Friday, 23 June 2017

Injustice 2 - Review

Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

“Press X to purchase Darkseid”. It’s happening all over again. In my review of Mortal Kombat X I wrote how any appreciation of the game was always going to be overshadowed by the fact that it blatantly and shamelessly marketed its micro-transactions right there on the character screen. It seems nothing has been learned with Injustice 2.

It’s not the only fighting game to do this. Both Killer Instinct and Street Fighter V do something similar. Although at least in those cases there’s something to ameliorate the sense that you’re essentially being advertised to buy more of the game you’ve already paid for. For Killer Instinct it’s that the game is carved up in a free-to-play fashion, with people investing however much money they like, and in Street Fighter V’s case, there’s at least the notion that you can eventually unlock all of its extra characters and other DLC for free provided you invest enough time.

There’s no such luxury when it comes to Injustice 2, however. After avoiding the on-screen image of Darkseid, stuck smack dab in the centre of the character select screen just in case you might have missed him, you’re left with game where so many of its design decisions seeming to have been included, not just on whether they improve the core gameplay, but on whether they can be foisted upon the player base as more paid content.

Functionally, Injustice 2 is what you’d expect from a sequel. The original Injustice was a smartly designed and tightly constructed fighting game. It took its structure from NetherRealm’s revival of their classic Mortal Kombat formula, but with enough changes that it didn’t feel like a reskinned version of their flagship series, only with Batman and Superman shoehorned in.

Injustice 2 expands on the basic mechanics of the original games. Compared to other modern fighters, something that’s particularly noticeable with this game is its focus on meter management. Balancing resources is something that just about any fighting game has, but NetherRealm double down on this aspect when it comes to Injustice 2.

Meter can be spent on powered up moves, as you’d expect, but can also be used in just about any scenario, be it recovering from a mid-air juggle by the opponent, or extending one of your own combos to eke out as much damage as possible. The sheer range of uses that your resources have in Injustice 2 is one of its most interesting features. You don’t have the ability to spend it on everything in the heat of a match, so there’s the tactical strain of choosing what to save it for.

Likewise, clashes make their return unchanged. These cinematic head-to-head close-ups make for a decent catch-up mechanic, allowing players falling behind in a fight to regain some health, or an attacker to push there advantage. Again, it’s all governed by bidding meter, adding one more thing to save that special bar for.

Given that the game itself has changed relatively little, it’s the characters that make for the most interesting additions to the sequel. The returning cast members have received some minor changes, such as Batman, Superman and Aquaman, whilst being familiar enough to series verterans.

It’s the new characters that are potentially the most interesting however, because they highlight in many instances NetherRealms commitment to experiment with character playstyles. No where is this more apparent than with a character like Swamp Thing. It’s difficult to pin down where Swamp Thing sits as a character. He’s kind of a grappler, able to use three different attacks from his command grab, which, when coupled with his already hefty damage output, makes him an instant threat up close. Yet, he also has another command grab that’s available from almost all the way across the screen, making him far more of a threat that the typical “walking wall” kind of fighter.

Other new characters, likewise, experiment rather than being copy-pastes of previous character archtypes. Atrocitus and his cat Dex-Starr are the closest NetherRealms have come to making a genuine “puppet” style of character, similar to what’s more common in most anime fighters. Meanwhile, Dr Fate is an interesting take on a zoner; with his powers enabling him to heal when he’s on certain portions of the screen, forcing him to actively occupy different spaces during the fight, rather than idly sit there and just lob projectiles.

It’s hard to pick out any major dud in the new roster. Other characters have been craftily tweaked to cash-in on the recent movies. Joker has been given a significant emo overhaul to tie in with Jared Leto’s (horrible) Hot Topic take on the clown prince, whilst Harley Quinn has been remodelled to almost look exactly like Margot Robbie. Deathstroke meanwhile, has been dropped from the roster in favour of Deadshot, in order to maximise on the Suicide Squad cross-over appeal.

NetherRealms have kept up there commitment to offering a solid collection of single player offerings, too. Whilst the multiplayer options are threadbare, consisting of mainly ranked or unranked play with no current option for a rematch, the solo game modes are much better.

The story is as daft and weirdly enjoyable as it’s always been. Acting as a direct sequel to the previous game, it follows Batman and the evil version of Superman from an alternate universe. It’s a fun gimmick that’s self-consciously cheesy but worth the time it takes to see it through to the end. There’s even two different endings this time around as well, for those committed to completing everything the game has to offer.

It’s the Multiverse mode that gives the game more staying power, however. Rather than the typical challenge towers of Mortal Kombat, Injustice 2 has a series of generated challenges that change every day, or even several times a day. There’s a lot on offer here, with numerous themed fight lists that have players taking on different A.I. opponents of varying difficulty and under unique conditions such as reduced gravity. It’s nice to see a fighting game developer acknowledge that not everyone that plays fighting games necessarily wants to play online competitively, and in this instance it’s an embarrassment of riches when compared to Street Fighter V’s threadbare single player content.

It’s here where the quibbles start to rise, though. You see, rewards for the multiverse portion of the game see players receive reward “cubes” which unlock different costume pieces of varying rarity. As a collectathon concept, it would be a gimmick but little else, but NetherRealm tie it directly in to how your character performs, with better equipment influencing stats in every game mode except for ranked play.

Along with the aggressive “press X to purchase...” moments, it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Equipment cubes explode with the tactile feel of a pack of Hearthstone cards (the rarities are even colour-coded the same), and it smacks of a developer trying to awkwardly cram in as many free-to-play gimmicks into a game that people have already bought.

There’s nothing precisely wrong with Injustice 2. It’s a solid fighting game, one that builds on the mechanics of the original whilst introducing enough new elements in its character roster to keep things interesting, and it’s a gorgeous game to boot.

