Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Now Playing: The Division

The Division is a third person shooter set in a virus ravaged New York City. You play as a Division agent – an elite, undercover operative that is ‘activated’ in times of dire need. You’re sent into the New York Quarantine Zone as part of a ‘second wave’ of Division agents when those preceding you mysteriously fell silent. Your mission is simple – liaise with the local JTF (Joint Task Force) of peacekeepers, re-establish law and order, investigate the virus outbreak and discover what happened to the first wave.

And that’s exactly what you’ll do, over the 20-30 hours it will take to clear the ‘core’ missions and the majority of the side content. Sort of. Because one of my main issues with The Division is how there’s very little resolution to anything. You do re-establish some semblance of order, but this is only reflected in how your primary base of operations changes over the course of the game. On the streets of the city, however, nothing ever changes.

You do investigate the outbreak, and you do learn more about exactly what it is, how it was created and who is responsible. But the game ‘ends’ before anything practical comes of it. I say ‘ends’ because The Division doesn’t really end. The world is locked into a perpetual state of chaos despite your efforts.

And the first wave of Division agents? You do find out what happened to some of them, but that particular story thread doesn’t really go anywhere either, and the final mission is a terrible ‘boss’ fight against some random asshole in a helicopter. Which is also how Rise of the Tomb Raider ended. STOP IT.

I wish I could say more about the story of The Division, because the set up is fantastic, but it’s just not present in the game in any meaningful way. You get a few odd cut-scenes here and there, in which your character stands mute like a f**king weirdo, but most of the ‘story’ takes place in short radio messages. It’s kind of funny going from a game like The New Order which kept shoving its story down my throat, to The Division which barely has any and desperately needed more.

As I said, the set up is great but the game does sod all with it and nothing you do leads to any solid answers or tangible changes to the game world. It’s such a shame, because the world of The Division is fantastic, and all the little collectibles such as the phone logs and the virtual recreation ‘echoes’ build a wonderful and believable City That’s Gone To Shit.

The environmental details are great if you take your time to explore. Yes, there’s a fair bit of Copy & Paste, but there’s also a lot of unique, hand crafted environments. It’s the game world of The Division that is the real star and easily the best part of the experience.

The City is split into multiple zones, each with its own safe house (fast travel point) and its own side missions. The size of the world is fairly impressive, but once you’ve cleared the first few zones you’ll quickly realise that you’ve essentially seen all The Division has to offer in terms of content beyond the ‘core’ missions.

Every zone has the same set of missions revolving around rescuing hostages, repairing communication relays, recovering virus research, securing aid supplies, assisting JTF forces and a few others that I’m probably forgetting because all of them (aside from a handful of odd exceptions) are pretty much just about shooting people. A lot of people.

There’s something a little odd about how you can just murder people in The Division and no one ever seems to comment on how you’re essentially acting as judge, jury and executioner, even to people who may just be scavenging for food and aren’t really any threat to you at all. But the game doesn’t seem very interested in its own story or setting beyond giving the player objectives to shoot at everything, so I won’t waste any more time worrying about it.

And that’s really all The Division is – a very shallow to the point of non-existent narrative that’s used as an excuse to send you to various locations to shoot at people. I wish there were stats to know exactly how many people I’d shot, because I’m sure I’d probably wiped out more people than the virus did by the end of the game. There’s nothing complex about the objectives or how the various missions are structured – Go to X. Kill people. Fight Boss – that’s how every main mission plays out.

But I won’t lie – it is sort of fun, in a mindlessly repetitive kind of way. It’s almost relaxing how basic, repetitive and simple everything is. Go shoot people. Go shoot more people. The Division doesn’t try to be anything more than that. I find that rather disappointing considering the intriguing set up to the story and the wonderfully built world. Where’s the ambition? The Division doesn’t have any. It plays everything so safe that it ends up incredibly bland.

Not bad, you must understand. Because as far as its gameplay goes, it’s perfectly competent. But that’s all it is – a competent, uninspired, repetitive shooter that doesn’t even attempt to do anything outstanding. I’m not sure what’s worse – a shit game that at least tries something daring, or a game like The Division that doesn’t do anything remotely interesting.

And it could have, which is the frustrating thing. Whilst gameplay is always key – this is an interactive medium, so how we interact with the experience should always be considered the most important aspect – some games need story more than others, and The Division certainly needed far more than what we got.

The core missions are all fairly decent, with various locations across the City. They’re fun to play through once, but only once. I really don’t know why anyone would want to play them multiple times. Maybe they’re more fun in co-op, which the game does support, but I still don’t know why you’d bother.

