Friday, 23 December 2016

2016 Wrap-Up

I’ve reviewed a whole lot of games this year. Including the ones I’ve yet to post on the site, I’m guessing this is the most I’ve covered in a single year.

That being said, there’s still some games that I don’t get round to finishing, or didn’t play enough of to feel comfortable writing a comprehensive review. My rule is that if I’ve reviewed it, I’ve finished it. This means there were some games that got left behind this year; ones that I picked up but never got around to finishing, or only played a portion of.

As this year winds down, I thought it would be a good time to go over some of these titles and give you my impressions of some of the more notable ones.

I didn’t technically quit Aragami, Aragami quit me. No, really, it crapped out on me. About halfway through the game, a level just bugged out and wouldn’t load the relevant item I needed to continue. The only choice was to either repeat the whole level again, or quit.

Not that I was all that impressed by what I’d played. Initially, the combination of Tenchu and Mark of Kri was a great idea, but the stiff controls, bland world and poor story failed to draw me in.

It also didn’t help that the PS4 port was rough. In addition to the bug that stopped me from progressing, the game’s performance was a choppy and uneven mess, which is a death sentence for this kind of game. I have no idea how good the PC version plays, but the PS4 is definitely not the way to experience this.

What I played of Darkest Dungeon was pretty darn great. The random dungeons, the team-based strategy. Roguelikes sometimes walk a fine line between having you make strategy and just throwing randomness at you. Too little randomness and it becomes repetitive, too much and the game risks creating the impression that you’re not really in control of what’s going on.

When you factor in that Red Hook Studios go for a Lovecraftian/Dark Souls vibe in terms of the aesthetic and tone of the game, it’s surprising that the whole thing is as tight and cohesive as it is. Don’t get me wrong, there were times where I was totally screwed regardless of what I chose to do in a particular encounter, or I’d open a crate and a curse would thrust the souls of all my adventures into an alternate dimension. It’s a game where you have to roll with the (eldritch) punches.

What made the game click though was the synergy between the different classes, and I loved the added strategy of positioning units in optimal ranks. Sometimes, a character’s role would change depending on where they were put. There was depth to the mechanics, and yet the core gameplay was so simple.

What I’m saying is Darkest Dungeons is bloody good. I half expect, had I already finished it, it would have been somewhere on my top games of the year. There’s also been a PS4 and Vita release earlier this year, and whilst I played on PC, I keep meaning to pick up a copy for my Vita. This is the kind of game that’s made for portable hardware.

I wrote about Elder Scrolls Legends earlier this year but didn’t get around to writing about Duelyst. I got into the game shortly before it was officially released, whilst it was still in open beta. If you’ve not played it, it’s a fabulous combination of turn-based grid combat and a trading card game.

By far the biggest strengths of the game are the fact that it doesn’t encourage randomness. Hearthstone is all over place when it comes to its RNG. Even Elder Scrolls Legends keeps turning me away with its clunky Prophecy mechanic, which I like less and less the more I play the game.

Duelyst rewards smart positioning of your units, and even rewards hand management by allowing you to replace a card each turn with one that’s remaining in your deck. It makes for less matches that come down to just snow-balling your opponent, and more about which player can best execute their strategy. Its sprite art is gorgeous to boot.

Last time I checked the game had gotten a bunch of new heroes which added even more available strategies, along with a new expansion. Oh, and the loot drops from booster packs (or spheres, in Duelyst’s case) are far better overall than in similar games. Duelyst is free-to-play and sticks to that better than most other titles in the genre.

If you’ve not played it, I do recommend you check it out. The chess-like movement might put some trading-card fans off at first, but stick with it, it’s well worth your time.

I feel guilty not talking about Tokyo Mirage Sessions. It’s one of the Wii U’s weirder exclusives this year and I’ve made it clear on several occasions how much I’m a fan of the Shin Megami Tensei series. Between the core series and the Persona games, Atlus are making the most innovative and beautifully crafted modern Japanese RPGs that actually push the genre forward.

Fire Emblem is great, too, and it makes you wonder why there wasn’t a cross-over like this some time sooner. Both series have combat mechanics that reward targeting weaknesses; Fire Emblem with its weapon wheel and SMT with its Press-Turn system. Tokyo Mirage Sessions throws all of this into a mixing pot and comes out with a remarkably good dungeon-crawling RPG.

