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Observation Review – Space Madness

In Observation you play as SAM (Systems Administration and Maintenance), the AI assistant of a space station that represents the joint efforts of Europe, China, and Russia. Your abilities are limited by your absence of a corporeal form–for most of the game you’re controlling the cameras dotted around the station and interacting with any computers or digital panels within their range of vision. You have access to a station map that expands over time, and you’re able to jump between cameras across the entire ship at will. It might sound like a limiting conceit, but Observation uses your unique position of omniscient claustrophobia to craft a compelling, creepy, and extremely original narrative experience.

The year is 2026, and you’re on the station with Emma Fisher, a European crew member who awakens at the game’s beginning to find that she has no contact with the rest of her crew on board. It’s immediately clear that something catastrophic has happened; the station is no longer in Earth’s orbit, and no-one is answering her attempts at communication. To say much more would be to spoil elements of a plot that are best left to surprise you–the first major twist happens within about 20 minutes. Suffice it to say that Observation’s narrative unfurls slowly across the entire length of the game, with its mysteries growing all the more complicated and your sense of dread deepening as the game goes on.

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Observation absolutely nails its distinct lo-fi, sci-fi aesthetic. The cameras crackle and jump as you shift between them, and the stylistic film grain and distortion over every visual emphasizes your slight removal from the reality of the situation Emma is facing. Like many science fiction works of the last forty years, Observation is indebted to Ridley Scott’s Alien–some of the tech aboard the space station feel like antiquated products of a decade long past. This aesthetic, paired with the game’s too-near future setting, gives Observation the pleasant feeling of an uncovered classic or remake of an ambitious, older piece of work. SAM is far and away the most advanced piece of technology on the station, and even when you load up your own system menu (which lets you view the map, check system alerts, and perform other functions that unlock during the game) you’re treated to some pleasantly analog and retro buzzing and whirring sound effects.

You experience most of the game through the slow panning and zooming cameras, an effective tool at creating a creeping sense of tension, although the occasional cutscene is used to better capture action at a crucial moment. It’s not about jump scares or personally being in danger; again, to say too much more would be to spoil the game’s clever pacing, but it’s a game that’s incredibly effective at building dread more than overt terror.

The actual gameplay is, for the most part, pretty simple. You need to explore the ship as much as you can from your various vantage points, scanning every document and inspecting every laptop you encounter, opening and shutting hatch doors, and interacting with the station’s equipment. The bulk of the puzzles boil down to figuring out how to operate SAM’s interface, finding schematics to help you operate certain programs, and learning the necessary procedures for the instructions you are given.

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The game does an excellent job of taking complex ideas and procedures and presenting them as simple operations. Everything from opening the airlock to securing the doors between sections of the station boils down to a few button presses; occasionally you’ll have to take part in what is essentially a timed mini-game, but for the most part, you’re just following basic instructions. The main challenge comes from figuring out how the different parts of the ship all work together, and reasoning through the impact of your actions and what information you do and don’t currently have access to.

At certain points, you’ll need to control a spherical droid that can float around the station–and, more excitingly, outside the station–freely. It’s a bit of a pain to control in tight spots, and it’s easy to lose your bearings because the concepts of up and down are relative in zero-gravity environments. But there’s a real thrill in breaking free from the static cameras and floating through the station, and in getting used to the sphere’s limitations. Observation doles these sections out expertly, using the droid when it needs to make you feel more a part of what is happening. It plays on the droid’s symbolic sense of place extremely well; it’s the physical element of SAM that sells Emma’s growing friendship with him.

Often what you need to do next, and how to do it, will be spelled out extremely clearly, though the game’s instructions could stand to be a tad clearer in a few sections. One time it seemed like I had hit a particularly abstract puzzle, but it turned out that I’d actually encountered a glitch where a certain event didn’t trigger properly, which necessitated a quick checkpoint reset. This was a pain, as the game’s checkpointing can be a bit strict–you keep any information you’ve collected through scanning objects, but it doesn’t save after major actions, so it’s hard to know exactly what you’ll have to redo when you exit out. But it’s not too big an issue, as I never lost more than a few minutes of progress.

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Slowly discovering every system on board, inspecting every room, and unlocking more menus and commands within SAM’s UI is an absolute treat. Observation is a visual stunner, with only the odd lip-sync issue occasionally distracting from the level of polish and craft on display. Later events ramp up the inherent creepy isolation of a space station perfectly, too. The story is compelling and exciting right up until the credits roll, and the game doesn’t let up on revelations, twists, or the increasing tension of knowing that the game is building towards something wild. Observation also achieves the extremely rare feat of containing audio logs that are both compelling and make sense within its world.

Observation is a wonderful example of how to do focused, self-contained science-fiction storytelling in a game. It’s well-written and clever, and nails the sci-fi tropes and aesthetics it both plays to and builds upon. It’s a game that demands to be analyzed and thought about further once you’re done with it, and while the internal world of the game is small, inhabiting it is a real pleasure.

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Everybody's Golf VR Review – A Short Date To The Golf Course

The newest game in Sony’s long-running golf series, Everybody’s Golf VR is the second to launch on PS4 and first to bring the series to virtual reality. The transition isn’t without its bumps (there’s a noticeable lack of Everybody’s Golf’s traditional competitive modes), but the PSVR golf game does deliver a fairly realistic golfing experience that’s both accessible to play and fairly challenging to master.

