Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Now Watching: Rogue One

I must admit, I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing Rogue One. The thought of a new Star Wars film every year doesn’t exactly excite me. I grew up with and came to love the Original Trilogy. I thought the Prequel Trilogy was kind of bad. But I thought The Force Awakens was pretty good.

Despite a somewhat weak story, The Force Awakens got the most important thing right – the characters. Rey, Finn, Kylo and Poe all injected new life into the franchise. They elevated the rather weak material with heart, warmth, humour and charisma. It’s those characters that make me interested in seeing Episode 9.

Rogue One, in many ways, is arguably a better film than The Force Awakens. I think it’s better shot, the visuals are more impressive, the effects, the action . . . it gets everything right aside from, unfortunately, its story and characters. And characters are key, because if we don’t care about them, we don’t care about anything else.

First up – the story. I’ve heard the question asked – was this a story that needed to be told? Well, probably not, but it’s not a terrible idea for a stand alone ‘Star Wars Story’ either. I certainly think a more character focused, small scale ‘heist’ style movie would have been a more interesting direction, but I don’t think the darker, more gritty tale of war and sacrifice we got is particularly bad either – it’s just that the film makes a real hash of it.

I’m kind of frustrated by Rogue One, because I can see the potential within. I can see ways of taking the existing material and making some small but meaningful changes that would, at least in my opinion, dramatically improve the narrative.

But I don’t want to write a point by point account of how I’d ‘fix’ Rogue One or we’d probably be here all day. Because ultimately, as we saw with The Force Awakens, a weak plot can be elevated by strong characters. And it’s the characters who are at the heart of Rogue One’s failure.

Our main character is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who is . . . a rebel, I guess? I can’t really say much about her because the movie doesn’t tell (or more importantly show) us much. Not about her relationship to her father or to Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who raised her within his splinter faction of the Rebellion.

She and Saw fell out .. . or something, but that’s not appropriately addressed either, nor is her opinion of the main Rebellion. We don’t really know who she is or what makes her tick. We don’t really know anything about her aside from what we’re told in dry, expository dialogue scenes.

It would help if we followed Jyn from the beginning, introduced to the world and supporting cast through her eyes, but after only a minute or so with Jyn, we’re bouncing from one world to the next (and one character to the next) in what is a completely unnecessary set up to a plot that we already know in advance – Death Star. Plans. Rebels.

When your movie is more concerned with plot than characters, especially when your plot is as basic as this and – WE ALREADY KNOW WHAT THE OUTCOME IS – you’ve made a big mistake.

The supporting characters get even less development than Jyn to the point where I can’t even recall their names – thanks, Wikipedia. Take Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and Baze (Jiang Wen) – two pretty cool characters (though purely in style), but they just join up with Jyn because . . . because they’re cool, I guess?

Why not just make them part of Saw’s splinter group and already know Jyn? Why not let her reunite with them so we can see the affection shared between them? You know, emotion. Seeing these characters connect would go a long way to helping us connect to them.

In fact, the whole Saw ‘splinter rebellion’ thing is so poorly handled and has so much squandered potential that it really pisses me off. Why not keep Jyn as part of Saw’s group and show that she’s disillusioned with the main Rebellion who are ‘all talk’. Show her wanting to fight back and then losing Saul – a surrogate father figure – would really put some fire in her belly to tell the ineffective, weak and indecisive Rebellion to finally stand up and fight.

It could have been the spark that spurred the Rebellion into action but it . . . sort of doesn’t. Not quite. Not until the plot decides they need to if we’re going to have a big space battle. As for Jyn, she just decides to fight because . . . again, plot. I’m very frustrated by this because I see ways to tweak this story so that a) it makes more logical sense and b) it lends more emotional weight to these characters. It makes us root for them, care for them.

Eh, I’m starting to get into my ‘how to fix’ guide now so let’s try to wrap this up. Despite not being particularly fussed about it, Rogue One still disappointed me. I can’t fault the direction, the action or even really the actors who do their best with what they’re given. It’s a potentially good movie let down by a very shoddy script. And no, I can’t say I give a flying f**k about ‘young Han Solo’. Stop it, Disney. STOP IT.


Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Now Playing: Endless Space 2

Endless Space 2 is my first ‘Endless’ game and what may be the first 4X game I’ve played in a decade or so. It’s a space strategy game with a customisable turn based campaign. There are 8 playable races, each with their own unique campaign mechanics, ship designs and play style. I wasn’t sure if I’d like Endless Space 2, but at the time of writing, I’ve completed four campaigns and clocked over 70 hours of play.

As I said in my First Impressions post, the tutorial aspects of Endless Space 2 aren’t great. The numerous pop-up messages do just enough to teach you the basics of managing and expanding your empire, but I do feel a more heavily scripted ‘mini-campaign’ would have been far more beneficial to new players.

You can customise nearly every aspect of your campaign – the size of the galaxy, the density of the star systems, the available resources, the number and type of rival empires and various other settings. You can also enable or disable specific victory conditions, or create your own ‘custom’ faction to play – although this aspect could be greatly improved.

All these options enable you to set up and play the game how you want, and each campaign will play differently as a result – as will your galaxy map, which will be randomised based on your settings. The downside, of course, to this random element is that it can play havoc with balancing between the various races. Where each race starts, their home system and their initial local resources can play a big factor in determining who comes out on top.

That said, this extensive randomisation and customisation lends a great degree of replay value to Endless Space 2. You can set up short, small, quick to play campaigns with a single specific victory condition. Or you may prefer a very long, massive galaxy campaign with multiple races all competing for various goals.

As far as the races go, I’ve only played as 4 of the 8, but of those I have played, each did feel unique and enjoyable in their own way. There’s obviously some races which play more differently than others but overall, it’s a very interesting mix of play styles. What’s more important, however, is the ‘personality’ of each race, which adds charm, humour and character to the game.

All of the races in Endless Space 2 have their own ‘story’ and unique quest chain to follow (or not, if you’d prefer). These provide background on the race and provide a neat narrative drive to your campaign. They are, admittedly, rather basic and not massively influential on your campaign, but they’re a welcome addition nonetheless.

One thing I would have liked to see more of is unique technologies for each race. Every race (with a few minor alterations) shares exactly the same tech tree. They all share the same system infrastructure and weapon technology, and it would have been great for each race, if not to have entirely unique tech trees, to at least have far more race specific buildings, ships and weapons.

But though they do share essentially the same buildings and weapons, how you expand with each race will be different based on their unique campaign mechanics. Ultimately though, how you build your star systems won’t differ much from one race to the next – at least it hasn’t with the races I’ve currently played as – and there’s a lot of scope to further enhance and add variety to the races in this area.

Building your empire in Endless Space 2 is a big part of the experience and you’ll spend a lot of time navigating its extensive UI, switching between various screens for economical, political and military stats. The UI is decent but could be improved. It would be nice, for example, for star system improvements to be properly broken down and listed separately by building type, rather than lumped together in a single, inaccessible blob.

Combat in the game is entirely auto-resolved but can be viewed as a rather cool simulated battle. You can set a custom formation for your ships, based on various tactic ‘cards’ you can unlock, but there’s not much more to it than that. If there’s one area that Endless Space 2 could certainly do with improvement, it’s the combat system, most notably in terms of ship and weapon variety. What’s currently on offer is rather sparse. The ground battle aspects could also be improved, as could the the implementation of the ‘hero’ characters, who exist as little more than stat boosts to either your colonies or fleets.

Visually, Endless Space 2 looks great, both in campaign and battle, but there are some performance issues, particularly when you’re playing in a large galaxy map, or during larger space battles. Music is great at setting the mood, and the VA for each of the race leaders helps enhance that important sense of personality whenever you deal with them diplomatically.

In terms of difficulty, I’ve not really had any trouble winning my campaigns, even when I knocked it up from Normal to one of the most challenging (though not the highest) setting. The competency of the AI has varied quite wildly between campaigns and from one race to the next so there’s room for improvement here too.

There’s also a few issues with bugs, most commonly with battles in my experience, when the auto-resolve doesn’t function correctly. There’s also some issues with quests not properly completing. As good as I think Endless Space 2 is, there’s no doubt that it needs some extra care and attention, some bug fixing and some performance improvements – in addition to fleshing out various aspects of it mechanics and gameplay.

