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.