Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Battlefield: Hardline (BETA)

Hardline is the new Battlefield title recently announced at E3. During the conference they also announced a Beta would go live. I thought I’d post a few impressions from my time with it, about 6 hours in all.

But what about my history with the BF franchise? The only game I’ve actually purchased in the series is 1942, released way back in 2002. I did, however, play the BF3 beta on 360 and PC. It was okay, but not enough to convince me to get the game, although I do now own it (but not yet played it) when it was given away free for a limited time on Origin. And that’s about all the experience I have with BF, so you should keep that in mind.

Like BF4 before it, Hardline was revealed with a very neat demo of two competing teams on a single map. It was tense, exciting stuff, watching two coordinated teams fighting it out. But it’s all bollocks, of course, because the demo is heavily scripted to show off the game in the best possible light, and because nobody actually plays the bloody game like that.

As you’d expect, Hardline is mostly a clusterf**k of combat and explosions. You do, on occasion, get some interesting team dynamics at play, but let’s face it, public servers will never offer much in the way of team coordination or cooperation. The most you’ll get is players actually throwing down support items or bothering to stop and pick you up in a vehicle. Usually, the team that does these things is the one that wins. Hell, have a couple of helpful Operators on your team who’ll keep reviving people, and you’re pretty much an unstoppable force. But we’ll get more into the combat and class roles later.

So what makes Hardline different to BF4? Well, this has two new sides – Cops vs Criminals. That could lead to some interesting gameplay, right? Something different to the military based BF4? Ha! The whole Cops vs Criminals thing is, frankly, a joke. They both run around with military grade weapons, mini-guns, rocket launchers, attack helicopters, laser trip mines etc. Just slapping the word ‘Police’ on a vehicle or uniform doesn’t make it feel any different, just look different. But you know, if this was a mini-expansion to BF4 or DLC (which is what I initially thought) I wouldn’t be too fussed by this. Except it’s not, but we’ll get back to that.

So the two sides in terms of classes, vehicles and equipment (not to mention the identical play styles) are kind of irrelevant when it comes to the theme. But what about how it plays? Well, at first, I really didn’t like it. Movement felt sluggish and the shooting strangely ‘floaty’. I think this was partly due to coming into this from Titanfall. I kept trying to vault over ledges, climb low walls etc. You can vault some stuff, but it’s all rather clunky, not to mention buggy, as several times I got stuck on something.

Over time I have to say I got more used to the movement and shooting, but it wasn’t something I was particularly enamoured with. There are tools such as grappling hooks and zip lines to get about a bit more swiftly, but these also felt slow and clunky to use, simply leaving you vulnerable to enemy fire. The vehicles in the game (especially the cars) handle really badly, but they’re kind of pointless anyway on the Beta map, simply being used to get more quickly from A to B and then ditched and forgotten. Most of the combat in the Beta map centres around one or two areas and, when one side gains the upper hand in those areas, it’s pretty much game over. This also makes a lot of the map rather redundant and empty because there’s sod all reason to go anywhere else.

Graphics? Not great, but not terrible. I’m assuming some stuff was reduced for the Beta. At least I hope it was. Performance was great though, a very stable 60fps at all times. There was also a lot of issues with hit detection in the game and the way some weapons are either too effective, or not effective enough, but you can expect stuff like that at this stage, such as rockets being used as CQC weapons because they don’t seem to damage the person firing them. Although I should say a little more about the hit detection. It’s pretty bad. Sometimes you’ll land several shots to the head, but nothing seems to register. Sometimes you’ll shoot someone, think you killed them, but then they’ll turn and shoot you dead, only for them to just drop dead a moment later from your attack.

It’s not a lag issue, I can say that for certain. It’s definitely the way the game is registering hits, something to do with its ‘tick rate’ although I’m no expert in that shit so I won’t even pretend to know what it’s all about. But I’ve seen a lot of people talking about it in the game chat and it’s something that clearly needs to be fixed because it can be incredibly frustrating.

