Friday, 30 December 2016

Titanfall 2: Final Thoughts

I’ll try to keep this short. Titanfall 2 is really f**king good, but it’s far from perfect. I’ve already written a lot about what I consider to be the weakest aspect of the title – map design – but there’s many other issues I feel need to be addressed.

If you’ve read my post regarding the Angel City update, you’ll know my thoughts on the Amped Hardpoint mode and how I consider it to be flawed not only in terms of the amp mechanic, but also in objective placement. Many of the hardpoints need to be relocated so they are inaccessible to titans, and the amp system should be significantly reduced in terms of bonus.

In my review I highlighted potential balance issues with SMG weapons. Their effective range and damage at range needs to be seriously reduced, whilst their bullet spread at range should be significantly increased. Their hip fire accuracy is fine, but only if they’re appropriately balanced as short to mid-range weapons.

There are still issues with calling down your titan on particular maps, resulting in it landing on the opposite side. Too many maps also have clutter on the ground or walls that disrupt or abruptly halt your flow of movement. The spawn system is also still a complete mess on many maps, and the matchmaking system frequently drops you into activate games, usually on the side that’s about to lose.

The ‘Amped Weapons’ boost is another issue and one I feel requires a significant alteration, even though I frequently use the boost myself. Why wouldn’t I? It transforms many of the weapons into one shot – one kill, and also stacks over time, meaning you can play entire matches whilst amped. An ‘amped ammo’ boost for your active weapon would be far more balanced and would only last until the weapon was reloaded.

Amped Wall is another boost that’s too damn good. It not only increases outgoing damage, but acts as an exceptional shield – an even better shield than an actual shield boost which nobody uses as a result. An easy fix? Let it amp shots, but remove the shield function entirely.

Reapers and stalkers in Attrition are an irritating addition, not only as titans often get ‘stuck’ on them, but because they reduce the final stages of an attrition match into a reaper ‘farm’ for maximum points. They need to be removed or massively reduced in terms of numbers.

Melee attacks are still hit and miss, and when you get killed by the person you were attempting to melee it’s incredibly frustrating. On a technical level, the servers don’t always feel fast enough to keep up with the action. I like the phase shift ability, but frequently get killed after entering a shift, making the ability dangerously inconsistent.

And inconsistency in an online shooter is a major problem. If things don’t work the way they should when they should, it results in a game that frequently feels unfair. That’s a serious issue. Because if the game doesn’t feel fair, if deaths feel cheap and unavoidable people will simply stop playing.

Although the developers have promised that all future maps and modes will be free, that promise is only worth something if they actually release something good. Or at all. I want to see more original maps, but only if they’re unaltered, unlike Angel City. And we need new maps that adhere to the original game’s design philosophy.

I want to keep this short, so let’s wrap this up. Titanfall 2 is great, but it has many issues relating to map design and balance that must be addressed if it’s going to thrive. Many of these issues can be fixed or improved, but only if we’re willing to call them out and not accept the game as ‘perfect’. Because it’s not. And I’ve seen too much nonsense online about how the game ‘deserves’ to succeed.

Bullshit. It’s doesn’t ‘deserve’ anything. It has to earn it. There are too many people dick riding Titanfall 2 right now and that’s not healthy for the long term development of the title. So I can’t join in, even though I’m a fan of the game. I want it to succeed, but I’m not going to pretend these problems don’t exist.

I want to be playing Titanfall 2 at this time next year, but unless the game undergoes significant balance improvements and releases new maps that are more appropriately designed to the strengths of Titanfall gameplay, it’s hard to see it lasting more than another six months. If the already dwindling player base is any indication, it probably won’t. I hope I’m wrong.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The Clayton Awards 2016

Game of the Year 2016 – Total War: Warhammer

In my review, I wrote that ‘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.’

I don’t think Total War: Warhammer is the best Total War game. In terms of its campaign, it’s far more streamlined and simplistic than Attila – which I’d rate has having one of, if not the, most complex campaigns of the entire series. Which is why I hope that, despite the success of Warhammer, the developers look to Attila as the base upon which to build future historical campaigns.

