Blair Witch: not biting the Bullet

You get to adopt a pet from any fictional word you want; why did you pick it? This is one of the questions Carla from Pop Culture Literary posed to her Sunshine Blogger Award nominees last month. And I think I’ve found an animal who’s in dire need of adoption.

You see, a few weeks ago my other-half and I started playing Blair Witch. It was one of the only titles revealed during Microsoft’s E3 presentation back in June that we were actually interested in so when we had a free weekend recently, we jumped onto his Xbox Game Pass subscription and downloaded it. Neither of us had read any articles or reviews so we didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for – although we expected to be terrified if the original film was anything to go by.

If you haven’t yet played this game and intend to do so, I’d recommend navigating away from this post now and coming back later. There are some minor spoilers in the following paragraphs.

The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999. It may be 20 years old but that long period hasn’t made me forget just how scared I was when I went to see it with a friend at a local cinema during the week of its release. The filmmakers’ attempts to promote the film with realistic ‘missing persons’ posters and unique ‘found footage’ plot device had a huge impact on the audience; I can remember cowering in my seat while everyone around me screamed, before walking home and casting frequent looks back over my shoulder.

So why on earth was I excited about the video game? Regular visitors will know just how much of a wimp I am when it comes to the horror genre and that I make Pete take the controller during such titles so I can watch the screen from behind the safety of a cushion. The strange thing is though that I really enjoy a horror storyline. I grew up reading books by Stephen King and Dean Koontz from an early age after my dad gave me a copy of The Dark Tower, and so the thought of a Blair Witch game had me intrigued.

It takes place in 1996, two years after the events in The Blair Witch Project, when Ellis travels back to the Black Hills Forest with his dog Bullet to join a search party looking for nine-year old Peter Shannon. What starts out as an ordinary investigation soon turns into a nightmare when it becomes clear a mysterious force is lurking among the trees. Armed with only a cell phone, flashlight, backpack and canine companion, will Ellis make it through the night or succumb to his decaying sanity?

So far we’re around two hours in and… it’s not all that scary. Well, at least not for the reasons you’d usually associate with an entry in the horror genre and there’ll be more about that very soon. At first, finding your way through the forest as the darkness descends with only Bullet’s growls and whimpers to alert you to danger is creepy; but once the affect wears off it feels a bit repetitive. Especially when you encounter blockers and keep having to make your way back to the same central point.

The found footage is there in a mechanic which ties the game nicely to the film, and it does have some use in terms of gameplay. You’ll find abandoned camcorders within the woods and watching these will reveal a clue as to what’s happened to Peter. Stop the footage at the right time and you’ll find something had changed in the current environment; for example, an early video shows the kid playing with a toy police car near a campfire and you’re able to make this appear in front of you.

But it feels like it’s ripped-off from Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. This release used flashbacks to flesh out its story (zombie pun not intended) in the form of VHS tapes, in a way where it was possible to interact with the environment shown in them that would have an impact on the protagonist’s own adventure. Blair Witch’s enemies don’t feel all that unique either; we’ve had the shine-a-torch-at-them-to-drive-them-away mechanic before in older titles such as Alan Wake.

Sadly, these aren’t the only grievances I have with the game so far. Perhaps my biggest issue is with Ellis’s background: how many times have you played a horror where the main character is a ‘former policeman with a troubled past’? Shortly after loading it up I made a comment to my other-half that my guess was he was a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – and it wasn’t long before we experienced his first memory. We’re may be only a couple of hours in but it already feels so cliched.

Perhaps things will change the further we progress and the protagonist’s backstory may tie in with what’s going on in Black Hills Forest without it becoming a tired trope. But unfortunately, I’m not sure we’re ever going to find out. Remember I said above that this game wasn’t scary for the usual reasons? Forget scuttling sounds heard behind you, monsters lurking in dark corners and jump-scares that make you yelp; there’s something in Blair Witch that frightens me far more than any of these.

