Monthly Archives: October 2015 - Page 2

Dark Souls 3: Is the Magic Fading?

A kingdom in disarray. An absent monarch. An undead scourge. It all feels very familiar. But isn’t it supposed to? Dark Souls is a series about vicious cycles. It asks you to ignite a new age of light, knowing darkness will smother the embers eventually. It invites you to ascend the throne, having told you the kingdom is destined to fall again.

The problem with this thematic echo is that deja vu begins to take hold, and with each new entry repetition threatens to define the series’ gameplay too. The Dark Souls 3 network test, a multiplayer beta that ran for a total of nine hours, allowed us to explore a microcosm of the game, and it felt like going through the motions again.

From a design perspective, Dark Souls 3 exhibited all the hallmarks of the series and, in terms of its construction, demonstrated a deft stitching of claustrophobic rooms, snaking corridors, and open arenas, all which fold back onto themselves to create a neat, self-contained. But, crucially, there weren’t very many surprises within it.

Players awaken in a decrepit mausoleum, where dead vines snake up stone brick walls, decayed flags hang from the ceiling, and a browned chalice sits atop an altar with whatever significance it once had lost in time. Pushing through a large door, we emerge onto the High Wall of Lotharic, its sepia sky dominated by a castle that recalls Annor Londo from Dark Souls, Drangleic Castle from Dark Souls 2, and Cathedral Ward from Bloodborne. This place is supposed to be otherworldly, but it feels like we’re re-watching an old movie.

Inching along a battlement lined with enemies, suddenly an ashen dragon swoops down. It sinks its claws into the side of a building and draping its wings across the length of structure, daring you to approach. As you do it peers over and unleashes a furious roar of fire, just like the dragon did in the game before this, and the one before that. It’s a moment that stirs a mixture of nostalgia and numbness.

This feeling is more pronounced since the game is built on the same engine as Bloodborne. Environments, enemies, and character models are highly detailed, but the appeal of the functional fantasy aesthetic it’s wrapped in has dulled–especially considering how visually arresting Bloodborne is. Some may argue it’s unreasonable to expect the series to shed its skin just for the sake of being different, and we’d probably agree, but the shared building blocks have smudged the Dark Souls identity into Bloodborne’s, and the result felt distractingly similar.

From a gameplay standpoint, Dark Souls 3 is making interesting changes to character classes. In previous games roles overlap by equipping the necessary weapons and sinking experience points into the appropriate stats. Knight, for example, could be made to also function as a mage. Dark Souls 3, however, offers more distinct disciplines and provides a robust set of tools to encourage the player to make the most of them.

The biggest change to gameplay is the introduction of Weapon Arts, a unique special move for the arsenal of arms. Three games in, the way a broadsword, axe, or rapier works has become second nature, but Weapon Arts add a new wrinkle. While one weapon may have a heaving upward swing that launches enemies into the air, another may activate a powered-up state for a short period. This gives players a reason to experiment with different weapons again, instead of sticking to those they’ve become attached to. Better still, it provides a reason to carry a second weapon beyond serving as a fallback for your main one if it breaks. Since all this is governed by a new energy bar, there’s also a layer of strategy to micromanage Weapon Arts.

Despite all this, it’s still hitting the the same beats that a Dark Souls game should. It’s challenging, hides enemies off camera to spring an ambush, while bosses are towering monsters, and environmental traps punish the foolhardy. It’s still satisfying, but feels rote. Seasoned players have peeked behind the curtain multiple times, so it’s easy to predict what’s coming. That convenient alcove in the camera’s blind-spot that’s just big enough to hide an enemy isn’t fooling anyone.

It all feels very familiar. But isn’t it supposed to? Dark Souls is a series about vicious cycles.

But maybe that’s what From Software wants us to think. Souls mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki has proven he’s capable of getting in our heads and subverting expectations in interesting ways. It is, fans would say, one of the defining qualities of his designs. Perhaps Dark Souls 3 seeks to capitalise on our assumed mastery of the series. The heart is haughty before a downfall, as they say.

There were moments in the network test that effectively pulled off that bait and switch. Most notable of these is an encounter with a boss that lures you into falling into old habits, then ruthlessly punishes you for doing so. In the same way the dragon throws back to all that came before, this boss casts a vision of what may be lying in wait.

Squaring off against the Dancer of the Frigid Valley, we employ the Souls boss fight routine: keep the shield up, strike at the most opportune moments, don’t be overzealous, and circle behind the boss to deliver a blow. The Dancer, however, stonewalls these strategies. She rushes at you and delivers a barrage of attacks, making it difficult to maintain the stamina needed to keep the shield up. Her attacks hit hard and often, so opportunities are difficult to seize. As you circle behind her, she contorts her spindly body to lash out with her blade.

