Allison 2 by Allison James

This blog post is a continuation of part 1 from October 2018.Figured it was about time for some updates! It's been a wild first few months of being out full time, with a lot of pleasing progress, more smiles than I could shake an emotion stick at, and overall, a whole lot of positivity.I wrote the original blog post at the start of October, around two weeks after I had come out as transgender. At that moment, I was still buzzing about the initial general reception, but I was also still very much "early in". The latter few months were definitely me easing more and more into my true identity, picking up new things I'd always wanted to do while discovering secondary interests that were dormant until I had the ability to seek them.

Clothing

Clothing was the first big one to hit me. I had experimented with female clothing on and off for around four years prior to coming out - something I didn't really mention in my original blog post - but it didn't take too long for me to settle into my style. I started off with over-length shirts which acted almost as mini dresses (paired with my old joggers at first, then plainer leggings. I was still fairly shy about moving into proper dresses for the first month or so, scared of looking ridiculous. Aaaand then I started wearing dresses and stopped giving a f*** about it. And I adore them.I've diversified a lot of my wardrobe to a massive degree, really. Before, all my clothes were plain, most were black. I have dresses now to cover most colours, and other things to match. Dress collection includes:

  • White floral dress (flowers in black and red) with red hems

  • Second white floral one with a lot of layering

  • Red dress with a little gap below the neck

  • Black dress with short, wide sleeves and a frilly hem

  • Purple "formal" dress, low cleavage

  • Burgundy "formal" dress, goes down to my ankles

  • Another burgundy one but with cold shoulders and an elasticated bottom hem, love this one

  • Three that have a fake lower layer - two are varying shades of red with the lower layer black and white polka dot, the other one is black with a tartan lower layer

The latter four are my favourite, largely because all of them are fairly tight below the chest, which feminises my figure really effectively. I've also got a black elasticated band with a bow I can pair with most of the others to provide the same effect as well.Speaking of the chest area, I've started wearing bras. None of them are wired, instead being loosely elasticated (marketed as "comfort"). I will definitely need to replace them when I require actual "lift", but for now, they provide a small amount of extra shaping.Although I love a good pair of leggings, more recently (as in, a week ago) I finally, through months of trying, found a company - Snag - that sells incredible thick tights in my size - I have moved over to those pretty much daily now, although I'm sure the leggings will still see use! I love tights though, they are about the most comfortable thing on the planet, with lovely warmth and (at least to my eye) a pleasing appearance. It's also good to have the foot coverage I couldn't get with leggings that also fit.And on the subject of feet, my shoe selection has grown from "one" to "several"! I had a pair of black Holly ugg-alikes from years back that became my first pair of full time shoes. These have four pairs of friends - a similar pair in grey, another similar pair that's also black but a wee bit longer, a pair of extremely comfortable slippers my parents got me for Christmas (they have tassels!), and a pair of high heels. I'm getting fairly okay with the high heels! I'm definitely slower, but I have yet to fall over in them. They're a little "cloppy", although they pair pleasingly with tights, so I wear them occasionally.

Beauty & cosmetics

Obviously another big key area I tackled early on. This had already started to a degree months prior to coming out; I occasionally wore light foundation to even my skin tone out a little and had switched from gender neutral shampoo to a feminine Tresemmé alternative. This was built on when Emily, a childhood friend of mine who found out about my transition a couple of months after, got in touch to show her support and also provide me tips and tricks from her years of, y'know, being a woman!As well as being a great friend I've kept in regular contact with ever since, she's given me a lot of pointers on upkeep of my long hair (which has been long for years, but now I want it to be okay looking as well!) such as using a separate conditioner, positioning myself as I dry it so it's all dangling straight downwards, etc.While long hair is a thing I adore having on top of my head, hair elsewhere is another matter. Shaving is now a daily half-hour chore as I make sure every piece of flesh I intend on being exposed - as well as legs, chest etc every few days just to keep them cleav shaven - isn't stubbly or bushy hell. My razor needed new heads in October (I've had them for ten years prior to that) and, to be honest, they could do with new ones again now.I've entered two other new worlds - epilation and IPL (the latter thanks to a very generous person willing to spend £400 on a Christmas present to me - thank you so much). I colloquially call my IPL device, a Phillips Lumea Prestige, my death ray - it fires a big red flash to remove hair. But it's been fairly slow progress with it - despite being white with brunette hair, I think it's also a little coarse. Still, I'll keep on with it. My epilator just feels like it's rending my flesh - it gets results, but it has a loud, revolving barrel of little pinchies that violently yank my hair out one at a time, and it's as painful as it sounds. Again though, if it gets results in the end, I'll reluctantly tolerate it. (Definitely eventually going to get everything lasered off one day, but it's low priority.)Cosmetics are (almost) brand new for me otherwise. I had begun to explore nail polish when I wrote the original blog post, but my collection of polishes has now... expanded somewhat! As well as having nine colours of quick-drying gel, I've got several others that require UV to dry (as well as the UV machine to do that), proper base coats and top coats, and a small collection of other manicure equipment that was added to by my really kind and supportive family. Glass nail files are excellent, by the way.Completely new - mascara (which I love) and eyeliner (which I'd love more if I had learnt how to apply it well yet). I've got some other things such as blusher, eye shadow and lip liner, but am taking it one step at a time - I'm not learning anything else until I can give myself cat eyes that don't look like I had a fight with a particularly aggressive Sharpie.

Gender dysphoria diagnosis & Christmas

From a light hearted quip about felt tip pens onto seeing a professional in gender identity. Yay, transitions! (In two ways!)I'd seen, before and after coming out, the waiting times for an appointment with the NHS Gender Identity Clinic. Over two years on average. While that would have been free, I wanted to get the ball rolling sooner - especially since I'd been waiting years to come out already by September 2018. After doing some research, asking some very friendly trans people further into transitioning (or even finished with it by then) and contacting a couple of different companies, I ended up contacting Dr Penny Lenihan through GenderCare at the beginning of November 2018. After giving her some preliminary information about myself and my steps so far, she agreed to see me in January this year. For the rest of 2018, this appointment was at the forefront of my mind - a weird mix of excitement and nervousness into a single emotion that could summarise most key moments of my transition to date.I went home to my parents' house for Christmas, itself a fairly nervous moment (presenting them myself as Allison face to face for the first time, not to mention being in public in fully female clothing for five straight hours). Christmas was lovely, with a mix of feminine and regular agender gifts - including one to myself, a LEGO Hogwarts Express. I built that on Christmas Day while watching the new Kevin Bridges standup (in which it took him 5 minutes to bring up gender in a comedic sense in full earshot of my dad - should have been awkward, but it was Kevin Bridges, so he tackled it with grace and absolute f***ing hilarity).But the Christmas holidays definitely had a weird sense of being a countdown. That was because me and my dad were bringing a van I hired for us back to Newport to drop me, and some of my Christmas holiday acquisitions, home - via London, and via the appointment too. I distinctly remember, three days before the 16th (appointment day), starting a countdown at 72 hours in my head at the time three days forward that the appointment would be complete, we'd have taken the underground back to our main transport, and set sail in the privacy of the van for home.We set sail in the van on the 16th, over an hour earlier than I'd projected we'd need to to get to the appointment on time at the insistence of my parents. That countdown (which I internally visualised as a big blue number) was on 7. But parents know best - because a massive chunk of the motorway taking us to London was completely closed off, I had to Google Maps GPS us through 25 miles of back roads for us to reach Epping.On the train, I had the thankful foresight to email Dr Lenihan and let her know of my likely small delay about a minute before the train went underground for the rest of the route, leaving my phone signal-less. I was too busy staring at the map of the London Underground Central line and the time intermittently, ticking off stations between Epping and Bond Street, to actually be fearful at this point. We hopped off at Bond Street, took the small walk with haste to the appointment office, and I was two things - seven minutes late, and fairly out of breath.I had nothing to be scared of, really. Dr Lenihan was really nice, understanding of the small delay, and the appointment went ahead just fine. The hour flew as she got to know me, worked out how I wanted my transition to go and what I wanted, and a plethora of other related questions.Before I knew it, me and my dad were back on the underground heading back to Epping. It kind of struck me at once, staring blank faced once again at the map of Central, that it was done - it was painless - and I was a big bag of things. Sane, transgender, and a woman. Nonetheless, we got back in the van on arrival back in Epping, took off, and when the clock struck 2pm, I saw the big blue number in my head for the final time.Zero.

