Monday, 20 October 2014

Return to Rome 2

With the release of the Emperor Edition update, I decided to return to Rome 2 to see what was new. I’ve played it on occasion since release, usually to test a new patch, but this is the first time I’ve gone back to the game and completed an entire campaign. Actually, it’s the first time I’ve completed an entire campaign – period. But more on that later.

So let’s start with the technical stuff. The game is in far better shape than at release. I didn’t have too many issues with the release version, at least not for the first 20 or so hours, but over time they began to grow increasingly apparent. I’m pleased to say that Rome 2 now runs extremely (and consistently) smoothly, even during some large 40v40 siege battles. If you zoom into a mass of troops fighting in a battle of that scale it can still drop rapidly in terms of FPS, but it’s certainly not unplayable, and the typical 20v20 battles that make up the bulk of a campaign are completely fine.

There also seems to have been some slight graphical tweaks, although I’m not entirely sure. I played on Ultra settings (Extreme didn’t really seem to add anything noticeable other than a FPS drop) and it still looks great, but it feels more sharp than at release, with more vibrant colouring. Bugs! In about 60 hours of play, I don’t think I saw a single bug, so that’s certainly an improvement.

But what about the AI? Battle AI is now consistently solid, although on release I’d see more of the AI holding back units in reserve, and that’s something I didn’t really see at all this time around. That said, the Battle AI does its job. It holds formation, uses its units fairly appropriately and flanks where it can. But ultimately, unless it outnumbers you in terms of numbers and/or quality you won’t have too much trouble defeating it.

Siege AI has probably seen the biggest improvement given that on release it would just stand still a lot of the time and do nothing or, on occasion, it might blindly decide to run its entire army through a wall of spears. I’m glad to say that neither of those things happened during my time with this update. Path finding seems much improved, and enemies sensibly attack at multiple points rather than just try to charge through a tiny kill zone. Campaign AI is a lot better. It seems to manage its economy far more effectively and puts together far more sensible army compositions (as opposed to 90% slingers).

There have been a few changes to the campaign map in terms of building mechanics, but the political system has had the most significant overhaul with new info screens, making it far more clear how the civil war mechanic is playing out. In the release, civil war was pretty much inevitable, but now it’s possible to avoid it entirely (as I did in my campaign) by managing the political side appropriately. It’s still not exactly particularly exciting or in-depth, but it’s much better than how it was presented at release, although I did find it very easy to re-balance the power struggle whenever I needed to.

There’s quite a bit of free new content that’s been added to the game in terms of units and factions, plus an entirely new campaign, in addition to other mini-campaign DLC. I played through Caesar in Gaul, which was a neat, self-contained little campaign, and then through an entire Grand Campaign. I haven’t yet played the Hannibal campaign or the new Augustus campaign. As I said, this was the first time I actually played a Rome 2 campaign through to completion.

I’d played a few, 3 or 4 in fact, since release, but I always stopped before hitting my victory conditions. Why? Because I felt, and still do, that the conditions are a little too excessive. The easiest to obtain is the Military Victory, but it requires control of at least 90 regions. And the fact is, once you hit about 50, you’re pretty much unstoppable and there’s very little fun to be had in steam rolling the rest of the map for another 8 hours or so.

Thankfully, allies count towards your victory count, and that’s how I finished my campaign this time around, by simply signing alliances with every other major power. Even so, it still felt like a bit of a slog towards the end. I wish they’d reduce the conditions to something more manageable. For example, I hit every condition for the Economic victory save for income per turn. I was about 60 thousand short. Plus, you need to maintain 15 trade partners, which in an ever shrinking map of expanding empires, isn’t easy to do.

Overall though, I have to say Rome 2 has finally won me over. I enjoyed my campaign a lot, played most of the battles (at least until the very end) and found myself getting quite addicted due to the ‘just one more turn’ quality. Is it still disappointing? Well…yes, but I think that’s mostly because the release was such a disaster and it’s hard to shrug that feeling off. But if I had to review it again now, based on what it’s become with a year or so of patches and support, I’d probably give it a solid 7/10. It’s slowly transformed into a worthy entry into the Total War series. But seriously, guys – don’t let this happen again.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Now Playing: Alien Isolation

Alien: Isolation is a first person stealth/survival horror title inspired by the original Alien. Set 15 years after the events of the film, you play as Amanda Ripley, joining a mission to the Sevastopol Station to retrieve the flight recorder of the Nostromo. As you can probably guess, things don’t exactly go to plan.

