Friday, 18 March 2016

The Division - Review

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

The key element that The Division has on its side is flexibility. Your class is flexible, you can change your skill set at a moments notice. If you're unhappy with your guns, no problem, head back to HQ and swap them for something else. If you want to play solo the game's fine with it, and won't pester you. If you want to play multi-player it's only happy to throw in other players that you can work alongside. If you want to team up with friends it's just the click of a few buttons.

The game's greatest strength is its ability to go “play how you want” and actually stick to that. You're never forced or cajoled into going online or stick with a class that, after five or six hours of gameplay, you've only now realized is boring. It rewards experimentation and is happy to cater regardless of player type. This all might come as something of a surprise when you consider the game is an MMO-style open world shooter designed by the current king of open-world padding: Ubisoft.

Yet, The Division is remarkably refreshing, it's fun to play, however you choose to play it, and doesn't bog itself down with needless elements where it doesn't require them.

Set in a post-apocalyptic(sort of) Manhattan. A wide-spread pandemic caused by a terrorist attack has brought the city to its knees and its your job as a special agent type to get in there and sort things out, which, invariably means spending most of your time shooting people.

At its most basic The Division functions as a tactical cover shooter. Areas have choke points and multiple angles of attack. Your area map has a radial threat detector that warns you where enemies are in relation to your position. This means plenty of time spent jockeying for position, keeping your foes in front of you as best as possible, scurrying from cover to cover between bursts of gunfire.

And its satisfying. Remove all of the MMO-RPG doo-dads and the game is enjoyable on basic level as a tactical shooter. Fire at an enemy long enough whilst they're behind cover and they'll become suppressed, pinning them in position whilst a team mate swings in from the side to take them down.

Early on I was tasked with clearing out a local police station alongside a fellow player. Even without microphones to communicate it made for an exciting mission. Me moving in from one side of the building, SMG laying down a swathe of covering fire, whilst my silent companion moved in from the front, shotgun blasting away. It's only with the shooter mechanics nailed down that Ubisoft then introduce the RPG mechanics.

The Division uses a free-form approach to how you build your character. Ostensibly, there's three different “classes”; Medic, Tech and Security. Medic provides the obvious selection of healing skills, from the basic medikit through to the ability to deploy a kind of recovery station capable of healing multiple characters. Tech is the “power” oriented class, with the option of deploying a gun-turret among other abilities. Finally, the Security skill has the “tanking” skills such as moving around with a bullet shield, or improving the effectiveness of nearby cover.

Yet, the game never pigeon-holes you into one bespoke class. It's not long until you have access to two skill slots and can begin mixing and matching abilities from all three trees. Likewise, your equipment improves your stats in three different areas, meaning you can be equipped with clothing that improves your damage output, skill usage or maximum health.

It makes for a levelling system that rewards tinkering around and altering the different dials and gauges of your character. The Security skills might be great for tanking, but when it comes to loot you might want to go for Medic-oriented equipment since it'll improve your health. It's a simple system but one that means that loot collecting doesn't devolve quite as quickly into simply going “which number is the highest” and binning everything else. Even after hours of gameplay, you're constantly tweaking your load-out, perhaps swapping around a bit of gear here or there to see how things work.

All of this is governed by your HQ, with new skills, abilities and perks being unlocked as you go about upgrading the various equipment and resources back at base. This is Ubisoft at their most conventional, with the base-levelling system being essentially the same as it has been in some of their other titles. Complete a medic-mission, such as gathering some data on the terrorist-engineered virus, and you'll get points to spend on upgrading your virus lab, or upgrading the teams hazmat suits.

The developers though, seem to have learnt restraint. The Division doesn't bog itself down with becoming a rampant OCD-inducing scrounging game. Just as main missions provide you with the most resources, shorter side quests are tied to the respective three classes and provide you with a smaller amount of points for potential upgrades. And that's it, The Division doesn't have a myriad of different things to collect or hoard (there's minor story collectibles) but instead keeps itself clean and simple.

The crafting system likewise, focuses less on bloat and more on simplicity. Break down a weapon and you'll get weapon parts, break down clothing and you'll get fabrics. Both are needed in greater numbers to craft the various blueprints you'll find but by, again, keeping the process simple, the game is able to focus more on its tactical shooting and RPG mechanics and less on mindless collecting.

Of course, Manhattan is admittedly fun to explore. There's a scope and scale to the disaster and Ubisoft leverage the game engine to full effect here. There's definitely an I Am Legend vibe to the visuals here, with rows of cars left abandoned, shops hollowed out, and overturned trucks lying in the middle of the road.

