Friday, 18 May 2018

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time - How to Create A Classic

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PC, PS2, Gamecube, Xbox

Games age, regardless of how good they are. Resident Evil 4 is still a masterpiece but many of its controls feel dated (whether or not this adds to the experience is up for debate) when compared to the gamut of third-person shooters and similar horror titles that came out in its wake.

By contrast, The Sands of Time remains surprisingly “modern” in many respects. Its ability to weave its writing into its gameplay in particular is something that I think few games have done so well in the past decade.

It’s also important to acknowledge just how influential the game was in defining what would arguably become Ubisoft’s “house style” of game at the time, alongside Splinter Cell and Beyond Good & Evil. All three titles merge their chosen genres with a distinct attention to a strong narrative that underpins the gameplay.

And then there’s Assassin’s Creed. It goes without saying that if it wasn’t for the revival of Prince of Persia there’d be no Assassin’s Creed. Both series share much of the same creative DNA, not least in both being series where you play as acrobatic warrior-ninjas traipsing about historic environments. It’s not difficult to look at Prince of Persia’s intuitive, context-sensitive move set and see how it would evolve into Assassin’s Creed climb anything, jump anywhere parkour.

I mention all of this because, whilst many games that are rightfully held in high regard, or are remembered for being historically important to the medium or evolving a particular genre mechanically, The Sands of Time was not a run-away success. Read up about the game’s development and you’ll find oodles of information about cut content, a rushed work schedule (a relative norm in games development, unfortunately) and a team that was committed but incredibly apprehensive about the game they were working on.

The Games Mechanics: The Anti-Lara Croft 
"I absolutely did not want to hear about making another Tomb Raider clone” - Jordan Mechner 
I went back to play through Tomb Raider last year, the 1996 original. I’ve made attempts to revisit the game several times now and no matter how often I play it, it never gets any better.

That’s not to say that the game is terrible, I can appreciate the challenge it faced being one of the first attempts at 3D platforming. It’s not however, simply a case of a game ageing poorly. Soul Reaver for instance, utilizes many of the same mechanics as Tomb Raider, handles them much better and came out only two years later.

By contrast Tomb Raider’s level design is repetitive, its combat more of a time waster than anything possessing strategic depth (jump back and keep holding the fire button). Most frustrating of all however, is its core platforming, its central mechanical premise.

Lara jumps with that awkward feeling of anti-gravity, floating towards her target rather than leaping towards it. There’s the irritating delay between pressing the jump button and then Lara actually jumping, meaning you have to factor the delay into your button timings. All of this is to some extent intentional, of course, to convey the weighted sense that your controlling a “real” person rather than some artificial avatar.

For me however, it always reminded me that I was playing a game, factoring in its mechanical systems into my jumps and ledge grabs rather than immersing myself in the environment I was playing through. By trying to focus on the “realism” of the platforming it’s always counter-intuitively taken me out of the game. It also doesn’t help that Lara always felt like controlling a fork-lift wearing a backpack. That was true just as much in 1996 as it is now.

This is somewhat important to discussing Prince of Persia because Sands of Time is arguably the anti-Lara Croft.

Following the ill-fated release of Prince of Persia 3D in 1999, the first attempt to revive the series, one of the biggest influences on Sands of Time was for it to not simply be another Tomb Raider clone.

It succeeded in doing that. One of the biggest successes of the game is how effortless its move system is. There’s little thought needed to carry out the Prince’s actions, because so many of them are context-sensitive. Many are carried out with the same button. One button jumps, rolls and so on, and another handles the wall-running. The entirety of the game’s platforming is essentially governed by only two buttons.

Sands of Time does what I’d argue is one of the most useful techniques when creating interesting gameplay scenarios; building its challenge through very simple mechanics that it then asks the player to combine in multiple ways.

The wall-running was, of course, a big cinematic focus of the game; no other title had done anything like it. Mechanically however, it allows the game to incorporate lots of variation by simply combining its simple control scheme in different ways to test the player.

Early on, you’re tasked with wall-running or some simple climbing. Once the game knows you can handle that, it then ups the challenge. First, you wall-run and jump, then, you do the same but have to time your wall-runs to avoid the various traps coming out of the walls. The traps themselves obey another very simple “rules” system; there’s the saw, the bladed pole, the spinning sword and the spike trap, each has a very clear trick in order to avoid it and by simply adding those things onto one another the game can adjust its challenge in a way that’s effortless and, most importantly, very intuitive.

This all works to give Sands of Time a very effective way of modulating its difficulty. It’s not an especially difficult game, but I’d argue that’s not simply from being less challenging. Its subtler difficulty enables to player to immerse themselves into their role as the Prince, reacting to the game’s challenges in a responsive manner.

