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 clich├ęs, but for what it does right, this is a solid foundation for the series to build on.