Now & the Future

Since then, extra progress has been made. Dr Lenihan sent me a seven page document detailing her thoughts and everything I'd said of any importance in our hour. It refers to me by name and by female pronouns continuously - part of the reason I have read through it several times since receiving it. Along with that though, was a note I was able to include in a new passport application, giving me official female gender status. That, along with a new picture, the form and all the requested extra documents, has gone straight onto HMRC. I'm crossing fingers that I didn't mess anything up - but when I get my new passport with my name and a big little F sitting right there beside it, I'm going to scream with joy!My next step will be to have blood tests done and to contact Dr Jonny Coxon, another member of GenderCare that Dr Lenihan referred me to (and sent her endorsement of me to) - this should, barring anything that pops up in the tests, allow me to begin HRT and start the process of feminising myself physically. This may have to wait at least a little, as I need to sign up for a GP and will likely be moving cities soon, but is an extremely exciting next step on a journey that's already been full of them so far.Concurrently, I should be able to use my new passport, once I have it, to knock off the last few things still under my old name, such as my bank account and my provisional driving license. (Recommendation: Free UK Deed Poll is an incredible resource not only for creating and printing out a deed poll freely, but also for giving you everything you need to check up on regarding old names.)And then there are a few other things! I still need to work out my sexuality, which since settling into a female mindset has been a confused shrug. It's not a priority either, especially since I don't really intend on getting into anything until my transition is basically over (ie I've had sex reassignment surgery), though it's still a curiosity. HRT could send me in any direction from what others have reported, but I suspect I'm probably going to end up either bisexual or straight (that is, a woman attracted to men), just from how I feel at present.Anyway, that's about it for now! The next few months will definitely be eventful, but I'm hoping that after a move, a few extra appointments and a few pieces of legal admin, I can settle down, work on other aspects of myself such as my weight while HRT helps me feminise, and I can keep progressing at a steady pace overall.I love it. I love me. And I love all of you that have shown any level of support - be it full-on support, friendly curiosity (which I am always, and will always be, happy to field and sate with answers, no matter how baffling or obscene!), or even just not giving a single damn and still just nattering to me at your usual pace.Have a great one. 💛Allie

Allison by Allison James

For anyone curious, I recently came out as transgender. This wasn't a decision made with haste - it was one made through a lifetime of wonder and years of knowing. This will be a blog post to detail everything I remember as I see, plan, and experienced. (Skip to "Realisation" for just the actual meat of this, everything prior is piecemeal older memories.)

First Experiences

I had a number of early life experiences that made me suspect early on.Perhaps my earliest was of running around the playground in primary school at maybe 5 or 6. I tasked one of my friends at the time with making me follow her around, scalding me wearily with "Come on, Alice." every time I stopped. I remember little else other than that, I just know it was profoundly stupid.When the Pokémon craze first hit its stride in 1999 or 2000 or so, I was swept away by it. I bought the cards. I watched the animé. I screamed with delight when my parents bought me a copy of Pokémon Yellow, and I played it to death. But I remember having an admiration for Sabrina. Any time I fantasised about living in a Pokémon world or pretending it with friends, I wanted to be Sabrina. She was really mysterious and interesting as a character - far more to me than anyone else in the show.Speaking of wanting to be animé characters, Pokémon brought with it a number of other, similar animé TV shows. One of those I watched Cardcaptors/Cardcaptor Sakura, and yep, she was another one I always wanted to be.

Enter Videogames

When games started to be more inclusive of women and specifically when character creation or just choice allowed you to pick your gender, I always swayed female.Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 and 3 are my earliest memories of this. I would always pick Elissa Steamer as my character - I had a male friend that was also explorative of playing as females at the time and would use the games' character creator to create her a sister. I can still visualise how Stephanie Steamer looked - I had THPS3 for PS2 and didn't own a memory card for a while, so he would have to recreate her every time we played the game together. We didn't play the actual career mode, we literally just role played in Free Ride.In Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire, I picked May. My excuse to others was simply that I was born in May so she seemed fitting, which was convenient, but she felt like the correct choice. Brendan looked stupid anyway.I've blogged about a decade ago about my experience with PlayStation Home, a PS3-native free online game where you could socialise with people. I was a girl in that, as is tradition. But there's a small twist to that one - I was asked for my name once, and with my username on that account being NAL-USA (my main friend at the time had a US account, so I played on one myself), I used the AL of NAL to conjure the name "Allie". As far as I can remember, that is my first use of Allie or Allison as a name.Home was one of numerous games with in-depth clothing options though, and I've always been terrible for sinking hours and hours into virtual fashion. I grinded in newer Pokémon games with dressing mechanics (X, Y, Gen 7) to get the most expensive stuff I liked, then ground again when I needed new colours. I experienced actual anger when a game like Elder Scrolls or Fallout forced me to choose between dressing how I wanted and being armoured enough to actually be alright in the game.The strongest gaming memories were immersive ones - games where I could feel like I was in them, as a girl. Fallout 4 has been the strongest to date. When I started playing it, I made myself - that's the Allison version of myself - with the intentions of playing the game in a very specific way. And... I couldn't. I was so into the game, I became her. Every single choice I made was literally just exactly what I would have done in her shoes. I couldn't finish the game any other way until I made a guy with a man bun called Boobies.But plenty of others captured that too. Animal Crossing was great for it. Far Cry 5 was as well. VR has been incredible for it.

Daydreaming

For quite some time (a decade or more), I generated a female persona I daydreamt about, mostly between closing my eyes and actually sleeping, to let out more feminine steam. This is an exceptionally deep rabbit hole so I'll skip the details now and perhaps go into it in the future via the medium of blog or game or something, but long story short, it's how I suppressed my feelings.The persona drifted wildly and started separating into two - the unrealistic persona there is no chance I could ever be, and then a more realistic one that I could. The former's name is Lara; the latter, unsurprisingly, was called Allison. Anything ridiculous like film-making, athletics etc went to Lara, but game ideas went to Allison - because they are realistic, and she is me. Many of those ideas still exist in my mind, perhaps to be created one day or at least to be written down and turned into something.

Realisation

Perhaps four years ago, I worked out that an actual transition was the route I was going to have to take. Fantastical feelings became almost a sense of claustrophobia, uses of my old name incorrect.I started off slow. I stopped getting haircuts and started growing my hair long. I removed as many uses of my old name as possible, changing simply to NAL. Any account I could make gender neutral easily, I did. But it wasn't enough.Through the late end of 2015 and most of 2016, when work with Chequered Ink was picking up, I started researching properly. I worked out what to expect in terms of time from initial contact with a psychiatrist to getting hormones and to getting surgery far beyond that. I worked out what would be covered by NHS and what I'd have to pay for. I also worked out how much I'd expect to pay if I went private, and what advantages might make it worth it. I also joined a couple of support forums.I nearly actually came out two years ago this month, but felt eventually like I needed more time to be absolutely, 100% sure it was the right move. Minuscule shades of doubt still glossed over me now and then - I didn't want to execute the start of a full transition until I knew that everything it entailed was something I could handle, from the physical changes, to the mental ones, and also to the kinks of the transition itself.In the meantime, I created Soundproof Cell. It was a free, narrative game that, although largely fictional, did cover a lot of how I was feeling. Focusing on a transgender woman called (by birth) Emilio, who wanted to be Emily, it covered my feeling of claustrophobia, my anger at my genetics, my desire to release my feminine side and wear it proud. I called her that because she was often referred to as "Em", which is "Me" backwards, and ended the story with "This is my key". It wasn't my key (to escape from my own "cell"), it was a little too fictional and disconnected. But it did help me.Throughout most of 2017, I felt like I had stabilised. I was more and more certain it was the way to go, although still not quite ready to come out. I was wearing gender neutral clothing since 2016, my hair was becoming very long, uses of my name were rare so I didn't get much in the way of dysphoria. I felt feminine. There were certainly pangs of emotions though. I think a key one was when I had given my hair a particularly thorough wash, and later that day my mum, for a laugh, plaited it, joking "I always wanted a daughter!" I feigned embarrassment, but I got insane butterflies from that moment - a glimpse of the future.2018 has been a crazy year. Me and Dan (the guy I live with, who I've been friends with five years since we met at YoYo Games, and who I formed our company with), at about the start of October 2017, were looking at our Chequered Ink earnings and realising that, if we were sustaining the income we were getting, we could finally afford to rent our own house. We made a simple pact - if the last three months of the year were stable and didn't drop off, we would start the year by househunting. And that is what we did.It took us three months of frequent searches for affordable, pleasing Newport houses on Rightmove and Zoopla, and a good few unsuccessful viewings from Dan (who lives far closer to there than I did), for us to finally secure one, which we moved into in mid-April. In those three months, my mind was largely focused on the move, but I did still think about my gender - especially with the fact that Dan was already fairly aware of it. Living in a house with just him would (and did) mean that I could get more and more comfortable with it.However, the more time went on in the new house, the more the feelings bubbled. And to me, the more I felt ready. My immediate company was okay with it, and I knew most if not all of my friends would be fine with it, but I had a proper first step into the true beginning of the transition that I knew I needed to take, which's outcome I had no actual idea what the result would be of.In this time, I named a lot of Chequered Ink's fonts after small subtle and not-so-subtle hints at transgenderism and my emotions:

(And a few since have been references to stuff too:)

