Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Now Playing: The Stick of Truth

South Park: The Stick of Truth isn’t simply a game inspired by the show. It is the show. It’s like an entire interactive season. You create a ‘new kid’ in town, who (in typical RPG fashion) is drawn into a conflict between two opposing factions (Humans and Elves). But, given this is a game based on the show, these factions are actually just two groups of kids role-playing a traditional fantasy scenario.

Castles and Kingdoms are backyards and cardboard boxes. Weapons and armour are sporting goods and fireworks. Potions are junk food and drinks. Traders buy and sell for allowance friendly prices, anywhere from a few cents to $20 plus ‘high level’ items. It’s fun (and often amusing) to see this imagination aspect at play, but more than that, it’s quite ingenious the way these traditional RPG elements are woven perfectly into the setting.

The game looks and is animated just like the show, and it works wonderfully. As I said, it’s like stepping into an interactive episode. This is both a good and bad thing. It’s bad in the sense that if you have no interest in or simply don’t like the show, you won’t really get anything out of this game. If, however, you have enjoyed the show at one time or another, this is better than anything you could have hoped for from a South Park video game.

Personally, I enjoyed the first few seasons of the show, but lost track of things around seasons 4-5. I’ve seen the odd episodes since then, and I know enough about the show to recognise most of the characters and references. There were some things I’m sure were lost on me that a real fan of the show would pick up on, but then that’s exactly who this game is designed for.

Over the course of the game you’ll encounter just about every character or visit every location that’s featured on the show. And whilst the world isn’t exactly huge, it is rich in detail. Every location, every item, every quest – it all ties perfectly into the South Park setting. It’s clear that the creators of South Park had a huge part to play in keeping everything consistent and in line with the show – the dialogue, the style, the tone and the humour.

So The Stick of Truth is a fantastic South Park experience. But is it a good game? Well, sort of. If we strip away those South Park elements and judge the game purely on its gameplay, The Stick of Truth is solid, but nothing to get too excited about. In fact I’d find it hard to rate it beyond a 6/10.

The main story takes place across three days and if you ignore everything else, you can probably clear it in about 10 hours or so, which isn’t exactly great. Of course, if you do skip all the side quests and exploration you’re missing out on a hell of a lot. There’s a nice variety of side missions to undertake, and a lot of collectible items to hunt down. That said, even completing all the additional content doesn’t take the completion time much beyond 20 hours, and that’s if you really take your time.

But should we judge this game’s value only by how long it lasts? No, I don’t believe so. It may come in short compared to other RPGs, but this isn’t like any other RPG out there. This is a South Park RPG, and as I’ve said, it’s pretty much the definitive South Park experience and one of the best (if not the best) applications of an established license yet seen.

So let’s take a look at how it actually plays. You have your typical exploration element whereby you traverse the town of South Park, exploring for items and accepting quests. New areas unlock as you progress through the story and gain new abilities. Your character has a great range of cosmetic customisation, as well as a varied range of weapons and armour sets. These also come with sockets for additional upgrades. All these customisation options are nice, but sadly there’s no real incentive to use the cosmetic items beyond playing dress up. More quests revolving around gathering different disguises would have been very welcome.

There are four classes to choose from, each with their own 5 special abilities. These can be upgraded by using skill points you earn as you level up. There are also Perks you can choose from as you expand your list of South Park friends, plus a party system, although sadly it’s only limited to one party member at a time. Each companion also has their own unique attacks and abilities.

But what about the combat? This was surprisingly more in-depth than I was expecting. It’s turn based, but with an interactive element. Each turn you have a variety of options available. Normal and Ranged attacks. Items & Potions. Summon abilities. Special attacks & Magic. But your attacks aren’t simply automated affairs, as every action requires precise button timing to be effective. Blocking works in a similar way, as you can time a button press to block most of the damage of an enemy attack.

There are different types of elemental effects such as Fire (burning) and Frost (slow), along with negative states such as bleeding, sleep and stun. There are also buff (and de-buff) states increasing (or decreasing) armour or attack. This is also combined with different enemy stances such as riposte and reflect, forcing you to use a variety of attack types to win a battle. So yeah, a lot more depth than you might expect, but unfortunately it never quite results in battles that are as interesting as this extensive framework should allow.