To go back to the idea of the game being the anti-Lara Croft; when playing Tomb Raider I’m forever thinking how I should control Lara, how she moves, when to time jumps. When playing Sands of Time I’m simply reacting; there’s less separation on an instinctual and mechanical level between me the player and the Prince on screen.

The Enemies

As with essentially any action-adventure game, Sands of Time divides its gameplay between platforming, its primary focus, and combat which forms the second half of its core gameplay loop.

It’s here where the game risks repeating the flaws of its predecessor. Tomb Raider and its ilk suffered from dreadful combat; a mindless bullet/time sink that simply broke up the next bout of running and jumping.

Sands of Time attempts to buck this trend by melding its acrobatic platforming with acrobatic combat. The logic goes, if the Prince can wall-run, flip, jump and roll through environments, then he should be able to do the same during combat encounters. And that certainly works to a certain degree. It was impressive back in 2003 to watch the Prince flip over an enemy and slice him from behind, especially when combined with the Matrix bullet-time slow-mo to add even more style.

Yet, to call the game’s combat good would be perhaps letting it off the hook. It’s serviceable, but was never that good to begin with and definitely looks worse for wear fifteen years on.

Initially, the combat uses the same “rules” system that layers up the game’s platforming challenges. The early enemies will let you kill them pretty much however you want, knocking them down so that you can hoover up their sand essence with the dagger. Around a quarter of the way through the game you encounter the blue glaive-wielding soldiers who will knock back your attempts to vault over them. Great, you think, each enemy will respond differently to how you attack it, simple but effective.

Except, it doesn’t go anywhere. New enemy types are introduced; sword-wielding women, the chain swinging guys, the burly hammer monsters, yet none of them react any differently. All of them must be killed in the exact same manner (read: spam vault attacks or the wall lunge). It’s gets dull surprisingly fast because it lacks the clever design considerations that make the platforming so good.

It doesn’t help that the game homes in on it in a way that really doesn’t do it any favours. Combat is heavily stressed as the game goes on, breaking up each new platforming challenge and padding out the game’s runtime. Fights frequently overstay their welcome and even by the halfway point have lost any interest they might have had. This is because they’re all solved the same way and lack any real challenge other than “kill them all and don’t get hit”.

In some sense the poor combat is understandable. During development, enemy AI development was something that was cut back on in order to focus on other areas. The other non-human enemies you encounter are even more of an afterthought. For a game that places such a flashy emphasis on its combat sequences and ninja-style fighting, it’s easily the weakest aspect of the game.

Initially, the player was meant to encounter a Griffin boss multiple times throughout the game, before the idea was scrapped due to time constraints. That being said, the cut content did weirdly help the game in some way; it came up with a better boss fight.

The Prince loses the dagger during the final portion of the game. The “all is lost” moment if we’re following a basic Archplot story structure.

After this, the player is tasked with clambering up the final tower in order to get the dagger back, restore the sands and set everything right. It’s the only sequence, bar the opening tutorial segment, that has the player not able to use the sand’s powers.

This is the game’s only real boss battle.

The game understands that being a “boss” in a platforming game doesn’t have to be about forcing the player into a hamfisted conflict with a giant enemy, but can instead be brought about by emphasizing the core challenges that make the game work. You’ve gotten this far whilst having the safety net of the sands, learning the intricacies and nuances of its platforming system,  now you’re tested on your ability to survive without that safety net in place.

Even the darn combat improves in this last sequence. Rather than bog down combat with enemies that have to be hoovered up with the dagger, you instead have a one-hit kill sword of death and waves upon waves of enemies to take down. Fights are faster, finish quicker and actually play out more tactically since your primary goal is not getting surrounded with sheer volume of enemies that show up on screen.

The game manages to make a boss out of a sequence that doesn’t have a boss, so to speak. It unfortunately undoes this with its dull final encounter with the Vizier but I’d point to this climax sequence as the game’s “real” boss fight. Not only is it a novel way to craft a final challenge, it does so simply by removing one of the game’s primary mechanics: the sands.

The Sands: A Lesson In Lives 
"And if you make a mistake, you should be able to rewind, like rewinding a videotape, go back to the point where you think you went wrong, and begin playing from there. And I think it works." 
That quote is from designer Jordan Mechner, who helped design not only Sands of Time but also created the original Prince of Persia games. In that interview he’s not talking about Sands of Time but his previous game, Last Express on PC.

