Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Now Playing: NiGHTS

I never played NiGHTS when it was originally released on the Saturn in 1996, although I did play the bonus ‘Christmas’ version. When I saw the HD PC version on sale recently I thought I’d give it a go, as it was a title I was always interested in but never got around to playing.

At its heart, NiGHTS is a score attack game. There are seven levels in all, each split into four smaller stages and each ending with a boss fight. None are very long, and you can clear the game in a couple of hours without any great difficultly. But as I said, NiGHTS is a score attack game, and the real challenge is to replay these levels and clear them with the highest score possible.

You’re graded on a A-F scale for each section of a level, and on how fast you take down the boss. An average is then taken to award an overall level score. C grades are fairly easy to obtain, but it’s when you start aiming higher that things get a bit more tricky. In terms of gameplay, NiGHTS has been described as ‘Sonic in the sky’ and that’s a solid comparison, because this is a game all about speed and precision. ‘Beating’ it isn’t at all hard, but mastering it and attaining those A ranks is where the real challenge lies.

But what of the story? Well, it’s something to do with dreams and nightmares and frankly I don’t know what the f*** is going on, but in a game like this I’m not sure it really matters. In terms of how it looks, the HD version is a nice update, although I do think they could have smoothed it out a little more. I like that the original Saturn version is included for comparison, as is the bonus Christmas level plus additional artwork/movie stuff.

The design of the levels is decent, although it can sometimes be easy to mix up a path in the background (on the next level section) with your current path, but this is something you’ll learn as you replay it. It’s certainly a unique game, especially when it comes to the world, characters and boss designs. And some of those boss fights, whilst easy to defeat, are certainly fun to play.

I struggled a little with the score for this one because NiGHTS is such a unique and interesting game to play, with some wonderful design and colourful visuals. But it’s also not quite a game I connected with personally. As someone who has never really been into score attack style games, NiGHTS doesn’t hold that much interest for me beyond a couple of replays. If, however, you love that sort of thing, then NiGHTS is definitely worth a look.


Saturday, 17 May 2014

Watch_Dogs & Titanfall DLC

Watch_Dogs is a game I’ve been keeping track of for some time. It had a very impressive first showing at E3 a couple of years ago and was scheduled for release late last year. It was then delayed, now due for release at the end of this month. It’s a game I really like the concept of, but I have this sinking feeling it will end up like so many of the big releases of the last few years – a decent enough game, but also a case of sadly wasted potential. But despite that, I figured I’d give it a shot on release. And then I saw this - 

Seriously? Are they f**king joking? This is getting way out of hand. I can’t say I care much about the physical content. There’s always been physical Limited/Collectors edition stuff. But in-game content? Okay, some of it may be purely cosmetic, but what about the stuff that’s not? Like the perks? How much impact will these have/not have on the game? And then we have the extra missions too, content that should be available for all regardless of platform, edition or place of purchase.

The fact that this content is split between so many editions and platforms is ridiculous. If I buy through Steam, I have the choice of a Standard Edition or the Digital Deluxe. There’s also a Season Pass for DLC, but this includes content already available in the DD. So if I want to obtain as much of the in-game content available as I can, I’m essentially forced into paying for the same content twice. And there’s no way to obtain all available content, not unless I purchase multiple copies across multiple platforms.

You can argue that a lot of this content is pointless fluff, and maybe it is, but chopping up content to an extent like this is just stupid. It’s stuff like this that makes me not want to buy a game. Now, I probably will still get Watch_Dogs when it comes out in a week or so, despite my reservations for the game itself and my irritation at the way the launch content has been handled. But I’ll feel a little dirty for doing so, and that may have a negative impact on my impression of the game.

Cut this shit out.

In other news, the first Titanfall DLC dropped – Expedition. I rather enjoyed Titanfall, but as I said in my review, it was a game lacking in variety, creativity and content. One which, despite a strong start, was going to struggle to hold my interest beyond a month or two of play. And after sinking about 50 hours into the game after release, I found that to hold true. As entertaining as Titanfall was to play, it grew stale rather rapidly.

So I was quite looking forward to seeing what DLC they would release. It needed to be something to really give the game a shot in the arm, an injection of fresh, varied, creative content. So what did they give us? Three maps. Three. For £7.99. No, I’ve not bought it. And although I have no doubts that the maps are well designed, as per those in the core game, I expected a lot more from this DLC, especially at that price. Titanfall doesn’t need more maps. It needs new modes. New weapons. New Titans. New customisation options and challenges. New Burn Cards and Pilot abilities. New maps are welcome, but they won’t give the game the kick up the ass it desperately needs.

