Friday, 24 April 2015

The Skyrim Mod Store

My first forays into modding were probably with the creation kit for The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. Nothing fancy, just a tweak here and there. I also did some basic stuff with the original Rome: Total War. The most substantial game content I can remember creating was a Capture the Flag map for Unreal Tournament 2003. It was very simplistic in terms of layout and textures, but I was rather proud of it and happy to share it with others.

So I’ve dabbled with creating mods, but I’ve always been far more of a mod user than a mod author. The games I’ve probably spent more time modding than any others are the Elder Scrolls games. With the exception of Morrowind, I doubt I would have sunk any substantial time into either Oblivion or Skyrim without a hefty list of mods to enhance, fix, refine, improve or add to the experience.

Hell, some mods even fix and overhaul games which were released in a poor state – the restored content mod for Knights of the Old Republic 2 springs to mind, or the ‘unofficial’ patch for Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. And, where Skyrim is concerned specifically, I can’t imagine playing it again without first installing the unofficial fan patches which fix so much of what remains broken.

So I have a lot of respect for modders and what they do and I’ve always supported the notion of donation or commission based modding. Why shouldn’t the option be there for people to support a mod author, especially in the case of extensive overhaul mods which may take years and dedicated teams to complete. I certainly have no objection to that. But this - http://steamcommunity.com/workshop/aboutpaidcontent ? This bothers me a lot.

It’s too early to say how this will pan out, but I do find the idea rather unsettling. It raises all sorts of issues which could potentially turn into a complete clusterf**k. I know other games already have a similar model on Steam, such as for weapon skins in CS:GO, but this is a whole new level of crazy.

Quality, compatibility, permission rights, the troubling notion of ‘Early Access’ mods, bugs, save game corruption, potential content theft – how will such things be appropriately handled or dealt with? All these issues are ones which mod authors and users already have to deal with even when mods are free. But now? When money becomes involved? This new ‘mod store’ is essentially turning mods into DLC. That raises all sorts of questions.

The responsibility for modding has always fallen upon the mod user. Does this new system now change that dynamic? What happens when a mod someone pays 5 bucks for breaks their game and corrupts their 100 hour plus save? If you’re now treating mods like a product, like a piece of professional DLC, then doesn’t some responsibility lie with the creator?

Going by the FAQ Steam has released for this, it seems the responsibility still rests entirely with the user – you buy at your own risk. And if the mod is broken down the line, perhaps even by an official patch, which so often causes havoc with mod files – what happens if the mod author can’t or won’t fix it? So many mods get abandoned over time, and I don’t see that changing with a pay model in place. As it stands, you’ll simply lose the mod and your money.

Also, will there be any form of quality control? If not, this could spiral out of control very easily. And what about incomplete mods? Early Access games are one thing, but early access mods? And as any heavy mod user knows, compatibility is another major issue.

I never thought the Steam Workshop was a bad thing. Anything that encourages and tries to make modding easier and more accessible and grow is great. Modding can be great for games, for supporting them long after a developer can by producing fixes and new content. Mods can and do sell games, so it’s good to see a platform encourage developers to support mod communities as much as possible.

But one big issue I have with the Workshop is that it can also encourage laziness and ignorance, as new mod users just expect mods to install and function at the click of a button. And when things f**k up, they don’t always understand why because they’ve never dealt with mod managers or load orders. They’ve never dug into the files and installed things manually. I’ve seen so much ire directed at mod authors on the Workshop by people who can’t figure out that X mod requires Y mod to function. And this is when that content is free.

I guess you can just argue that it’s their fault and they’ve downloaded those mods at their own risk, and perhaps the same should apply to ‘premium’ mods. But does it? Should it? If mods are now a product, shouldn’t the consumer be granted some guarantee that the mod won’t break their game now or in the future? It seems a tricky situation to me. You’re now crossing the line between amateur and professional – and if people are paying for content, they expect a certain quality and level of support in return.

And hell, what about permission rights? There are already mods for sale which incorporate or require the use of other people’s tools or mods. Was permission granted? Was it even sought? How will such money be divided? Modding, when free, is usually a pretty open system, with people willing to share their work in order to support others. It fosters a, on the whole, friendly community and I’d say, better mods, because it allows people to combine their resources and produce content they couldn’t have created alone.

But now? I’m betting people will now think twice, worrying that someone may intend to profit from their work. This could result in fewer mods, and a worsening of quality, as fewer people are willing to share their work either out of fear it will be stolen to be sold, or because they’re tempted to lock it behind a pay wall themselves – perhaps not out of greed, but simply to protect their hard work from being exploited by others. It may create a climate of mistrust within mod communities and a reluctance to pool resources and talent.

