Friday, 15 December 2017

Outlast - Whistleblower - Review

Developer: Red Barrels
Publisher:  Red Barrels
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

[Note: I've written reviews for various sites over the years and, inevitably, things get removed, disappear or generally vanish into the deep spaces of the interwebs. I figured some of those pieces could be put to better use up here on the site. So, voila, every now and then you'll see something I wrote for somewhere else.]

There are some truly appalling sights in Outlast: Whistleblower. Horrible things are done to bodies, and nasty people chase you around threatening to do unspeakable things. It's really, really, bleak. But is it scary? That's a little more complicated.

To anyone that played Red Barrel's original Outlast earlier this year (or last year, if you're on PC), this DLC expansion is very much the same kind of thing. Taking the general hide-and-seek template that can be traced back to Capcom's Clock Tower, the game has you scurrying around environments in the dark, with the only tool at your disposal being a HD camera and a few spare batteries.

Whistleblower is less a sequel to the original game and more of a parallel story. One of the main flaws Outlast had was the vague, rather annoying, cliff-hanger ending, and, without going into spoilers, this expansion doesn't do all that much to clear that up. Instead, with this DLC we get to see what happened to Mount Massive Asylum from the inside. As Miles Upshur, we only got to see the proverbial poop after it had hit the fan; probing the haunting, blood-covered hallways as an outsider. With new protagonist Waylon Park however, we're much closer to the horror, and pretty much from the outset are just trying to escape.

Whistleblower opens in a very Half-Life-style fashion, with our protagonist being ordered to carry out his job in the labs by fixing a computer. After a brief set-up we're thrust in to a very similar nightmare, albeit with a few new environments and some new characters.

Red Barrels do a pretty good job upping the stakes for a game that's built around nothing more than running and hiding. One early scenario sees you creeping through a section of the asylum whilst you're doggedly pursued by a bone saw-wielding cannibal. He's an interesting villain and the tell-tale "whiz-whiz" of the bone saw is both chilling and at the same time an inspired touch of game design; allowing you to better pin-point his whereabouts without exposing yourself too much. 

On the whole, this expansion is a bit tougher. It's clear that Red Barrels assumed you've honed your running and hiding skills on the original game and so up the challenge pretty much from the get go. Some locations don't always have obvious exit points, and escaping from enemies still requires you to have to get uncomfortably close to them at certain points, skirting around their field of vision so you can escape through a nearby ventilation shaft.

For the most part, if you enjoyed the original this is essentially more of the same. Problems arise however, when we start asking whether Whistleblower is actually scary and, unfortunately, it's not. What's ironic is that this isn't down to any lack of trying, Red Barrels to their utmost to try and unsettle you. As previously mentioned, there's some truly horrible sights Whistleblower, and its final "villain", who I won't spoil, definitely helps end the game on a high note much more than the entity that chased you around at during Outlast's conclusion.

No, Whistleblower's problem, scare-wise, is that it tries too hard. Booming orchestral stings, copious amounts of blood, and the constant sight of dead bodies desensitizes you to the horror the game is trying to create. The game is at its creepiest when it simply drenches you in the crushing atmosphere of Mount Massive Asylum. Unfortunately, the developers seem to be so worried that you'll not find this scary that they accompany every new location with an abundance of jump-scares and heaps of gore. At some point it simply goes over-the-top and almost risks becoming a parody of itself: a gory, overly loud theme park ride with almost non-stop "boo" moments.

If it were just a little more subtle then, in many respects, the game would have been much better. There's no denying Red Barrels talent, and spotting an asylum patient at the other end of the hall with your camera's night-vision still has the power to unsettle you.

There's still plenty to enjoy here with Whistleblower however, it's almost as long as the original game for starters, and as a conclusion to the Outlast story it's much more satisfying. With a bit more restraint here and there, this could have been a genuinely disturbing survival horror outing. As it stands, it's a gory thrill ride through a spooky building, which is still worth playing.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider - Review

Developer: Arkane Studios
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks 
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

Dishonored is a series I find endlessly frustrating. On the one hand, it’s a set of games that I think I should really like; there’s the unique art style, the (in theory) interesting world, and a fairly flexible game system that allows you to play in multiple ways.

All this is scuppered however, by the fact that there’s something inevitably bland about the game’s design, despite its attempts to avoid typical fantasy tropes. The game would seem to want players to care about its world; after all, a big element of the game is its chaos system, yet, most Dishonored characters are dull robots with little in the way of character. As I said in my previous review, Arkane Studios seem to care a lot about making an intriguing world but don’t seem as desperate to tell interesting stories in that world that they’ve gone to the trouble of creating, and I think that’s a huge part of the series’ problem.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider switches up a few formula staples. For starters, all of your powers are available right off the bat. Playing as Billie Lurk, you have three special abilities at your disposal; a teleportation skill, basically Billie’s version of the typical Blink ability that forms the foundation of Dishonored’s level design, a disguise power that allows you to assume the faces of enemies and pass as them for a limited time, and Foresight, which freezes time and enables you to scout ahead outside of your body.

