Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Now Playing: Mad Max

Mad Max is a third person open world game based upon the famous movie franchise. Well, based upon the recent Fury Road, at least, aside from perhaps one or two nods to the original ‘trilogy’. But as with all the Mad Max films, the game acts as a standalone tale. It may reference certain elements of the most recent movie, but it’s largely disconnected in terms of narrative.

I’ve been a fan of the movies for a long time, so I always going to be interested in a Mad Max game. So is it a good Mad Max game? Well…yes and no. In terms of visuals and technical performance, Mad Max is pretty flawless. The open world captures the tone and beauty of the wasteland to a near perfect degree. And more importantly, even with everything set to Ultra, the game runs at a smooth 60FPS and barely seems to trouble my system.

I guess you could argue that’s because the world is mostly just an empty desert, but it’s a damn fine looking desert with an extremely impressive draw distance and a lot more variety in terms of terrain than you might expect. So yeah, the world is great. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of the harsh, Mad Max wasteland. And like all the best moments in the Mad Max films, the game has you partake in many, many, many on foot battles where you punch people in the face and slam them to the ground using wrestling style moves.

Wait, what? For a Mad Max game, it’s a little strange how much of it revolves around not driving. I get the need for variety. And I really don’t mind the on foot stuff…but there’s just so much more of it than the car based action, that it really baffles me. Outside of a handful of specific story quests, the only car based ‘objective’ type missions are the races and the convoys. It’s no surprise the convoy missions are by far the most enjoyable parts of the game, because it’s during these (sadly short) ‘road wars’ that you actually feel like you’re in a Mad Max movie.

But before we talk more about content, let’s talk about characters and narrative. Although not quite hitting the mark in the same way the open world does, the characters and narrative do feel very at home within the Mad Max universe. None of it is fleshed out to a great degree, although I did enjoy seeing and learning a little more regarding the various gangs of the wasteland.

The story keeps things ticking over and pushes you along, but it’s not the star attraction. It’s competent. It does the job. There’s nothing I can really praise…or complain about. The story is just sort of there. But honestly, I wasn’t expecting much in terms of story and it’s not really why I wanted to play Mad Max anyway. It was the world and the car based combat that interested me.

Which is kind of funny, because at the start of the game you lose your car and have to run about on foot for a bit. But this provides a neat hook for the player and a quest upon which Max must embark – to build the ultimate wasteland ride. I really liked this aspect of the game. You’ll be able to switch between various car chassis, and then further customise various aspects of them ranging from the engine, suspension, armour, rams, spikes, colours and lots more. You’ll unlock new components as you advance through the game allowing you to build your perfect machine.

Which is why it’s such a damn shame you mostly use this perfect machine to simply travel between A and B, and then get out to punch things in the face. For all the fun I had customising my car, I rarely felt like I got to use it beyond travelling from one location to the next. Now, travelling is still fun, don’t get me wrong. The world is full of random encounters and potential road battles, but the game never gives us a proper road ‘war’ like we saw in Fury Road, or even the climactic chase of Mad Max 2…or even 3, for that matter – but let’s not talk about that one.

Which is why, although I liked Mad Max overall, I’m also really disappointed by it. It seems like such a strange oversight. I mean, the mechanics are there, in the game. The cars, the environment, the atmosphere…but it never lets loose and gives us a truly memorable or exciting road battle. The closest we ever come is the convoy missions of which there are only a handful and you can’t even replay. Hell, even the final story missions – a chance to build up to a truly epic and final road war – is just a slightly longer convoy chase, and not even on a larger scale.

So let’s talk about how Mad Max structures its content. You begin in the territory of a guy named Jeet. He controls 5 regions. In each region is a balloon you can use to (tediously) scout the area. There are between 2 or 5 enemy camps, several ‘scarecrow’ towers, a couple of minefields and a handful of sniper positions. Each region has its own ‘threat’ level. By tearing down scarecrows, killing snipers and taking down camps you’ll eventually reduce this threat to zero which…does something, I guess?

It seems like the thing to do though, so you’ll likely spend a bit of time travelling throughout Jeet’s territory and helping him take back control. And it’s pretty fun. There are only 3 or 4 different camp types, but each has a unique design. You take these camps down on foot by running in and punching everyone. These make up the bulk of what you might call the ‘meaningful’ content.

There’s also lots of small locations you can find and scavenge for scrap, which is essentially the currency of the game world. You’ll need it to upgrade your car and Max, although Max can also be upgraded by earning special tokens, although that whole system feels like a poorly tacked on and unnecessary afterthought.

