All posts by Mitch Cullen

Retired Army Special Forces and Elite Sniper School instructor with a passion for team-based military and tactical shooters.

Sniper Elite VR Review – Oculus Rift S

Sniper Elite has always been a fun franchise for me with each installment getting bigger and better than the previous. Sniper Elite 4 was practically an open-world game with a rich sandbox design.  Sniper Elite VR understandably reins things back a bit when it comes to size and scope, using the immersion of VR to tell a more personal and focused story with an emphasis on more realistic interactions with dozens of WWII-era weapons.  It’s a calculated risk, one that I found satisfying and more realistic than any other FPS you would play with a gamepad, but also opens itself up to the pitfalls of VR when trying to merge with mainstream gaming.

Instead of delivering a traditional campaign, Sniper Elite VR goes with the Saving Private Ryan style of storytelling; an elderly veteran looking back at his days serving in WWII as an elite sniper.  Journal in hand, you get to literally turn the pages of history as you relive your days fighting for the Italian Resistance back in 1943.  It’s an interesting way to progress the narrative as well as a fun mechanic for turning back the pages to replay earlier missions to pick-up any missed awards.

I was immediately impressed with the level of immersion, both in your quiet countryside estate hub world and when thrust into the tactical stealth and frantic combat missions.  Splash screens and mission briefs are put on a 2D screen like being at a movie theater before you are placed into a living breathing 3D world that is surprisingly detailed, loaded with wartime clutter and debris, interesting architecture, lush outdoor environment, and claustrophobic interiors.  Obviously, it lacks the pristine shine we’ve come to expect from non-VR shooters like the recently released Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts 2, but it gets the job done and is one of the better looking VR games I’ve played in over a year.

Sniper Elite VR offers plenty of options for quality and comfort so you can find something that works for you and your system.  My RTX3090 card was able to crank this out at max settings with all the comfort assists turned off, so I could walk and turn smoothly without snap turns or teleporting.  System requirements are fairly modest so lesser systems should be able to do the same.  The game is up on both Oculus and Steam stores, the latter also allowing you to play on other platforms like Vive and Index, but for my review I was focused solely on the Oculus Rift S.

At its core the actual gameplay is not unlike a traditional FPS as far as moving around the levels to reach your next waypoint.  Item interaction is made easy with a Jedi-like magnetic grip system; just get close enough for the hand icon to appear over an object then flick your wrist to acquire the object.  You’re wearing a combat vest that is slotted for your primary sniper rifle, a secondary weapon like a machine gun or shotgun, as well as loops for grenades, and a sidearm holster.  Accessing these items merely requires you to physically pretend to take that item from the location on your body.  Reaching over your right shoulder takes the sniper rifle, left shoulder takes the secondary gun, etc.

Sniper Elite VR can be played seated or standing and there are issues with both.  Playing seated can create some unreliable interactions with your gear like trying to take your pistol off your hip which might be “below” your physical seat.  Conversely, playing standing up creates a disconnect since you still must press the stick to crouch rather than simply crouching yourself, which only changes your viewpoint and not your ability to move silently.  There is also no way to support your weapon to steady your aim either by using an object like a crate or railing or even going prone.

Sniping is the reason to play this game and it’s handled brilliantly with a working sniper scope that you must hold up to your eye and look through.  Squeezing the left trigger holds your breath and zooms in a bit closer, also revealing key red targets like explosives and even grenades on your enemy’s belt.  Fuel cans, ammo crates, and event TNT you can toss into the battle are all ready to go BOOM with just one precision shot.  You can toss grenades after pulling the pin, use bottles as distractions or sabotage a generator to make loud noises to mask your shots and even toss landmines into the patrol path of an enemy soldier.  You’ve even got a grenade launcher you can use to take out groups of soldiers and technical targets.

The real joy of the gameplay is in the somewhat realistic handling of these weapons; certainly more realistic than pushing a button on a gamepad to reload.  In Sniper Elite VR you must perform all the moves like taking out the empty mag, grabbing a fresh one from your ammo belt and inserting it before working the bolt to chamber a fresh round.  This process varies among weapons.  To add even more authenticity every bullet counts, so you can’t simply reload in mid-combat and preserve the ammo you had left in the previous clip.  If your MP40 had 5 rounds left you just tossed them.  This even carries over to looting enemy soldiers, as their guns will only have the bullets in them that they didn’t already shoot at you.  Even firing your weapons is going to require some realism that traditional games seldom demand.  You’ll need to grip most weapons with two hands; sure you can fire that machine gun with only one hand or even wield two at once, but your bullet spray will be wild and worthless.

There are a variety of mission types that have you moving around complex levels engaging in a lot of stealth, while other times you might be surrounded and need to unload a few mags into nearby approaching soldiers.  The AI is shockingly good with soldiers locking in on your position, repositioning, flanking, taking cover while reloading, and even seeking elevated sniping positions of their own.  I truly missed having a spotter, as I would often have some sneaky bastard shoot me from behind while lining up my next shot, although if you have a landmine you can protect your six that way…at least once.  One of my favorite missions was having to clear out a cliff-side sniper nest then using that location to defend against waves of incoming enemies trying to loot a crashed plane.  That mission singlehandedly used just about every game element Sniper Elite VR has to offer.  I even got to hit one guy on the head with a hammer while he was taking a piss on a wall.

In addition to all the fighting and killing there are some collectibles in each level to remind you that you’re playing a game.  You can shoot glowing eagle statues, find Lost Letters, and collect a bunch of scarves.  Each mission also offers up a few challenges that will reward you with gold stars like getting so many headshots or killing soldiers with explosions, etc.  All of this is documented in your journal, so you know what needs to be done if you are trying for perfect completion.

For those of you who are aspiring med students or just fans of anatomy you’ll be sure to enjoy the infamous kill-cams this franchise is known for, now 10x as visceral thanks to their updated 3D graphics in VR.  You now get to see bones shatter, lungs deflate, kidneys rupture, eyeballs implode, and gallons of blood spray from your precision shots, all complemented with horrific sound effects.  You can dial down the frequency of these kill-cams and even toggle a camera that follows the bullet.  Despite these momentary interruptions to the game flow I still find these kill-cams highly rewarding.

Expect a solid 10-15 hours knocking out the 18 missions that make up the campaign, and add a few more if you are going for all the gold stars.  There is plenty of death and retrying; sometimes due to player incompetence and other times to weird stuff that just happens in VR.  Most missions have at least one radio that serves as a checkpoint, so you seldom have to replay too much of a level.  It’s worth noting that collectibles aren’t saved as you get them, so they must be collected again if restarting from a checkpoint.

I had a real good time with Sniper Elite VR.  As a fan of the series and a career military sniper I found this to be an interesting attempt to add some much-needed realism to the genre, and VR is the perfect way to do that with the physicality of the Touch controls and the added immersion of actually being placed into this virtual recreation of WWII.  There is still room for improvement, but this is a great step in the right direction and totally worth your time and money.

Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts 2 Review – PC

Last January I reviewed the original Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts, and I came away from the experience more than pleased with this unique hybrid that seamlessly blended stealth and tactics with open-world design that allowed a certain level of autonomy to the campaign seldom seen in the genre.  As a former Army sniper I go into all these military shooters with a certain level of apprehension and skepticism, often to my own detriment, but I have learned to “lighten up” over the past few years because if games, especially sniper games, were anything like the real thing nobody would be playing them.

Jumping into Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts 2 I was initially worried CI Games had merely reskinned the original, as the opening tutorial is identical to the first game, but once you get past those training lessons everything is fresh and actually quite impressive.  Everything about this sequel is bigger and better than before, as we gear up for a tour of duty in the Middle East; a place where I have spent a significant portion of my military career.  A satellite map shows the five areas of engagement that will unlock one by one as you complete previous missions, or should I say “contracts”

As a military sniper I don’t have the luxury or freedom that mercenaries enjoy like picking out my targets and getting a fat check for each confirmed kill.  I also don’t get to make a game out of how elaborate my approach to each scenario will be.  I’ve recently been playing the Hitman games and there are a lot of similarities to the overall game design, a design that encourages multiple replays of each mission to check off these optional goals or challenges to earn extra cash.  Imagine if Seal Team Six had been told to kill Osama bin Laden but ONLY while he was sitting on the crapper.

Each engagement area has multiple contracts and multiple methods/rules/restrictions to complete those contracts.  For the most part the contracts are laid out in a somewhat linear path across the regional map, but you are always free to do them in any order you choose.  Fast travel points will unlock as they are discovered, allowing you to bounce around the map as long are you aren’t in combat or attempting to exfil.  You are free to “bank” your progress after each contract at an exfil point then return to the map to complete any other contracts.

Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts 2 has plenty of cool weapons and high-concept gadgets, most of which are not real but still fun to imagine.  I would have loved an augmented reality mask that overlaid waypoints and distances to targets on my helmet, and that magic dot on my sniper scope that calculates bullet drop and wind shear would turn any average Joe off the street into an elite sniper.  Thankfully, you can tailor the game’s difficulty and challenge at the beginning of each mission; a nice change from most games that globally sets the difficulty in the options.  You can   choose from Marksman (easy), Sharpshooter (normal), Veteran Sniper (hard), and Deadeye (realistic).   I played the first two contracts on Sharpshooter and found the entire thing way too easy.  Veteran removes that red dot from your scope forcing you to actually use real-world sniper practices for calculating bullet trajectory while Deadeye removes that dot and most of the other incidental items on your HUD, truly immersing you in the combat as you face off against even more alert and aggressive enemies.

Before each contract you’ll get to suit up with a variety of weapons and gadgets; some of which are available from the start, but most of the good stuff will need to be purchased and upgraded between missions with your earnings.  You get one sniper rifle and a secondary weapon for close combat and a sidearm.  With the exception of the heavy sniper rifle and a few secondary weapons, most guns can be equipped with a silencer, which is nice if you prefer a stealthy style of play.  Most guns have multiple points of upgrades such as barrel, magazine, sight, etc. and you can also choose from frag, smoke, and flashbang grenades.  You are free to pick-up and use weapons from your kills, but I mostly kept my initial starting gear and looted bodies for fresh ammo.  There are also ammo stashes scattered about, so running out of ammo isn’t a serious issue, and you can always upgrade so you can carry more if needed.