It makes it clear that the idea for being able to undo mistakes, to rewind time and rewrite your progress was a concept that didn’t  come about simply for Sands of Time. However, it was a perfect addition to the game as a mechanical conceit.

Platforming games are inevitably fraught with failures. Players mistime jumps, fall down pits and so on. They inevitably zig at some points, when they should have zagged. As a result there’s a frequent return to a fail state, “start this bit and do it over”. This is true of the majority of game genres but is especially true of platformers and action-adventure titles; they demand a base level of player perfection.

This can, inevitably lead to some frustration. I’m not going to get into a discussion on difficulty here, that deserves an entire post all on its own. Rather, I want to touch on how the sands in Sands of Time make the game easier, less frustrating, but do so in a way that’s both interesting for the gameplay and is made narratively coherent.

Rather than give the player a set number of lives, like an older arcade-style game might do, your “lives” in Sands of Time are your number of available sand tanks. Each available store gives you one more attempt at redoing a difficult jump, dodging a particular trap or whatever problem you happen to be struggling with.

To go back to what I said earlier, about how the game’s platforming mechanics are simple in a way that allows the player to directly invest in the character in an immersive way, the sands help amplify this. Rarely do you get antsy before a sequence in Sands of Time because you’ll almost always have at least one rewind handy in order to have another crack at it.

Likewise, they also serve as a resource that the player can manage. More proficient players are less likely to need to rewind as often and so can save their tanks for later. For newer players there’s still a challenge, when do you burn through a sand tank to slow down time, making a sequence easier, that’s one less rewind available when you need it.

In effect the game provides you with your extra lives and then builds them into the game as a mechanic by making them a spendable resource. It’s a simple, elegant way of making failure in Sands of Time less likely but also adding to and informing the gameplay.

Here again we see how the game’s combat gets the short stick. Sand manipulation is technically tied to combat. Slowing down time does make fights somewhat easier, but the rest of your powers during combat are cordoned off and draw on a separate “power tank” resource.

I actually find the combat-based powers in Sands of Time rather funny because they’re solely based around killing things as fast as possible, as if even the designers know that the fights are rather dull and want to speed them up. “Mega-Freeze” as it’s called, the ability that the Prince unlocks later on and allows him to zip around at high speed carving up enemies as he goes is great simply because it shortens the length of the next fight.

There’s no tactical consideration here, since the Freeze powers burn through your power tanks rather than the sand tanks used for rewinding and slowing down time. It’s simply a case of popping that button and getting through the fight faster.

The sands are a fantastic addition to the game, but their interaction with the game’s combat only highlights how weak that aspect of the game is in relation to everything else.

The Writing

Sands of Time has relatively few cut scenes, the ones it does have typically last less than thirty seconds, and yet it’s a game that is glued together with its writing.

The story is never the focus of the game, that’d be the platforming. Yet, it’s a game that I think owes a hell of a lot of its success down to how it uses storytelling to enhance the game as a whole.

There’s a somewhat self-aware, knowing wink that the game has from the beginning of its first level. As the Prince storms the Maharaja’s palace, he’s every bit the typical video game hero; here to do battle, grab his McGuffin of choice and woe betide anyone that gets in his way. He wants to bring “glory and honour” to his family and the only way to do that is by carving up everyone that he meets as his country wages war.

It’s an interesting arc for a video game character to go from this to a character that’s jaded and genuinely guilty at what he’s done. Its plot couldn’t be simpler: “go here and get the thing”, yet it understands that complexity doesn’t need to come from a complex plot, but can come from a more well-rounded main character.

Numerous games, even in recent years, owe a lot to the way Sands of Time chooses to tell its story. Rather than interrupt its gentle flow of platforming and exploration with forced dialogue, the game instead allows it to hum along in the background. The central relationship between the Prince and Farah is brought about not through forced scenes but directly through the gameplay.

The Last of Us, Uncharted, the new God of War, umpteen games owe a lot of how they tell their stories to Sands of Time. It’s one of the first games that I can recall that attempts to tell its story whilst the players interact with the environment. The Prince and Farah bicker, they comment on things in their surroundings whilst you solve a puzzle or clamber up a ledge. It’s organic and effective storytelling. Cinematic in many respects but playing to the strengths of video games rather than rendering them sub-par films.

This isn’t to say that there’s a clear “best” way to tell stories in games. For every Sands of Time there’s Metal Gear Solid or Telltale at their best to show that you can directly ape films and still come out with something that’s interesting and engaging from a writing perspective.  No, I think what makes Sands of Time’s writing so effective is how it runs with its concept throughout all of its design.

