Destiny 2 Review in Progress (Spoiler free)

Version: Xbox One

So far, so good. Destiny 2 – as we have known for some time – smacks the reset button before the end of the 1st mission. With your light removed lost along with all hope, it is up to you to salvage the remains of everything which was built in the original. Eyes up guardian! Or perhaps that should be ‘boots on the ground’ as the initial missions remove even the most basic of guardian powers such as double jumping. Either way it’s good to be home.

Whilst keeping the original as a template: social hub; interstellar adventures and loot hunting all present, Destiny 2 expands the final build of its predecessor. Immediately, it feels like Destiny’s Rise of Iron. Menus and gear harp back to the final days of OG Destiny albeit with some significant improvements. 

Firstly, missions take a more open world, fluid structure; no more jumping to orbit to launch into games. Destiny 2’s initial offering of story and new ‘Adventure’ missions offer plenty of early content. Each world has a friendly vendor who act similarly to the likes of factions such as Dead Orbit et al. Obviously the dash to be raid ready is important for some players but we enjoyed the fleshing out of Destiny 2’s campaign, steadily climbing the light ladder. On the note of content – in stark contrast with the previous game – in each world we found ourselves falling over Public Events. They’re everywhere! Added to this, a map system allowing missions/events/vendors to be tagged made traversing the level to find them much, much more intuitive. The usual Bungie epic-ness is present and correct during the campaign along with some witty dialogue between Ghost and the new and existing characters. 

Later on in the campaign, a wider range of game modes are unlocked including Strikes before fully opening up the end-game. Much like the original (again) the first 15 hours or so see you cycling through gear and weapons almost every mission to push your stats up before slowing towards the end. There are so many similarities to the first game but this is no criticism. This should be exactly the game fans of Destiny 1 wanted. 

So far, since launch it has been a daily dip in to forge through the campaign. 2017 will be remembered as a tale of two games: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, in the first half; Destiny 2 in the latter. Whatever comes next for Bungie and Activision’s behemoth shooter – and despite what problems and controversies it will surely face – based on what we’ve seen so far this is an essential game. Considering the value D1 offered pound for pound we’re excited for what the next 500 hours will bring. 

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Console Stories: Super Nintendo

Retrospective on the SNES

Welcome to a new feature on pennilessdads where we reminisce about consoles previously or currently owned. What memories are connected to this hardware and why is – or isn’t – it a significant chapter in the world of games? We start in the early-to-mid-nineties with the Super Nintendo.

Up until 1994, it had all been about SEGA and Sonic. That changed when I watched someone playing Super Mario World and Super Mario Kart. Those two games introduced me to the Mushroom Kingdom and from then on a lifetime of saving princesses from turtles. I actually have two previous memories of Nintendo. The first was watching (did a lot of watching back then it seems – if only streaming was a thing) some kid play Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt on a busted NES. Then at the SNES launch demoing Pilotwings. Neither of those experiences hooked me like this. So very early on I put a SNES on my birthday wishlist. Then something cool happened.

While retailers are careful in this day and age to cover their backs in the fine print, there was a bit more exploitation to be had back then. My mum had found a deal at a shop which had a great deal on a SNES bundled with Super Mario Allstars. She told me she planned to get the deal on the last day it was on to give her chance to save up. When this magical day arrived, a retail miracle occurred. Another deal on the console activated – stacking with the previous one. This meant we got the Super Scope and the six game pack in bundled in. My eight year old self did not note the price but I remember it was a bargain. Looking back it was later in the console’s life and should be expected. Little me thought all his Christmases had come at once. 

So, the age of Nintendo had begun for our family. The Mario Allstars compilation saw many, many hours of play whilst – after an initial flurry of excitement – the scope collected dust. Two more games over the next year or so would capture my imagination. 

After dragging me towards Nintendo initially, I finally got my hands on Super Mario World. I remember seeing it for about £14 at the second hand market in our town centre. It was unboxed but this was nuts. All games were £40 and preowned games hadn’t reached us yet. I gambled and unpacked every inch of that game. Nintendo was now a company I would keep tabs on and follow. This led me to find out about a game called Donkey Kong Country.