What will be the long term implications for modding? Will this encourage and grow modding, attracting more ‘professionals’ to the fold, or will it only weaken and divide mod communities? I’ve never been against people being paid for their hard work, but I’m not sure this is the way to go about it. Perhaps a donation system would have been a better idea.

Like I’ve said, it’s too early to say how this will go, but I do find it rather troubling. This also makes me concerned about how publishers will look at it. Why care about releasing a broken game when you can let the users fix it, and then take a cut of the ‘unofficial’ fix profits? It’s almost like another DLC revenue stream. Maybe that’s a bit cynical, but it doesn’t seem right that publishers may ultimately profit from users fixing their own bloody product. There’s just so many ways this can go wrong or be abused that I can’t see this as a good thing for modding or gaming in general.

Incredibly, it seems we’re on the brink of an age not only of pirated games and DLC, but pirated mods.

Pirated mods.

F**king hell.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Now Playing: Panzer Dragoon & Panzer Dragoon 2

Panzer Dragoon is a rail-based shooter originally released on the Saturn in 1995. Graphically, I must admit the game is looking rather dated, particularly in terms of its background environments. The enemy designs, however, are all very clean and striking, and still look good today – particularly the bosses.

But the dated graphics can be an issue at times. It varies by level, but in some it can become difficult to separate your targets from the background. Panzer Dragoon is a fast paced game, but its speed can result in some muddled scenery making it hard to spot incoming projectiles or enemies.

 
There are 7 episodes to complete and overall, they are all nicely designed and fun to play. That said, each can be cleared in about 5-8 minutes. So it’s not a very long game, but it does offer a degree of replayability through its ranking system and three difficulty modes – and the Hard mode certainly lives up to its name.

In terms of its combat, although Panzer Dragoon introduced the multi-directional system to the series, it’s far less mobile than in its refined sequels. Switching to the side or rear of your dragon pulls the camera extremely close, restricting your field of view and reducing your manoeuvrability to near zero. This can result in some hits you take feeling rather cheap as there’s little you can do to avoid them.

It is possible to adjust the camera and pull it back (the game offers 3 levels of perspective) but switching views is tricky to do in a hectic fight and you then have to switch the view a second time when you return to the default position. It’s a fiddly system that was thankfully dropped in Zwei.

The combat has your standard laser attack plus your lock-on ability, but there’s no berserk attacks, glide boosting, or dragon morphing. It relies pretty much entirely on fast paced shooting and even faster reflexes to target and dodge. So it may be rather basic compared to its sequels, but Panzer Dragoon remains an enjoyable, fast paced ride – albeit a rather short one.

Panzer Dragoon really established the series in terms of style, tone and sound. The music is great and the enemy design is fantastic. Story wise, Panzer is very basic, with a limited number of cut-scenes and minimal dialogue. But in some ways, this only enhances what was the original introduction to this fascinating world.

Although I’ve been a little critical of particular elements of the game, Panzer Dragoon remains an engaging, challenging and very enjoyable rail-based shooter. It may have been surpassed by its refined sequels, but it’s still a solid and fun game to play.

7/10

Panzer Dragoon Zwei (1996) isn’t a massive leap forward from the original, but it is, overall, an improved and refined sequel. It’s not quite on par with Orta, which was able to combine elements of these original games with the Saga battle system, but Zwei was another step in the right direction. And whilst I’d rate Orta as the best rail-based game in the series, it did have the luxury of building upon everything that came before it, including the improvements made in Zwei.

Switching views is now smooth and effortless without any shifts in perspective – it remains at a constant, perfect distance. Zwei also introduced dragon morphing to the series (on a much more basic level), berserk attacks and multiple routes. Like the original, there are 7 episodes to complete, each taking around 5-10 minutes, but the game does offer some replayability through its ranking system.

That said, out of the three rail-based Panzer Dragoons, Zwei is probably the easiest game in the series. There’s no difficulty options, and the game can be blasted through in a single sitting (and life) with relative ease.

The combat system has your standard gun and homing laser attacks with a degree of manoeuvrability to dodge incoming projectiles. You can switch to side or rear views which, as I’ve mentioned, is far smoother than in the original. In Zwei, however, your laser attacks will boost your ‘berserk meter’ allowing you to unleash a devastating storm of lasers. It’s a single special attack and best saved for boss encounters.

Overall, I’d rate the level and enemy design higher in Zwei than the original. The graphics are much improved, with far cleaner background environments meaning you’re not occasionally struggling to separate your foes from the scenery. Each level also has different routes you can take offering a slightly different experience which also somewhat adds to the replay value.

