Saturday, 27 August 2016

Overwatch - Review

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

Before we go any further, can we just clear one thing up? “Overwatch” is a terrible title. It’s the kind of name that makes you think of a bland military shooter from the mid-2000s. Hell, the word is literally a part of modern military terminology. Whatever possessed Blizzard’s marketing department to decide to stick to that non-entity of a title will forever mystify me. Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone, World of Warcraft; all these titles at least attempt to communicate something about the game you’re going to play. Overwatch communicates boredom.

Fortunately, Overwatch is anything but boring to play. Coming in slightly late to the party worked wonders for my first few hours getting to grips with the game. Most of the earlier, exploitable gimmicks have gone, and, whilst the game continues to undergo scrupulous tweaks, as characters get buffed and nerfed, it’s in a fine state to play.

Overwatch is arguably the spiritual successor to Team Fortress 2's addictive multiplayer experience. The core gameplay is remarkably similar, with two groups of players duking it out with various classes as they fight over objectives.

Blizzard’s strengths as a developer are apparent the moment you first boot up the game. Overwatch’s character design is fantastic and something the developer frequently excels at. I’d go as far to argue that there’s not a single dud in its (currently) twenty two strong roster. Many of its cast, whether it be cover girl Tracer or robot suit-wielding D.Va, look like they’ve been pulled straight from a Pixar movie.

Blizzard have always had a strong grasp on how to create characters that look fun to play, are visually engaging and also communicate their gameplay through those visuals. Overwatch is a prime aspect of this design philosophy. One look at Reinhardt, the game’s most straightforward tanking character, and you know, instantly, that his is a guy who’s built for taking hits. Likewise, Tracer’s pixie hair-cut and rapid fire quips almost sum up her gameplay even before you’ve had the chance to check out her move list.

Each characters move list, on the surface, is surprisingly simple. Most characters typically gets a typical left and right trigger variant for their basic attack. For instance, Mei’s left trigger shoots a stream of frost from her gun, capable of freezing enemies for a short time, whilst her right trigger fires a hefty icicle capable of taking out many foes in one shot.

In addition to their weapons, each character gets two different abilities, sometimes three, alongside their ultimate attack. Reinhardt comes packing a hulking great shield, alongside a speedy charge capable of pinning foes into the wall. Torbjorn meanwhile, compliments his simple rivet gun with the ability to construct a defensive turret and dish out armour packs for his allies. It’s the way that Overwatch’s characters interact, both opposing one another and in terms of their inter-group synergy that makes for many of the game’s most fascinating moments. It’s the rock-paper-scissors aspect of Pok√©mon battles, mixed with more traditional first-person shooter mechanics.

Overwatch inserts its hefty cast roster into four general roles; offence, defence, tanking and support, with the general idea being that you want a broad mix of each class in your six-person team. On a basic level this means at least one of each class but it’s a testament to the game’s surprising depth that, whilst characters are pigeon-holed into a group for simplicities sake, many of them blur the lines when it comes to their roles. D.Va is a tank in the broadest sense, she can take hits well thanks to her mech, but she does even better on the attack, bullying the enemy team’s flanks. And Tracer, for all her lightning speed and rapid fire weapons for assassinating support units, does a fantastic job harassing enemy players and when she’s on defence.

If the core gameplay of Overwatch is the hero interaction, then the levels and objectives are the valves and levers that Blizzard use to alter the focus of each game. Some matches have one team on defence and another one attack, with the attacker sometimes having to push a payload towards a particular point, or simply occupy a specific location. Others are more basic, “King of the Hill” encounters, with both teams attempting to hold onto an objective for a specific length of time.

There’s a distinct “pace” to every Overwatch game, and it has a lot to do with each character’s ultimate ability that charges up over the course of a match. Some ultimates do damage, typically in an area-of-effect, whilst other may protect or revive fallen team mates. Regardless, they almost always result in the ebb and flow of each match as one team unloads an ultimate or two, forcing the opposing heroes to respond. Rarely will these game-changing abilities determine a match on their own, but they can be crucial at set points in a game, allowing the attacking group to go for a push, or the defending force to get hold of the game once again. Some can be annoying to fight against for sure, (cough...D.Va, Junk Rat...cough) but they’re the final spark that Overwatch arguably needs to keep its matches feeling fresh, and are responsible for the general pace that each game plays at.

