The launch line-up for Sony’s PlayStation VR has been incredibly strong and diverse, and arguably better than many console launches. Among the initial titles is Secret Sorcery’s Tethered, a god game, best described as a cross between Creatures and Settlers, and set in a fantasy world full of cute creatures for players to lord it over. Though it is not among the genres one might instantly associate with virtual reality, Tethered is one of PSVR’s best titles at the moment.
The visuals immediately capture attention through the palpable sense of power they convey. The player is literally sat in the clouds, staring down at floating islands teeming with life. Flocks of birds soar through the sky, butterflies flutter above flowers and mushroom patches, while rivers flow into waterfalls that cascade into the ether.
The player’s worshippers are the adorable Peeps, a happy race of wide eyed creatures that resemble a cross between a Lombax and a Mogwai. As their God—sorry, Spirit Guardian—it is the player’s job to keep them happy and alive. This goal is achieved by completing tasks and growing the settlement. Through this process, the spirit energy needed to restore balance to the world and complete the level is released. From their seat in the clouds, players direct Peeps to collect resources and construct buildings, so that the creatures can survive the night. When the sun goes down, monsters emerge from beneath the island, attempting to steal resources and savage the cute little worshippers. It is then up to the player to stop the vicious little blighters from doing either.
The main way players interact with the world is via Tethered’s titular gameplay mechanic. In order to use the weather to affect the landscape, or have a Peep perform a task, players look at one thing, and hold down the X button on the controller before releasing the button on the object they want the first thing to interact with. For example, to order a Peep to chop down some trees, players look at the Peep, hold X, look at the forest area they want chopped down, and release X. At this point a blue string of light connects the Peep to the forest, tethering them. The Peep will then clear the area until either no trees are left or the wood store is full.
As well as tethering Peeps to complete tasks, players can also tether the weather to different parts of the environment. For example, sunshine is used to hatch the Peep eggs that occasionally fall from the sky, or help crops in the fields to grow. Players can also combine different types of weather; for example, combining rain and sunshine forms a rainbow that cheers Peeps suffering from despair. Like people, Peeps need direction in their lives and food in their bellies or they succumb to sadness and suffer from despair: a terrible affliction that ultimately leads to them committing suicide by hurling themselves from the edge of the island. The little critters even stare up at the player with eyes that scream “this is your fault” before they do it. One way to ensure the Peeps do not succumb to despair is to keep them occupied. While any Peep is capable of performing any task, a number of different classes exist that make Peeps better at fighting, harvesting, prospecting, farming, or mining, with these skills becoming progressively more essential to player success. Despite this, the prevention of Peep suicide becomes impossible beyond a certain point. The player is forced to watch the gaming equivalent of a puppy kill itself because it did not have enough stone to mine or mushrooms to eat.
The despair mechanic is a mean-spirited one that shows a darker side to an otherwise twee game. Thinking about it though, a darkness lurks just beneath the otherwise saccharine surface of Tethered. As an example, if a player fails to hatch a Peep egg in time, it turns orange and a weird leech-like creature springs forth and slinks under the island. Kill it before it escapes and the Peeps will eat it. However, if it reaches the underside of the island, the slug will return as a monster hell-bent on killing the Peeps. This process suggests that the Peeps may be as monstrous as the things that kill them in the night; the happy little creatures are, in fact, cannibals.
Each level grants a series of unlocks and, as in many strategy games, it is up to the player to make effective use of resources to execute new abilities, from building barracks to train heroes, to upgrading mines to produce more ore. The upgrade trees can seem a little overwhelming at first, as plenty of freedom is offered from the outset, but the building and upgrading mechanics quickly become familiar.
The little touches are wondrously executed in VR. For instance, the instructional pop-ups that appear often ask the player to open a sub-menu, which sometimes appears behind the first, allowing players to peer around one menu screen to look at another, or lean down to look underneath it at their burgeoning settlement below. The player’s view is affected by their position as well, so they can lean in to peer at a particular item or Peep. The execution simply feels magical.
The music—provided by LittleBigPlanet composer Kenny Young—emphasises this sensation through some beautifully whimsical string-led pieces that shift into darker, more menacing tones as nights draw in. The audio cues for each interaction and event are also incredibly well thought out, and help players to focus their attention towards the arrival of another egg, a weather cloud’s timer running out, or the arrival of a monster, all without cluttering vision with an array of icons.
Ultimately, the key question that surrounds VR games such as Tethered is whether it needs virtual reality to work. The answer is simply that the title could have been released as a straight strategy game without the need for a headset. There is nothing in the game’s key dynamics or mechanics that could not have been achieved by playing with either a keyboard and mouse or controller. In doing so, however, Tethered would lose something utterly integral. Being part of the world brings out its sensory strengths, and their resulting emotional responses. In particular, playing with headphones on, with no other distractions, makes the player feel as though they have become the Spirit Guardian; a watchful protector to the Peeps, fully immersed in this magical world that they alone control the fate of.
Tethered is a delightful experience that shows the potential ways through which a wide range of genres could benefit from virtual reality, rather than simply first person experiences. It is a playful, twee, yet surprisingly dark god game that successfully places players wholly into its world. For PSVR owners, Tethered is essential.
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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