XBOX : A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS

Microsoft have had a turbulent time when it comes to their hardware, Windows Phones failed to take off, the original surface convertible was a clunky mess and only their software managed to capture any kind of mass audience. But their one success is in their incredibly popular Xbox console, but it’s not been a smooth ride. I decided to take a look back at Xbox from it’s inception through to it’s current iteration

Announced in March 2000, Microsoft’s aim was to stop Sony’s PlayStation from getting monopoly on the gaming industry, an admirable cause for a company with a monopoly on the PC market… Released in November 2001 with a slew of top-quality exclusive games like Dead Or Alive 3, Project Gotham Racing, Jet Set Radio Future, and of course the legendary Halo: Combat Evolved, the console was ready to take on its rivals. But this wouldn’t be an Xbox console without some pratfalls. The original controller, the aptly named ‘The Duke’ was so large that eventual first party developer Lionhead stole the Japanese ‘S’ controllers without the Microsoft’s knowledge. The Xbox could not have felt more American compared to the svelte designs of its Japanese rivals; it was big, bombastic and powerful – it may be one of the reasons the Japanese have never embraced the Xbox brand. The internet capabilities of the console were its proper unique selling point, it seamlessly incorporated online into the system and Halo 2 provided game-changing matchmaking capabilities that are still used even to this day. The original Xbox did a lot right, it was a powerful system with must-play games, excellent third party support, and forward-thinking online features but it had only modest sales of 24 million and was largely ignored everywhere except the USA. Dethroning the PlayStation 2 was always going to be a tall order, especially with Xbox releasing 18 months later. The launch of the original Xbox is estimated to have lost Microsoft $4 billion and only managed to turn any kind of profit at the end of 2004.

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Microsoft went all in on their follow-up, the hugely successful Xbox 360. Releasing in the winter of 2005, the Xbox 360 felt like a much more calculated approach to console gaming than its predecessor. It was a massive leap in graphics over the previous generation, Xbox Live was fully integrated with dedicated friends lists, the design was contemporary and sleek, and the controller was refined – becoming one of the best controllers. Releasing a year before the PlayStation 3 and at a much more digestible price, the Xbox 360 enjoyed massive sales and was the market lead for the majority of the generation. Despite the hardware issues that arose from the Red Ring of Death and the lack of a Blu-ray drive, the Xbox 360 still managed to eat away Sony’s huge lead from the previous generation. The release of the Kinect gave Microsoft a small taste of the Wii’s success, however this is also where things started to go south. Game development shifted dramatically away from traditional console games and despite acquiring Twisted Pixel and Press Play in 2011 and 2012, respectively, Xbox started relying heavily on third party games and partnerships which would cause severe consequences going into the next generation.

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Most gamers will remember the shambolic reveal of the Xbox One in May 2013, its DRM policies, mandatory Kinect, lack of power, high price, and emphasis on its television functions did not sit well with the gaming community. After the reversal of much of these criticisms and despite a reasonable launch line-up and the promise of stellar-looking games like Sunset Overdrive, Titanfall, Fable Legends, and Project Spark coming soon the Xbox One looked like it might be OK. But the mandatory Kinect inflating the price of a less powerful console was a tough pill to swallow and with the memory of the Xbox boss telling gamers to buy an Xbox 360 if they didn’t like it were still very fresh. Add to this, Microsoft Studios was in utter disarray. Bungie (arguably Microsoft’s crown jewel) had already flown the nest during the Xbox 360 generation; Lionhead, Press Play, and Ensemble were shuttered; and Twisted Pixel went back to being independent. Microsoft had 343 Studios, Rare, The Coalition, and Turn 10 to make games in what was becoming a rather embarrassing exclusive line-up, relying on their solid but increasingly tired franchises. Xbox One sales haven’t been officially revealed, but sales are thought to be near the 50 million mark, by no means the failure some would have you believe, but certainly a fall from grace from the 84 million the Xbox 360 achieved. Announced at E3 in 2018, Microsoft put their cards on the table as to what their future might look like. They acquired four new studios, including Forza Horizon developer Playground Games and Ninja Theory, developers of the critically-acclaimed Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, as well as forming a new studio called The Initiative. Later in the year they announced three other acquisitions including Obsidian Entertainment, one of best western role-playing developers in the world. Their decision to bolster their first party output has yet to yield results, but the future certainly looks brighter than it did.

