Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Total War: Rome 2

If you don't see or hear from me for the next several weeks, you'll know why.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Now Playing: Deadlight

Deadlight is a ‘sidescrolling survival horror cinematic platforming video game’ according to wikipedia. I guess that sums it up fairly concisely. So yeah, it’s a platform game with zombies and some basic combat. You play as a guy called Randall Wayne who is trying to survive in a world overrun with zombies (or shadows, as they are called in the game).

You essentially run from left to right (and occasionally from right to left) jumping over gaps, avoiding traps and smacking zombies with an axe. Sometimes you shoot them too. Tip: Aim for the head.

There’s a story or something like it, about Randall trying to find his wife and kid and escape Seattle. It’s fairly straightforward, with a ‘twist’ towards the end that’s easy to see coming from the get go. It’s nothing terrible, but nothing particularly exciting or engaging either, nor are the characters who suffer from some shoddy dialogue. There are a couple of ‘dream’ sequences mixed in for story purposes, but these just feel like pointless filler and don’t really add anything to the narrative. In terms of story and characters, it’s just hard to really care.

Graphically, the game looks good, with some impressive backgrounds and a high level of detail throughout. It makes good use of lighting and sound. So it’s a very pretty game, but it’s also a very short one, only clocking in at 2-3 hours with practically zero replay value. It’s also very, very easy.

Gameplay consists of the aforementioned jumping and climbing, with a bit of combat mixed in. You have health and stamina bars, but you never really need to pay attention to them. Your path is completely linear which isn’t really a negative issue as such, but given that the game only lasts a couple of hours it doesn’t do anything to encourage repeat plays. Even the ‘hidden’ collectibles are easy to find on your first run if you can be bothered.

The best thing about the game really is how pretty it looks, which isn’t saying much. The game excels when Randall is moving through urban environments overrun with zombies. Through houses, streets and hospitals. You don’t even need a story for that. Just playing as a survivor trying to escape the city would have been fine.

But then the game goes and introduces one large, irritating section where you have to navigate a series of deadly traps involving jumping over spikes and such, which just feels ridiculous and out of place. Then towards the end you’ll come up against human enemies and guns and that too just isn’t as interesting as the zombie world stuff which unfortunately only makes up about half of the experience.

Overall, Deadlight is a short, forgettable game. There’s nothing inherently wrong with how it plays, and certainly not with how it looks, but there’s nothing to make it stand out either. It was mildly entertaining for a couple of hours. That’s about all I can really say about it.


Monday, 19 August 2013

Zero Sample

So I thought it would be interesting to take a look at how Zero Sample came about.

Zero Sample began life as a very rough story idea about four or five years ago. It remained as such until a couple of years back, when I decided to try turning it into a YA novel. I wrote a rough draft of about twenty or so pages (which would later become the basis for Zero Sample: Feedback) and dropped the project. For whatever reason, it just wasn’t working (frankly, I thought it was crap) so I moved onto something else.

But I still liked the idea. It was simply a question of figuring out the right way to approach the material. Now, I’m always looking to experiment with my writing, to try something new, something a little different to challenge myself and improve. So in the case of Zero Sample, I had this idea to break down this larger story into three (two, initially) smaller pieces.

Three individual ZS stories, each with its own central character, plot and theme. Three protagonists – a teenage girl, a teenage boy and an adult male. The tricky part was to write them in such a way that someone could pick up any one of them, read it, (hopefully) enjoy it, but most importantly, understand it.

You see, I was writing all three with the overall knowledge of the situation in the stories. But could I keep each story separate and complete, giving away enough information so as not be confusing? Yet by reading all three stories, a reader would build up the ‘complete’ picture? Does that make sense?

Yeah, it kind of did my head in trying to juggle all three stories at once, but I think it turned out relatively okay. I drafted Feedback first (originally titled Subject 42) and then Fragments. Family was a tricky one as I wasn’t sure how effective it would be as a stand-alone compared to the other two. It jumps around a lot more, yet it’s also the one that ties the other two together. If I had to pick my personal favourite out of the series, it would definitely be Fragments. And one thing I’m interested to see is if people all agree on the ‘best’ in the series, or if they all have personal favourites and if that has anything to do with the order in which they read them.

Overall, I’m fairly pleased with how this little experiment turned out. It was an enjoyable challenge to write, especially switching between three very different point of views, but also juggling three stories with quite different tones and themes. I see these three novellas as making up ‘Series 1’ of Zero Sample. Does that mean I’ll write a Series 2? Well, maybe, I haven’t actually decided yet. I’m considering whether I should do more shorter stories with new characters, or if I should continue with the existing characters, perhaps focusing on one (Cally, because she’s awesome) in a full novel. These three novellas would then form the ‘prologue’ as such to that larger story.

But yeah, I’ll have to give it some thought. In the meantime I’ve still got two full novels I’m trying to get published so we’ll see how that goes.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Now Playing: Dark Souls

I’m hesitant to talk about Dark Souls because despite completing it, there’s still a lot of things about it I just don’t yet know or understand. This is mostly a good thing. Mostly. But we’ll get into that later. Dark Souls is a third person open world RPG with a heavy focus on combat - melee, ranged and magic. I focused primarily on melee (heavy armour + weapons in this case) for this playthrough, so I’ll be talking about my experience with that in mind.

