Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Her Story - Review

“All these stories we’ve been telling each other. They’re just that…stories.”

That’s the opening line that greets you in Her Story and by the end it’ll likely give you a little shiver.

Her Story is effectively “Search Engine: The Game” where you poke around various video clips from a mid-90s murder investigation. It leaves you to play investigator as you slowly piece together information about the case, watching various interview recordings with a woman called Hannah.

What makes Her Story work though, and not simply devolve into a bland movie game, is the way that the information comes about organically. Type in “husband” and you’ll receive all the clips where she said the word husband, type in “murder” and you’ll, naturally, get a whole different bunch of hits. The game sets you up as detective and does little else for you. Soon, if you’re anything like me, you’ll have a little notepad and be rabidly scribbling down some person’s name as Hannah makes some off-hand comment about a guy called Doug.

Much like Gone Home, Her Story works as a sort of non-horror horror game. Technically, it’s not setting out to scare you, but the set-up, and the threat of simply not knowing what happened, begins to get under your skin. It’s a strange comparison, but Her Story is the opposite of Five Nights At Freddy’s. Both games involve recorded footage, but, whereas …Freddy’s is all surface level; all about the jump scare and little else, Her Story works on the other angle, gnawing away at you slowly but surely.

It’s perhaps appropriate, considering the fact that the game’s director, Sam Barlow, previously worked on both UK-based Silent Hill games, those being Silent Hill Origins and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. There’s a creepy, unsettling mood that sits around Her Story, you’re sat at a monitor, the flicker of halogen lights casting a reflection on the screen, with a mid-90s user interface staring back at you.

Trawling through old footage, you can’t help but feel like some kind of intruder. You shouldn’t be watching this, but you can’t help it. It’s surprising just how easy the game sucks you in, dangling the next clue or search engine topic in front of you and having you chase the breadcrumbs.

It’s the way that breadcrumb trail works though, that makes the entire game so impressive. There’s no one way through the database full of recordings and the order in which you watch them is likely to colour your opinion by the end. This isn’t just a simple whodunit but also a whoisit. Without strolling into spoiler territory, there’s more questions to be answered than simply “is she or isn’t she guilty”, and it’s all set up with a disarmingly simple game mechanic of inputting words into a search engine.

The influences are clear to see. The aforementioned Silent Hill connection can be felt but there’s also the connection to various thriller movies to boot. David Fincher in particular hangs over the entire game, from the bleak bare bones interface to the matter-of-fact idea of simply looking through police interview tapes. Gone Girl in particular seems like a pretty big inspiration for the story.

The best part about Her Story is that, once you’ve installed it, you could simply watch all the clips in chronological order by delving into the game’s files. By doing so however, you’d be robbing yourself of one hell of an experience. It’d be like inputting a cheat code. It’s the bits of information you don’t discover, the clues you don’t pick up on, that shape the game’s story just as much as those that you find.

It’s far from perfect. The acting by Viva Seifert can come across a little artificial, which may or may not be intentional, making the whole thing even more intriguing. The ending and lack of concrete answers won’t be to everyone’s tastes either. This isn’t a game where you’ll come away with a wholesome satisfied story but one where you’re still piecing together your thoughts hours after you’ve shut off the game.

The other day I was sat playing another game, some RPG, and in the middle of a bunch of random battles, my thoughts were still mulling over everything I’d seen and heard in Her Story. They’re just that…stories, but by god were they satisfying.  

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Batman: Arkham Knight - Review

Batman: Arkham Knight is the end. Rocksteady are done, finished with Batman. This is the conclusion, the finale.

Ok, so it’s likely the Batman games will continue without Rocksteady’s involvement, but we do know that this is the final game in the developer’s trilogy, meaning there was always going to be a weight of expectation here. In an industry now dominated by lazy annualizations and copy-and-paste game design, it’s somewhat refreshing for a developer to turn around and say “no we’re done, this is it” and step back from their creation.

And that's something that needs to be stressed. Batman, in video game terms at least, is very much Rocksteady’s creation. Arkham Asylum completely overhauled not just Batman as a video game character but superhero games as a whole. For quite possibly the first time we actually felt like Batman, and boy was it mighty satisfying.  

So, credit where credit is due, Arkham Knight does feel like the end of a journey. This is a much darker, bleaker game than the ones that preceded it.

