Friday, 23 February 2018

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle - Review

Developer: Ubisoft
Publisher: Ubisoft
Platforms: Switch 

It would seem like Nintendo bring the best out of Ubisoft. You only have to look at the (criminally underrated) Zombie U to see how Ubisoft can do something other than reskin each of their major franchises into bland imitations of one another. Sometimes there’s a creative risk involved, and it pays off.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle isn’t quite the same gamble as the Wii U’s doomed launch title. Building off of the skeleton of the X-COM games, Mario + Rabbids does what Super Mario RPG did twenty years ago for J-RPGs; keep the foundation, strip out the flab, and most of all, make it colourful and fun.

Rather than bog down players with item management and base development, Mario + Rabbids focuses on the basic cover, movement and shooting in a simple turn-based combat system. Maps aren’t sprawling, in fact, many are incredibly small, pitting Mario and two allies against a handful of enemy Rabbids before moving on to the next encounter.

It’s a smart move on Ubisoft’s part. The game maintains a faster, smoother pace than a regular strategy game. Combat is about taking down the enemy quickly using your guns and a handful of special powers rather than worrying too much about hit percentages or the threat of permadeath.

The game does a good job of taking a simple concept and then slowly expanding it with each level. Early encounters in the first world are fighting basic enemies and getting to grips with the cover system. Again, this has been simplified without gutting it of all its strategic nuance. Shots in Mario + Rabbids hit with 100% accuracy should an enemy or ally be out of cover. Should they be in half cover it’s a 50/50 coin flip, whilst those behind walls and such are safe from basic gunfire at the very least.

This core loop is then expanded with new enemies and new characters. Each party member comes with their own niche and team members can be switched in and out at will. Luigi is the long range specialist; great at sniping enemies with his reaction shot ability, (which function similar to X-COM’s Overwatch mechanic) but suffers from dreadfully low health. Rabbid Mario meanwhile, is a shotgun-toting assault specialist who’s a monster in close combat, but garbage at range.

Likewise, enemies start out basic, but are gradually tweaked and expanded to force changes in your basic strategy. Smashers are hulking melee units that will get a free move every time you fire a shot at them, whilst Peek-a-Boos have the ability to teleport around the map, making flanking attacks much more difficult.

It’s here where Mario + Rabbids falters a little. Whilst the steady drip feed of new elements works across the game’s four major worlds, introducing just enough new elements to keep things entertaining and prevent a sense of staleness setting in, a few more enemy types wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Each later world reskins many older enemies but their strategies and playstyles remain the same. Likewise, the game’s character progression system is decent, it can become a little shallow by the game’s climax.

Characters can level up in three areas, with experience points being doled out at the end of each fight. Again, there’s a focus on tactical aggression and efficiency, with bonus points being awarded should you finish an encounter within a certain number of turns.

The various skills offer some flexibility in how you develop characters. However, Ubisoft play it safe here, perhaps a little too safe, afraid that maybe younger players might be scared off with too much decision-making between fights. Most upgrades fall into the “damage or health” category, with some improvements being bizarre fluff rather than serving a practical use in battle. Why would I ever want to improve Mario’s exit range from pipes when I could boost his health or have him deal more damage?

The developers are in fact very lax when it comes to the stat side of things, even allowing players to respec characters at the push of a button, along with auto-leveling them should they want to avoid this side of the game entirely.

The equipment system is similarly stripped down. Each character has a basic weapon and a secondary weapon. Typically, a character will have two or more status effect that they can choose between. Again, it’s a basic level of decision-making that focuses more on the tactile fun of fights than it does on too much menu management between them.

Mario + Rabbids is always fighting a battle between strategic depth and accessibility. It takes the core of XCOM but tries to simplify it in a way that doesn’t make it feel diluted. For the central combat, this works; there’s enough strategy there to keep things interesting without overloading the player with difficult decisions.

It’s the surrounding mechanics that can feel lot weaker. XCOM works because of the interplay between the fighting, base-building and the unique narrative that emerges through each player’s playthrough of the game. Mario + Rabbids successfully emulates that first element, but lacks the other two, replacing them with colourful puzzles, Mario and some funny writing. And it just about papers over the cracks.

This review might come off as a little critical of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. I have to stress, it’s a great game, even when it feels slightly hamstrung from taking a complex strategy game and condensing it to something simpler. It has that classic Mario vibe that makes the whole experience feel like you’ve opened up a toy box.

It’s one of the best Switch releases of the year, one of the better games of the year, in fact. Provided you go in with the right expectations, this is marriage of two very different styles of games and a solid successor to Super Mario RPG.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Assassin's Creed Origins - Review

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

There was a great sense of expectation with Assassin’s Creed Origins. For the first time in almost ten years, Ubisoft’s monolithic franchise had decided to take a year off in order to hone its latest offering into something that wasn’t simply a morass of bugs and re-hashed mechanics.

I don’t mean to sound too harsh when I talk about the series either. For all my criticisms of its more recent instalments, I want the series to be good, and regardless of what Ubisoft choose to do with it each year, I always find myself curious enough to play the darn things, even if they don’t end up being all that impressive or different from one another.

