Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

One of the nicer things from the past few years in big box games is both Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed edging away from many of their less savoury elements and, as a result, making me pull fewer faces in their direction, becoming games I want to play and look forward to more of. Saints Row Syndrome, if you will.

In the case of Far Cry it’s been the slow but sure erosion of some of its nastier elements, culminating in the much less obnoxious than 5 (and very colourful) New Dawn and in Assassin’s Creed it’s the shift towards much breezier, less aggressively policed, adventuring in quasi-historical settings.

Also, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey lets you climb Zeus’s titty. This is important.

Because I’m nothing if not the videogame equivalent of a trainspotter (a gamespotter?), there’s a certain pleasure in watching how the people making these things move closer and closer to their ideals of what they want the game to be. Something made possible by the iterative approach Ubi afford to their game series.

Where a lot of games zig and zag from one entry to the next, there’s a clear line of progress found in Ubi titles (especially since the whole furore about Assassin’s Creed: Unity).

I take a ridiculous amount of joy from seeing if I can spot the stuff that’ll be kept and the stuff that’ll be discarded, seeing what will be cross pollinated to other series and how that emerges. It’s a fascinatingly public (and long term as games take ages to make) insight into how games move forward mainly through variations on a theme, rather than huge innovations.

And oh, the craft. There’s some incredibly impressive (and sometimes frankly showy offy) stuff found in these things. Yes, the success, money and team size of a big box game lends itself to more bombastic videogames, the real beauty for me is in how it affords teams the ability to include the little moments too time consuming or expensive for smaller outfits.

It’s the person in the background doing something, it’s the way the boat drifts seamlessly into dock and it somehow feels like a boat being moored, it’s the least videogamey stuff in videogames. It’s the stuff that lets folk really show off the skills they bring into videogames, the marriage of so many disciplines that go into making things shine.

From QA to art to sound to toolmakers and everyone else. It’s adding a more human element to a bunch of zeroes and ones and it’s literally all in the details.

It’s not something I value over and above the magic smaller teams can achieve, the tangents they can go on, avenues they can take us down, it’s just one more thing I enjoy in videogames. One more “Wait, we can do that? Woah” to a list of many.

Assassin’s Creed:Odyssey is chock full of this stuff. It is videogame excess in craft and in length, in art, sound and in an absurd amount of human effort spent on making it exist. It’s almost the poster child for it, a big showy “look what we can do” built on a familiar formula tuned to very much allow for this sort of thing.

I’m enjoying it hugely and like I said, it lets you climb Zeus’s titty and more videogames should do that. It’d get points for that alone.

Dead End Job

Honestly, I think Ant Workshop, makers of Dead End Job, should be in touch with the Guinness Book Of Records because if they’re not the frontrunners, they’re definitely in with a shake for the Most Puns In A Videogame world record. In all my years (which are many), I don’t think I’ve ever seen the likes. It’s practically obscene.

Luckily, some truly rotten puns are a fairly good way to crack a smile out of me! The more of a leap, the better. Which pretty much means I spent way, way more time laughing at Dead End Job than is probably healthy.

Such a relief too because as much as I adore videogames, what passes off as humour in videogames is fairly often lost on me. For every game that manages to sneak a memorable joke under the radar, there’s a thousand where the joke is “I just said that thing off the internet” and oh, oh dear. Please, no.

So yeah, Dead End Job got more than its fair quota of laughs out of me. It’s also a really grand looking and sounding game. Styling itself around the idea of what if Ghostbusters arrived freshly formed as a nineties MTV-era cartoon, it doesn’t exactly pick itself an easy look to pull off. It does pull it off though, incredibly well.

Everything bops and squidges nicely, characters land somewhere between cute and grotesque in that oh so very nineties fashion, it even has title cards for the start of each mission! And it’s a small touch but one I loved, Dead End Job does that sort of “meanwhile, back at the house…” interstitial scene cartoons lifted from a myriad of sitcoms over the years complete with guitar break. Oh, and it has a theme song too because of course it does. If you’re going to do this stuff then might as well go all in and then some, eh?