On television there was a show about games called Bad Influence. It was very 90s but was the primary way I could find out about new games. The PlayStation and Saturn were shown off, blowing away the likes of me. This was my first experience of ‘next gen’ and I almost lost focus onto them. However, the beauty of Donkey Kong Country kept me hooked on my SNES for a while longer. The game looked amazing and brimmed with authority and confidence from the moment you clicked the power switch on. Opening with a majestic fanfare before literally blasting OG Donkey Kong (and its theme song) out of the window. That was my Christmas present that year and I can’t remember turning it off. 

A few other memories stick out, I used to have a friend with a SNES and we would play games like Power Rangers and Star Fox. It was towards the end of the 16 bit generation though and the CD-based consoles were looming. Towards the SNES’ twilight a late flurry of great games bookended its lifetime. Yoshi’s Island, Diddy Kong’s Quest and Killer Instinct all entertained before Nintendo had to adjust its role in the console hierarchy as a certain Sony console entered the market. 

It was a console I kept hold of though. Many of the next generation’s would be bought and sold but the SNES found a way of staying around. After the launch of Nintendo 64, I for some reason picked up the SNES Mario Kart and gave the console a renaissance. Friday nights became competitive marathons of the game which are still referenced in my friendship circle today. With the new consoles out I found myself picking up more and more of the SNES back catalogue: Street Racer (which includes a proto-Rocket League mode), Mortal Kombat, Mario Paint and Sparkster. The SNES eventually gave up the ghost. We tried to switch it on somewhere towards the end of the 20th Century but it had packed in. Every game we had on it was amazing to play – something subsequent Nintendo consoles haven’t consistently achieved. 

Firewatch Review

Version reviewed: PS4

Blowing a lot of smoke on release, story-focused digital darling Firewatch was recently picked up on sale on the PlayStation Store for around £5. The embers of conversation around this game have long died out so is it worth spending a Summer out in the wild, watching fires?

Like many of its peers, Firewatch is in the difficult to classify genre often described as ‘walking simulator’ or ‘interactive adventure’. Regardless of the classification, Firewatch can be described as a first person game which mixes exploration of a vast outdoor environment with dialogue tree decisions. The vast majority of conversation is between you – a newly appointed firewatch tower…erm watcher called Henry – and your boss Delilah. All interaction between the pair is via radio and it is this area – conversation between the two – where Firewatch becomes something special.

Whilst exploring the wilderness of 1980s Shoshone National Forest, Henry is encouraged to contact Delilah to report in curios he finds. The chemistry and banter between the two strangers is well written, generating investment in the characters from the start of the game. Through clever environment design and storytelling, the player is ushered in the right direction to further the story, which has various threads to follow. Going into further detail would spoil the experience but it had us hooked like a good book.

Firewatch is a game with stylised graphics which are used to great effect to create various atmospheres which benefit the story. On PlayStation 4, we did experience some slow down but is certainly not game breaking. The story lasts around 5 hours which is exactly the right length. Even right now though the back of my mind is mulling over the choices which may be made differently on a second run through. Although ‘I’ played the game, my wife became hooked on Firewatch’s mysteries too. Going from pretending to read her book – peeking out at the witty interactions between Henry and D – to being sat on the edge of the sofa is a notable milestone in games (for us!). Rarely does she play games but this one got her. 

Overall, this is an essential experience which is worth the asking price – never mind the bargain price on sail. I have a feeling the five hours spent on Firewatch will be replayed again and that’s before we get started on the extras. A game everyone should play! 

Sonic Mania Mania

What next for the blue blur?

After 20-so years of hurt, Sonic Mania delivered the true sequel to the 16 bit trilogy (& Knuckles). We deemed the game a “masterpiece” (find our review here), which is an accurate description. But where will Sonic go next? With so many false dawns, can we really expect something which has evaded the series for so long; consistency?

For every breath of hope like Sonic Generations or Sonic Advance, we get a Boom or Unleashed. The semi-sequel to Generations – Sonic Forces – comes with careful optimism but what will we see next in the vein of Mania? Time for us to spin past the future signpost a la Sonic CD…

Sonic Mania 2?