After a time, you’ll effectively clear Jeet’s territory and the core missions will send you on to a new territory of 5 more regions. And that’s when you realise you’ve pretty much seen everything Mad Max has to offer. Because everything beyond this point is essentially the same content recycled in a new location. And it gets pretty tedious, to say the least.

Mad Max may offer a lot of content, but it’s largely bland, repetitive, recycled content. It’s filler. I wouldn’t say it’s bad filler, but it’s filler nonetheless. Now, you can argue that a lot of this content isn’t strictly necessary to progress, so if I got tired of doing it, then why didn’t I stop? But the problem with that argument, is that if I did ignore this mostly optional, repetitive content, then what would I be left with? Not much of anything, really. Aside from a few unique story missions, Mad Max is 85% repetitive filler.

That said, I can’t deny I still enjoyed it. There’s something satisfying about clearing out the regions and hunting down every last piece of scrap. But ultimately, you’re really just doing the same 5 or 6 things, 5 or 6 times in every region of a territory, before doing the same 5 or 6 things, 5 or 6 times in the next five regions of the next territory. And then the next one. Yeah. So the content on offer isn’t exactly stellar, but if you don’t really care too much about the lack of variety or the repetition, then you’ll certainly get a good few hours of value out of Mad Max.

So let’s talk about the gameplay. This is split between on foot combat and car based combat. The on foot combat is styled on the ‘Batman’ system of counter and strike, but it’s the most basic version of this. It’s literally two buttons – counter and strike. You can do a roll, I guess, but that’s about it. It’s true there are other ‘moves’ you can unlock such as a shoulder charge, but none of these make the combat more dynamic or complex, and it’s often easier to just spam the attack button and counter when necessary.

You’ll eventually activate ‘fury’ mode where you hit…harder. You can pick up some weapons but these break after a few swings, and you can do a couple of finishing moves but overall, the on foot combat system is as basic as you can get. It’s also not at all challenging, even when the game throws a lot of guys on you at once. Hell, even the ‘Top Dog’ boss fights are disappointing, because every single one is exactly the same. They’re literally the same recycled guy, with the same attack pattern. I wouldn’t say the on foot combat is bad, but it lacks complexity, variety and challenge.

Which sort of applies to the car based combat too. I’m willing to cut this more slack, however, as there’s only so much you can do to make car based combat interesting and varied without it getting a little too silly. You’ll use your car to ram opponents, and upgrading elements of your car will make this more effective. You can use your shotgun to blast exposed fuel tanks, or your harpoon to rip pieces or even people out of their vehicles.

Given the speed of some of the chases in the game, particularly the convoy missions, the car combat is as complex as it really needs to be. And the game does a decent job of introducing new enemy car types as you progress. The problem with the car combat, as I’ve already said, is simply that there’s not enough of it. You’ll mostly be tangling with one or two vehicles at a time in the open world. The only larger scale car battles are the convoy missions.

I really don’t understand why the game never built up to or included any kind of road ‘war’ featuring dozens of vehicles on both sides. I mean, a big chunk of the game is about gaining allies by helping them take back their territory. But ultimately, it’s pointless doing so because it has no impact on how the game plays out.

Another disappointing aspect is that of survival. At the start of the game it seems like fuel and water will be in fairly short supply. Which makes sense for a Mad Max game. But you soon realise that fuel is literally everywhere in Mad Max. It also automatically replenishes whenever you revisit an upgraded stronghold. Now, I wouldn’t have wanted to be worrying about fuel all the time, because that would have taken a lot of the fun out of the driving, but it should have been of some concern. Instead, outside of the scripted search for fuel early in the game, I never had to refuel my car once.

If there was one word to best surmise how I feel about Mad Max, it would be – frustrated. I’m frustrated because the world is fantastic, and whilst the on foot and car combat is fairly basic, they certainly do the job. But beyond this, Mad Max offers a very repetitive experience full of recycled content. There were times I just had to take a break from it for a few days because I was getting sick of doing the same things over and over again. And because the story, whilst not bad, didn’t exactly hook me, I could have stopped playing it completely at any time and not really given a shit.

It would be pretty easy and cheap to slap a MEDIOCRE!/10 on this review, but I’d say Mad Max does just enough to rise above average. Just. Because there are moments when the game hits its stride, when everything clicks into place – you’re tearing across the wasteland, a warboy horde around you, ramming into other cars, using your shotgun on their fuel tanks, causing them to explode and flip into the air…it’s f**king glorious to watch and even more fun to play.