Blair Witch, video game, dog, Alsation, German Shepherd, Bullet

Bullet.

I absolutely hate it when animals are hurt during video games. I’m not sure what this says about me or how much I’ve become desensitised throughout my gaming life, but it affects me far more than when a person gets wounded onscreen and I just can’t bear to watch. Agro the horse from Shadow of the Colossus, the dog from Fable II, Trico the cat-dog-thing from The Last Guardian – all good companions who didn’t deserve to have a hair on their head harmed.

We all know the outcome for canine characters in any horror media. Your faithful friend remains loyal, tries to protect you from supernatural baddies, alerts you to their presence in the shadows with growls before going for their throats. And what happens? They always end up giving their life to save yours. I’m sure developers, filmmakers and authors make sure they include a dog in their projects simply to punch us in the gut when they meet a grisly death.

That’s why I’m not sure I’m going to be able to bring myself to finish Blair Witch. I can’t stand the thought of anything bad happening to Bullet because he has been such a good boy so far, and it’s bad enough listening to him whimper when he’s frightened. Pete is kind of glad I feel this way though and don’t want to jump straight back into the game; he’s not sure how many more times he can face finding another blocker and having to loop back around to the same point in the woods.

There’s only one thing for it: Bullet needs to be adopted, brought into a good home and given a few treats. Thanks once again to Carla for the Sunshine Blogger Award nomination – I’m sure she’ll come with me to Black Hills Forest to rescue that dog.

Insomnia65: Over(watch) the Fallout obsession?

Earlier this year, I wrote about my stepson’s obsession with Fallout. He first found out about the series when he caught my other-half playing Fallout 4 on his laptop in 2015 and has been infatuated by Bethesda’s post-apocalyptic world ever since.

In that article I talked about some frustrations that have occurred over the past year as a result of his obsession. He doesn’t understand why nobody else at his school is interested in the franchise and is beginning to believe he doesn’t fit in. On one hand I’m kind of proud that Ethan doesn’t like Fortnite and would prefer to devote his time to a video game that’s detailed, atmospheric and story-rich; but on the other, I get that the preference makes it more difficult for him at this stage in his life.

I said that maybe one day he’ll find something to replace his Fallout infatuation, the same way The Legend of Zelda eventually did with Minecraft, or a friend who shares his interests would come along. Perhaps that time has finally arrived. A game that was free for a weekend on the Xbox One last month and an attraction at Insomnia65 recently could hold the answer. As mentioned on Friday, this gaming event is never going to be the favourite in my calendar but I might now have to show it some appreciation.

On a Saturday when his best friend Spencer came over, Ethan came downstairs to ask if he could download something on his console. We were apprehensive for several reasons when we were told it was Overwatch, the first being whether it was going to be suitable for him in terms of age-rating and multiplayer. We had nothing to worry about however: a quick internet search revealed a PEGI 12 rating and his headset had been having issues so he couldn’t communicate with anyone online.

We told him it was ok to go ahead but still felt wary. You see, my stepson has shown an aversion to any kind of competitive team-play and has been known to get incredibly frustrated when he feels as though he’s not mastering something quickly enough. Star Wars Battlefront went down a treat because he likes Star Wars but he quickly resorted to running around the training maps on his own and making up stories in his head. And Splatoon was fun at first – until he felt the other players were far better and would always win.

We hoped that having Spencer around would mean he wouldn’t show the extent of his frustration but listened out for any raised voices just in case. The boys seemed to have a good time though and when his friend had to go home, Ethan quickly retreated to his bedroom in the way most 12-year olds do. Pete went to visit him a little later to see what he was up to and when he came back down to the kitchen, the look on his face made me think something was horribly wrong.