It’s a pleasingly tough but not too tough twin stick shooter. You’re tasked with clearing an area out to earn money, each area is (as is oh so in vogue at the moment) made up of a shuffled around selection of rooms. Clear all the rooms, rescue a couple of folk on the way, get out and cash up then head onto the next bunch of rooms.

It’s a fairly routine set up made more interesting by having to work around incredibly cluttered rooms where things often have a tendency to explode, managing some (thankfully far, far from obnoxious) weapon cooldown timers and having to catch the ghosts with your ghost vacuum in fairly short order after hitting them with your definitely not a proton pack (honest guv) laser beam.

Everything is so big and chunky that there isn’t quite as much room to muck around in as you need so making space (by blowing things up) becomes a priority very quickly. Ghosts also have a tendency to leave slime trails behind them which should you try and wade through them, slow you down. There’s always plenty to be taking into account in order to make the space less cramped and more amenable to a bit of busting.

There’s a reasonably sized bestiary of ghouls and ghosts to catch, certainly far more than many games would bother with, and best of all the game allows you to rename each and every one of them. Not since Fable 2 have so many things found themselves mysteriously called Bernard by my hand. Look, I know it’s a problem I have, I’m trying to be better but gnnnnng BERNARD.

I really, really enjoyed myself with Dead End Job and it’s one I can see myself coming back to for a good few years. Helped, in no small amount, by it making me smile so much with its awful, awful puns.

Dead End Job is on Windows, PS4, Switch, Xbox One and Apple Arcade. It’s (wait for it) dead good.

Swordlord

Maybe it’s the hefty weight of 2019 but I can’t say I was expecting pangs of nostalgia for videogames from around ten or so years ago.

Swordlord isn’t, as far as I’m aware, from ten years ago but it really, really, really wouldn’t sit out of place there. You know, before XBLA and Steam slowly opening the doors to more videogames changed the landscape of games to something akin to what we have now.

Swordlord feels like the kind of game I’d have been quite excited to write about then. It’s small, it has the most absurdly silly physics and (this bit is important) is a game about hitting enemies really, really hard with weaponry until they pop, leaving a mound of cash for you to pick up. It’s kind of early Cactus via Hammer fall/Hammerfight but without the intensity of either.

You run around in circles obnoxiously fast, deciding which direction you’re going to swing your weapon in and hit anything that comes close to you. And in the game. It’s not exactly complicated.

At the end of each round, you can do a bit of videogame shopping and providing you’ve managed to hit enough things, grab yourself a bigger weapon and then get back to skidding all over the place, swinging your sword into the face of an enemy until the enemy pops and pretty much keep doing this until you’re either finished or bored, whatever.

The thing is, Swordlord might have missed the boat for getting any attention by around a decade but I’m still excited to write about it because, to no-one’s surprise, I still really enjoy small and scratchy games that make me grin. I don’t forsee that changing anytime soon either.

Honestly, there’s every chance you may not spend more than five or ten minutes mucking round with it (or maybe like me you’ll get a wee bit too much fun out of careering round the arena like Sonic The Hedgehog with a firework up his blue behind).

Thing is, that’s okay. No-one ever said games have to be big or clever and not only that, it’s less than a quid on Steam. You could pay for it by robbing someone else’s shopping trolley at the supermarket and claiming their quid back as your own if need be. Probably don’t do that though because thinking on, that’s not the best idea I’ve ever had.

So yeah. Swordlord. You hit things with a sword and you’re a lord (probably). I liked it. I don’t remember buying it but I’m thankful to past me for acquiring it, however that happened. And, you know, it’s called Swordlord which is a pretty good videogame name too.

Days Gone

Days Gone might well be the single most boring game I’ve played in years.

I love it.