This is partly due to the rather limited class and skill system. By the time you are around half-way through the game, you’ll have unlocked all of your class abilities, and probably fully upgraded your most useful special abilities. You very quickly establish an effective battle routine to deal with your opponents, and there’s very little reason to deviate from that as you progress. As a result, I found battles got rather tedious towards the end of the game. And upping the difficulty doesn’t increase the complexity or challenge of the battles, it simply makes them take longer to complete.

And this really is the game’s biggest problem. Although the combat framework has all these nice little elements (stances, state effects etc) it never really makes proper use of them, and battles quickly grow rather dull. It needed more varied styles of formations and tactics used by enemies as you progress to keep you on your toes. It has a great deal of enemy variety, but they all tend to follow similar patterns, so even very early on in the game, you’ll have encountered and know how to counter just about every attack pattern. As it is, groups of enemies tend to repeat the same system and pattern of attack time and time again, and once you’ve figured out the most effective way to beat it, these repetitive battles can get a bit irritating to play.

This is made worse by the lack of class abilities. The level cap is 15, and honestly, it feels like half of what it should have been. I’d nearly hit it before I was even half-way through the game, and I’d have loved another 15 levels to progress through with at least another 4 special attacks to unlock. This game really would have benefited by double the amount of skills and upgrades to keep combat and character progression feeling fresh and interesting all the way up until the end.

So what’s the final verdict? Well, if you’re a South Park fan, I think you’ll love it. If you’re like me, not exactly a fan, but you have enjoyed the show at one point or another, then you should get a lot of enjoyment out of this. But if you’re not that interested in the show, but are curious about the RPG aspects, then I couldn’t really recommend it, as although the framework has depth, the execution (in terms of the combat, class and skills system) isn’t as good as it could be.

That said, The Stick of Truth is one of the most clever and amusing games I’ve played, and certainly one of the best licensed games ever created. What it may lack in terms of its combat and class system, it more than makes up for in just about every other area. It’s not simply a South Park game. It is South Park. And that’s pretty damn impressive.


Sunday, 23 March 2014

Work in Progress: TSOTS

I was hoping to have the first draft of TSOTS completed by the end of March, but I’ve still got a way to go. I took 3-4 weeks to edit, restructure and polish the first two acts. This came to 22 chapters at roughly 45k words. I’m now just starting to get back to drafting out the third and final act, and I already have a rough draft of chapter 23 done. I don’t have an exact chapter target, but I’m aiming for somewhere between 30-35 at around 75-80k words.

I hope to get a good chunk of that done before the end of this month, and then have a rough final draft of the third act completed by mid-April. A few weeks to polish, and I should have a fairly solid first draft of TSOTS finished by the end of next month.

I guess I’d better get to work.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Now Playing: Titanfall

Titanfall is a new sci-fi FPS. It’s online only, meaning no single player campaign, but it does contain a two faction multi-player campaign mode. There are 15 maps in this release version, with 5 game modes. I’ve written about Titanfall before when I was playing the Beta. That convinced me enough to get the game on release and I’m glad I did, because as I said then, Titanfall is a very slick and enjoyable game to play, but it’s certainly not without its problems.

Let’s start with the graphics. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of how Titanfall looks, which I don’t really understand. I guess if you stop and scrutinise every texture you’ll find something to moan about, but Titanfall isn’t a game designed to be hugging walls or crouched behind cover. No, this game is all about speed and fluidity of movement. And when you’re bouncing from the walls like a pinball with a rocket up your ass, you don’t exactly notice any less than perfect background textures.

To me, Titanfall looks great for what it needs to do. The game is also (99% of the time) silky smooth, even on the highest settings, although it should be noted that there are a couple of maps with slight frame drops – Lagoon, for example, so this is something they need to iron out. In terms of its audio, the music is fine and the VA is good. You’ll be hearing a lot of audio as you play, from your commanders over a video feed or from the AI grunts on the field with you.

