Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Metal Gear Solid V: First Impressions

My initial impressions of MGSV weren’t great. Before I’d even started the game I had to skip through what seemed like an endless list of ‘online information’, including reports of game breaking bugs and what not to do at specific points in order to stop the game from totally f**king up.

It seems these issues have been resolved in a recent patch, but it’s not the most reassuring thing to see when you start up a new game you just paid 45 quid for. It also doesn’t help that the game has a habit of crashing on start-up when trying to connect to its servers. Thankfully, once you get beyond the initial start-up and information screens, the game runs flawlessly.

On a technical level, MGSV is very impressive. I’m playing with everything cranked up to max and I’m getting a constant 60FPS. In the 20 hours I’ve sunk into the game so far, I’ve not seen it dip once. I’ve also not hit any bugs or glitches, or experienced a single in-game crash.

I wouldn’t say it’s quite the best looking open world game I’ve ever played, but it looks pretty damn fine with some impressive scenery, character and environment models. This isn’t a great surprise, however, considering we’ve already had a ‘preview’ of MGSV in terms of graphics, gameplay and technical performance in the form of Ground Zeroes.

GZ was a very limited slice of MGSV and looks, plays and performs almost identically. I was, however, pleased to see that they’ve really upped the view distance in MGSV, as this was one of my main issues with GZ – particularly when observing locations at range to tag enemy guards. If you’ve read my GZ review you’ll know I quite enjoyed it from a gameplay perspective, although I questioned the value of such limited content.

That’s not a criticism I could make about MGSV, at least so far. Because from what I’ve currently seen, MGSV is packed with content. Even if you only focus on primary missions and objectives, there’s a lot of hours of play to be had. But with additional core objectives and numerous side ops to complete, not to mention a high degree of mission replay value, MGSV gives you a hell of a lot of value.

The game opens with a tutorial prologue chapter which I didn’t really enjoy. The first 10-15 minutes are great, but the rest of it is badly paced and simply not very fun to play. I was glad when it was over. But even once I’d jumped into the first proper missions, I still wasn’t quite sure I’d like MGSV. It’s a game I took a good 8 hours or so to really warm to.

Part of the problem, for me, is that you’re very limited early on in the game in terms of available content. I understand the need to ease the player into new features one at a time, but it does make the first few hours of MGSV feel quite restrictive. You feel like you’re locked into an extended tutorial which gets a little irritating.

But slowly, MGSV opens up and lets you play with its toys. And once it does, it’s great fun! You have primary missions which, if you only focus on core objectives, take anywhere from 15-30 minutes to complete, depending on how you approach them. These missions also have multiple additional objectives. They don’t quite take place in the ‘open world’ as such, but within a locked ‘zone’ of it.

But you can visit the open world any time you wish and this is where you’ll find the side ops. You don’t get graded on these missions and there’s only a handful you can replay, but there does seem to be a lot of them. Mission variety could be considered something of an issue, as your objectives, primary or not, will usually be to eliminate or extract a specific target – be it a person or object. It’ll be interesting to see how/if the game introduces new mission types or mixes the formula up.

And honestly, outside of the missions, I’ve not felt any great desire to simply explore the open world because the missions do a good job of taking you to every location as you progress. So far, missions have taken me to various locations multiple times for different objectives, which can get a little repetitive, but also encourages an alternative approach.

And that’s really where the fun in MGSV is – the freedom the player has to approach missions as they choose. Although limited early on, you’ll begin to unlock all manner of weapons, tools and equipment. It’s like a fantastic toy box which always has something new to discover. Although top ranking on core missions requires a more stealth based approach, you can replay these missions as much as you want to try various weapons and tactics.

Combat is a viable strategy and a lot of fun, if perhaps, as I said in my GZ review, a little too easy. MGSV is a game that requires a degree of player investment to make the most of the tools on offer. It encourages and rewards creativity with some of the most fun sandbox gameplay I’ve seen. The first time I unlocked the extraction balloon, I must have spent 2 hours replaying the first mission capturing every soldier I could find.