There is a level of personal development that lets you spend a secondary currency based on your experience to unlock various perks and bonuses on multiple tech and skill trees; stuff like vision enhancements, stealth boosts, bonuses for drones and turrets, and general perks for gear and gadgets.  I’ve always been a big fan of drones when utilized properly like in the old Ghost Recon games, but I went through almost this entire game without using a drone; often simply due to a lack of incentive to do so, but even more often because the enemy has anti-drone turrets placed around just about every location you might want to use one.  I’m sure there are some drone challenges buried in the optional contract modes that will have me flying around using poison darts and EMP bursts, but they just aren’t encouraged in the initial playthrough.

Throughout the game you will always have your handler giving you updates and guiding you along to your next objective.  I actually enjoyed the banter and it helped to ground me in a world that would otherwise be mostly silent and depressing.  You do get to eavesdrop on enemy conversations, many of which are quite amusing, and some even useful when you can sneak up on a soldier and interrogate him at knifepoint.  Some soldiers will give up their comrades locations and others may point you to a weapons stash, and others will tell you to “go to hell”, but they all end up dead whether they help or not.

So with five areas and 21 contracts there is a lot to do in this game; even more when you realize that each contract has numerous challenges associated with them that will hopefully entice you to replay using a different approach.  One interesting element that carried over from the first game are Bounties, special targets that will randomly activate offering you a bit of a side excursion for some bonus cash if you can kill them and retrieve their intel.  Expect a solid 15 hours to simply finish the campaign and probably that many more if you want to get 100% on all challenges.

Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts 2 plays equally well with keyboard and mouse or a gamepad.  The precision of the mouse is undeniable, especially when playing on the more difficult skill settings that limit aim assist.  Weapons are easily swapped with a button press and you can bring up a standard weapon wheel to equip a primary item like a med kit, grenade, or tech item like a drone or turret.  I particularly enjoyed the way you can swap ammo types with a simple button press while looking through your scope, yet it still requires a magazine swap.  Special bullets include armor piercing for the heavy brutes, agile bullets that are immune from bullet drop and wind, and distraction bullets you can use to lure and separate soldiers.

For 95% of the game the experience was perfection with outstanding visual fidelity, realistic lighting, shadows, textures, and a rocksteady 60fps running at 4K on my RTX3090 card.  The only time performance faltered was near the end of the game during a palace infiltration.  Arguably, this level had some of the most complex architecture and textures in the entire game, but framerate would often drop, textures were late to load in, and during the final contract execution the game would crash back to Steam repeatedly; over a dozen crashes until I lowered my resolution to 1440p.  I was then able to reach the exfil point and finish the mission.  I immediately reset my resolution back to 4K and played the final region with no problems, so there is definitely something about that one level/mission.

The audio is fantastic with immersive environmental effects, lively com chatter, and great effects for all the weapons and gadgets.  Of course the most impressive moments of the game are when those dramatic bullet-cam sequences trigger, allowing you to see the bullet exit the barrel in a cloud of smoke and fly toward your target in slow motion with bullet spin and sometimes crazy camera pans or vertigo spins until the bullet hits your target often resulting with thick blood splatter, brain matter, helmets popping off…you get the idea.  It’s not as gross as the Sniper Elite franchise that goes full X-ray with organs and bones, but this finds the right balance for bloodthirsty snipers.  There is even some extreme dismemberment for victims of explosions that is shockingly real, especially when you get up close to loot their torso.

I was surprised to see that Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts 2 was only $40, a nice price for a great game, and then I saw the $85 worth of DLC being offered; mostly cosmetics and a few weapons and even the soundtrack, which I didn’t find particularly memorable outside the game.  Considering this game is not multiplayer and nobody else is seeing you or your guns I can only roll my eyes at anyone who would pay to paint their guns.  I only found a half-dozen camo upgrades during the course of my 18 hours playing the game, but they offer no tactical or stealth bonuses for equipping certain skins on certain levels; now that would be cool and useful.

Shameless DLC aside, Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts 2 is a fantastic, fun sniper game that is bigger and better than the previous with a significant boost in game design and technology that makes the most of CRYENGINE and scales nicely with a variety of PC hardware.  Even the game’s difficulty offers a nice scalable solution that will appeal to newcomers as well as salty veterans such as myself.  It might not be the most realistic sniper game ever made, but it is certainly one of the most enjoyable and will keep you coming back for more.

Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts Review – PC

Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts is the latest installment in a series of sniper games from CI Games, which in itself is just one franchise in a growing genre of what can only be labeled, “sniper simulations”. I’ve played them all and reviewed most. As a former Army sniper now turned instructor I find a certain level of enjoyment in seeing how game developers have to walk the line of creating something fun and entertaining from a profession that is anything but. Video games and movies have certainly romanticized the art of sniping, as evident by the fresh crop of annual recruits I see each year who think they are the next Chris Kyle. Most of them wash out within weeks.

To its credit, Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts does a better job than most of the sniper games out there, including its own prequels, with its fresh approach to storytelling and mission delivery, its open-world design, and a somewhat realistic approach to actually setting up and executing the perfect shot. There were multiple moments during the game where I was reminded of the latest Hitman games that share a lot of DNA with the way Contracts is designed and the way you consume it. The nonlinear access to the content really allows the player to create their own experience, both through choice and collateral encounters.

The game begins with a cutscene revealing the setup and backstory before introducing you, Seeker, a high-tech sniper with a fancy mask and a desire to turn bad guys into dollar signs, and your disembodied boss, the Handler. There is a brief tutorial will teach you the art of sniping, or at least this game’s interpretation of it, as well as non-sniper combat. Sniper games have become increasingly more realistic with their physics and simulation aspects yet still have to cater to the casual gamer for widest appeal.   Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts does this with its difficulty levels; Marksman, Sniper, and Deadeye that not only change up the enemy AI aggression and awareness, but also determine just how realistic you want your sniping to be. The tutorial will also introduce you to certain ammo types that can be switched out as needed to get past certain “puzzles” as well as other gadgets like a remote turret.

Set in Siberia, the overarching story of the game deals with Russian mobsters, oil, and other criminal activities that have become serious enough to send in a merc sniper such as yourself to stop a civil war. You’ll get the traditional pre-mission setup where you can equip your primary and secondary weapons as well as a sidearm and some inventory items like med-kits and grenades. As your list of available weapons grows larger you’ll start having to pay attention to actual stats like damage, fire rate, stability, recoil, mag size, etc., and as usual, the guns you take into a mission are seldom the ones you’ll be using near the end. Looting enemies for better gear is essential to survival.

Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts has only five levels or regions, but these deployment areas are massive, both in scale and complexity. There is so much content embedded in these maps, ranging from the random patrols to small, medium, and large military installations where you will need to spend considerable time planning your assault and even more executing it. You can call up your Region Map to track progress on your contracts as well as challenges, collectibles and bounties. You can even place custom waypoints that will appear on your HUD.

Each of the five regions is loaded with content including the “big boss” as well as dozens of incidental encounters leading up to him. While it might be tempting to go straight for the big payday the missions are designed in such a way that you really need to do the smaller stuff before taking on the primary contract. You can see a list of all your contracts and their value in both dollars and upgrade tokens but money never becomes a driving force in the game; at least not for me. I was here to clear the board and max out those tallies. The skill challenges are a great addition that add bonus rewards while actually changing the way you play and replay missions – again, very much like the recent Hitman games.

The great thing about all of this content is that it’s all there from the beginning, so you are free to tackle anything on the list in any order. This sandbox design can be a bit unforgiving if you aren’t careful. You’ll need to log/save your progress at extraction points that are scattered about the map and not always at convenient locations. It’s quite possible to die and have to repeat significant portions of the game if you haven’t saved, and even worse, your ability to fast-travel around the map is disabled until you have “extracted”, adding a bit of severity to what would otherwise be post-mission success satisfaction.

Despite the nonlinear approach to mission engagement there is still a rather satisfying gameplay loop of personal enhancement through gear and weapon upgrades. All of the cash and tokens you collect can be invested in upgrading your mask and nanofiber suit which provide active and passive abilities to improve your quality of life with high-tech functions like tagging enemies, night vision, thermal vision, enemy detection, line of sight indicators, and valuable sniping assists for calculation bullet drop and wind adjustments. You can also spend money on better weapons for all categories including a variety of grenades, mines, and special ammo types including experimental bullets that are immune to wind and gravity.

The missions themselves are quite satisfying, requiring a bit of thought unless you are going on a Rambo murder spree. Much like real-world sniping you need to observe your targets, their patterns, and most importantly, their visibility to others. This is where Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts starts to reveal its underlying gameplay roots in that the enemies are positioned in such a way you need to find the puzzle-like solution of what order to take them out so no other enemy is alerted when another drops. This includes body discovery since you seldom have time to hide a body when you are killing from hundreds of yards away. But even when a soldier is alerted you still have fun sandbox ways to distract or divert them. There are endless ways to play this game and none of them are wrong as long as you stay alive and get paid.

Technically speaking, Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts looks really nice. This is one of the first games I’ve played on my new PC gaming rig with an RTX2080ti card, and while it doesn’t use half of what this card can deliver it still pushed out consistent 60fps at 4K resolutions. The open-world level designs is fantastic, the weapon models look good, there is excellent lighting and shadows and the interface and HUD is thoughtfully laid out and non-invasive. Going between night missions and that blinding white map/menu screen can be hell on your retinas.   Special shout out to the bullet-cam that rewards your perfect shot with a satisfying slow-mo journey from barrel to target that never gets old. It’s been done in other games but just seems extra-cool in this one. The audio is also good despite the game’s tendency to repeat certain bits of com chatter. Environmental sounds, weapons’ effects, and the underlying soundtrack all complement the experience and add real-world immersion to the game.

Sniper Ghost Warrior Contracts is certainly one of the better sniping games out there. The future-tech gadgets and the mask that can auto-correct for wind and elevation are fun gimmicks that keep the game entertaining while eliminating all the real-world considerations that are far from fun. I appreciated the open-world design that lets you consume the content at your own pace, in your own order, often even stumbling onto a new mission creating this dynamic experience that is unique for each player. Expect no less than 20 hours to fully complete this game, and you’ll enjoy every minute of it.

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint Review – PC

Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint seems to be one of the most divisive game titles of 2019. A select few have found some real enjoyment with Ubisoft’s latest looter-shooter while just as many can’t express enough their utter contempt with the game, leaving the majority to straddle the proverbial fence. Personally, my teammates and I experienced some of our best co-op gaming moments of the year (so far) in Breakpoint, and when the game is working and stable I’ve found myself having just as much fun as any of the other cookie-cutter games in this genre; Division 2, Destiny 2, etc.

