Saturday, 22 April 2017

Stories Untold - Review

Developer: No Code
Publisher: Devolver Digital 
Platforms: PC 

A quick glance at the game’s cover and you’ll already know what Stories Untold is going for. You’ve watched Stranger Things, right? Well, if not, go watch it.

Stories Untold is divided up into four interconnected short tales. Genre-wise they fit into that weird cross-over of part sci-fi, part horror and part something else entirely. There’s hints of Lovecraft, a dash of John Carpenter, and a host of other major and minor elements that run throughout the overarching story that glues together each tale.

The game itself is actually expanded from an original, shorter concept. “A House Abandoned” was initially a stand-alone text adventure but now, with some enhancements, serves as the opening episode of No Code’s mini quadrilogy.

It might go some way to explaining why “A House Abandoned” is still the strongest episode here. Concept wise it’s a typical haunted house fare, coupled together with some retro-inspired touches as you play a text-adventure game on your computer whilst sat at a desk.

There’s some spooky atmospherics; lights flicker and go out, the phone rings, you open a door within the game, only to find a door ominously creak open behind you. All the while you’re just stuck at the desk, unable to move. There’s a wonderfully unsettling feeling about playing a character that’s playing a game, or even just someone operating a computer. Go play Her Story if you haven’t, to know what I mean. Maybe it’s the sense of vulnerability that it creates for the player, I’m not sure, but Stories Untold uses that sense of fear to full effect in its first episode.

And the episode knows not to overstay its welcome, either. It creeps along at a strong pace, steadily building up the tension until it’s about to burst. It works because of its simplicity, and by sticking to nothing but a desk, TV and keyboard the game manages to do far more to unsettle the player simply because it’s not trying to juggle too many plates.

The subsequent two episodes, “The Lab Conduct” and “The Station Process”, add on additional elements to the basic text adventure, whilst also delving into other genres. “The Lab Conduct” is the sci-fi horror of the group, with you playing as some nameless test operator at some nondescript lab. I won’t spoil too much in terms of the actually story as it’s the best part here, alongside the first episode.

One of the advantages of video game horror is creating scares and unease through mundanity. You can’t really do this all that well in film, we’re always watching someone act; they’re do something. It doesn’t work all that well in a book either, and whenever either medium attempts to do this kind of horror it always risks genuinely boring the audience/reader rather than terrifying them.

Video games, however, don’t suffer from this problem, and Stories Untold uses that to its full advantage. The opening half of “The Lab Conduct” is doing nothing but tinkering with lab equipment as you conduct some bizarre experiment. It’s unsettling precisely because nothing is happening, but there’s always that eerie threat of what you’re working on, and what could happen. Like with “A House Abandoned”, “The Lab Conduct” cranks up its tension inch by inch, having you turn a dial at one point to boost a frequency to literally crank up the tension, as the machine slowly begins to whine louder and louder. You know something bad is going to happen, and No Code know it too, so they’re going to wring as much out of that basic scenario as possible.

It’s a shame then, that the end of the episode starts to hint at the cracks in Stories Untold structure, and by half way through “The Station Process”, it’s clear that in an effort to expand a simple concept, the game begins to slowly lose its way.

“The Station Process” continues with the mundane horror through its use of obscure puzzles. Radio chatter from you workstation is sometimes unsettling, and you’re left to decode messages whilst someone, or something, would appear to be stalking outside in the blizzard. The episode is not without its highlights but by the end, when the game takes a bizarre left turn into a walking simulator, (and not a particularly good walking simulator at that), it’s hard not to feel like the game has lost what was its primary charm by no longer welding you to one fixed location.

The final episode, “The Last Session” sees the entire game brought full circle. It’s hard to talk about this episode at all without spoilers, but suffice to say the biggest problem is that the game tries too hard to tie its four episodes together into a neat little bow. The ending twist isn’t so much a shock as it is “that’s it?”, with the twist itself being predicted long before the game tries to deliver it with an emotional punch.

The issue here is that by the end of the game, it’s lost all of its weirdness. Operating on some strange throbbing heart in a lab, or exploring an ominous abandoned house whilst also playing a video game are creepy precisely because they’re weird and because there’s not really and context to why you’re doing it. That lack of context is what makes it unsettling. By tying everything together so neatly, too neatly, the game undermines what makes its opening half work so effectively.

There’s other issues here, too, it must be said. Whilst the game tries its hardest to emulate the awkwardness and clunkiness of early text adventure games, it’s sometimes too clunky and obscure even by ‘80s standards. The game rarely seems to grasp synonyms, meaning sequences can grind to a halt as you type multiple different word combinations, waiting for the right to work. And nothing quite kills fear like boredom.

Other puzzles suffer from needlessly obscure elements as well. Part of why “The Station Process” isn’t as good as the previous too episodes is that so much of it involves reading text that’s far to blurry, even when you’ve zoomed into it. There’s a sense it’s deliberately like that just to make these sequences more challenging, except it doesn’t, it just makes them more annoying.

Lastly, whilst I appreciate the nods to Stranger Things and classic ‘80s weirdness, it all feels rather tacked on here. Bar the obvious ‘80s text adventure format, (which the game becomes less and less reliant upon as it progresses), there’s not a whole lot of reason as to why it has that style, other than as a gimmick. With an opening that plays out with a bloopy synth score, it’s clear what the developers were aiming for, but I can’t help but shrug my shoulders and go “so what?”. Stranger Things works because the time and setting are intrinsic to the story being told. By contrast, Stories Untold's nods to ‘80s culture are more like a flavour, a coat of paint, that’s rather inconsequential to the story that it ultimately decides to tell.

It’s hard to actively dislike Stories Untold, primarily because that first episode is so effective and so damn good. It’s hard to dislike the rest of it, too, because there’s some great ideas amidst all the chaff. Stories Untold is a case of a simple concept losing that simplicity as it expands and not being as effective as a result, and no amount of nostalgia pandering is going to cover that up.

At the very least, play through “The House Abandon”. Just prepare for disappointment if you dare to venture any further.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Eternal Card Game - Beta Impressions

I wrote an “impressions” piece last year on Dire Wolf Digital’s Elder Scrolls Legends when it entered open beta. However, it’s not been their only recent attempt at a digital card game. Eternal is just about to leave open beta at the time I write this, so I figured it's a decent time to take a look.

It only takes a quick glance to grasp what Dire Wolf are attempting with Eternal. It’s Magic: The Gathering, with a Hearthstone interface. Ever since its release, Hearthstone has resulted in numerous (usually bad) imitators and copy-cats, hoping to cash in on the free-to-play deck building craze.

Whilst a lot of these games are simply an attempt to make a quick buck on the back of a popular trend, there’s something more to be said about the number of developers working on similar games. Whilst Hearthstone is enjoyable to play, it’s not without a myriad of flaws, and already games like Elder Scrolls Legends, Duelyst and the imminent release of Gwent suggest that, whilst Blizzard might have been the vanguard for the digital card game format, they’ll not be left alone for much longer.

Eternal seeks to copy Hearthstone on the surface. Indeed, its board and overall look and feel smack of a mid-weight clone rather than a serious contender. The hokey fantasy/steampunk art style and bland monsters aren’t really much to get excited about. Visual style can go a long way to setting your game apart (look at Duelyst) and it’s something that Eternal really lacks.

It’s in the card mechanics that things get interesting though. It immediately betrays the fact that it was co-developed by several Magic: The Gathering pros, with  the card pool divided into five colours, or factions in this case. Creatures meanwhile, don’t attack one another, instead only dealing damage to the opposing player, just like in Magic, only fighting each other when the defending player declares which of their creatures is blocking what.

