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Filament – The Verdict

Filament – The Verdict

Here I was alone on my spaceship. Minding my own business. Basking in the bliss of eternal solitude, when all of a sudden I noticed a distress signal coming from a nearby ship ‘The Alabaster’. I took one look down at my control panel and decided “not today my friend”. I turned off incoming transmissions and slowly continued on, not knowing where I was going or what I was doing. Free from responsibility and game mechanics…

…of course the game had other ideas.

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DiRT Rally 2.0 (GOTY) – The Verdict

DiRT Rally 2.0 (GOTY) – The Verdict

As with most other sports, the World Rally Championship is on hold, but for the first time since the days of Colin McRae and Richard Burns, we have a championship contender in Elfyn Evans. Yet in these dark times when the forests are quiet, a Game of the Year edition of DiRT Rally 2.0 appears pulling together the content from the four seasons that Codemasters have released since the game first launched in February 2019. This bundle also brings with it the Colin McRae Flat Out pack, a content collection designed to honour McRae’s title winning season 25 years ago and completes Codemasters homage to Colin McRae Rally 2.0, a title which defined my racing days on the PlayStation.

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GRID The Verdict

GRID The Verdict

When I first played Codemaster’s newly rebooted GRID I had just come back from a weekend at the Wales Rally GB. A weekend of serious motorsport, off-road motorsport at that put me in the wrong mindset to play GRID for the first time. This isn’t a sim like Codies recent DiRT Rally 2.0 or their F1 series of racers. Nay, GRID is an arcade racer, and one with plenty of depth.

In my first few races in the Touring car class, I was trying to drive like this was a combination of DiRT and F1, a style which really didn’t suit the new GRID, and especially not on a racetrack. After a couple of races, I soon realised that leaning into GRID’s arcade elements was the best way to enjoy the action on course.

Everything is set about getting up close and personal with the other cars on track, while there isn’t any obvious rubber banding going on, the setup of the classes and events means that you will often end up in some bumper-to-bumper action, especially when diving into the first corner on any track. This action is encouraged as it plays into the Nemesis system which is highlighted as the great new feature of the game.

To be honest, I haven’t really noticed anything special with the Nemesis system. The theory is that if you get too involved with an AI competitor, they will become a Nemesis and potentially pose a danger to your winning chances. Sadly, despite being able to gain a Nemesis pretty easily after a few bumps, I haven’t observed any driving especially focused on knocking me out of contention. The handful of times I’ve been sent into a spin on purpose have been from random opponents I’ve overtaken rather than my Nemesis.

There is also a disappointing lack of longevity with this system. Within each class of racing there are thirteen events, culminating in a big blow-out Showdown event. As each AI driver is stated to have their own unique driving style and attitude, I was expecting to be able to build up a rivalry during the course of events within a class. Sadly not, with the Nemesis seemingly limited to a race-by-race basis.

It’s a missed opportunity, and one that turns what could have made for a meaningful series of races within each class into a block of standalone multi-race events. With something like F1 there is the narrative of the championship season, along with the ever-expanding routine of choosing development paths for your car. DiRT 2.0 has the challenge of the simulation, team management and championships to hunt for. Compared to its stablemates, GRID feels lacking.

Where it lacks in the niceties that have propagated through the genre, it makes up with variety. You have a number of main classes – Tuner for the fancy Japanese imports, Stock where you work your way up to a NASCAR truck, Touring which is a hat-tip to GRID’s roots in the TOCA games, while GT is my favourite featuring some of the highlights of the GT class in the World Endurance Championship. Aston Martin’s can steal my heart.

With different tiers of cars within those classes, there is a constant desire to complete events and earn much needed money to allow you to buy the next car up. Fortunately, to get to the Showdown events at the culmination of each class you only need to complete ten events. It’s a wise move in allowing you to get to a Showdown without being forced to grind through, or even get a podium, on ever event.

Beyond the main classes is a Fernando Alonso branded block of events. Clearly Fernando is bored in his time away from F1, but his name provides an easy way to shoehorn some single seater action into proceedings. However, like most games which aren’t the F1 series the single seaters here are fiddly and annoying to drive.

