Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Clayton Awards 2017

Game of the Year 2017 – NieR: Automata

There were many strong contenders for my Game of the Year. I ruled out Bayonetta 2, despite it being my top scoring game, because I prefer to give this award to a title actually released this year. So that left Breath of the Wild, NieR: Automata, Endless Space 2 and Total War: Warhammer 2 all competing for victory.

It really came down to either Breath of the Wild or NieR, and after much consideration, NieR takes the prize. NieR started and ended strongly, whereas I felt Breath of the Wild fell a little flat at the end. I also had no end of technical problems with NieR but I just had to keep playing – a strong testament to just how good it is. (Full Review)

Most Disappointing Game of 2017 – Battlefront 2

Battlefront 2 was the AAA title I was most looking forward to in 2017. And that means a lot, because I don’t typically get very excited about online shooters these days. They said all the right things – a single player campaign, more content than Battlefront at release, space battles, a new class system and no Season Pass.

I had my doubts, of course. I suspected EA would find some way to f**k it up. But I didn’t expect them to f**k it up quite so spectacularly. But even without the loot box / progression controversy, what I played in the beta left me less than impressed. The beta map was poorly designed, and from what I’ve seen of the game via videos and streams, the other maps aren’t any better – nor is the single player campaign, which looks disappointingly short and dull, not to mention unfinished.

Battlefront 2 went from being a game I wanted to buy, to a game I wouldn’t even bother with in a sale. Good job, EA. (BETA Impressions) & (Battlefront 2 is F**KED)

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Work in Progress: TF, TM & TE

It’s time for a new project, currently titled TF, TM & TE – figure that one out, if you can. It’s the next book in my sort-of-but-not-quite-a-trilogy, the first book being QOTSS and the second, DOTJ.

It’s a little like my Zero Sample series, in a way. The books are all set in the same world, but each has its own unique story and characters. They do connect, but you don’t need to read them all, or in any particular order to enjoy or understand them.

They’re all structured and paced in a similar manner, and my goal is to have the first part of TF, TM & TE written before the New Year. I’m a little behind schedule already. Life seems to like interrupting my plans with unforeseen drama.

I’ve only plotted the first part in any great detail so far, because it’s difficult to grasp the world and characters until I get stuck into them – and only once I do, can I really know how the plot will evolve.

I’d love to say I’ll have it all wrapped up by next April and that’s what I’m aiming for, but there may yet be more unforeseen interruptions arising to thwart my plans. I also don’t want to rush it. This might be my last hurrah, so I’d better make it a good one.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Now Playing: Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a glorious clusterf**k of a game. After nearly 60 hours of play, I came away . . . satisfied (I think?) by the overall experience, but also glad it was finally over. There were days when I couldn’t stop playing Andromeda . . . and days I just didn’t want to start. I can’t remember the last time – if ever – I came away from a game with such a positive impression despite wanting to stop playing the game because I was so sick of its bullshit.

It’s not so much the larger issues that bothered me, but the little things that stacked up. Small design choices that drag the entire experience down. The core of the game in terms of gameplay and narrative is solid and enjoyable. Good even, at times. But Andromeda is such a conflicted mess, I’m not sure where the hell I should start.

I never intended to play Andromeda, but after seeing a free trial period available, I decided to give it a go. I still have a lot of love for the Mass Effect universe despite . . . the game I shall not speak of . . . and I must admit, returning to this world was quite a nice experience. And the first few hours of the trial were enjoyable and engaging enough to convince me to buy the full title.

Andromeda, at least from a narrative perspective, was a smart move. It’s the same universe, but a new sandbox. You play as Ryder, a human ‘Pathfinder’ assigned to the ARK Hyperion – a colony ship on a 600 year voyage to the distant Andromeda galaxy. As you’d expect, your arrival in Andromeda doesn’t quite go to plan and you quickly find yourself struggling to survive and gain a foothold on this dangerous new frontier.

It’s a tidy way of keeping the things we love – the races, technology and history of Mass Effect – but without the baggage of the original Mass Effect trilogy. It’s a clean slate, a chance to tell a new story in a new galaxy with new races and . . . oh.

Okay, so let’s talk about the first real flaw of Andromeda. The new races it introduces – the Angara (good guys) and the Kett (bad guys) aren’t terribly interesting. Not as interesting as the races you already know and love. Andromeda also recycles some plot elements Mass Effect fans will be very familiar with – an ancient, now extinct civilisation and a nefarious plan by the Kett to assimilate the genetic distinctiveness of other races in their quest for genetic perfection.

But the Kett and their leader – the Archon – aren’t exactly Reaper level bad guys. Not that they needed to be. I just wish the whole ‘ancient tech’ stuff wasn’t such a big – if any – part of the narrative. It’s so – been there, done that – in Mass Effect, and it’s a shame Andromeda relies so heavily upon it.

That said, the core story and how it plays out is certainly worth your time and provides a fairly engaging and enjoyable ride. The final confrontation feels a little abrupt, but there’s a neat and satisfying little epilogue that ensures you come away from the game feeling pleased.

As you’d expect, Andromeda has you assemble a motley crew to tackle the Kett and put an end to their evil schemes. It’s a . . . decent cast. There was no one I really hated. But there wasn’t anyone I truly loved, either. Drack, the Krogan, was fun, but krogans usually are. It’s hard not to compare the Andromeda cast to the original Mass Effect crew, and though they may not quite hit those dizzy heights, they do offer a few fun scenes and banter.

