Review: We Happy Few

We Happy Few is a stealth/survival game taking place in a dystopic alternate version of 1960s England. In this reality, the Germans occupied Britain during the Second World War, and though the occupation only last a few years, the British were compelled to do terrible things in that time.

The title screen for We Happy Few.To cope with their shared trauma, residents of the village of Wellington Wells turned to Joy, a powerful drug that causes users to forget anything unpleasant, leaving them in a state of mindless euphoria. Being sad is now a crime, and “Downers” are exiled into the wilderness, or disappeared entirely.

That premise intrigued me from the moment I heard it, but stealth has never been my cup of tea, so I wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy We Happy Few or not. I opted to wait until it went on a deep discount on Steam before buying it.

I kind of regret that now. We Happy Few is an amazing game, and I would have happily paid full price if I’d known it would be this good.

WHF’s reliance on stealth was an issue early on. However, the saving grace is that stealth in this game is not mandatory in the sense that being caught will cause a fail state. You just have to fight more if you’re bad at sneaking (like I am). I had to restart the game on a lower difficulty to survive the many, many fights I kept getting myself into, but once I did that I was able to start making real progress and truly enjoying the game.

The combat in WHF is a bit simplistic, but it’s enjoyable enough, and it gets the job done. I was also really surprised by how immersive and enjoyable I found the game’s survival and exploration mechanics to be. We Happy Few stands as one of the very few open world single-player games that I feel actually justifies its open world, rather than using it as a crutch to pad out the game.

The world seen through the lens of Joy in We Happy Few.I was especially impressed by the quality of the side quests in this game. Side quests are usually something I endure more than savour, but in WHF nearly every side quest was interesting or entertaining on at least some level.

My favourite involved a cult of lunatics worshiping a supposedly divine yam. The premise is great, but the execution was better. I was amazed by how elaborate the quest was. They even repurposed a lot of actual pagan prayers for use by the yam cult.

The amount of effort and research poured into such a silly and ultimately irrelevant side quest is a testament to the passion and devotion of We Happy Few’s developers.

For more of my thoughts on We Happy Few’s open world and survival mechanics, stay tuned to Massively Overpowered for an upcoming MMO Burnout column on the topic.

But while I did largely enjoy the game mechanics and exploration content of We Happy Few, it’s the main story and the themes it raises where this game really shines.

I’m not normally a fan of dystopic fiction, for a variety of reasons. However, We Happy Few aces two things that dystopic stories tend to ignore.

The bucolic splendour of the Garden District in We Happy Few.One is that this is a fairly appealing dystopia. The Joy-fueled haze experienced by the citizens of Wellington Wells may not be quite so brilliantly seductive as the selective memory editing of Remember Me, a similarly powerful dystopic game, but it isn’t too hard to imagine a world where people have been seduced by the promise of eternal happiness. It’s more believable than the openly horrific settings of other dystopias.

The other is that We Happy Few acknowledges something a lot of similar stories ignore: dystopias don’t work.

We Happy Few is less a story of plucky heroes rising up to throw off their shackles as it is that of a broken system collapsing under its own faulty premise. Absolutely every aspect of life in Wellington Wells is falling apart; Joy is poisoning the entire town, literally and figuratively.

There’s this terrible lie that pervades our culture — including our fiction — that evil may be unpleasant, but it gets things done. Efficiency and decency are seen as opposite ends of a spectrum, where one has to be sacrificed in the name of the other.

But that’s not true. We’re told that torture may be wrong, but it yields useful information (it doesn’t). We’re told that strongmen may not be lovable, but they get things done (they don’t).

In reality, oppressive authoritarian regimes are almost invariably riddled with corruption, incompetence, and inefficiency. Justice, equality, and liberal policies almost always lead to better results across all sectors of society.

Townspeople in We Happy Few.And We Happy Few understands this. Wellington Wells isn’t run by evil geniuses. In so much as it has any leadership at all, it’s run by cowards and idiots.

I will also say that a lot of themes of this game resonate with me on a very personal level, having spent much of my life on a rollercoaster of various sedatives and antidepressants, most of which just made things worse for me.

While I acknowledge that drugs do help some people, the way medication is often sold as a cure-all is deeply disturbing to me.

Something that really struck a chord with me is the fact that Joy comes in various tasty flavours — chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, blackberry… I was reminded of a time many years ago where my doctor gave me some free samples of an antipressant. They were chewable and had a delicious mint flavour.

