Friday, 27 December 2013


I picked up the DayZ standalone alpha recently and I’ve now sunk a fair bit of time into it. Here’s my initial thoughts -

Let’s start with the technical stuff. Performance wise, DayZ stutters along. It’s certainly not unplayable, but it’s not exactly very good either. I average around 40 or so frames per second on mostly Medium settings. In populated areas it can drop to around 20-30. As I said, not unplayable, but with an i7 and a 780, I expect better. In terms of servers, I’ve never had any problems finding or connecting and I’ve only experienced a couple of disconnects. So that’s been pretty stable. Bugs. Surprisingly, I’ve not encountered that many, and those I have generally relate to zombies, but I’ll get into that later.

Content and Features. This is the area where DayZ is currently lacking. Aside from exploring the map and scavenging for supplies and cosmetic items, there’s very little else to actually do. Well, aside from killing other people, if that’s your thing. There are hardly any zombies in the world (a good thing, which I’ll talk about in a moment) so currently, it’s mostly just a case of exploring the map and trying not to get shot. Now, the continual search for supplies and the unpredictable nature of player interaction is certainly a core part of the DayZ experience, but in its current state it really is just a basic framework. More features and mechanics need to be added in order to flesh out and add depth to this framework.

Zombies. There are hardly any and it’s simply best to avoid the few you may come across. They can walk through walls, closed doors, and in one case a zombie started attacking me through a floor. You don’t really want to waste ammo on them, but it’s too dangerous to attempt melee attacks as even a single hit will cause you to bleed. And getting hit/hitting back is more a matter of luck, as melee hit detection is terrible. So if you see a zombie, just run and save yourself the hassle. This game desperately needs more zombies, but not until they can get them working right. Until then, it’s simply better off without them.

Now, I’ve talked before about how it’s a risk to purchase a game during development for several reasons and I don’t want to get into all that again. Yes, it’s a risk, but it’s one you accept, and there’s no point whining about it later if you regret it. I’d say that in its current state, the asking price of DayZ is a little too steep. However, this could change quite quickly depending on how frequently new updates and content is rolled out. But does this mean I wouldn’t recommend buying it now? Well, no, actually. Because despite all of these problems, I’ve still had quite a bit of fun with DayZ, even in its current state.

I think the question you have to ask yourself is this – will I get my moneys worth out of the game as it is today, if it never gets any better than this? If the answer is no, then steer clear. If yes, then you may as well jump in now because hopefully, it will only improve from here. Just think of it as a long term investment. So let’s move onto some of the cool stuff currently in DayZ.

It’s a fast game to get into. The initial load to joining a server is quick and without hassle. You can practically jump straight in, which is great. Graphically, the game looks pretty decent, doing a great job with its natural environments. The buildings and interiors look good too, although interiors could do with a lot more variation. The map is very large but you never feel too far from a potential loot area. I really like being able to see my body in first person. I keep saying I wish more games did this.

Despite reports I’ve seen, I’ve not personally had problems finding food or water, although guns are another matter, but that’s to be expected. I guess if you only loop around the larger coastal areas you’d have less luck, because these are picked clean more frequently. I’d recommend heading to smaller settlements inland and checking buildings on the outskirts. I frequently find small hoards of supplies completely untouched. I really like the inventory system and character customisation. I think I’ve actually had the most fun just dressing up my characters more than anything.

I like the basics that are already in place, such as needing tools to open food tins, or tearing clothes into rags as makeshift bandages. Or using a map, compass and Russian phrase book to help determine your location. There’s so much potential to expand on this system and create a very in depth survival experience. In terms of combat, melee is totally unreliable, but guns work okay, although ammo is very scarce. That said, simply carrying a gun around can be deterrent enough. I actually chased off two bandits with an unloaded gun. By the time they realized I hadn’t actually shot at them, I was already legging it in the other direction. Ho ho!