Overall though, Endless Space 2 is a fantastic strategy game with a great degree of faction variety and replay value thanks to its extensive custom options. I’ve had a real blast with the title, and I’ve still got 4 more races to play. If they can fix the issues and enhance what’s already here, it’ll be a strong contender for my game of the year.


Friday, 16 June 2017

E3 Special 2017

It’s E3 week, so it’s time for another E3 special! But honestly, this is probably the least interested I’ve been in an E3 since I started writing this blog. I normally sit up late watching the conferences, but this year I really couldn’t be bothered. That’s not to say a few things didn’t catch my eye but overall, I didn’t see much to get excited about.

EA were up first but the only thing they had that I’d seriously consider picking up is Battlefront 2 (4?). But that depends heavily on how they’ll handle DLC content / micro-transactions, the quantity of release content and hopefully an expanded range of solo/bot modes and co-op options.

Microsoft unveiled the X-Box One X which is a dumb name. And what’s the point of 4K when they can’t even hit 60FPS? That should be the new standard for console, not 4 f**king K. They then proceeded to wank over a car on stage for five very awkward minutes. Things improved as they rolled out a series of trailers including a new Metro game which looks like it might have been infected with the Far Cry virus. God, I hope not.

There’s a new Assassin’s Creed set in ancient Egypt. I love the setting, but why did they have to ruin it with all the enemy ‘levels’, skill points and ‘epic loot’. The series has already become a mess of icons and unnecessary gameplay systems stacked haphazardly on top of each other. This was a chance to strip back the series and return to the simplicity of its roots. Instead, we now get to explore ancient Egypt so we can find ‘legendary bows’. F**K RIGHT OFF.

They also had a trailer for Ori and the Will of the Wisps. I thought Ori and the Blind Forest was pretty close to perfect so I’m certainly interested in a sequel, but I’m also a little wary. I don’t really want a ‘more of the same, but slightly worse’ kind of deal. State of Decay 2 might be fun. I liked the first game. Oh, and a Life is Strange prequel which feels a little unnecessary but I might give it a go.

Bethesda revealed a new Dishonored adventure and what I suspect may be the last. Let’s hope the series can go out with a bang. They also showcased a new Wolfenstein which I hope is better than the last one. Yeah, I know a lot of people liked The New Order, but I still don’t understand why. I thought it was boring as f**k. Oh, and as I predicted, they’re taking another crack at a paid mods service – because that went so well the last time.

The PC conference gave us another glimpse of Bannerlord, but still no release date. Boo! The Last Night looked interesting, but apparently we’re not allowed to like it because the developer got into INTERNET TROUBLE or something. More twitter drama that I really give no shits about.

Ubisoft revealed a new pirate game, Skull & Bones, but it looks like another ‘For Honor’ type deal with a focus on multi-play and micro-transaction bullshit. I’d rather just play AC 4 again. What else? The Crew 2, now with boats and planes, because that’s really what people wanted from their street racing game. And Far Cry 5 . . . yeah, I’m just f**king sick of Far Cry.

And that’s pretty much it. Nintendo showed some stuff but nothing I’m interested in. I can’t even get very excited about Warhammer 2, not when they’re charging 40 quid for it which feels a bit steep. Sure, you can shop around, but considering this sequel was built upon an existing foundation, I expected a slightly reduced RRP of at least 29.99 or so. Eh, whatever. I’m sorry I can’t muster up much excitement, but E3 now just feels like the ‘how can we best f**k your wallet and have you thank us for it’ show.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Now Playing: No More Heroes

No More Heroes is a third person action game originally released on the Nintendo Wii in 2008. Set in the fictional town of Santa Destroy, you play as Travis Touchdown, a man on a mission to become the top ranked assassin in the USA. Beginning at rank 11, you must guide Travis up the ranks from one fight to the next.

You’ll divide your time between the core linear missions – the ranked fights – and the open world side content. The core missions are the best part of No More Heroes. Each features a new environment, new bad guys and an entirely unique boss fight. The quality and challenge of the missions varies somewhat, but it’s where the game shines and it’s where you’ll have the most fun.

The open world and side content, on the other hand, feels like an unnecessary addition that only exists to pad out the rather meagre core content. Each ranking fight costs an ever increasing amount of cash to unlock. Whilst cash is earned during core missions, it’s never enough to cover the next entry fee. And this is where the side content comes into play.