Coming Out

Dan has been immensely supportive the entire time, and I figured he would always be accepting of me. He wasn't the one that worried me.My parents were. Not because I figured they would be against it, purely because I didn't know. Being transgender is such a foreign concept in the eyes of most still, and to them, it certainly is - nobody close to our family had gone through it, Mum only had characters in soap operas and Dad didn't even have that. But I spent years trying and failing to work out an approach to them, to no avail.September 22nd, 2018. I had no plans to come out. But I was on my second alcoholic drink of the night. Dan had gone out for a walk, and I was sitting at the dining table, my phone resting infront of me beside a copy of the i newspaper open on the weekend crossword. And I wondered. What if I just did it? Today. Right now. No script planned, no answers beyond what I'd worked out through years of research. Just good old Dutch courage. I pushed each of the eleven numbers of their landline phone in, but couldn't hit call. I just stared at it, penned in, one touch away from communication.I stared at it for a full other drink, and I poured my fourth. With a shaking hand, one finger outstretched, I switched my brain, which was generating a forcefield around the call button, off. And I pushed it.I heard the dialtone lightly as my shaking hand picked up the phone, nervously pushing it to one ear as my other hand found solace through running through my hair. Eventually, mum picked up. I was a wreck. She picked up on it fast - I could hear her getting worried. Maybe I was in jail, maybe I was in hospital, maybe something had happened to Dan - I could tell I was worrying her. It helped me say the words."Mum, I- I think I'm transgender."I had to say it twice, she couldn't hear it the first time. My voice was too stuttery and sporadic. After the second, though, she gave me an instant reply."That's fine!"I was crying. Really, really badly. But at the same time, I felt an absolutely insane feeling of relief. Over the next 25 minutes or so, me and mum talked. Not just about my gender, but my plans as well. I calmed down. I felt happy.At the end of it, she told me she'd break the news to dad as well. 15 minutes passed. Dan returned shortly before the call ended, quipped right after "Well, that sounded like it went well!" (presumably sussing what it was about, despite me not even knowing I was doing it when he left), and then went upstairs to shower and change.Then my phone rang again, it was Dad. He expressed surprise, but gave me my full support. It was a shorter phone call, but a positive one.Once that phone call ended too, I felt a catharsis stronger than any I have ever felt before. I ran around the house, happily screaming, walking with a swagger in my step, feeling like I could take on the fucking world. Allie was free. Allie became me.Over the rest of the evening and the day after, I spread the word elsewhere. First to my closest friends, then to the internet world. All I ever got was support - and the occasional "you were shit at hiding it", which made me smile. Everything made me smile.

Present & future

So now I'm here. I've spent the last couple of weeks removing my old name from everything left - I had gone exclusively by NAL for years. Now I get to go by Allison or Allie JJ - that is my name, along with my new second initials - my parents' first names, in dedication of their support of me. Not just through this; through everything.Updating 219 fonts on DaFont is a pain in the arse, but every single little change to take my dead name out felt like a fresh, tiny release of a lifetime of hiding. It was an absolute joy to do.Next steps? I'm awaiting a second witness so I can get a deed poll to officially execute my name change. I've already changed my name on most things, but when I can tell the world, with official backing, that I am Allison Janice James, I'm going to be a happy bunny. I'm also initialising contact with official specialists so I can get the actual body transition kicked off. Depending on how much spare money I accumulate, I will also likely get laser hair removal done at some point.Already wearing the clothes and the nail varnish and living female full time, though. (Fuck, why are armwarmers and leggings so comfortable?!)

To finalise...

To anyone reading this, I do not mind what your opinion of me was or is, and whether this has changed anything at all. I don't believe it should if you only know me through fonts or games - my gender bears no relevance on them. I am happy with people referring to me as NAL - NAL is a pseudonym I have used for over a decade and will likely continue to forever, and does not need to be associated with a gender. (References to me as Allie or Allison, and uses of she and her, do make me smile like a child though.)To those of you that have shown me support though - it means the fucking world to me. I'm not always articulate enough to express it, but I love you all. Every use of my soon-to-be-official name and gender fills me with glee. Every kind message gets put in a little mental vault I keep to crack open any time I need a fresh smile.I will also readily answer any questions you may have. I am not easily offended and plan to be an open book on this - if you want to know something, I will probably just tell you!I don't, however, want any special treatment or any further articles done about this, really. In my eyes, I would be a terrible role model for anyone else going through similar feelings - I'm sure there are better ways about this. (Soundproof Cell actually covered this feeling accurately.)I'm just NAL.And Allie.[There is now a Part 2 to this post with up to date information and happenings!]

Steep Review by Allison James

steep.jpg

I miss the extreme sports genre of gaming really badly. During the noughties, they came in droves and were largely incredible games - Tony Hawk's, SSX, Aggressive Inline, Skate, Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX, Rolling, Jet Set Radio, Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX, Amped... I'm sure I'm still missing some out, but that is a list absolutely packed with quality. I grew up with these games, and grew to love them for their ability to provide moments of thrilling gameplay bliss that weren't predefined in any way - landing your own ridiculous combo in SSX or Tony Hawk's, or just breaking every bone in your body in Skate, was better than any "epic" cutscene I've ever seen.

Sadly, the genre has had it rough in the "tens". Skate 3 kind of got into the decade, arriving in mid-2010. Since then, we've seen the SSX reboot of 2012 (decent game, but was fairly pared back from its predecessors, and did nothing to make me want to play it over SSX3, Tricky or even On Tour). Tony Hawk's Pro Skater HD showed promise but was a glitchy disaster. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5, not to be done by the HD remix of the original games, was an even bigger glitchy disaster and a blatant cash grab on a license threatened by expiry. Indie gaming has dabbled with the genre, with games such as Olli Olli, which were fun but not what I want from an extreme sports game.When Steep was announced, I was very excited. For the first time since SSX 2012 (THPS5 screamed "disaster" from its first announcement), Steep looked to be a reincarnation of the genre, finally bringing a new game to the table with a modern backbone and a wealth of features that the PS2 could only have dreamt of enabling. The idea of it being more of a simulation as opposed to SSX's arcade styling were a little sad to hear, but I had the same feelings about Skate originally, and Skate turned out to be a cracking game that happily coexisted with Tony Hawk's.So with a large emotional investment and the highest of hopes for Steep, how was it?

Smiling

Steep really does deliver on its promises of being a game that could only be done with the power of current systems. Featuring a gigantic map containing multiple mountains and being orders of magnitude larger than any snowboarding game that's come before it, you can mindblowingly immediately teleport to totally different locations seamlessly - pushing the "mountain view" button zooms the camera up so you can see everything, pushing another button on a spawn location of your choice zooms it down to that spot where your player is sitting there ready to immediately begin runs. I've never seen this sort of thing done this beautifully before, and am assuming it's a result of the low amount of detailed needed to render a snowy mountain, but it's very welcome.

The core gameplay is good, too. With shades of SSX, Steep's snowboarding and skiing both feel good to use once you're used to them - although I favoured snowboarding purely because I found myself constantly skiing backwards. The wingsuit is responsive and fun to use as well.Its big strength comes from being able to teleport to the top of Mont Blanc (or one of the other peaks of your choice, but MB is the highest and therefore the best), and then snowboard or ski down it for what seems like forever, in your own time, while casually doing tricks or speeding up or stopping to admire the view - it's serene, cathartic, and superb in ways I've never seen from an extreme sports game before.

The Mountain Stories are interesting as well - well, the idea of them. Steep personifies its peaks - Mont Blanc is a husky-voiced woman that knows she's the best mountain in the range. Matterhorn is a devilish aggressive bastard. They all have personalities that match the difficulty to traverse them, their size etc. It's a really novel concept that provides a lot of life and a little bit of lore to the game world.

Frowning

The online. All of it. Watch Dogs 2 did this too, but you could disable it all in that. In Steep, online crap is so embedded into Steep that it is an online-only game. The first time I booted it up, I was greeted with a 1GB patch. Bypassing it for my first session with the game, I "hit X to Start" on the game's main menu, and... nope! Couldn't play it until my horrid internet connection had downloaded and installed the patch.The forced online is grim. If my connection flaked out, BAM booted from the game. If I shared a video from the game to YouTube or Twitter, or stuck a video service on for a bit and then returned to Steep... once again, totally kicked. If that's not bad enough, even if you lose connection, even just pausing the game will kick you from your current run back to its beginning, presumably so other people can't see you hovering in statis. Infuriating if you're looking to do one massive run from the peak of a mountain to the map's low points, more so if you're on the tedious "paraglide up an entire mountain" challenge that has a bronze medal time of 25 MINUTES - if you have to stop on minute 24, kiss all of that progress goodbye.

More annoyances with the online is that, while finding other people outside of challenges is fun in an almost Journey way (like in Journey, you can hit a button in Steep to say random enthusiastic lines, and it becomes a rudimentary way of communicating with people), having them in missions is screen clutter at the best of times and excessive extra difficulty at the worst. Several of Steep's wingsuit missions require you to fly through very, very tight sections of cave and rock formations. More than a few times, I died because online players, through no fault of their own, were in the same coordinates as the game camera and all I could see was another person's arse in wingsuit latex... followed shortly by my corpse rolling down a hill.

