Friday, 30 December 2016

Titanfall 2: Final Thoughts

I’ll try to keep this short. Titanfall 2 is really f**king good, but it’s far from perfect. I’ve already written a lot about what I consider to be the weakest aspect of the title – map design – but there’s many other issues I feel need to be addressed.

If you’ve read my post regarding the Angel City update, you’ll know my thoughts on the Amped Hardpoint mode and how I consider it to be flawed not only in terms of the amp mechanic, but also in objective placement. Many of the hardpoints need to be relocated so they are inaccessible to titans, and the amp system should be significantly reduced in terms of bonus.

In my review I highlighted potential balance issues with SMG weapons. Their effective range and damage at range needs to be seriously reduced, whilst their bullet spread at range should be significantly increased. Their hip fire accuracy is fine, but only if they’re appropriately balanced as short to mid-range weapons.

There are still issues with calling down your titan on particular maps, resulting in it landing on the opposite side. Too many maps also have clutter on the ground or walls that disrupt or abruptly halt your flow of movement. The spawn system is also still a complete mess on many maps, and the matchmaking system frequently drops you into activate games, usually on the side that’s about to lose.

The ‘Amped Weapons’ boost is another issue and one I feel requires a significant alteration, even though I frequently use the boost myself. Why wouldn’t I? It transforms many of the weapons into one shot – one kill, and also stacks over time, meaning you can play entire matches whilst amped. An ‘amped ammo’ boost for your active weapon would be far more balanced and would only last until the weapon was reloaded.

Amped Wall is another boost that’s too damn good. It not only increases outgoing damage, but acts as an exceptional shield – an even better shield than an actual shield boost which nobody uses as a result. An easy fix? Let it amp shots, but remove the shield function entirely.

Reapers and stalkers in Attrition are an irritating addition, not only as titans often get ‘stuck’ on them, but because they reduce the final stages of an attrition match into a reaper ‘farm’ for maximum points. They need to be removed or massively reduced in terms of numbers.

Melee attacks are still hit and miss, and when you get killed by the person you were attempting to melee it’s incredibly frustrating. On a technical level, the servers don’t always feel fast enough to keep up with the action. I like the phase shift ability, but frequently get killed after entering a shift, making the ability dangerously inconsistent.

And inconsistency in an online shooter is a major problem. If things don’t work the way they should when they should, it results in a game that frequently feels unfair. That’s a serious issue. Because if the game doesn’t feel fair, if deaths feel cheap and unavoidable people will simply stop playing.

Although the developers have promised that all future maps and modes will be free, that promise is only worth something if they actually release something good. Or at all. I want to see more original maps, but only if they’re unaltered, unlike Angel City. And we need new maps that adhere to the original game’s design philosophy.

I want to keep this short, so let’s wrap this up. Titanfall 2 is great, but it has many issues relating to map design and balance that must be addressed if it’s going to thrive. Many of these issues can be fixed or improved, but only if we’re willing to call them out and not accept the game as ‘perfect’. Because it’s not. And I’ve seen too much nonsense online about how the game ‘deserves’ to succeed.

Bullshit. It’s doesn’t ‘deserve’ anything. It has to earn it. There are too many people dick riding Titanfall 2 right now and that’s not healthy for the long term development of the title. So I can’t join in, even though I’m a fan of the game. I want it to succeed, but I’m not going to pretend these problems don’t exist.

I want to be playing Titanfall 2 at this time next year, but unless the game undergoes significant balance improvements and releases new maps that are more appropriately designed to the strengths of Titanfall gameplay, it’s hard to see it lasting more than another six months. If the already dwindling player base is any indication, it probably won’t. I hope I’m wrong.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The Clayton Awards 2016

Game of the Year 2016 – Total War: Warhammer

In my review, I wrote that ‘in many ways, this is Warhammer: Total War, as opposed to Total War: Warhammer. It embraces the licence and builds the game around it, rather than attempting to crowbar the licence into the existing formula. And I think it’s a better game for doing so.’

I don’t think Total War: Warhammer is the best Total War game. In terms of its campaign, it’s far more streamlined and simplistic than Attila – which I’d rate has having one of, if not the, most complex campaigns of the entire series. Which is why I hope that, despite the success of Warhammer, the developers look to Attila as the base upon which to build future historical campaigns.

That said, the campaign of Warhammer feels fitting for its setting, and is no less engaging. I also wrote in the review that the initial ‘release is something of a ‘foundation’ upon which the developers can now build.’ And I’m pleased to say that’s exactly what’s happened. With regular updates and new content, Total War: Warhammer has evolved considerably since release and will continue to do so into the new year.

Total War: Warhammer is the fantasy Total War I always wanted and it claims my Game of the Year. (Full Review)

Most Disappointing Game of 2016 – Titanfall 2 (Multiplayer)

How can Titanfall 2, one of my most highly rated games of the year, also be my most disappointing? This wasn’t an easy choice, but I feel it was a necessary one. Because I am disappointed by Titanfall 2. I’m disappointed by its new approach to map design. I’m disappointed by its lack of balance. And I’m disappointed by the media and fan reaction to the game that seems more intent on sucking its dick than addressing its many flaws.

I’ll have a more in depth ‘Final Thoughts’ post up soon. Sorry, Titanfall 2. But you’ve got to do better. (Full Review)

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Command & Conquer vs. Red Alert

Command & Conquer is one of the first RTS games I played and as such, I have fond memories of its campaign. But returning to the original C&C today wasn’t quite the happy nostalgia rush I was hoping for.

The game has two campaigns, one for each of the two opposing factions – The Global Defence Initiate (GDI) and The Brotherhood of Nod. This is the game that set the stage for the GDI/NOD conflict in terms of story, but also established the basic style of play of each faction.

A GDI army will typically field less (more expensive) units, but also stronger units. Whereas NOD will field more (cheaper) units, but less powerful units. The GDI campaign takes place across Europe, whilst the NOD campaign is set in Africa. But what this really means in terms of missions is that the GDI campaign features ‘grass’ maps and the NOD campaign ‘sand’ maps.

