Monday, 22 April 2013

Homeworld IP Auction

So I just heard the news.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

In Limbo (Part 2)

I really want to like L.A Noire. I’ve sunk over 14 hours into it already and I must be about three quarters or so of the way through. So why haven’t I completed it yet? Apathy, I guess. I reached a point where I was playing it more out of a sense of ‘I should really finish this’ - but even that faded and I just stopped altogether one day. But I do want to like it. I think the concept is great. Playing as a detective with an emphasis on gathering evidence, visiting crime scenes, interviewing witnesses and interrogating suspects all against an atmospheric and detailed late 1940s L.A backdrop.

It has some great side characters and a number of interesting cases which sees you putting together clues, chasing up leads and occasionally getting involved in a fairly exciting car chase or shoot-out. The problem is, as much as I like the concept behind it, it’s just not very well executed. Gathering clues becomes a by the numbers chore. Interviewing people limits you to a small selection of questions which don’t always tally against certain evidence you personally wish to raise. It’s a very clinical process, with practically zero creative input from the player. Not to mention that the protagonist sometimes reacts in unexpected ways when you attempt to pursue particular lines of questioning.

As a result, investigating cases becomes something of a frustrating and limited experience, as you soon realise you’re restricted to only a handful of possible solutions, and these have to be followed in a particular manner in order to get the ‘best’ outcome. In addition to this, the world is large but completely sterile and there’s practically nothing interesting to do outside of the cases. This wouldn’t be a problem if the mechanics behind solving the cases was so much better and engaging for the player. But sadly they soon begin to fall a little flat.

The faces also creep me the hell out.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Now Playing: BioShock Infinite

Within the rather subdued opening scene of BioShock Infinite (which also serves as a nice little nod to the original BioShock), there came a moment which reminded me of the closing scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and I suddenly had the feeling I was about to be taken on one hell of a wild ride. I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

You are Booker DeWitt and your assigned task is simple - return the girl and wipe away your debt. It’s a wonderfully straightforward premise to initially hook the player, the classic ‘princess locked in the tower’ story with you cast as the hero sent to rescue her (or kidnap, depending on your point of view). But as you might expect, Booker isn’t exactly a white knight and the story takes several surprising and clever twists along the way.

Shot into the clouds, Booker lands upon the floating city of Columbia. BI has a wonderful art style, very similar to the original BioShock. It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but personally I thought the game looked simply fantastic at times (even though they rather overdid it with the bloom in places). The attention to detail throughout the world is excellent, and the opening scenes are perfectly presented and paced as the player takes their first curious steps into this strange new world. It’s an intriguing, interesting setting, one which I was more than glad to take my time to explore in between the frenetic combat.

Not before long, Booker finds himself on the wrong side of Columbia’s finest and the game takes a sharp, sudden and brutal twist. Combat in BI is almost a little jarring given the nature of the plot and the refined, soft style of its aesthetic and sound design. It’s surprisingly violent, with exploding heads and messy melee executions. But maybe that was the point - as Booker soon learns that beneath the ‘civilised’ veneer of Columbia lies a dark (and BI does get dark at times) cold, and twisted heart.

Because of the bright, cheery setting and the slow natured pace, that initial eruption of bloody violence has all the more impact. It also serves to remind us of what Booker is capable of - that he is no stranger to violence - which ties into his past and his own personal journey throughout the game.

Environments in BI are fairly large, detailed and well varied throughout the game, with a decent degree of freedom to explore outside of combat. In addition to your primary objectives there are also a few optional side quests mixed in to unlock secret areas, but these often involve some irritating backtracking. Sorry, no puzzles. The use of sound and music in the game is top notch, which combined with the lovely visuals creates a wonderfully immersive atmosphere. VA is also very good. Character models and animations are also good, although it must be said that some models are repeated so often it begins to seem as if the entire city is populated with clones!