Best described as “Division 2 in the wilderness”, Ghost Recon Breakpoint creates a world of epic proportions filled with months of content that can be approached in both solo and team co-op, and much like real life you are going to want to bring some additional operators into the game. The game does balance most encounters for the number of people playing, but there are some major set piece missions in the main story progression that will quickly turn fun into frustration if you try taking on a small army by yourself.

Breakpoint wastes no time in getting started. After a brief opening movie that plays out more like a corporate investment video for an island utopia you find yourself being whisked away by chopper to that very island to investigate a disturbance. At this point you get to create your character using the by-the-number character creator, choosing gender, face, hair style, scars and tats, and finally a skill specification. Choosing from Field Medic, Assault, Panther, or Sharpshooter grants you some class-specific perks, but all classes feed into the same massive skill tree that you will slowly unlock over the next 80+ hours of gameplay. Each class comes with its own set of ongoing rank challenges that, when completed, will level you up within the class then give you fresh challenges specific to your class.

Once you reach the island a short in-game tutorial will get you as far as a hidden rebel base that serves as the hub/lobby for all players on your particular server. This is where you can shop, gather intel, and unlock new missions as well as setup your first of many bivouacs. These are campsites and there are dozens of them scattered about the world map waiting to be discovered. These offer you a fast-travel destination as well as a mobile base where you can shop, craft, access vehicles from the garage, and even activate Preparations; these 60-minute buffs that will grant you performance enhancements in a variety of areas.

Ghost Recon Breakpoint is as open-world as it gets with a massive Objective and Mission page that divides all the primary and secondary missions along with objective-based missions for finding weapons, attachments, collectibles, blueprints, and these multi-faceted investigations that will have you gathering multiple clues from all over the island before finally resolving the mystery. Everything is color-coded on the map and you can actively track up to three objectives at any time.

As with all looter-shooters, Breakpoint is all about the loot and there are enough weapons (and enemy soldiers) on this island to take over the rest of the world. You can carry a primary and secondary weapon along with a handgun and up to six inventory items of your choosing that can be selected with a radial menu for quick-use. You also have five clothing slots for helmet, gloves, vest, pants, and boots. All of these items have a gear score associated with them that will all average out to create your gear level, which indicates your readiness for much of the gated primary content. Gear is also color-coded green/blue/purple with single/double/triple bars to indicate additional perks and ability boosts. There is so much loot in Breakpoint that you’ll need to resist the urge to pause and upgrade your loadout after every encounter, especially when you factor in the Gunsmith mods.

Gunsmith has been present in past Tom Clancy games and Breakpoint takes it to a new level by offering three tiers of upgrades for each weapon with up to eight upgrades per tier. Tiers 2 and 3 must be unlocked via the skill tree but even early in the game you can start modifying your arsenal to boost range, damage, reload speed, handling, etc. Upgrading is a bit like crafting in that you need components gained by deconstructing unwanted items in your inventory, which leads to those moments of indecision where you must choose to sell something for cash or tear it down for parts. You can also modify stocks, magazines, scopes and sights to fit your playstyle or combat situation.

If I had any criticism of Breakpoint it would be the sheer overwhelming amount of content and the lack of direction in how to approach it. Obviously, the level-gated missions will encourage you to explore the extracurricular activities around the island, which ultimately pays off not only in increased player level but in better gear, improved skills, and more toys like drones, vehicles, and aircraft. With a map this huge I will admit to using fast-travel to jump around, but when it comes time to move about in smaller areas the vehicle selection is second to none whether you are summoning something from your garage or stealing a car, truck, or chopper from an infiltrated enemy base. Most vehicles seat up to four so your entire team can go along for the ride and there is usually at least one gunner position, creating some fun mobile combat moments. And once you unlock the parachute you can even execute some aerial infiltration missions.

There are a lot of combat opportunities in Breakpoint. Almost everyone on the island is out to get you, and if you are spotted by a passing vehicle or a spy plane, drone, or enemy chopper an alert will sound summoning all sorts of soldiers and combat drones. It’s possible to escape their line of sight and if enough times passes they will lose interest. This makes stealth gameplay an attractive option, creating an almost puzzle-like atmosphere when planning assaults on any of the numerous bases, camps, factories, or any other enemy installation. You’ll need to prioritize targets, taking out overwatch snipers and anyone near an alarm that could summon reinforcements. If the base has turrets you might want to sneak in and sabotage the generator. You’ll also want to coordinate simultaneous takedowns with the sync shot ability and possibly make use of special drones you can lock onto multiple targets for multi-takedowns.

The freedom to play the game however you want and experience the majority of the content with no guidance can be a bit confusing for some gamers, but I personally found it refreshing to be able to ignore the next part of a story mission and go off and discover a blueprint or locate a new weapon mod. My team would be flying around the map on our way to our next mission location and spot something that looked interesting on the horizon. Next thing you know an hour has passed and we’ve taken control over a drone manufacturing plant. Even more remarkable is that with so much content I know in my mind that there are a lot of repetitious design elements at work, but every location is unique and every encounter unfolds dynamically based on how your approach the mission or encounter. Breakpoint feels fresh and exciting even after the 40-hour mark.

In addition to the seemingly overwhelming amount of PvE content Ghost Recon Breakpoint also has a competent multiplayer competitive mode called Ghost War that pits two teams of four in head-to-head action in a variety of events across several maps and game modes. Your home screen tracks all your important game data and stats and you are able to setup private games or just jump into random matchmaking. There are plenty of options for setting up your own game including picking parts of the map, time of day, weather, and lots more specific match settings. As of this review you have Elimination and Sabotage modes and five suitable scaled maps with everything being 4v4 and best of three.

As expected, playing with friends and working as a team will allow you to roll over just about any other people playing; especially when they are all going lone wolf. If you shoot someone they stay down until they are healed by a teammate, which means a lot of baited traps. The same goes for Sabotage mode where the enemy will camp near a bomb location and wait for you to try and set or defuse the device. Drones add a bit of tactical gameplay to the mix, allowing you to locate the enemy while you maintain a safe distance. Matchmaking is fast and fair for the most part, but honestly the multiplayer offering wore out its welcome after a few rounds on each map. It’s not that Ghost War is bad but more that there are so many other games just like this that are better or at least more established and robust.

I suppose we should talk about the elephant in the room; the nuclear crisis known as “micro-transactions” that has basically torpedoed critical and fan reaction to Breakpoint. My take on this debacle is simple – if you don’t like them then don’t use them. I have over 80 hours in Breakpoint and I’ve never once been tempted to even visit the store. The game throws so much loot at you just by playing the game naturally that you certainly don’t need to buy new gear or weapons. It’s all cosmetic skins anyway. Call me a purist but my MP5 should be gunmetal or camouflage. I’d have to shoot myself if I was carrying a purple shotgun; especially if I paid real money to do so. And yes, there are “time savers” for those too lazy to actually play the game they already bought. I found nothing in Breakpoint that seemed artificially padded or drawn out; just a whole lot of content that, when completed, will have you at the appropriate level to finish the main story path. If you want to pay to jump to the end of the game perhaps you need a new hobby.

Technically, Breakpoint can and does look stunning. Using a modified version of the engine that powered Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, you’ll be completely immersed in this expansive world of mountains, rivers, forests, coastal terrain, swamps, and so much more. Roads wind their way between locations offering up a thrilling driving component while rivers offer up a similar experience for boat travel, but nothing gives you a better look at the scenery than buzzing around in any of several choppers. You’ll see smoke drifting up from bivouacs, waterfalls cascading down mountains, mist floating across swamps, and snow swirling from the highest mountain peaks. All this combined with gorgeous natural light coming off the day and night cycles offer memorable golden hour moments and thrilling stealth operations under a starry sky.

That’s not to say all is perfect. There are numerous glitches that show up during co-op play.   You might find your teammate sitting outside a vehicle or even hovering in a seated position back by the tail of a chopper. One of my teammates had an invisible gun and only the suppressor was visible, hovering out in front of him. One character had all his gear visible in a pile after setting up camp; it looked like an episode of Hoarders. But these are all superficial hiccups; certainly nothing as frustrating as having servers crash or teammates spawning miles away instead of on your location during a fast-travel.

You’ll want a beefy PC to get the most from Breakpoint. I was reviewing on an i7 with an RTX2080ti and while the game was playable in 4K I ultimately had to lower the resolution down to 1440p for smooth 60fps with max details. The HDR lighting is visually striking, adding some extra realism to the experience with blinding sunlight and even that period of eye adjustment when moving in and out of interior locations. The level of environmental detail is exceptional with grass, bushes, and trees blowing in the breeze. From an architectural standpoint, every location was totally authentic from both a military and a futuristic society element.   Character animations were great, particularly the run and stealth animations and the way the guns and gear hang off the character. Even the way you carry your weapon was mirroring military training.

Sadly, the close-up textures, expressions, and lip-synch weren’t nearly as good as the rest of the package, although they did a great job capturing Jon Bernthal’s likeness and voice acting. There is plenty of dialogue in Breakpoint and it’s mostly fine and believably delivered whether it’s coming from a character or part of a radio broadcast or recorded message. The overall 7.1 sound mix created an immersive and living world full of environmental effects and the occasional bit of rousing score to punch up the suspense and action elements.

Despite my total enjoyment of Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint I do have to admit there are a few hurdles it has to overcome, and no, I’m not talking about the easily ignored micro-transactions or the visual glitches or the random server crashes. Breakpoint’s biggest adversary is competition. You have a Destiny 2 expansion, a Division 2 expansion, a new Call of Duty game, and new seasons of Apex and Fortnite. That’s a lot of live service games all competing for your time and money, and for as much as I enjoyed my time with Breakpoint when given the choice I’d rather be playing Division 2. It just has that added bit of polish. Then again, if you have grown tired of space battles and urban warfare and want to get back to nature, Ghost Recon Breakpoint delivers one of the most stunning and realistic outdoor sandboxes you can explore on your PC this year. There is so much content here for you and your friends to explore, and you will want to bring friends. Just plan on investing a lot of time uncovering everything this game has to offer.

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Vigor Review – Xbox One

I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up to review Vigor. I was provided a code, so I didn’t even realize it was a “free to play” game on the Xbox otherwise flags would have already been raised. In the past I’ve been a big fan of Bohemia Interactive’s games such as ArmA and the Operation: Flashpoint franchises, and while Vigor certainly achieves a certain level of technical prowess, the experience falls apart after the first hour or so; about the time you realize this is purely a platform created to launch an assault on your wallet.