The unit/building variety and design across the two factions is great and many of the units and buildings established here will continue to feature in later titles. Unfortunately, due to the way missions are designed, you’ll rarely use the full arsenal at your disposal regardless of faction.

Because it’s the missions of C&C that are its greatest weakness. I still adore everything else about the game – the setting, the story, the units, the sound and particularly the music, which is irritatingly catchy – I AM A MECHANICAL I AM A MECHANICAL I AM A MECHANICAL MAN.

The basic gameplay remains fun and addictive, but the mission design is poor. There are many missions across both campaigns that I’d call ‘bullshit’ missions. These are missions that feel more cheap than challenging in terms of difficulty and practically require ‘cheese’ tactics on the part of the player in order to progress.

A great example is a late NOD mission that grants you a handful of basic units and a construction vehicle, then immediately blocks your only path with two GDI mammoth tanks – their most powerful land unit. The only way to progress is to cheese your way past them, using your construction vehicle as bait (as the AI will automatically target it as the most ‘valuable’ unit). And there are countless missions like this, where you’ll be forced into taking advantage of the predictable AI in order to progress.

Another great example is how you can use a single unit to attack an AI harvester, and the AI will (always) send every unit it has to defend it – thereby leaving its main base extremely vulnerable. You don’t feel good exploiting the AI like this, but on many missions it’s the only real way to progress at a steady rate. If you try to play the game in a more ‘conventional’ way, you’re in for a tedious f**king slog as you slowly whittle down your opponent.

Sure, you can sit back, take your time and build up a varied and strong attack force, but doing so won’t be any more effective (and is actually far less effective) than massing a couple of basic unit types and swarming the enemy. I’m sure you could argue that’s how many RTS games are played, but in the original C&C, it feels like the only way to play.

Some other issues include not being able to queue build orders, the fact that many missions only complete when all enemy units and structures are destroyed – including that single f**king infantryman hiding behind a tree in a far corner of the bloody map. The game speed always feels either too fast or too slow, which means you’ll frequently be switching between modes. And the path finding in the game is pretty terrible, forcing you to continually babysit your units.

I feel like I’m taking a real dump on C&C which I don’t really like because it’s a game I have fond memories of. And I do still like the game. I like everything about it … aside from the bloody missions, which I can’t deny I didn’t really enjoy at all.

Red Alert, on the other hand, I had an absolute blast with. I must admit, the new units and buildings aren’t as cool in terms of design (and Red Alert reuses several unit and UI assets from C&C). The music isn’t as catchy either. Despite that, Red Alert remains a fantastic RTS.

Like C&C it features two campaigns – Allies and Soviets – but there is more environmental variety in terms of maps across both campaigns. And it does have some unique and fun units, like Tanya and the Spy. It also introduced naval units to the series (C&C had automated naval gunboats that you couldn’t build or control).

But honestly, Red Alert does feel a little like a copy and paste job compared to C&C, and that’s evident in how many assets are reused. That said, I had way more fun with Red Alert than C&C as the missions are by far more enjoyable. They’re more varied in terms of maps, terrain, objectives, units and strategy.

I never came across a single mission in either campaign that felt like a ‘bullshit’ mission. Unlike C&C, the campaigns of Red Alert are well paced, varied and interesting to replay, offering multiple ways to progress. It is, purely in terms of mission design, the superior title.

It’s never tedious. It’s faster paced in terms of engagement and production and it lets you utilise the full arsenal at your disposal. The game speed feels comfortable, so I wasn’t continually changing settings. The AI is slightly better, at least in the sense that it’s less easy to bait.

Unit path finding also seems better, but I think this is mostly thanks to how the maps are designed. If I had to rate the individual campaigns in order, I’d say the Soviet campaign was by far my favourite, followed by the Allied Campaign, the NOD campaign and finally GDI.

I suppose it’s time to wrap this up and pick a winner, but I think at this point it’s fairly obvious which game has emerged the victor. Red Alert takes an early lead. Whilst it may lack in many areas compared to C&C it absolutely excels where it really matters – the missions.

Roll on Round 2, when Red Alert 2 goes head to head against Tiberian Sun.

Command & Conquer – 6/10
Red Alert – 8/10

Friday, 16 December 2016

Now Playing: Realm of the Wood Elves (DLC)

Realm of the Wood Elves is the latest DLC release for Total War: Warhammer. It integrates the Wood Elves race into the game as a new playable or AI controlled faction within the grand campaign, but also within ‘Season of Revelation’ – a new mini-campaign. Like the other playable races, the Wood Elves have their own unique Lords, unit roster and campaign style.

The unique campaign mechanics of each race is one of the things I like most about Total War: Warhammer, even if I don’t necessarily enjoy every play style on offer. And I don’t think everyone will enjoy the new campaign mechanics of the Wood Elves. They represent the most significant departure yet from the traditional Total War campaign ‘formula’ and I predict will likely prove the most divisive among the player base.

Unlike other races, the Wood Elves aren’t concerned with expanding territory or wiping out particular factions. Their entire campaign and their victory conditions revolve around a single objective – The Oak of Ages. It’s a unique structure on the map that can be upgraded, each new level introducing new faction wide benefits. The primary goal of the Wood Elves campaign is to upgrade the Oak to its maximum level.

Upgrading the Oak doesn’t simply require gold, but amber – a new resource that can only be obtained and ‘spent’ by the Wood Elves. Each new level of the Oak has a higher requirement of amber, so obtaining amber is a key part of the campaign. And this is where things get interesting, because amber isn’t simply used for upgrading the Oak, but also for main settlement structures, certain technologies and most importantly of all – particular units depending on which of the two Legendary Lords you choose.