MMO-shooters invariably place more emphasis on their mechanics rather than their environments, in many cases turning the game world into a bland number crunch. The Division's creators never forget to immerse the player, however. It might be a game light on story but it still manages to craft a potent atmosphere.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the “Dark Zone”, The Division's player-versus-player area. Story-wise it's a walled off part of the city that's been abandoned to the virus and the gangs that now inhabit it. Just like the rest of the game's map, the Dark Zone is divided up into several areas according to the player's level but even then it's surprising just how much of a spike in difficulty there is.

After taking down enemies with relative ease elsewhere, the Dark Zone provides a more pressing challenge. Most foes are armoured and their AI seems more aggressive than you find in the game's regular areas.

Still it's the presence of other players that makes the area so tense. Players aren't required to cooperate but neither are they forced to kill each other. After gathering some loot it was nice to have other players be non-hostile as we all loaded our findings onto the helicopter. Loot found in the Dark Zone can't just be collected but must instead be taken to an extraction point so that it can be decontaminated.

It's in the looting and scavenging aspect that The Division risk becoming slightly unstuck. On the one hand, the game has moments where you traipse through housing blocks, dig through people's belongings to find things that are useful. It amps up the survival aspect of the game's theme and story but feels somewhat at odds with the clinical tactical nature of the combat and online game structure. You can't have players feel like they're fighting to survive when they're restocked with ammo at practically every location. It's here where the MMO aspects fight with the mood that The Division would seem to also want to create and the result is muddled and confused.

Likewise, some typical MMO bugbears begin to raise their heads. Almost all of the missions seem to follow the fight, fight, fight, boss formula which becomes tiring when it's utilized mission after mission. The core gameplay of The Division is tight and tactical but it almost feels like it isn't explored enough. Bosses are simply bulky bullet sponges with no personality. Rather than craft interesting objectives here, the game retreats to the most basic elements of the genre.

The weapon system too, could do with some more excitement. Despite facing flamethrower-wielding “Cleaners”, lunatics who think the best response to the outbreak is burning everything, your character is stuck with the same M4s, pistols, and shotguns for the entirety of the game, just with bigger stats and better damage rates. Given the time and setting it's obvious that the game can't offer anything too zany, but a little more variety in the weapon selection wouldn't go amiss.

The Division is a surprising not least because it turns what could have been a trite, bland online cover-shooter into a tightly made game with a solid amount of tactical depth. It shrugs off the fat and bloat that has afflicted similar titles and arguably feels more refreshing than Destiny, a game that regularly felt hamstrung by its MMO-RPG elements rather than enhanced by them.

Most importantly though, The Division is fun to play regardless of the number of fellow players you have with you. We'll have to wait and see how the game evolves post-release but, so far, it's a surprisingly good start.

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Far Cry Primal - Review

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

Far Cry Primal is so similar to Far Cry 4 that you could criticise it for being a lazy follow-up to a series that's already begun to go the way of Assassin's Creed. Maybe it's more complex than that, though. It's possible Ubisoft are trying to say something about the fate of mankind. Everything is so similar in Far Cry Primal that maybe that's the point; we've hardly evolved at all. From 10,000 B.C. to 2016 very little has fundamentally changed. We're still violent, world-conquering apes with brains a bit too big for our own good. Perhaps this game is an ingenious ludic commentary on the miserable trajectory of humankind…

...or it's another bland reskin of a game we got to play less than two years ago. Yeah...might be best to go with that second thought.

Far Cry Primal has everything you'd expect from a game that began life as a DLC companion to Far Cry 4. It takes the base mechanics of that game and attempts to mould them to a different style or theme, much like Blood Dragon did with Far Cry 3.

The Land of Oros is well-realized; there's a woozy, dream-like quality to stalking a mammoth through the long grass before throwing a spear in its flank. And there's a somewhat earnest commitment by Ubisoft to the setting. All of the game is told in a fictional language, thrusting the player headlong into its time and setting in an immersive way.

It's a shame then, that practically every other aspect of Far Cry Primal seems to work to undermine this immersion. HUD elements dot your screen. Takkar, the player character, is frequently required to collect whatever thirty odd types of wood he needs to build a new hut, or maybe scrounge up some clay to upgrade his spear. Hitting R3 highlights everything collectible, which is essentially everything not nailed down, coating each object in a bright yellow light.

The game doesn't just provide crafting as a time sink, it builds its entire gameplay around it. Clubs and spears won't last forever, and new ones need to be crafted every few fights or so. Likewise, health resources this time around are simply meat harvested from whatever animals you've hunted. Improving any aspect of your character involves upgrading various huts back at your village – resulting in even more crafting, hoarding and scrounging.

