Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Gaming Update

Although I thought Dragon Age 2 was utter bollocks, I’ve decided to give Inquisition a spin. I’ve been watching a lot of videos and what I’ve seen looks promising. Plus, there’s nothing else coming out that interests me right now, and I’m craving something I can sink a ton of hours into.

What little interest I had in AC:Unity rapidly faded when I heard of all the technical issues and bugs. But even without those problems, who thought adding micro-transactions into the series was a good idea? Or forcing players to use a companion phone/tablet app alongside the game? That can f**k right off. Also upcoming from Ubisoft, Far Cry 4 looks like Far Cry 3.5 so I really can’t get too excited about it.

I was a little tempted by the new CoD having not played a title in the series since MW2. I saw a lot of praise for the new mobility and verticality of its MP. Ha! Watching videos of it only made me want to go back and play some Titanfall. If people really want fast paced mobility and verticality, TF is the place to go.

I put together a run and gun kit of an SMG with the stim ability and extended wall running and it’s like playing Sonic the Hedgehog on speed. They also added some new game modes – Frontier Defence is a players vs bots mode (which is something I actually suggested way back in my review). It’s pretty good fun, but it really depends on the map as some are way too easy to beat. There’s also Marked for Death, which is a neat twist on TDM, and the recently released ‘floor is lava’ mode. Once again, it really depends on the map, but it can be very fun.

The Titanfall player base may have dwindled but I never have trouble finding a game. It’s likely I’ll grow tired of it again after a few weeks, but it’s great to see these updates and improvements, all of which have been free.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Now Playing: Gone Home

It’s 1995 and you are 21 year old Kaitlin Greenbriar. You return home from a trip abroad on one dark and stormy night only to discover the house deserted. Where are your parents? Or your sister, Sam? Gone Home is something of an interactive mystery house. Entirely at your own pace you can explore, find clues and figure out what happened.

So far, so intriguing. When I first entered the house it reminded me a lot of Shenmue, which may seem like an odd comparison. But one of the first things you can do in Shenmue is walk about your own house, opening drawers and cupboards and rifle through people’s personal possessions. And that’s what you’ll be doing throughout Gone Home. You’ll be walking through this house, poking about, searching every drawer and examining all sorts of (mostly mundane) items. Like a toilet roll! Why? Because maybe there’s a clue in the roll! (Tip – there’s not!)

I actually really enjoyed this aspect, although I’m not sure I was supposed to spend so long making piles of assorted junk in the entrance hall. Of course, this exploration and examination is more than just cosmetic. Certain items you find will trigger ‘journal’ messages from your sister. As you progress and find more of these recordings you’ll piece together exactly what happened. And this is really the main story of Gone Home – what happened to Sam.

But there are other stories in this mystery house, full of secret passages and hidden rooms. By reading various notes and letters throughout (as well as discovering particular items) you’ll gain an insight into the lives of Kaitlin’s parents and their relationship with Sam. There’s also a little side plot about the previous owner of the house. This is something Gone Home does pretty well – building these narratives through your own exploration.

So far, so good. The game looks nice and builds a good atmosphere with some great lighting and sound. The attention to detail is also great and as someone who was a teenager back in 1995, I loved a lot of the details. It does feel (mostly) like a real place where people live. Although alone in the house you come to feel that Sam is your companion, guiding you through from one clue to the next. Her VA is fantastic and adds a lot to the game.

So where does Gone Home go wrong? Well, although the freedom Gone Home grants the player is great, it can result in you stumbling across something that might break the flow of the narrative. About 20 minutes in I found a ‘secret’ area and realising I probably wasn’t supposed to go there yet, I backed out. Which was lucky, because if I had followed it through I’d have ended the game barely as it was getting started. Which would be a shame, because exploring the house, opening up new areas and finding each successive journal entry is extremely enjoyable and rewarding.

My other concern is that the side narratives are rather undercooked and don’t really lead anywhere. I was expecting a little more from them. This, sadly, is also a problem with the main story and my primary issue. There was a point about an hour and twenty minutes into Gone Home where it felt like things were really getting interesting. I was enjoying it a lot, far more, I must admit, than I was expecting. And then it just ended, incredibly abruptly.

Oh. I don’t want to get too much into the story stuff because I really don’t want to spoil it for people. All I can say is that the ‘ending’ just fell totally flat for me. I just sat there and thought ‘is that it?’ It’s not such a case of expecting some grand, dramatic finale or anything like that. It simply feels like the story took a great leap. As if we’d jumped from the middle of the tale to the very end. It wasn’t very satisfying and left me feeling like I’d missed out on a lot of stuff.