Loot boxes are the reward for levelling up in Overwatch, providing each player with a handful of cosmetic items, whilst extra boxes can be purchased with real money. Blizzard have learnt from Hearthstone here, the loot boxes have the same distinct tactile feel that makes cracking open booster packs so satisfying. And, whilst I can’t think for the life of me why anyone would put down money just to have a different costume, so long as Blizzard don’t have the money aspects of the game affect the core matches in anyway, they at least provide an incentive to have invested players continue to grind away for those free loot boxes upon level up.

This is perhaps the biggest catch in Overwatch’s grand plan. The game’s simplicity and surprising depth are what make it so fun, not to mention so frighteningly addictive, but there’s the question of how long the game can maintain this momentum as it ages. Will the game still have the same sense of fun six months from now, or a year later? For all there strengths as a developer, one of Blizzard’s weaknesses is how they struggle to focus their games. Is Overwatch primarily a competitive title that wants to build upon its basic gameplay in a more strategic fashion? Or is it more about playing casually, allowing the simple controls and fun designs to have people dip in and out of the game?

The answer to this longevity issue is the commitment to constantly release new (free) heroes to expand the game’s burgeoning roster. Whilst new characters will help, by far the most important improvement would be to the game’s maps and game modes. Even after several hours, the meagre handful of capture points and payload maps begin to get repetitive. Overwatch is so invested in its core hero-on-hero gameplay to the point where that the surrounding design can seem like an afterthought, or rather, much further down the agenda. Compared to the game’s characters, its locations and game modes are frankly dull, and not all that different from one another. One area with two flanking routes looks like any other area with two flanking routes.

Solo players will clearly be the ones to tire more quickly, and any recommendation I give to Overwatch is given with the caveat that people playing alone will likely not get the absolute most out of the game. There’s nothing more frustrating that playing with a bunch of strangers and getting paired up with the guy that keeps claiming he “mains” the bloody cyborg ninja, (maining is a stupid concept in a game built around reacting to team compositions), even though he’s a terrible choice at that particular time.

All that being said, Overwatch is still a remarkably fun game, regardless of how many people you play with. Whether played for fun or as something more competitive, there’s enough depth here to satisfy serious players, whilst the simplicity of the basic mechanics lends itself to casual play.
The core design is slick, polished, and whilst the long-term appeal of the game remains to be seen, this is still easily a potential new benchmark for modern arena-based shooters.

Friday, 19 August 2016

No Man's Sky - Review

Developer: Hello Games
Publisher: Sony
Platforms: PS4 (version played), PC

The first few hours of No Man’s Sky are its most impressive. Alone, trapped on an unknown planet in the middle of nowhere, the isolation is palpable. In my case, my character was trapped on a snow-covered planet, where the temperature was permanently stuck in the negative. My life support bleeped at me every so often to point out it was running out of fuel to power my exo-suit, reminding me I was about to freeze to death.

Other players perhaps got to start with warmer climes than I did but the effect is still the same. The freedom with which No Man’s Sky opens is genuinely impressive. It shows a considerable amount of trust in the player. Even non-linear games like Skyrim feel the need to usher players down different routes, as if they’re terrified they’ll not have anything to do. By contrast, No Man’s Sky simply lets you be. The tutorial, for that’s what those opening few hours really are, is powerful, sums up the games ethos perfectly, and does so without treating the player like an idiot.

There’s an unsettling tone to No Man’s Sky exploration. It’s not horror in the traditional sense, but rather, in the way that it makes you feel utterly alone. Alien races will chatter to you in incomprehensible languages, with hours of play only yielding you a few bits and pieces of their language. Meanwhile, for every planet teeming with life, they’ll be one ominously devoid of it, with alien monoliths punctuating the landscape. The lack of any fixed goal in No Man’s Sky is oddly frightening; its universe doesn’t care about your existence, you are insignificant; play or don’t play, it doesn’t seem to give a damn. For all the flaws of the game, (and there are many), it’s when it attempts to touch on this Lovecraftian notion that the game threatens to become something far more poignant.

Then there’s the crafting. For all that the game stabs at a sense of existential nihilism, the core of your time spent with No Man’s Sky will be spent hoovering up various resources. Crafting mechanics are always an awkward inclusion to any game that’s not called Minecraft. When your game isn’t solely built around the act of creating things, then resource gathering can quickly devolve into fussy item management and repetitive tasks.