Gameplay wise, it’s a more casual based FPS, in the sense that weapons have next to no recoil and very quick snap to aim iron sights. You have a default run setting and unlimited sprint ability. But what sets Titanfall apart in terms of its infantry combat is the movement system, whereby you can chain bounce from one wall to the next, building up a constant speed and momentum. Combine this with a lot of verticality within the maps, and you have a system that feels fast, fresh and unique in a genre that’s become an increasingly slow, on the ground camp fest.

Matches are 6v6, not including all of the AI bots that fight on each side. These bots may be rather useless, but they do a great job of creating a sense of a much larger battle, as well as adding a ton of welcome atmosphere to each game, something else that sets Titanfall apart from its rivals. In certain game modes, they also play their part in adding to your score, so they’re not just there for background candy.

There’s also some interactivity on certain maps, with the ability to hack AI robots to fight alongside you, or take control of gun turrets. There’s also a lot going on in the background, with fighter jets racing overhead, strange creatures swooping down and drop pods plunging to the earth with fresh reinforcements. It may mostly be cosmetic fluff, but it’s top quality and fantastic to watch.

In terms of weapons and abilities, Titanfall has a varied roster, although a little more conventional than I would have expected from a game with this setting, particularly for the Pilot weapons. The Titans do get access to some slightly more advanced weaponry though, which is nice. Oh yes, the Titans. Every player gets a timer to call one down, although this can be sped up in different ways. The Titans have their own weapons and special abilities and are a ton of fun to fight in and around. They add another layer of complexity to the battles which without, would be a little lacking.

The maps are fairly varied and are all generally neatly designed for the way the game plays. Although I must say that a few of them are a bit too similar in terms of aesthetic. Many are more industrial/city based, and a few more unique and exotic maps (such as Lagoon and Boneyard) would have been most welcome. I should also point out that a couple of them which are larger and a little more open, really are screaming out for a mode with an increased player count.

As you fight, you’ll progress through 50 levels (I did it in about 12 hours or so) and then you get the option to ‘Regenerate’ back to level 1. You get a fancy badge, if that’s your thing. There are many different abilities, attachments and weapons to unlock as you go, allowing you to customise your Pilot/Titan (sadly not on a cosmetic level), as well as Challenges to complete. You also have the Burn card system, which is something I really like.

These are one-use ‘boost’ cards you can play each life, giving you a range of different enhancements and effects. One may allow you to remain invisible for example, another ‘hacks’ the map revealing enemy positions, another increasing your running speed and so on. None are game breaking, as you lose them when you die, and the more powerful cards are rare to collect.

So Titanfall looks good and plays well. It’s neatly designed, smartly balanced and it’s got a load of atmospheric little touches to keep you engaged. But what about those flaws I mentioned? Well, I already mentioned in my Beta post that Titanfall doesn’t have a lot of depth to it. It’s undeniably fun to play, but will I still be playing it in a month or two, or six months down the line? I guess that depends on how they handle the DLC.

Of the 5 game modes, Attrition, Hardpoint and Last Titan Standing were my games of choice. You also have CTF, which I just found a little weird and dull to play, plus Pilot Hunter, which is basically Attrition but bot kills don’t count. So yeah, the modes do the job, but there’s nothing really that creative there. What about a Horde mode style Pilots vs waves of Bots?

Or something which brings the bots and turrets into play more, as objectives to capture and kill? Maybe they didn’t want to spread people out across too many game modes, but it’s an area I hope we see something new in the future. And as I said, some maps are large enough to accommodate more players, so why not a 12v12 Titan Warfare mode?

I also need to talk about the ‘campaign’ such as it is. I actually quite like the setting and I think it has potential for a really interesting single player, or even multi-player campaign mode. But sadly, Titanfall doesn’t give us either. It’s basically just 9 maps strung together in some sort of order. You get audio briefings before each fight, and usually a longer intro cut-scene before you land. But aside from one or two missions, these extended intros don’t add anything to the experience. (The Demeter mission intro is great though, regardless of if you’re playing as IMC or Militia).

