Thursday, 29 October 2015

Transformers : Devastation - Review

Developer: PlatinumGames
Publisher: Activision 
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4 (version played), PC, 360, PS3

Hit, hit, hit, vehicle attack combo, hit, hit, dodge, sweet slowdown. That’s the core rhythm that beats at the heart of Transformers: Devastation and, yes, you’d be absolutely right that it’s practically lifted wholesale (minus the vehicle attack bit) from Platinum’s other high octane action game, Bayonetta.

The crucial thing here is, that isn’t a point of criticism. Yes, Transformers: Devastation is essentially the same game as Bayonetta, albeit replacing witches, angels and fancy hair-does with toy cars and plastic robots, but it works. Why mess with the mechanics themselves? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and this is the axiom that Platinum go by with this particular game.

All that being said, Transformers: Devastation isn’t the kind of game to rest on its laurels. There’s oodles of depth to be played around with here, and it’s clear the developers got a kick out of moulding the Transformers franchise to their own brand of action game.

Combat retains a simple core, and then carefully builds upon it. Attacks are carried out with two buttons, one delivering light attacks, the other heavy. However, certain combos will end with a mighty satisfying vehicle attack, with Optimus Prime walloping enemy robots by switching into a truck mid combat, only to be back into his robot form a second later.  

I’d go as far to say that that this is what makes Transformers: Devastation so darn enjoyable. Sure, it’s tactically and mechanically deep (more on that in a moment), but it’s also instantly satisfying on a player-feedback level: you don’t have to be particularly good at the game in order to appreciate what makes it so good. Combos blend into each other seamlessly, and that slow-motion dodge mechanic feeds into that perfect level of risk versus rewards behaviour.

So, for the seven chapters that comprise the game’s campaign, you’ll be left to fiddle with these basic mechanics to your hearts content. Whilst not especially long (the entire thing could feasibly be completed in one sitting) Transformers: Devastation instead packs oodles of depth, not just into its combat, but into its level design. The opening level for instance, is surprisingly spacious, as you traverse the city running to and from objectives. It’s by no means so big that you’ll get lost, but it’s bigger than the typical corridor gauntlet you’d get in, say, Bayonetta or Devil May Cry.

And it’s chock full of little collectibles to earn and bonus missions to complete. Transformers: Devastation thankfully avoids the by-the-numbers padding that plagues many a title, especially ones on a tighter budget, and instead opts for a basic solution with its bonus stages; simply having you complete various challenges (kill x number of enemies, collect x number of boxes) within a certain time limit.

In fact, the game goes one further by grading each fight, including those in the main campaign. Success isn’t finishing Transformers: Devastation, its finishing each mini chuck of gameplay with that coveted SSS ranking. 

Platinum also leverage the source material in terms of the characters you play. Perhaps this’ll mean more to fans of the show (I was more of a Beast Machines fan as a kid) but there’s a roster of five different characters to play as. Rather than simply act as a cosmetic change, each character; be it Optimus, Bumblebee, Sideswipe, Wheeljack or Grimlock, all come with a unique ability and a slightly altered basic move set. Take Wheeljack, who boasts better ranged combat than the other Autobots, and also boasts a unique shield to better help him in long range firefights, or Grimlock, who transforms into a hulking great T-Rex rather than a vehicle.

Likewise, the game’s equipment system allows for greater customizability for each Autobot. Optimus and Grimlock, for example, are the only characters capable of wielding heavy weapons. It makes for a more RPGish aspect to the core gameplay than is typically seen in most Japanese action games. Part of me isn’t particularly a fan of this aspect. Many games now seem fit to shoehorn in MMO-RPG elements, bogging down their sleek design, with too much number-crunching, percentage fiddling nonsense that’s almost never needed and usually slowing games down with irritating grinding for level-ups or item drops.

That being said, Transformers: Devastation manages to sidestep these issues for the most part. There’s tweaking and fiddling to be done if you want, but it rarely gets in the way of the core high octane gameplay.