But it's okay, because most of the challenges are dire anyway. Steep is essentially Superman from the N64, that game that's infamous for making you fly through rings... continuously. Well, Steep is that as well. The predominant challenge variety, the races, aren't really races - they're time trials through rings. You do see three other people racing you, but they're not really racing dynamically, they're on set paths that demonstrate gold, silver and bronze medal times. Steep manages to be worse than Superman with its ring challenges, by the way, thanks to the downhill nature of snow sports. There is no correcting yourself, if you miss a ring by a millimetre your run is dead.

The rings manage to permeate other challenge types and ruin them as well. "Tricksmaster" has it worst of all - it's a "score by doing tricks" challenge set in a snow park. But for some infuriating, baffling reason, you have to go through rings while doing it. And the rings are ON TOP of the ramps. And thanks to how gravity and hills work together, you CANNOT get on top of the ramps if you didn't get onto them in the first place. All of this leaves the challenge completely destroyed and devoid of any fun it might have had.

The one time rings are tolerable is when they pop up during Mountain Story missions, because those allow you to get off your board and walk through the rings rather than potentially missing them - it's slow, but I'd rather that than one small mistake forcing me to redo masses of previous rings. In any case, they still suck though - the epic reveal of the Matterhorn is dampened dramatically when its evil presence is followed up by rings.It really does feel like someone at the development team behind Steep had an ace idea for a game, then deferred the job of designing the game's challenges to a clueless imbecile. The missions in Steep are insulting to its excellent backbone, dragging it down from a potentially awe-inspiring experience down to a piss-poor wet fart of a game. With such a magnificent open world, and how great the missions are when they only have a singular goal at the end and let you perfect your own racing route (a system that Burnout Paradise managed to perfect nine years ago, and other games like Mirror's Edge Catalyst have also recently used successfully - no ring in sight in either of those games).Everything is rings in Steep, and even when a challenge isn't a series of rings, the end point still is. Even on a snowboarding/skiing trick challenge, it is completely possible to clear the gold medal threshold, and then slightly miss the ring at the finish, nullifying the run entirely. Why not just a big line of "if you go past this point, you've finished"? Why not two flags like, you know, skiing uses? Or, novel idea, if I'm in a challenge and you want me to keep it to a certain area, cordon off that area during the challenge - I'll put up with the loading time if it means I'm not being bombarded with miserable design decisions, and as an added bonus, you could then stick an audience in too!

Late-game missions ramp up difficulty by making the course more difficult to traverse than requiring actual skill, which is also kind of irritating. One of the trick challenges I had to do later on only had one usable ramp - it was easy to get a gold medal score from the single ramp no problem, but then you spent a couple of minutes hoping to your deity of choice that you didn't fall over down the rest of it - even when I managed to win the challenge, I was very close to being KOed (which nullifies your run) thanks to lifelessly falling down most of the course - just being lucky that I didn't take more rocks to the bonce.A couple of minor complaints spring to mind as well, although in the grand scheme of things, they're not things I really mind any more. The world geography is quite lumpy and makes some runs a little unenjoyable - I'm guessing this is a result of them using existing heightmap data for the real-world locations. Could really have done with a little bit of smoothening, though. Paragliding is pretty tedious - I avoided doing it unless mountain stories required it. And I didn't like that licensed music was tied exclusively to challenges - the game has a great soundtrack, tying it to challenges that are frequently well under a minute in length, rather than exploring the open world, is insanity. I never managed to hear the chorus of Bomfunk MCs' "Freestyler" in Steep despite its inclusion in the soundtrack, and I love that tune!

Overall

I really hope Steep gets a sequel. It has an engine behind it that works to perfection. And then it's agonisingly torn apart by terrible design decisions and tedious missions. I mentioned that free-roaming from the top of Mont Blanc is where the game is strongest - you don't unlock that peak until you reach level 23. And for context on where that lies in the game, level 25 is the cap - you have to scrape your way through a barrage of crappy missions, and thousands of rings along the way, to hit it.

The backbone of Steep deserves better than this. I've never been more disappointed in my life by a game - this is the most significant case I've ever seen of a whole game being killed by one of its parts. I'm annoyed, I'm sad, and for now, it seems like the extreme sports genre remains on standby. But if Steep 2 comes out, I think it could easily fix everything wrong with the first.

For now though, I'll be playing some more Steep now I'm free of the shackles of the challenges and have full access to the map, because I can enjoy myself with it in my own ways, and enjoy Steep's strengths without suffering.

Pokémon Sun & Moon Review by Allison James

I've been a lifelong Pokémon game fan. Ever since the initial craze swept me up in the late '90s with the trading cards, the animé, the original games (my first being Yellow, although I played some of Red at a friend's house prior) and the endless swathes of merchandise - the books, the board games, the Burger King toys, the spin-off games, the clothing, the furniture... if it had Pokémon on it, I wanted it. Although of course I've aged since then, I'm still nearly as much of a sucker for the franchise as I ever was - I still buy the main games, I have a continually growing collection of the cards, and... okay, I don't watch the cartoon any more.

So this review might be a shade biased. Here are my views on Pokémon Sun and Moon (particularly Sun, the one I got), having spent 135 hours and counting on it, completing the Pokédex and owning three shiny Pokémon and counting.

Smiling

I'm fairly confident that, going forward, Gen 7 is going to be my favourite generation (knocking Gen 5 off of the throne). Sun and Moon are bursting with content - comically moreso than X and Y before them, and perhaps more than any "base" games since Gen 2's double region. And unlike Gen 2, Alola is packed with content - it doesn't drag at any point through the main story. The replacement of gyms with "trials" means that, rather than getting eight gyms with fairly predictable puzzles, a few grunts to beat and then a final battle, you often have to get through some very unique scenarios.

There's a ton of stuff to do beyond that as well, with post-game quests, little menial money-making jobs, favours, and even some sneaky content that pops up without any warning - most memorably, a bizarre clone of Nugget Bridge from Generation 1 pops up, level-matched to you but with identical Pokémon - seeing people with Lv 55 Pidgeys, Caterpies and Weedles is unsettling. Custom clothes and hairstyles also make a return from XY, having been missing from ORAS. And for those like me that are into collect-a-thons, Sun and Moon even has that in the form of 100 hidden items that come together in an awesome way when all collected.Speaking of which, the main story is actually endearing this time. Three years on from initially completing X, and two years since I finished Y as well for the heck of it, I have two memories of their story - AZ summoning that little Flabébé thing with the unique skin you can't obtain in-game (boo) and the hilariously obvious "twist" of Lysander, the tall, redheaded, bearded blatantly-the-bloody-villain turning out to actually be the villain. Sun and Moon, in comparison, contains twists that are actually surprising, comes dangerously close to making you care about its characters by giving them actual depth, and brings it all together at the end in a satisfying way.

The world is, in most ways, great. Sun and Moon finally completely do away with the grid movement that XYORAS started to hint at removing, which makes the region of Alola a far more dynamic-feeling place. If you're climbing a mountain, you're no longer just following a path with rock tiles - it feels like you're on an actual, real mountain. Paths are twisty, turny, bumpy and hilly, and it's a change that is surprisingly significant-feeling for something so minor.

There are extras in Sun and Moon that can greatly increase your time with the game, and give you some pleasing bonuses in the process. Poké Pelago is an upgradable, almost "Cookie Clicker" style minigame that lets you harvest beans to feed your Pokémon for friendship upgrades, grow berries and a more pleasant way than having to keep travelling to a field and tending to plants, seek treasures (making finding evolution stones and farming money) far less painful in this instalment), raise Friendship levels and also increase statistics and levels. It plays a little like a mobile game, except there are no microtransactions to skip wait timers. Which is good, it limits yout time with Poké Pelago to a few minutes a day so the concept never gets tedious and is never over-powerful. One little extra great thing about this addition is that you can farm new "rainbow beans" - feed three of them to a Pokémon with an empty stomach and it will instantly gain full affection, so it can auto-cure status ailments in battle, is extra-evasive and is more likely to critical-hit opponents.

Festival Plaza is a second minigame, this time essentially a rehash of Join Avenue from Black 2 and White 2. As someone that adored Join Avenue, this was very, very welcome indeed. It essentially lets you create a small shopping district, which you can upgrade by interacting with visitors and playing online challenges. It also houses several neat features carried over from XYORAS, such as the GTS and Wonder Trade. (These are effectively identical to their Gen 6 counterparts.)

