Monday, 26 January 2015

Work in Progress: QOTSS

Part 3 of QOTSS is complete and I’ve now planned and begun work on the fourth and final part. If all goes to schedule, I hope to have a complete final draft of QOTSS by the 15th of February. Part 4 is where everything I’ve set up finally falls into place. It’s going to be interesting to write, but also very tricky. There’s a lot to juggle.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with how QOTSS has progressed. I originally wanted to have it completed by the end of 2014, but I always knew that would be difficult. But I’m not too far off the mark. Once QOTSS is done, I’ll be turning my attention to my e-books and uploading new versions. There won’t be major changes, just minor edits.

In blog related news, I’ve been fixing old errors and correcting formatting issues. Hopefully for the last time.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Now Playing: The Typing of the Dead

The Typing of the Dead: Overkill is a piece of educational software designed to improve your touch typing skill in terms of speed and accuracy. You are presented with a rapid fire of word and phrase challenges. Failure to complete these challenges in the allotted time results in a penalty – the loss of at least 1 ‘heath point’. Continual failure may (will) result in death.

I played the original Overkill when it was released on the Wii in 2009, a continuation of the popular House of the Dead series. Like previous titles, it’s an on-rails FPS playable solo or in co-op. You progress through several levels set in a variety of locations shooting various zomb- mutant types leading to a boss confrontation.

You’re scored on a combo system by stringing together accurate hits, not taking damage and occasionally rescuing civilians. As you progress you’ll discover collectibles (music, comics, art, 3D models) plus cash which can be spent on new weapon types and upgrades (ammo count, reload speed, damage etc). There are three difficulty modes including a ‘Director’s Cut’ mode with additional challenges, plus three mini-games.

The story and style of Overkill is very much in the grindhouse style. It’s silly, over the top, gory and full of foul language, but it has its tongue firmly in its cheek. I’m sure some people would think it all rather unnecessary and offensive but I don’t think I ever stopped grinning from the moment Isaac Washington declared ‘I’m gonna rip your motherf**king balls off!’

Of course, this review isn’t really just about the ‘regular’ Overkill game which is included in this package, but the ‘Typing’ version. It’s the same game, of course, but updated in a way whereby letters become bullets. As the zomb- mutants attack, words or phrases will appear on the screen. As you start typing you also start shooting and completing that word or phrase will kill the attached mutant. Easy enough, until you have 3 or more mutants on screen, some of which may also throw items at you which must be deflected with a single letter.

Obviously, you can only tackle a single letter, word or phrase at a time, so not only must you type quickly, but you have to learn to prioritise the most urgent threat. But it’s not all about speed, but accuracy too, especially if you play on the Hardcore variation setting (separate to the three main difficulties) where a single letter out of place will reset the word or phrase entirely, meaning you have to begin from scratch with something new. Like in the original version, you are scored on accuracy and stringing together hits, building an increasing combo. The typing version also has its own updated mini-games and collectibles to find.

I’m not really sure what else I can say about Overkill. It’s a game where you type words to kill mutants and that’s not really something you can f**k up. That said, the typing mechanic has been very neatly integrated into the original game in a way that feels finely balanced and even throws in a clever twist on the final boss which I won’t spoil here.

As a package, with the regular game plus the typing variation, including all the mini-games, co-op, difficulty modes, DLC levels and a few free DLC dictionaries included, you get a lot to keep you busy. It’s not a very long game if you only intend to play through once (maybe a couple of hours) but there’s a lot of replay value here if like going for high scores or challenging yourself on harder modes. Oh, and it may just improve your touch typing skills too.

It can look a bit rough given its Wii origins, but that kind of adds to the charm. It also has a great soundtrack. So yeah, if you want an arcade style light-gun game on your PC, you really can’t go wrong with it. It’s enjoyable and challenging to play, although perhaps a little easier on the regular version thanks to mouse accuracy. It’s a game where you type words to kill mutants. And it does that pretty much perfectly. It won’t ever quite capture the fantastic fun of standing next to a mate, each with a plastic gun, shooting at the CRT in your living room, but it’s about as close as you can hope to get.