“You’ll never guess what’s going on up there,” he said. “Ethan is actually good at Overwatch.” I honestly thought he was trying to prank me initially but no: my stepson’s team were winning rounds, he was getting kills and was even awarded Play of the Game a couple of times. Needless to say, my other-half and I were surprised. The kid had never shown much interest in, enjoyment from or – dare I say it – talent for competitive multiplayers before so this was all new to us.

A few weeks after the free trial had ended, that episode had almost been forgotten. We were only reminded of it during the car-journey to Insomnia65 when Ethan told us he’d heard that an Overwatch tournament would begin shortly after we were due to arrive at the NEC and it was the first area he wanted to visit. Pete and I threw a couple of confused sideways glances at each other in the front-seats but told him it sounded like a good plan – this day out was all about him, after all.

He surprised us once again by absolutely loving it. By the end of the tournament he was cheering on the teams and even commentating on their actions, telling us what he thought their strategies were. We on the other-hand could barely keep up with what was happening onscreen; the gameplay was too fast and bright, and the fact it kept switching between each characters’ perspective made it difficult to follow what was going on. Maybe that’s a sign I’m getting on a bit.

Ethan, Spencer, ice-cream, boys

The following day, Ethan asked if he could spend his pocket-money on the full version of Overwatch and he happily spent the morning playing until it was time to take him back to his mum and stepdad. On the way there we asked him how he’d found out about the game and why he’d wanted to try it originally, and we received probably the best answer possible: Spencer. It was something his friend had introduced him to and he’d only given it a go because he’d been asked to. But then he realised it was something he actually enjoyed.

So maybe now Ethan has found a friend who shares the same interests, and is ready to leave his Fallout obsession behind. I’m pleased for him. I’m also a little relieved too; moving on from the franchise is going to be good for all of us.

It’s not what you play, it’s who you play it with

I’m writing this the day before Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 releases. At least for me and all the other season pass pre-orders. If you bought the Ultimate Edition, you could be playing now but if you only have the standard you have to wait another few days. Sad, but true.

That’s a comment for another day. What I wanted to write about was a question Kim asked me recently: “Why don’t you write about how exited you are for The Division 2?” Relatively straightforward at first but the truth is, I’m not. I’ve dropped a load of money on a game I’m not hyped about at all.

So why spend the money? Well, because Pete is beyond excited about the game.

Every Tuesday night, Pete and I play games online, or at least try to as sometimes life gets in the way. I look forward to it each and every week and I’m always gutted if we can’t play. Over the years we’ve played all sorts including Destiny (both the original and 2), Rocket League, Strange Brigade and currently Fallout 76. We’ve also played The Division.

Pete loves The Division. I’ve never known him be so passionate about any other game. He loves the setting, the look and most importantly the grind. Long after I was bored (and frustrated) with the bullet-sponge baddies, Pete was playing it on multiple systems and ranking up his characters to super powerful levels. He’s an absolute Division nut and his enthusiasm is infectious.

I love seeing passion in people, I love being a part of their happiness and it’s games like The Division which give that. Am I looking forward to the actual game? Not really. Am I looking forward to playing it? As long as it’s with Pete, you bet your backside I am.

Xbox One X hits the spot

I’m writing this as a 40-year old. An age I never thought I’d get to (because 40 is ancient, right?) and yet somehow a month of being 40 has passed in the blink of an eye. I’ll be 50 before I know it, which is even scarier.

This may seem like an odd way to start this post but it’s a slight bit of background as to how I came into possession of an Xbox One X; my parents bought me one. Isn’t that awesome? 40-years old and they have accepted that gaming isn’t a fad of mine but my actual, genuine hobby. There’s hope for us all.

Question is: is the console really that powerful? Can it really live up to the hype? Does it boost games as much as they say?

The answer, in short, is effin’ hell yes.

In the past I’ve written about my preference for framerate, or more precisely lack of slowdown, over graphical fidelity but now I’m in the privileged position of being able to have both. Microsoft have been very clever and made sure all of their first-party games are enhanced for the console and it really shows, especially as I have a 4K television to get the best out of the machine. I’m also comparing against an Xbox One S, not an original Xbox One.