On top of that, the story has stuff happening, but I couldn’t really tell you what, as updates pop up during fights and due to the fast paced frantic nature of the combat, you don’t exactly have time to stop and pay any great attention to the video feed. Honestly, I had no clue what was going on in terms of the story most of the time on either side.

So yes, I feel like the Campaign mode is a rather wasted opportunity as it had a lot more potential than what we got. Aside from that, you have the classic game modes, which as I’ve said, are a little limited and not very creative, and the maps, which though well designed, aren’t as varied or unique as I’d have liked. Oh, and the 6v6 system does have its problems when the teams aren’t well balanced in terms of player skill. Just 2-3 players not pulling their weight can lead to heavy defeats, which may frustrate some. I know I got a bit irritated at times when I felt I was babysitting my team and practically dragging them across the victory line (see image above).

So where does this leave us? Well, I’d personally rate Titanfall as the best online FPS for a long while, at least in the sense of how much I’ve enjoyed playing it. It adds a lot of cool dynamic and engaging features to what are normally static online battlefields. It’s also fiendishly addictive. However, it’s also a game that feels a little shallow and short in terms of content and long-term value. And while I enjoyed the campaign mode for what it offered, it was still a disappointing experience overall, because I could see so much more potential for it.

So would I recommend Titanfall? Certainly. Even with all of its issues, Titanfall is just plain fun to play. Hopefully the DLC will add more value with new (and more creative) maps and modes, and perhaps Titanfall 2 will give us the proper campaign mode this game deserves.


Monday, 10 March 2014

Now Playing: Human Revolution

The original Deus Ex is one of the most highly regarded titles ever released, and with good reason. For those of us who had the pleasure of playing it upon its release in 2000, it was an incredible mix of first person stealth, combat and RPG elements set in a bleak, cyberpunk style future of nano enhancement, shadowy government agencies and international conspiracies.

A sequel (Invisible War) was released in 2004, but was not so well received. I honestly can’t recall much about it, so it’s one I’d like to replay in the future, but IW was definitely seen as a disappointment by many fans of the first game. Although to be fair, the first game was a hell of a tough act to follow.

Spin on several years to 2011, and a prequel to the series - Human Revolution arrives. Like many, I was somewhat wary of HR, but when a preview demo leaked, fan reaction was extremely positive, convincing me to take a chance and pick it up on release. (Note to publishers – this is why demos are a good thing).

I think I’ve mentioned before that of all the games I played in 2011, Human Revolution was my favourite, but that’s not to say the game is without fault. Oh no, there’s quite a few issues I have with it, but overall, HR is more than worthy of the Deus Ex name whilst also being a fantastic game in its own right.

Set about 25 years before the first game, we see a world not so far removed from our own where mechanical body augmentation is a rapidly growing and cut-throat competitive industry. Our protagonist is Adam Jensen, a security manager for Sarif Industries. Following an attack on the company labs, Jensen is heavily augmented and sets out to find those responsible, leading him into a tangled web of corrupt officials, secret societies and morally questionable research. Basically, all the good stuff that like the original, makes a Deus Ex game a compelling and at times thought-provoking adventure.

As in the original, HR is a mixture of stealth, combat and RPG elements. Taking down opponents, hacking computers, discovering hidden locations and completing objectives all award experience which unlock skill (praxis) points. These then unlock new augmented abilities or upgrade existing ones. These special abilities focus around combat (improved armour, aiming), stealth (invisibility cloak, see through walls) and technical skills (hacking).

Some are a little pointless no matter which play style you prefer, but they all mostly have their uses. Like any good RPG, HR also has an inventory system you can play Tetris with, as well as upgradable weapons, money (to buy and sell gear) and lots of logs/books to flesh out the world (as well as including useful information such as door codes).

So far, so good. All of the ingredients are right, but how about the execution? Well, for the most part, extremely good. I actually did two runs this time around. One was a complete ‘ghost’ all stealth, non-lethal run. It was a little easy with the right upgrades (as you can run past long sections without any trouble) but still quite satisfying.