The stealth gameplay of MGSV is also great fun, perhaps even more so than a combat based approach. Sneaking into a base, planting charges, extracting a prisoner or target and then sneaking out without raising a single alarm is very satisfying. It’s also great fun when things don’t quite go to plan and all hell breaks loose, which is why it’s advisable to have a back-up plan.

Simply in terms of its gameplay I’ve been having a real blast with MGSV so far. It took a little while to get going but once it did I was thoroughly hooked. So what are my current issues with the title?

The first is the story stuff. The prologue and a few missions have this odd, almost supernatural element to them which feels very out of place. Now, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not very aware of the MGS series in terms of characters or plot, so maybe this is something that’s a normal part of the series. I really don’t know. It just, so far at least, doesn’t feel like quite right. Other than that, I’ve not really played far enough to say much more.

We also have the Mother Base system, which is where you recruit personnel and develop new items. I’ve still not unlocked everything at MB, so I’ll reserve my judgement on it until the review, but at the moment it feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity, as the actual base is just a big, empty lot of nothing.

Okay, I’d better wrap this up. From what I’ve played so far, MGSV is a very impressive title. Despite my few issues, if it can maintain this level throughout the rest of the experience, we might just have another contender for my Game of the Year.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Gaming Update

I’m not expecting to post many reviews between now and the end of the year. The few games I’m planning to cover will each take a lot of time to complete – MGSV, Mad Max and Fallout 4. In fact, I’m playing MGSV already and despite putting nearly 10 hours into it, I’m only 4% complete according to the stats.

I was in a bit of a dilemma whether to get Mad Max or MGSV first. I was more interested in Mad Max in terms of the licence and setting rather than the gameplay. MGSV, on the other hand, I was more interested in purely from a gameplay standpoint thanks to my experience with Ground Zeroes. But I can’t honestly say I was all that interested in the narrative, world or character aspects.

In the end, I decided to get MGSV. I should have a First Impressions post of MGSV up soon. I’m not sure how long the full review will take because there’s a lot to the game. Once that’s out of the way, the plan is to move onto Mad Max, which hopefully I’ll have time to complete and review before Fallout 4 drops in November.

I can’t say I have high hopes for the title though. I mean, I expect it’ll be good in the same way Skyrim was good. And I’ll probably end up sinking a few hundred hours into it. But I just have this sad feeling that, like Skyrim, it will also be a rather shallow experience that will require mods to flesh out and fix. I hope I’m wrong.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Now Playing: Dying Light

Dying Light is a first person zombie survival (sort of) game set in the fictional city of Harran. Harran is a city under quarantine after the outbreak of a zombie virus. You play as Kyle Crane, a not very interesting good guy sent into the quarantine zone to track down a not very interesting bad guy who has stolen a secret file or something.

The city is divided into two maps, the latter of which you’ll unlock through story progression. Aside from that, you’re free to explore the world as you please, with only a handful of areas on each map inaccessible for story based objectives. You have the expected core quests which take you across each of the two maps as you try to survive and complete your mission. In addition to this you have a variety of side content and quests.

The core story quests do a good job of pushing you to every area of the city, both at day and night. These are fairly enjoyable and offer a decent level of variety, at least during the first half of the game. Unfortunately, the second half sees the story quests frequently devolve into dull shoot-outs in rooms full of bad guys with dumb AI.

The story is okay, I guess. It’s just sort of there, pushing you along, but you never really care too much. The main villain is suitably…villainous, I suppose, but not very interesting. And neither, really, is Crane. It’s all a little bland and far too serious. It’s really in the side content that Dying Light shines in terms of story and character.