It’s the biggest fundamental change between Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering. Hearthstone is a game of snow-balling an ever-growing advantage, and the abundance of momentum-changing board-sweepers and dramatic swings from one player to another are in part a way to prevent one player from simply accumulating an ever-growing advantage. Magic is a game of inches by comparison, where one play for value, such as playing a combat trick on a creature, can pull the game in your favour. Eternal definitely aims for this subtler, less bombastic approach.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Eternal, coming from a Magic background, is how the developers play with the colour wheel. Time (Yellow), Justice (Green), Shadow (Purple), Primal (Blue) and Fire (Red) each have particular mechanics and overlapping strategies with the other factions, and whilst its easy to look at the five factions and see them as carbon copies of Magic’s system, it’s interesting to note where the developers have made changes.

For instance, Time is the faction of big spells and colour-fixing, allowing you to play more late-game spells as well as dip into other colours for better versatility. Shadow meanwhile, is focused on aggression, with an abundance of its creatures have the Quickdraw mechanic, allowing them to attack before any defenders.

Each of the five factions also has two “official” allied factions (again, a lot like Magic) which make up a number of additional multi-coloured cards. This is arguably where Eternal comes into its own, not necessarily because of the multi-coloured cards themselves, but because a number of the cross-faction mechanics are unique to digital card games.

For instance, Time/Primal, by far the most fun combination, has a number of cards with the ability Echo. When cards with Echo are drawn, you get an additional copy. On the surface this doesn’t look like much, but the number of combinations and tricks you can pull off in a game, repeatedly putting a card back on the top of your deck to get another two copies, is insanely fun. It rewards players for thinking creatively, is powerful (you’re drawing an additional card) and it’s something that only a digital card game can do.

The other notable ability is War Cry, the Fire/Justice crossover mechanic. Cards with War Cry buff the top card of your deck whenever they attack, creating a steady snow-balling advantage that can quickly run away with games if the opponent can’t stem the assault. Again it's a mechanic that is easy to understand, and can only exist thanks to the game's digital nature.

Some of the other abilities are decent but far less notable. Primal and Shadow get Infiltrate, where creatures receive various bonuses provided they’ve hit the opposing player once. Aegis is perhaps the most unbalanced mechanic right about now. It functions similar to Hearthstone’s Divine Shield mechanic, but rather than nullify damage, nullifies the first spell that targets the creature. At the moment it leads to what I’d easily say are the least fun moments in Eternal, creating non-interactive game states where one player suits up a creature with Aegis, sticking buffs and power-ups onto it, only to send it hurtling at the opposing player turn after turn whilst they're helpless to stop it.

Whilst on the topic of non-interactivity, it’s worth touching on the game’s resource system. For some bizarre reason, Eternal has saw fit to emulate Magic’s weakest mechanic here. Decks are made up of 75 cards (Magic would seem to have some copyright claim on 60 card decks), and almost a third of that deck will be made up of sigils of various colours.

Anyone that’s played a game of Magic knows that the worst thing in the world is being land screwed/flooded. And there’s a good reason why it’s so bad; it means you don’t get to play the game. Say all you like about unbalanced, boring or over-complicated rules and cards, they at least let you still play something. Being locked out of even playing a game due to the whims of random chance is frustrating, and the added complexity of having to craft an effective mana base, assessing the correct ratio of colours, number of sigils and so on, don’t outweigh the negatives that come with it.

Eternal is plagued by bouts of non-games, where one player basically doesn’t get to do anything for the first four turns because they get stuck on two sigils and can’t play anything. It’s miserable, and is made worse by the larger deck sizes and, more importantly, due to the games current focus on aggressive, creature-oriented play.

Right now Eternal is a fast game, very fast. Fire, Shadow, Primal and Justice all have abilities that reward attacking, be it War Cry, Infiltrate or Quickdraw. Many games are decided by who can get stick an early threat and either snowball it with War Cry triggers, or tempo the opponent out with cheap removal and evasive threats.

This isn’t a problem in itself. It’s clear from Eternal’s design that it wants games to play out fast and straight to the point. However, when combined with the dated resource system, it can make for some rather frustrating scenarios as one player is left steam-rolled as their opponent tramples them with threats and they don’t get to play anything.

One thing that Eternal does get right however, is the play modes. It’s a generous game. Even after only a handful of hours playing I had six or seven legendaries crafted, and the ability to grind away against the AI for rewards means that players who aren’t satisfied with the daily quests still have something they can do to accrue more cards.

The big addition here, alongside the Forge, which is Eternal’s version of Arena play, is the addition of draft. The game does its best to simulate drafting with other players, with the “packs” you open being packs generated from other players, even though you’re picking cards asynchronously.

This is by far the deepest and most rewarded aspect of Eternal’s gameplay. Drafting is always incredibly fun because, much like a good rogue-like game, it forces players to create strategies out of a degree of randomness. You don’t know what cards you’re going to be passed, so the best player is usually the one with an eye for smart synergies and good card value.

There’s a slight problem at the moment in that only half of the ten potential colour combinations are supported. This means that, whilst Primal/Justice is a feasible combo, it’s going to lack the powerful multi-faction cards of a Fire/Shadow or Primal/Time deck. That being said, draft is great, and one of the game elements that sets Eternal apart from the abundant competition.

Overall, in its current shape, Eternal is solid. It lacks a degree of personality, and that’s largely in part due to its bland interface and generic fantasy art. As many more digital card games inevitably get released in the future, I think this is going to be one of the areas that needs to be focused on. A game with a fun art style and unique/creative visuals goes a long way, and currently Eternal just looks forgettable. I'll say it once more, just go look at Duelyst. 

In terms of the gameplay, it certainly scratches that card game itch, and does so without feeling as chaotic and prescribed as Hearthstone frequently does. More importantly, Eternal tries its damn hardest to do something interesting with the fact that it’s a digital card game, building its mechanics around the fact that it’s played on a computer or tablet, rather than with paper cards. Better yet, it does this without sticking the word “random” on every other piece of game text.

So at the very least it's got that going for it.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Mass Effect - Retrospective Review

Developer: BioWare
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios/EA
Platforms: PC, PS3, 360 

Mass Effect marked a distinct turning point in Bioware games. You could see the start of this change in Jade Empire; a shift away from the typical point-and-click oriented RPGs; ones that are essentially playable campaigns straight from Dungeons and Dragons.  It’s no surprise that a good portion of the earlier (and most beloved, in many cases) of Bioware’s back catalogue use reworked rules systems straight out of D&D.

Mass Effect broke away from that convention. It moved away from the masses of readable text and instead had the player choose dialogue options from a wheel that have, at maximum, six choices. Many older players, and you’ve no doubt seen that image, point to this as the biggest sign that Bioware were “dumbing down”; shifting away from their earlier, more cerebral roots and instead catering to players more comfortable shooting at NPCs rather than talking to them.

I think this is somewhat unfair to the original Mass Effect, considering that it has so much going on. Returning to Mass Effect is...well...weird. Its combat system has not aged well at all; trapped between a more typical western RPG system of powers, stats and cooldowns, and the duck-and-shoot rhythm of a post-Gears of War shooter. It’s clunky and it doesn’t know which side to fall on. Is it an RPG with shooter mechanics, or a shooter with RPG mechanics? Well, it’s both, and that’s what makes it so weird.

It’s also hilariously, ridiculously unbalanced. By about halfway through a typical playthrough of the game, Shepherd will reach a point where basic enemies no longer pose even an inkling of threat. Missile shots from Geth, which are an absolute death sentence early on, will likely be shrugged off as you bombard them with whatever powers you have available.

I think this is the primary issue that the first Mass Effect always had, alongside its inherent clunkiness. The game really struggles to balance the power system that underpins its central shooter gameplay. It needs the powers to keep the game interesting, if they weren’t there, ready and available, an average gunfight would be nothing but awkward bouts of gunfire. With how they are handled though, you end up with fights that are essentially about dumping as many powers on opposing enemies as possible. Mass Effect’s powers might give its combat more depth, but they’re more than a little dumb.

This should come with the caveat that the power system itself is handled rather well. The game’s three core classes Soldier, Engineer and Biotic all feel and play rather differently actually, and Bioware do a decent job of not making the three classes simply sci-fi copy-pastes of their respective fantasy equivalents. Engineers in particular, along with the Tech-based hybrid classes, feel suitably unique, despite the game essentially just mixing up the same handful of powers and skills across its six classes.