Yes, people will try to kill you in DayZ just because. I guess mostly because there’s sod all else to do right now. But if they can fix the zombies and make them a numerous and serious threat, then perhaps it will encourage more cooperation. Now, you certainly don’t want to prevent or heavily penalise players for killing others, but there needs to be some sort of balance, some incentive not to.

There needs to be a good reason for players to team up and work together other than simply for protection. And this needs to establish some form of long term progression, some goal to aim for other than acquiring a good stash of gear and supplies. Because that honestly doesn’t take very long to do once you know where to look.

So yeah, I’ve had some fun with DayZ. I had to actually kill my first character due to a bug. The second was shot about 5 minutes after I arrived, and I’m currently on my third (although it wiped all my gear the next time I logged in darn it!) I’m enjoying it for what it offers right now and for that, I’d say it was just about worth the cost. But it’s got a hell of a long way to go.

Monday, 23 December 2013

The Clayton Awards 2013

Best Game of 2013 - Dark Souls

I knew little about Dark Souls going in. It was a somewhat hesitant purchase, even at the reduced price of £4.99. I really wasn’t sure if I was going to like it. But Dark Souls rapidly won me over, sucking me in and not letting go. It proved to be one of the most refreshing and unique games I’ve played in a long time. It’s not a game I’d recommend to everyone, but that’s one reason why it’s so great. It has a purity of design and focus. This is Dark Souls, like it or not. It doesn’t attempt to cater to everyone, nor should it.

If only more games took this approach. Too many get watered down these days in an attempt for mass appeal. A very polished, but generic and bland game will be forgotten. Dark Souls may be a little rough around the edges, but it’s a game you won’t forget any time soon. And so it claims the award for Best Game of 2013.
Most Disappointing Game of 2013 - Total War: Rome 2

Rome 2 is certainly not the worst game I've played this year. It was, however, the most disappointing. After several patches, the game has certainly improved since release, but no amount of patches can fix some rather dodgy design choices. And the AI remains as schizophrenic as ever.

That said, I still don’t think of Rome 2 as a bad game as such. But it’s far from the definitive Total War experience fans of the series were hoping for. As such, it takes the award for Most Disappointing Game of 2013. 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Now Playing: Assassin’s Creed 3

I think I’ve spoken before about my experience with the Assassin’s Creed series. I rather enjoyed the first game despite its repetitive mission structure. It felt fresh and unique, blending some large and highly detailed environments with a fluid movement and combat system. What I really liked about it though was the historical setting. AC 2, whilst I probably prefer the setting and character of AC 1, was a fantastic sequel, building upon all the good things of the original game and adding even more quality features. My only real gripe would have been that it was a little on the easy side.

Spin on to AC: Brotherhood, and this is where things start to go wrong. I didn’t think Brotherhood was a bad game as such, but I found it all rather mediocre. It tried to add new features to the AC mix but none of them really worked. In the developer’s efforts to keep adding more, more and even more side fluff for the player to do, it seemed they lost sight of what the core game should be, and that’s a criticism I’ll be raising again with AC 3. Brotherhood was immediately followed with Revelations, but by this time I’d largely lost interest in the series so I didn’t bother with it. Spin on to now and AC 3 was on sale so I thought, why not give it a shot? So let’s begin, shall we?

Assassin’s Creed 3 features a rather lengthy prologue and series of tutorial missions which can last around 8-10 hours. The prologue puts you in control of a man called Kenway (the main protagonist’s father) beginning in London before relocating to the American Colonies. Through a series of short, linear missions you’ll learn the basics. This leads onto control of Connor himself, the real protagonist, and his early years learning to hunt in the forest, followed by his teen years which lead up to him pulling on the swanky Assassin Order garb.

On one hand, I find it quite admirable that the developers wanted the player to take their time to immerse themselves in the setting, story and characters. However, the execution to this approach is somewhat flawed, as the game initially feels disjointed, the action sometimes leaping forward several months or even years. As a result, the missions feel disconnected from one to the next, and to make matters worse, many are cut scene heavy, regularly wrestling control away from the player. Plus, because they are still technically ‘tutorial’ missions, they often force the player onto a specific path, or set of actions. And then there’s all the ‘memory boundaries’ limiting your freedom of movement and approach.