Only I hadn’t. I had all the journal entries so I certainly hadn’t rushed anything. But the ending of Gone Home did feel rushed. I was getting swept along with the story and then suddenly it wraps up in the space of a couple of minutes leaving me feeling rather deflated. It felt like there was a lot more story to these characters, especially the parents and their involvement.

Overall though, I liked Gone Home. Like The Stanley Parable, it’s something I’ll probably spend a few days debating internally whether it’s a ‘proper’ game or not before remembering that I don’t really give a f**k. It’s an experience, one I enjoyed and ultimately that’s all that really matters. Like Stanley, I’d recommend it to those who want to try something a little different. It’s neat, but it does feel a lot like eating half of a delicious meal before the plate is suddenly snatched away.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Work in Progress: QOTSS

Parts 1 and 2 of QOTSS are now complete. Normally when I’m about half way through writing a book, I begin losing that early enthusiasm, but because of the way I’ve structured QOTSS that’s not really happened.

I think I mentioned before that the book is split into multiple parts, four in all. The first three parts all take place in different locations with completely different characters (aside from the MC). They each have their own little story arc, antagonist and resolution. The fourth part will then tie everything up, bringing all of these characters together.

It’s been an interesting way to approach a story that I’ve not really tried before. The potential downside, of course, is that secondary characters may not have the necessary time to develop to any great degree, as each part is relatively self-contained. That said, this is a story very much focused on the journey of the MC over several years. Each part of the book represents another stage of her journey.

I suppose I could have told this story in a more straightforward manner, but where would be the fun in that?

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Now Playing: Shadow of Mordor

Shadow of Mordor or ‘Orc Murder Simulator 2014’ is what happens when you take the Assassin’s Creed and Batman: Arkham games and mash them together with a complete edition of The Lord of the Rings. It’s a game about killing orcs. Lots of orcs. It’s probably the best orc killing game ever made. You can put that one on the box, guys.

The game is about a guy called Talion (I think?) who sets out on a mission of revenge because nobody could think of a more interesting motivation. The story of Mordor is one of its weakest components. Talion is a bland, humourless sod, accompanied by a dead elf who pops up on occasion to say something in his serious voice. You also meet a dwarf and some woman, oh and some other bland guy. I don’t really remember. Honestly, the story and characters of Mordor are completely forgettable. Well, that’s not strictly true. The human story and characters are, but I’ll elaborate more on that later.

So let’s get stuck into the best thing about Mordor – the combat. Which is fortunate, because the combat is about 99% of the game. The combat, on a base level, plays out just as it does in Batman. You have attack, evade, stun and counter buttons. Every hit counts towards a combo, and once you chain a few hits together you’ll be able to perform special moves. The combat animations are great, and the fights are bloody and brutal. As you progress you’ll earn experience and skill points which can be used to unlock new abilities. These include the standard health/ammo/focus (slow-mo) upgrades, plus a selection of new or enhanced powers.

Once you’ve unlocked all of these, you’ll have a wide and varied selection of tools at your disposal to murder your way through as many orcs as you please. It’s satisfying and very, very enjoyable. Combining your different skills and abilities, tearing your way through an orc stronghold and watching them flee never fails to amuse. The problem, of course, is that it’s all too damn easy.

But before we get into the difficulty issue, let’s look at the Assassin’s Creed element. Direct combat is a big part of Mordor, but there’s a focus on stealth too. You can sneak about, scale walls and buildings and perform stealth kills. Amusingly, Mordor made me feel more like an assassin than any of the Assassin’s Creed series ever really did, especially when you factor in the ‘intel’ aspect as you uncover information about your target and use it appropriately to give you an edge in a fight.

The myriad of combat and stealth options are fantastic, allowing you to approach every mission in a variety of ways using a wide pool of abilities. It’s a lot of fun, and I never really grew tired of it. However, as I’ve already said, the difficulty is a serious issue. In my 22 hours of game time (you can probably blast through the main story in about 10-12, but you’re looking at about 20-25 if you want to 100%) I only died three times. THREE times.