Amber can be obtained in two main ways – by capturing settlements (minor settlements give 1 amber, whilst major give 2) and forging alliances (you’ll receive 1 or 2 amber for every minor or major settlement your ally controls). You can also obtain amber by completing quest chains, but it’s through conquest and diplomacy that you’ll receive the bulk of your amber.

But neither way is entirely ‘safe’ at providing amber. If your ally loses a region, you also lose the amber that region provided. And if you lose a region you’ve taken, you also lose that amber. Any amber you’ve spent on structures, technology or the Oak can’t be returned, although amber purchased units can be disbanded. This means that it’s possible to have a negative amber count, and doing so will introduce negative faction wide effects.

If allies aren’t entirely reliable, then it may seem like the safest way to obtain and more importantly retain amber is by taking settlements, but this isn’t as simple as it seems. Though the Wood Elves can capture any settlement on the map (unlike all the other races) they can only build a single, simple ‘outpost’ in each with a basic (useless) garrison force.

The only place the Wood Elves can build their ‘main’ structures is within the four ten slot settlements surrounding the Oak of Ages. At the start of a campaign you’ll only control one of these and must either conquer or confederate with the other Wood Elf factions in order to utilise their building slots. These certainly give you enough room to build every available structure, but it does mean that your entire military and economic infrastructure is locked to a single region.

The ‘outpost’ settlements that you’ll capture serve to support your faction, and the more you possess, the more you can stack their various buffs to economy or defence. But each outpost is incredibly vulnerable and easy to lose.

I know some people may feel the amber cost associated with units may be too restrictive, but the amber costs only apply to top tier units and by the time you’re able to recruit these high end units, you should have more than enough amber to cover them. And which units cost amber will vary depending on which of the two available Legendary Lords you pick to play.

In terms of units, the roster has a great mix of infantry, cavalry and monster units, as well as new heroes. As you would expect, their archer units are their most effective. It may not seem that way, at least in terms of base stats when compared to archers from other races, but when you take their multiple arrow types into account and the rather insane buffs they receive from both Lords and Heroes in the form of passive and active augments, they can absolutely melt entire units in seconds.

And with the ability to fire on the move, they make for fantastic skirmish troops, not to mention significant buffs for fighting in forests. On the battlefield, the Wood Elves are far more micro intensive than any of the other races, but they can be an incredibly devastating force once you learn to play them effectively.

Overall, the Wood Elves are a fantastic new addition to Total War: Warhammer, with engaging new campaign mechanics and a diverse and extensive new unit roster to play with or fight against. Because like the other DLCs, even if you don’t think the Wood Elves are for you, they’ll still be added into and enhance your grand campaign as an AI faction.

So let’s turn our attention to the mini-campaign also included in this DLC. It’s essentially a ‘zoomed in’ map of the area surrounding The Oak of Ages. The objective is the same as in the grand campaign – to upgrade the Oak. But in the mini-campaign, every upgrade level spawns a new wave of beastmen stacks.

It’s not a terribly interesting campaign, and once you realise the beastmen invasions are only triggered by upgrading the Oak, it’s incredibly easy to take your time, expand and trigger them only when you’re ready which rather negates the challenge. It’s a short, forgettable campaign that you likely won’t play more than once if at all. This DLC is only worth buying for playing the Wood Elves in the grand campaign.

And that’s why it’s hard to recommend this DLC at its current RRP. I do recommend picking it up and playing as the Wood Elves at some point, but unless you’re desperate to play as them right now, I’d say it’s best to wait for a sale. Aside from the pricing and a few bugs, Realm of the Wood Elves is a good new addition to the core game and another reason why Total War: Warhammer is a strong contender for my Game of the Year.


Sunday, 11 December 2016

Command & Conquer - Ultimate Collection

I picked up the Command & Conquer: Ultimate Collection in a recent sale. It includes all of the main C&C games – Command & Conquer, Red Alert, Tiberian Sun, Red Alert 2, Renegade, Generals, Tiberium Wars, Red Alert 3 & Tiberian Twilight – as well as all the various expansions.

Aside from Renegade and Tiberian Twilight, I’ve actually played all of these games at some point. Some I’ve owned and sold on – Red Alert, Tiberian Sun, Generals, Red Alert 3 – whilst others I still own – C&C, Red Alert 2, Tiberium Wars.

But having them all digitally with the accompanying expansions is a pretty good offer for six quid and a chance to play my way through the entirety of this wonderful series. The original Command & Conquer is one of the first RTS games I played and a big part of the reason why I’m so fond of the genre (even if I’m not particularly great at it, I must admit).

But I didn’t want to simply play through every game and review each in turn. Instead, I thought I’d do something a little more fun and put the core C&C titles head to head against the Red Alert games.

It’s a quest to determine which C&C series is the best – GDI vs. NOD? Or Allies vs. Soviets? Which series has the best units? The best music? The best sound? The best missions? The best story? And, of course, the most important question of all – which Red Alert game has the best Tanya?

We’ll begin with the original Command & Conquer vs. the original Red Alert. Who shall emerge the victor? Round 1 coming soon.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Titanfall 2: Angel City Screw Up

Titanfall 2 may be one of the best games I’ve played this year, but it’s also a game I find incredibly infuriating at times. If you’ve read my review and my post about map design, you’ll know I consider the multiplayer maps of Titanfall 2 to be its weakest component.

Compared to the original game, the maps do not appropriately balance the multi-layered gameplay of Titanfall. The perfect balance between pilot and titan that existed within the original has been shot to pieces and as a result, matches are now dominated entirely by titans.

And perhaps that was the intent. But it’s not a design philosophy I particularly care for and it’s not one I feel plays to the core strength of the game. I was hopeful, however, that future maps would see a return to the map design philosophy of the original game, where verticality is key and where a careful balance between pilot and titan ‘terrain’ is struck. If not new maps, then at least ‘remastered’ versions of original Titanfall maps.

Which is why I was so looking forward to the release of the first major Titanfall 2 update which included the remastered Angel City – one of the best maps from the original game. But then I played the map and to my horror, realised they’d only gone and f**ked it up.