She glides around the battlefield like a ballerina, pressuring you and keeping you on your toes. And just as you settle into a rhythm, she summons a second blade to give herself more range and a whole new set of attacks. This mid-battle shift in dynamics is an exciting twist that makes sure you rarely stay in your comfort zone.

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For fans of the series, who have been trained to read between the lines and never to take things at face value, such moments like feel like a wink and a nod from Miyazaki. A secret message that, perhaps, From Software knows you expect this to be an assembly line sequel.

For those that have spent countless hours researching theories and watching Souls lore videos, there are others hooks to get caught on. In one of the area’s many darkened rooms is a small grave. Players that light the candle at its base and pay their respects are met with a cryptic message: “Grave of a nameless retainer. Raised his sword for the Lord of Cinder.”

The references to the Lord of Cinder are tantalising callbacks to the first Dark Souls and Gwyn, the god who linked the first flame to usher in an age of light. How does he, and the player’s actions in that game, fit into Dark Souls 3? Why have the Undead returned, and why do they seemingly worship the corpses of their friends? If we aren’t the Chosen Undead, as Miyazaki has previously confirmed, then who are we and what are our goals? The thirst for answers to these questions are another sign that Miyazaki and his team still know how to tap the Souls vein.

There are clearly sparks of that Miyazaki magic in what we played of Dark Souls 3, but whether his spell can break the cycle is something we’ll find out when the game ships in March 2013.

Destiny King’s Fall Raid Hard Mode Coming Today

The new Hard Mode for Destiny‘s latest raid, King’s Fall, opens today. Players will be able to try their hand at the uber-difficult challenge today, October 23, starting at 10 AM PDT / 1 PM EDT / 6 PM UK.

As previously stated, Bungie recommends that the raid be tackled by players with 300-320 Light, and the loot rewards in it will be between 310-320. Watch the video above to learn more about King’s Fall.

Destiny lead raid designer Gavin Irby was part of the team that crafted the Hard Mode for King’s Fall. Here’s what he had to say about what kind of challenge players can expect.

“This time, we followed a subtractive approach by building the mechanics early on. For a long time, we play-tested internally in Hard Mode, treating it as the default experience. Once we were satisfied, we removed them to arrive at the Raid you have already played,” he said.

“For the mechanics themselves, we shied away from simply increasing sandbox difficulty (not that it won’t be harder). You’ve had time to hone your strategies and develop a rhythm,” Irby added. “Some of you might even be able to do it backwards, blindfolded, or upside-down. Hard Mode is going to upset that rhythm. We’re going to give you one more plate to spin, and make you think on your feet.”

It certainly sounds like a challenge, but we’ll be surprised if Destiny players don’t beat it in a matter of hours. After all, the regular King’s Fall raid was toppled not long at all after it went live in September.

We’ll update this post to let you know which team was able to beat King’s Fall on Hard Mode and claim the title of world’s first.

Bungie has also stressed that players’ raid activity is only considered officially complete once they leave the area. If you want the “world’s first” title, maybe don’t celebrate until after you’ve returned to orbit. “Kill Oryx and get out of there,” Bungie said. “Celebratory dancing could rob you of your glory.”

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s PS4 and Xbox One Versions Compared in New Technical Analysis

Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate launches today, October 23, and now a new technical analysis has shed some light on how the PS4 and Xbox One versions compare. According to Digital Foundry, Syndicate is a marked improvement over last year’s Assassin’s Creed Unity, which suffered from numerous bugs.

In terms of resolution, both the PS4 and Xbox One versions of Syndicate sport 900p visuals, just like Unity. The big difference over last year’s game, however, comes down to frame rate.

“Assassin’s Creed Syndicate shows genuine improvement here,” Digital Foundry wrote. “In Unity, we could see extended periods of gameplay where the 30fps target was nowhere in sight. Its successor shows huge improvement on both platforms, but it’s clear that the PlayStation 4 takes pole position.

“Rapid traversal through environments can hit performance on both systems, but where the Microsoft box dips into the high 20s, PS4 has a better lock on its 30fps target,” the site added. “And when the Sony console dips to the 27fps area, Xbox One is a couple of fps further off the pace.”

Noting that its analysis is not yet 100 percent finalized, Digital Foundry also writes that Syndicate offers a “like-for-like” visual experience on PS4 and Xbox One. As stated, they both run at 900p, while effects systems like anti-aliasing and texture filtering are identical across platforms, it wrote.

Digital Foundry reports that you may experience some occasional bugs in Syndicate, but these glitches are “substantially reduced” compared to the volume and nature of Unity’s. That game’s bugs were so severe that Ubisoft repeatedly apologized and offered free games and DLC to make up for the problems.

