Friday, 23 December 2016

2016 Wrap-Up

I’ve reviewed a whole lot of games this year. Including the ones I’ve yet to post on the site, I’m guessing this is the most I’ve covered in a single year.

That being said, there’s still some games that I don’t get round to finishing, or didn’t play enough of to feel comfortable writing a comprehensive review. My rule is that if I’ve reviewed it, I’ve finished it. This means there were some games that got left behind this year; ones that I picked up but never got around to finishing, or only played a portion of.

As this year winds down, I thought it would be a good time to go over some of these titles and give you my impressions of some of the more notable ones.

I didn’t technically quit Aragami, Aragami quit me. No, really, it crapped out on me. About halfway through the game, a level just bugged out and wouldn’t load the relevant item I needed to continue. The only choice was to either repeat the whole level again, or quit.

Not that I was all that impressed by what I’d played. Initially, the combination of Tenchu and Mark of Kri was a great idea, but the stiff controls, bland world and poor story failed to draw me in.

It also didn’t help that the PS4 port was rough. In addition to the bug that stopped me from progressing, the game’s performance was a choppy and uneven mess, which is a death sentence for this kind of game. I have no idea how good the PC version plays, but the PS4 is definitely not the way to experience this.

What I played of Darkest Dungeon was pretty darn great. The random dungeons, the team-based strategy. Roguelikes sometimes walk a fine line between having you make strategy and just throwing randomness at you. Too little randomness and it becomes repetitive, too much and the game risks creating the impression that you’re not really in control of what’s going on.

When you factor in that Red Hook Studios go for a Lovecraftian/Dark Souls vibe in terms of the aesthetic and tone of the game, it’s surprising that the whole thing is as tight and cohesive as it is. Don’t get me wrong, there were times where I was totally screwed regardless of what I chose to do in a particular encounter, or I’d open a crate and a curse would thrust the souls of all my adventures into an alternate dimension. It’s a game where you have to roll with the (eldritch) punches.

What made the game click though was the synergy between the different classes, and I loved the added strategy of positioning units in optimal ranks. Sometimes, a character’s role would change depending on where they were put. There was depth to the mechanics, and yet the core gameplay was so simple.

What I’m saying is Darkest Dungeons is bloody good. I half expect, had I already finished it, it would have been somewhere on my top games of the year. There’s also been a PS4 and Vita release earlier this year, and whilst I played on PC, I keep meaning to pick up a copy for my Vita. This is the kind of game that’s made for portable hardware.

I wrote about Elder Scrolls Legends earlier this year but didn’t get around to writing about Duelyst. I got into the game shortly before it was officially released, whilst it was still in open beta. If you’ve not played it, it’s a fabulous combination of turn-based grid combat and a trading card game.

By far the biggest strengths of the game are the fact that it doesn’t encourage randomness. Hearthstone is all over place when it comes to its RNG. Even Elder Scrolls Legends keeps turning me away with its clunky Prophecy mechanic, which I like less and less the more I play the game.

Duelyst rewards smart positioning of your units, and even rewards hand management by allowing you to replace a card each turn with one that’s remaining in your deck. It makes for less matches that come down to just snow-balling your opponent, and more about which player can best execute their strategy. Its sprite art is gorgeous to boot.

Last time I checked the game had gotten a bunch of new heroes which added even more available strategies, along with a new expansion. Oh, and the loot drops from booster packs (or spheres, in Duelyst’s case) are far better overall than in similar games. Duelyst is free-to-play and sticks to that better than most other titles in the genre.

If you’ve not played it, I do recommend you check it out. The chess-like movement might put some trading-card fans off at first, but stick with it, it’s well worth your time.

I feel guilty not talking about Tokyo Mirage Sessions. It’s one of the Wii U’s weirder exclusives this year and I’ve made it clear on several occasions how much I’m a fan of the Shin Megami Tensei series. Between the core series and the Persona games, Atlus are making the most innovative and beautifully crafted modern Japanese RPGs that actually push the genre forward.

Fire Emblem is great, too, and it makes you wonder why there wasn’t a cross-over like this some time sooner. Both series have combat mechanics that reward targeting weaknesses; Fire Emblem with its weapon wheel and SMT with its Press-Turn system. Tokyo Mirage Sessions throws all of this into a mixing pot and comes out with a remarkably good dungeon-crawling RPG.

The plot is a bit weird and probably a little too bright and saccharine after the darker storylines of Persona 3 & 4, with the tone being somewhere between Glee and an episode of Power Rangers.

In some ways, the game is rather slight when compared to the series’ that spawned it. The character progression seems rather linear, and considering it doesn’t have any social-interaction segment to break up the dungeon-crawling, it did begin to feel a little one-note after I’d finished a few dungeons.

Despite that, it’s one I’ll eventually have to return to, and the kind of game that’d definitely benefit from being ported to the Nintendo Switch in the near future.

Speaking of Fire Emblem, we got two whole Fire Emblem games this year, three if you count the hefty DLC episode, Revelation. That’s a whole lot of Fire Emblem.

At the time of writing this I’ve got about half way through Birthright and I don’t know really why I stopped. The gameplay is fantastic, and I had a blast with Fire Emblem Awakening last year, so I don’t really have an excuse for stopping.

One thing that I think probably did slow me down is that I actually found the game rather easy. Awakening was my first Fire Emblem game and so I set Birthright on Normal mode, anticipating that the game would thoroughly maul me if I didn’t. And yet, I haven’t really found it all that challenging. I’ve heard that Conquest is the significantly more difficult of the two instalments, so maybe Birthright is deliberately easier than a regular Fire Emblem game to balance it out.

If you’re on the fence about jumping in, don’t hesitate. Birthright is a great game from what I’ve played, and the response to Conquest and is Revelation is equal to, if not better, than the praise that Birthright has received.

Yomawari: Night Alone came at just the wrong time for me to really invest time in it. Between the bigger releases, and a few other games here and there, it was one that I decided to drop pretty quickly.

It’s a novel game, for sure. The gorgeous art-style and Studio Ghibli-gone-bad tone made for a really interesting atmosphere. It’s also one of the few, “proper” horror games to be released this year, so it did do plenty to pique my interest.

I didn’t play a ton of the game so you’ll have to take my opinion here with a pinch of salt. My biggest bugbear was that the core of the game was little more than your basic hide-and-seek mechanic. You wander around town, doing various things, all the while dodging strange (and wonderfully designed) monsters, lest you get touched even once.

The bare bones mechanics didn’t really entice me. Perhaps it was the case of simply coming out at the wrong time, but I didn’t regret stopping playing Yomawari. It looked and sounded great, but I never found it all that engaging to play.

Obviously, if it turned out to be a masterpiece and I just ignored it, feel free to call me a fool.

These were just a few of the games that I played but didn’t get the chance to write about this year. It’s been a busy year for the site, and, despite how stressful it’s been between juggling other obligations and keeping the website ticking over it’s been great to watch it grow. My little corner of the internet is very small, but if visitor stats are anything to go by (you know who you are), we’re seeing a slow and steady increase in traffic.

This’ll be the last post for the year before I go on a temporary hiatus. I’ll be back around mid January with regular posts, some more video content, and some new ideas for expanding the site.

So my last thing to say for 2016 is simply to wish everyone a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

LogicButton's Best Games of 2016

This year has been a mediocre year for games releases. So much of what we’ve been expecting for this generation still seems to be on hold, as both Sony and Microsoft put energy into releasing “improved” hardware before even justifying the hardware that people purchased just under three years ago. If there was phrase to sum up 2016, it would be “still loading”.

All that being said, there have been some solid releases this year. Covering games is different to movies and music in the sense that it’s impossible to cover everything that comes out. Two or three RPGs will take up more time than a handful of smaller games, so it can be difficult to get a conclusive overview of the whole year.

Choosing a top five list is kind of strange in a way because you have to decide on a criteria to base it on. If I did it purely in terms of the game I’ve spent the most time with, that’d be Street Fighter V, and I’ve had a ton of fun playing that game, despite my myriad of issues with it. However, there’s no way in good conscience I can put a game like Street Fighter V on my best of year list, considering it still feels like a game that’s being developed as it goes along.