Cleverly, and as with some titles for the PlayStation 4 Pro, you can choose whether the Xbox will prioritise graphics or performance. If I’m honest I’ll go for performance every time because once I’m playing I can’t really tell the difference in how realistic a wall looks but the smoothness in how everything moves is noticeable.

The only difference to this is Forza Horizon 4, which goes from looking like the real thing in graphics mode to looking almost like the real thing but smoother in performance. Either way it’s absolutely mindblowing when you’re old enough to remember when games like Pit Fighter and Mortal Kombat sold themselves on photorealistic character models back in the nineties. I can’t wait to see how Mortal Kombat 11 looks on this beast of a machine.

That’s not the only one though: Gears of War 4’s campaign now runs at 60fps and looks stunning. I’m slowly playing through it again because it’s really that good. Halo 5 is mindblowing and I’ve already mentioned Forza.

But these are all Microsoft-published games, first-party products that you’d expect to use the technology to the max. What about third-party offerings? Well, I’ve had a chance to look at two so far and – thanks to Game Pass – will be able to try a few more in the coming weeks. What I can say is that Destiny 2 looks sharper and more crisp but the real difference is with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. In performance mode it runs gloriously and leaves the PS4 for dust.

The best part though is how quietly it runs. I love the PS4 Pro but on the more demanding games the fan is so loud I can’t hear the television! The Xbox One X? Quiet as a mouse.

If you have a 4K TV (and the means to afford the console) I heartily recommend you take the plunge. I feel it would be a harder sell if you don’t have the TV as yes, silky smooth gameplay is lovely but not £450 lovely.

Long story short: I’m chuffed to bits with the kit and if you’re able to get your hands on one, I think you will be too.

Bonkers, brilliant and ready to break necks

It’s 1992, I’m a teenager in the arcades with my mates and we’re pumping 20p after 20p into the Street Fighter II machine in a vain attempt to beat enough CPU opponents in order to face the final four. Then, from nowhere a cabinet shouts out ‘FINISH HIM!’ and all our heads turn.

That’s my first memory of Mortal Kombat and I’ve been in love with the series ever since. Initially it was the gore and photorealistic fighters, which 25 years ago was absolutely mind-blowing. Then it was the story about a tournament that EarthRealm had to win because they’d lost nine in a row and to lose ten meant the forces of evil could invade and conquer. Of course, that’s not forgetting the introduction of fatalities into the gaming world.

Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat 11, fighting, fighter, fire

And now, 27 years on, Mortal Kombat 11 is on the horizon. If I’m honest I’ve lost track of whether or not the 11 is accurate. In between deadly alliances, armageddons, deceptions, special forces and mythologies, I’ve forgotten just how many games there have been in series but I’ve pretty much played them all – from the bloodless original on the SNES (Nintendo insisted the graphic be recoloured and declared as sweat) to Mortal Kombat X on the PlayStation 4 a few years ago.

The story is now a delicious mess too. We (EarthRealm – I’m assuming there are no Edenians reading this) won that first tournament, then another, but through various machinations were eventually invaded, defeated that invasion but were then invaded again, then were just about to be defeated but Raiden (Thunder God, very powerful) rewound time to do it all again and make sure we (EarthRealm – keep up!) definitely won everything this time only we didn’t but actually kind of did but now Raiden’s corrupted, heroes are resurrected and fighting for NetherRealm (Hell) and their kids are saving the day. Or something like that.

Needless to say I can’t wait for just how bonkers the next instalment will be.

If you’ve spotted the various reveal trailers doing the rounds, you’ll have seen that the game has continued the evolution that began with 2011’s Mortal Kombat and, including the two Injustice games that NetherRealm Studios also make, looks to move the series on further. The same weighty fighting is intact but the best in the business facial animations and gear selections of Injustice 2 will make an appearance.