Why they didn’t do more of that and expand upon those elements and build up to some truly epic road wars simply baffles me. All the ingredients are there, they just go unused. Instead, they thought it would be better to have you spend 90% of your time running about on foot, punching people. In a Mad Max game. I just don’t get it.


Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Clayton Awards 2015

Game of the Year 2015 – The Witcher 3

I described The Witcher 3 as ‘bloated, messy, frustrating and wonderful. And for all its problems, it’s still one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played.’ There’s little more I can add. It’s not a perfect game. I could pick flaws in just about every area. But as a complete experience, The Witcher 3 is easily my Game of the Year. (Full Review)

Most Disappointing Game of 2015 – Fallout 4

I said I wasn’t disappointed by Fallout 4 in my review. That in many ways, it was exactly the game I expected it to be. But is that enough? Should the bar be set so low? In that sense, Fallout 4 is the most disappointing game I’ve played this year. Because ultimately, it couldn’t even rise above my low expectations.

I concluded my review by saying ‘Bethesda needs to step up its game’. And it really does. Although Fallout 4 has a few nice additions it takes far more steps back than it does forwards. It’s not a bad game. Far from it. But is this really the best Bethesda can do? (Full Review)

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Now Playing: Age of Charlemagne (DLC)

Age of Charlemagne is a new campaign DLC for Total War: Attila. Set at the dawn of the great medieval kingdoms, Charlemagne plays quite differently to the core game in terms of both battles and campaign. It’s a mini-expansion of sorts, featuring a new campaign map with 8 new playable factions.

As a piece of DLC, as opposed to a fully fledged expansion, AoC recycles many elements of the core game, most notably battle maps and voice work. This isn’t unexpected, but it may disappoint some who feel this period would have benefited from the full expansion treatment along the lines of Fall of the Samurai or indeed, Attila itself. But that’s not to say that AoC doesn’t come with a substantial amount of content, or that it doesn’t introduce any new features or mechanics of its own. The 8 playable factions all offer a fairly diverse range of campaigns based around their starting positions, unique event chains and faction bonuses. 

Unlike the core game, where I wasn’t particularly interested in playing as every single barbarian horde, AoC actually makes each of its factions feel unique enough to the point that I’m interested in eventually playing them all. And if you do, you’ll get good value out of AoC. For this review, I completed two ‘Short’ campaigns, both of which I enjoyed for different reasons, and each campaign took roughly 10-15 hours to complete.

There are two major changes to the campaign in AoC. The first is the mechanic of War Weariness. It seems like a strange introduction given the name of this series, but it’s a smart inclusion that also changes diplomatic AI in a positive way. Essentially, the more wars you’re involved in, the more negative effects will stack up in terms of penalties to public order and morale.

There are ways to combat this by making peace, or by winning battles – after all, your people and soldiers won’t be so tired of war if you’re the one winning. It introduces an interesting dynamic to the campaign, especially compared to the core game, where it seemed like an endless war on all fronts. It also changes the behaviour of the campaign AI, which is more interested and willing to make peace, sign non-aggression pacts and maintain its existing borders rather than aggressively targeting the player.

The downside to this, however, is that it can make the campaign a little too easy. I can’t say this applies to every faction, but in the two I played, it was far too easy to manipulate the AI with alliances or non-aggression pacts to keep them sweet until I was ready to invade. It allowed me to take my time and pick and choose my targets as I pleased, as opposed to the core game, where I’d usually be under threat on all sides.

The other major change to the campaign is how it handles victory conditions. Victory conditions are now tied entirely to ‘Imperium’. Unlike the core game, you don’t simply earn imperium by winning battles or expanding your borders, but also by researching various technologies or by constructing certain buildings. This means that it’s entirely possible to ‘win’ a campaign in AoC without ever expanding your borders or going to war.

I can’t say if this would work for every faction, because not all begin with a substantial piece of territory, but for those that do, it seems theoretically possible to play a fairly ‘peaceful’ campaign in AoC by purely focusing on technology and settlement construction. I actually completed my second campaign by doing just that. Once I’d expanded my borders to a size I was happy with, I focused on research and construction to push my imperium over the victory limit.

It was a change I wasn’t too sure about at first, but I’d say it’s the best new mechanic of this DLC, and I hope it’s something we see more of in the future. Unlike the typical ‘take X amount of regions’ conditions of previous games, this new system allows the player to approach their campaigns, even with the same faction, in different ways. I think it could probably be tweaked and improved further (such as strong military/marriage alliances having an impact on imperium too) but it’s a good first step.

