Assassin’s Creed: Unity review – Vive la révolution?

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PC/PS4 (reviewed)/Xbox One

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Revolutionary Paris provides the perfect backdrop for the parkour-packed action of Assassin’s Creed but, unfortunately, the franchise’s first full leap into next-gen gaming fails to deliver in some key areas.

Unity sees French developer Ubisoft return the series to its roots. The naval exploration and combat of last year’s offering, Black Flag, is gone and so too are many of the convoluted mechanics that the series has picked up in its various incarnations. In their place is an effort to refine the core mechanics of Assassin’s Creed and, in some ways, this is a welcome change in direction.

Fans of the series will find Unity’s mechanics instantly familiar. Inhabiting the cowl of the roguish Arno Dorian, you run, jump, and climb your way around the rooftops and back alleys of Paris evading guards while trying to locate and assassinate your enemies. In some respects, these core mechanics have been tweaked for the better.

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If you’ve played an Assassin’s Creed game before, you know what to expect.

The parkour is significantly slicker due to improved animations and the addition of a controlled descent button that allows you to smoothly go from the rooftops to the streets in a satisfying series of hurdles. It still isn’t as fluid as it should be however and Arno has a frustrating tendency to get stuck on bits of scenery, stubbornly refusing to vault over them.

The stealth mechanics have also been refined a little through the inclusion of a crouch button and wider, more open, assassination missions in which you can approach your target from multiple directions and in different ways. Arno can, occasionally, manipulate his surroundings to draw out his mark or to create a new point of entry for infiltration.

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Revolutionary Paris can be a dangerous place; especially with Arno on the prowl.

These help to freshen things up a little but they still prove to be somewhat linear and the frustrating missions where you have to tail a target without being spotted are still present. Unity also features an impressive number of side missions ranging from small-scale assassinations to murder mysteries that require you to gather evidence and interview suspects before making an accusation.

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For fuck’s sake…

The biggest gameplay innovation is the new co-op mode which allows up to four players to experience Paris together in free roam or take on assassination and heist missions as a team. These are generally pretty fun and, when you and a friend work together to stealthily take down a room full of enemies, it feels great.

The game has, like its predecessors, an obscene amount of collectibles and, for obsessive completionists like me, this is welcome but, for others, it’s mostly empty padding. Ubisoft have also bogged the game down in content locked behind companion apps and microtransactions which is, frankly, despicable given the cost of the game at purchase.

Unity’s saving grace is its setting. Paris feels like a living, breathing city and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The streets are packed with citizens who shop, argue, and steal amongst themselves and the art design can be breathtaking. Climbing around Notre Dame Cathedral, it’s hard not to be impressed. The ability to enter so many of the cities buildings also helps to make Paris feel dense as well as detailed.

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Gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.

Enormous crowds take to the streets and, while these do provide a certain level of spectacle, they cause the game to run terribly. Unity is riddled with bugs and glitches that cause serious problems. The frame rate frequently drops, NPCs clip through each other, and Arno can fall through the ground causing the game to crash.

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Massive crowds of NPCs provide spectacle at the cost of performance.

Unity is a flawed, but beautiful, game. There are poor design decisions, questionable business practices, and technical issues here and yet there are also sumptuous visuals, a remarkable setting, and exciting co-op missions. It was the best of Assassin’s Creed, it was the worst of Assassin’s Creed.

Alien: Isolation review – I Admire its Purity

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PC/ PS3/PS4 (reviewed)/Xbox 360/Xbox One

Taking Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror classic Alien as their inspiration, British developer Creative Assembly have produced a truly terrifying and subversive horror experience. This is not a game that makes the player feel powerful like so many big budget titles; quite the opposite in fact.

Alien: Isolation is a first-person survival horror and stealth game where, playing as Amanda Ripley (the daughter of Sigourney Weaver’s character from the original film), you travel to the space station Sevastopol to recover the ill-fated Nostromo’s flight recorder and learn more about your mother’s mysterious disappearance fifteen years ago. Unfortunately for Ripley and crew, Sevastopol is in crisis.