Thursday, 15 January 2015

Steam Holiday Sale: Damage Report

It’s a little late, but here’s a damage report for the recent Steam Holiday Sale -

First up is Valkyria Chronicles, which I’ve already covered. I wasn’t too sure about it seeing as the discount wasn’t that great, and even after watching some videos, I had no clue if I’d enjoy it. But I decided to take a chance and I’m glad I did.

I was in a similar position with Ground Zeroes. It’s a new release, so not a big discount either, and GAMING CONFESSION: I’m never played a Metal Gear title before, so I wasn’t sure if I’d like it. But I do like the look of the upcoming Phantom Pain, so I figured Zeroes, which seems to serve as a sort of prologue chapter, would be a relatively cheap way to try it out and see if I might like it.

Next up – Metal Gear Rising. Because I figured – why not? From no Metal Gear titles to two might seem like a risk, but both games are very different. Rising was dirt cheap and made by Platinum who have produced some games I’ve enjoyed a lot, particularly Vanquish. It was an easy choice and the game looks suitably bonkers.

Then we have Assassin’s Creed 4. I’m kind of sick of Assassin’s Creed now, but I did really like the ship stuff in AC3 (it was probably the only thing I really liked) so an entire pirate themed game based around that might be pretty fun. At 4.99 I figured it was worth a punt.

My final purchase was Valiant Hearts which looks like a neat little game and something a bit different. I also got The Typing of the Dead: Overkill as a gift. I enjoyed the Wii version a lot and I’m having a blast with this edition, even though I’m shockingly crap at it. I would have thought spending most of the day typing would make it easier, but it turns out I’m utter shit at proper touch typing, especially when zombies are trying to eat my face.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Now Playing: Valkyria Chronicles

Valkyria Chronicles is a turn-based strategy/puzzle game set in a fictional world similar to late 1930s Europe, where the small country of Gallia finds itself pulled into a war between two major powers – the Atlantic Federation and the Imperial Alliance. The story is told through the pages of a ‘history book’ focused on the operations of Militia Squad 7. Each chapter has a series of animated story events leading into a battle operation.

I must admit, I was initially a little irritated by VC as it felt as if I was spending more time watching animated scenes than I was actually playing the bloody game. The early battle operations are very short and very limited in scale and strategy. Fortunately, as you begin to progress through these early chapters the game rapidly expands in both depth and scope, introducing several new elements.

From the story book you can access your HQ where you can select your squad, assign special weapons, learn new orders, level up troop classes and invest in various upgrades. Each squad member is unique in appearance and ‘potentials’ which may have a positive or negative effect during operations depending upon certain circumstances. One scout may be ‘desert bred’ and perform better in such an environment, for example, whereas another is more suited to grassy fields. There are also tabs in the book containing more in depth information about the characters, weapons and history of the world as well as skirmish and class specific training maps.

From the HQ you can build up a squad comprised of five different unit classes – scout, trooper, lancer, engineer and sniper. This is in addition to two tank units. Each has various capabilities that make them useful in certain situations. The scout has the largest movement range, for example, but is ineffective against tank units, in which case you’ll need a lancer, although they are slow to move and have limited range.

Each operation plays out like this: there’s a briefing period where you can assign the units you’d like to use, selecting their starting position on an overhead map of the mission area. Each operation is turn based, switching between you and the enemy. Each turn grants you a number of ‘command points’. These are used to move your units (1 for infantry, 2 for tanks) or issue special orders (such as artillery support). Each unit has a certain movement range varying from large (scouts) to small (lancers). Every movement you make with the same unit depletes this range further until it is reset on the next turn.

Units can only attack once per turn, so it’s in your interest to move, attack and take up a final position as efficiently as you can as your command points per turn are limited. Although turn based, some enemy types can still attack your selected unit if you stray into their line of fire. Operations have various objectives to complete, but generally, your primary goal is to capture an enemy camp. Some maps also have interactive features such as lifts, trains, trenches and towers which can be integrated into your strategy.