To make matters worse, they not only haven’t provided any new modes, they’ve actually removed two. Okay, so not entirely removed, as they are still available to play as private matches or as part of the Variety Pack. Now, I can’t say CTF and Pilot Hunter were modes I particularly enjoyed, but I’m sure a lot of people did, people who may have paid a lot of money for the game (plus Season Pass) who have a right to that content not getting pulled on a whim.

And saying that you can still enjoy them as part of private matches is a joke, because I’m sure there are many people like me who don’t have a full list of Titanfall playing friends. Many people rely on the random matchmaking. And if they now want to play CTF or PH, they have to join the Variety Pack and wait for them to cycle around. This is bullshit.

Hopefully, with enough backlash, they’ll add these modes back onto the main selection. They never should have been removed. It’s a kick in the balls to all those customers who paid for and enjoyed that content. So what if it wasn’t as popular as the other modes? Why not just leave it be?

So I won’t be buying this DLC, not until it gets a serious discount, and by then the game may just be dead in the water. It’s a shame because Titanfall is a pretty darn good game. But doing shit like dropping modes and releasing such lacklustre DLC…it’s like they’re trying to kill it themselves.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Now Playing: Child of Light

It’s not often I buy games on a whim without really knowing anything about them, but then I saw a few images of a game called Child of Light and snapped it up almost immediately. It’s a RPG with turn-based combat mixed with platforming and light puzzle elements.

So we have to start with how fantastic the game looks. It’s almost like somebody was putting together concept art for the world and then someone else said, ‘hey, why don’t we just use that?’ Visually, Child of Light is beautiful. It’s like (and quite appropriately) stepping into a children’s storybook. It’s colourful and bright, but also very detailed, with a lot of small, charming touches combined with a great deal of location and visual variety.

This also extends to the game’s characters and enemies, all of whom look great and are all wonderfully animated. The music is also very good, moving from calm, gentle exploration pieces and ramping up during combat segments. So it looks fantastic and it sounds very good too. But what about the story?

Child of Light tells the story of Aurora, a young girl cast into the world of Lemuria, on a quest to thwart an evil queen who has stolen the Moon, Sun and Stars. Like the visuals, the story of Child of Light is like something out of a storybook, told in the game by characters who only speak in rhyme. It’s a charming story with charming characters, all of whom get a chance to shine.

So how does it actually play? Well, you have the exploration element, whereby you traverse the world at your leisure. This is a game that, refreshingly and perhaps surprisingly, doesn’t lead you by the hand but instead allows the player to explore as they see fit. And exploration in CoL can be very rewarding as you discover hidden chests, upgrades and optional bosses.

Engaging an enemy triggers a battle. If you engage the enemy from behind you’ll get a free, first strike, so positioning in the world is important, although it’s not exactly hard to get behind an enemy thanks to Igniculus. He’s Aurora’s constant companion throughout the game. You can use him to collect certain items and blind enemies so you can get past them. He’s also used to help solve the simple puzzles. In battle, you can use him to slow enemies on the action bar or heal your characters.

The action bar determines when and who can attack, so slowing your enemies actions and speeding up your own can be key. It (plus Igniculus) adds an interesting real-time dynamic to the turn based combat, keeping you on your toes and keeping track of who’s going to make the next move. Because nearly all moves require casting time, some longer than others. On top of this, casts can be interrupted, knocking the character back down the action bar.

This makes the combat far more tactical than you might expect from a game like this, as you have to figure out the best timing to strike, defend, swap characters, heal or use special abilities. If you don’t plan accordingly, you’ll get wiped out surprisingly quickly. What’s more, the game doesn’t treat you like an idiot, spelling out how to beat certain enemies or bosses. It’s up to you to figure out their weaknesses and the best pattern for attack.

So far, so good, right? But CoL unfortunately suffers from some of the same issues I had with another RPG recently – The Stick of Truth. Like that game, CoL limits you to only 2 characters per battle. Okay, so you can can easily switch in and out characters during battle, and this is certainly a strong part of the strategic dynamic, but I really would have liked it if the game expanded on the active party battle size as the game progressed. Enemy groups are also always limited to 3.

Also like The Stick of Truth, CoL has all the components you’d expect in an RPG battle system such as status effects, elemental attacks, upgrades, potions, special abilities etc, but it never really makes use of them to the extent that you might hope. With the battle party and enemy sizes never changing, the non-boss battles grow rather repetitive to fight through as you’ll quickly establish an effective rotation. The game does allay this problem slightly by frequently introducing new enemy types with different abilities and weaknesses (something Stick didn’t do very well) but still, once you work out the perfect counter rotation, it’s all rather easy. I played it on the hardest setting, but I think I only died 3-4 times.

There’s no character customisation in the game in terms of gear, but you can collect and craft Oculi upgrades for different bonus effects. Given that it’s more of a budget title (11.99 on release), I can’t be too fussy about this, and I don’t really think different armour/weapon items would have quite fitted the game’s aesthetic anyway.