This can result in the game growing rather frustrating, not to mention irritating, and I can understand why people would start to lose interest. However, stick with AC 3 and the game does begin to open up as the sandbox slowly comes alive. Set during the time of the American Revolution, you’ll visit two cities, Boston and New York, both quite stunningly detailed. It’s clear a great deal of effort has gone into recreating these cities in a way that is historically authentic, yet also complements the gameplay.

These cities really do feel alive, with lots of nice little touches and animations on the bustling streets. In addition to these locations, you also have the large Frontier environment which features a couple of smaller settlements and some forts, but is mostly comprised of wilderness to explore and hunt. But we also have the Homestead, which I’ll talk more about later.

So as I said, it certainly takes its time, but AC 3 finally begins to let you in, to trust you to take control and get out there into the world. I get that they wanted to direct us through this early content, but as hand holding goes, this is way overkill, and sadly it’s a problem that crops up again frequently throughout the game.

Once you do get to take full control though you’ll have plenty to keep you busy. In addition to the core missions you have dozens of side activities. The best of these are the Naval Missions, which I’ll touch more upon later, but you also have a variety of other side missions such as courier and assassination jobs, as well as a series of challenges to complete relating to hunting, fighting and exploration. And of course, collectibles! Lots and lots of collectibles!

But that’s not all. You also have the Homestead to manage and missions to complete which allow you to build a thriving community. You can then purchase raw materials to craft new items to trade for profit. In itself, the Homestead is like a mini-game, and quite satisfying to see build up over the course of the story, although it has to be said that the crafting/trading element is rather pointless (not to mention having a horrible menu system) and overall, I didn’t feel as connected to the Homestead as say, the town in AC 2. And this is again due in part to the leaps in time the game makes at regular intervals.

So certainly there’s no shortage of content, but is it quality content? Well, yes and no. Mostly no, sadly. Although numerous, the side content is largely basic, shallow and repetitive, and this is where I bring up the point I made earlier, about the developer trying to cram so much fluff in that they lose sight of the core game. And this game is called Assassin’s Creed 3. Assassin. Except there’s very little assassinating going on.

The core missions guide you (quite literally by the hand at times) through some key moments of the American Revolution, putting you face to face with some famous historical figures. And whilst these moments may be interesting to experience from the historical point of view, gameplay wise it’s another matter entirely. Some, honestly, are just plain boring to play.

As I saw it, the AC games were about a story taking place within a particular historical setting. In AC 3, however, the setting and the story are essentially one and the same. The Revolution isn’t simply the backdrop to Connor’s story – it’s the focus. And whilst that’s fine to do, it leaves Connor and his personal quest feeling rather irrelevant, as the game leaps from one key event to the next and Connor is simply along for the ride. And yeah, very few of these missions involve, you know, assassinating someone.

I mean, it’s fun and all throwing tea into Boston Harbour, but why the hell does an entire mission revolve around it? Because it pisses off a guy Connor wanted to kill? No, this mission exists, like so many other core missions, to put Connor at the heart of a key event in the revolution, even if it doesn’t really make sense for him to be involved, or much more importantly - is actually interesting to play. This can be incredibly frustrating, especially when, as in the lengthy opening, missions are punctuated with frequent cut scenes and insultingly stupid hand holding. Press X to Throw Tea.

To use the tea mission as an example, there’s no reason this event couldn’t have featured in the game, but why not use it as a backdrop? Why not send Connor to assassinate his target, using the tea dumping as a distraction? You can keep the historical backdrop without losing focus on what this game’s primary missions should really revolve around – assassinating people. I know, I know, crazy idea right?

I’m all for mission variety, but many core missions in AC 3 are so simplistic and easy, and there’s simply not enough assassinations, as ridiculous as that sounds. Many just feel like a chore to slog through, and they aren’t even very long if you cut out all the cinematic interruptions. And even worse, many of them limit player freedom and creativity so people don’t accidentally ‘break’ the story.

