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Assassin’s Creed: Origins

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2017 is an important year for the Assassin’s Creed series. The last full scale game was 2015’s Syndicate which had its moments but ultimately was a bit too samey to stand out in a franchise that had been treading water since Black Flag in 2013. Assassin’s Creed Origins, benefiting from a longer development period, attempts to inject fresh life into the prolific series by going back to beginning and setting the caper in ancient Egypt. The results are good… for the most part.

Let’s start with the positive. Assassin’s Creed Origins is a beautiful game. Like, stunningly, jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The Egyptian setting proves to be the Creed’s most compelling environment in ages and you’ll lose hours, perhaps days, just wandering around the sun-dappled vistas, deadly swamps and snake-filled tombs. New character Bayek proves to be an engaging protagonist, as he embarks on a journey that begins as a fairly standard ‘revenge for the death of a beloved child’ plot but morphs into something bigger. Plus the new loot system – whereby you can grind for new weapons and armour – is addictive and rewarding, giving a genuine sense of progression and a reason to explore all nooks and crannies.

That’s the good news, now the not so good stuff. The major problem with Assassin’s Creed Origins is that what you’ll be doing remains essentially unchanged throughout the game’s 30+ hour campaign. You’ll begin by exploring areas, taking on missions and side missions, assassinating your targets… and then you’ll move to another area in the game’s outrageously enormous map and do it all again. You’ll get better gear, certainly, but the core gameplay loop remains frustratingly static. This becomes truly irksome in the game’s third act when the ending is gated by missions far too high above your level, so it will literally insist on your grinding lower level missions just to be able to play them. This kind of artificially extended gameplay is baffling in a game that is already massive and doesn’t need it at all.

Combat is conceptually a step forward, with the game adopting a hitbox system that means you’ll actually need to be near an enemy to make contact, and in a one on one situation there is fun to be had. However enemies tend to attack in group formation which makes the fighting frequently messy and lacking in precision. Hopefully Ubisoft will continue to hone this mechanic as it’s definite improvement, but not quite enough.

The story, also, feels a bit half-baked. There are certainly intriguing elements, and Bayek’s relationship with his wife, Aya, is extremely strong, but the overall narrative is so diffused and protracted it never feels as engaging as it ought to. The same applies to the voice acting which, main cast aside, is extremely ropey and veers from deadpan to broad caricature with baffling frequency.

Assassin’s Creed Origins starts strong and initially appears to be the shot in the arm the series needed, however its insistence on artificially extending gameplay in the third act and an overall lack of genuine innovation keeps it from being a true revelation. It is a good time, but it’s also a long time – and not always in a positive way. Still, if a lengthy visit to ancient Egypt sounds like your jam you’ll probably find a lot to dig in Origins – just be prepared to deal with the series’ usual baggage.

 
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Friday the 13th: The Game

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Just how into the Friday the 13th movies are you? Do you know how Jason “dies” at the end of every chapter? Can you explain which entries special effects maestro Tom Savini worked on and why they’re the best? Do you have a lengthy, detail-oriented pitch regarding a new F13th film that you’re happy to share with friends, strangers and the poor hapless people down the bus stop? The answers to these questions directly inform how much you will or will not enjoy Friday the 13th: The Game.

The game, you see, is a bit of a mess. Conceptually it’s kinda brilliant, mind you. It’s an asymmetrical online multiplayer dealy with up to eight players. Seven people will play as camp counselors, and they will search drawers, craft traps and try to escape the map alive. The lucky eighth player will assume the role of Jason Voorhees (currently available in ten different flavours) and hunt and kill the camp counselors before the time runs out. And that’s the game, simple and effective. Playing as Jason is a hoot, all of his various incarnations possess different powers, upgradable skills and unlockable kills – some of which are spectacularly gory and nasty. Pulling off a well-executed environmental kill or managing to burst through a closed door at just the right time is legitimately exciting, especially for an ageing gorehound who loves slasher films.

Playing as a counselor however is… less fun. See, the counselors in the movies were taking drugs, drinking and getting laid – it was a Friday the 13th tradition! In the game, however, you’ll be searching for loot in randomised locations and hoping you get lucky, and it’s just not that great a time. Most galling of all, playing Jason occurs randomly. So you could be solo queuing for an entire day without donning the hockey mask (or sack) of the big man once, which is to say nothing of the game’s numerous server issues, buggy connections, and legion of other technical hitches.

