Friday, 26 February 2016

Street Fighter V - Review

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

Reviewing Street Fighter V is surprisingly difficult because there's two major factors that pull my opinion of the game in completely different directions. As an actual game, in terms of the mechanics and the fighting, it's a terrific addition to the series, and I'm still looking forward to see how it develops in the future. On a technical level however, Street Fighter V is a hot mess right now, rushed out the door with too few features and barely a semblance of a complete game.

First though, let's go back to the gameplay. Perhaps the most striking thing about Street Fighter V is how it attempts to cater to beginners. This is a game that desperately wants to expand its fan base, and, presumably, wants to do so in a way that doesn't alienate the hardcore competitive crowd.

Understanding the game's basic mechanics is significantly easier than Street Fighter 4 ever was. Combos and commands are notably easier to perform, and there's much more fluidity and “oomph” to the combat now. It feels more like two people fighting rather than a collection of meticulous hitboxes and hurtboxes colliding with each other.

Street Fighter 4 was a terrific game but it was one that required intimate knowledge of fighting games to truly grasp; you had to educate yourself on the basics of the genre before you could even learn the basics of the very game you were playing. This always seemed counter-intuitive when the title was heralded as the best place for beginners to get started with fighting games.

Gone are focus-attacks and the incredibly difficult to pull off focus-attack dash cancels (FADCs), whereby a character could extend particular combos by pressing several inputs before cancelling a focus-attack with a dash so that subsequent inputs would continue the combo.

In their place is the V-Trigger system which is far less abstract and easier to grasp. Hitting both medium punch and medium kicks will have your character pull of their V-Skill which varies from character to character. Ryu, for instance, has a defensive parry, whilst M.Bison is able to absorb projectiles and even fire them back at his opponent.

What's so ingenious about the V-System is that it sums up each characters role in fights much better. When you see that Rashid's V-Skill is a special roll you know instantly that this character is built around mobility. It's a much smarter way of subtly indicating a character's strengths and strategy directly through the game and helps to diversify the cast much better.

Likewise, the V-Trigger is a special state that a character can enter, and each one has similarly unique properties. Ryu's projectiles get much stronger when he enters his V-Trigger state, whilst Birdie gains armour on several of his special moves in addition to higher damage output. As a game mechanic it helps ensure matches have a strong sense of pacing. Neither player is going to be able to enter V-Trigger at the start, but like Street Fighter 4's ultras, they're a threat the longer a fight goes on and add another strategic layer to each match.

Command inputs have also undergone something of change this time around. There's been much talk about the removal of many charge motions from the game prior to release. However, the scaremongering that this was Street Fighter V dumbing down are largely just that, scaremongering. There's still several characters who use charge inputs and two; M.Bison and newcomer F.A.N.G, who use them exclusively.

What's perhaps the more noticeable change this time round is how much projectiles have been weakened. This is a much more close-ranged, aggressive game than Street Fighter 4 ever was. Almost half the cast comes with their own command grab, from Necalli's lunging grab to Laura's jujitsu grapples, there seems to be an attempt to shy away from the more sedate, “Hadoken, Hadoken, Shoryuken” rhythm of the previous game.

Every character seems to have some way to punish players who attempt to sit back and throw things. Birdie has a chain attack that goes straight through projectiles and slams the opponent into the ground, whilst M.Bison and Nash can happily absorb most of what you throw at them thanks to their V-Skills. “Zoning” still exists in Street Fighter V but Capcom seem keen to set a much different pace to fights this time around and you can see it in pretty much every facet of the gameplay.

Just as the gameplay has undergone several subtle and not so subtle changes to its predecessor, so too has the cast. Several returning members arrive pretty much unchanged, Ryu remains as stoic (and bland) as ever, and Chun-Li and Vega have also undergone very little redesign visually. The more interesting changes are to the likes of Ken who finally looks less like a Ryu palette swap, sporting a new look and even his overall animations convey the sort of cocksure karate kid foil to Ryu that the series has always attempted to portray him as.

It's Dhalsim however, that seems to show off the new hardware better than any character. His “Stretch Armstrong” limbs are played up more than ever now, with even his loading screen seeming to stress how elastic the guy is. The redesign is a welcome addition too, with a long beard and turban finally giving the character something new, visually, after years of looking the same.