At the end of each episode you’re graded by various things such as percentage of enemies shot down, clear time and which path you chose (some are more difficult than others). This is where the dragon morphing comes into play, as your dragon evolves into a stronger form based on your performance. The only real problem with this, is that because the game is pretty easy, you’ll unlock increasingly tougher dragon forms…which will then make it even easier.

Seeing the dragon evolve is great though, and the improved animations and environments really bring the world to life. The enemies are great, especially those with multiple ‘parts’ you have to whittle away. Zwei offers a good degree of variety to environments and encounters, including some fantastic boss fights, but I must admit a couple of the episodes feel a little weak compared to the rest.

As with all the Panzer games, the music is great and the general world design is brilliant. Zwei also has an expanded story which opens up more of the world to the player, with a little more emphasis on the bond between dragon and rider. Once again, it’s rather basic and teases more than it reveals, but it provides a solid foundation for some excellent levels and fast paced action.

Panzer Dragoon Zwei is an improvement over the original in all the right ways – with the possible exception of difficulty. But though its not as challenging as the original, Zwei is the game I’d always prefer to replay, with more visually striking environments and enemies, multiple routes through levels and new dragon forms. It’s a refinement of everything the original introduced.

7/10

Monday, 20 April 2015

GTA V: First Impressions

I’ve now put over 30 hours into GTA V so I thought I’d post some early impressions of the game regarding content and technical performance.

If there was one aspect of this series I wanted to see improved upon from GTA IV it was the core missions in terms of quality, variety and player freedom. And I’m pleased to say that GTA V delivers. Whereas many of the missions in GTA IV felt restrictive, rigid and repetitive in structure and approach, the main and side missions in GTA V (so far, at least) offer a far more varied and interesting selection.
 
This is partly thanks to the character switch mechanic. Each of the three playable characters has their own personal story and contacts which really mixes up the experience. One minute you’ll be practising yoga with Michael, then you’ll hop to Trevor and be stealing a submarine.

 
It’s interesting how these three central personalities can tailor how you play. Open world games with established characters tend to lead to something of a disconnect between player action and character action. Another Rockstar title – Red Dead Redemption – was a good example of this. It never felt right going on a gun rampage with John Marston. But in GTA V, you have a character like Trevor who represents that crazed mayhem mentality – and he even has his own unique rampage missions.

GTA V also offers far more multiple stage missions – the Heists, in particular. They also take more advantage of the open world and allow more freedom in terms of player approach. It’s still a little limited, but what I’ve seen so far is a great step up from GTA IV.

Overall, I’m liking the single player story and character aspects a lot, as well as the variety and quality of the missions, but there’s a lot to the open world in terms of side activities I’m yet to explore. And MP? I’ve barely scratched the surface. What I will say though is that the MP ‘tutorial’ stuff is rather terrible. I’m figuring most of it out on my own. So let’s move onto the technical stuff.

Graphically, GTA V looks great and the performance is far better than I was expecting. The sheer amount of control, display, audio and graphics options is fantastic and even puts many PC exclusive titles to shame. For controls, you can switch between pad or keyboard at will – I prefer the pad for driving, but the mouse for accuracy when shooting. Being able to switch effortlessly between the two is great.

 
The only thing I would have preferred in terms of the graphics options is more explanation of what they all actually do. The majority are obvious, but stuff like ‘High Detail Streaming While Flying’ or ‘Long Shadows’ (in addition to Soft and High Resolution Shadow options)? I’m not sure. A little more explanation would have been nice.

I run nearly everything on maximum and can maintain a fairly fluid 60FPS. The only times I really see it drop is when driving at night or when I’m speeding through some of the more rural areas. GTA V runs almost flawlessly in the dense city environments, but I do get frame drops in the open plains. They tend to be only momentary, however, and I could probably eliminate them if I dropped a few settings, but they really aren’t a problem.

Overall though, from what I’ve played, the technical performance is excellent. I also haven’t hit any bugs and only experienced one crash. So far, I’m very impressed with GTA V.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Now Playing: Panzer Dragoon Orta

The Panzer Dragoon series is one of my all time favourites. From the characters, the creatures, the world, the story, the lore, the style and the music, Panzer Dragoon is bloody fantastic. They are some of the most unique and interesting games I’ve ever played.

Orta (X-Box/2003) was the last game to be released in the series and, unlike its preceding title (Saga), it returns to the rail based shooting of the original two games. Although it wasn’t actually developed by the original Panzer team (Andromeda), but by Smilebit (Jet Set Radio/Future), Orta is certainly worthy of its name and its place in the series.