So you have 4 different classes and a level/progression system which is exactly what you’d expect. Uh, what else? There’s a nice degree of terrain destruction in the map that I liked, but I think BF4 did this too. In fact, although I’ve not played BF4 I’ve seen enough videos of it to wonder what exactly is new in Hardline? This feels like all the same shit we’ve seen before simply re-skinned as a Cops vs Criminals expansion. And you know, I’d be okay with that. It feels a bit lazy, but as a slightly different, themed DLC or expansion, I wouldn’t really care too much, provided it was appropriately priced.

Oh dear. But Hardline isn’t a DLC or expansion. It’s a fully priced release. Yeah, I’m talking 50 quid on Origin just for the ‘standard edition’. What the f**k? Are they serious? Is this real? Is this really happening? It looks to me like they’ve taken some maps that could have ended up in a BF4 DLC pack, slapped some Police logos on some poorly modelled cars and said ‘HEY! IT’S AN ENTIRELY NEW GAME GUYS HONEST!’

Like I said, I’ve not played BF4, so I can’t honestly compare the two. But how can they possibly try to sell this as a ‘new’ game? And even if BF4 didn’t exist (which only came out about a year ago, didn’t it?) I’d still call Hardline out on how lazy it is when it comes to classes, weapons and vehicles, because hardly any of them fit with the game’s theme. As a re-skin of BF4 it makes some sense, but if that’s all it is (and a poorly done one at that) then how can they justify such a price?

You know, I didn’t hate Hardline, despite my issues with it. I must admit that it can be rather fun at times. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe the full game will deliver a lot more than the Beta did. I guess we’ll find out in time, but right now, Hardline just feels like a very cynical cash grab. If we’re the Cops, then I guess EA are the criminals. And THEY HAVE THE LOOT.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

E3 Special 2014

It’s E3! E3! Are we excited yet? INNOVATIVE Well, I’m trying. But it’s hard to get very excited this year. NEXT-GEN But there were a few things that caught my eye. First up though, let’s talk about the conferences. EXCLUSIVE CONTENT

Microsoft were up first. They opened their show to no one’s surprise with the latest Call of Duty, which I have to say looked rather terrible. CREATIVE It wasn’t all bad, but I think it was the Indie showcase that most peaked my interest, with some visually interesting looking titles, including featured games such as Ori and the Blind Forest and Inside. There was also a ‘Master Chief Collection’ whereby you get to buy games you probably already own. Again. PLAY IT FIRST

EA were up next, and for once I was actually looking forward to it. SPORTS I probably shouldn’t have. After being announced last year at E3, I was hoping to see something more substantial from Battlefront and Mirror’s Edge 2. But no. POWERFUL Nothing but a couple of short videos for each. There’s another Battlefield coming out though. Yay? And then we had to sit through the expected yearly updates to their sports franchises. YOU HAVE THE LOOT

Ubisoft followed and, like the last few years, they really know how to put on a good show. DANCING There was the new Assassin’s Creed: Unity, now with 4 player co-op, which seemed to be a big new thing this year. CO-OP But for me, games either need to be designed around co-op or not at all. And if they aren’t, then you end up with a tacked on element that only serves to water down the single player component. Or maybe I’m just not much of a fan of co-op because I don’t have any friends. TAKING IT TO THE NEXT-LEVEL

There was another showing of The Division, but we still really know sod all about how it actually plays. Oh, and there’s a new Far Cry, hopefully one which will address many of the issues I had with 2 and 3 (I’m not counting on it though) There was also a new Rainbow Six game announced, but it looked a lot like CS:GO. Will it be MP only? Or will there be a SP campaign? AWESOME

Sony were next, with a far too long conference that I watched on catch-up and mostly skipped through. I don’t recall much about it. There was an updated Last of Us for PS4. There was The Order: 1886, which may just as well have been a movie – ‘press X to cut-scene’. There was a new game from the Dark Souls guys, but it was just a CG video which didn’t really tell us much. EXPERIENCE There was also No Man’s Sky, which I thought looked neat.

