Friday, 22 July 2016

Homefront: The Revolution - Review

Developer: Dambuster Studios
Publisher: Deep Silver
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One, PC

I'd be lying if I said I said there was anything particularly memorable about the original Homefront, other than the fact that I recall it repeatedly forced me to restart my PS3 in order to got the game working again. What I do vaguely remember was its attempt to borrow elements from slower paced shooters, harkening back to the likes of Half Life 2, rather than the typical run-and-gun twitch-fest of Call of Duty. Homefront: The Revolution sees fit to continue in a similar mould, drawing upon a number of less obvious first-person shooter influences in an attempt to carve out its own identity.

Initially, this can seem a bit underwhelming. After a brief introductory scenario you're thrust into the first of the game's several open-world maps, complete with optional side quests and locations that need to be liberated from the North Korean forces. The ubiquitous “Ubi-verse” model of game design comes to the fore here, with the game's various side missions and collectibles forming the backbone of its gameplay. Think Far Cry 3 only a little grungier.

The kitchen sink approach to open world game design has been the core of many major releases in recent years, and I think I've written more about it in my reviews on this site already than I care to mention. Despite this, UK-based developer Dambuster Studios do at least try their hardest to cobble together their own take on a style of game design that's becoming increasingly stale.

Homefront: The Revolution's strongest element by far is its atmosphere and pacing. Dambuster Studios take their time, having you shuffle about across rubble-strewn streets, whilst fellow resistance members taking up sniper positions in blown out buildings, and hulking Korean battleships loom overhead. It's a genuinely striking sci-fi vision at times; Red Dawn meets War of the Worlds with a hint of Escape from New York.

This slower pace is reflected in the combat system. Gunfights are a deliberately cumbersome affair, your movement speed a far cry away from Doom Marine's glide and Master Chief's gravity defying jumps. There's none of that handy auto-healing either, bullets back a punch and the only way to top up that meagre life bar is by burning through one of you med-kits, accompanied by another painfully slow animation. The closest comparison, and a clear influence on the game's direction, are the two Metro games, another series that bolsters its relatively simple mechanics with good atmosphere and world-building, not to mention difficulty.

It's easy, especially in these open world games, to have the main character quickly evolve into a superman, zipping from point to point mopping up objectives. It gives the player a sense of power and (underwhelming) accomplishment, sure, but it robs the game world of anything more meaningful, rendering the game world a collection of bland “to do” lists rather than a cohesive environment.

By stepping back and doing things a little differently, Homefront: The Revolution manages to make the familiar game mechanics a little more refreshing than most games. Its side quests are familiar; capturing locations so that they fall into the rebel's hands, but there's a little more context given to each one, whether it be liberating a police station to use it as a forward base, or hacking a North Korean communications network to get the lay of the land. Granted, it's a minor step up from other open world games, but, along with the focus on pacing and atmosphere, prevents the otherwise cookie-cutter mission of objectives from blurring into one another.

Dambuster do see fit to have the player experiment a little, too. The game's weapons all have various modifications with different weapon-types that can be fitted onto them. For instance, the standard battle rifle and be transformed into a marksman rifle and have a sniper scope stuck on top. Meanwhile, the standard pistol can have a silencer attached for stealthy operations and than switched into a SMG for when things can hairy. Likewise, molotovs and pipe bombs can be but crafted from junk left strewn around. Later on you can become a more violent Kevin McCallister as you attach your arsenal of jerry-rigged explosives to the back of an RC car in order to blow something up. Fun, if frequently impractical.

This is where Homefront: The Revolution begins to stumble. The weapon modification idea is fun but is hardly anything new. Worse, it's contradictory when paired with the game's two weapon carry limit. It's here where the open world sandbox begins to clash with the more grounded, “realistic” approach that the game also wants to take.

This problem expands into the enemy designs. Whilst the first half of the game is enjoyable enough, and a suitable challenge, Dambuster fail to up the ante as the campaign progresses. Combat still boils down to shooting at regular soldiers, which are divided up into basic rifle-toting troops, shotgun types and a tougher unit that crops up later on. Other missions simply dole out side quest jobs as fodder to push the main campaign forward.

