Saturday, 27 February 2016

Writing Update

It’s time for another exciting writing update! Since the start of the year I’ve been focusing on bringing various projects to order. If you’ve followed my previous updates you’ll know I started work on a new project late last year (DOTJ). But I was also attempting to work through a fairly substantial edit of another project (TLDK) at the same time.

In addition to this, I had a couple of other projects (HS & WFTD) I wanted to do some work on. But trying to jump from one project to the next wasn’t really getting me anywhere and I was achieving very little. So at the start of this year, I decided to tackle one project at a time and try to get all of my existing projects in order, allowing me to focus entirely on DOTJ.

Throughout January I completed another edit of my e-books. Nothing substantial, just a few formatting tweaks. I also did a free promotion on a couple of them and will likely do another soon. Following this, I began and completed a light edit of HS. Then in February I began and completed a light edit of WFTD.

I was now free to focus on TLDK, which I knew would require a more heavy edit. And that’s what I’m currently working on but hope to have completed within a week or two. It’s been quite refreshing working on TLDK again. I haven’t touched the project for some time, and I feel like I’ve been able to make some considerable improvements.

TLDK is actually the first book of a trilogy, and I already have a draft of its sequel (TSOTS) but I won’t take another look at that just yet. No, once this edit of TLDK is wrapped up, I’ll be focusing entirely on DOTJ. With the rest of my work in fairly good order, it’ll be good to get stuck into something new. I’d love to have a first draft completed by say, the end May, but we’ll see how it goes.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Suburban Killbot: Top 10 Favourite Games

I’ve been thinking about doing this for some time, but it was always hard trying to figure out what to include or even how to approach it. Should this be a list of what I consider to be the ‘best’ 10 games I’ve ever played, or simply the most ‘important’ in terms of how they influenced my love for the medium? I opted more towards the latter than the former, as I must admit I’ve included some titles I probably wouldn’t enjoy half as much now as I did at the time of their release. 

So here it is, my Top 10 Favourite Games –

                              1) System Shock 2                 2) Panzer Dragoon Saga
                                     (PC / 1999)                          (Sega Saturn / 1998)

                             3) Shogun: Total War                    4) Mass Effect
                                     (PC / 2000)                        (X-Box 360 / 2007)

                      5) Death Tank Zwei                                    6) Shenmue
                     (Sega Saturn / 1996)                            (Sega Dreamcast / 2000)

                   7) The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind              8) Populous
                                   (PC / 2002)                      (Sega Mega Drive / 1990)

                                9) Dragon Force                   10) Wizard of Wor
                             (Sega Saturn / 1997)             (Commodore 64 / 1983)

Once I’d figured out how I was going to approach this list, picking the games to appear wasn’t actually too difficult, although putting them into some sort of order was a little tricky. I’ve already covered a few of these games on the blog, and the intention is to review or cover the rest over the course of this year if I can find the time.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Now Playing: Far Cry 4

I can’t remember the last time I was this bored or angry playing a video game. And I really shouldn’t be. Far Cry 4 has a lush open world map, solid and entertaining combat, a hefty amount of content in the form of various missions and objectives, and a narrative full of unique, quirky and fun characters. So why, when playing FC4, was I mostly either bored or irritated? I suppose it’s because FC4 feels very by the numbers. It’s not so much Far Cry 4 as Far Cry 3.5.

Like its predecessor, FC4 is a perfectly competent, open world first person shooter. You play as Ajay Ghale, who may be less of a prat than the protagonist of FC3, but is sadly just as bland. The game is set in the fictional country of Kyrat, and at the heart of the story is a civil war between the Golden Path rebels and the Royal Army of Pagan Min. As far as the narrative aspects go, FC4 is interesting enough, but that’s mostly thanks to the oddball characters who populate the story rather than the overall plot.

Unlike FC3, FC4 has something of a branching mission/plot structure, whereby you get to choose between two characters each with their own set of missions and overall objectives. This sounds great, but in reality it doesn’t make much difference to the overall experience. In terms of major deviations from the FC3 formula, the ‘mission choice’ system is the only new mechanic of note. Aside from that, it’s pretty much business as usual.