Which is the exact trap that No Man’s Sky falls into. Whilst the PR buzz prior to the game’s release hinted that you could play the game as some kind of rogue trader, the reality is that the resource system is so bland and simple that anything as interesting as that is impossible. At the same time however, you need to engage with resource gathering in order to do anything. Fly around and your ship will pester you for more fuel, be it Plutonium or Thurium9. Land on a planet and your life support will soon start pestering you, “Life support power, low” it will chime repeatedly, even when you’re at 75%.

Resource management is the ball and chain you have to lug around wherever you go explore. What’s even worse though is that the resources are in such large supply, that it’s never a challenge. It’s almost impossible to land on a planet and not find some fuel for your ship within two minutes. Your sources of fuel, along with Heridium and Carbon, are your primary ingredients for essentially all of your space travel in No Man’s Sky. Yet, they’re so easy to obtain that there’s very little tension in having to acquire them.

Which aptly leads into the game’s combat. Combat is a non-issue in No Man’s Sky. This is primarily because there’s little need to engage in it. Technically you can be a pirate, robbing resources from the same static group of ships that seem to be aimlessly floating through each galaxy you jump to. When those very resources are in huge abundance on the nearby planet however, there’s little need to bother doing it. Why risk being shot at when you can go bag whatever you need from the nearest lump of rock?

Sentinels, small robotic drones, will frequently follow you whenever you explore more populated planets, and, depending on where you poke your nose, they might turn hostile. Piss them off enough and you’ll eventually have a giant sentinel to deal with. That’s hardly ever an issue however, given that simply avoiding their line of sight, or better yet, blowing up the drones before they can call for help, will ensure you’re never under any significant threat.

This leaves the raw exploration as the sole redeeming aspect of No Man’s Sky. Indeed, it is the game’s most fascinating feature. The gigantic universe that stretches out is impressive on a technical level, with the number of procedurally generated planets and star systems staggering. The influences are clear, landing on a new mysterious planet is meant to evoke that same feeling when Luke first landed on Dagobah; that raw adventurous spirit coupled with a fear of the unknown. There’s also the vibrant, acid-soaked visuals similar to Hyper Light Drifter. No Man’s Sky wants its journey to feel like a dream, a transcentdant experience, as much as it does a simulation.

It’s not long however, until you notice the patterns. No matter how impressive its technical achievements, computer-designed game spaces lack that human touch. The flora and fauna, for all its variety, inevitably begins to meld into one another and look the same. One dinosaur creature is hardly any different from another dinosaur creature that’s light years away on another planet. And despite the planets varying visuals, there’s still overwhelming similarities, whether they’re battered by toxic rain or suffer from frequent storms they’ll always have (almost) the same resources, and near-identical buildings with an alien inside them. When you begin to see the artificiality behind the game’s design, and it doesn’t take that long, any sense of magic and wonder it had quickly vanishes.

This is also where No Man’s Sky begins to fall apart from almost every angle. The trading is bad because the resources are simplistic. Harvesting resources is boring because there’s no challenge to it, and there’s no challenge to gathering resources because the combat, and threat of survival, is so minor. Furthermore, because each of those elements fails to work, the central thrill of exploring the universe becomes a soulless routine of repeating the same shallow chunks of gameplay; scrounge, resupply, trade and explore, across a world that feels increasingly artificial and hollow. Every major aspect of No Man’s Sky is underwhelming to a degree that the game in its entirety fails to become something greater than its individual parts.

Other aspects baffle with how half-heartedly they’re approached. Crafting and scrounging take up so much of the game’s playtime, yet, the game won’t allow you to customize your ship. New spacecraft must be bought from other aliens, and come in around five basic varieties. Nothing feels personal about your journey in No Man’s Sky because you can never leave your mark on it.

No Man’s Sky will still, for good reason I might add, go down as one of 2016’s most important releases. It’s a relatively small, independent game in the grand scheme of things that got a big “AAA” push by Sony, and its technical achievements will likely go on to inspire a number of future games. Talk will also have to shift to how games are advertised, and how the gaming press reports on game releases. It’s rather telling of the state of video game “journalism” when the most investigative piece of writing about the game didn’t come from a gaming site, but from a fan on Reddit. The No Man’s Sky we were shown is very different from the No Man’s Sky we got, after all.