The second run was an ‘anything goes’ combat run. This is probably the game’s biggest weakness, as it’s really not geared up for a combat heavy experience despite a decent variety of weaponry on offer. That said, if you’re trying to play Deus Ex like a straight up first person shooter you’re probably doing it wrong. Stealth, either lethal or not, is really what the game is tailored towards, although I’d argue that was true of the original game as well.

Levels are generally quite large and offer multiple paths to reach your objective. Overall, they are well designed and fun and rewarding to explore. In between the set levels there are also a couple of large ‘hub’ areas to explore with several side quests to complete. In terms of gameplay, HR is pretty spot on. I know some people didn’t like the cover based switch to third person, but I think it was well integrated into the game, as were the ‘cinematic’ take-downs, although I must admit they could get a little repetitive.

But what about the bad stuff? Well, boss battles aren’t exactly interesting. I wasn’t playing the ‘Directors Cut’ version so I can’t comment on how that altered things, but in the original, they’re a bit, well, crap. Especially the last one, which was just plain terrible. What else? Well, it’s clear as you begin to reach the end of the game that some areas were a little rushed, and a return to previous hub areas is a little tedious (although I understand a third hub was supposed to play a part here but was cut?) In fact, everything feels a little rushed together towards the end of the game, especially the final boss and the literal ‘press button to pick ending’ bollocks.

But hey, despite those issues and a few other minor things here and there, I really can’t be too hard on it. It’s a game with a lot of depth and replay value, with solid, satisfying gameplay and a compelling storyline with some memorable characters. It’s a worthy prequel, worthy of the Deus Ex name and it comes highly recommended.


The Missing Link (DLC)

I thought I’d include an extra review of the HR DLC here. It’s a short (around 3 hours) addition to the core story, but altogether a rather unnecessary one. You won’t really miss out on anything if you skip it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a playthrough if you enjoyed the core game. I completed it twice and if anything I enjoyed the second run more because I was seeing how fast I could do it. Nothing really new or stand out, but solid and entertaining enough for what it is.


Thursday, 6 March 2014

DayZ Diary: Part 3

Okay, so this is probably my last DayZ post for quite a bit of time. I feel that I’ve reached a point where I’ve seen pretty much everything it currently has to offer. I’ve played on both regular and hardcore servers and I’ve explored most of the map. My current character is now sufficiently stocked with food, water, ammo and medical supplies. Which isn’t all that interesting really, because it’s pretty easy to do.

So let’s talk a bit about the PvP aspect, which I’ve already mentioned doesn’t really appeal to me. It has its moments, but after a couple of hours it just felt like a futile cycle of kill/be killed. And although I have seen some interesting and non-violent player interactions through other people’s videos, it does seem to be exceptionally rare. 99% of the time, when you see another person, one of you will end up dead.

Now, it’s not that I don’t enjoy PvP scenarios, but I prefer it if there’s some goal or motivation for doing so. Killing in DayZ never felt satisfying in any way to me. I didn’t really find it exciting or competitive. It just felt rather hollow and meaningless. It also made me feel like a bit of a jerk bludgeoning people to death for…well… nothing. Like I said, weapons and supplies aren’t exactly hard to come by. I guess I just didn’t see the point of it all.

What attracted me to DayZ were the survival aspects of the game, but right now, they’re all rather rudimentary. And the zombie element remains totally broken. Few in number, they still walk through walls/doors/floors and their senses seem to be divided between completely unresponsive, or pursuing you from a mile away through the middle of a town or forest with the precision of a guided f**king missile.

So yeah, as a zombie survival sim, DayZ in its current state falls very, very far from target. If you’re looking for something like that, then I’d recommend State of Decay. Not perfect by any means, and with some design choices I dislike, but it hits more right notes than DayZ in its current state. Of course, DayZ isn’t finished yet. There’s a long way to go and a lot of this could change.

I don’t want to sound too harsh with DayZ because I have enjoyed my time with it, but since its initial release, updates haven’t exactly been fast to drop, and when they have they’ve added very little to the experience aside from a few incremental performance improvements and a couple of new hats. And until we start seeing some significant content updates I don’t see much point in continuing to play.