The plot is a bit weird and probably a little too bright and saccharine after the darker storylines of Persona 3 & 4, with the tone being somewhere between Glee and an episode of Power Rangers.

In some ways, the game is rather slight when compared to the series’ that spawned it. The character progression seems rather linear, and considering it doesn’t have any social-interaction segment to break up the dungeon-crawling, it did begin to feel a little one-note after I’d finished a few dungeons.

Despite that, it’s one I’ll eventually have to return to, and the kind of game that’d definitely benefit from being ported to the Nintendo Switch in the near future.

Speaking of Fire Emblem, we got two whole Fire Emblem games this year, three if you count the hefty DLC episode, Revelation. That’s a whole lot of Fire Emblem.

At the time of writing this I’ve got about half way through Birthright and I don’t know really why I stopped. The gameplay is fantastic, and I had a blast with Fire Emblem Awakening last year, so I don’t really have an excuse for stopping.

One thing that I think probably did slow me down is that I actually found the game rather easy. Awakening was my first Fire Emblem game and so I set Birthright on Normal mode, anticipating that the game would thoroughly maul me if I didn’t. And yet, I haven’t really found it all that challenging. I’ve heard that Conquest is the significantly more difficult of the two instalments, so maybe Birthright is deliberately easier than a regular Fire Emblem game to balance it out.

If you’re on the fence about jumping in, don’t hesitate. Birthright is a great game from what I’ve played, and the response to Conquest and is Revelation is equal to, if not better, than the praise that Birthright has received.

Yomawari: Night Alone came at just the wrong time for me to really invest time in it. Between the bigger releases, and a few other games here and there, it was one that I decided to drop pretty quickly.

It’s a novel game, for sure. The gorgeous art-style and Studio Ghibli-gone-bad tone made for a really interesting atmosphere. It’s also one of the few, “proper” horror games to be released this year, so it did do plenty to pique my interest.

I didn’t play a ton of the game so you’ll have to take my opinion here with a pinch of salt. My biggest bugbear was that the core of the game was little more than your basic hide-and-seek mechanic. You wander around town, doing various things, all the while dodging strange (and wonderfully designed) monsters, lest you get touched even once.

The bare bones mechanics didn’t really entice me. Perhaps it was the case of simply coming out at the wrong time, but I didn’t regret stopping playing Yomawari. It looked and sounded great, but I never found it all that engaging to play.

Obviously, if it turned out to be a masterpiece and I just ignored it, feel free to call me a fool.

These were just a few of the games that I played but didn’t get the chance to write about this year. It’s been a busy year for the site, and, despite how stressful it’s been between juggling other obligations and keeping the website ticking over it’s been great to watch it grow. My little corner of the internet is very small, but if visitor stats are anything to go by (you know who you are), we’re seeing a slow and steady increase in traffic.

This’ll be the last post for the year before I go on a temporary hiatus. I’ll be back around mid January with regular posts, some more video content, and some new ideas for expanding the site.

So my last thing to say for 2016 is simply to wish everyone a merry Christmas and a happy New Year!

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

LogicButton's Best Games of 2016

This year has been a mediocre year for games releases. So much of what we’ve been expecting for this generation still seems to be on hold, as both Sony and Microsoft put energy into releasing “improved” hardware before even justifying the hardware that people purchased just under three years ago. If there was phrase to sum up 2016, it would be “still loading”.

All that being said, there have been some solid releases this year. Covering games is different to movies and music in the sense that it’s impossible to cover everything that comes out. Two or three RPGs will take up more time than a handful of smaller games, so it can be difficult to get a conclusive overview of the whole year.

Choosing a top five list is kind of strange in a way because you have to decide on a criteria to base it on. If I did it purely in terms of the game I’ve spent the most time with, that’d be Street Fighter V, and I’ve had a ton of fun playing that game, despite my myriad of issues with it. However, there’s no way in good conscience I can put a game like Street Fighter V on my best of year list, considering it still feels like a game that’s being developed as it goes along.

So I suppose you could say my top five games of this year are the games that I genuinely feel brought something fresh to gaming, or at least made me remember why I love games so much. It’s not been the best nor the worst year for game’s releases, and there’s still been a few gems to pick out of all the chaff.

