Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Gaming Update

After finishing up Assassin’s Creed 4 and my second Attila campaign, I realised I didn’t really have anything new to play. But I didn’t want to jump straight into a third campaign, not with another content patch on the way.

I think I’ve said it before, but there’s not a lot coming out this year I’m really interested in. There’s The Witcher 3, of course – probably the game I’m most excited about. There’s also Grand Theft Auto 5 – if it doesn’t keep getting delayed. Oh, and the new Batman game, I guess, although I’m in no hurry for it. And…uh, yeah.

The Homeworld Remastered bundle is appealing, but I’m not sure I’ll like the changes they’ve made to Homeworld 1. And hell, if I really want to play Homeworld again, I’ve still got them all on my shelf, including Cataclysm which isn’t even included in the package.

I’d like to play Life is Strange and the Telltale Game of Thrones, but I’m not really fond of the episodic release format, so I think I’ll just wait until all the parts are out so I can play them through in one go. Back during the winter sale I was considering getting Dark Souls 2, but then I heard about an upcoming new edition with all the DLC and graphical upgrades/fixes. I might as well just wait for that.

So in the meantime, I figured I’d play some older titles on my consoles. I’ll be kicking off these retro reviews with two from the original X-Box – Otogi and Panzer Dragoon Orta. Once they’re done, I might play through some more X-Box titles, or maybe I’ll switch to something on Dreamcast or GameCube. I’ve certainly got plenty to keep me busy.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Now Playing: Black Flag

Another year, another Assassin’s Creed. Or two. Or three. How many will release this year? Was it two last year? On the same day? I’ve had mixed feelings about the AC franchise for a while now, as equally interested in the series as I am sick of the bloody thing.

So what keeps me coming back? Primarily, it’s the historical angle – periods not generally explored by this medium. If there’s one thing I can’t really fault in any of the AC games I’ve played, it’s the fantastic attention to detail of its settings.

The last AC game I played was 3. But as much as I liked the setting, the actual gameplay of AC3 was bloody dull, combined with a bland protagonist and story. It did introduce some very cool ship combat mechanics though, which someone fortunately realised the potential of and built an entire game around. 

Which leads us onto Black Flag. It’s as much a pirate game as it is an AC game. Although the Assassins vs Templars stuff is a significant part of the core story, the majority of the content is built around playing pirate, and aside from a few irritating stealth/tailing sections (nowhere near as annoying or frequent as in AC3 though) it’s far more of an action game with a focus on naval combat.


There are assassination side jobs you can choose to undertake, but the actual ‘assassin’ part of Black Flag feels barely there. Which was a good call, given the setting. Because unlike AC3, Black Flag handles its setting far more effectively when it comes to incorporating it into the story and gameplay.

Which sounds a little weird, because Black Flag also doesn’t really deviate from the AC formula. Or what you might call the ‘Ubisoft game template’ if you’ve also played Far Cry 3/4 or Watch_Dogs.

You have a world map, split into different areas. In each area you can climb a ‘high point’ to unlock the local map, revealing side content and collectibles. You have core story based missions in addition to various side activities. You also have an upgrade/crafting element – in this case for your ship, gear and pirate hideout.

And once again, a lot of this stuff is mostly filler and not very interesting. Upgrading the pirate hideout is just a money sink, as are many of the cosmetic ship options. The only upgrade components worth investing in are the ship combat upgrades, although all you really need is the upgraded mortars if you want to cheese some tougher fights. You can hunt animals to craft gear upgrades (extra pistols/ammo etc), but when it’s quicker to simply buy the items you need, it seems a little pointless.

What else? You’ve got stuff like the whale hunting which is a neat diversion the first couple of times, but then you’ll be tired of it. You can also dive sunken wrecks which is fun a few times, I guess. Oh, and there’s an entire ‘fleet’ mini-game thing where you can send ships you’ve captured on trade/combat missions. It’s Black Flag’s version of the ‘assassin’s guild’ missions of previous AC titles. But the rewards aren’t really worth the time it takes to bother with. It’s an irritatingly fiddly system which you’ll soon forget about. If it had actually tied into the core game in some way – such as engaging in fleet battles alongside your own ships, I might have cared to invest more time into it.


