Category Archives: PC Reviews

Hunting Simulator 2 – Review

If you are yearning for a taste of the great outdoors this summer, what better way to experience it than through a computer screen? I’m serious! No more will you have to put up with long travel times to reach a remote destination; no more painful struggling under the weight of an overly-heavy rucksack and, best of all; no more awful, itchy mosquito bites! Hunting Simulator 2 is one game that promises to surpass the fun of stepping outside through providing a faithful recreation of going hunting in the distant wilderness which you can experience all from your sofa.

The great outdoors


The first thing that struck me about the world of Hunting Simulator 2 was its graphics. Few games attempt a wholly photorealistic look, instead opting for some degree of stylisation, but here the environments around you look about as realistic as they come. The forest environments are lush with huge valleys, streams, rock formations, cabins and countless trees that really benefit from the game’s superb lighting engine. The first time I saw sun rays piercing through a jagged treeline on a backdrop of snowy mountains I was blown away by just how great it all looked.

Whilst some of the six included maps, particularly those set in Colorado and Europe, follow pretty much the same art direction and feel very much the same as one another in play, the Texas and Savannah environments are a refreshing change of pace. These wider, flatter environments have little in the way of plant life and are painted with a radically different colour palette. All three maps present a different set of challenges for the player to overcome and contain a solid variety of distinct animals for you to hunt.

It’s also worth noting that parts of the included maps are based on real locations. Although I cannot fully vouch for their authenticity, having never actually visited any of the nature reserves or national parks that are featured, I can safely didn’t spot any obvious discrepancies when comparing the in-game Colorado locations to photos of the real world Roosevelt National Forest and Pawnee National Grasslands I had found on the internet.

When you’re not exploring the outdoors, you can explore your hunting lodge. This small area serves as your hub world, allowing you to access the in-game shop and change your gear. When you first launch the game, your lodge feels eerily empty as there are many blank spots allocated for you to display your hunting trophies and a gun room which showcases all of your purchased weapons. Watching your lodge gradually fill up with trophies and tools as you progress through the game is quite satisfying, and there are enough customisable display spaces to allow you to feel like you’re lodge is somewhere truly unique to you.

The lodge also allows you to, through interacting with a laptop situated on a coffee table; access the in game shop – portrayed as an in-universe website. The shop lets you pick up a plethora of new guns, all faithful recreations of real world models and brands, in addition to a wide selection of useful tools and clothing that you can use to customise your character. Like the weapons, the clothing is also based upon real brands and serves a more practical purpose beyond just aesthetics by helping you blend in more easily with your surroundings.

Money is gained by selling the animals you have killed on your hunts, with credits awarded based upon the stats of the animal and where exactly your shot has hit. This is the cornerstone of the game’s basic gameplay loop. You hunt animals to earn money, which you then use to upgrade your gear and then in turn allows you to hunt more animals and thus earn more money. To stop you snowballing through the game too quickly, and adding a further degree of realism, a hunting licence is required for a species of animal before you can legally kill it. These work on a per region basis, are quite pricey and can only be purchased from your lodge.

The licence system means you’ll end up travelling back to your lodge quite frequently and the harsh fines incurred for killing animals without a licence penalises players who become a little too trigger-happy.

Man’s best friend


Despite the large number of available weapons, the majority of gameplay involves tracking animals rather than shooting at them. Players are granted a canine companion in the tutorial section of the game who is able to detect and follow animal’s trails automatically. There are a few dogs available to purchase from the in-game shop, each with slightly different base stats which upgrade gradually as you spend more time with your companion. You can even name your dogs and, perhaps most importantly of all, pet them whenever you like.

Whilst the AI of your animal companion is overall serviceable, only occasionally glitching out or getting stuck, the creatures you are hunting showcase considerably more advanced artificial intelligence. The time my slow stalking of some of deer was loudly interrupted by the arrival of a huge bear was both very exciting and very memorable. These organic animal encounters, whilst sometimes a little inconvenient, make the game world feel considerably more real than those found of most other hunting games I’ve tried, in which the worlds feel more like a virtual shooting gallery that exists specifically for the player rather than anything particularly real.