In fact, everything in Transformers: Devastation just…clicks. It all hums along at a great pace, with oodles of experimentation on off and a bevy of weapons to try out. Fists are fast and help rack up huge combos, especially when doled out to Bumblebee, but don’t have particularly high damage. At the opposite end are hammers, great clunking monstrosities that’ll shred through enemies in seconds but, naturally, plague you with slow movement. 

There’s a few weaker moments in there to be sure. Whilst the game nails the vehicle transformation aspect in terms of combat, there’s a few chase sequences that are very ropey indeed. The game doesn’t seem to take into account that you’re typically much faster than your adversary, resulting in “chases” where you have to slow down or stop, in order to find whoever it is you’re meant to kill, simply because you were that fast you went hurtling past them.

Despite doing their best on a limited budget, sometimes that smaller budget does catch up. Areas regularly repeat themselves, with some samey-looking environments, and, more crucially, enemies are recycled frequently during the games second half, lacking the same unbounded creativity you see in Platinum’s other titles.

Moreover, despite my attempts to stress just how deep Transformers: Devastation is, they’ll no doubt be some people put off by the games short length. It’s an unusual game in that the people that’ll get the most out of it aren’t the casual fans of the TV shows and kids, but those that really enjoy complex action games, and breaking down the mechanics and system that are hidden within.

It also poses an interesting crux with Transformers: Devastation; it’s an incredibly smart game wrapped up in a bizarrely kid-friendly packaging. Everything, in theory, was working against this title, simply because it would have been such an easy game the phone in.

If there’s something that really gets me excited about this game, it’s the possibility of similar titles with other licenses. Can you imagine Platinum getting their hands on Dragonball Z? Now that’s the kind of game I’d be really excited for.

That being said, Transformers: Devastation is simply one of the best games of 2015. It’s smart, fun to play, and pays perfect homage to the series it’s based on. It’s fascinating in that, for a game that appeals to kids, and lazy geek nostalgia, that could just have easily be phoned in, it ends up being one of the most thought out, carefully crafted games of the year.   

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Fran Bow - Review

Developer: Killmonday Games
Publisher: Killmonday Games
Platform: PC

Taking fairy tales and twisting them into horror games is an idea that numerous game developers have made use of. American McGee’s Alice, and its sequel, Madness Returns, take the basic concept of their source material and then warp it into something horrific. Even a game like Limbo, which I’ve already discussed on this blog, takes a similar approach, creating the appearance of a humble children’s adventure and then transforming it into a nightmare.

Fran Bow follows in the same vein. Developed by the two-person team at Killmonday Games, takes the basic point-and-click mechanics of a classic adventure game and uses them to tell a story that skirts the borders between surreal and horrific 

And, granted, it’s a hard game to dislike. The animation style is gorgeous, with its own distinct charm. Again, it’s fascinating to watch but also slightly unsettling. Fran, with her bug-eyed expression and curious personality, is a wonderful main character, and I’d argue that a lot of what makes the game work comes down to her characterisation.

It’s hard not to sympathize with Fran either, because the world she lives in is so damn repulsive. Set in the 1940s, Fran is locked in a children’s mental hospital after the death of her parents. Without any idea who the culprit was, Fran now only has one goal in life; find her cat, Mr Midnight.

Cue, the first chapter involves walking around the hospital chatting to fellow patients. It’s here where Killmonday don’t pull any punches. Kids shuffle around the corridors drugged up on drugs, it’s clear (although rarely explicitly stated, another example of good writing), that many of them have been abused. In fact, one early encounter with a lecherous security guard is possibly one of the most unsettling moments in a game that regularly throws up disturbing ideas and imagery. 

Later chapters go for even more bizarre imagery, mixing Lewis Carol with William S. Burroughs. Giant insects in a pub, a pig/woodlouse hybrid, a family of sentient pinecones. There’s certainly plenty of originality going on in Fran Bow.

Now, for the most part the game consists of the typical point-and-click affair: find items, click on things, solve puzzles, and Fran Bow sticks to this concept throughout its runtime. The one unique element however, that the game throws up, is Fran’s use of her medicine.