One example that bothered me was hunting down a man Connor intended to kill. After a lengthy chase through the streets, I closed on my target and struck...only to ‘fail’ the mission because I wasn’t supposed to kill him yet within the story. Oh. This pissed me off so much I had to quit the game for a bit.

So yeah, the core missions of AC 3, although certainly interesting from the historical perspective, just aren’t very interesting from a gameplay standpoint at all. Some do fair better than others, but overall, it’s rather disappointing stuff.

Speaking of gameplay, AC 3 has streamlined the free running aspect into pretty much just holding down right trigger and pointing in the general direction you want to go. I don’t actually mind this too much, as a more complex system would result in less fluid movement, and that movement through the environments is what makes AC 3 so fast and enjoyable, especially the new natural environments. More complexity would result in more frustration, and this is one time when I’d agree that making it more simple is for the best.

But then we have the combat. Oh. Okay, so I can’t deny that the combat is also fast, fluid and great fun to watch. Watch, yes, because it’s largely an automated affair. The animations are top notch, but you have very little control over anything. They’ve actually make it feel even easier than I remember Brotherhood being. Forget stealth or subtlety, it’s just not worth your time, and the game doesn’t exactly lend itself to that play style anyway (although to be fair, none of the AC games handled stealth well) Need to capture a fort full of soldiers? Just walk in the front door, you’ll be fine!

A group of enemies should be threatening, but in AC 3, groups are easy to chain kill with just a few taps of the X button. Counter an initial strike, and you can chain your way through an entire squad or two (B then X). It looks pretty, but that’s about it. They do try to mix it up with a couple of different enemy types who require slightly different tactics (B then A!), but that’s about as complex as it gets.

Compared to a game like say, Arkham City, which although also a little easy in terms of combat, at least really mixed in a variety of enemy types that required the player to be creative with gadgets and tactics. I guess there will always be a tricky balance between ‘cinematic’ combat, and more complex, challenging combat, but AC 3 veers way too far in the ‘cinematic’ direction.

The last major criticism of the game is unfortunately related to technical aspects. AC 3 suffers from quite a few bugs and glitches. These can range from the amusing – npcs popping in and out of existence around you, and ‘dead’ men yelling at you from the ground to give two examples – to the annoying, such as certain events not triggering in missions, forcing you to reload the last checkpoint as you’re left unable to progress.

The most infuriating bugs, however, are the ones that cause some of the side missions to fail to appear or properly complete, which means if you’re aiming for 100% synchronisation, think again. (In particular I found the Delivery Requests very glitchy, and I also had some problems with the liberation missions too, but fortunately I got them all to trigger)

Okay, now for something more positive – the Naval Missions. A number of side quests involve taking to the seas, controlling your ship and blowing shit up. They’re a little short and basic, but a hell of a lot of fun and thoroughly entertaining. An entire game focused around these elements, with more depth, boarding actions, exploring the sea, engaging in battles, going to mysterious islands and...hold on, maybe I will give AC 4 a look after all!

So what else haven’t I touched upon? Well, the assassin recruits return which is a rather pointless feature, but it’s, you know, there, I guess. Oh and you also have the Desmond sections, in which you get to stretch your legs in the present for a bit, but these are mostly short, silly interludes and largely forgettable. Kenway is a magnificent bastard and actually far more interesting than Connor, funnily enough.

Although animations are generally great, facial animations can be a little static and creepy. Switching out weapons and gear can also be a bit cumbersome. Oh, and the final run of missions are so incredibly lame and may as well have just been a series of cinematics for all the player control they offer. In fact, the entire ending feels totally rushed and just left me in a ‘what the f**k, that’s it?’ state, followed by what may be the longest unskippable credits sequence in history. Seriously, don’t do that.