As with Mortal Kombat X, the problems lie in the aspects that surround the game. The business decisions that lead to a game that’s already being sold at retail, to be bogged down with nickel and dime aspects which push players to purchase even more stuff, less than a month after its initial release are what ultimately hurt the game. It begs the question, was the equipment selection added to Injustice 2 added to the game because the developers thought it was a good idea, or because it was an easy aspect of the game to monetize?

Either way, it certainly didn’t need it.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Prey - Review

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

It’s been eleven years since the last Prey game. To be fair, for a game that’s often forgotten as a relic of that awkward first year or so of a new console generation, the original Prey is a surprisingly enjoyable first-person shooter that works hard to create some novel ideas out of a well-worn genre. We never got to feel what the (pretty interesting) sequel would have played like. Space bounty hunter is an interesting hook for a game and it’s a shame that it never saw the light of day.

Third times a charm then...right?

Arkane Studios immediately shift the series in a new direction. The modern day setting and Native American elements are swapped out entirely for a near-future setting where humanity is now reaching for the stars after the development of neuromods; machines that alter the brain in order to enhance human abilities. After a brief opening sequence that’s straight out of Half Life, Prey 2017 makes its aim clear; it’s Bioshock with a hefty dash of Dishonored.

The developers aren’t subtle about it either; the first weapon you acquire is a trusty wrench. From then on it hands the controls to the player and leaves them to explore the station in which Morgan Yu (heh), be they female or male, finds themselves trapped in.

As is usually the case with these kinds of games, the setting is king. Prey’s ominous space station, Talos I, is surprisingly lonely for those first few hours, with only the gentle creak of machinery and the occasional boom of an asteroid breaking apart against the hull. It’s a setting that’s been done before, countless times even, but it’s no less impressive here.

Likewise, Arkane Studios’ work on Dishonored can be keenly felt straight off the bat. Areas can be approached in a bunch of different ways depending on your playstyle. Early on, Morgan gains access to the “Gloo” Gun, a traversal tool that allows you to stick balls of, well, glue, to the walls and floor and create your own paths around locations. Ostensibly it’s Prey’s equivalent of Dishonored’s Blink ability; a core mechanic that shapes the game’s level design, but it’s arguably more inventive and interesting to wield. With the Gloo Gun, you can technically go just about anywhere but there’s more to it than simply pointing on the ledge you want to get to and hitting the trigger button. Instead you have to plan your paths, keeping a look out for more efficient routes which you can build for yourself. The fact that the Gloo Gun also doubles up as a weapon is just icing on the cake.

Naturally, it’s not all about wandering around on your own. Prey’s enemies are primarily the Typhon; shape-shifting aliens that have infested the whole of Talos I. To begin with, it’s simply a handful of Mimics to take care of, skittish little headcrab-like creatures that hide in objects and then jump out and attack you. It’s not long however, until bigger foes start showing up.

Prey takes the unusual step of making its combat unique simply by being rather difficult, and by that I mean that even one lone enemy is likely to be a threat. It makes for a different kind of pace, rewarding players who plan ahead and make use of the environment around them. Ammo is rather scarce, especially during the game’s first few hours, making efficient combat an absolute necessity. Likewise, the focus on a few challenging encounters, rather than a constant stream of enemies, plays to the game’s strengths, whilst also making different playstyles more viable. It’s certainly possible, depending on your level of patience, to sneak your way through good chunks of Prey without firing a shot or swinging your wrench.

This is all stitched together with a fairly robust level up system. Neuromods can be found throughout the station and additional ones can be crafted from other resources scavenged up in the environment. As with Dishonored, Arkane Studios try not to pigeon-hole players by giving them plenty of different toys to play with. There’s the usual upgrades on offer, such as better medikits and more health, but there’s also the more bizarre alien upgrades that soon become available, such as the odd power to hide your body inside a coffee mug, amongst other things.

This level up system is also smoothly integrated into other aspects of the game. Rather than simply slap a morality system into a series of binary choices, it’s moulded directly into the game’s progression system. Take more “alien” upgrades such as the ability to transform yourself or launch blasts of psychic energy, and you’re literally making Morgan less human, a fact that the game outright tells you will influence the endgame. It’s a subtle change, but one that allows the way you play to affect the story being told in a way that’s organic and doesn’t break immersion.

Likewise, too many alien upgrades will register you as an alien to the station’s security systems, meaning they will then start identifying you as a threat. Again, it’s a simple addition but one that allows the game world to feel like it’s responding to you organically rather than simply existing as a static game space.

The biggest threat that comes from too much alien modifications however, is the Nightmare. It’ll show up regardless but (in theory), will stalk players more frequently if they’ve taken more exotic neuromods. As a gameplay concept, the Nightmare functions as the game’s Big Daddy spliced with Alien Isolation: a larger, more dangerous threat that will stalk you from zone to zone and must either be evaded, or, provided you have the resources, fought head on. Again, it’s a fairly simple concept but one that dovetails neatly with Prey’s focus on player choice, and how each individual player chooses to react to the game’s situations based on the upgrades that they have chosen.

Where Prey falters however, is in the fact that this fun level-up system is rarely put to the test. Enemies are tough in Prey but not so tough that they require different strategies. In fact, the variety of enemies alone is bordering on lazy. The main Typhon enemy comes in three different forms but the fundamental strategy to killing it will remain the same, regardless of what type it is.

Similarly, the Mimics, the headcrab-type enemies, are a poor way to create combat encounters. A good portion of Prey’s fighting will take place with you awkwardly scanning the floor as the enemy runs away, hides and then pops out now and again to hit you. Many of the other variants you encounter operate along similar lines. The Poltergeist, simply turns up, throws you in the air and then disappears, before doing the same thing again. It’s rarely threatening, in fact, a lot of the time, its attack won’t even damage you, it’s just annoying. Weavers meanwhile, spawn hordes of floating “cyst” enemies that simply explode in proximity. The end result is that combat rarely feels satisfying. Despite the weapons, gadgets and powers at your disposal, most enemies in Prey feel like pests rather than threats.