You have core story quests in addition to key companion and colony world quests. You also have numerous ‘task’ quests. Just as I did with Prey, I’m going to make the unusual complaint and say that Andromeda has too much content.

The problem with the extensive selection of side content in Andromeda is that the bulk of it – like Prey – is low quality filler. It’s not necessarily bad content. But it’s not content that’s worth your time. It has no value. I completed a lot of it but I can’t say I was honestly enjoying it. I was just mindlessly grinding through it for the sake of it.

I’d say 70% of the ‘tasks’ could be cut because they’re completely forgettable and a waste of your time. But also like Prey, there is some really good stuff buried in there. It’s such a shame you have to wade through so much pointless filler to find it.

A big part of the game is establishing new outposts (you’re there to colonise Andromeda, after all) but the game really squanders the potential of this concept. I thought you’d get to explore different worlds and choose where to put down your outposts but instead, you’re restricted to a handful of specific worlds and locations.

Okay, so I can see why they did this and it makes perfect sense from a narrative perspective, but you also lose that sense of mystery and adventure. You’re supposed to be a pioneer, but everywhere you go is pretty much already settled and explored. You just have to knock a few quests off at each location to put down an outpost, but even this isn’t handled as well as it could be. I thought outposts would grow and evolve over time, but they remain static. There’s never a real sense that you’re building a new civilisation in Andromeda and that’s the biggest missed opportunity.

Gameplay is a basic third person cover shooter with the addition of a horrendous ‘platforming’ system involving a rather weak jump jet. On the battlefield you can use it to boost dash to cover or leap over foes – and in that sense it’s pretty fun and adds a welcome kinetic dynamic to battles – but it’s also unfortunately used for some f**king terrible and irritating platforming sections.

You’ll be navigating narrow ledges and rising alien pillars and I can’t stress how much I hated any section that required me to use the jump jet in this way. It’s a nightmare to control and you’ll frequently miss ledges or jump too far, either falling to your death or dropping straight to the bottom, forcing you to start climbing all over again.

There’s so many annoying little things in Andromeda that really pissed me off that I actually made a list whilst playing. I’ll probably gloss over a lot of these so this doesn’t run on for forty pages. Ready? Here we go!

The UI is a complete f**king mess. I thought at first it was just because it was designed primarily for a control pad, but it seems to be equally awful regardless. It’s a convoluted system of multiple menus within menus and multiple (and different) key/button presses to do the most simple things. It’s terrible and should be taken out back and shot in the head.

The facial animations, though better now than at release are still bloody awful. They’re stiff and awkward and frequently hilarious. They’re not as bad as the character animations though, which are always hilarious. The highlight was probably the ‘fight’ between two Krogan. I’ve seen better animation in SFM porn.

DOORS! Doors aren’t generally an issue because they only take half a second or so to open. Except on one particular world where they each take 4-5 for no obvious reason . . . other than to make you stand by and tediously watch a little circle go around.

In fact, that whole world design can get f**ked, because in order to enter the main open world, you first need to go through two other sections and a load screen using a fast travel terminal – which also includes an option to return to your ship. And yes, it’s very easy to accidentally hit the wrong option forcing you to leave the planet . . .

. . . because returning to your ship makes you automatically leave the planet/station you’re on. Why? Why can’t I just go back and speak to someone on my ship or whatever, without leaving the location and having to watch the same f**king cutscene of my ship taking off and landing multiple times?

Why do so many quests send you on pointless ‘scanning’ exercises across multiple systems or locations? Why do I have to tediously visit five different relay points in order to find the ‘real’ objective in so many damn quests? It just forces you to continually backtrack through places you’ve already been and for what? I swear, over half of my 60 hour playthrough was spent backtracking for quests.

What’s the point of system scanning and ‘exploration’? Why does it take so long? Why does it have to slowly zoom to every planet and – even if you skip it – still has to zoom in and then out before you can do a scan? WHY??? WHO THOUGHT THIS WOULD BE A GOOD IDEA???

Why is the range of your hand scanner so small? Why can’t you run when using it? Why do so many missions involve ‘locked’ doors that you just need to backtrack to the last room you visited to touch a console to open it. WHY?? WHAT IS THE POINT???

Why do you give us so many skill points and combat abilities if we can only have three active at a time – extremely limiting our combat options? Because you can’t fit more than three options on a control pad? F**k, just put in a radial menu or something . . . oh wait, they did, but only for weapons, not powers. WHY???

Why is the Nomad (your planetary exploration vehicle) so slow? Why are the maps so big and empty forcing you to tediously drive for minutes at a time to get to quest locations that seem to be intentionally placed as far from a fast travel point as possible. Why is there so much annoying terrain that makes it a pain to drive and navigate?

Why can’t I walk around when there is radio or companion chatter without it abruptly cutting out because I walked too far? It means I have to stand perfectly still every time someone is talking or I’ll miss out on what they’re saying. WHY???

There are so many little problems with this game that, on their own, wouldn’t have bothered me too much. But combine them all, and they stack up to create one of the most frustrating and infuriating games I’ve ever played. Seriously – F**K THIS GAME. Do you think I’m done? Stay with me, there’s more!

Why do so many key side quests go nowhere? Why was the Turian ARK quest so shit? Was it unfinished? Why introduce important plot elements like the ancient AI, the Collective, the Kett ‘ally’ or the mysterious ‘benefactor’, if NONE of them are resolved? Were they intended for DLC? Or a sequel? I guess they were, seeing as how the game teases the Quarian ARK at the very end. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon.