The streamlined approach to your skill suite does a lot to help Death of the Outsider keep its focus. Without a broad spectrum of powers to check and balance, Arkane are better able to grasp the myriad ways that a player can approach each challenge.

This does come at the expense of some of the previous games’ freedom, mind. There’s a clear focus on stealth this time around. Of course, that’s always been a heavy focus for the series but here it borders on mandatory. Billie’s combat equipment lacks some of the heavier arsenal that Emily and Corvo had access to. Her gun for instance, is a silenced wrist shooter.

The game’s levels have been designed around this narrower skill-set. Earlier chapters have you skulking around Karnaca, trying to track down clues about the Outsider. It’s the third act that’s the most engaging however; an elaborate heist inside a bank vault. It plays to the game’s stealthy focus whilst still giving players a broad range of ways to tackle the challenge; with multiple entry points and ways to get to your target.

Other sequences suffer from the short development time, however. Sections of each level have characters parading around that you need to off or steal something from in a really clunky and artificial manner, emphasizing that this is in fact a game space and not a lived in world. In another game this wouldn’t be too bad, but if there’s one thing this series has nailed its the ability to immerse the player. Throughout Death of the Outsider though, that illusion regularly dissipates as the game makes concessions to its time and budget.

It doesn’t help that many of the series’ flaws haven’t been fixed. Combat is still a clunky button-mash that’s not made any better now that most of the cooler toys have been removed. Meanwhile, whilst stealth is clearly the way to go, the game has a wonky system even at the best of times, with some characters lacking any peripheral awareness whatsoever, whilst others spot you from a mile away.

It’s the game’s finale that’s the most frustrating. As I’ve said, Dishonored is a series with impeccable world building but frankly dreadful writing. Hiring Rosario Dawson and Michael Madsen to voice your characters will only get you so far, and by about the halfway mark, any attachment you (tried) to have with these characters will be long gone. This is a game where Daud, Billie Lurk’s mentor, chides her on snooping through his journal which he hints that he’s hidden...only it was hidden right on top of his bed, in plain sight.

Without the cookie-cutter revenge plot that the previous two games used, Death of the Outsider struggles even more than its predecessors did. The Outsider makes for an annoying, bland and vague villain, spouting nonsense and gibberish which, whilst that might be the point, (he’s somewhere between an Alistair Crowley-type and something out of Lovecraft) doesn’t make for engaging storytelling. It’s frankly laughable when, during the game’s final scenes, you’re left to decide whether to save this stupid character or murder him. There’s zero attachment there, zilch, I wasn’t feeling remorse or anger towards this figure, simply indifference.

Perhaps the biggest risk that Death of the Outsider takes in its trimming down of the game’s structure is the removal of the chaos system. This is the one game mechanic that directly tied into its best feature; its world design, and is sorely missed here. Without any incentive to play a certain way, and with the breadth of your skill-set curtailed by the smaller pool of powers, the game frequently feels hamstrung and limited, lacking the replayability that the previous instalments offered.

To be fair, the game does provide some incentive to stick around in levels and root out some extra things to do. Each chapter has a series of contracts; basic assassinations and thefts that you can carry out. The big reward for doing them, aside from the satisfaction, is the money you accrue can be spent on upgrades to your gear. Only, the upgrades are trivial at best, bigger ammo pouches, quieter footsteps, it’s rarely interesting and makes you less inclined to risk being spotted in a level just to go after an additional mark for some extra cash.

It’s a little unfair to compare Death of the Outsider to the previous games simply because this clearly doesn’t have the same time and budget spent on it. It’s a DLC expansion and should be treated as such. However, the best expansions do just that, they expand the concepts of their parent game in new and interesting ways. Death of the Outsider tries to do this by shrinking back its scope and focus on a narrower array of gameplay options in a more intimate fashion. In doing so however, it robs the series of its greatest strengths whilst also highlighting many of its weaknesses.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Outlast - Review

Developer: Red Barrels
Publisher: Red Barrels
Platforms: Linux, PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One

[Note: I've written reviews for various sites over the years and, inevitably, things get removed, disappear or generally vanish into the deep spaces of the interwebs. I figured some of those pieces could be put to better use up here on the site. So, voila, every now and then you'll see something I wrote for somewhere else.]