The first thing that strikes you about Isolation is how damn authentic it is to the original Alien. The attention to detail is tremendous, and everything in the game feels meticulously hand crafted and placed with the utmost care. Visually, Isolation is a fantastic looking game. Lighting, shadow and smoke effects are particularly excellent – static images really don’t do it justice. Isolation also has outstanding audio design. From the sounds of the station to the dynamic soundtrack, this is one component of isolation which is practically flawless.

Isolation has quite the slow paced opening, introducing you to the world, characters and mechanics of the game. The opening hour or so essentially serves as a tutorial section. It is, I must admit, a little tedious to sit through, and as a result I was initially somewhat underwhelmed by the game. I think this is partly due to the fact that although Amanda may not know what lurks within the station – we do, and we’re all waiting for the star of the show to arrive. But the developers certainly like to tease, and you won’t encounter the alien fully until nearly two hours in. But when you do…

Isolation is a game primarily of stealth. You can run (not generally advised) walk or crawl. You’ll be crawling a lot. Under desks. Under beds. Into lockers and cabinets. But this isn’t a stealth game like any you may have played before, and that’s all down to the alien AI. You have various tools to assist you – the motion tracker, flashlight and flares plus an assortment of craftable items and weapons. Yes, weapons. Because there’s actually far more action in this game than you might expect. It certainly surprised me, but in a good way.

A lot of the items you can craft are used primarily for distraction, to lure the alien or other opponents away from where you need to go. But some can be used offensively too. There’s a certain risk/reward system at play. These items can be extremely helpful, but you must use them with caution and restraint. It should also be noted that you have to find the blueprints for these items (and upgraded versions) yourself. Although they can usually be found in areas you’ll need to visit, the game, refreshingly, doesn’t spoon feed them to you.

The game is, aside from a couple of sequences, brilliantly paced, continually varying up the gameplay and environments. If you’re concerned that Isolation is a game entirely of hide and seek – don’t be! During the early stages of the game, when you’re rather under equipped, it most certainly is, but as you progress and unlock new weapons and tools you’ll learn that ‘aggressive stealth’ is the best way forward. Hiding for too long in one location can actually be dangerous in Isolation, as the alien as well as other enemies will eventually sniff you out. There are also moments when you can disregard stealth almost entirely and adopt a rather liberating ‘guns blazing’ approach. These bring a welcome change of pace and sense of relief after some extremely tense cat and mouse segments.

I played Isolation through on Hard in about 18 hours. Although story progression is linear, you’re free to explore the station mostly at your leisure, although certain areas remain locked off until you gain access to various tools. You’ll find the typical audio diaries and computer logs allowing you to build a picture of events prior to your arrival, as well as collectible ID tags and crafting components. On Hard, Isolation presents an extremely rewarding and satisfying challenge. You save your progress at terminals dotted about the station, a system that may be a little frustrating for those who have grown too accustomed to extremely forgiving checkpoint systems.

Isolation is distinctly old-school in many aspects of its design. It doesn’t really hold your hand, tell you exactly where to go or what button to push. And it will punish you for failure. That said, it never feels unfair, and the save stations are fairly generously placed. It just takes a little patience and planning as you approach each area.

In addition to the alien you’ll be dealing with hostile human survivors and androids. The humans are probably the weakest part of Isolation. Human animations are oddly stiff and awkward, and their AI is very hit and miss. Thankfully, they don’t show up very often. The androids on the other hand are one of its best features. They are creepy as hell, walking just fast enough so that you can never quite outrun them, often making polite conversation just before they crush your throat or stomp on your face. They remind me a lot of the exploding service robots of System Shock 2. In fact, a lot of Isolation in terms of design reminds me of that title. In many ways, it feels like the sequel to System Shock 2 we never received.

Which brings us onto the star of Isolation – the alien. Unlike other stealth games, the alien has no set patrol patten. Although clearly scripted to appear at certain moments, once it enters the environment it runs entirely on its own AI. An AI designed to relentlessly and ruthlessly hunt down any prey. Yes, that means you. As a result, the alien is unpredictable. It may decide to stop, turn and head back the way it came. Or it may decide to wait behind a door, motionless (and therefore won’t be picked up by your tracker). Or it may hide in a vent, waiting for you to pass underneath.

This unpredictable nature means the alien genuinely feels like an actual, living creature hunting you. If it gets the sense you’re in an area, it will search it – thoroughly. And don’t think hiding under desks or in lockers makes you invisible – if you’re in a clear line of sight, it will catch you, and it will tear you out of any ‘safe’ hiding place. Over time, you will begin to understand the behaviour of the alien in terms of its ‘moods’ from the sounds that it makes, but you can never entirely predict exactly what it will do or how it will react. Oh, and it also ‘learns’ over time, so if you keep trying to use the same tactics against it, say by distracting it with a flare, it won’t be fooled.