On small changes, there are a ton of little ones in Sun and Moon that are really, really welcome. The removal of HMs in favour of "Ride Pokémon" is ABSOLUTELY EXCELLENT and I'm not sure I'll be able to go back to old generations any more - having to carry slave Pokémon just so you could navigate bodies of water and areas with tiny little trees seems like such an awful design choice in hindsight. UI tweaks make a lot of functions that bit quicker and more pleasant - PCs now just chuck you straight into box management instead of bafflingly asking you if you want to do the same things with limited functionality, and receiving Pokémon or Eggs from the Nursery, other NPCs, or even just catching them throws a new prompt that lets you either direct them into your Box as normal, or eject one of your party members to the box and replace it with your new acquisition.Breeding, as a result of the above, is a lot more pleasant. Before, if you wanted to breed as quickly as possible (either for shinies, as I do, or for training), you would have to carry 5 eggs (the sixth slot being one active Pokémon). When one hatches, you'd have to check it for the stats/shininess you want. Assuming it wasn't eligible, you'd then walk into the Breeder building, open the PC, go to "Organise Boxes", drop it off into a box, and then walk outside again and talk to the kid outside to get the next egg. In Sun and Moon, once one of the eggs has hatched, you can go straight to the kid (or in this case, a farmer lady), ask her for the egg, and then choose to replace the hatched Pokémon with the new egg - the hatch goes straight to the box, done and dusted. It also seems like Sun and Moon has reduced what counts as a "step" (due to there being no more grid system, it measures actual distance as steps), so breeding is faster - you can get a proper "production line" of babies going if you pair all of that with a Flame Body Pokémon like Talonflame.

Frowning

XY and ORAS from Gen 6 introduced features that got me strongly into shiny hunting. Horde battles threw you five Pokémon at a time in the wild (and could be guaranteed triggered with a Pokémon using Sweet Scent), meaning encountering shiny Pokémon was instantly five times quicker. Add the Shiny Charm from national Pokédex completion and the odds increase further. You could also, in ORAS, find strong Pokémon (and work out the encounters in an area without relying on the internet) using the excellent Finder tool. XY also had the Friend Safari, which offered excellent Pokémon selections and made shiny encounters eight times as likely as in the wild. And all of that is gone in Sun and Moon, sadly. Working out the potential encounters on a route is back to looking on Bulbapedia or Serebii, hordes are replaced with a frankly crappy "call for help" thing that takes a lot of time to take advantage of, and there's not a whiff of even a regular Safari in Alola - which is a massive shame. Breeding now seems to me like the best way to obtaining shinies - the Adrenaline Orbs that supposedly trigger a "call for help"from wild Pokémon, from my experience, is absolutely useless.

There are parts of the Alola region I find disappointing. While the region feels more varied and fun to explore the first time, it's sadly quite lacking in the city department - it has 4 or 5 of them, none of which are even close to the scale of Lumiose from XY or Mauville from ORAS. It seem like a deliberate decision and fits with the world's calm Hawaiian atmosphere, but damn did I miss that feeling of setting foot in a city and not knowing where to start eating it up.

A lot of the new Pokémon are great, but I was disappointed in how much energy the game spent on Alolan formes of old Pokémon. As a living Pokédex collector (ie I collect one of every unique Pokémon), I wish that energy had instead been spent on a wider range of new Pokémon. Plenty of people have complained about Pokémon reusing basic ideas for its monsters (eg multiple cats, birds etc), but it's never been an issue to me - real life also has multiple similar creatures like that. On the whole, Sun and Moon introduce around 70 new monsters, about the same amount as XY and not as many as I'd have liked to have seen (Gen 5 managed over 150 new ones!).

Lastly, bits of the game felt rushed. Entire areas, such as the Power Plant, are present but do absolutely nothing at all, while some others (a golf course beside one of the hotels was pointed out to me) are totally inaccessible but look like they should be. And the final island in the game, Poni Island, feels small and empty when compared to the other three - a "city" comprising about six buildings, a few large plains of grass and little else, and a canyon that is cool but again little more than a glorified Route. And the latter half of the game does occasionally feel like it was rushed in - early Z-Crystal acquisition is limited to long quests and trials, where in the later game, you can stumble across them just sitting in the middle of nowhere.

I really hope that the rumoured Nintendo Switch port of the games brings back the structure that previous "third games" such as Yellow, Crystal and Emerald used, where they expanded on the world with new content and locations. This theory is backed up by the areas that go nowhere and the several identical piles of building equipment that seem to suggest actual buildings were intended but either left out due to time/budgeting or are being held back for DLC or upgraded versions.

Overall

In all, Pokémon Sun and Moon were astonishing games - not perfect, sure, but none of them ever were. It retains every scrap of charm that the series has always held, adding new content and shaking up key elements of the established formula to bring a surprising layer of freshness to the experience. But not an unsettling amount - they are still, at heart, Pokémon games.

And stellar ones at that.

Watch Dogs 2 Review by Allison James

I seemed to be in a relative minority when it came to Watch Dogs - I absolutely adored it. Its shortcomings (predominantly its story and characters and how its marketing over-promised and over-hyped) were largely in areas I didn't really mind shortcomings in, while the things it did well (mission structure, lively and engaging open world, fun side activities) were some of the elements I value most highly in games.

So the announcement of Watch Dogs 2 was a highly exciting one for me - and it seemed the rest of the world too. From the first trailer, it looked to build upon everything its predecessor did badly while enhancing its best parts. And how was it in the end?

Smiling

There's very little in Watch Dogs 2 that wasn't better than the original. The world is more vivid, the characters are genuinely likable or dislikable depending on their role in the story, the story actually makes a level of sense in a game world based on hacking, and the game in general slightly eases up on the serious tone that the first one over-did - there is drama in Watch Dogs 2, but it doesn't tie the story down with anything as unsubtle as the "AIDEN'S CHILD IS DEAD, GO VISIT ITS GRAVESTONE, LOOK AT IT, SADNESS AND THINGS" from Watch Dogs 1.

The world is so, so much more vivid. It has more colour, for a start. San Francisco is a more varied place, too - you can go from hick bars in the countryside to neon-lit graffiti-riddled downtown nightlife, visiting Alcatraz, Lombard Street and the Golden Gate Bridge on the way. The people are more animated and interesting than in Watch Dogs... in general, it just feels like a really "positive" game world to live in.As suggested at the top of this review, stories in games aren't something where I require a level of quality. If a fun game has a crap story (Watch Dogs 1), I still love the game. If a crap game has a fun story (Mafia III), I don't. But Watch Dogs 2 is a fun game WITH a fun story. I went into it wholly expecting the "hacker-life" to feel contrived and cheesy - bar a few squiffy lines (Marcus finding the machine of his dreams and continuously screaming "I can't even!" springs violently to mind) and the odd dodgy character or two, it honestly felt genuine. I wanted to see the good guys get the happy ending and the bad guys get brought to justice - the only reason I cared if Aiden even survived his story in the first game is so I could keep doing side stuff after finishing it.

A lot of good stuff in Watch Dogs 2 was present in WD1 as well, and it was highly welcome to enjoy those same aspects in a better world with better everything. The simple ability to analyse ANYONE in the world, see their full names, career, salary, personalities etc gives the world an insane amount of life - it's weird for a video game to give you a feeling of sonder, but when you analyse someone you've just accidentally hit with a car and the game giving them a complete life abruptly halted by your mistake, it's gut-wrenching.

The freedom of how you complete the game is wonderful, too. Almost accidentally through the mechanics being imperfect, Watch Dogs 2 discourages all-guns-blazing by having enemies able to drop you in fractions of a second. But there are many ways to complete missions without drawing a gun, and they're so satisfying to pull off. I became an early advocate for using an unlockable ability to forge a nasty criminal record onto anyone I pleased - with a little patience, you could have an entire hostile area systematically arrested. When I grew a little more bloodthirsty, I added a similar ability to forge evidence to gangs that people of my choosing were traitors to their gang - two heavily armed members would then drive up and blast them into oblivion without me being anywhere near the scene.Sometimes, that wasn't a viable option (or I simply didn't want to play it that way). If my objective was to hack a computer within a restricted area, I could launch my little RC car, which I could carefully navigate through the area while avoiding enemies' lines of sight with it. Upon reaching the computer, I had it extend its little robotic arm and plug its USB into the target PC's port, downloading, uploading or otherwise hacking it without ever even setting foot in the place.There are so many other methods of playing Watch Dogs 2 beyond just those two, and you can also mix and match - while I didn't get much use from it, I quite enjoyed equipping the RC car with the ability to shout "hey, f***face!", luring enemies out of the way of my route to my objective... as long as they couldn't take out the car with a well-thrown stone or some reckless gunfire first.And I'm wholly convinced that the newly-drivable scissor lifts and other various ways of gaining height are the greatest thing to ever grace any game. Without any method of flying (which isn't really a big loss in all honesty), it's always fun when a mission marker is atop a tall building working out where the nearest forklift, scissor lift or even crane is, so you can hack it, step onto it, and see San Francisco from its dizzying highest.

