Monday, 18 June 2018

E3 Special 2018 (Part 2)

Next up, Bethesda! Their conference was okay, I guess. I never played Rage, but Rage 2 looks like it might be okay. They also announced Doom: Eternal. I thought the 2016 reboot was great so I’m eager to see what they deliver in the sequel.

There was a new PREY DLC – Mooncrash, but I doubt it will bring me back to the game. The largest piece of their conference was, as you’d expect, dedicated to Fallout 76, which was revealed to be an online, multiplayer Fallout experience. Oh boy.

You can play solo, they insist, but it will be ‘easier’ to play with your friends, which tells me if you try to play solo you probably won’t have much fun. It’s all about ‘telling your own stories’ which may just be another way of saying – so we don’t have to. In other words, will there actually be any quests (beyond repeatable fetch/kill quests)? NPC characters? An actual story?

They have included nuclear weapons though, so dedicated groups of players can wipe out entire parts of the map and any unfortunate players who happen to be exploring, fighting or setting up camp in them. I can’t see anything going wrong with that feature. I also have my doubts about the potential bugs and stability. Fallout 4 was a shitshow, although they are promising a BETA to iron things out. But honestly, a MP Fallout has little to no appeal to me.

The show ended with the announcement of a new IP – Starfield, but zero information. They also revealed that – to no one’s surprise – they’re working on The Elder Scrolls VI – but once again, zero information, not even a subtitle.

Devolver Digital delivered another fun video conference, although the only actual game they showed that caught my eye was My Friend Pedro. Square Enix also had a short video conference, most notable for a longer look at the new Tomb Raider AKA Tomb Raider: Predator Edition, and the tease of Babylon’s Fall by Platinum Games.

Ubisoft were up next, and always know how to put on a show, opening with a dancing panda. Beyond Good & Evil 2 had some early gameplay shown, but their presentation was more about their community collaboration project, allowing players to create their own in-game assets. A cool idea? Or just a lazy and cheap way of outsourcing your art department?

We saw more of The Division 2 but I was concerned by the focus on post-campaign content such as class specialisations and raids. The game isn’t even out yet and they’re already treating the core campaign like it’s not very important. But I don’t care about their ‘service’ plans long term, I care about what I’ll be playing on Day 1.

Skull & Bones had another E3 showing, but I’d rather have a proper, fully fleshed out SP pirate game. I guess I could always play AC4 again. We also saw more of Starlink, but I’m still not sure if they’re trying to sell me a game or toys. Probably both. For Honor is getting a new selection of classes and, more importantly, new siege mode which is what I wanted to see. But only 4v4? That’s pretty disappointing.

The Crew 2meh. And finally, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey AKA Let’s Reuse Lots of Assets from the Last Game Edition AKA Now You Can Play as a Girl Edition. It’s only taken them 27 games to figure out how to animate a female model, so I guess we should give them a round of applause. Overall conference rating? Not terrible, not great. No real surprises.

Following Ubisoft was the PC Gaming Show, which is only really worth mentioning for the reveal of not one, but two Yakuza releases on PC – Zero and Kiwami. It’s a series I’ve always wanted to try, and with a very generous price, I’m sure I’ll pick up Zero on release. Also, Valkyria Chronicles 4 – I enjoyed the first Valkyria Chronicles release on PC, so I might just pick this up.

Sony showcased The Last of Us 2 AKA Tomb Raider: Predator Edition AKA Crouch Walk: The Game featuring another young woman sneaking through the woods, stealth killing bad guys with a bow and a blade. It was a cool demo, I must admit, but scripted to hell and back.

We also saw a little of Ghost AKA Samurai Batman, Control AKA Quantum Break 2 & the new Spider-Man AKA Batman: Arkham Asylum. We also got a first look at the latest indie walking simulator by the name of Death Stranding.