Picking up where Arkham City left off, Batman now has to defend the whole of Gotham City from Scarecrow as he launches an attack with his newly developed fear toxin. The death of the Joker meanwhile, hangs over the entire story. Despite being a rather underwhelming add-on, I thought Rocksteady did a great job capturing the right tone in Harley Quinn’s Revenge. Batman, for all his run-ins with the Joker, seemed to be in mourning for the demented psychopath and this mood carries over into Arkham Knight.

It’s a shame then that the game itself suffers from a few problems, and I’m not talking about the mess that is the PC port. The big addition this time around is the introduction of the Batmobile, and Rocksteady really, really want you to like it. Want to break into a factory? You’ll need the Batmobile. Looking to take down some armed thugs? You’ll need the Batmobile. Oh, look, a bunch of tanks that are conveniently piloted remotely. Best call in the Batmobile to sort them out by blasting the hell out of them.

A huge amount of Arkham Knight’s runtime is handed over to the Batmobile and it never feels quite right. The car-cum-tank is an all-round monster, capable of blasting apart the army of “drones” that Scarecrow sends your way over the course of the game. What this amounts to is strafing left and right, dodging the incoming fire that’s highlighted blue by the Batmobile’s computer, and then mashing the fire trigger until everything is a pile of molten slag.

It’s bizarrely satisfying in the way all of Rocksteady’s Batman mechanics manage to be, but something about it seems off, not to mention it gets pretty monotonous after a while. Is this really what Batman would spend his time doing?

These vehicle combat segments are expanded later on when you battle tanks instead. These manage to be even more underwhelming as you wander around playing “vehicle stealth”, creeping behind tanks and shooting them in their weak point. This also makes up what is really the game’s only real boss battle…

What’s worse, it means that the stealth and combat sections, the bits that really made the first two games, take a hit. There’s less time being Batman and more time spent playing as Tankman.

Level design is significantly less interesting this time around as well. The Metroidvania-like elements of the previous games, especially Arkham Asylum, are replaced with a more generic Ubisoft-style open world, where everything is a collectible and the main missions and side quests are virtually the same.

That’s not to say the whole experience is terrible, far from it, this is still Rocksteady after all. Some of the improvements are in fact great additions. Fear takedowns are a new ability Batman has when taking on enemies in stealth, allowing him to whip around in slow-motion and down a few guys before they can react. It needs to be recharged afterwards, and the noise will attract other guards, meaning there’s a risk versus reward element to it. Likewise, many of the game’s side quests have you teaming up with someone else, be it Robin, Nightwing or Catwoman, allowing you to flit back and forth between both characters with the touch of a button, performing dual takedowns whilst you do so.

There’s plenty do in Arkham Knight, it’s more a question of how much do you have the patience for. Many of the previous game’s villains are relegated to side quests this time around. Penguin and Two-Face show up in their own quest lines, which are rinse-and-repeat stealth missions, and don’t in any way intersect with the main story. Two-Face was one of the few villains that felt underused in Arkham City and it’s disappointing that this sequel doesn’t really solve that problem.

It’s the titular Arkham Knight that is the weakest link, however. The story as a whole has plenty of interesting elements, many of which I’ll talk about in a spoiler-filled post separate to this, but the Arkham Knight remains one of the game’s more underwhelming characters. Rocksteady overcook the “who’s behind the mask” element and anyone with a functioning brain cell will figure out who it is long before the flat reveal, even if you’ve never read any of the comics.

It doesn’t help either that the Arkham Knight is a whiny, annoying bore of a character. He wails and throws tantrums at Batman like he’s a fifteen year old anime character, and not even being voiced by Troy Baker can save him.

What’s worse though, is that, despite being the primary villain, Scarecrow has nothing to do. He’s a creepy guy in a shawl and that’s it. It’s not often you spend your time playing a game expecting it to “crash” but I was, waiting for Rocksteady to pull a Kojima-style fear gas moment on us. But it never comes. In fact, you’d forget Scarecrow was even in the story if he didn’t occasionally pop up on the billboards every now and then.

There’s a good game in Arkham Knight but it’s trapped behind a bunch of weird design decisions and odd writing choices. The story has some interesting themes running through it (more on that in another post), and the combat and stealth still remain as satisfying as ever. But for every great moment there’s an iffy game segment or rushed bit of writing that knocks everything off course.

It’s worth spending time seeing the conclusion to Batman’s adventures just don’t expect to be fully satisfied. This is an awkwardly paced, uneven finale to one of modern gaming’s most influential series.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Mortal Kombat X - Review

“Press X to purchase Jason”. That’s the line that’s forever stuck in your head when you boot up Mortal Kombat X, a game that jumps wholeheartedly into micro-transaction, DLC-obsessed mire that continues to plague modern big budget video games.