There are a lot of great action set pieces throughout the game, thankfully none of which force the player into lame QTEs or cinematics. It lets the player direct the action and the experience, even if the end result is always going to be the same. Although I have several issues with the combat, it is solid and satisfying enough, and certainly enhanced by the presence of Elizabeth (the girl you are sent to rescue) and her dynamic assistance during battles.

The game’s narrative is superbly paced and overall, very solid - aside from a couple of areas I’ll touch upon later. It’s a story where one man’s vision of paradise burns and quite literally falls. It deals with more mature themes than you might expect from a game that lets you summon flocks of crows to eat people’s faces off, or to make their heads explode in comical fountains of blood. The main plot won’t be anything new or startlingly original if you’ve read or watched much science-fiction, but the concepts it explores are well presented and the story, overall, is very well told. At times, I felt like I was watching an episode of Fringe.

And unlike most games, BI manages not only to open strongly, but to hold the player’s attention throughout and to end fairly strongly too - not perfectly though, as it does feel a little abrupt the way it is handled right at the very end, though it certainly doesn’t spoil the experience. But it is a shame that a few of the side characters don’t get much love - Slate, Fitzroy and Fink are all interesting characters, but sadly they get little time within the game.

It has to be said though that it is sadly the gameplay of BI which is probably its weakest feature. It’s unfortunate because, aside from a few minor niggles here and there, it largely excels in just about every other area. BI, at its core, is a very basic run and gun first person shooter. Like I said, it’s solid and satisfying enough - just - but it could have been so, so much more. It plays much like the original BioShock, with a weapon in one hand and a power in the other.

You have a two weapon carry limit in BI, which feels a little odd, but you soon get used to it, swapping out weapons on the fly as you go (at least until you get the almighty Hand Cannon). There’s a selection of the usual suspects to choose between - handguns, machine-guns, sniper rifle etc, which unfortunately all look and feel a little uninspired, and variations of these weapons later in the game are really just different coloured re-skins. Like the original BioShock your standard weapons are combined with plasmids - sorry, Vigors - which are essentially superpowers straight out of a bottle.

However, I found the Vigors to be largely ineffectual in combat. In fact, some of the them I didn’t even use more than once during my entire Hard playthrough of the game. Why? Well, for one, your standard weapons are powerful enough to see off any foe - especially the Hand Cannon. With that single weapon equipped, particularly if you’ve upgraded it, you can pretty much one-shot your way through half of the game.

Also, many of the Vigors are only really effective in certain situations or environments which rarely arise, and aside from using them for amusement occasionally, they were never vital to the combat. I largely ignored them much to the irritation of the game, which frequently told me ‘Remember to use your Vigors!’ Oh, I didn’t forget, BI. Sorry, but they’re just a bit crap.

There are 8 Vigors in all, each of which can be upgraded or used directly or to create traps, but like the weapons, most of them just feel rather obvious and uncreative - electric shock, charge, force push, shield etc - I would have preferred more exotic and imaginative Vigors. You can chain some together to form combos but that’s pretty crappy and pointless too, as are the upgrades, which are just dull.

Fortunately, there is more to the combat than just the generic guns and the somewhat useless Vigors. Early on in the game you acquire the Sky-Hook which is used to traverse Sky-Lines (and also serves as your melee weapon) which, in certain areas, allows you to whiz around the battlefield. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and it certainly adds another dimension (ho ho!) to the rather bland shooting.

Later during the game, you also gain the ability to open ‘tears’ in reality to bring forth supplies, cover and other helpful items such as automated gun turrets. I’ll talk more about my issue with this feature later, but for now, I’ll just say that these additions do go some way to make up for the disappointing Vigors and the by the numbers shooting. Character movement also felt a little too sluggish for my tastes - so many of the Vigors are only really effective within a fairly close range, so it’s strange that your character trundles about in combat, and attempting to close in on dangerous foes in the large combat arenas to unleash a Vigor seems rather redundant when you can easily just shoot people safely at range.

