Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Battlefront 2 is F**KED

Where do I even start when talking about how f**ked Battlefront 2 is? I touched a little upon these concerns in my Beta Impressions post, but I’ve got more to say. A lot more. All the signs for Battlefront 2 looked good. A story based, single player campaign. More multiplayer content on release than Battlefront 1. Space battles! And no, I repeat no Season Pass or paid DLC.

It wasn’t unexpected there would be some form of monetization to fuel future development, so when loot boxes were announced it wasn’t a great surprise. And honestly, even though loot boxes aren’t super popular right now, if they were included in Battlefront 2 for items that were purely cosmetic in nature – such as character, vehicle, ship or weapon skins, in addition to things like poses and emotes – I wouldn’t be writing this post, and there wouldn’t be such an outcry.

There would still be those who considered it ‘wrong’ for a fully priced, AAA title to include microtransactions, but I think the majority would understand and accept the trade off to avoid DLC and Season Pass bullshit. And there’s a lot they could do with cosmetic content in a cross-era Star Wars game, especially with unique character/race skins.

The point I’m making isn’t that Battlefront 2 is f**ked purely because it has loot boxes. The loot boxes aren’t the issue. It’s what’s inside the loot boxes that is. These boxes provide objective gameplay advantages over other players. In any class based shooter, there will be a degree of imbalance as some classes will excel within certain roles or engagements more than others. Natural skill and experience also plays a role.

But on its current system, Battlefront 2 will very rapidly become a game of those who have and those who do not. The fact is, that in 2-3 months, if you’re not rocking a full hand of epic Star Cards, you’re going to be at an objective disadvantage to those who do, regardless of experience or skill. The only way to create a ‘level’ playing field is to grind – or spend cash – to obtain epic Cards of your own.

This alone is enough to make me not want to buy the game. Even during the limited beta, players who had obtained higher level cards would frequently dominate matches, particularly in my favourite mode – Starfighter Assault. Even I was guilty of it, as I got lucky with some crates and obtained a full deck of ‘rare’ Interceptor cards. And I could feel the advantage I had going into fights with players who didn’t have any. It felt cheap. I could fire faster, longer and do more damage. Matches became about which team had the best cards, not the best pilots.

Since the beta, the grind to obtain loot boxes and the necessary cards needed to level up has only increased to the point where you may need to spend 2 or more hours of play to earn a single crate. Why? To encourage you to buy them with real cash, of course! Even this, as terrible as it is, wouldn’t be so bad if all vehicles, classes and heroes were available to play at their most basic level. But no!

Some heroes require credits to unlock – an obscene amount of credits, which on current calculations may take 40 hours of play to unlock – provided you don’t spend a single credit on anything else. Let’s not forget – this isn’t a free to play title. It’s a full priced AAA release locking release day content behind a pay wall. EDIT - they’ve now reduced the hero cost, but reducing it isn’t enough – it needs to be removed entirely.

And rumours are beginning to spread that the intention is to continue this approach with the upcoming ‘free’ content, which will be locked behind ridiculous credit costs, forcing players to grind for countless hours to unlock it or take the intended short cut and buy random loot crates to speed up the process.

Everything about the loot box system, the obscene credit costs for those who don’t pay, the locked content, the gameplay advantages that will f**k over any player who picks up the game post-release, the fact that you can find DUPLICATE items in those crates, and the whole encouraging players to gamble aspect which I haven’t even touched upon means that Battlefront 2 feels rotten to the core.

It’s gone from a game I was wanting to buy, to a game I most certainly won’t. Not unless significant changes are made. And I guess that’s the point of this post. If enough people keep bitching about it, maybe things will change. They said changes would occur post-beta, but it seems they’ve only made things worse. Maybe this time they’ll really listen.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Now Playing: Hollow Knight

I kind of love and hate Hollow Knight. I almost gave up on the title after only 40 minutes of play, not because it’s a bad game, but because it just wasn’t clicking with me. But I’m not one to give up so easily. I decided to persist, to see if Hollow Knight would improve and evolve as I progressed. And it did, in some ways. To say that Hollow Knight is a ‘slow burn’ would be an understatement. You have to be willing to put 2-3 hours into the title before it really begins to get good.

Good, not great. I feel like I spent the entire game waiting for Hollow Knight to take that extra step, to go from being a good but flawed experience, into an unforgettable classic. I wanted another Ori and the Blind Forest. But I didn’t get it. Not even close.

