Alekhine’s Gun Review

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If I learnt nothing else from Alekhine’s Gun, it is that the highly paid and morally dubious world of jet-setting hitmen may not be the career for me. I am sure I could work my way past the ethical quandaries, but attempting an infiltration without the use of Save States may lead to nothing but my untimely demise.

There is a lot to take away from Maximum Game’s first attempt at the helm of the once beloved ‘Death to Spies’ franchise. A chequered developmental past doesn’t prevent this game from offering an experience which is generally positive. A game that will feel very familiar to fans of the Hitman series: you sneak, swagger, and shoot your way through various small sandboxes to eliminate targets, collect intel, and unravel a conspiracy that goes all the way to the very top.

You’re placed in the controls of KGB agent Semyon Strogov, known as Agent Alekhine (after the chess grandmaster Alexander Alekhine), who teams up with CIA operatives in an attempt to prevent a series of acts that will otherwise destabilise the world, and threaten to thaw the Cold War. You’ll have to gather specific intelligence, and kill off the various governmental agents who are attempting a pseudo-coup within the US. The locations vary across the US and Europe as you attempt to locate the necessary targets, taking you from massage parlours of questionable legality, to biker bars in the middle of nowhere, as well as secret military training camps and Nazi strongholds. Each location offers different challenges and opportunities, as well as a new set of rules to learn when engaging enemies.

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The new rules generally boil down to what costume to wear to gain access to various areas, and who will and won’t be suspicious of the very Russian, very burly looking man now masquerading as a lowly construction worker (or other equivalent outfits). This is where a problem with the AI, and the game’s fundamentals, starts to rear its ugly head. After a few hours of playing the game, you begin to get a feel for what is required. Find a costume that allows you entry, discover the restricted areas and ascertain how you need to dress to enter and go find that costume. Rinse and repeat, it all begins to feel like a very violent Moscow Fashion Week by the closing chapters. But how exactly the costumes work in terms of access and suspicion is sometimes unclear.

In one mission you need to find a specific costume to enter restricted huts, however, when wearing this costume outside of the huts the soldiers grew highly suspicious of Seymon, eventually opening fire on him. In another level, an outfit that gives you free access to every other area of the level will lead to you being denied access by some support crew, meaning you have to dress as a much lower rank to pass unnoticed. This happens quite a lot throughout the game, and can become frustrating.

Luckily, the game employs a ‘Save Anywhere’ approach, meaning you can (and probably should) save multiple times throughout a level. This is a saviour, because with mechanics that are cloaked in a shade of uncertainty, knowing exactly what will happen when you do something is unlikely. You want to know whether a switch kills someone or not? Save beforehand. Want to know whether you can kill someone without alerting everyone? Save beforehand. Want to just avoid having to redo the 15 minutes of preparation of this assassination goes south? Just save beforehand. Without this freedom, this game would go from having moments of annoyance, to being a frustratingly unplayable cascade of punishment.

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Outside of frequent costume changes, you have a few weapons and tricks to help you along the way. You are armed with a pistol, which you can replace with a silenced variant or a tranquiliser gun as you advance in the game, as well as a cheese wire (for a casual garotting), some chloroform, and a small amount of poison. You can pick up other implements throughout the levels (mostly poisons and ways to hide deadly weaponry), as well as purchasing some more unique weaponry during the mission briefing (ranging from undetectable pistols to high powered sniper rifles). Seymon is also a dab hand at lock picking and safe breaking and is a remarkably adept electrical engineer. These extra skills allow you access to new areas, hiding areas (useful for storing the now naked corpses of your past victims), and unique kills.

Despite problems with the logic of the game, and inconsistent AI behaviour, the gameplay is mostly solid. The controls are generally responsive, with a few issues with the correct action not activating due to yourself and your target being slightly out of line, The gun control is the weakest part of the main gameplay sections, but you can complete every mission without using your gun, so it makes this problem ignorable if you choose to play without guns. There is nothing groundbreaking to be found here, but there is a solid experience instead.

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Your silent, murderous rampage is tied loosely together by a story which takes a very long time to transition from bland to adequate. The story is mostly told through comic book style sequences between missions, where you learn about Seymon’s past, how he has become involved in the operation that occupies most of the game, and some sort of relationship between Seymon and Vera that mostly goes nowhere. The overarching problem with the story comes from the delivery, specifically the voice work.

The audio is delivered in a style which is astonishingly jarring during the opening chapters. It is meant to mimic the style and tone of secret recordings, with a background hiss and volume rising and falling as the characters walk around the room. But it doesn’t feel like you are listening to a secret recording, it feels like you are listening to a college film where no one has bothered to learn sound mixing. Add to this the overexcited foley adding footsteps and papers being ruffled constantly, and it seems very comical. The accents deployed by the supposed Russians are also incredibly inconsistent. This means that the big relationship, which drives the final chapters misses the mark entirely (much like me when trying to shoot in this game).

This final two levels scrap this and stick to simple monologues and dialogues, which are much cleaner, and have a streamlined approach to delivering the narrative. When the game is acknowledging real world conspiracies and politics it is enjoyable, when it is trying to do character development it falls flat on its face.

Alekhine’s Gun is named after a famous chess move, designed for taking down lots of targets at once, which is similar to what the developers were going for here. They tried to take on a lot of mechanics and ideas, but, unfortunately, didn’t deliver on all of them. Alekhine’s Gun is by no means a bad game, but it is a game that could have done with more aggressive direction to differentiate itself from similar games on the market right now.