Overall, Assassin’s Creed 3 was a frustrating, irritating, tedious, yet also sporadically quite enjoyable, content packed experience. It’s just a shame that more of that content isn’t more focused or in depth, and that the experience is spoiled by some irritating bugs and glitches, not to mention the extremely lacklustre core missions and excessive hand holding. But there is good stuff in here, as long as you’re willing to overlook the rough patches and slog your way through the more dull stuff. To end on a slightly more positive note, AC 3 at least rekindled my interest in the franchise, so that’s better than nothing.


Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Work in Progress: TSOTS

I think in my last writing update I mentioned that I wanted to get one more project done before the end of the year, but I wasn’t quite sure what it would be. I had three potential projects lined up, but I actually ended up not doing any of them. Instead, I started work on TSOTS.

TSOTS is the sequel to one of my other books. I’d spent some time refining its outline and felt the time was right to hammer out a first draft. I knew it was unlikely I’d be able to get it completed before the end of the year, but I knew I could have a good crack at it.

So far, I have a little over 20k words written which comprises the first ten chapters. I’ve spent some time editing and revising those so it’s not too rough. I was hoping to get another ten done by about mid-December, and that still might be feasible, although a cold I picked up recently has somewhat stalled my progress.

So my new goal is to get about 50k words done by the end of the year. And if I can keep up that momentum I should have the first draft completed by the end of January.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Now Playing: The Stanley Parable

I’m not sure where to start. How can I talk about The Stanley Parable without spoiling the experience? And that’s really what it is - an interactive experience. It takes the common narrative and design frameworks we’ve become so accustomed to in our wonderful video games, de-constructs them, pokes them full of holes, turns them upside down and inside out and then creates something entirely unique.

Is it a game? Does it matter? It rather defies description. It’s not a puzzle game as such, but there are plenty of hidden secrets to uncover. It’s not an adventure game, but you do go on an adventure of sorts. There’s no real ending, and no real challenge. It’s first person and you walk about a bit, occasionally pressing (or not!) a button. In terms of gameplay it’s basic to the point of non-existent. In terms of replay value you’ll have seen mostly everything within a few hours, so at the current price of 7.99, it’s not exactly great value in that regard.

And yet, I can’t deny that The Stanley Parable was one of the most amusing, entertaining and clever ‘games’ I’ve played in a long while. So how can I score this ‘game’? Should I? And should it relate only to the quality of the content? Or should I take the price and the quantity of content into consideration too?

But that said, much of the content and the meaning behind it will be lost on those who are unfamiliar with common video game design tropes, so not everyone will ‘get’ The Stanley Parable. I’m sure many will simply be baffled by it and not see what the fuss is all about. That’s not to say that if you don’t like it, it’s because you don’t ‘get’ it. Perhaps you feel the presentation of this deconstruction simply doesn’t work.

Honestly though, I’m not sure I can score this, uh, ‘game’ accurately. To do so almost seems like it would miss the point of the experience too. So I’ll simply say I think you should play it. Oh, and make sure you play the demo too.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Rome 2: Civil War

I actually wiped out this entire force with a single army & garrison. Thanks, dodgy AI pathfinding!

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Now Playing: Grand Theft Auto IV

In GTA 4 you step into the shoes of Niko Bellic, a man arriving in Liberty City on a personal quest for revenge. As you’d expect from a GTA game, this quest largely involves driving around a lot and shooting things. The first thing that strikes you about the game is how gloomy and grey it is. Colours are subdued, creating an oppressive and moody atmosphere that works well within the context of the setting and the story, although I can’t help but wish they’d injected a little more colour and life into the environments.

The City itself is large and highly detailed, but there’s not a great deal of variety on offer in terms of locations. Liberty City serves as the sandbox you can screw about in between missions, and there’s a fair bit to keep you busy. You have a selection of side jobs you can undertake for extra cash, plus a variety of recreational activities such as bowling (NO, Roman) darts and pool. You can watch television, surf the internet and even take in a show. The problem with all these extra activities though, is that there’s very little point to any of them.