Graphically, it has to be said the game can look rather rough around the edges, and technically this PC version stutters along occasionally, but not to any degree that I found it unplayable. And whilst visually it may be a little muddy, stylistically the game is excellent in terms of environments, gear and especially enemy design and variety.

The story of DS is incredibly subtle in the way it is presented to the player. There is no long winded dialogue exposition, no heavy handed cut scenes. In fact, how much or how little the player chooses to delve into the lore of the world is left in their own hands. And DS is a world full of interesting lore and hidden stories. Hidden, sadly, being the operative word. Because there’s effective, subtle storytelling (which DS does do very well at times) and then there’s a complete vacuum of information, which Dark Souls is unfortunately also guilty of.

The things I loved about DS was the sense of exploration and adventure. Risk and reward. Danger and accomplishment. It was an incredibly refreshing game to play. This is all enhanced by this subtle approach to story and player information. The problem is that there are times when a little more player direction and information would be welcome, and certainly wouldn’t detract from the experience.

I tried to play DS ‘blind’ by not reading any guides and avoiding spoilers, but I couldn’t help but look at a few wikis throughout as the game failed to adequately explain certain features (the Covenants spring to mind) and how they work. There’s only so much I can learn through experimentation, and in a game like DS, experimentation is often risky because loss can be permanent. I understand that this risk vs reward is an appeal to some, and even to me to a degree, but including a few more in depth explanations of some of the features and mechanics would have been welcome.

This lack of info sometimes also applies to story elements and locations, and it’s very easy to miss entire areas because you didn’t expect a new area to be hidden behind two ‘fake’ walls for example. I know I wouldn’t have found some areas at all without a wiki to guide me. Hidden content is fine. Hidden areas are fine, and rewarding exploration is most certainly welcome. But Dark Souls takes it just a tad too far at times and as a result, players may be left unsure of where to go, exactly what’s going on or why.

I’d also have really liked something like a ‘lore journal' in the game which is built up over the course of your journey, filling you in on the interesting back story of many of the areas, creatures and NPCs. I’m sure someone, somewhere, hates the very idea, but I just think it’s a shame that there’s so much richness to this world, yet most of it is completely inaccessible to the player unless they venture online.

Returning to the story – it’s compelling and interesting enough, but it’s really the world itself that takes centre stage. It’s bleak, yet beautiful. Frightening, yet uplifting. DS is definitely not going to be a game for everyone, but for those it sinks its hooks into, I can see why people fall in love with it.

You can build your character pretty much however you see fit. Just about any weapon is viable with the right upgrades. I can’t speak much about magic or ranged because I didn’t really use them, but the melee combat is great. Kick & jump attacks. Parries, ripostes, backstabs, blocking and dodges. Light & heavy attacks. Thrusting weapons, swinging, heavy, light, two hand, one hand plus shield…so many ways to fight, and easy to switch in and out gear on the fly, even in the middle of a battle.

Yes, it does largely boil down to memorising enemy attack patterns and knowing when and how best to strike, but with the regular introduction of new enemy types you’re always kept on your toes. Always wary, watching a new opponent’s moves, figuring out the most effective way to strike. There are also different state conditions to contend with such as bleeding, poison and toxic. Also, curses. Bloody curses. You can build resistance via stats (not worth it though to be honest) and by certain gear. There are also consumables and temporary enhancements, not to mention different weapon upgrade paths – magic, lightning, fire etc.

So the combat system is certainly addictive and enjoyable, but is it perfect? Well, no. It’s irritating when enemies somehow strike you through walls, yet your own weapons just bounce off. It’s even more irritating when your attacks don’t seem to register or hit. This is a noticeable problem against some of the larger bosses (and there are some large bosses in DS) with certain weapon types, as you spring forward to attack, yet your weapon just sails through a leg without inflicting any damage. Some fights also feel a little cheap in terms of ‘difficulty’ because there’s a greater degree of luck than skill involved. A certain section involving two archers on a narrow ledge springs to mind...

Dark Souls is a challenging game (and the good kind of challenging, for the most part) but also an extremely rewarding one. It pushes the player to improve, and although there are a few frustrating moments when you die due to bad camera issues or getting stuck on scenery, they are rare enough that when you do die, it’s largely your own fault. Your tactics were wrong. You were impatient. You need to go somewhere else, level and upgrade. DS wasn’t a game I can say I particularly relaxed with. You need to focus and concentrate as the smallest misstep may kill you in an instant.

It feels like a long time since I played a game that gave me so much satisfaction at clearing an area, or beating a boss. Or hell, even beating some of the mini-bosses you encounter. So many games recently feel like it’s impossible to fail. Like it’s a bad thing to punish the player. DS doesn’t take this view and it can punish you hard. The first time you lose thousands of souls is extremely infuriating, but it only pushes you on to do better.

