Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Attila: First Impressions

As I did with Rome 2, I thought I’d post my early impressions of Attila before I do a full review. These impressions are based on 10 hours of play in which I completed the tutorial Prologue campaign, all of the Historical battles and several custom battles. I’ll talk about each in turn, and also a little about performance.

Beginning with a defensive siege battle, the Prologue really hammers home the core theme of Attila – survival. As you would expect, it teaches you the basics of battle and campaign management before slowly expanding to include all of the new features of Attila including the Horde system.

 
I spent about 4 hours playing through this prologue which is mostly scripted, but does offer the player opportunities to experiment. The prologue is also where I hit my first bug. At one point it just wouldn’t progress to the next scripted sequence, forcing me to reload an earlier save.

As a tutorial, it does its job and I have to say, some of the battles I fought, particularly a lengthy, desperate defensive siege against an army of Huns (resulting in a valiant defeat) was more intense, atmospheric and enjoyable than any of the sieges I’ve had in Rome 2. On the campaign side, the combination of the family tree with a refined version of the political system introduced in Rome 2 creates what feels like the most in-depth Total War campaign yet. Obviously, I’ll need more time with the system, but I liked what I saw a lot.

In addition to the Prologue, I also played through the 9 Historical battles. These are mostly land battles with a sea and siege battle also thrown in. They’re all good fun and offer a varied mix, but replayability is somewhat limited. Finally, I played some custom battles to test the AI and also push my system performance.

 
The AI, so far at least, appears solid and competent. It seems like a small step up from Rome 2 which is pretty much what I expected. I haven’t seen it do anything stupid, and it has managed to surprise me a few times too, especially when it comes to how it uses its cavalry. The only AI bug I saw was when I tried to push the AI to its limit. Maybe it wasn’t very fair, but I wanted to see how it would react.

In a custom siege battle I gave the AI a couple of battering rams, 4 siege towers and some catapults. It began the siege by using the catapults to attack my gates. So, using some heavy catapults of my own, I destroyed its artillery. The AI responded by advancing with the rams, smartly spreading out its troops into loose formation to reduce casualties. But, before it could reach my gates, I destroyed the rams. The AI then retreated back to the towers and began to load up its men. I was very impressed by this. But this is when it seemed to hit a bug.

With the loss of its artillery and rams, it didn’t seem to know quite what to do next. The map I was fighting on didn’t allow for the towers to simply be wheeled up to the walls (it had a moat) so the AI just seemed to stop. If you’re worried that the Attila AI has Rome 2 release issues though – don’t be. This was the only time I saw it ‘break’ as such, and like I said, it wasn’t exactly a fair test. I’m not sure what a human player could have done in this situation either, other than to retreat.

 
Okay, onto performance. Like Rome 2, the benchmark utility isn’t very accurate as it tries to create an ‘extreme’ situation. Using my custom settings which you can see in one of the screens in this post, I get about 40FPS on the benchmark, but in the actual game I get a very consistent 40-50 in battles with a solid 60 on the campaign map. I could probably improve upon this quite a bit if I switched off the 4xMSAA, but I think it looks a lot better with it on and I’m happy for the trade off.

I did a custom battle test to really push my system – a massive siege battle with a 20v20 in Constantinople and it dropped to about 20-30 when I was zoomed into the streets. Zoom out, and it jumped back to 40 or so. Overall, I’m pretty happy with it and the game looks fantastic, especially the new lighting, weather and fire effects. I do think it could be improved upon in terms of performance, but it’s very solid on release. In terms of bugs, aside from the Prologue issue and that single incident of the Siege AI, I’ve had no problems and not a single crash. Load times are fast, as are turn times.

