice to the combat, allowing you to back off and throw a few fireballs after your pursing foes.  In a twist as elegant as the health regen from quickly counter attacking in Bloodborne, your ammo for these spells can be regained from attacking enemies and destructible environment pieces, such as pots.  This gives a nice dynamic feel to the battling, as it forces you to confront enemies up close rather than always relying on your ranged abilities.  Dashing in for a couple of hits as you are dangerously low on health is a thrill that comes unexpectedly from the outwardly simple combat mechanics that you might first assume.  That dash (or, more accurately, roll) also comes in handy as you dodge out of the way of the enemy attacks.  All of this combines into a surprisingly hectic combat system that is constantly exciting to play with.

Image from Death's Door of the hub world
The grey hub world that you can return to in order upgrade yourself and fast travel to other parts of the world via doorways

Helping to keep this system fresh, Acid Nerve have done an excellent job of creating a variety of enemies for you to battle against, each requiring quite a different approach to fighting.  Some enemies might have a long noticeable tell for a big leap attack that will come seemingly out of nowhere if you aren’t paying attention; others might fire a projectile at you that you can slash at to reflect back at them or other enemies.

Although not a hugely long game, there is a big amount of variety in the different encounters that you will be running into, making each new area a moment of anticipation as you wait to see what new threats you will be encountering.  That is before you even have to deal with the great souls that you are needing to reap. These are the bosses for each of the areas and are excellently designed battles.  Such as your first real boss fight, with a grannie that is obsessed with pots, who at one stage will jump into a pot and spin round shooting out projectiles at you, almost as if you have slipped into a bullet hell fight.  I won’t go into details of the other fights to avoid spoiling any more, but these boss encounters are the highlight of the game. In what is often a rarity in gaming, even the final boss feels special, challenging and engaging.

It is with the exploration though that you will find yourself spending most of your time.  The world that is presented in Death’s Door is tightly packed interweaved collection of paths, creating a sense of scope through its excellent design.  You will venture out along a path traveling quite some distance, only to find a new opening that brings you right back to the checkpoint you started at.  As well as giving you that satisfying relief of reaching safety again, it also removes much of the frustration that death will bring you, as the checkpoint distance ends up being not too far.  On occasion, you may find that you have to repeat a section, but it is rare for this to be any more extensive than a couple of minutes.

Image from Death's Door of the first real boss in the game.  A speech bubble is shown of Grandma saying "You little shit."
The first real boss you encounter. She seems pleased to see you.

There is also plenty of secrets to unearth as you go on your quests.  These can offer up some shrines that will give extra life or spell power, new weapons and upgrades to your spells or just simply some Shiny Things to add to your collection, rather aptly for a crow.  It is a joy to unearth the little puzzles that make up these moments, although they are mostly quite straightforward.  Sometimes these might rely on your spells that you unlock, often needing you to return to areas, in a classic Metroidvania style.  This is where the game stumbles somewhat in its final moments, as there is no map and little indication as to how many secrets you might have missed in each area.  As the final spell unlock is often the most important for reaching hard to get to places, the sense of aimlessness that accompanies having to go back to some of these areas that you went to right at the start of the game is disappointing.  However, it is a testament to the game and the world that I was encouraged to do that, eager to find each of the hidden secrets.  In the end, I didn’t actually achieve that, with my save file saying I had completed almost 90% of the game.  I was still missing a few Shiny Things, 1 shrine, a couple of upgrades, a whole weapon and plant pots.

Oh yes, plant pots, something I have yet to mention and might seem to some like quite divisive bit of design.  As you travel around the world, you will find seeds to collect.  You will also find empty plant pots for you to place these seeds into, where they will quickly transform into a shining plant.  These become your means of healing.  Your only means, in fact.  Using the fully bloomed plant will turn it into a shrivelled-up thing that will only comeback when you either die or return to the hub world.

This is one of the quite few design choices that lends credence to the idea that this is very much a Souls-like and that it will also offer up the brutal challenge that puts many people of that series and the ones that look to ape it.  Do not fear though.  You will find that you have an abundance of these seeds, particularly if you put some thought into whether you really need to plant one at every pot you come across.

The difficulty in general is actually very nicely balanced and is quite a far cry from the ones you will find in From Software’s games.  That isn’t to say that it is a cakewalk of a game, but I found it was just tricky enough to require concentration, but not so difficult that I was required to repeat areas over and over again.  A couple of the later bosses did take a few attempts, but checkpoints were located very nearby and the animations for the bosses was so good that I didn’t mind getting a chance to see them a few times.  Plus, death is greeted with a gigantic “DEATH” splashed across the screen that comes across more whimsical than frustrating (that gag also has a great pay off towards the end of the game).  For those that are looking at screenshots, thinking that they want to see the world, but worried by the continual comparisons with the Dark Souls series, really should not be concerned and I would urge you to give it a try.  Equally, I would say to those that are missing their dom and in need of a gruelling slog through pain and misery, tamper those expectations somewhat and enjoy the game and its world for what it is.

Image from Death's Door.  The word "death" appears in big capital letters.
The game can be brutal in a few places, but you can stay frustrated for long when this appears

And it is a very enjoyable world to just soak in.  Acid Nerve have created a place that is beautiful to look and has quite a selection of characters to meet, often crossing into either the humorous or surreal.  Take the chap that has a pot for a head.  What else are you going to call him but Pothead?  Then there is a barman that for some reason has an octopus strapped to him that he seems to think is a backpack.  It is perhaps a shame that most of these characters aren’t expanded upon a little more, although some do have further quests to find if you explore around enough.  This slight lack of time with characters is particularly true for the other crows and it would be nice if they could have had a bit more involvement, as well as more details on the work that they all do.  Again though, some of this is most likely explored in secrets and you may get more out of the game on those accounts than I did.

That is a minor quibble though and the focus here is a worthwhile consolation for not trying to expand these areas and ending up with something that outstays its welcome.  At around about 8-10 hours, Death’s Door is just the right length, in that it left me wanting more but not to the extent that I felt short changed.  In a time when everything seems to feel the need to pad itself out with dozens upon dozens of hours, this feels tightly made.  Perhaps I could have done with another great soul to collect, but if that would have been at the expense of polish elsewhere than it is best left out.  Acid Nerve have done an incredible job with their second game.  Although there are certainly some similarities between this and their previous game, Titan Souls, Death’s Door shows a level of craft that far outweighs that game, exceling in all areas and not just showing some smart design.  This is a cracking achievement and I hope that it gets the attention that it deserves.

