Thursday, 20 February 2014

Now Playing: Borderlands

Borderlands is essentially a first person action RPG. You choose one of four set character classes each with a specialised skill set – Soldier, Hunter, Siren & Berserker. Beginning at level 1, you progress through the game gaining experience points, levelling up and acquiring a constant drip feed of loot. Like a lot of action RPGs, this frequent reward system creates an addictive incentive to continue forward, as you gain access to new areas with new quests and new potential for better gear.

There are primary story quests to complete in addition to numerous side quests, all of which award more experience and rewards. As you level up you gain skill points you can spend to further specialise your chosen class. Loot comes in the form of money, weapons and upgrades. Money can be used at various vending machines to purchase (or sell excess) items such as health packs or rare upgrades. There are eight weapon types. Generally each class will specialise and have skill tress designed to enhance the use of two or so of these types, but each class can equip and use all weapons freely. Weapons also have their own skill bar which increases upon use. In terms of upgrades there are three – shields, grenade and class specific.

Borderlands is a game you can play solo (as I did) or with up to three other players cooperatively and the game is supposed to scale the difficulty accordingly, although I can’t comment on how this works exactly. Are there more enemies? Or just tougher enemies? Playing solo, I can’t say I found anything too challenging within Borderlands. Staying close to the intended level for quests, there were few moments I felt truly tested, and with a frequent save point system and the Second Wind mechanic, death is rare and has little penalty. In fact, sometimes it was easier to get myself killed to re-spawn nearby with a full health and shield rather than use up my health kits.

Playing as the Hunter class, some bosses were more tricky than others as I was specialised towards ranged combat, and many fights put you in an enclosed arena with a boss who likes to get close. However, enemy AI is pretty basic and easy to abuse. They have a lot of trouble with obstacles in the world, so you can circle around a few boxes and wait for your shield to recharge if need be without worrying too much about getting hit.

The missions are a little basic, mostly just ‘kill X amount of Y’ or simply ‘Go to A and kill X’. A few more elaborate missions with multiple stages wouldn’t have hurt. In terms of the core story, it’s also rather basic and not very fleshed out, but it’s intriguing enough to keep you interested through to the end, although the ending itself is pretty abrupt and disappointing.

The world itself is a real highlight. A sort of Mad Max mixed with a sci-fi Western. It’s quite bright, colourful at times, and the cartoon/cel shaded style fits perfectly. There are a few NPCs you meet along the way so it’s not entirely a lonely affair, and VA is decent. But although I like the aesthetic design, actual level construction isn’t exactly inspired.

Most sections are just long corridor slogs from A to B, with an irritating backtrack when you’re done. This isn’t too bad for the most part, as these sections are broken up with larger, open environments you can traverse and engage in some basic vehicular combat. But the final stretch is a terrible example of this, as it’s really just a series of long corridors of the same few enemy types.

As you can imagine, this can mean the game does get rather mindlessly repetitive at times, but fortunately no section lasts so long as to get too irritating. Returning to the ending, the final boss is a joke – SPOILERS! - just a big tentacle monster you can easily defeat by standing safely behind a rock. Oh. And then the game just sort of ends. It’s very unsatisfying. Fortunately I was playing the GOTY edition so I had the extra DLCs which somewhat extend the story. They are all solid enough, but are really just more of the same, and none are exactly innovative.

So what about the gameplay? Well, the shooting is pretty by the numbers stuff, but it does the job. You have different elemental effects you can acquire on certain weapons, each of which offers increased damage against certain enemy types, but generally you won’t really bother with it as you’ll favour whichever gun does the highest damage whilst aiming for the head. I like the fact that every class can use whatever guns they like. Playing as the Hunter, I didn’t have any trouble using shotguns as often as my class specialised revolvers.

Overall, Borderlands was a solid and enjoyable shooter. It’s nothing spectacular in terms of its gameplay, nor its level design or thin plot. But with its interesting setting, creative creatures and addictive level of progression, it rises beyond its uninspired, repetitive shooting. It may not exactly be very complex in any area but what it does do, it does do well and sometimes that’s all you really need.


Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Titanfall (BETA)

So I had the chance to play a bit of the upcoming Titanfall. The beta consisted of two maps and three game modes, with a level cap of 14. There were three classes of pilot and Titan available along with a selection of weapons, attachments, equipment and ‘burn card’ upgrades. I sunk about 8 hours into it before the beta ended.

And I have to say, it was quite a lot of fun. It’s a very fast paced game, along the lines of the popular Call of Duty franchise. So there’s certainly a market for this more, uh, ‘casual’ type of shooter, and believe me, I really don’t like using that silly word. But honestly, there’s not a ton of depth to Titanfall and it’s not really a game you can ‘master’. It’s ultimately a pretty shallow, but undeniably entertaining experience.

Of course, the CoD franchise with its yearly release schedule and declining quality has resulted in games catered to this market becoming synonymous with low quality cash-grabs, so I can understand why people would be wary of this game. But Titanfall is certainly not low quality. It’s a silky smooth, extremely polished, well designed and neatly balanced experience, at least from what I’ve seen in the beta. It may cater to the ‘casual’ shooter market, but it excels in what it sets out to achieve, and that’s the most important thing.