I can see this unpredictable nature being frustrating for some, because in some areas, especially the first time you encounter it fully, it’s hard to shake off and you’ll die. A lot. But this almost serves as a rite of passage as you learn the best way to ‘manage’ the threat of the alien. Over time, fear of the alien will slowly turn to respect. So many games are about making the player feel powerful and in control. Isolation is the exact opposite. One thing the game does brilliantly is continually make you feel like you’re just starting to take charge of the situation, only to pull the rug out from underneath you, leaving you feeling powerless once again.

The story of Isolation is good, but it’s nothing surprising if you’re familiar with the films. It has a few twists and turns here and there, and there is some stuff I really wasn’t expecting to see, which came as nice/nightmarish surprise. I won’t say any more because I don’t want to spoil anything. Amanda is a good central character, not simply a carbon copy of her mother, but an individual in her own right. I hope we see more of her in the future.

In terms of other criticisms, I think a few sequences towards the end could have probably been cut, as it gets a little silly. Isolation also comes with a single map for its ‘Survivor Mode’ which plays like a surprisingly enjoyable ‘speed run’ mode. More maps will come as DLC. There’s also a couple of DLC missions based on events in the original film. Not exactly necessary for the main game, but great if you’re an Alien fan.

Oh, and did I mention the tension? I can’t remember the last time I played a game this tense. Isolation can be draining at times. There were moments I had to step away and take a break. One section in particular I just had to stop playing and take a breath. It’s horrible but also amazing. When the ordeal was finally over, it felt like a great relief. And yet, I wanted more.

Alien: Isolation initially struggled to win me over, but when it did, I was completely hooked. It’s an incredible piece of work and in many ways, it’s amazing it was made at all, given how risk-adverse AAA games have become. Isolation certainly isn’t going to be a game for everyone but I think a lot of people will come to adore it, despite its imperfections.


Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Now Playing: Remember Me

The first time I saw Remember Me was during an E3 a few years ago. It was a game about memory, about storing, stealing and altering people’s memories. It looked intriguing, but then the game just seemed to slip under the radar. When it was released it received very little attention and rather mixed reviews. The footage I saw revealed a Batman style brawling system, platform segments and boss fights, none of which I’d expected from what I’d seen in the E3 demo, and all of which looked rather simplistic and repetitive.

But when the game went on sale recently I figured I’d give it a go, although I can’t honestly say I was expecting much. I expected to end the review with a stupid joke about it being ‘forgettable’. I was wrong. Very wrong. Because Remember Me turned out to be one of the best games I’ve played this year. 

There are times when you play a game and you feel like you keep waiting for it to improve, to excel, to break free of mediocrity, and it’s disappointing when that doesn’t happen. When I started playing Remember Me, I found the opposite to be true. It was a game I kept waiting to slip into tedious mediocrity. I kept waiting for it to grow repetitive and stale. It just didn’t happen. Across the game’s 10 or so hour story campaign (split into 9 chapters) Remember Me continually introduced new elements – new powers, new special abilities, new locations, new environmental puzzles and new enemy and boss types.

That’s something I always like to see, especially in a very linear game like this. I don’t see such heavy linearity as a negative because the game handles it remarkably well by continually introducing new challenges, environments and mechanics. That said, the setting and locations are a big part of the reason why I enjoyed Remember Me so much, and it’s a shame we weren’t granted a little more freedom to explore.

So the environments may be rather small, but the attention to detail throughout the game is fantastic. Every location has been lovingly crafted to build a complete and believable world. It helps that the game never looks less than bloody amazing. The lighting is top class, the textures in general are extremely impressive and the animations are smooth and fun to watch. It all combines to become one of the best looking games I’ve played. The style and aesthetic is gorgeous and varied, with a consistency to design that flows into everything – environments, characters and even the menu system. So yeah, Remember Me is practically flawless in how it looks.

But how about the gameplay? First, let’s deal with the exploration element. As I said, environments are fairly small and linear, but there are some areas you can move about a bit more freely, and this where you’ll find some of the game’s collectibles. These include health and focus boosts, experience boosts and world information. The exploration element also includes the platform side of things. It’s not exactly difficult, and the game tells you exactly where to go, although there are times when precise timing is necessary. It’s fluid and nice to watch, but not at all challenging.