Image from Death's Door.  Shows a man with a pot for a head.  Big capital letters show his name as "Pothead"
Obvious, but you can’t help but smile
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Total War: WW2 with Company of Heroes 3

Company of Heroes 3 - taking control of an airfield

Last week, the acclaimed strategy developer Relic announced they would be returning to beloved franchise; the one with the Earth Nazis rather than the space Nazis, Company of Heroes.  Showing off the game not only with a cinematic trailer and not only with a gameplay trailer, but with a whole bloomin’ pre-alpha for fans to download and play around with.  Not only that, but Relic appear to have been having a few chats with the fellow Sega pals down the other end of their offices, Creative Assembly, and adopted a few elements from their classic Total War series.

I’ve spent a few hours with the pre-alpha since its released, so here are a few of my thoughts on what they have shown off and what can be expected from the final game when it launches next year.

I think it is perhaps first worth noting that despite the title of this article, the cramming in the mention of Total War into the first paragraph and the numerous articles by countless other people saying “oh look, Relic are copying Creative Assembly”, the turn based strategy portion of the game is not particularly like Total War from this snippet and I expect that we shouldn’t be expecting the final product to feel much like one of those free form campaigns.  Let’s begin by looking at the more familiar real time strategy section though.

The main takeaway from the skirmish battles that are shown here is that Relic are not going to be upsetting the cart too much here, besides blowing it to smithereens with a well place tank shell, of course.  These battles play out very much how you expect them to, so those worried about them departing too far from the formula need not worry.  You have your base of operations where you can construct a few additional buildings, letting you produce your troops.  As before, you will also have a few extra abilities to call in support from off the map.  For the single player campaign, these will be determined by actions and decisions during the turn-based section, so more on that later.  The battles generally continue the trend of battling over control points on the map in order to increase your income to help fuel putting out more units.

These units also have plenty of abilities that can be used during fights, some that might increase the firepower briefly or maybe help move between cover.  You might also be able to upgrade your weapons, often to make your troops more specialist for battling tanks or other infantry.  These become essential as the battles progresses and you need to make sure that your troops remain relevant in the fight.  It is an area that Company of Heroes has always done so well and why it becomes so important for you to be able to keep these troops alive, engaging where at appropriate places and retreating at just the right time.  That is no change here and losing a unit can be devastating.

Artillery tank launching a shell

Placement of units also remains important, as you have to ensure that firing arcs of machine gunners are in suitable places for defending areas and that those mortars are going to be able to hit their targets.  Maps are dotted with various types of cover for your troops to use and you need to ensure that they are in suitable place to stay protected, as well as avoiding being flanked.  This is really were one of the few innovations comes into play, the tactical pause.  Freezing time to allow you to survey the situation and start queueing up orders.  For example, perhaps you want to chuck a grenade at a dug in group of units.  You could just send them all forward in real time, but activating the tactical pause will give you the opportunity to plan out their advance a little more carefully, jumping them from cover to cover, until they reach a suitable place to get that well placed grenade in.  Perhaps you want to also get another group of troops to move around the other side to create a distraction while this is happening.

I can see that tactical pause is going to be a real game changer for some people, suddenly making what is normally a fairly hectic game into something that will allow for a little more thought.  This can be completely ignored by players that aren’t interested in it and it well obviously not be available for multiplayer battles, so I don’t think any argument suggesting that it is dumbing down the game really stand up to scrutiny.

For me personally though, I found the tactical pause a little unnecessary, at least in the gameplay featured in the pre-alpha.  Perhaps it is just my style of play, but I found that grouping all my troops together and pushing forward was a pretty effective strategy.  As long as I didn’t charge them straight at an MG turret, there wasn’t really much need to stop and plan my actions.  Perhaps also being familiar with the previous games helps here and I was a little more instinctive about moving my units into cover.  Still, I think that this is a good addition and I have no doubt that a lot of people will get benefit from it.

This is just half of the game though.  As already mentioned, the single player campaign will also feature a large turn-based component.  Looking at the screenshots and thinking about the other strategy developer under Sega, I suppose it isn’t surprising that myself and other immediately jump to Total War as a comparison point.  Yes, you are controlling groups of units on a large map trying to paint it in your side’s colour.  Really though, what surprised me most during my time with this portion of the pre-alpha, was just how much was translated from the real time strategy section.

Strategic map, as British troops swarm across Italy

We are told that this section of the game comes at a later stage of the campaign.  We are tasked with getting a foothold in Italy, before moving onto capturing Monti Cassino.  The first thing that you need to do is select which “plan” you will adopt: American, British or Mixed.  This is basically just a decision on what units you will be starting with and doesn’t particularly have an impact on your general goals and the approach you are likely to take.  You also have access to produce any units you want from any of those sides, so you can quickly adapt if you wish. 

To my mind, I feel that this is going to be the shape of much of the game.  I think that it is best to remove completely the idea that the final game will particularly resemble a Total War game.  It isn’t going to be a large map of Europe (and, supposedly, a bit of Africa) that you need to conquer for the Allies.  Instead, the setup presented above is likely to be what each of the missions will be like.  Namely, a smaller section of a country with a primary objective to complete.  This is going to be a much more focused campaign than the slightly sprawling one we see in the Total War series and one that I expect will offer some freedom in how it is approached, but will ultimately be a more linear narrative.  I don’t see that a problem myself, but I do think some people might get the wrong idea and come away disappointed.

As I say, what you really do plays much more like a turn based adaptation of the RTS pieces.  You will be producing units, sending them out to capture points to improve your income and you will be setting them up in suitable positions to defend areas and ambush enemies.  One of my errors when I had my first go at the game was to think like I was playing a regular turn-based strategy, particularly with my resources.  I was quickly swamped by enemy units, as I was just not spending my money enough.  As with an RTS game, you should really be keeping that money as close to zero as you possibly can.  There isn’t any sort of upkeep present here and you aren’t going to be needing to spend money at the towns and strategic points you capture to improve infrastructure.  Instead, that money is purely for building units and using abilities to attack the enemy.

These units are comprised of two different types.  First are the run of the mill divisions.  These are your grunts that will be swarming around the map.  Cheap units that you can and should construct quite a lot of.  They come in similar flavours to the RTS units, although not quite as many varieties.  You have your engineers, medics, MGs, anti-tanks, etc. each with slightly different abilities that they can use on the map, such as medics being able to heal other units or engineers being able to put up and remove roadblocks.  There are also some interesting options for block supplies, so you can cut off resources for the enemy (or, as I accidentally did before understanding what I was doing, yourself).  They can also attack other enemy units.  Hovering over an enemy will give you a little summary of how the battle will go, so you know exactly well it will be worth doing and whether they are going to be able to counter-attack you.

