Monday, 19 September 2016

Now Playing: Mankind Divided

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is the highly anticipated sequel to Human Revolution. Set two years following the events of HR, Mankind Divided sees the return of Adam Jensen, now working for Task Force 29 – an anti-terrorist division within Interpol. As you would expect from a Deus Ex title, it’s not long before Jensen finds himself caught within a tangled web of conspiracy, surrounded by people he’s not entirely sure he can trust.

The game is divided into three primary acts – Prague (Day), Prague (Night) and Prague (Curfew). Prague is the main ‘hub’ within which many of the core and side missions occur. It’s split into two areas, separated by a somewhat tedious load screen. Those expecting a second hub or more locational variety may be disappointed, but the Prague hub is far more extensive and complex than comparable areas in Human Revolution.

Entry to this hub is preceded by an opening tutorial mission set in Dubai. There are also missions set in other locations at the end of every act – Golem City, the Swiss Alps and London. Golem City is by far the most complex, the Swiss Alps the least. These single missions do provide a little taste of the globe trotting adventure you might expect from a Deus Ex title, but as I said, those expecting multiple hub areas may be disappointed.

And I must admit, the Prague hub did begin to lose its appeal towards the end of the game. The hub itself is fantastic, with an incredible attention to detail and an extensive selection of side missions. Exploring the hub is extremely rewarding with the chance to find weapons, equipment or information that further serves to flesh out the world, story and characters.

That said, the hub does somewhat outstay its welcome by the third and final act when the size of the hub, though impressive, does lead to a lot of tedious running from A to B. This is especially irritating when some of the final core and side quests require bouncing back and forth between the two separate loading areas. And, to make matters worse, Prague becomes a ‘hostile’ zone during the third act, so simply getting about becomes something of a tedious chore.

The ending of Human Revolution was arguably its weakest aspect, and unfortunately the same is true of Mankind Divided. From the Swiss Alps mission at the end of Act 2, through to the final mission in London, everything feels rushed to a rather unsatisfying conclusion. It’s a shame, because everything up until that point is absolutely fantastic.

The gameplay of Mankind Divided is essentially a more refined and expanded version of that which we had in Human Revolution. With multiple options for either non-lethal stealth, lethal stealth or a combat oriented approach, Mankind Divided offers the gameplay variety and player choice that you would expect.

Jensen’s augmentations are expanded, offering new abilities both lethal and non-lethal. The hacking mini-game is also expanded and refined. The core gameplay of Mankind Divided is a near perfect refinement of everything from Human Revolution. And, like Human Revolution, the game has some fantastic level design both in the Prague hub and single missions that allow the player to take multiple paths or approaches to their objectives.

The side content of Mankind Divided is excellent, with a variety of substantial, multiple stage missions. Like the hub itself, these are far more extensive than those in Human Revolution. In addition to the side missions, there are also ‘points of interest’ that further encourage exploration of the hub to uncover various secrets, tools and upgrades.

Of course, giving the player such freedom to explore the hub as they please may result in them stumbling across mission related locations, information or items earlier than they were intended. But the game handles this aspect extremely well, so you’re free to to explore without fear of ‘breaking’ any future missions.

The majority of the game – the mission in Dubai, Prague (Day), Golem City and Prague (Night) is fantastic. Great missions. Great level design. Rewarding and enjoyable gameplay. Unfortunately, Mankind Divided loses its way somewhat from the end of Act 2 onwards. The Swiss Alps mission is disappointingly simple compared to the complexity of Golem City. And the third act – Prague (Curfew) – is a short and hurried act, artificially lengthened by the rather pointless ‘hostile’ nature of the map.

This leads onto the final mission in London. Thankfully, the final mission is well designed and enjoyable from both a gameplay and story perspective, but the game falls at the final hurdle by ending with a rather lacklustre boss fight and an extremely short and unsatisfying cut scene. It doesn’t wrap up much in terms of the various story threads and just falls rather flat.