There is a school of thought within horror film theory that the rise of the found-footage genre is a direct response to the growing popularity of video games. After all, how could horror films compete with the terrifying experience of actually being chased by a monster? Games didn't just let you watch horrible things happen, they made you a part of it. Hence the need for a first-person perspective within a horror film.

Outlast sees this idea go full-circle with the main character armed not with a gun, but with a humble HD camera and a couple of spare batteries. The most prevalent theme within modern survival horror has been the quest to disempower the player character as much as possible; harkening back not only to Frictional Games' Amnesia and Penumbra series but also earlier, to the likes of Clock Tower.

Playing as oddly-named journalist Miles Upshur, the game has you investigating Mount Massive Asylum, a mental-health institute that has long been associated with patient abuse and MKUltra-type experiments. It's classic pulpy horror and story-wise the game is effectively an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's From Beyond short story, albeit with a healthy dollop of other influences thrown in.

However, it's not necessarily the plot that makes Outlast so compelling but the tangible, crushing atmosphere that hangs over the entire asylum. Creeping about, with the night-vision setting on your camera being the only way to peer into the darkness, Outlast's best scares are those that result from you psyching yourself out.

Of course, the monsters that stalk the asylum's halls are pretty unsettling too. The chunky, mutant humans are a slight disappointment after the incredibly unsettling opening segment. Whilst they're certainly going to give you a fright, there's none of the terrifying "what the hell is that" moments that you get from say, classic Silent Hill.

In a surprise turn, not all the characters you encounter in Outlast are a threat. Many people, despite suffering from some mysterious illness that has left their flesh hideously disfigured, are still happy to talk to Miles and in some cases even offer him help. It's here that developer Red Barrels manage to play with your expectations; by not making every figure immediately hostile, you never know when the game is going to pull the rug out from under your feet.

And be prepared to have that rug pulled a hell of a lot. Outlast is a game built on its ability to make you jump, sometimes when you genuinely least expect it. Since you're unable to fight enemies, much like in Amnesia your only solution is to run and hide until the horrible thing(s) chasing you give up. Scrambling underneath a filthy, rusted bed while a knife-wielding freak stalks the corridor nearby will have you craning the view has far as possible in order to keep track of where he is, your heart still racing even when he's wandered off to check somewhere else.

Every area of the game is essentially a slightly different spin on these hide and seek mechanics. Exploring Mount Massive Asylum is enjoyable in itself however. Picking up medical documents will shine some light and what seems to have gone off here and the frantic bloodied scrawls and terrified mutterings of some of its more lucid patients allows you to steadily piece together bits of the story.

Whilst the Lovecraft influence is obvious, there's also a strong influence of Clive Barker nestled in there, especially in some of the character designs, along with a strong nod to various horror films from Saw all the way to Jacob's Ladder.

Outlast's biggest problem is arguably the fact that it's most eager fans; the people craving for the abundance of horror games that came out in the late '90s, are likely the ones that are going to be most disappointed, or at the very least, the least likely to be scared.

It's quite easy for those that regularly play video games to notice the chinks in Outlast's armour. The boxes that you have to occasionally have to squeeze through aren't there just for the sake of a different animation, but so that the enemy's A.I. path-finding can't follow you too far. Likewise, picking up a quest-related item is bound to cause something to jump out, and it does. Every single time. So you're always prepared for it.

Outlast is effectively an interactive thrill-ride and the minute you begin to see the strings attached and begin second-guessing the developers its power to scare you quickly wanes. There's also the problem that the enemy designs simply aren't varied enough, eventually one rotting naked man, begins to look like every other rotting naked man.

This isn't to say that Outlast fails in what it sets out to do. Throughout its four to five hour runtime it maintains a remarkable feeling of tension and its level design alone puts many bigger budget games to shame. Likewise, the limited mechanics which amount to just running and hiding manage to remain engaging for far longer that you'd expect them to. Again, the design of the asylum manages to ensure that each encounter feels unique and unsettling in different ways, challenging players to remember their surroundings and make note of potential hiding places and dead-ends.

With the first batch of DLC content being released in April we're certainly not finished with the mystery that surrounds Mount Massive Asylum. Hopefully, this episode will shed some more light on the game's rather ambiguous ending, and more importantly provide us with some more nerve-jangling scares.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Sexy Brutale - Review

Developer: Cavalier Game Studios/Tequila Works
Publisher: Tequila Works
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Switch, Xbox One 

A puzzle game doesn’t have to be complex or even all that difficult to necessarily be fun. The Sexy Brutale is a perfect example of that.

Messing around with Groundhog Day-time loops is nothing new for video games, and indeed, the basic gameplay in The Sexy Brutale is nothing new or overwhelmingly original, but it is well executed.