It also doesn’t help that many of Prey’s foes are idiots, the game’s A.I. is woefully inept, incapable, in many instances, of even following you through a room or two. Nothing robs the Nightmare of any threat quite like seeing it stood staring directly at you, and realizing it’s unable to attack because it can’t enter the room you’re hiding in.

It’s hard to accurately convey what’s wrong with Prey’s combat, aside from the dumb enemies. It feels bland, mushy, not all that fun to engage in, which is disappointing when you consider the genuinely diverse selection of toys and upgrades the game is happy to hand to the player.

This leaves the game’s story and exploration to pick up the slack, and, admittedly, they are handled more smoothly than the combat. Exploration is still the game’s strongest suit; Talos I is an engaging location to explore and it’s organically opened up to the player largely at their own pace as they progress.

Side quests are doled out every now and then, and more can be located if you have the inclination to go rummaging around and snooping on people’s computers and messing around with the game’s hacking mini-game. Side-quests, for the most part, avoid the padding and instead either expand the story or add new gameplay elements. One side quest for instance, has you faking a satellite broadcast that allows you to distract the Nightmare a number of times, meaning there’s genuine payoff for completing some of the optional content outside of simply doing so for completists sake.

Story beats meanwhile, are mainly handled with audio tapes, another Bioshock/System Shock staple that Prey is only happy to nab a hold of. Despite investing a good portion of its time immersing the player and creating a distinct atmosphere, the story that hangs over it struggles create any real emotional hook or sense of urgency. Morgan Yu and her/his brother Alex are the central relationship which the game focuses on, along with some (pretty fun) alternate history shenanigans involving JFK never being assassinated. There’s not enough meat to the story that’s being told, however, with the central thrust simply being that there’s an alien entity and it needs to be stopped, but lacking the more primal immediacy of something like, say, Dead Space.

The last few hours of the campaign are bogged down in too much back-and-forth nonsense, in addition to a host of extra side quests being made available just as the climax is about to get into full swing, dragging down the pace even further.

Oh, there’s the usual multiple endings and different decisions that need to be made prior to the game’s final outcome, but the final cutscene comes across as a lazy cop-out rather than a satisfying conclusion, regardless of your choices. As with Dishonored, there’s a sense that Arkane Studios want to create engaging worlds, but can’t be bothered to then write interesting stories within them.

Prey, more than anything, is simply bland. It’s occasionally immersive, has a fun set of toys to play around with, but struggles to do anything creative or original with them. It slavishly apes its genre forebears, be they Bioshock, System Shock or Super Metroid, rarely improving on anything those games achieved and instead becoming stuck firmly in their shadow.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Monster Slayers - Review

Developer: Nerdook Productions
Publisher: Digerati Distribution 
Platforms: PC (version played), Mac 

Deck-builders and rogue-likes, despite initially looking like wildly different genres, actually share a surprising amount of design space. Both types of games are built around building cohesive strategies against a degree of randomness. The same tactics cannot be used each time, largely because the resources and challenges you’ll face will be different. You have to improvise, and improvisation is incredibly fun.

Furthermore, both genres scratch that “optimization” itch; that compulsive need to eke out as much advantage as possible from each situation. Both types of games typically work on a fine line of calculated risk.

And, what’s more, both genres are ferociously addictive.

Similar to Peter Whalen’s Dream Quest, Monster Slayers positions itself as a halfway house between these two different styles of games. It’s a deck-building game, where you start with a handful of basic cards, and, over the course of several dungeons, mould it and customise to fit a specific strategy. Anyone familiar with Legendary or Ascension will be right at home. The aim is simple; cull weaker cards and create a stronger deck to tackle stronger threats.

The rogue-like element comes in during the dungeon navigation. At the start of any given run, a player is given the option of tackling different areas, each with a randomly generated dungeon to explore.

Monster Slayers biggest strength is its breeziness. Most of the time fights conclude in a handful of turns, whilst the brisk snap of playing different cards is kept to a basic level of strategy. Rarely will a turn involve making more than one or two different calculations before attacking, but that’s almost the point. Monster Slayers keeps its pace breezy and light, rarely bogging down encounters with too much complication, all of which works in its favour.

This is all handled thanks to a basic system of AP and MP. AP governs physical attacks and is regenerated at the end of each turn, whilst MP carries over from turn to turn. As you’d expect, this means that the bulk of the more powerful cards are buried in the magic side of things, where the biggest challenge is finding a way to build up your mana pool enough to start slinging the big spells.

The game also hands you a welcome variety of classes to start out with. To give Monster Slayers some credit, there is plenty of variety here. The basic division, aside from the classes that depend on magic and those that don’t, is that some characters want to (typically) be proactive, whilst others more reactive.

The Rogue for instance is all about chaining together, card after card, in order to bury the opponent in a giant Backstab or Execute, two abilities that reward you for playing a handful of cards in a single turn. By contrast, the Cleric is dependent on powerful damage over time effects to grind out the enemy whilst healing away any damage they might incur.

It’s a smart, clear way to divide up the different classes and give them unique identities. And it must be stressed that variety is something that Monster Slayers handles rather well. This is almost an absolute requirement for any rogue-like; without variety, it’s the same thing over and over again.

The biggest issue the game has however, is that these two primary different strategies are currently woefully unbalanced. Being proactive is by far the better strategy when many enemies have such an overwhelming advantage over the player in terms of their cards and abilities. Simply not letting them get a turn, or at the very least only a few turns, is much, much safer than grinding it out in the hopes that you win the long, defensive game. In a game of risk versus reward, Monster Slayers is all about taking the risk, because the benefits for not doing so and playing it safe are often so incredibly slight.

