Sunday, 22 May 2016

Now Playing: Red Dead Redemption

Red Dead Redemption is a western-themed open world game, set during the last days of the ‘old west’. It’s a time of change, as ‘civilisation’ rapidly swallows the last remnants of the wild frontier. And into this world steps John Marston, a man unable to build a future in the new world until he confronts his past misdeeds in the old.

Marston was an outlaw, and is now being coerced by less than friendly government men to track down and eliminate members of his old gang. It’s a story of family. Of the clash between the old world and the new. And, obviously, it’s a story of redemption. Of seeking atonement for past sins.

The story aspect of RDR is split across three chapters, each taking you to one of the three main areas of the open world map, and each containing several narrative progressing missions. There’s nothing, it should be said, particularly complex about many of these missions. You’ll mostly be travelling to a location on the map and shooting a lot of people.

But the game provides a great variety of environments and contexts by which to fight. The first chapter of the game serves partially as a tutorial, introducing you to the world and many of the gameplay mechanics. The second, set during a revolution in Mexico, ramps up the action, although is arguably the weakest chapter of the game.

The third chapter takes place on the smallest of the three main areas of the map, but is far more focused in terms of gameplay and narrative than the sprawling and at times tedious second. And just when you think the game is over, RDR gives you a final, poignant epilogue chapter to wrap up the story and re-introduce you to the open world sandbox.

The story of RDR, despite a few pacing issues during its second chapter, is one of its strongest aspects, with a wonderful cast of varied characters, a smart balance of seriousness and humour, and an ending that will stick with you for years to come.

Visually, RDR is still a great looking game. The open landscapes can be beautiful to behold at sundown or sunrise. And in terms of audio, RDR has some appropriately ‘western’ music, combined with great ambient audio, which combines perfectly to immerse the player in the world.

Being an open world game, there’s a lot more content to explore beyond the main narrative driven missions. There are ‘Stranger’ quests, which offer a variety of objectives, frequently not related to combat. There are bounty hunts on which to embark, criminal hideouts to clear and numerous ‘random’ style encounters.

There are also different challenges to complete relating to hunting, marksmanship and treasure hunting, as well as different outfits to collect by completing various requirements. And, as you’d expect, there’s plenty of ‘fun’ activities in the form of gambling – card games, dice games, and tests of skill or luck. There’s a lot here to keep you busy, during the main story and beyond.

The gameplay of RDR consists of a fairly standard third person shooting/cover system, with the addition of an activated slow motion ability, allowing you to line up and ‘mark’ targets. It’s a solid system, backed up by fluid character animations and reactions, with a varied selection of weapons, all of which feel satisfying to use and pack an appropriate punch.

You’ll spend a lot of time on horseback in the game, and thankfully RDR is one of the few games to really make riding on a horse enjoyable, as opposed to an awkward chore. It responds to your input with just the right level of sensitivity, allowing you to steer through narrow canyons with ease.

The single player component of RDR is fantastic, offering an extensive narrative driven adventure which packs a range of emotional punches, as well as an enjoyable open world sandbox full of fun distractions and additional objectives. But the SP aspect is only half of the experience, as RDR also features an extensive and extremely enjoyable multiplayer.

I wasn’t able to play the MP component of RDR for this review (I no longer have a Live subscription) so I’m not really reviewing the MP as it exists today, but rather how it was when I played it at release. I’m not sure what the state of the MP is today, but I certainly couldn’t recommend the game based on the MP now because I suspect it’s fairly dead or overrun with people using all manner of hacks, cheats and glitches.

That said, if you have a friend or friends who you can play with, you may still find a lot of fun to be had with the MP in RDR. There’s options for public and private free roam sessions on the open world map, where players can take part in a lot of the single player side content together. There’s also a varied selection of specific MP game modes.

The MP component of RDR was fantastic to play, and some of the most fun I’ve ever had online with a game. There’s a level system in place, but unlike the more recent GTAV, it doesn’t feel like a grind to reach the top level or unlock all of the various guns and equipment. It’s a game I’d likely still be playing online today if I didn’t need a bloody subscription.

Red Dead Redemption also benefited from some great DLC packs, including a full, zombie themed expansion with a new single player campaign and MP game modes. It was a wonderful addition, offering some enjoyable new content and features.

There’s not much more I can say about RDR. It’s widely acknowledged as one of the best open world games ever made, and rightly so. I keep hoping for a PC RDR remaster, but I doubt we’ll ever see it. But there are rumours of a sequel in the works, so maybe we’ll get more RDR, in some form or another, in the future. If you’ve never played RDR and you have a 360 or PS3 gathering dust, then pick up a copy, dust off that console, and enjoy an adventure on the wild frontier.

