Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt - Review

Three The Witcher games, three very different experiences. It seems that developers CD Projeckt have attempted to try something different with each iteration of their Polish RPG series. The first game was a typical dark fantasy PC RPG with a broad scope and (fairly) complex mechanics. A slower paced Diablo in many respects, which suffered from a bland main character and some awful dialogue, along with repetitive gameplay.

The Witcher 2 flipped this around, reducing the scope but magnifying the degree of player choice. The game’s second act being radically different depending on the choices you made during the opening chapter.

This third instalment of The Witcher series attempts to meld these two rather different styles together. It’s vast and has a truly massive scope, filled to the brim with quests, secrets and collectibles throughout several huge locations. Yet, at the same time, it attempts to zero in on a focused story about Geralt, the legendary monster slayer. Make no mistake, this is certainly the game CD Projeckt wanted to make all along.

For those new to the series The Witcher 3 makes for a decent enough entry into the series. Despite all the political shenanigans going on in the background, this is a fairly simple tale of Geralt trying to find and protect his daughter. Newcomers might not appreciate all of the game’s references, but they’ll follow along with the general gist of the plot.

And it’s a good thing too because it’s hard not to be impressed with the game’s scale. It’s a huge game world, and one that’s filled with detail. Ride around the village of White Orchard, the game’s opening area and general tutorial zone, and you’ll be overwhelmed with things to do. Hunting monsters, destroying monster nests, looking for treasure, and so on.

What The Witcher 3 gets right is how it melds the bevy of side quests with its main character. Geralt is a Witcher; a sort of mercenary-cum-Jedi who kills monsters and does odd-jobs in exchange for money. The world around him is rife with political upheaval, (there’s an ongoing war at the start of the game that I won’t try to explain), but he’s just one more person caught up in it.

This makes for a much more plausible reason for why he’d be wasting time doing random jobs and messing around with side quests from complete strangers. One of the biggest problems with Dragon Age: Inquisition, on top of its by-the-numbers level design, was why the main character was wasting their time helping some old farmer find his pet pig or what have you, when the whole world was about to end. There’s a contradiction between the player's goals and the story being told, something that Witcher 3 smartly avoids. It makes perfect sense for Geralt to be focusing on the little things, it’s how he makes a living.  

It’s a bit disappointing then, that those jobs can sometimes get repetitive. Many quests, both in the main story and optional ones, have you tracking down clues using your Witcher sense, which is essentially Batman’s detective vision from Arkham Asylum. It was a shallow mechanic in Rocksteady’s game, and given that The Witcher 3 is much longer, playing what is essentially “find the highlighted object” becomes much more repetitive.

The monster hunting has a bit more creativity to it, at least. One common criticism of the first two The Witcher games was, that despite playing as a monster hunter, there wasn’t exactly tons of monster hunting per se. CD Projeckt have fixed that, and there’s a bunch to go and hunt down throughout the world. Each creature, be it a foglet, wraith or cockatrice, has its own weaknesses that Geralt is able to exploit.

This is done primarily through the game’s alchemy system. With Geralt mixing a variety of ingredients into a number of bombs, oils and potions that he can use during combat. The whole system has been given a vast overhaul, in order to reduce any excessive tedium, with potion stocks replenishing every time you rest to meditate. It rewards players who take the time reading in-game bestiaries and investing themselves in the world, and prevents the whole thing devolving into a bland hack-and-slash.

All this preparation you’d think would tie in with a deep combat system, but it’s here where The Witcher 3 stumbles the most. Perhaps it’s a case of being spoiled by Bloodborne’s tight responsive combat, but Witcher 3’s is painfully repetitive. Attacks are divided into light and strong attacks, along with a dodge, parry and block move. Geralt also has access to his five magical “signs” (i.e. spells) that give him various effects during combat. The Aard sign, for instance, blasts an enemy away with a burst of force, whilst the Quen sign grants a temporary protective shield.

The problem lies in the fact that most enemies simply need to be wailed on until they die. Geralt’s dodge grants him no invincibility frames, meaning that there’s not even a simple “attack, attack, dodge, counterattack” rhythm to combat. Instead, the best strategy involves kiting an opponent and hitting them from the side before running away, or mashing the fast attack button and hoping you stun-lock the enemy into oblivion.