That said, the campaign of Warhammer feels fitting for its setting, and is no less engaging. I also wrote in the review that the initial ‘release is something of a ‘foundation’ upon which the developers can now build.’ And I’m pleased to say that’s exactly what’s happened. With regular updates and new content, Total War: Warhammer has evolved considerably since release and will continue to do so into the new year.

Total War: Warhammer is the fantasy Total War I always wanted and it claims my Game of the Year. (Full Review)

Most Disappointing Game of 2016 – Titanfall 2 (Multiplayer)

How can Titanfall 2, one of my most highly rated games of the year, also be my most disappointing? This wasn’t an easy choice, but I feel it was a necessary one. Because I am disappointed by Titanfall 2. I’m disappointed by its new approach to map design. I’m disappointed by its lack of balance. And I’m disappointed by the media and fan reaction to the game that seems more intent on sucking its dick than addressing its many flaws.

I’ll have a more in depth ‘Final Thoughts’ post up soon. Sorry, Titanfall 2. But you’ve got to do better. (Full Review)

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Command & Conquer vs. Red Alert

Command & Conquer is one of the first RTS games I played and as such, I have fond memories of its campaign. But returning to the original C&C today wasn’t quite the happy nostalgia rush I was hoping for.

The game has two campaigns, one for each of the two opposing factions – The Global Defence Initiate (GDI) and The Brotherhood of Nod. This is the game that set the stage for the GDI/NOD conflict in terms of story, but also established the basic style of play of each faction.

A GDI army will typically field less (more expensive) units, but also stronger units. Whereas NOD will field more (cheaper) units, but less powerful units. The GDI campaign takes place across Europe, whilst the NOD campaign is set in Africa. But what this really means in terms of missions is that the GDI campaign features ‘grass’ maps and the NOD campaign ‘sand’ maps.

The unit/building variety and design across the two factions is great and many of the units and buildings established here will continue to feature in later titles. Unfortunately, due to the way missions are designed, you’ll rarely use the full arsenal at your disposal regardless of faction.

Because it’s the missions of C&C that are its greatest weakness. I still adore everything else about the game – the setting, the story, the units, the sound and particularly the music, which is irritatingly catchy – I AM A MECHANICAL I AM A MECHANICAL I AM A MECHANICAL MAN.

The basic gameplay remains fun and addictive, but the mission design is poor. There are many missions across both campaigns that I’d call ‘bullshit’ missions. These are missions that feel more cheap than challenging in terms of difficulty and practically require ‘cheese’ tactics on the part of the player in order to progress.

A great example is a late NOD mission that grants you a handful of basic units and a construction vehicle, then immediately blocks your only path with two GDI mammoth tanks – their most powerful land unit. The only way to progress is to cheese your way past them, using your construction vehicle as bait (as the AI will automatically target it as the most ‘valuable’ unit). And there are countless missions like this, where you’ll be forced into taking advantage of the predictable AI in order to progress.

Another great example is how you can use a single unit to attack an AI harvester, and the AI will (always) send every unit it has to defend it – thereby leaving its main base extremely vulnerable. You don’t feel good exploiting the AI like this, but on many missions it’s the only real way to progress at a steady rate. If you try to play the game in a more ‘conventional’ way, you’re in for a tedious f**king slog as you slowly whittle down your opponent.

Sure, you can sit back, take your time and build up a varied and strong attack force, but doing so won’t be any more effective (and is actually far less effective) than massing a couple of basic unit types and swarming the enemy. I’m sure you could argue that’s how many RTS games are played, but in the original C&C, it feels like the only way to play.

Some other issues include not being able to queue build orders, the fact that many missions only complete when all enemy units and structures are destroyed – including that single f**king infantryman hiding behind a tree in a far corner of the bloody map. The game speed always feels either too fast or too slow, which means you’ll frequently be switching between modes. And the path finding in the game is pretty terrible, forcing you to continually babysit your units.

I feel like I’m taking a real dump on C&C which I don’t really like because it’s a game I have fond memories of. And I do still like the game. I like everything about it … aside from the bloody missions, which I can’t deny I didn’t really enjoy at all.

Red Alert, on the other hand, I had an absolute blast with. I must admit, the new units and buildings aren’t as cool in terms of design (and Red Alert reuses several unit and UI assets from C&C). The music isn’t as catchy either. Despite that, Red Alert remains a fantastic RTS.