It also doesn’t help that there’s some instances where players will simply be at a total loss regardless of their decisions. Again, a run where you aim for a grindy strategy or “control” deck can run you into an enemy that’s capable of regenerating away any damage they receive to the point of invincibility.

Monster Slayers simplicity can also be its undoing. Whilst fights are breezy and keep the pace brisk and to the point, they also risk devolving each run into a rote, by-the-numbers strategy. Cantrips (cards that draw a card) are king here, and having a deck that’s built to cycle through each and every card in your draw pile is arguably the best strategy to aim for, regardless of character.

This limiting focus on small draw piles and quick cantrips undermines some of the more interesting strategies that Monster Slayers toys with. The Necromancer is built around dumping cards into their discard pile to build mana, but this inevitably means having a bigger deck in the first place in order to gain any advantage from this strategy whatsoever; a death knell for most decks. By contrast, the Rogue, whose major goal is to cycle through their deck for big damage, is by far and away the best class it feels as if you’re handicapping yourself playing as some of the others. The different flavours that each character type brings to the table don’t compensate for this when the overriding “shrink draw pile/pick up cheap spells that replace themselves” is the major goal regardless of what deck/character you start out with.

Monster Slayers is unbalanced in other words. It’s a breezy, fun game, the kind that looks suited for mobile or tablet as much as it does PC. As a fast, speedy shot of dopamine, it delivers that successfully, but often skirts the line between being quick and accessible, versus simply being shallow. From the repetitive music (really repetitive music), to the widely swinging power levels from class to class, there’s a lot that needs fixing here, and there’s a sense that the mass of updates that it’s already had are more a case of getting the game to a good base state rather than improving on solid foundations.

Monster Slayers is impressive considering it comes from just one person, and the central concept is genius. However, it’s far from as satisfying as it should be, even when it is tempting you with just one more go.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Little Nightmares - Review

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

Little Nightmares, even if the title wasn’t a clue, immediately gives away its inspirations. The pseudo-2D level design and simple minimalist mechanics, that almost solely consist of a grab and a jump button, have their roots in the platforming gameplay of Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet.

This should be expected, of course, Tarsier Studio have cut their teeth working on numerous ports and supporting titles for Sony’s do-it-yourself platformer. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Little Nightmares often feels like you’re playing a user-created level from LittleBigPlanet, only with considerably more polish.

This wouldn’t quite do Little Nightmares justice, however. For such a simple concept; you play as a weird girl/gremlin creature in a yellow anorak, Tarsier Studios pack plenty of interesting ideas and concepts into the game’s svelte five chapters.

The game’s strongest aspect is its atmosphere. Calling it survival horror, or horror in any real sense would perhaps be exaggerating, but the developers do a great job of imbuing each sequence with disturbing imagery designed to unsettle and unnerve. Creeping through a room early on, all you can make out are a pair of legs dangling above a chair, listen closely and you just might just hear the creak of the rope as the legs swing back and forth.

Despite not being a “pure” horror game in the traditional sense, Little Nightmares does a great job of crafting scenarios that are unsettling and tense, and sometimes a little scary. Better yet, the game achieves this without relying on a constant barrage of shock moments and jump scares. Its world is dripping with a sense of unease and threat that’s always present.

In fact, environmental story-telling as a whole is the game’s strongest element. Much like Abe’s Oddysee, Little Nightmares uses its world to craft its story. Events play out in the background as you shift from scene to scene, moving the action forward with a touch of light platforming or basic puzzle work. Unlike say, Limbo, a game which Little Nightmares has a lot in common with, it’s rarely frustrating or difficult largely because it doesn’t need to be. This is a game that wants you to experience everything it has to offer.

While platforming and puzzles comprise two thirds of the gameplay, the rest is made up of some basic stealth mechanics. Each chapter has a central villain that the girl-thing has to overcome. In the kitchens it’s a gang of lumpen-faced chefs intent on catching you, whilst one of the earlier levels has you avoiding a gangly armed creature, (describing anyone in Little Nightmares as a person is perhaps being too hopeful), that can’t see.

The game’s strong attention to pacing serves it well here. Stealth is basic, sneaking under tables or behind objects is almost certain to keep you hidden, and that’s all there really is to it. Tarsier Studios never bog down their set-pieces with fussy mechanics or complex challenges. In fact, in many instances, the simplicity of most of the stealth sections is what makes it them so tense: there’s nothing else to do but dive under the bed lest the horrible monster catch you. There’s a raw, primal urgency and satisfaction to many of Little Nightmares key moments and it’s a part of what makes them so enthralling.

Even better, the developers know when to switch up the pacing. A chapter in a packed, Japanese-themed dining hall, with hoards of screaming, obese men-monsters chasing after you, is a brilliantly crafted set-piece in a game with plenty of them. It’s Spirited Away’s bathhouse sequence played out as a video game level.

In fact, there’s very little to criticise about Little Nightmares. I might sound a hypocrite for saying it, but my biggest gripe is that the game is perhaps too short, not something that you see me write all that much on this website. I’ve lamented many a game, regardless of budget, for bloating their designs with too many mechanics and tedious micro-management (cough...crafting...cough), or stretching their open worlds to breaking point. Little Nightmares is one of the few games in recent memory that I actually wanted more of once it had finished. Its short runtime can easily be completed in one sitting, clocking in at around three hours or so.

Yet, that’s part of the beauty of Little Nightmares. It’s simple, concise and humble. It does its thing and then scurries away before you can catch hold of it, much like its protagonist. Tarsier Studios have created a wonderful little gem here; a game that’s creepy, weird and charming in equal measure.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda - Review

Developer: BioWare
Publisher: EA
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

BioWare’s work was always going to be cut out for them with Mass Effect: Andromeda. This is a series brimming with unresolved conflicts. It would be difficult for any long-running series to reconcile, but for Mass Effect, the challenge is absolutely gargantuan. BioWare’s sci-fi series was built on its promise of giving players ramifications to their choices, of creating outcomes based on situations that had occurred hours earlier in the campaign. All of this came undone with that colossal mess of an ending (regardless of any indoctrination shenanigans) that left Mass Effect 3 so unsatisfying.