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The Xbox Series X was revealed in December 2019 and Microsoft seem to be going all in with their Netflix style service Game Pass, a fairly genius play considering where the film and music markets have ended up – first party games releasing day one could be their trump card if their games are worthy. The announced games Halo Infinite, Hellblade 2: Senua’s Saga, Project: MARA, and Everwild all look incredibly promising. Looking to Xbox’s July event we can truly see if Xbox is back in the game or if they are destined to limp along beside their rivals. I am hopeful they can pull it back. I believe Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft need each other to thrive and to count Xbox out of the game this early would be a mistake.

TOP 10 TOMB RAIDER GAMES

Over the course of 24 years Tomb Raider has been a pioneer of action adventure videogames and heroine Lara Croft has cemented herself as an icon. One of the most successful franchises in gaming, Tomb Raider has had peaks and troughs with 12 mainline console games and numerous handheld and spin off titles, Lara has been through many different adventures and ranking my favourites is a difficult task.

The thrills of shooting a T-Rex in the face and the fear of missing a perfectly timed jump and the bliss of locking your bumbling butler in the walk-in freezer – Tomb Raider provides an experiences unparalleled in the genre.

Here is my Top 10 Tomb Raider games.

10. TOMB RAIDER : ANGEL OF DARKNESS (2003)

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Coming in at number 10 is the game that is often held responsible for the downfall of original Tomb Raider developer Core Design and for good reason. The tank controls from the original PlayStation era returned and were somehow made even more clunky, the game was riddled with bugs, featured bizarre levelling up elements, awful stealth gameplay and dialogue tree’s which while good in theory were completely superfluous.

But looking back many people overlook what Angel of Darkness did well, a challenging puzzle game, varied locations bought to life with vivid and beautifully realised graphics for the time, along with one of the most accomplished and incredibly tense stories Tomb Raider has ever done. Combining a film noir style of storytelling with a sweeping orchestral score sets the mood beautifully, along with Core’s excellent level design, Angel of Darkness succeeded where it mattered for a Tomb Raider game.

Though the game certainly feels rushed and an extra 6-12 months in the oven would have resulted in a far superior product, Angel of Darkness is worth your time – once you get past the games many quirks.

9. SHADOW OF THE TOMB RAIDER (2018)

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The most recent entry in the long running franchise is a solid game and builds well off the two games that preceded it in the reboot trilogy. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is an incredibly refined experience, with tight controls, beautiful graphics and striking soundtrack.

There’s a lot to love about the game, the real stand out of the experience is the actual Tomb Raiding and puzzles that make a massive comeback in both side quests and main questline, as well as excellent difficulty settings so you can tailor the experience to your liking. The tombs themselves are tricky and give an excellent sense of achievement when they’ve been solved.

However the Shadow suffers in a couple of areas, mainly the story telling, a poor script that tries to explore Lara’s mental state with all the subtlety of jackhammer, poor pacing, a silly plotline and an underwhelming villain. Add to this a boring open-world hub where costume changes are limited and an over abundance of stealth over shooting add up to make Shadow the poorest entry in the reboot trilogy – sadly the balancing act of making a Tomb Raider game the best it can be wasn’t met with this entry, Shadow was a boring conclusion and a bit of missed opportunity.

8. TOMB RAIDER III (1998)

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The third and fourth entries in the original Tomb Raider run are both guilty of the same sins, both have puzzles that are virtually impossible to work out without a guide. Tomb Raider 3 is better than it’s successor mostly because it still feels like a bold globe trotting adventure, where Last Revelations Egyptian setting becomes monotonous over its long running time.

Tomb Raider 3 operates in a similar fashion to its predecessor adding a couple of extra moves to Lara’s arsenal including a sprinting and crouching. Though the new moves don’t quite provide the gameplay diversity they should, only used sporadically. Also returning is vehicle sections, but an awkward kayak mission makes their inclusion more of an annoyance than welcome distraction.

Tomb Raider 3 is still an enjoyable romp despite its drawbacks, with a mission in Area 51 being a personal favourite, plus the best implementation of Croft Manor in any of the original Tomb Raider originals.

7. TOMB RAIDER UNDERWORLD (2008)

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Tomb Raider Underworld took what worked in 2006’s Tomb Raider Legend and opened it up – sprawling levels that were beautifully realised on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3’s superior hardware. It’s a thrilling conclusion to the Crystal Dynamics first games and in some ways is the best of first reboot trilogy.

The game is more open than Legend, so exploring is a more viable option than before, though the game still very much retains a linearity that the previous games also had – meaning the openness can feel somewhat hollow which is disappointing – exploration doesn’t amount to much more than seeing more of a level. Combat is refined with its auto lock-on shooting incorporating melee into the proceedings, so encounters can be approached in various ways.