It is, ostensibly, a third person Far Cry with most of the game missing. A zombie game where you’re more likely to die at the branches of a shrubbery than a zombie. A huge map filled with trees, a bit of water and maybe a building every now and then, there’s not very much to see or do in any of it. It sort of looks like Far Cry 5 does but muddier, messier, the brownest Far Cry 5. It is Fuel but with zombies instead of racing.

It is also broken in so many ways.

Seriously. The amount of glitches I’ve ran into in my time with it so far is hilariously large. From T pose characters spawning out of nowhere, events not triggering, dialogue and cut scenes repeating, buttons not working and look, I could make a big list but as many faults as there are, I don’t care that much. Just consider it a cursory warning if you’re planning on ducking in. It needs a lot of patching right now. A big whole lot.

Like I say, as amusing as the glitches can be to recount, as easy as it would be to give the game a bit of a kicking for them, they’re part the reason I really wanted to play it in the first place. I’ve been playing a lot of really polished games lately and they’re great and all that but sometimes I just want a more than slightly broken videogame with a weird libertarian bent that can be incredibly off putting. And hey, that’s Days Gone.

I like broken games. Always have. I’m one of the few people on this planet to have put nice words out there about Stalin Vs Martians after playing it. I’m ready to defend Limbo Of The Lost, if only because it has the best song in any videogame that’s not Boiling Point. And don’t start me on Ride To Help:Retribution because let me tell you, any game with that much dry humping in between MDickie style characters is solid gold and I won’t entertain any arguments.

Not gonna lie, when I heard Days Gone was more than a bit wonky, that’s when I knew I needed it. If only to see if it had any dry humping in it.

Seems as I’ve been playing it nightly since launch, I guess I really did need it and then some.

I’m not done by a long chalk (though I have looked up the rest of the story on the internet to save me some bother) for one reason, you could politely describe the game’s pace as glacial. It is in absolutely no hurry to push the story on, no hurry to let you buy weapons, bike upgrades or whatever. It is mainly a game that wants you to ride your bike to the other side of the map every twenty minutes or whatever, sometimes to just listen to two or three lines of dialogue before having to go back again.

And that is so wonderfully boring. Boring in the way American/Euro Truck Simulator can be boring, where roads and time disappear with the monotony of the journey. There’s a peace to be found there, you know? Nothing is urgent in Days Gone, not travelling, not clearing out zombies from an area (there are a few moments in the story missions where it requires being fairly pronto but they’re so brief and far apart they don’t really shift the game up a gear for very long at all).

I’m fairly sure it was never the original intent but Days Gone shipped as a slow game. A game where forty hours on, you’ll have likely covered as much ground as an Ubigame manages in two. Is that padding? Yeah! Most likely. Do I care? No, not really. I am all here for a game that wants me to take long motorcycle rides, take a brief stop off for a moment then clamber back on the bike and take another long ride.

Sure, sure, I’d prefer a videogame without the strange and uncomfortable libertarian bent where a camp full of truthers are largely used to make the rest of the game’s politics sound reasonable when they’re invariably quite obnoxious. Not defending that stuff in the slightest just as videogames are as videogames does, it’s not like I’m not largely numbed by this sort of nonsense now. If I want consideration, kindness, questioning of the status quo I’m not going to turn to Days Gone and I would recommend no-one else does also.

Ideally, the hokey politics wouldn’t be there. Obviously we should demand more. Just y’know, there are very few opportunities for me to ride a motorbike across dirt roads in a huge forest with no pressure at all. I’m not convinced the dodgy politics are a fair trade for that but right now, I’ll take it. I want to go brum brum brum and hit some zombies with a stick, okay? I know, I know. Seriously, you can judge me on that. It’s fair.

So yeah, Days Gone. It’s quite broken, has a terrible story and its politics are well dodgy. Pretty much exactly what I expected it to be going in.