I should probably repeat – as hard as it might be to believe – that I still came away feeling positive about Andromeda despite the game apparently being designed to be as irritating as possible. I hated parts of this game. There were times I wanted to stop playing it because I was so sick of having to grind through all this annoying little shit to get to the good stuff. It’s like a bloody endurance test.

The question is – is Andromeda worth it, in the end? Despite everything, despite all my complaints, I have to say yes . . . barely. In the end, the good shines through. But I’m never f**king playing it again.


Monday, 27 November 2017

Now Watching: Lady Vengeance

Lady Vengeance is the third film in what’s popularly known as the ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ by director Park Chan-wook. Three films – Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy and Lady Vengeance – each with the subject of revenge at their core. But though they share a common theme, each film is actually quite unique.

They each have their own distinctive narrative, structure, tone and style. They also deal with the subject of revenge very differently. But if there’s one thing all three films have in common, it’s that they do find humour within the heart of tragedy.

I’d say Sympathy for Mr Vengeance is the most conventionally shot and structured of the trilogy. It’s also the most bleak and depressing. Oldboy probably has the most engaging concept and narrative, and features a fantastic performance by Choi Min-sik, but it’s Lady Vengeance which is easily my favourite of the three.

The narrative may lack the complexity or immediate mystery of Oldboy, but it’s far more stylish in terms of visuals, audio and structure. The first half of the film is like a shifting puzzle with pieces of the story slowly falling into place.

It’s the most daring and unconventional of the three in how it presents its narrative. It’s also the darkest in terms of subject matter, but also, conversely, the funniest. I also think it’s the most interesting in terms of how it explores its themes.

The trailer for Lady Vengeance is incredibly misleading because it presents the film as more of a straightforward tale of revenge. But that’s not really what the film is about. It’s the story of Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) a young woman imprisoned for the kidnap and murder of a young boy. But Lee Geum-ja is innocent, and she’s spent the 13 years of her incarceration plotting her revenge against the real villain.

I won’t spoil any more of the plot than that, but what I will say is that it doesn’t unfold this tale in a conventional way. The film slides between events in the past and present, slowly building the picture of her time in prison and how the pieces of her plan fall into place.

Lee Young-ae gives a fantastic performance as Lee Geum-ja. Even when she secures the revenge she seeks, the conflict of emotion is clear to see. Because Lady Vengeance is as much about seeking redemption as it is revenge. It’s a film that relies more upon visuals and performance to tell its story as it does dialogue.

That’s why it’s my favourite of the ‘revenge trilogy’. It’s not just the story, but it’s how the story is told. It’s a film I always find something new to appreciate every time I see it. It’s dark, stylish, funny and moving.


Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Battlefront 2 is F**KED

Where do I even start when talking about how f**ked Battlefront 2 is? I touched a little upon these concerns in my Beta Impressions post, but I’ve got more to say. A lot more. All the signs for Battlefront 2 looked good. A story based, single player campaign. More multiplayer content on release than Battlefront 1. Space battles! And no, I repeat no Season Pass or paid DLC.

It wasn’t unexpected there would be some form of monetization to fuel future development, so when loot boxes were announced it wasn’t a great surprise. And honestly, even though loot boxes aren’t super popular right now, if they were included in Battlefront 2 for items that were purely cosmetic in nature – such as character, vehicle, ship or weapon skins, in addition to things like poses and emotes – I wouldn’t be writing this post, and there wouldn’t be such an outcry.

There would still be those who considered it ‘wrong’ for a fully priced, AAA title to include microtransactions, but I think the majority would understand and accept the trade off to avoid DLC and Season Pass bullshit. And there’s a lot they could do with cosmetic content in a cross-era Star Wars game, especially with unique character/race skins.

The point I’m making isn’t that Battlefront 2 is f**ked purely because it has loot boxes. The loot boxes aren’t the issue. It’s what’s inside the loot boxes that is. These boxes provide objective gameplay advantages over other players. In any class based shooter, there will be a degree of imbalance as some classes will excel within certain roles or engagements more than others. Natural skill and experience also plays a role.

But on its current system, Battlefront 2 will very rapidly become a game of those who have and those who do not. The fact is, that in 2-3 months, if you’re not rocking a full hand of epic Star Cards, you’re going to be at an objective disadvantage to those who do, regardless of experience or skill. The only way to create a ‘level’ playing field is to grind – or spend cash – to obtain epic Cards of your own.

This alone is enough to make me not want to buy the game. Even during the limited beta, players who had obtained higher level cards would frequently dominate matches, particularly in my favourite mode – Starfighter Assault. Even I was guilty of it, as I got lucky with some crates and obtained a full deck of ‘rare’ Interceptor cards. And I could feel the advantage I had going into fights with players who didn’t have any. It felt cheap. I could fire faster, longer and do more damage. Matches became about which team had the best cards, not the best pilots.

Since the beta, the grind to obtain loot boxes and the necessary cards needed to level up has only increased to the point where you may need to spend 2 or more hours of play to earn a single crate. Why? To encourage you to buy them with real cash, of course! Even this, as terrible as it is, wouldn’t be so bad if all vehicles, classes and heroes were available to play at their most basic level. But no!