Frowning

While there isn't MUCH in WD2 better than the original, I do miss some things. Watch Dogs 1 felt like it had more tiers of activity - you had main missions, then side missions, then activities, and finally collectibles. Watch Dogs 2 feels a lot more like it compresses main and side missions into one big blob (they're mixed together in the mission select and there's no real difference in their significance) and the amount of smaller content to do is reduced dramatically.In the first game, you had ~100 "collectible" spots where you could spy on someone for a little while and see a humorous cutscene. There were tons of minigames like chess (yay!) and competitive drinking (eugh, but still nice just to have it) in WD1 - now, your humorous camera spying is limited to a few missions, and those minigames are gone completely. I could see the rationale for removing those to stop 100%ing the game being so obnoxious as WD1 was, but WD2 doesn't even let you see your game completion. Worse still, you can still go into cafés and bars where you would have played these games, but in WD2, all you can do is meaninglessly order drinks. There are other things to do in WD2 (such as the ScoutX picture locations and the Driver: San Francisco - funny joke - Uber-esque taxi jobs) but WD2's San Francisco does just feel that smidge emptier than the predecessor's Chicago did.

There were a few other minor niggles. My previous review, Mafia III, featured complaints about how it utilised a "parkour button" - rather than a conventional jump, you held down a button in that game and Lincoln Clay would then jump, vault and climb... maybe 20% of the time you wanted to. If I'm not mistaken, Watch Dogs 1 might have actually popularised this system, and Watch Dogs 2 brings it back. And while it's not nearly as dysfunctional as in Mafia III, you will still find occasions where Marcus should clearly be able to jump a gap, but where the game decides that it's having none of it. It's most prevalent in "improvised" solutions to puzzles - I couldn't find a scissor lift to reach the top of a building, so I instead parked several cars and a bus in a way to make myself a staircase up. Parkour button? Nah! I got 95% of the height needed, but that final clamber from the face of the upright bus to the roof was clearly not designed to be possible, so I fell to my near-death.

Overall

Watch Dogs 2 was bloody excellent. Exactly what I wanted from a sequel, and I'm happy that it's so good that even people disappointed with the first can now love the Watch Dogs world. I cared about the characters like I never expected to, and still got my hours after hours of enjoyment from messing about, snouting into the lives of other people, and playing every mission in a way that felt like I'd made it up myself.

Fantastic stuff.

Mafia III Review by Allison James

Weird one, this. I was paying a lot of attention to games coming out this year that I was REALLY looking forward to - Watch Dogs 2, Pokémon Sun & Moon, Steep and the like - and have found quite a few games take my interest out of the blue. I didn't really know Mafia III was a thing until about a week before it came out.

Decided to buy it anyway, generally being a big fan of sandbox crime games, to see how it was. And here are my thoughts!

Pleasing

Mafia III's story is pretty great. A somewhat non-linear affair set largely in the late 1960s, you play Lincoln Clay, an army veteran in New Bordeaux, Louisiana, who becomes tangled with the antagonist after a brutal series of events that comes pretty much out of nowhere. It takes on themes such as the period racism and segregation, handling it respectfully as a grim, haunting, but accurate portrayal of the time - Lincoln (a black man) is cursed at by the less tolerant city dwellers, and forbidden from entering establishments brandishing a "No Coloreds" sign.

Along with the story in its time, Mafia III has a soundtrack which takes the absolute best of 1960s music and brings it all into a genuine treat for your ears - Mafia III is to '60s music what Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was to '80s - "Sympathy for the Devil", "Paint it, Black", "House of the Rising Sun", "King of the Road", "I Fought the Law", "Son of a Preacher Man", "In-a-Gadda-da-Vida", "Ring of Fire", "Pictures of Matchstick Men" and "Wild Thing" are just a few of my personal highlights from a packed, perfect setlist. I'm not sure if it was done deliberately, but a lot of the tracks are also ones that successful, modern tracks of the 2000s and 2010s have since sampled - so for someone who doesn't know '60s music inside out, I still felt familiar with tracks like Somebody to Love (thanks to the Boogie Pimps cover/sampling).

I might be alone on this one, but I really wish that the system the game used to let you weaken crime bosses - throwing a bunch of markers on the map to show their associates to kill, their money-making locations to trash, their vehicles to destroy etc - was the entire game. Whenever a character asked you to do this, that area suddenly became really fun to be in, as you systematically wiped the markers off the map one by one. I think I would have been a lot happier with Mafia III if that had been the entire game, adding all of these markers at once and letting you tackle bosses in any order you pleased.

I was really impressed by the number of shops, houses etc that you could go into. Sadly, they didn't really add anything of substance to the game thanks to their sameness and how insubstantial the rewards for doing it were (you can find stacks of $250-2500 all over the place in a hostile area - robbing an entire shop might get you $30. And houses often contain nothing collectible). But it was great to see that it was technically possible, and added to Mafia III's world.

New Bordeaux has intriguing, if not enthralling, bits and pieces to it - it's quite nice after being in the city setting for a while to be able to travel south and enjoy a complete scenery chance in the form of the game's bayou, a series of small islands containing decrepit houses, trees up the wazoo, and crocodiles that will eat both Lincoln and any corpses he throws into the river (a convenient way of permanently disposing of corpses during any gunfight going down near one and keeping still-alive enemies from discovering them).

Frowning

It took hours and hours for me to get into the game to any degree. When a game offers me an open world, I tend to leave missions until I've basically cleared the entire map of collectibles and minor objectives so I can enjoy their rewards. However, Mafia III only begins to actually introduce content after you've played several missions. It means that, until you've done this, the map feels devoid of any life.

Witnesses to your crimes can't report them to the police for a while, so pedestrians are basically punching bags. You also can't wiretap initially - wiretapping lights up all of the stuff to get in an area, so until that's done, it all just feels super empty. It was only when I had boss-weakening objectives (as mentioned above) to undertake that the map would start to feel lively... but they were only ever in small areas in any case, and once finished, the map was back to being a massive, barren world with a single main mission somewhere and nothing else.

Good grief, the AI in Mafia III is terrible. And it's made worse by how the game balances gunplay. It's difficult to play gunfights all-guns-blazing, because getting hit by a guy with a shotgun will stun you for a few seconds and blur the screen it. So you're forced to play it tactically... which, when you "master" it, makes gun fights both a tedious bore and ridiculously simple. When you've been spotted, entered a "combat" phase, then stayed hidden long enough for them to drop to a "searching" phase, you can hide behind cover, and the AI will, one at a time, walk straight past your cover and open themselves up to a one-hit-kill knife takedown. Continuously. Until every single one of them in the area is dead. Hostile areas can contain upwards of 20 enemies, and every time, they will employ this exact tactic, even when their 19 brethren lay dead in a pile right next to Lincoln.

The unpleasantness of all that was exacerbated by the unchangeable control scheme the game employs, which goes against nearly ever other crime sim I've ever played - I cannot bring to mind another game in the genre in which it is impossible to make Triangle (Y on Xbox) the "get into car" button popularised by Grand Theft Auto and used in everything else since. I got used to using Square instead eventually, but not after multiple instances of bailing out of the car while trying to handbrake.And visually, the game wasn't exactly a feast for the eyes. Maybe it's true to the 1960s - I don't know, 1969 was 22 years prior to my first breath. But the entire game felt really unsaturated - everything was brown, grey, brownish-grey or something-with-a-hint-of-brown-and-grey. When the game already feels so empty that I start suffering from mild sensory deprivation, a lacking colour palette really doesn't do anyone any favours.

NEVER FALL IN THE WATER. Mafia III is the latest offender of a trend I'm really not that keen on in 3D games - limited jumping. You know, that thing where you can't just jump if you want to - you have to be near a ledge or a gap, and then push or hold the magic "do a bit of parkour please" button and hope to Christ that the end result is what you actually want to do. In Mafia III, the result is never what you want to do - you'll flail against knee-high obstacles, fall down gaps and generally splat into anything that is splat-into-able. This control is never more infuriating than when you're stuck swimming - there are very few actual exit points, and Lincoln is completely incapable of navigating even the lowest ledge if it would mean he was leaving the water in the process.

Overall

The biggest thing I have against Mafia III was simply that very little of the game was actually fun. While the story was great, it was never too long before the cutscene was over and you were either driving to your next destination, beating up casks of booze, or locked up in a gunfight stabbing a long, slow queue of mentally deficient enemies - occasionally dying when impatience takes its toll, you attempt a rush on the remaining enemies, and you end up getting destroyed by a dude with a machine gun when Lincoln decides that he's bored with vaulting over things and fancies getting stuck on them for a while.

Elements were there. There were core ideas that were great, and so much of it was so close to being good. But nothing, to me, was quite right - the world was lifeless, the missions were fairly boring, the AI was bad... it was one of those games where no single element was bad, but every single element was subpar. I feel like in a week, I'll have forgotten most of what I accomplished in Mafia III, and in a month, I'll have forgotten there ever was a Mafia III.

With nothing to pick up the slack and help improve the overall experience, Mafia III was dull.

Series Nostalgia: Tony Hawk Games by Allison James

There are quite a few game series out there that have been with me for a long time and provided a slew of happy memories. I'd like to start with the Tony Hawk series - as I type this, I have a music playlist of all of the tracks from the series, and I find them firing off these little bits and pieces of nostalgia.

