Monday, 11 July 2016

System Shock Remake (Demo)

When I played through the original System Shock for the first time last year, I didn’t enjoy it half as much as I’d hoped I would. I found it more frustrating than fun, and not just because of it’s fiddly UI and controls. I felt the game lacked structure in terms of narrative, level design and progression.

I still enjoyed the overall experience (hence my positive rating) but I had little desire to play through the game again. But recently, a System Shock remake has been announced, seeking funding via Kickstarter. Based on an early surge, it’s looking likely that the game will easily meet its funding goal. Hell, it will probably surpass that goal before this post has even gone live.

But the Kickstarter offers more than the typical written promises and concept art. It’s accompanied by a short, pre-alpha demo. I gave the demo a spin to see how it compared to the original and I thought I’d share my impressions and hopes for what this remake may offer.

Graphically, when compared to the original, the remake is obviously far superior. Even though this demo is pre-alpha, and there’s clearly work still to be done, the remake is shaping up nicely in terms of its graphics – particularly its lighting and effects.

But this was expected, as was the implementation of a more ‘modern’ control scheme and UI. It was nice stepping into the world of System Shock again, and not immediately spending five minutes wrestling with the controls.

I think the most impressive thing in the demo in terms of the visuals, is how they capture the original art direction. Yes, the improved textures and detailed models are nice, but it was far more important that the style of the original game remained intact.

The demo also has some neat little animations for your character. Unnecessary, maybe, but a nice touch that I hope carries over into the final release. The demo itself is quite short – about 5 minutes – and takes you through the opening area of the game. You get to explore a little, fight 3 different enemy types and use a couple of weapons.

As far as a pre-alpha demo goes, it’s pretty convincing. But it is limited. And there’s still a lot we don’t know with regard to how the developers are approaching the remake in terms of level and mission structure.

Because, honestly, I’m not that excited or interested in a straight ‘like for like’ remake of the original. Because as I said at the beginning of this post (and in my System Shock review) there are aspects of the original that frustrated me.

This remake could be an opportunity to correct those issues. To restructure the levels in a way that provides a more logical consistency to design. To provide a clearer objective to the player. To take aspects of System Shock 2 in terms of inventory management and upgrading, and then apply them to the original.

Of course, changes to the original design won’t please the purists, but I do feel there are many aspects of the original game that can be tweaked or altered for the benefit of the remake, without losing the heart of what makes System Shock such a compelling series.

It’s a tough line to walk, but if they get it right, the System Shock remake could see a fantastic return for a beloved series and introduce it to an entirely new audience. This is one I’ll be keeping a close eye on. Let’s hope they don’t f**k it up.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Now Playing: Doom

Doom may be the surprise hit of the year. The early gameplay videos received a somewhat lukewarm response, with the game appearing oddly slow. And the introduction of ‘cinematic’ kill-moves was hardly well received. Then came a multiplayer beta with an overwhelmingly negative reception. You can read my own post about it here.

But then the game released, and to everyone’s surprise, it’s actually really f**king good. At least, the single player campaign is. We’ll talk more about the multiplayer later. The campaign of Doom is the most fun I’ve had with a single player FPS in a long time. It’s not the longest campaign – about 8-10 hours spread across 13 levels – but it feels an appropriate length. It doesn’t end too soon, nor drag tediously on.

The campaign is well paced, continually introducing new enemy types, weapons, upgrades and environments as you progress. Although each of the 13 levels are essentially a linear slog from A to B, they are far more expansive than you might expect. Exploration is an enjoyable (and rewarding) component of the campaign.

There are secrets to find on every level – collectibles, upgrade tokens, hidden Doom ‘classic’ rooms and relic challenges. You’ll likely miss many of these on your first run, but you can easily select to replay any level with all unlocked weapons and abilities carried through. Doom has surprising replay value thanks to these secrets and it’s extensive additional challenges.

The narrative aspects of the campaign are also superbly handled, with minimal dialogue and cut-scenes interrupting the action. Overall, the single player campaign is excellent in terms of content, progression and replay value. But most importantly, what makes Doom such a joy to play, is its gameplay mechanics.

Doom is a wild adrenaline rush from start to finish. Many battles take place in clearly signposted arenas featuring multiple levels and platforms. Its combat system is designed around mobility and aggression. There’s no regenerating health – and the limited health packs carefully placed about these arenas only provide a minimal boost.