The game effectively plays out as a series of “anti-hitman” puzzles, as you go about exploring the Sexy Brutale casino and attempting to undo the mysterious murders that take place there. Characters roam about the casino on a strict timetable, turning up in certain rooms at specific times of day. Given the game’s time travelling concept, you’ll quickly be “killed” (i.e. forced to start the day over) should you linger too long in a room with another guest, or when the entirety of a day has passed.

It makes it so the basic fun of The Sexy Brutale is about pinning down who is where at what time. An early encounter involves stopping two murders at once; a blind singer and her gambling-addicted husband. The singer gets gobbled up by a giant spider, whilst the husband gets poison added to his last round of drinks. It’s your job to make sure the husband doesn’t get poisoned, and also figures out what’s happened to his wife before it’s too late. Like with any game about people being assassinated, whether you be the one stopping the assassination or carrying it out, there’s a weird, morbid thrill about preventing these elaborate and bizarre crimes.

In part, this is thanks to the game’s gorgeous art style. It’s reminiscent of Viewtiful Joe; squat characters with giant heads and exaggerated faces. The casino opens up almost like a little toy set-piece, the camera almost firmly stuck above the action as if you’re hovering above and peering down at it.

Whilst the basic gameplay is a case of working out routes, solving a few puzzles by using item A with item B, there’s a steady trickle of additional abilities rolled out across the game’s svelte runtime to keep things from becoming stale. Each mask you acquire from rescuing one of the casino’s inhabitants imparts a new ability, such as improved hearing or the ability to shatter glass with your voice. This means the casino opens up in a logical fashion, with areas gated off until you’ve acquired a new ability by solving whatever murder is next on your list.

By doing so the developers manage player progression and reduce frustration. Rarely is there an area or encounter where things are too vague or cryptic to solve. The game world expands with each murder prevented, but never growing to the point where it becomes overwhelming.

In fact, if The Sexy Brutale has any major problem it’s perhaps that it’s too simple for too long. Anyone brought up on classic adventure games or survival horror titles will likely find the challenges here surprisingly simple, even when the game gears up for the climax. In one sense, this could be a criticism, but by keeping the game’s mechanics bare bones and instead focusing on the look and style of its world, The Sexy Brutale pitches itself as a game that just about anyone can enjoy, regardless of their knack for puzzles.

That being said, it feels as if something more could have been done with the game’s plot. It’s not terrible, but when the focus of the game is on basic puzzles, and you have an interesting world that has a funky, unique sense of style, the writing would have helped bring it together for the finishing touches.

Instead, the end game is somewhat disappointing. After slow-rolling its weird mystery throughout the rest of the game, the finale quickly tries to ape Undertale without any of the necessary character work or set-up to make that kind of thread pay off. It means that the story, while enjoyable enough, is slight and threadbare; fun whilst it’s unfolding but forgettable once it finishes.

That’s something that could summarise the whole of The Sexy Brutale come to think of it. Everything here works seamlessly; it’s fun, charming, fascinating to play and, hell, simply watch the game world hum along, and it paces itself perfectly through its short runtime. The only gripe is that it ends without much impression, once the credits roll, there’s little reason to return, and its writing and characters don’t leave you with enough impact to feel as if that was the point. A handful of collectibles and notes give completionists something to hunt after, but there’s hardly a great incentive to go rooting around for anything that’s not on the main path.

The Sexy Brutale is a fascinating, intricate little clockwork puzzle of a game. It’s well worth spending time with, just with the acknowledgement that, when it’s all over, it’s a case of having more style than substance.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Halo Wars 2 - Review

Developer: 343 Industries/Creative Assembly
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox One (version played)

As I explained in my Halo Wars retrospective earlier this year, the most interesting aspect of this series isn’t the games themselves, but rather their ability to work with an input device that’s hardly suited to the demands of a real-time strategy game. It’s also worth noting that there’s been a long gap since the initial Halo Wars release. Eight years is a long time for a sequel, long enough that a lot of your potential player base perhaps never got around to playing the original.

This might explain Halo Wars 2’s attitude of playing it safe. Everything returns pretty much intact from the original. The rock-paper-scissors structure of units still forms the foundation of the game’s combat, with each unit type, be it air, infantry or vehicle, being weak to one type and strong against another.

This makes for a broad brush approach to strategy. The main challenge comes largely from working out what the enemy force is specialized in, and then finding the appropriate counter measure. So, if the enemy is building up tanks, you send in an aerial force. If they’re building up lots of marines and other infantry, some tanks of your own will put a stop to it.

Of course, there are a few additional wrinkles in order to complicate the typical combat encounter. Whilst vehicles are typically at a disadvantage when it comes to aerial units, the Wolverine comes with potent anti-air capabilities, meaning that, even if you invest heavily in one unit type, you always have some counter for an opponent’s counter.