So I suppose you could say my top five games of this year are the games that I genuinely feel brought something fresh to gaming, or at least made me remember why I love games so much. It’s not been the best nor the worst year for game’s releases, and there’s still been a few gems to pick out of all the chaff.

This list comes with the caveat that there’s still a handful of 2016 releases I’ve not had the chance to play yet; Stardew Valley, Pokemon Sun & Moon, Dishonored 2, Dead Rising 4, Telltale’s Batman and The Last Guardian. So keep that in mind.

With that note out of the way, here’s my picks for the top five games of 2016.

The bathed-in-acid visual style and unsettling “is it an adventure or a nightmare” is what made me put this on the list. There were so many games that were good and could have gone in this spot but I think it was the no-frills attitude of Hyper Light Drifter that made it what it is.

The gameplay is crisp and simple, but layered with little elements of strategy. There’s so many upgrades and weapons that you’re not going to feasibly acquire them all in one playthrough, and they’re all good enough that there’s no clear best upgrade/weapon to take at any one time.

Beyond the core mechanics, there’s the world design and an interesting spaced-out soundtrack that ebbs and flows from mystery to adventure. There’s a distinct melancholy tone to Hyper Light Drifter that I think is what makes it so impressive. It doesn’t dole this out to the player in a heavy-handed manner but rather lets them pull together their own interpretation of what’s happening.

After Hotline Miami,  retro-wave visuals have become more and more popular, and I think Hyper Light Drifter is a great example of taking that influence and doing something novel with it.

I still can’t get over how terrible that title is but it doesn’t change the fact that this game is so much fun. Multi-player shooters are not my thing, at least in terms of the kinds of games I have a tendency to gravitate towards, and yet, I can’t get enough of Overwatch.

The character design/selection is what makes this game. It works in the same way that a good fighting game does: the characters draw players in. I said it in my review, but “maining” character in Overwatch makes little sense; it’s a game about reacting to various team compositions, but I totally understand why players talk about maining characters. The designs themselves draw players to particular characters and it’s this aspect, along with the simple to understand mechanics, that make it so damn addictive.

Aside from the production design, I was thinking, in terms of its gameplay, what sets Overwatch apart, and I think I’ve cracked it. It cherry-picks the best parts of online FPS games (the core shooting), fighting games (the character designs) and Pokemon (reacting to friendly and opposing team compositions) and distils the best from all three genres.

Basically, Blizzard concocted some gaming form of alchemy.

Doom has a map screen. Doom has a map screen that I actually had to use on multiple occasions to orient myself about a level. That alone puts the game on an entire different plane to most other modern shooters.

The level design, the weapons and the monsters, they’re all great. The big kicker though, was that it didn’t pander to fans of the original games. I’ve played Doom and Doom II, I don’t need reminding of what made those games so good, I want something new, fresh and original. Sure, Doom gives obvious nods to the previous games, even the third instalment, but it does it without indulging in shameless nostalgia-pandering.

Dark Souls 3 left me a little disappointed by how much it relied on its own sense of series nostalgia to make sequences more memorable. Doom of all games was the one to avoid that.

Oh, and the map editor. Doom meets Harvest Moon. This is a thing and it is glorious.

The sheer creativity of this game is astounding. I went into Planet Robobot expecting good things. Triple Deluxe was a solid platformer, but that was it. Solid, dependable and conventional.

Planet Robobot just has ideas. No single level of this game is filler, it just hops, glides and floats effortlessly from one stage to the next, doling out more power-ups and more funky concepts one after the other.

The robot suit could have been a gimmick, but by building it into the levels so well it elevates Kirby’s core transformation mechanics. All of a sudden there’s tons of more forms to play around with, and each has their own unique qualities and advantages. It’s like playing through a platform game with a bevy of Super Smash Bros. characters.

And I'm pretty sure that the final boss was meant to be a parody of Donald Trump. That’s an automatic bonus point.

If  we’re going on the game I enjoyed playing the most this year, this is it, bar none. This cross-over really shouldn’t work. It’s Pokemon, it’s Tekken and it’s Street Fighter and those really shouldn’t all manage to blend together so well.

My Machamp is a beast in this game. Ok, probably not any more because I’ve not played in a while but damn if that command throw wasn’t so darn satisfying. It’s rather hard to pin-point what worked so well in this game, but I think what makes it click is how it balances its accessibility with its depth.

More than that I think that the fact that it plays with both 2D and 3D game space simultaneously, and also makes that a game mechanic in and of itself with the phase shift mechanic is what, makes it so ingenious. Pokken Tournament is a game that just about anyone can pick up and play, but it also manages to have oodles of depth and smart design beneath its surface charm.

If there’s one game that the Nintendo Switch needs to get a port of, it’s this.

Those are my top picks for 2016. As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s been a middling sort of year for new releases on the whole. Despite that, there have been plenty of gems. With Sony and Microsoft hopefully getting their (somewhat pointless) mid-generation reboot out of the way with the PlayStation Pro and Scorpio, we can get back to focusing on what matters; games.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Final Fantasy XV - Review

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

Ten years. Final Fantasy XV’s development time is notorious. A whole decade, and half of that time the game was a side story to Final Fantasy XIII’s weird, convoluted extended universe. The fact that Final Fantasy XV exists at all, in any form whatsoever, is something of a miracle.

Factoring in that lengthy development time is important when discussing Final Fantasy XV. Not only did the game see an extensive shift in focus, jettisoning the connection to Final Fantasy XIII, the game also saw a change of director, with Tetsuya Nomura being replaced with Hajime Tabata.

This is perhaps the best explanation for why Final Fantasy XV is all over the place. This sprawling, sometimes epic, sometimes shallow, Frankenstein’s monster of a game is nothing short of a mess. It’s an open world RPG, but only for the first half, and even then, only when it wants to be. It’s also a road movie (well, game) about four friends sticking together, but it’s also a fantasy epic about warring countries and magic crystals. Final Fantasy XV is a game built on the corpses of several others and damn does it show.

The aforementioned road movie aspect would seem to be how the game wants to be remembered. Prince Noctis and his band of friends start the game pushing their clapped-out car to the nearest garage, whilst Florence and the Machine play “Stand By Me” over the scene.

Its cast at the very least have more heart in them than the weird, soulless voids that masqueraded as characters in Final Fantasy XIII. Final Fantasy XV might have you running around with a group of characters that look like a J-Pop boy band but they at least have some humanity to them.

The other big side step is avoiding linearity. The open world RPG aspect is Final Fantasy XV at its most modern and most conventional. It’s The Witcher 3 meets Xenoblade Chronicles. Here’s a huge stretch of land, go forth and explore it. Other ideas are lifted from Square Enix’s back catalogue. Monster hunts comprise a hefty chunk of this game’s side content, and function essentially the same as they did in Final Fantasy XII.

You even get to drive your car around from location to location, and there’s certainly something enjoyable about simply soaking in the landscape as hills roll past and the sun begins to set. Game-as-road movie is an unbelievably fun concept; camping to level up and restore yourself overnight, picking up monster hunts to pool some money together to get you to the next town. When Final Fantasy XV ignores all of its other nonsense to focus on living out the back of a car it latches on to a really promising concept.

Step beyond the boundaries of the open road however, and the game’s world collapses right in front of you. Don’t go thinking about driving that car by yourself, it’ll just railroad you back into the middle of the road, whilst invisible barriers prevent you from crashing into oncoming traffic. Its world is hollow, devoid of interesting things to see and do. The litany of side quests are pulled from the standard MMO structure of “go to A, pick up/kill B”. The game has size and scope but nothing to show for it other than pretty vistas.

The game’s combat is the real killer, though. Final Fantasy is a series that’s become enamoured with the visual cacophony of Advent Children’s fight scenes. Characters no longer obey basic laws of physics, and instead can perform superhuman feats for no explainable reason, all in tightly choreographed sequences. This began to bleed into the games starting with Kingdom Hearts 2, and then again with Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy XV continues this obsession, moving the combat to real-time. Combat is rendered idiot-proof; holding one button will launch Noctis into a string of sword-flourishes and acrobatic lunges as he zips and warps around enemies. Meanwhile, holding another button will have Noctis dodge enemy attacks automatically provided he has the MP reserves to do so. He can also engage the enemy with a warp strike in order to quickly close the distance.