What’s more frustrating though, rather than the lazy, nickel-and-diming tactics used by NetherRealm/Warner Bros., is the way they constantly decide to shove it in your face. Characters like Rain pop up in the game’s various modes, that you fight, but aren’t selectable as characters. It’s practically an advertisement for future DLC that’s been plastered straight into the actual game.

It’s appropriate that I start this review with this complaint too, because it overshadows any enjoyment you can eek out of the game. Every design decision from that point on, you’re constantly double-guessing yourself wondering whether or not they made it that way in order to squeeze some more money out of the player base.

Take the big marquee feature; three fighting styles. Each of the game’s characters comes with three different “modes” essentially, that change the way they fight. Take Scorpion, in his Ninjutsu form he wields twin swords that change the properties of some of his attacks. In his Inferno form meanwhile, he gains access to longer range moves, such as his fireball, to help against zoning characters.

What you can’t help but wonder though is whether the fighting style system was used to enhance the game, or to hide the smaller roster (meaning more characters could be bundled away for DLC). Some characters gel better with the different fighting style mechanics than others. Newcomers such as the insect woman D’Vorah has one mode that gives all her ovipositor attacks a poison effect, slowly chipping away at the opponent’s health, whilst her other modes give her different attacks to make use of in order to compensate for the lack of poison damage.

Likewise, Ferra/Torr, the grappler-like hybrid character, meshes perfectly with the new system, with each variation having quite significant implications on how the character plays and feels. With the older characters however, it ends up feeling like they’ve just chopped up their classic moves and spread them over three different minor alterations. In short, the characters that were built from the ground-up work much better with this system than those that came before it, and it shows.

For game modes, you’re left with a very basic story mode. Mortal Kombat X seems to make moves to update its character roster, with the game taking place across two time periods, with many of its classic characters now having younger protégé that they’re training up. Cassie Cage, daughter of Luke Cage and Sonya Blade, takes up the mantle of “main character” for the series, if you can consider it has one. The new characters, for the most part, do hold their own, even if they do sometimes come across as slightly bland.

The story plays out like the most violent Saturday morning cartoon ever made, but it’s basically there to work as a tutorial to have you play around with most of the roster. After that, there’s the bevy of arcade towers to work up along with online play, and a decent Krypt mode to explore. For those looking for a hefty single player experience, Mortal Kombat X doesn’t always provide much. It’s a slimmed down, stream-lined game that focuses much of its attention on the slightly more hardcore fan base that’s hopefully willing to get stuck into the multiplayer.

The multiplayer works well, for what it’s worth. I’ve seen several criticisms of it, with complaints about it being laggy and whatnot. Online play is never going to be a replacement for good, old-fashioned local multiplayer but it does a decent enough job if you want to scratch that competitive itch. What the multiplayer did do though, is once again highlight some of the flaws with the variation system; rather than switch fighting styles depending on their opponent (which the mechanic would seem to encourage) most people I fought simply stuck to their favourite fighter and favourite variation.

To be honest, I did the same. Between Kenshi, D’Vorah, Scorpion and Sub-Zero, the characters I spent the most time with, I quickly settled on a preferred strategy for each and rarely did I venture into another variation. Some of the fighting styles pull characters into a different game plan, and whilst it’s an interesting concept it sometimes seems like a rather moot point.

Take Sub-Zero’s Cryomaster variation, which gives him some more offensive tools to work with. That’d perhaps be interesting, if he weren’t a character so focused on low-key, simple, fundamental gameplay that favours defence. Some of the characters seem to fight against some of their variations and it’s clear at the moment that there’s almost always an “optimum” variation for each character for those that want to be super competitive, defeating the mechanic's entire purpose.

Of course, this whole review circles back to that horrid “Press X to purchase Jason”, or, as it will soon be read, “Press X to purchase Predator”. The Predator’s shadow already stalks the character select screen with “Coming Soon” daubed along the bottom; a cruel reminder of the real motivator behind a lot of Mortal Kombat X’s design decisions.

The long-time fans that are in it for the competition will probably be the ones that’ll overlook this micro-transaction obsession, but it’s those that get hurt the most. DLC can enhance games, and allow developers to experiment with smaller ideas. When it’s used like this however, it feels like a complete betrayal both to the game and to the people that play it.