So the campaign side of AoC has some interesting new mechanics and gameplay dynamics, but what about the battles? As I’ve already said, the battle maps are recycled from the core game, which is a little disappointing, if understandable. But each faction does have an entirely new roster of units. Sort of. This is an area that may prove a little more divisive, because each faction has a very similar roster in terms of unit types and upgrades.

The rosters also aren’t particularly extensive, which means that regardless of which faction you choose, your army composition will likely be largely the same. I’m sure some people will be disappointed by that, but it seems to be an intended design decision, especially when you take into account the rebalancing of unit health.

It means that battles in AoC have more in common with those in Shogun 2, than with the core game. The rock-paper-scissors dynamic is far stronger in AoC, with a more uniform unit balance between every faction. As a fan of Shogun 2, I actually quite liked this aspect, although those looking for more diversity in terms of units may find it lacking.

Overall, AoC is a solid and enjoyable piece of content that’s comfortably worth its asking price. In some ways it’s a shame it’s only a DLC, because the limitations are clear to see, but nevertheless, it offers enough new content and interesting mechanics to make it worth your time. It’s a good example of DLC ‘done right’, and I hope to see more like it in the future of this series. And maybe, just maybe, AoC is laying the foundation for a possible Medieval 3. Wouldn’t that be neat?


Monday, 14 December 2015

Total War: Arena (BETA)

When I first heard about a free to play, ‘MOBA style’ Total War spin-off I wasn’t really sure what to think. It wasn’t something that interested me a great deal and honestly, I kind of expected it to be a bit pants. But after watching some streams of Total War: Arena over the last few weeks, I decided to give it a try. And to my pleasant surprise, it’s actually pretty fun.

So how does it play? You have two teams, each comprised of 10 players, and each player controls 3 units of troops. The goal is to eradicate every enemy unit, or to capture the enemy base. You might think that a public/random 10v10 battle of that scale might translate into a poorly coordinated clusterf**k. And it does happen, on occasion. But in the 10 or so hours I’ve put into the game so far, it’s actually pretty rare.

This is because Arena is quite cleverly designed in terms of maps, player starting positions, and the unit limits. It’s a game which, even when playing with random strangers, is designed to encourage and reward cooperation and coordination. Team based support and strategy feels like a natural aspect of Arena. Players just tend to work together – primarily out of necessity.

If you’re fielding three units of archers, for example, you’ll want to stick close and support another player fielding infantry. You can screen their advance, whilst they protect you. With only three units to field, you can’t tackle everything alone or be everywhere at once. You rely on your team to engage, support, flank and defend.

Although the Beta only has a limited map selection, every map feels pretty balanced and neatly designed to support this natural team based play. They each have three main routes for players to advance – left flank, right flank and central. You’ll generally either advance along or defend one of these three passages with two or more of your team.

This tends to stop battles in Total War: Arena from becoming a Total Mess. Players are forced to spread out to cover every approach. Battles usually begin with small skirmishes as each team probes for a weakness in the enemy lines. Smaller battles then begin all across the map, players naturally supporting one another out of necessity. But individual engagements are only part of a larger whole – even if you’re not winning on the left flank, your team mates on the right may have broken through enemy lines, forcing the enemy you’re engaged with to retreat and reform.

And it’s pretty fun. I’ve had some really enjoyable battles in Arena. Without the need for any voice or text chat, players just naturally work together. To accompany this post, I’ve also released my first piece of video content. It’s a battle from Arena where you can not only see the game in action, but see how the game encourages and rewards good team play. You can view it here.

So what does Arena offer in terms of content? You can pick your troops from three cultural groups – Roman, Greek and Barbarian. These break down into different types of infantry, ranged, or cavalry units. Each cultural group has different Commanders to select. These provide unique abilities you can confer to your troops. For example, one Commander provides a bonus to ranged units, whilst another is more suited to cavalry.

Each Commander will ‘level up’ by increasing their abilities, and ranking them up also unlocks new tiers of troops. Your units can also be customised and improved by spending experience and ‘silver’ on new weapons and armour. There’s also an option for cosmetic customisation, although I haven’t unlocked anything in that category yet.