Collectibles. Lots of collectibles! I really wish they’d do something like in Arkham Asylum/City, where the collectibles actually required you to solve some kind of puzzle to collect and it tied into the story in some way. Hell, even Watch_Dogs incorporated unique collectible based missions such as the Serial Killer clues. But, as in previous AC titles, you just unlock the map revealing the locations of the collectibles and then you run about and pick them up. It’s a pointless time sink that puts even the hardiest OCD to the test. I think I lost patience around the 68% mark.

Disappointingly, this even extends to the treasure ‘maps’ you can find, all of which have the map coordinates printed on them! Why not make them a challenge to find? Or split them into multiple scraps which the player has to piece together? Or give us riddles to solve? Or something? Anything!

Oh dear, I’m starting to rant and I don’t want to give the impression I didn’t like Black Flag. Because I do! In fact, it’s probably the best AC I’ve played since AC2! And that’s the weird thing about it. It shares many of the same problems as AC3. The free running aspect is fine, although once again, it can go a bit wonky at times. The combat is the same slow and easy counter-based system which makes fighting a tedious breeze. Oh, and the side content is mostly pointless, repetitive filler. 

So why is Black Flag so much better than AC3? Well, as I said, it’s mostly because despite sharing the same template, it doesn’t quite feel like an AC game. It also makes far better use of its historical setting in terms of its core missions. It also, somewhat surprisingly, gives the player a lot of freedom to explore the map very early on.

And it’s about pirates! It’s a game where you play as a pirate doing pirate related things – sailing the ocean listening to your crew sing, fighting and boarding ships, attacking forts, raiding plantations, avoiding the authorities, exploring desert islands and sunken wrecks for treasure! Playing pirate is cool, and Black Flag captures that feeling well. It succeeds because it embraces its setting and theme and uses it to complement its gameplay in a way AC3 never did.

But it also succeeds in the way it handles its character and story, which are both far more engaging than in AC3 (although it does get a little muddled towards the end and feels a bit rushed). This even extends to the ‘real world’ segments, which were nicely placed throughout the game and I actually enjoyed a lot. Hell, I wish I could work at Abstergo Entertainment.


So let’s talk performance. Black Flag looks fantastic on its highest settings, but performance wise it’s wildly inconsistent. When I first ran the game, I was struggling to hit 60FPS, so I began to lower various settings until I got the game running smoothly. However, it all looked a bit rough around the edges, so I decided to continue tweaking until I found a happy balance.

To cut a long story short, I ended up just switching everything back to maximum and playing the game at 30FPS. It wasn’t ideal, but it sure looked pretty! But here’s where things get weird. The next time I started the game, on the same bloody settings, I got a smooth 60FPS (in the same location – I tested it). Great! But then, the next time I played, it dropped to 30. Since then, it seems to fluctuate between 40-60, occasionally locking at 30 for no apparent reason. I really don’t know what’s up with it. Like I said, it’s wildly inconsistent. It sure looks nice, though.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with Black Flag far more than I was irritated/frustrated by it. Although it suffers from many of the same issues as AC3 due to its adherence to the AC ‘template’ it manages to wrangle free of them thanks to its story, characters and enjoyable, diverse and interesting missions. But it still feels like there’s an even better game buried in here though, one which is struggling to escape what has become a very tired formula.

That said, Black Flag is a solid, enjoyable title, and certainly the best AC title I’ve played since AC2. Even if you’re not a fan of the series, I’d recommend it simply as a pirate game. Yo ho ho!

7/10

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Populous

Following my Wizard of Wor post, I thought I’d do something similar and talk about another important game from my childhood. That game is Populous.

Populous was the first ‘God’ game and was originally released in 1989 on the Amiga, but later ported to various systems, including the Sega Mega Drive. I came across the title in my local video rental store. I’m not sure of the exact year but I know it was around the time of the original Mortal Kombat console release – 1993.