I can’t stress this point enough, the entire combat system of the game is governed by two buttons, three at best. There’s no strategy or meaningful decision-making to be had mid-fight. Whilst it’s in real-time, there’s no rhythm to enemy attacks, monsters rarely have clear tells that telegraph their attacks so that you can respond in time. It’s a case of holding down a button and waiting for whatever you’re fighting to eventually die.

Noctis’ party also suffer from a severe lack of interaction. Prompto, Ignis and Gladiolus accompany Noctis throughout the game’s campaign, and, bar the occasional guest character, are the only party members you’ll have.

Your input into how they go about combat is minimal, however. All three characters have a different weapon type available to them (Noctis isn’t bound by this, and can equip any weapon), further reducing the strategy involved in arming each party member. Swords go to Gladiolus, guns to Prompto, knives to Ignis; the game does the work for you.

Each character also has a number of skills, or techniques, that they can use in combat. Again, the game throttles any life this mechanic would have by only allowing them to equip one at a time, and also forcing all three companions to share the same resource used to fuel these techniques. It also doesn’t help that many of them have vague properties outside of “does a lot of damage”. I have a hard time working out why Gladiolus hitting things with a shield is better/worse than him battering everything with his sword. When the game doesn’t simply make every decision for the player it instead leaves the scope of its game systems vague and poorly defined.

All of these skills, along with a number of other upgrades, are unlocked through the Ascension Grid, a basic wheel-and-spoke upgrade system slightly similar to Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. It’s here where you realize that Final Fantasy XV is barely an RPG. Upgrades have the same generic, all-purpose quality that you see in your average open-world game; “chain attacks do more damage”, “dodging costs less MP”. You don’t build your characters over hours of play, they’re simply built for you in a vague fluffy sense that prevents you from investing in your own playstyle.

The final wrinkles of the game’s awful combat are loosely cribbed from Xenoblade Chronicles, but with no clear understanding of why they worked in that game. The one area of “skill” in combat, when the clunky controls and dreadful camera allow, is flanking enemies and delivering back attacks, resulting in bonus damage and combos with Noctis’ team mates.

Only, there’s no real way to influence enemy aggression in Final Fantasy XV, not in a reliable way anyhow. Part of what made Xenoblade Chronicles so engaging was the basic, Shulk/Reyn dynamic that was expanded upon and made more complex as the game progressed and the party expanded; part of your group was designed to take damage, the other deal it. Final Fantasy XV on the other hand has everything descend into a confusing morass of poor camerawork and hyper-active fights that practically play themselves.

Ramuh, Titan and Leviathan appear as the game’s primary summons, and the latter two are both integral to the overarching plot, as well as major boss battles. Here, Final Fantasy XV gives up any pretence of strategy, with both battles being a clumsy trudge through quick-time events.

There’s little payoff for acquiring these summons either. Like with everything else in Final Fantasy XV’s summoning system are completely random and only occur when the game decides. I suppose you could say this is a suitable way of portraying the game’s summons as capricious and aloof gods that only act on their own whims. The fact that the game places quite a hefty focus on them, though, story-wise, only to have them shoved in the background moments later is underwhelming to say the least.

Magic also suffers from a shallow game system. In fact, magic can be all but ignored and the player won’t suffer. Fire, ice and lightning magic can be drawn from various points throughout the world and then combined with magic flasks in your inventory. Combining the magic with additional items will have bizarre effects, again, with little explanation as to why these items would work in this fashion. Throw a few lightning spells together with a few trinkets and a bit of ice magic and all of a sudden you have quad-cast Thundaga.

All of these issues are only half of what Final Fantasy XV has to offer, though. This is a game that can be clearly divided into two distinct halves that only highlight its troubled development. After the first ten hours or so, more if you delve deeper into the side content, the world narrows, chapters become more linear and cut-scene heavy, while the confused and awkwardly edited story go off the rails.

I mean that literally, too, as most of the latter half of the game takes place on a train. After the first chunk of the game puts the emphasis on its primary cast of characters, the later portions of the game rushes from scene to scene, with the plot becoming increasingly unhinged as it goes along. The Nilfheim Empire is mentioned but very rarely shown, the key players in the political power struggle, that acts as a catalyst for the game’s events, are hinted at but very rarely shown. Occasionally, characters will talk about events that just happened, but the player will not see any of it. Conversely, lavish cut-scenes will show things happening at various parts of the adventure with no context whatsoever. Trying to pick out a story thread in Final Fantasy XV is a nightmare by the halfway mark.

The latter half of Final Fantasy XV is rushed, clearly, even by the uneven and frustrating standards of the first half of the game. Worse than that though is what the game chooses to spend its time upon in the rush towards its finale.

The game frequently gives up being an RPG or an action game and instead flirts with other genres. There’s a whole section involving stealth, and like everything else its rendered pointless by the fact that only one button is used to do everything. In what is perhaps the most bizarre decision, the game’s penultimate chapter takes a weird turn into survival horror, with hiding spots and key cards that need to be acquired.

Someone could perhaps see this as bold experimentation. After all, one of the biggest problems of the long-running series has been its inability to modify and evolve its established formula. Yet, these weird gameplay sequences and experiments aren’t born out of creativity, but out of fear. They come across as a developer throwing everything at the wall in the hope that something sticks, dredging up every cliché of modern game design; bland open world, copy-paste quests, hide-and-seek horror, and generic stealth. Perhaps the best comparison would be Resident Evil 6, another game that attempts to solve its ageing game design by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink.

Final Fantasy XV is a bad game. Its combat is frustrating and linear, its story incomprehensible and its world bland and lifeless. There are scraps of something interesting in its laid back road movie moments, where it throws out the fighting and the nonsense story and instead invests in its characters love of photography, cooking and fishing. Of course, even this is partially ruined by the vulgar product placement (this is a fantasy world, remember) for Coleman camping equipment and Cup Noodles.

Nothing escapes the fact that the majority of the game is a horrible mess that’s barely stapled together. It’s gaming’s equivalent of Suicide Squad. If this is what we’re left with after ten years, there’s the impression that the whole thing would have been best left on the cutting room floor.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Silent Hill Commentary - Part 4

The final part of my Silent Hill commentary and analysis. This covers the final portion of the game, along with two of the game's endings.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Titanfall 2 - Review

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

Titanfall was the natural evolution of Modern Warfare’s stop-and-pop shooter-fest. It was bold, too, by modern shooter standards, completing eschewing the single player campaign (because, let’s be honest, the hardcore fans of these types of games couldn’t care less, they’re here for the multiplayer), and jumping wholeheartedly into an online-only experience.

This has certainly worked out for some games. Overwatch is great fun, and part of the reason I suspect is because it’s so laser-focused on its core game design of team-based combat. It has nothing else to distract it from that one important goal.

It’s with a bit of disappointment then, that Titanfall 2 caves in a little and doles out a single player campaign this time. I’ve mentioned multiple times on this site that I’m typically not the kind of player that enjoys hours of player-versus-player combat, and usually prefer the slower pace of a good single player game. Yet, Titanfall was oodles of fun, and I doubt having a solo campaign would have made it any better.

Well, Titanfall 2 has proven me right. Just as games like Spec Ops: The Line and Bioshock 2 really don’t need tacked on multi-player, this game really didn’t need a tacked on story. It’s less a campaign and more a reluctant sigh; a box-checking exercise.

The solo campaign sticks you in the boots of Jack Cooper, a shooty-Mcshoot kind of guy who’s soon thrust into a budding human-robot bromance with dead-pan titan BT. The story tries to inject some charm into the proceedings, with dialogue choices and BT’s literal interpretation of metaphors, but the bland, gung-ho military plot and generic villains don’t do much to endear it. Likewise, the relationship between Jack and BT comes across less as genuine and more as a forced connection; an Emotional Moment that the game can shove on the back of the box, rather than something that’s earned.

Respawn try their hardest to do something gameplay-wise to give the single player some spark. Given the series’ focus on constant movement and rapid-fire reaction, the campaign plays out like a mix between Call of Duty and Mirror’s Edge. One entire level is devoted to zipping around a factory that’s constructing combat environments and shooting galleries. It’s weird and ridiculous, but arguably more inventive than it needed to be.