I’m talking specifically about the Amped Hardpoint mode. If you’ve read my review, you’ll know I’m not really a fan of the ‘amped’ aspect, or the placement of the objective points on the majority of the maps. Because on the majority of the maps, 2 or even all 3 of the objective points are fully accessible to titans, or within a clear line of sight of titan fire.

Amped Hardpoint, just like Attrition and Bounty Hunt, is now a mode entirely dominated by titans. Whichever team can call down their titans first will nearly always dominate and win the match, as they can simply ‘park’ their titans upon 1, 2 or even all 3 objective points.

And because of the lack of pilot terrain, it’s incredibly easy to kill pilots attacking these points. As a result, a team without titan control in Amped Hardpoint will always lose. You may argue this was true in the original game, but very few maps in the original had more than a single point accessible to titans or titan line of fire.

In the original, titans served more of a ‘support’ role within the mode, whereas in Titanfall 2, it’s just another mode where titans completely dominate the play. And this is even more pronounced due to the new ‘amped’ mechanic, as parking a couple of titans on points early will rapidly gain a team an unassailable lead.

In the original game, Hardpoint matches would rarely be complete stomps, but in Titanfall 2, complete stomps one way or the other is a regular occurrence due to the objective placement and the amped mechanic. It totally kills what was my favourite mode in the original game, and what should have been my favourite mode in the sequel.

Which brings us back to the ‘remastered’ Angel City, one of my favourite maps in the original, particularly for the Hardpoint mode. I was quite excited to jump back into this map and mode in Titanfall 2 even though I’m not fond of the ‘amped’ aspect, because at least (I thought) we’d return to a more appropriate objective placement. When the match began, I made a fast line for Hardpoint A only to realise … it was no longer there.

It seems some chucklef**k decided to relocate the objective point to an exterior location fully accessible to titans, bringing the map more in line with this new and terrible design philosophy whereby every map and mode should be dominated by titan play. I can’t understate how angry I was when I realised what they’d done. They took a map that was perfectly f**king balanced and ruined it for no good reason.

And how did that game play out? Just as I expected it to – the other team were able to rapidly gain a titan advantage, park their titans on both A and C (amping both points) and won within a matter of minutes. Hardpoint matches are no longer about controlling points or co-ordinating with your team to assault or defend – they’re about grabbing quick, early kills to earn your titan as rapidly as possible so your team can dominate the game.

As fantastic a game as I think Titanfall 2 is, I also think it’s being held back by a map design philosophy that runs contrary to what makes the gameplay so unique and appealing – the delicate balance between pilot and titan. Whenever I play Attrition, Bounty Hunt or Amped Hardpoint, I just feel like I’m only playing as a pilot to earn my titan as quickly as I can because if I don’t, defeat is almost certain.

In the original game, I could play entire matches without calling down my titan, because pilot gameplay could be just as effective due to the way maps were designed. One held no great advantage over the other if you knew what you were doing. But in Titanfall 2, the opposite is true.

This post was intended to be a fairly short rant, but I really couldn’t help myself. I love Titanfall 2. It’s great. It really is. But it’s a game I’m coming to hate as much as I love due to this backwards design philosophy that is actively working against the strengths of the game.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Now Playing: The Crew

The Crew is an online, open world racing game that can be played solo or co-operatively/competitively with other players. Actually, ‘racing’ game isn’t the best way to describe The Crew. It’s more of a ‘driving’ game than a pure racing game. The open world of The Crew is an impressively large representation of the United States, allowing you to seamlessly drive from East to West Coast.

There is a story, of sorts. You play as some guy called Alex(?), who wants revenge on some other guy who killed his brother or something. But to do so, he needs to work his way up the ranks of a criminal organisation. This involves travelling to the major zones of the game world – The South, The Midwest, The East Coast, The West Coast and The Mountain States – and completing a series of story based missions.

These missions vary between time trial checkpoint challenges, 1 or 3 lap races, police escapes, item retrieval/destruction and vehicle takedowns. There’s not a fantastic variety of objectives, but by continually mixing these mission types from one to the next, and by introducing new car specs and environments, they never get too stale or repetitive.

That said, there’s nothing here that’s particularly great, either. The police escapes aren’t very exciting, and the item retrieval/destruction missions are more irritating than fun. The vehicle takedown jobs are easily the worst as you tediously chase down another car and ram it until its ‘health bar’ drops to zero.

Thankfully, the time trials and races are pretty good fun, and that’s where the game shines. Which is why it’s such a shame they only account for about 20% of the main mission content. Also, it must be said that the story of The Crew is forgettable and bland as f**k. It serves to point you from one game zone to the next, but don’t expect to be invested in the story or characters. You just won’t care.

Being a Ubisoft open world title, there’s a lot of side content to be found outside of the core story based missions. But like many open world Ubisoft titles, it’s largely meaningless and entirely skippable filler. I do like the way it’s integrated, however.

There are hundreds of free roam ‘challenges’ that you’ll find as you traverse the world. These may involve taking a stunt jump, weaving between virtual posts or simply driving super fast for as long a stretch as possible. Like the core missions, completing these challenges awards experience that levels up your car, as well as a part to improve its performance. These are graded on a Bronze, Silver or Gold system depending on how well you perform.

In addition to these challenges there are also points of interest to visit and secret car parts to discover, which when combined will unlock a special vehicle. And, being a Ubisoft open world title, there are of course radio towers to reveal the location of local side content. But is any of the side content really worth your time? No, unfortunately not. It’s fun to do the odd challenge as you’re driving from one story mission to the next, but that’s about it.

As you progress through the game you’ll unlock new car specs – Street, Dirt, Performance, Raid and Circuit, each with its own benefits, style of play and cosmetic customisation. Some cars can be built for multiple specs, but others may be limited to only 1 or 2. You can switch out specs and cars on the fly in the open world, and missions will select the appropriate vehicle for the terrain.