The obvious choice it seems. However, consider the following. Between Sonic Mania, Sonic Generations (PS3/X360/PC) and its Nintendo 3DS counterpart many of the ‘original generation’ (OG) Zones have been reused already in recent games. Plus add in that Sonic Adventure 2 is pretty much a 3D version of some of Sonic & Knuckles’ Zones. This means the creativity pool – and therefore future throwback Zones – are limited.

Going from the OG 16 bit games, the unused Zones are: Marble, Springyard, Labyrinth, Starlight, Scrap Metal, Emerald Hill, Aquatic Ruin, Casino Night, Hill Top, Mystic Cave, Metropolis, Sky Chase, Wing Fortress, Angel Island, Marble Garden, Carnival Night, Ice Cap, Launch Base, Hidden Palace and Doomsday. If they were grouped thematically, the scope becomes even narrower:grass/rural, lava/underground, pinball, element-based and mechanical. Arguably the most memorable moments have also been plundered. The epic downhill snowboard set piece which opens Ice Cap Zone was repeated in Sonic Adventure plus the Sky Chase Zone format was aped in Sonic Mania. In other words, would a different direction be a better option?

Sonic Maker?

After Mario’s successful foray into user generated content, one wonders if Sonic could do – as has been seen many times throughout gaming history – the same as Nintendo’s mascot? Mario gets a kart-racer, so does Sonic. Mario gets a board game, so does Sonic. Why not a creation game too? As with the afore mentioned, just imitate. Have a selection of possible ‘skins’ and a collection of level themes (see above). Let the – evidently – hungry Sonic maniacs do the hard work then of creating endless challenge rooms and hard as nails Green Hill variants.

Sonic Mania Adventure

When revisiting the OG games recently, it was clear they haven’t held up well. Mania has done the remarkable job of updating them whilst still feeling modern and relevant. Could SEGA do this for the 3D games? Despite their flaws, some of Sonic’s 3D games have provided some memorable moments. Could these be a source of inspiration for future 2D games? Sonic Advance was heavily inspired by Adventure (and a certain long-armed yellow star sub-mascot…) and was one of the leading lights for 2D Sonic in between Knuckles and Mania. Also, one of the stranger features of the console/PC version of Generations was the 2D white overworld which could be traversed and explored. Could the 3D stages become inspiration for some Metroidvania style exploration within   Zones? Sonic’s seemingly eternal struggle with the 3rd dimension could be sidestepped or – more excitedly – finally be mastered. The collective team behind Sonic Mania understand Sonic is more than just speed, perhaps they could apply this to the sometimes too speed focused 3D titles.

One thing which is for sure though; excitement for the blue blur has not been this high for a long time. Whatever SEGA cook up next, they have a tough act to follow. We look forward to seeing where we’re hed(gehog)ing next…

Sorry.

Night Trap: 25th Anniversary Review

Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4

In the rich tapestry of games history, full motion video (FMV) is a niche chapter – dangling from the narrative along with 90s virtual reality, scratch and sniff (FIFA 2000) and Wii Fit. The advent of early CD-ROM consoles promised great things; CD quality music and…the answer to what extra Mega/SEGA CD et al brought to the table is undefined. FMV is one type of game not possible on the likes of SNES and Megadrive/Genesis and a poster boy for the iteration on the generation. There is a lot that can be said of Night Trap’s colourful history but here we are in 2017 renewing the conversation. What is this game and what is the fuss all about?

On starting the game, a short clip explains the premise. You are working with a military response team investigating a seemingly normal family house in the heart of Americana where five teens have recently gone missing. There are eight video feeds to watch from in and around the house. Pressing triangle or circle activates one of the hidden ‘night traps’ in each room – hopefully snaring some of the mysterious Augers roaming the property. Imagine being Kevin McAllister in Home Alone and you get the idea. I remember Night Trap from the furore around it in the wider press plus screenshots/articles in games media. We’re not going into bans etc but one thing that was never explained at the time was; how do you actually play it?

After giving you a quick taste of how to use the night traps, the difficulty spikes as a colour coded system is layered onto the activation system. Listening carefully to the conversations between the characters gives you clues which colours to use. Let too many augers overrun the house and you are promptly fired from your role of god in the house. Now the difficult bit.