For all the good that Capcom do with Street Fighter V's mechanics and designs it's the release itself, on  a technical level, that is the most baffling. This is an incomplete game, with only the bare bones of single player modes. Most bizarre is the complete lack of a basic arcade mode, which you'd think would be present given the series' history in arcades. Story mode meanwhile, basically boils down to a handful of fights per character, strung together with some basic dialogue and bare bones story. Once all that's completed, players who don't/can't venture online are left with the paltry survival mode to sate their appetite.

Street Fighter V's rushed release begins to undermine itself. It bends over backwards to draw in new players with its design changes but hardly contains a tutorial to speak of. Basic concepts such as anti-airs and how to perform special moves are brushed over and not explained. Other fighting games, most notably Killer Instinct, go to great lengths to explain their systems and how they work on a basic level so beginners can digest them. Street Fighter V seems to want to be accessible to new players on the one hand but not go any lengths to actually help them learn.

Even the online multiplayer, the core of Street Fighter V's longevity, was buggy upon release. And after a week  the matchmaking will still occasionally fail to connect the results of a ranked match to the server, meaning the victor doesn't get their league points for winning. This can essentially render the rewards for entering a ranked match meaningless, and mean that future fights pit you against someone far above or below your skill level.

Lag, fortunately, is kept to a minimum, although there always seemed to be one match every hour or so that'd have both of us flying and clipping around the screen, rendering the entire fight unplayable. There's nothing more frustrating than having to wait ages for a fight to begin only to have the entire thing falling apart on-screen as you play.

It's insulting that Capcom would release the game in its current state, when simply delaying for another month or so would most likely have ironed out many of these issues. It really begins to stick in the craw when their main goal seems to be touting the (already announced) suite of DLC content that can be paid for with in-game money. Free-to-play mechanics in a game that you already paid to play...seems legit.

Sarcasm aside, we'll have to see how Capcom's release strategy works once it's rolled out. As frustrating as the heaps of DLC content are, the fact that you can, in theory at least, get everything for free, simply by playing, will likely make it superior to Mortal Kombat X's horrid smorgasbord of nickel-and-diming tactics.

Street Fighter V is a great fighting game hamstrung by its publisher's attempt to eke out as much money as possible, be it from future content, or the rushed release so that the game can be built up as an eSport title. It's perhaps safe to say that the game will be a success regardless of what happens, simply due to its loyal fan base and competitive reputation.

Still, it's bad enough when poor games get ruined for the sake of some extra money in their publisher's coffers. When a good game like this gets messed up however, that's when it really hurts...

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Life Is Strange - Review

Developer: Dontnod Entertainment 
Publisher: Square Enix
Platforms: PS4 (version played), PS3, PC, Xbox One, 360 

First impressions can be deceiving. That's certainly the case with Life is Strange. It's the kind of game you can boot up, play for a while and think “damn, what were they thinking?” as you cringe at the awkward, dated writing (“Shaka Brah”) and the abundance of hipster characters. Meanwhile,  a bunch of presumably 40-something French game designers attempt to write dialogue for Americans half their age. It doesn't help that the character animation is awkward, with people stiffly jerking about during cut-scenes like cheap action figures.

So yes, Life is Strange doesn't do much to endear itself. But then you keep on playing, and, at some point, the whole thing clicks. And it's pretty darn brilliant.

Developers Dontnod were previously responsible for the somewhat underrated action adventure game Remember Me, a typical sci-fi exploration title that bolstered its limited game mechanics by investing in its story and world. Life is Strange does the same thing, swapping the robots and neo-Paris locale for Arcadia Bay, a small town in the Pacific Northwest.

The game has you take control of Max, a young photography student just starting out at university. Before long, some strange events happen and, out of the blue, Max discovers she has time travel powers.

The game wears its influences on its sleeve. It's indebted to Twin Peaks almost as much as Deadly Premonition was; filled with weird characters all bustling around the same small town. Likewise, it can be easy to label Life is Strange as a Telltale-clone, using the same episodic structure  and focus on story.