9/10

Monday, 16 May 2016

Suburban Killbot Year 4

It’s time to celebrate (?) another year of Suburban Killbot! I was hoping this edition of my yearly update would allow me to share some good writing related news. But unfortunately, there’s nothing to report. I’m still working on my new book, which is progressing more slowly than I’d planned, but you can’t really rush these things. I’ll probably do a post about that soon. Instead, I’m just going to use this update to rant about stuff. Enjoy!

I’ve said before that I don’t visit many gaming related sites these days for ‘various reasons’. Those ‘various reasons’ primarily being that so many of these sites seem to be staffed by clueless, incompetent bloggers who demonstrate a lack of interest in or even a basic understanding of the medium on which they are supposed to be reporting.

But on occasion, I do visit these sites as they may have gameplay videos of upcoming titles I’m interested in playing. And, just recently, I was watching some Total War: Warhammer videos. These were preview videos showcasing battles from the game. And in the videos posted by two different gaming sites, all of the people playing were f**king terrible.

You might say my assessment of their skill isn’t fair. Maybe they’d never played a TW game before? But why would you send someone who had never played a title in a series running for over 15 years, to showcase the latest title in that series to your audience? Hell, based on these videos, I’m not sure the people playing have even played any kind of strategy title before. In one case, I’m not convinced they’ve even used a mouse and keyboard before.

I later watched a video of the new Doom being played by another site, and based on the video and their inability to aim, move and shoot at the same time, I’d guess the person had never played an FPS before on either console or PC. It was painful to watch, and it does a disservice to both the game and the audience.

How the f**k are people so incompetent being employed to write about and report on these games? Sure, there’s genres I’m not particularly skilled in, but if I was going to be recording preview footage of an upcoming title in a professional capacity, I’d at least try to familiarise myself with the basics beforehand, to ensure I give my audience content of value, to demonstrate the game in a way that wasn’t entirely inept.

Because people want to learn about the game, and they won’t learn anything watching someone struggle with basic camera controls or WASD movement. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people working at gaming sites to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the basics. This is the equivalent of someone sitting down to eat a meal, holding the knife and fork upside down and then jabbing at the food with the blunt end. It’s embarrassing to watch, and a waste of my time.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Gaming Update

I thought I’d do a quick update on my upcoming plans and coverage. I was going to do a post on the Overwatch open beta this month, but then I realised I’d need to install Battle.net again and I had no end of problems the last time I used it, so I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. I can’t say I was too fussed about the game anyhow.

I’m currently playing through Red Dead Redemption again, so expect a review soon. That should keep me busy until Total War: Warhammer releases at the end of the month. I’ve liked a lot of what I’ve seen so far, but I’ve held off on the pre-order, at least until I see more of the campaign.

I’m fairly sure my current set up should run the game on at least High settings without too much trouble, although I’m also debating if I should ‘upgrade’ to Windows 10 now rather than later. I’m leaning more towards ‘later’ at the current time – if at all.

I’m not sure what race I’ll begin with in the campaign, but I’m thinking maybe a Dwarf campaign on Very Hard. I might change my mind at the last minute though. I won’t start with a campaign, however, but a series of custom battles. These should prove a good test of my system on various settings to find the best balance between pretty and performance, whilst also getting a feel for the various races, units and magic. I’ll be recording the best of these and I’ll probably post them on YouTube during the first week or so.

I imagine Warhammer will take up much of my gaming time, which is unfortunate, because there’s a lot coming out I’m interested in playing, all around the same time. A game called Stellaris just released, which I’d like to give a spin at some point. The second Witcher 3 expansion releases just days after Warhammer and promises 30 or so hours of new content. I’m excited to play it, but it might have to wait.

Mirror’s Edge 2 has had a delay, but is still due in early June, and that’s another game I’m looking forward to, although I was pretty pissed about not getting into the beta, despite signing up for it months ago. I really don’t know why they encourage people to sign up months in advance, if they then won’t send keys out to people who did, but instead randomly shower dozens of keys over social media.

Why do a ‘closed’ beta at all if you’re going to throw keys around like confetti? I suppose it’s done to generate hype, and I probably wouldn’t be so salty about it if I’d received a key. But I didn’t. So I am.

Titanfall 2 has been announced which may be the only MP title I’m genuinely excited about. The new CoD trailer was pretty ‘bleh’. The new Battlefield looked better, mostly thanks to its WW1 setting, which some people seem to think is inappropriate given how shitty the war was. But hey, all war is shitty, so I don’t really have any issue with it myself. If anything, a game about WW1 might encourage people to learn more about the real events.