The story manages merge Legend and Anniversary pretty well, with legendary character Jacqueline Natla returning from the first game and Amanda from Legend. Exploring Norse mythology has never been so fun and the game cleverly intertwines many myths believably. Issues with the camera, minor bugs and awful quick-time events mar what is a stellar action adventure title.

6. TOMB RAIDER LEGEND (2006)

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Legend followed Angel of Darkness at a time when Tomb Raider could have been finished, taking over from Core Design, Crystal Dynamics built legend from the ground up creating a completely new style of Tomb Raider with an emphasis on story and free-flowing platforming.

Leaving the tank controls of the original games in the past where they belong, Lara’s 360 degree movement was a change the series desperately needed – taking heavy inspiration from the Prince of Persia series, platforming went from the originals static precise grid gameplay to leaps, bounds and swinging that smoothly connect together in an almost balletic fashion.

Legends story is tight, interesting and well paced, the game delves into Lara’s past and gives her a much needed personality boost. She’s still a English explorer with a twinkle in her eye, but her motivations are more interesting and her backstory is enticing – Tomb Raider finally has an emotional pull and it’s all the better for it. Legends biggest drawback is it’s incredibly linear structure, feeling more like a set of corridors rather than open explorable spaces and a short length – with the game taking a mere 6 hours to complete.

5. TOMB RAIDER ANNIVERSARY (2007)

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Tomb Raider Anniversary is faithful adaptation of the very first Tomb Raider game, the story, the puzzles and the pacing are nearly identical, but with Legends updated gameplay and the graphics now more closely resembling real places instead of the pixelated triangles of the original.

What elevates Anniversary above the likes both Legend and Underworld is it sticks to the originals games structure, so the the game retains the more open structure that was absent in the aforementioned games as well as far higher difficulty – it has a better balance of gameplay with a more adequate running time.

Anniversary is a stellar entry and one the series best, QTE’s being one of the few drawbacks – turning some of the most thrilling moments of the originals into annoying button presses, it also removes the shock and awe of encounter with the T-Rex which is a shame. It’s a minor gripe with a game which pretty much defines what it means to be a Tomb Raider game.

4. TOMB RAIDER (2013)

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The reboot trilogy is a touchy subject for Tomb Raider die hards, the games takes a big leaf out of the Uncharted playbook, going for grand cinematic storytelling rather than the platforming and puzzling of the original games. It may have fallen apart had it not been for the interesting story and well crafted character study – Lara is young and uncertain of herself but still fearless and capable. Though there’s an element of cognitive dissonance with the story, it’s a minor gripe with one of Tomb Raider’s most interesting plots. As the game progresses her “kill first ask questions later” attitude from the original games begins to come back and it’s great to see. But this is a fundamentally different Croft, she feels like a woman more grounded in her environment and lacking the wit and charm of the previous Lara’s.

The game goes in a different direction with it’s structure – choosing a semi open world Metroidvania style that opens up as Lara obtains the right gear. The Japanese influenced island in Tomb Raider is one of the games greatest strengths, this is a thrilling land to explore – combining tight linear corridors and open spaces with excellent design choices by Crystal Dynamics.

The combat in the reboot finally reaches the standard of the rest of the game, with it’s 3rd person shooting mechanics being near best in class for the time – the bow and arrow providing a satisfying weapon to take on enemies silently. Though I miss the dual pistols, at the time Lara’s bow was the best implementation of the weapon and has since been used in almost every game since.

3. TOMB RAIDER (1996)

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The original game, the one that started it all. A game that took the world by storm thanks to its ground breaking level design, its fiery protagonist and its chilling atmosphere. Lara Croft became an over night sensation as one of the first female protagonist in gaming, her oversized proportions were the big talking point, but it should have been her incredible confidence and cheeky wit, Lara was so much more than her looks.

Before the advent of the open world game, Tomb Raider’s enormous levels with hidden nooks and crannies were a world away from the other 2D games of the 90’s and the ability to explore them at your leisure was a joy. The controls were stiff and ridged meaning the platforming tasked the player with precision, lining up jumps perfectly could be the difference between life and death, it’s thrilling.

Tomb Raider is a challenging game, but one that feels rewarding to conquer and on a modern PC without the horrible save system it’s still a fun game to return to.

2. RISE OF THE TOMB RAIDER (2015)

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A more confident Lara, a larger more beautiful world, a bigger emphasis on exploration and platforming, the sequel to 2013 Tomb Raider is better experience in almost everyway. Where Shadow fell down was in its attempt making the world bigger but it felt more empty. Rise expanded the world, however still feels dense with every inch of the map thought-through, all of the map was designed for a reason and not just to be larger.