Lots of weak units taking a control point

The other type of unit you have are your companies.  These are much more expensive.  Stronger than your divisions, these are the unit that will be able instigate the RTS battles either with other companies or when trying to take objectives on the map.  They also feature skill trees, which is one of the areas where you will see decisions on the strategy map will influence the tactical layer.  These trees are made up of active and passive abilities, as well as a few extra units that you can add for construction during skirmishes.  Whereas the divisions are fairly expendable, the companies are the ones you are going to want to keep alive, pulling back when necessary and making sure medics are nearby to keep them healthy.

These systems are all fairly simple to understand whilst playing and there really isn’t too much more to the strategy map than described here.  There are a couple of extra bits to think about (such as partisans that can be liberated and will unlock some extra abilities, and side missions that crop up tasking you to collect intel or kill an enemy general), but for the most part you are just edging your troops forward as you move towards the main objective.  It does work well though and, even in this early version, you can clearly see that with a good variety of objectives and an interesting enough narrative to push you forward, this could be a much more interesting campaign than your usual RTS.  It also isn’t completely out of the blue for Relic to do something like this, as they did something similar with CoH2 and the Ardennes Assault DLC , but where that felt a little too directionless and as if you were just playing a mix of Risk and whack-a-mole, this felt much more focused and tighter (their other RTS series, Dawn of War, also had a Total War-esque expansion, Soulstorm, although that was developed by Iron Lore and not Relic).

There is still a question of just how much freedom it will offer you.  I speculate that it will not be as much as some people think, but that is just speculation.  It could probably do with a little more than is demonstrated with this section of the game, as playing it through with each different plan did feel quite similar.  We also know little about the multiplayer portion of the game, something that the most vocal of the community will likely be wanting to know.  This pre-alpha does feature a skirmish option, but I think that is just a random potential skirmish that you might have from the single player game.  Hopefully they will steer clear of repeating the same mistake as they did with CoH2 with its DLC commanders.  Relic have mentioned that they will also be doing a similar public test with the multiplayer, although no date has been given on that.

If you want to give this game a go yourself, you can do so by signing up over at the CoH-Development site.  Do remember that this is very much a pre-alpha and you will likely encounter bugs.  I personally could not start the final skirmish at Monti Cassino, as it would crash-to-desktop whenever I tried to start it.

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Linux and gaming – just how well does it work?

Linux penguin mascot
Tux, the Linux mascot

With the recent announcement from Valve of the new Steam Deck handheld PC gaming device, it came with a few questions that we likely won’t fully know the answer to until it gets into people’s hands this December.  One of the big ones is just how good will the game compatibility be.  With the device using Valve’s SteamOS, based on the Debian distribution of Linux, we certainly can’t expect every single game out on Steam to just work.  That is before we even look at the performance of the hardware that makes the thing tick.

There isn’t much we can do about judging the hardware beyond the on paper numbers, but we can at least take a look at the software compatibility that Valve’s decision to go with a Linux based system.  So, I decided to give downloading, installing and, most importantly, playing on Linux a go.  Here is the start (and could it be the end?) of my experiences.

It feels like it should really be a rite of passage for any serious PC enthusiast to at least give Linux a go once.  For some reason, the bug has never really bitten me though and I’ve stuck with the safety and comfort of the Microsoft environment.  It wasn’t until the Steam Deck and questions around compatibility did I really consider giving it a whirl.  I like to consider myself fairly proficient with computers, happy to dig around with the internals and play with buried options within registries, but something about the jump over to Linux always felt quite daunting and, most importantly, unnecessary.  As attractive as the “stick it to the man” imagery of the open source operating system is, the moral high-ground never outweighed the potential difficulties and the convenience of just sticking with Windows (see also Amazon).  This is even more true when it comes to gaming. 

Valve making claims that it is easier than ever to do though made me curious to see just how accurate that was.  Let’s see how I get on.

The first decision to make is just which version of Linux was the right one for me.  There are dozens upon dozens of choices available, all filling different requirements.  One of these and the one that the Deck will be using, is SteamOS.  This was the logical choice, given the purpose of trying this out.  However, the first page I found detailing SteamOS was Valve saying that it wasn’t made for casual users.  One of the main reasons behind the creation of SteamOS was to be used with one Valve’s first forays into the world of hardware, Steam Machines.  These were just pre-built systems looking to offer a console like experience for PC users.  The venture was ultimately not very successful, but it was an early attempt by Valve to experiment with hardware and has no doubt led to what they are offering with the Deck in many ways, not just the operating system.

Image taken from Valve's SteamOS page saying "Users should not consider SteamOS as a replacement for their desktop operating system. SteamOS is being designed and optimized for the living room experience."
Valve’s SteamOS page, warning people away.

With Valve’s words of warning, I decided to opt for something that was a little more welcoming from the off.  This is a step that I probably should have taken longer with and I would recommend anyone that is considering giving Linux a try to spend a little more than the 5 minutes I did.  However, I quite quickly found a distribution called Mint that seemed to be tailored for a general user.  This came in three different varieties: Cinnamon – the full fat version, MATE – the slightly slimmed down, more stable version and Xfcce – the most lightweight, barebones version.

I decided to go for Cinnamon, as this is the one that was recommended by the documentation for those who weren’t sure and it would likely give me the closest experience to the type of operating system I was used to.

The official documentation offered for Mint was quite straightforward and it all seemed to be a very simple process.  It looked like anyone that had experience of installing Windows before would have no difficulty in following the process.

First up, was putting the ISO (the bundled together files for the operating system and the equivalent of an installation disc) onto a USB stick (can also be put onto a CD/DVD).  Mint even linked to the right tool to do this, called Etcher.  Simple process of selecting the ISO file, the USB drive to copy it to and off it went, formatting the stick as required.

Then came the big moment.  Leaving the USB stick in its slot and rebooting the computer, in theory, should let me boot straight into Linux Mint.  Things started okay, with the USB stick appearing as a boot option and then the Linux Mint logo appearing on the centre of the screen.  Then I waited… waited some more.  Not much seemed to be happening.  There was a log in the background I could access, but it didn’t seem to say too much.  Rebooting to try again offered the same result.

After reading online a few suggested fixes, not much seemed to help matters.  Fearing that my journey was going to come to a very abrupt end before it had even started, I decided to start from the beginning again, suspecting that maybe the image on the USB was corrupted in some way.  This didn’t help too much, but then I noticed I had actually tried compatibility mode.  The result…

Welcome screen for Linux Mint
A sight I half expected to never see

Bingo!  We were in.  It was only displaying on my TV hooked up to my computer and not my actual monitor, but it was a start.