My first taste of the series, albeit a small one, was with the series premiere - Tony Hawk's Skateboarding (Tony Hawk's Pro Skater outside of UK). I never actually owned a copy of the original, but I did have the demo. I remember not knowing how to do anything in it - I worked out how to Ollie and how to turn, so for the score challenge in the demo, I would just be rolling around the Warehouse level continuously performing 180s.

In 2000, both me and my best friend of the time got the full copy of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2. I played that game so much that I, to this day, know pretty much every nook and cranny of every level (even the weird outer-space one).

It was playing this that I, for the first time ever, stayed up past midnight, too - aged 9 and at her house playing it with her while our parents and their friends had a bit of a party. In the same session, I remember us discovering the art of in-game swearing - in the New York level, you could anger taxi drivers, who would then proclaim "you are pissing me off!". This, to a 9 year old, is comedic nirvana.

It took a while for me to get Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 - never got it for PlayStation 1, and only got my PS2 in 2002. But again, that one was played to absolute death. I remember that I would always play as Elissa Steamer, while my friend of the time (a different friend - I've just realised how I can use the series to chart when I was friends with people as a kid!) would create a bizarre sister character to her called Stephanie Steamer. I remember that he had to remake Stephanie every time we played the game thanks to me not owning a hideously-expensive PS2 memory card for about a year (they were dearer than new games, and I preferred having the games). I'm convinced I could remake Stephanie near-perfectly despite her non-existence for 14 years - spiky pink mohican, night-vision goggles, white tank top, camo trousers - sorted.

We wouldn't even necessarily skate - we'd use it as a tool to pretend we were our respective characters and make up stories. But when I was alone, I would then most certainly play the game as a skating game. Like with THPS2, I know the vast majority of every single level inside out.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4, I didn't play as much. Thanks to its freeform career mode (I really, honestly didn't like the "two-minutes, ten goals" thing from the first three games), I got into that quite a lot, but casually, it didn't see much action from me. I guess at that point, the whole Pro Skater thing was a wee bit done. (I've returned to THPS4 recently, and think it's actually really nice. Love the Alcatraz level!)

The announcement that the sequel, Tony Hawk’s Underground, was a massive overhaul of the formula, however, was very exciting. I remember looking through each issue of Official PlayStation 2 Magazine with delight - the revelation that the new Tony Hawk game would contain walking, would have an actual story, you created your character and they actually had character... everything looked superb.

Christmas Eve, 2003, a day I can recall so clearly. Me and one of my friends of the time (another different one!) were swinging on the swings at a small hidden park in Redgrave coated with a thin layer of snow, excitedly discussing the game with the knowledge that, the day after, I'd own it, and the day after that, he could come over and we could play it all day.

Christmas Day, and yes, Tony Hawk's Underground was mine. This game is still my favourite entry in the series - although it had plenty of goofy gimmicks (car driving was fairly hideous, the "parkour" could have been implemented a little bit more thoroughly since it's so prevalent in the game's missions, and dear Jesus, that stealth mission that caps off the first level can suck one), there was just so much to do, so much to see.

The levels in THUG were well designed and varied, taking you around the world. I loved the sense of scale the game gave, too - far from the Pro Skater levels, which (excluding THPS4) mostly felt like you were in a segmented-off area, actually made it feel like you were in an inhabited world. It wasn't to the game's detriment, either - you could still, with ease, do massive lines of tricks, and were always close to the nearest skatable object.

Another part of THUG that captured my imagination was the improved level creator. Although still fairly limited by size and object limits, the ability to place things like buildings meant that you could create surprisingly convincing little districts. Me and my friend would often play a game where we would make a level and then hide the SKATE letters as well as possible, seeing who could find the other person's placements the fastest.

Tony Hawk’s Underground 2 should have been doomed to lose my interest, but didn't. A week or two before the release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a game I was awash with excitement for, I found myself with ANOTHER DIFFERENT friend in Woolworths (RIP) of Diss, with ~£40 in my pocket. In there, I was greeted by a rack of copies of Tony Hawk's Underground 2, a game I had not paid any heed to up to that point thanks to my aforementioned obsession with GTA:SA. But due to my impatience and lack of anything better to do, I bought THUG2.

Well, up to the release date of GTA:SA (also the first game I ever preordered), I played the absolute heck out of Underground 2. What an excellent game - even if you're not a fan of the Jackass brand of humour, it's an absolute stonker of a game. Tons of stuff to do, a MASSIVE library of levels (including a bunch of neat revisits of old levels)... great game. I've played through the entire game again recently and it's still an absolute blast. If I remember correctly, I went back to THUG2 after about a month of playing San Andreas non-stop burnt me out and I needed a little palate cleanser before I could return to SA and obsess over it again.

Tony Hawk's American Wasteland was another instalment I didn't really get too fussed over. However, I bought it a few months after it was released at about the £15-20 mark - and was promptly reminded why I loved the series. The ability to traverse between levels without loading times (sort of) was a welcome if relatively inconsequential addition. Bikes were surprisingly fun, kind of making THAW the third Mat Hoffman game as well. Had a lot of fun with THAW.

I didn't get Tony Hawk’s Project 8 until May 2007 as a 16th birthday present (along with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion), since I went with PlayStation 3 as my Gen 7 console of choice. I remember going to Diss with the same friend as from the THUG2 excursion the day of my birthday, and spending the entire time wanting to come home so I could game my face off. I enjoyed Project 8 a fair bit - I remember that (still not having broadband internet until July that year) I spent a ton of time between May and July simply skating around the world in free roam while listening to my music.

The magic had dissipated a little from the series with Project 8, though, a process completed with Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground. I got Proving Ground towards the end of 2007 with EMA money, and... good lord, that game was boring. I still finished the story, but it was a really dull game. Even Project 8 had managed to make its (now entirely freeform) world interesting, with the funfair, the steelworks, the school etc - Proving Ground was brown. It was entirely brown.

So I wasn't entirely heartbroken when, having moved onto and subsequently fallen in love with EA's "skate." game, Tony Hawk's gaming legacy was snapped in two like a bailed skateboard with the absolutely dreadful Ride and Shred games. Skate 2 and Skate 3 followed the original and brought more improvements to the table, but then both series disappeared.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 in 2015... well, yeah. I finished THPS5 after finding a copy for £8 in late '15, if only for a deprivation of skating games (Skate 3 was five years old when THPS5 came out, and the genre was pretty much untouched in that time bar the vomit-inducing THPSHD).

I won't lie, THPS5 would occasionally show off shades of what made the original series such a blast to play. But those scraps of past brilliance were diluted by a poisonous ocean of dodgy new physics, overall glitchiness, and the entire game seemingly having next to zero thought or care put into it. Nothing about THPS5 was really fun.

And so stands the Tony Hawk game series. I miss it. I miss good extreme sports games in general - SSX, Aggressive Inline, Dave Mirra's Freestyle BMX, Rolling, Jet Set Radio and a ton of other Tony Hawk spinoffs occured (Mat Hoffman's Pro BMX, Shaun White's Snowboarding, Kelly Slater's Pro Surfboarding off the top of my head - all good games too). I hope next month's Steep can sate my growing appetite.Not mentioned were all the spinoffs of the series, most of which I missed and returned to later. The GameBoy/GameBoy Advance ports tended to be fairly bad, Downhill Jam was the best of the bunch but still nothing to write home about, and there was a DS instalment that clamped a plastic piece of crap to your DS and took tilt controls - if you wanted to see the series be worse than Ride and Shred, I'd strongly recommend that one.

RIP, Tony Hawk's series. I will always hold out hope that you, or a series strongly based off of you, rises from the ashes like a beautiful skateboarding phoenix. And I hope Robomodo is nowhere near it.

Tearaway: Unfolded Review by Allison James

I spent £13 on Tearaway: Unfolded. I feel doubly guilty - as a PlayStation Vita owner, I never bothered buying Tearaway despite being somewhat interested in it, and then didn't even get its PS4 counterpart until it was too cheap to pass up.

So how did it fare?

Pleasing

Atoi is the sweetest character I've ever seen in a game. Dialogue-less until the very end, she instead squeaks and makes small Link-like noises for various actions. Absolutely adorable. The NPCs are the same, too - all their dialogue (excluding the narrators) are squeaky, wonderful gibberish.What an utterly beautiful game. Tearaway's fully-papercraft art style is unique, gorgeously-done, and so, so cute. Like LittleBigPlanet before it, Media Molecule succeeded on bringing a style to life. It's complemented by the story, which takes you through every type of area imaginable, from sunny plains to desserts to icy mountains to futuristic laboratories to evil caves and everything inbetween.

I was ready to praise Tearaway: Unfolded but dock it marks for its shortness - six chapters, and around six hours in, the game made me feel like it was concluding. Since the game was never priced as highly as other, full-price AAA games, I figured that was my lot. Nope, a plot twist threw me into an entirely new area, and treated me to six more chapters. A hearty chuckle to myself, and an inner sense of glee at the prospect of only being halfway through this adventure, kicked me off. And all of this was cool, except for at the end of the 12th chapter, IT DID IT AGAIN AND HAD ANOTHER SIX! It took me a good 15 hours to finish Tearaway: Unfolded, and it was 15 hours of densely-packed joy.