After every ranking fight you’ll unlock a new side ‘job’. These are just basic mini-games that range from collecting coconuts to cleaning graffiti from buildings. They don’t pay very well, but you’ll need to complete each in turn in order to unlock the assassination jobs. These pay the most cash upon completion, and if you’re only interested in going from one core mission to the next, you’ll likely only have to complete each side and assassination job once in order to do so.

But there are other things to spend your money on in Santa Destroy. You can buy wrestling videos to learn new moves. You can buy new versions of your beam katana, or new parts to improve its power and recharge rate. You can pay for training to increase your health and strength. Oh, and you can also purchase new clothes for Travis to customise how he looks.

And spending cash to improve your health, strength and weapon, whilst not strictly necessary to progress, does make things a lot easier, particularly on the harder difficulty settings. It should be noted, however, that everything you buy does carry over into a new playthrough, so you’re under no pressure to try to purchase everything on a single run.

But here’s the problem with this system – every time you spend your cash on something, you’re moving another step away from your next entry fee. And this means that if you want to buy all of the katana variations and upgrades, stat improvements and cosmetic items – and earn enough to unlock the next rank fight – you’d better be ready to grind your way through the assassination jobs multiple times.

Which wouldn’t be so bad if the jobs weren’t almost entirely recycled content from the core missions, which then also recycle the same job types multiple times. So much of the side content – including the bonus ‘free fight’ jobs – are all just pieces of the core missions recycled. And once you’ve played each side or assassination job once or twice, you really don’t want to play them again – but you’ll have to if you want to unlock any of the extra items or upgrades.

That said, the cost of items and what you can earn as you progress isn’t too punishing. It’s not like you’ll need to grind these extra jobs for hours to earn the cash you need, but the way these jobs are unlocked and played also proves rather frustrating. You can’t just pick a job and play it from a list. No. Instead, you need to pick a job and physically travel through the open world of Santa Destroy to start it.

This is where it becomes clear that the ‘open world’ aspect was really just used to pad out the run time. Nearly every job requires you to travel from one side of the map (to choose the job) to the other (to complete the job) and then all the way back again if you want to choose another job or even to replay the one you just did.

The open world isn’t massive, and you do have a fairly speedy (though awkward to control) bike you can use to get around. And to be fair, it only takes 30 seconds or so to travel from one side of the map to the other. So why am I complaining? I guess it’s just something that adds up and begins to irritate as you play. Because so much of the side content is recycled, you’ll frequently be driving to and from the exact same locations multiple times, even for entirely different jobs. It’s not so bad at first, as you begin to explore the open world, but by the time you hit rank 5, these repetitive little back and forth driving sections really start to get on your tits.

All it does it pad out the game, turning what is only 4-5 hours of original content, into 9-10, half of which is repetitive, recycled content. The open world itself is small and rather pointless to explore. There are collectibles to find which can be used to unlock various things, but there’s little reason to bother. And the same applies to the cosmetic items – they cost so much and are mostly just recolours of your ‘base’ outfit that they’re not worth the extra side job grinding.

In fact, everything about the world and the side content is a little basic. The weapon variation and upgrades are very limited – there’s no system to customise your weapon by swapping out different parts. The health and strength training is just another motion controlled mini-game. There are only 4 or 5 wrestling videos to buy and you can’t even select which moves you want to use once you’ve learned new ones.

None of this extra stuff is terrible, but it’s frustratingly shallow. If all of this side content had been properly fleshed out and didn’t rely so heavily on recycled content, it really would have transformed No More Heroes from being a good game into a great one.

Yes, I do think No More Heroes is a good game, despite these complaints. I love its style, its music, its completely bonkers world, characters and plot. And the core gameplay and missions are a lot of fun. But in many ways, the game feels unfinished. Even some of the main missions feel hastily cobbled together. It’s like they just tossed a bunch of wacky, half-baked ideas together to see what would stick.

And the weird thing is, they kind of succeeded. Because No More Heroes does somehow manage to mix all of this crazy shit together in a way that actually works. It’s certainly one of the most unique games you’ll ever play, that’s for sure.