Some heroes require credits to unlock – an obscene amount of credits, which on current calculations may take 40 hours of play to unlock – provided you don’t spend a single credit on anything else. Let’s not forget – this isn’t a free to play title. It’s a full priced AAA release locking release day content behind a pay wall. EDIT - they’ve now reduced the hero cost, but reducing it isn’t enough – it needs to be removed entirely.

And rumours are beginning to spread that the intention is to continue this approach with the upcoming ‘free’ content, which will be locked behind ridiculous credit costs, forcing players to grind for countless hours to unlock it or take the intended short cut and buy random loot crates to speed up the process.

Everything about the loot box system, the obscene credit costs for those who don’t pay, the locked content, the gameplay advantages that will f**k over any player who picks up the game post-release, the fact that you can find DUPLICATE items in those crates, and the whole encouraging players to gamble aspect which I haven’t even touched upon means that Battlefront 2 feels rotten to the core.

It’s gone from a game I was wanting to buy, to a game I most certainly won’t. Not unless significant changes are made. And I guess that’s the point of this post. If enough people keep bitching about it, maybe things will change. They said changes would occur post-beta, but it seems they’ve only made things worse. Maybe this time they’ll really listen.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Now Playing: Hollow Knight

I kind of love and hate Hollow Knight. I almost gave up on the title after only 40 minutes of play, not because it’s a bad game, but because it just wasn’t clicking with me. But I’m not one to give up so easily. I decided to persist, to see if Hollow Knight would improve and evolve as I progressed. And it did, in some ways. To say that Hollow Knight is a ‘slow burn’ would be an understatement. You have to be willing to put 2-3 hours into the title before it really begins to get good.

Good, not great. I feel like I spent the entire game waiting for Hollow Knight to take that extra step, to go from being a good but flawed experience, into an unforgettable classic. I wanted another Ori and the Blind Forest. But I didn’t get it. Not even close.

Hollow Knight is a 2D side scrolling action / platform game very much in the ‘metroidvania’ style. As you explore the world and defeat various bosses, you’ll gain new abilities which will, in turn, unlock new areas to explore and new bosses to fight. It’s a tried and tested cycle of progression, pushing the player through the world and regularly introducing new locations and challenges from beginning to end.

I don’t think Hollow Knight handles its progression particularly well, however. As I said, the opening few hours are a slow slog with little variety or challenge, and it takes a few hours before you unlock the necessary skills to really open up this fascinating world. But even then, progression feels needlessly slow.

Every new location should be a joy to explore but in Hollow Knight, they can feel like a tedious slog as you slowly exhaust all available routes until you find the ‘correct’ path. This is less of an issue as you advance through the game and unlock all of the various abilities and items, but during the early stages, when you’re very limited by where you can go, it results in a lot of ‘dead ends’ followed by an infuriating amount of backtracking.

Even with a new (if limited) fast travel system, Hollow Knight is a backtracking nightmare during the early to mid game. You might say that’s part of being a metroidvania title – but Ori used the same system of progression, so why did it work so well there and not here? The answer is – world design.

In Ori, previously explored areas could be traversed far more rapidly when you had gained the appropriate skills. There were multiple paths based around these skills and they made backtracking fast, easy and more importantly – forced the player to put their new abilities to the test. But in Hollow Knight, even when you’ve unlocked all of the different skills, alternate routes and fast travel stations, backtracking through old areas isn’t significantly faster than when you began.

That’s because your skills are primarily used to access and explore new areas, not to traverse existing areas. So when you have to backtrack through previously explored levels it’s rare that you’ll be able to use your new skills to speed up the process.

I don’t want to get too hung up on the backtracking issue because it’s not the only flaw holding Hollow Knight back and, as I’ve said, it becomes less of an issue towards the end game. Slow, methodical exploration and progression is encouraged and rewarded by Hollow Knight’s design. And that’s not a bad thing. But it is an issue when it comes to traversing previously explored areas.

It results in the game feeling padded with needless and unnecessary travel. There are far too many ‘redundant’ screens that seem to serve no purpose within the overall design. They seem to exist purely to slow the player down. It’s not all bad – because there are areas where they clearly thought of placing ‘short cuts’ within the design allowing you to bypass previous sections. So no, it doesn’t get it entirely wrong. But for everything it gets right, it seems to get something equally wrong. And that is particularly true when it comes to difficulty.

It’s always tricky talking about difficulty because it’s such a subjective topic. I’ve seen Hollow Knight referred to as a ‘2D Dark Souls’ and that’s actually a description that attracted me to the title, in addition to the wonderful visuals and music. Because if you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know I rated Dark Souls very highly.

Dark Souls got difficulty right. It offered what I considered to be a fair and balanced challenge. When I died in Dark Souls, I was never angry at the game. I knew I’d died because I’d made a mistake, or because I wasn’t yet prepared to face the challenge before me. Every death was a chance to learn and improve.

I can’t say the same for Hollow Knight. I was frequently irritated by the game because I was taking hits or getting killed in ways that felt beyond my control. Deaths that felt random and unavoidable. I’m not just talking about the extensive selection of boss characters. Even traversing the world could be a pain.

Hollow Knight has some lovely visuals and environments, but it also loves what you might call ‘foreground’ scenery which, at times, can obscure your view of enemies, hostile projectiles or even hazards like spikes and water. When you take a hit by something you couldn’t even see, it doesn’t feel very fair.

The game also takes great delight in punishing the player for trying to move quickly. As I said – slow, methodical exploration is encouraged. But when I’m passing through an area for the 4th or 5th time, I just want to hurry on my way. Hollow Knight makes that difficult with a lot of needless environmental hazards.

