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)