Thursday, 21 March 2013

Now Playing: Dead Space 2

Dead Space 2 throws you right back into the action. Action - I’ll be using that word a lot so get ready for it. Three years have passed since the events of DS1, and Isaac awakes to find himself confined in a straitjacket in some sort of hospital as necromorphs start tearing their way inside. There’s no slow paced opening this time - you’ve got to be on your toes and move fast to guide the helpless Isaac to safety.

Very quickly, you’re armed once again with a makeshift plasma cutter. And once again, you find yourself guided by a voice you’re not sure you can trust, although the inevitable betrayal hits you sooner than you might expect.

It quickly becomes apparent that Dead Space 2 is a sleeker, more polished game than its predecessor. It’s also much more action orientated than before. This time around, Isaac has a voice and some semblance of a personality, which is nice. There’s a larger supporting cast this time too which are all fine, but as a result you tend to lose that ‘one man alone’ vibe which created so much of the tension in DS1.

One character in particular pops up regularly to cause trouble but doesn’t seem to exist other than to make the player’s life more difficult. I never really understood why he was there or why he was acting like such a dick and trying to screw you over. Another character who initially seems important just dies at one point leaving you scratching your head as to why he was even there at all.

The story this time around doesn’t feel quite so focused, as Isaac largely stumbles from one disaster to another with no clear goal. There’s not such a sense of progression, and it’s only towards the end that Isaac seems to take charge and be pro-active, rather than reactive to what’s going on around him.

This time the game takes place on a space station orbiting Saturn, where another mysterious artefact is transforming the population into necromorphs. Seriously, who keeps thinking playing with these things is a good idea? The story is decent enough, and it keeps you engaged, and thanks to Isaac’s new found personality, you can’t help but root for the poor guy. There are a few twists and turns along the way and I was glad to see more of the Dead Space universe expanded upon.

Many of the original creatures return, along with several new types. Once again, dismemberment is the only way to deal with them. Old weapons return with a few new ones mixed in and a slightly improved upgrade system.

Playing on Normal once again, I found the default difficulty a lot easier than in the first game. I blasted through it in about 8 hours, which makes it shorter than the original too. Like DS1, it’s also a very linear affair. If you’re looking for more of a challenge I suggest knocking it up to the setting above Normal. I never had to worry about a lack of ammo or supplies.

As I’ve said, DS2 is more action packed than its predecessor. There are several set-pieces, which are undeniably entertaining, but they often devolve into ‘hammer the A button’ moments. Truly ‘edge of your seat’ moments are few and far between here compared to the original. The game also throws a lot more necromorphs at you than DS1, and although the game looks a lot more slick, it doesn’t make as effective use of light, sound or smoke. As a result, it’s not quite so tense or atmospheric, and the creatures become far less menacing and threatening and more ‘cannon fodder’ like. ‘Boss’ segments are once again signposted too easily.

The space station environments are nicely varied, and there is something creepy about seeing these creatures emerging from residential areas. The nursery section in particular is rather disturbing. Puzzles return and are good, as do much improved zero-gravity sections. So the game may lack a little in terms of tension compared to DS1, but it still has a good few jump-scares up its sleeve and there are several sections which go some way to capturing the feel of the original - it’s the quiet moments that are the most effective, with a sense of building dread at the inevitable explosion of violence to come.

Dead Space 2 may be a step towards a more action orientated approach for the series, but it’s certainly not a bad one. It’s slick, engaging, sometimes tense and honestly downright creepy at times. It’s a worthy sequel, but one that I think just falls short of the original.


Monday, 18 March 2013

Tunnel in the Sky

Survival. One of the things which initially attracted me to Minecraft was its survival aspect - of finding myself alone in an unknown environment. Of exploring the world. Of crafting weapons, tools and shelter and struggling to survive. Unfortunately, the survival element never became a serious focus of development and it was never expanded, refined or gained the sort of depth I was hoping for.

I recently picked up Far Cry 3 in a Steam sale. I’m about nine hours in, and it’s been decent enough so far, but once again I find myself wishing for a more in-depth survival experience than the game offers. So here’s a game I’d like to see, but doesn’t yet exist -

Jungle Island Survival Exotic Extreme Adventure 2013 Edition (Working Title)

The Setting: Like Far Cry 3, a large tropical island chain with ancient ruins and rusty WW2 fortifications. Abandoned fishing villages, shipwrecks and washed up shipping containers can be scavenged for supplies. The islands were inhabited long ago, and only traces of the human presence remain.

The Story: None. Your nameless character washes up shipwrecked on the island. The game opens with you waking up on the beach. You goal is to explore the island and find a way to signal for help or escape by your own means. There are several possible solutions.

