Monday, 27 June 2016

Steam Summer Sale: Damage Report

Steam sales just aren’t as much fun as they used to be. There’s no more daily deals. No more flash sales. There’s no reason to check back every 8 or so hours to see what’s new. Every discount you see on day 1 is what you’re going to get for the entire duration of the sale.

So although the sale is still ongoing, I’ve already made my purchases. There’s no more surprises to come. My first buy was Doom. Although I thought the multiplayer beta was terrible, everything I’ve seen and heard about the single player campaign has been extremely positive.

My second purchase was the Blood and Wine expansion for The Witcher 3. I was planning to get this on release, but it arrived just a few days after Total War: Warhammer, so I really didn’t have time for it.

My next buy was Rise of the Tomb Raider, which I hope builds upon the very solid, if somewhat forgettable 2013 reboot. Hopefully there’s more emphasis on exploration, adventure, survival and actual tomb raiding this time, as opposed to tedious third person shooting.

My final two purchases were games I wasn’t quite sure about, but thought I’d give a shot. The first is Wolfenstein: The New Order, which I’ve heard a lot of good things about, and combined with Doom, should give me some quality single player FPS action it feels like I’ve been missing for a long time.

My last purchase was Batman: Arkham Knight, which if you’ve followed this blog is a game you know I was quite looking forward to, at least until it released in a terrible state on PC. But with a 50% discount, several patches and player reviews looking up, I decided it was worth a go because it’s still a game I’d like to play.

So although the sale may not be quite as exciting as previous years, at least I picked up a few things, and that means I’ll actually have some stuff to review over the next couple of months.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

E3 Special 2016

There was probably only one game that really got me excited at this year’s E3. There’s several titles that caught my eye – more than I expected, in fact – but only one I’m desperate to get my hands on. That game is Titanfall 2.

I f**king loved the gameplay of the original Titanfall, and I was a little concerned they’d f**k around with the formula in the sequel. But based on what I’ve seen and heard, the sequel plays almost identically to the original.

It’s also coming with a full single player campaign which I’m pretty happy about. What little we saw of the Titanfall universe in the original was full of potential for an engaging and enjoyable campaign mode. Give me a beta now, damn it!

Another game I’m interested in, is the new South Park game. I enjoyed The Stick of Truth a lot, but I didn’t feel any great need or excitement for a sequel. But they really won me over with the footage they showed. I’m also excited for Dishonored 2, which looks to offer an expanded world and more varied gameplay.

Watch_Dogs 2 looks neat. I’m probably one of the few people who really enjoyed the first game. It certainly felt like a game cobbled together by three different development teams, none of whom were in contact. But there was so much potential in Watch_Dogs that I hope the sequel can tap into and deliver upon.

Of course, they’ve already f**ked up by offering about seven different Special/Gold/Deluxe type editions that we’ll probably need another spreadsheet to decipher. I’d also like to see Aidan ‘Batman voice’ Pearce make at least a cameo. The dude got so much unwarranted hate, and I hope Ubisoft don’t simply drop him from the series.

For Honor also looked neat, but not particularly inspired. As far as medieval style combat goes, I was more interested in the new Mountain Blade – Bannerlord – which boasts an ‘improved’ siege system. And it did look nice, at least until it turned into a very familiar clusterf**k on the narrow walls.

We saw a little of the new Mass Effect, which I must admit caused a slight surge of excitement. Very slight. But I can’t deny it happened. There was a lot of new Star Wars shit announced, but practically nothing shown. There was also a reveal of a new Prey, which looks like it has nothing to do with the original, or the now cancelled original sequel.

We saw quite a bit of Battlefield 1 footage, but it didn’t get me very excited. It looks a lot like the clusterf**k that was Star Wars: Battlefront. Fun to play in short bursts, but lacking in depth and any long term appeal. Pretty, but shallow, and probably as short in content as Battlefront was on release.