To their credit, the developers do attempt to vary the basic structure by having missions take place into two different “war zones “, for lack of a better word. The Red Zone areas are your typical open world warfare, whilst the Yellow Zone allows for a little more subterfuge, as you hide amongst the masses, assassinate enemy leaders and capture locations to prepare for an uprising.

These are undoubtedly the game's stronger moments, and the game maintains its strong sense of pace by bouncing back and forth between these two styles of gameplay. Without the contradictory combat, and a focus on a more methodical, stealthy pace, the atmosphere is once again allowed to shine when you're sent to the Yellow Zone. Each side quest or rebel act you carry out, from destroying Korean propaganda to freeing prisoners, pushes the occupied closer to all out riot. And it begins slowly, with revolutionaries turning up on side streets and angry mobs smashing up cars or even attacking lone troops.

It's a missed opportunity that, for all Dambuster Studios skill at crafting an incredibly vivid world, their writing fails to match. Homefront: The Revolution doesn't have a good script but, as with Mirror's Edge Catalyst, it's the kind of game that would have been greatly elevated had it nailed this aspect down. The game's lead comes from the Gordon Freeman school of acting, and so spends the entire game silent, but it's the other characters and plot which surround him that struggle to meet any meaningful resolution.

Initially, the bickering between the three leaders of the revolution has some potential. Jack Parrish is the all-American leader, willing to do whatever it takes to win, whilst Dana Moore is the loose cannon, more interested in getting revenge than liberating the country. It's down to Sam Burnett, a rebel doctor, to act as a contrast to the two more gung-ho members of the band. Whilst the game never really delves into the groups ideological differences in any great detail, and whenever it manages to, it does so in an awkward ham fisted way (Burnett is against killing; he's a doctor, the other two think he's soft) with a bit more work there could have been potential here.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the game's story is that it avoids the flag-waving jingoism that is could easily have devolved into. One striking moment involves Parrish and Moore hiding the resistances stash of missiles over at Burnett's clinic. Naturally, Burnett is furious when he finds out, but with some more work this could have been a striking and interesting moral quandary to put to the player; what lengths to you go to in order to achieve your objectives?

Sadly, the campaign rushes towards it's finale during the final act as the game's budget begins to dry up. Rescuing a kidnapped resistance leader, which forms the basis for most of the game's story, is quickly jettisoned as the game sprints towards a sudden conclusion. Characters start making bizarre decisions, sacrificing themselves for no reason, and the final areas you're left to explore feel more like padding than anything else. Meanwhile, the ending cut-scene is sequel bait rather than a satisfying conclusion; a punch in the face to what had otherwise been, mediocre story or not, a game that focused on immersing the player.

The biggest complaint however, has to be levelled at the game's technical problems. Seven patches have already been put out for a game that's barely two months old. Homefront: The Revolution is buggy, sometimes absurdly so. Characters will float, the sound will inexplicably cut out, and the game still devolves into a slide show every time it auto-saves, with the framerate seeming to drop into the single digits.

And yet, despite all these problems, this is a game that's hard not to like. Despite it's shortcomings, there's an attempt to craft something that, whilst not revolutionary (pun intended), is at least enjoyable. Like the B-movies that inspired it, it does have its own personality, provided you can overlook it's more derivative ideas and technical flaws.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Mirror's Edge Catalyst - Review

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

2008 marked the year that, for a brief time, EA attempted to distance itself from being infamous for pumping out movie tie-ins and annual sports releases. Dead Space and Mirror's Edge were the two highlights of this new approach from the publisher. Whilst Dead Space got its slew of sequels, Mirror's Edge was left with nothing new. It was easily the more original concept; first-person platformers aren't exactly a saturated genre, but it's shocking when you consider that it's taken well over eight years to finally get a sequel.

Well...sequel isn't exactly correct. Mirror's Edge Catalyst, despite the contradictory murmurings over at EA, is a full-fledged reboot. The slate has been wiped clean. So whilst Faith returns and the core gameplay remains the same, this is clearly seen as a fresh start for the series; both in terms of its story and as a launch pad for a new franchise.