In other words, despite the game’s inherent flaws in its combat system, it’s hard to knock what Mass Effect was trying to do. This was still Bioware in experiment phase. It’s clunky, has aged poorly, and feels rather awkward to play (the cover system is utterly abysmal a good portion of the time, to the point where I go out my way to avoid it), but the fact that it does so much in terms of being a shooter and being a quasi-strategic RPG experience, it’d be unfair to completely write off what the game does.

Starting a retrospective about Mass Effect and discussing the combat is perhaps a little odd. If you asked fans what their most memorable parts of the game were, it’s rarely going to be the combat, or the gameplay at all, in fact. Most likely they’ll say it’s the characters and story.

And while that might be the case, and they are certainly the strongest aspects of the game, and the series as a whole, I don’t think it’s right to ignore the game’s combat and mechanical systems just because they might not be the primary focus. After all, it’s still a game. Were the writing the only thing to focus on, you could shift Mass Effect to a different medium such as film or TV and essentially have the same experience.

However, film and TV do have a massive impact on Mass Effect. The game’s world isn’t really all that original as a sci-fi concept, but what it is good at is cherry-picking, amalgamating and reimagining the bits and pieces of sci-fi from popular culture.

First off, you’ve got the central concept of being the commanding officer of a starship (very Star Trek), you’ve got an elite group of agents, the SPECTRES, that aren’t beholden to the same laws and rules as everyone else in the Council but are there to uphold it, again, very Star Trek but with a dash of Jedi about it. If the Jedi aspect wasn’t completely hinted at yet, the primary villain of the game is the best ever SPECTRE, who’s gone rogue, and he augments his body with bits of machinery. (Pst, hey, pst, I think he’s meant to be a bit like Darth Vader. Don’t tell anyone).

 There’s other bits and pieces of sci-fi here and there. The Geth have their roots in numerous science fiction stories about artificial intelligence, Blade Runner, Terminator, The Matrix, I could go on. This isn’t to sound cynical about Mass Effect’s influences, mind. The game might crib its ideas from other sources but it uses them all to great effect, reworking them for its own ends.

The game’s alien races, likewise, are interesting and well thought out. Many role-playing games with large expansive worlds have a similar “codex” to Mass Effect, one that lays out additional information about the world and the creatures that inhabit it. Some games use this tab as a kind of lazy info dump for information they couldn’t otherwise fit into the story. In most cases I see this as clunky and underwhelming world-building.

By contrast Mass Effect’s codex is genuinely interesting, and part of that is because the world and the alien species that inhabit it are also interesting. The Turians, Salarians and Asari, along with the other races, are all fleshed out enough within the story that you want to go looking up additional information about their cultures. I like how the main three council races are a giant meta-version of the central combat system: the Turians manage the Council’s military (combat), the Salarians are scientists and experts in espionage (tech), and the Asari are councillors, advisors and potent biotics, it’s a cute idea.

One genius touch about Mass Effect’s story-telling, and it’s something that a lot of modern media could take huge notes from, is that it works in isolation and as part of a wider trilogy. This might sound obvious, and plenty of series do this, but in Mass Effect it works incredibly well.

As a stand-alone story, Mass Effect works flawlessly. There’s a primary villain, Sarren, and there’s clear motivation for why he needs to be stopped. However, there’s a greater threat that lurks behind him, the Reapers. The Reapers aren’t at the forefront of the game, and even after the game’s climax, the Council still stupidly refuse to acknowledge that there’s a bigger problem out there in the galaxy. It’s a plot/story structure that’s incredibly well balanced, where we get a satisfying story right now, but bigger seeds are planted for the sequel.

In addition to all of this there’s the individual character moments and smaller storylines that grew in significance as the series progressed, and the way the seeds of those stories is planted in the first game is great. Mass Effect has great characters, ones that are likeable and relatable and are perhaps the most memorable thing about the series, (and part of the reason Mass Effect 3’s ending is so darn insulting).

More importantly however, those personal connections the player has to their squad mates translates to the bigger stories that the game begins to hint at in this first instalment. We care about the genophage because of how it affects Wrex, we care about the Quarian/Geth conflict because of how it affects Tali and so on. It’s smart writing but what’s more impressive is that it’s smart writing that involves the player’s interactivity. Depending on how the player invests their time with Wrex they might have different thoughts about the genophage for instance, and the sequel would go on to complicate these side stories even further with the introduction of characters like Mordin and Legion.

This is how you have a game tell a linear story and yet still retain its gameplay and interactivity. It doesn’t simply morph into a movie because the way the player interacts with the individual characters informs their opinions on the wider stories that play out.

Granted, there are a few things story-wise that the game doesn’t push nearly enough, and continued to struggle with in the sequels. The biggest one is the Paragon/Renegade push and pull. Bioware have always dealt in this dual-morality but Mass Effect struggles to give it a deeper meaning or context.

During my most recent playthrough prior to this retrospective it was more noticeable that Garrus is clearly established as the character designed to explore the Paragon/Renegade concept. Garrus is a “good” character, a likeable guy, a series favourite, and one that wants to do the right thing, whatever that may be. He’s trapped between government bureaucracy and the rule of law, and outright vigilantism, and the game would have worked better had it translated Garrus’ struggle to the one that Shepherd experiences in her/his dealings with the council. Instead, the council are just snooty and annoying, and being a renegade basically turns Shepherd into a giant asshole.

Speaking of assholes, the political elements of the plot suffer from the exact same problem. The final decision of the game is who Shepherd decides to give the job of human representative to, with the candidates being Udina or Anderson. That’s hardly a choice. Udina directly interferes with your chances of saving the Citadel when he straight up grounds your ship and prevents you from taking off during the build up to the climax.

Likewise, you have a previous connection with Anderson prior to meeting Udina, since he’s with you from the very beginning of the game. Hell, he even narrates your characters backstory during the opening.

Picking Anderson for the job also seems wrong with what Shepherd says during the ending. When you choose him, Shepherd says something along the lines of “we need less politicians and more military guys running things”. This is me playing a paragon Shepherd, and my character seems to be arguing for less democracy and more military involvement. I understand that the intention of the line is probably more along the lines of “politicians are self-serving morons”, and I understand that, I hate most politicians as well, but part of that whole bit of dialogue just spooks me a little bit. Why couldn’t Shepherd have said something about Anderson being his friend and therefore trusting him? That’s why I (and I’m imagining most people) picked him after all.

I bring this up because the whole Anderson/Udina decision would have been a great way to explore the Paragon/Renegade dynamic. Udina should have been the Paragon choice.

Wait, come back, hear me out.

Rather than just being snivelling git for the entire game, Udina should have been the one arguing for greater transparency and democracy within the Council. This would explain his anger and frustration at what he sees as the Council shafting humans a seat at the table, which the game sets up anyway.

In contrast, Anderson should have been a little harder, a bit more cynical. Again, this isn’t dramatically altering his character since he’s already a little like this. As a world-weary former soldier, he could have been the pragmatic foil to Udina. When it comes to the build-up to the finale, have the Council, not Udina, ground the Normandy, and then have the player make a choice between asking for Anderson’s help or Udina’s.

Now, both have clear pros and cons. Udina would help negotiate for the Normandy to be allowed to leave (even if the Council wouldn’t send any of the fleet with it) in order to stop Sovereign. However, maybe Udina’s way is a bit too soft and could end up not working. Meanwhile, convincing Anderson for help would be the direct choice, with him barging into the Council and overriding the lock down that prevents the Normandy from leaving. It’s clear and direct, but could cause trouble for the Alliance.

Ok, I’ll take the writing cap off now. It’s a minor change to the story but one that I think shows, that with a bit more forethought, the game could have mined far more potential out of the Paragon/Renegade idea rather than simply being a case of playing as a good or evil character.

Then, there’s the Mako, that one bit of Mass Effect that never returned for either of its immediate sequels. Sure, there was that one vague nod to it in one of Mass Effect 2’s DLCs but that was about it.

