Monthly Archives: January 2018

Opinions on… Dirt Rally

It was after only five minutes of gameplay that I knew I should have heeded the warnings.

It was as I watched my car lying smoking at the bottom of a ravine that I realised the discussion surrounding Dirt Rally spoke the truth. Put bluntly; this game is hard. Almost ridiculously so. You’re not going to be casually flinging yourself around corners with the greatest of ease within your first hour, picking up one victory after another. You’re much more likely to underestimate what you are getting yourself into, as did I, only to see your hopes of easy glory be chewed up and spat right back out. This is serious business, and in response it’s going to take a serious effort to even hope to come out the other end unscathed.

In some ways, I can’t help but feel this is a downside to the game. At times it feels extremely vindictive; where a single mistake doesn’t just lose a few seconds, but holds the potential to cost you the whole tournament you’ve been desperately trying to win for the past few hours. It doesn’t matter how perfect you’ve been racing or how skilled you are – screw up for the briefest of moments, and only plentiful use of the restart button will save you from unrelenting despair. It’s a strange experience, and one that can at times both be incredibly disheartening and extremely frustrating.

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Now don’t get me wrong – I get it. I know this is what Dirt Rally wants to be, and that there are no second chances in the real world of rallying. I therefore can’t begrudge it for what is clearly an active design choice. Yet it still remains something that I feel really has to play on your mind before deciding on your purchase. Put simply; if you’re not up for a great degree of brutality being flung your way, you seriously shouldn’t be here.

Yet such pain does not come without reward.  Because, slowly but surely, you learn what it takes to succeed. You discover how truly essential it is to pay attention to your co-drivers instructions. You come to understand that crests and dips in the road are as important as its twists and turns. You learn when to go aggressive, when to shy away from speed, and how to save yourself from near disaster. Put it all together and – Bam! – You’re suddenly thinking like a rally driver. You’re absorbed in the moment, doing everything by nigh-on instinct, and at moments it’s possible to forget you’re actually playing a game at all. As an attempt to capture the experience of being a rally driver goes, Dirt Rally can certainly be called a success.

With the sense of this experience, of course, come the feelings that go with it. There’s an actual sense of dread to situations where you plunge through deep forests or skitter on the edge of cliffs. Equally, there’s a real thrill to truly nailing a corner correctly, hitting its line perfectly and zooming away with a burst of speed. It’s the middle ground between the fear and the fury which I love, though – the knowledge that everything is within a moment of falling apart, yet you’re managing to maintain control by the very edge of your fingertips. If you manage to win an event (which is honestly no mean feat), the sense of pride that you’ll take in doing so is very real. It’s not a hollow, easy victory. It’s something you’re worked hard towards and achieved, and the fact the game can invoke so much happiness from such a thing is to be commended.

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So before the menacing demeanour, there’s certainly some satisfying gameplay to be found. It’s therefore just a very nice bonus that such gameplay is also presented in an extremely good-looking way. At points things really do visually shine; dust clouds plume up behind you, and your car amasses dirt and grime as time rolls on, making you truly look well weathered. Crowds are people in general are disappointingly plain, true, but overall this is a pretty good looking game at times. The audio, if anything, is even better. Not only does every car’s engine road and growl roar in an incredibly pleasing manner, but there are loads of little touches to be heard as well. Bits of rock ping and rattle off your car, brakes squeal and squeak when put under pressure, and the roar of the crowd passes away in moments as you surge forward. It really adds to the overall immersion of the experience, in a way that a generic soundtrack blaring away every single race could never hope to do.

Overall, then, Dirt Rally may have a menacing appearance, but give it time and effort, and there’s something that really shines bright and true underneath. This certainly isn’t for everyone, and it pays to be acutely aware of that. But it equally doesn’t stop what’s there from being incredibly thrilling, mildly frightening, and just a whole heap of fun.

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Opinions on… Dead Cells

With so many different titles on offer nowadays, it takes great effort for any single game to truly capture your imagination. There are plenty out there that provide their fair share of fun, but that’s the easy part. The difficult part is finding one that truly sticks in your mind – something that captures your thoughts long after you turn it off, and makes you crave for the time that you’ll be able to turn it back on again. Dead Cells, therefore, is a rare breed – a game that achieves not only that feeling, but does so with almost breathtaking ease.

To explain why, it’s first necessary to explain what Dead Cells actually is… Yet that’s actually a little bit difficult to do. It’s perhaps the developer’s own coined term of it being a “Roguevania” that best describes what’s going on here. Take the gameplay of Metroid and Castlevania, throw in the elements of a good Roguelite such as randomly generated levels and items, and then blend thoroughly. The result sees you exploring 2D dungeons filled with hordes of enemies to smash and bash your way through, all in your quest to find skill-improving scrolls and ever more powerful weapons as you desperately fight your way towards the end.