If you’re low on health in Doom, there’s only one solution – fight harder. Weakening an enemy will cause them to stumble, allowing you to trigger a cinematic ‘glory kill’ which will shower you with fresh supplies of ammo and health.

You have to be aggressive in Doom. You have to be willing to get close and tear these unfortunate demons apart with your bare hands. There’s no place for taking cover. There’s no waiting for the jam smeared across your screen to clear.

The glory kill system is ingenious at encouraging an aggressive style of play, just as the arenas are designed to encourage mobility. So much of the FPS genre has leant towards slow paced, duck and cover style gameplay over the last several years, that Doom feels like a refreshing return to the fast paced, adrenaline fuelled FPS of the past.

And it’s great how the movement and glory kill systems push players who may not be accustomed to such aggressive, fast paced play, to do so. Doom is all about momentum, about moving from one kill to the next as rapidly and as efficiently as possible. It’s about building a chain, one demon to the next, never stopping, never slowing until everything on the screen is dead.

The combat is further enhanced by its fantastic selection of weapons. Ammo is limited, but it never feels restrictive. You’ll always have enough ammo for every weapon, but not enough to use a single weapon all of the time. Doom encourages you to switch weapons on the fly, but that’s not all!

Nearly every weapon also has two modifications to choose between. These include a cluster bomb enhancement to your shotgun or, (my personal favourite) micro-missiles for your assault rifle. And these weapon mods can be switched out easily and quickly during battle, adding yet more layers of depth, variety and strategy to combat.

Probably the only disappointing aspect of the Doom campaign is the relic challenges. These are self-contained challenges that involve performing actions according to a specific set of rules – such as killing X amount of demons using only exploding barrels. But all of these challenges tend to be very short and easy and have practically zero replay value.

Although the relic upgrades they unlock add additional customisation to your play style, the actual challenges are fairly dull. Aside from that, my only other gripe is that the final boss is a little lacklustre compared to some of the previous boss fights.

The campaign is accompanied by an appropriately pounding soundtrack that kicks in and ramps up at just the right moments. In terms of visuals, Doom is a great looking game with some amazing weapon and character models. And in terms of performance, Doom is excellent, with a rock solid 60FPS even on Ultra settings.

Overall, the single player campaign of Doom is fantastic. Which is why it’s such a shame the multiplayer component falls so flat. But before we get to that, let’s briefly talk about SnapMap – an in-game level creation tool. It’s a remarkably simple tool that allows players to build their own SP or MP maps.

However, that simplicity does appear to come at the price of design flexibility. With a limited number of environmental assets, and the need for every part to ‘snap’ neatly together, it does somewhat restrict how creative your level design can be. This may change – if new assets are added, and the tools expand to allow for more flexibility. But currently, it feels like a disappointingly limited system.

Which finally bring us to the worst part of Doom – multiplayer. I spent some time trying to figure out the best way to describe the MP component of Doom. I eventually settled upon ‘lifeless’. Although player movement and weapon impact feels better in the final release than in the beta, the multiplayer of Doom completely lacks the adrenaline fuelled rush that exists within the campaign.

Compared to the campaign, the MP feels slow, dull, repetitive and shallow. It feels tired – like it exists just because it was expected to. There’s no glory kills in MP. There’s no weapon pick ups (everyone has a set load-out). There’s no weapon mods – one of the best components of the SP combat.

It lacks punch. It lacks energy. There’s a pointless level up and cosmetic unlock system that, like the MP in general, feels tacked on because it was expected of a ‘modern’ FPS multiplayer. It’s such a damn shame, because if the MP side of the game had been as meticulously designed as the SP, we could have a real GOTY contender on our hands.

But instead, we have an excellent SP campaign combined with a mediocre multiplayer that I was honestly bored of after only a handful of matches. I’ve heard that the MP may be getting an overhaul in the future, but I’m not sure it’ll revitalise what is already an effectively dead player base. If anything, the MP needs to be redesigned from the ground up and built to the strengths of the SP – speed, aggression and variety.

But despite the disappointing MP, Doom is still a game I’d highly recommend if you’re a fan of FPS. It’s a wonderful combination of old-school style play, with a modern twist thanks to its thoughtful and enjoyable level and weapon challenges.