Read Stuart’s column every week in The Scottish Sun, where he shares his reviews, news and podcasts with the 99.3% of the World’s population not fortunate enough to be able to buy a physical copy of the paper. The following appeared originally in The Scottish Sun on Sunday 7th June 2020.
Maneater (Xbox One, PS4, Switch and PC, £34.99)
THINK killer beasts in games and you have to reckon a shark would be a winner. Tripwire Interactive obviously do so they unleashed their inner Jaws with Maneater — a game that pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. You get to be six tonnes of ocean-roaming eating machine . . . but with that expected gaming twist. This particular selachimorpha has big mummy issues. Namely, she’s out for revenge for the death of her mother. The loss has sent her over the edge and she is prepared to attack anything in, on or around the water. The result is a stylish mix of Amity Island horror and David Attenborough documentary — with a shark tale thrown in. See what we did there?
It is a game with a story running through it. It’s presented like a reality TV show — think Deadest Catch, but about shark hunters. Sadly, you are not a Great White. You are a Bull Shark that starts proceedings playing happily with Mummy. But she is captured and killed by Scaly Pete — although you do manage to bite his hand off before you escape into the deep. From there it is all fairly simple — eat, grow and get revenge. The first few hours of this game are the most challenging — you are too small to really pick a fight with the likes of barracuda and crocodiles so you are bullied and hunted by them. That means you have to pick your battles wisely but there are plenty of things to help you grow and level up. The higher you get, the deadlier you become.
To be fair, it is all very tongue in cheek. The guys at Tripwire Interactive have bent the rules a little and let you evolve your shark over your play throughs. You can add armoured skin, poison-tipped fins or even electric bites. Yes, it is silly but it adds to the fun factor. Your evolution bag of trick also includes the ability to go on land and hunt people. And, once you get to a certain size, you become the big dog ruling the good-sized open world that is split into eight very different zones. They have their own feel, from run- down swamps to sun-kissed resorts and golf course retreats. Each zone comes with an Apex predator that is top of the food chain and who you guess you have to battle. These serve as boss battles although you get to a point where they really become pushovers but the early ones will keep you on your toes. But there is more than just a threat from the deep. If you eat too many people, the hunters will come for you. There are 10 threat levels you have to climb each and take down a master hunter who thinks TNT and assault rifles are the way to go.
Visually, the game is a mixed bag. We were not great fans of the water effects especially in a game about the sea. However, the creatures look good. And the shark is epic and wears her battle scars well. Narrator Chris Parnell may be best known as Jerry from Rick and Morty, but he steals the show here with some really snappy one-liners and made-up shark facts. So, if you can survive the first few hours — and we mean survive — this game comes to life when you become the predator. The lack of mission options is a shame, but this is still a tonne of fun crammed with jokes and nods and winks to pop culture. And who doesn’t want to be a shark?
ALL game developers love to claim they are the first to break new ground. Maneater director Bill Munk is no different. He insists his team have created a new genre — the ShaRkPG or shark-playing game. And there’s nothing fishy about his statement. Bill explained:
“At Tripwire, we always put our unique spin on tried and true formulas. We’ve done the co-op shooter with the Killing Floor series, and the multiplayer shooter with Rising Storm and Red Orchestra. There are varying degrees of Jaws fandom in our office, but the idea for the game started off as a mod that involved playing as a shark eating humans in this enclosed lake-like body of water. Maneater is our first foray into action RPGs. As far as I know, we haven’t trademarked ShaRkPG just yet. But that’s a very good idea.”
Given the love for Jaws in the office it is a surprise that the “hero” is a Bull Shark rather than a Great White. But Bill insists there is logic behind their decision. He said:
“The main reason we picked the Bull Shark is because it can swim in fresh and saltwater. Creatively, this opened up a lot more opportunities for the environments we could put the shark in. Also, the Great White is so 1975 with Jaws. The structure of the game and the way the world has been laid out definitely took inspiration from the Metroidvania style of design that requires players to double back to places they’ve already been to complete challenges. My favourite area is Caviar Key. The environment is so satirical and ridiculous.”
Away from the laughs and left-field zones, the team built in an evolution equation — and Bill admitted their imaginations did run wild. He said:
“There aren’t any evolutions that we cut that we’re willing to discuss publicly right now, but the inspiration came from our desire to put a shark-type spin on the standard ‘video game armour’ upgrades.”
Those evolutions included the shark being able to go on land in a hunting mission. Bill insisted even that wasn’t a step too far. He said:
“Ha ha. We don’t really think so. There’s so much fun to be had on the land. Compare that to a game where you have an oxygen meter for swimming underwater, it’s entirely similar.”
Building an open world underwater game with an animal as the central figure presented the team with a variety of design problems. Bill reckoned the biggest was nailing the shark’s movement. He explained:
“Making sure the shark moved realistically, but controlled in an extremely over-the-top manner was a huge challenge for us.”