Near miss


Although the game’s gunplay is suitably satisfying, I found the reloading animation for some weapons appeared a little stiff and unnatural. Playing in the third-person mode only exacerbates this issue, as it places the unimpressive character models, which are otherwise seldom seen, in the forefront. It’s not that the animations or character models are particularly poor by any means; they just don’t seem quite up to the high standard set by other aspects of the game’s visuals.

I found that, on the Xbox One version of the game at least, there were in-frequent bouts of lag and the occasional bit stuttering throughout my playtime. I also encountered an annoying bug in the tutorial section of the game where the in-game map-screen refused to load and when I got lost and had to consult it, it just wasn’t there. Luckily, this issue seemed to resolve itself after a quick restart of the game.

Verdict:


Although it may be a little too slow-paced for some, Hunting Simulator 2 offers a robust simulation which faithfully recreates many of the most important aspects of real-world hunting. There are a huge variety of distinct weapons to try out on the three included maps which are of an impressive scope and scale. The whole thing comes together to create an immersive world and an overall experience that the right player will enjoy getting lost in; quite possible for many hours at a time.


Just so you’re aware! In order to facilitate a review this product was given to our organisation free of charge.

Tracks – Review

Nowadays a lot of people are understandably using some of their newfound time at home to take up now hobbies and pursue new interests. Unfortunately, whether you’re thinking of trying your hand at bird-watching or attempting to learn a new craft, getting the materials you need to try out new hobbies can be quite a large investment and one that can be especially frustrating if in the end it turns out you don’t even like the activity you have poured hours of time and copious amounts of your hard-earned cash in to. That’s where Tracks comes in – a fun way to try your hand at train set building on PC and Xbox, without the hefty price tag!

Piece by piece


As the title would suggest, Tracks is a game centred around a virtual wooden train playset. After completing a brief tutorial, players are set loose in sandbox mode where they can create their own world entirely from scratch or set about massacring one of the beautifully crafted example maps thoughtfully included – presumably to provide players with building inspiration. The secondary ‘passengers’ mode changes the pace a little, pitting players against a barrage of sporadically placed stations and the thankless task of ferrying constantly spawning groups of passengers between from selected platforms to their destinations.

In both modes, gameplay is comprised predominantly by the placing of various wooden track pieces to create routes. This is a far more relaxing process than other sandbox titles, with pieces aligning themselves to a selected end piece of track and placed through the simple action of clicking. Pointing your cursor left or right lets you create bend pieces and scrolling the mouse wheel either up or down will raise or reduce the height of pieces to create tall bridges or steep declines. Joining a new track piece to an existing line will automatically create a junction or crossroad piece. If this all seems a little too automated for your tastes; an option exists to manually switch between pieces, to undo your placed track or to clear your current piece and select a new existing area of track to alter.

These track creation mechanics are the perfect blend of simple but powerful. They are intuitive enough to be accessible to anyone who just wants to pick up the game and jump right into playing whilst also providing enough depth to be a viable method of creating and managing more complex designs. The simple control scheme has the added benefit of allowing players to rapidly place track without having to worry too much about making any mistakes that could stop the line from working – an invaluable tool when you’re battling against some of the time-limited passengers found outside sandbox mode.

Making a scene


Of course, you are not just limited to placing track pieces, with a wide variety of props being available to provide some much needed decoration to the surrounding environment. There is a surprising depth and variety in the items on offer with a pleasing plethora of objects, buildings, vehicles and plants to choose from. All the decorative items follow a low-poly toy-like aesthetic and being able to spend some time meticulously creating cutesy little rural scenes is a nice change of pace from using the more speed-oriented track creation tools.

I found building up a few small villages complete with local shops, parks and cottages, all populated by wooden figurines, made the eventual act of joining them together through stations and lengthy railways considerably more rewarding. Some props, like the houses, come with a good number of alternate colour options which helps prevent props from becoming too samey when you want to place them in large numbers. You can label your creations through placing town signs, which allow the player to input and display a text, and when placing the little wooden people you can choose between a number of clothing options, each corresponding to a profession or seasonal style.

If you feel the included set of props are not enough for you, heading over to the Steam or Microsoft store allows you to pick up one of the Tracks DLC packs on offers. So far there is only one available, a free pack which offers a collection of more urban themed props; a nice addition to the more countryside oriented items of the base game. With more DLC and future updates in the works, it will certainly be nice to have the option of choosing objects from a few more themes in future.