It’s still early days, and I’m yet to begin a full campaign, but I’m feeling quite positive about Attila. It feels like the game we all wanted Rome 2 to be. I’ll probably do another post soon to talk about my first campaign as the Western Roman Empire.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Now Playing: Metal Gear Rising

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is a third person action game developed by Platinum Games. I think it ties into the Metal Gear universe but exactly where, when or how is something I honestly can’t answer. It feels more like a spin-off title – certainly in terms of gameplay, but perhaps also in tone in terms of story.

I’m not at all familiar with the world of Metal Gear. As I mentioned in my recent Steam Sale Damage Report, I’ve never played a Metal Gear title, so my knowledge of its world and ongoing story is extremely limited. That said, Rising isn’t a game where such knowledge is particularly required.

As you may expect from Platinum Games, the story of Rising is rather bonkers and certainly not to be taken seriously. It keeps things simple, presenting the player with a clear goal and motivation. And that’s really all it needs. But, if you’re a fan of the core series, there are a lot of optional conversations you can listen to via your codec menu which I’m sure delve more into the world of Metal Gear and how it relates to the events of Rising.


So – forget the story. It’s honestly not very important. It exists purely to drive you through several varied levels and numerous boss fights. You control Raiden, a cyborg-ninja with a very sharp sword. The gameplay is primarily focused around combat. You’ll be fighting humanoid cyborgs, but also a variety of very large robots. You have light and heavy attacks which can be chained together for combo strikes. You also have a ‘blade mode’ which momentarily slows time allowing you to line up precision strikes with your sword.

In addition to this, you also have a ‘ninja-run’ which can be used to evade attacks and traverse the environment. It also allows you to perform a light sword or sliding attack on the move. There’s no ‘block mechanic’ as such in Rising and the ninja-run isn’t quite the ‘dodge’ ability you may expect it to be. Instead, you have a ‘parry’ system. This allows you to deflect an enemy attack and create an opening for your own.

One of the things you must learn whilst playing Rising is which attacks can be parried and which cannot. It’s a bit of trial and error at first, but after a short time it becomes fairly obvious which are the ones to avoid. Once you sufficiently weaken an enemy, entering blade mode allows you to slice that enemy into numerous tiny pieces. It’s about as messy as you’d expect and extremely satisfying. What’s more, the majority of enemies contain an item you can extract by slicing them open and ripping it out with a QTE. This item replenishes your health and energy.

The combination of these mechanics results in a fast paced combat system with the emphasis very much on offence. So many third person action games I’ve played over the last few years seem more tailored around a slower system of evade and counter-attack, but in Rising, it’s quite the opposite.


In addition to your sword, you will also find secondary weapons such as different grenade types and launchers which can be incorporated into your strategy. They’re not strictly necessary, but they can give you a quick edge in a fight – such as using an e.m.p grenade to stun a group of enemies. There’s also a basic ‘stealth’ element to Rising, which feels a little out of place. You can instant-kill enemies you sneak up on, but in certain areas you can also use a form of mobile cover (a box or a barrel) to move undetected. It’s a bit silly, but I suppose it’s something of a nod towards the other Metal Gear games more than anything.

There are eight levels in all, although the structuring is a little strange. The opening level serves as a basic tutorial as you’d expect, with the next four being fairly lengthy and varied in terms of environments, enemies and mini-bosses. But the final three levels are all very short, two of which are essentially just boss fights. It does leave the game feeling like it was rushed to completion. Speaking of boss fights though, Rising is a game built around these boss encounters and I’m pleased to say they are all entertaining in their own way.

Whereas many games struggle with the notion of a boss fight, many even abandoning the concept, perhaps feeling it is outdated and unnecessary (and for many titles I’d certainly agree), Rising embraces the tradition of the boss fight wholeheartedly. The game really is a series of boss encounters, each with its own distinct style, strategy and challenge. They are, overall, very well designed. The final boss in particular is excellent, with multiple stages to fight through. It’s one of the few times I’d actually use the word ‘epic’ to describe something, without worrying about sounding like a complete twat.