There is, however, one guaranteed way to enjoy Friday the 13th: The Game, but it’s kind of fiddly. You’ll need at least four mates, preferably seven obviously, and you just start up a custom game and only play with those friends. That way you can take turns playing Jason, band together more successfully as the camp counselors and enjoy the game to its full potential. When I played using this method it was an absolutely unmissable experience – funny and violent and scary – and showed what the game could be given the right set of circumstances.

Ultimately Friday the 13th: The Game is a lot like the Friday the 13th movie series: much better with mates, who’ve had a few drinks and are ready to overlook some quality issues and concentrate on the splatter.

 
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Jigsaw

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Jigsaw is the eighth film in the long running, albeit recently dormant, Saw franchise. It follows 2010’s disappointing Saw 3D (aka “The Final Chapter”) and is directed by Aussie brothers, Peter and Michael Spierig (Daybreakers, Predestination). With such talent behind the camera one could be forgiven for expecting a higher calibre sequel, and while Jigsaw is certainly better than the last three or four Saw entries, that’s a pretty low razor wire-covered bar to clear.

Jigsaw is essentially two narratives intercut with one another. One involves five strangers who wake up in a room with buckets on their heads and chains around their necks. A familiar gravelly voice speaks over an intercom, telling the unfortunates he wants to play a game and, well, you know the rest. Games are played, elaborate traps are sprung and secrets are revealed as the cast are whittled down in suitably gruesome fashion. Outside the room, forensic pathologists Logan (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson) are embroiled in a related mystery involving corrupt detective, Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) who may or may not be involved in the Jigsaw case in some fashion. But wait, hasn’t John Kramer (Tobin Bell), aka Jigsaw, been dead for over a decade? The answer may surprise you…

Despite containing elements of sequel, prequel and reboot, Jigsaw feels very much like business as usual. Some of the traps are mildly inventive but most of the characters are too obnoxious, shouty or willfully stupid to care about. The story has a couple of decent twists buried underneath about a dozen average ones, and you can almost hear the screenplay’s spine snapping as it bends over backwards, attempting to rationalise some of the more unlikely third act revelations.

Ultimately Jigsaw is an above average Saw film, but a fairly ordinary horror film. It proves that no matter how many elaborate death scenes you stage, or twists you unleash, without interesting characters or a compelling story – it’s game over before it even begins.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Jigsaw

 
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Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare

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Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare is, in essence, the story of Craig Anderson. Craig’s an affable chap with a lifelong dream of writing and directing a feature film. When we first meet Craig he’s quite frank about the fact he’s not getting any younger – and opportunities haven’t exactly been falling into his lap – so he decides it’s time to get proactive and make the bloody thing himself. As the title of the doco suggests, Craig’s dream turns dark pretty quickly.

Red Christmas is the film in question, a polarising Yuletide slasher flick that in Craig’s own words, “[is] about an aborted fetus that returns and kills its family – of course it’s going to be terrible!” While the eventuating feature is a niche proposition, Horror Movie itself is absolutely fascinating. There’s a palpable sense of tension throughout the two-part doco’s runtime, where our scrappy hero and his band of friends realise they may have bitten off way more than they can chew.

Scenes where Craig borrows ungodly amounts of money from his brother, tries to negotiate the complexity of America’s SAG rules to land Dee Wallace (E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, The Howling) in the lead role and attempts to explain some of the ropier aspects of his script to dubious cast members are a mixture of fascinating and cringe-inducing. Director Gary Doust (Making Venus, Next Stop Hollywood) has crafted an intimate look at the world of low budget genre filmmaking in Australia and portrait of a man who lives for movies, often at the expense of his own well being.

Horror Movie: A Low Budget Nightmare is about what happens when a wide eyed dreamer with visions of success meets the speeding semi-trailer of reality and the ensuing carnage. It’s at times hilarious and heartbreaking, brimming with pathos and well worth a watch for those with even a casual interest in the grisly sausage factory that is making movies on a shoestring budget.

Basically it’s the Hearts of Darkness of Chrissy-themed killer fetus slasher movies.

Part 1 airs on ABC October 31st 9.30pm, and part 2 on November 7.

