Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Battleborn (BETA)

Battleborn is a multiplayer focused, MOBA style first person shooter. I really didn’t know much about Battleborn going in. In fact, I haven’t really seen or heard much about it at all. It seems a little overshadowed by Overwatch, although based on what I’ve seen and played, Battleborn offers quite a different experience.

But it’s not hard to see why comparisons will be made. Both are ‘hero’ based team games, with a variety of unique characters to play, combined with vibrant, cartoon style graphics. But though it’s primarily a multiplayer game, Battleborn does offer a fun, if somewhat limited single player and co-op campaign mode.

It’s essentially a series of missions strung together with a very loose narrative thread. It shares a style and humour similar to Borderlands in terms of characters and ‘story’. Although a welcome addition, these missions appear to be little more than linear corridors with multiple enemies to grind your way through.

The beta only included two missions, so I can’t say how the rest will pan out, but what was on offer was extremely basic. You can play these missions solo or in co-op, and I suspect co-op play is where you’ll find the most enjoyment in this mode. As you progress through the level you’ll face a handful of mini-bosses before eventually encountering the final end of mission boss.

The boss fights are a lot of fun, each featuring unique enemies with unique attack patterns. They make a welcome change of pace to the repetitive hordes of standard enemy grunts. The bosses are, without a doubt, the highlight of the single player/co-op mode, and they make grinding your way through the (admittedly very pretty) corridor worth it in the end.

That said, once I’d completed both of these missions, I had zero desire to replay them. The game does give you some incentive to do so – higher difficulty modes and the ability to unlock gear that can carry over into the MP – but there simply wasn’t enough variety or complexity to draw me back in.

A big part of the problem is how the hero characters play. Each character only has two types of attack combined with three special abilities, all of which you’ll be rather tired of by the time you’ve grinded your way through the mission. These limited weapons and abilities make perfect sense within the context of the competitive MP, but result in a repetitive SP/co-op experience.

I’d have liked this part of the game far more if there were periodic ‘character flip’ stations positioned throughout each mission, allowing you to switch to a new hero, thereby providing some much needed variety.

Which leads us onto the core part of Battleborn – the MP. Two modes were available in the beta, although I really only sunk any significant time into one of them – Incursion. There was another mode called Meltdown, but I didn’t find it as compelling or enjoyable as Incursion, so that’s pretty much what I stuck with and will be referring to in this post.

So as I said, Battleborn is a MOBA style first person shooter. The map is essentially one long corridor, along which there are four ‘objective’ NPCs – two on each team – that must either be protected or destroyed. As you advance through the map you can earn and collect shards that allow you to utilise equipped gear, build various automated turrets or spawn ally NPCs.

It’s a 5v5 game that requires a degree of coordination in order to win. Because although the hero characters you play as are certainly powerful, the match really is won or lost by which team better manages their NPC support. Your ‘minions’ are a key part to victory, particularly when facing the objective NPCs which take time and serious fire power to take down.

Playing Battleborn for the first time in MP is a little bit of a nightmare in terms of knowing exactly what the hell is going on or what you’re supposed to do. But the map is neatly designed and full of helpful icons and hints which push you in the right direction, and after a match or two you should be fully up to speed.

It’s also important to try to build a somewhat balanced team, with characters who fall into specific class groups – ranged, melee, heavy, light and healing. There’s a wide and varied selection of unique characters to choose, each with their own attack types and special abilities. I didn’t have time to play or unlock them all, but I found 2-3 I quite enjoyed, particularly the mushroom headed healer.

As you progress through a match your hero will level up, allowing you to unlock boosts to your existing abilities. You can also spend collected shards on unlocking gear (you can take 3 pieces into a match) which provide unique effects such as increased damage, shield strength, or a reduction in ability cooldown.

Matches are fast paced, colourful and hectic, lasting no more than 30 minutes, which is the match limit. And I have to say, I had quite a lot of fun playing it. For a game I knew little about and had little interest in, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. So will I picking it up on release? Well...