Enemy variety is another niggle, as there’s very little on offer. It’s not terrible, but I certainly expected more Vigor based special enemy types. Given the prevalence of the bottled superpowers, it’s a little strange how so few of your enemies make use of them. We only really get a couple of Vigor type foes and you rarely encounter them. Why not Bucking Bronco foes who toss you up into the air? Or Undertow types - knocking you back or dragging you towards them? Or shield users? Some different varieties of the Motorized Patriots would have been nice too with different heavy weapon types. Then you have the ‘Handyman’ foes, who look great in design, but in combat are just bullet-sponge charging brutes.

Introducing new enemy types throughout the game would have been a fantastic way of keeping the player on their toes, forcing them to adapt their tactics and utilise the various Vigors in new ways to deal with the new threat. But by half way through the game you’ll have encountered every enemy type there is. At one point in the game the player finds themselves up against another faction within the world (and the initial reason why is pretty ridiculous, but I’m going to gloss over that for a moment), which would have been a great opportunity to really mix up the combat with something new and unexpected, but this new threat is composed of exactly the same enemy types as before - except they wear red. Red. Oh.

It must also be said that enemy AI is pretty poor. They either run straight at you or practically line up to be shot. There is, however, one new sort of enemy introduced right towards the end during a small segment which I won’t spoil - a creepy bugger you generally try to sneak by. It’s an excellent, dark and strange thing to encounter, but unfortunately you soon return to the generic enemy types you’ve killed a hundred times before.

I played the game through on Hard difficulty first and really, that should be the default ‘Normal’ setting, as it offers a somewhat balanced challenge. Then again, you could argue it offers no challenge at all because of the way the game handles player death - or rather doesn’t handle it.

The death penalty, or lack thereof, is a bit of an issue. When you die, you, well, you don’t. You just get right back up again and carry on fighting. It certainly keeps the action fast and flowing, but as a result, even on Hard difficulty, aside from a rather redundant monetary deduction, ‘death’ is nothing to be concerned about and as a result, battles lack any real tension. Excitement? Yes. Tension? Nope!

To compound this problem, the player is also given an auto-recharging personal shield! Why? Just because…I guess? I played through the game on Hard first, and then on Normal to explore more and muck about with the Vigors. Despite my best attempts, getting killed on Normal was pretty much impossible and the entire game was a cakewalk.

Okay, onto those plot bits I mentioned earlier. Spoiler warning! There comes a moment when you enter a new reality in which your character is a martyr of a resistance movement. Upon seeing your return, the revolutionaries cheer your name, and you assist them as they make their advance. However, for whatever reason, the leader of the movement decides to kill you just…because. I guess because the game was running out of bad guys to throw at you or something. It’s pretty dumb, especially given that all her men also suddenly turn on you without any sort of question.

Following this, about three quarters in, the game takes a slightly bizarre twist. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a moment involving a ‘ghost’ and an objective to head to three separate locations in order to open a locked door which is impeding your progress. The entire section feels completely unnecessary and simply serves to pad out the game a little. Also, the battles against the ‘ghost’ and her minions feel completely out of place and are just, well, stupid. It really could have been cut from the game entirely.

Okay, with all these negatives you’d think I didn’t like the game or something, so let’s move onto the best thing about BioShock Infinite, the one thing that really brings it to life and makes it great. The one thing that without, it just wouldn’t work at all. And that one thing, if you hadn’t already guessed, is Elizabeth.

Elizabeth is your constant companion for the majority of the game. In fact, BI is something of one very long escort mission in disguise. But a good one! Elizabeth smartly takes cover, interacting dynamically with the environment both within and without combat. During battle she’ll actively search out ammo, health and salt supplies as you run low and toss them over for you to catch. She adds another layer to the combat which, without her, would be all the more dull. On top of that, her character is really the star of the show. BI is as much about Elizabeth than it is Booker. BI is really her story, and we’re just along for the ride.