The side content ranges from multi-stage, elaborate missions, to simple ‘go collect 10 herbs’. Yes. Because video game. There’s also a lot of challenges to complete based around movement or combat. I was worried the side content would be a lot of nothing. A long list of fetch quests that only serve to pad the game rather than enhance and enrich the experience. But that’s really not the case. Even the ‘collection’ quests can be quite fun, as you try to track down specific items, such as raiding pharmacies for medical supplies.

The side content is also where the characters come to life. The main story is a little too serious, but there’s a lot of humour and quirky characters to be found in the side stuff. I recall one escort quest as I guided a salesman through the city to deliver his product, all the while yelling NO REFUNDS! as he smashed zombies in the face.

A lot of the side content has this tongue in cheek style to it. Even Crane comes to life as he sarcastically agrees to help people with all manner of nonsense. It gives the game a wonderful sense of fun, which is certainly reflected in its gameplay. It’s why the main story stuff doesn’t quite work because tonally, it feels at odds with the rest of the game.

Dying Light has a Mirror’s Edge style parkour system for movement, which is also tied into combat. It’s not quite a ‘realistic’ system – I’m pretty sure falling 100ft into a pile of trash bags isn’t something you’d just walk away from. But the system makes traversing Harran a lot of fun as you leap and climb, and the city is designed in such a way that allows you to maintain your momentum.

This movement gets even more fun when you unlock the grappling hook, and Dying Light suddenly transforms into the best first person Spider-Man game you’ll probably ever play. The grappling hook, mechanically, makes no sense in the way that it works, but it transforms your movement throughout the city in a way that’s so damn fun you don’t want to go back. It also, it should be noted, make movement throughout the city far too easy, but we’ll return to the matter of difficulty later.

The movement system also has a combat element. As you progress through the game, killing zombies and completing quests, you’ll level up and earn points to purchase new skills revolving around survival, movement and combat. You have passive skills such as increased health or resistance to damage, but also new abilities like the aforementioned grappling hook or shoulder charge.

You can add a tackle to your slide ability, or gain the ability to boost yourself off a zombie and into the air. There’s also a brilliant running drop kick, which you can use to send a zombie flying into a group, knocking them down like skittles. All these abilities make traversing the world a lot of fun, so even when the quests have you running between A & B you’ll have plenty of ways to amuse yourself en route.

In addition to simply kicking enemies about, you also have a variety of weapons. Guns are in the game, but ammo is kept somewhat limited in terms of what you can carry. And it’s always worth carrying a rifle to deal with the rather dull ‘shooty’ bits. Against zombies, however, you’ll stick with melee weapons ranging from a plank with a nail, to a baseball bat, to an ornamental sword.

Combat has a wonderful sense of weight and impact. There’s also a decent dismemberment system as you chop zombies in half, or cut off their arms or head. Fighting zombies has never felt quite so satisfying – but also dangerous, at least during the early stages of the game. Zombies walk just fast enough to swamp you if you get stuck in a crowd, and they genuinely feel like a threat.

You also have ‘special’ zombie types to contend with. There are fast zombies, which can pursue you across the rooftops, but also large, lumbering brutes. These are probably the most irritating to fight as their hit detection is so messy. Several times I was ‘hit’ and knocked down by these guys even though I was several feet away, or had completely side stepped their attack. There’s also the exploding zombies which annoyingly lurk right behind doorways and kill you instantly.

I’ve never really been a fan of ‘special’ zombie types like this. I didn’t like them in Zombi and I don’t particularly care for them here. Even the ‘volatiles’, which only emerge at night, proved to be more irritating than scary. Throughout the world you’ll find traps you can activate to lure or kill zombies, and you can also carry and craft distractions which you’ll find useful if you need to move a large group away from an objective.

There’s a whole system of crafting in the game but it’s not something you’ll really use often, especially the weapon crafting. The idea is that you can modify existing weapons to carry particular effects such as burning or toxic, but I honestly never really bothered with it. If it was modifying weapons to say, add spikes to a bat or a silencer to a pistol, I’d have been more interested. As it is, the weapon upgrade and modification system just feels a little worthless, especially considering how quickly you break or discard your weapons.