Given that Arena is a free to play title, I suppose the concern is going to be about its microtransactions and if they’ll make the game ‘pay to win’ when it eventually releases. Right now, I honestly can’t say. There are some units you can buy with ‘Gold’ which is the purchasable currency of Arena, but I don’t know if/how you can buy these units normally. It was possible to earn Gold by playing matches in an earlier build of the game, but that’s currently disabled for testing.

All I can say, is that I’ve been able to rank up three of the available Commanders to tier 4-5 and fully upgrade their troops without any real trouble or grind. You earn silver and unit/commander experience with every battle, all of which adds up and can be spent to increase your rank or upgrade equipment/abilities. I don’t know how/if this will change in the future. But in its present state, I can’t accuse Arena of being anywhere near ‘pay to win’.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Total War: Arena. It clearly still needs work in terms of new maps and content, in addition to some balancing between certain units and abilities, but it seems to be getting fairly regular updates even in the short time I’ve been playing it. That said, I’m not quite sure what the long term appeal will be.

Although I’ve enjoyed my time with it, it’s not something I feel desperate to play or seriously addicted to. For me, Arena isn’t much more than a fun little diversion between playing other titles. But it’s something I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Now Playing: Hearts of Stone (DLC)

Hearts of Stone is the first expansion for The Witcher 3. It’s not set at any particular ‘moment’ with regards to the core story, but it’s intended to played at a high character level of 30+, so you’ll likely be tackling this content after completing the main game. You can, however, jump straight into this content with a custom level 30+ character if you wish, which is a nice touch.

Without spoiling too much, the core quest line of Hearts of Stone begins with what appears to be a fairly standard monster contract, but quickly transforms into something far more complex. It’s a decent tale, not quite up to par with the best quest lines of the base game, but it’s a solid and enjoyable adventure nonetheless.

You have a series of main quests which will spin off into several related side missions. This is in addition to a few non-related side quests including some new ‘treasure hunts’ and several new points of interest to explore, all neatly incorporated into one of the existing open world maps. There’s also new weapons and armour to buy, craft or loot, including a new system for weapon and armour upgrades. If you complete absolutely everything, Hearts of Stone should offer around 10-15 hours of content, which is fairly reasonable value at its RRP.

Having jumped into Hearts of Stone from Fallout 4, it was refreshing to play some quests which didn’t simply revolve around murdering everything. Hearts of Stone has a good variety of quests to undertake, such as attending a wedding whilst possessed by an amorous ghost, or assembling a skilled crew to take part in a heist. It doesn’t quite hit any emotional notes, but it did make me laugh more than once.

If it’s combat you like, however, Hearts of Stone does offer some new enemy types, including a series of pretty enjoyable boss fights. One of my main criticisms of The Witcher 3 was that it didn’t have many memorable boss style encounters. Hearts of Stone addresses this issue with several boss fights, each of which is unique and enjoyable in their own way, forcing you to use different potions, signs or tactics to prevail. And if you’re playing on a higher difficulty, they will certainly give you a decent challenge.

The only real issue I have with Hearts of Stone is that none of it feels particularly ‘essential’. Whilst it’s true that the content is good and offers fairly decent value, it’s also true that you won’t really miss anything important or fantastic if you do decide to skip it. There’s nothing here so outstanding that makes it an essential purchase. It’s good, but it’s really just more Witcher 3.

And that’s okay, as far as I’m concerned. It was nice returning to the game and embarking on a neat little adventure. It’s not a substantial piece of content, and it’s not something I’d say you definitely need to play, but if you’ve finished the core game and would like more to do, you really can’t go wrong with it. Hopefully the second upcoming expansion, which is supposed to be a larger piece of content, can take that extra step and provide an experience that you really won’t want to miss.


Saturday, 5 December 2015

Gaming / Blog Update

I thought I’d do a quick post just to lay out what I’ve got planned for December. I picked up The Witcher 3 Hearts of Stone DLC in the recent Steam sale. I’ve already played it, and the review should be up within the next few days. I also bought Mad Max, which I’d intended to play before Fallout 4 but just didn’t have the time. I’m currently working my way through this one, but hope to have a review up in a week or two.

Following that, I’ll likely be picking up the Age of Charlemagne DLC for Total War: Attila and hope to have a review of that up either later this month or in early January. I’ll be doing another ‘Clayton Awards’ at the end of the year, and I’m thinking of doing a ‘Top 10’ post of some kind because they’re always good filler posts when you run out of other ideas.

I’m also looking at updating some of the older blog posts and merging some of the multi-post game reviews. I don’t know if I’ll get around to that this month though. And maybe I’ll get another writing/project update out before the end of the year. Maybe.