Like C&C it features two campaigns – Allies and Soviets – but there is more environmental variety in terms of maps across both campaigns. And it does have some unique and fun units, like Tanya and the Spy. It also introduced naval units to the series (C&C had automated naval gunboats that you couldn’t build or control).

But honestly, Red Alert does feel a little like a copy and paste job compared to C&C, and that’s evident in how many assets are reused. That said, I had way more fun with Red Alert than C&C as the missions are by far more enjoyable. They’re more varied in terms of maps, terrain, objectives, units and strategy.

I never came across a single mission in either campaign that felt like a ‘bullshit’ mission. Unlike C&C, the campaigns of Red Alert are well paced, varied and interesting to replay, offering multiple ways to progress. It is, purely in terms of mission design, the superior title.

It’s never tedious. It’s faster paced in terms of engagement and production and it lets you utilise the full arsenal at your disposal. The game speed feels comfortable, so I wasn’t continually changing settings. The AI is slightly better, at least in the sense that it’s less easy to bait.

Unit path finding also seems better, but I think this is mostly thanks to how the maps are designed. If I had to rate the individual campaigns in order, I’d say the Soviet campaign was by far my favourite, followed by the Allied Campaign, the NOD campaign and finally GDI.

I suppose it’s time to wrap this up and pick a winner, but I think at this point it’s fairly obvious which game has emerged the victor. Red Alert takes an early lead. Whilst it may lack in many areas compared to C&C it absolutely excels where it really matters – the missions.

Roll on Round 2, when Red Alert 2 goes head to head against Tiberian Sun.

Command & Conquer – 6/10
Red Alert – 8/10

Friday, 16 December 2016

Now Playing: Realm of the Wood Elves (DLC)

Realm of the Wood Elves is the latest DLC release for Total War: Warhammer. It integrates the Wood Elves race into the game as a new playable or AI controlled faction within the grand campaign, but also within ‘Season of Revelation’ – a new mini-campaign. Like the other playable races, the Wood Elves have their own unique Lords, unit roster and campaign style.

The unique campaign mechanics of each race is one of the things I like most about Total War: Warhammer, even if I don’t necessarily enjoy every play style on offer. And I don’t think everyone will enjoy the new campaign mechanics of the Wood Elves. They represent the most significant departure yet from the traditional Total War campaign ‘formula’ and I predict will likely prove the most divisive among the player base.

Unlike other races, the Wood Elves aren’t concerned with expanding territory or wiping out particular factions. Their entire campaign and their victory conditions revolve around a single objective – The Oak of Ages. It’s a unique structure on the map that can be upgraded, each new level introducing new faction wide benefits. The primary goal of the Wood Elves campaign is to upgrade the Oak to its maximum level.

Upgrading the Oak doesn’t simply require gold, but amber – a new resource that can only be obtained and ‘spent’ by the Wood Elves. Each new level of the Oak has a higher requirement of amber, so obtaining amber is a key part of the campaign. And this is where things get interesting, because amber isn’t simply used for upgrading the Oak, but also for main settlement structures, certain technologies and most importantly of all – particular units depending on which of the two Legendary Lords you choose.

Amber can be obtained in two main ways – by capturing settlements (minor settlements give 1 amber, whilst major give 2) and forging alliances (you’ll receive 1 or 2 amber for every minor or major settlement your ally controls). You can also obtain amber by completing quest chains, but it’s through conquest and diplomacy that you’ll receive the bulk of your amber.

But neither way is entirely ‘safe’ at providing amber. If your ally loses a region, you also lose the amber that region provided. And if you lose a region you’ve taken, you also lose that amber. Any amber you’ve spent on structures, technology or the Oak can’t be returned, although amber purchased units can be disbanded. This means that it’s possible to have a negative amber count, and doing so will introduce negative faction wide effects.

If allies aren’t entirely reliable, then it may seem like the safest way to obtain and more importantly retain amber is by taking settlements, but this isn’t as simple as it seems. Though the Wood Elves can capture any settlement on the map (unlike all the other races) they can only build a single, simple ‘outpost’ in each with a basic (useless) garrison force.