The game’s base-building has also undergone some minor alterations and improvements from the original, whilst still remaining pretty much the same as it was. There’s now two resource types; supplies and power, that must be acquired in order to expand your forces. This presents an interesting tug-of-war for base-building decisions that wasn’t in the original game. Supplies, typically, are used for building forces, whilst power is mostly used for improving said forces and upgrading your base. Too much supply and you’ll end up with an underpowered army that’ll risk being wiped out by a more advanced force, too much power and you’ll not have much of a force at all.

The macro-focus of the game’s general flow culminates with the leaders that each force can select prior to a skirmish or online match. Here again, it’s the decisions that a player makes before the game even starts that have the most impact. Ostensibly, each of the three factions leaders for both forces (there’s a bevy of additional leaders as part of the game’s extensive DLC) focuses on one third of the game’s units. This is especially true of the game’s human forces; pick Capatain Cutter and it’s clear his focus is on infantry, whilst A.I. assistant Isabel is slanted more towards vehicles. Each leader comes with an array of powers, with more potent ones being available to unlock as battles progress and fights breakout and are a mix of cooldown-based abilities and passive bonuses.

It’s here where the Banished, the rag-tag coalition of Brute and Covenant forces, seem to have had a little more love poured into them. Whilst the UNSC’s core leaders all fit into cookie-cutter strategies; take Cutter if you want squads of marines, Isabel if you want tanks and so on, the Banished are far more loosely defined and offer a broader array of tactical applications, making them more interesting.

 Atriox’s focus is on area control, he wants to literally colonise the map as you play, with cheaper forward bonuses in order to produce a stronger economy for late game fights. His underling, Decimus, meanwhile, is happy pounding everything into the dirt at the nearest opportunity. It’s a minor aspect of Halo Wars 2 but it’s moments like this, when its game design creeps out of that nice comfortable shell and tries to experiment, as it does with the Banished, that it becomes a little more interesting and grabs your attention a little more.

Whilst the leaders, powers, build-orders and economies are all important for the game’s multiplayer, and that’s clearly the game’s focus, there is still a story mode buried in here. It plays out like a tutorial mode for the human side, slowly unveiling new units to play with each chapter, and switching back and forth between full-blown engagements which involve defending positions and building up your bases, to quieter more micro-oriented scenarios such as navigating a series of snipers and artillery along a cliff side to take out the enemy.

The game’s story mode isn’t going to win any awards, it’s hamstrung, more so than the multiplayer, by the fact that you can’t really organize individual elements of your forces. Even with the new gamepad shortcuts, which, to be fair to make wielding a pad less cumbersome, this is still a game that’s always making allowances for the hardware it’s being played on.

It explains the focus on pitched battles so much throughout the campaign. Defending fixed locations is still the primary goal for most chapters, as it was in the original, almost transforming some of the levels into a quasi tower defence game as you shuffle your forces to whichever choke point is in most need of support.

The story itself is the same convoluted mush of swishy alien tech, with the fun, gloopy Flood being replaced by no one’s favourite morass of bland Sentinel designs. The game’s plot, what there is of it, is always hamstrung by the fancy cutscenes that bookend each mission. Oh, don’t get me wrong, those cutscenes developed separately by Blur Studio, are gorgeous. However, they force whatever story-telling the game makes a stab at to bend to the whim of the game’s slick post-chapter animations, resulting in a plot that’s not just convoluted but bordering on incomprehensible, not to mention culminating in a frustrating non-ending.

The biggest bugbear here inevitably goes to the way the game’s been released. Whilst the multiplayer is undoubtedly the game’s strongest suit, anyone wanting to try out any of the new leaders is going to have to fork out for the season pass in order to get hold of any of them. Likewise, a series of new story missions are delivered as DLC.

Halo Wars 2 isn’t the worst offender with how it markets its paid expansions, but at this point it does feel like players are only getting half a game unless they shell out for that season pass. It perhaps explains why the game retails for slightly less than other AAA titles, with Microsoft perhaps experimenting with lowering the entry fee in order to pull in more revenue with the DLC pass.

Whilst charging for the additional story content is perhaps understandable, the actual “meat” of the DLC, the new leaders, doesn’t really warrant charging an arm and a leg for what amounts to a slight tactical variation on whatever force you happen to use. When Overwatch can dole out new characters for free, it’s baffling that Halo Wars 2 would let half of its potential player base feel left behind for what amounts to a few additional character types. Halo Wars 2 is too shallow for the additional leaders to dramatically change the way the game is played, but by actively cordoning them off behind a paywall (and advertising them each time you boot up the game) it leaves the impression that part of Microsoft’s intent with the game is exploring new ways to reduce the title’s pre-owned value, by all but forcing invested players to shell out for the game’s season pass. All this does is gut whatever draw the game’s otherwise competitive, multiplayer focus would seem to set out to achieve.