It’s worth talking about though, primarily because it seems to be a huge influence on what Mass Effect: Andromeda is going to be about. Andromeda seems to be primarily focused on exploration and investigating new planets, a concept that has its roots, funnily enough, in this first instalment.

Mass Effect’s take on exploration isn’t anything groundbreaking but it does give the game a bigger scope than it would otherwise be able to managed. Exploring different clusters of star systems, taking on side quests, going to various planets, all of which are essentially the same save for a different skybox and terrain. It’s the game’s way of building a world bigger than it would otherwise have been. It’s a simple idea that’s solid and functional.

I don’t have anything too bad to say about the Mako either. I know a lot of people seem to complain about it in retrospect for being clunky and difficult to control, but I never found it egregiously bad. It’s included in all four of the game’s primary missions to break up the pacing and it does that fairly well I feel. Again, it’s a bit bland and repetitive looking back, but for what they did with it, I don’t particularly hate it.

In fact I’m actually impressed by all of the games side content in a lot of ways, primarily because it does a lot better job of doing what No Man’s Sky set out to do, and it’s not even the main focus of this game. Think about it, going to all of those uncharted planets to pick up dog tags, asari writings and promethean relics, it’s all filler but it essentially evokes the same feeling of what No Man’s Sky was meant to be all about. And best of all, it wasn’t even what the game was even about. Think about that for a moment; Mass Effect gets closer to the intended tone of No Man’s Sky in its side missions, than No Man’s Sky can get in its entirety.

I’m cautiously optimistic about Mass Effect: Andromeda even though open world navigation, crafting and so on, is not what I’d really want the game to primarily focus on. What it does show however, is that, for all of its growing pains, the original Mass Effect still has some chunks of design space that are worth mining. It’s a game that’s certainly aged, and definitely not for the better in most cases, and going back to it can still be frustrating after the epic non-ending of Mass Effect 3.

Still, it’s a cracking game, and perhaps, more so than either of its sequels, captured that adventurous spirit of exploring deep space.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Horizon Zero Dawn - Review

Developer: Guerrilla Games 
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PS4 

On paper, the concept for Horizon Zero Dawn doesn’t really make it especially endearing. Beyond the gorgeous visuals and cool robot designs was yet another game that seemed to be built from the same mushy, formless open-world mechanics that have now taken over the multiplayer shooter as the dominant form of most AAA video game releases.

The game has crafting (because every game must have a crafting system), side quests (because there needs to be “content”) and various other watered down RPG mechanics in order to justify the fact that the game takes place in an open world. Like I said, on paper, the idea of this game being something unique wasn’t particularly promising.

Horizon Zero Dawn has all of these trademark mechanics and yet, somehow, it manages to rise above, use them, and mould them into something more interesting than dozens of other similar games.

The primary reason for this, is its focus on telling an engaging story. Horizon is heavily devoted to the tale it sets out to tell. Set in a future post-post apocalyptic Earth, the world has been ravaged by some long forgotten conflict and has now begun to grow back once again as a hunter-gatherer society.

The game follows the life of Aloy, a young outcast who’s shunned by the rest of her tribe for some unknown reason. I could go on explaining the set up of the plot, but I won’t bother. Not only is it worth experiencing for yourself, and I wouldn’t want to ruin it, it’s also long and slow-paced, in a good way. Developers Guerrilla take their damn time building up their central protagonist; slowly interweaving story and character developments whilst also gently introducing a myriad of different gameplay elements, from the crafting system, to the stealth, to how to hunt different creature effectively.

The hunting is the primary focus of Horizon Zero Dawn’s gameplay and combat. Robotic creatures inhabit various locations across the map and can be hunted for parts and different loot. Basic variants are typical grazing creatures and won’t pose too much of a threat; venture further out however and you begin to encounter Ravagers and Snapjaws, Glint Hawks and Lancehorns.

Many games hint at a varied combat system, one that claims to force you to shift your strategy to tackle different enemies, but very few manage to deliver on this promise. Horizon gets pretty darn close. Different parts of each enemy creature can be damaged and broken off, resulting in additional loot and the enemy likely losing access to to one of their attacks, meaning there’s strategic considerations for targeting a particular body part. Break off the machine gun attachment on top of a Ravager for instance, and not only will it no longer have access to a long range attack, Aloy can pick up the gun and turn it on the creature.

Moreover, each creature and the various bits and pieces attached to them have different weaknesses, encouraging you to experiment with Aloy’s entire tool kit. What starts as simply creeping around stealth-killing a few enemies and shooting them a with a basic bow, slowly expands to juggling multiple different weapons, status effects and various traps.

Likewise, the enemies themselves have a certain eco-system that makes them more interesting to fight and strategize against. Watchers, early-warning creatures with sharp eyesight and, later on, the ability to spot you even when you’re in cover, stalk the periphery of many of the game’s hunting grounds, preventing you from freely sneaking up on the bigger but short-sighted creatures.

This means that stealth, whilst not enforced, is gently encouraged through Horizon: Zero Dawn. Not only does it enable you to get all important critical hits and stealth attacks on more dangerous foes, vital against some of the bigger enemies in the game, it also helps you scout out the environment, make note of the number of enemies, and plan out your method of attack.

Whilst the monster hunting and looting might be the core of the game, Guerrilla bolster this with their range of side quests and additional missions. Again, this is nothing that we haven’t seen before, but by significantly cutting back on the number, and investing more time and energy into making the ones that are there more unique and interesting, they’re made all that more worth completing.

Here, the game takes notes from The Witcher 3, making sure the side quests are actually side quests, rather than simply icons on your map screen that can be grinded away to completion. Clambering up Tallnecks meanwhile, is Horizon’s equivalent of Assassin’s Creed’s towers; expanding the map as you complete them. Yet, these again are handled with more nuance and care than Ubisoft have given them in a longer time, for starters there’s only around six of them, and each requires more patience and forethought than simply clambering up them. First, you’ve got to navigate the environment and work out how to jump onto them in the first place.

Other side quests, such as hunting challenges and bandit camps are likewise familiar, but aren’t padded out to extreme lengths and so retain more interest. To be fair, fighting human enemies is never particularly engaging in Horizon. Whilst the robot creatures have their own attack patterns and strengths and weakness, human foes all basically work the same way and so aren’t nearly as interesting to fight.

The skill tree is perhaps the one place that the game doesn’t particularly expand on the open world conventions of the past five years. It’s the usual woolly, level up system that most similar games trade in and it’s not all that fun. There’s the typical vague, “make this attack a little better” or “get more loot” but it’s not all that exciting in and of itself and doesn’t do much to differentiate any particular playstyle from another. There’s some abilities that are clearly better than others, and you want to pick those up first. It’s not as if you’re building your own character.

Similarly, modifications aren’t particularly fun to use. All of them are very basic percentage boosts either to basic damage or elemental potency when it comes to weapons, whilst armour mods are the same but for damage reduction, resistances or stealth. The fact that, unless you’ve unlocked a particular skill, mods cannot be removed without destroying them, means there’s little incentive to mix them around and experiment. Meanwhile, some (most notably the armour modifications) have such minor boosts to your stats that it barely gives you much reason to care about the system at all.

These are mostly minor quibbles mind to what remains an enjoyable yarn from beginning to end. Horizon Zero Dawn has genuine scale, and is gorgeous to look at to boot. Travelling from one end of the map to the other, which you’ll have done by the time the main quest is through, feels like a genuine adventure in its own right. Guerrilla know how to create some cool looking sci-fi contraptions, and the sight of older, mechanized monsters buried in the desert or frozen on a mountainside is genuinely impressive and feeds into the game’s focus on a civilization that’s trapped between an uncertain future and a past that it knows very little about.

Aloy’s journey is a surprisingly moving one. Coming from a developer that’s spent the last decade making games about gunning down wave after wave of men and machines, Horizon Zero Dawn takes a surprisingly progressive and emotional look at humanity’s last days. Without going into spoilers, this is as much a story about the last survivors of Earth prior to the apocalypse, as much as it is Aloy’s, and the game places a sharp focus on the world’s capacity to co-operate, learn and adapt rather than on its ability to build weapons and shoot them at one another.