Combat might be the game’s weak point, but the way it utilizes Farah is one of its ingenious decisions. It would have been too easy for the game to simply turn many of the combat encounters into escort missions; transforming each of the game’s fights into a turgid “protect the princess” scenarios as you ward of the enemy’s attempts to kill off Farah.

Instead, Farah has her own agency. In combat she’ll interrupt enemy attacks with bow fire, opening up adversaries to follow-up attacks from the Prince. Be too slow at killing off enemies and she will get killed eventually, but the game rarely makes this a central concern during a fight. The two characters are depicted as equals rather than one being forced to run around protecting the other.

It’s an organic way for the relationship between the two characters to grow and evolve. We don’t simply see them grow closer through some clever bit of dialogue or dramatic cutscene but through the central mechanics at the game’s disposal: its combat and its platforming.

Which brings me back to why the game remains so important. Like I said at the beginning, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see just how ahead of its time it was; both in terms of its intuitive platforming and its unique approach to writing a story that works for a video game.

Sands of Time is, no pun intended, timeless.

Of course, the slow and steady sales were enough to make Ubisoft happy, and just a year later, we got Warrior Within...but that’s a tale for another time...

References/Further Reading 

Postmortem: Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

The Sands of Time: Crafting a Video Game Story 

Game Design: Theory and Practice Second Edition: “Interview with Jordan Mechner”

IGN Presents the History of Prince of Persia

The Final Hours of Prince of Persia 

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

A Change To Your Scheduled Programming

I’ve run LogicButton for just over two years now, and during that time, I’ve stuck to a pretty strict schedule. My primary goal has always been to get my writing out there, and that writing came primarily in the form of game reviews. I’ve always had my issues with a lot of the mainsteam games sites and how they operate (churnalism, review scores, too cosy of a relationship with publisher PR) and think the best way to critique something like that is to try and do things differently.

The focus on reviews was primarily because I thought this would be the most straightforward way to write about games. However, it was also because I figured that’s what people wanted to read, and was the best way to draw people to the site.

And I think I’ve done a decent job with that. I’ve attracted a regular trickle of readers to the site over the past 18 months. You folks know who you are. There’s definitely places I want to improve though, the hectic schedule I set for myself meant I was pumping out work at a quick rate, and that cut into the time I had to do all the editing, research, and proofreading I wanted to do. I still cringe when I look back at some of the older reviews and catch a bunch of a typos that I really shouldn’t have missed.

What was most frustrating though, is that, because I was focusing on the most recent games it cut into the time I had to devote to other writing about older games, retrospectives and games design. I could have gone way, way, deeper in on Demon’s Souls for instance, but cut back a ton of ideas I had to get the post up.

I was so hung up on getting the recent release reviews finished that it ate into the time I could devote to the more interesting pieces on the site. And the irony is, it’s those other pieces that I’ve wrote: the retrospectives, the look at particular game mechanics, and the history of a series, that have proven much more popular to read. And it makes sense, I think everyone already knows what they think of the latest Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry that me just writing out another general all-purpose review isn’t really going to change much.

For all these reasons, there’s going to be a big shake-up of how things are run on the site. For starters, they’ll be a short hiatus, while I sort out some more ideas, but after that, expect some different things on here, such as a closer look at game mechanics, games writing and the history of various games/series. These pieces will likely be less frequent than the reviews, but longer and more in-depth as a result. The reviews will still be around, I’m not going to write them off completely, but they’ll be less of a focus on the site.

So, bear with me over the next month or so, but don’t think I’ve forgotten about the site.



Friday, 23 February 2018

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle - Review

Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: Switch 

It would seem like Nintendo bring the best out of Ubisoft. You only have to look at the (criminally underrated) Zombie U to see how Ubisoft can do something other than reskin each of their major franchises into bland imitations of one another. Sometimes there’s a creative risk involved, and it pays off.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle isn’t quite the same gamble as the Wii U’s doomed launch title. Building off of the skeleton of the X-COM games, Mario + Rabbids does what Super Mario RPG did twenty years ago for J-RPGs; keep the foundation, strip out the flab, and most of all, make it colourful and fun.

Rather than bog down players with item management and base development, Mario + Rabbids focuses on the basic cover, movement and shooting in a simple turn-based combat system. Maps aren’t sprawling, in fact, many are incredibly small, pitting Mario and two allies against a handful of enemy Rabbids before moving on to the next encounter.

It’s a smart move on Ubisoft’s part. The game maintains a faster, smoother pace than a regular strategy game. Combat is about taking down the enemy quickly using your guns and a handful of special powers rather than worrying too much about hit percentages or the threat of permadeath.