The core missions are great as is the combat. It’s a fairly simple system of blocks, dodges and basic combo moves with motion controlled finishes. The bosses each offer a unique challenge with their own attack style and patterns.

I’ve already written way more than I intended to about No More Heroes but that’s probably because it’s a game I really like, but I’m also pretty frustrated by. It misses as much as it hits with its content, but when it hits it really knocks it out of the park. It’s enjoyable, irritating, bizarre and most importantly – fun. I can’t wait to play the sequel.


Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Endless Space 2: First Impressions

I’ve had an itch for a space strategy game for the last few years, but nothing that came along quite ticked all my boxes. I don’t think I’ve played a 4X game since Sword of the Stars in 2006, which was a little like ‘Total War in Space’, with a turn based campaign and real-time tactical battles. But then Endless Space 2 was ‘released’ out of Early Access and after watching a few videos, I decided to give it a try. I figured I could always refund the title if it wasn’t to my taste. 15 hours later . . .

I’m liking Endless Space 2. I’m liking it a lot. I began with a ‘Beginner’ campaign option so I could learn the ropes. I expected it to be a heavily scripted tutorial, which would lead me through the gameplay mechanics step by step. It initially seemed that way, with multiple tutorial prompts explaining various screens and systems.

But as I progressed, it became clear there really wasn’t any ‘scripted’ tutorial as such. It was simply a restricted, pre-set campaign presumably set to an easy difficulty. The idea, I suppose, is that you’d learn on the fly thanks to the extensive tutorial pop-ups. But that’s not quite how it works in practice.

Not everything is adequately explained, and some things don’t seem to be explained at all. For example – building ships. When I still thought I was playing a scripted tutorial campaign, I expected an event in which my home system would come under threat and the game would walk me through the steps of designing and building a fleet.

I kept waiting for some kind of trigger that would explain the ship building system but it never came. I eventually just figured it out myself. The ‘Beginner’ mode isn’t terrible. It does teach you the basics, but I do feel that Endless Space 2 would have benefited from a dedicated, scripted tutorial campaign.

Once I felt confident, I abandoned that campaign and began another, but fifty or so turns in, I quit. It became clear as I played that there was still a lot I’d missed or the game hadn’t properly explained. So I spent some time just trying out various things to see what worked and what didn’t. And after a few more hours, I began playing a full campaign.

And that’s the campaign I’m currently playing. I’m nearly at 100 turns and entering what I suppose you’d call the ‘mid-game’. Even now, I’m discovering and learning new things about Endless Space 2. There’s a lot of different systems, many of which inter-connect – in particular the population and political systems.

I could probably spend all day breaking down the mechanics and how these pieces fit together, but I’ll save that for my review, and for when I have more experience with the game. All I’m going to say now is that, despite the somewhat poor tutorials, I’m having a real blast with the title. I’m going to go play some more.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Tiberium Wars vs. Red Alert 3

Tiberium Wars is easily my favourite of the GDI/NOD series. Set during the Third Tiberium War, NOD has risen from the ashes once again under the leadership of Kane. The game features two fairly substantial campaigns, each with a decent variety of mission types, units, maps and objectives. It also features a new, third faction in the form of the alien Scrin, with their own small bonus campaign.

In terms of story, Tiberium Wars and its expansion – Kane’s Wrath – continues narrative threads introduced in Tiberian Sun relating to an alien artefact known as the Tacitus. The two campaigns of the core game play out in parallel, each offering their own unique perspective of the conflict. The expansion, however, is told entirely from a NOD perspective and covers events prior to the war, during the war, and a couple of missions set post-war that presumably set up the last Command & Conquer game – Tiberian Twilight.

Campaign quality is high in both the core game and expansion. Many missions feature optional objectives and ‘intel’ to discover that unlocks neat little pieces of information relating to the game world. Unit balance, overall, is pretty good, and multi-unit/role squads are a required necessity far more than the previous GDI/NOD titles.

Though not offering quite so much tactical flexibility as Red Alert 2 – or even Red Alert 3, in some respects – Tiberium Wars still provides an engaging and enjoyable RTS experience. It’s easily the most solid, fun and consistent of the GDI/NOD games.