This list comes with the caveat that there’s still a handful of 2016 releases I’ve not had the chance to play yet; Stardew Valley, Pokemon Sun & Moon, Dishonored 2, Dead Rising 4, Telltale’s Batman and The Last Guardian. So keep that in mind.

With that note out of the way, here’s my picks for the top five games of 2016.

The bathed-in-acid visual style and unsettling “is it an adventure or a nightmare” is what made me put this on the list. There were so many games that were good and could have gone in this spot but I think it was the no-frills attitude of Hyper Light Drifter that made it what it is.

The gameplay is crisp and simple, but layered with little elements of strategy. There’s so many upgrades and weapons that you’re not going to feasibly acquire them all in one playthrough, and they’re all good enough that there’s no clear best upgrade/weapon to take at any one time.

Beyond the core mechanics, there’s the world design and an interesting spaced-out soundtrack that ebbs and flows from mystery to adventure. There’s a distinct melancholy tone to Hyper Light Drifter that I think is what makes it so impressive. It doesn’t dole this out to the player in a heavy-handed manner but rather lets them pull together their own interpretation of what’s happening.

After Hotline Miami,  retro-wave visuals have become more and more popular, and I think Hyper Light Drifter is a great example of taking that influence and doing something novel with it.

I still can’t get over how terrible that title is but it doesn’t change the fact that this game is so much fun. Multi-player shooters are not my thing, at least in terms of the kinds of games I have a tendency to gravitate towards, and yet, I can’t get enough of Overwatch.

The character design/selection is what makes this game. It works in the same way that a good fighting game does: the characters draw players in. I said it in my review, but “maining” character in Overwatch makes little sense; it’s a game about reacting to various team compositions, but I totally understand why players talk about maining characters. The designs themselves draw players to particular characters and it’s this aspect, along with the simple to understand mechanics, that make it so damn addictive.

Aside from the production design, I was thinking, in terms of its gameplay, what sets Overwatch apart, and I think I’ve cracked it. It cherry-picks the best parts of online FPS games (the core shooting), fighting games (the character designs) and Pokemon (reacting to friendly and opposing team compositions) and distils the best from all three genres.

Basically, Blizzard concocted some gaming form of alchemy.

Doom has a map screen. Doom has a map screen that I actually had to use on multiple occasions to orient myself about a level. That alone puts the game on an entire different plane to most other modern shooters.

The level design, the weapons and the monsters, they’re all great. The big kicker though, was that it didn’t pander to fans of the original games. I’ve played Doom and Doom II, I don’t need reminding of what made those games so good, I want something new, fresh and original. Sure, Doom gives obvious nods to the previous games, even the third instalment, but it does it without indulging in shameless nostalgia-pandering.

Dark Souls 3 left me a little disappointed by how much it relied on its own sense of series nostalgia to make sequences more memorable. Doom of all games was the one to avoid that.

Oh, and the map editor. Doom meets Harvest Moon. This is a thing and it is glorious.

The sheer creativity of this game is astounding. I went into Planet Robobot expecting good things. Triple Deluxe was a solid platformer, but that was it. Solid, dependable and conventional.

Planet Robobot just has ideas. No single level of this game is filler, it just hops, glides and floats effortlessly from one stage to the next, doling out more power-ups and more funky concepts one after the other.

The robot suit could have been a gimmick, but by building it into the levels so well it elevates Kirby’s core transformation mechanics. All of a sudden there’s tons of more forms to play around with, and each has their own unique qualities and advantages. It’s like playing through a platform game with a bevy of Super Smash Bros. characters.

And I'm pretty sure that the final boss was meant to be a parody of Donald Trump. That’s an automatic bonus point.

If  we’re going on the game I enjoyed playing the most this year, this is it, bar none. This cross-over really shouldn’t work. It’s Pokemon, it’s Tekken and it’s Street Fighter and those really shouldn’t all manage to blend together so well.

My Machamp is a beast in this game. Ok, probably not any more because I’ve not played in a while but damn if that command throw wasn’t so darn satisfying. It’s rather hard to pin-point what worked so well in this game, but I think what makes it click is how it balances its accessibility with its depth.

More than that I think that the fact that it plays with both 2D and 3D game space simultaneously, and also makes that a game mechanic in and of itself with the phase shift mechanic is what, makes it so ingenious. Pokken Tournament is a game that just about anyone can pick up and play, but it also manages to have oodles of depth and smart design beneath its surface charm.