When both teams clash in a match, it’s often hard to know exactly what the hell is going on. I like how bright and colourful the game is, but when multiple AoE attacks are popping off, the combat becomes a total clusterf**k that’s nearly impossible to sort through, particularly if you’re playing as a melee focused hero.

Balance is something I can’t really comment on. With so many characters with so many varied abilities, it’s hard to get a sense of any that may prove more or less effective than others. What I can say is that some of the characters I played did feel more effective than others, but that may have been due to me favouring their style of play more than anything.

My main concern for Battleborn is really long term appeal. Sure, I had fun with it, but even with a variety of maps, there’s no getting around the fact that the game modes are essentially a repetitive grind from A to B. Also, because each hero only has a small number of attack types and abilities, playing as the same hero a couple of times in a row can get a little tedious. Thankfully, the hero selection is extensive and varied, so there’s always something new to play and mix things up.

Is there depth to the game? Is there scope to improve as an individual player? That’s hard to say. Once I’d played as the mushroom headed healer several times I think I got pretty damn good with them. In fact, I don’t think I lost a single match when playing as a healer. But had I ‘mastered’ this hero? Probably not, but I didn’t feel like I was that far from it either.

And maybe that’s by design. Because Battleborn is a team focused game, so maybe it’s not so much about individual skill, and more about working together to achieve your objectives. So although it may not take long to ‘master’ each hero, the real skill is more about supporting your team and playing to your strengths as part of a larger strategy.

Game performance is solid, with only a few noticeable frame drops when things get a little crazy. It’s a nice looking game and it already feels very polished and complete. And yeah, I had fun with it. But did it do enough to convince me to pick it up on release? No, not quite, especially when the game is shipping with a DLC Season Pass and from what I’ve read, will feature microtransactions.

The DLC may only be SP/co-op content, and the microtransactions may only be cosmetic in nature, but whenever microtransaction content features in a full price release, I can’t help but be wary. There’s also these things called ‘gear packs’ you can currently buy with in-game currency, but I do wonder if they may extend the microtransaction model to include them. Or maybe I’m just being paranoid. I’ve really got nothing against post-release content, I’m just concerned how it may pan out over time.

Oh, and there’s also the concern of if the game will attract a large enough player base to keep it going. As I said at the beginning of this post, it already feels overshadowed by other titles, and I do wonder if there’s enough depth and variety here to hook an audience in for the long haul. Overall though, I enjoyed my time with Battleborn, but not quite enough to convince me to pick it up, at least not on release. It’s a neat blend of genres, with a great selection of playable characters and some fast, colourful action. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Now Playing: Viewtiful Joe

Viewtiful Joe is a side scrolling action game originally released on the Nintendo GameCube in 2003. It’s a game I have very mixed feelings towards. There are some aspects I adore, but others I’m very frustrated by. You play as Joe, a regular guy whose girlfriend Silvia is kidnapped by evil movie monsters, and Joe must enter Movieland to save her.

Graphically, VJ is a great looking game, with wonderful environments, characters and animations. It’s a colourful mixture of 2D and 3D with a dash of cel-shading. In terms of audio, VJ is also pretty good, with some great music and effects. The story, such as it is, is suitably silly with a lot of humour and amusing characters.

Playing as Joe, you can perform basic punch, kick and jump attacks, combining them to form combos. It’s not quite the combo system you’d expect, however. Chaining together hits will net you more points, but it’s the dodge mechanic that’s at the heart of VJ’s combo system.

Dodging just before a hit will ‘daze’ an enemy, allowing Joe to strike freely and deal more damage. You also net more points for doing so. It’s a neat risk/reward system. Sure, you can blast through and attack without worrying too much about dodging (at least on the easiest difficulty), but doing so will grant you faster kills, more points and a higher final ranking. And on the higher difficulties, knowing when and how to dodge effectively is a requirement if you want to survive.

The combat system isn’t just about punches and kicks, though. You also have three special abilities – to slow time, to speed it up, or to ‘zoom in’ – all of which can be combined with your standard attacks. It creates a stylish, colourful and varied combat system, one which takes time to learn and master. Although I liked the system overall, I do have some minor gripes with it.