It has to be said though that the game does feel like it gets a lot easier as it goes on. Once you learn the mechanics, perfect your timing, learn to be patient and watch attack patterns, you grow more confident and progress more quickly. By the end of the game you really do feel like your character has grown into a total badass who can deal with anything. However, the downside to this is that as you approach endgame, the last few bosses, including the final boss, are pretty much complete pushovers, and this does unfortunately result in the game having a rather anticlimactic (not to mention abrupt) ending.

The lack of hand holding in DS is both welcome, yet at times a drawback to the experience. But it’s certainly one of, if not the most refreshing game experience I’ve had in a long while. Overall, Dark Souls is an excellent game that’s fun, engaging and rewarding to play. It’s not for everyone, so I’d recommend it with caution. But personally, I rather fell in love with it, and aside from the technical faults and a few gameplay flaws, it’s a game I see myself sinking even more time into as I slowly unlock its dark secrets.


Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Zero Sample Released

A little later than I planned, but the Zero Sample novellas are now available on Amazon! Check out the Books tab for links!

And for the next five days 07/08/2013 - 11/08/2013, Zero Sample Fragments will be available as a FREE download!

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Now Playing: System Shock 2

System Shock 2 is one of my favourite games, if not my favourite game. But does that make it perfect? Nope! But it is bloody good. I recently replayed it and figured I may as well do a review because…why not? Even now, more than 12 years since its original release, it’s still a remarkably engaging and compelling experience. It’s essentially a science-fiction FPS/RPG hybrid with a dose of horror sprinkled on top.

It’s very addictive, drawing you in right from the start. It has horror elements, but little to no jump scares. It relies instead of the effective use of sound, lighting and environmental design to create an unsettling and oppressive atmosphere. Progression is nearly perfectly paced throughout and there’s a fairly large degree of freedom to explore as you see fit, although the game itself is quite linear in terms of where to go and what to do next.

Enemy variety is good, making you take advantage of your full range of weapons and abilities. There are four main upgrade paths – your ‘core’ stats plus Weapons, Technology and Psi. In this playthrough I played as a hybrid marine(standard weapons)/tech (hacking) build which does tend to make it rather easy on the default normal, but I’ve played it several times now and know the game practically inside out so that’s hardly surprising.

The story is interesting and keeps you hooked and there’s an early twist which I still enjoy immensely. There’s a great sense of success as you complete small assignments or overcome obstacles, which always then leads onto a new area or problem to solve. The audio and VA work is fantastic. Personal logs you discover as you progress fill in the picture of events before you arrived on the scene allowing you to slowly piece things together. Some are linked, telling smaller stories of horror or survival, others containing useful clues or codes you need.

In terms of combat you have melee weapons, standard guns, heavy weapons and energy weapons as well as your Psi abilities. Although upgrades are fairly plentiful, you won’t be able to max out every weapon tree or ability. Different weapons are more or less effective against different enemy types. Standard and Heavy weapons come with a variety of different ammo types such as anti-personnel rounds, armour piercing or EMP/Incendiary grenades for example.

You also have a research ability which requires certain ingredients, allowing you access to ‘exotic’ weapons and new implants. There’s also different sorts of armour. Plus, weapons can be upgraded or repaired (if broken) or maintained to improve their rating and performance. These tie into the tech skills.

You can hack a variety of things such as vending machines, security systems, doors and storage crates. Depending on your character build your game experience will certainly be different as you focus your skills in different areas which lends the game a nice degree of replayability. There’s a good degree of freedom for the player to explore, experiment and upgrade as they see fit. It gives the player direction, but doesn’t handhold.

Playing SS2 again reminded me how disappointing Bioshock Infinite was in terms of gameplay. I know I’ve already covered this, but compared to SS2, a game 12 years its senior, it seriously lacks in terms of the complexity in how you develop your character, in terms of the combat options available, not to mention in the variety of enemies you’ll face.

Faults? Like I said, SS2 isn’t perfect. It gets too easy when you know the ins and outs, but then I suppose that’s true of most games. There are a few less than stellar sections (such as the Many segment and the very final area) The final couple of ‘boss’ fights are also pretty terrible, but fortunately they don't ruin the overall experience.

Overall, System Shock 2 was and remains a fantastic game. It’s a highly enjoyable experience, even though I practically know it all off the top of my head these days. Highly recommended.


Sunday, 4 August 2013

Coming Soon: Zero Sample

The time is almost upon us! Zero Sample (Series 1) is very nearly complete! Series 1 is composed of three novellas - Family, Fragments and Feedback. I'm just doing a final edit of Feedback today and once that is done, I'll upload the final versions to Amazon.

All that's left then is the covers. The cover images have gone through several different designs but we've settled on something quite fantastic. They still need a few final tweaks due to issues that cropped up with my test versions, but they shouldn't take long to fix.

If all goes well I should be able to get them published by the end of the week. All three should be available on the same day, and I'll be putting one up as a free download. Probably Fragments, which is also my personal favourite.

Here's a sneak peek at the general book description for each novella -


They promised us a world of peace. A world free from violence and war.
A world we needed. A world we desperately wanted.
But we never considered the cost.
Now only a handful of us remain who can resist.
We are the Zero Samples.
We are our world's last hope.