I’m talking about having to repeat a series of tedious precision jumps, or avoid falling rocks which, when you’re in a hurry, may catch you out and result in a cheap hit. And taking even simple hits like this can prove punishing due to what I call ‘chain damage’.

In Hollow Knight, taking one hit can lead to a chain of hits either due to enemy or level design. A basic example would be this – a falling rock hits you (1 hit), knocking you from a platform onto an enemy below (2 hits) which then knocks you onto some spikes (3 hits). I don’t want to over exaggerate the issue, but it is a problem, particularly in some of the boss fights, nearly all of which take place in enclosed arenas and a single slip can result in you getting ‘stuck’ in a corner, taking a chain of hits you simply can’t avoid.

Because hits can be very random. Sometimes they’ll knock you into trouble, and sometimes they won’t. It just feels that it’s luck, not skill, that sometimes determines the outcome of a fight. And that, I think, is really at the heart of Hollow Knight’s problems and why it never quite clicked for me. It’s not really a game of ‘skill’ but of slow, methodical trial and error gameplay.

Every piece of the game be it boss or world design is set up in an intentional way to slow and punish the player. Traversing and defeating these challenges isn’t a matter of using your abilities in a skilful way – it’s more about learning the patterns and responding accordingly.

But to me, that’s not very interesting or engaging gameplay. Once you know the patterns, it’s not hard to progress – it’s just slow. It’s a tedious game of trial and error be it finding the ‘correct’ path to go or the ‘correct’ way to defeat a boss.

Which wouldn’t bother me so much if the combat was a little more varied. The game has a fantastic variety of enemies to fight, but you have very limited combat abilities and nearly every enemy is dealt with in exactly the same manner – a basic repetition of strike and dodge. Your new skills never really come into play in the boss fights. Every fight is just a case of learning the pattern and knowing when to strike, when to dodge and when it’s safe to heal.

Oh yes, healing. Healing in Hollow Knight can take a few seconds even when regenerating a single life. This forces you to use your healing wisely. What I don’t like, however, is the unnecessary delay upon entering and exiting the heal animation. You’re effectively locked into place unable to move, dodge or strike. You can argue that you should also take this delay into account when choosing to heal, but there are times when it doesn’t feel entirely fair.

One boss, for example, would frequently and randomly spawn smaller enemies during the fight. And if one spawns right next to you as you’re entering a heal there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent the hit. If it happens, it’s just bad luck. But luck should never be the defining factor that can win or lose you fights.

Too many hits in Hollow Knight feel cheap, random and unavoidable – at least until you learn the patterns, and then it’s actually pretty easy to progress (aside from the aforementioned ‘bad luck’ moments). If you like that trial and error style of play, you’ll probably love this. I don’t. Which isn’t really a fault of the game, as such, but more of a personal preference.

The store page promises ‘tightly tuned controls’, but that wasn’t always my experience. I sometimes found the controls unresponsive, especially for precision jumps or fast dodges, which adds to the feeling that some hits are cheap. And hit detection could feel dodgy, both for enemy attacks and environmental threats – sometimes you’ll clip a spike and take a hit, and other times you won’t.

The positioning of save points is also a point of contention, as at times it may result in a 3-4 minute journey back to a boss fight. Not a major problem, but it slows you down. Hollow Knight doesn’t always value or respect your time which is a significant problem.

There’s just too many ways that Hollow Knight goes wrong for me to consider it a game as good as say, Ori or Dark Souls, two games that it shares much in common with both structurally and thematically. Ori got the balance between exploration and progression nearly perfect, whereas Dark Souls got the balance between difficulty, skill and luck just right.

Hollow Knight, on the other hand, is all over the place. Sometimes, it gets these things right, but many times, it doesn’t. It results in a very mixed, uneven and incredibly frustrating experience that I always felt was just a small step beyond being one of the best games I’ve played. It gets so much right, but is continually hampered by poor design choices that drag the experience down.

Hollow Knight never takes that step. It never truly opens up and lets the player enjoy their new skills or abilities. Everything has to be slow, methodical and punishing. Some may like it, but to me, it’s just not very fun. It’s a tedious slog of trial and error gameplay that I found as irritating as enjoyable. But I kept playing it because for every moment it annoyed me, it managed to hook me back in with something new.

It’s certainly not bad. It’s good, but sadly not great. You know when I write so much about a game it’s because I’m frustrated by it. Because I wanted to like it more than I did. Hollow Knight is good. There’s a lot I like about it. I just wanted it to be better.


Monday, 6 November 2017

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Now Watching: Wonder Woman

After the less than stellar Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman amazes us all by being surprisingly . . . okay. It’s easily the best of the DC ‘cinematic universe’ films and a much needed step in the right direction.

Overall, I liked the film, but I’m also rather disappointed by it. It feels like a lot of potential was wasted here. It’s hard to say more without spoiling the movie, so if you’ve not seen the film, stop reading here.

Wonder Woman has an opening so heavy on expository dialogue I wondered if I should be taking notes. It tells the story of how Diana – Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) – came to be. A weapon sent by Zeus to destroy Ares, the God of War, should he ever return to wreak havoc upon the world of men.

Set during World War One, Diana teams up with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) on a mission to halt the production of a deadly gas, being developed by the nefarious Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) and the German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) – who she suspects is Ares in disguise.