Rise is still even now one of the best looking games of all time, the realistic snow deformation, the towering mountains and the realistic wildlife make it a beautiful lived-in place. Like its predecessor Rise’s story is tight and well told with good performances from the cast – the villain of the game is a notable step up from the predecessor with a personal attachment to them that makes their relationship far more captivating than a typical bad guy .

The combat encounters are far more varied in Rise, offering options to go all guns blazing or stealthily – both are viable, though stealth is still a largely simple with all enemies able to track your location once your spotted, which is a minor annoyance with the system. Rise of the Tomb Raider was everything a sequel should be, it added lots more Tombs to solve, refined the combat and told a fascinating story at the perfect pace.

1. TOMB RAIDER II

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Tomb Raider 2 is a near perfect example of how to make a Tomb Raider game, it mixes combat, exploration, platforming, puzzle solving and a captivating story told across multiple varied destinations. Adding in the ability to control vehicles adds a new layer of gameplay that breaks up the gameplay loop nicely, tearing round Venice in a motor boat has never been so fun.

Far more human enemies in the game provide a serious challenge with them able to take you on from a distance as well as running at you with their dogs, better utilising Lara’s weapon arsenal and her acrobatic skills to stay alive. The puzzles in the game are tricky, but working them out involves reading your environment rather than an online walkthrough, it’s the mark of good design design.

With stronger narrative involving an ancient dagger that gives the holder command of a grand army and the power to transform a person into a ferocious dragon. Taking on a group of thuggish cultist has become a mainstay of the Tomb Raider franchise and Bartoli and his goons are some of the best. The final showdown at Lara’s home is a thrill and one of the most memorable moments from the entire franchise.

Tomb Raider 2 is the best Tomb Raider game of all time and a Capcom Resident Evil 2 style remake would be absolutely welcome – taking the excellent design of the original games with updated controls and the combat from the reboot games could be a match made in heaven. Come on Square Enix DO IT!

TOP 10 LGBT CHARACTERS IN VIDEOGAMES

In a world where LGBT characters and personalities are becoming far more common, with shows like Shameless, Orange is the New Black and Rupaul’s Drag Race providing mainstream entertainment with queer people from all types of backgrounds. But as TV and film diversifies, gaming is a often a medium left behind.

It’s far more rare for a mainstream game to feature a female character let alone a gay one, though things are getting better and LGBT characters are beginning to worm their way into games providing diverse tales with the interactive and immersive storytelling that only videogames can muster.

So I have gone through videogames past and present to find my Top 10 LGBT characters in games, we’re sticking to games from Western developers as the Japenese could probably have a list all their own.

10. Trevor Phillips from Grand Theft Auto 5

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Grand Theft Auto is often lambasted by critics for it’s incredibly graphic violence and glamorisation of guns and gang culture, but many miss the nuances and subtext of the world and diversity of the characters within the games. There have been a few LGBT characters in GTA, but Trevor Phillips is the first time you take control of an (unconfirmed) pan-sexual character.

Trevor is a violent sociopath, killing without remorse, but he is also fiercely loyal to those close to him – a complicated and well written multi-layered person which is equally important for LGBT representation in gaming. He is certainly not a positive influence to the LGBT movement but having characters of all backgrounds is important especially with GTA being such a massive franchise played by millions of gamers. Evidence for his pan-sexuality come from him openly and joyously admitting to raping men in prison, his “any holes a goal” mentality is refreshing in the heavily heterosexual gaming landscape, as well flirting with anything that moves.

Special mention to GTA 4 and the Ballad of Gay Tony. Rockstar are one of the few developers that are never afraid to diversify their character rosters and long may in continue, hopefully with more positive characters in the future for both women and the LGBT community.

9. Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect Series

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Mass effect gives the player the option to romance certain characters regardless of their gender. Bioware are pioneers of choice making games and their RPG’s set a template that all other western RPG’s have followed. As the male Commander Shepard players can even sleep with another male character if romanced properly. In Mass Effect 3 the player can flirt with Cortez to the point where they wake up in bed together, ding dong!

The Mass Effect fanbase has largely accepted these options, however the games have received some ire from gamers on the political right with many expressing displeasure at the time of Mass Effect 3’s release, this hasn’t stopped Bioware continuing with choice regarding sexuality in their other games though. On the other hand others have complained about the lack of options when playing the game as a gay man with very few romantic options for gay men compared to both gay women and heterosexual characters.

After Mass Effect Andromeda’s disappointing reception and Anthem being… well terrible – it might be a while before Bioware get another chance to represent the LGBT community. But we are hoping for even more depth and breadth for role playing as whoever you want to be in their next installment.