I didn’t see the Nintendo conference, but I saw a few videos of stuff, nothing that really interested me. OPEN WORLD So did any of them make me want to rush out and buy an X-Box One, PS4 or WiiU? Nope! Maybe in a year or two when some games actually start coming out. COMING 2015

Anything else? Well, The Witcher 3 is looking great, but we’ve got a long wait for that. Arkham Knight also looked nice, but that’s been delayed to next year too. There was a new Tomb Raider game announced with a hilarious title – The Rise of the Tomb Raider. And there was also Alien Isolation, which looked very good. Oh, and GTA5 finally got announced for PC, although I’m not sure how much I really care. I would have rather had a PC Red Dead Redemption. It would have been one less reason to keep dusting off my 360.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Now Playing: Watch_Dogs

Given that I’ve previously covered Watch_Dogs in a less than favourable light, you might think I’m not particularly enamoured with the title. And I must admit, given all the negativity surrounding its release, I rather expected to come away from the game severely underwhelmed. I knew from the early leak streams that Watch_Dogs looked a solid, if not particularly inspired, open world game. I figured the story and core missions would be lacklustre and the side missions repetitive and dull. In short, I was beginning to expect another Assassin’s Creed 3.

But after a disappointing and shaky start, Watch_Dogs slowly began to win me over. Once I tweaked the game to run at a fairly stable 60FPS (more on that later) and just got on with actually playing the damn thing, I discovered a pretty great game buried beneath layers of ridiculous hype. So is Watch_Dogs the first true ‘next-gen’ experience? Ha! You already know the answer to that. But does that make it a bad game? Hell no!

So what sort of game is it? Watch_Dogs is a third person open world game. Think GTA, but more moody and ‘press X to hack’. It’s a game with more focus on hacking and stealth than all out action, although there’s no shortage of that either. It’s set in a large, highly detailed near future Chicago. You move about on foot, bike, car, boat and train. No air travel, sadly. As you’d expect, there’s a series of main story missions along with a large variety of side and bonus content, plus several multiplayer modes.

But before we get into the thick of it, let’s talk performance. I run an i7 4770K with a 3GB GTX780 and 8GB RAM. Upon starting the game it auto-set to Ultra. This was a bad idea. With everything maxed out, Watch_Dogs looks pretty great, especially when it rains, although it still doesn’t look anywhere near as good as that fantastic E3 2012 demo. Unfortunately it’s nearly unplayable on these settings, at least for me. And from what I’ve heard from others, people with even more powerful rigs, they have the same trouble.

Watch_Dogs gobbles up VRAM like mad. AA is the real killer to FPS, closely followed by Texture settings and Shadows. I can get about 20-30 FPS on Ultra and low AA, but it still gets pretty choppy. Fortunately, I’ve not encountered a ‘stuttering’ problem whilst driving that many others have reported. The game is simply not well optimised. Even when I lower settings, the game still eats up VRAM like crazy. And as good as it looks, it doesn’t look THAT good. It certainly shouldn’t be taxing my system like this.

After about 5 hours tweaking the game and messing about in the sandbox, I found a configuration that gave me a fairly stable 60FPS, a mixture of High/Ultra (consuming on average 2.4GB of VRAM), although it still inexplicably drops and locks to 30 on occasion. To fix that I have to wiggle the camera about for a moment.

However, once I got those settings sorted, the game looked great. But it certainly needs patches to improve performance. And as good as it does look, you can’t help but recall that E3 demo and what could have been. Whilst the world is very nicely crafted and detailed, there are small and weird omissions such as dynamic lighting from headlights, for example, or proper window reflections. Or hell, even static reflections that make sense. I’ve seen ‘road level’ reflections in windows a couple of storeys high. It’s nothing game breaking, at least not for me, but disappointing if you’re looking for that ‘next-gen’ experience we were promised.

So how does it actually play? You have the on foot stuff where you can walk or run about the city. There’s a simple parkour system for vaulting over objects and climbing obstacles. Not quite to the extent as in AC, but it’s fluid and enjoyable. In combat you have a stealth cover system which works well enough. You have a selection of guns and tools plus your hacking abilities which allow you to approach missions in varied ways – from complete ghost, non lethal stealth, to blowing shit up left and right.

