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 6th October.
Borderlands 3 (Xbox One, PS4 and PC, £49.99)
YOU know you are in for a blast when 2K and Gearbox Software unleash a Borderlands battleground. It usually means the perfect blend of gunplay, loot and humour — but it has been a long seven years since a Vault Hunter went in search of riches while blasting everything that moves. In that time the looter-shooter genre has evolved, so there was a lot of interest in how this third instalment would fare. Basically, this sticks to the recipe, so if you are a fan then strap yourself in for a treat.
You can pick one of four hunters — with their own skills and abilities — serving up 40-plus hours planet-hopping and blasting the bad guys. The new bunch of hunters are fun and interesting. Moze is the gunner and FL4K is the beastmaster. You should head for them first, but operative Zane and Amara the Siren are no pushovers. The main tale sees you trying to stop the Children of the Vault, led by the Calypso twins Tyreen and Troy. On the Borderlands scale of bad guys, they are BAD. One is a Siren and the other feeds from their power. They want whatever is in the Great Vault, although regulars will know that is probably something big, strong and wanting to rip your arms off. Like past games, the tale isn’t just a point-to-point adventure. There are a number of side quests which help to flesh things out and bring back some faces from the Borderlands universe. You’ll also meet and do missions for gun firm bosses which is a neat first for the series.
The developers recognised the power of the gameplay so that’s been left alone — it’s just more polished. The core loop sees you kill to score loot and complete missions but it’s more refined and enjoyable. Your hunter skills let you spec your builds to the point where you could be in co-op playing the same character but having two very different skill builds. There are thousands of guns, but hint: the more green numbers, the better they are. You even get one that shoots guns. But it stops being fun when you realise it gets better every 700th gun.
The trademark cell shade style still looks great and the sounds add to the fun . . . but there is an elephant in the room. At the time of writing, Xbox One X owners will meet a bug that makes your console think it’s over-heating so it could crash at any time. We got it a few times and got Hulk-like angry. An online search revealed the issue is linked to the resolution the game runs at. You can tweak settings to force it through but Gearbox need to issue a patch NOW. This is a strong return for a much-loved series. It would be a winner, but we can’t get past that glitch. Hopefully a fix is just days away because we would love the experience other gamers enjoy. As the moment the game is virtually unplayable on Xbox One X. So we are holding a review score back until this is fixed.
NBA 2K20 (Xbox One, PS4, Switch and PC, £45.99)
IT is a risky business having a yearly sports franchises. If you don’t get it right then the fans will soon let you know. But you still have to change it enough to make it worth buying. Enter NBA 2K20 — this year’s basketball offering. Quick disclaimer: we know very little about the sport and have no intention of really changing that position. We also reckon about 90 per cent of people who pick up this game are in the same boat. This will be seen as a fun alternative to FIFA and Madden.
The first impression is that the level of detail from courts to players is highly, highly polished. You might even get fooled into thinking it is real-time action. If you start with the story mode — When The Lights Are The Brightest — you’ll enjoy some really good writing about the pressures of the sport and the rise to stardom as well as a star cast featuring Idris Elba, Rosario Dawson and Ernie Hudson — or Winston of Ghostbusters fame. You also play in a few mini-games. It certainly gives the FIFA story mode a run for its money, but it’s over a bit too quickly — we are talking less than five hours to complete.
The fun is on court where the action is fast, fluid and more refined than last year. The dribbling, ball-handling and player movement has been tweaked and the badge system adds to players’ skills. Away from the story there are other modes such as a 2K20 take on ultimate team, called My Team. It is weighed down by having to buy packs to get cards to build your team and the shadow of micro-transactions hounds you. And having it wrapped in a sort of casino skin — complete with slot machine, pachinko machine and spinning wheel — is really cheeky, especially in today’s climate. In fairness, you can complete challenges to unlock the credits needed for packs but they really are a grind. If you can grit your teeth then it is doable but it is hard work.
The game also has the women’s game for the first time — and WNBA opens up a whole new side of the sport, but it is a little but light on modes for them to play. Maybe this is just the first stage of where the development will go in future. Online is where you test your skills to the max. It can be a bit hit-and-miss but when it all works it’s great fun. NBA 2K20 is a neat evolution of the game. It will appeal to fans and newcomers, but the micro-transaction side of things really sours the fun. OK, it’s not a new thing for sports games but they are always front and centre in some mode. That is a real shame and it will put some people off.
Shut Your Claptrap
BORDERLANDS 3 may be set far in the future but Managing Producer of Narrative Randy Varnell reckons they were inspired by the current climate in gaming. They used it forge the Calypso Twins as streamers and they are delighted with the results. Randy told me:
“Like it or not, streaming has affected our gaming culture in a strong way. We love to take topics that are very relevant to us and play in the space narratively. There are streamers we love and others we hate, but I think our real motive was to explore what would happen if a hyper-popular streamer took their power and militarised it? Some streamers have cult-like followers. So, we made that a bit more literal in Borderlands 3, and imagined what might happen if those streamers armed their followers on a backwater outlaw planet — and then expanded from there. We take inspiration from a lot of sources, but Borderlands 2 is the project with the most influence on 3. We knew we were making a follow-up to characters and events from the previous main game. At the end of Borderlands 2, we gave a strong hint that there were vaults outside of Pandora, so that was one of the biggest elements we wanted to play with in the main story — going to other planets and seeing how vault-hunting intersected with mega corporations and mobile villains.”