The game does a good job of taking a simple concept and then slowly expanding it with each level. Early encounters in the first world are fighting basic enemies and getting to grips with the cover system. Again, this has been simplified without gutting it of all its strategic nuance. Shots in Mario + Rabbids hit with 100% accuracy should an enemy or ally be out of cover. Should they be in half cover it’s a 50/50 coin flip, whilst those behind walls and such are safe from basic gunfire at the very least.

This core loop is then expanded with new enemies and new characters. Each party member comes with their own niche and team members can be switched in and out at will. Luigi is the long range specialist; great at sniping enemies with his reaction shot ability, (which function similar to X-COM’s Overwatch mechanic) but suffers from dreadfully low health. Rabbid Mario meanwhile, is a shotgun-toting assault specialist who’s a monster in close combat, but garbage at range.

Likewise, enemies start out basic, but are gradually tweaked and expanded to force changes in your basic strategy. Smashers are hulking melee units that will get a free move every time you fire a shot at them, whilst Peek-a-Boos have the ability to teleport around the map, making flanking attacks much more difficult.

It’s here where Mario + Rabbids falters a little. Whilst the steady drip feed of new elements works across the game’s four major worlds, introducing just enough new elements to keep things entertaining and prevent a sense of staleness setting in, a few more enemy types wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Each later world reskins many older enemies but their strategies and playstyles remain the same. Likewise, the game’s character progression system is decent, it can become a little shallow by the game’s climax.

Characters can level up in three areas, with experience points being doled out at the end of each fight. Again, there’s a focus on tactical aggression and efficiency, with bonus points being awarded should you finish an encounter within a certain number of turns.

The various skills offer some flexibility in how you develop characters. However, Ubisoft play it safe here, perhaps a little too safe, afraid that maybe younger players might be scared off with too much decision-making between fights. Most upgrades fall into the “damage or health” category, with some improvements being bizarre fluff rather than serving a practical use in battle. Why would I ever want to improve Mario’s exit range from pipes when I could boost his health or have him deal more damage?

The developers are in fact very lax when it comes to the stat side of things, even allowing players to respec characters at the push of a button, along with auto-leveling them should they want to avoid this side of the game entirely.

The equipment system is similarly stripped down. Each character has a basic weapon and a secondary weapon. Typically, a character will have two or more status effect that they can choose between. Again, it’s a basic level of decision-making that focuses more on the tactile fun of fights than it does on too much menu management between them.

Mario + Rabbids is always fighting a battle between strategic depth and accessibility. It takes the core of XCOM but tries to simplify it in a way that doesn’t make it feel diluted. For the central combat, this works; there’s enough strategy there to keep things interesting without overloading the player with difficult decisions.

It’s the surrounding mechanics that can feel lot weaker. XCOM works because of the interplay between the fighting, base-building and the unique narrative that emerges through each player’s playthrough of the game. Mario + Rabbids successfully emulates that first element, but lacks the other two, replacing them with colourful puzzles, Mario and some funny writing. And it just about papers over the cracks.

This review might come off as a little critical of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. I have to stress, it’s a great game, even when it feels slightly hamstrung from taking a complex strategy game and condensing it to something simpler. It has that classic Mario vibe that makes the whole experience feel like you’ve opened up a toy box.

It’s one of the best Switch releases of the year, one of the better games of the year, in fact. Provided you go in with the right expectations, this is marriage of two very different styles of games and a solid successor to Super Mario RPG.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Assassin's Creed Origins - Review

Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PC, PS4 (version played), PC 

There was a great sense of expectation with Assassin’s Creed Origins. For the first time in almost ten years, Ubisoft’s monolithic franchise had decided to take a year off in order to hone its latest offering into something that wasn’t simply a morass of bugs and re-hashed mechanics.

I don’t mean to sound too harsh when I talk about the series either. For all my criticisms of its more recent instalments, I want the series to be good, and regardless of what Ubisoft choose to do with it each year, I always find myself curious enough to play the darn things, even if they don’t end up being all that impressive or different from one another.

Assassin’s Creed Origins longer development is immediately noticeable. Locations and environments have never been a weak point in the series. After all, it’s arguably the primary idea at the heart of the games; letting players clamber all over historical locations.

Yet, visually at least, Ancient Egypt is a step forward for Ubisoft. The atmosphere, the cities, the pyramids. It’s the first time since Assassin’s Creed 3 that the developers have carved out a game space that looks and sometimes feels like a real place, rather than simply a host to slap a load of map icons.