Evaluating Night Trap is a difficult task. The gameplay is obtuse, pushing back on the player. Persistence and patience is needed to access the game beyond ten minutes or so of gameplay. Like all unforgiving puzzles though, the moment you figure out a section, understanding something you couldn’t previously, is rewarding. The game then becomes something akin to Majora’s Mask where you watch, analyse and connect the events unfolding in front of you. Each repeat play through (expect a lot of game over screens FYI) moves you a bit closer to achieving success in the game. We found ourselves edging a little further each time. Ironically considering how cutting edge it was in 1992, the gameplay is more closely related to 70s/80s arcade games – learning patterns to beat it. Having just come off a review of Until Dawn, it shows in stark contrast how much quality of life features in games narrative have evolved over the last 25 years. Anyone looking for this to compete with a Resident Evil 7 will struggle but this edition needs to exist for a different reason. It isn’t here to compete with the bleeding edge of survival horror in 2017. 

Without any doubt, the acting in Night Trap is more Sharknado than Jaws. It becomes a metaphor for what the game is; a game of its time. SEGA’s modular upgrades to the Megadrive/Genesis are too mirrors of Night Trap and its steep accessibility bar. Whilst most 16 bit games are readily accessible through retro consoles, compilations or re-releases, there is a pocket of games like Night Trap from Mega/SEGA CD, 32X and Saturn which are lost to the sands of time or the sands of eBay – with high entry barriers. Collecting these systems and games plus making them talk to modern televisions is a chore (speaking from experience). What this edition presents is the game released all of those years ago. There are options to adjust the display to be in line with subsequent re-releases or in an updated 2017 mode. There are also additional scenes as well as video content exploring the conception of the game. Fans of the original will enjoy the unlockable extras. But the big question is; should you play it? 

When Night Trap released in 1992, the types of game it was surrounded by were the (excellent) Sonic 2 and Super Mario Land 2. Mortal Kombat was also unleashed on the world that year and is perhaps the closest (graphically) to Night Trap. The aforementioned three games are required reading in the history of how this industry evolved. Night Trap should also fall into this category. If you go into this game with your Sharknado hat on or simply want to explore a niche genre with DNA from the past and future it is worth venturing into the game. I am glad this exists on PS4 and hope more of the missing era of games in between the 16 and 32 bit eras can find their way to be released. If you want to see what the future looked like in 1992, give it a go.

Until Dawn Review

Version Reviewed: PlayStation 4

Recently available to all PlayStation Plus subscribers as a free monthly game, Until Dawn is a standout, unique title in Sony’s console’s library. So if – like me – you waited to jump into this survival horror classic, here’s what you can expect. Point of note, this is a great social game. I played it with my wife over the course of about two weeks; through the ten episodic chapters. 

Like all good horror movies, the game begins with a group of teenagers and an isolated cabin setting. Throughout the game you control the teens at different times playing out parts of the story from their perspectives. If you are familiar with Telltale-style games the control method will feel familiar; including tropes such as quick time events and context sensitive button prompts. At various points in the story, you are given (seemingly) 50/50 choices which impact the story and – in some cases – the health and safety of the characters. 

Throughout the eight hours or so the story takes to run its course, we found ourselves switching which characters we were rooting for and which we found ourselves saying “hope this idiot dies soon”. Tip-toeing around spoilers, Emily, who is a whiny, egocentric brat near the start of the story, has a sequence later on where she shows her resourcefulness and resilience in the face of adversity – becoming much more likeable. The characters are flawed individuals which is refreshing to see in a video game. Until Dawn is a well written game and the plot, dialogue and direction are all major positives for it to take home. 

Among the game’s minor negatives are the overall length. By the credits, it felt like we’d spent years on this mountain listening to Emily. Also, the first 75% of the game switches between a bingo card collection of horror ghosts and ghouls – like if someone pressed ‘open all’ on the contents of the film Cabin in the Woods. Once the primary threat is revealed, the closing chapters play out a satisfying conclusion but come with reduced scares as you know what is hunting you. These by no means spoil the game experience though.

A great option in the game is the ability to replay chapters to re-try sections and re-make choices. This encourages replayability  as you (hopefully!) strive to keep all the ill-fated teens alive. It emphasises how much of a polished package this is. 