Now, this wasn’t an actually installed version of the operating system.  This was just running straight off of the USB stick.  The installation is helpfully right there on the desktop for you to open up and begin. 

As is normally the case with these installations, you just need to select the language options, time zones and the like.  Nothing particularly taxing.  Then I reach the actual installation section.  According to the documentation, I should have had an option to install this alongside my existing installation of Windows and the setup would sort everything all out for me.  No option was visible to me.  Instead, I could either erase everything on the drive and start fresh (err… no) or do “something else…”

This is when things started to get a little hairy and I started to wonder if I had bitten off a bit too much.  I’m sure many are used to messing around with hard drive partitioning will be comfortable with all this, but it isn’t something I had any need to do before.  The worry that I would end up wiping my entire Windows install became quite real.

The first step was to reduce the size of part of the drive, freeing up space for me to create enough room for the extra partitions.  After spending quite some time trying to get simple instructions on how to do this, I finally managed to set it off, lowering the space of where Windows was installed by around 60GB.  This then required me to wait for a very long time.  All the while, I was worried that it would finally be done and I would see that it probably had wiped everything. 

Image of the partitioning options during Linux Mint installation
err…. yeah, sure

Fortunately, after about 15 minutes, it came back showing that the space had been reduced and the “used” figure did not change.  I was now able to create the two partitions required for the installation.  One of these is for the operating system itself (around 15GB) and the other bit is for the “swap” partition, which is used for hibernation and in case you run around of RAM.  This should match the amount RAM you have (32GB, in my case).

Now that was done, I was able to start the installation.  This was briefly interrupted by messages complaining about EFI.  It said I could continue, but might encounter problems.  After so much fiddling already, I decided just to go with it.  What is the worst that could happen?

The installation itself was pretty painless and took just a few minutes.  Soon I was ready to reboot and see my gloriously fully installed Linux operating system.

Of course, I am soon faced by the same black screen and Mint logo that I saw the first time I tried booting from the USB.  Even more worrying, the boot options didn’t have Windows as an option.  Was I screwed?  Had I destroyed both my Windows installation and was Mint not working?  It was this stage that I really felt like I just wanted to run back to Phil Spencer asking for forgiveness, beg Panos Panay to welcome me back and take papa Gates’s full embrace.

Cooling my head and taking a step back, I manage to access some more options for launching.  Looking at some of the system status information, I see this:

Taken from the system status screen.  Says "Physical Volumes: not ok (BAD)"
I like the clear messaging here

“not ok (BAD)” would indicate something wasn’t too good.  I run one of the tools here and also using the refresh the boot menu option, before restarting.  First up is the boot menu, which now contains Windows 10 (as well as Windows 7, oddly).  One issue sorted, now I just have to hope that Mint boots.  Well…

Welcome to Linux Mint!

We are in!  I was pretty pleased with the results here.  This was definitely not as simple as doing a Windows install, which is completely plug and play now, and I certainly needed to do quite a bit of fiddling, but it worked.  And on my actual monitor finally too.

As with any new operating system, first port of call is sorting out the drivers.  Mint offers you a nice “getting started” window that will take you through the different steps of getting everything in working order, from the drivers to the look of the system.  However, the drivers presented to me only seemed to pick up graphics card.  This would suffice for the moment so I just went ahead and installed those.

Next up was the main purpose of doing this.  Actually seeing how well games would run.  Unfortunately, Linux uses a different way from Windows to run programs.  .exe files do not exist here and they won’t run.  So, my initial attempts to just run something directly from a drive didn’t get very far at all.  You really need to use something like WINE or use an actual Linux version of a game.  I did briefly try to use PlayOnLinux, but didn’t get very far with this.  I might try looking into this some more and report back later.

Really though, I was here to see how well Steam would cope.  So, I started to download Steam.  The installation and the updating process were all fine and I was soon looking at a big list of my games on Steam.  All greyed out.  Again, because Linux uses a different structure than Windows for its programs, those installations on your Windows drives aren’t going to work.  This means re-downloading the games.  Glancing online, there are some suggestions on how to access the games on your other drives meaning you don’t have to entirely re-download the games and only download the bits that are required for Linux, but my quick tests didn’t work too well.  Again, this is something I will play with some more and hopefully report back on.

Instead, given my desire not to wait hours for downloads and the very limited space I had on my Linux drive, I picked a few lightweight games to give a go.  These were Deus Ex, Doom 2: Hell on Earth, Hotline Miami and Sonic Mania.  I didn’t check anything about these beforehand, whether they have Linux versions or not, as Valve claim they can handle that all for you.  Enter Proton.  Proton is an option you can enable within Steam that will assist with making non-native Linux games run on the open source platform.  Valve have worked with others, predominately, WINE in order to perfect this.  Judging by ProtonDB, which collates user tests to show which games Proton works with and how well, this is reasonably good, unless the game has multiplayer.  This is when it runs afoul of anti-cheat software.  Valve have said they are working to resolve those issues specifically, ahead of the release of the Deck.

Anyway, onto the testing.  I didn’t do anything to extensive with these, mostly just checking whether they would boot and get into the first level okay.  Presumably, if it could do that then the game should function mostly okay throughout, although the odd glitch might be present.  I also didn’t do any frame rate analysis to check performance, but with these older, simply games I don’t think that would be particularly informative.

Deus Ex was first up.  I clicked the play button fully expecting things to go wrong. 

Deus Ex logo
We will be crowned kings, or better than kings: Gods!

Surprisingly, it loaded with absolutely no problem.  I went into the first level and stood on the dock of the Statue of Liberty.  It did look very dark, to the point where it was almost impossible to see anything on the dock.  Checking the game in Windows, it is a dark area although it appeared a little clearer.  Some tweaks to the options might help with this, but my brief adjustments didn’t make much difference.

Moving on, Doom 2: Hell on Earth.  Initially, I was presented with a black screen and not much more.  Hitting enter seemed to clear this though and I was soon presented with the usual “press start” screen.  I was chainsawing imps in no time with absolutely zero problems.

Doom 2 opening level
Chainsaw works just as well in Linux as in Windows

The same happened with Hotline Miami too.  No issues as far as I could see, other than me completely forgetting how to play and dying multiple times to the first few enemies.

The final test was Sonic Mania and I chucked in controller support into the mix.  I use a PS4 controller, connecting through a 8bitdo Bluetooth receiver.  Steam needed an option enabled to detect it as an X360 controller, but once on everything was fine and Sonic was charging around Green Zone just as he would at his “normal” Windows home.