You traverse a large open map, climbing radio towers to reveal and unlock new locations and missions. These include races, hunting challenges, assassinations and hostage rescues. You can also capture enemy outposts either by stealth or force. Everything you do rewards experience, money and skill points. You have two separate skill trees, one relating to combat, the other to health and crafting.

Yes, crafting. Because like FC3, you’ll collect animal skins to craft new holsters, ammo pouches and…wallets. Yes, the upgradable wallet returns! Thankfully, I found it fairly easy to upgrade most of this nonsense fairly early on in the game. It’s like the developers felt the need to include it (it’s part of the formula!), but realised it was just a waste of the player’s time, so they made it a lot easier to knock the upgrades out.

So far, so familiar. The world of FC4 is large, very pretty and certainly enjoyable to explore, although due to its mountainous nature, it can be a chore to traverse, especially if you don’t have an air vehicle at hand. There’s a new addition of an ‘auto-drive’ feature which is nice, but feels more like an acknowledgement that it’s pretty f**king tedious driving from A to B. Speaking of the auto-drive, it’s reliable in the sense that it will get you to your destination, but it’s also quite amusing how it will happily run over any unfortunate civilians on the way.

There’s new animals to murder in FC4, although once you’ve upgraded all your stuff, there’s not much reason to bother with them. You can use bait to lure wild animals to attack enemies, but the system is so wonky I rarely bothered with it. Half the time the animal would get shot before it even did any damage, or it would ignore the enemies and charge straight at me.

This also occurred when I’d try to free an animal from a cage. Even when doing so from stealth, the animal would often come straight at me, revealing my position. One time I climbed onto a roof to avoid a tiger, only to turn around and realise the animal had teleported onto the roof with me. Either that or the tiger knew how to climb a very tall ladder.

Oh, and I couldn’t not mention the animals without talking about the bloody eagles which randomly swoop down and claw at your face for no apparent reason. I started having flashbacks to the cliff racers from Morrowind. It’s an annoying ‘feature’, especially when it happens inside a building in the middle of a fight. Whoever thought this was a good idea needs to be slapped with a dead fish.

And this seems like an appropriate moment to explain why FC4 irritated me so much. It’s not one thing, more lots of little things. I was irritated at receiving radio messages during cut-scenes when other characters were speaking, meaning I couldn’t understand either. I was irritated every time the ‘mission zone’ alert popped up because I’d dare stray a little too far from my objective. In an open world game. I must have told the game to f**k off more than once because of this.

I was very irritated by how only some ledges could be climbed but not others, or only from a very specific angle, and for no apparent reason. I was also incredibly irritated by the wing-suit, which had a wonderful habit of triggering even when I was simply hopping down from a box, resulting in an instant death as I crashed to the floor. Like FC3, FC4 also has the problem of assigning ‘pick up’ and ‘search’ to the same key, resulting in you continually tossing away your weapon when looting dead enemies.

Another issue, although not gameplay related, is technical performance, which is best described as ‘inconsistent’. I actually had the same problem with FC4 as I did with Black Flag. Upon loading the game one day, I’d get a stable 60FPS. Yet the next day, my framerate would be all over the place on identical settings. The games I’ve had this happen on have all been Ubisoft games, so I doubt it’s a coincidence.

Okay, let’s take a breath and try to talk about some positive aspects of FC3. I mean 4. The combat is fun. It has a nice flow to it and a decent selection of weapons, all of which can be customised to a degree. They feel like they pack a suitable punch, and explosions hit with an appropriate level of force. Stealth is still a little too easy, but certainly enjoyable if you like to plan an attack and take down an outpost without raising an alarm (although it’s usually quicker to just run in and shoot everyone).

As I’ve already mentioned, I liked the characters and the world/setting as a whole, it’s just a shame there’s nothing particularly interesting to do in it. But you can ride elephants! That’s new. Uh…and there’s new collectibles to find, I guess? Honestly, it’s hard to think of anything FC4 does that makes it stand apart from its predecessor. There’s some new climbing mechanics which I liked. The new environments look nice. Yeah. But that’s the real problem isn’t it? Despite the number slapped on the box, Far Cry 4 isn’t much more than Far Cry 3 in a new location with a fresh lick of paint.