The core of the gameplay, I suppose, is the combat. You can compare it to the Batman games but to do so, I think, does it a disservice. In Remember Me you have set button combos – 3, 5, 6 and 8. But each of these combos is fully customisable by using 4 different power types – attack, heal, recharge and chain. It allows the player to build combos that focus on a particular effect – high damage for example, or a mixed combo that does two or more things, such as healing and special ability recharge. I liked this system a lot, and as you progress you’ll unlock new buttons for each power type.

This isn’t a game where you can spam a single combo either, as different enemy types require different tactics. You may find, especially early on in the game when you have a limited pool of powers, that you’ll alter combos on the fly in combat to deal with different foes. You have a dodge ability to avoid being hit, but provided you time things right, it won’t interrupt your 8 hit combo.

The game does a great job of introducing new enemy types – mutants, humans and robots, all of which have their own attack patterns. The game also has several boss fights, and these are all different in how they play out, although the final boss is, as is usually the case, a little lame. The variety is good, keeping you on your toes, mixing in different enemy types into a single battle and preventing it from ever getting too repetitive.

But the combo system and dodging isn’t all there is to Remember Me’s combat. The game unlocks various special abilities as you progress. The most simple is a powerful free flowing chain attack. You also have a stun ability, invisibility and the ability to take control of a robot foe. My favourite though was the Logic Bomb which looks very cool as it explodes in slow motion. These abilities, plus your combo powers, can be combined in effective and enjoyable ways during battles. Oh, and you also have the ‘spammer’ and ‘junk bolt’ tools which can be handy against particular opponents and are used in the game’s simple environmental puzzles.

My biggest criticism of the combat would really be that it’s just a bit too easy, even on the hardest difficulty. As you gain new powers and abilities, you’ll always be a step ahead of your foes. You feel powerful, almost unstoppable. It’s satisfying, but not exactly challenging.

The last gameplay element I’ve not yet covered is the memory remix segments. These play out like interactive cut-scenes that you can manipulate to change their outcome. They make an interesting change of pace and are quite cleverly woven into the story. For example, by making a few subtle changes to one memory, you radically alter its outcome. As a result, the person who’s memory you’ve changed adopts a very different approach to dealing with you. It raises some interesting moral questions which thankfully, the game handles in a fairly subtle manner, without ever getting too heavy handed.

Because in this game you do some morally questionable things. Are such things justified for the greater good? As I said, it doesn’t go too deep into the morality of what you’re doing. That may bother some people, but I was fine with it as it is – it leaves it up to you to draw your own judgements. The story, though you may not realise it at first, is really about family. I won’t get too into the specifics because I don’t want to spoil anything.

You play as Nilin, a memory hunter who was imprisoned and had her mind (mostly) wiped. You’re a terrorist, sorry – errorist, part of a revolutionary group which was effectively destroyed. You opposed a corporation called Memorize and its nefarious plans to monopolise and control human memory. Although the story is interesting in terms of the world and the technology (plus the morality element) it’s a shame some of the characters feel a little undercooked, plus some of the dialogue is rather flat.

Nilin is an interesting protagonist, and I was pleased by the way she developed, initially lost and confused, to questioning whether what she was doing was right, to realising that she’d done some questionable things in the past. Her VA is fine, although maybe it was just me, but I didn’t feel the voice quite suited the character. Overall though, the story kept me interested and entertained, but I do wish there was a ‘skip cut-scene’ button for when I replay it.

Despite a few flaws, Remember Me was extremely enjoyable to play. It was a welcome surprise given my expectations. It runs practically flawlessly on maxed out settings at a smooth 60 FPS. Everything about it feels polished, perfectly paced and crafted with care. Recommended.


Sunday, 5 October 2014

Remember Me (Part 2)

Some more tasty Remember Me shots. Review coming soon!

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Now Playing: The Walking Dead (Season 2)

There were a lot of ‘big’ decisions in Season 1 of The Walking Dead, decisions that could result in the death of a character, perhaps even choosing between the life of one character or another. Some decisions were purely cosmetic, but they changed the way scenes played out in quite a dramatic fashion – the choice of what to do with Lee’s arm, for example. There were certainly times in Season 1 when it didn’t feel as if our choices were all that important, where a seemingly important choice made little difference either way. But overall, Season 1 took a good stab at building a branching narrative, one tailored by the decisions of the player as they navigated Lee through some tense, emotionally charged situations.

I was hoping Season 2 would improve upon this core element to the series, with far more impact to choices and more branching paths building between each episode. Obviously, there will always be a limit to how far a narrative framework can diverge. There are times when those threads must be pulled back together, or the overarching story will lose focus. But I still expected more from Season 2 of The Walking Dead. As it is, Season 2 is more about smaller choices, and what you believe to be the ‘key’ decisions, ones that will create a new narrative path, are all generally worthless.