The invitational series though is the place to go if you want to get your hands on the best machinery. You don’t need to buy the cars here, saving you a pretty penny but still allowing you to get behind the wheel of legendary machines like the Ferrari 330 or the Porsche 917. Once you dig beneath the entry level cars in the regular classes, gems like these shine the game in a whole new light.

Even better, you don’t need to work through the invitational events in sequential order. A number of them will be unlocked once you have completed required events in the main classes. Just by completing five GT events, not even having to win them all, and I was able to take the Ferrari 330 out to Silverstone. Wonderful.

Despite the missed opportunities around the Nemesis system, the races are exciting. There’s a welcome mix of real and Codemaster’s crafted tracks, some of which you might remember from earlier entries in the series. It’s a thrill to see the AI racing each other hard, there aren’t any follow the leader races that you see elsewhere. I’ve seen opponents slide off wide at Silverstone, or get launched into the air around Havana while their tendency to flash you during night races is pleasingly reminiscent of real-world endurance racing.

There are options to perform a hot lap to try and qualify hire up the grid, but after a few of these I tended to avoid them. Starting from the default starting position of 14th is more than good enough to get stuck into the action and knowing that you can progress through events just by completing them takes the pressure off having to win.

Even playing on a standard PlayStation 4, the game looks stunning. The moody clouds of Silverstone contrast nicely with a sun kissed San Francisco, while a drenched city circuit around Havana pushes the tension up a notch or two. I’d love to see this in 4K on Pro, it’s sure to be a gorgeous sight.

The new GRID isn’t perfect, beyond the limited implementation of the Nemesis system you are liable to incur frustrating time penalties for corner cutting, great for a sim but feeling decidedly out of place in an arcade leaning racer like this. There are also some funky camera effects in chase mode where the camera zooms in closer to you when an opponent is close behind you. It’s disorienting and something I would have been happy to do without.

When I look at this new GRID, at first glance it seems a bit lightweight, especially when compared to its stablemates. But once you get stuck into the great racing and enjoy the variety of classes on offer, you’ll realise this is a welcome diversion from the sim heavy racing world we currently live in.

The Verdict – Headshot

Platforms Available – PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Platform Reviewed – PlayStation 4
Review based on review code supplied by PR. Please see this post for more on our scoring policy.

Dry Drowning – The Verdict

Dry Drowning – The Verdict

When I previewed Dry Drowning back in July, I argued that although it was described as a visual novel on its Steam page, there were “gamey” elements to ensure it would meet some arbitrary definition of what a game is from some quarters of the internet.

Having worked my way through the game since its release at the beginning of August, I’d argue that regardless of how you define Dry Drowning, you should take the time to check it out. There’s even a demo where your save files are fully compatible with the full version of the game, so there really isn’t any reason not to pay this at the least a passing glance.

Living Nightmare mode…nice, but without many real consequences.

Coming from Italian developers Studio V, Dry Drowning is a murder-mystery that touches on some deeper themes. Politics is intertwined with racism and immigration, the surveillance state and AI. During your investigation, it will make you pause and ask yourself how far you must go to “do the right thing”, and what that right thing might actually be.

It’s also a game where I found myself banging my head against the table at the attitude of the protagonist, the private detective Mordred Foley. There are numerous decision points in the game, which will ultimately lead to three completely different endings. Despite making decisions to put Mordred on the path to becoming a better person, I felt a disconnect between my choices, his comments during some conversations and his inner-thoughts revealed during cut-scenes.

At times this left me feeling like he was a dark tormented soul that would have no hope of redemption, but the ending I achieved was positive enough to lighten the mood of the story from the perpetual darkness it could have become. I have no doubt that some players will lean into Mordred’s worst tendencies which will lead the city of Nova Polemos into a more hate filled place to live.

Lots of lovely text to read and find clues in.