Which means that although it gets all the things right that FC3 did, it also gets all the same things wrong. Because like FC3, FC4 is ultimately a rather shallow and repetitive experience. Outside of a few unique and engaging story based missions, there’s nothing here to get particularly excited about. You’ve seen and done this all before. It’s fun in short bursts, but only in short bursts. Whenever I tried to play for longer, I grew either very bored or very irritated by it all.

Because although there’s certainly a lot of content on offer, like FC3, it’s mostly meaningless, repetitive content and really not worth your time. That said, if you liked FC3 you can be fairly certain you’ll like FC4. Because it’s pretty much the same bloody game. And maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on it for that. Why f**k with a formula that worked out so well the last time? And if you liked that formula, maybe that will be enough for you.

But for me, FC4 plays it far too safe. It doesn’t attempt to do anything new or interesting outside of a few minor additions. It doesn’t attempt to innovate, or introduce new features or dynamics to the gameplay. It’s by the numbers. It’s a game built to a formula I grew tired of before I was even half way through the previous game. But does that make FC4 a bad game?

No. FC4 isn’t a bad game. But it is very bland. Very safe. Very boring. Maybe if I hadn’t played FC3 I’d have enjoyed it a lot more. But I did play FC3, and now I feel like I’ve played it again, only this time with the addition of a lot of irritating bugs and features that don’t quite work. And although, I must admit, there were times I genuinely had some fun with it, a lot of the time I just wanted to punch it in its stupid face.


Tuesday, 2 February 2016

The Division (BETA)

Set in a New York on the brink of anarchy following the release of a deadly virus, The Division is a mixture of third person shooting and RPG mechanics. You play as a special operative or ‘agent’ who has been ‘activated’ and sent into the quarantine zone to assist local law and military forces to re-establish some semblance of order and control.

I can’t say much more about the narrative/character aspects of The Division, because the beta only included a single campaign mission. This isn’t entirely surprising, but as a result, it’s hard to make any kind of judgement about its story driven campaign. In fact, I’d say it’s hard to form any solid judgements on any aspect of The Division based on this beta, due to how limited the content was. Hell, I think I completed all the available content within about two hours.

You begin by creating your agent, although the beta only offered a couple of basic defaults, so how extensive the customisation options are remains to be seen. Your character doesn’t have a name, voice or personality. They’re of the ‘mute weirdo’ variety who people speak at but not to. Although you can always ‘speak’ for your character if you want, I suppose, making sarky remarks in conversations. It’s always fun when every other character is so bloody serious.

The Division is an RPG, which means you’ll level up by completing missions and killing things, although I don’t know how many levels the full game will ship with. You have a skill tree, with the choice of equipping two main abilities. But once again, it’s hard to talk much about the skill and progression system of The Division, because so much of it was locked in the beta. It wasn’t even possible to view certain character skill/talent screens to see what would be available.

It kind of left me wondering what the point of this beta was. It was a ‘closed’ beta, but the way they were handing out keys, it may as well have been open. I suppose it may have served as a useful technical / server test, but with such limited content in terms of character progression and skills, I doubt it was useful in terms of testing balance. I suspect the whole thing was just to drum up some pre-release hype.

Your character can equip three weapons – a primary, a secondary and a pistol. This is in addition to various grenade types and some special ammo types. Weapons are graded on the typical colour based system of rarity / power. They can also be modified in terms of stats and appearance. Your gear can also be improved, and there’s even a selection of cosmetic items to personalise your character.

There’s a crafting system in The Division, but this was also locked out so I can’t comment on exactly what it is or how it works. There was also an ‘intel’ section which I assume acts as a library to all the various audio logs and information you gather on your travels. I assume, because this was also locked out. Yeah.

When you first step foot in the game, your first objective is to travel to your primary base which is currently in a bit of a mess. This spins off into three core missions to start getting the base up and running again, although only one of these missions was available to play.

