Friday, 24 July 2015

Writing Update

It’s time for a writing update! Because this is a writing blog, believe it or not. But writing about writing is even more boring than talking about writing so I don’t do these posts very often.

QOTSS is now out on submission to publishers, so it’s time to turn my attention to something new. I’m working on another edit of TLDK. Nothing serious, just making a few small alterations and tightening up the text. I’ve also had an edit of WFTD on hold for about a year so I should really get back to that too.

But working on old stuff is kind of dull and I’m always looking to my next project. I’ve got an idea for a new book, but it’s in the early concept phase right now. It’s a sort-of-but-not-quite prequel to QOTSS currently titled DOTJ. I’m slowly hammering out a plot and building the world and characters.

In other writing news, my e-book promotion came to an end and I’ll try to remember to do another soon.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Now Playing: This War of Mine

In games about war, we’re used to playing as a soldier. In This War of Mine, however, you don’t play as a soldier, but as a civilian, struggling to survive within a war zone. It’s an interesting concept, but I was wary of This War of Mine. Though I found its subject matter intriguing, what I’d seen of its gameplay appeared rather lacklustre. But watching a game and playing a game can provide two very different experiences. So, despite my reservations, I decided to pick it up in the recent Steam sale.

There’s no tutorial to ease you into things. You’re expected to learn on the go, although honestly, everything is fairly self explanatory. You begin with a small group of survivors in your ‘home’ shelter. Each survivor is unique in terms of appearance, skills (scavenging, cooking or bartering) and particular quirks (a preference for coffee or cigarettes, or prone to depression). You control everything with the mouse, clicking to move or interact, and you can switch between the different survivors at will.

The game is split into two phases – Day and Night. During the day, you’ll be at your shelter, issuing commands to your group, having them eat, rest, cook or craft as appropriate. You’ll receive the odd visit from a trader, or perhaps a fellow survivor who wishes to join you or needs help. During the night, you’ll assign your survivors to a certain role – to sleep, to guard your shelter, or to scavenge.

In order to improve your shelter (and therefore your chances of survival) you’ll need materials. Materials come in various categories such as building materials like wood for patching up holes in walls, or herbs you can craft into medicine or cigarettes. You’ll scavenge for these materials during the night phase at various locations which unlock as you progress.

It’s a simple, but solid structure of gather and build, and there’s a certain satisfaction in slowly watching your shelter expand, upgrading crafting stations and positioning new furniture. It’s not the most complex system, but it allows for a small, personal touch to be applied, which is very important in terms of player investment. Because if there’s one thing that This War of Mine struggles to achieve, it’s personal investment on the part of the player.

Upon starting the game, many elements of the world will be randomised. This includes your starting survivors, scavenge locations, local inhabitants, weather and materials. It gives the game a degree of replayability, but it’s sadly not as extensive as you might hope. There’s only a small number of survivors and locations, and ultimately, every game plays out the same regardless of which are available. There’s also a very limited number of unique events or encounters, and you’ll see the majority of these across a single playthrough.

As I mentioned, there’s no tutorial as such, but everything is fairly self-explanatory. If your shelter is cold, you build a heater to warm it up. You build a cooker to, uh, cook food. You build a garden to grow vegetables. If a character is hungry, you feed them. If they’re sick, you give them medication. If they’re tired, you send them to bed. It’s like The Sims, but everyone leads bleak, depressing lives. Actually, it’s exactly like The Sims, except nobody ever needs to use the toilet, which is a little weird.

Purely from the standpoint of its gameplay mechanics, This War of Mine is a rather monotonous affair. The majority of the time you’ll simply be staring at little yellow circles as your survivors craft items or search through trash. Player interactivity is minimal resulting in a very passive ‘playing’ experience. You simply don’t feel involved in the action. And this results in the problem of player investment. Because as much as I was hoping otherwise, I struggled to engage with This War of Mine.