So, 4 for 4 and no real issues encountered, besides the darkness in Deus Ex.  I was genuinely shocked at just how easy it all was, once the operating system was installed.  When it comes the Steam Deck, this has gone some way to alleviating my compatibility concerns. I would like to test this some more to get a better judgement on this, particularly with more modern and complex games.  This might not be possible without re-downloading quite a bit, but I’ll be experimenting some more and will report back.

In terms of my PC usage, I don’t really see myself fully adopting or even partly adopting Linux, just as there isn’t any real benefit for me personally, beyond the rebel image.  That has not stopped me from writing this very article in LibreOffice Writer though. 

As an operating system for the Steam Deck, it is looking like I’m not going to have any complaints.

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Valve to deal another hand in the hardware game with Steam Deck

Valve's new Steam Deck hand held console

A little while ago, Gabe Newell gave a cryptic answer to a question about Valve’s relationship with the console market.  Asked whether there would be more ports coming from Valve onto consoles or if they would continue to stay on PC, the Steam head honcho responded “You will get a better idea of that by the end of this year and it won’t be the answer you expect.  You’ll say, ‘Ah-ha!  Now I get what he was talking about.”

Now we seemingly have an actual answer to that question and it is definitely something that not many people would have guessed at.  The Steam Deck will be a new hand-held device, allowing you access to your Steam library (as well as much more) on the go, be that on a plane, train, the local park or your lavatory.

Valve have no doubt seen the incredible success that the Switch has had, not only for games that come out of the Nintendo factory, and have decided they want in on the action.  This seems like a massively smart move from Valve too, with none of the other big players really trying to muscle in on the market and offer an alternative to the Switch.

Looking at the outside of the device, this could almost be a modern Sega Game Gear.  A chunky looking thing that at first glance looks like it isn’t too concerned with its aesthetics.  On closer examination though, we have some curves in the right places that might make it appear as if it might be a little more pleasing to hold for extended periods of time than the rather pins and needles inducing Switch.  There is also plenty of buttons and controls featured, with the usual that you would expect from a modern controller (2 analogue sticks, 4 face buttons, a couple “start” buttons, a trigger and bumper button on the left and right hand side of the device).  There are also two buttons at the bottom of the device, one saying “STEAM” on it, presumably to quickly access the Steam interface and another that has three dots, perhaps for further options. 

Steam Deck playing Factorio

Nothing particular unusual there, but we then come to some of the more interesting extra buttons.  On each side of the back where your fingers will naturally rest you will find a couple of buttons.  Then, because it wouldn’t be Valve hardware device without them, you have touchpad controls on both sides of the screen, likely to allow for mouse focused games to be more playable.

With the excellent controller customisation that is present in Steam already, expect plenty of custom made button layouts to be created for this thing by the community.  With the wide range of control options available, there are bound to be layouts that will meet what works for you.

Away from the controls, we have a 7” LED screen.  Perhaps a little disappointing to hear after Nintendo using the superior OLED tech for its new version of the Switch, but it sounds like this device will have pretty good brightness, going up to 400 nits.  The resolution is going to be 1280×800 (using the slightly unusual ratio of 16:10).  This is basically the same as the Switch’s 1280×720, which has proven to be adequate, although certainly not great.  More goes into a good looking screen than a resolution though and this is something that can’t really be judged until seen in person.  The extra brightness should help, but worth holding onto judgements until we see how it turns out in practice.

The other specs we have been given tell us that it will be operating with AMD architecture.  Zen 2 specifically, so not the latest.  It will be featuring 4 cores (8 threads) clocked at 2.4-3.5GHz.  This will go with 16GB of LPDDR5 RAM, so that side of things is going to be reasonably nippy. 

For its graphics, it will be using an 8 RDNA 2 CUs, clocked at 1-1.66Ghz.  They say that this will be capable of up to 1.6TFlops.  For comparison, the PS5 is specced for 10.29TFlops, so quite a significant amount more.  Don’t expect this thing to be a beast of a machine.

Worth remembering though, the resolution that this will be going for is quite a bit lower than those next gen consoles.  Plus, it is 60% faster than the Switch, which is around 1TFlop.  These things aren’t exact sciences either, so there is no doubt plenty of other technical wizardry going on inside to get the best possible performance and we can’t say just how well this device will work with the latest games until people start getting their hands on it.  If you aren’t too worried about the latest blockbusters though and want this just for indies and retro games than you shouldn’t need to concern yourself too much with the power.

The back of the Steam Deck, showing the rear finger buttons, triggers and bumpers

Storage is another area that might possibly of concern.  Coming in three different models, storage will be the only thing that differentiates them.  The smallest will be 64GB eMMC storage.  The larger models will be 256GB and 512Gb of NVMe SSDs using PCIe Gen 3.  On face value, 64Gb is really small and likely will not be worth having unless you are very specific on your requirements and won’t be playing any games that are likely to take up much space.  Having said that, there potentially could be ways for game sizes to be smaller, if there is incentive for developers to go in that direction.  Particularly with this device’s lower resolution, downloading huge textures to the Deck is likely pointless.  Adding additional download versions will require a little more work, but it certainly isn’t outside the realms of possibility.  The Deck will also feature a microSD card slot, so you can expand the size yourself.  Valve have said that they have worked quite a lot on making this as fast as possible, so depending on how well they have done with that the size might be moot point.

The other area that is worth mentioning is the compatibility of the games.  Valve have been quick to say that this will not be a closed system and that users will be free to download and install any software they like, including Windows.  That could be useful, as the device will be running SteamOS, Valve’s modified Linux.  Game support for Linux has always been patchy at best, particularly with AAA games.  Valve do have an answer for that with Proton, a layer that is automatically applied to improve compatibility.  No personal experience of trying this out, but reports are mostly positive (see ProtonDB for list of tested games), except for games that feature anti-cheat software.  This cuts out most multiplayer games.  Again, Valve have addressed this point and said they are working on a new version of Proton that should resolve this problem before the Deck is released.  When the big selling point of the device is that you can access your Steam library anywhere and then only half the games work that is definitely a problem, so this is something that might worth waiting on reports to see how much it will be an issue.

The fact that you will be able to install Windows though, along with any store you want, is fantastic.  This makes the library potentially huge presumably with no more headaches to accessing than you would from a regular PC.  There is also the possibility of running emulators on this thing, putting to shame the mediocre effort that Nintendo have put into their NES and SNES offering with Nintendo Online.