And I don’t care because I love the rides, the long drives on your motorbike that make up 99.9% of the game. Darting between trees, finding sneaky shortcuts across dirt roads, weaving around the debris and fences that block the way. I love all that. And I love that there’s so little pressure whilst driving around.

In a recent Eurogamer review, they asked the question “who is this game for?”. It’s for me. Sorry about that but I’m not ashamed. I’m here for the broken oddities that don’t get anywhere close to their potential but most of all, I’m here for driving bikes up hills. Kinda disappointed I can’t find a button to honk a horn though. That seems like a pretty egregious omission to me. Every game should let you honk your horn at a zombie. Even the games that don’t have zombies in them.

Yeah. Honk.

Inksplosion

Like I wasn’t going to give a game called Inksplosion that looks like this a try.

You know, me liking colours and all that.

Let’s just stop for a second again and do another screenshot (all pics here taken from the Steam page because I couldn’t be bothered with the faff of getting the ones off my PS4, sorry)

Yeah, there was absolutely no way I was going to let this pass me by.

Just look at those colours, they’re fantastic. Go on, let’s do one more picture.

It’s some sort of visual hybrid of (my own) War Twat and the all time greatest Asteroids game of all time, Spheres Of Chaos. That’ll do me.

Sorry. I’ll calm down now. I’m okay. I haven’t been this excited about colours in a game since Ultralight Beam. It’ll pass in a second.

Anyhoo. As twin stick shooters go, there’s probably few surprises here. You’re faced with a jumble of waves and each wave finds you having to use a different weapon to clear the screen. Clear the screen, move on to the next wave. You now have a different weapon. Shoot those baddies! Clear the screen! And so on.

There isn’t really that much to distinguish each weapon from the other and as far as I played, not much to distinguish each enemy from the other either. But that’s okay, yeah? I’m not playing this for mechanical marvels, I’m playing this because I really really like watching colours explode across the screen and Inksplosion does that perfectly.

Inksplosion is, primarily, a game about making things explode to smear colour across the screen. Every thirty seconds or so the mess will be cleared up and you get to do it all over again.

My only real gripe is that the announcer that declares each weapon you find yourself suddenly equipped with comes across more Viv Stanshall On Tubular Bells than befitting of an arcade game but I’ll freely admit that I have very, very specific ideas of what speech in arcade games should sound like. Also, I dearly love a lot of Bonzo stuff but Tubular Bells brings me out in hives. Not sure I can put the blame for that on Inksplosion, really.

Phew. Got a bit lost there, sorry. Anyway. Inksplosion set me back about four quid and I don’t regret a penny of it. I plumped for the PS4 version but other formats are available.

Mastercube

Due to the eldest having an insatiable desire for more videogames (I have no idea where they get that from), I’ve recently taken out a PlayStation Now subscription in the vain hope of getting somewhere close to satisfying their cravings at some sort of vaguely affordable level.

Of course, this has the advantage of giving me the opportunity to wade through a bunch of videogames I may not have taken a chance on otherwise. And of course, I’m still me so obviously the first game I gave a try was a twin stick shooter.

That’ll be Mastercube, then.

Honestly, there’s not a lot to write about Mastercube. I’ve flicked through the internet a bit and it’s mostly complaining elsewhere. It’s too small. It’s not Geometry Wars. Nothing surprising, anyway. And sure enough, it is a pretty basic twin stick shooter and if you’ve played Geometry Wars in its earlier incarnations you’ll be well prepped for what to expect. But here’s the thing, yeah.

I really like small twin stick shooters.

Yeah, yeah, I’m down for something with the beautiful complexity of Bezier, the sheer design wonderment of Nex Machina and whatever else there is but sometimes I just want to sit back, load up a game for five minutes, shoot some things then turn it off. MasterCube fits that bill just fine.

It’s got a nice speedy pace to it, it controls well enough, everything explodes in a perfectly explody fashion and crucially, it’s all played out to a pub rock soundtrack. That was definitely not what I expected in the slightest and it really does make a nice change from the generic electronica that normally bleeps over short form twinstick games.