There’s a slow motion ‘focus’ ability for pulling off perfect head shots, but it’s most useful during driving sequences where you can slow things down to more easily utilise your city hacks such as traffic lights and bollards. Overall, the combat and stealth system isn’t anything fantastic, but it’s still pretty good, and certainly enhanced by your tools and environmental hacks. Enemy AI is also decent enough as they take cover, flank, and try to work together to flush you out.

Oh right, driving. This is proving to be something of a divisive issue. I hear the keyboard controls for driving are terrible, but I played with a pad so I can’t comment on that. The driving model itself is very ‘arcade’ style in terms of handling, damage and physics. You can plough through all kinds of stuff in a car, or even a bike. The damage model looks nice, but it’s all a little silly when you ram full speed into a tree with zero consequence except a small bump. So yeah, very much an arcade style model, and whether this appeals to you or not is a big part of whether you’ll enjoy the game, because there is a lot of driving involved. Personally, once I’d got over the initial strange feeling of the model, I started to really enjoy it, especially the bikes.

So let’s move onto the story aspects. You play as Aidan ‘Batman voice’ Pearce, a hacker on a mission of revenge. He’s a bit of a moody sod, and although I would have liked to see him crack a smile more often, he’s a decent enough character. I went into the game not really expecting much from the story or characters, but the game really surprised me in this regard. I actually wanted to keep pressing on with the story to see how things developed, and the supporting cast are all generally nicely done, especially Jordi – it’s a shame we don’t get to see more of him. The ending does get a bit muddled and feels a little rushed, but overall, I enjoyed seeing it through.

So what does Watch_Dogs offer in terms of content? You have the core story missions, about 38 in all, broken down across 5 chapters, and these last about 15-20 hours. They offer a good variety of mission types, some with multiple objectives and thankfully, very few that restrict player creativity, as the game doesn’t keep holding your hand or interrupting you with intrusive cut-scenes, but instead allows you to approach them as you see fit.

If you know there’s one thing I always want out of open world games like this, it’s the ability to tackle content in my own way, using the tools the game gives me. And that’s exactly what Watch_Dogs does. There are a few missions here and there that require a certain approach, but these are the minority and are usually for story purposes.

In addition to the core story missions there’s a ton of extra stuff to keep you busy. You have the Fixer jobs, 40 in all, broken down into 4 mission types. There are also the Gang Hideouts (15) and Criminal Convoys (18). These make up the bulk of the extra side stuff. You also have the ctOS command hubs to crack (which play out like puzzle rooms in a way, as you have the option of hacking the places without actually physically stepping inside of them). Plus there’s the ctOS towers, which are like little platform puzzles. And in addition to this you have the random mission stuff like the crime preventions.

But wait, there’s more! You also have mini-games such as poker, chess challenges (sadly no real chess) slot machines, drinking and shell games. There’s also the city landmarks to visit. Oh, and collectibles! But in this, collectibles are more than just pointless fluff, as they can actually be used to unlock unique missions. And there’s a variety of stuff, such as the privacy invasions which give you an amusing and sometimes disturbing look into the lives of the people of the city. Some are even more story based, such as the Serial Killer clues. And there’s also the AR games, NVZN and Cash Run. And with Cash Run you can actually create and share your own tracks.

What else? Oh, there’s also the ‘virtual trips’ which are like four games within a game. The best of which has to be Spider Tank, whereby you tear your way through the city in a giant robot spider. Why? Who cares! So there’s all of this, and I haven’t even gotten to the multiplayer stuff yet. I don’t see how anyone could fault Watch_Dogs in terms of content. It offers a hell of a lot of bang for your buck, with a large quantity of good quality, varied and enjoyable missions and features. If you clear absolutely everything, you’re easily looking at anywhere from 40-60 hours worth of content. The only thing I would have liked as a bonus in the single player is a racing scene and challenges.

