Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Silent Hill Commentary - Part 2

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

Friday, 25 November 2016

Gears of War 4 - Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Silent Hill Commentary - Part 1

Logic Button now has video support!

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

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

Friday, 18 November 2016

This Is The Police - Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 11 November 2016

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

Throwing Punches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Works

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 4 November 2016

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning Street Fighter

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

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

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

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

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

Arcade/Story Mode

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

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

Continued in Part 2