Assassins Creed Unity's depiction of late 18th century Paris is a gloriously romantic one for a place that definitely stank of stagnant shit and piss. Every facet of the city's majestic, Gothic architecture is painted in a low angle, golden light, as if it were in a perennial state of sunset. It's a stylistic choice, intended to mimic Nicolas Jean-Baptiste Raguenet's " View of Paris " paintings. Raguenet's paintings were lauded for their detail and accuracy in a time before photography, so they make for great source material. Whereas the gameplay itself has sometimes left me cold, it's this desperately beautiful world that Ubisoft has built - the way it looks, feels and sounds - that I have fallen in love with. For all the awkward climbing, dull missions and strangely linear gameplay for worlds so open and expansive, the Assassin's Creed series always manages to draw me in with its unrivalled ability to create a sense of place. Whenever I feel myself growing increasingly infuriated with Arno's failed attempts to pass through an open window, frantically wanging himself around its perimeter like a horny wasp, the fury fades when I get to what awaits me inside. Passing through an open window feels like plunging into a Vermeer painting, as if I were playing a classy, Dutch Masters edition of Comix Zone; the soft light of the window spreads itself gently over the calm and stillness of the room. Exiting through the blinding light of a nearby open doorway sees you thrust into the throng and mess of the revolting peasantry. It's both threatening and exciting to hear the songs of the revolution ring in your ears. Effigies are burned and statues defiled as you nudge your way through the buzzing, furious populace. Switching pace sees you break from the crowd and scuttle up a nearby church, its rooftop warmed by the late sun's touch. There is respite and quiet to be found up here. The singing voices still reach you, carried on the wind, now more distant, romantic, like a warm memory. Push on to the highest points in the city and it's just you and the breeze. Importantly, you can still see the people, now a swathe of tiny, tricolore freckles, but there is a strange peace up here which belies the anger and passion below; in fact, Elise herself remarks as she and Arno drift high above the city in their hijacked Montgolfier balloon - " from up here you'd never know the nation is tearing itself apart ". Being this high above the ground, in a place from which nobody else can observe these events, feels like a comment on physical and historical perspective. That all might seem a bit far fetched - and it probably is - but it's testament to how beautifully realised Paris is to draw me to thinking that way. Sadly, the public image of the game has been reduced to YouTube videos of inside out faces and pointing out glitches where an npc in a crowd of hundreds very briefly leaves the floor before returning. The YouTuber gleefully zooms in and circles the moment occurring in the background of a beautiful, living, breathing scene. If anything, it's an unwitting, perfect illustration of completely missing the point. Ubisoft only have themselves to blame for carpet bombing swathes of uninteresting content, like a boredom blitzkrieg, onto a once beautiful city, and it's telling that I enjoyed myself the most when aimlessly exploring, but it's sad that the work put into this portrait of Paris has gone largely unappreciated as a result. There's a wealth of historical information to be read and discovered as you encounter various historical buildings, characters and events, all of which enhances and reinforces the evocation of the time period depicted. It's a shame, then, when all this is interrupted by some faux-Matrix squiggly neon lines and a tonally neutral, unemotional female voice in your head warning of a riptear in the timeframe glitchfield vertices of the system program simulation box app, as you dive into a pool of glowing wireframe nonsense broth. I'm not interested in schoolboy sci-fi bollocks, or stupid, magical, golden swordguns, or enduring a barrage of cynical Danny Wallace quips. I'd much rather spend my time standing with the frustrated Third Estate as they wave flags of protest in the streets, hearing the clink of tiled rooftops underfoot as I skitter along Notre Dame, before perching on a gargoyle to admire the skyline, the gentle constant of the pouring rain in my ears.
Remember back in the day you could get those unofficial mega map packs for PC games like Quake and Doom? Stuff like ‘500 ULTRA HARD MAPS FOR QUAKE 2’ and that? Decent enough value for money if you were a fan of the game in question, but not a single one of those maps would be anywhere near the quality of the ones you got with the base game. No playtesting, usually intended to be ‘hard’ instead of ‘fun’ and were lacking in the sort of polish you got with something made by your man Romero or the like. Bigger, Badder, MORE wasn’t necessarily ‘Better’.
