Picture of Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

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Soporific jaundiced warbler, based in London. Likes poetry, weird fiction, Soulsborne and Overwatch.

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Years of playing hero-based multiplayer games have taught me one thing: if I am having fun with a character that is probably because s/he is overpowered, because I am too rubbish to play characters who are properly balanced. This appears to be the case with Brigitte, the Overwatch healer-tank knight errant whose prowess with a mace left me speechless (and often, concussed) when she launched on public servers in March. Blizzard says her Shield Bash ability - the essential prelude to knocking a rampaging Doomfist into a pit - is too effective for comfort, and must be nerfed. For shame, Blizzard! Let the girl bash in peace.

Some games, like Zelda, give you lots of toys that do lots of things. Some games, like the grindiest free-to-play shooters, give you lots of toys that all essentially do one thing. And a few games, such as Nitrome's finger-licking Bomb Chicken, give you one toy that does lots of things. While too obese to jump, let alone fly, the game's dumpy star has qualities most factory-farmed hens (and platform game characters) lack: her eggs explode a few seconds after they're laid, and she can lay an endless number in swift succession.

"New games in the old style" is the deceptively pat label Square Enix has adopted for smaller JRPG projects like Octopath Traveler, and one that invites an obvious question: which parts are old, and which parts are new? Far from a reprise of conventions from Final Fantasy 6 and before, Octopath is a curious medley of tradition and risk-taking. It engages with topics a JRPG of the mid-90s might shy away from: one of the playable characters is a sex worker, whose quest to avenge her father's death sees her grappling with the cruelty and chauvinism of an outwardly blissful medieval world. But this is, nonetheless, a world constructed according to a cosy old playbook, in which every town you visit has the same facilities and a lone citizen loitering for all eternity near the entrance, offering a crisp intro to all who visit. It's a game that puts a familiar emphasis on timing, built around a turn-based battle system in which the ability to strike first often trumps how hard you hit. But like its spiritual predecessors, the Bravely Default series, Octopath also lets you bend time a little, banking action points in order to perform several attacks in a single turn.

I love passing the time in Flat Earth's Objects in Space. In fact, I love passing the time in Objects rather more than I love actually achieving things in many other games. An absorbing blend of submarine and space sim distinguished by some decadently throwback interface design, it sees you hauling passengers and cargo across 2D star systems while dodging pirates or indulging in a bit of skyway robbery yourself. These journeys can take upwards of 10 minutes from system jump to system jump, and once you've given the autopilot a heading, there's essentially nothing to do save twiddle your thumbs and luxuriate in the retro ambience of your ship, with its chevron-fringed levers, neon grids and see-saw hum of cooling fans.

How do you duck a question about the politics of a game which pits a citizen militia against a corrupt government in modern-day Washington DC? Well, you could start by talking about the weather. "I loved the coldness of the first game, and to be able to go to DC and actually get to feel the humidity and hot summer of East Coast weather," The Division 2's creative director Terry Spiers remarked to Polygon at E3, when pressed about what it meant to stage an armed uprising in the capital of his own country. "That's what I'm most excited about."

Cultist Simulator is about forbidden knowledge, forgotten histories and ill-advised pacts with entities who aren't so much gods as unsettling cosmic frequencies, felt rather than understood, but it would be nothing without its monotony. Starting the game, you are confronted not with a squiggle of eldritch geometry but a wooden table covered by a worn leather mat, its scratches picked out by a strange cobalt light. An hourglass timer begins to drain away, sucking Fund cards out of your hand with every revolution; you counter by plugging Reason, Passion or Health cards into a Work timer to generate more. This mundane rhythm keeps up throughout the ensuing 20 or 30 hours, as cards and timers of all kinds slowly cover the tabletop, each accompanied by a gravid yet delicate prose snippet about the game's curious, alternate-1920s England. It's the bassline for an experience that is as much an investigation of mind-killing drudgery as it is a homage to the wayward imagination - indeed, an experience that derives much of its mystery and threat from their inseparability.

A sublime little side-scroller in the PlayDead tradition of child protagonists and looming industrial backdrops, FAR: Lone Sails is about going somewhere while staying put. It is the story of a girl, her features swallowed by a comically over-sized coat and hat, who embarks on a journey across a dried-up, abandoned continent after the loss of a loved one. The girl, however, does not do the journeying herself. She lives inside and operates a beautiful two-wheeled landship, its wooden frame peeling away when you board to reveal a dollhouse universe of cylinders and dials, swaying lanterns and pipes joined up by fat red buttons.