This is undoubtedly the best way to appreciate Mirror's Edge Catalyst; more than anything else it's a careful exercise in brand management. The isolated levels of the original game have been replaced with a typical open-world format full of races to run and odd-jobs to carry out. A rudimentary skill tree allows you to upgrade Faith's abilities every so often, but, as is usually the case in these open world games, the RPG elements don't particularly affect the way the game is played other than to give your character the vague sense of progression.

You might think that this would make Mirror's Edge Catalyst an underwhelming game. Another big-budget title that falls to the full-fat padding of modern AAA game development and bland, tacked on game mechanics. Catalyst manages to subvert some of its lazy design choices however, by having the core platforming be really damn fun.

A lot of that comes down to DICE having tightened up the platforming formula. The original game was refreshing in many ways, but suffered from a woeful collection of bugs, dodgy collision detection and crude trial-and-error gameplay segments. If there's one thing that Catalyst gets right its fixing these issues. The platforming is tighter and more responsive, no longer will Faith awkwardly flail at a wall without grabbing it because you weren't at the exact angle for the grab to register.

Meanwhile, the colour-coded environment returns, with climbable object highlighted in red, which serves as both a gameplay mechanic and as an aspect of the game's minimalist art style. DICE go one step further this time round too, with a red trail highlighting the most obvious route to your destination. It might smack of simplification but it's a welcome addition, avoiding the trial-and-error laden segments that plagued the original game and allowing you to focus on nailing those perfect jumps at top speed without worrying where you're going.

The platforming itself, other than the technical improvements, remains essentially unchanged. Most missions playing out like a first-person Prince of Persia, as you nail wall-running into a leap off of a balcony, before dropping into a forward roll to absorb your fall. It's a simple loop that plays out for most of the game's missions but remains far more addictive and fun than it has any right to. A lot of that comes down to the physicality of the gameplay. Landing has weight to it, mistiming a roll and landing flat out on the floor will have Faith gasp in pain, adding to the sense that you're controlling a real person and not just moving a camera through the environment.

The open world on the other hand leaves a lot to be desired. As with most open world games, post-2009, Mirror's Edge Catalyst stuffs its city with generic fetch quests and race challenges, all of which can be posted up on online leaderboards. There's also a gamut of random collectibles, such as shiny golden spheres (I've already forgotten what the games calls them) and data chips that need to be pulled out of security boxes.

The irony is that, despite being bland and predictable game design, the context of Mirror's Edge Catalyst's side missions means that they make far more sense, thematically. Whereas in other games side quests typically transform your world-conquering hero into nothing short of a delivery boy, (RPGs in particular fall prey to this problem), here it fits with the character. Faith's a runner, going from point A to point B is literally her job. Likewise, of course a band of parkour-obsessed cyberpunks and hackers are going to be competing with each other for the fastest times around the city. Whatever else you think of the side content, they at least make sense in the context of the game's world.

That doesn't make the these optional challenges any less bland however. The actual moment to moment traversal of the city is, admittedly, one of the games strengths. Similarly, Glass is a gorgeous city to look at, with DICE going for an interesting half-way house between cyberpunk and a futuristic Apple commercial. All of this is slightly undercut by the hollowed out nature of the city, however. Side quest vendors stand awkwardly outside empty high rise buildings with only the game's security guards to keep them company. For a game that plays on its world's aesthetic so much it's a shame that the whole thing regularly feels utterly lifeless.

In fact, Mirror's Edge Catalyst's biggest problem is finding something to marry with its enjoyable platforming. The original downplayed guns as much as possible, making avoiding combat just as enticing, and placing an emphasis on speeding past enemies. Catalyst instead drops guns entirely and half-heartedly introduces a melee combat system. Kruger-Sec guards will sometimes wield firearms but Faith's left with nothing but her punches and kicks to see her through.

Initially, this isn't a huge deal, many of the game's levels de-emphasize engaging enemies in much the same way that the first game did. However, later sequences dump you in awkward closed-off rooms and have you take out guard after guard. It's a sloppy, unrefined combat system with enemies frequently blocking your attacks from the ground and having to resort to spamming a jumping kick over and over again which they almost always seemed utterly helpless against. It's a tacked on system, and worse, it's completely unnecessary.