One level even throws in some time travel into the mix. Jack switches from past to present at the push of a button, turning the whole experience into some weird, platforming, rhythm-action game. It's a novel idea. There’s sparks of creativity in the single player campaign, it’s just that they’re wedged between filler.

At best the bulk of that filler acts as a tutorial, splitting up the chapters between basic fire fights and more spectacular mech-on-mech battles. They’re the highlight of the solo gameplay, primarily because stomping around in a mech is so darn fun.

Ironically, the biggest flaw here, aside from the general blandness of the whole affair, is the core shooting. Titanfall’s twitch-shooting is perfect for multiplayer, where one bad move and split-second decision can mean the difference between life and death. In  a solo environment however, it becomes tedious, and when divorced from the RPG-strategy aspects of tooling up your character, also lacks a lot of depth.

When set aside however, in favour of the multiplayer, Titanfall 2 is as much fun as the original. The core mechanics are still intact; momentum, shooter-twitch and a surprisingly robust and deep range of customization options give the online matches a surprising amount of longevity for players, regardless of their skill level.

A lot of the genius behind Titanfall’s combat comes from its level design. Maps have a solid mix of wide open spaces and smaller narrow corridors. It’s a brilliant way of balancing the lightning-fast, yet vulnerable, pilot gameplay with the lumbering strength you get as a Titan.

Titans have been given perhaps the most significant overhaul for the sequel. There’s now six classes in total. These range from the more agile Ronin chassis that’s capable of lightning-fast melee attacks through, to the hulking, chain-gun-wielding Legion titan.

One of the most important aspects of multiplayer combat is finding the right pacing, and that’s what the Titan’s manage to provide. There’s a solid “build-up”, for lack of a better word, to the combat in Titanfall 2’s online battles. Matches start out with a hoard of speedy pilots, and then, by the mid-point, the Titans start dropping in, completely shifting the focus and pace of the combat.

The pilot-on-titan combat has been given some tweaks from the original game, too. Yanking a battery out of a titan can be kept for your own or doled out to a team-mate’s mech, encouraging a degree of cooperation. Likewise, the range of anti-Titan weaponry has been boosted, ensuring that, whilst arguably at a disadvantage, pilots aren’t completely left in the lurch should they find themselves up against one of the super-sized robots.

Whilst Attrition, the game’s team deathmatch, is certainly its most popular game variant, Respawn do ensure there’s some variety.  Capture the Flag and Amped Hardpoint, a basic area control match based around three objectives, are the most conventional alternatives. There’s also Bounty Hunt, which uses the games AI units as a kind of scoring mechanism, with points needing to be “banked” between rounds to win the match.

Whilst there is variety in Titanfall 2’s matches, as with Overwatch, there’s an awkward pull between the gameplay’s focus and the alternative objectives that the game variants provide. Amped Hardpoint is a standard game mode for most online shooters, but in Titanfall 2 it almost contradicts the emphasis on movement and speed, with players instead locking down and defending points.

A few more maps also wouldn't go amiss. Titanfall had plenty of fairly memorable locales to battle in, but the sequel seems happy to dump you in generic, sci-fi industrial landscapes for the most part. Well-crafted the maps may be, but that doesn't mean they're all that exciting to look at.

Still, none of this takes away too much from the central thrill that Titanfall 2 provides. It’s a cautious update, and one that’s only going to get more cautious given the game’s lacklustre sales, but the improvements on the whole are welcome.

Ignore the single player campaign, or, if you really want to play it, treat it like a really long tutorial. Instead jump online and enjoy blasting the bejeezus out of everybody in a giant robot. Titanfall 2 might be slightly disappointing, given how refreshing the original was in 2014, and it might have to live under the shadow of Overwatch as this year’s best online shooter, but overall, it satisfies some really basic thrills, and sometimes that’s enough.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Silent Hill Commentary - Part 3

The third part of my commentary on the original Silent Hill. This part covers everything from the Floatstinger boss encounter through to the fight with Cybil.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Watch Dogs 2 - Review

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

Watch Dogs 2 is the game that the original Watch Dogs should have been. Having dumped the sulky, hypocritical murder-man Aiden Pearce for a much brighter, energetic and, most importantly, fun game world, Watch Dogs 2 lets itself breathe a little.

More than anything, Ubisoft’s sequel attempts to rectify the problems that plagued the first instalment. The hacking system, the side quests and the open world have all been given a total overhaul.

The setting sums up this change more than anything else. The sun-drenched locales of San Francisco are a far cry from the moody wind-swept streets of Chicago-France. The game’s cast likewise, is a complete 180 from the previous game, as the plot follows the exploits of a gang of hipster hacktivists taking on giant mega-corporation, Blume. It’s standard cyberpunk fare for sure, but Watch Dogs finally seems to have married its story with its gameplay in a way the original utterly failed to do.

And that gameplay has at least seen a much-needed improvement. Hacking was an interesting but sometimes tangential component to the original game; useful to have, but little more than pressing a few buttons here or there. Watch Dogs 2 fleshes it out a little more, giving you different abilities to tailor-make your desired approach. Go in heavy with shotguns and IEDs or take a stealthy approach, distracting guards with radio chatter or temporarily cutting the power.

It’s nothing mind-blowing, but it gives Watch Dogs 2’s environments are little more strategy and player-involvement than many similar open world games. Taking note of that pipe that can be hacked for your escape route, or distracting a bunch of guards by faking a police call make for a more engaging and fun sandbox to play around in. It’s the traditional gameplay only with a hint of Hitman: Blood Money thrown in, which is never a bad thing.

Likewise, the player advancement has been given a boost. Many open world games throw RPG elements in as little more than a check box exercise, with very little meaning to them. Watch Dogs 2 isn’t guilty-free of this by any stretch, it’s still no RPG, but it at least requires the player to tweak Marcus in their desired way, prioritising skills that they need, (the game separates the available skills into three vague classes; aggressor, ghost and tinkerer), moulding him into their desired playstyle.

The remote controlled drones are the icing on the cake, however. Marcus’ dinky little RC drone, and later on the hover drone, are great toys to play around with, and expand the scope of many of the games missions. My biggest obsession was seeing how many objectives I could complete just using the RC drone to hack into whatever computer I needed while Marcus stayed safe outside.

Whilst the open world aspect remains familiar, with point A to point B missions and general “go here and do this” objectives, Ubisoft have finally saw fit to remove some of the fat and bloat that drags down otherwise interesting ideas. Side quests are around, and they actually feel like side quests for a change; small self-contained chunks of story and gameplay cordoned off from the main plot.

It’s here where the game has you nurturing your inner troll. Hacking ATMs at the push of a button, doling out free tuitions to a struggling student or donating hedge fund managers income to charity, whilst not all that inventive in terms of gameplay, are strangely enjoyable and beat clearing out bland icons on a map like in Far Cry Primal earlier this year.

Fortunately, the online component remains unchanged. Watch Dogs’ online component was one of its best features, mixing Dark Souls-like invasions with Assassin’s Creed’s multiplayer format. There’s nothing more fun than hacking another player and watching them tear apart the environment looking for you, all whilst you hide behind a park bench.

This anarchic sense of fun extends to the main storyline, which is broken down into the typical string of missions that play out in an episodic fashion. It’s the weirder and more surreal missions, those that make a stab at social satire, that work the best. The main story’s highlight being when you’re tasked with breaking into what’s essentially the Church of Scientology and proving it’s all a hoax.

It’s the DeadSec gang, though, that gives the game a little more heart. Marcus Holloway is a decent protagonist; funny, geeky and with plenty of quips for good measure; everything that Aiden Pearce wasn’t. Yet, it’s the cast around him, especially Jonathan Dubsky’s portrayal of Josh, a young hacker with Asperger’s, that give the game characters worth investing in.

In fact Josh is possibly a better written character than anyone else in the entire game. Marcus is a fun protagonist but there’s little drive or motivation to his quest to the point where it’s almost more a series of isolated scenarios akin to a TV box set in terms of its story, complete with a villain of the week. The first hour or two of Watch Dogs 2 are also its weakest, primarily because the game rushes through its set-up, afraid that you’ll lose interest in anything beyond the zaniness of its cast.