If you were expecting all the clues and evidence you’ve been collecting will lead to an ending that ties everything together, you’ll be pretty disappointed. The ending feels rushed, with a sudden switch of focus, rather convenient and hurried plot developments, and no real feeling of achievement. Very little of what is set up throughout the game, either in core or side quests, feels like it pays off in any meaningful way as the game ends on an abrupt cliffhanger. Which is why, in many ways, Mankind Divided feels like only the first part of a larger story.

And I’m totally fine with that, and I’d more than welcome another Deus Ex game continuing Jensen’s story, but this game needed an ending that offered much more to the player than it does. An ending that tied together the various conspiracy threads into a satisfying conclusion whilst also providing new revelations that set up another sequel. As it is, the ending to Mankind Divided doesn’t really do either. It just kind of stops.

I won’t get into story specifics, but it’s an enjoyable tale, with all the mystery, suspicion and conspiracies you’d expect. It also deals more heavily with various social issues that are a direct result of events in Human Revolution. Although a little heavy handed at times, it deals with these issues in a fairly thoughtful and engaging manner.

The cast is good, and almost entirely new aside (obviously) from Jensen and the reappearance of a key character from the original in an important side mission. But I would’ve liked to have seen Pritchard and Malik make a return.

Another disappointing aspect with regards to the story is how few and short the core missions are compared to Human Revolution. Whereas the bulk of the content in HR revolved around its core story, the bulk of the content in Mankind Divided is found in its side content and exploration, not in its main story thread – which you could probably breeze through quite easily in 6-8 hours. So although I enjoyed the story, it’s not quite as substantial a campaign when compared to the original, and the lacklustre ending makes it all feel a little pointless.

Technically, the game runs fine but not perfectly. I was running on a custom High setting, and getting around 40-50 FPS. It could probably do with a little further optimisation, but as long as you tweak the settings appropriately to suit your system, performance shouldn’t be a major issue.

Graphically, Mankind Divided is a nice looking game, but character models appear a little dated, and animations during conversations are still oddly stiff. The game also ditches the infamous ‘piss filter’ of Human Revolution. It never bothered me that much, but I can’t say I miss it, and the new colour palette is more appropriate for the tone and setting.

Outside of its campaign, Mankind Divided also features a separate mini-game mode called ‘Breach’ that sees you attempt to hack data from within a virtual environment. It’s a rather pointless, if harmless addition that seems tacked on to sell micro-transactions. In fact, there are micro-transactions you can purchase during the campaign for more credits or upgrade points.

I don’t know why anyone would, as the game is finely balanced in terms of player progression, and purchasing these items would break that progression entirely. But the option is there, and all it’s really going to do is piss people off. Micro-transactions in a single player, full price release? I can’t imagine any profit they actually make off this pointless addition will be worth the player backlash.

When it came to scoring Mankind Divided, I was close to giving the game a solid 9. Despite my complaints, it’s an absolutely fantastic sequel to Human Revolution and easily one of the best titles I’ve played this year. But its core campaign isn’t as compelling or complete as that in Human Revolution, and when I hit that lacklustre ending, it felt like a right kick in the balls. But still, despite that disappointing final act, Mankind Divided is quite easily in the running for my personal Game of the Year and it comes highly recommended.


Friday, 9 September 2016

Now Playing: Blood and Wine (DLC)

The second and final expansion to The Witcher 3, Blood & Wine takes Geralt on an adventure to an entirely new region – Toussaint. With a new map to explore, a substantial core quest chain, dozens of side quests, new monsters and new weapons and armour, Blood & Wine offers excellent value, with an abundance and variety of content that would put many fully priced titles to shame.

And yet, though I hate to admit it, I found myself feeling a little disappointed by Blood & Wine. In terms of content, I certainly can’t complain, with 10-20 hours of play if you complete all of the core and side quests. Include the treasure hunting, points of interest, crafting and home decoration (seriously) and you could probably get a good 30 hours out of this expansion.