It’s smart storytelling in other words. It has a few hiccups now and then, the story itself is great but suffers from a few pacing problems (as do most open world games), where the bits and pieces of the story can feel too episodic and not particularly interconnected. Likewise, despite having a bevy of cool robots to fight, the last few bosses in the main campaign are the same two robot variants with bullet sponging health bars that don’t nearly show off the creativity of the combat system as much as they should.

All of these relatively minor criticisms don’t take away from Horizon Zero Dawn’s successes, however. This is a lovingly crafted game from its story to its gameplay.

It’s ironic in many respects, considering that the game shares a lot of ideas with Far Cry Primal, the absolute nadir of Ubisoft’s open-world design. Much like The Witcher 3 however, Horizon elevates the genre, and shows that, with a bit more care and attention (and some judicious editing), you can still craft something fresh and engaging out of the same old mechanics.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Pokémon Sun & Moon - Review

Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: 3DS

Pokémon, like a lot of Nintendo’s long-running games, is a series that moves at a glacial pace, development-wise. Granted, each new game has offered additional mechanics to the basic formula; be it the introduction of new monsters, different moves, type combinations, extra evolutions and the like, but the central structure of eight gyms and the Elite four has been consistent since the late ‘90s.

It’s refreshing then, for Pokemon Sun & Moon to finally break away from some of these tired old tropes. More so than perhaps any other game in the core series, Sun & Moon bust out the feather duster and finally shake up the game mechanics.

After the very French (and rather bland) X & Y, Sun & Moon relocates to a Hawaiian locale this time around with the Alola region. Rather than the just being another network of routes and towns, the games instead breaks its world up further by spreading the adventure across four different islands that the player must tackle.

This does a lot for the game’s pacing. One of the primary flaws of X & Y was the lop-sided and rather haphazard progression, where your starter Pokémon was likely in their final form by the time you reached the second gym leader. Sun & Moon break down the gameplay into more palatable chunks, removing some of the more grindy and battle-heavy locations in favour of a more relaxed adventurous tone that better fits the setting.

Oh, and HM moves? Gone. No longer do you have to lug around some stupid creature that knows Cut, just so you can tackle minor foliage. In their place is the ability call ride Pokémon at will, such as a Lapras to surf along the beach, or a Taurus to break down rocks obstructing your path. It’s nothing more than a minor change in the grand scheme of things, but one that underscores the central strength of Sun & Moon. This is an instalment (or instalments, I guess) that actually feel like they’re improving on the basic mechanics of the series rather than simply aping them and dressing them up a little differently.

Alongside the new Pokémon, the twist this time is the addition of Alolan variants of older pocket monsters. This is a fantastic addition. Not only does this allow Game Freak to reuse and tweak classic Pokémon designs, it also makes perfect sense, thematically, with the source material. Of course Pokémon would adapt to their different environments and change as a result.

It helps that the Pokémon that do get the variant treatment are, for the most part, good designs that perhaps haven’t had too much time in the spotlight. Sandslash goes from being a Ground-type shrew to an Ice/Steel icicle creature. Ninetales meanwhile, shifts from being an often underwhelming and forgotten Fire-type to becoming a funky Ice/Fairy combo. Dragon types beware.

Game Freak aren’t afraid to axe more recent elements either. Mega-evolutions, that rather gimmicky addition in the last two instalments, have been removed completely. In their place is the new Z-move system, a game mechanic that fits far better with the battle system without feeling quite so tacked on.

Z-moves are once-per-battle attacks that typically hit for more damage than a regular move. Like with Mega-Evolution however, in addition to being a one time only deal in each fight, the Pokémon is required to hold a specific stone (there’s a stone for each type, along with a few specific to certain Pokémon, unlocking an exclusive Z-move), in order to activate their Z-move, meaning there is a drawback.

Another clever wrinkle that Game Freak add to this mechanic however, is that, in addition to providing a Pokémon with a super-powered move, the Z-stone can also enhance any other move that Pokémon may have that’s of the same type. Meaning that now effectively every move in the entire game now comes with a stronger variant. What initially looks like a simple change makes for one of the most comprehensive overhauls of Pokémon’s battle system since it began, and the closest it’s come to tinkering with that cast-iron four moves-per-Pokémon limit.

Sun & Moon is also the first in the series to do away with gyms completely, and instead bring in Alolan trials, a sort of halfway mix between traditional gym challenges and a Legend of Zelda dungeon. They fit the adventurous tone and atmosphere perfectly, clambering up a volcano to take on the Fire trial is far more evocative than simply wandering around a square room full of trainers that happen to wield Fire-type Pokémon.

It helps that these trials are suitably challenging, too. The last few instalments of the series have marked a trend in the games becoming easier and easier. X & Y marked the worst of this trend, with a pathetically easy Elite Four, and a game that on the whole was happy to have you miles ahead of your opponents teams in terms of levels, thanks to an incredibly busted experience share. Granted, these are children’s games about collecting weird-looking monsters, and so criticising them for being easy might be me potentially missing the point, but the series has always straddled a bizarre line between casual, kid-friendly appeal, and a rather hardcore J-RPG.

Fortunately, Sun & Moon brings with it a hefty dose of challenge. Opposing trainers feel like they have Pokémon with actual move sets, rather than simply a handful of random moves that they use interchangeably. Meanwhile, the nature of the trials means that for the most part you’ll be facing two-on-one encounters, as the Totem Pokémon (the effective replacement for gym leaders) almost always summon a supporting critter to help them out in the fight.

Even the game’s story feels like it’s trying to do something a little different. Whilst the central plot is still basically the same (leave mum’s house, become a champion at the tender age of ten) the game has more fun with its premise than other game’s have, avoiding any po-faced moralising and instead going as far as to make fun of itself. Nowhere is this more apparent than with Team Skull. Rather than go for a generic Team Rocket-type villain, Team Skull are there to be laughed at. I’d go as far as to say it’s a genuine meta-take on the fact that these bad guy teams are never taken seriously, and for the first time, there’s a reason they aren’t; they’re just hopeless teenagers trying to look tough.

Then there’s the stuff I’ve not had time to mention yet. The soundtrack is a particular highlight in a game full of great little touches, and the level design on the whole puts some of the older games to shame. Sun & Moon are both deeper and also weirdly simpler than some of the previous titles and I suspect a lot of that has to do with the games being willing to trim the series’ fat as much as it adds to mechanics.

Of course, there’s always negatives. Sun & Moon are incredibly pretty games, perhaps some of the best looking on the 3DS. Naturally, that has taken its toll. Whilst the majority of the game does run smoothly, double battles are prone to a hefty drop in performance from time to time, along with pauses as the game preps the next move’s animation. It’s never enough to ruin the games but it’s a shame that the most climatic and typically most fun encounters are fraught with the majority of these technical hiccups.

Pokémon Sun & Moon are the best mainline Pokémon instalments since Pokémon Gold & Silver way back in 2000. That’s a big comparison to live up to, and yet, these games manage it. Game Freak still manage to work their bizarre miracle of producing a kids game that also has all the byzantine complexity and depth of a heavy going strategy game; it’s a series that somehow caters to casual fans and competitive types without descending into a complete mess.

More importantly though, Sun & Moon are significant just as great games in their own right. If you’ve checked out of the series for a while now, you’ll certainly find no better excuse to jump right back in.

Friday, 3 March 2017

For Honor - Review

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

One of the most surprising things about For Honor isn’t the game itself, but rather who made it. This is a Ubisoft game. A full-fledged, full retail Ubisoft game, and there’s nary an open-world, map full of pointless collectibles or “tail the target” mission in sight.