The game’s sweeping vistas and epic scope are fitting, considering the rest of the game has undergone a similar overhaul. Gone is the Batman-esque rhythm combat that had been tinkered and tweaked to oblivion over the course of numerous instalments. In its place is part Witcher 3 and part Destiny, as Ubisoft have the series go full RPG. Numbers flash up when you hit enemies, weapons have dps ratings, and quests have recommended levels.

The combat has changed dramatically in order to fit this new focus. Origins adopts a typical third-person fighting system, along with a standard lock-on button and light and heavy attacks. I could at this point compare the system to a certain game by From Software, but I won’t, because at least five other reviews have already done so.

In actual fact, the combat has less in common with that particular game and more in common with Ubisoft’s own For Honor. Fighting is slow and sluggish with a heavy weight behind it, even when you’re wielding the lighter weapons. Enemy attacks flash briefly before connecting, highlighting when and where you should be timing your parries.

It’s an intriguing system for the series to adopt, and definitely makes for more involving fights than in the previous games. Between the five or so different weapon types, there’s a little variety here; with some weapons being lighter and faster, such as daggers and swords, whilst clubs and axes are slower but with better reach and damage.

Other game elements return but have been given a significant trim even as the scope and size of the game has grown. Scrounging up crafting materials to upgrade your gear is still present but isn’t the giant, unwieldy and convoluted nonsense it had become in the later instalments, as well as in the more recent Far Cry games.

With no base to upgrade, ship to improve or random areas to free from enemy control, the game instead devotes most of its time to expanding on its side missions. Pulling straight from the Witcher 3 handbook, these are little “mini-episodes” of story and gameplay that dot the map and have you doing everything from helping a family dealing with rampaging hippos, to helping a small village cure a plague.

It’s here where Assassin’s Creed Origins stumbles the most. It’s easy to see what the intention was. Coupled with more time and effort, each of these side quests has been given more attention, fleshed out with their own stories and locations.

However, that writing simply isn’t very good. Origins side stories are worse than filler, they’re simply boring. It’s painfully obvious from the outset that Ubisoft’s writers aren’t equipped to write good RPG-style quests, and this is compounded by the fact that the player has no choice in how these episodes play out in terms of dialogue choices and what have you.

This would perhaps be fine if the side content were optional, but even describing it as side content is somewhat misleading. Assassin’s Creed Origins takes its obsession with numbers and damn well runs with it in the most cack-handed fashion. Should you fall a level or two below the recommended level for a quest you can almost guarantee getting one-shotted by whatever enemy happens to be roaming around. Likewise, find yourself a few levels above a given mission and it ceases to be a challenge at all.

This means that, regardless of your investment in the game’s side quests, you’ll have to hunt them down because you’ll need the experience, and given that experience is higher on the more higher ranked side quests, you’ll constantly be chasing after a vague Goldilocks zone of quests with decent enough rewards but that are at just the right level range that you don’t get obliterated by attempting them.

All of this then, is in service of the game’s main thrust: its story, its main quest. It could be argued that, in some of the previous games, the story had become secondary to the myriad of “additional content” and hoards of map icons to chase after. Here, though, given the games stripped back mechanics and less things to do it becomes a much bigger focus.

Unfortunately, Ubisoft take the blunt cookie-cutter approach here that they do with the rest of the game’s writing. Bayek is a man out for revenge. The Order (read: Templars) have murdered his son and now he’s out to kill of the bastards.

Origins does mix this rather bland and basic revenge plot up a little bit by also involving Bayek’s wife, Aya. Throughout the game the pair work together to check everyone off their hit list, with some missions having you switch over to Aya.

Initially, there’s some interesting drama to be mined out of how each of the parents deals with their grief, which is helped by some surprisingly strong voice acting from its two leads. Abubakar Salim, who plays Bayek, is especially good. Bayek is consumed by revenge to the point where it’s all that matters, whilst Aya puts her faith in helping Cleopatra secure the Egyptian throne. On the odd occasion, the game seems to hint that becoming a pair of kill-happy thugs in service to a monarch might not be the best way to overcome the loss of your only child, but any self-reflexive writing on Ubisoft’s part is quickly buried long before the game rolls around to its climax.

The best way to describe Assassin’s Creed Origins is as a MORPG: a massive online role-playing game. From its Destiny-style equipment system, to its “go here do A, do B, get reward” mission structure, it’s an MMO in every way except that it’s played solo. Its world is massive, and gorgeous, but is also a hollow and empty time sink. A few of the game’s side quests are perhaps more engaging than others, but that involves sifting through all the chaff to get to the few good ones. And it’s a moot point because the game expects you to clear out most of them regardless, so that you level up enough.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is this is another Assassin’s Creed, and by now you should know what that entails.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy - Review

Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: PS4

I’ve described Gears of War as the meat and potatoes of gaming; attractive visuals, third-person cover shooter, perfectly passable campaign, online multiplayer, totally forgettable once you’ve finished it. Everything that Microsoft wants to sell with its brand, in particular the Xbox brand, Gears of War is designed to do.