I played The Division solo and didn’t have any real trouble with the missions, though there are a few tricky moments that are clearly designed for more than one player. As you complete these missions you are rewarded with experience and new items that allow you to level up and customise your character in terms of abilities, equipment, weapons and even cosmetics. But this is another area where The Division disappoints.

The initial character creator is terrible with an extremely limited selection. The cosmetic stuff equally so. And though you’ll find plenty of weapons in the game, there’s only really a small number of variations of shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles and pistols. Everything is rated by a colour code of ‘standard’, ‘rare’ and ‘legendary’ type items and stats, with corresponding level requirements.

And that’s all you really do in The Division – level up to get new, slightly more powerful gear. In fact, that’s all the competitive multiplayer side of the game – The Dark Zone – is really all about, and something I touched upon when I wrote about the Beta for The Division back in February. It’s a hamster wheel with no real goal aside from acquiring more gear in order to acquire more gear.

I know I’ve spent nearly this entire review moaning about The Division, so I really should reiterate that it’s not a bad game at all. It’s fine. FINE. But that’s all it is. Fine. Okay. Unremarkable. A shrug of the shoulders. It does nothing memorable or interesting. It reminded me of another Ubisoft title I played this year – Far Cry 4 – another game that felt built to a formula, with anything potentially interesting or unique stripped away.

That said, I didn’t find The Division anywhere near as dull or irritating. Hell, I actually quite enjoyed it, believe it or not. It was a fairly entertaining, if mindless way to waste 30 hours of my life. But if I’m being honest, I’ll probably forget I even played it by this time next week.


Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Friday, 7 October 2016

Now Playing: The New Order

Wolfenstein: The New Order is the most disappointing title I’ve played this year. It’s a first person shooter set in an alternate history 1960s, where the Nazis rule the world. This is a game that has you stealing a Nazi submarine, fighting giant Nazi robots and travelling to a NAZI MOON BASE.

It allows you to dual wield every available weapon, even sniper rifles – which double as rapid fire laser guns. This should be the best shooter ever – or at least, a pretty f**king entertaining one. But instead, I found The New Order to be one of the most tedious and unexciting shooters I’ve ever played.

The story of TNO is a disjointed mess that can’t quite decide if it wants to be super serious or super silly and doesn’t succeed at being either. The setting is certainly interesting, and the small details that build a picture of this alternate history are great.

But the game swings wildly between a more sombre, serious tale, and being completely and utterly ridiculous. Your character mumbles depressing little monologues about the horrors of war whilst simultaneously exploding Nazi spacemen into red mist with a laser rifle on the moon. The tonal clash is so bad it’s almost funny.

I probably wouldn’t have found the story so terrible if it wasn’t for the frequent cut-scenes interrupting what little action the game has to offer. The main campaign lasts barely 8 hours even on the hardest difficulty, which thanks to some rather poor AI is an utter cakewalk. It wouldn’t be so bad if that was 8 hours of ball busting action, but it’s more like 3 or 4. And it’s not very ball busting at all.

There’s surprisingly little action to be had in TNO. The actual combat heavy sections, where you finally get to let loose with your arsenal of dual wield rocket launching assault rifles (!) is where the game actually shines. But these sections are frustratingly short and continually interrupted with tedious ‘stealth’ sequences, dull cut-scenes and, believe it or not – fetch quests.

When I first arrived at the ‘home base’ I was interested to see how it would evolve over the course of the game, but I quickly began to dread every return between the core missions. Because rather than simply letting the player explore and chat with people at their own leisure, someone decided it would be really great to force the player to tediously search for random objects, tools and parts for various NPCs. Yes, it’s about as exciting as it sounds.

But I could ignore the shoddy story and the dull fetch quests if the game just had far more bite to it. The core gameplay mechanics are solid. It’s a mixture of run and gun (and slide and gun) with an automatic cover system. Combined with the ability to dual wield every weapon, and the mechanics are in place for a fast paced, explosive and highly entertaining campaign.

But the game never really takes advantage of its own mechanics. It’s far too concerned about interrupting you for another cut-scene, or forcing another stealth section. Every time it feels like the game is about to let you loose it abruptly (and frustratingly) pulls you back. It’s like it just doesn’t want you to have fun.

A 1960s Nazi Moon Base should be the greatest FPS level ever. I was expecting it to be the real highlight of the game. But instead, it’s just another series of generic corridors. You get out onto the surface of the moon for about 2 minutes in order to travel from one airlock to the next. But aside from a couple of hostile robots, there’s no action on the surface at all.

Why didn’t we have a full-on action sequence on the surface? Blasting Nazi spacemen with laser rifles, bouncing from cater to crater in the low gravity, watching enemy corpses floating into space? Exciting, silly, fun. But we don’t get anything like that at all. We just get more dull corridors followed by another terrible boss fight in a hanger bay. 