In fact, in just about every way possible, For Honor is an odd beast. First off, it’s part war game, with the player charging along amongst swarms of other soldiers (weirdly reminiscent of the frankly dreadful Lord of the Rings: Conquest), smashing through enemy troops and taking down their leader. It’s also a game primarily focused on its multiplayer, with the single player campaign being little more than a tutorial and warm-up exercise for the scraps online. And then, in addition to all of that, it’s also a fighting game…

It’s the fighting game aspect of For Honor which is its central focus. Combat is played out at a slow, methodical pace, with your character guarding one direction automatically, be it to their left, right or above, with a touch of the right analogue stick. Likewise, attacks are carried out in a similar three-direction fashion and anyone that’s played indie fighter Nidhogg will be right at home here.

Attacks are also divided up into light and heavy attacks, with obvious advantages and disadvantages to each. Light strikes are quick to use, and quick to recover, but rarely translate into much damage, whilst heavy attacks have significantly more prominent wind-up animations and suffer from a greater drain on your character’s stamina gauge.

It’s the stamina bar that sees For Honor crib some of its combat from Dark Souls’ player-versus-player environment. Attacks in For Honor are slow and deliberate, and moves have a weight and heft that few other games possess. In fact, it can be frustrating to begin with simply because your character doesn’t control how you want them to. Combat is ponderous and sluggish, even with the faster and more proactive characters. It’s a clear design choice rather than a flaw of the game, but the overall speed of combat is something that can take some getting used to nevertheless.

Finally, a grapple rounds out the core moves of each characters moveset, with a successful grab either translating into free damage or the option to throw the opponent in any direction, ideally off of a ledge. The grab also sums up the game’s central rock-paper-scissors fight structure: blocking beats striking, striking beats grabs, and grabs beat blocking. Make no mistake, in many respects, For Honor is a straight up fighting game.

Whilst this core combat is true for all of the game’s characters, each playable unit is afforded a handful of unique moves and attack strings to add greater variety to combat. The three playable factions; Knights, Vikings and Samurai, each come with four characters, with three being roughly analogous to one another (each faction gets a light, evasive unit, a heavy defensive one, and an all-rounder) and a fourth “hybrid” fighter that’s unique and typically more complex.

Picking up any character, however, requires a degree of effort and time. Just like learning a new character in Street Fighter requires time and dedication, learning a character here means getting to grips with their unique moves, inputs and speed of their attacks. It’s genuinely surprising just how complex For Honor is, at least on the surface, for a game that would also seem to want to cater to the more casual online gaming fan.

However, you begin to notice the chinks in the armour once you step online. Game modes are divided up into one on one, or two on two duels, a standard four versus four deathmatch and an area control variant.

The biggest issue For Honor right off the bat is that its online system is bad. Matches take an age to connect, whilst those that do are frequently padded out to the appropriate player count by bots, which is especially galling in a game where the primary thrill is outplaying and correctly reading a real human being. This also becomes difficult to do when lag kicks in, thoroughly ruining any chance of an enjoyable duel. Whilst the technical aspects of the game are indeed bad, and there’s already been a substantial and vocal criticism of its online shortcomings, it’s by no means the only issue.

Far more significant, in the long run at least, is that the game simply doesn’t seem to know what it is, and so the different aspects, the multiplayer fights, the slow methodical fighting game combat and the “war game” aspect, quickly begin to clash. Fighting one on one with an equally skilled opponent is a thrill, and the variety inherent in the game’s characters means developing different meta-dependent strategies to counter various character tactics something that’s required should you want to improve and win more.

By contrast, four-on-four team fights are at the whim of whoever scores the first kill. For Honor is clearly designed around one on one combat, its combat system is frankly not built for players to handle more than one target at a time and this quickly becomes clear. Deathmatches will frequently result in snowballing, with one team drawing that all important first blood and then proceeding to build on that advantage more and more as their fighters gang up on the remaining opponents.

There is the addition of a “revenge” mechanic, whereby a player that is typically outnumbered (it varies depending on the character) and taking damage will be able to enter a super-powered state temporarily and be endowed with a number of buffs. These typically include a damage boost, along with their attacks being uninterruptible or having greater knock-back for a limited time. However, this rarely acts as a sufficient table-turner. Two on one, or worse, three on one fights are miserable in For Honor. Granted, a better player can still come out on top in these encounters, but for the majority of players these moments are likely to be frustrating rather than challenging.

Dominion, the game’s area-control game mode, similarly suffers from maps that seem too large for fights that only encompass eight players at most. In most cases, the “right” thing to do in order to win is simply hold one of your controlled zones, as doing so provides you with a steady stream of points. This can typically mean twiddling your thumbs as there’s little odds of anyone coming and attacking you as the fighting takes place at the other end of the map. AI chaff will flood the battlefield to give the illusion of an epic battle taking place, but they’re nothing but a roadblock that your character can cleave through (doing so restores your health, giving you an incentive to sometimes attack them), with all the resistance of wet paper.

This leaves the game’s single player, which, much like Titanfall 2, is essentially an extended tutorial for the meat that is the multiplayer experience. There’s a story, sure, full of shouting, hokey dialogue and silly characters, but it never bothers to have fun with its daft premise.

The biggest issue here, however, is that Ubisoft have saw fit to require the game to always be online, even for the game’s single player content. The answer of course would be that the game is focused on multiplayer so that shouldn’t be too much of issue, but by sneaking the “always on” element into a game like this they risk setting a precedent for their other games. Marketing decisions like this need to be called out, wherever they rear their ugly head, and it seems Ubisoft have continued to fail to learn their lesson since Assassin’s Creed 2’s infamous PC launch.

For Honor is a weird game of contradictions. It’s a brave move from a publisher that has been the worst offender when it comes to churning out games that suffer from carbon-copy mechanics and boring annualized rehashes. Yet, it also suffers from a contradictory set of game design elements that see the best parts, primarily the core fighting mechanics and duelling, get smothered by an unbalanced and technically underwhelming online matchmaking system, and game modes which don’t real gel with what makes the game good in the first place.

As a concept, For Honor has potential. It’s a new idea for crying out loud, that alone makes it somewhat interesting. As an experience at the moment however, it’s frustrating and often-times underwhelming. Depth alone doesn’t solve many of the games flaws and it’s hard to shake the fact that the game as a whole doesn’t quite know who to target, be it fighting game fans, or multiplayer fans. Should Ubisoft work hard to iron out the game’s significant and myriad flaws this might be a game worth taking note of. In its current incarnation however, it’s an underwhelming and in many cases, unbalanced mess of a game.

Friday, 17 February 2017

State of Decay - Review

Developer: Undead Labs
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, 360

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

It goes without saying that zombies are in at the moment. Between the success of AMC's The Walking Dead TV series, and a slew of zombie infested movies and games, the flesh-eating undead are perhaps the most lucrative concept for developers and publishers. What's surprising is how diverse they've managed to stay; Dead Island, DayZ, Left 4 Dead and Telltale's The Walking Dead game have all taken the same monster and come up with something different from a gameplay perspective.  

Mechanically, State of Decay is perhaps most comparable to DayZ, albeit in third-person; after the opening you're given free rein on where to go. Sure, the game is happy to nudge you along for the first couple of hours if you like, but after a quick tutorial, you're essentially on your own. This highlights one of the great things about the game, as well as one of its flaws. On the one hand, it captures the sense of a zombie apocalypse perfectly; you're left to work things out on your own, which does add a sense of immersion. At the same time it leaves you fairly bewildered at the amount of options you have, as you're left trawling through the game's menus.  

Survival then, is Undead Labs aim with State of Decay. Rather than tying you to one specific character, the game allows you to flit between your rag-tag band of survivors, each with their own skills and abilities. Need some zombie's heads bashing? Best bring in your powerhouse, who likes swinging that sledgehammer. Doing a run to pick up supplies? Have that ex-fitness trainer do it, she'll be able to run for longer.  Of course, not all the abilities are positives, having a psychopath in your group isn't to help matters for example, and will likely cause a drop in your group's morale. These RPG-lite elements give your survivors a sense of character, making them more than just blank avatars, and trying to balance your group out with the right set of skills, while keeping an eye on their downsides, makes for some fun gameplay decisions. 