Gameplay: First person, with a fully modelled 3D body. Your character traverses the environment with a fluid, Mirror’s Edge style grace. You can crawl, crouch, run, sprint, jump, slide, swim and climb (rocks, cliffs and trees). Health, Stamina, Hunger, Sleep, Oxygen and Thirst bars. Clothes become wet, worn and torn throughout but can be replaced, repaired or crafted.

Health: Lack of sleep results in less stamina and eventually hallucinations. Wounds can become infected if not treated properly or quickly enough, resulting in visual and auditory hallucinations, fever and eventually death. Some plants on the island, if consumed, may also poison or trigger hallucinatory effects - the player has to learn the effects of local plants through trial and error. Far Cry 2 style DIY surgery.

Crafting: Certain weapons, traps, food, clothes and medical supplies can be crafted by gathering materials on the island. Herbs can be harvested, fallen branches gathered, fruit picked and local wildlife hunted. You can construct a shelter in several locations and improve upon it by gathering the appropriate supplies. There are a few old vehicles hidden on the island, but parts must be located in order to repair and use them. Fuel is limited.

Exploration: the player has a journal which they start with and update on their travels, building a map of the island as they explore. The player can add notations. The journal also logs discovered crafting recipes. There are ancient ruins on the island with puzzles, traps and artefacts to collect as well as several pieces of a treasure map which leads to buried treasure!

Sharks! Save anywhere, no checkpoints! No cut-scenes! Placement of key ‘Escape’ items is randomised every game!

Yeah, I’d better stop there. So seriously developers, get on it!

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Now Playing: Dead Space

Dead Space is a third person science-fiction survival horror set primarily aboard the interstellar mining ship the USG Ishimura. The player assumes control of engineer Isaac Clarke, sent as part of a small team to investigate a distress signal sent from the ship. Upon boarding the Ishimura, the team is attacked by mutated creatures and Isaac soon finds himself alone and struggling to survive.

The game reminded me a lot of System Shock 2, as Isaac must traverse the different decks of the ship, guided by people he’s not entirely sure he can trust. Along the way, he discovers text and audio logs that allow him to piece together exactly what happened on the Ishimura. Without spoiling too much, there is a mysterious artefact involved which has transformed the crew into monstrous creatures called ‘necromorphs’.

The design of the necromorphs is great, bringing to mind those seen in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Traditional body and head shots are largely ineffectual against these monsters, so precise dismemberment is the only way to go. Arms, legs, tentacles and heads - they all have to be lopped off, one way or another. It’s a pretty brutal way to dispatch your foes, which grow increasingly hard to kill as the game progresses. Isaac’s arsenal is largely comprised of mining tools and equipment, and aside from a good old assault rifle, plasma cutters and saw blades are your primary weapons of choice.

The creatures are fairly varied in terms of strength and type, and the game regularly introduces new variations to keep you on your toes. Player movement and aiming is just the right side of sluggish as Isaac lumbers about in his heavy engineering suit.

Dead Space looks decent enough, but it really excels when it comes to the use of lighting and smoke which, when combined with the mostly small corridors and environments of the ship, are used perfectly to create an oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere. The game also has amazing sound design. The soundtrack is subdued in favour of the clanks and groans of the failing Ishimura around you. Many of the locations in the game are set within heavy industrial areas, and these are among the most effective at combining light, smoke and sound to genuinely make the player wary of entering new areas.

The story is good although the conspiracy and betrayal stuff wasn’t exactly hard to see coming. Isaac himself is a silent protagonist, but the other VA work is good. Despite taking place mostly on the ship, the environments are a nice mix and never grow too repetitive. There are zero-gravity sections which also mix up the gameplay a little and a few simple puzzles here and there.

I played through the game on its Normal setting and it was challenging enough. It took about 11 hours in all which felt about right. It’s a fairly tight and focused game, quite linear in terms of progression as there’s very little room for exploration. It’s also very scripted, so if you play it again you won’t encounter any surprises. That said, there weren’t that many surprises the first time around either, as certain ‘difficult’ segments are well signposted with large stockpiles of ammo, medical supplies and save points.

There are a number of these moments in the game, when you know you’re going to have several waves of necromorphs or a ‘boss’ creature to deal with. It’s a card the game plays a little too often. It’s during these moments that the game loses some of its tension, as the monsters come thick and fast and become more irritating than scary. They’re not very hard to beat, and the game gives you plenty of ammo and supplies to deal with them. It was only towards the end that I really had to start worrying about conserving my supplies.

There’s a weapon and suit upgrade system in the game which is okay. There’s also a final boss fight which just feels a little unnecessary and silly.

Overall, Dead Space is tense, engaging and often has you on the edge of your seat. It may lack a little in terms of replay value, but it provides a dark, entertaining experience while it lasts. If you’re a fan of more traditional survival horror this is definitely worth checking out.