While Mordred is a difficult character to love, the supporting cast of characters offer some hope. His partner, Hera has been through hell in a previous case, one that you will experience through well-crafted flashbacks, but hasn’t let her experiences send her down the same path as Mordred. She is the good angel sat on your shoulder and provides some much-needed perspective as you journey through the story. Detective Freya has a testy relationship with Mordred and has a story that I would love to have learned more of. If there is a follow on to Dry Drowning, I would hope that Freya takes the lead role.

There are many decision points during the story, some of which through my playthrough felt like they were left dangling without any clear resolution, while others had a massive impact on different characters, and even the Nova Polemos as a whole. Aside from these decisions, Dry Drowning follows an easy rhythm to follow.

You investigate the murder scenes, ask suspects questions until you trap them in a lie when a grotesque mask hides their face. Once they have begun to lie, you use the evidence you have gathered and piece together the events to break their mask and reveal the truth. Dry Drowning makes a big thing at first about only having three lives during these sequences, and if you provide the wrong evidence three times the game will be over.

Morded, smoking. So very noir.

Rather than being over and a unique ending playing, you simply get to repeat the interrogation. It’s fine but can become a chore to repeat a lot of the dialogue to get to the interrogation again. It shows that paying attention to the story and character motivations is key, but I wonder whether sometimes the translation from Italian to English is lacking in some refinement which can obscure some key parts of a case. Then again, it might be that I’m not the best detective out there!

Aside from these interrogation scenes, there are several small puzzles that you must complete to progress the case. None are too challenging, but a few more would have been welcomed to add a bit more variety to the constant dialogue.

It’s not perfect, and some people won’t give Dry Drowning the time of day, purely because it has “visual novel” in the product description. I think this is a game well worth taking a look at, and I would definitely be interested in seeing what Studio V can do to refine and improve on the formula they have come up with here if they were to expand on the world of Nova Polemos.

The Verdict – Headshot
Platforms Available/ Reviewed – PC
Review based on review code supplied by PR. For more on our scoring policy, please read this post.

FIA European Truck Racing Championship – The Verdict

FIA European Truck Racing Championship – The Verdict

We all know that truck driving games are some of the best things out there, while some prefer the American stylings, I still hold candle up to European Truck Simulator 2, which is now a scary seven year old! It is probably my fascination with ETS2 that led to YouTube pushing a video for FIA European Truck Racing Championship my way.

In these summer months where AAA releases are few and far between, now is the time for smaller more obscure titles to try and make their mark. It’s something which ETRC might have had a chance of achieving, even with the slim pickings when it comes to what you get in the box if the pricing was different. It’s a shame that the price point of £35 (on Steam at least), or £45+ on the consoles, is so high.

It might be the cost of the official FIA licence for the European Truck Racing Championship, along with associated real-world trucks, drivers and tracks, that has pushed the price so high, but it’s something that should give you serious pause before throwing down your hard earned money on this.

That’s not to say this is a bad game, far from it, but it doesn’t do enough to stand out from the crowd. What you do get is a perfunctory racer which despite its simulation stylings is vanilla when out on the road. You don’t need a wheel here to succeed in races, while the weight of trucks doesn’t necessarily come across as much as the game suggests during the lengthy process of acquiring a licence, a requirement to stepping into career mode.

It looks quite nice in the wet!

There are numerous truck racing features to the racing that are quirky. Bollards are can be found in strategic places around the edge of the racing line, knocking these off can lead to potential time penalties and you have to be careful in wheel-to-wheel racing to avoid being punted into a spin, or taking a time penalty for unsportsmanlike driving. More detailed features come into play with the 160 km/h speed limit the trucks must adhere to. While you set this to be automatically controlled, you’ll need to watch yourself if it isn’t.

It isn’t just getting the trucks up to speed that you need to pay attention to, stopping them is a challenge in and of itself. Your brakes have an ideal operating range between 200°C and 500°C, if you let them get too hot for too long, they’re going to wear away and you’ll be driving straight into the back of another truck. Fortunately, you can manually control the application of water to cool the brakes during a race, adding a nice strategic layer to proceedings as you want to ensure your water lasts the race distance.

Race weekends can become something of a chore. While their setup is comparable to the real world, after the first couple of races at an event you’re waiting to move on. The events take place over two days, each with a practice session along with a qualifying session. If you qualify in the top eight, you’re through to the super pole qualifying session. There are two races on each day, the first set by the qualifying positions, with the top eight of the second race lining up in reverse finish order.