As will the eternally over-the-top bloodshed. To say each battle is violent is an understatement; gameplay trailers have shown that it’s even more ridiculous than usual and in glorious 4K to boot. It’s absolutely not for the fainthearted or anyone under 18. In fact it’s almost guaranteed to whip the media into a frenzy on release, just as it did almost three decades ago.

Anyway, that’s enough from me – why don’t you check it out for yourself opposite? Just… make sure you haven’t eaten first.

EGX 2018: Twin Mirror

As mentioned in yesterday’s round-up post, I was disappointed that the organisers had taken the decision to move the Rezzed sessions out of the main hall at this year’s EGX. I’ve always found these talks to be some of the most interesting at the event.

The developer sessions however remained in the main area but were unfortunately tucked into a corner over at the far back of the hall that I wouldn’t be surprised if many attendees ended up missing them completely. There was one presentation I did want to make a point of seeing however, and as a result my other-half and I made it our mission to seek out the EGX Theatre in the afternoon of our visit to watch DONTNOD Entertainment share more about their upcoming psychological-thriller Twin Mirror.

The game’s story begins in Basswood, West Virginia, where 33-year old Samuel Higgs has sadly returned to attend the funeral of his best friend. Things take a turn for the worse when he wakes up in his hotel room the next day to find his shirt covered in blood and no memory of the previous night. It’s up to Sam to recall his memories and search for disparate clues throughout the town to find the truth in this mysterious investigation; it’s set to be a dark and emotional adventure where the line between truth and deception is blurred.

In an announcement published on the PlayStation Blog back in June, publisher Bandai Namco Entertainment revealed that Twin Mirror is going to be ‘a compelling journey that explores the elements of choice and hypocrisy, while paving a players’ way toward the conclusion of their investigation.’ Your decisions will have an impact: truth, duality and polarity will all become factors as Sam’s future is dictated through the choices made while investigating the place he used to call home.

As you may have already guessed already, the protagonist isn’t your standard hero and this is one of the reasons I’ve been drawn to DONTNOD’s project. Art Director Pierre-Etienne Travers said in his developer session: “Sam is broken. It’s really hard for him to come back… [He] is a bit lost. He [doesn’t] really know what to do. He is an adult but no-one told him it was time to grow up. So as you explore Basswood you will try to find a place in this universe as a player for Sam.”

An aspect of Sam’s duality is his mind palace, an inner world he created to be an escape from reality as a child. It’s a place that blends memories with logical extrapolation where he can perfectly recreate real-world scenarios to better understand them, making it the perfect tool for solving puzzles and uncovering the truth. By investigating his hotel room and using his mind palace to reconstruct his activities from the night before, he might be able to fill in the blanks and figure out what happened.

However, Sam isn’t alone and there’s someone who wants to weigh in on his investigation: The Double. Travers continued his presentation by revealing: “The Double is another part of [his personality]. He will always be there, giving him advice and choices, and as a player sometimes we have to choose between the way of Sam or the way of The Double… He isn’t evil and he isn’t good; he’s just one aspect Sam’s personality that he can’t express to others so he’s more eccentric and he’s funny at some points.”

At first the developers went down the route of making a ‘badass’ version of the protagonist but then decided this wasn’t the right the direction. Instead, they had Sam create this ‘character’ when he was younger and The Double is therefore his idea of what he’d look like as a successful man but in a childish way. It should be noted however that this is nothing to do with mental health or the supernatural, and I find it incredibly intriguing for a video game; after all, don’t we all have an image of what our perfect selves would be like in our heads?

There’s much more at stake in Basswood than just a forgotten evening and although it will be a tough journey for him, it might just be what Sam needs to finally heal the wounds of the past and move forward. There’s only one truth and his mind is the only place you’ll find it. As said by Travers at EGX: “Twin Mirror is not a game about saving the world but, I would say, it’s more a game about saving yourself.”

This episodic adventure is coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC in 2019.