Putting all that extra baggage to one side for one moment, No Man’s Sky is a huge disappointment simply as its own game. It fails as a space simulation because the various mechanics are underwhelming, whilst also failing to be something more abstract and minimalist because it has all these irritating mechanics, the lifeless crafting and combat, that keep getting in the way.

There’s plenty of potential ideas nestled within here, we just didn’t get to see any of them.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Elder Scrolls: Legends Beta - First Impressions

Bethesda have recently lifted the NDA that was on Elder Scrolls: Legends. Given that I’ve been binge-playing the game in my spare time, I figured a kind of pseudo-review/impressions piece wouldn’t go amiss.

Functionally and visually, it’s obvious to pretty much everyone that Elder Scrolls: Legends has Hearthstone in its sights. The chunky tiles, flashy card animations and straightforward game mechanics are all carefully put into place to make Hearthstone players feel right at home.

And, if you’re going to attempt to ape an existing card game, there’s no better one than Hearthstone. At this point, Heartstone’s success is pretty much self-evident. It’s a huge success for Blizzard, and as a card game has helped introduce people to CCGs that would otherwise never have picked them up. It’s Magic: The Gathering for a younger, online-based generation that blurs the line between traditional card games and computer games.

All that being said, the game is not without its flaws. Its obsession with RNG effects, and the developer’s general ambivalence about whether or not the game should be considered a competitive title, means there’s plenty of ways that competing games could set themselves apart.

Elder Scrolls: Legends’ trick so far is to act as a halfway house between both Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering. The basic gameplay will be familiar to everyone that’s played at least a few games of Hearthstone; monsters are summoned to the board, they attack each other, some have special abilities that affect what they do. Pretty much every basic game mechanic that’s in Blizzard’s game have made it over here. Hell, some of the key words are identical, silence and charge are literally the same mechanics, with the same keywords, in both games.

Where the game differs is where it gets its other influences from. Combat in Elder Scrolls: Legends is handled in two lanes rather than an open battlefield. It’s vaguely similar to SolForge’s lane system in that regard, but much simpler. On a fundamental level however, this simple mechanic changes how the game plays quite dramatically.

One of the crippling problems with Hearthstone is that, aside from the tendency towards luck-based gameplay, matches can be incredibly tempo driven. Games can quickly spiral out of your control as an opponent snowballs one small advantage into a bigger advantage, slowly amassing more and more power to their side of the board. The game is so simple that one of its strengths begins to harm the game; it’s so simple that it becomes impossible to turn back many games with skill. Occasionally, the game can feel as if it plays itself.

Hearthstone’s answer to this problem is the abundance of board-reset cards. Consecration, Flamestrike, Blade Flurry and Lightning Storm, to name just a few. There’s a reason effectively every class has some, sometimes multiple, forms of mass removal. Without it there’d be many games where a single advantage, many times down to some random element, would result in the opponent simply snowballing their way to victory.

By having the game take place on two lanes Elder Scrolls: Legends manages to gracefully navigate past this problem. However the game pans out in the future, the decision to have the two lane be a central mechanic will be one of the smartest decisions the developers made.

In practical terms it means that fights become a more tactical affair, as you weigh up the pros and cons of deploying your new minions in the left and right sides of the board. Furthermore, minions deployed in the right lane can’t be attacked by enemy creatures for a turn, as they are granted one round of cover. It leads to plenty of mind games in many cases, as I often tried to goad by opponent into constantly deploying in the left lane to deal with my chaff, so that the right lane would be free for when I dropped a big bomb card and attempt to take the round.

What the lane system also achieves is allowing players to “race” one another. In Magic: The Gathering this is a familiar concept. When two decks are pitted against one another and neither one can take the controlling route (i.e. play for card advantage) there comes a time when both take players must spend their resources to end the game as fast as possible. In other words, a race ensues.
In Hearthstone this was possible; trade or go face was definitely a question that got asked, but rarely did it mean anything more than analysing the threats on the board and calculating the odds of having lethal damage the next turn. In Elder Scroll: Legends, thanks to the lanes, there’s multiple issues to deal with: what lane to deploy in, what direct damage spells you have, and how can the opponent use guard creatures to halt (multiple) avenues of attack.

I’ll say it again. The lane system is elegant, simple and a terrific core component of the game. Not only does it add greater texture and strategy to matches, it adds to the available design space for new cards. Already there are some creatures that are able to shift lanes after they’ve been deployed.