The open world is mediocre, and the combat system is a complete misfire, but it's the story that manages to almost undermine Mirror's Edge Catalyst's successes. Catalyst is the kind of game that could have benefited greatly from some good writing, adding depth to its sharp and minimalist game mechanics. There's plenty of potential too, Faith is a great female lead and the voice cast across the board give good performances.

The problem is they're given a hackneyed story that plays out like a bad 1984 meets The Hunger Games.  There's the impression, especially during the game's second half, that a good portion of material was cut as the plot launches from one random scenario to another. The central thrust of the game's story has Faith taking on the evil mega-corporation Kruger-Sec with her band of runners. There's the tired out clich├ęs, from the rival runner group that wants to use violence to get rid of the bad people, to the grinning evil corporate boss who's the game's main villain but doesn't turn up until the last third or so.

The kicker though is the terrible non-ending which has the entire story seem as if it were set up to tease a sequel, only to dump you back into the Glass as if nothing had happened, so that you can mop up the remaining side content. Needless to say, Mirror's Edge Catalyst isn't a game you play for the story, but worse, it was a massive missed opportunity.

Missed opportunity is the best way to describe Catalyst as a whole, too. The core platforming gameplay is incredibly fun but everything that DICE attempt to marry it with, be it the open-world, the rebooted storyline or the combat system are both weak and generic by comparison. For fans of the first game, this is well worth playing for that core platforming alone. However, as a relaunch for a potential series, this should have been a whole lot better.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

South Park: The Stick of Truth - Review

Developer: Obsidian
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: PS3, 360 (version played), PC, PS4, Xbox One

[Note: I've written reviews for various sites over the years and, inevitably, things get removed, disappear or generally vanish into the deep spaces of the interwebs. I figured some of those pieces could be put to better use up here on the site. So, voila, every now and then you'll see something I wrote for somewhere else.]

South Park and video games haven't had a particularly memorable past. With several adaptations dating back to South Park on the PlayStation and N64, it's almost always been the case that the popularity of the show has been relied upon to paper over the cracks of shoddy gameplay. South Park: The Stick of Truth attempts to rectify this by throwing in a developer with a decent pedigree. Namely, Obsidian Entertainment, responsible for Fallout: New Vegas and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II amongst other things.

Essentially set up as another episode of the show, The Stick of Truth casts you as the new kid; a mysterious new addition to South Park's community who quickly finds himself teaming up with Cartman and friends who're playing an epic game of Dungeons and Dragons. It's a simple set-up and one that works well by making sure that the game's surreal and scatological jokes are built around something that almost all video game players are familiar with: role-playing conventions.

But the game's writing was never in question. Provided you're a fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone's brand of humour, then there's no question that you'd find this game enjoyable. In effect, it's simply another episode of the show, albeit one that's also interactive. Both writers have also done a good job ensuring the jokes won't be lost on non-fans, although, naturally, a few of the references will only be understood by the show's followers.

What is impressive however, is how Obsidian have managed to craft a role-playing system that's simple but also rather least for a while. Keeping in mind that The Stick of Truth's appeal is wider than your typical RPG, Obsidian have kept the combat system basic but with enough depth that more adept players will be satisfied with the tactics on offer.

Early on you're asked to select your class (Warrior, Thief, Mage or...Jew), which provides you with a different selection of equipment as well as a unique set of skills. Combat is turn based, but most attacks have short quick-time events, or button prompts, making the process feel slightly more fast paced and action-oriented than similar titles.

You also have always have a buddy at your disposal, which include Cartman, Kyle and several other members of the cast. All of these characters also come with unique abilities such as Cartman's "magic spell", which sees him hurl a bunch of random swear words at the enemy or Stan's ability to sic his dog on the enemy by shining a laser-pen over the target.