The only place the Wood Elves can build their ‘main’ structures is within the four ten slot settlements surrounding the Oak of Ages. At the start of a campaign you’ll only control one of these and must either conquer or confederate with the other Wood Elf factions in order to utilise their building slots. These certainly give you enough room to build every available structure, but it does mean that your entire military and economic infrastructure is locked to a single region.

The ‘outpost’ settlements that you’ll capture serve to support your faction, and the more you possess, the more you can stack their various buffs to economy or defence. But each outpost is incredibly vulnerable and easy to lose.

I know some people may feel the amber cost associated with units may be too restrictive, but the amber costs only apply to top tier units and by the time you’re able to recruit these high end units, you should have more than enough amber to cover them. And which units cost amber will vary depending on which of the two available Legendary Lords you pick to play.

In terms of units, the roster has a great mix of infantry, cavalry and monster units, as well as new heroes. As you would expect, their archer units are their most effective. It may not seem that way, at least in terms of base stats when compared to archers from other races, but when you take their multiple arrow types into account and the rather insane buffs they receive from both Lords and Heroes in the form of passive and active augments, they can absolutely melt entire units in seconds.

And with the ability to fire on the move, they make for fantastic skirmish troops, not to mention significant buffs for fighting in forests. On the battlefield, the Wood Elves are far more micro intensive than any of the other races, but they can be an incredibly devastating force once you learn to play them effectively.

Overall, the Wood Elves are a fantastic new addition to Total War: Warhammer, with engaging new campaign mechanics and a diverse and extensive new unit roster to play with or fight against. Because like the other DLCs, even if you don’t think the Wood Elves are for you, they’ll still be added into and enhance your grand campaign as an AI faction.

So let’s turn our attention to the mini-campaign also included in this DLC. It’s essentially a ‘zoomed in’ map of the area surrounding The Oak of Ages. The objective is the same as in the grand campaign – to upgrade the Oak. But in the mini-campaign, every upgrade level spawns a new wave of beastmen stacks.

It’s not a terribly interesting campaign, and once you realise the beastmen invasions are only triggered by upgrading the Oak, it’s incredibly easy to take your time, expand and trigger them only when you’re ready which rather negates the challenge. It’s a short, forgettable campaign that you likely won’t play more than once if at all. This DLC is only worth buying for playing the Wood Elves in the grand campaign.

And that’s why it’s hard to recommend this DLC at its current RRP. I do recommend picking it up and playing as the Wood Elves at some point, but unless you’re desperate to play as them right now, I’d say it’s best to wait for a sale. Aside from the pricing and a few bugs, Realm of the Wood Elves is a good new addition to the core game and another reason why Total War: Warhammer is a strong contender for my Game of the Year.


Sunday, 11 December 2016

Command & Conquer - Ultimate Collection

I picked up the Command & Conquer: Ultimate Collection in a recent sale. It includes all of the main C&C games – Command & Conquer, Red Alert, Tiberian Sun, Red Alert 2, Renegade, Generals, Tiberium Wars, Red Alert 3 & Tiberian Twilight – as well as all the various expansions.

Aside from Renegade and Tiberian Twilight, I’ve actually played all of these games at some point. Some I’ve owned and sold on – Red Alert, Tiberian Sun, Generals, Red Alert 3 – whilst others I still own – C&C, Red Alert 2, Tiberium Wars.

But having them all digitally with the accompanying expansions is a pretty good offer for six quid and a chance to play my way through the entirety of this wonderful series. The original Command & Conquer is one of the first RTS games I played and a big part of the reason why I’m so fond of the genre (even if I’m not particularly great at it, I must admit).

But I didn’t want to simply play through every game and review each in turn. Instead, I thought I’d do something a little more fun and put the core C&C titles head to head against the Red Alert games.

It’s a quest to determine which C&C series is the best – GDI vs. NOD? Or Allies vs. Soviets? Which series has the best units? The best music? The best sound? The best missions? The best story? And, of course, the most important question of all – which Red Alert game has the best Tanya?