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Styx: Master of Shadows Review

15

Styx: Master of Shadows

PC/XB1/PS4

Dev: Cyanide Studios / Pub: Focus Home Interactive

 ERMAGHERD! GERHBLERN!

Welcome to the world of Styx, an ancient Goblin who is set upon infiltrating the Tower of Akenash in order to get to The World Tree. This tree is the source of Amber within the world, a powerful gloop that serves as part-time McGuffin and part-time aspirin for the game’s unlikely hero.

Yes, you play as a butt-ugly green menace who stalks the shadows of the tower, sneaking and climbing his way around the levels, snuffing out torches, humans and elves with your bony fingers. Styx is a spritely little fellow, who nimbly crawls, shuffles, climbs, swings and sneaks around the environment; he can also use a range of pretty amazing Amber-powers in order to supplement his natural Goblin flair for the stealthy.

By using some of that precious Amber (that for some reason is lying around all over the place, despite its obvious scarceness and value), Styx can vomit forth a little monster helper to aid his exploration and killing, he can employ ‘Amber-vision’ which allows you to see items (and persons) of interest more easily and he can render himself invisible for a short period. All the powers Styx has at his disposal must be mastered and utilised if he is to prevail, since taking on enemies directly in combat is about as advisable as eating an onion-rich curry the night before an interview – and just as deadly.

Styx-03PUNCHING YOUR WAY OUT OF A PAPER BAG

Like all shadow-hugging bullies, Styx is very good at unpleasantness when he can strike from the shadows. Many situations in the game are resolved by covert sneaking followed by a silent shuffle up behind an unsuspecting guard and then holding down the X button until the ‘muffling and neck-breaking’ animation is complete. Try to go toe-to-toe with guards though and Styx soon finds himself on the pointy end of a one-sided argument. Whilst it is possible to parry and attack guards on easier skill levels, upset more than one enemy at a time and its pretty much curtains. Fair enough of course, Styx is a stealth game after all. Those of you who are looking for stealth-lite with a bit more of a gung-ho approach had better find your kicks elsewhere.

Enemies in the game go about their business on pretty simple loops, but make too much noise – or even deliberately draw their attention using your puke-buddy and they will go into a heightened state of alertness, deviating from their normal path. If they find you, that’s very bad news since they will gang up on Styx and kill him, but drawing soldiers away from their patrol routes is an important technique to master. Once you’ve got your foes out of the way however, the next step is getting to where you need to go.

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Level design in Styx is wonderful. Truly. The vast majority of the areas within the game lend themselves to creative and adaptive route-choice. The levels seem big enough on a flat plane, but once you factor in the impressive degree of verticality on display, you really begin to appreciate quite how much scope you have to be creative in your approach. A vast number of objects can be hidden behind, crawled underneath, climbed upon and vaulted over, which of course sounds like every other stealth game – but Styx needs to be played in order to appreciate that it’s the scope of the environments that make it shine. Even the opening mission gives you so many possible routes through that it can be almost overwhelming. For the record, I took possibly the least-optimal route when I played the first level, but I was having such fun playing with the mechanics on offer that I wasn’t in the least disappointed to observe a much easier way through once I’d got to the end.

If the level design is great, then it is balanced out by some factors that are greatly irritating. Sadly, there are a few issues with the game that move it from the must-buy category, to the think-carefully one.

Firstly, for those of you who are concerned about graphical fidelity, Styx looks pretty mundane. Best described as functional, the graphics within Styx are glitchy and full of ugly-looking textures. The bullshots in the promotional material that you’ll see give you the right flavour, but don’t reflect the true nature of the game. Cut-scenes in general and lip-synching in particular are almost laughably poor and really serve to pull you out of the game.

Also pulling you out of your immersion in the game is the voice-acting which is cringe-worthy at times. Awkwardly expressed and embarrassingly scripted, the game wants to use its dialogue to make it feel like a living world, but unfortunately ends up sounding farcical. This is especially a shame since special mention must be made of the fantastic musical score for the game which, although repetitious, invokes a powerful sense of unease, whilst being securely appropriate for the setting.

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Finally and most unfortunately we come at last to the controls. Styx almost gets things right here, sneaking and climbing feel easy and natural, combat feels difficult enough to make it off-putting and the controls are mapped to the controller in such a way that you don’t end up doing the wrong thing due to an unfortunately placed context-sensitive input. Where it gets it badly wrong however is in Styx’s ability to jump from walls to ledges and inability to climb down from ledges. Describing how awkward this is might be tricky – so bear with me.

Getting down from a windowsill – In order to do this, you have to throw Styx out of the window and try to turn and grab the ledge. This is a ridiculous system; Styx is an able and agile character so why he can’t simply climb down from a ledge is beyond me. Similarly, dropping down onto a ledge is hit and miss, since you can’t be sure he’ll just drop. Sometimes he jumps out, no matter how carefully you approach making your way down.

Jumping from a wall bracket to a ledge. This is frustrating in the extreme, mainly because Styx will randomly not catch the ledge. I have no idea why this is but it leads to deaths that are nothing to do with the player.

Not being able to trust that the controls will do what you think they’re going to do is the worst fault a platform game can suffer from. I have no problem whatsoever with the game being tough, nor with it requiring multiple attempts and even a degree of trial-and-error. It is my belief however that a tighter control scheme when it comes to moving around those brilliantly designed levels would have seen Styx: Master of Shadows elevated to a lot of people’s Game of the Year Lists. As it is – much like its protagonist’s aerial gymnastics – too often, Styx falls a little short.

 

Karlos Morale

6/10

Styx: Master of Shadows is out now for PC, XB1 and PS4