I must admit though, I wasn’t all that taken with Rising at first. I played through the first couple of levels and I can’t say I was enjoying it all that much. In fact, I found it all rather frustrating. Part of the problem is the ‘tutorial’ level, which is very short and doesn’t really give the player a chance to practice. As a result, I just button-mashed my way through the levels without really understanding the parry system. And understanding the parry system really is key to Rising.


So I quit my game, swallowed my pride, and restarted on easy with the parry assist enabled. I then practised for twenty minutes or so in this mode until I felt I had a good grip on how the system worked. Once I did, I restarted with the assist switched off and suddenly it was like playing an entirely new game. Enemies that I’d had trouble with before were now cut to ribbons in mere seconds. Once you become proficient with the parry mechanic, you almost feel unstoppable.

It was then that I really started to enjoy Rising, zipping about the levels and cutting my enemies to pieces. The more I played, the more familiar I became with the various combos allowing me to juggle and slice my opponents in the air or, my personal favourite – sliding beneath them and cutting them in half from below.

The gameplay of Rising is frantic and fast paced, but button mashing won’t really get you anywhere. Yet as hectic as it can become, with missiles flying all over the screen and explosions rocking the ground, you always feel very much in control. This is because Rising doesn’t needlessly overcomplicate its controls, ensuring the player is free to focus on the action second to second.

In all, it took me about eight hours to complete Rising, but it’s a game with a decent level of replay value in terms of varying difficulty modes, collectibles to find and upgrades to purchase. It also contains a lot of single ‘VR’ missions which serves as a sort of challenge mode. Overall, Metal Gear Rising is an excellent third person action game. I can’t say if it’s an excellent Metal Gear game, but I’m not sure that really matters. Forget the story, forget the name and just revel in the thrilling, bloody, fast paced combat. Recommended.

8/10

Friday, 13 February 2015

Friday

Ahead of schedule, QOTSS is now complete. I’ve already invested quite a bit of time in editing, refining and polishing each of the four parts, so this draft is fairly solid and shouldn’t require too much extra work. I’ll now be turning my attention towards my e-books. If all goes to plan, I hope to have the updated versions uploaded in a month or so. And I’ll probably do a free promotion on a couple of them, so look out for it.

In gaming news, I have reviews written for those two Metal Gear games I picked up in the sale. They’ll be coming up soon. And next week Total War: Attila is released which I think I’ll pick up. I’ve watched several hours worth of streams of the game and I’ll watch a few more now reviews are starting to drop. After Rome 2 I’m naturally a little wary, but everything is looking quite positive.

Aside from that, I’ve still got Assassin’s Creed 4 in my backlog and…yeah, there’s not much else on the horizon I can say I’m waiting for. The Witcher 3 is due out in May. Hopefully Attila and AC4 will keep me occupied until then. I might even do some retro reviews along the way if I’m not too busy.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Now Playing: Valiant Hearts

Valiant Hearts is a narrative driven puzzle game set during the Great War. We don’t see many games tackle this conflict, which is one of the reasons I was interested in the title. The game follows several characters throughout the course of the war (including a dog!). Switching between these characters, you guide them through four chapters solving puzzles to progress.

Built with the same engine as the gorgeous Child of Light, Valiant Hearts employs a detailed, cartoon style. This style may be a matter of personal taste, but I thought it looked great, although it does lead to certain issues which I’ll discuss later. The wonderful visuals are complemented by a lovely soundtrack. In terms of its characters and story, Valiant Hearts sadly falls a little flat, not because the characters and story aren’t well told, but because of the gameplay.

 
Valiant Hearts isn’t a difficult game, but it’s a game where you’ll probably die a lot. Many ‘action’ segments have numerous instant-death moments, turning them into a rather irritating trial and error system. Checkpoints are frequent, so death isn’t really a concern, but this stop-start nature to the game (where death is a frequent minor annoyance) somewhat undermines its narrative. As I said, it’s not difficult. The action segments are mostly a matter of paying attention and learning the patterns of falling bombs and enemy fire. And the puzzle sections, which make up the bulk of the gameplay, are incredibly simplistic to the point of tedium.