Vigor takes place in 1991 Norway, the last safe place after the nuclear war in central Europe. You’ll need to create a character but the pickings are slim with only nine models, only three of which are female. There is minimal customization, so it gets a bit weird in the pre-game launcher when you often see multiple versions of the same person, especially early on before people start creating custom loadouts. There is a nice selection of mission locations to choose from or you can jump into Quick Play for a random level selection that will often load up a match 2-3 times faster than trying something specific.

Vigor plays from a typical third-person view as you traipse across some stunning scenery. The Unreal Engine has never looked quite this good with a mix of sprawling landscapes and other urban environments. There is a nice level of cold despair in the atmosphere as you race around collecting loot and trying to stay alive. The game can be approached in several ways. If you are playing alone then enemy avoidance is the way to go. Just hit the key locations and ransack the levels as much as possible.   Playing with others can be fun but only if you are playing with friends you know, and since the game is free it shouldn’t be hard to convince any with an Xbox to give it a shot.   The few times I played with strangers (killing time waiting for my teammates) did not go well. They either sucked, wouldn’t chat, or would turn against their own team. You can invite friends to join your game from your Shelter, and once you enter the pre-game lobby you have a chance to assign various boosters. You can even buy insurance to protect your loot if you get shot before escaping the level via the exit.

One of the only good aspects of Vigor is the map and the unique levels it contains. The graphics are breathtaking in places with great lighting, special effects, texture detail, and a draw distance to the crystal clear horizon, and all running at a smooth 60fps. It was so good it actually defied reality as there was no haze on the horizon or variable LOD – everything was pristine and in focus from my feet to the horizon. But that was on only a few levels. Other levels were certainly more realistic and there was even some bad weather tossed in that reduced visibility. And there were more than a few graphical glitches and clipping issues; a few of them nearly game-breaking.

The driving force behind Vigor is to collect loot and upgrade your Shelter, a nice two-story cabin complete with a shooting range outside that offers up its own set of target practice challenges for each weapon. The upgrade tree for the Shelter is extensive and the entire cabin can be upgraded to 13 levels. You’ll also be crafting plenty of inventory items and tearing down old items for materials to make new stuff. You can carry two primary and two secondary weapons and your pack has limited slots but can be upgraded to carry more.

Sadly, with the focus on loot versus actual combat those looking for a more traditional shooter like Call of Duty, Apex, or even the recently released Ghost Recon: Breakpoint will find Vigor shallow and boring after only a few hours.   Vigor doesn’t seem too concerned about your time though, as crafting new upgrades and gear makes use of a real-time clock that will have you pacing around long after all the hard work in simply collecting the ingredients.

Vigor is also heavily monetized with everything in the game costing Crowns, the in-game currency that is parceled out like coins to the homeless during regular play, making it awfully tempting to purchase any number of available Crown bundles with real money. But once you realize that all store purchases are purely cosmetic it becomes easier to justify not spending any money despite the game frequently “reminding” you that you can. Periodically, while playing a match, planes will fly over and airdrop loot boxes. These are a great way to get some good stuff for free assuming you can get to the crate, loot the items and get away alive. These airdrops will usually attract everyone on the map, which is a great way to encourage localized combat or hanging back and sniping from a distance.

Vigor reminds me a lot of the Dark Zone in The Division; get in, loot as much as possible, try to stay alive, and get the hell out. Stealth is always preferred over combat, especially when the gunplay is as terrible as it is in Vigor.   The aiming is horrible, and no matter how you tweak the controls you can never aim down the sights or scope and move your aim as fast as the enemy can run away. This forces you to mostly fire from the hip which is wildly inaccurate and most encounters turn into drunken Mexican standoffs. Keep in mind that if you die (and didn’t buy insurance) the enemy can loot everything you brought into the game and everything you collected up to the point you died. Guns are also unbalanced with some overpowered weapons taking you down in one or two shots while others require multiple clips. Even the targeting seems off as you will learn if you try any of the shooting gallery challenges. Bottom line; it’s best to avoid combat and treat this as a stealth-loot game.

There are daily challenges and other activities to encourage coming back to Vigor on a daily basis, but as I mentioned there just isn’t enough fresh content or compelling game modes to make you want to play more than a few hours. Even the Shelter upgrade system loses its appeal quickly. I will admit to having a bit of fun playing outside the box and exploiting a few of the systems. There are tools built into the game for locating enemies as well as picking the location for the next airdrop, both of which are great for setting up ambushes. Of course the most fun is teaming up with friends that you know and will work together. If you have any type of organized firepower you can crush nearly anyone else playing this game.

With everything else Vigor has going against it, the game released at just the wrong time. It had a nice two-month lead on multiplayer favorites like Ghost Recon and Destiny 2, but when you stack those two games along with the upcoming Modern Warfare in a few weeks the only people left playing Vigor will be the ones who can’t afford these newer mainstream titles.   The good news is if you are playing Vigor due to limited finances you at least won’t fall prey to the monetized cosmetic content in the game.   There is some noteworthy potential here, but at the end of the day Vigor is doomed to be lost and forgotten in the sea of major titles either already out or coming soon.

Sniper Elite V2 Remastered Review – PC

Seven years ago last week (to the day) I wrote and posted my original review for Sniper Elite V2. At the time I found the game enjoyable, and despite having a few game gimmicks, offered a reasonably challenging and realistic sniping experience with an interesting self-insertion into WWII historical events. When I learned the game was being remastered for modern day tech I was very interested in seeing how this game would (or could) hold up after almost a decade of competition and even two direct sequels within its own franchise.

It’s worth noting that owners of the existing game can get this remastered upgrade for only $10 and rookie snipers can buy into the full Sniper Elite V2 experience for only $35. In additional to stunning new 4K support you also get all of the previously released DLC, a new photo mode to snap grisly pics of your favorite x-ray kill cam shots, some new playable characters along with seven multiplayer modes and co-op support for the entire campaign.

Despite some remarkable improvements in various aspects of the visual presentation, Sniper Elite V2 still shows its age, but that’s not to say the game isn’t stunning, but only when compared with its former self. Stack it up against either of the sequels that came after and parts of the game are still pretty rough. Likewise, the issues I had with the gameplay, both controls and level design remain firmly intact, and the weeks I spent playing the remastered version had me cursing in all the same spots for all the same reasons. Even the flashy new graphics couldn’t distract me from that.

As a veteran Army sniper and former instructor at the U.S. Army Sniper School as well as a WWII history buff I appreciated the effort Rebellion put into their game, blurring the lines of realistic simulator and entertainment. Thanks to movies and even other video games, there are a lot of romanticized misconceptions about snipers. Being an Army sniper takes a patient person, a disciplined person, a person who is willing to work alone for extended periods of time, often in hostile situations. In addition to marksmanship skills, you also have to be an expert on detecting and stalking a target, concealment and camouflage, and estimating the range of a target while factoring in values for wind and bullet drop. You have to have a keen observational awareness of your surroundings, not only in picking the ideal sniping spot, but also in anticipating enemy response and planning one or more escape routes.

Without hesitation, I started Sniper Elite V2 Remastered and picked the Sniper Elite difficulty that promised realistic bullet physic and deadly enemies. The game opens with some historical footage from WWII that deals with the Germans’ deadly use of V2 rocket technology to devastate their enemies from afar, a technology the Russians are now trying to obtain. It was going to be my job to go in and secure the technology and possibly get a few rocket scientists to defect, but most importantly, Russia could not get the V2 rockets.

The opening training mission does a good job of getting you comfortable with the controls. I used both mouse and keyboard and an Xbox 360 controller just for the sake of comparison. While the 360 gamepad worked as well as expected, the mouse and keyboard is an unbeatable combo when it comes to deadly pinpoint accuracy, and that’s what sniping is all about. You quickly learn some valuable skills such as setting tripwire traps, tossing rocks to bait enemies away from your destination, and even booby-trapping a dead soldier; all of which gets paid off later in the mission.

Eventually you will get to fire that first shot from your sniper rifle, and the game does an impressive job of putting the player in the proper mindset by mixing in believable visuals with an ominous thumping heartbeat; an audible representation of your pulse which factors into the accuracy of your shot. With your pulse and breathing under control you exhale to enter “focus time”. The world slows down around you in your heightened sense of awareness, and you get some additional zoom before you squeeze the trigger. What follows is probably the most gratuitous special effect and easily one of the most gruesome selling points for a game since Mortal Kombat fatalities.

Assuming you have properly accounted for wind shear and bullet drop, you will get to watch your bullet make a slow-motion trip, exploding from the end of your rifle and spiraling toward your target. Once it arrives you are treated to a bone-shattering, flesh-tearing, organ-exploding X-ray special effects sequence that is surprisingly not as exaggerated as you might think. Sadly, what is exaggerated are the “realistic bullet physics”. When you zoom in on a target you will get data on their distance, which you can then use to determine how much to offset your aim using the tick marks in the scope view. Some of my earlier shots were not hitting where they should given the indicated distance and my knowledge of parabolic shaped trajectories.

Just to satisfy my own curiosity I tried playing that same level on Marksman difficulty where a secondary reticle corrects for gravity and wind. Only then did I realize that the designers were apparently over-exaggerating the physics simply to make a point. A typical sniper rifle from the WWII era would likely be zeroed at approximately 100 meters, which means that you would always center your scope on a target at 100 meters. This happens to be the distance for many of the shots in Sniper Elite V2. It’s not until you start shooting at ranges of 200-300 meters that your bullets will actually start to noticeably drop anywhere from 3-11cm. I can’t really fault the game for trying to keep things fun and accessible. Short of months of training and years of experience or knowing how to read a bullet drop table, nobody would likely find a “pure sniper simulation” any fun.

While I was able to eventually work out my issues with bullet drop the one area of the game that defied all realism and logic was the omniscient enemy AI that could magically spot me if I lingered in an open doorway a half-mile down the road for a second too long. Even worse is making a huge trek to the top of a tower or roof of a crumbled building to find your perfect vantage point only to fire that first shot and have the entire Third Reich open up on your exact position. Snipers are trained to reposition after firing to keep their location a mystery and confuse the enemy, but the enemies in Sniper Elite V2 can pick you out of the rubble with GPS-like precision, and on Sniper Elite difficulty they will aggressively storm and flank your location. Knowing this, it is imperative that you properly defend your position with land and tripwire mines before making yourself known.

Sniper Elite V2 does a few inventive things like having you plant explosives then detonating them with sniper fire – basically WWII’s version of a remote C4 charge – and you can also shoot explosive canisters or even blast the gas caps on tanks and trucks to blow them up – not entirely realistic but incredibly fun. You even have dynamite you can drop or throw then detonate it later with sniper fire. Much of the game revolves around your sniper rifle, which will get upgraded throughout the game as you find newer and deadlier models. Before each mission you can go into your loadout screen and select which weapons and explosive ordnance you wish to take as well as check the map for ideal vantage points.