Hollow Knight is a 2D side scrolling action / platform game very much in the ‘metroidvania’ style. As you explore the world and defeat various bosses, you’ll gain new abilities which will, in turn, unlock new areas to explore and new bosses to fight. It’s a tried and tested cycle of progression, pushing the player through the world and regularly introducing new locations and challenges from beginning to end.

I don’t think Hollow Knight handles its progression particularly well, however. As I said, the opening few hours are a slow slog with little variety or challenge, and it takes a few hours before you unlock the necessary skills to really open up this fascinating world. But even then, progression feels needlessly slow.

Every new location should be a joy to explore but in Hollow Knight, they can feel like a tedious slog as you slowly exhaust all available routes until you find the ‘correct’ path. This is less of an issue as you advance through the game and unlock all of the various abilities and items, but during the early stages, when you’re very limited by where you can go, it results in a lot of ‘dead ends’ followed by an infuriating amount of backtracking.

Even with a new (if limited) fast travel system, Hollow Knight is a backtracking nightmare during the early to mid game. You might say that’s part of being a metroidvania title – but Ori used the same system of progression, so why did it work so well there and not here? The answer is – world design.

In Ori, previously explored areas could be traversed far more rapidly when you had gained the appropriate skills. There were multiple paths based around these skills and they made backtracking fast, easy and more importantly – forced the player to put their new abilities to the test. But in Hollow Knight, even when you’ve unlocked all of the different skills, alternate routes and fast travel stations, backtracking through old areas isn’t significantly faster than when you began.

That’s because your skills are primarily used to access and explore new areas, not to traverse existing areas. So when you have to backtrack through previously explored levels it’s rare that you’ll be able to use your new skills to speed up the process.

I don’t want to get too hung up on the backtracking issue because it’s not the only flaw holding Hollow Knight back and, as I’ve said, it becomes less of an issue towards the end game. Slow, methodical exploration and progression is encouraged and rewarded by Hollow Knight’s design. And that’s not a bad thing. But it is an issue when it comes to traversing previously explored areas.

It results in the game feeling padded with needless and unnecessary travel. There are far too many ‘redundant’ screens that seem to serve no purpose within the overall design. They seem to exist purely to slow the player down. It’s not all bad – because there are areas where they clearly thought of placing ‘short cuts’ within the design allowing you to bypass previous sections. So no, it doesn’t get it entirely wrong. But for everything it gets right, it seems to get something equally wrong. And that is particularly true when it comes to difficulty.

It’s always tricky talking about difficulty because it’s such a subjective topic. I’ve seen Hollow Knight referred to as a ‘2D Dark Souls’ and that’s actually a description that attracted me to the title, in addition to the wonderful visuals and music. Because if you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know I rated Dark Souls very highly.

Dark Souls got difficulty right. It offered what I considered to be a fair and balanced challenge. When I died in Dark Souls, I was never angry at the game. I knew I’d died because I’d made a mistake, or because I wasn’t yet prepared to face the challenge before me. Every death was a chance to learn and improve.

I can’t say the same for Hollow Knight. I was frequently irritated by the game because I was taking hits or getting killed in ways that felt beyond my control. Deaths that felt random and unavoidable. I’m not just talking about the extensive selection of boss characters. Even traversing the world could be a pain.

Hollow Knight has some lovely visuals and environments, but it also loves what you might call ‘foreground’ scenery which, at times, can obscure your view of enemies, hostile projectiles or even hazards like spikes and water. When you take a hit by something you couldn’t even see, it doesn’t feel very fair.

The game also takes great delight in punishing the player for trying to move quickly. As I said – slow, methodical exploration is encouraged. But when I’m passing through an area for the 4th or 5th time, I just want to hurry on my way. Hollow Knight makes that difficult with a lot of needless environmental hazards.

I’m talking about having to repeat a series of tedious precision jumps, or avoid falling rocks which, when you’re in a hurry, may catch you out and result in a cheap hit. And taking even simple hits like this can prove punishing due to what I call ‘chain damage’.

In Hollow Knight, taking one hit can lead to a chain of hits either due to enemy or level design. A basic example would be this – a falling rock hits you (1 hit), knocking you from a platform onto an enemy below (2 hits) which then knocks you onto some spikes (3 hits). I don’t want to over exaggerate the issue, but it is a problem, particularly in some of the boss fights, nearly all of which take place in enclosed arenas and a single slip can result in you getting ‘stuck’ in a corner, taking a chain of hits you simply can’t avoid.

Because hits can be very random. Sometimes they’ll knock you into trouble, and sometimes they won’t. It just feels that it’s luck, not skill, that sometimes determines the outcome of a fight. And that, I think, is really at the heart of Hollow Knight’s problems and why it never quite clicked for me. It’s not really a game of ‘skill’ but of slow, methodical trial and error gameplay.