What that gameplay description really fails to capture, however, is how lightning fast, silky smooth and just damn satisfying this game is to play.  There’s a constant visceral pleasure in basic combat, such as rolling deftly past an enemy attack and them smashing them into a pile of giblets and gold. Combine this with the skills you can collect, though, and things get really interesting. How about using a magnet grenade to drag your foes into a set of spinning saw blades on the ground? Or using a bear trap to snare an enemy and then setting the whole floor on fire around them? Soon your first tepid steps towards each new enemy encounter fade away with time and practice, to be replaced with you slicing and dicing through the hordes like an absurdly terrifying ninja. That feeling of power and pure skill never gets old, and even when a single misstep has the potential to cruelly end your rampage, the desire to keep hold of that feeling makes it so you’ll be immediately eager to dust yourself off and try again.

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What truly makes Dead Cells so compulsive and fun to play, however, comes in the shape of the very cells that grace the game’s name. In simple terms; cells drop from killed enemies. Pick them up, get to the end of the stage, and you can use them to unlock more weapons and abilities or – crucially – permanently strengthen your character in some way. This can include getting a health potion that carries extra doses, upgrading the equipment you start off each run with, and a whole bunch of other stuff besides that.

It’s a simple enough idea, but it’s an idea that completely changes how Dead Cells plays. To give an example, it encourages you to actually explore every level and get into as many fights as possible, because the more you do that, the more cells you obtain. Secondly, it makes every run feel like it has purpose, even the ones that are dramatically cut short or feel doomed from the start. You could limp to the end of the first stage and immediately die on the second, but the few calls you collected in the process means you still walk away with a sense of forward progress – no matter how small.

Think that’s all? Nope. Cells also provide a nice little bit of a risk/reward factor; get to certain doors in time or fight particularly powerful foes and you’ll be richly rewarded, but in turn greatly increase your risk of an untimely death. Keep hold of all the ones you collect without spending them, and you can also reach a point where the ability to permanently upgrade items is presented to you – a tantalising prospect, but a reward you’ll have to stay alive long enough to reach. It gives you something else to think about on top of everything else – play it safe, or risk it all? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this simple mechanic is what really fuels that pure “one more go” factor – there’s always new items to work towards, something fresh and exciting to splash your hard earned winnings on. Overall, it’s an excellent system, which adds so much depth and fun to what was already a highly enjoyable base experience.

Dead Cells isn’t without fault, however. If the game suffers a main issue right now, it’s in balance. There’s a fair few items and skills that just feel like they’re objectively better than what else is on offer. Perhaps the prime offender of this comes in the form of anything that carries the ice effect, allowing you to freeze your foes in place while also slowing them down once they thaw. This immediately removes most of the threat anything carries – it’s hard to be afraid of something that’s moving at a snail’s pace, after all. When you’re beating bosses with ease due to the fact they’re basically permanently stationary due to the sheer amount of ice skills you’re spamming at them, that’s when you truly start to get the sense that things are getting a little bit ridiculous.

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Many other items also have the opposite problem of feeling that they have very little practical use. The whole subcategory of shields falls foul of this – even with the bonuses they confer, it’s vastly easier just to roll past attacks instead of trying to perfectly time your blocks to achieve said bonuses. Overall, the whole balance issue is not one that is game breaking, but it does stint the variety of your runs somewhat. You might start with good intentions and take a shield, but once things start going south you’ll likely fall back on your old crutches – and that’s a shame.

Honestly though, that’s my only real gripe with the game, and indeed the only thing that truly gives away the fact that it’s in early access. The only other problems I’ve ever encountered are a grand total of a single crash, and one run where the map generated in a way that made it impossible to progress. Both of these things shouldn’t happen, I don’t deny it – but compared to the woes and misery given to gamers via other early access titles, these faults feel like a very minimal dent to the overall experience. Overall, everything here just feels so polished and fun to play that even at this stage I’d have no issue with purchasing this as a fully fledged title. Put simply, don’t let the feeling you might be buying a half finished or broken product put you off Dead Cells, because the reality is that’s far from the case.

If you’re looking for one final argument as to whether you should buy this or not, put it this way – I bought this title in late December. In the brief time before 2017 ended, this title still had such an impact on me that I’d consider it one of the best games I played all year. It’s fast, it’s furious, and it’s just downright fun – your purchase of Dead Cells should be a Dead Certainty.