Winner!

The realism is welcome, but sadly also ensures things can drag on quite a bit, even when you set the races to 25% of full distance. The interruptions from your engineer “Cool your breaks”, “Keep on pushing” become grating after one race, let alone the full race weekend.

The career mode seems to have some depth to it, with teams offering you short or long-term contracts depending on the reputation you have built up, and once you’re on a season long deal you get to manage your finances alongside upgrading and repairing your truck. It’s just a shame that the career mode is locked until you complete the licence, a series of tasks highlighted by the drive-through penalty scenario where you have to drive into the pits, allow the computer to navigate the pit-lane for you before taking the first corner of the track.

Baffling!

Let’s race!

What you do get with ETRC which is appealing is a nice variety of the lesser known circuits around Europe. The new Slovakia Ring appears, alongside Zolder in Belgium and the Le Mans GP circuit. There are a number of tracks from across the globe to get stuck into, with Beunos Aries and Laguna Seca some famous names. The trucks themselves come in two flavours, the European trucks and the American style trucks fashioned for the in-game World Series. The trucks feel different between categories, but within their category, there isn’t much to differentiate them from each other apart from appearances.

Some people will have a lot of time for ETRC, and there is a decent racer here. More could be done to create a hardcore simulation handling model, but what you get is fine. For me, the price point is what puts me off giving this anything more than an “On Target” Verdict. If you want trucks, then take a look at SCS Software’s titles, while if you want a racer, then F1 2019 will be your best bet for track action.

The Verdict – On Target
Platforms Available – PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Platform Revewied – PC
Review based on Steam media account copy. Please read this post for more on our scoring policy.

Metro Exodus – The Verdict

Metro Exodus – The Verdict

Metro Exodus is a conflicted game, one that feels unsure of what its true nature is. Is it an extension of the previous titles, or something all new that is striking out in a brave new direction? I’m not 100% sure either way, but is it a good game?


Exodus tells the story of Artyom and his wife Anya as they escape radiation riddled Moscow with Anya’s father, Miller and the Spartan Order. They are travelling across Russia to find Artyom’s dream of a lush green haven, free from radiation and the horrors of nuclear war. The Aurora is an ever-evolving beast of a train that takes you between the various hubs that you travel through.

Just one of the many gorgeous vistas in Exodus.


Hubs though, you read that right. No longer is this a game spent hunkered down in the dark tunnels of the Moscow subway, now you are set free in vast areas of Russia to roam to your hearts content, clearing areas of bandits and completing key objectives key to getting the Aurora somewhere safe.


These open world sections are alien to what Metro has historically been about, and at times, they feel so wrong. Wandering a wide expanse with lengthy periods of time between enemy outposts isn’t entirely inspiring. It doesn’t help that some of the generic enemy outposts you come across feel like a cheap Far Cry rip-off, while the inclusions of boats and jeeps to assist your travels are let down by awful handling.


Two of the main hubs, The Volga and The Caspian have some strong narrative moments as you regroup with the crew at the Aurora between missions, but they don’t grab the attention like you would expect. Too often, your time is spent wandering between objective markers highlighted via a largely unreadable map. These levels are saved by some excellent set-piece sections that cap off one of your missions. These moments are more reminiscent of classic Metro, a well-structured linear journey to a climactic ending.

Your home, the Aurora


There are some key differences between Exodus and the first two games. Bartering ammunition for new guns or upgrades is long gone, now you are relying on scavenging ammo, guns and upgrades from corpses or your surroundings. Overall, this works without any problems, but the life or death decision making of previous games is missing, and the tension is reduced as a result.


An attempt at ratcheting up the tension comes from the inclusion of a wear and tear mechanic with your weapons. Your guns will slowly deteriorate over time, starting to jam and eventually stop working entirely. Their performance will get worse when you trudge through the mud and sand of the world you are exploring…but they can be easily cleaned with some chemicals, or even swapped out for a gun from a fallen foe. The attempt at adding some survival elements is decidedly poor, proving to be a short-lived nuisance than anything that adds any great worry to your experience.