In fact, the episodic nature of the main plot is what also hurts the game’s pacing later on. This a game that’s fun to mess around in, and has an interesting world, but its central story is all but non-existent, with a bland main villain and a poorly paced final act that builds up only to end suddenly.

Likewise, there’s the impression that the later missions were running out of ideas. There’s only so many places you can have players sneak/shoot their way in and hack something. Whilst Watch Dogs 2 is better than similar open world fare it’s not always free from the same copy-paste mission structure.

There’s a few stabs at left-wing political commentary to compliment the social satire that the game aims for. It’s not perfect, and there’s the constant conflict between the way the characters are portrayed and the fact that you can play the game as a murder-happy psycho. Its jabs at corporate power and state control are minor and rather obvious but well-intentioned enough.

Watch Dogs 2 is a reboot for the series. It brushes away everything that didn’t work in the previous instalment and gives it a new coat of paint. Don’t expect anything too radical here, this is still a game that fits perfectly into Ubisoft’s safe and predictable formula at this point. That being said, it’s also one of the more enjoyable open worlds to play around in this year.

Watch Dogs 2 is definitely a step in the right direction, but it is just that, only a step.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Silent Hill Commentary - Part 2

The second part of my full commentary of the original Silent Hill. This part begins at the church and continues through to the hospital, finishing with the Twinfeeder boss encounter.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Gears of War 4 - Review

Developer: The Coalition 
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox One (version played)

Much like Halo 4, Gears of War 4 is an exercise in emulation rather than a bold step forward for the iconic decade-old cover shooter. Developers The Coalition have a clear aim when it comes to how this latest chapter of Gears should play: make it feel like what you’ve played before.

To be fair, Gears of War has always been the meat and potatoes of modern third-person shooters. It’s not all that unique, nor is it all that exciting, it knows exactly what it is and does just that. There’s never been any pretentiousness to the series.

In that sense Gears of War 4 is no exception. Jumping the timeline forward twenty years, the game acts not only as the first instalment of a presumed new trilogy but rather like a modern Hollywood reboot; uniting the older cast with the young as it sets up a new stage.

This time around you play as Marcus’ son, J.D.; an awkward mix of space marine grunt, (the guy has a jawline built to break rocks), and pithy Nathan Drake quips.

It’s this weird combination of B-movie splatter and high adventure charm that sometimes leads to a severe crisis in tone. This is the kind of game where one moment you can be chainsawing through a hoard of aliens with a rifle, blood showering over the screen, to the next moment enjoying a few awkwardly written jokes between characters. Gears of War 4 jumps around in what it wants to be, tonally, in a way the previous games didn’t, and it never quite settles down.

Despite the mediocre writing and forced dialogue there’s a few interesting tidbits of world-building. Much like Halo, Gears of War’s world has always been oddly more compelling than the game designers seem to want to give it credit for. The game subverts the roles of the previous trilogy, with the biggest foe, at least to begin with, being an increasingly threatening and militaristic C.O.G., following the events of Gears of War 3.

If I’ve held off from writing about the gameplay it’s because...well...if you’ve played any of the games you’ve played it all before. The tight snap-to cover system, the pop-and-stop gunplay and the satisfying rumble of that chainsaw lancer as you rip the innards out of a nearby foe. It’s virtual paintball, only with more blood and guts.It’s the predictability of the combat, and The Coalition’s reluctance to experiment, slavishly aping the core design of the previous games, that makes working your way through the campaign such a bore.

The early acts pit JD and friends against an army of C.O.G. robots, a thoroughly dull set of foes that are more bullet sponges than engaging adversaries. Combat always goes the same way; pop up, hold the trigger and pour oodles of bullets into your target whilst they fail to react to being shot at until they suddenly die.

It might seem at least plausible to do this with the robot enemies, but once the Swarm, a sort of super-breed of the previous games’ Locusts, show up, they possess the exact same problem. Both enemy types also suffer from very little in terms of variety, with both having a regular grunt, a bigger grunt and then a smaller horde creature to at least force you out of cover from time to time.

The major problem with Gears of War 4’s campaign is, it’s only got one real focus, the shooting, which should mean it can laser focus on that one aspect and make it really compelling. Instead, battles become a repetitive slog. Even some later enemies fail to liven up the same copy-and-paste shooting galleries, thanks to, again, suffering from bloated health and uninspired move sets that fail to challenge the player in any reasonable fashion.

The environments likewise, seem to give up about half way through. After an explosion-riddled dash through Marcus Fenix’s estate, easily the highlight of the entire game, a good portion of the second half of the campaign sees fit to dump you in an ugly-looking mine as you slog through one bland fire fight after another.

The whole experience isn’t much of a challenge either. Your comrades will always dash over and heal you whenever you get shot down by an enemy, meaning you can be far more reckless and aggressive knowing that it’s very rare you’ll end up truly dying, since a teammate and simply rush over and pick you up. It turns some of the game’s encounters from boring to mindless.

And all this despite the game having plenty to work with. There’s a fun mechanic whereby pieces of cover are actually Swarm pods, meaning there’s a risk/reward aspect as hunkering behind the pod for too long and attracting fire could burst it and result in more enemies to tackle. The Swarm in general could have been an interesting idea, but instead the game settles for slight reskins of the previous games’ enemies most of the time.

No doubt many players will find themselves drawn to the multiplayer more than the single player campaign. and there’s no denying that it’s more engaging than Gears of War 4’s solo offerings.

Horde mode has been revamped to 3.0 and makes for a moreish brawl through progressively harder waves of enemies. There’s the usual minor layer of RPG mechanics to encourage more committed players to grind through for better rewards. Here again though, the lacklustre design overall harms this mode. The enemies certainly don’t become any more interesting to shoot at, with their limited variety and a rather bland selection of shotguns, lancers and sniper rifles to choose from.

Standard multiplayer is still standard multiplayer. Online shooters have come a long way in the past several years and with the likes of Titanfall and Overwatch (first-person shooters, I know, but close enough) doing the rounds, the fact that Gears of War 4 struggles to come up with barely any new game modes is disappointing at the very least.

Still, Arms Race, the re-titled version of Gears of War Judgement’s “Master at Arms” mode, is a blast to play. Nothing shows off the tight tactical nature that Gears cover mechanics can encourage than both teams only being armed with Torque Bows. Every so often, the weapon that every player is forced to use gets switched around forcing tactics and the pace of the match to change on the fly. It’s lively, fun and best of all unpredictable.

Gears of War 4 is like a reluctant sigh of “here we go again”. There’s little enthusiasm here, beyond the spiffy visuals and slick production design. The game underlying it is old and tired, and made to look even more so when compared to the recent re-release of the original Gears of War earlier this year. For diehard fans of the series' multiplayer this might sate their appetite, but it’s an underwhelming opening shot for the next phase of a long-running series.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Silent Hill Commentary - Part 1

Logic Button now has video support!

I've been wanting to write/talk about Silent Hill for quite a while and didn't really know how best to do it. Given that I had a pile of notes and half-finished bits of writing piled together on the subject I figured the most efficient way would be to deliver it as an in-depth gameplay commentary.

This first part covers everything from the beginning of the game through to Harry arriving at the church and first encountering Dahlia Gillespie.

Friday, 18 November 2016

This Is The Police - Review

Developer: Weappy Studio
Publisher: EuroVideo Medien
Platforms: PC (version played), Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One

For a genre that on the surface can seem overly stuffy, the managerial sim is home to some of gaming’s best subversive wit. Theme Hospital wouldn’t be the game it was without the barbed stabs at the state of America’s private healthcare system. Likewise, Dungeon Keeper is a sharp take down of the twee clichés of post-Tolkien fantasy, in addition to being a wonderfully addictive strategy game.

This Is The Police would seem to want to continue in that regard, in some fashion or other. It's a game where a police officer can come to work and say he needs to take the day off because he swallowed his car keys and is shitting blood. It’s also a game where we’re meant to care when an entire family is beheaded for crossing the Mafia.

It’s this conflicting tone that sums up This Is The Police better than any of its gameplay. In terms of the story, and make no mistake, this is very much a story driven experience, you follow Jack Boyd, a hard-boiled police chief on his last 180 days on the job leading up to his retirement. Voiced in a suitably sarcastic drawl by Duke Nukem himself, Jon St. Jon, the games overarching story of Jack is a collection of old noir tropes and grizzled attempts at aping Raymond Chandler dialogue.