8. The Hero (Chicken Chaser) from The Fable Series

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The Fable games are a one of a kind RPG, a dark and comedic fantasy world where forming relationships are just as important as slaughtering your enemies. The 2004 original game was well ahead of its time in terms of representation, with the role playing elements of the game meaning you can fall in love and marry almost any NPC in the game man or woman.

For the games sequel things were expanded further with the player choosing whether play as a female or male, the ability to cross dress and marry someone of the same sex – so you could live out your life as lesbian, gay man or a bisexual. It features on this list as the Fable Universe had gay marriage even before the UK or the USA did, which in my book is mighty impressive!

Fable 2 also features a side quest whereby you must find a suitable partner for a farmers son, who hints at being gay, with the father accepting the sons sexuality after only presenting him with female suitors. Very progressive indeed. Maybe we’ll see more of this in the rumoured Fable reboot?

7. Jim Miller from Deus Ex Mankind Divided

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Many games either shy away from introducing gay character or will have them as comic relief flamboyant characters that serve little purpose to the story. Jim Miller bucks this trend featuring heavily in Mankind Divided as the stern and commanding leader whose goal is to keep people safe, a gay man that doesn’t follow any stereotypes and his main notable trait is being good at his job.

His sexuality is discovered gradually through the game and his complicated relationship with his husband and adopted children is a convincing, a rarity in all forms of media and especially a videogame.

Despite him being a supporting player in the game, Miller is a complicated and layered character, he’s someone with an interesting past that could easily be explored further. The Deus Ex world has many potential stories at it’s disposal, it would be great to see Jim explored further if the series ever continues.

6. Parvarti from The Outer Worlds

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2019’s Outer Worlds released to a warm reception, the game harkened back to a simpler time of RPG’s that didn’t just constantly expand the physical world, but concentrated on the characters that lived within it. Parvati is a character you discover early on and she instantly became the most popular character in the game.

Parvati is incredibly endearing; she’s sweet, caring and shy but also a capable mechanic and fantastic friend, who prefers to avoid violence, a great ally if you play through the game in non-violent manner. An early mission sees the playable character playing cupid with Parvati and Junlei, you can offer advice on their relationship and learn of their blossoming romance and the difficulties the characters have connecting physically due to Junlei being asexual.

It’s a genuinely sweet mission, and something of a rarity in modern games. Parvati is a loveable character that is certain to feature in the next Outer Worlds game and I can’t wait to see it.

5. Kung Jin from The Mortal Kombat Series

Kung Jin was the first homosexual character to be entered into the Mortal Kombat series, Jin was trained under The White Lotus Society – being gay he believed he would be rejected.

He is the nephew of franchise mainstay Kung Lao and like his uncle is a master of projectiles, coming equipped with his trusty bow and arrow. Kung Jin is unique in that he possesses two types of fatalities which includes decapitation with a round house kick and an impaling arrow move. As in all Mortal Kombat games it’s over-the-top, barbaric and strangely amusing.

Despite Kung Jin being one of the only confirmed LGBT characters in any fighting game, his sexuality is barely mentioned with only this quote “They care only of what is in your heart, not whom your heart desires.” alluding to his homosexuality in the actual game. With such a large roster we’d like to see more from all the fighting game franchises in the future, maybe Kung Jin could have a boyfriend in a future instalment.

4. Cremisius Aclassi from Dragon Age Inquisition

As this lists demonstrates, LGBT characters are usually side characters or are only gay when the player chooses so, it’s a typical attribute of an RPG. This is not to be sniffed at as all forms of representation are important and the community is slowly working its way into mainstream games. Though gay and lesbian characters are becoming more prevalent as time goes on trans representation is still very low.

Bioware feature heavily on this list and their character work is some of the best of all RPG developers, it’s was truly remarkable when they included Krem in Dragon Age Inquisition. Born as a girl, Krem realised he was different from the girls, later in life he concealed his gender status to enlist in the army, which almost lead to his execution for falsifying military documents. After running away he joins Bull Mercenary Company and rises to be second in command.

Interesting storytelling for a character in a fantasy world and handled well by the developers. Krem’s inclusion would be even better had a trans actor played the part. Hopefully in the future Dragon Age games Krem may return for his story to be expanded further.

3. Chloe Price from the Life is Strange Series

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This punk rocker from the Hipster minds at Dontnod Entertainment, Chloe is a remarkably deep character whose journey is not only compelling, but is the catalyst for the entire game. Chloe and Max play estranged friends that rekindle their friendship as Max uncovers a mystery regarding Chloe’s lover Rachel.

The game weaves a tight story about friendship and love, in an engaging fantasy coming-of-age story. Chloe is a stubborn young woman with trust issues, she suffers with depression and has had suicidal thoughts – it’s a realistic interpretation of LGBT youth and a daring insight into the mind of a young member of the LGBT community.