Hotline Miami 2 started life as an expansion pack for the first game and in many of the design decisions, it shows. For instance, some of the more advanced, difficult gameplay mechanics, like windows, guard dogs and the ‘heavy’ enemies, are in the game pretty much from the off. It is a much harder game than the first, mainly due to much less forgiving learning curve. That would be fine, but that’s not the only reason Hotline Miami 2 is a harder game. Levels are much bigger, not just in terms of length but in their actual size of area. There’s way more rooms that are just large, open spaces with the odd bit of screen furniture to hide behind. This means more holding down shift to look ahead and identify threats than you had to do in the original game, because if you miss that one guy holding a shotgun half a level away, you’re fucked. This means that for the most part, you have to take a slightly more cautious approach, which just isn’t as much fun. You spend way more time walking into a room, alerting the enemies and then quickly running out so you can off them in the doorway than just dashing in, chucking your weapon at them and seeing what happens.
The maps of the original game are legendary. Everyone who has played it can explain in great detail how they would run through Decadence, Tension, or one of the many other memorable stages. Hotline Miami 2 just doesn’t have that. I’ve finished the main game and have gotten stuck on some of the levels for a while, doing them over and over again and as I’m sat here right now, I can barely remember any details. It speaks volumes that in Hotline Miami, the level select screen shows a picture of the map you’re about to enter. Hotline Miami 2 does not.
One thing that is very clear about Hotline Miami 2 is that the narrative is very much pushed to the forefront this time around. Last time the plot sort of ticked away behind the constant killing, almost brooding in the shadows, and led to some excellent little points about violence in videogames and the developer/player justification of it. Everything appears (at first) to be a bit more straight laced this time around, filling in the plot around the events of the first game, cutting between the aftermath of the murders in Hotline Miami and a squadron of soldiers fighting Russians off the coast of Hawaii in the years before them.
The delivery of the narrative is really, really good. I didn’t think I gave a shit about the deeper plot of Hotline Miami but it turns out I’m way more invested than I realised! The way that the story jumps backwards and forwards throughout the timeline, set before and after the events of the first game, fleshing out the stuff we already know from Hotline Miami is really clever and caused a few genuine ‘wow’ moments as something which seemed so inconsequential suddenly ties the two games together.
However, due to this significantly heavier emphasis on the plot, you now have specific characters for specific levels. When I interviewed the lads behind the game a few months ago, they said that this was so all the people who played through the original only using the ‘Tony’ mask (who has killing punches) are forced to try different tactics. Cool, but this does mean your options on every level are limited to the - at most - three or four different characters/masks available for that stage. Some of the new characters also can’t pick up weapons dropped in the stage, so there’s less opportunity to think on your feet and find new ways to squeeze those extra points out of the level. This isn’t a dealbreaker or anything, but another way in which the larger scope of this sequel has scuppered something cool from the original game.
One of the best aspects of the original is when you’re score chasing, switching up your current mask to best compliment the strategy you’re using. The right mask for the right strategy can make a huge difference in your high score and it is really interesting how strategy dictates the choice of mask and vice versa. Some of the new characters have their own unique abilities that really mix up the existing formula. You actually control the two swan masked characters at the same time, one of them wielding a pistol and the other a chainsaw. You can pick off enemies with the pistol before rushing in and causing a mess with the ‘saw, or you can do the supremely rad tactic of taking out enemies while chainsawing another in half. There’s also The Writer, who doesn’t actually kill anyone and will empty any guns he picks up of bullets before discarding them, leaving you to rely on blunt weapons to beat the level. The new character stuff is, for the most part, pretty cool but I think I would’ve prefered these to be masks in the existing game.