Gadot brings a charming naivety to the role of Diana. There’s a wonderful scene where she tells Steve that by destroying Ares, the war – all war – will end. He just looks at her, weary and sad. Even though he comes to believe her story about the God of War pulling the strings, he doesn’t quite share her faith in the nature of men.

Throughout the opening Diana is told there’s ‘much for her to learn and understand’ – about the world, about Ares, about mankind, and about her role within it. Ultimately, her goal is to bring peace to the world of men. It’s a noble theme and a poignant one considering the setting. Unfortunately, Wonder Woman squanders the potential it builds, and Diana ultimately defeats Ares and ‘war’ by quite violently punching it in the face.

Diana doesn’t really bring ‘peace’ – she just kills any unfortunate German soldier who gets in her way. World War Two is easy – nobody likes a Nazi. But World War One was a far less black and white affair, so it’s a shame the Germans are presented as comically evil assholes.

All that talk of ‘more to understand’ led me to believe there would be some kind of reveal – a secret she must learn. But all she learns is that in order to win, you just need to punch Ares really hard. I suppose there is something quite amusing about literally punching war in the face, but it’s also a contradiction of the central theme.

The question is, did Wonder Woman need Ares as an actual character to fight? What if he wasn’t just another video game boss but more of a metaphorical threat? Couldn’t that be the big secret – the thing she needed to understand? Ares is the evil that exists within the hearts of men and only men can choose to overcome it – exemplified by Steve’s sacrifice at the climax.

That Diana’s role wasn’t to just punch war away, but to inspire others to turn away from it. To lead by example and show them a better way. Isn’t that what being a hero is all about? Instead, Ares was just a CGI flying man that Diana had to punch a lot. Punching didn’t work at first, but then she really wanted to punch him, so it did.

I guess every superhero movie needs to end with a CGI boss fight? But why? I just wish they’d taken a different path with Wonder Woman. It’s all set up so perfectly, but then it takes the lazy path and ends with a lame video game fight that felt like watching a bad cartoon.

Other issues? The pace could be tightened and the slow motion effect during the fighting heavily reduced. Some of the CGI was also a little poor. I know Gal Gadot can’t actually leap tall buildings, but her CGI model was so obviously fake at times it was distracting.

I wanted to like this film more than I did. It gets so much right, builds everything right, but then does a complete 180 at the very end and contradicts it all. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m stupid for not wanting to see Wonder Woman prevail and bring ‘peace’ by vaporising her foe with lightning after violently beating him about the head.

Despite my issues and my disappointment with how everything came together at the end, Wonder Woman is still a decent film. It’s a step in the right direction for the DCU, but it’s still got a long way to go.


Thursday, 26 October 2017

Now Playing: Warhammer 2

Warhammer 2 is exactly what it needed to be. It’s more Total War: Warhammer – but even better. It likely won’t win over any new fans because at heart it’s just more of the same. But as I said in my First Impressions post – it’s a very polished, refined and upgraded version of the original. If you liked Warhammer 1, you’ll like Warhammer 2. It really is that simple.

My only concern prior to release was the price. Is there enough new content and mechanics within Warhammer 2 to justify its status as a fully priced ‘sequel’? After more than 80 hours of play, I’d say the answer is yes.

There are four new races – High Elves, Dark Elves, Lizardmen and Skaven – fighting on a large, entirely new campaign map which covers the ‘New World’ of the Warhammer universe. The map is split into four quite distinct continents – the jungles of Lustria, the deserts of the Southlands, the bleak wastelands of Naggaroth and the beautiful island of Ulthuan.

Each race has distinct, varied and extensive unit rosters and unique campaign mechanics. They each have two Lords to choose from and, aside from the Dark Elves, these Lords are split between different areas of the map, ensuring very different campaigns even when playing as the same race.

The campaign of Warhammer 2 is exactly the improvement I was hoping for. It’s the most narrative heavy Total War campaign released, based around a magical Vortex that has the power to contain or unleash the forces of Chaos upon the world.

Although you can ignore the Vortex ‘story’ and simply focus on a domination victory, I don’t think it’s worth playing the Vortex campaign if you do – you’d be better off sticking to the Mortal Empires campaign (more on that later) if all you want to do is expand and conquer.

I said in my Impressions post that I can see some fans really hating the Vortex mechanics because it does somewhat remove the ‘sandbox’ element from the campaign. As you progress you’ll unlock five rituals, each of which must be performed to unlock the ‘final battle’. Rituals take time to complete and spawn random Chaos armies which will rampage through your territory in an attempt to halt your progress.

The other races can also spawn ‘intervention’ armies to send against your ritual sites – and you can do the same to them. The Vortex campaign is a race and there can only be one winner. It’s not only a more narrative heavy campaign (with the welcome addition of animated cut-scenes advancing the story for your chosen race) but also a far more objective focused campaign.

Controlling ritual resource sites becomes key if you want to stay a step ahead of the pack, and completing missions is a great way to boost your ritual ‘currency’. It’s a great way of keeping you engaged through the entire length of your campaign – always an issue in previous Total War games – but that’s not to say it doesn’t raise new problems of its own.

The first is campaign replay value. Once you’ve beaten the ‘story’ as a race, there’s not much excitement for playing through it again, even with the different start locations for each of the Lords. I suppose that’s where Mortal Empires steps in – a sandbox ‘mega map’ which combines the content of Warhammer 1 & 2. But Mortal Empires isn’t strictly Warhammer 2 content as it requires ownership of Warhammer 1 – so I won’t be factoring it into my review of the ‘base’ Warhammer 2 experience.