That’s not to sell This Is The Police short, however. Its comic strip cut-scenes combined with the flat colour art-style of its characters does a lot to give the game a unique look and feel. Likewise, the voice cast across the board deserve credit for performing dialogue that, whilst not terribly written, in the wrong hands could have sounded less like classic nor and more like a bad Frank Miller parody.

Most of your time spent with the game meanwhile, will be on the moment to moment management of Freeburg Police Department. This Is The Police remains surprisingly addictive for the first few hours, with the simple balancing act of choosing where to send cops and when proving more engaging than you might imagine. Not all of your police officers are created equal, some are slackers, others are drunks, and it’s not uncommon to have more than one guy not show up to work out of the blue, putting even more strain on your limited numbers.

Whilst officers handle the routine calls, and SWAT units can be deployed for more dangerous operations, your collection of detectives are on hand to deal with more serious long-term cases. Start an investigation and you’ll slowly accrue clues about what happened, fit them together in the right order and you can dispatch your detective along with some officers to solve the case. As you take down worse perps, there’s a chance you’ll get a foothold into a crime gang, and, provided you’re willing to play the long game, you can slowly work your way up the food chain and take down the leader, dismantling that particular criminal organization.

It’s this core loop of gameplay that defines This Is The Police over its 15+ hours worth of gameplay. And while it might initially have all the hallmarks of traditional management sims and strategy games, it arguably draws as much inspiration from the likes of Papers, Please as it does Theme Hospital. In addition to completing your daily jobs, the game sticks Jack Boyd between the competing influences of both the city council and the local Mafia, and his own police force. There’s a morality element to This Is The Police, where helping one side can risk alienating another.

Initially this seems an exciting, and a potentially interesting social commentary on policing. The Mafia will bribe and cajole you to get what they want, whilst the city council will frequently threaten you with job cuts if you don’t do what they say. Early on local officials will demand you axe all black officers from your active roster in response to growing support for racist gangs throughout the city. A shocking moment to open your game on.

Except that’s all it is, shocking. This Is The Police has moments of choice, such as choosing whether to suppress a peaceful protest by force, but it rarely has anything to say beyond that. Regardless of your decisions there’s rarely any impact on the way the game plays out. Sure, defying one group or another might lead to a punishment, but there’s little emotional resonance to any of your choices. The game seems to want to go for the gut punch with its controversial subject matter, but is far too cold and clinical for any of it to have real impact.

Weappy Studios are so devoted to their central story involving Jack Boyd that the rest of the game has to follow suit. It becomes hard to care about whether or not you’re corrupt when you have to be corrupt in order for the story to progress. Try and take down the mob (at least before the game explicitly allows you to) and you’ll get shot in the back of the head within a few days. There's a direct conflict in This Is The Police between the gameplay and the story and it's something that undermines the entire experience.

Papers, Please balanced your decisions with the well-being of your family, an emotional engagement that was impressive considering the only way it really conveyed your family was on a stats screen. Becoming corrupt or not was directly tied to the player’s input, which is what made it so engaging: the game’s story couldn’t have been told in any other medium. By contrast, This Is The Police has a complete story, and one that it is keen to tell, but it’s married to a gameplay system that doesn’t really connect with it.

The result is a narrative-based game where you play through the same, rather limited, loop of gameplay in order to witness a new chunk of story every so often. 180 days is a damn long time, and frankly, it’s too long for a game with so few new ideas and so little player input. Granted, later days introduce new players to the game’s internal politics, such as the church and the Atticus Corporation, but their influence on the game’s story and strategy is negligible, and they can all but be ignored should you not want to waste your time with them.

Which returns me to another of This Is The Police’s problems; its crisis of tone. Its story is classic hard-boiled noir but the moment to moment gameplay is filled with tongue-in-cheek cases and goofy events. It portrays a dirty, nasty city; one filled with racist gangs, corrupt city officials and homophobic priests, yet never really engages with these issues beyond the most superficial level. It’s darkly comic, but also lacks any real satirical bite, or anything particularly insightful to say about its subject matter beyond the superficial.

It’s hard, impossible even, to engage with the game and not relate it to the police brutality being directed towards people of colour in the United States. Now, This Is The Police’s fictional city of Freeburg isn’t, technically, the USA, but it’s hard to imagine it as anything but. The atmosphere, the references, all point to a distinctly Western, and arguably American, city more than anything else. The game however, evades any implication of police violence being a problem even when your officers are involved in it. It’s a game that’s explicitly political but then doesn’t really want to think about those politics at all.

This Is The Police isn’t a terrible game, but it is an incredibly flawed one, both in terms of design and in its narrative. The core strategy of balancing staff numbers with multiple emergency calls is admittedly satisfying but it plateaus far too quickly, with too much of the game’s later sections becoming rote and predictable rather than engaging. Worse still is the fact that the player's input is completely in thrall to a rather mediocre and very episodic story; you’re not playing as the police chief but rather watching Jack Boyd be the police chief. It’s a subtle difference but important when determining what the focus of the game actually is.

Friday, 11 November 2016

Street Fighter V - A Game In Progress [Part 2]

Throwing Punches

When looking at the core fighting mechanics of Street Fighter V, especially now it’s been out a while, it’s even more clear what Capcom were aiming for. The game is everything that Street Fighter IV was not. Or rather, it explicitly wants to avoid everything that game did and move in a completely different direction.

I’ve already mentioned it, but the overall “aggressiveness” for lack of a better word, of Street Fighter V is noticeable after only a handful of games. Characters are rewarded for pushing buttons and damage output is huge. This is especially noticeable for Ryu, who still forms the baselines by which all the other characters are compared. Ken, Birdie, Laura, Necalli, along with a good portion of the rest of the cast, have very high damage output, and even those that are on the lower side are certainly no slouches.

What this does is make for games that feel much faster and dynamic than they previously did. One missed attack or punish can result in a swift crush counter followed by a bucket load of damage off of one combo. Even blocking is chipping away at your character’s health, encouraging a more responsive, proactive playstyle from both players.

This is a swift 180 from many of the design decisions implemented in Street Fighter IV. The fourth game in the series was notable for a much slower pace and defensive play. Even as a casual player, it was impossible not to notice just how much the game rewarded you for smart, cautious play, even as an offensive character. Focus attacks allowed characters to absorb fireballs and fish for hits from opponents that were sticking out too many buttons at the wrong distances.

By contrast,  Street Fighter V has players pressing buttons and bashing it out. Hits are satisfying, crush counters have that delicious smash sound and animation, and a large portion of the cast have access to a command grab of some kind to further dissuade excessive blocking. More importantly, almost every character is designed to get in and do damage, regardless of what they might typically have done in other games.

It’s here where issues have come about. Having Street Fighter V be more aggressive in itself is not a problem, and allows the game to generate a different kind of pace than other instalments in the series. You could argue that Street Fighter IV’s more patient style was in response to the offensive-focus of Street Fighter 3; each game reflects on the one that came before it. The issue here is that it causes many of the characters to be dramatically altered in order to fit the new system.

Dhalsim is the big example, with a playstyle that’s dramatically different from his earlier incarnations. The Indian yoga master is now rewarded a lot more for getting in and harassing the opponent from closer ranges, rather than patiently spitting out fireballs from a distance and hitting the opponent mid-jump, and then getting the heck out of there with his teleport when his adversary gets closer. Hell, even Guile, a character notorious for being a defensive wall of projectiles and anti-airs, has been twisted into something of a combo-oriented character with the potential to pressure his opponent in the corner.

Characters changing to better fit the game is no bad thing. However, in some cases Street Fighter V goes so far as to almost butcher the point of a particular character. Juri, one of the best character designs to come out of Street Fighter IV, was known for having a particularly potent fireball game, with her ability to store fireballs rather than simply fire them off immediately. Her incarnation in the sequel sees this aspect of her character all but removed in favour of a more aggressive “rushdown” approach. Sure, the character can still stock a number of projectiles, but her overall gameplan has been flipped, to reward players for going in more often. Noticing a pattern?