In addition to placing items, players can directly alter the environment from a customisation sub-menu. You can change the colour of the backdrop, time of day, add grass or mud to the base plate, add fog and, best of all, activate a winter snowfall weather effect which coats your buildings in a soft layer of snow. Props with lighting elements, like streetlamps or the windows of houses, automatically illuminate in darkness which helps you create some really stunning night-time scenes. There is even the option to alter the colour of the train and a slider to add wear-and-tear to its paintjob. The overall level of customisation in Tracks is staggering and means it’s it all too easy to become wrapped up in creating your own little world.

Full steam ahead


After you have created your dream track, at the press of a button the player can enter the first person train driving mode. As you can probably imagine, piloting a toy train is a very simple task. The player can move the train forwards and backwards and choose to steer it either left or right at branches or junctions. There is also the option to outfit your train with a whistle which doesn’t serve any real purpose beyond adding an additional degree of intractability.

In spite of the controls being a little on the floaty side, which can become quite annoying at times, appreciating the intricacy your meticulously crafted miniature marvels from a fresh perspective is still an undeniably magical experience. It is unfortunate that the lack of an ability to control the train outside of the first person perspective can often be a little frustrating. Sure, you can jump into first person to set the train going at a certain speed before jumping back to building but there’s nothing worse than subsequently having to helplessly watch your precious locomotive speed off a section of track you had yet to finish building.

The addition of a secondary set of controls accessible from the building screen would completely negate this issue and add a quicker way to test out sections of track without breaking up the flow of the game by having to constantly switch between views.

On the right track


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The soundtrack could too benefit from a few new additions. Although the title’s selection of piano melodies is excellent and contributes greatly to an almost overwhelming atmosphere of serenity and calm, its thirteen tracks all sound fairly similar and can become rather grating after a long period of play.

Furthermore, with the sheer power of the creative tools which are made available to the player, implementation of the Steam Workshop would be an excellent way for the community to more easily share their creations and download the work of others.

Verdict:


With charming visuals, excellent customisation options and an array of powerful building tools at your disposal, Tracks is an all-round great sandbox title. Serving as a perfect introduction to open-world gaming for kids and a nostalgic, calming experience for adults; creating a colourful railway system with Tracks successfully rekindles the child-like joy of creativity in everyone.


Just so you’re aware! In order to facilitate a review this product was given to our organisation free of charge.

Dark Light – Early Access Review

Dark Light, a new game from developer Mirari&Co, was released into early access last month. With the prospect of a future console release on the Nintendo Switch and numerous content updates ahead of it, I was very interested to take look into this title and see if Dark Light had set off on it’s perilous early access journey to a promising start or whether, unfortunately, there is still a long way to go.

It’s dangerous to go alone


Dark Light transports players to a brutal yet beautiful cyberpunk world. Set after a reality-warping apocalyptic event which sent the remnants of humanity scurrying to hide underground, the player is tasked with suiting up and venturing outside to explore a dangerous world of distorted city ruins, maze-like sewer systems and hellish industrial zones.

From a visual standpoint, it’s safe to say that Dark Light is breath-taking. Every facet of the world around you positively exudes an overriding atmosphere of decay. Despite being presented from a side-on 2D perspective the environments you explore have a real feeling of depth, thanks in no small part to the inclusion of a detailed foreground which accompany the intricate backdrop sprites. Although the colour scheme may be a little drab, being comprised mainly of muddy greys and dark greens, the use of bright neon lighting throughout the otherwise dark levels helps add a nice splash of colour and throughout my playtime I often found myself stopping to soak in just how gorgeous some of my surroundings really were.

You aren’t just left to explore these lavish environments alone either, throughout the game you are accompanied by a friendly drone which, in addition to serving as vessel for the game’s tutorial, assists you by providing useful information and illuminating the path ahead through its built-in torch. The further you progress in the game, the darker environments become and the more you begin to understand the importance of this solitary light source. Some of the more powerful late game enemies are even wholly invisible outside its rays.