If the core combat is effectively Hearthstone with a few minor changes, then the colour system, which determines what cards can be placed into your deck, is pure Magic: The Gathering. Strength (Red), Intelligence (Blue), Willpower (Yellow), Agility (Green) and Endurance (Purple) are the five types or colours along with a collection of neutral colourless cards. Each colour has a general style and unique mechanical traits to further define it. Intelligence, for example, cares more about non-creature spells, Agility is able to shift lanes and Yellow is focused on spawning multiple small creatures, similar to how White typically works in Magic.

Each colour can be combined with another, resulting in ten classes in total, such as the Battlemage (Blue/Red) and Spellsword (Yellow/Purple). Taking their cues from a typical Magic set, each two colour class has their own identity that combines various cards from both colours, making for intuitive deck building for beginners, along with variety and depth for veteran card game players. Furthermore, each two colour combination also has access to a handful of unique multi-colour cards that typically enhance that classes core strategy.

Elder Scrolls: Legends goes one step further by allowing you to also craft mono-coloured decks, and provides several incentives for doing so. Some cards receive a bonus should the top card of your deck have the same colour. In effect it’s the main way that Bethesda’s game handles RNG; giving you a random chance of getting something good, but also putting in place the potential for deck building ideas.

Overall, the core colour system is simple but effective. It takes its core influence from Magic: The Gathering’s colour wheel, splitting the strongest cards across multiple different colours so that the  “best” cards can’t all simply be shoved into the same deck. Likewise, the two-colour class system is similar to Hearthstone, but gives the game potentially more freedom and design choices, since cards aren’t intrinsically locked to a particular class (well, other than the dual-colour cards) but instead come from their respective colours.

The much-talked about feature in Elder Scrolls: Legends in a lot of early video footage is the rune system. Players start at thirty life, just like Hearthstone, but for each five life lost a rune is broken from that character’s avatar and a card is drawn. In effect it “supercharges” the tempo/card advantage dynamic that goes on in many card games. As a general rule of thumb, the aggressor or “beatdown” in a match is willing to spend card advantage for greater tempo in an attempt to overwhelm their opponent. Conversely, the defender attempts to play for card advantage, that is, spend less cards on a card-for-card basis when dealing with their opponents threats, so that they have the advantage the longer the game goes on.

By giving the defender an extra card for each five life lost it adds an interesting conundrum for many matches. Does an aggressive player with a stronger board push earlier with their damage in order to potentially threaten with lethal damage earlier? Or, do they bide their time so as to not let their opponent draw too many additional cards? In many games I played I would happily let opponents with faster decks hit my life total in order to draw extra cards. Occasionally however, this would backfire as I allowed myself to become too low on life. Part of the skill of Elder Scrolls: Legends will come down to managing risk versus reward when it comes to rune breaking.

The rune system also opens up some more design space. Nords, which are centred in Strength and Willpower, gain bonuses for breaking enemy runes, incentivizing aggressive plays at the cost of providing your opponent with more card advantage.

It’s also appropriate to talk about Prophecy cards whilst mentioning the rune system, since the two mechanics are interlinked. Cards with the Prophecy ability can be played for free if they are drawn as a result of a rune breaking. This is by far my least favourite element of Elder Scrolls: Legends design. As a mechanic it feels frustrating to play against, random, and simply not all that interesting.

If I was to compare the mechanic to anything it would be Magic: The Gathering’s “Miracle” cards. Miracles were an utterly stupid mechanic introduced in one of the game’s more recent sets. In short, Miracles could be played substantially cheaper if they were drawn from the top of your deck at the beginning of your turn. In many instances, cards that would cost a substantial amount of resources would cost very little to play.

I don’t need to explain why this mechanic was dumb. It highlighted perhaps the worst element of any card game with a random draw pile: the threat of the top-deck. It’s not that the cards were necessarily overpowered, although it is worth pointing out that in Magic’s case many of the cards with the Miracle ability did go on to be potent additions to many competitive decks. No, the problem is more that mechanics like this draw attention towards rather than away from the weakest aspect of their respective game. Regardless of whether or not a Miracle card was responsible for winning a game or not, they felt like they were solely responsible: ergo, they emphasized the feeling that the player that won the game did so through luck.