The developers set up on an interesting setting, only to immediately butcher it with a rabid collectathon that turns every upgrade, weapon and game concept into nothing more than a tired check-list of chores. In short, it smacks of padding; artificially bloating a game to retail proportions by simply throwing so many bland activities for the player to do that they're overwhelmed by the sheer number of things they can do to realize how banal it all is.

Other aspects of the game suffer from a similar problem. Take the combat, for instance. Given the time period, there's a natural shift to melee fighting. Clubs and spears form your main close combat weapons, whilst your trusty bow allows you to do all the sneaky action that was admittedly pretty good in the previous instalments.

Only, there's little thought given to how the fighting actually feels. First-person close combat games require a certain kind of physicality. Say all you want about the good and bad in Condemned, its weapons had heft; an oomph and heaviness that made you satisfied to swing that shovel or fire axe. Conversely, everything in Far Cry Primal seems strangely weightless, there's little satisfaction to be had belting someone across the head with your newly-crafted club.

Animations are jerky, awkward motions; Takkar's hand whipping this way and that as he strikes at his adversary. Enemies don't collapse but rather awkwardly tumble to the ground. Combat devolves into rapidly mashing the trigger button until whichever target in front of you crumbles to the floor. Hell, you barely even have to aim.

The one tweak to the combat is the ability to call animals to help you. Takkar has the ability to tame various beasts and have them fight alongside him. It's a natural evolution of the Shangri-La sequences in Far Cry 4, as you now command wolves, bears and tigers to help maul enemies or hunt down prey for you.

Primal's worst sin though, is that it takes away the things that were good in the previous games and replaces them with nothing new. Scouting out an enemy camp with your owl companion is a fun way of incorporating planning, and allowing you to craft a plan of attack ahead of time. Yet, when every encounter is almost certainly going to devolve into battering everything you see in sight there's very little need for forward planning. The previous games had the toolbox of guns and toys to tinker around with, Far Cry Primal has a rock on a stick.

Even the story is half-hearted and barely cobbled together among the swathe of fetch quests that make up the majority of the core missions. There's two rival tribes threatening Takkar and his fellow Wenja, and over the course of the game you run up against both. There's an attempt to give each of them their own identity; the northern Udam tribe are hulking cannibals that live in the mountains, whilst the Izila worship fire and reside primarily in the south.

Fighting the two tribes forms the bulk of the open world gameplay, with both groups having control of various areas of the map. Beyond a change of appearance however, there's very little to differentiate the two groups in terms of how you approach them, and their respective story lines which form the major arcs of the main plot hardly give you much more reason to care.

Ironically, for a game that attempts to distance itself from the predictable Ubisoft formula through its setting, it's the very change of setting that only goes to highlight how little the game differs from those before it. Fighting opposing tribes thousands of years in the past is apparently just like fighting rival groups in the modern day. It involves the same laundry list of side missions, and the same bland, formless objectives.

It has to be stressed, there's plenty of interesting ideas here, and the potential for a really immersive world, but it's all ruined by the lazy insistence that the core game mechanics be built on the skeleton of the previous two games. The creative ideas here need more thought and care than the run-of-the-mill approach Ubisoft is willing to give them.

Far Cry Primal, like many of Ubisoft's long-running series at this point, is akin to fast food. It's enticing at first, and will perhaps fill you up for a little away, but there's very little sustenance here, or long-term benefit. The game is bloated with additional things to do in a desperate attempt to distract the player but the end result is a game that's remarkably shallow, and a series in desperate need of some new creative energy.

Monday, 7 March 2016

Demon's Souls - Retrospective Review

Developer: FromSoftware
Publisher: FromSoftware
Platform: PS3

Given the imminent release of Dark Souls 3 next month I thought it'd be a good time to have a look back at the 'Souls series with some retrospectives.

In all honesty Demon's Souls is still arguably the best 'Souls game to date. Many will point to Dark Souls as being the series' peak but, for me, Demon's Souls sums up everything I've loved about this series.

The series as a whole possesses a wonderful unique rhythm that I don't think many other games have managed to achieve. In part, this is perhaps down to that stamina bar. It dictates practically every function in the game, from dodging and blocking, to attacking.

It's the limiting of your actions that makes these games so thrilling to play. You can't just wail on a target until it dies but instead have to play by a simple system of rules.

At its core, 'Souls series is a battle of pattern recognition. Understand the pattern and you can find a response. It's part fighting game, part dancing game. Find an opening, respond, back off, bait the next attack. It makes for an experience that, even if it stripped everything else out, and left nothing more than the rudiments of the combat system, would still be fascinating to play.