The first is that it’s not the most fluid system in terms of movement, particularly when Joe is in the air. Repositioning can be tricky, and you’ll often find yourself unable to move when locked into an animation. Certain enemies can also lock into an animation that completely ignores your attack, forcing you to watch as your kicks and punches simply pass through their model.

That’s because the combat system in VJ is one of precision. It requires precise movement, timing and strikes. It’s designed to be this way, so my gripes are a matter of personal preference more than anything, but as a result, I did find it to be more frustrating than fun at times, and I do wish there was more fluidity of movement, and more freedom to break free of animation cycles.

The game takes place across seven episodes, taking roughly eight or so hours to complete. But it’s the kind of game that you can really race through if you know what you’re doing. It’s one of those rare games I’d be genuinely interested in watching a speed run of. The episodes offer a fairly varied mix of environments and challenges, each with their own boss.

There’s a lot of platform style puzzles and challenges to complete, in addition to the fighting. And I really liked how your time powers are incorporated into these environmental puzzles. The boss fights are all unique and challenging in their own way, but they’re also not without their issues.

Many of the bosses tend to have very specific attack patterns, and learning these really is the key to beating them as opposed to player skill. Rather than intuitive design, these fights feel more like a matter of trial and error until you crack the pattern and figure out the relatively easy way to defeat the boss.

Enemy variety is another issue. Once you’re past episode 3 or so, there’s nothing really new to face in terms of enemy types. There’s a few new twists on enemies you’ve already fought, but nothing radically different aside from the boss fights. The game, unfortunately, also has a habit of recycling certain fights multiple times (tanks and helicopters in particular), which can grow rather tedious as you progress. Hell, the second to last episode is simply all the boss fights in the game repeated one after the other. And there’s no new twists on the fights, which is pretty disappointing.

And I guess that’s my real problem with Viewtiful Joe. It begins far more strongly than it ends. The initial half of the game as you unlock your powers, explore new mechanics and encounter new enemies and environmental challenges, is pretty damn fantastic. But the second half of the game fails to introduce anything particularly new, and the last three or so episodes are little more than a gauntlet to run of everything you’ve already faced. Challenging, yes. But not exactly compelling – more a tedious grind to the finish.

I began VJ having a ton of fun, unable to tear myself away, but as the game progressed, I found myself growing increasingly irritated by the quirks of its combat system and rather tired of having to fight the same damn enemies time and time again. I went from wanting to play VJ, to almost having to force myself to sit down and play it. VJ feels like it packs all its best moments into the first half of the game, and as a result, the second half is a little disappointing.

There’s a few extra things I should cover before I wrap this up. Points scored can be spent on certain upgrades or limited abilities between levels. It’s a neat addition, but it doesn’t really mix up the combat to any substantial degree. There are two difficulties unlocked at the start – Kids and Adult – but I’d recommend starting with Kids if it’s your first time, as it’ll give you a decent run for your money before you start getting a handle on the combat.

Keeping your combat flow going is also key to higher rankings, and kicking and punching enemies into one another can further boost your score. But be warned – using special abilities can increase your damage output, but also increase damage sustained, so they must be used with care.

Overall, VJ is a good game with a deep, if rather unforgiving combat system. Those little quirks I’ve complained about are really just a matter of personal preference on my part – an issue with me, in other words, rather than with the game. Because though I didn’t care for those aspects, I can’t really fault the overall design.

That said, I can’t ignore my other issues with the game, particularly its second half. It’s a damn shame, because I was loving Viewtiful Joe during its first half, but I found myself kind of irritated by its second. But hey, if you want an engaging, challenging and deep action game, you really can’t go wrong with it. The combat system is the real highlight and the best part of the game, despite my personal gripes. It’s just a shame the game surrounding that system falls a little flat towards its end.


Saturday, 16 April 2016

Doom (BETA)

It’s not always easy to talk about how a game ‘feels’ to play. It’s a combination of various things. What I can say is that this beta of the multiplayer component of the upcoming Doom didn’t ‘feel’ very good at all. In fact, it didn’t even really feel like a beta, more like an alpha build still in the early stages of testing.