Dark(er) souls


The majority of gameplay in Dark Light follows a consistent gameplay loop. Starting with a basic pistol and sword, you are left to explore the map, killing enemies as you go to shards and new gear. These shards are used back at the starting area to upgrade your energy and life force. Increasing your life force allows you to take more hits before going down with energy acting more like a traditional stamina system being slowly depleted when you use your attacks or abilities. Exploring is quite the challenge however and with your earned shards being immediately lost upon death it’s worth thinking twice before heading out. Luckily there are frequent “portals” which allowing the player to save or fast travel at the cost of respawning enemies, similar to the famous bonfire save points of Dark Souls.

This creates a great feeling of danger and suspense while you’re exploring, with the player constantly having to balance the risk of losing what they have earned so far with the potential rewards of the higher-level enemies which are more frequent further away from the starting area. Combat itself is enjoyable and intense, with the player juggling between dodge rolls, firearm attacks, close-range sword strikes and useful throwables like grenades or turrets. Attacks look smooth with very satisfying animations and the wide variety of available weapons, most of which substantially altering the flow of combat, helps keep the combat mechanics from becoming stale after long periods of play.

From shambling zombie-like beings controlled by strange parasites, fleshy mutants to the devastating boss fights this wide variety of weapons is accompanied by a wide variety of things to use them against. The gory death animations combined with the on-screen damage indication give fights a visceral edge and the satisfying burst of shiny collectibles spewn by corpses provide a satisfying conclusion to combat which is sure to leave eagerly anticipating your next fight. I am also glad to report that whilst each area’s final boss fight provides a monumental challenge they still manage to feel like a good test of the player’s skill rather than anything cheap or overtly unfair.

In addition to combat, gameplay also includes elements of light platforming. Although Dark Light‘s system of using double-jumps and rolls to hop between vertical or horizontally placed platforms is nothing ground-breaking, it is certainly well done and helps provide an additional challenge for players to master. As in fights, platforming is for the most part fluid and well animated with the exception of the rope-climbing animation – which unfortunately stood out due to its unnatural stiffness.

Left in the dark


On the subject of unnatural stiffness, some lines dialogue and item descriptions contain small grammatical errors or odd wording choices which break both the player’s immersion in the game world and the flow of dialogue. Similarly flow-breaking is the game’s music. Despite what music there is being of great quality and notably complements the overall atmosphere well, the frequent looping of the music and general lack of variety in the tracks lends itself to a feeling more droning and monotonous than particularly atmospheric.

There is also an issue regarding the game’s short length. Containing a good selection of weapons and enemies but only a handful of areas and end-bosses the complete package from start-to-finish took me around four hours to complete, including the time taken to complete some additional level grinding to help me more easily tackle some of the harder bosses. Considering how much I enjoyed my playtime; I was quite sad to see it end just when I was truly getting into the flow of the mechanics so a good few hours more gameplay would certainly be appreciated.

Verdict:


With a stunning art-direction, exciting combat mechanics and solid platforming it’s easy to get lost in the world of Dark Light. Promisingly for an early-access title all the apparent issues, at the time of writing at least, are easy to remedy. The developer has already committed to introducing new areas and bosses to pad out the runtime and the game is already frequently receiving substantial quality of life updates. Dark Light successfully captures the most important elements of the souls-like and metroid-vania genres whilst introducing just the right number of new elements to create an experience that is in equal parts pleasingly familiar and excitingly original. If you’re a fan of either genre, Dark Light is certainly one to pick up now or, at the very least, keep a good eye on until release.


Just so you’re aware! In order to facilitate a review this product was given to our organisation free of charge.

Streets of Rage 4 – Review

We’ve had a few weeks now to get to grips with SEGA’s recent revival of the iconic Streets of Rage franchise. A sequel to 1994’s Streets of Rage 3, it’s safe to say that Streets of Rage 4 has been a long time coming. After an over 25 year hiatus and at the hands of a new development team, can this newest entry hold a candle to the legacy of its predecessors, or would the Streets of Rage franchise been better off left in the past?