Mortal Kombat was the game everyone was talking about and wanted to play. One way or another, I convinced my parents to rent the title for me. But after only a few short hours I was already rather bored of it. The ‘shock’ value of the title (at least at the time) wore off fast, and I didn’t really care for the combat. So I took the game back to the video store to swap it for something else.

On the shelf was a battered cardboard Sega Genesis box, which was a little weird to see in the UK. (On a fun little side note, when I first got my Mega Drive it came with a UK Sonic the Hedgehog box, but a Japanese game cartridge). The game on the shelf was, of course, Populous. I decided to give it a try.


In Populous you play a God. You have an isometric view of the world and using the ‘mana’ generated by your followers, you get to do all kinds of cool things like raise and lower the land, trigger earthquakes and explode volcanoes. Your goal is to lead your followers to victory against rival tribes and their own Gods, who can hit your own followers with similar destructive powers.

I got pretty hooked on the title. In fact, it’s probably the game that got me into strategy in general. Although regarded as a ‘God’ game, it’s a game with a lot of warfare as you create enough land for your tribe to advance, building castles and unleashing deadly knights. If it wasn’t for Populous, I probably wouldn’t be playing Attila right now.

For the next year or so, I had Populous on a semi-permanent rental. It’s not like anyone else wanted the game in its battered old Genesis box, not when games like Mortal Kombat were out there and people were talking about the upcoming PlayStation. But I loved it. And when the video store I’d been renting it from was going to clear out all of its old games ready for the PS release, I was able to convince the owner to sell it to me, I think for about 7 quid.

And I still have it today, preserved in its battered box with its £2.50 rental sticker on the cover. And yes, it still works. They sure don’t make hardware like they used to. Populous remains an addictive and enjoyable game, even today. Playing God isn’t really something that stops being fun.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Now Playing: Attila

I’ve already written a lot about Attila, so I’ll try to keep this short. Total War: Attila, in many ways, is the game we wanted Rome 2 to be. But it’s also the game Rome 2 could never be. This is because Attila builds heavily upon Rome 2, expanding and refining its mechanics, but also addressing many of the problems with those mechanics.

Rome 2, although improved since release, is still a game plagued by various design issues – features such as the political system which simply isn’t very interesting or in-depth. Attila doesn’t simply discard this flawed system, however. It builds upon it, combining it with the return of the family tree feature and creating what is the most interesting and engaging family/faction politics of a Total War title yet.

As I said, Attila feels like the game we wanted Rome 2 to be, but without the mistakes and missteps of Rome 2 to fix, develop, expand and refine, it wouldn’t be half as good as it is. To be frank, without the f**k up of Rome 2, we wouldn’t have Attila – which, having sunk more than 80 hours into the title already, I now regard as one of the best in the series.

 
But Attila is more than just a refinement of Rome 2 and to describe it as such, I think does it a great disservice. It’s a game very much with its own identity, and another reason why it stands apart from Rome 2. As I’ve said in my previous posts, Attila is a game of survival and it plays very differently compared to previous entries in the series. Obviously, it shares the common setting of the old Rome 1 Barbarian Invasion expansion, but that title never quite captured this period to such a great degree.

I’ve always felt some of the best titles in the Total War series are ones which focus their mechanics and style around a particular period or theme. Fall of the Samurai, for example, had this wonderful theme of traditional style versus modernisation. It captured the style and tone of the period perfectly, not only in terms of art or sound, but in gameplay mechanics.

Attila, set during the decline of the Roman Empire and the onset of the Dark Ages, also benefits from a focus on a particular theme – survival. Playing as either the Western or Eastern Roman Empires offers very different challenges, yet each share a common goal – simply to survive. To survive the onslaught of hostile migrating barbarian tribes, of the advancing Hunnic hordes, of rebellions and outbreaks of disease. Oh, and climate change.