Yet, it's all those other elements; the visuals, the art design, the sound and so on, that really make Demon's Souls what it is.

There's a simple bleak weirdness to Demon's Souls that none of the future games have ever managed to quite recapture but have constantly tried to emulate. The lonely feeling of returning to the Nexus, that limbo-like hub world, is strangely enchanting. One of the strengths of the 'Souls series is its ability to force players to carve out comfort from the smallest of successes. What starts as one of the most blank, nondescript environments by the end of the game feels like home.

Of course, a lot of how Demon's Souls functions is down to its level design and here it deviates most significantly from its successors. Each world is self-contained, and each “stage” within each world is itself an isolated game space. There's none of the Metroidvania, moving back and forth across the same environment, you find in Dark Souls. Granted, areas themselves will typically have shortcuts and secrets in them, but the game world itself is not an interlocking puzzle in the same way that the sequel's is.

This has naturally led to Demon's Souls being considered inferior in this regard, with its more basic level/stage map design not having the same quality. I'd argue though that the game's level design, enhances it in many cases, and allows it to do things that the other games in the series have never been able to do quite as well.

For starters, the game is granted much more free to create wildly different locations. Since the zones don't have to logically coexist in the same space, there's a much greater diversity in their appearance. This allows each world in Demon's Souls to vary significantly, both aesthetically and in terms of gameplay.

Take the third world, the Tower of Latria. In contrast to some of the other locations it has its feet firmly in horror rather than fantasy. Your character initially awakens in a jail cell and you're left to scout the prison, inching your way around the area for fear of encountering the prison guards. Its important to note that this area is drastically different to the first level of the game in Boletaria Castle, and many of the other zones. No longer are you a proud knight (or mage, or cleric etc.) charging gloriously into a castle to seek your prize. Instead, you're a tired, frightened inmate hoping that the Cthulhu-faced monstrosities that wander the halls don't catch you.

Gameplay-wise it's almost a complete flip in terms of pacing. Gone are the steady stream of challenging, but usually manageable, enemies that dot the other worlds. Instead the body count is much lower. There's just you, and a handful of adversaries. Only, these prison guards are likely to take you out with one blow if they manage to stun you. The whole experience forces you to play cagey, defensive and in a completely different manner than you're accustomed to.

It was only on my latest playthrough that I twigged what it felt like. It's like playing a stealth game, it might seem obvious in hindsight, but the fact that FromSoftware elicited that kind of response and style of gameplay from a game that's typically not played in that fashion was fascinating.

This kind of variation and undermining expectations is something that extends to the bosses too. More than the sequels, Demon's Souls frequently reflects on the nature of its boss fights and goes about them in different ways. Many of them are puzzles as much as they are traditional boss encounters.

The fight against the Tower Knight initially seems imposing, but it's quickly made much easier when you realize the creature has a literal Achilles Heel that you can hammer away at. Hit it for long enough and the lumbering warrior will collapse, allowing you to hack away at him with wild abandon. Assuming you tackle this guy early on (which is usually encouraged, he's one of the easier fights) it sets up a lesson for the player; changing how you think can drastically alter how you approach a fight.

This is then expanded upon by the developers in subsequent boss battles. The Old Monk, if you pay close attention, is actually blind, and his array of otherwise devastating attacks can be manipulated by sneaking around and generally avoiding making lots of noise. Likewise, the final battle in in the Shrine of Storms pits you against the Storm King, a giant flying manta-ray who can be felled quickly with the Storm Ruler, a sword that can be found in that particular area.

The most ingenious encounter though is against Maiden Astraea, the final boss in the Valley of Defilement. This whole area is FromSoftware at their most wretched; everything poisons you, there's slugs hanging from the ceilings and it's a nightmare to orientate yourself amidst the ramshackle huts and broken bridges. Everything  reeks of corruption and absolute crushing horror along with a frightening sense of loneliness. What's more impressive is that the developers achieve this not through buckets of gore but through lighting, pacing and level design.

The stages themselves are difficult to navigate. The ramshackle wooden huts and dilapidated bridges make for uneasy footholds. The lighting is significantly reduced, darkness creeps in on your character and it can make it genuinely difficult to see which way you should progress ahead. One wrong move and you're likely dead from fall damage, or plunging into a sea of poisonous sludge.

It's Maiden Astraea though, that's the crowing achievement. After slaughtering two horrible bosses, the Leechmonger and the Dirty Colossus, both of which look like they belong perfectly in a place called the Valley of Defilement, the maiden flips this concept completely on its head.