The side jobs are generally a repetitive series of the same missions – steal a certain car, deliver a package – but given that you earn more than enough money through the main story missions, there’s little reason to bother with them. The recreational stuff is fun a few times, but not much more than that. And whilst there’s amusing stuff to be found on the TV stations and on the internet, there’s no real reason to bother with either. I really would have liked if these activities were in some way tied to core missions, but that’s something I’ll get into later.

The game has a great selection of in-game radio stations to listen to as you drive about, and I liked that news reports (both on radio and online) would touch upon the mayhem you’ve caused from the main missions on occasion. There’s also a ton of nice little details and features throughout the game, all of which add up to very well constructed and enjoyable sandbox to play about in, at least for a time. It’s just a shame that the aforementioned side stuff isn’t all that interesting or worthwhile in the long-term.

In terms of how it plays, GTA 4 has what is initially an odd feeling driving system, but once you get used to it, you soon appreciate how each vehicle handles differently in terms of mass, acceleration, speed, impact and turning, not to mention the fantastic damage model. On foot, GTA 4 has a solid cover based shooting system. It can be a little dodgy switching between targets at times, but it works well enough. You have a selection of weapons to use, but not a great deal of variety – a choice of a couple of handguns, a couple of rifles etc. Nothing to get too excited about.

As for the story, it’s...well, fine. It has a cast of varied and interesting characters, and it keeps you interested to the end. Niko, the protagonist, is a little too casual and laid back at times about the unpleasant things he’s doing, yet at other times he’s more pro-active and opinionated about what is right or wrong. I do like his character, but there are times it seems he acts more like a misunderstood anti-hero just doing what he has to in order to survive, and others where he just acts like a typical thug for hire. He can’t really be both, and the inconsistency can be a little jarring. But overall, it works well enough, and the story builds up to an exciting run of final missions that see through his personal story.

Now, although his primary goal is to find someone and exact revenge, Niko actually seems more concerned about getting paid. It makes sense for him to be working for some unpleasant people doing unpleasant things in order to bring him closer to his goal. But a lot of the time he acts more like a mercenary, simply doing jobs for cash. This wouldn’t be so bad if he actually needed the cash for something, but he, well, doesn’t. It doesn’t bring him any closer to his goal, and that money you accumulate is effectively worthless within the world.

This is one big issue I have with the game. You earn a ton of money yet you have practically nothing to spend or invest it in. It all goes on stocking up weapons or purchasing new clothes from a disappointingly small selection. By the end of the game I had over half a million in the bank, and that was even after ignoring most of the side jobs. But I had absolutely nothing to spend it on.

My other major issue with the game is the main missions. These really are the core of the experience. The world, characters, gameplay, story and extra activities are all good and fine. I have my criticisms about each of them, but overall, they combine well into creating a solid and entertaining framework. The problem is that the main missions don’t really build upon that framework or take advantage of it.

The main missions in GTA 4 are unfortunately just a little repetitive and dull, very rarely varying from the standard ‘Drive to A, Shoot Target’ objective. Some are slightly more elaborate, featuring a car chase, or a lengthier set-up, but a lot are pretty short and forgettable. There are, however, some far more elaborate missions mixed in, and it’s these that are far more memorable and interesting to play. These are the missions which do build upon the sandbox framework, bringing the world and all it’s features into the core story. I’ll give you an example -

One mission requires killing a lawyer. But in order to get access to him, you have to go online in the game, visit the website of the firm he works at and submit a fake CV for a job. You then wait for an interview call which is set up at a specific time the next day. In order to look the part you also need a smart suit. These minor objectives, combining elements of the sandbox world (internet, e-mail, your phone, clothing) all lead up to attending the interview itself, meeting your target, at which point the shooting begins.

It creates a far more ‘complete’ experience, than the standard ‘Drive to A, Shoot Target’ missions, and it’s a shame the game doesn’t have more multi-stage missions like this. I hate to say it, but towards the end I was losing my interest in the game itself due to this lack of variety or complexity in the missions.