A new Quake? No gameplay, but I’m interested. Fallout 4 is getting more DLC that is practically turning the game into a new Minecraft. Do people even still play that game for the story or quests, or do they just like building shit? I’d consider returning to the game if there was a ‘Repeatedly shoot Preston Garvey in the f**king face DLC’.

Bethesda also announced a Skyrim ‘Special Edition’, which looks like they slapped a poor quality ENB over the original game and textures. I recently began playing Skyrim again, and my modded game looks twice as good as this shit.

What else? The new Ghost Recon looks like a slightly more shoddy MGSV in terms of gameplay, but with co-op. Co-op! I really wish they’d stop with their scripted ‘gameplay’ demonstrations and unrealistic player communication.

There was a new Star Trek: Bridge Commander, only it wasn’t a new Bridge Commander (which sucks), but a VR Star Trek experience for you and three friends. If you have three friends who are all Trek fans and can afford VR.

We saw a little of Vampyr, which I’m willing to give a shot, if only because I really enjoyed the last two games from the developer. There’s a new Gears of War (meh), Dead Rising (eh), and a sequel to State of Decay which, if they can refine, expand and improve upon the original, might actually be really good.

A Gwent stand alone game was announced, which I’m not really fussed about. I enjoyed Gwent in The Witcher 3, but only really as part of the game, not it’s own thing. We saw a little of Scalebound, which I’ll keep an eye on. Oh, and Halo Wars 2. But that would mean ‘upgrading’ to Windows 10 which is something I’m reluctant to do.

Overall, a pretty good show this year. There’s enough coming up I’m interested in to keep me happy. I’ve not covered much from the Sony conference, but that shit always drags on for over two hours, so I normally just skim through it, and nothing this year really caught my eye.

There’s a new Resident Evil, but after the last few, do we really care? There’s a new God of War which looks like so many semi-open world, third person action games these days that I’m kind of amused. We also had Horizon, which still looks neat, but also another zombie themed game with a moody biker. All this third person ‘cinematic’ action shit starts to blur together after a while. I’m getting kind of tired of it.

And I really want to play Titanfall 2.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Now Playing: Total Warhammer

Total War: Warhammer isn’t another Rome 2. Let’s get that out of the way first. This is easily one of, if not the best Total War release yet in terms of stability, performance and polish. In nearly 70 hours of play, with two campaigns completed, I’ve experienced no more than a single crash and bug.

Performance is very good – although there’s clearly still room for improvement – with an average of 40-60FPS on the default Ultra settings. I’ve uploaded a lot of Warhammer videos to my YouTube channel over the last few weeks, including some performance tests in which I attempt to ‘break’ the game. So if you want to see Warhammer in action, and see how the game performs, go check them out.

This means we don’t have to spend half of this review talking about stability, bugs or performance. Which is a nice change, for a Total War release. Instead, we can focus entirely on the game. We’ll begin with AI.

AI in Warhammer isn’t perfect, but I didn’t expect it to be. I’ve always thought it important to set realistic expectations of how well an AI can perform. With this in mind, I’d rate the Campaign and Battle AI in Warhammer as the best it’s ever been in the series. It still has its quirks and issues, but overall, across two campaigns and 70 hours of play, it’s performed at a consistently competent level.

And honestly, I don’t think I expect much more than ‘consistently competent’. It’s never dazzled me. It’s never made my jaw drop. But it’s solid. In battle, it reacts quickly, uses it units appropriately, makes good use of magic and attempts to flank and overwhelm the player. It understands how to cycle charge with cavalry for maximum impact and, somewhat annoyingly, is very good at harassing your lines with ranged skirmish units.

I’ve seen some criticism of the AI for how it can throw its Lords (Generals) into battle early. But I think this criticism stems more from the perspective of how Generals functioned in previous titles, where it was necessary to keep them out of the thick of the action. But a Lord in Warhammer is a ridiculously powerful unit. During my second campaign as the Dwarfs, one of my Lords racked up 400 kills in a single battle alone.