In addition to the action and puzzle segments, there are also ‘chase’ sequences which play like a really awful flash or mobile game. Oh, and for one character, you also have repetitive and pointless QTE sequences. Valiant Hearts is just incredibly boring to play, there’s no other way to say it. Towards the end, during what should have been an exciting final action sequence, I very nearly dozed off. And no, I’m not exaggerating.

During this ‘action’ sequence, like the many before it, the gameplay simply involves moving your character from the left of the screen to the right whilst avoiding enemy fire. You move a few feet. You stop. You move a few feet. You stop. That’s all the ‘action’ segments essentially are. They are great to look at, but completely un-engaging to play, and this is why it’s so hard to connect to the characters and narrative.

 
There are a couple of more interesting action moments throughout the game, including a couple of ‘boss’ type fights, but these are sadly few and far between. But Valiant Hearts is a puzzle game at its core. If we ignore the poor action segments, the terrible chase scenes and the tedious QTE nonsense, how does it hold up in terms of its puzzles? Oh dear.

As I’ve said, the puzzles are incredibly simplistic. Aside from one or two moments where you actually have to stop and think, examining your environment and switching between characters to make use of their unique skills, the vast majority of ‘puzzles’ are just dull, pointless filler. A great example of this is the ‘escape’ from a POW camp as it conforms to the same repetitive template as many of the puzzles in the game.

You need to acquire a particular item to escape. You move through the camp encountering people who also all desire a particular item. Eventually, you find person ‘A’ - the start of the chain. From them you are given an item for the next person in the chain. You take this item to person ‘B’ who then gives you another item to take to person ‘C’ and so on until you gain the particular item you need. And that’s it. You just walk from one person to the next exchanging items. It’s not challenging or clever. It doesn’t tie into the narrative at all. And this feeling of unnecessary padding persists throughout Valiant Hearts.

The game also has a lot of problems with regards to tone. It has this colourful, cartoon style which initially seems as if it’s pushing towards a more comedic element – especially when you meet the ridiculous, over the top, villain of the piece. It doesn’t seem like it’s supposed to be taken very seriously. It’s like a stylised, hyper-exaggerated portrayal of the Great War. Only then, suddenly, the game will shift tone and expect us to take it seriously, only to shift sharply back again as you jump into a silly flash game chase sequence with upbeat music. This issue is further compounded by the ‘history’ pieces which pop up in relation to events in the game.

 
This creates a horrible clash of tone. You’re fighting in a battle before which the game solemnly lists how many men died in, only to shove you into this cartoon landscape where there’s no real sense of risk or threat because death is only a minor inconvenience, and where everything is exaggerated to a silly degree. I’m really not sure what tone the game is going for because it’s all over the bloody place.

Although I liked its style, music and choice of setting, there’s not much else I can say that’s good about Valiant Hearts. It does have a few decent puzzles and action segments here and there, but overall, it’s a tedious, badly paced and tonally inconsistent mess. It’s also only about 5 hours long with zero replay value unless you like searching for pointless collectibles.

The story does have a few touching moments, but it’s really hard to care when the gameplay is so bloody dull. It feels like the developers had a story they wanted to tell, but didn’t know how to translate that into gameplay, so we’re left with a hodgepodge of dull action, simplistic puzzles, a dumb driving mini-game and horrible QTE sequences.

By the time I reached the end of the game, all I felt was relief that the ordeal was over. In that respect, I suppose you could argue that the tone fits perfectly. I really wish I could recommend Valiant Hearts on its style and setting alone, but that’s sadly not enough when weighed against how tedious it all is. It’s not a terrible game. It has its good moments, as rare as they are. And it’s certainly not one of the worst games I’ve played, but it’s definitely one of the most boring.

5/10