I’m not sure it’s the sort of game where I’d want to get into a high score chase with, either against friends or trying to beat my own score with any sort of urgency and you know, I don’t really care either. I just kinda liked it, yeah? I enjoyed putting my feet up, spinning around a bit and dealing some laser death whilst a Deep Purple tribute band did their thing in the background. That’s enough for me.

And maybe that’s not enough for you, fair’s fair and that. I’m definitely glad I gave Mastercube a shot though. Like I say, it’s small, it’s simple. And that is a perfectly okay thing to be. I’ll definitely be revisiting it over time.

(gameplay video not my own)

Loot Rascals

I’m not the greatest fan of games where you have to rummage through cards to make the best hand you can so I was quite surprised to find myself enjoying Loot Rascals a great deal.

It helps, in no small part, that I adore its ability to front itself as a videogame through the eyes of a child. It may well have (and does, to be fair) a very keen eye for elegant mechanical design that comes with a certain expertise and grown up knowledge, this much is true, but it’s shot through with the kind of joy and wonder that we normally steal away as for children only.

It seems very much a game that’s borne of a sort of Very British Adventure Time. If someone were to tap me on the shoulder and point out it was built from one of the (largely quite wonderful) stories in the Adventure Time comics, I would not be surprised. There’s that same glee and acceptance of childlike things as stuff that maybe, as an adult, you don’t need to put behind you. That it is absolutely still OK to laugh about something being called ‘Big Barry’ because, y’know, it is. It so very much is.

I can’t and don’t care to make any mechanical comparisons to other card games, deck builders or whatever. I’ve bounced off plenty with them often feeling arduous or steeped in layers of obscurity and nerd-dom that I don’t care to scratch at. I only really care that Loot Rascals is the sort of game I end up playing because I spent time thinking about it. Not thinking about the cards or the strategy or whatever, I think about playing it because it’s a joy to play.

It looks good. It makes me smile. I enjoy my time with it. It has robots and I’m very big on robots right now. That’s all I need.

Partially, I enjoy my time with it precisely because Loot Rascals is a game built around making your time with it as pleasant as possible. I would, in some ways, describe it as the perfect Popcap game – you know, before Popcap became whatever they are these days under EA. It’s light, it’s breezy, it explains itself in a fun and accessible way. It’s a friendly game and full of things I find so sorely missing all too often. Sometimes I don’t want a slick techno UI and a thousand graphics settings, sometimes I just want a computer game to be nice to me. This is something that once upon a time, Popcap excelled at. It’s nice to see someone else run with games as a kindness to the player. It’s nice to feel like someone wants me to play, doubly so when so many works seek to exploit me either financially or at the expense of my time.

And of course, in true Popcap-as-was style, its gentle nature hides a mountain of smart, considered design decisions. It’s sort of the act of beautifying surface stuff like menus, button presses and so many other things in a certain way so that it ultimately obscures the sheer amount of craft that goes into building a thing like this. It exists, fully formed, as a videogame that hides its mechanical nature, where you only see the beauty and parts of a game the designers want you to see.

You might have guessed that I like it, anyway. I’m not for a single second suggesting that Loot Rascals is the only game that follows this sort of route either, it just excels at it, y’know?

I realise at this point that I’ve barely touched on what the game itself is. It is a game where you walk across a map that’s different each time fighting monsters by trying to build the best hand from the cards you’re dealt. Along the way, the player is able to grab cards deposited by defeated monsters, find special cards tucked away on the map often surrounded by monsters a tad more difficult to defeat. In the tradition of roguelikes, the player is also tasked with progressing to the next stage of the map so there is always a goal.