On the surface Prophecy cards feel awfully similar to me. Granted, there are ways to potentially play around many of the more devastating Prophecy draws, promoting player skill above random events. Still, they are the biggest aspect of the game that I’m most worried about. It seems strange that, when you’re already rewarding the player who is being attacked with additional cards, that you’re also providing them with the opportunity to play a spell or two for free.

One of the most interesting aspects of Elder Scrolls: Legends, for me, was undoubtedly going to be the Arena. I’m a Limited player at heart, so any card game that’s built around allowing me to draft my own deck is almost always going to get my attention. Bethesda don’t beat about the bush with this aspect of the game, it’s a straight up Hearthstone clone. And to be honest, that’s totally fine, Duelyst has similarly co-opted the format and that game likewise has benefited from it. If it ain’t broke, don’t try and fix it.

What’s interesting about Elder Scrolls: Legends' take on the Arena format is down to its cards. Like I said earlier, a great deal of effort has gone into given each two-colour combination its own identity through its unique class. At the start of an Arena run you get to choose from three randomly selected classes which will determine your colours.

Where things get interesting is the potential of the game’s card pool. Many of Elder Scrolls: Legends cards function as build-around-me cards, being potentially underwhelming on their own, but devastating if drafted into a cohesive strategy with a good mind for synergy.

Take Dres Tormenter, a card that screams to built around. For me, it’s design elements like this that give the game a real chance to shine. Build-around-me cards prevent Arena deck construction from devolving into “pick the strongest card, unless there’s major mana curve problems” auto-pilot mode. Cards like Dres Tormenter will range wildly in value depending on the composition of your deck, and the colour pair you are playing. Is the card better in Blue/Red, Blue/White or Blue/Green? I have no idea, but it’s the kind of thing I’ll be excited to learn as the game continues to develops.
Build-around-me cards like this encourage smart deck building and provide the game’s entire Arena environment, (and overall deck building), with significantly more depth.

This idea extends to the game’s two-colour pairings. From my experience already in Arena, I’d say that it’s entirely possible to have two players build wildly different decks with different strategies, from the exact same two colours. Much like a good Magic: The Gathering draft set, player skill, preferred strategies and the overarching meta-game will all have an effect on Elder Scrolls: Legends’ card-drafting gameplay.

The decision to also include a solo Arena, where players are able to take on computer-controlled opponents, was also an inspired choice. It can become difficult for new players to get to grips with Arena gameplay at first hand, especially if they are unfamiliar with similar card games, so the option to use the solo Arena as a training ground or trial run is a great idea.

It’s an inevitable aspect of card games that they have random elements. After all, part of the challenge of these card games is in minimising the effect that luck has on your ability to win. Computer game-based card games also have the unusual position to be able to utilize random elements in a way that traditional card games can’t. This is something that Hearthstone has clearly jumped upon, spitting out new chaotic effect expansion after expansion.

That’s also precisely part of the problem that the game has however; it’s obsession with random effects. In part, it’s beholden to them, they provide excitement and keep the game’s otherwise simple mechanics from becoming rote and stale. Despite what many, typically angry, players will say, random effects are usually fun to watch, especially for a game that’s deeply ingrained with online 24/7 streaming with its high profile players.

Yet, RNG can also lead to lazy design, and I’d certainly argue that has been the case with Hearthstone for some time now. Fortunately, Elder Scrolls: Legends does seem to distance itself from the haphazard randomness that afflicts Blizzard’s game. It certainly has random elements, a few cards will randomly provide effects and the “colour’s matters” cards, along with the Prophecy mechanic, all have a degree of chance involved.

At the moment however, I’d tentatively say that the game’s use of RNG has been balanced fairly well. In many instances, random cards have to be built around in order to improve their effectiveness, or RNG effects are limited by the board state that a particular player has. Rarely will Royal Sage turn the tide on its own, but its effect will clearly have a huge benefit to a player that’s been smartly managing their board state.

Even the game’s art style is a stark shift away from what Blizzard uses with Hearthstone. No bright primary colours, but instead a more dour, “serious” look that better fits the game’s source material.

This might seem like a minor thing to discuss for many players, but I’d argue that design and visual style owe a lot of how a game feels to play. Early expansions of Magic: The Gathering have some utterly gorgeous pieces of art, and the first decade of the game allowed it to cultivate a distinct tone and style that was clearly fantasy, but very much its own take on fantasy.