If there’s one game that the Nintendo Switch needs to get a port of, it’s this.

Those are my top picks for 2016. As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s been a middling sort of year for new releases on the whole. Despite that, there have been plenty of gems. With Sony and Microsoft hopefully getting their (somewhat pointless) mid-generation reboot out of the way with the PlayStation Pro and Scorpio, we can get back to focusing on what matters; games.

Friday, 16 December 2016

Final Fantasy XV - Review

Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One 

Ten years. Final Fantasy XV’s development time is notorious. A whole decade, and half of that time the game was a side story to Final Fantasy XIII’s weird, convoluted extended universe. The fact that Final Fantasy XV exists at all, in any form whatsoever, is something of a miracle.

Factoring in that lengthy development time is important when discussing Final Fantasy XV. Not only did the game see an extensive shift in focus, jettisoning the connection to Final Fantasy XIII, the game also saw a change of director, with Tetsuya Nomura being replaced with Hajime Tabata.

This is perhaps the best explanation for why Final Fantasy XV is all over the place. This sprawling, sometimes epic, sometimes shallow, Frankenstein’s monster of a game is nothing short of a mess. It’s an open world RPG, but only for the first half, and even then, only when it wants to be. It’s also a road movie (well, game) about four friends sticking together, but it’s also a fantasy epic about warring countries and magic crystals. Final Fantasy XV is a game built on the corpses of several others and damn does it show.

The aforementioned road movie aspect would seem to be how the game wants to be remembered. Prince Noctis and his band of friends start the game pushing their clapped-out car to the nearest garage, whilst Florence and the Machine play “Stand By Me” over the scene.

Its cast at the very least have more heart in them than the weird, soulless voids that masqueraded as characters in Final Fantasy XIII. Final Fantasy XV might have you running around with a group of characters that look like a J-Pop boy band but they at least have some humanity to them.

The other big side step is avoiding linearity. The open world RPG aspect is Final Fantasy XV at its most modern and most conventional. It’s The Witcher 3 meets Xenoblade Chronicles. Here’s a huge stretch of land, go forth and explore it. Other ideas are lifted from Square Enix’s back catalogue. Monster hunts comprise a hefty chunk of this game’s side content, and function essentially the same as they did in Final Fantasy XII.

You even get to drive your car around from location to location, and there’s certainly something enjoyable about simply soaking in the landscape as hills roll past and the sun begins to set. Game-as-road movie is an unbelievably fun concept; camping to level up and restore yourself overnight, picking up monster hunts to pool some money together to get you to the next town. When Final Fantasy XV ignores all of its other nonsense to focus on living out the back of a car it latches on to a really promising concept.

Step beyond the boundaries of the open road however, and the game’s world collapses right in front of you. Don’t go thinking about driving that car by yourself, it’ll just railroad you back into the middle of the road, whilst invisible barriers prevent you from crashing into oncoming traffic. Its world is hollow, devoid of interesting things to see and do. The litany of side quests are pulled from the standard MMO structure of “go to A, pick up/kill B”. The game has size and scope but nothing to show for it other than pretty vistas.

The game’s combat is the real killer, though. Final Fantasy is a series that’s become enamoured with the visual cacophony of Advent Children’s fight scenes. Characters no longer obey basic laws of physics, and instead can perform superhuman feats for no explainable reason, all in tightly choreographed sequences. This began to bleed into the games starting with Kingdom Hearts 2, and then again with Final Fantasy XIII.

Final Fantasy XV continues this obsession, moving the combat to real-time. Combat is rendered idiot-proof; holding one button will launch Noctis into a string of sword-flourishes and acrobatic lunges as he zips and warps around enemies. Meanwhile, holding another button will have Noctis dodge enemy attacks automatically provided he has the MP reserves to do so. He can also engage the enemy with a warp strike in order to quickly close the distance.

I can’t stress this point enough, the entire combat system of the game is governed by two buttons, three at best. There’s no strategy or meaningful decision-making to be had mid-fight. Whilst it’s in real-time, there’s no rhythm to enemy attacks, monsters rarely have clear tells that telegraph their attacks so that you can respond in time. It’s a case of holding down a button and waiting for whatever you’re fighting to eventually die.

Noctis’ party also suffer from a severe lack of interaction. Prompto, Ignis and Gladiolus accompany Noctis throughout the game’s campaign, and, bar the occasional guest character, are the only party members you’ll have.