When the enemies get close you’ll need to switch to something like the Thompson or MP40 SMG. You also have a “silenced pistol” that can kill with a single headshot, although the gunshot seems just as loud as any other to me. And if you get really close you can physically snap a guy’s neck. Guards are somewhat observant of their comrades, so you may need to pick-up and hide a body before a patrol stumbles upon it – that or trap it with a landmine, but that trick can summon more trouble than it’s worth.

I was very impressed with the updated visuals for Sniper Elite V2 Remastered. Running at max settings in 4K at 60fps barely broke a sweat on my GTX 1080ti card, and the level of environmental detail and enhanced textures and lighting definitely helped usher this game into the low end of current generation presentation. Some of the levels are truly spectacular with these huge Hollywood reveals, as you step through a door and look out through a missing section of wall to see a bombed out city with hundreds of planes and zeppelins filling the sky, or make a daring fiery dash out of an exploding V2 rocket factory. The slow-motion kill cams continue to steal the show and the X-ray bullet impacts that make each kill just as much fun and original as the last never get old, but if they do you can change their frequency in the options menu.

The weapons all sound realistic enough with the exception of the loud “silenced” pistol, and there is an interesting slow-motion effect on sound when you exhale just before your shot followed by a nice Doppler effect during the focus time bullet cam. There is an inspirational WWII soundtrack for the menus and some combat music in the game that signals when you are in trouble and fades away when everyone else is dead. Other than that you have some nice environmental and wartime sound effects, the occasional German banter, and a nice self-narrated mission briefing before each new level.

It took me around 10-12 hours to get through all ten missions on the Sniper Elite difficulty. There are collectible items like gold bars and wine bottles you can find in each level if you want to explore every nook and crevice in the game. I found about half of them in my travels and I wasn’t even looking. The remastered version also supports co-op multiplayer that lets you play the story missions with a friend or you can check out modes like Kill Tally, a survival mode where you defend against endless waves of enemies to see how long you can survive, or Bombing Run, where you need scramble around the level finding parts to repair your vehicle so you can escape before an impending bombing run. Overwatch is easily my favorite modes and has one person playing the sniper armed only with a sniper rifle and the other acting as an Operative, who must protect the sniper with his SMG and call out targets for his partner using binoculars. This is a great mode if you have a friend who takes the game as seriously as you do.

Sniper Elite V2 Remastered is a fun and challenging third-person shooter that gives gamers a small taste of what it must have been like to be a sniper in WWII. Certain liberties were taken with bullet physics and enemy AI, but the game doesn’t suffer from it. In fact, the only real issues I have with the game is, “why can’t I rest my weapon on a sandbag or window ledge when kneeling or prone?”, and “why can’t I switch shoulders for iron sights?”, and if that is the biggest complaint I can take away from this game then Sniper Elite V2 is definitely a sniper game worth playing. Whether it’s a game worth “replaying” just for fresh graphics is entirely up to you and your nostalgia for a seven year old game and your attachment to Alexander Hamilton.

Tom Clancy’s The Division 2: Ultimate Edition Review – PC

I can’t count the hours I spent playing the original Tom Clancy The Division game that released back in 2016, but Uplay isn’t shy about embarrassing me with a tally – 589 hours logged over 2+ years, and while this might sound like a lot, I’ve already logged over 120 hours playing The Division 2 over the past four weeks. Hopefully, the tardiness of my review will be balanced with its thoroughness, as I have played and completed the story content, and dived deep into the Dark Zone and Endgame content. It has also provided Ubisoft the chance to patch and repair several issues with the core game and the Endgame content that were holding this thrilling sequel from near-perfection status.

Personally, I am all about the multiplayer experience when it comes to gaming; not with randos, but rather my own handpicked crew of trained lethal soldiers that know how to work together as a tactically proficient team. The Division 2 is perfectly suited to that experience, even more so than the original, which was admittedly fairly easy to complete the core story content by yourself. The overall difficulty of The Division 2 has been noticeably balanced to favor (and encourage) team play; even if only a team of two. Attempting any of the primary or side missions alone is usually a frustrating exercise in suicide; even with the assistance of a drone, turret or nearby local allies. It’s difficult to even muscle your way through the game, as all of the non-mission content auto-scales the difficulty to your current level. Truth be told, there just isn’t that much content targeted for the lone wolf operative with the exception of collecting SHD boxes and the occasional random activities noted by the numerous pop-up “?” scattered about the map.Fortunately, The Division 2 has been carefully crafted around the multiplayer experience with superior matchmaking, in-game communication, and a robust clan system for those wanting to assemble a likeminded pool of fellow agents to play with and accomplish clan-specific goals and objectives for bonus gear and XP. Matchmaking can begin as early as the Uplay menu where your friends and their status are listed, and you can click Join from there and the game will launch and take you into their instance.

Whether playing alone or with a team, veterans of the franchise will notice and appreciate the greatly improved enemy AI that reacts better than most humans you might encounter in PVP matches.   Most encounters have you at two or three to one odds from the beginning with a high chance of attracting nearby enemies that will eagerly join the fight.   These guys all have a wide and varying set of skills ranging from the brute who will charge your position to the sneaky ones who will flank your position or even circle entire buildings to come in from behind you. There are guys who setup turrets or pilot deadly RC cars, and always watch for the glint of a sniper scope putting you in the crosshairs.Ubisoft has learned a lot from the first game and carefully crafted the sequel to focus on the Endgame content. After all, once you complete the core story content in 40-50 hours, you need something to keep you coming back for the next 1-2 years. I was both devastated and thrilled when I completed the main story and saw all my hard work of turning the map green with friendly occupation revert to a sea of red as my map was invaded by a new and even more powerful faction, the Black Tusks.   And along with stronger enemies – some of which are even robotic – come new mission types and more powerful weapons and specializations to take your agent to the next level. But before we take a deep dive into the Endgame perhaps we should explore the game from the start.

The Division 2 is a direct sequel to the events covered in the original, only this time we have moved from NYC and headed to our nation’s capital. Washington D.C. provides an incredible backdrop for both story and combat. There is something so surreal about fighting in and around famous landmarks not to mention using the White House as your base of operations. The one thing I did notice for this game is that no two missions look or feel similar.   A lot of that content in NYC got pretty stale by the end, but the mission design for The Division 2 was constantly fresh and kept getting better. There was a much more balanced approach to indoor and outdoor missions with many of the larger missions moving in and out of doors or mixing up tight CQB rooms with large foyers or atriums for some major battles.There is a lot to do in The Division 2, and it’s all tracked by the Progression page in your menu. You have your main and side missions as well as community projects that require completion of specific regional activities as well as numerous donations of looted gear and resources. The level of loot in this game borders on ridiculousness; almost as if you were the first person to explore these environments. There are literally rooms with 6-8 lootable objects in them; satchels, backpacks, chest, ammo box, gun case, water barrel, etc. When the game starts off these items blend seamlessly into the meticulously detailed background clutter, making them challenging to find; at least until you make some charitable donations to your local Control Point leader, and then these loot boxes will start to glow.

Other activities are revealed by discovering numerous safe houses scattered about each district. Once there you can flip a switch to reveal all the activities for that zone include collecting SHD Caches, securing Control Points, and other secondary activities like escorting a resource caravan or attacking an enemy caravan or stopping a public execution. While missions are designed with certain agent levels in mind, all of the peripheral content in The Division 2 scales to your current level ensuring the game is always challenging. It’s also worth noting that encounters scale accordingly to the level and number of members in your team, and if there is a major difference in levels between players the game will boost lower level players to keep them productive in combat.Early on you will want to think about what kind of agent you want to play and start building to that goal, both in weapon loadouts as well as gadgets and perks. Eventually you’ll earn enough SHD tech to unlock all the gadgets and the perks, but until then you will want to specialize. The gadgets are great fun and a huge tactical advantage, especially if you can get a team together who all likes different stuff. While it might seem like a cool advantage to have your team unleash four attack drones on the enemy effectively doubling your numbers, things ultimately work out better when you mix things up. All the gadgets have numerous variations that can be unlocked, many of these balancing defense with offense, so that attack drone can just as easily become a healing drone or that long range sniper turret can be turned into a short range flamethrower. Chem Launchers, Seeker Mines, Firefly, Shields and the Hive all offer a wide assortment of tactically useful offense and defense options.  One of my favorite skills from the first game, the Pulse, no longer has any combat perks and is purely for recon purposes, although the Jammer version of the Pulse acts as an EMP, perfect for disrupting enemy electronics as well as some robotic enemies encountered in the Endgame.

The progression of the game is uniquely tied to the evolution of the city. Settlements serve as secondary bases of operation and offer their own unique set of characters and missions. As you service the settlements their success fuels your own base back at the White House as the entire city becomes this evolving organism.   It’s exciting to see the White House slowly rebuild as new specialists arrive and new additions like a shooting range, crafting bench, barber shop, and bounty hunter station get added. Character progression is also important, and as your character evolves you will want to tailor your arsenal to your talents.   Customized loadouts allow you to swap between weapons and gear setups favorite CQB, sniping, healing, etc.   Select among Vanguard, Assault, Marksman, or Support then customize your gear accordingly.A new element that factors into specialized gear is Gear Brands; not to be confused with Gear Sets.   Sets require you to own a complete matching set before unlocking any bonuses whereas Brands slowly stack the bonuses as you add up to three matching branded items. These brands are optimized toward specific playstyles, perfect for integrating into those aforementioned specialty loadouts. As always, gear comes in various color-coded quality ranging from Worn, Standard, Superior, and High End, to Exotic gear coming in a future update. The same goes for weapons, which share the same quality color system and are also divided into weapon classes including; Pistols, Shotguns, Rifles, Assault Rifles, Marksman Rifles, and Light and Submachine Guns. Once you reach the Endgame and are able to choose a specialty you will gain access to three Specialty weapons; the TAC-50C Sniper, a multi-target Grenade Launcher, or an Explosive Crossbow.