More details about how the two console versions of Syndicate compare are available in Digital Foundry’s full report. For more on Syndicate, check out GameSpot’s review and this roundup of other opinions.

Fallout Shelter Gets Halloween-Themed Update

Bethesda’s Fallout Shelter mobile game has received a Halloween-themed makeover.

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A new update to the iOS and Android game introduces a range of content themed around the spooky holiday, including cobwebs and skeletons in players’ vaults. In addition, you can dress up your inhabitants in all manner of different costumes, including one based on Friday the 13th‘s Jason Voorhees.

This update, like others before it and the game itself, is free. Bethesda makes money from the game through the sale of in-game lunchboxes. In the two weeks following the game’s release in June, it generated more than $5.1 million in revenue from iOS alone, according to one research firm.

The next core Fallout game is Fallout 4, which arrives on November 10 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.

In other Fallout-related news, Steam has launched a new sale on past games in the series, offering 66 percent off games like Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas. Fallout 4 is not on sale, but everyone who preorders the game on Steam gets a free Mister Handy announcer pack for Dota 2.

For more on how video games are celebrating Halloween, check out the stories below.

Legend of Zelda Wii U Will Have Unique Twist on Open-Worlds, Says Producer

The Legend of Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma has discussed Nintendo’s approach to creating the open-world for the Wii U entry in the series, saying it was inspired by fan response to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

Speaking to IGN, Aonuma said Nintendo was aware that fans were looking for a bigger open world, and indicated this feedback was being taken on board for the next game. He went on to suggest the game’s world will have another unique hook on top of the larger scale.

“We actually had some feedback from Skyward Sword, where people were saying ‘This is not exactly the Zelda game I was looking for, I was looking for a bigger open world,'” he said. “Unfortunately, I can’t go into details but I’m hoping to put a surprise, or kind of a twist, on my view of an open world game. I hope that you’ll look forward to it.”

Discussing the impact fan feedback has on new game projects further, the producer said it was taken on board, but not necessarily followed to the letter.

“[If] they’re asking for a certain element, I would think ‘Oh, why not interpret this in a different way that you wouldn’t expect?’ That’s how we create a new element in a Zelda game. I always want to implement something new and surprising in every game.”

In March 2015, Nintendo delayed The Legend of Zelda for Wii U indefinitely, sparking speculation it would be moved over to the company’s next console, codenamed NX. However, in June, committed to a Wii U release for the game again.

“We’re here to talk about Star Fox [Zero] but Zelda is still coming to Wii U,” Miyamoto said at E3 2015. “So don’t worry about that.”

Nevertheless, discussions that it could be released for Wii U and NX, similar to how Twilight Princess was released for both Gamecube and Wii, have persisted. This has not been confirmed by Nintendo, however.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 DLC Includes New Versions of World at War, Black Ops Maps

New details have come to light about Call of Duty: Black Ops III‘s DLC Season Pass. A listing on Xbox.com reveals its four map packs will come with, among other things, reimagined versions of “fan-favorite” maps from Treyarch’s past Call of Duty games, including World at War and other Black Ops games.

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In addition to multiplayer maps, fans can expect new Zombies content, presumably taking the form of additional chapters to the game’s celebrity-filled mode.

A price point for Black Ops III’s Season Pass was not announced, but if history is any indication, players should expect to pay $50 for it.

As announced previously, everyone who preorders Black Ops III gets access to “The Giant” Zombies map, which is set on a World War II-era research facility. It’s a new version of the “Der Reise” map from World at War that continues the Origins story of characters Dempsey, Nikolai, Richtofen, and Takeo.

The Xbox product page also reveals that Black Ops III’s Season Pass and The Giant Zombies map will not be available for the Xbox 360 version of the game. This follows the previous confirmation that Black Ops III’s preorder-exclusive Nuk3town map is only offered on new-generation consoles and PC.

The first of Black Ops III’s expansions is scheduled to launch in 2016.

Black Ops III itself arrives on November 6 across all platforms. Later today (October 23), Treyarch will hold its next Black Ops Friday livestream, though the developer has not said what it plans to divulge.

What maps from World at War or past Black Ops games would you like to see remade for Black Ops III? Let us know in the comments below.

Why Assassin’s Creed Syndicate got a 9/10

Alexa talks about her recent review of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: The characters, the environment, the stealth, and why it won her over. Josh on the other hand, isn’t quite sure about the game just yet.