Nintendo were up last with a solid if unspectacular show – a new Pokemon to make their shareholders happy, a new Mario Party, Fire Emblem and most importantly a new Smash Bros. Oh, and Fortnite is now on the Switch to the horror of parents everywhere. But no Bayonetta 3? No F-Zero or Metroid? I’m kind of disappointed.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Now Playing: Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

I think the best way to describe how I feel about Hellblade is that it’s a better experience than it is a game. One of the things I love about video games is how they can be used to explore concepts and present narratives in a way that wouldn’t be possible in any other medium.

Hellblade is the story of Senua, a young Pict warrior on a perilous journey into the underworld of Helheim to save the soul of her dead boyfriend. It’s a wonderfully immersive and compelling mix of Celtic and Norse mythology, but with a very personal story at its heart.

What makes Hellblade such a unique and fascinating experience is that Senua struggles with psychosis. We see the world through her eyes, and the game does an impressive job of simulating the visual and auditory hallucinations she experiences. What’s real in the world of Hellblade? To Senua, all of it is real. It’s a dark, unsettling, tragic and occasionally terrifying journey. And yet, there are moments of beauty too.

The way Hellblade tells its story, with its fantastic use of visuals and sound, is the most impressive part of the experience. Senua is an engaging character with whom you embark upon this journey, seeing and hearing her dark and troubled thoughts manifest within reality. At times, it’s not just overwhelming for Senua, but for you, as you’re assaulted by a kaleidoscope of colours, voices and sounds.

And the way the game weaves these hallucinations into the gameplay – and particularly the combat – is clever and thoughtful. Hellblade is a game that had me gripped from beginning to end, thanks to its narrative and the character of Senua. It’s a unique experience and one which, as I’ve said, simply couldn’t be achieved in any other medium.

Where Hellblade stumbles, unfortunately, is the game part of the experience. The combat system is simple, but stylish. You have heavy and light attacks, and a block move which, if properly timed, can create an opening for a counterstrike. It’s not a system with a great deal of depth, but it is a lot of fun. What Hellblade really needed, however, was more enemy types.

There’s only a handful of brutes to fight, and although they try to mix them up a little with say, a shield bearing enemy or a ‘heavy’ type enemy, you don’t really need to vary your tactics for any of them. The best fights in the game are easily the excellent boss fights, as these do follow unique patterns of attack, forcing you to stay on your toes – I just wish there were a couple more of them.

I do really like how Hellblade handles its UI – it doesn’t have one. No health bars, no XP pop ups, no skill trees or crafting systems that seem to be crammed into every bloody game these days. It feeds information to the player purely through its visuals and audio – a wounded enemy will move more slowly, their body sliced and bloody. The voices Senua hears will warn you if you’re about to be attacked from behind – there’s no little exclamation mark appearing over her head to alert the player.

Probably the weakest aspect of Hellblade are the environmental ‘puzzles’. As you progress you’ll frequently encounter doors sealed by Norse runes. You then have to locate these runes in the local area, searching for their pattern within the environment – perhaps as a shadow, a hole in a wall, or by lining up various objects to form the shape.

It’s another clever way of representing an aspect of Senua’s psychosis – pareidolia. Unfortunately, it can prove tedious for the player to locate the various runes. Although the game does give you a pretty specific clue where to look, it doesn’t always trigger correctly – not unless you’re standing at just the right spot or looking at the shape from just the right angle.

Hellblade is a pretty short game – about six hours – but I’d say it’s as long as it really needed to be, and it’s a game I’ll certainly play again. Whilst the actual game part of Hellblade – the combat and the puzzles – may be a little lacking, it provides such a unique and compelling experience that I can forgive its flaws.

To tackle such a concept and to do it in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or manipulative is to be applauded. It succeeds because at its heart, it’s Senua’s story. It’s not about the technical challenges of simulating her psychosis – it’s about weaving the way she sees and experiences the world into every stage of her journey. It’s one of the most immersive, gripping and satisfying experiences I’ve played. Highly recommended.