Assassin’s Creed Origins longer development is immediately noticeable. Locations and environments have never been a weak point in the series. After all, it’s arguably the primary idea at the heart of the games; letting players clamber all over historical locations.

Yet, visually at least, Ancient Egypt is a step forward for Ubisoft. The atmosphere, the cities, the pyramids. It’s the first time since Assassin’s Creed 3 that the developers have carved out a game space that looks and sometimes feels like a real place, rather than simply a host to slap a load of map icons.

The game’s sweeping vistas and epic scope are fitting, considering the rest of the game has undergone a similar overhaul. Gone is the Batman-esque rhythm combat that had been tinkered and tweaked to oblivion over the course of numerous instalments. In its place is part Witcher 3 and part Destiny, as Ubisoft have the series go full RPG. Numbers flash up when you hit enemies, weapons have dps ratings, and quests have recommended levels.

The combat has changed dramatically in order to fit this new focus. Origins adopts a typical third-person fighting system, along with a standard lock-on button and light and heavy attacks. I could at this point compare the system to a certain game by From Software, but I won’t, because at least five other reviews have already done so.

In actual fact, the combat has less in common with that particular game and more in common with Ubisoft’s own For Honor. Fighting is slow and sluggish with a heavy weight behind it, even when you’re wielding the lighter weapons. Enemy attacks flash briefly before connecting, highlighting when and where you should be timing your parries.

It’s an intriguing system for the series to adopt, and definitely makes for more involving fights than in the previous games. Between the five or so different weapon types, there’s a little variety here; with some weapons being lighter and faster, such as daggers and swords, whilst clubs and axes are slower but with better reach and damage.

Other game elements return but have been given a significant trim even as the scope and size of the game has grown. Scrounging up crafting materials to upgrade your gear is still present but isn’t the giant, unwieldy and convoluted nonsense it had become in the later instalments, as well as in the more recent Far Cry games.

With no base to upgrade, ship to improve or random areas to free from enemy control, the game instead devotes most of its time to expanding on its side missions. Pulling straight from the Witcher 3 handbook, these are little “mini-episodes” of story and gameplay that dot the map and have you doing everything from helping a family dealing with rampaging hippos, to helping a small village cure a plague.

It’s here where Assassin’s Creed Origins stumbles the most. It’s easy to see what the intention was. Coupled with more time and effort, each of these side quests has been given more attention, fleshed out with their own stories and locations.

However, that writing simply isn’t very good. Origins side stories are worse than filler, they’re simply boring. It’s painfully obvious from the outset that Ubisoft’s writers aren’t equipped to write good RPG-style quests, and this is compounded by the fact that the player has no choice in how these episodes play out in terms of dialogue choices and what have you.

This would perhaps be fine if the side content were optional, but even describing it as side content is somewhat misleading. Assassin’s Creed Origins takes its obsession with numbers and damn well runs with it in the most cack-handed fashion. Should you fall a level or two below the recommended level for a quest you can almost guarantee getting one-shotted by whatever enemy happens to be roaming around. Likewise, find yourself a few levels above a given mission and it ceases to be a challenge at all.

This means that, regardless of your investment in the game’s side quests, you’ll have to hunt them down because you’ll need the experience, and given that experience is higher on the more higher ranked side quests, you’ll constantly be chasing after a vague Goldilocks zone of quests with decent enough rewards but that are at just the right level range that you don’t get obliterated by attempting them.

All of this then, is in service of the game’s main thrust: its story, its main quest. It could be argued that, in some of the previous games, the story had become secondary to the myriad of “additional content” and hoards of map icons to chase after. Here, though, given the games stripped back mechanics and less things to do it becomes a much bigger focus.

Unfortunately, Ubisoft take the blunt cookie-cutter approach here that they do with the rest of the game’s writing. Bayek is a man out for revenge. The Order (read: Templars) have murdered his son and now he’s out to kill of the bastards.

Origins does mix this rather bland and basic revenge plot up a little bit by also involving Bayek’s wife, Aya. Throughout the game the pair work together to check everyone off their hit list, with some missions having you switch over to Aya.

Initially, there’s some interesting drama to be mined out of how each of the parents deals with their grief, which is helped by some surprisingly strong voice acting from its two leads. Abubakar Salim, who plays Bayek, is especially good. Bayek is consumed by revenge to the point where it’s all that matters, whilst Aya puts her faith in helping Cleopatra secure the Egyptian throne. On the odd occasion, the game seems to hint that becoming a pair of kill-happy thugs in service to a monarch might not be the best way to overcome the loss of your only child, but any self-reflexive writing on Ubisoft’s part is quickly buried long before the game rolls around to its climax.

The best way to describe Assassin’s Creed Origins is as a MORPG: a massive online role-playing game. From its Destiny-style equipment system, to its “go here do A, do B, get reward” mission structure, it’s an MMO in every way except that it’s played solo. Its world is massive, and gorgeous, but is also a hollow and empty time sink. A few of the game’s side quests are perhaps more engaging than others, but that involves sifting through all the chaff to get to the few good ones. And it’s a moot point because the game expects you to clear out most of them regardless, so that you level up enough.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is this is another Assassin’s Creed, and by now you should know what that entails.