This becomes more apparent with Blitz mode, a horrible aberration that fuses the game’s RTS structure with that of a collectible card game. Any other time this would be casual fun; a throw away mini-game that has players building decks of “cards” (read: units/powers) and battling against other players in an area-control map. Needless to say, it’s an unbalanced mess and reeks of a developer trying to foist what would otherwise be a free-to-play title onto a paid release.

Taken on its own terms Halo Wars 2 is a decent(ish) real-time strategy game. As a way for newcomers to dip their toe into the genre, it does a good job, whilst the Halo brand helps paper over the shallowness of it all. Were it a little more daring, and didn’t nickel-and-dime its playerbase, this could have been something more, but as it stands, it’s safe, predictable, and just about pulls it off.

It has the tactical depth of a paddling pool, but it’s a comfortable paddling pool.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Tekken 7 - Review

Developer: Bandai Namco Studios
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: Arcade, PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

As a general rule of thumb, I try and keep up with a series if I’m planning to write a review. I’d argue that to effectively write about video games (or any medium for that matter) having a firm grasp on the evolution of long-running series is important to determining whether or not a new instalment is good, bad or different in some way.

Bar a slight mess around with the Wii U version of Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (yes, I’m one of the five people to have that version), my last real experience with Tekken was with the original PS2 release of Tekken 5.

Coming into Tekken 7 the most notable thing for me, despite the ten or so years away from the series, is that not a whole lot has changed. Many fighters, especially 2D ones, tend to shift and morph from instalment, changing significant gameplay elements in order for each title to encourage certain aspects and dis-incentivize others.

The evolution of the core Street Fighter games highlight this. Street Fighter 2 is dramatically different from Street Fighter 3. Similarly, regardless of where your opinion on it falls, Street Fighter V is a direct response to what Street Fighter IV did over its lifetime.

In contrast, Tekken is just Tekken, and if you’ve ever touched the series at some point, it’s something that’s immediately understandable. Everything “feels” the same as it’s always done, characters connect with the same satisfying oomph, complete with wall bounces, splats and juggles. In its core state Tekken 7 is a job well done, which is as it should be, considering it’s one of the few modern fighting games to still be ported from a tweaked, refined and expanded arcade release.

The biggest change is the introduction of Rage Art moves, a sort of super move similar to many 2D fighters. They certainly help adjust the pace of any given match, allowing the defending player an effective catch-up mechanic when they’re lagging behind in health. There’s also a nice bit of technically to them in that, in addition to a super move, each character can spend their rage mode to unleash a powered-up version of one of their regular attacks, typically giving it additional juggling properties to allow further combos.

The character line-up is solid as well, with most of the favourites there. The highlight goes to the guest character this time around. Whilst we may never see Tekken X Street Fighter in the future, we can at least be certain that Bandai Namco nailed the feel of inserting a Street Fighter character into the Tekken universe and made it work. Akuma plays like he should, with ambiguous jumping attacks, that satisfying sweep, and most importantly, those uppercuts and fireballs. The fact that he works so well in this game is a testament to the developers, and whilst I’m not so thrilled with the constant barrage of DLC, (more on that later), it’ll be interesting, from a design standpoint, whether the game can work the same magic when Geese Howard is introduced.

The rest of the cast, like I said, is solid, if playing it somewhat safe. There’s the usual suspects here; the Mishimas, King, Law and Nina for long-time veterans of the series, as well as other standouts such as Steve, Feng and Dragunov. Some of the “new” characters raise a few eyebrows, simply because they’re not as new as they might initially seem. It’s hard to look at Gigas and not think he’s a reworking of Marduk’s moves and playstyle. The same can be said for Josie adopting many of Bruce’s moves from earlier games.

There’s a few noticeable characters missing from the roster. Lei Wulong, Tekken’s very own Jackie Chan, is suspiciously missing from the starting line-up and suggests that maybe Bandai Namco are slow-rolling some of the series’ fan favourites as DLC fodder.

Which brings us to the typical gripe when it comes to most fighting game releases. Tekken 7 is by no means the worst offender when it comes to the array of DLC it already has lined up, but it’s still a sad display. Several characters have already been announced for the game’s first “season” of DLC, which includes SNK’s Geese Howard.

Where this gets frustrating is in Bandai Namco’s decision to cordon off little extras as additional paid content. Tekken Bowl, a fun mini-game added to Tekken Tag Tournament, is now stuck behind a pay-wall and tied to the first set of additional characters. Likewise, Eliza is only available to those who’ve shelled out for a new copy of the game or are willing to stump up extra money to unlock her.