The Oculi system isn’t just a tacked on thing though, as the gems are almost essential against certain enemies and you’ll find yourself swapping them out on a regular basis. Especially for bosses, which is where the game really shines in terms of its battle system. All of the bosses are great fun, not just to look at but to fight, requiring some creative tactics and clever strategy, swapping out characters turn by turn and rotating your attacks to limit the enemy as much as possible.

Overall, Child of Light is a great little game. Whilst I’d have liked the game to evolve its battle system as it progressed, I can’t be too hard on it for that, because the system, as it is, has far more depth and tactical nuance than you’d expect. (I just prefer it when games give me something new to adapt to as I progress, and this is something neither CoL or TSOT really offered). I beat it in about 15 hours on the Hard difficulty, but it’s definitely a title I’ll play again, and it even comes with a New Game Plus mode.

And with a fantastic art style, fluid animations, a charming story, characters and world, plus a fine soundtrack, Child of Light was a very pleasant surprise. It doesn’t treat you like a moron or hold your hand with quest markers and big arrows telling you exactly where to go. It rewards exploration and experimentation. It’s a joy to look at and fun to play, uncomplicated, simple on the surface but with real depth beneath. Certainly worth checking out.


Saturday, 10 May 2014

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

So a friend recommended I try Hearthstone, a new free to play digital card game based around the Warcraft universe. Although I wasn’t too interested in the title, I figured I’d give it a go. The first problem I hit was actually downloading the bloody thing. Or rather, downloading Battle.net, the platform upon which the game is based and required for play. Unfortunately, the day I tried to download the client, the servers were down. Oh well.

Spin on another day and I get Battle.net downloaded and create a new account. Ugh. Between Steam, Origin and Uplay, keeping track of all these different platforms is getting a bit of a chore. But whatever, I set up the account and loaded up the Battle.net program. This is where things start to go wrong. Attempting to download Hearthstone I encounter one error after another. A simple fix solves one problem only to create another. Eventually, the only solution is to totally wipe all trace of Battle.net and start over.

Except I didn’t. I bought Child of Light and played that instead (review coming soon!). But a week or so on, I figured I’d give Hearthstone one more shot. I installed Battle.net and clicked to install Hearthstone. ERROR ERROR ERROR. Oh hell. I almost gave up there and then, but I decided to give it ONE. LAST. CHANCE. And hey, it actually worked this time!

So what were my initial impressions? Not exactly great, to be honest. It wasn’t bad as such, I just couldn’t seem to get very invested in it. The game takes you through a rather dry tutorial to teach you the basics. Necessary, I suppose, but a little slow and dull. However, given that the game was such a bloody nightmare to get installed, I wanted to at least put a bit of time into it and, I’m pleased to say, I really started enjoying it.

Once you get through the tutorial you get the chance to unlock the playable Heroes. Each has their own unique card set and abilities in combination with a general deck. Each represents a different class – warrior / rogue / priest etc – with a play style to match. It was whilst unlocking these Heroes that Hearthstone finally started to ‘click’ for me. I began to see and develop effective strategies to counter and attack my opponents. After unlocking every Hero, I gained access to a harder AI against which to practice.

But fighting the AI isn’t really where it’s at. There’s a Casual/Ranked 1v1 system as well as an Arena mode, although I’m not quite sure what that’s all about yet. After getting to grips with the core mechanics, I set about compiling my own custom deck and challenging that friend who persuaded me to try it. This is certainly where I had the most fun, and the game has a fiendish ‘just one more round’ type of addictive quality.

I can’t say how much longer Hearthstone will hold my interest, and I really don’t care much about the competitive ranked aspects of it. But as a free, somewhat strategic card game to play with friends or when I’m a little bored, it’s a pretty neat little title. The only major downside is the World of Warcraft icon on the Battle.net launcher. Watching. Waiting. Biding its time.

I don’t want to go back. Please, don’t make me go back.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Now Playing: Alan Wake

Alan Wake is a third person action game about a writer on vacation, which sounds like possibly the most boring thing ever. However, things get a little more exciting when his wife goes missing and shadowy men with axes begin popping out from behind every tree. It’s a game with horror elements, although I’d hesitate to call it a horror based game. There’s not much in the way of tension or fear, or even basic jump scares, but there is a lot of shooting things with guns.

The game is split into ‘episodes’ almost like a weekly TV show, beginning with a ‘previously on’ recap. The story is decent enough as are the various characters. I liked the fact that they didn’t try to make Wake completely likeable. In fact, like most writers, he’s a bit of a self-absorbed asshole. But that’s a part of who he is, and those flaws are what make him an interesting character, one you want to see overcome the challenges before him.