One negative about the Elizabeth character I should bring up though is her apparent invisibility to your opponents. I can understand your early foes not wishing to harm her, but later in the game, it really doesn’t make sense that she is simply ignored as she sometimes runs blindly towards the bad guys.

Like BioShock, BI also features purchasable Vigor (rather pointless) and weapon upgrades (useful, although very disappointingly there are no visual enhancements to weapons such as in the original), tons of items to loot (money, food, drinks, ammo) and interesting audio logs which serve to flesh out the story, characters and setting. There is no equivalent to the research camera from BioShock, although I can’t say I particularly missed such a thing. They also rather overdid the item pick-ups and searchable containers. Why is there a hot dog in a chocolate box? It don’t make no sense! There are also clothing upgrades with different bonuses, but these I pretty much forgot about.

Despite all these niggles, BioShock Infinite remains quite a remarkable experience. I honestly can’t remember the last time a game hooked me in so strongly that I found myself sitting up into the late hours completely immersed in the unfolding narrative. Not only that, but within hours of completing the game, I started a second run and enjoyed it just as much, if not more, than my first. There are some games we can love, even though we can recognise their flaws. BI is one of those games for me.

In fact, it’s probably because I liked it so much that I’m all the more inclined to dissect the experience and highlight its problems. It’s because I liked it so much that I wanted more and expected more. In a game about infinite possibilities, it’s kind of ridiculous how so many areas lack meaningful choice and imagination. For example, the ‘tear’ mechanic in combat. Given that these tears can open into multiple realities, locations and times, why do we only ever have the opportunity to summon forth ammo, guns, turrets, cover and Sky-Hooks? There was so much potential for this mechanic to really go wild and introduce all kinds of craziness onto the battlefield. Instead we just get generic crap that honestly, we don’t really need anyway.

Then we have the rather unimaginative Vigors, upgrades, enemies, weapons and the solid, but by the numbers shooting. It’s all rather unfortunate that the core gameplay of BI almost feels overlooked, as if it was something of an afterthought to the rest of the experience. But the (frequent) combat is the core of the experience. It’s the only way we really get to interact with this rich, fascinating world. And it’s just...okay. Which is disappointing, because it has so much untapped potential. It could have been so much more, and had so much more depth than what we got.

Overall, BI is an extremely polished, well presented all-round package that features some genuinely breathtaking moments. However, I can’t deny that the gameplay elements are sadly lacking. And despite the good additions - Elizabeth’s interaction and the Sky-Hook - it feels like a step back from the original game. As I said, it’s because I enjoyed BI so much that I’m probably being all the more hard on it, because I feel as good as it is, it could have been so much more. Maybe even worthy of all those perfect scores I’ve seen it lavished with. But unfortunately, BI falls short of those dizzy heights.

Nevertheless, BioShock Infinite is certainly one of the most engaging, entertaining and sheer enjoyable titles I’ve played in a long time, and it’s one I’d highly recommend.


Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Now Playing: Jedi Knight

Jedi Knight (1997) is the sequel to Dark Forces. Once again featuring protagonist Kyle Katarn, JK runs on a new engine with improved textures and animations. Although still primarily a FPS, Jedi Knight also features a third person option, intended for the new addition of the lightsaber to your arsenal.

Like in the original, weapon sounds are top notch and the game does a fantastic job of capturing that classic Star Wars atmosphere through music, sound and settings. Unlike the first game, however, I found the weapon roster largely redundant. In DF I switched weapons regularly depending on the situation, but in JK, I rarely switched from using the bow-caster which you find in one of the first few levels of the game. Combined with the later acquired lightsaber, JK is a relatively easy affair, with more power-ups and health items spread throughout the levels than you’d ever really need.

Force Powers are now also integrated into the game, which gives you more options and abilities. They can be rather awkward to switch between and use, but they are a welcome inclusion which further expands your tactical options, not only in combat but also when exploring the environments.