This might, might have been easier to stomach were it not for the fact that, as a port at least, Tekken 7 is a sloppy, lazy affair. Street Fighter V was rightly criticised for a rushed released that left its single player content incredibly thin on the ground, and Tekken 7 has similar problems.

If anything it’s more frustrating here, considering how long the game has been evolving during its arcade run. The arcade mode that’s in the game is shallow for starters, consisting of nothing more than four random fights followed by a showdown with Kazumi, the newest addition to the Mishima clan.

The story mode meanwhile, is downright laughable, not to mention cheap. The mode consists of nothing more than a few basic fights, hastily strapped together with a bored narrator and a ridiculous doomsday plot that sees Heihachi and Kazuya at war with each other. It’s the laziness on Bandai Maco’s part that’s the worst however. The mode is padded out with cut-scenes that are nothing more than repurposed trailers from the game’s launch, not to mention dredging up Tekken 5’s opening cinematic because damn if any more effort was going to be put into this mode.

It means that the focus, for better or worse, is on the game’s multiplayer. Which, to be fair, the game excels at, both in terms of the core gameplay and in its online functionality. Matches are snappy and easy to get into, with a match-making system that is far better than many of its rivals. I got through far more fights in Tekken 7, with much better connections, than I did in Street Fighter V or Injustice 2.

Given the competitive focus, it begs the question why a comprehensive tutorial wasn’t introduced. I’ve mentioned this several times in regard to fighting games, but one of the biggest gateways to getting into the genre is the fact that many of the biggest titles seem unwilling, or simply can’t be bothered, to provide a solid explanation of the fundamentals of the game’s mechanics. The internet goes some way to solving this problem, but doesn’t excuse the fact that the game’s don’t go nearly far enough into explain how they actually work to players that are new to them.

As with many of my fighting game reviews recently, the game itself isn’t in question, and that’s very true of Tekken 7. It plays it safe, very safe in fact, and it’ll be a question of how long the series can go merely incrementally improving on its nearly twenty year formula. That being said, the game is incredibly fun to play, it’s everything surrounding the game that’s the problem.

As a single player experience, Tekken 7 simply isn’t worth your time, especially compared to NetherRealms titles. The reams of DLC that are promised are also annoying, especially when there seems to have been an almost concerted effort to ship this console port out with as little new content as humanly possible, and then to charge for any content that it does add.

That leaves the hardcore Tekken fans as the primary target. Whether that’s enough is down to what you want to get out of it. As it stands, it’s a very solid game trapped under a cheap release and the usual array of penny pinching tactics.

Looks like I’m going to have to dust off my copy of Tekken Tag Tournament if I want to play some Tekken Bowl.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Nier: Automata - Review

Developer: PlatinumGames
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played) 

There’s arguably two kinds of people coming to play Nier: Automata. First, there’s those coming as fans of Platinum Game’s unique brand of hack ‘n’ slash; one of the few developers that manages to grasp the acrobatic, swishy coolness of anime fight sequences and marry it to mechanics that are both deep and satisfying to play.

Then, there’s those coming at the game as fans of Yoko Taro’s games. The developer has built up a reputation over the years working on the Drakengard series, which Nier is loosely connected to. So, between his cult following and Platinum’s tight design skills, Nier: Automata would seem like perfect match.

Things start off well. Perhaps the most curious element, especially earlier on, is the game’s willingness to play with entire genres, let alone mechanics. Short bursts of frenetic gameplay switch from standard third-person combat straight to bullet-hell segments as you fly your hover mech through wave after wave of enemy fire, blowing up reams of ships in the process. Even then, the game refuses to sit still, flipping to a 3D shooter sequence as enemies wrap around from all sides, abandoning the conventions of a side-scrolling shooter.

All of this is overwhelming in a thoroughly intoxicating way, and the game manages this without ever alienating players who never got to grips with the original Nier.

Its characters and world also make for an interesting start. You (initially) play as 2B (get it?), an android sent down from the moon in order to rid Earth of a plague of alien-designed robots so that the last remnants of humanity can return safely. It’s a ridiculous premise, touching on everything from Terminator to The Matrix.

It only really works thanks to the coating of anime style that drips from everywhere else. Characters are either dressed like Gothic lolitas or moody emo bad-asses, and the game just, just, has enough of a tongue-in-cheek vibe to pass it off without it all becoming too ridiculous.

It’s just as well, too, because the game is still very much an RPG as opposed to Platinum’s typically more linear affair. The stretches of barren landscape are striking enough, trading on the same beautiful apocalyptic imagery that The Last of Us used to such good effect. Human life has been wiped from the planet for so long that the Earth has achieved some kind normality, and your presence as these hyped-up sword-swinging androids can almost seem intrusive; invaders on an otherwise peaceful co-existence between the planet and its new machine lifeforms.