Undead Labs doesn't leave it at that. On top of nurturing your group you also have to set up a base in one of several locations. Again, the game leaves it up to you to decide where to set up camp, with some locations being larger but requiring more materials. Along with the character skill-building, there's an incredibly addictive element to this. As you see your base slowly come to life by adding a farm and setting up a workshop, you can't help but grin at what you've accomplished. 

In contrast to all this the actual combat mechanics are rather basic, but reasonably effective. You can tackle any situation the way you want and, at least to begin with, there isn't an obvious answer. Shotgunning zombies left and right will have them dropping like flies but will inevitably create so much noise that you'll quickly be overwhelmed, as more corpses come shuffling in from nearby streets. Also, guns are relatively scarce in the beginning, meaning there is more of an emphasis on melee combat. Still, they've nailed the difficulty pretty well; one zombie will never be a problem, even for the weakest character, mash X a few times and it'll go down. When there's a herd of them though, the tables will quickly turn and you'll find yourself on the back foot. 

The actual meat of State of Decay's gameplay comes from its non-scripted, random series of events. Zombies hordes will show up, buildings will suddenly become infested and, most importantly, your survivors might go missing. In one sense, this is the game at its best, nothing will ever go according to plan, you'll have to drop what you're doing at the worst moment in order to go rescue someone, or head back to base to fight off zombies. The game doesn't have a story per se, you write your own. However, after a while it can become something of a drain. The events become repetitive and you begin to notice patterns in the events that crop up. What's more, despite the game giving you freedom to tackle how you deal with encounters, once you've favoured a few strategies there's very little incentive to changing them. To its credit, the game does offer a few variations on the ordinary zombies, with some being faster, bigger, tougher, what have you, but it still never forces you to break out of your comfort zone. 

In addition to the constantly changing game world there are also several main quests to tackle, which usually involve coming into contact with other groups of survivors, such as the remnants of the army. Whilst these are fitted with a rudimentary plot, there isn't anything too interesting here, and the missions themselves don't vary all that much, if at all, from the free-roaming quests. What's more the game suffers from several glitches, characters will quite regularly get stuck on bits of scenery and the game suffers from a stuttering frame rate when it's required to load a lot of things at once. Unsurprisingly, this is especially prevalent whilst driving and can occasionally lead to outright freezing. Since the game auto-saves, this will typically mean having to repeat a part of the game. 

Overall, State of Decay is a game built from a few great ideas; the constantly changing world, the RPG/survival elements, and a high level of freedom. However, they aren't explored as well as they could have been. As result, many of the game's best aspects, such as the base building, while incredibly addictive to begin with, are actually rather shallow once the novelty has faded. 

In many ways State of Decay comes across as a game that is testing ideas, rather than exploring them to their full potential. It's actually rather reminiscent of playing the original Assassin's Creed, where you could see what was trying to be done but the technical limitations at the time meant that there was still a lot of room for improvement, and nothing had been fleshed out properly.  

Of course, that comparison isn't entirely fair, since State of Decay is a XBLA title rather than a retail release. As a downloadable game, State of Decay is good value for money. If you can get past the technical issues, and aren't too bothered by the repetitiveness of the gameplay, then it's worth taking a look. 

Friday, 10 February 2017

Halo Wars - Retrospective Review

Developer: Ensemble Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360 

Regardless of what you made of 2009’s Halo Wars, you can’t deny that Ensemble Studios had one hell of a challenge on their hands. Designing a real-time strategy game, from the ground up, to specifically work with controller inputs is a challenge that I really do not envy.

Of course, console based RTS games had been done before...and all had been largely mediocre. There was the forgettable Red Alert 3 port for 360 and PS3 and go even further back and you get the largely maligned (I can’t confirm whether or not it’s bad, I haven’t ever played it) Stormrise that Sega put out. On the PS2 and Xbox there was Aliens Vs Predator: Extinction, a largely predictable collection of RTS mechanics foisted onto a licensed franchise, saved only by the pretty ingenious Alien faction, which frankly deserved its entire own game to nurture and develop its unique gameplay.

There have, of course, been slightly more unusual attempts at console-based real-time strategy games in the past. Brutal Legend was a mish-mash of different influences, but it did at least attempt, in its own inimitable way, to provide a flavour of real-time strategy along with a host of other mechanics. The flip-side of this was Tom Clancy’s Endwar; a typical strategy game that instead experimented with player inputs, rather than game mechanics, with the game’s gimmick being that orders were delivered to troops through a microphone headset.

In many respects the original Halo had the exact same challenges for the first-person shooter. Mechanically, it moulded the otherwise twitch-oriented shooter, honed from years of Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein, into a slower-paced, more methodical approach that better accounted for the naturally slower movement of playing with a controller.

Whilst Halo succeeded, Halo Wars always seems like it’s trapped between a rock and a hard place. There’s nothing especially unique or original about Halo Wars, aside from perhaps the Halo branding, if that’s your thing. Ensemble Studios solution to the awkwardness of their input device was simply shave off anything that wasn’t at all mandatory.

That perhaps explains a lot of the game’s design decisions. A lot of Halo Wars' strategic elements are almost entirely front-loaded. Base building is all but automated, (no use having players awkwardly twitch around trying to stick down buildings with the analogue stick) and instead has buildings simply spring up from out of your base camps.

This concept extends to resources and troop deployment. Resources are essentially just a ticking timer rather than an actual resource that you slowly acquire. You could say the same for just about any RTS resource system, but with Halo Wars it’s more literal. Units don’t collect anything from the map, be it gems, food or fuel, instead you simply have an icons tick up saying you’re gathering more things to spend.

This idea of “front-loaded” strategy (and I have no other accurate way to describe it), can also be seen in the game’s combat. Since micro-managing troops isn’t especially practical, Ensemble Studios choose to double down on the rock-paper-scissors of the core unit selection. As a general rule of thumb, marines beat aerial units, ground vehicles beat marines and air vehicles beat ground vehicles. That’s an oversimplification of course, the game’s combat is a little more complex than that, but as a basic idea of how the game works it’s a relatively accurate description.

The faction choices operate on similar distinction. There’s only two armies to play as in Halo Wars, the humans and the Covenant.  I suspect the decision to split some of the unique units between the three different leaders that each faction has was to give the gameplay a little more depth and variety, despite only having two playable sides to choose from.

And that’s always bugged me about Halo Wars; its faction choices. For starters it has a perfectly good Covenant army that’s left buried away in the multi-player and never experimented with in the solo campaign. Likewise, it has a thematically unique third faction in the Flood that go to complete waste by just being a repetitive hostile force to both other armies, rather than a playable force in their own right. Halo Wars is repetitive and, frankly, rather shallow, adding a third force would have helped pad out the game’s longevity at the very least.

Again, this plays into the idea that a lot of the challenge and depth in Halo Wars are derived from the metagame aspect of its play, rather than its simplistic core mechanics; the focus is on how two different sides go up against each other, and how you respond to the challenges that your opponent’s army poses. In a genre that invented the concept of the “build order” Halo Wars is perhaps the epitome of that idea; its entire gameplay is built around one, since, aside from the decisions that come with establishing what you’re going to build/research first, so much of the actual game itself is automated.

Halo Wars campaign is, lets be honest, pretty underwhelming, and clearly not where the majority of the focus was placed. A lot of this has to do with the aforementioned macro-focus of the game’s combat. Since so much of the game’s strategy comes from planning and responding to opponents strategies and tactics, how do you translate that into the single player campaign against an AI?

The answer can’t, to be perfectly honest, and so the bulk of Halo Wars campaign is an exercise in aping what the original Halo games did. There’s Covenant, you kill them, you find a McGuffin, you kill some more, then the Flood turn up, and you fight them, and then the Covenant and the Flood turn up at the same time, and you fight both of them.

It’s clear about halfway through the game’s single player campaign that Ensemble were desperately running out of ideas. Yet, playing the single player, which is almost never the focus in most real-time strategy titles, is interesting because it highlights so much of how Halo Wars works, and also how it doesn’t.