Its expansion also introduces a new mode to the series in the form of Global Conquest, which is a very Total War style turn based campaign mode. The three factions – NOD, GDI and Scrin – compete for control of a 2D world map. Each turn allows you to construct forces to expand your territory or strike at your foes. Battles can be auto-resolved or fought in real time on a selection of skirmish maps.

It sounds like a neat addition, but the execution isn’t very good. The turn based campaign aspect is extremely basic in terms of mechanics, but needlessly convoluted in terms of UI and function. It’s just not very fun or rewarding to play and you’re honestly better off just playing regular skirmish games.

Overall, Tiberium Wars and Kane’s Wrath represent the best of the GDI/NOD series, at least in my opinion. But I’ve never played Tiberian Twilight – although from what I’ve heard about it, I doubt it will change my mind.

The story of Red Alert 3 dials the camp to 11. If you didn’t think it could get any sillier than RA2 – you were wrong. Once again, time travel shenanigans have given rise to a new reality and a new conflict between the Allies and the Soviets. But it’s also created a new, third faction – the Empire of the Rising Sun.

Each faction features its own unique unit roster and building chain, but also unique faction ‘powers’ and construction mechanics. Every unit now has an alternative mode or function. Old favourites make a welcome return alongside a healthy range of new units. Each faction really does feel different to play and in this respect, you could argue the game has more faction and unit variety than RA2.

Despite this, I can’t help but feel that RA3 is the weakest of the Red Alert series. In order to incorporate the new third faction, all of the campaigns have been reduced in size. There are only nine missions per campaign, the majority of which are disappointing in terms of length and complexity.

And because there’s so few missions per faction, you never really have time to get stuck into your chosen faction and enjoy or explore their various mechanics. The story also suffers, as it attempts to squeeze a three faction conflict (and internal faction conflict) into a very limited campaign.

But it’s not the somewhat mediocre quality of the missions that really bothers me – it’s the new addition of the ‘co-commander’. Every mission can be played in co-op with either a friend or an AI commander. It’s an interesting mechanic in theory, but poorly executed.

The maps, overall, aren’t large enough to accommodate a second player. For example, you’ll frequently find yourself racing against your ‘ally’ to secure resource nodes. You’ll also, on occasion, find yourself building your bases practically on top of one another – and if you’re playing with an AI partner, they’ll have zero regard for good building etiquette.

There’s no symmetry. There’s no careful thought to building placement. They just drop them down all over the place, sometimes around your own structures completely ruining your perfectly planned base design. It’s infuriating.

Your AI companion can be given rudimentary orders but on the whole, they do as they please. If you want to slow things down, take your time and plan your attack then think again – the AI is very eager to push ahead regardless of your strategy. You end up getting dragged into chaotic fights initiated by your AI partner.

At least, when they decide to help that is. On one map my AI companion spent the entire game building a fleet of submarines despite me already destroying the enemy naval forces. They must have had about 40 of them, and they filled the ocean part of the map so densely none of them could even move.

If you hadn’t already guessed, I kind of hate the co-commander system. It very nearly ruined the campaign for me. Fortunately, not all missions suffer for it, but it’s an annoying addition and completely unnecessary. It makes the game feel messy to play and I really didn’t like it.

If I was to score the base game alone, I’d probably rate RA3 at 6/10. Despite my gripes, it’s still enjoyable to play and the Empire is a welcome new addition – although it does seem to be at the cost of the Allied forces which feel rather dull in comparison.

That said, RA3 also features an excellent expansion – Uprising. It is, in many ways, far superior to the core game and far more enjoyable. It completely removes the co-commander mechanic. Its missions are larger, more elaborate affairs.

In addition to the three faction campaigns it also features a fun little ‘hero’ campaign, as well as a neat twist on Skirmish in the form of the commander ‘challenge’ mode. I had more fun with and put more time into Uprising than the base game. The only negative aspect is that there’s only a handful of campaign missions – 4 for Soviets, 3 for Allies and Empire.

Visually, RA3 is a clean and vibrant title. The sound and music is great. It may be the weakest title in the RA series but when combined with the Uprising expansion, it’s still worth your time.

So where do we go from here? There’s a Command & Conquer 4 – which I’ve never played – but no Red Alert 4. I might review C&4 separately, or I might put it head to head against Generals.

Tiberium Wars – 7/10
Red Alert 3 – 7/10