It doesn’t feel complete. ‘But it’s a beta’, you might say – ‘of course it’s not complete!’ But I’m not simply talking about content, but that nebulous ‘feel’ of the game. It feels like it's lacking in so many areas that it’s hard to believe they released a beta in this state.

I’m not sure if the developers regard the MP component of the new Doom as all that important, because it certainly doesn’t feel like it, based on what I’ve played. It feels tacked on. A ‘tick on the back of the box’. It was expected – so here it is.

I played an hour of the beta and I’d already had enough. But to be fair to the game, I played on for a couple more, just to see if the game would grow on me, if something would ‘click’ and it would all begin to make sense.

But it didn’t. The more I played, the more I realised just how shoddy the whole thing felt. Upon opening the game I spent a few moments attempting to explore and tweak the graphical settings … only to find that there weren’t any. Outside of some basic options, all of the advanced visual settings were unavailable.

So I can only assume, that for the purposes of this beta, the game was set to a Low or Medium preset given how visually dated it appeared. It’s not a looker, that’s for sure, with some poorly textured environments and flat lighting. Everything in the game has a ‘chunky’ kind of look to it, particularly some of the weapons which seem to take up half of your screen.

But graphics aren’t everything, and I can hardly fault the performance, with a solid 60FPS at all times. No, it’s the gameplay where this beta fell horribly flat for me. Movement felt very light, yet oddly slow. In fact, there’s very little feeling of any weight to the game. Weapons lack any kind of punch. I just didn’t get any feeling of kick or weight when moving, shooting or jumping. Or also when being attacked.

And that’s a pretty serious issue, as you can suddenly see your health going down, before turning around and realising that someone has been blasting you in the back with a shotgun. And yet, there’s no real feedback of that. No, I don’t mean having jam smeared across my screen, I mean the hard kick my character should receive from taking a shotgun blast to the back at close range.

Even the rocket launcher feels flimsy and weak, with little splash damage or knock back. In fact, only 2-3 of the weapons in the beta felt at all effective. The rest, the assault rifles in particular, felt utterly weak and useless. In short, the weapons and how they handled in the beta was pretty f**king bad. They felt like alpha build versions. They simply weren’t satisfying or fun to use.

The beta contained two maps, with two game modes. The first was a basic TDM, which is pretty much what you’d expect. The second was a far more interesting ‘capture the area’ mode, with the twist being that the area was mobile and traversed a set path around the map. This was pretty neat, as a mode. Shame about the rest of the game. The beta also contained part of the MP customisation and unlock system. But these systems also felt very basic.

It felt like another case of simply adding in something people might expect from a modern MP mode, but without any effort being put in to make those elements engaging and enjoyable for the player. The customisation is nice, if limited, but all the ‘level up’ and unlock nonsense feels like a waste of time, like it was just added in to tick another box. The map design was okay, but felt small. And the whole ‘temporarily turn into a demon’ thing felt cheap and pointless.

I don’t know what the point of this beta was. It makes the MP component of the new Doom seem like a cheaply and hastily added afterthought. None of it felt right. It didn’t feel good to play. It felt weak. It lacked kick, impact and punch. I can’t even recall the music, if there was any. Even the announcer sounded bored.

Yeah, I know, it was only a beta, and isn’t that the point of it? For this kind of feedback? But the game is scheduled to release in less than a month, so is there any real chance that any of this will be improved? And if this is such a stripped back version of the game, why do an open beta at all?

I don’t have much more to say. It was just a bit crap, really. If you’re thinking about getting the new Doom for its MP, you might want to think again.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Now Playing: Fahrenheit

Damn, and I thought Far Cry 4 made me angry. That was nothing compared to playing Fahrenheit (also known as Indigo Prophecy) during which there were times I very nearly took the disc out of my console and smashed it to pieces. I’m ashamed to admit that Fahrenheit had me yelling obscenities at my screen for the first time in a long time.