Style and substance


The most apparent feature of Streets of Rage 4, and a notable departure from its predecessors in the series, is the game’s stunning hand-drawn art-style. The four playable characters you are presented with as you start the campaign are excellently designed and beautifully animate. Series veterans will certainly appreciate the newly reimagined renditions of classic characters, who retain enough of their original moves and animation to feel nostalgic and familiar whilst also gaining some brand-new moves which keep them feeling fresh and interesting. Of course, this entry brings a few new characters into the roster, like the slow-moving but ridiculously strong cyborg powerhouse Floyd or the fast-but-weak Cherry who provide a distinctly new experience, even for series pros.

The Streets of Rage series has always been famous for its soundtracks, and this new entry certainly continues that legacy. The soundtrack is comprised of thirty-five memorable tracks. Ranging from house to hardcore and techno to trance the sheer number of genres encompassed by the music here means that people of any musical taste will certainly find something to love in this soundtrack. The only valid issue that can be raised at the soundtrack is the fact that the looping of certain tracks, particularly in the first few stages, can become a little repetitive after a while. The music is otherwise excellent and I can count on one hand the few other fighting games which even come close to having a soundtrack half as catchy and enjoyable as this one.

Chicken out


Gameplay in Streets of Rage 4 sticks pretty much to the established series formula. Each character has their own variations on light attacks, heavy attacks, jump attacks and a plethora of special moves at their disposal. These are activated through various button combinations which are all pretty intuitive, but still manage to be fairly challenging to master. Of course, it’s still possible just to sit back and enjoy random button-mashing your way to success on the lower difficulty settings. Luckily for less skilled players, dying in Streets of Rage 4 isn’t a very big deal. Upon loosing all of your lives, you are given the option to sacrifice some of your final score for an immediate resurrection and can sacrifice a little more to gain a few lives out of it. If you become really stuck, there’s always the option to start the stage again with a new character or difficulty setting selected.

Each of the game’s lengthy stages are comprised of first beating a couple legions of almost pathetically weak goons and then a climactic boss fight. The majority of stages also have a mid-boss fight, the difficulty of which should certainly not be underestimated. Although the re-use of some previously defeated bosses at the end of some of the latter stages in the game feels a teeny bit cheap each fight is still memorable and never fails to provide a good challenge.

These stages each take place in a different environment, the background sprites for which are lavishly detailed and excellently drawn. Different lighting conditions allow for some impressive lighting and reflection effects which, despite being drawn on the sprites themselves rather than being rendered by the in-game engine, manage to look absolutely phenomenal. The majority of backdrops in Streets of Rage 4 look so great that they will leave you wishing they were available as downloadable desktop wallpapers. To spice things up, levels are also littered with various destructible objects including traditional wooden boxes, rubbish bins and even telephone boxes. Destroying these objects can drop either money or food, which serves as a health item. Watching your character beating up an oil barrel until it spouts out a perfectly crisp roast chicken is not only hilarious, but can provide a much needed health boost in the more intense combat sections.

Knockout blow


Pleasingly, each stage can be tackled multiplayer, through the form of good old-fashioned local co-op. Up to four players can team up locally to help each other in the fight (provided you have enough controllers of course) and there’s even an option to play with someone remotely through the online co-op system. Unfortunately, online co-op only supports one additional player, instead of the usual four, but just the option to experience co-op gameplay remotely is a very nice addition. Your other players are even given the option to play with the character’s original styled pixelated sprites active, which is surprisingly practical and goes a long way to stopping you becoming confused about who is who on what is an otherwise very crowded screen.

Verdict:


Streets of Rage 4 is a rare example of simple concept perfectly realised to its full potential. With incredible visual flair and an amazing soundtrack, beating up wave after wave of enemies has never been more enjoyable. For those who are not fans of the beat-em-up genre, things may seem overall a little simplistic but if you are yearning for something to quench your insatiable thirst for arcade violence, it doesn’t get better than this.

Ironically for a game titled “Streets of Rage”, there’s absolutely nothing to be angry about!


Just so you’re aware! In order to facilitate a review this product was given to our organisation free of charge.

StarCrossed – Review

The last time we covered StarCrossed was when we sat down for a lovely chat with Francesca Carletto-Leon, the game’s narrative designer, and discussed her mission to create a co-op game that brings people together in more meaningful ways. With the game debuting on the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One last week and lockdown ensuring the majority of us have far more time to spend interacting with members of our own households, there’s never been a better time to grab a controller, kick back on the couch and defeat some baddies – together.