In terms of handling, The Crew leans more towards arcade than simulator, but even after sinking a lot of hours into the game and completing the main story missions, I still feel like the car handling isn’t quite as responsive as it should be. But before I start getting too negative, I have to say I did have some fun with The Crew. Exploring the map, completing the missions, attempting the odd side challenge and customising my cars was all decent enough to hold my attention.

Okay, now onto my issues with the game. The first is the UI, which is a convoluted and irritating mess to navigate. You learn to live with it, but you’ll never enjoy using it. The damage model in the game is horrible. You get these nasty white ‘scratches’ on your car regardless of where you take a hit. Cars also ‘self-heal’ over time anyway so it doesn’t matter how badly you maul them.

The music selection is awful. Awful. There’s a very limited number of radio stations with an extremely limited selection of tracks. I wasn’t expecting GTA style stations with fake adverts or talk shows, but for a game that’s entirely about driving, I’d like a far more varied and extensive selection of music to fill the void.

The car parts upgrade system is basic as f**k and is simply a case of parts with ‘+6 to acceleration’ and small stat increases like that. It doesn’t make tuning your car particularly engaging as you’ll always simply use parts that increase the overall car ‘level’.

The car cosmetic customisation fares better, but once again, for a game which is all about cars and driving, what’s available feels remarkably limited. The fact is, I had more fun tuning and customising my cars in GTA V than I did in The Crew. The damage model was also much better, as was the car physics during crashes.

I can’t run over pedestrians. I can’t run over pedestrians.

Buying new cars also feels like a grind, and the selection isn’t even that good, with many vehicles locked behind micro-transactions. The Crew, which is a game all about cars and driving, does a piss poor job with the things that really matter – car choice, car tuning and cosmetics. I could forgive the dismal music selection if they got the important stuff right. GTA V did this stuff better and that was just a small part of a much larger game.

Graphically, The Crew is a decent looking title and performance is solid considering the impressive size of its open world. But the game does suffer from some unfortunate server lag that can be rather distracting whilst driving. Also, as impressive as the open world is, most of it does only exist to serve as a long drive from one mission to the next, and you’ll always want to fast travel where available.

I actually got The Crew for free, so I suppose the question is – would I recommend paying for it? Is it worth it? Maybe on sale, I suppose, if the notion of a massive open world driving game appeals to you. And it probably is the best massive open world driving game out right now. But it’s also a game that falls far short of its potential and cuts too many corners in the areas that matter. Not a bad title, but disappointingly limited.


Monday, 21 November 2016

Steep (BETA)

Steep is an upcoming extreme winter sports game set in the Alps, represented in game as an open world you are free to explore. You can switch on the fly between four different activities – skiing, snowboarding, wingsuit flying and paragliding. The world is always online and very much multiplayer/social focused.

The core gameplay ‘loop’ is essentially this – you start at the top of one of several mountain peaks. You then go down that mountain either by land, by air or by a combination of the two. When you reach the bottom, you then fast travel back to the top and do it all again.

And that’s kind of fun, for a little while. There’s a nice sense of speed and freedom as you throw yourself off a platform onto a near vertical drop, before gliding, skiing or snowboarding your way to the bottom, pulling off all manner of cool tricks and jumps as you go. At times, you’ll wipe out, hitting the snow or rocks and ragdolling your way rather hilariously down the mountain. Which is also kind of fun, at least for a little while.

The scenery is certainly pretty, with some lovely views from the mountain peaks. Graphically though, it must be said that the game isn’t that fantastic. The snow is handled well, but rocks, trees and the few buildings that exist on the map are all a little shoddy. The music isn’t that great either, and rather irritating when it loops every time you want to restart a particular challenge or run.

There’s an emphasis on community content, with the ability to create your own runs and share them with other players, or by recording your runs and editing the footage into a slick video replay. You can customise your character with a variety of unlockable clothes and equipment, although it’s all apparently cosmetic in nature, rather than stat based.

But there is a ‘level’ system in the game, which you can increase by exploring the world, completing ‘mission’ objectives and participating in challenge runs – in which you’re scored by time and tricks and awarded medals based on your performance.

The real problem Steep has though, is that there’s just not much to it. There’s not much game here to get stuck into. Sure, it’s a large open world you can explore – but it’s a world of snow, rocks and trees. Once you’ve traversed one mountain slope, you’ve pretty much traversed them all. Whilst it’s fun throwing yourself down a mountain a few times, there’s nothing new or interesting to see.

To make matters worse, the world doesn’t feel hand crafted or tailored for the gameplay. There’s a few obvious ‘trails’ to follow in the snow, but there’s no carefully placed jumps or trick opportunities. In fact, you’ll often hit patches of hard rock or inexplicably placed wooden barriers which impede your descent, which makes the free roam less enjoyable and fluid than it should be.

And the same problem applies to the challenge runs – set courses to follow with checkpoints. But these feel randomly put together too, with no thought put into providing an enjoyable and challenging custom designed course. The entire world feels like it was procedurally generated, with no consideration to the core gameplay.

That’s what really kills Steep for me. If the game had a selection of varied, challenging courses, with multiple routes of varying difficulty and abundant trick opportunities – I’d be far more positive about it. But it doesn’t. So I can’t.

And unfortunately, the environments aren’t the only issue. Whilst snowboarding and the wingsuit are fun, and skiing is okay, the gliding is dull as f**k. It’s terrible. And that’s a quarter of your available gameplay down the drain right away. The trick system is also rather poor. You never really feel ‘in control’ of what you’re doing, as it’s more a matter of timing to stop performing tricks before you crash to the ground, rather than actively using combos to string different tricks together.

Speaking of controls, they feel too loose and nowhere near as responsive as they should be. And hit detection in the game is a bit of a mess as you’ll sometimes pass near a tree or rock and then go flying head over ass as if you clipped it.

All that said, I still had some fun with Steep. There are moments when you do find a good run in the open world and it’s a cool rush as you slide and trick your way to the bottom. But there’s just not enough game here to make it worth a purchase, especially not at full price.