Your input into how they go about combat is minimal, however. All three characters have a different weapon type available to them (Noctis isn’t bound by this, and can equip any weapon), further reducing the strategy involved in arming each party member. Swords go to Gladiolus, guns to Prompto, knives to Ignis; the game does the work for you.

Each character also has a number of skills, or techniques, that they can use in combat. Again, the game throttles any life this mechanic would have by only allowing them to equip one at a time, and also forcing all three companions to share the same resource used to fuel these techniques. It also doesn’t help that many of them have vague properties outside of “does a lot of damage”. I have a hard time working out why Gladiolus hitting things with a shield is better/worse than him battering everything with his sword. When the game doesn’t simply make every decision for the player it instead leaves the scope of its game systems vague and poorly defined.

All of these skills, along with a number of other upgrades, are unlocked through the Ascension Grid, a basic wheel-and-spoke upgrade system slightly similar to Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid. It’s here where you realize that Final Fantasy XV is barely an RPG. Upgrades have the same generic, all-purpose quality that you see in your average open-world game; “chain attacks do more damage”, “dodging costs less MP”. You don’t build your characters over hours of play, they’re simply built for you in a vague fluffy sense that prevents you from investing in your own playstyle.

The final wrinkles of the game’s awful combat are loosely cribbed from Xenoblade Chronicles, but with no clear understanding of why they worked in that game. The one area of “skill” in combat, when the clunky controls and dreadful camera allow, is flanking enemies and delivering back attacks, resulting in bonus damage and combos with Noctis’ team mates.

Only, there’s no real way to influence enemy aggression in Final Fantasy XV, not in a reliable way anyhow. Part of what made Xenoblade Chronicles so engaging was the basic, Shulk/Reyn dynamic that was expanded upon and made more complex as the game progressed and the party expanded; part of your group was designed to take damage, the other deal it. Final Fantasy XV on the other hand has everything descend into a confusing morass of poor camerawork and hyper-active fights that practically play themselves.

Ramuh, Titan and Leviathan appear as the game’s primary summons, and the latter two are both integral to the overarching plot, as well as major boss battles. Here, Final Fantasy XV gives up any pretence of strategy, with both battles being a clumsy trudge through quick-time events.

There’s little payoff for acquiring these summons either. Like with everything else in Final Fantasy XV’s summoning system are completely random and only occur when the game decides. I suppose you could say this is a suitable way of portraying the game’s summons as capricious and aloof gods that only act on their own whims. The fact that the game places quite a hefty focus on them, though, story-wise, only to have them shoved in the background moments later is underwhelming to say the least.

Magic also suffers from a shallow game system. In fact, magic can be all but ignored and the player won’t suffer. Fire, ice and lightning magic can be drawn from various points throughout the world and then combined with magic flasks in your inventory. Combining the magic with additional items will have bizarre effects, again, with little explanation as to why these items would work in this fashion. Throw a few lightning spells together with a few trinkets and a bit of ice magic and all of a sudden you have quad-cast Thundaga.

All of these issues are only half of what Final Fantasy XV has to offer, though. This is a game that can be clearly divided into two distinct halves that only highlight its troubled development. After the first ten hours or so, more if you delve deeper into the side content, the world narrows, chapters become more linear and cut-scene heavy, while the confused and awkwardly edited story go off the rails.

I mean that literally, too, as most of the latter half of the game takes place on a train. After the first chunk of the game puts the emphasis on its primary cast of characters, the later portions of the game rushes from scene to scene, with the plot becoming increasingly unhinged as it goes along. The Nilfheim Empire is mentioned but very rarely shown, the key players in the political power struggle, that acts as a catalyst for the game’s events, are hinted at but very rarely shown. Occasionally, characters will talk about events that just happened, but the player will not see any of it. Conversely, lavish cut-scenes will show things happening at various parts of the adventure with no context whatsoever. Trying to pick out a story thread in Final Fantasy XV is a nightmare by the halfway mark.

The latter half of Final Fantasy XV is rushed, clearly, even by the uneven and frustrating standards of the first half of the game. Worse than that though is what the game chooses to spend its time upon in the rush towards its finale.