Tuesday, 12 June 2018

E3 Special 2018 (Part 1)

Let’s begin with EA. I expected their showcase title to be Battlefield V, but we saw very little of the game during their presentation, which is a little strange, because it’s easily the most impressive title in their upcoming line up.

But that kind of set the stage for the rest of their conference – lots of tell, but very little show. Even Anthem, a game they left until last to showcase and dedicate a chunk of time to, only revealed tiny snippets of actual gameplay interspersed by lots of talking and concept art.

And the game they decided to give a full gameplay demonstration to? A Command & Conquer mobile game. In what may be one of the most embarrassing moments of any E3, two grown men were brought on stage, one of whom was described as a ‘competitive mobile gaming phenomenon’ (whatever the f**k that means) to sit and play a game on their phones before a live audience.

They announced the title of a new Stars Wars game – Fallen Order – just the title, not even a logo reveal. They also revealed more upcoming Battlefront 2 content, but after that disastrous release, I can’t say I’m particularly interested in acquiring the title, even on sale.

There was the expected SPORTS SPORTS SPORTS segments, a couple of smaller, more ‘independent’ titles, although I’m not sure that’s the right word to use considering they’re backed by EA. Sea of Solitude looked interesting, but I’m glad I didn’t watch this conference live, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to spin through all the tedious talk which preceded the gameplay footage.

I have practically zero interest in Anthem, and their presentation didn’t change that. The only game I’m really interested in from EA is Battlefield V – and that’s not thanks to this poor conference, but to actual match footage released onto YouTube following the show.

I’ve not actually bought a Battlefield game since the original 1942, so maybe this is a good time to return to the series. The new multi-stage multiplayer mode looks neat, as does the destructible terrain and cosmetic customisation.

The fortification feature also looks like a great addition. I can’t say I care too much about a Battle Royale mode – because, of course there will be one – but at least they’re not cutting other modes to introduce it – take note, Call of Duty. I’ll be sure to give any BETA a spin and it’s one I’ll consider picking up – if they don’t find a way to f**k it all up. I said the same thing about Battlefront 2, and we all know how that turned out.

Microsoft certainly came out swinging, but I guess they had to. It feels like they’ve become kind of irrelevant over the last year or so. The only title they had coming up that I was actually interested in was Scalebound – which they then cancelled.

Unlike EA, there was very little talk. They showcased 50 upcoming games – an impressive line up, but not as impressive as it might seem. Why? Well, the vast majority of these are multi-platform titles, so if this presentation was supposed to convince me to pick up an X-Box One, it didn’t do a very good job.

They opened their show with Halo: Infinite. This should have been the jewel in their crown – the game you end with, not open with. Instead, they ended with Cyberpunk 2077 – another multi-platform title. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great way to go out with a bang, but it’s not a great way of selling your hardware.

We didn’t really see or learn anything about Halo: Infinite, so how can anyone be excited about what was essentially just a title reveal? The Cyberpunk 2077 trailer looked great though, and it seemed to me to be a carefully presented statement of intent.

I think a lot of people have preconceived notions about how Cyberpunk will look, but as the developers have repeatedly said – they’re not making Blade Runner: The Game. Instead of a moody, rainy city at night, we got a trailer set almost entirely during the day, showcasing a great variety of environments and characters.

We also took a look at Ori 2 – I loved the first Ori, so I’m looking forward to this, unless they make it a Windows 10 exclusive in which case they can get f**ked. There was a new From Software game called Sekiro which looked pretty fun, and a short look at Metro: Exodus, which I hope can improve upon the previous two Metro games. They were good, but not great, and I hope Exodus can take that next step up.

Bethesda teased a little more of Fallout 76 before their own conference, promising it to be 4 times larger than Fallout 4, which likely means 4 times as many quest breaking bugs. We saw some of The Division 2 which looked like . . . more The Division, which was a mindlessly fun, if forgettable game, so I hope the sequel can deliver a more compelling story and diverse experience.