The big question then, was, what the hell were they going to do about the previous three games? And, more importantly, what were they going to do about the giant (space) elephant in the room? That dreadful non-ending.

The answer? Do what any savvy politician does; ignore the question completely. You want to know what happened in the previous games? Tough, Mass Effect: Andromeda doesn’t want to provide any answers, as it takes place both between and (presumably) after the events of the original trilogy. What happened to the rest of the Milky Way galaxy, you ask? Look, here’s Andromeda, go explore, don’t mention anything else, follow the icons, enjoy yourself, forget those other games, focus on this one.

As snarky as this opening might sound, I can actually understand BioWare’s reasoning on this one. Mass Effect: Andromeda needs to essentially stand out as its own game, potentially, the start of a whole new trilogy. In order to do that it effectively needs to sever all ties with the previous games in this regard, in order to have the time and space to tell its own tale.

So, what then, is Mass Effect: Andromeda? What’s interesting about BioWare’s approach to the series up until this point is that each game has had its own distinct and unique identity. The original game is a space exploration game, a romantic sci-fi epic, Mass Effect 2 is an Ocean’s 11 heist tale, where the individual, character-driven stories are arguably more important than the overarching plot, a perfect topic for the middle part of a trilogy to handle. Finally, Mass Effect 3 was a war movie played out through a video game, with all of the previous decisions and choices (in theory) coming together in an explosive and bloody finale.

Mass Effect: Andromeda sticks closest to the original game in the series in terms of style and gameplay, placing a priority on its scope and the ability to explore and navigate to your heart’s content. There’s a main storyline in Mass Effect: Andromeda, but it’s hardly the game’s focus; far more effort seems to have been placed on the game’s open-world and its sheer scale, than on its central narrative.

Normally, this would be an instant criticism. Far too many games in the past decade have sacrificed good pacing and gameplay systems at the expense of bloating their game spaces to gargantuan proportions. Worse still, Mass Effect and BioWare have been defined by their ability to provide interesting linear gameplay and story-telling, so to see them move away from that as part of a box-ticking exercise, or to satisfy EA, is cause for concern.

What Mass Effect: Andromeda initially does however, is surprisingly clever; it makes the exploration the centre of the story. After creating your Ryder avatar, be they female or male, the primary goal, throughout a good portion of the story, is not solving some great danger to the universe, but simply finding a home. Colonizing Andromeda's harsh environments is at the forefront of the game’s themes and issues that it chooses to deal with. Early on you must decide whether to make your first base a military outpost or a research centre, for instance. Do you reach out to the other species throughout the galaxy in friendship, or force them in line?

That being said, Mass Effect: Andromeda arguably has less genuine choices than any of the previous games in the series. Even Ryder has less dialogue to manipulate, with the primary decision being whether to have her be a by-the-book officer or a quip-heavy joker, as the Paragon/Renegade dichotomy has been ditched completely. All of this is almost beside the point however, because, for all the stripped-down nature of many of the game’s story elements, it’s the focus on making a story about the myriad little stories and overall exploration that’s one of the game’s more fascinating aspects.

This means that the best moments, writing-wise, in Mass Effect: Andromeda are when you’re talking to your shipmates, or settling a new planet and helping out the local inhabitants. Visit snow-covered Voeld and you’re left to assist the Angara, the major new race to the series, against the primary villains, the Kett, in what’s essentially all-out war. On Elaaden meanwhile, you’re left to negotiate with the Krogan of New Tuchanka following a split between most of the Krogan colonists and the Council races.

BioWare make this new world, or galaxy in this case, interesting in a different way to many similar open-world games. The initial goal  isn’t to simply stuff you with a bunch of different quest tabs and be done with it, but hang a bunch of vaguely intriguing plot threads and then leave you to wander in whatever direction you want. It’s similar to a smart dungeon master in many respects; tempting the players with plenty of juicy threads but not goading them one way or the other.

Your crew, likewise, remain a fun bunch. A few skirt too close to previous cast members. It seems BioWare are incapable of writing a Krogan that isn’t dry, witty and sardonic, and others, such as Asari-trained human Cora, are just so utterly dull I have nothing else to say about them. Still, a few stand out. Vettra, a sort of Han Solo Turian, is a great addition to your crew, and chirpy robot-obsessive PeeBee is another fun character that fits perfectly into this game’s, lighter, almost Whedonesque tone. Better yet, each character comes with even more little plot threads and individual stories to be teased out as you get to know them.

Granted, the resolution to many of those plot threads is the same; shoot everything until its dead or, in some cases, talk your way out. It’s here where the stripped down dialogue system is most sorely felt, but the focus of Mass Effect: Andromeda is rather bold in many respects, simply because it avoids treading over the same ground that the previous games in the series did.

It’s when the game wheels around to telling its central narrative that things become forgettable. There’s a very Marvel-like feel to Mass Effect: Andromeda, thanks to the game’s overall quippy tone and eclectic cast of characters.

Unfortunately, this similarity also extends to the games central villains, the Kett. The MCU has never been all that good at creating memorable bad guys and neither is Mass Effect: Andromeda, with the generic do-badder wanting some equally generic doomsday tech to snuff out half the galaxy. It’s an incredibly dull plot line that pales in comparison to the first game’s finale. Mass Effect took steps to make Saren a sympathetic individual in a certain light, one that, whilst clearly “bad”, was potentially carrying out bad things for some greater good in his own warped sense. By contrast, Mass Effect: Andromeda’s chief baddie is as bland as they come, along with the rest of the main storyline; an afterthought to the open galaxy it would rather have you invest your time in.