Set many years after Saga, the story revolves around a young girl named Orta, searching for answers about her past and who she is, whilst being hunted by a powerful Empire. Although it ties into the story of the previous games, it’s told in such a way that you can enjoy it without having played them, but you’ll certainly appreciate it all the more if you have.

As a fan of the series, Orta plays a poignant role in revealing the fate of two of the key characters in Saga. It’s clear the developers wanted to do justice to the ongoing story, but by setting the game decades later, they were also able to introduce new facets to the world rather than just recycle what we’d already seen.

Graphically, Orta hold ups extremely well. Confined to a somewhat linear path, the developers created a title that still looks lovely today. It also adheres almost perfectly to the tone and aesthetic style of the previous Panzer games. This also extends to the game’s soundtrack, which blends together new tracks with music from the older titles. In short, in terms of visuals and sound, Orta feels very much like a Panzer Dragoon game.

So how does it actually play? As I said, Orta is a return to the rail based shooting of the original two games, but it does integrate features of the battle system from Saga – the multi-directional combat and the dragon morphing. You target enemies with a rapid fire gun or your dragon’s lock-on laser ability. You have a certain degree of free movement to dodge enemy fire, and you can also speed up or slow down (your ‘glide’ ability) – putting you ahead or behind your enemy – which becomes very important when taking on certain bosses.

So although Orta is technically ‘on rails’ it offers quite a lot of freedom of movement. And you’ll be moving a lot, as (just like in Saga) your positioning during some fights is vital. The multi-directional combat system means that enemies can attack from all sides, but you do have a radar allowing you keep track. When facing down bosses, they often have specific heavy attacks or weak points on either their front, sides or rear – meaning you have to manoeuvre about them as the fight progresses, avoiding their attacks, then sweeping in to hit their weak spot as they recharge.

Which is where the dragon morphing system comes into play. There are three forms you can switch between at will – Base, Light and Heavy. Base, as you would expect, offers a good balance between manoeuvrability and attack. The Light form has the greatest range of movement and is great for dodging attacks or repositioning during a boss fight thanks to its expanded glide bar. You can’t use your lock-on missiles whilst in this form, however, but it does upgrade your gun attack into an auto-target rapid fire which is fantastic for shooting down incoming projectiles.

The final form is Heavy, which as you can probably guess, is for dealing damage. The downside to this form is that you can no longer glide – you’re essentially fixed in place until you switch. Each of these forms also comes with its own ‘Berserk’ ability. This fills slowly as you kill enemies and allows you to unleash a devastating attack. The Base form berserk is great for multiple targets as it unleashes a flurry of lasers. On the other hand, the Heavy form berserk lets rip with a highly damaging beam – great if you want to target a specific weak point. Oh, and as you destroy enemies, you’ll also ‘level-up’ each dragon form, evolving them into more powerful variations.

These mechanics combine to create an engaging, highly mobile combat system. And although Orta’s combat feels slightly slower paced than the original rail-based games – relying less on fast shooting and reflexes – it is far more diverse and tactical.

You’ll be boosting, morphing and attacking all at once, rapidly cycling between dragon forms as efficiently as possible. And you really need to, because Orta is a challenging game, even on its Normal difficulty. But once you know the levels, the enemies, their attacks and weaknesses, you’ll be okay. Orta is challenging, but fair, although I do think it could use a better checkpoint system.

There are 10 levels in all, each with its own boss. If you die before the boss, you’ll restart from the beginning, but if you do reach the boss and get killed you can choose to restart from the beginning of the fight. Given that the levels aren’t very long – you can easily clear the game in maybe 2-3 hours – this isn’t a major issue, but it can be a little frustrating getting kicked back to the beginning of a multiple stage boss fight. And when you do respawn, you don’t get the health you originally started with, but only a tiny fraction of it. On harder settings, this just means you’re better off restarting the entire level.

So yeah, Orta is a very short game, but it does offer a nice degree of replayability. You’re graded on each level and difficulty stetting, and the levels are all diverse, tightly designed and interesting to play, each with their own unique challenges, branching paths and boss fights. In addition to this, Orta comes with several side missions, including a small, narrative driven campaign. And, as a fan of the world, I certainly appreciated the inclusion of an encyclopedia featuring information on locations and creatures. There are also various things you can unlock as you play, such as illustrations. Oh, and Orta also includes the PC version of the original Panzer Dragoon.

Overall, Orta is a fantastic game, worthy of its name and its place in the Panzer series and, in terms of its combat system, I’d say it even surpasses the original rail-based games. If there was one series I’d love to see a HD remake of, it would be Panzer Dragoon. And now, after playing Orta again, I really want to play through the others again too. Recommended.