Fortunately, these violent outbursts were relatively few in number during the 6 hours or so I spent with the game. But they occurred, and when they did I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to punch a game so hard. For the most part though, I was rather bored and irritated by Fahrenheit. And yet … I just had to keep going. I had to see it through. Because despite its many, many issues, there’s a pretty good concept and some interesting stuff mixed in that managed to hook me right to the bitter end.

According to Wikipedia, Fahrenheit is a ‘cinematic interactive drama action-adventure’ which basically means it’s a narrative driven adventure game full of QTEs. You play primarily as Lucas Kane, who at the opening of the game has apparently just murdered a man in a bathroom. You can move Kane throughout the environment, using the thumb sticks to interact with various items. A lot of these interactions are unnecessary and mundane, but others are vital to continue your progression.

And I have to say, I rather liked the opening sections of Fahrenheit. Playing as Lucas, your initial concern is to cover your tracks and flee the murder scene. Once this is done, the game jumps you into the shoes of two detectives sent to investigate the crime. You’ll be examining the scene and interviewing witnesses in an attempt to track down … yourself. And the game does alter slightly depending on your actions, on what avenues of investigation you choose, or what evidence you, as Kane, may have left behind.

And I liked this concept a lot – of playing both the criminal and the cop. Of course, it’s not long before the story begins to take on something of a supernatural twist. I didn’t mind too much at first, and I was genuinely intrigued by where the story was going. But it does reach a point where it loses its way – probably the moment when Lucas goes full Neo out of The Matrix – and everything stops making sense and is rushed along to a rather unsatisfying conclusion.

There’s so much in this game that, like Neo, made me ask WHY? Why did I even get to play as Lucas’ brother? What was the point of those short scenes? What was the point of the male detective or his playable segments? These include an utterly pointless QTE driven basketball game and another, equally pointless QTE driven ‘dances with his girlfriend’ scene.

It’s not so bad early on in the game, but the QTEs soon begin to take over, popping up during nearly every scene. And I just can’t figure out why. Why do I have to perform a QTE during certain conversations? What’s the point of it? There are two, quite lengthy cut scenes where a group of characters speak but the whole thing is played out by a lengthy series of QTE prompts. Why? I can understand the QTEs being used as part of the ‘cinematic’ action scenes, but in Fahrenheit, your characters can’t seem to do anything without them.

But the mundane and completely unnecessary QTE segments aren’t what made me angry. They were tedious and boring, but not anger inducing. No, that was an issue with many of the action sequences. Many of these involved lengthy QTE inputs, but slipping on a single one, even when it was set to ‘Easy’ (and I started playing on Normal, but knocked it down) can result in a failure.

The game gives you a pretty punishing window in which to hit these prompts. The button inputs aren’t too bad, and you’re more likely to miss them out of tedium than anything, but the trigger mashing QTEs are by far the worst and randomly seem to fail, often forcing you to restart the entire, tedious f**king sequence from scratch. And this is where I began to RAGE!

Too many of the QTE action scenes drag on to the point where it’s easy to fail because they’ve lost your attention, or because an input didn’t register properly or because it leaves such a small margin for error that it’s far too easy to slip up. And all it takes is a single slip to reset your entire progress, forcing you to play through these tedious sequences multiple times. To make it even more silly, there’s so many inputs in a sequence that you have to focus entirely on them, so you’re not even really watching the ‘cinematic’ scene anyway.

But what does the game offer outside of these ‘cinematic’ QTE sequences? Are there puzzles? Investigation? Exploration? Not exactly. The notion is that by taking certain actions, the way certain scenes of the story plays out will change. It’s a neat idea, especially within the early context of the cop versus criminal idea – where do you hide the evidence? What leads should you follow?

The problem is that you very quickly realise that many ‘choices’ simply lead to a failure state, forcing you to reload and trial and error your way to the ‘correct’ solution which will allow you to progress. There is some slight variation based upon your actions, but it’s pretty minimal, mostly confined to the odd piece of dialogue. And, as I’ve already mentioned, there are many lengthy scenes in the game which serve no purpose in advancing the story.