At the risk of getting off topic, I’d argue that if there’s one thing that Blizzard have done which has driven me nuts over the years, it’s the transformation of the popular fantasy art style. Prior to World of Warcraft, fantasy was typically much stranger, bleaker and in some cases rather melancholy, which made the fantasy MMO's stocky, primary-coloured visuals stand out as a light-hearted contrast.

Fast forward though, and it seems every fantasy title in whatever medium has “borrowed” the trappings of Blizzard’s style. Mixing in brighter colours and slightly more stylized visuals. It might work for World of Warcraft, but it’s made many other fantasy worlds seem far more bland in recent years. Take a look at many modern Magic: The Gathering cards and you’ll see the gradual shift towards the “Blizzard-style” of fantasy art, along with a more safe, commercial sensibility; well defined, "blocky" characters and bright colours, nothing too abstract.

Naturally, given its adaptation from existing video games, Elder Scrolls: Legends has a different base to work from. So far, I’d say it’s doing a good job of combining a somewhat unique art style with its gameplay. It’s clear Bethesda are aiming to make the game the “grown up” alternative to Hearthstone both in terms of the deeper gameplay mechanics and its more “realistic” artwork.

Obviously, in addition to my bigger issues with the Prophecy mechanic, there’s a few issues that I feel the game could have handled better. Given that’s it’s still a work in progress, these are a few minor aspects I think the game could work on prior to its full launch.

Firstly, naming cards that specifically spawn from other cards. I hate how Animal Companion works in Hearthstone, not necessarily because it’s random (although that’d be a whole other story) but how a new player has no concept over what they’re getting. “Summon a random animal” could literally be just about anything.

Unfortunately, Elder Scrolls: Legends features several cards that have the exact same idea but goes no way to fixing this problem. A card like Divayth Fyr references a “Daughter of Fyr” that to my knowledge doesn’t exist in any way other than from being spawned by this card. My problem isn’t with the card specifically, but how a new player has no idea what a “Daughter of Fyr” is. The solution to this would be to have the spawned card pop up to the side whenever you hover over a card like this, so that you know how they work, similar to keyword abilities.

Another issue currently is with the “colour matters” cards. If Elder Scrolls: Legends were a physical card game, the top card of the deck would have to be revealed to prevent cheating. Even though it’s a digital card game, I still feel this should be the way the mechanic is handled. At the moment,, all that happens is a cross or tick flashes over the card as it’s played. It’s not a particularly eye-catching and it can be hard to notice what’s happened at times. Furthermore, revealing the top card would add a little more strategy to the mechanic by giving both player’s a bit of information to work with. This is how Hearthstone handles its “joust” mechanic, and I feel it’s how the “colour matters” mechanic should work in Elder Scrolls: Legends.

Overall, I think Elder Scrolls: Legends is shaping up to be a great addition to the online CCG genre. Alongside the incredibly fun Duelyst, it offers a genuine alternative to Hearthstone, and hopefully the pressure of similar games competing in the same environment will encourage Blizzard to think more carefully about how they expand and improve their game in the future. It might not quite scratch the card game itch as deeply as Magic: The Gathering does, but, as a calculated halfway house between Hearthstone’s simplicity and smart visual design and Magic’s incredible depth, Elder Scrolls: Legends manages to strike a good balance.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

Sheltered - Review

Developer: Unicube
Publisher: Team 17 Digital Ltd
Platforms: PC (version played), Xbox One, PS4 

A nine year old girl is currently being left to handle both my family’s radio broadcasts and fix up the bunker’s generator, whenever it decides to conk out. If I ask her to fix the generator she’ll nonchalantly whip out a blowtorch and get to work. A nine year old using a blowtorch. Welcome to Sheltered.

Post-apocalypse survival games are a hard genre to reinvent. The core gameplay is already laid down; scrounge, build, improve, survive and repeat, so it can be hard for developers to improve upon the genre in any meaningful way. This is the glaring problem with Unicube’s Sheltered, a perfectly serviceable survival game that simply struggles to present any major new ideas.

The central premise of Sheltered plays out like a 50/50 mix of The Sims and the sublime This War of Mine, mixing your typical scrounge-and-survive gameplay with the strangely addictive, motive-based system of EA’s sandbox juggernaut. In practical terms, this means alongside having to send out your family on trips through irradiated wasteland to pick up supplies, you also have to make sure a toilet is built so that a member of your group doesn’t shit on the floor.