The big draw of Chloe is that she features heavily in the first season of Life is Strange and was the leading playable character in the spin-off Life is Strange : Before the Storm. Dontnod’s next title “Tell me Why” will feature a playable trans character, it’s an exciting prospect from a developer with a skill for deep character work and a entertaining stories.

2. Makoa Gibraltar from Apex Legends

It’s rare to find gay men as playable characters in any games, especially those where it’s not the choice of the player . What a surprise it is to see a western developer who are known for creating “dude bro” shooters create a character with surprising depth as well as representing the gay community in a battle royale shooter.

Gibraltar is described as being a “gentle giant” standing in at 6 foot 4, despite the fact he has the ability to crush skulls with his bare hands. Gibraltar’s sexuality is not shied away from with his boyfriend Nikolas playing heavily in his backstory, as well as a complicated history with his father.

He is also notable for being Polynesian as well as gay, Respawn deserve a lot of credit for including Gibraltar in their game and here’s hoping there’s more to come!

1. Ellie from The Last of Us Series

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Coming in at number 1 could only be Ellie from The Last of Us. As mentioned previously most of the people on the list are side-characters, though Ellie played a supporting role in the first game, she takes centre stage for the games recently released sequel.

Naughty Dog are masters of story-telling with unprecedented skill in writing deeply flawed and engaging characters. Ellie is no different, in the first game a young woman coming to terms with herself. Growing up in this violent world has a serious impact on Ellie’s mental health, which goes far deeper in the sequel. Ellie’s first coming-out moment featured in the DLC for the first game, with a deeper and more adult orientated relationship blossoming in part 2 with bi-sexual character Dina. We even see both women raise a child together, showing how motherhood can change a characters outlook on life, it’s a sweet and heart warming relationship that’s treated with the utmost respect.

The Last of Us represents Ellie as a lesbian but doesn’t dwell on it, it isn’t the driving force for the story which is commendable in this landscape, especially a AAA mainstream game. All of Ellie’s relationships are relatable and her thirst for vengeance in Part 2 takes the player on a unique journey of an LGBT character that has never been attempted before – it’s a game that deserves the highest praise for its character work.

Special mention must also be made for also introducing other LGBT characters in the Last of Us games such as Bill and trans character Lev, bravo Naughty Dog – you deserve the top spot on this list!

THE LAST OF US PART 2 REVIEW

Sony’s first party studios have carved out a niche of delivering stellar story-heavy action adventure games, usually in third person perspective. The God of War reboot and Horizon Zero Dawn have been important games to the PlayStation 4 and have cemented Sony’s console as the best place to play these type of narrative driven games. Naughty Dog really are the masters of this type of story-telling, their character studies are unlike anything else in the industry (with the possible exception of Ninja Theory) and The Last of Us Part 2 goes further than any other mainstream game. Here is my full review of The Last of Us Part 2.

STORY

MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD The Last of Us Part 2 takes the player on a journey of revenge, a well trodden path that many games and films have gone to before, but it’s the games execution that sets it a part from the rest. You take on the role of Ellie from the first game, this time all grown up with a extra dash of angst – told through flashbacks we learn that Ellie has grown distant from her father figure Joel since the events of the first game, it plays into one of the many themes of the game – actions have consequences. An early event which sees the brutal murder of Joel at the hands of new character Abby is a gut punch, an emotional and unsatisfying end to a character you grew to love in the previous game – killed by a woman who dispenses of the man with what seems like glee. It’s hard to witness and Ellie’s cries of anger are devastating and a reaction most gamers will feel along with her. All this emotional pull comes in the first 2-3 hours of the game, in any other mainstream game this would have been a finale or a lead up, but The Last of Us dares to be different.

The game challenges your perspectives on where a videogame narrative will venture. As you play through the storylines of two characters entwined together with completely different outcomes. Both characters illicit sympathy, you will question their actions and yet still understanding their motives. They are both equally complex and chapter concluding flashbacks provide insight into the actions the characters take. This is a style of storytelling rarely done in videogames and it’s incredibly compelling – it’s incredible how the two scenarios both mirror one another and the first game in tandem. It’s deftly put together, and mostly works. The pacing struggles to juggle the narrative in the third act of the 2nd character campaign, it starts to feel a bit “hollywoodised” and limps towards its conclusion instead of the thrilling climax it deserved – it feels a bit silly and out of place. It’s shame this section made into the game, it’s in stark contrast to the rest of the game – it felt more like a Resident Evil game, which in some ways might be unavoidable due to both games featuring the “undead” but after such thought provoking character studies in the preceding chapters it feels wrong, some odd choices were taken here and I feel without them the game length might have been more digestible as well. Luckily as the 2 campaigns converge in the last few hours the game it gets back on track to an emotional and satisfying resolution.