Fahrenheit is such a bizarre game to play. In some ways, I liked the mundane scenes, even when they didn’t progress the story. They were, at least, a nice insight into the characters and their lives. But it’s sadly all wasted, as none it means anything by the end. The game hits a point where the story begins taking several leaps forward and stops making any sense. It pretty much goes entirely off the rails in the last third, but at the very least, it’s amusing to see just how stupid it can get.

What was initially a slow, well paced progression is completely discarded and the story rapidly falls apart. The game becomes little more than an endless series of tedious and needlessly punishing QTE sequences that will either send you to sleep or make you want to punch it.

It’s so frustrating, because I actually liked elements of Fahrenheit. I liked the concept of switching back and forth between characters. I liked the early interaction and the conversations. And, despite my issues with it, I did quite enjoy the story, at least during the first half or so. But everything else? Even traversing the environments is a pain in the ass thanks to some incredibly wonky controls which see you continually get stuck on scenery or walls.

Even as I type this, I’m still so mad at this game. It began so promising, but rapidly devolved into a complete mess with some of the most awful, painful, tedious and rage inducing ‘gameplay’ I’ve ever experienced. But despite that, I still finished the bloody thing. I had to. I wasn’t going to let it beat me and I genuinely wanted to see how it would end. Because despite everything, Fahrenheit did just enough right to keep me going. But I was glad when it was over. So glad. And I never want to play it again.


Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Total War: Warhammer - Take Those Walls!

It seems we can’t go a week or so without another ‘controversy’ surrounding the upcoming release of Total War: Warhammer. This time, it’s about the new siege system. I’ve said before how I feel it’s time for a shake up of the Total War ‘formula’ in terms of mechanics and that the Warhammer license is a fantastic opportunity to do just that.

But as much as change and innovation is desired, it can also be feared. We’ve seen that repeatedly as more information has emerged regarding various game systems, most notably Regional Occupation and now Sieges. People don’t want the series to grow stale, but they’re surprisingly resistant when the developers attempt to shake up the core formula.

If you’ve read my other posts on this title, you’ll know that personally, I’m very much in favour of shaking things up. I feel the series needs it. That’s why I’m very open to these new systems, these new twists on the formula. Because I hope they’ll provide a unique and fresh Total War experience.

Sieges in Total War have changed dramatically from one title to the next, but they’ve always suffered from similar issues, most notably – AI. Navigating complicated siege maps and correctly utilising siege equipment has always proven troublesome to the siege AI. I think many would agree that the ‘best’ or at least, the most consistent, siege AI of the series was in Shogun 2.

But Shogun 2 was subject to a similar level of criticism upon release regarding its new siege system. Many saw it as a step back from previous titles such as Rome or Medieval 2. This is because Shogun 2 heavily simplified its siege maps and mechanics. Maps were more open, removing many navigation obstacles that might present a problem to the AI. It also gave infantry units an inherent ability to scale walls without the need to build or deploy specific siege equipment.

The result? Siege AI that was, at the time, the most consistently competent of the series. But in truth, the Shogun 2 siege AI wasn’t doing anything particularly complex – the maps and mechanics were simply arranged in such a way that made it much easier for the AI to perform. When Rome 2 increased the complexity of its siege maps, the flaws in the AI were plain for all to see.

I wouldn’t say the siege AI in Rome 2 or, more particularly, Attila, were bad, however. In fact, considering the complexity of the settlements and the addition of barricades, deployable defences and siege escalation, I’d argue the capability of the siege AI in Attila is the best it’s ever been – even more so than Shogun 2. But the fact is, the siege AI has proven to perform and behave at a higher and more consistent level when the obstacles placed before it are reduced.

Which is why it’s not surprising that the sieges in Total War: Warhammer seem to be taking a Shogun 2 style approach in terms of simplicity of design. Instead of multiple walls or gates, we instead have a map with a single wall to assault or defend. The city streets are significantly widened, as are the city walls. And, like Shogun 2, may units possess the ability to climb the walls (with ladders) without the need to build or deploy the equipment.