16 Vampire Movies That Are Actually Scary

Let The Right One In (2008)


Atmospheric and chilling, the story features a lonely boy and a girl who holds a terrifying secret, further proving that kids are just creepy, man. Photo: Magnolia Pictures


The Hunger (1983)


Offering immortality, Egyptian vampire queen Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) feeds on the blood on her lovers while exacting a horrifying price. When scientist Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) discovers what is going on, she attempts to help Miriam’s current lover (played by David Bowie) but finds herself instead drawn to the vampire queen. Surreal and fantastical, it’s the creepiest version of a love triangle ever. Photo: Warner Bros.


30 Days of Night (2007)


I’m sorry, but Alaska is already creepy, the way it’s shrouded in utter darkness for a good part of the year. With that in mind: Add a bunch of ravaging vampires just waiting for all light to fade so they can come and tear your town apart, and you have an epic monsters-in-the-dark movie. Photo: Columbia Pictures


Byzantium (2012)


The two main characters of Byzantium (played by Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton) have been hunted for 200 years, keeping the secret they can survive only on human blood. When they arrive to settle in a small coastal town, their true identities are revealed, with potentially deadly consequences. Photo: IFC Films


Daybreakers (2009)


In this post-apocalyptic scenario, a plague destroys humanity and turns them into vampires. Those not turned are farmed for their blood. The movie showcases plenty of action and adventure. With Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill, it will certainly get your pulse racing. Photo: Lionsgate


Immortality (1998)


He’s just a vampire looking to find the right woman–but what he does with that woman is the stuff of nightmares. Starring a young Jude Law using his gorgeous looks to a very menacing effect, the movie centers around a vamp named Steven, who is basically every girl’s worst-date-ever times a thousand. Photo: Lionsgate


I Am Legend (2007)


An adaptation of the classic sci-fi horror novel by Richard Matheson, the film stars Will Smith as the last man on Earth. The rest of humanity has succumbed to a plague that turns them into night-hunting, blood-sucking monsters. How does the only human survive against the horde? Will he eventually give in to the loneliness of his days?

With a beautifully elegiac beginning, featuring deserted New York City streets, this movie poses questions that will continue to haunt you long after it’s over. Photo: Warner Bros.


Nosferatu (1922)


Based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this classic silent film broods with horror. With a masterful use of light and shadow and no big special effects, it still manages to stand the test of time. Photo: Kino Lorber films


Vampyr (1932)


Allan Gray visits an inn in a secluded hamlet. He soon learns that he’s fallen into the clutches of a vampire, and must race to break the evil one’s curse before it’s too late. Photo: Criterion


Fright Night (1985)


Ok, technically this is a comedy, but wouldn’t you be terrified if you discovered your charming neighbor was actually a blood-sucking demon of the night? As well as being a love-letter to the horror genre in general, the movie provides plenty of actual jump-in-your-seat moments. Besides, who says a movie can’t be terrifying and funny? Photo: Columbia Pictures


The Lost Boys (1987)


As if moving isn’t hard enough, imagine how horrifying it is when you start to suspect your new town is chock-full of vampires. With a super-80s cast including Corey Feldman and Kiefer Sutherland, the movie guarantees that you’ll laugh, you’ll scream, and your eyes will be glued to the screen. Photo: Warner Bros.


Blade (1998)


He’s half-man, half-vampire, and he protects the human race from the undead who roam the night. Granted, there’s a lot of 90s schtick, but still, for a fast-paced, action-adventure vampire movie with some pretty high stakes (see what we did there?), it’s worth the watch. Plus, Wesley Snipes is a badass. Photo: Warner Bros.


Martin (1977)


The most terrifying part of Martin is you can’t tell if the main character is just delusional or if he really is an actual vampire. After all, isn’t the real horror always in your mind? Photo: Lionsgate


Shadow of the Vampire (2000)


Talk about meta. This is a film about vampires about making a film about vampires. Willem Dafoe got nominated for an Oscar for his performance of Max Schreck. Dafoe takes the sinister to the max as he explores when the line between fiction and reality blurs. Photo: Lionsgate


Cronos (1993)


A mechanism that can give eternal life … for a very bloody price. That’s the crux of this Mexican vampire movie, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. Gorgeous and eerie, the story is as smart as it is scary. Photo: The Criterion Collection


Thirst (2009)


It’s directed by Chan-wook Park (Oldboy), so it’s no wonder menace abounds in this film. When a medical experiment goes wrong, priest Sang-hyeon’s life is saved by an infusion of vampire blood. You can just guess what happens next. Photo: NBC Universal

Mushroom 11 Review

Ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, we have been gripped by ideas and visions of what would happen if the nukes ever darkened our skies. It’s a judgment day scenario with imponderably gigantic consequences; no more government, mass starvation, lawlessness, severe water scarcity, a miasma of black carbon sucking out our sunlight. These are just a handful of outcomes that artists and storytellers find so irresistible to engage with.