There’s a decent fighter here, but if you must get your Mortal Kombat fix, go back to the previous game for now, and then wait for the “Game of the Year” edition with the DLC bundle when it’s inevitably released. At the very least, don’t buy any of the additional characters; don’t encourage Warner Bros. shoddy practices with your money. 

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood - Review

Wolfenstein: The New Order was one of the better games of last year. For starters, it was a first-person shooter that actually understood proper pacing. Most shooters of the past five years have opted for the Call of Duty school of level design: give people a pretty-looking corridor and have enough explosions going off that they don’t realize how shallow the whole experience is.

Wolfenstein completely rejected all of that, it had stealth sections and quieter moments that punctuated the more explosive set-pieces. It was more comparable to Half Life 2 in terms of how it operated than any other recent shooter. Hell, the game even had a map screen!

Wolfenstein: The Old Blood isn’t a full-fledged follow-up, but rather a modestly-sized expansion that also acts as a prequel. Back in the boots of B.J. Blazkowicz, you’re sent undercover and tasked with infiltrating Castle Wolfenstein.

MachineGames do the clever thing here, rather than set up any extra story, they use this expansion to experiment. In short The Old Blood is an attempt to emulate the previous Wolfenstein games, by harkening back to older retro shooters.

So there’s very little plot to speak. Sure, there’s story trundling along in the background, but it has nowhere near the emphasis that the previous game’s had. Combat is back and essentially unchanged. You can dual-wield most weapons, which still remains surprisingly balanced. Whilst two weapons doubles your firepower, it also slows your movement and prevents you using any grenades, meaning there’s always a payoff to be had.

It’s hard really to knock The Old Blood since it effectively does exactly what The New Order did, and that games was great. But…that’s part of the problem. This is an expansion that manages to add very little to the overall formula. In fact, during the total runtime (between 4-8 hours depending on difficulty), there’s exactly one new gun added, and it’s a shotgun…a shotgun that’s worse than the one you already have and can dual-wield.

It doesn’t help that the opening chapters of the expansion are easily its weakest. A long, awkward stealth section starts the game, and it’s hard to enjoy it when one wrong move is likely to have you torn to pieces by one of the hulking super-soldiers strapped with mini-guns. The original had plenty of stealth sections, and they worked incredibly well for the most part. Here though, many of them seem rather simple in design, hiding the commanders at the other end of the map and having a tedious job of shuffling around to try and get to them unnoticed.

At about the halfway mark things do begin to pick up. The set-pieces begin to get more interesting; there’s one great moment along two cable cars that’s easily a highlight, as you duck in and out of cover, trading fire with Nazis coming up the other side of the line. It’s a great moment, and a huge adrenaline rush following the quieter moments that punctuate the game’s earlier chapters.

But, even these moments come with a caveat. One of the new enemies is an elite soldier wielding a shotgun, and they only seem to die by pounding them with shotgun rounds. It doesn’t help that they’re immune to stealth, which typically forces players into direct conflict even if they’re ridiculously outnumbered.  

Of course, the big experiment this time around is with the introduction of actual Nazi zombies. Yes, The Old Blood stays true to the original games and, during the game’s climax, Nazis are brought back to life as the undead, turning the whole experience into a pulpy retro zombie shooter. It’s clear that MachineGames were using the expansion to test these weirder elements. After all, they were notably absent from the original game, and for the most part the zombies work, without overstaying their welcome. If anything they’re welcome simply because they’re something different. For an expansion pack, The Old Blood doesn't do a whole lot of…well…expanding.

The problems from the main game persist too. For a game that revels in Nazi weird-science, with dog-mechs the size of a car running around, the weapons seem incredibly tame by comparison. There’s assault rifles, shotguns and pistols but there’s the grating sense that the game could have gotten a lot more creative and taken a leaf out of Insomniac’s book. The Resistance series was rather flawed but at least its weapons were original.

But the most disappointing thing is that The Old Blood lacks heart. The New Order wrapped its guns and gore in a surprisingly enjoyable sci-fi story, with a cast of likable characters. The Old Blood has the same lead character but does nothing with him, and the end result of the game is a quick cutscene followed by the credits. It might seem odd to criticise the plot in a game like this, but when the gameplay offers nothing new you hope the story picks up some of the slack. The end result is a rather hollow expansion, devoid of real experimentation and lacking any major new ideas.

This review might seem overly critical, and perhaps it is. Yet, that’s only because the original game was so good. If you’ve not checked out The New Order yet, do so, it’s well worth your time. Then, you can consider checking out this expansion.

Just don’t expect too much…