Tearaway: Unfolded manages something that few games do - it has a large array of different gameplay mechanics that are employed throughout the game, but it never feels complicated - and that's thanks to how evenly their introduction is spread out. You get plenty of time for each mechanic, and how/when it is to be used, to sink into your brain.

The mechanics are generally great, too. One of the first ones, the Guiding Light, is shining a godlike light out of your controller onto the game world to dazzle enemies and otherwise stimulate the world and its characters. There are drums/trampolines that bounce whatever is on them when the touchpad is tapped. You can cause a gust of wind by swiping the touchpad. Many other mechanics continue to be introduced even up to the last few chapters. And, pretty much, they all feel like they connect together well.

The sticker mechanic is so pleasing - Media Molecule clearly already know from LittleBigPlanet how satisfying it can be for a user to personalise, or desecrate, a game world to their heart's content. The moment I realised that, despite a squirrel asking me to draw her a bow-tie, I could also satisfy her desires by sticking the word PISS to her forehead, was a wonderful one. And the game never lost its beauty, even when it snowed the word WANK.

Frowning

I have my PS4 and TV by a settee, which means I can lay down on the settee while gaming. Whether it's an issue with the game or with the PS4's tech, I found that laying down made the controller tracking difficult - which effectively meant I was forced to sit up if I ever needed to use the Guiding Light (a mechanic used continuously throughout the game).

The camera also let the game down on many occasions. It was never a problem when the camera was under my control. But Tearaway: Unfolded likes to lock and/or steer the camera itself for certain obstacles and locations, either to be cinematic or "helpful". Maybe 20% of the time, it was one of these - the other 80%, it was causing me to arbitrarily have no idea which direction I was facing, or straight-up knocking me out of the camera's view so I veered straight down a ravine.

The most extreme example of this - late game, there is a section where a waterfall is splashing over the only path (a series of stepping stones) to progress, and you have to jump across while using gusts of wind to keep the waterfall off of it. The camera locks into a wide-angle view so you can work out that that is the solution to the "puzzle", but remains locked until you're on the other side, already making this part difficult because it seriously hinders judgment when jumping across the stones. But there is a secret that requires you to walk BEHIND the waterfall, that is very, very easy to fall off - and the game's obsession with locking the camera means that unless you can carefully avoid the trigger that does this, it will then lock into the same location... meaning the waterfall, which is not see-through, entirely blocks your view of Atoi.

Overall

Tearaway: Unfolded is superb. I really hope Mm isn't done with it, because I feel like I've stolen from them at the price I paid, and would like a sequel to give them full price for.Barring the camera and the odd kerfuffle with the controller tracking, Tearaway: Unfolded was a near-perfect experience - memorable moments densely packed into a thrilling adventure that felt both minuscule due to the papery worlds, but also vast in scope.

If you have a Vita or a PS4 and haven't already... do it.

Top 5 Favourite Pokémon Soundtrack Tunes by Allison James

Because why not. Here are my five favourite tunes features in main Pokémon games up to XY.

Honourable Mention: Santalune Forest (X, Y)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSGZqdfZj4g

Lovely theme, but not as memorable as 1-5!

#5: Dark Cave (Gold, Silver, Crystal)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyPamrElGOM

The only time I've ever been happy to trawl through the colourless hell of a cave in a Pokémon game.

#4: Pokémon Contest Reception Hall (Ruby, Sapphire & Emerald)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZ29daov4o8

I spent a lot of time berry blending and contest entering in Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald, so I heard this a lot. Thankfully, it's exceptional. The Hoenn trumpets are in full force. Sadly didn't like the ORAS version as much.

#3: Versus Legendary Pokémon (Black, White, Black 2, White 2)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCkmgssjhvo

Legendary hunting for me has never been a tenser, more stressful experience than in Black and White thanks to its excellent theme tune. I'm in love with the bit when the tempo warps.

#2: Route 4 (Red, Blue, Yellow)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLcJois9yTs

My first Pokémon game was Yellow. Being inexperienced, it meant I spent hours and hours of my young life stuck levelling my Pikachu and nothing else until its normal-type moves could defeat Brock. When I finally did, I was greeted with this theme - and that's a feeling that's embedded deep within me. The Route 4 theme is like nostalgia dropped its trousers and did its business in my ear.

#1: Team Plasma Grunt Theme (Black, White, NOT the BW2 remix)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LB87TndHlFg

GODDAMN, THAT INTRO. It nearly single-handedly made Plasma look like a credible threat instead of the gaggle of spanners that evil teams in Pokémon always are.

Batman: Arkham Knight Review by Allison James

I must admit I'm a little bit blind when it comes to superhero games. I played the two excellent Spider-Man games on PlayStation 1, and had goes here and there of other games, but that was about it. I missed Batman: Arkham Asylum entirely, and only got its sequel, Arkham City, because I had preordered a Wii U and didn't fancy my chances at enjoying Zombi U or Nintendoland very much. The latter was fine, Zombi U was pants, but Arkham City... wow, that was a great game, even with the goofy Wii U tablet controls crowbarred in.I missed Arkham Origins as well due to it being released as a "last-gen" game - I only really jump back a console for the odd truly special game, like South Park: The Stick of Truth. But when Arkham Knight was announced for the current generation, I figured it was worth diving back into the world of Batman. Here's what I thought about it, having completed all of the game's main and secondary missions and activating Knightfall.PleasingWhat a beautiful, immersive rendition of Gotham City. Arkham Knight uses the heft of the upgraded console hardware effectively. Everything's more detailed, rain and other such effects are absolutely gorgeous - the world gels and is a joy to navigate. I didn't get sick of it despite the hefty playtime I needed to complete the game to Knightfall level.I was worried to hear how prominent the Batmobile was in Arkham Knight - I loved Arkham City and would legitimately have been happy with Arkham Knight if it simply stuck a few extras onto the formula and called it a day. But the Batmobile sections weren't just good - they were excellent. The Batmobile is a well-equipped, highly powerful vehicle which handles beautifully, is versatile, and is great fun to play with in every instance the game uses it, from races, to enemy unit destruction sequences, and in all the little unique bits like Riddler trophies and missions.Speaking of, there was a ton to do, and it was for the most part a heck of a lot of fun. The main missions involving the Arkham Knight were great, but any game that gives me an open world and a massive clean-up job of fun distractions is very much my thing. Make some of those things lateral-thinking riddles and we're onto a winner here. There were perhaps a few too many Riddler trophies, but since you can unlock map locations by taking down specific marked informants, it wasn't a massive hassle.Batman feels good to play with as well. I'll get onto the niggles I have with some of the actions he can do, but the ability to propel yourself around the map using your retracting hook, gliding about the place and springboarding yourself with the Batmobile is satisfying in the same way the previous games, and other ones like Just Cause, achieve. On top of that, the game's combat system is great too - very simple, very gratifying. And very Batman.FrowningThe control scheme, although fine once you're used to it, is ridiculously convoluted. Gadgets, actions and controls for everything are all over the place, with even some of the more mundane actions being a chore to do. If you are presented with a destructible wall you want to progress through, you have to: hold a button to open your gadget wheel, push your stick left to select your explosive gel, let go of that button, move up to the wall, push another button to spray it with gel, back off a little, and then push yet another button to detonate the gel. All for an action which realistically could have just been a single button to punch through the damn thing.Although I completed the game on PS4 and it ran great on that, I also got the PC version cheap for a later second playthrough. It appears to have since been patched and now works well, but my first attempt at playing it was met with a glitchy, laggy mess, not dissimilar to Mortal Kombat X, another 2015 WB release. I hope WB and its devs, going forward, can take more care in their launch PC ports and not just end up fixing them months later when, shockingly, they're met with backlash as PC players complain in droves about their new games being unplayable.I know Batman has a massive library of villains, but Arkham Knight feels like it's trying far too hard to squeeze as many of them in as it possibly can - and it can be detrimental to the game's story and logic. Arkham Knight is an interesting, brand-new villain, and I really wish the story could have used that character as a singular focal point. Unfortunately, the Arkham Knight is the co-main-villain of the big story with Scarecrow. And they're cultivating a gas that turns everyone into the Joker. And Batman has been infected, so the entire game contains Joker hallucinations. Harley Quinn naturally gets involved too. So does Poison Ivy. And there must be 20 or more other villains that appear in the various side missions of the game. The entire events of Arkham Knight supposedly take place during a single Halloween evening - it almost becomes comically nonsensical how many different villains Batman is taking down in such a small time span, and makes you wonder what the hell Gotham's police dept is there for.OverallArkham Knight truly feels like the best kind of sequel anyone can hope for - it keeps everything that made people fall in love with its predecessors and adds a wealth of new stuff, including some fundamental additions, to make it a fresh game in its own right, potentially drawing in new fans without alienating more than a few old ones that are completely allergic to vehicular combat.But if it gets a sequel, don't preorder it on PC.4s