The game plays up Geralt’s skill as a monster hunter, and a skilled swordsman. Yet, the one aspect of the game that needed to work to convince us of this, is one of its weakest. It’s a shallow combat system, made even worse by a clunky lock-on and poor camera controls.

The game’s story meanwhile, works on a similar premise; having a good concept, but poor and muddled execution. Many of the game’s side quests result in events triggering elsewhere in the world. At one point, I was stupid enough to let loose a plague wraith, freeing her from captivity on an island by removing her remains, resulting in her being free to terrorize the world. None of this was mandatory. It’s these optional little stories that build up together throughout the game that make for a satisfying tale, much like Skyrim or Fallout 3 and are much better than the MMO-like fodder that many RPGs pad their runtime with.

In contrast, the main story is dreadfully paced, filled with dozens of bland “go here and do that” fetch quests. Geralt ends up working as little more than a glorified delivery boy, and any attempt to respond differently during the game’s limited dialogue choices will do very little to change anything.

It doesn’t help that Geralt is simply a complete and utter bore of a main character. It seems unfair to blame, Doug Cockle, the English voice actor who’s played the character throughout the entire trilogy, but the delivery is so…dull. Of course, this is explained in the context of the story, Geralt is a Witcher, which means he’s essentially devoid of emotions. Yet, that’s the entire problem; plenty of things happen through Witcher 3 but you rarely get the sense that Geralt gives a damn.

Without going into spoilers there are several sections where you get to play as Ciri, Geralt’s adopted daughter. It’s a decent attempt at flipping around the old “damsel in distress” cliche, and she’s more engaging as a character, but she does little to invigorate a story that was in desperate need of some editing.

It doesn’t always help that the world is utterly miserable either, making Game of Thrones look like paradise by comparison. The game regularly wallows in its misery, with one quest having you help a drunken wife beater, who’s responsible not only for attacking his wife, but also causing her to miscarry. This then results in a mission where you have to hunt down said foetus that’s now mutated into a monster. Yeah…you read that right. At times it feels like Lord of the Rings by way of Eastenders.

Worst still, no matter how horrible you find some of the people you meet, you regularly have to play ball in order to advance the story. Sure, plenty of games do this, but in a game filled with so much choice and decisions to make, it feels like a slap in the face. All that immersion comes crashing back down the moment the game sticks you in a narrative straitjacket.

There’s almost a tug of war with CD Projeckt’s writing. For every smart script decision, there’s a lazy “dark edgy” moment thrown in that feels like it’s written by a fourteen year old. It’s a game that avoids an asinine “good/evil meter”, this is a world that’s full of shades of grey, but whenever a guy needs be shown to be a bad guy, he’ll undoubtedly be threatening to beat a woman, or rape her. Again, I think this has as much to do with the game’s size as anything else, there’s a lot of dialogue in Witcher 3, and CD Projeckt quickly fall back on lazy writing cliches multiple times.

It might be outrageous to say, but The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt might actually be too big. The scope is tremendous, and the breadth of the game world can’t help but impress. Yet, it creaks under all that weight. There’s tons to do, sure, but that means hours spent wrangling a weak combat system.

For fans of Sapkowski’s novels, this is their game. The developers are clearly in love with the author’s vision and the end result is a massive love letter to The Witcher’s fans. As an open world RPG though, strip away the huge world, and the end result often frustrates as much as it excites...

Monday, 8 June 2015

Bloodborne - Review

Developer: FromSoftware
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platforms: PS4

There’s an enemy with a shield in Bloodborne. It happens to be the weakest enemy in the entire game; two hits from your weapon will break its guard and it’ll go down in another hit or so. Reading the shield’s description will yield a bit of flavour text about shields being nice, but not if they cause passivity.

Not only is that a weirdly meta joke on the ‘Souls series, it also sums up Bloodborne’s ethos. This is Dark Souls minus shields.

Ok, so that doesn’t quite do Bloodborne justice. Developed by Hidetaka Miyazaki, director of the original Dark Souls and its pseudo-predecessor, Demon’s Souls, this is a much more fast-paced, aggressive game than his previous work.

The core elements stay true to those that have played the ‘Souls series. Players explore, level up and die repeatedly as they adjust to the game’s sometimes brutal difficulty curve. To say that Bloodborne is difficult is something of an understatement. In fact, Bloodborne is perhaps more difficult for those that have spent time with the ‘Souls games, where it was possible to carefully wait and see what enemies could do behind the safety of your shield.