Despite all of this, there are many moments in Exodus that stand out loud and proud. The Yamantau level which splits the Volga and Caspian is an excellent example of Exodus feeling like a proper Metro game. The horror elements come to the fore, and the atmosphere darkens. It’s here that you appreciate that the core elements of action and survival horror come together in a wonderfully harrowing experience.

The Caspian might be awkward in place, but it is hella moody.


As you progress through the game, you come across The Taiga, an expansive semi-open world area. Yes, you can look at your map here and explore where you might wish, but the path is largely defined for you. Here you can embrace your action oriented instincts or take a stealthier more considered approach. It might not be an area set underground, or even in darkness, but the narrative that drives you through this area help sustain the forward momentum.


If the earlier open-world areas feel like they are lacking in the Metro feelings, the final third more than makes up for them. Indeed, even if the gameplay can disappoint at times in the beginning, the moments on the Aurora more than make up for it.


The train is the beating heart of Exodus, the location for your family gatherings and those tender moments with Anya, and harsher moments with Miller. You can take a smoke and a drink with your comrades from the Order, listening to their tales from the tracks and personal histories. While some of the larger story beats are pre-determined, listening to your friends discuss the events that transpired in the previous hub add emotional weight to your journey across Russia.


It’s an inconsistent game, but one that delivers a great story. It’s a different Metro to the one you left behind in Moscow, and one that certainly takes some getting used to. As long as you are prepared for some wobbles on the way to high points, you’ll do just fine with Exodus.

The Verdict – On Target / Headshot
Platforms Available – PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Platform Reviewed – PlayStation 4
Review based on retail purchased copy. Read this for more on our scoring policy.

For The King – The Verdict

For The King – The Verdict

Trouble has struck the lands of Farhul, the King has been slain and the minions of Chaos are roaming the lands, spreading their evil across what was once a friendly, happy land. This is For the King where your trio of characters aren’t adventuring and questing for fame or fortune, but to avenge their King!

Well, that is the case if you are playing the vanilla For the King experience. I’m playing the recent Switch release which includes all the free updates IronOak have released since the original PC release last year, updates offering endless dungeon crawling or all new adventures around Farhul. I briefly dallied with the PC version during EGX last year, and initially had some concerns about how the game would transfer over to consoles, let alone the portable mode on the Switch.

I needn’t have been concerned. This is a mighty fine port, while I’ve seen some slight performance drops in combat, you get the full experience here. Things are made smoother thanks to the hex-based map that is used within For the King, plotting your path around the map is smooth, and most actions are easily accessible on the joy-cons. The one strange decision is to put the End Turn button on the minus button, but I quickly settled into my rhythm.

Fiiiiight!

When starting your adventure, you have freedom to create your three characters from a welcome variety of clothing options, with everyday professions like Blacksmith, Hunter and Scholar open to choose at the start of any adventure. Fitting archetypes to fit in my character names of Gendry, Arya and Sam (see where my influence is coming from?), with each profession bestowing special abilities upon your characters.

While the professions I chose from map across to heavy weapons, ranged and light weapons and magic seamlessly, the Minstrel profession offers an insight into the fun nature of For the King. A Minstrel will start with a high rating in the Talent stat, which allows them to bring a Lute or other musical instrument into battle.

Lute bearing Minstrels aren’t the only touch of fun that IronOak have included in For the King. Ghosts are named after their former living selves, while Jellies are just that, giant blobs of jelly. It should come as no surprise that you can unlock more entertaining items from the Lore Store. Lore is earned through completing quests for the Queen, side-quests picked up from the towns of Farhul or by complete the numerous dungeons that you find on your way.

My Game of Thrones inspired squad

Upon entering a dungeon, the overworld hex map disappears and your focus is on the combat. It is sensible to approach a dungeon with a well-stocked party, even if it means spending all your hard-earned gold at the nearest town. Unless you find a chest holding some much needed supplied, smaller dungeons won’t give you any chance to re-stock which can make a series of three or four battles, along with potential traps, a bit of a challenge.