The levels are large and well designed, with many hidden areas and multiple paths. Ultimately, they do funnel you down a fairly linear progression, but it’s well disguised. Puzzles are improved, although still revolving largely around key codes and switches. Settings are varied, as are enemy types, although AI is still pretty awful, your opponents mostly just charge blindly at you - even if it means walking off a drop to their deaths or, as I witnessed a number of times, stepping beneath a descending lift and being crushed. Still, it made me laugh, at least.

The story is told through a mixture of hilariously acted live action and CG cut-scenes. It’s a pretty simple story of Katarn seeking revenge, discovering his Force powers and stopping a bad guy from doing something...uh, bad. So it’s not great, but it does the job, is fun to watch and it’s still better than the Prequel Trilogy. The story does alter slightly depending on your actions.

I reached one awkward moment when Katarn viciously murdered his pilot, because the game had judged I’d walked the ‘dark’ path. It wasn’t really clear how or why it had decided this, although maybe indiscriminately shooting everything that moved wasn’t such a good idea in hindsight. It was somewhat jarring, as it just seemed to come out of nowhere. There is a ‘light’ variation though, although ultimately it doesn’t really change things that much.

There are Boss fights throughout the game, largely lightsaber duels. These are pretty easy, except for the final two, which aren’t so much difficult as they are incredibly irritating.

Overall, JK is a worthy sequel to DF. An upgraded engine, expanded weapons and powers, a more fleshed out story and characters. It’s a bit of a nightmare to get set-up, particularly the controls, even more so than the first game. Like DF, it’s also relatively short, clocking in at around 6-7 hours. But if you’re a Star Wars fan, DF and JK are definitely worth checking out.


Sunday, 7 April 2013

In Limbo (Part 1)

So let’s take a look at that backlog, shall we? There are a few titles I’ve actually sunk significant time into already, but for various reasons I never saw them through to the end.

To begin we have Gears of War 3, which I bought not because I was particularly interested in it if I’m being honest, but because, well, I had the first two games in the series and I’d quite enjoyed them, especially in co-op. But Gears 3 was just…I gave it a couple of hours and quit. The shooting felt floaty and without impact, and it just…I don’t know, it felt tired like it was just going through the motions. On top of that, it looked horrible. I don’t know if it was just the opening levels but it seemed like someone had vomited over my screen. It was just a blurry mess of pungent yellows and sickly exploding orange. I found it offensive to my eyes. I’ve not touched it in about a year.

Next up - Guild Wars 2. I used to play World of Warcraft. Didn’t we all? I quit a few times, went back, eventually quitting for good as the game slowly transformed into something I stopped finding fun. But after a time I had that MMO itch. I tried The Old Republic during its Beta. My initial enthusiasm rapidly faded along with my intention to pre-order a copy. So that left Guild Wars 2, which a friend picked up and told me was great. Great. Well, I sunk about 40 hours into it and I must say, it was...okay. Yeah, it was all right, but one day back in October or so I just stopped playing and haven’t since. It wasn’t terrible or anything, I guess I just didn’t find it particularly special or engaging. I should really go back to it one day and see it through. I think I was about level 40 or something, so there’s still plenty to see and do.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Now Playing: Max Payne 3

It took me longer to download Max Payne 3 than to actually beat the damn thing. I clocked around 8 hours on the default Normal setting, although it should be said approximately 2 hours of that time was spent watching cut-scenes. My initial impressions were not particularly good, but I’m pleased to say the game improved steadily throughout, and although I still have several gripes with MP3, I ultimately enjoyed it enough to immediately do a second run.

Max Payne 3 is a slick, polished and engaging third person shooter. It has a strong, compelling story with some excellent characterisation. It’s well directed and edited to a fine precision, delivering a truly cinematic experience. It’s also extremely linear and highly scripted, but thanks to the solid combat, variety of difficulty settings and the additional Arcade game modes, there’s enough replay value to warrant more than a single playthrough.