Hell, even half its release price would feel a little steep (huh huh) as the entire game feels more like a tech demo with a few features tacked on and an over reliance on player created content to prop everything up.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Now Playing: Bastion

Bastion is an action-rpg by Supergiant Games, the developers of Transistor and the upcoming Pyre. Bastion was originally released in 2011 to an extremely positive reception, but I wasn’t as enamoured with Bastion as many others, which is why I was somewhat sceptical of Supergiant’s next game – Transistor.

But if you’ve seen my Transistor review, you’ll know I thought that game was pretty damn amazing. So I really wanted to give Bastion another shot to see if it could hook me now in a way that it didn’t at release. So has it? Unfortunately – no.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Like Transistor, the visuals, animation, music and sound of Bastion is fantastic. The world is interesting, with a subtle attention to detail, history and story. You play as ‘the Kid’ who awakens to find his world shattered (quite literally) into pieces. You need to figure out what happened and how to put the world back together again.

Unlike Transistor, however, the story isn’t quite as engaging as its premise. Like the world of Bastion, it’s a fragmented narrative, that despite the wonderful narration, struggles to make an impact until the very end. The story and characterisation is too threadbare and too shallow to illicit much of an emotional reaction.

Which I wouldn’t care too much about if the gameplay of Bastion offered more than it does. The game is split into small, separate levels that take roughly 10-15 minutes each to complete. There’s a good variety of locations and enemies, but the combat itself is rather one-note regardless of which weapon or ability you choose.

And the game does have a decent selection of weapons and abilities, all of which feel different to use, but sadly none of which encourage a different style of play. You’ll earn experience to ‘level up’ which unlocks slots for various boosts in the form of ‘tonics’, and you’ll find (or purchase) upgrades to your weapons. There are also ‘idols’ which add various gameplay modifiers and can be combined to further increase the challenge.

All of this stuff is fine, but the problem is, it’s all slowly unlocked as you progress through the game. Which sounds like a weird thing to say, as I normally like it when a game continually unlocks new mechanics and challenges as I progress. Let me explain – Bastion’s gameplay is basic to say the least. It’s pretty much just a simple button masher with little tactical depth aside from a ‘counter’ mechanic using your shield. It’s functional, but not terribly exciting.

It only begins to become more exciting as you unlock the various weapons, tonics and idols to mix up the core gameplay. But because each level (10-15 minutes) and the game (about 5 hours) is so short, you simply don’t have the time to properly explore or enjoy these new additions before the game is over. There’s no option to replay levels in a single playthrough. The intention is that you’ll begin a New Game+ with all of these items unlocked and ready to use from the start.

But the gameplay of Bastion just isn’t terribly interesting without applying the various modifiers – which you won’t have fully unlocked until the very end. When your game only becomes interesting to play once you’ve finished the damn thing, that’s a bit of a problem.

I can’t say I didn’t have fun playing Bastion again, but my opinion on it hasn’t really changed. Because the initial playful is so painfully average (in terms of gameplay) I’m not exactly desperate to jump into New Game+ even though I know it’ll offer a better overall experience.

This is something Transistor did brilliantly. It offered a satisfying first playthrough, and an even more satisfying second. Bastion, on the other hand, has an initial playthrough that feels like it exists purely to unlock things for New Game+. But I don’t want to be too hard on Bastion because overall, it’s a decent game. I just find its design so frustratingly backwards.


Friday, 11 November 2016

Titanfall 2: Multiplayer Map Design

I’ve already spoken a little about the disappointing multiplayer map design of Titanfall 2 in my review, but I wanted to take a more in-depth look and explain why, when compared to the maps in the original, those in Titanfall 2 kind of … suck.

As I said in my Titanfall Retrospective, Titanfall is a game of multi-layered gameplay and a strong aspect of its appeal is the interplay between Pilot and Titan combat. Maps in the original game were perfectly designed to accommodate both pilot and titan gameplay.

They did this by carefully balancing what we shall call ‘pilot terrain’ and ‘titan terrain’. Whilst all the maps had open areas and channels to accommodate titan movement and combat, they also featured areas and pathways that were only accessible to pilots.

This ‘pilot terrain’ allowed those not in a titan to traverse the maps with a degree of safety. Not only could titans not access these areas, they were often unable to target pilots moving within them. It granted vulnerable pilots the ability to traverse, relocate and evade.

The maps in Titanfall 2, unfortunately, strike a terrible balance between pilot and titan terrain. There are very few, if any, ‘safe’ pilot pathways to traverse the maps. All of the maps, to one degree or another, favour titan gameplay over pilot, and this is an issue that I consider to be a serious flaw in the map design of Titanfall 2.

The Amped Hardpoint mode, in particular, suffers for this poor map balance. On many of the maps, every domination point is either located within titan terrain, or accessible to titan line of fire. But, ultimately, all modes, even those that are less objective focused, suffer due to this imbalance between pilot and titan gameplay.

Titan domination is the key to victory in nearly every mode. The team that can control the titan terrain, effectively controls and wins the match. I know it can be argued that this was also the case in the original game, but it was never this easy.

A team without titans could still traverse the maps with relative ease. They could evade, relocate and strike back. But with some maps in Titanfall 2 featuring what I would estimate to be less than 10% pilot terrain, there’s very little opportunity for a team without titan control to respond.

The lack of pilot terrain also causes serious issues with pilot spawns, as pilots either respawn in open titan terrain – an easy target – or within a very small ‘safe’ area which is nearly always separated by open terrain, allowing titan players to effectively contain their opposition within a single location.

In the original game, pilot terrain was designed to allow fairly safe traversal from one side of the map to the other through the use of tunnels, narrow passageways and rooftops, all of which interconnected. But in Titanfall 2, the few areas of ‘safe’ pilot terrain are nearly always separated by open titan terrain, meaning there’s no safe way for a pilot to traverse the maps without continually exposing themselves to titan observation and line of fire.