Your ‘unique’ survivors lack any personality aside from the odd quirk, so it’s hard to really care about them as ‘people’. There’s barely any interaction between them – they just tend to stand staring silently at one another until you issue orders. And whilst the game attempts to place the player into moral quandaries – do you steal food from fellow, peaceful survivors? – there’s no real consequences or impact from doing so, aside from making certain characters feel a bit ‘sad’.

I should feel bad about beating a homeless guy to death with a crowbar and stealing his canned food, but This War of Mine fails to elicit any kind of emotional reaction. The real problem, for me, is that this vicious act is handled by the same minimal interactivity of ‘click to move’ and ‘click to murder’. It’s a disconnected experience resulting in an emotionless experience.

This basic gameplay system is also terrible in terms of ‘stealth’ and ‘combat’. Combat is extremely fiddly, as you click to attack, only to watch two characters awkwardly try to slap one another. Thankfully, combat isn’t really necessary or a focus of the experience. Most of the time, you’ll just be searching through piles of junk and loading up supplies to bring home, which you’ll then use to improve your shelter and feed/heal your survivors. And that’s about it really, and yes, it’s as repetitive as it sounds. The ultimate goal is to keep your survivors alive until the (randomised) cease fire.

But with such simplistic gameplay, and a failure to engage the player on an emotive level, it’s hard to recommend This War of Mine. I do, however, think there’s a lot of untapped potential here. There are events such as the shelter raids, but it’s something you never actually see. It happens ‘off screen’ during the night phase and you’re only informed of what happened, what was stolen or who was injured at the start of the next day.

This off screen action also applies to helping fellow survivors (such as fending off a bandit raid or retrieving supply drops). It’s a shame these potentially more exciting moments are things you don’t actually get to play. There’s also no real learning/difficulty curve to the game. You can build nearly everything you need to survive within a matter of days, and upgrading these tools is simply a matter of gathering the required resources.

But because there’s a strict limit in how many materials you can carry, (and because many upgrades have pointlessly high material costs) you’ll often return to your shelter a few short of what you need. But this doesn’t make the game any more challenging as it does tedious.

There isn’t really any ‘story’ as such to This War of Mine. You should really view it as a sandbox experience in which you create your own story based around these characters. And one thing I did like was the ‘custom’ game setting, which let me create my own survivor. It’s a very, very limited system, and something I’d love to see expanded in a possible sequel. Because suddenly, with my own ‘guy’ in play, I had a reason to care. I now had a personal investment in keeping him alive to the end.

With a much improved character creation system, a choice of shelters with an expanded range of custom options, more locations and an overhaul of the gameplay – perhaps allowing for direct character control/aiming – you could have something quite special. I also think there’s a lot of scope to improve the narrative aspects in terms of branching events based on decisions you make.

Overall, This War of Mine has some neat ideas, but it feels more like a framework to a better game. It fails to engage the player either through gameplay or narrative, resulting in a monotonous and emotionally hollow experience. Disappointing.


Friday, 17 July 2015

Total War: Warhammer

I know sod all about Warhammer, but I’ve always wanted to see a fantasy based Total War. I hope it can breathe new life into the series. As much as I liked Attila, I think something like this has the potential to really shake up the franchise in a good way. The early trailers look promising. Let’s hope they don’t f**k it up.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Now Playing: Homeworld Remastered

The original Homeworld was released way back in 1999. It’s a fantastic RTS title, not only in terms of its gameplay mechanics, but also for its visuals, sound and story. It’s the tale of a ship of exiles, traversing a dangerous galaxy to rediscover their lost home.

Homeworld was followed in 2000 by an expansion – Cataclysm – which unfortunately isn’t included in this remastered collection. And then in 2003, Homeworld 2 was released. The sequel was excellent, though it was generally considered to fall somewhat short of the original.

Both Homeworld 1 & 2 are included in this collection in their original ‘Classic’ state. Although I already own these games, I did have some trouble with Homeworld 1 the last time I played it on my Win7 system, and I recall having issues with Homeworld 2 on my older Vista. When the remastered collection recently went on sale I decided it was worth the purchase, if only to enable trouble-free access to these two classic titles.