The Last of Us Part 2 has a by-the-numbers plot with truly ground-breaking story about revenge, forgiveness, bereavement and the consequences of violence. The narrative will divide gamers, but it’s worth experiencing – no other videogame has dared to tell a story with this much depth and that’s including the first game.

GAMEPLAY AND GRAPHICS

To put it bluntly this is one of the most impressive looking games that’s ever been made. Lush vegetation scales the walls of the abandoned buildings, decaying furniture litters houses and the grass moves in the wind and realistically deforms from character impact. It’s seriously impressive. Water effects, particle effects and lighting are all stunning, the dark rooms filled with spores illuminated by just your flashlight look particularly fantastic. The environments feel like real, lived-in places – it’s very immersive and believable – small details like graffiti, mould and trinkets left behind from survivors add another level. The game is mostly linear, but deceptively open, barring your initial arrival in Seattle you are led through a series of open combat zones and enclosed corridors to traverse and yet the game feels like it’s open world and you can go anywhere, you can’t but it’s very clever level design none-the-less. Character models are beautifully detailed – the motion capture is best in class, with emotions being convincing portrayed – clothing and skin looks as close to real as this generation has ever gotten, Naughty Dog have set an incredibly high bar for their next game.

The gameplay loop is similar to the first; Walk through the environment in heavily scripted information dumps, stealth combat, loot, traverse environment, rinse and repeat. For a game that takes around 30 hours the gameplay does lose it’s lustre in the latter hours of the game. That’s not to say the gameplay is bad, combat is violent and satisfyingly crunchy. Pulling off a head shot with a bow whilst prone in tall grass is a buzz and solving the riddle of how to take on each stealth scenario can pose a credible challenge. The weapons are varied and each comes with its own sets of positive and negative attributes for use in each situation. Bombs and molotovs can be crafted on the fly to cause distractions or off enemies without giving away your location. It works well and at points can be a real thrill – human enemies and infected enemies provide variation and forces you to slightly change tactics for each encounter.

Other parts of the combat don’t fare quite as well. Enemy AI is dumb and will often walk into danger alone despite the characters being aware of your presence, meaning you can take out 2-3 enemies from one location without moving. Another aspect the game doesn’t really try and should, is to force the player into being more aggressive. I appreciate the game is stealth focused but with bombs at the players disposal it feels like a missed opportunity to not use them, it makes little sense for enemies not to form close groups when there’s 2/3 of them left to take out, Batman Arkham City is a good example of this, as it truly tests the player to fully change tactics on the fly as the enemies work together to find you – something The Last of Us doesn’t do. The samey-ness of the combat wouldn’t be an issue had the game only been 20 hours, but stretching this out over 30 hours makes it wear thin, to the point where I rolled my eyes at yet another combat scenario. Follower AI is also poorly utilised, occasionally they provide helpful assistance, but more often than not they do little to help and break immersion by running in front of enemies who never see them.

Music and sound ties the whole game together beautifully. The score goes for understated guitar strums over an operatic string section, it’s in perfect harmony with the setting and story. The voice acting is the best in the industry with each character having convincing, realistic and heart wrenching performances. The sounds of the clickers and runners is truly unnerving especially in the early game, also using environmental noise and silence to great effect – it’s all very tense and well incorporated.

CONCLUSION

The Last of Us Part 2 is a crowning achievement in videogame storytelling, a deep character study where few other games will dare to venture. Though not perfect the game, it is a flawed masterpiece that should be experienced by anyone with even a passing interest in videogames.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Pro’s

  • Excellent storytelling
  • Beautiful environments
  • Compelling and complex characters
  • Satisfying combat encounters and weapon variety
  • Incredible performances from the entire cast

Cons

  • Too long and too reliant on samey combat
  • AI of human enemies could be improved

ORI AND THE WILL OF THE WISPS REVIEW

Ori and the Blind Forest was a standout game in 2015 for it’s challenging platforming, beautiful world and heart warming story. Xbox Game Studios has a good track record for supporting independent games like Ori and Cuphead by giving them both the audience and budget to truly achieve their vision. The second Ori game released in March 2020 attempts to broaden the scope of the original by adding new and exciting ingredients to the well balanced formula. Here is my review for Ori and the Will of the Wisps.