The game frequently gives up being an RPG or an action game and instead flirts with other genres. There’s a whole section involving stealth, and like everything else its rendered pointless by the fact that only one button is used to do everything. In what is perhaps the most bizarre decision, the game’s penultimate chapter takes a weird turn into survival horror, with hiding spots and key cards that need to be acquired.

Someone could perhaps see this as bold experimentation. After all, one of the biggest problems of the long-running series has been its inability to modify and evolve its established formula. Yet, these weird gameplay sequences and experiments aren’t born out of creativity, but out of fear. They come across as a developer throwing everything at the wall in the hope that something sticks, dredging up every cliché of modern game design; bland open world, copy-paste quests, hide-and-seek horror, and generic stealth. Perhaps the best comparison would be Resident Evil 6, another game that attempts to solve its ageing game design by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink.

Final Fantasy XV is a bad game. Its combat is frustrating and linear, its story incomprehensible and its world bland and lifeless. There are scraps of something interesting in its laid back road movie moments, where it throws out the fighting and the nonsense story and instead invests in its characters love of photography, cooking and fishing. Of course, even this is partially ruined by the vulgar product placement (this is a fantasy world, remember) for Coleman camping equipment and Cup Noodles.

Nothing escapes the fact that the majority of the game is a horrible mess that’s barely stapled together. It’s gaming’s equivalent of Suicide Squad. If this is what we’re left with after ten years, there’s the impression that the whole thing would have been best left on the cutting room floor.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Silent Hill Commentary - Part 4

The final part of my Silent Hill commentary and analysis. This covers the final portion of the game, along with two of the game's endings.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Titanfall 2 - Review

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

Titanfall was the natural evolution of Modern Warfare’s stop-and-pop shooter-fest. It was bold, too, by modern shooter standards, completing eschewing the single player campaign (because, let’s be honest, the hardcore fans of these types of games couldn’t care less, they’re here for the multiplayer), and jumping wholeheartedly into an online-only experience.

This has certainly worked out for some games. Overwatch is great fun, and part of the reason I suspect is because it’s so laser-focused on its core game design of team-based combat. It has nothing else to distract it from that one important goal.

It’s with a bit of disappointment then, that Titanfall 2 caves in a little and doles out a single player campaign this time. I’ve mentioned multiple times on this site that I’m typically not the kind of player that enjoys hours of player-versus-player combat, and usually prefer the slower pace of a good single player game. Yet, Titanfall was oodles of fun, and I doubt having a solo campaign would have made it any better.

Well, Titanfall 2 has proven me right. Just as games like Spec Ops: The Line and Bioshock 2 really don’t need tacked on multi-player, this game really didn’t need a tacked on story. It’s less a campaign and more a reluctant sigh; a box-checking exercise.

The solo campaign sticks you in the boots of Jack Cooper, a shooty-Mcshoot kind of guy who’s soon thrust into a budding human-robot bromance with dead-pan titan BT. The story tries to inject some charm into the proceedings, with dialogue choices and BT’s literal interpretation of metaphors, but the bland, gung-ho military plot and generic villains don’t do much to endear it. Likewise, the relationship between Jack and BT comes across less as genuine and more as a forced connection; an Emotional Moment that the game can shove on the back of the box, rather than something that’s earned.

Respawn try their hardest to do something gameplay-wise to give the single player some spark. Given the series’ focus on constant movement and rapid-fire reaction, the campaign plays out like a mix between Call of Duty and Mirror’s Edge. One entire level is devoted to zipping around a factory that’s constructing combat environments and shooting galleries. It’s weird and ridiculous, but arguably more inventive than it needed to be.

One level even throws in some time travel into the mix. Jack switches from past to present at the push of a button, turning the whole experience into some weird, platforming, rhythm-action game. It's a novel idea. There’s sparks of creativity in the single player campaign, it’s just that they’re wedged between filler.

At best the bulk of that filler acts as a tutorial, splitting up the chapters between basic fire fights and more spectacular mech-on-mech battles. They’re the highlight of the solo gameplay, primarily because stomping around in a mech is so darn fun.

Ironically, the biggest flaw here, aside from the general blandness of the whole affair, is the core shooting. Titanfall’s twitch-shooting is perfect for multiplayer, where one bad move and split-second decision can mean the difference between life and death. In  a solo environment however, it becomes tedious, and when divorced from the RPG-strategy aspects of tooling up your character, also lacks a lot of depth.