The Vortex campaign also has a problem with repetition. Despite the unique races, units and mechanics, beating the campaign is achieved by each race in exactly the same way. Once you’ve taken at least three of the ‘resource’ sites, you should be able to pull ahead in the race quite easily – but once you do, there’s very little reason to continue to expand.

The Chaos and Intervention armies that spawn mean you’re better off playing turtle within your own territory once your borders are secure. If you’re ahead in the race, it’s far easier to sit tight and simply defend what you have.

This can be fun, in the sense that unlike Warhammer 1, you’ll actually get to fight some large, enjoyable siege battles against varied armies not only of Chaos but the other major races, but it also means that you’ll likely approach every campaign, regardless of race, in a similar manner. As I said, the Vortex campaign is more of a story and objective focused campaign than a sandbox – which won’t be to everyone’s taste.

That’s not to say you won’t get good value from the title. Because if, like me, you enjoy this style of campaign, you’ll want to complete it with all four races to see how their story plays out. At the time of writing, I’m coming to the end of my second campaign with over 80 hours played, and I intend to play at least two more campaigns.

Warhammer 2 features a lot of quality of life improvements over Warhammer 1. Things like the new end turn customisation options, or the end turn notifications custom options – there’s a lot more ways to customise your UI and how much or little information you need.

Other new additions to the campaign (which will also roll into the Mortal Empires campaign) include treasure hunting within ruined settlements – although I never found this particularly worth the time – and sea based discoveries – which are very much worth your time, especially in the early game for the financial boosts they can provide.

Campaign and Battle AI seems fairly on par with Warhammer 1. There’s no noticeable steps forward, but none back either. It’s a competent AI which does a decent enough job to provide an enjoyable experience.

Magic seems to have been seriously boosted in Warhammer 2, which is a very welcome change. Magic in battles, though fun to use in Warhammer 1, never felt very effective beyond the unit augments or hexes. But now, the visually spectacular spells such as vortex attacks, finally do the kind of damage their cost deserves.

A ‘climate’ system has replaced the occupation restrictions of Warhammer 1, and seems like a decent compromise, although I’m sure some players still won’t be happy. It seems like some just hate the notion of any penalties at all, or being forced into making tactical decisions regarding their expansion.

All of these improvements and alterations will feed directly into Mortal Empires which for many will become the primary way to play Total War: Warhammer. It certainly seems like it will render the Warhammer 1 campaign redundant, which is why I appreciate that the Warhammer 2 Vortex campaign will still offer a different experience for those looking for a smaller, more focused campaign.

Siege battles are still mostly the same, despite more variety to settlement design, and this remains an area that could use further improvement. The lack of naval battles or even dedicated naval units (outside of the Dark Elf Black Ark) is also disappointing considering the extensive sea regions between continents. But I’ve heard there may be licensing issues regarding the naval component of Warhammer Fantasy, so this may not be within their control – but it’s something I’d still like to see in the future.

Overall, Warhammer 2 is another fantastic entry into the Total War series, and an excellent sequel to an excellent game that unfortunately also renders that game somewhat redundant. Between the new Vortex and Mortal Empires campaign, there’s really no reason to return to Warhammer 1 at all. I’m actually quite surprised by just how much new stuff is packed into Warhammer 2 in addition to all of the small improvements.

Warhammer 1 felt like the shake up Total War needed. It breathed fresh life into the series. It was a ‘revolution’ title, just like the original Rome, Empire or Shogun 2, because it set a new course for the series to follow. That’s why, despite thinking that the release build of Warhammer 2 is better than that of Warhammer 1, I’m giving it a slightly lower score.

Because it’s an evolution, rather than a revolution. But it’s exactly the kind of evolution I wanted to see. Highly recommended.


Monday, 23 October 2017

E-Book Release: Wait For The Dawn

A year has passed since the outbreak and Olivia is on the run. Only she and the blind girl were able to escape the slaughter at the farm. They flee to the City seeking shelter, pursued relentlessly by the virus-mutated hounds. Rescued by a small band of hunters, Olivia and Lily are escorted to a refuge deep within the City.

But as they soon discover, the bloodthirsty hounds are not the only threat they must contend with. Ghosts stalk the deserted streets, seeking unsuspecting prey. And one dangerous survivor is gathering an army against the infected. He intends to eradicate all traces of the virus and those transformed by it, and will wipe out anyone – human or not – who stands in his way.

Wait For The Dawn is a four part, young-adult novella series of post-apocalyptic horror, survival and friendship.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Now Playing: Prey

I want to like Prey more than I do. It’s a good game, but also a frustrating one. It just couldn’t quite take that final step from good to great in the way that I wanted it to. It’s a game that’s clearly taken inspiration from the ‘Shock’ series of games – most notably, System Shock 2. And SS2 is one of, if not my favourite game ever.

Prey is set upon Talos 1, a space station not so dissimilar to Citadel Station in the original System Shock. But though the setting may be more SS1, the gameplay is entirely based upon SS2. You begin, as in SS2, with a simple wrench, but your inventory soon expands to include a range of conventional ‘security’ weapons (pistol & shotgun) to more advanced, laser based weaponry.

Your character can also install cyber-modules – sorry, neuromods – which grant a range of ‘human’ upgrade options based around hacking, repair, health and weapon proficiency. But as you progress, you’ll also gain access to more exotic abilities including telekinetic attacks – just like the psi powers of SS2.