However, this is perhaps a bit of a misleading comparison. Whilst Telltale's recent success no doubt influenced Life is Strange, Dontnod's game arguably has its feet further in the past. There's actual areas to explore here, things to interact with, people to talk to that aren't directly related to the story. Telltale's games are focused, cinematic, almost becoming dialogue simulators at some points. In contrast, Life is Strange wants you to explore, to mess around and investigate.

It's an old-fashioned point-and-click in other words, only with modern sensibilities, and it certainly goes a long way to helping the game work.  With the major gimmick being time travel  this directly dovetails with the emphasis on messing around with potential outcomes.

Talk to someone and you can rewind time to ask them something else. Sometimes this won't have much of an impact but at other moments it can be crucial. Get a secret out of someone and you can rewind time so that they think they never told you, or maybe undo an accident so that it never even occurs.

There's a pulpy weirdness to the game which slowly works in and is what arguably makes it so endearing. Max's time travel powers are never fully explained, they're just there. Characters talk about weird weather (many simply blame it on global warming), a second moon shows up, whale corpses pile up on the beach. There's moments where the strangeness almost makes the step into horror and it arguably benefits from it.

Although the weirdness is never quite the focus of Life Is Strange but it's always there, hovering in the background.

Rather than focus on its fantastical conceits, the game instead puts emphasis on its relationships. There's a core bond built up between Max and Chloe, childhood friends who have only just had a chance to get back together. Throughout the five episodes their friendship, which, doesn't have to remain merely a friendship, depending on your choices, becomes the heart of the story.

Likewise, Max's relationships slowly evolve with the rest of her classmates too. It's here where Dontnod lean on genre stereotypes; there's the devout religious girl, the friendly geek, and the bitchy prom queen. Yet, by the end of the game, all of these characters feel like they've been subverted somewhat. At the beginning it's easy to predict where these characters will end up, yet, by the end, it's honestly surprising how they've developed.

Dontnod's attempts to explore interesting subject matter is  equally compelling. Chloe and Max's relationship can become something more than platonic but even if they just remain friends, Chloe's sexuality is hard to pin down. She's a fascinating character, and whilst she starts out as a loud-mouthed stoner, by the end of the game, she's become the centre of the story. This development is gradual and fascinating to watch, and arguably justifies the game's episodic structure.

Moreover, there's a storyline early on that leads to one character being bullied and driven to suicide. Once again, it's handled surprisingly well and there's genuine ramifications depending on how you've acted throughout the series leading up to this point. The writers don't amp this up as an “Emotional Moment™” but simply let it breathe. It's one of the strongest moments in the game and a credit to the writers that they pulled it off without the whole scene feeling exploitative.

What's more impressive is how these events have genuine ramifications. One of my criticisms of one of Telltale's more recent works is that the entire sections seem so on-rails. They have little room to manoeuvre and the characters all appear to make their minds up regardless of player-input. In contrast there's several moments in Life is Strange where you have to stop as you realize something you did hours ago has finally had repercussions. After warning the school principal that a student had a gun it wasn't until the very end of the episode that I had a threat from his (very rich) parents, that my accusations wouldn't go unpunished.

Most of all though, Life is Strange teaches you to have fun with its mechanics. There's something incredibly meta about the ability to rewind events and alter your choices. It can initially seem like your choices won't have any weight, after all they can simply be undone. But then, you can just reload a save file and have created just the same effect. The developers seem to acknowledge this and use the time travel mechanic to comment on the idea of there ever being a “right choice”, and about taking responsibility for your own decisions.

And yet, for all the character dramas and mystery that go on, the game's best moments are when you get to the end of an episode. There's the usual page of “60% of people made this big decision” but then you turn the page and there's a list of minor events that you could have influenced. Maybe you talked to the homeless person outside the cafeteria, signed a petition opposing surveillance cameras in school or watered your plant. It's these little things that sum up Life is Strange even better than its more dramatic moments.

Going from eye-rolling and feeling like I hated every single character at the beginning, to having a lump in my throat by the conclusion, that was quite the journey. I didn't expect Life Is Strange to have that effect on me, yet it did, and it shows just how good Dontnod's game really is. It definitely takes time to get going and find its feet, but when it does, it's worth every darn second.