I should stress my issue is not that the game is more aggressive, or even that it rewards this style of player over more defensive options. Rather, my issue is when the game has to bend over backwards to have a character in the game, only to have almost destroyed that character’s identity.

These are the major examples, but other characters have suffered from Capcom’s approach. Zangief, who, again, played a cautious predatory style in Street Fighter IV, struggles in Street Fighter V because his moveset and gameplan are fighting with a game that doesn’t quite know how to handle that kind of character. He’s incredibly fun to play don’t get me wrong; landing an SPD is still as satisfying as ever, and his V-skill is a ton of fun, but there’s clearly an imbalance to how some of the characters fit into the game, and it makes me concerned as to whether Capcom can keep the characters diverse enough as the roster continues to expand.

What Works

Whilst this has generally been a criticism of what I think isn’t working in Street Fighter V, I should stress that it’s not all bad news. Like I said, the character designs are on point in this instalment, whether it be returning characters who’ve received a visual overhaul (Ken and Balrog look great) or newcomers (Necalli and Rashid are fantastic designs).

More importantly, like I mentioned in my review in February, the characters personality and designs lend themselves to their playstyle. A quick look at Rashid and you know you’re playing a character with fast attacks and incredible mobility. Likewise, Birdie’s beer gut and huge frame communicate that he’s a slow, ranged fighter even before you get down to playing as him.

These might sound like they’re minor things to praise but character design is arguably one of the most important aspects for a fighting game, and it’s one of the areas that Street Fighter V is way ahead of its predecessor. Street Fighter IV had a lot of generic characters with similar stances and movesets, with an over-abundance of the archetypal “shoto” character. This game however, does away with a lot of that repetition, and is a hell of a lot better for it.

Capcom have also made improvements to the state of the game at launch. Online matches are relatively lag-free, and the option to play a rematch thankfully got added quickly post-launch; one best-of-three fight was simply not enough when you consider the wait between matches. Quests to earn fight money are now a thing, and, whilst the payouts at the moment suggest it’ll take an age to unlock new characters, provided this is tweaked, it’s at least better alternative to the constant re-releases of the same game that afflicted previous Street Fighter titles.

The core gameplay of Street Fighter V is still incredibly addictive to play, with one or two multiplayer matches quickly spiralling into the “just one more” level of moreishness. Yet, it’s still a game that seems as if its serving too many masters. It’s trying to appeal to newcomers, draw back veterans and do so with an eye for the growing competitive E-Sport market. The risk is that, rather than draw in a bigger crowd than ever before, it risks alienating all of its potential players, both young and old.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Street Fighter V - A Game In Progress [Part 1]

With the final part of Street Fighter V’s “first season” of DLC, I thought now was as good a time as any to take stock and see where the game is at.

I’ve been playing quite a lot of the game since its release. Well, as much as time allows me between work, obligations and other games that I want to spend time on. I stressed in my review back in February that I felt that the game was good, with the caveat that it had been spoiled by a hasty release, and a desperate attempt to build the game up in anticipation for competitive events.

It's very much a game still in progress, so I figured it was worth checking back in with.


There’s no better place to start than the characters. I have to admit, my favourite thing about any fighting game is the characters themselves, almost to the point that it becomes frustrating to decide who to play. I love games with a diverse cast, one that offers a mix of different strategies and tactics. What’s arguably more important however, is a fighting game with good visual character design.

On that latter point, I’d say Street Fighter V is holding up pretty damn well. The new characters, (that’s Necalli, Laura, Rashid and F.A.N.G.) are all interesting from a visual standpoint. Likewise, I feel that Street Fighter V has done a good job updating older characters for the new game. I said it in my original review, but it’s finally nice to see a Ken that looks like more than a blonde Ryu with a red karate gi. He finally looks like a foil to Ryu’s stoic world warrior for once, rather than just a palette swap.

This brings me on to the game’s DLC characters. Balrog and Juri in particular got a substantial visual redesign from Street Fighter IV. The verdict? Balrog looks fantastic and Juri looks decent, but I always thought her Street Fighter IV design was easily one of the best original designs out of that game, so I was sad to see it go.

Moving on to the gameplay, how has the suite of DLC characters altered Street Fighter V’s landscape? Well, I’d say Capcom were smart in who they chose to deploy as DLC characters. Not necessarily in the “they’re popular characters,  so it’s good they included them” sense, but in the way it expands the game.

There was a big song and dance prior to the game’s release about the reduction in charge characters. That is, characters that use special moves by holding one direction “charging” and than releasing their attack by pressing the opposite direction along with a button. Charge characters have been a staple of Street Fighter going back to the original Street Fighter 2, and the apparent phasing out of this input method was a potential concern for some veteran players.

What Capcom did though was a smart decision. I’d argue that charge characters aren’t as intuitive as typical “motion” characters, so Capcom stuffed the more awkward inputs into the DLC. This way, the opening roster of 16 looks more inviting to newcomers who are still perhaps struggling with the games controls, whilst the DLC guarantees that longer-term players will get their fix of more complex characters further down the round.

This strategy would seem to be the case here. Four of the six DLC characters have charge inputs. Guile and Balrog are exclusively charge-based characters, whilst Urien and Alex also have a number of charge inputs in their respective move lists.

This idea of more difficult characters being hidden away as add-ons expands to all of the new cast members. Juri and Ibuki, the two characters to use more traditional motion-based inputs, also have unique resources to deal with. Ibuki has limited number of kunai that must be restocked in order to continue using them, whilst Juri has a fireball that must be “stored” in order to use it.

Overall, I’d say that way that Capcom phased in its DLC was handled about as well as we could have expected. The characters are technically “free” to access (provided you’re playing regularly in order to accrue fight money) and the overall strategy of bringing in potentially more difficult characters for those that are sticking around and play longer, was a wise decision. It’s similar to how Killer Instinct phased in more unusual fighters season by season. Season one characters all had fairly clear roles, whilst those in later releases were harder to pin down and opened up more unusual strategies and playstyles.

Learning Street Fighter

Whilst talking about difficulty I’d still argue that Street Fighter V has utterly failed at providing a decent tutorial for newcomers. This is a game that seems to bend over backwards to cater to newer players, with simpler execution requirements and lower barrier to entry, yet it still doesn’t provide anything in the way of a half decent tutorial mode.

Fighting games are easily the most complex and potentially alienating genre of games out there. Coming at them from the point of view of a new player is daunting. The physical execution, strategy and overall way you play is very different to any other game. Being good at random third-person shooters will leave you with some cross-over skills if you start playing Halo or Call of Duty. Hell, even real-time strategy games, whilst potentially complex, are at the very least intuitive, in the sense that you build resources, to buy troops, to crush the opposition. There’s a clear order of what you’re supposed to do and how to get there.

By contrast fighting games are weird. They have their own vast array of terminology, and even that varies from game to game; Street Fighter is very different to Guilty Gear which is very different to Tekken, and so on. It’s like jumping in at the deep end, and the tendency for a lot of new players is to just wallow there and drown. Street Fighter V is being released in an age where a good portion of its potential audience probably weren’t even born when Street Fighter 2 was popular.

So, what’s most baffling about Street Fighter V is in the six months or so in the release, it’s still done very little to help new players get acclimatised. This is despite everything else seemingly being geared to doing just that. The easier inputs, simpler mechanics (or rather, more obvious mechanics in terms of every character having a gimmick with their V-skill), and a move away from a more projectile heavy “zoning” game, to one that’s much more offensive; you’re encouraged to press buttons and feeling good about doing so.

If there’s one thing that the game desperately, desperately needs it’s a proper tutorial. Killer Instinct showed how to do an effective tutorial, and I’d argue that that game is a much more daunting prospect for beginners to handle in terms of its mechanical complexity. If a fighting game that’s more complicated can provide an easy to understand tutorial mode for newcomers to get to grips with, there’s very little excuse for Street Fighter V still not having one.

Arcade/Story Mode

Speaking of things the game doesn’t have, there’s still a lot missing. In fact, there’s still a general lack of single player content throughout Street Fighter V.  We did finally get a hold of the game’s story mode; a fun, if rather forgettable scrap through a handful of fights broken up into chapters. It had the goofy, Saturday morning cartoon vibe that makes Mortal Kombat’s story mode fun to play, but there could still be more for solo players.