That said, there are times when the AI can be a little too overzealous with its Lords or Heroes – and this is especially true of the Vampire Counts – where if the Lord falls, the entire army goes with him. The AI also has a tendency to reposition and reform its lines when a reinforcing army arrives on the field, as it attempts to merge the new units into its existing formation. Most of the time, this is the right call, but at other times, it does leave the AI vulnerable and open to exploitation by an aggressive player.

But yeah, overall, the Battle AI is pretty good and I don’t see it needing more than a few tweaks here and there to iron out the few issues. Siege AI is also pretty good, both in attack and defence, primarily thanks to the more ‘simplified’ siege system and map layouts. But hey, it actually works this time, so I see it as a plus. What’s really impressed me in terms of AI in Warhammer, however, is the Campaign AI.

Warhammer probably has the best Campaign AI in the series to date. I began playing Warhammer on the Very Hard setting as the Empire and promptly got smashed. This was a combination of the bonuses the AI receives on the higher setting, but also because I’d extended and expanded far too rapidly.

And regardless of which difficulty you play on, the Campaign AI in Warhammer will punish you if you overextend. It targets you where you’re weak, striking at unprotected settlements and sacking or razing them to damage your economy. It also attacks in force, sensibly positioning its armies to reinforce if you move to retaliate. And, whether by design or not, I’ve often been ‘lured’ by a retreating army into a situation where the AI suddenly brings 3 or 4 reinforcing armies into range, completely surrounding me and cutting me off.

Diplomacy, somewhat surprisingly, is a big part of the Campaign and actually works as it feels it should. This is helped by some scripted, artificial boosts to relations between factions during the campaign, as Chaos arrives on the scene to f**k everyone up.

It uses its Heroes (agents) very effectively to block armies, damage settlements and assassinate Lords and Heroes. Perhaps a little too effectively, in fact. I didn’t have too much trouble with AI Heroes during my two campaigns, but that’s because I was aware of how irritating AI agents could be in previous games, so I made sure to counter them with my own.

That said, they probably do need toning down in the campaign, because even I was able to assassinate the most powerful Lords of Chaos and remove them from the game before they’d even attacked. I actually reloaded after doing this, because it seemed a bit shitty and anticlimactic and I really wanted to face them in battle myself, even if it put me at a disadvantage.

Speaking of Chaos, the ‘invasion’ is a little underwhelming, and if you get the majority of the other factions into an ‘anti-Chaos coalition’ (which is pretty easy thanks to the scripted diplomatic boosts) Chaos will get utterly wrecked. I didn’t even finish them off in my first campaign, as a couple of the Dwarf factions swept in and smacked them down before I had the chance. It wasn’t exactly the glorious final battle I was hoping for, as the ‘Faction Destroyed’ notification popped up without any cinematic or special message.

So that’s something I’d definitely like to see improved. I do wonder if Chaos being made playable has actually resulted in them being far too toned down – so they’re more balanced to play as. But right now, they’re far too easy to play against, and I’ve actually had far more trouble with the northern tribes than Chaos itself.

There are five races in this initial release if you count Chaos, which may seem small compared to previous titles, but given how each race has an entirely unique unit roster, technology tree, Lords, Heroes and campaign mechanics, I think it makes sense. Because the biggest issues currently in Warhammer are balance issues, and if there were even more races and unit types running about, those issues would probably be even worse.

I said in my First Impressions post that this release is something of a ‘foundation’ upon which the developers can now build. It may feel a little more restricted compared to previous titles, but the result is a far more polished and stable release – one which really doesn’t need much more than a few tweaks, fixes and balance adjustments, rather than any ridiculous Rome 2 style patch extravaganza.

With this solid foundation in place, the develops can now add, expand, adjust, polish and further optimise the title the over next few years without spending all their time trying to fix the initial release. Because honestly, the balance issues aren’t too bad either. It’s just a matter of making small adjustments to certain units, some of which are currently too strong, and others too weak in terms of unit roles or cost/upkeep.