So what’s so fun about it? Well, the combination of foot based and mech combat is a great mix. On foot, you’re fast and agile thanks to the wall-running mechanics and jump-jet boosts. In a Titan, you’re still pretty fast, but obviously you’re limited to exterior areas of the two maps. Everything about the game is designed to be fast and fluid. Whether it be movement on foot, or in a Titan. Or calling down and mounting a Titan. Or capturing a node. Even the matches are short and sharp, lasting only around 10 minutes on average.

It’s certainly an addictive, if repetitive experience (only playing two maps over and over will do that). The two maps were just the right size, and you’re never too far away from the action. This is a game where something is happening every second, so you need to stay on your toes. Although the matches are only 6v6, they do feel a lot larger thanks to the Titans and the bot soldiers running about the map doing their own thing.

These soldiers, although effectively useless in combat (seriously, you can stand in a room with 6 of them and they won’t be able to hit you for shit) add a lot of atmosphere to the maps. They react to the player and your actions, and they have a lot of nice little banter between them. Some of them you can even ‘hack’ (by sticking a knife into them? What?) to fight with you. A nice touch, but rather pointless. Plus, there are frequent audio cues filling you in on the action and what’s happening, plus a video feed of your commander popping up occasionally to bark orders. It all adds to the atmosphere and the frantic, fast paced action.

But as much as I’ve enjoyed my time with it, I do have my concerns. As I said, this isn’t exactly a game with a ton of depth to it and it’s hard to see how long the appeal will last. Of the three game modes, I found Attrition (team deathmatch) rather dull. Last Titan Standing was fun, but tactically, there’s not much going on. Hardpoint was my game of choice, but it remains to be seen if there will be other game modes on release or in the future.

I also have to say, that it barely took a couple of hours to hit max rank and unlock everything in the beta. Perhaps this was accelerated, I don’t know. But I hope there’s a lot more customisation, weapons, attachments and gear to be unlocked in the release game. Not to mention a lot more maps. And that’s my biggest concern. How much content will there be on release? There’s no single payer campaign, and if the game ships with a handful of maps and just these basic classes/modes and unlocks, that’s not much for the asking price. Especially when you can be sure we’ll be getting stung with a DLC map pack a month later. So until I know more about the release features, I’m going to hold off on a pre-order.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

DayZ Diary: Part 2

After more than two weeks alone in the wilderness I decided to return to civilisation. I’m sure you can guess the result. The first person I encountered, without so much as a ‘hello’ or even a wave, buried an axe in my face. Oh well.

Following this, I decided to mess about a bit on the coast, burning through several different characters quite rapidly along the way. The first died from starvation, which I think hits a little too quickly right now, at least until they get vehicles into the game. The next died to zombies. I was experimenting with different melee weapons. I discovered that shovels, bats, crowbars and wrenches are all effectively useless.

Even landing 20-30 hits directly to the head didn’t seem to do a thing. Maybe it was just the poor hit detection, but I can take down a zombie in one hit with an axe, so I doubt it’s just that. Right now, axes are the only way to go, so this is something that really needs fixing, especially if they intend to increase the zombie count. Plus, zombies are still running through walls and floors, and their senses are all over the place. Some don’t react to standing right next to them, others spot and charge at you from a mile away.

I was hoping to encounter a few friendly players on my travels but other fresh spawns just seemed to run off at the sight of me. Either that or immediately attack. I think I spoke before about the ‘unpredictable’ nature of player interaction in DayZ. But honestly, there’s nothing that unpredictable about it after all. In fact, it’s sadly all too predictable. In 90% of my encounters with other players, one of us ended up dead.

Even as a fresh spawn with nothing in my pockets, one guy came at me with a shovel, but I somehow beat him down with my fists. And so, with a new found shovel and taste for bloody murder, I began stalking people along the coast. I spotted one guy who looked pretty well geared with a gun and a backpack. I snuck up on him and bludgeoned him to death. I felt a little bad about it. Honest. What had previously taken me hours to acquire, took mere moments. I was now fully armed and equipped. Well, at least for about five minutes, when someone else got the drop on me.

But I quickly grew rather tired of this endless deathmatch. Oh, it has its moments, I’ll give it that. But it mostly felt like a rather empty and futile experience. I just didn’t really get anything out of it. I guess I’m just more interested in the survival/exploration aspect. Of course, right now, that doesn’t amount to much. It really does feel like there’s only two things you can do in DayZ right now. Stay on the coast, which increase your chances of encountering other players by 90%, but also your chances of getting shot in the face by 90%. Or head inland to other towns, where you’re unlikely to see anyone at all.

And so, I decided to head inland once again. It can get lonely out there, but at least people aren’t trying to murder me every five minutes. I’m also now trying out playing on Hardcore servers. I prefer playing in first person anyway, and playing Regular just meant I felt forced into playing in third person or I’d be at a disadvantage. We’ll see how it goes.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Now Playing: Half-Life 2 (& Episodes)

Half-Life 2 is a first person shooter originally released in 2004. It was the much anticipated sequel to the highly regarded Half-Life and despite a series of lengthy delays, it certainly did not disappoint upon its eventual release. Set roughly twenty years after the end of the first game, we rejoin our protagonist Gordon Freeman as he arrives in a world conquered by a multidimensional empire known as the Combine.