Shooting stars


StarCrossed takes two eager players to the Nova Galaxy in order to try and protect the mystical Harmony Crystal from a plethora of intergalactic nasties and their legions of ghoulish minions. There are five playable characters for players to choose from, each possible character combination is accompanied by a specific set of charming character-to-character interactions which are presenting in the game’s visual-novel style cutscenes. Although fairly basic, the plot is nevertheless engaging and provides a few much needed moments of rest between high-octane segments of gripping gameplay. There are a couple memorable moments per character and the overall theme of friendship and unity is sure to leave your heart suitably warmed by the time the credits roll.

The heart-warming plot is accompanied by a set of cutesy magical-girl inspired visuals. The full-size detailed sprites used for the various characters in their selection screen and cutscenes are excellently drawn with an instantly recognisable StarCrossed style which blends elements of high-fantasy, fairy-tale lore and traditional sci-fi. The 3D combat sprites used in gameplay are equally stunning, watching the neon lit minimalist renditions of the characters dancing around your screen as you play feels just right and helps evoke the nostalgic feeling of a traditional arcade game. The occasional use of 3D animated background rather than traditional 2D background sprites is a nice touch, adding an interesting degree of depth to scenes.

The music, whilst not incredible, is still a pleasant listen and provides a soothing accompaniment while you play. Similarly, the occasional voice lines are delivered with great enthusiasm and the good casting choices compliment the character design. Although voicing the entire script would be understandably out of the question because of its long length, just a few more special attack lines would be a nice touch and help prevent the audio from becoming a little repetitive.

Fun for all the family


Gameplay in StarCrossed is unapologetically co-op oriented. Controls are mapped like a standard space-shooter but with a pretty significant twist. Players attack not by firing individual projectiles as you would probably expect, but rather by bouncing a shooting star between them, manoeuvring the star to collide with enemies in order to cause damage. Players can also press a button to spin kick, increasing the star’s speed and damage. This requires quite tricky timing and in my experience proved to be a lethal distraction from dodging the large number of enemy projectiles which are often on screen at the same time. Players also have a unique ultimate attack, which is charged when damaging enemies and unleashed for extremely high damage.

The surprisingly steep difficulty curve and the constant introduction of new enemy types and variations keeps things engaging and ensures that players master communicating and coordinating with each other to survive, connecting well with the plot’s overarching theme of unity. Unfortunately, the frequent reuse of enemy types feels a little repetitive at times but luckily the robust auto-save system and a spattering of memorable boss-fights sprinkled throughout the campaign prevent things from ever becoming truly frustrating.

Switch it up


Designed from the ground up for local co-op, StarCrossed has a plethora of options to help you play together. Friends can split play between the keyboard and a USB controller or close friends can huddle up together for the more intimate “split controller” mode which splits controls between a single controller. The keyboard bindings are sufficient but a little fiddly and I would highly recommend playing the game on any controllers you have available. Xbox One and PlayStation 4 controllers are supported on PC but Steam Big Picture Mode managed to do a decent job at mapping the various controllers I managed to dig out for testing. Just be aware that your mileage with this feature may vary.

Naturally, the game transitions perfectly on to the Nintendo Switch because of the immediate availability of two controllers. The colourful visuals are an excellent fit for the platform and StarCrossed stands out as one of the, if not, the best co-op titles available for the Switch. On the other hand, Steam‘s ‘Remote Play Together’ feature is a big win for the PC version of the game, allowing the otherwise local coop only title to be played pretty seamlessly online – without the other player even needing to own the game! Outside this, the console and PC versions are otherwise identical so you can be confident you will get the full experience no matter which version you pick up.

Verdict:


Cute and colourful, StarCrossed is overall a confident co-op title with a set of excellent visuals, good writing and a diverse cast of playable characters. Its few shortcomings only become apparent when the more repetitive segments begin to overstay their welcome. Nevertheless, the title succeeds in crafting a charming memorable experience which will certainly succeed in its aim to bring you closer to those you choose to share it with.


Just so you’re aware! In order to facilitate a review this product was given to our organisation free of charge.