There’s a few parts where it taps into the stuff that made the first game so great, but adds the new ideas and larger scope from the sequel on top of it, and it all clicks together brilliantly. For instance, there’s a level where you play as all four of the ‘fans’, switching to a different one as you clear out a floor of the building. It is a more traditional style Hotline Miami level, rather than the newer open plan ones and the whole time Carpenter Brut’s ‘Roller Mobster’ is banging away in the background and it just gave me a violence lob on that still hasn’t subsided. The next thing I remember after finishing that level is waking up naked on a beach surrounded by dead sharks. In fact, most of the stages that are in the more traditional map style are when the game is at its best, regardless of the character you have to play as. When the game gets a bit more experimental with its map design, such as the levels set in Hawaii or the really quite poor level set on a boat, with its huge open plan swaths of land, is when you find yourself slowly edging forward, zooming the screen, seeking that one hidden guy with a gun like you’re playing Cannon Fodder and offing him from range. There’s no meaningful way to keep a combo going or find a flow through the stage without popping off a few rounds of the weapon he has and then switching to his knife when the enemies come to investigate the sound. It’s not very.. well, Hotline Miami.
As was the case with the original, Hotline Miami 2’s presentation a highlight. The whole thing looks like it has been recorded onto a broken VHS tape, with the screen skipping and jumping during pause screens and the rewind and fast forward prompts appearing as the story jumps backwards and forwards through the timeline. The soundtrack, somehow, is even better than the first one. Way more varied, with some guitar based tracks and some more ambient stuff alongside the ridiculous 80s’ synth tinged techno. Dennaton again show that in terms of creating an overall aesthetic and setting a particular atmosphere, they’re right up there with the best and outclass many AAA developers.
A thing that is definitely worth noting is the highly controversial ‘rape’ scene during the prologue level. It has been available online for quite some time now, after the Australian certification board made a bit of a meal of it. I’m aware of course of the position I’m talking from when I say stuff like ‘I was willing to see the scene in context before I judge it’ and definitely feel that the Australian board exaggerated the scene considerably, but the fact of the matter is it is absolutely throwaway. It is a one off incident in the introduction that is so disposable you can choose to skip it mere seconds before it takes place. The fact that it is so throwaway makes it hard to feel like it was put in the game for any reason other than to shock, rather than to tackle a very taboo subject for video games. In a game that is otherwise so smart with its narrative choices, this scene feels extremely cheap.
Soderstrom and Wedin have said many times that this will be the last Hotline Miami game. In my interview with them over on PCGamer they said “This is the last Hotline Miami because we’re cramming everything we have in there. I don’t think we can take it any further after this.” That sums up this sequel nicely. They’ve put every idea they’ve had into this, and not all of them are that great. Following up one of the greatest action games ever made was always going to be tough, but in search of a greater scope - more weapons, more characters, more everything - what made the original so fucking good has been a bit lost.
“This is going to ‘Oblivion’ me, isn’t it?” I asked the lad running the event. He laughed, knowing full well what I was talking about, despite the ridiculous term. ‘Oblivioning’ is, of course, taken from Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion, where after a tutorial/introduction sequence that takes place in a dungeon and sewers, you escape and are treated to an incredible vista. Lush green grass, a beautiful lake with crystal waters, colourful flowers dot the landscape. On the Xbox 360 and PS3, it was a real moment where your investment in what was then the ‘next generation’ of games consoles was justified. You were seeing something that previously couldn’t be done. It wasn’t just about the fancy graphics either. To truly Oblivion, you have to show off a sense of scale, too. See those mountains over there? You can go there, climb them, find stuff on them…
The Final Fantasy XV Episode Duscae demo starts with the gang of four lads waking up in a tent, their adventure (whatever it may be) clearly already begun. When they leave, you’re treated to an absolutely staggering view of the Duscae region, where the demo takes place. There’s the lush green grass and vegetation that stretches as far as the eye can see. There’s fantastical rock formations sprouting out of the ground, a few areas of forest and right in the middle there’s a huge crystal lake, with these gigantic dinosaur looking beasts splashing about in it. It really is an astonishing sight, but like all good Oblivion moments, you can take a look at that forest on the other side of the lake and walk all the way over there, finding battles and secrets and plenty of things to do on your way. The only thing coming close to this is The Witcher 3, and even then when you factor in the way that the characters in Final Fantasy XV are animated, the way they interact with each other and even little things like the way the fabric of their clothes moves, this really is a benchmark.