I don’t even think I want to know what they put into those things to make them taste so good. I don’t even like mint, normally.

I’m not shaming people who take antidepressants. If any of them actually worked for me, I’d take them happily. But I think we can all agree something has broken in our system when doctors hand out candy-sweet happy pills to anyone willing to ask for them.

The Jacobean Club is looking a bit worse for wear in We Happy Few.It also struck me that although the core theme of We Happy Few could boil down to “things suck, and there aren’t any easy answers,” I still managed to find it a fairly uplifting game.

One of the many things I’ve dabbled in to try to treat my mental health issues is dialectical behaviour therapy, and WHF is a great lesson in two of DBT’s core principles: validation and radical acceptance. Sometimes you just have to acknowledge that yes, things suck, and it’s okay to feel bad.

Sometimes trying to cheer up — or having others try to cheer you up — isn’t helpful. It can even make things worse. Sometimes you just need to face the fact that things are bad, and there can be a certain relief in that.

I can poke a few holes in We Happy Few’s story here or there — it’s a bit slow-paced, and it doesn’t answer as many questions as I’d like — but its strength far exceeds its weaknesses.

If there’s one place WHF stumbles, it’s the DLC. Even then, none of it is actually bad; it’s just not as good as the main game. The first two DLCs — They Came from Below and Lightbearer — are just jokey side-quests, though they do feature some clever game mechanics.

The final DLC, We All Fall Down, returns to the main story and is all around a lot more enjoyable, though even then it suffers a bit from feeling somewhat disconnected from the events of base game.

Confronting the doctors in We Happy Few.Despite somewhat underwhelming DLC, though, We Happy Few is the most I’ve enjoyed a video game in quite a while.

Overall rating: 9/10

Review: StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops DLC

Blizzard has at last released the third and final installment of its Nova Covert Ops story DLC. Having waiting for all three parts, I played through it all in one go.

Nova's log-in screen from StarCraft II's Nova Covert Ops DLCDespite the fact Nova is one of my favourite characters from all of fiction, I admit I had a fair degree of trepidation going into Covert Ops. Legacy of the Void was a really tough act to follow, and with DLC there’s always the concern that quality will drop, that it will turn out to be just a cheap cash grab.

I shouldn’t have worried.

Rogue agent!

As revealed in its initial trailer, Covert Ops begins with Nova awakening in a mysterious lab, with her memory wiped. A message on her visor warns her of imminent danger, spurring her to enact a daring escape from her mysterious captors.

What follows is a blisteringly fast-paced adventure as Nova discovers a conspiracy that threatens to bring the Terran Dominion to its knees and cost countless innocent lives.

In practical terms this takes the form of a nine mission campaign in which the player commands both Nova herself and the elite black ops forces under her command.

Nova in her titular Covert Ops DLC in StarCraft IIAs with previous StarCraft II campaigns, there are unique progression mechanics that allow your troops to grow in power and gain new options as the campaign progresses. In this case, the mechanic is equipment, for both Nova and her units.

Nova herself can choose from a variety of guns, gadgets, and different types of armour to radically alter her stats and abilities. Weapons include everything from her standard sniper rifle to a shotgun, a lightsaber, and even more exotic options still, while different armours can boost her energy, permanently cloak her, or even grant her the use of a jetpack similar to those used by reapers.

Unit equipment is a little different. There’s a shared pool of upgrades, but each upgrade can only be equipped to one unit type. If your siege tanks have spider mines, no other units can equip spider mines. Certain upgrades can have different effects depending on the unit, too, so it’s important to check all the possible combinations.

The number of options is impressive, especially for such a short campaign. If you factor all the possible combinations of different guns and gadgets Nova can equip, there are in essence a few dozen different versions of Nova you can play with — at least. Want to be a tanky melee brawler? Go for it. Want to be a stealthy ranged sniper? Also cool. Want to dance up and down cliffs, hurling grenades left and right? Yeah, you can do that too. And that’s not even the limit of all the different things Nova can do.

Choosing equipment in StarCraft II's Nova Covert Ops DLCThe mission design takes this versatility into account, too. Some missions have been specifically designed to have many different potential strategies that can lead to victory, from stealth to brute force and everything in between. The amount of thought that has gone into some missions is truly impressive.

Mission design has always been one of StarCraft II’s greatest strengths, and even after all this time, they’re still coming up with creative new ideas. Highlights this time included a high speed getaway on a vulture bike that practically turned StarCraft into a driving game, and a very clever mission that played out almost like a choose your own adventure novel, allowing you to dictate what to face and how the mission would play out. Incredibly clever.