Such curiosity has led to a library’s-worth of books, comics, films, artwork, and games covering the subject. Mushroom 11 is the latest entrant on the shelves, and almost certainly its most impressive feat is how it manages to distinguish itself from the stacks of doomsday media. Its underpinning gameplay, however, doesn’t succeed so emphatically.

As its name would suggest, Mushroom 11’s vision of Earth is one that has been ravaged by nuclear disaster on nearly a dozen occasions. This is not post-apocalypse, but post-extinction. Post-human, more to the point, with little more than a couple of surviving portraits to suggest that mankind had existed in the first place.


Toadstools the height of barn houses are shown towering out of fallow cornfields, seemingly as though they have replaced pylon towers.

Only rarely will Mushroom 11 provide clear reference that its world was burnt and baked over our own, and that usually comes from the occasional trope; the corroded crumple of bicycle frames, the devastated roads that have been pulverised into the Earth’s crust, the brick and iron skeletons of buildings that dominate the city skylines. Then there are the haunting murals, faded in colour but still bright with anger, reminiscent of the shadowy figures who hang across walls in Pripyat. (Take a look at some of the screenshots below if you’re curious).

Later, Mushroom 11 begins to explore a more unusual depiction of the world after nuclear disaster. On level three (of seven), toadstools the height of barn houses are shown towering out of fallow cornfields, seemingly as though they have replaced pylon towers. On level five, fungi clusters the size of hills sway under a furious fire-red sky. Venturing later into one derelict underground laboratory (or perhaps it was a hospital) you can find on the wall a curious indentation where a humanoid would have presumably stood, with wires connecting various appendages to wall sockets. Elsewhere you will pass through an abhorrent processing factory, with giant prawn-like creatures suspended in battery farm cages. Much like with those satellite images of Chernobyl’s buildings engulfed by trees, it’s the extraordinary oddities in Mushroom 11 that give it a wonderful sense of story and chronology.

Perhaps most unusual and original of all is the hero in this tale of post-armageddon. You play something that resembles a sort of gelatine circuit board, which I gather is about the size of an adult dog, resplendent with semi-transparent green cells that encase tiny shapes of viscera. It’s not Bruce Willis.

Mushroom 11’s soundtrack was written and composed by The Future Sound of London; Certainly it’s a good short-hand reference to the cultural reach of modern indie games, providing you don’t find the music a little tiresome.

Much of the challenge here, certainly at the outset, is quite similar to what a Mario game demands; clamber from one side of a level to the other. The crucial difference is that your hero is not an implausibly acrobatic plumber, but a blob of gunk that doesn’t freely move by itself. Of course it’s only courteous to grant a hero a super-power, and in this case, Mushroom 11’s starring lead has the ability to regenerate its body-mass if parts are cut off.

If, for example, a strip of goo is sheared from the blob’s right-hand side, about a second later it will be replenished elsewhere (usually, but not quite exactly, on its opposite side). Imagine trimming down one side of a garden hedge, only to find the leaves have since extended on the other side, and you’re close.

Equipped with nothing other than mouse-controlled eraser, your task is to evaluate how to transport this oobleck gloop through progressively demanding levels; up and over fire pits, across flimsy rope bridges, through dark tunnels, and beyond caves guarded by poisonous spiders.

Shrewd pacing ensures that the gameplay arithmetic is easy to grasp each step of the way. Continue to cut at the blob’s right-hand side, and it’ll keep growing out the left. Keep going at a steady rhythm and, eureka, your blob is walking leftwards. Mushroom 11 builds everything around this underpinning mechanism of spreading outward by cutting inward. Hack away faster and your hero will run. Force it against a wall and it will spread upwards.

While the left-mouse button activates a large eraser (which in diameter is about a fifth the height of the screen), the right-mouse button can summon a smaller version. The bigger eraser can purge at speed, which is essential for running, while the other can chop our hero into chunks, and even delicately sculpt the blob into rudimentary shapes. Those latter techniques become increasingly important during the first two hours, and outright essential for the remainder. As time passes you begin to encounter more complex platformer conventions; mazes of conveyor-belts, tiny stepping-stones suspended above pits of spikes, giant metallic balance balls rolling across lava, enemy-patrolled underground tunnels, wide chasms filled with corrosive acid. Both erasers small and big will be necessary for overcoming these obstacles.

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While in theory this sounds like an appealing puzzle-platformer concept, how enjoyable you find Mushroom 11’s mechanics really depends on how comfortable you are with the trial-and-error of inexact platforming. I found it wearisome, at times maddening, and nearly always unrewarding. It’s chess with boxing gloves. Charades in a nightclub. It’s awkward and taxing for the wrong reasons.