Verticality was also a key aspect of the maps in the original. It allowed pilots to traverse the terrain far more quickly than if they were in a titan, often either above or below the titan terrain where they couldn’t be reached. But in Titanfall 2, the maps are far more ‘flat’ with many featuring only one or two levels, and both fully accessible to titans.

And whilst the maps of the original did adhere to the ‘three lane’ structure of design, it was never so apparent as it is in Titanfall 2 due to the verticality and interconnections of pilot terrain. Titanfall 2 severely lacks that key balance between pilot and titan terrain and as a result, it lacks the important balance between titan and pilot gameplay.

I don’t think the maps of Titanfall 2 are terrible, but they don’t serve the multi-layered gameplay of Titanfall. They don’t provide the necessary balance. Whilst their visual and environmental variety is an improvement on those of the original Titanfall release maps, their design is far more simplistic and poor in terms of balance.

The maps of Titanfall 2 are easily its most serious weakness, which is quite disappointing when compared to the original game, where they were one of its greatest strengths. We need maps with a split balance between pilot and titan terrain. We need maps with far more verticality, with multiple levels both above and below. We need objective and spawn points to be more carefully considered. And we need far more complex maps, with interconnected pathways allowing for fluid pilot traversal beyond the traditional ‘three lane’ design.

I would happily pay for a map pack with updated versions of all of the original maps in Titanfall 2, because as great as I think the game is, I can’t deny that it’s seriously lacking in a key area that is vital for its long term prospects and appeal. We need new maps. We need better maps. As fantastic and satisfying as I find the multiplayer of Titanfall 2, all of it falls a little flat without the maps to properly accommodate it.

If there’s one thing I’ve seen that even dedicated fans of the game can all agree on, it’s that ‘the maps kinda suck’. I can only hope the developers are listening and understand why.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Now Playing: Titanfall 2

The original Titanfall is one of the most enjoyable online shooters I’ve played in the last decade or so. Even though the player base on PC was fairly dead within a year, it was able to maintain a small, but dedicated community thanks to its excellent core mechanics and some fantastic maps. It was a game I continually returned to, despite its somewhat limited content and lack of populated modes. When Titanfall 2 was announced, it instantly became one of my most anticipated titles of the year. The question is – does it live up to my expectations, and is it a better game than its predecessor?

To say that Titanfall 2 is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the original is a little tricky because nearly every aspect of the original has been overhauled to one degree or another. This will undoubtedly disappoint some fans of the original, who may have simply wanted Titanfall 1.5. That’s not quite what we got. Titanfall 2 plays and feels quite different to the original game. If all you wanted was Titanfall 1 with more stuff, you may be disappointed.

Movement was a key part of the original game, and so it is in the sequel. The system isn’t entirely the same, however, with alterations to speed, momentum and the addition of a slide mechanic. Based on what I’ve played (40 hours, Campaign completed on Hard, Regen 2 Level 30 in MP) Titanfall 2 is actually faster than the original, but it does take longer to build up that speed by chaining together wall runs and slides.

And wall running is far more ‘sticky’ than in the original, making it much easier to traverse the maps whilst barely touching the ground – when the maps allow for it, at least (more on those later). I can’t really say which system I prefer. Both are extremely enjoyable in their own way, but I must admit that if I returned to the original game now, I’d probably find it strangely restrictive and slow compared to Titanfall 2.

The pilot combat of Titanfall 2 also feels quite different. It’s more fast paced, with quicker kills and even quicker deaths. There are various factors contributing to this feeling relating to weapon types, pilot abilities and map design. And I hate to say it, but it does make Titanfall 2 feel a little closer to a Call of Duty title than the original did, which you’ll either see as a positive or a negative depending on your preference.

Titan combat is also different, with the 6 available Titans having locked weapon and ability sets. Some may be disappointed at the lack of customisation, but I actually quite like this change, as it gives Titan v Titan combat a more strategic feel, particularly in the Last Titan Standing mode.

Titans, due to a lack of a recharging shield, initially feel weaker than those in the original, and much more vulnerable to pilots. But once you learn how best to use them, and realise how important it is to work alongside the rest of your team, you soon realise how powerful they actually are. And the game actively encourages team play when in and out of a Titan through the new rodeo and ‘battery’ mechanic, whereby you can steal an enemy Titan’s battery and give it to a friendly Titan for a very useful shield boost.

The only real problem with Titan combat and models, is how some Titans feel far more powerful than others. Actually, it’s not such a matter of power, but of the roles they play. Ion, Scorch, Ronin and Northstar all occupy very specific class based roles, but they don’t excel at everything. Ion is great for precision play and support. Scorch is a heavy hitter and great at locking down areas of the map. Ronin is fast and deals high short range damage, but is very weak at long range whereas Northstar is a glass cannon, able to dish out high long range damage, but is very fragile with few defensive options.

And then we have Tone and Legion which … are just good at pretty much everything. Short range, long range, high damage output, good defensive options … it’s no surprise the majority of people are rolling with one of these two Titans. I favour Tone myself as I was a big fan of the 40mm cannon in the original, but even I can’t deny that these two Titans are simply a better overall choice than any of the others.

These need some tweaking to make every Titan feel like an effective choice. And Titans aren’t the only things needing some tweaks. Pilot weapons could also use a few alterations in terms of stats. SMGs in particular are ridiculous. I loved using SMGs in the original game, where they operated as strong, short to mid-range weapons – as you would expect. But in Titanfall 2, the SMGs have insanely long range and even more more insane precision hip fire.

I like and actually prefer hip fire weapons to ADS, but it’s pretty silly being able to kill a pilot with an SMG half way across the map in two short bursts. Yes, it’s that stupid powerful. I shouldn’t get better long range accuracy shooting an SMG using hip fire, than shooting with an assault rifle using ADS. They seriously need their effective range reduced, or everyone will start rolling with SMG builds, just as they’ll all be rolling with Tone and Legion.