8/10

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Grand Theft Auto V (Pre-Load)


It’s going to be a long day.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Now Playing: Otogi

Otogi: Myth of Demons is a third person action game released on the original X-Box in 2003. I didn’t realise it until the logo appeared on the screen, but Otogi was developed by From Software – the studio behind the ‘Souls’ series and the recently released Bloodborne. And there are certainly shades of the Souls games present in Otogi.

Set in a bleak, yet beautiful world, Otogi features an undead (sort of) hero on a quest to unite four ‘essences’ and restore the ‘Seal’ – a mystical barrier that separates the world of man from the realm of demons. The Seal has been broken and the world has fallen into darkness and ruin, overrun by demons of various shapes and sizes.

Otogi has a ‘Japanese myth’ type style to its world and it’s a shame the limitations of the original X-Box can’t quite capture its intended glory. The maps are nicely sized but some, particularly those set in exterior environments, are rather bland, empty and dull to look at.

Although Otogi shares certain themes with the Souls games in terms of story and tone, when it comes to combat, it actually feels far more like a Platinum game. Otogi is a fast paced action game based around a system of magic and various weapon types. Wielding a bladed weapon – you’ll unlock a selection as you progress – you have light and heavy attacks which can be strung together into powerful combos – including smashing foes into the ground or even through scenery.

In terms of movement, you can perform a teleportation style dash which can be combined with both heavy and light attacks for fast moving strikes. You also have a double jump, which you’ll be using a lot. Because many of the demons you’ll be fighting in Otogi can fly, so the majority of the combat is actually aerial in nature.

And it’s certainly fun, leaping majestically into the air and zipping from one foe to the next, stringing together your combo and destroying several demons before you even hit the ground. I was instantly reminded of Metal Gear Rising in terms of its combat, especially when you take the destructible scenery into account as you slice trees, pillars and even small buildings to pieces with your sword. It’s an interesting mix, this bleak world with fluid, fast paced combat.

There are nearly 30 levels to play through, which sounds like a lot, but there’s quite a bit of cut and paste between them and quality wise, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I would have preferred fewer levels but more unique/diverse ones because, whilst some are excellent, others just feel like filler and are a bit tedious to grind through. At the end of each level you’re scored on a graded scale by the usual things – enemies killed, time taken, scenery destroyed etc. You’ll earn money which you can use to buy different upgrade items (for say, attack or defence) plus new weapons or magic attacks.

Oh right, magic. Magic is the other component to Otogi’s combat. Initially it feels rather useless, but you soon realise it depends heavily upon what type of magic you’re wielding and which enemy types you face. Both magic and demons belong to one of four types, and if you use the correct magic type against its opposite demon type you can double your damage against them.

Each level is fairly similar in terms of structure – enter the environment, kill X number of demons or a particularly large demon. As a result, if you play for a long period things can get a bit repetitive, but thankfully, the levels don’t overstay their welcome – you can clear each of them in anywhere from 3 to 10 minutes. You can also replay them at any time to try to improve upon your score or earn extra gold.

The combat system, ultimately, isn’t that in depth and mostly relies on two or three repetitive patterns of attack. You’ll soon figure out a simple yet effective light and heavy combo which you’ll use to take down one foe after another – rinse and repeat. It’s pretty basic and surprisingly easy. But though the combat isn’t all that fantastic, the variety of enemies is pretty good, offering a neat selection of demon types both large and small – at least visually. It’s just a shame that they don’t require any varied tactics or strategy to kill.

One major issue with the combat, however, is the camera and the rather wonky lock-on system (although you won’t really need to use the lock-on that often unless you need to target a magic attack). But yeah, the camera can be a nightmare at times, especially when so much of the combat takes place in mid-air. It can be rather tricky to orient yourself and dash between enemies to continue your combo because of the camera, which gets a little frustrating. It’s very easy to lose your bearings as the camera swings wildly in the wrong direction and you’re no longer sure which way you’re facing.

Graphically, Otogi holds up okay, aside from the rather poor looking exteriors. But it has an aesthetic style to it that’s still quite pleasant, matched with a nice, appropriately haunting soundtrack. In terms of challenge, Otogi feels rather inconsistent. Some levels can be a real breeze but the next suddenly spikes. That said, it often felt I was more challenged by the wonky camera and targeting system than by the demons I was fighting.

If you’ve ever wondered what a combination of From Software style and Platinum Games combat might look like, Otogi is a pretty neat example. It remains an interesting and quite unique little title and one fans of either of those developers might want to check out.

6/10