 
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The Evil Within 2

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The Evil Within 2 is the sequel to 2014’s The Evil Within. The original game was helmed by Shinji Mikami, director of beloved video games Resident Evil 1 & 4, so naturally anticipation was extremely high. The result was a wildly uneven game that brought the horror hard and fast, but lacked a logical narrative thread that would have made the experience something more than a series of loosely linked horror vignettes.

The Evil Within 2 directed by John Johanas and written by Trent Haaga (who we chatted with recently) seeks to address the lack of story cohesion while still providing a solid, scary horror experience and happily succeeds for the vast majority of its playtime.

Three years after the events of the first game, protagonist Sebastian Castellanos has become a bitter, self-destructive drunk. He’s no longer a cop and spends most of his time getting pissed and lamenting the disappearance of his wife, Myra and death of his daughter, Lily. One day his old partner Juli Kidman appears with an offer too good to refuse: enter the world of STEM (basically The Matrix) and save his daughter, who isn’t actually dead after all (phew!) but is lost within STEM’s virtual realms (bummer!).

It’s a classic, albeit slightly shopworn premise, but it does mean once Sebastian enters STEM the game doesn’t keep trying to pull the ‘this is reality… or is it?!’ trick the first game overindulged in to deadening effect. Naturally STEM is a scary, violent and horrific place and the game’s first half plays a little like The Last of Us meets Silent Hill, featuring tense treks through monster-filled neighbourhoods, with little ammunition and death potentially around every corner.

The term “survival horror” is much abused in modern games, but in the case of The Evil Within 2 it’s apt. You will be struggling to survive, relying on stealth, cunning and nerves of steel. I lost count of the number of times I’d sneak up on a group of enemies only to see my plans go tits up because one of them saw me, and I had to run, hide, set traps or die. In the 20ish hours it’ll take you to complete The Evil Within 2 your nerves will be getting a serious workout, especially if you explore the surprisingly large hub areas and take on some of the excellent side missions.

Gameplay wise The Evil Within 2 plays very much like the original, for good and ill. You’ll creep along in a third person POV, crafting ammo and healing syringes, stealth killing when you can – shooting when you can’t. The handgun handles like a slippery piglet, even fully upgraded, and in the end most battles were so messy I’d resort to using the ever reliable shotgun. This isn’t a bad thing per se, and in fact adds quite a lot to the tension of the piece, but if you’re looking for precision shooting you may be disappointed.

Boss fights feel a little lighter on the ground also. The first game would often reuse the same bosses over and over to obnoxious extremes, but the handful of boss fights in the sequel feels a little light nonetheless. Also, and this is extremely nitpicky, but Sebastian has what must be 74,000 lines that are variations on “what the fuck?” or “what’s going on?” Seb, mate, you’re in the horror Matrix – this was pretty clearly explained at the start – weird shit’s gonna happen, how about you get on with it, eh?

The Evil Within 2 is a solid, scary, tense and ultimately unexpectedly emotional experience, with a great central yarn at its core. It builds upon the foundation of the original, giving players a reason to care, while also providing numerous occasions for one to brown one’s trousers in fear. Fans of survival horror who feel ill served by modern AAA games take note: you’re not going to want to miss this one.

 
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South Park: The Fractured but Whole

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South Park: The Fractured But Whole is the follow-up to 2014’s The Stick of Truth, although you don’t need to have played that game to enjoy the new one. Fractured But Whole tells the tale of you – the new kid – who has moved to the quiet redneck mountain town of South Park. A wave of crime is sweeping through the titular town and it’s up to you and Cartman’s superhero group, Coon and Friends – to save and the day, and more specifically, a fearsomely ugly cat, Scrambles. There’s a hundred dollar reward in it, you guys. A hundred bucks!

Whereas The Stick of Truth skewered fantasy movie and game tropes, The Fractured But Whole has the superhero genre dead in its sights and there are some really funny observations. An ongoing gag about making a shitload of money through Netflix, prequel movies and tie-in TV series’ is consistently solid. Of course the game features a lot of callbacks, references and in-jokes for fans of the TV show so expect to see Raisins girls, City Ninjas, sixth graders and crab people…. Crab people. Look like crab, fight like people.

What’s most surprising about TFBW is the depth of the RPG elements. You’ll level up your character with multiple classes, equip relics and better gear and engage in some unexpectedly nuanced combat played in a turn based style. On the other hand you’ll also unlock the ability to solve puzzles with your arse – using an array of farts including the ability to stop time and shoot a hapless gerbil from your rectum. This mixture of solid game mechanics and toilet humour may cause tonal whiplash in some players, but if you’re in the mood for a 20 hour episode of South Park you’re in for a treat.