Release date for the Steam Deck will be December 2021 for United States, Canada, EU and UK.  Other regions will follow in 2022.  Price will £349/$399 for 64GB, £459/$529 for 256GB and £569/$649 for the 512GB.  This includes a case. A dock to connect to monitor or TV will be sold separately. Reservations open today.

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Something for the Weekend – 10th-11th July

Photoshop of today's Gareth Southgate consoling himself after missing a penalty in Euro 96
Brilliant image of today’s Gareth Southgate with himself after missing a penalty in Euro ’96

This weekend is going to be seeing most of England anticipating 8pm Sunday.  Not being particularly interested in this country’s national sport, I’m uncertain whether I will actually be watching.  Still, I wish good luck to a team that stood up for what they believe in and to a manager that has demonstrated what true leadership looks like, as well as what can be achieved when it is used appropriately.  No matter what happens when the final whistle is blown, I hope that continues and they don’t let others try to use the platform for their own ends.

Hope sports fans have a good one (and don’t forget about the tennis to get you in the mood).

Here is what I will be coming home to.

Nioh

Onryoki boss from Nioh
I will play more of this… if I can get past this guy!

All the games I’m mentioning I picked up right at the end of the Steam sale, after expecting not to really get anything from it.  Gabe just can’t help getting into my wallet.

Being a big fan of Soulsborne games, I’m always on the lookout for other games that can capture even a dollop of the magic sauce that goes into From Software’s output.  Playing other games really makes you appreciate just how good and how difficult getting the balance right is.  Nioh looks like it gets the closest though.

Whereas From Software games, particular Dark Souls, makes the combat very simple, Nioh attempts to add a little bit of variety to the fighting with some combos and a skill tree for each weapon type.  Then there are also 3 different stances that can be used to mix up your playstyle: high, medium and low.

Even the stamina management is given a bit of twist, taking a page from the active reload system in Gears of War, where timing a button press after a series of attacks will allow you to recover some of the stamina.  All of this, plus a stat system much like in Dark Souls, gives you quite a bit to think about and it is a little overwhelming to begin with.  It does click eventually though and it feels really good when it does all come together.

I’m not very far in yet and I’ve hit a little bit of a difficulty spike with the first real boss, but looking forward to getting more into this.

Dead by Daylight

Killer from Dead by Daylight with fire in the background
Slash ‘n’ burn – even killers have prestige –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8a1WEjLqUw

Bought on the encouragement of a friend who fancied it, this was a pleasant surprise when I played it last night.  The basic concept is a sound one (4 stock horror film characters vs 1 slasher film killer), but I wasn’t sure how well it would actually all come together.

The developers, Behaviour Interactive, have done a really good job of capturing the spirit of these films.  Playing as a survivor is suitably creepy and has you on edge as you slowly move around a small arena, trying to repair generators that take an uncomfortable amount of time to fix.  Playing as the killer is a delightful power-trip, that also has that uneasiness that evokes the opening of Halloween, as you stalk your prey. 

There is also plenty of smart mechanics that keep the balance just right, such as the first person view of the killer restricting your field of view, as well as there being quite a few bits of animation that can slow you down or lose track of your victims.

The tone is a little bit too grim in places, forgetting that many of these films don’t really revel in the gnarly depiction of what is happening and rely more on imagination than you might remember.  There are moments of humour that naturally comes from the mixing of real people, particularly when playing with friends, but a little more slapstick would be welcome. This is particular true with the design of some of the killers that are all trying a bit too hard to be grim (again, particularly true with the base game comparted to the DLC).  Having said that, there is clearly a lot of love that has gone into putting it altogether.  I particularly loved the animation that was done on the Huntress character, as she glitches around in her movement.

How much the content that is there will last is another matter that I can’t answer after a single evening (particularly as you aren’t able to access many of the survivors and kills without buying DLC).  Nor is it clear how enjoyable it will be when needing to include randoms in your game.  If you can find a group of 4 players (or 3, if you don’t mind a random killer) that would be up for joining you to see who can be the final boy/girl then I can recommend this as worth your time.

Nex Machina

Image of Nex Macina with lots of bullets and lasers
(Bullet) hellishly good

From two quite innovative and modern gaming experiences, to something that takes its inspiration from some of the earliest games around.  Nex Machina is unapologetically arcade.  This is purely about dodging reams of bullets and high score chasing.

I’ve played for about 30 minutes or so and I feel like I have seen pretty much everything the game has to offer.  That isn’t going to stop me going back for more though, as this is one of those games that reminds you the simplest ideas are often the most fun to play.

It also looks absolutely stunning, with voxels flying everywhere and plenty of colour to light up the screen.  Quite a far cry from the dreariness of Dead by Daylight.  And yet, even with all that is going on visually, Housemarque have done a great job at making sure that everything is still easy parse.  I never once had a problem keeping track of where I was and which of the dozens of things I needed to avoid.

Housemarque are obviously seeing quite a bit of success at the moment with Returnal on the PS5.  I don’t have a PS5 yet, but this confirms that it should be on the list of games that might convince me to get one when I can.

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Nintendo try to Switch-it up with the new Switch OLED

The new Nintendo Switch OLED playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

It feels like years that it has been doing the rumour circuit.  The clamouring for the Switch Pro has almost existed as long as the Switch itself, with fresh rumours appearing every year.  Something changed this year though, with the Bloomberg report a little before E3.  This was a reliable news source spilling the beans and reputable gaming news sites followed.  Evidence of manufacturing kicking off and deals on new screens added some extra weight to the speculation.  

Now, finally, the prophets can claim themselves to be as right (and wrong) as Nostradamus.  Nintendo have announced a new version of their massively successful Switch console.  Just how accurate were those rumours though and will this be able to make Nintendo once again the console to have this holiday season when it is released in October?

The announcement trailer, showing off the clean looking white design

The first part is likely to depend on which rumours you were reading and believing.  If the rumourmonger was being realistic about expectations, then it is likely to have been closer to the truth.  If you were won over by talk of fancy upscaling tech to really show off those smooth curved surfaces in the Mushroom Kingdom than you are probably going to be disappointed.

With the now named Switch OLED, the biggest change is spelt out in the name.  That is the new, slightly larger, OLED screen.  We are getting a whole 7 inches, compared to the previous 6.2.  It isn’t going to be a night and day change from the perspective of screen size, although those annoyingly large bezels will be quite a bit less noticeable now.  We also aren’t seeing any change in resolution, with the same 1280×720 when handheld.  This might disappoint many that were getting excited by the 4k talk, but I can’t say it comes as a massive surprise that they aren’t reaching for those sorts of heights. 