This open-world also sets up the core structure of the game’s main story and side quests. Missions are doled out Assassin’s Creed style, with markers on your map highlighting your way around. Side quests are handled with surprising care too, even if they suffer from bland objectives (go here and kill these enemies, pick up that item etc.). Each typically has some story or hook to underpin it and there’s not so many that they simply dissolve into the flavourless mush that can plague many open-world titles.

It’s not all smooth-sailing, mind. It’s clear quite early on, that, for all their skill, Platinum aren’t particularly adept at handling an open world. For each striking location, they’ll be an awkward invisible wall where there really shouldn’t be one. And whilst the world itself is open; vast and ripe for exploration, it’s also too open, too vast, with much of your time spent jamming the sprint trigger as you dash for the next objective marker at the other end of the entire map. The main quest-line has a habit of structuring itself so that you’re required to run all the way to one end of a zone only to then double back and go to the opposite side of the area.

Nier: Automata’s world lacks enough details to make repeat runs back and forth engaging for as long as it does, and this is exacerbated by a fast travel that’s not unlocked for the first few hours of the game.

Of course, you’d expect the combat to hold off any sense of repetition...and it does...for a little while. As with most of Platinum’s post-Bayonetta output, the combat is primarily governed with a two button combat scheme, with heavy attacks and light attacks that can be mixed and matched mid-combo to carry out a variety of stylish flourishes. A dodge button with the accompanying “Witch Time” rounds out the core combat, encouraging you to land a critical dodge at just the last second.

It’s a perfectly serviceable system and makes for some cinematic moments as you zip from enemy to enemy carving them up in epic fashion. Yet, serviceable is all it can really be described as. Sure, there’s a few additional RPG elements to add the odd tactical wrinkles here and there. A bevy of weapons can be bought and upgraded with a basic crafting system, and a generic collection of upgrade chips can provide you with a number of different bonuses to your health, attack power or certain move properties.

The whole thing seems lacking though, underwhelming when compared to the likes of Bayonetta, Revengeance and even Transformers. The RPG elements in particularly seem tacked on, and all of this is exacerbated by a dearth of unique enemy designs, with around three to four comprising most of the challenge throughout the game’s thirty to fourty hour runtime.

You see, Nier: Automata is a lot longer than it would initially seem. After “completing” the game’s first playthrough, which in essence is only the game’s first act, you’re left to restart the game only to play through it with 2B’s companion, 9S, and see events from his point of view.

Only, there’s little that’s new here. Entire chunks of the game are rehashed during the game’s second act. Only 9S’ hacking skill, a repetitive, bullet-hell mini-game that deals massive damage to enemies in a short space of time is really all that new, and compensates for his otherwise weaker combat abilities.

It’s not even as if the “revelations” that come with this second act are really all that shocking. A striking early game boss, a robot singer that cavorts around the battlefield like a dancer, reveals some (rather cliché) tidbits about her past when played through with 9S; but this isn’t so much seeing the story from a different viewpoint but rather revealing little bits of lore that it neglected to show you in the first place.

By the time the second act is through, Nier switches things up finally, doubling down on its existentialist plot of androids, free-will and self-determination. The game’s final act is certainly better that its tiresome middle slog but is bogged down by a combat system that’s not expanded in any way after those first few hours and also begins to suffer from enemies with bloated health bars. Fights aren’t so much a challenge later on in the game as they are a problem that you beat your head at, (and mash buttons), until they finally end.

Nier: Automata is a game that severely tests your patience. How much you’re willing to stick through it will depend on your tolerance for undergraduate level Existentialism; name-dropping Sartre and having dour conversations about free-will on the one hand, whilst wrapping it all up in an otherwise generic anime schtick about fighting giant robots.

There’s some interesting ideas here, but to get to them means suffering from a good deal of bloat, both in its gameplay and in its storytelling. Its mash-up of genres is far more interesting than its attempts at clumsy exploration of Existentialist philosophy. Furthermore, its genuine attempts to make the logic of the plot fit the game mechanics is laudable, with every “death” in Nier: Automata simply being another copy of 2B or 9S, their consciousness being uploaded into new bodies. It's a playful, fun concept, and does more for what the game is aiming for than its poorly paced and over-plotted story.

Nier: Automata manages to boast some incredible creativity but mars it by going on for far too long with mechanics that simply don’t boast enough depth. It’s understandable why the game has received so much praise, but this involves overlooking the numerous flaws in its combat, clunky writing and bloated runtime.

It’s never terrible, and better a creative misfire than a bland, forgettable success. Still, Nier: Automata is game that requires far too much patience to get the most out of it.