No, it’s not the content that disappoints me, but rather the presentation. Compared to the first expansion – Hearts of Stone – Blood & Wine isn’t quite as polished or perfectly paced. The core quest chain of Blood & Wine is a somewhat uneven tale, with a slow and tedious beginning, a clumsy middle and a (thankfully) fantastic end. As with my Hearts of Stone review, I won’t get into specifics of the story as I’d rather not spoil anything.

But like HoS, Blood & Wine begins with the offer of a monster contract which quickly reveals itself to be part of a much larger puzzle. Unfortunately, the core story quests vary in terms of quality from one to the next. The pacing also feels off when, after a slow start, things suddenly feel very rushed. Fortunately, the conclusion to the main story makes it all worth it, with a nice variety of possible outcomes based on your unique decisions.

In fact, there are entire chunks of gameplay that you will miss depending on your chosen path. And this is then followed by a lovely ‘epilogue’ scene that varies depending on choices you made during the main game. It’s a nice way to bring a little closure to The Witcher 3 experience as a whole.

But the core story certainly doesn’t feel as polished as that in Hearts of Stone, and that’s really the unfortunate thing about this expansion as a whole. And although it’s a matter of personal taste, I felt more engaged by the story of HoS as opposed to Blood & Wine. It’s still a fine tale and an enjoyable new adventure, but that lack of polish and uneven pacing certainly doesn’t help.

In terms of side content, although I enjoyed many of the side quests from a narrative perspective, few were particularly engaging or memorable from a gameplay perspective. There’s little complexity on offer, with many quests being fairly simplistic in nature and easy to complete.

There’s also, unlike HoS, no truly memorable fights or encounters. But I did enjoy the new monster types, as well as the new weapons and armour on offer. This expansion also overhauls the game’s UI and menu system into something a little less troublesome to navigate.

I hate to sound too negative about Blood & Wine, because what’s here is actually really good, but I can’t say I agree with all the praise I’ve seen lavished upon it either. I found the entire expansion to be too rough around the edges and hastily put together, with none of the quality or polish of the previous expansion. Whereas HoS felt more quality over quantity, Blood & Wine feels more like the opposite.

But if you loved The Witcher 3 I’d certainly recommend Blood & Wine. The conclusion to the core story and the final epilogue scenes make it a wonderful way to wrap up The Witcher 3 as a whole, making it an essential purchase if you’re a fan.


Monday, 5 September 2016

Battlefield 1 (BETA)

Battlefield 1 is a gorgeous, technically impressive first person shooter set during World War 1. It’s a fantastic looking game, and the organic terrain destruction and deformation is incredible to witness over the duration of a match. Performance is rock solid, loading is fast, and I had zero issues with matchmaking.

And, most importantly, it’s fun – in a mindlessly repetitive sort of way. But that’s really the problem with Battlefield 1. I enjoyed the beta in the same way I enjoyed the Star Wars: Battlefront beta – fun, for a short time, but the flaws quickly became apparent. Because like Battlefront, Battlefield 1 is a fun, but undoubtedly shallow and repetitive shooter, with serious questions regarding content and pricing.

But let’s start with the good stuff, shall we? As I said, Battlefield 1 is gorgeous, but it’s the terrain deformation that I found to be the most impressive aspect. As bombs are dropped, tanks open fire, or artillery shells explode, entire structures are destroyed or collapse. The ground is pockmarked by shell craters and the entire nature of the map and your engagement with the enemy transforms as a result.

Craters become cover for advancing infantry. Tanks roll through walls or blast houses to pieces – and anyone hiding inside. As planes race overhead, strafing the ground or dropping bombs, Battlefield 1 is an incredible spectacle in motion. The chaos of the Conquest mode creates an exciting and engaging conflict.

And chaotic is really the best word to describe Conquest. There is some semblance of order to be found in matches, but it tends to be fleeting and depends heavily on how willing your team are to coordinate their attacks. Fortunately, the game is designed to encourage cooperative play, with many vehicles requiring multiple players to be at their most effective.