So let’s talk MP. There are several modes to choose from, but this is one area of the title I really feel a little let down by, that feels like it had a lot more potential. On top of that, it’s one of the more buggy elements, but I’ll talk more on that later.

So you have the Mobile Challenge, whereby a player on a tablet can initiate a police chase and try to stop you. Kind of fun, but ultimately a little pointless unless you’re playing against a friend, and finding games takes a long time. Then we have the Racing mode, which once again, is a bugger to actually get into a game, but is great fun when you do, and this is where the more ‘arcade’ driving model really shines. There’s also an online Free Roam mode, but this is very disappointing as there’s sod all to do in it except mess about in the sandbox. Why couldn’t we have missions to do in co-op, such as the gang hideout or convoy jobs? The entire Watch_Dogs Free Roam feels like a major missed opportunity. They may add content through DLC, and I certainly hope they do, because as it currently is, it’s really not worth bothering with.

You also have the online Hacking mode. This is certainly interesting, as it places you into another player’s game and you have to ‘hack’ them without them finding you. It’s a game of cat and mouse, although it can get a bit repetitive over time as your options for ‘blending in’ are somewhat limited. My favourite mode however was probably the online stalking…I mean ‘Tailing’ where you enter someone’s game and must observe them without them knowing. It’s quite fun just acting like an NPC, strolling past them on the street, watching them play the game, totally unaware of your presence. It’s a neat addition to a game about security and privacy, and it feeds into your own game as people can do the same to you at any time provided you have the setting enabled.

The final online mode is the Decryption game, a team based one. It’s a lot of fun, although team balancing in terms of numbers isn’t great, and they really need to sort out their matchmaking service because, like the racing mode, it’s a bitch to actually find a game. A lot of the time attempting to connect to the MP modes it just times out or randomly disconnects.

So what about the sandbox in general? Is it fun? Well, yes, for the most part. With the profiler active you get an insight into every NPC. You can hack bank accounts, view personal text conversations and listen in on phone calls. There’s a lot of different ones to see and hear. In fact, in 45 hours of play I rarely saw or heard the same info more than twice. The citizens reactions in terms of their AI is okay, but as you might expect, nothing special. Sometimes they’ll just sit in a burning car until it explodes. There are a lot of nice little touches though, such as NPCS pulling out their phones to snap images of a car crash. They also call the police on you if you steal their car or pull out a gun, and you can stop them in various ways – jamming local communications, pointing your weapon at them, grabbing their phone or simply shooting them in the head.

Police chases are fun enough thanks to the environmental hacks and the ability to break line of sight and hide. It feels more realistic than say, GTA, where the cops always seemed to be psychically aware of where you were. Although that said, the omission of any water based cops (at least I’ve not seen any) is a little crazy. The sandbox, as you tend to expect from games of this type, also has quite a few bugs and glitches, although they are more amusing than irritating.

In terms of the city, it does generally feel quite alive and is fun to explore, although some things don’t really add up, like the rather pointless reputation system, or how NPCs sometimes react/don’t react to your actions. But there’s a fun level of interactivity in the city to mess about with and on the whole, it’s very nicely crafted. I should add that there’s a neat little skill tree system for unlocking new abilities, plus completing certain core/side stuff unlocks new weapons, vehicles and perks.

I should also say that this isn’t a very ‘hard’ game, even on the max difficulty. With so many weapons and tools at your disposal, Aidan really is a one man army. One disappointing feature of the sandbox is the music. This may be a matter of personal taste, but there were only a handful of tracks I actually liked, so most of the time I just shut it off. I liked that you could build your own personal play lists, but why can’t I import my own music?

So what’s the verdict? Is Watch_Dogs a game worth owning, despite all the crap surrounding the release and the technical issues? I’d say yes, especially if you enjoy open world games, although be sure to check out the driving model first. It’s a game with a decent story, characters and set of missions, with an absolute ton of additional, varied content to keep you busy. The MP may feel rather limited and a case of wasted potential in terms of the Free Roam mode (not to mention buggy in terms of matchmaking), but I hope that’s something they’ll fix and build upon over time.