The change in screen display tech is going to give a noticeably improved presentation though, capable of darker darks and brighter brights.  The current screen offers some underwhelming brightness, particularly in sunlight, so this is definitely a welcome change.  It is also a change that isn’t going to be easy to sell and one that isn’t going to be particularly noticeable for must outside of side-by-side comparisons.

Perhaps the other big change is the storage capacity that is doubling from 32GB up to 64GB.  As there were quite quickly games out for the Switch that could not fit on the internal storage or would take up almost all of it, this was a much-needed change.  Anyone serious about downloading games is still going to want to get an SD card, but this should make it less of a necessity and I would expect many of the target audience of the Switch to continue buying physical games for the most part, with a few indie digital games.  For them, 32GB was likely okay, with the need to delete the odd game from time to time.  With 64GB, they are likely to never need to delete again.

Nintendo Switch OLED in white dock and the white joy-cons in the charging grip
No word on whether the dreaded joy con drift has been resolved yet or if they are just getting a white paint job

The other changes are fairly minor and will likely only be of benefit to people with particular use cases.  First of these is an improved speaker.  The current speaker is quite poor, but the sound output on the Switch is weak even when using other speakers/headphones.  There isn’t any indication that there will be improvement on how it handles sound internally, so this is only really of benefit for those that are likely to be regularly using the Switch handheld without headphones. 

Similarly, the ethernet port is a nice addition that some will find useful.  The current Switch doesn’t have great wi-fi and we can assume the situation will be the same with the new model.  This should help a lot, but it is also something that only a few users are likely to actually take advantage of.  Lastly, there is the stand, which is much wider and more adjustable.  Again, a needed improvement that is good to see, but I’m not sure how many people actually use the stand anyway.

So, onto that second question at the top of the article, is it worth buying?  My gut reaction, as a Switch owner, is that the additions are pretty much all things that I have felt should be improved with the current model, but I don’t see them being good enough to entice me.  However, if I was someone who hadn’t gotten around to picking up a Switch, I would likely be holding off until this was available. The improved screen is enough of a selling point, whilst the other changes are certainly nice to haves and altogether it warrants the slightly increased price.

That price is currently stated as being $350, with other regional Western pricing not announced.  I would expect to see it not far off that price with the $ replaced with a £, perhaps about £325 mark.  That would make it around £45 more than the old model (£279).  For the slightly higher fee, the nicer screen will be worth putting down a little more for.  Only thing to consider is the effect on battery life.  Nintendo are stating it as having the same battery and longevity as the LCD model, but I would expect that is going to very much depend on how you are using it.  If you are going to take advantage of that brighter screen it could well be sucking more juice.

Assuming that is all fine though, then I don’t see much reason for a new Switch owner to not go for the slightly better model.

The Switch OLED will be hitting stores on the 8th October.  The original Switch and Switch Lite look like they will both still be still available.

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Something for the Weekend – 3rd-4th July

Stormy London

Suns out for the start of the first weekend in July here in the UK, although it appears to not be set to continue, with storms approaching before the nice weather really gets settled in.  Yes, I’m being a cliché Brit and complaining about the weather.

Instead, let me just share with you the highlights I’m looking forward to this weekend.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch – Switch

Ni No Kuni Remastered: Wrath of the White Witch

This JRPG is a real beaut.  Developed by Level-5 in a collaboration with Studio Ghibli, the influences from the Japanese animation studio are front and centre.  Ghibli specifically put together animated sequences, but the art style carries through the whole game and is a delight to look at.  That same attention to detail is also shown in other areas of the game too, such as the gorgeous Wizard Companion book that the main character carries with him, available for the player to peruse at their leisure, as they collect pages to fill in the gaps.  I’m not surprised to see that physical version of this book and it looks as magical as I would expect.

I’m still quite early to tell how good the actual game is, but the combat is feeling reasonably solid so far.  Think of a turn-based real time game, ala some of the Final Fantasies, but where you are also able to move your character around the battlefield too.  This allows you to back off when you want to heal and adds some extra decisions when prioritising targets (can you close the distance to deal with that ranged enemy first or just deal with the melee?)  I’m liking the combat at the moment, but I do often find JRPGs get a little samey in that aspect.  The quests seem to be your standard type of hunt creatures, find lost children, collect some flowers, etc. that you will be use to from other similar games.  The world and the storytelling are what really stand out though and I’m looking forward to dive further into it.

Murder by Numbers

Murder by Numbers

I didn’t manage to get to this last weekend, as the final episode of the first Phoenix Wright game took much longer than I was expecting.  I did finally manage to give it a go other though and it seems like it will be a good time.  It certainly appears to take inspiration from Phoenix Wright for the writing, with it being pitched at just the right balance of silliness.  The characters are enjoyable so far and the first case is a reasonable murder mystery.  The picross puzzles are pretty straightforward at the moment, but I have only played for barely an hour, so I wouldn’t expect them to throw you too much in the deep end yet.  I was also not expecting to need to draw a tampon, but it was a good way to set the tone.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Thought I would return to this, now that I’m much more familiar with the franchise after having seen the films for the first time with 20th anniversary cinema showings (why I didn’t see them when they originally came out in my early teens, I have no idea).  I only played a little of it originally, getting distracted by something else quite quickly, even though I liked the general feel of the combat and what little I saw of the very cool nemesis system that everyone raves about,

Playing it again now, I’m certainly enjoying it.  The combat is a fun remix of what the Batman Arkham games perfected, whilst the world itself is a reasonable implementation of the sort of thing you would find in an Assassin’s Creed game.  Navigating the world is a little tedious though, with so many orcs to either fight through or avoid.  As is also the case with these games, traveling to a quest marker normally takes in various detours to the many, many other markers dotted around the map.  It is also a very, very brown game, perhaps a sign of its age.

I think my first goal will be to try to unlock as many of the towers as I possibly can, as they also serve as fast travel points.  I’ll also mostly be sticking with the main mission quests, as it looks like the side quests aren’t going to be that interesting.

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Doom: Eternal – The Ongoing Dance of Rockets, Plasma and Gibs

Doom Eternal

DOOM (2016) was an incredible breath of fresh air.  It took the old-school format of the granddaddy of the FPS genre, ripped and teared it apart, before putting it all back together again for a modern age.  It was unapologetic about its non-stop violence and action, but proved that formula creates the smartest and most engaging combat compared to the dreary modern warfare shooters that dominated the market since Call of Duty’s Modern Warfare almost 10 years previous.  Nothing for a very long time really compared to the joy of quickly switching between your diverse collection of weapons, prioritising targets amongst a bunch of unique enemies and darting around arenas to control the crowds.