As for the supporting cast, there are some nice characters, but few that get particularly fleshed out. Wake’s agent, Barry, initially strikes you as an annoying twit, but by the end you come to appreciate what a good friend he’s been who’s willing to put it all on the line for Wake.

In terms of graphics Alan Wake looks okay, with a mixture of some nice forest and town environments. Plus nice lighting effects from flares and torches. It’s nothing special, but it’s fine for what it needs to do. As for gameplay...well, it’s also solid for what it needs to do, but I can’t say much more than that.

You fight enemies by weakening them with light (torches, flares) and then shooting them. That’s uh, about it, really. Although you do have some walk and talk non-combat moments, and some sections where you can drive a terribly handled vehicle. The combat, which makes up the bulk of the game, is, you know, fine, but nothing particularly exciting, and it does grow a little tiresome as you near the end. There’s a basic dodge mechanic and also a sprint button, but Alan gets tired whilst running even faster than I do.

A big part of the problem is that the game frequently puts you in dark forest areas where you have to move from A to B, fighting small groups of enemies who spawn at certain points. It’s a neat trick the game pulls early on, quite atmospheric and almost tense, but it’s also a trick Alan Wake pulls far too often, and these extended hikes get rather repetitive, losing that initial impact.

I guess it’s inevitable that when a game throws its bad guys at you so often, they lose their menace as you reach a point when you’ve shot down hundreds of the buggers. Thankfully, Alan Wake does mix things up, with levels set during the day to explore and recharge, as well as levels taking place in more urban environments.

This wasn’t my first play of Alan Wake, but my third, believe it or not, so you know despite my issues with the game, it’s still one I’ve enjoyed enough to play through more than once, although a part of that is due to my OCD kicking in to gather all of the bloody collectibles.

Overall, Alan Wake is a well crafted single player experience, capturing the vibe of a Stephen King novel crossed with an episode of The Twilight Zone. It has a few memorable, stand out moments in addition to a decent plot and characters, both of which rise Alan Wake a safe distance beyond its rather uninspired and frequent shooty bits. Worth playing if you like TPS but are tired of hugging chest high walls, or just want a SP focused game with a solid story.


Saturday, 3 May 2014

Suburban Killbot Year 2

Another year already? I guess it’s time to take a look back at what I’ve accomplished. Let’s start with the writing stuff. At the end of the last ‘blog year’ I put out my first ebook – The Great Journey – a speculative sci-fi novella. It was followed by three more novellas, each part of a single series – Zero Sample. TGJ was something of a writing exercise, a chance to try a different tone and style, and ZS was a similar piece of experimentation, a contemporary sci-fi with a psychological twist. I’m planning on doing another edit of these soon (nothing major, just a small polish here and there) followed by a free promotion, hopefully to attract some more reviews. Getting downloads isn’t too tricky, but reviews are another matter.

Although I don’t think I’ve mentioned it on here before, I was signed up to a literary agency in the US for a time, but that didn’t quite work out the way I’d hoped. After little success trying to approach publishers myself, I eventually signed with a new, local agency – Broadland Literary. They’ve been fantastic. Two of my novels, the YA TLDK and the MG SOV are now in the hands of some of the best UK/US publishers. They’ve both attracted a lot of interest, but it’s a long process and we’re only on the first step of a very tall ladder.

Which takes me to my other major writing project this year – TSOTS, the sequel to TLDK. Although we’ve not sold TLDK yet, the time felt right for TSOTS. TLDK was written a couple of years ago now, so I’ve been itching to get back to the world and characters. The great thing about writing the sequel was being able to enrich the world in a way that simply wasn’t possible in TLDK. With the core foundations of the setting now established, I had the freedom to build upon and expand the world. It’s been great, and I’m really pleased with the completed draft.

So let’s move onto my other passion – video games! Last year I did an image showcasing 12 games, one for every month. This year I decided to do something a little different, so I took every game I’ve scored an 8 or above and compiled them into the single image below.

These are all my top rated games since starting this blog. Although all these games scored an 8 or above (with the exception of The Stanley Parable, which I didn’t actually rate but felt was worthy of inclusion) that doesn’t mean games scored under an 8 aren’t worth checking out. Hell, some of them I’ve really enjoyed but only given a 6/10 to.

So shall we break down those stats? There were 33 reviews this year, compared to 37 last year. Of those 70 games, only 7 scored a 9/10 and 13 an 8/10. These (plus Stanley) are the games in the image above. I plan to expand this image next year with additional top rated titles, provided any pop up, of course. As I may have mentioned before, there’s very little coming out this year that interests me. There’s Dark Souls 2, out now, but I’ve not got it yet as I’ve been too busy. There’s also Watch_Dogs, although I have my fears about that. One game that did catch my attention though is Child of Light, which I bought on a whim and have really been enjoying. We’ll see how it goes.