The combat, likewise, gives with one hand and takes with the other. BioWare have meshed together the central character development system with the game’s (still forgettable) multiplayer component. What this means is that you get a surprisingly robust level up system that allows you to tweak your Ryder to how you see fit, choosing from a maximum load-out of three powers along with passive abilities. It’s a slimmed down, streamlined approach, but one that makes for a good amount of depth, not to mention preventing your character from being a steaming juggernaut by the end game, regardless of how much time you put into the ample side content.

Most of the abilities from previous games have made it intact, and each of the game’s seven classes has a slight gimmick or tweak, along with a handful of passive bonuses to shape their playstyle. Veterans will be right at home here. The Infiltrator is still the stealthy long-ranged execution specialist, the Vanguard, the up-close expert, but some of the other classes have been given an overhaul to make them more interesting. The Engineer in particular is great fun with the Assault Turret and Remnant robot pal that can accompany them, sort of playing like a sci-fi equivalent of a necromancer.

All of this, however, has come at the cost of the rest of your team. Whilst Mass Effect: Andromeda might expand the scope of your character’s options, your party members are nothing but an afterthought, glorified bullet-sponges that cannot be equipped with anything or even instructed to use their powers on specific foes.

The decision also, to simplify the “defences” system that Mass Effect 2 and 3 used, doesn’t go down all that well. The previous games had a tight tactical system of matching powers to various different types of defence, be they Shields, Armour or Biotics that forced you into creating a diverse squad for combat. Andromeda guts Biotics as a shield-type entirely, which, in combination with the more limited squad member functionally, forces the game to play out more like a twitch-heavy cover shooter rather than a RPG hybrid.

Other design decisions are also bizarre when you take the game as a whole. Great pains have been taken to provide the player with a complex array of different weapons and armour to customize and craft. It’s all handled in a clunky interface that, frankly, didn’t need to be in the game at all. What’s absurd though, is that, for all the time spent making it a big part of the game, the only character who can be customised in any way, is Ryder. It’s a stupid decision, not only bogging the gameplay down with fussy crafting and menu management, but then also making it so inconsequential (the weapons you can simply buy or pick up are more than adequate) that it’s a mystery why so much emphasis was placed on this one aspect of the game.

And if the game wants to be seen as a more fast-paced cover shooter, it only half nails that. The added manoeuvrability, thanks to your jet-pack, make for more energetic fights that aren’t simply about being bogged down behind cover, but are undercut by the poor enemy variety. Humans, Kett, Angara, robots and maybe one or two alien fauna (the same fauna I might add, regardless of the planet you are on) are all the enemies you face in Mass Effect: Andromeda, and it gets old very quickly. Combined with the more twitch-heavy focus and you have a game that wants to be more focused on the combat but then hardly seems to do anything to make that combat more fun than in the previous games. In fact, it arguably does the opposite in many instances, slimming down the mechanics so much that they risk becoming shallow.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a strange game. For all its attempts at being a safe, self-contained reboot of a long-running series, its design decisions are all over the place. It places more emphasis on the emergent stories that come about from exploring this new galaxy, but then hastily throws in a doomsday plot that it can’t be bothered to make interesting. Likewise, it wants to streamline its combat system to appeal to more casual shooter fans, but then simplifies those systems without adding anything new.

Mass Effect: Andromeda should be applauded for making a genuine break from the rest of the series. It’s surprising to find a game like this that doesn’t feel the need to pander to its past, instead charting a new direction, tone and themes. However, that’s arguably come at the cost of any real sense of direction. This is a confused game, one that doesn’t really know what it wants to do or be. It’s far from an outright failure, but if this new (potential) series wants to live on, it first needs to decide, ultimately, what story it wants to tell.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Stories Untold - Review

Developer: No Code
Publisher: Devolver Digital 
Platforms: PC 

A quick glance at the game’s cover and you’ll already know what Stories Untold is going for. You’ve watched Stranger Things, right? Well, if not, go watch it.

Stories Untold is divided up into four interconnected short tales. Genre-wise they fit into that weird cross-over of part sci-fi, part horror and part something else entirely. There’s hints of Lovecraft, a dash of John Carpenter, and a host of other major and minor elements that run throughout the overarching story that glues together each tale.

The game itself is actually expanded from an original, shorter concept. “A House Abandoned” was initially a stand-alone text adventure but now, with some enhancements, serves as the opening episode of No Code’s mini quadrilogy.

It might go some way to explaining why “A House Abandoned” is still the strongest episode here. Concept wise it’s a typical haunted house fare, coupled together with some retro-inspired touches as you play a text-adventure game on your computer whilst sat at a desk.

There’s some spooky atmospherics; lights flicker and go out, the phone rings, you open a door within the game, only to find a door ominously creak open behind you. All the while you’re just stuck at the desk, unable to move. There’s a wonderfully unsettling feeling about playing a character that’s playing a game, or even just someone operating a computer. Go play Her Story if you haven’t, to know what I mean. Maybe it’s the sense of vulnerability that it creates for the player, I’m not sure, but Stories Untold uses that sense of fear to full effect in its first episode.

And the episode knows not to overstay its welcome, either. It creeps along at a strong pace, steadily building up the tension until it’s about to burst. It works because of its simplicity, and by sticking to nothing but a desk, TV and keyboard the game manages to do far more to unsettle the player simply because it’s not trying to juggle too many plates.

The subsequent two episodes, “The Lab Conduct” and “The Station Process”, add on additional elements to the basic text adventure, whilst also delving into other genres. “The Lab Conduct” is the sci-fi horror of the group, with you playing as some nameless test operator at some nondescript lab. I won’t spoil too much in terms of the actually story as it’s the best part here, alongside the first episode.