This is a world where everyone is fighting to survive, to escape the rapidly spreading cold to seek fertile land and safety. It’s a world where crumbling Empires are desperately clinging onto what they still possess. In short, it’s a perfect setting for a Total War game, one which plays very differently, one with a lot of character and its something Attila captures brilliantly through its style, tone, sound and mechanics. It’s this character and focus I felt Rome 2 lacked, which is perhaps why I could never grow particularly invested in my campaigns.

 
Attila offers more than simply playing as empires struggling to survive, however. Although the factions are somewhat limited on release (expect DLC) they do offer a great variety of styles of play. As I said, even the two Roman factions offer very different experiences. Then you have the migratory factions, each with their own strengths and weakness as well as the more traditional ‘expand and conquer’ factions. In terms of styles of play, Attila offers a small, but surprisingly diverse roster of factions.

So let’s talk performance. In over 80 hours of play I’ve had no crashes and seen practically zero bugs. I do think performance optimisations are needed, but it’s certainly solid enough already and can only really be improved upon. It’s one of the most stable and polished TW releases yet, at least in my experience.

In terms of AI, Attila may just be the best yet. It’s solid and remarkably consistent in both Campaign and Battles. It’s use of units, especially cavalry (flanking, threading through gaps in your lines, and using hit and run charges), is the best it’s ever been. It also handles the new fatigue system quite well, cycling units in and out of combat where necessary.

An experienced player will always find ways to exploit it, but the Attila AI has some neat tricks up its sleeves and is remarkably hard to fool. I was always impressed when it pulled its General out of a fight to keep him safe, or diverted cavalry to counter my own and protect its flank. There are still a few pathfinding issues here and there in relation to some settlements and it can sometimes get confused by the new barricade feature but overall, it’s quite impressive.

On the campaign side, it’s far more aggressive than in Rome 2, and will attack with multiple coordinated stacks. You won’t see many ‘small’ battles in Attila. The AI will hit you hard and in numbers. A few of the diplomatic issues carry over from Rome 2, but on the whole, it works fine. And with the political/family system, you have the most in-depth Total War campaign game yet.

Graphically, the game looks great. Its darker style may not be to everyone’s tastes, but it fits well with the the overall tone of the period. The new fire mechanics are a fantastic addition and hard to imagine playing without. It’s clear that the feedback and criticisms of Rome 2 were taken into account for Attila. It feels like a game aimed squarely at the hardcore fans. As a result, I’m not sure I’d recommend it to a beginner because they’d probably find even the tutorial prologue campaign a struggle.

 
Attila is an unforgiving game, and an inexperienced player may just get smashed by the AI and frustrated, even on Normal settings. But after Rome 2, a game which felt far too streamlined and easy for new players, it feels like this approach was necessary to win back the veteran fans. For me, at least, they’ve succeeded.

But is it perfect? Well, no. As far as criticisms go, aside from improvements to performance, I’d say the biggest issue Attila has is one of balance. It’s a game that really does feel like it needs balance adjustments in terms of units and campaign economy. The new unit ‘tier’ system is something I like, but unit stats feel a little off, with some units rendered effectively useless and others seriously overpowered.

This is something that can obviously be tweaked through mods or patches, but as I said in my Rome 2 review, I can’t review what may happen in the future. Right now, certain elements of Attila don’t balance well in either battles or campaign.

Another issue is the lack of diversity between certain barbarian factions, especially the (currently) non-playable factions, such as those in Britain. Once again, this is an issue that will be improved over time through mods or DLC, but when one such faction DLC releases barely a week following release, it is a bit irritating that these factions weren’t more fleshed out on launch.

I was tempted to give Attila a 9, but I do feel it’s being held back by these issues at the time of writing. That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend playing Attila as it is right now. Over time, it should only get better. It’s the game we wanted Rome 2 to be and more. It’s unforgiving but fair. It also has one of the best soundtracks in the series.

Overall, Total War: Attila is a fantastic return to form for the series following the bitter disappointment of Rome 2. It’s the game we wanted it to be, yet could never be. And despite the age of the series, Attila, with its focus on survival, is remarkably refreshing, offering a new twist on an old formula. Recommended.