There was the new Tomb Raider, which I’m sure I’ll enjoy, but I really wish we’d stop with the ‘Trinity’ story shit. It’s so f**king dull. We also got a Devil May Cry 5 trailer, which is a series I’ve never played but this one looks like it might be fun.

And finally, we got a Dying Light 2 demo which, once again, will hopefully take a step up from the good, if somewhat forgettable original, into something great. Oh, and then they showcased a Gears 5 demo, but I’ve still not got around to finishing 3, and I can’t say I care too much about the ‘Gears Universe’. Why are they trying to turn it into some big, emotionally serious thing?

Who the f**k takes Gears of War that seriously? It’s a series about burly men with chainsaw guns cleaving monsters into two. At least, that’s the series as I remember it, not hardcore soldiers having long, tedious conversations and a little cry before hugging it out.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Now Playing: For Honor

I played For Honor in closed and open beta, and despite enjoying the core gameplay, I decided not to purchase it at release. The beta suffered from technical issues which clearly weren’t going to be fixed upon release, and I was also concerned by what appeared to be a weak selection of content. I did, however, say I’d consider picking up the game in a future sale, and when Ubisoft announced a budget price ‘Starter Edition’ I decided to give it a spin.

The Starter Edition comes with all single player and multiplayer content, but limits you to a small selection of the game’s available classes. You get three of the default classes unlocked, but must pay to unlock more classes by use of the in-game currency. You can earn this currency by simply playing the game, but to unlock every class – including the new expansion classes – will require a hefty grind.

But here’s the thing – it’s unlikely you’ll want to unlock every class in For Honor. The game allows you to practice with all of the classes, so you can decide which classes you prefer to play. You can then focus on unlocking those you enjoy.

I’ve been playing 1 class almost exclusively since I picked it up, and I’ve now earned enough in-game currency to purchase 3 more classes after nearly 20 hours of play. But currently, I’m happy to continue to play as (and attempt to master) my chosen class. As far as the Starter Edition goes in terms of value, I’d say it’s a pretty good deal with a fair system for unlocking more content.

I’m also pleased to report that the technical issues which plagued the beta seem to have been entirely ironed out. I had no connection issues or crashes during my time of play. I do, however, still feel the content on offer is a little weak, but we’ll address those concerns later. Instead, let’s begin by looking at the single player campaign.

I didn’t have the highest of expectations for the single player content, but I still came away feeling disappointed. I’m glad they didn’t just shove in all the multiplayer stuff and try to string it together with disjointed cut-scenes – which is kind of what I thought might happen – but instead, they did give us a lot of unique scenarios and maps.

The problem is, there’s not enough to it. You get three campaigns, one for each faction – Knights, Vikings & Samurai – each composed of 6 missions. The quality of the missions varies from short and boring, to elaborate and engaging. You’ll get to sample several of the different classes via these campaigns, but this results in the mode feeling more like a tedious tutorial than a properly fleshed out campaign.

And that’s a shame, because it feels like wasted potential. Some of the missions – at least, the larger, more notable ones – do hint at that potential. Siege battles with multiple objectives and mini-bosses that capture a spectacle sadly not present in the multiplayer component. It’s frustrating to see that wasted potential in terms of narrative, world and mission design.

And I really wish more of the single player stuff had translated into multiplayer. I was pretty shocked when I realised there were no new modes added to For Honor since the beta – if you don’t count the ‘ranked’ play (which is still in beta?). You still have the standard 1v1 or 2v2 modes, the 4v4 elimination modes and the popular 4v4 Dominion mode.

I enjoy these modes, but I’d have expected at least one new mode of significance to have been added post-release. Perhaps an asymmetrical siege mode – like in the campaign – with multiple stages and objectives, split into two rounds – attack and defence. It seems an obvious addition considering the setting (and that the assets already exist in the single player campaign).

There’s even stuff like escorting (and protecting) a battering ram in the SP, which would translate well into a MP objective focused mode. And that’s really what For Honor desperately needs – a new, flashy mode. Not more classes or cosmetics – a new mode with new maps to spice up the MP experience.