The demo is being touted at having around 3-4 hours of content and is built around the lads - Ignis, Gladiolus, Prompto and the player character, Noctis - trying to make some money to repair their fucked car by hunting a Behemoth that has been spotted in the area. The Behemoth is this hulking great purple bastard that has appeared in almost all the Final Fantasy games (usually as an end-game beast!) and normally asking to put one of these things down is a sizeable task. First of all, you’re going to have to learn how to fight. Bear with me, here’s the chat about the mechanics...
The combat has been a major talking point of every Final Fantasy game post-FFX, as they’ve struggled to find a consistently fun system to replace the classic turn-based battles. FFXV is the closest they’ve come to just giving you out and out real time combat, but there’s still a strong RPG/strategic flavour to it. It is interesting, because instead of the usual gigantic sword associated with Final Fantasy heroes, Noctis makes the different weapons he has equipped appear magically when needed for certain attacks. If you hold down L1, you will avoid most attacks an enemy attempts but at the cost of some of your MP bar, which is also needed to use specific special attacks. Pressing square once will activate your opening attack (called ‘Crush’), holding square down afterwards will initiate a combination attack (‘Ravage’) which will go on indefinitely until you get hit, stop or push square again, which activates a kind of combo finisher (fittingly, called ‘Vanquish’). What move will take place when you are in each of these states depends on what weapon you have assigned to which part of the combo. For instance, if you take a Zweihander - a big, slow sword that is carried in both hands - and stick it in the ‘Ravage’ slot (the hold down square part mentioned above) the combo attack will likely be a bunch of slow but damaging swings. If you stick it in the ‘Vanquish’ slot, you’ll likely get a big overhead slam or something to that effect.
You also have a ‘Counter’ attack move that can be activated when enemies attempt specific moves, allowing you to hit square just before impact and deliver a really strong attack of your own, and finally a ‘Descend’ attack, which is the attack you will do if you’re jumping down on someone from above, so there’s quite a lot of stuff you can customize. Different weapons have different speeds, moves and properties, so you can experiment with your loadouts. It is quite a bit like God Hand, in the way that you shape your attack combo out of the moves you find the most useful.
When you’re in combat, it takes a bit of getting used to how to pace yourself. At first, I was hold L1 way too much and burning through my MP, so suddenly found myself unable to avoid attacks or use special moves. A few adjustments and the opposite happened; I was getting hit way too much because I was being hyper aggressive, leading to me getting caught out against tougher enemies. It is a really simplistic but rewarding core mechanic - you’re either on the offense or the defense, judging which one is the most appropriate by watch for enemy tells and animations and occasionally spicing things up with one of your special moves, which use your MP, so they’re a risk as they could leave you unable to dodge and having to hide until your MP bar has recharged.
Although you play as Noctis, the other lads don’t just stand around during the battles. They all get fully stuck in, healing you if they can and sometimes taking part in some spectacular counter attacks. They all use different weapons, so if you perform a counter hit against a stampeding Garula and Prompto is nearest, he’ll pull out his guns and join in. It might sound really cheesy, but when you’ve just fought a really tough battle and the guys are all congratulating each other and fist bumping, it really feels like you’re on an adventure with some guys who are probably a bit out of their depth! Plot details are still scarce, but it is safe to say they’re some of the more likeable Square-Enix protagonists in a while. That’s protagonists, plural. Sure, you control Noctis, but the main ‘character’ is this group of guys that run around a beautifully designed world full of danger and excitement. They’re always talking and interacting (and in one excellent moment, actually noticed that I’d clearly gotten a bit lost in a cave and asked Noctis if he ‘was going the right way, dude? prompting me to get my bearings and push on in the correct direction)
So, I’ve compared the combat of FFXV to Midnight Resistance favourite God Hand, the way that you collect XP points borrows a fair bit from other Midnight Resistance hall of famer - Dark Souls. Episode Duscae is of course a demo and therefore doesn’t really tell us how versatile the levelling up system is going to be in the full thing, but the way in which you bank it, and the risk/reward system built around that, is clearly influenced by FROM Software’s masterpiece. As you cut about the Duscae region, leathering enemies and completing quests, you receive XP. The Dark Souls twist comes from the fact that in order to bank the XP you have to reach a campsite and set up camp for the night. As time passes, the game even prompts you that you should find a place to rest up, instead of just powering on throughout the night. If you die, all of your hard earned XP gets dumped and you start back at the last checkpoint. There’s a bit to this mechanic I’d like to explore in more detail, but sadly my time with the game didn’t allow for it. Only a few weeks before we can all get our hands on it, mind...