DOOM: Eternal is the follow up to this seminal reboot.  At its core, it remains a very similar game, but there is an injection of a bunch of new ideas to play with.  Some work, some do not, but does it all manage to hold together to take the Doomslayer to even greater heights?

I expect my answer to the question would have changed on almost an hourly basis.  As already mentioned, the gameplay through Eternal is quite similar to the previous game in the series.  We are still fighting a range of demons in a variety of arenas.  The doors are locked until you settle your differences with those demons and can travel through a series of corridors (albeit corridors with a few more jumping puzzles), until you encounter the next arena.  Rip, tear and repeat.

Doom Eternal screenshot - Doomslayer holding a severed head

If you enjoyed that process in 2016, there is a good chance that you are going to enjoy that process again.  Eternal does add a bunch of other things to spice up these encounters though, from a few more abilities to some extra enemies via some more secrets to explore the environment for.  In the early sections of the game this can be at times overwhelming, as your gameplay is interrupted by another pop up to explain something else about the game.  Not too long into the game, your HUD will start to be mish mash of icons and counters to keep track of many different elements.  Some will be familiar, such as your chainsaw fuel, but there is now so much more to look at that it can be tough to get your head around it all.

Where these newer elements do excel is with the extra movement options that they afford you.  The dash is a wonderful addition to your balletic repertoire.  Initially you may just use as required to jump between platforms in the obligatory platforming sequences, but once you start utilising it during combat you will wonder how managed to play the game without it.  Closing that distance to land that glory kill, using it to assist with your movement to create distance between enemies or just simply to dodge the attack of a charging Pinky, I’m not sure how I would go back to the 2016 game and lose it. 

Similarly, the new double shotgun is a joy to use, again adding more movement options during battles.  The alternate firemode will shoot out a hook that grabs onto enemies propelling you towards them.  Applying a sidestep to the Doomslayer as he flies through the air will let you swing around them.  Combine this with the rune that slows down time when you hold down your alternate fire in the air and suddenly you can perform incredible feats of motion, whilst giving enemies both barrels.  Plus, the double shotgun is also a great way to see the deformation of enemies, with you blasting chunks out of them in really satisfying meaty way.

When you are given the space to use all of these abilities it can really escalate the thrill of these battles.  Combined with the thumping soundtrack that continues the DOOM tradition of blistering rock, when the game is hitting all the right notes it is incredible.

Then it throws a level at you that is much tighter and doesn’t allow you to move around so much and things become frustrating.  Your tools become less useful during those moments and you are mostly hoping that you can put out enough damage before they hit you too many times.  Others may have this experience less, but it definitely felt like more of a struggle to deal with the numerous enemies on some levels were less spacious.  There were also some enemies that were noticeably less enjoyable to fight, in particular the Marauder – a shield carrying axe man that you can only attack when his eyes flash green and he is about to crush you with his axe.  This seemed to require standing at just right distance from him to bait out this attack; stand too close and he would use a sawn-off shotgun, stand to far away and he would just fire some kind of magical attack at you.  Worse was when he would summon some random wolf thing that would chase you down.  On his own he wasn’t too bad, but the game would also insist on continually spawning enemies in most battles against him.  Normally, these would just be your standard basic demon enemy, purely there to keep you stocked up on ammo or health (as before, chainsaw attacks spew ammo everywhere and glory kills will produce health), but sometimes there are larger enemies to distract you from just focusing on the enemy you really want to deal with.

Of course, dealing with these issues of enemy priority and crowd control are all part of what makes DOOM such a fantastic FPS game, but these segments often crossed into the frustrating, particularly as I often felt like I was needing to game the enemy AI to make sure he did the attack I wanted him do.  This sort of annoyance carries through to some of the boss battles too, although those are fortunately not too frequent.

Doom Eternal - giant titan chained in pit of lava

Talking of bosses and characters leads me onto another complaint.  Do you remember that really great storyline in the first game, about the origins of the demonic invasion and the creation of the saviour who would destroy them?  No, me neither, but apparently Id wanted to expand upon it.  Fortunately, this fades away as the game goes on, with it being mostly ignorable, but the beginning definitely feels like it wants you to pay attention to the events that are going on.  There is even a bit with some other person and the game does that lowering the gun animation that games do when they are telling you this is a person you can’t shoot.  As the main thing people remember from the story in the first game is a computer being ripped off of the wall as it tries to give exposition to the Doomslayer, it is an odd choice to suddenly decide that people might actually care about the events that are propelling us forward.

There is also a slight amateurish style to the delivery, with cutscenes that feel almost reminiscent to the sort of static camera delivery we would have had in the late 90s.  For such a big budget game and from something that has clearly had a huge amount of love poured into the mechanics, it is odd to see such lack of direction given to these sequences, jumping from staying first person to third person to just having the camera stuck in a random spot in the scene.  We even have moments where you press a switch and there is a quick shot of the door the switch opened, instead of using the level design and environment to inform direction the player should head towards.  These are elements that are less welcome to a modern game and could have been left back in the 90s.  I also don’t recall them being present in the 2016 game, but perhaps those are rose-tinted glasses playing tricks.

There is even a weird Fortress of Solitude style hub area to go to in-between missions, where you can spend some your pickups to unlock more upgrade points, play songs that you have unlocked through secrets and get new costumes, which you can never really see, what with you being seeing through the visor most of the time. It is a mess of staircases and doorways that all look the same and it is easy to get lost in. Why all of this couldn’t have been presented as a menu I’m not really sure and it isn’t even as if they made the area particularly interesting to look at.

I think it is worth reiterating that the core gameplay loop, the thing that you spent the vast majority of the dozen or so hours doing, are still excellent and even exceed what went before.  Many of the levels are excellent, particularly the Earth focused levels.  Even the level that is mostly spent inside office blocks is thrilling in ways that no office level should be outside of FEAR.  Many of the additions do work well, even if there are too many new things.  Even much of those new things are mostly ignorable, even if they do clog up your HUD a bit.  If in a year or two or decide I want to play another DOOM game, it probably will be this one.  It’s just that it could have been perfect.  Expand out some of those more claustrophobic levels, ditch some of the wonky cutscenes and rework some of the enemy design to be more interesting to battle and we could have one truly incredible game.

If you didn’t like DOOM back in 2016 than you aren’t likely to find much here that will win you back over.  If you did enjoy it though and haven’t had a chance to play Eternal, step back into the heavy shoes of the Doomslayer and load up your BFG.  Do the Danse Macabre one more time.

Doom Eternal - Revenant handing the Doomslayer a double barrelled shotgun
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