She's not a wretched monster, in fact, she's just some kind of cleric or nun. And, rather than threaten or demean you, she reacts more with a sense of pity or inevitability. She has no interest in fighting; she knows she's almost helpless to resist. Her one line of defence is Garl Vinland, a knight sworn to protect her with his life. Then the music kicks in. Damn, everything about this fight is perfect.

More than any other encounter in the series, Maiden Astraea sums up everything that's great about the 'Souls games. She's both a puzzle, and something to experience from an artistic and thematic standpoint, rather than just another boss to plough through. There's something mournful about being forced to kill the maiden. This isn't a victory, you haven't won anything. As she says at the start, "There's nothing for you to pillage or plunder."

The real gut punch comes when you deliver the killing blow. “Go on, take your precious demon soul” - Astraea is almost a middle finger to those players that see games (and especially the 'Souls games) as nothing more than a dick-measuring contest; a measure of how much of a “hardcore gamer" you are for besting its toughest bosses. She also, in a subtle way, forces the player to confront the idea of constantly seeking more and more power. Astraea is the first real time you're required to question what it is all this power-seeking is in service of, and it's a theme that runs throughout the series as a whole.

It's here where FromSoftware flip the conventional idea of the RPG on its head. More than any other video game genre, the core tenet of role-playing games is that you're slowing accumulating more and more power. This is especially true of the typically more grindy, number-crunching Japanese variety.

On the surface, Demon's Souls is no different, and in fact its  story, on a basic level, reflects this general RPG principle. You level up repeatedly throughout your adventure (collecting souls) and do so by killing enemies (to get souls) and boss monsters (to get even more souls and progress further). There's a simple reward and feedback loop. It's only at this late stage in your adventure (or not so late, depending on when you choose to encounter her), when the game flips this concept on you and challenges you by asking some rather awkward questions. What are you actually fighting for? What's all this really in service of?

This is expanded upon once you reach the very end of the game and encounter Old King Allant. The initial fight is the kind you'd expect to get at the end of a game, especially one like Demon's Souls that is known for its significant difficulty. It's a tough fight, basic in a way; he's a humanoid character so doesn't possess a bizarre move set. Yet, it's a suitably epic conclusion when we think of video game bosses. It's only once you're victorious that you discover who the actual final boss is.

And he's weak. Pathetically so. The creature writhes around on the floor, helplessly swiping at you in response to your attacks. It's a crippled warrior (the “Old King”) that's slowly mutated into some horrible mass that's now unable to do anything.

That's how you finish Demon's Souls, regardless of which ending you decide to go for. Your final fight is against something that's virtually harmless, pathetic and unable to fight back. In a game defined by its ability to thoroughly maul the player should they refuse to learn its combat system, it's final fight is little more than a pathetic execution, with no skill required.

I'd argue this is FromSoftware trying to get us the players to reflect on how we've played the game up until this point. In short, it's us that risk becoming that horrible slug-monster just like Allant. We've become greedy for souls (in order to level up), desperate to seek bigger and bigger challenges in order to receive greater rewards. It's a subversion of the typical arc of a fantasy RPG.

It also goes against everything that the game is typically built up as by a portion of its fan base. This isn't a game that's about “getting good” - the kind that a selection of somewhat insecure gaming fans see as the vanguard against the growing blight of casual gaming. It's incredibly frustrating to see a large number of players argue that the main appeal of the series is that they're hard. It narrows them down to little more than a novelty gimmick designed to sell more copies, and that's expressly not what Demon's Souls in particular would seem to be about.

Sure, the game demands the player to think for themselves and its deep combat rewards those who have a solid grasp of its mechanics, but I don't think that these are necessarily the focus that Miyazaki and his team were going for. In Demon's Souls, the difficulty is largely incidental product of the combat system, and once you have a grasp on the game's pacing (which, coincidentally, is much slower than the subsequent games), it's surprising how much easier many of the encounters become.

Instead the focus should be placed on the game's attempt to subvert many of our traditional assumptions about RPG conventions. RPGs are a very conservative genre design-wise, and Demon's Souls tries to shine a light on those conventions, and attempt to undermine them, both in terms of its actual gameplay and in terms of its themes and visuals.

Many of its bosses are puzzles rather than roadblocks designed to impede your progress. Its encounters are there for you to ask questions (namely, what the hell is going on most of the time) as they are challenges that must be overcome. In the end, I suppose the game is the one that gets the last laugh. It's us the players that are just like Old King Allant; projecting ourselves as some great and noble warrior, when in reality we're covetous creatures, desperately scrabbling away for more and more power.

Yeah, I think Demon's Souls understands its audience well. Perhaps a little too well.