The intention is to create a new siege dynamic where the battle for the walls is all the more important. In previous titles, including Rome 2 and Attila, it was often sensible to abandon the walls and instead defend choke points within the city. Walls were always a terrible place to fight, most notably due to the lack of manoeuvrability for the units stationed upon them. It was also incredibly easy to punch a hole through these walls, making them rather redundant in terms of city defence.

As much as I enjoyed the sieges in Attila, I wouldn’t argue they gave any great degree of tactical choice. Despite the complexity of the settlements, walls and terrain, they played in a very similar manner to those in the original Shogun or Rome – create an opening and grind your way inside. It seems the intention of the new siege system in Total War: Warhammer is to instead make the walls the focus of the siege and the action.

With city tower range now extending into the enemy deployment zone, sieges should now be far faster paced with the attacker unable to simply sit back and whittle down the walls and defences. Now, they must take the initiative and immediately advance. But city towers must now also be manned to function, making it advantageous for the defender to hold the walls for as long as possible.

It appears units using the ‘magic’ ladders (as they’ve been referred to) will receive a hefty penalty in terms of either morale, attack or defence, meaning siege towers and battering rams (or monsters) will be the preferred way to go. And the reduction of the settlements to a single wall and gate (or two, in some cases) now means that the action is focused entirely on a single location.

This can be seen as a reduction of tactical choice, but let’s be honest – in previous games, even custom battles of the largest city maps – siege battles tend to be fought at only one or two locations anyway, and a good 60-70% of the city goes unused. Because the larger the map, the smaller the action.

The siege maps in Total War: Warhammer appear to quite snugly accommodate a 40 stack army – meaning that in the largest possible siege, every part of the map shall be used. I’ve seen people use videos of ‘epic’ custom or MP siege battles as an example of the tactical variety possible in the complex city maps of Rome 2 or Attila, but these custom set up engagements are in no way representative of the typical siege battles a player will fight during a campaign.

No, siege battles in a campaign will typically only involve a single stack or less. By reducing the map size and simplifying the design, it means these sieges will still feel like important engagements. Especially compared to Rome 2 or Attila, where you’d have very large and complex cities such as Constantinople, but campaign sieges of the city would seem rather small, because the maps dwarfed the typical number of units present in such a battle.

They also didn’t feel very much like ‘real’ cities, as many were just walls surrounding a small number of buildings. In Total War: Warhammer, the playable siege area only represents a single section of the city, and the rest of it serves as an impressive backdrop, creating the illusion of a vast cityscape, but without losing the focus.

And all this sounds good to me. It’s another shake up of the system. It’s taking lessons learned from previous games and applying them with a new twist. That said, there are some concerns I have. The first is the number of city templates. Not every settlement will have a unique layout, which I think is perfectly understandable. But the more map templates – the better. Hopefully they’ll have an extensive selection.

I also hope we’ll see variation between settlement layouts in terms of race. This isn’t a major issue, as the races will each possess unique architecture, somewhat disguising the map design. From what I’ve seen, the human and vampire architecture looks stunning. But the dwarf siege maps do concern me as the ones I’ve seen were very visually flat and poorly detailed compared to the human and vampire maps.

Obviously, new siege maps could be patched into the game over time – as we saw with Shogun 2. I also like the notion that non-capital settlements won’t have sieges but field battles unless the settlement is specifically upgraded – hopefully this will cut down on the siege-fest that plagued the more recent titles.

As I’ve said before, there’s still a lot we don’t know and we’re really just speculating about how a lot of this will play out in practice. But like with Regional Occupation, I do see this new siege system as a potential benefit to the overall experience. A fresh experience. A chance for Total War to shake up the formula and try something new. I understand people may be wary of that, but all we can do now is wait and see.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Now Playing: Bayonetta

Bayonetta is a game that just keeps on giving. Just when you think the game has run out of ways to surprise you, it takes a sudden turn and pulls another rabbit out of its hat. I kept wondering if the game would eventually fall flat. It couldn’t keep this up, could it? But, with confidence and style, Bayonetta surpassed all my expectations, providing a thrilling ride from start to finish.