STORY

Unlike many side scrolling platformers Ori and the Will of the Wisps puts it’s story front and centre, following on directly from its predecessor Ori, Naru and Gumo are taking care of baby owl Ku, we see the love and affection they all have for each other – it’s a heart-warming start. Ku is unable to fly due to an damaged wing until Gumo affixes Kuro’s (Ku’s mother) feather to it. Ku and Ori go on a flight that ends up taking them out of their home and into Niwen, a storm erupts separating the two adopted brothers and our story begins with Ori tracking down Ku.

Niwen is in a state of disarray, with dirty waters and unwanted creatures populating the lush overgrowth. Niwen is still teeming with life with the meerkat-like Moki assist Ori throughout his journey – the plot takes many unexpected turns leading to an encounter with the main antagonist Shriek a deformed owl who rules over the lands of Niwen called The Silent Woods.

The story has surprising depth for a game where both the protagonist and the villain say little to nothing. Shriek in particular is painted as a sympathetic monster, giving you an understanding of his past that tugs on the heartstrings. Will of the Wisps visual storytelling is superb and will melt even the coldest of hearts, if there was a developer that came close Pixar animated narratives in the videogame space then Moon Studios is the one.

GAMEPLAY AND GRAPHICS

Ori and the Will of the Wisps uses a hyper pigmented animation style that resembles brush strokes and to put it bluntly, it’s gorgeous. The world is alive, with bushes and shrubs reacting realistically as you brush past them – wildlife both friend and foe animate smoothly and have a real impact in the world around them. Many 2D side scrollers have a problem when it comes to the world building in that due to the them being a flat picture, they can often feel sterile, with characters that look like they are aren’t really part of the game world – Ori avoids this with 2.5D style that gives the illusion of a three dimensional space on a two dimensional plane. The colour palette is aesthetically pleasing, with the bright colours popping, especially on a HDR display – this could well be one of the best looking games of the generation. The world is a Metroidvania open-world, with a massive and densely animated map that’s a joy to traverse. The games smart use of abilities makes the progression through the map feel natural, whilst giving a small thrill as you discover hidden mysteries along the way.

All this would be nothing without tight gameplay and it’s another area where Will of the Wisps both exceeds its predecessor and all other games in the genre. Controlling Ori is a delight, his is nimble and responsive – starting the game with only a simple jump and the ability to scale a wall, the game is still able to provide clever challenges with the skills at your disposal. As the game continues and you unlock double jump, dig and boost (among many others) the platforming difficulty increases, challenging the player to chain multiple abilities in one sequence – it’s unforgiving but never unfair. Mastery takes time, but the game rarely exhibits the difficulty spikes the prior game had, instead it slowly ramps up the trials, with no hints as to what to do, just the tools to conquer the test. The game now uses an auto save feature in place of the spirit saves from the previous game – this is a welcome addition and thankfully saves are plentiful as you will die a lot and loading is almost instantaneous. In the 2nd half of the game you are tasked with completing 4 separate areas of the map, each with their own unique challenges – my personal favourite being an ice world where you are tasked with melting and re-freezing the world to progress, it’s genius and adds a puzzle solving element to the platforming, keeping the gameplay diverse.

Combat returns in the sequel, but is greatly expanded from the previous game. This is the games biggest improvement, where the combat in Blind Forest felt very one note, Will of the Wisps takes it to the next level – with several options available to taking on opponents, from projectiles and melee weapons. All have differing weights, speeds and costs so picking and choosing the best way to dispense of your foes becomes another of the games difficult mechanics to juggle with. The game features boss fights which rely on the player to be able to switch up tactics quickly as well as navigating tricky platforming, so fighting becomes something of a dance – dodging, redirecting and attacking and like everything else in the game, it’s hard but it’s oh so rewarding.

Ori’s audio work is some of the best in any game released this generation, a mystical and enchanting score which deftly intertwines with both the story and the gameplay – moments of tenderness and triumph are amplified superbly by the score by composer Gareth Coker. Voice and other audio is also handled well, even though none of the characters “speak” they manage to convey everything they need to through noises, it’s really outstanding work. The sound design of slicing through an enemy or bashing them with a spirit hammer is satisfying and impactful – the winds through the forests and trickling water amalgamates to create the perfect atmosphere. It all amounts to a world that you want to stay in, a world that is believable.

CONCLUSION

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is one of the greatest games of the generation and certainly the best Xbox One exclusives. It’s a challenging, beautiful, enchanting, dangerous, near perfect side scrolling platformer, one that exceeds its predecessor in every way. It’s a must play.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Pros

  • Challenging but fair platforming
  • Tight controls
  • Superbly told and emotional story
  • Beautifully realised world
  • Incredible score and audio design

Cons

  • N/A