Until Dawn is near the, if not at, the pinnacle of modern survival horror and is great played with a companion with the lights off. 

Xbox Three

Unless the Switch does something remarkable, PlayStation 4 will be the best selling console of this ‘generation’ (a term which may become archaic if we get another iteration beyond the Pro/S/X). Microsoft however, need to be worried. The Switch has sold nearly 5 million consoles in little over a quarter whereas lifetime sales of Xbox One are around the 30 million mark – having had a three year head start at market. Undoubtedly part of PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch’s success has been down to a renewed focus on games. Wii U tried to invade TV (TVii) and social media which detracted from a modest yet critically acclaimed lineup. Microsoft’s initial focus on Xbox being the all-in-one box of tricks lost the generation before it had begun. The ship is still coming around but what can Microsoft possibly do to prevent finishing 3rd in the current console wars?

Firstly, Microsoft has already done a great job of reversing the PR nightmare which was Xbox One’s launch. Backward’s compatibility, Games with Gold and Xbox Games Pass have all been pro-consumer moves which have caught some ground with Sony. The Xbox One is a great console with some solid – yet un-unique – features. Unfortunately, the single most important asset missing from ‘the world’s most powerful games console’ are games. So, we decided to explore what we’d like to see to save Xbox from finishing below Nintendo.

Sony’s games-centric focus came to a head with the ‘year of dreams’ announcements like Shenmue 3, Last Guardian and the Final Fantasy 7 remake. There aren’t many of these left to go to – except Half-life 3. This phantom game – seemingly on permanent hiatus – is one of the only franchises which could be classified as on par with the above games. Microsoft would have to move heaven and earth to make Valve play nice but desperate times call for desperate measures. Other than Half-life, it is difficult to see any other series which would make the same impact from returning.

On the original Xbox – released in the wake of SEGA’s exit from manufacturing consoles – became an interesting breeding ground for what should have been the Dreamcast’s final wave of software. Games such as SEGA GT, Panzer Dragoon Orta and Spikeout were joined by ports like Shenmue 2 and Jet Set Radio. Although not defining series on the Xbox, they complimented the likes of Halo, KOTOR and Project Gotham (itself a spiritual successor to Dreamcast’s Metropolis Street Racer). SEGA appears to be open to resurrecting forgotten franchises which could be an opportunity for Microsoft to create a mutually beneficial partnership. Streets of Rage, Decap Attack and Kid Chameleon have all been dormant since the 16 bit era. Then there are series – although more recently reimagined – like Shinobi, Golden Axe and Phantasy Star which are ready for a reboot. Generating modern, innovative titles like these which carry names dripping with nostalgia would help Xbox rival a certain home/handheld console hybrid in terms of software. If Ultra Street Fighter 2 can sell near 500,000 units then imagine what Microsoft could achieve with some of SEGA’s long forgotten franchises!

Among Sony’s 1st party line-up are two types of games which are near – if not at – the pinnacle of their divisions. Firstly, in the ‘story driven’ adventure category, Sony has the likes of The Last of Us, God of War and Uncharted 4. The second are the ‘souls’ games. Sony has leant into their popularity with Bloodborne and Nioh. They read the tea leaves correctly with this type of game. However with Dark Souls now on its 3rd iteration, Sony has had plenty of time to get its ducks in order. Microsoft needs to play catch up and get engaging narrative driven games and tough-as-nails ‘souls’ games out in the wild. This means either directing 1st/2nd party studios or seeking timed exclusivity agreements by studios such as Platinum. 

In order to hit the short time frame Xbox One X has to work in, Microsoft would have needed to establish these deals around the time ‘Project Scorpio’ was announced. It is entirely possible PlayStation 5 could be announced in 2018 and an updated Switch SKU (Lite/XL/’new’) is expected by 2019. That gives Xbox One X around 18 months to catch up. 

Xbox veterans like Gears of War and Halo are no longer as relevant as they were in previous generations though both were forged in the fires of Microsoft’s push to be seated at the console war table. However, it is this kind of creativity Microsoft needs to seek out, nurture and capitalise on. Otherwise, it may be time for Xbox Gone.