Which would be a damn shame, because the weapon selection and variety of Titanfall 2 is fantastic. Every weapon feels unique in how it handles and extremely satisfying to use. The only exception would be the LMGs, which I’m still trying to figure out what kind of role they’re intended to play. They’re powerful, but I don’t see any situation where an assault rifle or SMG would be any less effective.

I even like the sniper weapons in Titanfall 2, believe it or not. At least, I like the Double Take, which is a cross between a sniper rifle and a semi-automatic rifle. The weapons don’t just feel good to use, they also sound amazing. In fact, the general sound design of Titanfall 2 is fantastic – it’s just a shame the music is so forgettable compared to the original.

In terms of MP progression, there’s a ton of stuff in Titanfall 2 to unlock – weapons, attachments, modifications, abilities, boosts and hundreds of various skins for both pilot, weapon and Titan. The fan favourite Attrition mode returns, with the addition of new enemy types, as does Last Titan Standing, Capture the Flag, Pilots vs. Pilots and Hardpoint. Although Hardpoint – one of my favourite game modes of the original – has been revamped as ‘Amped’ Hardpoint.

And I can’t say I care for it in Titanfall 2 as much as I did in the original, as the new ‘amped’ mechanic encourages more static behaviour than I prefer. It essentially means that sitting on a point doubles its score per second. And if you want to play effectively and win, you’re really required to amp those points and hold them, but that results in a lot of sitting around and waiting when you want to bouncing off those walls.

The new game mode Bounty Hunt, a neat twist on Attrition, is a fun addition with an interesting risk/reward system. And then we have Coliseum – a 1 v 1 mode that’s more of a novelty than a serious addition. There’s also Free For All, but I haven’t played much of this mode and it’s probably the least popular based on population.

The maps don’t really feel designed for it, especially not the spawn system. The first time I played it I died at the beginning of the match without even taking a single step – the game spawned someone directly behind me like it would in a team based mode. And unfortunately, it’s not the only mode with spawn problems, as the game occasionally likes to drop you back into the action directly in the path of an enemy Titan or in the line of sight of multiple enemy players.

There are also some issues with the Titan drop system on some maps (Complex in particular) whereby you can aim at the ground to call in your Titan, and it’ll drop on the other side of the bloody map. Melee hit detection is also all over the place, leading to awkward moments when you’ll meet an enemy player and spend ten seconds frantically trying to hit each other before a blow randomly decides to connect. But like many of the issues I’ve mentioned, this can be fixed. And none of these are major issues – just annoyances that should be smoothed out over time.

What can’t really be smoothed out, is that Titanfall 2 does share one problem with the original in the sense that if only one or more of your team doesn’t quite perform, it’s easy to get stomped, no matter how well you play. It’s also common seeing people quit matches when they’ve barely begun because the enemy team take an early lead – but this just f**ks over everyone who’s left. I see this a lot in Capture the Flag.

And then we have to talk about people cheating/hacking because we’re already getting reports of it barely days after the game’s release. It wasn’t a major issue in Titanfall 1, so I hope that’s the case here, but I’ve already encountered a few players myself who are … questionable, to say the least.

Something else I need to talk about is map design. The maps in Titanfall 1 were fantastic and perfectly accommodated the multi-layered gameplay. Titanfall 2 … not so much. Whilst the maps offer more visual variety this time, and all of them are fine, none of them are particularly exceptional either. When the map most people are eager to play is a remaster of a map from Titanfall 1, that really tells you something.

The maps also feel very ‘artificial’ and over designed. The maps in the original felt like real places, as odd as that sounds, but the current maps in Titanfall 2 feel like fake arenas that are structured not as a real location would be, but as a multiplayer map should be. They’re also all rather flat, compared to the multi-level verticality offered by those in the original. And with only nine release maps, I’m already getting a little tired of some of them.

This certainly isn’t helped by a map rotation system that seems to favour certain maps more than others – I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve played on Exoplanet, but I’ve lost count of my matches on Drydock. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky.

And not all maps seem appropriately designed for all modes. Amped Hardpoint suffers in particular in terms of the objective placement, many of which are in an easy line of sight for Titans, meaning that on some maps, which team get their Titans down first can easily dominate and stomp the enemy team, essentially trapping them within their own spawn zone.

I’ve already hit max level in the multiplayer and ‘regenerated’ to see what happens. It’s not too punishing, as it doesn’t reset your weapon or Titan levels – you just need to level up to unlock them again. Overall, the MP of Titanfall 2, whilst feeling different to the original, having no truly great maps, and suffering from some early release balance issues, is still easily one of the most enjoyable, polished and tightly designed shooters you’ll ever play.

Titanfall 2, unlike the original, also offers a full single player campaign which is easily one of the best shooter campaigns I’ve played in years. It’s very short – about 5-6 hours on Hard (and Hard is something of a cakewalk) – but the polish and variety is fantastic, and the entire campaign is a perfect tutorial for movement, Titan classes and weapons. Whilst the story is fairly generic, the characters help bring it to life, and the gameplay is fast paced and far more free form than you might expect.

It feels like a cross between the new Doom and Portal 2, with open areas full of bad guys to shoot, but mixed with fun platform puzzles to solve. It mixes things up every level so you never get bored and it’s something I can see myself replaying multiple times. But as great as it is, I still wouldn’t recommend the game purely for its campaign alone, at least not until it’s on sale, as the MP is obviously the primary focus. But if you love single player first person shooters, you really need to pick it up at some point.

So does Titanfall 2 live up to my expectations? I’d say yes – but it’s not perfect, and it certainly needs more care and attention. I still can’t say if it’s ‘better’ than Titanfall 1. It’s just different. In some ways, for the better. In other ways, for the worse. But it’s easily the best online shooter I’ve played since the original, and despite releasing at a difficult time, I hope it can retain its existing users and continue to grow its community. It’s far too good not to.