Monday, 11 March 2013

Trigger Warning

So I’ve been trying to work up the courage to play Mass Effect 3 again. It’s turned into something of a running joke. But seriously, I'm pretty sure that game gave me PTSD because I can't even think about playing it without feeling slightly ill.

Mass Effect 3 was so terrible it should be considered a crime against humanity. Okay, maybe that's not entirely fair. I've played worse games, after all, but I don't think I've ever quite hated a game more than Mass Effect 3.

But I wanted to play it again. I wanted to put those demons to rest and move on. But then I heard about the new (and final) DLC release - Citadel.

It’s possibly the most dumb thing ever (while the Reapers are murdering millions of people on Earth, Shepard decides it's time to party) and has a twist that's just so comical and stupid that I still can't quite bring myself to believe that it's true *SPOILERS* Shepard has an evil clone! *SPOILERS*
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Oh no. Someone linked me this video and I think I threw up in my mouth a little.

I just…I don’t even know what to say anymore. This is all just a big joke, right? Oh God. I think I need to go and lay down. This is going to set my rehabilitation back months, if not years. Thanks, BioWare.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Now Playing: Sleeping Dogs

I wasn’t very interested in Sleeping Dogs when it was released. I honestly thought it looked like a rather mediocre GTA clone. I tried the demo, but I wasn’t very impressed. However, when the game went on sale I decided to give it a shot having heard a lot of good things about it, and I’m pleased to say my initial assumptions were quite incorrect.

Sleeping Dogs is a GTA clone, but it’s a damn good one. And whilst it may take a lot of inspiration from the GTA model, to simply write it off as a clone does it a great disservice, because SD is a game very much with its own identity, and it brings a lot of its own good ideas to the table.

Sleeping Dogs sees you assume the role of the likeable protagonist Wei Shen, returning to his old stomping grounds of Hong Kong. He’s a police officer, now working undercover in order to infiltrate a Triad organisation. The story is dark, gritty and down-to-earth, although there are some moments of levity to balance out the regularly brutal violence. The story is fairly well paced and engaging, and features a variety of interesting characters on both sides of the law (with good VA work throughout).

Like Wei Shen, the player finds themselves torn between their loyalty to their assignment and their new Triad friends. The game largely avoids any clich├ęd straight up ‘good’ or ‘bad’ guys. Oh, there are a few and it’s certainly satisfying when they get their comeuppance, but on the whole, the characters, even some of the more unpleasant criminal elements, still draw you in, and you still feel bad when something happens to them.

At one point in the story, a good friend of Wei’s is taken in by the police. He’s a criminal but he’s not a ‘bad’ guy and you share Wei’s frustration at this turn of events. The only negatives I really have in regards to the story is that the ending is a little abrupt and unsatisfying. Although it should be said, my disappointment stems more from that fact that I was enjoying the game so much I wanted more - and that’s always a good sign. I should also note that the action segments can sometimes be a little OTT, which somewhat jars with the overall serious tone of the story.

Like any good GTA clone, SD features a large sandbox city to play in. The world is fairly large, but unfortunately not particularly interesting to explore. There are a lot of enclosed roadways and streets, which doesn’t give the greatest sense of freedom. There’s no aerial travel, but there are plenty of cars and bikes and a small selection of boats - although very little reason to use them outside of a couple of missions.

The world is nicely detailed throughout, with plenty of civilians reacting dynamically to your dangerous driving, or just putting up an umbrella when it rains. Oh yeah, rain - it looks gorgeous in the game, and is very atmospheric. Overall, the game looks very good. I used the HD texture pack though, so I’m not sure how it looks without it.

Driving is okay, although it took some getting used to, particularly bikes, which I don’t think I ever felt handled right. They always felt a little awkward and fiddly to control. There’s a decent selection of music on a few radio stations, but nowhere near as good as in GTA titles. The arrows in the road are a nice touch - guiding you to your set destination without having to continually check the mini-map. Police chases are very easy to elude, but given your status as an undercover officer, it wouldn’t make much sense to spend so much time fighting the police.

Combat! It’s good, but very easy. It reminded me a lot of Arkham Asylum. It’s primarily melee based, featuring counters, combos and throws. It doesn’t feel quite as fluid or responsive as in AA, but it’s certainly enjoyable as you learn new combos, and environment take-downs are always satisfying.

There are a few different enemy types, but nothing that really makes you change up your tactics and it never really gets more difficult either - the game just throws more guys at you at once. The gun based combat feels a little sluggish, but it does the job, and it rarely comes into play, at least until towards the end. It has a nice little slow motion mechanic when vaunting over cover or shooting from vehicles. There’s a level up/upgrade system which is okay, but feels a little tacked on. Unlocks vary between good and ‘never going to use’ and it could have been more fleshed out.