And that’s without even getting into the seamless way the campaign blends between traditional RTS gameplay, RPG segments (including some epic and intense boss fights), and more exotic sequences like the aforementioned vulture scene.

There’s a still a certain bias towards shorter missions and missions with hard time limits, but there are also a few that take a more sedate pace, and overall the campaign feels pretty well-balanced.

They didn’t skimp on the difficulty, either. I was only playing on hard, but even so the final missions were incredibly nail-biting. As I’m writing this, I still haven’t entirely come off my adrenaline high.

A boss fight in StarCraft II's Nova Covert Ops DLCOf course you can always play on lower difficulties if you’re not in the mood to test yourself too much, but if you want to push your skills to the limit, Covert Ops definitely delivers.

The past doesn’t matter:

Covert Ops is virtually flawless from a game mechanics perspective, but it doesn’t disappoint on the artistic front, either.

Visually it’s a great experience. The graphical fidelity of Blizzard’s cutscenes just keeps getting higher, and there’s plenty of them to enjoy.

The in-game graphics are holding their own, too. Blizzard’s good at giving their games ageless artstyles, so while StarCraft II is a few years old now, it doesn’t look it, and they’re still making improvements. In a ruined cityscape, skyscrapers fall to form bridges over chasms. On an ice world, you can see frost form on your units’ armour.

The music is also excellent. In a departure from the guitar-heavy sounds we’re used to from the Terrans, Covert Ops’ soundtrack leans more on synth and orchestral sounds reminiscent of Mass Effect (yet another case of overlap between the two franchises — seriously, I just learned there’s a ship in Andromeda called the Hyperion; come on, man).

The story is, in a word, fun. It’s very intense and thrilling, with little chance to catch your breath, and it captures the cool factor of being an elite ghost operative very well.

A cutscene from StarCraft II's Nova Covert Ops DLCAnd while the focus is on Nova, there are plenty of appearances by other familiar faces. At this point I just can’t help but smile whenever I hear the familiar guitar strums and Swann shows up to drop off a new toy. It’s Pavlovian.

It’s not all Terrans making cameos, either…

Although it’s very different in a lot of ways, there’s a quality about Covert Ops that reminds me of Mass Effect’s Citadel DLC a bit. There’s that same feeling of a final gift to the fans.

There are a lot of little things that add flavour, too. Study the maps on your briefing screen and you’ll find interesting little factoids about local landmarks and the history of whatever world you’re on.

I love things like that. It’s the small details that really make games come alive.

A lot of the twists and reveals are easy to see coming, especially if you know StarCraft lore, but there is one reversal near the end that caught me off guard in a very welcome way.

If I’m being honest, there are some flaws in the story. While it’s not as rushed as I worried it might be going in, it’s still kind of rushed. There’s isn’t a whole lot of time to flesh out the characters, so they tend to feel a bit flat.

A mission briefing from the Nova Covert Ops DLC in StarCraft IIEven Nova herself doesn’t get as much development as you might expect. Nova’s a very deep character with a lot of complexity, but you don’t really see that in Covert Ops. If you haven’t read the books, you might not be able to readily understand why she behaves as she does in the story.

If I’m to continue being honest, though, I’m not sure I care. Maybe these flaws will begin to rankle me after I’ve had time to digest, but right now the sheer cool factor of Covert Ops is enough to make me forgive any sins.

The cold, analytical part of my mind is pointing out ways it could be better, but the rest of me is like, “I JUST VAPOURIZED HALF A BATTALION WITH A PLASMA RIFLE, AND NOW I’M MIND-CONTROLLING THE SURVIVORS INTO MURDERING EACH OTHER. THIS IS SO $%@#ING AWESOME.”

And I love Nova. I always have. It’s lovely to see her finally get a starring role in-game.

Overall rating: 8.9/10

It amazes me that more than five years after its initial release, StarCraft II is still innovating, providing experiences that are as good as anything in gaming, and generally making the rest of Blizzard look bad.

It does sadden me a bit that there are no current plans for any more mission packs, but I suppose all good things must come to an end. Over the past few years, we’ve gotten nearly a hundred missions of StarCraft II story, so even if this does turn out to be the last of it, you can’t say we haven’t gotten our money’s worth.

The Griffin's bridge in the Nova Covert Ops DLC for StarCraft IIIt’s been a hell of a ride.