Firewatch (2016)

Firewatch is an indie title developed by Campo Santo. It is set in the Wyoming wilderness and the main character, Henry, becomes a fire lookout. The game revolves around its beautiful scenery and compelling narrative instead of gameplay and action. I was nervous about how good the game could be when the only real gameplay is just walking around in the wilderness, but I believe it worked out alright. I am going to try to avoid spoilers in this review, as the story is all that this game has and it would be a shame if I were to ruin it for somebody.

The game is about the main character, Henry, and how he isolated himself after his wife develops dementia. He becomes a fire lookout in the middle of a national park, and his only form of human contact is talking with his supervisor, Delilah, over the radio. As the player walks around the park doing mundane tasks you are constantly in conversation with Delilah. The dialogue is witty, humorous, sometimes somber, and most importantly it all feels real. Many games struggle in this regard, conversations often feel robotic, but not in Firewatch. The conversations that the player has could actually happen in real life, and this aspect is further strengthened by the excellent voice acting. As time passes in the game Henry and Delilah stumble upon a mystery and they take it upon themselves to unravel it. Overall this was very compelling and kept me hooked the entire time. The mix of exploring the wilderness, conversing with Delilah, and pondering the mystery kept my brain busy.

Though the narrative and story-telling is where Firewatch shone through, there were also a fair amount of issues with the game. The controls were a bit clunky and tough to get used to, and the game was inconsistent when it comes to what you can traverse and what you cannot. Sometimes you can climb up giant rock faces, other times you cannot even step over a pebble, this occasionally got frustrating as I explored the park. While these issues were minor, there were much bigger problems. Although I really liked the narrative, I wish it was tacked onto more actual gameplay. Firewatch plays itself: you cannot do anything wrong, all you do is walk around, and none of your choices matter. I just want a little more sustenance, because it felt like I was watching a TV show or movie instead of being an active player in the game. My other big issue with the game was the ending. I was extremely disappointed in the way the game ended. I know the old cliché “It is about the journey, not the destination”, but in this case I felt the destination completely invalidated the journey. It felt like the entirety of the game was building up many different plot lines, but most of them just went nowhere. The ending just left a bitter taste in my mouth, after completing the game I was left thinking “That’s it?”

If you are intrigued by the aspect of just enjoying the scenery and narrative of a game, then Firewatch is a great game for you. Unfortunately, if you want anything more than just walking around you are going to be disappointed. Also, if you are planning on playing this game, just prepare your self to be let down by the ending. All in all, I did enjoy Firewatch despite its shortcomings and I thought it was a neat little game. I am going to give Firewatch a 6/10. Its narrative and story-telling are top-notch and other developers should attempt to model it. I just wish there was a little more to this game.

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Dishonored 2 (2016)

For me, Dishonored 2 was highly anticipated title as I loved the original Dishonored that came out back in 2012. I personally feel that Dishonored 2 does a fantastic job at continuing what made that original so great. Dishonored was all about having different ways of tackling every mission and scenario, and Dishonored 2 runs with that idea. It expands the player’s tool set and options to the point where every single person that plays this game is going to have a different experience. There were a few issues with the game, but a lot of the problems are pretty minor when compared to what makes the game so fun.

In Dishonored 2, you have the option to choose between two different characters to play as. Each character as a unique set of supernatural abilities that you can play with and upgrade by collecting Runes. The player also has access to a very wide variety of tools and weapons at their disposal such as sleep darts, stun mines, a pistol, explosives, and so on. These tools are also upgrade-able through black market shops hidden across the world. On top of all of that, you have the option of being stealthy or chaotic in your methods. You can go into any scenario guns blazing as long as you are prepared for a fight, but you can also sneak past any unsuspecting foes and complete the mission in a more stealthy manner. Also, you have the option of using non-lethal methods to dispose of enemies, or you can kill enemies if you so choose. The combination of all these different aspects makes the game feel like a sandbox. Every scenario you walk into, there are dozens of different ways to tackle it. I personally played using non-lethal tactics and all the while never once being even detected by an enemy. I viewed every room as almost like a puzzle of how to use my limited resources to never be seen and to never kill anybody. Of course, this variety in options is only possible if the level design matches in the amount of paths you can take. There would be no use for all these fun new toys without a playground to use them in, luckily Dishonored 2 delivers just that.

Every level in Dishonored 2 is giant. There are numerous routes and paths that is available to the player to get to any desired point. In every room there are cleverly placed objects to hide behind. There are numerous walkways and surfaces to get on top of or even under to perhaps tackle a challenge from a different angle. Catwalks and back-alleys are scattered through every mission if the player wants to take a more stealthy and less direct approach. Due to these level design choices and the amount of tools and options at the players disposal, Dishonored 2 has a ton of variety and replay-ability. On top of just cleverly designed levels, every mission was extremely unique in both concept and execution. From run down research institutes, to lively palaces, to witches hideouts, Dishonored 2 has it all. My two personal favorite levels were both brilliant in design and execution. The Clockwork Mansion is a mansion filled with gears and mechanisms that at the flip of the switch can turn any room into something completely different. Hitting the switches throughout the mansion was very fun as I watched the level transform. It is also possible to get inside the inner workings of the house and sneak through it in that manner. My favorite level however was Stilton’s Manor, as it very cleverly implemented time travel to change the level from an overgrown mess to a well-guarded and pristine estate. Switching back and forth between these two versions of the manor was necessary to progress through the level. These ever changing and evolving level designs were among my personal favorites, but all the other missions were extremely fun as well.