Dying Light has a day/night cycle. The night is when the volatiles emerge. I think it’s meant to encourage a more ‘stealth’ based approach, but it’s often easier to just leg it through any trouble. There are only a handful of missions that require you to venture out at night anyway, which I’m kind of glad for. As I mentioned, I found the volatiles more irritating than scary.

Difficulty is certainly an issue as you progress. The game can be quite punishing early on, as your weapons are weak and won’t have yet unlocked many of your skills. This is where Dying Light really feels more survival focused. You have to stay on the move, not make too much noise, and tackle zombies with care. But as you progress, the game becomes far too easy, as you gain access to weapons and abilities that make you practically unstoppable.

It’s certainly fun, but the game loses that early sense of panic as you find yourself surrounded by a horde, or have to figure out how to lure a large group of zombies away. The early game of Dying Light really does capture that desperate struggle for survival quite nicely. Zombies are tough to fight more than one at a time, and night has a genuine sense of menace about it. It’s a shame that you lose this feeling as the game progresses, even if it becomes far more fun to play.

It’s a strange thing, I guess. I was having less fun at the beginning with my limited skills and weak weapons, but I was also far more engaged by every moment because there was a genuine sense of danger. Later, when I was upgraded and tooled up, I had far more fun, but there was no more sense of risk. The game does turn into something of a carnival sandbox as you slay zombies by the dozen in new and creative ways.

I would have liked more of the survival element to shine throughout the entire experience, particularly with The Tower – your main safe house. I’d have liked an almost State of Decay type system to recruit new survivors, unlock new facilities, or gather resources. As it is, The Tower is something you visit on occasion for story reasons or to sell stuff. It’s far too static an environment to make you care about the people living there. Even undertaking quests to support the The Tower doesn’t feel like it results in any tangible benefits or effects.

Overall, Dying Light is one of the best zombie themed games you can play. Simply in terms of its gameplay, it’s great. Where it lacks is with its largely bland characters and central story. You’ll have a lot of fun in the world, but you won’t ever really care about why you’re there.

I’m also a little disappointed by the lack of survival elements, as the game becomes far too easy as you progress and you no longer feel any sense of danger. It’s also a shame so many of the latter missions just turn the game into a mediocre FPS. Also, the final couple of missions are pretty lacklustre, and the game ends with an extremely lame QTE boss fight. Because we all love those. That said, if you like your zombie games, Dying Light is certainly worth checking out, if just for the sandbox gameplay alone.


Thursday, 3 September 2015

Black Ops 3 (BETA)

I didn’t know about this beta until it was nearly over, so I only put in about 6 hours of play, and the first of those was spent trying to make the game not look like total shit. The default graphic and control settings of this beta made it look like a blurry, washed out mess and handle like utter ass. Not exactly the best first impressions.

The graphic options are limited. Not terrible, but limited. But once I’d tweaked everything, I got the game running pretty smoothly and looking…okay. It’s not a bad looking game, but it’s not exactly going to blow you away either. Technical performance seems solid, however. I never noticed any frame drops and I only experienced one crash.

I’m not sure if I’ve written about my history with the CoD franchise. Well, there’s not much to say. I played and enjoyed the original CoD 1 & 2, but the only other game I’ve played in the series is MW2. I liked that game, mostly for its co-op mode, but I found the MP a bit of a mess. Fun, but a mess.

Jumping into the BOPS3 beta, it was interesting how instantly familiar it felt. I’ve not actually played MW2 for a long while, but this didn’t really feel any different. Movement, thanks to the wall running, boost jump and slide, feels far more zippy, but aside from that, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.