Of course, this collection isn’t really about the classic versions, but the newly remastered editions. I must admit, when I heard the news of Gearbox acquiring the licence to the Homeworld IP, my reaction wasn’t exactly positive. But with the release of this package, it’s clear the people at GX have treated the licence with respect, whilst also updating these much loved titles in a way that’s more accessible for new players.

Which is also why I was a little wary, because I was aware of particular changes to Homeworld 1 I wasn’t sure I’d like. But before we go into detail, I really have to say that in terms of visuals, the remastered editions look absolutely gorgeous. I still think the original games look pretty good but the remasters, Homeworld 1 in particular, now look absolutely stunning. But, aside from the visuals, how else do the remastered versions differ from the originals?

Let’s talk about Homeworld 2 first, because in this case, there’s very little to say. The remaster of HW2 is essentially all about the upgraded visuals. Every other aspect of the original game remains relatively intact. There are, or so it appeared to me, a few balance tweaks here and there, especially in terms of difficulty, but I’ll speak more about this later.

Homeworld 1, on the other hand, has undergone a far more significant overhaul. Perhaps in a desire to create a degree of parity between the two titles, or simply perhaps for technical reasons, the developers essentially dropped the Homeworld 2 UI (with a few tweaks) and gameplay mechanics into Homeworld 1. This, understandably, upset the purists who simply wanted a like-for-like visual upgrade.

Me? I’m kind of torn on the matter. There are certainly advantages to this tweaked Homeworld 2 UI compared to the original, but having played the original HW numerous times, the remaster felt very, very strange to play. I think for new players, this is a good change that allows an easy transition between Homeworld 1 & 2. But personally, I do prefer the classic version over the remaster, and I wish the option to retain the original UI and mechanics was available.

As with the HW2 remaster, it also seems there’s been several adjustments in terms of unit balance, mission difficulty, resources and AI. Even today, though I know the game well, I still find the original Homeworld to prove a challenging experience. It can be a punishing game, perhaps frustratingly so at times, but for many this was a part of its appeal.

The remaster, by comparison, is a total cakewalk. This is largely due to the insane amount of resources available compared to the original. The AI also seems far less aggressive. Typically I’d have to restart a mission or reload a save at some point when playing through the original version, but in the remaster, I breezed through every level with ease.

This also applies, though not as strongly, to Homeworld 2, which is a little easier in it’s new remastered format compared to the original. These changes may not be to every fan’s taste, but it’s not like the originals are going anywhere, and I can understand why certain changes have been made to make them more accessible for a new audience. And I must admit that some changes, like the lack of unit fuel in HW1, is something I actually kind of prefer, although I’d agree it does subtract another layer of strategy from the experience.

A real issue with the HW1 remaster, however, is that of formations. They’re just completely broken. In the original, formations, particularly for fighters or corvettes, were vital to combat efficiency. But in the remastered HW1, the formations simply don’t work. When combat is joined, any formation instantly breaks.

Now, due to the apparent balance changes in the remaster, this isn’t too big of a deal, but I do feel it leaves fighters feeling somewhat useless compared to the strike craft in the original. Without working formations, strike craft simply lack the effectiveness they originally possessed. Will formations be fixed, or is it simply an issue of the engine and transplanting HW2 features into HW1? (Perhaps due to HW2 using a squad based strike craft system?) Either way, it’s another reason why, as fantastic as the remastered HW1 looks, I’d still rather play the classic edition.

If you’re new to the Homeworld series, this collection is an excellent bundle. And if you’re an older fan, I’d still say it’s worth the purchase, if only for the convenience of the hassle-free classic versions. Plus, it’s a joy to see these wonderful games looking so damn good. It’s a real shame this collection doesn’t include Cataclysm and complete the set, but maybe it’s something we’ll see in the future.

Overall, this package offers a lot. It’s not perfect, and I hope they fix the issues with the HW1 remaster and perhaps make a few balance changes, but aside from those issues, it comes highly recommended.