I’ve already written a lot about some of the ‘controversial’ changes in Warhammer with regard to sieges and regional occupation, so I won’t go over these again here. Yes, it’s a different way of doing things, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. I’ve said several times that I wanted Warhammer to shake up the series, and I’m pleased to say it’s done just that. I’ve mentioned how certain aspects of the campaign are more streamlined compared to previous games, particularly in terms of region management. But these changes all make sense to me within the context of a Warhammer themed Total War.

Actually, saying it’s Warhammer ‘themed’ isn’t entirely fair because, 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.

We’ve never had factions with such diversity or personality before. As someone who knew sod all about Warhammer going into this title, it’s been a real joy exploring this world for the first time. The developers have successfully and thoughtfully blended the best of both worlds into an engaging and enjoyable mix. It could have very easily turned into a completely unbalanced clusterf**k, but by showing restraint and placing limitations upon this initial release, they now have a firm base upon which to build.

Modding is supported in Warhammer, which came as something of a surprise, and although there are restrictions upon licensed content, there’s already a growing number of mods available to enhance, change or add new content into the game. Developers supporting and promoting modding from Day 1 is always good to see.

Okay, so is there anything else, positive or negative, I’ve not yet mentioned? Underground battles/sieges are pretty weak visually, with very flat lighting, so I hope that’s something they improve. And although I like the new siege system, I do hope we see slightly more elaborate maps in the future. What’s here is, once again, a solid base, so hopefully they can build upon it.

Magic isn’t quite balanced yet, particularly on high unit sizes, with many offensive spells being rather useless – although ‘augment’ and ‘hex’ spells are f**king amazing if used appropriately, even if they’re not quite so flashy.

The music and audio in Warhammer is fantastic, and the game looks incredible at times thanks to its highly detailed units. Combat feels like the perfect mix between matched and non-matched animations, with a real sense of weight and mass, which plays a key role during battle. As I said in my previous post, I’ve had more fun with the battles of Warhammer than I have in any previous game in the series thanks to its diverse unit rosters, powerful Lords and magic.

It’s exciting to think that despite completing two campaigns, there’s still three other races I’ve not yet played, with entirely unique rosters and campaign systems. For the first time in the series, I think I’m actually going to play and complete a campaign with all of them. Sure, Attila had like seven barbarian tribes alone, but I never felt any great desire to play as more than one or two of them.

When it came to scoring Warhammer, I was a little torn between an 8 and a 9. I was leaning more towards the 8, because as great as the game is, there are minor issues (primarily with balance) and this release does serve more as a foundation than a ‘complete’ product. But then I think about how much damn fun I’ve had playing this release and how excited I am to keep playing and experience the other races.

Because even if there wasn’t more content to come, Total War: Warhammer stands as one of the best in the series, an almost perfect blend that breathes new life into the franchise in just the way I hoped it would. Before Warhammer, I’d felt Total War was growing rather stale. But now, to me at least, it feels as fresh and exciting as it did all those years ago with the release of the original Shogun or Rome. That’s an incredible achievement, and that’s why I’m awarding Total War: Warhammer a very deserved -


Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Total War: Warhammer: First Impressions

I’ve sunk a little over 40 hours into Total War: Warhammer and I feel pretty confident in saying that it’s one of the best titles in the series. Maybe not the best. Not yet, at least. But the potential is certainly there. This ‘core’ release will serve as an excellent foundation upon which the developers can build over the next few years.

This isn’t another Rome 2. This is possibly the most stable and polished Total War release yet. Not perfect – there were server load issues upon release which caused some crashes, but this was fixed within a matter of hours. The only other technical issue of note, at least from what I’ve experienced, is an issue with some nasty screen tearing, although this is easily solved by using Alt-Tab to exit and enter the game. This seems to be a driver related issue, rather than an issue with the game, however, so hopefully NVIDIA will get their shit together and put out a new driver soon.

In 40 hours of play I’ve seen a single bug – just before a campaign cinematic was due to trigger, I was treated to a weird montage video of my Legendary Lord stretched across the screen. But, yeah. That’s it. One bug. Kind of hard to believe, isn’t it? 