Ingesting pills causes the world around her to shift from one that’s unsettling, to one pulled straight out of a nightmare. Shadowy creatures crawl out of the walls, animal carcasses inexplicably appear hung across the ceiling. It’s a smart way of reusing the same rooms twice, but it also fits straight into the story’s themes and nestles itself in there as a solid game mechanic. 

One particular chapter even takes it further. Rather than the typical “reality”/”drugged-reality” concept, there’s instead the options of shifting the world through all four seasons, with different areas opening up depending on the time of year. Mechanically, it’s reminiscent of Silent Hill Origins mirror gameplay, with puzzles requiring you to frequently shift from one reality to another.

If there’s one thing that Fran Bow never quite nails however, it’s the overall tone. After an opening chapter (and arguably the best chapter) that sets the game up as a horror game, subsequent levels reign it in, ramping up the surrealism and nonsensical elements but losing the more unsettling aspects. Make no mistake, it still remains a creepy game, but it certainly loses its bite after its initial opening.

In fact, Fran Bow in general peters out as it progresses. As the horror begins to get toned down, so too does the unique reality-hopping mechanic, with later areas actually becoming much simpler and linear, lacking the unique touches that the initial chapters have. Fran Bow is by no means a short game, but there’s definitely the impression that it runs out of fresh ideas long before the credits begin to roll. 

Likewise, its storytelling suffers from a similar schizophrenic approach, which I suppose if you look at it in a certain way is actually rather appropriate. After an opening that sets itself up well with a clear quest: find Mr Midnight the cat, later chapters devolve into the more mushy Lewis Carol-style nonsensical story telling of Alice in Wonderland. This is fine of course, and fitting, given the game’s inspirations, but it suffers from an annoying whiff of “kids protecting themselves from danger by conjuring up fantasies” vibe; a somewhat simplistic and twee message for a game that starts out much more daring.

Of course, without entering spoiler territory the ending can be interpreted in several different ways but there’s a sense that the dark, adult punch that opens the game is swapped in favour of a whimsical childish vibe that sort of aims to give a Studio Ghibli feel but ends up a few notches short, instead coming across as simply being vague for the sake of it.

As you can see, it’s hard to comment on Fran Bow too much without actually discussing spoilers. Simply put, for fans of point-and-click adventure games, this is well worth checking out. It’s incredible work from a two-person team and I’m genuinely intrigued to see what they turn their hand to next. It doesn’t manage to pay off with everything it tries its hand at, but, for the first half at least, this is an engaging, not to mention disturbing, rabbit hole to travel down. 

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Until Dawn - Review

Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Platform: PS4

Until Dawn has a really clever trick; make a predictable genre unpredictable. How does it do that? Simple, let you decide who lives and who dies.

The slasher genre is easily the most well-worn, overdone type of horror movie imaginable. In fact, I’d argue it’s now the fact that it is now so predictable that makes it weirdly enjoyable. Scream works because you understand the clich├ęs. Cabin in the Woods works because you’ve seen this sort of movie thousands of times before.

You’d think it would be hard for Until Dawn to mine something new out of a sub-genre that’s already gone so meta it practically demolishes the fourth wall, but, surprisingly, it manages to handle itself rather well. Fitting in the mould of a modern Telltale-style, point-and-click adventure game, Until Dawn has you jumping across eight young twenty-somethings as they meet up in an isolated house up in the mountains, to, as one character puts it, “party like porn stars.” 

The game’s major gimmick, of course, being that any of the eight characters can die. This isn’t the first time that a game has messed around with sticking characters in perma-death. Heavy Rain attempted it five years ago and failed spectacularly, with you having to be tremendously bad to get people killed, and throwing ridiculous QTE after ridiculous QTE at you while the plot spiralled out of control.

Until Dawn instead focuses on the ramifications of your choices, ramming the concept down your throat with the “Butterfly Effect” mechanic, which is a fancy way of saying “your actions will have consequences”. Snoop at another character’s phone and said character might not trust you as much, use a flare gun now and you won’t be able to use it to save yourself later. It’s an obvious, simple idea that Telltale have been weaving into their games for a while now, and Until Dawn pulls it off pretty damn well. 