There is a robust weapons modification system in place that ranges from physical attachments you collect and place on the weapons like scopes, grips, extended mags, compensators, and suppressors to Weapon Talents that are passive perks earned by doing special activities or wearing a special brand item. Mods can be discovered or crafted using a combination of blueprints and materials. Blueprints can be purchased or unlocked by completing projects while materials are scattered about in loot boxes, but some of the rarer elements such as printer filament can only be collected by deconstructing existing mods. And once you unlock the Recalibration station you will be able to alter one stat or talent per weapon.I will mention clothing briefly, as there is a fairly elaborate system in place to customize the look of your character, but it does seem to exist solely as a means for Ubisoft to sell you keys to unlock apparel crates or sell you premium in-game currency to purchase items and emotes individually. I’m sure there are people out there who care about this type of content, but I am not one of them. And once you choose your specialty for the Endgame you get your own custom outfit that supersedes any other clothing you might own.

When it comes to the Endgame you have a lot to do starting with taking back the entire map you just spent 40-50 hours gaining control over, now under control of the Black Tusks. It was demoralizing seeing all those Control Points go red and red supply convoys with their dotted lines filling the streets. These new enemies are especially powerful and bring with them some mechanical assistance in the form of robotic dogs and other mechanical enemies. Thankfully, when you hit level 30 you can choose from three specialties, each with their own varied skill tree powered by SHD tech and each with a signature weapon. Again, if you are playing as a team it helps if you mix up these specialties rather than trying to explore the Endgame with three snipers. There is easily another 20+ hours waiting for you just in the primary city map of the Endgame, and that’s not counting the Dark Zone.The Division 2 triples your pleasure when it comes to Dark Zone action. Each of the three Dark Zones must first be unlocked by completing an introductory mission before gaining access to the actual territory and the activities inside. All gameplay inside the Dark Zone is “normalized”, which basically strips away all your gear and gun modifiers and puts the focus entirely on player skill. With everyone on equal footing, the Dark Zones are pure PVP arenas with challenging combat and a fun loot system that, much like the first game, includes normal and contaminated loot that will need to be extracted from the zone by securing and holding an extraction point while NPCs and enemy agents attack and try to steal your loot.

As before, you can choose to go Rogue by performing enough rogue actions to justify alerting everyone else in the zone that you now have a price on your head. I have to admit it is pretty fun playing the Rogue angle in this new vision of the Dark Zone. Running around hijacking extractions, stealing dropped loot or accessing SHD terminals is a nice diversion to the otherwise cautious gameplay that seems to be the norm for the Dark Zone.   If you are feeling particularly traitorous you can start killing other agents to go into Red Rogue status. During this time any additional kills will increase the bounty on your head and the amount of time everyone else has to kill you. If you can survive the time limit you get to keep your own bounty. Locating and visiting a Thieves Den will reset your Rogue status and secure any stolen loot. These locations are also home to other Rogue agents as well as a traveling Dark Zone vendor who might have some special items for you.Dark Zone gameplay is greatly improved in The Division 2, not only by having three zones with varied layouts that encourage specific styles of gameplay like sniping or CQB ambushes, but also with its unique progression and perks system that rewards the player with better abilities and much better loot than you will find anywhere else in D.C. Just make sure you can extract any contaminated loot or make it to a Thieves Den to add that gear to your arsenal.

Those looking for a dedicated PVP experience, look no further than the Skirmish and Domination modes. The former is basically Team Deathmatch where you try to lower the other team’s respawn count before the timer runs out, while Domination has you capturing three location points spread about the map then trying to hold them as you slowly bank points tallying toward that 750-point goal. Both of these modes also have plenty of loot boxes full of special ammo and buffs for your team.The Division 2 is currently one of the most exquisitely detailed and breathtakingly beautiful games I have ever played on the PC to date. My 1080ti card is capable of running the game at fully maxed out settings at 1080p while never dipping below 60fps and with only minor dips down to 55-57fps running at 4k; usually during large battles or scenes with lots of effects. The level of detail is almost incomprehensible, with so much litter and trash cluttering the streets and realistic vegetation seeping back into the urban landscape. The settlements are realistically portrayed with makeshift gardens, solar and wind power, vendors, kids frolicking around kicking a soccer ball, and it’s genuinely rewarding to see these places grow and prosper due to your actions within the game.

There is a day/night cycle complete with beautiful sunrises and sunsets. HDR god rays streak through the trees or diffuse through a morning mist or smoky battlefield. Thunderstorms rage with flashing lightning and ominous thunder that makes it hard to hear your teammates, and nothing can prepare you for acoustical and visual carnage of a blinding sandstorm. My only issue with the audio is that exterior sounds do not realistically carry indoors, so you can be standing just inside a door watching it rain but you cannot hear the rain until you step past some invisible line where the game now knows you are outside. The rest of the audio package is pure perfection with thrilling music – the kind of stuff you expect to hear in a Tom Clancy movie – as well as plenty of spoken dialogue from all the NPCs as well as numerous recording devices and those holographic Echo reenactments. Weapon sound effects are good and vary for each gun type but they never seem to change based on mods like suppressors or compensators. Larger guns seem to lack the appropriate punch when squeezing off a few hundred rounds. Even mounted turrets seem a bit tame. Environmental effects are spot-on with birds and crickets chirping or the random deer loudly dashing down the street or a chittering raccoon guarding a trashcan before scurrying under a car.The menus and interface are pretty much the same as the first game. The select button gives you instant access to the sprawling map of D.C. with all of its icons noting where to go and what to do while the Start button calls up the main menu with access to weapons, apparel, gear, progression tabs detailing everything you’ve done and what’s left. There are some fantastic found footage videos to be discovered in the menu system that I encourage you to seek out. These are excellent quality and buried deep in the interface with no direct means of knowing they exist – I just stumbled on them, but they add to the story and ambience. While some might prefer a mouse and keyboard for a slight boost in targeting accuracy I found an Xbox controller worked best for overall interface navigation and gameplay.

Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 is a spectacular game and a fantastic sequel to the first game, which now seems more like a proof of concept. The Division 2 builds on everything Ubisoft learned from that game and the two years that followed. You can clearly see they were listening to the fans because there are so many quality of life improvements as well as major improvements in nearly every facet of game design, especially where it counts; the Endgame. There was not a single mission or side mission in the main game that felt like any other. There were more jaw-dropping memorable moments than I could count like the first time I entered the planetarium or having major shootouts amongst the displays at the Air and Space Museum or fighting in the tropical display of the Vietnam war memorial or mounting a major assault on the Lincoln Memorial or taking back control of the Washington Monument or defending the wreckage of Air Force One on the steps of the Capitol building. And even when the map resets and you get to do a lot of this again with new enemies and new tactics, it somehow feels just as fresh.The Division 2 is perfect for gamers of all abilities and levels of commitment, whether you simply want to play the story and get out, or invest 500+ hours ranking through the World Tiers and exploring every last ounce of content Ubisoft plans on delivering. Many of these games as service titles rely on repetitive grinding, but The Division 2 manages to stay fresh, exciting, and new even after 120 hours.   A big part of that is the focus on playing with friends. It’s been a long time since there was a game that has had me connect and reconnect with so many friends. The level of camaraderie and concepts of teamwork, tactics, and communication easily transition from my real-life military career directly into this game.

Much like the game, this review is a work in progress. Even as I write this, more content and new features are imminent and there is a whole season of fresh content on the horizon. I will very likely be making additions to this review or perhaps posting entirely new content as these changes and additions happen, but until then rest assured that Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 is one of the most thrilling, tactical, team-based looter-shooters available today.

The Division 2 is available in Standard, Gold, and Ultimate editions.  This review was based on the Ultimate Edition which includes the Year 1 Pass with 8 Classified Assignments, 3 New Specializations, The First Responder Pack, The Battleworn Secret Service Pack, and The Elite Agent Pack.

Metro Exodus Review – Xbox One

Not only am I a big fan of the Metro game franchise, I’m an even bigger fan of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s novels that inspired the games.  I generally prefer multiplayer and team-based games but when the opportunity to play and review Metro Exodus presented itself I jumped at the chance to experience this single-player, third installment in the Metro survival series, and I was not disappointed.

The story of Exodus is divided into four parts, each distinguished by a season and kicking off with a bitter cold prologue in the all too familiar ruins of Moscow where we meet up with our hero, Artyom who is out on routine patrol.  This initial chapter is the shortest of the four, mainly designed to setup and familiarize us with all the main characters that will be joining us for the remainder of the adventure.  It’s also a good time to learn or relearn the intricacies of the scavenging, crafting, and resource management that forms the core of Metro.  The chapter culminates in our band of heroes stealing a train and smashing their way out of Moscow.

For the remaining 20-30+ hours (depending on how thorough you explore) prepare to embark on one of the more realistic survival sandbox games I’ve played in recent years.  I’ve done quite a bit of survival training and exercises in real-life and while admittedly simplified for gaming purposes, this still comes off as quite realistic with all sorts of intertwining systems and shared resources.  Crafting is based on two primary resources you gather while exploring the land and looting your enemies.  You can perform limited crafting at any time by using your backpack to assemble med kits, air filters, and pneumatic air rifle rounds.  More elaborate crafting such as other ammo types or repairing weapon damage can only be done at a workbench.

The rules of the game are sophisticated in favor of realism.  You can’t carry around six weapons at a time; only three, and if you want to swap you either have to do this at a workbench or make a swap with a fallen enemy or loot drop.  The clever element lies in the customization of weapons which can be done using backpack crafting.  You can go into any weapon and start swapping out any available parts, adding compensators, suppressors, extended mags, a variety of sights and scopes, and even stocks for stability.  By mixing up the parts you can turn any weapon into a silent scoped assassination weapon, or a flashy fully automatic Rambo weapon that will instill fear into the mutant hordes.  This level of customization encourages players to analyze each encounter and prep their arsenal appropriately, and even your comrades might suggest a stealth approach when the odds are against you, which is almost always.

Weapons get so much attention in this game with the ability to swap or field strip a weapon for parts and ammo with a choice of button presses.  I particularly enjoyed the damage model applied to weapons, so if you are using them during a sandstorm or getting them wet or dirty the guns will jam or not be as effective, forcing you to spend valuable crafting resources to clean them back to optimum performance.  There is nothing worse than having to decide whether to clean your gun or make an extra med kit.

Also in need of frequent repair is your gas mask, which slowly becomes damaged when wearing it in combat.  You’ll slowly see cracks and chips and eventually holes appear making the mask less efficient and eventually worthless as you gasp, blackout, and die.  Thankfully the mask doesn’t play as much of a critical role as it did in past games.  Once outside of Moscow much of the game is radiation free, and you are only forced to wear the mask in certain hot zones or during violent sandstorms.  As long as you have a mask in good condition and four minutes of filters prior to any mission you should be fine. 