That doesn’t mean the game doesn’t have any other issues, but these are more related to gameplay and unit balance. There’s certainly some work to be done here, but I think we all expected this given the variety of units between every race. There’s nothing noticeably serious, though. The game just needs a few tweaks and fixes here and there to balance things out.

But what about game performance? Overall, it’s very good. Once again, it’s not perfect, and hopefully it will improve over time (and once we get those drivers) but it’s easily the best Total War release yet in terms of stability and performance. I’ve been playing the game on the Ultra default setting, which isn’t entirely recommended for my card (a 780), but I still get a very solid and playable average of about 40-60FPS in both battles and campaign.

I’ve ‘completed’ an Empire campaign, which I’m actually still playing despite hitting my objectives. It’s probably the first time in a Total War game I’ve actually wanted to keep going beyond the victory conditions just for fun. And it’s exciting to think that even when I finally finish up with this campaign, I still have four other races to play – each with their own campaign mechanics and entirely unique unit rosters. The variety on offer in Warhammer is staggering compared to previous titles in the series.

The campaign side of the game has certainly been streamlined if you compare it to say, Attila, at least in terms of region management. There’s no sanitation, fertility or immigration. There’s no negative modifiers to various building combinations. All of this has been stripped away. But I can’t say I disagree with this choice. Would these things have made sense within the context of a Warhammer themed Total War? Probably not. It’s not like the Greenskins are going to be worrying about their settlement sanitation levels. 

Settlement management in Warhammer is primarily about military, defence and money. And whilst it’s a more simplified system, there’s a lot more depth added to other areas of the game – most notably Lords and Heroes – all of whom have extensive skill and ability trees, combined with customisable equipment and followers. The main Legendary Lords also have unique quest chains and gear, which can be won by fighting scripted quest battles. These are a lot of fun, offering some narrative flavour to the sandbox campaign.

There was some controversy prior to release regarding the regional occupation system, but I’ve honestly not found it to be an issue at all. In fact, I think it’s had a positive effect on the campaign in the long term. Normally by about turn 80-100 in a Total War campaign, it starts to get a little tedious, but I’m nearly at turn 200 in my Empire campaign and I’m still enjoying it a lot.

The restriction on occupation really does force you to think differently about where, when and how to expand. And surprisingly, diplomacy is a big part of Warhammer, as forming confederations and forging alliances with other races is extremely important if you want to survive and deal with the threat of Chaos.

The campaign and battle AI in Warhammer is the best it’s ever been. Campaign AI, probably more so than battle AI, which is more of a small step up from what we had in Attila. It can really punish you in the campaign if you extend too far, too fast. That doesn’t mean there’s no AI quirks to be worked on, but they’re pretty minor.

Sieges were the other ‘controversy’, but I really don’t see them as any more or less simple than previous games in terms of strategy. Here though, with the emphasis on rapid assault, sieges are actually fun to play. Probably the most fun in the series yet, with an AI that actually attacks and defends to a competent degree.

In fact, battles in this game, thanks to the inclusion of magic, flying units and the sheer variety of unit types, are probably the most fun I’ve ever had with Total War battles. This is the first TW game where I’ve sunk any significant time into the custom battle mode because it’s so damn fun putting together varied scenarios of different units.

Graphically, the game is stunning, with fantastic detail to units, animations and effects. Terrain and architecture seem downgraded compared to Attila, but not to a detrimental degree. And sound and music in this game is outstanding. The voices, the creatures, the artillery – the battle audio is fantastic and is complemented by one of the best soundtracks in the series yet.

Okay, I’m starting to gush now, so I’d better wrap this up. As you can probably tell, I’m very impressed by Total War: Warhammer. I’m excited to keep playing my current campaign, even though it’s technically ‘complete’ in terms of objectives. I’m also excited to play as the other races to see what they offer in terms of mechanics and units.

There’s so much packed into this initial release, that it’s well worth your time and money. And as I said, this is only a foundation upon which the developers can build. Warhammer has breathed new life into the Total War franchise in just the way I hoped it would. Expect a full review and my final impressions in the next few weeks.