Take one of the later levels that has you defending your ship from swathes of Flood that keep latching on to it. There’s very little reason to control your troops in Halo Wars, at least minutely in terms of micro-management, and that’s obviously because the developers were conscious of just how awkward it can be to direct tiny units on a control pad rather than a keyboard and mouse.

Instead, the focus is on spawning the right units to respond to whatever is coming to attack you. Respond and spawn is the tactic that the game wants you to operate on. Other levels work in a similar fashion, locking the player down and instead trying to emphasize reacting to what’s attacking you (rather than navigating troops around the map, which does happen now and again, but is much less frequent).

I suppose what I’m trying to say is, Halo Wars is a game that’s acutely aware of its (significant) flaws and so tries its hardest to mitigate them by having you focus on other things. The single player campaign of the game is utterly forgettable but is also fascinating in many respects because it gets you to focus on how these mechanics all gel together.

The irony with Halo Wars is that, were it released for PC years ago, rather than initially being a 360 exclusive, I don’t think there would have been a lot to say about it. It’s a relatively shallow strategy game that doesn’t really do anything that other games in the genre haven’t already done better. Part of the reason for that is the hardware that it’s shackled to, and yet, that’s also what makes it so unique.

Halo Wars is perhaps the pinnacle of a console based RTS, and that’s really saying something when it’s still mediocre and repetitive. Had it not got the Halo branding wrapped around it, I doubt people would give it it too much attention when it was up against the likes of Dawn of War 2 and Starcraft 2.

What Ensemble Studios did though was in some ways commendable. They took a genre that doesn’t work on a controller and tried their hardest to make you forget about the limitations of the pad you were using. When Halo Wars 2 drops I’ll be playing it on Xbox One, not because it’ll necessarily be better on a pad (it almost certainly won’t) but because I’ll be interested to see just how long the game can make me forget I’m not wielding a keyboard and mouse.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard - Review

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

Resident Evil 7 has had the benefit of what is a rather ingenious method of building hype, namely, by slowly evolving a demo over the preceding months. It was undoubtedly a savvy PR move, one designed to tap into the fan-obsession and over-analysis, click-bait videos that riddle YouTube.

That being said, Resident Evil 7’s demo was fascinating if only to see the constituent elements of its overall mechanics. The item management, back-and-forth level navigation and limited movement, along with the new first-person perspective. The intent was clear; if Konami were going to squander an otherwise fantastic concept in P.T., Capcom would happily pick up the ball and run with it.

It goes without saying at this point that the primary “goal” of Resident Evil 7 is to tap into some of its older design ideologies; the kind that gave birth to a golden age of survival horror in the mid-’90s. And the game certainly does that; there’s a house, spooky atmospherics, and a psychotic family hell-bent on doing something dreadful to you.

Yet, all of this needs to be done with modern players in mind. Resident Evil 7 might be happy to include limited ammo and low health, along with a stubborn movement system that deliberately limits your characters agility, but it wants to bring along new players too, and so straddles the line between classic homage and modern accessibility.

This means a fairly lengthy opening sequence as Ethan Winters goes in search of his missing wife, Mia, after receiving an ominous letter from her several years after assuming she was dead. The influences and nods are obvious, and the game is clearly knowledgeable about its genre. If the set-up is straight out of Silent Hill 2, then the Baker family and their run-down house in the bayou is straight up Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The game’s tone, likewise, balances a curious level of horror mixed with dark comedy. This is clearly an update, reboot even, for Resident Evil, as close to one that’s it’s potentially ever going to get. Part of the series’ charm however, has always been its refusal to ever wipe part of its convoluted, absurd plot from official canon. Resident Evil 7 is an attempt at something new in many ways, but it still understands its central appeal as B-movie schlock.

The Baker family inhabit this idea perfectly. Jack Baker, the family’s insane patriarch, stalks the game world endlessly, taunting you as you hide and scuttle about the landing and rooms of his labyrinthine mansion (here, piggy, piggy). It’s here where Capcom mesh their classic Resi concepts with ideas filched from more recent “sneak ‘n’ scream” stealth games like Amnesia and Alien: Isolation.

And Capcom do a good job of balancing these two gameplay concepts. Resident Evil 7 doesn’t go overboard with its stealth elements, and it doesn’t turn the entire game into a giant insta-fail cat-and-mouse like Alien: Isolation does. This means for each time you successfully avoid one of the Baker family, they’ll certainly be a time where escape is more difficult, or likely suicide, and so you’ll pump some bullets into them. It’ll never kill them, but it’ll stun them or delay them long enough to get away. The Bakers are directly tied to the game’s fundamental focus on resource management.

Whilst the Baker family are the new ingredient to the core classic Resident Evil recipe, everything else is nothing short of familiar. The Southern-Gothic mansion is a homage to the original game’s Spencer estate; there’s even a shotgun mounted on a wall that requires a broken shotgun in order for you to take it for crying out loud.

Item boxes, along with tape recorders (we’ve now upgraded somewhat from the humble typewriter) are your save and storage systems, respectively. Herbs require chemicals in order to create first-aid items, whilst extra bullets can be crafted with gunpowder.

The developers take a leaf out of The Last of Us by overlapping the items requirements for health and ammo resources. Making one naturally means getting less of the other. It’s a simple crafting system but one that’s gradually made a little more complex as new ammo types and weapons become available later in the game, giving the basic combat mechanics a bit more depth.

Zombies, or rather, “Mouldies” are the other, killable, foe that stalk about the game world. If the Baker family are one of the successes of this game’s design, then its the generic slime monsters that are one of its more disappointing aspects.

Enemy variety is something that Resident Evil 7 clearly lacks, and the mould-zombies bland design makes them come across as bargain-bin Necromorphs rather than a unique threat. It doesn’t help that the three or so variants are rarely different from one another. The game lacks a clear memorable encounter; like the Hunter reveal halfway through the original Resident Evil, or the first encounter with a Licker at the beginning of Resident Evil 2.

Likewise, the game chickens-out in its item management. Whilst item boxes are necessary, and the game does put a limit on what can be carried around at one time, there’s still enough space to haul around two or even three heavy weapons by the end of the game; including a grenade launcher and flame-thrower. Item management as a part of the game’s challenge is toyed with but very rarely has much impact as result, presumably to ensure the game still caters to newer players and survival horror neophytes.

The addition of Madhouse mode, ostensibly the game’s hard level difficulty, could do something to improve this. In addition to increasing enemy health and damage, cassette tapes, like ink ribbons, are required in order to save your game, whilst also putting a little more strain on your inventory slots.

The latter half of the game in particular struggles to mesh the best parts of its game design; the classic survival mechanics, the mansion navigation and the Baker family, with what it ends up doing. The final area leading up to the climax is a simple slog through a mine reminiscent of a bland remix of one of Resident Evil 4’s zones. The ammo count jumps up and the enemies grow in number, and the whole thing risks devolving into an on-rails first-person shooter.

There’s a sense that by the end Resident Evil 7 doesn’t quite know what to do with its burst off the start-line. The opening three or four hours are terrific, meshing balls to the wall weirdness with a tightly crafted, tightly paced, game structure. The fact that it eventually doubles back on itself and everything that made it unique; ending with a generic monster boss, before delving into F.E.A.R. territory and military dudes (a cameo at the end falls rather flat), betrays what made it so good at the beginning.

Resident Evil 7 is a fine addition to the series, and an instalment that’s well worth playing. Its first-person perspective, and perhaps the commitment to making the entire game VR-playable ended up helping the core design by trimming the fat and streamlining the mechanics. The atmosphere, the exploration and even the characters and story are a blast, and the removal of all the bloat and padding of previous instalments has definitely served the series well in the long run.

It’s a game designed to perk the ears of long-time fans that have perhaps checked out of the series for a few years. Its final few hours do disappoint, and it certainly could have been a bit braver in moving away from series clichés, but for what it does right, this is a solid foundation for the series to build on.