Right from the start, you’re practically unstoppable in a fight. And as you level up and unlock new skills and upgrades, you only ever grow more powerful. You learn lots of new ways to kill things, which then unlock even more new ways to kill things. By things I mean orcs. Lots of poor, poor orcs. It’s fun, but extremely easy. Even the Warchief fights, which you think will turn out to be really tough ‘boss’ type encounters, aren’t all that hard, even early on. Hell, I killed all 5 in the starting area when I was only about 6 hours in.

Another problem is the lack of enemy variety. There are three, maybe four types of orc in terms of weapons, tactics and type of attack, but they can all be killed in exactly the same manner. If you’re looking for a little more tactical play, like we had in Batman – with different foes requiring different gadgets and approach – then you’ll be disappointed. In Mordor, you can mass execute your way through everything with ease.

So the story is a waste (with a terrible final ‘boss’ fight too) and the combat, although fantastic fun, seriously lacks in challenge. But Mordor has another component, something unique and quite interesting – the Nemesis system. As you progress through the story you’ll gain the ability to ‘brand’ orcs and make them your slaves. There’s this whole system of orc Captains and Warchiefs you can brand and manipulate. It creates new side quests that allow you to play one against the other, or push your own personal ‘favourite’ orc right up through the ranks. It’s enjoyable to mess about with and it’s where the orc personalities really shine.

The human characters of Mordor may be forgettable, but the orcs are great! There’s a lot of different orcs that can pop up, all with unique names, features, weapons, abilities and weaknesses. The VA for them is also great, giving each a distinct personality. Some you ‘kill’ may return, perhaps missing an eye, seeking revenge. You’ll grow attached to some of them and come to loath others. You’ll build your own stories within the game through your interactions with these orcs, which is fortunate considering how dull the actual story is.

But whilst the Nemesis system is certainly interesting, there’s not a lot of depth to it. Once you’ve played one of its side quests (I think there are about 5 types in all) you won’t really want to keep doing them over and over again. It’s also not that hard to get your chosen orcs into the Warchief positions. And when you have a few Captains and Chiefs on your team, it becomes even easier to enslave/kill the rest. And once you’re in full control of the orc ranks, then what? I guess you could kill them all and start over, but what would be the point?

The Nemesis system is also disappointing in the sense that it never really leads anywhere or has any real influence in the story. You’re told several times that you’re ‘building an army’ but you never get to actually see it. Towards the very end of the game you’ll be joined by the Warchiefs you’ve branded, but no Captains or common soldiers. They do very little in a couple of very small fights and then just f**k off. Thanks for the help, assholes.

Imagine for a moment if the Warchiefs were directly tied to the orc strongholds in the game, and by controlling a Warchief you also controlled the stronghold. It could lead to a very cool strategy mechanic whereby you could order a Warchief to assault a rivals stronghold. You could then help the assault by taking down defenders, opening gates etc. Sadly, the most you can do is start a ‘riot’ between two Warchiefs in a little skirmish. I was hoping at the end of the game I’d be involved in a seriously big battle with all my Warchiefs, Captains and all the orcs under their command being involved. It just doesn’t happen. So although the Nemesis system is enjoyable to tinker with, it’s also completely bloody pointless.

Graphically, Mordor looks very good, although some environmental work, particularly in the first area, isn’t great. There are two open world areas, but neither is that interesting to explore or look at and both are mostly the same thing – one just has more grass than the other. In addition to the main story missions and the Nemesis stuff, you have 30 side challenges relating to your three weapons – sword (combat) dagger (stealth) and bow (ranged). Some of these are quite fun, but the majority are quick and forgettable. There are also two types of (worthless) collectibles to track down. Well, one type does give you some text to read, at least. As in Assassin’s Creed, each area has towers (high points) you can scale to reveal collectibles and side missions.

The only other side content in Mordor (and unfortunately the bulk of it) is the Outcast Rescue missions, 24 in all, but once you’ve played one you’ve really played them all. They are repetitive and dull, and will feel like a real grind if you intend to work through them. And that’s about it for side content.

Wow, it sounds like I’m really taking a dump on Mordor, but despite all my issues with it, I still had a lot of fun playing it through. The story may be bleh, the open world dull, the side content repetitive and the combat lacking in any sort of challenge but despite all of that, I never got tired of cutting my way through 50 or so orcs, watching their heads fly as I zipped about between them, totally untouchable like some crazy ORC GOD OF DEATH. Combined with the Nemesis system, the combat creates some fantastic, organic experiences in the open world. It’s just a shame that so many of the supporting components totally fall flat.