Hell, you even have psi-hypos to restore your psi points in addition to health packs and food. Like SS2, you’ll find written and audio logs as you explore Talos 1. You’ll also be able to ‘research’ your opponents – although the research system is more similar to that in Bioshock than SS2.

That’s not to say Prey doesn’t have any new ideas of its own – most notably the mimic ability and the ‘gloo’ gun – but it’s very clearly structured both in terms of story, environment and gameplay upon System Shock 2. And I f**king love System Shock 2. So why don’t I love Prey?

In Prey you play as Morgan Yu who awakes upon Talos 1 to find everything has gone to shit. Guided by other characters you’ll explore the station section by section, upgrading your abilities, securing new weapons and hacking doors and safes. There’s a fairly substantial core quest chain in addition to a large number of side quests.

Which brings me to my first major issue with Prey – there’s too much content. It seems like an odd complaint to make, but Prey is overloaded with what I’d describe as ‘low quality filler’. The majority of the side quests really aren’t worth your time, at least not from a narrative perspective. The problem is, you never know which quest will lead to something interesting.

And this creates pacing issues with the main quest. If, like me, you’re someone who likes to explore everything you can and complete as much as you can, you’ll find yourself bouncing from one end of the station to the next, backtracking through sections multiple times. Which wouldn’t be such an issue if the side quests led to something interesting – but only a handful do.

These side quests only detract from the focus on your core mission. Yes, they’re optional, but some of them are so short and uninteresting that you wonder why they were even included. System Shock 2 didn’t have or need dozens of busy work side quests. It kept a laser focus on your core objectives and anything else you discovered emerged naturally through your own exploration.

Prey didn’t need all these busy work mini-quests, either. It bombards the player with needless distractions that only lead to disappointment and irritation, as you realise you wasted 10-15 minutes of your time on an entirely pointless errand.

And this leads into my second issue – environment design. Whilst the individual sections of Talos 1 are great, the overall structure of the station and the way you traverse it is just . . . not very fun. Some sections can only be accessed by traversing other sections and you’ll find yourself passing through some areas so many times you may get sick of them. Unlike System Shock 1 or 2, there’s no central lift to connect every deck.

As much as I like the design and individual sections of Talos 1, navigating the station can be irritating and repetitive. That said, I did really like being able to access the station exterior and fly between different airlocks – it’s a neat and welcome addition, even if I frequently crashed into things because of the fiddly flight controls.

My third major issue with Prey is enemy design. The early mimic creatures are great, but the ‘phantom’ creatures you later encounter are rather dull and generic and not particularly interesting to fight. There’s a ‘fire’ enemy. An ‘electric’ enemy. It’s all a little by the numbers. There’s a couple more interesting critters that I won’t spoil, but it’s not a great selection.

And finally, my fourth major issue is story. Prey, I’m sad to say, just isn’t terribly interesting from a story or character perspective. It’s not bad. It just lacks the edge it needs to really draw you in. There’s no real ‘antagonist’ as such, which I actually kind of liked – although the game unfortunately makes a poor and misguided late attempt at one – but the plot lacks drive. It never quite gets you invested in its story. At least, it didn’t for me.

Getting bogged down by low quality side quests certainly didn’t help, but the main plot, whilst not bad at all – it’s actually pretty decent with some interesting ideas – never really engaged me. And whilst I appreciated that the game didn’t try to put together a lame final ‘boss’ to fight, the ending does feel incredibly rushed to the point where I sat back and said ‘is that it?’ I even checked the ending online in case my game had bugged out and I’d missed something.

To say that Prey has a disappointing and flat ending would be an understatement. It’s also an ending with a couple of twists, at least one of which you’ll see coming fairly easily if you pay any attention to the various logs and audio files. It’s still an interesting ending and an interesting plot in general. I just wish it was better executed.

Aside from those main issues, Prey has several other small annoyances that hold it back. The hacking mini-game is irritating and not fun. The UI is clearly designed for a control pad, which can make it awkward to use. The game makes a thing of using automated turrets and sealing doors to ‘secure’ areas, but enemies respawn regularly and half the time you’ll return to a section only to find your turrets destroyed making you wonder why you bothered.

Seriously, I tested this shit. One time I left four fortified turrets guarding the main section entrance. I departed the section and then immediately returned to find all four turrets wrecked and no enemies in sight. It makes using spare parts repairing them entirely worthless.

The game gives you a ton of cool abilities, but you rarely need to use any of them. The mimic ability is great at first, but only actually useful in a handful of situations – it’s more of a novelty than anything. The same applies to the extensive range of ‘exotic’ powers, only one of which saw frequent use – there’s really little reason to bother with the others.

Visually, Prey looks oddly dated. Audio is fine. Performance isn’t great though. Considering how dated it looks, it’s a surprisingly taxing title. I had to drop most settings to a ‘medium’ configuration to keep a solid 60.

Overall, despite my complaints and what may seem like an overly negative impression based on this review, Prey is a good game. It just has too many issues dragging it down, pulling it back from being great. It’s frustrating because the potential is there – but it never manages to take that final step. As a fan of the ‘Shock’ series, it was good to play a title that, in many ways, feels like a new ‘Shock’ game in all but name. I don’t know if we’ll see more of Prey, but there’s certainly scope to expand and continue this story – and it’s something I’d like to see.