Metro Exodus can best be summed up with a single word – “excess”, which is both good and bad.  The level and world design is excessively detailed, which makes the game stunning to behold on the Xbox One X with full HDR and 4K support, but the levels are so littered with clutter that it can make things a bit sticky when trying to move around, and it’s not always obvious or predictable on what you will or will not get stuck on when trying to flank or flee.  It also creates some annoying targeting issues when aiming through a hole in the wall or through a shelf of items, as it appears you have a clear shot but the bullet won’t pass through the cluttered cover.

Perhaps the most excessive element in Metro Exodus is the script.  People love to talk and often at the same time.  There are numerous moments of regrouping and relaxation where you will get to chat up the various people in your group of survivors.  Often you don’t even have to hit a button; just approach and they will go off on an 8-10 minute monologue.   Keep in mind you never speak, so this is very one-sided, and you are never sure if what they are saying is important exposition or merely atmospheric fluff.  Turning on subtitles will still display text even when you are out of audible range, and some mid-mission conversations will dynamically switch between positional audio and digital com chatter if you move too far away, which was a nice touch.  The biggest chatterbox is your wife, Anna who will talk for as long as you want to listen, but at least you get some side activities like caressing her shoulder, drinking coffee, or smoking a hand rolled cigarette.

Metro Exodus starts off rather linear but quickly turns into an open-world survival sandbox where primary and secondary missions are displayed on the map and you are free to tackle them in the order you choose.  Obviously the secondary (?) objectives usually help to better equip you for the primary (X) mission as was the case during the first stop where I was hunting down a missing teddy bear and guitar before tackling that mutant catfish inside the train yard.  The missions are realistically designed to fit the environments and the overarching story, and the use of a day/night cycle allows you to further customize how you play.  During the day you get a certain set of enemy encounters, but at night all new horrors come out to play.  You have to weigh the added stealth elements versus the deadlier creatures of the night then choose to sleep in a bed until the desired time.

The various chapters also feature their own style of gameplay.  The first stop is a nice mix of stealth and survival while the second stop at a government bunker switches into a survival-horror FPS game, and later on, when you reach the desert, the game takes on this Mad Max vibe where you are mowing down mutants in a rusty minivan.  And gameplay takes a huge twist in the final chapter where you basically start over with a crossbow, as you run recon for your future forest home.  Metro Exodus always seems to offer something new and exciting at every twist of the tracks.

Presentation is outstanding, and while this is only my second major title I’ve played on my new Xbox One X, I can tell you it is already worth the system upgrade.  The 4K visuals and HDR lighting combine for some truly photo-real moments, and the framerate and smooth targeting makes the shooting fun and as accurate as these handcrafted weapons should be whether using iron sights or a 4x scope.  Even the rechargeable flashlight and the night vision goggles had realistic visuals and illumination.  I also appreciated the use of your wristband for important game info keeping the game HUD-free.  Combined with fantastic sound effects for weapons, environment, and terrifying mutant creatures and survivors and hundreds of hours of recorded dialogue for characters who affectionately won’t shut up, Metro Exodus is a masterclass of immersive gameplay.

The only thing that disrupted that immersion was some super-long load times and numerous game freezes.  On average, standard load times from a fresh start of the game took 3-5 minutes with the game loaded on a 2TB WDC external USB drive.  On suggestion I moved the game to the internal drive and load times dropped to 2-4 minutes.  This is nearly every load, and loading a new chapter/location often exceeded 4-5 minutes.  The game allows for quick saves and quick loads, and while saving was instant a quick load would take 60-90 seconds.  This problem was further exasperated by the countless times the game froze; only they weren’t countless.  I documented them all and by the time I reached the final forest chapter the game had frozen 38 times.  At first it was once or twice per hour but during the Caspian desert level it was freezing 3-4 times per hour forcing me to quit the game and restart.  Resetting the system, clearing the cache, and even deleting and reinstalling the game has had no effect.  The lockups are totally random.  It locked up climbing a ladder, driving a van, and even listening to the radio that you play with in your quarters.  Thankfully this hasn’t forced me to replay significant portions of the game, but I am forced to endure those long load times every time I restart.  I can only hope the load times and game freezes are addressed in a future patch.

We’re only two months into 2019 but Metro Exodus has quickly become my favorite game of the year.  From the realistic survival and crafting mechanics to the painstakingly detailed apocalyptic world, Exodus not only tells a fantastic story, it totally immerses you in that story in a way no other single-player survival game ever has.  The somewhat annoying minutiae of all those systems from the first two games have been polished and perfected with numerous quality of life enhancements that bring back the joy of run and gun crafting, making Metro Exodus a must-own game for any fan of the Metro franchise or anyone looking for a good story-rich, survival horror game.

Hitman HD Enhanced Collection Review – Xbox One

While I’ve never actually reviewed a Hitman game before I have played all of them…repeatedly, so when the Hitman HD Enhanced Collection showed up for review it seemed like a good time to revisit the two games that make up this remastered collection; Blood Money and Absolution. The “collection” is merely two standalone games bundled under a single price, which makes it nice if you only want to install one or the other but it would have been nice if they were actually sold separately.  The “enhanced” visuals are sure to impress whether playing in 1080p or 4K; both achieve a smooth 60fps and some fancy new HDR lighting effects along with increased texture resolution, upgraded texture formats, super-sampling, upscale support, heightened shadow map and mirror resolutions, improved lighting.  Even the controls were tweaked for more responsive gameplay.

Hitman: Blood Money HD

First up was the 2006 Blood Money, which having never looked better still shows its age visually and in game design.  It was oddly familiar and a bit shocking standing on the pier outside the abandoned amusement park for my tutorial on assassination.   There is a binding narrative to the 13 missions setting up a series of flashbacks that highlight our killer’s exploits over the past several years. The hub to these events is an interview between a journalist and a mysterious disfigured man who has been hunting down Agent 47 during this time. As he recounts those events we get to actually play them.

Even more disturbing, other agency assassins have been killed in what turns out to be a huge conspiracy revolving around cloning and the next presidential election. Sensing that he may be the next target, Agent 47 travels to America where he attempts to carry on with business as usual while trying to stay alive and expose the plot against the ICA.

While I have regularly enjoyed the previous Hitman games I did find them a bit linear. You could always tell what the designers wanted you to do and the entire game ended up being more puzzle than action. Blood Money really opens things up allowing you unparalleled freedom to approach each of the 13 assignments however you see fit. It also provides for “thinking on your feet” so if things don’t go as planned (as they seldom do) you can improvise with great success.

Compared to the controls and UI of the recent Hitman games the controls for Blood Money seem antiquated.   The context sensitive interface is tied to the environment, so when you get close enough to an object any of several options will appear next to the persistent button map in the top-left corner of the screen. This allows you to quickly pick-up, drop, drag, dispose, or hide items inside others with a quick and intuitive button press, but it also constantly reminds you that you are playing a game.

Walking and running around is handled with the analog stick, which has never been more important since your ultimate goal is to not attract attention. It’s usually prudent to walk – not run – especially when guards or other suspicious observers are nearby. You can always gauge your current attention level with the handy meter that resides next to your health bar. If it gets too high you might need to change clothes or location. If it turns red, you need to prepare to defend yourself.

The variety and size of the missions have also been improved and you will now find yourself going up against much smarter targets, sometimes even other hitmen that fight back with as much ferocity as yourself. Each chapter typically has multiple objectives, not always “hits”, but sometimes you might even have to protect somebody or retrieve an object or sensitive data.

There are several systems in place that dynamically play out with the game and your performance. The first is your payment, which is based on how well you perform the mission minus any penalties. If you take a custom weapon into a mission and leave it behind you will pay a fee, as you will if you fail to leave wearing your stock black suit and red tie. Admittedly, paying $5,000 to not have to risk going back for your suit might seem like a fair price, but it’s the principle of the thing that compelled me to avoid such fines.

Notoriety is another cool feature although I don’t think it was fully exploited, or at least it was too easy to maintain your anonymity. At the end of each mission you are ranked on several criteria including witness, caught on camera, noise and violence levels, etc. This is converted into a number on a 100-point scale. For a scaling fee you can bribe witnesses, the cops, or even assume a new identity, thus lowering that number. Notoriety carries over across all 13 missions, so if you don’t keep that number low it makes it easier to get noticed in subsequent missions.

Security cameras also present their own unique challenges. You can try to disable them before you pass by, or hug the wall to stay out of their range, but if you are captured on tape you’ll want to locate the security room and collect the tape to destroy any evidence of your having been there. Oddly enough, it doesn’t seem to matter if you are in disguise when caught on tape. Agent 47 is pretty memorable in his trademark suit, but given all the opportunities for disguise, passing a camera dressed as Santa Claus should be fairly inconspicuous.

Disguises are cleverly integrated into the missions and allow you to gain access to populated areas otherwise inaccessible. Some levels ramp up the difficulty by having “zones” within the game and only certain characters can get into those areas without trouble. There might be indoor guards and outdoor guards, or an intern versus a doctor or in the case of the Heaven & Hell party, two very distinct guest lists and appropriate costumes. And then you have certain trump characters (like the magazine photographer) who can go almost anywhere without question.

Your best friend in Blood Money is the map where you can bring up floor plans for every level and area in the mission including real-time updates of every person in the level. It’s all color-coded so you know where your primary targets are in relations to guards and random civilians. Points of interest are also called out as well as ICA drop zones and the exit. The game never explains how this map works, and it does give you a significant and often unfair advantage by allowing you to observe patterns and plan your strategy.

When you aren’t paying off people to keep your identity secret you can spend your loot on dozens of upgrades for each of the weapons in the game. It can cost millions of dollars to fully upgrade each weapon and not all upgrades can be equipped at the same time, so you can fine-tune, not only your weapon selection, but various features of that weapon before starting each mission. The agency will place larger weapons that you cannot sneak into some locations in special ICA drop zones within the level.

The newspaper between missions is a great idea that somehow never continued further into the series.  It really makes you self-aware of all your actions during the mission, and it only takes a few headlines to figure out how to manipulate the media so you can create the illusion of a gangland slaying or an “inexperienced hit” by intentionally priming the crime scene. Headshots create suspicion but 20 rounds into the body is just sloppy – the paycheck is the same. Hiding bodies is good during the mission but also creates extra intrigue at press time.

Reading the feature story will give you an uncanny recount of your recent activities including weapons used, bullet casings found, and bodies discovered. I was a bit disappointed (or should I be impressed) that the paper managed to report bodies that I had burned or thrown into the river. The paper should have at least labeled them as “missing”. The rest of the paper usually has some clever articles, a quote of the day, and an ongoing report for the presidential election that plays a bigger role in the story than you might think.