Even with access to only two party members at a time; your character and one buddy, combat does manage to remain relatively engaging. An abundance of status-effects, including being grossed-out and set on fire adds another layer of complexity. And the ability to equip various stickers to your clothing, granting them additional bonuses, along with a selection of unlockable perks, ensures those craving more customization will get some of their fix. Perhaps the best comparison would be Double Fine's Costume Quest, another relatively simple role-playing experience that generated humour out of kids dressing up in fantasy costumes.

Despite the adult nature of the game's humour though, there's also something oddly charming about a bunch of kids running around the neighbourhood; so wrapped up in their role-playing that it colours how they're viewing the world. Exploring the world of South Park is something of a treat, the fidelity to the show, including the gorgeous animation, is meticulous, and again, it's long-time fans that will really lap up all the details that are on offer.

The town itself, whilst not a gigantic world map, is certainly big enough, and there's plenty of side quests on offer for those wanting something extra to do. These include literally finding Jesus, who's hiding out at the local church, as well as hunting down Al Gore's infamous ManBearPig. Rather than bloat the game with an excessive number of repetitive side quests, Obsidian have managed to whittle it down to a handful of decent ones, backed up with more of the show's writing.

Where The Stick of Truth starts to buckle is in its length. At around 10-15 hours long there's simply not enough depth in the combat system to keep you entertained. What's fun for an hour or two begins to get boring once you're hitting the seven hour mark. Even before you've reached the final area, it's likely you'll have maxed-out your character, and combat begins to become nothing more than a few lazy button presses as you swipe away another wave of enemies. Added to this is the fact that later sections start to recycle enemies more, meaning that your strategy doesn't need to change whatsoever.

Likewise, the show's humour does begin to grate after a while. This isn't so much of an issue with the TV show, where a half hour runtime allows for just enough laughs and gross-out gags. With the game's length however a lot of the jokes begin to sag and feel forced; eventually, one poop joke looks like every other poop joke. It also seems that Matt and Trey simply don't know enough about games to mock them all that well, and so instead resort to the more general South Park shtick, rather than actually parodying video games.

Still, despite its shortfalls, South Park: The Stick of Truth is a solid adaptation of the show. The RPG mechanics don't quite manage to be enough to survive the entire game's length but are at  least very accessible to newcomers to the genre. In fact, Obsidian's work here might encourage some players to explore a genre that they wouldn't have previously been interested in.

This is very much an interactive South Park episode as opposed to a genuinely funny look at role-playing games. It's a subtle distinction, but one that sums up the experience of The Stick of Truth the best.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants In Manhattan - Review

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

You could stick PlatinumGames with any licensed series and get excited at what they'd make. I wrote last year about how I'm still waiting for my Platinum-developed Dragonball Z game, and I hope there's a chance it gets developed. Platinum and quality action games go hand in hand. Why then, is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutants in Manhattan so awful?

And I do mean awful. Not disappointing or underwhelming, but a flat out bad game, possibly the worst I've played this year so far. The hastily slapped together objectives, shallow combat and repetitive levels make for a miserable experience and it's made twice as painful because this should be good.

Platinum's take on the mutant chelonians has its roots in Konami's 1989 arcade classic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a simple and effective side-scrolling beat-'em-up. Mutants in Manhattan likewise takes a similar approach, ostensibly being a 3D take on that style of game.

All four turtles are playable at all times, even during single player. In fact, if you're playing alone, it's all but required to constantly switch from turtle to turtle during the game's more testing fights. As you'd expect, each character comes with their own unique moves that give them their own identity. Here, Platinum draw on the mechanics they played around with in Transformers, with each turtle's weapon of choice altering their move set slightly. Leonardo and Raphael make for the more straightforward fighters, whilst Donatello is the slower character with more crowd control thanks to his bo staff, and Michaelangelo is the most adept at racking up a huge combo with his nun-chucks.

All of this is moot mind, given that the core combat is shallow, frustrating and incredibly messy. Whilst there's glimpses of depth in the various character's different fighting styles, each fight is little more than wailing on enemies with jabs of square and triangle. Enemies are practically immune to hit-stun, meaning it's all but impossible to string a combo together before getting whacked in the face. There's the typical dodge mechanic that's in Bayonetta, but the fights become so cluttered, and the enemies attacks are so poorly telegraphed, that it's impossible to score last-minute dodges on a regular basis. In fact, the best way to survive is to use a hit and run strategy, diving in whenever the A.I.'s attention is on another character.