It involves entering a stadium to rescue a doctor. The interesting thing about The Division is that it’s a game you can play solo or in co-op. I was concerned how viable it would be to play the game solo, but thankfully, it appears to balance the content accordingly, not only to player numbers, but also to level. I played this mission twice, first on Normal and then on Hard. I don’t know how the difficulty will scale for a solo player later in the campaign, but it felt fairly balanced here.

Beyond this core mission, there was a few side missions to undertake in the beta, but nothing particularly exciting. There were also various bonus objectives to clear an area of enemies, or to rescue hostages. I don’t know if these were ‘set’ missions, or missions which would repeat over time. They felt more like the latter.

These missions reward points you can spend to upgrade your main base which will then alter visually to represent the addition of new staff and equipment. The beta was only limited to a single wing (medical) and two upgrades though, but I thought the system looked pretty neat.

In terms of gameplay, it behaves as you’d expect a third person cover shooter. You can vault over cover, perform a combat roll, blind shoot, use grenades etc. It’s fairly standard stuff. The movement system can feel a little unresponsive at first, but you soon become accustomed to it. The shooting is fairly satisfying, with a nice punch and recoil.

Of course, being an RPG, all your enemies have a level and a health bar. Which means, depending on your level compared to theirs, and if they’re an ‘elite’ enemy or not, you’ll find yourself in situations where you’re repeatedly shooting a guy point blank in the face with a shotgun and he won’t instantly die.

It’s a little weird, but it’s not quite as silly as it sounds. Most enemies do go down within a few hits, especially if you get a head shot. Some ‘elite’ enemies can be a bit of a bullet sponge, but that’s just the nature of the game. It didn’t really bother me.

I’ve not yet touched upon the multiplayer aspect of The Division. There are ‘public’ areas in the game and the instant transition between these is great. The MP, beyond the co-op of the campaign, is all about the ‘Dark Zone’. It’s a free for all area of the city where players can team up or go ‘rogue’.

It has its own level system and unique gear, but gear acquired in the DZ can also be transferred to the main campaign. It’s quite neat how it all ties together, but once again, the beta was limited in terms of what was on offer in the DZ. There are NPCs to kill and loot, but any gear you acquire in the DZ isn’t safe until you extract it by air. And until then, it’s up for grabs by any player who fancies their chances.

This is going ‘rogue’, although doing so will then make you a target for everyone else in the area. It’s an interesting system, but the DZ wasn’t particularly interesting to play in. NPC spawn times were very long, meaning you’d often be running about for significant periods without ever encountering an enemy.

And beyond doing that, what else is there to actually do in the DZ? Based on what I saw in the beta, there’s very little reason to bother with it other than the fun of teaming up with/murdering other people. Maybe the full game will feature specific missions or events or something. I hope so, because at the moment there’s nothing really to do in there beside grind for gear in order to grind for more gear.

Visually, The Division looked a bit shit when I started it up. But I can’t fault the game for its PC options, as it’s a pretty extensive menu allowing you to tweak the graphics to an impressive degree. Once I’d fiddled with those options for a bit, I got the game looking pretty damn good. It varies depending on the location, time of day and weather, but at times, The Division looks f**king gorgeous.

Of course, all this pretty can come at a price in terms of performance. Using a custom mix of High/Ultra settings, I ran the game at about 40-50 FPS. I could get a fairly stable 60 if I knocked down some options, but I found 40-50 acceptable enough, and I was willing to pay the trade off to have the game looking so nice.

There’s a really nice attention to detail throughout the environments, although I do have concerns about just how large the game map is. The beta was maybe just under one quarter of the full release map, but it was a fairly small area. That said, there were a lot of interior and underground areas to explore, some of which may only unlock for various missions.

My only other major concern is how substantial the story driven campaign is. How many missions? How many hours? Also, how much variety in mission types? Or will every major mission be a ‘go to X, fight waves of enemies, hit checkpoint, fight boss, return to base’ kind of thing?

Overall, despite my irritation at how much was locked out and my concerns regarding length and variety, I must admit that I enjoyed what was on offer in this very limited slice of The Division. I went into the game with fairly low expectations, but it surprised me in a good way. I doubt I’ll be picking this up on release, but it’s certainly something I’ll consider in the future.