8/10

Friday, 6 March 2015

Attila: WRE Campaign

I’ve now completed my first Attila campaign playing as the Western Roman Empire. Even playing on the Normal difficulty setting, the campaign proved to be one of the most tense, challenging and enjoyably gruelling Total War campaigns I’ve ever played.

As I mentioned in my First Impressions post, Attila has a very different feel and focus to previous entries in the series, one which is perfectly exemplified by playing as the WRE. Attila is a game of survival, and surviving as the WRE is a struggle from the very first turn, one which never really gets any easier.

 
Typically with a TW title, you slowly expand until you grow into an unstoppable economic and military power, at which point I usually begin to lose interest in my campaign – particularly in Rome 2, which had rather lengthy/tedious campaign victory conditions. Attempts to address this endgame issue (such as the Realm Divide of Shogun 2) have been met with mixed results. But in Attila, playing as the WRE at least, at no point will you feel like you’re totally in control. Even once I’d hit my victory conditions, I still felt as if I was barely holding my empire together.

Playing as the WRE, you begin with a large empire, but one beset on all sides by hostile factions and migrating barbarian hordes. You don’t have and can’t support enough forces to protect every border or settlement, forcing you to sacrifice regions in order to protect others. Slowly, you’ll find yourself being pushed back, and at one point in my campaign, I’d lost control of nearly everything beyond Italy and Spain.

 
But over the course of the campaign, you will begin to push back, and those moments when you reclaim lost lands and drive out the barbarian hordes are fantastic. But dealing with barbarians isn’t your only concern. You must also manage a rapidly declining public order and put down rebellions before they grow. There’s also the matter of sanitation to prevent outbreaks of disease. Oh, and then you have to keep an eye on the political/family situation to prevent a civil war.

But that’s not all! In addition to this, the climate continues to change over the course of your campaign, region fertility in a slow decline, forcing factions seeking fertile land to migrate into your territory. These factions, even if peaceful, can prove a serious burden on your empire, raiding your farmland and causing famines in key regions. One way or another, you’ll have to deal with them, either by wiping them out or gifting them regions to settle.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, the Huns then arrive to raid and raze settlements to the ground. Eventually, Attila himself makes an appearance leading several Hun doomstacks. Like I said, it never gets any easier.

 
This doesn’t sound very fun, does it? And I must admit, it can be frustrating at times, but it’s also the first time in a long time I’ve felt genuinely challenged by a TW campaign, and not just because of silly bonuses granted to the AI on harder difficulties. It’s challenging but fair and incredibly rewarding as a result. You fought for it. It was a struggle, but you prevailed. Victory feels earned.

Part of me now wants to continue this campaign, to see how far I can push back and if I can reclaim all of Britain now I’ve dealt with Attila and the Huns. Another part of me wants to restart to see if I can do better. But for now, I think I’ll look to play another faction, either a ‘Horde’ faction to try the new mechanics or one of the more traditional ‘expand and conquer’ factions.

I should also report that in my 60 or so hours of play, I’ve had no crashes and seen practically zero bugs. I still think some technical improvements are needed, but the game is remarkably stable. The AI also continues to impress in the Campaign, Battle and Siege. It might just be the best yet. I do feel the game needs some balance adjustments and I think some of the barbarian factions need to be fleshed out more, but I’ll talk more about that in my upcoming review.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Now Playing: Ground Zeroes

Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes serves as something of a prologue chapter to the upcoming MGSV. As I’ve mentioned recently, I don’t really know anything about the world, story or characters of Metal Gear so I’ll be focusing this review primarily around content and gameplay. That said, Ground Zeroes does come with a lot of text detailing various events throughout the Metal Gear time-line, and it’s something I’ll certainly look into if/when I play MGSV.