Solutions to platform challenges are usually not solved but stumbled upon. Too often the task is not about mentally unlocking answers, but instead forcing and tricking your hero into performing the solution. Safely transporting the blob over three small platforms attached by string, for example, is achievable if you keep smooshing it and moving it along, praying it won’t slip through the cracks. Keep trying and eventually you can overcome every obstacle thrown at you, but not to the extent that you can explain why you succeeded while at other times you didn’t. When you overcome most challenges, there’s little confidence you could perform the same feat on command. You’re not learning and growing as much as the game wants; you’re just improvising, retrying, hitting checkpoints.

By the time Mushroom 11’s challenge matures and it introduces more perplexing obstacles, the kind that this game was built for, it’s arguably too late.

Admirably, and equally tragically, the development team at Untame has crafted a harmonious learning curve around its flawed concept. Smart design decisions are obvious throughout; clearly the result of scrupulous failure-analysis that Mushroom 11 underwent during its four years in development. Always you’ll find checkpoints just before the game teaches something new, and it re-educates at a flawless pace.

Just the right amount of risk is added at just the right amount of time. On several occasions in the first level, for example, you’ll be taught how to snake though a series of tunnels, just before having to perform the same feat in a sinking building. The glorious end-level bosses, meanwhile, will challenge the player to be creative with the new ideas they have picked up on the way.

Such a well balanced and considered implementation of a poor concept means Mushroom 11 is constantly battling with itself over how challenging it should be, with many of the obstacles ranging from unentertaining to utterly infuriating, yet all smoothed over with wonderful pacing and generous checkpoints. It’s five-star service at a Hotel built on sewage.

By the time Mushroom 11’s challenge matures and it introduces more perplexing obstacles, the kind that this game was built for, it’s arguably too late. The Honeymoon period has passed. For those who manage to stick around, level four is probably the best on offer, demanding you constantly erase and trim at speed. You will desperately hang onto slippery crane arms and moving platforms, squeezing the gloop into moving cylinders, constantly moulding it so it has the perfect aerodynamics to fly off a ramp at the ideal velocity.

Level six throws up conundrums that demand inventive thinking and pondering the smartest outcome. You will mould your blob into a makeshift spanner, and an impromptu trebuchet, and a temporary battering ram, when the game demands. It’s creative and rewarding.

But on too many occasions, Mushroom 11 presents a challenge akin to opening an old door lock; the kind that demands you twist the key in a very particular way, without offering much insight on how. Often you’ll have little choice other than artlessly attempt various solutions until one of them unlocks your pathway to the next challenge.

Comparing such an inventive and distinct game to a bothersome door, of all things, absolutely does a disservice to its wonderfully talented artists and storytellers. This gracefully hand-drawn dystopia deserves to be explored and pondered over. The developers at Untame should be proud and confident that they can build thorough and robust gameplay structures around their ideas. But the concept at the centre of Mushroom 11, I would implore, is not something they should return to.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate Review

After completing my second ghost hunt with Charles Dickens, I decided it was about time to shut down the last factory forcing children into labor. As I made my way across Westminster, zipping between rooftops with my rope launcher, a notice popped up indicating I was approaching a bounty hunt. The objective was simple–kill an important member of my rival gang–and I decided the children could wait a bit longer. I was in and out of the mission in under a minute after dropping hanging barrels on gang members, throwing down a smoke bomb and taking out the leader with a gun to the head. I ziplined out, stopping only once more to change my outfit to one that held more throwing knives, before dropping by a black market stall for a refill and dashing towards the factory. The children of London needed me.

This is Assassin’s Creed Syndicate‘s playground. One moment you’re free-running through a borough towards the next story mission, the next you’re sneaking through a dilapidated building picking off criminals as you find yourself irresistibly drawn to the promise of experience points and in-game cash–not to mention notoriety among the London underground. The organic way in which missions and side projects pop up is bolstered by their placement in a gorgeous rendition of 1868 London, complete with massive factories spewing smoke into the sky and intricately detailed copies of every major landmark you can think of–all climbable, of course. Overlaying all of this is one of the best stories the Assassin’s Creed franchise has told in recent years, featuring dual protagonists that are relatable and lovable. Occasionally during climbing it can feel like your freedom of movement is limited, and controls will sometimes sabotage you with some unwieldiness and counterintuitive button placement. More of the environment has been made available for you to climb on, and the rope launcher can attach to nearly all ledges, so these small occurrences of flying off the rails are inconvenient at worst. But overall combat and movement feel great, and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s story is charming, while countless amusements will keep you lost in London for hours.

