Monday, 27 March 2017

Now Playing: Breath of the Wild

My initial impressions of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild were very positive. But I must admit, that after more than 60 hours of play, I came away feeling a little disappointed. Breath of the Wild is, without a doubt, a potential Game of the Year. But it’s also a title I think falls a little short in a couple of key areas.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Breath of the Wild is a fantastic example of open world done right. I talked a little about this in my First Impressions post, but it’s something worth repeating. With so many recent open world games adhering to such formulaic structures, BotW is an incredibly refreshing experience.

After an initial tutorial zone, you can go anywhere in the world that you wish and you can tackle the core content in any order you choose. The only restrictions to your exploration are enemy strength and environmental hazards – but with careful planning, even these can be overcome. BotW offers a remarkable freedom to explore that puts so many recent ‘open world’ games to shame.

And this is a world worth exploring. As vast as the game map may be, every piece of it feels meticulously crafted. No matter where you go, how far or how high you climb, you’ll always find something on your travels. There will always be something to see or do.

The world of BotW is the real star of the show. But as large as it is, it’s not the size that’s truly impressive. It’s the small details that really matter. BotW is packed full of small details. Small details that bring the world to life in a way that the artificially structured zones of other open world titles nearly always neglect.

These details range from enemy animations and behaviour, to npc interaction, to wildlife, to environmental details . . . every piece of the world feels carefully considered. This isn’t just a collection of assets haphazardly thrown together to fill out a needlessly large map. This world feels real. It’s one of the most immersive open worlds you’ll ever experience and it’s an absolute joy to explore.

But not everyone may like this open approach to design. As I said in my post about the durability system, Breath of the Wild represents a significant departure from the formula of previous Zelda titles. In those, exploration was gated and progression structured by way of key items.

But in BotW, your key items – runes – are all unlocked after the initial tutorial zone. This a necessity to give the player the freedom to tackle any of the content in any order they wish. But if you’re a player who prefers a sense of progression similar to past Zelda titles, that’s not what BotW is offering.

Instead, its sense of progression comes primarily from your exploration, and the expansion of your map as you enter new zones. It also comes in the form of upgraded health and stamina bars, as well as new weapons and armour. But there’s no real progression in terms of quests, story or key items, even items as important as the iconic Master Sword.

You could, if you wanted to, head straight for the end boss after leaving the initial zone. The game gives you the freedom to do so, with or without completing the four main ‘dungeons’, any of the shrines, or even knowing the Master Sword exists. And I can understand why some people may not like this completely open approach to progression. For those expecting a more structured experience in terms of narrative and gameplay, you won’t really find that here.

So once you’re out in the world, free to go wherever you wish, what is there to actually do? There’s no template to zones in the sense that each has a set number of core and side objectives. In fact, some regions of the map will go entirely unexplored if you stick to purely ‘main’ quests. But each region does feature a variety of side quests and shrines to discover and complete.

The shrines are essentially puzzle rooms, based around the use of your runes. A few do offer combat challenges, but these are actually the most disappointing, as they’re all exactly the same, only with varying difficulty. In terms of quality, the puzzle based shrines are somewhat mixed. There’s over 100 shrines to discover in the world, the majority of which can be immediately accessed upon arrival, but others which may require a quest to unlock.

Some of them (including the associated quests) are very simple, easy and straightforward to complete, whilst others offer a genuinely clever and elaborate challenge. I completed over 60 of the shrines during my time with the game and overall, I’d say I enjoyed the shrines a lot. But I also can’t deny that there’s nothing particularly special about these ‘mini-dungeons’ either.

I’d have much preferred if they’d strung say, 5 or 6 of these puzzle rooms together. We’d then have less shrines, but perhaps more meaningful and challenging shrines. Another issue with the shrines is the disappointing reward they offer upon completion – a Spirit Orb which, when you have 4 in your possession, can be used to upgrade your health or stamina.

One of the joys of previous Zelda titles was completing challenging puzzles and dungeons and feeling that you received a unique and worthwhile reward for your trouble. But there’s nothing unique, surprising or interesting about the rewards for completing shrines.

I’d have loved it if they’d not only combined the shrines into more substantial experiences, but also provided more meaningful and randomised rewards – such as heart or stamina upgrades, armour pieces or unique weapons. Here’s the thing – I enjoyed the shrines, but there was no sense of mystery to them. I always knew exactly what to expect and exactly what I’d be getting at the end.

Side quests are also mixed in terms of quality. I completed so many I lost count, some of which were short and easy, whilst others featured multiple stages and were far more elaborate. I’m pleased to say that on the whole, very few fall into the tedious ‘go fetch X number of Y’ style quests, and the majority have some kind of narrative drive. The personal highlight for me was the side quest for purchasing and decorating my own home, which then branched into a lengthy secondary quest of helping to construct an entire town and recruiting new residents.

And then we have the main quests, although only one of these is technically required to complete the game – defeating Ganon. The others involve recovering your lost memories, finding the Master Sword, and freeing the Divine Beasts from Ganon’s control. And although none of these things are strictly necessary, you won’t be getting the ‘full’ experience if you don’t. This is especially true of the ‘lost memories’ quest, which you need to see the full ‘true’ ending to the game.

That’s something that kind of irritated me though, because one of the memories is actually located just before the final boss, but you’re then required to leave the area in order to complete the quest. It feels pretty silly fighting or sneaking your way to Ganon, only to turn around and f**k off at the last moment. And then you have to go all the way back again.

The Divine Beasts are essentially the main ‘dungeons’ of Breath of the Wild, but if you’re expecting anything similar to previous Zelda dungeons you may be sorely disappointed. Each Beast is pretty much just a large puzzle room with the odd (and pointless) enemy thrown in, based around a mechanic that lets you reconfigure the room on the fly.

And they’re . . . not that great, to be honest. I really don’t mind BotW doing something different with its approach to dungeon design, but given the top quality of the open world, the Beasts are rather disappointing in comparison. They’re all very short, basic and easy to complete. They all share the same aesthetic and the same puzzle mechanic.

They’re not terrible. Don’t get the wrong idea. A couple of them are actually quite clever. But in many ways, they’re less interesting and elaborate than some of the shrines I completed. And when compared to dungeons in previous Zelda games, they lack variety not only visually, but in terms of design, challenge and puzzles. There’s no unique theme or puzzle mechanic requiring the use of a particular skill or item. Also, the bosses kinda suck.

Each Beast ends with a boss fight, and this is the other major issue I have with BotW. The bosses are weak. Like the Beasts, they’re fairly short and easy fights. And both visually and tactically, they’re all essentially the same. If you’re expecting unique and varied boss fights, requiring clever solutions to defeat, then you’re going to be very disappointed.

And this sadly applies to the final boss fight which, due to the open nature of progression, has no real build up. There’s no sense of achievement at being ready to face the ultimate foe. Instead, it just involves running into a room, watching a cut scene as the big bad arrives, followed by a rather anti-climactic battle and a somewhat abrupt and unsatisfying ending.

It feels like the game would have benefited by dialling back the freedom just a touch, to help build that tension, that sense that you’re preparing for the ultimate battle. If it made securing the Beasts a necessity. If the bloody Master Sword was actually vital to victory. But it’s not.

It can’t be, because they’ve purposefully designed the game so that nearly everything you do is entirely optional. But when everything is optional, none of it feels important. As a result, when you do find the Master Sword, it’s incredibly underwhelming – especially when you realise you could have just as easily gone into battle against Ganon wielding a bokoblin club and prevailed.

It almost feels like BotW forgot about the Legend part of the title. The Legend of the Chosen Hero. The Legend of the Master Sword. Except in BotW, you can run straight to Ganon and start smacking him with a soup ladle. So much for the legendary ‘sword that seals the darkness’! I can see why some people might see this as a positive, but to me, it’s more of a negative aspect.

I missed that sense of needing to go on a grand quest to unlock the key items that are required to defeat the ultimate foe. In BotW, you don’t really need to do anything because it gives you all the necessary tools right at the start. So why bother? What’s really at stake? Where’s the sense of purpose and drive? I know there are those who will think this silly, that there’s no more incentive to doing these things just because they’re mandatory and it’s actually better if they’re not.

And I can’t quite disagree with that. I guess I’m kind of torn on the matter. I enjoyed everything I did to prepare for the final boss, choosing my own path and tackling each Beast in my own time and way – but when I finally reached Ganon and realised none of it really made any difference, it all felt a bit hollow.

In terms of story, I actually really liked BotW. It’s surprisingly bitter sweet. Essentially, the first battle against Ganon was lost and everyone died. But now you’re back to take one final shot. I liked it, and I liked searching for my lost memories to piece together exactly what went down. I just wish the gameplay progression more appropriately reflected your story progression.

Also, the ending. It’s so short and abrupt and then just kicks you back to a save prior to fighting Ganon. I’d have loved an ‘epilogue’ style post-game world and final quest where you recruit the other races to help you rebuild the castle or something. This would have been the perfect title to offer a meaningful post-Ganon experience, because there’s still so much to explore, discover and do.

Combat in the game is simple, but effective. I’ve already touched upon the durability system, so I don’t so again here. When combined with the environment and runes, the combat in BotW offers an enjoyable, varied and creative experience. Alongside the open world, it’s one of the highlights of the game. There’s so much to do, so many creative ways to combine your skills to explore or just f**k around.

It’s easy to lose yourself in the world of Breath of the Wild because the world is so damn fantastic. But I think you need to step back and look at the experience as a whole. Look at the real key elements of the game – those elements that push you forward throughout the experience. And those key elements – the core quests, the Divine Beasts and the boss fights – are all a little lacking. They almost feel like an afterthought, as if they were tacked on at the last moment.

They’re not bad – they’re just not as good as everything else in the game. But, for me, they are the most important elements of the experience – and ultimately, they failed to provide the quality, variety and challenge I expected. It’s such a damn shame, because if they’d nailed those aspects as fantastically is they nailed the open world, then maybe we really would have the perfect game.

Despite my criticisms and odd irritations, there’s no denying that the overall experience of playing Breath of the Wild was incredibly engaging, engrossing and most importantly – fun. It’s one of those rare titles that comes along and reminds you why you love video games so much. Breath of the Wild was a joy to play. I highly recommend it.


Monday, 20 March 2017

Breath of the Wild: Durability

There are many ways in which Breath of the Wild represents a significant departure from what you might call the ‘Zelda formula’. And I can understand why fans who may be looking for the more familiar and ‘traditional’ structure of a Zelda title, may be a little disappointed by BotW.

One of the key changes, and perhaps the most controversial, is item durability. The durability system of BotW has proven to be one of its most discussed and divisive aspects. I was going to cover this in my upcoming review, but I’d like to cover the topic with a little more depth.

In Breath of the Wild, weapons break and shields shatter. As far as I’m aware, only one weapon in the game – the Master Sword – cannot break. I can understand why some may not like this new system, but as far as I’m concerned, from a design perspective, it’s mechanically sound.

During the ‘early’ game as you explore the initial tutorial area and surrounding zones, many of the weapons you’ll discover will either be simple wooden clubs and spears, or rusty ancient blades that break easily and frequently. And this can prove, at least in the beginning, to be rather frustrating.

But these early stages form an important learning process in terms of combat design. It forces the player to test each of the core weapon types and become familiar with each in range, damage and power attack. It also encourages players to cycle through their weapons during combat, seamlessly switching their weapon and attack type to strike swiftly and decisively.

It also teaches the player the importance of using the right weapon for the right job. A very obvious example would be the difference between attempting to cut a tree with a sword rather than an axe – the sword will rapidly break whereas the axe will not. This lesson doesn’t simply apply to the environment, but more importantly to enemy types.

As you progress through the game you’ll soon discover stronger weapons, some of which carry an elemental charge. And particular enemy types also adhere to an elemental aspect. Once again, it’s all about the right weapon for the right job – a ‘frost’ blade is more effective against an enemy charged by fire, for example.

Yes, it all seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? But it’s important to understand that this also ties into the durability system – if you’re using a weapon which isn’t particularly effective to your task, it will break far more rapidly than one which is. There’s no ‘uniform’ durability to items. There’s no durability ‘meter’. It’s a system based entirely around the ground breaking notion of ‘common sense’.

What I’m trying to say is – if your weapons are continually breaking, even during the later stages of the game, then you’re probably doing it wrong. There is a logical system in place. The game, like so many of its systems, doesn’t overly explain it. It forces you to experiment and figure it out on your own.

And honestly, once you complete a couple of the main ‘dungeons’ and have a strong grasp of the combat mechanics (including how to effectively use your runes and the environment to your advantage) weapon durability really does cease to be an issue.

I’m approaching the end of the game as I write this, and I’m actually discarding far more weapons than I’m breaking, simply due to limited inventory space. It’s rare that my weapons break at this stage of the game, in part because they’re far stronger than early game weapons (as you’d expect) but also because I now understand how to utilise them to their strongest potential.

Could the durability mechanic be tweaked for the early stages of the game? I think there’s an argument to be made for that, and I certainly felt that way whilst playing. But looking back now, I realise how important those early stages were in teaching me how to manage my weapons, how best to prepare for each fight, and how to use each weapon most effectively.

Like I said, I can understand why some players may not like this system – and that’s fine. But to me, that doesn’t mean the system is bad or broken. To me, the durability mechanic works as intended within the context of the combat system and the open world they designed. Whether you think such a system is appropriate for a Zelda game is another discussion entirely. I just think it’s important to understand how the system works and more importantly that it does work.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Now Playing: Bretonnia (DLC)

Bretonnia is likely going to be the last major content update for Total War: Warhammer. And it’s free. Yes, free. The Bretonnia ‘race’ has existed within the game since release, but featured a rather small roster when compared to other factions, and were only playable in custom battles or multiplayer – not campaign.

This free DLC fleshes out the Bretonnia unit roster (including new units not even seen in the original tabletop game) and adds three Legendary Lords, each with their own unique faction bonuses, quest battles and starting location. It also introduces a unique Bretonnia building and technology chain, as well as unique faction mechanics and events.

For a piece of free content, it’s quite substantial. I’ve felt, particularly over the last few years, that the developers of Total War have earned a rather unfair reputation when it comes to DLC. Whilst their DLC policy has never been perfect (and I’ve often criticised it myself) they’re very good at releasing free, if small, content updates too. The quality of their paid DLC has also improved, even if I sometimes disagree with the pricing – see my Realm of the Wood Elves DLC review.

But Bretonnia is free, so pricing really isn’t an issue. And because it’s free, there’s really no reason not to try it. I played a single Bretonnia campaign over 12 or so hours, so you’re getting pretty good value even if you decide you don’t particularly care for the faction. Because like all the races of Warhammer, Bretonnia has a unique way to play, both in battles and campaign.

In battles, Bretonnian units are split between ‘peasant’ troops (on foot) and ‘knights’ (cavalry). No single peasant unit is comparable in terms of stats to similar units within other factions, but with the appropriate supporting units, leader bonuses and magical boosts, they can hold their line long enough to deliver the true killing blow of Bretonnia – the cavalry. Bretonnian cavalry may be the best in the game. I won’t say it is because I’ve not compared all the stats, but it really does pack one hell of a punch.

On the campaign, Bretonnia are all about ‘chivalry’ and the ultimate goal of the campaign is to attain 1000 chivalry and fight a final quest battle that will either take you deep into the greenskin occupied badlands, or to the treacherous chaos wastes of the distant north.

You earn chivalry by winning battles, researching technology, constructing key buildings and by earning unique traits for your characters. Expanding your territory – though important to maintain your upkeep and increase your available forces – isn’t strictly necessary.

It gives the Bretonnia campaign a slightly different focus compared to many of the others. In terms of campaign management, you have a ‘peasant economy’ which can dip into a negative if you recruit too many peasant units. It’s all about maintaining a balance.

As far as a free race goes, Bretonnia offers a decent new campaign, with a cool roster and some interesting and unique mechanics. And it’s free. I really don’t have too much to complain about. I can’t say I particularly loved playing as Bretonnia – as far as ‘human’ factions go, I still prefer the versatility of the Empire (although their campaign mechanics could certainly use an overhaul when compared to Bretonnia or the Wood Elves).

I enjoyed my Bretonnia campaign, but I’m not sure I’ll play as them again any time soon. But simply as an updated AI faction, they offer a nice balance to the west side of the map. So, yeah. It’s free. It’s decent. If you already own Warhammer, be sure to give it a spin.


Friday, 10 March 2017

Breath of the Wild: First Impressions

I’ve played The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for just over 20 hours now, but I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. I thought I’d write an initial impressions post to talk about my experience so far.

The main problem I’ve had with the game isn’t so much an issue with the game itself, but with me. Muscle memory is a funny thing, and switching from a 360 controller to a Wii U controller has proven troublesome. But I’m pleased to say that after 20 hours of play, I can now reliably press at least 3 of the 4 face buttons. Give me another 10 and I’m confident I’ll be able to press all 4.

Graphically, Breath of the Wild is gorgeous. It has a lovely ‘watercolour’ aspect to it. Still images of the game really don’t do it justice. When animated, the world of BotW is beautiful to behold. Sound design in terms of ambient audio is excellent, but there’s been a noticeable lack of strong musical tracks – at least so far.

Playing BotW on the Wii U, I’m actually surprised by how impressive it looks and how smoothly (overall) it runs. The frame rate does suffer in certain locations, particularly in the two villages I’ve visited. It also takes a hit when multiple explosions occur. It’s a noticeable drop, but far from unplayable.

I found it strange when I saw articles talking about Zelda ‘going open world’ because all of the previous Zelda titles were open world to a limited degree. And BotW is the most open yet. It doesn’t quite strike you at first, even after an initial panoramic reveal. But as you begin to explore, it dawns on you just how vast the world of BotW really is.

What’s impressive isn’t so much the size, but how everything feels hand crafted. It really does feel like a real world you’re stepping into, as opposed to a collection of copy pasted zones. Yes, I’m looking at you Ubisoft.

Ubisoft took the concept of the open world and refined it into a very ‘efficient’ (and successful) formula. But it’s a formula that I’ve (and I’m sure many others) have grown considerably tired of. Playing BotW feels like a breath (!) of fresh air in comparison.

It’s a fantastic example of how open world should be done. After departing the initial ‘tutorial’ area you really can go anywhere you want. You see that mountain? You can climb it! And you’ll probably find something really neat at the top when you do.

There’s no ‘zone’ check lists to complete before moving onto the next. Your progression through the world and the design of the world itself feels very organic, as opposed to the artificial and structured experience of the Ubisoft Game Template.

Breath of the Wild, quite refreshingly, doesn’t hold your hand. It provides enough visual clues to prod you in the right direction but it never treats you like a fool. For example – in an early tutorial mission, you have to enter an area of extreme cold. The game doesn’t ‘tell’ you how to survive it as such, but you do find a journal that hints at a recipe for a cold resistant meal.

It provides the clue, but it doesn’t use quest markers to point to key ingredients or shove ‘collect 3/6 peppers’ on your screen whilst you do. The game gives you enough information for you to figure it out on your own. It trusts that you’re not a complete moron who needs to be led every step of the way. I’m looking at YOU Ubisoft.

It also doesn’t feel the need to shove all its CONTENT into your face. LOOK HOW MUCH CONTENT THERE IS. LOOK AT ALL THESE QUEST MARKERS AND COLLECTIBLES. Once you enter a new region you can climb a tower to ‘unlock’ the local map. But that’s all it does. The rest is up to you to explore and discover on your own.

And if there’s one thing I’d advise when playing BotW, it would be to switch off the mini-map and other HUD elements. You honestly don’t need them. The problem with mini-maps in general, is that you sometimes end up watching where you’re going on them as much as what’s before you on the screen. Turn that shit off immediately.

There’s lots of little things I’ve experienced in my time with BotW, little stories I could talk about all day. Like when I climbed a mountain and found three round boulders perched on top of a small hill. I then noticed two trees, standing apart, at the bottom. The game didn’t tell me what to do. I just knew.

The world is full of lovely little touches and animations. The attention to detail is quite remarkable. Entering a village at night or during bad weather is a different experience to during the day or when the sun is shining. Characters change their routine or even their dialogue as appropriate. Many games simply don’t bother with these little touches, but it’s these small moments that massively enhance the overall experience.

Combat in the game is fairly simple, but fun. Unlike previous Zelda titles you don’t have ‘set’ weapons or gear, but instead continually cycle through new equipment as you progress. Weapons break over time and must be replaced, which can be annoying if you’ve found a weapon you really like, but you soon learn not to grow attached. It does provide a nice degree of variety to combat as you’re forced into using different types of weapons, each with their own attack style.

If there’s one thing the Zelda games have always done well, it’s provide this wonderful sense of adventure – and Breath of the Wild may be the best yet in that regard. Exploring the world is a joy. You’re never far from something to see or do. And because the game never tells you exactly what you’ll find or where, it maintains this wonderful sense of mystery.

Which wouldn’t work at all if there wasn’t anything interesting to actually find – but there nearly always is. Every time I saw something that looked interesting at a distance, I was never disappointed by what I found, even if what I sometimes found was a world ‘boss’ who one shot me.

That doesn’t mean the game doesn’t have any structure. It does. There are ‘main’ quests on which to embark and different side quests to undertake. But you never know when or where you’ll come across them, and how you approach them is entirely up to you.

If it wasn’t already clear, my initial impressions of Breath of the Wild are extremely positive. I played for 20 hours over two days which probably wasn’t very healthy, but it was honestly hard to stop. I can’t remember the last time I lost myself quite so much in a world.

It’s a game with a true spirit of adventure and I hope the next 20 (or however many hours it takes to complete) are as impressive as the first. Don’t expect a full review any time soon. I’m taking my time with this one.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Now Playing: Dishonored 2

Let’s begin with performance and graphics. The frame rate of Dishonored 2 is inconsistent to say the least, ranging from between 30 to 60 FPS depending on which direction you may be facing at the time. It’s not too noticeable as you play, but it can be an issue when combined with the graphical aspect which is also best described as inconsistent.

Some environments are very impressive to look at, but others – particularly long distance scenery – look absolutely terrible. And even at its best, Dishonored 2 doesn’t look that good and we really shouldn’t be seeing these frame rate issues.

I probably spent my first hour with the game attempting to find a balance within the extensive settings menu that would provide a fairly stable frame rate, but also a game that didn’t appear as a blurry, low textured mess.

I cycled through the various forms of AA and AA sharpening as well as the different adaptive resolution settings (including switching them off entirely) until I struck upon a combination that wasn’t quite so offensive to my eyes. Even then, the game had an odd blur to it that I could never quite remove.

It varies depending on lighting and environment, but everything in the game has this unpleasant ‘out of focus’ effect to it. Combined with the inconsistent frame rate, and there were times when playing Dishonored 2 that it actually gave me a headache.

If there’s one thing the original did brilliantly that Dishonored 2 can claim to do equally so, it’s the world building and lore aspect. If you’re someone who loved the world of Dishonored and loved to explore it through its many audio logs, journals, books, history, music and conversation, then you’ll find a lot to keep you happy.

Unfortunately, that’s the only aspect in which I’d say Dishonored 2 is equal to the original. In terms of everything else – story, characters, level design and gameplay – Dishonored 2 falls short of the fantastic original.

But it was always going to be a tough act to follow and Dishonored 2 certainly takes a decent stab at it. If you’ve already peeked at the final score, you’ll know that I actually rate Dishonored 2 quite highly, despite the somewhat negative focus of this review.

In terms of story, Dishonored 2 is set 15 years after the events of the original. There’s another coup, with Emily or Corvo (depending on who you choose to play, which is a nice addition) forced to flee Dunwall and travel to Karnaca – tracing the roots of the conspiracy, investigating those involved and searching for a way to stop them.

It’s an enjoyable and engaging tale, regardless of which character you choose, although its ending feels rather abrupt. But whilst the story is a positive, none of the new characters – heroes and villains alike – can compare favourably to those of the original.

I played through Dishonored 2 twice – once with Emily on a non-lethal / low chaos run, and once with Corvo for a lethal / high chaos run. Each character features their own unique set of powers (although they both share a variation of blink and dark vision) that offer a range of lethal and non-lethal abilities.

I’m a little torn on this system, because splitting the powers between the two characters does somewhat limit them in terms of options. On the other hand, it does make playing through the game as both characters worth your time, as you’ll play and approach missions quite differently for each.

Unfortunately, playing for the non-lethal ‘clean hands’ and no alerts ‘ghost’ achievements is as frustrating as it is fun. I gave up on my ‘ghost’ achievement early into my Emily run as I discovered how buggy the game is at recording ‘alert’ states.

In only the first mission, I encountered a situation where I had the option to save an civilian npc. I did so – but the civilian initially reacted as if he was ‘alerted’. I had to reload and replay this small moment several times before the civilian reacted properly to my intervention. Early in the second mission I also encountered a similar situation where one npc attacked another, but those fleeing the scene entered an alert state and it counted against me.

Playing for ‘clean hands’ proved equally troublesome. In one situation, I knocked out two guards and placed their bodies on the deck of a boat. As I departed, I checked my level stats – which you’ll need to do frequently if you’re playing for these achievements – and saw I’d killed 2 people. I backtracked to the boat and found both guards were now dead. But how? And then I realised – the water beneath the boat was glitching through the hull and I’d been unfortunate enough to drop their unconscious bodies in just the wrong spot. The result? They drowned, and it counted against me.

I did eventually finish my ‘clean hands’ run with Emily and my ‘ghost’ with Corvo, but as I said – it was as frustrating as it was fun and required regular saves and loads due to bugs and other issues. Even then, simply loading could prove dangerous, as npcs would sometimes react to sounds triggered prior to the reload. I wish I was joking, but I’d sometimes load a quick save after alerting a guard, and upon the reload those in the area would suddenly begin searching as if they’d heard a sound.

So let’s tackle the main problem of Dishonored 2 and why it falls short of the original – level design. Initially, it may appear that many of the levels are larger and more elaborate than those in the original, but as someone who likes to explore every little corner of every level, I quickly realised this wasn’t quite the case.

Compared the original, the levels of Dishonored 2 are fairly small and linear. And those few levels that do offer a slightly more expansive environment nearly always converge on a single entry or exit point. Whilst I appreciated the levels in terms of their mechanics – the clockwork mansion and the ‘time shift’ level in particular – I can’t help but be disappointed by their design.

The clockwork mansion is ingenious – a level where levers completely alter the environment. It’s pretty fantastic in terms of mechanics, but the actual level design is sadly lacking. Because like the other levels of Dishonored 2, it’s far too linear. Too straightforward. The level is essentially a straight line from beginning to end. There’s little exploration or investigation. There’s no complex puzzles involving the clockwork mechanic.

And then we have the ‘time shift’ level. Once again, the mechanics are fantastic – being able to see into and switch between two time periods seamlessly is ingenious. But whilst the mechanic and how it’s implemented is creative and fantastic, the actual level design is not. And that’s where Dishonored 2 really stumbles – with some memorable mechanics, but not memorable design.

I thought the penultimate mission – a sprawling mansion estate – would provide a challenging and elaborate design. But after reaching a high point upon which to study the layout of the grounds, I discovered a simple and direct path to my objective. And many missions suffer from the same issue – it’s far too easy to find ways to bypass entire areas and go directly to your target.

It just feels like Dishonored 2 is guiding the player too much. The design is too obvious. The paths are too clear. Unlike the original, I never felt like I was finding a clever way to my objective – or investigating to find ‘alternative’ ways of dealing with my targets. Dishonored 2 practically shoves these things in your face.

It’s like the game is desperately trying to shout about how many ways there are to complete its objectives but in doing so, it reveals its entire hand and makes it all entirely too easy. Even the final ‘boss’ is disappointing in this aspect. You only need to hear a single conversation (which is nearly impossible to avoid) that will guide you to an ‘alternative’ approach.

Locating the key information, I saw I needed to gather various items and combine them to make it work. I thought it would require me to explore and track down each item throughout the level but instead, all of the items and the ability to combine them existed within the same room. I didn’t need to explore or investigate. Everything was laid out before me as if I was too stupid to figure it out.

And that’s why I can’t rate Dishonored 2 as highly as the original. In many ways, it feels like a step back. I don’t think it does anything badly. It’s still a very enjoyable game with an interesting story, some very good levels and some ingenious mechanics. The technical and graphical issues are irritating, but not game breaking.

But it also fails to live up to the original in just about every area and in that sense it’s a little disappointing. That said, if you’re a fan of the original, I’d still recommend checking it out, and I hope this isn’t the last we see of the world of Dishonored.


Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Gaming / Blog Update

With a hotly anticipated new Zelda game due to be released in a matter of days, you might think that was why I decided to buy a Wii U earlier this week. It’s certainly a reasonable assumption, given the excitement surrounding the title. But for me, the new Zelda is just a nice little bonus. The main reason I bought a Wii U, and the reason I’ve had my eye on picking one up for the last year so, is in fact Bayonetta 2.

If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know that I rated the original very highly. There was no way I was going to miss out on playing its sequel. But how could I justify purchasing a Wii U for a single title? The Wii U has had a somewhat short and troubled life, but it does have a solid library of games – just not games that I was particularly fussed about playing. Not until Bayonetta 2, that is.

I liked the look of the Wind Waker and Twilight Princess HD remakes, but given that I already have both of those titles on GameCube, I also couldn’t justify picking up the console to simply play remakes of games I already owned.

I try to stick to a simple rule that says there needs to be a minimum of five games I want to play on a platform before I’ll pick one up. But with Wind Waker HD, Twilight Princess HD and Bayonetta 1 & 2, I only had four titles – at least until the new Zelda was announced. And that’s when I hit that magic number five.

I have the console, but I’m still waiting on the games. I can’t say I particularly care for the gamepad – it’s a neat piece of kit, no doubt – but after trying it out for a bit with Mario Kart 8 (which came pre-installed) I immediately ordered a pro controller.

Even then, it’s going to take some getting used to as all the buttons are backwards when compared to my 360 controller which I use on PC. It’s seriously f**king confusing switching from one to the other with A & B and X &Y being positioned in reverse.

As for Zelda, although I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, I am a fan of the series – not a hardcore fan by any stretch – but I’ve played and enjoyed most of the Zelda games. Wind Waker was probably my favourite, although it’s been a very long time since I last played it which is why I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the HD remake.

But before that, I can’t not play Breath of the Wild. That will be my first Wii U review and should be up either at the end of this month, or early next month depending on how busy I am. I’ll then follow that up with reviews of Bayonetta 2 and Wind Waker / Twilight Princess HD.

In addition to those, I’m currently playing a new Total War: Warhammer campaign as Bretonnia which was released only yesterday as free content. I may or may not do a post about it. I was going to record some more footage for YouTube too, but I just don’t have the time.

I’ve got another Command & Conquer ‘versus’ post to go up soon, and I’ve also got a Dishonored 2 review ready to go which will probably be posted next. I really should do a writing update sometime this month to talk about what’s going on with my new book. It is coming along pretty nicely, believe it or not, and I’m actually still on schedule.

The only other gaming news I really need to touch upon is Titanfall 2, which had another update recently with a new mode and maps but honestly, I think I’m done with the game. I hate to say it, but I think the title has actually gotten worse since release, rather than improve. Very few of the issues I highlighted at release have been properly addressed and the game has bled players like crazy.

I still see people defend the title, but there’s a reason so many players like me have moved on. It’s a damn shame because the core gameplay is fantastic, but with such limited and poorly designed maps, combined with poor design choices in terms of modes and objectives, not to mention major balance issues, I simply don’t enjoy the game any more.

And after trying the new update and seeing how little it had improved (not at all, in fact) I hit that uninstall button and didn’t regret it for a second. I might do a final ‘Gallery’ post for the single player campaign though, because I’d still recommend picking the game up cheap just for that.