There are times when State of Decay 2 is so buggy that it stops being a stodgy post-apocalyptic looting game and transforms into metatextual horror theatre. At one point during a fight outside a barn, a juggernaut zombie hits me so hard that the UI vanishes, as though punched clean out of my character's skull. I try to speak to another human faction leader later, selecting unseen dialogue options at random, and accidentally trigger a civil war. The game features an extravagant array of injury types, from torn discs to punctured organs, and I half-wonder whether the developer is actually simulating the effects of a head wound through the very interface. How long will it last? Is this some unlockable hardcore option I'm not aware of?

The work of San Francisco-based studio Monothetic, Beacon is the tale of Freja Akiyama, a mercenary starpilot who crashlands on a sumptuous uncharted planet, but she isn't the person you actually play. Poor old Freja is, in fact, obliterated on impact along with most of her ship. Fortunately, the one piece of equipment left intact is your vessel's cloning pod, which promptly cooks up a brand new Freja to explore the game's procedurally generated environments, fight obscure species and scrape together the parts for a distress beacon.

Sometimes the best parts of a game aren't where its heart lies. If you want to experience For Honor in its prime, make a beeline for duels. Here, you're free to savour the meaty wonderment of the game's weapon-based combat system without distraction, away from the chaos of the team-based modes. A quick overview of the basics, for newcomers: fighters switch between left, right and top stances to launch or block attacks from those directions, as indicated by a three-segment shield icon. Each move burns stamina, and draining the bar will leave you as helpless as a kitten, so knowing when to ease off and catch your breath is key.

The Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 sportscar is, according to my notes, capable of exceeding 300 kilometres per hour on asphalt, and if you think that's impressive, wait till you see how fast it travels when it's plummeting uncontrollably through the atmosphere from a few miles up. As my time with The Crew 2 draws to a close, I turn my stuntplane skyward and hit the nitro. Rain speckles the camera; clouds knit and part with a surly magnificence. I spin the view side-on, watching the bright pink plane carve a track across the horizon like a finger running up a dirty windowpane. All the while, HUD notifications drip from the fuselage as the game steadily translates various unintended feats of aeronautics - a lazy corkscrew, a second of knife-flight - into points and multipliers.

The "home depot axe", Sony Santa Monica nicknamed it during development, and for all the grandness of the title and the arcane butchery it facilitates, the new God of War's Leviathan Axe can indeed seem rather homely. It's an enchanted weapon, whirring back to your fist like a well-trained falcon after you hurl it across a clearing, just the thing when you need to shorten a giant or pin a Draugr to a wall. But with its worn leather handle and mottled blade, it also looks like something you might chop up kindling with in a quieter moment, something that might gather dust in a corner between outbreaks of deicide.

You can kick off a spectacular set piece pretty much anywhere in Far Cry 5. All you need do is stand in the road. Give it 60 seconds, and - yes, there it is, a van full of hostages, cruising around unescorted, the lowest of low-hanging fruit. You pour hot lead into the windshield until the driver flops out of his seat like a spent shell casing, then follow the vehicle into a ditch and help its dazed occupants to safety. One grateful civilian waves you over, a side quest icon materialising over his head. "Wh-" he says, and is promptly swept off his feet by a speeding pick-up truck.

So much of the magic in any magical world lies with how you get there, how the secret realm reveals itself: the spectral figures who vanish at second glance, the glisten of bells on the wind at dusk, that first, breathless step across the glowing threshold. These journeys between realities are often a question of cathartic redefinition: something about the everyday world is out of joint, and the other universe is an enchanted mirror in which the problem takes on a kinder guise, with familiar objects transported and transformed - cats into kings, sticks into wands, dolls into fairies.

Ghost of a Tale's castle feels like a prison at first but ends up feeling like home. In the course of 20 hours searching for a way out, I've slowly fallen in love with the place - its feathery falls of afternoon light over mossy stonework, its leafblown ramparts and canted mausoleums, its small, hard-bitten population of anthropomorphic rats, mice, frogs and magpies. Part of the setting's allure is that it carries the echoes of many great virtual fortresses. Indeed, this slightly muddled third-person action-RPG's greatest strength is probably how it adds to that architectural tradition, though the witty, affecting, politically resonant writing runs a close second.