Almost all of the game's monsters punish you for actually playing the game like a typical action game. Little UFO enemies will constantly fire lasers at you, knocking you out of combos, until you smack them with a few shurikens. Another enemy variant will explode on contact, again, punishing up-close combat. These same few poor enemy designs are then repeated ad-nauseum during the four to five hours it takes to complete the story. They're sloppy visual designs too, with a generic hammer-wielding rock monster being the primary foe throughout most chapters, and each level typically shovels out the same two or three main enemy types again and again.

Likewise, the basic level objectives are recycled multiple times throughout the campaign. Defusing bombs, killing enemies or carrying another type of bomb to a warp point (that presumably can't be defused) take up the majority of each level's play time. It's nothing but padding, plain and simple, and when the enemies and the combat fail to expand from chapter to chapter, you're left with the same button-mashing bore over and over again, as you carry out the busy work that'll get you to the next boss.

The bosses that bookend each chapter are undoubtedly more exciting then the dull missions that precede them. Like with the little unique character touches to each turtle, with a bit more work and some dedication, they could have been fun. Bebop, Rocksteady and Shredder have plenty of character, after all. Instead, each boss is effectively the same minus an attack or two. Most have an area-of-effect attack, a charge move and maybe a long range technique of some kind. Even worse, they all suffer from obscenely bloated health bars, much like regular enemies, meaning fights devolve into even less strategy and simply become a case of outlasting the boss. When playing alone this is even more insulting, typically, the computer-controlled characters are best dealing out the damage (and dying) whilst you skirt around the back avoiding damage. So long as one character is alive the others will soon respawn.

These boss encounters also try and highlight the simple power system that Mutants In Manhattan uses. Each turtle is equipped with four different abilities that can be mixed and matched between chapters and upgraded with points. Most are universal, whilst some are exclusive to a particular turtle, Donatello has a unique healing power for example, whilst Leonardo can temporarily trigger what is effectively this game's “Witch Time”, slowing down time for the whole team. They're RPG elements, essentially, with each move having its own cooldown that's sped up whenever the turtles are close to one another. Yet, rather than have any nuance, the game encourages you to simply dump these attacks on the boss the moment they're available.

Mutants in Manhattan tacks on a few more gimmicks that fail to improve any aspect of the core gameplay. A rudimentary equipment system means that characters can be suited up with different charms that give them various, incredibly minor, bonuses. Transformers toyed around with a similar system with its weapons and it was easily the weakest element of that game. Action games should put all their focus on the action, and not bog down their pacing with fussy menu management. Each level will award you with a load of junk that can be used to upgrade these charms effectiveness. Awkwardly shoving in RPG elements to a game that has no need for them rarely works out, and, given that nothing else works in Mutants in Manhattan, it's even more glaringly obvious.  It's another shallow system that's so slap-dash and inconsequential that it can be ignored entirely.

What's worse however, is that with all this lazy padding and rehashed gameplay, the game still needs to bulk up its playtime with reruns of the same levels and bosses. Two levels take place in a near identical sewer that's essentially a maze of grey corridors. Meanwhile, the penultimate chapter is nothing but a boss gauntlet of all the previous main adversaries.

Mutants in Manhattan doesn't feel like a Platinum game, it just feels like a complete mess. What's worse though is that there's hints of something better, hidden beneath all the rehashed material and sloppy combat. The cut-scenes, voice-acting and overall look and style is faithful to the cartoon, and will likely give fans of the show something to enjoy. But that's almost impossible to appreciate amidst the sheer laziness that's on offer here. Platinum are busy working on other titles at the moment, Nier: Automata and Scalebound to name two, so Mutants in Manhattan is clearly the game that got the shaft.

Bad games come about all the time. What's worse though are bad games that should be good, and there's the faintest glimpse of that here. Wasted potential is worse than no potential, after all. Mutants in Manhattan can easily go down as Platinum's worst game to date.