Syndicate’s story is an intimate, personal tale like that of last year’s Assassin’s Creed Unity mixed with older Assassin’s Creeds’ tendencies to pack in the historical figures. The modern day elements are more toned down than they were in previous Assassin games, so much so that they’re barely present. You spend all your time as Jacob and Evie Frye, assassin twins who come to London in 1868. Under the leadership of Crawford Starrick, the Templars have a stranglehold on the city, and a sinister gang called the Blighters run things to their liking.

Gang fights are wild, unpredictable, and tons of fun.

The absence of any fiddling around in a present-day timeline is a boon to Syndicate’s story, allowing laser-focus on the 1868 London plot. The story centers around the politics and policies of Industrial Revolution London, with Jacob and Evie fighting not only to dismantle the Templar conspiracy but also to bring justice and refuge to the city’s downtrodden. Jacob and Evie also frequently fight each other, with disagreements about what it means to be an Assassin forming a tense undercurrent. Along the way, the two come into contact with a smattering of historical characters–ranging from Alexander Graham Bell (who gives the game’s best items) to Charles Dickens and Karl Marx–making the Fryes tangential and sometimes integral to the great successes these individuals achieved. These interactions fit neatly into Syndicate’s overall flow, and while it does seem like these figures are packed in a little too tight, the game gives breathing room to each individual story.

London feels alive. Towers breathe smoke into the sky, stations bustle with passengers and passing trains, the homeless burn fires in trash cans in alleys, and stray cats pause to look at you while you lie in wait for your target. Bystander AI can be overdramatic at times, cowering in fear indefinitely after witnessing you murder someone in front of them, but those visceral reactions are what make starting fights in public such a delight. You throw a punch in a marketplace and crowds immediately vacate the area, fleeing from your wrath. Little boys and women run and scream as you sink your blade in someone’s throat. NPCs also yell at you when you loot bodies, bid you good-day as you walk by, and make whispered comments to companions about your looks. And piled on top of it all is a brilliant soundtrack, a seamless sea of tunes that capture the sadness of the poor and the determination of the Fryes. In one instance, as you climb a spire to a viewpoint, a soft soprano-and-string number kicks in, painting a picture of melancholy for the past and hope for the future. Sights and sounds combine to create an irresistible portrait of London, and make exploring for every side quest and collectible an enjoyable experience.

This doesn’t look good at all.

Moving and fighting in London is also a satisfying experience, at least when controls cooperate. Combat is fluid and simple and relies mostly on the D-pad, on which directions are mapped to attack, counter, stun and shoot. If you’re quick, you can punch in combos that knock enemies over and trigger some final execution moves that are brutal and beautiful. It’s undeniably satisfying to chain hits and kills until you’re bopping around between enemies in a gang war, flying along a circle of combatants and systematically bringing them to their knees in one fell swoop.

Free-running follows this same simplicity; hold down R2 while running and press one button to go up and another to go down. You can climb pretty much everything in London with relative ease, with the city’s gorgeous details offering compelling arguments to eschew fast travel. But these controls take some time getting used to and feel counterintuitive, especially while climbing. Sometimes you’ll kick off a wall when you meant to climb up or go up when you try to go down; this imprecision has characterized the series controls from the start. But in Syndicate this imprecision is infrequent, and while the controls aren’t perfect they do feel much better and more fluid.

Gone are the days of snapping to cover and blending into crowds. In Syndicate, a white “Threat Ring” appears around your assassin when enemies are near. Markings on the ring show you where enemies are relative to your position, which is helpful when you’re crouching in an area and can’t see much. This tool makes stealth much easier and allowed me to gauge who to take out first based on how close they were and whether they’d noticed me. Then you can determine which tools to whip out of your belt, be it electric bombs or throwing knives. Do I smoke bomb this group and take out the leader under cover? Or do I just escape to a rooftop and pick them off one by one with throwing knives? Or better, make them turn on each other with hallucinogenic darts? The tools at your disposal and how you combine them is entirely up to you, and Syndicate’s mission design offers ample breathing room to complete each mission in your own way.

The only thing that matters here is that corgi in a purse.

I can recall only using Syndicate’s fast travel points three times during my entire playthrough, because with the rope launcher in your toolbox, why would you take any other route through London? The setting is so lovely, and zipping across the city like a Victorian Spider-Man makes you truly feel like the city’s protector, dropping to the streets every so often to air assassinate someone. In addition to setting up aerial kills, using the rope launcher instead of fast travel allows you to organically stumble upon one of London’s many sidequests and make a pit stop for extra cash. Many times, on my way to a story mission, I would zipline over a side mission and think, “Why the hell not, I’m here!” One tool helps you traverse, discover, escape, and assassinate. The rope launcher is the thing this franchise so desperately needed, and now that it’s here I don’t ever want to be without it.

I always feel bad for the horses in these situations.