Oh yes, the ‘boss fights’. The boss fights in this game are honestly the worst. The giant Nazi robot may be the worst of the bunch, as you simply sit in a hole and duck, before popping out and shooting its big red eye a few times until you can run underneath it and shoot its big red ass.

The level design is equally uninspired with a familiar pattern of – corridor – arena – corridor – arena regardless of location. And although the novelty of dual wielding everything is initially great, the game doesn’t have a particularly great selection of weapons. It also removes weapons between levels, forcing you to start from scratch every time, usually by forcing a stealth sequence.

Outside of the fun dual wielding and the interesting setting, it’s hard to really think of anything I enjoyed in The New Order. It’s short, easy, with little to no replay value. The story is a disjointed mess. The level design is basic. The boss fights are terrible. And whilst the shooting mechanics are solid, the game never really lets the player fully enjoy them.

I kind of hate this game. It’s not that bad, because overall, it is a competent, if uninspired FPS. It looks pretty good and I really did like the setting a lot. But the game just falls so f**king flat that I can’t help but be massively disappointed. I mean … Nazi Moon Base! How the hell do you f**k that up so badly?


Sunday, 2 October 2016

Titanfall 2: Titanfall Retrospective

If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know I’ll play online shooter betas when available but rarely, if ever, go on to purchase the full release. The original Titanfall was different. I enjoyed it in a way I haven’t truly enjoyed or been hooked by any online shooter in years. And haven’t since, in fact. Which is why its upcoming sequel is one of my most highly anticipated games.

So let’s break down what I love about Titanfall. There are three main components. The first is the tiered system of gameplay. There are four very distinct layers to Titanfall combat – Pilot vs Pilot, Pilot vs Titan, Titan vs Pilot and Titan vs Titan. The gameplay constantly shifts and evolves as these layers overlap during the course of a match. Each layer has its own strengths, challenges and skill curve.

The second most important component is movement. The movement system of Titanfall also had its own skill curve that separated the experienced players from the newcomers. This was always apparent during ‘free weekend’ events, when new players would remain primarily on the ground, whilst Titanfall veterans would be bouncing overhead like a pinball with a rocket up their ass.

Mastering the movement system and learning the fastest way of traversing the various maps was a major part of Titanfall’s appeal. Which is why the third most important component of the original Titanfall is its map design. I was somewhat critical of the game on release for what I considered to be a lack of environmental variety, but I couldn’t fault their fantastic design which perfectly served not only the movement system, but the multi-tiered gameplay. The maps accommodated all four layers almost perfectly, but more importantly, they also ensured a degree of balance.

And these three components – multi-layered gameplay, movement and map design is what I consider to be the ‘holy trinity’ of Titanfall. They really nailed these aspects, which is why it was so unfortunate that the shell surrounding this core was rather thin.

There was no single player campaign, only a limited multiplayer ‘campaign’ which strung various maps together. The maps and modes on release, whilst enjoyable, were also somewhat limited. The weapon selection, Pilot/Titan customisation, player abilities and progression were also fairly lacklustre and bare bones.

Over time, with various updates and DLC, Titanfall expanded for the better, even including an enjoyable Pilots vs AI mode (Frontier Defence) which is something I suggested during my original review.

From what I’ve seen of Titanfall 2, it appears to have retained the core ‘trinity’ (although we’ve not yet seen enough of the maps to make a firm judgement on that aspect) but also expands and evolves the weaker elements of the original.

In addition to those key components, Titanfall also had several other features that I thoroughly enjoyed. Whilst the ‘campaign’ was disappointing, the few narrative and world building aspects were extremely promising. The Titanfall universe seemed ripe for a full single player, story driven campaign, which is why I’m so pleased that Titanfall 2 will feature such an addition.

Another key component was spectacle. The background scenery, the radio chatter, the ongoing war between AI bots – it all made other shooters seem sterile, empty and static in comparison. This was particularly true in Titanfall’s flagship mode – Attrition – which is why I was even more pleased when the mode was officially confirmed for the sequel.

In fact, nearly everything I’ve seen of Titanfall 2 has impressed me. The initial Technical Test raised some concerns, but these were swiftly addressed. And though I’m still uncertain about some design decisions – such as the new Titan shield and rodeo mechanic, or the removal of the Burn Card system – I’m keeping an open mind. I wasn’t too sure about the ‘hero class’ style Titans either, but having seen more gameplay, I can see it providing a far more varied experience to Titan gameplay, particularly in the returning Titan vs Titan mode.

If Titanfall 2 can successfully build upon the core foundation of the original, whilst expanding the surrounding shell, it has real Game of the Year potential. I’ve seen enough to pick it up on release. Hopefully it can live up to my expectations.