One of the advantages of video game horror is creating scares and unease through mundanity. You can’t really do this all that well in film, we’re always watching someone act; they’re do something. It doesn’t work all that well in a book either, and whenever either medium attempts to do this kind of horror it always risks genuinely boring the audience/reader rather than terrifying them.

Video games, however, don’t suffer from this problem, and Stories Untold uses that to its full advantage. The opening half of “The Lab Conduct” is doing nothing but tinkering with lab equipment as you conduct some bizarre experiment. It’s unsettling precisely because nothing is happening, but there’s always that eerie threat of what you’re working on, and what could happen. Like with “A House Abandoned”, “The Lab Conduct” cranks up its tension inch by inch, having you turn a dial at one point to boost a frequency to literally crank up the tension, as the machine slowly begins to whine louder and louder. You know something bad is going to happen, and No Code know it too, so they’re going to wring as much out of that basic scenario as possible.

It’s a shame then, that the end of the episode starts to hint at the cracks in Stories Untold structure, and by half way through “The Station Process”, it’s clear that in an effort to expand a simple concept, the game begins to slowly lose its way.

“The Station Process” continues with the mundane horror through its use of obscure puzzles. Radio chatter from your workstation is sometimes unsettling, and you’re left to decode messages whilst someone, or something, would appear to be stalking outside in the blizzard. The episode is not without its highlights but by the end, when the game takes a bizarre left turn into a walking simulator, (and not a particularly good walking simulator at that), it’s hard not to feel like the game has lost what was its primary charm by no longer welding you to one fixed location.

The final episode, “The Last Session” sees the entire game brought full circle. It’s hard to talk about this episode at all without spoilers, but suffice to say the biggest problem is that the game tries too hard to tie its four episodes together into a neat little bow. The ending twist isn’t so much a shock as it is “that’s it?”, with the twist itself being predicted long before the game tries to deliver it with an emotional punch.

The issue here is that by the end of the game, it’s lost all of its weirdness. Operating on some strange throbbing heart in a lab, or exploring an ominous abandoned house whilst also playing a video game are creepy precisely because they’re weird and because there’s not really and context to why you’re doing it. That lack of context is what makes it unsettling. By tying everything together so neatly, too neatly, the game undermines what makes its opening half work so effectively.

There’s other issues here, too, it must be said. Whilst the game tries its hardest to emulate the awkwardness and clunkiness of early text adventure games, it’s sometimes too clunky and obscure even by ‘80s standards. The game rarely seems to grasp synonyms, meaning sequences can grind to a halt as you type multiple different word combinations, waiting for the right to work. And nothing quite kills fear like boredom.

Other puzzles suffer from needlessly obscure elements as well. Part of why “The Station Process” isn’t as good as the previous two episodes is that so much of it involves reading text that’s far to blurry, even when you’ve zoomed into it. There’s a sense it’s deliberately like that just to make these sequences more challenging, except it doesn’t, it just makes them more annoying.

Lastly, whilst I appreciate the nods to Stranger Things and classic ‘80s weirdness, it all feels rather tacked on here. Bar the obvious ‘80s text adventure format, (which the game becomes less and less reliant upon as it progresses), there’s not a whole lot of reason as to why it has that style, other than as a gimmick. With an opening that plays out with a bloopy synth score, it’s clear what the developers were aiming for, but I can’t help but shrug my shoulders and go “so what?”. Stranger Things works because the time and setting are intrinsic to the story being told. By contrast, Stories Untold's nods to ‘80s culture are more like a flavour, a coat of paint, that’s rather inconsequential to the story that it ultimately decides to tell.

It’s hard to actively dislike Stories Untold, primarily because that first episode is so effective and so damn good. It’s hard to dislike the rest of it, too, because there’s some great ideas amidst all the chaff. Stories Untold is a case of a simple concept losing that simplicity as it expands and not being as effective as a result, and no amount of nostalgia pandering is going to cover that up.

At the very least, play through “The House Abandon”. Just prepare for disappointment if you dare to venture any further.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Eternal Card Game - Beta Impressions

I wrote an “impressions” piece last year on Dire Wolf Digital’s Elder Scrolls Legends when it entered open beta. However, it’s not been their only recent attempt at a digital card game. Eternal is just about to leave open beta at the time I write this, so I figured it's a decent time to take a look.

It only takes a quick glance to grasp what Dire Wolf are attempting with Eternal. It’s Magic: The Gathering, with a Hearthstone interface. Ever since its release, Hearthstone has resulted in numerous (usually bad) imitators and copy-cats, hoping to cash in on the free-to-play deck building craze.

Whilst a lot of these games are simply an attempt to make a quick buck on the back of a popular trend, there’s something more to be said about the number of developers working on similar games. Whilst Hearthstone is enjoyable to play, it’s not without a myriad of flaws, and already games like Elder Scrolls Legends, Duelyst and the imminent release of Gwent suggest that, whilst Blizzard might have been the vanguard for the digital card game format, they’ll not be left alone for much longer.

Eternal seeks to copy Hearthstone on the surface. Indeed, its board and overall look and feel smack of a mid-weight clone rather than a serious contender. The hokey fantasy/steampunk art style and bland monsters aren’t really much to get excited about. Visual style can go a long way to setting your game apart (look at Duelyst) and it’s something that Eternal really lacks.

It’s in the card mechanics that things get interesting though. It immediately betrays the fact that it was co-developed by several Magic: The Gathering pros, with  the card pool divided into five colours, or factions in this case. Creatures meanwhile, don’t attack one another, instead only dealing damage to the opposing player, just like in Magic, only fighting each other when the defending player declares which of their creatures is blocking what.