Which I guess is what people like. I mean, it’s not like CoD games don’t sell so it’s not surprising they take a ‘if it ain’t broke’ approach. Just like MW2, this is a very fast paced MP where you’re quick to die and quick to kill. It’s really a game of who shoots first, or rather, who spots who first. One short burst, and you’re dead. But you repsawn nearly instantly, and you’re never more than a few seconds away from the action.

Weapon recoil is non-existent. A lot of the time you can fire from the hip, even at mid-range, and still maintain a decent level of accuracy. Matches last anywhere from 5-10 minutes. They go by in a flash, the screen popping out with all sorts of different badges and shit whenever you seem to do anything. It’s not too distracting, but I’d rather they shove all that stuff into the post-match analysis.

It’s all very flashy, slick and fast paced and undeniably addictive and fun, at least for the few hours I put into it. But am I interested in buying it? Well…probably not. Like MW2, the combat has a system of rewarding those playing well by giving them weapons and abilities that can result in a complete domination.

In one game I racked up a few quick kills and unlocked my ‘special’ weapon for my chosen class. This is essentially a ‘one-shot’ weapon that racked me up even more kills and allowed me to unlock another killstreak – a missile barrage. The map I was playing on was mostly outdoors and my missiles killed the entire enemy team.

There’s no great skill to it. It’s a ‘rich get richer’ system and it can make matches become very one sided very quickly. I guess it’s part of the formula though, and people like it. And yeah, it’s kind of fun raining death down on everyone, but it still feels a bit cheap to me. So the combat isn’t quite to my taste. I don’t hate it. I had fun with it. But it’s hard to take it too seriously.

In terms of modes, I tried everything on offer, but not to an extensive degree. You have the standard team deathmatch, a domination mode, capture the flag etc. It’s pretty much what you’d expect. The only really interesting modes were an ‘escort the robot’ thing, which I had some fun with, and a ‘satellite uplink’ thing, which actually involves grabbing a ‘ball’ and trying to score in your opponents ‘goal’. That was pretty hectic, but fun. As you’d expect, the majority of players just stick to Team DM though, so all the other modes weren’t very active.

The game has a level system for each weapon which allows you to unlock different attachments. I really hate this, because it means whenever you want to try out a new weapon you have to grind out all the different sights and shit all over again. I don’t mind progression based systems in shooters and unlocking different weapons, classes, abilities or killstreaks is okay with me. But attachments? For every gun? Couldn’t they at least limit it to weapon classes? And in terms of weapons, the selection is solid but not particularly inspired. Like I said, if it ain’t broke…

My main issue with this beta is the maps. The maps are small and bland. Their design is fine, but aesthetically they’re just so generic and dull. Actually, their design isn’t quite fine, because none of those on offer in the beta feel suited to the wall running and boost jump abilities. There are only limited places where you can use these abilities. In a game like Titanfall, its maps were designed around its movement system. Here, they feel like an afterthought.

Several times when trying to boost onto a rooftop I found myself hitting an invisible wall, even though I had sufficient height. There are also many places when you think you can boost over some rocks or a low wall but instead hit an invisible barrier that knocks you back. It’s bloody ridiculous. The slide ability seems like a great addition…until you completely lose momentum at the end of it. The movement isn’t fluid enough, and trying to chain together wall runs (in the few places where it’s possible) just feels awkward.

So, what are we left with? A game with uninspired weapons. Uninspired maps. A bland, generic aesthetic. Basic, repetitive combat that lacks any serious skill or strategy. An irritatingly tedious unlock system that makes you repeatedly grind for the same equipment. And a movement system that feels out of place in a game not appropriately designed for it.

I still had some fun with it though, I must admit, but it doesn’t look like BOPS3 will be the CoD to bring me back to the series. It must seem like I’m shitting on it a bit, and I must say that I really don’t think it’s bad, just…very by the numbers. I think that’s the best way to describe it. It plays it safe with its formula, doesn’t take any risks and just ends up being rather mundane and forgettable.