The Apex predators have been served up as tough obstacles and Bill revealed they used real-world nature specials to inspire their efforts. He said:
“Whenever you see legendary sea predators on the Discovery Channel etc, they always have gnarly scars and marks that show that they had to fight to get to the top. When designing the Apex predators, we knew they needed to have that quality. When it came to picking animals we tried our best to pick ones that fit in with the in-game environments.”
It was also a coup for them to get Chris Parnell to narrate, but Bill revealed that had been a late move. He said:
“The humour was added later in order to bring some brevity to the grisly violence on screen. Chris is a true pro. All of the dialogue he recorded was so perfect that we rarely had to do second takes of anything. We wrote a pitch with him as our No. 1 choice and he loved everything about it.”
With everything going swimmingly on the game, the big question surrounded the lack of a multiplayer option, but Bill admitted that was down to a real-world issue. He said:
“We didn’t have enough resources to make multiplayer a reality. It’s definitely something we’re considering for the future.”
He also admitted that none of them had ever come face to face with a shark. He added:
“Our lead character designer has a very strong obsession with sharks, which helped bring the player shark to life.”
So could that obsession turn this game into a series of shark titles or predator-focused games under the Maneater badge? Bill is giving nothing away just now but refuses to rule anything out — even teaming up with National Geographic. He laughed and said:
“Nat Geo has not been on the phone yet — but call us if you want. But we definitely see the potential to turn this game into a franchise. However, as far as plans set in stone for a sequel — there’s nothing yet.”
Mafia II: Definitive Edition (Xbox One, PS4, Switch and PC, £24.99)
THE first couple of games in the Mafia series were proper hits. The third had a variety of issues, but they can almost be forgiven when you set your sights on some gems that were even touted as game-changers back in the day. They were so good that news of 2K giving the whole series the remaster treatment sparked a bit of a frenzy down this neck of the woods. Bizarrely, the opening chapter of the crime family epic won’t be first on show. It won’t actually turn up for a few months yet — but Mafia 2 is more than ready to carry the torch until then. Yes, it means you are playing the series out of sequence, but that is no big deal even if there are a few overlapping moments across the games.
Mafia 2 follows Vito Scaletta as he lives the “American dream” — going from petty crook to WWII veteran to mobster and, ultimately, on the ladder up the ranks of the organisation. The tale covers decades so it is worth a shout-out to the pace of the story. Each moment hangs around long enough to help to build a bond with the cast like Vito and best mate Joe Barbaro, but not long enough to slow everything down. That said, the focus on the tale does hurt the gameplay. It’s an open world game and the city of Empire Bay and surrounding areas are great backdrops, but there just isn’t much to do when you’re not pushing the tale forward. The likes of Grand Theft Auto and Saint Row are packed with distractions while Mafia 2 settles for a few collectable elements around the city. Going for a drive feels more like padding than anything else.
But that is all forgiven when you get your teeth into mission — like battling through a warehouse to take out other mobsters. The gunplay does highlight the age of the game, but the cover mechanics still hold their own. The remaster gurus have tweaked the look, so it is very sharp although we did meet a few texture pops and framerate drops especially when driving around. It even gets to the point where you feel this was pushed out before it was finished. It needs some polishing. Despite those gripes, this is a welcome second wind for a game where the story is the boss. Now let’s see the first game.
Sakura Wars (PS4, £49.50)
THERE is a growing trend for publishers to look at mega hits in Japan and give them a chance in the West. The result has been some stunning, if surprising, successes. Sakura Wars is the latest to get ported thanks to Sega. It has had five major releases in Japan but only the last of them was given an outing on this side of the world. So it is fair to say for many this will be their first steps in its world. It is an interesting mix of genres — in equal parts visual novel, tactical role player . . . and dating sim. And it’s split about 80/20 between story and gameplay. You will be blown away by the look, sound and the feel. You feel like you are interacting with an anime show rather than playing a game at times — it’s that polished. It also reflects a development team that has worked on the likes of Bleach, Pokémon and Persona.
It is set in an alternate version of 1940s Imperial Japan with Sumire Kanzaki — a naval captain who is reassigned to head up the all-female Imperial Combat Revue’s Flower Division. They operate out of a theatre but grab their steam-powered mech suits to kick ass when the city is attacked by demons. You have to keep all five of your team “happy” because they fight better that way — and that is where the dating sim side comes into play. Spoiler alert: there is a lot of chat — even to the point where the combat takes a back seat. Oh, and all that chat is in Japanese with English sub-titles. When the fighting does kick off, there are hidden depths. There is no guard so you’ll need to stay on the attack until you fill a bar that allows you to unleash a powerful soul attack. It’s different. It’s good. But it will take time to get your head round it.
I’ll be back next week with more from North of the Border. Catch ye’s…