One thing you realise early on, is that operations are ranked entirely on turns taken. Although your score will increase through enemy ‘ace’, ‘leader’ (leaders grant the enemy additional command points making them valuable targets) and tank kills, it’s the turns taken that really matters. The higher the rank, the more experience and money you will earn, which is then spent on levelling up your unit classes and buying upgrades for their weapons and equipment.

When you realise this, the operations transform into fascinating puzzles to solve, as you seek out the most fast and efficient route possible to complete your objectives with the highest rank possible. Often, this involves clever use of scouts using their high movement range to get behind enemy lines. Or, in one case, using a clever smokescreen to beat one of the ‘boss’ enemies in two moves. Not turns – moves. And there are many missions which allow you to figure out all sorts of ‘creative’ solutions to beat them in as few moves as possible.

I really liked this aspect of the game and it’s one which gives it a lot of replay value as you try various tactics to see which is the fastest. It does become something of a trial and error system with a lot of reloading, but it’s quite addictive and fun to play around with. One thing you must note, however, is for some reason, you can’t replay the main story missions until NG+ in which all of your unlocked levels and equipment carries over.

I quite enjoyed the story and characters of VC, even though I felt it could have pushed the darker elements far more than it did. I also got quite attached to certain squad members. They all have unique personalities meaning they’re not just faceless foot soldiers. And yes, I found the operations to be quite addictive and enjoyable to play, even though I must admit a couple of them were a bit dull. Even though I’ve completed it, I’ll likely go on playing to see what more I can unlock and if I can attain a top rank on every operation.

That said, I do have my issues with VC and these mostly revolve around the ranking mechanic. I get that it’s been designed in this specific way, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel it’s resulted in a game that feels more like a puzzle game than one of strategy. My issue is that because of the way it is designed, VC rather severely limits and restricts how the player may approach each operation. Because your ranking determines your experience and money gained, it’s in your best interest to attain the highest score possible in order to continue to upgrade and outfit your troops.

But as I’ve described, the only way to obtain the highest ranking is to complete operations in as few turns as possible. What does this result in? It results in units such as your tanks, troopers, lancers, engineers and snipers being used very rarely due to their limited movement range and their cost to your command points per turn. In general, your scouts are your most important unit, aside from a handful of situations that require a specific skill such as an engineer to clear a mine or a lancer to target a tank. Command points are precious things that you simply can’t afford to waste.

Now, you can certainly use the skirmish mode to grind experience and cash if you want. Ranking isn’t that much of a problem. But the game doesn’t simply push you to complete each operation quickly for ranking purposes. In fact, even if you didn’t care about ranking and simply wanted to approach each operation as a strategic operation utilising all of the various classes, you’ll only find it detrimental to do so. Enemy camps may continually call in reinforcements, making it important to capture them as soon as possible. The game is designed to play the operations in the fastest number of turns, and the longer you take, the harder it actually becomes and the less reward you receive.

I’m not saying this approach to design is wrong, rather that the supporting elements don’t quite fit. This particularly applies to units. With such a limited movement range you’ll rarely, if ever, want to use the trooper units in your squad. And although I used snipers quite a lot, it was only when it wasn’t necessary to move them too far from the starting zone. The limitations to command points and specific unit ranges means that the player becomes quite limited in terms of strategy. Why run a trooper to a position over three moves when I can cover a longer distance with a single scout move?

I was hoping the larger, later operations would grow in complexity in terms of unit strategy, but this never became the case, and attempting to play in a strategic sense where unit formation, position and composition is balanced and important, only results in being detrimental to your progress.

Some operations also become far too trial and error dependent in terms of emerging threats. In one mission, an enemy tank arrived as part of a story scripted reinforcement behind me and destroyed my tank in a single hit, failing the mission. I had to reload and position my tank out of line of sight in advance of the scripted action. It doesn’t really feel strategic, more like a puzzle which is revealed piece by piece as you progress, and only once you have the entire picture can you properly approach the operation.

But despite these issues, I still really enjoyed playing through VC and I’m sure I’ll continue to play as I experiment with different methods. It’s just a shame that the game feels so restrictive towards the player and limits their strategic options. I can’t help but feel the ranking system (and therefore the operations) would have been far more interesting if it took multiple factors into account. That said, VC is a good game and one I’d happily recommend.