It isn’t the end of the world if one of your characters die along the way, providing you have enough hearts remaining in your Life Pool. As part of your adventure, you can bring a character back to life, for the right price. If your Life Pool depletes completely and your trio gets wiped, then sadly it will be game over.

Fortunately, various special locations offer you a chance to add to your Life Pool, or decrease the Chaos that plagues Farhul. With Chaos rising, special Chaos Hexes will start spawning which you will want to avoid, while enemy health with start ratcheting up as Chaos rises.

I beat Coal Heart. Got his hat. Love it.

Putting everything together, and you have a very fine RPG from IronOak, once that offers a nice level of replayability thanks to the procedurally generated maps, numerous character choices and various game modes.

While I fear For the King might have got lost in the shuffle on its original PC release, this console release has brought new life to what is a gem of an RPG. If you spy this one, I would suggest you check it out.

The Verdict – Headshot
Platforms Available – PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch
Platform Reviwed – Switch
Reviewed based on review code. Please read this post for more on our scoring policy.

SteamWorld Quest – The Verdict

SteamWorld Quest – The Verdict

Image & Form Games have done great things with their SteamWorld games, with the two main Dig games being wonderful adventures, especially Dig 2 which I took a look at last year. So, when I saw their new release was going to a card based RPG, I was quietly confident that it would be another hit, even with my so-so history with card games.

Fight!

SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, to give it its full title, takes place in a time before the Dig entries. Robots roam the lands, but this is a world of heroes, villains and a dusting of magic. You take your band of merry wannabe heroes on a quest to find out why your village has been overrun with nasty folk who have kidnapped the not so heroic Guild who had one job – protect the village.

As you start adventuring across a beautiful hand-drawn world, more heroes will join your quest through dungeons, magical forests and other well-crafted tropes of fantasy games. While some of the broader plot points might be more cliched than the fresh adventures of the Dig games, everything is delivered with the same wit and charm as we have come to expect from Image & Form.

Wit and charm are one thing, but some action and drama is needed to balance out the hijinks. This is where the cards come into play, every battle is fought with cards that you collect from treasure chests, earn from adventuring or craft at the magical shop that appears where needed.

What a wonderful dragon you have there!

Your characters fall into broad archetypes of warrior, healer, spellcaster and suchlike, with the abilities conferred by their cards complementing them accordingly. As you progress through the game, your understanding of how to use them develops accordingly. No longer will you just be throwing out card after card trying to inflict damage or heal your fellow heroes, you will see the intricacies of status effects and card combos coming to light.

Even if you are used to card battling games, I would suggest you start playing Quest on Easy mode, to start with at least. While working out your strategies, some of the early battles on Normal difficulty can be quite frustrating. Knocking the difficulty down a touch to get to grips with the mechanics and to develop your understanding the types of cards you want in your hand are sensible approaches to take.

There are some fun dynamics going on outside of the combat. Every now and again, as you explore the various Chapters and Acts, you will find a nice statue. Activate this, and your party will be restored to full health, a welcome reward after some hard battling. However, in the vein of Dark Souls, using this healing statue will lead to enemies in nearby areas re-spawning.

You’ll come acros a number of enigmatic heroes on your journey.

It isn’t all doom and gloom when it comes navigating your surroundings. When you see an enemy, you can land a pre-fight blow to inflict some damage, or if you are smart enough with your movement, you can even avoid some of the battles against inconsequential enemies. That won’t always be the best plan though, as when you come across the bosses, you will wish you had defeated the lesser foes to help you level up.

My one frustration is that some battles can drag on for quite a while. It isn’t too bad when fighting bosses as you always have to keep on your toes, but against the lesser enemies, it can turn into a bit of a grind.

That shouldn’t take away from what Image & Form have done here though. They’ve taken the beloved SteamWorld Dig games, and managed to both expand the universe, and introduce a new genre to their growing series.

If you own a Switch, then you really should own this.

The Verdict – Headshot

Platforms Available/Reviewed – Switch

Review based on review code. Please read this page for more on our scoring policy.