When set aside however, in favour of the multiplayer, Titanfall 2 is as much fun as the original. The core mechanics are still intact; momentum, shooter-twitch and a surprisingly robust and deep range of customization options give the online matches a surprising amount of longevity for players, regardless of their skill level.

A lot of the genius behind Titanfall’s combat comes from its level design. Maps have a solid mix of wide open spaces and smaller narrow corridors. It’s a brilliant way of balancing the lightning-fast, yet vulnerable, pilot gameplay with the lumbering strength you get as a Titan.

Titans have been given perhaps the most significant overhaul for the sequel. There’s now six classes in total. These range from the more agile Ronin chassis that’s capable of lightning-fast melee attacks through, to the hulking, chain-gun-wielding Legion titan.

One of the most important aspects of multiplayer combat is finding the right pacing, and that’s what the Titan’s manage to provide. There’s a solid “build-up”, for lack of a better word, to the combat in Titanfall 2’s online battles. Matches start out with a hoard of speedy pilots, and then, by the mid-point, the Titans start dropping in, completely shifting the focus and pace of the combat.

The pilot-on-titan combat has been given some tweaks from the original game, too. Yanking a battery out of a titan can be kept for your own or doled out to a team-mate’s mech, encouraging a degree of cooperation. Likewise, the range of anti-Titan weaponry has been boosted, ensuring that, whilst arguably at a disadvantage, pilots aren’t completely left in the lurch should they find themselves up against one of the super-sized robots.

Whilst Attrition, the game’s team deathmatch, is certainly its most popular game variant, Respawn do ensure there’s some variety.  Capture the Flag and Amped Hardpoint, a basic area control match based around three objectives, are the most conventional alternatives. There’s also Bounty Hunt, which uses the games AI units as a kind of scoring mechanism, with points needing to be “banked” between rounds to win the match.

Whilst there is variety in Titanfall 2’s matches, as with Overwatch, there’s an awkward pull between the gameplay’s focus and the alternative objectives that the game variants provide. Amped Hardpoint is a standard game mode for most online shooters, but in Titanfall 2 it almost contradicts the emphasis on movement and speed, with players instead locking down and defending points.

A few more maps also wouldn't go amiss. Titanfall had plenty of fairly memorable locales to battle in, but the sequel seems happy to dump you in generic, sci-fi industrial landscapes for the most part. Well-crafted the maps may be, but that doesn't mean they're all that exciting to look at.

Still, none of this takes away too much from the central thrill that Titanfall 2 provides. It’s a cautious update, and one that’s only going to get more cautious given the game’s lacklustre sales, but the improvements on the whole are welcome.

Ignore the single player campaign, or, if you really want to play it, treat it like a really long tutorial. Instead jump online and enjoy blasting the bejeezus out of everybody in a giant robot. Titanfall 2 might be slightly disappointing, given how refreshing the original was in 2014, and it might have to live under the shadow of Overwatch as this year’s best online shooter, but overall, it satisfies some really basic thrills, and sometimes that’s enough.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Silent Hill Commentary - Part 3

The third part of my commentary on the original Silent Hill. This part covers everything from the Floatstinger boss encounter through to the fight with Cybil.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Watch Dogs 2 - Review

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

Watch Dogs 2 is the game that the original Watch Dogs should have been. Having dumped the sulky, hypocritical murder-man Aiden Pearce for a much brighter, energetic and, most importantly, fun game world, Watch Dogs 2 lets itself breathe a little.

More than anything, Ubisoft’s sequel attempts to rectify the problems that plagued the first instalment. The hacking system, the side quests and the open world have all been given a total overhaul.

The setting sums up this change more than anything else. The sun-drenched locales of San Francisco are a far cry from the moody wind-swept streets of Chicago-France. The game’s cast likewise, is a complete 180 from the previous game, as the plot follows the exploits of a gang of hipster hacktivists taking on giant mega-corporation, Blume. It’s standard cyberpunk fare for sure, but Watch Dogs finally seems to have married its story with its gameplay in a way the original utterly failed to do.

And that gameplay has at least seen a much-needed improvement. Hacking was an interesting but sometimes tangential component to the original game; useful to have, but little more than pressing a few buttons here or there. Watch Dogs 2 fleshes it out a little more, giving you different abilities to tailor-make your desired approach. Go in heavy with shotguns and IEDs or take a stealthy approach, distracting guards with radio chatter or temporarily cutting the power.