Another new mechanic is the ability to drive carriages. I found Syndicate’s vehicles relatively easy to handle. You can also do any number of things with these carriages, including hijacking them for your own purposes and hiding bodies in them. One string of side missions involved collecting wanted criminals for a policeman; I would knock them out, steal a carriage from an unwitting bystander, put the body in the car, and then drive away. In some instances the rival gang has carts on the road as well, which can devolve into some hilariously fun Grand Theft Auto-style chases. You can ram carriages as they ride up next to yours or climb up onto your own carriage’s roof to engage in fisticuffs with enemies. Hijacking moving carts is thrilling, and destruction is encouraged. There’s an experience perk you can earn for destroying street lamps and other public property, so don’t be shy about running people over.

Combat, grand theft carriage, and bounties all play into the game’s main story, and you’ll be tasked with doing all of these things over the course of Jacob and Evie’s adventures. While you can switch between the twins on the fly when playing side missions, you’ll be locked into playing as a certain twin for specific story tasks. Each chapter has dedicated objectives for both Jacob and Evie. Jacob’s tasks cause more mayhem and utilize his talent for close-quarters combat as he seeks to bring justice to London’s underdogs, often resulting in explosions and other destruction. Evie’s missions mostly require sneaking around without being detected. Her objectives feel closer to the traditional Assassin’s Creed story, and you’ll spend time with her doing the order proud while Jacob makes a mess of everything and invests in creating his own gang, the Rooks.

“Yes, he’s like this all the time.”

In addition to differing personalities–with Evie constantly reprimanding Jacob while he rather humorously bumbles around achieving his squad goals–the twins have different unique skills that tie into their interpretation of what it means to be an assassin. Evie’s special skills are stealth-based, with one incredibly useful ability allowing her to disappear completely while she’s standing still in sneak mode. She can also hold twice as many throwing knives as Jacob and her stealth stats far exceed her brother’s. She’ll be the one you take with you on bounty hunting and liberation missions. Jacob is more suited for gang wars, a brawler who takes less damage and, with all skills unlocked, can bring enemies to near-death states quicker. Their differences are noticeable in gameplay, and rather than have one character you can customize either way, it’s a brilliant touch to have two characters ready and available for different kinds of missions at any given time.

I cannot stress enough how deeply likeable and relatable Jacob and Evie can be. Evie is serious but sweet, tough in battle but willing to pick up the scattered papers of a stranger she bumps into on the street. She acts more like an older sister than a twin, bossing her brother around and openly deriding his more destructive decisions. Jacob is goofy, flippant, cheeky, and is more concerned about his gang and toys while his sister fulfills her oath. He makes fun of Evie’s belief in ghosts and her willingness to help everyone they meet, but under all that snark it’s clear he loves his sister. Their banter is sweet and at times funny, and while they are two separate entities when it comes to combat, they truly feel like two parts of the same whole. Their story is a powerful one, about duty and family, and the ease with which they communicate and the believability of their relationship showcases the draw of Syndicate’s narrative. Add to this a supporting cast filled with diverse, equally believable characters, and Syndicate feels a little bit like being at a party with all of your friends.

The first rule of fight club is Evie Frye always wins fight club.

In addition to leveling up Jacob and Evie, you can level up their green-clad gang, the Rooks. I became obsessed with tricking out my gang, because having strong fighters on the streets mean you’ll always have backup in a fight. Using in-game currency, you can unlock perks for your gang, such as sturdier carriages and cheap access to hallucinogenic darts. You can even pay off policeman to turn a blind eye to some of your illegal activities and assemble an army of children to bring you crafting items on the streets. Micromanaging your gang is worthwhile because it completely changes your experience in London. Having this extra layer to deal with keeps you engaged in activities outside the main story and is another fun way to leave your mark on the world.

Syndicate’s story is a riveting tale of compassion and greed, but the mechanics of its climax don’t carry enough urgency and drama. A final boss fight usually tests the skills you’ve learned throughout the game, but Syndicate’s is a memorable for the wrong reasons. It’s an anticlimactic scramble through moving environmental obstacles to reach the boss and trigger a quick time event. This sequence of events happens several times in order for you to beat the encounter. It’s a frustrating setup that tosses all narrative tension out the window.

But a disappointing final fight and some control hitches can’t diminish the charms of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. The game is a triumphant return to form for the franchise, and presents a beautifully structured tale with heart and soul to spare. Ziplining through London is thrilling, and the game allows you to organically discover missions and leaves you open-ended solutions lets you to create a meaningful, personal experience within its world. Coupled with strong, loveable leads and a seemingly endless procession of ways to leave your (fictional) mark on London’s history, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a shining example of gameplay and storytelling.