Sunday, 6 August 2017

Now Playing: NieR Automata

Near a Tomato is one of the best games I’ve played this year. But it’s not a game I can recommend. Not on PC. Because the PC version of NieR has severe technical issues that may at any time render it entirely unplayable. I’d heard about these issues upon release, which is why I waited for a sale and the expected patches. But no patches came. At the time of writing, it seems that the PC version of NieR has been left to rot.

I wish I could just talk about how good NieR is as a game but I can’t just pretend these issues don’t exist and that they don’t impact negatively upon the experience. At one point in the game with over 16 hours played, I suddenly began to experience the dreaded ‘white screen’ crash every 5-10 minutes. I’d experienced a handful of these crashes prior to this point but the game was now unplayable and I could no longer progress.

After 2-3 hours of trying various ‘fixes’ and replaying the same short section more than 10 times, I eventually made it through and continued on my way – although my ‘fix’ didn’t prove to be permanent and I experienced several more crashes before I finally completed the game. In addition to the ‘white screen’ crash issue, which seems to be most prevalent on NVIDIA cards, NieR also has problems with resolution settings that can only be fixed by use of a third party mod.

But here’s the thing – if NieR wasn’t a good game, I’d have just quit and refunded the title. The fact that I was willing to deal with all this shit should tell you just how much I liked it. But the sad reality is, these issues did impact my enjoyment of the game, and how severe these crashes are seems to be entirely random from one player to the next. And that’s why I can’t recommend the PC version of NieR, as good as the game may be.

So what is NieR Automata? It’s a third person action RPG set in a desolate future where Earth has been invaded by aliens using an army of deadly machines. In response, the few surviving humans have fled to the Moon and use their own army of androids to strike back in an attempt to reclaim the planet. The way the game handles its narrative aspects is one of, if not the most interesting thing about NieR. It’s a great example of how a narrative can be presented in a way that’s uniquely suited to this medium.

The game shifts between multiple playable characters, multiple ‘routes’, multiple gameplay mechanics, multiple endings and unexpectedly interactive sequences (the final final credits) that tie together many of the themes of the title in a surprisingly effective and fascinating way. NieR isn’t a game I want to spoil for anyone, but it’s important to break down the basic structure of the title to explain why, in many ways, I find its structure to be more interesting than the game itself.

When you begin NieR you begin route ‘A’ and play as the character 2B – a combat android. Route A will introduce you to the world and characters of NieR. It’s a fairly large open world split between three main themed areas – city, desert and forest. You have, as you might expect, core and side quests to complete. As you progress you’ll level up and acquire new weapons and ‘programs’ you can use to customise your build.

Route A is fantastic. It has a great variety of environments, quests, enemies and some extremely enjoyable boss fights. When you reach the end of route A (about 16 hours for me) and the credits roll, you should be fairly satisfied by the experience. But it’s not the end of NieR. Not by a long shot.

Completing route A unlocks route B in which you play as 9S – a scanner android with a specialisation in hacking. Because 9S accompanies 2B for much of route A, you will replay many of the core quests, although you’ll be seeing these events through the perspective of 9S. Whereas 2B relies upon light and heavy attack combos, 9S is most effective when hacking opponents – either to damage them, subjugate them, or to directly control them.

The hacking ‘mini-game’ you enter will vary in difficulty depending on the size and importance of your enemy. Some may find it overly repetitive, but it’s up to you how much you wish to use it, and there’s enough variation in the mini-game so that it never gets too dull – when the achievement popped telling me I’d hacked more than 100 machines, I was honestly surprised I’d used it so much.

Route B does vary in places from route A, as 9S is separated from 2B. We see more, learn more and experience things that 2B did not. Route B also unlocks new side quests, and any side quests completed in route A remain so. But completing route B isn’t the end, either. Because route B unlocks route C and another playable character – A2.

Although route C continues the story where it was left in A and B it must be said that, overall, it’s probably the weakest part of the title. It begins very strongly, but loses its way as it progresses. Narratively it’s interesting, but in terms of gameplay – it’s lacking. It’s real problem is that by this time, the game doesn’t really have anything new to throw at you. Aside from a couple of unique enemies, you’re mostly fighting your way through everything you’ve already seen and as a result, it can feel like a bit of a grind.

Thankfully, route C pulls it all together at the end and the game does finally end quite strongly, making all your struggles feel worth it. It’s a wonderfully bleak but also surprisingly hopeful ending, and I loved the way the game handled the final struggle through the last credit sequence, making it a part of the narrative itself. Like I said, the way NieR handles its interactive narrative is something that’s unique to this medium and that’s what makes it so interesting – even more so than the game itself.

That’s not to say the gameplay of NieR isn’t also interesting. The way the game can seamlessly switch perspective and gameplay styles is fantastic. It’s part third person action game, part top down shoot ‘em up. My only issue with the gameplay is that neither of these aspects are particularly deep.

The third person combat though fast, fluid and remarkably fun, is also rather shallow with a very limited combo set. This is improved somewhat by the decent selection of weapons, each with its own style, but it’s still not a particularly in depth system. The same applies to the shoot ‘em up sections which may be quite exciting to play, but aren’t very challenging either. I wasn’t exactly expecting Bayonetta level combat, but I was hoping for something a little more involving than what we got.

I played the game on Normal, so I can’t comment on higher settings, but I found it very easy to abuse the upgrade chips to make myself essentially immortal. I could regain health by taking damage, doing damage and by destroying enemies. I never really needed to use my extensive inventory of health kits because I was practically invulnerable. Checking my stats upon completion, I only died 4 times during my entire run.

But even once you ‘finish’ NieR there’s a lot of stuff to see and do. Completing route C unlocks a chapter selection that will let you go back and complete any remaining side quests or add to the world information archive that’s compiled as you progress. There’s a ton of ‘joke’ endings to be found and all manner of little secrets. I finished route C with nearly 40 hours played, but there’s still stuff I’ve missed that I want to find – if I can play it without the regular crashes, that is.

Visually, NieR is great, though a little rough in the open world. The soundtrack is fantastic. As I said, I can’t recommend the PC version of NieR as it is, but maybe things will change in the future. The issues I experienced did have a negative impact on my experience, but the fact that I was willing to persist with it should give you an idea how impressed I was with the game itself. It’s one of the most unique and interesting titles you’ll play this year, both in terms of narrative and gameplay. It’s such a shame the PC version is f**ked.


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