Scotch Corner – Grinding the Gears

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 29th September.


Drown Earphones  (£149.99)

WHEN you think of gaming headsets, odds are the likes of Astro and Turtle Beach will come to mind first — but there is a new kid on the audio block looking to shake things up.  Drown are an Edinburgh-based firm who have their eyes set on challenging the big boys in the audio gaming world with their innovatively designed earphones.  They may not look like much but, boy, they pack a real punch.  They have just ended a crowdfunding campaign for the new kit so they’re not in full production just now but we’ve been lucky enough to get our hands on a very early build to put them though there paces.  So, as we have a prototype unit, there are no mic features, and we couldn’t try out that side of things.  As such we’ll not be judging the overall look or finish of the unit — but what we COULD put to the test is an out-and-out audio performance that does not disappoint.  The first thing that hits you is the overall size of the ear pieces.  It takes a bit of moving around to get it right but with repeated use this should become easier.  The rubber seals do come in a number of sizes, so you can swap them around to best suit you.  But when in your ears, the unit is very lightweight.  That is surprising given the overall size and you do soon forget you have them on.

We’ve been playing with them for a good three weeks now across a number of titles — Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4 and the recent Call of Duty Modern Warfare beta — and they never miss a beat, both online and offline.  They create a solid sound sphere with real depth to it which helps with finding out where the bad guys are coming from, so you can get the jump on them.  In single-player modes, the overall sound was rich and booming, from the rumble of muscle cars to the rusty churn of the chainsaw on your lancer.  And if you’re looking for technical reasons why this all happens, head over to the Drown’s website where you can fill your boots on the hows, whys and what nots, complete with tons of technical jargon.  It’s all about acoustic waveguides, bone and cartilage conduction and spatial awareness apparently.  In short, these earphones are great at what they do on the audio front.

But the real question is whether the £149.99 tag is enough to fight off the other headsets in that price range.  But we will say this — if you’re looking for a set of earphones to use across systems that packs some real audio punch and quality then these are shaping up very well at least on that side.  Hopefully the final unit keeps up these high standards.

Gears 5 (Xbox One and PC, £44.99)

FOR Xbox owners, 2019 will be the year of Gears.  Or at least that’s how Microsoft would like it to be remembered as they are using the latest instalment in the long-running series to spearhead their campaign.  It’s no secret that Gears of War 4 was a bit of a misfire by the series’ new developers The Coalition.  Yes, it was a perfectly enjoyable game but in the grand scheme theme of things it was a bit flat and, dare I say, a bit forgettable.  So to say the pressure is on to deliver this time round is a fair point.  For starters, “of War” has been dropped from the name (as if Gears 5 is too cool for school or something) but it’s just the tip of the iceberg among the changes that have happened since that lukewarm fourth game.

Last time out, the tale focused on Marcus’s son JD and his squad as they battled the forces of the swarm and found out there was more to comrade Kait than she was letting on (it was a neat twist that she has a link to the Queen of the Locust, who were the big bad in the original series).  This time the main campaign really follows Kait and her search for the truth about herself and her past, as well as there being a side story about the squad trying to get the Hammer of Dawn system (basically a big space laser) back online.  This switch of focus to Kait means you’ll be playing as her for a good chunk of the game as JD takes a bit of a back seat, for better or worse.  Gears 5 does need time to develop bonds with the younger squad members when you’re not blasting the hordes.  This was an element missing from the fourth game — it was very much firefight to firefight while bringing back older characters didn’t really help.  Yes, the old heroes have a role in Gears 5 once again but it’s very much a support role.

The gameplay?  At its core it’s the same third-person cover shooter built on brutal action that you’ll either love or hate.  I love.  However, as you would expect, there are a host of tweaks to the winning formula.  With the biggest being it’s gone sort of open-world at times as you get huge areas to search and carry out missions.  This really adds a feeling of scale and helps grow the world and lore.  Then there are the new weapons, enemies and overall general quality of life improvements across the board that help make the Gears 5 campaign polished and an enjoyable journey to take.  The Gears of War franchise is also a huge online title where teams battle it out to take victory at all costs.  This time around it’s no different.  It’s split into Ranked (your standard take on the game) and Arcade (mixes thing up for a more fast and intense hit of action).