It’s nothing mind-blowing, but it gives Watch Dogs 2’s environments are little more strategy and player-involvement than many similar open world games. Taking note of that pipe that can be hacked for your escape route, or distracting a bunch of guards by faking a police call make for a more engaging and fun sandbox to play around in. It’s the traditional gameplay only with a hint of Hitman: Blood Money thrown in, which is never a bad thing.

Likewise, the player advancement has been given a boost. Many open world games throw RPG elements in as little more than a check box exercise, with very little meaning to them. Watch Dogs 2 isn’t guilty-free of this by any stretch, it’s still no RPG, but it at least requires the player to tweak Marcus in their desired way, prioritising skills that they need, (the game separates the available skills into three vague classes; aggressor, ghost and tinkerer), moulding him into their desired playstyle.

The remote controlled drones are the icing on the cake, however. Marcus’ dinky little RC drone, and later on the hover drone, are great toys to play around with, and expand the scope of many of the games missions. My biggest obsession was seeing how many objectives I could complete just using the RC drone to hack into whatever computer I needed while Marcus stayed safe outside.

Whilst the open world aspect remains familiar, with point A to point B missions and general “go here and do this” objectives, Ubisoft have finally saw fit to remove some of the fat and bloat that drags down otherwise interesting ideas. Side quests are around, and they actually feel like side quests for a change; small self-contained chunks of story and gameplay cordoned off from the main plot.

It’s here where the game has you nurturing your inner troll. Hacking ATMs at the push of a button, doling out free tuitions to a struggling student or donating hedge fund managers income to charity, whilst not all that inventive in terms of gameplay, are strangely enjoyable and beat clearing out bland icons on a map like in Far Cry Primal earlier this year.

Fortunately, the online component remains unchanged. Watch Dogs’ online component was one of its best features, mixing Dark Souls-like invasions with Assassin’s Creed’s multiplayer format. There’s nothing more fun than hacking another player and watching them tear apart the environment looking for you, all whilst you hide behind a park bench.

This anarchic sense of fun extends to the main storyline, which is broken down into the typical string of missions that play out in an episodic fashion. It’s the weirder and more surreal missions, those that make a stab at social satire, that work the best. The main story’s highlight being when you’re tasked with breaking into what’s essentially the Church of Scientology and proving it’s all a hoax.

It’s the DeadSec gang, though, that gives the game a little more heart. Marcus Holloway is a decent protagonist; funny, geeky and with plenty of quips for good measure; everything that Aiden Pearce wasn’t. Yet, it’s the cast around him, especially Jonathan Dubsky’s portrayal of Josh, a young hacker with Asperger’s, that give the game characters worth investing in.

In fact Josh is possibly a better written character than anyone else in the entire game. Marcus is a fun protagonist but there’s little drive or motivation to his quest to the point where it’s almost more a series of isolated scenarios akin to a TV box set in terms of its story, complete with a villain of the week. The first hour or two of Watch Dogs 2 are also its weakest, primarily because the game rushes through its set-up, afraid that you’ll lose interest in anything beyond the zaniness of its cast.

In fact, the episodic nature of the main plot is what also hurts the game’s pacing later on. This a game that’s fun to mess around in, and has an interesting world, but its central story is all but non-existent, with a bland main villain and a poorly paced final act that builds up only to end suddenly.

Likewise, there’s the impression that the later missions were running out of ideas. There’s only so many places you can have players sneak/shoot their way in and hack something. Whilst Watch Dogs 2 is better than similar open world fare it’s not always free from the same copy-paste mission structure.

There’s a few stabs at left-wing political commentary to compliment the social satire that the game aims for. It’s not perfect, and there’s the constant conflict between the way the characters are portrayed and the fact that you can play the game as a murder-happy psycho. Its jabs at corporate power and state control are minor and rather obvious but well-intentioned enough.

Watch Dogs 2 is a reboot for the series. It brushes away everything that didn’t work in the previous instalment and gives it a new coat of paint. Don’t expect anything too radical here, this is still a game that fits perfectly into Ubisoft’s safe and predictable formula at this point. That being said, it’s also one of the more enjoyable open worlds to play around in this year.

Watch Dogs 2 is definitely a step in the right direction, but it is just that, only a step.