It’s safe to say that Uncharted is Sony’s twist on a meat and potatoes game to sell its brand. There’s differences, a heavier focus on platforming; a holdover from Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter games, a bigger technological push in regards to motion capture as well as a more cinematic focus overall. Still, Sony’s meat and potatoes.

Despite ostensibly being a DLC expansion, rather than a full-fat fifth instalment, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy sticks to this mantra. Go places, platform, shoot some guys, platform some more, rinse and repeat.

It’s a formula that’s been in place for four games now, five if you count the PS Vita instalment. I wrote last year that I felt Uncharted 4 was something of a dull exercise in repeating what had already gone by, suffering both from a sense of “here we go again” and a weird tonal shift that I suspect came from Amy Hennig no longer being at the director’s helm.

That being said, The Lost Legacy does initially seek to shake things up. A neon-stained trek through India during the game’s opening chapter is by far the game’s standout moment, ditching the typical Indiana Jones schtick for something that’s a little different.

Claudia Black reprises her role as Chloe Frazer and is instantly one of the best things about the entire game. She’s by far the best of the series’ supporting cast; a devil on Drake’s shoulder during the second game. Not a bad person, but a subtle contrast to Nolan North’s clean-cut everyman.

The game also brings back Nadine Ross. Ross was a weird character in Uncharted 4, the “sub-boss” if you think of the game as following the Indiana Jones plot formula, and a character that seemed to linger around for far longer than necessary only to not really do anything by the game’s climax.

Her appearance here seems to be to rectify her rather bland writing in the previous game by giving her a little more depth. Whilst you play as Frazer, Nadine is present throughout almost all of the game’s runtime, the two making for an unlikely duo as they traipse across India looking for a new McGuffin, the legendary tusk of Ganesh.

Thematically, this does enable The Lost Legacy to ameliorate some of the series’ issues. Part of the problem of emulating pulpy serial adventures is that you inevitably recreate some of the political baggage that comes with it. Despite Nolan North being as affable as he is, there’s still the awkward act of playing as a white guy traipsing through foreign country after foreign country, leaving it a pile of rubble as Drake loots another priceless artefact.

The game is able to side-step that a little by having you play has Chloe instead. And the game’s script is keen to impress on the play that Chloe’s quest is one not (solely) driven by money, but rather one of family, as both her parents (and her father’s death) are directly tied with the search for the tusk.

All this plays out over the backdrop of the typical array of explosive gunfights mixed in with bouts of exploring and platforming. An early chapter sees the game open up, Assassin’s Creed-style and have the player visit several locations in a non-linear fashion.

Other things remain the same, and it’s here where it’s hard not to just shrug my shoulders and glibly say, it’s Uncharted, you know how it plays already. There’s a slightly heavier focus on stealth that comes from the game’s brief flirtation with open-world gameplay. The looser shooting, along with the “3D” nature of many gunfights means you can be firing at enemies from the side of walls, clambering up cliffs to drop down on them or dragging them off the edge of ledges. In whatever way possible, Naughty Dog make a concerted effort for the game to not become a case of simply crawling forward from cover to cover.

Perhaps the most resounding criticism of The Lost Legacy is just that. That’s it. You’ve played an Uncharted game? You’ve played this one. The original trilogy had a neat visual structure that had each game divided into different environmental types; jungles for the first, snowy mountains for the second, deserts for the third. Here, it’s just pretty vistas in another gorgeous location.

It’s hard not to shake the fact that Naughty Dog couldn’t have done more to mix up the formula. The push to go for a lead cast made of two women of colour is commendable but isn’t matched by any similar progressive or experimental outlook when it comes to the gameplay.

Even the plot itself suffers from the same predictable beats. The villain is cookie-cutter, the pacing dictated by a loud moment, gunfight, set-piece followed by intimate moment as Chloe and Nadine learn a bit more about one another. Rinse and repeat.

Five games in the formula has become somewhat tired and rot. More needed to be changed than simply using a different lead. The game comes across as an exercise in franchise management; a brief reshuffle whilst Naughty Dog work out where to go from here, than as unique experiment for the franchise, something which the smaller development time and slimmer budget would have presumably enabled.