Beyond that, Horde returns (where you and four mates can battle evermore challenging waves of the Swarm forces in the hope to get to Wave 50) and there is also the new Escape mode (which throws you and two other players into the thick of it as you have to plant and detonate a bomb in a Swarm hive and get out in one piece).  All of this with limited firepower and against the clock, plus there is an easy-to-use map editor where you can build your own hives and challenge the world to clear them.  That’s all well and good but online ran like a bag of spanners the first few weeks.  However, to The Coalition’s credit, Gears 5 has been getting patches to sort these issues and it’s much better now.  Gears 5 doesn’t reinvent the wheel — if you have played a Gears of War game you’ll soon click with this outing.  But what it does do is play to its strengths in telling a tale with real heart, as well as brutality in equal measure, and has a multiplayer that will keep you coming back for more long after the credits roll.  A return to form.

Score: 4.5/5

Risk of Rain 2 (Xbox One, PS4, Switch and PC, £24.99)

SILLY season is well and truly in full swing just now.  It feels like there is a never-ending flood of new releases week after week at the moment.  Because of this, so many titles are going to fall through the cracks and are in danger of being overlooked.  Hopoo Games’ Risk of Rain 2 is one such title (it also happens to be published by Gearbox, who have also just released their own AAA monster Borderlands 3, it’s fair to say their have a bit on their plate at the moment too).  Risk of Rain 2 is a third-person roguelike shooter, with a dash of multiplayer as you can team up with three other mates.  It all started out in early access on the PC but has now landed on the consoles as well.

And as roguelikes go, it has a really addictive and fun loop once you properly get going.  You pick your character — which are called survivors and have different classes with their own skill sets — then kill a tonne of things, get cash to buy new gear, beat the boss to get to a teleporter and then move on to a new area where the game ups the difficulty and, of course, if you die, you will just have to start it all over again.  But with each run things get mixed up.  You never know what items are coming your way and that will really help shape your character’s build as there are over 70 different ones to find.  And depending on how fast you are on each planet will affect how hard the fight is to achieve your goals.  This is a really interesting mechanic and a hangover from the first game.

Visually, it is a totally different game to before (seeing as it is a 2D pixel game) but a lot of the core ideas have made the jump to the sequel.  As for the combat, it’s fast and fluid and never misses a beat.  You take on everything from low-level cannon fodder to beefy bosses who offer a real challenge, in both difficulty and overall scale.  And the stronger you become, the bigger the fight you face as you jump from planet to planet.  And that also keeps the visual side of things evolving as each new planet brings a new feel, vibe and style.  Plus the graphics overall are really nice on the eye.  They are packed with colour as well as having a cell-shade vibe as well.

Risk of Rain 2 is an addictive roguelike where you are always trying to push that little bit further than before.  It is packed with content, with more on the horizon plus the great gameplay loop.  Add in the fact you can play it with your mates and you have a real sleeper hit on your hands.  Don’t let this one pass you by.

Score: 4/5

The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Series (Xbox One, PS4 and PC, £39.99)

WHEN a studio goes under, it’s a horrible thing for the industry and the community.  And when Telltale announced it was closing its doors, it really hit hard.  As the studio behind many much-loved adventures, there was a fear among gamers about what would happen to the firm’s titles.  Luckily for The Walking Dead series, Skybound stepped in to save it.  And now they have delivered the ultimate edition of the long-running franchise with The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Series.  It takes every game in the ground-breaking series as well as throwing in loads of extras, making it your one-stop shop for all things Walking Dead.

So you get Seasons 1 to 4, along with the 400-day chapter and the Michonne mini-series — all of which have had a bit of a touch-up with remastered visuals.  There is also developer commentary on the games as well as a documentary about the series, an art gallery where you can see concept art and 3D models a plus a music player where you can play any of the tunes from across the game.  In this Netflix binge-watching era, it’s the perfect boxset for newcomers to pick up and get stuck into.  For long-time fans the mileage may be limited, but with the old games being given the touch-up treatment, it’s certainly worth revisiting.

The core games are very much a coming-of-age tale that follows Clementine, a young girl trying to stay alive in the zombie-infested world.  As she meets people across the 23-odd episodes, you have to make some hard decisions — as not everyone is going to play nice in the world of the Walking Dead.  The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Series is a huge package and a real undertaking if you have never played one of the games before.  And in a way, it’s a real showcase of what we have lost with the closure of the Telltale Games studio — the craft they brought to telling gripping tales that last long in the mind as well as touch the heart at times.

Score: 4.5/5

I’ll be back next week with more from North of the Border. Catch ye’s…

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Stuart Cullen

Scotland’s very own thorn in the side of the London gaming scene bringing all the hottest action straight from The Sun… well… The Scottish Sun at least, every week!

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