It’s also a damn shame, and also rather irritating, that these missions can only really be completed in one way, as there’s very little freedom for the player to deviate from the expected path or be creative in how they approach certain objectives. I’ll give two examples. In one mission I had to kill a particular guy who was on the second floor of a building. I scoped the place out and spotted him just in view from across the street.

Thinking I’d be smart about it, I took up a position out of sight at range with a sniper rifle, intending to take him out safely and discreetly. Only I couldn’t. As soon as I raised my weapon, he (and the dozens of goons protecting him) suddenly became psychically aware of my presence and ran for it, and although I’m sure I pulled off the perfect head shot, he wasn’t scripted to die yet. No, I had to play out the mission the way the game intended, fight my way through a horde of goons and then execute him on the rooftop. So much for a free-form sandbox.

Another thing that really bothered me across multiple missions were the magically indestructible cars. GTA 4, as I’ve said, has a great damage model. You can shoot out tyres, shoot through windows, kill passengers or the driver etc...but not all the time. There are many missions which involve an extended car chase to kill a target, but they are sometimes scripted so you can’t actually take out the target until you hit a certain point or reach a certain destination. This means that you can burn through all the ammo you want, but it won’t make a dent in your target or their vehicle, not until the game allows it. It’s bloody annoying is what it is, especially in one mission, when I thought I’d take out a guy with a rocket before he could actually escape, only to see the damn thing bounce off his car as he drove away.

Okay, so enough ranting. I just really wanted a greater variety of missions, more elaborate missions involving multiple stages, and more creative flexibility for the player within the sandbox as to how they want to go about it. Looking back at a lot of the games I’ve really enjoyed and scored highly over the last few years, this is an element that has featured in some way in nearly all of them – that the game allows and trusts the player with a degree of creative freedom in order to complete an objective. But the rigid mission structure of GTA 4 feels entirely at odds with the intention of a sandbox environment.

Overall though, GTA 4 is a solid, enjoyable title with a lot of nice little features. It’s just a shame the core story missions simply aren’t very varied or more elaborate which means they can get a little tedious. I hope GTA 5 addresses a lot of these concerns. The developers certainly know how to build a great sandbox framework, but what they need now is to really let the player have more creative flexibility in how they approach their objectives within that framework. I guess I’ll find out whenever they get around to releasing the PC version. I could get the console version now, but I think I’ll wait.


Saturday, 16 November 2013

Monday, 11 November 2013

Now Playing: Startopia

Startopia is a Theme Park style game set on a series of alien space stations. Your basic goal is to build up a thriving and functional station from scratch, recruiting staff and catering to the needs of your visitors. Five tutorials introduce you to the basics, and then ten increasingly more elaborate and challenging single missions take you through all of the various features within a story orientated context.

These single shot missions each deal with one core feature of station management. So for example, one mission deals with constructing a medical facility, another a criminal detention and rehabilitation station, and another a thriving trade outpost. As you progress through these missions you gain access to all three decks of the station, and by the very end will be capable of managing all three simultaneously. These initial missions lead quite nicely into the customisable sandbox mode, where you can tailor your experience and victory conditions as you please.

There’s a lot going on, especially when you’re keeping a watchful eye on all three decks, and things can certainly get a bit hectic as your station grows, with residents and visitors to keep track of, trade deals to make, and the threat of spies and saboteurs to contend with. But everything is kept quite simple with a sparse and intuitive UI, and plenty of helpful tool-tips and icons suggesting where you need to focus your attention.

The game looks great with a bright, cartoon style. There’s a fantastic attention to detail in the alien and building designs, with some wonderful animations for both. Combined with great sound effects, music and VA, Startopia has a great deal of charm and character. It’s also very addictive, as you easily lose yourself for hours trying to create the perfect station.

Criticisms? Well, the combat element is a little basic, simply relying on greater numbers than any sort of strategy, and it’s just too easy to rush your opponent early before they can get established. The fact that there’s only one type of station map is probably the biggest issue, as your custom games will eventually grow rather repetitive when you settle upon a preferred station layout, and this harms long term replay value.