So I won’t really talk about the story of GZ, although there’s honestly not much to really talk about anyway. The primary mission of GZ has you rescuing two people being held captive on a military base. You do so, stuff explodes, then you get to watch a trailer for MGSV. In all, it took me about 40 minutes to ‘complete’ GZ, although once you know where to go, you can probably clear it in half that time with ease. And this is why GZ has been criticised as being little more than an expensive demo for MGSV. And I can’t honestly say I disagree with that assessment, although I don’t think it’s entirely fair either.


Ground Zeroes is really a sandbox, a little playground for the player to experiment and enjoy ahead of MGSV. There’s a single map – a military base – with several distinct areas. In addition to the main story mission there are six ‘Side-Ops’ with varying objectives. They all use the same map, but can feel quite different to play due to the time of day, weather, enemy placement and player goals. Each mission has a Normal and Hard mode plus a series of challenges (trials) to complete. There’s also some collectible stuff hidden in the game spread throughout the various missions.

If you clear absolutely everything, including all of the trials and optional/hidden objectives, as well as attaining the highest rank on each mission/difficulty, you might get 15-20 hours out of Ground Zeroes. In that respect, calling it a demo seems a tad unfair. But unless you’re a hardcore Metal Gear fan, it’s unlikely you’ll have the patience to bother. It’s not that the missions aren’t fun to play or explore, but with a single map it does grow quite repetitive very quickly.

I played every mission in GZ 3-4 times clocking in about 10 hours of play. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy my time with the game, but the content on offer is certainly limited. Story wise, it does little more than set up the upcoming MGSV and in terms of content, GZ offers only a single map with seven missions and only a couple of hours of play (if you only play each mission once). In that respect, calling GZ an expensive demo isn’t too far from the truth. But how does it actually play?


As I said, GZ is really a sandbox that the player can mess about in. Although advisable (and you’re certainly ranked accordingly) to focus more on stealth, it’s really up to the player how they want to approach each mission. Full on combat is surprisingly viable, as I discovered on my first time through. I intended to be sneaky, only to be spotted by the first enemy. I ended up going on a rampage through the base, shooting everything that moved, tossing grenades left and right before hijacking an armoured vehicle and blowing everything up. STEALTH!

I actually think this was way too easy to do though, and unless you really care about your ranking, there’s no real reason not to just shoot your way through most of the missions. But it wasn’t all guns blazing, and I did get used to the stealth mechanics of GZ. It’s a pretty good system of various stances and speeds of movement with the ability to hide and distract combined with a surprisingly good AI.

I have to say, the AI of the guards in GZ is a real highlight. Over time, you do see through the cracks and figure out ways to exploit them, but there’s a lot of neat little touches I appreciate. You can grab an enemy and make him call for back-up, leading others into a trap. If they think they’ve seen something unusual they may radio through and let the others know they are investigating something. And if you then kill/incapacitate them and they don’t radio through an update, you’ll soon have company as more guards are sent to investigate why that guard hasn’t reported back. It’s neat.


So combat and stealth are both quite solid and fun, although I did think the enemies could be a bit bullet-spongy at times. The game looks pretty good, but the view distance isn’t as good as I would hope, and this is particularly important when scoping out an area from afar, as enemies won’t pop up until you get closer. This kind of kills any long range planning and given the relatively moderate size of the map, is disappointing. One other thing that bothered me was the checkpoint system, which seemed to have this strange tendency to ‘reset’ certain things if you reload – such as guards you’ve tranquillised suddenly awake and back at their posts.

There’s also a dumb thing I noticed in the main mission (I’m not sure about the rest) where new guards spawn out of thin air at certain points, even if you’ve neutralised every guard on the map without raising a single alarm. They just pop up guarding a door or patrolling somewhere you need to go. It makes sneakily clearing/scouting the path in advance of your objectives seem kind of pointless when new guards can just pop out of nowhere because you hit a checkpoint.

I don’t think there’s much more to say about Ground Zeroes. It’s a solid, enjoyable, if limited taste of an upcoming game. Call it a demo or not, but I think GZ has just enough content and replayablilty to justify a price tag, albeit not a very high one. If anything, it’s made me interested in MGSV, so I suppose it did its job in that regard.

6/10