The Witness 

The Witness is a breathe of fresh air, both in terms of its art style and its design philosophy. The art and the environment are bold and genuinely spectacular. The way the colours and textures blend together in an always-aesthetically-pleasing way is stunning, as if Jonathan Blow (the mastermind behind The Witness and critically acclaimed indie-darling Braid) was challenging himself to make every game screenshot work as a beautiful desktop background. Also, the colours pop with vigour, so rare today in a games landscape so often populated with a muddy palatte of greys and browns.

However, it’s in the game design and its over-arching design philosophy where The Witness truly excels. The only tutorial in the whole game are two button prompts in order to tell you how to move and how to select objects. There ends the hand-holding of the player. The rest is up to you. See a vast castle with a detailed, intricate maze system on the perimeter? Go. Find a windmill with a mysterious tunnel which appears to carry on forever? Go! You’re thrust head first into the world of The Witness with no direction signs, hint popups or notifications patronising you like the majority of most games in the past couple of generations were crammed with. The Witness comes with no lifejackets, you just have to swim and see where the current takes you. 

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Mr. Robot

I felt compelled to pause Mr. Robot in order to tell you about Mr. Robot and specifically Rami Malek, the star of the much aforementioned Mr. Robot. The show itself is fantastic; an intelligent, stylish and gripping story in addition to stellar performances and a sublime synth soundtrack is a recipe which, so far, is living up to all the hype which has preceded my viewing. Tying it all together, however, is the standout performance given by Rami Malek in a difficult, complex and hefty central role. Elliot Alderson is a inimitably intelligent guy plagued by social anxiety, insomnia and a deep rooted depression with which he helps satiate with a healthy appetite for morphine. He also self-evaluates himself as some sort of vigilante, viewing his actions as for the best no matter how many people he and his actions hurt along the way. He is a cauldron filled with intense, interconnected mental illnesses and addictions in various forms. So, all in all, this character has a lot of rungs to its ladder, and Malek’s portrayal conquers each rung with confidence and authority. Each facet of his performance is impressive. The vacant stare as he is trying to construct the reasoning behind a stunning revelation recently revealed to him – the cogs whirling behind the eyes are visible for all to see as you attempt to construct an explanation along with him. The aching, shaking sweats of a period of cold-turkey are visceral and numbing to observe, the lucid fever dreams of guns and crack dens only seek to amplify the feeling. These instances are mainly the physical aspects of a performance, of which he nails, but it’s in the dialogue and the interaction between characters where Malek really excels. The nervous, snappy replies to ignorant questions voiced by someone Elliot knows he’s smarter than – the self-confident, almost gleeful responses to questions voiced by someone Elliot has hacked and knows everything about. I haven’t been so captivated by a performance given by an actor in a TV show for such a long time, and Malek continues to impress in everything he appears in. Watch Mr. Robot.

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate

I skipped last years Assassin’s Creed game for two reasons. One, because the marketing emphasis in the run up to the launch of Unity was heavily focused upon co-op, rather than the long single-player campaigns that the series is known for and of which my interest is firmly placed. And two, because by all accounts each and every version of the game was an unrelenting train wreck full of bugs, warped textures and stop-motion frame rates, which is hardly an incentive to get stuck into the new release of a series of which my interest in was steadily and gradually decreasing.

So it’s a big relief to say that I really like Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, because it is essentially everything that Unity isn’t. There is no tacked on multiplayer or co-op mode, it’s gorgeous and runs smoothly, and the characters, story and missions are unique, fun and interesting.

Set in the smoggy, rainy streets of Victorian London, Syndicate follows twin assassins Jacob and Evie Frye as they strive to eliminate the templar presence which has a stranglehold on England’s capital. The game captures Victorian London excellently, portraying the disparity between the rich and poor with quality art and level design. You aren’t just slaying your enemies in grimy, smokey factories, you’ll be slaying them in magnificent, ornate manors and grandiose parliamentary buildings. The verticality of Assassin’s Creed helps in this aspect; as one second you could be evading pursuing aggressors through a dingy, cobbled back alley but with a couple of leaps and swings you could be scurrying along the rooftops of a factory owner’s mansion overlooking a vast, immaculately kept garden complete with patrolling Templar guards. The environmental and gameplay variety goes a long way in terms of leaving you wanting to keep plugging away at the interesting story.

The real hook in this year’s game however is the two leads, Jacob and Evie Frye. They bounce off of each other terrifically, not just conversationally and in terms of entertaining banter, of which there is plenty, but also in terms of personality and character motivation. Jacob’s primary motivation is to remove the oppressive Crawford Starrick, one of the most powerful business owners in all of London and the Grand Master of the British sector of The Templars. His focus is more politically leaning than Evie’s, and he cares greatly about removing the Templar threat, no matter the method used. Evie’s primary focus is that of locating the pieces of Eden, ancient occult technology which the Templars are anxious to get their hands on. She believes in its abilities and the power it possesses. She’s far more academical, more interested in studying and learning the history of the order of which she is apart of. Sure, she cares as much as anyone about overthrowing the Templar tyranny, but she wants to do it correctly, and in the right way. The contrast between these two playable characters creates a great hook on which to hang your campaign upon, and Evie Frye has emerged as my favourite lead character in an Assassin’s Creed game to date.

It all adds up to a complete and well-crafted package which brings the series back to its roots in a way which is good for all concerned. It’s a good feeling to be excited about something again, after a good number of years of dreading what will be wrong with the next issue. Welcome back, Assassin’s Creed. Please don’t let me down next year.