Upon completing the game I read through a wiki detailing how each episode plays out according to the choices you make. Disappointingly, I discovered that many of those ‘key’ choices were not so important after all. There are moments when you think you’re choosing who will live or who will die but in truth, you’re only choosing how the scene will play out and the same character will live or die regardless of your actions. There are moments when you think you’re saving someone’s life, only to discover that their life will be saved no matter what you say or do.

I came to suspect this was the case in only the second episode. I thought I’d saved a character’s life through my own choices, and that if I’d made a different decision, that character wouldn’t be there. However, as the episode went on it was clear that it was designed with that character’s presence as a requirement. And so, as I discovered, my choice to ‘save’ that character was irrelevant. He’d survive regardless, in order to play his part within the story. There’s another moment later in the game where you can save another characters life, but this choice, like a few others in the game, proves to be only a temporary measure. The plot demands their death and, like it or not, they’ll be killed off anyway.

Now, I can’t say this bothered me that much as I played, because I really didn’t know for sure. It certainly didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the game or the way the story played out. But after, when all was done and I wanted to see how differently the game could play out if I’d made different decisions, it was rather disheartening to see that nothing I’d done had actually changed much at all. And for a game that is supposed to be tailoring its narrative to my individual choices, that’s a bit disappointing. I played through Season 1 prior to the sequel, and although there are limits to the choices, I still had quite a different experience compared to my first time through. I’m not sure I’ll be able to say the same about Season 2.

But like I said, Season 2 is more focused on smaller choices. It’s really about Clementine, and the choices you make are the ones which will determine what sort of person she grows into. This is certainly interesting to see and to play, but with those key ‘choices’ meaning very little, it does result in the game lacking in the replay value of the original. The game reminds you that it features a branching narrative ‘tailored by your choices’. But that’s not really true. Even many of the smaller decisions mean very little or nothing at all, making you wonder what the point of them was. It’s even more restricted than in the first game, not expanded in the way I was hoping for.

One issue I had with Season 1 though that has been addressed is the issue of gameplay diversity. Season 1 was mostly just clicking on a target or hammering a couple of keys. Season 2 expands the mechanics with quick-time style events, as the player guides Clementine through a dangerous scene combining movement keys, mouse aiming and button mashing, often offering a couple of different routes or choices within the scene which will then play out slightly differently.

What’s lacking compared to Season 1, however, is the exploration and puzzle elements. Okay, so these weren’t handled brilliantly in the first game, but they allowed the player a degree of freedom to explore a limited environment and put pieces of a puzzle together, perhaps combining different items. The motel scene towards the end of episode 1 is a great example. Season 2 has hardly anything like this at all. In fact, most of the ‘play’ time is watching cut-scenes and selecting (what turn out to be pretty redundant) dialogue choices. The action sequences are more interactive and engaging than in Season 1, but the non-action stuff is rather limited. And I would have preferred if these elements were improved upon in Season 2, rather than cut almost entirely.

So as you can probably tell, I have my issues with Season 2, just as I did with Season 1. There are aspects that I feel are far improved in Season 2, but also aspects which are not. But did I enjoy it? Did I like the story and characters? Yes! The development of Clementine is the real highlight of Season 2, and the additional characters are all very good. It’s an expanded cast compared to Season 1 and as a result, some characters aren’t as well developed, but as we saw with 400 Days (which as I predicted, turned out to be mostly pointless in terms of its influence on Season 2), the writers can build some intriguing and memorable characters even with a limited amount of screen time.

I really can’t fault the story or character aspects (well, I have a few specific criticisms, but nothing that bothered me too much). I liked it a hell of a lot. It doesn’t quite have the same level of emotional punch as certain key moments of Season 1 did, but I think it has a much more consistent quality and tone across every episode.

Overall, I enjoyed playing Season 2 a lot. It’s shorter than the first game (not surprising given the limited exploration elements) but it’s very well paced and it has many excellent moments where you really are totally engaged by what’s happening, completely lost within the story. The ending is very well done, offering some very different paths to choose between. It will be interesting to see how the developers handle this aspect, although I get the feeling it may turn out to be a bit cheap, sort of like how characters carried over from Season 1 are rapidly disposed of in the first episode.

If you liked the first game, you definitely want to play this. I just hope that in Season 3, they really do start delivering on that ‘tailored to your choices’ promise. They can tell a great story with great characters, that’s for damn sure, but the interactive nature of this medium offers far more possibility to engage the player if we are presented with meaningful choices, which is something Season 2 sadly lacks.