Bayonetta is a third person action game developed by Platinum Games. I never played it upon release. It was only recently after completing Vanquish again that I thought I should really give it a spin. And within only the first 20 minutes or so, I was already in love. Bayonetta is sheer joy to play.

Bayonetta, as a character, is perfect. She takes such pleasure in what she does that her enjoyment of every moment is infectious. It’s rare that you’ll find a video game hero quite so in love with what they do. Her visual design and animation is outstanding and her VA is spot on. She’s a fantastic character, not just to play, but simply to watch. And, perhaps surprisingly, she’s a character with real emotional depth.

I was expecting the story of Bayonetta to be somewhat forgettable nonsense, and although it’s as bonkers as I expected, it’s also rather engaging, as Bayonetta embarks on a journey to uncover her past. Whereas other Platinum titles such as Vanquish or Metal Gear Rising were arguably more style over substance, particularly in terms of story, Bayonetta not only provides a deep and fantastically stylish gameplay experience, but a deep narrative and character experience too.

I played through Bayonetta on the Normal difficulty, which is the highest available to start, but once completed it unlocks an additional Hard mode. It took about 10 hours, which is a fairly substantial campaign and all the more impressive considering how tightly designed everything is. Completing the game unlocks a New Game + of sorts where you can replay any chapter on the various difficulties whilst retaining your items, weapons and abilities.

It’s amazing how much I missed the first time through. There’s a lot of hidden extras to find, and the battle ranking system lends itself to a great deal of replay value. You’ll be ranked on time, damage taken, combo score and items used. There’s a nice variety of weapons in the game, all of which handle differently and provide a unique set of attacks. The combo system is refreshingly simple and responsive, but has real depth. Once you get the hang of chaining together attacks, you’ll be juggling enemies in the air like a pro.

The way the various weapons are incorporated into your fighting style is fast and fluid – but you always feel in control. It’s a game that takes time to learn and master, and with the ability to combine various weapons and different techniques, there’s a lot of scope to experiment with different combat styles. There’s a slow-motion ability which triggers upon a dodge. There’s also charged special moves to deal massive damage to an opponent in a particularly brutal ‘torture’ animation. Some enemies drop weapons you can pick up and use, providing another twist to combat.

In short, the combat of Bayonetta is fantastic. There were many fights I just didn’t want to end, because I was having such fun tearing my way through enemies and chaining together combos. It’s something I never grew tired of, especially with the ability to instantly switch out my weapons to a new set and an entirely new way of fighting.

But that wouldn’t mean very much, however, if the game didn’t provide a good selection of enemies to pummel into submission. But Bayonetta has this covered, with a variety of enemy types both large and small. Their design is fantastic, especially the bosses. Bayonetta has several boss fights, all of which require a different approach. These are a little more mixed in terms of quality, but all of them provide a unique challenge.

Outside of the combat, you also have some simple environmental puzzles and platform challenges to mix things up. And I loved the way the environments would sometimes shift during combat, meaning you’d have to be on your toes – not only aware of the enemies you’re fighting, but also of the changing environment around you.

There’s a great variety of environments, and the game is always throwing something new at you – a new location, new skills, new weapons, new enemies and entirely new gameplay mechanics. Just when I thought I’d seen everything, I could suddenly transform into a panther. Or run up walls. Or ride a motorcycle. Or control a missile tearing through the sky in an After Burner style sequence. Bayonetta is a game full of wonderful surprises. It never stops.

Are there flaws? Sometimes the framerate can suffer when there’s a lot going on, which means you might take a cheap hit. Some of the cinematic QTE moments are a little unforgiving and result in an instant death if you miss one, which doesn’t feel very fair. And…yeah, it’s hard to really think of anything to be critical of.

Bayonetta is a fantastic game, and I really can’t believe I didn’t pick it up sooner. It has a sense of fun and adventure about it that you don’t see very often. It’s a game that expertly balances humour against a more serious tone. It has the style and the substance, both in terms of narrative and gameplay. It’s video game joy at its purest. It doesn’t get much better than this.