There is a day and night cycle where battling during day may prove easier than battling at night, your cards being split between attack and defence mean likewise, the player may become an easier target at certain times too. As far as I’ve played it feels gloriously balanced, it doesn’t take long before I found myself running into fight after fight, traps, dangers and well, some weird things that land after a certain amount of turns has passed. Whatever they are. I’ve seen them. They’re not nice.

And maybe that doesn’t make for a good sell to folks who are neck deep in card shuffling games, I’m not equipped to make any sort of comparison to others anyway. So perhaps it may be the case that Loot Rascals is a game for people who have shied away from wanting to build the best deck of cards to fight a monster when a laser sword and a punch would normally suffice. Maybe it is that.

I hope not though. I hope it gets to be something more than that because it’s quite a special little game that deserves to be played as much as the game wants you to enjoy spending your time with it. Which is to say, a lot.

The Last Screen

The first screen is The Factory Gates. It’s 8:30am at The Chip Factory. Time to get to work.

One of the first, and most difficult, games to really hook me was Hewson’s Technician Ted. A platformer that, like many games of its time, clearly owed more than a passing debt to Jet Set Willy. Just y’know, harder.

When I think of Technician Ted, I think mainly of two things. Firstly, Thursday nights where my dad’s friend would come round and we’d sit there, load Tech Ted up and play it together for hours on end. Through practice, we’d both gotten quite adept at the game and were able to help each other move from room to room and task to task. The game required you to complete 27 of these tasks before 5:30pm. Whilst the tasks themselves were a matter of hitting two objects in order, actually doing that was quite a problem because…

Secondly, Technician Ted was a tremendously hard game even by the standards of the time. Part of the reason myself and my dad’s friend played it for so long was entirely because it was so bastard hard. The rooms were fiendish in their design, requiring a sort of knowledge of animation frames usually only reserved for fighting games in these modern times. How many frames to leap a gap, what position an enemy should be in, what animation frame the enemy should be on. It was, and still is, a tremendously brutal game.

And unfair.

Whilst a great deal of the game is learnable with ease, the task order is never explained. After the first few tasks you’re left to have a look around to find the next one to complete. Amd just getting round is also bastard hard. To compensate the game does provide you with a lot of chances to avoid a game over situation.

Unfortunately, some tasks drain your chances if you’re not fast enough. It’s a game of constant, never-ending pressure and pixel perfect platforming skills. Nowadays, I’d barely have time for it and my tastes have moved on somewhat. In 1985, it was one of the best things I’d played.

It was, shut your face, the Dark Souls of platformers before anyone had even thought of making Dark Souls exist. Not that it’d work out so hot on a 48k Spectrum anyway but hush.

But y’know, plenty of games were hard and unfair in 1985. It’s hardly the most prestigious badge of honour to award a game and hardly the most interesting talking point though Technician Ted was a monstrous bastard variant of hard.

I never finished Technician Ted at the time. I’m not even sure it’s possible without some sort of absurd superhuman ability that I don’t possess. So I’d never really saw the last few screens.

Ok, that’s not entirely true because I’d have seen them in Crash magazine or wherever, despite us hand mapping the game as we went along I’d read magazines cover to cover, pore over maps, tips and just about everything printed about games. Just I’d never clocked them, understood them though. Never realised.

You see, Technician Ted is a game where you turn up for work and have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing. Only your mate will tell you some of what to do but even he doesn’t really know where everything is. Which is odd, right? You’d think someone would know something.

The end of Technician Ted, you have to leave the factory after clocking off. So once again, make your way to the factory gates. This time, however, you’re heading in the other direction, out of the gates then on to collect your pay.

So you walk out through the picket line to the last screen stepping underneath a union’s flag as you do.

To get paid outside the factory gates by a man waving cash around.

No wonder nobody will tell you anything. No wonder nobody knows where things are or what to do. You’re a strikebreaker, a scab.

120 quid. Cash in hand. For a days work. Not bad for 1986, if you can live with your conscience.

No wonder Ted could afford a holiday in Spain for his next outing.