Apart from the main missions, side quests are plentiful but largely repetitive affairs. There are dozens of collectibles to discover - money, clothes and upgrade items. There’s plenty of cosmetic customisation options, plus different temporary bonuses from purchasable food which give you a small boost during missions. The phone is nicely integrated (no annoying cousins bothering you to go bowling) and I love the valet call, a nice little touch.

You can go on ‘dates’ in the game with certain characters, but these are rather pointless and don’t tie in to the main plot or really lead anywhere at all, which is a shame. On top of all of that, there’s a ton of extra content and stuff to keep you busy - karaoke, races, side jobs, ‘favours’, random events, fight clubs and gambling.

Overall, SD is a great title. With a little more polish and fleshed out features, it easily could have rated higher. But even so, SD is well worth your time and investment. It may not excel in any particular area, but it blends together some very solid, very entertaining mechanics, and the complete package was extremely engaging and enjoyable to play.


Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Still Not Playing: Mass Effect 3

Yeah, I'm getting around to it. I promise.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Now Playing: War Z

I bought into War Z last year when it was still in early alpha. I spoke then about the risks of investing in a title currently in development, but my initial impressions of War Z were largely positive. Considering its early stage of development, the game was remarkably stable online. I hit few bugs, encountered hardly any hackers and the community was small, but on the whole very friendly.

I thought the game had potential, but it clearly needed a lot more work and content before it could be considered for release. But War Z saw very little in the way of updates following that initial burst of enthusiasm, and after a time, I grew weary of the limited content and features on offer and I stopped playing, deciding to return when a few more content patches had arrived to shake things up.

Spin on a few months, and a few did. The map was expanded. New character models were added. Zombie numbers were increased. I returned to the game to check out the latest build, but these updates seemed to have made the game even less stable than the early version I’d got stuck into. What had originally appeared to be early placeholder textures, models and animations were still present - and the new stuff wasn’t exactly any better. Well, it was still alpha, right? You’d expect such issues to arise as content is added and the game is fleshed out. Except it wasn’t alpha now. It was beta. But, hang on, isn’t that- Oh wait! Now it’s released on Steam!

This is where things get messy. War Z had already attracted controversy for clearly cashing in on the success of the Day Z ARMA 2 mod. But what really matters isn’t what came first, but what does it best. And although War Z was tackling a similar concept, it was taking a slightly different approach - a more arcade like approach, which appealed to me personally.
But now there were rumours of false game bans, forum censorship and all sorts of claims ranging from the worryingly plausible, to the utterly ridiculous. It was a mess, but the developers and their publishers really only had themselves to blame. They’d released a falsely advertised, clearly still in alpha game on Steam. The backlash was tremendous, and the game was pulled for sale within a week.

Gone…but not quite forgotten, as the game has recently reappeared for sale. So what’s happened to it since then? Well, there have been a few more content updates. People are still playing it. I barely touched it myself for a few months, but I decided to go back to it recently and see what was going on.

Has it improved since that initial disastrous release? Yes. Is it any good yet? Well, no. It’s more stable than the build I played before release, and there is more content, new features, new hacking protection (or so they say) and bug fixes. But is it too little, too late? Has the damage been done? Is the reputation of the product tarnished beyond repair? Well, it’s hard to say. A lot of negatives have already been written about War Z, so I might as well touch upon the only real positive and the reason I was so initially interested in the product -

The moments when everything just clicks. Moments when you’re sneaking through a town at dusk, avoiding zombies, gathering supplies - tense, exciting moments, where danger potentially lurks around every corner – living or not. Moments that make your heart race a little faster as you spot something moving in the distance. A zombie? A player? A friendly player? The feeling of constantly being on edge, of ducking out of sight when you see a small group of survivors because you’re unsure of their motives. These moments are when the game excels. But sadly these moments are few and far between.

Ultimately, the biggest issue with the game (and probably an issue the upcoming Day Z release will face) is the problem of long term progression. What is my goal in this world? War Z, currently, has no goal beyond simply gathering supplies. And when you have more than you’d ever really need? What then? There is no story, no character progression, no way to clear and secure areas of the map. And once you’ve stockpiled a healthy supply of food, medicine, weapons and ammunition, there’s very little else to do.

As it stands, War Z isn’t really worth your time or money. It hasn’t really improved, and it doesn’t appear that it will to any significant degree. It was certainly enjoyable in early alpha. I saw it as a cheap, budget title which had potential. But those early days are gone, and the developers clearly see it as a ‘released’ product now. Well, on those terms War Z is a bit of a shallow mess in terms of content, features and stability. Given another year of development and testing it could have been a decent little title. Oh well.