The series has been built on creating top-quality “bad guys” like Handsome Jack thinks they have out-done themselves with the Twins. He said:
“When we brainstormed what kind of story we tell in a wider universe, we started looking at characters and conflicts that could be more universal for us. When we landed on streamers — on broadcaster cults of personality — we really landed on that great blend between understandable and relevant. Tyreen and Troy Calypso really came into their own with that decision. Writing for a big game like Borderlands, we need villains that have an excuse to talk directly to you as much as possible. You spend hours working through countless other baddies, and we want you to know the villains well by the time you reach them. That’s a tricky balance in a game where you literally have hundreds of other enemies to face off against in combat. Streamers gave us that golden opportunity to keep the Calypsos in your face. I think they are great villains. They’re tied to our culture and the lore of the Borderlands universe in compelling ways. They’re a bit different from Jack — they have a more dangerous agenda. His vendetta was always personal—he’s the hero, you’re not. The Calypsos have bigger aspirations.”
But Randy insists his team work just as hard with the Vault Hunters. He added:
“Most of the time, it starts with imagining what we think would be cool new action skills. They make the play of each Vault Hunter unique. Adding a real pet class with Fl4k, for example, or giving Moze a mech — those were big new things that got the team excited to explore action skills in ways we never have in a Borderlands game. Moze has a very middle-eastern/Asian flair. Amara is heavily influence from south-east Asian culture and even uses Hindi slang. Fl4k is a non-binary gender robot, who uses they/them pronouns. Zane has this smarmy Irish accent and banter that is a joy to listen to.”
But Randy admits that the fans also played a role in shaping the game’s future. He said:
“One of the biggest pieces of feedback we’ve heard over the years is how important co-op is to our fans. In BL2, a lot of people were inconvenienced when they would outlevel their friends playing through the game. It was very hard to stay in sync so that you could play the same content. In BL3, we added co-op level scaling and instanced loot. You don’t have to worry about your level any more when you play in that mode. We automatically scale the enemies to each player in the same game. It’s super easy now to drop-in/drop-out of friends’ games and never have to worry about what level they are at. Instancing means you each get your own version of loot. No more fighting over legendaries. Just loot everything you see and don’t worry about getting in an argument.”
Contra: Rogue Corps (Xbox One, PS4, Switch and PC, £39.99)
GAMING fans of a certain age are bound to have been challenged by the difficulty and fun of the Contra series. It has been serving up its signature blend of sci-fi and run-and-gun fun, as you battle to save the earth from an alien invasion, since 1987. Fast forward to 2019 and Konami are bringing the series back. It’s eight years since the last Contra game and the director of Contra III: The Alien Wars, Nobuya Nakazato, is at the helm. He brings more than 25 years’ experience with the franchise so what could go wrong?
On paper, it sounds great. Contra: Rogue Crops sees you play as one of four characters ranging from a guy with a drill for an arm to a chain gun-welding panda. Yes, it’s out there but the back story fleshes it out. Your goals are simple — complete missions and gather resources to upgrade guns and body parts in an almost RPG-style. You face a desperate attempt to stay alive in the Damned City over a 20-plus hour campaign as you blast hordes of aliens. But here’s the thing — this game is as much part of the Contra clan as a pigeon is to a fighter jet. Rogue Crops drops the ball right away by having an overheating mechanic which kills the flow of the game in an instant. It sucks to run around for 10 seconds as a horde of baddies close in while you wait to reload.
At its core Contra was always about running and gunning. The thrill is in the kill and grabbing power-ups that make your gun better. It’s not about having to shepherd enemies waiting for your gun to be ready. That is definitely a huge issue in a run-and-gun shooter because it takes away your main input action. Compound that with a camera style that can be all over the shop and visuals that are flat and muddy and you know you are in for a challenging time. And not in a good way. The whole thing has a weird Duke Nukem sense of humour which often falls flat and is an odd tonal shift for the series. Upside? You can team up with some mates for online fun in co-op or in an interesting PvP mode. This could — and should — have been a strong return for a loved series and a good game in its own right. But there are too many issues for it to be a hit. Contra fans will expect more and will be disappointed. And there is very little for newcomers.
Vambrace: Cold Soul (Xbox One, PS4, Switch and PC, £20.99)
IMITATION is the sincerest form of flattery — so The Darkest Dungoen developers should be chuffed to see South Korean studio Devespresso Games’ tribute with Vambrace: Cold Soul. It has more than a few cues from the indie smash hit but does mix up the formula too. On the surface it pitches itself as a JRPG roguelite but that is challenged when you get a bit deeper into things. However, that is made tougher by creating a steep learning curve that is hampered by a pretty poor tutorial. You play as Lyric, a young woman in a city locked off from the world by a curse that kills anything that leaves. She can use a relic to hire a band of warriors and explore the outer world in a bid to break the curse for good.
If you take the time then your exploration will uncover plenty of lore to help flesh the tale out while allowing you to interact with those in the world who have some useful information. Your main focus will be working your way through a number of dungeons battling to reach the boss in the centre and bagging treasure for your troubles along the way. Things are random so each run is very much based on luck. If you have it on your side this can be less of a slog. If you don’t, then be prepared for a long haul. In combat things really embrace The Darkest Dungeon vibe as you and three warriors battle it out on a 2D plan in a turn-based system. Picking the right characters to take with you is the key to victory — as usual, each has their own skillset and that can help sway a fight. Any help — at any time — is welcome because this can be brute at times.
The nature of the game is very hard and that flows into the overall UI. It would have been nice to get a nod and a wink as to how to progress at times. The game has a stunning Gothic art style with each area and character being rendered with a high level of detail. So it is pretty. It is challenging. It harbours great love for The Darkest Dungeon. But it is a brutal slog. It takes the fun out of the adventure. It’s not the most accessible title out there for newcomers and success is far too dependent on luck.
I’ll be back next week with more from North of the Border. Catch ye’s…