Revisiting the game recently, I was pleased to see that HL2 remains one of the best single player FPS available. The opening is nearly perfect and a fantastic example of ‘show don’t tell’ storytelling. It’s also a great example of how an engaging, interactive narrative can be presented without the need for heavy handed exposition or intrusive cut-scenes.

Without any condescending hand-holding and with very little dialogue (in fact Gordon, as in the first game, is entirely silent throughout) HL2 rapidly sets the scene. ‘Pick up that can’ - a short, simple line, but one that tells you everything you need to know about the sort of world Earth has become in your absence (whilst also serving as part of a clever controls tutorial).

The pacing is near perfect throughout the entire game. HL2 constantly feeds the player new weapon types, new enemy types, new environments and new challenges to face from start to finish. Just as you become familiar with one thing, the game throws something new at you, keeping you on your toes, whether it be a new enemy, or a creative new way to use an existing tool, or even entirely new gameplay mechanics – such as the antlion control or the squad command.

Graphically, HL2 still holds up well today, with a solid physics system and some nice character animations. I felt that the music was a slightly weaker area of the title, but VA is great. Enemy AI is pretty solid, although nothing special.

In terms of environments HL2 features a great deal of variety and some excellent design. Levels range from large, open areas to small, claustrophobic tunnels. The game moves seamlessly from one area to the next (aside from the irritatingly frequent loading) and the game even contains a couple of extremely enjoyable vehicle sections.

The game unfolds its story pretty much perfectly, and despite the minimal interaction and dialogue you quickly come to care about the situation and the characters you encounter as you progress. There are a lot of great scenes from beginning to end, some large and action packed, others smaller character moments. And no section ever grows too tedious as the game is always introducing new elements into the mix.

So is it perfect? Well, no. There are minor issues here and there. Some areas are less interesting than others, and the final stretch and ‘boss’ situation is a little anticlimactic in how it plays out. But overall, Half-Life 2 is a fantastic game, one of the best of its genre. It’s tightly paced, brilliantly designed, exciting and engaging to play.


Which brings us nicely to the two sequel Episodes.

Episode 1 is the slightly weaker of the two. The opening retreads similar ground to the ending of the core game, followed by an extended underground area which grows a little tedious. However, it does then feature a fantastic fight through an old hospital which was probably my favourite moment out of both episodes. The ending is a little weak, but it sets the scene nicely for Episode 2.


Episode 2 is certainly an improvement, featuring a range of new environments and new enemy types. Leaving City 17 behind, Episode 2 take place in a more rural setting, with the return of vehicle sections and more large, open areas. It also advances the overall story more, ending on a cliffhanger which, to this day, still remains unresolved. Some levels are a little long (such as the mines/antlion tunnels) and no section was quite as exciting as the hospital battle of Episode 1, but overall, this episode is a longer and more varied addition to the core game.


Thursday, 6 February 2014

DayZ Diary: Part 1

This is my current (4th) character in the DayZ SA alpha. I dropped my first character from a building to clear a bug issue. The second was shot a few moments in, the third shot after a couple of hours. So with this one I decided to skip scavenging along the south east coast and instead ran north into the unknown.

And what did I find? Well, mostly I've just come across one completely untouched town after another. Food, supplies, ammo and even weapons in abundance. I haven't seen another (living) person for more than a week. Sometimes I have to check the player list to remind myself that I'm not totally alone in this world. But you know, I kind of like it.

Trekking across empty fields, stopping at ponds to refill my canteens and grab a bite to eat. It's actually quite peaceful and relaxing. Aside from, you know, having to axe the odd zombie in the face.

I don't touch a lot of the stuff I find. I prefer to travel light, just enough to see me to the next town. I've avoided using any out of game map, so everything I come across is a surprise. I just pick a direction and go for it.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Work in Progress: TSOTS

I guess it’s time for another update, although there’s not much to report. I have about 20 chapters drafted now (I say ‘about’ 20 because I’m currently restructuring) which amounts to around 50k words. If I break the story of TSOTS down into three acts, then this is the first two acts complete.

I was going to push on from here until I reach the end, but after reading through these chapters again, I realised they needed quite a bit of work. So that’s all I’ve really been doing for the last couple of weeks. Editing and revising. Chopping and changing. Just trying to get them polished up to a standard I’m happy with.

There’s an urge to rush, to just get back to the new stuff and get the first draft done, but I’m resisting that and trying to take my time, even if it means the first draft takes longer to complete than I wanted. But I think I’ll have a better book at the end of it as a result.

I’m looking at each and every line, breaking it down and trying to make it better. I always want to do better with everything I write, for every project to be better than the last. I want TSOTS to the best thing I’ve written, but for that to happen, I need to be patient and take my time. But yeah, I hope to have it done by the end of, uh, March, maybe?