The lack of an arcade mode is still odd. Street Fighter V doesn’t have the arcade culture that previous instalments have had, but as a fighting game, it’s still bizarre that this mode hasn’t been added. Crafting single player content for games that are ostensibly about the multiplayer is admittedly rather difficult, but the general bare bones nature of Street Fighter V’s experience (outside of its online play) is still disappointing, and betrays the fact that the game as a whole was rushed towards release.

Continued in Part 2

Friday, 28 October 2016

Mafia 3 - Review

Developer: Hangar 13
Publisher 2K Games
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One, PC 

One thing you can say about Mafia 3 is that it has one of the best tutorials in recent years. The first two hours or so are completely separate from the rest of the game, introducing you to the game’s protagonist, Lincoln Clay and the world he lives in. It’s a fantastic opening, and one that sets up expectations that the rest of the game fails to deliver on.

The first two Mafia games were rather unusual in that they used an open-world sandbox structure to tell a much more focused and linear story. Mafia 2’s Empire Bay might have been free and open to explore, but there wasn’t a whole lot of side content beside the main story. Its pacing and style had more in common with, say, Bioshock, than it did Grand Theft Auto. Empire Bay was very much like Rapture: a vehicle to tell a compelling story, rather than a consequence-free sandbox to mess around in.

Mafia 3 does, in a general sense at least, use its location in a similar manner to the previous two games. Once again, the setting has changed, now taking place in a fictional part of New Orleans in the late ‘60s. The game’s commitment to its time and place is by far one of its strongest elements; the soundtrack alone is perfect; Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, The Supremes, all make for a game that tries to soak you in the atmosphere and style of its time period.

Likewise, the game attempts to tell a decent yarn. Throughout the opening, we’re introduced to Lincoln Clay, a Vietnam War vet, returning home to his friends and family, only to have it cruelly snatched away from him after an altercation with the local Mafia.

What follows is a classic (and somewhat derivative) revenge plot. Clay sets about hunting down those responsible for killing his family one by one, which sets up the core of Mafia 3’s gameplay.

It’s also here where the game takes a complete right turn into utter boredom. After a slick, fast-paced opening, you’re left to reel in horror as Mafia 3 has transformed into a very bland and very repetitive Assassin’s Creed clone.

Borrowing elements from both Ubisoft and Shadows of Mordor, the bulk of Mafia 3 has you going from district to district. Slowly but surely, you undermine whatever criminal rackets that are there, be it prostitution, drugs or human trafficking, until the leader of that particular job is drawn out into the open and can be taken care of.

It’s about as bland as it sounds, and it’s made all the worse by a game that offers nothing to make this core loop even remotely interesting. Assassin’s Creed might be dull and predictable these days, but at least it gives you a few toys to play with. Mafia 3 simply offers you the usual round up of pistols, shotguns and assault rifles and hopes that will suffice.

There seems to be some effort to try and emphasize reconnaissance and strategy; staking out your opponent before you move in for the kill. Phone lines can be wire-tapped in order to give you a heads-up on nearby enemies and highlight any particular items of interest.

It’s all largely for naught, though. Mafia 3’s AI is so utterly idiotic that the same simple tricks will work time and time again. Stealth-killing guards from cover is usual the correct course in most situations, since most enemies will simply ignore what you’re doing and act like they don’t see you. Meanwhile, you bury a knife into their friend’s neck.

The overall repetitive nature of the game, which sees you do the same loop of damaging rackets, luring out the boss, taking over a district, a ridiculous nine times before the end of the game. This means that you notice what doesn’t work even more than you normally would, given how many times you see the same thing. Guards will repeatedly engage in the same three or four pre-canned animations, always grouping together into no more than pairs, whilst most will even stand conspicuously in front of boxes, the perfect place to sneak up behind them and quietly slip a knife in their back.

All of this bloat and fat also makes New Bordeaux seem incredibly hollow, despite Hangar 13’s decent attempts to make it an immersive and atmospheric place to inhabit. The cops are idiots, rarely investigating more than the very street that a crime takes place before they’ll give up. Better yet, just drive off road, I’m convinced they’re completely incapable of following you.

Between capturing districts and working your way through the mob, Lincoln is also tasked with doling out these parts of the city he’s captured to his own under-bosses. Cassandra, Burke and Vito (yes, that Vito) can all be given whichever parts of the city you like, and favouring one over the others will result in different weapons and bonuses becoming available. Shaft one of the group too much and they’ll break off with you, forcing you to hunt them down and kill them.

In and of itself this would be an interesting mechanic, turning the criminal politics of Mafia life into its own game mechanic. Yet, it’s all pretty pointless. The bonuses on offer are petty at best, being nothing more than minor improvements to your guns or a boost to one of the favours you can call upon.

Each under-boss comes with their own respective favour, or “power-up” essentially, that they’ll provide you. Burke and his Irish gangsters will supply you with a new car at the drop of a hat, whilst Vito will have some of his guys come and help you out. They’ll not come in a car, mind you, they’ll simply appear in the room you’re currently occupying like they’ve beamed down from the Starship Enterprise. Immersion be damned…

You can forget about crime being fun, too. Despite spending most of the game accruing a fortune as you take over the city, that money is essentially useless, with the only option being to spend it on more guns, ammo and favours so you can do the same thing all over again. It all results in New Bordeaux feeling less like a real place and more like an artificial, and hollow, game space.

The game’s one saving grace is meant to be its story, but even that suffers from the bloat, padding and cookie-cutter game design. The game’s plot is stretched too thin with far too much watered down gameplay to make it have much impact or impetus by the time it reaches its long-winded conclusion.

It’s a massive shame, too, considering the quality of the voice cast. The story sets up Donovan, a skeezy ex-CIA guy from Lincoln’s army days, and Father James, a local priest, as the devil and angel on Lincoln’s shoulders, avoiding the typical good/evil childish dichotomy that many games fall into. Donovan is a cold-hearted cynic but also weirdly likable, largely thanks to Lane Compton’s performance. Similarly, Father James is a decent man who’s focused on doing the right thing, but he also has skeletons buried in his closet.

While the game does deserve credit for tackling racism, and more importantly having you play as a young black man in the 1960s, at the peak of the civil rights movement, Hangar 13 undercut all these interesting and bold thematic issues with their gameplay. The story regularly comments on racism but rarely does that have any impact in the context of the game. The most noticeable moment being how long the police show up at a crime scene; white wealthy districts have more frequent police patrols and faster response times, whilst poor black neighbourhoods will take far longer for the police to respond. This is about the only time the game’s themes and its gameplay dovetail.

Some of its depictions of racism are well-intentioned but clumsy. It presents the bigotry and hatred of 1960s America as something to be ashamed of, but more often than not its just another way to quickly establish someone as the next villain, another check on the “bad guy attributes” list rather than a structural system of prejudice within society as a whole.

Mafia 3 has the opportunity to explore and examine structural racism, with a black protagonist no less, within its world. It does vaguely dance around the edge of this topic, but it never really goes any further than that.

Again, it's the lifeless game world that’s largely to blame, the police are never shown, in a gameplay context at least, to be racist, mainly because the police are hardly there, they don’t do anything, there’s nothing to interact within. Mafia 3’s world can be pretty to look at, but that’s it, it’s all window dressing, and it hurts the story that Hangar 13 try to tell.

In another subversive touch the game does hint at the notion that you’re playing as a genuine psychopath. A psychopath is possibly the perfect persona to inhabit in an open world adventure, given how most people play these games. The idea that Lincoln is somehow a broken human being, as a result of what happened in Vietnam, is brought up on more than one occasion but it’s another aspect of the game’s story that seems oddly wasted and not explored enough.

Mafia 3 is a bloated mess, to put it frankly. Its cookie-cutter structure and generic gameplay elements make for a game that’s out of ideas within the first few hours but goes on for far longer than that. Its story is at least engaging, even if the revenge plot is an another cliché borrowed from similar titles.

There is promise here, at least in the concept, and its focus on a politically charged and violent period of America’s recent history is a more adventurous and challenging topic than most similar games are willing to broach. That doesn’t change the fact that Mafia 3 undermines anything that it has going for it, simply because the end result is so lifeless, and lacking in any concrete substance beneath its shiny and repetitive surface.