Some time is required in order to adjust to Bloodborne’s different pacing. The core strategies are still in effect, enemies have long wind-ups on their attacks, rewarding players who are smart enough to identify tell-tale signs and act accordingly. Likewise, the more aggressively-oriented combat forces players to push the advantage more often, rather than back off and wait for another opening.

This aggressive focus to combat is achieved in two ways. First off, after being hit by an attack, a portion of your health can be restored, provided you attack your enemy back within a short time frame. It’s a gameplay element that is almost mandatory in certain boss fights, where your meagre supply of health items won’t always last you the entire encounter. It forces you to constantly engage your opponents, stay on their tail and, in many cases, simply not back down, no matter how much you want to.

Similarly, shields are replaced with guns in the off-hand slot, and are used for parrying. Different guns have different properties, and there’s a bunch to choose from, but their main function is to interrupt enemy attacks. Shoot an enemy at just the right moment during their attack animation and they’ll be staggered and open for a critical hit. It ties in perfectly with the “offence is the best defence” approach of the game and means that many encounters continually ratchet up in tension as you fight; constantly trying to press the advantage and counter-attack your adversary.

Just as the gameplay’s focus has been significantly altered, so has the art design. The ‘Souls games were masterful at creating tremendous atmosphere and Bloodborne continues in much the same way. Bloodborne is a Lovecraftian nightmare, elder gods hang from gothic spires, tentacle-faced monsters roams the streets and the sky is stained blood red. There’s no doubt that Bloodborne is in essence a love letter to Lovecraft’s horror stories, and Bloodborne pulls this style off with aplomb.

Where the game falls short however, is in its RPG aspects. The weapons, whilst remaining fairly deep (each comes with two interchangeable forms), lack the level of build diversity that is present in ‘Souls games. Likewise, upgrading equipment has been reduced to little more than collecting a few blood stones here and there and maxing your weapon out to +10. 

There’s no longer the interesting decisions to be made about whether to have your weapon scale with faith or dexterity, or choose to play as a spell caster, or as a melee class. Bloodborne is by no means a shallow game, far from it, but when compared to its predecessors, it seems significantly lacking.

Likewise, enemy variety is something of a disappointment. The standard creatures you encounter in Yharnam are recycled repeatedly throughout the game. Sure, they’ll look a little different, but many have the exact same moves, just with more health.

It’s a shame because, as you’d expect, the bosses are a highlight. Bloodborne avoids some of Dark Souls 2’s problems, where there were too many “giant humanoid with hand weapon” bosses and too many attempts at making boss fights difficult for difficulties sake, usually by making fights two, or even three, versus one. Fighting Vicar Amelia, a huge fox monster in the middle of a cathedral, is a particular high point in a game full of imaingative encounters. It’s just disappointing that the treks leading up to bosses weren’t full of the same variety.

In many respects it’s some of the mechanics of Bloodborne that seem to be holding it back. The RPG/levelling up aspect is at its weakest here, as is the weapon upgrading system. Rather than replace it with something more interesting, the game has simply stripped it to the bare essentials, leaving it intact, but feeling shallow. Likewise, the game’s core combat revolves around having limited defensive options, yet the game can’t seem to come up with a variety of enemies that could prove interesting within that combat system.

There’s plenty I haven’t touched on in Bloodborne. The (poorly implemented and poorly explained) online elements that pale in comparison to Dark Souls, and the dungeon chalices, that are arguably the most unique element added to the game, presumably to drastically extend its already hefty lifespan.

Bloodborne has oodles of depth, there’s no doubt about it, and it’s an expertly crafted game. Yet, at the same time, it’s difficult to shake the annoying feeling though, that it’s awkwardly stuck in a growing stage; it wants to break out and do its own thing, but regularly retreats back to the safety of the ‘Souls mechanics when it doesn’t know what to put there. In this respect it’s reminiscent of the first Devil May Cry; a game that wanted to be an action game, yet hadn’t quite shrugged off the survival horror mechanics that had given birth to it.

It’ll no doubt go down as one of the most important releases of the year, and rightly so. Just keep in mind that this isn’t Miyazaki, or From Software as a whole, at their best.