Everybody’s Golf VR abandons the franchise’s usual third-person view for a first-person perspective. The three-click swing mechanic (commonly seen in most of today’s golf games) is also gone. Instead, you swing your clubs with a PlayStation Move or DualShock 4 controller, hopefully in one smooth motion. The direction of the ball is determined by the angle you hit it, and distance is calculated by how hard you swing. There are other factors to consider when you’re on the course as well, such as wind direction and your elevation in relation to the hole.

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Actually swinging your arms to hit the ball takes a bit to get used to, but the motion controls are remarkably responsive with a DualShock 4 controller. Once you’ve got the form down on your swing, you’ll be able to reliably hit the ball the way you want to. The same can’t be said for the PlayStation Move controller. Occasionally, the Move controller works fine, but I found myself more often than not being unable to even reach the ball with my club while swinging the Move. I ultimately just had to stop using it, as it became too frustrating to play a near-perfect hole only to be stopped short just because my club would not reach down far enough to hit the ball no matter how much I crouched.

In Everybody’s Golf VR, the golf balls behave as they’re expected to, obeying the laws of gravity when it comes to the arc of your shot or elevation of a slope, and their roll realistically heeds to changes in friction when the terrain is affected by different weather patterns, like rain. As previously mentioned, the motion controls are pretty precise. The camera measures whether your swing misses the ball, glances off of it, or makes full contact, and then takes the angle and power of your swing into account. Shifting too much of your body weight to one side or curving your swing typically results in a lousy shot, while maintaining good form sends your ball flying straight as an arrow (provided there are no environmental factors to take into account as well). The game isn’t an exact representation of reality–you don’t have to swing nearly as aggressively as a professional golfer to achieve distances like one–but Everybody’s Golf VR sells you on the experience that you’re actually playing golf in your living room.

There’s a welcome variety of customization options in Everybody’s Golf VR, allowing players of all skill levels to enjoy time on the course. If you’re having trouble putting, for example, you can turn on vacuum holes–which suck the ball in provided you get your shot close enough. For a more challenging experience, you can tee up on longer versions of the courses where it’s harder to hit par. There are some nice accessibility options as well, such as the choice to play while standing up or sitting down, the option to change your dominant hand from right to left, and the freedom to choose between several sets of clubs–including one that makes it easier to hit the ball straight if you have limited mobility in your arms. There’s plenty in Everybody’s Golf VR to make the experience appealing to all types of players, and helpful tutorials give newcomers a chance to grasp the basics of the sport until they can get the swing of things.

Everybody’s Golf VR’s courses are populated with everything you’d expect to see in a golf game, like sand traps and trees, as well as a few things you might not, like dinosaurs. Occasionally, a bee flies in your face or the sound of a wave crashes onto a nearby beach. These sights and sounds are never distracting, but via a PSVR headset and headphones, they do make it feel like each golf course is full of life. Decide to look closely enough, however, and you’ll notice the golf resort’s reception area and each course is always eerily empty save for your character and either the receptionist or your caddie. It’s a tad unsettling.

Each distinct environment provides more than just a cosmetic change, as a course’s aesthetic translates into different environmental hazards to deal with; the Seaside Course is very windy, for example, and its holes have a lot more sand and water traps for your ball to be blown into. A course’s hazards aren’t enough to force you to drastically change how you play, but they do provide just enough of a welcome challenge to encourage out-of-the-box thinking. It’s fun learning about how a new course works and satisfying to successfully deduce how to adapt to it. In the Seaside Course, for instance, you can risk timing your shot to a powerful gust of wind in hopes it will send your ball flying over an out-of-bounds area–which could save you an entire swing in the long run.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many courses for you to play on. And other than Practice Range, the only game mode in Everybody’s Golf VR is Course. In Course, you do have the choice of whether you play a random three holes from a course, the first nine, the last nine, or all 18. But with only three courses total, you’ll end up replaying the same holes repeatedly in order to unlock all the in-game rewards. It gets tedious after a few hours.

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The lack of additional modes in Everybody’s Golf VR is a step back in comparison to previous titles in the series, many of which have one or two modes where you can face off against NPCs. As is, the only thing you can do in Everybody’s Golf VR is play a course by yourself while your nearby caddie yells words of encouragement. Everybody’s Golf VR does lessen some of its tedium with those caddies, though, as the eagerly helpful Riko and teasingly friendly Lucy help make your repeated trips out to the same collection of courses far less lonely.

Replaying courses allows you to unlock additional outfits for your caddie to wear, which is a fun cosmetic reward to chase after. You can also unlock a handful of Events by partnering with a caddie long enough. Some play out like romantically-charged mini dates, but most are just goofy distractions good for a laugh or two. Each caddie has her own unique set of four Events, and though their unlock rates are spread out enough that it will take you a few hours to see them all, once you do there’s nothing compelling to work towards in the game.

Despite the lack of different activities in Everybody’s Golf VR, the one thing it does do–provide a means of playing golf without actually having to go outside–is relatively enjoyable. Though it runs out of steam quickly, Everybody’s Golf VR is fun while it lasts, and there are satisfying goals to chase for a time. Everybody’s Golf VR’s best feature is its assortment of customization and accessibility options, though, as they allow both golf newbies and veterans to curate their desired experience and just enjoy playing a round.

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