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Batman: Realm Of Shadows Review

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Batman games have always focused on the legend, but never the man. That is to say in pretty much every game about the Caped Crusader you spend almost all of your time playing as Bats and rarely as Bruce. The experience is one of empowerment, of being the unstoppable Dark Knight. Although, the Arkham series did explore Batman’s twisted relationships with the super villains he puts behind bars. None have really looked at the duality of being Bruce Wayne being Batman. We see the superhero, but not the deeply troubled socialite that feels the need to take the law into his own hands.

That’s why Telltale’s new Batman series is a refreshing change of pace. Although you still rough up your fair share of goons as the Caped Crusader, it humanizes the legend of the Batman by having players spend just as much time playing as the man behind the mask, as the scourge of Gotham’s criminal underbelly, and is all the better for it.

Presented with a young Bruce who has only recently taken up the mantle of the Dark Knight, Telltale’s series strikes a similar tone to Batman: Year One, though visually it looks like a mash up of Rocksteady’s Arkham series and Warner’s classic animated series from the 90s.

Harvey Dent is running for mayor and Bruce Wayne is his biggest backer, but after mob boss Carmine Falcone crashes a fund raiser at Wayne Manor, questions begin to be asked about the Wayne family’s possible links to organized crime. While his family name is dragged through the mud in the press, and the GCPD come knocking looking for answers, Batman is in the middle of decrypting some sensitive information found on a flash drive recovered from Catwoman, lifted from a safe in the Mayor’s Office.

In a way never explored in a video game before, Realm of Shadows explores Wayne’s duplicitous nature as he uses his influence to gain information to help his investigation as Batman and vice versa, showing in more ways than one that money and influence are just as useful as super powers in Gotham City.

Despite long-time fans being able to predict exactly where the plot is heading (especially where Harvey is concerned), Telltale have thrown one curve ball into the mix by introducing a very different take on Oswald Cobblepot, AKA Penguin – who in this iteration is a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne – and after squandering his family’s fortune, returns to Gotham in order to start a revolution against the rich and powerful. Where it will go is anyone’s guess, but Telltale are always at their best when they enhance a mythos in some way rather than merely emulate it, so this change is welcome because Penguin is, well, boring.

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Though the choices will probably not change the over arching narrative a great deal in the end, like The Wolf Among Us, Telltale’s Batman series presents us with an opportunity to delve into the psyche of the character and decide what kind of Dark Knight you want to become. Do you break a goon’s arm to get information out of him, or merely scare him? Do you give the dossier of info to the press or the Police? Do you let Falcone use his influence to help Harvey win the election or throw the bastard out on his arse? (Guess which one I went for.)

That’s not to say there isn’t any action; it opens with Batman foiling a heist at city hall and a roof top battle with Catwoman. The game also features Bats taking out a room full of mobsters in what can best be described as a QTE re-imagining of the predator sections from the Arkham games. These also feel far more responsive and a part of the action than before, with quick flicks of the left analogue stick and well timed button presses helping the action to flow nicely.

This being a Telltale game, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the voice acting, especially seeing as Troy Barker can now claim to be the only actor to play both the Joker and Batman. To be honest, I preferred his Joker, though he’s still on fine form as the tortured billionaire turned vigilante. Richard Mognagle (better known as Victor “Goddamn” Sullivan in the Uncharted series) steals every scene as mob boss Carmine Falcone, while both Erin Eyvette (Tales from the Borderlands) and Laura Bailey (Uncharted 4) turn in fantastic performances as Vicki Vale and Catwoman, respectively.

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It’s also worth mentioning  that Telltale have finally got around to updating their engine, and though it uses the same, distinct cel shaded style of Telltale’s other games, it just flows a hell of a lot better with improved lighting and a better poly-count that make the visuals really pop. It also runs a really well on consoles (something the original, least until the PS4 and XBOne came along, did not).

In all, Telltale’s Batman series gets off to great start. Realm of Shadows gives players enough intrigue to mull over, and asks some pretty big questions to keep you hooked and looking forward to the next episode, while providing a rare take on Batman that sees the character of Bruce/Batman in its totality rather than as two distinct personalities merely existing within the same body. Its greatest achievement though is to make me care just as much about the fate of Bruce Wayne as I do about what villain is going to pose a new threat to the Bat.

Batman: Realm of Shadows was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the developer.

Developer: Telltale Games | Publisher: Telltale Games | Genre: Adventure | Platform: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One,| PEGI/ESRB: 18+/M | Release Date: August 02, 2016

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Review

RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure

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RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 5

A Conflicted Beginning

The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.

Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.

As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.

Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.

RAGE 2 gameplay screenshot 1

With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).

Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.

Gunplay To Die For

Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.

Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.

The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.

Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.

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Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.

The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.

The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.

However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.

A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast

The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.

Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.

With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.

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To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).

Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.

A Slipshod Structure

Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.

Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.

Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.

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On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.

Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on Xbox One X.

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