Despite everything that Dishonored 2 does right, it does have its set of flaws. Most importantly, for many PC users the game does not run properly. Hopefully the developers can get this issue sorted out as soon as possible, but two months after the release I am still hearing of issues concerning the poor performance on PC. Luckily I did not have any performance related problems, but there were also a few other issues that I had with the game. The overall story was just mediocre. It plays out similarly to the original Dishonored: the queen is overthrown and you must retake the throne by eliminating the usurper’s associates in one way or another. The usurper and her associates are the main enemies and villains of the story but you rarely ever see them or hear of them outside of their particular missions. I never really cared about any of the characters as you so rarely interact with any of them. Overall the whole story just felt loosely stringed together and it seemed like it was just the vehicle to connect all the unique and interesting level designs together. The cool thing about the story is that there is a large set of different endings depending on who you leave alive and who you kill and how much overall chaos you have caused. My only other complaint with the game is at times there was a bit of backtracking. There were many levels that required you to walk all the way back to the starting point just to complete the level. It just feels like every level should have an exit point near the end, instead of having to walk all the way back to the start after completing the main objective.

All in all, Dishonored 2 was pretty great game. Just the sheer amount of options and tools available to the player is a breath of fresh air when so many games play so linearly. The amount of creativity and thought that went into every mission is remarkable. Many of the levels were extremely memorable and jaw-dropping. Unfortunately the PC performance issue exist so just be weary if you are thinking of purchasing this game on PC right now. Other than that there were only some minor issues with the game overall. Due to all of these aspects I give Dishonored 2 a 8.5/10. Just think of Dishonored 2 as a giant playground, and you can do whatever you want, that is what makes it so fun.

Doom (2016)

In an age where video games have a heavy focus on the narrative aspect, Doom hearkens back to the days where it was all about the action. It was a refreshing experience to load up the game and immediately jump into the action. I thought killing hell-spawn would grow old after a couple of hours, but the constant additions of new enemies, weapons, and upgrades kept the game feeling fresh throughout. These factors combined with the overall polish made Doom extremely entertaining. While I really enjoyed Doom, I do not think it is for everybody.

Doom was extremely well made, but there was nothing really groundbreaking or super innovative about. To me it was just a modernized version of the classic Doom from 1993. That is fine if you are satisfied with just moving from room to room killing hordes of enemies, but many players want a little more from games these days. I could see how people may feel that it is repetitive or a worn out concept. Doom is all about one thing, but it does that one thing very well.

There is a level of polish on Doom that indicates that it was heavily tested before it was released. I played on the hard (ultra-violence) difficulty and nothing about the game seemed unfair or unjust. The arenas were intelligently designed to flow and never feel stagnant. Items and power-ups were placed strategically throughout the rooms, and all the different enemies were manageable once I got the hang of it. With the amount of different enemies in the game I expected at least one of them to be frustrating, but they all had clearly defined strengths and weaknesses. What really makes Doom great is the speed at which it is played. The game forces you to move around the arenas that you fight in, which is definitely refreshing after playing military shooters in which you just sit behind one piece of cover for an entire battle. In Doom, if you stand still for more than a couple of seconds you will be overrun. As long as you keep on the move you will be able to dodge most of the damage coming from the demons, and you can constantly refresh your ammo, armor, and health with items scattered across the maps. Also the glory kill system was great at incentivizing fast paced gameplay: executing low-health enemies at melee range would have them drop health and ammo. I needed to constantly utilize this mechanic to keep my health and ammo topped off. You need to keep on the move to have a hope of surviving. The constant action kept the game very intense and energetic. This was complimented by the soundtrack and how it matched the mood and intensity of the game.

While in between action packed arenas Doom did have some other things to offer that did not involve slaying hell-spawn. There were plenty of hidden nooks and hallways to find secrets. Finding these secrets was actually rewarding, as they allowed me to upgrade my weapons and suit to be better prepared for future encounters. There were even some mini-games that would allow me to equip special power-ups. The weapon upgrade system was pretty great as well. Every weapon had two unique upgrade paths, for example the shotgun could be upgraded to have a grenade launcher or have a tighter spread of bullets. You could further power up these upgrades and you could switch between them at any time to fit a particular situation. To earn tokens to upgrade these weapon systems there were certain tasks to complete in every level, like glory killing five enemies or killing two enemies with one bullet. You also earn upgrade points just by killing enemies, so there was always a sense of progression as I quickly powered up my character and his arsenal of weapons.

All in all, I really enjoyed Doom for what it was. I loved the constant action and just bad-ass feeling of the game. I also enjoyed taking a breather in between arenas to explore and find secrets and upgrades. Doom is really good at what it does, which is being high energy arena shooter focused on taking on hordes of hell-spawn.  Do not expect anything groundbreaking or anything that is not blasting through swarms of demons. For these reasons I give Doom a 8.5/10. It is a really great action game, but that is all that it is.