What’s interesting is, by having you play as multiple characters, you’re put into a dilemma about how to act amongst the others. This isn’t like playing as Lee or Clementine in The Walking Dead, where you always had a clear angle you were viewing events from. Here, the focus is always shifting with each scene. Do you have the nerd try and be heroic, is the pretty prom queen actually the smart one? Is the final girl really the final girl? There’s an interesting element of playing the game versus roleplaying going on when you first get to grips with the characters and it’s interesting to watch how different players first acclimatise to this.

Each person comes with their own little stat screen, detailing how charitable, honest and brave they are. It’s a very “gamey” menu screen in an otherwise cinematic video game, and occasionally has a whiff of being there just to give the illusion that you’re still playing a video game, and not simply an interactive movie. Granted, it is interesting to see your characters’ personalities change over the course of the game but, by the end, it has very little tangible impact.

Until Dawn doesn’t so much get you to play the game as much as it does get you to play director. Dipping in and out of each character and having them make choices that may or not kill them in the long run. Tweaking the story and trying to bend it as far as it will go is undoubtedly one of the most fun elements.

The other aspect that Until Dawn nails down, is the actual story. It's a smart game, with a pair of smart writers. They know you've watched Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream and Cabin in the Woods. You're waiting for a twist and they damn well deliver on it. 

And it’s this, as much as the “who’s going to make it” aspect, that keeps things going. Simply put, Until Dawn is a fun story, and one that understands the horror genre. The cast is great, with some recognisable faces here and there, (Peter Stormare shows up as a shrink). It’s a game that makes the cast surprisingly likable in a genre that regularly treats them as little more than cannon fodder ready to be slaughtered.

Even the collectibles work as another element to play on the choices/consequences mechanic. Native American totems can be found dotted around the environments, because…you guessed it, the entire place the characters are staying at used to be a burial ground for the tribe there.

These totems give you glimpses of potential futures; obscure shots of characters getting shot, burnt or falling off a cliff. What’s great though is that they just fuel the guessing game even more. They’re frustratingly ambiguous, but in a good way. In effect, they force you to play detective even more, making you scan each environment meticulously for any element that might get your character killed. Of course, that’s assuming you want that character to survive…

Naturally, Until Dawn suffers from all the usual problems that afflict this particular style of video game. For starters, the first play through is great but future ones become more disappointing. Once you see the puppet strings; the different cause-and-effect events that alter the game’s story, you start to realize that things are much more linear than they might first appear. The Butterly Effect mechanic does a good job of disguising this to start with, but, even with eight characters that can all potentially die, this is still very much a game on rails.

Until Dawn isn’t about to win over sceptics. If you find this particular style of game to be nothing more than a glorified movie; an embarrassing attempt to relive the ‘90s FMV adventure game days, then this isn’t going to change your mind. Until Dawn starts out with a simple plan and sticks to it.

It’s a game that solves the problems that David Cage falls for with each game he releases. It’s not pretentious, and, despite starring eight horny twenty-somethings, it’s not that stupid either. By not reaching for anything too grand, by not trying to “redefine video games” Until Dawn simply does something much better and much more important.

It ends up being a pretty decent bloody game. 

Friday, 9 October 2015

Mad Max - Review

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

You have to feel somewhat sorry for Avalanche Studios, the development team tasked with trying to adapt what George Miller has achieved with Mad Max in cinema, and somehow port over the films’ sense of anarchic fun and boundless creativity to video games. The end result is incredibly underwhelming, and it’s frustrating because there’s glimmers of something much better under the hood. 

Taking the typical third-person, open-world adventure template, Mad Max cribs with equal measure from Assassin’s Creed, Arkham Asylum and the Tomb Raider reboot. There’s even a hint of The Last of Us if you squint your eyes a bit; this is a game about survival, and the grim and gritty trappings of the adventure pay a lot of homage to Naughty Dog’s post-apocalypse classic.