It also needs to make the ‘faction war’ aspect more engaging for players. There’s no real sense of strategy or direction to it. It’s just an endless back and forth of meaningless territories based on accumulated troops that seems to rise and fall almost at random. You can check a territory one minute and be leading by several thousand, then check the next and be nearly a million down.

I don’t really know how they can make it better, but maybe some kind of voting system to determine where attacks will be focused? Or some kind of inter-faction alliance system which could lead to competitive objectives for players in each faction? It really needs to do something to invest players in the overall ‘war’.

The core gameplay of For Honor is good fun. It’s a simple combat system, but one with surprising depth the more time you invest. And the range of classes and the variety of combat styles is great. That was never For Honor’s problem. It’s got that stuff locked down. And now it’s got the technical problems licked, it just needs to build upon its solid foundation and expand its multiplayer options.


Sunday, 3 June 2018

Now Watching: Pacific Rim: Uprising

I absolutely adore the original Pacific Rim. It’s a fantastic film, perfectly paced and perfectly executed – as perfectly executed as a film about giant robots punching giant dinosaurs can be. It understood restraint and it had focus, two things unfortunately lacking in this sequel.

I can’t say I was particularly excited about seeing Uprising. I didn’t feel like Pacific Rim needed a sequel – it told its story and it told it well. I was also wary when Guillermo del Toro stepped down as director – he’s listed as a ‘producer’ on Uprising, but we all know what that means – kerching!

He went off to make The Shape of Water – which was pretty good, but it’s no Pacific Rim. Pacific Rim was del Toro’s baby. His vision. His passion. So without him, what do we get?

We get a fine but forgettable sequel that didn’t need to be made. We get a film that’s messy and unfocused. During the film, one character comments that ‘bigger is better’ and that seems to be the approach they took to this sequel – toss is everything and make it BIG.

We get a lot of stuff, but none of it quite hits. You’ve got Jake’s story (John Boyega) combined with the cadets about ‘proving yourself’. You’ve got a story about the Jaeger pilots being retired by drone technology. You’ve got private corporate meddling, people building their own Jaeger from scrap, Jaeger vs Jaeger, Kaiju/Jaeger hybrids, a new super Kaiju and the End of the World. It’s just too much stuff crammed in – too many plot threads and too many characters, none of which are adequately developed.

After seeing the film I found an interview with the director talking about the script – ‘When I came on there were three other drafts of the script that were developed through the years,’ DeKnight revealed. ‘I read them and there were great elements of each one, so I cherry-picked the best parts of three scripts, which was fantastic to have that opportunity.’

In other words, they took three plots and rolled them into one, which explains why the film is so unfocused. When one character died I didn’t even know who it was. I didn’t know any of their names aside from Jake and those returning from Pacific Rim. The film just doesn’t have the time. The best thing I can say about it is that the pace is kept high and the action is fun, so you don’t really have time to stop and think about how none of it adds up.

So let’s talk about some more specific elements, without spoiling things. The new Jaeger are . . . okay, I guess. I don’t mind them being more agile than those in the original. The film does a decent job of showing how the tech has improved over the 10 years since Pacific Rim, but the original found a comfortable balance between being cool and being practical.

Why would they build a Jaeger with a giant wrecking ball? In the original, they took care to minimise damage, but in the sequel, the destruction is dialled to 11. Bigger is better, remember? I did really like the design and fight style of Saber Athena though. At one point in the film it was starting to lose my attention, but then that theme kicked in at just the right moment and I was back onboard to the very end.

Overall, Pacific Rim: Uprising is a fine but forgettable sequel. It doesn’t have any of the heart or soul of the original. It has an unfocused plot and underwritten characters, with none of the wonderful world building, attention to detail or production quality that elevated the original. But if you’re a big fan of the original, I’d still say it’s worth checking out.


Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Now Playing: Thrones of Britannia

Thrones of Britannia is one of the best expansions I’ve played. The problem is, it’s not an expansion. Thrones is the first title in the new Total War Saga series and must be judged as such. Built upon the existing Total War: Attila engine, Thrones needed to do more to provide a unique experience.

Whilst Thrones may offer a very different campaign experience to Attila – as I explained in my Fist Impressions post – the battles aren’t a significant overhaul. Thrones has been compared by design to Fall of the Samurai, but FOTS provided not only a new campaign experience, but a new land and sea battle experience too.

Fall of the Samurai was fantastic, but it was still an expansion to Shogun 2, and if Thrones was being marketed and sold as an Attila expansion I’d have no problem recommending it to those who enjoyed Attila and are interested in this period.

But Thrones isn’t an expansion. It’s intended to stand as it’s own game and as a result, it’s rather lacking. Thrones would have been a great way of introducing new players – and Total War: Warhammer players – to the historical side of the series. But the game has no tutorials beyond the in-game advisor. If it was an expansion, this wouldn’t be an issue – but it’s not.

I don’t have a problem with them building a new game upon an existing engine, but Thrones seems to expect players to be familiar with the campaign and battle mechanics of Attila rather than provide adequate tutorials. New game, new series, remember? You can’t have it both ways.

Thrones also recycles various assets and animations from Attila. Once again, if it was an expansion, it wouldn’t be an issue – but it’s not. I don’t expect them to redo perfectly fine animations or models, but smaller and more noticeable things – such as the ‘kill’ animation when defeating an enemy army – should have been changed. The engine performance may have improved – though not by a significant degree – but the battle engine in terms of collisions, impacts, animations and AI is nearly identical to Attila.

In a way, Thrones doesn’t offer much more of an overhaul of the campaign or battles than the Age of Charlemagne DLC. That’s the real problem here. I think Thrones offers a decent campaign and I’m enjoying playing it, but it doesn’t do enough to stand at its own game, and that’s how I have to judge it because that’s how they’re choosing to sell and market it.

I actually really like the idea of the ‘Saga’ series. I’ve said before that I think Creative Assembly do their best work on the smaller scale or focus. And Thrones, like Shogun 2, has a wonderfully immersive campaign thanks to its excellent art and audio. But Thrones feels like it has one foot in Attila and one foot out.

Thrones – and the Saga series – needs to do more to provide a unique experience, both mechanically and commercially. A 24.99 RRP would have been a more suitable price point. I think Saga games should also be sold as ‘feature complete’. No DLC. Blood could have been in be default. I understand the ratings argument, but once again, this new series needs to do more to define itself and separate itself from the mainline titles.

Thrones has some of the best siege maps in the series, but it doesn’t have a unique map for every major settlement. Why not? If you’re working on this smaller scale and focus, then you need to go deep, not wide. A unique map for every settlement would have been another way to have increased the value of Thrones as its own game.

I know this review isn’t really covering specific mechanics, but I already spoke at length about those in my First Impressions post, so I won’t repeat myself here. I like the new campaign mechanics, and I like how the campaign plays across those two distinct phases. As I’ve said before – doing things different doesn’t mean doing things wrong. It doesn’t mean doing things right, either, but I’ve always respected this series for being willing to experiment with its feature set.

The problem is, even with its new and tweaked features, Thrones doesn’t offer as much as Attila – it actually offers less. Attila felt like a good step forward for the series, but Thrones feels like two steps back. It strips down or simply removes far too many mechanics.

Overall, Thrones is a solid and fairly enjoyable Total War experience, but it is limited not only by its engine, but by the setting and period. Although I’ve enjoyed my time with the title and will likely play it some more, it really just makes me want to go back to Attila where I can enjoy a far more complex, compelling and diverse campaign.

If CA want to continue the Saga series of titles they need to do better at defining what they are and what they represent, mechanically and commercially. If this was sold purely as an Attila expansion, I’d say it’s a pretty decent one. But if I’m going to judge it as CA want – as a new game in a new series – then Thrones falls far short of what it should be aiming for.