As a central gameplay conceit, the idea of mixing survival elements with The Sims’ moreish gameplay seems rather interesting. And it has to be said there’s something weirdly addictive about watching your family’s survival shelter slowly take shape, as you carve out new rooms with cement you pick up, or build a freezer so that you can start storing meat harvested from the local wildlife. As a simple game, Sheltered is never short of playable.

Where Sheltered does fall short is in its overall atmosphere. This is a game that’s sharply lacking in its own identity, the basic visuals and simplistic survival mechanics mean that there’s little to get invested in here. Whereas the likes of This War of Mine quickly immerse you in the lives of your group, in Sheltered the characters feel more like artificial units that you merely order about.

A lot of this immersion issue can also be traced to the basic gameplay loop. While some of your group are left to look after the base, you’ll frequently have to select some of your survivors and have them plot out an expedition to gather resources. After marking out where they’re going (trips further from the shelter require more water, arguably the most important commodity during the first few hours of gameplay) the expedition team sets off on their merry way.

Every so often any groups out on expedition will report back, usually to tell you what they’ve found supplies, but occasionally it’ll be because they’ve encountered someone or something. Sheltered’s negotiation system is woefully lacking from the get go, a basic stat system has various points assigned to five different categories; strength, dexterity, observation, charisma and intelligence. Strength and dexterity are primarily for determining combat, whilst charisma and intelligence are there to handle recruitment and trading opportunities.

I’d be lying if I ever noticed charisma and intelligence having any noticeable impact, however. My father and son scavenging team were both utter delinquents with dreadful social skills (the father had only a single point in charisma and two in intelligence, so I suspect he resolved most conversations with monosyllabic grunts), yet they handled random encounters with strangers and traders in essentially the exact same way as anyone else.

Likewise, combat is kept simple. Fights involving wild dogs and bears, along with hostile survivors, are handled in a turn-based manner, with each character taking their turn to deal out attacks, defend or attempt to disarm their opponent. If there’s something to be criticised about the game’s combat it’s that it rarely becomes something to worry about. For a game about carving out life in a nuclear-blasted landscape, there’s very little danger.

This also affects life in your shelter. There’s the option to build various traps, hideouts and stock up on ammunition, but it never became an issue at any time during my playthrough. Almost everyone that arrived at my family’s shelter were friendly.

What all of this means is that Sheltered quickly lapses into boredom after a brief early game of getting those vital amounts of food and water. Most of its other challenges are artificial; despite having all the supplies in the world available to me, I couldn’t store them for several hours, because I didn’t have the last nail needed to craft a new box.

Crafting systems are understandably a great way to extend a game’s life, and provide a level of context to survival games like this. However, when they’re utilized in such a brain-dead way, they become laughable, rather than engaging; another hoop to jump through rather than a way to immerse the player.

Which brings things back full circle to the immersion problem. Sheltered, whilst not terrible in any way, fails to engage, and that lack of engagement quickly turns to boredom. Worse,  its attempts at creating emotion come across laughable rather than moving. This is a game where killing a wild bear that’s threatening you and your son triggers the exact same response as murdering two people in cold blood. Also, there’s something oddly hilarious about a game that allows children to expertly wield blowtorches, but stubbornly insists they use toys to cheer themselves up, whilst parents are allowed books as a stress relief.

For all these niggles and complaints, like I said earlier, Sheltered is never particularly bad as a game, it just comes across as if it were designed by robots, rather than people. The decision to choose a different pet at the outside (there’s five to choose in total) has the most important impact on your strategy in the early game. The horse for example, is the most resource intensive, requiring more food, but also allowing you to carry more supplies on each expedition. Contrast this with the humble goldfish, who only cheers up your group, but doesn’t require much maintenance.

Similarly,  despite looking simple, there’s clearly an attempt by the developers to inject the visuals with a particularly style. The eerie soundtrack, reminiscent of John Carpenter, adds some much-needed menace and danger to a game that desperately needs it, but frequently lacks it. Combined with the weirdly psychedelic backdrops; all bright pinks and greens amidst a skyline of bombed out skyscrapers, and you can definitely see a unique style that the developers were going for, even if the game fails to get there.

If you were to assess the game purely on its technical merits, Sheltered would succeed. Looked at holistically however, the game fails to separate itself from similar games that have done far more with the same tools.