The old writing-on-the-wall trope is alive and well in Alien: Isolation

The old writing-on-the-wall trope is alive and well in Alien: Isolation.

Like Bioshock’s Rapture, Sevastopol is a society in tatters. Desperate survivors stalk the station in search of supplies and dead-eyed androids attack any who defy their protocols. Most disturbingly of all, an otherworldly creature is prowling around the station’s ventilation system aggressively pursuing its human prey.

For most of the game, Ripley is tracked by a single Xenomorph and where she goes, it follows. This, coupled with the game’s dynamic AI that actively seeks out the player and reacts to noises in the environment, is one of the key factors in making this experience so distressing.

If you run, fire weapons, or interact with objects in the environment it makes noise and, if you make noise, it will attract enemies. Aggressive packs of survivors, creepy “Working Joe” androids, and – if you’re really unlucky – the Creature itself will all investigate noises and hunt for the source of it relentlessly.

I'm safe in the locker...right?

I’m safe in the locker…right?

The Xenomorph is particularly tenacious and you can expect to spend a lot of time hiding in lockers and crouching under desks desperately yearning for the opportune moment to escape. Additionally, outside of a couple of scripted events, it doesn’t have any set pathing or route and as such is unpredictable. Each time you load up a save or start a new game, the Alien will find new ways to surprise you and this results in truly emergent gameplay. It might track you and follow you into the vents or maybe it’ll get distracted by some other survivors and go for them; the AI reacts to events in the environment and can change on the fly. It’s capricious, it’s horrifying, and it’s fantastic.

Dead again.

Dead again.

Humans and androids, on the other hand, can be dealt with in a variety of ways using the weapons and items that Ripley finds or builds from crafting materials found in the environment but the Alien cannot be killed; it is totally implacable. Some weapons, like the flamethrower you pick up about halfway through the game, can be used to temporarily scare it off giving you a few frantic seconds to run or hide but it will return to the hunt soon enough.

I died A LOT in this game.

I died A LOT in this game.

Ripley encounters the titular Alien countless times throughout the game’s 15-20 hour duration and, inevitably, it loses some of its mystique after a while; becoming less frightening the more you see it. Like all truly great horror, however, the greatest fear comes not from constant gore or jump scares but from the tension generated while the monster isn’t in plain view. This is where Alien: Isolation really shines.

Listening to the soft bleeps of the motion tracker getting faster and more frequent as the Alien hurtles towards you is unbearably nerve-racking and reduced me to a panicky mess on more than one occasion. Similarly, hearing the Creature clattering about in the ventilation shafts above you or hissing as it slithers into the room you’re hiding in is truly horrifying. Be prepared to sweat out some seriously tense moments while you anxiously listen for some indication that the coast is clear for you to sneak away. The atmosphere is further enhanced by the game’s aesthetic.

The game's aesthetic will be instantly familiar to fans of the 1979 film.

The game’s aesthetic will be instantly familiar to fans of the 1979 film.

The game’s art design truly captures Scott’s original bleakly industrial, lo-fi tech aesthetic and fans of the franchise will love exploring Sevastopol’s many environments. The developers also use sound and art design to toy with the player’s imagination. Crawling through a vent in the dark, it’s easy to mistake a coil of pipes for a tail or the hiss of steam escaping from a pipeline for that of the beast and Creative Assembly put this to good use in generating fear and panic in the player. What’s more, death actually has consequence in this game.

There are no checkpoints in Alien: Isolation. To save your progress, you must get to the nearest emergency telephone, punch your card in, and wait. At any point in this process, you can be killed. This mechanic is brutal but it does create a very real sense of balancing risk and reward; you desperately want to get through a room and reach the next save point but do so too hastily and you will be punished.

Beep. Beep. Beeeeep......and breathe.

Beep. Beep. Beeeeep……and breathe.