Another awesome improvement to the franchise is accidents. This feature is so compelling that I spent way too much time trying to make every hit look like a mishap versus a hit and best of all, accidents are generally beyond suspicion, keeping that notoriety figure very low. The only downside to accidents is that the opportunities are pretty much given to you in that you don’t have to figure them out. Just walk by the appropriate object (usually highlighted on the map) and the option to set the trap is given.

While collateral damage is generally frowned upon, I found it quite difficult to simply knock out somebody. One hit too many and they were dead and bleeding. It was also hard to disarm somebody and then not shoot them with their own gun, often alerting other guards. And while observer AI is really good, they never seemed to notice blood stains on the floor, even if I did hide the body. Then again, having Agent 47 carry around a rag and stain remover might just be a bit too realistic.

The best thing about Blood Money is the freedom to explore dozens (if not more) possibilities in how to accomplish the mission objectives. After playing several of the missions numerous times and trying different tactics I checked out the official strategy guide and found that I still hadn’t done it the way they had, and often my solutions were more thoughtful and fun.

For the most part, Hitman: Blood Money HD looks like the PC version with better lighting and improved textures.  The original game, while great for its time, was certainly lacking in visuals.  The real power on display is when you factor in these environments that are often packed with people. Mardi Gras alone has hundreds of dynamically scripted people partying in the streets; along with guards running their own scripted patrol routes. And if you want to see dynamic panic in action, just walk into the parade and open fire. Other levels like the Heaven & Hell party, the wedding, and the Christmas party at the adult magazine mansion come loaded with all sorts of clever characters doing their own thing.

Best of all, at any time you can become almost anybody in the game. Some of the best visual moments in the game are watching Agent 47 do his mission in a Santa suit or dressed as a clown with a big orange wig. He even makes a convincing garbage man. Unfortunately he never got to dress as a Vegas showgirl.

The original Jesper Kyd soundtrack is just as awesome as it was 13 years ago with an epic score that combines the rich sound of the Budapest Symphony Orchestra with a few licensed tracks. From the opening operatic theme to the mid-game music to the closing credits, you will be captivated with this soundtrack.  Sound effects are rich and dynamic with a variety of weapon effects for each of the guns that change as you equip new mods. The fully loaded Silverballers sound like something from a sci-fi movie. There are all sorts of environmental sounds, weather, waterfalls, birds, and the crowd noises that can range from ambient party chatter to the roar of a Mardi Gras celebration going full tilt.

Dialogue is outstanding starting with a topnotch performance for Agent 47. He delivers his lines with an icy coldness and there is so much idle chatter going on that you are compelled to eavesdrop more often than you normally would. Being in the right place at the right time might not only give you a valuable verbal clue, you might just get to provide some additional “pool services” to the lady of the house.

There are 13 missions in Blood Money including the opening tutorial level and quite possibly a bonus playable epilogue if you are clever enough to figure it out. Each mission can range from 20-60 minutes depending on how methodical you want to be.  The amount of replayability is astounding. I typically play these games straight through but for once I was compelled to keep playing missions over and over saying to myself, “I wonder what would happen if I did that”, which usually opened more doors to that same question sparking more replays.

Hitman: Blood Money’s gameplay may seem a bit antiquated by today’s standards but it did introduce some great new ideas that remain in even the latest installments.  Blending thoughtful tactics with spontaneous actions that dynamically change with the current situation and plenty of moments of adrenalized, butt-clinching suspense, Blood Money is in a league all its own and it will never look and play better than this.  

Hitman: Absolution HD

Jumping ahead six years to 2012 saw the triumphant return of Agent 47 in Hitman: Absolution. Obviously the tech had increased during that time and Absolution was setting new heights when it came to graphics and stealth gameplay, so the HD Enhanced version of this game might not be the huge leap in quality as Blood Money, but it’s still mighty impressive bringing the Xbox One version of the game almost to the same level as a high-end PC.

Absolution continues the tradition of “freedom of choice” by providing you with these elaborate scenarios set in highly detailed levels, often populated with dozens of brilliantly designed AI bystanders. Your mission objective is clearly laid out but the way you execute that mission is entirely up to you. It’s no wonder I played through the opening prologue tutorial level five times before moving on to the first mission – there were just so many ways to approach not just the final target, but every encounter leading up to her.

The story involves 47 going after a rogue agency handler who has wiped the organization’s hard drive and gone into hiding in a luxurious safe house in Chicago. It is there we meet up with 47 as he pulls up in an ice-cream truck and we begin an expertly guided tutorial that teaches you the new stealth mechanics as well as 47’s new powers of observation, body concealment, distraction, and multi-shot takedowns. By the time the tutorial is over 47 will have rescued a young girl who has secrets of her own, but rather than turn her over to his boss he stashes her in a monastery, making 47 the target of his own agency’s manhunt.

Hitman has always been about experimentation and even a bit of trial and error. Sometime the solution is obvious and other times it may take painstaking exploration of the entire level to unlock all the possibilities. One of the earlier missions in Chinatown you are tasked with killing a target who is heavily guarded by police. The obvious tactic would be to take down a lone cop, use his disguise to get close and strangle him, but there are so many other more interesting ways to get the job done; many of which I didn’t even realize until the final mission tally screen where these methods are revealed. Somewhere in the level is a sniper rifle. You could also find some poison and dose a plate of food, or in my ultimate solution, I planted a car bomb, hit the car to trigger the car alarm and when the target came to investigate, detonated the device remotely and casually walked to the exit. Ironically, this method ended the level after only five minutes of play, but it also netted me the highest score.

Scores and checklists give Hitman: Absolution incredible replay value, especially since many of these levels can be finished in less than 30 minutes once you know the “secrets”. The entire time you are playing an ongoing tally of your progress will be shown in the corner in the form of a score that is compared with your friends, your region, and the entire world. There are goals that are checked off for completing your mission in each of the various methods as well as unlocking guns and disguises for all the possible NPCs in each level. Perhaps the most difficult achievement is completing the Suit Only goal, as this requires you to finish the level without using any disguises. Obviously, this method requires more action and gunplay than others, and that is where the new point-shoot system comes into play.  Using your instinct you freeze time and mark your targets then watch them all go down in a hail of glorious scripted gunfire.

Hitman is all about stealth and despite your trademark silverballer pistols that can be dual wielded or used alone and silenced, you have your other trademark weapon, the piano-wire garrote that you can keep readied yet undetected. Your new instinct mode allows you to scan the area for enemies as well as key objects you can interact with. You no longer have an endless supply of coins to toss to distract the AI, but you can find other objects that serve the same function. Then it’s up to you whether you slip past or strangle them while their back is turned. You’ll want to stash dead or unconscious bodies so they aren’t detected by patrolling guards, and there are usually ample boxes, lockers, crates, or other human-size hiding spots that can hold one or two bodies including yourself if you need a quick place to hide.

Disguises play a huge part in Hitman by allowing you to access new areas of the level without drawing undue attention, but even disguises have their own rules. Disguises only get you into certain areas and anyone wearing the same outfit has a greater chance to see through your deception, so if you are dressed as a landscape worker you need to be careful when approaching other landscape workers. Of course, you can also enhance your disguise with a momentary use of Instinct to blend in.

Using your instinct, either to analyze the levels or blend into the crowd, will slowly drain your instinct meter, but this can be refilled by simply doing your job. On the higher difficulty settings the instinct feature will no longer show useful items in the level and manual checkpoints will be disabled, adding a bit of pressure to the mission. While the game auto-saves at key moments, you will occasionally find optional glowing checkpoints to save your progress – usually right before a particularly challenging situation.

At times, Hitman: Absolution is more of a puzzle game than an action game. Unlike any other game in the genre, your situational awareness of not only your surroundings but the people in those areas and all the tools at your disposal are paramount in completing the levels and earning top scores. While it is entirely possibly to trigger an alarm and still finish the level, the gamer in me had me clicking on the Restart Checkpoint countless times in the game, or better yet, once you “blow the mission” you can race around the level gathering valuable intel for your next attempt or trying to locate the hidden evidence in each level.

Absolution is a 10-hour game that will take you 20-30 hours to complete out of the sheer joy of experimentation and original replay value, but that doesn’t even include the Contracts mode; perhaps the most ingenious aspect of Absolution. Contracts allows gamers to create their own missions, not with some fancy level editor, but by merely using the existing missions and letting you create a custom rule (or restriction) set; anything from limiting the weapons used to the disguises worn to imposing an impossible time limit for completion. You can then share these contracts with the online community and compete for the highest scores. For something so simple, Contracts is deceptively addicting, not only in creating your own diabolical rules, but attempting the ones created by others.

The HD Enhanced version of Absolution looks fantastic with all sorts of improvements to lighting and shadows and some crazy J.J. Abram lens flares that almost get distracting at times.  The colors are super-saturated giving this game an original style slightly detached from reality.   The lighting, textures, animation, and sheer spectacle of complexity blew me away level after level. There is one scene early in the game where you open these doors and enter Chinatown, and the way the designers framed the event then pushed the camera into this congested area with hundreds of people milling about was jaw-dropping impressive, then the designers go even further with their epic crowd system in a later level as you make your way through a congested train station.

To complement the outstanding visuals is a masterful soundtrack, flawless sound effects, and impressive voice acting by some major Hollywood talent. The open credit sequence reads like a major motion picture. Since you’ll be spending a lot of time either eavesdropping or blending in using a disguise, there are numerous chances to overhear some amusing conversations, some of which may even provide a valuable clue.

When it comes to Agent 47, Blood Money will always have a special place in my heart, but given the six years of evolution for stealth-action gameplay, Hitman: Absolution was definitely the crowning achievement for this franchise in 2012 and remains one of my favorites even today. The game is more cinematic and more story driven than ever before, the Instinct is a much better alternative to the old map view, and you have never been given this much freedom when it comes to killing in a video game. Absolution is a brilliantly designed game, perfectly executed, and will never get better than this new Enhanced edition.

So, to sum it up, Hitman HD Enhanced Collection delivers two incredible installments in a fantastic franchise, totally updated for the latest gen consoles and visual fidelity.  Seeing these games in 4K 60fps is a sight to behold, and for those who have never played a Hitman game (or at least these Hitman games) then you won’t find a better time to jump in.  And for those who played the originals like me, let me assure you this is a great trip down memory lane and definitely worth revisiting if you have the latest gen console and a 4K display.  The classics never die…they just get remastered.