I guess people might argue that the trailer is trying to make it ‘look cool’, but then people didn’t seem to care too much about Valiant Hearts which turned the whole war into a dumb cartoon. And that ‘game’ was pretty pants. Eh, I’m starting to ramble now. Warhammer is under two weeks away and I’ve got a book to write.

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Now Playing: Soma

I’m going to keep this review fairly short and vague, because Soma is the kind of game you’ll enjoy far more the less you know going in. All I knew when I picked up the game on sale recently, was that Soma is a science-fiction horror title and, going by the extremely positive Steam reviews, a pretty good one.

You play as a guy called Simon who finds himself in a rather unpleasant place full of rather unpleasant things. There’s a great level of interactivity in the game, allowing you to pick up, rotate and examine all manner of objects. It’s a bit of a gimmick feature, that soon loses its point or appeal, but it certainly has a novel value in the early stages of the game, particularly in the opening scene.

Soma is a narrative heavy game, with a story that, whilst not strikingly original, is extremely well constructed, paced and told. There will be times when you’ll be a couple of steps ahead of Simon in terms of figuring out exactly what the hell is going on, but he catches up quickly enough that it doesn’t get too irritating.

 
Visually, Soma is a great looking game. Interior environments have a fantastic attention to detail. This feels like a real place, and the level of detail contributes enormously to drawing you in and immersing you in this world. Exterior environments aren’t quite so good, but do the job. And the audio work in Soma is exceptional – from the VA, to the suitably creepy monster sounds, to the simple hums, clicks and clanks of the environment.

Story, visuals and sound all combine to create one of the most tense, immersive and compelling horror titles I’ve ever played. It’s just a shame the gameplay of Soma isn’t quite so compelling. Although the environments seem quite expansive, you soon realise how small and limited they actually are, with many blocked tunnels, stairwells and sealed doors.

Your progression through the game is incredibly linear. There’s a single set path which you’ll follow, and although there is some scope for exploration, you’ll often find the way forward inaccessible until you hit the appropriate story trigger. Unlike say, Alien: Isolation, which shares a lot in common with Soma, there’s no open map you can traverse or explore at your leisure. No, this is a straight shot from A to B to C.

 
Which is fine, and it certainly helps keep up the pace of the story, keeping things fresh and engaging. The downside, however, is that it does somewhat kill replay value. I completed Soma in about 8 hours, and although I might replay it again in the future, I know it won’t have the same level of impact the second time through.

Yes, that’s true of most narrative heavy games, and I wouldn’t say it’s a negative as such, just something to bear in mind. The game is split between two primary types of gameplay – the exploration element, and the stealth element. But the separation between these two elements is a little too great which harms the overall experience.

At the beginning of the game, every sound, every flickering shadow, will make you pause. It’s rather stressful, both for you and Simon. But then you encounter your first monster and that tension and fear is suddenly lost. Why? Well, whenever you encounter a monster, you receive some very specific audio and visual cues, letting you know that it’s time to move slowly, crouch and find somewhere to hide.

Once you understand this, you’ll be sprinting back and forth throughout the environments, making as much noise as you like, no longer concerned by the ‘scary’ noises because you know there’s not really a monster lurking in the shadows. The monster stealth sections are so clearly signposted that the game loses a lot of its tension in the moments between.

 
The monsters, however, look and sound fantastic. There are several types, although unfortunately, you’ll deal with each type in pretty much the same way – by running away or hiding. And I’d be okay with that, if you had more options for doing so. But there’s no real ‘stealth’ mechanics beyond ‘crouch behind box’ or, what I usually ended up doing – ‘leg it really fast out of the monster area’.

Because some of the monsters are just a bit tedious to deal with, especially the exterior ones during some overly lengthy ‘walk from A to B’ segments. And that’s really what Soma is ultimately all about – walking from A to B. And hey, it’s a really great walk. I played the game over two days, and it was hard to stop. I was thoroughly immersed and enjoying the story because it has some genuinely fantastic moments. The ending feels slightly rushed – at least, the build up to the ending does – but thankfully the final few moments make it all worth it.

Overall, Soma is best described as inconsistent. There are many aspects I consider to be fantastic, but others that fall rather flat. Fortunately, they don’t ruin the overall experience, but they do drag it down a degree. That said, Soma is still one of the best horror games I’ve played, and if you’re a fan of the genre, or just science-fiction in general, I’d recommend checking it out.

7/10