If that’s what you were after. Great! It’s Uncharted, you’ll find it here. If you were after something more original you’ll only find an increasingly old and tired legacy here.

Friday, 22 December 2017

LogicButton's Best Games of 2017

The last few months have been a bit hectic, hence the haphazard update schedule on the site. Still, I thought it would be good to sign the year off with a look of what I found to be the best games of the year.

I should preface this by saying there were loads of really obvious releases that I haven’t got around to playing yet. Super Mario Odyssey, Assassin’s Creed Origins, Wolfenstein 2...and that’s just the AAA stuff. I’m waiting to get cracking with Danganronpa 3, a series that I’ve already made clear how much I adore.

All in all, one hell of a backlog.

Putting all that aside for the moment, I still played through loads of games this year, many of my thoughts on them documented over the course of (*checks site*), thirty or so posts this year. So, with the obvious caveats in mind, here’s my picks for the best games of 2017.

Minimalist platformers are easy to find post-Ico, and it’s a genre that both indie developers and the AAA crowd are happy to pull from. I’ve just gotten around to playing Breath of the Wild and you can see Fumito Ueda’s style all over it.

Rime is very similar, and it’d be easy to brush it off as just a small budget imitator. Between the gentle pace, the art style and the terrific sound design however, it manages to strike a great balance that works incredibly well.

It can be hard to really “sell” Rime as a concept or game since so much of what it does well has already been done. It’s not particularly challenging, nor all that original, but that doesn’t always matter so long as you get the execution (and emotional pay-off) just right.

Take the bare bones structure of X-COM and Mariofy it. That’s all that happened here, but it worked so darn well. Ubisoft got to show that they can do things that don’t involve farming out ubiquitous sequels for their primary franchises and instead captured how Mario should look and play perfectly, only with a genre that he’s never gotten to grips with yet.

X-COM purists might recoil at how it stomps all over the deep, complex mechanics of Firaxis’ classic, and I’d be lying if parts of Mario + Rabbids aren’t a little shallow, but that’s not enough to prevent it being thoroughly playable from beginning to end.

I am the primary target of Resident Evil 7. I get the level design nods and winks, and the throwbacks to the original game. There’s the obvious references; the shotgun in the dining room, the “mansion” followed by the trip to the other part of the house and a Hunter-style POV shot.

Beyond that though, there’s all the really clever elements of its design. How the Baker family are a retooled and repurposed Nemesis for a new blend of survival horror. In fact, anything to do with the Bakers in Resident Evil 7 is pure gold. How many ways are there to finish that encounter in the garage again?

Despite its critics, Resident Evil 7 isn’t a hashed-together cash-in on fan nostalgia. I mean, nostalgia is baked into how the game works but it’s not specifically the reason that makes it good. Sure, the ending hour or two are pretty poor, but this is the closest that Capcom have come to getting what to do with their most prized series in well over a decade.

Persona 5 is a good game, but it’s an incredible game trapped under some mediocre writing and/or an iffy translation.

The first episode of Persona 5, that has you dealing with both teen suicide and child abuse at a school, sets up exactly what the game is going for. This is a darker, moodier piece than Persona 4. Persona 5 manages to do this without exploiting its topics. Anne and Ryuuji’s twisted relationship with the gym teacher, Futaba’s battle with social anxiety, everything this game deals with it has a genuine warmth and earnestness to it…

...but it had the potential to be so much more. It’s clear that there were reams of extra material that had to be cut due to time constraints. Shido’s role as a corporate snake playing with fascist/hard-right politics is alluded to very weakly rather than dealt with head on. There’s so many great themes that Persona 5 touches on without really going all the way and the fearlessness of the opening ten hours or so sets up expectations that then don’t pay off.

All that aside it really is fantastic and is only a slight disappointment when compared to how good the previous two games were.

I finished this game and my first thought was that I wanted to play more of it. Even good games these days seem anxious about having smaller runtimes. Little Nightmares does its thing however, and then it’s gone.

As with Rime, it’s the execution that works here more than the concept. This is little more than a reworked series of LittleBigPlanet levels, but the atmosphere, story and world design, all of which are conveyed through play, make it way more than the sum of its parts.

Signing Off

So there’s my games of 2017. Like I said, the last few months have been pretty chaotic and have eaten into the amount of time I’ve been able to devote to the site. I’ll be back next year though, and I’m hoping to expand on the typical review format with some pieces focusing on elements of game design and generally expanding the site some more.

Oh, and keep an eye on the YouTube channel, too. I’ve been meaning to put a few more commentaries together over there so be on the look out for those next year.

Have a great Christmas folks, and I’ll be seeing you again in January!

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.