"Fast and agile" is how Crytek describes the spider, one of Hunt: Showdown's two currently available boss monsters. "Fast and agile", oh, and "immune to poison". I've spent a few hours in the creature's rough vicinity now, listening to its feet rattle across the ceilings of barns and slaughterhouses, and I worry this is selling it short. "Fast and agile" makes me think of doomed management consultancies and Lucio from Overwatch, whereas the words I'm searching for have no consonants and far too many vowels. They are words lifted direct from the 50 million-odd lines of genetic code human beings share with fruit flies. They are words that always end in exclamation marks.

The noise of flies fills your ears as you step down from the highway in search of shade. The body of a great white bull lies sprawled in the dirt among bits of rope and broken board, his hide blazing in the sunlight. You approach, covering your mouth, and recoil. The bull's chest - it's not maggoty flesh but beaten metal, held together by rivets the width of your thumb. Through tears in the beast's flank you see swarms of tiny brass pistons, shooting back and forth in a blur. The bull raises his head abruptly to regard you. Then he clambers to his feet, creaking like a furnace, and ambles back onto the road. The buzzing rises to a peak. When the air clears, the animal is gone.

Few settings have captured the imaginations of game developers and players like Chernobyl, the site of a reactor explosion in 1986 that created one of the world's few actual nuclear wastelands. The legendary Exclusion Zone - now, would you believe, something of a tourist attraction - has provided the stage for countless virtual conflicts and survival stories. There are the indirect recreations, such as Big Robot's bleached starship graveyard The Signal From Tölva, or the Erangel island map from PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds - an abandoned Soviet testing facilty in which the wanderer is forced towards rather than away from the centre by an ever-encroaching sea of blue energy. And there are truer-to-life portrayals like Call of Duty 4's "All Ghillied Up" mission or GSC World's STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which gives you the run of an Exclusion Zone in which space-time is starting to fall apart like overcooked pasta.

Disease has always been joined at the hip to superstition and fantasy - the term "influenza" once referred to the influence of unfriendly stars - but there's something especially, horribly otherworldly about the flu epidemic of 1918-1920, which claimed over 50 million lives. Invisible to the microscopes of the era, the Spanish flu was a phantom terror, its spread censored to shore up morale in the closing stages of the Great War. Where other outbreaks had ravaged children and the elderly, this one bizarrely reserved its worst excesses for hearty young adults: its effects included "cytokine storms" that turned stronger immune systems against themselves, drowning the afflicted in their own bodily fluids. With no cure forthcoming, many sufferers fell back on folk remedies and occult treatments, lining their nostrils with salt, tying ribbons to their arms and burning brown sugar or sulfur to chase away evil miasmas. It's from this tangle of science and myth, monsters of the imagination versus the monsters of the laboratory, that Dontnod's long-in-development Vampyr takes its cue.

"If only we could talk to the monsters," laments an infamous Edge review from many moons ago. In Fe you don't just get to talk to the monsters - you get to sing to them, or at least, croak and wail tunefully, like a sheepdog trying to nail the backing vocals to Bohemian Rhapsody. An "EA Original" from Swedish developer Zoink - otherwise known for such comicbook fare as Zombie Vikings: Stab-a-thon - Fe is the story of a nimble fox creature on a mission to save a vivid dreamland from a legion of strange armoured figures, who are capturing and processing the wildlife to unknown end.

It's the eyes that really get to you - scores of them, glittering coppery-red like the pilot lights on a hundred flamethrowers. And that ceaseless ebb and surge of tiny, ravenous bodies, darting at your heels only to wince back from the glare of your torch. A Plague Tale's corner of 14th century France is home to many terrors - the black death, the Inquisition, raiding English soldiers - but the most tenacious and oppressive are the rats, a lethal mass swirling through towns hollowed out by disease and erupting from the shambles of battlefields. It's a threat you must learn to live with, while guiding nobleman's daughter Amicia and her sickly infant brother Hugo to sanctuary, and a threat you can turn to your advantage. The rats aren't fussy about who they devour, after all, and one girl's chittering Gothic metaphor is another girl's handy terrain trap.

Size matters on the Sea of Thieves, but when you're up to your berringed earlobes in pirate gold, cunning is king. Earlier this week myself and three other buccaneers spent an hour chasing a single, wily captain in the game's closed beta. Our target led us a merry dance, steering his nimble sloop in amongst the looming rock spires by the aptly named Shipwreck Bay, but eventually he made a break for the open sea, and with the wind behind us and our galleon's sails at full spread, we quickly closed the distance.

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