We’ll begin with the original Command & Conquer vs. the original Red Alert. Who shall emerge the victor? Round 1 coming soon.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Titanfall 2: Angel City Screw Up

Titanfall 2 may be one of the best games I’ve played this year, but it’s also a game I find incredibly infuriating at times. If you’ve read my review and my post about map design, you’ll know I consider the multiplayer maps of Titanfall 2 to be its weakest component.

Compared to the original game, the maps do not appropriately balance the multi-layered gameplay of Titanfall. The perfect balance between pilot and titan that existed within the original has been shot to pieces and as a result, matches are now dominated entirely by titans.

And perhaps that was the intent. But it’s not a design philosophy I particularly care for and it’s not one I feel plays to the core strength of the game. I was hopeful, however, that future maps would see a return to the map design philosophy of the original game, where verticality is key and where a careful balance between pilot and titan ‘terrain’ is struck. If not new maps, then at least ‘remastered’ versions of original Titanfall maps.

Which is why I was so looking forward to the release of the first major Titanfall 2 update which included the remastered Angel City – one of the best maps from the original game. But then I played the map and to my horror, realised they’d only gone and f**ked it up.

I’m talking specifically about the Amped Hardpoint mode. If you’ve read my review, you’ll know I’m not really a fan of the ‘amped’ aspect, or the placement of the objective points on the majority of the maps. Because on the majority of the maps, 2 or even all 3 of the objective points are fully accessible to titans, or within a clear line of sight of titan fire.

Amped Hardpoint, just like Attrition and Bounty Hunt, is now a mode entirely dominated by titans. Whichever team can call down their titans first will nearly always dominate and win the match, as they can simply ‘park’ their titans upon 1, 2 or even all 3 objective points.

And because of the lack of pilot terrain, it’s incredibly easy to kill pilots attacking these points. As a result, a team without titan control in Amped Hardpoint will always lose. You may argue this was true in the original game, but very few maps in the original had more than a single point accessible to titans or titan line of fire.

In the original, titans served more of a ‘support’ role within the mode, whereas in Titanfall 2, it’s just another mode where titans completely dominate the play. And this is even more pronounced due to the new ‘amped’ mechanic, as parking a couple of titans on points early will rapidly gain a team an unassailable lead.

In the original game, Hardpoint matches would rarely be complete stomps, but in Titanfall 2, complete stomps one way or the other is a regular occurrence due to the objective placement and the amped mechanic. It totally kills what was my favourite mode in the original game, and what should have been my favourite mode in the sequel.

Which brings us back to the ‘remastered’ Angel City, one of my favourite maps in the original, particularly for the Hardpoint mode. I was quite excited to jump back into this map and mode in Titanfall 2 even though I’m not fond of the ‘amped’ aspect, because at least (I thought) we’d return to a more appropriate objective placement. When the match began, I made a fast line for Hardpoint A only to realise … it was no longer there.

It seems some chucklef**k decided to relocate the objective point to an exterior location fully accessible to titans, bringing the map more in line with this new and terrible design philosophy whereby every map and mode should be dominated by titan play. I can’t understate how angry I was when I realised what they’d done. They took a map that was perfectly f**king balanced and ruined it for no good reason.

And how did that game play out? Just as I expected it to – the other team were able to rapidly gain a titan advantage, park their titans on both A and C (amping both points) and won within a matter of minutes. Hardpoint matches are no longer about controlling points or co-ordinating with your team to assault or defend – they’re about grabbing quick, early kills to earn your titan as rapidly as possible so your team can dominate the game.

As fantastic a game as I think Titanfall 2 is, I also think it’s being held back by a map design philosophy that runs contrary to what makes the gameplay so unique and appealing – the delicate balance between pilot and titan. Whenever I play Attrition, Bounty Hunt or Amped Hardpoint, I just feel like I’m only playing as a pilot to earn my titan as quickly as I can because if I don’t, defeat is almost certain.

In the original game, I could play entire matches without calling down my titan, because pilot gameplay could be just as effective due to the way maps were designed. One held no great advantage over the other if you knew what you were doing. But in Titanfall 2, the opposite is true.

This post was intended to be a fairly short rant, but I really couldn’t help myself. I love Titanfall 2. It’s great. It really is. But it’s a game I’m coming to hate as much as I love due to this backwards design philosophy that is actively working against the strengths of the game.