The Episode Duscae demo doesn’t give a lot to go on in terms of plot, but it gives us a great idea of how much fun this is for a Final Fantasy game. There’s always something to do, to look at, to fight, to explore in the Duscae region and the new combat system is genuinely one of the most enjoyable additions to a Final Fantasy game since, what, the Materia System?! And of course, it looks phenomenal, when it is at its most spectacular it is the best looking game I’ve seen to date. In order to get your hands on this demo, you have to pick up a ‘Day One’ edition of Final Fantasy Type-0, which is obviously a little bit cheeky but then again people have been buying The Order 1886 for like fifty quid and that game is incredibly short and hugely unoriginal. Even if you’re not into the forthcoming Type-0, I’d be tempted to drop my money on it anyway for just another taste of the future of one of gaming’s greatest series.
Played at an event in London. I declined the food because my timekeeping was shite so I had to kill two hours on the Southbank, so I sat in McDonald's and ate three double cheeseburgers, so I was bloaty as fuck by the time I showed up. If I'd known they'd put on some decent food, rather than the usual microburger and cheap curry rubbish, I would've waited, so more fool me. I did have one bottle of lager, so you can obviously assume everything I have written is now total bullshit. I also had a piss in the toilet. Probably worth mentioning that I also took my trousers off before I started playing, so I could experience the game in the most authentic way.
HELLO. Because Loading is celebrating its fifth birthday, and because Rezzed is on, Andi and Sean are finally doing the very first Midnight Resistance live show, for which you will need to grab a free ticket here.
You're probably wondering how that would work, since the show mostly just consists of us talking about what games we've played recently. Well, you're right - that wouldn't work, so we're not quite doing that. Instead, expect the following:
GAME RUMOUR GENERATOR: LIVE
Oh yes, sir. We felt it made sense to repeat the only successful thing we've ever done, but with bits of paper and bags and people funnier than us helping to discuss the generator's results.
SOME KIND OF SKILL-BASED COMPETITION PROBABLY INVOLVING EXCITE TRUCK
In which Sean will give away one of the most expensive games in the WORLD. If you think you're some kind of hot-shit at Excite Truck, STEP UP. If you don't, one of our mates will do it out of pity, then they'll end up winning and the whole thing will look rigged.
MASKS OF OUR FACES
Not sure what for, but we've got a few weeks yet.
PEOPLE FROM OTHER, BETTER PODCASTS AND DEVELOPERS MAYBE
Nothing's set in stone yet, but it's looking likely we'll be dragging Laura Rich (The Recycle Bin), Gareth 'G-Dootz' Dutton (Chat Very Good) and Andrew Smith (Split Milk Studios) onto the stage to make noises for your entertainment. Maybe other people as well, we don't KNOW.
A QUESTIONS BIT
It's everyone's favourite part of the show, so fuck it. The second half of the show will be you lot screaming questions at us about games or our favourite burgers or whatever, and us trying to answer them.
And if this all sounds a bit shit - it does, doesn't it? - there are two things you should bear in mind.
Thing one: It's FREE to enter
Thing two: As soon as we're finished, the mighty Sabrepulse is 'doing' a 'set', which will be amazing.
Sean and Andi xx