Doing away with automatic checkpoints is a bold decision – one that I fear will alienate many potential fans – and, if you have enough patience, it creates an even greater feeling of dread when you don’t know what’s around the corner. Regrettably, this feature can become immensely frustrating (especially when compounded with the Creature’s dynamic AI that can lead to it dropping right behind you at a moment’s notice) and this isn’t the game’s only flaw.

The experience is somewhat marred by technical problems. The frame rate occasionally drops significantly (especially during the cut scenes where, at times, it really stutters) and I suffered a game-breaking bug that meant returning to the start of the previous mission. These glitches are worth bearing in mind but must not be overstated; the game runs fairly well for the most part.

The horror.

The horror.

Alien: Isolation is not a game that’s designed to make you feel powerful, it’s built to take your power away. It’s a survival horror experience set in a lovingly crafted world fraught with tension and thick with atmosphere. The gameplay focuses on stealth rather than combat and, for those with the patience, there’s a lot to like here. Just remember that even if, in space, no one can hear you scream, your neighbours probably still can.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor review – Master of Puppets

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PC/ PS3/PS4 (reviewed)/Xbox 360/Xbox One

Death is an interesting prospect in Shadow of Mordor. The game begins with its protagonist, a ranger named Talion, watching as his family are murdered by the lieutenants of the evil Lord Sauron and then he dies. Sort of. Talion’s fate has been entwined with that of a mysterious wraith and he’s cursed to walk the world of Middle-earth until he can visit revenge upon his killers and learn more about the enigmatic phantom to whom he is bound.

This is how the game begins and, while it serves its purpose, the narrative isn’t particularly noteworthy. It’s a fairly typical revenge story that exists primarily as a hook to hang a game on.  Fortunately, that game is very, very good.

The core mechanics will be instantly familiar to any fans of the Assassin’s Creed or Batman: Arkham franchises. Talion can scale walls and towers with ease and the environment is a joy to explore; especially when sneaking up on an enemy.  The combat is fast and fluid; building up a huge and varied combination of moves is immensely satisfying and unleashing a killer finisher at the perfect moment feels fantastic. Even better, environmental hazards – like exploding kegs of grog and vicious caged beasts – can be used to create chaos in orc strongholds.

It's not you're day really, is it mate?

It’s not you’re day really, is it mate?

Eventually, Talion gains the ability to ‘brand’ enemies and make them fight for him. This allows the player to orchestrate Machiavellian assassination plots on powerful orc leaders by exploiting the Nemesis system; the game’s most compelling mechanic.

Each new game generates a plethora of enemies with names, hates, fears, ambitions, strengths, and weaknesses all trying to climb their way up the blood-spattered ladder from grunt to captain to warchief. These enemies roam the open-world map competing with each other through various types of power struggles. They hold feasts, execute rivals, and participate in deadly duels to build their strength and prestige amongst their fellow orcs. Those that emerge victorious gain new strengths and lose weaknesses making them considerably more formidable in battle. What’s more, they remember their encounters with the player and learn from them.

Orc power struggles allow the player to pull the strings from behind the scenes.

Orc power struggles allow the player to pull the strings from behind the scenes.

In Shadow of Mordor, death doesn’t always stick and, much like the player, many of the game’s enemies will keep coming back for more. Talion might be able to creep up on Lamlug Skull Bow once, but next time that strategy probably won’t work. He’ll have learned his lesson from their first encounter and will be on the lookout for sneaky rangers. Eventually, the physical scars of your battles will start to show too. If Lamlug gets run through with a sword, he’ll have scars, if he’s set on fire, he’ll have burns. In my game, poor old Lamlug took so much punishment that he eventually turned up with a bag on his head.

It isn't all barren wasteland; some parts of Mordor are strikingly verdant.

It isn’t all barren wasteland; some parts of Mordor are strikingly verdant.

While the plot isn’t particularly exciting, Shadow of Mordor is an exceptional open-world game that gives the player a vast set of tools for murdering a slew of unique enemies and gives them the freedom to deal with them in any way they see fit; manipulating power politics from the shadows and pulling the strings on a hit from behind the scenes is especially satisfying. With so many ways to go about it, it’s never been so much fun to hunt some orc.