Storywise the game goes from normal to nuts in the first 15 or so hours, peaking with a sequence that somehow manages to mash up racist cops, Black Lives Matter, H.P. Lovecraft and one of his beasties. This is actually the peak of the game, a total celebration of the profane and arcane. Unfortunately the game keeps going afterwards, and the final 3-5 hours are a bit of a grind, with some fights dragging on way too long. It’s a pity that such an initially charming game ends on such a sour note, but the time that precedes it really is a lot of fun.

Ultimately South Park: The Fractured But Whole is a clever, funny, involving RPG dripping with personality and lashings of bent humour. It stumbles in its final act but the journey there is so delightfully dubious you’ll likely forgive its shortcomings.

 
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Middle Earth: Shadow of War

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At the deep, nuggety core of Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is one simple concept: killing orcs. Yes there’s a lengthy, and somewhat tortured, story campaign, yes there is bulk loot collecting and RPG elements and yeah, naturally, there are lots of nods and callbacks to the Lord of the Rings movies/books (oh hi, Gollum!) but ultimately SoW is all about killing orcs in elaborate ways. You’ll kill them with fire, you’ll kill them with swords, you’ll kill them with spiders and big caragors. You’ll kill them in castles, you’ll kill them in on hills, you’ll kill them en masse, mate, oh fuck yes, you will!

Happily when it comes to dispatching orcs Shadow of War’s gameplay is fluid, responsive and enjoyable. It doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel first used in 2014’s Shadow of Mordor, but it adds enough new elements and mechanics to feel more engaging then a simple retread. Most impressive of all is the Nemesis system, which makes a triumphant return. For the uninitiated this system means every time you die the orc who killed you gains social status and becomes more powerful. Conversely some orcs survive their apparent deaths or humiliations and will return, bigger, badder and holding a drake-sized grudge.

These weird vendettas held against you by characters with name like Dush the Obsessed, Gurk the Angry and Trevor Maggot Pants (may have made that last one up) gives SoW a dynamic, exciting sense of tension. The same, sadly, cannot be said for the story which is all over the place. Talion remains duller then unsalted tofu and wraith partner, Celebrimbor, is still one Joy Division album away from being the bloke in his 40s who takes the whole goth thing just a little bit too seriously. They’re joined by some new characters this time, such as sexy Shelob (finally a spider character you can masturbate to!) and Bruz the Chopper, an ocker orc who is easily the most interesting character by a fairly huge margin.

You’ll occupy five large landscapes, collecting collectibles, brainwashing captains, taking over fortresses and, yes, killing many, many orcs. You can probably knock the main campaign over in 30-40 hours (which by AAA game standards is pretty damn generous) but then the game pulls some bullshit which you may find difficult to forgive. The last act, titled “Act IV: Shadow Wars”, turns the endgame into a grindfest. All those forts you spent so long taking over? Well now you’ll need to defend them against legions of tougher orcs, through some twenty increasingly difficult levels. It’s doable, but tough, and the Sauron-like spectre of microtransactions enters the proceedings because how much easier would it be to just buy some powerful orcs to buff your forts? Why not head to the online market place and buys some, my preeeecious?

For a lot of people this won’t be a deal breaker, it certainly wasn’t for me, I had a great time with this game, but there is a certain cynicism to the exercise that leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. Pay to win is a shitty design choice, especially when it locks you out of the game’s final cutscene. My suggestion? Don’t buy orcs, take a little longer and earn them by enjoying the game’s many combat options. Or just stop playing at Act IV and watch the “true ending” on Youtube. It’s a rough business that we even have to deal with this kind of nonsense, but that’s gaming in 2017. Proceed accordingly.

That one nasty little microtransactional caveat aside, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War is a bloody belter of a game. The Nemesis system alone makes it worth a visit, and the sheer joy of chopping up literal armies of orcs is potent and exciting. In short: ignore the cash grab and focus on the killing and you’ll have a good time.

 
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Jens Matthies: The Reich Stuff

FilmInk chats with MachineGames creative director, Jens Matthies, about what is best in life: gaming, storytelling and killing Nazis in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus