Sunday, 19 February 2017

Now Playing: INSIDE

From the developers of Limbo, INSIDE is another puzzle/platform game about a strange young boy running from left to right through a mysterious world – at least until the end when he merges with a giant testicle and embarks upon a testicle monster rampage.

I wasn’t sure if I should talk about the testicle monster. I don’t want to spoil things. But how can I not mention a testicle monster? Okay, so it’s not really a giant testicle, but that’s all I could think of as I rolled that monster about, scattering the puny humans in my path. Look out! Giant testicle coming through!

I completed INSIDE in 3 hours. So it’s short, but at least it’s appropriately priced. I’ve always said a game is as long as it needs to be. Is INSIDE as long as it needs to be? No, not in my opinion. If it was, I might have felt a little more satisfied by its end. Instead, I just sat back and said ‘is that it?’

The ‘story’ of INSIDE really doesn’t go anywhere. It just ends rather abruptly. Whilst it’s possible to interpret the story in different ways, all that really matters is if it provides a resolution that satisfies the player. INSIDE doesn’t – at least it didn’t for me.

So whilst the narrative aspect fell a little flat, I can’t deny that those 3 hours were still top quality. 3 hours of fantastic visuals, sound and animation. If I was scoring the game on those aspects alone, it’s an easy 9/10.

But I’m not. I’m also scoring on gameplay, and that’s where INSIDE also stumbles. The puzzle/platform mechanics and the way the the game introduces and evolves those mechanics throughout the 3 hour experience is excellent. INSIDE was always giving me something new.

That said, as clever as I think the game is at structuring its content, it’s also rather easy. If you’re looking for a challenging puzzle/platform game, INSIDE isn’t it. Aside from one or two puzzles, everything in INSIDE is fairly simple to complete.

I can admire the ingenuity of many of the puzzles and how the game introduces new mechanics as you progress, but I also can’t deny how simple they are and that ultimately, you’ll spend the most time ‘playing’ INSIDE by just holding down the key or stick to make the kid run from left to right. Sometimes you have to press jump. That’s about as involved as it gets.

INSIDE is a very linear title, which isn’t a complaint as such, but it’s something to be aware of. It’s a three hour adventure of going left to right and solving some basic puzzles along the way to a rather disappointing and abrupt ending. It’s not something you’ll likely play more than once.

It’s certainly a neat game to show people – it looks f**king gorgeous. But the ‘game’ part isn’t particularly compelling. It’s good, but it’s not great – aside from the giant testicle monster, which may be one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

This review is pretty short, but so is INSIDE. There’s really not much more for me to say about it – or can say, without spoiling something. Is it worth a go? Well, sure. If you liked Limbo you’ll probably like this too. But honestly, if you want a game with fantastic gameplay to match fantastic visuals and animation, then I think Ori and the Blind Forest is the better option.

INSIDE is pretty good though. Just don’t expect too much.


Sunday, 12 February 2017

Ghost Recon: Wildlands (BETA)

I must admit, I wasn’t particularly excited for the upcoming Ghost Recon: Wildlands. What little I’d seen of it suggested a somewhat mediocre mix of The Division and Far Cry. But I figured I’d give the beta a shot. Wildlands is an open world, solo or up to four player co-op third person shooter. It’s set in Bolivia and involves a crack team of American special operatives attempting to disrupt and dismantle a powerful drug cartel.

The map is split into multiple regions each with its own primary objective – taking out a key player in the cartel. In the beta, only one region was available, but it’s likely to serve as the core template upon which all regions are constructed.

In order to take out the cartel ‘boss’ of the region, you’ll first have to complete several smaller main missions that involve gathering intel or interrogating goons. These lead to a final mission in which you go after the boss. You’ll then gain access to new map regions and other key targets, each of which is ranked on a difficulty scale.

Each region also has multiple side missions involving a third rebel faction. There are also multiple collectibles to discover (which will be marked on your map if you access various forms of intel) and ‘supplies’ that you’ll need to unlock particular skills. So far, so very Far Cry in terms of structure.

Which you may consider to be a good or bad thing depending on your preference. There’s certainly a lot of content to keep you busy in Wildlands if you don’t care about the repetition. Because ultimately, once you’ve played a single region, I suspect you’ve played them all.

But though Wildlands may resemble Far Cry in terms of its open world structure, it must be said that (at least what I saw in the beta) it is certainly not as entertaining to explore. The region in the beta, though impressive in scale for a single region, was primarily dirt roads and small villages.

Traversing the map is rather dull, and there’s little reason to bother. There’s nothing interesting to see or do. This isn’t helped by the available vehicles, all of which handle rather poorly. Cars and bikes aren’t enjoyable to drive, and helicopters – though simple to control – feel slow and awkward to fly.

In terms of missions it’s about what you’d expect – go to place, shoot people. There’s little variety or elaboration in terms of objectives. And whilst I appreciate being able to approach missions in my own way by mixing combat and (rudimentary) stealth, nothing I played in the beta was at all interesting in terms of mission design. When compared to other Ubisoft titles such as The Division or Watch_Dogs 2, the missions in the Wildlands beta were rather basic and poorly constructed.

And it’s dull. I’d honestly had enough of the beta after only an hour of playing. I only stuck with it because I didn’t think it was fair to judge until I’d completed all of the main missions. So I did. But my opinion, unfortunately, didn’t change.

Technically, the beta was stable and the performance, though not perfect, was pretty good – unlike the recent For Honor beta. But I also couldn’t stop playing For Honor, despite the technical hiccups. After only a few short hours with the Wildlands beta, I’d had enough.

It’s not just the basic missions and the repetitive region structure that’s the problem, but the core gameplay. The Division suffered similar issues but it also had a very enjoyable and fluid third person cover/combat system. I expected Wildlands to be little more than a copy and paste variation of this system. I was wrong. And I really wish I wasn’t.

Compared to the The Division, or any recent third person cover based shooter, Wildlands feels dated and clunky. Movement animations are poor. Weapons feel weak and pack very little punch – even the grenade launchers are disappointing. The cover system is complete garbage and barely functions as your character ‘slides’ along objects. None of it feels good to play. For all the problems The Division had, at least it provided satisfying and fun combat.

Another thing I have to touch upon is the co-op feature. This game was clearly designed for co-op so if you’re thinking of playing solo – don’t. It wasn’t really a problem in The Division, but in that game you didn’t have three useless AI team mates following you around. Their AI is terrible. They ignore more enemies than they shoot and when they do shoot they can’t seem to hit anything.

They barely get involved in fights letting you do most of the work. The only useful thing they do is revive you when you go down, but that’s usually because they just stood by and watched as you were shot in the back. I hated them and tried to murder them multiple times without success.

Enemy AI isn’t much better. They take basic cover, throw the odd grenade, but they don’t coordinate or pose much of a threat unless they have the numbers. Stealth in the game is just ‘press B to crouch’ so I won’t bother saying more about that. Oh, and the story is pretty bad, at least from what I saw in the beta. It’s trying to be serious and failing miserably, the few attempts at injecting humour falling entirely flat.

Is there anything I like about it? The character customisation is okay, and I liked the weapon customisation as it was a nice step up from what was available in The Division. It looked nice, I guess. Yeah … that’s about it. I don’t think I’ll be picking it up at release, on sale or ever.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Now Playing: Watch_Dogs 2

Watch_Dogs was one of my favourite games of the last few years. I thought it was pretty great. I know I’m in the minority with that opinion, and particularly for my fondness of its protagonist – the ‘boring white guy’ Aidan Pearce. For many reviewers, Watch_Dogs 2 is a sequel that surpasses the original.

But few were fans of the original game, so that’s not exactly a surprising conclusion. But I am. So the question becomes – as a fan of the original, do I think Watch_Dogs 2 is a better game? Well, I do think it’s pretty good but once again, it seems I’m going to fall into the minority and say – the original was better.

Let’s begin with narrative. Watch_Dogs 2 is set in San Francisco and our new hero is Marcus Holloway, a young hacker with a grudge against the nefarious Blume Corporation – the creators of CTOS. To this end, he joins the ‘hacktivist’ group DeadSec, a collection of misfits and outcasts who embark on a series of ‘operations’ (missions) to increase their ‘followers’ (which is cleverly tied into the XP system) and undermine Blume and its allies.

The tone of Watch_Dogs has taken a dramatic shift from dark and serious to light and silly, and that’s immediately evident in your first main mission in which Marcus is running about in his underwear. As a result, Watch_Dogs 2 has a greater sense of fun and far more humour, reflected both in the characters and how they interact, but also in many of the missions you undertake.

But this playful tone also results in a narrative that lacks any real sense of drive. Why does Marcus care so much about ‘taking down’ Blume? And what does ‘taking down’ Blume actually mean? It’s a nebulous goal with no narrative progression and a wholly unsatisfying conclusion. Say what you will about the revenge based plot of the original, but at least it gave both Pearce and the player a clear motivation and goal.

The problem with Watch_Dogs 2, is that none of the characters have a comparable motivation driving their actions. Nearly everything is done purely because ‘it’ll be funny’. It’s done ‘for the lulz’. And that’s fine, to a degree, but it means the narrative lacks bite. It lacks any sense of danger or stakes. There’s little sense of threat to Marcus, despite him tackling a corporation we know is willing to kill to protect its interests.

There are odd moments when the game does try to be a little more serious, but these moments are quickly glossed over and forgotten. I did like Marcus and the supporting characters of Watch_Dogs 2, and I can’t deny it had me laughing a lot more than the sombre and serious original, but I also never really took their ‘mission’ very seriously because … well, neither did they.

There really needed to be a moment when they realised that ‘taking down’ Blume wasn’t just a game. A moment when Shit. Got. Real. That there were consequences to their actions. It’s a moment that never comes. And it doesn’t help that the main ‘villain’ of Watch_Dogs 2 is a hipster with a man bun.

The original narrative had a clear goal. It began with a mock execution, with Pearce pointing a gun to the head of the man responsible for killing his niece. And it ended the same way. It was a perfect circle bringing the story to a close. The narrative had structure and pace – a clear progression of Pearce (and the player) working towards a goal, a goal Pearce was emotionally invested in achieving.

But Watch_Dogs 2 doesn’t have any narrative thread guiding you from start to finish. It’s just a series of disconnected, narratively detached missions that eventually lead to a final mission which has no build up at all. Seriously, there’s no real narrative build up to ‘taking down’ Blume. The final mission just pops up, seemingly at random – and what a lame final mission it is.

And our heroes? When our heroes in Watch_Dogs 2 hit their first real hurdle, all of them aside from Marcus are immediately ready to quit. If they don’t really seem to care about their mission … then why should I? Where’s the personal investment? What’s really at stake?

The tone also creates an odd clash with the gameplay. Pearce was on a mission of revenge, fighting gangs, corporate assassination squads and career criminals whereas Marcus is fighting … hipsters. There is a small gang element to a couple of missions, but your primary ‘bad guys’ are poorly paid security guards just doing their job. It never felt out of place for Pearce to murder his way (if the player chose) through his missions, but Marcus?

Marcus isn’t a criminal, not in the same sense as Pearce. Remember, Pearce wasn’t really a ‘hacker’ in Watch_Dogs. He was a ‘fixer’ who worked with hackers, including DeadSec itself. He was accustomed to violence. Marcus is just a kid who likes cheesy 80s action flicks and taking selfies with his friends. So it’s all a little jarring when you can equip him with military grade weapons and begin murdering people. It’s even more jarring when none of your friends comment on the fact that you murdered 8 people just to spray some graffiti on an advertising board.

Sure, you don’t have to and like the original, there’s certainly non-lethal and stealth based options you can take. The point I’m making is that Marcus killing just doesn’t feel right, not for the character, not for the story and certainly not for the tone. I can’t really criticise the game for giving the player the option to use lethal violence, but I also can’t help but wonder what the game would be like if they’d taken the bold design choice to limit Marcus to entirely non-lethal weaponry and gadgets.

Speaking of gadgets, Watch_Dogs 2 introduces a remote buggy and drone to the series. These are a fantastic addition, opening up new ways to approach missions, although I do feel they’ve made the game significantly easier as a result. There are also cool new hacks to utilise, my personal favourite being the ability to take control of vehicles.

The core gameplay of Watch_Dogs remains intact, as you use a variety of hacks, stealth and combat to complete your missions. And that’s something I loved about the original – being able to approach and devise plans to complete these missions in my own way. The game provides the toys, but how you use them is entirely up to you.

The open world of Watch_Dogs 2 is a significant improvement over that of the original and a far more enjoyable sandbox to screw about in. It’s still not comparable to say, GTA V, but it’s a very good step in the right direction. The new hacks like the vehicle control or the ability to call the police to arrest people provide some extremely enjoyable ways to f**k about and cause all kinds of havoc.

That said, the side content of Watch_Dogs 2 isn’t as good. Although there’s more unique and elaborate side missions, there’s nothing quite as enjoyable or compelling when compared to those of the original. The original also had far more side content, including various mini-games (that Watch_Dogs 2 entirely lacks) and collectibles, which it cleverly tied together by building unique missions around them.

Player progression in Watch_Dogs 2 is also a little annoying in the sense that even if you’ve unlocked enough skill points to purchase a new ability, you may not be able to until you’ve collected a ‘research item’ on the map, forcing you to go and hunt it down. They’re not hard to find. There’s very rarely any puzzle or challenge to collecting them. It’s just a tedious way of slowing the player down.

In terms of performance, Watch_Dogs 2 isn’t great, with a frame rate that frequently dips regardless of settings. It also randomly freezes for a few seconds at odd times (even when using the menus) which isn’t game breaking, but certainly irritating so I hope we see some patches on the way.

Car handling could be better as it feels very ‘floaty’. The original didn’t have fantastic car handling either, but I’d have hoped for an improvement in its sequel, including better car physics and damage model – but we don’t really get either. This is one of the key areas that Watch_Dogs as a series really needs to improve.

Overall, despite my complaints, I enjoyed Watch_Dogs 2. The core gameplay remains intact with the ability to approach missions in my own way, at my own pace. And whilst none of the missions really connect narratively, they are all fairly enjoyable and cleverly varied in their own unique way. The open world is a good step up from the original, and the new characters are a lot of fun.

But Watch_Dogs 2 is also inconsistent with its tone, its narrative lacks bite, and it doesn’t provide the appropriate motivation or investment that the characters (and the player) need. Its side content is rather shallow compared to the original, and I don’t feel it offers such a wide range, variety and quality in terms of its missions. It’s a very solid and enjoyable continuation of the Watch_Dogs series, but I do think the original was better.


Wednesday, 1 February 2017

For Honor (BETA)

I kind of hate For Honor. But I kept playing it all throughout its beta. I’m irritated by it. Frustrated by it. But I kept going back to it. I’m certainly not going to buy it, at least not on release. Where the hell do I start?

Okay, so let’s begin with technical issues. Yes, it was a beta so you expect a degree of technical hiccup, but considering the game is due to be released in a matter of weeks, what I saw in the beta isn’t particularly promising.

The matchmaking is completely f**ked. I spent more time in the beta fighting bots than real people because the matchmaking simply wouldn’t work half of the time. And often, even if I’d join a lobby, it would be a bugged lobby stuck in a perpetual state of loading.

Which wouldn’t be too bad if you could quit the lobby and try again, but you can’t because the developers didn’t include the option to quit a lobby in this state, so anyone unfortunate enough to connect can only hard close the game and restart the entire thing.

The game also doesn’t use dedicated servers but peer-to-peer connections and this is awful. I don’t think I played a single game that didn’t have connection issues as players dropped in and out, forcing the game to regularly pause and resync. When this happens in the middle of a duel, it’s bloody annoying.

Oh, and sometimes it doesn’t just resync if a player disconnects, but drops everyone from the match. And, in some cases, it simply crashes the game. This was a real problem in the 1v1 and 2v2 duel modes.

Yes, it’s a beta, but whoever thought using peer-to-peer for a game that involves precision melee based combat is a bloody idiot. Lag is a major problem in many matches, and the varying connection speeds of players results in awkward duels where blocking doesn’t always work and hits don’t always connect.

I’ve said before that inconsistency in a multiplayer game is a major problem. When things don’t work the way they’re supposed to work when you really need them to it’s incredibly infuriating. And it’s not just lag that’s an issue, but the controls that randomly decide not to respond. I had no end of problems with the ‘revenge’ mode refusing to activate no matter how hard or how many times I’d hammer the button.

It’s not just the technical issues that bothered me though, but certain design choices. The game has an enjoyable, if somewhat limited combat system that’s primarily designed for 1v1 duelling. But then someone decided that the 1v1 duel mode, the mode where you’d think the combat system would really shine, needed maps with lots of narrow ledges and bridges.

The majority of my 1v1 ‘duels’ were spent trying to avoid people trying to charge, bash or throw me from a height for an easy kill. Seriously, people just run about in circles avoiding combat so they can try to knock you off a ledge.

The main mode of this beta was Dominion which involves capturing three strategic points in a 4v4 battle that includes some basic solider npcs. This is the mode I was able to play the most with other people but it’s also the mode that suffered the most from connection problems.

It’s also chaotic as f**k, especially if you’re fighting around the npcs who simply get in the way of your attacks or block your escape. It becomes hard to see what the hell is going on and as a result, everyone just wades in spamming heavy attacks in the hopes of landing a hit. This is also a mode where it’s better to just stick close to your team and gang up on people.

Sure, you can try to fight a couple of people at once and that’s what the ‘revenge’ system is really used for – when it decides to trigger if at all – but if you’ve got three people bashing into you at once, you’re f**ked regardless. It’s just not worth getting stuck into any 1v1 duels in this mode because you can be sure that within seconds you’ll have another player or two getting involved.

And because it’s so easy to regenerate health within controlled zones, it’s a mode that results in a lot of silly chases around the map as players low on health flee to heal. The mode doesn’t emphasis or reward good skill at the combat system, but rather how good you are at ganging up on people, spamming heavy attacks from behind when they’re bogged down in npcs or chasing people down on low health for easy kills.

And there’s lots of other little things that irritated the shit out of me. The player lock on is buggy as f**k and would frequently jump between targets when I was trying to fight more than one player. Losing stamina makes your screen go black, white and blurry and hard to see what the f**k is going on. It’s an unnecessary effect that will just get on your tits.

If there’s not enough players in a match the slots will be filled with bots (which are actually fairly competent) but if a player does join in progress, the bot will simply vanish – even in the middle of a duel. It’s jarring and annoying and they really need to change it so the player has to wait until the bot dies and the slot becomes open. Or just until the bot isn’t actively engaged.

There’s a system for levelling your character and unlocking new abilities, but these abilities are basically magic and feel pretty cheap and silly within a game based around skilful melee combat. You can also unlock new cosmetic and stat based gear, but the stat stuff isn’t very interesting because it can’t be – otherwise you’d have a game with major balance issues.

And the cosmetic stuff isn’t great either because they clearly want to retain the basic appearance of your chosen class. As a result, no matter how many pieces of armour, weapons, colours or patterns you unlock, you’re never really going to see a noticeable difference in the game when compared to other player characters.

The entire menu and UI system is sterile and dull as f**k with multiple currencies, upgrade options, loot drops, xp and microtransaction bullshit that feels shallow and tacked on because someone realised they actually needed to make a game and not just a neat little 1v1 combat system. And that’s the real problem with For Honor. They made a neat little 1v1 combat system but that’s all they really made. The rest of the ‘game’ just feels knocked together to justify its stupidly high price.

I kind of hate For Honor. But I kept going back to it. Because the combat system, when it works, is actually pretty fun. The few times I had some proper duels with people were tense, exciting and very enjoyable even if I lost. But that’s simply not enough. The game has way too many problems both technically and by design. I shouldn’t be wanting to punch the game every other match because it continually f**ks up.

I do like the combat though. When it works. On sale? Maybe.