Overall, Startopia was addictive, quirky, amusing and full of charm, and was a lot of fun to play.


Saturday, 9 November 2013

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Now Playing: Supreme Commander

Supreme Commander is a sci-fi RTS game set during the ‘Infinite War’. There are three single player campaigns, one for each of the three competing factions – the UEF (typical Earth military) the Cybran Nation (uh, cyborgs) and the Aeon Illuminate (technologically advanced cultists). There’s also a multiplayer mode and the usual customisable skirmish options.

The three campaigns are all entirely separate, so you can play them in any order, and each starts you out small so you can slowly learn the new units of each faction throughout their individual campaigns. The overall story of each campaign is fine and keeps things ticking over, and the trash talking Commanders inject a little personality into what is otherwise a rather flat affair.

Given the differences between the three factions, you’d think there would a somewhat distinct play style for each, but sadly, this isn’t really the case, and each faction plays largely the same. I suppose in the interest of gameplay balance this makes sense, but unfortunately it’s not great for variety.

The UEF campaign is a little dull, as is its unit roster, largely moving from light tank, to medium tank to heavy tank and so on for pretty much every unit type. There are three different technology levels to advance through in order to unlock new units. Air, land and sea, stealth, heavy, light/scout, bombers, fighters, artillery etc. The Cybran and Aeon unit rosters follow a similar progression and serve the same functions, but are at least a little more interesting and exotic in design, and as a result I found their campaigns much more fun to play.

My biggest issue with the game is that I felt it lacked any kind of personality, particularly for the units. I think this is due to two issues. One is simply that the units are all automated robots, so there’s no human element at stake. Unlike other RTS games, there’s no memorable unit VA which so often instils a sense of fondness towards the units under a player’s control. The other issue is the scale of the game. You’ll be churning these units out by the hundred, and you’ll lose them by the hundreds too. As a result, you very quickly stop caring about them as individual units.

Because with such massive unit counts, individual units lose importance. Now, obviously this was intended by design, and the scale is certainly great, but the result is something of a disconnect between the player and their forces. This, for me, is what has made so many other RTS games enjoyable and more importantly memorable down the years – whether it be from unit design or as is usually the case, by their VA responses. In Supreme Commander, every unit is simply silent as you issue orders to hundreds of them at a time and they just feel completely expendable and forgettable.

Playing SC for the first time though was certainly an interesting experience. I did what I usually do in an RTS – I spent hours constructing a perfect, symmetrical, heavily defended base, before pumping out a large combined unit type force to smash the enemy. I then sent them into battle and within thirty seconds they were completely obliterated. What, thirty units not enough? I doubled it, and won – barely. And that’s the first lesson you learn in SC – this is a game about scale. Forget the typical RTS size – SC deals with hundreds of units – land, air and sea engaging in massive battles.

This really is the game’s big draw. You really feel like you’re engaging in truly massive scale battles, with hundreds of land, sea and air units all moving and fighting across the map at once. With a decent UI it’s fairly easy to keep track of and manage it all, and it certainly looks impressive. In terms of its technical proficiency and gameplay mechanics, I really can’t fault it.

So, overall, Supreme Commander is a solid, enjoyable RTS, and you really can’t go wrong with it if that’s what you want. It looks good and it plays fine. The big problem for me though, was just that the game never really gave me a reason to care. With such a grand scale, SC loses the personal touch that makes other RTS titles so much more memorable. I never really engaged with it, and as a result I never really cared much about my units, my missions or the overall campaign. But still, it’s certainly worth checking out if you’re a fan of the genre.


Friday, 1 November 2013

Sexy Skyrim: Part 1

I started playing Skyrim again recently. I spent several hours fiddling with different mods, in particular finding the right ENB mod with a few personal tweaks I was happy with. It looks great now, so I thought I'd share some fancy pics here and there. Here's the first batch -

(In other words, these are filler posts, but at least they look pretty)