Every piece of the game be it boss or world design is set up in an intentional way to slow and punish the player. Traversing and defeating these challenges isn’t a matter of using your abilities in a skilful way – it’s more about learning the patterns and responding accordingly.

But to me, that’s not very interesting or engaging gameplay. Once you know the patterns, it’s not hard to progress – it’s just slow. It’s a tedious game of trial and error be it finding the ‘correct’ path to go or the ‘correct’ way to defeat a boss.

Which wouldn’t bother me so much if the combat was a little more varied. The game has a fantastic variety of enemies to fight, but you have very limited combat abilities and nearly every enemy is dealt with in exactly the same manner – a basic repetition of strike and dodge. Your new skills never really come into play in the boss fights. Every fight is just a case of learning the pattern and knowing when to strike, when to dodge and when it’s safe to heal.

Oh yes, healing. Healing in Hollow Knight can take a few seconds even when regenerating a single life. This forces you to use your healing wisely. What I don’t like, however, is the unnecessary delay upon entering and exiting the heal animation. You’re effectively locked into place unable to move, dodge or strike. You can argue that you should also take this delay into account when choosing to heal, but there are times when it doesn’t feel entirely fair.

One boss, for example, would frequently and randomly spawn smaller enemies during the fight. And if one spawns right next to you as you’re entering a heal there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent the hit. If it happens, it’s just bad luck. But luck should never be the defining factor that can win or lose you fights.

Too many hits in Hollow Knight feel cheap, random and unavoidable – at least until you learn the patterns, and then it’s actually pretty easy to progress (aside from the aforementioned ‘bad luck’ moments). If you like that trial and error style of play, you’ll probably love this. I don’t. Which isn’t really a fault of the game, as such, but more of a personal preference.

The store page promises ‘tightly tuned controls’, but that wasn’t always my experience. I sometimes found the controls unresponsive, especially for precision jumps or fast dodges, which adds to the feeling that some hits are cheap. And hit detection could feel dodgy, both for enemy attacks and environmental threats – sometimes you’ll clip a spike and take a hit, and other times you won’t.

The positioning of save points is also a point of contention, as at times it may result in a 3-4 minute journey back to a boss fight. Not a major problem, but it slows you down. Hollow Knight doesn’t always value or respect your time which is a significant problem.

There’s just too many ways that Hollow Knight goes wrong for me to consider it a game as good as say, Ori or Dark Souls, two games that it shares much in common with both structurally and thematically. Ori got the balance between exploration and progression nearly perfect, whereas Dark Souls got the balance between difficulty, skill and luck just right.

Hollow Knight, on the other hand, is all over the place. Sometimes, it gets these things right, but many times, it doesn’t. It results in a very mixed, uneven and incredibly frustrating experience that I always felt was just a small step beyond being one of the best games I’ve played. It gets so much right, but is continually hampered by poor design choices that drag the experience down.

Hollow Knight never takes that step. It never truly opens up and lets the player enjoy their new skills or abilities. Everything has to be slow, methodical and punishing. Some may like it, but to me, it’s just not very fun. It’s a tedious slog of trial and error gameplay that I found as irritating as enjoyable. But I kept playing it because for every moment it annoyed me, it managed to hook me back in with something new.

It’s certainly not bad. It’s good, but sadly not great. You know when I write so much about a game it’s because I’m frustrated by it. Because I wanted to like it more than I did. Hollow Knight is good. There’s a lot I like about it. I just wanted it to be better.


Monday, 6 November 2017

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Now Watching: Wonder Woman

After the less than stellar Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman amazes us all by being surprisingly . . . okay. It’s easily the best of the DC ‘cinematic universe’ films and a much needed step in the right direction.

Overall, I liked the film, but I’m also rather disappointed by it. It feels like a lot of potential was wasted here. It’s hard to say more without spoiling the movie, so if you’ve not seen the film, stop reading here.

Wonder Woman has an opening so heavy on expository dialogue I wondered if I should be taking notes. It tells the story of how Diana – Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) – came to be. A weapon sent by Zeus to destroy Ares, the God of War, should he ever return to wreak havoc upon the world of men.

Set during World War One, Diana teams up with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) on a mission to halt the production of a deadly gas, being developed by the nefarious Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) and the German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) – who she suspects is Ares in disguise.

Gadot brings a charming naivety to the role of Diana. There’s a wonderful scene where she tells Steve that by destroying Ares, the war – all war – will end. He just looks at her, weary and sad. Even though he comes to believe her story about the God of War pulling the strings, he doesn’t quite share her faith in the nature of men.