It’s the biggest fundamental change between Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering. Hearthstone is a game of snow-balling an ever-growing advantage, and the abundance of momentum-changing board-sweepers and dramatic swings from one player to another are in part a way to prevent one player from simply accumulating an ever-growing advantage. Magic is a game of inches by comparison, where one play for value, such as playing a combat trick on a creature, can pull the game in your favour. Eternal definitely aims for this subtler, less bombastic approach.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Eternal, coming from a Magic background, is how the developers play with the colour wheel. Time (Yellow), Justice (Green), Shadow (Purple), Primal (Blue) and Fire (Red) each have particular mechanics and overlapping strategies with the other factions, and whilst its easy to look at the five factions and see them as carbon copies of Magic’s system, it’s interesting to note where the developers have made changes.

For instance, Time is the faction of big spells and colour-fixing, allowing you to play more late-game spells as well as dip into other colours for better versatility. Shadow meanwhile, is focused on aggression, with an abundance of its creatures have the Quickdraw mechanic, allowing them to attack before any defenders.

Each of the five factions also has two “official” allied factions (again, a lot like Magic) which make up a number of additional multi-coloured cards. This is arguably where Eternal comes into its own, not necessarily because of the multi-coloured cards themselves, but because a number of the cross-faction mechanics are unique to digital card games.

For instance, Time/Primal, by far the most fun combination, has a number of cards with the ability Echo. When cards with Echo are drawn, you get an additional copy. On the surface this doesn’t look like much, but the number of combinations and tricks you can pull off in a game, repeatedly putting a card back on the top of your deck to get another two copies, is insanely fun. It rewards players for thinking creatively, is powerful (you’re drawing an additional card) and it’s something that only a digital card game can do.

The other notable ability is War Cry, the Fire/Justice crossover mechanic. Cards with War Cry buff the top card of your deck whenever they attack, creating a steady snow-balling advantage that can quickly run away with games if the opponent can’t stem the assault. Again it's a mechanic that is easy to understand, and can only exist thanks to the game's digital nature.

Some of the other abilities are decent but far less notable. Primal and Shadow get Infiltrate, where creatures receive various bonuses provided they’ve hit the opposing player once. Aegis is perhaps the most unbalanced mechanic right about now. It functions similar to Hearthstone’s Divine Shield mechanic, but rather than nullify damage, nullifies the first spell that targets the creature. At the moment it leads to what I’d easily say are the least fun moments in Eternal, creating non-interactive game states where one player suits up a creature with Aegis, sticking buffs and power-ups onto it, only to send it hurtling at the opposing player turn after turn whilst they're helpless to stop it.

Whilst on the topic of non-interactivity, it’s worth touching on the game’s resource system. For some bizarre reason, Eternal has saw fit to emulate Magic’s weakest mechanic here. Decks are made up of 75 cards (Magic would seem to have some copyright claim on 60 card decks), and almost a third of that deck will be made up of sigils of various colours.

Anyone that’s played a game of Magic knows that the worst thing in the world is being land screwed/flooded. And there’s a good reason why it’s so bad; it means you don’t get to play the game. Say all you like about unbalanced, boring or over-complicated rules and cards, they at least let you still play something. Being locked out of even playing a game due to the whims of random chance is frustrating, and the added complexity of having to craft an effective mana base, assessing the correct ratio of colours, number of sigils and so on, don’t outweigh the negatives that come with it.

Eternal is plagued by bouts of non-games, where one player basically doesn’t get to do anything for the first four turns because they get stuck on two sigils and can’t play anything. It’s miserable, and is made worse by the larger deck sizes and, more importantly, due to the games current focus on aggressive, creature-oriented play.

Right now Eternal is a fast game, very fast. Fire, Shadow, Primal and Justice all have abilities that reward attacking, be it War Cry, Infiltrate or Quickdraw. Many games are decided by who can get stick an early threat and either snowball it with War Cry triggers, or tempo the opponent out with cheap removal and evasive threats.

This isn’t a problem in itself. It’s clear from Eternal’s design that it wants games to play out fast and straight to the point. However, when combined with the dated resource system, it can make for some rather frustrating scenarios as one player is left steam-rolled as their opponent tramples them with threats and they don’t get to play anything.

One thing that Eternal does get right however, is the play modes. It’s a generous game. Even after only a handful of hours playing I had six or seven legendaries crafted, and the ability to grind away against the AI for rewards means that players who aren’t satisfied with the daily quests still have something they can do to accrue more cards.

The big addition here, alongside the Forge, which is Eternal’s version of Arena play, is the addition of draft. The game does its best to simulate drafting with other players, with the “packs” you open being packs generated from other players, even though you’re picking cards asynchronously.

This is by far the deepest and most rewarded aspect of Eternal’s gameplay. Drafting is always incredibly fun because, much like a good rogue-like game, it forces players to create strategies out of a degree of randomness. You don’t know what cards you’re going to be passed, so the best player is usually the one with an eye for smart synergies and good card value.

There’s a slight problem at the moment in that only half of the ten potential colour combinations are supported. This means that, whilst Primal/Justice is a feasible combo, it’s going to lack the powerful multi-faction cards of a Fire/Shadow or Primal/Time deck. That being said, draft is great, and one of the game elements that sets Eternal apart from the abundant competition.

Overall, in its current shape, Eternal is solid. It lacks a degree of personality, and that’s largely in part due to its bland interface and generic fantasy art. As many more digital card games inevitably get released in the future, I think this is going to be one of the areas that needs to be focused on. A game with a fun art style and unique/creative visuals goes a long way, and currently Eternal just looks forgettable. I'll say it once more, just go look at Duelyst. 

In terms of the gameplay, it certainly scratches that card game itch, and does so without feeling as chaotic and prescribed as Hearthstone frequently does. More importantly, Eternal tries its damn hardest to do something interesting with the fact that it’s a digital card game, building its mechanics around the fact that it’s played on a computer or tablet, rather than with paper cards. Better yet, it does this without sticking the word “random” on every other piece of game text.

So at the very least it's got that going for it.