But the main focus of the game is on the random “go here and do that” fetch quests. There’s very little story or structure to Mad Max. It has a story line obviously; you’re trying to get a new car for Max to drive off with, but the main focus of much of your play time will be on driving to and from locations completing odd jobs. It’s as much about cleaning up all those icons on your map as it is playing through a story.

Missions primarily take the form of clearing out gang hideouts, where you take down Scaborous Scrotus’ horde and free up locations for rival groups to take over. It’s the typical moreish mission design that Ubisoft has been adhering to for years now and Avalanche Studios replicate it pretty much verbatim. Hot air balloons serve as watch towers, with each trip up into the sky dotting your map with new things to do. Meanwhile, Max’s car is very much Edward Kemway’s ship; a small-fry machine to begin with, but a deadly weapon (hopefully) by the time you’ve reached the end of the game.

Combat, though, takes its cues from RockSteady’s Batman games. Attacks are carried out with one button, counters with another. Don’t expect any of Bruce Wayne’s balletic grace here however. There’s a grungy weight to the scuffles in Mad Max, hits have an impact and oomph to them, with Max even grabbing hold of guys and pinning them to the wall to take them down. Counter attacks are less forgiving, with perfect precision demanded if you want to parry an attack without taking any damage.

It makes for a surprisingly tough game for those first few hours whilst you acclimatise. There’s no regenerating health either, Max instead has to restore his vitality by drinking from his water bottle, which won’t be getting filled all that often. It’s just as well too, this is meant to be a game about survival in a barren, sand-blasted wasteland; it shouldn’t be too easy. 

If clearing out gang hideouts comprises half of the game, the other half is made up of collecting scrap. The rabid urge to gather up every piece of scrap scratches that OCD side of your brain pretty well. It fits better with the game’s focus too. It makes no sense why Lara goes around hoovering up every box of junk in Tomb Raider like a kleptomaniac. For Max though it’s part and parcel of making it through the day; his rig is his life.

Still, the car upgrades themselves aren’t particularly exciting, with most being comprised of the usual “+20% attack/+20% defence” stat bonuses. Likewise, the car combat itself suffers from the same workmanlike approach, with most encounters pretty much amounting to ramming other cars and pulling down structures with a grappling hook. For a game that attempts to bring the focus to the driving aspect, the end result isn’t that interesting. 

The frustrating thing with Mad Max is, the moments that work the best are suddenly undermined by what the game then decides to do with them. The world itself is rather stunning; a nuclear-blasted landscape scoured with sand; there’s an attempt to fill the world with power and scope only to ruin it with the laundry-list approach to level design.

When you’re not taking down gang locations or performing races, you’ll be running errands for various people around the world, and I stress the word errands. Again, rather than create some memorable set pieces, Avalanche Studios seem content with “go here pick up A, go here destroy B” quests. One quest literally consisted of going to a point on the map and turning three levers…and then leaving. No adversity to overcome, no enemies to clear out, nothing. It’s like watching a Mad Max movie and spending the majority of the time watching him fix his car. 

And that’s the major theme you see throughout Mad Max; tons of potential, glimmers of something much better, but squandered on lazy, half-baked, unoriginal ideas. Great names like Scaborous Scrotus, Chumbucket, and Gutgash are wasted on dull, bland character designs. The game’s sub-bosses, which dot some of the more challenging locations, are burly blokes with a bit of florescent paint thrown over them, lacking most of the gleeful madness that George Miller and his team pour into the movies.

There’s a perfectly playable game in Mad Max, none of it is necessarily bad, it’s just utterly forgettable. The game is functional but lacking any sense of personality. It’s not so much Mad Max as it is “Apocalypse Man” – quite frankly the game could be about just any character.
And that’s the real problem that seems to have eluded Avalanche Studios, they’ve made a game that looks like Mad Max, sounds like Mad Max but, fundamentally, lacks the spirit of Mad Max.

In short, it’s a game that completely misses the point.