Throughout the opening Diana is told there’s ‘much for her to learn and understand’ – about the world, about Ares, about mankind, and about her role within it. Ultimately, her goal is to bring peace to the world of men. It’s a noble theme and a poignant one considering the setting. Unfortunately, Wonder Woman squanders the potential it builds, and Diana ultimately defeats Ares and ‘war’ by quite violently punching it in the face.

Diana doesn’t really bring ‘peace’ – she just kills any unfortunate German soldier who gets in her way. World War Two is easy – nobody likes a Nazi. But World War One was a far less black and white affair, so it’s a shame the Germans are presented as comically evil assholes.

All that talk of ‘more to understand’ led me to believe there would be some kind of reveal – a secret she must learn. But all she learns is that in order to win, you just need to punch Ares really hard. I suppose there is something quite amusing about literally punching war in the face, but it’s also a contradiction of the central theme.

The question is, did Wonder Woman need Ares as an actual character to fight? What if he wasn’t just another video game boss but more of a metaphorical threat? Couldn’t that be the big secret – the thing she needed to understand? Ares is the evil that exists within the hearts of men and only men can choose to overcome it – exemplified by Steve’s sacrifice at the climax.

That Diana’s role wasn’t to just punch war away, but to inspire others to turn away from it. To lead by example and show them a better way. Isn’t that what being a hero is all about? Instead, Ares was just a CGI flying man that Diana had to punch a lot. Punching didn’t work at first, but then she really wanted to punch him, so it did.

I guess every superhero movie needs to end with a CGI boss fight? But why? I just wish they’d taken a different path with Wonder Woman. It’s all set up so perfectly, but then it takes the lazy path and ends with a lame video game fight that felt like watching a bad cartoon.

Other issues? The pace could be tightened and the slow motion effect during the fighting heavily reduced. Some of the CGI was also a little poor. I know Gal Gadot can’t actually leap tall buildings, but her CGI model was so obviously fake at times it was distracting.

I wanted to like this film more than I did. It gets so much right, builds everything right, but then does a complete 180 at the very end and contradicts it all. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m stupid for not wanting to see Wonder Woman prevail and bring ‘peace’ by vaporising her foe with lightning after violently beating him about the head.

Despite my issues and my disappointment with how everything came together at the end, Wonder Woman is still a decent film. It’s a step in the right direction for the DCU, but it’s still got a long way to go.


Thursday, 26 October 2017

Now Playing: Warhammer 2

Warhammer 2 is exactly what it needed to be. It’s more Total War: Warhammer – but even better. It likely won’t win over any new fans because at heart it’s just more of the same. But as I said in my First Impressions post – it’s a very polished, refined and upgraded version of the original. If you liked Warhammer 1, you’ll like Warhammer 2. It really is that simple.

My only concern prior to release was the price. Is there enough new content and mechanics within Warhammer 2 to justify its status as a fully priced ‘sequel’? After more than 80 hours of play, I’d say the answer is yes.

There are four new races – High Elves, Dark Elves, Lizardmen and Skaven – fighting on a large, entirely new campaign map which covers the ‘New World’ of the Warhammer universe. The map is split into four quite distinct continents – the jungles of Lustria, the deserts of the Southlands, the bleak wastelands of Naggaroth and the beautiful island of Ulthuan.

Each race has distinct, varied and extensive unit rosters and unique campaign mechanics. They each have two Lords to choose from and, aside from the Dark Elves, these Lords are split between different areas of the map, ensuring very different campaigns even when playing as the same race.

The campaign of Warhammer 2 is exactly the improvement I was hoping for. It’s the most narrative heavy Total War campaign released, based around a magical Vortex that has the power to contain or unleash the forces of Chaos upon the world.

Although you can ignore the Vortex ‘story’ and simply focus on a domination victory, I don’t think it’s worth playing the Vortex campaign if you do – you’d be better off sticking to the Mortal Empires campaign (more on that later) if all you want to do is expand and conquer.

I said in my Impressions post that I can see some fans really hating the Vortex mechanics because it does somewhat remove the ‘sandbox’ element from the campaign. As you progress you’ll unlock five rituals, each of which must be performed to unlock the ‘final battle’. Rituals take time to complete and spawn random Chaos armies which will rampage through your territory in an attempt to halt your progress.

The other races can also spawn ‘intervention’ armies to send against your ritual sites – and you can do the same to them. The Vortex campaign is a race and there can only be one winner. It’s not only a more narrative heavy campaign (with the welcome addition of animated cut-scenes advancing the story for your chosen race) but also a far more objective focused campaign.