Max Payne’s gameplay is famous for its use of bullet-time, the slow-motion gunplay mechanic that has become a standard feature of just about every shooting game going. Nevertheless, slow motion dodge shoot-outs remain feeling as fresh and enjoyable in MP3 as they did in the original, and they are well mixed with the more modern gameplay additions of roll, crouch, prone and cover based shooting mechanics.

The shooting is enjoyable, tightly balanced and satisfying. It also looks extremely cool, at least until you perform a slow-motion dodge into an empty room and slam into a filing cabinet. There’s a decent selection of weapons available, some with optional attachments, and Max moves with just the right amount of grace for an ageing, painkiller addicted drunk.

There are 14 levels in all, a couple of which are gritty flashback events, detailing Max’s journey from his home in New York to his current predicament in Sao Paulo. As I said, my initial impressions of Max Payne 3 were not very good. The opening section is fine as a short, linear tutorial, but it unfortunately set the tone for the next several chapters. It opens with a long cinematic to set the scene before handing control to the player. A few moments later and another short cut-scene interrupts play. And then again. And again. Hell, I couldn’t even open a door without triggering another cinematic.

And this, unfortunately, is my biggest gripe with the game. In order to maintain this strong cinematic experience, Max Payne 3 too often wrestles control away from the player. I’m pleased to say these irritating interruptions become less of a problem around chapter 6 onwards, but that’s nearly half-way through the game. And they are often unnecessary too - I don’t need a bloody cinematic of Max climbing a ladder or opening a door!

But beyond the mundane environmental movement, there are also scenes where Max does some very cool stunts - leaping onto a helicopter, for example. I know these moments may not lend themselves to the movement and shooting mechanics created for the game, but hell, at least give us a QTE or a ‘hammer the button’ moment - anything to give the player some interaction in the scene as opposed to nothing at all. I generally prefer to be playing the game in front of me, not simply watching it play itself.

A lot of these early levels also feel very small and short. They’re also largely forgettable in terms of design or set-pieces. Fortunately, once you get further into the game, the levels open up more, becoming larger, more visually interesting and more complex in design. They also give the player more control. At one point Max was shimmying along a narrow ledge. I expected another cut-scene, but I was surprised when the game actually let me remain in control. Okay, so it was only holding down a key for a few moments, but it’s better than nothing.

The story is good, with a variety of interesting and well drawn characters, but it is of course Max who steals the show with his cynical dry wit. He goes through a rough time of it, as you would expect, changing quite dramatically physically, and maybe a little psychologically too, as he drags himself out of his own personal hell.

I can’t comment on the Multiplayer side of the game, because I didn’t bother with it. It just had no interest for me. There are also a number of collectable items in the game and clues to find if you like that sort of thing. Graphically, it looks great, even if a few of the environments are a little bland.

Overall, Max Payne 3 is a worthy sequel to its predecessors. It’s incredibly well presented, with excellent music and sound design, great VA, a compelling story and central character with solid, satisfying gameplay. If you’re a fan of the series, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed with the direction of Max Payne 3, and if you’re just a fan of third person shooters in general, you’ll be sure to get quite the kick out of it.


Monday, 1 April 2013

Work in Progress: HS & TJ

I’ve finished my initial edit of TJ. It still needs some work, particularly the last quarter or so, but it’s coming along. I’m also about three quarters of the way through my edit of HS. I’m doing more substantial edits than I expected, so it’s taking a little longer. I just need to try to pick up the pace a little.

Once these are done I’ll probably go through and do another edit of WFTD and SOV while I look at putting up TJ as a free e-book.

In duck related news, the two ducks who visited the garden last year have now returned. Sometimes visiting just for food and water, other times to lay in the sun (what little there is at the moment) they must be the most pampered ducks on the river.

I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about Bioshock Infinite, although I always get wary when a game gets showered with near universal praise. I mean it can’t be that good, right? I’m tempted to pick it up now to see what all the fuss is about, but I think I’ll wait, do my best to avoid any story spoilers and grab it at a discount.