But the mode also isn’t without its problems. The map available in the beta may have been impressive in terms of scale, but much of it was simply empty terrain, with one capture point placed out in the middle of nowhere. You could cut that entire area out of the map and it would benefit the ‘flow’ of the action far better, as the conflict would then be focused across a central corridor.

The map also doesn’t cater much to close range, infantry assault outside of the central town, with so much open ground making it heaven for the scout/sniper class, able to go prone on a rocky hill and rack up easy kills on players who are unfortunate enough to spawn out in the middle of the open desert.

And spawning, as it was in Battlefront, is a real issue. Sometimes I’d select a spawn location, only to be shunted elsewhere at the last second. And your placement around the spawn areas can be very hit or miss. Sometimes you’ll spawn near cover, but many times you’ll spawn completely exposed in the open and promptly be shot before you can even react. Several times I spawned in the path of an enemy vehicle.

Bad luck? Maybe. But there really needs to be more feedback for a player prior to spawning – such as the health of a vehicle before you choose to spawn inside of it. A few times I spawned into a vehicle only for it to suddenly explode. It’s these little irritations that drag the experience down. Too many deaths feel cheap because of how the game handles its spawn system.

Oh, and vaulting. Vaulting is one of most annoying aspects of the game. It should offer more fluid movement over and around the environment, but over half the time you attempt to vault an object (the rocky terrain is the worst) you’ll continually bounce back and be a sitting duck for anyone nearby. Also, doors. Doors really shouldn’t be an issue, but attempting to open doors when you’re not charging through them is a frustratingly hit and miss endeavour.

Vehicles in Battlefield 1 are also ridiculously effective. With the ability to infinitely self-repair, you can spend entire matches roaming the map in a tank, racking up kills with ease. All of my top scoring matches in terms of kills came from simply sitting in a tank. If you’re careful, repair when you need to, and don’t get overconfident, you can stay in a tank from beginning to end and tally up an impressive kill/death ratio. But is it fun to do that? Well … not really.

Classes are another issue, with the Medic and Support classes being almost entirely useless. The Support lacks the mobility or anti-vehicle versatility of the Assault class. It’s not as effective at close range, or even mid-range, and it doesn’t have the long range power of the Scout. The Medic, on the other hand, is simply redundant.

When playing as a Medic you’ll never know who needs healing because there’s no real visual feedback of that. But people regenerate health within a matter of seconds anyway, so why would you need to? People die, respawn or regenerate so quickly that the Medic class is entirely unnecessary. Nearly every match of the beta was dominated by the Assault and Scout classes – with people switching between the two depending on which area of the map they were spawning into.

Although I enjoyed the controlled chaos of Conquest, I was more hopeful for the second available mode – Rush – as it provided a more direct, objective focused push from A to B. But Rush, due to the open nature of the map, quickly became dominated by a heavy focus on sniper play, with many matches descending into both teams taking shots at each other whilst laying prone amidst the rocks.

Of course, many of these issues can be fixed or improved over time. And despite my concerns regarding class balance, map design, vehicle effectiveness and the spawn system, I can’t deny I had fun playing this beta. Because the game is damn spectacular at times. Like Battlefront, it’s a game with many wow! moments, all of which arise unscripted from the chaos.

But also like Battlefront, I have concerns regarding content and pricing. I can’t find any clear indication of how many maps or modes will be available at release, but they’re already pushing lots of pre-order, in-game content in addition to ridiculously priced ‘deluxe’ and ‘ultimate’ editions. When Titanfall 2 is offering all future maps and modes for free, it’s certainly a more attractive option.

I hate to be too negative about Battlefield 1 though, because it does seem to be offering more content than Battlefront did, and as I’ve said multiple times – it is pretty fun to play. But I have my doubts about long term appeal and how the new modes and maps will be split between content DLC packs – and potentially splitting the player base. I won’t be picking it up at release. Like Battlefront, I may eventually get it on sale, but if Titanfall 2 is as good as I hope (although the beta has me a little worried) then I’ll probably quite happily forget all about Battlefield 1.

I love the horses though. They’re like super fast mobile tanks. Riding about and slashing people to death with a sword on horseback is great!