Controlling ritual resource sites becomes key if you want to stay a step ahead of the pack, and completing missions is a great way to boost your ritual ‘currency’. It’s a great way of keeping you engaged through the entire length of your campaign – always an issue in previous Total War games – but that’s not to say it doesn’t raise new problems of its own.

The first is campaign replay value. Once you’ve beaten the ‘story’ as a race, there’s not much excitement for playing through it again, even with the different start locations for each of the Lords. I suppose that’s where Mortal Empires steps in – a sandbox ‘mega map’ which combines the content of Warhammer 1 & 2. But Mortal Empires isn’t strictly Warhammer 2 content as it requires ownership of Warhammer 1 – so I won’t be factoring it into my review of the ‘base’ Warhammer 2 experience.

The Vortex campaign also has a problem with repetition. Despite the unique races, units and mechanics, beating the campaign is achieved by each race in exactly the same way. Once you’ve taken at least three of the ‘resource’ sites, you should be able to pull ahead in the race quite easily – but once you do, there’s very little reason to continue to expand.

The Chaos and Intervention armies that spawn mean you’re better off playing turtle within your own territory once your borders are secure. If you’re ahead in the race, it’s far easier to sit tight and simply defend what you have.

This can be fun, in the sense that unlike Warhammer 1, you’ll actually get to fight some large, enjoyable siege battles against varied armies not only of Chaos but the other major races, but it also means that you’ll likely approach every campaign, regardless of race, in a similar manner. As I said, the Vortex campaign is more of a story and objective focused campaign than a sandbox – which won’t be to everyone’s taste.

That’s not to say you won’t get good value from the title. Because if, like me, you enjoy this style of campaign, you’ll want to complete it with all four races to see how their story plays out. At the time of writing, I’m coming to the end of my second campaign with over 80 hours played, and I intend to play at least two more campaigns.

Warhammer 2 features a lot of quality of life improvements over Warhammer 1. Things like the new end turn customisation options, or the end turn notifications custom options – there’s a lot more ways to customise your UI and how much or little information you need.

Other new additions to the campaign (which will also roll into the Mortal Empires campaign) include treasure hunting within ruined settlements – although I never found this particularly worth the time – and sea based discoveries – which are very much worth your time, especially in the early game for the financial boosts they can provide.

Campaign and Battle AI seems fairly on par with Warhammer 1. There’s no noticeable steps forward, but none back either. It’s a competent AI which does a decent enough job to provide an enjoyable experience.

Magic seems to have been seriously boosted in Warhammer 2, which is a very welcome change. Magic in battles, though fun to use in Warhammer 1, never felt very effective beyond the unit augments or hexes. But now, the visually spectacular spells such as vortex attacks, finally do the kind of damage their cost deserves.

A ‘climate’ system has replaced the occupation restrictions of Warhammer 1, and seems like a decent compromise, although I’m sure some players still won’t be happy. It seems like some just hate the notion of any penalties at all, or being forced into making tactical decisions regarding their expansion.

All of these improvements and alterations will feed directly into Mortal Empires which for many will become the primary way to play Total War: Warhammer. It certainly seems like it will render the Warhammer 1 campaign redundant, which is why I appreciate that the Warhammer 2 Vortex campaign will still offer a different experience for those looking for a smaller, more focused campaign.

Siege battles are still mostly the same, despite more variety to settlement design, and this remains an area that could use further improvement. The lack of naval battles or even dedicated naval units (outside of the Dark Elf Black Ark) is also disappointing considering the extensive sea regions between continents. But I’ve heard there may be licensing issues regarding the naval component of Warhammer Fantasy, so this may not be within their control – but it’s something I’d still like to see in the future.

Overall, Warhammer 2 is another fantastic entry into the Total War series, and an excellent sequel to an excellent game that unfortunately also renders that game somewhat redundant. Between the new Vortex and Mortal Empires campaign, there’s really no reason to return to Warhammer 1 at all. I’m actually quite surprised by just how much new stuff is packed into Warhammer 2 in addition to all of the small improvements.

Warhammer 1 felt like the shake up Total War needed. It breathed fresh life into the series. It was a ‘revolution’ title, just like the original Rome, Empire or Shogun 2, because it set a new course for the series to follow. That’s why, despite thinking that the release build of Warhammer 2 is better than that of Warhammer 1, I’m giving it a slightly lower score.

Because it’s an evolution, rather than a revolution. But it’s exactly the kind of evolution I wanted to see. Highly recommended.