It’s sometimes easy to only focus on what a game does wrong, or doesn’t offer. And there’s quite a few areas where that applies to Watch_Dogs – small things, mostly, but small things can add a lot to the experience. And when a game is as hyped up as this title was, it’s no wonder people are frustrated by the lack of the small details, things which we saw in that fantastic E3 demo two years ago.

But I think you also have to take into account what it does offer, and in this case, that’s a hell of a lot. On balance, Watch_Dogs is a great game. It was ridiculously over hyped and Ubisoft are now feeling the sting from that. They certainly deserve to. But nevertheless, it’s a game I thoroughly enjoyed, and as I said, if you like open world games, I really don’t think you can go wrong with it. Given that the game ends in a way that sets up potential sequels, I hope that the next instalment, if we get one, expands and builds upon what they’ve already delivered here, and then perhaps goes one step further by delivering on that ‘next-gen’ promise that impressed so many at E3.


Sunday, 1 June 2014

Watch_Dogs Release

Watch_Dogs is one of the biggest releases of the year. It’s also proven to be one of the most controversial. It’s difficult to talk about Watch_Dogs without first talking about the many issues surrounding the game, both before and following its release. I thought prior to doing my normal ‘Now Playing’ review, that I should do a post about them.

The first issue, as I covered in a previous post, concerns the frankly ridiculous number of release editions and bonus content. Given that I’ve already spoken at length about this issue, I won’t go over it again here. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of these different editions ended up creating another issue upon release, as some people didn’t have access to the bonus content they had paid for. It was a problem resolved within a few days, but nevertheless, it was another reason why having multiple Day 1 editions and exclusive content is a bad idea that only ends up shafting your own customers.

The biggest issue prior to release though concerned the graphics of the game. When Watch_Dogs was first unveiled at E3 in 2012 it looked fantastic. Spin on a couple of years and one six month delay and Watch_Dogs, even running on full PC settings, doesn’t look as good as that early preview. People were understandably pissed at the apparent downgrade of the graphics. After all, Ubisoft were hyping Watch_Dogs as a true ‘next-gen’ experience. But in truth, Watch_Dogs is a cross-generational title, and as such, it’s not surprising that a downgrade was necessary. But to many, the early preview was what people expected. And, depending on the platform, it’s far from what they got.

The next main problem before the game even released was the early leak. First came the 360 version, quickly followed by PS4 and PC. More than a week before the official release, streams of the game were live and spoilers were flooding the internet. For some, like me, the streams were an opportunity to see the game in action without all of the marketing spin. A chance to see the game in, shall we say, a less than flattering light.

However, these early leaks angered a lot of people, customers who had paid in advance for the game but were now sitting idly by. To make matters worse, those paying customers also had to contend with Uplay, not exactly the most popular platform, and one plagued with connection issues upon release resulting in some being unable to even install and play. For those of us on Steam, there wasn’t a pre-load of the game until late the day before release. Even then, customers here in the UK couldn’t unlock the game at midnight, but had to wait until 9 the next morning. And, as previously mentioned, there was the issue of the missing bonus content.

Basically, everything about the Watch_Dogs release felt like a kick in the balls to those customers who actually paid for the bloody thing. And then, on top of all that, the PC version of the game had some rather bad technical issues, which is a little crazy given the six month extension and the claim that PC was the lead platform. Many people couldn’t even get the game to run and when they did, performance was terrible.

So was the launch a complete disaster? Not according to Ubisoft, who proudly announced how well the game was selling when they really should have been apologising for all the crap people were having to put up with, and promising patches to improve and fix the technical problems. Unsurprisingly, the user score of the Watch_Dogs Metacritic took quite the hammering.

But I’m not here to review all of this shit. I’m here to review the actual game, and that’s something I’m still working on. But it’s important to keep all of this in perspective. It’s important to call Ubisoft out on this bullshit. The Watch_Dogs release, one of the most anticipated releases in years, was a total f**king joke, and they really only have themselves to blame.